“The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain“— Aristotle
A loud engine roared through the valley advancing with a powerful headlight, cutting the fog in two along its path. The military helicopter found a place to land on a batch of clear forest some two hundred metres from where I laid. Two soldiers leaped out of it, rushing to my unresponsive body.
They loaded me on a stretcher and onto the helicopter. The noise was unbearable. I shivered. I must have been running a very high fever by then. The machine lifted off with a strong thrust. A gush of mountain air, marvellously fresh, cut through my dreamy head. It was marvellous. I lost consciousness again.
I must have slept for a day or even two. The first thing I perceived the morning I woke up was the fresh smell of cotton. It must have been years since I smelled something so pure and delicate, remembrance of happier childhood days.
I looked around me, my eyes crusty and foggy from a long and painful sleep, and to my left a large pack of cotton buds atop the table. A further inspection revealed a small ambulatory, military style, with a wide and bright window overlooking a peaceful patch of grass amongst the thick forest. Bandages, the stretcher that brought me in, syringes, alcohol and other disinfectants. It was all there, neatly organised and ready to be used.
I stretched my legs. My groin burnt, my knees were stiff as a plank of wood, overworked and overtired. My chest had lost flexibility and any movement of the torso was excruciatingly painful. But to my surprise and delight, I felt my toes and fingers, and I could move them, which meant no damage to the spine or nerves. God I was relieved! I felt the burning tinkling rush of happiness coming up my head. I tried to roll out of bed and pushed the bed sheet out of the way. Bandages around the groin with remnants of blood were visible, along with deep bruises cobalt in colour, further down the knees.
The stitches under those bandages burnt terribly. I nudge ever so slightly to feel my butticks, forcing a nerve near the pierced area. I screamed from the top of my lungs. Two nurses came running in the room, to stop me from moving any further.
The two women checked me quickly and so I discovered a very long wound in the left arm and several bruises on the chest and shoulders. The fixed a catheter drip with some medication which started to beat one drop at the time and straight into my arm, along with a whole bunch of air bubbles taht were left in the tube. I felt a wreck. But I was alive, much to my surprise, I was alive!
One of the nurses, a rather attractive Scandinavian type, explained to me that I would be able to walk in four or five days.
She fed me, massaged my feet and looked after me that day and through my stay. She had deep blue eyes, a typical Northern trait but somehow with a slightly darker tone of skin. She was kind and very patient with me during that time, and seeing her entering my room, lit my heart each time, for a brief moment, like a naïve adolescent.
Every two or three hours she would tidy my bedclothes and arrange my pillows in a very particular way, so that, during this procedure, she would generously touch my nose with her spectacular bosom. Was she aware of it? Did she even care? Perhaps it was me, relentlessly going round a fantasy that was all in my mind. Perhaps like me, she was in it for the fun, to grab a moment of happiness amongst so much pain and horror. Her actions were subtle, surely only intended to get her job done effectively and quickly.
On the other hand I couldn’t be happier about her ways. I am sure research shows that such ‘inconspicuous’ innuendoes are proven to speed the recovery of patients, and I am also sure that the smarter amongst nurses, master well this kind of practices and use it, with a degree of naughtiness.
On the third day I was out of bed and taking my first steps. No rush. I was doing good. Still very much in pain, especially around the stitched areas. My knees however were in top shape with most pain now gone.
Two more days passed and on the fifth morning I was visited by a military officer. He identified himself with an army ID card and enquired briefly about my wellbeing. He was a sergeant, Master Sergeant in fact, decorated too as I noticed from the medals adorning his impeccably worn uniform. He had a sharp look in his eyes indicating the intellect of a well educated and witty man. I felt at ease immediately in his presence, the way a pupil does in front of a magnanimous teacher.
He explained that I was lucky to have been found near the camp. The machine gun action had given away my existence and location, increasing my chances of rescue. How providential the montrous attack had been!
For approximately ten minutes or so, he kept his sun glasses on, which I found a little odd and off-putting. When it came to removing them, I realised, and not immediately I must say, that he had a glass eye. I didn’t see any scars in his face so I assumed he must have lost the eye early on in his life, or even at birth. He moved around the room slowly but with a sure confidence, spinning perfectly onto his heels half a turn, from time to time.
I remember he brought me a bag of pipe tobacco which impressed me dearly. I placed that bag gently under my nose and took a sniff, just enough to feel invigorated thinking about my next smoking session, which I would enjoy as soon as I would be able to reach the ambulatory patio, down the corridor from my room.
The sergeant delivered a comprehensive medical report of my health condition, which he read impeccably off the health chart attached to my bed. I had lost a lot of blood. Some veins had to be repaired in the area of the groin and my hip had been concussed. With a certain degree of cautiousness I would be able to resume normal life in another week or so, as soon as the stitches were stable.
He then took a chair from the end of the table and placed it just next to the top end of my bed. He sat down, crossed his ankles in a comfortable and casual pose and, with a voice that was both reassuring and confident, asked me if I remembered the offer that was discussed to me three days prior. I think I smiled slightly then and with a friendly tone answered positively. He continued and asked if I was still up for heading the mission. I was surprised about how candidly he had formed that question. To me the answer seemed obvious but to reassure him, I replied with a twist of sarcasm, that I wouldn’t have left my charming retreat atop a bare mountain if I wasn’t absolutely sure about this.
He smiled and sank back a little bit in his chair as a way of showing me how comfortable he was beginning to feel in the conversation.
He told me that the army had lost many pilots lately, mostly to the plague. The situation had become more complicated but this mission was indeed of vital importance in many ways. The High Command would be honoured to have such an experienced pilot heading this flight.
Of course I was flattered to hear this. The conversation moved quickly to political ground. The growing discontent had escalated to revolt in many areas of the country. There were huge number of casualties due to the pestilence but now there were high casualties also because of actions of certain unruly groups which had slowly taken control of several provinces. There were many who believed the goverment had to be replaced by a military command and this debate had turned sour recently. Government had losts various members to the plague and the president had tanked himself with a trusted team of advisors, amongst which two high ranking generals, two civilians, the former ministry of foreign affairs and the Speaker of the House.
As a mitigating measure, a substantial military contingent had been deployed around the country to aid the current contingent at key strategic points. In three regions this resulted in open battle between the insurgents and the army. Government was very much determined to keep law and order intact as well as assisting the portion of the population that was still unharmed by the pestilence.
This sounded terrible. I dreaded at the thought of imagining these poor people isolated and defenceless. He assured me that there were squadrons flying twice weekly around the country dropping supplies to all communities that were still holding on. Some of those supplies included weapons and ammunition.
But most tragic of all, was the fact that we were fighting a double-front, with both the pestilence and the social unrest which was threatening to take over the country.
But there was more:
Liquidity had become a real day-to-day issue for all institutions, especially the government.
Effectively, the lack of cash and widespread bribery had become as toxic and lethal as the plague itself. I asked how this particular mission had anything to do with that. The sergeant raised his brows, as if I had asked a very obvious question, he then left the comfort of his chair and walked to the window to stare at the calm and peaceful forest scenery across the hospital.
I felt that he was willing to share more insider’s information, perhaps because he understood the need for sincerity at that point in the game or, because he thought that my position would require, sooner or later, to have a thorough understanding of what was really going on behind the scenes.
Then he turned back to me and spoke in one long sentence. He told me that he came from a proud army tradition. His father and grandfather before him had given it all to the country. Living through such disruptive and uncertain times wasn’t easy for anybody. He understood that the army had to survive, governance had to thrive. Nothing should be allowed to undermine these institutions, the ideals and principles upon which our society had developed.
I still didn’t understand where he was going with this. I kept quiet and kept my eyes fixed on him. He went back to the armchair again and gently started to tap his fingers against the armrest, perhaps looking for a moment of comfort.
He took a long breath and told me that certain members of government had now started to funnel public funds into their pockets. All of this was top secret at this stage. A few of these individuals were very high ranking officials. It was still unclear how this money was being used. In times of pestilence large sums such as these, could only be deployed for security.
The man took a second to pause and clear his throat. There was a possibility that governance would split, or at the very least, that an attempt to reshuffle the way power was distributed in the country, would take place. It was extremely unlikely that this had anything to do with the rebellious mobs, quite the opposite in fact. Public opinion was now favorable to an alternative power structure with the will to employ much harder methods against the revolt.
He raised his hand and unfastened the first button of his perfectly tailored shirt.
My eyes and ears started to open wide. I listened carefully.
They also knew that somebody high up had develop an encrypted protocol to pass secured information between members of parliament. This encrypted network had been operational for ten days but it had been impossible so far to decipher the data running through it.
What this meant, effectively, is that something was stirring up in the background, and there was not knowing when and how it would materialised. But the bottom line is that it had become extremely dangerous for the president to continue to run the country from the capital, regardless of any safety measures. Power had to be transferred to a a high security facility, from which it would much easier to reorganise government and isolate the few rotten apples. A number of military bases had been re-selected for this, but one in particular, was ideal for its facilities, geographical location and level of biological security.
He stopped to talk and I allowed myself a few moments to register what I had just heard. The situation was much more dire than I had thought and my mind drifted briefly to the conversation I had had with that Intelligence Officer during my training program. God knows what was really going on. One thing was certain, these people were scared and they were planning extreme measures Now more than ever the country needed stability and a united power structured that prioritised the people above all.
The lovely nurse entered the room after knocking the door briefly three times. She gracefully interrupted the conversation with a friendly smile from the edge of the door, informing us that lunch would be served in ten minutes. When she was leaving, we both smiled back and the sergeant even bowed to underline her last word.
All this lead, in a strange sort of way, to introduce me to the mission.