Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Alone in the briefing room, Steve pulled up a map of South Africa. Several markers were placed across the country. Some zones were crossed out, others annotated with notes and a handful left blank waiting to be explored. So far, three of the five known SEKT outposts were destroyed by John and his team. They were poorly guarded almost inviting an assault. Sigvald was sacrificing his pawns one-by-one. A risky but unpredictable strategy, his movements being so erratic it was difficult to see any pattern.
After requesting for recon drones to be dispatched from the relevant department, Steve closed the map and stared at his white ceiling. He found that thoughts flew more naturally to him when he was away from computers and holo-desks.
Five outposts. One stronghold. Three conquered and not a hint of concern on his side, Steve thought, running through the statistics in his head. What are you hiding?
Interrupting his chain of thought, a messenger knocked on his door.
“Come in,” Steve said in response.
The man entered the room. With his outstretched arm, he handed the envelope over to Steve. The bald man raised an eyebrow asking for further detail.
“The Council is on,” the messenger stated blandly.
Steve sighed and prepared himself for the nightmare he was about to face. With the stunt he pulled with Ethan, he could only expect to get ripped to shreds by six of his superiors.
Thanking the messenger silently, he gestured for him to leave the room. The man made a quick exit leaving him to the mercy of the Council. Mercy, however, was unheard of to the six members.
He opened the envelope and slid the tablet onto the holo-desk. The room turned dark and Steve looked up to five large frames with silhouettes of people’s faces. Their size was intimidating enough, let alone the sheer power they had. Their anonymity only added to the pressure of standing before them. Though their identities were well known to each other, their voices were modulated for security purposes.
Two were CEOs of the largest private companies in South Africa, infamous for their pursuit of fame and wealth. Two were senior agents stationed as watchers on the asteroid belt and one, a high-ranking member of the FSP.
The sixth member of the council was its head. President Duncan. He appeared at the center of the five surrounding Steve. His silhouette blocked off the light in the background like a solar eclipse, only a faint outline shining around him.
“Report, Mr. Starcson,” stated Duncan in a commanding voice.
“Uh…Right,” mumbled Steve as he pulled out some notes. He narrated the outcomes of the meeting with Jim that occurred within the last hour and the actions he took in response to the intel. The council remained silent, glancing at one another from time to time and then nodding slightly with approval. Unsurprisingly, the council was pleased with the return of their supposedly loyal lapdog, Jim.
At the mention of their new recruit’s name, one of the members asked, “Why is he here? He’s a scientist not an age—” The man cut himself off mid-sentence realizing he had said too much.
“How do you know him?” asked another. She remained silent awaiting his answer.
“He…” the silhouette began. “He was a former employee of mine.”
“Former?” she pressed even further.
“Dismissed,” he responded blandly. “For… Insubordination…”
The lady turned her attention to Steve. “Then what makes you think he will be subordinate to us?”
Steve was struggling to give vague responses now that the council’s questions were getting more and more specific. They couldn’t know how Ethan arrived at the base nor could they know why he really joined. Either one of those two would be enough grounds for them to order his execution. But not before they leach every last bit of information from him.
“Nothing as of yet,” replied Steve finally. “Which is why I have assigned someone to observe him… To see where his loyalties sit.”
Their silence signaled their discomfort. Steve quickly attempted to diffuse their suspicion. “Jim is handling it.”
“Good,” she said. “Finally, we can make some progress with him on board instead of concerning ourselves with trivial matters.”
“Casualties are not trivial, ma’am,” Steve said in the firmest tone he could achieve without raising his voice. “He outri—”
“Enough!” boomed Duncan. “I did not come here to settle disputes. Jim will handle Ethan and everyone will agree to it. We have far more pressing matter to discuss than the involvement of a new recruit.”
What could possibly be bigger than a lethal bioweapon?
“Very well,” one of them said finally after a prolonged silence.
Moving on swiftly, Duncan opened up a screen in front of Steve and the council to see. The aftermath of the attack on the station three months ago replayed in a loop.
“The release of the bio weapon is disturbingly close to this incident.”
“What are you implying?” asked Steve. “Sigvald wouldn’t be so reckless to expose himself out in the open.”
“We have doubled our efforts in seeking out the culprits. You are right. Sigvald would not be so stupid, but a rebellious group of beltians could,” added Duncan.
The FSP, while loved by the people, were notorious for their anti-belt rhetoric. If there was anyone who’d target the party themselves, it would be them. But South Africa’s relationship with the Belt was far too brittle for this attack to be commanded by their king. It had to be a terrorist organization.
“Perhaps…Some Alliance resources could be diverted to speeding up this process,” one of the CEOs suggested.
“No. The Alliance has its own problems,” Steve butted in. He was not about to involve himself in a political squabble when a possible global pandemic could be on the loose. “The police force can handle this.”
“Clearly not,” muttered two of the men.
“I suggest you be more careful with your words,” Duncan said calmly. “The only reason I have tolerated you till this point is because I find your shortsightedness mildly amusing.”
The meeting fell into a deathly silence. Steve cleared his throat and was the first to break it. “We have a further problem.”
“And that is?” asked Duncan.
“The SEKT stronghold is somewhere in Durban. In the metropolitan area. Which means if we have any chance of stopping him, the Alliance and SEKT will have to go public,” Steve said.
The council murmured amongst themselves. Going public was risky for many reasons. One of which was the fragile economy South Africa maintained. It was like a building on the brink of collapse loosely supported by the cables of investors. As soon as they cut their interest in the country’s development, South Africa would fall to pieces.
“Then the Alliance will defect from my control and solely operate outside the law. I will, in now way, be associated with the activities here,” Duncan said firmly.
“I too will withdraw from the council,” added one of the remaining five. Soon, all the members of the council had decided to cut ties and resources from the Alliance if they ever went public. Steve thought their decisions to be so petty and cowardly. A hit to their reputation would be the only damage they'd take. The law can’t hold them accountable when they are the law. They had nothing to lose other than fame.
“If it comes to that,” Duncan began. “I will allow one attack on SEKT’s stronghold.”
Steve breathed a sigh of relief. “But,” he added. “I will be forced to charge every surviving Alliance member with treason.”
Steve cursed under his breath. Treason’s punishment was likely death under Duncan’s rule. Execution of hundreds of participants of the Allaince and SEKT? It would be a bloodbath, the likes of which would never be seen. Judging by the deathly silence of all the other members, Steve presumed they were as shocked as he was.
“Why?” Steve asked hoping for an explanation other than the nightmare he had conjured in his mind.
“That is not of your concern Starcson. Keep our operations secret… By any means necessary.”
"We have a final topic of discussion on the agenda,” presented the female silhouette. “The status of Max on the Council.”
“What about it?” the president asked nonchalantly. “As far as we know, SEKT approached him a few days prior to the attack asking for a device. He did not give it to them. So what’s the problem here?”
“Where is that device? And why is it not in the council’s possession?” the lady asked in an accusatory voice.
“It’s a worthless prototype that doesn’t even function,” Max dismissed.
“Then why would SEKT be so interested in it?” an elderly voice inquired. The croaking voice had been silent for much of the meeting but took interest in this of all matters. “And when they requested that the device be given to them, they didn’t harm you when you refused? Just… let you be on your way as if nothing happened? A council member met Sigvald face-to-face and came out alive?”
“I’m too important to kill,” boasted Max. “The best move for them was to keep me alive and well.”
Max was keeping his answers adequately vague. There was more to this than he was letting on and Steve needed to find out what he and Sigvald said to each other.
“You’re already on your way out of this council Max,” snapped the lady. “Get to the poin—”
“Who told you he was ‘on his way out’?” interrupted Duncan, his tone hardening once more. “Max stays because he has been loyal. He is one of two eyes that show me the insides of the private sector. You, on the other hand, have been quite the opposite.”
“Whatever he said to Sigvald doesn’t matter. The device they were looking for did not end up in their hands. As for our possession of this device…Of what use is it if it doesn’t work? We have larger issues to deal with. For now, this can wait.”
Steve could hear a faint sigh come from Max. Duncan had grown more irritated at the lack of order in the meeting as it progressed, brushing off an otherwise pertinent issue. He clearly had somewhere else more important to be.
“Sir, this is urgent,” the croaking voice said with a hint of desperation.
"I said, it can wait," whispered Duncan so coldly it sent shivers down Steve's spine. "This meeting is adjourned. We will congregate next month to discuss our progress once more unless I say otherwise. Understood?"
The rest of the council agreed and an irritated Steve deprived of the answers he wanted nodded hesitantly in response.
Without a word of parting, he disconnected from the call. The rest of the council realizing their silence spoke more than any words they could say in retaliation to that, also left leaving Steve alone in a dark room. With more stress added to his already full plate, he switched off the device and the room returned to the deserted briefing room. He walked over to the door and unlocked it, opening it and allowing the ambient noise of people’s chatter to fill the silent void.
You’re not giving me much of a choice, Duncan, Steve thought. Regardless of the why, Steve needed to proceed and hope and pray it didn’t come down to storming the stronghold.
Leaving the briefing room, Steve walked down the hallway and to his office. He shut the door and fell onto his chair making it spin. The bald man heard a knock on the door. After asking the knocker to come in, John stood in front of his desk. The unavoidable giant blocked off most of Steve’s view.
“How’d the meeting go?” he asked hesitantly.
“Ughhhh…” Steve moaned in frustration.
“The same as last time I assume.”
“Worse. One step forward and several more steps back,” Steve said softly. “If we’re going to catch him we have to take their stronghold. In public.”
“What did Duncan say?” John asked.
“He said if we go public he’ll be forced to execute the Alliance even if we succeed to eliminate SEKT.”
“Shit…” John whispered to himself. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Steve replied despondently. “The minute we fire a shot on SEKT HQ Duncan will have us put on trial and executed for treason.”
“Why?” John asked. “Is it orders from the UN?”
“I don’t know! Why don’t you bloody ask him?” Steve shouted in frustration. “He’s backing me in the corner and expecting me to do a miracle! If I storm the base, all of us die. If I don’t, we get killed by the weapon. What the hell am I supposed to do?!”
“Wouldn’t that make him a criminal. You know… if he executes so many people?”
Steve laughed mockingly. “Criminal? John… That man can kill someone in front of a court and walk away without a scratch to his name. He controls everyone and he does it with a smile on his face! How the fuck am I supposed to get rid of him if I’m the one that’s mocked for speaking the truth? How?!”
Steve despised how calm and unresponsive John was. It made his outburst look so much more idiotic. He apologized meekly for snapping at John. The giant smiled gently and nodded his head in acceptance.
Holding his head in his hands, Steve peeked through his fingers at John hoping for some good news. “And Ethan? Is he set to start his training?”
“He just left the base now. A bit shaken up when I told him his training would start on Friday.”
Bloody hell… What did you tell him? He can’t leave now!
“What do you mean ‘shaken up’? Surely he knew he wasn’t going to go into the field untrained.”
John scratched his wrinkled forehead. “I don’t know why but he sounded a little shocked?”
Steve closed his eyes in frustration. He felt like screaming into a pillow. It felt as if every problem conceivable just dropped on his plate the minute he stepped into the base. “Make sure he comes back. I just told the council about him and they’re already suspicious. If he goes AWOL I’m going to be in more shit than I already was.”
“He’ll be back. Don’t worry,” assured John. “He just needs some time to wrap his head around this.”
“He’d better do it fast. We’re punching a clock and we don’t even know how much time we have left.”
John gripped Steve’s shoulders. “You. Need. To. Stop… Understood? You should pack up for the day. It’s been a rough one for you.”
“I’m fine now,” Steve insisted.
“You are far from fine. You’ve been in a gunfight, had the most tense and problematic mission brief and you’ve been threatened by the president in the same day. I’m surprised you haven’t crumbled yet.”
John felt around for the Steve’s laptop and closed it. “We’re going out for dinner. Just the infiltrators. You should come along.”
He opened the door and gestured for Steve to exit before him. I’m not getting out of this, am I? Steve thought. With half a smile, he shut off the lights in his office and exited, John following him.
As they walked through the corridor towards the elevator, Steve realized how late in the day it was. Everyone had left already and most of the base had been locked up and set to night mode.
“You waited for me? Why didn’t you go home?” Steve asked perplexed.
John chuckled. “Last time I left an invitation to dinner on your desk it got ‘lost’. I wanted to make sure you got the invitation this time.”
Steve smiled. After the day he’d been through he didn’t think he could but somehow it made its way onto his face. He could feel it tugging at the ends of his mouth.
I suppose taking the day off didn’t work out, so maybe taking the night off will.
1. What did you think of the council? Do they come across as controlling (especially Duncan)?
2. Is Steve's outburst realistic? Does John's handling of it show their friendship?