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STELLA's fingers ghosted over the file, a custom folder with the round logo of the Northern Taskforce standing out red against the yellowish cover.
Watermarked “219667”, the picture on the front page was a print taken from security camera footage. It showed military attire, light stubble on a chiselled, wan face, and short, light hair. The deep-set eyes, possibly, a light shade, had come out whitish on the low-cost paper. Leaning slightly forward, shoulders tense, like a man with his hands bound behind him, he stared straight into the camera, with pure, unadulterated hate.
He was identified as Ante, Gunn R., private first class. The date of birth was listed as August 3, 2129, and the place simply as “Pojina”, same as the place of capture. The file included dog tags, retinal scans, and a set of fingerprints.
With the ever-present risk of violence, the decision to relocate Cerna PoWs had been embraced by all allies: An obscure article of the Third Brussels Treaty provided the grounds for his transfer into Western territory, for a 10-year term.
Post relocation status, however, was alien resident, based on a private custody agreement, for the maximum 10-year term. The contract named Kevin S. Brighton, and his next of kin, as beneficiaries, and household work as scope of services.
Consideration was limited to fulfilment of basic needs. All civil rights and privileges, including the right to life, were cancelled for the same period. It amounted to forced labour, under a fancy name. An ID, showing the same picture and listing Highwater as place of residence, was appended to the front cover with a rusted paper clip. If the information in the file were real, the permit should have been in his possession.
She'd gone over the file times and again. The picture still unsettled her. This mission already came with a list of improbable tasks; obtain target cooperation was a strong contender for top place. An actual conversation with him made for a close second.
By the time Soren finally brought him in, Stella still didn't feel up to the challenge. She'd decided to have the talk in the kitchen, where the freezing cold showed meagre signs of recess. She needed some control over the situation, and the room was a reasonable setting, orderly, and with basic, but functional furnishings.
"I'll wait outside," Soren said, with a last look of warning in her direction.
The Cerna enigma waited at attention by the door. He was tall, fine-looking, in the rough, unfinished way of people too thin for their bones. He wore a tattered airborne sweater over army-issued fatigues. He had a full head of wild, overgrown hair. His eyes were blue, with a bruised, sunken look. With the advantage of size, he looked down on her, jaw set, and lips pressed tightly together. As much as hostility went, the live act was no different from the picture.
Her attention shifted to the bracelet around his wrist, blinking red and white at intervals. True to his word, Soren had left his handcuffs on top. Under the table, Stella tapped her foot.
“I’m sorry about the... precautions. You've met Soren."
He maintained a defiant silence; but the wheels were turning inside his head. All other distinctions aside, he was a soldier, under new and hostile circumstances. His military training compelled him to look for benchmarks. Adapt to discomfort and uncertainty; assess what cooperation, or lack of cooperation might mean; and find a way out, at all costs.
“You can take the grey chair, if you want.”
He didn’t move at first. She sat at the table, and pretended to examine the contents of the file, giving him time to reach a conclusion on his own. However long it took. After a while, he shuffled his feet to the table, and sat on the edge of the grey chair.
"We need to talk about why you're here." She extracted the fact sheet from the file. "But first, let's confirm some basic information. 219667, Gunn R. Ante, private first class, Cerna National Army." She searched his eyes, and held them. "May I call you Gunn?"
He looked away from her. “Fine, ma'am,” he drawled, and drew his eyebrows together over tightened eyelids. So, not fine. Still, Stella managed a blank face.
“All right, Gunn.” From the file, she selected the alien resident permit, and laid it on the table. “Can you confirm this is also you?”
His squinted at the papers. “Has my face on it, ma'am. But it's wrong."
"You were released from military custody based on this document. They said it was fine.”
He sat straighter in his chair, clenching his jaw. “It’s forced labour.”
“It does keep people out of camps," Stella said, a little surprised by his political statement. He'd signed that contract, hadn't he? Many PoWs jumped at the chance, whether fully aware of what they were getting into, or not. But for most people, the realisation of their mistake ocurred after the contract had been enforced, and not before. "Necessary harm. When's your birthday, Gunn?”
For the first time tonight, he seemed fazed. His shoulders went sheet-metal stiff. "Should be in there, ma'am."
“January 10?” Stella asked, pretending to check the documents.
“No,” he said, without hesitation this time. “November, 13.”
"Oh, my mistake." She consulted the file, unnecessarily. "It actually says August, 3."
“The army always messes up the fact sheets. It’s November, 13.”
The army did mess up the fact sheets. Or, he excelled at dogging questions. Stella released a long breath. “Let’s try this again.
Your file includes a civilian custody arrangement with your certified signature. Which begs the question: why were you in a prisoner camp?”
"I hate laundry day, ma'am," he said. But it wasn’t sarcasm, exactly, not even the army's pathetic attempt at it. He sounded almost indifferent.
She took a moment to think. There were ways of getting people to talk; just not reliable ones she'd heard of. Her instinct warned that the more aggressive the approach, the more this man would withdraw, and she won't be able to reach him. Stella put down the file, folding her arms on top of it.
"OK. I realise things are not … optimal. But I refuse to play this game, Gunn. It’s nothing but a waste of time and nerves."
Honesty wasn't the best policy, after all. He jutted out his chin. “I'm held under the Brussels Convention. I don’t have to talk to intelligence ops.”
"You broke the Decom Treaties," Stella said, with a bit of a bite. "The Western Coalition does not apply the exception to Cerna. But really, Gunn, I only asked about your name, rank and personal status. That hardly qualifies under the exception, anyway. I didn’t ask about the war, did I? I am not an operative. I’m only an analyst, currently on leave. This is not an interrogation facility, it’s my house. And I’m just trying to understand. We’re just having a conversation.”
He looked away from her, shaking his head slowly. "My mom taught me never to talk to strangers."
Point taken. She should have given a name from the very beginning, as per the procedure; in her defence, her name was a little in the way here. Stella buried her fingers in the fur around her neck.
“I’m Stella Brighton. General Brighton was my father."
His reaction was subtle: a mere tightening of the muscles in his face. "Condolences, ma’am.”
He bowed his head, staring down at the bracelet like it was the first time he'd seen it. "No. I'm just being polite."
“You hated him.” In all honesty, she couldn't hold it against him. He was an enemy soldier the General had captured; and the feeling was quite common even among his allies.
“People always assume you must hate someone to want him dead. This time, it’s correct.”
She reassessed him. This level of insolence was uncommon for a soldier, but not for an officer. He was too young to have climbed high up the ranks. He'd somehow crossed path with the General, despite that. And whatever had gone down between the two of them, his resentment was personal.
"I don’t know what my father intended with you, and your file. But he’s gone now, and I’m stuck with a legal, registered document. I’d rather keep Civilian Affairs off my back," she said, because a custody contract had fiscal implications, tough no one had ever dared bother the General about that.
"Can we just get along, Gunn? I am not my father."
"No, you're not,” he said, a searching quality to his expression. “He was never this … suave. Ma’am, may I ask a question? What happened to the General?”
Her fingers pulled at the soft, slick fur, moving to a will of their own. She should tell him. Questions and answers were the foundation of conversation. He might even grow into the habit of talking to her. It made sense for her to answer; even at the risk of him taking some twisted form of pleasure in the details. Even if his 'suave', same as the annoying 'ma'am' attached to everything, as per regulations, sounded almost like an insult.
“A bomb went off in front of his car," she said, mouth dry and uncomfortable. "He, and his entire protection team, were killed on the spot.”
If he enjoyed the news, he at least had the decency not to show it. He raised his bound arms, and rubbed a hand over the stubble on his face. The bracelet took to blinking, red, and purple, and white, then red again, frantically. It was getting on her nerves, making it hard to focus. She could only imagine what it must be like for him.
"Does it always do that?"
"Sometimes. Lately." He frowned, looked at the bracelet, and then back at her. "Satellite cover must be different here.”
The numbness in her shoulders ran along her arms, and descended into her fingers. She drove her hand inside her pockets, and close a tight fist. If the General was tracking this man, he must have done it over a private device that was currently off line. If found, it would be searched.
The bracelet needed to go. Straight into the sea, maybe. Or maybe not; going under the radar might call attention. She had to talk to Soren, to better understand the implications. And she needed to end this meeting she no longer knew where to take. A strategic retreat, then. Better men had done it.
“Your GenAm is perfect, you know.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Cerna has schools. Had. They’re all bombed down now.”
Did they also teach avoidance tactics? Stella bit her tongue, reminding herself of the 'gloves stay on' approach. "Soren prepared a room for you. I think maybe you and he started off on the wrong foot. Maybe we all did, and things will be different in the morning."
"Don't fight just for the sake of it, Gunn," she told him. "You will not necessarily win."
“That's all right, ma’am.” He starred down at her, and something dark lurked in the blue irises. “I'm used to it.”
She was still in the kitchen hours later, too tired to move, or concern herself with the logistics of settling in. Soren was perfectly able to deal with all that. Buried in an uncomfortable chair, in the gradually warming silence of the house, Stella weighted the things she’d revealed against the new information she’d gathered: he spoke a non-specific form of English, with no marking features whatsoever. Absolute zero.
Rome wasn't built in a day. She'd just have to talk to him again. The mission didn't require them to debrief him. She simply needed to understand enough to grasp how this 'cooperation' might work.
Stella picked up the touchscreen. The official network was still off, with no chance to a secure one in sight. All she had was the fact sheet downloaded from her office cloud, and that was almost useless.
She only kept benign, work documents in the office cloud. Stella owed her analyst position to the General's rank. Many incommode officers had been removed from command, over corruption or incompetence charges brought against their immediate family. She got the job done, hopping people might forget about her last name; which was childish.
Once the General was out of the picture, she’d been released of duties, and placed on indefinite leave “to come to terms with her loss”. She was an army brat, only too aware of the terms. But keeping busy would have been nice. She hadn’t even known where to turn to, until Soren approached her with the General’s last orders. Her last words to her: an assignment sheet.
With renewed determination, she scrolled down the page, slaloming between the boring, the irrelevant, and the restricted pieces of intel.
The fast facts were muddled. Like all Balkan wars, it was a messy affair, with plenty backstabbing, mutual atrocities and mutual accusations. Cerna had unresolved territorial issues with the neighbouring CDO puppet state. In theory, Cerna didn't have the power to stand up to the CDO for long; but the army turned out surprisingly combat ready. Even the more experienced analysts of the Taskforce were dumbfounded. How had mere border skirmish escalated into the deadliest conflict in the region’s recent history?
The touchscreen flickered, switching to low power mode. She turned it off. Soren was yet to check the outlets, and Stella didn't want to risk it. The device was the only connection with the outside world.
Her thoughts returned to how she'd failed to establish a connection earlier, with Gunn. She'd believed his personal circumstances to be the safer topic. Maybe she should have taken the classic interrogation approach. Maybe she should have asked him about the war.
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