It was far too quiet. Only an occasional owl call, the odd flutter of feathers and pitter-patter of a small night creature. Sure, the training area was literally kilometres from anywhere, somewhere called Norfolk, but a hundred people couldn’t stay that quiet, not even – arguably – the best special forces in the world. Beside me, the two centurions, Livius and Paula Servla, were motionless; I couldn’t even hear them breathe. I peered through the face veil hanging from my helmet. My eyesight was still good at thirty-nine, but I didn’t see a thing in the dawn light. I relaxed; we had a full five minutes before we needed to move.
I’d been crazy to agree to take part in this exercise; I’d sat at a desk for too long. Commanding Operations did not mean taking part in every exercise. It’d been my vanity that made me put myself down for the ultimate – training with the British special forces. No, against them. Even more insane. I was no slouch and worked hard to keep my fitness up, but I really should have left it to the super-fit like Paula and Livius and, of course, Flavius. But a small country like ours didn’t refuse such invitations twice and the competition to be picked for this exercise had been near lethal.
Each year we invited a small number of allied countries’ special troops to Roma Nova to take part in our annual fitness-for-purpose exercise; thanks to our legate’s connections, there’d always been some British. Very effective and highly competent, they were reserved at first, like they’d swallowed some kind of ‘how to behave abroad’ manual, but by the end of the week, they’d usually relaxed. But this was a first for us to have an exclusive exercise with them, and on their ground.
The first night we’d arrived, we’d had all the ‘swords and sandals’ cracks in the bar from those who’d never met us. Sandwiched between New Austria and Italy, people thought Roma Nova was a cross between the Sound of Music and Gladiator with a dash of Ruritania thrown in. But when their commander welcomed us formally the next morning, he told the assembled host troops aboutour sixteen-hundred-year traditions and that the Praetorian Guard Special Forces were just as fearsome as they’d heard. And that Roma Nova had survived, clawing its way through the centuries, was in no small part down to the Praetorians. The British grunts tried not to appear impressed, but I saw a little more respect in their eyes after that.
Livius lifted his index finger a few millimetres from his rifle and glanced over at me. I gave a hint of a nod. Ahead of Paula and me by a body length, he started crawling forward. Using our elbows, we pulled ourselves behind and a little to each side of him across the forest floor covered in pine-needles. Three others, Allia, Gorlius and Pelo, followed in the same arrow formation. Reaching the crest of the washed-out shallow valley, we spread out behind it and froze.
After five minutes watching and listening, I nodded and Livius took Allia and Pelo into the trees behind us and set off for the other side of the depression. Raising my hand a couple of centimetres from the sandy ground, I signalled Paula to maintain position here. I grabbed my assault rifle and in a crouching run made my way to the dip twenty metres away at the entrance. I glanced up to see Gorlius scrambling up into one of the trees behind Paula to act as lookout. As he drew one of the new individual cam nets over himself, he disappeared. I pointed my pocket scope up at him. Even his heat signature was pretty near neutral. Expensive but impressive. Now we waited out ten minutes to let the wildlife settle back down.
That one word hissed in my earpiece told me Gorlius had spotted them. We’d tabbed to this location by forced march – an old Roman tradition – so we could surprise them. And there they were, walking single file, sweeping their route with their eyes and weapons, watchful, but not wary. Too professional to make any unnecessary noise, they were nevertheless a little over-relaxed.
Their commander sent two ahead to check. Now they concentrated, their weapons raised and arms and legs tensed. Just before they reached the edge of the depression, one turned back to the commander and shook his head.
Livius dropped the two of them in rapid succession. Allia and Pelo launched at the main group from the far point and downed another three between them. Paula slammed the radio operator to earth, pinioning his flailing arms and legs. Gorlius fell on twoothers. I tripped the last one as he tried to escape and jammed my weapon in his throat as he attempted to struggle up. I didn’t need to look at my watch to know we’d done it in under two minutes. Hm, slowing up.
We secured and tagged them. While Livius and Pelo swept the back area for a possible second patrol, Paula scanned their radio with an electronic logger.
‘Can’t see any transmission within the past ten,’ she said, looking up. ‘But I think they check in every thirty.’ She spoke in fast street Latin in case any of these clever boys turned out to be linguists.
I turned to their officer, Lieutenant Wilson, from his jacket tab. ‘Now, Lieutenant, I hope we’re not going to go formal here. I just need you to confirm the time of your next radio check.’
‘Not a chance in hell.’ His eyes half closed and he snorted.
I sighed and signalled Allia forward. From her sleeve pocket she extracted a slim tin containing two syringes and an ampoule, knelt down by the officer, prepared a needle and waited for my confirmation.
Wilson drew back. ‘What the fuck is that?’
‘A fast acting relaxant that‘ll have you chirruping like a mongoose on holiday. No permanent effect, you may be a little disorientated for ten to fifteen minutes afterward. We need to move on now, so I can’t wait for you to have a mothers’ meeting about whether to tell me.’ I nodded and Allia pulled his sleeve up, jabbed the skin and depressed the tiny plunger.
I counted to twenty before I stood over him and asked again, ‘Time of next radio check?’
‘Get—no, not—’ Sweat broke out on his face with the effort of defying the chemical. ‘Twenty, no—, twenty-two. No—’. He dropped his head as if humiliated, but it wasn’t his fault.
We now had a generous margin before any alarm was given. Paula threw the opposition’s radio batteries into the woods. Allia checked out the other captives, but they only had hurt pride and a few bruises. We looped a line through their cable-tied hands, securing it to a tree and left with mildly obscene curses and promises of revenge behind us.
Setting off north at a fast march, we circled around after five minutes to parallel the trail for the exercise headquarters. We’d finished our tasks half a day early. Now we’d eliminated our closest rivals, I figured we’d be the first team back. After three days out in the field, we were looking forward to hot food and a chance to clean up properly.
Allia jogged beside me and I could see a question ready to burst out. She was very young, around twenty, and this was her first time on overseas exercise. I checked the proximity sensor; no biosignatures apart from ours for at least three kilometres.
‘What is it, Allia?’ I whispered. ‘It’s okay, just keep your voice down, though.’
‘Why are they all men, ma’am? I mean, I saw some women at the start, but only a very few and we haven’t come across any out in the field.’
‘Western forces don’t generally have women in front line combat units, and only a few in their special forces. You’ll probably see more in the American military, if you ever go there.’
I saw the disbelief on her face. I smiled at her, but said nothing. I wanted to conserve my strength and wind.