Highwater
Author: Peony Black

Chapter 16
16

 


"Morning," Stella said, lifting her eyes from the plate. "Did you check the news?"

It had to be a little over nine. Rain no longer fell from the sky. It stayed suspended in mid-air, hovering over the dunes and the bellowing ocean. Walls of water slammed against the shore, in a parody of the primeval explosion, mixing hydrogen and oxygen with less innocuous, man-made chemical spilling.

She couldn't bear it any longer. She was drowning in this place.

The last two days had been nerve-wrecking, with the three of them avoiding each other, and the interactions kept to a minimum – not a small feat, while confined in the empty house. They were no longer eating together, which, given the current state of affairs, might have been a blessing in disguise. Stella had chosen to remain in her room. When not compulsively checking the email, Soren was busying himself with the old heating system. Gunn went for runs every morning and evening, and disappeared inside the office for the rest of the day, doing god knew what.

Purportedly, they were working together now. In a parallel dimension, perhaps. Not in this one.

"Morning, miss," Soren said. He poured himself a cup of coffee, doing his best not to look guilty las he eyed her back carefully. "Three different shows about that orgy in the French military base. Huge scandal in Hollywood, sexual harassment claims against Egan Sinclair, the guy from that web show, 'Teacher'. Nothing on the commission, anywhere. Nothing new on the websites, either."

Roland wasn't wasting his time. He was burring the commission with sex scandals and trivia. Stella chased her food around the plate. Last night's leftovers were palatable, but she lacked the appetite. It was baked cod now, morning, noon and evening. Their groceries were running thin, but she had postponed going into town. Maybe it was a bit of magical thinking on her side, hoping that command might move before they starved to death.

"Still no reply message?"

"You'd think I'd mentioned it if there was."

The irony was wasted on her. "They should move faster than this. Hey, is it possible to tell if someone is accessing a public wall, Soren?"

"All activity online is traceable, in theory," Soren said. "It's as simple as putting a tracker on the wall. What do you have in mind?"

"Gunn's profile," Stella said, pressing her lips together in thought. "His very public service wall. Wasn't that a little too easy?"

"Not really. There's a lot of missing soldiers' walls out there, miss," he pointed out.

Stella frowned, stabbing at the food with her fork. Military walls of fallen or missing soldiers were normally preserved, in line with the Homeland's hero cult. But nothing about Gunn's situation came even close to normal; less alone seeing his wall out there, when everything about him was covered in layer after layer of secrets and lies.

"If we were supposed to learn his identity from Gunn, my father must have realized you were bound to check. Maybe he let it there for us. Or maybe someone else is tracking it."

Soren stared at her, lowering his eyebrows. "You mean Roland?"

"He could be on to us. If my father had someone on the inside, I assume our command does, also. It might explain the delay."

"I covered our tracks when I accessed the wall, miss," Soren said, shaking his head. "A lot of things might explain the delay. You know the amount of preparation that goes into each mission. Besides, field assignments aren't as glamourous as people think. Mostly, it's just sitting around, waiting for stuff to happen."

Unconvinced, Stella let it at that. She doubted Soren would trust her enough to tell her if something was wrong, anyway. After their talk the other day, she doubted he trusted her enough to cross the street.

Soren was in the kitchen when she'd returned from the run with Gunn, cooking and paying languid attention to a glass of the awful, local brandy.

"Don't get smashed, Soren. I need you."

"Not planning to." He held the half-filled glass in his hands, and stared long and hard at the drink.

"I'm not gonna like this, miss, will I?"

He was definitely not going to like it. "Gunn thinks he should surrender to Marcus."

"Yeah, well, Gunn's an idiot," Soren said, with a dismissive scowl.

"Sometimes." There was sufficient evidence, and she couldn't exactly argue. She stared at him a long moment, steeling herself. "I think we should tell him about the mission."

Soren knitted his brows in a frown, and forked his fingers through his hair. "There's no other option I see."

"OK." Stella sighed deeply, relieved to discover that they were seeing eye to eye for once. And concerned, because it went a little too easy. "I kind of already told him we would. I'll go get him."

"Or, we could give him the mission brief. He gets to see for himself that we're not hiding anything."

"That's brilliant, actually." Full disclosure – why hadn't the idea occurred to her? "And then we talk to him."

"No, miss." Soren put down the glass, and searched her face with his dark eyes. "I'll do it. I think it's better if you sit this one out."

That confused her. "How come, Soren?"

"Just trust me."

"I trust you." He looked and sounded so certain, but she wasn't intimidated. "Now tell me why."

A muscle twitched dangerously in Soren's jaw. "I don't like the way he looks at you."

"You don't like the way he looks at me?" Her stiff tone warned she was hardly pleased. "That's your reason?"

"No, I don't. Frankly, miss, it's starting to feel a little like Sicily." Delivered in a gritty voice, his words drained the blood from Stella's face. "And you taking off with him for two hours sure as hell doesn't help."

Stella stared at him, more than a little flustered. Sicily had been the summer when she'd turned eighteen. A time spent stranded on a rock, with nothing to do but watch the white blasts of the military exercises, rising columns in the distance, across the Klein-blue of a sea too beautiful for words, and too toxic for life. The General had prohibited her to visit the ruins of the once beautiful cities. They were crawling with predators, many of them of the human variety. New to the General's CPT, Rugby been assigned to see that she complied. 

She didn't exactly remember how it had started. Maybe it had been boredom. Maybe it had to do with the sultry heat. For sure it had to do with circumventing her father's restrictions. But the flirt with the handsome, young corporal had turned shameless, and more serious that either of them originally intended.

Likely, they were headed nowhere fast. But she would have appreciated the chance at the trip, instead of Soren putting an end to things with his shouts and his fists. 

"That was nine years ago. I was a teenager, Soren." This was so absurd! She hadn't taken off with Gunn. They'd just returned together, and she'd used that time to persuade him over the mission. And it'd only been one hour, one and a half at the most. Talk about a new low; and from a man who'd been perfectly fine with objectifying her, if it got them what they needed from Marcus.

She worked hard to smother her anger, and not deliver the kind of reply surely Soren deserved. He was being an idiot, but her throwing flour into the fire couldn't lead to anything good. "But thank you. It's good to learn your actual opinion of me." 

"He's a soldier, miss." Soren held out his hand, counting on his fingers. "Big, bad, dumb as night, and model-pretty, with a shady past, an improbable future, and the Brighton trademark etched deep into his skin. It just sounds a bit closer to home than I'd like. I mean, you're the psychologist here. You can do the math." 

"Oh, can I?" Stella asked, deceptively smooth, refraining at the last moment from pointing out how the same description fitted Soren to the tee. "My brain isn't exactly working right now. Too busy swooning over striking blue eyes, and 6.10 of messed-up handsomeness. There's this water spot on my wall that looks just like a tiny heart, did you know? I'll be in my room, staring at it, and leave the men handle the serious stuff." 

She had backed down. She regretted that decision now, unable to stop wondering if she'd been played. If Soren had used their common history against her, knowing that she would walk away offended. For certain, there were things he wasn't telling her.

She didn't know the details of their conversation. Tight-lipped, Soren had informed her that Gunn accepted, and took the opportunity to share his theory on how the General might have intended Gunn to be part of the mission, but had kept him in the dark to play it safe.

Yet another thing he'd conveniently left out earlier. Stella supposed it was possible. The General might have gathered intel on 'Fire Sky' even before his deployment to Cerna. That high up, everyone spied on everyone all the time. Besides, Soren knew more than she'd ever had about how her father handled his missions. Obviously, he believed the General capable of using Gunn like a pawn. In the dog-eat-dog doctrine of the Taskforce, the end justified the means; even when the means consisted in callous lies, manipulation and abuse. With all the skeletons tumbling from the closet lately, Stella no longer had the power to argue that her father had been better than that. 

But she wasn't over it. She doubted she would be any time soon; or ever, for that matter. And she couldn't shake off the feeling that Soren had somehow strong-armed Gunn into accepting, a course of action that might backfire on them spectacularly.

"Did you and Gunn argue, Soren?"

Soren took a long sip of coffee, buying his time. "I didn't even see him today."

Stella tapped her fingers on the table, a clear warning as they came that playing stupid wasn't cutting it. Soren dragged a hand over his face, and sighed. "No more than usual, OK, miss? I warned him to keep his act straight. I don't exactly trust him, and I don't want him sabotaging us just to get some twisted revenge on the General. He said we don't stand a chance. You heard him yourself."

Yes, he'd said as much. And she'd been hoping he might change his views. Apparently, that was hardly the case. Stella pushed her chair back and stood up, watching Soren stonily. "You're right, you know. It does feel a little like Sicily."

Soren frowned. "You mean Gunn?"

"No, Soren." She chilled her voice even more. "I mean you."

Soren's eyes blazed. "I'm trying to protect you. And pull this through. If you'd take a moment to – "

He cut himself off at the sound of the front door opening. Uneasy, Stella turned her head towards the noise. She couldn't make out footsteps in the hall – as usual, Gunn moved without sound. But he wasn't exactly trying to hide his presence, either. Soren crossed his arms over his chest, his face twisted in a frown. Stella's skin prickled with exasperation. The aggressive, rugged, super-masculine act was really, really getting old.

Oh, yes. We're doing this.

"In here, Gunn," she called out, and turned her head over her shoulder to throw Soren a pointed, challenging look.

Behave.

 

Gunn walked in, dressed for running, hair moist – coming or going, she couldn’t tell, all sharp lines and stifled bitterness.

“What, Brighton?”  Behind him, the cold bit its way inside the room. Even his voice hinted at storms and rippled skies.

He annoyed her, Stella decided. Soren annoyed her – had been, for a while now. And this place, this goddamn town, the house, the impossible situation she was in, the oppressing feeling that this was it, a defining time in her life; that what had happened – what was about to happen here would never be undone.

“I’m going to town.”

“You want me to drive you?”

“No, thank you. Yes, Soren,” she added quickly, the very moment when Soren opened his mouth to protest. “Of course. But - no.”  

Stella gathered her backpack. She’d had a mind to go all along, ever since morning, maybe even earlier into the night. It explained her choice of clothes: black synth-leather pants hugging her long legs, and the quality thermo-sweater, the sudden interest she’d taken in her makeup and hair. She just wasn’t sure about how to break it to the two men. That problem, she supposed, had very much worked itself out. Maybe it had to do with them being them; or her, being her.

“Hey,” Gunn called out. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”

“Not really.” She smiled, trying to keep it pleasant. “Why, do you?”

Gunn crossed his arms over his chest and glanced at her darkly. “Come on, Brighton.”

“Look.” Exasperated, Stella clasped her palms together. “We need food that’s actually eatable, OK? And I need to see a realtor.  And I really, really could do with a break.”

Soren scowled at her. “A realtor?”

“I’m supposed to do something about the house. It’s hardly fit to live in. I should sell it, or renovate it, or both. As is, it’s entirely out of character.”  She threw Gunn another quick, shrewd glance. “Like you said, I have a pretty good cover here. Shouldn’t I keep it, SL?”

“Sure, Brighton.” He chuckled without joy. “In case no orders come through.”

“Hey,” Soren protested. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Fuck you, Skylight.”

“Yes,” Stella said, not about to let them get to her any more than they’d already had. “Go at each other, why don’t you? Have a field day.”  

It was a lie, she admitted to herself later, in the car. She knew what she was doing: Taking a wild chance, because someone had to trust her, and it sure as hell wasn’t those two. She just wasn’t so certain about the outcome but Stella supposed life pretty much worked that way.

She drove across the town, enjoying the quiet for once, set to buy all the healthy food she could find, and some not-so-healthy bites, and decided the best course of action was not to second guess herself.  

Finding the only realtor in Highwater was unsurprisingly easy. Pretty, practical Chantal Laurent seized control of the discussion with the cold efficiency of a hostile takeover, for all that Stella did her best not to appear hostile. She knew the property, of course, everyone did. No, it would not be easy to sell, particularly in the current state. Yes, it was in dire need of repairs. In fact, repairs were a must.

“I have … agents, Madame Laurent,” Stella told her, in accented French. “People working for me. But if you can recommend a reliable contractor – in particular, one that wouldn’t charge a material down payment, I am open to suggestions.”

“I’ll email you a list,” the woman said, which, according to Stella, translated as ‘you’re obviously not helping, so you might as well stay out of my way.’

“It’s settled, then. And your invoice, Madame Laurent.” She threw the woman her best, helpless smile. “I left my touchscreen at home, I’m afraid, and I would like to check my credit limit. You know, just to set a preliminary budget?”

Alone in the small, quiet office, (Madame Laurent, naturally, was one for privacy, at least in as much as officially allowed), Stella took a moment to stare at the black screen.

All activity online was traceable, but Soren had covered their tracks before. She couldn’t shake off the conviction that the General would expect her to check, even if it meant someone else might be tracing them as well.

Her fingers slid across the virtual keys. Stella went through the screens – her wall, and then another, the flow of blood quickening under her skin like a bitter-sweet song of victory. They’d been playing it safe, and they were epically stuck. Even Soren couldn’t argue against that.

She supposed safe was off the window now.

The man in front of her didn’t wear the deep, haunted look she’d seen on him earlier. He was younger, carefree, striking in his pilot gear, and, for all accounts and purposes, dead. A dead hero, sans the body bag to match, who’d spent the morning frowning at her.

“Sorry,” Stella said, and placed a small, teary emoticon on the wall. But really, she wasn’t sorry at all. Just goddamn, bloody scared.

 

 

 

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