Around 01:00, Hugh suddenly said to Nikki, ‘This is wrong – Sophie’s alone. Would you go to her until morning?
She was stunned. ‘You’d share your wife?’
‘With a lonely woman, yes.’
He walked her down, they were bidden to enter and he went back to their hut.
Near the entrance stood Janine, dressed in a sari – a number of things went through his head. She circumvented these by saying she’d been walking, thinking deeply about things, she’d seen him take Nikki down to Sophie. It was vital they talk about a major matter and it would not wait till morning.
For a start, there was her sober demeanour, then her position at the Big House – someone quite important to the PM, so he had little real choice.
‘You have me at a disadvantage – I don’t remember what you once did or how I related to that. I have to go down to Nikki and ask her if you can speak with me, I’ll be back shortly. Go in, get into bed, it’s chilly.’
She nodded and went straight in. He scuttled down to Nikki as fast as he could, they heard him coming and called him in – there they were, propped up in bed. He kissed Nikki on the lips, then took Sophie’s hand and kissed the back of it. Sophie kept looking at the back of her hand, amused. ‘Nikki, did I ever have anything going with Janine? She’s at our door and looks agitated. She needs to speak urgently she said.’
‘Janine?’ She was nonplussed. ‘I can’t think of anything. Will you promise to tell me?’
‘Later this morning.’
Janine was in bed, he climbed in the other side. ‘I’m all ears.’
‘How long do we have?’
‘Until 05:00, as you know.’
She relaxed and realized the futility of trying to rationalize her behaviour away. ‘S and I were so close.’ He tried to sort out who S&I were, then tumbled to it. ‘When R came on the scene, I was no longer needed but the pretence was kept up by me going on those diplomatic missions – all very important and he’s grateful. But while I was on those missions, Marie-Ange was in the house with him.’
‘I was his woman, so to speak, following the loss of his wife and I’d have done a lot on his behalf – you have to understand that.’
‘I’m going to be blunt, Hugh. You have your wife but you also have an issue with Sophie, who is combating her feelings for you. She’s developed feelings for all her ‘rescuers’, as she calls them but as you’re a man – well, you understand? Tomorrow we go, irrevocably, to these three islands and I’m meant to be with Ron Tarpley. Ron and I go back a long way, we’re very close but not in the way S thinks – he always likes to arrange things conveniently.
Don’t get me wrong – I feel an enormous amount for S and I’m quite fond of Ron but this is putting me out to pasture, I’m afraid. Again, I’ll be blunt. The best scenario for me is to come to your island and I’d even form a partnership with Sophie – just to be on that island and not with S and R.
He doesn’t understand this in the least. He thinks we were a very affectionate team for so long, which was true of course, then his life partner comes along and I should naturally wish to be close to the two of them – together. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell him last evening but R understood – of course she said nothing. Now we have only hours left and Hugh, I’d die on that island.’
‘You know how the numbers balance, Janine, the way they fall. Who would go in your place? Sophie?’
‘I tell you this – if I were on your island, I’d marry the man or even woman I was paired with. Sophie won’t accept Laurence Sanders. I know Laurence, I would marry him and then I’d be in the company of friends. I know no one else on that island of S’s and if he won’t be mine, then every day would be hell on earth to see him. I know you have a relationship with Sophie,’ this surprised him that she’d put it this openly, ‘but Hugh, she would unbalance any island she’s on – she’ll stay close to both of you and asphyxiate you.’ She sighed and the nicer side came through. ‘And yet you can’t throw her to the wolves, I know that.’
‘Let’s look at the third island -’
‘Wal and Paul are the only two I could possibly go with and Paul loves Susan – don’t you think I’ve thought it through?’ She was starting to cry.
‘I’m sure you have. You’d like me to pave the way with the PM tomorrow morning?’
‘I need something, Hugh and you’re the only one who can persuade him now.’
‘The only way out, Janine, is if one of the other ladies from our list were willing to go with the PM. I don’t know how much influence I have with the PM now but I’ll certainly put your case and try to get him to see it from your position.’
‘He’s already seen it,’ said a voice at the door. ‘No need to explain, either of you. May I come in?’ He could be like a panther when he wished. He came through, brought the wooden chair to the bed and perched on it. Looking at the two of them, he murmured, ‘Wonders never cease. Well, at least I’ve found Janine, you’re in situ, Hugh and I can guess where the other two ladies are. Janine, I didn’t … er … understand how you felt over this matter.’
‘I didn’t want to threaten your chance of happiness with R. I care for you too much for that.’
He rested his hand on her shoulder. ‘As it turns out, there is one who wishes to be on our island. I told her it wasn’t possible, that you’d run a humane island, Hugh, but she didn’t like the prospect of her new partner all that much, especially as she’s quite soft on Ron Tarpley but I didn’t want to lose you, Janine, for obvious reasons. Maybe that was just an old man being quite selfish.’
Hugh got out of bed. ‘I am just going outside and may be some time. I’ll square this with R and yes, I am going to sleep with her, sir. Nigh nigh.’
And before either could argue, he was gone.
04:37 saw Nikki back at their hut, stunned at who was in whose arms but more stunning was the smell. She had her wash anyway while they slept, slipped on her travelling sari and made her way up to the Big House to help make breakfast.
She called out and two people appeared at the PM’s bedroom door – R and Hugh. Nikki was gobsmacked a second time, although she smelt nothing.
08:12 saw the other three arrive for breakfast.
09:00 saw the pod people gathered on the beach in three different groups. A speech was made by each commanding officer, questions were asked but the thing each party wanted to do now was to fraternize freely, to get to know one another and they all chatted for the next hour.
Janine was with the Gran Antides lot and Rachel had joined the Prime Minister. He now called them all together and asked if there was anyone who wished to raise any issues.
No? That left one thing to do.
Major-General Hamilton stepped forward and took up a position as officiant, he took a set of notes from his pocket and began a wedding ceremony, as the happy couple, the Prime Minister and R, stood together and went through the vows, the ring, the kiss and a huge cheer went up from the assembled multitude.
The last round of farewells, hugs, kisses and tears now took care of the remaining minutes. It was February 28th, 2011, at 11:33 when they entered the pods.
That’s how quickly and simply life as a free people had ended and the new life of trepidation began.
Life on board was a drudge although the pods themselves were state of the art. The nuclear unit at the rear, separated by the buffer from the living area was central to many things – their light source, the plastic hydroponic reservoirs, the recycled air and, waste and so on.
Theoretically, these craft had twenty years of power, twenty months of primary foodstuffs in dried form, given a four person crew, plus what could be grown and a bit less in the recycling. The human psyche imprisoned in a steel tube plus the danger level from the enemy were of far more concern.
The pods were of a reasonable length, eighteen metres, twelve people could be carried at a pinch but three or four were just perfect – the decor inside was pleasing and much space was given over to stores.
The journey was to take two and a half weeks for Hugh’s party and a week longer for the PM’s. The third party was a week longer than that, which was going to stretch their resources to the limit and that’s why further preparations had been made for them.
Hugh and Nikki had opted for the coldest and most inhospitable of the islands but also the least approachable. There was supposedly wildlife of the edible kind but the most important aspect was the fresh water supply – it was a rainswept place by all accounts, with periods of sunshine and not a bad summer.
The others had opted for the tropical and equatorial idyll respectively and good luck to them, Hugh thought. If he and his crew could get the land tilled, even if it was largely rocky, the fertilizer and rain would do the rest, most enemies would be dissuaded from landing at that place and they’d supplement that with armaments. They had much soy on board but still needed to cultivate birdlife.
Treaties with foreign powers, in which Janine had played a major part had them protected for now. The usurpers in the former UK could still not move whilst they were establishing themselves and even if they had no actual need to observe treaties in the new realpolitik, still they had this curious notion of needing to be legit, until they could find the international justification for obliterating the islands.
So they were all living on borrowed time in the world of global politics.
Life settled down in all the pods, there were gastric issues in three of them, there was the drudgery, the occasional bout of lovemaking, there was the point when the Santa Cordova pods finally branched off and that had a note of finality to it which chilled those who’d been aware.
They remained underwater during the day and occasionally surfaced at night to clear the air and ditch the weighted effluent bags. Food seemed to be fine, they’d dropped into torpor for the most part, conserving oxygen, conserving food and conserving energy.
Three days later, the PM’s pod had come alongside Hugh’s, it was daytime and so they couldn’t surface but this was the moment they all waved goodbye to each other and then the PM’s party branched off, leaving four pods huddled close together, pushing onwards, onwards, to their new home.
Soon after, they dropped back into the torpor and the day above became night.
The Ides of March, 2011
Approaching Gran Antides, they could feel, by the sudden buffeting and cavitation as the thrusters ceased to grab water, that there was some severe weather above, which necessitated postponement for two days.
They held their position against the currents and bided their time.
When the weather above seemed to settle down sufficiently for them to attempt the run at the beach, three pods, under Laurence, headed for shore, while Hugh’s and Nikki’s pod, with Sophie, held back as a failsafe.
Hugh’s scanner showed the others surfacing a hundred metres from the low shallow beach, so for anyone onshore, it must have looked like whales beaching themselves. They all trusted there’d be no one onshore but in this they were not in luck.
The crews saw two long canoes in the shallows nearby and feared the worst.
Their hatches opened, they climbed out in combat gear, with weaponry, jumped down into the shallow water, the seabed quite steep and dropping off to great depths behind the pods and they waded, almost climbed, towards the beach. From behind trees, a dozen or so natives appeared and began brandishing spears. The only place Laurence could imagine they were from was one of the little African nations thousands of kilometres away but why they’d bother with this island and how they’d even got ashore were questions to be answered later.
Laurence felt that a short demonstration of their relative positions of strength was required and as they approached the line of natives on the beach, he let off a burst of flame which torched a patch of scrub sticking up out of the sand, these bushy outcrops all over the place.
That made the natives far more reasonable and through a series of gestures, Laurence managed to sit their opposite numbers down on the beach and thus began the dialogue. The warriors responded that it was their island but this was not necessarily a spanner in the works – perhaps they could all cohabit, if the warriors thought they were running the show.
One of their number was lording it over the others, so Laurence, standing out of politeness, addressed him with great respect. This flattered the man for about twenty seconds but then something clearly went wrong because he became agitated and seemed to indicate that Laurence should either bow down or sit down or whatever – no one could be sure.
It was getting nasty, both sides rose and readied their weapons, which were ludicrously ill-matched – the warriors with spears and the crew with body armour, flamethrowers and M1911s. Nevertheless, a quickly thrown spear could kill just as well as any modern weapon if it missed the flak jackets and hit a soft part of the anatomy.
The leader now completely lost his rag and thrust his spear straight at Laurence’s chest, which saw the man engulfed in a burst of flame, he dropped his spear and ran screaming for the water, plunging himself under, rolling over and over in agony.
Laurence, a tall man, stood regally upright and the other warriors immediately laid down their spears and bowed before him, the ex-leader’s screams still continuing long and loud in the shallows.
This was as good a result as could be expected and the show was over. The whites, together with the warriors, the injured ex-leader hobbling some distance behind, disappeared past the palm trees and into the forested area.
Hugh, Nikki and Sophie had observed all and now settled back to spend an anxious twenty four hours awaiting the reappearance of Laurence and colleagues.
Sophie had been watching and now saw a different lot of warriors swarming all over the pods, which were sealed against the elements and weren’t in any danger of damage.
Another canoe stood by and it now became clear to Hugh that this was no indigenous population but a reconnaissance and warrior party. Perhaps the island could be divided into two kingdoms, Nikki surmised or perhaps they could live peaceably together – the reappearance of Laurence and the crew would throw light on that.
Sophie saw that the dispirited warriors had given up, had rejoined their canoes and were paddling fast in the direction of the point, some half kilometre to the south. The overall numbers of warriors would need to be determined.
The day dragged on and there was no sign of the crew, not that it had been scheduled anyway.
The evening fell and all was pitch black through the scanners.
Next morning was a little blowy, the waves about half a metre in height but the pods were still too large and heavy to be washed from their position.
About 11:00, the crew finally appeared, they reached the pods, seemingly in no great hurry to get away, so that augured well.
Suddenly, from the forest, came what must have been fifty warriors, armed to the teeth in their terms and they flung the spears, one glancing Mandy’s neck, which was enough for Laurence. He ordered the nine to fire, it was bloody awful seeing bits of natives flying everywhere, then torched for good measure, but what could be done?
‘Laurence reported. ‘You saw that, Hugh. There are about fifty left around the point, we can’t have them reporting that we’re here.’
‘Get back in your pods for now and we’ll have a conference.’
As this sunk in, Nikki was horrified. ‘No, you can’t kill them, Hugh, they don’t understand the weapons we’re carrying.’
‘Fifty of them surely do now. These are warriors, not settlers, there are no women and children. Our party are warriors too, the non-combatants in this party are in this pod.’
Sophie chipped in. ‘Hugh, you have to be damned sure they’re bent on our destruction and have the capacity to do it. They can’t destroy the pods anyway, can they? Couldn’t we slip away and find another island?’
‘I don’t know – some island near or far.’
‘There’s no other island within the sphere of influence of the remaining friendly nations. It truly was thought out some time ago.’
‘Well, we can imprison them or at the most, cripple them. Can’t we just give them a display of strength?’
As this had been through the built-in low-range transponders, therefore not accessible to any but them within a one mile range, Janine felt it safe to now communicate. ‘Nikki, Sophie, this island is covered by treaty with two nations, the next we could have gone to is 1700 km away and there is no protection there whatever. This is the only island where it is possible.’
Laurence commented. ‘There are 12 of us and 50 or so left of them. We could partition the island and put up defences against them if they’d be reasonable but they’ve got this idea in their heads we’re some sort of flamethrowing demons and they won’t stop until we’re all dead.’
As if on cue, about thirty natives appeared from the trees and raced down to the water’s edge, a fusillade of spears were aimed at the pods and released. They felt some hit the pods.
‘There’s our answer,’ cut in Nick. ‘Seems to me that we’re in an endtime scenario now, a sorry one. We didn’t expect them to be here, we can only survive if we firstly remain inconspicuous and secondly, they become benign.’
Mandy spoke. ‘Why can’t it be as it was on the other island? We provide the defences, they allow us on ‘their’ island?’
‘For a start,’ answered Hugh, ‘we have nothing to offer them. The PM paid big and provided defences for the other natives. We also need to get the horticulture going and hunting. Our very lives also totally depend on remaining incognito, not even smoke from the island. I’d like to see us hidden inland and a few natives as our front but it would still attract outside interest – it was uninhabited before. We’re not playing games here, we’re talking about surviving.’
‘You want to murder them, don’t you?’ cut in Mandy.
‘Mandy, you’re trained military.’
‘I think you plan to kill them.’
Sam cut in. ‘Shut up, Mandy, you’re way out of order. No one wants to murder anyone, we must not be found. End of. It’s a military matter.’
Janine also cut in, annoyed. ‘What are you trying to do, Mandy? Do you wish to die? Our only hope is not to be known about – that’s our only hope. Maybe we can incarcerate them, execute the ringleaders and allow the docile ones to stay but their prime directive was to reconnoitre and report back. When they don’t, a search party is sent out. We’re in a hideous situation of us versus them. The only possible solution is no trace of them. Now that can mean imprisoned in a big pit or it can mean what we know it means.’
Hugh had been listening. ‘Right, Laurence, land again and get them to parlay on the beach this time – don’t go inland with them. Take it as it comes and act according to the situation as you see it.’
Those in the forward pods togged up again, took their weapons and opened the hatches, dropped into the sea, now waist deep and struggled towards the shore, weapons held overhead.
As they climbed the slope, they were met buy a fusilade of spears, one which went straight through Sergeant Booth’s glove, this was beyond return fire now, Laurence called for the retreat, they waded frantically for the pods, spears raining down upon them, Hugh looked at Nikki and insisted she look through the scanner at what was going on. She turned away, Sophie also took a look, also turning away. ‘They know no better, Hugh.’
‘Oh for goodness sake, we have no time for this.’ All were back in the pods, the natives now ran back up the beach fast and disappeared.
Laurence’s voice came through. ‘Nick reports two canoes coming around the point, sir.’
On all channels, in each pod, Hugh’s voice could be heard. ‘People, if they get away, we as a community are dead. We must act now, straight away. Two incendiaries will end it quickly. It’s my decision because it’s my head it’s upon. If you all wish to try me for war crimes later and execute me, so be it. We now take a quick vote but the final say is mine.’
Sanders cut in. ‘Sir, they’re running for the canoes, four canoes – we have to decide now.’
‘So, let’s vote. The choices are ‘fire’ or ‘desist’.’ There was weeping coming from Sophie. ‘Laurence? Your pod?’
‘Two for fire, one for desist.’
‘Two for desist, one for fire.’
‘Two desist, one fire.’
‘5-4. Let me check our pod. Nikki?’
‘No choice, Hugh. May I one day find redemption for what I’ve done.’
‘5 all – Sophie?’
‘You’ll burn in hell for this,’ she muttered.
‘I’m taking that as a desist.’
‘No you idiot, it’s a fire.’
‘Two are heading out to sea,’ reported Adam, ‘in a loop to the south and they’re averaging about eight knots but we can still reach them at this moment, sir. The other two canoes are way behind.’
‘All right, Sam, you target the furthest and we’ll target the nearer of the two out at sea. Adam, of the two closer to us, you target the one further out. Mandy, target the nearer to us. We’ll take the last one. Fire, all pods.’
Three affirmatives came through and four tracker missiles were released. They felt the explosions buffet them and it was all over in a few moments.
The scene was grim through their scanners. There appeared to have been no survivors, no one swimming and in a way, that was a blessing but they had to know.
‘Adam, go to the furthest point any canoe went and then backtrack, looking for survivors.’
‘Right, sir. What if there are?’
‘We don’t have the means to pick them up. They’re on their own I’m afraid.’
‘You happy now?’ asked Sophie.
‘Don’t be such an idiot. If you can’t say anything constructive, say nothing.’
March 19th, 2011
The landing of the stores was hampered, of course, by the remains of warriors washing ashore, creating a barrier, and it was only late afternoon when they finally set up the temporary redoubt in the hills.
The mood was sombre, on a day which should have been one of great joy. They were mainly service personnel but nevertheless, it took a strong stomach to carry on.
The first move, before anything else, was to get the pods to safety. They’d noticed on their first circumnavigation that on the north-west tip, there were three caves visible at low tide but not at high tide and they were immediately selected – two pods in one cave, one each in the other two. For now they’d float them in backwards, halfway to a high tide, which point was about an hour away, the water would rise and hopefully not crush the pods – not having any tiles to break helped here – they’d need the low tide to see the situation.
Temporary shelters were constructed next, up on the high, forested ground, food stores were completed and the first official meal on the island was had, they battened down in their residences.
The three NCOs returned from six hours in the pods, reporting the pods would not float out to sea.
Outside, the sounds of their new home were eerie. There were bird noises, which augured well, and once or twice Sophie thought she heard the soft tread of some other creature but this might have been her imagination.
Gradually, they all dropped off, exhausted.
A month had passed and the atmosphere was not warm – not referring to the temperature but the mood – though the first smells of spring had wafted through.
The bits of the dead had long been collected and placed in the ground just in from the far end of the island – a grisly business that had taken three days and five tides. The remaining fragments of the canoes had also been brought in and either formed part of a memorial to the dead warriors or were just left spread around under the trees.
Adam had looked over the island from the highest point, a bit behind where they were stationed and had later described it to the group. It was shaped like a banana, the longitudinal axis running roughly north-south, about three kilometres long, wider near the south, which gave a buffer against the elements. The widest point, near the southern bulge, was half a kilometre across.
The concave side with the sand was to the east. The crescent shaped coast here was idyllic, the beach wide and flat, the seabed shallow until it reached where the pods had been, then it suddenly dropped away and that caused surf and a difficult mooring.
The southern bulge was highly dangerous, as it induced the eastern flowing currents from the other side to sweep around into the lower end of the bay, after which they dissipated somewhat, except on bad days.
The western coast was a true western coast as they knew it – rocky, sheer, craggy and treacherous – not the spot for a swim.
A ridge ran north-south, set just in from the western side, high and rocky to the north and petering out half a kilometre from the rounded southern bulge.
The greatest care had been taken in the caves to build racks strong enough to hold a pod. Then, at close to high tide, the pods were floated in and the end of the racks secured. If they’d need to suddenly head out at low tide, then the supporting stumps could be pulled out and the pods would crash to the water a few metres below – not perfect but it would work.
They’d put a machine gun post at an angle in the cliff beside the ascending track and it covered the entrance to the double pods. This was by far the highest priority for Hugh and he initially had a 24/7 manning of the machine gun but as it was obviously impractical to do this, he had one NCO at the turret on the low tide and they took their chances on the high.
They had to cut a scrub-concealed series of steps up to the ridgetop, assisted by a rope which could be thrown down from above and the compound was a hundred and twenty metres further in from the cliff. It wasn’t so much of a compound as a series of small haciendas attached to the side of the rock and balanced on ledges below.
There was no direct way from the east coast to their settlement, except by a series of rope stepladder walkways they could throw down the cliff if they wanted to go in that direction but it was too open and impressionable and was now offlimits. No one was allowed on the sand for any reason – tracks.
Other than that, the only access was via the ridge, where they now built a series of ‘natural gates’ or naturally occurring defensive barriers.
By ‘built’ a better word would have been ‘relocated’. All of this was a lot of backbreaking work but no one considered it not worth the effort. For example, each gate was a rock and it was on rails from their side of the pathway. Closed, it couldn’t be passed and it would need athleticism to climb over.
A series of outer defences were prepared to cascade down on any enemy, the plan being to conserve the modern weaponry to deploy against enemies who also employed modern weaponry. Native enemies, from now on, would be tackled more primitively, a la Robinson Crusoe.
With care, the pod weaponry could still be used in near pristine condition for up to five years. The constant maintenance of all their weaponry and escape vehicles was a matter of the highest priority and was under the direct control of Lt. Brothers, answerable only to Hugh and the Island Council of Hugh, Laurence and Nikki, responsible for discipline, judicial questions and the maintenance of spirituality, i.e. as chaplains.
The provision and maintenance of escape packages of food and medicines was the responsibility of Sophie and had equally high priority. The plan was to subsist as soon as possible on local produce and game and to store the long life packaged food in the pods.
Escape regimens were practised regularly, like fire drills, and were Captain Sander’s personal responsibility. They had to be able to have all twelve into the pods within ten minutes of an alarm, ready to depart. What to do once the number grew above twelve was going to be a matter of discussion and planning, sometime in the future.
The Prime Minister stood on the broad, sloping beach of Western Tearoa and took in the eastern shore of the roughly circular island, stretching round the corner in both directions.
In front of him was a row of inviting, swaying palm trees. Interesting that Hugh had chosen the forbidding rockiness and cooler climate of Gran Antides, when this paradise had been available.
Surrounding this island was a reef and beyond that, a shelf and a deep drop which caused lethal currents to eddy and swirl, forming a line of breakers beyond. Treacherous waters, dangerous fishing but the island, he’d been reliably informed, was teeming with wildlife of many varieties.
The only access to this island was either through the narrow gap in the reef on the north-west side, with the vortex current running inwards or outwards, depending on the state of the tide, or else by helicopter. Above-water craft would be broken up before they even came within range.
The PM could see the land rise beyond the palms and it was rainforest jungle, a canopy for their new civilization to be. There was no high mountain or ridge here, only a steady rise towards a peak, slightly offset from the centre.
The settlement was to be in the centre, on a slight rise.
As far as he could judge, the island was about fourteen kilometres in length. More than big enough. He nodded approvingly and trudged through the soft, squeaky sand, up the beach towards his new home.
They’d already set up the initial quarters, with the lion’s work being done by the lower ranks, and in five days, they were all living halfway decently and dining on the first local game.
There’d been no welcoming party, such as on Gran Antides and the fabric of the settlement followed roughly the same pattern, hardly surprising since the blueprint and standing orders were specific as to how to proceed.
Perhaps the only differences were in the topography, the climate and in the pet names for the various huts and areas. The island was tropical and a little larger than Gran Antides but also flatter and with more beach.
If Western Tearoa was balmy and Gran Antides forbidding, conditions on Santa Cordova could only have been described as hot. They were near equatorial, close to a continent which blocked the major weather and the foliage was lush.
It needed to be.
Topographically, Santa Cordova was small and inaccessible by small boat and thus had remained uninhabited all these years. The variety of wildlife and natural vegetation was inconceivable.
Major-General Hamilton’s administration was in full swing, roughly along the same lines as on the other two islands.
Theirs was a long, thin strip of land, more susceptible to weather fluctuations but in their favour was the north-south aspect and the westerly ridge which shut out the worst of the elements.
Not highly forested, theirs was to be a largely marine diet from the shallows off the eastern shore. As with the other islands, and this had been a key factor in their selection in the first place, access was treacherous and all in all, Hugh’s Gran Antides was the most accessible of the three.
Standing on the raised walkway outside his dining hall in the evening hush, Major-General Hamilton had been puzzled by Hugh’s choice. He could see the logic of the PM’s choice of Western Tearoa – inaccessibility, wildlife and the tropical idyll everyone imagines.
He could see the charms of his own island. But Hugh’s windswept rock, well out of the tropical balm? Perhaps it was Hugh’s perverse logic that if they themselves were puzzled by his choice, so would any search-and-destroy party.
On Gran Antides, they held a thanksgiving service, despite being already sick to death of the military rations, supplemented by the birds.
The construction work took advantage of every ledge, every crevice, every concealed passage through the rocks and used local timber and vines.
Concealment was the catchword and from no angle were they visible – Laurence took a pod out and circumnavigated, one of the stones looked too contrived and so the backbreaking work of shifting it a metre in the direction of camp, taking out the rails they’d put in, filling the holes and starting over – it was a pain but it could mean their lives one day.
There were strict rules, reinforced by military stringency, that no one, no one, was to use the eastern side lowlands and southern forest, the beach already offlimits. Any advance force from the outside must see no signs of life, except for the old signs of native settlement. The elements had returned the eastern beach to its former pristine condition and that’s how they’d planned it to remain.
Slowly, a network of walkways was built, suspended between rock and trees, leading to tree huts at varying levels down the hill, all interconnected. It was taking on the look of a compound. The piece-de-resistance was the dining room come living area, which they called Moran’s and this was kept in pristine condition by rota.
Thus they awaited the coming of the supply submarine and new supplies. This was one rogue sub sent out by the PM from Beddoes Island, intended to visit twice – once any moment now and the final time six months after that. That sub would then sail to Capetown and be handed over to their military.
There were strategic check points at intervals along the island, beginning at the beach and ending at the pods in the cave. At a semaphore signal, two near empty pods, manned only by NCOs, would make their way out to the sub. Laurence and Hugh would wait in the cave.
The scheduled sub arrived, the shuttle went out and escorted him back to the cave, CPO Carl Eisner stepped out at the cave entrance, to be warmly greeted by Hugh and Laurence. Hugh had reserved the Dewar’s for this moment and Eisner bent the rules for the occasion.
‘Beddoe’s gone, as predicted,’ reported Eisner, as the men unloaded. ‘There were casualties – many of the islanders refused to go and didn’t understand about the tsunami. Terrible to say it but it lent verisimilitude to the idea of it being inhabited to the last. Trouble was, the waves also took out many atolls and islands throughout the region, those people were not prepared for it.’
Hugh nodded and the CPO continued. ‘New government in the old country – as bad as the first, if not worse. They’re global now, under the auspices of the United Economic Authority as they’re called. Actually, they’re seeking out and destroying pockets of insurgency around the globe.
You’re clearly on the list and your arsenal is well nigh useless against them but still, it’s best to keep it as a security blanket for the ORs.
The Arab nations have mobilized and are standing against the UEA, citing it as a Zionist conspiracy. The UEA’s appointed the young Israeli, Moshe ben Ibrahim, as their spokesman, can’t believe his name, and most are listening to him – good looking cove, really, most of what he says seems to make sense until you think it through thoroughly.
The next month will be the interesting one. The voucher system for goods and services has replaced paper money but it’s high tech now – an implant now includes all your microdata –’
‘Do you have one?’
‘Do I hell – it’s a tracking device as well and that’s the last thing we need.’
‘How do you eat?’
‘I have to admit, it’s difficult. The sustainable development thing and the registration of the world’s children has all known food sources tied up but rogue elements still grow produce in communes and get a high price, barter-wise, usually weapons and alcohol. We get ours from the Arabs actually. For how long, we don’t know.’
‘So, steady as she goes, you might say.’
‘Yes, sir and I wish you all the very best for the next six months. Do you want me to bring the sub up to the cave next time?’
‘No, we’ll run it the same way – I don’t want any attention drawn to the cave.’
‘Right, if that’s everything you need, we’ll be getting away.’ With that, CPO Eisner stepped back into the shuttle pod and was gone. The team was already lifting the packages up the dumb waiter system they’d rigged up and two hours later, it was done.
Hugh resolved that his purpose now was to introduce some recreation for the team, starting with board games and maybe football. Lectures could be organized on people’s specialities, perhaps each Friday, with a different person each week.
Maybe quiz nights, maybe painting lessons.
Husbanding of the wildlife put meat at a premium and it was only shot and cooked twice a week, as a sort of festive occasion. The young bull and two calves the sub had brought in were doing their business – a budding dairy industry was in the offing and that, coupled with the free range chickens, provided the necessary protein.
Clothing was taking on more and more of an eastern flavour, as old garments were replaced by new and footwear was also replaced but now the chill was distinctly biting and they estimated it might even get down in the region of zero during the next month, so they were busy building, sealing walls and roofs.
They worked long hours, they got the place looking as homely as possible but as the hours reduced and it was pretty much as it was going to be, thoughts turned to other things and that involved partnerships.
It was still not a major issue but Sophie was not happy with Laurence.
‘She’s a handful,’ said Laurence, on the walkway from Moran’s.
‘She shouldn’t be – she should be an adult and pull her bloody weight. It’s started to worry me – if you don’t mind, Laurence, I’ll have a word.’
‘Well, on the grounds that you two know her best – please do.’
Nick and Mandy were currently the most stable. Both fairly easy going with each other and with the other islanders, they were the type which communities need – neither prudish nor excessive, enjoying a joke but not particularly the life of the party.
Sam and Janine were still in the early stages and that one needed to be allowed to find its own level.
Adam and Lisa were a strong unit but Adam was a bit inclined – and this was only Hugh’s opinion – not to embrace the island life – he was not greatly enamoured of either Hugh’s leadership style nor his breeding. They didn’t exactly live the hermit life, those two but when the dusk fell, they were usually to be found back in their hut, whereas the others tended to be in Moran’s.
Hugh asked Laurence to have a quiet word to see what the problem was, if any.
So it was a fairly volatile mix and Hugh’s cavalier approach to administration did not universally endear him. If they’d had a crisis, it might have been different but Laurence’s and his administration had eliminated just such crises.
As for Laurence and Hugh, it was working a treat. Hugh deferred to Laurence over many matters, always sought his advice and each had their prescribed areas they ran. For Laurence’s part, Hugh might have been cavalier in general but with him, Laurence, Hugh was assiduous and Laurence genuinely appreciated that.
The others all saw it too and felt far more secure, with Nikki the third in the triumvirate, bringing her perspective and perspicacity to the table. Everyone was au fait with her past doings in Paris and all in all, it was true to say that it could scarcely have worked better.
Therefore, Hugh was forgiven his eccentricities but the downside was increasingly Sophie Magdalena.
‘Sophie, let’s go for a walk.’
They were standing on the walkway from Moran’s, at the northern end, looking down to the fields in the south and Hugh had a quandary.
‘All right, I’ll ask it – why not?’
‘You might rape me.’
‘I’d say there’s a good chance. So tell me the things you’re annoyed about.’
‘Why tell you? Who are you? Laurence is in charge of this island, not you.’
He looked to the sky. ‘You don’t think, Sophie, that things are difficult enough without this hostility?’
‘You really think you can arrange things, don’t you? That you can arrange people’s lives.’
‘No, I can’t even organize my own.’
‘Words, words, words – Hugh and his words.’
‘Will this go on for long?’
‘Get fucked.’ She stormed off to her hut. He looked down from the walkway as Laurence emerged from Moran’s.
‘How did it go?’
‘I think you heard the last part. I think we have some trouble in that direction.’
‘What’s it all about?’
‘She’s like a spoilt child, Laurence – she can’t get what she wants and so she behaves badly. She doesn’t even know what she wants – at least she doesn’t think it out carefully. She could on Beddoes, here she doesn’t want. She’s a strong, athletic girl too and could do some damage. I know what she wants and neither of us can give it to her.’
‘And you gave her to me.’
‘You don’t have feelings, Laurence?’
‘Let’s just say they haven’t had time to blossom yet.’
‘If it continues to be a problem, we’ll need to make new arrangements.’
They all had their favourite places to wind down.
Most of them frequented Louis Quatorze, a room they’d constructed, set back against the cliff face just down from Moran’s, on the right, and it was basically a glorified sunroom, made of the indigenous type of tea-tree – a very strong, twisted branch which made a great low wall.
At one point in the day, the room was flooded with light from the south-east – Nikki adored sitting there until the sun went behind the trees, then she’d go to the grotto – a cleft in the rock in which multicoloured rain action had wrought patterns in the rock face and in which, at a certain time of the mid afternoon, the sunlight suddenly burst out.
The sun lasted there about twenty minutes before slipping away and this signalled the second half of the day and a different mood. Of late, there’d been less direct sun.
One got to the grotto via a path just outside Moran’s, which went right and made its way between the rock faces at that point of the island. They’d plans to continue the path through to the north-west cliff face and that was an ongoing project.
Sophie herself loved to walk down to the glade where they had their crops, through two rock gateways she’d scramble over and she’d sit there, playing with daisies and soaking up what sun there was.
Laurence liked to stand on the walkway outside Moran’s, gazing down on the series of walkways interconnecting the treehuts and late afternoon, when they all took something to drink, that’s where he’d spend an hour or more.
This evening, Hugh took his leave of Laurence, poured two drinks and went to Nikki in their hut. Sipping on her drink, she asked, ‘Why have you stopped asking me about the past, about what happened?’
‘We’ve been too busy, also I don’t know what to ask because I don’t remember it. Also, it might cause tension between us. I have a feeling you were contemplating leaving me before my injury and frankly, I don’t wish that to arise again.’
Her mouth went dry. He had this way of innocuously dropping things into the conversation and they would usually take the wind out of her sails.
‘Hugh,’ she put her drink down beside the bed, turned over and faced him. ‘I would not have left you. If you knew of my last few months, you would never say that.’
‘And don’t say sorry if you haven’t done anything wrong or if you don’t know what you’re being sorry for. I have to tell you now I’ve begun to tell you. You’ve had your own tragedies, two of them actually. In the first, you were with a person not unlike Sophie and she and you were going to marry. Her name was Ksenia and she carried your child. She was shot the day of your wedding, at the chapel, in the carpark. By our enemies.
You then fell for the head of our Section, a person we called Mademoiselle. You loved her but she took too long to decide on you. That was unfortunate because her partner, Mademoiselle’s right hand person – she and you had an afternoon where no one ever really found out what happened.
Before anyone knew it, she and you were involved and planning to marry. It shocked everyone because, apart from you, she was a man-eater, a haughty player of men. As I say, something happened between you and her and no one ever understood what or how.’
‘May I ask the name of this femme-fatale I fell for?’
‘You may. Nicolette Vasseur.’
‘You?’ He was just gobsmacked and she thought that was one back to her.
She took a sip and set her glass down again. ‘Well, there was a safehouse we were in – you, her, a man named Paul and a second lady. You married Nikki – that’s me. It sounds unbelievable – it was unbelievable – but a missile hit our house and killed Paul instantly, the wind from it took me out of the building but my arm caught on the way – and that’s why my left arm is as it is. The other lady, Mademoiselle, also Jean-Claude and you, made it to an island, had a boat built and sailed to England.’
‘Well, until a submarine picked you up.’
‘A submarine?’ He was incredulous.
‘I know. When it’s said like that, it’s just … bizarre. But it happened, Bebe, it happened.’