The atmosphere there was electric, charged with the feelings of the thousands who gathered in the square that day. Tan Ai Lin and I took it all in for a few seconds before he turned to me.
“Well? See what you’ve started?” His voice was full of glee, almost gloating.
As far as the eye could see, there were tents, flags, protesters. It was a colourful crystallisation of national sentiment, with banners flying in various languages, some of which I could read, and some of which I couldn’t.
Tan had promised me breakfast in town, and I wasn’t going to let him forget that. Over bacon sandwiches in a pleasant little café just around the corner from the square (which I would later frequent while in government and was, I believe, destroyed during the fighting last year), we discussed what was going on.
“This is a far greater response than anyone predicted,” Tan began. “However, we must act quickly. These people are only here ‘cause it’s the weekend and they haven’t got any work today. Come tomorrow most of them’ll leave.”
“Agreed. We really need to speak to the governor, though,” I asserted.
“True. But that isn’t happening. Mr Turner isn’t too much of a fan of dissident groups or media interactions. But then again, we can capitalise on that. His unpopularity and unwillingness to negotiate or even speak to us could win us some support.”
“Mhm. We need to get some leaflets printed, too. Could you talk to – what the hell was that?”
Our little conversation was punctuated by what sounded very much like a gunshot. When you’ve been in three wars you tend to recognise the crack of a rifle. Before I could say any more, Tan was already walking out the door, his hand hovering menacingly in front of his coat, ready to pull his pistol. I tossed down a few coins and followed him. I too, as an officer in the army, was armed. If the sounds we heard were an act of terrorism or such like, neither of us was going to stand for it. As we ran for the square, we heard several more shots. A wave of fear washed over me, a terrible feeling in my stomach. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t good.
Rounding the corner, my eyes flitted across the square, looking for the source of the shots. Nobody seemed panicked, so terrorism was ruled out, as was brutal repression. As two more shots rang out, I caught the muzzle flash out of the corner of my peripheral vision. To one edge of the square, parked in the round, was a green SUV, with the distinctive white anchor of Percival Island emblazoned on the bonnet and doors. Next to it stood two soldiers, one with a Sterling sub-machine gun, the other with a megaphone. A third sat in the driving seat, a cigarette between his lips. Tan and I stride towards the grouping, purposefully but cautiously.
“This is an illegal gathering, please clear the premises. Excuse me, you have no right to be here…. Please leave.”
As we drew closer, we became able to make out what the soldier with megaphone was saying. His voice sounded bored and tired, and his obvious lack of enthusiasm was met with an equal lack of willingness to leave on the part of the protesters.
His companion, on the other hand, seemed much more dedicated to the job. Seeing the complete absence of success being enjoyed by the soldier with the megaphone, the one with the sub-machine gun took the megaphone from him, fired three more shots into the air and shouted through the receiver, much more aggressively.
“Listen up! You are not permitted to be here. If you do not leave peacefully, we shall have to resort to force. This is your last warning!”
Hearing this, I reached down to my trouser pocket, and pulled out two things: my rank plate and my beret. In uniform, I would still outrank these ‘peacekeepers,’ and I might have some chance of getting them to leave the protesters alone. As we neared the group, I drew myself up to as tall a height as I could reach, braced my soldiers, and, in my best training instructor voice, bellowed, “Oi! What do you think you’re doing, private?”
The soldier, visibly stunned, swung around, frantically trying to trace my shout.
“Stop threatening these people!” barked I at him.
Finally spotting me (and we were only around twenty metres away at this point), he replied, “Sir! Our orders are to disperse the protests. I was only carrying ‘em out!” His voice was whiny and pleading, like a toddler who has just hit his younger brother, trying to excuse himself.
“That is no excuse for wasting Her Majesty’s ammunition! And that’s not even bringing into consideration the fact that you are bringing the government into disrepute by threatening civilians – my word, what are you thinking, Private?” Looking back, I realise how ridiculous I sounded. “If your orders are to disperse the protesters, then I suppose there is little I can do about that. However, I will not have you going around blasting off 9mm parabellum into the sky!”
The soldier, clearly reluctant, put his safety catch on, and slung the gun over his shoulder.
As Tan and I walked off, I smiled to myself. That soldier was obviously not very familiar with Byakkan law. Under The Percival Gendarmerie Act of 1926, Percival Island Gendarmes operated separately from the Armed Forces Chain of Command. Unfortunately for us, Mr. Turner, our wondrously unpopular governor, did know about this particular law, and would put it into effect very soon.
Tan and I had sat around for a while, near the two soldiers, on the far side of the square. Even from there, though, we could see across to the governor’s residence, and the large balcony on the front. It was up there on the balcony that we saw people putting out loudspeakers and a microphone. At around 12:30, Christopher Turner himself, governor of Byakko, stepped out in the sunlight. Dazed for a moment, he put left arm up to shield himself from the sunlight, while holding up a piece of paper with his right. He stepped up to the microphone, cleared his throat, and began to speak.
“Subjects of, ah, Byakko. I do not, ah, understand this. I have only just announced independence for Byakko, and already you are demanding independence. What has, ah, got into you? We are just in the process of working out the specificities of how the independent government will work, that is why we need time.”
I nudged Tan with my elbow and said to him, “Why doesn’t he want to talk to us about how the government’ll work? It’s us who’re actually going to be involved!” He nodded in agreement.
“… with that, I have come to the conclusion that these protests must be dispersed. By the powers vested in me by Her Majesty’s government and the laws of Byakko, I hereby declare a state of emergency and forbid any civilian presence in Empire square. You have two hours to leave, after which you will be breaking the law and shall be arrested. Thank you.”
Having delivered his speech – entirely in monotone – he turned with characteristic lack of flair and stepped down from the podium, his departure marked by boos and angry jeers. A few people got up to leave, but, for the most part, people showed no sign of budging.
Another Percival Gendarme walked briskly over to Tan and myself, and once he had caught his breath, barked at me, “Orders just in: all weekend leave cancelled, return to base at once. Spread the message to all other servicemen you see!” And with that, he walked on.
I turned to Tan, and although I could see in his eyes that we both already knew, spoke.
“This is not going to be good.”
Tan Ai Lin simply shook his head.