Today, we’ve prepared a story update for you. You can read the story so far in this summary:
It is the latter half of the 2020s. After long decades of prosperity, things have taken a turn for the worse for the western civilization, which now finds itself in a decade of strife and internal turmoil. Where peace once reigned, conflict is the new normal and things are starting to fall apart as the countries of Europe as well as the United States of America are slowly consumed by a clash for dominance between the traditional political powers and newly emerged greedy, vicious corporations.
But even amongst the giants of industry and finances in the new world, there are a few of those that truly stand out, such as David Murdoch, a legendary 21st century investor known for his almost supernatural trend prediction abilities. Recently, he has founded a brand-new venture, a company called Perihelion, its goals as mysterious as the background of its enigmatic owner.
You are Samuel Thorpe, a mercenary down on his luck after a botched job in Dubai he took the fall for. Your angry musings in a Chicago exile were interrupted by an invitation to an interview. After passing a number of rigorous tests, you’ve been invited to a dinner with Murdoch. Murdoch, with his aide, Norah Ferguson, revealed his plan to you – at least your role in it. In the recent years, each major company fostered the means to project power, usually in the form of an armed mercenary outfit. The size of such outfit varies wildly, from a few platoons of elite troops to entire divisions of infantry armor. While such private units are no match for the might of the U.S. Army, the trend is clear – with corruption and incompetence rife in the upper echelons of government across the globe, the age of democracy is at an end and the era of corporations is about to begin.
Murdoch, with extraordinary prescience, recognizes the need for such an outfit of his own – after all, there’s only so much the money itself can do, the true power always comes from a clenched fist, not an open palm. He hires you to train the troops, currently located in his temporary camp in the Arizona desert. With that, he leaves you in Ferguson’s hands.
On your way there, you learn not only of Murdoch’s massive wealth, but also of his ties to the U.S. Army. Murdoch is clearly deeply embedded in the U.S. establishment and, as such, has a vested interest in seeing the United States of America prosper.
Your arrival at the camp is not met with cheers – the outfit’s de-facto leader, Gail Espinoza, sees you as a threat to her position. Due to what she perceives as bad choices in the outfit’s equipment and composition, she attacks you and knocks you out cold. Fortunately, things come to a peaceful solution later that day and the true training begins.
The training goes successfully, with equal emphasis on heavy and light vehicles. The troops are handling the uneasy situation admirably – being stuck in a desert with no clear purpose but to train is something that tests the resolve of even the best paid mercenaries. With no clear end in sight, Samuel Thorpe and Gail Espinoza have a call with the Perihelion HQ in Chicago. Norah Ferguson, Murdoch’s liaison and confidant promises aid and, true to her word, she and Murdoch manage to convince the U.S. Army troops to bring out their stock of various vehicles (including foreign ones) for desert training. At the same time, Ferguson, having personally flown to the U.S. base to meet with a local colonel, is seen overseeing the transfer of mysterious Perihelion hardware into the base’s bunker.
The Perihelion troops use the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the world’s most modern tech but a week into the training, a decision still has to be made. Thorpe, who is still struggling to settle in with the troops and to replace his personal items stashed in a trash dumpster behind one of Dubai’s famous skyscrapers, discusses several options with Espinoza – options that will finally decide the fate of the outfit for the time being.
And now, the continuation:
- 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?”
“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?”
“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.
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...”
“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.”
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.
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