The first we knew was the internet going down. The Skype connection to my wife lost in an instant. Her face frozen in perfection, despite the wide yawn. With the abrupt halt to our conversation, we’d have to decide later what we’d get up to when my shift finished tomorrow. How we’d celebrate New Years Eve a day late, just the two of us. The twins weren’t children anymore, I had to keep reminding myself they were nineteen, back from Bristol University for month and tomorrow, like tonight, they’d be at a house party living life as young women should. I had to stay awake, part of the job, but Bethany kept her eyes open with matchsticks because she wanted to be in my time zone.
The second I knew was my Petty Officer’s relief as he found me tucked in the corner of our mess room, exclaiming with such politeness, he’d been hunting for me for too long already. A shout had come in, we were ordered to the apron to be briefed en route. A situation like this wasn’t unheard of, but unusual enough to note. We were given a clear flight path to RNAS Culdrose, the only other Naval Air Station in the UK.
The third sign something had gone to shit was when in the Land Rover taxing to the aircraft, I saw the point five machine gun bolted down in the doorway. Leading Hand Spicer was already aboard, his feet straddling the MG, Lieutenant Commander Stubbs in the seat next to mine, all but spinning the rotors. Despite being an operational unit on call, we weren’t search and rescue, those days were gone. We were there to support coastal manoeuvres, help out in a national emergency, defend the country, but in reality, drilling until our operations were just muscle memory.
Never in my seventeen years of service had we exercised on New Year’s Eve.
All that said, the weather was clear, cold and cloudless. I’d want to be up in my Merlin rather than trying not to fall asleep in the mess any time, plus I’d have a great view when the hour struck.
Still not briefed, following the pre-defined route, we hit Plymouth and the ground just went dark. I’d never seen a power cut from the sky before, the ground just shades of black. It reminded me of the desolate Afgan countryside, each moment I expected tracer rounds to light up the night, hoping they weren’t in our direction. The power was still out by the time we landed at Culdrose half an hour later and I shed a fake tear for how pissed off the party goers would be. We could see the naval station from miles away, could make it out from the depths of the darkness, the only place on the horizon to have decent backup generators. The clear weather and half moon helped, so did the apron awash with blinking anti-collision lights.
Headlights from trucks and Land Rovers ran around the base, a procession leaving through the main gates, the only other lights in the dark night. We finally got our orders as we touched down. We were there to transport VIPs, but had to wait, stay in our seats, keep the rotors spinning.
I gawked out from the windows shivering, told in no uncertain terms not to stow the gun so we could pull the door closed and let the heat build. I was pissed that I could have been either up in the air or back at the mess stealing forty winks. There was no enjoyment in waiting, but it was part of the job. Crates were loaded, ours one of thirty choppers sat on the tarmac, in the same position. This would blow the fuel budget alone, would cost us an exercise or two. I just hoped it wouldn’t cross over into tomorrow. The roster only had me on shift for five hours more.
Stubbs was eyes closed, pulling his usual trick. He was an ex-marine, could fall asleep with the flick of a switch. Spicer pulled up from around the MG and leant through to the cockpit. We’d been crewed together for almost three years, which was unheard of in the service. Stubbs in the seat next to me had been on the team for just a few months, but we hadn’t bonded in combat. Spicer was the only rating on the crew, we’d shared a full tour of Afghan, and had become friends, despite his rank. Living in a tent twenty four seven, flying every other moment, putting your lives in each others hands every day kind of did that. I’d got us out of situations so many times with my hands on the stick, he’d shot our way out of trouble more times than I could count. I couldn’t do his job, didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger.
I remember those first few shots in anger. Remembered how he’d changed, withdrawing for days, but he’d pulled himself out with a little help of our ribbing and a reliance on his drills and training. I told him of my plans for tomorrow, today now, a meal and a few glasses of wine. He told me of his night of movies, his two young daughters, twins too, cradled in his arms. I told him to stop being such a sentimental twat, shutting my mouth, elbowing Stubbs in the ribs as three Land Rovers pulled alongside.
There were only three passengers, the other two Landy’s full of Marine escorts with full kit, as if they were about to set out on a week long expedition. A Commodore, Rear and full Admiral, shuffled into their seats, the guards acting like we were back in Kandahar, not on the Lizard Peninsula. We could have taken the escort too, but more trucks arrived and filled the rest of the load space with nameless document boxes and weapons crates. The fuel tanks were topped off, the bird heavier than I’d felt her for a long time and we left within an hour, although it felt like we’d been sitting there for much longer. We lifted being none the wiser, but that wasn’t unusual either.
Keeping questions to ourselves, we were like cadets again with these big wigs in the back. I had a promotion board assessment in two weeks time, Captain was on the cards and a wrong word now could scupper the chances. It was still all about who you knew in this world and I hoped the new rank would mean less night shifts, in peacetime at least. I was getting too old for the nighttime work. Not the shifts themselves, but the time away from my family.
Lifting from deck and out into the darkness it was easy to see the power hadn’t returned, the only lights were those moving along the roads, most heading north in the same general direction as us. The ground was a tapestry of red light snaking around like spidery nerves. Passing Plymouth the power cut had worsened, we hit Exeter before we saw street lights and buildings lit, the M5 at a standstill, both sides of the road, six long lines of stationary tail lights.
We settled back down on the ground at Yeovilton, ours among only a few of the line of Merlins that stopped, the rest heading onwards, to London, but only at a guess. It was clear there was a mass evacuation, us an air bridge, a quick and easy way out for those higher up the ranks. None of us were surprised when we were turned back to the air, to return three times more, the base more desolate each time. Landing for the fourth refuel, we were relieved, then confined to our quarters, not allowed to leave.
I tried Skype the moment I got into my bunk, but nothing was going through, no connection. I tried the phone, but all the lines were out, but only the externals. I rang around and quickly found they’d been disconnected. No contact was allowed outside with the operation underway. A senior officer’s voice cut into the call. I hung up and tried to take his advice to get some rest. I was dog tired.
A fist woke me as it hammered on the door. It was Stubbs. We had five minutes to get to the operations room. I tried Skype again, but still there was no connection. I didn’t bother with the phone. We arrived in the ops room to find it packed, the Admiral from last night still in his fatigues looking like he hadn’t had a moments sleep, like most of the rest of the ops room, his eyes were red, sunken and slow moving.
He finally told us what the hell was going on.
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