‘General, may I talk with you?’
‘Yes, of course.’ I did not recognise this severe-looking woman, and neither could I make out whether she was referring to me by an incorrect rank deliberately, but I decided to let it pass.
‘I have squad here, ready to assault enemy position. You want unit to make assault, yes?’
‘We need to mount as assault. Yes.’
‘Well I have here. We are ready. ‘
‘How many personnel are in your squad?’
‘Eight, including squad leader: me.’
‘Exactly what operation do you have in mind?’
‘It very simple. Me and girls run up ramp: run towards enemy position: attack enemy position: kill as many as possible. If we still alive at end, we get medal, yes?’
‘And what happens if you get shot before you reach the enemy line?’
‘We not afraid to die. We call squad “Butterflies”.’
‘Why that name?’
‘Because we only live one day.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Do I look as if not serious?’
‘No. You look perfectly serious.’
‘Well then. We good to go, General?’
‘What weapons do you have?’
‘Four have light machine-gun. Rest have Lee Enfield rifle with bayonet.’
‘And where did the light machine-guns come from?’
‘Do I have to answer?’
‘No, you don’t have to answer that.’
‘We get order advance?’
‘Are you prepared to die?’
‘Most of us already dead.’
‘I don’t understand why you are saying that but, under the circumstances, if you are volunteering, I accept. I need to know if the enemy has any substantial reserves of ammunition left. I think he has run out, but I also think that he is trying to make me think that he has run out. If you can settle that one way or the other, it would be doing me and my army, and this planet, a great service, for which we would be grateful.’
‘No problem. We get on with it now?’
‘Carry on, squad leader.’
There then followed one of the most nit-picking and Draconian military inspections I have ever seen. This woman, who was wearing the antique insignia of a captain in the Soviet army, glowered at a row of seven petrified women, and slapped across the face any whose uniform, weapon, or kit failed the inspection. When this formality had been observed, they equipped themselves and attacked. As they made themselves ready, it occurred to me that I did not know any of their names.
They did not run up the same ramp. There were six ramps, and they ran up two of them singly, and three of them in pairs. They ran very fast. They spread out as they ran. They covered a semi-circular arc of attack which encompassed the whole of the front line of the enemy’s position. I tried to follow them all through the magnifying periscope, but I lost track of most of them, and decided to remain looking at the squad leader. She advanced, in a zig-zag line. She ordered her squad to lie down. The squad fired on the enemy, mainly with their light machine-guns. They got up. They advanced, in a zig-zag line. They lay down. They got closer and closer to the enemy front line. The enemy shot at them. They continued to advance. The men at the left and right extremes of the enemy’s front line started to get up from their positions and run away. I observed this through my magnifying periscope, but it did not please me, because I realised that we would have to organise a mopping-up operation later, which might be particularly inconvenient if any of them were still armed.
I am quite certain that I saw the squad leader take a burst of rounds to her body. Her advance was slowed for a split-second, but she carried on, from which I surmised that she was wearing body armour.
I could see a ripple of disorder going through the first and second enemy lines. The Butterflies stuck to their task. Rather than attempt to inflict maximum casualties on these two forward lines, they cut through them, and closed with the third line. More of the enemy starting running to the flanks, most of them infuriatingly forward of either Colonel Gurung’s or Major McCann’s detachments. I issued an order for the marksmen from my flanks to try to pick off any of the enemy they could, without endangering the Butterflies.
All four of the Butterfly light machine-gunners were lying down again and firing. Their mission had succeeded. Tumultuous volleys of enemy fire confirmed that they still had plenty of ammunition. I put my titanium sniper’s mask on, showing it first to Diggle so that he would not have a heart attack if he saw me turn towards him with a white face, almost featureless apart from two eye-holes. I put my head above the parapet and scanned the battlefield with ordinary binoculars. The other four members of the squad, including the leader, were still moving forward, but also to the extreme flanks, two on each side. It seemed incredible that they were all still alive, let alone still carrying out their offensive action. It was evident that the enemy commander had concentrated his material in his third line. This the Butterflies had clearly revealed, and this line they now proposed to try to break. The runners were dodging bullets, apparently being hit from time-to-time, but with no ill-effects. They closed. They started screaming. They charged, bayonets at the ready. Enemy men, including some of those wearing black uniforms, attempted to disengage. A handful also fixed bayonets, and a few old-fashioned fencing-matches broke out, which the Butterflies seemed to win every time. The two “detachments” (each of two women) then turned inwards, towards each other, and began to move along the enemy line. I saw the squad leader toss one grenade and then another towards the enemy centre. Their explosions caused considerable disorder and dislocation. The enemy fired a few rocket-propelled grenades in response, but they just detonated in empty space.
I decided that we were never going to get another opportunity as good as the one that now presented itself. In that instant, I decided we needed to charge, immediately. I told Diggle to pick up my standard and follow me in the charge. The whole army had been warned beforehand that if they saw my standard charging, they were to charge as well. I blew my whistle, and our one bugler responded. I heard other whistles up and down the line answering me and the bugler. Men began shouting and screaming. Bagpipes sounded and drums beat.
I fixed my bayonet. Still wearing my blank, white sniper’s mask, I lifted myself over the parapet while Diggle, burdened as he was by the standard, ran up the ramp. I gripped my Lee Enfield in my hands, and ran for all I was worth. It was not long before some of my own men were over-taking me. I heard bursts of fire from Gurung’s and McCann’s men, who themselves charged as we began to close with the enemy.
My original objective of charging an enemy who was a sitting duck had been lost, but I had the next best thing. Even though the enemy still had some ammunition left, his line was now in a state of disorder verging on chaos. I could see and hear officers shouting orders in desperation, and admonishing their men to stand and fight, but most of these commands were neither carried out nor even heard. The enemy army had dissolved into an assortment of individuals: hungry, thirsty, shit-scared, gripped by pain and sickness, and now realising that they had no idea why they had come to this planet.
I cannot articulate how the final phase of the battle went, because I don’t remember it as a sequence of events: only as a state of mind. I don’t know how many men I bayonetted, but it was at least three, and I managed to extricate my bayonet cleanly each time. Some of the enemy troops tried to surrender, but no-one was listening. The Gurkhas arrived from both left and right flanks, and attacked the enemy at close quarters, mostly with the kukri. I found myself fighting quite close to McCann, who was one of the only men on our side who was still firing rather than engaging in hand-to-hand combat: his confidence in his own marksmanship was unshakeable, even under those chaotic conditions. At the same moment, both McCann and I thought we recognised the enemy leader, and we charged towards him from two different angles. McCann took the leader and me over in the same rugby-tackle. Once we had him on the floor, we searched him thoroughly and taped his hands and his feet together. As soon as we had done that, I ordered a disengagement and we took the enemy surrender. I took my mask off.
‘Surrender must be unconditional,’ I broadcast to the stunned men of both sides who stood and lay around me.
We lined the enemy up and surrounded them. Both sides had taken casualties, but I did not know how many. All I knew was that we had won the battle.
Diggle was still alive. McCann was still alive. Colonel Gurung had been shot in the left shoulder but was expected to live. Chandra was unaccounted for but there was no reason to believe that anything was wrong with him. All eight of the Butterflies had outlived their expected span.