The Chill of Winter
Portsmouth, United Kingdom
13 March 2024, 16:23 Hours
Cold rain swept across the almost empty seaside promenade, like a wall of thin fog littered with icy needles. The weather forced what few pedestrians had bravely remained outside to quicken their pace. The lucky ones caught one of the scarce buses departing in irregular intervals from a public traffic station that was filled to overflowing with garbage. Vanishing skywards in the downward gusts of rain, the gray, needle-like husk of the Spinnaker Tower topped the houses that lined the docks at the Portsmouth Marina. Ever since the NATO flotilla had begun to gather in the harbor in the midst of February, the blackened and burnt-out peak of the tower had throned above city and harbor like a menacing omen. To the inhabitants of the city, the Spinnaker Tower and the Portsmouth Marina were taunting monuments of former wealth and glory: several hundred million pounds of the taxpayers’ money had been poured into developing them since the middle of the 1990s.
The two men who trudged sullenly through the rain along the pier were both kitted out in military uniform - but after that, their similarities ended. Captain Steven Flynn of the United States' Navy destroyer USS Halsey was a sun-tanned, square-faced native of rural Virginia. He hid his black, gray-streaked hair beneath his officer's cap, and his neck looked as if it had sunken into his broad shoulders under the bite of the cold. His almost green eyes had narrowed down to a pair of slits, and he blinked irritatedly when a stray raindrop hit a little bit too close for comfort.
Kapitän zur See  Florian Hallwinter of the German lead ship, the destroyer FMG Brandt, was half a head taller than Flynn. Compared with the US officer, the German's features appeared narrower, almost gaunt. His skin was of a paler complexion, his face dotted with tiny freckles, and he wore his auburn hair cropped short under the hood of his parka, matching his carefully clipped goatee. The two men were of the same age, but in the befalling twilight of the late afternoon, Hallwinter, with his shoulders hunched, his face pale and his lips bloodless, looked ten years Flynn's senior.
“This doesn't look like the place to buy presents,” Flynn remarked gruffly. “She's going to kill me if she thinks I forgot the anniversary,” he added more quietly, and even glummer, after a moment's pause.
“It's in the brochures,” Hallwinter insisted from beneath the hood. “I've got it in print: 'Exclusive stores can be found along the harbor front', it says.” The hard German edge in Hallwinter's English had been smoothed by long years of having to professionally use the language. “And which anniversary is it, anyway?”
Flynn slowly, almost carefully, as not to give away a single inch of dry and warm skin to the rain, turned his head to the German officer. “The seventeenth,” he yelled against a gust of wind. “I promised her something typically British!”
“Seventeen?! My gosh, you're getting old, buddy,” Hallwinter chuckled. “Pour a bucket of cold water over her head: that should catch the authentic British feeling,” he continued dryly, but he was just as disappointed as his American friend. He had intended to use his leave to search for a birthday present for his wife in the shopping mile along the old docks. They had been praised to heaven and back in the promotional brochures he had gotten his hands on. If he had to spend the next few months out at sea and on patrol along the South American coast without being able to personally attend her birthday, the least he wanted to do was to get her a present that aptly relayed his feelings for the woman to whom he was married and who was the mother of his two children.
The two had first met in high school – but back in those days they had more or less ignored each other. She had been a student with top grades and a no-nonsense attitude, and he, with fuller hair and a six-pack of muscles instead of the small belly he sported now, had been too busy partying and going out with a new hip girl each week to really notice her. But the ice between the two of them thawed when they found each other studying in the same city, and Hallwinter found that behind her serious facade there was a funny and genuinely warm human being. That he himself had been put into good order by the Navy certainly had helped, too. He smirked as he remembered their first 'official' date.
A fresh gust of wind and rain carried the memories away with it and brought him back to the here and now of Portsmouth Bay. The lingering economic crisis of 2009 had never been truly overcome. In fact, compared with what had followed, in retrospect it looked like a child’s temper tantrum. The changes had left a lasting impression on Portsmouth, Great Britain, and the world.
Glaring neon tubes were on in only in a handful of stores, and those were either junk shops, cheap retail outlets or corner shops; nothing that promised much success in finding an adequate present. The cobblestone walkway along the roiling harbor basin led past another access road that opened up a view onto the desolate interior of Portsmouth. Besides a fish’n’chips fast-food restaurant and, directly opposite to it, an Indian diner decorated with kitschy elephant figures on whose front window a label in huge letters proclaimed that the place also delivered its menus to the inner city, there were barely any signs of life. Rubbish littered the sidewalks and the curbstones. Half a dozen car wrecks - some burnt-out, others cannibalized for parts - adorned the street. Most of the stores were closed, half of their windows barricaded with boards, dulled, or covered in placards and graffiti. There were no longer any jewelers, hip stores or coffee shops - at least not in the vicinity of the lakeside promenade - and Hallwinter had no inclination to venture deeper into the city on his own. Not without an escort, and not the kind one spent the evening with.
A tense calm had fallen over the old seaport town after last winter's riots, during which even the Spinnaker Tower had been victim to an enraged mob. Now there were regular patrols of armed police and armored cars, who did their part to contribute to the already dreary atmosphere.
“How's the family anyway?” The two of them had not had much time to talk about personal matters until now. But the world around them was going to hell in a hand basket, and in times like these family was the only constant that seemed to remain, besides duty.
“Alive and well,” Steven Flynn answered with a relaxed sigh. “Josh still has problems with the fact that I'm gone half the time, but Pam tells me he's found some friends back at the compound at Norfolk. He's just turned five last Christmas.”
Hallwinter nodded. Military life was hard on the families, and harder on the children who often did not get to see one of their parents for months.
“Time flies. He'll understand once he's gotten a bit older,” his voice was soft. “Just make sure you spend whatever time you have with him. Did the same with my two boys, and they've accepted the way things are. They don't particularly like it, but...” Hallwinter shrugged. “I'm sure we had this conversation before, but are girls different?”
“Oh, come on, Flo! Do I really need to start with the flowers and the bees again?” Flynn rolled his eyes in mock embarrassment, then turned more serious. “I don't think it's easier for them, but they deal with it differently. Couldn't point my finger on it, though. Jessica's officially entered the 'I want a pony' phase, and Patricia's turning sixteen later this year. She's already planning her big party.”
“I never understood the whole fuss you guys make about reaching that age. In general, I mean.” Hallwinter frowned, his face briefly visible as he pushed his head back to stare into the clouds. “What's so special about reaching sixteen?”
“It's a big coming-of-age thing for girls,” Flynn said with a shrug. “Getting a car, becoming a woman...” He frowned at that, as unable as any father to accept that his baby girl was growing up.
The German officer snorted. “I love you guys, but some things will never make sense to us blokes from the Old World. You can drive at sixteen, own guns at eighteen, but only buy beer and liquor once you're twenty-one?” He shook his head. “And don't get me started on the roads!”
“Am I going to get the 'We have no speed limits on the Autobahn' sermon again?”
“No, not this time. I reserve that one for situations that require the necessary gravity.”
“How gracious of His Highness,” Flynn retorted. “I'll mark the date in my calendar.”
The wind was fragrant with fresh snow, and Hallwinter could feel the gusts increasing in power as he and Flynn marched on. A storm was gathering over the Channel. In the distance, the sirens of police cars howled through gray and empty streets. They walked in silence for a while before Hallwinter spoke up again, a mischievous smile playing around his tight lips. “So, your girls are turning sixteen and thirteen, eh? You know, it just happens that I have two boys of the same age. We should bring them together some day and see what happens...”
“Yeah, right. 'Wink-wink, nudge-nudge',” Steven Flynn snorted with laughter.
Hallwinter stopped, straightened his back and raised one fist. “Eet veel be the beginnink of a great transatlantic military dynasty, jawohl!” he yelled, and Flynn laughed aloud.
“Hollywood's calling. They want their fake German accent back.”
“I'm holding it hostage till I get a, ahm, private audition with Lana Taylor.” Hallwinter's voice was dead earnest as he nodded vigorously, and Flynn rolled his eyes.
For a while their banter went back and forth, and as it did they resignedly accepted the fact that neither would find something worthwhile in what had once been marketed at Portsmouth's largest tourist attraction and shopping mile.
Inevitably their conversation returned to the reason they had been summoned to Portsmouth: BRIC. BRIC was the acronym that stood for the organization Brazil, Russia, India and the People's Republic of China had founded and turned into NATO's global rival. Brazil had always been the odd man out of that illustrious quartet. Put quite simply, it lacked the ambition of Russia, China or India, and more damning, the necessary quality in its leadership. Vladimir Putin still was the gray eminence in the Kremlin, but the successor generations he had raised were of his cunning and ruthlessness. China's first clique of functionaries and military men to arise in the 21st Century were pushing their country closer to the USA's economic output. And India's economy had grown six percent per year - every year - for the past twenty or so. But where those three combined ruthlessness, ambition and ability into NATO's sole global competing power block, member state No. 4 had nothing to offer but its natural resources, near bankruptcy and a long line of political demagogues. Which was kind of the crux of the matter. South America's largest nation stood on the brink of civil war.
“Steven? You think it'll get hot?” Hallwinter was not talking about the weather.
Flynn pondered his reply for a while. “I've been briefed as well as you have. The Atlantic's new ground for me. Halsey has never operated in those waters, and neither have I, so I have no pearls of wisdom to share. We've got a couple of people aboard who speak Portuguese, but honestly? I don't know. But I do know that I don't like it.”
Hallwinter simply nodded. “Me neither. They're no small fish, and once it all unravels who knows who the hell is on which side?”
“True enough. The shit will really hit the fan when the Chinese or the Russians make an appearance. We might have the UN mandate for this, but we're spread mighty thin as it is. And I'm not sure all of us will keep their calm in case they decide they'd rather 'guard' what we 'guard'.” Flynn emphasized the word with air quotes.
Around him, the eerie sound of the sirens was abruptly interrupted by the roaring rotors of a helicopter approaching through the worsening weather from the seaside. The navy-gray machine headed for the restricted sector of the bay which harbored not only the five vessels of the German Navy but also the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Halsey and the tender Mendonca. Hallwinter watched the helicopter vanish into the fine mist in the distance. The aircraft had come from the continent through bad weather. That meant matters were urgent, and given the political climate these days, potentially lead-filled.
As if on cue, their NATO-standard issue communication pads, or simply com pads, began to buzz and vibrate in their pockets. Hallwinter's was out before Flynn's. It was a rugged, rubber-coated, rectangular device, measuring six by four inches. With its padding it was about an inch thick, but the size was misleading. By loosing two braces, one on the right side, the other on top, the mimetic LCD display could be extended to four times its original size, and the shatter- and scratch-proof surface could be worked like any commercial touch-pad. A phalanx of small green bars showed he had full coverage. All metropolitan cellphone networks had been shut down 'for the duration of the crisis' all over Great Britain, but the military frequencies had the nice advantage to be able to fall back on the same infrastructure.
Flynn pressed his thumb on the lower left corner of his com. It scanned his fingerprint and took a tiny blood sample at the same time that was not even noticeable. Only if both were matched with its internal database was access granted. The image on the small screen switched, seemingly without any transition, to the NATO emergency recall order. Blinking in angry red against the symbol of the alliance it commanded all soldiers to immediately return to their stations in any given area. A nation wide, or even alliance-wide recall could have meant only one thing: war was imminent. But it was only a local recall, as evidenced by the Portsmouth base's coat of arms in the upper right corner of the screen.
The two men exchanged a short glance, then quickened their steps to a slow run back towards the military part of the harbor. Wind and rain pushed against them, and the air felt as if it was filled with icicles. It ached in their lungs.
Hallwinter had not yet run a hundred yards when the personal com device sprung to life once again with an angry alarm sound. He slowed his pace and pulled it from his pocket, only to be greeted by the face of a woman with sun-darkened skin and blond hair beneath an officer's cap.
“Hey, Jennifer,” he greeted his XO over the howling winds of Portsmouth Bay, and a smile cracked the serene surface of the woman's face for the brink of a moment.
Hallwinter’s First Watch Officer was Kapitänleutnant  Jennifer Ahrendts, a five foot six tall career officer with a broad back, shoulder-length blond hair and a roguish grin who, nonetheless, went by the nickname of ‘Iron Lady’ among the crew. She saluted him with the casual vigilance of an experienced officer when he appeared on her end of the connection.
“The admiral's back from Brussels, and he's already called a conference on Daring,” she told him. “Emergency recall of the highest order, skipper, and way ahead of our own. Seems NATO HQ has its pants in a collective twist.”
Hallwinter’s shoulders slouched and he uttered a silent curse to himself. Brussels. That city was about the only thing still echoing with the memories of a Belgian state and, indeed, the defunct European Union. That was in case the greatly diminished population was not preoccupied with acting like in the continental version of the ‘Road Warrior’ movies. It was only due to the large NATO infrastructure there that the alliance still conferred in their enclave in the city. “Do we know why?”
“Apparently Ivan likes what's happening to his BRIC partner as little as we do, sir. With the emergency recall came the information that satellite recon has picked up the departure of four submarines, most likely three Yasen-class SSNs and one Oscar-II-class boomer. Add to that a surface flotilla of eight warships plus supply train. The spooks think there might even be one of the Russian's new cruisers among them, skipper, but they haven't cross-checked the IR readings with the optical data. Seems Ivan's decided to play hardball. Some of the sats are being blinded.”
Hallwinter could almost feel how Jennifer Ahrendts frowned, and she had good reason to do so. Weighing in excess of 32,000 tons, nuclear powered and bristling with offensive weapons as well as lasers and anti-ballistic capabilities, the Andropov-class cruiser was not meant to sink ships: it was meant to sink fleets. And if one of those beasts was coming their way, the best course to avoid a meeting was to move first.
His thoughts were racing ahead of him. “We're moving out,” he heard himself say. “I want us ready at oh-one hundred, Miss Ahrendts.”
“I'm already on it, sir. I'll do the necessary ass-kicking while you meet Gordon,” she replied with a weak smile. Her shift would have been over in less than half an hour, but both of them knew Hallwinter would not be there in time: not with the admiral holding a meeting.
In her way, Jennifer Ahrendts was by all means an attractive woman, which was only helped by her open-mindesness. Rigorous but just in her duties and dealings with her subordinates and comrades, at the same time always mindful of the concerns of ship and crew, she came closest to what one might have called the mother-figure of the ship – if there were mothers who could press two hundred pound weights and could come down on sailors taller by a head or two like a ton of bricks.
“Thanks, Jennifer. I'll make it up to you,” he said more softly, and there was something in his voice that made her relax a bit.
“Did you or Captain Flynn have any luck in your hunt for goodies?” she said, her own voice softening now, too. “I get the feeling your shopping spree was rather unsuccessful,” she added with a slight nod of her head.
“No, we found nothing,” he sighed. “Not even tourist trinkets.” The captain shook his head and nearly flipped out of his parka's hood while he took turns at balling and opening his fists to encourage the blood flow in his ice-cold fingers. “Portsmouth is as dead as Bremerhaven, with the added benefit of being as gloomy as a cemetery at midnight,” he replied laconically. He would have given his left arm for a cup of steaming coffee at the moment. Moving away from the quays the wind seemed to weaken and he returned his com device back to its intended full use.
“Tourist trinkets?” Ahrendts' right eye brow rose quizzically. “Weren't you going to get her something more, ah, valuable, skipper?”
“It's an old game we play between the two of us,” he explained with a boyish shrug. “Every foreign place we go, we get each other some kind of tourist crap: a thumb-sized Eiffel Tower, London Bridge in a snow globe, a ship in a bottle. Stuff like that. But Portsmouth's too dead even for that kind of stuff! Now I'll get my ass kicked once I get home,” he chuckled.
“You know, since we're going to Brazil anyway, you could get her one of those nice little bikinis they tend to wear in Rio?” she offered teasingly, and despite the cold Hallwinter actually felt his cheeks blush.
“Those nice little nothings?” he asked in fake disbelief. “I see what you did there. You really want me to get my ass kicked, XO!”
“Me? I'd never even dream of doing so, skipper!” she told him stone-faced, then nodded. “Sir, I'll see you after the conference.”
“All right, Jennifer. Hallwinter out.” He cut the transmission, quickened his pace, and soon was jogging back to the base.
Portsmouth Base was the largest installation of the Royal Navy, and even during times of empty treasuries and massive recession the area and the anchoring vessels still gave off echoes of the former power and glory of the British Empire. Spread over three hundred acres there were literally dozens of dry docks, warehouses, barracks and berths. Since 2015, it also hosted the Britannia Royal Naval College after the original location in Dartmouth been devastated by suicide bombers. Nearly fifty ships of all types and classes were garrisoned here but only a fraction of those were operational nowadays. Two thirds of the ships lay mothballed at their anchorages even though many claimed that never since the end of the Cold War were they needed more than these days.
Like other European nations the United Kingdom had done its utmost to transfer money from its defense budgets to avoid the impending national bankruptcy, before consecutive governments had taken the knife to the second largest positions in their budgets besides debt repayment: the European welfare states. The aftereffects of that had wrecked the Union and more than one of its members beyond repair, and they were still being felt by the rest. King William V only barely kept the nation together, ruling via military power, emergency decrees and subservient and essentially powerless Houses of Parliament after the British political parties had cycled through nine prime ministers during the past seven years in a very accurate display of pre-WW II Weimar style politics. Politics! Hallwinter's lips drew back in a silent snarl. Had the politicians done their damn jobs none of this would have ever happened, and he would now be able to be at home with his wife and kids.
Still, himself the servant of a military government, Hallwinter knew he was hardly in a position to criticize the monarch. He had grown up as a democrat in the leisurely and optimistic years after the end of the Cold War, and he had witnessed the decay of the society and the constitution he had sworn to defend first-hand. No, he was not happy with the situation as it was. But then, had the system worked, it never would have come to this. And if the choice was between this and a molecular civil war as well as the real threat of a complete social collapse, he'd stick with this any day.
Someone had once called the Bundeswehr, the federal German armed forces, the most politically lethargic force in the world. For long decades this had been true, and more so, an intentional and important lesson drawn from the past to avoid a return to the ‘state within the state mentality’ harbored by the Reichswehr  and the Wehrmacht before the outbreak of World War II. Patiently, it had sat through crippling cuts while ever greater responsibilities had been heaped on its back. Its leadership had not concerned itself with the decaying situation back at home, where whole cities were becoming ungovernable and essentially lawless, for that was not its constitutional duty. And even if it had expressed its concerns, who would it have talked to? After all, even the Chief of Staff had only a direct connection to a permanent under-secretary in the Ministry of Defense, not even the minister himself! But even the most apathetic institution was subject to personnel changes, and ever since the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, the tone and the tasks of the Bundeswehr had changed, if ever so gradually. The alienation between the forces and consecutive governments, especially after the first decade after 9/11 had passed, had changed the character of the forces, and when high command, the Führungsstab der Streitkräfte, decided to throw its weight into the ring towards the end of the last decade nobody but the politicians had been surprised.
The guards at the brightly lit northern gate let the two officers pass, and they jogged along the dockside concrete runway towards the massive form of the Berlin-class tender which slowly peeled itself out of the rain and fog. By now, the insides of Hallwinter's parka were just as wet as the coat’s surface, and even Steven Flynn showed signs that he was no longer craving the heat quite as much as before. Even though the thick cloth excelled in preventing the wetness and the cold of the late winter from getting in, it also kept all his body heat from dispersing. After their mile run, the two captains felt sweaty to the bone.
The south-western part of the harbor offered a reassuringly different view than the rest of Portsmouth. Despite the wet and cold weather, the docks drenched into the pale light of large floodlights bustled with activity here. Rail cranes ceaselessly moved amongst the quay wall and the surrounding ships, trucks continually brought crates and containers filled with supplies, and between all that uniformed men and civilian workers scurried around, like ants on an anthill.
Behind the almost clunky silhouette of the Berlin, the outlines of the other ships of the flotilla which would depart for the shores of South America in what had been planned to be less than a week towered in the night-stained mist. Both men knew them by heart. The U.S. Navy had sent the guided missile destroyer Halsey. The Royal Navy contributed the destroyer Daring and Monmouth, a Type-23 frigate. Behind them anchored the Dutch Evertsen and the Danish Triton, both of them frigates. That Germany contributed the lion’s share of the European part of the flotilla was owed to pure necessity rather than a growing German influence. Besides the Berlin, the emergency cabinet had decided to deploy the Bremen, a modern Type-125 long endurance frigate alongside the amphibious command vessel Emden, a 22,000 ton French Mistral-class built in license by ThyssenKrupp, and the hydroelectric submarine U-36. The four vessels were led by the destroyer Brandt, the pride of the fleet. Appearance-wise it was a pain on the eyes. Steven Flynn of the USS Halsey had once correctly remarked that the sixteen and a half thousand ton destroyer looked like the unholy result of a tequila-filled Tichuana orgy between the defunct DDX and a Ticonderoga-class.
Hallwinter jogged past the collected flotilla, trying his very best to avoid getting in the way of the dock workers and seamen who hastily carried foodstuffs, supplies and replacement parts from the docks into the bowels of the brightly lit warships. The sparks of a blowtorch sprayed from the open hangar of Monmouth while a handful of cursing and wildly gesticulating technicians were occupied halfway up the length of Evertsen’s radar tower. Engines and generators were running in all directions, the smell of salt water, exhaust fumes and oil lay like a shroud over the cold sea air, and over all of it sounded the bustle of a thousand people and their tools like the buzz of a beehive. It was hell for the senses – and Florian Hallwinter loved every second of it. Contrary to the docks, the rest of Portsmouth seemed like a cemetery to him. Here, between the ships and the men and women who served with and beneath him, he felt alive.
Bremen, Emden and Brandt were moored at the outer edge of the gathered flotilla of warships. The uptake of fuel and supplies was in full swing there, too, but there was no maintenance work being done, an observation that filled him with satisfaction. Except for Berlin, all the ships were comparably new, and the regular maintenance cycles in their home ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were more than sufficient to guarantee smooth operations. Before putting to sea, the mechanics of the Navy had vetted everything so that Hallwinter was confident the equipment would function without significant flaws. Commander Möhnhoff’s U-36 anchored on the opposite side of the basin in the shadow of a tender which had replenished the hydroelectric submarine’s fuel reserves this morning. Brandt formed the outermost edge of the German ‘precinct’ of Portsmouth Naval Base. Drenched in pale floodlights just like any other vessel, the command ship of the German naval detachment was almost completely concealed by the huge silhouette of the Emden, in and by itself not a feat achieved every day.
Having been commissioned into active service only the preceding fall after extensive service trials, this modern guided missile destroyer was Hallwinter’s ship. Measuring more than two hundred meters and sixteen and a half thousand tons fully loaded, the stealthy warship carried a deadly arsenal of torpedoes, ship-to-ship missiles, cruise missiles and rapid fire artillery as well as three naval helicopters. With a top speed of about thirty knots and a range in excess of six thousand sea miles, the Brandt could operate on its own supplies with its crew of 420 for roughly four months.
The cabinet had made the vessel the poster child of its domestic policy, carrying off the laurels of the actual design teams to promote domestic high technology companies, the protection of German jobs and recruitment into the forces while it had pointed at the ship’s important role to keep the peace to its internal and external opponents whenever the topic came up for discussion. That omnipresence hid the fact that of the originally planned three vessels of the class, Brandt was the only one to ever have been built. Despite grandiose promises, the emergency cabinet was presiding over empty coffers and a deeply damaged economy, so Brandt’s sisters Adenauer and Erhard had been stillbirths. Nonetheless one fact remained, which was that the D-201 class represented the largest and most powerful unit a German navy had fielded since the end of the Second World War. Still, once they met up with the rest of the ships at the rendezvous point off the Azores, the Navy’s contribution would be no greater than that of Spain or Italy, tonnage-wise.
The increasing rain quickened their pace, and after half a minute they arrived in front of the high superstructure of the Daring-class destroyer. Two members of the Royal Marines, wearing wired Kevlar helmets and completely soaked ponchos, which did little to mask the layers of body armor beneath, controlled all newcomers with alert eyes.
The captain of the Danish Triton arrived at the same time as Flynn and Hallwinter. The two guards thoroughly checked the officers regardless of their higher ranks, and only when the older one of the two appeared to be pleased with the outcome of the procedure was the younger of the duo allowed to let the three captains aboard the guided missile destroyer.
The commander of the task force, Admiral Gordon, and his chief of staff, Commander Angelica Lyons, sat together in the northern corner of the Daring’s officers’ mess. The commanding officers of the other ships of the multinational intervention force had taken up seats at the remaining tables. Admiral Chester Gordon was an imposing man. Almost seven feet tall and square-shouldered like a professional wrestler, his very appearance did everything to dispel the cliché popular image of the slender, tea-sipping officer of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. Short, kinky black hair strewn with specks of gray and a trimmed mustache framed the angular face of their fleet’s commander, and there were darker rings beneath his steel gray eyes that were not hidden by the dark skin he owed to his Caribbean ancestry. In contrast to the other assembled officers Gordon still wore his full dress uniform, including medals and service ribbons.
He arose, stifling a yawn, when the three men simultaneously entered the mess hall. Gordon stepped in front of them and returned the military salute, indicating to them to take a seat.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for calling this meeting so abruptly. I'm more than aware that you most certainly all have your hands full at the moment, but there has been a change of plans. I’ve just returned from a leadership meeting, and as you can all easily imagine our operation in Brazil featured prominently on the order of business there. The good news first: nobody’s taking any ships off our little regatta,” he told them with a satisfied smile that was echoed across the room. Their numbers were small enough as they were. “And now for the bad news: our plan of action has been torn to pieces. We are to put out to sea early.”
Admiral Gordon's revelation was returned by a ripple of murmurs and stoic, discontented faces.
“Gentlemen, if it was up to Brussels we’d have set sail already yesterday,” Gordon said dryly, arousing a smattering of laughter and rolled eyes. Technically, they were acting under the United Nations' mandate. The task force even had been given the official name of UNBIF, or United Nations Brazil Intervention Force, but in effect the whole affair was a NATO-run and sponsored act which BRIC had only agreed to because of the humanitarian facade. “The most recent on-site reports unambiguously show us how fast the situation in the country is deteriorating. We've got reports of clashes between loyalist and neo-Bolivarian army units and the militias of local strongmen. At the same time, the hunger crisis in the larger cities and especially the slums is getting out of hand. The whole affair has the potential to end in something truly ugly. Given the importance of Brazilian oil - heck, of Brazil itself - I don’t have to remind any of you that we must stabilize the situation no matter the cost. Commander Lyons will hand out the most recent situation reports and intel estimates at the end of our meeting so that you can all brace yourselves and your crews for what’s waiting for them in South America.”
The measure was redundant as all crews and their officers had been briefed en detail about the situation when the mission had been planned. It was too late for greater adjustments now, especially given the mission’s accelerated schedule.
“No doubt you've also already heard about a Russian squadron leaving Murmansk earlier today. HQ believes it's just the first wave of a BRIC intervention to prop Brazil up, much like we are trying to do. Unfortunately, NATO leadership seems to have come to the conclusion that we and we alone should be doing the propping up, with the added benefit of possibly reducing BRIC to RIC.”
“Oh, crap,” someone among them muttered, and Gordon nodded.
“Indeed. To make matters worse, this came in via an NSA satellite just half an hour ago.” He paused as Lyons handed out the photographs. “What you can see there are two squadrons of Russian TU-22 bombers parked on an airfield a few miles outside of Caracas, Venezuela. I'm sure they aren't just there on a friendly visit, gentlemen.”
Captain Mark Francis Piper spoke up. “When exactly are we supposed to set sail, sir?” His question was more than justified, given the busy atmosphere out on the docks that, more than any officers’ statement, showed that the task force was everything but ready to move. His ship, the frigate HMS Monmouth, was garrisoned at Portsmouth and had just come out of an extended phase of overhauls and electronics upgrades that had kept it in port for more than a year. He had served under Chester Gordon already in two consecutive missions and the two men knew each other personally.
“NATO High Command wants us to put out to sea no later than tomorrow afternoon, Mark,” Gordon told the Monmouth’s CO resignedly.
The announcement created the first cracks in the assembled officers’ faces as their murmurs once more echoed their sullen discontent. Since the original schedule had set the date of their departure on the 20th, roughly ten percent of the Dutch frigate’s crew was still on shore leave with their families. Other NATO members had less lax regulations than the Dutch and had restricted their crews’ shore leave to a minimum once the mission had been put into motion.
“If need be, Evertsen can operate without these crew members,” a surly Captain Piet van der Grooten admitted, but it was obvious he did not like the prospect.
Monmouth still had problems with the new electronics of their CIWS systems that would occupy the frigate’s technicians for the coming few days.
Commander Chandwa’s concerns were more serious. The commanding officer of the Fort George – Captain Marrik, who lay in the base’s hospital with a case of protracted pneumonia – was the first son of family of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the longest-serving officer in the room. “Sir, Fort George only has taken in 45% of our projected load so far, and I see no possibility to get the remaining 55% on board by tomorrow afternoon, simply because half of it won’t be delivered before the 16th of March. If we set sail according to the new plan, this task force will steam into a shooting war with less than 75% of the necessary supply volume.”
“Most likely even less than that,” Captain Richard Voight of Mendonca added for consideration. “My tub’s stevedored only sixty percent so far, if we leave the diesel out of the equation. We then still have Berlin, but we’d be close to running on empty after two weeks with what we have, and if twenty-five years on the water have taught me one thing then it’s that Murphy is a bugger who’ll put a spoke into your wheel when you need it the least.”
“Those are all fine and legitimate concerns, gentlemen,” Gordon said, raising his hands, “but they are addressed to the wrong man. Believe me, I made my case with the very same problems in front of High Command. NATO wants to see us off the South-American coast, and it wants us there ASAP. We're no longer just looking at defusing a potential civil war. This could boil over into something truly ugly if we end up butting heads with Ivan. Brazil's also the most populous country on the South American continent. Should groups there start to mutually slaughter each other, the world will be confronted with a situation against which the genocide in Rwanda will look like a walk-over.”
Gloomy silence descended on the officers’ mess for a few moments. Then Emden’s Major Alexander Kaufmann took the floor. “Admiral, if the situation has already deteriorated that much can we still count on the support and cooperation of government’s forces?” Kaufmann led the 2nd Naval Infantry Battalion of the Bundeswehr’s DSO  and would be among the first to set foot on Brazilian soil.
“The political leadership is positive on that, but my MI-6 contact gave me only a qualified ‘maybe’. Personally, I fear we'll be on our own. Inculcate it into your men that they need to be prepared for the worst. That’s all we can do on our own. Admiral Birmingham has a regiment of the 2nd U.S. Marine Division with him, and one way or the other our landings will be staged under heavy air cover.”
Now it was Steven Flynn of Halsey's turn to raise his voice. “Which is another point that gives me headaches, sir. While Admiral Birmingham and the Harry S. Truman will be with us for the first ten to fourteen days all that we have after that are the twelve thirty-year-old Harriers of Principe de Asturias and whatever combat capabilities we can squeeze out of our own helicopters.”
Ever since the USS Ronald Reagan and the British HMS Queen Elizabeth had been sunk at the height of the Gulf Crisis a decade ago, air support had become a sore point for any kind of operation that exceeded the normal boundaries of NATO’s area of operation, whatever those were. Given that the alliance increasingly acted globally and on its own, the idea of boundaries to its operations was, at best, theoretical. Half of the US Navy’s carriers were in the Pacific, keeping an eye on China, while the rest patrolled the western part of the Indian Ocean to secure the vital flow of crude oil. The remaining British carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, lay in dry dock six hundred meters away from the task force. Admiral Birmingham’s Nimitz-class flag ship had also been hauled out of dry dock prematurely to provide the multinational mission at least with a modicum of air cover before steaming on into the Indian Ocean to relieve CVN-74 John C. Stennis. The task force would meet up with Birmingham’s squadron off the coast of the Azores.
Flynn went on, turning to his fellow officers. “I’m pretty confident that Halsey alone could handle most that will possibly be thrown at us down there. But I still don’t understand why you Europeans did not get the French and their Charles de Gaulle on board. Those sixty planes for sure would come handy right now.”
“Captain Flynn, as far as I know most of the French fleet has been grounded for the past four years. They simply need every man in uniform to keep their own country from blowing up in their faces,” Piet van der Grooten remarked caustically. The Dutch were no strangers to the problem, having needed to resort to curfews and the use of live ammunition in parts of the country. He picked up his cup and took a sip of coffee, grimacing. “No wonder you British drink so much tea if that’s the quality of your coffee,” he muttered with feigned indignation, much to the amusement of the other European officers. Despite all the cooperation over the past decades the British still were the odd men out, and both sides took great pleasure in driving that particular point home from time to time. Hallwinter did not miss the look Gordon darted at the Dutch captain. These in substance political discussions were impossible to prevent, especially among the very men and women who found themselves on the front lines executing those policies, but they had no place in a briefing.
“Complaining won’t get us anywhere, gentlemen,” Chester Gordon interjected firmly. His voice focused the officers’ attention back on the task force’s commander again. “I’m confident you and your crews will make the best of this admittedly lackluster situation. The points you've brought up are more or less outside the scope of our influence. Unless you have any more substantial objections, I’d ask you to return to your ships to guarantee a flawless start of the operation tomorrow. We leave port on 1400 hours, Greenwich Mean Time.” The admiral turned to the commanding officers of the task force’s tenders. “Base commander Admiral Mulholland has assured me that if need be the dock workers will work for the whole night. Make sure you get stowed away whatever you can get your hands on in the meantime, gentlemen. Once we’ve put out to sea we’re on our own for the coming weeks.”
Argentina and Colombia had both agreed to ready supplies for the fleet, but as time was of essence there was little guarantee those goods could be counted on.
“Very well, gentlemen. We will convene here again once we’ve reached our destination in the southern Atlantic for the final pre-landing briefing. Dismiss!”
Hallwinter watched his fellow commander rise and leave the mess hall, full of activity to get their own ships seaworthy, and as if it were a premonition he realized they were not leaving port to offer aid. They were going to war.