June 3rd, 2000
Another blast pulverised a part of Parliament, the magnificent building slowly falling apart under the onslaught of the mortars. Smoke rose lazily into the summer air as flames licked the walls, burning tapestries and carpets set down years before. The clock tower reverberated as it tolled three times, signifying the passage of time.
“Three O’clock,” muttered the man next to him, gazing up at the clock’s face through the hole in the crumbling roof.
“So it is,” nodded Joseph politely, looking at the clock face too. A jagged crack split in half, running from below the Roman numeral of three to between the numerals eight and nine. “England has been in the throes of a civil war for two hours already.”
“War? This is merely insurrection!” grinned the dirt covered soldier he was talking to, the name Patrick stencilled on the ID card hanging from his left breast pocket. There was a rattle of gunfire, and both men pressed their backs to the wall again, watching a window between them dissolve into slivers of glass. “A rather noisy insurrection, that’s going to cost a lot of taxpayers money, but an insurrection nevertheless!” he added, before spinning around and firing at the street below, and then ducking back out of sight as the Grenadiers returned fire.
Joseph looked down at the man, shaking his head and sighing. “Somehow I doubt that scared them.”
Patrick offered up a sheepish grin. “It was worth a try though wasn’t it?”
The other man didn’t reply, crouching down as more bullets pepped the wall he was hiding behind. Not much was going to be left of the Houses of Parliament after this, of that he was sure. The outside was a cratered and crumbling mess, barely standing up to the stream of gunfire and mortars arrayed against it, whilst the interior was equally trashed with upturned benches and tables barricading the doors and windows, providing a measure of protection.
“So what do we do?” queried Patrick, scuttling over the floor and clambering over an upturned table in the middle of the room, facing Joseph and the window.
“Uh…I suppose it’s to stay here and wait?” responded Joseph, taken aback by the question.
“Reinforcements, I suppose,” he shrugged, before glancing out the window and running over to the table, crunching shattered glass beneath him. He vaulted over the table in a single movement to land next to Patrick.
The younger soldier nodded at him, impressed. “Nice manoeuvre for an old man,” he complimented with a grin. Joseph didn’t reply, panting slightly from the dash. His health really wasn’t what it used to have been. “Hang on, got a link to Simon,” said Patrick, his hand reaching up and pressing the communications bead embedded in his ear.
More gunfire became audible, from somewhere below them. Sounded like a right bloody mess. Luckily no chances of civilian casualties though, the Grenadiers had enough sense to cordon off the entire district to make sure of that.
“Yeah, he’s holding the main entrance,” explained Patrick, covering his other ear with his free hand as he tried to make out the information being relayed to him. “Sounds like he wants us to help him out. They seem to have decided the front door is their only real option of gaining entry.”
“What, no rappelling down from helicopters?” the older soldier frowned. When taking a building, a frontal assault to keep the defenders pinned whilst inserting a squad from above tended to work out well for the attackers.
“No. There aren’t any aerial Militants in the area and the RAF is grounded,” replied Patrick, looking at him as if he’d gone mad. “And no one is going to do anything until this bloody mess is sorted out.”
“Right, right,” nodded Joseph, shaking his head. With the royals in Grenadier hands, the homeland defence forces were unlikely to move to defend the besieged aspirants. This was a delicate Militant affair, so no one was going to take sides until one side was utterly and irrevocably beaten.
Thin fingers drummed on the table, keeping rhythm with the hoots of the mortars outside. The paper work spread out over the hard surface was neat and ordered, out of place with the general mess and clutter of the tent. But he had always kept his paperwork in neat order.
Humming an old tune to himself, Major Cartwright traced a thin line on the map in front of him with his index finger, stopping it at a seemingly random location and tapping it twice before speaking.
“There. Break through at that point then rush the windows. It should provide enough of a distraction to allow us to storm the doors,” he said, his soft voice echoing around the tent. “Make sure the men charging the windows are also able to take them if the opportunity presents itself.”
“Yes sir,” saluted a soldier in olive coloured gear, before ducking out the tent to issue the order. The commander never looked up from his map, continually surveying the floor plans of the building they were assaulting. Its significance meant little to him. His feelings were better off being attached to something more worthy than a mere structure, which did nothing but stand there as a symbol of things long gone.
Outside, men could be heard running and shouting to each other, making themselves heard over the roar of gunfire as the portable anti-infantry weapons opened up, having taken five minutes to set up. Their crews would have to be reprimanded. Any time over three and a half minutes was simply unacceptable in this day and age.
“Sir, third squad, fourth platoon is heading for the southern windows,” reported the soldier he had sent out scant minutes before. “They’ll be in position in ten minutes,” he added, standing stiffly at attention.
Major Cartwright glanced at him and nodded once. Taking the cue, the man saluted sharply before leaving the tent. The commander straightened, and smoothed back his black hair, closing his eyes momentarily and took a deep breath. Blood, smoke, oil, trash and salt. The usual smells of warfare near water, he thought, opening his eyes and looking to his left, as if able to see through the tent fabric to witness the river beyond. Its mere presence was complicating the operation. It could be seen as favouring him, blocking off any sort of escape attempt for his enemies. Anyone who dived in from the building would be shot after a minute at most. However, the river also prevented him from staging any sort of attack, meaning that his enemies in the building were only fighting on three fronts.
Also, one of those was damned close to the bridge. Which is why he had situated his HQ upon it, ensuring the presence of a platoon on the bridge at all times. The rest of the company was equally spread out around the perimeter of the Parliament building, putting pressure on all three sides facing the city, waiting to exploit a breakthrough.
Hopefully, said breakthrough would occur in about twelve minutes. Putting on his helmet, the commander strode outside, squinting as the harsh light of the sun replaced the dim darkness of his tent. All around troopers were busy performing their tasks, cleaning weapons, carrying ammunition to the besieging soldiers, and communicating with the rest of the Grenadiers in other parts of London, also in combat with elements of the Militant Aspirants.
“Commander Cartwright, what’s the situation?!” shouted a reporter from behind the line of men keeping the horde of journalists at bay. “Is it true there was an attempt on the King?”
Major Cartwright gritted his teeth together and ignored him, surveying the Parliament building. It was still standing, though crumbling in sections as his mortars did their job. Another ten minutes before this was all over, he told himself with a calming sigh. Then his communication bead chirped in his ear. Partially glad for the distraction, he opened the secure channel. “Cartwright here.”
“This is Edward. How are things in your sector?” asked the authoritative Grenadier Colonel.
“Well within estimations sir,” replied the major, glancing back at the cordon of soldiers. “But the damn press is nosing about.”
“Straying within the combat area?” said Edward.
“No sir, just demanding answers to their questions from anyone along the perimeter.”
There was a moment of silence as the colonel considered the options available. “Any questions in particular?”
“Mostly things regarding the royals, and why the Homeland Defence Forces aren’t aiding us,” answered Cartwright, glaring at the people still shamelessly shouting questions in his general direction.
“You know our story. Tell them that.”
“Understood. And sir, why aren’t the Forces aiding us? This whole operation would be over quickly if the RAF got involved,” suggested the major.
“Only the King can authorise a mobilisation of any Homeland force. We can’t let him speak to anyone,” explained the Colonel. “It would jeopardise everything. Until this matter is resolved, we’re on our own, understood?”
“Yes sir, Cartwright out.” Exhaling through his clenched teeth, the major forced himself to relax, unclenching his fists. He hated doing this, but orders were orders. He turned around sharply and walked to the gang of journalists, the Grenadiers holding them back merely nodding as he approached, preoccupied with their tasks.
“Commander! What’s going on?” shouted some film crew from his left, one of their cameramen sitting on the bridge railings, filming the shelling of the Parliament building.
Taking a deep breath, Cartwright committed himself. “A rogue unit consisting of operatives from the Militant Aspirants is currently sheltering in the Parliament Museum. I’m here to oversee their elimination.”
“Major, what about the royals? There are rumours they’ve been abducted,” asked another journalist, the tag on his suit revealing him to be a member of the damned BBC.
“The royal family is alive and well and currently under guard in Buckingham,” responded Cartwright coolly. “They are perfectly safe for the duration of this operation.”
Yet another member of the press bullied their way to the front, a raven haired woman, thrusting her microphone at him. “Is it true that the TA and RAF are not aiding you?” she asked, panting slightly from her forceful push to the front of the crowd.
Where the devil did these people get their information from, cursed the major mentally. This is why he hated having to deal with the press. “Yes,” he responded simply.
“Any reason why?”
Oh shut up you damned woman! “This is a Militant matter, and according to Article four, paragraph sixty of the Militant Act, Homeland Defence forces may only come into conflict with a Militant if said Militant is the aggressor.”
The woman nodded as if agreeing with him. “So they did nothing? Why the conflict then?”
Cartwright crushed the urge to glare at her. “We uncovered a plot amongst the Militant Aspirants, and are moving to crush them before they can cause greater harm. That is all I am at liberty to say,” he said turning around and marching off, tired of the incessant nagging. The journalists behind him continued to shout questions but he ignored them, marching swiftly towards a soldier who had turned up whilst he had been talking to the journalists.
“We’re in position sir. Third squad is awaiting the order to go, and fifth and sixth are in ready to launch their attacks along the outer perimeter,” reported the man.
“Very well, let’s begin,” ordered Major Cartwright, feeling his spirits lighten somewhat. He glanced at his wristwatch. Twelve minutes had passed since he had given the order.
Rattling gunfire echoed around the hall, drowning out Joseph’s footfalls as he hurried down the staircase towards the front entrance, Patrick next to him, sliding down the hand rail. Ahead he could see a boarded up door, chairs and tables piled up against it, leaving small gaps through which Simon and his team fired sporadically.
Many of the displays in the front section of the hall, nearest to the entrance, were either smashed so that their contents could be used to form the barricade, or ridden with bullet holes. The sight somehow saddened Joseph. He ignored the cases and numerous damaged displays, depicted items and moments from Parliaments history, and instead focused on the barrier ahead, running as quickly as possible towards it, Patrick next to him.
A man leaned over and fired his rifle on full auto before a single crack was heard, and he was pitched backwards, a perfect red hole having replaced his left eye. Joseph grimaced at the sight and caught him as he fell, lowering the dead man onto the ground. Patrick glanced at the body and tapped his forehead in salute, but showed no other signs of being affected by the sudden death. Joseph closed the corpse’s remaining eye, and looked up. “So where’s Simon?” he asked, just loud enough to be heard over the gunfire.
“You’re holding him,” replied Patrick, pushing a chair to block the gap through which the sniper shot had come through. Once he’d braced the furniture in place he took a step back from the towering barricade and looked around. “Who’s second?” he shouted.
“That’d be me,” called a cheery voice from up above. Craning their necks, Joseph and Patrick could just make out a figure hunched next to a window on the upper landing. A long flowing cloak blended the figure into the darkness, and if not for the voice, Joseph was sure he’d never have noticed it. Most probably a sniper.
“Enya! What can you see from there?” yelled Patrick, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the daylight to better see into the dark.
“Lots of movement, looks like they’re handing out grenades. It’s gonna be a rush,” called down the sniper, as if watching a football match. Joseph shook his head and turned away from the pair, reloading his weapon and surveying the entrance hall. The windows were too high up and narrow to be used as entry points, but grenades could be thrown through easily. Understandably, everyone was staying away from them. The main entrance into the building was heavily barricaded, and about twelve troopers wearing armbands with a blue falcon were clustered together throughout the chamber. One group was at the barricade, another was tending to injuries, and a third was patrolling around, making sure no infiltrators were trying to close in on the sides of the hall.
Not being an expert in infantry tactics, Joseph supposed what they were doing was competent enough. Hopefully throughout the building the rest of the soldiers were also behaving like this. They only needed to hold out until Morgana got back to base. Hopefully, that would be enough to see this madness end.
A hand fell onto his shoulder, startling him. “Looks like we’ll be staying here for now then,” said Patrick, indicating the neat line of dead bodies next to the group of soldiers charged with medication. Looking at the bodies, Joseph could only nod.
“Heads up, fresh wave coming in!” shouted the sniper from above them suddenly. “Storming party, shotguns and grenade launchers!”
Patrick looked up, clapping Joseph once more on the shoulder before calling back. “Alright then. You going to shoot this time or is it down to us?”
There was a good natured laugh. “Yeah I’ll help you out. Now let me aim,” replied Enya, shifting position ever so slightly to change the angle of her weapon. Patrick grinned before nodding at Joseph and jogging over to the barricade, dropping onto one knee and taking aim through one of the few gaps left. He smiled as he pulled the trigger, the sound of his gunfire blending into the noise as the soldiers all along the barricade opened fire. But despite this the crack of the sniper rifle was still clearly audible over the cacophony, followed a heartbeat later by a chain of small blasts somewhere outside.
Enya whooped in victory. “Oh yeah, full belt detonation!” she crowed, swiftly standing up and running to take a new position from which to snipe, her cloak masking her movements, though Joseph could barely see a ripple in the air, moving along the rafters of the building.
“Hey, old man! Stop standing there and help us out a bit, will you?” shouted Patrick from the barricade. Joseph snapped into action, his training taking over as he automatically primed his weapon for firing and took up position next to the younger trooper. Only a bit longer, then this would all be over.
“Third squad is pinned down, and Fourth has suffered minor casualties from sniper fire,” reported the aide, saluting in the cool confines of the command tent. He stared straight forward, not daring enough to look his commander in the eye. Major Cartwright looked up at him, his annoyance clearly visible.
“Any chance of relief?” he asked pointedly, making the messenger blink in nervousness.
“Ah…yes sir. Ninth company is moving up from downriver, they’ll boost our numbers here,” answered the man, recalling the frantic messages being passed over the communicators nearer the siege lines. “The leading squads have taken cover for now, but are working closer as we speak. They have enough grenades to demolish the barricade, so we merely need more heavy weapons to provide suppressive fire.”
Cartwright nodded, dismissing the man without a word, the dull thud of a mortar firing its shell outside clearly audible over the hum of machinery in the command tent. The messenger snapped off a salute and ducked outside, as another thud of mortar fire was heard. The Major’s eyes narrowed. “Who gave the order for single fire?” he asked his aide, turning to face the short, lanky man by the radio.
“That would be MacManus, sir,” answered the messenger, about to leave the tent. The Major turned and looked at him, beckoning him back. The man returned and nervously explained. “To c-counter sniper fire he ordered a mortar barrage on the upper f-floors sir.”
Cartwright was quiet for a moment before nodding. “Very well. Run over to Tenth and see if they can’t provide more fire support too,” he advised, glancing at the maps cluttering his table. “Have them blow the entrance wide open. Once inside, this operation will finish quickly,” he added, gazing over the details of the museum, before pulling out a scrap piece of paper and a pencil, scribbling down the coordinates. “Have them commence a bombardment immediately,” the major ordered, handing over the paper to he radio operator before tapping his helmet. “If anything comes up, I’m on channel 45.”
“Understood. Where will you be sir?”
“Overseeing our final attack of course. You can message Colonel Edward with the news,” answered Cartwright, following the messenger out of his tent.
“Shall I tell him anything specific?” queried his adjutant by the bulky radio, never once turning away from the device.
“No. There’s no need.”
Another blast echoed in Joseph’s ears. He uncovered them, grimacing in pain as the ringing continued. That had been one of the new sonic grenades, still being issued to infantry based Militants the world over. Which meant they were close enough to the walls to begin storming the building. He checked his rifle for the umpteenth time in the past couple of minutes, taking refuge in the familiarity of the action.
“So how much longer?” he said out loud, his voice carrying in a rare moment of silence.
Patrick glanced up at him from the bloodied mess of another soldier, shrugging. “About now would be a good a guess as any.” Another shrieking chorus of mortars punctuated his statement, before a cry from one of the lookouts alerted them. The soldiers threw themselves to the ground as grenades crashed against the fragile barricade and obliterated it utterly, hurling splinters and spars of wood in all directions.
Joseph struggled upright, his ears ringing and his hands shaking as they raised his rifle. Smoke was enshrouding the entrance, but dark forms were rapidly materialising within. With a cry, he opened fire, the gun in his hands bucking wildly as he sprayed the corrupt mist in front of him with fire.
A shotgun roared in the confined space, and he felt his leg give way beneath him, the metal support shredded. Joseph hit the ground on his knees, still firing at the shattered entrance, the rifle growing heavier in his arms. Then there was a small whizz and a bullet clipped his shoulder, spinning him half around, making him lose his balance and crash to the floor, discordant shouts and screams melting into the sound of gunfire and explosions. He stared numbly, sounds fading away into nothingness as he felt himself losing consciousness, his exhaustion catching up with him.
And then a giant came through the wall, its armour gleaming silver, and he gave in to darkness.