No Laughing Matter

A story that imagines what happens when terrorists get wise. Suitable for 11+ children and adults.

“Base, this is 6-4 Alpha 12. Comm  check; over.”

“Loud and clear Alpha 12, what have you got?”

“I.A.D. alright, ‘bout the size of a wheelie bin – looks tricky.”

“Okay, keep in touch and be careful.”

Be careful, be careful! What the hell did they expect him to do, – bang it with a stick? He’d been on tour for five months as a bomb disposal operative and this was the eleventh time he’d taken the long walk away from his unit. Eleven times he’d walked away on his own and ten times he’d walked back without a scratch. Some of it skill, a lot of it dumb luck. Just last week he’d seen a good man, Echo 9, sent home on a stretcher, barely recognisable to those who’d known him for years.

A voice crackled suddenly and the soldier had to grasp back the screwdriver that was poised precisely over the device’s outer casing, “What can you see Alpha 12?”

Alpha 12 jerked back his head and tore the intercom from his ear; he cursed under his breath and struggled to bring his breath under control.

“I can see… I can see half a ton of metal designed to pack a nasty surprise to anyone daft enough to touch it and I can hear a toffee nosed idiot who’s trying to give me a heart attack, and believe me, a heart attack’s the least of my problems right now. Keep watch on the helmet cam and maintain radio silence until I can work out what they’ve left me.”

‘They’  were the insurgents, locals who wanted them out of the country and who would go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their aims. At first it had been mines and bombs with trip wires. Families back home sent out their young men and in return cargo planes carrying boxes flew in to the UK under cover of darkness.  Speeches had been given in parliament and the public had worn black armbands to show sympathy and solidarity, but no one thought about leaving, no one spoke about surrender. So the insurgents had switched tactics, Improvised Explosive Devices became Improvised Amusing Devices, pranks designed to humiliate the foe, to destroy his credibility, to sap his morale by exposing him to ridicule.

 Echo 9 had been working on what they thought was a basic whoopee bomb, something rustled up in lockup garage with a rubber bladder and amplifier. Alpha 12 had seen plenty of them himself and he’d seen what they could do to a soldier unlucky enough to set one off. Twitching wrecks of men, who’d leap under the nearest table every time a squaddie broke wind. Given the current state of army catering, staying in the forces was rarely an option for the poor sods. If it had been a whoopee bomb he’d have been alright, put in the earplugs and gently insert a sharp needle to pierce the bladder. But this was someone’s idea of a sick joke – a booby trap. Just as he’d been about to put in the spike a needle had swung out from the bomb casing and had stuck him in his exposed forearm.  A massive dose of oestrogen – the female hormone, had been pumped into his system. Six weeks later his comrade was wearing a 38DD bra and going by the name of Amanda. Booby trap! Ha bloody ha. He didn’t care to think about how Echo 9 would be greeted by his wife when his high heeled foot hit the tarmac of the airstrip.  

Alpha 12 paused to listen to his heart and, satisfied that it had settled to steady 65bpm, he placed the intercom plug back in his ear.

“Steel casing, 3 hatches screwed down at the corners, looks like whoopee bomb – or it’s meant to look like one. Wait, I’m going to check the underside.”

Reaching behind him, Alpha 12 carefully pulled out a long handled mirror from his rucksack and swivelled the mirror to a horizontal position. He pulled at the telescopic handle until it was fully extended and then slid it under the body of the device. Lying flat on the dusty soil, he squinted against the glare of the reflection and then whistled softly through his teeth.

“Base, this is Alpha 12; this is no fart shell, I don’t think it’s a booby trap either. There are two openings on the underside, they’ve covered them up, but they’re there all the same. There’s a smell like the officer’s toilets too. I think we’ve got a stink bomb – a turd torpedo.”

There was a silence at the other end of the intercom, then; “Okay, Alpha 12, take it steady, we’ll be moving to an upwind position, good luck.”

‘Good luck.’ ‘Be careful.’ Sometimes he thought he was surrounded by idiots; cowards and idiots. If this thing blew it wouldn’t be them in bad odour. Two years ago someone had set one of these babies off on the perimeter of a basecamp in the south. The smell was so bad, they’d had to clear out and re-site everyone 3 miles away. The infantryman who’d tripped the device was made to leave the army; no one could bear to eat in the same mess hall as him. Word was that he still showered six times a day.

 The disposal man laid the mirror to one side and reached into his rucksack once more.

“Base, I’m going to use the stethoscope so they’ll be no communications for a while. I’ll take my helmet off so you can get a better view of what I’m doing… just in case.”

Alpha 12 didn’t need to say what that meant. They all knew that the best intelligence about de-fusing bombs came from watching the mistakes of others. He unclipped his helmet, moved his hand slowly from side to side in front of the camera and placed it on a kit box where those watching could pick up his expressions and the movements of his hands

With the stethoscope pressed against the dull metal torso of the device, he began to slowly twist up the screws of the left hand hatch. Tape at either edge prevented the thin metal square lifting off and as the screws worked free the lid lifted slightly and then remained fixed in place. Alpha 12 slid a thin blade under the hatch until it pressed onto the hidden spring; allowing the stethoscope to dangle freely, he peeled back the tape and lifted the hatch away gently. Below, he could see that, had he allowed the spring to fully extend, a contact would have been made and the device would have been deployed with his face hovering above it. A bead of sweat rolled from the end of his nose and splashed against the hot metal casing. He fixed the spring in place with a wooden skewer that rested at either end under the hatch opening and began to explore the interior.

“Base,” Alpha 12 tapped irritably at the camera set in his helmet and then remembered to replace his earplug. “Base, can you see this? This is something new; I’d heard rumours, but …”

“What is it Alpha 12? Come in, what is it you’ve seen?” At their hastily re-sited position, the officers squinted at the crackling image and then gasped as they realised what they were looking at. “My God, Terry, is that…

If Alpha 12 registered the sudden shift to informality, he didn’t acknowledge it. It was doubtful he even noticed, so alert was he to the potential horror that lay centimetres away from his sweat drenched body.

“Yeah, looks like a C-bomb.”

Of course, there were always pies. Flung from an alleyway when you were least expecting it, dropped from a bridge as you passed underneath on patrol, but with those, you had time to duck and run. Some of the civilians back home said it was ridiculous for the soldiers to be frightened of them, that it was only a joke, but they didn’t understand. They’d never comprehend the effect on a handpicked professional killing machine of seeing endless Youtube mashups of your face covered in custard surrounded by kids and women laughing and pointing. It wasn’t even like you could shoot them for it, that really would make you look ridiculous, but they’d all heard the tales of men who had become broken in the field and unemployable back home. The nation was getting sick of seeing their heroes looking like clowns and men who’d gone home on leave came back with stories of people laughing behind their hands at them.

This, however, was a whole different ball game. A quarter ton of compressed custard set to blow and cover everything in a half kilometre radius. If it had gone off half an hour earlier, there was no telling how many good men would have ended up with a yellow streak down their backs.

“Base this is Alpha 12. Move everyone undercover and for goodness’ sakes make sure there’s no one out there with an iphone, if this one gets on ‘You’ve Been Framed’ it’s game over. I’ve got two wires connected to the power source and in thirty seconds I’ll be cutting one.”

“Roger that Alpha 12, good luck.”

This time he felt no annoyance, just a sudden awareness of his full bladder and an aching loneliness.

Alpha 12 flicked open the pocket on his thigh and drew out a small pair of wire clippers. Allowing no time for second guessing, he pushed aside the red wire and placed the cutting teeth of the clippers gently against the yellow and green insulated cable. He cut.

“Base, this is Alpha 12!” The voice was rapid, almost screaming, “Get out now , it’s ticking and I don’t know how long we’ve got.”

Pushing hard to get to his feet, he threw the clippers down and turned to put some distance between himself and the device, only to be stopped before a step had been taken by the ring of an alarm. Alpha 12 turned , his eyes wide with terror. Two struts had begun to push through the hatches on the underside he’d noticed earlier. They extended and as they did so the bomb began to tilt upright.

“Alpha 12 get out! For God’s sake, run!”

But how could he? He couldn’t breathe let alone run and the pressure of his bladder was no longer a problem. The device was now vertical and stood like a small metal wardrobe, it’s lid level with his chest. With a ‘Badoing’ the lid flicked open and a cloth snake as wide as a man’s shoulders extended out on a massive spring. It bounced gently from side to side, marking the dusty ground with its head.

Alpha 12’s shoulders slumped and his chin rested on his chest. He knew he was beaten, he knew they were all beaten. How could you fight an enemy that wouldn’t take war seriously? He picked up his helmet and began to trudge back to the base.

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