Brigadier Allan Craithie: Commander of UN Ground Forces
About ten minutes out of Banbury is a tiny place called Shutford. Five minutes from there and you find an old airfield. Cobwebs and cracked windows date all the way back to the Second World War. I’m sitting on a modern swivel-seat and staring at a monitor, the only clean things in this dismal Nissen hut. I thought I’d taken off combat uniform for the last time. Wish I’d kept my old trousers, the legs of standard issue never quite manage to reach my ankles and look ridiculous even tucked into long socks. I’ll just have to put up with looking like an idiot until my tailor can do something.
I’ve a fresh-faced lieutenant and a clerk for company and that’s my total staff for the moment. The rest will arrive overnight. Somehow, armed only with forty-odd people I’ve never met, I have to have this induction and training facility up and running.
The ugly mug of Chuck Mackenzie on my screen is not exactly my favourite face to look at, but I respect him. He’s about the best team-builder I’ve ever come across. I say to him, “Much as I’m flattered by my appointment, Chuck, I’m going to do this my way. I don’t have a magic wand, and can’t make experienced troops out of raw recruits overnight. I’m retired and need to get up to speed again. So I’m going on a mission from Tampere Base. I need to see what we’re up against.”
Chuck shakes his head. “Ridiculous, you’re too old for action. We need high command not…”
“We need experienced people teaching youngsters. I’m experienced. I will go and meet the enemy face-to-face: that’s a condition. Veto it and I’m out of here.”
“This is no time for…” Chuck barks as he always does when not getting his way, his scowling features resembling a boxer dog.
I interrupt him, jabbing a finger at the screen, “Appoint experts and listen to them: I’m an expert. Don’t try to micro-manage me. You don’t have time and I won’t have it. Good day to you.” I swing round, switch my screen off, and face my lieutenant who hands me several sheets of paper.
“The list of people already recruited, sir.”
I scan each sheet in turn. “Soucek, this list is going to build a team of wets. I see you’re aiming at the higher end of intelligence, but I want people who have cunning, think on their feet. Get me some people who’ve lived on the street, anything but,” I wave the paper at her, “these undergrads and shop assistants. We have a new enemy, new tactics to develop, and I need people with experience of survival in dangerous situations. Deal with it, please.”
She goes to speak, stops, shrugs, and walks out, boots clumping on dusty concrete. “Yes, sir.”
I wave to the clerk and start to ask for a cup of tea, but the roar of a bulldozer, driving past the window, makes speech impossible.
If it weren’t for the floodlights outside, you wouldn’t see a thing out there. We’re in the middle of nowhere. No street lights, no glow from nearby towns, only black clouds and heaving rain. Some poor people are out there trying to build an obstacle course in the dead of night. It’s all mad.
I go to put the kettle on, struggle to work out what the fiddly controls do, and wish things had on and off buttons like exhibits in museums, from when life was simple and you didn’t need a blasted degree to operate kitchen appliances.
Still in my hand, the list of names flops over to reveal other sheets of paper I’m supposed to work through. I glance at a heading, ‘Active Enlistment Protocol’. A quick scan of the contents tells me nothing. I’ve seen bullshit in so many armies, but Britain does it best. No one covers bad practice with so much incomprehensible nonsense. I smell a rat, a warehouse-full of rats. Wristcomm alive, I say, “Lieutenant, I need you here.”
“Sir, we’re just about ready for a recruitment drive. Can it wait?”
“Aye, the recruitment drive can wait. Come and talk to me.”
“Before you become a private.”
“On my way, sir.” There’s the clatter of some equipment and the crash of a car door. Seconds later, the lieutenant, already soaking wet, enters my derelict hole of a command centre. “Yes, sir?”
“Two things. Tell me how to use this blasted kettle, and tell me what this lot means.” I wave the papers at her.
She sags and heads for the kettle. “Oh that, and it’s me that’s got to tell you?”
“It’s all about secrecy, keeping PHALANX invisible. We can hardly recruit through the national media and give the world our contact details. So we go out in uniform, but displaying nothing that can identify us as anything other than UN. We arrest, er, how do you take your tea?”
“Strong, leave the bag in. At this time of night I often have a whisky with it, and it does seem exceedingly like a ‘this time’ right now.”
She uses the kettle with ease. Even watching her, I’m not sure how it all works.
I scan the protocols for a few moments. “You were, saying.”
“You need to set the kettle for hard water here, sir. Anyway, we arrest people in public, in front of witnesses usually so word spreads and it all looks bona-fide.”
“On what charges?”
“Whatever we come up with. It can be hard.”
“And then what do you do?”
She pours tea, clouds of steam half obscuring her for a moment. “Well, now we’ve moved here, this will be where we bring them. We run them through a series of questions, just to make sure they don’t have elderly relatives or children left unattended. Then we either apologise and take them back home, or keep them and induct them into PHALANX. Either way, there’s an official statement from the police that the allegations, or whatever, on which they were arrested, were all false.”
“So, I’m to head the press-gang section of an international military unit.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“How much training do they get?”
She looks away, as if embarrassed. “They don’t, didn’t. They were given guns and sent out. It’s only since you demanded they get trained that this place is coming together.”
“To what extent do you use force in the selection of these … volunteers?”
“None, unless you count stunning and cuffing them.”
“And the Home Office approve? Don’t even bother answering that.”
“You OK, sir?”
“Less than inspired, thank you. I once believed my generation would make the world a better place.” I sigh. “It all goes on; take up the fight, lieutenant. Your generation may have an answer.”
She looks blank. She’s out of her depth with that one. I make a note never to ask her to do more than make tea and arrest art students.
God, I’m feeling rotten, well, really tired. I’d like to return to my cottage in Orkney, walk the dogs, feed the seals, gaze at the sea…
Did Chuck Mackenzie come up with this protocol? If not, he’ll have seen and approved it. What does this say about him? That he’s sold his soul? No, not Chuck, he’d fry Satan in bacon fat before that happened. So? This all stinks of absolute desperation. And why the secrecy? There’s something very odd about that. What is someone not telling me?
The lieutenant asks, “May I go now, sir?”
“Aye, keep your helmet-cam on. I want to watch the whole process.”
“As you wish, sir.”
I slump back in my chair and stare at the screen. The tea is hot and good, but I’ll have to drink it before I doze off.
The lieutenant gets back into the Land Rover and announces to the troops that her camera and mic are on, that I can see and hear everything. Two minibuses follow them along the potholed wreck of a road that leads out. The chair creaks and groans as I try to make myself comfortable. It’s set for someone of average height and far too low for me. I try to work out what the levers are for, but they either seem to do nothing or make it sink to the floor. After sorting it out, I doze, feet up on the desk.
I wake occasionally to watch the lieutenant and her team arrest a variety of young people, one by one, from outside pubs usually. It’s after closing time now and getting harder to find victims. The lieutenant orders the team towards the university area, in case they can pick up students heading for their accommodation. A group of young people at a bus shelter look on in shock as a tall, gawky teenager is detained, frisked, and questioned by the lieutenant. “Name?”
“Charlene, Charlene Crawford. What’s this about?”
“Where were you at three p.m. this afternoon?”
“In a lecture.”
“Can you prove that?”
“Yes, everyone saw me.”
“Until witnesses come forward, you are charged with malicious damage to property in Queen’s Court at three p.m.”
“What? Don’t be…” The girl squeals as two soldiers seize her. She’s bundled into a minibus.
To make up numbers the team cruise sodden back streets. Windscreen wipers on full, it’s still hard to see anything but darkness or the reflected glare of street lights.
The lieutenant must have seen someone. She shouts to pull over quickly; water from a huge puddle blanks the windscreen for a moment. By the time she’s out, two soldiers have stunned a solitary man. He’s on the pavement, soldiers cuffing him, or trying to; he’s struggling against both the strength of them and force of the stunner. He wrestles himself upright and it takes four soldiers to hold him. Another searches the man’s clothes, pulling two pistols from holsters. Tattoos show through cropped hair. Muscles like ships’ hawsers bulge in his neck. The man grunts and swears, telling them they’ve made a big mistake messing with him. This gentleman is going to be more interesting than the rest of the conscripts put together.
He says, “Go away, little people, or you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
The lieutenant replies, “Get on the bus.”
“Sod off, you’re digging a hole for yourselves deeper than hell. I take orders from no one. Now piss off — or you’ll end up so deep in shit you’ll be fossilised before anyone finds you.”
The lieutenant goes through his wallet. “Peter Telfer?”
“I think you are. Where do you live?”
“The whole bloody world knows where I live.”
The lieutenant shrugs. “Whatever, Peter Telfer, from wherever, you’re under arrest.”
“What? Don’t be so bloody stupid.”
“You’re under arrest.”
“On what charge?”
She shrugs again, looks him up and down, and points to his shoes. “For the theft of those trainers.”
“Are you mental?”
“No, it’s my job that’s mental. Can you walk, or do we drag you into the transport?”
“You’d better find out who I am before you…”
He’s dragged into the last spare seat of a minibus and manacled next to a woman who’s crying. He stiffens and looks around as if in shock and growls at the lieutenant. “I don’t know who you are, or what this is all about, but you just made a big mistake.”
She laughs and says, “Good, that’s exactly the sort of nasty threat we were hoping for. My boss wants tough-nuts. Welcome to your new life, Mr Telfer.”
The lieutenant leaves the minibus and darts through the rain. Strapping herself back into the passenger side of the Land Rover, she speaks into her wristcomm to me, “Brigadier Craithie, that bloke may be your sort of man, but I’ll bet my psychology student Crawford against him. You up for a challenge?”
My skin prickles, fists clench. “Lieutenant, these are people, human beings, not racehorses.” This particular lieutenant just damaged any chance of promotion whilst working for me. “The virtual combat people will arrive tomorrow. Make use of them and their equipment. Commander Mackenzie thinks they are an asset. But don’t let that stop you using the assault course, we need fit soldiers, not unfit tacticians.”
“You won’t be here, sir?”
“Not for a while. You can reach me at any time, however, night or day.” Time to get this creaking mass of joints and muscles that is the aged remains of my body into a stiletto and fly to the nearest of PHALANX’s eight strategic bases: Tampere, Finland.
The lieutenant asks, “How long will you be away?”
“As long as it takes. I want to meet the enemy face-to-face. Can you rustle up an assault rifle for me?”
“Legend has it that you’re more of a minigun sort of person.”
“That was the past. I can’t handle heavy stuff any more. Besides, I want something I can stick a bayonet on.”
©Gary & Christy Bonn, 2014