On Stranger Tides
The Channel, South-West of Land’s End, FMG Brandt (D-201)
14 March 2024, 23:01 Hours
The storm that had gathered during the past twenty-four hours whipped the foaming seas into the narrows of the Channel between the British Isles and the continent. It was not yet a hurricane, but the fleet had already run into heavy seas, making their attempted average speed of fifteen knots illusory. At a snail’s pace the task force fought its way from the strong currents of the coastal waters into the open sea.
Hallwinter was not afraid of the weather, even though the ocean still compelled respect from him after twenty years of service. He had navigated through worse than what battered their ships now. Spring storms like this one weren't anything out of the ordinary, even though the timing happened to be anything but perfect. Strangely enough, this one, however, seemed to blow off most of its steam in the higher layers of the atmosphere according to their weather frogs. If that truly was the case, Hallwinter hoped the storm would not change its opinion. Brandt’s bridge was hermetically closed off from the foaming waves outside, but even within the confines of the unbreakable glass and Kevlar-reinforced metal cabin, the howling and hissing of wind and waves remained faintly audible. Aside from the soft murmur of the ship’s engines, these were the only sounds on the destroyer’s bridge. The night outside was pitch black. Only the subdued interior lighting suggested that there was something but pure darkness out there, and even then all one could see were the streaks the rain and rough sea left on the bulletproof glass.
Hallwinter took a look at his digital watch. Soon his shift would be over and he would be able to join the part of his crew who were enjoying their well-deserved sleep after the past forty-eight hours' efforts. His eyes once again roamed over the Brandt’s bridge. All was as it should be. Oberbootsmann  Johannes Hensgen had the helm. Hensgen was a sturdy, hook-nosed and bull-necked sailor from Lower Bavaria. He'd almost had been with the armed forces for so long that some japed he had taken part in NATO's historic Double Track Decision of 1981. The man was an exceptional sailor and had lightning-fast reflexes in critical situations, but had never been able to exceed the rank he held at the moment because he let nobody forbid him to speak his mind. 'Having the helm' also was a misleading description. Hensgen sat in a chair that could very well have been the slimmer version of the one found on Captain James T. Kirk's bridge, and his 'helm' was composed of a stick, speed governors and status displays as well as a three-dimensional radar display on the flat screens in front of him. Three more noncommissioned officers had guard duty on the bridge with him. Highest in rank, and formally in charge when neither Hallwinter nor the XO were on deck, was Ensign Lukas Freistorff, a pale and slender cadet with green, alert eyes. The UNBIF mission was his first true tour of duty.
Hallwinter liked the calm, deliberate nature of the Westphalian sailor. The boy was on an express lift to his own command, in case the Bundeswehr did not economize itself to death before he got the chance. The captain suppressed a sigh. Hallwinter felt the weariness of the past hours and days relentlessly make its unslowable trudge through his body. For a moment he considered getting himself another coffee, but discarded the thought almost instantly. The wash did not taste any better after the third cup for one thing, and for another while it certainly would beat back the fatigue it would also keep him from actually falling asleep once his shift was over. Maybe some variation would do the trick.
“You have the bridge, Mr. Freistorff. I'll be in CIC.”
“Jawohl, Herr Kap’tän!” The ensign gave him a snappish salute, and Hallwinter vanished through the companionway from the destroyer’s bridge.
The bulkhead between the bridge and the steeped ladder on the one side and the CIC on the other stood open. Resting in solid hinges, the two inches thick, fire resistant, armor steel door was only closed in case the destroyer entered a hot combat zone, dividing the ship into countless – and ideally hermetically sealed - compartments to drastically increase the Brandt's chances of survival.
The nature of modern naval combat made it nigh impossible to solely sink a ship by simply breaching its hull. Heavy caliber naval artillery was no longer in use with most maritime forces of the world, and the linkage of modern guns with radar and potent, semi-intelligent target acquisition computers made the protracted artillery duels of the First and Second World War a relic of the past. The character of torpedo attacks also had changed. In the past, the fleets of the seafaring nations had done their utmost possible to protect their prestigious – and expensive – battle lines against the threat of torpedoes with thick armor belts beneath the waterline. Nowadays - or rather, since the days of the Cold War - the same navies had abandoned that approach. It would have been a waste of precious funding anyway. Modern torpedoes, regardless of whether they were manufactured by the Russians, the Chinese or the Americans, did not target a ship’s broadside. Rather, they detonated beneath its keel, creating a vacuum in an explosion equaling several hundred pounds of TNT that quite literally broke their target’s back, damning it to sink into the depths of the oceans. No amount of compartementalization, no matter how sophisticated, provided enough protection against the results of such a hit.
No, the armored bulkheads of the Brandt were to protect the ship from an even less predictable foe than water: fire. At least since the sinking of the British destroyer HMS Sheffield in the Falklands War in 1982, fire was atop the list of life-threatening hazards for naval designers everywhere. Aside from the danger posed through the inflammable ammunition, modern ships consisted in no small part of compound materials which in and by themselves were a hazard when set alight as they emitted poisonous fumes. The more robust internal structure of warships also served to create a funnel effect in which the remaining metal components carried the fire further once they had been heated up enough. Once closed, fireproof bulkheads and partitioned compartments could withdraw the fire’s sustenance and provide the firefighting troops aboard with vital minutes to save the ship. Potent compressors also pumped the wasted and sooted air outside to starve the flames and guarantee the functionality of the ship even in protracted combat situations.
At the foot of the steep companionway, there was a T-crossing with three exits, each emblazoned with a small label. Hallwinter stooped and took the central entrance, arriving at the CIC.
The Combat Information Center, CIC for short, was the actual heart of the destroyer. Unlike during the earlier days of naval warfare it was here, and not on the bridge, where all information converged. Every mission was led from within its armored, bulkhead-protected depths, and in an engagement it also took over the few remaining functions of the original command bridge. The CIC itself was under the command of the 2nd Operations Officer while the whole main section of the ship, including the CIC, communications and signals officers was headed by the 1st Operations Officer.
On Brandt, the CIC was Semih Aracan’s domain. The Senior Lieutenant with both ebony hair and eyes had already served with Hallwinter on previous missions and the captain had a high opinion of the sailor of Turkish origin.
Florian Hallwinter dove through the bulkhead frame into the CIC’s twilight. The lighting in here came only from the multitude of large screens. Three dozen sailors, most of them NCOs or higher ranks, were working at their stations. Nobody really took notice of Hallwinter, which was rather the point. The captain had no idea how this particular feature was handled in other navies, but with the German Navy CIC was the nerve center of the ship. The mere presence of the commanding officer was not reason enough to disrupt the work of the men and women doing their duty there.
The amount of futuristic screens and displays and the dark uniforms of the crew almost made the inside of the CIC look like the imagined bridge of a sci-fi movie spaceship. The kind of naval warfare most men and women of the NATO task force had been trained in was fought across distances of dozens, even hundreds of miles. The enemy almost never appeared as more than a computer blip on the screens of bridge and CIC. Ninety percent of the time, life and death lay not in the hands of the CIC's crew, but the computers themselves.
Senior Lieutenant Aracan silently stood in the center of the sunken room, observing not only his subordinates but also the satellite news feed, his arms crossed in front of his chest and his chin resting on one fist. Two channels on a split screen the diameter of a small desk ran mute, but both CNN International and the British BBC offered their programs with simultaneous computer-generated subtitles. Hallwinter knew that Aracan watched both programs simultaneously, and the short orders he gave his subordinates in between just illustrated the comprehensive control he had over all that happened within ‘his’ CIC.
The man working besides Aracan was an unexpected sight at this time of the day. Matthias Hammen was a civilian contractor for the Bundesamt für Wehrtechnik und Beschaffung, the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement at the Naval Armory at Wilhelmshaven. Aged forty-eight, the former senior lieutenant was the type of passenger one could do without, and who one only took aboard because of orders from above. The unanimous opinion of the crew was that the man had an unsurpassed talent for being in the way and hurting himself during the most banal tasks. To compensate for his clumsiness he had the monopoly on arrogance. Hallwinter found it hard to disagree with his crew’s assessment. It seemed that Matthias Hammen had salvaged little of his former career’s discipline and coordination skills for his civilian life. Still, his presence was not without reason.
VIS, the Virtuelle Intelligenz zur Schiffsteuerung, was the prototype of a networked computer system which was to become an integral part of all new constructions of the Bundesmarine during the coming years. The system independently analyzed all sensor data, created sit-reps, offered multiple courses of action in a whole range of situations and automatically brought the ship to a combat-ready state once it had detected a threat.
That was only a very rudimentary description of the system, Hallwinter knew, and he also knew that the brain behind it stood right next to the operations’ officer: Matthias Hammen.
Hallwinter stepped beside the civilian. “I had not expected to find you here at such a late hour.”
Hammen's eyes twitched away from his handheld PDA in surprise. The engineer shuffled his brown-framed glasses back from the tip of his nose.
“I always had problems with finding sleep in heavy seas, Mr. Hallwinter.” Hammen’s gaze darted back to the PDA’s display, then to the almost seven feet tall but only eight inches deep, tank-like structure that filled a good part of the CIC’s center. Most of it was filled with electronics – a lot of electronics, expensive electronics – while the translucent midst was occupied by a projecting system powered by a plasma laser. That was the long version, as described by Hammen. The rest of the crew and most of the officers simply called the piece the 'holotank'.
“Problems?” Hallwinter looked at the VIS and raised an eyebrow.
Hammen’s head swayed indecisively from side to side. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Probably. That, and ideas. I get the best ideas at night. Not that I expect you to understand even half of them,” he muttered. He pressed a button on his PDA, and sequences of code began to run downwards within the holotank. “Besides, I doubt I’ll be allowed to spend that much time here once we’ve reached the South American coast.” He touched the VIS’ casing almost tenderly. “Systems like this one are like infants. In their present state they need constant attention and surveillance. To stay with the baby metaphor, it can do basic things like breathe, crawl and call out for mum and dad, but of course you have to breathe down its neck to avoid it putting its hands on the hot plate.”
“I’ll feed it oatmeal myself as long as that keeps my crew safe,” Hallwinter muttered, and the on-duty sailors concentrated a little bit harder on their screens to hide their grins.
“Well, there are some kinks here and there, but VIS isn’t exactly Skynet, if you get my gist.” Hammen flashed a mocking grin. “The system’s only been tested under lab conditions, and we both know that’s not enough. That’s where I get into the game. I’ve begun to feed it with all the naval battle scenarios – actual, historical and hypothetical - I could get my hands on. The system can run more simulations in a second than the whole armed forces in a year so I’m confident we’ll be ready to roll in time.” He took off his glasses, massaged the ridge of his nose and replaced them. “By the way, I would appreciate it if your men could stop touching the display tank all night long with their greasy fingers. I feel like I’m in a zoo watching the gorillas,” he sniffed. Without waiting for the captain to reply, he delved into the data streams represented on his pad’s display again.
Hallwinter continued to stare at the fluorescent columns of code for a few moments before turning his attention to the rest of the CIC again. “So what's the news of the world?”
“Twenty twenty-four is doing its very best to be just as wonderful and relaxed as last year,” Senior Lieutenant Aracan muttered sardonically without taking his eyes off the news feeds. The announcements were everything but encouraging.
...Police and paramilitaries were using live ammunition at food riots in Rio de Janeiro. Chinese fleet departing for Indonesia to protect local Chinese minorities from the rampant violence in the collapsing multireligious, multiethnic nation. Tensions on the rise between India and Pakistan after the assassination of the Indian prime minister. More than three thousand dead already in a new wave of radical Muslim terror in Algeria...
Semih Aracan followed the news with barely hidden disgust. The grandson of Turkish immigrants, he had been born into a Muslim family, but while the world around him descended into a madhouse dominated by fundamentalist religion and terror, he had put that part of his life behind him a long time ago. Nowadays, his brothers – all of them - visited the mosque on Fridays, something even his father had done only during Ramadan and other high Muslim feast days, and even then mostly out of courtesy. On the advice of their local imam, they had arranged marriages with distant relatives from Turkey, and his parents, old and tired, had offered no resistance to that. His mother and father were glad they now had grandchildren of their own who sat on their laps, and for this he could not blame them: after all, he had no family or children of his own. He was home so seldom that he had become a stranger to his own siblings.
The cut in his life he had made thirteen years ago had forever propelled him out of the world of the immigrant ghetto and its cheap apartment blocks in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city. Each time he returned, it appeared stranger, more alien, more hostile to him. Now sixteen thousand tons of steel made his home.
The image feed on the left half of the screen was replaced by a dossier headed by the federal eagle. Aracan conjured a finger-sized remote control from a pocket of his uniform’s jacket and slowly scrolled the document downwards. “The most recent global sit-rep arrived via SATCOM-Bw  barely ten minutes ago. Nothing new about Brazil, though there's a situation developing in Nigeria.” The senior lieutenant threw a skeptical glance at Hammen, but the civilian was deeply immersed in his work with the holotank. “The system needed three attempts to access the report,” he explained in a tone that did not leave anything to the imagination regarding the error rate. Rumor had it the hardware alone had cost some thirty million marks, but if it failed even at such an elementary task as downloading an email it had no place in ‘his’ CIC.
Hallwinter concentrated on the content of the report, and with every line he read the expression on his face got darker. “The bomb killed three quarters of parliament?” His voice was a mix of anger and astonishment.
Aracan nodded and scrolled further down until he reached the enclosed aerial photographs that obviously had been shot by a spy satellite. The images showed a huge, black-framed crater in the midst of a debris field which had formed in an area almost six hundred yards in diameter around the place of detonation: the remains of the Nigerian houses of parliament and their occupants. “The president and the majority of his cabinet have survived, but that’s owed to the chronically crowded streets of the capital rather than the Nigerian security services. According to the NSA, the attacker did bribe the guards at the southeastern entry to the parliamentary district after which he continued unchecked to his target.”
The next image showed rough pictures from a security camera feed on which an old Fiat 7.5 ton transporter sporting a laundry shop label was clearly visible.
“Preliminary analysis says it’s some homemade mix of explosives, probably similar to the one used in Oklahoma City in 1995,” Aracan went on. “They still use masses of the nondefused variety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Africa.” That attack, against a federal building, had come from an ultraright militia member who had used a truck filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitro-methane and diesel fuel. It had cost the lives of 168 people. Since then, efforts had been undertaken to replace the fertilizer with less explosive, artificial fertilizer compounds to prevent similar attacks from happening. “They still use masses of the nondefused variety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Africa.”
“Did the rebels claim responsibility for the attack?”
The senior lieutenant shook his head.
“Not officially, no, but the report also notes that there is little doubt about who was behind it. Barely twenty minutes after the explosion fighters of the Northern provinces crossed the UN demarcation line. That’s unlikely to be a coincidence.”
“And the report was downloaded ten minutes ago?” Hallwinter broached the subject again.
Aracan nodded affirmatively. “Jawohl, Herr Kap’tän. But compiling it must have taken some time. The surveillance photographs have been shot in broad daylight. Accounting for different times zones, that must have been at least four hours ago.”
“Does the fleet know?”
“The other ships should have gotten the report at about the same time as we did,” Aracan shrugged before sourly adding with a glance at the holotank, “well, almost the same time.”
Hallwinter scratched his chin. “No message from Daring?”
The senior lieutenant activated his larynx microphone with a tap of his finger.
The response came over the CIC's speakers immediately. “Communications, all clear. No incoming transmissions.”
Florian Hallwinter nodded and glanced at the combat information center’s digital watch. After the task force had left Portsmouth Harbor, all ships’ clocks had been set to operate on Greenwich Mean Time, an hour behind the continent. His shift was as good as over. “All right. Semih, tell the first operations officer he is to wake me up in case the situation drastically changes. And remind your relief to keep an eye on the news. I want to remain up to date about the situation on the ground. Ladies and gentlemen, good night.”
Contrary to his fears, sleep embraced him almost immediately in his bunk.
Atlantic Ocean, USS Halsey (DDG 97)
15 March 2024, 17:16 Hours
Steven Flynn reveled in the silence of his cabin while he looked at the framed photographs on his desk. In the age of satellite-based videophones the actual distances did melt to a virtual minimum, but the Halsey’s captain often preferred those pictures he could touch and hold in his hands to the other kind of communication. Furthermore, the different time zones he and his family existed in often made it impossible to communicate with them in Philadelphia on any kind of regular basis. That also was one reason why a low row of black-and-white and colored photographs adorned his desk, framing a detailed and painted model of the World War II carrier USS Wasp like a barricade.
His great-grandfather, Eric Flynn, had served as a captain under the name giver of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, Admiral 'Bull' Halsey. Steven had been too young to truly have memories of his great-grandfather so that photographs were the only thing that linked him with that part of his past.
The second picture showed the four generations of the Flynn family together. Except for Steven’s grandfather Jacob, all had entered the armed forces. Steven’s father Mathew had taken part in the last two years of the Vietnam War and in the intervention on Grenada, and he himself had been with the US Navy since ’99.
The picture was from the fall of 1978. That they all belonged to one family was obvious, even with gray and wheelchair-bound Eric Flynn. All had the same sharp-edged face, the same almost green eyes, the same thick black hair. A collection of brothers, uncles and nephews, there were more than twenty-five people in that picture.
Most of the photographs, however, showed his wife and the children. Pamela had studied marine biology at Berkeley University, and while Steven’s father had been in Vietnam and his mother with their parents in Minnesota, the parents of his wife had thoroughly taken part in the student movement of the sixties and seventies. Despite, or maybe even because of those differences, it had been love at first sight.
They had met at a congress to which the then fresh Lieutenant 1st Class Steven Flynn had been commanded by the Navy. After heated discussions and an even more heated night they had thrown each other into a long-distance relationship of which both had little expectations at the time. But six months became a year, a year turned into two, and in the spring of the third year he had gone to Berkeley as the second-in-command on a new destroyer in his white dress uniform and had proposed to her in the middle of the campus – which, in the opinion of a significant number of his comrades, was easily as hostile a territory as Fallujah, Afghanistan or Kuwait, although not quite as deadly.
By now they were married for sixteen years and had three children: Patricia, Jessica, and Josh, their youngest. It was everything but ordinary that their marriage held despite the long distances and times involved in which he was not at home. The armed forces, especially the Navy, were no picnic for families. The Navy had among the highest divorce rates in the country. Whenever he thought about that he could feel a cold needle in his stomach. His wife. His children. More than once they had discussed whether he should leave the Navy and get a civilian job. Discussed, not argued. But he had no illusions that the topic would always be approached this civilly. And every time he returned home, he was greeted by children who looked so different from what he remembered from his photographs, he promised to himself to get an honorable discharge. And every time, the sea called him back.
The ship’s intercom yanked him from his melancholic thoughts. The digital watch that had been sunk in the cabin wall showed 17:30 hours. “Sir, you have a video-conference circuit from Monmouth,” the guard informed him.
Flynn activated his own terminal, and Captain Mark Piper’s broad face appeared in front of him. The screen divided the picture, making room for the gaunt features of Piet van Grooten. Then the display split three times more, so that Captain Richard Voight of Mendonca, Commander Angelica Lyons and, finally, Captain Hallwinter of Brandt were all present. The unlikely group had formed only days after the task force had begun to anchor at Portsmouth.
Forgetting his melancholy, Flynn leaned back and flashed a bright grin even though a part of his mind noticed that a headache was crawling up from his neck.
“Gentlemen, lady… as it seems no one of you is quite fed up with war, let’s play 'Axis and Allies'!”
Atlantic Ocean, HMS Daring (D-32)
16 March 2024, 08:16 Hours
The radio operator firmly shook his head.
“No, M’am. The equipment is working flawlessly, but I had to recalibrate it to a lower setting. The atmospheric disturbances make getting through to the satellite and the rest like a run through the meat grinder. That, and the high ionization of the air is what worries me.”
“What does that mean, both generally and for us, Chief?” Commander Angelica Lyons furrowed her brows and crossed her arms in front of her chest, suppressing a yawn. The actual watch officer had signed himself off from duty after the ship’s doctor had attested the man a migraine the size of Cornwall. Admiral Gordon’s chief of staff knew the man from their common time and the academy and knew that he was everything but a slacker looking for an excuse to dodge his duties. More so, the same problem seemed to be affecting a growing number of not only Daring’s crew members, but among the whole task force. The infirmary's stock of aspiring was dwindling at an increasing pace. Lyons felt a slight throb beneath her temples, too. The doctors were at a loss, but headaches were not exactly lethal or endangering the functionality of the ships so the fleet continued south-west, towards the Azores.
“That means the air becomes electrically charged, M’am. If I turn the system to its full output there’s a possibility it’ll work like a sort of magnet. Daring might get hit by lightning,” he said, frowning. “Theoretically, the same should be true for our radars.”
“I’ve never heard of something like this happening, Chief,” Lyons commented doubtfully, and the NCO shrugged, subconsciously rubbing his temples.
“The high metal superstructure of the ship is quite inviting to electric discharges, and a direct impact could – worst case here – fry our complete electronics, commander. Shouldn’t normally happen - after all, there've been lightning rods since Benjamin Franklin, but then the weather outside isn’t quite normal, is it?” he added glumly.
“Yes, but will this be a problem for us, chief?” she pressed, and the NCO who could have been her older brother handed her a clipboard full of handwritten notes, smiling tiredly.
“How much time do you have, commander?”
* * *
In three days the multinational task force would meet up with units under the command of USN Admiral Birmingham. There the Italian and Spanish units would also catch up with them, which would increase the fleet to almost thirty vessels, almost a third of which were support and supply units.
The operation was running under the flag of a humanitarian intervention whose goal was the prevention, and if that was no longer an option, containment of a civil war - but nobody with the task force harbored any illusions about the true motives for their being there. They were there to secure the vital oil production off the Brazilian coast and make sure the refineries remained untouched. Barely a decade ago such a blatantly imperialist agenda would have mobilized tens of thousands of people to demonstrate in the streets. Indeed, it would have had the power to topple governments. However, years of recession, the Gulf Shock, scarcer crude oil and colder winters had brought the European peace movements down a peg or two. Once you were unemployed and freezing most found it easy to review their principles, and in light of horrendous prices for heating oil and fuel an intervention to secure a supply of those vital goods looked far less despicable than it had in the past.
Only few pacifists had gathered for protests in January, and the icy cold had forced even that dedicated core to return back into the slightly warmer interior of their homes soon thereafter. Winters across the globe had become harsher during the past decade.
Russia, itself hit hard by the new wave of cold and on bad terms with Europe and the United States after a near-war with NATO after its occupation of the Crimea in 2016, only sold its oil and gas for hard currency.
Europe, whose heavy industries had fled from the continent whose governments had not been willing to offer them competitive conditions, and which in times of plenty had placed its eggs in the basket of expensive yet at best moderately effective ‘alternate energies’, was hit the hardest. Hunger, coldness and unemployment had turned more than a few cities between Gibraltar and Helsinki into gloomy mirror images of Portsmouth. A political ‘elite’ which did not deserve the name lived in a constant state of mental overload, governing states that either barely functioned or were only held together by massive police forces unless they had not been deposed (and, in one case, hung from a street lantern). Bureaucracy, friction, the lack of know-how and, last but not least, insufficient finances had made restarting the exploitation of fossil fuels into a sluggish process.
It was one of the great ironies of recent history that quite a few people had set their hopes on the institutionally strengthened European Union, and during the first few months after the real crisis had started nothing had been so popular among national leaderships as the effort to pass on the blame onto the next higher level. The Union was a process-oriented construct: it existed on the very notion that different states’ problems could be overcome, that barriers could be torn down in endless rounds of discussions that – taking years – would achieve a minimal consensus bearable by all. None of its features, as top-heavy as they were, was suitable to lead nearly 500 million people decisively when the obstacle was not the adjustment of sugar cane prices but the combination of an oil embargo and a currency collapse. The same dodges that usually would at least have domestically eased the political pressure failed against the urgency of the crisis. In the years that followed, the Union de facto ceased to exist as a political actor.
The breakdown of political institutions was followed by the end of the Europe-wide freedom of movement. The streams of refugees to what few oases of stability still existed soon exceeded the sizes of those during the wars on the Balkans during the 1990s. To contain them, cabinets in London, Dijon and Berlin had created the action framework from which a European ‘Core’ still operated today, and which was the reason that the Federal Republic did field ships like Brandt and Emden. With 16,500 and 22,000 tons fully loaded they were, after all, the largest warships build by Germany since World War II.
Given that the British press was almost constantly at daggers drawn with their cousins from the continent, taking turns in calling them krauts or Huns and invoking a war at even the most ridiculous events despite the German capitulation having been seventy years ago, there was a slight unease about Germany. It was easy to see that the Federal Republic, governed by an executive council completely reliant on and to 50% made up of officers of the Bundeswehr, evoked images of Prussian militarism and expansionism. However, the men and women of the German armed forces had since then fought alongside their partners in interventions in Algeria and against an ‘uncooperative’ Norwegian government with courage and professionalism. Comradeship and a rudimentary esprit the corps had grown between the individual nations’ forces since then, a fact also owed to an increasing number of officers and soldiers - especially among the French, Belgian and German forces - commanding two foreign languages.
The Germans had offered the British Admiralty to place Chester Gordon’s staff on the more spacious Emden since the amphibious assault ship already possessed facilities explicitly suited for that task. The Royal Navy had politely but firmly refused the offer. Despite all problems the British were still a prime naval power, and a British admiral always commanded from a vessel of His Majesty. However, the destroyers of the Daring-class had not been built with the idea of serving as the hosts for an admiral’s flag. Still, since the main units of the navy of His Majesty William IV were either already in the field or receiving much-needed overhauls the ranks had been closed more than literally aboard Daring. It was owed to these circumstances that the briefing with his closest staff was being held in the officers’ mess of the destroyer.
“… and there’s also that: according to the last download several blue helmets have been killed or taken hostage. However, neither MI6 nor naval intelligence know whether it’s the Neo-Bolivarian rebels or just somebody else trying to make a quick buck in all the chaos,” Lyons explained. “The Admiralty and NATO have requested further information from the government, but it seems as if we get more news quicker via CNN and other channels than from our so-called ‘allies’.”
The way she placed the emphasis on that particular word left few doubts about how little the commander thought of them.
“What’s the situation on the ground at the other hot-spot, Ms Lyons?”
Admiral Chester Gordon’s voice was a calm, slightly muffled baritone as he chewed on the mouthpiece of a simple tobacco pipe in the corner of his mouth. A no-smoking rule was imposed on the RN ships, to which even the commander of the task force deferred to. To some the pipe might have appeared quirky at best, laughable at worst, but strangely enough here it added to the officer’s aura of seniority.
“The last update was from NATO-HQ.”
Gordon nodded and motioned her to continue.
“A number of rebel leaders have initiated combat in the provinces of Kwara, Kogi, Nassarawa and Benue.” Her finger followed her words on the spread map of Nigeria. “There are reports of heavy fighting between and among government troops and rebel forces within the Federal Capital Territory and the capital itself. Acts of sabotage and suicide bombings have also caused Lagos and the next two larger cities of the country, Port Harcourt and Ibadan, to descend into chaos. Since the elimination of the armed forces’ leadership yesterday, High Command does not think the loyalist forces can put up any kind of organized resistance.” She handed him a folded piece of paper which he took with a questioning look in his eyes. “NATO-HQ reassures us that, in the light of the changed situation on the ground, we can expect massive support. Seems as if the Portuguese, the Danes and the Dutch are preparing to send some seven thousand men. Depending on how our own operation proceeds, I assume they just might end up on our side of the Atlantic.”
All of the smaller nations less endowed with their own fossil fuel deposits were more or less dependent on the goodwill of the ‘Big Three’: the United Kingdom, France and Germany. That, after all the spirited declarations of the ‘End of History’ and the success of the egalitarian European Model during the 1990s, the dynamics of power of the early 21st Century were the same as during the 19th Century did not go without a certain smug irony.
“What's London’s position?”
Lyons shook her head. “There’s no news from the Thames, sir. We are having problems getting through to both land stations and satellites. Other ships of the task force have reported the same. Daring’s communications’ chief says it’s because of atmospheric turbulence, and both Germans and Americans tell me it’s because apparently we are going through the solar storm of the century. Our electronics systems are holding up fine so far, but communications-wise it’s as if we are drifting further into the fog.” She finished with a shrug.
“Then we will be on our own for the time being.”
Admiral Gordon’s calm voice did little to quell her sorrows this time. As if to mock her the lights within the mess hall flickered for just the brink of a second, leaving the gathered officers in a profound silence.
Atlantic Ocean, FMG Brandt (D-201)
16 March 2024, 21:16 Hours
Polar lights! Known to Semih Aracan only from television so far, the fluorescent, streaky ribbons racing across the sky were a thousand times more impressive in the flesh than he had ever imagined. The Second Operations Officer was not the only one who had chosen to witness the eerie spectacle with his own eyes. The sea was surprisingly calm, and the icy east wind which had whipped up the waves only hours prior now blew as little more than a soft breeze over the deck of the destroyer. Night had not yet completely fallen, and Aracan had no problems locating the lights of the task force’s other ships and the many people on their decks who also watched the aurora borealis. The silence seemed almost unreal to him.
“Impressive, isn't it?”
Aracan jerked around. Matthias Hammen had stepped beside him without making a sound. The Second Operations Officer forced himself to greet the man with a nod of his head and returned to observe the sky, but the magic of the moment was gone.
“Impressive and strange in equal parts,” the engineer continued. Though it was cold on deck, the fortyish civilian contractor wore only jeans, sneakers and a green pullover. The colorful play of the polar lights danced in the rounds of his spectacles.
Semih Aracan did not have the highest opinion of Hammen, especially because he thought that the civilian primarily stood in the way of smooth operations in his CIC. Nonetheless, it was a matter of politeness to at least to purport to be conducting conversation. Openly alienating the man would also not exactly make CIC an easier working environment.
“Why is it strange?” he asked dutifully.
“Well, as the name already hints at, the polar light phenomenon only occurs above the polar circles. Mr. Aracan,” Hammen answered in a voice that sounded both lecturing and brooding. “I'm no meteorologist, but I doubt one has ever been able to observe an aurora borealis this far south. After all, we're almost on the same latitude as La Coruna in Spain! I guess this is my lucky day,” Hammen mused, then, prompted by Aracan's questioning expression explained: “This is my last voyage, first lieutenant.” With a sad smile, he added, “I have cancer.”
“Oh,” Semih Aracan just looked at the civilian contractor, searching for words. “I'm sorry,” he told Hammen after an awkward pause. “I didn't know.”
Hammen did not look at him when he responded Aracan. Instead, he focused on the meandering bands of light and color that spun across the evening sky. He took in the salty air with deep breaths while a sad little smile slid across his face. “It's a terminal form of spinal cord cancer. The doctors say I have a year to live. I’ll probably spend half of that in a wheelchair. When I heard they were installing VIS on Brandt I immediately volunteered to maintain the system during the operation. I couldn't stand the thought of sitting at home, just waiting for death to slouch closer day by day. I needed something to do,” he sighed.
“Are you certain it can't be cured?”
Hammen snorted and rolled his eyes, turning to Aracan. “I tried radiation therapy for almost a year, in combination with very aggressive chemotherapy. I don't sport this sexy bald head for nothing, Mr. Aracan.” He took a deep breath again, closed his eyes and visibly relaxed. “I'm sorry. There was no need to be rude. But yes, I am certain about that, and sadly enough, so are my doctors.”
Semih Aracan stopped him with a wave of his hand. “I'm not made from sugar, Dr. Hammen,” he reminded him with a conciliatory smile before his face turned serious again. “Does the captain know?”
“Hallwinter? Yes, I told him before we put out to sea at Bremerhaven. He and the ship's doctor know.” He shrugged. “It's not as if they can do much about it. After all, apart from occasional painkillers I don’t need any urgent treatment. Isn't it ironic? We send men to the moon and we build computers that are almost as self-aware as we are. Heck, we even build microorganisms from scratch! But we can't seem to be able to get a little cell growth here and there in our own bodies under control.”
“Why didn't you stay at home?”
“There's nothing waiting for me back there. I never married, I have no children and no siblings.” He gave a sad smile. “In a way, if I get all the kinks worked out of the VIS during the coming weeks and it becomes fully operational, it is my legacy. It gives me a sense of closure, of having accomplished something with my life.”
Semih did not respond to that, and the silence of the nightly sea descended upon the two men again. Hammen continued to watch the night sky with the bright eyes of a child and the frown of a professor. However, there were new thoughts floating about in the operations officer's head now. The problems with their radios, the increasing occurrences of electronic systems just shutting down, the complete loss of contact not only to the Bundeswehr's satellites, but to the allied satellites as well - in fact, to all satellites - and now the appearance of polar lights where there should be none... The Second Operation's Officer was everything but a superstitious man, but those were a whole lot of bad omens. A discomforting chill ran down his spine and he turned to leave. “I have to return to my post,” he muttered.
Hammen turned to him. “I'd appreciate it if this little conversation would stay between the two of us, Lieutenant,” he urged. “It was nice talking to you, but I don't want to peddle my condition around. I'm not craving anybody's sympathy.”
Aracan simply nodded, his mind embroiled with the strange plethora of problems the ship was facing, and vanished back into the intestines of the ship through the outer bulkhead.
Atlantic Ocean, Tender FMG Berlin (A-1411)
16 March 2024, 22:53 Hours
Korvettenkapitän  Moritz Dierke read the other ships' status reports with barely hidden schadenfreude. Of course that was a childish mindset, but at least this time he neither could, nor wanted to do anything against that. Every neatly listed entry under the header 'Brandt' brought a smile on to the officer's gaunt face. What ever was happening out there and with them, his old bucket did fare a damn lot better in it than Hallwinter's Brandt with all its sensitive high-tech gadgetry. It was one of those seldom moments when the world and Moritz Dierke were in the balance.
The lieutenant-commander with the protruding jaw and the narrow nose had long seen himself as a bitter rival of Florian Hallwinter. Both had taken their training together, had studied at the same university and chosen the same branch of the armed forces. Dierke received top grades and finished as the second best of all students in his field at the Bundeswehr's University of Hamburg. Hallwinter's marks, conversely, were average, but he had one ability that put him ahead of the tall man from the Sauerland which he could not draw from books and courses: he was a people person. He led through both instinct and knowledge, and could adapt to new situations as fast as lightning, with the ability to remain calm and cautious even in the midst of a crisis.
Those were all qualities of which Dierke was certain he possessed them, too. He was better than Hallwinter, had always been. And yet, the upstart from the Rhineland time and again managed to outdo him. They had courted the same girl. That same girl had been married to Hallwinter for fifteen years. Moritz Dierke was divorced. Not only had Hallwinter got the girl Dierke had desired, he’d also succeeded in securing the ship Dierke desired as well. Fate had placed the pride of the Navy into Hallwinter's lap. For Moritz Dierke, fate had offered alimony for his ex and the command over a mouse-gray freighter with some bolted-on guns.
At least the latter gave him some pleasure at the moment. The tenders of the Berlin-class were ugly, slow, but completely reliable ships that had little more demands on its crew than comparable civilian cargo counterparts. More so, there were no extensive electronic facilities aboard that could become a problem as they were aboard Brandt.
“Sit-rep, 1 WO!”
“All stations nominal,” the dutiful answer followed hard on the question's heels.
Moritz Dierke's eyes followed the rain drumming against the ship's windows, and leaned back in his chair, smiling. Today was a good day.
Atlantic Ocean, USS Halsey (DDG 97)
17 March 2024, 10:16 Hours
Even to him, the unsuccessful movements with which Captain Steven Flynn massaged his temples to stop the throbbing seemed robotic. The headaches had only set in with the first appearance of the polar lights, but for Flynn all they were was the preliminary nadir of an all but perfect operation. He had taken pills to little effect, and for a moment he toyed with the thought of seeing the ship's doctor again before discarding it. Not that Dr. Hardy or her staff could really help him, or themselves, for that matter. No, his body most likely was not the problem anyway. The situation was the problem.
A cursory glance into the faces of men and women doing their duty in the Arleigh Burke-class' CIC proved him right. That strange weather and the system failures that had begun to pile up were gnawing on the morale of his crew. Time and again muted curses could be heard among electronic chatter of the ship's nervous center when - for no apparent reason - whole consoles stopped working or shut down and instruments refused their service. His men were nervous, and Flynn didn’t blame them a bit. Worst of all, he could do nothing to ease the situation. For the first two days he had tried ignoring his headaches and taking hefty doses of aspirin. Heck, he had even taken a page from his wife's book and tried all the old home remedies like drinking lots of water and getting lots of fresh air on the deck of Halsey. For the time being, he spent most of his time touring his ship to get an impression of how the situation truly was, and what he found was a crew that was ill at ease. People were not afraid, that was not the problem - not yet, at least. No, the problem was that they were irritated, facing an issue they had no solution for, and because that was the case the situation gave rise to aggression. One could hear it in the way the crew talked to each other. There had not been any serious incidents yet, but the warrant officers had told him that the tension was rising. One instinctively longed for solitude and quiet when one had a headache, but that was hardly an option when one rode a 100,000 hp engine with three hundred and fifty other people in a tin can, and each and every one of them suffered from the same condition in one form or another. Worse, he also needed new ways to keep his crew occupied now that half of their consoles seemed to operate purely by chance. Idleness was the death of discipline.
As if that was not enough, the technological problems they faced also caused the crew some veritable figurative headaches. The connection to everything not in close vicinity to Halsey had basically ceased to exist six hours ago, drowned in a morass of white noise and unrecognizable chatter. Even the nearby ships of the UNBIF task force proved harder to communicate with by the hour, be it via radio or direct data link. The Danes and the Dutch had already reverted to using light signals in Morse code amongst each other. If the situation did not rapidly improve he would be forced to do the same. Light signals! In less than three days the circumstances had pushed them back to the 19th Century. The one small positive was that whatever was happening had not majorly affected the ships’ machinery.
The captain glanced at the CIC's digital watch. Local time was ship time minus one hour, meaning shortly after 9 AM. In half an hour, his night shift would be complete. Flynn hoped he would find some sleep, for whatever the problems of Halsey and the crew were, he did not feel he could solve them in his momentary condition. If he did not wake up feeling substantially better, he would be forced to temporarily hand over the reins to Commander Pattinson.
There was some commotion on the ship's intercom system. The captain of Halsey was in the process of turning towards the CIC's sonar operator when he felt it: a sudden vibration, strong enough to loosen both sphincter and bladder while simultaneously causing strong nausea. Even as he asked himself in a state of utter bewilderment how he would possibly explain his behavior to the crew, the full power of the event hit him. Coming from the port side, an invisible wand raced across the ship and threw him off his feet as if he had been hit by a hammer. The air was suddenly filled with a deafening crackle and screech that cut out all the screams of the wildly gesturing crew members who had been thrown around like rag-dolls. Captain Steven Flynn also screamed. He consciously realized it only when his throat began to ache as he pressed his hands against his auricles. In panic, he tried to get on his feet again.
The next impulse was a wall of racing liquid fire and lightning. Steven Flynn still felt the heat on his skin as it burst through him before he lost consciousness.
Atlantic Ocean, HMS Daring (D-32)
17 March 2024, 10:16 Hours
Admiral Chester Gordon's mood pretty much equaled the weather - which only ever seemed to grace the task force with a quiet sea during the evening hours - even though the Caribbean-born fleet commander tried his level best to not let it show. Officers who threw temper tantrums were feared but not respected, and Gordon was too much of a professional after thirty-five years in service of His Majesty's Royal Navy to let even the smallest emotion slip past his poker face unless he deemed it necessary. Besides, the reason for his bad mood lay outside his influence as a commander, and as a human. Daring's crew and, as far as he could judge it, the crews of the rest of the task force did their duty just as one could expect from first-class professional soldiers and seamen: nearly flawless. However, the rest of the world seemed to be conspiring against them. Radar and GPS registered so many system failures that both were, at current time, total operational losses. All captains of the flotilla now had their ships navigate purely on sight to ensure the security of their vessels.
The only thing occurring with some modicum of regularity was the interplay of weather and atmospheric phenomena. A gray sky interspersed with the fluorescent bands of the aurora borealis in the few spots where there were no clouds covered the sea from horizon to horizon. A look at the bridge's barometer told him that air pressure had fallen dramatically outside and that the wind had almost completely died down. The colorful bands in the twilight over the Atlantic had an almost hypnotic effect on him and most others now, too. He would find himself staring, lost, before having to wrench his eyes away from the sight. This time, however, the alarmed cry of the navigator tore him from his daydreams.
In disbelief Gordon yanked free his binoculars and stared through them onto the dark, blue-green sea - and for the first time in decades he felt fear rising in him. Less than half a sea mile in front of Daring's bow a turning funnel was drawing the water masses of the Atlantic into the deep bowels of the ocean.
“Hard aport! Full speed ahead!”
Captain Lorris Hogan, the commanding officer of the destroyer, had stepped beside Gordon. Barely hidden panic resonated in his voice as he gave the order. Even a modern ship like the destroyer could not just stop on a dime, and escaping the event horizon at flank speed was a prudent course of action.
A part of Chester Gordon's mind watched the abyss that seemed to have sprung directly from Homer's Odyssey with childish glee and horror in equal parts. Once he was back home, he would have one hell of a story to tell to his three grandchildren: first polar lights, and now a maelstrom. That was, however, depending on he and the ship succeeding in escaping the natural phenomenon to actually be able to tell the tale. Right now the destroyer kept closing in on it.
“I said hard aport, damn it!”
Hogan had pressed his hands so hard around the edges of the helm's console that the white of his knuckles seemed ready to burst out any moment.
“Vessel isn't coming!” came the alarmed response of the navigator, and every last ounce of color fled Hogan's face.
Gordon wanted to say something but felt the words stick in his throat. Motionless, the admiral found himself staring at the steadily approaching hole in the ocean. The maelstrom was smaller than Daring, maybe only half its size from side to side, but its pull had to be monstrous. The ocean floor in this part of the sea lay almost two and a half thousand meters beneath the surface of the waves. It was more than surreal. Nothing moved on the other vessels of the task force that gave him hope to think they had noticed the danger in which their flag-ship was. And all the while Daring crawled across the half mile as if in slow motion.
A strange peace filled Gordon. So that is what death looks like when it's staring you right in the eyes, he thought. The cliché that one's whole life raced past one's inner eye remained just that as the massive destroyer slowly crossed the maelstrom's edge. So unbelievably slow. Gordon's thoughts, his movements, all felt as if he were wading through quicksand. A glance from the corner of his eyes told him he was not the only one experiencing it like that. The faces on Daring's bridge were filled with panic - and frozen.
Then - the destroyer's bow had already begun to descend into the whirling abyss - everything seemed to happen at once. A pulsing, green and white glow filled the floods in the maelstrom, and from one second to the next the funnel turned inside out, as if Poseidon personally had landed a punch against the unwanted intruder into his wet domain. The maelstrom vanished and in its stead a pillar of water thundered towards the sky in a roaring brawl, two hundred, three hundred meters high. Poseidon's wrath almost catapulted the destroyer's bow out of the water and threw everyone on board off their feet. Metal screamed and moaned, glass splintered and the screams of pain of ship and crew began to mix.
As fast as he could, Gordon forced himself back on his feet again. Daring stood still, momentum totally lost. The engines had failed, and aside from the painful moans there was eerie quiet The bridge's windows were all torn and splintered, glass covering the floor, and despite the twilight sky outside it was as bright as at a summer's noon. A pillar of water filled his whole field of view, pulsing and glowing and yet smooth and immaculate as glass. The air crackled and vibrated with static energy, and Gordon was startled to realize that all hairs on his body rose while all his muscles seemed to lose tension.
Admiral Chester Gordon, aged fifty-six, Royal Navy, did not get the chance to follow the same line of thought as Halsey's captain had done. That close to the event horizon the wave of pure unrestrained energy rolled like a miniature thunderstorm over the wrecked bridge of the destroyer, and lighting bolts several million volts strong discharged within the confined space of HMS Daring.
Atlantic Ocean, Tender FMG Berlin (A-1411)
17 March 2024, 10:16 Hours
The watch on Berlin had been pressing their binoculars flat against the tender's bridge windows ever since Ensign Matthäuser had detected the maelstrom ahead of the flagship. In and by itself, that had been a good performance, given the lackluster visibility and distance, Dierke thought, his mind detached from what was happening. Filled with the same feeling of expectant horror one harbored when watching footage of disasters and accidents on television, Dierke had immediately given the order to inform and warn the rest of the task force. Radio communication had ceased to function during the night, and by now they were all depending on light signals in Morse code. But even before the first message could be sent to the closest ship a huge pillar of water shot skywards with a roar that seemed to come from the deepest depths of the ocean, almost capsizing the UNBIF flagship.
The display nearly made Commander Dierke's heart stop. He hardly noticed the vibrating buzz that descended on the ships from one second to another. At the same time, the sky above changed to a streaky mix of yellow and a deep red. Speechless, people hurried to watch the event from the railings and the port holes, until, without any prior warning, dozens, hundreds of lightning bolts struck out of the pillar into the surrounding sea - and into Daring! From one moment to the other the ocean and the warship seemed to be boiling with heat.
And then the glowing sky descended onto the sea. All around him came terrified screams as Berlin's bridge descended into a mad house, smelling like feces. His bladder and sphincter also loosened, yet all the while Moritz Dierke's eyes were like glued to his binoculars. Only a distant corner of his mind registered his wet and warm trousers and left him with this insight.
A blow like a gong hit the tender and made Dierke and threatened to toss the crew off-kilter, but the commander remained on his feet and his eyes found back their way to the bridge's windows. It was the moment the sky touched the sea.
The streaky glow of angry red and yellow vanished without a break and was replaced by a cover racing out from the pillar into all four directions on whose surface ionized air discharged blue and white lightning and chased milky bands of color in reds and greens and blues ahead of itself.
Like polar lights in a cake-pan, it flashed through Dierke's mind not really eloquently.
The commander did not come to ponder his linguistic narrowness. The center of the pillar pulsed one further time, contracted as if taking breath - and exploded outward with impossible speed. A wall of liquid fire filling his whole vision, as smooth as glass and as horrible as hell thundered towards Berlin, devoured all other ships between them, and ran through the 20,000 ton vessel as if it was made of thin air. Moritz Dierke did not perceive anything but the great heat. Like everybody aboard Berlin, his body chose to weather the storm in a state of unconsciousness as the diabolic front hit the ship. His last thoughts before the blackout again proved to be everything but the work of poetic genius: Damn it, I hate getting sun-burnt!
Atlantic Ocean, Frigate Bremen (F-225)
17 March 2024, 10:16 Hours
Like Brandt, Bremen was one of the most modern surface units of the federal Navy. The type F-125 frigate had been the last ship to be commissioned before the Gulf Shock, and Commander Bianca Hohhausen had good reason to be proud of her ship and crew since both were among the most battle-experienced within the German Navy. They had served with distinction at the Horn of Africa and as part of an international intervention force in the first Indonesian Civil War. Hohhausen had placed Bremen on the outer left flank of the task force, a move owed to the catastrophic communications situation. All navigators were trained to operate their ships by sight alone, but to do so amidst a formation of a dozen other vessels without any hiccups proved a trying challenge.
Admiral Gordon had ordered the fleet to spread out to give the individual ships more space to maneuver, and at the moment the UNBIF force was dispersed over an area of more than nine square miles. The Danish Triton and the Dutch Evertsen were the taillights to the north of the convoy.
Hohhausen was on the bridge when all hell broke loose and the world turned to yellow and red. The glow descended on the sea and created a new, circular horizon: through the ocean, through Bremen, through Bianca Hohhausen's body. She and nine members of her crew died instantly, painlessly, their bodies cut apart like with a laser scalpel. It was only a marginally better fate than the one earmarked for the rest of the frigate. Thousands of tons of composite materials, steel and ammunition clung to each other for a few long seconds while panic filled its bowels. Right through the ship a cut had been drawn, thin as horsehair and yet final. With the pulse racing across the sea and through the vessel, everybody was left unconscious.
For the brink of a second there existed a fiery dome, two miles in diameter, sixty miles northeast of the Azores. One blink of the eye later it was gone, taking everything within alongside it. The central section and the aft of Bremen rocked back and forth in the waves of the Atlantic like a toy. As if cut apart by a giant blowtorch, the edges of the hull glowed in a diminishing red where usually the ship's bow would be. As gusts blew spray against the seam, water turned to hot steam.
Then, as if nature itself needed some time to realize what just had happened, the wind howled into the almost round zone in whose vicinity a dozen ships and one and a half thousand NATO sailors had been just moments before. Bremen, bereft of its bow, suddenly lunged forward with roaring turbines and dutifully pushed itself into the flood, following the orders of a dead commander. Hundreds of tons of ice-cold salt water shot through the giant wound in the ship's hull. The crew of Bianca Hohhausen's ship only survived its commander for a short time. Three minutes after the appearance and disappearance of the pulsing pillar of water the Atlantic was once again blue and green, endless - and deadly silent.