Vogel thinks her office is too small for anything. She believes, even as a broom cupboard two brooms would wage war for space and there would be blood and splinters. It’s a high-tech office with walls that act as screens and has a triple-glazed, photo-sensitive window which Vogel decided was madness in a country like Finland. She wondered, What’s it going to do in winter? … make the sky lighter?
Among other things, it’s not a place to be facing a commander-in-chief that’s about to have her thrown into prison.
She knows she’s in deep trouble, abused her position and used UN hardware and troops in a way that’s inexcusable.
C-in-C of the UN secret military arm, PHALANX, Chuck McKenzie sits in the spare chair and stares at his wristcomm. Vogel wishes he’d finish looking at it and tell her what her fate is to be.
Half of her is furious – two weeks ago she was a mercenary and earning forty times as much as PHALANX pays. But that was two weeks ago and feels like another world already. PHALANX was an inspiration. Vogel said openly to Delta Squad that quality of life pisses on money. Now she thinks she’ll only earn pissed-on money – if she ever gets out of prison.
What freaks Vogel more than anything is the way that Chuck ushered her into the office first as a gentleman would. He looks at her and says, ‘Vogel, I know why you went on that mission. I understand your motives. That you didn’t alert the chain of command is a crime.’
‘They would have said no.’
‘Things are not so black and white.’
Vogel says, ‘From the major up, all are traditional, regular military not ex-mercs. In my experience traditional military is very black and little white. Sorry, I’m a mercenary first and adjusting to conventional systems is something I was prepared to do by increments as I learned to trust those above me.’
Chuck grunts. ‘It is the primary function of an institution to protect itself – even at the expense of members, particularly the more junior and powerless members.’
Vogel’s eyes narrow. ‘Yes, it’s called corruption. I want you to understand that Delta Squad acted on my direct orders. None of them carry any responsibility for what happened.’
Chuck closes his eyes, puts a hand over his forehead and draws the hand down to his chin. ‘You chose to protect junior members at the potential expense of PHALANX and now you would protect them by taking all responsibility. Why?’
Vogel says, ‘This war may be over soon. No merc will sign up to a boss that doesn’t care. I’m a boss. If I screw people to save my own skin who will sign up for the next job? Mercs talk to each other. Oh, there are always the naïve who will sign up to anything but any boss working with them is a fail.’
Chuck stares at her. ‘So you don’t really care about your section?’
Vogel catches her breath. ‘You mean do I care about them as people instead of a means to earn income? I think I passed that barrier after our first mission.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that.’
Vogel says, ‘I’m not sure if I even believe myself. This is all new to me. What is it you’re trying to say?’
‘They should face courts-martial.’
‘Fuck you. I face that, not them.’
Chuck says, ‘Call me, “sir” and don’t swear at me. You have a reputation for not swearing.’
Vogel knows she’s on thin ice if she’s going to save the people in her command. ‘Sir, I swear up the command chain, never down it. I’m sorry. I..’ she tails off, out of words and ideas.
Chuck says, ‘You’ve made your point. You will take full responsibility. I know joining PHALANX has been a difficult transition for you. I’m amazed that nearly all of you mercenaries coped so well with inclusion.’
Chuck doesn’t answer that but says, ‘You exceeded your authority in so many ways.’
Chuck leans back in the chair and closes his eyes, wrinkles all over his face relaxing. He says, ‘So did Admiral Nelson, Allan Craithie … me too,’ he pauses, ‘Safronov has never responded to a single order unless it suited him as far as I know.’
Vogel says, ‘Safronov? He’s actually joined UN Military now?’
Chuck says, ‘I wish he had … I don’t wish … Craithie wishes it. You and I know Safronov makes his own rules … but if he was prepared to settle into the system … maybe we would all sleep better and the aliens not so well. Allan knows Safronov respects you. He says do what you can to bring Safronov into PHALANX.’ He looks at Vogel. ‘You’ve worked with him?’
Vogel feels sand shifting under her feet – this is not a pre-disciplinary talk. She says, ‘I worked with him twice … close up…’
‘I … um … he’s good: better than anyone I know.’
Chuck, still with his eyes closed, says, ‘Tell me, If you were to go into combat with any of the mercenary or other teams and individuals here who would you choose?’
‘I trust Perera, Meen, well, Perera, I can intimidate him. Oh right, you want UN talk. I’ve worked with … sorry, what are you saying?’
‘Who is the best team?’
‘That’s hard … really hard. I’ve worked with all teams in Green Section.’
Chuck grunts like only he or a big male boar can. ‘Choose.’
Vogel thinks, What? I thought I was a goner. What’s going on here?’ She says, ‘I … well … Delta has the most promise.’
He says, ‘Delta has two green conscripts: explain why you chose that team.’
‘Yes, they’re new but Googoosh is very intelligent … seriously. Rudi is, well … in his first mission he was really cool and has lightning reactions.’
Chuck says, ‘Nevertheless Googoosh and Rudi are inexperienced. Who will you replace them with?’
Vogel thinks, Oh right. This is not about me being crucified now – just later. What team do I want around me? She says, ‘I’ll take Delta as they are.’ She thinks fast. ‘Are you about to dump me and any the team I choose deep in trouble?’
‘I can see from your question that mercenary work is not so different from PHALANX. You showed a degree of independence and initiative that we require from time to time. Taking full responsibility for your actions means a change of scenery for you.’
Vogel says nothing, waiting for more.
Chuck goes on, ‘If you want Delta, you take them. Prepare them. Talk to Brigadier Craithie … he will be in contact. You will be known as “Sigma”: that’s “S” for “Special, secret and slit throat if anyone finds out”. PHALANX personnel will know of the squad but you will never divulge the nature of your activities – and report anyone that asks for information. You will have no contact with anyone but Mikka, Allan and I regarding this. Go to your firebird in one hour. Take a minimum of personal belongings with you. Dismissed.’
Another helmet-cam photo has been pinned next to the drinks unit in Green Section’s ready-room.
Taken from Elodie’s camera, it shows Rudi being thrown right across the fuselage of the firebird as two 7.62mm AP bullets strike him. He stares at it while making tea. Gianina enters the room, her hair still wet from showering, and comes to his side. ‘How are you doing?’ She runs fingers through her blue-black hair.
‘I’m fine. That doc Chaucer deactivated the residual nanos. He says I’m fixed.’
Gianina softens her voice. ‘But how are you?’
‘I feel stupid. I launched that rocket and just stood there to watch what happened instead of ducking down. Wanker.’
‘Yup. Move aside, big boy, I need coffee.’
Googoosh arrives next, her wet hair signalling that she too has been for a post-combat wash. She approaches Rudi and opens her mouth to talk. He waves her quiet. ‘I’m fine and I don’t want to talk about it. Well, apart from thanking Elodie for saving my life. Anyone seen her?’
Googoosh shakes her head and says to Gianina, ‘About the contract?’
Gianina fights the spitting coffee machine and says, ‘Contracts go stale. People can die by accident while you are trying to kill them. Sometimes the person setting the contract dies, or, like now, ends up in prison. I get to keep thirty thousand and whoever runs the net keeps the rest.’
‘So no one’s going to kill me or Achille?’
‘Not for the moment. Try not to piss off too many big companies. Anyway, tonight the party is on me.’ Their wristcomms beep. She looks at hers. ‘Vogel wants us all in here immediately.’
Googoosh says, ‘We’d better run.’
Gianina heads for a sofa. ‘I wonder what she’s going to say? other than goodbye and ask us to visit her in prison.’
Googoosh says, ‘Do you really think…?’
Gianina interrupts, ‘PHALANX may be getting up to speed now but I can’t see even regular military getting rid of Vogel. She’s too good. No, he’ll have bawled her out and…’
Vogel enters. ‘Bawled me out? It’s much worse than that. You in one piece, Rudi?’
‘I am, thanks, ma’am.’
‘From this moment on, you can all drop the “ma’am”. I’m Vogel and that’s it.’
Kpangba and Janice enter through one door, Elodie, closely followed by Heidi from another. Vogel says, ‘Get yourselves drinks but don’t take too long.’
Firoz enters dressed in only a towel round his waist and carrying his rifle and clothes. Vogel says, ‘Wow! … muscles … cover yourself up, you tart. OK, listen, squad.’ She looks from Googoosh to Rudi. ‘You two are talented but inexperienced. We may be going on some rather more challenging missions.’ She waves everyone quiet. ‘You two can pull out of this unit if you wish. If you choose to stay two things must happen. First, the whole team needs to vote that you stay. Hands up if you think They should stay.’ She counts hands.
Firoz, lying behind a sofa and pulling his trousers on, says, ‘Consider my hand up.’
Vogel says, ‘OK, you two, you want in or out?’
Googoosh says, ‘Er … I’d like to know more.’
Vogel shrugs. ‘Wouldn’t we all? You know as much as me.’
Rudi says, ‘I’m in.’
Googoosh puts her tea on the table. ‘Well, if you think I’m up to it.’
Vogel goes on, ‘The second thing that needs to happen is that you obey orders … not that you haven’t but inexperience can lead to hesitation or worse – orders being questioned.’
Kpangba says to Rudi, ‘There are three types of order, orders, illegal orders, and obscene orders.’
Firoz calls over, ‘Yeah, Rudi, don’t let her make you do anything obscene.’
Vogel looks at Firoz, ‘That’s not going to happen, he’s too young and sweet for me.’
Gianina says, ‘Yeah, we don’t fuck with our privates.’
Vogel shouts, ‘Shut up all of you, and listen. Joking aside we can expect some weird orders. I don’t know but some of them may be questionable and we don’t question them, right? I’ve dropped you right in it. We’re going to be some sort of special unit – and that probably means being a political football. We’re going to get dirty but I trust General McKenzie. Right, I want you and any vital possessions on the firebird in forty-five minutes. Unless I give permission do not speak to anyone about this: ask me first. Do not reveal your identity to non-PHALANX people. Tell no one about our activities – not even PHALANX members. Go to supplies and take any specialist equipment you require.’
Firoz whistles, ‘I can have a six-mil like yours?’
‘Anything you want. There is a secret cache of alien weapons. Googoosh, needle guns are light and devastating at close range. I recommend that you take one – and all the ammunition you can get. Rudi, this is not a joke, like Kpangba, I think you would benefit from having the option of powered armour. It may be useful from time to time and you’re strong enough for it not to slow you down. Any questions?’
Gianina says, ‘Yeah we were going to have a party tonight…’
Vogel’s wristcomm beeps. ‘Ah! … everyone get going!’
©Gary and Christy Bonn: 2014