Knaves over queens, p.26
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.26

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  There were other sailors taking fag-breaks on the weather passageway, but they all kept a respectful distance from Rory and Major Singh. They were both aces and Silver Helix agents, but Singh was also an Army major, and to a professional sailor, staff officers were just a rank or two below the Almighty, even the ones from a different service. Rory appreciated the privacy perks his probationary Silver Helix status afforded him, because even on a warship as large as Hermes, space was a precious commodity.

  The speakers up on the flight deck blared their announcement tone.

  ‘Now hear this: we are now entering the Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands declared by Her Majesty’s government. From this point on, there will be no drills. If you hear the action stations alert, it will be the real thing. Stand fast and do your duty. Announcement ends.’

  Rory and Major Singh exchanged glances. Singh sighed and put his hand on the hilt of his kirpan.

  Above, a pair of Harrier jump jets took off from the flight deck with their engines at ear-splitting full throttle. They came into view when they cleared the front of the flight deck ramp and turned west, then started the ascent to begin their combat air patrol, position lights blinking. Rory saw that both jets had missiles under their wings, white-painted war shots instead of the blue exercise missiles he usually saw on the Royal Navy’s Harriers. The sight of the live missiles increased the feeling of dread he had been nursing for a while. They were a wartime navy now.

  ‘So it begins,’ Major Singh said. ‘Let us hope it ends quickly. For their sake and ours.’

  As the flagship of the task force, Hermes had a flag bridge. This was where the task force commander and his staff had their duty stations as they directed the dozens of Royal Navy and auxiliary vessels in the fleet headed for the Falklands, and Rory was the most junior officer in the room by age as well as rank. There were consoles and plotting tables and lots of ratings busy at all of them. Rory felt like the third wheel on a bicycle in this room, and only the fact that he and Major Singh had been ordered here specifically by the task force commander put him at ease. He still wasn’t used to being a command asset instead of a simple console jockey, and he doubted he would ever think of himself that way.

  ‘Hermes is on station, and we shall remain at spear length from the islands,’ Admiral Woodward told the assembled officers. The plotting table in the centre of the flag bridge had a map of the theatre under a sheet of Plexiglas, and the admiral tapped a spot to the northeast of the Falklands with a grease pencil. ‘It is my intent to send on the frigates and destroyers to provide an anti-aircraft and anti-submarine screen for Hermes and the invasion transports, and prepare the landings as we make progress against the opposition. Winter weather is coming, and our timetable is accordingly strict. If we do not have air superiority by mid-May or troops on the ground by the end of the month, conditions will not favour any further military operations.’

  Rory looked out of the porthole on the hatch behind him. Outside, the rain had slacked off a little, but it still looked like the worst weather Scotland had to offer. If this wasn’t winter weather yet, they were in for trouble. He couldn’t quite understand how anyone would live in a climate like this, much less fight over it.

  ‘At no point will Hermes conduct operations closer than two hundred miles from the Falklands. I realize that this greatly limits the combat range of our Harriers, but this ship is too valuable to risk. There’s not a pilot in the Argentinian air force who wouldn’t love to put a few Exocets into her and win the war with the press of a button.’

  There were murmurs of agreement, but clearly not every officer in the room seemed to concur with the admiral’s assessment. The naval airmen in particular looked less than happy. ‘The Harriers have short legs as it is, sir,’ one of the squadron commanders said. ‘The lads will have very little loitering time over the battlefield.’

  ‘Then we had best hurry and take the runway at Port Stanley. But this ship will be kept well away from the islands. If the Argentine air force sinks her they win the war, and we lose half of the Royal Navy’s force projection capabilities.’ Admiral Woodward turned and looked at Rory. ‘And that’s where you come in, Sub-Lieutenant.’

  ‘Sir?’ Rory felt intensely uncomfortable with the sudden undivided attention of so many staff officers.

  ‘Your job on this deployment is to do whatever you have to do to make sure that no enemy plane or missile gets close to Hermes.’ The admiral looked at Major Singh and back at Rory. Then he sighed and shook his head. ‘Admiral Fieldhouse asked the Silver Helix for force multipliers,’ he said. ‘He emphasized the critical nature of this operation for our national interest and prestige. I believe he even badgered the Prime Minister. Repeatedly. And they send two men. One of them an acting sub-lieutenant on probationary status with the Silver Helix. Hardly the war-changing arsenal of special abilities I had hoped for.’

  Rory had only met the admiral in person once, at the end of a briefing back in Northwood naval headquarters before the task force sailed. He had decided on the spot that he didn’t like the man. He was abrasive and didn’t seem to care one bit whether he gave offence, and emphasizing the acting in Rory’s rank meant he was patronizing both Rory’s Silver Helix membership status and his military rank in one sentence.

  ‘Well, it is what it is, I suppose,’ Admiral Woodward continued before Rory or Major Singh could reply. ‘Major Singh will be going with the Royal Marines once the landings begin. We will be needing your abilities sooner, Sub-Lieutenant. Where do you need to be when action stations sound?’

  ‘I need to see the target, sir,’ Rory replied. ‘Line of sight, the longer the better. A line to the radar room so they can point me towards incoming threats. And a few sailors with binoculars to share the watch with me. In case I miss something.’

  ‘If we’re under attack, they will come in low and fast to avoid our radar. Intelligence says they mainly have Skyhawks armed with general purpose bombs, so they will have to do a terminal climb before they drop. Those we can handle with the Harriers and the Seacats. But they also have a few French Super Etendards with those blasted sea-skimming Exocet missiles. If the frigates and the destroyer picket don’t get those, you’ll be the last line of defence other than our Seacat launchers.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Let me make one thing clear about your rules of engagement, Sub-Lieutenant.’ Admiral Woodward tapped his fingers on the hard surface of the plotting table. ‘Disable or destroy whatever comes our way, whether the Seacats launch at it or not. Bloody things are too slow for Exocets anyway. If it comes down to it, you are to use area-of-effect EMP. I don’t care if all the lights and radios on this ship go out as long as we don’t have a few hundred pounds of high explosive warhead going through our hull and lighting up thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. Is that understood?’

  ‘Yes, sir,’ Rory replied. He knew that if he let loose an unfocused electromagnetic pulse burst with all his might, he would disrupt more than just lights and radios. Part of him almost wanted to have an excuse to do that, just to see what it would do to the superior expression of the admiral to find himself on an aircraft carrier with every single electronics circuit shut down.

  ‘Very well,’ Admiral Woodward said. ‘I’ll see to it that you get all the personnel and binoculars you need. Place yourself wherever you see fit. But don’t get in the way on the flight deck.’ He rapped the plotting table with his knuckles. ‘Five days ago, we took South Georgia back from the enemy. The Royal Marines got off to a good start on this one. Now we will do our part. Let’s get on with it, gentlemen.’

  Rory’s first day at war was far less exciting and eventful than he had anticipated. They were two hundred miles from the Falklands and far out of reach of the Argentinian air force bases on the mainland, so the odds of an air raid were low. The Harriers flew regular combat patrols towards the islands, and the destroyers and frigates in the task force had started their screening deployment, interposing themselves between
the valuable carriers and the likely directions of attack. Rory took up his post on top of Hermes’ island superstructure, high above the flight deck, to get a feel for his new action station. He could move from one side of the island to the other in short order to get a full 360-degree view of the ocean surrounding Hermes, but the top of the island was also the highest point of the carrier other than her radar masts and funnel tops, and the South Atlantic wind up here was like an ice-cold hand pushing him around. The sailors assigned to the watch with him had been excited at first, but two hours of scanning the austere grey seascape with binoculars in the cold wind had dampened their excitement somewhat. Rory didn’t know what Major Singh was doing right now, but he knew that the major would go with the marines of the invasion force when the time came. Whatever he was up to, he was down in the dry, warm ship somewhere instead of wiping freezing spray off binocular lenses.

  The flight deck was packed from bow to stern with aircraft and equipment. Hermes had taken on more helicopters than she was designed to carry in her regular complement, in anticipation of Argentine submarines. With all the men and equipment on the deck below him, Rory didn’t think they’d be able to conduct any offensive operations before unloading some of the extra stuff. But around noon of their first full day in the exclusion zone, the ship’s Harriers started taking off one by one. They were laden heavily with bombs and missiles under their wings, so they had to use the ski ramp at the bow of the carrier to get airborne instead of taking off vertically. He watched them roaring down the deck and leaping into the sky, engines bellowing, their wingtips clearing the noses and folded rotor blades of the parked helicopters lined up alongside the take-off strip by what looked like just a few feet. The ground crews smartly saluted every Harrier pilot before each take-off run. Rory had been an enlisted radar technician before he became an ace and a minor Royal Navy celebrity, so tactical flight operations were out of his realm of expertise, but it didn’t take a master strategist to know that the Harriers were setting out for Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, currently under Argentinian management. The sailors on the carrier’s command island with him watched the small squadron struggle into the sky with their heavy ordnance loads and head southwest, disappearing in the low cloud cover after a few minutes.

  ‘I don’t really want to go to war, sir,’ the sailor next to Rory said without taking his eyes off the leaden sky.

  ‘I don’t either,’ Rory replied. ‘But the public have been paying our salaries. I suppose we can’t take the money and then complain when our number finally comes up.’

  ‘Yes, sir. I was just hoping mine wouldn’t come up while I was in.’

  ‘Everyone was hoping that,’ Rory said.

  The Harriers returned a few hours later. Free of their bomb loads, they descended onto the flight deck vertically, hovering over their designated landing spots gracefully before settling down. Rory counted them and was relieved to find they were still the same number of planes that had taken off earlier. There was no cheer or jubilation among the deck hands as they chocked the Harriers’ wheels and helped the pilots out of their cockpits. It was just an efficient businesslike atmosphere, professionals at work, just like any other day in the service. Rory wondered what the bombs from those planes had hit, and whether it had made a dent in the Argie defences. Part of him still hoped that the Argentinians would back down after the first show of force from the Royal Navy, that they would see reason once they saw modern warplanes with live bombs overhead. They were the Royal Navy, not some third-rate corvette navy from a backwater nation. But after the return of the Harriers, an hour passed, then two, and by the time he ended his watch and went down to the officer wardroom for dinner, there had been no announcement from the commander that everything was over, that Argentina had decided they had lost the game of chicken. Still, it looked as if both sides had decided they weren’t bluffing after all.

  Rory was in the middle of his meal when the commander finally did make an announcement, and everyone paused their conversations at once.

  ‘This is the commander. I am glad to announce we had a very good day today. We have started to soften up the defences at Stanley with no losses of our own. And earlier today, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed by one of our submarines on station south of the Total Exclusion Zone. That removes the threat posed by the Argentinian navy to our southern flank. That is all. Commander out.’

  This time there was some cheering going on in the wardroom, and the conversations that picked up again had a decidedly more excited note to them.

  ‘The Belgrano,’ the lieutenant across the table from Rory said. ‘That’s their biggest surface ship. She’s an ex-Yank cruiser. USS Phoenix, I think. Served in World War Two. Shame, really.’

  ‘Wonder if they sank her,’ Rory replied.

  ‘As long as she’s out of the picture and not pointing her guns at us. So what exactly is it you can do?’ the lieutenant asked. ‘I mean, if that’s not a state secret.’

  ‘It’s not,’ Rory said. He was a recent addition to the crew, a newcomer in a group of officers who had been working together for many months or even years, and he was glad whenever he had a chance to socialize with someone other than his Silver Helix minder. His story was well known in the Royal Navy – he was one of only a handful of aces who were on active military duty – but he also knew there were a lot of embellished versions of that tale out there, and he rarely had an opportunity to correct the rumour mill.

  ‘I make directional EMPs,’ he said. ‘I can turn off any electric system. Slag it, too, if I want.’

  ‘Anything? So, could you shut down this ship?’

  ‘Most of it, I suppose,’ Rory said. ‘Whatever I can see, anyway.’

  ‘That is bloody brilliant,’ the lieutenant said.

  ‘Small bits too,’ Rory continued. He pointed at the lieutenant’s wristwatch with his fork. It was one of the new digital quartz models, the ones that showed the time on a little display window. ‘I could focus and just pop the circuit board in that watch of yours.’

  ‘Please don’t,’ the lieutenant smiled. He put a protective hand over the face of his watch. ‘My wife gave that to me before we left Portsmouth. When did you find out you could do that EMP thing?’

  ‘I was on HMS Juno the year before last. I was an engineering tech. One day, we were working up on the dish for the anti-aircraft system. It was supposed to be de-energized, but it turned on while we had three lads in front of it. I could feel it somehow. Can’t explain it, but I knew how to shut it down, and I did. Just by thinking hard about it.’

  ‘Bloody brilliant,’ the other lieutenant repeated.

  There were other officers at the table with them, and one of them looked rather sceptical at this pronouncement. ‘So when the Argie ships come into sight, you can turn their lights off. That will be useful. Right after they fire their Exocets at us.’

  ‘If I can see the missile, I can blow its guidance systems up,’ Rory replied.

  ‘Right,’ the other man said. He wore the flight suit of a Fleet Air Arm officer, which meant that he flew a Harrier or a helicopter. ‘I suppose we don’t have anything to worry about, then.’

  ‘I’ll do what I can,’ Rory said.

  ‘As will we all. It’s just some of us are going to go out to drop GP bombs on the Argies instead of sitting on a carrier two hundred miles away. Different risk factor. And my lads don’t get special perks for doing their jobs.’

  ‘Knock it off,’ the lieutenant across the table said. ‘The aces get their own berth because they’re bloody aces, mate. They hadn’t come along, you’d be whinging about them not sending any with us.’

  ‘The other guy’s all right. The Army major. He’ll be handy on the ground. I’ve seen him bench press five hundred pounds in the gym with the marines.’ The pilot turned his attention back to Rory. ‘But you’re going to be bored. With the Harriers, there’s no Argie plane getting close enough to this ship to launch anything. We’ll be getting
it done the old-fashioned way. Guns and missiles.’

  ‘I do hope you’re right about that,’ Rory replied. The other man’s eyes narrowed, and Rory could tell he was looking for signs that Rory was being clever with him.

  ‘You’ll see,’ the flight officer said. ‘The Royal Navy hasn’t lost a ship in combat since World War Two. And that was before we had anti-air missiles and fighter jets.’

  Their side has those too, Rory thought. But instead of voicing it, he just nodded and focused on his dinner again. He loathed conflict, whether it was a shooting war with Argentina or an argument over fish and chips in the wardroom.

  ‘Don’t mind that tosser,’ the other lieutenant said after the flight officer had left the table a little while later. ‘Those fighter pilots all think they’re special. Jealousy’s a terrible thing.’

  ‘I still hope he’s right,’ Rory replied. ‘And if we do lose a ship, I hope it won’t be my fault, he didn’t add.

  Phase II: Sheffield

  Inside the Total Exclusion Zone, May 3rd, 1982

  The crew mess and wardroom had television sets mounted on the bulkheads, and they all watched the news during the next few days whenever they could. It was odd to catch up on events that had happened just a little over a hundred miles away, sent to the ships of the task force via satellite relay from BBC stations eight thousand miles to their north with a day-long delay.

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