Fiction Topic Week
By Hal Wilson
“Is Jim in?” he asked, red-faced and dripping rain.
The front door underlined his question, slamming shut as abruptly as he had arrived.
“Hello Carl!” the kindly, old receptionist beamed. The question was redundant, but politeness demanded it; they both knew Carl was on-site. He was one of their few staff not already called up for the front. “What’s the matter?”
“Call him up, will you? There’s something urgent.”
She frowned – picked up her phone and dialled Jim’s line. He could hear the internal line bleep patiently, once, twice, three times… It ceased as the connection was made.
“Got a visitor,” she explained, “it’s Carl, something urgent for you… OK.”
She set the phone down.
“He’ll be up in a moment,”
Carl paced by the door, as if that could make time pass more swiftly.
He was an ageing man; hiding a modest paunch and greying hair. But he had an ex-rugby prop’s broad frame, and energy enough that people mistook him for greater youth. The receptionist, watching him, knew what was on his mind: the new arrival to town. Everyone was talking about it.
“Carl!” boomed a voice from the back of the room.
It was Jim, smiling as he heaved open a back door. Machine-sound and solvent smells followed; the essence of grinding metal and chemical cleaners; the natural home for maritime engineers like Jim. Brushing strips of swarf from his coverall, Jim shook Carl’s meaty paw.
“How’s it been in the sales team? Keeping busy?”
“How do you like the idea of some war work?” Carl replied.
“We already have contracts with…” Jim paused. “Wait. You mean they need…”
“They do,” Carl interrupted, taking Jim by the arm, “come on.”
Outside, the rain assaulted in thick drifts from the leaden sky. They hurried past the storage yard, where coffee-coloured steel tubes were stacked like so much timber. Soaked to the skin, they bundled into Carl’s car.
“Any details about the job?” Jim asked, checking for his old-style pen and paper. The car sputtered alive, and they set off down the rain-slick road, heedless of the speed limit.
“Nothing yet,” was the answer, “I’m no good with technicalities anyway.”
“True enough,” Jim agreed.
They crossed the Great Ouse River on the back of a Victorian bridge, crenellated with iron gargoyles weeping in the deluge. The broad, brown waters of the river blurred by, giving way to the town along its banks. Here huddled lengths of terraced homes, lights burning in their windows as they waited out the storm. Much like the rest of these isles.
“How’s it been, anyway?” Jim asked, fumbling for small-talk with some engineers, his social skills left something to be desired.
“What? I only saw you last week.”
“Well, just asking…”
“I’m fine,” Carl sighed, relenting, “just worried about the boys.”
“Still no word?” Jim ventured cautiously. The news from the east was grim. Estonia: gone, and with it some thousand British soldiers. Germany: ‘de-escalating’ – a betrayal, garbed in Teutonic politeness. All the while, Kaliningrad still held out.
Carl said nothing.
They drove on, through the heart of the old hanseatic town.
Here, they passed the Elizabethan gates of ochre ashlar, which once resisted Cromwell. There, they passed the town hall, built in the days of Drake. It had the aspect of a cathedral and a skin of chequered flint, declaring SEMPER EADEM above its door. Cobblestones rumbled beneath their wheels, and the narrow streets narrowed yet more until, at last, the river reappeared before them.
Carl pulled up in the lee of the old Customs House, sandstone-chiselled with all Wren’s hallmarks. Alabaster-capped by its Roman cupola, it watched them anxiously.
“Let’s go,” Carl directed, braving the rain once more.
The downpour took them eagerly, hungrily, like a lusting lover; they could only shiver as sharp winds embraced them also, sweeping in off the Wash. Together they hustled to a nearby quay, frantic as they rushed down its length. At the far end, they scrambled aboard a waiting boat.
“Glad you boys could make it.”
It was Steve, the town ferryman, cocooned in waterproofs and greeting them at the rail.
Steve shook them by the hand (for they were each old friends), and they felt the warmth in his ever-calloused palms; saw the glint of eagerness in his hooded eyes. His craft was an open-sided, flat-bottomed thing, ideal for these tidal flats. Without another word, Steve got them underway. His two passengers could only shudder and stamp their feet – the wind was even fiercer down on the water.
And they had a fight on their hands. The ferry would normally glide to its landing stages on the easy tides of a river that – as befitting its name – often simply oozed. But now it braved the face of the afternoon tide. The waters were racing in with express-train ferocity, while miniature whitecaps frothed and broke amid the tawny waters. At the wheel, Steve simply stood like a statue, sharp eyes peering for detail. Stamping their feet, Carl and Jim could only curse the north wind, grabbing stanchions as the ferry bellied against every wave.
Suddenly, from starboard, motion drew their eyes. A pair of black-winged Cormorants cruised carelessly by, skimming scant centimetres above the rushing waters. The two passengers followed them with their gaze, taking in the town as the birds flew upstream: rain-slick roofs gleamed like gemstones as the sun struggled through low clouds above. Under each patch of shining slate peered the ivory-white outlines of windowpanes, each one tracking them with bated breath. Farther upstream, the port’s grain silo was half-swallowed by the concrete cloud, leaving a corrugated stump to the eye.
The town was a good place for the soul, by all accounts. But it was also scared.
Anyone looking upriver could understand why. Garbed in rusting blue, moored alongside the port, was the SCOTS KESTREL. It was just one of the grain bulkers marooned at the town over the last weeks. Beyond the port’s entrance lock were another two docks. Hidden behind the agribulk sheds, both were filled to capacity with millions upon millions in lost revenue.
There were steel-carriers, timber-ships and coal-haulers. All languished immobile. Each was waiting. Waiting – either for the order to convoy or for their insurers to resume trading. Whichever came first; as their old Baltic routes were best avoided for now.
Just as concerning was the newest arrival. It was anchored mid-river for lack of harbour berths.
Its flanks were gunmetal grey, with a bladelike bow and squat bridge amidships. Immediately aft was the ship’s mast, complete with swirling radar and hedgehog-spine aerials. Farther aft were crane assemblies dangling fast boats – and, behind them, a vacant helicopter pad. It flew the White Ensign, to be sure, but the ship gave no confidence. Not for Carl, at any rate.
It was shot through with rust. It was small. And it was alone. Carl could spot only one weapon aboard. It was some trifling pop-gun cannon, mounted on an open platform.
Insane, he decided. Who would sail in that thing?
“Almost there now,” Steve announced, rousing Carl from his frigid musings. Ahead, he noticed, the port-side crane was stirring at their approach, lowering one of the ship’s boats into the river. A member of the ship’s company stood astride, waving for them to approach. Steve angled his ferry until it was close alongside, gesturing with a flick for Jim and Carl to go.
Lieutenant Commander Hart breathed deep, closing his eyes for a brief moment.
The Russian had made it far too close.
He could still see the torpedo track in his mind, still hear the collective gasp of his bridge crew as it detonated late – on the far side of their helpless ship. Perhaps some Russian technician got sloppy. Perhaps some electronics failed at that one critical moment. Either way, terror had laid a dread hand on Hart’s shoulder, only to pull away. He exhaled, trying to harness this emotion. He would have to inspire some terror of his own in the P8 sub-hunters who dropped the ball. The useless pricks.
And then there was Keegan, the poor bastard. But that was something else entirely.
The bridge deckhead felt somehow oppressively low; the air itself seemed lifeless, as if robbed of its oxygen. He had the LED lighting off for now – its glare brought on headaches after enough hours – leaving the space with the half-dead ambience of the cloudy sky outside. But with the ship lying at anchor, its engines were still. Their comms, for now, had ceased their babble. It was quiet, at last. Praise God, it was quiet.
In the momentary peace, tea mug in hand, Hart idly pursued some mental mathematics.
Five day patrol – five times twenty-four: one hundred and twenty.
Deduct sleep – five times two, or three? Call it two-point-five… twelve-point-five.
And the shakeup at Pompey? Let’s say two times twenty four, minus six… forty-two.
One hundred twenty plus forty-two… minus, what was it? Twelve point five? Bloody hell…
Hart rubbed at his eyes, despairing. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t finish his mental gymnastics. Even so, it confirmed what he already knew: this endurance was a young man’s game.
But then, if not him to command this ship, then who?
All his friends in the fleet, men and women he had known since the early days at Dartmouth, were already committed. Each and every one. Every colleague he knew, through almost two decades in the Service, was either deployed or holding down countless shore jobs in the absence of the rest. There were too few hulls, and not enough crews for those they had anyhow. The last Hart saw, one of the old Type 23s was still by Portsmouth’s No. 1 Basin, just waiting for hands to sail her.
“Sir,” came a voice, stirring him back to life. It was Lieutenant Asher, his second-in-command.
“Number One.” He hoped she had missed his moment of weakness.
“The civilians are on the water,” she reported, “we should have them on board shortly.”
“Good. Ensure they only see the engineering spaces. And avoid talking about Keegan, if you can.”
“Of course, sir.” Asher understood the subtext. Don’t let them realise how strung out we are.
“And when you’re done with them, report back to me. We need to discuss magazine access.”
Asher saluted and exited onto the bridge wing. Heading aft, she drew her weatherproof smock close against the rain. Hart was tired – she had seen through his façade at once.
It was no surprise. The older generations avoided the EverReady stim-pills that kept her going longer. She spat in despair. She needed Hart at 100 percent: her own seagoing experience was nowhere close to his, and she knew it. It was down to him that they survived the last patrol – barely – but his reserves were spent.
Just like Keegan.
“Keep taking the bloody pills,” she muttered.
As soon as Carl and Jim were aboard the ship’s fast boat, the sailor waved for the crane operator to hoist them back up. Unsteady, the two bent their knees and hoped to save themselves embarrassment. The sailor regarded them as if they were drunk.
“You the engineer?” he asked, raising his voice above the wind. Carl noticed the sailor was young: incredibly young. There was no hiding the boyish face, despite his easy pose and deep voice.
Almost the age of my boys, he realised. Jim nodded in reply to the sailor.
“Lieutenant Asher will take you in,” the boy replied.
He pointed to a figure waiting at the ship’s rail, wrapped in a foul-weather smock. Carl and Jim looked sidelong at each other as the hoist thunked their boat back into place.
“Gents,” the figure called, “follow me.”
Jim started as he realized the figure was a woman. She regarded them with disdainful black eyes, almost as severe as the bun tying back her auburn hair.
“Are you Lieutenant Asher?” Carl asked, pretending to ignore his friend’s awkwardness.
“Come on,” she sighed, “time is a factor.”
They hurried along the waterlogged upper decks, ducking through an awkward doorway. Mercifully, the wind remained outside. But the ship’s narrow passageways were bathed in the clinical glare of LEDs, as though they were entering a surgeon’s operation. Ahead, Asher was already racing down the ship’s vertiginous ladder. Unsure of themselves, the two men lingered at the top. The treads were narrow, slickened by the raindrops from Asher’s passage. The climb was slow and treacherous; more than once, Carl felt he was about to slip.
Together below, Asher led them deeper into the ship’s guts. The engine room, lined with silvery heat-cladding, was deserted; its single gangway was flanked by two van-sized diesel blocks. Carl looked about himself, confused by light-studded consoles; looming extractor vents; labyrinthine pipes swirling around the engines.
“Here,” Asher pointed, “this is what we need you checking out.”
Looking over Jim’s shoulder, Carl understood little of what he saw.
“What, the shaft generator?” Jim asked, peering closer.
“No, that. That thing – there.”
Carl looked across at Asher, confused. How can she not understand her own machinery?
“Excuse me, Lieutenant, are you not the onboard engineer?”
Asher paused, hesitant. Crouched on his haunches, Jim looked up at her in curiosity.
“No. Keegan, our MEO – Marine Engineering Officer… he fell. Broke his neck where we came down earlier.”
“Good god,” Carl gasped, thinking back to his own unsteady climb, “I’m so sorry to hear.”
Asher nodded thanks.
“We suffered some damage in our last patrol,” she explained, “a shockwave from close in on the port side. It’s caused some damage to our propulsion. But Keegan’s deputy had to stay ashore with some kind of duodenal, and we don’t have our usual complement of senior technical rates. So, without Keegan, we don’t know how to fix it. At this rate, we’ll be doing bare steerageway all the way home.”
“Where’s the Machinery Control Room? Have you checked the switchboards, the DC links?” Jim asked, looking around.
“Yes, our artificers did thorough tests. No wider system faults.”
Producing his pen and paper, Jim scribbled urgent notes.
Carl, no engineer himself, only loosely understood what was being discussed. He watched as Jim rolled his sleeves and made closer, painstaking observations. Minutes passed as he gave running commentary to Asher – as if she could understand, either.
“The shaft pedestal is OK, by the looks of things… Maybe it’s the flanges… No, no, it’s misalignment! Maybe from the shockwave you mentioned.” He span around, locking eyes with Asher.
“Look, I’m eyeballing it here, but I reckon the jacking screws are misaligned. That’s going to overload your bearings. But we may have caught it before they need replacing.”
Asher glanced at Carl, out of her depth.
“What are our next steps?”
“I want a second opinion,” Jim said, “let me go talk to my guys and we’ll get you a proposal in a few hours. I reckon we can replace the jacking screws for a temporary fix. Then it’s over to your guys in Pompey for a deeper look. The shockwave may have caused all sorts. Hull flexing, you name it.”
“Hard to say. But we’ve got stocks on hand, what with all those docked ships deferring MRO work.”
Carl smiled, proud for his friend. Jim was in his element.
And, better yet, it was another sale to boost Carl’s own quarterly numbers.
“Lieutenant Asher,” he beamed, “sounds to me like you’re in luck.”
Lingering at the bridge windows, Lieutenant Commander Hart watched the local ferry leaving. The two passengers looked pleased with themselves. Hart gave silent thanks for the luck of reaching this place – they might yet make it to Portsmouth after all.
“How long?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder as Asher returned to the bridge.
“They’ll have a proposal for us soon. Beyond that he wouldn’t say. But he was confident.”
“What did you tell them about Keegan? They must have asked about our own engineer team.”
“I said he fell, sir. Broke his neck.”
“Hmmm. Better than the truth.”
“You said you wanted to discuss small arms magazine access?”
“Just so,” Hart said, knocking back the last of his tea. “Keegan should never have gotten access to that pistol. And how did we not see how he was headed for a breakdown?”
“We all are, sir.”
Hart set down his mug, as if it had grown suddenly too heavy. Asher watched him, hesitant.
“A friend of ours just shot himself, Asher. Without him, we were almost disabled. Don’t be flippant.”
“Sir, I’m deadly serious. We’re not going to last another patrol like this. Sooner or later, the P8 fliers will miss another contact. And then we won’t be submarine bait. We’ll be dead.”
Hart shot her a frosty glance. It softened almost at once. She was right, after all. He reached into a pocket, pulled free a signal message – fresh off the printer.
“I can’t argue with that. But I can give you good news. Read this.”
Asher looked across the message in front of her.
“From COMUKMARFOR,” she read, “return to HMNB Portsmouth for emergency refit and installation of Battle AI. Report ETA and LOGREQ!” Asher looked up, grinning for the first time in a long time. Hart was smiling right back at her.
“Number One, chase up our Navigating Officer, then have a word with the logistics rates. Tell them HMS KENNET is headed home.”
Hal Wilson explores future warfare challenges through narrative and fiction, and has been published by the Small Wars Journal. He has written finalist entries for fiction contests held by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, as well as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Hal lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry.
He graduated in 2013, with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is now studying a masters degree in the History of Britain in the First World War.
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