Author: Peony Black

Chapter 2

STELLA hated the place. 

In the distance, the ocean howled like a wounded beast. The storm had hit bad: high sea, wild winds, and rain that cleansed the shores, leaving havoc in the wake. On the way over, in the car, the army station talked of collapsed fences and broken barns, of blown-away roofs and casualties. 

Next to the town, on a rocky promontory by the ocean, the house was solid, showing little damage. A cold comfort, in every meaning of the word. The plaster was cracked over the stone of the walls, and the air inside was moist and salty. It stung her lips and throat, as she shivered uncontrollably in the wretched sim-furs. 

Quoting safety reasons, Soren Basile had insisted to drive her to the house first, and then return for the target. She refrained from questioning his call. Ever since she could remember, Soren had been in the General's close protection team. He left and returned at intervals, and never talked about where he was when he wasn't there, but the General had always placed his trust in him.  

Before moving out, Soren had taken the time to inspect the place. He hadn't taken the time to brief her on the findings. It was reasonable to assume there hadn't been any left. But somehow, being reasonable took a lot of effort on her part at the moment. 

Stella stared down at her fine leather boots, now splattered, and scratched, and soiled. Part of the strategic costs, same as earlier, with Captain Marcus. She wondered if maybe she should wash her hands. The boots were beyond saving. 

Her luggage was still piled in the front hall, on the tiles broken and darkened with mould, where Soren had left it. Stella had clean, warmer clothes in there somewhere, but she couldn't bring herself to unpack. The house, the town, the camp, everything made her skin crawl. 

The army's maps and official papers identified the city as "Highwater". The General had chosen the place, meaning it probably had its merits; but Stella had a hard time seeing them right now. 

Talking of things she didn't see: Soren appeared in the doorway, the usual frown between his eyebrows. She still hated his habit of moving without sound. It still felt odd seeing him out of uniform. She still saw the flicker of doubt in his eyes, whenever he looked at her. 

“So,” Soren said. “We're here, miss Brighton.” 

Here they were, all right, south to nowhere and moving downwards fast. "Where is he?" 

Soren nodded, darkly. "Out in the car, handcuffed to the wheel. Figured we have to talk first." 

Of course, Soren. I'm always here for you, if, and when, you decide to share. On the other hand, now wasn't the time to dig out old bones. Not all the way out of the ground, at least. 

“Did it go well at the camp? No more questions?” 

“Some more questions. But I took the captain aside and had another chat. The file they had on him was classified, special category status. Hey, I said to him. Ever wondered how come you got stuck with a damn SCS, Cerna inmate here, in the underbelly of the Taskforce? You have perfect documents, with a general’s stamp on them. Do you really want to learn what’s going on? Turns out he's a reasonable guy, who couldn't care less. They had him identified, signed some papers, and opened the gates for me.” 

She nodded her assent. Marcus had struck her as a reasonable man, too. Smart enough to settle for a comfortable place, and when the going got tough, keep his head down and blame it on the paperwork. So, then, the healthy kind of coward; far less interesting than the man left to freeze down in the car, instead of freezing in here, with the two of them.  

"Not so smooth with him, I take it. Is he dangerous?" Stupid question, she hadn't met a soldier who wasn't. "Hostile?" 

"I can handle him." Said nodded again, solemnly, grim. "You will not like it, miss." 

She fed him the General's favourite line, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture. 

“I don't expect to like it, Soren.” 

“Sit rap, first. The house seems safe,” Soren said, choosing to ignore her. “Humble. The sort of place for the General to keep an operation going.” 

Stella shivered, visibly. Her shoulders were slowly going numb. It wasn't only the chill. 

“A black op,” she said, just to keep things clear. Marcus was possibly the highest-ranking officer in the area, and he had no clue. 

“Of sorts.” Soren sounded like a man with a sprained jaw. “I mean, he authorised it, after all. You and me, we're fine. Following orders.” 

She fought to keep the doubts from showing on her face. The mere topic of Cerna was fraught with danger, with talk of faulty intel, conflicting reports, and calls for a commission, to inquire into the costs of the operations, and the causes of Viviani’s fiasco. This was an extraction of a Cerna prisoner, with far too many undisclosed details. Soren better pray following orders cut it, should it blow up in their faces. Stella buried her hands deep into her pockets. She could always blame it on the cold. 

“Go on.” 

“The utility room is a pile of rust. I started the heating, but it'll take a couple of hours at least. Thick walls, poor signal. I’d say no bugs, miss. Streaming service's all out of order. Bullshit Network is still better than nothing, so I'll see what I can do about it. Satellite surveillance is a risk we have to take.” 

“All satellites are military. Wouldn't they focus on the camp? 

"Maybe, maybe not. We're close enough, and I don't really know what to hope for here. The upstairs bedroom is more sheltered. You can have it. I'll take the guest room downstairs. There's an office, also. He can go in there, but it'll take some adjustments. I want him nowhere near things blunt, sharp or loaded." 

The wind howled, rattling the windows. Stella settled better in her chair. Lack of connectivity was the least of her problems at the moment, but it added to the feeling of seclusion, and it annoyed her. Monitored isolation, and with a dangerous target. Her eyes fell to the gun Soren kept in plain sight. Missions didn’t come any better than this. 

“We'll be all right, miss.” Soren ran his fingers through his short hair and sighed in frustration 

"He has a safety bracelet on." 

The fact sheets she'd reviewed did not mention any tracking systems. "Is it camp procedure? What's the range? Marcus receives the alert?" 

“Marcus said he never had the tracking codes. It's not camp procedure. Special category status, miss," he reminded her, shrugging one shoulder. "Normally, these things are data linked to a satellite, but I told you, not sure about cover here. Maybe it doesn't even work. But if he thinks it does, it's a way of controlling him. At least until we figure some of this out." 

"I don't know, Soren." Bracelets were expensive; they took authorization. The General, of course, had the required level of clearance. "Maybe we should try and reason with him. Obtain target cooperation, remember?" 

She shifted in her chair, waiting for his reaction. It wasn't their first discussion. Soren didn’t agree with her approach, and he had a point.  

Stella had never dealt with dangerous war prisoners; but she'd dealt with the General. This man wasn't free, but there was no indication of coercion, either. It was never about scruples with her father. It was about efficiency: If violence was the road to success here, he would have travelled it already. 

Soren let out a long, drawn out breath. "He'll cooperate, if he doesn't have a choice. The bracelet isn't just a tracking device. It also works as a stun gun. 

"Captain Marcus said he made an escape attempt when he first arrived at the camp, and they triggered it. Nearly killed him, that one. Burnt into his arm; I saw the scars. But he never made the second, so maybe he knows better by now.” 

The thought sickened her. A cluster of trained Taskforce guards couldn't find another way to contain an unarmed runaway? But then again, she'd already decided Marcus was workshy. He'd taken the easy way out. 

"I don't want to use it. That device is a horror.” 

“It’s still better than him slitting our throats in the middle of the night, miss. Don't forget Cerna was a slaughterhouse, and this man was there, making it happen.” 

Stella eyed him without hiding her suspicions. “You don’t really know what he’s done, Soren. Or do you?” 

“I only know what’s written in the file,” the man countered. “But I also know a self-righteous bastard with a grudge, when I see one. Remember how Cerna always claimed they were the innocent victim in all this? Well, that pretty much makes us the aggressors. And he hates our guts, so don’t kid yourself, miss. This here is a hostile extraction.” 

Stella swallowed heavily around the lump in her throat. She couldn't hide from the uncomfortable truth. Soldiers believed what their commanding officers told them to believe, and Cerna’s official version accused a satellite highjack, an invasion orchestrated by the Collective Defence Organisation, with the Western Coalition playing right into their hands. 

Anxious, but unwilling to let it show, Stella went to the window and pretended to study the fallen satellite. The thing had once been out there, circling the earth with the moon and the stars. Now, it was an unholy relic, what parts had survived the re-entry scattered at random across the sand: parts of the motor casing, a broken limb, the oxidised skeleton of a tank. It provided unnecessary confirmation of how far Highwater was from everything: Under the Technology Decommissioning Treaties, all spacecraft was to be taken down in low population areas. 

Despite the treaties, Cerna had placed satellites on orbit. But then, so did everyone else, under the national security exceptions: supervision of communication, of borders, and policing the population. Not even espionage warranted an international incident, as long as it was kept discrete. The Cerna satellite, however, had launched a full-blown kinetic air strike on a CDO puppet state. Just like they said during the decom ops: havoc in the skies, havoc on earth. 

"I think it's better if I speak to him," she told Soren. "He might see me as less of a threat.” 

"But it's late, miss," Soren said, with a sigh. "I'll arrange it in the morning." 

"Not in the morning, Soren." He was wrong to hope maybe she'd change her mind. "And the hour is an advantage. He's tired, probably confused. The time is now." 

Soren’s face mirrored his exact views on her idea. It wasn't a happy look; nor an optimist one. "Handcuffs stay on, and I stay right outside the door." 

She nodded. "I can work around that." 

“What will you tell him?” 

The truth. Something about people prompted them to exchange one confidence for another even when they shouldn’t. Sometimes, especially because they shouldn't. On the other hand, she had no clue about this man, so maybe not necessarily the whole truth. Just enough. 

"I'm thinking." 

Soren gave her a long, black stare. "You're a decent liar, miss. My two cents? Go with that." 


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