Yeah, so... About that monthly release schedule.

I cannot properly articulate how sorry I am for not sticking to that, but I've got good reasons, and they basically boil down to my job (which I've quit), school (which used to take up all my days off but now only takes up two), and The New Face of War (which i've just finished).

So, this story is now receiving my full and undivided attention.

It will be completed. Perhaps not by the end of the year, but it will be done.

As I said last chapter, I hope to make up for the lack of quantity with quality. My hope is to basically begin telling Arc 2 in chunks - each chapter having a clear place to start, and an objective to reach, and not stopping until that objective is reached and the next chapter is primed and foreshadowed.

Hopefully this will allow me to give satisfying updates every time, to make up for a slow update schedule, and get through the story at a more reasonable pace.

So, once again, I apologize for the horrendous release schedule, but now that this is my only active story, I intend to improve upon that.

So, without further ado:

Arc 2

Chapter 2


It would be more than a year before I learned the circumstances of how the Runner, Troy Williams, got his hands on the flash drive and made contact with me. The only reports I ever got before then were second-hand details from the various District Lieutenants and posts on the Help Desk.

The legends of the beginning 'The Runner's Journey' are over-exaggerated, to say the least. He did not launch a napalm strike on an Enforcer station, he did not find a sword and use it and a shotgun to tear through hordes of Bugs, and he most certainly did not hijack the first alien tank he found and rampage his way out of Atlanta.

No, he operated according to the rules of the new world: If one wants something, one must be willing to give something up.

By occupying us and replacing human currency with alien currency, the Invaders sent us back to the economic stone age. Unless one lived in a major city or industrial zone and had a very generous master, the alien currency was as useless as the human currency, so the only way to get something was to trade for something else. Alcohol, tobacco, guns and ammunition, those things were worth their weight in gold, but it was all also relevant to whomever was being traded with. Someone may not need cigarettes, someone may not want alcohol, someone may have enough weapons and ammunition.

So if one had nothing of value to trade, say, for gasoline to fuel up his truck for a safe and expedient trip through Bandit County and into the semi-civilized areas of occupied Georgia, what were they to do?

Offer the only thing they have left:

Quid Pro Quo.

They offer a service.

Throughout Troy Williams' life, he had done many a stupid thing. Try and fight a man two feet taller than him, down a whole glass of vodka in one go, chase after a cheerleader who may or may not be taken - he still wasn't sure - the list was endless. Today, however, he figured he had something new to add to the list, nearer the top than the bottom: Try and negotiate with bandits. One of the benefits of living in the any of the lawless 'Bandit Counties' that dotted the country was that it was as close to freedom as one could get from the Invaders, but unless one was very, very well hidden, or in a fortified and defensible position, they lived under the rule of whatever bandits lorded over that small section of land they had found themselves living in. Most often than not, this meant that they either, A, had to join this roving band of outlaws and thugs, or B, had to pay them some kind of tribute each and every month. The only way out of such an arrangement was to either kill all of the bandits, kill enough of them that they decided to stop messing with you, or lay down and die. Fortunately for Troy, he fell into a unique category, in that his cabin in the woods was fortified enough to be defensible, but also so out of the way that none of the nearby gangs saw any worth in taking it over.

Troy swallowed thickly, through his dry throat. He had one good idea when it came to negotiating with these folks, and he hoped it would work. He slowly strolled down an abandoned, dilapidated highway, a handgun strapped to his hip, a kevlar vest worn over his shirt, and a backpack hanging off of his shoulders. He held in his hands his phone, and though he had no signal or anything of the sort, he did have his map application and, so long as he hadn't misread it, he should be getting close to the nearby bandit base. These ones, whilst certainly not 'friendly', were at least more amicable than the others, and seemed to understand, on some level, the struggle of living in a post-alien world. He knew his idea would be a long, long shot, but if it worked, it would guarantee his cabin protection during his upcoming absence, and a somewhat steady stream of supplies coming in and out.

The Georgian sun beat down on his skin, and the humid air made the heat all the more unbearable, as he wiped a layer of sweat off of his clammy skin, but he powered through it as he strolled down the highway. It occurred to him with no small level of humor that he was, strictly speaking, going outbound on the inbound side, which, not even ten years ago, would have been stupidly suicidal. Now, however, it was simply the most expedient way, unless he felt like navigating through a sea of abandoned and rusted vehicles, though they would have their uses if he needed supplies.

The dirty blonde-haired man came to a halt when, a great distance away from him, he saw two vehicles parked in the barren and empty inbound lane, facing eachother, clearly meant to block off any vehicles or people stupid enough to travel out in the open. A moment later, he saw a small flurry of movement, and then three bullets buried themselves in the ground just ahead of his feet, soon followed by the three cracks of the rifles that had followed them, and a loud mechanical screech.

"Al - alright, stop right there!" The magnified voice bellowed out from the distance. Troy leaned forward and squinted his eyes, and was just barely able to see someone with a megaphone, cowering behind an opened door from what was now clearly a military-style humvee. "Declare yourself!"

Troy stared at the two trucks with half-lidded eyes, wondering how they would hear him from so far away. He cupped his hands and raised his voice, "I am Troy! I am not a slave!" He shouted out, as loud as he could, his deepened voice echoing across the highway and reaching the bandits.

There was several moments of tense silence, likely owed to the bandits talking amongst themselves, before the first speaker finally came back. "Approach slowly with your hands in the air!"

Troy did so, slowly making his way down the highway with both of his hands held high above his head, though with a relaxed posture. Once he made his way to the two cars, one of the bandits circled around, as another popped up on the roof, a shotgun pointed at Troy. The blonde wished he could say he wasn't used to having guns pointed at his face, but in the world he lived in, it was approaching a common occurrence, dependent on where one lived.

The smaller of the two bandit, with a pistol in one hand, approached Troy. "I - I'll need your guns."

"I'll get it back, I hope?" Troy deadpanned, slowly reaching down to the gun strapped to his hip.

"We're a fair people." Said the bandit, "if you do right by us, we'll do right by you." He took Troy's gun, "where did you get that?" He asked, nodding to the kevlar vest on his chest.

Troy grinned, "that would be telling." He said, with a nod. "Who's the boss? I was hoping to speak with him." He lowered his hands at the younger bandit's nod.

The young thug looked up to the one on the roof, who, now that Troy was less of a threat, was ambling down. "Check his neck." He said, prompting the young thug to look back to him.

Troy nodded, pulling down the collar of his shirt. They were hoping to see a tan line around his neck, indicative of a slave collar. Fortunately for Troy, he didn't have one. The bandit nodded and baded him to follow. He followed the bandit down the highway for another few minutes until they found an off-ramp. When they finished descending it, they immediately turned around and now were heading under the roads. There was a tent city set up under the winding roads, with walls looking like they divided the tents into districts. The bandit had to go past a gate guard and deposit Troy's pistol, before he took him inside.

Under the shadows of the roads above, Troy felt the air lose some of its heat. The walls of scrap metal and piled wood helped separate the groups of tents helped make corridors and roadways. Signs were above various doorways, Troy saw a doctor's office, a trading area, and an armory before they made it to their goal, a commons area.

"Alright, just sit down somewhere in there, don't cause a fuss. I'll be back." Said the bandit, turning to Troy and giving him a sharp look.

Troy nodded in a conciliatory fashion - now unarmed he was in even less of a position to try and start trouble with these people. He entered the commons area and found upwards of two dozen people milling about. All of them, he noticed, were the same kind of burly, angry-looking bandits he'd seen guarding the entrance and sitting on the roof of the car. Troy quickly surmised that this 'commons area' was where all of the actual bandits spent their time when they weren't out and about. He was being kept under guard.

Troy settled into his seat, keeping his eyes locked to the ground in front of his feet. He stayed aware of what was around him, but knew that making eye contact with these people and staring at them all was probably among the poorest decisions he could make. Aside from traipsing across all of Georgia with a flash drive filled with fifty internets worth of data the Invaders were ready to kill for, at least. Definitely in the top five.

Troy didn't know these people personally, but rather through reputation. They may not be the friendliest bunch around - it was hard to be called 'bandits' and also be synonymous with amicability - but what few groups he traded with said they were at least as fair as they claimed to be. A bandit group, unfortunately, was the closest contemporary humans could get to a functioning postwar society. Any attempts at any regular, 'civilized' people at settling Bandit County and creating something even remotely resembling what they had once had ended one of two ways: The Invaders found and enslaved them all, or the Bandits found and killed them all. There were rumors, of course, there always were, of places that defied this unspoken law, but Troy didn't believe in them. A warship still floating about the ocean, a military bunker in the Russian tundra, hidden tribes in the Amazon, there were as many stories as one could imagine, and they all were as preposterous as the last. When their enemy could literally scan the Earth from orbit, there was no way to hide from them, not in big, organized societies, at least.

It was that reason that Troy feared his own group's rapidly approaching end. They had survived their five years well enough. Some more adventurous bandit groups had proved dangerous at first, but that was where a literal truckload of military weapons came into play. But he didn't see them lasting much longer, especially not whenever the Invaders decided to finally go in and actually civilize Bandit County. They had conquered planet Earth in a year, it would take even less time to unfuck it. This was why he wanted this agreement with the bandits, and why he really wanted this flash drive to be worth something valuable to Dan Anthony. If his plan worked with these bandits, and then he could barter something - anything, really - incredibly valuable towards longevity, then maybe - just maybe - they could survive long enough to get a plan that could last longer than another five years.

All of this, however, relied on convincing these bandits that his idea was worth it, and considering how damn difficult it had been to do that for his group, he was slightly worried about his chances. Fortunately, this was where backup plans came in - if this one didn't work out, the flash drive had been left in the shanty shack, and they could take it to Dan Anthony without him. His life would then become a bargaining chip to get more resources.

Interrupting his inner thoughts was the approach of another bandit, a dark-skinned man with an old, sweaty long sleeve hanging from his shoulders. The man had a long scar running over his nose, and a scowl that would have frozen other men in their tracks. Troy, however, his brother had mastered 'The Stare' from his time in the military, and had subsequently exposed him to far smaller people who could make up far more terrifying presences. This man was good, but he was relying more on the scar and his muscles than the look in his eye and the presence he took up in the room.

He shoved his hand forward, "Tony." He said, in a thick Nigerian accent.

Troy wondered if that was really his name, but stood up and answered regardless. "Troy." He said, shaking his hand. "You're the boss?"

Tony nodded, "follow me."

Tony took him through a few more tight hallways and into what Troy could only assume was his room. It was about as big as a minivan, and had room enough for a bed, a desk, and -

"Oh, wow." Troy said, pointing to the bookshelf. "May I?"

Tony nodded, "go ahead."

Troy approached the bookshelf. It was impressive - he saw more than a few shelves filled with encyclopedias, covering subjects from self defense to farming. Then there were numerous fiction books, with just a cursory glance he saw The Da Vinci Code, Splinter Cell, Ender's Game, and Frankenstein. He even saw a few books on leadership, but what made him grin was a copy of the Art of War. It seemed as if Tony here was split between enjoying life and improving it for his people. If this was any indication, Troy felt he made the right decision.

He turned to Tony, who stood leaning against his desk, his front cast into shadows by the lit lamp. "The Art of War?" He asked the black man.

Tony nodded, "a good book."

I think this man's trying to intimidate me… Once again, it may have worked, but Troy had seen worse even before the world went to hell. Then add in that he'd had to kill more than his fair share of people fending off bandit attacks, Troy could respect the man for trying, but he wouldn't buy his act without some kind of evidence, and seeing books on farming in his little personal library, Troy began to suspect this man of being the type to take lives if he had to, as opposed to if he wanted to.

"I'll admit, I've never read it." Troy said, turning back to the shelf. "I was always an anime kid, growing up. Stuff like Dragonball Z, or Naruto." Though he did see a few comic books on the top most shelf. "The books I read usually fell along the line of detective books, like Sherlock Holmes. Only real classic I ever read and enjoyed was Frankenstein." He wondered if Tony didn't have a son; surreptitiously glancing towards the man's bed, he could tell it was big enough for two people, maybe three depending on the size of the third.

But that wouldn't make much sense… If it was a kid he had, then in order to be big enough to fit into a bed with mom and dad and not feel strange he'd have to be younger than eight… Probably five or six. That means he'd have to have had that kid before the Invaders came down, but by that timeline the kid would be in his teens now and taking the comics dear old Dad got for him, with him, to wherever his room is now. It did strike him that Tony may have kept them for himself, but Tony didn't strike him as a comics man. So then the id would have had to have been born after the war… And if this guy's reading the Art of War, I doubt he's stupid enough to consciously bring a child into the world as it is now, or to even risk that in the first place. He frowned. His kid's dead. Those aren't his, but the kid's. He turned back to Tony.

"Was it a boy or a girl?"

Tony glared at him a moment, keeping the tough-guy look. "Boy." He tilted his head, "how did you know?"

"Comics on the top shelf. You didn't react with any kind of familiarity when I mentioned anime - even most comic nerds at least recognize them. Your bed's big, but the kid would have to be young to fit in the bed - young and small. So he'd have to have been born before the war, because if you're smart enough to read Sun Tzu and be looking into longevity for your group through crop management -" He nodded to the bookshelf, "- you wouldn't be trying to have kids… Especially if you really did fight in the war." He nodded to the man, "that's a scar I've only seen from those burn-knives on Invader omni-tools. It's not recent, else you probably wouldn't still have a group. But I don't see dog tags… So were you police? Or something a little less scrupulous?"

Tony continued staring at him, his expression unchanging. "Special Weapons and Tactics." He finally said, pushing off of the desk, and revealing a picture he'd hidden behind him before Troy had entered the room. "Son died in Atlanta. You are good." He complimented, with a nod, as he slid a chair over to Troy, and sat down in one himself.

Troy thanked him, "I was in college for criminal science… And I wasn't lying about Sherlock Holmes. I always wanted to be a detective, like on the TV shows. Was in the Police Explorers for a good few years before I hit college, did pretty good." He sat down, "my condolences about your son."

"Thank you." Said Tony, as he leaned forward. "But you are not here to flaunt your eyes or speak of history. So what is it you want?"

The man, however, had already given him a very powerful clue. By letting out that he'd been SWAT before the war, it told Troy that he was used to situations like this. However, despite whatever reputation they may have, Troy knew police officers were a good people, and from the books on the shelf, he knew that this wasn't a man who would resort to murder as his means of survival. If he was, he wouldn't have the books and wouldn't have kept a picture of his past so readily available to him at all times. Then add on what the bandits earlier had said - that they were a fair people - and that one of the Car Guys he'd met held his gun with a familiarity, and how the younger one looked to him for guidance. Then there was the fact that there was a clear organizational structure in their little base here, clearly defined sections and a hierarchy, as well as what could be rules and a sense of fairness that suggested morality. Troy was willing to bank that this was a group of bandits in name only. In reality, these were cops who had survived and escaped Atlanta. They used the bandit guise as a means of disguising this and also to hide in plain site in Bandit County.

Troy wasn't in charge, he was still outnumbered and at their mercy, but he had cards to play now. He was willing to bet that this was a micro-colony deeper in the overpass, and that was where the non-fighters hid. If he remembered correctly, it was the Romans who had adopted a city structure like this, but it may have been the Greeks. They had their soldiers and fighters living right at the main gates, such that invaders would find the first line of defense to be the most vicious. Following that was their valuables, their gold and books and whatnot, such that invaders would be too busy plundering their valuables to focus on, or even notice in the first place, their rearmost section - the regular civilians - retreating through emergency exits.

He may have gotten the order mixed up, but he knew the general idea, and considering the size of the overpass they were hiding out in, it was definitely big enough to make it fit. If Tony was everything he thought he was, and was reading Sun fucking Tzu on top of it, then he would be willing to declare Tony a minor genius.

"My people are in a unique situation, Mister Tony." Said Troy, preceding a brief, dry cough. "'Scuse me. Dust." He said, patting his chest. "We're unaffiliated with any of the gangs that took up here in BC. We can defend ourselves, but…" He again nodded to the bookshelf. "Just like you, with five years under our belts we're looking into longevity instead of just survival. Part of this longevity is removing the potential threats of bandit gangs entirely." He raised his hand when he noticed Tony's brow furrow, "not in a violent way. We don't pick fights… But rather in a diplomatic way." He lowered his hand.

"Since we're unaffiliated with these gangs, we find ourselves in a unique position. Where we are we're… Equidistant, is a good enough term, from most of the areas of operation of gangs in the area. Too close to other areas to mount any good strikes, too far away and too hidden from other targets to be of any real use as a raid spot. We're lucky, but as time goes on and homes and malls continue to get picked clean, we know this luck won't last." He swallowed through a drying throat. "So, we want to ensure we don't lose our unique position… But we don't want to lose our independence and throw in with potentially dangerous or otherwise worrisome factions. As I said, we don't pick fights.

"So, we're making trips out to these gangs, to talk to their leaders. We want to set up something of an agreement. If you agree not to attack or raid our people, and provide a guard or two as protection against less amicable factions, we're willing to… Among other things… Set up trade lines between our group and yours." He straightened his posture, "and also act as a neutral meeting grounds, should parleys with other gangs ever become a necessity."

Tony chuckled, "and what makes you think your little proposition here is of worth to me?" He asked, "in five miles of any direction are shopping malls, grocery stores, and fuel depots. We've anything we could need within arms reach and the strength and numbers to protect it and ourselves if we must."

"Your farming books would suggest otherwise, sir." Troy nodded to the bookshelf. "Then add on the fact that you live in an overpass tunnel. There is no sunlight in here, and you don't seem the type to be unintelligent enough to set up crop fields right next to your home, on the off chance that Enforcer air patrols see it, mark your location, and that's your song sung. Down here you're on borrowed time and looted food. You are right in that you can survive for longer, perhaps years to come, with what's around you… But what then?" He asked, "you're a police officer. Are you telling me that you'd be willing to go out and murder groups of people - bandits or not - to take their supplies? That you'd be willing to put the lives of your people on the line to do it?" He was gambling on the man's integrity as a police officer, but he felt it was a gamble that would pay out.

"Then." Troy pressed, "consider this. My people, we've kept our ears to the ground. We know the folks out here are always killing eachother… Pretty needlessly, because it all boils down to no one knows where their territory ends and someone else's begins. This results in many dead humans and groups that fall apart, can no longer provide for and defend themselves, and inevitably either dying themselves, or going to them because they have no other option." He explained. "Our solution is to do away with this entirely. We're not asking for an alliance, but a mutually beneficial non-aggression pact. A set of rules, if you will, and a truly neutral place to meet should these rules need to be changed or if discussions need to be held without the unknown factor of potential ambushes or violence. From there, trade agreements and resources you may not have had access to can be opened up, and all will only benefit."

"You want to become Switzerland." Tony summed up, with a bob of the head.

"Pretty much." Troy leaned back in his chair.

"What do you have to offer my people, should I do this?" Tony leaned forward.

Troy grinned, "I see that lamp there is burning oil." He said, nodding to the lamp behind Tony, the flame inside the glass providing Tony's intimidating lighting. "You have fuel to burn… But I wonder if you have technology to put it to use. Some… Say… Solar lamps." He saw a flash in Tony's eyes. Checkmate. "They could allow you to grow crops down here in the safety of your overpass tunnel. Some generators to power those, maybe even a computer or two so you're not going through paper every time you make inventory. We've got a lot of old-world stuff. If you're willing to help us with fuel, we'd be willing to donate some of this stuff. Maybe even some seeds for bread and vegetables."

"How about radios?" Tony demanded, "how many of those could you 'donate'?"

"We've got a few good radios, they get most of Danthony Feldspar's channels. We've also got a good engineer, he could show you where and how to get spare parts to fix any we give you, or even build your own." Troy responded.

"No, I mean radios." Tony pointed to Troy's body armor, "you seem to have something far more valuable than technology. Military weapons. I believe I have heard of your people, you live in the mountains and fire upon anyone who closes in. You've a stash of military weapons and technology. We've even rumors that you have rockets. This means you no doubt have radios. Communicators. Cell Phones."

Troy frowned, "we might." The problem with using those kinds of things was that the Invaders could track it. Troy was pretty certain they had gotten some from Talin and Leo, and had looted more from the various battle sites, but he wasn't sure. "You do know the risks of using such equipment, though." How Danthony Feldspar managed to live so long without being bombed from orbit, he'd never know.

"If you can 'donate' this radio equipment, the generators, and the solar cells, we can give you your fuel." Tony nodded, "if you can get me assurances that your proposal will be agreed upon by the others out there… Then I will too agree to it, and give you men with which to defend yourselves."

Troy let out a slow sigh, as he nodded. "I'm glad to see you're a reasonable man, Mister Tony." He held out his hand. "I'll return once I get confirmations from everyone else, and we'll set up a date to meet up and hash out the finer details."

Note to Self: Find Solar Lamps. Thought the blonde, as he shook the SWAT Officer's hand.

It was a bold move, but not unprecedented. Throughout the American Ruins and many other countries there were many operations that resembled his own, so many so that it was commonly referred to on the Help Desk as a 'Switzerland Proposal'.

The most difficult part wasn't in the establishment of such a proposal, but in gaining the words of the most powerful gangs in the area. Even if they only had three of the five, the other two would fall in or risk being ostracized and isolated by the pseudo-alliance; and the smaller, roving gangs, they would fall in suit the moment their much larger enemies showed evidence of making the agreement.

The most important part of a Switzerland Proposal was a projection of power, and the illusion that those doing the proposal had everything those being proposed to wanted. Even if both of these were outright lies, an individual with a tongue of silver could still make it work.

For the Runner, he was fortunate enough to have had a great enough pool of resources that he could successfully bargain with many of the major gangs in the area. Some he promised technology to, others, food or seeds, others he could teach or promise knowledge. What he didn't have, he knew how to get, and had the people who could get it.

Solar lamps, he was able to find by firing up a local police cruiser and using its computers to search buildings flagged as potential drug manufacturers.

Woodworking equipment, and seeds he did not have in the proper quantities to trade, he was able to locate and break into department stores to loot.

Five years was a long time to clean out many potential spots, but it wasn't nearly long enough to clean out them all, it was only a matter of time.

It took the Runner and his group a month to make the rounds to the gangs willing to speak with them, locate what they needed, and set a neutral grounds with which to meet.

This was the biggest risk they made: Revealing their location to the leaders of all of the local gangs.

Fortunately, they had things the gangs could not hope to counter with their small arms and meagre training.

The sounds of engines graced Troy's ears, as he took a deep, calming breath. This was it - a month's work and running around to reach this point. Of course it was one hell of a risk showing them where the Shanty Shack was, but that was where the next part of his little bluff came in. He looked up to Donny, who had shirked his usual attire for that of one of the uniforms they had looted off of the soldiers, and had discarded customary rifle, for a piece of artillery much more intimidating. He racked the slide of the machine gun that was nearly as big as him, and swung it around to the road that led down the mountain, as he saw the dust from the approaching vehicles.

Everyone in the shack was wearing these uniforms, and were all strapped with heavy artillery. Rifles, shotguns, body armor, the only one not loaded for bear was Talin and Leo, but even the boy had a handgun strapped to his hip, and his sister a tough looking revolver. Having a small little community filled with rednecks and hardware meant everyone around had experience firing and handling weapons, and living in the middle of Bandit County meant everyone here had, if not killed, then at least shot at people before, and had themselves been shot at. The uniforms were to complete the illusion, to project the idea that everyone here was at a level far above and beyond what the bandits could hope to claim.

And thank god I had a soldier living with me. The entire thing may have fallen apart from one eagle-eyed bandit noticing a discrepancy in the way the uniforms were worn, but even though Troy hadn't ever served, he knew a fair amount of people who did, and had picked up a more than functional knowledge. Some may call his stunt stolen valor, but he simply called it surviving.

Mason and Tyrone stiffened up when Donny, from his position above them, started yelling out in as authoritative a tone as he could make, once the vehicles slowed down and halted in front of the gate they had erected around the shack. The agreement was simple, but he had to reinforce it in case anyone wanted to test it: If they wanted to get in, they were permitted only one guard, but firearms would be checked and stowed. Anyone who refused these terms were free to turn around and renege on any potential agreements until another meeting was set up.

Nobody was happy about it, even Tony's group, but the concession had been made that knives and the like could be brought and kept, but had to be worn openly. If this was to be a neutral zone, then the neutral zone had to be the one enforcing its rules. The guards for the leaders were formalities. It took several hours for everyone to arrive, check in, deposit their weapons and contraband, and be guided by Troy inside.

The living room was the only room big enough to hold all eight of the gang leaders. Some spoke for their gangs and their allies, many spoke only for themselves, but they were all there because everyone had something the other wanted. Even some gangs had things other gangs all but required, and vice versa, but weren't remotely powerful enough to try and fight for it, and were too terrified of potential violence to try and trade for it. This made the neutral grounds a much more palatable option - through Troy as a middleman, other gangs could reach some small semblance of society.

The biggest problem Troy had to deal with were the gangs comprised primarily of the convicts and prisoners the Invaders had set free during the War. They were the wildest cards of the bunch, and Troy wouldn't put it past them to have people waiting in the woods, just praying things went south such that they could raid the Shack and finally get what they had. Fortunately for him, outside the gates were dozens of guards for all of the other leaders, many of whom would likely side with the Shack, to both earn favor and to keep this potentially monumental agreement in play. Even if Troy only had a little under ten people firmly on his side, that didn't mean there weren't others out there that would fight with him.

By the time the sun was high in the sky, everyone was assembled. Eight gang leaders, their guards outside in the hall eying eachother down, and Troy's 'Soldiers' keeping them all pacified with their massive guns and intimidating armor. They were at a serious numbers disadvantage, but that was where the guns came in, almost as the very definition of a force multiplier. For every one of Troy's people with a gun, they could each fight and kill at least all of the present leaders and their chosen guards.

Troy himself, as he sat down, had an easy shot on three of them already. He took the reclining chair at the far end of the room, and nodded to everyone present. "Ladies. Gentlemen. I would like to thank you all for coming here. This is a heavy risk for all of us, but the prize will be worth it, I can assure you." He leaned back, all eyes were on him, and his heart was beating a little fast, but he kept cool enough to keep going.

"Now, you all know why I've gathered you here. I see no point in repeating what we all already know. We all know what we here in the Mountains have to offer you should we go good today. Before we start making our agreements, I see it prudent to list out the terms of this non-aggression pact." He looked to Mason, and the bald man, with a nod, let his rifle hand from the strap around his shoulders, and began passing out sheets of paper to all of those assembled.

"We won't be making ridiculous requests of you during your time here, just a few simple rules, written and explained in detail on these papers you'll get." He explained, "the first and most important is that this Shack, here - it's Switzerland. No one here has any claim to territory here, just as we claim no allegiance to any one faction. There will be no fighting or violence on these grounds. There will be no weapons aside from those we carry or allow you to. Entering this territory affords you these rules - no one, period, is allowed to fight here. Breaking these rules revokes any rights you may have, in the eyes of the Shack and the eyes of those we trade with. You will summarily be free game.

"Second, and arguably just as important. Entering our non-aggression pact is not synonymous with entering a military alliance. However, this does mean that any conflicts that may be raging between your factions… They end today, or you face the disappointment of the Shack and the members of the pact."

"And how is that not a military alliance?" Demanded one leader, her voice a loud southern drawl. "Sounds like a fuckin' alliance to me. We break the rules and everyone else hammers down on us?"

"If you break the rules, that means you're no longer protected by the pact. Anyone here can thus attack and raid you to their heart's content, and you won't be able to call a parley at the Shack to try and stop it. They don't have to, but breaking the pact means breaking trade agreements… And I'm willing to bet a lot of the groups you'll have severed ties with will want what you have." Troy responded coolly, looking directly into the woman's deep green eyes. "In short, you'll be free game, and they'll be well within their rights to come and take back whatever they gave, with interest if they see fit."

That got the woman to quiet down and start scowling at her paper, instead of Troy.

"I don't see many people here. What's to stop us from stampeding through this little mountaintop and taking what you have?" Another man demanded, his loud voice attracting everyone's eyes.

And this had been the question Troy had been prepared for, as everyone's eyes turned expectantly to him. "I ask you look at the artillery we're carrying." He said, "that machine gun we've got trained on your cars isn't the only one. The only way you'd win a fight against us is with numbers, and I guarantee you you'll lose far more than you'll gain.

"And this does include any chance going forward of a neutral meeting grounds. Because let me explain to you what we've got, here." He indicated all of them with a sweep of his hand. "Groups that have poor crops, no working toiletries, no technology, no fuel, no ammunition, no places to loot for food, and indeed in some cases no numbers. You all are strong, but any war against any of you - and indeed against us - will inevitably lead to a second war of the civil variety. Your gangs, with what paltry resources they'll have gained, will questioned the lives they spent to get them, lead to in-fighting, and then the deaths and dissolutions of the gangs.

"After that, the survivors will either die themselves, get shot by another gang, or get discovered by the Invaders and be enslaved." He paused, "and I'm certain, as much as we hate eachother, we all hate the Invaders much more." He got nods from this, and he turned back to the speaker, "so you can take our little shack… Or you can try, at least. But by the end of the day I assure you that everyone's going to be watching your people specificaly, and the folks that do accept our little deal will be more than willing to defend us if it comes down to it.

"Then think about it this way: The Invaders will no doubt see the deaths of your gang and the weakening of the other ones. They may take this as a chance to take Bandit County with far fewer casualties than at any other point. If you war against us, and everyone else against you, any chance at what limited freedom we do have, will be effectively thrown away." He loudly snapped his fingers, some of the more tense leaders actually jumped. "Just like that. Then anyone left alive will be enslaved and thrown into the prisons.

"In other words… You will literally only be hurting yourselves." He lowered his hand and looked at the buzz-cut man.

There was silence, afterwards.

"To move on… The final rule I'll mention. Myself and the people I sent out to meet with you all have already discussed trade agreements between the Shack and your people. But, inter-gang trading, to avoid the potential for warfare and the breaking of the Pact, will be done through us as an intermediary. We will, in effect, be middlemen, and take a small percentage, never more than a fifth, of every trade. This is to foster good relations to everyone and ensure a dedication to the pact."

"Wait, we have to give you our stuff even if you're not asking for it?" A dark-skinned man demanded, "that's pretty low, don't you think?"

However, it wasn't even Troy who defended it, but rather Tony. "Consider…" Said the Nigerian, "that his is the group who puts itself at risk to form this pact. That his is the group that will put itself at risk every single time they shall meet with us when we find ourselves incapable of working out our own problems. I would say that a fraction of our trades would only benefit us all and would be fair. A fifth of these trades may be excessive but I point out that he said never more, than a fifth." He stressed, pointing his dark eyes at the speaker. "As in it is negotiable and they would never take more than that twenty percent."

Troy kept his features still, but inside he was grinning. He knew he'd made the right decision in volunteering to visit that man.

"And." Troy said, gathering everyone's attention. "As a token of good faith, I've prepared a small offering. Not nearly the agreed upon amount, but still, a small offering of the trade agreements the Shack has already made with your groups. These will be given freely, in addition to any shipments we make at later dates."

"So you'll just give us the shit we asked for?" The woman from earlier drawled.

"On the condition that you sign the pact, of course, but yes. A small percentage, a few of the more important items. To foster good faith." She'd been one of the more simple 'give us bullets' folks. "As well as a carton of cigarettes for those interested." This had actually been a recent development. They'd always kept a small stockpile for trading purposes, but during their hunt through an auto parts store, they had stumbled upon several crates filled with tobacco, and in a soda truck, of all things. The smokers in the Shack had tested them out, and they were legitimate.

The bandits here were floored, a lot of interested, even hungry looks were thrown Troy's way, and this made his inner smile grow even wider. He wouldn't jinx it, but he was starting to feel good about this.

"I just have one question." Said a small Asian man.

"Go ahead."

"What's your stance on the rebels?"

Troy frowned, "why do you ask?"

"Because some of us hang black flags, and some of us don't. What's the 'Pact' when it comes to rebels? Will you help them, or will you send them away?"

At this, Troy lowered his gaze to think. "Well… I won't say I disagree with what it is they do." He said, slowly. "But I also won't say I think it will work." He gave the man an honest look. "Face it. We're a planet, and they're a galaxy. I respect them, but I won't fault those who don't." And, he left unsaid, if it would hurt him and his people he wouldn't hesitate to turn them away.

And left unimplied was that he intended to help them in the first place. That was why this all was going on - to get the rebels their damn flash drive and get him and his people a metric shitload of resources.

The man nodded, satisfied with the answer, "and what if we want rebels to be honored by the pact?"

"If they make it here and convince us to give them asylum, then they'll be protected by it. But that also means they'll have to obey the rules." Troy responded.

The man liked this answer more, and sat back.

"If there's nothing else... " He pulled a map of the area out of his pocket, suppressing a dry cough as he did so. "Let's work on boundaries."

2 (Cont.)

According to he himself took the rest of the day, and early into the next morning to finalize everything for their 'Pact'. The bandits were much more amiable after they were fed, and though it bit into their supplies, even the guards outside and in their trucks were given food as well.

It was an investment that would pay off, as when they left the next morning, their pact was finalized, and guards would be sent to protect the Runner's home.

And, with the unexpected boon of all but being told that one of the factions of bandits were rebel supportive, the Runner confronted him about it, later that night. It was confirmed that they were a small, isolated faction of rebels, but upon interrogation he revealed that he did know the location of the radio operator, Danthony Feldspar.

However, because he did not reveal himself to be the Runner, he had to barter the location out of the man. Half of the cigarettes he had acquired, a full shipment of their agreed upon trade, and Runner himself would have to go to their base to be transported to Feldspar.

He was, as a result, able to temporarily avoid having to trip to Atlanta, but the cost hadn't been low. He personally voiced he'd felt increasing doubts as he had to spend more and more to get to the radio operator.

Three days later he found himself deep in the wilds of Pine Mountain, mere miles from the borders of Tenessee and South Carolina.

There, he found Feldspar's radio tower and broadcast center.

Were he to be asked, Troy would have said he'd expected maybe a raised wooden house with a radio broadcast antenna, considering how deep they were in the mountains. Instead he found what he could best describe as a military base hidden from the world. A massive broadcast antenna extended just above the tree line, with one professionally made building and several hastily erected and built ones alongside it.

The broadcast center was a large building that was more window than it was wood and plaster, and the sub-buildings were made of wood, likely stolen from hardware stores or chopped down themselves. The way it stood at the height of the mountain, with the road leading straight to it and with all of the small fortifications surrounding it, it gave the building a regal appearance, reminding Troy of a castle.

He could see Danthony Feldspar's studio from his position outside, though it was mostly covered by large tarps hanging over the windows; and where Troy was now would be as close as he would get. The road leading up to the center was blocked. Sandbags, small huts, and several men and women with body armor and guns were protecting the way to Dan Anthony's home, and they all looked like they were ready to kill someone as soon as they would even think about threatening the man's safety.

I knew these guys were intense… But damn. Troy thought, as he thanked Lee - the leader of the group that had gotten him here - and exited the car.

Guns were instantly raised, and Troy lifted his hands. "I mean you no harm!" He called out.

"That's far enough!" One woman, with deep red hair and a fierce look on her face responded. "State your business!"

"I need to speak with the radio operator in there. Danthony Feldspar." He nodded to the retreating vehicles. "I was given this location by mutual friends." The trucks flew black flags as they drove back down the path they came, declaring their allegiance to the curious guards.

"Why do you need to speak with him?" The woman demanded.

"I have something he needs, and he may have things I need." Said Troy. "He may recognize my name." He swallowed through a dry throat, letting out a light cough.

The woman frowned, "and that would be?"


This prompted the woman to exchange glances with her partner, before she turned back to Troy. "Are you armed?"

Slowly, Troy reached down and parted his coat, revealing the pistol strapped to his hip. "Who isn't, in this day and age?" He said, before releasing his coat.

"Approach slowly!" She ordered.

Troy did so, keeping his hands aloft. When he reached the sandbags, the woman, her gun still shouldered, circled around and kicked Troy's legs apart, before using her off-hand to pat him down. She found his gun and removed it, tossing it to her partner, and found in his back pocket the flash drive. Its sterling silver appearance reflected the bright sun above them. She gave the drive a look, but her face masked her thoughts.

She pocketed the drive and finished frisking Troy. "Alright… Sit right there." She pointed inside one of the small huts that stood behind the sandbags, lining the road up to the broadcast center. She turned to her partner and nodded, which he reciprocated, before she jogged off.

No words were exchanged between Troy and the other guard. The only words spoken were when another person arrived, but only to explain that she was here to to replace the woman, Pastor was her name. The next thirty minutes went by in dead silence, and Troy felt less and less safe, especially as he didn't have the drive - his only bargaining chip - anymore.

However, after an hour passed, Pastor returned. "Runner." She said, snapping Troy out of his boredom and attracting his gaze. "Up. Come on." She gestured for him to follow.

She guided him up the rest of the dirt road. They passed by the other small shacks, a quonset hut, wooden huts, and other small improvised buildings that Troy heard many voices echo out of. Approaching Dan Anthony's broadcast center, Troy felt as if he were stepping into a whole new world. The oppressive, tense air had been left behind him, to be replaced by a foreign feeling not experienced by Troy in years: Hope. He saw smiles on the people they passed, though there was the brief flash of a readiness and willingness to fight in their eyes. It was almost as if, here, at the broadcast center, the world outside, and the guerrilla war, didn't exist. A small slice of home, in a world that was no longer.

When they entered the center, Troy was immediately assaulted by a luxury that he had nearly forgotten existed: Air conditioning. The bliss that ran through his body when he felt the temperature drop from the muggy mid-nineties summer in Georgia, to the low seventies was heavenly. Here he truly was entering a new world, he passed by several offices, in which he saw people tinkering and fiddling with computers. He saw posters and paintings hung on the wall, some of rockstars, some of wars past, but all of a history long past. This nostalgia was what filled the air and grew thicker as they circled around the building and made it to the center, where the studio itself stood.

Pastor opened the door and stood to the side, allowing Troy to enter. He let loose a brief sigh, and entered the room. Inside he found, sitting on a large, comfortable-looking leather chair, just peaking over the top, a man in a bright blue headwrap. When the door opened, the man swirled around, revealing dark skin, large circular sunglasses, and a wide, toothy grin, as he made eye contact with Troy. In his hand, held up and in front of his face, was the drive.

"Well I'll be damned." He gestured with the flash drive, "the Runner hisself." He placed it on his desk and stood to his feet. "Man, I never thought I'd be the poor guy who'd greet your ass!" He reached forward and grasped Troy's hand with a boisterous laugh, his deep, loud voice filling the entire room. "Dan Anthony, my man! At your service and proud of it!" He said, in a smooth, definitely radio-worthy voice.

Troy shook his hand, "Troy." He said.

"Ah! Like the Iliad!" Dan fell back into his chair and gestured for Troy to sit on another. "And wouldn't you damn-well know it, this little drive? This thing you're running? The very wood we need to build our Trojan Horse. Kind of appropriate, yeah?" He grinned widely.

Troy nodded, "I can't say I'm too familiar with the Iliad." He said, apologetically.

Dan shook it away, "ah, it's fine, it's fine, it's fine." He leaned forward, "I have to know. What'd you have to do to get here? When I got word from Lee that he was bringing someone important, I never expected you of all people!"

Troy shrugged, "not much to tell, really. I had to leave my group to get this moved." He said.

Dan wasn't buying it, "aaaaah, c'mon, man! You've gotta give me somethin'!" He nodded to the radio equipment behind him. "I've gotta get a story to tell 'em! This is it, man! This is the good fight getting fought!"

Troy leaned back in his chair. "It's… Really not much. My group's small, and we had a death recently, so if I left I knew we'd be that much weaker. So I took a big gamble and assembled the leaders of the major bandits in the county -"

"Whoa!" Dan leaned back, clapping his hands together. "You pulled a Switzerland Proposal?" He laughed, "haha! My man! Give me five!" He held his hand up.

The man's boisterous personality was catching Troy off guard. He hadn't seen anyone smile or laugh like this in years. He gave Dan his high five, "I've never heard that term before."

"It's from the Help Desk." Said Dan, "see, there's a lot of folks out there who think like you - great minds, and all that - and they know that it's easier to survive when you've got a group… But not easier to survive when you're in a group." He explained, gesticulating with his hands. "So they get all the leaders of the groups around them, set up a neutral zone where they can't kill eachother, and agree to work with eachother instead of against eachother. That way, while they might not be all allied and such, they at least won't be doing the Invaders' jobs for 'em and…" He paused, before he shook his head. "Ah shit, I'm sorry man."

Troy blinked, "hm?"

"I talk a lot - I'm not that used to actually talking with someone, only to folks. Comes with the territory, you see." He leaned back in his chair, "so, what do you need? A car? Map of the country? We need to get this to the Ford man, and pronto. I wasn't kiddin' when I said this was our Trojan Horse - the Specter himself said the key to winning the war could be on this drive." He drawled. "Anything I've got, it's yours man. It's the least I can do." He smiled.

At this, Troy nodded, this would likely be where he lost the man. "I'm hoping for supplies." He said.

"Supplies? Shit, I can get you -"

"For my group." Troy continued. "If it's as valuable as you say it is, we need to be compensated. We went through hell to get this 'Switzerland Proposal' set up, and had to burn a lot of our supplies to get passage here."

Dan blinked, tilting his head. "Wait, you're -" He looked up, "hey Jane, close the door, yeah?"

The door swung shut behind Troy, who briefly looked over his shoulder. He turned back forward, and saw Dan leaning forward, inches from Troy, his voice lowered. "You're just going to drop this off?" He asked, "man, do you know what's on it?" He asked. "It needs a Runner."

Troy shook his head, "I'm not that man, Dan." He rumbled, lowly. "I respect what you guys are doing here. You keep up hope and you don't stop fighting… I believe in your Good Fight, but I don't think it's one we can win. Ever." He stressed, "I just want to keep my people fed and safe."

Despite Troy's words, however, Dan didn't give up. He shook his head, "they won't be safe, man! Not with those spaceships floating around the planet! Not with royal dickheads like Spokane running around and enslaving his own kind!" He drawled, "you gotta think about the big picture here, man!" He said, gesturing with his hands. "I give it… Ten years. Ten years at the most, before the Great and Powerful Admiral Tso'Mal finally decides it's high time to get the whole planet under his control. Maybe his masters will want more of us, maybe he'll want to look good, but either way, the best way to do it is to clean up the Bandit Counties.

"You think you can stay 'safe' and 'free' with that kind of pressure bearing down on you?" He asked, pointing at Troy. "The entire planet earth couldn't do much more than give 'em a black eye! You guys may be the equivalent of stubbing their toe! And if you kill more of them than they want, they'll just blow you out of orbit like they did every place they found too much struggle!" He argued.

Troy shook his head, "but at least that's ten years we'll be the closest to being free that we'll ever be."

"Oh come on. That? That out there? That's not being free. That's not even the closest to being free that we can get!" He reached back and grabbed the drive, and then presented it to Troy. "This! This is freedom! This is the good fight! This can win us the war, it can save our species and give us back what we had!"

"Then why can't you, or any of the guys out there, send it out?" Troy asked, "just give us what we want, fight your good fight and -"

"It's not my good fight, Troy!" Dan leaned up and shook his head, "it's the good fight! It's everyone's fight and in the entire history of mankind it's probably the only fight that's ever really mattered! This is everyone's fight, man! Why do you think the UN just plain didn't stop fighting until the entire planet went down? Why do you think those soldiers never stopped pushing? That's like a fish trying to swim upstream man, a fighter jet trying to make it to orbit! It's possible but damn if it isn't probable! It was the principle of the thing!

"Yeah the battle wasn't what was gonna be won, but the battle ain't what matters, it's the war!" Dan stressed, "they fought to give us the time and the chance to win the war! They fought to make the Invaders think the fight had been taken out of us! They didn't fight because it was their fight, they fought because it was everyone's!" He sighed, "am - am I gettin' through to you at all? This isn't World War Two, where we can just send off the men and let 'em go kill Nazis. This isn't the War on Terror where we can just pretend it ain't happening while the boys in green are gettin' their legs blown off. This is everywhere, and it's everything. Every single one of us alive right now was born to fight this fight! Not just for us, but for everyone! Our moms, dads, sisters - husbands and wives - our children, man.

"That's what the fight's all about. Have you been to Atlanta?"

Troy shook his head. "I've heard what goes on there."

"Man, there was a miner - one of the Mantle Men. Guy woke up, crack of dawn, every morning, put on his protective gear, got on an elevator, went down a couple thousand miles to go pull precious metals from the mantle. It wasn't easy work, but his wife was in the military and died during the war. This was the only way to keep his kid from getting shipped off to the prisons, yeah?"


"So, one day, something goes wrong. Suit malfunctions, elevator can't get him out fast enough - it happens!" He nodded, "but this guy, the Enforcers in charge of him didn't think like that. They only saw that his arm got burned off and now he couldn't work anymore. So they gave him a day - just one day! They said say your goodbyes, you and your kid are getting collars and are getting shipped out. Wanna know what he does?"


"He goes home, pulls off the antique gun he's got on the mantlepiece. Shoots his daughter and then himself." Dan drawled, with a frown. "You see my point, man? That's the world we live in right now -" He pointed at Troy, "and you refusing to run this drive?" He flipped the drive into his palm and set it down. "That's lettin' this world stay the way it is. That's telling more dads that they can't make one mistake or their daughters gotta die to not suffer through being enslaved."

"I don't understand why you can't run this."

"Me, I can't run it because that's not a fight I can fight." He patted his left leg, "my knee can hardly get me out to my car, let alone across the country to New York."

"Why New York?"

"Irradiated hellhole, courtesy of our last illustrious president. Invaders won't risk their ships crossing that air, so it's the perfect port for the Ford to link up and get that drive."

"Well, fine. But if you can't, you've got dozens of able-bodied guards out there who can."

"Yeah, but how many of them sweet-talked their way into a non-aggression pact with a shitton of bandits, Troy?" Dan frowned, "alright, think of it this way. Those folks out there? Girls like Jane? Guys like Frank? They kill folks real good, but they aren't much for the talking half. They can grab that drive and run it as far as they can, but the moment they find a problem they can't shoot their way out of -" He clapped his hands. "Game over. They fail, the bad guys get the drive, mankind loses the war.

"But you? You convinced an entire freakin' Bandit County to stop trying to kill eachother. You've got the gift man, the gift of gab. You can get shit done and you don't have to kill people to do it. You've gotta be it, man! You've gotta be the one to run the drive. It can't be anyone else!" Dan laughed, "if you think it's big 'ol scary power-armor super soldiers that win wars, then you've gotta pull your head outta your ass, man. They certainly help, but the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. The guy who knows when to fight and when to talk is always the guy who makes it through. How the hell else do you think Tso'Mal conquered us so fast? His ass turned right around and every time we gave him a black eye, he turned it into some kind of terror message and got the entire fucking galaxy to weigh down on us."

Troy recoiled, "how the hell do you know that?" It was the first time he'd heard something like that.

Dan shook his head, "a guy's gotta have his secrets, Troy." He said, "but you get my point, I see."

Troy sighed, "fine. It's not your fight. But I still don't see why -"

"Alright Troy, alright." Dan shook his head, "Man - here. This is what I'll do. You want some stuff? Want some animals? Gas? Food? Protection? I'll get you a cow. I'll get you enough stuff that you could have all-night bonfires with the stuff and you'll still have too much. I've got anything you could want - I've got sushi for cryin' out loud. I could ship you a dozen soldiers from a dozen different countries, I've got an Israeli Commando, and they could all bring a thousand rounds and a mortar cannon if you want it. But you want it? You gotta deliver this drive for me.

"You gotta." He pointed at the blonde, "not me, not one of my guys or girls, it's gotta be you. You brought this here to me, you gotta get it to the Ford. Call it fighting the good fight, call it religious spiritual bullshit, call it regular ol' bullshit, call it what you want, I know it's gotta be you. So you tell me you'll do that, I'll make sure your people are set up for life." He extended his hand, "that's how you walk out of here with what you want. That's what you need to do.

"So waddaya say?" He drawled, the wide, toothy smile stretching back across his face.

Troy sighed, staring down at the dark skinned DJ's hand.

God damn it… Dan was the one with the cards, here. Troy thought he'd been able to come in and convince the man to give him what he'd want, then he'd be on his way, but then Dan just turned it right around and played him, used the supplies for his group like a carrot on the stick. Troy would give him some credit, actually - he'd all but done the same thing Troy had, with the bandits. Figured out and found what he needed, and then dangled it on the end of a stick. If he wanted what he wanted, he had to do what Dan wanted. Quid Pro Quo. He wasn't happy about it, but he would give the man credit. This guy had probably been playing the game a lot longer than Troy and his college education ever had.

Troy sighed, and reached forward, but Dan snapped his hand back, "actually, one more thing."

Troy frowned, "I'm already agreeing to go traipsing across the entire country, what the fuck do you want?"

Dan grinned, "an interview, man!" He extended his hand again, "you know what it'll do to morale if the people hear the voice of the Runner? You tell 'em you're in the fight, you're in for the long haul, you're struggling alongside 'em?" His grin turned to the widest smile of the day, framing his bright white teeth. "God damn, man - it'd be the biggest win for the good fight since we got the drive to Earth in the first place!"

Troy sighed, "fine." He shook his hand. "When do you want this to happen?"

Dan's smile only grew, "shit, man, that's tonight. You stay here the night, I'll feed you some good food, you give the human race a little hope." He leaned to the side, "hey, Jane!" He called out.

The door opened without delay, "sir?"

"Show our new guest here to the only amenities we've got." He looked down, "you guys have hot water where you come from?" The slowly dawning look of awe on Troy's face answered his question for him. "Haha! Yeah! Go get your ass a good shower man, you've earned it!"

When Troy left, Dan sat back in his chair, a smile on his face that wouldn't go away. For the first time in years, he had hope beyond just a blind faith. His entire body seemed alite with this hope, and after he revelled in it for a few moments, he turned to his desk, gave a brief look to the flash drive, and then opened up his computer.

DFELD: Hey wake up! I've got news!

HALOverNineThousand: You act as if I don't have access to the webcams in your laptop.

DFELD: Yeah yeah, you're a good hacker - I get it. Were you watching?

HALOverNineThousand: I'm always watching, Dan.

DFELD: You get in touch with the Ford, tell Captain Del Rio to get his ass moving to New York. It's happening, man, it's happening!

HALOverNineThousand: Thank you for convincing him, Dan. I knew you could do it.

DFELD: Heeeey man, I've talked my way out of FCC violations. Getting him to take the drive? That shit's easy. I'm just still in shock that he made it *my* way! That's providence, man! It's gotta be!

HALOverNineThousand: The interview was a nice touch. I am certain it will lift His spirits. He has felt terrible amounts of guilt since the national mall.

DFELD: Hey, you tell him from me - that wasn't his fault! That was Spokane, man, and he'll get what's comin'. Our Runner will see to that, now won't he?

HALOverNineThousand: I shall pass that along.

DFELD: I hope the drive has everything you were looking for, man. Any luck finding that Russian dude?

HALOverNineThousand: I cannot make contact with him until I've the remaining necessary pieces. The Ford's efforts have been invaluable, but it is this drive that I require before I can go for the final piece to the puzzle. I am not aware if he is within your range, but if he is listening, do warn him that the time is fast approaching. He will appreciate it.

DFELD: You got it my man! Keep up the good fight!

HALOverNineThousand: I will, always. Good Day, Dan.

2 (Fin)

Many may argue when truly Runner began his run.

Some may say it began when he first retrieved the drive. Some may say it would be the day he left Feldspar's studio. Some may even say it began the day he was born.

I believe it truly began when the word 'Providence' left Feldspar's mouth.

I do not believe in God, only Man. But I do believe in the power of faith, and with the proper words one can be capable of creating a rallying cry that would thusly unite the masses and make them capable of literally anything.

I was only able to hope that, when Runner and Feldspar went on the air, they could provide this rallying cry. They could be Providence.

Because I knew we needed it, perhaps now more than ever.

Because as with every victory, there loomed an even greater defeat.

"It is… Therefore." Trembled the analyst, as he stood in the wake of the most powerful man in the solar system. "I regret to inform you that… The human datastick was not found and may have been lost.

In front of him, staring blankly through a wide window and down to the pale blue dot that held the species that would not break, the Admiral, Shin Tso'Mal stood with his arms held behind his back. He was, while tranquil, was clearly struggling to not lash out in an anger, his face etched in a tight, livid scowl. The human standing next to him stood in a similar stance, hands held behind his back, his dark green eyes flicking between the Admiral and the analyst reading him the report.

Tso'Mal sighed, the mere act nearly causing the analyst to jump out of his boots.

"Every. Single. Inch." He rumbled. "I don't care what it takes. Comb every single inch of that state. All ways into and out of it will be blockaded and I want collars and papers changed daily. Anyone with paperwork out of date - I don't care if it is but a second - detain them and have them searched. Have their families searched. Have their friends searched and then search their homes too. Sterilize them to the ground if you must. No one will leave that state, and while you lock it down I want every…" He growled. "Single…" His entire upper body quivered with barely contained rage. "Inch! Scouted. Find that damn drive, by any means. Offer bonuses to the men, rations to the workers, and freedom to the slaves and their families too." He glared at the analyst over his shoulder. "Go."

The analyst went, as fast as it could.

Tso'Mal was left alone with the human, who adjusted the red cloth that hung from his neck. After he was allowed to glare at the object of his rage another moment, Tso'Mal turned to the human. "What can you do?"

The human strode next to Tso'Mal, to look down upon his planet alongside him. "I would conclude…" He drawled, in what Tso'Mal knew only through exposure to be a deep southern accent. "That this entire ordeal is an operation of our dear friend the human Specter." He said, "he intends to use this as a driving action. A means with which to increase morale… Perhaps even draw more to the cause as he flaunts that drive as a symbol of hope." The man drawled, before turning to directly meet the gaze of the master of the human race.


"My suggestion would be to use this desire against them. This Specter seems to be a master of the long game but many of his people, as evidenced by the National Mall, seem wholly incapable of playing such a game without his guidin' hand." The man drawled, "they have in that drive a chance to win. You must give them the hope that they can… By makin' them think that they can garner a second victory. Call a press conference, Admiral, and send a double. Ensure there are a great many humans of the free, workin', and enslaved variety. Ensure there are many Enforcers there.

"They will not pass such a golden opportunity up. Even should the Specter instruct them not to, the local rebels may very well decide they know what is best and will attempt to end your life. In such an attempt, they will inevitably end many human lives. As a matter of fact I would think all attendin' humans would find their lives ended by such an attack." He said, his deep voice filling the air with its slow, methodical tones.

"This will turn the very people they fight for against them. Such that if this Runner escapes Georgia… He will find no safe harbor. Only people who want nothing more than to turn him in and gain whatever reward it is they desire." Suggested the man. "We turn the entire species against its only defenders… And they will find no allies in any place. No one to trust. Not on Earth their home… Not on Palaven divided…Not even on Tuchanka inflamed. Nowhere." He said, his frown much colder than that of the Admiral's, and his two green eyes locked onto the Admiral's four.