Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 46 (content warning: violence and boy’s stuff)

To prepare for the start of Operation Meat-grinder, we needed to get all of our people out of Hardboard City.  Some of Anna’s girls had already left.  I tuned into what Layla could see and hear.  She was walking down one of the streets in the early morning, and two invaders with automatic rifles were coming to towards her.  They told her to accompany them.  I didn’t want her to do anything that would arouse suspicion.  They headed for the edge of the town.  I could not work out what was going on at first, but then I saw the tank, and it began to dawn on me.  Spalding and Brunton were there.  Layla asked what they wanted her for, but they ignored her.  Just then, Ben Stewart appeared and spoke to Spalding.

‘Sir, what do you want with this woman?’

‘I am going to put her inside this tank when the captured shell is test-fired.’

‘Sir, could I respectfully ask why you want to do that?’

‘Insurance in case anything goes wrong.’

‘Sir, is your army not a man’s army?  A tank is no place for a female.’

‘Are you contradicting me?’

‘Not at all, sir.  What I am suggesting, sir, is that I should go inside instead of her.’


‘I used to be a tank-gunner.  I could help your tank crew to assess the firing and give you a technical report on how the ammunition behaves.’

‘Mm.  It is true that the crew are rather raw and inexperienced.  All right.  I accept your suggestion.’  Layla watched as Ben mounted the tank, opened the hatch on top of the turret, and climbed inside.  He was still in civilian clothes, but his practised movements silhouetted in the half-light picked him out as a soldier. 

The tank’s engine roared as it manoeuvred so that it was pointing in the direction of a hillock about 500 metres away.  There was a muffled whirring of electric motors and the turret moved to exactly the right angle, and the gun slightly increased its elevation.  And then came the explosion, which ripped the turret off, and sent it flying through the air.  All the onlookers, including Spalding, Brunton, a few of their troops and Layla , ran.  In the furious moment of the disaster, it was impossible to judge whether the hulk of spinning metal was heading in one’s own direction.  A few seconds later, there was another explosion as the fire spread to the fuel tank.  I sent Layla an instruction to just keep running.  I heard a few bullets whine past her as she left the town.

Ben’s last act before he went to his death had been to wipe with meticulous care the grains of sugar from around the nozzles of the cans of kerosene he had just adulterated. 

He had sacrificed himself to save Layla, a moderately-sophisticated android whose entire set of data, software and hardware I could have rebuilt.

Ben had explained to me how the booby-trapped shells would work.  They were designed by Holt.  They had no propellant, and no firing-ring (that is the part that contains the expanding gases and makes the shell fly out of the gun-barrel).  The outside of the shell had a concealed gadget on it to lock it in place inside the firing mechanism.  Inside the shell-casing was just a detonator, and a charge.  The charge in this case was high explosive plus depleted uranium.  When the gun was fired, the cylindrically-shaped explosive would have gone off inside the chamber, and shock waves spread, both outwards and inwards.  The outward one would have started to crack the firing mechanism of the gun to pieces.  The inward one would have encountered the depleted uranium core, and driven it like a bullet backwards, towards the inside of the crew compartment.  The depleted uranium would be starting to liquefy as the metal was driven through a hole that, under normal conditions, would have been far too small for it to travel though.  Hundreds of beads of uranium would then have flown and bounced around the interior, like lead shot inside a washing machine.  Any soft object in their way (such as a human body) would have been penetrated.  A few milliseconds after that, the depleted uranium would have burst into flames. 

I sent Kelvin a message to say that the tank had been destroyed.  This was the trigger to start Operation Meat-grinder.

While Spalding strutted and shouted and looked for some-one to lash out at, his men were getting ready for a parade and inspection.  They climbed down the metal rungs into the Kettle, to immerse themselves in the warm, mist-shrouded water.  I counted them in.  When I got to eighty, I sent Kelvin another signal, ‘You can put the Kettle on.’  The aluminium rungs, both inside and outside, received a jolt of electricity which made them so hot that they melted and fell from their fastenings.  The temperature of the water also began to rise.  The water was too shallow, and the sides of the pool too high for the invaders to climb out.  The cries of horseplay soon turned to panic and then to agony, as the bathers’ naked flesh began to cook.  The screams attracted other invaders to climb onto the lip of the Kettle to see what was going on, but they were delayed until they could find something to substitute for the metal rungs.  The first few stood and gawped helplessly.  Eventually they shouted for some-one to fetch rope or things to serve as makeshift ladders.  The men were all brought out alive, exactly as we had planned. 

When the invaders were having their breakfast, they began to discover that sauce bottles, food cans, and even pieces of food, were starting to explode.  These devices were not enough to kill a man: they would just blow part of his hand off or fire small bits of shrapnel into his face.  Cigarette packets had two behaviours.  Some of them exploded, like the other booby-traps.  Some of them seemed to behave normally, until a few minutes after the first cigarette was lit (the tobacco had been impregnated with cannabis and heroin).  

Those who decided to wash their food down with liquor, contrary to Wolf’s express orders, experienced severe abdominal pain, blindness and, in a few cases, death, because all the beer, whisky and vodka had been heavily laced with methanol.

Not long after breakfast, vomiting and diarrhoea began to spread throughout Wolf’s men.  Some of them had collapsed face-first into their porridge, because of the morphine we had put in the milk.  A few of the men discovered by accident that the morphine-laced milk was quite a good medicine for alleviating the stomach cramps caused by the contaminated food and drink. 

Kelvin by that point was in a forward position, in a trench within sight of Hardboard City.  He wore a small piece of board (one of the off-cuts from the building of Hardboard City) on a strap round his neck.  Clipped to this were the sheets of paper he used to write orders on.  He wrote the orders in pencil, and then rolled the sheet up and put it inside a metal tube, sealed at both ends with cork.  He had the metal tubes and corks and spare pencils in a pouch round his waist.  He also had a walkie-talkie, but he only intended to use this for the orders which had been worked out in advance and given code words. 

Behind Kelvin was the artillery, with a battery of the 10-kilogram guns which Kelvin had demonstrated to the newspaper people.  Their guns were trained on Hardboard City, but they had not received the order to fire yet.  In front of him in the centre was his main force of infantry,  in concealed positions, and with instructions to repel anything that tried to flee from Hardboard City inland.  A small force had already re-claimed the remainder of the ships in the harbour.  On Kelvin’s left and right were the Gurkhas, whose mission was to hold onto the flanks and make sure that no invaders escaped by finding a way round Kelvin’s army. 

We started to put methanol into the water supply to Hardboard City, and then a little while later cut the water and the electricity off.  The artillery waited impatiently for the order from Kelvin.


I am Kelvin’s bayonet.  I am still in the scabbard on his belt.  He loves his rifle, but that is nothing to the way that he feels about me.  To fire his rifle,  he needs to be calm, composed, and accurate.  As soon as he fixes me, his intellect shuts down and he becomes a machine for expressing anger and hate.  I am a steel spike and he polishes every nick and scratch out of my surface with whetstone, oil, and chamois leather.  This is not just because he cares about my appearance, but because he doesn’t want me to catch on a bone or sinew when he tries to withdraw me from a man’s innards.  He has been practising impaling and withdrawing for months on special dummies with artificial ribs and spinal columns.  Most of his men hate bayonet practice.  They think it is too much like hard work, or they can’t take it seriously and they feel self-conscious when the instructor tells them to scream, or they are appalled by the prospect of impaling another human being with a weapon they hold in both hands.  Kelvin can hardly wait to issue the order.  One evening, after a whole day spent with him in training, he spoke to me.  He looked at me and said, in a quiet voice, ‘There are over a million words in the English language, but there may come a time when only three will do: fix bayonets: charge.’ 


That foul regime has collapsed.  The constitutional monarchy has been restored.  The Firm is back in business. 

I invited the new Minister of Culture round for tea at the palace and told her to organise an international cricket tournament as soon as humanly possible.  There are rumours that at least one new nation could be accorded full test status in time for it (Ghana, Singapore and Malaysia are all strong contenders).  I had a speech all prepared, but it turned out that I was preaching to the converted.  She is a season-ticket holder at Edgbaston.  She showed me a programme that had all the Warwickshire players’ autographs on it.  We had great fun.  I got a pomegranate out of the fruit bowl and we discussed the relative merits of a googly versus a doosra to both right- and left-handed batsmen.

The stock exchange sky-rocketed on the first full day of normal trading after proper government was restored.   If it weren’t for my position, I think I would have had a little flutter myself. 

We are back.  The United Kingdom has returned to its senses.  Please, God, let us not make the same mistake ever again. 



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