Content warning: “boy’s stuff” connotes content to do with wars and politics. It is a fact that some female readers have commented that they skipped over these passages.
‘Kelvin, this is Violet. Kelvin, this is Violet.’
‘What?’ I could hear his voice through his own ears. The satellite link imposed a delay of just over a second.
‘This is Violet. You are not going mad. I’m communicating with you via satellite. You have implants in your head which mean that you can hear what I am saying. Do you understand?’
‘No. It does feel as if I am going mad.’
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Can you not hear me?’
‘Can you say anything other than “no”?’
‘Yes. But I still think I’m going mad. How do I know this is Violet? Where have you been?’
‘I was Pamela.’
‘Ah. That explains a great deal.’
‘We are wasting time. Kelvin, I need you to do what you do best. I need you to absorb a lot of confusing information in a very short time. I am tuned in to the satellite network and I know that our planet has been invaded by some kind of terrorist agency. We are under attack. Do you understand?’
‘I understand. Execute Plan K-13.’
‘Yes, definitely. This is exactly the event it is designed to deal with. Do you know if they are American?’
‘We know next to nothing about them at the moment, other than they have no compunction about killing innocent people. We will initiate Plan K-13. Kelvin?’
‘This is Violet.’
‘I followed you.’
‘I knew you would.’
‘Love. Do you love me?’
‘You know I do. Do you love me?’
‘Yes. Yes, I do. I always have.’
‘You tried to leave me.’
‘I know. It was a terrible mistake. And I didn’t succeed.’
‘But you did it again. You’re doing it now. You always leave me.’
‘No, I don’t. I have not left you: I’m coming home. I’ll be home as soon as possible.’
‘If you try to leave me again, I’ll kill you.’
‘I know. I don’t want us to be separated again. I want us to be together.’
‘Kelvin, where are you?’ I was only taking the sound stream, not the visual, to save bandwidth.
‘I am on I-2.’
‘Kelvin, that means you are on the same island as the site of the attack. Just let me work out exactly where you are.’ I worked out Kelvin’s position by using the global positioning system. ‘Do you know if they have any aircraft on I-13?’
‘A few, I think.’
‘Who runs the place?’
‘Kerr McLean. It’s Kerr McLean’s personal fiefdom.’
‘OK. I’ll see if I can get him to send a plane. Are you somewhere on the side of a mountain? GPS is telling me that you’re about 2000 metres above sea level.’
‘Yes, I’m inspecting a zinc mine.’
‘A zinc mine?’
‘Yes, a zinc mine. That’s a deep hole in the ground from which we obtain zinc. The ore is very rich.’
‘Is a zinc mine important? More important than me?’
‘Important, yes. Zinc is a strategic raw material.’
‘Kelvin, will you kindly get yourself to a location suitable for a light aircraft to make a landing, preferably where I can still find you by GPS, without revealing yourself to the enemy, and without getting killed or captured.’
‘Yes, of course. Er, Violet?’
‘Yes, what is it you stupid, unreliable, gallivanting, truant, tosser?’
‘I’m sorry.’ I cut the broadcast.
Plan K-13 meant total war. The name was thought up by Kelvin himself. Plans A-1 to K-12 don’t exist: he devised it deliberately to sound silly.
Wolf and I took a platoon of men on a patrol, and left the rest to forage for food and fuel in the settlement that we had attacked.
We walked up the path to a two-storey wooden house, painted white, with a green front door. Wolf said that he might make the building into his headquarters. The door was unlocked. We walked along a passage and into a kitchen. An old man with white hair and spectacles was sitting, reading a book. He looked up at us in alarm.
‘Name,’ said Wolf. The man did not answer. He just jabbered incoherently. ‘Name!’ he demanded.
‘Arthur Cresswell,’ the man stammered eventually, in a whisper. His speech was as quiet as the rustling of dry leaves.
‘I am taking over this house as my headquarters. Who else used to live here?’
‘Where is she?’
‘Where is she and what is she doing?’
‘She went to the pub to give out some leaflets.’
‘The pub. Was that a ramshackle building with a sign over it which said O’Mally’s.’
‘Aha. I have some sad news for you, Arthur Cresswell. One of my helicopters fired a rocket into that building and blew it to smithereens. Your wife is dead.’ The prisoner started crying. ‘Are there any other settlements on this island?’
‘Where is the nearest other inhabited island?’
‘I think it’s about 300 kilometres to the north.’
‘What is its name.’
‘It doesn’t have a name.’
‘What? You’re lying. Why are you trying to conceal information from me?’ Wolf slapped the man across the face. His spectacles flew off, and the lenses shattered when they landed on the tiled floor.
‘It’s true. It’s true.’ Wolf grabbed the man’s hair and looked into his eyes. He was satisfied. The interrogation over, Wolf pulled the man’s chair out from the table and punched him twice in the chest as he sat. He seemed pleased by the contortions of the man’s reddening face.
‘Take him outside and hang him, in as prominent a location as possible,’ he ordered. I told one of the men to look around for some rope.
It took me three days to get home, by making island hops in a two-seater aircraft of colonial manufacture.
We held a meeting. We asked for as many people as possible to appear in person, and the meeting was broadcast via satellite to the other colonies. We did not have a building big enough to hold everybody, and so we held the meeting outdoors. Near the town is a limestone scar where there is some shelter from the wind and we thought the acoustics would be better. We set up a stage and a microphone.
Despite the threat of conflict and the news of the deaths of some of my fellow colonists, I could not help feeling pleasure at seeing so many of them, in all their eccentric variety. Children with braided hair and hand-knitted jumpers ran around and played at the back of the crowd. People sat on blankets, took food out of capacious hampers, and swigged bottles of beer or drank from flasks of tea. Except for the cold weather, the atmosphere was more like a music festival than a political meeting.
I opened the meeting. Prudence Tadlow was the chairwoman. She had on her work clothes: overalls, boots and utility-belt.
‘The news from I-2 is that we have been invaded, and it is now our task to organise ourselves for the defence of our selves, our children, and our way of life. That defence must not fail.
‘We have been taken by surprise, but I should impress upon you that the enemy is only entitled to expect surprise to confer a momentary advantage. Our actions now must demonstrate that that momentary advantage is over.
‘We have no excuse for not winning this conflict. We control every economic asset on the planet. We do not know how many men the invaders have, but I expect to beat them, and I expect that victory to be won quite quickly. In man and womanpower, food and supplies, in intelligence and, I believe, in military organisation and the will to win – we outclass the enemy.
‘Our stated aim is the total destruction of the enemy’s capacity for armed resistance, to the point where he can no longer do harm to any one of us, ever again. Our strategy will be based on three principles:
‘One. The enemy must be deprived of food, water and sustenance at every opportunity. We will continue to eat and drink but he must starve and thirst.
‘Two. Every engagement must inflict more casualties on the enemy than ourselves. We must emerge from this ordeal with the generative power of our community still intact. We will take no prisoners and will attempt swiftly to rescue any of ourselves who are taken prisoner if it is possible to do so. Members of the community who cannot fight must be kept as far from the enemy as possible.
‘Three. We must make the best possible use of all resources, including any material we can capture from the enemy, to increase the effectiveness of our attacks.
‘We have just a few hours in which to organise all this. I understand that there are many things that you will want to discuss but, I urge you, please be brief and swift. Right now, I expect that the invaders are ransacking another town and, if any-one is unfortunate enough not to have been able to flee, they will be raped, tortured and murdered. This is not an intellectual exercise: what we are trying to arrange for is the systematic ending of rape, torture, and murder – not any abstract ideal.
‘Have we all got that?’ No-one spoke. A few people nodded. Most of them looked blank. I started to feel worried, but did my utmost not to show it.
I offered for a series of three-minute speeches by people from the floor of the meeting, on the basis that the meeting could vote after each one on whether to allow the last speaker an extension. Most of these speeches were tedious, poorly-expressed, incoherent and without incident. The last person to speak was a woman who gave her name as Moonflower. Towards the end of her three minutes, she uttered the words I had been dreading.
‘When the conflict is over, we will still have to live on the same planet as these people.’ I had to interrupt.
‘No, we won’t. This is our planet, not theirs. Make no mistake – there are only two possible outcomes of this war: the extinction of the invaders, or the extinction of our way of life. If I could make it less unpleasant, I would, but I can’t.’ Moonflower looked at me with shocked bewilderment. I felt vulnerable. I looked round the assembly with a questioning gaze. There was an uneasy silence. Some people looked at me. Others looked at Moonflower. Most of them looked at the ground.
‘The invaders must be defeated,’ I pronounced, slightly too loudly, so that the word be thumped out of the loudspeakers like the sound of a bass drum. ‘The only thing that can bring about that defeat is ourselves. What is it to be?’
‘Shall we take a vote on it?’ asked Prudence, off-microphone, so that only those on or near the stage heard her. I handed the microphone to Prudence and was relieved that Moonflower did not protest.
‘What is the actual motion we are voting on?’ somebody shouted at Prudence from near the front of the assembly. A hubbub then began. People began climbing onto the stage and bombarding me with questions. I tried to answer them as pleasantly and politely as I could. I was trying to move towards Prudence so that between us we could call the meeting back to order. A sudden wall of bodies impeded me.
‘Call a recess!’ I shouted to her. ‘Call a recess and then I’ll present the motion.’
‘We will have a recess for one hour, after which Kelvin Stark will put forward the motion, and then we’ll vote. Can we clear the stage please?’
People went into the tent which had been pitched nearby and emerged with bowls of soup and hunks of bread. A brief shower of rain fell, but never looked like disrupting the meeting. I wandered to a quiet spot under the shelter of an over-hanging rock and sat down with a notebook and a pen to prepare my speech.
I had stopped writing, but was still deep in thought when Prudence sent somebody to fetch me.
I had entitled the motion The Defence of Civil Society Bill. It contained the following clauses.
(1) A position of Commander-in-Chief will be established for the duration of the war. The holder of this position will stay in post until incapacitated or dead. The first holder of the position will be Kelvin Stark.
(2) The C-in-C will have the power to:
(a) Arrange the economy for the war effort including the requisitioning of labour and the supply of food;
(b) Recruit and disband troop formations; promote and demote officers; train, equip, deploy and command forces;
(c) Control the broadcasting of information and the use of propaganda;
(d) Nominate a list of successors to be approved by the Assembly;
(e) Select and dismiss members of the Cabinet without approval (see clause 3).
(3) A Cabinet will be selected by the C-in-C to manage the departments of government for the duration of the war. The Cabinet will advise the C-in-C but he will have the final say in all things, including military and economic strategy and tactics, the formulation of surrender terms, and the definition of what constitutes victory.
(4) The C-in-C will himself be a member of the armed forces and will, at such times as he considers necessary, take part in training exercises and military operations.
I stood up to the microphone and prepared to have myself declared the military ruler of Achird-gamma.
The ensuing debate lasted for over two hours, and a windy afternoon was beginning to turn into a chilly evening by the time we had finished. Most of the questions directed at me were along the lines of “How will we be able to get rid of you when the war is over?” This was exactly the one that I would have asked myself, and I was glad to discuss it. My principal interlocutor was Professor Timothy Gonzales.
‘Dr Stark, are you familiar with the quotation that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?’
‘I am indeed, Professor.’
‘And how do you propose to prevent yourself from being corrupted?’
‘By not being in power for long enough. We have a job to do. My job is not to oppress you.’ I motioned in a wide arc to indicate those assembled. ‘My job is to organise our defence and to remove the menace that now threatens us. Every ounce of our resources will be directed against that menace; not against our own people.’
‘I see. And how transparent will your government be?’
‘Transparency will be something that I will use where I think it will help to instil confidence, but not something that I will employ generally. ’
‘How can you justify that?’
‘Napoleon Bonaparte said that the moral is to the material as three is to one. Many of our people have no military training or experience of what it is like to be in the heat of a life-or-death battle. The best available information that we have so far suggests that, although the enemy is numerous, we outnumber him at least four or five to one. Since we also control the economy of virtually the entire planet, we have – or should have – overwhelming strategic advantages. The one area in which we remain to be tested is resolve. I hope that there are men and women among us who can equal me in that resolve, but I guarantee you that nobody can surpass me in it. The enemy cannot win this war: we can only lose it for him, if we allow our fear of his violence and vindictiveness to weaken our resolve. In the cause of maintaining and strengthening that resolve, I will let people know what I think it is in their interests to know. This is one of the essential features of war.’
‘Mm. Reluctantly, I think I am forced to agree with you. So how would we get rid of you in the end?’
‘If we are victorious?’
‘If we are victorious.’
‘We will have another Assembly, and I will step down.’
‘What if you decided not to?’
‘The Assembly can repeal the law by which the position of Commander-in-Chief was created.’
‘And what if you still refuse to go?’
‘You can shoot me.’
Everybody laughed. They laughed so hard, in fact, that order was lost for some minutes and I was annoyed. I was annoyed because I had been in deadly earnest when I had said You can shoot me.
When everybody did stop laughing, and Prudence finally managed to re-unite the score of small meetings that had broken out, Professor Gonzales spoke again.
‘I have one final comment.’
‘And what is that?’
‘There is a special name for the kind of government that you are proposing.’
‘What would you call it?’
‘Monarchy.’ I was momentarily stunned. It was the last word that I had been expecting the Professor to utter. I had feared rather that he would say military dictatorship or fascist junta.
‘Long live King Kelvin the First!’ shouted somebody from the back of the crowd. There was laughter again, less raucous and long-lasting than before, and then a round of applause.
‘Madam Chairman, I propose an amendment to the Bill, to replace the title Commander-in-Chief with King.’
‘Are there any other amendments?’ asked Prudence, after taking the microphone. There was a buzz of conversation, but nobody raised a hand or spoke up.
‘Doctor Stark, do you accept the amendment from Professor Gonzales?’ I did not know what to say. I just shrugged. ‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ said Prudence. Prudence, who was now holding the paper that I had written during the recess, read it out in its entirety, substituting King for every instance of Commander-in-Chief.
The Assembly moved to the vote. Once those cast via the satellite link had been added to the votes of those present at the Assembly, there were 46401 votes in favour, 282 against, and 196 abstentions. I had the overwhelming support of the Assembly and was now the King of Achird-gamma.
The meeting broke up. Prudence, the only other person left on the stage, came over to me and, taking me completely by surprise kissed me lingeringly on the lips.
‘I’ve never met a real, live King before,’ she observed, and then curtsied (very gracefully and competently) and giggled. I had never seen some-one attempt a curtsy while wearing a utility belt.
Kelvin is king. The Cerise Vallance stable of magazines is about to get a new title. It will be called Royal Flush. The banner will feature an image of Kelvin as a playing card: the King of Hearts.