THE GREEN SIDE
Rudolf, king of Rothenia, had made his dispositions. The special forces élite riding in the Warriors were going to make an all-out assault through the Blue Side into the Red Zone. It was clear that the Rothenians had the advantage of surprise. Josseran and his mercenaries could not have expected the counterattack this early, not with the disruption caused by the communications blackout across Rothenia and the Czech Republic.
Rudolf knew that the majority of the enemy was concentrated in the base. Josseran had been in control of it now for perhaps four hours. The U.S. Growlers had pinpointed their transmissions and were about to jam all frequencies except those of the Rothenian army. They would simultaneously take out the power sources they detected in the Red Zone. There would, the king hoped, be operational chaos amongst the mercenaries, allowing him to recapture the base quickly and liberate any hostages.
However, he was convinced there must be more to the enemy’s plans than was so far evident. Amir Josseran was revealing himself to be something of an organisational genius. Using the crude resources he had available to him, he had taken control of one of the most sophisticated electronic-warfare bases in the world. The fact that it had not been fully operational or protected showed his grasp of timing.
Josseran’s purpose was obvious. He must already be looting the databases, programmes and advanced technology the base housed. He intended to sell them to NATO’s rivals for the greatest sum of money he could secure.
But what came next? Josseran could not enjoy the money unless he could escape to the protection of the powers with whom he was negotiating. There had to be some element of his plan that was not yet evident. Then there was the question of his withdrawal. A man who had planned such a stunning criminal coup would not have left his escape route out of it. This was what was troubling Rudolf most. Josseran must have an exit strategy which, if it matched up to the rest of his plan, would be imaginative and meticulously executed.
The signaller tapped the king’s arm. ‘Reserve company, sir?’
‘Confirm the order. Epsilon company is to keep out of the main action and rendezvous with Major Cornish on Green Side.’
‘Sir, Colonel Anders of the Guard Dragoons is within range.’
‘Then give the signal. Let’s retake the Red Zone for NATO.’
Vedayah smiled up wanly at Justin. ‘Hey, Chavvy babe,’ he gasped. ‘What the fuck hit me?’
‘You’ve been shot in the chest, Chris. Take it easy.’
The major leaned over. ‘The medic’s got a pack in you and the Apaches are on the way. You’ll be evacuated in no time.’
Justin looked across at the medic tending the monk. He would have raised his eyebrows if he had any. An infinitesimal but ominous shrug was the unhappy response he got. ‘Yer needs to relax, babe.’
‘Breathing’s … a bit … tiring.’
‘Meditate, Vedayah! Look for yer inner calm, like Prema said. Yer knows how to do that.’
Vedayah’s eyes turned inward, as if in response. He seemed to drift off.
‘Whass happening, Ed?’
‘The king’s leading an assault on the Red Zone, which is held by Josseran and his mercenaries.’
‘Hmm. And if that’s not terrifying enough, Damien, Reggie and Nathan are with him.’
‘It’s okay, they’re well to the rear with the reserve company. Hang on …’ Ed listened to his helmet radio. ‘… better yet, the APCs are coming directly here and by-passing the battle. Damien’ll be … amused to see you.’
‘Why?’ Justin had momentarily forgotten his denuded state.
‘Well, mate, you’re a bit folically challenged. What did they do to you?’
‘That guy bleedin’ to death there saved me life and disguised me as a monk. And he just took a bullet for me. He’s a total mate, and he’s got to be okay!’
‘Easy, Justy. The Guard Dragoons choppers are only minutes away. They have top-notch corpsmen. You can hear the rotors now.’
‘The thing that interests me is why Danny and Gus are here.’ Ed turned to Danny. ‘What happened, Danny? Make it quick.’
Danny, assisted by Gus, filled in Ed and Justin on the details of their kidnap and escape.
‘So you think this Yuri Mednehev was their real target, and Danny got mistaken for him.’
Gus nodded. ‘I believe Yuri is the son of the defence minister of the Russian Federation. If I am right, then the fact that these thugs tried to kidnap him may have some significance.’
Taking off his helmet, Ed Cornish scratched his thick blond head of hair. He thought briefly, and something seemed to click. He yelled at his signaller, ‘Get me the king, and make it quick!’
‘This is so totally kewl!’
Nathan gave a lopsided smile at the blissful grin plastered over Reggie’s little face. The boy was living his dream, so much was for sure. Damien’s eager eyes were everywhere too. They had particularly begun to enjoy themselves when the APCs of Epsilon company went off-road. Damien and Reggie were taking turns riding with their heads sticking out of the hatch. The Rothenian soldiers were equally delighted with their newly adopted mascots.
‘Yer looks good in yer flak jacket, dad,’ Damien laughed. ‘Green’s yer colour.’
‘Maybe, but I prefer it in garden centres.’
Reggie climbed up through the hatch again. Looking back down at them, he announced, ‘The sun’s come up, guys! Great! I can see the rest of the column. We’re outa the trees and climbing up a hillside. Man! Lookit!’
Damien swarmed up beside his friend. In the distance, they could see jagged lines of Apache helicopters black in the whitening sky, sweeping in low from the east. The Guard Dragoons were beginning their run.
Over the whine and roar of the armoured vehicles forming their own column, the boys could hear the crump and crash of cannon fire coming from their right. Reggie pointed. ‘It’s the king and the Fusiliers, they’re smashing into the Zone. Oh man!’
‘Where’re we going, Reggie.’
‘Dunno, we’re heading away from the action. Maybe it’s a flanking move. Wow! Look!’
The distant helicopters let off a flight of guided rockets which soared up over the hills, lines of white exhaust tracking behind them. A pause was succeeded by a series of titanic concussions and a billow of smoke over distant trees. The enemy positions had been targeted and massively assaulted.
Epsilon company now turned directly south, leaving the scene of the action behind them. Reggie, as fearless as any child, looked longingly over his shoulder where all hell had broken loose. But Damien was staring fiercely ahead. He had found a pair of binoculars and was scanning the surrounding countryside.
Reggie eventually faced forward. ‘See anything, Daimey?’
‘Nuh. S’all quiet down there. But I fink we’re gonna turn up over that hill and back inter the trees. I can see the commander signalling. Yuh! Here we goes!’
Their APC, halfway down the column, lurched and turned in echelon with the rest of the troop carriers.
Reggie pondered. ‘Looks like we’re circling south of the Red Zone. Maybe the king wants to cut them off.’
‘Yuh, but from what?’
The Rothenian fusilier keeping an eye on them had been listening to the two boys. ‘No, over there is the village of Vwyesberh. Our king wants to be sure the people are safe, and we are being sent to protect them if the battle for the Zone spills over. We have to rendezvous with the major on the way. He’s just on the other side of that ridge at the foreign monastery.’ He broke off and paused, then pointed up at the sky, where two helicopters with red crosses painted on their bellies were racing fast above them. ‘Look! There’s been some action ahead of us. Those are air ambulances going to pick up casualties. I must check in with the captain.’
The fusilier spoke into his helmet phone, concentrating on the reply. He shouted down to the driver, and their APC separated from the column.
Nathan called up, ‘What’s happening?’
The fusilier replied, ‘There’s been gunfire near the monastery. The captain’s ordered us to stay out of any action, and wait till we hear an all-clear before proceeding.’
Reggie looked disgruntled. ‘Sheez! We’re just gonna be spectators after all. Dammit!’
‘Language!’ Damien grinned, though a little ruefully.
The king sat atop the cannon turret of his Warrior command vehicle. Mercenaries were surrendering on all sides. They were trudging disconsolately out from the emplacements of the Red Zone, hands in the air, to be received at gunpoint by the fusiliers. Apaches were circling overhead, buzzing and chattering.
One wave of rockets and some cannon fire and Josseran’s men had given up without any serious resistance. With their communications cut off by the Growlers, they had been unable to coordinate their reactions. Most had run off into the forest as the regular troops poured into the base. Even with the element of surprise on his side, Rudolf was astonished at how relatively easy it had been. The men of Gamma company had left their IFVs and were now working their way methodically across the site, checking each building as they went.
Rudolf called over one of the lieutenants and a detachment of guards before heading down the stairs to the central bunker. Fusiliers were there ahead of him, liberating the captured technicians and U.S. marine guards. A marine colonel was standing irresolute in front of a bank of wrecked computer desks. He snapped to attention at the king’s appearance and saluted the general’s insignia before noticing the young face above it.
‘My God, it’s the king himself!’
‘Good morning, colonel. I was just in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by.’
‘Sir, this is really something! The bastards only took this place yesterday evening, and here you are!’
‘There was a power and communications blackout across the country, colonel. We knew something was up, and Josseran could have had no idea there were army units so close by.’
‘Josseran, the gangster? He was behind this?’
‘So we discovered. I take it you have not seen him.’
‘No sir, the gate guards were overwhelmed. The enemy had plans of the place, so I’d guess. They were in the control room before we could take any action. Then we were all locked up while they tore the place apart.’
‘What have they taken?’
‘Components have been ripped out of the control units. I imagine all the data has been stripped. The guidance and targeting systems are missing. They knew what they were doing, alright. You’ve been quick, but they were quicker still.’
‘So now where are they?’
A soldier ran in. ‘Sire! It’s the major. He’s on the line. He says it’s urgent.’
The king took a proffered headset. ‘What’s up, Ed?’
He listened intently, then cursed. ‘Out! Out! We need to get to Green Side! I want the Apaches withdrawn. Only Alpha company with me. The rest secure the Zone!’ He was shouting orders as he sprinted from the bunker.
Vedayah and other casualties were being carried to the waiting air ambulances. Justin, looking uneasily after them, turned to Ed. ‘Giss a gun!’
With a small grin, Ed Cornish replied, ‘If it were any other monk …’ He unholstered his Mauser and passed it to Justin, who gave it a quick, professional check-over. Ed picked through a pile of equipment his soldiers had just stripped off the corpses and wounded. ‘Take this shoulder belt. It’s got more clips. We need you, Justin.’
‘What is it, Ed? Why did yer call up Rudi like that?’
But Ed was marshalling his men, issuing orders in Rothenian which Justin could not follow. The detachment began a wary retreat back through the lakeside trees away from the monastery. Danny and Gus were unceremoniously hurried along with them. Justin stuck close to Ed. The soldiers formed a defensive perimeter around the ambulances as they were loaded up.
Ed urged Danny and Gus on board. Danny seemed to be arguing the point, but he was shoved in anyway, and the door slammed behind him. Eventually, with a roar and a thrashing of trees, the two helicopters rose and disappeared in the direction of Ranstadt.
Justin smirked. ‘I sees yer didn’t want to get me outa the way.’
‘No, Justy. I know who I want at my side when things start getting tough. You don’t quite count as a civilian. Okay, babe, this is the situation. We’ve got reinforcements just over that hill there. The action is coming our way, and with a vengeance.’
‘Gus knew something was up. He realised their captors thought they were kidnapping the Russian defence minister’s son when they took Danny. What he didn’t know was how Josseran and his Albanians are involved in all this.’
‘Think about it. Why would Josseran want a hold on the second most powerful man in the Russian government?’
‘Dunno. I s’pose to put pressure on the Russkis to get him out when the king caught up wiv him.’
‘That’s part of it maybe, but the Russians would be in the bidding anyway for the secrets Josseran has just pillaged from the NATO base across the valley.’
‘So thass what iss all been about! Thass why the bastards have taken over the monastery! What’re yer going to do about the people up there?’
‘Nothing we can do for the moment. A large party of mercenaries abandoned the Red Zone base before our men assaulted and recaptured it. The woods beyond the lake will be alive with them by now, and they’re heading our way. We have to withdraw or be overwhelmed. But at least we’ve got the casualties out.’
Ed signalled to his detachment, who began retreating up the hill in leap-frog fashion, one squad ready to provide covering fire as the other ran back.
‘So the Russians,’ Justin insisted. ‘Whass up wiv them?’
‘I don’t think it’s a getaway that Josseran wanted from Minister Mednehev, that’d be part of the deal for the data he was selling. Josseran wants more. He wants revenge on Rudi and Rothenia. He’s embarrassed our nation by stealing its military secrets from under our noses. Now he’s going to sell them to NATO’s rivals and make sure we can’t stop him.’
‘Justy, its still a long way from here to the Russian frontier. The only way the bastard can escape after this coup of his is to make it too dangerous for us to stop him. And how could he do that?’
Justin’s cool mind ticked over the options as they reached the hilltop and looked back across the valley. ‘By deploying a weapon that would devastate a wide area and kill huge numbers of people, and then threatening to take us wiv him if we try to stop him. He’s gone nuclear … how?’
‘I would guess bribery and conspiracy in former Soviet republics, maybe even complicity within the Russian government.’
‘What you’re saying is, he wanted the minister’s son in his hands so he could pressure the Russkies if they got reluctant to do business wiv him, and then as insurance if they tried to back out of this devil’s deal.’
‘Did I ever tell you how impressive you are, even in a crimson toga?’
Justin grinned a bit self-consciously, then shot a glance down on the other side of the scarp they had crested. ‘The cavalry have arrived, me mate.’
A line of APCs had come to a halt below them. A company of Fusiliers was occupying support positions, setting up heavy machine guns.
‘Needs a pee, Nathan.’
‘Do you, babes?’ He looked over at the APC driver. ‘Is it safe to let the boy go and take a leak?’
The soldier grinned and suggested Nathan go with him.
Suddenly Reggie joined in hopping about. ‘I gotta take a dump, Nathan.’
Nathan swore internally, but was seasoned enough in the ways of children to accept the inevitable. He checked his pockets for possible sources of toilet paper while the soldier just shrugged and smirked at him. It looked like it would be foliage for Reggie. His bottom would be joining the green side, too.
‘Out we go, kids.’
All three clambered through the rear hatch, which was open for ventilation. Two air ambulances roared overhead at that point, heading low into the east.
Damien and Reggie were looking around anxiously. The APC had parked under the eaves of a stretch of thick woodland.
Nathan led the way. Not far through the trees was a small clearing. Soon it was full of the sound of the spattering caused by a small boy’s bladder emptying, and the grunts of another boy at work on a more difficult task.
Nathan stood well upwind. The sun was higher now, and shafts of light were penetrating the dense foliage above. The forest looked different from the English woods that Nathan knew so well. There was little undergrowth, and aisles of darkness led off into the distance, pillared with tree trunks and carpeted with ancient leaf-mould. All was still, almost hushed.
‘Spooky innit, dad?’ The atmosphere had got to his surrogate son, for the boy was whispering.
Just then something caught their attention that caused them both to stare in wonder. As Damien spoke, a shimmering white shape had appeared silently through the trees. Nathan realised it was a white stag, proud and elegant. It stopped in one of the aisles and nuzzled amongst the leaf-mould, probably looking for beech mast on which to graze.
‘Do yuh get white deer, Nate?’ Damien murmured.
‘Yes, but they’re very rare in the wild.’
‘Iss … beautiful.’
Nathan ruffled the boy’s dark hair. ‘Yes it is, baby. You’re very lucky to have seen it.’
‘Iss looking at me.’
‘Probably wondering if you’re dangerous. I should warn it.’
‘I’d never hurt it. Iss lovely.’
The deer ambled off, and at the same moment Reggie called out in panic from the clearing.
‘Don’t move, baby. I just need to help Reggie clean up.’
Yet Damien did not stand still. The hart stopped just inside the wood to gaze back over its shoulder. When Damien took a few steps forward, the hart moved on again and repeated the performance. He wants me to follow him, the boy said to himself.
He turned around. Close and bright with sunlight was the clearing where Nathan and Reggie were. Looking in the other direction, he saw the hart some way on, waiting patiently. Damien jogged after it without another glance behind him.
Afterwards, he could never explain why he had run off after the hart. He knew he should not have, but he could not help himself. He was entranced with the animal in a way that nothing had ever before affected him in his life. The white stag led him in a winding path up the hill. The forest grew lighter as the trees spread further apart. Damien, panting hard, crested a low ridge, where he leaned against a tree trunk to catch his breath.
The hart had cantered a short distance down the other side of the scarp. Damien was being invited onwards, but now the direction they were going became perfectly clear. Rising above the wood close by were several limestone towers of a ruined castle, white in the morning light. The stag waited patiently for Damien to begin descending the slope before guiding him forward once more.