Monday, September 19, 2011

We were dripping wet when we knelt in the open space at the front of the building, between the Device and the big double doors. Alex was grinning like the cat that got the cream, and the Professor had wandered off chuckling, leaving us in the hands of one of the orderly orderlies. Each of us had a Steyr assault rifle and a Glock pistol in front of us, and the orderly was showing us how to take it apart and put it back together, so that we could take care of it inside and out. The idea was to practise it until we could do it blindfolded.

And this fits into here... and then like this... and like this... and it’s done. Now you try.” His attempts at hiding his American accent were both futile, considering one of our number was an American, and painful to hear, but maybe he thought that was how you were supposed to behave when you worked for the CIA.

I lifted the rifle resting on the mat in front of me, and my fingers started to move. It was automatic; I didn’t have to think what the next movement would be, and I only made a few mistakes on the first pass. I looked over at James, and he grinned at me. Looking at Alex, she smiled ruefully and said “I was never this good with an M4. I guess this is another one of the Professor’s tricks.”

To the orderly’s credit, he recovered quickly, and gave us all blindfolds. They didn’t make any difference. Learning to do the same for the pistol was even easier; less parts, and we knew what to expect. When our skill at taking apart both weapons had been tested to the satisfaction of our instructor, we learned how to use them, first with blank ammunition, then firing at a target in front of a pile of sandbags from the length of the hall. Each of us left a ragged-edged hole, nine millimetres wide, at the centre of our cardboard target.

The noise of the gunfire drew the rest of the small staff, and I’m sure the people outside wondered what kind of idiot would do firing practise inside when there were perfectly good ranges at the back of the camp. The nurse clapped when James’ second target came back with a smiley face drawn on it in 5.56mm.

What exactly is the point of this, Professor?” I asked when we’d finished, my earmuffs around my neck. “It’s not like we’re going to have any of these weapons down in Wellington, are we?”

Oh, well... actually, I have already made discreet arrangements for a small arsenal, including both the types of weapons you’ve practised with and a store of ammunition, to be placed at the bottom of the Corporal’s wardrobe. In case of emergencies, you know.”

Oh? And where exactly am I supposed to put my shoes?” The Professor looked so flustered that we all burst out laughing at the same time, but I never get so deep into laughter that I pay no attention to the world around me, and Crenshaw looked uncomfortable with the way the three of us were joking together, and standing as a group a few feet from the rest. Perhaps he’d thought he could put an eagle in a cage with a pair of kiwis, and she would stay in the trees while we grubbed in the undergrowth. More fool him, then. We weren’t kiwis or eagles any more. We were each of us a phoenix. The thought made me grin even more.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All right, you lot, who wants to go for a run?” The professor’s face, peering around the doorpost at the little table where we were dining, was a study in jollity. After a breakfast like that I’d usually need to digest for a while, and I’ve never been one for athletics, but when I thought about it, I realised my stomach felt a lot lighter than it had any right to be, and I was looking forward to the wind in my hair, the sun on my face.

No such luck. When we left the ward, he led us across the big space in the front of the warehouse to where the torture boxes had been. In their place was a treadmill that looked big enough for a horse.

This is a horse-training treadmill. Human ones don’t go fast enough, if we’ve managed what we set out to do. Who wants to go first?”

James did, of course, while the professor slowly cranked up the speed dial on the little controller in his hand and lectured Alex and I about biomechanics.

There’s an upper limit, of course, to the speed the human body can go unaided, no matter what we do to the muscles. The Project worked it out some time ago. Quite an elegant experiment, really¸ and I’ve no doubt some civilian researcher will have the same idea soon enough. First you get people to run forwards on a treadmill, then backwards, then using only one leg. By comparing speeds and so on, it quickly becomes obvious that the amount of force put out running one-legged is greater than that even of sprinting at the fastest speeds possible, simply because the one leg must do the work of two in lifting and pushing. The limiting factor can’t be the amount of force used, then, but the time in which it can be applied. By using faster-firing muscle proteins, we can increase the speed of a human runner to the theoretical maximum of...” He checked the speed on the little digital display. “...there we are, sixty-five kilometres per hour. That’s forty miles per hour to you, Corporal.” Alex nodded mutely.

Within a few minutes, Alex and I were both put through our paces. It was a peculiar feeling; my legs didn’t swing much faster, but when they hit the ground it was like a rocket booster went off under the soles of my feet, shoving me forward not faster, but harder. It took me only ten seconds longer than James to reach a speed not even cars are allowed to travel at in built-up areas. Alex was the last of us to go on, and while she was picking up speed, the Professor told us what we’d be doing next. He seemed to expect some kind of response from us, so James and I both said “uh-huh, yeah, sure,” almost in unison, transfixed by the sight of Alex bouncing along at great speed. She noticed, and grabbed the water bottle on the front bar of the treadmill, sending us diving for cover.

Monday, September 5, 2011

So what made you want to join the army then?” she continued after we’d all calmed down a little bit. I thought about it for a few seconds.

I guess because... I could see so much wrong with the world, and I figured in the army I’d have more chance to fix it. New Zealand does a lot of peacekeeping stuff and disaster relief... I mean, this was before 9/11, so there hadn’t been a decent war for twenty years.”

And you thought that everyone was just being stupid, and if they tried hard enough they could sort it all out so that everyone would be happy enough.” If James had said that, I’d probably have thumped him one for putting words in my mouth, especially ones that made me sound like a condescending twat. But Alex said them like the thought was familiar to her.

Yeah, but people are idiots. They’re always idiots. Even if smart people got in charge, the idiots who took the orders would still screw everything up, and smart people still do stupid things,” James said, summing up the most unwelcome lesson I’d learned since I was ten.

Yeah...” Alex sighed, in a way that said she’d learned it too. “But anyway, that’s half the reason I joined up. That and the whole patriotism thing after 9/11.” She grimaced apologetically; some of the things her country’s military had done since then hadn’t made the world a better place at all.

And the other half?”

I was... in a situation I had to get out of. If I’d stayed I just would have gotten sucked into the cycle.”

We didn’t pry any further. I’ve learned that people will tell you when they’re ready, and it’s quite possible James didn’t care very much at all. He looks to the future, and as the nurse who’d helped us the first day was wheeling a big cart into the room – I could see the infrared glow of the hot dishes on top – the immediate future looked like it was going to contain an enormous breakfast.

The bacon was better quality, and there was a lot of fruit, along with toast and hash browns done properly1 – one of the few cases where the Americans do things better than anyone else, as I remarked to Alex. She threw an apricot pit at me, but James snatched it out of the air with a twinkle in his eye before I’d even started to flinch.

1With grated potato formed into cakes and fried, rather than those pitiful little things sold under the same name made from potato offcuts and all sorts of additives to make them stick together. If you want to do them at home, boil potatoes for five minutes, then take them out of the water and let them cool. Grate them – I generally add grated cheese at this point as well, but they’re fine without it – and then scoop up small handfuls of the grated potato and fry them, pressing them flat with your spatula. The starch of the potatoes is sufficient to hold the whole cake together without adding anything.