3rd place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category
Story by Richard Morris
There are a myriad of complex tasks necessary to get a warship alongside. Commander McQueen found the ‘first line’ the most satisfying. When it went across, hurled by a sailor on the forecastle, that uncomfortable weight on his shoulders, the burden of command, seemed a little lighter. One hundred and eighty-eight people on his little frigate, all safe.
He glanced out at the pier from the port bridge-wing, shielding his eyes against the glare. The sun, filtered by the smoke and smog, glowed a sinister red. Exotic East Asia smells wafted with the breeze, bringing with it an uncomfortable foreboding. This was not a respite port. After some brief international engagement, they had to refuel, resupply, and get underway again. The crew knew that. He thought they deserved more; underway for over fifty days since the tensions began. All the while shadowed by their adversary.
They had seemed different this time. Quieter. His ship’s radio calls, courteous mariner ‘Hello’s’, un-answered. He had watched them with his binoculars as they trailed his ship in international waters. No flight-deck physical training. No sailors sunning themselves on the quarterdeck. His equivalent, glassing him from the bridge wing, concealed his face with combat anti-flash.
McQueen turned to his Executive Officer, who was supervising the flight deck evolution from a monitor on the bridge. He was an outstanding navigator once, but had a notorious temper that threatened to spoil great potential.
‘What is it X?’ McQueen asked.
‘They’re on their bloody phones.’ He raged.
McQueen followed his gaze back to the flight deck screen. Amongst the busy sailors tending lines stood one man, stooped in the unmistakable stance of the smart-phone generation.
It looked unprofessional, but that was not the point. It was unsafe. Every single person on that flight deck was essential. Cogs and gears in an immaculate Swiss watch.
The XO about-turned, his fists clenched beside him in frustration.
‘Where are you going X?’ McQueen asked, lifting his pointer finger in caution.
‘To deal with him, Sir.’
‘No.’ He said. ‘I will.’
He made his way below, walking towards the flight deck. The XO had every right to charge the sailor but a more nuanced approach was necessary. McQueen knew the accused well. Vernon, Able Seaman Boatswain. He was a good man, respected by ship’s company. This was out of character. A formal charge would only create paperwork. It was punitive. Failure needed no reinforcement here. Sometimes, a quick tap on the shoulder from the boss, seen by all, was enough.
He walked through the hangar, opening the hatch to the flight deck. The entire quarterdeck team surrounded Vernon, all engrossed with their smart-phones. He halted mid step and watched, aghast. There were lines just sitting there. Unbelievable. McQueen clenched his jaw and put his hands on his hips, his eyes twitching.
One sailor turned around, made eye contact with him for a moment, before turning back to his phone. The gaze punctured his rage, deflating it to empathy. McQueen had seen that look only once before, in the eyes of a young Midshipman washed overboard in heavy seas. Terror.
‘What is it?’ He asked, striding forward.
The small group of sailors parted as he approached. Vernon lifted his head from his phone, tearing his eyes away at the last moment. He was without words.
‘It’s all right.’ McQueen consoled. ‘Show me.’
Vernon handed him the phone, his hands trembling.
It was a video from a social media feed. Grainy and dark, held in the shaky hands of a frightened amateur. The bow of the ship stuck out of the water on a sickening angle, its hull glinting molten red as its innards burned. The smoke from burning oil churned in the wind, revealing, for a moment, a hull number.
‘My god.’ McQueen breathed, turning to face Vernon.
Vernon gulped. ‘Our sister-ship, Sir. It’s everywhere. All over everyone’s news feeds.’
Sailors, black with oil, reached towards the rescue boats, the fires casting sinister shadows over their frail figures. They had been alongside at their home port. No lifejackets on, limited damage control. At least they were not carrying a full magazine. The camera zoomed in on a figure pulled into a boat. A woman. Lifeless, dressed in a torn and tattered tunic. Commander insignia. He recognised her. Sarah Montgomery. Her first command.
McQueen held his hands to his mouth in disbelief. He had been so transfixed by the video that he did not realise that there was audio. He turned the little speaker up as loud as it could go.
‘–came like meteors through the night sky. Without warning. They were ballistic missiles. Their targets; key military and government facilities. Ship’s at anchor, headquarters and airfields. The Prime M–‘
Unashamed sobbing interrupted the audio. McQueen looked over the shoulder of a sailor viewing his smart phone to see a Chief Petty Officer, a burly, rugby-player type with a stiff-upper-lip persona, convulsing in the hangar. He handed the phone to Vernon, striding towards him. A wide-eyed sailor was attempting to console the man to no avail.
‘What’s happened?’ McQueen asked, gesturing towards the wailing giant.
‘H-His wife messaged, Sir.’ He stammered, holding the phone and shrugging.
‘S-She said goodbye Sir.’
‘There’s been no other messages Sir, they…’ the desperation in his voice rose ‘they lived on-base Sir.’
McQueen’s mind flashed at once to his wife and daughters, living in a married-quarters close to base. Perhaps, a similar message awaited him. His heart sank, dark thoughts mingling with the fear in his guts. This was the last time, he had told them. Just one more. Then they would do all the things that normal family’s do. Together. He blinked, collecting himself.
‘Get him below.’ He said.
He turned seaward, clenching his jaw, his mind adrift. This was no time for emotion. There were one hundred and eighty eight people relying on him now. He had gone through twenty years of the most rigorous and demanding training in the world. All theory, until now. His crew’s life, legacy and future, hung in the balance.
He turned to see his Operations Officer, square-jawed and stoic, at-ease behind him. Henderson had the aura of future-star-rank about him. He had already assembled the key staff essential for high-consequence decision making; intelligence, logistics and the engineer.
‘Crisis team assembled Sir and ready to report.’ Henderson said.
McQueen cleared his throat.
‘Very good.’ He replied. ‘Operations room in five minutes please.’
‘Oh and Ops.’ McQueen stopped him. ‘Anything from the Task Group?’ He asked ‘Where are they right now?’
‘We don’t know Sir’ Henderson admitted. ‘Last report was four hours ago.’
‘Already asked Sir,’ He replied. ‘We can’t reach them. Our strategic communications are down.’
McQueen looked to the sky, processing the information. Long range strikes from the enemy. Nothing from the Task Group. No contact with headquarters. Not good. He had to make a call. Stay or go.
He sighed, looking towards the pier. The host nation had arranged a warm welcome for them, bursting with pomp and ceremony. A marching-band, dignitaries and international media. His superiors had told him that his participation in this bi-lateral exercise was essential for ensuring that the adversary did not gain too much influence in the region. He was about to de-rail their plans in spectacular fashion. There was no choice. He had a willing foe, all he needed now was sea room.
‘We’re not staying here.’ He said. ‘Make it so.’
‘Aye aye, Sir.’
In a few moments the high-pitched wail of the gas turbine overpowered the dull throb of the diesel engines. He looked to the exhausts to see a plume of black smoke rising in the air. The message to the host nation was clear. They were leaving. He looked out into the crowd, to the Attaché, watching with mild amusement as his mouth dropped open in surprise. He would have to seek forgiveness, as he could not get permission. Not that it mattered. You can’t get permission from a dead man.
He walked forward towards the Operations room. Henderson had already made several pipes to ship’s company, raising combat readiness levels. McQueen stepped aside in the passageway for a moment as several sailors passed him, carrying the barrel of a heavy machine gun. Their pre-planned responses, honed in the weeks since the tensions began, appeared to be working. He climbed the stairs and entered the compartment.
‘Ops Room!’ A Chief hollered, triggering the sound of a dozen steel-capped boots coming together on the deck.
McQueen went to his chair. He was not one for pomp and ceremony, preferring to shrug off marks of respect but on this occasion, he measured the room. It was busier than usual. Several Regulators and Officers not present at similar meetings. One young Officer, his Logistics man, had glassy eyes.
‘Jones.’ McQueen began. ‘Your family. If you want to-’
‘It’s all right Sir.’ He insisted.
McQueen nodded with respect.
‘At ease everyone.’ He said. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
The intelligence officer spoke first. Lipinski had a book-ish and no-nonsense demeanour.
‘Sir.’ She began. ‘Considering the news feeds from our personal devices, it is clear that the enemy struck our home port six hours ago. Battle damage is unknown, but it looks like they have destroyed at least three Major Fleet Units, with Logistics Support also hit. We don’t have enough information to determine additional targets. Our communications outage could be the symptom of a much larger attack against our higher headquarters and allied communications stations.’
‘I know we have limited information,’ McQueen consoled ‘but I need an assessment.’
‘My assessment is that it was likely a decapitation strike Sir.’ She continued. ‘The enemy has conducted an overwhelming first-strike using long range weaponry, exploiting the element of surprise. It’s what we expected they would do in this contingency. I just–I’m starved for information Sir. I wish I could say more.’
‘That’s ok.’ He consoled. ‘Why didn’t they hit us then?’
‘I think they will try Sir.’ Lipinski said. ‘I think our location, in a neutral port, has saved us from immediate strike with long range weaponry.’
‘Have I made the wrong call then?’ McQueen asked.
‘No, not at all Sir.’ She replied, shaking her head. ‘I just think they have something else planned for us, something more precise. We know that the enemy has significant militia networks here. The threat of sabotage would be too high to remain alongside. The Operations Officer and I support your initial call.’
She nodded to Henderson, who illuminated the tactical display. Their proposed track brought them through a narrow strait.
‘Sir.’ Henderson began. ‘Intelligence shows that two enemy destroyers were last observed in the approaches to the strait here, the last remaining choke point between us and our own waters. They are likely to know we have departed port but unlikely to know where we are going. They represent the most likely threat to us. We would be more worried about submarines but–’ he looked towards Lipinski who gave a thumb-up in approval, ‘we have high confidence that there are no enemy submarines active in the area.’
McQueen tapped his fingers on his chair in thought. His mind was still adrift. He deferred to his default question in such circumstances.
‘What’s your recommendation?’
Henderson reviewed his digital notepad.
‘We need secure communications with headquarters. Military satellite communication is down, as are other long range means. We are less than a day’s sailing from our exclusive economic zone, where we will use shorter range communications, which will have a much higher chance of success.’
‘I like it. Go on.’
Henderson continued, encouraged.
‘The enemy, we assume, is still finding his feet after these initial strikes. I recommend we exploit this early chaos and make best speed for the strait, maintaining high weapons and sensor readiness. If they detect us, we fight our way through. Then we get communications and re-assess.’
McQueen turned to his logistics and engineer.
‘Jones, Engines, any issues with another week underway?’
Both shook their heads.
McQueen surveyed the room once more. He could sense their uncertainty but he could not fault Henderson’s plan.
‘Anything else, Ops?’
Henderson shifted his footing, hesitating.
‘Yes Sir. We have identified a slight anomaly in the combat system.’
‘What is it?’
‘In our proximity Sir.’
McQueen sat up in his chair.
‘How close?’ He asked.
Henderson cleared his throat.
‘Right on top of us Sir. We tried overriding and deleting them. It doesn’t work.’
‘Who is doing it?’
He shrugged. ‘We can’t tell.’
McQueen paused for a moment, thinking. An anomaly in the combat system. A first time in a day of many first times. There would be many more. Combat would test their assumptions, honed in theory and simulation.
‘Henderson, I approve your plan’ McQueen said. ‘Regarding that anomaly, use your best judgment. The enemy has likely penetrated our networks. Any luck with the comms yet?’
Henderson scratched his head. ‘We have an idea, but it isn’t protocol.’ He replied.
‘Protocol ended when they attacked us. Do it.’ McQueen said, rising from his hair. The room went to attention once more.
‘I’ll be in my cabin.’
McQueen had to know. He scrambled for his phone in his cabin, holding it out a porthole to get reception. They were sprinting out of territorial waters and might have already lost mobile coverage. He took a breath, closed his eyes, waiting for a tone, a vibration, anything. A minute later, he jumped as the text came through. A single message. He brought his hand inside, took another deep breath, then turned it over and looked at it. It was from his wife. A single social media message. Only three words.
We are burning
He closed his eyes, his heart-rate rising, then opened them again.
We are burning
He brought the phone back out the port-hole. It was too late. There were out of mobile range. He reached out for the satellite phone, then remembered it was down. He cursed, throwing it across his cabin. He brought his hand to his face, clawing at it in despair. It seemed unbelievable. Those three words. She had always been the one to bring him back down to earth, even in the most desperate of times. He searched for an answer, a correlation, anything that would make it untrue. He brought his shaking hands back to his mobile phone.
We are burning
A deep sense of despair clawed at his insides. It started in his guts, a churning nausea and vertigo. He could not believe it, but in his heart he felt their passing. He looked above his desk and touched the photo. The same family portrait he had looked at on every deployment. Then he wept.
Moments later, the sound of heavy boots on the deck brought him back. He looked to the forward cameras. Several sailors loaded missile decoys into their launchers. He blinked, wiping away a tear. He was not the only man with a family in the firing line. The churning nausea steadied. He stood up, collecting himself, then reached for the main broadcast microphone.
‘This is the Captain.’ He began.
‘In the early hours of this morning, a foreign power attacked our home port. A foreign power we had long suspected of malign intentions but continued to engage in friendly relations. The attack occurred without warning and was therefore immoral, unjustified and illegal.’
He paused, the fury simmering within him, before continuing.
‘The scale of this attack and its overall casualties, remain unclear. However, intelligence suggests the enemy has conducted a decapitation strike against key headquarters and communications facilities. Many of our families are close to these facilities and have been, effected. Including my own.’
‘It is fortunate that we were in mobile phone coverage when the attack occurred, otherwise, with our strategic communications down, it is likely that we would not have known about it, an ignorance the enemy would have sought to exploit. But, as fate would have it, we were, which is why we have survived this long.’
He paused again, contemplating his words.
‘I need you to push concerns about your family to the back of your mind. We can’t protect them. Not from here. The men and women of this ship, however are still under threat. We are still in the fight.’
‘We are making best speed towards our exclusive economic zone, where we will be within range of our land based communications. While we transit there, multiple, capable enemy destroyers, issued orders to eliminate us, will be waiting.’
He took a breath, glancing again at the picture of his family. The simmering fury bubbled over into a white-hot rage.
‘Make no mistake.’ He spat. ‘I will take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of this ship and its crew. This ship will not go down like the others. Not without a fight. If we go down, I assure you that the magazine will be empty and our main gun red-hot. I will stand beside you until the very end.’
‘Take the ship to Action Stations.’ He directed.
He walked into the operations room, pushing past sailors scrambling to put their anti-flash hoods on and man their stations. He pulled a string necklace over his head, finding the correct key, before placing it into a console and turning it. Satisfied, he looked up, to find twenty stunned sailors staring at him. The pause lasted less than a heartbeat, before the frenetic activity resumed. Fire control was now live, with the ships weapons ready to deploy at the press of a button.
The tacticians of his contemporaries would have preferred to remain in the Operations Room, amongst the myriad of combat displays, but it was not his style. His spiritual ancestors had fought and died in these very waters whilst manning the bridge. He would follow their lead. McQueen climbed the stairs.
Over the next few hours, the setting sun illuminated the bridge in a yellow twilight. They sailed on, their fears and anticipation dulled by routine. Then, just as the strait emerged on their radar scopes, the danger materialised.
‘Sir. We are being targeted.’ The Principle Warfare Officer reported from below. 'Standby for correlation.’
McQueen stood from his chair in anticipation.
‘Multiple enemy helicopters Sir.’ Came the report.
‘Certainty?’ McQueen queried.
A short delay.
McQueen blinked, processing the information. No enemy airfields within range. They were naval helicopters, from the enemy destroyers. Somewhere out there lurking undetected, were at least two enemy units, loaded with at least thirty supersonic, sea skimming anti-ship missiles.
He felt Henderson’s presence behind him.
‘Sir.’ He asked, breathing heavily. ‘What are your orders?’
‘They know we’re here, Ops.’ McQueen muttered. ‘They’ve known for a long time.’
‘I agree.’ Henderson replied.
‘Then,’ he turned to him, ‘why are we still alive?’
Henderson shook his head, in a rare display of uncertainty.
‘I don’t know.’ He breathed.
The radio call came on the unsecure channel. Faint, but clear.
‘Frigate transiting through the strait. Comply with our directives. Reduce speed to eight knots and turn to flying course. You have sixty seconds to comply.’
He imagined the attack. The missiles screaming in at wave-top height. Impacting just above the waterline, their fuses delaying the explosion until they had penetrated deep into his ship. Then the hot shrapnel, slicing through bulkheads, punching through metal, flesh. The damage would spray high pressure fuel and oil, which the warhead’s explosion would ignite into a fireball, eviscerating his crew. All in the first second. If it hit the weapons stowage, that would be all that it would take, the secondary explosion splitting his ship in half. He gulped. Maybe his self-defence systems could defeat the first salvo. But there would be a second, then a third.
He could fight back, guessing where they were. It was akin to throwing punches in the dark. The act would assure their annihilation. All for a vain display of futile heroism. He couldn’t.
‘Reduce speed eight knots. Make course one-eight-seven.’ He directed.
The helmsman echoed his orders with practiced efficiency.
‘Sir,’ the XO protested.
‘I just bought us some time, that’s all.’ He consoled.
‘Frigate.’ Came the voice again. ‘Place your Commanding Officer on your sea boat. Coordinates to follow. Prepare to receive my boarding party via embarked helicopter.’
‘What?’ The XO said, his eyes wide with fear. ‘Surrender? They can’t. Sir, you can’t!’
McQueen turned to face the bridge team.
‘Do you want to die here?’ He asked.
Their silence told him everything he needed. There was no choice. He had to go, or his shipmates would perish. He looked at his feet.
‘XO.’ He muttered. ‘We are surrendering. You have the ship.’
‘I go alone.’
Numb, McQueen walked to the boat deck and cast off into the evening twilight, making best speed for the coordinates. He glanced behind him as the silhouette of his ship disappeared over the horizon. The rhythm of the sea boat smashing against the swell became the steady metronome of time. Minutes passed, then half an hour.
The first thing he saw was the smoke. A telltale puff of un-natural air of a man-of-war making way. He watched her materialise like a spectre in the evening haze. Sleek, dark grey and menacing, her radars and weapons systems integrated into her stealthy superstructure. He idled the engine and stood up, dwarfed by the steel beast.
On board the frigate, Henderson stood back in surprise as his information feed-reactivated, populating his display with hundreds of messages.
‘Were back.’ He breathed, then pointed to the display. ‘It must have been an issue with the satellite.’
He studied the information cascading before him.
‘Fleet is online.’ He observed. ‘They must have made repairs after the attack.’
Lipinski’s eyes narrowed.
‘No. No, there’s something else.’ She said.
‘What?’ Henderson asked.
‘I can’t find anything’ She said, the desperation in her voice growing as she trawled through her feed. ‘Nothing about the attacks. Not on the news, or on strategic networks.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Henderson said. ‘The messages, the videos.’
‘I think we’ve made a huge mistake.’ Lipinski realised. ‘It looks like someone put us in the dark and fed us a lie. Did you see anything else outside of your smart-phone?’
Henderson shook his head.
“I-I don’t believe it.’ He said. ‘What are they trying to do, start a war?’
Lipinski’s eyes narrowed on her feed.
‘I don’t know but it gets worse.’ She said. ‘Look what’s trending on the news.’
She highlighted and enlarged the article.
Rogue Frigate Defects to the Enemy
‘I-I don’t understand.’ Henderson admitted. ‘That’s not true.’
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s trending.’ Lipinski replied. ‘Somebody’s playing us.’
‘Get the Captain back!’ Henderson ordered, as a communicator scrambled for the radio.
‘It’s not an anomaly’ he realised, pointing at the combat system ‘the Task Group is designating us as hostile!’
‘Sir,’ a sailor reported from his console. ‘Enemy helicopters approaching, should we engage?’
‘No! Henderson yelled. ‘No. We’re not at war! Stand down!’
On the sea-boat, the radio crackled. McQueen brought it to his mouth but stopped. As he had reached down, the destroyer’s automatic chain gun slewed and locked on to him.
‘Defector!’ A broadcast voice yelled from the destroyer. ‘Stand where you are with your hands above your head!’
‘Defector?’ McQueen said, confused. ‘No. I–’
Back on the frigate, Lipinski and Henderson watched as two enemy helicopters flared above the deck.
‘What do we do?’ Lipinski asked. ‘What is this?’
‘It’s too late to do anything.’ Henderson replied, looking to the forward camera. A team of the enemy’s commandos fast-roped onto the deck. He turned to Lipinski, the realisation dawning on him.
‘They have hijacked us.’