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In diesem Abschnitt findet man den gesamten Handlungsstrang des Perihelion-Feldzugs. Zurück zum Hub des Perihelions.

Perihelion Begins

Prologue

  • June 2028, Chicago

I woke up drenched in sweat and shivering. The nightmare’s been the same for a couple of years now and I was already familiar with it, each picture burned like a still frame into my memory. A day on the beach. Parents smiling. A dinner at my favorite childhood place. And then only darkness, a thick black cloud swallowing it all. First it took my mother, then my father, both of them so familiar and yet so distant. I couldn’t remember their faces, but I was sure it was them all along; felt it in my heart, one of the few certainties left in my life. And then it was all gone, moved to the edges on my mind by my racing heart and acute thirst.

scr1

Like every morning lately, I looked around first and noted my surroundings as if it was the first time. It was still early but the heat reflected by all that concrete surrounding the flat I was living in was already creeping in. A few hours more and it’ll become unbearable. Chicago in summer, I hate you with every fiber of my being.

The whole building has seen better days. On the other hand, in the “better days”, it would have likely already been condemned. At least there were no bugs in the shower and no mold in the fridge, which is a significant upgrade over some of the third world conditions I’d been living in before. The life of a mercenary takes you all across the world, all the amazing people you can meet (and shoot), all the cold water you can take a shower in (unless, of course, it’s actually hot outside) and all the cheap food you can cram into a piece of tin. But it’s a life I chose in the vain hope of becoming more than another armed vagabond fighting for scraps in this world and, perhaps, to make a difference.

Nah, who am I kidding. It was the prospect of money and the action movies.

My idle musings were interrupted by the sound of my phone ringing. One glance at the cell’s screen sank my mood even lower. Then again, I reminded myself, beggars can’t be choosers and two months of lying low have chipped away more than just my pride. I know it and the guy on the other end of the line knows it as well. Fuck.

Took my time pressing that green button. My instincts have mostly served me well and in this case, they were screaming to let it go, but I just couldn’t resist. A man’s gotta eat and you can survive on bad pizza and even worse beer for only so long. America gave a lot of good things to the world, but in my eyes, food definitely wasn’t one of them. Alright, here we go.

“Hi there, Hector. Long time no hear.”

Yeah, that was my best unconcerned voice impression. He knew what was up, I knew what was up, but that’s the way the game’s played. Me being a grumpy asshole would hardly do me any good.

“Hola, amigo! Que pasa!”

Again with this Mexican bullshit. Hector was a third generation American, Chicago born and bred, a self-stylized member of the local “mafía”, a little king of a little hill fighting other scavengers for scraps. He didn’t even look the part but his desperate need to connect to something – his family’s distant heritage, roots, anything – made him act this way. Sad, really. But he had his ten fat fingers in a lot of pies and if it meant a nice, easy gig somewhere cozy, I was willing to indulge him.

“Nothing much. Just getting some R&R after that last job.“

And now he’ll show off how he knows all about the Dubai mess. And, surely enough...

“Ayyyy, I heard about that. Couple of cabrones messed up really bad, sí? Bad for business, that. But not you, my friend. You stayed straight as an arrow. Walked away. Now, I can respect that.”

So that’s how it is. That meant he really needed something from me, otherwise he’d have rubbed my face in it, but he knew I had my limits. Now this was starting to get interesting. Either he needed someone respectable – and I looked very respectable in a tux – or he needed a fall guy. Didn’t seem like the second case though. He had cheaper and easier to convince options. I decided to cut to the chase.

“Yeah, you know how it is. You turn away for a second and someone always fucks things up for you. Hurt my feelings, that, and my reputation. Now I’ll never work in Dubai again, but, to be honest...” I paused, “Fuck those guys, really. So, what can this down-on-luck merc do for you?” He grew serious. So serious, in fact, he even lost some of the accent shtick he loved so much.

“So, listen. There’s a rich corp looking for a merc. One merc, to show their boys the ropes. Nothing major. A company’s worth of infantry, some armor. Or, as a matter of fact,” he paused, “that would be the first job. To pick up the right tools for the forces you’d then take command of. Tanks, lieutenants, you know the drill. Drag them through the mud a few times, shoot some bandits in the Texas wastes, a little survival training in Alaska...”

Indeed, I knew the drill. Something like that always happened when a corporation was ready to expand, discreetly. Someone expected to get their hands on a lot of wealth or power real quick and couldn’t go through the official channels. Such jobs have always been really rare at the best of times as they came with a lot of strings attached and a lot of expectations. Corporations typically wouldn’t trust a random small-time merc with their secrets, even one with experience such as me.

“....and then they’ll give you a proper flat, you’ll marry a nice pencil pusher girl with a career, have kids... you know, everything people like us don’t get a have. So whaddya say, partner?”

And now he’s switching to Texas drawl. God, kill me now. Just when I thought we’d have a normal conversation for once. Regardless, the feeling of unease didn’t subside. Not one bit. I wasn’t sure what to think, so I decided to play for time.

“Don’t know, Hector. I mean... why me, you’ve got your own people.”

Laughter on the other end. Sounded a tiny bit forced. Just a bit, but the hint was there.

“You want me to send my crooks to a corp tango? Who? Cezar? Angela? Although, thinking about it,” he paused again, “she’d look great in a dress. Maybe you’re on to something, compadre. Anyway, they wouldn’t know how to behave and they hate those corp pendejos. They’re not...” Another pause.

“Civilized. Like you and me.”

He got that right. Cezar would start busting kneecaps the second day in the office and Angela... best not to think about it. And those were Hector’s top lieutenants. But, still. I laid myself down on the bed, my left arm behind my head. Closed my eyes, taking a moment to collect my thoughts and realized I was missing something really obvious.

“How do you even know about all this? And don’t give me that ‘word on the street’ bullshit, Hector. People like us, we don’t move in such circles. We don’t get the opportunity to work for a bona fide corp. I mean real work, without getting our hands really, REALLY dirty. And I’m not that kind of guy, you know that.” Several seconds of silence, followed by a poorly concealed sigh.

“Alright, fine. Someone came by. A really classy-looking chica. First, she knew where to find me, so that got me thinking, you know? Second, she knew all sorts of shit she wasn’t supposed to know. The kind you can’t ignore. So, uh, we made a deal. She was interested in you, specifically. Even knew where you live. How weird is that?”

I frowned. “How long ago was that?”

“Couple of hours.”

Okay, at least some good news. If this was a set-up, I’d already be dead. Not a vengeful corporation then. “Why didn’t you start with that?”

“Sounds like some really shady bullshit, amigo, for real. Didn’t wanna scare you off. Nothing gets by you though, am I right? She left some instructions, if you want. Either way, she seemed for real, so either you got some powerful friends you didn’t tell me about somewhere along the way, or... I don’t know. So how about it?”

I sighed and closed my eyes. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

“Yeah, I’m listening.”

***

A few hours later, I found myself in front of an inconspicuous-looking gun shop near the suburbs. A bad part of town, even for the Windy City. The seedy place looked all but closed with derelict buildings all around it. A couple of unsavory types eyed me from a distance, but my beat-up Chevelle, my determined look and, most important, the AR-15 in my hands kept them away, or so I thought.

I entered the shop via its rickety wooden front door, an old-school bell announcing my present to the elderly owner ostentatiously reading an old newspaper behind the counter. He barely looked up. The place was stacked with low-quality hunting rifles, certainly not something I’d have expected in the area. No hunting to be done, unless the prey walked on two legs.

“We’re closed.”

I expected as much, judging from what Hector told me. I repeated the sentence I was told over the phone, word for word, hoping I remembered it correctly. Writing it down felt embarrassing at the time, but now I felt sorry I hadn’t done just that.

“Even the summers are cold in Chicago, let me warm up a bit in your humble abode.”

Standing there all sweaty, I felt really stupid saying that. Who knew running a sixty-year old car without an A/C in a city where the sunlight amplified by the glass panels of highrises melt the tarmac below was a bad idea. And what the hell is an abode, who talks like that?

The old man finally looked up and raised his eyebrows. He reminded me of a kind grandfather figure with his age-old sweater, old-time silver-rimmed glasses, fading grey hair... I couldn’t have been more wrong. His eyes betrayed his true nature, blue and cold as steel.

“Ah yes. Master Thorpe, is it?”

I nodded.

“That’s right.”

He got up slowly from what turned out to be a wooden rocking chair. How quaint. The massive revolver hidden behind the news sheet made a loud thud despite being laid down rather gently on the wooden counter. That thing must weigh.... a lot, I thought. One shot and you’re done for, even with body armor. And the guy didn’t like the type that would miss. I swallowed hard. He could clearly see my nervousness and cracked a cold smile.

“Ezra Rosenstein, at your service. Please follow me, sir.”

I couldn’t quite place his accent. British perhaps? Canadian? I’ve been around, but I’ve never met a man like that. Few have and lived to tell about it, I suspected. The man had the air of a retired killer about him, probably ex-special forces, maybe even the CIA. I wasn’t dying to find out just much death had he seen, and how much of it was his own making.

He opened a door at the back of the shop, but instead of a dusty storage room that I expected, there was a set of concrete stairs leading to the bowels of the building. As I passed through the door, I noticed it was made of steel, at least an inch thick. Armored, I’d wager. This guy was not playing around and I realized in an instant just how he stayed safe in this neighborhood. Nobody was stupid enough to try to rob him.

As I was running a few escape scenarios if things went awry, we reached the bottom and entered a rather large room filled with tables, maps and, most importantly, weapons. Not the kind that was upstairs – cutting edge stuff. Assault rifles, combat shotguns, you name it. The ma deuce in the corner looked deadly in particular; clean, well-oiled, loaded and ready to go. The man pointed silently at an empty chair, and sat himself on another one facing towards me.

“Now then. Miss Norah asked me to evaluate you. I don’t normally do this anymore, but...”

Again that soul-chilling smile, like a snake preparing to swallow its victim whole.

“...she’s quite charming and persuasive, isn’t she.” he concluded, as if talking to himself while sifting through a pile of papers lying on the table to the left.

“Ah yes, here you are. Samuel Thorpe, born in 1995 in New York, yes?”

He cast a quick glance at me over the top rim of his glasses. I simply nodded. He read this file, mumbling to himself through the process.

“Orphaned at the age of 10, yes... gang violence, quite tragic. Hmm, it was a sad era... grew up in various foster homes... had a penchant for running away... joined the military but never truly felt like belonging... indeed, a common trait amongst the men of your profession... went private after Pollard...”

Confused, I interrupted him. “Pollard?”

He frowned, his voice dripping with reproach. Suddenly, I felt like a kid again, a kid who hasn’t done his homework.

“Pollard versus New York, Master Thorpe. The Supreme Court sentence that cast down all Second Amendment restrictions, allowing private citizens like you to operate all the weaponry previously restricted to the United States military. Except for nuclear weapons, of course,” he added, smiling again ever so slightly.

I kept on nodding as he spoke, not willing to appear even more foolish than I already did.

“Right, right...”

“Quite,” he continued. “Now where were we... ah yes, your career as a private contractor. A couple of jobs, several engagements, nothing of significance though. Average success rate only. Hmm,” he mused.

“Not the usual type then.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that or how he knew so much about me, but somehow felt it unwise to ask him to elaborate. He finished studying the document, giving it one more cursory glance before discarding it back on the top of the pile.

“Let us begin.”

For the next several hours, he dissected every operation I’ve been a part of in excruciating detail, from my first mundane guard duties to the shoot-out at the Meydan Hotel in Dubai. He quizzed me extensively about my tactics and firearms knowledge, language skills and problem-solving abilities, until we finally reached a topic I wasn’t entirely confident about. Armor.

“As you now know, Master Thorpe, the landmark Pollard ruling allows private citizens of the United States of America to freely operate armored vehicles, even those using what was previously legally known as ‘destructive devices’. That includes, but is not limited to tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or even artillery. Should you succeed obtaining the job...”

I truly did not like his emphasis of the world “should”, but was too exhausted to argue at this point.

“...you’ll be asked to add armored vehicles into your employer’s arsenal while completing any and all missions assigned to you. Now, imagine your employer has unlimited resources at their disposal. Quite literally, you can pick any vehicle you want for the job. But you can only choose once and remember you’ll be tasked with undergoing a wide range of missions. What would you choose?”

I started opening my mouth, but he immediately interrupted me.

“And, just to be clear, Master Thorpe, there isn’t a wrong answer. Your choice will tell me more about you, how you approach and overcome the obstacles laid before you. With that being said,” he nodded, “do go on, please. I am dying to hear what you have to say.”

The interruption gave me pause and I started to mull over the problem in my head. I had a distinctive feeling that a lot was riding on my response...

***

“Now, one more thing, if you will...”

I rolled my eyes discreetly, but apparently not discreetly enough, as the act did not escape my gracious but somewhat irritating host, who reacted with a frown.

“Master Thorpe, you do not realize the scope, or, indeed, the very nature of things that will be asked for you. Surely you do understand we do not need anyone to show our people which side of the gun points where. The tasks you will face...”

He suddenly paused, closing his eyes as if to recollect himself, rubbing his fingers against forehead. I got the feeling he was about to reveal something he shouldn’t have, something important. Behind the cool veneer was a level of anxiety I did not expect. But these miniscule cracks in facade went as quickly as they came. As composed as ever, he continued:

“It takes far more than wielding a gun to be a man. A man, Master Thorpe, a true man that is, must be capable of anything and know a bit of everything. Wage a war. Compose a sonnet. Dress a wound. Cook a tasty meal. After all...”

Another pause.

“Specialization is for insects, not men.”

That was a nice dodge, I thought, as I refocused on the task with renewed vigor. There’s definitely much more to this contract that I thought. The mask slipped once, it would slip again. Perhaps I could use that to leverage my future salary. We’ll see. But one thing was for certain. This interview was almost over.

Samuel Thorpe chooses modern Russian vehicles

“Explain your choice.”

I took a deep breath and smiled.

“When you think about it, it makes the most sense, really. They’re modern and we’re gonna need all the edge we can get. But they’re also the most affordable of the bunch. You get a couple of T’s, a couple of Terminators... and you’re ready for whatever the world throws at you.”

The Terminator. A Terminator. I loved how it rolled off my tongue. Agree or not, names matter in this world. They have always mattered. The rose under a different name might smell the same, but it is the rose as a symbol women swoon over more than anything else. I also loved the idea of having specialized infantry killers guarding my back. Believe me – in a city fight, nothing comes even close in effectiveness than a pair of angry, red-hot 30mm’s.

And the rest are just... tanks. Any tanks are okay as long as they are on your side and aren’t a heap of scraps that barely moves. Having tanks that share parts with your Terminators also helps cut the running costs and somehow, I suspected the company I’d be working for wouldn’t have an unlimited open tab at the local arms dealer. Speaking of which, about time I learned some answers of my own.

But before I could even say another word, my ever-enigmatic host proved again he was not one, but five steps ahead. He suddenly rose from his chair, putting his arms behind the back. He looked like an old-time butler; a butler that would sooner kill you with a small spoon than bring you a dessert.

“Very well. That concludes our meeting. I will be submitting my recommendations to Master Murdoch today. For now, in the trunk of your...”, a pause long just enough to make sure I notice his disapproval over the type of vehicle I drive, “...car, you will find a suitable attire for your meeting. Today, 7 o’clock sharp, Hotel Bellevue. Do not be late.”

He extended his right arm, expecting a shake. I had a million questions. Murdoch? Miss Norah? What company would I even be working for? What kind of job exactly was this for?

The meeting was, however, clearly over and it was even clearer that I wouldn’t get any answers from the man. At least not right now. Somewhat light-headed, I rose from my chair, shook the man’s hand and slowly made my way towards the stairs leading back to the shop. I'll get my answers, one way or another. A few hours more won't kill me.

***

  • June 2028, Chicago

The heat of a late summer afternoon hit me as I was exiting the shop where what turned out to be a lengthy interview took place. I closed my eyes and soaked in the warmth, the smells and the sounds, all blending into one familiar experience. I’ve never thought of any single place as home, but Chicago was as close to it as I could imagine. I knew it, the people; I knew where to get the best pizza in town and where to have a good time. This was my scene, despite the love and hate relationship I was successfully fostering.

The whole day and the responsibility of the upcoming hours suddenly weighed heavy on me, as if the rifle in my hands (which the store owner reminded me to pick up) had the mass ten time its size. I sighed heavily. Time to get to work.

First, the suit. I was staring at a nondescript black bundle in the trunk of my car. I had no idea how it got there – the lock was untouched. Yet it was undeniably lying in front of me, mocking my deductive skills and the car’s security measures both. Unzipping the plastic cover revealed high-quality fabric that I definitely would not be able to afford. I had to resist the urge to run my fingers over it, reminding myself that it might do the suit quite a disservice in my sweaty tired state. There would be enough time for that later, once I took a shower.

And a shower was what I sorely needed. I quickly checked my cellphone – good, I was going to make it on time. Hotel Bellevue... here I come.

***

A few hours later, I was standing in front of a massive edifice of steel and glass housing a high-end restaurant and an even higher-end hotel and I was feeling very much out of place. In fact, this was pretty much the polar opposite of a place where I’d feel comfortable – the kind where a guard calls the cops on you at the earliest opportunity.

The parking lot in front was small – you don’t need a big one when you have a valet and underground garages with only one well-dressed elderly couple handing their BMW keys to a valet, who was already eying my beat-up Chevelle with suspicion.

Despite a quick shuteye earlier and long shower followed by an even longer attempt to make myself presentable, I was feeling incredibly nervous and out of place, although certainly not for the lack of attire. It turned out that the suit in my trunk was impeccable and tailored, bearing no brands. Where did they get the measures I had (once again) no idea, but it fitted me like a glove. The whole experience felt oddly surreal, as if I was being driven to some goal by a force outside of my perception and all the choices made be me in the past led to this point.

I quickly checked my reflection in the glass wall, nodded and threw the keys to the valet, who caught them with a smirk. At that point, I realized I had seen the old couple give him a fiver along with theirs but the idea of awkwardly fumbling to find my wallet within the suit’s silk-smooth depths dissuaded me from attempting to do the same. I just waved at the guy and almost ran inside. A few seconds later, I realized that mistreating a person that was about to drive my car wasn’t perhaps the best idea either, but the deed was already done. No way but forward. Checking my reflection once again, I nodded and braced myself. This was it, the career-making moment of my life.

I headed through the lobby to my left, to the restaurant entrance. The hostess behind a small table was already watching me, her expression utterly blank save for a polite, insincere smile. I nodded to her, approaching the stand with faked confidence.

“Good evening. I’m here for a meeting with...”

She nodded.

“With whom, sir?”

I just realized I had no idea and was about to look very, very foolish. My brain froze for a moment, imagining all the potential terrible consequences of this humiliating situation, but before I could get to the part where I run away screaming, the hostess smiled, this time seemingly sincerely.

“Ah, apologies. You must be Mr. Thorpe, correct?”

I managed to nod, my face flushed with embarrassment.

“Right this way, sir!”

She beckoned me to follow and led me through several rows of mostly occupied tables. I noticed that few people present even raised their eyes to acknowledge me passing by – this place clearly was big on privacy.

We made our way towards the back of the room and the old feeling of unease once again rose to the surface. The room was well-lit but I felt as if there was some kind of gloom surrounding one particular area where a number of tables were left vacant in order to provide the occupants of the sole remaining one with an extra layer of privacy. Nobody could overhear any conversations coming from it but, more importantly, the act of separation alone spoke of the power and wealth the two persons sitting at it wielded. Even in the rich man’s world, this was a gesture and its meaning was clear.

The hostess ushered me to the table and promptly left, leaving me standing in front of the two people present. One was a man in his early sixties with sharp features, piercing blue eyes and short grey hair. His face was dominated by a somewhat hawkish nose, his expression firm and strict. But it was his gaze that made him stand out in any company – the kind that bores right through you, through your soul, exposing it and judging it. The man’s lips curled into a slight smile as he rose to his feet, offering me a firm handshake.

“Mister Thorpe, I presume. Pleasure to meet you. David Murdoch.”

The lady sitting next to him rose to her feet, her smile far more pleasant than that of her boss. She was a dark-skinned woman with long braided hair in her late twenties or early thirties and I hesitated for a split second, taken aback by her stunning beauty. She noticed, of course – her gaze was as piercing as that of her boss. Even though I was the only person in the room with actual combat experience (or so I thought at the time), for some reason I felt like a lamb in front of two wolves with ravenous hunger in their eyes. But the feeling passed and I remembered how to be a gentleman, shaking her soft hand carefully.

“Norah Ferguson, at your service.”

I nodded, smiling back.

“You must be Miss Norah that got Hector sh....,” I stopped just short of impropriety and remembered, once again, my manners.

“Scared a lot you mean, I suppose,” she retorted.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.”

We all sat down and a waiter appeared out of nowhere, handing me the menu.

“Don’t be shy,” smiled Murdoch. “It’s, as they say, on the house. Owning this place has a few perks.”

The menu was almost entirely in French and I had two most influential people in this place – or perhaps in this city – watching me, clearly interested in seeing me solve the awkward situation. Alright. Ah what the hell. Might as well be me.

“I’ll have steak. Medium rare, please. With a side dish of steak fries. And a beer. Make it... hmmm...”

I thought for a second. Might as well go full redneck, right?

“Miller.”

The waiter didn’t move a muscle as he wrote it down and hurried to fulfill my order. Murdoch and Ferguson seemed satisfied with what they saw – and if they weren’t, I couldn’t tell anyway. Murdoch in particular appeared completely relaxed, reclining in his chair and sipping from a glass of red wine, which occupied his attention for a brief moment as he was savoring its taste. Ferguson, on the other hand, appeared tense. From her plain business suit, she was clearly a subordinate of his, but a high placed one.

You’d be surprised how much do clothes tell. Your preferences, your opinions, even your desires – it’s all there in the weave. You can fake your position to a degree, buy yourself a tailored suit like she had (like I had, I corrected myself), but this will only get you so far. There’s tailored and there’s Tailored.

Murdoch’s suit was the latter, the kind of attire you can’t buy with wealth. To look like this, you need Wealth with capital W – and influence. Lots of influence. Some things just aren’t meant for mortals like me.

I clasped my hands together.

“Right then... Mister Murdoch, sir. I assume you haven’t invited me to a dinner...”

“Food first,” he interrupted me, lifting his finger half-jokingly, “business later. It’s bad manners to talk shop with a hungry guest.”

With my stomach almost growling, I nodded solemnly. After a few failed attempts at small-talk with the lady (yes, the weather’s nice and yes, some rain would be nice), we passed what time remained to the meal in silence. After that, we ate – the steak was rather good, but what on earth is wag-you? And I couldn’t even guess what those two were having – I think I saw a tentacle there somewhere, hard to say, not being much into ethnic food.

An hour later, with the table clean and us enjoying a tea of some kind (after downing that beer in a few gulps, a cup felt surprisingly refreshing), Murdoch finally began.

“To the matter at hand then...”

Clasped hands, fingers touching lips and a short pause. Very dramatic.

“First things first. Do you know who I am?”

I nodded. The truth was, I hadn’t known up until roughly two hours before the meeting, but I had internet access and one simple search of the name told me everything I needed to know. David Murdoch, one of the legendary investors of our time, a real prodigy. His ability to choose projects that would become a huge success allowed him to amass incredible amounts of resources, which he kept re-investing. He was one of the most powerful men in Chicago, rubbing elbows with the very cream of the crop.

And yet, few knew anything about him as a person and even the all-knowing Wikipedia only had one old photo that kept being used over and over whenever the news mentioned another acquisition of his. I couldn’t find anything that would give me an edge, but, more importantly, for such a powerful man to meet a merc in person and in public – that wasn’t rare, that was unheard of and, more importantly, made no sense. I was suspecting a charade of some sort – and yet, the man in front of me clearly was the person from the picture, no mistake there. This, of course, led to a million questions. For now, however, I had to be content with letting him speak and wait for my turn.

He nodded back, almost absent-mindedly. “Good. That makes things considerably easier. I wasn’t sure if old Ezra... anyway.”

He cocked his head ever so slightly.

“There’s something wrong with the world. You know that, don’t you?”

A rhetorical question, I assumed.

“Things fall apart, things that shouldn’t fall apart, ever. Our civilization is the epitome of stability. We’ve slain all the dragons, buried all the monsters. And yet...”

Again that absent-minded look, or a shadow of it – I couldn’t tell, so short it was. He collected himself instantly, which made me wonder if this all was a well-rehearsed show. I decided it wasn’t – I wasn’t important enough for him to attempt to deceive me.

“I’ve decided to secure my assets in a more... shall we say, active manner. I am putting together a force of experienced and loyal troops with some heavy equipment. Thank you for your earlier recommendation, by the way, I’ve already tasked lovely Miss Norah here with making a few calls. The point is... I’d like you to lead it. You have experience and, more importantly, you’ve passed the tests and surpassed all other candidates.”

He smiled again.

“You’ve got talent, Samuel. Hmm... can I call you Samuel?”

I nodded again. Of course the most powerful person in the room can call me Samuel. He could call me Lucy for all I cared because this whole thing meant one thing and one thing only. Fat paychecks.

“Good. Call me David then. Like I was saying, congratulations for passing the tests. Ezra picked you and he’s never, ever wrong about people. That’s how he got to live so long.”

I wasn’t sure if it was a joke. I strongly suspected it was not but I chuckled politely nonetheless. At that point, the lady took over. For some reason, she was still incredibly tense. She looked like she was reading notes, constantly looking down, yet there was nothing on the table – or anywhere else. Perhaps that’s how she copes with stress, I thought, but the only eye contact she gave me was a few quick glances.

“You’ll be leading our security force. A platoon of tanks and a company of soldiers. They all have experienced officers, so please don’t try anything funny. You’ll have to earn their respect as they have to earn yours. That is why...”

What the hell...

“Excuse me, Miss Ferguson...”

She gave me a very annoyed look – clearly hates being interrupted. This time, however, I had to.

“If you have your own experienced officers, sorry, but what do you need me for?”

Ignoring my question, she continued.

“That is why...”

“We need an outsider’s perspective, Samuel,” Murdoch intervened.

“Sometimes, a street-smart person like you are can see things differently. I’m sorry, Norah. Please continue,” he nodded at her, but this time, he also gave her a brief warning look. My feeling of unease returned with a vengeance. She pursed her lips, tucked her suit and continued, not looking at either of us.

“That is why you’ll undergo training together with them at our facility in Arizona. You’ll learn about them, they’ll learn about you... a few weeks’ worth, that’s all. Please report to our local HQ tomorrow morning at 8 AM for a tour and the paperwork. Have a nice evening, Mister Thorpe.”

They didn’t even ask me if I wanted to sign up in the first place. So sure they were. Yes, I did, but the entire day felt so uncanny, so surreal that I started getting second thoughts. What if this was some sort of an elaborate set-up. People like me, we don’t get this lucky. We don’t get lucky at all.

“Oh yes, almost forgot, Samuel... seeing how you might require some... things before you commit to our cause, I’ve authorized an advance payment as a token of our gratitude.”

I pulled out my cellphone and checked my bank account (never mind where they got the info...)

Jesus Christ... that’s an advance? What doubts I had were pushed aside at the sight of several digits, nicely lined up and waiting to be admired. My head felt so dizzy I almost didn’t hear Murdoch add “That will be all. Good night, Samuel.”

A sign I was dismissed. I rose from the chair, thanked for the dinner and said my goodbyes. As I was walking away from the table, I felt their eyes on my back but when I turned around, I could only see both of them deep in conversation.

In the lobby, I stopped to take a breath and to get that fiver out of my pocket. I was sweating and it wasn’t due to the unusually hot summer. I had to get out of there, collect my thoughts.

“You know, we made a bet how long it would take you to get thrown out by the cops.”

The valet was outside, leaning against the wall and smoking a cig. There was no-one else in sight so the line was clearly addressed to me. “And I lost. Good on you, brother.”

I passed him the banknote, after which he took one last puff and exhaled the smoke through the nostrils while throwing away the rest. For the short while it took him to bring the car around, I decided to take his example and leaned against the wall, staring at the evening sky. A red star was shining brightly where I assumed the south must be. An omen perhaps? Time would tell.

***

A shower and a somewhat fitful sleep later, I was standing in front of a wide and inconspicuous office building at the address I was given. The panel above the door had the word “Perihelion” etched into it along with a symbol of a portion of a large circle with a smaller circle orbiting it. Ferguson was already waiting for me in the lobby with an air of impatience and self-confidence. She started walking towards me as soon as she noticed me, frowning all the way.

periHQ

“Mister Thorpe. You’re... not late, but not early. In this business, it’s the early bird that gets the worm.”

A good start.

“Apologies, madam.”

She calmed down a tiny bit, nodding to herself.

“Now then, we have a lot to do in the next few hours.”

She led me to her office and I followed, carefully ignoring the curious looks the Perihelion employees gave me. The inside looked unusual – like a research and development facility rather than an office, sterile white corridors and people wearing suits mingling with white coat men and women that definitely looked like scientist. I couldn’t see anyone looking even remotely like a soldier with only a few bored-looking rent-a-cops patrolling in uniforms that looked ceremonial more than anything.

We’ve reach the elevator that took us to the second floor where Norah Ferguson’s office was located. It was a massive room lined with marble with the furniture in it made of exotic woods. This was more like what I had been expecting but the sheer size of the place and the costs required to make it look this way truly impressed me. The building wasn’t tall so the view wasn’t as impressive as befitted the room, but Lake Michigan glittered outside in the morning sun and I could even see several sailboats passing by – almost an idyllic sight for relaxation, well complemented by the quiet burbling of a small waterfall that formed a part of one of the stone-covered walls.

The lady made her way to her large, cluttered desk and started sifting through some papers. With nothing left to do, I continued observing the room and noticing a series of strange symbols carved into some of the stones lining the room that looked older than the others. In fact, they looked positively ancient and I had the distinct feeling they were once a part of some museum collection. I tried my luck playing smart.

“Aztec?”

“What?” She responded without even looking up from the work.

“The symbols on the wall.”

“Oh. Not quite.”

And that was about the extent of conversation I got from her the whole morning. After a few minutes, we moved to an adjacent conference room where we went through what seemed like a mountain of documents. Halfway through, I was already wondering how many forest acres fell to this contract alone. What was worse, I didn’t understand most of it anyway and I damn sure couldn’t afford a lawyer who would spend the better part of a year analyzing every single paragraph. In conclusion, it was like everything with corporations – if they want to screw you, they are going to do just that because the devil’s in the fine print. Ferguson provided some brief explanations and I pretended to understand them, but in the end, she might have just told me “sign here” – and I would have done that.

When we finally finished, it was past noon already. At some point, some other lady brought in a pile of sandwiches and coffee, which I hungrily devoured while attempting to read. Ferguson barely touched anything and I admired her restraint. As I finally placed the pen on the table and rubbed my eyes, she quickly assembled the paperwork into several neat stacks and was already waving at me to follow her.

Locking the meeting room behind her, she turned towards me, finally looking me in the eyes. Her nervousness was almost palpable at that moment.

“Look... I... “

Her eyes were darting all over the place.

“Sorry if we got off on the wrong foot. I’m glad to have you on board and so is Mister Murdoch. We’re just not used to working with outsiders of our organization and Mister Murdoch is...”

She struggled to express herself.

“....very protective of his mission. You’ll find out soon enough,” she sighed.

“There’s a helicopter on the roof that’s going to take you to the airport. There, you’ll take the company jet to Arizona and meet the troops at our base. They’re already waiting for you. I know it's a lot to take in but... there isn't much time.”

Her fleeting exhausted smile was somewhat apologetic and definitely the prettiest thing I’ve seen since morning. On that high note, I shook her hand, said my goodbyes and headed towards the elevator again – and to the beginning of my adventure.

***

  • June 2028, Arizona

The trip was fairly uneventful.

As instructed by Miss Ferguson, I boarded an unmarked helicopter and took a short flight to a small private airport nearby where a fleet of black and grey business jets with Perihelion insignia was waiting to take VIPs wherever they desired to go. A flight attendant was waiting for me at the helicopter landing site, her smile professional and empty. With a duffel bag in one hand and a leather jacket in the other, I followed her to the nearest Learjet, slowly but surely realizing what I have gotten myself into.

This was no small op. Perihelion had funding – a lot of funding, judging from the ever-present logo of a circle orbiting a hemisphere. It was literally all over the place – on the hangar to my left, on the jets, hell, it was even etched on the champagne glass and bottle served as soon as my nervous butt hit the seat. I literally barely had the time to fasten the belts and I was already being offered a drink. I did not quite understand why, it all still felt like a dream. But if it really was one, it was the best one I’ve ever had. Even the wine’s taste was just exquisite – and just to be clear, I’m a lager guy, if anything.

“Enjoying the wine? It’s made exclusively for Mr. Murdoch in France!”

Ah. So the attendant wasn’t mute. Good to know. Her gleaming, pearly white smile was almost unsettling. Might be me just though. I have a confession to make – I hate flight attendants. And clowns. Too much makeup on both.

“Now, Miss Ferguson told me to take extra special care of you, sir. So ANYTHING you desire, just let me know, okay?”

And with that, she thankfully left, leaving me pondering what EXACTLY she had in mind. Surely not... no. Just... no. With an image of a creepy clown suddenly making circles in my mind, I settled myself for a long flight and closed my eyes.

***

As it turns out, business jets are not only comfortable, but also fast. A little over two hours into the flight, I was woken by a gentle nudge. The assistant was bringing me refreshments and was reminding me it wasn’t much further. The pilot was really hauling ass, I thought. I had no idea of the speed the sleek machine was capable of. The sight of fresh sandwiches diverted my thoughts elsewhere though. I had barely eaten in the morning and the stomach was already reminding me of a debt due. I pretty much devoured the food while looking outside. The plane was descending but instead of what I expected – a Phoenix skyline, all I was seeing was an endless reddish desert pocked with silver and grey marks – settlements.

By the time I was finished eating, the plane was clearly on its final approach with what looked like an army base below and in front of us. The installation was huge with several rows of military planes nested right next to the main runway and swarms of people surrounding them. That’s when I noticed we weren’t alone. Two dark grey, predator-like shapes were trailing us, mirroring our every move.

Now, I had seen a lot of interesting things for my age but being escorted by two F-16 fighter jets wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t sure who they belonged to, either the Arizona National Guard or the U.S. Air Force, but neither bode well. The attendant was perfectly calm though, and it would be a cold day in hell before I lost my nerve before a lady (how wrong I was on that account...), so I just sat there and tried to look somewhat bored, as if something like that happened to me every day.

The landing was as swift as it was unexpected. The attendant sat down, strapped herself in and looked at me to make sure I was doing the same. The jet dropped the last few meters as if the pilot was trying to put all this behind him as quick as he could. I heard some muted chatter from the cabin and then we were standing still in the middle of a military base under the hot Arizona sun. Slightly dizzy, I picked myself up, grabbed my bag from the seat next to me and got out through the plane’s open door onto the base’s blazing tarmac.

The heat was almost unbearable but the Private before me seemed completely comfortable and was barely breaking a sweat. I, on the other hand, was cursing my leather jacket immediately and was desperately patting my pockets for sunglasses. Not having found them, I was left squinting at the man as the Learjet behind be closed the door and started spooling up its engines.

The soldier simply waved at me without saying a word and began to walk towards a nearby Humvee. Despite him pointing towards the rear door, I decided to ride shotgun in vain hope of learning something more, but my taciturn host did nothing but drive, only stopping at the base’s gate and exchanging a few quick words with the guard. I had the distinct feeling he wasn’t happy being stuck with the taxi driver duty, but much like me, he was left with no choice.

It wasn’t a long drive though. Some thirty minutes of back road driving later, we arrived at what looked like a massive tent camp housing dozens of men and women. Hearing our engine gave a few of them a pause; some turned around to check out the new arrival but most paid us no heed. We stopped near a dusty clearing surrounded by armored vehicles of various types, including some tanks.

The place was bustling with activity with everyone busying themselves with all sorts of preparations. They were all wearing rather loose dark grey shirt and pants combo with a Perihelion patch on the right shoulder, but each of them was personalized to a high degree. Scarfs, baseball caps, gloves, sneakers... it was clear that whatever the commanding officer’s approach to discipline in this place was, it did not include proper regulation uniforms.

The driver, clearly desiring to get the hell out of there, didn’t even bother to say his goodbyes. As soon as I stepped out of the car and closed the door, he revved the engine, quickly turned around quickly and sped off. Murdoch clearly had some ties to the U.S. military, but they either weren’t very strong, or the message didn’t get to the rank and file.

And there I was in the middle, one day a loser with no prospect in a decrepit flat, the next day in the middle of nowhere, waiting for his assignment, surrounded by unfamiliar faces with no idea what to do or expect. And that was the problem. Everyone looked pretty professional. These weren’t some cheap ass kids playing soldiers, who barely knew how to hold a gun. From the way they moved, more than half of the camp troops were definitely ex-military (not necessarily the U.S. military though). Their vehicles, as far as I could see, were freshly painted, but also personalized to a degree. Hell, I even caught a glimpse of a black Terminator in the back. These guys knew their stuff. What the hell am I gonna do here?

My attention was drawn to a commotion ahead. A rather tiny and lean woman was loudly arguing with a giant of a man, even though the argument seemed quite one-sided – she screamed at him while he listened calmly. His sharp features, long black hair and chestnut-colored skin spoke of Native American origin while his calm behavior and crossed arms contrasted starkly with the woman’s fury. He seemed almost amused by the situation and I had no choice but to admire his calmness. I sure was glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of that lady’s scorn.

The man saw me and vaguely beckoned in my direction. The woman turned around, shielded her eyes and stared at me for a few short seconds, before she started walking briskly in my direction.

She was short, like, really short. Five feet at most, but what she lacked in height, she clearly more than made up in energy and anger; a pint-sized nuke in human form with a chip on her shoulder. God help me.

I absolutely despised this type of women – tomboys in merc business always felt like they had to compensate for something, so most of them were insufferable in their attempts to measure up to the men, either by behaving like screeching harpies or by being forcibly masculine. Either way, I was sure the earlier argument had nothing to do with me so I just smiled at her and extended my hand, hoping for a warm welcome.

“Yo, fuckface!”

Or not. The outburst caught me completely off-guard and left me very confused. She was kinda cute – short black hair, sharp Latina features, thin lips... not my type, but still I felt compelled to keep looking into her dark eyes and took me a short while to actually notice what she was screaming at me.

“....pushed around by some fucking gringo Murdoch sent me. This is MY fucking job! And who the fuck orders the vehicles painted black in the middle of a fucking desert?! Do you have any idea how hot it gets inside, you fucking retard?! Or you think they all come with air conditioning, you shit-for-brains?!!”

I actually did think exactly that. Turns out, they didn’t. Huh. Then again, I ordered nothing and had no idea I’d be in Arizona the next day, so there was that. In the meanwhile, it took only a few seconds for a wide, loose ring of people to form around us. Wherever you are, whatever you do, one thing remains the same – people will always be drawn to drama. And the lady had a lot of drama in her.

I needed to de-escalate the situation using my natural charm. And what better way of calming down a diminutive demon there is than with a witty remark?

“Calm down, shortie.”

Another one of my famously smart ideas.

Several things happened at once.

Her eyes went wide.

The crowd collectively gasped.

The Native American man covered his eyes and forehead with his massive hand as if he didn’t want to see what would inevitably come next.

A sharp tang of pain on my chin and my world fell into darkness.

***

A short while later, I woke up in a medical tent feeling more embarrassed than I have ever felt in my entire life. On my first day on the job – in the first minutes – I got my ass handed to me by a girl who knocked me out cold. Granted, I wasn’t ready but whenever I tried to find an excuse for myself, the word “girl” and “short” always came up in my mind, banishing any thoughts that would make me feel better to oblivion.

Well, okay, there was one thing that DID make me feel better.

She was sitting backwards on a chair right next to my stretcher, her face flush with embarrassment at least equal to mine. She noticed I was awake, bit her lip and looked really unsure, almost vulnerable. I wasn’t sure what to say either, so we just sat there for a few minutes in silence. As the situation gradually became more and more uncomfortable, I felt compelled to be the first to break the barrier of silence.

“So... uh.... that happened. I... uh.”

And that was about as far as I got before she propped one hand against her face and extended her other hand in a greeting.

“Gail Espinoza.”

I got up wincing and slowly, gently shook it.

“Sam Thorpe. Nice to meet ya.”

She sighed and looked around. Having spotted two glasses and a pitcher of water, she got up and brought one for me. The other she emptied with one long gulp.

“That’s one hell of a right hook you got,” I added while taking a sip.

“Left hook.”

“What?”

“Left hook. I used my left arm. I always carry things in my right arm; nobody ever expects a hit from the other side that way. It’s a trick I learned...” she paused for a short while, “a long time ago.”

I nodded appreciatively.

“Nice, neat trick.”

She eased up a bit – a tiny bit, clearly still unsure how the day was going to go. That alone told me she messed up big time and if I pressed the issue, there would be consequences. Time to play my cards right then and be magnanimous. No use in having bad blood in the camp on day one.

“So, uh... look. Let’s forget this ever happened and tell me what’s been going on that it got you riled up so much, alright? I don’t wanna cause no trouble, I just...” I shrugged, “wanna do my job that I’m paid for and all that. So what d’ya say?”

She nodded slowly, carefully.

“Alright. I can fill you in. How much time you got?”

I spread my arms.

“As much as I need. Wouldn’t mind a bite or two, and a drink.”

She had a nice smile. I would have smiled back, were it not for my broken lip. Leaving my things near the bed (the tent was otherwise empty), I picked myself up and walked out with her. The day was finally starting to look up.

***

Over the course of the week that followed, I learned a lot. Espinoza was basically the person who founded the whole outfit, hiring mercs for Perihelion left and right as well as arranging the structure and equipment requirements. Most of the men and women present were Americans, ex-military, idealistic and, most importantly, disgruntled about the direction their homeland was headed in.

storyupdate2

Now, I wasn’t usually the type to fall to optimism, but the feeling of hope somehow permeated the whole camp – “finally, someone is doing something” mixed with “this guy’s as rich as they come, he’s gotta have his shit together.”

I met the squad commanders as well, most of them being veterans of one stripe or another. The tall Native American guy turned out to be a Sioux from Louisiana by the name of James Twocrows, but everyone just called him Jim and he didn’t seem to mind – his authority seemed absolute. I didn’t know about his story at the time, but he definitely had that air of confidence; the kind of leader soldiers follow to hell and back. I wasn’t entirely sure why Espinoza was “in charge” instead of him, but everyone seemed comfortable with the arrangement, including the two of them.

They had a lot in common too, like their shared dislike of Murdoch’s armor choices, which they assumed weren’t HIS choices since he knew very little about military matters. Instead, they believed that “some moron” (aka me) talked him into it and their favorite evening past-time was sitting near a camp-fire with the troops and ranting how stupid it was to operate Russian tanks in America.

Sure, the “fire sale” years made them affordable and it wasn’t the “really cheap stuff” the borderlands got flooded with (hell, even the police near the southern border operated a bunch of old tanks these days), but everyone would have preferred American machines. It stood to reason, they both claimed, that when you recruit in the good old U.S. of A., you get troops familiar with American equipment. The training period would have been significantly shorter.

And then there were the two BMPT series support tanks nobody really wanted to touch. Being a fan of the Terminators, I immediately claimed one for myself (the better one, of course) with the other one listed as an outfit reserve. The reason everyone felt so hesitant was the fact that there weren’t any tactics developed for it. The U.S. Army was not using this vehicle class at all and as such, these behemoths felt “unnatural” – in the end, we decided to just use them as tanks and that was that.

The machines came painted in black (not my fault!) and dark grey (also not my fault!), but each of them was already customized to a degree by the time I arrived. Espinoza’s “Nightsinger” bore her personal livery, truly a work of art (a T-90M? I wasn’t familiar with various Russian sub-types all that much – did you know there were actually more than a hundred different T-72 variants in existence?)

The other tanks reflected their crews as well. There was a Southern Irish crew with a guy called O’Neil or something with a neo-Confederate flag and a green Irish stripe. Another tank bore some Pacific Islander motives – and so on. Nobody seemed to mind.

I had no crew of my own. Or an official position – everyone simply accepted me as “one of the bosses” (because Espinoza and Twocrows said so), but we had no formal ranks, only assignments. Whenever my Terminator was called into action (I dubbed it Black Mamba because venomous snakes are cool, not for my preference in women as Espinoza suggested along with a few other lewd comments), crew members would be assigned to me. In fact, all crews rotated on regular basis, so every vehicle crew knew how to operate all the other vehicles. This made training difficult and inefficient, but having multiple vehicle types required this approach.

***

After a week of drills came proper live fire exercises. Commanding an armored vehicle isn’t that hard if someone tapes over all the buttons with English translations and the rest of the crew know what they are doing. A lot of the work was done by the on-board computer and the rest, well, you mash the buttons and hope for the best. I was slowly getting used to it and even passed my infantry firing trials flying colors. In fact, I was doing better than I had expected – I suppose it was the need to impress my new teammates that drove me.

On the other hand, we received no word from the HQ the whole week and I was starting to get a bit nervous. Nobody else seemed disturbed though – everyone just went on about their business.

A couple of days later, Espinoza met with a local sheriff. Unsurprisingly, a whole bunch of locals wasn’t exactly thrilled to have Russian tanks running in their backyard and petitioned the law to have us removed. After spending a few fruitless evenings trying to explain to them that removing an equivalent of an armored company from the premises it was occupying legally might be a bit more than he could chew, the sheriff decided to pay us a friendly visit, to gauge our intentions and all that. We had some coffee and then a shot or two of whiskey. The guy was feeling much better when he left than when he had arrived, that’s for sure.

That’s when we started hatching a few plans to keep ourselves occupied.

That evening, we found ourselves sitting around a campfire once again. Someone from the Irish crew was singing old folk songs behind us but we paid him no mind – we focused on our plans for the next week. It was my time to shine.

“So, listen. I talked to the sheriff – you really shouldn’t have given him the whiskey, you know – and, guess what. They have some drug trafficker problems, some slavers too. Fucking slavers, here... can you imagine?”

I shook my head, staring at the flames.

“He asked the U.S. troops for helps and they agreed to send some patrols into the desert. Not enough though, they have their own problems to worry about, right? Things to do, money to spend on expensive shit...”

Everyone grinned.

“Anyway, I was thinking, we might help out a bit too, a few days here and there... if we catch some human waste and, say, dump them in the middle of a local town, I am sure the good folks will know what to do with them. If you know what I mean.”

Espinoza smiled.

“Short drop, sudden stop. The American way.”

Jim smiled too and added:

“Back home, we’d tie them up in a swamp and feed them to the alligators. But,” he grew suddenly serious, “we should keep on training. Who knows what we’ll be asked to do in the coming months. Mister Murdoch didn’t hire us for our stunning looks and...” he winked at Espinoza, who pretended to not have noticed, “...charming personalities.”

I nodded. There were a lot of moving parts. We were still not familiar with each other and there were rough edges to be smoothed. There have been a couple of people who just... didn’t fit. Too aggressive, too slow – each unit always has its share of bad eggs and we desperately needed to prune ours. There was also the matter of supplies and equipment.

“Gail, have you talked to anyone from Chicago lately? We’ve placed requisition orders weeks ago and have received nothing so far,” said Jim.

“Yeah.”

She too grew serious, even worried and perhaps a little sad? I couldn’t tell, but there definitely was... something.

“They are busy with... some other things. But we’ll receive some laptops and other equipment shortly. And Ferguson promised us some extra tech if we train hard enough. Not sure if she was serious or not though.”

She pursed her lips.

“You know what? Fuck them. How about we display some initiative?”

Jim Twocrows looked suddenly worried. Really worried.

“What do you have in mind?”

Her sudden, crooked smile spelled an impending disaster.

“That Army base. How about we hit it?”

We both looked up at her in horror.

“Are you fucking crazy? There are at least two companies in there and god knows how much tech. For crying out loud, Espinoza, they have fighter jets,” replied Jim.

She snorted.

“So what? We go in at night. One quick push and everyone’s dead or running. They’ll never know what hit them...”

In my head, I was going over the list of all the ways how this really dumb idea could go incredibly wrong, but she suddenly spat out in laughter.

“You should see your faces right now.”

Okay, bullet dodged. Although to be frank, I still wasn’t sure she was completely joking. Even Jim started laughing somewhat nervously.

“Come on then. Let’s hit the sack. Tomorrow, we train and then we train some more. Yay,” she rolled her eyes.

They both left and I found myself lingering, staring up at the night sky, wondering what was all this good for. I was about to find out a few days later.

***

  • July 2028, Arizona

The night sky was giving way to early morning’s crimson. The dawn found me still lying next to a campfire, listening to the soft crackling of embers and the other sounds of a military camp slowly waking. The stench of burnt gasoline forever permeating the place was mixed with the sweet smell of freshly-made coffee the earliest birds were walking around with. One moment everything was silent and minutes after, all I could hear were shuffling feet.

morning

Where did all those zombies suddenly come from, I wondered, as I watched the confused commotion. Maybe a virus infected us all, in which case there was no point in getting up, was there.

Alas, no such luck. With my hopes dashed by a few words of greetings uttered in a friendly but disappointingly un-zombie-like manner, I slowly got on my feet and embarked upon a grand quest to find myself something to eat and something else to shoot.

A few hours and a couple of magazines later, the news arrived.

I was just about finished cleaning my gun when Espinoza, clearly upset, waved at me from across the yard. What now, I wondered, as I washed the rest of the grease off my hands and threw the rag on an empty barrel standing outside of the tent cover.

I made my way to the command area near the end of the camp. It wasn’t a tent per se – more like a semi-permanent structure made of canvas, plastic and sheet metal, its arced roof giving the impression of a much larger space. The inside was cramped but mercifully air-conditioned, unlike some of the living quarters in the camp, which was why so many preferred to bunk outside, preferring the annoyance of insect bites from a nearby river to that of sweltering greenhouse-like heat.

Jim Twocrows was already inside, staring intently at the communications laptop in the center of a large metal desk otherwise filled with maps, folders and unwashed coffee mugs. This was a place few dared to tread, the jealously guarded kingdom of our communications officer, a short stocky Iowan by the name of Marcus Abernathy.

“What’s new, Mark!” I greeted him from the door.

He cast a sour look upon me, as he typically did at anyone who dared to trespass, all the while fiddling with the settings on another device the purpose of which I couldn’t even guess. Without giving me a second glance, he pointed at a chair next to the door.

“Sit. Don’t speak. Listen.”

Contrary to the man, Jim’s – I just couldn’t bring myself to ever use his surname, after the first day he was to me as he was to everyone, just “Jim” – look was rather amused, as he mockingly crossed his mouth with his finger and shushed me. Next to him, Espinoza (here I couldn’t bring myself to use her first name) smacked her lips and tried to look patient when she clearly was not.

After a few moments, the screen lit up with both an office and a person I recognized. Espinoza sneered.

“Ferguson.”

“Nice to see you too, Gail,” replied the young black woman coolly. “And Jim.”

The tall Native American simply nodded in acknowledgment.

“Now then. I have news for you...”

“Took you long enough...” muttered Espinoza.

Undisturbed, the woman on the screen continued.

“Mister Murdoch sends greetings to all of you and is pleased with your progress. Soon, you’ll be ready to become his extended arm – or his clenched fist.”

Espinoza narrowed her eyes in reaction and Jim shifted his position uneasily, silently folding his arms.

Ferguson clearly noticed. “How are you happy with the arrangements and the tech?”

“Well...” I started... but Espinoza was faster with her situation assessment.

“The camp’s shit, the tanks are shit, the guns are shit... everything is shit, Ferguson. Some idiot decided to paint the tanks black and we have a bunch of coyotes and a drunk-ass sheriff in the neighborhood. How’s that for a report huh?”

tent

Ferguson sighed.

“Right, thank you for the eloquent report, Gail. Let’s tackle this one by one. Colors – we’ll repaint those tanks, okay? When you return. Just... write down your preferences or something, we’ll figure something out. The tech, that’s another matter. Luckily for you...,” she smiled suddenly, “we’re way ahead of you. Tomorrow, you’re going to visit your army neighbors, there will be a gift waiting there for you, courtesy of Fort Irwin. Mister Murdoch called in a few favors and I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”

She suddenly grew more serious.

“Certainly pleased more than the U.S. Army, so... we don’t want any incidents, understand?”

Espinoza rolled her eyes, pouted and suddenly she strongly resembled a petulant schoolgirl more than a hardened merc.

“Okay, whatever.”

“I’m serious, Gail,” Ferguson pressed the matter, leaning forward as if trying to impose the notion by her will alone. “This is important, not just for me but for him. Do you understand?”

“Yes... Warmaster.”

Ferguson scoffed, shook her head and broke the connection.

“Warmaster? What was THAT about?” I asked, curious.

“That’s her title. And yeah, I’m serious,” she smiled.

“Murdoch loves such titles. God knows why. Like old Rosenstein... you met him?”

“Yes.”

Espinoza nodded.

“So, he does like spy stuff, right? Clandestine voodoo and shit like that. Skullduggery bullshit. Today, normal people call this Intelligence. Not Murdoch though... he calls him the Spymaster.”

Huh. I shook my head and shrugged.

“Alright. So what does our ‘Warmaster’ do then?”

And there’s that smirk again.

“Glorified secretary, that’s what. Drew up a few plans and suddenly she’s treated like royalty, the bitch...”

She stopped, looked at me and sighed.

“Fine. She knows her stuff. Educated and all that. Just... she’s just...” her look grew distant for a moment but she snapped out of it almost immediately.

“Let’s just go. One day, I’ll tell you about our glorious Warmaster... one day...”

That was odd, I thought, as I followed her out into the sunlight and another glorious day of training.

***

The next day turned out to be just as interesting as Ferguson had promised. A military jeep came to the camp in the morning to pick me and Espinoza up. With a healthy bit of schadenfreude, I noticed it was the same driver that had driven me here earlier. Someone up the food chain must really hate his guts, I smirked quietly and sure enough, the driver just waved us in and the whole trip passed in silence.

The real surprise awaited us at the airbase. Unlike before, the whole place was literally packed with armor. Tanks, IFVs, APCs, armored cars – hell, some stuff I haven’t even heard about – stood in rows around the runway, ready to be inspected. Swarms of U.S. troops bustled around them, some cleaning them up, some refueling and rearming them and some simply gawking. Some troops were blasting music from behind a maintenance shed and the whole scene felt like one giant fair.

Even Espinoza was not her usual sarcastic self and stared at the hubbub.

“Well then,” I remarked, “What the hell are we supposed to do here?”

I received an answer seconds later as the car stopped in front of an unlikely couple – a colonel (I suppressed my urge to salute) and a young, slender black woman I was already familiar with.

“Took you long enough to get your feet dirty, Ferguson,” Espinoza remarked sourly.

The woman smiled in response.

“Gail. So nice to see you. Again.”

She nodded at the colonel, who just shook his head and went off. Her expression grew serious.

“Like I told you before, nobody’s too happy about us being here, so behave, you two.”

I simply nodded. I didn’t see Espinoza’s reaction, but Ferguson seemed satisfied.

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“As you can see, Mister Murdoch’s been able to pull a lot of strings to make this happen, so we now have limited access to, simply put, America’s stock of pretty much every vehicle you might run into anywhere in the world. They do keep their training facilities well supplied and now we get to benefit.”

“Anyway,” she concluded, “walk around, pick some vehicles you’d be interested in and we’ll arrange a temporary loan from the military. Just don’t go too wild. Even Perihelion’s coffers aren’t endless.”

Nodding at both of us, she joined the colonel waiting nearby, his expression sour and stance betraying impatience. He clearly didn’t want to be there, I noted, but had no choice. Now that was something to see – putting an American colonel into a situation where he had no choice must have taken, contrary to Ferguson’s claims of limited resources, a tremendous amount of influence, money, or both.

Espinoza shrugged and started making her way through the throng of curious soldiers. With our weekend warrior clothes, we did not stand out too much but we weren’t exactly blending in either and, every now and then, a GI Joe gave us a dirty look. Espinoza didn’t seem to mind though as she was soon jumping from one vehicle to another like an unsupervised kid in a candy store. Not sure why, but it did lift my mood to see her enjoying herself.

In the meanwhile, Ferguson and the colonel moved to a truck painted in Perihelion livery and, at his orders, several soldiers started carrying large boxes of what looked like some high-end hardware outside and moving them towards what I thought was some kind of underground storage entrance.

Once again, I shook my head. Politics, I thought. Murdoch was probably smuggling some shit south of the border, something he didn’t want me to know about, and we were here as a safeguard in case anyone tried something funny.

What a safeguard we were, bickering over paint jobs and tech, I thought. With a chuckle, I followed Espinoza into the fray.

***

“Well, what are you thinking?”

These past two days had been a nightmare. We picked several promising vehicles and had them moved to our own camp for the troops to check. As expected, each of us had a different idea what to do, what to buy and what to recommend, but Ferguson’s last instructions (before she boarded a helicopter home) were clear – we were to agree and present David Murdoch and her a joint decision about what to do with the Perihelion outfit. Who to let go, what vehicles, uniforms, small arms and about a thousand other things to buy and, most importantly, the overhead.

We all somehow felt like this was above our pay grade, like this was all another test, perhaps to find out how we’d tackle a challenge and get along. If that was the case, we were about to receive some fat Fs. I wasn’t about to give up without a fight, though.

“So,” she started, rubbing her temples, “we’ve got a few options. We need a tank detail, that’s for sure...”

Damn right we do. I’m NOT giving the Black Mamba up!

“...but a small one might do just fine. Then we have the infantry, they need something to ride in. APCs, most likely, but Mechanized Infantry’s a nice concept and the troops are familiar with it. Or,” she concluded, “we can go the airborne way. Airmobile light units, light tanks... I bet the old man can get us some pretty awesome toys from his U.S. Army buddies.”

Frowning, I shook my head.

“I feel like we need to pack a punch, you know.”

A slow, tired nod was her reaction.

“You know what? Let’s gather the troops and talk it through, so we can FINALLY get to some business. Oh and do me a favor and change your shirt, will you? That hole,” she waved vaguely towards a rip near my waist, “doesn’t exactly scream ‘professional’. Don’t you have a better one anyway?”

I stopped mindlessly fidgeting with my knife and put it away.

“Yeah, I do. All my good stuff’s in a duffel bag, stashed in a dumpster at the foot of a skyscraper in Dubai along with my other shit. I really need to do some shopping,” I mused.

“Take a car. Walk. I don’t care. Just look presentable.”

“Roger that, ma’am,” I saluted mockingly. She was right though. We all need to get a grip, rather sooner than later. With that thought I walked outside to find Jim.

***

  • A few hours ago

“So, let me see if I get you right. You’re proposing to keep the black paint and then add... what now? Snake scales as a camouflage?”

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“Yup, pretty much,” I grinned, before adding:

“Come on, it’s gonna look cool.”

Ferguson shook her head on the screen in front of me, equally amused and annoyed. She clearly wasn’t back in Chicago yet but the hotel room behind her looked fancy enough to be anywhere in the world where Murdoch mattered – maybe even Dubai? Why do I keep thinking of Dubai?

“No, Mister Thorpe. That’s not going to fly. I’ll... think of something.”

A short pause as she made a few quick notes.

“Right. To the other matter at hand. What do you and Miss Espinoza think of the vehicles provided to you? What do you believe would be the best course of action?”

I looked back at Espinoza standing behind me and she nodded quietly. We both weren’t exactly sure about our decisions but Jim seemed to agree and that was confirmation enough for us.

“We’ll take a couple of anti-aircraft systems. These things are really good against soft ground targets and who knows – some bad guy might have a gunship or two stashed for a rainy day. We’re going to need to figure things out though – this isn’t exactly low tech we’re talking about. It might take a while longer. But...”

I sighed. I was about to lie a bit... no, not lie. Exaggerate. Big difference there... or was it?

“...the rest of the troops are more or less ready and awaiting their orders. We’ve had some rough patches but we seem to have ironed the worst issues out. We’ll have a tank company and a few squads of mechanized infantry. I hope we’ll get something better than these rusty old BMPs, but unless you want us to take on the whole U.S. Army, it’s going to be enough.”

Ferguson stared at me in silence for a short while and then nodded.

“Very well. Keep me posted.”

With that, she broke connection.

“Told you that the snake pattern was a bad idea,” Espinoza patted me on the shoulder, visibly happier now that my amazing idea was so unceremoniously rejected. “Keep that shit on your private stuff, don’t force it on us. Anyway, dinner?”

I chuckled.

“Now, ma’am, are you taking me somewhere fancy?”

“Only the best MRE’s for you, sir!”

“Oh my,” I retorted. “What will people think?”

It was her turn to laugh.

“That everyone eats the same shit. Which is good. For morale, I mean,” she added.

***

  • Now

For the first time since my fateful encounter with Murdoch, I dreamt that night. The past days had been too busy for me to do anything but sleep but somehow, a nightmare wormed its way into my exhausted mind.

It wasn’t the usual nightmare though. I was falling into a deep, dark void resonating with primal bass frequencies that created or shattered celestial bodies, the sound of dying stars permeating my very existence. Somehow, my mind, ablaze from the ordeal, mustered enough strength to make a single word out of the noise – a word I could neither recognize nor remember afterwards.

I was rescued from the experience by a firm tap on my shoulder but the first seconds of my awakening did let me know that the true nightmare might have only just begun.

It was still the middle of the night but the camp was abuzz with chaotic activity and an air of barely contained panic. Sharp cracks of small arms fire and the deeper thunder of ordnance explosions could be heard but I immediately realized they were at least a few miles away – few who have never fired a gun or heard artillery up close have any idea just how painfully loud it is. Regardless, this was bad news – about the worst kind of news actually because a full-fledged battle wasn’t something that typically took place in the USA, no matter how close to the border you got.

“What the fuck... what’s going on?”

It was Espinoza waking me up and it was the first time I’d see her truly worried. She waved someone off and shouted a few orders in Spanish before getting back to me.

“It started a few minutes ago. Landlines are cut, the comms are jammed, there’s no cell signal and even the satellite connection’s not working.”

I was about to ask how that was possible but she waved any questions off.

“We don’t know any more than that. Jim...”, she took a deep breath while pointing at the Native American man organizing a few troopers, “...thinks the U.S. base is under attack.”

I shook my head, still trying to clear my mind of the nightmare’s remnants and to wrap my head around the situation.

“Could it be an exercise?”

But I immediately understood just how vain that hope was.

“No. This is not a training area for ground troops. They wouldn’t cut off the comms for that either and they sure as hell wouldn’t start an artillery duel in the middle of the night without prior warning. We also heard a few louder explosions. We think that might have been some ammunition exploding. Not sure.”

The whole situation felt so surreal. I reached for a bottle of water and emptied it with a few quick gulps.

“We even talked about that, right? Attacking a military base, that’s suicide. For anyone, the Mexican army’s a mess, the cartels don’t have a lot of heavy duty firepower, hell, even the corporations...”

She nodded.

“Yeah. Like I said, we don’t know what’s going on. But...”

She suddenly looked up, her expression turning into a determined frown.

“We’re about to find out.”

I gasped at her.

“Are you crazy? We barely finished training, we have no vehicles refueled or armed and you want to drive into that shit?!”

“The Banger’s ready,” she cocked her had towards a rusty heap of metal nearby, “someone filled ‘er up in the evening, probably to take her for a spin.”

“What the hell’s a banger?” I responded, confused.

“That old rusty M113 we salvaged earlier. Cleaned her up, even got some ammo for that recoilless on top.”

Despite the circumstances, I couldn’t contain a chuckle at the absurdity of the name.

“Ah. That’s why she’s called “the Banger”, for the big boom.”

Suddenly, her face flushed a bit with what looked like embarrassment. I wouldn’t notice, were it not for all the generator-powered lamps lighting up all around the camps.

“Well, THAT...and there’s a stretcher inside. If you get my drift.”

“Oh.”

She stood up, pointing at two men standing nearby.

“Vasquez, Donner, take the Banger and drive ahead. Don’t go looking for trouble – turn back at the first sign of danger and report back to the camp.”

They both saluted and ran off. A while later, creaking, roaring and belching smoke, the ancient APC started to move and gradually picked up speed before disappearing behind the first bend of the dirt road leading from the camp, leaving only a cloud of dust behind.

***

Ten minutes have passed and the conflict seemed to be raging with unabated intensity. The entire camp was awake by that time, men and women scurrying collecting weapons, hastily strapping on bits of gear and getting ready in all sorts of ways.

Nearby, much to my disappointment, the fuelling of the fastest vehicles took precedence over the present MBTs as it took far shorter time to fill them up than our gas-guzzling monsters.

The scout crews set off first, the wheels of multiple army-loaned Jaguars carrying them to battle following the tracks of the still absent and now presumably ill-fated Banger.

The tanks came next, each taking good ten minutes to fully refuel. It wasn’t technically needed to top them off but you wouldn’t believe just how much juice fifty tons of steel consume in combat – better to be safe than sorry. Furthermore, who knows what could happen to our camp. It meant we’d be arriving piecemeal but under the circumstances, it was the best idea anyone had.

The first vehicles to depart after the scouts were my Black Mamba, Espinoza’s Nightsinger and O’Sullivan’s Faugh a Ballagh. Each of us nodded at our crews as we embarked, giving last orders to the rest and casting each other one final, worried glance. O’Sullivan seemed the most worried, muttering curses and shouting at the men near his somewhat obsolete tank.

But, as Chuck Yeager once famously said: “It’s the man, not the machine”, and old O’Sullivan, a grizzled veteran of the New Troubles, mode than made up for any deficiencies of older tech with experience and courage. I haven’t had much time to get to know him but many in the camp regarded him as a sort of grandfather – the yelling old coot type.

I climbed the BMPT and wiggled my way into the commander’s hatch.

Inside, I closed my eyes and allowed the noise of the outside world drift away. How quickly the world can change in a few minutes, I thought. Could this be why Murdoch sent us here, in the middle of nowhere – to prepare for such an eventuality? But if it was so, why wouldn’t he tell us? Going into battle without reliable intel was, at best, foolhardy, but mostly it was just plain stupid. And yet, here we were, not waiting for the scouts. Such and many other thoughts raced in my mind as I forced myself to focus on the present.

The radio, still abuzz with a deep and peculiar (and yet, strangely familiar) droning sound so unlike any jamming I’ve ever heard before, was still useless. We’ll have to do this oldschool, I realized.

Leaning out of the hatch, I waved at Espinoza and saw her silhouette, bathed in the glow of camp lights, returning the gesture. Time to go.

***

The base wasn’t far – thirty minutes by a car, at most – so we began to see signs of conflict almost immediately. There were several abandoned cars, their lights still piercing the darkness that surrounded them as everyone inside left the scene in a hurry. There wasn’t a soul in sight, an uncanny feeling even in the dead of night.

Some minutes later, we ran into one of our scouts, also abandoned in the middle of the road, its engine still running. Not sparing any time to investigate and with the sounds of battle drawing ever closer, all of us grew more anxious by the minute. Ramirez, the driver, started humming a wistful tune while I fiddled with the radio buttons, trying to catch something – anything, really.

That was a mistake but, in retrospect and knowing what I know now, things probably wouldn’t have been different if I hadn’t. Just as we were descending towards the final stretch of the journey and were already seeing some blazes on our thermal imager screens, several things happened in rapid succession. The droning sound got extremely loud.

Then it stopped and my entire universe was suddenly enveloped in silence almost as eerie as the sound, the kind that bores into your skull and takes over, the kind that can drive men insane.

Confused, I looked around. Everything felt like in slow motion, as if the world almost stood still in that very moment. And then came the chorus of voices, deep, metallic and scraping at the inner edges of my skull in unison with such primordial force that it shook the very core of my being. It was impassionate and ageless, as if the universe itself woke up to speak. Words appeared in my mind, their power enough to tear reality asunder.

“PAWNS OF THE EXILE APPEAR.”

Gasping for air, I tried to cover my ears but to no avail.

“TURN BACK. THE DECEIVER SHALL PAY AND SO SHALL HIS PROGENY. IT IS ORDAINED. TURN BACK.”

The voice grew ever weaker with the last two works repeated over and over until it became a mere whisper and then finally faded into nothingness.

“TURN... BACK... Turn...... back.......”

My head was spinning as if concussed from the experience. The crew appeared equally struck and the vehicle ground slowly to a halt as Ramirez tried to get things under control. Despite the proximity of the fighting, we all felt like we had to get outside. The other crews fared no better and we just stood there in silence for what felt like an eternity, shaking our heads and trying to filter the experience out. We all heard the same thing, apparently. In the end, Espinoza was the first to speak.

“Jesus... I... what WAS that thing?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of psyop maybe? A comms hijack? Never heard of anything as powerful though...”

She shook her head and waved me over away from the others who paid us little heed, still reeling from the experience.

“No, it was more than that. The thing... the person, whoever was it, it knew me. It knew my name.”

I stared at her blankly with a million questions on my mind but our little tête-à-tête was interrupted by another explosion in the vicinity, which finally woke us all up. One last strange look she gave me before suddenly turning into her usual self.

“Right. Back to the machines, it isn’t safe here. Look though...”

Below us, the base was burning. Pillars of smoke obscured the area with the intensity of clearly uncontrolled fires blinding both our eyes and the vehicles’ sensors. We could see shadows of men running, screaming and dying and what looked like several companies of armored vehicles of types we couldn’t readily identify pounding the perimeter, their guns spitting death at anything that moved outside their zone of interest where a host of invaders could be seen carrying boxes from the base towards one of the larger vehicles, their shadows superhumanly large against the backdrop of a burning army tank.

Curiously, the source of the looters seemed to be the very same bunker we saw Ferguson enter during our last visit back when the base wasn’t filled with bodies and smoldering wreckage. That’s where we’d start, I thought, as our three machines started barreling towards the warzone.

***

  • Short time afterwards

Halfway down the hill, the anxiety suddenly fell off me. I could not explain it but I suppose it had something to do with actually seeing the enemy take form. No longer was I experiencing any dread like when we had heard that terrible voice on the radio and judging from the determined postures and quiet nods from the crew of the Mamba, they felt the same way, as if an evil spell was suddenly lifted.

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I shifted in my seat, eagerly scanning the optics screens for my first target. Several enemy vehicles broke off the main assault and started making their way towards us, but their behavior was somewhat strange. Not that I am much of an expert in armored tactics but I’ve never seen armor driven like that with the vehicles making frequent stops without firing and driving seemingly directionless, their weapon systems aiming towards us but rarely firing off a shot, like drones with their controlling signal disrupted.

It simply made no sense for the U.S. Army base to have been defeated by such opponents, but here we were. And what was worse, I couldn’t see the enemy infantry anywhere anymore, as if they had vanished into thin air. A half-loaded truck was all that was left from the scene I witnessed mere minutes ago. Not for the first time felt the entire operation dream-like, a feverish nightmare I had to wake from any minute. But the ringing sounds of bullet impacts on my metal steed’s armor were all too real, I reminded myself, as I shifted my focus once again to the targeting display.

***

Of the battle itself, not much can be said beyond the fact that we held our own. The fate of the enemy was sealed by the gradual arrival of other Perihelion forces from the camp and less than thirty minutes after the initial encounter, all that remained of the once numerous hostile force was a pile of smoldering wreckage.

That’s when things got really weird again.

I was just putting myself together after the fight, leaning against the Mamba and wishing I had picked up smoking because now it would be the perfect time to light a cig while looking badass. No such luck, I thought. I’d have to do with some answers, starting with the identity of our recently deceased friends. Espinoza was out now as well, arms folded tight and looking around as if unsure what to do.

“Yo!” I waved at her.

She suddenly grew stiff and looked really uncomfortable but our eyes met after a split second. Clearly she wasn’t looking forward to talking to me again and I realized that instant she knew more of the situation than she was letting on.

Espinoza seemed quite content just standing there looking awkward – fine, I have to make the first step because by now, I was just dying to find out what was the last hour all about.

Casually strolling towards her, I leaned once again against the cold steel of her Nightsinger, not looking at her but at the sky above, the desire to get to the bottom of the riddle fighting basic human decency of leaving the clearly distraught woman alone. Needless to say, the curiosity won.

Starting a discussion with a lady with a statement spiced by a hint of accusation was hardly gentlemanly, but I didn’t really think of myself that way anyway. I am more a lovable rogue type. Yeah, right, who am I kidding – I’m about as lovable as plague.

“So. You know what’s happening, don’t you.”

No reaction apart from a barely perceptible sideways glance. I sighed.

“Look, you need to tell me what’s going on. People got hurt here, our people,” I pointed towards a burning Jaguar knocked out seconds after its arrival, its shell-shocked, soot-covered crew sitting next to it while tending to some minor burns.

“I mean,” I continued, “you know this makes no sense, right? These... whoever it was,” I waved roughly in the direction of the nearest wreck, “they trashed the whole base looking for... whatever. But we take care of them in minutes?”

I shook my head, once again lifting my eyes up, towards the stars.

“Either we’re the best goddamn outfit on the planet, or the Army REALLY let itself go. And given how half of our own guys are ex-U.S. military, I don’t think that’s the case.”

She pursed her lips, opened her mouth as if she was going to say something... and then closed it again, shaking her head as well, leading to yet another pause before she finally decided what to say.

“Sam... you’re a nice guy. I like you. I really do. That’s why I am telling you...”

She finally looked me in the eyes with previously unseen intensity to underline the impact of her words. She was practically begging.

“...walk away from this. Get another job. Tell Murdoch to go fuck himself.”

Bullshit. I wasn’t going to let this go and the red, ugly, bitter furnace of anger swelled in my chest. I suddenly wanted to rage, to shout at her for even suggesting anything like that but the impulse thankfully passed as quickly as it came with logic taking over again. I wasn’t about to ruin my chances of having a guide through this rabbit hole slash acid trip by acting as a petulant child. Besides, whoever was to blame for this mess, it clearly wasn’t her.

“No. No way am I walking out without any answers. We haven’t known each other for long but... I think you know me well enough for that already.”

Now the look in her eyes was pure sadness. Not the teary kind, the deep, black kind that no amount of drink would cure.

“I know... I know.”

She shook her head and took a deep breath before looking back at me.

“That wreck nearby,” she pointed towards a large boxy vehicle with half of its suspension torn off by an explosion. I’ve never seen such a design in my life, not even at the earlier demonstration.

“It doesn’t look burned and one of the hatches is open. Check inside. And... don’t worry. I’ll wait here.”

I hesitated for a moment. I wasn’t exactly keen on going through some dead guys’s belongings, but she waved me off.

“Go... go!”

Listening to her seemed liked the best course of action and I slowly made my way towards the hulk. One of the hatches on top was indeed open so I carefully climbed one side scored by impact holes from some autocannon rounds and, after checking for unpleasant surprises, carefully wormed my way inside.

***

When I – dumbfounded as I was – returned, she was still there as she had promised, waiting for me with a canteen of water in her hand, which she offered without saying a single word. I took a big gulp.

“So...”

“So?”

“There’s nobody inside. The controls are... strange. Some weird language I can’t decipher. Doesn’t look Asian though... I don’t know,” I threw my hands up in despair.

She nodded before looking around.

“A few of the troops just reported in. All of them are empty. No bodies. No dead infantry either. Everything’s just... empty.”

I frowned.

“You knew I’d find nothing? Why?”

mis2sto4

Her expression didn’t change, not one bit.

“I didn’t know you’d find nothing at all. Just...” she bit her lower lip, “something weird. I don’t know either.”

She looked so lost, massaging the temples with the thumb and middle finger of her right hand.

But the mystery of missing bodies had to wait. By now, the Army survivors began to emerge from their hideouts and they looked none too happy to see us. I saw James Twocrows arguing with some officer before joining us with a worried look on his face. The reason was pretty obvious.

“They think we were involved in this, right?”

Twocrows sighed.

“Yes, of course they blame us. They suffered a lot of casualties, nearly all of them fatal. The enemy...” he paused, “left no survivors. Highly unusual.”

He was right, of course. In all wars, the wounded far outweigh the dead, but this wasn’t the case. The enemy clearly wasn’t interested in witnesses. Many would still hide in the buildings and bunkers around the base though, there would be at least some local surveillance footage... I shuddered to think what the enemy would have done had we not interfered with their plans.

“And seeing we’re the only ones walking and talking...”

Espinoza gave me another long, appraising look as if deciding how much on board I was and, more importantly, how much she could trust me. I wasn’t sure about my odds but Lady Luck definitely was on my side tonight.

“Jim. Sam. That truck – get a few men and,” she pointed towards the transport the enemy was trying to capture before our ever so rude interruption, “move the boxes they were after to our camp. Whatever was causing the jamming is gone now. The landlines are probably still fucked but I’ll try to raise Ferguson or even Murdoch directly through the satellite link. Post some sentries around the stash, nobody, and I mean NOBODY is to touch it without my presence. Not even you, Sam, got it?”

I kept nodding without even realizing it at first. This was a situation where I felt comfortable with her in charge as I still had no idea what was going on, but if getting my hands dirty brought me closer to finding out, so be it. Besides, good old manual labor is the best cure for aching mind, as Ms. Pembroke, the shrew that ran the last foster home I’d been in, used to say. Only now, years later, could I appreciate how right she was.

***

The sunrise caught us all packing. It’s not easy to break a camp but try tearing it down without leaving half of the shit behind.

Nobody slept anymore that night. We had several wounded – mercifully, none of them grievously – and were preparing to move out. The critical stuff first, then everything else. Everyone moved with the sense of urgency normally reserved for the direst of catastrophes or the darkest of fears.

The area was now positively swarming with U.S. armed forces units with seemingly endless columns of armor and infantry passing south of our camp. All of them gave us dirty looks but thankfully no more than that. From what Espinoza said, she managed to raise Murdoch pretty fast following the incident and he immediately got to work, using his military contacts to solve the situation.

The arrival of the first U.S. response units almost ended in another battle but, at the last possible moment, the standoff was concluded with the G.I.’s standing down following a call from a superior officer, which, as far as those of us who heard it could tell, involved a lot of shouting and expletives I’d rather not repeat. Uncle Sam was hurting and was looking for someone to punish. Anyone, really – preferably the guilty, but they would surely settle for us instead.

In the end, somehow (I don’t know how), cooler heads and Murdoch’s influence prevailed and we were let go, including the loot which – as it turned out – truly was the property of Perihelion.

***

My breakfast was interrupted by Espinoza waving at me from the still-standing comms tent (we planned on tearing it down last in case we still needed it). I sighed, bit one last time into the Chef-MRE-provided sandwich and threw the rest away, realizing I probably wouldn’t have enough time to finish it anyway.

Espinoza was with comms officer Abernathy, both tinkering with what looked like a black box made of metal and plastic with some wires attached to it. I was hardly an IT expert, which is why I decided to waited for an explanation while attempting to not look stupid. It was a challenge, especially the last part. After a few seconds, the box whirred and whizzed and a list of symbols appeared on the screen of a nearby laptop. Abernathy frowned.

“It’s a drive of some sort, for those of you who didn’t know, and it’s coded. Obviously.”

Espinoza, looking over his shoulder, sighed in response.

“Can we crack it?”

Abernathy sat up, alarmed.

“Should we though? This is Perihelion property. I doubt Miss Ferguson would approve...”

“...of us checking for potential booby traps?” Espinoza smiled innocently.

Abernathy’s expression turned sour, just like every time he felt someone took him for a fool.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“Mark,” I interceded. “I appreciate your loyalty, I really do, but we almost got killed. We’d really...”

And I emphasized the word ‘really’, as in ‘there will be consequences if you don’t.’

“....really like to get some answers.”

He got the message and sighed, shaking his head and pushing the glasses to his forehead.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

A couple of minutes and several curses later, Abernathy found something.

“I’ve never seen a code like that...” Abernathy mumbled to himself. “Let me just...”

The screen of the connected laptop suddenly lit up, then turned black with strange symbols appearing all over. I should have felt worried but, for some reason, another – completely unrelated – though crossed my mind instead; if I was to make a movie about machines taking other machines over, this is how I’d have imagined the process looking like.

Blurred images and short video reels rapidly filled the screen. I managed to glimpse a few details but the sequence was too fast for a human to follow.

A young man dressed in an ancient pilot’s attire and a wizened one-eyed warrior dueling with katanas in front of a Tiger tank on a plain that had no end. An inhumanely tall Viking and a silver-skinned boy crossing a sea on a Drakkar. New York City, entombed in ice. A two-headed dragon dogfighting a Great War biplane, the rattling of Spandau machineguns almost pathetic against the beast’s mighty roar and flame – and yet, the dragon was losing. An army of the dead invading the world of the living under a skull-shaped, alien moon.

The imagery ended as abruptly as it had begun with a single image featuring a text field clearly intended for a password.

monitor

“What the hell...” whispered Abernathy. I and Espinoza looked equally dumbfounded. Were the scenes just some random computer-generated imagery hiding some true meaning? And what of the symbol?

As if in response, Abernathy shrugged.

“This is way beyond my pay grade, folks. I have never even seen such code, no way in hell we’re cracking it in the few hours we have left.”

“Hmm,” Espinoza bit her lower lip again, “it would be nice to know more before getting in touch with Murdoch.”

She turned to me.

“He promised he’d contact us as soon as he had a moment. And...” she paused, “I believe him.”

“Well,” I responded, ever more curious, “might as well try to guess the password. If we succeed, we might even get an upper hand over Murdoch. And if not, who’s to say this particular drive wasn’t destroyed in the fighting?”

Abernathy scowled and glared at me but Espinoza just nodded. Eventually, he gave up and agreed to help us. Espinoza brought us all some coffee (much to Abernathy’s displeasure –someone was AGAIN desecrating his place of worship with vile liquids!) and we finally started focusing on the task at hand.

“You have to be able to enter the password anywhere since these disks are portable, so... it’s probably a set of standard Latin alphabet letters, related to the image,” explained Abernathy.

“Furthermore, I doubt there are any numbers in there. It’s probably a single word, easy to remember and not capital-letter-sensitive. The length, however... could be anything,” he concluded.

In short, he didn’t have a clue. But, who knows, we might get lucky.

***

I’m fairly adept at solving puzzles but this time I was just stumped.

“What the hell is that...”

Espinoza, however, was clearly having second thoughts about the situation, looking more nervous with each passing second before finally admitting her doubts.

“Maybe we shouldn’t screw around with this tech. We don’t know what it is, what it does...”

I frowned.

“Hold on, this was your plan in the first place!”

Her only response was an intense attempt to hypnotize a coffee mug in her hand and a nervous shrug. So that’s how it was, someone was getting cold feet, I thought. Well, that’s not stopping me!

I refocused to the image in front of me but felt no closer to any answer. Abernathy was equally stuck, reciting the letters on the screen over and over.

That gave me an idea.

“Mark, those letters, they look ancient. German?”

I vaguely remembered seeing something like that in school.

“Mhm,” Abernathy agreed, “looks like that. No idea what the connection is though. Unless...”

He paused for a few seconds, tapping his index finger against lips and mumbling to himself.

“...German... Germanic... switches.... lines... transfers? Between what? States? Names? Names, yes, capital letters, ancient capital letters... maybe something to do with mythology? What else could it be... letters... Germanic mythos draws heavily from the Norse mythos... would fit the strange video... M could be Midgard, but what is G? Ginnungagap? H... Helheim... Goddess Hel... perhaps these are Norse god names? No... unless G stands for Grimnir... in which case M could stand for that serpent, what was its name, Midgard... hmm. The final letter could be T, for Thor... let’s try that.”

Wrong password, but leaning over Abernathy’s shoulder, I somehow instinctively knew we were onto something. Abernathy nodded to himself and continued.

“Alright, not Thor. No, of course not, the name of the Midgard serpent was actually Jörmungandr, Midgard means Earth.... no idea how many tries we have though, but this stuff seems like the only lead we can think of. Might as well continue trying. Not Thor then... other gods? No, no major Norse god readily starting with M... this means something else. Return to the realms idea? Perhaps. Let’s try... what’s the most famous one aside from Earth and Hell... Heaven? And the Norse equivalent for heaven is... ah yes. Valhalla.”

Upon entering the word, the screen turned black and only lit up after a couple of seconds, displaying what looked like a text menu of sorts that could be navigated using keyboard with the Up and Down keys highlighting different entries. There was a problem with it though; the menu was in a language we’ve never seen before. It resembled... I wasn’t really sure. Egyptian? The symbols were different though, no hieroglyphs, just sharp-edged and rectangular characters without any readily discernable meaning. Correction – I HAVE seen them before. I suddenly remembered seeing the symbols somewhere else, but could not recall where nor their origin.

Abernathy was just focusing on one blinking line, which apparently represented the most recently accessed entry, trying to decipher its meaning, but this was clearly getting us nowhere. Only one way left to proceed. I leaned over Abernathy and pressed the Enter key.

doomedship

Once again, the screen turned black and this time, the downtime was significantly longer, as if the box was communicating with something or someone (impossible! we were off-grid!) before finally revealing its secret, which turned out to be another strange video footage.

What seemed like an airship floated over a volcano, but it was unlike any airship I’ve seen before. Four giant impellers appeared to have kept it afloat but they seemed too small compared to the sheer bulk of the giant thing, its enormous steel body over three hundred feet long.

By our laws of physics, the craft had no right to stay in the air yet there it was, slowly moving away from the raging elemental inferno below it. There was clearly a crew on board – the laptop’s speakers played a radio traffic recording from the strange craft, loud and clear, as if captured straight from the source.

No, not radio traffic – those were the unfiltered voices of the crew.

Something was happening.

The world on the screen... simply stopped, as if someone hit a pause button. The recording continued. The bodiless voices were clearly aware of what was going on judging from their surprised and gradually panicking voices. The shock soon grew into terror as both outside and inside of the ship, things started to just... I couldn’t find the right word. Disappear would be the obvious first choice, except it wasn’t that. For something to disappear it has to exist first but somehow, the events depicted on the screen implied the things gone weren’t just gone. It was like they never existed in the first place. In their stead, an indescribable void – a non-color defying any attempts at description.

By that point, the voices were screaming, the minds behind them scorched by the sheer magnitude of the event unfolding before their eyes. Above, the clouds disappeared and the stars were going out, cluster by cluster. The event was clearly accelerating – the mountains, the trees, even the volcano faded away and so did many of the voices and parts of the ship. In the end, there was only one male voice left, a continuous tortured howl of a man condemned to the worst possible fate of the last witness of an entire world dying around him. And then... nothing, just darkness swallowing the scene.

The screen turned black. Abernathy and I looked at each other, speechless. It was clearly some sort of a movie, a computer-generated image designed by a twisted mind... and yet... it felt like it wasn’t. In fact, it felt oddly real, to all of us – Espinoza especially.

Gail Espinoza, THE badass Gail Espinoza, tough as they come – was quivering, her face pale and eyes closed. I didn’t understand why (I would in time but not right then and there) so I tried to put my hand on her shoulder. She barely registered it, refusing to even look at me.

“Are you alright?” I said. Silence and her rapid breath was the only answer I got, so I turned back to Abernathy, hoping for an explanation. He too was still out, whispering something to himself over and over with the face in his palms.

After the night battle I was getting numb to the weird and the uncanny and despite the chills still running down my spine, my mind started to focus on the task at hand, racing with thousands of questions. None of them would get answered (at least at that point) before the silence was broken by a cold, imperious voice that did not belong to any of us.

“I believe that is mine.”

Murdoch’s stern visage was staring at us from a nearby laptop, clearly a connection in progress. Who established and why, I had no idea, but somehow, he KNEW what had just happened. And he wasn’t happy, no, not one bit – there was something strange about the image, a distortion in perception perhaps, one that made his once friendly face appear... distant, ancient, alien, nothing like the charming businessman I once had the fortune (or misfortune, I realized) of meeting.

In his place, a tyrant with an aura of power clearly felt in the tent despite him being thousands of miles away. I could not explain what was happening and only later would I realize the thing I was experiencing truly was fear of the primal kind I had never encountered before. I did not know how, I did not know why, but I was completely convinced that the man on the other part of the screen would crush us all like bugs had that been his wish.

None of us knew what to do. Abernathy was just staring blankly into his table in a vain attempt to become invisible. Espinoza was still quivering and I... I was in shock. Murdoch inspected us one by one with his piercing gaze and finally scoffed as if we were not even worth dealing with, like ants having discovered the secret nature of the universe, much good would it do them.

And suddenly, I could take a breath (I didn’t even realize I was even holding it) and I started coughing in a desperate attempt to get as much oxygen into my lungs as possible. I could feel the heat and the sounds of the camp coming from the outside (I also didn’t even realize they were gone) and the familiar smell of cold sweat, stale coffee and gasoline. The face on the screen was still staring at us but there was nothing unsettling about it anymore, just an angry boss about to scold us for disobedience. But we knew better now, and he knew we knew.

“Some things are not meant for your eyes. And...”, he addressed Espinoza specifically, “I am very disappointed in you, Gail.”

I forced myself to look in his eyes and nod, my teeth still clenched. Espinoza nodded too and the current state of our affairs seemed to have satisfied Murdoch – at least for the time being.

“Now then,” he continued.

“Gail, Mr. Thorpe, we have much to discuss. There are helicopters coming to pick you up. They will carry you to a private airport where you will board a plane to Chicago. You are to carry the repository as well as all other items recovered from the base with you. Do not discuss any of it with anyone. That goes for you too, Mister Abernathy. Are we clear?”

Crystal-clear. Clear as rain. Couldn’t be any clearer. Quite frankly, I had absolutely no idea how I could have ever even considered disobeying Murdoch’s orders or crossing his path in any way imaginable.

The connection broke and we were slowly leaving the tent, both of us pondering what just happened. As we were moving out, Abernathy offered us one last wave and a weak smile.

“Put a good word for me, will you?”

“Sure thing, Mark,” I tried to return the smile but it came off as disingenuous so I turned away. We never saw the man again.

Story Conclusion

The flight back to Chicago was quiet. True to his word, Murdoch had sent first a cargo helicopter (not sure where he got THAT from) and then a jet to carry me and Espinoza as well as the precious cargo all the way up north. Despite my attempts to cheer her up with outrageous stories about things I had lived through and seen (some of them were even true), she barely said a word and adamantly refused to discuss the last few hours we had spent in the camp. So be it, I thought, I’d learn everything soon anyway.

***

A car picked us both up. We caught a glimpse of the hardware being unloaded by men with Perihelion badges on their otherwise unremarkable black security uniforms before the driver pulled away from the runway and sped across the city, clearly eager to meet a deadline set by an unforgiving master. After an extended flight, the drive was mercifully short and we suddenly found ourselves at Perihelion’s front door – quite literally. Ferguson was already waiting with arms folded in her signature “I’m the boss” position that we both were already familiar with, judging by Espinoza’s derisive snort.

scr1x

Ferguson was watching us as we slowly got out of the car (of course, Espinoza forgot something and had to go back) and approached her. She nodded.

“Follow me.”

Damn, she’s colder than usual. We must be in some real trouble now. But at least I’d get to bring up the topic I was thinking about the whole trip. I caught up with her as we walked past the reception.

“So, I know it’s maybe not the time right now but I wanted to bring up the tech we were using. Those Russian vehicles didn’t seem like the right choice...”

She stopped in her tracks and looked at me incredulously.

“You think THAT is the biggest worry you’ve got right now?”

Not going to lie, I was taken aback a bit. Usually, when it comes to military matters, people get pretty excited to hear some feedback first-hand, even before their boss.

“Well... I mean, I thought I’d just give you a quick rundown...”

“No, Mister Thorpe. You’ve made your bed, now you get to lie in it. We won’t have you spend another month in a desert training everyone for something different. Besides, I’ve already seen the battle results. You performed... adequately. The weapons you have now will do. You MIGHT receive some additional funding and perhaps even new vehicles. Gail’s tank suffered an engine breakdown and we’ll have to get her a spare one. But,” she concluded, “that all depends on how the next several hours will go.”

We stopped in front of a massive wooden door with intricate carving, the kind usually reserved to monarchs, despots or mafia bosses. I wasn’t sure which category did Murdoch fall into but I was dying to find out.

“Good luck,” said Ferguson before knocking on the door and moving aside. It was time to enter the lion’s den.

***

There was a bright, sunny day outside but little of the light penetrated the gloom the office behind the door was somehow full of – as if a layer of darkness emanating from the person sitting behind a massive, ornate wooden desk covered the entire room. In his twilight sepulcher, Murdoch sat with his hands clasped together, staring at us. Without saying a word, he pointed at two chairs in front of the table.

Two other people who clearly didn’t want to be there were standing next to the desk, shifting and fidgeting about while simultaneously trying to avoid Murdoch’s attention. One was an older man with fuzzy white hair in a lab coat wearing a t-shirt and a pair of washed-out jeans underneath. If you were to imagine a 21st century Doctor Frankenstein, this would be EXACTLY how you’d do that. The shirt immediately caught my attention as it featured a red panda with a menacing grin on its face. Somehow, despite the situation, it almost made me chuckle. The other person, a tall black man with a grey beard was visibly calmer and generally unassuming. He even gave me a nod as we entered.

“Sit.”

The words came from Murdoch and I immediately remembered why we were here. As I made my way to our assigned seats, I started noticing more details and it definitely was unlike any office I’ve ever seen before. The walls were inlaid with stone slabs featuring the same strange writing we’d seen earlier on Murdoch’s drive. Even the table was marked so, although unlike the rock surrounding us, it didn’t feel ancient. There was a sandstone statue on the desk though, an intricately sculpted bust of a young woman. From what I could see, it was a masterpiece, each strand of hair expertly crafted to bring whoever was the model to life for all eternity. I couldn’t see the face as it was turned towards Murdoch but judging from the position, it was clearly someone important to him.

The back of the room was even darker than the rest and I had the distinct feeling that someone was hiding in the shadows, waiting and observing our every move. But the shade was too thick for my eyes to penetrate and all I was left with (aside from the two scientists) was Murdoch’s stern visage.

“You certainly made a mess of things, haven’t you...”

Murdoch’s tone wasn’t exactly angry, nor did he sound terribly disappointed, it was more as if he was stating a fact – a fact that had cost him, but a fact nonetheless. Once again, I couldn’t believe this was the same charming businessman I had met weeks ago, who treated me to a dinner and an outrageous sum of money. Sometimes we see people the way we want to, I guess.

For a moment, Murdoch looked at the statue and suddenly there was weariness in his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. He seemed lost for a moment, tired of the entire situation, and was looking to whoever’s face the statue represented for comfort – comfort that wouldn’t come of course, but the short glance seemed to give him at least some peace of mind. Somehow, this made him... more human in my eyes but the moment passed as swiftly as it came and he was once again measuring us with his cold piercing gaze.

“Begin. Tell me everything and do not leave a single detail out.”

***

And so began the two hours that felt more like an interrogation than a debriefing. Murdoch was simply listening most of the time, only asking additional questions here and there, while both scientists (now sitting as far away from him as they could without appearing impolite) were making notes.

I was trying to remember and mention pretty much every detail. Espinoza was, on the other hand, reluctant to speak more than she absolutely had to but Murdoch didn’t seem to mind – he was interested in my account of things far more than hers. I described the fateful night minute by minute while attempting to leave nothing out – the missing scouts, the strange voice, enemy vehicles and the final discovery of the remote-controlled tanks...

“Not remote-controlled.”

The interrupting voice belonged to one of the scientists. Murdoch gave him a quick glance but the man clearly couldn’t hide his excitement any longer.

“What do you mean?” I frowned.

“Not remote-controlled. Our preliminary analysis shows the vehicles were not drones. In fact,” he shrugged, “they were quite ordinary. Except for the shift in...”

He stopped mid-sentence, blinked and gave Murdoch a cursory glance, clearly remembering he wasn’t supposed to mention something... yet.

“But... there was nobody inside and we haven’t recovered a single body.”

“Ah, yes. How rude of me,” Murdoch responded instead, finally acknowledging the presence of his companions.

“Meet Doctor Leonard Haswell, our research and development lead...”

The ‘mad scientist’ gave us a friendly wave with a tight-lipped smile.

“....and Doctor Abdu Az’dule, in charge of the investigation.”

Now it was the black researcher’s time to nod, which he did in a far more dignified fashion. This man clearly took himself far more seriously than his superior and it suddenly occurred to me that they complemented each other perfectly, almost comically so – I had to suppress an urge to smile back at them. Didn’t seem proper.

And then it was finally the time to mention our stunt with the Perihelion drive and its strange contents. Murdoch was just staring at me the entire time I was explaining how we got inside and what we saw as well as the strange effect the footage had on us. The scientists were exchanging excited glances constantly at that point, almost itching to say something. And then the room fell silent once more as I had nothing more to add, my tale finished. All that remained was the judgment and sentence.

Murdoch kept quiet for several minutes, just sitting there and staring at nothing in particular, thinking. None of us dared to interrupt him – I felt I was in enough trouble already and Espinoza... no clue what was going through her head. Finally, he looked up, not at me but at her:

“I suppose now would be a good time to tell him.”

She just nodded. Damn it, I KNEW she was hiding something. But in the end, it wasn’t her spilling the beans. Murdoch turned towards Dr. Haswell instead.

“Doctor, if you would...?”

The ‘mad scientist’ nodded and smiled at me encouragingly before leaning against the back of his chair, his arms crossed.

“Now, Mister Thorpe, what do you know about the multiverse concept?”

***

Bullshit. Utter and complete bullshit – that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. No way. I mean, I love sci-fi just as much as the next guy but... really? Who do they take me for?

I laughed out loud while getting off my chair. I mean, it sounded like a bad joke, had to be. And yet...

Nobody else was laughing. Espinoza and both scientists clearly felt awkward after my reaction and Murdoch looked mildly displeased.

“Sit. Down.”

His order came with an unexpected intensity and I felt compelled to slowly lower myself back into the chair, the smirk wiped off my face.

“Mister Thorpe,” Murdoch began only to make a short pause, “this may sound like a joke to you, but I assure you what you are about to learn is VERY real, as are the consequences of disregarding my instructions. Now, I understand it’s a lot to take in and you are trying to figure out what do we have to gain by feeding you such an outrageous story. I assure you, the answer is absolutely nothing. Were it not for the current situation, I’d have been happy to just let you play soldier and guard my property. But...”

Another pause.

“But the circumstances and your irresponsible tinkering with things you do not understand – yet – have forced my hand. And I am sorry to say, leaving is no longer an option for you. I am sure you understand why.”

About the time he was finishing, I was already contemplating a number of important things, such as the distance between me and the door, the way I’d have to twist my arm to punch Espinoza (who was now watching me very intently) and whether anyone in the room had a gun (I didn’t, left my whole gear in the trunk of the car outside). My plans were put on a hold as I noticed Espinoza most definitely didn’t forget to bring hers and (what was worse) she noticed the object of my attention and moved her hand so that she’d be able to access it on moment’s notice – definitely faster than I’d ever be able to make my move.

She looked me right in the eyes, her face stiff with anxiety, and shook her head. Murdoch also clearly noticed what was going on and sighed.

“There’s no need to make this truly unpleasant, Mister Thorpe.”

“Sam, please don’t make me do this,” added Espinoza, almost pleading like the night before. It felt really uncomfortable. I had my doubts about a lot of things but seeing her posture, I harbored no illusions – she’d shoot me in a heartbeat.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The odds weren’t in my favor and everything indicated that I was way out of my depth here. Simply put, if things went tits up, I’d never leave the room alive. Might as well see where the rabbit hole leads and bide my time. After all, there must be some kind of way out of here (said the joker to the thief). I sighed and threw my hands in the air in a mock surrender. It wasn’t the safest of actions but it was oddly satisfying to see everyone except for Murdoch flinch.

“Fine, fine... doc, hit me.”

Espinoza pulled away from me so I wouldn’t be able to execute any stupid ideas but the room seemed to relax a little bit. One of the massive stone slabs on the walls moved aside, uncovering a large screen with all sorts of numbers and equations on it as everyone turned their attention to the man who began to explain the nature of life, the universe and everything.

Doctor Haswell’s Lesson (Click to Open)

The most common way people imagine the multiverse theory is that any smallest choice creates a branch of sorts, a separate reality. This is fundamentally false, luckily for us, otherwise identifying separate realities would become utterly unmanageable – imagine a reality split for every subatomic particle movement!

The nature of what we’ve discovered is as follows – and mind you, I am grossly oversimplifying here and some things I can’t even begin to explain because even I don’t understand them. That’s how science works, gentlemen. And a lady, sorry. Anyway.

Each separate reality – we call them Instances – is defined by life. Yes, the very life itself. We have... developed, or rather discovered a method that reads the identifier of every separate Instance. The identifier – I’m going to call it ID from now on – is a number, a mathematical representation of every single living being that has ever lived, or will live. We THINK that it’s somehow related to the DNA, but were unable to find the exact connection.

At this moment, all we can identify are the strings belonging to separate... let’s call them Entities. I mean, it’s complicated – imagine, is the bacteria living in your intestines a separate being or a part of you? It’s separate, by the way... but I digress again.

Anyway, the ID. We can isolate an ID of a specific Entity but it does not tell us of its nature. We can only guess that similar Entity ID in different universes will lead us to a similar creature. So far it’s been the case. However, what we CAN do is isolate the Entities living at this very moment. What also helps us is that for reasons unknown, some very similar realities are shifted in time. In layman’s terms, we can peer into the future and the past. Time travel in our own reality is impossible, of course – Einstein’s postulates still apply. But under certain circumstances, we can peer into the worlds where specific choices have been made and see their consequences. As you can imagine, this is a massive opportunity for our improvement and we’ve been using it, but that is a discussion for another time.

But it gets even more complicated. Taking our reality as the proverbial heart of all creation (the return of geocentrism, how ironic!), we have developed an offset system to the ID mechanic to indicate how “far” things are from our own reality. Realities adjacent to ours with similar IDs are similar to ours – sometimes almost completely identical, except for the occasional time shift. Things get really wild with larger offsets – laws of physics not applying, pretty terrifying stuff actually. There are realities where light or gravity does not exist but they still contain life, imagine that!

Actually, no, don’t. We’ve lost some good people trying to observe things not meant for human mind.

And, finally, let me explain how the transfer between realities works. Yes, you can transport things between worlds using our technology, isn’t that amazing? Well, no, no it really isn’t. Reality is... imagine it like a balloon and we live on its surface. In fact, the surface is defined by the life in that reality. Yes, I know how strange it sounds but bear with me. We’re almost finished.

Removing a single Entity will poke a small hole of sorts in it. The smaller and more insignificant the Entity, the smaller the hole. And what happens when you pierce a balloon with, say, a needle? Okay, not the right example. Reality doesn’t explode. Not a balloon then, a football. Have you played football as a child, Mister Thorpe? Good.

As you pierce it, it deflates, collapses onto itself and so does a pierced reality. The process is slow at first but accelerates towards the end. It can take years, decades even, but is completely irreversible. But you wouldn’t know – the world around you doesn’t disappear. It ceases to be. Big difference there – disappearance implies you notice any difference but this process is far more insidious. Your mind isn’t really built to comprehend such things. You don’t notice. Your brother may disappear but you won’t search for him – it’s as if he never existed in the first place. Only at the end do the changes cause irreconcilable differences between perception and your reality and that’s when... well, you go insane. Not a nice way to go. So, for these reasons, we do NOT transfer anything from other realities. We’ve learned the hard way.

By the way, even those who are simply observing the events from another reality are affected. We call it Bleed. Bleed are small particles of the other reality bleeding into ours. It has two effects – first, it causes the feeling of intense nausea and terror. These cannot be avoided using medication and we neither understand the reason why this is happening, nor the underlying principle. The second problem is what’s colloquially known as the Mandela effect. False memories. You know how some people remember things differently? Berenstone Bears versus Berenstein Bears, Nelson Mandela actually surviving prison... that kind of thing.

Now for some good news. You don’t have to worry about what I just discussed, I think. As far as we know, we are the only reality with this kind of technology. In many other realities, I am a botanist – imagine that! I’ve always had a knack for plants...

Actually, there ARE a lot of strange things going on with this reality – two adjacent Instances have an unusual number of Uniques. So you understand, Uniques are outliers – Entities that exist nowhere else in the multiverse. Yes, it completely contradicts what we just discussed, but it is so. Mister Murdoch here, he’s a Unique. So is Miss Espinoza. And... so are you. Isn’t it interesting? Anyway, that about sums it up.

***

Well, shit. For God knows how many times in the last couple of days, I had the feeling of utter disbelief and about a million questions. Starting with a simple one.

“So the footage we’ve seen... that was real? Like, real, real?”

“Yes,” answered Espinoza sadly.

“Like, how do you know? For all we know, this all could be some made up BS!”

“Well, I...”, she began to answer.

“Because she was there, Samuel. We pulled her out of that reality and thus caused it to end,” responded Murdoch instead. Seems like finishing other people’s sentences is a bit of a habit of his.

“And doom an entire universe? Why?”

“We did not know this would happen and she was dying. Uniques are exceedingly rare. Uniques like you even more so – interestingly enough, you had a doppelganger in Espinoza’s reality, the only known case of something like that happening. Sadly, we couldn’t have saved him as he was already dead by the time we discovered Gail, a past ID a trace of his existence.”

He took a small pause before continuing.

“There’s no Gail Espinoza in our universe. Although it’s almost as if her reality and ours were somehow interconnected... too many coincidences for it to be otherwise. As a famous man once said, God does not play dice.”

My respect for Espinoza grew each passing second. Imagining her being alone in this world, dragged across space and time only to watch her old world disappear along with everyone she knew. A lesser mind would have been crushed but not hers. I made another mental note – to ask her about the other world, the rules, the people there... everything. But not now, now was time for another big question, perhaps the biggest one.

“So, what now?”

Murdoch shifted in his seat, clamping his hands once again.

“That depends on you, Mister Thorpe. We can’t let you go, but we are prepared to extend a contract. A most lucrative contract, I might add. But there is much work to be done.”

He leaned forward, giving everyone in the room a long hard look.

“For decades I have helped this country flourish. Successfully, I might add. But now, everything seems to be unraveling. Too fast. Empires rise, empires fall, but never this quickly. Someone is trying to interfere in the world we have created, bring it low for reasons unknown. I want to find who it is and why are they doing that. Secondly, this world needs technology, technology that we might find... elsewhere. Our research department,” he nodded towards Haswell, “informs me that we are on a cusp of a breakthrough that will allow us to temporarily visit other worlds without causing a reality breakdown.”

“And, finally,” he concluded, “we need to find out more about our mysterious attackers. Where they came from and what they want. It’s possible everything’s connected – how, that will be up to you to find. You’ll receive resources, initiated men and women, access to technologies you haven’t even dreamed of. Now tell me, is that an opportunity you want to pass on?”

scr1sss

***

Everyone left and the room was quiet once again, just the way he liked it. He ran his fingers across the statue’s sandstone. He rarely touched her lately for fears of damaging the irreplaceable object, sculpted in ages past after the memory of her. How eons change people, he pondered. First, there was a memory of his exile and all he left behind – especially HER, then a memory of a memory he’d desperately cling to and then... nothing, just an old piece of history none would recognize except for him – and one other.

“Soon, my sun. Soon.”

The shadow behind him shifted, betraying the presence of another person hitherto hidden.

“Still sentimental, brother?”

The voice, old and somehow comforting, soothed his troubled mind as it always has. An old man, a venerable man, stepped into the light. This came as no surprise to Murdoch – for that was the name he used at the time – since he invited his oldest and closest ally personally to witness what could turn into an era-defining moment.

“At long last,” the man continued.

“A few more and we’ll be able to plot our course through the aether like the true star mariners we are.”

Somehow, a doubt crept into Murdoch’s mind.

“What if... what if we made a mistake, En? What if we acted too soon? The enemies are on the move.”

“Then we will fight them like we did in the days of old. You have already gathered your warriors. You have wealth beyond measure. You have weapons of gold, steel and quartz. We are ready,” declared the other one confidently.

“Hm,” pondered Murdoch, once again lost in thought, “but we haven’t gotten so far without a backup plan. Bring me the Black Company file, search for two names. Grey, Seagrove.”

tothetop

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