by Martin Grise
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Number eight, Quarterback Bernie Brown!”
The homecoming crowd cheered as the high-school quarterback charged onto the field between lines of jumping cheerleaders. The Brown family was the richest in town, and Bernie was the mayor’s son. He’s not a bad quarterback, either, thought Ryan Devaney.
Ryan sat rather stiffly in his Army dress greens with his parents and sister and didn’t say much as the game progressed. The coach was the same as when he and Tyler Mount had been the wide receiver and quarterback, respectively, four years earlier. He didn’t think much of the team this year.
The guys had played with a lot more verve back then, he thought. But anyway, homecoming was always fun, with the marching band, the cheerleaders who now seemed very young and naïve, and the raucous crowd dressed in the school’s colors of red and grey. It’s just that it all seemed rather small to him this year.
Down ten rows to his right, Tyler Mount was holding court in the distinctive cobalt-blue dress uniform of Knighthawk, LLC. He had been one year ahead of Ryan at school, and they had been inseparable off the field and on. The pair had developed jocular reputations as low-grade troublemakers, pranksters, and fairly-effective charmers of girls. Both had foreseen the end of their Shangri-La at the start of Tyler’s senior year.
Career prospects in their town were bleak; most graduates left for either college or a better job market. Ryan and Tyler both considered college on football scholarships, but another dream loomed even larger: Knighthawk. Recruitment by the corporation was almost the equivalent of scoring an NFL contract.
When Tyler graduated high school, he joined the Army with the same plan as thousands of other young men around the world: to apply to Knighthawk after a four-year tour. Ryan planned to follow him. Ryan lost touch with Tyler within months of the older man’s enlistment. Ryan’s senior year of high school was rather lonely without his friend, but at least the cheerleaders wouldn’t allow a wide receiver to spend the weekends alone.
After his graduation, Ryan immediately enlisted in the Army, to his father’s pride and his mother’s great consternation, because the Climate Wars were now in full swing. All national militaries were in constant action. That suited Ryan well; he needed combat experience to apply to Knighthawk.
Now, four years later, he was sitting in the stands, his Army tour ending, and Tyler, who seemed to have forgotten him, was the town’s favorite son, the only one who had made it into Knighthawk, an almost mythological figure here. Well, he earned it, thought Ryan.
An older man walking past paused and patted Ryan on the shoulder. “Thanks for your service, son,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
His mother smiled proudly, now that her son was home safely.
Ryan suppressed a smirk. Service. The Army had been Ryan’s college, his taxpayer-funded training, and the insurgents in Oman had been his best teachers. A tough school: you had to kill your instructors to graduate. Now he had put the training to good use in the private sector. It was the country that had served him, not the reverse.
* * *
The Climate Wars were the inevitable result of ecological catastrophe in the mid-twenty-first century. Widespread drought and flooding — coupled with desertification, deforestation, and devastating hurricanes and typhoons — shattered the world’s economies and infrastructures. The resulting social upheaval begot wars, insurgencies, banditry and mass migration around the globe.
The world’s governments responded with brute force to protect both their remaining resources and their fraying social cohesion. That led to a vast increase in international private military corporations, or PMCs, to take up slack from overstretched national militaries. The PMCs hired only the finest shooters they could find and paid far better than the militaries that had trained them. With climate change expected to last for centuries, PMCs were a growth industry and a very safe investment option.
In the early years of catastrophic climate change, it was the Third World, with its poor population and vulnerable infrastructure, that suffered the most; and most transnational PMCs operated in those countries, where violence was the worst. But as conditions went from bad to worse, even Western Europe and the United States suffered serious social disruption.
Coastal cities flooded, except for wealthy urban islands, Manhattan or downtown Miami, which were surrounded by high sea walls. Less affluent coastal areas were at least partially flooded, depending on the tides. Towns and cities resembled unintentional Venices, flooded to a depth of ten feet, but with upper stories relatively intact. These low-lying communities were abandoned in the greatest demographic upheaval in American history: refugees sought new homes and jobs elsewhere, and neither was readily available.
An unforeseen complication was that the flooded urban ruins attracted groups of homeless squatters, who formed mutual-aid collectives, which mutated into violent gangs. These groups, feeling betrayed by the nation and no longer subject to its laws, raided adjacent populations, taking food, tools, and even hostages.
Criminal cartels from inland areas found the flooded wastelands a convenient and lawless hideout for drug production and storage, and often hired the gangs for protection. The U.S. military was spread across the globe, putting down insurgents and terrorists; American police forces were stretched dangerously thin, and the collapsing economy left no room for their expansion. As always, the private sector was ready to step in to make an honest dollar.
The U.S. government announced a contract for a PMC to raid into the wastelands to keep the gangs on their heels and off the exhausted police forces guarding what was left of civilization. The amount offered was insufficient to attract the attention of any established PMC. Then a new corporation, Knighthawk, LLC, became the sole bidder and winner. This confused industry watchers; surely there were more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. How was the corporation going to make a reasonable profit with such a small contract?
When Knighthawk began operations in the wastelands, each of its operatives wore body cameras and microphones; it had among its troops a number of cameramen, and camera-laden drones hovering overhead. Within a month, Knighthawk was producing a weekly TV series featuring its more swashbuckling operations, syndicated across dozens of global platforms.
The Knighthawks was, in effect, a cop show, if the cops rappelled from VTOLs onto skyscrapers to rescue hostages, or piloted mini-submarines through flooded subways to infiltrate an international terrorist cell ensconced in your former favorite neighborhood deli. With slick production, gritty, fast-paced action, an Emmy-winning soundtrack, and a warning that some viewers might find the content disturbing, the program rocketed to the top of the ratings and stayed there, year after year.
Those who attained Knighthawk’s rarified ranks were celebrities wherever they went in their globally-recognized dress uniforms. They garnered free drinks in the clubs of New York and Tokyo, the phone numbers of young women in Paris and Buenos Aires. Everyone wanted to hear glamorous stories of war and victory; and if the operative had actually appeared in an episode of the TV program, everyone wanted his autograph as well.
Knighthawks were the world’s soldier-celebrities, the new Big Thing, icons of these tumultuous times. Now young men no longer dreamt of joining Delta Force or the SAS; they all set their sights on Knighthawk, where the pay was spectacular and the fame global.
Most PMCs were known for hiring former Special Forces operatives, but that was now becoming impractical, since many of the world’s larger militaries cracked down on such poaching; it cut into their own personnel pool. Knighthawk required applicants to have only at least four years of experience with a national military, most of which had to be in a combat unit with ample trigger time. There were thousands of young men around the world with that qualification, and they flew to Knighthawk’s annual qualification trials in Colorado to make their dreams a reality, although everyone knew that only a handful could succeed.
Ryan watched his old friend from the corner of his eye and felt a slight sting. Tyler would forever be the first Knighthawk from the hometown, and Ryan could only be second, at best. But nothing about this town meant much to him anymore. Ryan wondered why Tyler even bothered to come back to this town for homecoming when he had the entire world by the balls.
I’m going to wear that uniform in three months, Ryan thought. If Tyler could do it, then so could he. He would have the uniform and all that it brought: the money and celebrity and glory. But he sure wouldn’t come back to this town; the world was too big for that.
* * *
A month later, Ryan flew to Boulder and took a bus into the mountains to attend the annual Knighthawk selection round. Applicants who passed the initial battery of tests qualified to attend the corporation’s twelve-week training course.
After passing the selection handily, Ryan found himself in a spartan tent city in a vast field before a precipitous snow-capped mountain with thousands of young men from around the world, each of them a combat veteran. They waited two days for all the new arrivals and, at dawn of the third day, assembled on the damp grass.
A company representative cordially welcomed them to the camp known affectionately as “The Ranch.” He told the applicants that, before he went into much detail about the training, he had a small favor to ask. Each man was to don a seventy-pound rucksack and hike down one of several roads through the mountains. They had three hours to complete a twelve-mile march, not one second more. Three hours later, half of the applicants were still on the roads; these were given a free Knighthawk tee shirt and sent home. Ryan was still there.
The remaining applicants were then seated in an outdoor arena, usually reserved for the Knighthawk soccer team, and congratulated on their potential. They were then given the details of the training and recruitment program. It was two weeks of physical and mental conditioning and testing, seven weeks of advanced combat training, and three weeks of simulated combat missions. Recruits would be scored on each phase, and at the end of the program, everyone with a grade of eighty-five percent or higher would be invited to sign an employment contract. The rest would be discarded.
Ryan found the first two weeks trying, but not excessive. He had been in good physical shape even before Oman, and the long patrol marches under the desert sun during his tour had hardened him even further. After two weeks, he had scored a ninety in his physical trials, which was certainly good enough, but he was irked to see other men scoring ninety-four or ninety-five percent. Coming in second irked him.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Martin Grise