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He pulled the car in front of the door, and turned to her.
"I'll carry the groceries," he said. "You go ahead inside."
Surprising; but heavy downpour wasn't exactly the time to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.
She threw her coat on the nearest chair and made her way into the living room.
"You wouldn't believe the day I had."
From where he was seated on the sofa, with the Touchscreen and the Valhalla, Soren turned his head and grinned at her widely.
"Day’s still young, miss. I found a reliable connection."
“That’s … wow!” Stella flung herself down on the couch, and put her feet on top of the table. “Ten-strike, Soren!” But her initial enthusiasm burnt fast. “Wait. Western?”
“Even better,” Soren said. “British.”
“Long live the King!” A pirate network was one thing. She could deal with the fine. A hostile pirate network amounted to a possible charge of treason. Among the Western powers, the Kingdom of Britain and Wales tended to turn a blind eye to unsanctioned communications. “But really? At this distance?”
“Apparently, miss.” Soren said. He drew his eyebrows together, confused. “Do you really want the technical details?”
“Not the tech lingo. Just tell me we can make contact.”
“The deep web basically means a bunch of computers, linked together into private networks, miss. It’s like a door, and only those with a key can get through and connect. We already have our key. I guess we’ll have to put it in the lock, and see if it turns.”
“God,” Stella said. “Let's. I want to get out of here already. This place adds a whole new dimension to the notion of depression. Not that I needed it, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, well, about that. Sometimes, miss, better the devil you know.”
She nodded, in agreement. Their instructions only required them to confirm asset recovery. They had no idea what the reply might be. But right now she felt strangely energetic.
“I had a conversation with Gunn earlier, in the village,” she said. “Of sorts. Wonder of wonders, he agrees with you. He can’t think of a way out of Highwater, either. The General was thorough. So maybe the nice Commissioner I met today – and wait ‘till you hear that story –receives an email, with three official movement licenses attached, and we get a free pass. Where to, it’s another story.”
“I hate to rain on your parade here, but in my experience, when it comes to assignments, there’s no such thing as a free pass.”
“It's my father, giving me an assignment, Soren. He wouldn’t even let me dust his touchscreen for him.” If she was into dusting; which had never been the case. The time Stella had remotely approached the topic, she'd received the famous stern, Cooler Brighton look.
"Be reasonable, love. In our lives and times, family is a drawback." She'd never asked to do any assessments for him again. She'd simply kept out of the General's way.
Stella put her hands behind her back, and stretched to release tension, with the casual indifference of a house cat. She watched Soren button the Touchscreen. It was hard time for some bloody good news. And even if this mission was more about deception than genuine action, and she’d been provided with more props than the norm, she intended to carry it through.
“Gunn remains a vulnerable spot," she resumed. "Today, in the village, he managed to get himself arrested. Factually, I broke him out of jail.”
Soren's brows drew up. "What?"
“I didn’t get arrested. Just taken in for questioning,” Gunn said, as he walked in. His eyes swept the room, and settled on her, with an expectant look. He’d taken off the rain coat, and put on a new airborne sweater, not really army, but army-like enough. He held the bottle of local brandy she’d bought earlier in his hand.
“I suppose, strictly speaking,” Stella said, tongue-in-cheek. It didn’t suffice she was basically trapped in this house with two A-type go-getters, always at each other’s throats. They moved around by stealth, also. “But sorry; was it something you wanted?"
He held up the bottle. “I put away the groceries. I couldn’t figure out where the booze is supposed to go.”
She saw right through him, standing there, with the bottle, and the suddenly accommodating act. He couldn't bring himself to ask, same as he couldn't bring himself to thank her. He'd decided to earn it, which was, in fact, spectacular. And entertaining, in a twisted way that was, probably, a side effect of this assignment. At least, she wasn’t making a mess of it. She’d handled things, so far. With Marcus, and today, with the MPs, she’d pulled it off with flying colours. And the bodycount remained at zero. She must be doing something right.
“But you did, Gunn." She was still amused. "It goes right here."
“Do you want glasses?” Accommodating didn't quite tone with his flat voice. Her alarm bells went off. Something here was awry. She just couldn't put her finger on it.
"Sure." She didn't even know they had glasses. "Sounds good."
With a terse shake of his head, he turned on his heels.
"None for me," Soren said, switching from the device to the Valhalla in his lap. "I've got work to do. We need to be more careful with him around. Miss Brighton," he stressed, keeping his eyes on the touchscreen. "If I manage it, we must call in.”
"Yes," Stella said, without hesitation. He had to call, of course, and confirm the benchmark; inform command, whomever they were, that Gunn had been secured. “There’s no alternative that I’m aware of.” She leaned over the edge of the couch, and called towards the kitchen. "Just two glasses, Gunn."
"Right," he called back. His voice was clipped.
Soren lifted his eyes from the screen. "What's up with him?"
Her bad feeling lingered; same as, after a last-minute change to long-term, carefully designed plans, the premonition of a major washout settles deep in the bones. She gathered herself up the couch, and seized the bottle of brandy.
"Stay here, Soren."
In the kitchen, she stumbled upon a jaw-dropping scene: By the sink, Gunn carried out a perfunctory glasswork drying operation. A thin sheet of water coated the snifters. The patches he wore on his hands were soaked. Stella put the bottle on the table, and took in the tight, twisted lines of his back. Optimism and her, they'd shared a moment; it was done now, all over with, a summer fling.
"You're awfully nice," she said, feeding him a taste of his own medicine.
"Oh-kay; baffling, then?"
"I had my fair share of kitchen police." He turned towards her, poker-faced. "I can do the dishes. I don’t cook. I do peal. You already saw how I drive. And you're right, I did clean a lot of latrines."
"I've already got the job," he said, with a terse shake of his head. "It's more like defining the KPIs. Just in case you decide to take my contract at face value again." The poor impression of a smile stretched his lips. “Your glasses are ready."
"Our glasses. Soren doesn't want any." She worked around the dryness in her mouth, studying him: the high cheekbones, the bruises on his face, the straight eyebrows drawn over the northern tint of his irises. And the anger, all coiled up and ready to bite, inside the pretty, if damaged, outside packaging. "I'm no longer sure alcohol's a good idea."
"It's always a good idea," he said. "I'm willing to risk Stockholm syndrome, if you are."
Another one of his backhanded strikes, how wonderful! Stella hesitated. The potential for aggression aside, his physical state worried her, also. Bruises, abrasions, shock, drugs, cigarettes, hardly any food or sleep, and now, alcohol? The last thing she needed was another health hazard on her hands. In the thrill of the moment earlier, she hadn't thought this through.
His already tense shoulders froze. "I've forgotten. You get to decide how my needs are met."
"Look, Gunn, you’re already… up and down," Stella said, biting into her lips. It hadn’t crossed her mind how much like the contract that came across. "It's understandable. A lot has happened these days. You've been under a lot of stress. Pick-me-ups are the last thing you need."
"Brighton," he said, and the sudden surge of hostility in his voice iced up her skin. "Cut the patronising shit."
"Please, don't ambush me, Gunn." She poured calm she didn't feel in her words. He'd addressed her by name for once, but it had taken Stella a moment to realise he'd meant her, not the General. "It's uncalled for. You can't deny that your behaviour is more than a little inconsistent."
"My behaviour?" He let out a dark, disbelieving laughter. "In case it escaped your notice, we're at war. War means they send in soldiers, with orders to fight, hurt and kill each other. And if they happen to get captured, they're supposed to fight, hurt, and kill the captors, also. Or at least try. Tell me, what exactly is so bloody inconsistent about my behaviour?"
He didn't raise his voice through it; in hindsight, the fight with Soren had been the only time she'd heard him shout. Still, fear crawled, snake-like, across her stomach. Soren was right; he was twice her size. And she'd witnessed first-hand his potential for destruction: not because he had a particular scope in mind, a genuine intent to escape. But because they, Soren and her, were the enemies. Just for the sake of it.
He gave her another one of his long, cryogenic glances. "Everyone is at war, everywhere. At every given moment up there, thousands of satellites stand by to drop tones of wolfram and phosphorus on virtually any place on this earth, at a push of a goddamn button."
Her breath caught. Satellites dropping wolfram, what had gone down in Cerna; and exactly what Cerna had always denied. A Freudian slip on his part? The question formed in the back of her mind; but he didn't give her the opportunity to fully grasp the implications.
"If consistency is an issue, let’s take a look at things from my perspective. I'm this … up and down hostile alien resident, who assaulted your man, Soren, with a gun. You galvanise the breath out of me, which makes sense, at least. Then you let me roam freely around the house, while Soren contrabands me cigarettes, and the two of you eagerly remove your only safety net.
“Next, you jump head first into a car that I drive - inadequately, by your standards. But that doesn’t deter you from taking me out for lunch, and on a shopping spree, after you make it very clear that I'm in no position to refuse either. I call that more than a little erratic."
He locked his arms across his chest, exhaled deeply, and jutted out his chin. "Just what the hell is the end game here, Brighton? You either want something from me, and you're desperate to see what works, or you're on a goddamn power binge, and you enjoy messing with my head. Or both.”
She stared at him, eyes wide and breath shallow. God, she was making a mess of this mission! Presented this way, the facts painted a startling picture; even more shocking, because it wasn't entirely untrue. Faced with her conscience, Stella wanted nothing but to trust him. But, in point of fact, he remained indisputably untrustworthy.
"It's called power structure, Gunn. You got orders from your CO, didn't you?"
He went utterly still. "He was my goddamn CO."
"Who sent you to fight, harm, and kill people," Stella countered. "And get killed in your turn. I sent you shopping."
"Well, I bloody took those risks, when I signed up, didn't I?" Anger had drained the blood from his face.
"You signed your contract, too."
Something flashed in his eyes, ugly, vicious. Stella flinched back, as he suddenly threw his arms up in the air. The gesture had every appearance of being a surrender sign. The set of his jaw rendered it into a challenge. "Forget it, Brighton. The 3rd degree is too much for a chance at that goddamn bottle."
"Not the 3rd degree." Her mind shaped the proposal as she spoke: The game she and the General always played. "Just three questions. Drink or dare."
He had a fleeting glance at the bottle. Suspicion crawled across his face. Confusion followed on its trail. “Why would I take a dare, when the drink is exactly what I’m after?”
“In reverse,” Stella said. “Fair and square, all the way. You get three questions, I get three.” She tilted her head, staring up at him. “Answers get us drinks.”
Gunn ran his hand over his chin, and screwed up his face, as though ready to give a mocking reply.
“Only three questions, Gunn, nothing more," Stella hurried to say. "The answer has to be truthful, but not necessarily complete.”
She anticipated defeat – he wasn’t going through with it. But then, he picked up both snifters in his large hand, holding them down by the stem, and placed them next to the bottle. He opened it, in the same efficient manner from before, and poured in the amber liquid, turning the bottle over in his hands to frown slightly at the label.
He pushed the snifter across the table, half distance between them. His lips were stubbornly pressed together.
Speaking to this man was the same as breaking a code: it involved data selection, and logical thinking. The point here wasn’t to twist his arm; the point was to control, but also to placate him. Still, the game felt like a battle. She phrased the words carefully, head buzzing with the natural high from the fight or flight response.
“At some point in the course of your service, you’ve been more than a private.”
Eyebrows drawn over darkened eyes, he pushed the snifter further in her direction. “You might as well have all three drinks now. I won't speak about my service.”
“Fine.” Stella shrugged one shoulder. She cupped the snifter in her hand, warmed it, and risked a sip. The drink was sweet, and certainly not made of grapes. She tilted her head, inhaled, and swallowed it in one go. The liquid skimmed down her throat, smooth as stones on a pond. She hissed at the burn, twisting her face.
“God! We should have gotten a chaser.”
His frowned deepened. “Can you hold it?”
“I am the privileged daughter of a 5-star general,” Stella said. With a close protection team always around to mother her - the kind of nannies that needn't even bend their elbows. “What do you think?”
If he was in the least impressed, he didn't show it. He filled up both glasses, and straightened his shoulders.
"My turn," he said, with the accusatory glare of a judge, already convinced of the defendant's guilt, but still compelled by the rules to examine the evidence. “You have orders on me.”
“No,” Stella said, steadily. “I don’t.” The game only required her to answer the question; and at the moment, it was perfectly accurate: stand by to stand by.
He shook his head, annoyed, and suspicious. “You, as in, you <i>and</i> Soren.”
“No, Gunn,” Stella repeated. “We do not. None of us.”
He accepted defeat, with a dismissive shrug, and an even tighter press of his lips. “Ask away.”
“I did.” His sudden, dark chuckle sieged the parapets of her self-imposed calmness. “I would have signed my soul away, if the devil put the papers in front of me. I was high as a kite.”
He'd never consented. Stella swallowed hard, around the aftertaste of that nasty brandy, and the guilt, and the lingering sense of shame. She was familiar with the hand applying the second signature on Gunn's contract. But sometimes, she thought maybe she didn’t know the General at all.
Gunn picked up the glass, gulped down the content, and refilled it with a steady hand. The alcohol didn't show on him. He was cautious, focused: a commando, trekking across a mine field, fraught with danger at every turn.
“What did your father tell you about me?”
A loaded question, for both of them: Even if she had the answer ready, Stella almost wished for the dare. “He never told me anything about you. He just left me the file. God, I'm going to feel terrible in the morning!"
And grateful for those lemons, too. Stella brought the snifter to her lips. She would have taken her time with the second glass. But the whole point of the game was no time to think. She searched his face, conflicted. It was this, or the mission. Or, this was the mission, in the end: learning if she could trust him.
“I am an easier target then Soren.”
Understanding flashed in his eyes. He shook his head, deliberately. “No.”
She nodded, ashamed again to experience a wave of relief. He had his second drink, and put down the glass with a sure hand. He drank when he shouldn't, in a hazardous situation, but his tolerance level was high, and his reflexes remained good.
“Maybe not right now,” he said, “but you’re lying to me.”
"I'm sorry, Gunn." She understood his tactics better now: avoidance, avoidance, retreat, more avoidance, strike, strike, strike, final blow, aiming straight for the jugular. Stella wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing gently at her shoulders. “Just have the drink.”
"Thank you, but no." His face changed colour, to ashen. He put his palm up, like a barrier, and shook his head determined. "I've had more than I can take."
Stella trailed her fingers across the brim of the glass. The buzz of the alcohol was already receding. More would be a downer. But it wasn't a Freudian slip this time around. Without a doubt, he didn’t mean the brandy.
“Boffo!” Soren said to her, sometime latter. “On a scale of one to ten, just how hammered are you right now?”
Stella lifted her head from her bent arm, and sipped from the lemon water in front of her. She massaged her pounding temples. “Remember that time you and Rugby decided I’d be fun to teach me Pontoon?”
“Sicily. Fun times, miss.” His face darkened. Sargent Rutger had been there, in the car, with the General. “Sit rep?”
"That brandy is poison." Stella dipped her head. “Also, Gunn thinks we’re on orders. “
“He said that?” Soren asked, lowering his eyebrows.
“His exact words. He’ll cooperate, Soren, if he sees a chance to get out of the contract. He hates it. I dare say more than he hates us.”
Soren parked himself on the couch, and bent his arms on his knees, mimicking her position. “I don’t mean to sound weird and all that. But I’ve been thinking: There’s something I don’t get about the orders.”
Stella laughed, wryly. “Understatement of the century. But still, tread carefully.”
“I’m not commenting against them, or anything. I’ve done this, I am doing it.” He threw her a slanted glance, his brow furrowed. “I did it, miss.”
Recognition sent a set of rubber balls bouncing in her stomach. “You called it in?”
“I called it in.”
He shook his head. “A read receipt.”
Disquieted, Stella splayed her fingers around the glass, enjoying the cool, and the solid. “Shoot.”
“An extraction only means two things: the target knows, or is, something someone wants to use. And let’s get real, miss: that someone is not the Taskforce, or not Roland’s Taskforce, at least. Someone the General trusted, who needed you, because you had the right name to take him out."
“Gunn is no friend of the Taskforce; hence, cooperation. How do you call the enemy of your enemy?”
“A bloody crossword.” He was dead serious. “Don’t forget the use him part, ‘cause that’s what’s he’s heading into, once we’re out: a debriefing, or an interrogation. I get why him cooperating with them would make it easier. I don’t get why he should cooperate with us. We had every mean to subdue him.”
“Let’s agree you’re not exactly objective, please, Soren.”
“Maybe,” he said, shrugging one shoulder. “Yes. But even if I stick to business. My life, and yours, miss, would’ve been so much easier with him handcuffed to the radiator, and doing what he’s bloody told for a change.”
“No contest,” Stella said. As much as she would've liked to contradict him, her logic didn’t find anything wrong with Soren’s rationale. Only her ethics, but those were secondary to the mission. “So, what’s your best guess?”
“You’re not gonna like it, miss,” Soren warned. He leaned his head back, and rolled his neck, to release the tension. His gaze was lost somewhere, across the window. “There’s something he needs to do, for us all to get out. Something he can’t be pressed into, not safely, at least. And if he’s not willing to do it, we’re just as stuck in this hell hole as he is.”
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