The Cabinet Office emergency centre was buzzing and crowded: the PM, senior ministers, Met Commissioner and Ted Armstrong, the heads of MI5 and MI6, Director of GCHQ on the phone, senior military officers, the Chief of the General Staff was on a plane over the Atlantic, his deputy was on the phone in a car on the way in, an indeterminate number of supporting staff, coming and going with messages, news channels on muted screens on the wall relaying camera footage. Ted Armstrong had made sure he sat next to Gerald, the Director of MI5. He could see the Home Secretary had noticed it too; she wasn’t stupid, she was trying to read the eddies, the currents’ flow, she even smiled at him. Hmm, she’s worried; her ambitions are in danger of extirpation… The live screening of mass murder at the offices of the nation’s premier broadcaster in two major cities. She needs all the friends she can get, especially those who’ve been breaking up an apparently huge terrorist network cell by cell.
And yet… and yet…
The sub-text of the discussion was, ‘how can this be happening after all the arrests, arms seizures, the great work of the security forces?’ Was anyone brave enough to tell them, shatter their carefully constructed illusions? They wouldn’t be thanked for it, they never were.
The known facts, all too few, were run through once more: the clip of the terrorist’s statement watched again. While it was on, one of the news channels repeated the video footage of the shooting of two terrorists in the street outside Broadcasting House, prompting a change in direction of the discussion. The PM looked around the room, “Which of your agencies is responsible for the attempt to stop this group, must have been following them? Why was that man alone?”
Everyone denied that of course, no knowledge, a foreign agency perhaps, or this new unknown force, must be them surely? If only the Chief of the General Staff were here, he was increasingly prepared to speak out, had handled the Chilterns decisively, no military casualties, only a few fellow traveller politicos and media types had questioned his ruthless application of force. He had gained kudos with the press, the vast majority of the population; these disoriented and frightened politicians would have looked to him to get them out of this nightmare. Where next they were thinking? When? Where? Tomorrow? The day after?
Gerald spoke up. Clearing his throat, he was hesitant, he saw the room as a panicky flock, apt to race away in the entirely wrong direction, even over the cliff.
“Whoever he is, he is a brave man, expert too, long range shot for a silenced pistol, must be slightly crazy to go in there after them. If we had a double zero section, I’d try to recruit him, if he survives.”
His joke fell flat, poor timing.
“At least those in Broadcasting House are contained now, but it’ll be some time before we can say the same about Salford: much bigger area, more terrorists, far fewer security people in the vicinity, our constant readiness military are so few now, years of cuts. They’re all needed in Manchester and will take some more hours to be fully deployed. A break out there is still on the cards and even with more armed police on the way our people will be out-gunned for some time. It’s up to my military colleagues to say when they will be ready to go, but I fear by then it will be too late for the poor devils still trapped inside and we will almost certainly need heavy weapons to dislodge the terrorists. They’re not the type to surrender or negotiate; we must recognise that by now.”
He paused, hoping someone else was going to take up the slack, but they just left him to it.
“Go on Gerald.” It was the PM, ashen-faced, Churchillian pretensions absent today, at least for now.
The others breathed in gently, collectively, watching a man edge out on to the ice, unsure as to its thickness.
“These same factors don’t apply at Broadcasting House. Special Forces are already arriving at the scene, there’s a strong cordon of armed police, a confined space, single building, but too large for a smaller group, two dozen perhaps, to secure all access points. There’re probably some of our people still alive in there, the sound of gunfire suggests it, but for how much longer if we delay? Besides, the longer we wait, the more they can booby-trap the building. So, we either starve them out, condemning any hostages they have taken, or others still hiding in there, to death, thereby looking weak and indecisive to the watching world, or intervene decisively, immediately and with overwhelming force. It’s up to my military colleagues to say how and if they have sufficient resources to hand, but that’s the choice, at least make it, either way.”
All eyes turned to the Deputy Chief of Staff who had just arrived. New in post, this was a baptism of fire in so many ways.
“We have two troops of SAS on hand, with enough helicopters to lift them all on to the roof. Apache Gunships will be arriving shortly and a company of the Coldstream Guards is deploying as we speak, with another preparing to leave barracks, albeit a little under strength with leave and so on. We don’t know how many terrorists are in there, or where they are, or even the state of the building. Casualties will be heavy, lack of tactical intelligence I’m afraid, no offence meant to my colleagues of course, but they would be going in blind. It could take hours, maybe days, to clear the building, and there might not be much of it left standing. If you sanctioned immediate unrestricted use of force, were prepared for dozens of casualties, then we could go shortly. I’m sorry, but it’s not clear cut.”
It never is, you numpties.
“I would like to go and patch another call through to the Chief if I may, in private, while you make a decision.”
He left the room, you make the decision, after all you and your predecessors created this mess, if only by negligence.
The room was silent once more. No one wanted to be the first to advocate a course of action that could result in a bloodbath but stepping back was effectively conceding a similar outcome, while looking weak, played out. The PM was aware of their eyes drifting back to him like matter and light trapped in the gravity well of a black hole; the final decision was his, the blood would be on his hands, some pundits were saying it already was. It hadn’t worked for Pilate, it wasn’t going to work for him either; he was bespattered whatever happened now, to the grave and beyond.
“If the military say they can do it now or very soon, then I propose we order it.”
He looked at those of his Cabinet in the room, encompassing them in collective responsibility; they nodded one by one, trapped in the glare of all the eyes on them. The deputy returned to the room, “The Chief concurs, go if we have a free hand, including the Apaches, but we’ll need thirty minutes minimum to get ready.”
The decision taken, many left the room, the security heads to the adjacent rooms that had been made available to them and their staffs, leaving the politicians and their advisers impotent and isolated around the table. The PM spoke, “Well, we better get working on some press releases for the different possible outcomes; agree the defined lines we must take in answering questions…”
Where had the other two terrorists got to? Sam looked up the staircase, no sign, they must have exited on one of the floors above, but which? Gunfire and explosions were spreading throughout the building like a virus, moving to commands he didn’t understand around a body about which he knew nothing. The screaming was the worst, cries for help, of despair, shouts of jubilation in strange languages as well as English, mingling and mixing in a nightmarish cacophony.
Rifle in one hand, pistol in the other, don’t go too far up, you could be cut off; they had entered on the ground floor, but could be anywhere. Offices more likely to be above the ground floor, that’s where most of the people working here would be. Up to the first-floor landing, the door’s ajar, can hear shouts, running feet, some shooting a way down the corridor. Head ducks around the corner, pistol in hand, AK47 over back, a short corridor, offices either side, doors open, go right, it turns left into a larger open room, deserted, no, some bloodied corpses, one or two still living, just, nothing to be done for them now.
Retreat, what were you thinking? You’re totally out of your depth here, you must be insane.
Reaching the first landing another burst of gunfire, screaming, comes down the corridor from the left. Head that way, quietly checking all the offices, cubicles, rooms on either side, more bodies.
Now the turn of the corridor rightwards, west that must be, peer around, a few yards further down it leads into an open plan office, large too. One man, armed, shooting at targets I can’t see from here, sounds of another rifle, at least two then, screaming again, people running away, jamming the doorways, pleading, cut off, sounds of falling.
Advance down the short passage way, in and out of the small rooms either side, all clear, just a few yards to go now. Look into the large room again, only seems to be two of them; they’ve corralled lots of people into one of the corners, picking out the men, forcing them to their knees, shooting them one by one.
Sadism, pure and simple, the enjoyment of the power of life and death over complete strangers.
Crawl behind that row of work stations, twenty yards plus, you need to be accurate or otherwise your shots might hit those awaiting execution on the other side of the gunmen.
Closer now, behind the next row of work stations, rise up slowly, pistol braced, silencer mounted on the low partition between two desks, line up the further of the two gunmen who fires another shot, another falling body, and who beckons another victim to come forward.
Slow your breathing, don’t want to kill one of the innocent, enough on your conscience already, steady your hands, good, two clicks, the man pitches forward. The other gunmen’s shocked, turns half facing, he’s quick, ducking, but not quick enough, two more clicks, he’s down.
Over to the group, some are hysterical, not just the women, others in shock, but others seem more self-possessed, and listen to your questions and instructions. At least two other men have gone down the passageway, leaving just the two now on the ground, one’s trying to move. Put a bullet in his head, no risks, then the final round in the magazine into the other, change-over.
Gather up their weapons, two of the lucid survivors claim to have some weapons experience.
“Here, take these, now, follow me.”
There are sixteen plus me; eleven are women, on towards the first-floor landing stairs, the two armed ones following behind.
Right, the bend in the corridor, look around it, see no movement.
“On your way, quietly now.”
A burst of automatic fire behind, then another, one of the armed survivors is down, shouting from the open plan office we’ve just left, two more down, one wounded, but the rest are safe around the corner. It’s a sprint now to the stairwell, movement ahead, feet racing towards us, no one in sight yet, must be someone trying to cut us off, we’re not going to make it, quick, into an office on the right, windowed, shoot it out, “Start jumping, you should be okay, I’ll try to keep their heads down while you get away.”
The last armed hands me his rifle, “I don’t know what to say other than thank you. Who are you?”
“Just go, live, get them away.”
Pulling out the little gold Celtic cross the monks gave me.
“I’m with them. Now jump, please.”
Why did I do that?
© 1642again 2018