The Green Side

XIII

By Michael Arram

Damien Macavoy woke to an explosion that shook the windows of his bedroom and caused plaster to fall from the ceiling. The nightlight flickered out momentarily. During the brief delay before it came on again, he heard the beginning of a grumbling roar like a giant stirring in the depths of the building.

Reggie sat up, looking bewildered. 'What is it, Daimey?'

'Sounds like a fookin' war's broken out!' He shot from the bed. It was still dark outside. 'What time's it, Reggie?'

'Only ten o'clock, Daimey.'

'Less get dressed. Oh, and we'll put them uniforms back on. If this is a war, I'm fighting for King Rudi!'

The boys swarmed into the battledress, and Damien straightened Reggie's beret.

Reggie snapped him a salute. 'Do you think this is something to do with your dad?'

Damien gave a sardonic little grin. 'Wouldn't be surprised. Iss just his style.'

The boys poked their heads into the corridor outside their room in the governor's mansion. Seeing no one there, Damien led the way to the council chamber where he had left the king. A small crowd of soldiers had gathered around the door and messengers were coming and going at speed, yet there was no panic or even much conversation. These were professionals dealing with a sudden crisis.

The streets outside were filled with the sound of the sirens of emergency vehicles. Helicopters were thuttering above, their searchlights shining down blue from the night sky. Through a window a bright red glow could be seen over the roofs of the darkened city of Glottenberh.

Damien led Reggie through the council-room door. They quietly seated themselves on corner chairs, where they were ignored by the busy soldiers. At the window, they saw a work detail setting up a satellite-communications dish.

King Rudolf stood at the head of a large table amidst a party of officers, scrutinising a map. Their conversation was in Rothenian, which Damien strained every intellectual fibre to follow. The king was perfectly cool. 'So, a multiple co-ordinated strike, gentlemen. This was carefully planned.'

A two-star general nodded. '... and expensively. This sort of operation needed major finance and manpower.'

'Is this international terrorism?' asked the alarmed governor.

'No, it may be worse than that,' rejoined the king, 'and it's a long way from over. These are just the opening moves. Communications and power are down across the north of Rothenia and the Sudetenland. We have generators here, but the rest of the city is dark. The power station and telecom centre in Glottenberh have been destroyed by simultaneous rocket attacks. The national mobile network has been taken out by hitting key relays across the country. The satellite receivers are in ruins and even the landlines have been cut. Despite this being the twenty-first century, we're isolated from the world.'

'Good God!'

'It's a good thing the army has an independent radio-communications capability. I've just ordered a general mobilisation and I'm trying to get hold of the chancellor through the defence ministry. We need martial law to be declared in Husbrau and Glottenberh.'

A dispatcher handed the king a note. 'Hmm ... all three of the power stations in the north of the country have been attacked and disabled. There have been casualties, but fortunately these were surgical strikes so they haven't been many. The hydroelectric plant at Piotreshrad was guarded by armed police, who held out until the military reinforced them. The attackers tried to seize the control room but were held off by operating personnel barricaded inside, and are now besieged in the lower hallways.'

'Who are they?'

'There's the big question. Although Colonel Hansel at Piotreshrad has no live prisoners to interrogate, his assessment is that they are mercenaries with commando experience, judging by their methods. He found rocket-propelled grenades among their weapons, so that's likely to be what was used in some of the attacks. It lends credence to the theory that we are dealing with a paramilitary force rather than ordinary criminals.'

An adjutant interrupted to say he had the chancellor on the line. Taking a chair, the king accepted the proffered headset and engaged the head of government in a protracted conversation. At the end of it, he once again got to his feet. Everyone in the room stood also, including the two unregarded boys.

Rudolf turned to the general. 'I think we can work out what's behind this.'

The general nodded gravely.

The king continued, 'Now I must go where the storm centre is. Please get on to Major Cornish and the Guard Fusiliers at Ranstadt. Tell him "Red Zone". He will know what it signifies. I want the Guard Dragoons air cavalry headed for Ranstadt within the hour. Rendezvous at Area 10 at oh-six hundred. Time to move, gentlemen. It's not here that the action will be. I'll pilot the command chopper myself.' Followed by his staff, he strode for the door.

'Uncle Rudi!'

He looked back to see a forlorn and stricken young face staring at him. Remembering his promise, he ordered, 'Bring Nathan and the boys, too. Health and safety be damned!'

***

Danny got the distinct impression that their captors had locked him, Gus and the Adamczyc family in the cellar and forgotten they existed.

The father, Ernst, told them the bandits had burst into his farmhouse the previous day. After being unceremoniously shoved downstairs, the family then had heard nothing other than the thump of footsteps and objects being dragged round the floors. Mrs Adamczyc was particularly distressed by what was happening to her freshly sanded and varnished floorboards.

'They seemed fine,' Gus told her, trying to be reassuring.

Mr Adamczyc, a woodsman and forester with a smallholding that did quite well, thought there might be ten or more bandits based at his farmhouse.

'Why do you think they picked on you, sir?' Danny asked politely

'Well, it wasn't for my prize-winning hens.' Despite the circumstances, the man laughed. 'Otherwise I can't say. I must admit, however, that odd things have been going on in the royal domain over the past six months. First there were surveyors, then road engineers. More recently there have been convoy after convoy of heavy trucks and construction equipment going up into the forest. No one seems to know it's all about, and the soldiers won't tell you.

'But I have a friend, Vassyly, who works in the royal forest. He says there's a zone the king has put off limits even to the rangers, and now it's completely surrounded by a fence.'

'And where does your home stand in relation to the zone?'

The man chewed on the edges of his long moustache. 'Well, it's just over the hill to the east, across the little river Vwyszh. They closed the bridge which used to be the best shortcut to the village and the monastery.'

'There's a monastery?'

'Yes. A strange, foreign thing, not an honest-to-goodness Catholic abbey with proper monks. It's like the places those pop singers go to – Hare Krishna transcendental silliness. Mind you, they seem pleasant young fellows when you meet them, though they wander around half naked most of the time.'

'You wonder they don't have permanent colds. No socks or underpants!' added Mrs Adamczyc.

The little Adamczycs, who seemed not to be minding their captivity too much, tittered.

Danny, on the other hand, was keen on escaping. 'How do we get out, Mr Adamczyc?'

'It's not that easy, son. This cellar was built in the days of old King Henry's wars, when Croat mercenaries and Turks roamed the land. It's meant to keep things safe, and the door is the only way out or in. The window up there is small and barred. But there's plenty of food and drink down here, and er... if you want to clean yourselves up, there's a sink and drain over there. It's warm, the boiler room is adjacent.'

Gus and Danny took the hint and stripped. Mrs Adamczyc pushed them aside and took their clothes. She spent twenty minutes soaking and washing them. In the meantime, the two young men sat wrapped in towels and thought how to escape. It was while the cellar was filling with the fragrance of denim and wool drying on the hot-water pipes that Gus came out of deep thought.

'Surely an underground boiler must have a vent, Mr Adamczyc?'

'Well, yes it does. But I'm not sure it would be easy or even possible to access it.'

'Perhaps we could look.'

Gus and the woodcutter went through a small door. In the dim light shining though from the cellar, Gus could see the boiler was placed in an arched space with its back to solid masonry.

'What's immediately above here, sir?'

'Why, the old brewing room.'

'Is it used for much?'

'I just stack lumber and firewood there.'

'And does it have a large fireplace?'

'Why yes.'

'Then I imagine this is part of a substantial chimney stack running up through the back of the house, for use in the kitchen offices. The vents will be large. Let me see...' Gus was a tall man who could easily press up against the arch above the boiler. 'Ah! As I suspected. The boiler vent occupies the rear flue, but immediately above us is the main one, merely blocked by boards.

Mr Adamczyc grinned, went out and returned with a crowbar. He tapped the arch over the boiler and got a dull, hollow sound. 'Stand back, lad!'

'Quietly, sir.'

The Rothenian levered a corner of one board free and, with some swearing, cracking and straining, brought the rest down in an avalanche of dust. Gus danced back, went out and returned with Danny, both pulling on their drying clothes.

Mr Adamczyc had found a short ladder. 'This'll help. There's no one in the room above, which has a door opening on the back yard. From there it's a short dash into the woods. Keep going straight and you'll come to a track which leads to the bridge over the Vwyszh.'

'Will you come too, sir?'

'No, boys. I reckon we may well be safer where we are. You run and get the police. And take good care. These are dangerous men.'

Danny quickly climbed the steps and, with a boost from Gus, hoisted himself into the lumber room above. Reaching back, he pulled Gus up through the hole in to join him.

The dark room was close with the resinous smell of pine logs. The sound of male voices conversing came through the wall, but the only access to the room was from outside. Danny crept to the door and opened it a crack. The night was bright and cold with the moon high over the trees surrounding the farmhouse. If there were any guards they were not to be seen.

Gus and Danny moved stealthily through the small cobbled yard and into a lane between two outbuildings. An instant later they were across a moonlit patch of grass and into the trees beyond. Sure enough, a straight track led steadily down through the woods. The two lovers set off at a brisk pace, hand in hand.

***

Abbot Vindahayah made an announcement about the loss of power to the community, telling them that phone and internet connections were down as well. They would send into the village for news in the morning. Then he introduced Chavindar, a novice sent from the London house to gain experience with the Rothenian meditation centre. Chavindar was new to their ways, so nothing too arduous was to be expected from him.

After the ritual bow, the other six monks smiled and greeted Justin with warm hugs. At that point, he began to understand the attraction to the order which motivated Vedayah and Prema. There was a warm, loving acceptance here which was very seductive. If it went along with cool sex and beautiful male bodies, the place was a paradise for an intelligent, spiritually inclined gay man.

Supper was vegetarian but satisfying, the standard of cooking high. Justin, sitting between Prema and Vedayah, thoroughly appreciated his meal. While they ate in silence, one of the community read a classic detective novel.

After supper the monks left the dining room to carry out some isometric exercises in the temple area. It was a very aesthetic and graceful ballet, in which the participants lost themselves.

Justin felt curiously isolated and lonely as the others performed their physical rituals. Sitting cross-legged and unnoticed in a corner, he meditated in his own way on the events of the day and their significance. Amir Josseran seemed to be involved somehow; apparently Prema had been right when he speculated that the gangster was gathering his resources for a major coup in Rothenia. Justin realised his abduction and murder had been merely a small sideshow for the Albanian, who had stood bored and impatient while the supposed assassins faked Justin's killing. Now there was this loss of electricity across the region. The fact that even the telephone system had been closed down was ominous. It meant a power and communications failure at a catastrophic scale, which took organisation and resources. The sum needed to finance it would have been enormous and, if so, the returns would have to be even more astronomical. What did northern Rothenia have which made it so desirable to an international criminal? Justin was stumped. It was one of the occasions when his lack of general education let him down.

After the exercises there was a period of socialising in the lounge area. 'So, Chavvy, you a Brit?' A monk called Kevin had sat on his left.

'Er... yeah, Londoner.'

'I'd guessed. I'm from Chatham. Me and Mal – I mean Prema – are the only Brits. The rest are Americans, apart from Dravadam, who's from Melbourne.'

'Is that Dravadam over there?'

'Yeah.'

'Is it true about his...?'

'Ask him. He'll be happy to show you. He's damned proud of it. I would be too if I had what he does. What's your other name?'

'Iss Justin. Whass happening tonight, Kev?'

'Oh... bummer. The Lady Benefactor should be here soon. Have you heard about her?'

'Yeah. She comes to the uh... London house.'

'Does she, er...?'

'Yeah, she expects to be serviced... know what I mean?'

'Christ yeah. I had to do her last time. It wasn't so bad actually. At least she enjoys it. It's just that she can't get enough. I was totally drained dry after three hours. Another guy had to take over to get her through the night. Crazy. That's not why I joined the monastery. I wanted to get away from the crap women dump on you, and the Foreign Legion looked a dodgy option.' Kevin laughed.

He was perhaps the most sensationally beautiful of all the monks, with perfect teeth, flawless, tawny skin and the proportions of a Greek statue. He had uncanny eyes, sparkling and golden. Justin deplored the loss of this god to the gay world, let alone to the female sex. But maybe looking like Kevin did had its negative side, sufficient for him to want to keep the world at a distance. Justin knew that the god-like beauty of his own dad, Matt White, had come with a heavy cost.

At that point, Vedayah sidled up behind him and muttered in his ear, 'She's arriving. She has an entourage with her, too.'

As their ideas of hospitality demanded, the monks – Justin included – lined up on the outside steps to greet their guest. Justin avoided her eyes when she got out of her four-wheel drive. She was accompanied by two men who looked as if they might well be from Josseran's crew. A second vehicle disgorged three more who were practically their clones.

Mrs Marquesa held out a hand for her host to bow over. 'Dear Father Abbot, it's so lovely to be here again. Ahh ... such peace, and the scenery is as magnificent as ever.' She cast her eyes over the line of monks, who bowed to her in their turn. Since night had now fallen, it was clearly not the countryside to which she was referring. 'I see there have been changes – and who's this young man?'

The abbot was imperturbable. 'This is Brother Chavindar, a novice newly arrived.'

She put her finger under Justin's chin and lifted his face to meet hers. There was no apparent recognition. 'Dear me, so young. He can't be more than eighteen, surely?' The depilatory treatment had much emphasised Justin's boyishness. 'I hope to become better acquainted with him soon. One can learn so much from the young, I believe.'

'You seem to have brought a lot of guests with you this time, my lady,' observed the abbot. 'I hadn't expected so many.'

'Yes, we must discuss this. Mr Recic here said he wanted to speak to you about something.'

Mrs Marquesa's driver took off his shades and signalled to his men, who produced guns. He strode over to the abbot and took him by his elbow. Speaking in Americanised English, he growled, 'Ya see, abbot, my friends and I are here on business which we can't discuss. But for your own good, you and your bald friends betta keep outa our way while we're around for the next day or two. In fact, you guys betta not try to leave the premises, not if you know what's good for ya.'

'Now look here ...'

'Shut your face!'

Justin was staring at Mrs Marquesa while this was going on. Her astonished expression clearly said she had not expected such a development.

'Recic! What's this all about?'

'You can shut your face too, bitch.'

But she didn't. 'When Josseran hears about this ...'

Recic turned on her. 'You don't get it, do ya! We did your dirty little job and helped your assassins dispose of the Peacher-White guy. Job done, right? Now keep out of our fucking way, bitch, if you wanna survive the next few days.'

'You foul-mouthed ...' Justin was rather impressed when she went to slap Recic. It could have gone badly for her had not Vedayah reached out and caught her hand.

Recic sneered. 'Take the bitch in and keep her under guard. The rest of you know what to do. You monks! Fuck off and pray, if that's your thing! Get in the way and you'll be finding out if reincarnation works or not.' Laughing at his own wit, he motioned the community inside.

***

Dawn was lightening the sky as the Apache Longbows of the Guard Dragoons, the élite air-cavalry unit of the Rothenian army, descended on the city of Ranstadt like a flight of giant falcons. The king's chopper, a Pave Hawk with the newest block 152 upgrade, remained hovering above the airfield to monitor radio traffic. Higher in the pale blue sky, the rising sun flashed off the wings of patrolling Rothenian FA-18s. The king knew that somewhere up there too would be scrambled U.S. fighters, prepared to intervene.

At that moment the radio operator patched Ed Cornish through. 'Sire, we're ready to move. Where to?'

'It's the Vwyszh valley, Ed. We've lost contact with Red Zone, which is a very bad sign. Either their communications have been taken out or the garrison's been overrun. Get the Fusiliers in position in the hills west of the village of Vwysberh. You can be there in two or three hours, with plenty of time for the cavalry to refuel. I can't bring them into play too soon in any case, or Josseran and his mercenaries will see our cards. Besides, they'll be on the watch and prepared for attack helicopters. The Dragoons will be within close support range, but till they receive word to engage, it will be strictly an infantry operation.

'I'll rendezvous with you personally at oh-seven-fifteen hours where the A22 turns off towards Vwysberh. I want a command vehicle ready for me.'

'Understood, sire.'

'And Ed... are you in contact with the American aircraft... the EA-18 Growlers?'

'Yes, sire. They are poised ready. On your signal, they can arrange it that only we will have communications. Josseran will be isolated from his sponsors and strike groups. I wasn't even aware the Americans had been monitoring our NATO exercises until moments ago. They've flown in from an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic. We'll soon have our own airborne tankers up above for in-flight refuelling.'

Ed signed off. The king smiled to himself. He manoeuvred his aircraft higher above the city. There were cars in the streets below, but the city had no power. A train was paralysed on the outskirts. Rudi handed over to his co-pilot and called Nathan and the boys from their seats at the back.

'Now, the situation is this. I am mounting a major assault on Josseran's forces as quickly as I can. I hope it's quicker than he expects. When he moved, he could not have known the army was on exercises in the north, and now there are other things happening he could never even have dreamed of.'

Nathan looked concerned. 'Rudi, I don't think the kids should be involved in this.'

'Really? I thought they already were. You'll just have to keep them out of trouble, but if Justy's anywhere, he'll be where Josseran is. That's a side issue, however.'

'What's the main issue? What is this Red Zone?'

'It's a responsibility that NATO dumped on me,' the king replied gravely. 'It's a bunker with the hardware for the U.S. missile shield already stored and assembled, though not yet active. It's an entirely new technology, for which the perfect geopolitical and geographical site is Rothenia. It's staffed by U.S. technicians and guarded by their marines, but the perimeter is our responsibility.'

Reggie was extremely interested. 'Non-missile technology?'

The king stared thunderstruck at this nine-year-old prodigy. 'How in God's name ...?'

Damien grinned. 'Reggie's clever. He knows all sorts of stuff. He gets it from the Web.'

Rudi rolled his eyes. 'Well, why don't we just forget the CIA and abandon security entirely!'

Nathan smiled a little. 'Be fair to the boys. Josseran found out about it too.'

The king leaned over a seatback and focussed on Reggie. 'So tell me, what do you think is kept in the Red Zone?'

'The blogs say it's a pulse generator. An electromagnetic whip that knocks out the guidance system of any missile, even if it's outside the atmosphere. One site claims it'll reverse the targeting and send the missile back on to its launch base.'

'That's science fiction, but unfortunately not too far from the truth.'

Nathan pursued the subject. 'So, what is Josseran out to do?'

'He may already have done it. He's after the technology, not just the hardware. He'll be downloading the computers while his men hold off my troops. Components will be stripped and moved out. He has to be quick. He has only a narrow window of opportunity and the operation will be complex. Then ... I imagine he has a line to the Russian and Chinese defence ministries and is auctioning off the weapons technology to the highest bidder. Between Russia's oil and gas wealth and China's resurgent economy, he will end up the richest man in the world, wealthier even than your great granddad Peacher, Damien.'

Damien looked gobsmacked.

Once more the king addressed Reggie. 'What do your blogs say about the new EA-18 electronic warfare aircraft, lad? If we had a couple of those, do you think we could cut communications and disrupt the power generators in those bunkers?'

'Yes, they could do it easily!' Reggie said excitedly. 'Where will you get those, though? Our government hasn't let anyone else have them yet, they're way too new. I thought they were still experimental...'

After ordering the co-pilot to turn the helicopter on its axis, the king pointed through the windshield. One of the Growlers was taking fuel mid-air from a circling tanker. 'Well, Ed has just confirmed we've got two of them from a carrier in the Adriatic. It seems we'll be able to make good use of them.'

Now it was Reggie's turn to look impressed.

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