A rambler finds more than he was expecting when he gets lost on Salisbury Plain.
The rambler strode out across Salisbury Plain. He had the whole of his long weekend mapped out, literally. He had his OS Explorer Map 130 neatly stowed in a side pocket. He had carefully studied the various footpaths and bridleways, and knew exactly how he would be spending the next 72 hours.
Last night he had carefully laminated his annotated map just in case the weather changed and he needed to refer to it in the rain. The chances of that actually happening were remote; his eidetic memory making actually looking at the map again unnecessary. But you couldn't be too careful, could you? With his full backpack, high visibility tabard, professional hiking boots, and alpine walking poles, he was certainly something to observe.
The rambler had not been going more than 20 minutes before he turned a corner, and came across something totally unexpected. A large olive green tank complete with camouflage netting and gun. The rambler stopped dead in his tracks.
It wasn't a tank per se that was unexpected. He knew he was near MOD property. He knew the British army regularly carried out manoeuvres here. He had been very careful to note where all the tank crossing points were. What was unexpected was this particular tank. It was a T-72 Ural, from Soviet era Russian.
The rambler knew the tank's make and model immediately. Military transport was something that the rambler knew about. In great detail. It was one of many things, in fact, that the rambler knew about, in great detail. He knew this particular tank would have been built in the early 1970s in Nizhny Tagil. The netting would have been added later. The camouflage had been specially chosen blend in with heather, dark shrubs and sandy banks. Judging by its slow speed, it was clearly in stealth mode. And given that the British army used only Chieftains or Discoveries, it was out of place.
What was a Russian tank doing in Wiltshire, so close to Porton Down, in the summaer of 2018? The rambler decided he had to find out.
He found it easy to both keep up with the tank and keep in its blind spot. It made various turns and left the main path on several occasions. It paused several times, and when it did so, the gun turret twisted slowly on its axis and swept high into the sky and then back down again before continuing. The rambler was concentrating so hard on keeping up with the tank and keeping hidden that he eventually lost track of where he was.
Finally the tank stopped. The rambler remained in the shadow of the trees. He heard a metallic creak and then saw the hatch on top of the turret begin to lift. From where he was standing he could see the head and shoulders of a man emerge. He could also see that the man was holding a pair of binoculars, which he raised to his eyes and scanned the horizon. Suddenly he heard radio static. The man in the tank reached inside and brought out a radio handset.
The rambler went in close and heard a voice. He tried hard to listen, had no choice. The man on the tank pressed a button on the handset and replied. The rambler crept ever closer. He could hear their words, but the conversation was in a foreign language and was meaningless to him, until he heard the tank driver's last two words before putting the radio handset down: "Da svidania!"
A chill went down the rambler's spine. His heart started pounding: Boom boom boom. He had spent his gap year before university hiking across Europe. Before he set out, he'd made a point of learning certain key phrases to help him on his journey. As a result he could say, amongst other things: "Hello", "Good bye", and "a local beer, please" in 27 european languages, including Basque. Although that was ten years ago, he instantly knew that the tank driver had just signed off in Russian.
He now quickly put it all together: Salisbury Plain, an out-moded tank, surveillance, and Russian operatives. With this information, coupled with his overactive imagination, he concluded it could mean only one thing: Novichok!
There had been two Novichok attacks earlier in the year and the police investigations had failed to make any headway. Top UK scientists had approached their Russian peers, but and received short shrift in return. Traditional dipomatic channels had similarly borne no fruit. The perpetrators of the attacks had simply vanished. But now, he'd found one of them. How clever to hide in one the largest training facilities of the British army.
But what should he do now? The Russian appeared to be on his own. When he'd spoken on the radio, and now while once again viewing the countryside through his binoculars, there was no sound coming from within the tank. His best option would be to strike while the tank was still stationary. He looked down at his alpine walking poles. Perhaps he could quietly clamber onto the tank, sneak up behind him, and poke him in the back with it and pretend it was a gun. Once apprehended, he could alert the appropriate authorities. If that failed, he could always bat him over the head with the pole.
The first part of the plan went better than expected. As he climbed silently onto the tank, stretching every nerve, he suddenly recalled another of the key phrases that he'd learned. He got within feet of the man in the tank, pushed the alpine walking pole into the back of his neck, and said in perfect Russian: "You are under arrest!"
But then it all started to unravel. Just as the man in the tank's hands shot in the air in submission, from behind the rambler came an authoritative command given in a loud estuary English accent: "Put down your weapon."
The rambler turned his head to see a semi-circle of eight soldiers, each wearing full combat uniform and each pointing a weapon at him.
"Yes, you in the firefighter's vest. Put down your weapon and put your hands in the air."
"I've apprehended this man," the rambler said. "I believe he's..."
"Do it!" the soldier interrupted, sharply.
The rambler complied.
"You in the tank. What are you doing here?"
"My name Dr Ivan Stanislovich," replied the man in the tank nervously in heavily accented English. "I searching for Boris."
"You see," said the rambler. "He's a Russian spy."
"No no no. Not spy. I'm horny theologist."
"You're a horny what?" asked the soldier.
"Horny theologist," the man repeated. He waved his binoculars. "I'm searching for Boris. Boris Steppe Eagle."
"Sir," said one of the semi-circle of soldiers. "I think he may mean 'ornithologist'. And Boris is that bloody eagle that keeps escaping. He's meant to be down in Dorset scaring seagulls off of the landfill site, but keeps flying off."
"Yes, yes," said the man from the tank excitedly and started to flap his arms as if they were wings. "I search for Boris the bloody Steppe Eagle. This is perfect mobile hide." He patted the side of the aging tank affectionately. "I permitted," he continued and reached into his jacket. Several soldiers cocked their weapons, but then relaxed again when the man brought out a piece of paper and handed it to the commanding officer, who quickly read through it.
"Well that all seems to be in order, Dr Stanislovich. Thank you." He gave the permit back to the scientist. He then returned his attention to the rambler.
"And who might you be?"
"Gabriel Peterson, I'm..."
"Mr Peterson," the commanding officer said. "You're under arrest for trespassing."
"But I have a right to roam."
"Not on MOD property."
Gabriel looked around him. He suddenly realised just how far he'd strayed.
"But what about him?" he complained, pointing at the man in the tank.
"He has a permit. You have no right to be here. But you do, however, have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say may be taken down and used against you should your case come to court."
Gabriel didn't remain silent as they took him in for questioning. He wasn't nicknamed the rambler for nothing!
Gabriel spent the afternoon locked up in the holding cell at Devises Police Station. He would have been there a lot longer had it not been for one of the cadre of soldiers who thought that his name sounded vaguely familiar. A phone call later had confirmed it.
Half an hour later, Gabriel's guardian angel arrived in the form of his mother. She spoke at length to the arresting officer, confirming that her son was a high-functioning autist who was well meaning, but prone to being somewhat over-zealous when it came to matters of law and order. They shared a chuckle when she relayed how Gabriel had once performed a citizen's arrest on the Lord Mayor when he'd emerged from a jewellery shop wearing full ceremonial chains. "How was I supposed to know he'd not stolen them?"
The policeman nearest to the holding cell was only too happy to get rid of Gabriel - the man never stopped talking. He'd hoped that providing him with afternoon tea might serve to shut him up, but sadly not. He now knew much more than he ever thought possible about, amongst other things, shipping areas and forecasts, light aircraft in the First World War, and the monorail system in Japan.
Gabriel was halfway through an apple pie when his cell door opened. He looked up to see his mother standing there.
"Grab your things," she said. "I've come to take you home."
Inspired by the following Decamot items: estuary, firefighter, bat, windmill, rambler, jewellery shop, tank, apple pie, monorail, peer, and a certain pop song!