On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The strike team was almost in position, and satellite imagery showed the unassuming house lit up in unnatural monochromatic inverse. There were three vehicles in the courtyard, six armed guards visible around the perimeter, and the five-man incursion force was less than a hundred metres away.
Blue or yellow, the colonel wondered to himself, just as he had been all day.
“Two minutes, sir,” his adjutant said, all starch and tension as usual. The younger man was of superior rank to everyone else in the room besides the colonel himself, and he conducted himself with precision and economy.
The operation had been in the planning stages for two months, and the setup and intelligence-gathering had taken almost three years. It was difficult to believe that the day had finally arrived. It was also difficult to believe the costs involved, but the colonel knew that the figure was accurate. It wasn’t cheap to get five of the most elite soldiers in existence into a hostile country, covertly, with gear and local contacts, and get them on-site for a strike operation with barely a nine-hour window of viability when all desired targets would be present and contained.
The blue is much nicer to look at, the colonel thought. But there’s gender stereotyping to be considered these days.
There were three high-value targets in the house, with the simple designations of Oscar, Sierra, and Tango, based on their respective initials. Oscar had been responsible for a car bomb in Madrid that detonated adjacent to a school bus, killing fourteen children and maiming the additional unlucky eleven who survived. Sierra was the mastermind behind the release of a nerve agent into the ventilation system of the offices of a satirical magazine which had published unflattering caricatures of certain religious figures. Tango was Oscar’s wife, and known by the intelligence services to be instrumental in radicalisation and training of the endless supply of willing and eager extremists of the future. To get all three in the same building was little short of a miracle, even though they had been friends and compatriots for decades.
“One minute,” the adjutant said. “All indications are green, sir.”
The colonel nodded, glancing at the large screen and the various smaller ones too. He could see the house, both in enhanced video and thermal profile, from above, and he also had three different ground-level views from cameras placed by operatives only hours before. There was an additional satellite view of the strike team moving through the late-evening shadows of an alleyway which led to an area of ground adjacent to the house.
Yellow is neutral, he thought. And he likes yellow, I think. It would be perfectly acceptable. But the blue does look better.
“In position, sir,” the adjutant said. “Go on your command.”
“Order them to proceed,” the colonel said, glancing at the time displayed in one corner of the large screen. It was shown in local time for the country, but he could do subtraction easily enough. By the time this was over, it would be quite late when he arrived home. Hopefully his wife would be asleep. He would have someone drive him into the city tomorrow morning before returning to the base.
“Strike team breaching now,” the adjutant said, entirely unnecessarily since the satellite feed was remarkably clear.
The colonel watched as the five highly trained men killed all six guards in less than two seconds, then entered the building one by one. He shifted his gaze to the thermal imagery, provided not by a satellite, but a drone in position high above the building.
He’s four years old, but children are so aware of things these days, the colonel thought. Would he be self-conscious about the yellow? Will all his friends have bicycles that are blue? Or red?
“Switching to direct feed, sir,” the adjutant said, and the primary image on the large display now became a grid of video feeds from the helmet cameras of the strike team. The colonel watched as the target codenamed Oscar appeared and was immediately shot three times; twice in the chest and once in the head. After he fell, someone shot him in the head a second time, per mission protocol.
“Target Oscar achieved,” the adjutant said, again unnecessarily. The colonel shifted his footing. It was tiring to stand all the time at his age.
But he enjoys construction vehicle toys, and those are the same bright, canary yellow, he thought. So I doubt he’d mind the yellow bicycle. His mother is so very keen to avoid having everything in typical boy colours. But there are his own feelings to consider too.
The squad leader’s camera showed target Sierra suddenly appearing in a doorway, holding something in his hand. The colonel could see that it was a grenade. He felt his pulse quicken, but the soldier behind the camera had already fired several high-powered rounds into the man’s chest and abdomen, pushing him back into the room from which he’d come. The video feed became a blurred and spinning mess for a moment as the soldier obviously dived for cover, and there was a muted bang. Several seconds passed.
“All of our men are operational,” the adjutant said.
“Verify target Sierra,” the colonel ordered, and the adjutant nodded.
“Yes, sir,” the younger man replied, relaying the command.
The soldiers were moving more carefully now, but within a few moments it became clear that the danger had passed. Sierra was just inside the doorway, with most of his left side missing. There was a brief popping sound and a muzzle flash as the squad leader shot the corpse in the head.
“Sierra achieved, sir,” the adjutant said, once more displaying his gift for stating the obvious.
Perhaps I should just buy the bicycle in both colours, the colonel thought, as he watched the strike team move further into the room. I could return one later. It would let me at least show them to his mother, and she could choose.
The vivid and unsettling green of the night vision cameras resolved a large shape on the floor. The barrels of five rifles were clearly visible in the lower section of the feeds. Within another two seconds, the shape resolved into the badly wounded form of a woman, clutching a young child who also bore signs of severe injury. They had both obviously been on the perimeter of the grenade’s blast radius.
“Tango located, sir,” the adjutant said tightly. The intelligence dossier also contained a file for the child, who was the son of Oscar and Tango. It had been thought he was staying with a friend this evening, but apparently he had been with his mother.
The adjutant was looking at the colonel now, clearly awaiting instructions. The other military personnel in the room were looking in every other possible direction.
“Full verification,” the colonel said tiredly, scratching his chin. It had been some hours since he’d last shaved. The adjutant, ever the professional soldier, nodded and relayed the order.
There were several more pops and several more instances of muzzle flash.
“All targets achieved, sir,” the adjutant said. “Mission accomplished.”
Now the colonel nodded. “Well done, everyone,” he said. “Get our men out of there. We’ll debrief in the morning. Let’s move it to ten-hundred; I have an errand to run after breakfast.”
“Yes, sir,” the adjutant replied, saluting.
The colonel returned the salute automatically as he walked past his subordinate on his way to the door, already lost in thought. It seemed foolish to buy two bicycles that were identical in all but colour, especially since they’d last barely a year before they were too small. But birthday gifts were important, and young men were impressionable. Decisions, decisions.
He stepped through the door from the command centre and began walking down the corridor. He would see how he felt on the matter when he reached the shop in the morning. A salesperson could probably help. He didn’t want to rush and make the wrong choice, after all.
Only the best would do for his grandson.
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