“So, that’s it?”
Soren dragged his eyes away from the screen to stare at Stella Brighton like it pained him. That was it: not a single word. Only a set of numbers, decimal degrees, imaginary lines converging at the Earth’s poles. The instructions they’d received less than one hour after she had accessed Gunn’s profile appeared to raise more questions instead of providing answers.
“Yes, miss, that’s it. In the middle of the goddamn Atlantic. You were right, I guess, and I was wrong – but where the hell do we take it from here?”
“Could you repeat the part about how I’m right and you’re wrong?” Stella Brighton asked, voice heavy on sarcasm. “I kind of like the way it sounds.”
From his place on the grey chair, where he busied himself with pealing an orange, Gunn stared at her from under bent eyebrows – and saw straight to her act. Her hand had been ghosting over the base of her neck and she’d kept her lips firmly pressed together as Soren had located the coordinates on the map. Even the smile stretching her glossy lips and that she wanted arrogant was lopsided.
“How about the part where I warned you this mission doesn’t come with free passes, miss?”
She threw a quick glance in Gunn’s direction, which he chose to ignore, whatever she meant by it. He was still burning with rage, the kind that pushed him towards dark thoughts and darker actions; including towards himself. For the time being, he preferred to keep his distance and process.
The last few days, with their revelations, rewrote his entire understanding of the last two years in a way that rendered his experiences, and all the injustice done to him, almost irrelevant. Adding insult to injury, the claustrophobic sense of uncertainty triggered by the wait nearly drove him out of his mind. As he struggled to find his footing, the only conclusion he’d reached was how fed up he was with being everyone’s pawn, even now when he was suddenly able to grasp the full picture.
Maybe his bleak mood explained why he experienced so much betrayal over being lied to by a woman he’d expected would lie to him all along.
From the very first moment she’d struck him as strong and confident, dangerous if not necessarily experienced. He wasn’t buying into the little unsecure act, where Soren and him would automatically challenge her ‘professional opinion’, and couldn’t imagine what had prompted the stunt she’d pulled, aside from the fact that intelligence ops usually worked the same way: Breaking trust, ready to cheat a kid out of a candy bar if it goddamn served their purpose.
It was Matko, all over again, not that he hadn’t anticipated it. But he’d always thought it’d be Soren, and that he would care, of course, but wouldn’t care care. The more grating coming from her, especially since, should she had chosen to open her mouth and have a goddamn conversation with him, he might even have agreed the risk was worth taking – anything to break this goddamn holding pattern that had him running in circles with no place to land.
“Fine,” she said, biting into her lips, not even bothering to hide her disappointment as her gaze fell away from his. “I assumed once I confirmed the benchmark, we’ll get travel permits out of here. Obviously, I was wrong. Also, obviously, those coordinates mark a meeting point. So, my best guess is that’s where we need to take it.” She jumped on her feet and took to pacing the room. “It’s in the middle of the ocean, but there’s a harbour in the village and there’s fishing boats. I guess we’ll have to get on one. Somehow.”
Gunn found himself thorn between his resentment and a strange feeling that still prompted him to show her some basic human courtesy. Inertia won, and he settled on watching her, first, because he couldn’t recall ever seeing her that nervous, and he couldn’t stifle a sense of bitter satisfaction; second, because today she was quite the sight. He’d not imagined Stella Brighton as the leather-type girl but on her it looked different, soft and sporty and flattering. With make-up, her eyes seemed warmer and brighter, and he couldn’t get over the spike of pain in his chest when he’d seen her walk out the door this morning and he’d thought she might have been headed to see Marcus.
The captain was an idiot, and, given what he’d witnessed at the camp, Gunn had kept waiting for him to try and contact her; but even Marcus must have figured out Stella Brighton was labelled “danger” more clearly than a toxic container, and that it suited him better to keep his distance. Apparently, the same could not be said about Gunn, who had only gotten what he deserved.
“Do you know any fishermen by any chance?” Soren snapped, clenching and unclenching his fist in an obvious attempt to control his temper. “Never mind. Say we manage to bribe one of them to take us to sea. No fishing boat can leave controlled space without a permit, not without raising alarms. And once that happens, there’d be at least twenty other boats to come after us. Not to mention they move at the speed of a bunch of drunken old ladies!”
“We could steal one.”
“Any idea how to sail a boat? On rough sea and with gale force wind? While being chased by half the Taskforce his part of the continent? Frankly, winched from one of those rust buckets straight into the damn English Channel isn’t my first choice when it comes to checkin’ out, miss.”
“Kidnap one of the skippers,” she pressed on, speaking quickly, as though if she didn’t hurry she risked to forget the very mechanics of speech. “Sabotage the other boats. Burn down the harbour if we have to. There has to be a way. You’re a field op. You figure it out.”
“How about I burn down the whole village?” Soren stared up at her, face dark; and sounding almost as if he was trying to reason with a difficult child. "I don’t have a problem with it – but me and what army, huh? How long would it take to have the MPs on our tail? Face it. This assignment was a virtual nil chance from the start.”
“It’s over, miss.”
She opened her mouth, as if to reply, but then changed her mind and turned to him instead.
“You think it’s over, too?”
The drop of eyeshadow borrowed her wide irises a dewy, metallic shine but despite the defiant stare she looked suddenly small and more than a little lost. The slice of orange tasted bitter on the tip of his tongue. Gunn let it fall on top of the table. What the hell had possessed with him, anyway, to lie over such a petty thing? He craved fresh fruit, had been for ages; but he shouldn’t have asked for the damn oranges when he couldn’t stand the sight of them.
“I think we reached decision high,” he said, staring stubbornly at the crushed piece of fruit and away from her. Whether it was guily trip or manipulation that had prompted her to buy them, she’d wanted to play in the big boy’s league. No room for human courtesy here.
“You know what it is? Sometimes you fly, and the conditions are so bad there’s no visual references. You go through the moves for a while until a certain point is when you must decide whether to abort or continue, but only relay on instruments.”
She half-turned on her heels, much like a cat ready to retaliate against a source of aggravation. “I don’t get aviation metaphors, Gunn.”
“We abort, miss,” Soren said. Quietly. Defeated. “It cannot be done.”
Gunn leaned back against the chair, and released a brief, humourless laughter. Curse him to hell, and Cooler Brighton, too, and the rest of the world that couldn’t cut him a fucking break.
“The two of you can’t,” he said, taking in their shocked expressions with a renewed sense of schadenfreude. “But I can. I’m the instrument here, Brighton.”
Soren’s jaw went slack. “You can sail a boat?”
“I could. Maybe. I don’t know. I never tried. And the fun part is, I don’t have to. You know why, Soren? Because I can fly an army hello.”
He’d thought the man looked stupid before. He really had no idea.
“There’s an army hello?”
“Oh, god.” Stella Brighton covered her mouth with her hand. “There is. By the police station, in perfect condition. I saw it, and thought it was stupid, a frivolous expense, because really, a brand new hello? Oh my god. We were never meant to sail a boat.” Her voice took on a higher, excited note.
“You got picked up, Gunn but I did not arrange it. We ended up in the station, and saw it. We did get a free pass, Soren. It was all set – by my father, and how did I not see it before?”
“That’s the wrong question,” Gunn said.
It was good she’d put two and two together. He’d figured it out once he’d seen the set of coordinates provided to them, a triplet of two horizontals and one vertical. But everything came at a price. Like most Taskforce officers, Gunn had quickly understood the inherent truth about the workings of the world. Generation after generation had built their lives around the falsehood that it was run by money. And then, by information. They’d indulged in dark fantasies about greedy companies and global government and brainwashing.
History was more than enough proof that armies ran societies – they had always had. It all amounted to force and fear: Nothing better than start a war to relieve everyone of their civil rights. So, it was way simpler than any cyberpunk illusion: all it took to stop information at source or bring any company to their knees was a man with a gun. And right now, he was finally the one holding it.
“Sorry, Brighton but the right question here is: what would it take for me to fly the hello for you?”
“Are you blackmailing us?”
"For God’s sake, Soren,” Gunn snapped, because really, paranoid much? “I’m trying to figure out the SMEAC.”
“Okay,” Soren said, holding out his hands in surrender. “All right.” He sounded utterly unconvinced. “Why the fuck do we need the SMEAC for, Cerna?”
“It’s a military situation.” His eyes flickered from Soren to Stella Brighton, who waited very still, arms still wrapped around her body, and back again. “Meaning the monumental trip-up that you like to call a black op is over. And, unless one of you has any experience handling military ops, we do this one my way.”
He was surprised to discover just how much he wanted to do it. People out there knew he was alive. Someone here, in Highwater, had taken care to arrange his little visit to the police station. His service wall was being supervised. With so many people involved, the risk of being discovered increased considerably. The cover Stella Brighton had come up with was a poor one, easily broken if any of those involved in the conspiracy ended up in an interrogation room. Not that that Brighton’s plans were any better, at least, not as far as he was concerned. So, then, the only certainty he had about his future was that it wasn’t a bright one. The system was designed so that he could not win. But he was no longer nineteen. He might crash and burn, but he could still fight. And he could still fly, even if it was for one last time.
“Yes,” Stella Brighton said. She moved and walked to stand by his side. “You’re right. We do it your way.”
“Totally,” Soren said, if darkly. “Yeah.”
Gunn’s eyebrows shot up. “What, that easy?”
“We got the memo already, Cerna.” Soren huffed and rested his head on his hand. “Like, back when I told you it’s your mission, too.”
“Well,” Gunn said, with a shrug. He wasn’t about to seek a gift horse in the mouth. "Sit down, Brighton,” he added, because she’d remained frozen by his side, and, while the idea held some appeal, he couldn’t stand her breathing down his neck right about now. She took the other chair and he tilted his head, measuring her up. “Can you fire a gun?”
“I sure can hold it and look pretty,” she said, oh-so-sweetly. “I’m an army brat, with intelligence training. You tell me.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “I am tempted.”
“I counted two patrol cars at the police station. Meaning, eight MPs, give or take, plus your friend, the captain. Average age around 20. Taskforce soldiers that we might have to take out to reach end state. If you think it’s a game, Brighton, feel free to walk away now.”
Her eyes dropped from his, and blood surged to her face. “I really don’t know, Gunn. I never had to.”
He decided to leave it at that. Maybe it was better, not getting blood on her hands as well, when the entire damn ocean wasn’t enough to wash his.
“How many guns do you pack, Soren?”
“I have permit for two army issued 9-mils.”
Soren grinned at him. “Did I say that? I didn’t say that, Cerna.”
“Okay.” Gunn sighed and leaned back against his chair, bringing his arms up to cross them under his head. He could already sense a migraine blossoming in his temples, the kind that wasn’t about to turn into a pretty flower. “This doesn’t work. I’m not sitting here, pulling teeth. The two of you are bright enough to understand what is and what is not relevant to share. I am done playing games. It’s all cards on the table, or I walk.”
Stella Brighton’s hand brushed the guard's arm. “Soren?”
“There’s an extra ‘2020’.” Soren ran his fingers through his short hair but the look in his eyes was nasty. “3D-printed metal assault rifle, and ammo. I’ll start putting it together. But I've only got 19 bullets.”
“Not bad.” Illegal as hell but Gunn had to admit he was impressed. “That helo is very much your basic Wildcat. Utility, search and rescue, should withstand gale-force winds. I never landed on a moving ship and I suppose that’s where we’d be landing; but I got some epic scores in the simulators. And if Soren has my back, I’m ready to storm that police station.”
The most efficient approach he could think of was get inside and go full force. The risk being someone got to push the panic button, bringing half the Taskforce in the prison camp on their back. But with some luck, by the time they made it into town, they’d be up in the air. “That’s about all I can do. Also, I’ll need ibuprofen. And caffeine.” Lots of both: Headaches aside, his arm still hurt, especially in this weather, and he was aware his mobility was somewhat impaired. That couldn’t be helped; but at least he wouldn’t have to feel it.
“There’s one more thing bothering me. There’s no ETA. Nothing in the message about when we’re supposed to meet.
Soren coughed, as though to clear his voice. “Actually, I think I figured that one out.” He reached inside his pocket, and took something out. “Don’t get angry, miss.”
The bracelet he’d taken off Gunn landed on the table top, the familiar flickering lights now extinguished and the signal blocked on red. “You said get rid of it but I thought it might come useful. The General always planned every little detail.”
Gunn’s jaw clenched. The bracelet was the last thing he needed to see, or carry around his wrist, because let’s face it, he was the target here, and there was little doubt as to where it was going. But Soren was right. It was, after all, a tracking device.
“Any more secrets I should know of?”
Soren shook his head unapologetically. “Nope.”
Gunn stole a glance at Stella Brighton, who was quietly studying her hands, crossed in her lap. Somehow, he doubted that very, very much. She must have felt his eyes on her, because she lifted her head and grinned.
“All right, then, gentlemen. How exactly does one steal a Taskforce helicopter?”
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