HMS Wakefield was cruising in the South Atlantic Ocean, about six hundred miles and forty-five degrees north east from Recife, Brazil. A few days ago, the ship had set out from the Falklands, after completing naval manoeuvres.
Hunter was a navy veteran of nine years but was still only in his late twenties. He didn’t quite fit the mould of a naval officer. He was from the North of England, but it could be told from his accent that he’d done his fair share of travelling. He was a little over six foot tall, with short dark hair and dark eyes. He wasn’t skinny, or heavily built, but was just about above average. He was, perhaps, the palest man in NATO, so a few days leave in the Mediterranean sun was probably what he needed.
Joining the navy had never been an ambition of his. He was the first of his family to join any of the armed forces, and it wasn’t a decision that went down well, when he broke the news of his joining.
The decision to enlist in the navy occurred during his first year at university. He was studying criminology, for no other reason than it sounded like a fun thing to learn about. A forensic analyst or a criminal consultant sounded like what he’d end up being. Sailing the seas wasn’t on the list of employment objectives.
But he was still only nineteen and had to decide where his future was going to take him. One day he got a phone call from one of his old friends. He hadn’t spoken to them since leaving school. He’d been part of a group of friends who always stuck together in everything they did – from after school clubs, to trying alcohol for the first time. But this phone call wasn’t news about a get-together. It was news that he wasn’t expecting to hear. One of his old school friends had died in a car accident. His friend was the same age as him and the news awoke something within him: a realisation that he’d never even been out of the country before and had visited only a handful of places in the UK. His deceased friend had lived pretty much the same life. So, Hunter made the decision that he wasn’t going continue like that. He wanted to make the most of his life. He left university and applied for the navy. He excelled in his entrance exam and was selected for early officer entry. Nearly a decade later, he was a principle warfare officer and well on his way to a command of his own.
He was treating himself to some free time away from the command information centre, CIC for short, and taking in the view of the cold, grey surrounding ocean. It wasn’t much to look at. Just a cold vast ocean stretching out to the horizon in all directions. But he wanted to take in the view of another part of the world. It was an odd hobby of his he’d taken up since he first went out to sea as a fresh-faced junior lieutenant. His aim was to sail every ocean of the world and step foot on every continent. Everyone had a hobby.
A message came over the ship’s PA system. ‘All senior staff report to the bridge.’ He slightly sniggered to himself, turned to take in one last breath of cold, salty sea air, and returned to the warmth and comfort of the Wakefield’s interior. He began his walk to the bridge, which was followed by the customary salutes by the enlisted personnel aboard. He wasn’t a fan of being saluted. A somewhat pompous and outdated tradition, he thought. He’d seen senior ranks, throughout most of his career, pride themselves on being saluted and recognised. Usually captains and admirals. He’d once been witness to a commander waiting outside a junior mess hall, shouting at a bunch of enlisted sailors for not spotting him. Once the senior officer had disappeared, Hunter walked past the enlisted officers and as they were about to salute, he advised them not to, and said, ‘That guy was a prick, right?’ The personnel were more than surprised at his openness.
Although he was an officer and had worked hard to attain his rank, he believed most, if not all, personnel had trained and worked just as hard as he had. So why should he be shown any sign of importance? Usually after the first two salutes he told the crew to relax as he went by. It was a combination of wanting them to relax and being fed up of having to swing his hand up to acknowledge the salute. He ended up rendezvousing with the ship’s deputy weapons officer, who was a lieutenant, one rank below him. He knew he didn’t have to tell this crew member not to salute him. He was Lieutenant Daniel Arnold, Arnie for short. The ships weapons engineer officer. They’d been in training together and ended up getting the same assignment orders. Which didn’t bother either of them one bit.
‘Afternoon, Commander,’ Arnie said in a jokey manner.
‘I told you before that’s not my name. If no one’s around you call me by name.’
As soon as Hunter had met Arnie he knew him to be a somewhat eccentric character. He was always saying that if the navy didn’t work out for him he would become a music producer and was always working on a back-up plan. An album had been in the works for nearly a decade.
‘So, have you got any plans for when we reach Gibraltar?’
‘Why? Do you plan on getting into trouble again?’
Arnie had once tried to convince Hunter to join him in a business venture to start up a helicopter tour company a couple of years ago, while they had made port in Bahrain. Unfortunately, Arnie couldn’t fly. He’d attempted to learn, but nearly crashed the helicopter on multiple occasions and was banned from taking any further lessons.
‘Not this time. Me and a few of the guys down in engineering are heading to Mallorca.’
‘If you think after Cyprus that I’m coming with you, you’re wrong.’
‘Granted not my finest moment, but that American marine had it coming.’
‘You were lucky that you weren’t thrown in the brig. Or worse.’
‘Well, I have you to thank for that, which is more reason for you to come.’
The ship wasn’t a small one. A common misconception with destroyers was that they were tiny, but they were over five hundred feet in length. Which made it near impossible to walk through the ship without bumping into more enlisted personnel. Each of them ready to throw up a salute but being told to relax by Hunter. Arnie was the same with saluting. He’d done it enough times back when he and Hunter were at navy college together and he had decided to do it less upon gaining his commission.
‘So, I hear Commander Dukes is being given his own command,’ said Arnie.
‘Yeah, I heard that too.’
‘So, Jenkins is going to make you XO.’
‘The captain won’t make me XO. He’ll get some guy he served with years ago.’
‘Come on, after that thing with the Koreans, he’s got to make you XO.’
Finally making it to the bridge, they were briefed on some minor course corrections to avoid catching the tail end of a storm front building in the mid-Atlantic, further south. The last thing anyone wanted was some seasick sailors in the middle of the ocean. They then split up and Hunter was about to head to CIC, with Arnie heading off to check on the torpedo launchers on deck. Hunter called after Arnie.
‘Hey, if I am made XO, do you think I could get you transferred off the Wakefield?’
‘If you got rid of me then who would you replace me with as your go-to guy?’
Hunter laughed. ‘Enjoy your shift.’
‘You too, Alex.’
Hunter headed for ops and Arnie headed towards the upper deck.
In the vast, cold emptiness of the Antarctic was a scientific research operation codenamed Operation Deep Freeze. The Antarctic landscape was sheer bright white and in perpetual daylight, until the Earth tilted on its axis and the northern hemisphere would be facing the sun. Then the continent would be in total darkness. Ever since the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, a military presence wasn’t allowed on the continent except for supply runs to research stations. The wind was blowing hard and a blizzard had grounded the air force personnel who had been assigned to do the supply run. This didn’t sit too well with the CO and pilot of the supply run, Captain Jack Pierce. In his late twenties, a little under six foot tall, with dirty blonde hair, Pierce looked world-weary and at least ten years older than he really was. He had a slightly tanned complexion, but his face was rough, weathered and wrinkled. He’d been in the air force for a little over ten years and should’ve been a major by now.
Pierce was looking out from his temporary quarters, at the profile of his frozen ride out of the Antarctic tundra: a C-17 Globemaster. It was barely visible because of the fierce storm raging outside. He opened a pocket on his jacket just below the name on his uniform. He pulled out a plastic brown bottle with a white lid. It had no markings on it of any kind, nor did it have the prescription sticker a pharmacist would attach. The lid popped as he opened it up. Inside were about two dozen oval-shaped white tablets. What the air force wasn’t aware of was that for several years Pierce had been in constant agonising pain; he had damaged his knee in a crash a number of years ago. The pills were not prescribed. He’d precured them during his stopover in Christchurch a few days ago, from a questionable person outside of the military. If he’d used someone in the military the probability of being caught would have been high. He shook the bottle and it rattled as he dropped two tablets into his hand. He threw the tablets in his mouth, closed the lid of the bottle and put it back in his top pocket. He left his quarters and made his way, past several scientists, to the makeshift ready room. Two airmen and a sergeant were sitting down, going over how they had ended up on such a desolate frozen rock. They saw him enter and immediately jumped to their feet. They all threw up a salute and Pierce acknowledged the salute with one of his own. He hated saluting to anyone, just as much as he hated having to acknowledge them. It was another problem of his, which he’d been called up for, on numerous occasions.
‘Status report,’ he said.
The sergeant responded. ‘We’ve had communication from HQ. Smithson has ordered us to ride out the storm as best we can, sir.’
‘Drop the “sir”, Sergeant.’
‘Sorry,’ replied the sergeant.
‘Any news on how long we’ll be stranded on this rock?’
‘Radar back home suggests ten hours.’
Pierce sighed. ‘Perfect! And I thought I couldn’t hate this place any more than I already do.’
He raised his hand to his head which was aching from frustration.
‘Keep me updated on any reports coming in from Homestead.’
He left the ready room and made his way out into the dull corridor, wondering what else he could do to pass the time while he and his crew were grounded. He smirked as he reminisced about nearly knocking the teeth out of the major he had been fighting with nearly a month ago, but then he remembered that had got him in his current predicament. The supply run was his punishment; he was fortunate the major had instigated the fist fight in front of several witnesses, or he would have been discharged.
The lighting at the station wasn’t great and the corridors were dimly lit with the odd white glare emanating from a few small windows at either end. His commanding officer, Colonel Smithson, was sympathetic to him. He was aware of Pierce’s background and even jokingly gave him a DVD of The Shining to watch while down there. Smithson was a friend of Pierce’s father. They had served together in Iraq and Afghanistan and had known each other for years. Pierce’s mother had died when he was only five years old and his father was all the family he had. Although his father was a tough air force pilot, he did his best to raise Pierce on his own. Pierce had a close relationship with his father, but rarely saw much of him as he grew into his teenage years. Most of his time after his mother’s death was spent in a military school in New York state. He didn’t remember it with fondness. But it did make him grow up quickly and learn to stand up for himself. He hated the whole military structure. Constant drills and physical training every day. He was never one for running. To begin with he constantly found himself at the back of the pack, but he did what he could to get through it. He remembered the day he got the call. It was the start of a new year, January. He was about to get ready for another PT session, until he was called to see the school commandant. PT was something he didn’t argue about having to miss; however, his entire world was about to come crashing down. He received news that his father’s plane had been shot down, and he’d been killed. Pierce was devastated. He was truly on his own. A common saying in the military is ‘They become your second family’, but he never felt more alone. Smithson called in on him from time to time to see how he was doing, but he was never the same afterwards. He had a burning rage inside him and wanted to kill all those responsible for his father’s death. It was from then on that he stopped forming any long-term relationships. He was good-looking in his teenage years and there were some female cadets who had their eyes on him, but he never let it get anywhere beyond the physical. He eventually went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, but he earned himself a few blemishes on his final report due to fighting with fellow cadets. But he still managed to gain himself promotion to captain, which he was told he’d never get past by a few high-ranking officers.
He was still strolling around the station looking for his quarters. Every corridor looked the same as the others, which further fuelled his frustration. After what felt like an eternity, he found himself back at his room. He lay down on his bunk and stared at the ceiling, thinking whether he should muster out when he got back to Homestead and move to some sunny climate where beer was cheap, and women were plentiful. He had no family and no ties back home. It would be easy enough. After all, he was being given the lowest and menial missions, and his career was all but ruined by some lazy fat general who’d used him as an example for the consequences of insubordination. He decided not to give it another thought. He saw the DVD poking out of his backpack. Maybe he could watch it. It would certainly pass some of the time till the next report came through about the flight back home. Maybe later. He was getting hungry, so he got up and tried to find the canteen within the maze of identical corridors. Hopefully, the food would be better than the view, but he wasn’t holding out much hope.