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THE bar was all swag lights, and smoke, and bright metal fixtures, and doors slamming open and shut. Old, corny rock music played, about miracles that never happened in a place like this: A place that currently erupted with the shouts and laughter of the Cerna army men. Gunn cut his way through the crowd, feeling, in his shinny, new uniform, once more the stranger. He’ll go home, soon. The assignment was over, the job done; but he couldn't simply get on a plane. He was still standing by, for the orders to work their way through the Taskforce bureaucracy.
From where he was seated by the bar, with a line of shot glasses, Matko called at him.
“Skylight, hey, SL! Over here!”
He changed course, scanning the crowd, craving a drink or several. He spotted Mara by the wall of mirrors. Her partner, Stephan or Ratko, or something he couldn’t remember, was seated next to her, arm wrapped possessively around her shoulders. Gunn stared, unabashed, caught her eye and tilted his head. She stared back, straight at him, like she'd seen him for the first time, and then smiled at something the man next to her said.
Matko frowned at him.
“One of these days, someone’s gonna break your legs.”
He kept watching her pillow lips and eyes, deep and dark and slanted under the curtain of velvety brown locks. He recalled the sunset, wrapped around her necked body like a faded red dress, and grinned.
“I’ll be worth it.”
“Hmm.” Matko clicked his tongue, an annoying local habit. “With Mara, it's all about timing. Wait long enough, and you'll get your turn to be chowed over and spat out, just like everybody else. That girl has no mercy. Hey, it’s the roulette,” he said, waving at the shots. “You in?”
The welcome from the other Cerna soldiers wasn’t quite as warm. The mission was classified, and the alliance, frail, reluctant. But they made room for him at their table. It didn’t take Gunn long to realise he was dealing with high rollers that kept the bottles coming. The rakija warmed him up, its buzz a pleasant distraction. He kept at it, joining in the jokes and the laughter. Maybe later into the night, or early in the morning, when they’d be all too tired and bokoo soused, he might even catch a dance with Mara.
He never got around to it. The music ceased, right in the middle of the miracle that wasn’t to happen. The screens flared breaking-news yellow, and the simultaneous vibration of countless phones shook the room. The headline ran in a loop, black, ominous letters on the mirror wall: the Collective Defence Organisation had invaded the Streep, and was now crossing into Cerna.
Another night – his second in this place, spent chain-smoking Soren's cigarettes. No dreams, this time around. Only memories.
Mara looked up at him, pushing sweaty tangles away from her face, and damn if the mood wasn't ruined. That lazy, languid after sex mood, where he just breathed out, his bones sort of melting with his thoughts, 'till there were no bones and no thoughts, only an emptiness, the good kind, soaking him up. Like walking on soft embers, after having walked on burning charcoals for a while, and the skin on the soles of his feet tingled, assuming there was any skin left at all. Right now, he couldn't be sure whether there was, or there wasn't. Couldn't care less. Whatever, until his peace was suddenly gone, the very instant she lifted her head.
"Rehak says it's the CDO. But my people say it's the Taskforce. Your damn satellites, dropping wolfram on the Vetogradin wind power fields that started it."
He'd heard the rumours. Kinetic orbital strike, orchestrated by anyone but Cerna. They were wrong to think it was the Western Coalition. It made no sense: Cerna was white-listed, a WCS cooperating client. "It was not the Taskforce."
“Of course, you’d say that.” She scowled, disgusted. "You're with them."
“I'm not playing in the band, Mara. I'm just crew," he said, reaching out for one of her cigarettes. “And I’m with you. For all that's worth.”
"You come at a price, Skylight." Mara fumbled with her discarded clothes, a tightness to her lips that had felt so soft and warm under his. She was leaving, but then, they both were: Him, back to camp. Her, back to wherever she went, always surrounded by Cerna soldiers. She buttoned up her shirt.
"I can't do this anymore. Don't look for me. In fact, don't look at me at all. I don't even know who the hell you are."
"Hey," Soren called out to him, from across the room. "You look like shit, Cerna. Still allergic to ibuprofen?"
He played the lighter on his fingers. "Adverse to bullshit."
"Cut it out, then." Soren sliced another roll of bread in half, layered both halves with ham and spread mustard on top. He gave his handiwork a long, approving look. "Breakfast's ready."
Gunn’s stomach turned. “I’ll pass.”
"It's this, or flying light," Soren said, looking at him from under bent eyebrows. "But hey, the cook position is open. Feel free to apply any damn time."
"Pass me the knife," Gunn said, to the man who'd taken out the scissors from a first aid kit. "I'll try my hand."
Soren's face blackened. "Right."
"See," Gunn told him. "It's starting to itch."
He turned his back to the man, and sat at the table, telling himself that he was sick and tired of these games. But really, it was about the bracelet.
Soren ate, neatly, efficiently. Gunn stood there, brooding, until Stella Brighton entered the kitchen. She'd tied her hair up, into a bun of soft curls. He noticed, telling himself he looked at her merely because she was there, and easy to look at.
"Morning," she said, frowning at the plate of sandwiches. "Is there any coffee?"
"On the stove." Soren nodded in the right direction. "I guess kiss the cook is out of the question, and rather the general feeling."
"There's an ocean, Soren," she said, pouring herself a cup. "Last time I checked. There's bound to be something better around."
"Sure, there's fish," Gunn said. All day, every day, at the camp. He stood up, pacing around the room, restless all of the sudden, despite the lingering numbness in his body. Besides, size was his only advantage, and right now, he was seated, and she was standing up. "And a place in the village. Or so I hear."
"We should go eat out," she said. As simple as that.
Soren dropped the half-eaten sandwich on the plate. "Please tell me crazy isn't catchy, miss. I'm starting to wonder."
"Why, Soren? We’ll buy food." She gave a nonchalant shrug. "Besides, there's other things Gunn needs. Clothes. Maybe a haircut."
He was with Soren on this one. “I might have left my credit card back at the mansion.”
“Look,” Soren said, just short of losing his temper. “At him. He’s worked all over. So am I. Do you really think we ought to go public?”
She gave them both a long, analytical look. "You're the problem, Soren. Gunn can be... explained away."
Yes; she had the explanation ready, for sure, and no concern for his feelings this time around. This wasn't a spur of the moment thing. She'd thought it over.
Stella Brighton turned to him. "We'll take the car. You drive." It hadn't even occurred to her to ask if he was up for it.
Anger burnt into him like acid. He'd been restrained the last time they'd been alone. She'd want a deterrent now. No way the bracelet was coming off. He'd revealed his weakness, and had been set up. Carrot and stick.
"I'm not doing it."
Grey eyes found his, sober and steady. "Yes, you are."
"Why should I?"
Because you want the bracelet removed.
"Because I take your file at face value. According to it, you do what work needs to be done, and right now that's driving and supply. And why wouldn't you, Gunn, when it's your ticket home, eventually? Every infraction that goes on record adds an extension, you know." Her tone was patient, contained, like she was addressing a stubborn child. "Unless there’s something I’m not aware of, and that you want to tell me."
He stared her down. She stared right up at him. He'd faced field action less dangerous than her gaze. "When do we leave?”
"How much time do you need to take care of the bracelet, Soren?" But she didn't took her eyes from his.
The man came around the table. "Best start now, and we'll see."
"I'll get you both some coffee."
"Sit down," Soren said to him. "At the table. I'll be right back."
He stormed out of the kitchen. Gunn hated how the table was set in the middle of the room, surrounded by plain air, leaving his back exposed no matter which place he took. But he sat, shoulders stiff, still not able to believe it was happening. He'd been drugged when the bracelet was placed on. He felt dizzy now, a grinding sound in his ears, an electric surcharge running all over his skin. He jolted his head, trying to release the tension. Tendon slid over tendon, with a rice crispy noise. He brought up his hand, rubbing blindly at the back of his neck. It felt like pieces of gravel in there, like he was being strangled with wires he could not see.
Stella Brighton walked behind him, and brushed his hand aside. He shied away from her touch, his resentment raw on his face.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing," she said. "You're making it worse. Lean your head to the front. That's right, chin to chest. Go slow. Do it again." Leaning over his shoulder, she placed a mug of steaming coffee in front of him. "I need to know you won't put us in a ditch, Gunn. I'll drive us, if you're not coordinated enough."
His lips drew away from his teeth. "I'll drive," he told her, purely out of spite. Never mind that he could damn see the strings attached. Never mind that, as the wise men put it, anger was a sign of weakness. Never mind he was already in the dead man's seat, next to Stella Brighton. He was not about to let her drive him around in the non-metaphorical sense.
Soren returned with a small, military-issued holder, the kind soldiers used for personal effects. Sitting in front of Gunn, he magicked a slick, black box, and what looked like a pocket tool roll holder.
"This," Soren said, with a smug look of satisfaction, "is the Valhalla. It's a sniffer. I want to troubleshoot that thing, just to make sure."
An analyser. A hacking tool; back in the barracks, Soren said he had the codes to the bracelet. But probably only to use it. Brighton would not disclose the removal codes.
"Waiting for a letter of invitation, Cerna? Lay your arm down already."
His suspicion was intense, irrational, the taste of anger and betrayal sour on his tongue. This was just a shot in the dark. He would not go through it.
"Forget it. I've grown fond of it."
Soren straightened up, sought his eyes with his dark gaze. "Hey," he said. "Look, I know what I'm doing. You can - "
"Don't say it," Gunn cut him off. "Don't you fucking dare say it to me."
With an exasperated sucking noise, Soren leaned back in his chair. "How the hell am I supposed to do it, then?"
"Are you sure, Soren?" Stella Brighton asked.
"Trust me, miss. I'll keep it quick, and painless."
"I hope you don't say that to all the girls.” Irony spiced her voice. But there was something to her gaze, like mist on steel, as it landed on him.
Blood surged to Gunn's face. He was being more than a little the fool. Paranoia or not, he only risked a sting; a far cry from his first dance, just like Soren had said. He understood what the Valhalla was supposed to accomplish. If it couldn't crack the thing, then it wouldn't crack it. If it shocked him, he'd live. Simple as mick.
He rolled out his sleeve, and extended his arm across the table, bracelet and scars on full display. It was just skin, after all. Broken tissue, growing numb as he stared at it. He'd seen worse. "I'll break every damn bone in your body,” he told Soren.
“Yeah,” the other replied. “No pressure.”
Silence blanketed them, broken only by the low, synthetic droning of the Valhalla. Minuscule lights flickered on the small screen. Symbols rolled down. Soren extracted a digital pen from the roll holder, and brushed it over the device, a deep frown between his eyebrows. It was out of his hands.
He zoomed out, to white light, and manageable vertigo. The background humming noise of the machines had throbbed deep into his bones as they went full stop. The chair vibrated, sliding out of the hollow cylinder. The computer fed him information in the low, male ham radio voice some shrink had decided was more pleasant to listen on the long run. He climbed out the airlock, working the hoops and loops of the suit, his feet a little unsteady with effort and the shift in the pull force. And he thought, this was the life; that this here was it.
“Well done, SL.”
He flashed a broad smile at the woman in the white coat. She was beautiful, relaxed, and she outranked him. But not everyone got to put a satellite on orbit, and he was already sanctioned, this was just more sim-training. He was about to ask when she got off work, when she jumped to attention, looking blankly in front of her.
“I need the room, Major,” said the tall man in the Air Force flight suit.
He waited, all braced up, under the weight of the familiar eyes on him. Perhaps more wrinkled at the corners; and the blond hair, spiked with more grey than he remembered; but the same old bastard, all in all.
“I don’t want you doing this. It’s monumentally stupid. Step back. It’s not too late.”
The first thing he said to him. Months of tests and training, not one fucking phone call, not once, and now, this. He stared him back, with casual indifference.
“May I make a statement, Colonel? I don’t give a dead rat’s ass what you want, sir.”
Holding the digital pen between his teeth, Soren inserted the card in the Valhalla's slot, and punched the digits in the remote.
"I can't override it," he said. "Permission denied."
He dropped the remote on top of the table. Gunn stared down at it, at the plexiglass mirror-case of the device that had nearly ended his days twice now, at the bracelet still around his wrist. The Valhalla's lights had all died out. The screen only displayed strange diagrams, interweaving, flickering lines that didn't look like anything.
Snap. Beat. Tick.
"Gotcha," Soren said, with a shit eating grin.
The digital lock slid out of position. The bracelet fell, on the table top. Light and sound faded. He stared down at his arm, with only the scars left on display. His fingers had gone numb.
His brain was catching on, slowly. MP. Private contractor. Hacker. Close combat strategist. Cooler Brighton, surrounded by MPs, wherever he went, his close protection team. Not a good cop, never was. Maybe not the bad cop, either. The MPs counted more than one agency: Criminal, Civilian Affairs, Police Intelligence. Oxymoronic as it sounded, it still made more sense than officer Blackwater investigating the ranks. Gunn wanted to kick himself. He'd thought so far that Stella Brighton was running this show. Maybe she thought the same.
"Son of a bitch," he said aloud. Soren could read it any way he damn pleased.
A/N: Hey, guys! I want to thank everyone who took the time to read Highwater. Assuming anyone did, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Does it float, or sink? Thank you, P.
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