The officers' mess was all men, cavalrymen. Of course, few of them had ever ridden a horse; not since that day almost a century ago when the regiment had been called out to chase demonstrators in the first great depression, the one back in the 1930s. The colonel, a chubby, red-faced man at the head table, was the only person there who actually owned a horse; he stabled it near a great park must behind the regimental armoury. He rode it every Sunday. Civilian guests were always reminded of the colonel's love of riding. He was a symbol of the regiment's spirit. They drove tanks, now. But they were hussars, every one of them descended from that breed who charged into guns, leaning forward over their horses' necks, sabres held high with blades curving downwards.
Nowadays, Captain Dan wore pretty much the same dull camouflage as even the commonest soldiers. But as he glanced at his old friend and guest, George, he felt the pride of his formal mess kit - with boots, spurs, sabre, and a deep blue cloak flung over his left shoulder. . Dan was a soldier, not just a thug like the mercenaries George contracted out.
"Strange, isn't it Dan? I was the big kid. I kept the school bullies off you. Now look at us. I'm still big. But you're the one who turned out to be the real fighter."
"Couldn"t do it without you, George. I always have a squad of your boys going well ahead of me. I don't move until they tell me it's clear. Wouldn't last a day without them."
George grinned. It was true. He knew he'd done a good job recruiting them, or as good as could be done with men from every and any part of the world, men who wanted work, any kind of work. Hardly anybody at home wanted to join the army anymore.
There was no choice in this endless war against terrorism. The country needed "private contractors", whoever they could get from wherever. Then he looked thoughtful. Patriots like Dan were rare these days. Very few men or women, even in these hard times, were interested in military service And mercenaries were getting expensive. He glanced at the head table. It really reflected the importance of the regiment. Heads of the biggest corporations in the country were there. And right at the centre was the President, himself. Like all the presidents, he had to be tough and confident. That was the only way to win election by the Council of CEOs.
A sound like gunshots silenced the mess as the Colonel tapped a finger on the microphone. The officers snapped to attention as one man, with the civilian guests rising like a ragged and awkward puppets to stand in their business suits beside the rigid men in spurred boots, the men with the deep blue cloaks flung over their shoulders.
"At ease, gentlemen." The officers raised and stamped their left feet in unison, each left foot exactly the same distance from its right mate. "We will now be honoured with a short address from our Commander-in-Chief and President of the Council of CEOs. As the familiar form of the president rose to the microphone, the officers in unison snapped to attention, to a salute,then hands rigidly down along the trouser seams and feet back at attention. Civilian guests fluttered,wondering what to do.
The president nodded to the Colonel, "Thank you for inviting me to this annual dinner of the Royal Canadian Hussars." Then, turning to the officers, "This is a short message. I really want to tell you all how much we thank you for your untiring work in this long war on terrorism. And you are winning. This nation of North America, along with our Russian friends, is going to protect North American and Russian values, and spread them over the world - thanks to you and your courage and sacrifice and pride. God bless you all."
A major took the mike. "Saddles."
The officers resumed their seats, each placing both hands flat on the table.
Each officer, along with some guests who knew the regimental ceremony, clapped hands on the table at a walking pace - left, right, left, right...
"Advance at the trot."
The hands beat more quickly. Some officers leaned forward, grinning in anticipation.
The hands now beat fast and wild, all of the officers leaning foreward in a frenzy of whoops. A young officer leaped to his feet, leaned forward, and held high his sabre with the blade curving downward.. The madhouse of the charge lasted for a full two minutes, then slowed and stopped in triumphant exhaustion.
"Pass the port."
A private came to Captain Dan's table to give him a bottle. Dan poured it into his glass; then handed the bottle to George.
"No, George. Don't put it down. Pour yours, and pass it on. The bottle must never touch the table."
"I guess these old cavalry traditions are pretty important, eh?"
"When you're out there, on your own, these traditions are all that keep you alive. I love them."
George's chauffeur was waiting for them as they left the armoury. Captain Dan knew George was rich; but he had had been surprised earlier in the day by the magnificence of George's home and car. As they sank into the lounge chairs in the rear compatment, and George offered him a very fine scotch (from Hungary), Captain Dan had to say, "I'd heard things were pretty tough here on the home front. How do you afford all this?"
"Things are tough. But that's the law of the marketplace. People are cheap. That's why I can afford a chauffeur and cook and maids. It's tough. But the law of the marketplace is the only way we'll bring prosperity back."
"Getting any terrorist problems?"
"No. Nothing to speak of. The news media have been a big help. They put the news out so people can understand what this is all for. They understand it's for them. And they get all the free entertainment they want. I can tell you, most people up here don't have any time or sympathy for terrorists. They appreciate what you're doing."
The electrified gates opened automically as the car approached to sweep through, then closed as silently as they had opened. The chauffeur stopped; and the car gently sank below the lawn. George led Captain Dan to a doorway. He opened the door.
"I know you're tired." He put his hand on Captain Dam's shoulder. "Get a good sleep. We'll have time for a talk tomorrow before you head back to the front." Dan nodded. He was tired. There had been a lot of travel for one day. Tired as he was, he took the time to hang up his mess kit neatly before he sank into the bed, and drifted into a deep sleep.
Captain Dan jumped out of bed, head shrunk into his shoulders as he peered at the virtual trees around him, and the virtual sunlight streaming through. Then he felt the sour port in his mouth, and remembered he was in George's house.
"Damn," he thought. "Nerves."
He showered, put on his workaday camouflage uniform, He stepped into the hall. "This way," called Melanie. "George and I have breakfast all ready one the patio." Captain grinned a good morning. Melanie kissed him on the cheek, then led him to a well-set table surrounded by rose bushes on the vitrual patio
"Whoa," said George. "You must have been wearing a girdle under that mess kit. What happened to that skinny kid I used to know?"
Captain Dan grinned ruefully. "The Council of CEOs look after us pretty good in the field. Maybe a bit too good, I guess." He grinned again, almost cheekily, and reached for a plateful of bacon and several eggs. As he did, a hand gently tapped him on the wrist.
"I think we need to have the Lord's blessing, first."
Captain Dan jumped up an embraced a tall man whose own gestures and style had a more practiced enthusiasm.
"I didn't even see, Revernd Tommy. It's been a long time."
"Indeed, it has been. I just wanted to drop iin for a moment before chapel. It's been a long time."
"Could you give me a few words to pass on to the boys at the front?"
That drew a smile of practiced vibrancy, followed by a look of depth tand sincerity. "Tell them they have the Lord's blessing and our gratitude. I t just goes to show - wouldn't his me a much better world if people were just nice to each other? Gotta rush to chapel. So long, Dan; and God bless all of our soldiers."
With that he left; and Captain Dan and George sat down again to breakfast. It was a silent meal with a tension that Captain Dan sensed from his years of military service.
"Dan." George's voice was low, almost repentant. "We have to talk."
"Sure, George. There's lots to catch up on. What would you like to talk about?"
"Well....the fact is....I don't know what they're telling you....but the fact is we're running out of patriotic North Americans like you. If we're to hang on, we have to hire mercenaries to do the sort of work you're doing."
Captain Dan stared at George, then, "But they can't. What I do takes a lot of training. Mercenaries are okay for the foot work. But that's about it."
George nodded. "Exactly. We're going to have to train them. We have no choice. Soon, it will be them or nothing. I want you as my VP of armoured training." He sat, quietly tense as he waited for a response. It took several seconds.
"I'm flattered, George. I really am. Bu but you know me. I'm a field man. I've always been out there where the action is.That's where I belong. Right in the action. I don't see myself in a suit."
George chuckled. You won't be in a suit. You'll be with the men you're training. You'll be taking each batch into the field with you until they get - almost - as good as you are. Think about it. I need an answer in a week. Come on board, Dan. It'll be like old times." He clapped Captain Dan on the shoulder. Now, I see I need to get you to the airport. Let's go. The car is waiting. Take a week, Dan. Take a bit more if you have to. But please say yes. The Council of CEOs asked for you peronally. I know that because the President of the Council passed it on to me last night."
Just two hours later, Captain Dan strode to the tank park at the armoury in Arlington, Virginia. He climbed up a ladder, then down through a hatch into a tank. As he lowered himself to the commander's seat, he pulled the hatch shut. A screen lit up in front of him. He turned the camera, tracing a circle around the tank. He paused. There were his mercenaries, waving him on. He completed the cricle, kept going until he saw the mercenaries again, just by the jungle edge. Then the engine roared into life; and he And he watched the jungle come closer.