by Martin Grise
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
With only one week left in the training, Ryan could see that he wasn’t likely to score enough points to make up for his error. On the last Saturday night, he went into Boulder and back to Xanadu. Oversteen wasn’t there yet; Ryan had left fairly early to ensure he arrived before the administrator. He asked the bartender about Kittner and was told she wasn’t around yet, but could come in early if there was money involved. Ryan told him that it was, and the bartender called her.
She showed up twenty minutes later in a black spandex capri bodysuit, and Ryan paid the bartender and took Kittner up the steps. The bartender noticed Ryan’s odd, businesslike demeanor, but merely pocketed the money without further thought.
The VIP lounge was a small suite and, in contrast to the rest of the club, far more functional than chic. Kittner had also noticed Ryan’s humorless manner, so she spared him the chat and got to work. Ryan enjoyed it in a rough and domineering way, exorcising his anger and frustration by forcing them into her slim, pale body. She’d been through worse without complaint.
When the thirty minutes were up, Ryan told her to leave first. When he was alone, he took from his jacket pocket the gadget he’d worked frantically to procure the previous week: a small, wireless video and audio recording device disguised as a smoke detector. “Home Surveillance” was the excuse stamped on the device. He’d ordered it online and had it quickly shipped to The Ranch from across the country.
He peeled off the adhesive backing and stuck it on the ceiling in a corner, aiming the camera with his chipset. The image and sound were perfect when he checked them on his screen. Little Kittner spends a lot of time looking at this ceiling, he thought with a grin, Will she notice a new smoke detector? It would be too late by then, anyway. He returned to the bar, slowly nursing one bourbon after another.
Oversteen arrived at about eleven. This time he bluntly flirted with Kittner in front of everyone, and didn’t notice Ryan’s pad pointed at him from across the bar, even when he walked up the steps with Kittner a few steps behind.
Ryan paid his tab, then found an all-night coffee shop and sat in a corner with earbuds connected to the pad. He watched the footage from the surveillance device; it had a very low-light camera, so the footage was good. The microphone was sufficient to reproduce Oversteen’s voice accurately; his grunting and Kittner’s delicious squeals were clear, especially when Kittner called him by his name, as he’d told her to. And the detail that made Ryan grin viciously was the tattoo on the back of the administrator’s left shoulder, identifying him beyond doubt. Ryan took the footage he’d shot at the bar, complete with date and time stamps, and edited it together with the footage from the device.
Next came the drop phone, a cheap gadget from a Boulder bodega, the account pre-paid with cash and untraceable. He used it to send a text to Oversteen’s work account:
“Reply to this text with the link and password to the scoring database for the recruitment trials. Otherwise, I send the attached video to Katie, Katie’s parents, and your parents.”
He attached the video, sent the message, and returned to the barracks. Sleeplessly waiting to learn his fate was an unpleasant experience, and his only consolation was that he’d done everything he could.
* * *
On Monday morning he left for the next simulation: a simple one-day affair of scaling up an apartment block to crash through a window and surprise the simulated enemy on the twentieth floor. When he returned, he found a text on the drop phone: it contained only a link and a password. He accessed the database on his chipset and found his scores, then raised them just enough that he would surely pass as long as he didn’t completely fail this last week. Then he closed the link and tossed the drop phone into a trash can.
They want fighters, don’t they? thought Ryan over a beer. If they wanted Boy Scouts, then they should’ve recruited from their ranks. The relief was better than the release with Kittner. He was more concerned with getting away with it, but he couldn’t think of any traces he’d left behind. Anyway, he still had the footage; it was Oversteen who had to sweat it out, potentially forever. It did briefly occur to Ryan that Oversteen might figure that Kittner and the bartender were involved in setting him up and take some revenge on them. If he did, it only meant that Ryan was safe from Oversteen’s suspicions.
At the end of the week, after a particularly brutal three-day graduation simulation with almost no sleep and barely any food, Knighthawk posted grades on a huge screen in the barracks, drawing a crowd in the chilly morning light. Ryan was listed as having passed with an 87; a few minutes after grades went up, he received an email from the company, congratulating him on his accomplishment and inviting him to sign a contract with the company.
He took a bus to the HR office downtown and was presented with a flood of paperwork, worse than when he’d enlisted in the Army. He was already familiar with the contents; among many other things, it promised dire legal consequences if he abandoned his post, and it absolved the corporation of liability for anything that happened on the battlefield. It also required him to allow his voice and image to be used in the weekly TV program. He signed up for an eight-year tour of duty.
The number of recruits in the barracks had been trailing off for weeks as they saw that they would be unable to pass and had subsequently left. Now, the last of the failures were sent home, and only the graduates remained, a triumphant, jubilant, if exhausted and profoundly-relieved bunch. They remained in the barracks for three days in a continuous alternation of wild parties and sleep.
The next week, the contracts became active, and the new employees were ordered to report to the staging area for their first deployment. The class was to fly to Orlando and join other operatives in-theatre along the encroaching Atlantic Coast.
The Ranch sported an airstrip large enough for four-engine prop aircraft. The graduates lined up in their fatigues along the asphalt tarmac in the bright Colorado morning, barracks bags over their shoulders. All were quite badly hung over from the night before but there were no complaints. “Get used to it, fellas,” they joked. “Now that we’re heroes, international playboys, we’re gonna be hung over every morning with a different bitch in our beds.” They laughed at their pleasant discomfort as they waited.
A large turboprop transport landed and taxied towards them. An officer told them that the aircraft just needed to unload its cargo first; then they’d board for the flight to Orlando. They stood single-file behind the parked aircraft in the breeze of the propwash.
The cargo door at the rear of the aircraft lowered, and an aircraft tug went up the ramp and pulled out a train of loaded trolleys, depositing it alongside the recruits on the tarmac. The recruits waited while the cargomaster secured the straps and webbing inside the plane and unfolded the seats for them.
Ryan casually inspected the cargo on the trolleys. It was composed entirely of wooden crates stacked four high. He happened to notice black stencil markings on one of them.
They’re shipping operatives’ personal effects and kit for them, instead of making them carry it themselves, he thought. Pretty luxurious.
Then he noticed that the crate also had markings at either end for HEAD and FEET, and also KEEP REFRIGERATED stamped on the side.
He forgot his headache and squinted in the bright sunlight at the other crates.
Ryan quickly added up the crates as his heart began racing. There were sixty of them on this flight. Each had a date stamped on it, all from within the last week.
Ryan stared at the name. His mind couldn’t do anything with the sight before him and simply locked up, frozen.
Ryan looked up. The officer was looking at him, hard.
“Get moving!” The line of recruits was entering the open maw of the aircraft.
I signed the contract, Ryan thought.
He robotically walked up the ramp with the others. He couldn’t think of anything else to do.
The ramp came up, sealing him in.
Copyright © 2020 by Martin Grise