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- 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.
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.
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?”
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.
“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...”
“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.
Campaign Choice: Modern Russian MBTs
“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.
End of Prologue, Episode 1 Begins
- 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...”
“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?
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.
“Mister Thorpe. You’re... not late, but not early. In this business, it’s the early bird that gets the worm.”
A good start.
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.
“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.
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.
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. 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.
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...”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.