THE WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING.
Sir Charles Lampitt sat and watched the rain streaming down the glass of the waiting room window. His smooth, carefully shaven face was perfectly passive. Every crease of his suit was in place. He vaguely concentrated on staying entirely still. And breathing of course. Slowly. Long in and long out. Gently propelling oxygen through his arteries.
He was sixty seven years old and very much at the top of his game. His rise to the upper stories of the English Establishment had been seamless for nearly fifty years. When he had finally made it to the top, the first thing he had done was to tell his new secretary to bring him a copy of his personnel file. It hadn't made particularly interesting reading. He didn't learn anything about himself he hadn't known already. The words past bosses had used to evaluate his performance were a little detached. A little cold.
Effective. Diligent. Well organised. Committed. Assured.
He had always been a safe pair of hands. Solid. A good chap in a tight spot. He had never been one of the flamboyant high fliers. He had never made any attempt to cut a dash. Instead, he had completed each and every task he had been given with a minimum of fuss.
It had been enough. In the end, he had been the only realistic candidate to become the new boss of MI5 when Bill Simmons had retired.
And then like so many others who had gone before him, he realised it might have been a very good idea to have been careful about what he had wished for. He had been in the job for just under a year when Hackney had exploded into flames and the memories of the Cobra Committee Meetings were still enough to make him shudder. For a while it had seemed like the country might suffer a complete collapse. For a while, the State seemed to have lost the ability to maintain any kind of order. He had watched men and women age decades in a few short days.
And they had been given no choice. Only desperate measures would do. Day after day they had watched the near disintegration of the Prime Minister. His much vaunted urbanity had splintered. As the crisis deepened, a kind of darkness seemed to wrap itself around Edward Montford.
It must have been the third week of the crisis when Charles Lampitt first noticed the Prime Minister's eyes. The pupils were pinned. Tiny dark pebbles of rage in a pale, haggard face. Charles knew all about pinned eyes. He had lived through the pinned eyes of his daughter Camilla for six dreadful years until the day of her overdose had felt like a kind of merciful release. What on earth was the PM taking? And for what?
He had shared his time at Oxford with Edward Montford, but only in terms of the calendar. They had never spoken. He had watched the Montford star burn brightly. The hundred at Lords in the Varsity Match. The Presidency of the Union. The stream of doting debutantes. The bouts of hooliganism in white tie and tails. He had despised everything about him. The gloating privilege. The certainty of his entitlement. The gaping lack of any kind of moral compass.
Had he been surprised when Edward Montford had glided into Number Ten complete with his shining wife and children? Of course he hadn't. Had he been pleased? Of course he hadn't.
Charles had been summoned to an audience with the new leader a week after the photo call at the famous front door. Montford had been all smooth charm and born and bred authority. Sleek. Already at home. Absurdly confident. Charles's loathing had been undiminished, but he had consoled himself with the fact that the new Prime Minister was no fool. The cold eyes on the other side of the desk gleamed with the cunning intelligence of a fox.
But there was not so much as a shred of morality to be found in those cold, cold eyes.
When the Hackney Crisis seemed about to overwhelm them, Charles found himself transfixed by those cold, cold eyes. Those pinned eyes. Those merciless eyes.
“It is time for you to find a way to resolve this, Lampitt. I don't care how you do it. I don't care how dirty your hands get. I don't care what laws you break. And I don't care if you burn in hell as a punishment. Find a way to fix it. Bring me whatever papers you need me to sign and I will sign them. I've had enough of fucking around here. Am I understood?”
And Charles had nodded. And Charles had once again been the safe pair of hands. The good chap in a tight spot. He had arranged a clandestine meeting with the man he considered to be the most evil he had ever come across.
Hayden De Kock. Ex of the South African Defense Force. A colonel. A senior officer of the Broederbond. A name whispered with recoiling horror. A name touted for trial in The Hague for endless crimes against humanity. A gun for hire in every godforsaken corner of Africa where minerals were buried beneath the earth.
Chief Executive Officer and majority shareholder of Holbrooke Securities BVI Ltd.
Charles's first meeting with De Kock had lasted half an hour. At the end of the meeting, he had shaken the South African's hand. The handshake had been the moment he had crossed a line. There was no point in trying to convince himself he had been in the dark about what was about to happen. De Kock had laid it on the line with brutal clarity.
“You need to understand what your money is buying here, man. There will be a lot of dead people, ya? You know that?”
Yes. Yes, he did. Only too well. Edward Montford had told him to do what needed to be done and he had done it. He had handed over a chest of his country's treasure to Hayden De Kock and the South African had duly dispatched his secret death onto the streets of London.
The Prime Minister's secretary appeared. “He will see you now.”
It was nearly three thirty in the morning. Outside the rain was lashing the pavements. He should have been asleep in his bed. He should have taken early retirement and lived out his final days in the Dorset countryside. He should have resigned when Edward Montford commanded him to cross the line. He should have done all kinds of things, but he hadn't.
And now here he was in the dark hours before a grey dawn. Montford didn't bother to rise. He waved Charles to a chair with a vague flap of a gaunt hand. The man looked dreadful. Deathly pale. Almost bleached.
“Charles.” Just that. No 'thanks for coming at such a late hour,
'Charles'. No 'how is Gillian keeping?' No nothing. Just 'Charles'.
Charles sat and waited for the eyes. After thirty seconds or so the Prime Minister raised his gaze from the papers in front of him. Still pinned. Still tiny malevolent pebbles.
“So? How far have they got?”
He hadn't been told to prepare a brief about the Guardian's ongoing investigation into the alleged Hackney Death Squads. There had been no need. Charles reached into his briefcase and took out a transcript of the brain storming meeting which had been held the morning before.
“Would you like me to summarise?”
“Obviously. Do you seriously think I want to listen to you reading out the whole fucking thing?”
“No Prime Minister. Of course not. I'm afraid they now have Holbrooke Securities. They have the location of the compound in Colchester. They have various pieces of footage of suspects being taken.”
“Indeed. The good news is they have hit a brick wall.”
“What kind of brick wall?”
“The kind they build in the British Virgin Isles.”
“Ah. Good. That kind. So they have no evidence of HMG paying Holbrooke?”
“No Prime Minister.”
“What are the chances they will find anything?”
“I would say minimal at best. But there are no absolute guarantees.”
Montford heaved himself out of his seat and once he was on his feet the true extent of his emaciation shocked Charles.
“I'm just thinking aloud here, Charles. Just musing, OK? Maybe there is someone we could maybe get out of the way? If you get my drift?”
“I would strongly advise against such a course of action Prime Minister. It would merely set alarm bells ringing. It would make them even more determined.”
“Yes. I suppose it would. So what do you propose?”
“I think we need to sit tight. I find it hard to imagine anyone from Holbrooke leaking. Were they to do so, they would basically be signing their own death warrant.”
“Fucking evil bastard, isn't he? This De Kock?”
“Yes, he is Prime Minister."
“Wait it out and hope then? That's what you think?”
“It is Prime Minister.”
Montford sat back down.
“OK. Fine. Thank you, Charles."
The Chief of MI5 left by the back door.
PLACES WE HAD NEVER HEARD OF
The weather forecasters told us the rain was going to stop two days before the rain actually stopped. Once upon a time, such news would have been greeted with a general air glee. The news of a coming spring heatwave would have been something to celebrate.
But this wasn't the case any more of course. Not in 2030. Instead, the evening news was again home to a selection of climate experts whose faces had become as familiar as footballers to the watching public. And none of them were smiling. All measurements and projections suggested the coming summer would almost certainly break all records.
The people of England resigned themselves to weeks and weeks of being rationed to one shower a week. Programme schedulers pondered on the problem of how to find new ways to cover all too familiar news.
But as things turned out, they didn't have to. On the last day of the rain, nobody had heard of either the Rioni River or Lake Qaraoun. By the time the sun set on the first day of the heatwave, anyone who tuned into the news was beginning to become accustomed to both of these obscure locations.
Hastily put together visuals informed us the source of the Rioni River was to be found on the western facing slopes of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. We were told the river flowed west for 327 kilometers through a drainage basin of 13,400 square kilometers. The river eventually emptied out into the Black Sea at the port of Poti.
Lake Qaraoun was a reservoir complete with a dam and a hydroelectric power plant which provided water to most of the southern half of Lebanon.
It seems ridiculous now, but at the time none of us saw any of it coming. How blind we were. Hindsight tells us it was inevitable. Other thirsty countries were bound to latch onto the idea Suleiman Khalidi had sold to the Scottish Government.
Many countries were trying to learn how to get by with less and less water. But some countries were thirstier than others and Turkey and Israel were among the world's most parched.
When the Turkish Parliament reduced the daily water ration for the citizens of Ankara to twenty litres a day, the people didn't take it well. They embarked on a month's worth of street riots which made Hackney look almost serene. Turkey had a well-practiced routine to fall back on to deal with this kind of civic mayhem: The Generals took charge and they cracked the whip. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands were detained. A brutal calm was imposed and people learned to fill up their government issue 20 litre containers once a day from standpipes in the streets without so much as a word of complaint.
The Israelis took the news of their Government's 30 litre daily ration with more stoicism. They complained mightily and everyone was angry all the time but they took it on the chin.
Nobody predicted what happened on the ninth of April. The early hours must have seemed like some kind of a gift from God to insomniac news junkies. A few minutes after 4.00 am GMT, the men and women who had drawn the short straw of marshalling their news channels through the quiet hours when nothing ever happened suddenly seemed energised. They absorbed what they were being told in their ear pieces and adopted appropriate expressions.
“There seem to be extraordinary events unfolding in the Middle East.”
For several hours the breaking news was all about jumpy video footage from mobile phones which had been uploaded onto the social media.
A long column of tanks on a wide road on a flat plain. Helicopters ducking and stooping overhead like over-protective hawks. A dawn sky blooming with parachutes bursting into flower. More tanks, in threes and fours, throwing up dust in small baked villages.
Experts were roused from their slumber and brought into studios by speeding taxis. By 5 am, there were plenty of digital maps to go along with the garbled reports from the locals on the ground. Soon two maps sat side by side. In the north, there was the border area of Eastern Turkey and Western Georgia sitting snugly by the Black Sea. In the south, there was the border area of Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon.
It seemed a force of many Turkish army tanks was racing north up the coast road. There were no reports of any kind of opposition. A small force of tanks had been ordered north by the Israeli Defence Force from a jump off point a couple of miles from Kiryat Shmona. For a while, everyone was desperate to know if the footage of parachutes was true or fake. It was true. Over three hundred airborne troops had dropped into what appeared to be pretty much the middle of nowhere.
The experts were struggling. Was this a coordinated attack? Well of course it was. To imagine two neighbouring countries would launch attacks on two other neighbouring countries at the same hour on the same day could hardly be a coincidence. But why? Were Turkey and Israel long term allies? No. Had anyone been expecting this? No.
By the time Europe brewed the day's first cup of coffee, the two armies had put plenty of miles behind them. And still, no expert could be found who had the first idea of why any of it was happening at all. Of course, Israel had plenty of previous when it came to invading South Lebanon, but there seemed little reason for them to do it again. Most Hezbollah fighters had left the area years earlier to fight in Syria at the behest of their Iranian paymasters. Israel's northern border hadn't been so quiet in years. As to what kind of Georgian bee had found its way into the Turkish bonnet, nobody had the faintest idea.
Everything was cleared up at 9 am GMT when the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army and Prime Minister of Israel staged a joint press conference in Ankara. Both men were grim faced as they read prepared statements and took no questions. They explained their countries needed water. The water they needed was available in neighbouring countries. They were, therefore, annexing the territory they needed to improve water supply.
And that was it. They offered no kind of provocation or justification. They had sought no kind of UN mandate. They hadn't bothered with any careful ground laying through the media.
The experts were aghast. Speechless. This wasn't how things were supposed to happen. Even Hitler had taken the trouble to concoct a cover story before invading Poland. Countries didn't behave this way.
Not in 2030.
A Historian from the University of East Sussex was the first to smack the nail firmly on the head. He said it was like the world had gone back into to the second half of the Nineteenth Century when strong countries had felt entirely justified in invading and colonising weaker countries who had the resources they craved. Back then it had been all about gold and silver and cotton and opium and tea.
Now it was all down to water. And from now on it looked like everything would always be down to water.
A boffin from a high powered Washington think tank seemed to get behind the thinking of the Turks and the Israelis. If only one of them had launched an unprovoked attack, then the world might just have turned on them. But two? Two at once? Did the rest of the world have the energy to actually do anything other than issue statements full of appalled words? Probably not. And when all was said and done, would anyone really care enough about either Western Georgia or Southern Lebanon to risk either people or treasure? Probably not
The boffin was proved right. Just about every country on earth condemned the invaders in the strongest of terms. But nobody actually did anything. The fact barely a shot was fired certainly helped. The motives of the aggressors were quite different. The Israelis had a clear plan on how they would build a network of canals and aqueducts to carry water all the way from the Lake Qaraoun reservoir to the thirsty towns and villages of the north of their country.
The Turks had no such worked out plan about how on earth they were going to move the waters of the Rioni River to the parched towns of Anatolia. It was a bridge they intended to maybe cross later. Maybe they never would cross it all. In the short term, the Generals needed something to make their people feel better about being Turks. State TV even talked about the coming of a new Ottoman Empire.
For a while, all eyes were on the Permanent Security Council at the UN. The USA and France were close allies of both invaders. But what of Russia, China, and India who had taken the place of the UK when Scotland had flown the coop and England had been deemed to be too small and too weak to play with the big boys. Would the Russians or the Chinese thrown down a resolution and force the Americans into the embarrassment of a veto?
There was nothing. Not a peep.
A month after the tanks rolled, Chinese forces took over Katanga Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For many years Beijing had tried to secure a reliable supply of Coltan by spending fortunes on roads and phone lines. This strategy had worked, but only up to a point. Local warlords refused to give up on murder and general mayhem and it made life endlessly difficult for the Chines companies on the ground. So it was that China followed the lead of Ankara and Tel Aviv and simply invaded the place.
Once again they were condemned in the strongest of terms by more or less everyone. And once again nobody even thought of actually doing anything. World War Three for Katanga? Come on. Be serious. I mean who the hell even knew where Katanga even was?
The world was a changed place. Old rules were back in play. Conquer and colonise. Invade and take.
Was this the get go of a second age of Empire? Maybe it was.
The reaction of the world's stock exchanges to the three invasions was probably the most shocking thing of all. The years of drought had been anything but kind to stocks and shares. The days of jubilant traders popping champagne for the cameras seemed to have disappeared forever. Now, for the first time in a long time, the Dow and the Footsie 100 and the Hang Seng were surging again. Global capital markets clearly like the look and feel of this new era of Imperialism.
Shocking? Of course it was shocking. Surprising? Of course it wasn't.
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