Projected release date of July 2017.
“It’s beautiful,” said Lieutenant Tosco from the bridge. Gazing out through the same long, glass window Captain Guy Granger was inclined to agree. The sight before them was most certainly beautiful. As perfect and as sublime as a mirage, but real.
Skip stroked his wiry, grey beard and grinned from ear to ear. “Well done, you Brits!”
Guy tried to count the number of ships amassed in the waters outside Portsmouth but gave up after ninety. There were more than a hundred warships huddled together in the Channel, large and small, and from many nations. Most were British, but Guy also spotted French, German, Belgian, and Spanish flags. Tosco had done what he could over the past weeks to discover the situation in Western Europe, but what spotty reports he’d garnered hinted that all human resistance was inland around the capitals. That left naval forces of little use to nations like France and Germany, and their capitals Paris and Berlin. Britain, however, being an island was an obvious rallying point for orderless sailors and marines. This was a place any seafaring man could go to wage war against his enemy—and it was glorious.
“I think I even see a couple of Yankee ships,” said Tosco. “And look! That’s a goddamn German nuclear sub. You could flatten a city with what they have on board.”
The mention of nuclear capabilities turned guy’s stomach. A miracle that no country had let loose its sparrows of death and reduced the earth to wasteland. When the direst of times had come, no world leader pressed that big red button. There was something comforting about that. Perhaps mankind was still worth redeeming.
Guy cleared his throat and let the crew hear him. For those not present in the bridge, he switched on the ship-wide intercom. “Men and women of the USCG Hatchet. This is your captain speaking. As you all see from the railings, humanity is alive and well in the UK.” Guy chuckled as a cheer rang out from the decks. “We are low on food, thick with injury, and most of us have contemplated the future recently with a very bleak soul. Yet, today, we have arrived to greet our fellow man, and add our might to this great beast of defiance you see before you. We are about to enter the port of Portsmouth. Anglophiles amongst you will already know that this port goes back to Roman times. It’s been here a long time, and we are going to help make sure it survives a lot longer.” Another cheer. “We have radioed ahead and our presence is welcome. We are among friends, but we must act as appreciative guests. Captain Granger out.”
Those in the bridge beamed so widely that Guy worried they might get lockjaw. The old chief, Skip, looked like he might cry, but kept it together long enough to speak with Guy quietly. “You think things are better than we thought? Have the Brits managed to fight back?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Chief. There’s a lot of manpower here, granted, but until we speak with whoever’s in charge we shouldn’t assume anything. The last thing we need is to give the people on this ship is a disappointment. It’s been a long journey.”
Skip nodded gravely.
Guy was, of course, referring to the suicides and fighting. In the last week, people had reached their inbuilt tipping points. Men and woman started throwing themselves over the railings with alarming regularity, and the Hatchet had lost more than a dozen souls—including three sailors. There had also been a spate of violence, no doubt stemming from the cramped confines and strict rations. The Hatchet had bordered on anarchy.
But now it had arrived. Today was a new day.
Guy turned to Tosco. “Lieutenant, spread word that no one is to disembark until arrangements are made. Last thing we need is an unruly stampede into an allies’ home.”
“Yes sir. Will I be coming ashore with the landing party?”
“Of course. I shall take you and Skip.” He turned to his petty officer, Bentley, sat at the ship’s console, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Bentley, let British Command know we’re requesting to dock.”
Bentley did as commanded, and Guy left the bridge to oversee the rest of his people. The passengers and crew would be excited, and that was a danger. Excited people struggled to contain themselves, and the glorious sight of land might tip some of them into a frenzy. So, Guy spent the next hour moving between the Hatchet’s decks, speaking with civilians and assuring them that they would all be taken care of, and talking to crew to remind them of their duty. By the time he finished his rounds, he was only slightly more confident that all would remain calm.
Now he stood stiffly on the foredeck as the Hatchet drifted carefully into an allocated berth. Off the Portside bow, HMS Ocean towered over the far smaller Coast Guard cutter and reminded Guy how few resources he wielded. The massive Royal Navy vessel was a helicopter carrier, and Guy spotted half-a-dozen fully-armed Apache attack choppers. It gave him a warm glow imagining a downpour of hellfire missiles streaking down on the enemy from the clouds. Were things really as good as they looked? Compared to what Guy had witnessed at Norfolk base all those weeks ago, Portsmouth appeared a well-oiled machine. The sky buzzed with jets and choppers, and masses of soldiers patrolled the docks. It would take a whole lot of demons to overrun this place.
That didn’t mean they wouldn’t though.
Tosco and Skip joined Guy at the ship’s rail. Tosco handed him a radio. “Lieutenant-Colonel Spencer on the wire for you, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Guy took the radio and put it to his lips. “Lieutenant-Colonel Spencer, this is Captain Guy Granger of the United States Coast Guard. Thank you for allowing us to dock, Portsmouth. Over.”
“You’re more than welcome, Captain,” came a voice from a mouth that sounded like it was sucking plums. “We’re having ourselves quite the tea party as you can see. Can’t let our enemy have all the fun, can we? Over.”
“Never a truer word spoken, Colonel. Are you in command of operations here?”
“Oh no no, old boy. That privilege falls to General Wickstaff, but I’m afraid they are otherwise engaged right now. Afraid you’ll have to settle for a lowly lieutenant-colonel.”
Guy chuckled. Maybe it was just being so long at sea, but he was quickly getting to like this stuffy old lieutenant-colonel (pronounced ‘left-tenant’ in these foreign climes). “Meeting any superior officer is a welcomed comfort,” he admitted.
“Had it tough out there on the big blue, old boy?”
“You might say that. You’re not a sea dog yourself?”
“British Army, man and boy. Spent most my career with 202 Signal Squadron, but spent the last few years as head of recruitment. Some fine young lads I’ve seen come and go. Anyway, enough jawing, I suspect you would like to come ashore.”
Guy shivered at the thought. “That would be most welcome, sir. The sea is my mother, but no man wants to live every day with his old lady.”
A bark of chesty laughter on the other end, then: “I can’t argue with that old boy. You and your people are free to disembark onto the docks, but I’m afraid they won’t be allowed through the checkpoint until they’re checked out.”
“Understandable. Where should I direct my landing party? I would very much like to lend aid where needed, but I have injured civilians on board that need attending to as well.”
“Settle down in the customs building, Captain, and someone will be with you shortly. It’s been a pleasure meeting you. Over”
“Likewise, Lieutenant-Colonel. Over and out.” Guy handed the radio back to Tosco and took a deep breath. The stuffy old officer had seemed as laid back as can be, which was a good sign. No hint of being under threat here.
The Hatchet clunked into place beside the long cement pier and the catwalk began to lower. Guy had all his remaining officers beside Tosco line up and block the walkway to prevent people spilling out in a mad rush. Already the civilians on board were bunching together and shoving one another. Some of them were waving at the crewman up high on the decks of the HMS Ocean.
Guy climbed up on the railing. “Okay, sailors, settle down. We have been given permission to disembark, but I will remind you that we are visitors here. The United Kingdom has long been our ally and today it welcomes us with open arms, but behave yourselves or face my consequences. My officers will be disembarking you all in groups, and if anyone tries to jump the queue or disobey instructions, they will spend the rest of the day in a holding cell. You want to stretch your legs, I understand, but don’t sabotage yourselves. Act like civilised Americans. The enemy can’t take that away from you.”
With that, Guy moved behind his officers and headed down the ramp. The same ramp that had seen him flee Norfolk. It felt surreal to still be alive after so much death, but here they were. Skip and Tosco followed Guy in silence, looking around with awe. The double-impact of stepping onto terra firma, twinned with the sight of largest naval force probably ever assembled in the modern world was unsettling. For the last few weeks they had lived a tiny, isolated existence aboard the Hatchet. Now they were stray ants stepping into a colossal nest not their own. Guy felt insignificant, which was liberating. Maybe now he could stop being solely responsible for the lives of so many. Someone else could give the orders now. Finally, he could hang up his hat and go find his children, Kyle and Alice. That’s all her truly cared about.
I just need to see them.
A small party of British naval officials met Guy on the pier. The fact they sported clipboards made him laugh. That there were still clipboards being used after the world had ended was absurd, yet strangely indicative of man’s fastidious nature—creating order from chaos. The British officials directed Guy to the customs building Lieutenant-Colonel Spencer told them about, and there they were left alone to settle in. Tosco was quick to spot a tea urn filled of hot water, as well as milk, tea bags, and— “Coffee. Oh my sweet Lord they have coffee. Who wants a cup?”
“I’ll take two,” said Skip. “I’ve been having unbecoming dreams about coffee, son.”
Guy chuckled. “I’ll take a tea, please, Lieutenant. My nerves are enough on edge as it is.”
“You know,” said Tosco. “I’ve gone my whole life and never drunk tea. I think I’ll join you, sir. When in Rome, right?”
“Good point,” said Skip. “Maybe we should do as the natives do.”
Guy shook his head, still smiling. “The fact that they have coffee leads me to believe the English don’t turn murderous whenever someone refuses tea.”
“Still,” muttered Skip. “Why risk it? I’ll have a tea too, please, Tosco.”
Tosco chewed his lip and looked sheepish. “Great, um, who knows how to make it?”
Guy sighed and had to tell him. Tosco had many talents, but apparently making hot beverages was beyond him. Eventually he got it, and a few moments later they were all sipping hot drinks. Two minutes after that, a petite woman stomped into the customs building. Late thirties, fit and attractive, she was wearing khaki trousers over a plain white t-shirt. Oil streaked her hands and arms.
“Hi,”said Tosco. “We’re waiting to speak with someone in charge. General Wickstaff ideally. Do you know where he is? We’ve been waiting here a while.”
The woman grinned. “And you are?”
“Lieutenant Tosco, ma’am, United States Coast Guard. We’re here to parlay.”
“Ah, so you’re not the Captain of the Hatchet, despite acting like it?”
Tosco frowned. “Well, no, th—”
“And to my reckoning you’ve been waiting here in the warmth, with fresh tea, for all of twenty minutes, so let’s not be dramatic, ay? You chaps are aware we have coffee, right?”
“We wanted to try the tea,” said Skip with an embarrassed smile.
The woman smirked and had a little laugh to herself. “We’re not simple tribesman, you know? You don’t have to saviour our local delicacies or risk offending us. Now, which one you two remaining gentlemen is Captain Granger?”
Guy had already stood, although he didn’t remember when. Despite the woman’s dishevelled appearance, she possessed a commanding aura. “I’m Captain Granger, pleased to meet you…?”
The woman offered her hand for a shake. “General Wickstaff. Pleased to have you in my home, Captain.”
Guy almost choked. He shook the woman’s hand vigorously, then wiped the oily residue off on his trousers.
“Oh, yes, sorry about that,” said Wickstaff, examining her soiled palms and then wiping them on her on trousers. “You’ll have to forgive my appearance. I’ve been tinkering with a Challenger 2 we have on base. Poor thing was scuppered in Afghanistan, brought her to be used as a display piece. Could use the bugger now though, so I’ve been trying to get it working.”
“You know how to fix tanks?” said Skip.
She shrugged as if she didn’t understand the question. “Someone has to know these things. I spent my career with the Royal Armoured Corp, you pick up a few things.”
“Thank you for receiving us, General,” said Guy. “We feared they’d be nothing here when we set off, but it appears you have quite the operation here.”
“I inherited command from Field Marshal Mackay. The blighter dropped dead of a heart attack two weeks ago now. He was eighty-two, I suppose, so no need to begrudge the fellow. Technically, Field Marshal duties fall to the head of the Armed Forces, Prince Charles, but who needs a soddin’ blue blood coming and messing things up? I hear there’s a bunker under Buckingham Palace, so I expect he’s down there right now growing plants under a UV light with his ma.”
Guy was a little lost by this, so he just smiled. “We’re happy to add our forces to your own.”
“Temporarily,” added Tosco. “In all likelihood we will resupply and return home.”
“Ah, at my expense, I presume?” The general went over and made herself a cup of coffee from the urn. “Never could stand tea,” she explained.
“If you don’t wish to resupply us,” said Tosco, then I am sure we can move further down the coast and find someone else willing to help.”
Guy waved a hand. “Be quiet Lieutenant.”
Wickstaff sipped her tea and sighed. “Lieutenant, anyone not here in Portsmouth is, I assure you, on their way here to Portsmouth. We are the only sanctuary in all of England and Wales. We have patrols bringing people in almost constantly. This is humanity’s only beachhead. By all means move on if you want to discover that for yourselves.”
“There are other last stands going on,” argued Tosco. “I’ve spoken to resistance in France, Belgium—”
“Not for us,” the general interrupted. “This is Alpha and Omega for everyone here. The radio lines are almost silent, and no other military forces exist that will be of any use to use in the battles ahead. We are on our own and, as such, I’m uninterested in resupplying you folks just to send you on your way. Stay and help, or don’t, but don’t make demands. Why are you even here in the first place?”
“My children are here,” Guy answered immediately. “My… my kids are somewhere here.”
Wickstaff raised an eyebrow. “And you appropriated a vessel and crew from your homeland to come get them? How very treasonous of you.”
Guy swallowed. “It wasn’t that simple.”
“I suspect not. Look, I don’t have kids, so I can’t say I understand why people love the little buggers so much, but I realise it would take quite the leader to gain the loyalty of a crew enough to make them desert their homes. I also see many civilians aboard your ship. Rescued?”
“Every one of them,” said Skip. “Captain Granger is the reason any of us are alive.”
“Part of the reason,” ammended Tosco.
Wickstaff looked at Guy and nodded her head sideways at Tosco. “He always this much of a pain in the arse?”
“Pretty much. He’s good in a fight though.”
Tosco grunted. “Gee, thanks.”
Wickstaff smiled at Tosco. “What do you think of the tea?”
He looked down at the mug in his hands, still mostly full. “It lacks something.”
“Sugar, my dear. You can’t make a good cuppa without plenty of sugar. Anyway, you’ll have plenty of time to learn how to make a proper brew. You chaps are welcome to stay as long as you like, and if you help out and pull your weight, I may opt to resupply you in the future and send you home. I won’t do it for free, however. That’s not the kind of operation I run.”
“My children…” said Guy.
“Are most likely gone, Captain, but I shall make enquires if you wish. If fate’s kept them alive, they’re as likely here as anywhere else. I’ll have a clerk come take some details about them later. For now, I’d like to get the Hatchet and personnel vetted, and your wounded seen to. The civilians may come aboard and stay in the barracks, but the crew must bed down on the ship, I’m afraid.”
“They’ll be dying to come on land,” said Guy.
“And they will be welcome to come and go as they please, Captain. They only need to lay their heads on the ship. Last thing I want is a bunch of ships dead in the water because everyone is asleep on land. The Hatchet needs to be battle ready, so keep your shift patterns in place, Captain.”
Guy nodded. It was something he would’ve done anyway. If the shit hit the fan, he wanted to be able to make a quick getaway. “I will do as you ask, General.”
“Good’o! We’re in an enviable position here, chaps. Things have gone poorly for us all so far, but that’s only because the bastards got the drop on us. Now it’s our turn. We’re getting our shit together here, and I plan on taking the fight to the enemy very soon. See how they like that. You gentlemen can be part of it. I would like you to be a part of it.”
“We’ll consider it,” Guy allowed, “but…”
Wickstaff nodded. “Your children, I know. Give me the day and I’ll see what I can do for you. In the meantime, make sure your people behave and tell them they are safe. I’m about to go and give the afternoon briefing to my senior officers. You gentleman are welcome to attend, if you’d like. There’ll be more tea, if you chaps are getting a taste for it.”
Skip cleared his throat and put his mug down. “Any coffee?”