Tire Tracks and Spent Casings

A Gunslinger Girl Fanfic by MP5

Disclaimer: Gunslinger Girl is the property of Yu Aida. All trademarks featured herein are copyright their respective owners. Allison and Brian as well as other original characters herein are property of MP5 unless otherwise noted.

Jethro and Monty Blacker are the property of Alfisti

Clayland Stanaway and Laine are the property of Rusty-Spring on Cyborg Central Forums

Mario and Maria Greco and Michael and Jamie Christiansen are the property of Maverick375

George and Adeline Melita are the property of Symbiotic

'Aviv Panthera', 'Fleisher AR-5 Blizzard' and 'Adler FF M-72' are the property of Eidos Interactive and Avalanche Studios

"Bold and italicized dialogue indicates a foreign language other than English or Italian." (unless otherwise indicated)

Chapter 8: Rumble in the Jungle

Ninoy Aquino International Airport; Metro Manila, Philippines- 48 hours ago

"Whew! I never thought this country would be so hot!" Exclaimed Isabella Pisano Moretti as she stepped out of Terminal 3 into the beating sunlight of midday Metro Manila. Beside her was her husband Ronaldo Moretti, whose face was also quickly developing a sheen of sweat from the surrounding heat.

"Must be nice not having winter, though." Said Ronaldo, taking hold of Isabella's hand. "Come on, let's get to our hotel."

With his free hand, Ronaldo towed both their wheeled suitcases behind them, being careful to go at a pace that would not overexert his wife—with a small glance, he reminded himself of the fact that Isabella was heavy with their unborn child, due sometime soon. Why his wife wanted to take a vacation now was beyond his comprehension, but it would be impossible to do so once their child was born.

Making their way to a Toyota HiAce taxi van in the pick-up/drop-off zone, the driver noted their approach and hopped out to assist them.

"Kamusta." greeted Ronaldo as the driver opened the tailgate.

"Ah, Kamusta, ser! Saan kayo pupunta ngayon?" replied the driver in Tagalog.

"Uh... I'm sorry, I don't speak Tagalog very well." replied Ronaldo in English.

"Oh, sorry ser, that is all right; I speak English too. Eh, where I can take you both today, ser?"

"New World Hotel in Makati, Please." said Isabella.

"Okay, right away!"

The couple piled into the vehicle and buckled up as the driver started up the engine and pulled into the hectic Metro Manila traffic leading out of the airport. Because of the typical level of stop-and-go traffic, it took almost half an hour to travel the three or so miles to the hotel. Pulling up to the curb, the driver hopped down ahead and removed the Morettis' luggage as Ronaldo helped Isabella down from the van. As they moved to the hotel entrance, Ronaldo fished out a €100-Euro note from his pocket and handed it to the driver.

"Oh! Tenk you, ser!" exclaimed the man excitedly. €100 Euro amounted to 6000 or so Pesos, and most cab drivers received about 600 Pesos on a typical run, even if they pulled a fast one on their customers. The driver knew he would get a lot of Pesos in return once he had this bill exchanged.

"There's more where that came from, friend. You drove well for my wife and I. What's your name?" said Ronaldo.

"Joseph Aguinaldo, ser."

"Well, Joseph, can I get your phone number so that I can personally call you up this evening? My wife and I would like to go somewhere nice in town for dinner, and I think you most likely know the best places."

"Oh, that is no problem at all ser. My business number is..."

A few moments passed, and Ronaldo had changed contact information with Joseph, who waved goodbye as the couple made their way into the hotel. Retreating to his taxi, Joseph sat in the driver's seat and pulled out his cell phone, dialing a number. Someone on the other end of the line picked up and Joseph spoke a quick message:

"I have a new target. A rich Italian couple is going to be taking my taxi tonight, and they should be worth a lot of money."

Social Welfare Agency Special Operation Section II, Rome—Present Day

Outside Chief Lorenzo's office, a young man dressed in a gray suit with spiked black hair looked at his Rolex Daytona timepiece nestled behind his left-hand leather glove in annoyance, tapping his foot as he sat next to an older, bespectacled, and elegant raven-haired woman who absentmindedly opened and closed a stainless steel cigarette case that had been nestled in the breast pocket of her blazer.

"He's late again." noted the boy with irritation.

"Give him some time, Andy. I'm sure your brother will be here soon enough." replied the woman, a French accent lacing her voice.

"Nicolette, if I know Charlie, I'm bloody sure he's putting what you taught him to use for his own personal gain." replied Andy, exasperation evident in his voice. "You can't tell me he wouldn't. You know how he is."

"Well, even if you're right, I'm sure he won't be too long." Nicolette said hopefully. "We have a job to do, after all."

Inside the Chief's office, Priscilla was beginning to wrap up the daily intelligence briefing, ending with the recent information passed over from Section One regarding Gabrielli and Fermi's botched mission in New York- which turned up substantial information nonetheless.

"...and finally, there's this information discovered by Agents Fermi and Gabrielli during their mission in New York. Before they were compromised, they had managed to garner photographic evidence of the merchandise being traded. What turned up is surprising-"

Priscilla pressed a button on the remote in her hand to bring up another slide featuring one of the pictures taken before Fermi and Gabrielli destroyed their phones to avoid being tracked. The shot taken had since been enhanced and had a red circle added around a particular weapon in addition to its profile and specs displayed at the bottom of the screen.

"The first weapon the Camorra were purchasing in quantity through the Verino Mob is the Aviv Panthera submachine gun- it's a competitor to the Heckler & Koch MP5 and UMP, with a somewhat similar design, and chambered for .45ACP or .40S&W, comes with a 40-round straight magazine, collapsible stock, and a monolithic upper rail."

Priscilla thumbed the button again, the position of the red ring highlighting another weapon.

"Next up is the Fleisher AR-5 Blizzard Automatic Rifle. 60-round quadruple-stack magazine, chambered for 7.62 NATO, 900rpm firing rate. Designed primarily as a support weapon, but is found to have accuracy parallel to an M16 or M4A1, despite using an open-bolt mechanism."

Priscilla advanced to the next slide. Once again, the position of the red ring changed, highlighting something that looked an awful lot like the Heckler & Koch G36.

"Finally, the Adler FF M-72 Assault Rifle. License-built modified design of the Mexican FX-05 Xiuhcoatl assault rifle, uses 30-round STANAG or M16 magazines, available in both 7.62mm NATO and 5.56mm NATO. Now then- there is one thing these weapons all have in common- none of them are supposed to be on the market yet. They were only debuted at the annual US SHOT show just a few months ago, and they aren't supposed to be available for sale until fourth quarter of this year."

"This means that more than one person associated with the Verino mob is fencing advance units to them." noted Jean. "The question is why?"

"Well, whatever the answer is, the idea of terrorists and criminals field-testing high-powered weaponry in public is not a pleasant one." affirmed Lorenzo. "Let's get a fratello on this, now. Who's available? The Blackers?"

"Currently on assignment in Monaco." responded Ferro.

"Right. Stanaway and Brussard?"


"The Paganis?"

"On leave, as are the Alboretos."

"The Grecos?"

"Still on assignment."

"The Montagnes?"

"We're briefing them for a Milan mission after this meeting."

"And the Christiansen fratello would raise red flags the moment they set foot in the U.S." sighed Lorenzo. "I got it. Are the Melita Fratello available?"

"Yes, they are." replied Ferro.

"Jean, go and notify them, then notify Thomas McDonnell."

"Right away, sir."

Lorenzo turned to Priscilla to dismiss her. "Thank you, Priscilla. That will be all."

"Yes, Chief."

As the analyst turned to leave, Lorenzo had one more request. "On your way out, could you send in the Montagnes for their briefing?"

"No problem, sir."

When Priscilla exited the office, she spotted Andy and Nicolette waiting idly on the bench outside the office. Clearing her throat, the analyst was able to get their attention.

"Nicolette, Andy, Chief Lorenzo will see you now."

The two stood up, Andy walking ahead as Nicolette lingered a moment longer, giving Priscilla a kind smile.

"Merci beaucoup, Priscilla. See you later."


Nicolette turned to enter the office, but to Priscilla, the Frenchwoman did not so much walk as waft elegantly past her into the Chief's office.


Meanwhile, in front of the chief, Andy and Nicolette stood at attention, though in a relaxed manner compared to the normal military connotation. However, Lorenzo noted with some irritation that one of them was missing.

"Where's Charlie?"

"Hm. I told him to be here on time, and I was almost sure he'd show up before we were called in... Let me try his cellphone." replied Nicolette, removing her iPhone from her pocket. Scrolling through her contacts, she tapped the screen, highlighting Charlie's number, pressing 'call' and held the phone to her ear as she heard the dialing tone. Almost immediately, however, she got the recording for his voicemail as a jovial London accent answered.

"You've reached the voicemail of Charles Montagne. I can't answer my mobile right now, but if you leave a message-"

Nicolette briskly ended the call in annoyance before sighing and turning to Ferro.

"His phone's off... Ferro, could you please page him?"

"One moment."

Around the compound, everyone else's attention was drawn by the sound of the Public Address system as Ferro's voice delivered a message after a few warning beeps:

"Charles Montagne to Chief Lorenzo's office; Charles Montagne, report to Chief Lorenzo's office for your mission briefing."

In the office of Medical Department neurologist Marianna Giordano, the page was an unwelcome interruption that only caused frustration and a lack of satisfaction as the freckled doctor reluctantly separated herself from the handsome black-haired young man who was forced to cease his ministrations upon her. Such a shame, too- he made sex into an art.

"Sorry, Marianna." said the young man, buttoning his trousers and shirt. "Duty calls, luv."

"You owe me, Charlie." replied the neurologist, pulling her black lace panties back up under her skirt. "Don't keep me waiting too long, now."

"Wouldn't dream of it, dear. And I always pay my debts in full." quipped Charlie, leaning over to Marianna and pulling her close to him. In one smooth motion, he enveloped her in an embrace and kissed her lips, which served as a partial distraction as his hand crept down, palm open, and gave the woman an attention-grabbing but playful swat on the bottom.

"Ooh!" cooed Marianna before giggling a little bit. "Charlie, behave!"

"For luck. And you can get me back when I return. Now I really have to get going."

"Later, Tiger."

Charlie chuckled lightly as he stepped out of the office, retrieving his black tie from the doorknob before setting off at a light jog to the Chief's office. As it happened, Giorgio and Amadeo spotted him coming out of Marianna's office, and they immediately knew what had transpired.

"Bastard." said Giorgio.

"Lucky Bastard." Amadeo corrected.

As Charlie arrived at the chief's office, he slowed to replace his tie and adjust his appearance before entering the office, finding four pairs of eyes staring at him in a mixture of indifference, irritation, and curiosity.

"Nice of you to join us, Charlie." said Lorenzo, finally breaking the silence. "Got a job for you—one of your specialties."

"You caught me at the right time, Chief—I was just getting some practice."

Lorenzo's face visibly soured, as did Ferro's, before the Section Two chief cleared his throat and continued.

"Very funny, Charlie, but no. Your fratello will be orchestrating a bank job in Milan to acquire a not-insignificant amount of Camorra funds, drugs, and precious stones. How you accomplish the job is up to you, but we took the precaution of setting you up with a team."

"That big a job, huh?"

"That it is. You've also got a safehouse set up already in Milan, which is also where your team resides."

"If we ever pick a team, it's generally at our discretion." said Nicolette. "We cannot automatically assume that we can trust whoever you pick at random, sir."

"We knew you might have your reservations, so we pulled their files." replied Ferro, producing a 'TOP SECRET'-marked manila folder and handing it over to Nicolette. "We think you may find them useful and interesting to work with- especially you, Charlie."

"They're all birds." noted Andy upon seeing the gender of all the personnel listed in the file.

"You're right, Ferro. I am interested." added Charlie. The file photos of of the listed personnel showed a group of six girls in their late teens, and by Charlie's standards, they were all fairly attractive. Nicolette, meanwhile, noted the name of the group.

" 'Section Zero'?" Nicolette asked. "Who are they?"

"Predecessors of the SWA." replied Lorenzo. "They're from an era before the cyborg program, so these girls have been around a long, long time. As far as I know, they have no support or funding like we do; I hear most of them actually have full-time or part-time jobs because they don't do many missions except for ones that could potentially wipe all of them out. We're sending your fratello up there so that you have a base of operations and access to armaments. In exchange, I imagine they'll need financial support to maintain their home and keep food on the table. And I also imagine they could use some friendship up there."

"Friendship?" asked Charlie.

"Section Zero is obscure for a reason." replied Ferro. "A long time ago, their funding was cut more or less around the time the cyborg program was starting up. I've only heard stories, but reportedly, the only contact they have with the government is to see if any of them have died after the last mission."

Andy seemed a bit perturbed by that fact but said nothing. Charlie, on the other hand, turned up his enthusiasm.

"Well, I suppose this is our chance to extend the olive branch, so to speak?"

"If you wish, Charlie." said Lorenzo. "You've been given your marching orders; find a way to carry them out and come back with the money. You're all dismissed."

Without further ado, the Montagne trio left the office to go prepare for their trip up to Milan. Less than a minute passed after their departure when Priscilla burst into the office, her face flushed from the effort of sprinting there.

"Chief! We have a situation! It's urgent!"

"Slow down, Priscilla. What's happening?"

"The PM's niece has been kidnapped by terrorists in the Philippines- turn on CNN, RAI, BBC; it's all everyone's talking about right now!"

Lorenzo reached for the TV remote and turned on the flat screen TV mounted on the wall nearby, tuning into CNN International, where anchor Rosemary Church was reading off the story of the hour:

"For those of you just joining us, we bring you breaking news out of the Philippines; the niece of Italian Prime Minister Renato Pisano and her husband were kidnapped by terrorists while on vacation in Manila three nights ago. Full details are still forthcoming, but what is known is that they have been missing for the past 72 hours, their location unknown until a video made by their captors was aired on Al-Jazeera earlier today demanding the withdrawal of Italian troops supporting NATO operations in Afghanistan and $10 million dollars in exchange for the safe release of Isabella Pisano Moretti and her husband, Ronaldo Moretti, and their unborn child. The Abu Sayaaf terror group, who have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, have threatened 'swift and immediate harm' to the couple if any attempt at rescue is mounted..."

"Damn it." growled Lorenzo, turning away from the television. "Greedy bastards, they're not gonna get away with this bullshit. Not if I have anything to say about it."

"Do you need to get in contact with Minister Petris, sir?" asked Ferro.

"I'm certainly planning on it." replied Lorenzo. The three in the room were then taken by surprise when the phone rang. Ferro picked it up, and was surprised to hear who was on the other end of the line.

"One moment, please." Ferro replied before temporarily placing the caller on hold and turning to Lorenzo. "It's Defense Minister Petris, sir."

"Speak of the devil... All right, I'll take the call. Put her on speaker."

Ferro did as told, and after the 'speaker' light glowed steadily on the phone, Lorenzo spoke.

"Minister Petris, this is Chief Lorenzo speaking. How may I help you?"

"Lorenzo, have you turned on the news in the past hour?" asked Defense Minister Monica Petris.

"Yes I have, Minister."

"Then I'll cut to the chase. The Prime Minister has asked me to enlist the help of the Social Welfare Agency in this matter. Assemble a team of your best available fratello and deploy them to rescue the Morettis from the terrorists."

"Understood, Minister Petris." replied Lorenzo. We're hatching a plan now."

"Very good, Lorenzo. Time is of the essence—the terrorists have given a deadline of 96 hours to comply with their demands—take advantage of it."

With that, the call ended, and Lorenzo conferred with Priscilla and Ferro.

"All right, how should we proceed with the rescue operation? How big a force do we send in? "

"I recommend sending several fratello, just to cover all the roles- we cannot afford to take chances with this one." said Ferro. "We'll need some close-quarters specialists, at least one sniper, and we need to send in the Golan sorella, as both of them are able to provide immediate medical assistance should the need arise."

"We'll pick them from whoever's on-compound right now." said Lorenzo. "How do we deploy them?"

"Standard procedure, I would think- via Warhawk Military Aviation?" suggested Priscilla.

"Unfortunately, not an option at the moment." rebutted Ferro. "Jennifer gave us a list of air bases and airports where Warhawk Military Aviation has access. Currently, none of them are in the Philippines."

"Looks like our team flies in commercial." said Lorenzo. "Slight disadvantage, but we can probably work around it."

"Not if you were planning on using the 'diplomatic bags'. First, we don't have enough at the moment for every single fratello, not to mention a large group like that will set off red flags even with government credentials. And we can also forget about instrument cases at this rate."

"Then we have our team procure their weapons on-site?" said Lorenzo. "I have to say, I'm not liking the sound of that."

"Maybe you'll like the sound of this." said a new voice. All three in the room turned to see Nathan Gilbert at the door, holding a manila folder as he walked into the office.

"Now as it happens with this situation, the CIA has been keeping track of the Morettis ever since they went missing from their hotel two nights ago." explained the American. "And as of this morning, the head of the Special Activities Division sent me this wonderful packet containing just about everything we need to know about the opposition, including their location, where the Morettis are being held, as well as other potential secondary hideouts that these terrorists might take them to."

Nathan opened the folder and unfurled a satellite map of the area with superimposed markings. "Looks like they've settled approximately 5 kilometers outside of Colonia on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines. That's known Abu Sayaaf territory, for sure."

"What about the secondary hideouts?"

"A few more kilometers south; one in Materling, the other about half a klick outside Tipo-Tipo. Both are under surveillance by scout/sniper teams."

"Information on their numbers?"

"Thirty hostiles in the camp all in all, minimum of five guarding the Morettis, who have already been released from their restraints."

"Thank you for the intel, Nathan. Now... weapons."

"I know the guy stationed in the Basilan region. We can stop by his place and tool up for the operation. A lot of American weaponry, of course, but we've got suppressors for every firearm that's not a revolver, shotgun, rocket launcher, or grenade launcher."

"'We', you say." Lorenzo interrupted. "Are you volunteering for this mission, Nathan?"

"That is correct, sir." replied the American.


"Erina is a CQB expert and a qualified marksman as well. Hostage rescue is one of the first combat specialties she mastered. Plus, she needs more missions under her belt."

"I get the impression that this is a field test of her cybernetic implants for the CIA."

"In the interest of full disclosure, that is partially true. As Erina performs missions, I have to send back any findings to Langley, and I'm required to regularly report in person regarding her progress."

Lorenzo mulled things over in his head. On one hand, he did not appreciate the Central Intelligence Agency, of all parties, to be riding the coattails of the SWA's operation- it was potential leverage for the future and posed a significant OPSEC risk. On the other hand, the CIA had been gracious enough to save them time and legwork in finding the Morettis, and it was the Special Activities Division (at least, as far as he knew) involved in this mission, and their modus operandi was to deny everything, not to mention, Nathan wasn't the only CIA officer involved with the SWA. With a sigh, he made his decision.

"Nathan, do not make me regret this."

"You won't, sir."

"Go and start preparing for the mission. We'll finish up assembling the rest of the team."

A few hours later, as the sun reached its high noon position over Rome, British Airways Flight 1371, a Boeing 747-400, lifted off from Fiumicino Airport on its way to London's Heathrow Airport with several fratello aboard comprising the hostage rescue team, which consisted of Jean and Rico, Hilshire and Triela, Nathan and Erina, Sarah and Annette, Marcus and Johanneke, and Brian and Allison. From Heathrow, they would catch a connecting flight to Hong Kong, and then a Cathay Pacific connecting flight to Manila. The entire process would take 21 hours, 15 minutes, including layovers and assuming no delays—and then, they would have to find a way to get to Basilan, leaving them with not much more time to plan the assault assuming nothing had changed during their transit to the Philippines and the specific area of operations. In the meantime, however, there was little else to do except enjoy the flight and all it had to offer, or get sleep. Right off the bat, former Excalibur Tactical Group members (and former Special Air Service troops) Brian and Marcus opted for the latter, pulling shades over their eyes to block out the ambient light. Next to her brother, Allison paged through a copy of Super Street magazine, which featured a customized and heavily-tuned 2005 Nissan 350Z on the cover while she listened to Deep Purple's "Highway Star" on her Sansa Fuze. Across the aisle on the port window side of the cabin, Johanneke was also reading, having chosen a martial arts manual to pass the time. Behind the Spriggs fratello, the Golan sorella was also starting to settle into naps of their own, while behind the Golans, Jean and Rico sat quietly, the former staring ahead intensely, as if willing the plane to go faster, while the latter looked out the window, enjoying the scenery while there was still scenery available.

Behind the McDonnells, Hilshire and Triela were seated next to each other, the former occupying his time by grading essays written in response to his class unit on Madame Bovary and The Stranger while Triela cracked open the new book for the class. This one was a more contemporary American selection- The Things They Carried by Tim O' Brien. As she began to read the title story, she found herself interrupted by the crinkling of plastic and the sound of crispy snacks being eaten. Turning around in her seat and leaning into the aisle, she found Erina sitting behind her, tearing into a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato crisps. Looking down, Triela saw that the bag was just one of many that Erina stuffed into a knapsack full of snacks and junk food—crisps, candy bars, packs of something called 'beef jerky', M&M's, trail mix, peanuts, and cheese-flavored crackers with peanut butter. The sheer amount of snacks in the bag boggled Triela's mind- what was more bewildering is that Erina was planning to consume all of it.

"Uh, Erina?" asked Triela.

"What's up, Triela?" replied Erina perkily.

"What's with all the snacks?"

"Oh, these? I'm fueling up. Storing away energy for the mission, y'know?"

"How can you eat all that?" asked Triela. "There's got to be at least 20 things in there to eat!"

"I'm taking it slow for now, but when I've got everything going, my metabolism is crazy-fast even for a cyborg. I'm storing up calories to be used for the mission—I got a trick up my sleeve, but it burns a ton of calories, which is why I'm stocking up now."

"What exactly makes it necessary to consume this much food?" Triela asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Bullet time."

"Bullet time?"

"Well really, dilated perception." Erina clarified. "In a combat situation, my specific cybernetics produce a lot of adrenaline, and when it's time go rock n' roll, that adrenaline speeds up everything I perceive and cybernetics take care of the rest in terms of actually forming a physical reaction. In simpler terms, I can get a visual, confirm a threat, and dispatch the threat in the time it would take someone to perform a split-second weapon draw."

"And to get that effect, you really need that much food?"

"Sort of. Part of the calories go to dealing with the processing of information. The rest is to speeding up those muscle inputs that I need to clear a room in the range of less than one second. If I'm not packing away the calories to replenish those lost during one of these 'bullet time' moments, I'm totally screwed."

"But that doesn't explain you eating stuff all the time at the compound. I almost never see you without a snack nearby." noted Triela.

"That's so that I don't clean out the cafeteria's supplies." replied Erina sheepishly. "I'm a big eater for my size, and all the stuff they built into me consumes a lot of energy—hence the eating."

"And will what you have hold you over until we're on-site?" asked Triela.

"Well, between whatever I have, the in-flight meals, and slowing everything down by sleeping, I should be okay once we're in the Philippines."

"Pfff. She's gonna buy more stuff during layover." scoffed Nathan as he typed on his netbook. "Where Kara would spend on clothes or Ferraris given Michele's 'Black' card, Erina here will clear out every single card-ready vending machine within a 1-mile radius."

"What? No, I wouldn't. Quit being mean, Nate!" said Erina indignantly.

"Just speaking the truth." replied the American with a teasing smirk.

For the next 10-15 minutes, Erina simply rolled up the bag of crisps she was eating, folded her arms and pouted as she stared ahead. The flight to Heathrow continued without further incident, and they arrived in England two hours later for the first layover before their connecting flight to Hong Kong.

During the 3-hour layover at Heathrow, the various fratello had to find ways to kill time within the confines of the airport terminal. Annette and Sarah went off to go get a bite to eat somewhere, Brian, Marcus, and Jean went to get a pint at the airport bar, while Nathan volunteered to keep an eye on Rico while he used his netbook. This left the rest of the girls to explore their surroundings in search of something to do to pass the time.

Triela, Allison, Johanneke, and Erina moved as a group through the terminal, perusing its shops and establishments just to see what was what. As Nathan had predicted, Erina went to buy even more snacks, which went directly into her already-bulging knapsack. Allison browsed through a newsstand to check out the car magazines, while Johanneke looked at firearms and shooting publications. And when she thought no one was looking, Triela lingered at a toyshop, staring at the teddy bears on the shelves.

Now, as the group walked around, Triela seemed lost in thought, just content to aimlessly wander. Her attention was suddenly captured by noise from somewhere to her left.


The staccato sound of rattling plastic almost made Triela reach for a weapon that she didn't have (a general stipulation of 'on-site procurement'), but as she turned to look at the source of the noise, she only saw two teenagers wielding brightly-colored plastic toy handguns wired to an arcade machine. The slides on the handguns popped back and forth with each pull of the trigger as enemies on-screen grunted in pain as the players' shots connected with them. Triela had no idea what she was seeing until an outburst from Allison elaborated upon the sight in front of her.

"Hey! This arcade has Time Crisis 3!" exclaimed Allison. "I love that game!"

"And looks like they've got Crackin' DJ Part 2—you almost never see this outside of Japan!" added Erina.

"They have Tekken 5!" Johanneke chimed in. "Let's get some change and get this thing rolling!"

While the three Generation 2 girls met the noise and flashing lights of the arcade with great enthusiasm, Triela felt out of place, not having been to this kind of establishment before. However, Allison grabbed her arm and pulled her in as the others stepped into the noisy arcade.

Meanwhile, Rico sat quietly next to Nathan as he typed away on the keyboard of his netbook. However, she was starting to grow a little bored just sitting around, and with none of the other cyborgs to talk to, she felt her skin start to itch a little. And so the sniper of the group turned to her current adult guardian.

"Mr. Nathan?" asked Rico, taking the opportunity to practice her English.

"Yes, Rico?"

"Do you mind if I go take a look around?" asked Rico.

"Not at all, Rico." replied Nathan. "You don't have to stay next to me the whole time; you can go ahead and walk around- just don't go too far away, and if you can, try to stay where I can see you. Other than that, go do what you want and don't get into trouble, okay?"

"Yes, Mr. Nathan!" Rico chirped, hopping down from her seat. Finally getting on her feet again felt good after sitting still for the past while, and she wasted no time in exploring around the terminal. There were lots of shops to look at and lots of places to eat, but she was neither hungry nor in particular want of any merchandise. Rico went on walking for a bit, unaware that she was starting to leave Nathan's line of sight. However, the American didn't seem particularly distressed, and as he caught her slipping out of sight, Nathan didn't call out to her. Instead, he opened his luggage and pulled out a very tiny remote-controlled replica of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII that fit neatly in the palm of his hand. Behind the 'tinted' window glass on the car was a tiny high-resolution fiber-optic camera that fed video via Wi-Fi back to his netbook, which was now running an app for the little car. It had started life as a cheap little toy best used indoors on rainy days, but with some help from the folks at Q-branch (Fiona seemed to be blushing a lot and he had no idea why...), it was now a handy little surveillance rig that could scout ahead in tight spaces as small as a water pipe. Flicking the switch on the bottom of the car to the 'on' position, he saw the front wheel steering servo self-test before he set the little car on the ground.

"All right, let's see what Rico's up to..."

Nathan held down the 'w' key on his netbook, and the diminutive Lancer Evo was off like a shot, expertly avoiding being stepped upon or kicked or rolled over by people's feet as they traversed the terminal floor. A few turns and weaves later, the fiber-optic camera tracked Rico to a small island in the midst of the shopping area of the terminal where multiple luggage carts were parked neatly in a line and secured on a rail.

Rico looked intently at the yellow sign attached to the parking island, which bore the brand name 'SmartCarte'. Inspecting the machine, she saw that there was a central unit that accepted money and credit cards, and then towards the very bottom, a small metal flap with writing that read: "Reward for cart return." Her interest piqued, Rico scanned the area for carts that looked like the ones already secured to the kiosk. She locked onto one that was sitting unused near a toy store and strode towards it, grasped it by its handlebar and guided it briskly back into the kiosk. The small outer wheel that slid into the securing rail rolled into the guide neatly and then tripped a small lever as it locked into place, fitting in neatly with the cart in front of it. Rico heard a small 'clank' emanate from the area of the metal flap, and she went to investigate. Pushing the flap forward, she was surprised to find money in the form of a £2 pound coin. She held it to the light, the inlaid cupro-nickel profile portrait of Queen Elizabeth II gleaming inside the outer nickel-brass ring. Pocketing the coin, she looked around and found two more carts already stacked against each other near one of the boarding areas, and so she grabbed them and returned them to the kiosk, resulting in two clanking noises from the coin return. This time, she pulled out two more £2 pound coins, giving her a total of £6 pounds sterling in pocket money. Rico smiled a little bit—this was beginning to get fun.

At the arcade, Allison and Triela watched the two boys playing Time Crisis 3. The pair was on their last lives each despite only being on Area 1 of the first stage. At this point, both players had fallen into a constant pattern of shooting two rounds at an on-screen enemy and then ducking to reload (by releasing the foot pedal). The ammunition for their special weapons (an available machine gun, shotgun, and grenade launcher) was already depleted, and they failed to blast away any of the specific enemies that would drop ammunition, leaving them only with the basic handgun. This was proving problematic as they faced down the 'boss' character of the area, which was a piece of naval artillery.

The player on the left finished reloading and pressed down on the pedal to pop up and fire, but it was a poorly-timed maneuver that took away his last piece of health as the naval gun aimed directly at him and blew him to bits. As the continue screen began its twenty-second countdown, he aimed one last shot, choosing the 'no' option and then returned the lightgun controller to its metallic holster, leaving the rest of the game to his partner on the right side of the dual-screen machine. For his part, the remaining player found a slightly more effective strategy of popping up and using his free hand's index finger to rapidly work the trigger to spam all nine handgun rounds in the magazine at the target, slowly but surely whittling down its health. However, just as he reloaded with less than a centimeter of health left in the boss character's bar and about 15 seconds left on the countdown clock (the basis for the title Time Crisis), a random opponent popped up and shot him, taking down his last bit of health. Unwilling to spend any more money on the game, the player also shot the 'no' option on the continue screen and holstered the plastic pistol.

"Let's get out of here- that bloody game is rigged." complained one of the boys.

As the two began to walk away, Allison stepped up to the machine, but remembered Triela was also there.

"Blue gun or pink gun, Triela?" Allison asked.

"Um... Blue gun."

"Then I'll take Pink."

As Triela stepped up to the blue side of the machine, Allison fished out a stack of sixteen tokens from the pocket of her jeans and divided them into smaller stacks of eight. She handed one stack off to Triela, keeping a stack for herself and immediately started feeding them all into the machine.

"Rule one of these arcade games, Triela; get at least two credits' worth of tokens before you even start."

"Why is that?" asked 'The Princess'.

"Most of these games give you twenty seconds to continue if you lose all your lives." Allison explained. "If you don't have the tokens on you right then and there, you're forced to hop off, scramble to the change machine, feed that money as fast as you can, and scramble back before your twenty seconds are up. In that duration, you'll either run out of time, or someone impatient will hijack the machine from you."

"I see. I'll remember that next time I'm at an arcade, I guess."

"Good, then let's begin. Feed all eight coins into the slot until you have two credits."

Triela began inserting the coins, the game in front of her producing a sound with each coin inserted, the text on-screen changing with the increasing amount of tokens. When she looked up, Allison already had her lightgun out of its holster.

"Ready to get started?"

"Sure. Is there a button I press?"

"Just the trigger on your controller. Aim at the screen and give it a squeeze."

Picking up the blue pistol from its holster, Triela let the weighted muzzle hang down a little as she felt how it was to hold it in her hands. It was a hefty, chunky thing, not at all like her lithe SIG. And the attached cord that was connected to the bottom of the grip made the pistol feel more awkward to maneuver with. Still, she didn't want to waste Allison's time, and she lined up the front sight with the screen in front of her and pulled the trigger, noting practically no resistance at all in the trigger pull. However, the plastic slide on the pistol did jump back, and Triela scrambled to avoid dropping it, her surprise at the sudden recoil causing the lightgun to slip from her grip. The boys who quit the game earlier chuckled as they watched 'The Princess' fumble.

"Yeah, you kind of need to expect that- Time Crisis is probably the only arcade game series that has recoil simulation." Allison commented.

"Would've been nice to know that beforehand." retorted Triela, then looking at the screen. "There's a couple of options here. What do I pick?"

"2-player option."

Triela aimed at the 2-player selection and pulled the trigger, now having fully expected the pistol's recoil, which felt rather tame, like a .22LR. Allison also selected the 2-player option on her side, causing both screens to linger for a second before fading to black and into a cinematic. As soon as the words "SHOOT SCREEN TO SKIP!" flashed in the upper-right corner of the screen, however, Allison opened fire, denying Triela any chance to see the story.

"Trust me- the story's just a tad too silly to be taken seriously. You'll see this with the boss characters."

The action was quickly beginning, as "-WAIT-" flashed on the screen in red capital letters as their respective screens jumped into first-person view, on-screen enemies already taking potshots at them that sailed harmlessly past. Then...


Allison immediately took aim and started blasting away at the enemies on-screen, double-tapping every opponent she saw on-screen, the pink lightgun in her hands clacking back and forth in quick succession. Triela took aim at the screen and pulled the trigger, but all she got in response was a voice that announced she had selected the machine gun. Pulling the trigger again, the voice announced, "Shotgun!" Another trigger pull; "Grenade!"

"Allison, I can't shoot anything!"

"Pull the trigger one more time, and then hold down the foot pedal!"

Triela looked down, and sure enough, there was a metal plate right at her toes. Swearing under her breath, she pulled the trigger, cycling her weapon selection back to the standard handgun and planted her foot down on the pedal. Her on-screen view changed, and now she was finally able to help Allison in dispatching the enemies on-screen. She had gotten three rounds off before the screen was cleared and "-WAIT-" flashed once again on-screen as the scene moved to another part of the beach the in-game characters were assaulting. When the game re-commenced action, Triela spent the last of her handgun rounds before the game commanded her to reload. She tried pulling the handgun slide to no effect, and as she tried to figure out how to reload, a red ring flashed on-screen, and without warning, her character was hit, reducing a life.

"Allison! How do I reload?"

"Let go of the foot pedal!"

Triela released pressure on the foot pedal, causing the view to change as her character ducked behind cover. At the bottom-left of the screen nine handgun rounds appeared where there were previously none, and Triela pressed the foot pedal again. As she popped up, an enemy with an assault rifle charged toward her firing wildly, and Triela focused on terminating him. When he failed to go down with the first shot, Triela fired again, the plastic pistol in her hands cycling the slide, and a thin green bar hovering over her target was growing smaller. Triela emptied the magazine at him before releasing the pedal momentarily to reload before popping up again, but the red ring flashed again, circling a red-clad opponent whose bullet met its mark, reducing yet another life from Triela's character. Allison then offered some helpful advice.

"When you see the red ring, let the pedal go! And always shoot the guys in red first!"

"Got it!"

Popping up again, Triela blasted away the red-clad enemy and took aim at one wearing bright yellow. With three shots (just to be sure), Triela was surprised to see three symbols pop up on screen, marked MACHINE GUN, SHOTGUN, and GRENADE before they flew down towards the corresponding pictograms on the bottom of the screen. This being the last opponent of the screen, -WAIT- flashed for a few moments again before she and Allison were put into action once again. Triela floored the foot pedal to get out from behind cover with a freshly loaded magazine to pick off a bunch of bad guys on the cliff face in front of her. Suddenly, the lighthouse located on the cliff exploded, severing the top part and sending it down towards them. While Allison released her pedal to take cover, Triela stayed out of cover to blast the remaining opponents onscreen despite a large exclamation point flashing in front of her and the game announcer robotically shouting "Danger! Danger!" Triela tried to wait it out until the last second before releasing the foot pedal, but it was too late. The falling debris took away the last bit of health she had, bringing up the continue screen. As the countdown began, Triela was going to select the 'no' option, but then noticed that there was still one credit remaining. As the seconds ticked by, Triela cleared her head. She was not going to screw up anymore, now that she knew what to expect and what to do. Raising the blue pistol in her hands, she aimed at the 'yes' block and squeezed the trigger, throwing her right back into the game with full health. Allison had already moved the game on to the next area, and Triela quickly played catch-up.

Nathan watched with some amusement as a smiling Rico guided five more luggage carts back into the SmarteCarte kiosk for a total count of fifteen carts recovered. Walking over to the reward slot, Rico fished out five more £2-pound coins and stashed them in her pocket, which was already bulging with change. She was about to venture forth again when she felt a hand on her shoulder, turning to find a uniformed Authorised Firearms Officer of the Metropolitan Police Service with a Heckler & Koch MP5SFA3 semi-automatic carbine slung across his body atop his body armor standing behind her. The large, muscular man crouched down so that he was more or less eye-level with Rico before speaking to her gently and sympathetically.

"Sorry to bother you, little miss." began the officer. "But I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stop what you're doing. I know you're not getting in anyone's way, but we have workers here who can take care of that."

"Oh, I'm sorry, sir." replied Rico in lightly-accented English. "I was just having some fun making a little bit of money. Should I give it back?" she asked, reaching into her pocket.

"Oh no, you can keep it, dear. That's your money now." replied the officer, holding up his palms. "What's your name, little girl?"

"Rico!" chirped the young cyborg enthusiastically, eliciting a small smile from the officer.

"Well then, Rico, I'm Constable Morley. Can you tell me where your mum, dad, or trusted grown-ups you know are?"

Before Rico could answer, a voice called out some distance away from them.

"Rico? Ah, there you are!"

Nathan approached the pair, his netbook secured in his briefcase now and his spy car off the floor and in his pocket.

"Mr. Nathan!" Rico greeted.

"Sir, is this your child?" asked Morley.

"No, but we know each other well. Her father asked me to keep watch on her while he went to get something to eat, and I was keeping an eye on her from the seating area back there." Nathan replied, gesturing to the seats near the windows of the terminal. "I hope she wasn't giving you any trouble?"

"Not at all, sir. But we try not to let children run around unsupervised."

"My apologies, officer. It won't happen again."

"Thank you, sir. For what it's worth, all Rico here was doing was making the most of an opportunity." replied Morley before turning to Rico.

"Well carry on then, Rico. It was nice meeting you."

"It was nice meeting you too, Constable Morley." replied Rico, bowing her head respectfully.

"Sorry about any trouble, Constable." said Nathan, bowing his head as well.

"It was no trouble at all, sir. I was just making sure everything was all right with Rico here. Enjoy your day."

The two parties separated ways as Rico and Nathan in the opposite direction from the armed constable, who continued on his patrol of the terminal. As Nathan and Rico walked back to the boarding area, Nathan asked Rico about her haul.

"So how much did you end up getting before the Constable stopped you?"

"Let's see..." said Rico, counting out the coins in her pocket, "15 coins... and at £2 pounds each, that's £30 pounds, all in all."

Nathan let out a low whistle. "Well done, Rico! That's a pretty good amount of cash- you should be able to get something nice with that much in your pocket."

"But what should I buy?"

"Well, that's really all up to you. It's your money, after all. You don't even have to spend it."

"Mr. Nathan, I'm not sure about keeping money to myself. Certain...incidents, tend to happen if cyborgs are found harboring any amount of cash for long periods of time." Rico said somewhat cryptically.

"Say no more." replied Nathan with a knowing nod. He steered Rico into a duty-free toy store before stopping, allowing Rico to face the rows of shelves packed with toys and games.

"If you need a way to get rid of that cash and reward yourself, look no further. Take your time, and be sure to check the price before you commit."

"You mean that, Mr. Nathan?"

"I do. And if Jean asks, point him to me- I'll talk this over with him if I have to."

Back at the arcade, Allison and Triela dealt their final shots at the screen as they finished entering their three-letter initials for the high score screen, having completed the entire game in the span of 45 minutes. As soon as they each fired at the 'OK' button, both girls blew a light breeze over the muzzles of their lightguns before re-holstering them. The high score screen soon popped up, scrolling upwards showing the initials of everyone who had managed to finish the game. Most of the scores were six-figure sums. When "ALI" and "TRI" popped up, however, their scores reached 5,000,000 and 4,000,000 respectively. They were the highest scores the machine had ever recorded, and the third-place high score record was a mere 200,000 points by comparison. The two stepped away from the machine and went to find their sister cyborgs, leaving the two boys who were playing earlier staring in amazement at the high scores they logged- these would remain forever- or at least until a power outage occurred.

"Okay- that was surprisingly fun." said Triela. "Didn't get boring at all, much to my surprise."

"Glad you liked it, Tri." Allison replied. "Personally, I think we should have a machine like this back at the compound."

"What, for training purposes?"

"As much for that as entertainment. Plus it's cheap and saves a bundle on ammunition. And it's just fun!"

"I bet if you ran that past your pals at Q-branch, even they would look at you funny."

"Really? I think Heinrich would be all for it- I'm pretty sure he's got 'gamer' somewhere in him."

Approaching the linked-up Tekken 5 machines, the two found Johanneke managed to attract a small crowd of spectators as she administered yet another beatdown on a newcomer while using the character of Asuka Kazama. The game announcer prompted the start of the first round, and in a flurry of button presses, Johanneke executed an 11-hit combo that wiped out the opposing player's health in the span of five seconds. The game announcer rewarded Johanneke with a simple "Perfect!" to signify that she had bested her opponent without losing any health.

"I wasn't ready for that one!" yelled the boy on the other machine.

"All right, hold on to your ass for round two!" retorted Johanneke, drawing cheers from the small crowd behind her. The celebration animations ran their course, and then the game announcer came on again.

"Round 2...FIGHT!"

This time, Johanneke actually let the other player take a shot at her, but she quickly countered the hit and turned it into another devastating combo that reduced her opponents health to zero in large chunks with every bone-crunching grapple. Her opponent vanquished, Johanneke stood up and held her arms out.

"Next!" she announced, before catching sight of Triela and Allison. Allison made a gesture of whirling a finger in a circle and then pointing to her watch. Johanneke nodded and then went to enter her initials in the high score screen before going to join them as the crowd dispersed. Erina soon joined them, as well.

"Done already, Erina?" asked Allison.

"It beats DJ Hero, but not by much. Needs more buttons and things."

"It's only a game, remember? You mix all the time, so I guess the game version is pretty boring for you, huh?" asked Triela.

"Not terribly so. How'd you guys do with Time Crisis?"

"First and second place." replied Allison. "What about you, Johanneke?"

"10 players beaten in a row. I think at this rate, Lucy's the only one who can kick my ass at Tekken." replied the Afrikaner. "Now then, where to?"

"Let's go find our handlers."

16 hours later- Ninoy Aquino International Airport; Metro Manila, Philippines

The persistent twanging noise in his ears served as a reminder to Jean of how much he regretted entrusting Rico's care to that mischievous American named Nathan Gilbert. He should've known from the moment that he saw Rico unwrapping the toy banjo she had bought whilst under Nathan's care that he would be subject to musical misery as his cyborg made an effort to increase her dexterity—one off-key note at a time. Granted, she was being proactive, but hearing her struggling to play a coherent song—'Mary Had a Little Lamb', to be exact—wore thin on the elder Croce brother's nerves, and the best he could do was request a pair of earplugs from the flight attendant while Rico continued to labor away at her banjo during flight, Jean resisting the urge to reach over and smack her upside the head in public or break the instrument into two. Thankfully, Rico was eventually politely requested by a flight attendant to stop playing due to some discreet complaints from the passengers around her, but this still left the airport terminals at Hong Kong International Airport and Ninoy Aquino International Airport fair game. At the very least, their stopover in Hong Kong gave Allison the opportunity to show Rico some learning material on her iPhone so that Rico could better learn how to play her new instrument she had gotten in London. This in turn led to repeated plays of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' during the flight to the Philippines, but at least Jean could now actually make out music. The problem now was that Jean heard the same song over, and over, and over, and over again, and he desperately wished that Rico would learn another goddamned song before he gouged out his eardrums.

Fortunately, as they arrived at NAIA, Rico chose to put away her banjo now that they were on-site. After picking up their luggage from the carousel, the group proceeded to find an exit and a means of getting to Basilan. Before they even got out of the concourse, however, Nathan's attention was drawn to a bearded man dressed in a polo shirt and khakis holding a placard that read 'GILBERT'. Recognizing the man behind the sign, Nathan smiled and called out to him.

"Long time no see, Ketchup." greeted Nate.

"Naayyythaan!" greeted the man in return. "Good to see you, m'man!"

"Hey, Mike." Erina greeted as she joined Nathan. Turning his attention to her, Nathan's friend greeted her in return.

"Hey, if it isn't Erina!" said Mike, extending his palm for a high five. "Gimme some!"

"Up high." said Erina, starting a complicated greeting sequence of a high five, a low five, a fist pound with a locking motion, and then an 'exploding' gesture that confused her sister cyborgs and their handlers. Finally, Nate turned to his colleagues and introduced the newcomer to them.

"Guys, this is Michael Heinz; case officer for the Basilan region and an old friend of mine. He's our ride to the AO."

"Pleased to meet you all, Ladies and gentlemen." said Michael before shaking hands with the handlers. "Now if you'll all follow me, we have a plane waiting on the tarmac to take us to Zamboanga City, where we connect with a helicopter to take us to Isabela City in Basilan."

With Michael leading the way, the SWA rescue contingent extricated themselves from the crowds of the hundreds of passengers in the terminal, following Nathan's colleague through various corridors and hallways until they found an exit to the tarmac. As they exited outdoors, the sudden temperature change caught a few of the of the fratello off-guard, surprised by the blanket of stifling, humid air washing over them.

"Dear god, it's hot!" exclaimed Allison.

"You spend enough time in this country, you get used to it." noted Michael. "Don't worry, you'll be able to acclimate yourself to the climate even in the short-term as long as you take it easy for a little while and drink plenty of water. We've got a case of Perrier on the plane- you guys must be thirsty after your flight."

"That's very kind of you, Mr. Heinz, but we really need to get to Basilan as soon as possible." interrupted Jean. "We're being counted on to rescue the Prime Minister's niece and her family."

"Of course, of course." replied Michael, stopping at an unmarked solid blue Ford Econoline van. "If you'll all get in, it will be a short drive to the plane."

Minutes later, a pearl white Dassault Falcon 900 took off from the runway with the 6 SWA fratelli and some CIA officers aboard, setting course for Zamboanga City International Airport. As the private jet gained altitude, the view out the window changed, revealing more and more of Metro Manila in all its urban vastness, the waters of Manila Bay expanding as they climbed.

In the cabin, Allison uncapped a chilled bottle of lemon-flavored Perrier mineral water and poured a ration into a plastic tumbler before greedily downing the relieving, refreshing beverage, a satisfied exhale escaping her lips when she finished swallowing.

"Oh, that's heaven." Breathed Allison, offering the bottle to Brian. "You want some?"

"I'm fine." replied her brother. "You look like you need it more, anyway." he added, taking note of the sweat beading on Allison's forehead.

"We still have plenty more, so don't worry about emptying a bottle or two." Michael announced. At this news, Allison took the bottle in her hand and cut out the middleman of the plastic tumbler by drinking directly from the bottle.

"So how are things around here, Ketchup?" Nathan asked.

"Oh, you know how it is—running gun battles, the occasional bombing, same shit different day, really. How's Italy?"

"Lots of political strife, Ketchup. Something's happening every day, but it's not always up to us to do something about it."

At this point, Triela went to interrupt as she sat behind the two. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Mr. Nathan, but why are you referring to Mr. Heinz as 'Ketchup'?"

"Oh, that." replied Nathan, breaking into a smile. "That's just a habit from when we were in training—Anyone who knew this guy here referred to him as 'Ketchup' because of his last name, Heinz. People would ask if he was related in any way to the Heinz Ketchup Company, and the nickname kind of stuck even when he clearly said he wasn't."

"I never really liked it at first, but it kinda grew on me." added Michael. "And sometimes, it's easier to call me by that when there's so many 'Michaels' running around."

"I see." Triela noted. After pausing a beat, she asked, "Mr. Nathan, did you have a nickname while in training?"

"I seem to recall being called 'Egghead' a lot, but that was more a tame insult than an actual nickname." replied Erina's handler.

"Well, you kind of expect that when you tell people you graduated MIT when you were 18—nerd." Michael retorted.

A few seats behind them, Jean was staring out the window when he heard the twang of a banjo string. Dreading what he would see, he slowly turned to find Rico getting ready to play her toy banjo again. Reaching into his pocket with a groan, he pulled out a pack of earplugs and stuffed them in his ears as Rico began playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' again. As she played, Michael turned in his seat to watch Rico go through the short song.

"She's pretty good for a beginner." Michael noted. "How long has she had that thing?"

"Believe it or not, for less than 24 hours. She got that with money earned from returning those 'SmarteCarte' things when we were on layover in Heathrow." Nathan replied. "She's been doing that to increase her dexterity."

"Is she one of the first-gens you've been telling me about?"

"Yeah. She doesn't have the same internal components that Erina has. I do believe that she's technically older than Erina, but from what I learned, growth and physical development becomes dormant when one of these girls is put into the augmentation process."

"Locking them in time, at least physically- crazy stuff." Michael finished. As he made this comment, Rico finished playing her tune, prompting some applause from Michael. Rico looked up, not expecting to see Nathan's friend clapping in appreciation.

"That was very good. What's your name?"

"Rico, sir. And thank you very much."

"Rico, do you mind if I borrow your banjo? I'd like to play a tune."

"No problem, Mr. Heinz!" Rico happily conceded. She handed over the instrument to the Basilan Case Officer, who began playing a fast-paced tune that caught Brian's attention.

"Is that...?"

Then, Michael began singing the words to the song he was playing, confirming Brian's guess that Nathan's colleague was playing his rendition of Flogging Molly's Drunken Lullabies:

"Must it take a life for hateful eyes
To glisten once again
Five hundred years like Gelignite
Have blown us all to hell
What savior rests while on his cross we die
Forgotten freedom burns
Has the Shepard led his lambs astray
to the bigot and the gun?

Must it take a life for hateful eyes
To glisten once again
'Cause we find ourselves in the same old mess
Singin' drunken lullabies…"

A few minutes later, a more festive mood was the atmosphere aboard the private jet as Michael finished out 'Drunken Lullabies', having managed to get everyone except Jean singing at least the last half of the chorus. As Michael neared the end, his audience sang with him in response.

"Must it take a life for hateful eyes, to glisten once again?" Michael sang, nodding to his audience as their cue.

"'Cause we find ourselves in the same old mess, singin' drunken lullabies!" chorused those enjoying themselves.

"Singin' Drunken Lullabies, right!"

Michael finished with a flourish on Rico's banjo, prompting applause from his listeners before graciously handing back the instrument to the blonde-haired sniper.

"Mr. Heinz, you're amazing!" Rico breathed. "Was that really my banjo?"

"It was. You just need to know how to hit the right notes. Anyone can do this- it just takes practice." Michael replied.

"Could you teach me how to play?" Rico asked hopefully.

"Well, I'll do what I can, but we don't have a lot of time, so let's get started." said Michael, earning a happy expression that lit up Rico's face.

5 km outside Colonia, Basilan; Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Philippines

"Ah!" gasped Isabella with a slight hiss—it was another cramp, another contraction was happening, but she was fairly sure that it wasn't a 'real' contraction signaling imminent childbirth- at least, she hoped not. Seeing his wife's face contorted in a painful wince, Ronaldo did his best to comfort his wife. At the very least, their captors had acquiesced to free them from their bonds once it was clear Isabella and Ronaldo would have no chance to escape and were too preoccupied with the possibility of their child being born.

"Breathe, Isabella." Ronaldo gently commanded as he held his wife. "Remember your breathing exercises."

"Okay...okay..." Isabella replied, inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic pace. The pain from the contractions quickly began to fade away, having practiced this method of relief so many times. However, what was worrying was the increasing regularity of the contractions, possibly leading to the real thing. And without medical help, surrounded by people willing to kill them, the Morettis knew they were in a truly desperate situation.

Nearby, one of their captors watched as Isabella breathed rhythmically to ease the pain of her contractions before turning away to talk to the leader of the group.

"Ahmed, the woman looks like she could give birth anytime soon. What do we do when that happens?" the subordinate asked.

"Then we raise the price of their freedom, Fadir. If the Italians fail to pay, we make an example out of the entire family."replied Ahmed, prompting indignation and shock from Fadir.

"You intend to kill a child? A newborn, at that?"

"Of course. We aren't prepared for the complication an infant will bring to our situation. Besides you forget, the child is the spawn of the infidel, and we are in a Jihad. Civilians or soldiers, young or old, they are still the enemies of Islam."

Watching their captors converse, the Morettis tried to guess what was going on based on the way they were reacting.

"What are they talking about?" Isabella whispered.

"Not sure- I picked up only a few English words in all that. It sounds like they're arguing. Though." replied Ronaldo in a hush.

"Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"

"I don't know, honey. I hope it's a good thing."

The two sat in silence as Ahmed and Fadir continued their conversation. Then...


"Yes, Isabella?"

"I'm sorry I got us into this." Isabella whispered regretfully, tears flowing from her eyes. "All I wanted was to have some time together, just ourselves before the baby was born, and now-"

"Shhhh... It's not your fault." Ronaldo reassured. "I should've been more careful at the hotel; I was too naive, too trusting. I should be the one apologizing."

"Ronaldo, I love you too much to be blame you for this, and you know I don't want to lose you. But what do we do?"

"All we can do now is wait and hope."

With that, Ronaldo held Isabella closer in a tight embrace, silently praying for their safety.

Barangay Tabuk, Isabela City, Basilan; Zamboanga Peninsula Region, Philippines

As the Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter powered down behind them, the SWA delegation, led by Michael, made their way into the garrison of the Philippine Army's 15th Special Forces Airborne Company. As the lead case officer for the Basilan region, Michael's job was to advise and assist the Philippine Army in battling the terrorist insurgency that plagued the southern islands of the Philippines. As such, the CIA brought to the Philippines (in cooperation with the U.S. Military) weapons, equipment, specialist personnel, and instructors that were not normally accessible given the limited budget of the Philippine Army and the overall strength of the Philippine economy in comparison to the rest of the world. In exchange, Michael's small slice of the CIA was a long-term guest in the garrison, and even had its own little corner set up in an unused office in the garrison. In addition, the CIA Special Activities Division brought in weapons that would fit right in with (and in some cases were better than) the kind of equipment the 15th Special Forces Airborne Company used. In fact, it was the Armory to where the six fratello were guided by Michael.

"I was informed you would need to procure weapons on-site for this mission because of potential airport security problems, but the last thing you want to do around here is risk a back-alley deal with some gun runner selling you shoddy equipment." Michael said, pressing the buzzer to alert the armorer that they were there.

"Thank you again for arranging this, Mr. Heinz." said Jean. "This saves us a great deal of time and ensures we will have reliable equipment."

"Don't thank me; thank Nathan. He had a great deal of involvement in planning this mission. I just carried out a request."

The armorer opened the door to the room full of weapons, and Michael ushered the SWA delegation in.

"Take your picks, but do remember that they have to be returned in one piece."

With these words, the cyborgs and handlers were turned loose in the armory to have a look around. Each of the cyborgs and handlers had a role to fill, ranging from assaulters to breachers and pointmen, to fire support and marksmen. Jean and Rico immediately went towards the Designated Marksman and purpose-built sniper rifles while Johanneke and Marcus looked through everything from shotguns and submachine guns to assault rifles and general-purpose machine guns along with Triela and Hilshire. Then, something finally caught Johanneke's eye.

"Whoa. Is that what I think it is?" asked Johanneke, prompting Michael to come over. He grinned when he saw what she was looking at.

"Oh yes, that's exactly what you think it is." Michael replied. "Everyone loves using that thing on the range."

Johanneke took down from the shelf an M60E4 General Purpose Machine Gun. Descended from the original M60 'Pig' of Vietnam War fame, the weapon retained its grandfather's potent 7.62x51mm NATO chambering and quick-change barrel, but it was lighter, more reliable, and most importantly, designed to be used on the move, with its built-in foregrip and numerous accessory rails. This one, however, featured a new party piece- a suppressor.

"How much better is it with the suppressor?" Johanneke asked, hefting the large machine gun and shouldering it.

"Well, there's no muzzle flash anymore that'll make you blind from the control end. And while the noise you get with the suppressor isn't the quietest, it's still a big difference compared to the unsuppressed signature, and from the business end of things, it's harder to hear, since any noise still generated by the weapon is almost entirely directed towards the user, if at all." Michael said. "To be frank, it will sound a bit more like an assault rifle than a full-blown machine gun, so the opposition shouldn't have an exact idea as to what firepower they're up against, at least in theory."

"Cool. I think I'll take this one." said Johanneke with a grin, racking the charging handle and dry-firing the machine gun.

Meanwhile, Triela and Hilshire were browsing the shotguns on the wall. A look of worry furrowed Triela's face as she could not find anything that was similar to her pump-action Winchester M1897. It seemed this armory had decided almost entirely on semi-automatic or full-automatic shotguns, which she was very reluctant to use. To her, semi-automatics and full-automatics seemed complicated with too much potential for unreliability and malfunction, whereas weapons like her trusty Winchester were simple and were less likely to let her down in the middle of a firefight. If you ran into a bad shell, your hand was already on the pump, and all you needed to do was slide it back and forth without removing your weapon from the target to chamber what is hopefully a functioning shell.

"Hilshire, there's nothing here that I can use- they're all semi-or full-automatic." Triela complained.

"Beggars can't be choosers, Triela. You know that. Besides, even with replacement parts, your Winchester's not going to last forever. You never know when something will happen to it; maybe some Padanian will happen to get a lucky shot and blow it to pieces, and your Winchester will be a total loss and can't be replaced because it's logistically impractical to do so and you'll be forced to use something newer and a bit more technologically advanced."

"Like that'll ever happen." Triela scoffed. "You know what's more likely? My Winchester will outlast me."

At this, Hilshire went silent at the rather pessimistic thought. Triela was probably right, but he hated it when she spoke things like that. Maybe it was a way to get him to shut up, but it was a bad way of doing it. With a sigh, he gathered a few of the shotguns from the shelf and handed them to Triela.

"Even so, your Winchester isn't here with you. You need to work with what's available. Find what works for you, get your eye in, and stick with it."

"Fine, Hilshire. But it doesn't mean I have to like it."

"Hey Triela, check it out!" said Johanneke's voice from behind Hilshire, who stepped aside. Triela could see the short-haired blonde Afrikaner holding a fairly large and blackened blade, slowly swinging it through the air to get a feel for the balance of the weapon.

"I found a Bolo knife. Pretty sweet, huh?" Johanneke asked, prompting a smirk from Triela.

"Oh yeah. That's definitely you."

"Planning on taking point, I hope? There's tall grass that needs to be hacked away before we get to the target." Nathan said, peeking his head past one of the shelves.

"Oh, I'm planning more than just trimming the jungle's lawn with this baby..." Johanneke said with a smile.

Meanwhile, Erina browsed the shelves, seemingly unimpressed by the selection. "No Vectors or ACRs in here? Mike, I'm disappointed." she noted in a sort of teasing disapproval.

"Well sorry, your highness, but 'on-site procurement' applies to you, too." Michael shot back in the same tone. "Besides, we don't have spare parts for your fancy next-gen plastic space marine guns, so we don't have them in here. You're just gonna have to use a Heckler & Koch or something, like the rest of us commoners."

"Fine, but only because you're my friend, Mike," Erina replied with a smile before grabbing a Heckler & Koch UMP45 from the shelf, equipped with an Aimpoint CompM2 Red Dot Sight. "I suppose this will have to do." she said with a theatrical sigh.

Nearby, Allison and Brian browsed what seemed to be an entire wall full of Colt M16's, M4's and all their derivatives. They all had the same basic design, so the only way to tell them apart was to look at them up close, look at the barrel configuration, or have a look at the way various accessory rails and other components were presented on the weapon.

"They sure love the AR platform over here, don't they?" Allison asked.

"That they do." Brian replied. "From what I can remember, most folks here don't even call them an M4, M16, or what have you. Regardless of whoever makes it, they simply call in an 'Armalite'."

"Shows how ubiquitous it is, I suppose."

"Might as well pick one, Allie." Brian added, looking at his watch. "You're spoilt for choice as it is."

"I'd much rather have my Tavor, but we're supposed to procure on-site... fine. Let's at least make it the genuine article." relented Allison, reaching for a Colt M4A1 Carbine. This example had undergone the 'Special Operations Modification' (SOPMOD) treatment, and as a result, had a modular Rail Interface System (RIS) mounted where the front handguard previously was. Four accessory rails made up the RIS, upon which she could mount anything from lasers, to flashlights, to grips, and even underbarrel weapon systems like the M203 Grenade Launcher or the Remington 870-based KAC Masterkey shotgun system. The carrying handle had also notably been removed, revealing a 20mm accessory rail upon which an EOTech 552 HWS had been mounted, and both front and rear sights were replaced with fold-down backup units. A KAC quick-detach suppressor specifically built for the SOPMOD package was already affixed to the end of the barrel.

"This feels right," said Allison, hefting the carbine. "You pick something yet?"

"Thought I'd try something locally-made." Brian replied, pulling a FERFRANS Special Operations Assault Rifle (SOAR) from the shelf. The Irishman's selection distinguished itself from the other AR15-style weapons in front of them by bearing a built-in device known as a Rate Reduction System (RRS) that controlled the cyclic firing rate regardless of the weapon's barrel length, allowing the shooter to fire consistent controlled bursts without requiring a built-in burst-fire mechanism. Apart from that, the SOAR was essentially like the newer generation of AR15-based platforms that offered built-in accessory rails and a short-stroke piston system that improved reliability over the original direct-gas system of the Colt M16/M4 family.

"If there's no better proof that the locals love the AR platform than trying to produce one of their own, then there is no proof at all." Allison noted. "Question is, how's the quality?"

"Pretty excellent, given that it's mostly American-made." Michael piped in. "FERFRANS subcontracts other companies to supply the parts and stamp their logos on it. About the only thing indigenous on the SOAR is the RRS system, and even then, they've got someone doing the patent for them in the U.S. Market."

"Huh. I spoke too soon." said Brian. "Guess I better try this for myself at the range."

After the rescue team picked out the weapons they chose to try before deciding on a mission loadout, the six fratelli were once again guided outside into the humid Philippine climate to visit the outdoor firing range. The first thing they noticed, however, was that there weren't any of the traditional silhouette targets set up for them to use. In fact, no targets of any sort were set up.

"What are we supposed to shoot at?" Triela asked, holding a different type of shotgun in each arm.

"Got your targets right here!" announced Erina, and everyone turned to see her carting in several used water cooler jugs.

"You can't be serious." Triela protested. "How the hell are we supposed to get our eye in with those things?"

"Filling them with water and dye will do the trick. You hit these things; they'll react visibly, if nothing else. Besides, I've got something Lucy and I have been working on a little that I've been wanting to try." replied Erina, reaching to her eyepiece and depressing a small button. She spoke a command into the built-in microphone, activating the voice recognition software inside the eyepiece.

"Launch AR Draw Utility."

The screen on the eyepiece responded immediately, opening up a new interface on her screen. Picking up one of the jugs, she pressed the button again to speak another command.

"Scan object, determine absolute center-of-mass."

Broad lines swept across the diminutive screen as the Augmented Reality software built into Erina's advanced eyepiece scanned a comprehensive snapshot of the mundane object in her hands before a crosshair appeared and a single dot flashed where the water jug's center-of-mass was.

"Anyone have a permanent marker?"

"Here you go." replied Annette, offering a Sharpie marker to the CIA cyborg. Erina uncapped the marker and then began drawing a large black dot where her eyepiece's computer said the exact center was. She then went to draw more outer rings, forming a picture-perfect (if rudimentary) bullseye target.

"And there you go." said Erina, revealing her work. "So long as I repeat this process on the other jugs real quick, we'll have proper targets that leak when you shoot them properly, and we'll have our eyes in."

Erina fulfilled her promise, and soon, the range was alive with the echo of suppressed and unsuppressed gunfire. Downrange, as rounds struck their targets, the water jugs quivered with the force of the impacts, leaking water from the holes created as well as spewing liquid out their open tops when entire bursts hit.

Triela was experimenting with an MPS AA-12 automatic shotgun, loading a 10-round box magazine and racking the charging handle before shouldering the weapon and taking aim. Exhaling, she squeezed the trigger, and was met with a series of hammer blows from the combat shotgun's cyclic recoil that surprised her, but she quickly adjusted in time as the magazine ran dry. Without missing a beat, she locked back the charging handle and replaced the 10-round box magazine with a 32-round drum before slamming the bolt home and opening fire in bursts until the drum was empty and her target lay tattered downrange. With a sigh, 'The Princess' safed the weapon and placed it down, dissatisfied with its performance.

"Too unwieldy... Let's try this next one."

Triela picked up the next shotgun Hilshire had pulled from the shelf for her, an American-made Remington 1100 Tactical. This one was semi-automatic, and having to ready the weapon using a side-mounted charging handle made Triela still feel like she was operating anything but a shotgun. Despite her misgivings, she shouldered the weapon anyway and aimed at the second jug set out for her downrange and squeezed the trigger. A single shot was fired, sending a neat cluster of buckshot into the water jug. Triela continued firing until the 5-round tube magazine was empty, at which point she safed the American-made semi-auto and set it down.

"Better... But what about this last one?"

Triela reached for the final weapon, and noted immediately that it was branded 'Benelli'. She thought it unusual that the Americans would bring around an Italian-made weapon, but if they adopted Berettas for police and military use, there also had to be some reason the CIA would have a Benelli in their armory.

Michael, who was watching the various fratello try out their weapons, took note of Triela's current weapon and smiled as he went over to her. By the time he reached the most senior of the first-gens, she was already plugging away at her last target, but he gave her some advice.

"I think you'll like that one; tweak that ring on the front of the forearm."

Triela followed the CIA officer's suggestion before taking hold of the forearm, only to notice some give. Pulling on the forearm of the Benelli, she was surprised to find that it was actually a pump-action shotgun.

"Whoa!" exclaimed Triela. "I can switch between Semi-automatic and pump-action?"

"Select-fire of the best kind." replied Michael. "Lets you use low-powered rounds with the pump-action while higher-power rounds will cycle the semi-auto system."

"Oh, I am liking this!"

Triela proceeded to pop off a few rounds using the pump-action mechanism before quickly turning the knob in front of the pump to lock it and dumping the rest of the magazine on semi-automatic. She safed the weapon and held onto it, not placing it aside like the other two before it.

"I found the shotgun I want. It has to be the Benelli." Triela breathed. Hilshire came alongside her with a small smile.

"Think you might change over to that instead of your Winchester?" asked the German, causing Triela's excitement to wane as she tried to calm down.

"Y-yeah, right! Nothing will beat my trusty Winchester, I assure you. But if—and that's a very big 'if'—my Winchester fails, the Benelli M3 would be my next choice." Triela asserted, trying to rein in her perceived infidelity against her usual weapon.

"Hell yeah! Rock n' Roll!" boomed a voice from the firing lane next to them. Triela turned to see Johanneke opening up her suppressed M60E4 to load in another belt of 7.62x51 NATO. Beside her, Marcus smiled at his partner's jubilation while he reloaded his G36E's underbarrel AG36 grenade launcher. Snapping the breech closed, Marcus aimed through the grenade launcher's leaf sight and squeezed the grenade launcher's trigger, and about a second later, a water jug placed well downrange exploded in a maelstrom of plastic shrapnel and spraying water.

"That M60 treating you well, Johanneke?" asked Triela.

"Shoots like a dream, I kinda wanna take it home after this mission, and that hasn't even started yet!" replied the Afrikaner, slamming the top cover closed. "Time for another go!"

While Johanneke opened up on the targets downrange with her M60, Erina locked back the charging handle on her UMP45 before unloading the spent 30-round magazine. Beside her, Nathan did the same with his own UMP45, believing synchronity with his charge meant sharing the same weapons.

"Does it feel weird shooting an H&K?" Nathan asked out of curiosity.

"I haven't shot a Heckler & Koch gun in a long while, but I have to say it's kind of refreshing. I've almost forgotten what it means to deal with muzzle climb, however slight it may be. Shouldn't affect the mission, though."

"You planning on putting anything else on that thing?"

"Foregrip, at most. I want to keep this thing simple and leave the complicated stuff to the eyepiece."

"Then maybe you don't even need the EOTech?"

"Maybe. But I don't mind having it on. Even with my eyepiece, I wouldn't dare fire from the hip unless I can't extend my arms fully or shoulder a weapon."

"Shows I trained you well."

Handler and cyborg shared a brief smile before Michael interrupted them as he approached with a box that he held in his hands.

"I almost forgot, I have some mission equipment that you might like, Erina," said Michael.

"Lay it on me."

Michael opened the box to reveal a dozen cylindrical objects, one of which Erina removed to inspect, and she looked at it quizzically.

"Looks like a plain old flashbang to me."

"Do you see a safety lever on it?" Michael asked.

"No… Just a pin…" Erina replied, inspecting the stun grenade. "So how is this supposed to work? Are these blank-firing?"

"Try remotely-triggered," responded Michael with a grin. As he took the stun grenade in Erina's hand, he pointed to a small black plastic piece where a safety lever or 'spoon' would normally be. "See this? This is the receiver. All you gotta do is pull the hard plastic pin loose to close the circuit and get it ready, and you can safe it by pushing up that little tab in front of the pin area and re-inserting the pin."

"Can I set up multiple flashbangs and have them go off in sequence?" Erina asked.

"Or simultaneously." Michael replied, producing a peculiar-looking gauntlet-like device. "That's the responsibility of this second bit here. It's the remote trigger, and with it, you can set off up to six of these stun grenades at the same time. It also keeps track of the sequence in which the grenades have been armed so that you can plan accordingly. By the way, these modified flashbangs are based on Rheinmetall 9-bang devices, so you'll have a lot more stun time out of them."

"Very cool." Erina noted, looking at the remote and inspecting it. "Looks kinda clunky though. Beta version?"

"Well if we get time, we'll add GPS tracking combined with motion sensors and a touchpad so that it'll be possible to corral any hostiles into a specific route. We can also adapt the receiver system to standard frag and HE grenades."

"Keep me posted, Mike. I may yet make this part of my standard mission kit."

A few lanes down, Allison and Brian were advancing towards their targets, ripping off bursts from their respective AR-platform weapons until the bolt carriers locked back from after firing the last round in the magazine. Without pausing, they drew their Rock Island Armory 1911-A1 Tactical pistols, which were customized by the armorer with threaded barrels to accept the Gemtech Blackside 45 suppressors currently attached to them. Each shot rang out like a pneumatically driven nail gun due to the already-subsonic muzzle velocity of the .45ACP rounds used in the weapons, negating the need for any specially-loaded ammunition to render the suppressors effective.

As they closed in on their targets, Brian and Allison swapped fresh magazines into the grips of their sidearms and steadily plugged away with their pistols in hand until the slides locked back the moment the last spent casing flew out the ejection port.

"The locals sure know how to make a forty-five." Allison noted as she released the slide stop.

"They should—it had a significant role in Philippine history," said Brian, launching into a small history lesson. "Back when this place was an American colony won from the Spanish in the Spanish-American war, the U.S. was fighting the Philippine-American war, part of which was the Moro Rebellion, which occurred in this part of the country. The Americans discovered that both their .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen rifles and .38-caliber sidearms had no guts, and if you have a weapon that can't reliably knock down a charging, drugged-up, bolo-wielding Moro warrior, you need to get a better weapon with a more powerful round. John Moses Browning, the inventor of the M1911, was already working on a semi-auto designed around his .38 Colt Automatic cartridge, since he was working for Colt at the time. All he needed to do was a bit of re-engineering, and the great-grandfather of your Kimber, as well as the pistols we're using right now was born. And the design has not been changed ever since."

" 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' right?"


Meanwhile, back at the insurgent camp outside of Colonia, The Morettis were repeating Isabella's breathing exercises after yet another series of Braxton-Hicks contractions struck, sending the couple into a moment of panic. Ronaldo made every effort to calm his wife down, unaware they were being watched by Fadir. The terrorist, who was once a student at De La Salle University's Dasmariñas City campus under his former name of Juan Ignacio-Ramirez, had been sympathetic to what he saw as the plight of the Muslim people in the Southern regions of the Philippines, and his opinion often got him into arguments with his staunchly Catholic and Islamophobic father. Then, after publishing a well-written essay in support of Muslim autonomy that quickly got the wrong kind of attention from De La Salle University's faculty, Juan's father made the decision to disown his son and forced him to leave the family residence for good. Disgruntled, Juan traveled to Indonesia, where he converted to Islam under the guidance of a radical Imam, who gave him his new name of Fadir Al-Asad. After his conversion to Islam, Fadir joined an Abu Sayaaf cell, and after a few months' training in Yemen, he would go back to the Philippines and embark on a trail of violence that began with simple skirmishes against police and regular military. This eventually escalated into kidnappings and beheadings, usually of well-to-do businessmen, military officers, and police chiefs.

The primary common thread these activities had, however, was that the victims and opposition were exclusively male and Filipino. This was the first time his cell had abducted foreigners, and at that, a family-to-be with links to the Italian Prime Minister. Fadir had an unsettling feeling in his gut—he wasn't 100 percent behind this operation, and he had voiced his concern when Ahmed stated that he would make an example of the family if the Italians refused to pay for their ransom. That was the difference between him and Ahmed, he thought: at least he had a heart. Or was it more that Ahmed was a coward? He wasn't sure, but either way, killing women and children was not something Fadir had any stomach for. He could understand bombing government buildings and soldiers' barracks, but killing women and children in cold blood crossed a line he himself was not willing to step over.

With a sigh, Fadir entered the room, MAC-10 in hand as the Morettis snapped their heads up upon sensing his presence. Fadir glanced at them momentarily before turning to the two guards in the room.

"You two can leave. I would like to speak to our guests alone."

The two guards obeyed, and they left Fadir alone in the room with the Morettis, their eyes locked on the MAC-10 in his hand currently aimed in their general direction. Then, Fadir sat down across from them so that they were all face-to-face, Fadir resting the MAC-10 on his thigh while keeping it trained on the hostages in front of him. Then, much to the surprise of Isabella and Ronaldo, Fadir started speaking to them in excellent English.

"Certainly, you both must be wondering what we are planning to do to the both of you." Fadir began. "Nod your heads if you understand what I am saying."

The Morettis nodded, and Fadir continued. "Your kidnapping was financially-motivated; only Ahmed really cares about troops being removed from Afghanistan; I don't believe it affects us here in the Philippines. Now for the important part. We gave your government 96 hours to pay your ransom, and to us, the two of you alone are worth $10 million American Dollars. Now, I'm no doctor, but—Missus Moretti is it? You look like you're about to have your child anytime soon, am I right?"

Isabella nodded, confirming Fadir's observation. "Well, if your child is born during this ordeal, Ahmed said the ransom price shall go up, by how much, I do not know. What I do know is that if your government is unable to pay, he intends to kill all of you and make an example out of your entire family."

The Morettis gasped in unison, but Fadir held his free hand up to stop them going any further, and he glanced around before continuing. "Let me finish. I might be a terrorist by definition, but I don't approve of killing women and children. Which is why I intend to help you all escape if things go badly."

"How are we supposed to trust you?" whispered Ronaldo guardedly. "How do we know you're not lying to us?"

"Why should we even listen to what you have to say?" added Isabella.

"Because neither of you are in any position to question me right now." replied Fadir, gesturing to the MAC-10 in his hand. "Regardless of my intentions, I am still the man with the gun here, so I recommend you give me your full attention."

The Morettis swallowed and nodded, allowing Fadir to go on.

"Now then, if Ahmed decides to attempt to execute you, I can only do one thing, and that is to start shooting. You hear any gunfire, that's your cue to leave."

"How can we leave if we're under armed guard?" asked Isabella.

"Because those guards will be shooting at me. Now that window behind you faces north…"

Back at the garrison in Isabela City, the rescue team had spent enough cartridges on their weapons to be familiar with their operation and shoot them accurately. Since their mission would not be taking place until nighttime, however, there would be a few hours to kill before they had to deploy. Given the length of their flight over, those hours would be best spent sleeping to attempt to recover from the jetlag incurred, at least for most people. However, considering that the rescue team was composed of multimillion-dollar cyborgs and mostly former military personnel focused on an extremely important mission, jetlag or not, they would have to deploy during the darkest hours of the night, and the best they could do was make a choice between feeding themselves to store energy or conserving energy by taking an extended nap. Hilshire, Marcus, and Sarah opted for the latter choice, though their cyborgs notably did not. As for the others, Jean chose to pore over the mission details again and re-check the maps along with Nathan, Erina, and Michael while Rico sat nearby cleaning the Mk 14 Mod 0 Enhanced Battle Rifle that Jean had pulled down from the armory wall for her to use, while Allison and Brian did the same with their AR-platform weapons. As the other four checked over the satellite images, Erina turned to her knapsack of goodies to retrieve another snack, and was momentarily puzzled to find nothing inside.

"Aw man, I'm out of food already?" Erina wondered aloud, her stomach then grumbling. The sound drew Nathan's attention as he brought his head up from the map laid out in front of them.

"Sounds like it's time for dinner, then." said the young American, turning to his friend. "Ketchup, you know any good places to get food around here?"

"Plenty." replied the Basilan case officer, getting up to stretch his legs. "There's definitely a few places that will serve pork and beef, but those aren't as prolific given the amount of Muslims in this region. But they still serve excellent eats nonetheless. Anything you guys want in particular while I'm out?"

"Actually, I was thinking of sending some of our team with you, Mr. Heinz." replied Jean, then turning to Brian, the only other handler in the room aside from himself and Nathan. "Brian, you and Allison can accompany Mr. Heinz—the cyborgs eat a lot, and he'll need to carry a meal large enough for all of us back here. Don't let him do it by himself."

"All right then." replied Brian, closing the upper and lower receivers of his SOAR. "I'm just about done cleaning my primary." he added, racking the charging handle and performing a function check. Allison did the same next to him before setting down her M4 on the table in front of her.

"Go with them, Erina." added Nathan. "Pick up some stuff to take back to the dorms when we leave for Italy. Actually, pick up plenty of stuff, so that the goodies don't disappear so fast when we arrive back home."

"What's my limit?"

"No more than fifty USD equivalent."

"Plenty to work with!" finished Erina with a grin. "C'mon guys, let's boogie!"

A few minutes later, the buzz of two-stroke motors from a pair of motorized rickshaws (locally-made Trisikels composed of a Japanese motorcycle and a home-built sidecar designed to seat two or more passengers) heralded the McDonnells' as well as Erina and Michael's approach towards the Isabela City public market. As they rode through the streets of Isabela

City, Brian and Allison took note of the Philippine military consistently on patrol, with army trucks every two or three blocks passing by, loaded with soldiers armed to the teeth with assault rifles and belt-fed machine guns. It was a sight indicative of the tense sociopolitical climate currently presiding over Basilan, and for Brian, it reminded him of his childhood in Belfast, seeing 6x6 Land Rover Defenders operated by the British Army patrolling the streets during 'The Troubles'.

Finally arriving at the market, Michael paid the group's drivers their fare plus a considerable extra to wait for them as they went to pick up food and snacks. Before they entered the market itself, Michael turned to the rest of the group and issued a few orders.

"Here's how we'll do this: Brian and I will go get the main courses and drinks, while you, Erina, will team up with Allison and find all manner of sweets, snacks, street food, and desserts. Meet back here in fifteen minutes, call me if you get lost."

"Sounds like a plan." Erina replied.

"Divide and conquer, folks."

With that, the group split up to search anything that would be worth adding to what would turn into a small banquet for their dinner. Allison and Erina went to hunt down dessert, appetizers in the form of street food and snacks, and of course, a sufficient quantity of local delights that they could bring back to the compound after the mission was over. Within those 15 minutes they were allotted, the girls amassed a large shopping list of items that now sat inside plastic bags, tubs lined with ice, or Styrofoam containers, all of them sweet, or salty, or otherwise savory in taste. Despite the busy atmosphere and constant movement surrounding them, Erina was perfectly able to backtrace hers and Allison's steps to the designated meeting area when Allison suddenly realized that she had no idea where in the market they were located, and took out her iPhone in preparation to ask her shopping buddy for Michael's number after having taken so many twists and turns in an unfamiliar and crowded space.

As they approached the market entrance, Allison and Erina picked Michael and Brian out of the crowd, and from the distance they were at, the girls could smell the aroma of freshly-steamed rice, and meat that had been cooked in some sort of marinade which bore a hint of vinegar and soy sauce with notes of bay leaf, garlic, and black pepper. Their mouths salivated in anticipation, and as they got closer, they could smell even more delicious food.

"You two find everything all right?" Brian asked when they met up.

"We certainly did; I think we may all get fat tonight and have to burn it off on the mission… and then everyone else will get fat with the stuff we bring back!" Allison replied, sharing a giggle with Erina.

"Well, let's not let the food get cold. Back to the garrison." said Michael.

Piling back into the Trisikels, the group roared back to the garrison with their purchased bounty, once again riding past the large military presence on the streets of Isabela City before arriving at their destination, Michael paying the Trisikel drivers and tipping them generously for their time.

As the four walked back into the planning room, the smell of dinner permeated the air, and Rico, napping with her body pillow, was the first to notice, as the aroma of the food the group had brought back tickled her nostrils and sent a cue to her brain to rise from her slumber.

"Mmf… is that dinner I smell?" Rico asked, causing Nathan and Jean to look up from the maps they were studying.

"Back already, huh." Jean noted.

"We didn't have to go far into the market to find what we were looking for." Michael replied. "Now how about we clear off the table and ring the dinner bell? This stuff is best while it's still hot or warm."

In short order, the mission planning room was turned into an impromptu dining room, the purchased meals presented in a manner that resembled a buffet or banquet table, properly arranged to attract and entice those who came into the room. The other handlers and cyborgs soon arrived, and were amazed at what they saw.

"Wow." Triela breathed. "It all looks so good!"

"It tastes even better." Michael assured. "Don't be shy, grab a plate and dig in!"

As the rescue team and their host settled into dinner, almost everyone had something to say about the dishes they were giving a try. The first one to inquire was Sarah Golan, at present munching on what appeared to be a deep-fried banana on a barbecue skewer.

"This is delicious!" Sarah exclaimed. "What is this called, again? 'Banana Cue?'"

"That it is, Miss Golan." replied Michael. "The locals make it by frying a plantain banana in oil and then throw brown sugar over it before pulling it out, resulting in the caramelized brown coating. It's some really simple street food enjoyed by just about everyone in the cities."

"This soup is like nothing I've ever tried." said Johanneke. "It's got this sour, almost tart and tangy taste to it, and that taste really soaks into… what is it, Chinese cabbage?"

"Bok Choy is the proper name… and that soup you're having is Sinigang na Baboy, a soup that gets its flavor from the Tamarind fruit. Your variation uses pork for the meat, though others use fish, beef, or chicken." Michael explained, earning an approving look from the Afrikaner.

"This stew and these rice cakes go pretty well together." Triela noted. "What's this stuff called?"

"Ah, that would be Dinuguan and Puto, respectively." Michael replied. "Puto, by the way, has nothing to do whatsoever with Spanish profanity in this context."

"And Dinuguan?" Triela inquired further.

"Ah, yes. That stew is made up of various cuts of pork, garlic, chili, vinegar, and pig blood."

Triela went silent when she heard the last ingredient and froze mid-chew, looking at the black substance she had been so eagerly dipping puto into. Knowing what it was composed of made her hesitate to go any further. Pig blood? Gross! Maybe ignorance was bliss in this situation, after all!

Then, a voice next to her interrupted her train of thought to play Devil's Advocate. "Come now, Triela. Surely, that's not the absolutely worst thing you've eaten." Hilshire said. "Can't be any worse than 'Wacky Wednesdays,' right?"

Thinking about the theme day for culinary crossovers that occurred weekly at the cafeteria back home, Triela saw the validity in her handler's statement. "You're right. I have had worse than this." Triela responded before pressing on with the consumption of the pig blood stew.

As the sun continued to set, the group got past their entrees and moved onto dessert, which featured local delicacies such as Halo-Halo (fruits and boiled sweet beans mixed with shaved ice and evaporated milk) and Leche Flan, which was a heavier version of the Spanish dessert of the same name. Other sweets rounded out the dessert menu, ranging from traditional homemade sweets like Polvoron to popular domestic candies like 'Choc-Nut', both of which they would be taking back home in quantity to the SWA.

Bellies full and hunger sated, the adults rounded out their meal with a round of coffee while the cyborgs took the time to relax and let their metabolisms go to work. A few even went to sleep, like Rico did, entrusting their handlers to wake them up in time for mission preparation.

Others like Erina, however, were planning on staying awake, feeling they'd gotten enough sleep on the flights from London to Hong Kong and Manila. In addition, Erina felt an obligation to put her brain to work with the mission planning in order to provide a return on the investment the American people were most likely unaware they had made on her and the technology she had been imbued with. She approached Nathan and Jean, who had cleared an end of the table to continue planning for the mission that would take place later that evening.

"Excuse me, Erina, but we're busy here." Jean began brusquely. "No cyborgs allowed with mission planning."

"Actually Jean, I would let her in on this." Nathan said. "Gotta put that brain of hers to work, and she's as bright as they come."

"No. Mission planning has, and if I can help it, always will be a handlers-and-staff-only affair."

"Ahem—Operation Copperhead ring a bell?"

"Only because the Chief considered it. But I'm the senior officer on this mission, and what I say goes."

Nathan could see he was getting nowhere. He motioned Erina over and whispered into her ear.

"Go ask Michael for copies of the satellite photos and maps. Use every intel resource available to you and come back with a plan drawn up on the maps. Take as much time as you need."

Erina nodded as she pulled away and turned to go find Michael. If Jean wasn't willing to share, that was no problem—this was a joint operation with the CIA, to a certain extent, and she was technically answerable to them as much as to the SWA. And since the CIA were the ones who had furnished the information for the op, it wasn't much of a stretch for her to go over Jean's head and do some mission planning, herself.

She found Michael cleaning the last of the dishes in a sink down the hall and was able to speak to him as he was drying his hands on an apron that read: "I could tell you what's in the special sauce, but then I'd have to kill you."

"Mike, could I ask a favor of you?" Erina began.

"Always." Michael replied. "How can I help you?"

"I need maps of the AO and all the information we have on the area as well as the kind of guys on the ground, from the hostages, to the opposition, and our own forces. I need to know everything from the firepower we're up against to what kind of terrain we'll be going through, and the weather forecast at the time of the op. I'm going to piece this all together into a workable three-phase battle plan which if properly-executed, should go off without a hitch."

"Better hope Murphy's asleep, Erina. Besides, you know what they say. 'No plan survives first contact with the enemy'."

"That's not going to stop me from trying to bulletproof it. They taught me at The Farm that knowledge is as important as firepower, in some cases, even more so. Though, given that it's kinda my job to shoot whatever Nate, the SWA, or the CIA tells me to shoot, I don't think this job can be resolved without firing a shot."

"The time is long since past for any attempt at hostage negotiations. Out here, you 'negotiate' with bullets."

"I have always found that flying lead is a universal language, anyway."

"Right. Let me get you those maps and a Sharpie…"

In short order, Erina found herself at a desk going back and forth between multiple sheets of paper and three copies of the satellite photography taken over the camp where the Morettis were being held hostage. The synapses in her brain fired rapidly, brain cells trading information back and forth faster than any broadband connection as she took stock of the intel laid out before her, analyzed it, and began applying notes and figures to each satellite photo, indicating positions and movements much like play directions in an American Football playbook. Every bit of information she had at her disposal was used to help her script a mission plan, with each movement choreographed and cued by actions that would be taken. Granted, all these would really amount to would be a suggestion, but the plan was solid, from insertion, to the assault and rescue, and the extraction. Every fact and figure that Erina learned from the sheets of paper Michael gave her was factored in, even down to the wind direction at the time of insertion, which would factor into sound and scent traveling towards the camp, something they would need to know in order to keep up the element of surprise. Erina was careful to ensure that she would factor flexibility into her plan, knowing that at some point, the choreography would certainly be interrupted by some x-factor. But for now, at least, the plan was shaping up to be a good one.

Fifteen minutes later, Erina got up from her desk and walked back down the hallway to Jean and Nathan, the latter simply staying there to see what Jean could come up with. As Jean continued to talk, his eyes focused on the maps before him, Erina silently crept into the room, handed off her ideas to Nathan, and then quietly slipped back out. Nathan in turn passed on the completed notes to Jean, who stopped mid-sentence when he saw the plans Erina had drawn up.

"What's this?" Jean asked.

"I had Erina try her hand at drawing up a mission plan separately from us. This is what she came up with."

"I thought I specifically said 'No cyborgs allowed with mission planning.' Do you not listen, Nathan?"

"Sir, with all due respect, I implore you to look at the damn plan. We've been spending a few hours here getting very little done in the way of mission planning. Meanwhile, Erina used all the resources and information available to her—and let us not forget, her cybernetic implants—to come up with a plan factoring in each and every little bit of information available to her in the span of a mere 15 minutes. Now, please look at the plan objectively. Is it solid, are there any flaws you can see?"

Jean remained silent as he looked over the three maps with superimposed notes, indicating everything from positions of their team, on-site assets, the opposing forces, and the hostages, and arrows indicating directions of movement, plus starbursts indicating deployment of the stun grenades she had been issued, and cones and dotted lines indicating fields of fire and direction. A mission timeline had been included on each sheet, indicating what moves were to be made when. The plan was painstakingly detailed, well thought out, and only subject to on-site changes, which was typical of any plan. All of these qualities were present, and Jean saw a very excellent plan, which he was also loathe to admit.

"Well?" Nathan asked.

"…It's a very good plan. No holes in it; I might even say Erina was thorough in planning it." Jean admitted begrudgingly.

"You have any better ideas than this plan?"

"No." Jean conceded. "And now that we have a plan, we need to brief the handlers."

It was 10PM local time when the rescue team began outfitting themselves for the mission. With the handlers briefed, the fratello were now getting their weapons and equipment ready for deployment into the Philippine jungle. All of them now wore military clothing consisting of Black Tiger Stripe pattern Battle Dress Uniforms accompanied by black jungle boots that went halfway up the shin. While most of the uniforms and boots fit acceptably well on the persons now wearing them, some of the uniforms had to be altered and adjusted for size, like those that Rico and Triela wore. Each uniform bore a subdued American flag shoulder patch that would further mask their true identities. Now, as the handlers and the girls 'suited up', cyborgs and handlers who did not have special forces experience were trying their hand at applying camouflage paint to their faces, guided by experts Brian, Nathan, and Marcus, all three of whom still remembered the proper way to break up the outline of the human face. Allison also taught her sister cyborgs how to apply camo paint, since Brian's survival training also included a lesson on camouflage. First and foremost was darkening one's naturally bright skin tone, which Allison accomplished by applying a generous layer of olive drab grease paint all over her face, neck, and her ears. She then did the same for Rico, who sat perfectly still while Allison did her work. Nearby, Erina did the same for Annette, and Johanneke helped Triela apply the finer details of her face camouflage.

"Hey, do you guys think Kara would ever give this a try? Applying camouflage facepaint, that is?" Allison wondered to her friends.

"I don't think she'd like it very much." Johanneke replied, applying one of several diagonal black stripes to Triela's face. "This isn't the most fashionable thing in the world, exactly, and more than a little different from applying makeup."

"Hmm… for all we know, 'Operator chic' might become a fashion trend sometime in the future if all the fashionistas decide tactical gear is 'in'." Erina mused before breaking into a smile. "I mean, Miguel Caballero is already ahead of the curve. I can already see it at some fashion show or in the pages of a magazine like GQ—'He wears: MC Black Collar shirt by Miguel Caballero/Ballistic Point Sunglasses by Numa Optics/ S.I. Assault boots by Oakley/ Rhodesian Recon Vest by Eagle Industries/ TacLite Pro Mens Ripstop pants by 5.11/ OD Tactical thigh holster by Armani.'"

Triela had a bit of a chuckle at Erina's proposed caption. "Oh yeah? What about ladies?"

"That's where the designers really jump in." Erina replied. "Imagine—'She wears: Ballistic sunglasses by Dolce & Gabbana/Type IIIA concealable ballistic vest by Burberry/Tactical MOLLE Crossdraw vest by Yves Saint Laurent/Tactical Cordura shoulder bag by Louis Vuitton/Womens Ripstop Tactical pants by Gucci/Tan Hot weather assault boots by Christian Louboutin.'"

"Heh. 'Tactical Gear for the fashion-conscious door-kicker.' I like it." Johanneke said with a chuckle.

A few minutes later, the girls and their handlers had finished applying camouflage paint to their faces and quickly checked one another to ensure no parts of their faces would stand out in the darkness of the Philippine Jungle at night. Then, they gathered around the planning table to assign roles to each pair, and walk through the entire plan for the mission.

"All right, everyone. This is a three-phase operation." Jean began as he laid down the first map, pointing to figures and locations as he spoke. "First, insertion. We deploy by helicopter to a location 4 klicks southeast of the target area. From there, we cut our way through the bush until we reach an RZ less than a klick away from the camp, where we link up with the on-site sniper team, callsign Ratel."

Jean shifted to the second map. "Phase two, assault. There will be at least two guards patrolling outside the perimeter of the camp. Marcus, you and Johanneke will sneak up and take them out quietly, while the snipers on-site will deal with the ones in the towers a few more hundred meters away. Then, we move up and into the camp itself. Here, Rico and I will take position in one of the towers and provide overwatch on one side of the camp while the sniper team takes the other tower. The rest of you will split accordingly: I want Erina and Triela breaching the front of the structure where the Morettis are being held while Hilshire and Nathan come through the back. Brian, you and Allison team up with Marcus and flush the enemy from these sleeping quarters into the open; Johanneke, you will partner with Sarah and Annette and do the same to the sleeping quarters across from it. Flashbangs will be deployed at the indicated locations—do not, under any circumstances, allow harm to come to the Morettis. This phase should take no longer than ten minutes, fifteen at most. Be as quick as possible, while also being thorough."

Jean brought out the third map. "Phase three, extraction. We will go out the way we came in, but before we leave, we rig the camp to blow. Erina, Nathan, Marcus, and Johanneke will place explosives in their weapons cache and fuel tank. I then want Triela and Johanneke on point as we walk the Morettis out to the LZ. We will move as quick as we can, which means that Mrs. Moretti may have to be carried on a stretcher, so I want Sarah and Annette to be ready for that possibility. Any questions?"

Brian raised his hand. "I assume a fast-rope insertion, then?"

"Correct. Any more questions?" Jean asked. Seeing no more raised hands, he concluded the planning. "All right then. We're in the air in five minutes."

Five minutes after the conclusion of the briefing, the rescue team had boarded an MH-60L Black Hawk borrowed from the US Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), some of whose pilots and aircraft were tagging along with the Green Berets for cross-training with Philippine Special Forces. Now, as they flew over the Philippine jungle, not a single word was exchanged due to lack of any topic for conversation. There was however, food, as Erina demonstrated by pulling a pair of what seemed like hard-boiled eggs from many folds of cloth inside her knapsack. She handed one to Allison just as Triela asked what they were eating.

"Another snack?"

"Just something we didn't get around to scarfing down at dinner." Erina replied.

"I've only read about this. Now I get to try it." Allison added, tapping away at the eggshell with her finger.

"What's it called?"

"The locals call it balut."

"What is it, exactly?"

"You'll see."

Erina managed to chip away a large portion of the eggshell, revealing some kind of grotesque mass that didn't look like it was food at all.

"Ewww! What in the world am I looking at?"

"Fertilized duck embryo, boiled alive in the shell. It's a Southeast Asian delicacy."

"Looks even more unappetizing than that dinuguan I had earlier. You two aren't seriously going to eat that stuff, will you? It doesn't even look edible."

Allison and Erina simply looked at each other before placing the partially open eggs to their lips and tilting their heads back to ingest the contents of their duck eggs, causing Triela's eyes to widen before she wrinkled her face in disgust.

"How was it?" she finally asked.

"Bit too chewy for my tastes." Allison replied.

"Eh. Mine was a bit salty." Erina added. "Wouldn't recommend it, honestly."

Their snacks consumed, Allison and Erina tossed the shells overboard into the jungle below as the Black Hawk continued towards their destination. Meanwhile, Brian sat in one of the jump seats, mulling over what was to come in just a few minutes. They were inserting via fast rope descent, something that he had not done in several years. The last time he had been on a rope dangling from a helicopter was also when his SAS career came to something of an abrupt end. It was a routine training exercise, not even a combat situation, but that certainly didn't stop Murphy from striking that day.

The Lynx slowed to a hover over the target building as Brian, legs dangling just over the port side landing skid. Two spots beside him sat his old mate Michael McMillan holding the abseil rope as the helo righted itself. As soon as the Lynx was steady, Mike threw the thick rope overboard, held to the helicopter by the outboard anchor as it uncoiled into a relatively straight line. McMillan, having thrown the rope, hopped on it first, sliding down to the roof of the objective in full kit with practiced ease. The squad member next to him also did the same, leaving Brian to take the rope next. Taking the rope and leaning out over the landing skid, Brian pushed off and began to slide down, and he was halfway down the rope when it suddenly went slack as the anchoring point suddenly gave way, and the 'Belfast Bastard' plunged 12 feet to the roof below, a look of disbelief crossing his face as he fell before landing abruptly on his back.

In the Lynx, the crew immediately stopped anyone else from descending down the starboard rope as a precaution.

"Abort! We've got a man down! Someone radio for an ambulance!"

Down on the roof, Brian lay immobilized as McMillan and the other 'squaddie' rushed to his aid.

"Brian! Brian, are you all right?" shouted Michael as he crouched down next to the Ulsterman.

His vision blurred and swimmy and hearing drastically affected, Brian slowly turned his head, trying to focus on the muffled shouts of the Scotsman next to him.

"I can't feel m'legs, mate…" Brian reported; there had been a sharp pain upon impact and then nothing from the waist down since.

"All right, don't try to move any further, we're getting help!" Mike reassured. His words fell on deaf ears, however, as it was at that moment that Brian had faded into unconsciousness.

Looking back on that day, Brian knew it was a risk that came with the territory of that particular line of work, and that he was lucky compared to others who have gone through a similar experience. Nevertheless, that accident effectively ended his career in the SAS, with Mike taking charge while he was laid up in the hospital, and Brian himself getting honorably discharged just as he was getting back into fighting fit condition. His mother Claire visited him often throughout his recovery, and it was probably her presence that truly helped him to get through the stress and pain of physical therapy and rehabilitation. However, Brian had a feeling that the news of his accident probably made his mother lose a few years off of her lifespan.

Brian was drawn from his thoughts when the pilots announced they were thirty seconds out from the LZ, and everyone stood to. Triela took hold of the coiled abseil rope and prepared to throw it overboard on the port side while Johanneke prepared to deploy the one on the starboard side. As they approached the LZ, the pilots flared the Black Hawk to slow it down before the ropes were deployed, and Johanneke and Triela descended first, weapons slung on their backs. On his side, Allison descended next, giving Brian a thumbs up before she took hold of the rope and descended. Brian watched as his younger sister slid down smoothly and effortlessly, no signs of anything about to give way. The moment she hopped off to go and temporarily secure the area, it was Brian's turn to take the rope. This was his first fast rope insertion ever since his last day in the SAS, and Brian had that lingering, tiny little ball of doubt about his safety. Still, there was a mission to be done, so he swallowed his fear, made his peace with the Lord, and took hold of the rope and descended.

It took about 5 seconds for Brian to reach the ground, and it had been an uneventful descent, not even any beginnings of rope burn. Brian was relieved, and he had finally regained that little bit of confidence he had lost. The rest of the team descended as well, and the ropes were detached from the helicopter as it banked away from the LZ while Marcus and Johanneke collected the ropes. Erina, meanwhile, figured out their direction of travel via her eyepiece as well as map and compass.

"This way." She said, pointing in a northwestern direction. Johanneke took the lead, brandishing her bolo knife and slashing through the tall grass. The group traveled in a diamond pattern, with Johanneke and Marcus up front, Triela and Hilshire covering the left, Jean and Rico keeping watch on the right, and Allison and Brian took care of rear security. They continued cutting their way through the jungle in this fashion for a few kilometers until Erina held her fist up, signaling the rest of the group to stop. Her eyepiece indicated that they had reached the waypoint for the rendezvous. Prompted by this, she went to raise the sniper team on the radio.

"Ratel, this is Wolf Pack. We are at the rendezvous point, over."

A few moments passed in silence. Puzzled, Erina tried again.

"Ratel, this is Wolf Pack. We are at the rendezvous point, do you read, over?"

The team was on edge now. The mission was possibly compromised if the sniper team didn't contact them soon. As Erina was about to try a third time, Ratel finally responded.

"Wolf Pack, this is Ratel, sorry for the late response, we had the radio turned down. We copy on your status; we'll be with you in a second, over."

A moment later, two figures materialized from the darkness, covered in the quintessential ghillie suits utilized by United States Marine Corps Scout Snipers. One carried a suppressed Remington MSR sniper rifle while his spotter held a suppressed M4A1 kitted out with various attachments.

"You guys have a sitrep for us?" Nathan asked.

"Situation remains the same, the packages haven't been moved from their room, and the place is still teeming with tangoes." replied the sniper.

"Enemy numbers?"

"We counted thirty hostiles. Most of them are in their living quarters, five of them are guarding the packages and about five more guarding the perimeter." the spotter reported.

"Weapons?" asked Erina.

"Small arms, at least the ones we could see. Mostly some old M16's and CAR-15's, but there's a couple with AK's and at least one PKM. We don't know what's in their armory, though."

"Best not to let them get to it, then." Erina replied. At that moment, the wind blew harshly, and the first patters of rain started to fall.

"Right on schedule. The weather's moving in, let's get a move on while we can still use it as concealment."

Jean was going to reprimand the American-built cyborg for speaking out of turn, but quickly agreed instead. "What she said. Let's move."

As the rain began to intensify with each passing second, the sniper team led the rescue team towards the terrorist camp, halting a certain distance from the perimeter where the guards' patrol distance reached its limit. The sky had truly begun to open up now, and the first flash of lightning was followed several seconds later by the boom of thunder. The ensuing downpour had an effect on the behavior of the guards patrolling on foot, as they were in no mood to be out of cover from the offending raindrops. They turned around and sought shelter indoors, altering the original plan a tiny bit.

"Marcus, you and Johanneke take out the guards in the towers so that Rico and the snipers can provide overwatch. Do it quietly."

"On it," replied the Maori, who nodded to his younger charge, who set down her M60E4. The two set off, creeping silently through the grass, using the weather to mask the noise of their movement. It helped that the guards manning the towers were being negligent, looking the wrong way with the assumption anyone intending to come to the camp would wait until it was dry and calm to visit. Their ignorance was exploited for all it was worth as Marcus and Johanneke made it to the ladders under each tower and began climbing, careful not to jostle the structure and alert the guards to their presence. It was slow, tense work, but when they reached the top, the guards were undisturbed and still unaware of their presence; optimal conditions to surprise the enemy with the savagery the fratello was about to inflict.

Marcus and Johanneke both eased themselves onto the platforms of the guard towers and approached their quarries. Marcus unsheathed a Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife, and with the speed of a Cobra's strike, took the guard from behind and clamped a gloved hand over his opponent's mouth and stabbed the insurgent through the heart before withdrawing his blade to slash his throat, and then made a final stab at the base of the insurgent's skull, piercing the medulla oblongata and ceasing the his motor functions as he fell limp.

Johanneke's kill was more violent, using her bolo to simultaneously disarm and dismember her target before forcing him to the floor and severing his head with one quick stroke. She had more difficulty keeping the guard silent, but the thunder that boomed (hopefully) drowned out his very brief cry of surprise before her bolo knife separated his head from his shoulders. It was not a clean kill like her handler had done, and soon, blood soiled the rainwater pooling on the platform of the guard tower. Their kills done, Marcus and Johanneke checked to make sure no one in the camp was looking in the direction of the guard towers before unceremoniously dumping the bodies (and body parts) over the side or through the access hole and signaling to the rest of the rescue team hiding in the treeline to move up. As they regrouped at the camp entrance, Marcus and Johanneke descended the ladders before joining the group, Annette handing Johanneke her M60 back as Erina handed out her remote-control stun grenades to anyone else who would be breaching.

"When you're in position, remove the pin to arm them and deploy on my mark." Erina instructed. "These have to go off at the same time, and I'll set the detonator up to do so. Once they go off, weapons free."

Erina then paused a moment before turning to Jean. "Sorry, Commander Croce. Was there anything else you needed to add?"

"Don't miss." stated Jean firmly. "Now, to your positions."

While the rescue team scattered themselves into the insurgent camp outside, Ahmed was getting off the phone with a negotiator inside the main building where the Morettis were being held captive.

"PUTANG-INA!" Ahmed cursed, throwing the satellite phone.

"What's the problem, Ahmed?" queried Fadir.

"The infidels are asking for more time to get the money together. Do they think I am an idiot? Do they not take my threats seriously?"

"Maybe they really do need more time to get the money together, Ahmed. Remember that you are negotiating with a government; they are slow and ponderous in their decision-making."

"They are LYING to me, Fadir! They are lying and stalling so that they can send their soldiers to kill us all ! I won't stand for that. We will kill the hostages first, and we will send the infidels a message in doing so."

Fadir stiffened. Ahmed was really going to kill the Morettis. Remembering his promise to them, Fadir went to grab his MAC-10 but found his hand abruptly and painfully stopped just inches away when a combat knife was driven through the back of his hand and into the table. Managing to avoid crying out in pain, Fadir grimaced as his situation continued to deteriorate when Ahmed jammed the muzzle of a Browning Hi-Power against his right temple.

"My suspicions about you were correct, Fadir. You didn't seem to support this idea very much, and I suspected you might betray me."

"Only because I don't believe in killing women and children, Ahmed."Fadir stated in his defense."The moment you cross that line, you are no worse than trash, in my eyes.""You are a coward and a traitor, Fadir!"Ahmed roared."If you believed in our cause, you would understand that we spare no mercy for infidels! And when you join them in death, you will receive no mercy, just like them."

Ahmed then turned to one of his more obedient subordinates.

"Restrain him and then get the camera. We end this tonight."

Outside, the team had spread out, making their way to their assigned positions. The few lone insurgents that were out and about were dispatched from long distance by Rico or the Marine snipers, and the bodies were quickly hidden. Now, as Erina and Triela took their place at the front of the primary target structure while their handlers circled around the back, Erina activated her remotely-triggered stun grenade, removing the plastic pin which closed a circuit and turned on a small red LED that confirmed it was functioning, and a green LED on her wrist-mounted trigger lit up to confirm the signal. She then keyed the 'talk' button on her throat mic to check in with the others.

"Team 1 is set to breach, over." An additional LED belonging to Hilshire and Nathan's flashbang glowed green.

"Team 2 is in position, over." Radioed Brian.

"Team 3 is set to go, over." Sarah added, a fourth green LED glowing to confirm all flashbangs were active.

Across from Erina, Triela pulled back the charging handle on her Benelli slightly to ensure that a Hatton breaching shell was in battery. The first three shells to be fired and cycled were Hatton rounds meant to destroy the hinges and lock of the door in front of them, followed by double-ought buckshot to deal with opponents inside. Once her Benelli ran dry, she would switch to her M1911, simply because there would be no time to reload.

"All teams standby." Radioed Erina. "Wait for my mark, over."

Receiving a series of two clicks from each team as acknowledgment, Erina extended a fiber-optic 'snake cam' scope from her eyepiece and tucked the lens under the crack of the door. Immediately, she saw several pairs of feet traveling towards the back of the corridor, whereupon they turned right to enter a room. Hearing voices coming from the small window behind her, Erina took the snake cam and repositioned it on the windowsill and panned the lens about. She found the Morettis sitting off to one side while another man dressed similarly to the insurgents was on his knees, hands bound behind his back while another insurgent who appeared to be the leader read passages from the Quran as several other insurgents stood on either side of him. Another insurgent appeared to be capturing the whole thing on video. Just as Erina came to the conclusion that an execution was being taped, the reader brandished a Bolo of his own and raised it above the bound man's head.

"Allahu Akbar!"

The blade came down, and Erina winced at the sight. Inside, the Morettis gasped in shock, seeing Fadir beheaded on the spot. Their potential savior was dead, and fear gripped them once again as two of the other insurgents grabbed the couple and pulled them in front of Ahmed, who ordered them to get down on their knees.

"Shit!" Erina swore as she retracted the snake cam. Keying her throat mic as she prepared to lob the stun grenade through the window, she barked out her orders.

"All teams deploy flash on 'three'! One…two…THREE!"

Simultaneously, four stun grenades were lobbed into their targets, and Erina punched the trigger on her remote, setting off a series of loud, disorienting explosions one after the other across the camp as her hand moved down to her UMP. Triela quickly aimed and fired three breaching rounds into the door before twisting the fire selector to semi-automatic as she brought the door down with her shoulder and sprinted in, Erina hot on her heels. Triela turned left at the first room to clear it, blasting off shotgun rounds at disoriented insurgents while Erina continued to the room where the execution was taking place, and as she rounded the corner, time seemed to slow down as her so-called 'bullet time' ability kicked in. as she brought up her UMP, her EOTech immediately lined up with the first insurgent she saw, and she squeezed the trigger, snapping off a two-round burst that struck the insurgent's temple. Shifting her aim, she continued in similar fashion going clockwise, delivering precision double-taps on target, resulting in several headshots that neutralized all the tangoes in the room in the span of two seconds. However, the Morettis quickly used the diversion to make their escape before they could be stopped, and Erina had to radio to the handlers covering the rear.

"Nate! Packages headed your way!"

Luckily, Nathan and Hilshire were ready, and managed to restrain the Morettis, who struggled as the two handlers tried to get them to calm down.

"Mr. and Mrs. Moretti, calm down! We're here to rescue you!" shouted Nathan in English as Ronaldo thrashed about.

"Signora Moretti, your uncle sent us, you're safe now!" Hilshire added in Italian, which finally registered with Isabella as she stopped struggling.

Elsewhere in the camp, the other teams ambushed the escaping insurgents in a hail of suppressed gunfire as they filed out of their sleeping quarters. An extended burst from Johanneke's M60 cut most of them down, and Marcus mopped up the stragglers who sought shelter inside their sleeping quarters with his AG36. Nearby, Brian and Allison cleared out the armory, occupied by two surprised insurgents who were reaching for their weapons. Just as her M4 ran dry, another insurgent came charging at them with a knife, and Allison quickly whirled around, drew her 1911, and placed two rounds in his chest and a third in his head, dropping the man like a sack of bricks. Another one, apparently behind the first, had turned to run, but a bullet sent downrange by Rico finished him off.

"Team 2, armory cleared, over." Allison radioed.

"Team 3; sleeping quarters cleared, over." Sarah announced.

"This is Team 1; main building clear and packages secure. All teams regroup, over." Reported Erina.

As the handlers and cyborgs reunited at the main building, the adrenaline of the situation began to wear off, and Isabella sank to her knees, unable to stand for the stress of her situation and the heavy weight in her belly. She was breathing hard now, and Hilshire traded looks with Nathan, both sharing the uneasy notion that the operation they had just executed could result in some health complications for Mrs. Moretti. Jean walked up to her and used his calmest, most reassuring voice, speaking to her in Italian.

"Signora Moretti, are you able to walk?"

"Not really…" replied the pregnant former hostage with a shake of her head. "It feels as if I've lost all the strength in my legs."

"Don't worry, we can put you on a stretcher." Jean replied, then nodding to Annette and Sarah.

"So the prime minister sent you all to rescue us? Are you Italian, or American special forces?" Ronaldo asked as the two medics unfolded a portable stretcher to place his wife on.


"But your uniforms—"

"Provided to us by the Americans supporting us in this operation." Hilshire elaborated. "Part of the whole 'Global War on Terror' and all that."

"Hey, we'll meet you guys at the entrance, we just need to go plant our charges in the ammo cache and fuel tank." Nathan announced.

Jean nodded, and turned to the rest of the team as Nathan, Erina, Marcus, and Johanneke moved off to rig their explosives. "Let's move."

A few moments later, the group was ready to move out, Triela and Johanneke taking point and following the path the latter had cut through the tall grass with the Golan sorella behind them carefully transporting Isabella who lay on the stretcher, her husband moving alongside her.

At the back of the group, Nathan and Erina brought up the rear with the sniper team as the handler produced his radio detonator, flicked off the safety, and called out to make sure everyone was aware of what was to happen.


Nate slammed his fist on the switch, and the ammunition cache went up in a fireball, as did the fuel tank, resulting in a massive explosion that lit up the night. The blast wave rustled the trees around them as they continued moving to the LZ for extraction. Erina radioed their progress to HQ, where Michael was monitoring the situation.

"Wolfpack to Wolf Den, Packages are safe and secure. Requesting Exfil at pre-designated LZ, over." Erina said over the radio.

"Acknowledged, Wolfpack. Pelican One is already en route to the LZ as of 20 mikes ago. ETA is ten mikes, over."

"Understood, Wolf Den. Wolfpack out."

Erina turned to Jean and reported the news. "Our extraction arrives at the LZ in ten minutes. Should we double-time it and get there in five, sir?"

"Only if you can move at an increased pace without making too much of a bumpy ride for Mrs. Moretti." Jean replied.

"I can manage that. I am a cyborg, after all." Erina said with an air of confidence.

"Then switch places with Miss Sarah."

"On it. Miss Sarah! I'll take your place!"

Sarah and Annette stopped for a few seconds so that Sarah could hand off her end of the stretcher to Erina, and as they rejoined the group, Jean gave the order to increase their pace, and they took off towards the LZ at pace with Sarah and Erina adjusting the manner in which they held Isabella's stretcher so that their running would not bounce or jar her as she laid on the stretcher. The rain had stopped at this point, the skies clear once again as moonlight allowed the group to see where they were going along the path they came in through. Soon enough, they arrived at the clearing in the jungle where they had been dropped off, with enough time to rest, catch their collective breath, and have a drink of water (or in Erina's case, unwrap an energy bar) while they waited for their ride out. Sarah came over to Annette, Erina, and the Morettis as they rested. Since the two former hostages had managed to escape injury during their ordeal, Sarah's concern now was primarily Isabella's condition as a mother-to-be and how much stress that the flashbangs and gunfire of the rescue operation had placed on the Prime Minister's niece.

"How are you feeling, Signora Moretti?" Sarah asked.

"I've had better days," replied Isabella with a weak smile. "I'm hanging in there, though."

"Keep hanging on, Signora Moretti. In a few minutes, we'll be on a helicopter to bring you to a safe and secure place for you and your child."

"We are forever grateful," said Ronaldo. "It is thanks to your entire team that we escaped certain death tonight."

"Not to ruin your appreciation, but I would recommend saving those words for when you're finally in a hospital and having a healthy child brought into the world. In some ways, we are still in danger, there's just slightly less of it." Sarah replied, taking the wind out of Ronaldo's sails.

"Well, we're gonna be in even less danger in a few seconds. Our ride out is here." Erina announced as an MH-47G Chinook swooped in above to land in the clearing they were scattered in. As the ramp came down, four soldiers, presumably from U.S. Army Special Operations, fanned out and covered the ramp as the SWA rescue team came together and went to file into the Chinook. As Erina and Annette carried Isabella into the helicopter and it finally lifted off, she felt a powerful contraction and something inside of her give way, followed immediately by the sudden dampening of her undergarments. This could only mean one thing, and she waved Sarah over.

"You're a medic, right?"


"Good, because I think I'm going into labor. My water just broke."

Sarah returned a look to Isabella that clearly showed her surprise. Then, Sarah replied sheepishly, almost apologetically:

"I'm sorry, Signora Moretti, but I have no prior experience in delivering an infant."

Panicked and experiencing another contraction, Isabella placed her hands on Sarah's shoulders in desperation and pulled her in.

"Then please, find someone who does!"

"What's going on?" Jean demanded.

"Signora Moretti is going into labor. I don't suppose you know how to deliver an infant?"

Jean was caught off-guard, and then: "No. Don't you?"

"I'm a medic trained to patch up gunshot wounds! I don't exactly have much experience bringing newborns into the world, and if I don't know how, neither does Annette!"

The argument was becoming audible now, and with everyone else finding the truth behind the latest argument, they were still standing still, unable to actually do anything about the situation while Isabella and Ronaldo were together in a corner of the passenger cabin, engaging in breathing exercises to try and keep the former calm and ready to deliver their baby without overexerting herself as the pilots took a heading for the nearest available medical facilities. Amidst the chaos, Triela appeared to stare into space as an unwelcome memory from another time assailed her, and she fought hard to keep it from taking her away from the current reality, but it was persistent, and she soon found herself in the corner of a dark warehouse room that smelled of death, her skin filthy with dirt and grime and dried blood.

Ignoring those details, however, her attention was drawn towards the center of the room, dimly lit, where a woman was screaming out in pain while three men around her watched. One of them was waiting between her legs, which were spread apart over a less-than-clean towel with her underwear removed, the man's hands covered in what looked to be latex gloves of questionable sterility until the man next to him poured a generous amount of isopropyl alcohol over them, presumably as disinfectant. He then ordered the woman, now howling in pain, to push, barking at her in Italian as the man propping her up from behind produced a handgun and pressed it against the back of her head. The woman pleaded in a language Triela could not understand until the man holding her at gunpoint cocked the hammer audibly, making the woman quiet down, take a few deep breaths, and then put effort into pushing something out of her body. The woman put herself through immense strain as she pushed, but slowly, something began to emerge from her birth canal with each push.

Finally, the woman gave one last prolonged grunt, and in one motion, pushed out a newborn infant, who began squalling after it took its first breath in the hands of the man with the sterilized gloves. For a few minutes, the infant was handed to his weary mother as the men waited a few minutes for the placenta to come out of the mother, as the child's umbilical cord was still attached. After several minutes passed, the placenta fell out, and the man who received the infant as it was pushed out tied off the infant's umbilical cord a few inches from his navel and severed the rest of it with a large knife. Then, after wrapping the infant in a blanket, the gloved man nodded to his assistant, who took the infant from his mother. The woman began to scream in protest as she watched her newborn son be taken away, but as the last man began to exit the room, he pressed the muzzle of his pistol against her temple and pulled the trigger, the woman's head exploding on the opposite side before she crumpled and remained still forevermore. That was the last image Triela saw before she was brought back to the present with Hilshire calling her name and shaking her gently.

"Triela? Triela, can you hear me? Triela, are you all right?"

The 'princess' blinked before seeing Hilshire as he repeated his question. "I saw something just now, I think it might be a memory from before the SWA…"

"Are your conditioning problems getting worse?"

"Maybe." Triela replied, trailing off as she looked at the otherwise helpless Morettis and then back to Hilshire.

"Hilshire, I know what to do."

"What do you mean?"

"In my memory, I saw a woman giving birth and the people around her who were helping her. I know what to do here."

"Triela, you can't just—"

"Why not?" she asked, gesturing to the others making a commotion. "They all seem to either not know anything or have forgotten everything at this exact moment, when Signora Moretti needs help the most! Let me do this Hilshire, please!"

Hilshire sighed. There was no stopping Triela, and it probably wouldn't hurt to give her a chance; it seemed she was right for now.

"Everyone, move down! Give Triela and the Morettis room to work!" shouted the handler. Everyone turned to see Triela helping Ronaldo ease his wife onto the floor of the fuselage. Before even Jean could ask why things were proceeding as they were, Annette and Sarah were already approaching Triela to render assistance since she already appeared prepared to take on the task of assisting in the delivery of the Morettis' first child.

"Triela, you seem pretty confident right now." Sarah said. "Are you sure you know how to do this?"

"Right now, I'm more sure than anyone else at the moment, Miss Sarah. First things first—place some cushioning under Signora Moretti to support her. Make sure she's comfortable as can be for this. I'm also going to need a clean towel or blanket to place under her for when the baby comes out, and I'll need some antiseptic wipes on hand and some sterile medical gloves."

Right away, Annette rummaged around in her medical kit and produced the gloves and some alcohol wipes while Sarah searched the aircraft for anything that could be used for cushioning and retrieved some inflatable life vests, which she promptly activated before setting them down behind Isabella to lean on. The life vests weren't the most comfortable cushions in the world, but they would be adequate as field-expedient solutions. She then unfurled a survival blanket from her own medical kit, laying it down underneath Isabella's legs as Triela removed the imminent mother's underwear from underneath her dress, prompting the other SWA personnel to look away and give the group further down some semblance of privacy.

Triela then met the sight in front of her with a certain amount of detached professionalism. This was no time to get squeamish, so she quickly sterilized her hands and arms with the alcohol wipes and then donned the sterile nitrile gloves Annette had given her. Taking a deep breath, she then looked up at Isabella.

"Whenever you feel ready, Signora Moretti. I'm here to help."

While Triela kneeled at the ready in front of Isabella, it was the mother-to-be who bore the brunt of the effort to bring her child into the world, recalling the classes she and her husband took and all the lessons learned in order to ease the pain of childbirth without resorting to anesthetic. It was a slow and grueling process, but Triela and Ronaldo both encouraged Isabella as she struggled to push out her child. What seemed like an eternity passed by as the only sounds in the passenger cabin of the Chinook were the engine and rotor blades outside and Isabella's pained grunts of effort. Thankfully, Triela was seeing progress, and it seemed as if one more good push would be enough to expel the newborn from Isabella's body.

"One last push, Signora Moretti! You can do it! Take a deep breath and push!" Triela goaded.

Isabella did a quick series of inhales and exhales, preparing herself for the final effort despite the already considerable pain between her legs. Then, she drew in a deep breath and pushed, a drawn-out scream escaping her throat rather than any exhalation.


With her last push, her newborn child finally vacated her lower body, amniotic fluid lubricating its body as it slid somewhat haphazardly into Triela's arms. She managed to keep a firm but gentle grip, however, and the infant coughed up a mouthful of amniotic fluid before crying from the discomfort of its new surroundings as she lightly patted its back before carefully turning over the child to determine gender visually. With a grin that cut a flash of white through her camouflaged face, she handed the child over to the weary parents.

"Congratulations, Signor and Signora Moretti. You have a healthy baby girl."

The Morettis smiled as Isabella took their noisy newborn daughter into her arms. With the crying, the rest of the rescue team once again looked towards the front of the cabin, where the Morettis were holding their newborn child as Sarah managed to procure a towel from one of the pilots in the cockpit, and after carefully cleaning off the additional amniotic fluid coating the new addition to the Moretti family, the newborn was covered by the towel as she lay on Isabella's chest. After several minutes passed, the placenta was also expelled from Isabella's body, and Triela, still operating on her observations from her memory, waited 5 minutes before tying off the umbilical cord a few inches from the infant girl's navel and then cutting the rest of the umbilical cord away from the knot. After re-wrapping the Morettis' daughter in the towel, careful to help muffle the disturbing racket of the helicopter, Triela handed the child off back to her parents.

"So, what is your daughter's name?" Triela asked as she covered Isabella's lower body with another survival blanket also procured from the cockpit.

"Well, we did have some names in mind…" replied Isabella, "But at the moment, I've failed to remember them—"

Ronaldo then interrupted, leaning down to Isabella's ear to say something before she continued.

"—And my husband says given tonight's events, we would find it more appropriate if we named her after the person who not only helped rescue us, but bring her into the world."

Triela's eyes widened in surprise. "No, that's not necessary! Please, name her as you wish."

"We wish to name her after you. What is your name?"

Triela glanced at Hilshire, waiting for an answer. In response, he gave her a reassuring smile and nodded his assent.

"Triela. My name is Triela."

"Triela, we'd like to introduce you to our daughter, Triela Moretti. Would you like to hold her a while?"

"I would be honored."

The 'Princess' of Section 2 once again took the Morettis' daughter into her arms, cradling the newborn gently. Holding the tiny life in her arms was an experience she hoped she would not soon forget. The baby in her arms was precious, and like many precious things in life, she was fragile and needed to be protected. It was why, Triela thought, the reason she was with the Social Welfare Agency. Her occupation may have been one of violence, but her occupation was necessary for the safety of those who could not defend themselves, much like the newborn she held in her arms. In undertaking missions to hunt and kill the Padania and other evil men around the world, she was making the world a better place for children like Triela Moretti to grow up in; a world with less evil in it, even if evil had to be paid unto evil to achieve the result.

New World Hotel, Makati City, Metro Manila

With their return flight to Italy not departing until two days after the rescue operation took place, the Section 2 team had been given lodgings at the New World Hotel, ensuring a certain proximity to the airport in addition to being prepared to escort the Morettis back to Italy. The bill for the accommodations would be footed by the CIA, which would likely be compensated in some sort of trade later on. What it meant at the moment, however, were warm, soft beds and sumptuous meals for all the fratelli involved in the operation, and after having spent the previous evening getting soaked in the Philippine jungle, the comforts of civilization were as good a reward as any.

In Hilshire and Triela's suite, the handler insisted that Triela take her evening shower first, given all that she had gone through in the past several hours. Even after helping to bring a child named after her into the world, Triela was also asked by the new parents if she could stay long enough for them to include her in their first 'family photo'. The request had to be discussed with Jean, who was already irritated about his lack of control over the proceedings of the mission. While initially inclined to deny the couple their request, Nathan managed to talk Jean into letting Triela go ahead with the request, provided that Triela wore a surgical mask to cover up the majority of her face, which in the end made for an unusual family photo that would remain on the mantle at the Moretti Family's residence back in Italy for years to come.

At the moment, Triela was in the midst of rinsing the suds from her body when she felt a chill envelop her entire body, even though the water coming from the showerhead was plenty hot. This was a different sort of cold, one that accompanied the flashes of unwanted memories flying through her mind, and Triela began to cower, sinking to her knees and clutching herself under the stream of water.

"No…" she whimpered to no one in particular. "Go away! I don't want to remember that! I don't want to remember any of it!"

Her pleas went unanswered, however, and Triela now hugged her knees as her personal nightmare continued and terrible sights, smells, sensations, and emotions assailed her senses: the smell of blood and filth, memories of a dark, dimly-lit room with a single video camera, the feeling of rough hands pawing all over her body, and finally, terror and pain as a saw cut into her leg and continued to tear back and forth through muscle and bone, her screaming muffled as a person holding the video camera hovered the lens so close to her face, she could see the reflection of her terrified expression.

"Make it stop…" Triela pleaded, tears now flowing from her face as they mingled with the water from the shower. "Please make it stop…"

Suddenly, the chill that flooded her body began to leave, and the terrible flashbacks she saw behind closed eyelids were washed away by a bright light, everything had gone white, and a gentle warmth replaced the harsh coldness from earlier. Triela could not see anything, but for some reason, she did not feel afraid; rather, she felt relieved, like a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders. And then a voice called out to her from somewhere in that bright light.

"There there, my child." A motherly voice reassured. "You have done a great deed, and I am very proud of you, my dear Triela."

"Who are you?" Triela asked, almost whispering.

"Someone who is always watching over you, Triela. Be safe, and continue to fight the good fight, my little princess."

"Wait! Who are you?"

Triela began to snap back to reality, the gentle warmth now being the physically comforting warmth of her shower, but as she opened her eyes, for a brief moment, she caught a glimpse of a woman who for some reason looked familiar, but Triela could not place a name to the face, and the next moment, the woman she had seen disappeared in the steam of her shower.

"Triela!" Hilshire called from the other side of the door, worry in his voice. "Is everything all right in there?"

"Yes, Hilshire! I'm all right!"

"Just wanted to make sure. Take as much time as you need, but keep it reasonable, all right?"

"Got it."

Turning away from the bathroom door, Triela placed her hands to her chest. Her heartbeat was normal and steady now.

"I'm definitely all right now…" she said to herself, smiling warmly.