A forbidding grey shadow swung over the reed brushes. With a final thrash and stretch of wings the heron hung, catching the air over the leaden pond, before dangling legs dropped into the water. Viewed from beneath the surface of this slab of water it was nothing less than a visitation of death. The bird’s neck swizzled there, twisted back. Bright black-on-yellow bead eyes probed the pool. It folded sky-wide wings away on its back.
The creature stalked the pool. Pale gangly legs lifted to skim the surface before descending again with improbable grace into the ooze that curdled the watery depths. The bird’s head sashayed back and forth, gaze darting to any movement, every ripple that might indicate prey cowering below.
A breeze hunted through the rasping reeds and etched the pool. The silent watchers took in every nuance of the scene. They noted the heron, the encircling reed beds, the water glassily echoing the flint sky. The rest could be imagined; the seethe of life below the surface, so busy surviving it was oblivious to the predatory presence quartering its constricted world. But when that head whipped in their direction, thin crest of black feathers trailing after, terror, confusion and destruction fell on simple lives.
‘OK, I get it,’ the junior minister spoke, awkwardly breaking the room’s spell of impatient silence. ‘The heron terrorises the pond life: the fish, the frogs, even that mean old pike by the island. What exactly, has this got to do with anything?’
‘What indeed?’ heaved the General. A smirk caught his lips.
‘We’ve read the brief,’ said Sir Charles who, like his minister, had known nothing about this ultra secret project team until this morning. We understand it’s credible, but why are we being shown footage of this bird hunting?’
Peter Agu, who had introduced everyone before the screening, sighed. They always asked, and it always confused them. He pointed to a colleague, ‘Connor, do your thing.’
‘It’s an analogy, the heron represents –’
‘We’re not infants, Mr –’ the minister consulted notes to find what she needed – ‘Connolly. We can see it’s a metaphor. We can all guess who the heron represents. What I need to know, and quickly, is how on earth it’s relevant to the situation under discussion.’
‘It’s not.’ This came from the woman with tightly cropped hair, sitting on the other side of the screening room. In her over-sized T-shirt, tight skirt, opaque patterned leggings and bare feet, it looked like she had parachuted in from a different meeting, maybe a different planet, as her head was a Medusan tangle of electrodes and wires and she sat beside a battery of electronics and monitors.
‘You’ll get your say, Leanne, I promise,’ Agu issued a placatory hushing gesture. ‘You heard the minister, Connor; keep it short.’
‘Leanne can’t show you things, the way she sees them – how this knowledge arrives barely makes sense to her – so when she’s asked to perform,’ his stress bruised the word, ‘like this, she creates an analogy, which you can understand: a heron terrorising and decimating a small lake.’
‘Last April,’ the General folded his arms, ‘it was a fox in a hen coup, blood and feathers everywhere; that was something.’
‘Good Lord,’ said Sir Charles. ‘What was that foretelling?’
‘Not helpful, General,’ said Agu. ‘Please forget you heard that, Sir Charles, you don’t have clearance.’
‘So why a heron?’ persisted the Minister.
‘It fits,’ said Connor. ‘The fish are getting on with their own lives, only vaguely aware that the heron exists, it’s not pertinent to them until it lands in their pond and then they pray to Allah that its attention doesn’t focus for one tiny instant on them. If it does…’
‘Alright Gentlemen,’ the Minister cut in, business brusque; ‘let me explain why we’re here.’ Her waved hand encompassed herself and Sir Charles. ‘We had no knowledge of your operation until this morning. As you know, Robin’s resigned; Jack’s had another meeting he has to attend, so I’ve been asked to step in, to make a recommendation – by the end of today – about how we weigh your Heron Brief in our decision-making process. So far today, we’ve wasted hours being lectured by security personnel, been beaten about the ears with the Official Secrets Act and given just half an hour to read your report. When I finally gained entry to your building, I had no idea what to expect, but it wasn’t bloody raptors.’
She breathed long, held up her hands to forestall anyone planning to correct her taxonomy, then continued. ‘Now, help us to understand what you’re saying, so we don’t make fools of ourselves, inadvertently cause your funding to dry up, end up renditioned by our own spy agencies or start a war we should not get into.’
‘The last,’ said the other woman in the room, yanking electrodes from her head. ‘We’re saying, “Don’t start a war that will achieve none of your objectives, lead to nearly a million deaths and displace tens of millions of lives.”’
‘That,’ said the Minister, whipping the thumbed document against the table in front of her, ‘is most definitely NOT the conclusion of this briefing paper!’
Agu broke the ensuing silence. ‘It’s not,’ he agreed. ‘We… I, misunderstood what you knew and what you wanted today. Let’s start over. Leanne has a gift –’
‘Curse,’ muttered Leanne.
‘She foresees forth-coming suffering. When she started having these visions – bad word – and didn’t know what they were. However, she did realise that they always came true, which naturally traumatised her, but she spoke out. She told people. They ridiculed her. The visions continued. Eventually she convinced someone who convinced us to test her forecasts. We didn’t believe, well, you can imagine, but we duly noted a handful of her predictions. After Stepanakert, the Hutu Genocide, and Hanshin, we were taking notice and this briefing group was formulated.’
‘What could we do about any of those events?’ asked Sir Charles.
‘Frustratingly, not a lot but when she warned us about the forthcoming Ituri conflict we had the Foreign Office’s full attention. That led to two developments. First, they wanted to share in her vision, so to speak.’
‘Crazy idea,’ said Connor, ‘Leanne has a 100% track record. Things we asked her about, things that just came to her unbidden. They still wanted more. They drafted in a neuroscientist, who rigged up the brainwave monitoring equipment you’ve just witnessed in action.’
‘To be fair,’ put in Agu, ‘to allow the word of a 30-something woman who wasn’t part of government, military or agency, to dictate policy was a big ask. They wanted to be sure she didn’t abuse her power.’
‘Dictate!?’ Leanne gave an ironic laugh.
‘She had to let us share in some way in what she experienced, so she trained her mind to turn her experiences into analogies, or stories if you like.’
‘Fairy tales,’ grunted the General.
‘Yes, but not Leanne’s fault,’ Connor spread frustrated hands. ‘Asking her to play-act this way is like smashing a crystal ball to see how it works.’
‘Hardly,’ said Agu quickly. ‘That’s a poor analogy, Connor. And anyway, it served its purpose, unlikely as that seems. The neuroscience specialist confirmed that the brain patterns and signals he detected matched the story events, and the story events married with what Leanne told us she was forecasting.’
‘You lead the group, Mr Agu?’ asked the Minister.
‘Yes, and Mr Connolly works with Leanne to get her predictions onto paper and the General represents the military viewpoint.’
‘And offers some much-needed scepticism,’ added the General.
‘There are two other members of the team not here today, one security agency, one academic, and this is the newest member of the team,’ his wave indicated a latecomer who had not yet spoken. The man nodded to the Minister.
‘I mentioned two developments; the second was that Leanne was predicting an event in the States, so we decided to invite our US cousins into our circle. They were sceptical, but we used the Izmit earthquake, which Leanne also predicted, to show how credible her intel is.’
The Minister turned to the new team member, ‘We haven’t been introduced, I’m sure for very good reasons, but –’
‘Joss Johnson, Ma’am,’ he said, ‘J.J. and I know well enough who you are.’
‘And the Americans are buying this?’ Her voice betrayed her disbelief.
‘You’re new to this and so are we. Incredulous doesn’t begin to describe our initial response. We thought it was a Ruskie plot. But after a whole series of proof points, we came on board and since 9/11 as far as we’re concerned if Ms Leanne says Moon’s gonna explode, we ground the Space Shuttles.’
‘But if you knew about 9/11 and you believed in her…?’
‘I know what you’re gonna say Ma’am but, as you’re about to find out, knowing something’s gonna happen and being able to take the political decisions necessary to stop it are two very different things.’
‘Where do you report in, J.J.?’
‘Top table Ma’am, the President and Joint Chiefs hear it direct from my lips.’
‘I meant which agency?’
‘Inter agency. We can’t tell them where this information comes from, for obvious reasons, so doing it this way each agency can believe it’s from one of the other two.’
‘So the FBI is working on a brief about Herons and sticklebacks?’ Sir Charles started a laugh but turned it into a clearing of his throat.
‘A lot of those FBI boys come outta the Mid-West, Sir; we keep things real simple for ‘em.’
‘Keep it simple for me,’ said the Minister. ‘Imagine I’m from the Mid-West – Makerfield is a mid-west Manchester constituency, in fact – why doesn’t the brief I’ve been given recommend what Leanne just told us. If I understood her right, she said, quite vehemently, to stay out. This report recommends we go in.’
‘It’s about timescale,’ said Agu. ‘The brief we were given was to look 3-4 years ahead, by which time the plan is: we’d be in, a new regime would be in place and we’d be out.’
‘And looking longer term; that would take too long?’ asked the Minister.
‘Takes the same time,’ said Connor.
‘The conclusions become hazier I’d guess, less easy to predict?’
‘Clearer,’ said Leanne, ‘in this instance. Sometime suffering reduces over time, in this instance it intensifies, multiplies exponentially.’
‘So, what happens, if we look eight, ten…?’
‘Fifteen,’ said Agu.
‘OK, 15 years ahead.’
‘A lot of fish and frogs get wasted,’ said Connor.
‘But not our fish,’ added the General.
The American held up a palm and waved it. ‘We lose a couple of small shoals.’
Leanne burst in, ‘No, but Kurds, Iraqis, the Yazidis, the poor Syrians –’
‘Syrians?’ demanded the Minister, wide-eyed in astonishment. ‘We’re not going into Syria, are we?’
‘Dammed right we’re not,’ and ‘No way Ma’am,’ came back.
Sir Charles tapped the brief. ‘This reports significant civilian casualties, even in the short term.’
‘Leanne says over 170,000 in four years, which – let us remember – is more than Saddam managed in 22 years in charge,’ said Connor. ‘Although we’ve managed to kill more Iraqis than that already with Western sanctions.’
‘Keep to the point, please,’ said the Minister.
‘OK, you remember America’s Vietnam Lesson No. 1,’ said Connor.
‘Never count civilian casualties.’
The Minister turned to the young woman. ‘What do you recommend then?’
‘Away you go, Leanne,’ said Agu. ‘The Minister’s listening.’
‘They never listen,’ said the thin pale woman. ‘You’ll take what I tell you and twist it around.’
‘I won’t use you that way.’
‘I’m already being used that way. The reason you’re here instead of the Foreign Secretary is so he’s got distance from this information. He can say he was never directly told from a source you all agree is credible that this would result in far more civilian deaths than leaving Saddam in place. Or that this action will destabilise a whole region and displace millions of people.’
‘That’s your prediction?’
‘Hundreds, many hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths will be on your conscience, but that’s not what will influence your decision, I know, so, listen up. We would all regret the proposed invasion,’ Leanne left a beat, hunting the room for eye contact, ‘for as far as I can see into the future.’
‘Britain, America, Europe, the West. It will end up being the worst thing you will ever do. DON’T go in!’
‘That’s what The Heron Brief should recommend,’ said Connor. ‘History will show you’re on the wrong side.’
‘You’re telling me a brutal genocidal dictator is the right side!’
‘Saddam didn’t make this pond, we did. That region only hangs together because they’ve got someone to hate. If we take him out –’
‘They’ll hate us,’ finished the Minister.
‘Oh, much much worse,’ said Leanne, ‘they’ll remember that they hate each other.’
The Minister shared a glance with Sir Charles, and then looked around the room. ‘You all believe Leanne’s view is credible.’
Apart from the General the others all nodded.
‘So why aren’t we looking further than four years ahead?’
‘Truthfully?’ asked Connor.
‘Because you don’t like the answer.’
‘Even though it’s true.’
‘Especially because it’s true. Makes what you’re about to recommend unconscionable, illogical, inhuman.’
‘And you,’ the Minister turned to J.J., ‘You’re recommending US troops go into Iraq.’
‘Fraid so Ma’am. George W will only have another two years if he doesn’t act. Short term works for us too; we can’t be seen to sit on our hands.’
‘The brief we’ve been given refers to a specific time-frame,’ said the General. ‘I don’t believe in all of this,’ he struggled for a word, ‘soothsaying; but even so, when it’s put on paper it concludes that over three years we have a successful military campaign, we get Saddam, we put a democracy –’
‘That no-one wants and two-thirds of the country will never believe in,’ interrupted Leanne.
‘A… a regime change in place and the allied casualty count is actually way below current army estimates.’
‘We like those outcomes, Ma’am,’ said J.J.
The minister stood. ‘OK, I’ve got the picture; thank you all, especially you, Leanne.’
She stood, stepped to the door, Sir Charles in her wake.
‘What will you recommend?’ Connor asked.
‘We’re taking down that heron.’
She left. The project team looked at each other. The General emitted a contemptuous laugh, while J.J. shared a sardonic smile with Agu. Connor and Leanne shook their heads in undisguised disdain.
Sir Charles paused at the door, turned, ‘What’s so damned amusing?’ he demanded.
‘She never remotely got it,’ Agu slumped back in his chair. ‘Saddam’s not the heron. We are.’