Knaves over queens, p.27
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.27
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
ARA General Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser, had been severely damaged by the torpedo attack, with substantial loss of life. Even as the BBC report was finishing, some of the officers in the room said they heard that Belgrano had been sunk, not just damaged. In the military, there was no communications system faster than the wardroom rumour mill, but Rory knew that some of the officers had their posts in Hermes’ Action Information Centre or on the bridge, and were privy to information the rest of the crew didn’t have. He didn’t know the exact complement of a cruiser like the Belgrano, but his lads in the wardroom had mentioned she had served in World War Two, and old ships like that needed a lot of manpower, many hundreds of sailors. Even if most of them got out of the ship and onto life rafts, the South Atlantic was freezing. If someone had to get sunk, he’d rather it be the Belgrano than Hermes or one of the other Royal Navy ships, but it was still not pleasant to think about sailors drowning or freezing to death, even if they were the enemy right now.

  At the end of the news, the BBC reporter used the phrase ‘Falklands crisis’, and the lieutenant commander in the chair next to Rory’s huffed a little.

  ‘“Crisis”,’ he repeated. ‘We’ve dropped bombs on a town and sunk a cruiser. They shot down two Argie planes yesterday, too. If this is a crisis, I want to know what qualifies as a war.’

  War came to Hermes the next morning for the first time.

  Rory was on watch again on the command island. Several radar contacts had been spotted by the picket ships the fleet commander had sent out to screen the carrier from air attack, and Rory was the last-ditch insurance. It was a precaution because the contacts were too far away from Hermes to pose an imminent threat, so when the action stations alarm sounded, Rory jumped a little at the unwelcome surprise of it.

  ‘Action stations, action stations.’ The alarm blared, and all around him things got busy as crew members ran up and down stairs and gangways and slammed shut watertight hatches. ‘Silver Helix personnel to the flag bridge. I repeat, Silver Helix personnel to the flag bridge at once.’

  Rory was already on the command island, so he didn’t have far to go to reach the flag bridge, where Admiral Woodward and his support staff were already waiting along with the ship’s captain. Rory’s mind raced as he stepped across the threshold of the watertight door and reported in. Major Singh, the Lion, had to come from much further below decks than Rory, but only twenty or thirty seconds after Rory stepped onto the flag bridge, a door on the opposite side of the compartment opened, and the big Sikh stepped through it. He didn’t even look particularly out of breath.

  The admiral and several of his staff officers were still in the middle of a discussion at the plotting table, so Rory made sure he stayed out of the way of the sailors hurrying around and console operators delivering reports from the nearby Action Information Centre.

  ‘Glasgow announced “handbrake” at 1104 hours,’ one of the officers told the admiral. ‘Sheffield was in contact with Coventry at the time and signalled they were hit just two minutes later. No further details from Sheffield. Their UHF is silent.’

  ‘Send out Arrow and Yarmouth to Sheffield’s last known position,’ Admiral Woodward ordered. ‘And launch one of the ready helicopters to verify what the blazes is going on.’ He looked across the flag bridge and only now seemed to notice Rory and Major Singh. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, and waved them closer. Rory approached the plotting table, still unused to the sensation of senior officers making space for him in the confines of the small compartment. ‘We dispatched our three Type 42 destroyers as anti-submarine pickets between our position and the southeastern Falklands. A few minutes ago, we got a signal that indicates HMS Sheffield took a hit. We don’t know what exactly happened or the extent of the damage. It looks like it may become a busy day for you, Sub-Lieutenant. HMS Glasgow indicated that the attack came from Argentine Super Etendards. That means they have started using their Exocet arsenal.’

  ‘Do we know how many Exocets they have?’ Major Singh asked.

  ‘Not a terrific amount, but enough to make us lose this war by the end of the week if they use them well, Major.’

  Admiral Woodward turned and looked at Rory.

  ‘Tell me how far out you can spot a sea-skimming missile moving at seven hundred miles per hour, Sub-Lieutenant Campbell.’

  ‘If I know the bearing from a radar fix, and if the seas aren’t too choppy, two miles, maybe more, sir.’

  ‘That’s a damned thin safety margin,’ Hermes’ captain said with a frown. ‘That gives you, what, ten seconds to bring it down? And that’s if you spot it as soon as the radar does.’

  ‘It beats relying on just the Seacats,’ the admiral replied. ‘Those can only get head-on kills. If we get an air radar contact within fifty miles of this ship, you are to be on your perch, Sub-Lieutenant, with a live comms link to the radar operator. Of course, plan number one is to not let the buggers that close to begin with.’

  ‘Radar contact bearing two-one-five, distance five-seven miles, sir,’ the radar operator called out, as if on cue. ‘IFF says it’s one of our Lynx helicopters.’

  ‘Get them on radio, then. Sub-Lieutenant Campbell, head to your action station right away.’

  ‘Aye, sir,’ Rory replied and left the compartment in a hurry.

  The Lynx helicopter that had appeared on the radar screen touched down on Hermes’ flight deck half an hour later. Rory had a perfect vantage point from the command island to see them unload two officers and then several obviously wounded personnel. Some had parts of their overalls cut away, others had thick bandages on their faces or hands. The medical personnel of Hermes met them almost as soon as they set foot on the carrier deck and helped them to nearby stretchers. The officers engaged in some brief but heated conversation with the Hermes personnel who had met them and then went over to the command island. Rory picked up his radio.

  ‘Archimedes to radar ops. What’s the airspace look like?’ This was the first time he had used his official ace moniker. If he was to be a semi-permanent living weapons mount on this ship, he reckoned he ought to go by his ace name instead of his military rank, which didn’t have much clout on a ship with an admiral and dozens of staff officers anyway.

  ‘Airspace is clear of contacts, sir. We have a flight of Harriers out on combat air patrol eighty miles out at two-seven-zero degrees. You have a clean board for the moment.’

  Rory went back down to the flag level, where the newly arrived officers were talking to the admiral and the rest of the ship’s senior officers. At first, he had felt like an interloper, going wherever he wanted on the ship if he wasn’t specifically ordered to be in a certain spot, but that was another perk of Silver Helix membership. If he deemed it necessary to be somewhere to accomplish his assignment, his ace status overrode even his military rank.

  ‘Sheffield’s a mission kill,’ one of the new officers reported. ‘We took an Exocet amidships. It knocked out our electric system and the water main. We have nothing to fight the fire. The way she’s burning, she’ll be gone by morning.’

  ‘What’s the casualty count?’

  ‘At least a dozen men, probably more. The missile hit the ratings galley and the computer room.’

  ‘Bloody hell,’ the Hermes’ captain cursed. ‘What about the Seacats?’

  ‘None were fired, sir. I think ops thought it was a false alarm again. They didn’t even have the gun ready.’

  ‘What a monumental cock-up. Get Arrow and Yarmouth out there on the flank to help put those fires out and get Sheffield under tow. I will not be the first task force commander to lose a ship in action since they signed the bloody armistice in Tokyo Bay,’ Admiral Woodward said.

  He focused on the plotting table and pointed a finger at the point on the map marked with the icon for HMS Sheffield. ‘Shift Glasgow’s patrol pattern northeast so she can close the hole and give Arrow and Yarmouth air defence support. I want two more flights of Harriers going that way as well. One from us, one from Invincible.’

 
; Rory cleared his throat. ‘Sir, I should go out there on a Lynx. Put me on Coventry or Glasgow. I can do a lot more good closer to the line than back here on Hermes.’

  The admiral looked at Rory in unconcealed disbelief, then shook his head. ‘Out of the question, Sub-Lieutenant. You are one third of this ship’s air defence arsenal.’

  ‘This ship is over a hundred miles from the action, sir. I could be a much better picket against enemy aircraft if you put me in a spot where they are likely to be. Hermes has Harriers. They can intercept what comes past the destroyer screen.’

  ‘The destroyers are spaced out too far. If I put you on Glasgow and they engage Coventry next instead, there won’t be anything you can do about it because you’ll be thirty miles away. And then you’ll be useless to Hermes as well.’ He made a dismissive hand gesture. ‘Hermes carries half the task force’s air power, and she’s the most essential ship we have. I will not risk the Royal Navy’s biggest carrier to maybe keep an Exocet away from a Type 42. They can take care of their own air defence without you. If they’re not sitting on their bloody arses while other ships are broadcasting air-raid warnings. And lest you think me callous, I’ll have you know that I used to be Sheffield’s commanding officer. Now someone get me a strong coffee and some aspirin, please.’

  There was nothing more dispiriting to Rory than having to witness the casualties from Sheffield being brought onto Hermes’ deck and not being able to do anything to help. A lot of the injured Sheffield sailors had obvious burn injuries. The helicopters came in intervals, in between take-off and landing operations for the Harriers. The fighter aircraft were out for blood, now that one of the task force ships had been hit, with British sailors killed and wounded. But hour after hour, the Harriers came back, trading spaces with newly rearmed and refuelled ones leaping off the ski ramp at Hermes’ bow, and Rory heard no reports of any air victories. The Argentine air force had got their bite out of them for the day, it seemed.

  A few long, demoralizing days of monotonous watch-standing later, the commander made an announcement that didn’t do anything to lift Rory’s mood.

  ‘This is the commander. I regret to inform you that HMS Sheffield foundered today on the way to South Georgia while under tow by HMS Yarmouth. That is all. Commander out.’

  Rory let the news sink in for a few moments. As Admiral Woodward had reminded him, the Royal Navy hadn’t lost a ship in action since the end of World War Two, thirty-seven years ago. Almost ten enlistment cycles had passed without one of Her Majesty’s warships getting so much as fired upon, and now one was sitting at the bottom of the North Atlantic. And not just an old, outdated ship like the Belgrano, but a modern state-of-the-art Type 42 destroyer, fitted with some of the best weapon systems in the Royal Navy.

  If they can sink Sheffield, they can sink any other ship in the fleet, Rory thought. And here he stood, standing watch on the command deck of Hermes, a hundred miles from where the frigates and destroyers of the task force were shelling Argentine positions in preparation for the invasion, and he hadn’t seen so much as the contrail from an enemy plane this whole time.

  Rory was at the end of his patience. He was still a Royal Navy officer, albeit only an acting sub-lieutenant and therefore at the very bottom of the commissioned pecking order, but he was an ace and a member of the Silver Helix. It was disrespectful to treat him like a stationary weapons mount out here when the real war was going on a hundred miles to their west. He hated confrontation, but nothing was worse than standing around in the cold on this carrier doing nothing.

  He handed his binoculars to the sailor next to him. ‘You have the watch for a few minutes, Petty Officer. I am going to the flag bridge.’

  The admiral wasn’t on the flag bridge when Rory stepped through the door, but Commodore Clapp and Major General Moore were there, discussing something in low voices while consulting a map. The Commodore was the commander of the landing fleet that would ferry the troops to the beaches when the ground invasion started, and Major General Moore was in command of the land forces, Royal Marines and Army alike.

  ‘Something on your mind, Sub-Lieutenant?’ Commodore Clapp asked when Rory stepped up to them.

  ‘Yes, sir. I was looking for the admiral, actually.’

  ‘He’s out on a Sea King headed for Invincible,’ the commodore replied. ‘Anything of concern we need to know about?’

  ‘No, sir,’ Rory said. ‘But that’s just the problem, see. I’ve been up there for a week with binoculars glued to my eyes while the lads on the frigates get bombs chucked at them. There has got to be something else I can do. I don’t think the admiral quite understands what I can bring to the field.’

  ‘So you want to be on the line,’ Major General Moore said in a tone that sounded almost appreciative to Rory. ‘And what is it that you can do that I can’t do with a squad of my Royal Marines commandos?’

  ‘Your commandos have to get close to the enemy. Close enough for rifle fire or anti-tank rockets. I just need to be close enough to see a plane. Even if it’s just through binoculars. And I can slag its radar and electronics in five seconds.’

  The major general and the commodore exchanged a glance that looked meaningful.

  ‘Really now,’ the major general said. ‘That’s from several miles out. In any weather.’

  ‘As long as I can lay eyes on it,’ Rory said.

  The commodore and major general exchanged another look, this one more poignant than the last, and Rory could have sworn that the Royal Marines general smiled a little.

  ‘Tell you what, Sub-Lieutenant. We will have a chat with the admiral and see where we can slot you in. There may be an upcoming opportunity for you to demonstrate your skill set. No promises, though.’

  ‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I really don’t want the Silver Helix to think the armed forces are not using their special assets to best effect.’

  Rory sketched a salute and walked back to the starboard door of the flag bridge.

  ‘Is that cheeky little bugger blackmailing us?’ Commodore Clapp asked the major general, who chuckled.

  ‘I believe so,’ Major General Moore replied. ‘Enough pluck for a Royal Marine, that one.’

  Outside, the driving frigid Antarctic wind doused Rory with a fresh shower of seawater, but he found that his mood had improved just a little bit.

  Just a few hours later Rory found himself in an air group briefing room filled to the last chair with some of the toughest-looking troops he had ever seen. Most were wearing the Army and Royal Marines DPM-pattern camouflage uniforms instead of Navy dress, and all of them radiated a mood that felt rather like what Rory sensed in his regular hometown pub when a particularly critical Partick Thistle match was about to start on the telly. Major Singh was in the room too, but he sat on the other side when Rory came in, and there was no way to make it across the compartment full of seated troops to join his Silver Helix colleague. At the head of the room, Major General Moore stood behind a briefing lectern.

  When the general spotted Rory taking his seat, he nodded grimly. ‘You got your wish, Sub-Lieutenant. I rather hope you don’t come to regret it.’

  Rory took his seat, one of the last two remaining ones. Behind the general a projector screen was set up at an angle, showing the white square of a blank slide. General Moore pressed a button on his wired remote, and the first slide whirred into position with a click. It showed an overhead reconnaissance photo of a grass airfield. Several aircraft of different types were parked to either side of the airstrip.

  ‘Our two Silver Helix guests were not present at the original mission briefing, so I will repeat the main details for their benefit.’ He extended a small pointer stick and tapped the projection. ‘This is a small Argentinian airbase on Pebble Island, on the northern tip of West Falkland Island. The Argentines set it up right after they moved in. It’s just a short grass strip, but it’s in a rather inconvenient spot for us.’

  He moved the pointer to the Argentinian planes lined up on the grass a
bove and below the runway. ‘The Argentine air force have about a dozen planes there. They are mostly Pucarás. Twin-engine turboprops, used for light attack and recon duties. The light attack capabilities don’t worry us too much because our Harriers can run rings around them if they try to make runs on the fleet. What’s more of a concern is their reconnaissance function. We are in full preparation for the landings, and reconnaissance by these aircraft will compromise our planned manoeuvres and give the enemy advance warning of our intended landing sites. Therefore, we have tasked D Squadron, 22 SAS Regiment, with the destruction of these aircraft and their support facilities.’

  The general changed slides. The projection on the screen changed to a wider shot of the airfield. Several small structures were circled in various colours. ‘D Squadron will ingress by helicopter to a point five miles from the objective. The Boat Troop scouted the target last night. Due to the strong headwinds coming from the southwest, the range of our helicopters will be reduced, so we had to cut the window for offensive operations on the ground from ninety to thirty minutes. Therefore, the aircraft on the ground are top priority targets. The fuel and ammo dumps and the support personnel are secondary concerns. Take out targets of opportunity, but your primary objective is those aircraft. HMS Glamorgan will provide artillery support from offshore once the aircraft are destroyed or disabled.’ He looked over at Rory, who started feeling very out of place in a briefing room full of hardened commandos. ‘The original plan had Mountain Troop infiltrating the facility to lay explosive charges on the aircraft while the other troops provide overwatch. That is a risky endeavour because the Argies undoubtedly expect a raid and will have sentries out. Sub-Lieutenant Campbell over here will ingress with D Squadron and take up overwatch position with the covering team. If you can disable or destroy their planes from that position, infiltration won’t be needed, and the risk to D Squadron will be greatly reduced. I probably need not tell you that the lads would greatly appreciate it if they could remain out of small arms range.’

 
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