by Martin Grise
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
After two weeks of physical training, the recruits were given a weekend of R&R; those who didn’t choose sleep took a bus to Boulder, where the nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and strip joints, long attuned to the Knighthawk training schedule, waited to take their money.
Ryan joined an ever-changing group of between a dozen and twenty recruits on a pub crawl, and the group drifted into an establishment called Xanadu. The club was dark: black marble, blue neon lighting, thumping synthpop; Ryan couldn’t see the entire place at once, but he could see the dimly-lit bar.
Ryan went to stand at the bar and ordered a whiskey sour. His mates shouted at each other over the music and loudly introduced themselves to the girls.
“These guys are from Knighthawk,” one of the girls said to the bartender.
“Yeah, so am I, honey, so what?” Ryan saw who was speaking so loudly: he was in casual business attire, and he looked to Ryan too pale and overweight to be an operative.
“Is this guy really a Knighthawk?” asked one of the girls. The bartender looked up and nodded.
“I’m in Administration,” said the young man.
“Don’t knock it. The pay is great.”
“What’s your job in admin?” asked one of the recruits, a big Irishman.
“I work in HR. Right now I’m doing scoring for the recruitment trials.”
“Give this man a drink on me,” said the recruit.
“Hey, thanks, my man. My name’s Dan Oversteen.”
The bartender poured a Dark and Stormy and saw Ryan’s smirk. “He sits there all night, getting free drinks during recruitment,” the bartender told him.
“How many recruits make it through selection?” asked another recruit.
“We lost half right away, and we’ll lose another two-thirds before it’s over,” said Oversteen.
Just under twenty percent, thought Ryan. Maybe sixteen or seventeen. Not good. But the odds no longer matter now that I’m here.
“We’re gonna be stars,” said a young Russian soldier. “We’re gonna be on TV.”
“A few of you will,” said Oversteen.
“It’ll be me,” the Russian promised the girls.
“They all say that,” said Oversteen.
“Somebody’s gotta make it.”
“Don’t you get to be on TV?” a girl asked Oversteen.
“Then you don’t get girls,” said the Russian.
“And what’s your name, my man?”
“Never mind that.”
“For your information, Mr. Nevermind, I’ll soon be a married man.”
“I’ll show ya what.”
Ryan ordered another whiskey, and when he looked back to the conversation, Oversteen was proudly passing around his screen and showing everyone pictures of his fiancée, named Katie. Ryan caught a glimpse. The young woman in the picture wore a lavender prom gown, her long blonde hair perfectly coiffed, flashing a huge smile and pearly teeth.
“She’s cute,” said one of the girls.
“Her daddy’s rich,” said Oversteen with a wink. “He’s the Lieutenant-Governor of the state.”
“Guess you do have some money,” said the Irishman.
“We’ll be rich soon,” scoffed the Russian. “We’ll be movie stars.”
“You might be a dead movie star,” said one of the girls.
The Russian boy laughed. “No one dies on those shows. Except the bad guys, I mean.”
“They get wounded,” said another recruit.
“Yeah, but no Knighthawk ever dies,” said the Russian.
“You don’t know that,” said a Kenyan recruit, incongruently decked out in his army’s dress uniform. “Knighthawk is a private corporation. They don’t have to report their casualties. Isn’t that right, Mr. Oversteen?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
It’s not a show, thought Ryan. The raids coming from the wastelands weren’t fake, just untelevised. The response had to be just as real. The killing is real; they just make a show out of what’s permitted to put on a screen. The firefights he had seen on the screen were intense, unless the whole thing was staged. They must be losing men out there. But Knighthawk didn’t have to talk about it at all. No PMC did.
That sobering realization, now as useless to him as the odds, was cut short by a certain visitation at the bar. This apparition — and that’s how she appeared to Ryan in the dim light — was about five and a half feet tall. She had shoulder-length jet-black hair, big black eyes, and a pair of fuzzy black cat’s ears on her head. Each nostril was pierced with a tiny silver hoop, with matching snakebites through her bright red lips.
She was wearing a black satin bra and panties under a semi-transparent bodysuit of fine black mesh, and a web of polished black leather straps, secured with silver rings, crisscrossing her curves. She pranced up to the bar in time with the music, lithe hips a-sway, eyeing the recruits and other men with a lascivious grin, ignoring the girls staring daggers into her.
The recruits watched blankly, wide-eyed, unsure if she was real, but she quickly coaxed them into flirtatious repartee. Ryan watched bemusedly as she worked her way around the bar.
“Get a load of her!” he laughed.
“That’s Kittner,” said the bartender without looking up.
Ryan was quick enough to notice what happened next. Oversteen touched his screen and nonchalantly left the bar, as if looking for the restroom. In the next moment, Kittner looked at her vibrating phone, smiled, and held out her hand to the bartender with a wink to Ryan. The bartender wordlessly handed her a passcard. Ryan saw Oversteen go up a flight of metal steps at the back of the club and, seconds later, Kittner followed.
“You guys got a room here?” he asked the bartender.
The older man smirked. “The VIP lounge. You interested?”
“One-fifty for thirty minutes.”
“Next time. I guess that guy really does make some money.”
“Yeah, and Kittner takes it. He’s here every Saturday night.”
* * *
The next six weeks surprised Ryan. While the physical training had been exhausting but simple, the next period was far more mentally challenging. Knighthawk practiced a very specialized form of urban combat, specific to its contract. That meant close-quarters battle training, more complex than in Ryan’s army days.
Knighthawk’s tactics included heavy use of breaching and demolition explosives, so recruits had to study the explosives’ effects on various building materials, as well as study basic civil engineering to ascertain where best to place charges for the desired effect, even when underwater.
There were numerous surveillance devices, designed to foil ambushes and unexpected encounters, which Ryan hadn’t encountered in the Army and now had to familiarize himself with. The company also used a complicated computerized battlefield management program for command and control; Ryan had to memorize every bell and whistle of the system.
Add to that scuba diving and small-vessel piloting, and Ryan suddenly discovered why so many recruits failed to make the cut. His high-school athletic experience hadn’t prepared him for so much bookwork, and it exhausted him far more than simple exercise. His grades slipped dangerously close to the 85 percent line.
Finally, he had to survive four weeks of graded war games, applying the theory he had learned. Ryan spent long nights reviewing procedures before heading out on the simulations.
It was in the third week of the simulations that he and his team were ordered to set an ambush for an approaching simulated enemy patrol by placing a simulated remote-detonation fragmentation charge in their path. Ryan placed the charge along a road, but the enemy arrived earlier than expected, forcing Ryan to run back quickly to cover and hurriedly “detonate” the charge. In his haste, he had forgotten to throw the second safety switch, and the simulated detonation failed. The mistake earned him a demerit he could ill afford.
Ryan fumed all night in the barracks. He calculated his score and saw that he was two points shy of passing. They had already said that there were no exceptions to the grading rules. He got up and paced outside between the tents in the moonlight, but the humid air provided no relief. It was unbearable. He’d climbed a mountain, survived four years in Oman, killed dozens of men, then wracked his brains and body for the corporation, but it still wasn’t enough. The thought that all that sacrifice should lead to failure after a single mistake in a stressful moment enraged him. What would happen to him? He’d be sent back to his hometown to find whatever work he could without professional training. He’d be just another schmuck, and Tyler would be a hero. Is this why he’d suffered through four years in Oman?
No, I’m not gonna accept this. And his mind raced, burning, smoldering, flaring, trying to wriggle off the hook. Then all at once he remembered what had happened one night in Xanadu, that discreet moment he’d filed away for the day he’d need some advantage. That was the key. Now he needed a plan to exploit the advantage, but that was the easy part. What he didn’t need was a moral excuse. His Omani instructors had already taught him to dispense with such unnecessary complications.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Martin Grise