Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, the second book in Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, is out today. And on this auspicious occasion, Cole wishes to think on subjects like competence, training, preparation and readiness — and what happens when life takes all of those things and just chucks them out the window.
Life’s got a way of throwing us curve balls.
You get 20 years or so to build a career, become a veritable expert in your field, undisputed master of your domain. You’ve got this shit down. Nobody, but nobody has more contacts, a better instinct or more natural talent than you do at . . . assessing properties. Making donuts. Putting out fires. Whatever. You’ve reached the pinnacle of whatever it is.
Which is precisely when your boss runs into your office. You’re desperately needed to handle a critical project. Everyone else has been suddenly carried off by flying saucers mysteriously targeting only your department. You’re the only one left. It’s up to you. And this critical project? It’s in another department, one you’ve never had anything to do with. Suddenly, you’re a novice, in way over your head, with everyone counting on you to get it right.
Dramatic, huh? It happens all the time. It happened to Lieutenant John Chard, an engineering officer sent to fix a bridge near a mission station on the Buffalo River in what was then known as Natal. He was great at his job: you know, bridge fixing. Sure, the British army did other things, like fight wars, but that wasn’t his real job.
It became his job, when he found himself the ranking officer in charge of the garrison at that mission station, some 150 soldiers, most of them convalescing. Surrounding them were 4,000 Zulus, not at all pleased with British colonial ambitions in their lands.
Chard didn’t want the job, wasn’t ready for the job. He’d done everything right, studied hard, been an upstanding citizen and loyal servant of the crown. He didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t fair.
We have a saying in the Coast Guard: “The sea doesn’t care about you.” In Chard’s case, neither did the garrison, who looked to him to lead them. Neither did the Zulu, who were determined to use him as an example of what would happen to those who sought to colonize them. Neither did the wind or the air or the waving grass. Chard could have cursed and spit and cried. He could have beat his breast and shouted to the heavens, called God to account. But none of that would have helped, so he didn’t.
He dug in and fought. He closed his eyes, grit his teeth and put one foot in front of the other.
And when he’d opened them again, he’d won.
Granted, that’s an extremely dramatized/simplified version of events, but drama is what us storytellers are after. The Battle at Rorke’s Drift fascinates me. Not because of the tactics, or the gear, or the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa. What fascinates me most is the story of a man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.
In Fortress Frontier, I ask that question. What is the secret ingredient that makes some people shrug their shoulders in a crisis? What allows some of us to simply say, “I’ll figure it out,” when others go to pieces? It’s a question we love to ask, if genre stories are any indicator. Luke Skywalker joins a rag-tag rebel alliance in what seems a hopeless resistance against an all-powerful empire. Frodo lugs the soul-poisoning ring of power into the dark lord’s backyard, with the largest army ever seen standing between him and his goal. Alone. And did I mention he’s like three feet tall? Taran doesn’t even make it to full pig-keeper (he’s still an assistant) before he’s called to battle the greatest evil the land has ever known.
They have their failures, the moments they take a knee, try to set their burden aside. But they always get up again. They always take up the one ring, or their father’s light saber, or the burden of command. They close their eyes like Chard did, putting one foot in front of another. They don’t know how they’ll make it work, recognize the strong chance that they won’t.
But they go forward anyway.
Because. Sometimes, you win.