Lieutenant Penny Warren, former SAS now Republican New Zealand Army, slouched in her chair, wearily glowering at her Deep Reconnaisance Activities Patrol Echelon attaché in the confines of the debriefing and interrogation room. She despised the younger woman on the other side of the desk, given their comparative age and combat experience gap. Warren had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Greece. She doubted whether Lieutenant Anika Causton, who faced her, had anywhere near that duration of service. Scowling in annoyance, she snapped:
“Can’t I even have a cigarette?”
Returning her gaze, Anika shook her head: “Nope. One question, Lieutenant Warren. There are few enough of us in this world as it is now. Why the hell do you have to be so damned reckless?”
Warren had known that it would come to this and decided to parry with a simple statement of military existence. She sneered: “Yeah? I’d put it differently. I am a combat veteran of many years duration. We are facing total war, against a literally inhuman enemy. Therefore, it is reasonable to use overwhelming and deadly force in that conflict situation.”
Anika shook her head, persisting in her questioning of the older woman:
“Uh, no, that’s not the problem. Hell, you would’ve made senior rank if that was all that you’d done. You forgot to add ‘indiscriminate’ to that operational list. Indiscriminate, overwhelming and deadly to the civilians caught in the crossfire.”
Warren shrugged. In a deadpan, level voice, she retorted:
“So? If they’re in a combat zone, they have to take the risks of that situation. It’s not an ideal situation, but then we’re fighting against a zombie apocalypse. They should have known better than to be there in the first place, these days. “
Anika wouldn’t let go of her counterpart:
“Try telling that to the parents of the three five year old children and their grandparents who got caught in the crossfire of your last display of ‘overwhelming and deadly force.’ Or the pregnant woman back in Otaki. Or the disabled guy in Whanganui. Or those doctors in Taupo. Or any of the twenty five other civilians who are supposedly ‘collateral damage’ in your self-written rule book. Who the hell do you think you are, lady? Some sort of elite Praetorian Guard with the power of life and death over others?!”
(Watching from behind a nonreflective two-way mirror, Lieutenant Whetu Simmons bit her lip as she commented into her disc recorder:
“Subject shows flat, monotone delivery. Her eyes seem glazed and there is absence of any increased cardio stimulation during the course of this interrogation. Any moment now, I think we’ll hear some attempt to plead self-justification…”)
As if she’d heard the unseen army psychologist, Warren levelly replied:
“Hey, sorry, love. But hell, this is war. In the field, in concrete operational circumstances, sometimes collateral damage and friendly fire happen. What you’re proposing is some sort of military academy dummy run, an abstract training situation. I’m talking real-time battlefield.”
(Whetu shook her head:
“Right. And I suppose that taking reasonable steps to insure public safety is completely out of the question?”)
Warren shrugged and continued her defence of her actions:
“Come on now. We’ve both been in firefights. With an enemy like the zeds, there isn’t always time to check.”
(Behind the partition, Whetu rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth:
“Yeah, except your track record seems to state that you consider that there’s never any time to check, mate. Go on, Ani. Tell her that.”)
Anika shook her head in disgust:
“Sorry, that’s just so much bullshit. Look, I’m from a military family, yeah? Granddad served in Vietnam, Mum participated in the Afghan occupation of the noughties and I’m stuck with this gig. Granddad always told me that your sort of attitude turned the Vietnamese against us and cost the Yanks and their allies that war, and Mum felt the same way about Afghanistan. And this time, it’s for much higher stakes. We have a duty to protect other humans from the stench.”
Already, Warren was shaking her head:
“Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Anika wasn’t buying:
“Excuse me, who the hell do you think you are to make those sorts of life and death decisions about the value or otherwise of other human lives?”
Warren’s derisive smile irritated Anika (and Whetu) still further:
“And New Zealand’s triage policy is…?”
Anika snapped back at her:
“Is a denial of your personal operational responsibility as senior officer onsite for events that occurred under your immediate command.”
Warren grinned back at her, but without any real warmth or acknowledgement:
“Yeah, but it is my personal operational responsibility as unit leader that we’re talking about here. And why are you implicitly defending the brass down in Wellington? They’re usually safely out of the way down there. We aren’t. What about my responsibility to the men and women under my command?”
“And to no-one else?” demanded Anika hotly.
Warren shook her head and sighed:
“Hey, Kiwi girl, it’s all right for you people. So okay, you lost one point five million in Auckland in the opening skirmishes, but at least that was the only major city that you had to yield. Me, I’m an experienced Brit SAS para. Look at the States. Their whole country fell to pieces because they made judgements based on some high-and-mighty ideals about military ethics. Washington thought they could save everyone too. Look where it got them. Millions dead.”
Anika stood, fists balled, provoked past measure:
“Fuck you! I lost whanau in Otara, and mates at One Tree Hill. They gave their lives to insure that other survivors were able to get out of there in the end.”
“Hey, nothin’ personal, love. Only, I’ve got several tours of duty out there under my belt. Under the current overall operational circumstances, the brass will throw me in the brig for a year or so, then let me back out in the field, time served, retribution served. Facts of life. Shit. Hot in here, isn’t it?”
At that cue, Anika nodded slightly to Whetu, still out of sight behind the two-way glass partition. She stood, turned on her heel and stalked out of the interrogation room, slamming the door behind her.
Warren shook her head in derision and sneered at the naivete of the younger woman, before taking a large bite out of her hamburger.
Three minutes later, she was vomiting profusely into a rubbish can.
Five minutes later, she was having problems standing. It may have been at that stage that she began to realise that she wasn’t going to leave this room.
Six minutes later, she lay on the floor, while she lost consciousness seven and a half minutes later. Eight and three quarter minutes later, she stopped breathing. Twelve minutes later, Lieutenant Penny Warren SAS, Republican New Zealand Army, died.
Behind the partition, Anika and Whetu observed the other woman’s death throes: “Damn it. I wish there’d been some other way.”
“There wasn’t. You were right, Ani. She thought she was some sort of latter-day Roman Imperial Praetorian Guard, the ones who deposed weak Roman Emperors at will, and ran things during some periods of Roman history. Wrong. She’d been through three other evaluative sessions before this and she gave no indication that she’d be willing to acknowledge her responsibility for those fifty civilian deaths. The higher stakes argument was spot on. We are here to protect and serve. That woman was a Lieutenant Calley in the making. This had to be done. Justice had to be done. The zeds may be indiscriminate and senseless in the lives that they take, but we cannot afford to be. So, she gets a bodybag and cremation. And at least justice is done to her human victims. Rationalisations like collateral damage and friendly fire should never be excuses for what she tolerated under her command. “
In the Officers Mess that evening, Captain Whetu Simmons downed several large whiskeys and told herself that what she’d just done was fulfil her professional responsibilities. She almost believed it toward the end of the evening. Because, unlike the late Lieutenant Penny Warren, Whetu Simmons was no monster.