General Thomas climbed on stage in the centre of Portsmouth’s dockland. Speaker systems were set up throughout the city because the civvies needed to hear this as well as the servicemen. This was the moment Great Britain rose from the ashes. The rebirth of a proud, illustrious nation.
Colonel Cross was standing at the microphone, and he stood to attention when his superior arrived. “General, sir. Everything is ready and waiting for you.”
“The speakers are all live?”
“So I’ve been told. Your voice will reach the whole of Portsmouth. Fifty-thousand people, sir.”
“Thank you, Colonel. Dismissed.”
Colonel Cross saluted and turned on his heel, briskly exiting the stage. Thomas positioned himself behind the microphone, then took a moment to observe the crowd. These were his people, and with that insubordinate woman, Amanda Wickstaff, gone, his power was total. No civil war, no infighting, no divided front. They would face the enemy as a united force — a united people. Only a few dissenters to worry about now.
The crowd directly in front of him was a mere few thousand strong, but they represented his most loyal forces — his officers and specialists, and those he could not do without. Further out were his regular forces and the soldiers who had served Portsmouth before his arrival. In the ruins of the city, and the quieter parts of the docklands, were the civilians. It was they who needed to hear his words most, their weak hearts which needed emboldening.
Thomas cleared his throat, leant forward, and began. “People of Portsmouth, this is General Thomas addressing you all. Some of you do not know me well, but I would like to express my gratitude to every member of this remarkable city. I am grateful that you fought with tooth and nail to survive. I am grateful that you refused to give in to fear, and that you did not yield to the brutality and violence designed to cow us. Each of you are warriors, and I call on you to keep your warrior spirit alive. Continue to fight. Continue to refuse the enemy at every turn. Do that, and I promise you victory. Do that and we shall one day stand triumphant. We hail from many different places, but today we stand as brothers and sisters of Great Britain.”
A brief cheer from the gathered forces, but not as loud as he’d hoped. While his long-standing troops were proudly British, those who had served under Wickstaff seemed to have shed their national identity. It would take some work to stoke their patriotism and rebuild their national identities — especially in those who hailed from foreign climes. Nonetheless, he was duty-bound to try. “Our enemy is wounded,” he went on, “and we must be merciless. We must show our foe the same savagery it showed to us. We must not relent. We must not stop. The fight can only end once our homeland is wholly liberated. There will be battles to come, I assure you, for the enemy will now do the only thing it can. It will rally its remaining forces and attempt, one last time, to crush us. It will be the last gasp of a dying beast, but we must prepare to face it all the same, and plunge our daggers into its chest. We must stand together. No longer, will there be soldiers and civilians. From this day forward, we are all soldiers. All shall be trained. All shall receive their duties with earnest courage and conviction. We must fight as one and for each other, or we shall surely die.”
Muffled dissent spread through the far edges of the crowd. That they even dared to consider the veracity of his words inflamed him greatly. His heart pounded in his chest. “What I speak of is not optional. Portsmouth will become a well-oiled war machine. Anyone found impeding its efficiency will be unwelcome within its walls. We cannot tolerate burdens. Must not.”
“Murderer!” someone shouted.
“Long live General Wickstaff,” yelled another.
Thomas’s cheeks grew hot. He searched the crowd, eyes darting back and forth. Whoever had shouted would be shot — but he couldn’t identify the offenders. The sheer number of bodies packed together ensured their anonymity. His rage spilled out, but he forced himself to contain it. This was no time for blunt instruments. He forced himself to sound sympathetic. “I understand the loss many of you are feeling. Amanda Wickstaff was a hero in the truest sense of the word. She fought alongside you, risking death and injury when she could have sat back and sent others in her stead. She led Portsmouth to victory after victory in the absence of established authority. No doubt, she was the finest of women and the bravest of souls; but she was tired. Upon my arrival in Portsmouth, she expressed relief. She was grateful to give up the mantel and rest. Unfortunately, she never got that chance. The enemy took her from us, and I truly share your grief. Please know that I am not seeking to replace her, only to protect what she has built. As long as Portsmouth stands, Amanda Wickstaff will never be forgotten. She will be the first, and most revered, saint of our new world. Future generations will praise her name. For those of you who resent me being here, please know that Amanda Wickstaff wanted us to come together. I ask you — no, I beg you — to move forward and focus on our true enemy. Let’s wipe those demon bastards off the face of the earth.” He hated to use the D word — it reeked of hysteria — but he knew the reaction it elicited in people. Their mutual hatred and fear of their enemy galvanised them and made them family. By using the word, he became one of them. He also hated having to indulge the hero worship of his ignorant predecessor, but it was a necessary evil. If Portsmouth had remained in Amanda Wickstaff’s charge, it would have become a mass grave. The woman had been soft, as all women are, and had cared about her people too much. The only thing that mattered was the survival of the human race. He, General Thomas, was the only person willing to lead with that sole purpose in mind. Let people think him callous or uncaring. At least they would live.
His words had the intended effect. The crowd directly in front of him pumped their fists and cheered. Those further afield — those struggling with past loyalties — seemed more supportive, too. That was how easy it was to gain a man’s loyalty. Mere words could do it.
General Thomas turned and marched across the stage. He passed his second in command on his way to the steps, and couldn’t help notice the guilty flicker of the man’s eyes. There had been many disappointments in the last few days, but Colonel Cross’s failure to apprehend General Wickstaff’s aide-de-camp, Maddy, was amongst the most grievous. The woman had since gone missing. The only way that could have happened was if somebody had helped her.
Was it you, Tony? Can I trust you?
Of course not. No one can be trusted.
Thomas sincerely hoped Colonel Cross was not a traitor, because it would be a shame to shoot such a useful man. But such things happened in war.