The upcoming Special Operations mode continues the story of Armored Warfare, taking place two years after the conclusion of Episode 5 of the Storyline Campaign that is coming soon. Interested in finding out more about the world of Armored Warfare? This article is just for you!
New to the setting of the Armored Warfare Storyline Campaign? Please visit the following two articles first:
Campaign Introduction Summary - Andrew Clayburn, a reclusive billionaire and the owner of Clayburn Industries, a massive corporation with its own private army, discussed the events of 2039 with Strom, his soon-to-be commander of military forces. He recalls the tale of the Intervention - a 2038 and 2039 campaign of his forces, led by the elite Task Force Seahawk unit, to pacify the Balkan region and bring it under his heel. The mission goes wrong due to the incompetence of the local Clayburn Commander, Peter Clayburn, who orders the Clayburn forces to commit genocide. Unwilling to accept such an order, the Seahawks turn rogue and attempt to flee Clayburn's wrath from Zagreb to Istanbul.
It was a two hour drive from the teeming metropolis that was modern day London to the southern coast of England and by the end of the journey, sheer boredom of the cold, late autumn in the British countryside overcame Strom's initial anxiety.
Every town was the same – decrepit abandoned houses, boarded windows and the ever-present sense of hopelessness. They called the hills of England green once, he thought, but all he saw was grey. After twenty minutes, he slowly slipped into a half-sleep that was only interrupted by a nearly imperceptible shift in the hum of his car's electric engine that caught his attention.
The car slowly pulled up to a huge driveway, leading to a massive English country house. As if by a flip of a switch, the anxiety was instantly back. He knew how few people received this opportunity. Ever since he had received the unexpected invitation three days ago, he had been thinking about what to say. He was still thinking about it as he stepped out of the car into the cold, windy evening.
The air smelled of sea – a clear, salty scent, not the toxic garbage he was used to from London. He stopped for a few seconds, enjoying the feeling until a discreet cough from a nearby guard waiting to accompany him ended his reverie.
The house was surrounded by dozens of men. Some patrolling the vast gardens while several armor-clad heavy troops stood near the entrance, watching for a possible intruder. Nothing would get past them without their master's permission. Strom pulled his black uniform closer to his body as he walked the few steps from the car to the manor.
The inside of the house was as he had expected – a large number of hunting trophies adorned the walls and the footsteps of his and his guard's heavy military boots echoed through the vast entry hall. Most of the trophies had to be very old he pondered as he followed the guard to what he expected would be some sort of meeting room. There were no deer in Britain's forests anymore.
As he and his silent guard companion made their way into the massive building, he started to hear echoing music. The music got louder as they continued their journey through long halls and large rooms filled with all kinds of antique furniture until they arrived to a massive library. The slow, chilly sound of an electric guitar solo originated from a modern-looking gramophone in the middle of the room, right next to a sofa where an old man sat with his eyes closed.
The guard saluted and left, his departure only announced by the sound of the closing door behind them. Strom was not sure what to do, so he just stood there and glanced occasionally at the man on the sofa until his presence was acknowledged by a brief nod and a finger pointed to a nearby chair. Strom sat down.
Andrew Clayburn was a well-built man in his sixties. Strom tried to think of the best word to describe him, but all he could come up with was "unassuming". The only truly distinctive part of Clayburn's face was a major scar under his right eye. There was otherwise nothing pointing to the fact that Strom was sitting in a room with one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet. Very little was publicly known about Clayburn apart from his obvious role as the owner and head of Clayburn Industries, Strom's employer. There were the official photographs, but the real Clayburn looked nothing like them.
Clayburn was a legend, a self-made man who had built an industrial empire on the ashes of old world companies. Millions lived under the watchful eye of his private military force.
Private Military Force. The term was still used, as far as Strom knew, but in a world where private armies dwarfed those of many a country, it felt obsolete.
"Pink Floyd", said Clayburn.
Strom was caught off guard.
Clayburn pointed at the gramophone. Strom frowned.
"Sorry sir. Never heard of him."
Clayburn responded with a quiet chuckle as he reached out to the device and stopped the record.
"I suppose you wouldn't have. The whole album is about madness, the futility of life and existential anxiety. Not the kind of music they would play on corporate radio. But it's a mad world, out there, so it is quite fitting."
Clayburn waved his hand in the window's general direction.
"Don't you think?"
Strom felt Clayburn's piercing blue eyes study him and realized that he was being tested. He settled for a diplomatic answer – his belief was that soldiers were there to obey, not to question. Still, he felt he was expected to respond with something more than a simple 'Yes sir.' He took a short while to collect his thoughts.
"Perhaps somewhere. The world Clayburn Industries controls is in order."
Another chuckle. Now it was Clayburn's turn to pause a while before he responded.
"What if I told you that if you told someone two decades ago that people would be voluntarily giving up all their rights for the secure future of a corporate indentured contractor, everyone would laugh at you?”
Strom frowned again.
"They receive food, clothing and protection from the company. Everything they need. Better than to starve on the street."
"And yet, back then, nobody was starving. At least not here. It's easy to talk about rights when your neighborhood is safe and your belly is full."
Clayburn replied slowly, keeping his eyes on Strom.
Strom was a young man in his twenties. He only barely remembered the riots. He was but a child back then and did not understand what had happened and when he was old enough the teacher at the corporate school he attended wouldn't delve much into such topics. After all, the corporation provided all he and his parents needed – food, clothing and medicine for his mother. Strom felt genuinely grateful.
When he turned 18, he immediately entered the military division of Clayburn Industries and quickly rose through the ranks by his wits and loyalty. It was as it should be, he thought, a lifetime of his service for the company that provided for him and his kin.
"It's certainly better than the alternative, sir. Considering how the American south ended."
"Indeed..." Clayburn's voice trailed off, his eyes focused on something only he could see. When he finally continued, the shift in topic and the change in his voice indicated that he was finally getting to the true reason of the meeting.
"You are a smart man, which is why I assume you know why you are here."
Strom immediately straightened his back.
"I believe it has much to do with the Intervention and what followed, sir."
"Yes. We need loyal people now more than ever. You are to assume command of our reformed expeditionary forces. But before we proceed..." he paused, "you need to hear the whole story."
A maid entered with a tray of sandwiches and a teapot with two cups. She left them on the table and scurried away. Clayburn reclined on his sofa as he began to explain.
"It all started with Blackwood."
"As you know, it did not start as we had hoped," said Clayburn, his eyes focused on the cup of tea he was pouring himself.
They were all alone, the guards dismissed and the maids sent home. The whole house felt empty, as if something was missing. Too big a mansion for one person, Strom pondered – too clean, like it was only a stage set for some dramatic play he was now a part of. He forced himself to return his focus to Clayburn, who had just finished pouring milk into his Earl Grey.
"Local rebels made good advances in the first few days. Hajduks," Clayburn spat the word out with disdain, "they called themselves. They took Vukovar, Vinkovci and Osijek. Add the Lodestar meddling to that and we were in a world of trouble. Luckily for us, Erika once again decided to support groups that the rebels hated as much as us. Take Ali Fikret’s band for example."
"The butcher of Derventa."
"The one and only," Clayburn chuckled.
"We received reliable intel that the rebels called off several attacks against our forces only to let us wipe out his group to a man when his forces finally retreated north. Of course, the rebels claimed the victory – they dislodged him from Derventa after all – and with the support of local communes and leaders, including some high-profile members of the former governments of the region, their numbers swelled."
"But, sir, didn't the governments support our takeover?"
Clayburn's frown was almost imperceptible, but Strom noticed and knew he had just made a mistake.
"I expect you to be better informed than this. These... alternative facts are intended for our news networks, not for operatives with clearance as high as yours," said Clayburn before pausing to sip his tea.
"Regardless, the rebels almost overran our command center at one point – the staff escaped only because they let them."
"Why indeed," Clayburn replied, his eyebrows raised. Another test. Strom closed his eyes for a moment and focused before replying.
"Until that point, the entire operation had effectively been a police action. Was it to become anything else, we'd have to petition international organizations, but, in the end, this would only have been a bureaucratic obstacle for us. On the other hand, our units were under the general command of your nephew, Peter. Had he been captured or killed, they knew we'd never let it go and it was ultimately their land the war would ravage. Or so they thought."
Clayburn nodded absent-mindedly, suddenly lost in thought. After several minutes of silence, Strom dared to add.
"Peter has always been a brave man I've heard."
Clayburn frowned again. Another mistake.
"He was an idiot and an incompetent commander. He got his promotion based not on his merit but his name. A name does not a hero make and I should have paid more attention to family matters."
"I only meant..."
"It's alright. You didn't know. You couldn't have – in fact, that's one of the reasons why you are here. But tell me – do you know how Peter reacted to the situation?"
"He petitioned you to call in the Crimson Reavers."
Clayburn's face contorted into a sneer of disapproval.
"Indeed. Violence – that was his only response, instead of asking the right questions."
"But you denied his request."
"Why? He could have used reinforcements. Any reinforcements. We had a whole brigade ready in Bielefeld."
"Now that, my dear Strom, is the right question."
- Frankfurt, May 25 2039
The air smelled of rain, ozone and something else – that strange something only a late spring thunderstorm can deliver. As expected, the man nodded to himself. The drop in temperature triggered by the storm front didn’t bother him.
He looked up towards the high-rise. Up there, dozens of meters above him, a woman was running for her life.
He had dispatched her protectors quickly enough. His drug-enhanced physique and skills honed far beyond the level of simple corporate drones allowed him to cut through them like a hot knife through butter, leaving only bodies in his wake – some still twitching but none alive. As he entered the penthouse lobby, he saw her shadow, a blur running towards the final staircase that would take her to the roof, to the helicopter waiting for her, to safety. Or so she thought.
Two more guards appeared, shouting something in German. He gunned them down without a second thought. Quickly surveying the large room with the single glance of a true professional, he made his way towards the stairs where he had earlier seen his target. One man's escape route is another man's trap, he thought, amused by the prospect of her finding out that she just ran into his. There was no rush, their fates were both sealed now.
The well-oiled doors opened quietly as he stepped out into the rain and slowly walked towards the empty helipad, a pistol in his hand. She was there, just as he expected, looking out into the storm for a salvation that would not come.
She turned to him and said something but he didn't hear her over the sound of thunder. The downpour drenched her expensive outfit and destroyed her make-up, making her look... weak, he thought. He had seen her before of course, usually on a big screen talking to corporate masses like a queen of old. Not so regal now are we, he thought.
She pulled out a small handgun and fired at him several times. Not that such a weapon would penetrate his body armor, but hitting a person even at ten meters in pouring rain and when your life is on the line is far more difficult than it appears. She managed to fire off three shots before he closed in and grabbed her by the throat. She dropped the gun and tried to say something, but his iron grip prevented her from finishing a single word.
With a single motion, he threw her off the pad ledge and watched her body plummet into the misty depths below him. It almost felt wrong for so much power to end like this, he thought. But even the mightiest fall – sometimes quite literally. His soft chuckle at that final joke ended with a fit of wet coughing.
And then it was all over. He fell to his knees as the numerous gunshot wounds that riddled his dying body finally overcame his iron will. He expected his last thoughts to be of childhood, but there was just a feeling of overwhelming weariness – and then, only darkness.
- Sarajevo, May 26 2039
"With the sudden death of Erika Schepke, the future of Lodestar GmbH remains uncertain. The shareholders..."
With a sigh, Vujic switched off the TV and dropped the remote control he was holding to the ground. He was tired, so incredibly tired. When the news came about the Reds retreating, he suddenly felt empty, the rage of the last few weeks began to dissipate. They had Clayburn and Lodestar running, their proxies annihilated and much of their resources either captured or destroyed. But at what cost, he thought, slowly opening his eyes and looking around the apartment he had found abandoned.
The flat had clearly belonged to an old woman once – there were old photos hanging around the walls, as faded as the memories that lingered in this place. There were knitted covers everywhere and he couldn't help thinking back to his own childhood, his grandmother knitting, always ready to offer him something to eat, claiming that he was "too thin." He smiled to himself – back then he found the constant offers of food annoying. But his grandmother had seen war and only now, thirty years later, did he realize she'd been onto something. Picking himself up, he strolled aimlessly, touching the dust-covered items left behind by whoever had called this place home. More rest would do me good, he finally decided, but his plans were interrupted by a knock at the door.
He turned towards it, his hand reaching for his pistol almost instinctively, but it was just his deputy commander. Dressed in an old and torn Serbian uniform, the man nodded at him and sat down on an old chair behind Vujic. He took a swig from a flask of beer he had brought with him and said:
"Talked to Dragomir. The Tihina boys are leaving and they are taking some supplies with them. There was a scuffle about that earlier but we managed to prevent any...", he paused, "unnecessary violence."
His emphasis on the word "unnecessary" made Vujic sigh in exasperation. He knew exactly what it meant.
"It's already falling apart, isn't it?"
A statement rather than an actual question.
"With Tihina gone, the Czechs, Polish and everyone else not directly tied to the cause will want their own piece of the pie", Vujic continued, more to himself than anyone else.
"We knew that this would happen eventually, but, for once, I'd have loved a week off", Vujic smiled sadly, "but the truth is that we need a new cause to at least control the descent into anarchy."
The other man smiled.
"And we might have just that. We just received an emissary from Clayburn. Not one of the local boys, an officer directly from London."
"Seems like some of his boys are going rogue. He wants us to take care of it. There's your cause, along with a nice heap of credits."
"Why would the Reds want us to clean up their mess? They have their own lapdogs to take care of such things."
The other man smiled.
"Do we really care? We crushed them. Picking off a few stragglers for extra cash sounds like good deal to me. Plus, we'll be able to hold this shitshow together for a while longer. Maybe convince more people to stay. Either way, it's a win for us."
Vujic kept frowning, unconvinced.
"You know I hate being a corporate puppet, Dimitar. We did not lose thousands of men to corporate drones only to do their bidding again as soon as the fighting stops."
"We are not doing their bidding. For the first time, we are being treated as partners. As equals. Isn't that what you wanted all along?"
"Hm," Vujic grunted, "Let's talk to this emissary of theirs."
Episode 1 Summary - the fleeing Seahawks take losses from both the pursuing Clayburn forces and the local militias, but manage to reach Istanbul. The wily Seahawk commander, Adrian Blackwood, employs the service of an experienced mercenary commander Fyodor Sokolov, thanks to whose contacts in Istanbul the Seahawks are able to secure transportation. Unfortunately, the only form of transportation able to carry the Seahawk armored vehicles is an old and expensive mercenary flight of C-17 cargo planes without sufficient range to take them away from Clayburn's influence. An alternative plan is made - to travel instead to Cairo and from there to an abandoned American military base where a functional ship is waiting for them.
- Zagreb, May 25 2039
The temporary command post was located just outside of the city amidst the ruins of what once had been a beautiful suburban area. The sapphire sky, the sweet smell of acacias and the songs of birds, oblivious to the carnage below, made the place feel almost idyllic.
The district had been a home to many once, a long time ago – but massive recession and the everlasting conflict drove its inhabitants away to seek their fortune in the arms of world's greedy corporations. A generation, born free but destined to die as slaves in all but name.
The bright colors of late spring contrasted with the decaying house ruins, the debris lying everywhere that nobody had bothered to clean for many long years and the dour faces of men in Clayburn uniforms, carrying large unmarked boxes and loading them on trucks. The evacuation was in full swing – such was the price of defeat, Seagrove thought sadly.
He passed Major Kathryn Grey, sitting on her tank, staring blankly into the distance. The sight of someone else he knew was sharing his misery somehow lifted his spirits a bit.
"Kate!" he shouted.
"I hate when you call me that and you know it", she responded with a serious face, but he recognized faint traces of a smile behind her expression.
"That I do. Still waiting for the boss?"
Any traces of amusement disappeared from her face. She nodded.
"He's late. It's not like him. And that Clayburn whelp is just looking for someone to pin the blame on."
He glanced towards the command tent, erected between two walls of a ruined house – right on time to notice Blackwood approaching with a grim expression on his face. Seagrove liked the man. Blackwood knew when to push and when to let things slide. He was a stocky man of an undetermined age – perhaps in his late fifties, Seagrove guessed. His hair was grey and his round rather jovial face usually carried a sly smile. Not today though.
Blackwood waved at them both and Seagrove went to join him. Behind him, Grey jumped down from her vehicle as he approached the tent entrance.
The inside was hot. The stale air smelled of dust and sweat despite the valiant efforts of a small air conditioning unit, trying to keep the inside cold while being woefully inadequate for such a job. There must be a parallel there, Seagrove thought, as he followed Blackwood towards the main operations table where the author of this disaster stood, his hands behind his back, watching them. His impatience was palpable.
Peter Clayburn was, if the official Andrew Clayburn photograph was to be believed, nothing like his uncle. Around 25 years old, he was tall but his almost black hair, the shape of his dark brown eyes and his tanned skin hinted at southern origin.
His visage was, of course, not the only thing that separated him from his uncle – where Andrew Clayburn was known to possess calm intelligence, his nephew was prone to rash decisions and Seagrove often wondered how he had found himself in a commanding position. Were one of his subordinates to behave like that, he'd never even consider promoting him.
"Blackwood," said Peter Clayburn finally.
"At your command."
Knowing the man better than most people, Seagrove felt that he recognized a trace of sarcasm in the response, but Blackwood kept his expression neutral.
"I'll be brief, Blackwood. You failed me. When I received word that my Uncle Andrew personally recommended you, I expected more. My report on your performance will not be flattering."
What a pompous prick, Seagrove thought, but Blackwood's face was still perfectly neutral. He suddenly felt Grey's tension behind him.
Clayburn continued: "I have one last task for you. We'll leave this hole with a present they won't soon forget. We've received some intelligence that families of high-ranking Hajduk terrorists are holed up in the town of Samobor, some 20 clicks west from here."
He paused to check his tablet. After a short while, he nodded.
"Go. Take the Seahawks and level it to the ground. No quarter. They need to learn not to mess with us."
With that, he picked up the tablet again and started scrolling through the rows of tactical information. After a few seconds, he glanced up from his work.
Seagrove felt in shock. He turned back to see Grey stare at him with the same horror and disbelief reflecting on her face that he felt. He often wondered later on whether the word he had heard next was one of the bravest or one of the most terrifying things he had ever heard.
Now it was Clayburn's turn to stare at Blackwood incredulously.
"I won't carry out that order."
Clayburn continued to stare at Blackwood in disbelief before he roared. The reaction was so violent that, over the shock from the situation, Seagrove couldn't help but wonder whether the man in front of him was actually sane.
"I am the commander here! You do as I say, Blackwood! One call to my uncle and you are dead. Your entire family is dead. I'll brand your unit traitors and we'll hunt them down like dogs. You didn't fight hard enough, but you did put your men above my orders because you thought you knew better. That ends now. No more compromises."
By now, Peter Clayburn was actually shouting. When Blackwood responded, it wasn't an angry roar of a lion but rather a hiss of a snake, silent but equally as deadly.
"Listen to me, boy, and listen well. I've been carving empires since before you were born. You throw the name of your uncle around, but you haven't even met him in your life. I have, he is a formidable man and you are nothing like him. Now, rescind that order, accept your defeat gracefully and maybe you can salvage this whole mess to your benefit."
Blackwood paused to regain his composure before he continued.
"Peter, if we do this, there will be no going back. We will never establish a foothold in the region. Let me reach out to your uncle, we can find a solution together."
Right then, at that moment, Seagrove realized that Blackwood had just made a terrible mistake. He watched Clayburn's face turned red.
"You dare think you know better what my uncle wants than his own blood?!"
Even Blackwood seemed to be taken aback by the rage in Clayburn's voice.
"You have one hour, Blackwood. One hour to depart and execute my orders. If you don't, don't bother returning here. I will find you myself."
Another wave of shock washed over Seagrove. This can't be happening. As if in a dream, both Seagrove and Grey followed Blackwood out of the tent until they were too far from anyone there to overhear then.
"Well then," Blackwood said, smiling suddenly. "Our bags are already packed. I heard Istanbul is nice this time of the year."
Once again, Seagrove just stared at him in disbelief. Grey suddenly yelled out:
"You knew this would happen? How? What did we just witness? The outrage? Was that all an act? I don't understand..."
Blackwood turned serious again.
"I knew because Clayburn had ordered another unit to carry out that command last night and they too went rogue. We'll be meeting them on the way. We're not murderers, Kathryn. Well, most of us aren't," he smiled sadly.
"We'll give our people a choice, which is more than what Clayburn gave us. Some will stay. Some will follow. I don't know about you, but I've had enough of this place."
- Somewhere on the road to Istanbul, June 5 2039
The last part of the convoy was slowly moving through the countryside – heavy haulers followed by the rear-guard host under Sergeant Mourois, sitting on top of his Stryker as if he didn’t have a worry in the world, a cigarette barely hanging from his lips. Seagrove knew this was how the man coped with the danger they were in, the air of calmness a cover for the pressure they were all under.
The worst fighting was behind them, it seemed. Two days ago, they tricked a Clayburn convoy into a clash with one of the local militias and managed to gain considerable distance from their pursuers while they were busy shooting at each other. They were, however, not out of the woods yet. Both proverbial and literal, Seagrove thought, looking around at the forest-covered hills surrounding the road the convoy was moving on.
Major Grey was sitting on top of her tank as usual, an unlit cigarette in her mouth, checking her pockets for a lighter. Seagrove frowned. He never knew her to be a smoker, yet here she was, trying to pick up the habit many men under their command had a hard time dropping. Cigarettes were rare these days.
He caught up to the trailer on which her tank was fastened simply by running. Another problem – they moved way too slow. Hopefully they would pick up the pace down the road. Wordlessly, he sat next to her and offered her his zippo. She looked up in surprise.
“You smoke, Josh?”
“Nope. But as my old man told me once, a man needs to carry only three things to make in the world. A pen, a lighter and a pack of condoms.”
She spat out with laughter, the cigarette falling from her lips straight into the open turret hatch of her tank. A muffled curse was heard from the inside as one of Grey’s crewmembers saw the cigarette and thought that it was lit.
“Goddamn it. Now you owe me a cig,” she frowned but the mock anger never reached her blue eyes.
They sat there, enjoying the view of the countryside, the earthly smell only a late spring can deliver and each other’s company. Closing your eyes, he thought, you’d never be able to tell that there’s a war going on. After a while, she broke the silence.
“Do you think we’ll make it?”
Despite her unchanged expression, he felt that this time, the question was dead serious.
“Sure. There’s always someone willing to sell something in Istanbul. And we took a whole pile of Clayburn’s credit chits. The old man will pay for our transportation and then some,” he grinned.
Certain sadness crept into her eyes.
“Did I ever tell you how I got to Europe in the first place?”
He raised his eyebrows and glanced at her. She never talked about her past and everyone who knew her knew better than to pry. The question was a rhetorical one and they both knew that. There was another long pause before she continued. “I was eighteen when I was sent here. God, I can’t believe it’s been more than a decade already”, she sighed.
“We were first sent to the El Arish base in North Africa.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t have I suppose,” she said with a sad smile. “It went defunct shortly after I passed through it. But you wouldn’t believe the amount of traffic. The might of the United States at the height of its power. It made us all proud. And then it went all to shit.”
He nodded. For him, the decline of the United States was something he had seen on television, something that could now be found in history book at the end, the “fall of an Empire” chapter. For her, it was personal. A chain of historical events crammed into two decades of her life, tearing her apart as only a slow destruction of the country you grew up loving can.
After another brief pause, he somehow felt that she was ready to talk further.
“Tell me about El Arish.”
The journey across Serbia into Bulgaria proved treacherous with signs of Hajduk internal strife and fragmentation more and more obvious as the Seahawks made their way across the war-torn country. Small groups of Hajduks harassed them until they reached Belgrade, where a commandeered cargo train took them further south, towards Niš, Pirot and, finally, Sofia and Istanbul.
Even from the train, further decay of the broken country was obvious. In the aftermath of the Clayburn and Lodestar intervention, wide swathes of the countryside were devastated by conflict with burned-out wrecks of military vehicles a common sight. Whole districts of cities were reduced to rubble under the merciless onslaught of all three sides with the fighting fiercest where brother fought brother in a cruel re-enactment of the Yugoslav civil war more than four decades earlier.
The Seahawks lost a several vehicles to skirmishes and ambushes and were only able to recover them shortly prior to their departure south, leaving them salvaged but unrepaired, a dead weight that some members of the group argued for leaving behind. Blackwood refused all such requests and the mechanics worked around the clock to keep them operational with what little they had. Despite the effort, two Abrams tanks had proved irrecoverable.
Occasional firefights erupted every few days between local militias and the Seahawks – luckily for them, various militia groups and warbands were interested in fighting each other as they were fighting the fleeing Seahawks and their willingness to engage the Seahawks in battle was lower with every passing day, Seahawk victory and escaped ambush.
The unit reached the Bulgarian border near Dimitrovgrad in relatively good order with few losses. Several wounded men and women were, along with sufficient funds, left in the local hospital. And on the Bulgarian border, they found an unlikely ally.
- Dimitrovgrad, June 16 2039
The place was really clean for a bar, Seagrove thought, as he entered the establishment with Blackwood. The cozy wooden walls were decorated with old, faded photos of men in a motley collection of uniforms, long since dead. Blackwood caught him staring at the pictures.
“Some things never change.”
Looking around the bar, Seagrove had to agree. He passed a couple of Bulgarian paramilitaries wearing Tihina colors and sat with Blackwood down at an ancient-looking plain wooden table, a network of scars and etches on its surface reflecting the place’s colorful history. The man across the table didn’t even look up, fully focused on peeling the red apple with his old pocket knife. His nondescript military uniform, albeit patched on several places, was kept meticulously clean, the sidearm lying on the table in front of him well-oiled and ready to use. His stern face did not express any emotions.
The man continued to ignore him, his focus solely on the piece of fruit in his hand, as if it was the most important thing in the entire universe. After a brief pause, Blackwood continued.
“We’d like to hire your services.”
Again, no reaction.
“We pay cash.”
The man carefully slicked a piece of his now fully peeled apple and started chewing on it, finally looking Blackwood in the eyes.
“And just what do you need me and Finist for?”
“Finist?” Seagrove asked.
“We heard that you are the man to talk to when it comes to business in Istanbul. And that you hate Clayburn.”
Sokolov gave Blackwood a long, appraising look before he finally nodded.
“Come in the evening. We will discuss details.”
Blackwood nodded, ready to leave, but Seagrove frowned, unimpressed by what he perceived as aloof behavior.
“I have to ask. Why Finist? Why name a tank after a fairy tale? Isn’t that a bit childish?”
Sokolov’s face immediately hardened, his eyes narrowed.
“You are young. Let me give you a piece of advice. For free. Never mock anyone’s culture. It is the key to every man’s...” he struggled for a short while to find the right expression. “True self.”
“Even fairy tales?”
“Especially fairy tales”, Sokolov concluded, waving his hand dismissively, once again fully focused on his apple.
- Near Istanbul, June 29 2039
The journey across Bulgaria was mostly uneventful with Sokolov’s influence buying them enough time to reach Istanbul in one piece. Now, the City of Mercenaries stood before them in all its glory.
Seagrove was fascinated by the striking contrast between the outskirts poverty and the wealth of the downtown skyline, millions of lights turning even the darkest night into day even as the outlying areas drowned in darkness.
Such was the wealth of corporations, he thought, as he sat on a rock near his tank, admiring the sunrise. The first sun’s crimson reflecting on the towers of glass and metal made it look like the entire horizon was on fire.
It was a breathtaking sight, yet Seagrove’s mind was racing with worries. The truth was that it was a miracle they made it this far. His combat leadership combined with Sokolov’s contacts brought them here, but the near future depended on Blackwood’s ability to secure the passage in a city full of hostile corporations that now considered them outlaws. Direct violence was prohibited within the city limits and the city itself acted as a safe haven to all but the worst of criminals, but Blackwood’s and Sokolov’s skills would be tested to the limit to keep them from obtaining that particular brand.
He nearly jumped in surprise when Sokolov suddenly sat next to him with a cup of coffee in his hand. A wide grin appeared on his face as he noticed Seagrove’s discomfort.
“You should not let anyone sneak up on you, my friend.”
“We’re friends now?”
Sokolov grinned again.
“No. It’s just something people say.”
The grin faded as he patted his pockets. Finally he found a half-empty pack of cigarettes. Methodically, as if it was the most important thing in the world, he pulled one out and lit it with a lighter he stored in the same pack. The acrid smell of low-quality cigarette smoke filled the air. Almost as an afterthought, Sokolov offered the pack to Seagrove, who just shook his head.
The silence dragged on with both men just admiring the view. Seagrove finally turned towards the other man.
Sokolov raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Why did you join Blackwood? It wasn’t just for the credits.”
Sokolov turned away, gazing towards the horizon, the cigarette limp on his lips. Seagrove was about to pick himself up and leave, not expecting to receive an answer, but Sokolov gestured for him to stay. When he finally started talking, his response caught Seagrove off-guard.
“Tell me. What is history?”
Seagrove frowned, unsure as to what to reply.
“History is history. Everything that happened.”
“No. History is just a collection of stories people tell. And I happen to like stories. I was there when the Hellhounds fell and when the Remnant took their revenge before retreating east. Good stories, those.”
“But what does that have to do with us?”
Sokolov finished smoking his cigarette and looked up, exhaling the last breath of smoke against the ruby sky.
“I have a feeling your story will be a good one.”
- Istanbul, July 3 2017
The old warehouse was dark and damp – just the kind of environment all kinds of scum thrive on, Blackwood thought as he once again wondered if the whole plan of his was actually a good idea. Perhaps it was too complex after all. Plans within plans, layers of secrecy and deception, all of that to keep his enemies at bay.
But, he told himself, this was what he lived for – to see his carefully laid plan come to fruition. He had lived through a tumultuous time and simple fighting did not excite him anymore. But this... this was another game entirely.
He smiled at the man next to him. For all his wisdom and experience, Sokolov didn’t look through his ruse. Not yet. He might eventually, but if that ever came to pass, Blackwood would be ready. Sokolov was a practical man – he would come around. The other two, however, were a different story. Seagrove was smart but young and naive and Grey was just too embittered. Besides, he knew her secret – there was very little Blackwood didn’t know.
His line of thought was interrupted by the arrival of the person they were both waiting for. A small, shifty man of middle-eastern descent was carefully approaching them, his eyes darting around, looking for danger lurking in the shadows. He’d find none – Blackwood made sure they weren’t followed and Sokolov bribed a few local boys to keep an eye out for trouble.
Sokolov came forward first and extended his arm in greeting. Blackwood followed his lead.
“Ahmed. A pleasure.”
He turned towards Blackwood.
“Adrian, this is Ahmed Ibrahim, an old partner of mine.”
The other man only nodded and shook their hands. His grip was weak and his palms sweaty – he was clearly nervous and only the prospect of a lucrative deal, offered on Seahawk’s behalf by Sokolov, drew him out into this open. However, appearances can be deceptive, Blackwood reminded himself and the idea amused him greatly. He had to suppress the urge to grin. In Ibrahim’s case, it certainly was mostly deception – nobody would expect such a diminutive man to be one of the most important middlemen in Istanbul.
Ibrahim shifted his attention to Sokolov and smiled nervously for the first time. A brilliant act, Blackwood was sure, honed to perfection.
“Glad to see you again, effendi.”
Sokolov smiled in return so genuinely that Blackwood thought whether he had underestimated the old commander after all.
After a few more pleasantries, the three men sat on the dusty crates that littered the decrepit warehouse – despite being dressed in a light suit, Ibrahim didn’t seem to mind the dirt, a sign of wealth, Blackwood decided. Or yet another act.
“So, to business then. You, gentlemen, and your people need to get out of Istanbul. Fast. The word’s already out on the street about what happened. Despite this city’s... how shall I put it,” Ibrahim waved his hand dismissively, “official neutrality, Clayburn holds tremendous influence all over Europe, even here. It’s only a question of time before he gets the Corporate Council to vote for your expulsion.”
“You are, after all, renegades,” he smiled apologetically.
“Fair enough, that’s why we are here. We have money and we need ships. Enough to move us to the Mediterranean and across the ocean.”
Ibrahim barked with laughter.
“Effendi, you might as well wish for a unicorn.”
Sokolov frowned and it took Blackwood a lot of effort not to show his disappointment.
“Come on, Ahmed. I know you can do better than that. You have that kind of reputation.”
Once again, Ibrahim glanced around to make sure they were alone.
“Nobody will deal with outlaws, Fyodor, you know that. Not officially, anyway, but the nasty business in the Balkans keeps all the captains on edge. And nobody wants to get on Clayburn’s bad side; such people have a nasty habit of disappearing. You heard about Lodestar, I presume?”
Both men nodded. Ibrahim shook his head with mock sadness.
“Nasty business that. Sending an assassin so juiced up on combat cocktail that even a private army couldn’t stop him, a bad way to go. And that was Lodestar’s own HQ – who knows what can happen in Istanbul.”
The three men sat in silence for a while, pondering the information. Blackwood frowned to himself. Yes. That was the thing about the terror tactics employed by the Clayburn Corporation. They worked. Finally, Ibrahim broke the silence.
“There might be a way though.”
“Back in better days, Turkey used to be a powerful ally of the United States. There was a large military base. Abandoned now, of course, like so many others.”
The sun was already high in the sky and the warehouse was warming up rather quickly. Ibrahim wiped his brow with a handkerchief before continuing.
“I happen to know a few gentlemen who managed to salvage some valuable equipment from there. Including a rather large number of C-17 planes.”
Sokolov was about to say something but Ibrahim stopped him with a raised hand.
“I offer no guarantee that they will listen or agree to anything, but a pile of credits might change their minds. A very, very large pile of credits,” he concluded and gave Blackwood an important look.
Sokolov kept frowning.
“That’s no good. Even at their best, these planes don’t have the range we need to get away from Clayburn’s influence. Half of Africa is in his pocket, or another corporation. The world is a small place to hide.”
“It’s either that or nothing, effendi.”
“Hmm... I think I might have an idea,” said Blackwood with a thoughtful expression, finally nodding to himself.
“I’ve heard of another abandoned base in Sinai. I’ll have to ask my people. But for now... we have a deal, mister Ibrahim.”
“Excellent. I will contact you as soon as I know something.”
He extended his hand. They shook it and the meeting was concluded. Ibrahim slid down from the crate, once again oblivious to the state of his suit, and, despite its white color, disappeared into the shadows in the last act of showmanship.
As they headed out through the door, they heard his voice echo through the room for the last time.
“Oh and gentlemen? Please try not to die until then.”
Episode 2 Summary - the Seahawks make it to Cairo but are ambushed upon landing by Clayburn's allies. Hurting and without resources, Adrian Blackwood splits his forces into two parts. Him and a couple of men successfully assaults the Al-Arish military base, while Kathryn Grey and Joshua Seagrove scavenge the desert for resources. Kathryn Grey's brutal tactics turn local mercenaries against them and even though the resources for the journey are successfully collected, the Seahawks turned the whole region hostile.
- Cairo, July 15, 2039
They landed after sunset. The blaze of the Egyptian sun in July gave way to the stifling, humid heat. Below them, Cairo sparkled like a million jewels scattered across the land – the cradle of many civilizations shining undiminished into the night.
The journey, to their surprise, was completely uneventful. There were few organized air forces left operational in the world and they did not stray eastward enough to provoke the anger of one of the last nations left standing in the region – Israel. Nobody was foolish enough to mess with the Israelis, an unwritten rule of the mercenary and corporate world.
Egypt too, still formally existed as a sovereign nation, but the droughts and subsequent famine of the early 2030s made it nearly completely dependent on food imports, for which the once proud country was forced to pay with land, freedoms and produce. Even now, Cairo was the seat of several large north-African corporation branches, the chief amongst them being Suez Incorporated, one of the major Clayburn Industries trade partners.
Seagrove sighed at the thought. If Clayburn hadn’t known that they escaped him from Istanbul, he surely knew by now.
In the end, Ibrahim came through and managed to convince the leader of the Black Eagles, the company that owned a number of C-17 planes, to carry them across the sea, but the price was steep and left the already struggling Seahawks with dangerously low reserves. Food and fuel were to be had in Cairo, but one must have Credits for that and Credits were one thing that the Seahawks currently lacked.
To solve the unfavorable situation, an equally difficult decision was made by Adrian Blackwood to ditch the unit’s remaining Leopards tanks and all support vehicles. A considerable portion of Seahawk men chose to remain in Istanbul as free mercenaries and with the Seahawk strength reduced to less than 300 men, there was nobody to operate that many trucks and combat vehicles anyway. The Leopard 2 tanks bore the brunt of the battle during the escape from the Balkans and were worn out with little prospect of finding the needed amount of spare parts south or west of Europe.
The American vehicles, however, were still in use in northern Africa after the massive sales of the late 2010s before the economic collapse in the region. The plan, therefore, was to take the Stryker fire support vehicles, Bradleys, and the Abrams tanks to Cairo with the hope of purchasing spare parts, trucks, and supplies after the whole operation.
They realized the plan failed after the planes had landed under the cover of the night only to be immediately attacked on the ground by the Cairo airport security – the same security Ibrahim had assured them could be bribed to look away while the whole unit mustered and headed out. They must want them really badly, Seagrove thought grimly. The trap was well-prepared too – the C-17s had to make several trips to haul the entire unit across the sea and the security forces, bolstered with several heavy vehicles, waited until everyone was on the ground. Luckily for the Seahawks, the level of training the security forces had was far below their own and the assault was repelled, although not without losses.
The C-17 pilots immediately bolted – in fact not a single shot was fired at them during their take-off. Perhaps this whole thing was a complicated set-up by Clayburn? Or perhaps Ibrahim had double-crossed them? After all, staying in Istanbul as a designated corporate enemy was not good for business, or health. Seagrove shook his head as he watched the men and women huddled around a table in one of the airport hangars. The wrecks of the security force vehicles were smoldering outside and the bodies of the men were being piled up by the bloodied and dirty Seahawks. Everyone around the table bore some kind of light wound, a testament of the battle’s ferocity. Blackwood, seemingly unfazed by the whole ordeal, just started to explain the next phase of the operations. Numb from the tiredness, Seagrove forced himself to focus.
“....and after this warm welcome, we can’t stay in Cairo for long. We’re leaving a few men under the command of commander Sokolov,” he nodded at the man next to him who had the same air of calmness as him, “to gather as many supplies as we can and get the lay of the land. The rest of us will head out east. The tanks won’t last long in the sand, don’t push them too hard. “
The others nodded, but Kathryn Grey asked what seemed to have been on everyone’s mind.
“What about the supplies? We need more water, food, fuel, everything. Even if we make it to the El Arish, we don’t even know who’s currently there.”
“First things first. Our friends,” he raised his eyebrows and everyone chuckled a bit, “provided us with some trucks.”
He looked around and continued.
“This airport hasn’t been used for civilian traffic since the early 2030s. Those who fly from here or to here can...,” he smiled, “spare things. Things they can afford and we need. Feel free to look around and take them. It’s not like they can do any worse than fire at us again.”
Everyone laughed at the remark and Seagrove once again found himself admiring Blackwood’s rhetorical skills. In another age, he would have made an incredible politician, he thought.
Blackwood’s face grew more serious.
“Now comes the hard part. Me and the bulk of the armor will go east immediately and we’ll take the base. Ibrahim’s people scouted it out – so he said and I trust him. There is one cargo ship still operational there. Suez Incorporated is repairing it and we’ll kindly relieve them of the burden of having to maintain it. We’ll take it, load whatever we can and head west towards the United States. Nobody will stop us.”
The people around were too tired to question his certainty, but Seagrove could see the doubts in their eyes. Blackwood continued.
“Joshua, Kathryn, your task will be to scour the desert. Fyodor will provide you with a map of local camps and settlements. Take some of the Credits we have left and try to negotiate with them for supplies. “
His face hardened.
“If they don’t sell, take it. Failure is not an option. Do I make myself clear?”
Seagrove watched Grey salute and leave towards her men and women with a grim expression on her face which made him feel uneasy. The rest of the group was now dispersing and he had to jog to catch up with Blackwood and Sokolov who were discussing their steps in Cairo.
Blackwood looked back.
“About the supply run. We can’t just take food from these people.”
The more he spoke, the more he was convinced of being right. Blackwood could see it in his face and sighed, waving at Sokolov to continue without him. Both men stopped at the hangar door, Blackwood leaning against the warm metal, watching the bustle outside while Seagrove feverishly explained, his previous tiredness gone.
“Sokolov said that Sinai is controlled by rogue mercs. I get it. But we can’t just leave them all to starve. They have families there. Every barrel of fuel we take, every well we pump dry, it all means one more dead. Is this what we are reduced to? If so, we might as well have stayed with Clayburn.”
He ended up almost shouting, but Blackwood seemed to pay no heed. When Seagrove was finally done, Blackwood responded, calmly, only with a slight frown on his face.
“Joshua, listen to me. This is about these men and women that bled with us these past months. They all want freedom from Clayburn, from the endless slaughter. We take the supplies, we take the base, we take a ship and we’re off. No more killing. We’re not monsters. We don’t do this out of spite or greed. We do what we have to survive.”
He leaned towards Seagrove and looked him straight in the eyes.
“Do you understand?”
Suddenly feeling the exhaustion again, Seagrove nodded.
“How do you even know that this plan will work? It seems like an awful stretch. ”
Blackwood reached out and patted him on his shoulder.
“Have faith, son. It’ll work.”
Somehow, Seagrove felt it would be nowhere near as easy as that.
- Al-Arish, August 23, 2039
It’s been a difficult time for the Seahawks, attempting to take the Al-Arish base and secure the resources they needed for the journey west. Upon their arrival to Egypt, Blackwood separated the dwindling Seahawks into two parts.
The first part, led by Adrian Blackwood himself, headed out for the Al-Arish base, using the info provided by Ibrahim.
They assaulted at dawn. The attack took the light Suez Incorporated units defending the area completely by surprise. Suez Incorporated officials, clearly not expecting their ambush in Cairo to fail, did not warn any corporate outposts in the area of the Seahawk threat, allowing Blackwood’s forces to overrun the entire area, capturing intact water and fuel caches in the process. Seahawk casualties were light – several armored vehicles were damaged and a dozen men and women lightly wounded. The local Suez Incorporated forces were completely routed, either making a run for it or giving up as soon as the shooting started.
The prisoners were rounded up and, seeing no purpose in keeping them, Blackwood had them released after several days with just enough supplies for them to not die on their way back to civilization. Several ineffective Suez Incorporated attacks were repelled during the weeks that followed but it quickly became clear that the corporate security forces, consisting of light infantry and several older armored vehicles, were no match for the Seahawk veterans. A small number of Suez personnel, sick of the corporate world, even decided to stay with the Seahawks and help the preparations.
The second part of the Seahawk forces, led by Kathryn Grey and Joshua Seagrove, tasked with scavenging enough supplies to allow them to make the journey west, fared differently.
From the first day, it quickly became clear that Kathryn Grey’s ruthless tactics would prevail. Driven by her “by any means necessary” creed, she paid no heed to the needs of the locals and almost always resorted to the use of force after what she perceived as “failed negotiations”, never giving more than an hour or two to the inhabitants of the villages, old military installations, supply stations and other places she found in the desert based on Fyodor Sokolov’s info.
Joshua Seagrove operated independently at first; always attempting to convince the locals to make some sort of trade, but Kathryn’s reputation of brutality soon preceded his attempts and he quickly found himself dealing with hostile, suspicious people, seeing him as a member of just another corporate task force sent to cleanse the region of “undesirables”.
One such case almost ended with a disaster – upon reaching the settlement of Al-Rayasan, the Seahawks under Joshua Seagrove found the place seemingly deserted. Carefully approaching its perimeter, the Seahawk armor was ambushed by a considerable mercenary force hiding amongst the village’s houses. Were it not for the timely intervention of reinforcements from the contingent of Kathryn Grey, the battle would have turned into a slaughter. In the end, the mercenary forces were repelled but the price of high – ten Seahawks were dead and the unit lost two of its precious Strykers.
The increased amount of hostility eventually forced Joshua Seagrove to abandon any attempts at diplomacy and join Kathryn Grey in her endeavor. After another week, negotiations were not even attempted anymore with any armed people automatically being treated as hostiles. The supplies were gathered but at a terrible cost – the entire region turned hostile to the Seahawks and several supply trucks were ambushed, diminishing the already low Seahawk resources even further.
But as it turned out, angry mercenaries would become the least of Seahawk’s trouble...
Interlude – The Seahawks learn of the impending invasion by the Crimson Reavers and decide to meet them in open battle based on Kathryn Grey’s proposal.
- Al-Arish, September 12, 2039
Even with the clear sky, the mountains of steel around them were barely visible in the soft light of a waning moon. When they first came here, every night was illuminated by a myriad of scavenger blowtorch sparks but all they saw now was darkness surrounding them that, somehow, not even the powerful floodlights of the Al-Arish base could dispel.
A testament to human greed, sighed Seagrove to himself. Kathryn, being the daughter of a mechanic, explained this to him a few days back, the whole trick, but even now, more than a month in this cursed desert, the sight never ceased to amaze him. He smiled, remembering that night fondly, the camaraderie and the drinks of which he definitely had had one too many, but the memory of what they had done was always there, gnawing at him like a parasite deep within.
He still felt deeply uncomfortable every time he saw a truck full of supplies enter the base and leave empty, but the sight of the Seahawk men and women with smiles on their faces after finally having a proper meal for once offered some consolation.
Deep in his thoughts, he didn’t hear her approach until she put her hand on his shoulder.
A greeting and an acknowledgment both. He was slowly getting used to her talking that way.
“Admiring the scenery again?”
Her mocking tone stung a little, but he couldn’t help it.
“Tell me about it again, Kathryn. How these mountains were created.”
She frowned at his almost reverent tone.
“Tell you what? A bunch of fatcats decided that cars weren’t supposed to be repaired or sold and were only rented to suckers for a few years. After that they dumped them here and even had the local governments pay for it. And this is the merry little side effect.”
He could hear the sadness in her voice.
“And the worst part is, it actually worked. For a while. They did make a lot of money.”
He shook his head.
“That’s not it. Think about it. These mountains of broken cars... they’re going to be here for thousands of years after we are dead. We still learn about creation myths in schools, how gods and heroes rose entire mountain ranges with a wave of their hand. I wonder....” he paused for a while “what will the kids in two thousand years learn about these.”
She laughed, not sure what to think.
“You think too much.”
They stood there for a while, listening to the sounds of the sea and to the base bustle. An engine revving in the distance followed by a few angry voices. The soft hissing of welding torches coming from the workshop. The soft tones of the harmonica Moreau was playing in the mess tent.
“Blackwood wants to see us,” she said finally.
He turned towards her, his eyebrows raised.
“And you’re telling me this just now? What does he want?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care to be honest. If it was something bad, everyone would be running around screaming already. Plus,” she pointed her finger at him, “he had it easy. We, on the other hand, had to fight a bunch of grizzled angry mercs.”
“Yeah... don’t remind me. Anyway, let’s go.”
They made their way to the command tent where Blackwood was already waiting, tapping his foot impatiently. His anger was visible on his face.
“Took your time, didn’t you?”
They both threw a regulation salute at once.
“Sorry sir. Reporting for duty.”
His previous anger seems to have evaporated at the sight as he dismissively waved her hand.
“Listen, you two. We have a problem.”
He continued before they had chance to respond, pacing around the room.
“I’ve been in touch with some old friends at Clayburn, but everyone suddenly went silent. Looks like Clayburn’s cleaning house.”
His words struck Seagrove with the force of a clenched fist.
“But... my family...,” he struggled, “they wouldn’t...”
Blackwood gave him a sharp look.
“Pull yourself together, Major. We knew what we were getting into.”
Seagrove nodded numbly.
“Besides,” Blackwood’s expression softened, “Your father is a smart man. They’ll be fine. The same, however, cannot be said of us.”
Kathryn looked angry.
“What do you mean, sir?”
She was careful to make the last word sound as anything but a sign of respect. Blackwood’s frown deepened.
“Are you familiar with all the military assets of Clayburn Industries?”
“Not quite,” she responded, slightly taken aback.
“Well then, Major, let me put it like this. When the militaries of Europe went bankrupt, where do you think their ships went?”
Seagrove and Grey both turned pale.
“Yes. Aptly put. Ibrahim sent me a coded message a few hours ago. It looks like Portsmouth is today much emptier than it was yesterday. He’s a little weasel, but I believe him.”
“And that means....”
“They’ll be here in a week or so,” Blackwood finished his sentence for him.
“That doesn’t leave us with many options.”
Blackwood waved his hand dismissively.
“Be serious. They would shoot us on sight and I for one don’t feel like playing cat and mouse with their Migs in the desert. Besides, you can barely hide a man in the Gaza wasteland, let alone a unit of soldiers.”
“What about west?”
Blackwood sniggered at the question.
“You want to take Cairo with three hundred men? Egypt is bristling with corporate units. We are lucky Suez is too scared to send its men after us after we kicked their ass here because they do have plenty of men left. They won’t be scared once Clayburn gets here.”
“And south is out of the question,” Seagrove added, ”because it’s just a desert full of angry mercs. On the upside, we could make wagers on what would get us first – hunger, thirst, mercs or Clayburn.”
All three cracked up despite the tension.
“Alright. What DO we do then?”
Episode 3 Summary - the Seahawks capture the Al-Arish base, but not without losses. They soon learn of an impending invasion by the elite Clayburn forces, Crimson Reavers, led by Peter Clayburn. In the end, the Reavers are defeated but not without major Seahawk losses.
- Southern England, late autumn, 2040
It was dark outside already when Clayburn decided to take a stroll. Strom followed him through the labyrinthine halls of the silent mansion to a small courtyard behind the northern wall, hidden from prying eyes by thick rows of hedges. The stillness of the late autumn night was only interrupted by the footsteps of guards patrolling the premises and the soft whizzing and clicking of their suits of powered armor.
Clayburn sat himself down on a bench outside and stared wordlessly up as if trying to divine the location of the moon from behind the cloud cover. Strom wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable but sat next to Clayburn when prompted by an almost imperceptible nod and a wave of his hand. It was cold, but Clayburn showed no discomfort, only occasionally rubbing his scar – a well-healed wound that, however, did look somewhat recent.
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what happened?” asked Strom. He didn’t specifically mention the scar, he didn’t have to. Clayburn knew without looking and smiled.
“Just an accident. A reminder to always be careful around loaded guns. That’s what the scars are, Strom. The most important life lessons made flesh.”
Strom nodded, taking the question as answered, but Clayburn went on.
“Hunting, Strom. There is something magical about hunting. Putting your life on the line, just you against the nature.”
Strom suddenly remembered the trophy hall he passed during his entrance. Dead animals always gave him chills, he always felt their dead eyes watching him reproachfully – and there were hundreds. He decided that the condo he had received with his new rank was just the right choice for him. No mansions and definitely no obligations to uphold age-old noble traditions, thank you very much.
“Of course,” Clayburn continued, “that’s all gone now.” He nodded to himself. “I personally shot one of the last lions left in Africa, did you know that? A magnificent beast. I kept tracking it for weeks on end, alone, staying downwind while avoiding his human guards.”
Strom, sitting next to Clayburn, threw a side glance. The man was now clearly enjoying himself.
“He did put up a spirited fight, even when my first shot shattered his shoulder. Almost ripped my face off in his death throes when I approached him. But in the end, he was mine. Like everything I ever wanted.”
The gleam in Clayburn’s eyes was unsettling and for a moment, Strom truly understood what made the man beside him so terrifying. Under the whole civilized shell, Clayburn was a ruthless monster, fully capable of ending lives without a single blink of an eye. The stories about him were not exaggerating – in fact, quite the opposite.
But, as if by a flick of a switch, the moment was gone. Clayburn was back to his charming host self and smiled indulgently.
“Listen to me ramble like an old man. So where were we, Strom?”
“The Seahawks, sir. They escaped to Africa. Your nephew came after them.”
“Ah yes. They had nowhere to go – empty desert to the south, made even more hostile, if you can believe it, by their foolish actions,” he chuckled before continuing, “the west was firmly in my grasp, even if indirectly and to the east the Gaza wasteland, the ruins of Beersheba and, finally, the impassable Great Wall with all its automated defenses. To put it shortly, it wasn’t looking good.”
Amusement was clearly visible on Clayburn’s face.
“They chose what made the most sense to them at the time. A pro-active strike against my forces, led by Peter.”
Strom’s brow furrowed with confusion.
“That’s what I’ve never understood. After the mess in the Balkans, why did you allow him to keep his command?”
Again, that strange and unsettling smile.
“I am all about second chances. Can’t you tell already by now?”
- Al-Arish, September 18 2039
There was an itch Joshua Seagrove couldn’t scratch – the worst kind, an itch hidden deep inside his head. Ever since the decision to lure the Crimson Reavers into an open battle where the maneuverability of the Seahawk light vehicles would give them an edge – in theory, he reminded himself – over the Reaver heavy units, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Intelligence, acquired by Blackwood, suggested that Clayburn wanted to capture the base intact – a static defense would have therefore made sense. The base wouldn’t be shelled by one of the two destroyers that they knew were coming and infantry attacks would be easier to repel. Plus, just as he feared, local mercenaries were eager to exact their revenge. Nothing puts people together like a common enemy and Clayburn would definitely have allies in this fight.
Regardless, Blackwood seemed to have been thrilled at the prospect of an open battle, letting Kathryn draw up battle plans. What was even worse, the information somehow got out and the men were growing restless. Meetings were held under the pale moonlight, meetings of angry men with shaking fists and loud voices. We better win this one, he thought to himself, or there won’t be a future for any of us.
His line of thought was interrupted by pale-looking Kathryn Grey entering the tent where he sat on his own.
“Josh, they sent an emissary.”
He let out a forced chuckle.
“What, they’re surrendering already?”
Her sullen expression told him that the joke had fallen flat. He frowned.
“What is it?”
Only now he noticed her quivering hands and the traces of tears in her eyes.
“They brought freezers, Josh. Full freezers.”
Later that day, she found him alone in his tent, sobbing with impotent rage. They sat quietly together for what seemed like hours and only at the end he realized that she had been holding his hand all along.
“Kate,” he finally looked up, “promise me something.”
“Before we escape... let’s just kill as many as we can.”
She nodded, not knowing what else to say.
- Southern England, late Autumn, 2040
The hour spent with Clayburn outside of his villa felt like an eternity. The world had received unnaturally sharp contours and a strange blueish hue in the pale light of military-grade LED lamps illuminating the area, putting Strom into a strange, dream-like state. Only when Clayburn opened the doors and he was bathed in the warm glow of yellow light from the inside was the spell broken.
Strom forced himself to focus once again on his host. Outside, he had had the distinct feeling of being alone in the dark with a monster about to pounce on him at any moment, its slavering jaws ready to cut his life short in an instant. Inside, Andrew Clayburn was back to his charming host self and Strom couldn’t but wonder whether the entire experience was organized to make him feel the way he did. He decided he wasn’t important enough to orchestrate it all on purpose but if Andrew Clayburn was capable of even subconsciously influencing people to such a degree... chills ran down Strom’s spine once more.
He found himself following Clayburn through his home, from the empty halls that now felt weirdly familiar deep into the bowels of the mansion. The rooms and passages grew steadily narrower, the cold stoney walls resembling a dungeon more than anything else and with the silence only broken by their soft footsteps, his mind started playing tricks on him, making him hear haunted cries of many a soul that had perished in these dark halls, alone and afraid. As they neared the door at the end of the hallway, his dread culminated with him imagining the horrors that somehow surely awaited him behind it. The massive slab of wood slowly opened with a loud creak and behind it...
A kitchen. Strom closed his eyes for a moment and slowly exhaled. He allowed himself a second or two of feeling foolish, hoping that the man in front of him wouldn’t notice his flushed cheeks and elevated breathing.
If Clayburn had, he gave no sign of it. The kitchen was large with a number of stoves silently standing under the arched ceiling, blackened by the decades of use with untold layers of soot. The center of the massive cellar was dominated by a large wooden table of undeterminable age, perhaps as old as the mansion itself.
Touching the ancient wood grounded Strom in reality as he and his host sat down. A shrivelled man in cook’s uniform whom Strom hadn’t noticed before shuffled in, silently dropped two plates of what looked like a pudding in front of them and retreated back into the shadows. Clayburn smiled at him in response and took a bite.
“Excellent, Henry. As always.”
Clayburn nodded at Strom and smiled.
“Try it, Strom. It’s exquisite.”
He was right, of course. Strom hadn’t tasted anything like that before. The enjoyment of the soft, sweet flavor melting on his tongue was interrupted after a short while by the silent appearance of the cook bringing two cups of hot coffee. His movements were unnaturally quiet and Strom couldn’t help but imagine the ancient man not being a man at all, but a ghost, bound to the mansion and sentenced to serve its master for all eternity.
As he took another bite, Clayburn reached into his pocket, producing a battered old PDA. It was an older military model. Scratches littered its surface, its screen damaged by what looked like a bullet gash. Clayburn activated it and wordlessly handed it to Strom. Strom raised his eyebrows in confusion.
Clayburn reclined in his chair in what was now a familiar gesture and sipped his coffee.
“This was recovered from the Arish base. Before we continue, you might find it illuminating.”
Strom nodded, took the pad and, under the watchful gaze of his master, started reading.
- Entry: 1
The day is... I don’t know what the hell the date is. It’s strange, you know, not knowing a date in the age of electronics, but here I am. I found this poor thing in one of the bunkers. Looks like someone took a swing at it with a baseball bat or something. The date won’t set right. It’s stuck at 1.1.1972 00:00:00, so, let’s just call it my first entry. Cutter told me I should write everything down as a... he calls it therapy. Now, personally, I think he’s just a hack. Cutter, if you’re reading this, it means I am dead, so: you’re a hack and that bottle was wasted on you.
- Entry: 2
It’s mid-July, that much I know, but I woke up shivering. It’s incredible how hot the desert can get during the day but at night, the temperature drops by as much as 20 degrees. Fixing tanks in blistering heat by day, shivering in my tent by night. I don’t know how long can we go on like this.
- Entry: 3
It’s been a week since my last entry. I think I am ready to write about it. Not in details. We landed in Cairo. Some assholes started shooting. Annie got stuck in a Humvee when the fuel tank got hit. At night, I can still her scream. Every night. Maybe that’s what’s making me shiver. The bosses took it in stride, of course, just a few more casualties. They called them “nonessentials” even. Annie didn’t fight. She cooked and cleaned. I don’t know about the others, but her giggle and her jokes when she handed us food made her pretty damn essential to me.
- Entry: 4
When you’re on a warpath, you can deal with the big stuff. Funerals, friends gone, that sort of thing. It’s the little things that get you. Like phone batteries. Stupid thing, right? Everything’s working on batteries and we have no spares. In the afternoon, Joan’s phone died. She had the only pictures of her kids stored there and now she can’t get to them. I can hear her crying in the next tent. That’s why I carry my family’s photo in my pocket. This life sucks.
- Entry: 5
So our leaders, in their infinite wisdom, started to screw up with the entire region by pissing off locals and stealing their shit. Well, I might be a simple technician and all that but I don’t see anything good coming out of that. We need the food, yeah, but we could have traded or something. Maybe they have some grand plan. They keep telling us they do. But deep inside, I think they’re just as lost as the rest of us. Today, I walked past some of the supplies they “recovered” – they are stored near the southernmost bunker. Right next to the body bags.
- Entry: 6
The crap the locals drive is incredible. Just today, they dragged in an original T-72. This thing’s by now like sixty years old. Some crazy Russian painted all sorts of scribbles all over it but I can’t read that shit. Wish Ivanov was still with us. He was an asshole, but man, he could drink with the best of us. The junk keeps coming in. We have Sheridans, BMPs, British four-wheelers, even some crazy modded Brit vehicle I can’t even recognize, it looks like it’s been put together from two different tanks. I have no idea how so much of this weird stuff keeps appearing here or how they’ve kept it operational for so long.
- Entry: 7
PROPERTY OF THOMAS BELLAMY, TECHNICIAN. IF YOU ARE READING THIS AND I FIND OUT, YOUR VEHICLE WILL SUFFER A MYSTERIOUS BREAKDOWN IN THE DESERT
- Entry: 8
So, I am a section chief technician now. Not how I wanted the job. Work keeps pouring in, no time to write or think about other things.
- Entry: 9
Clayburn’s coming for us. The old bastard won’t let us go. We knew this was coming, but it all feels so surreal. The days run by one after another and each is the same as the previous one. You get up, you get to work (god, how I miss the breakfast and washing part that used to be in between), in the evening you check the mess tent for the names of the people who weren’t as lucky as you that day. You take a swig of whatever’s left in their honor and go cry yourself to sleep if you’re not tired enough to just drop on the spot.
- Entry: 10
Holy shit... how do I even write about something like this. So, Clayburn has arrived. With the Crimson Reavers. We’re so dead. But that’s not the worst of it. They brought in freezers full of severed heads of the family members of the guys here. Wives, husbands, grandparents, even kids. How can such evil actually exist? This is insane. What kind of monsters are they? Anyway... I was lucky. Ron and Dave from my shift weren’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ron cry before, it felt so strange. Like a nightmare, you don’t wake up from. Dozens of people I know lost someone. I heard through the grapevine that some families were warned and managed to escape the corporate goons. My folks are gone, I had nothing to lose, but damn... I can’t imagine how I’d go on. Even saw Major Seagrove cry. He looks like a ghost these days, what we had to do (did we?) clearly haunts him. He’s a good guy, we feel for him. Grey’s just a bitch but even she was shocked, I could tell.
- Entry: 11
It’s been 24 hours and the base is slowly waking up. People look different. Like something died inside them. There’s no music being played anymore, you don’t hear any banter at the shop. We just focus. The only person who didn’t cry even a little seems to be Blackwood. I don’t know about that guy. Marty from the comms tried to look him up in the database and everything seems to have been expunged. Not so strange – Marty told us that Blackwood ordered this when we split back in the Balkans for as many people as he could. Harder to track their family members, he said. I don’t know. Maybe. Somehow, feels strange for Clayburn not to have backups, but then, Blackwood was amongst the highest ranking officers, he probably had the clearance to do this. He came with a reputation of caring for his people and in a way, he did – we never took crazy gambles and we never slaughtered civilians. Okay, the locals aren’t technically civilians. Or are they? I can’t tell anymore.
- Entry: 12
And of COURSE, the local mercs joined Clayburn. I would too if some asshole left my family to starve. I hate Grey, almost enough for a little technical accident to happen.
Note to myself, entry deletion does not work. Talk to Marty about it.
- Entry: 13
There’s some sort of operation going on. They don’t tell us little guys, everyone’s too busy, but both Grey and Seagrove were seen taking off into the desert. Too tired to write. This is it.
- Entry: 14
We did it! We beat the bastards. They drew up some sort of plan for a massive operation out there. I don’t know much, only that they caught them in some sort of pincer maneuver. They were led by that fat swine Peter. When his tank got hit, the Reavers just turned and retreated. Don’t know why. We slaughtered the mercs and I heard that Grey personally dragged the little piggy out of the wreck and brought him here. Blackwood shot him in the head in front of everybody. The Reavers just boarded their ships and left a day later, content to have blockaded the base. Half of the base got drunk that night.
- Entry: 15
We’re going away from this hellhole. I’ll leave this here. Wish us luck.
Strom switched the PDA off and looked up at Clayburn, who was staring at him with a small smile on his face.
“So, that’s how it happened.”
Clayburn nodded, his half-smile never leaving his face. Strom felt confused.
“Why would the Reavers retreat? Surely they could have wiped them out there and then. With losses, yes, but this whole nightmare could have been finally over. It’s the second time them not getting involved led to further losses. This makes no sense.”
Clayburn’s smile widened.
“That’s because you haven’t heard the best part yet...”
- Southern England, late Autumn, 2040
Their conversation was interrupted by a guard silently opening the kitchen door and nodding at Clayburn who immediately rose from the table. Strom quickly swallowed the last bite of the delicious dessert in front of him and followed.
“Our second guest has arrived, Strom. Come, you two simply must meet. I am sure you’ll have plenty to talk about.”
The man that waited for them back in the library was enormous but moved with surprising grace when he greeted Clayburn and approached him to shake his hand, his bald head slightly bowed in deference. Strom had seen his share of soldiers but immediately realized this was no ordinary trooper or an armchair general. His calm face and cold eyes were those of a true killer, a terror amongst men, death incarnate.
The man had a deep baritone voice – Strom could almost imagine hearing his roar on a battlefield, rallying his men to surge forward into one last hopeless charge and the men obeying, such was the natural charisma the man emanated.
The man looked at him and Strom suddenly felt being measured and an image of a mouse under the gaze of an eagle ready to strike suddenly popped up in his mind. This was the kind of man, whose single glance could scatter to four winds any ill intentions lurking in the back of your mind. One of the most important talents of Andrew Clayburn was to acquire the best people and Strom was sure like never before that even amongst the military professionals, top-notch scientists and finance magicians in Clayburn’s service, this man was someone special.
Yet there was something that made him uneasy as if he was standing in front of an enemy and not one of the very few people important enough to meet Clayburn in person. Perhaps it was the uniform. An old German model, Strom realized after a while, without any Clayburn insignia or even colors. A complete disregard of Clayburn Industries dress code was another proof of this man’s exceptionality.
And then Clayburn spoke softly.
“Strom, I would like to introduce you to...”
He paused and smiled.
“But surely you know already.”
- Somewhere in Russia, mid-Summer, 2039
They weren’t even trying to hide. He saw them approach across the meadow in front of his log cabin, the sound of their helicopter drowning the gentle hum of his diesel generator in the nearby shed. Despite their unmarked uniforms and the old, Russian military chopper, they were corporate – he could tell after the long years of dealing with their kind.
As he stood in the doorway, waiting for the inevitable, he closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet flower scent filling the air. Russian woods and fields were beautiful this time of the year, birches whispering in the soft breeze and a brook gurgling nearby, telling him to stay with them forever. As places to die in go, he thought, smiling with his eyes shut, this wasn’t a bad one.
He’s been here perhaps a year, his long military and mercenary career buying him what he craved most at the end – peace. Long, lazy days far from the battlefields of this world torn asunder – days filled with what he loved the most, the calm silence only a countryside can deliver. He had sold his property, relinquished his position as a leader, his men slowly drifting away until he was alone, him and the cabin he had built. But despite all this, he somehow knew they wouldn’t let him go. One day, someone would come.
And so they did. The men in front of him acted like professionals. He could spot a few mistakes, several wrong steps and glances in wrong directions, but overall, he felt that they competent, even amongst mercenaries. Veterans, no doubt about it.
Their leader raised a hand with a greeting. He felt his face contorting in a scowl almost unconsciously – he hated pointless charades and he could tell they knew he knew.
“No need for that. Let’s get this over with,” he growled with his eyes closed and reclined against the woodwork.
“Do what sir?”
He could feel that the leader was genuinely confused and cocked his head.
“Why are you here then?”
The leader nodded as if to himself, rubbed his hands and a sudden realization came to the main in the doorway. The man was actually nervous.
“We have a proposition.”
That piqued his interest. One does fly over half of the world to carry out a grudge, surely, but rarely to make offers – flying was not cheap these days. Or easy. Or safe. He shrugged and waved at the leader to follow him inside.
The man, who he now realized was perhaps half his age, licked his lips.
“Coffee it is.”
They waited in silence for the kettle to boil on a small electric heater, neither of them willing to start the conversation. That fact alone told him that the matter must be even more important that he had previously thought. He was starting to get curious but held his tongue until both their cups were filled with the rich black liquid that was rarer than gold in this neck of the woods. He sometimes caught a glimpse of the rest of the men patrolling outside.
Finally, the leader started.
“Sir, I’m here to...”
“Clayburn,” he interrupted him.
“You’re from Clayburn.”
A statement, not a question. The interruption caught the man off guard and in the end he had to prompt him to continue.
“You were saying?”
The leader regained his composure and nodded, continuing in a business-like manner.
“Right. On behalf of Clayburn Industries and Andrew Clayburn personally, I would like to extend an invitation to visit him in London and discuss a proposal.”
A long silence followed with the cabin owner’s eyes seemingly focused on the wooden, hand-made table they were sitting at.
The leader shrugged apologetically.
“Sorry sir, no clue. But the old man does not send us just for anyone. Only the best. I assume your reputation and skill have something to do with that.”
“I hate brown-nosing, Lieutenant.”
“It’s Major, sir. And I was just stating the obvious. We know who you are.”
The major’s eyes suddenly shifted above his right shoulder towards the battered, half-burned flag he knew was hanging on the wall behind him.
“An old battle flag, sir?”
“So it is.”
The major smiled.
“Interesting. Is that a wolf?”
The man finally smiled indulgently.
“Come on. You should know. It’s a hound.”
- Al-Arish, October 19, 2039
In the days of old, monarchs would make a spectacle of executions. The crowd cheered when the criminal was hanged, stones were thrown and snacks were sold. The death of Peter Clayburn, even though it happened in front of an audience, was no such thing –a few words, one gunshot and the lingering feeling that nothing changed mirroring in every face present.
In the instant, before Blackwood pulled the trigger, he whispered something in Peter Clayburn’s ear. Clayburn’s eyes went wide with shock, an expression his face retained even when his lifeless body fell to the ground. Blackwood holstered his pistol and then it was all over.
Or was it? The exchange didn’t escape the attention of Seagrove, Grey and other senior staff members. Later that evening, Blackwood found himself challenged by a group of his own officers. He calmly regarded them as they presented their accusations of misconduct and collaboration to bring the death of them all.
Grey was, as was her way, more vocal than the rest. His face didn’t betray any emotions but deep inside, he was genuinely amused by the fact she was the one to accompany the group when the plans for the desert operations were hers and hers alone, despite Seagrove’s objections. He forced himself back to reality to listen to another enraged tirade of one of the technician section chiefs, ending with...
“....and what are we supposed to do now? The Clayburn navy is still in the area, we just finished the repairs and Altalena won’t be ready to depart until Monday. That’s almost a whole week for Clayburn to get us all killed. And the desert is still swarming with angry mercs.”
Blackwood raised his eyebrows, seemingly ignoring the last part.
The technician’s cheeks flushed red.
“One of the locals named it. It caught on. What of it,” he added angrily, “a name as good as any.”
Blackwood felt once again amused and wondered if the others knew why. Finally, he rose from his chair and softly said:
“Gentlemen, that’s enough. You too, Kate.”
His face expressionless, he stared them down until they grew silent.
“Let me address your concerns one by one. First, the mercenaries. Why do you think we went with Kathryn’s plan?”
He nodded her way and continued calmly after a short pause, his hands behind his back, like a professor in front of a class explaining this year’s study plan instead of matters of life and death.
“We needed those supplies. You all know that.”
He nodded, as if to himself – a gesture they were all already familiar with.
“After that, there was no going back, so we used the situation. The locals – they wouldn’t have trusted us anyhow after the first shots were fired. It was inevitable – you can’t get along with everyone. Sorry, Josh,” he smiled apologetically at Seagrove.
“I did let Kathryn continue because that’s what it took to save our hides. When Clayburn arrived, he didn’t find a peaceful, pacified region he could send his emissaries across and buy the entire local force off. Instead, he faced scattered groups of stragglers. Some of them joined him but most were either too disorganized or in hiding. As a result, we got the supplies we wanted and instead of a massive indigenous force, bought by Clayburn, we faced only a few locals fighting with the Crimson Reavers. We too were once corporate – the locals don’t see much of a difference between us and them anyway. Many hated Clayburn as much as us for what we did. It’s cold, I’ll admit, but it allowed us to survive – without it, the opposition we would have faced would have been insurmountable.”
He paused once again for a short while to take a sip from a glass of water on his table.
“Now, to the matter of tactics. We fought in the desert not only because it would give us an advantage, but because Peter Clayburn was an idiot. Had we stayed here, he would have disregarded the old man’s wishes and would have had the Clayburn warships shell the entire area even though old Clayburn needed it. We would have died and he would have gotten a slap on the wrist. Instead, we ambushed them in the desert. We had one chance – to knock his tank out.”
Another short pause.
“The Reaver commander was no fool – the Reavers are too valuable to waste getting killed by a few renegades,” he made a mock bow to the company present and a few muted chuckles sounded from the group.
“So once he saw that Peter was lost, he retreated just as I expected him to, to receive new orders. And it seems that the old man is content for now to keep us blocked in here. But not for long.”
He reached out to a nearby shelf to produce a standard military issue bag with some sort of electronic device inside.
“Peter, in his infinite stupidity, left us a present. His tank was equipped with a command device, relaying encoded orders to his troops. We can use this. Mister Lefevre from comms will modify the device to make our ship emit a transponder signal mimicking a Clayburn support vessel. And that,” he concluded, “was what I told him. He was convinced we would all die here. In the end, I robbed him of even this hope. He deserved it.”
He could feel the tension drop as most of the men and women started nodding and talking to each other.
Finally, Grey, perhaps imagining herself speaking for them all, rose her voice.
He turned towards her. She was standing at attention and threw the crispiest salute he’s ever seen from her.
“It all... makes sense. We apologize,” she turned back towards the people behind her, “for acting unbecoming of officers. It won’t happen again.”
He nodded, returned her salute and they all started to leave. He only had one more thing to add.
“Oh and gentlemen?”
Their faces turned back to him in expectation.
“Please, do choose a different name for the ship.”
Interlude – The Seahawks set sail to the United States aboard their ship, the Altalena. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, Blackwood, Grey and Seagrove argue what to do when they get there. A decision is taken to land in Florida, head west and take a secret facility Clayburn facility, discovered in the files left behind by Peter Clayburn.
Let us set up the scene. We find ourselves in the middle of the Mediterranean on a transport ship running dark, hiding from the enemies. All the lights onboard are turned off, the men and women of the Seahawks resting in their beds and hammocks, lulled into uneasy sleep by their fatigue, the hum of the ship’s engines and the never-ending whispering of the sea.
Two men and a woman are huddled together around a small table in the captain’s quarters. The cabin is small, but the flickering light of a small candle struggles to illuminate even that. They do not switch the lights on. They dare not.
The departure from Al Arish was a smooth one as departures from war-torn regions go. They had to ditch some of their equipment and the choice which vehicles to leave behind was tough, but the ship space was limited and food and water were more important to the exhausted Seahawks, finally looking forward to the much-deserved respite from the struggle. Blackwood’s plan worked flawlessly with Clayburn ships retreating as soon as the fake ID was submitted, but with discretion being the better part of valor, Blackwood decided that nightly blackouts would be a prudent precaution against anyone spotting the ship on high seas by accident.
A few of the Seahawks were old navy veterans and under their watchful eye, the crew managed not only to operate the vessel but to keep the right direction, west, towards the Gibraltar Strait and then to their ultimate goal, the United States of America.
A day into the journey, the Seahawks found out the true meaning of the ancient mariner wish of smooth sailing. The sea was anything but calm and even the giant steel behemoth of a ship had trouble navigating the waves, fighting its own battle against the rage of the elements.
Weathering the storm was an exhausting experience and the ship corridors, usually resonating with footsteps of the crew even in the dead of night, are now eerily quiet. The few Seahawks still awake are on the top deck, staring into the night, perhaps reminiscing about the old days, perhaps trying to forget everything they experienced recently. For many, Africa feels like a bad dream the cold sea spray woke them from, others still feel like they are in a dream they must wake up from at any moment into a world where the price for the next hot meal and coffee is a single trip to local cafeteria and loved ones are just a bus trip away.
Others yet are planning in hushed voices, as if shouting might give away their position to a tiger lurking outside of the cave. Thousands of years of evolution have not cured mankind’s fear of the dark and the predators hiding in it. Perhaps it will never go away, Blackwood thinks while listening to the arguments of his both lieutenants.
“Why are we even going to the USA? We don’t know what’s in there. With the collapse of the internet, civilian flight restrictions and corporate censorship, it could be a nuclear wasteland for all we know.”
Blackwood smiles ever so slightly, before answering with his eyes closed and his back reclined in his chair.
“To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.”
They both look at him in confusion.
It is she who understands it, much to his surprise.
“Tennyson. Still, very good, Kathryn.”
Her smile suddenly matches his with only Seagrove left befuddled, looking at each of them in turn with a question written on his face and eyebrows raised.
“Poetry, Josh. Poetry.”
He frowns – as expected. Blackwood often wonders how it is possible that she, so coarse and blunt on the outside, understands these things more than him with all the corporate-paid education. But, he concludes every time, life is full of surprises. That’s what makes it worth living.
“At any rate, our destination is the last gift of Peter’s – amongst the files recovered from his computers was a location of a secret Clayburn facility in what used to be the great state of Texas. We don’t know what’s in there, but we know two things. First, it’s valuable – why else would you have such a distant facility offshore. Second, it’s not well-defended – its secrecy is its main protection and major military presence would certainly give it away.”
He watches the others nod and wonders how far he can go with his explanations before finally deciding to reveal a bit more.
“My money's on gold or diamonds. Credits are all well and good, but, as the economy crash of the 2020s has shown us, a few tons of precious metals around when the market crashes is a handy thing to have. Credits are all well and good, but they can only get you so far. Besides, diamonds can be transported with relative ease, as mister Clayburn is about to find out. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for some payback.”
He watches both nod – how gullible can they be? They have no idea what’s waiting for them in the facility. But he does, oh yes, he does, and he will be the one to reap the rewards of this endeavor. Although he thinks, there might be a place for both of them in his future yet. Maybe they will turn out to be reasonable after all, in the end. Right now, Blackwood is content with simply listening.
“What do we do when we get to the USA? We can’t land just anywhere. It has to be somewhere south too, to make the trip to Texas short and to avoid the U.S. Navy.”
The candle’s glow never reaches his eyes – he likes it that way, watching them both from the shadows, studying their reactions to the problem at hand. They both lean towards each other to better see the old map prepared for just such an occasion on the table. It does not escape his notice that they are more comfortable with one another than they used to be with the months of hardships tempering their camaraderie, perhaps even into something more.
“Jacksonville, Florida. Ideal landing place, the Navy built a small base there before the world went crazy.”
“Aren’t you from Jacksonville, Kate?”
“Gainesville. Not far from there. I know the area, the whole town lived off the military back then.”
“Well fancy that, we’ll even get to meet your parents.”
A whole scale of emotions reflects on Grey’s face, from happiness to melancholy, as she struggles to reconcile both worlds she lives or used to live in – the one of her father’s embrace, of sun, school, apple pie and lazy Sunday afternoons spent working on cars, and the one of fire, smoke and war eternal. He can see it’s not going well.
“Yeah, they’d be really thrilled to have an Abrams parked on their lawn.”
“Perhaps they would – your father’s a mechanic, you said, and the Abrams is a fine piece of machinery. I bet he’d love to take one apart.”
He can see that Seagrove understands the conflict too, trying to downplay her fears. It’s not working, she’s desperately clinging to the barrier dividing both worlds in her mind, always afraid that her deeds will catch up to the sweet, pristine memories of her childhood, the last thing left of her old life, and ruin it like they did everything else.
“Fine, Jacksonville. How do we play it? We can land at the base, providing it’s empty – and then? Sneak out of the city and go west? I bet that if we do, no-one will bother us. It’s not like there’s any U.S. military presence out there, is it? The whole south belongs to mercs and corporations.” She laughs involuntarily.
“We’re still an armored unit, Josh. People tend to notice tanks rolling through their streets. We won’t run into regular U.S. forces, that much I know, but regular people won’t be happy to see us either. We might easily get into a firefight with whoever’s the law down there these days. Probably some corporation goons. I say, let’s treat the region as hostile – no, don’t give me that look, I am not suggesting sacking the city or anything. Let’s just take whatever we need from the base, fire back only if fired upon and bailout. Let’s make it clear we’re not there to stay.”
“We tried that once already, Kate. We ended with a lot of dead people, many of them being our own. It’s time to try something different. If we can’t sneak away, maybe we can make a deal with whoever is in charge of the city. We still have Credits, let’s purchase supplies, parade around, show that we’re friendly, stay for a neighborly chat and then leave with everyone waving us.”
“That will cost us time. Once Clayburn learns of our position – and he will – and realizes where we are going, he’ll send everything he has. Not just the Reavers, Josh, everything. Let’s not kid ourselves. We survived Al Arish with sheer luck and a few happy coincidences. If the Reavers persisted, they’d have wiped us out. Next time, we might not be so lucky. And don’t forget that, if given chance, Clayburn will buy everyone off, he could turn the whole city against us.”
“He’s not that fast, Kate. Right now he thinks we bailed out and that he’ll never hear from us again. He probably already occupied Al Arish too, so he got a functional military port out of the whole mess with the entire region cleansed of armed locals thanks to our efforts. All that with hardly any losses with the exception of his nephew, who was an idiot. Clayburn is pragmatic. With so many gains, he won’t follow us unless he feels threatened. Hell, we might even do what he thinks we will, land somewhere quiet and disperse. Wouldn’t you like to just forget all this and go home?”
That strikes a nerve. He can see she’s seriously considering what he just said, her eyes closed so that he does not notice the uncertainty and perhaps even the tears. But when she looks at him again, he sees nothing but determination. She won’t be swayed now, he suddenly realizes.
“We don’t have enough for over two hundred people to start a new life, Josh. We owe it to them. For their sweat, their blood and everything they’ve lost. And we owe Clayburn a payback. I won’t quit before we make him pay. And as for me,” she pauses, “why should I get to go home and others don’t. There will be a time for that later.”
That settles it then, both men think – each for a different reason. The candle flame, its color that of a setting sun they are heading towards, glimmers and dies. A single voice pierces the darkness – Blackwood’s.
“Here’s what we’re going to do...”
Episode 4 Summary - the Seahawks make their way across the ocean and land near Jacksonville. The locals are more hostile than usual due to the word of Seahawk actions in Al Arish getting ahead of them, but they eventually manage to convince the citizens of Jacksonville and the local mercs that they mean no harm. Bolstered by a few recuits from the ranks of American mercenaries, they fix an old cargo train to take them and their vehicles to Texas to attack and loot a Clayburn Industries facility before dispersing into the desert.
- Jacksonville, Florida, November 20, 2039
They had expected the trip to take three weeks, but in the end, it took a month before they first laid their eyes on the American shores.
Apart from encountering a single storm in the Mediterranean, the voyage was remarkably uneventful. With most of the world’s navies defunct and their ship no more than decrepit hulls rusting in abandoned military ports, the Altalena – for the name stuck – was never challenged, even when passing the previously closely guarded Gibraltar Strait. For the Seahawks, the last glimpse of the Old World would be the Spanish cliffs disappearing in the distance. Most of them would never see Europe again, although they were not aware of it at the time.
Ten days into the journey, they passed the Azores, abandoned and uninviting – they would find no shelter amongst the barren rocks and cliffs, no place to call their own – and so, they sailed on, towards the west and their destiny.
As Blackwood had predicted, the U.S. Navy was not present and their approach to the eastern coast of Florida was not met with any resistance. What they did not expect was the level of prosperity they encountered. The navy base was there, but it was not abandoned.
The Free City of Jacksonville, how its residents called it, was formally still a part of the state of Florida and the United States of America, but the federal hold on the entire area was tentative at best. An uneasy peace – or, more accurately, a ceasefire – between the separatists controlling much of the American southwest and the legitimate government of the United States of America was a result of a failed attempt of Washington to bring the south back into the fold earlier in 2039 using private military companies.
Jacksonville was lucky to have escaped the worst fighting, but the signs were still there – as the Seahawk ship approached the pier in the early morning mist, many of them gathered on Altalena’s deck, they could see a number of rusty, broken down vehicles littering the port area. The port was bustling with activity with fishermen and dockhands both raising their head in confusion, surprised by the arrival of the massive transport ship. As the Altalena docked, the Seahawks could see increased activity with several workers running towards what looked like an office building. Before the first of docking cables were attached to the pier’s moorings by the now-disembarking Seahawks, the workers returned with a tired-looking middle-aged bald man in a cheap suit – the overseer. He nodded at them curtly, completely undisturbed by the sudden appearance of the transport in his port.
“Gentlemen. Welcome to Jacksonville.”
He looked around, appraising the ship, its cargo and its crew with a single glance of a seasoned professional.
“You need help unloading.”
A statement, not a question.
“I’ll send over some of my boys. Drop by my office,” he pointed to the building behind him, “to sort out the fees.”
He nodded to himself as if he was going through a list in his mind.
“But first, please follow the fine gentlemen of port security, there’s the matter of your...”
He paused again, looking at the weapons the Seahawk guards gathered behind Blackwood carried.
An apologetic smile.
“We don’t want any incidents, right?”
Blackwood quickly nodded, noticing the port guards approaching the pier. They looked agitated and were carrying military-grade firearms, including one or two anti-tank launchers. He turned back towards the men gathered behind him.
“Seagrove, you’re with me. Kate, Fyodor, keep an eye on the ship and the unloading. We can stash our stuff...,” he looked back to the overseer, “where exactly?”
The overseer just pointed to what looked like a warehouse at the end of the pier.
“Right, there. Let’s get going, those gentlemen with guns look quite nervous to me.”
- Two hours later
It wasn’t going well.
“Absolutely not! We should send them packing – do you know what these assholes did? Of course you do, we watched the news feed together!”
The giant Native American in an old U.S. Army uniform was furious. Muscles bulging, he looked like he’d leap on Seagrove and Blackwood, standing in the local PMC office in front of its commander’s table, and snap their necks within a single motion of his enormous, muscled arms. He only calmed down after the reproachful glance of his commanding officer.
The commander, a professional through and through in his fifties, looked as tired as Blackwood felt. His clean-shaven face, military-style haircut and calm, measured movements told Blackwood that he was dealing here with a respected veteran.
The commander shook his head and rubbed his eyes before finally answering.
“You’ve got balls, Blackwood, I’ll give you that. But the shit you did in Africa was broadcasted over corporate feeds all over the world. Hell, it even got here, to this shithole on pirate feed. Congratulations, commander, you’re now a poster child for the ‘all mercs are all homicidal assholes’ drivel,” he smiled ironically at frowning Blackwood.
“But,” he continued, “luckily for you, us fine folks here don’t believe everything that’s on television. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the corporates did half of that shit themselves. And we’re no friends of corporations and their federal allies here.”
“You’re saying you want to recruit. Fine. Don’t expect much though,” the commander shook his head, “we weren’t the only ones watching the feed. Look...”
He sighed, rubbing his eyes again.
“We won’t give you trouble if you don’t give us any, but we won’t lend you a hand you either, that would be our ass – we can’t afford to lose the support of this fine city. You can trade whatever you want with whomever you want, as long as it’s voluntary on both sides. Do I make myself clear?”
Blackwood and Seagrove both nodded, satisfied by the answer, unlike the local Lieutenant.
“But General, we can’t just... ” “That’s enough. And don’t address me that way, Wolf. We’re not in the army anymore. As for you,” he turned back towards Blackwood and Seagrove, “you have one week. Then we want you gone. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Blackwood nodded.
“The south is swarming with feds. Spend your time here wisely – and good luck with fighting through them.”
“Federales, pendejo,” responded the fifth man in the room, standing silently behind the commander until that point.
“Government troops. They’re well-armed and they don’t like mercs. There’s a fragile cease-fire in place, but that’s us – no such luck for you, cabron.”
“Understood,” said Blackwood flatly, realizing that things had gotten a lot more complicated.
Episode 4 Conclusion
- Southern England, late Autumn, 2040
After a round of quick pleasantries the two men sat down. Andrew Clayburn reached behind one of the innumerable books found lining the large room and brought up a flask of whiskey. He turned towards the other two, grinning.
“Gentlemen! For the last part, we’ll need it.”
The taller of the two sitting men nodded approvingly as he brought the old expensive bottle and three glasses conveniently stashed away with it, to the table. He quickly poured a shot for each. They raised their glasses.
“This is the good stuff. Cheers!”
“Cheers,” responded Strom.
Grimm only nodded. The whiskey went down like honey. Clayburn hadn’t been lying, this was the good stuff. He felt relaxed and a thought came to him – this endless rollercoaster of relaxation and tension, perhaps that too was a test? Grimm looked incredibly relaxed and Strom decided to try and do the same, adjusting his position in the chair to a more comfortable one. The man next to him was a legend – even Strom knew who Grimm was. Time and time again, Grimm broke the back of Lodestar forces until nothing was left of them. He and his men took everything from them: their vehicles, their cash, before disappearing into the east. Breaking the back of a man was easy, but breaking the back of a corporation, now that was different.
Grimm and Clayburn were a strange match, Strom thought. Grimm and the rest of his outfit had been known to hate corporations – for him, Clayburn had to be the devil incarnate. And yet...
“Don’t fall asleep, Strom. We’re reaching the good part.”
Strom, blushing, nodded.
“Sorry sir, I was just thinking.”
“The Seahawks stole the ship. When it appeared on their radars, your men at the sea, they had to know it was them.”
“Of course they did,” nodded Clayburn.
“Why did they not stop them immediately? This was the third chance in a few days to stop the whole waste of resources. Instead, the Crimson Reavers received a new commander,” he nodded at Grimm, who eyed Strom calmly, his face never betraying a single emotion.
“And then you followed them, landing almost exactly where they did… two weeks after. How is this possible? You knew immediately where they would go, didn’t you?”
Once again, Clayburn nodded.
“Not immediately, but as soon as they truly decided.”
“So you had a spy in the outfit? No other explanation.”
Clayburn nodded for the third time.
“In a manner of speaking.”
- Jacksonville, Florida, November 20, 2039
The first hours spent on American soil were hours of wonder. Few of them had set foot in real badlands before. For them it was a myth – and myths come in many forms. A tragedy perhaps, painted by the masterful strokes of Clayburn Industries propaganda like a brush, depicting the horrors of sickness, starvation and war in vivid colors. Only the tools of professional liars could deliver such mastery.
For others, the myth was a take on legendary heroes protecting the poor from evil that left corporations steadfast and unrelenting, never wavering, even when facing annihilation at the hands of a vastly more powerful foe.
The truth, as it often is, was somewhere in-between. With reality washing away the thick layers of misconception and prejudice, the Seahawks had found Jacksonville to be remarkably ordinary. Gone were the days of high-tech corporate gadgets so popular in the walled Clayburn compounds. The streets were run down despite the visible efforts by the locals to give them a semblance of their earlier luster, yet underneath the grime of years of disrepair, the city was bustling with life.
All kinds of services and items were suddenly available to the Seahawks. Some – such as personal cars – had only been available to corporate officers back in europe, while others had been outright illegal inside corporate-controlled zones. Thousands of smells drifted through the air. The smells of food being prepared mingled with burnt gasoline, as dozens of shops and decades-old vehicles dotted and cruised the streets. The world was reverting back to its old ways, reaching out to technologies that withstand the test of time. The electric madness of the 2020s had been left to rust in great heaps behind each city, the toxic spill from their long-dead batteries contaminating the ground for centuries to come.
Fuel, the lifeblood of this new world, flowed from the south to feed the unending hunger of what was left of American industry. Few in Jacksonville would openly admit it, but it was this flow that allowed the city to survive, locked in an endless symbiosis with “government oppressors.”
What impressed the Seahawks the most was the freedom. No ever-present cameras, no watchful gaze of a faceless drone analyzing every move, reading credit receipts to ensure that cholesterol did not go over a limit determined by the cold mind of an artificial intelligence deep within the bowels of an ex-military bunker thousands of miles away. Instead, a basic, thriving economy that had returned to its roots.
The United States differed from Europe in a vast number of tiny ways that left the Seahawks, who were not born there, with an uncanny feeling. Familiar things had wrong shapes and familiar shapes belonged to the wrong things. This myriad of details assembled together into more of the surreal feeling the men and women of the unit were so familiar with. Africa had taught them this. They had little time to mope as the unit commanders, with Blackwood in charge, kept them busy recruiting. By the end of the week most of the bars and other places frequented by the local Fighting Falcon mercs were visited by the Seahawk people. Offers of the rest of their meager resources in exchange for services were made in large numbers. For a few, the Seahawks were a welcome distraction from the grinding boredom of a cease-fire with the pro-government forces that patrolled the area to the west. Others joined because of this forever dullness fueled their lust of adventure. Most locals however, eyed the Seahawks with suspicion, aware of their corporate past and their deeds in Sinai. By the time the Seahawks departed, their ranks were bolstered by only a dozen, men that stuck together, unwilling to mingle with the old crews.
The hunt for replacement vehicles was another matter. Jacksonville was a trade hub and the war with the government had left the mercenaries with more salvage than they could possibly use in a lifetime. Rows of armored vehicles were parked outside the city, mountains of spare parts and gallons of fuel waited silently for their future owners. It wasn’t first rate stuff – the best pieces had been taken by the Fighting Falcons, but what was left was good enough for the final leg of the Seahawk’s journey. And, fortunately for the Seahawks, the traders were willing to sell after several of the Seahawk crews patrolling north of the town help to fight off an ambush…
- Jacksonville, Florida, November 25, 2039, evening
“Those weren’t federal troops. Did you see that Abrams leading them? It had skulls and teeth all over it. Those were mercs trying to sneak into the city! I say we go after them and kick their butt!”
Blackwood calmly regarded Grey – he could see that she still was high on adrenaline, blood pumping from the action that took place two hours ago in the outskirts. He propped himself against the wall and took a few seconds before answering.
“Calm down, Kate. We already won. You saved a few local boys, they’re happy as they can be. Hell,” he added with an impish smile, “I’ve seen more than one of them eying you after what you did. No need to be lonely tonight, if you get my meaning.”
He could see Seagrove giving him an angry look across the room but decided to ignore him. Their discussion was interrupted by the fourth person entering the room – one of the maintenance chiefs. Blackwood couldn’t remember his name, but luckily for him, Seagrove did.
“Hey Tom, what’s up?”
The man was covered in grease and looked tired. Before answering, he grabbed Seagrove’s glass of beer standing on the nearby table and emptied it with one gulp. His hand left black marks on it. Sighing, he turned back towards them.
“Trouble, boss. Me and the guys finally inspected the rest of our stuff and it’s bad. Our tanks, they’re almost done. They have a few miles left in them, sure, but most are ready for a full overhaul. I’m talking about fully equipped facilities. The last time I saw those, we were still in England. We did what we could, but...”
All of them frowned, but he continued.
“But that’s not the worst part, boss. The junk they have here – sure, there’s a lot of it, but most of it is in the same condition or worse. Saw a few Sheridans, those might be workable. But that Stingray we were eying earlier? They dragged it from Thailand or something and they had to have it stored for a decade. Somewhere salty. It’s all rusted. The captured Abrams tanks are junkers too. Looks like the feds have been skimping on maintenance. In short,” he concluded, “we’re screwed.”
Silence fell like a blanket over the room with each thinking of what to do. It was Grey who raised her head first.
“Guys... follow me.”
They all got into her jeep and drove west through the city. It was late but the streets were still brimming with life – they had to honk the horn a few times to get through and once they had, avoided what looked like a large-scale street-fight. They passed the Fighting Falcon mercs running towards it to break it up and finally reached their destination, the old Amtrak station in the north-western part of the city.
It was mostly a pile of rubble now with overgrown trees obscuring much of the area, but the goal of their trip appeared in front of them almost immediately.
“Damn, ain’t she a beauty, boss,” exclaimed the maintenance chief, wiping his forehead with his equally dirty sleeve.
“Do you think you can get her running?”
The repairman shrugged.
“We can try. Looks like she hasn’t been used for a while now. A decade, maybe. But these things were built to last.”
They quietly stood there for a while, looking at the massive locomotive and piles of heavy-duty wagons, standing silently in the middle of the near-abandoned rail yard. They could feel the eyes of some of the poorest citizens of Jacksonville who lived in the ruins upon them, but nobody stepped into the light. They knew better than to provoke mercs.
After a brief close-up inspection, the maintenance chief nodded to himself.
“Yup, looks surprisingly good. We’ll start working on it first thing in the morning.”
“Alright,” concluded Blackwood, “I’ll talk to the city commander, but they clearly have no use for it anyway. Looks like we just got ourselves a ride.”
- Jacksonville, Florida, November 26, 2039, morning
Being taken for a ride rarely felt good but this time was an exception because she was there and the ride was literal. The offer had been made last night and, to his surprise, he had accepted immediately. He wasn’t entirely sure why she chose him and had a lingering suspicion that she wasn’t sure herself since the first few questions regarding this topic were deflected and he knew better than to press on.
And so he found himself sitting in an old, rusty car next to her, thundering down Route 301 with windows open and the warm wind playing with their hair in the middle of November. Florida was amazing even in winter, he thought, quietly lamenting his childhood spent in the cold, sterile environment of a Clayburn Industries compound where snow existed only on a couple of ancient photographs serving as holiday season decoration.
Florida was full of sun, hopes and dreams. All their issues and fears seemed to melt away under its warm glow and for the first time in many months, he truly felt relaxed. He could sense that, to a degree, she felt the same way – the horrors of Sinai still haunted her, but she smiled more often since they arrived and that was enough for him.
They passed several abandoned gas stations. Their parking lots were still littered with old, rusty cars waiting for the snowbirds that would never return. For a short while, he felt almost sleepy with the car’s 8-cylinder rumbling and her silent behind the wheel with an unreadable expression on her face, but the monotony of the road was soon broken by towns and settlements teeming with life, people going about their business the same way they had the day before, ignoring such trivial things as weekends.
He only figured out where they were going only after they had passed the remains of a green sign with “GAIN” written on it. She wouldn’t talk about it, not even in front of Blackwood, whom she had informed earlier that morning that she’d go for a trip. A single nod had been Blackwood’s only reaction and she had seemed satisfied at the time, but now that he knew what was going on, he had to wonder what was going through her had.
The place resembled Jacksonville – the same smells, the same disheveled look and the same damaged infrastructure, but she did not seem to mind as he navigated the rumbling vehicle through the streets of her hometown, always finding enough place to squeeze the vehicle through even though parts of the urban areas, even the roads, had been damaged by climate or conflict, sometimes almost beyond recognition.
He watched her grow tense and knew they were almost there. She looked around with her mind in a different time. To her, the places around them were lit by the eternal sunshine of childhood memories, the now decrepit houses still shining white, the rumble of cars driving towards her father’s workshop. Finally, she brought the machine to a halt in front of an old but well-kept house. Recent repairs were still visible on it. A massive garage standing next to it was filled with two cars without wheels on what looked like a hydraulic lift, clearly in various stages of repair. Another car was standing outside, its front hooked to an ancient-looking truck that Seagrove had before only seen in old movies.
A burly man was standing on its porch, shielding his eyes with his hand and squinting, trying to recognize the car and its driver. His tanned and prematurely aged complexion spoke of a lifetime under the Floridian sun. Under a thick, brown beard, Seagrove could, even at the distance, recognize the same features the woman sitting next to him had.
She was clearly tense. For a moment, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and she looked at him. She wanted to say something, her face a maelstrom of emotions, but, unable to find the right words, she just nodded and got out of the car. The man recognized her instantly and for a moment, they just stared at each other in a wordless exchange. Seagrove felt quite uncomfortable, like an intruder creeping up on one of the most private moments of her life. He didn’t realize how close he was to the truth, as this would one of the only two times in his life he would truly see her cry. He’d remember that day and her expression of pure joy mixed with tears while watching her hold their newborn son for the first time, years later.
The silence grew longer and, looking at her, he realized that she was crying. Tears flowed freely down her face. The man in front of them cried too and, finally, he opened his arms and she ran into them.
“Daddy, I’m home.”
- Later that day
It was dark outside already. They had talked for hours and he got to know her the way nobody else in their unit did – not the ruthless Kathryn Grey, but Katie from a small suburb home, the daughter of a car mechanic, the sister of her recently married twin, acting as if the events of the last months – not months, years –were just a bad memory. Her mother made a lunch for them, then a dinner – and still they talked about anything and everything.
They learned of the things she had done in the desert, she kept nothing from them, even though he could see the embarrassment and discomfort in her eyes when she addressed those topics. They knew a part of the truth already, the news of the conflict eventually made it into the local radios they listened to. She just had to fill the blanks and provide perspective. When describing the events of the previous months, her mother covered her mouth with horror. Her father listened without any expression and without a word – words were not what she needed. Instead, he offered a long, tight hug and she accepted.
Seagrove realized this was exactly what she needed but, at the same time, shattered her perfect, imaginary world of home by introducing her past to it. Things would never be the same for her, the memories she clung so much to would forever be tainted by this experience, but she was ready to accept that. Finally, as they were finishing the delicious bread and stew her mother had served them, the question they both dreaded the most came up.
“Mom, this is amazing,” she said with her mouth full.
Her mother, a quiet, tall blonde woman just smiled kindly and patted her lovingly on her head.
“I’m glad you think so, honey. Jeffrey baked the bread this morning.”
She looked up.
“Jeffrey? Stiles? The guy that used to come around to fix our PC?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Turns out there isn’t much work around for... what was he before, George?”
Her father frowned.
“Systems designer or some such thing, I think. Either way, he’s a much better baker than he was a programmer. And...as it turns out, people need their cars again. Real cars, Katie,” he concluded, smiling. After taking a sip from a glass of what clearly was some local beer, he continued.
“We had to leave for a while when the shooting started. The feds came and then some bandits, some things got stolen, some things got broken, but in the end, they all left and the life goes on. Annie married in summer, the guy’s a mechanic from Oklahoma, imagine that. They live not far from here. Can’t wait to tell her you’re home again...”
Kathryn looked up nervously.
“About that, dad... look. I have to go again, for a short while.”
Her both parents looked at them in shock.
“But... you’re finally home, Katie. Home. This is your home. Not some strangers. No offense,” he added, looking towards Seagrove.
“None taken”, Seagrove responded flatly. They had full right to feel that way. She was, however, visibly taken aback a bit and took her time to answer, looking everywhere but in their eyes.
“Look, it’s.... it’s not that simple. I’d love to stay, I really would,” she pleaded, almost desperately so.
“But those guys, they need me. They’re not just some strangers, dad,” she continued. “They’re good people. One of our mechanics, Tom, he writes poems. Good ones too. Rebecca from the recon section sews clothes for the entire unit. Mike, he’s an American like me, from Kansas, he wants to go home too.”
Her voice gained confidence with every word and he could once again see the embers inside her being stoked into a powerful flame. She wasn’t avoiding their eyes anymore and spoke with the old passion he knew her for.
“A lot of them lost someone, but they’re staying around because they won’t let the old son of a bitch win. We’re gonna loot his bunker and steal all his valuable shit. I’m back home within a week. For good. I promise.”
“And what about you, young man,” her mother turned towards Seagrove. He shrugged.
“Don’t know. Whatever will be, will be, I guess.”
“Well,” his father scratched his beard, “I could always use some help in the garage... there’s always a place for a good worker.”
Kathryn gave him a long look, as if she was considering something, but finally turned back towards her parents, getting up from the table.
“Mom, dad... we have to go. But I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
They looked at each other for a long time. Finally, her mother mumbled “Let me just pack you something...” and left, tears in her eyes. Her father looked at them and finally nodded.
“So... what are you planning then? How will you get there?”
“Well,” Joshua leaned against the door frame, “we don’t have much money, but we have a ship. We traded it for an old train. We’ll load about a dozen vehicles if we can find enough flatbeds or something. We’re ready to go in a day or two.”
As Kathryn left to pick up her things, the father turned towards Seagrove, turning quite serious.
“Listen. Promise me something. Protect my little girl. And get her home safe.”
- Southern England, late Autumn, 2040
Their meeting was coming to an end. Strom could feel it, but there was one last chapter in their story. The final one.
“So, they actually managed to get a train running. Loaded up whatever they could on the flatbeds and just took off?”
Clayburn took another sip of whiskey and nodded.
“Essentially. They hoped to find all the supplies and valuables in my facility. When my ships landed, we found only a few former Seahawks who had chosen to stay behind. They talked after some...,” he paused, “persuasion.”
“We took the city easily,” he continued. “PMCs and rebels or what have you, have a reputation, but they couldn’t really stand against an actual corporation. My men weren’t some lousy, underpaid conscripts. And they were led by the best," he nodded at Grimm.
The fighting was short. The city fell within an hour. Most of the mercs and bandits fled, the rest either gave up or got killed fighting.”
“What happened to the captives?”
“We’re not savages. We gave them a choice – join us or leave. Many actually took our offer.”
“Wait... this can’t be legal. Corporate forces can’t just waltz in and take sovereign nation territory.”
Clayburn’s smile widened further in triumph.
“But it was. Completely. For one, the Bordeaux Treaty allows extreme measures when dealing with what it defines as ‘rogue elements’. Remember Operation Sentinel? That was, naturally, the most extreme and therefore best known example, but there have been many smaller scale cases over the years. And after the Seahawk blunders in Sinai... well, let’s just say the Supreme Court in Istanbul frowns upon mercs slaughtering civilians. With the formal Seahawk declaration as rogue, the last obstacles fell and our hands became untied.”
“Naturally,” he added, “the Americans weren’t initially happy to have PMCs and corporations taking the fight to what they had perceived as their territory, but, as they so like to say, we ‘made a deal.’ We’d take the city for them; they’d pay us and send us on our merry way.”
“But, in reality, we never left. Jacksonville is now the seat of regional Clayburn headquarters.”
“Exactly. They didn’t have the power to take it even from lousy underequipped mercs. They had no chance against my elite and they knew it. In the end, after a few months of bickering, we settled on a sum high enough to catch their attention but far lower than I had anticipated. As it turns out, American territory comes cheap these days.”
“And the Seahawks? They did find the bunker, didn’t they?”
“And? What happened to them?”
“Well, about that...”
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