He and the woman drove along highway five to Bylaw. They stopped the truck by a bridge over a river which flowed north to the Danube. Their reconnaissance with the special forces contact was a day late. There was instead a stranger in an unusual uniform.
The colours on his shoulder suggested atomic business. He resembled a burly farmer in shorts, boots, flak jacket and helmet.
The higher ranking man stood with a notebook and pencil by his vehicle. Johnny and his companion got out of their truck. The man put his book in a jacket pocket and walked closer. He demanded answers from them. When they told him that the platoon shooting occurred he cursed. He ordered another reconnaissance party to return to the delta.
Then he questioned the two survivors about their qualifications and history. He expressed displeasure about understaffing. The date was approaching the first of September. This was the deadline date which the army had to operate the dangerous controls. They must switch down a system which could otherwise cause total destruction. He asked his staff how many mobile personnel he now had in the area. Began dispatching the remaining troops to the work ahead.
A message came in for him on his radio. “That’s the last thing I need now,” he replied. At his vehicle he talked in his own Slavic language before returning to Jonathon. He now had a shotgun in his hand and described his orders while fingering the trigger end of the weapon. The orders were complex. By the time he had reached the end of his tirade the barrel of the gun was facing Jonathon’s eyes. So he could look down the black cylinder and imagine his fate if things went wrong. The officer who Jonathon took the orders from spoke the words with clarity.
“You will leave the woman behind. You will drive the truck along highway five one to highway four naught seven to Strazhista. That is where you will meet your compatriots who will assist you in meeting this deadline. From the Vallejo Ustinov district, you will all go to the next district Sloven. Make your way into the Nova Solo range. You will have to find your way by compass. At the range is a switchboard in a tower on pylons. Manned by thirty. There will also be a flotilla of Skoda T-72 class tanks. Ignore them. Climb the pylon and avoid the grenades. At nine pm. there will be a countdown of ninety seconds. You will see before you a panel of lights and there will be a nine-digit pad in a grid pattern. You will press the buttons in this sequence, “-and he told him what code to operate the triggers with. He then continued- “after that, you will see in front of you three larger green lights which are switches. Press them one at a time from left to centre to the right. Keep your fingers depressed on the triggers. Until the ninety second countdown receives an abort signal. If you do this and you will do this, you will have prevented the biggest explosion in world history. If you all fail, then we’ll all be dead. Got it, kid? They are your orders.” Johnny was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
Then the officer got back into his low green armoured vehicle. He bit on the salami stick which an assistant handed him. After he had eaten he told Johnny one last thing, “There are road mines in so call in an airstrike.”
A lorry driven by a skinny man stopped at the bridge, and the man called out to them. “I’ll do that. I’ll press the triggers for you,” he said.
Johnny looked up at him. "Who the hell are you?" he said.
“I’m an American. We’ve been trailing you since Germany.”
Johnny reacted by hoisting his own rifle. He pointed it at the skinny man in the same manner as the officer had done to Johnny when he issued the orders. “No you can’t you damn fool now drive away and mind your own business,” Johnny said.
Before driving away, the driver said, “We’ll be back. Do you think we’re going to let you get away with that?” Then both he and Johnny called each other naive and that was the last time they saw each other.
The special forces officer came back to him. “What is the sequence?” he demanded.
The next discussion was a rehearsal. The correct coloured buttons to press on the nine-digit key pad in the switch tower defined. The officer told Johnny what call signs the two compatriots had whom he was to meet in Strazhista.
“You are to meet them in the hotel, the only one in town,” he said.
“They’re Brits so you should be in good company there. By the way my name is Field Marshal Wallace.”
The only thing for Johnny to do was to drive the south eastern route to the town at the end of highway five one. He had with him a rowdy mufti crowd for his companions. They challenged his authority by telling him that he was nobody and said that he had been stealing from Uncle Joseph. Johnny retorted that his uniform marked him. With it he was the manager of the matters eventuating in the truck. They were going to collect their own uniforms at the hotel in Strazhista. John mused that it must be a petty important hotel. The transit continued with anarchy. Insubordination persisted from the mufti crowd. It was their last chance. The driver wound up with a headache. The sight of the brick and tile buildings was a relief to him.
Two English men lounged back in armchairs in a private room in the only hotel in town. They rested their heads on clasped hands between raised elbows. They greeted Johnny with a how do you do. Their behaviour was quiet and they seemed confident. They also seemed several degrees sarcastic about the exercise ahead. They told Jonathon that they had heard he had come a long way to get there. Although they missed the point of all his commitment. John explained that he was a runaway from a broken family.
The introduction with the two Brits ended and the rowdy platoon returned. They had changed their mufti clothes into drab green army issue uniforms. They continued shouting and apprehending rank. The Brits said that they were their platoon, and that Johnny wasn’t in it so he could walk from there. Again, John had become stranded in a strange land far away from home.
He wasn’t tired or short of ideas and resources despite all the rejections. He knew that there were several more groups coming in. A membership in the institution that he was in would not leave any man stranded. Not so bad that he'd become lost, or abandon the war. He went to the front desk and claimed a room key. The room stored for him a radio telephone with handset and dial and winding handle. He checked it and saw that it was in good working order. He strapped it to his back and strode out of the hotel to find highway four naught one.
Another city square was a crossing between the hotel and the highway. In it were three dozen men and women fighting each other with fists. They used the butting blunt end of yet more rifles and Johnny had to cross through them. This was one more of the last pathetic conflicts which he couldn’t understand. He battled through the melee. He passed blows conducted by politicians in suit and tie. He saw the same young woman who had waved hello to him from the American window in Prague. She called out to him again. She stood on a podium in the square, higher than the heads of the rioters. She held a small steel cylinder.
She shouted that they were indispensable plans of the soviet world’s nuclear system. She was searching for a delivery. She demanded their safekeeping. She said that in the cylinder was also some money for the transit fees. Johnny grabbed this from her after parrying a blow with the shafts of two rifles.
He could not put it in a pocket or backpack section so he dropped his trousers and shoved it into his ass. The steel cylinder was a shape which allowed for this; it was a charger. He punched his way out of the protest and buttoned his trousers and marched stiff to the highway.
There followed a solo walk along an unfamiliar road which passed through farmland. A cool breeze shifted his hair. During this time Johnny had a moment of realization. It was an epiphany that he had attained an existential freedom. He had gained this by taking a large personal risk. He had the fortune to play his part in the fulfilment of a problem. The case intrigued the world but only a certain few could solve it.
It was true that the public had been taking white flags and skull masks into the streets. Protestors around the world crept to raise awareness about the issue. In view of that mask, action had agitated. Also true that the most powerful politicians had struck agreements in response. They'd made demands of each other to resolve the problem. Even so it had required a secret army to act in operation of the controls. These operatives had negotiated their way through twelve landlocked nations to get there. To do what was necessary with the physical system built. Which held in its wires and signals the capacity for annihilation. Which if not used to accuracy could leave in the place of the planet an emanating orb of only noise and light and heat.
He knew, as he strode carefree along an unfamiliar road with rifle hanging off one shoulder and held with a hand. As he hummed whimsical tunes to himself in the privacy of wind and grass and the passing singing birds. That he had impressed his presence in a philosophical reality. That which would otherwise have left him out to insignificance and ignorance. If he had not taken on the job that he now had. If he had not answered the call for recruitment flashed on screen in his apartment. If he had stayed in Christchurch. He would then as years would pass him by, have had no claim to saying that he too had played his part. In inexorable forces of the moments in history which go to define persons as an intelligence. If he had not moved and stood on this highway alone and unnoticed. Then he could have said nothing in his justification in front of whatever deity of fate it was. That will one day summon him up to state his claim to the hereafter.
Engine and rolling tire noise sounded from behind him. He turned and flagged to a halt the last truck in a convoy of six which passed him. He climbed in to the trailer at the back for the last time he would do in this traveling caravan. Soldiers he had met before welcomed him aboard. The truck accelerated forward again. The woman from the crossings of Hungary and Poland smiled at him. They had discussed anything with them during. They once again fell into their language barrier hindered attempts at conversation. Although now all the niceties had expired. There was no vodka or pills. The soldiers all had received their incontrovertible orders. With one destination they travelled ahead under cover in intensive sobriety.
Once again the truck series halted. This time for the commanding officers to take an assessment. A twenty-minute-long negotiation ensued with those who blocked the road. Voices raised and lowered. The yogurt revolution began, started by the militants in the vehicles. Their response was against those in the blockade. The friendly woman translated to Johnny the essence of the situation. A decision made, forty soldiers disembarked.
The situation was that a dozen cars blocked the road. Inside them were officers from a fleet of submarines stationed in the Black Sea. This body of water was close to the roadblock by broad geographical position. The officers were demanding the right to fire from their boats. They had prepared a volley of intercontinental missiles. They had aimed at the American continent. There was a present lack of treaty between world leaders. The officers chose to apprehend this situation in politics by flourishing immense firepower.
The army troops disembarked from the truck. They went to a storage cabinet beneath the deck of the back wagon and retrieved from in it a set of heavy guns. These guns were high powered rifles which made the calibre of their AK-47s look small. The barrels were wider and the cartridges thicker. He heard a rumour of the class SUB-69. The soldiers approached the cars and aimed and fired direct into the side windows and doors.
A brief and deafening fire round smashed the metal and occupants of the modern vehicles. In a coordinated team the soldiers retreated from the wreckage. The used rifles stacked back into the cabinet. Extra drivers employed to remove the fleet of Japanese imports from the highway. In silence the members of the battalion climbed back into their wagons. The trucks reignited engines and moved through the failed impasse. Nothing could stop this behemoth rescue mission.
Several miles down the road Johnny received a new order. He was to go alone into a civilian trade truck stop depot and wake all the drivers up and open the gates. These trucks were to follow the army to the range. He received nothing further in explanation. He entered the depot by pliers and wrench and raised a sound on all the cabin doors to wake the drivers as they slept. A supervisor protested at the interference. Johnny didn’t care. He gave the orders to send the trucks and their container trailers after the army wagons. There was an unknown freight in the containers which the army could use.
The caravan carried Johnny to a hut outpost in forested land by the embankment. This landmark surrounded the edge of the Nova Solo range. There the two English men who had discarded him at the hotel in Strazhista met him again. They discussed the strategy needed to get into the range in safety.
Ahead of them were forty-two kilometres of track through forest. Some of the tracks would lead to a dead end. Only the right combinations of trail would get them to the goal of the watchtower. To add, the roads had hidden mines. Air support of the type that could scatter small bombs was in need. This would explode the mines and leave the trail clear for land transport. The telephone Johnny carried employed to call the air force. The reply came that legionnaire F-12’s was available. They would send overnight.
After the incumbent darkness began, the air sounded with the rush of engines overhead. The forest lit with the flash of bombs. In their aftermath remained pits and hollows. Where closed roads impeded was now an open dirt. The multiplexer unimogs could drive through the destroyed areas.
A flash of memory has still accosted him to this day. Set on the level ground of the bombing. Two hundred German special force troopers faced Johnny and another English officer. In unison they shouted an order at both of them. It was dark at night, and the German army wore their uniforms to perfection with emphasis on danger. They waved their right and left arms in a signal system and called, “Volten, Vorltung, Pressen.” In other words, ‘Be fast and hurry. Press those switches at exactly the right time.’ Johnny and his mate agreed then and there that they must. The experience passed in his mind as if he had been to a violent theater show when he was in an altered mental state. The spirits of times past caught up with him and he was obedient to that.
Johnny could not resist his opportunity to gain an elevated view of the range. The top of the embankment provided an observation point. When night fell after the jet strike, he climbed in the cold to the three-hundred-meter height at the top of the dirt wall. There, he jutted his head up enough to see, anything. His dreams at being general in some legendary world war two battles were butting into his young mind. He watched an array of lights and lit a cigarette. Five seconds passed. A small conventional missile landed in the side of the embankment and exploded. He tumbled down the far side.
When his slide slowed to a stop he was semi submersed in dirt. He clambered a return route to the cover of the outside again. He returned to the unimog and the two officers reprimanded him. His manual flash was unnecessary, let alone a heat signal. His carelessness at lighting anything there was excusable. The secret team must inform the managers at the range of their presence outside it. Johnny lacked the correct electronic device. They put it down to a stupid mistake and they waited in fits resting in down cover bags until dawn.
The grim morning came and with it a troop of reporters. The marines could not keep these sleuths out of the vehicles. The gravity of the situation caused them to demand a presence. They would stalk into the range and with intent go to the centre point there. They would document the marines' final advance. For the reasons of sanity within historical and secret service action.
Johnny was in charge of a truck which had new maintenance. Its condition guaranteed it to be able to make its way through the any of the deepest mine pits. Its wheels could move in simultaneous independent directions. It had an extra high axle and joint structure. An inspection of the gear shift showed that it had advancement. Within its three sticks and double buttons it would be able to shift him around and out of the holes. When he sat in the cabin to take control of the steering and gears, he felt prominent and elevated.
He was escorting a female journalist who like him was wearing Kevlar body armour and helmet. She expressed he trepidation at the mission ahead of them, and so he told her that this was a case of do or die. They talked about fear. He said that fear is not known when everything that needs to eventuate has been set in place to happen. That it was an enemy and a stranger that could paralyse the motivation to complete the tasks. He told her that she must use any and all battle survival training to focus on the job ahead. Not to succumb to numbing and halting processes. This happens when one considers fear, or failure, or physical defeat. She accepted this as an encouragement and took her place in the passenger seat.
She had with her a large mobile telephone and video camera. Also a graphite pencil and paper in her mufti-pocketed vest. He looked at her feet and saw that she was wearing lightweight combat boots. He told her to not get out of the vehicle. After this introduction, a fleet of the prepared trucks moved forward. They followed the dirt trail to the breach in the embankment. Their engine rumble sounded out around the clearing which he was to never see again.
Broken pine forest continued within the perimeter of the embankment. It gave the whole landscape a uniform and monotonous appearance. Pits had opened out in several places along the trail. Johnny followed others and did not lead this foray. The drivers had deduced practiced and memorized the correct route to the centre of the range. That made his job a degree easier and he breathed a relief while turning the wheel and changing gears.
Before much time had passed the fleet had achieved a location. They parked within sight of the watchtower and artillery. Vehicles directed weapons in a random geometric arrangement. The intensity of battle increased. Manual hurled explosives deterred the approaching staff. A field of mud lay between the vehicles and the tower. The reports from their detonations boomed loud. Night obscured personnel and objects in distance and gloom.
A loudhailer speaker voiced across the field. “Ninety... eighty-nine... eighty-eight... eighty-seven...” It counted down in seconds timing toward the dreaded zero. This was the countdown which Johnny and the rest of his troops had instructions to abort.
He remembered the English brigadier’s voice at Strazhista from two days before. “You must not, on any account, let that countdown reach the zero call. Be that let grievous wounds or incarceration or death. Everything depends on you,” he had said.
As the truck’s wheels wound through and out of the final pit, the countdown had already reached sixty. The reporter said something to him. He was too intent on driving to hear her words. He halted within the last thirty meters away from a pylon which supported the switch house. She shouted curses for him to hurry. A bullet ricocheted off his tin helmet and knocked it clear off his head. It fell into the dirt beneath the truck. He had not strapped it on and could waste no time in retrieving it from the ground. He shouldered his rifle strap and ran bent over in a cover position to ladder rungs at the base of the pylon.
At the base where it was thrust into poisoned dirt sat a young man, not even Johnny’s age in years. He wore a white t shirt. He shuddered and whimpered. The sighting happened within the battle. A crescendo of explosions and ricochets and mauling engine grind surrounded them. He reminded Johnny of the words of a poet: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper." Johnny continued striking out at triple pace.
There was less time regardless of the young quitter's despair. Johnny climbed the vertical ladder rungs to their overhang. His mountaineering expertise had employed for good purpose. An open hatch in a steel roof led to the floor of the watch tower’s switch house room. The loud hailing countdown voice had reached sixteen seconds. His teeth clenched together and he sweated. He felt disembodied with his swift determination.
He hauled himself up into the room above the hatch in the floor. Inside was a set of communication and control computers and telephones. The array extended along a narrow corridor. A team of hard working staff manned it. Soldiers punched buttons and read radar. Speaking on handsets and microphones in clipped tones. They stated refusals to turn small keys in the console. All was an effort to organize chaos.
Amongst the officers were a range of twelve differing national uniforms. All green and all with stripes and badges on shoulder and chest. A brown shirted man welcomed Johnny into the control room. His manner was obvious suppressed panic. He pushed Johnny towards the light code panel and asked whether he had the code. Johnny responded affirmative and immediately started to push the buttons. He copied the sequence instructed to him by the field marshal at Bylaw. There was talk by the staff around him of the arrival of Armageddon.
The light buttons were colour coded red and amber and green in a pattern which he did not understand. He first hit the centre panel of the square nine-digit pad. Then centre right, lower right corner, lower left corner, and lower right corner again. Then across to the upper left corner button. As soon as he had pressed the second digit the colour codes scrambled and flashed. As he pressed there were a myriad of changing combinations of the three colours. Any variance to the sequence would have caused a bombing. It was a sequence for which in later years men interrogated him.
By the time he had entered the entire first sequence, the loud hailer voice had counted down to five seconds. The source of the voice was from a man inside the same switch house as he. It took him two more seconds to pass his hands over and press three more. Three large green light buttons from left to the centre to right above the square pad. Amidst shouted demands and urgent orders for clear thinking came a last announcement.
A man held a telephone in the aisle. “Mission aborted,” he stated. There was a temporary hush around the staff.
Johnny mused on the procedures' quality of system. When compared to the potential chaos which it had in its capacity to unleash. Comments made amongst the staff manning the operating board revealed its over-complexity. The words included the Almighty, and Hell, and death. He did not expect what happened next.
The payload from the civilian trucks deployed. A robot was cutting transmission wires at the base of the pylon. The machine's build was a simple skeletal humanoid form. Where expectation would provide hands was a wide metal disk blade. It had tramped in to the battle field from farther away. The troops had paid such urgent intent on the countdown that they missed it.
Wires lay along the ground in a rubber and steel pipe. They were the signals physical transmission conduit. The troops believed that they had covered every possibility the countdown contained. As far as they knew, they had switched the signals off. The world was safe from weapons of mass destruction. That the communist military states had acceded.
Black shirted gunmen and sharpshooting women stood by the robot. Down from the trap door in the switch house floor came an ensuing exchange of fire. From staff pistol to target sharpshooters. Desperate officers in the watch tower shouted orders to kill. Another assassin took the place of every gunman that their bullets took down on ground level. Despite status hits, the robot did not fall and kept cutting through the wires in the rubber pipe. Sparks rose amidst a grinding noise. Above it declared requests for more powerful calibre weapons.
The staff in the switch house was under-armed. They did not have large enough weapons inside their building to fit the demand. The steel humanoid machine completed its deadly operation. It knelt still and silent as small bullets knocked its lifeless body. Vandalism of the overland system of wire signals had finished. The three-foot-thick conduit lay in two parts. This sabotage had occurred by the way of concealment tricks.
Panels and controls equipped the console room in the watch tower on all sides. On the desk behind where Jonathon had worked was another light system. This one marked with the names of countries around the globe. An alarm sounded shrill as red light panels with geographic names lit up. He counted them. There were seven. All nominated a broad range of small nations from dispersed locations. An appalling silence had fallen amongst the nuclear control staff.
A man said, “There’s nothing we can do.” Another man demanded that they find the switch to turn the alarm lights. A senior from well to the rear of the room spoke. He said that there was no double abort in this monstrous signal centre. That the operation was notable for its incompetence. That a demolition of the entire room would be appropriate. The telephones radar receiver’s keys and lights on their pylons could go to wreckage. He picked up a telephone and dialled three numbers. “Start the tanks,” he said.
On the ground the field of dirt which Johnny had crossed in the truck ended at a wire fence. Broken at intervals with high standing tanks of noxious gas. Past the fence was an array of the artillery vehicles which the field marshal had told Johnny to ignore. Now he looked at them. He saw an arrangement of tanks in regular grid pattern. The array receded into the distance in the diminishing light. Another brother told him that there were twenty thousand of these T-79’s.
A man held his head out of a hatch of one of them. He smiled and waved and then retreated down into the tank, closing the hatch above him. Within a minute the whole field rumbled from an astounding volume of engines. Inside the switch house a cry rallied to abandon the room. Johnny saw that the fastest way out of the enclosure was by the way he had come in. He swung his legs and body through the hatch in the floor. People followed him and so he made the descent quick by jumping the extra thirty feet to the ground. This put him in the direct path of a line of a hundred and forty-one tanks.
He looked for the truck he had driven there in and it was not there. He ran past the place where it had been as shells and a missile blasted into the switch house on the pylon stand. The tanks advanced across the range. It was up to his nimbleness to stand between two lines of the regular formation as they passed him. He was like a skittle in a game of nine pins and was in grave danger of getting crushed by one of the bulky units.
The dirt he was standing on had seen excavation many times. In the seconds between passing caterpillar tracks he saw a vertical hole in it. This was what he needed and it could save him. He put down his telephone backpack and leaped feet first into the shaft. The sound of grinding engines faded as fast as he fell the twenty feet into the shaft pit. He doubled over in a fallen position at the horizontal tunnel at the bottom.
He peered into the shadowy murk of the passage. His eyes met twice the grisly sight of deceased young men. Two similar rotten uniforms. The heavy weapons passed on ground above him. He crawled along the space between wooden struts in the passage. The position was well out communication. The telephone was now crushed and useless above him somewhere. He had a day previous been exchanging witticisms with an American high command with it.
He came to a metal door across the passage. It appeared out of the ordinary in this drab environment of dirt. It had a coat of blue paint. Next to it was an electronic lock switch. He pushed it, it did not budge.
Seeing that the electronic lock switch copied into a square nine-digit key pad. This was the kind security systems are fond of. He considered his chances at hacking the device. He had heard of only combination on the battlefield. The one he had keyed on the light console in the now destroyed watch tower. Giving a shrug for future commiserations, he tried that one. With all surprise there was a beep and a click and the door lock released. He reached into his jacket for his pistol.
“Freeze,” said the occupant of the metal tunnel behind the door. This was an order which he had not heard during his entire time on the continent. He had become grown used to the German order ‘Halten’. Three of the same weapons pointed back at him from three persons. Two men and a woman.
“I am English, and a New Zealander. Lieutenant,” Johnny said. He put down his gun.
“So what?” was the reply from the man beyond the doorway, “We’re American. Name's Barry.”
This enclave hideout was the American backup bunker. The two men and one woman beyond the door occupied it in secret. With spy equipment wired to the topside. Microphones and cameras monitored the wreckage. For three days as the exercise had progressed they watched and listened.
“We saw what happened,” Barry said. “The system's rigged to fail and destroy itself.”
"I didn't see where the cable grinding robot came from," Johnny said.
“It came out of a set of civilian trucks with their containers,” Barry said.
Johnny recalled the truck depot outside of the range where he had gone to alert the occupants to move. He kept quiet about it.
"You gave the orders to release them," Barry said.
"Wallace ordered me to order," Johnny said.
"Culpable relativity," Barry said. "He's an enemy."
He asked him how he knew the code to open their door.
"It was the same code I had used on the console. It was the off switch for the Russian detonations," Johnny said.
The Americans laughed and thanked him. “You'll live for that. But it’s useless," the woman said. "The grinder fired. We can't defend by Star Wars because it doesn't exist. It’s the last thing we wanted.”
“Inevitable,” she said. She unravelled and connected wires from another communication set. “I’m wiring Rome.”
They showed Jonathon out of the clean neon lit room. He went to a ladder which led to the top of the foxhole at ground level. He climbed it and walked upright now on the ground. It formed wave like patterns. The tracks of the artillery which had now passed and moved away. Weight mashed the dirt.
He took his bearings and began walking to the edge of the range. Along the way he came to a sight which caused him recollections of previous witness. Like the scenes at Soweto three ago, or of the statue of Luxembourg at Prague. He paused to inspect it and identified the sight as the same officer who had met him at the bridge at Bylaw. Except now the man was no longer muscular, or shouting, or eating. Fire had immolated his body. He left his remains standing upright in charcoaled uniform and boots. Wallace was now a mockery in simulacrum of an ivory statue all in blackened carbon. John lost his breath and silence hushed over his ears when he recognized the figure. As a testament to pyrotechnic firepower the man still stood where he had died. Johnny moved on.
The sound of a car rose through the otherwise quiet aftermath, and he turned and searched for it. A BMW sedan was winding a course through the creased ground and wisps of blown smoke. He could not miss this opportunity for a connection with someone. An occupant who would know what was happening in the wasteland. The car came close to Johnny and stopped. The driver opened the second door for him.
“I’m an archaeologist,” he said. He wore duffel jacket and combat trousers. In the back of the car was a plastic bin into which he had put metal scraps of broken machine and weapons parts. He stopped wherever there was anything man made. He took the objects off the ground and putting them into the bin in the car. “I have to find out what happened here for documentation,” he said.
Johnny felt tired. He rode in the archaeologist’s sedan all the way out of the range. A road led around the embankment and into the green field and forest. It approached highway areas of civilian society again.
As he had done in South America the year previous, he slept in the car. The man drove to meet forensic colleagues in Strazhista. He then offered the tired soldier a ride to the border of the next country. After a wash and a shave in the hotel John accepted the offer and they were underway with rubber on the road. His driver told him that he should cross the border. From there hitch a ride to the next departure point at the coast.
He let him out of the car at night in another muddy barren area. The archaeologist said one word when John got out of the car, and he drove away by the route he had come. John looked around and saw a high wire fence set in a large square perimeter standing up from the mud of the field. It was the only feature of the place besides turned dirt. The gate made of two wire fence panels, and on it was a sign which designated the place as a detainee camp.
A woman in green uniform and black spectacles saw him. She carried a stick in the manner that military marshals did. She was similar in appearance to the female officers at the troop inspection in Poland. She held a pistol in a hand and beckoned him in past the perimeter of the gate. Johnny did by instruction, but when he was next to the woman he knelt and said, “What do you want from me?”
“Unless you have an achievement worthy of merit, this is your last resting place. Where have you been?” she said. She had swapped the tool in her hand from a pistol, which she had holstered, to a crude tattooing needle.
“I have been at the range controlling the arsenal,” said Johnny. “We have switched the system down and destroyed the controls, and there has been a misfire.”
“Lift your left sleeve and take the serial number mark,” said the marshal.
“These are the last days. The people of the world will write with scars on their skin. They will impale themselves with knives. Book of Revelations thirteen verses sixteen to eighteen. I refuse to take the mark.”
The imperious manner of the lady faltered a little and she put away her tattoo needle and picked up her gun again. “In that case you have fifteen minutes to run to the border before the machine guns strike you down. Now go,” she said.
Johnny turned and ran in a straight line out of the detention camp. He came to a line of coiled barbed wire, which he clambered beneath. The barbs held him. He wrestled himself free. Wire ripped his clothes even further and blood rose on his legs and hands. After the wire was a moat of a white coloured liquid, deep enough that he had to swim through it. He set out swimming and saw beneath him in the liquid, human cadavers lying at the bottom of the moat. As he swam, the machine guns rang out from behind him and bullets struck the wire and whizzed over him. On the far side of the liquid was long grass, and he crawled through this until he could not hear the guns.
At dawn he walked across quiet farmland, through tree breaks and flocks of sheep. When night fell he found a covered place to sleep and huddled until the early dawn. At daybreak a farmer with a rickshaw towed by a mule spoke to him. His language Croat. The two men could not comprehend each other past simple greetings in gesture. He staged his second vehicle heist for that mission, this one a lot less urgent and for a smaller payoff. Tired and without frenzy he brandished his rifle and removed the farmer from the reins of the mule. With the farmer’s fork he shuffled out all the hay from the rickshaw onto the grass. He then beat the mule across its hind quarters until it moved forward across the land. He lay and rested his aching feet for two and half days. Through unlocked gates and direct across roads he and the mule ambled along. In the morning of the second day of travel he hauled his heavy Russian rifle into a ditch beneath a hedge. In the afternoon of the third day he disembarked at a brick house by a highway. He was hungry.
Advanced in years, a woman came to the front door when he rattled it. She let him in. He explained that he was from another country, this time he said Serbia, and would work for food. She asked him what his skills were and he said he was an artist. “My husband took up all the practical work. But you can draw a picture,” she said.
She got him a square of paper and some coloured pencils. He sketched a clichéd image of a red banner flying above the October Revolution square at Kiev. The woman said that she did not like it but gave him a sandwich anyway. She said that her nephew would be visiting at eleven o’clock. That he could drive him to his destination, which was now a coastal town by the name of Split.
At eleven a Lana SUV arrived. Once again citizens spoke a conversation which John did not understand. They allowed him into the cabin. He rode in it next to a large man who spoke at length about Serbia and Croatia. After some time, after all Johnny’s excuses to keep silent, the man called him a fraud. He parked at a waterfront centre of the town and told him to piss off. John made an effort to merge into a crowd by a ferry terminal. A boat had docked. The movement of people ushered him into a queue by a gate and a landing ramp.
Tall soldiers were here ordering people either onto the ferry or away to the street again. When Johnny came to head of the queue, it was very easy to leave this socialist nation. “Never seen him before,” said a soldier in a red uniform. He punched John on the nose when he said this, “You’re coward and there’s a war. Get into that ferry and leave the empire,” John as told and boarded the ship.
He spent the first forty minutes in the galley breathing in the smell of cooking grease. Then he moved to a bench seat on the starboard side. He watched the surface of the Adriatic Sea go past the gunnels of the ferry. Sitting next to him were two women and a man whom he had not seen before. They engaged him in a broken conversation in which he kept his secrets. During their talk the women said, “He’s military staff. He can have this,” and passed him a heavy metal cylinder. Johnny did not want it, but they insisted. He put the heavy object into his canvass satchel. When he asked what it was, they replied that it was a casket of plutonium, stolen, dangerous and unwanted. It seems bad times never end for the homeless.
The ferry ride took time to round the rough strait between Italy's boot and toe. John tried to give the cylinder to the captain, but the captain did not want to take it. He still had it when the shores of Rome were in the ship’s approach. When the ship had docked and the emigrants were walking off to the gates of the port of Rome he still had it in his satchel. He had thrown his pistol off the side of the ship into the Adriatic. He imagined it sinking to the shelly bottom there to rust and decay, but he still had the criminal object. He cursed his luck as he queued at the money exchequer. He wanted to change Dumas to five centimes. Officials put him into refugee waiting class with others. He stated his nationality. Guards let him through the final gates. He walked into the city at the centre of the world, the one to where all roads lead.