[YOU ARE DEHYDRATED! DRINK WATER IMMEDIATELY!]
My Bionet lurches me awake at four in the morning. My brain is murder and if I had any more energy I would curse the world’s most boring engineer that made it so it says you’re gonna have a hangover AFTER it lets you go to sleep.
I chug down a couple glasses of water and peek out of one bloodshot eye to see a blue line of text appear at the bottom of the bathroom mirror:
[Hangover bottles are available in the mini-fridge for CN¥650]
Obviously I drink it. I take another. Still sick. Halfway through three. Feeling better. Sleep.
At three past seven my Bionet wakes me up at the optimal low point of my sleep cycle. Much better. Sorry I got so mad at you, buddy.
I have a bit of time to freshen up and I notice my Multiform smells terrible. At least this hotel has a case in the room. Freshener costs an extra two hundred Chinese but it at least it’s not as bad as those damn hangover bottles. Somebody’s going to Hell for that, I’m sure. If there is a just and loving God there is no way they’re gonna let that slide.
Actually, it’s a pretty nice place. The shower has water coming at you from five angles. Probably an Auroran addition. When I get out of the shower my Multiform is good as new. Smells nice. Oh, the freshener has a cinnamon scent, not bad.
A notice from the night before tells me to wait in the lobby with other new contractors. Once I’m spick-and-span I come down and find the place is pretty crowded. There are a few of the folks you’d think of when you say “mercenary” - young, fit, tattoos here and there - but there are a surprising number of, well, other people. A girl with neon hair drawing on a sketchpad - probably a graphic designer. Skeletal college grads who awkwardly clutch their gangly biceps and rock back and forth as they debate programming languages. Then I hear from across the room something I’ll never forget.
“Yes, it was your ship and your copper, but it was near my fleet. Where else do you expect me to find a ship big enough to gut into an Olympic-sized swimming pool and fill it with Nutella?!” He speaks through gritted front teeth in a British accent with a hint of German, like a cold chip shop sausage sprinkled in sauerkraut, talking into — and this is where you’ll have to take my word for it — a corded telephone, the kind you only see in really old movies.
“What? The hostages? I gassed ‘em!” He rolls his eyes through the response. “Why? Because I thought it would be funny! ….If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t. Honestly, I was a bit let down. That’s what I get for being cheap and mixing bleach and ammonia. It’s my fault, really.”
I chuckle and slap my hand to my mouth, flashing back to yesterday. Did I really end three lives a day ago? I had to. They were going to kill me. But to these people it’s just a part of the job, and it seems to far away and done and not my problem anymore. How the hell does it not weigh them down?
I get a better look at the man. He’s tall and lanky with a Kashmir coat and the rattiest pants I’d ever seen. His wrinkled t-shirt shows a pile of 1s and 0s falling on a scale with the caption: “I do lines of code.” He wears a black leather hat, the kind Australians would wear with corks hanging from it, but without the corks.
I am in crazy land.
If I leave I don’t survive.
This is normal to these people.
I have to adapt.
When in Rome.
“It wasn’t even their ship! You owned it, and you’re still alive, so I don’t see why you’re so upset.” He mimes mock-talking with his hand and sighs. “Look, it’s like when you see a dog with its owner: it’s perfectly reasonable to kill the dog and slap the owner with it.” A pause. “So that he shares in the misery!”
I laugh. Audibly. If I’m getting on this roller coaster, I may as well strap in.
“Sue me. I’m great in a courtroom. You’ll get the same result as Shanghai last year: ‘Your Honor, I ran over this man because he was talking about his klout score and I wanted to remind him of his place in the grand scheme of things.’ Lovely thing, Chinese justice: price tag right at the door. Kind of like America, except there aren’t as many obnoxious twats who think their feelings matter.”
Full on laughter.
“I’m hanging up now. Apparently I have become a comedian.” He hangs up the ancient phone and turns to me. “Entertained?”
“Yeah, yeah, more than I’d like to admit.” I extend my hand. “Wade Foster.” He shakes mine.
“Supreme Benevolent Emperor of the Universe, The Magnanimous Anton Von Hitler.”
“Wait, the pirate?” Laughter flows like a sieve. “You’re real!? I thought you were just some prank billionaire!”
“Of course I’m bloody real! Are you Bionet twats that used to talking to your hologram waifus that human beings don’t exist anymore?”
“You don’t have a Bionet?”
“Then why talk on the phone?”
“Because, a proper ‘tellyphone’ has a cord to the wall so I don’t lose it! And so I’m not waving my hands, babbling to myself like I’ve got demented bloody Parkinson’s.”
“Then what’s your Bionet for?”
“What is this, twenty questions? To play video games, obviously! Just finished replaying Far Cry 3. Well, at least to the point where you put a silencer on the anti-materiel rifle — that point you may as well start rolling credits…good bit of nostalgia, though. If I hadn’t played it in the first place I would have probably never been a pirate.”
“Well if you’re going to make me spill my life story I may as well be committed. All right, well, my parents were rich doctors — fat good that did them when the Gray Death took them down, ha, ha, ha — and I spent the next few years of my inheritance playing an irresponsible amount of video games. Then I picked up a rerelease of Far Cry 3. You play as an American twat that has to save his American twat friends who were kidnapped by pirates, and over the course of the game you become the very monster it takes to save them, but the focus becomes less about them and more about getting revenge. I was all for it until the ending, where you either choose to leave the island like a pussy, or stay and get stabbed like a bitch. After I finished the game I stood up and thought, ‘You wot? If that was me I would have taken the pirate king’s place.’ So I looked at my bank account and figured I’d hire some mercs to nick me a battleship, and here I am now, saving up for an aircraft carrier so I can kamikaze fighter planes by remote control. All right, that’s my story, your turn.”
“Huh, well, quite a turn of events. Um, you’ve kind of shellshocked me, but yeah, I’m an infoteer.”
His eyes light up the tiniest bit.
“I’ve actually got some work that needs doing in the area. Do you go to Buffalo often?”
“Yeah, all the time, what’s up?”
“There’s a regular source who’s under suspicion. He might need some help.”
“What, like, Dragon help?”
“Probably. Contractors hire Dragons and vice versa all the time, got to spend money to make money.”
“All right, then, sure.”
“Good, I’ll have my secretary send you the relevant information, because I can’t be arsed to keep it all in my head.”
“So,” Von Hitler begins after a lull, “excited to join the Dragons?”
“Not really, I mean, sort of. It’s kind of a protection order thing, they won’t let anyone kill an asset.”
"Hah, you’ll be out in a month.”
Out a mile from the nearest paved road, digging my own grave while Cuse Cartel thugs drink beer and talk about sports.
“What makes you say that?”
“Dragons are big on culture fit. It’s easier to deal with people who are more like you. The mercenaries don’t like mercenaries.”
“Why should it even matter? It’s not like being bar buddies is gonna make them more money.”
“Everyone has their traditions, even pirates. In my fleet, when you die, your corpse and possessions are shot out of a cannon. It holds even for me. Except in my case I’ll spare the wastebin by my desk, I’m leaving that to my sister.”
“You have a-?”
“-The point is if people will follow your lead through enough of the easy choices, chances are they’ll remain for the hard ones.“
"Then what do I do?”
“Lie. Mostly to yourself. A lot. Do it enough and your body will believe you. Keep it up and your mind will follow.“
The doors swing open and Franshesco proudly marches in. “Good morning everyone! Loyalty to the mission!”
The lobby spins to him and shouts “Loyalty to the end!”
Von Hitler turns to me and extends his hand. “Foster, right?”
“Good meeting you.”
Good handshake. And he tips his cork-less cork hat.
What a gentleman.
Franshesco gathers the new recruits around him.
“Welcome to the Auroran Dragons!”
Everyone cheers but me. I feel a little awkward and can only muster a “Yeah!” and clap. I’m not sure if I really want to be here. If my life hadn’t been threatened, I probably would never have come. But I suspect if I’m not enthusiastic enough they’ll throw me to the curb and I’ll have to find my own way to hide from the Cuse Cartel. I put on a smile.
You want to be here. You want to be a Dragon.
“My name is Franshesco Caliez, Centurion of personnel and recruiting. I hope you all brought a photo of your families so when we’re done you can still remember their faces.”
That gets a few chuckles from the crowd, including me.
“Follow us to your new lives.”
I nod to Anton Von Hitler as I walk away with the group. He nods back and unfolds an actual wood-pulp newspaper. What a weirdo.
We walk out to a fleet of Auroran busses that take us straight to the headquarters. It’s barely half a mile away and we probably spend most of the time getting in and out, but wow, these busses are lux. Fold-out tables and even an open mini-bar. Some grab drinks, others exchange judgmental glances.
The headquarters was dug out of the old salt mines alongside the lake. But the interior is lined with stylish marble, which looks surreal given they almost filled the place with natural gas during the fracking boom. Almost looks like the inside of a New York bank. There are a few Dragons standing around, socializing. Franshesco leads us to a door marked “Borealis.”
“You’re in luck today, most Dragons don’t show up for Borealis on Sunday. I’ve reserved your seats in the front rows.”
He opens the door and leads us into a gilded auditorium. Somehow I end up front and left center. The room fills up in the next five minutes, and at exactly 10 AM the Master Legate takes the podium. I cheer as much as I hear.
“Loyalty to the Mission!”
“Loyalty to the End!”
“Welcome, new Aurorans. You have a long day ahead of you so I’ll make this a quick one. The Centurion’s Council has reviewed the Corsair attack on Dubrovnik and agreed to the Venice contract for defense and sovereignty against the Camorra. Centurions Oskar and Stanisław Wrocławski have temporarily reassigned themselves to undisclosed locations throughout Central and Southeast Europe to aid in buffing up their defenses and driving businesses for their arms subsidiaries. The Auroran stake could see annual growth of twenty percent by taking advantage of developing political instability in the region.”
“Additionally, under pressure from the Chinese government, we have broken our contract with the military government on Sumatra we propped up two years ago in response to Chinese-funded insurrection. We are also selling all relevant client information to the Chinese for an undisclosed sum. Sorry to all of those who lost life and limb for this cause, you will be duly compensated. Health and Wealth for Every Auroran.”
He looks sad for a moment before he turns away from the crowd and walks off stage without fanfare. Franshesco steps up and takes his place.
“You have all been chosen to come here today because you are the best. Very few people have ever set foot inside this room. Fewer will ever be called ‘Dragon.’ Only those who prove themselves to be soldiers of perfection may wear our colors.”
The lights dim and Franshesco unlocks his Bionet - the rest of us join his channel.
“My name is Franshesco Caliez. I was born and raised in Loudon County, Virginia, in the former United States. I joined the Navy at eighteen and faithfully served my country for seven years. I was quickly picked out to join the SEALs, and earned many distinguished awards for my service, including the Navy Cross.”
“Then,” Franshesco trails into a somber tone, “I was given a mission. If you know anything about the Dragons, you probably know this story. For those of us who were there, our faith in our national governments was irrevocably shattered. But before we announced our desertion, we completed our mission, and until the collapse of the United States government, we kept our involvement a secret, as we had been ordered to do.“
“Following dissolution, we saw no reason to keep the secret any longer: there was a CIA black site in Poland left over from the War on Terror. A contractor had gone rogue with sensitive information from the site we had just been informed about and was hiding in Bangkok. We were told this was a top secret joint mission with the government of Poland. That much was true. We were told a leak of this information would be a serious harm to national security. Security, perhaps, but reputation, certainly.”
Our vision flashes through images and video clips of the breach into the nondescript apartment on the outskirts of the city, and a terrified young man beaten and tied to a chair.
“Our orders were to eliminate the leak, but they didn’t expect us to see the videos.”
Then we see people in cages, kept like animals. One chained to the bars with barely enough space to move around. Dog bowls of mush and water in front and a Russian flag wrapped around his waist. A video of a man resisting a force-feeding operation beaten so badly his jaw gets broken and loses most of his teeth. Another is suspended from the ceiling by handcuffs while a guard makes him dance by swinging a chainsaw around his feet. It’s too much. I try to look away, but I’m forced to watch it all even with my eyes closed shut.
“Tell me,” Franshesco mutters as the images dissolve away, “could you see that and come out the same person?” The room falls silent.
“The secret detention facility was formally closed in 2017 along with other bases like Guantanamo, but it was secretly recommissioned during the Eurusso War. After the war, the US kept the prisoners there in secret. It became a destination for sadists and soldiers who couldn’t be discharged - relatives of powerful people.”
“On that day, Nathan Trevelyan, myself, and the two Polish operatives sent with us - Oskar and Stanisław Wrocławski - renounced our citizenships and declared ourselves stateless mercenaries. But we had our orders. Our decision was to kill the traitor and destroy the documents, as per the mission objectives. As Nathan said to us back then: ‘To be trusted deserters, we must be loyal to our work.’ Our choice cemented the First Talon of the Dragons: Loyalty to the Mission, Loyalty to the End.”
“We spent the next few years in the Battle Belt from the Sahara to Central Asia - basically wherever water was short and people’s lives were on the line. Most of our clients never met us in person - to them, we were only known as “The Deserters.” We took small jobs: an assassination here, a bomb plot there. Whatever we could to survive under the radar. Until we got a big one: a feudal lord in Uzbekistan wanted us to wipe out a larger rival clan. We didn’t know it then, but that was about to become our most popular service. The leader was insistent that we kill everybody, including women and children. Nathan refused to kill non-combatants. Even though we were desperate for the work, he had the feudal lord convinced. From then on, we have followed the lesson of the Second Talon: They Say What, We Say How.”
“Not long after that, the Gray Death broke out. Once the United States was done for, we didn’t have to worry about drone strikes. Without fear, we flew to the oil rush in Siberia, recruited on a massive scale, and eventually became known around the world as the Auroran Dragons. But with growth came growing pains, especially for nomads. The Master Legate allowed independent missions, but there were Dragons who didn’t like to sleep in the same place twice and wanted to be permanently nomadic. The Master Legate refused at first, and when the issue was put to vote, he was defeated. It was the first time in our history that he had voted against the Centurion’s Council and the majority of Dragons, and the first time he had lost. He accepted the defeat, and from that, the Spectre program was born. Now the offer of anonymous agents allows us to charge premiums in several markets. It taught us all a valuable lesson, and our Third Talon: Embrace the New and Terrifying.”
“But the challenges of our growth were not over. Soon we had to find a place to make our own. As the rising seas put islands under water and desertification reduced settlements to sand, we had to find a place that had arable land, and fresh water. Somewhere safe from tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes, and rising tides. We chose Upstate. But if we were to live peacefully, we would have to respect our surroundings, and the people in them. We made a pact with the people of Watkins Glen: they would accept us as their overlords, change the name of their city to Novaurora, and take on Auroran citizenship. In return, we would allow them to raise their own taxes and form their own local government. Although there was resistance, the city didn’t have much of a choice: without safe surroundings it was curtains for the tourism industry the town had always depended on, and when we arrived, their concerns were less about economic success, and more about eating, and survival. In the end, we have never collected a cent in tax. Each Auroran citizen receives the same health care afforded to a Dragon. The only condition is that each Auroran must attend a martial arts class for two hours every week, and show they can shoot and clean a gun twice a year. This deal gives the Aurorans security and the Dragons stability. To this day we have never had a protest bigger than a town hall meeting. This is because we adhere to our Fourth Talon: Harmony with Your Environment.”
“Finally, we come to our flag: what we call the gold and violet. Violet because we are a nation blended by others; gold because we are first and foremost mercenaries: if we stopped fighting, Aurora would cease to exist. But we come to the two white stripes we never acknowledge or mention by name, our pithy rationale for the horrors we inflict on our own species. They are the marks of our clear conscience. We don’t pretend to fight for a higher ideal, like democracy, order, or the demands of deities. We fight for cash, and we know it. But we have standards. We do not kill innocents. We do not steal unless the client permits it. None of us are hypocrites. Since the beginning we have adhered to one thin justification for our work, our Fifth Talon: God Decides in the End. If we’re going to Hell, we’re going to Hell. But we were great.”
Franshesco pauses for more than a sentence break. If I were a gambling man I’d say he’s doing it to give the folks with weak stomachs a chance to leave before they’re in too deep. Mine twists and turns as I think about that bodyguard whose spine was severed against that tree. My hands slowly close into fists until I feel a layer of skin being pierced. It may not be the shallow grave the Cuse Cartel wants me in, but I started digging a long time ago. Like Anton Von Hitler said, I may as well stay committed.
“You don’t have to find yourself in every story, just take away the one that means the most to you. You will do well if you adhere to the Five Talons of the Dragons: Loyalty to the Mission, Loyalty to the End; They Say What, We Say How; Embrace the New and Terrifying; Harmony with Your Environment; and God Decides in the End.”
"Now before I let you go we’ll have to talk about the only certainly besides death: taxes.”
He drops his professional demeanor and teases: “Ah, who am I kidding? Statistically, three of you will be dead in a year.”
A few people laugh. I don’t. Should I have? Does he know I didn’t? Do they record all of these little reactions and play them back behind closed doors? What am I getting myself into?
“As a contractor, we pay you a fixed rate for your work. All the spoils go to the Dragons, and any work on the side will be taxed accordingly.”
Great, now all of my contacts will be open to the Dragons. If they ever find out they’re being watched they’ll drop like flies.
“Money is the lifeblood of the Auroran nation. While the city of Novaurora raises taxes to pay for local needs like courts of law, Health and Wealth for Every Auroran can only be achieved through profit. It is our profit that enables our grand society to attract talented individuals who would otherwise live in global capitals like London or Dubai. The greater the talent, the higher the profits. We have achieved all of this without taxing the public, nor has the public ever felt the need to tax us. Our corporation has a duty to uphold the community and attract creators of value, for ever greater pride and profits. We call our doctrine Auroranism, and although it is simple, it is not easy. The more we grow, the more it costs. This is the price for a city without poverty, where no one has to sleep hungry, or on the cold streets, where your children can roam the streets at night without fear, where everyone has the right to health care no matter how much money they make.”
Franshesco pauses for a beat to let it all in.
“And that’s why we take embezzlement seriously. So, if any of you still have funny ideas about side work you ‘forget’ to disclose, we will go after you to balance the books. If we catch you, we’ll dock your pay and give you a warning. If it continues, you’re fired. And if you try taking real money, we will torture every cent we can out of you, stick your head down a flak cannon, and I, personally, will pull the trigger.”
Franshesco scans the crowd for the first point of eye contact.
He points his finger down at the man, more of a boy, looks like he graduated college a week ago.
“Am I going to kill you someday?”
The guy shakes and blurts out: “No sir!”
Franshesco smiles, and extends his thumb like his hand is a gun.
“Ha, ha, right answer.”
He “holsters” his gun. I and a few others laugh under our breaths. Most have been stone cold the entire time.
"Some of you look scared. Good. Get used to it. Welcome, to the Auroran Dragons.”
“Loyalty to the mission!”
He presses his fist to his chest while the rest of us rise and do the same.
“Loyalty to the end!”
I actually smile. I feel all right here. Maybe I was just afraid of the new and terrifying.
“This concludes Indoctrination. Outside you will be met by your supervisors with new Auroran Multiforms and Bionet pills. I have just set a clock for thirty minutes. If you haven’t ingested all of them within that timespan, we will dispatch Dragons to help you with this complicated process. Hopefully for the sake of your scrotums, none of you are double agents.”
The auditorium lights up and directs us from where we came. I follow the line back out through the cheering. Lots of cheering. There are Dragons lining the hall, clapping and congratulating wherever we go. Where did they all come from? The place was deserted an hour ago. They’re all holding cases of new equipment. Uyen lights up when she sees me and waves me over to hand me my equipment case.
“Hi Wade, how’d it go?”
“Haha great! Come to my office, we’ll sort out the details.”
As I follow her through the intelligence wing, doors fizzle into place and block my vision before I can even get a glimpse through them.
“So how’d you get into the Dragons?”
“Do you remember the flood that wiped out Ho Chi Minh City?”
“I remember reading about it, yeah. I was kinda young back then.”
“My parents were poor farmers, so they came to the city for a better life. By the time I was an adult, they had their own import/export business. I just graduated from university and I was ready to work with them, but the flood destroyed everything. Even the reinsurers went bankrupt. We had to go back to the village they came from, and everyone struggled to make ends meet.”
“How did you survive?”
“I specialized in language at university, especially southern Chinese dialects. Chinese political prisoners and Gray Death escapees hid out in Vietnam all the time, and the Chinese government put a bounty on them. Since I could speak their language, they trusted me. Then I handed them over.”
“You didn’t feel guilty about that? Surely you sent some people to their deaths.”
“China has tried to conquer Vietnam for thousands of years. What do I care if they fight themselves instead?”
“I suppose. So your family did well?”
“Yes! In fact we were so comfortable from the bounties, I started to get hungry for more. I started hearing more and more about these mercenaries tearing up Siberia, and something came over me to try and find them. I stalked them for months, and when I made my appearance, I had the Master Legate cornered with a knife to his throat. He offered me a job on the spot!”
Uyen’s face is lit like a Christmas tree as she opens the door to her office, which is strikingly white and austere.
“I see you prefer clean.”
“I have several layouts, but I save them for solitude. I don’t like to give information voluntarily. Please take a seat.”
“Welcome. As I’m sure you’ve been briefed, we have priority need for Genesis Gel shipments. Given your relationship with Synthia Burns, we believe you can help us strike a deal to ensure supply in the case of a donor strike. We are prepared to offer her a twenty year contract with the first five years up front for a fifteen percent discount. Win this contract, and we have seen fit to award you one million Yuan in compensation. I am sending a set of sanitized information to you now. Any ideas?”
“Yeah, but first let’s talk payment.”
“You need this stuff, bad. When Dragons are injured, they don’t just cost money to treat, they aren’t making any for Aurora. I think doing this deal is worth fifteen million.”
She’s silent. A few seconds pass. I open my mouth to speak and see her perk up in relief, but I close it. Finally, she relents.
“I don’t have the budget for that, but I approve. I’ll have to call medical to do some reallocation, but I think we can do it.”
“Great, in that case, I think I know how we can get that deal.”
“What is it?”
“If I told you, you could make it yourself.”
I wink at her.
“Fine, have it your way. Nothing you have is too sensitive, but if you give it away, we’ll know. All right, we’re done here.”
I head out to my car and send a message to Synthia asking if she can do lunch. I wait for her to reply for a minute or two, and then I look back at the box in my passenger seat. May as well get the pills over with. I open it, and on the top is a thick sheet of paper with rounded corners and glossy text:
There’s work and there’s your life’s work.
The kind of work you’re remembered for. The kind of work that changes history, that gets inscribed on your tombstone. You can do that work as a Dragon. People don’t come here to take it easy.
They come here to do the impossible.
To become legends in their lifetimes.
Welcome to Aurora.
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