“If you were to eliminate the journalists without causing a diplomatic incident, how would you do it?” asked Sara, before answering herself.
“I’d choose a nonlethal option. Stun or incapacitate them. And then try to perform some kind of rendition. Maybe I could call helicopters to pick them all up. But that would be stupid, to be exposed to radars like that. Maybe I’d pack them all into vans, transport them to a secret location, maybe close to the border, from where they could be smuggled back into Albania.”
“We did pick up some chatter from Unificationist cells, earlier today,” said Officer Blaku. “Here’s the intelligence report. They were mobilizing. Seemed like something big, like nothing they’d done before.”
“OK, let’s say the Unificationists were in on it. Let’s say, by some miracle, and turning a blind eye to their poor track record with these things, they managed to pull off their biggest job ever. Let’s say, they covertly transported… how many?”
“There were hundreds, if not thousands of journalists,” said Officer Blaku.
“Exactly,” said Sara. “But even if it worked, the Albanian State would still be walking a thin gray line with regard to international relations.”
“But then what about this bloodbath?” asked Officer Blaku. “Look at all these dead KIRN paramilitaries. They are all Kosovo citizens. Killing them is a declaration of war.”
“The Agency are definitely not that stupid,” said Sara, “We know that much. And I doubt Truthbringer A.I. would sanction and support something like this.”
“I mean…” said Blaku, “have you heard the recent rumors about China?”
“Don’t be stupid. This is Kosovo,” said Sara. “You said it yourself: Doing something like this without the explicit invitation from or the blessing of the host state would be a declaration of war.”
“Speaking of the devil, here comes the cavalry. The entire information-warfare-industrial complex, by the looks of it.”
Sara turned her head and from the top balcony saw a mob in military camouflage uniforms. It was the KSF’s Unit 1010. Like a well-choreographed machine, the ones holding briefcases kept walking straight, the ones setting up scanning beacons turned right and the ones connecting devices to computer terminals went left.
Among their semi-robotic movements and military-grade efficiency, the one giving orders stood out by the smoothness of her demeanor. Colonel Zana Uka was miniscule compared to the military heavies carrying crates and equipment. She wielded her arms in different directions, like some conductor of a military band, her confidence and authority expressed through her fierce eyes.
And this symphony of code and fire was interested in knowing one thing — if this was war. This was the Colonel’s primary objective. And this being a matter of national security, she didn’t have to wait for any hard evidence in order to start taking things over.
“Fuck, this is all we need now,” said Sara, “a bunch of trigger happy military commanders to blow us all up to the stone age. And what do you know about the stone age, Blaku?”
“Exactamundo. Look at that young little bitch down there,” said Sara. “You know I had her arrested when she was just 13?”
“Everybody knows about the rebellious hacker princess who now leads our fiercest into the battles of cyber realm.”
“And a good day to you Colonel Zana,” yelled Sara with a bit of sarcasm, and then added under her breath: “You sure did grow up fast, you little brat.”
Colonel Zana Uka turned her head upwards. She cracked the slimmest of smiles and saluted.
“Detective Sara Kulla, always a pleasure. I wish we’d met in different circumstances.”
“Yeah,” yelled Sara from above, “Sorry I missed your 20th birthday party. I had misplaced the invitation.”
The Arbiter drove toward the address he had obtained by interrogating the late KIRN paramilitary. As he approached his destination he felt proud he had maintained his stealth and the element of surprise. But above all he was proud of himself that he was able to resist the temptation of switching on his implants. And now the time was almost ready.
The fog had cleared and the sun invigorated the city, made it somehow more alive. But it also brought more of the grime to the forefront. The trash bags piled up by the side of the street were now more vivid. The gray concrete sparkled especially pretty in the afternoon sun colored by the smog. The occasional thin naked trees cast long shadows over the dead gray grass.
The Arbiter switched on his cyber-implants for the first time since having crossed the Kosovo border. He felt ecstatic and energized. He was turned into a perfect journalist-hunting machine. Now there was nothing that could come between him and his mission.
He paused for a moment. The rush of information was all too intense. He needed a second to get his bearings and level after such a prolonged period off the grid. The location of the KIRN headquarters showed up on his info-stream. But something was amiss. Police were swarming inside and around the compound. He couldn’t pinpoint his targets. Had journos learnt a new trick to mask their signatures?
As soon as the link with the Truthbringer was established, a priority download broke through all the distractions.
Abort and regroup.
Stand by for new mission parameters.
Authorities alerted and on the hunt.
Maintain stealth and info-silence until further notice.
Packet download complete.
Commencing emergency shutdown.
And the link with Truthbringer suddenly went dark, remotely shutting off all of the Arbiter’s implants.
The Arbiter violently pressed the brakes on his car. The screech left drift marks on the decaying asphalt. He made an aggressive u-turn and sped off in the opposite direction. He couldn’t trust the safe-house, he decided, so he did what no sane agent would do, he went back to “the scene of the crime.” He parked his car at the exact spot he had used to stake out his former target. He removed the body bag from the trunk and carried it back up the stairs.
“Holy Truthbringer, guide me along the one true path,” recited the Arbiter. “Protect me from journos and their multi-faced untruths. Guide me toward the New Elysium, for which we have volunteered our lives to build. Guide me through prophecies and decrees, until the vision of Eddy the Great is complete. Praise the one true Truth, and the path that leads to it.”
When he got back in his car, he drove toward the The Collective. Hiding in plain sight at a hacker dive bar was the safest bet, he thought. Mohawk and his Kaçak Syndicate would get an early pay-day running interference scripts.
* * *
“Has there been any activity from the Enclave?” asked Sara.
“Nothing yet,” said the Colonel. “So far, all traffic is green, no disruptions. But we are not taking any chances. We are now INFO-DEF level 4.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” protested Sara. “Then just declare martial law, why don’t you.”
Detective Sara and Colonel Uka continued their face-off of jurisdictional jousting. But that was beside the point at the moment. Detective Sara was in a race against the clock to prove that the attack did not originate from Albania, despite her suspicions that there may have been some foul play by the arbiters. War was bad for everyone, especially for business, and she sure wasn’t gonna let an ex-teenage con-hacker who now dressed in camouflage to escalate the fate of the entire country. But, she had nothing more than a hunch.
“Colonel,” said one of the soldiers running toward her, “we just got a ping on our early-warning system. It’s a high confidence signal. It corresponds to arbiter activity on Kosovo soil.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Sara. “So much for worrying about diplomacy. Are our teams on the way?”
“We couldn’t pinpoint the exact location,” said the soldier. “They were very briefly online. But they are somewhere in Prishtinopolis.”
“Well fuck, that’s like saying the entire Kosovo,” complained Detective Sara.
“This cold war of ours just got a lot hotter,” said the Colonel. “Commence Operation Möbius.”
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.
Music: Liburn Jupolli.