Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chapter 1: The Approach

I thought it was SPAM.

It had become more and more intrusive and offensive and not less so, in spite of all the effort that was put into place in an attempt to curb it.

Unfortunately, I had no option other than to wade through each message and check each one. One of the prices of doing business on the internet... I couldn’t afford to miss a message that could turn into an order, or a query or complaint from a customer.

Rather than SPAM, it was a message that signalled a major watershed in my life!

WAR BROTHERS was the subject. Then "Are you a soldier at heart?"

Interesting question. True. I had been a reservist for 20 years, and took great pleasure in running the Battalion’s training program, taking a lot of time out of my personal life to do so. I could not explain the attraction to anyone who didn’t feel the same, although my wife had achieved the best insight after the many years we had been together.

"Starting to feel that mid-life crisis or that you wish you had it all to do over again?"

Damn right! At fourty-five it was dawning on me that I would never again be able to expect my body to deliver what I asked of if without thought. Everything was starting to get more difficult to achieve physically, while my body got softer. I had caught myself on more than one occasion standing in the mess and saying things that I had vowed I never would... all those things that I had mocked as a youngster. In my head I was still eighteen, but it was getting harder every day to ignore what I saw in the mirror.

"Do you still have a sense of adventure?"

Damn right!

"If you are interested in finding out more, reply to this email and one of our consultants will get back to you."

So I replied. The risk was fairly minimal. At worst the disposable email address would have to be trashed if I found I starting picking up too much SPAM. And that was it, two minutes out of my day. I really didn’t expect much to come of it, and I put it aside and almost forgot all about it.

* * *

Three days later I got a call on my cell-phone. I hate it when it shows "Number Withheld" because I like to mentally prepare myself before answering the call... but that’s just a pet peeve.

"Cy Peter, good morning" It’s my standard greeting and if it sounds like I am telling someone to sigh, blame my parents for naming me that.

"Good Morning. This is Roger de Vries. Do you have a moment to talk?"

"Sure. How can I help you".

"You replied to an email a few days ago with the subject War Brothers and I am following up on that."

That was a surprise. It took me a moment to gather my thoughts. I had certainly not expected to receive a phone call, and especially not from someone local. I had thought that I would get some sort of email outlining a corporate ‘team building’ exercise. The other option, that this was a mercenary recruiting exercise, was that one that I half feared and wished for however.

"Ok. Thanks for calling. Sorry for the pause, I was just a little thrown for a second there."

Roger laughed. "Yes, we get that a lot. Would you prefer to talk on the phone or could we meet somewhere for coffee?"

"Well... I am very interested to hear what you have to discuss, so I would prefer to hear as quickly as possible. I would prefer to meet in person, but I suppose the phone will have to do."

"Not at all," Roger surprised me, "I am here in Durban and I have a number of people to speak to. I would also prefer to speak to you in person. Do you have a recommendation for a place we could meet?"

I thought about it for a few seconds then decided that I was frustrated enough with what I was doing, and intrigued enough about the topic to want to meet.

"How about we meet at our NCO’s mess? They have a pub that opens at 10H00 and we can chat there?" I asked him.

"Sure," he replied, "See you at 10" and hung up the phone.

It only struck me afterwards that he hadn’t asked which regiment, nor where it was.

* * *

I was sitting at a table in the NCO’s mess before 10. I like to be in a position where I can watch the person I am meeting arrive. It also establishes that I am the one on home ground. These things are more important than most people think as they can effect the balance between people in a meeting.

When Roger arrived however, he seemed faintly amused, as if he knew exactly what I was doing, and why, and it obviously didn’t bother him. My first impression when I saw him was that he was a soldier in civvies or an athlete. There was something undefinable about the way he carried himself that said that he was completely comfortable in his body, and aware of everything around him. He wasn’t staring around, but I got the impression that his single scan of the room had identifed each entry and exit, catalogued every possible avenue of threat and stored that information for use if it became necessary. I was also convinced that it was a totally automatic process that he wasn’t even consciously aware of. Somehow this caused the hair on my neck to stand up, because it was the first indicator that whatever this guy did, it was not corporate ‘team-building’. I had seen that level of unconscious competence 20 odd years before, and it was normally exhibited by Special Forces types just out of the bush.

I stood up and reached out a hand to greet Roger. As we shook hands, it occurred to me that we were the same height. Roger was lean and wiry. Not muscular, but there was strength there.

I invited Roger to sit and offered him something to drink.

"I’ll have a draught please. I have been talking all morning and my throat is dry."

I got him a draught and myself a coke and and we sat.

"Thanks for meeting with me Cy," Roger started. "I am sure that you are curious as all hell."

"Damn right. I almost spam-binned your email. I dunno what made me actually read it, never mind reply," I laughed

"OK. Let me go through my spiel and keep any questions to afterwards if you don’t mind. Some of what I have to tell you might be hard to believe."

"OK" I grunted, wondering where this was all leading.

"Alright. We have done a background check on you. There is very little that we don’t know from the available records. We know your military history, and we have seen all your online activities. Your FaceBook Profile, your Google-Groups memberships and the various military forums and lists that you belong to. All of these have led us to think that you would be open to an approach from us."

I was starting to get a little concerned. This sounded a little too much like ‘Big Brother’.

Roger seemed to understand this and went on to reassure me "We are not a government agency, nor do we belong to some fringe group. In fact, what we do is literally ‘out of this world’"

"OK. Now you have me seriously confused. Who are you then?" I asked

"I was just like you. I was recruited and took up the offer that was made to me, and now I am spending some time acting as an agent to recruit others before I return. The truth is that what is involved sounds like some sort of Science-Fiction." He paused, obviously to gauge my reaction, before continuing. "There is a ‘gate’ to another world, and what I offer lies beyond it."

To say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement.

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