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Sandy was just too tired. Nigh-nigh time, and it was only twenty hundred hours. Mind you, he hadn’t slept much since oh five thirty yesterday. Just those naps at the hospital. Twenty-four hours ago he’d been stitched up and had the brain scan. Since then Corporal Afa had died, there’d been the league game (four tries to Nellie), and Corporal Afa had been buried. Nellie reckoned Sandy was tired because he’d been shot in the head, but what did Nellie know?
He thought about all this in the shower. Didn’t get very far. Yep, it had been a long day.
He was woken up by Nellie diving on him.
“Cmon boy, whaddyathinkyourdoing? Time for brekkie.”
‘Gerroff me. I’m sleeping.’
“Nah, you’re in the army now, Captain. We get up at oh eight hundred Sunday.”
‘What? Who made up that rule?’
“I did. C’mon. I’m hungry and Jane won’t go to breakfast without you. She’s been up for hours, she says. There’s a war on, and we’re missing out. China. And Mexico has invaded California and Texas. China bombed Pearl Harbor and Las Vegas. And someone bombed the Senator. He’s dead. So’s President Trump. No surprise. He was pretty old. I saw him the other day. Looked about ready to snuff it. China reckoned the Senator was his brother and declared war on America. Hurry up and get up. There’s bullets flying all over the place and none of thems my bullets.”
‘OK, I’m getting up.’ The Senator was dead? Last Sandy had heard he was on his way to a meeting with President Trump. Something must have gone wrong. Maybe not. Radio Nellie was good listening, but the news service was pretty unreliable. Jane would know.
Nellie got off him and started poking Abel.
“Abbey, hey Abbey, you dead or something? I just remembered that surgeon fella said it would take ten days for you to heal. You shouldn’t have played yesterday. You were useless anyway.”
Abel groaned, rolled over, and groaned again. He sat up, and Sandy saw his body was covered in bruises.
“I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus.”
“Nah, worse. Gooch. Lots of Gooch. Lots of times. Get in the shower. Hot water is good for bruises. Had a few meself in my time. Twenty minutes in the shower and they feel much better.”
Nellie went and had a look in the bathroom.
“Come on youse. There’s two shower things in here. You can both shower at the same time. Hurry up. The war’ll be over the rate you’re going. And I’m starving. Now I know what those Africans feel like.”
Sandy gave in, got up and into the shower. He was finished before Abel had got out of bed and dragged himself to the bathroom. Yep, there was a clean uniform in the closet.
‘Go on Nellie. Go get a uniform on. You can’t be in a war if you’re not wearing a uniform.’
“Jeez, you could be right. Be a first. Back in a minute.”
Sandy lay back on his bed, towel around his waist. Maybe he could hit the snooze button and grab five more minutes. No, it wouldn’t work. Nellie would come bouncing back in. No point arguing with him. No way he was going to listen. He was just a big two hundred and ten pound puppy, and Sandy was going down to breakfast with him. Like it or not.
Sandy gave in and started getting dressed. He heard the shower turn off, and a minute or so later Abel came back in the room.
‘You look like crap, mate.’
“Nah, it’s much better now I’m walking around. I’m good to go. You found your uniform, all by yourself. I wasn’t sure you’d be able to.”
‘Cumon, it wasn’t that hard.’
“Yeah, but you’re an officer. The corporals and sergeants seem to think that officers need a lot of looking after.”
‘I’ve only been an officer for a week, not even that. Maybe I’m still learning to be totally useless.’
“Maybe.” But Abel sounded doubtful.
“Nah. He’s always needed looking after. It’s worse than ever now. He gets shot most every time I let him out of my sight.” Nellie was back. That was hardly fair. He’d only been shot twice. Well, five times, but only twice really. Monday and the other day.
Breakfast was good. They were showing a replay of the game in the dining room. Most of the team was there. Even Sergeant Harley who’d been knocked out.
“I’ve got to watch this. If I don’t remember the game when I see the doctor tomorrow morning I’ll be stood down for two weeks – off combat duties.”
‘Will that fool her?’
“Not by itself. But we have to do concussion testing start of the year. Everyone tries to do badly then, so when we get tested after a knock, we compare pretty well.”
“Shhush sarge. The walls have ears,” and a kind of nod at Sandy. Paul, from Bravo troop, played left center yesterday, inside Nellie.
“What you saying fool? You don’t trust my mate?”
“Nah, it’s not that Nellie. But there’s stuff you keep in the team. And officers, they hear things, they got to act on them.”
“Leave it Trooper. The captain’s a dude. He saved all our lives Friday night. If he wants to stand me down from combat duties, I’m stood down. No argument from me. Now how about you just shut up and watch the game.”
It was a good game to watch. Nellie joined in the laughter, the congratulations for good hits, and the joking about misses and bump offs.
On the replay screen Nellie was getting knocked out, again.
“That Enoka. Time he got a hiding I reckon. He’ll keep.”
Good on yah Nellie. Get things into perspective.
And then the commentary team was there. No cameras.
It was Tom Bishop who spoke. “Hey, do you guys mind if we hang here for a while? It doesn’t look like our flight is leaving today, with the war and all, and, well, winners are grinners you know, so it should be more fun over here.”
Everybody looked at Sandy.
‘Sure. The kitchen’s through there. Grab yourselves something to eat. The boys are talking about the game. If you listen to them we scored about a hundred tries and made a thousand tackles.’
This command stuff got easier every time.
It was comfy in the dining area. Lots of buzz. Laughs. Food. Warm.
Dan Goldman came and sat at his table. “A penny for your thoughts, Captain.”
‘You’d be wasting your money, Dan. I’m not big on thinking.’
“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you, Captain?”
‘Seventeen. Just turned seventeen on Monday.’
“Isn’t that awfully young to be an army captain?”
‘I don’t know. I’ve never met any other captains.’
“So what’s your role in all this?”
‘My team has to go fetch our citizens and employees who need extraction, from anywhere in the world.’
“Including New Ziland?”
“What do you think of them, the Gooch and the Choo? I mean, you guys have turned the world upside down for them.”
‘Them. What do you mean them? It’s we, the Gooch, the Choo, the Betas like me, the ILFs, and the Alphas who support us.’
“But you, you’re like us. They’re not. They look like us but they’re animals with human genes added.”
‘I don’t know about that. I reckon you’re saying there’s a difference. I don’t see it. Your lot, they want to kill us. That’s the difference.’
“But you, you’re human.”
‘What’s so special about being human? Anyway, it depends what you mean by human, doesn’t it? Look at Abel. His dad’s a Gooch. His mum is human. What’s he? He’s got gorilla and chimpanzee genes that no human has had for millions of years. He’s got other genes that no human has ever had. I’m not going to let you kill him.’
“But, maybe if all the Gooch, and the Choo, and the half-breeds like Abel agreed not to have children, maybe we could let them live?”
‘You just don’t get it do you? It’s not your choice. You guys are just about to start a world war. And there’s that biological weapon out there. One of you will work out how to make it kill everyone. We develop an anti-toxin. You develop a weapon. You’ve got problems, much bigger problems than us. You’re looking at the destruction of humanity but all you see is us. Get real.’
Sandy got up, and went to join Nellie and Abel.
Yeah, this was fun. Lots of food. Plenty of juice. Just like any other Sunday. Sitting round with a group of mates who were talking crap. The topic was still yesterday’s game.
But it wasn’t quite the same. Nellie, Jane, Abel, they were comfortable round him. But most of the others, it was like they were, well not scared, but a bit nervous to come close. He was getting lots of glances, but that was it.
Tom Bishop came up to him.
“For a young man, you sure have earned a big rep quickly, Sandy.”
“Well, look at these guys. They’ve got huge respect for you. You’re up there somewhere, and they’re not worthy. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I’m with them. You’re some kind of superhero to them, to me, and to a hell of a lot of people now.”
‘Well, I didn’t mean to be.’
“Yeah, and that’s pretty much the whole point isn’t it? But what I really came over for was to tell you that they’re trying to set up some kind of interview with you about Abel.”
“It’s not really my business. But there’s been a lot of TV coverage about Abel in New Ziland since he escaped. They’re saying he killed some kids when he was about nine. TV in New Ziland wants to interview people here by video link. It’s going to be your call. Apparently you are incredibly senior here. Much, much more than a captain. You never told us about that?”
‘Well, nah, no reason to.’
Then TOM was there.
“Morning Sandy. I hear Tom has already spoken to you about this. Perhaps the interview might be useful.”
“Well, you have some decisions to make about New Ziland. We have the anti-toxin. They have the illness and it’s spreading fast. Over one thousand dead and five thousand cases. Their prime minister has asked for anti-toxin. It’s big news over there now. Red wants to give them the anti-toxin, but he hasn’t got any planes. You have. This interview might help you see the New Ziland point of view better.”
‘Yeah, but the boys are having a good time. I don’t want to spoil their buzz.’
“If this interview goes the way I think it will, they will be on a new buzz. This will be a long party. What do you say?”
‘OK. I’ll have a word to Abel.’
“No. I’ll handle that. I’ll set things up.”
Well, that wasn’t much good. Sandy had something else to worry about and he didn’t even know what it was. Not really.
And now it was Bushie coming up to him.
“Sandy, I heard about what is planned. With the TV, and the interview by that dickhead Peter Henley. I have been asked for my views. If you don’t mind, I will give them.”
‘Yeah, sure. There’s TOM over there. He’s organizing it.’
It took a little while. TOM set up a big screen at the end of the room, and cameras. Cameras all over the place. Shane and Max turned up.
“Captain, are you sure about this?”
‘Dunno, Gunny. TOM thinks it is a good idea.’
“No Gooch will ever argue with TOM. We will stay.”
And then it was time. TOM stood in front of the big screen.
“Gentlemen, settle down and listen to me for a moment please.”
Surprisingly, that worked.
“Captain Sandy has given permission for an interview by a television station in New Ziland. They are responding to something they have heard about Citizen Abel. Let me show you the video.”
Sandy moved over to stand with Abel. Nellie and Jane were already there. Shane and Max moved over too. There was hardly room for Bushie and Tom Bishop. Another table was joined to theirs. Now there was room. Dan Goldman joined them.
On the big screen, there were two ladies being interviewed by some bloke, Peter Henley. They were talking about how their sons had gone to school one day. They were nine years old and had made fun of a big, clumsy boy in their class, Abel, and he had killed both of them. He was never charged. No-one had ever been held accountable for their sons’ deaths. Now Abel had escaped from jail after being accused of serious drug offences, and he was being treated as some sort of hero after the league game, looking forward to a professional career while their sons were buried and would never have these opportunities. They didn’t think Abel should have things that their sons could never have. Abel was an animal. He should be in a zoo.
Peter Henley was on the screen.
“We have asked the question of Souths. No reply from them yet. Now we cross live to the reservation, where we can ask the question directly of Uso Dex. Is Abel the kind of savage they are protecting over there? He is half Gooch.”
Oh, this was HAL on the big screen, interrupting. He was in the war room, well the Senator’s dining room, but it still looked like a war room. The monitors showed maps, with arrows, and there were live feeds. The Senator was there. So much for Radio Nellie news. Headlines were running across the bottom of a big screen monitor in the background “China declares war with cyberattack immobilizing US military…President Trump killed in nuclear strike on Washington DC…nuclear attacks on Pearl Harbor and Las Vegas…Mexico invades California… San Diego falls…President surrenders…mutiny by the joint chiefs…Texas invades Mexico… China takes Guam, invades Japan”. Yep, the war was on. Excellent.
“Peter, you have not been particularly honest with your viewers. I have the police reports from six years ago. First, though let me show you the other boys involved.” Nineteen pictures followed. Each of a fifteen or sixteen year old. HAL read out the details. Names, addresses, schools.
“Each of those boys was interviewed by the police. Those interviews are being transmitted to you now. They all agreed that the group of them, led by the two boys who were killed, had formed a circle around Abel in the changing rooms and were teasing him about his feet. He has splayed toes. They wouldn’t let him go. Four of the boys held Abel and the two who were killed started hitting him. Abel lost his temper. Shrugged his shoulders, freed his arms, and hit those two boys back. Hard. The pathology report shows that one of them was hit twice in the head. He had two brain bleeds. The second was hit once in the stomach. He had a ruptured spleen. The nineteen other boys ran off. Abel finished getting changed. It was Abel who found a teacher and told him he’d been in a fight. It was another twenty minutes before the school called an ambulance. Another forty minutes before the ambulance arrived. By that time neither boy was salvageable.”
Peter Henley again. “Even at age eight or nine, Abel was much bigger than the other boys. He was twice their size. This was a cowardly attack in response to a bit of schoolboy teasing. The sort of harmless teasing that happens every day in schools around the country.”
Sandy looked at Abel. He had his head in his hands looking down at the table. Shane stood up.
“I am Citizen Master Gunnery Shane Cooch. Citizen Abel is a member of my troop. This news surprises me, and I am disappointed with Citizen Abel.”
What? Sandy looked at Shane. The room was suddenly very quiet indeed.
“He only killed two of the offenders. All should die. Now the rest of us must tidy up after him. It is not good to leave live enemies behind you. HAL knows where they live, and where they go to school. The next time we are in New Ziland, I shall make the time to find and kill at least a few of them.”
There were cheers in the room. “Leave some for me, Gunny”, “Don’t forget about me.” Abel looked up.
Peter Henley. “Maybe we can’t expect anything more from a trained killer monkey. But you, Nellie, you’re human. Surely you don’t condone what Abel did?”
Nellie stood. “Abbey’s me mate. Who the frig are you?”
And now it was Bushie. “I don’t think Peter Henley has a clue what you are on about Nellie. But let me show you something about this young man you are calling a coward. Remember, he’s fifteen years old.”
On the big screen there was the video of Sandy and Abel asleep. Cameras were everywhere on the reservation, and they were always on. Then in comes Nellie, diving on Sandy. Then the bit where Abel sits up. He looks a mess. Then Abel walking to the showers. He is a mess. Covered in bruises, shuffling.
“And this is how he got like that.”
Clips from the game. Of Abel making tackle after tackle after tackle. Most of them on big angry Gooch.
“Peter Henley, you have never played a game of rugby league in your life. But I can tell you one thing. No one who takes the rugby league field is a coward.”
There was banging on the tables. The team was pretty vocal now. “Good on ya Abel”, “Well done mate”, “All day, All day.”
Peter Henley, again. “What about you, Captain? No one doubts your courage. Do you really think the strong should be able to do as they like to the weak?”
Sandy was angry. Really quite angry. This dickhead and the country that gave him television time could burn in hell. ‘We have the anti-toxin you need. Yesterday, I would have delivered it to you. Not now. If you want it, you come and get it. I mean you, Peter Henley. You come here and I will fight you for it. Just you and me. You’re bigger. No weapons. No matter who wins, you go back to New Ziland with an airplane full of anti-toxin. If you lose you go back in a coffin. Have you got the balls for it or are you the real coward here?’
The boys loved it. There was thumping on the tables. The chant of “Sandy, Sandy, Sandy..” started in the IRR dining room but the cameras showed it being taken up by soldiers all over the reservation. TOM was right. This was going to be a good party. Sandy looked over at his friends. There were tears running down Abel’s cheeks. Nellie and Jane were chanting. Shane and Max both saluted him, then extended their hands to shake his.
The last word was with Bushie. “One thing I’ve noticed over the years. There be lions. I’m always surprised when someone tries to kick a sleeping lion in the balls and then starts crying foul when the lion wakes up. New Ziland, it hasn’t always been a pleasure, but I will miss you.”
If this book contains anything that is funny, or any dialog that is interesting, those passages have probably been lifted straight from conversations involving members of Tamaki Sports Academy. Those boys are not great readers, so I will more than likely get away with the various expropriations. The stealing was done fair and square in any case.
The members of the Ilkley Grammar School Book Club in West Yorkshire were kind enough to read the penultimate draft of Citizen Sandy. The book would be even worse without their feedback. My thanks are extended to Mr Sam Lord and to (in no particular order) Molly H, Tom B, Dan W, Emma S, Eloise H, Maddie F, Rosie M, Evie S, Matilda T, Bea R, Freya R, Francesca B, Izzy G, Imogen B, Josh B, Lucy H-R, Alice R, Marcus W, George L, Brody G.
Rhys Cullen, July 2016