The landscape was beautiful and serene: The sun, recently set, cast the remnant of its reddish rays over clear blue skies; long fields of wheat billowed in gentle winds; farms with flowery gardens dotted the honey-golden vistas. It was nearly perfect, aside from the group of special ops quietly making their way through the land.
They moved in pairs, and the high stalks hid their passage. Arek and his partner Klar had the closest building and so moved slowest, insinuating themselves through the grass. Their clothing, light khakis and greens, was beset with ocular fibers that reflected their surroundings. It wouldn't fool heat scanners, but it didn't need to. Their intel, limited as it was, indicated that their prey had no high-tech apparatus in his home, not even proper weaponry. It was an idyllic existence insofar as such a thing existed for people like him.
He was a former army general for the Caldari. The first war was long since past, but war, like love, rests unquietly beneath its velvet facade. There had been a thousand skirmishes in a thousand places since, and in truth the hostilities had never properly ended, nor peace been fully agreed to; the fighting had merely petered out, like a sputtering flame. But some people had expended much of their breath keeping it alive.
In the Caldari State the general's war record was pristine, all the blood having been thoroughly washed off before it got a chance to dry. The Gallenteans knew better. He'd been responsible for countless silent atrocities against them, and in particular against the corporation whose agents now flowed over the landscape. After his retirement he had, at his express request, been rewarded with a quiet life living on a plot of land in the outback of space, a lowsec area where none of his enemies would ever think to look for him.
But wars find their soldiers, and the new war had found him.
Hostilities in this particular lowsec system had propelled Gallente agents to scout out its planets. Orbital photography, atmospheric probes and data mining had unearthed the general, hiding like a worm. Intel indicated his fixed location could be on any of several farms in the area, and while the first reaction of the Gallentean warring forces was to send a bomb or two down to the general area, it was quickly vetoed. The man was a minor war hero in his own empire and a war criminal in the Federation. It was determined that he was needed alive so he could stand trial for his crimes, and, of course, to pacify the increasingly revenge-hungry Federation masses. Besides, it was still early in the war, and inflicting unnecessary casualties could have carried grave implications, particularly in a Federation that had just suffered a terrible planetary invasion.
A group of black ops was assembled and brought up to speed. Retrieving the general alive was of primary importance, so much so that they were allowed only nonlethal weapons.
There was some dissent.
"Why's he coming in alive?" Arek said during the mission briefing.
"PR," the captain replied. "He comes in dead, he's useless to us."
"But we're going to kill him anyway."
"Not necessarily. He might be used as barter."
"I want an MTAC," Klar said.
"You're not getting one," the captain and Arek said in unison. The rest of the team looked on, not hiding their grins.
"Still want one."
The captain said, "This is a top-secret mission that has to be executed with stealth and precision, and you want to bring along a mechanized skeleton that'll thump the ground like god's own hammer."
There was silence in the room.
Klar said, "MTACs shoot rockets."
"Group dismissed. Get out."
So they'd kitted out in light, nonlethal gear. Tiny multiburst grenades locked to EM, instahardening foam bombs, and subvocal communicators, along with whatever personal gear they needed. Everything was passive except the communicators and their relays, and their power use was negligible. Anything else that might show up on scanner, including heat-vision gear, was left behind. In an isolated hostile location with no chance of backup or rescue, you relied on your own damn abilities.
They were dropped in so far away that it took them several days to make their way to the target point. They'd been lucky enough to escape injury, and nutrition tablets took care of malnutrition fears, but all the same the strain of the journey had rendered them a hair cranky by the time they reached the farms. They didn't know on which one the old general resided, but it was immaterial; they'd hit them all simultaneously.
Arek and Klar snuck up to the side of theirs, edging towards the windows. The general had not gotten to his old age through stupidity or lack of perception, and even with the agonizing care they'd taken not to be noticed on their way here, it paid to be careful, which meant not barging in through the front door.
Arek sent out a call to the other agents. Everyone in position?
Responses came in a minute later. Team Beta, position. Team Gamma, position. Team Delta, position. Team Epsilon, position. Team Zeta, position.
Arek nodded to Klar, who pulled out a multiburst grenade. The house was on two floors and Klar had hotly argued his ability to accurately toss in a grenade on the second story, but had been voted down by Arek, who claimed to be allergic to having grenades bounce off windowsills and fall on his head.
Arek pulled out his own grenade. He nodded to Klar, clicked it and tossed through the closed window. The sound of the breaking glass pierced the summer day and was echoed from the other farms, where the other agents were doing the same. The two operatives shut their eyes tight. There was a muffled noise and the air was filled with fractured light like a kaleidoscope come to life, so bright that it filtered even through their eyelids. Arek heard Klar mutter, "... nine, ten," and break the glass as he tossed in the other multiburst. It went off, and the second wave of fractured light made Arek nauseous. If the general hadn't been thoroughly disarmed by the first grenade, or had been elsewhere in the house, his roused curiosity or antediluvian tenacity would hopefully have been taken care of by the second.
Klar rose, shook his head a couple of times, moved to the front door and kicked it in. He had one hand raised, holding a foam bomb, though Arek noticed his other hand was lodged in a pocket.
They quickly scouted the area. As with most buildings on this continent of the planet, its outsides were concrete and the insides from wood, and the architecture favored large, open rooms favorable to inhabitants and kidnappers alike. Arek could never get used to the utter stillness after an EM-set multiburst had been thrown into a room. Quietness, yes; after you throw a proper live grenade into someone's living room there's not going to be much noise apart from a few dying gurgles. But the utter undisturbed serenity of a post-EM room, with everything in its place and all the pictures hanging undisturbed from the walls, set his teeth on edge. It was like firing a laser in the dead vacuum of space; you found yourself looking for the burn marks merely to prove the act of violence to your very own senses.
Not only was there no disturbance; there was no body. Arek caught Klar's gaze. Uh-oh.
He started to subvocalize a command but Klar caught his unspoken thoughts and quietly padded to the basement stairs. Arek pulled out a foam bomb and headed upstairs.
Calling it a second floor was laying it on a little thick. It was fairly large, but the slanted roof was low enough to call up a vague air of claustrophobia, and the only concessions to human inhabitation were a large bed, a dresser and various smaller clothing storages, and a large, intricately carved wooden desk. On the desk, surrounded by several framed pictures of people Arek assumed were his family, lay a single piece of paper.
Arek did a quick sweep, but the dressers were empty and the underside of the bed held not even a speck of dust. That left the desk, and the paper, and an unpleasant foreboding in Arek's mind. When he saw that the message was written in Gallentean - the Gallente tongue, one that no man on this planet was likely to know save the team and the general himself - he snapped it up immediately and began to read:
Welcome. I knew you'd come one day, whoever you are, so I made arrangements.
First off, this is my home and you're not welcome. I hope they're paying you enough to run fast and far away when my people go after you.
Arek rolled his eyes. He kept reading:
I have access to substantial funds, so it may surprise you to find the place so rustic. It's how I like it - I've always appreciated simplicity, and after a lifetime of serving the greatest army in the world, with all the myriad complexities inherent in such a career, I decided it was time I lived, at last, like a civilian. Also, this lifestyle helps me fit in with the people in this area. They're nice people. I like them.
But in the event that I ever got visitors, I made a few concessions to complexity and chaos.
Underneath this farm is a bunker.
Arek immediately subvocalized a warning to Klar, who gave an all-clear and said that if there was anything down there apart from firewood and mice, he'd be surprised.
It's hidden beneath the floorboards.
Arek subvocalized this. There was a splintering crash from downstairs, and Klar sent a subvocalized string of curse-filled surprise that served as confirmation.
There are similar bunkers underneath every farm in this area. Once I'd gotten to know the local citizenry I found them quite amenable to having their housing upgraded ever so slightly. I explained that I had a military background and that some people disagreed with my past work and protection of the State. I was surprised at how easily they agreed to have the bunkers installed, for I had feared they would simply run me off, or at the very least shut me out with that narrow-mindedness one expects of the rural stereotype, but I was proven quite pleasurably wrong. It turns out that here, on the edge of the world, people are used to protecting themselves against natural disasters, be they typhoons, floods, fires or anything else unwelcome that comes their way. The idea of a group of cowardly little men scurrying into their houses at night robs these people of no more sleep than the knowledge of rats scurrying in their walls, and they cheerfully accepted my proposition. A number of healthy subsidies for their work here didn't hurt, either. Their children will all go to State colleges.
Add to that a subtle early-warning system, and we all found ourselves ensconced in the safety of our respective steel boxes before you even got within sight of this place. I sent off an emergency call to my own forces, and even now they are on their way here to extract me. I would not want to be in your shoes if you are still here when they arrive.
Arek cursed. This deadline changed the mission parameters considerably.
Each bunker has all the supplies necessary for a long and healthy life, inasmuch as one
remains trapped underground. The atmospheric generators will work almost indefinitely and, dare I say it, will be ticking away long after you are all dead and gone. There is plenty of nourishment - most of it locally grown, actually - that I've had freeze-dried to last a long, long time, and the filtered liquid dispensers match those on any spaceship you care to name. To stave off boredom we have vidscreens, of an old and dependable brand that won't break for a while, and if they're not quite as exciting as the latest holoprojectors or Egones, I made up for it by including a substantial library of entertainment.
Lastly, each bunker is quadruple the size of the house below it, to detract from the risk of cabin fever. They lie far enough in the ground that they don't disturb the crops, but I'm sure you have people who can use sonar to verify my claims.
Klar subvocalized his impatience to Arek, who replied with a team-wide broadcast telling people to hang back. The others vocalized back, confirming that each team had found a similar note in their own entered houses.
There is another feature, mind, that I did not feel compelled to share with my neighbors. Every bunker except my own contains a canister of poisonous gas.
Arek sent a subvocalization to Klar telling him to back off now.
Not only will the gas kill whatever poor soul that enters the bunker without a mask, but everyone who inhabits it. It's a combination nerve gas and blistering agent that'll make each bunker's inhabitants keel over in pain, vomit blood, break out in horrific sores, lose their sense of reality and probably attack anyone who approaches them before their organs finally turn into a liquid mush and they go into massive cardiac arrest.
Every bunker is connected to the others with a transmission system. I daresay you could block it, but by the time you move in that kind of gear my supporting forces would long since have extracted me from this place. Perhaps if you ask them nicely, they'll let you keep some of your vital organs, though I imagine they'll likely leave some of you draped over the walls.
So if a single bunker is opened, they all start pumping the gas. That's not to mention thatthe bunkers cannot be safely opened from either side unless you know a specific code, and the only person who knows it is, I'm afraid, myself. If I die, my lovely neighbors will die, too - the men, women and children who even now are living their lives underground, waiting for the moment when my smiling countenance meets them at the entryway - and you will have all their fates on your conscience.
So you go ahead and break me out of the bunker to drag me off somewhere unheard of, and eventually I'll be returned to my State in exchange for political gain. All it will cost you is the cold-blooded murder of several innocent families. Look at my desk. Their pictures are there.
Arek looked at the desk. The pictures were there.
Good luck, whoever you are. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes.
Arek dropped the letter back to the desk and sighed deeply.
It was typical Caldari. Never do anything the easy way.
He communicated this to Klar and the rest of the team.
Klar sent back a question. So unless we get this guy out real soon, we're up in our asses in State soldiers.
Yep, Arek replied.
And the only way to get him out is to breach the bunker, which'll gas everyone else who lives here.
It fits his profile, I suppose, Arek said. He's a rotten one, from skin to center.
What do we do?
We have to abort.
The hell we are.
Look, Arek said, we don't have a lot of time. We get out, make our way to the pickup point and hope that our people can get there without being shot out of the sky. What do you want to do, just tear in there and kill him on the spot?
If we lose him now, he's gone for good.
Arek sighed. That's how it has to be.
The man is a monster, Arek.
I know. What else is there to do?
You said it yourself, Klar says. He's built a career on a lifetime of evil that's now hidden in this cover of old age. I'm sure he was real charming to the people here. Remember how charming he was to the Gallenteans he caught, back in the day?
There was a sound downstairs.
Klar, what was that noise?
You know, these people you want to protect, they didn't ask any questions. He just gave them a lot of money and they took it. Nevermind he installed a bunch of hi-tech stuff in their homes, and they took it all, without even once thinking what this guy did to warrant that sort of protection. He said there were pictures up there, of those people. You saw the pictures we have? Of what he did to the Gallenteans he caught?
Arek rubbed his eyes. Klar, tell me that sounds wasn't a gun being cocked.
You know what they found in one of his old cells? Remember that pic, Arek? It was a small one, because there wasn't a lot left.
You brought a gun with you, didn't you, Klar?
Everyone in this place is complicit, and don't think for a second that anyone in Caldari is ever going to know, because then they'd have to admit that their old star general built a deathtrap for all the people who sold their souls to him.
Arek was going to argue with him, but something caught his attention. It wasn't a sound in the distance, but the absence of sound at the very edge of hearing: a stillness that comes when something very large is being very quiet, very far away. It was a sound that he'd last heard emanating through the walls of his own dropship. The enemy was coming. Time had run out.
And in that moment came the absolute clarity of two immutable, undeniable facts of life: The first, that he didn't want to do this, for it was absolutely wrong, it would make him a murderer and a marked man not only among the Caldari but in the eyes of the powers on the other side of life itself, and even though he was in this line of work he still had a shred left of resistance to the idea of murdering an entire community; and second, that in this place, doing the wrong thing for the right reason was the only option reasonably available to him as a human being.
Hell, he said. Go.
Be happy I didn't bring an MTAC, Klar said with undisguised glee. There were several sharp retorts and the sounds of crunching metal as he shot his way through the door and made his way into the bunker below. At some point Arek thought he heard a scream.