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Blight and Ruin


Sarah Tintagyl
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Leaving Austria was like having a gigantic weight lifted off her back. In the jet flying out of Vienna International Airport, Bridgette Saenger looked back at the shimmering city and smiled. She was leaving a long chapter of her life behind forever, but heading to Antananarivo a new chapter would be starting. She gripped her hand loosely around the martini glass and chuckled at the piece of paper in front of her. Attached to the top was a check for the sum of ten million thalers, a massive portion of her wealth amassed as Chancellor from swindling Royal funds from the beginning of her administration. The other paper was a list of countries and organizations that Bridgette believed would be of the same mind. The Green Gang of China, the Italian Revolutionaries of Athens, the Green Flag of Pravus Inguro, and of course the mysterious Dark Hand. On the flip side of the paper was a more extensive list of countries to be researched for one specific purpose, extortion and annihilation. Just the thought nearly sent the young woman into a fit of maniacal as the jet peeled away from the Viennese skyline, heading south towards Madagascar.

Reaching Antananarivo, Bridgette stepped off the plane and hailed a taxi cab. She was looking incredibly chic, sunglasses, a pink overcoat that hid a pink sundress. Not the predicted outfit for a person about to enter into the profession she had planned out, but every person in the business of trying to destroy the world had to leave a mark. As the cab drove through the streets of Antananarivo, the Former Chancellor weighed out the images in her head. What had driven her so far off the edge to contemplate a life of not only organized crime, but what she referred to as super crime. The Republican move had been an embarrassing defeat and she still believed that Austria and other nations throughout the world were being taken advantage of. What the world needed was an equalizer, to keep all nations, big and small, knowing that there were lines that one could not cross. Bridgette figured she was the person best to set up such lines and with the technology that she and Dr. Y possessed, the world would wish it was on it's best behavior.

Finally reaching the field office of Hourglass International, Bridgette stepped in and rung the secretary to let De Witt know that she had arrived. "Tell him that a business partner is here to see him." She lifted her head and breathed in the warm air of the south. "Winds of change and all that."

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As Saenger's cab drove through the streets of Antananarivo, she would see old colonial buildings pass by as well as the more modern skyscrapers and high-rises of the central business district. One of these high-rises was the Hourglass International headquarters, a black building around thirty stories tall, with the company's logo directly over the revolving entrance doors and two men on either side of the entrance watching all who approached. The weather outside was not the tropical heat one would expect in a place like this; it was winter in the southern hemisphere, and it was a cool day in Antananarivo.

The lobby was not all that grand, with a ceiling about as high as that of a bank lobby with circular lights set into the ceiling. However, the interior decorators had done a nice job of mixing the blacks, whites, and reds everpresent throughout. The receptionist's desk was a semicircle across the room from the doors, such that anyone approaching it across the marble floor would hear their own footsteps reverberate throughout the room.

The receptionist was a young woman in her twenties, with short black hair and wearing a headset. Her attention seemed to be on the computer in front of her, and she barely looked up at Bridgette as she spoke. "Yes, Miss Saenger. You're expected." She turned her head to a Malagasy man standing nearby. "Jacques, will you please take Miss Saenger to meet the bosses."

Jacques nodded and glanced at Bridgette. "This way, please." As they walked over to the elevators, the receptionist resumed the incessant typing at her keyboard. Jacques pressed the button for 21 and swiped his access card into the slot.

Jacques stayed mostly silent for the brief trip up, making no small talk and only answering questions, although he did cast a few more glances at Bridgette when he thought she wasn't looking. Once they were up on the 21st floor, he led her straight down the hallway and to the only door at the end. "Mr. De Witt and Sr. Da Silva will be waiting for you." He opened the door and announced her, then closed the door and returned to his work once he was dismissed.

Saenger found herself in a boardroom, with a conference table arranged lengthwise to the full-height window looking outside into the city. The boardroom had a similar view as Da Silva's office, seeing as it was situated directly above his office on the 20th. A few assistants were nearby, distributing beverages.

De Witt and Da Silva were seated next to each other across the table from Saenger, and it was Da Silva who spoke first.

"Welcome to Arctica, Madame Saenger, please sit down." He gestured to the high-backed chair across from him. "I hope you had a pleasant flight. I am Joaquim Francisco da Silva, CEO and Chairman of Hourglass International, and you already know my colleague, Mr. De Witt." De Witt nodded, and Da Silva continued. "First of all, I want to thank you again for choosing Hourglass for your needs in Austria. Our men and women who were down there have found it to be a very educating experience."

As the two men had agreed before the meeting, De Witt took over then, being more familiar to Saenger. "Now that we can speak without any risk of being overheard, Senhor Da Silva and I are very interested in hearing what you have to say."

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"Well I can say you both do very well for yourself, which is expected on how the Hourglass operatives behaved in Austria. I can say I have never had such pleasure in serving and in a way, commanding men and women of such dedication." She said sitting down at the table. "But then again, money is the best motivator of any action."

Reaching into her coat pocket, Bridgette produced a few more pieces of paper and laid them across to De Silva and De Witt. "Gentlemen, what I am proposing is a merger of sorts. You may find it hard to believe that someone who is essentially only a refugee from her country with diminishing funds could propose such a venture, but I am someone with a great deal of nerve and a great deal of ambition. My goal here will make all of us very rich as well make the world's nations and governments dependent on us for nearly all of their needs." Bridgette smiled and leaned back on the chair letting her hair fall down behind her shoulders. "The world, gentlemen, is a rather stable place and a boring place at that. Governments play war games with each other to keep their industries afloat and when questionable activities come into play, they call people like you. To do the dirty work, if you will."

She turned back to them and smiled. "The thing is, they've gotten lazy, wealthy, and now with the world finally reaching for each others throats, it's our time to strike. We promise nations defense for a return payment, we extort larger nations to humiliate them and bring them to their knees. We build smaller nations up for a price and then destroy them when they get greedy. I've been in the business long enough to know that the world is full of fools and that a few strategically placed regiments and perhaps bombs can make people do anything you want."

With a finger in her hair she began to twirl the blond strands, starting to turn white. "Of course, a prestigious company as Hourglass wouldn't be right to play the villain. But I can assure you that you will always have a job, you just need to help me in causing a bit of chaos. We both get paid at the end and in return I get to watch this miserable world burn."

Bridgette rested her elbow on the table and smiled seductively at both men across from her. "So, boys, what do you say? Oh and if you want to know my credentials..." She reached into her pocket again and took out a small mechanical beetle. "This little baby can destroy a city block if you place it correctly and I'd be happy to show a demonstration."

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As Bridgette spoke, the two men glanced at each other. Was she telling the truth? If she was, and if she had the power to effect such changes...the role of their company could change drastically. Neither of them knew if they were prepared for that, and in a business, you didn't jump on the first opportunity without first doing a cost-benefit analysis.

"Excuse me," De Witt began, "I will have to confer with Sr. Da Silva." The two of them stood and moved to the window, masking their conversation in hushed tones as well as speaking in Afrikaans. With Da Silva's limited understanding of the language, there were more than a few pauses at De Witt explained quietly. Using this as a cue, the assistants buzzed around, refilling drinks and just busying themselves in general. The bosses emerged from their conference and returned to their seats. De Witt continued.

"Indeed you are correct, Madame Saenger, in saying that Hourglass, a company that has only recently established its reputation, would not do well to actively sow disorder in the world. It may be lucrative, it may change the situation in the world such that our services are needed more often..." Marthinus hesitated, and Da Silva continued for him.

"What Mr. De Witt means is, we cannot put our company fully into this venture; we have an image to uphold and if that image is tarnished, we will lose some of our, erm...easily discouraged customers. In addition, some of our operators, while they have the mental resolve to do this kind of work, would be uneasy with doing some less tasteful things.

What I will do, Madame Saenger, is have Mr. De Witt reorganize one of our groups - only one for now - and fill it with the most morally flexible individuals we employ. This will be a sort of trial group for your endeavors, and the success or failure of it will be the basis for further...investment into your ventures.

One thing I must ask you to do is avoid doing too much damage to Arctica, if you can. While it would be nice for Hourglass to be paid to work both sides of the law in this venture, it would not do well for family members of our employees to perish in attacks."

------

[i]Meanwhile, at the Bureau of Internal Investigation field office in Antananarivo...[/i]

In the second floor office of the Bureau building, the special agent in charge was talking on the phone, pacing around his desk as the telephone wire curled itself around and around. "THE Bridgette Saenger?"

"That's right, sir. One of the customs officers at Ivato airport notified us that she just got off a plane maybe an hour ago and took a cab into town."

"You're kidding me. What is the leader of the Austrian Republican forces doing in town?"

"I'm not sure, but I could hazard a guess that she went to visit Hourglass."

The station chief sat on the edge of the desk and uncurled the wires as he spoke. "They had a contract with her up in Austria, didn't they?"

"That's right, sir. My brother in law went there, wife says he didn't see much combat. Mainly mapping the town they were stationed in, says it was in case they had to defend it."

"Really, where's he now?"

"He works at the HQ downtown now, does guard duty. Name's Jacques."

"Interesting. Well, keep me updated on the situation...and if it's not too much trouble, see what Jacques knows." He hung up.

"Well, well, well. War ends in Austria, Saenger comes down here and goes straight to the Hourglass building." Of course, it could have been to finish up the contract, but he didn't believe that. Coming here in person could mean that something big was transpiring. Something was always going on in Antananarivo. Last time it was the investigation into the Church, before that it was Malan's official visit. And both times it had been because something bad had happened. Was something bad going to happen this time?

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"I can assure you both that Hourglass need only to play on the 'right' side of the law. In truth, you would get paid for cleaning up my messes and I plan to make rather large messes." She grin and looked hopefully out the window at the city below. "As to Africa, I will do what I can, but there are many collapsing nations across the continent that are ripe for investment, especially for a base. However, I will promise to do what I can to keep my area of conflict limited to the other continents, but a minor mishap, well I can't control that."

Reaching back across the table, Bridgette picked up the beetle and placed it back into her coat. "I do thank you for the reorganization of one of your units. It means the world to me and as payment and the official merger of my business ventures and yours." She pushed one of the slips of paper forward to the two men. "Ten million Thalers should cover the expenses for now. As to later, hopefully we're turning a profit of wealth very soon. I have a few artifacts that might be very lucrative to the black market and other collectors, but that's hidden business right now. I'm sure you both understand."

Then the madwoman pushed herself up from the chair and bowed her head at the two businessmen. "That said gentlemen, if there's nothing else you'd like to talk with me about, I would be happy to take my leave. I need to procure some area for my operations. Robotics and Biological Experiments have to be kept hidden from the world's eye. Africa, is without a doubt the best continent to do such a thing. Plus, I can work on my tan. I was thinking the Commonwealth of Africa or that new Republic near the Congo. But if you two have better, safer ideas, please, let me know."

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"Do try to keep us informed of any actions you plan to take in this country. We'd appreciate it." Da Silva reached over and took the paper, sliding it into his suit jacket. "Much appreciated, Madame Saenger. I look forward to a fruitful partnership."

De Witt stood and reached for something in a pocket, eventually taking out a small memory card and handing it to her, much like the one he gave her in the side room in Salzburg. "Here are new encryption and decryption protocols for further communications. To make sure no one else reads our correspondence." Da Silva also stood. "As for a testing location, I am afraid we can't help you with that. There are, of course, plenty of sparsely populated areas in the jungles and hinterlands of Africa. I'm sure one of these will be suitable for your purposes.

We'll have a car waiting for you when you leave to take you to the airport or wherever you'll go. Until next time, Madame Saenger, farewell."

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[i]Cape Town, The Republic of Transvaal[/i]

Before leaving Madagascar, Bridgette had spent some time thinking about her next move and how to turn the profit that companies like Hourglass International needed to see. She was after all on a time constraint and the faster her 'organization' turned a profit meant she could keep the world in flames for as long as she pleased. On board the ship she had commandeered from Artican merchants, she scanned the world map for potential spots to begin her first series of operations. Maintaining a constant profit for the upkeep of Dr. Y's soldiers, funding for her biological experiments, along with spending money that would come into play when contacting organizations such as the Green Gang and the Green Flag. Tossing the requests of De Silva and De Witt out the window, the Former Austrian Chancellor turned to the map of Africa. The continent was full of nations on the verge of collapse, corrupt corporations, and other characteristics which would welcome someone of her reputation. Bridgette figured that as long as she stayed out of nations like Aeon, Novak, and the Rebel Army, her operations would be safe. However, while remaining safe, she needed to make sure whatever region she chose had the resources to turn a profit.

The West African Republic was a fairly new nation and the Commonwealth of Africa had scores of internal problems, but while wealth could be made, Bridgette would still have to compete with governments who could field soldiers. On the other hand, the vast expanses of the Republic of Transvaal, which was on the verge of anarchic collapse offered no real resistance from the government, as there was no government, along with the lucrative diamond trade near Kimberly. The lawless cities could also provide some places where she could begin to assemble her operatives and create a 'home base', well out of the way of the prying eyes of the world.

As the ship pulled into the harbor of Port Elizabeth, Bridgette passed the necessary thalers for the authorities to look the other way on her arrival. The less people the were aware of her presence, the better. After arriving, she rented a large apartment near the harbor area and made the necessary arrangements with the harbor master to purchase a nearby warehouse. Now things were going to start getting interesting.

A few days later, Bridgette sat in her apartment's study overlooking the Port Elizabeth Harbor with a glass of cranberry vodka twirling it in her hand. When the knock she was expecting finally came to the door, she smiled and turned in her seat and laid the glass on the table beside her. "Come." She called and the door opened as Dr. Y and Erick Mariën, her financial adviser, stepped in. "So gentlemen, what news? Is everything moving on schedule."

Dr. Y sighed with a nod. "We've been able to get most of my soldiers unloaded, but they'll have to be reassembled in the warehouse. We've been able to bluff the authorities so far, it helps when there's no real national government. But, there might be people snooping around. You can only say you're unloading so many machine parts."

Bridgette swung her seat back towards the window and keyed in on the Artican ships under her control that were responsible for the unloading of her and Dr. Y's toys. "Well put up a sign that says private property and bring some of the Hourglass operatives that De Witt promised me to act as security."

"And the harbor masters?" Said Mariën.

"Increase the bribe, this station in Port Elizabeth for everything is only temporary anyways. If you think that a full assembly of your mech-soldiers is too dangerous Doctor, we can wait until we have access to a safer location. South Africa is just one out of many stops we are going to be making on the continent."

"Personally, I was wondering that myself, Madame, what are we doing in Transvaal. I know the chaos is nice, but we don't have much privacy."

"Well that's where you'll be heading tomorrow Erick." Bridgette swung back around and grinned. "The Kimberly Diamond Mines are some of the most lucrative in the world and they could provide a handsome income to fund the rest of our operations, ranging from bribes to purchasing power."

"They were controlled some conglomerate out of Antwerp, correct?" Added Erick.

"I believe that business tanked a long time ago and with the recent anarchy in Transvaal, well, I can't see the mines getting all that much use. Maybe local businesses, but I believe we could take care of those with some muscle in the right place. As to the Antwerp Conglomerate, I want you on a plane to Berlin tomorrow. Find the Minister of Economic Affairs in the Germanic Union and talk to him or her about what happened to the business. If it's state owned, see if you can manage to purchase some of the mines. Our funds are still strong, right?"

"Well your estate can only handle so much Madame, but I believe we're okay for now."

"The diamonds will alleviate the pressures of finance. Plus, I'm sure we can get away with some petty swindling around Port Elizabeth, at least to make the burden less painful."

Erick took a long breath and nodded at his boss. "I'll see what I can do."

"No, Erick," Bridgette stood up and crossed the room taking the young man's cheeks in her right hand. "Say it with me. I will get it done."

"I will get it done." He said nearly biting his tongue before Bridgette let him go.

"Good boy," she said and as the Chancellor let him go, she turned back to Dr. Y. "As for you Doctor, if possible, I'd like you to take a squad of Hourglass operatives up the coast. All the way to the Congo River Basin. You both were talking about privacy. There's no better privacy than in the jungle. Then you can give me a report on how things are looking. I have a theory I want to test out on the people of the Congo."

The Doctor smiled and bowed his head. "You're holding secrets from me Bridgette? That's unlike you."

"No no, I'll let you know once I'm in place. It's delightfully devilish. But you can do that for me darling?"

"Of course, I'd be glad to." The Doctor said with his thick Russian accent as he fingered his beard.

"Very well then." Bridgette walked back to her chair and sat down. The vodka touching her lips as the dock workers continued to unload her cargo. In a matter of hours nearly everything would be safely on the ground and hopefully in a matter of days, her fingers could finally touch an empire of her own making. An Empire of Crime and an Empire of Chaos.

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In the days following the meeting in Antananarivo, over a hundred Hourglass operatives from various stations were called up by the company and told that they would be on "indefinite special assignment" as of immediately, with increased pay and that they would have 24 hours to pack up and say their goodbyes before gathering at several predetermined rally points. Mercenaries in Antananarivo, Oceana, Maputo, Lilongwe, and Lusaka gathered at transit points and were transported en masse to an undisclosed location.

120 men and women eventually gathered in the hills of Mozambique's far west, and filed into a small camp in the light forest. The place was surrounded by sandbags with M60 machine guns placed at strategic points with only one entrance, a break in the sandbags with two machine guns placed on the sides. A quarter of the space inside was reserved for a miniscule parade ground, with the rest being occupied by two barracks buildings, a supply building, a helipad, and a command post.

All 120 operatives, upon their arrival, were shepherded into the parade ground. After a few minutes of waiting, the door to the command post swung open and out walked a tall, thin black man wearing forest fatigues bearing the Hourglass logo. He had the look of a killer, and his right cheek and jaw were disfigured by an ugly vertical scar. He walked over and stopped directly in front of them, his eyes meeting theirs with a challenging look. Nobody looked away, and he nodded in approval, but his face kept the same murderous expression.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" he began in a stiff tone, with a light, indeterminable accent. "Welcome to Wraith Camp." He smiled for the first time, showing a prominent gold crown. "You have been selected because you are the meanest sons of !@#$%*es that we employ. You have been selected for a special mission. Now I'm not going to tell you what, or who wants this done, all you need to know is that it requires the moral flexibility you displayed during your interviews. You will learn more when the time comes.

You are being reorganized into Wraith Group. You will be on indefinite assignment with this camp as a base of operations until you are needed for active operation. My name is Maurice Lumumba and I am your group leader."

Another stern-looking man appeared next to Lumumba and got everyone situated in their barracks and handed out equipment while Lumumba returned to the command post and issued his report.

------

In Antananarivo, Marthinus de Witt received a report from the leader of the reorganized group that the operators had arrived and they were awaiting his order. "Good, good..."

[quote]To: Bridgette Saenger
From: Hourglass International

Madame Saenger,

I am writing to tell you that the reorganized group I promised has been settled in a remote camp and is ready for your use. We will need at least one day's advanced notice to execute any operations. Reply when you need them.

Due to the fact that this group is for your use and we cannot use them for other contracts, you will be billed $300,000 upkeep for every month they are inactive and $500,000 for every month they are on active assignment. The funds you have provided us will cover this for some time, after which time we will require further monthly payments.

Regards,

Marthinus de Witt
Chief Operating Officer
Hourglass International, Inc.[/quote]


------

In the Bureau office in Antananarivo, a Malagasy Hourglass operative by the name of Jacques was being questioned. He sat across the table from a well-dressed BII agent in the office's interrogation room.

"I want to thank you for coming here today, Mr. Rafara."

Jacques nodded. "Sure. My brother-in-law said you needed my help with something."

"Indeed. Mr. Rafara, you were in Austria recently, on a contract for Republican forces?"

"I-I'm sorry, sir, but that's confidential. I could get fired for divulging any details."

"Yes, details. But affirming the existence of a contract is not forbidden, is it? A simple yes or no will do."

Jacques nodded.

"I assume that's a yes, Mr. Rafara?" The agent didn't let him answer. "You work at the company headquarters now as security, am I right?"

"What...what are you trying to get at here? Did Hourglass do something?"

The agent got impatient. "Did you see Bridgette Saenger in the building ever?"

"..."

"Did you or not?"

"I'm not sure if I should be-"

"Yes or no, Mr. Rafara."

"...yes. She had a meeting with De Witt - that's Marthinus de Witt, the COO, and the CEO/Chairman, Mr. Da Silva. I just took her up on the elevator and led her into the boardroom. I don't know any more."

"Okay, Mr. Rafara..." The agent sighed, and glanced behind him to the one-way mirror, then back to Jacques. "You're free to go. Thank you for coming in to speak with us."

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As the limousine pulled into the town of Kimberley, some miles north of Port Elizabeth, the message from De Witt finally got through to Bridgette. Quickly reading through it, her face turned from one of serene pleasantness from enjoying the wide plains and vistas of South Africa to one of utter discuss. Crumbling the piece of paper into a ball, she threw it to the floor and shook her head. "These !@#$%^&* don't know the meaning of the word, patience. I swear, Erick," she said looking at the video screen in front of her. "They no I have to get set up first. 'Stay out of Africa'," she said in a mocking tone. "All the while coming up with these exuberant payments."

"Well you are funding your own private army, Madame Bridgette. These things do cost money."

The Former Chancellor sighed and rubbed her eyes. "It was easier when the sound of your voice brought people to your cause. Now you have to make sure you have their loyalty in gold as well as in tone."

"The stakes are a bit higher now though, don't you think?"

"Apparently so," Bridgette said as she sat back up, firmly in her seat. "Anyways, I have to go, I'm about to meet the gentlemen who run the Kimberley Mining Consortium. See what they can offer me in terms of wealth. I trust things in Berlin are going as planned."

"I have a meeting with the Economic Minister today, Madame, everything should be fine."

"Very well, take care Mariën." Bridgette smiled and kissed the screen before pressing the power button and watched his face turn to black. Then one of the valets opened the limousine door and the woman, dressed in a form fitting pink dress with a black hat and veil covering her face stepped towards the Kimberley Mining Headquarters with a smile on her face. If this went well, aggressive as she planned it, and the negotiations in Berlin were clean. Within the week, the Astrid Corporation, Bridgette's economic front for all her operations would be formed and Hourglass International would have double the payments they expected to receive.

---

"So what you're telling me, Miss...Saenger was it? Is that unless my partners and I split our costs with you, our mines will come under attack by your goons?" Said a large man with a thick head of gray hair and an equally thick waist. "Personally I should have you arrested, to think you can come in here and order my fellows around. You're out of your mind woman. I thought you were a sound business venture, not a mindless threat."

Bridgette took a long, deep, and smiling breath as she looked up at the twirling fans in the hot conference room. The building had to be dated back to the 1800s and by the look of things, the interior hadn't changed much. Even the table and chairs that they sat on, seemed to squeal in their old age, just from the madwoman's petite frame. Her heels ran over the deep ridges in the tile flooring and her hand moved tirelessly back and forth, fanning herself from the arid Kimberley heat. "Mister van Hoek, first of all, you didn't let me finish my proposition." Bridgette said holding up two fingers. "And secondly, I am not some mindless threat. You mention the authorities. Tell me, what authorities are in Transvaal right now? Your local police?"

"That's enough to handle someone of your ilk." Said another merchant around the table.

The Former Chancellor nodded and pressed her two hands perpendicular to her mouth. "Well for starters, you all underestimate what my Corporation, my associates, and I, myself, are capable of. I understand you are concerned, but I only tell you these things in the kindest way possible. I want to make our partnership one that doesn't have inner-fighting as much business mergers have."

"You talk like we're even thinking of including you Miss Saenger." Said Van Hoek.

"Well I do own about half of all the German Zoned mines in the region, I have about one-hundred twenty commandos ready to assault your mines and place them under my control and..." Bridgette grinned. "I haven't told you the positives of a merger with the Astrid Corporation."

"No, you've been underlying us with threats this entire time. It's hard to see positives."

"Well Mister van Hoek, what would you say is the total production power of your mines?"

Van Hoek paused and spoke hushed Dutch to his comrades to the left and right. Then staring down at a few pieces of paper he raised his head back to Bridgette. "Why do you ask?"

"Well is it manual labor?"

"About fifty percent cut between mechanical and manual." Said another business representative.

"And if you would give me the chance to double or perhaps even triple your production?"

The mining bosses once again consulted each other in hushed voices before Van Hoek spoke again. "That would be something to see, Miss Saenger, far better then your threats. Especially if what you say about the control of the German Zone is true. That would be very interesting indeed. Do you have figures for such a proposition."

"Eighty percent." She smiled.

"You must be out of your mi-" But before Hoek could finish the sentence, Bridgette had reached into her purse and pressed a small button activating one of her beetles, positioned across the town. The building shook and loose plaster fell from the ceiling as every one of the mining bosses ran over towards the window to watch a building across town go up in flames and smoke. As they watched and listened to the sirens begin to blast through the air, Bridgette began to chuckle and Van Hoek looked back at her with wide eyes. "You...you did that?"

"That was a warning, an abandoned building, because I like to give people a first chance. Eighty percent is generous, I could have simply bribed the authorities and taken over the mines myself. I suggest you take that deal Van Hoek." Her smile grew wickedly bright. "You'll learn to love me, I promise. I'm actually a lot of fun to work with. Promise." She said and blew a kiss to him as the flame climbed high into the arid sky.

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"Well I guess it was going to happen eventually." Bridgette scowled as she tossed the morning newspaper aside. On the front page was picture of Artican soldiers beginning to arrive on the borders and large cities of the defunct Republic of Transvaal. She shook her head and wrapped her fingers around the tea cup placed in front of her and moved her eyes to the right where a black haired woman sat quietly, with her legs folded over each other on the sofa. "Things are only going to get harder now Rachel. Is it ever too much to ask that things work out the way we want them too?"

The black haired woman smiled with a slight chuckle escaping her red lips. Rachel Raaste was an operative of Hourglass International who specialized in communications. In Erick's absence in Berlin, she served as Bridgette's personal secretary. However, Rachel, became much more than a secretary over the days that passed. Her knack for understand media and more importantly how to manipulate reporters and other avenues of communication, was something Bridgette could not do without. It had also given the madwoman the idea of expanding her realm of income and corruption to world media. It was still an idea in the process, but once the diamond mines and the plan in Central Africa came to bear fruit, Bridgette planned to send Rachel to Pravus Inguro or the Kingdom of Cochin, home of some of the most prestigious news outlets.

"Such is life Miss Bridgette, if everything came on a silver platter, well we'd have the world and then some by now."

"Well they haven't specified anything about Port Elizabeth, so for now we're safe." The Former Chancellor said as she stood up and pulled back the curtains over the windows. "But do send a message to Mister van Hoek and tell him if he tries to renege on our deal or go to the Artican authorities about our meeting. He can kiss all of his mines, his employees and his life good-bye. Not that he should be foolish enough to do something like that," Bridgette said as she paced the room. "The first of the Miner-Bots have already been constructed in Kimberley, he'll be cutting his expenditure in half, if not more."

"I'll send the message right away." Rachel said standing up. "Is there anything else you need at the moment Miss Bridgette?"

"Actually there are a few things you can do Rachel." The Austrian walked back to her desk and took out a few binders full of papers. "I'm going to be leaving to the Gulf of Guinea tonight. The Cross River Complex should be completed in a few days and I plan to take a long, relaxing trip around the coast of Africa. While I'm gone, I want you to hold down the fort here, Erick will be joining me in Central Africa so I want you to spearhead the birthing of Astrid in the South. If Artica plans on looking around, I want everything to look legitimate. We're a robotics company, working with the diamond miners up in Kimberley. That should be enough to set them straight."

"And I can forge and filter out what doesn't agree with our story. Trust me, Miss Bridgette, everything will be handled while you're gone. Hopefully, by the time you come back, we should have Port Elizabeth completely wrapped around Astrid's finger, Kimberley as well. The Articans or which ever government follows them will not be able to ignore us. That I can promise.

"There will be a nice reward in it for you, if you can do all that." Bridgette said taking the black haired woman by the shoulders, rather tightly and uncomfortably, which made Rachel squirm. "Because the punishment will be far worse."

"O..o..of course. Consider it done."

"Good girl." The Austria let go of her shoulders and picked up the pink veiled hat from off of the desk. "That said, my ship to the north awaits. Take care Rachel." Bridgette said happily as she swung her purse behind her, playing with the small robotic beetle inside. As she got to the bottom of the apartment, the Austrian took a deep breath of the rancid air of the harbor and the smells of the warehouses surrounding her. With the profits from Van Hoek's company, she hoped that the rest of the harbor would soon be bought out and that Port Elizabeth could be her own personal harbor, a black market capital that perhaps could rival the ports along the Sudanese coast. Artica would give her trouble, especially given that the country was not only stable, but an active stabilizing force in South Africa. Crime could be done, but it would cost a large sum of money and skilled maneuvering. But if the entire Bothan regime could exist, a regime that in Bridgette's mind was based on corruption, her small crime syndicate could thrive and grow. At least until it got a little bigger, but hopefully by then she could find a less stable country in which to set up shop.

As she strolled through the fog and smoke towards the liner that would take her north the shill tune of Bridgette's phone echoed through the air. It made her jump slightly, but as she looked down at the name written across the screen, she smiled, flipped it open and watched as Erick's face came onto the screen.

"Talk to me sweetie pie. How are things in Germany?"

Erich coughed and leaned into the phone. "Well, perhaps not as perfectly as you wanted them to go, but I think I managed to get us a rather nice deal."

Bridgette's eyes narrowed. "That's not a good start Erick, darling."

"Now hold on one moment before you snap on me. We've been given a contract to help the Germans expand their mines in their individual zone. All the mines are government controlled after all, dealing with Communists isn't exactly easy."

"They're not Communists, Erick, but I know what you mean. I've had government problems myself down here. The Articans are taking over Transvaal."

"Well then you'll be happy to know," he said with a grin. "That for every mine we construct for the Germans in their exclusive zone, we keep sixty-three percent of the earnings and we'll be collecting a handsome benefit for modernizing their workforce in the mines they already control. The front of us being a robotics company is paying off I think. Also, the German politician I spoke with, seemed interested in Astrid's line of work, we could probably score a few other contracts with the Germans. I managed to get us a European base as well."

Bridgette's eyes widened happily. "Oh? Where at?"

"Trondheim, far out of the way, it can be our pharmaceutical producer, in case things in Africa don't go as planned."

"Interesting, well I'm glad you made your mark with the Germans."

Erick smiled happily. "She was rather attractive too, Svea, I think her name was." The fire immediately returned to Bridgette's eyes and she watched as Erick nearly dropped the phone on the other side. "Of course, not as attractive as you, Madame. But we can deliver the Miner-Bots to the German Zone whenever is applicable. The profits should be fairly handsome."

"Good, then I want you to stay in Germany and keep me posted on any other news that comes up. Understood?"

"Of course Madame, over and out."

Standing at the gangway of the ship, Bridgette closed her phone and looked up into the sky. Her lips curled up into a smile and then from a smile turned to a chuckle and soon became laughter that echoed over the entire dock. Perhaps the plan wasn't going as perfect, but Astrid Corporation now had an income and so long as there was income, Bridgette's plans couldn't fail. They might take forever, but they could never fail.

[quote]
[i]
Marthinus,

I appreciate the speedy creation of the Hourglass regiment for my operations. As your government seems to be tightening the hold on Transvaal, I would like sixty of those operatives to be sent to my headquarters in Port Elizabeth to guard against possible legal intrusion on my property. The other sixty men and women can be immediately deployed to the Cross River Mining Complex that my colleague is building in the Commonwealth of Africa. I would like it if the operatives could come in civilian or disguised clothes as not to alert the locals of our movements. My operations in the Commonwealth require absolute secrecy, but if things go according to plan then I believe Hourglass shouldn't have a monetary problem for quite some time.

In addition, you fill find included in this letter my payment for the next few months and I would appreciate not being nagged about every single payment. I have always paid you and your men on time and I would rather this contract not feel like a creditor's call. I don't mean to be cross, but as comrades, a degree of trust would be nice.

Also, if you could alert me to anything of interest occurring in Arctica. If the government does catch wind of my movements, I would like to be prepared for action. If this requires additional funding, allow me a month and I can have that money for you to infiltrate the Artican government.

Sincerely Yours,

Bridgette[/i]
[/quote]

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[quote]Madame Saenger,

The group that has been reorganized for your purposes, Wraith Group, will be deployed to the specified locations. As for the Cross River location, expect a civilian ship with Arctican registry to hold just outside Commonwealth territorial waters, claiming to be undergoing maintenance. This ship will be carrying the 60 Hourglass operators requested; we cannot risk discovery by Commonwealth authorities, so your forces there will need to provide transportation upriver.

My previous message detailing prices was simply to inform you of the pricing, but since you are occupied with more important things, future bills will be forwarded to your financial department rather than to you personally. I apologize if this has caused you any difficulty.

As for your operations in South Africa, I doubt that they will be disturbed by the Arctican military very much, since they have only occupied Gauteng, Free State, and Gaborone, and are on their way to Cape Town currently. As you know, Senhor Da Silva, before he founded Hourglass, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Arctica-Transvaal Defense Force, so he has well-placed friends and contacts in the ATDF's successor, the Mobile Mainland Defense. Because of this, I will be able to keep you informed over all but the most secret MMD movements which Sr. Da Silva is no longer privy to. If your operations in Port Elizabeth are threatened by the MMD, you will most likely have time to prepare, unless the action is taken by another military unit.

There is one concern I have. One of our employees at the headquarters reports being questioned by the Bureau of Internal Investigation in relation to your recent visit to Madagascar. The employee claims that he told the BII about you being there but nothing else. We have no contacts in the BII at this time, and we do not know the extent of their investigation - whether this was simple curiosity or more. I would recommend that you remain wary of any Arcticans snooping around your properties or making contact with your organization.

Regards,

Marthinus de Witt
Chief Operating Officer
Hourglass International, Inc.[/quote]

------

In Mozambique, after only a few days of staying there, Wraith Group was called up to active operation. Through a variety of means and several close calls with the authorities, both 60-man sections would be on their way to their positions. Wraith 1 took passage on a civilian ship headed for Port Elizabeth, wearing civilian clothes and carrying luggage including business suits and additional clothes as well as their equipment. Once they arrived, they would report to Saenger and do recon of the location they were to protect, mapping it much like they had Salzburg.

After expected transit time for a merchant vessel from southeast Africa to Commonwealth territorial waters, a ship would be waiting as specified, along with Wraith 2, the second 60-man section.

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While Bridgette was busy destroying the interior of Africa, Rachel Raaste was working on a different project that she hoped would bring her boss' dream of a world wide terror network to life. To do something like that, Rachel had declared near martial law over the crime families of Port Elizabeth. She maintained minor contact with the local authorities, altering them that the Astrid Corporation would do what it could to clean up anarchic crime across the city. The Hourglass operatives were deployed as Astrid security guards, all the while keeping the local government in the dark that the extortion of the Kimberley Mines in the north as well as the building of military robots and small arms trade taking place in the harbor. Once Port Elizabeth and Kimberley were secured locations for Astrid Operations, Rachel was able to move onto larger things, a global communications network which would have the world subject to the Corporation's propaganda. There were, after all, more ways than simply extortion to gain allies. Passively controlling the opinions of millions of people would be just as influential and as powerful.

With income pouring in from the diamond mines, Rachel was able to divert some away from the monthly Hourglass payments and the construction for a chemical plant in Trondheim for her Communications Experiment. To start this however, and to bring Gaia-Link Communications up to speed with the world's other communication networks, it would need a stable base to form. With the Transvaal media network non-existent and most likely going to be taken over by the Articans, it would be the perfect time to wedge her way into the game.

Completing the paperwork for both the official existence of Astrid Corp. and the child company, Gaia Communications, a letter was sent to the Artican Economic Ministry asking for the terms and conditions for corporate expansion.

[quote]
[b]
To: The Artican Economic Ministry
From: Rachel Raaste, CEO of Gaia Communications[/b]
[i]
To Whom It May Concern,

May I begin by first offering my sincerest thanks to the Artican Government in finally restoring order to the troubled peoples of Transvaal. Your service and help could not come at a better time and as a former Transvaaler citizen, I am proud that my past country may once again reach her former glory. However, as you may well know, the economic situation in Transvaal is deplorable at best and in a collapsing economy, the nation's media industry has collapsed as well. No doubt you have seen the rise of the Astrid Corporation out of Port Elizabeth, their specialty being mining mechanization, however, Astrid has allowed Gaia Communications to exist with their help to form the vanguard of what could possibly be Transvaal's new media powerhouse.

Gaia Communications will specialize in National and International broadcasting, development and design of communication tools. However, for such broadcasting we need access to certain satellites currently administered by the Artican government. GaiaComm would be willing to pay the full price for access of these satellites along with the full price to administer, on our own, Transvaaler national news as well as gaining broadcasting time in Artica and other nations. We would of course be willing to report our advances and subscriptions so as not to keep the government in the dark.

If necessary I would be happy to come to the capital to discuss further media ventures in the hopes that we can, together, bring normalcy back to Transvaal.

Sincerely,

Rachel Raaste
CEO[/i]
[/quote]

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[quote]To: Rachel Raaste
From: Ministry of Trade & Commerce

Madame Raaste,

As the ministry tasked with helping the people of Transvaal restore their country's economy, we welcome your letter and appreciate that there is a private company stepping up to revive an important part of Transvaler society, the media.

We are prepared to host a meeting in Johannesburg regarding the support we can provide your company, including the use of several telecom satellites in geostationary orbit above southern Africa. However, we are not looking to help establish a monopoly over media services in Transvaal, as that is against the principles of a free market that Transvaal maintained as an independent state, so the Ministry is limited in the degree of support it can give you.

Regards,


Sorrel Valentin
Telecom Advisor, South Africa & Lesotho
Ministry of Trade & Commerce[/quote]

Mr. Valentin, being a representative of the Ministry in the region, had an office in Johannesburg, and would receive the Gaia representatives there. He was not particularly experienced in the world of politics, and was a recent appointment because he had business experience in telecommunications. After he had reported the message to his superiors, they sent him an older, more experienced official to advise him during the meeting and make sure he didn't make any wrong moves.

Edited by Vedran
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Rachel folded up the newspaper as her limousine pulled into the Economic offices in Johannesburg and let out a sigh. The world was beginning to unravel in Europe, North America, and Asia, and Gaia Communications could have been there for that. The Articans took their time responding to her letter and Bridgette was constantly pushing her to send more letters and more notifications, but with the economic chaos in Transvaal, Rachel preached patience and finally it was rewarded. Hopefully the world would continue to collapse for a few weeks longer and Gaia could assume the role of international news without skipping a beat. Securing a network base in Artica first, however, was a necessity.

Coming alone, Rachel walked into the Artican office with a briefcase full of paperwork on both the desire of acquisition of telecommunication satellites and of the company's rise to the free market, along with their legal ties to the Astrid Corporation. She was prepared to buy everything needed for Gaia's creation on the spot and hoped that the Articans would be happy to help with the company's growth. Thinking to herself as the elevator brought her towards Valentin's office, this was the most economic growth Transvaal had in years, of course they would be happy.

Stepping in to the office, Rachel smiled and put her briefcase beside her as she extended her hand to the Artican representative. "Mr. Valentin, I do apologize if I am inconveniencing you with this meeting in any way, but it is a real pleasure for your government to want to see our company turn into a success. I have with me the deposit certificates to purchase what telecommunication satellites are still left over from Transvaal news networks as well as a formal entrance of both Gaia Communications and the Astrid Corporation into the world's free market. I'm sure there is a larger procedure here and if you would fill me in, I believe I have our paperwork ready that we can get through this meeting without a bump."

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The city of Johannesburg looked much healthier than it had in the wake of the nuclear attacks on Pretoria and the conflict between Arctican and Nationalist forces there in February. Damage to Johannesburg International Airport was one of the first things to be repaired by the short-lived Transvaler government; damage that was done by the Nationalists in the opening shots of what would have been a bloody street-by-street melee between tens of thousands of soldiers if General van Haesten hadn't opened peace talks soon after fighting began.

The the north, Pretoria was even beginning to heal. Much of the radiation in the city had been cleaned up by White Cross and government people in the months following the attacks, but the rubble was still being cleared and the city was a long away away from coming back as a major conurbation and economic center, and would likely never return to its former glory. Such was the damage done by nuclear weapons. The responsibility of bringing Pretoria, and Transvaal, back, once that of the fledgling Nationalist government, was now the burden of Arctica, and this reality set the tone for Valentin's meeting with Raaste.

The office was reasonably comfortable, and the window behind Valentin had a view of the adjacent street. It was a simple mid-level bureaucrat's office, and Valentin's advisor had taken up a seat beside him.

"Welcome, Ms. Raaste. On behalf of the Ministry, I want to tell you how good it is to have you here. Many of your countrymen do not share your optimistic views of the Union's governance here, but it is good to see that you are working to make their lives easier, in your own way.

We are not entirely sure if Transvaal ever had any communications satellites. However, we were able to survey a number of private companies who own communications satellites, and two of them have expressed interest to contract for use of the satellites." Valentin slid a dossier across the desk, detailing them. One was a major Arctican media company with a number of subsidiaries that owned a satellite positioned such that it would be able to transfer signals all across southern and eastern Africa; the company had done this in anticipation of its network expanding. The network would be willing to rent Gaia use of its satellite, for a price that Rachel would find to be a little inflated - clearly the company was trying to make an extra buck off her.

The other satellite was jointly owned by four smaller regional networks that had pooled their money to buy a shared satellite. They were open to allowing other companies to rent use of their satellite, and for a fair price at that, but it wouldn't be too hard to imagine them getting into a disagreement over who should be allowed access.

Once Rachel had gone through the dossier, Valentin explained to her the process of starting to do business in Arctica. The registration and licensing and such would be easy enough, seeing that Arctica had a relatively open foreign trade policy. However, once in, the company would find itself subject to regulations largely geared towards preventing abuse by businesses to other businesses or to the people in general. For example, food and drug screening was stringent, and the Ministry had already banned MogCorp's TV and Pharmaceutical divisions from doing business in the country, and a review was ongoing to determine whether the company itself should be banned from doing business in Arctica due to unethical practices.

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Looking at the offers in front of her, the look on Rachel's face showed an immediate glimpse of displeasure. She had hoped that Transvaal or at least Artica would have a further reaching rage than just simply southern and eastern Africa. Bridgette had requested that the World Link System be completely international, stretching across the world and nothing else would do. On the other hand, the satellites would have been good to start the foothold into world communication, but the price was outrageous and wasn't worth what was being supplied. As to Astrid Corporation being set up within Arctican Territory, that was more positive and when she turned back up to Valentin, Rachel did so with a smile.

"While I do appreciate this offer Mr. Valentin, the price and the amount of range put forth by these satellites just is not what Gaia is looking for, to begin operations. So I will have to turn down that, on the other hand, I can assure you that the Astrid Corporation has no intention of disobeying Arctican Law. We hold ourselves to a much higher standard than our northern neighbors. Let's not even mention that they are displacing the Native African population with South Asians. To me it almost seems like a crime, kind of like what the English and Dutch did to the native tribes of South Africa. But that is a personal opinion."

Rising from her seat, Rachel extended her hand to Valentin and bowed her head. "I apologize for taking up your time, Mr. Valentin, it was a pleasure meeting with you and perhaps in the future there will be another time for us to work together. Have a good afternoon." With that, Rachel was walking back out of the office and the cogs in her head were already turning. If Arctica could not provide the resources Gaia required, she would have to turn to larger conglomerates.

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Valentin looked a little confused at first, but as Rachel spoke, he started to understand a little more. "Very well, Ms. Raaste. I'm sorry you didn't find what you were looking for here. I will continue to keep an eye out for any offers that do interest you. Until then, I wish your company well in its endeavors. Goodbye for now, Ms. Raaste." He shook her hand, and as she left, Valentin picked up the dossier on his desk and looked it over before tossing it back onto the desk. "Bah." Then, looking over at the older man who had not yet spoken, "Did I do something wrong?"

His advisor shook his head slowly. "No. You did everything by the book. I would guess that she simply found the offers from our companies unappealing."

"Hm. Do you think she even wanted to accept these offers?"

"I think she genuinely wanted to see what we had to offer, otherwise she wouldn't have come personally. Gaia is just exploring its options right now...give it a little time. Maybe they'll come back to you, and hopefully when they do, we'll have more to give them."

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