April 6, 2028
Safe House, London, England
The only light source in the dimmed conference room was the projector as it replayed the plan, location, and person of interest for the upcoming mission: Operation Aether.
At the moment, the image illustrated the blueprint of a large stronghold surrounded by a moat. Two tall towers appeared clearly, and one, the taller of the two, was locked on and zoomed in to reveal the interior of the stone castle.
The automated heat signature that circled the dark castle showed as many as seventy soldiers carrying weapons. They patrolled the empty hallways and floors in a lazy fashion, as if they felt cheated of a promise they were given.
Above them, locked in the taller tower, was a lone man who sat in a chair by the only window in the room. This man was clearly different from the guards, and not by the fact that he had no gun.
While the guard’s temperature had a tint of green, blue and a bit of orange, the individual’s silhouette was red, orange and yellow; it was hotter than a normal human being’s body heat. It was as if the person was made of fire and consequently sent to the deepest circle of hell.
This was the person of interest, the valuable prisoner.
The man’s head kept turning from left to right. His gaze followed the single soldier in the room; it was almost like the prey stalking the predator.
The prisoner and the sentry’s head turned as another soldier walked into the room and placed something on what looked like a table. There was a small dot of orange like a single candle. After placing the unknown object, the guard leaned towards his cohort and whispered something unintelligible.
General Matthew Allen’s voice broke through the grim silence as he addressed the five well-trained soldiers who sat quietly around the table, watching the live video feed. “Since we first heard of Prisoner Aether two years ago, we have discovered that this prisoner is a highly valuable subject. The mind of this man knows every secret, every pattern, and every aspect of our enemy, code named Erebus.”
“What is this?” Garth Morgan, or Noble, interrupted his superior. “Greek Mythology 101?”
After a hesitant moment, the entire room rang with laughter. The sweet release of an emotion that was not depression felt wonderful. Allen, who was used to his men’s sarcastic nature, could not help but smile as he explained, “Aether was the Greek god of brightness while Erebus was the Greek god of darkness. Not to mention that Erebus was the father of Aether.”
“Perhaps that is why they were named.” Ira smiled, even though it did not reach his eyes.
Allen continued, “Our enemy seeks to destroy, and our asset seeks to rebuild, assuming… he can help.”
“I have a question.” First Lieutenant Alec Parry, who sat closest to the projector, studied the thermal images. “Why is Aether’s temperature registering higher than the guards’?”
General Allen knew Alec was quick witted and a bit of a smart ass.
“We are not sure,” Allen stated. “It could be because he is angry. For six years, he has lived among the enemy. It could be the expression of loathing and revenge that has grown like a poison within him. It is probably all that keeps him alive now.”
Alec was not satisfied by his general’s answer. The lieutenant challenged, “Anger would only heat the heart and head, not the entire body. This prisoner could have some radioactive energy running through his veins. It’s the only explanation for his entire body to-”
Allen cut him off. “Well, when you rescue him, we can ask why his temperature is higher than normal.” He added with a smirk, “We can ask if he is a mutant.”
He did not want to believe that the one person who could help, the one person he knew, was tainted with radiation.
Although the projector’s light only illuminated the soldiers’ profiles, Allen could tell that Alec’s mind raced with thoughts and explanations. It was natural of course, since the lieutenant’s I.Q. was higher than the average person’s.
One of the men, Charlie Howell, raised his hand awkwardly, and then set it down. “Sir, you said this person has been imprisoned for six years, yet the war has only gone on for five…”
Matthew nodded solemnly, “We believe that Erebus captured the prisoner because he knows him personally.”
The superior went on before anyone else could interrupt, “Captain Ira Byrne, you and your team must retrieve this prisoner. Without him, our war will be lost. Your mission is to extract him from Vallø Sløt in Denmark and get him safely to Château Les Crayères in Reims, France. Major William Wilson will be there. Once secured, we can interrogate this detainee and get all the information we need. Byrne and Parry, you both are ordered to be in the interrogation room. Howell, Morgan, and Ayers, you are, of course, welcome to join them.”
Garth stood up. He was tall with dark hair and broad shoulders. He saluted the general and asked, “What is our prisoner’s given name?”
After a long, unnerving pause, Matthew stated, “Our intel could not give us that information.”
He pressed the remote, which replaced the map with a shadowed faceless photo. Next to, was the profile that included the name and the date of birth. Every detail was listed as “Unknown.”
All except for one:
Date Missing: April 2022
“So, this man is a ghost?” Alec Parry asked as he brushed back his lengthening stark black hair. He examined the less than helpful list, as if staring would provide more information.
“Yes, he was wiped off the face of the Earth six years ago like many others.” Allen again nodded gravely.
“With all due respect sir,” Charlie, also known as Cyan, spoke, “if this prisoner is valuable and holds such precious information then why is our enemy keeping him alive? Why not kill someone who retains this intelligence?”
“Although we do not have much of a lead, we think this person has a connection to Erebus. In addition, why kill someone whose memory serves him so well? This man’s mind can take in everything from the broadest scape to the tiniest detail and remember it for as long as possible.”
“Perhaps this person can challenge Pie at his own game,” Cyan joked as he playfully punched Alec, also known as Pie.
Everyone, even the general chuckled, but he became serious again.
“Captain Byrne, tomorrow at eighteen hundred hours, you will take the V-22 Osprey to Hamburg to refuel. Then the pilots will land the aircraft on the other side of the forest near the stronghold. Tomorrow, we will hear from our intel in Hamburg. They can give us the weather report. If luck is on our side, then it will storm. If not, you will still be arriving by nightfall. Once you successfully liberate the prisoner, the Osprey will extract you from the cell tower to the French Château, Les Crayères. It will be a seven-hour trip, hopefully. Artillery: only snipers, edged knives, and a Beretta .92 with, and only with, suppressors.”
His voice was firm on this matter.
“What if we get into a sticky situation?” Pie asked as he glanced at his squad mates and longtime friends. His gaze fell on his captain and only childhood friend, Ira Byrne, but the determined Captain still studied the mysterious individual the projector showed and the next to nothing detail it provided.
Alec knew his best friend too well and too long. He knew what storm of thoughts disturbed Raven’s quiet, thoughtful, and brilliant mind.
“Let us hope you don’t,” Matthew replied sternly snapping Alec to attention. “We need that person of interest alive and well.” He sighed. “I suggest you all get some sleep now because you will have a very long day ahead. Dismissed.”
Allen watched the newly assembled team rise, salute their superior and file out of the conference room. Ira fell back as his and Allen’s gaze fixed on each other momentarily. Once the room was empty, the general fell into the nearest seat and rubbed his eyes.
He was exhausted from the lack of sleep. Not only that, but his mind raced. He alone was told the name of the prisoner. The informant who had disclosed the information could not understand why Allen was mortified upon hearing the name. Thinking about it made him feel worse.
“How,” he said aloud to himself. “How is it that you can be our only hope, Blackbird?”
While it was wrong to withhold the prisoner’s identity from his team, Allen had no choice. The information gave him no pleasure and there was too much at stake to the reveal name or their history.
Especially, when the captive was assumed dead for many years.
What would Ira, the Raven, think when he realized who the individual was?
The general could not bear to think about it. He had almost considered pulling Ira from this mission, but there was no one else to take his place.
The captain and his team walked down the gloomy corridor to their bunkers. Only the sound of their boots echoed throughout the dead hall. Once inside their small lodge, they changed and settled into their cots. They murmured good night to each other. However, sleep did not come easily. Each specifically brilliant psyche had thoughts solely on the mission ahead.
The dark path that lay before them seemed even darker.
Ira awoke with a start.
For a moment, he thought he was back in the dead streets of New York City. That memory crept into his mind and flesh every night, disturbing his peace of mind, warping what was in order to fit what could have been.
Yet the snoring and sleeping sound of his teammates and close friends reminded him of where he was.
He was safe for the moment.
“Can’t sleep?” whispered a voice.
“No, Alec.” Ira sighed and buried his face in his hands, “I dreamt of Wall Street again, what they did to New York City, and my friend, the one who…” the man paused and took a deep shuddering breath. “…who passed away.”
A sigh could be heard from across the room. Alec consoled his captain, “I still think about the city and our team, too. But what could we have done? We were nearly crushed ourselves; it was destroyed. It is a wonder, a miracle, that the five of us even survived. Raven, I am truly sorry about your friend, what was her name?”
“Meryl,” Ira said mechanically as he groped for a chain in the dark. With a wave of grief, he eyed the small glint of gold; the two wedding bands were still secure on the chain around his neck.
During every private moment, Ira punished himself for not risking it all when he had the chance. The day before the first shot was fired, he had planned to ask for her hand in marriage.
Now, however, he would never see her again. Never would he witness those piercing eyes that made his heart melt and fears fade into nothing.
“Pretty name.” Alec pulled Ira from his thoughts, “I know she was special to you. Listen to me, I promise that we will avenge her death, no matter the cost.”
“Thank you. What time is it?”
A small blue glow lit up on Alec’s wrist and dimly illuminated his features, “Not yet three. It’s storming outside, which probably awakened you. It awakened me. Raven, don’t dwell on the past,” Pie urged, his voice full of plea. “We have to focus on the now. The only way to repent for the horror is to stop it. The only way to end this bloody war is by securing Aether and finishing the insane enemy once and for all.”
“Yeah,” Ira said as he laid back down. “Try to get some sleep, man. We have a long day ahead of us.”
He forced his mind to rest as he heard his closest friend shift in his own bed. The lightning and thunder clapped loudly outside, but soon Raven’s exhausted state of mind gently shut out the towering noise and he could sleep.