I decided to join the Army just out of high school for the same reason most people did -- to pay for college. It was just after we got out of Afghanistan, so I figured it was the safest time to join -- I mean, the guys who joined after Vietnam had a good 18 years before we saw another war, right?
"Good for you, Ethan," my dad said when I told him what I was planning. "I almost went into the Army after high school, too, but you know your grandpa -- wanted me to work the family business."
"And you don't want me to take over the tailor shop?" I said, grinning as we drank our morning coffee.
"God, no. Now that your grandpa's dead -- God rest his soul -- I'm selling that thing first chance I get. Just wish your mom and I could've sent you to college on our dime."
"No worries, pop. Army'll do me good. Besides, you know me -- I like the outdoors. The recruiter says he can do something with that."
I wasn't even out of Basic when Los Angeles was hit. By the time I'd gotten my assignment -- 10th Mountain Division, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry -- North Korean forces with Chinese support had attacked Inchon Air Base in South Korea. As soon as I joined my unit (we were called The Spartans), we were at war.
I made it through more combat engagements than I could count -- my file says 262, but that seems kinda low. I did ten years, made it to Sergeant First Class, then got out as soon as the cease-fire was declared. I'd gotten enough credits through the extension program during the war that I only did two years of college when I got back and got my bachelor's in computer science.
The job market wasn't great when I came back, and the only post-high-school experience I had was light infantry. I applied to about twenty places -- tech support, core-level programming -- but nothing hit. Until one day, early in the summer of 2030, I got a call from Applied Warfare, Inc.
A company I hadn't even applied to.
"Good morning," the voice on the other end of my phone said. It was a female voice, pleasant and cheerful. "Is this Sergeant First Class Ethan Brennan?"
"Former SFC, yeah."
"Oh, hello, Mr. Brennan. My name is Stacy Frink. I'm with a company called Applied Warfare. Are you familiar with us?"
I was, actually. They were a defense contractor, but not one of the evil "we train our own private army" ones. They were into tech -- they'd made some of the UAVs and UGVs my unit had used for intel gathering in the war.
"Yeah. Yeah, I have."
"Your name was given to us by. . . well, I'm not at liberty to say. Would you be able to drop into our office in Tampa for an interview? I think we have a position for you."
"I can do that. When do you want me to come by?"
"Tomorrow at two?"
"Tomorrow at two."
"Outstanding. I'm sending the information to your phone. We'll see you tomorrow."
The connection terminated, and I checked my phone's screen. Their address in Tampa -- only 10 minutes from my apartment -- was already routing to my GPS. I had one suit, and I took it out of the closet and headed for the dry cleaner.
* * *
"Mr. Brennan," the woman greeted as I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor of an unmarked building in downtown Tampa. She was a little heavy, but she carried it well. "I'm Stacy Frink. We spoke on the phone."
"Ethan Brennan," I said, smiling and shaking her outstretched hand.
"It's good to meet you, Mr. Brennan. Please, come with me," she said, badging through a secure door at the end of the lobby and holding it open for me. I followed her, and we walked down a long, blank hallway to an elevator. She badged into the elevator, then pressed the button for the third sub-basement.
"Find us all right?" she asked as the elevator descended rapidly.
"Sure. I live near here, anyway."
The doors opened on another hallway, but this one wasn't blank -- there were blast doors along both sides. Stacy led me all the way down the hall and badged us into yet another door -- this one also required her palmprint to open.
"So tell me, Mr. Brennan -- how is it that a SFC in the Spartans ends up with a Top Secret clearance? Not normal for light infantry NCOs," she said as the door's hydraulics slowly pushed open.
"Near the end of the war, when we crossed from Mongolia into China -- my unit saw things it probably shouldn't have."
Stacy nodded as the door opened and we went into the room. It was set up like a normal conference room, except that there were only two chairs around the long table.
"Please, have a seat," she said, indicating the chair to the left of the table. I sat, and she sat in the other chair. She touched the table, and the area between us lit up with an image of what looked like a UGV.
"This is the Tarantula," she told me.
"Unmanned ground vehicle?" I asked.
"Correct. Less than a foot long, stealth-capable, all-terrain, all-weather. It's a drone for Signals Intelligence. Or at least, it's supposed to be."
"It doesn't work?"
"Not yet. Not the way we need it to, anyway. Something's wrong with the programming. We need someone with combat experience and programming skills to figure out what's going wrong, then pilot it through the test runs."
"I see. And that's me, you think?"
"From your file, you definitely have the experience. Your IQ is off the charts, and the paper you wrote for your bachelor's --"
"How'd you get a hold of that?"
"We have friends at Arizona State. We think you're the man not only to help us get the Tarantula up and running, but to do it fast. It needs to be combat effective in three weeks. With its pilot. Interested?"
"Where is it deploying?"
"I'm afraid your security clearance isn't sufficient for me to tell you that. Not yet, anyway."
"My security clearance is the highest there is. You know that," I said.
"No. It's just the highest level you're aware of," she said, smirking.
I sat and thought for a moment.
"What's the pay like?"
"One-year contract guaranteed at three times your Army salary. After that, I'm sure we'll have more work for you."
"You said combat effective. Can I take that to mean that the Tarantula -- and by extension, its pilot -- would be deploying into a hot zone?"
"You could infer that, yes."
"And deployment would be in three weeks?"
"Three weeks, two days. Take the night to think it over. I'll give you some of our project files to look over, as well."
I nodded. She handed me a small data card, and five minutes later, I was back in my car and on the way home.
* * *
Several hours later, I was deep into the product documentation and munching on the remnants of a tofu scramble in my living room. The Tarantula's proprietary operating system was fucked, all right, but I was already starting to see where I might be able to fix it. I picked up my empty bowl to take it to the sink and heard a knock at my door.
The man standing outside my apartment was a couple of years older than me, I knew, but he always looked younger. He was dressed in civilian clothes, which was not how I was used to seeing him, and his hair was longer -- but I recognized him anyway.
"Daniel," I said, sticking out my hand and smiling. "What the hell are you doing here, man?"
"Came to see you, buddy," Daniel smiled, shaking my hand.
"Come in, man. Come in. How's Bryce?"
"Bryce is good. He's running a little errand in Los Angeles right now, but he says to tell you hi."
Daniel came in and closed the door behind him. If it was anyone else, I would have moved to cover up the documentation spread all over the coffee table, but I knew Daniel's security clearance was just as high as mine.
"Can I get you a drink?" I asked, heading for the fridge.
"I'd about murder for a beer right now," Daniel told me.
I grabbed two bottles of Newcastle out of the fridge and opened them, handing one to Daniel. He took a long swig, then set it his bottle on my coffee table next to the Tarantula documents.
"So, you gonna take the job?" he asked.
"How'd you know about that?"
"Who do you think told Advanced Warfare about you? They had a bunch of other guys in mind for the position -- officers, Air Force Combat Controllers, guys with doctorates in the field. We sold 'em on you."
"Yep. Me and the boss. We didn't forget what happened in Ulaan Baatar, Ethan. You're the man we want at our backs."
"4-7 Echo is the team? The one I'd be deploying with?"
Daniel took another long swig from his beer, draining it. He stood up and stretched.
"Look, buddy. You want my advice -- take the job. We'll be there to watch your back."
Daniel headed for the door.
"Hey, Daniel -- can you tell me where we're going?" I called after him.
Daniel had his hand on the door handle, but he turned and smiled at me before he opened it.
"Can't, buddy. You're not cleared yet. But I can tell you -- you've been there before. In fact, it was the last place you went in uniform before you went back to Fort Drum."
Daniel opened the door and, with a parting wave, walked out into the hall. As the door closed behind him, I sat back down on the couch and took a sip of my beer.
I remembered the flight back to Fort Drum -- there were a hundred of us crammed into the back of a C-17. We switched out to a much more comfortable 767 at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, but I knew Daniel hadn't meant we'd be going back to Japan. No, he meant the place where the C-17 took off -- from a secured airfield in Guangzho, China.
As I finished my beer, I picked up my phone and dialed.
"Stacy? Ethan Brennan. I'll take the job," I said.