Highwater
Author: Peony Black

Chapter 1
1

GUNN knew he was done for the moment the car rolled into the camp.    

For a while now, he'd been standing in the hollowing wind, losing body heat, and debating the fate of his last cigarette: For prisoners like him, with nothing better to do, it was leisure time.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Atlantic evening had a sick, greenish hue. Troubled skies blended with troubled waters at the line of horizon. Town lights ghosted through the mists in the distance. Gunn rubbed his temples, and narrowed his eyes in frustration. 

Currently, the town limit was the edge of his universe, his personal, army-tailored 'here be dragons'. Highwater; a secluded beach somewhere, in the fief of the Northern Taskforce, possibly, the Sleeve.  He’d been flown in. Gunn remembered the army helo, with the Northern Taskforce logo printed on everything from doors to tattered safety belts, but not much else had cut through his drug-induced haze.  

The concrete courtyard was busy in the evening. All around him, the other prisoners, soldiers of the Western Coalition for Security, sentenced for minor offences, cracked bad jokes and shot the breeze. As always, Gunn kept his distance. But he listened in, stone-faced, on the chin wag of the others, filtering relevant bits of information from the endless stories about girls, buzz, and fighting.  

“It’s like they wanted to fuck this up.” The men had their backs to him, but he recognised the voice: Jamie Reid, private, and the top-dog in Higwater’s inmate hierarchy. Back when he was still a corporal, he’d questioned a Chinese PoW for 36 hours straight, in breach of the Brussels Convention. The post-mortem had found splenic rupture, among other, non-lethal injuries. Reid had been sentenced to two years in a medium security facility, and reduced to the ranks. 

“So, Viviani doesn’t see any fuckin’ action in twenty years. But he’s getting all buddy-buddy with General Roland, so Roland puts the chair butt in charge and makes him a hero. Some bright guy in CI obviously thought this goddamn war a joke. Guess the joke is on us now, dying in that shithole for three years.” 

“Hey, still more them than us,” someone said. The men laughed. Reid cursed roughly under his breath. 

“At least General Motherfucker Viviani has company in hell. In my book, the bullet he got was exactly what he deserved. But Cooler Brighton, man, he was the real thing. Hands-on, no bullshit kind of guy. He got in, after Viviani, and cleaned two-year’s worth of mess, in like, six months.” 

Rumours travelled, even in the glasshouse: General Kevin Brighton, code-named ‘the Cooler’ for his machine-like efficiency, had gone and gotten himself KIA during the peacekeeping mission in Cerna. In this country, once so insignificant that Western analysts hardly bothered updating their fact sheets, the Taskforce had lost two theatre commanders in less than two years: first General Viviani, and now Brighton, both in Pojina, the capital they supposedly controlled. Soldiers died in wars; generals, not so much. It made everyone uneasy, even these inmates. 

Gunn held the cigarette between his fingers, in a smoking-like gesture. He craved that first mouthful. He’d had the dream again, about fighter planes over Pojina, breaking the summer light into baneful silver coins, and the migraine spotted his vision crimson. But tobacco, like everything illicit, was rare and expensive, and he couldn’t bring himself to waste it.  

“That’s all kinds of FUBAR, man,” another inmate said. “What the hell is really going on over there?”  

“Ask him,” Jamie Reid said. He turned his head suddenly, to look straight at Gunn over his shoulder. “Betcha this son of a bitch knows more than he lets on.” He twisted his lips in an ugly sneer, and stared him down. “Don’t you?” 

Gunn got his hackles up. “Didn’t you get the memo, Reid? Your interrogation room days are over.” 

Reid barked a short, ugly laughter. “I’m not the one stuck in this dump for ten fucking years. Maybe we’ll meet again, you and I.” 

“Call me,” Gunn said, turning his back to him. “I’ll save you a date.” But really, he wasn’t as confident as he sounded.   

The gale carried the roar to his ear, the growling and barking of metal parts. Gunn jerked his head to one side, towards the noise. He spotted the car, rolling between the dunes: an older, heavier model, the kind that had seen enough action for the army to do away with. Patches of rust surfaced here and there through the cracking layer of camouflage paint. But appearances were deceiving: The vehicle remained lethal.   

The other men noticed it, too. Buttoning his uniform, Captain Marcus, the camp's CO, rushed out of the office. He barked some instructions at his guards. The wind ruffled his mop of red hair, and he flattened it back, looking anxious. 

The voices in the yard dropped. Highwater was a medium security detention facility, intended for the lower ranks. In places like this, inspections only occurred when someone kicked the bucket, and the causes were too obvious to pass for natural. Even then, things were kept cursory. This occasion warranted the welcoming committee.    

The car halted briefly at checkpoint, and then breached through the gates, stopping in front of the office building. The treads in the tires picked up the gravel, flicking rocks up and around, like shrapnel.  

Gunn’s heart raced with a sudden discharge of adrenaline. He had only one plausible explanation. With Brighton gone, someone else was after his spoils. Brighton and Gunn, they shared a history. 

A tall, strong man stepped out first. Short hair, dark skin, in ugly, utilitarian clothes, he shook hands with Marcus, exchanged a few words, and then held the door open for the woman.    

In a prisoner camp in the middle of a fucking nowhere, she was quite the site.  But then again, she had little chances of going unobserved in a city riot. She was wrapped from head to toe in grey, splendidly simulated bio-lab furs that screamed exclusive, and didn't help any against the wind. The woman’s narrow shoulders shook visibly, and she clasped her hands together to warm them up. Whoever dressed like this for a ride to this hellhole? The impracticability had to be deliberate. A status symbol. Maybe a symbol of rank.  

Negative. She wasn’t army material. Willowy, on the side of frail. He couldn't see her face, but she said something to Marcus, and he laughed, and when she cocked her head, the look of her was that of something spoiled, and pretty. She took her time getting friendly with the captain, but something about the exchange seemed off. Marcus, apparently, thought he stood a chance. He offered her his bent arm. She took it, with the air of a princess granting a favour, and he led her into the office.  

The man lingered by the car. One of the guards spoke to him, and he laughed, shaking his head. With a small shrug, he produced a brand-new cigarette pack from his pocket, and passed it on to the corporal. The soldiers jumped at the chance, shielding the lighters from the wind with their coats. The man leaned against the car, and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes moved steadily around the camp, taking everything in frame by frame, before they settled firmly on the office door. 

This wasn't his maiden voyage; not by a long shot.  

Gunn reached for the cigarette, and lit it with shaking fingers. Smoke descended, foul, into his lungs. But the nastiness calmed him, filtering out his thoughts.  

Brighton had never bothered to interrogate him, but someone else might. They'd put a woman at it. One that played at femme fatale, wearing furs and wrapping camp commanders around her little finger. Because he was going to fall for it. 

He was that stupid.  

But then again, he wasn’t all that bright, either.   

Still. He didn’t have to tell them nothing.    

Forgotten, the cigarette burnt his fingers. He crushed it under the sole of his boot, taking his time to give it a proper funeral. 

Bullshit. He might just have to. Most people did.    

Was he ready to die here? Gunn once imagined not having anything left to live for meant the affirmative. Funny, but apparently not.  

The others were making their way back into the barracks. Their wolf whistling, and jeering laughter got under his skin. He stayed where he was, in the emptying yard. The wind whipped up the sand, blurring the outline of the dunes. Around his wrist, the bracelet blinked, red and yellow, and red again, an ugly thing on top of his uglier scars. 

A camp guard grabbed his shoulder, and pushed him forward. 

“Hey, make it today, Cerna!” 

He made it today. Cerna prisoners have no rights, Brighton had told him, on the day of his arrest. In Highwater, he’d received the same treatment as the other prisoners. But Marcus was lackadaisical. The man in the car, on the other hand, struck him as the committed type. 

Unsurprisingly, at suppertime, he was ordered to stay behind in the barracks. He doubted he'd make it to roll call, but they were dragging it on. 

The wait, Gunn hated the most. 

Back in Pojina, waiting had been a dress rehearsal for mourning. Everyone knew what was coming, the entire city, breath caught and nerves strained. Winds from the sea swept the blood-stained streets, and pushed against locked doors and stone-blind windows. Many had fled the city in the early days of the war. Others had not. In the beginning, night time came with outbreaks of chaos, which the army did nothing to contain. It was every man for his own: amo had to be saved. Eventually, civil unrest receded also, under the pressure of anticipation. When the shelling finally started, it was almost a relief. 

Gunn hadn’t been relieved that time when Brighton had kept him waiting, though. 

His right arm, with the bracelet and the scars, tingled. His clothes chaffed his skin. Moving slowly, like he couldn't quite feel through his body, he walked to window. Through the veneer of smears and smudged finger-marks, he stared at the oxidised hallo of the moon. Other satellites were up there, too; one, in particular. 

Hello, Fire Sky. Do you copy, you goddamn son of a bitch? 

A shadow moved over the glass, darkening the spectral fingers there. His skin prickled with the sensation of being watched. Gunn turned around. Dark eyes scanned him, with clinical curiosity.   

The man leaned against the door, filling the entire frame. Gunn stared him back. In his late 30s, he was big, olive-skinned, an American, maybe? He wore black head to toe instead of a uniform, but the gun tucked under his belt was an army-issued 9 mil. And if Gunn would suddenly yell 'ten-hut', in his once excellent DLIPS tone, he would first kick his heels together, and then stop to wonder.  

The staring contest was getting on his nerves. What did the bastard see when he watched him like this?  

"You speak English, right?" He finally said. 

He wasn't American; his English had a hint of foreign. Maybe French; or Belgian; or even German, or Middle Eastern. With the diverse nationalities making up the Western Coalition for Security, it was hard to tell. 

"Yeah."  

"Good. You're being relocated. Means you're coming with me, effective immediately. If there's things you want to bring along, within reason, now is the time to pack. Lay everything down on the bunk first. I'll have to inspect them." 

He had to admit, not a bad tactic: reviewing a selection of your target’s personal items   could provide interesting intel. Or not, in this particular case. First, because the original assumption was wrong: he had no personal belongings, only army-issued prisoner gear. And second, Gunn didn't expect to need things where he was going. But where was he going, again? 

Don’t ask questions, he thought. He wants you to. Say nothing. You’re being set up. 

He kept watching the man, unmoving, unblinking. The other held his eyes, unruffled. 

"Do you also understand English, Cerna?" 

"I do, officer." 

The man shook his head. "I'm a civil contractor. If you heard me, what are you still doing standing there?"  

Sure you are. "Waiting to be impressed," Gunn said. "You have a gun. But I've seen guns before." 

All that gained him was a long, even darker gaze from the man. “You play along, give me no pain, and we’ll get through this just fine. Or we can go about it the hard way.” 

Ah, threats; not even the imaginative kind. Officer Blackwater was cast as the bad cop here, and was playing by the usual script. The waiting was over. He was definitely not impressed. 

"If it's easy, it ain't worth it, is what I hear." 

Blackwater smiled, showing sharp, white teeth. It wasn't a good look on him. Gunn had a hard time imagining what would. "You don’t think I'll shoot you." 

"No, I don't." They'd taken the trouble of travelling here for him. He couldn’t be sure, however. Maybe the orders were to kill if it came to that. Did he really feel like having his brains washed off that wall? 

"Pretty, and clever!” He nodded his head at Gunn’s arm. “I have the codes to that thing ‘round your wrist, so I'll harm you instead."  His grin widened, sincere as plastic. "Impressed now, sweetheart?"    

Flawless logic. Gunn stared down at the scars on his arm, the taut skin over the bones of the joint, at the shining mechanism by his wrist. He still had trouble moving his right arm, after his first and last attempt at fighting off a camp guard. The muscle memory of that encounter was strong, and the scars, a powerful reminder. 

A couple of seconds and he won’t be able to move. Close to a minute and he’ll drop. Gunn had enough of being dragged unconscious from one Taskforce black site to the next. But awareness wasn't necessarily an advantage, when men like Blackwater relocated you to undisclosed facilities. He suddenly caught a whiff in the air, sharp, reminiscent of chlorine. It shot to his brain, like apache. 

"I take my threats in the morning, sweetheart. Preferably, with coffee. It's late, and I'm all fed up. You want to push your little button? Have a field day."    

Something shifted in the line of Blackwater’s shoulders. His hand reached deep inside his pocket, but his voice was carefully controlled. 

"Get your things." 

"Fuck my things, civil contractor," Gunn said, keeping his eyes on him. The bracelet controls; left back pocket of those ugly jeans. 

Blackwater's gaze travelled around the barrack, like he was preparing to search it. Then, he scrubbed a hand over his face. 

"We're moving out. Office building, first." 

He dragged himself from the door, making just enough room for Gunn to move by. Gunn did, grudgingly. Blackwater fell into a cadence behind him. He could feel his eyes between his shoulder blades, like daggers driven into his back. Close to what Gunn had in mind, if given half a chance.

 

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