Author: Peony Black

Chapter 13

Dull rain fell on him, from up in the satellite-crowded sky. Mist was raising from the ground. On the day of Matko's death and Gunn's arrest in Pojina, he'd been willing to face a court martial, against the chance of returning home. After Brighton had set him up, he had gotten stuck in a limbo, taking one day at the time, and refusing to think about the next. Was Highwater the place where he'd turned into a coward, or he'd been one all along?  

The front door opened. He should go in: He was growing numb, and his fifteen minutes were up. Gunn spun around, intent on giving Soren meticulous fuck off instructions. It wasn’t Soren. Wary as a cat, a real one, not the sensual imitation he'd seen other women do, Stella Brighton waited on top of the stairs.  

She wrapped her arms around her, against the wind. Dressed in her eternal jeans and sweater, with the grey eyes and beautiful lips, she was a pretty thing that could almost pass for harmless.  

"It's freezing out here."  


"I hate it," she stated. "Come inside, Gunn."  

Well, if she hated it! He stood up, slowly, and walked up the stairs, stopping right in front of her. One step higher than him, they were finally eye to eye. Adding to his sense of irritation, the distance between them outlined her body, hinting disturbingly at warmth and softness.  

“Are you serious?" 

The steel of her gaze parted the drizzle into thin, tottering walls. "I'm afraid so. There's… something. All over the news. I think you want to see." She gave a smile, mirthless and edgy. "They cut off Soren's game." 

"What happened, Brighton?"  

"The IJCS is setting up a commission to look into the war in Cerna. They're investigating the Northern Taskforce. Vivini, my father." Her voice dropped a note, and she scanned him with wary, feline concentration. "General Roland just recused himself from the works."   

Damn, it was cold! Way too cold for him to be this bloody hot all of the sudden, in the goddamn cheap, plastic raincoat! Gunn snapped the collar open, and breathed in the mist, and the rain. 

As far as he knew, in the history of military government, no commission had ever established the truth. The IJCS was expert in the art of tacking smokescreens together: A sham of an investigation into a controversial matter, ending with a favourable report, eventually whitewashed the whole thing. But they were bound to dig into Cerna, and digging around Cerna had a way of turning lethal.    

In hindsight, Gunn had known he was done for the moment Stella Brighton had stepped foot in the camp. This commission she appeared so invested in was just too much of a coincidence.   

He pushed his hands into his pockets, and bluffed his way through. "Roland is General of the Army of the Northern Taskforce. He can't very well sign the Taskforce a clean bill. It defies the purpose."  

"You suspect it's a cover-up?" 

"No. The IJCS is about to admit that the Taskforce messed up, and, in the process, obliterated a small nation.” 

Her breath played fleetingly on her lips, and then vanished into the mist. "They might. Pin it on my father, or Viviani. If they're found guilty, as their CO, Roland won't look all that great. Dead men can't defend themselves, can they? " 

Gunn couldn't help but scowl. She was a bright thing; she had to realise, eventually, that living men hardly stood a better chance. "Can I see those news?"  

She nodded, a little too quickly. The wind seemed to ripple all through her. "Sure, yes. Soren is trying to access more information.”  

His mind was at odds with his body: His muscles had locked. Gunn pressed against the numbness, just enough to walk inside stiffly. He pulled off his coat in the hallway, and let it fall to the floor. He felt like he'd been running for miles, like he was running still, against the odds, against the clock.  

"Investigative commissions are expensive," Stella Brighton said, once they finally settled around the device. "Who is funding this one?"  

Soren projected the stream on the wall, diffuse images overlaying the mould stains and the cracks. He'd split the screen: On the one side, the official station; on the other, pirate websites. The official media played things soft, business as usual, yet another commission looking into the operation details versus the costs involved.

The illegal websites were all red and yellow with breaking news headlines. Soren jerked his head away from the Touchscreen. "The buzz on darknet is the Brits are sponsoring it. They aren't Roland's fans in the least."   

"The British aren't exactly fans of anyone but the British," Stella Brighton observed. "But they're only a small part of the Taskforce. The Northern branch alone outweighs them. Also, we can't dismiss Gunn's cover up theory."   

Soren shrugged. "The Brits have good intel, usually. And connections. I can think of several other nations, in and outside the Western Coalition, that would be far more comfortable without Roland. With the right ammo, they might convince the majority. But then again, they might not. In the past, these commissions had… mixed results.  Hey, check this out: Official Taskforce release." 

The camera focused on a handsome man in his forties, blond hair spiked with silver. He was dressed in formal Taskforce uniform, chest full of stars, and addressed the reporters from high on a podium. His face showed the same amount of enthusiasm as that brought about by a toothache.     

"The North Atlantic Taskforce is working closely with the IJCS, and is ready to provide all necessary data and information. We believe the public deserves to know the sacrifices that were made, and that safety comes at a cost. The procedures in place must be observed, also. Sensitive military information must be protected, in the interest of homeland security. We make no other statements and take no questions at this time."  

Gunn stared in shock at the screen, stared in shock into the past: It was catching up with him, vile as all things unearthed after having been put in the ground to rot. 

"Translation," Soren said. "They're ready to bury the IJCS in paperwork, and drag it on forever."   

"I agree. The Northern Taskforce will fight this tooth and claw." With a doubtful expression, Stella Brighton analysed the picture on the screen. “I didn't catch the name. Which one of Roland's sidekicks is he?" 

Gunn swallowed down bile. Soren's face twisted in an expression of disgust. "That’s one self-serving bastard: Colonel Holt."  

"Colonel Holt, the pilot? Highest killing score in modern history? I did think he looked familiar!”  

"He was a pilot, back when he still had a backbone." Soren grimaced,again. "Had that removed and climbed up the ladder, to Roland's security council." 

“Yes,” Stella Brighton said. “I remember I'd seen him around. He follows after Roland like a shadow.” 

Gunn wanted to laugh, and he wanted to scream. He didn't know what expression his face carried, but she transferred the full weight of her attention to him.   

"Are you alright?" 

He was suffocating. "May I open a window?" 

"Sure,” Soren drawled. “Why don’t I just move freezing to the top of today's to-do list?” 

Gunn gave up, and went to sit by the window instead. Outside, the wind and rain scribbled foreign letters across the sand, firm and final like a verdict: All is numbered, weighted and divided. The dunes surrounded them, a cemetery of hope. Without doubt, this life would kill him. He was to die here, as a man who had never lived.  

"There's all kind of leaks and rumours." Soren rubbed a hand across his face. "Most of them ridiculous. The somewhat credible ones... “ 

He closed most of the tabs, muted and minimised the Bullshit Network, and went full screen on one of the clandestine sites. 

"League for Democracy dot i2P. Libtards. Take it with a grain of salt, but still worth the read."   

He played the video. Under the title "Cerna not in Control of Hostile Satellite", followed by red question and exclamation marks, the self-titled 'League for Democracy' provided the fast facts of the conflict. The computer distorted voice was illustrated with pictures of the war.  

"More than 200,000 people lost their lives in the Cerna conflict. The number of Western soldiers wounded or dead in the operations led by Generals Patrick M. Viviani and Kevin S. Brighton, both serving under General of the Army Francis G. Roland, exceeds 25,000. " 

Gunn watched the wall: Refugees gathering outside a church; sniper positions on the slopes of the hills; soldiers, returning fire in downtown Pojina; smoke and flames, raising from a house set on fire; a woman, standing by a fresh grave.  

He'd hated those goddamn media drones, always hovering over their heads. And the decisions behind, the people in news rooms, clandestine or official, cherry-picking what footage better suited their ends. But the pictures they played now, he saw them, each time he closed his eyes at night.  

"Data in possession of the League for Democracy confirms that several intelligence briefs, highlighting the risk of regional instability, and the immense and unnecessary casualties, had been made available to the Northern Taskforce, before the decision to deploy Western troupes. Faulty, and even misleading data might have been provided to the International Joint Chiefs of Staff: Reliable sources close to the events quote pre-existing information that neither Cerna, nor the CDO, controlled the hostile satellite.   

"Our sources further reveal that the Vetogradin strike might have been part of a covert operation of the Northern Taskforce, code-named 'Fire Sky'. If confirmed by the investigation, the Northern Taskforce provoked and engaged in war by proxy, in breach of the Decommission Treaties. The Kingdom of Great Britain and Wales, one of the few Western powers that vetoed the deployment of Western troupes, has been pushing for almost three years for an investigation into Cerna.   

"It is probable for several high-ranking officers connected to the Cerna operations to be called before the future commission. The former theatre commanders, Generals Viviani and Brighton, both very conveniently killed in action, in Cerna's capital, the city of Pojina, rank between the notably absent."  

The footage ended abruptly, with the dramatic image of a mortar attack on an open, crowded market, a chaos of twisted limbs and desperate facial expressions: Pieces that people were made of, messy, broken and scattered, spilled and blown, and bloodied. Not living; no longer human. 

Gunn was not in the least religious. For him, god was simply an interjection. But maybe there was something more to life, after all. Some fantastic gizmo, keeping together all those small parts that turned into something else entirely, horrid and frightening, in its absence.  

Stella Brighton looked away, face pale.       

"They imply someone killed the General to silence him.” She wiped her hands on the top of her jeans, as if she'd found them soiled all of the sudden. "He could have testified."      

Soren gave a terse shake of his head. "I warned you, miss. You cannot trust everything they say."  

She curled her fingers into small fists. "Roland is making a grab for power. I've always thought him more than ready to step on a few bodies in the process, and my father was a rival to him. But this goes against all laws. If it's true, it amounts to treason. My father would never have agreed, he would never have condoned anything illegal. More reason for Roland to get rid of him."  

Anger shot all through him. It was illegal, and Brighton wouldn't? "Your father JDAM-ed General Rehak. His wife and kids were in the house with him. His guards, too. A cook; the nanny, those boys were eight, and twelve. They made a video, and played it, the blast, the charred bodies, lined up in front of the ruins. I wouldn't bet a dime on his ethics."  

She spun around to face him. "My father ended the war in six months. I'm sure he wouldn't have knowingly bombed children. They already said the intel was flawed. Maybe he couldn't risk a ground operation." She kept looking for a justification of the indefensible. There wasn’t one. She realised it, also, and bent her eyes to the floor, biting into her lips. Blood rose crimson in the small indentations left there by her teeth.  

"What is it about this war, Gunn? I know you don't trust us. But I have to make decisions that affect us all. Is it all that unbalanced? I'd have to trust you, too. I have no key of control, do I?" 

Gunn saw what she was doing: an argument from ignorance. She could not disprove his mistrust. She could not prove her alleged trust in him. But he could talk to her. He'd been doing nothing but ever since he'd met her, for all that he'd told himself that he wasn't.  

"Knowledge isn't power, Brighton. Power is power.” With everything he knew, he didn't – he’d never had any. All he had were images of dead kids, and their dead dogs, brought down for no reason other than crossing a street someone with a gun had claimed as theirs. "But fine, OK." 

The air was chilly in the room, but he felt like he was breathing scalding vapours. The burn layered his voice. "They're right about operation 'Fire Sky'. The Taskforce wanted a rogue satellite, and plausible deniability, to better supervise the military activities of the CDO.  

"Cerna agreed to put it out there, under their flag. My best guess, they either bribed Rehak, or blackmailed him into it. But Cerna lacked the expertise, and the resources. So, the Taskforce put together a team, for a two-month mission, preparations and launching.”  

The minutia of the mission, each detail relevant, those small pieces of a perfect puzzle sliding in place, surfaced in his mind: Gaining height slowly, glued to the back of the seat; flying between the clouds, the powerful, perfect machine answering to his commands, the quickening of his heat rate, the power rush. And then, eventually, the fallout.   

Stella Brighton tilted her head, very slowly, glancing up at him with an air of calm determination, like a gambler holding all the aces. "Were you part of the team?" 

Just forget, he told himself. Just forget how fucking scared you are. Speak. Say all there is to say.   

This was his debriefing. Or, in lieu; the closest he might ever come to being heard, which was all the same: His entire goddamn life poorly compensated for something that wasn't, but should have been. Gunn delivered the story like it was a report, with the reigned-in desperation of a pilot trapped inside a burning cockpit, with no way out but down. 

"I put it on orbit."  

Soren’s jaw went slack. “You're Taskforce?”  

"Air Force, Republic  of California. But I got transferred to Europe. I trained for 18 months in Guiana, for the Cerna mission."   

Soren glared at him, in open mistrust. "I suppose you have a name and rank to back that up."  

"I was a flight lieutenant," Gunn said. Sweat layered his palms. He clenched them inside his pockets, out of sight. "I couldn't believe they’d choose me. When they transferred me to Special Ops, they moved me up the ranks so high, it made my head spin. Squadron Leader. Should have triggered the alarm bells; but I was stupid, ambitious."  

Feeling he still had something to prove, to Liam, to himself. And then he was, at long last, the golden boy, squadron leader at only 25. Roland had bought and owned him, with an ego brush and a rank. But really, it had been about his name, nothing more. His blood connection to Liam, dragging them both to the bottom, like cement shoes. 

Soren jutted out his chin, his eyes narrowed and focused. "Name and number?" 

Gunn laughed, darkly. Soren was to bound love this one. "Holt,” he said. He wasn’t proud. He was not relieved. He but was, where, for a long time, he hadn’t been.  “1572941, Holt, Thomas Gunn.” 

Soren’s fingers danced across the Touchscreen. The projection changed to reveal the public profile on a service wall, among the millions of the Taskforce: the picture of a young man in Airforce uniform, with short blond hair, and a cocky smile. SQNLDR Holt, Thomas Gunn. A Taskforce sticker – the banner, at half-staff. MIA. Presumed dead. 

'We Salute the Heroes.' 

They’d figured out how to kill him, after all. In his own name, and completely impersonal. So then, he was; as if he hadn't been in the least. And no longer the hero, for certain, should he suddenly rise from the dead.   

“Son of a bitch!” Soren's voice was grating, as if something sour had remained stuck inside his throat. “Confirmed.” 

Stella Brighton’s eyes stabbed him all the way to the core. “Roland’s little helpers. The Holts.” Her fingers worried the sleeves of her sweater, and her face reflected pure disgust. She’d thought him an enemy prisoner, and still not looked at him that way. 

“No, it was not like that. I already told you, Brighton, plain idiot brain. Like a good little soldier, I never questioned the orders. It never occurred to me to look at the big picture, or wonder about their plan.” 

She didn’t look convinced. “Who’s they?” 

"Not the IJCS.” The Northern brass, calling the shots. “Viviani. Brighton. Roland.” He smirked, angered. She’d said she was willing to trust him. They had told him what a great pilot he was. Matko had told him he was a friend. “Take your pick."  

"Not my father." She shook her head, with iron conviction. "Who was your direct CO?" 

"General Viviani."  

“And the orders?" 

"To launch 'Fire Sky'. But something went wrong. The strike on Vetogradin occurred. I was waiting for clearance to come home, when it went down.   

“My orders arrived on the same night.” The drinking roulette, in the bar, with Marko, and Mara. “It wasn’t clearance. I'd been appointed military liaison officer for Cerna. Go with, fight with, they said. I never questioned them. I bought the hijack theory, because what else could it have been?"  

He'd done it so many times before, falling into the pattern of conformity just like a machine, like his plane out there, that the thought hadn't even crossed his mind. Sometimes, people built worlds inside their heads, maybe in order to bear with this one. Gunn supposed he'd come a long way since. Several parts of him wished he'd never had.   

"The COMM were cut off soon after that. My next contact with the Taskforce was six months into the war, when Viviani arrived with the troupes. He reconfirmed the initial orders, and asked that I report directly to him.  There was still hope for a truce, and they wanted an open channel with Cerna. They trust you, he said. You fought with them.   

“I went on with the Cerna army, and we ended up trapped in Pojina. After Viviani got himself KIA, Brighton sieged the city."  

"Did you report to him?" Stella Brighton asked. She kept her tone professional, detached, but her lips were white with tension. "What did my father do?"   

He closed his eyes, briefly. Stand easy, Brighton had said, keeping him in the rain at gunpoint. The cowboy and I will have a talk sometime. How would you like a court martial, sonny boy?  

"He slammed a pair of handcuffs on me, and had me tagged as a Cerna prisoner. Woke up in Highwater, coming down so hard after apache I couldn't spell my own name." He breathed in, tired, worn out. Brighton hadn’t killed him, like he'd had Matko. He’d put Gunn away, in case he might have need of him alive: Storing away amo, for later use.   

A  concealed, smoking weapon. Maybe there was a time self-destructive side to him, after all. He was ripping away the bandages from an old, festering wound, pushed by some morbid curiosity to look and see, despite the pain, despite knowing that it would bleed.  

“I thought about it. The launch codes were delivered directly, over a secured connection. Cerna never had them.” Gunn wiped his lips with the back of his hand, but nothing would erase the taste of murder and betrayal.    

“I punched in some digits, and didn't care about anything but my chance to launch a goddamn satellite. It must have been me, all along. I programmed the kinetic strike. Started a goddamn genocide."  

Her questions kept coming at him, like clean-aimed bullets. "Who passed on the codes to you?"   

Gunn pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes. The familiar voice echoed in his ear, inflectionless, guiding him through the process of digging his own grave.  

"Liam. Colonel Holt.”    

Soren sprung to his feet. "Of course!" He slammed his opened palm into the table. "I always wondered what the fuck Roland needed a flight advisor for!"   

"Cerna never made sense." Stella Brighton breathed, in and out, steadying herself. Emotions played briefly on her face, a short battle that she fought and won. 

“All intel simulations failed, because they'd been compromised from the start. Roland wanted a war to convince the IJCS how much they needed a General of the Armies, so they planned and started one. Him, Holt, Viviani, who kept dragging it on. My father was appointed by the IJCS, and ended it in six months. He must have vexed Roland to no end when he took his toys away. If this commission uncovers the truth, it will be his end."    

Gunn wasn't all that sure about Brighton not being involved. His suspicions revolved more on a power struggle between him and Roland. Maybe Brighton wanted the supreme position for himself. But what did it matter, in the end, if he let her think her father a better man than he’d been? At least now he understood the end game, the implications of Stella Brighton's mission. She'd built a world inside her head, too, one where she was able to fight, and win. One where Gunn was likely the bullet intended to avenge the General. He wouldn't, even if he could. He'd touch none of Brighton's designs. 

Stella Brighton sat at arm's length from him, but she couldn't have been further away. Gunn imagined he'd already shaken the foundations of her world. Now, he was prepared to shutter it to the ground. 

"They're all dead now." Everyone connected with 'Fire Sky', Rehak, Viviani, Brighton, Matko. "Except for Roland, Liam and I. I imagine it's a matter of time. There always has to be an escape goat. It will not be Roland. That footage before - Liam didn't look all that happy, did he? I suspect by now he knows it, too. And the two of you - "   

You tied both my hands, Liam had told him, and he’d been dead right, dead right about everything. Gun halted to breathe, in sync with Stella Brighton: Her chest rose, and fell, along with his.  

"Whatever you think you're doing, you need to take a moment and think. Ask yourself the same question I should've. Do you really want to follow your orders here?  

"You have options, the way I see it, a cover story that's sound enough. Turn me in, and let the Taskforce and Roland, and their bloody commission deal with me. I don't have to be your problem, Brighton. Trust me, you're in over your head."  

Soren’s eyes, dark and heavy with doubts, weighted him. Hers were cold, hard metal: She could not disprove his story, any more than he was able to prove it, bringing the game of reason to a draw. It all amounted to trust, and she was unwilling to trust him. For some reason, it was vital that someone – that she did.  

“I should tell you why they kept me in Cerna.” 

He told them about Matko; how he was a member of Rehak’s special ops close protection team. How he’d volunteered to babysit Gunn. How Matko had convinced Rehak he’d found a way inside the Taskforce, through him. How Gunn had been a pawn, and Matko, a mole of the Taskforce all along. And how he’d gotten his brains blown off, on the day when Pojina fell, on Brighton's orders. 

“This is how the system works. It covers all fronts - military strategy is what they do, after all. You see now, Brighton, why the commission is a sham? If it's a whitewash, Roland comes out just fine. If the commission actually discovers something, he’ll charge Liam with treason. And Viviani, and Brighton. And me. The commission will eventually identify systemic deficiencies in the Taskforce, family relations, risks. Roland will jump at the opportunity to purge and reorganise the whole chain of command.” 

Stella Brighton's face seemed carved in ice. But she was a bright one, indeed, catching up fast. “He’ll ask them for more power; a stronger hand. He'll make General of the Armies, and put his pawns in positions of authority. And then Roland will control the western world.” 

“Game over, Brighton,” Gunn said. “He already won. Cut your losses, while you still can. Walk away.”


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