Snippet–Their Darkest Hour

26 Jan

Chapter One

RAF Coningsby/Salisbury Plain/London

United Kingdom, Day 1

“It looks like a busy day for us, boys and girls.”

Flying Officer Alexandra Horton smiled as Squadron Leader Rupert Paddington opened the briefing. The men – and single woman – of No. 3 Squadron rarely had an uneventful day, even when they were patrolling the skies over Britain. After 9/11, every civilian aircraft that went off course sent ripples of alarm running through the United Kingdom Air Defence Region and it wasn’t uncommon for Tornados or Eurofighter Typhoons to be scrambled in response to an aircraft that had simply lost its way. Not that anyone was allowed to become complacent, of course. The Eurofighters were scrambled with live weapons and everyone knew that one day a hapless pilot would be faced with the choice of shooting down a civilian aircraft or watching it plunge into the Houses of Parliament. Alex was mildly surprised that none of the thousands of terrorist plots monitored by MI5 had ever come close to taking off.

“We’ve been informed that the UKGDE boys have been tracking more ghosts,” Paddington continued. “Someone higher up the food chain is getting just a little bit concerned with these reports and they’d like some hard data. You may be directed to perform an interception if a ghost shows up while you’re in the air.”

Alex frowned, thoughtfully. Over the last few weeks, radar sets in Britain – and America as well, she’d been given to understand – had been tracking a handful of transient contacts that seemed to be travelling right at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The general feeling was that someone – perhaps in Britain, but more likely in the United States – was testing a new model of stealth drone by flying it through one of the most advanced air defence environments in the world. It wasn’t an uncommon procedure, but surely someone would have said something by now, if only to prevent an interception that brought one of the craft down. Rumours she’d heard suggested that some of the top brass were more concerned than they admitted, at least to the pilots. There was a distant possibility that the Russians might have produced something new that they were using to probe NATO’s defence environment.

She shook her head, reaching up to feel her short blonde hair. Her fellow pilots had nicknamed her Starbuck back when she’d started training to fly the Eurofighter and the name had stuck. Being assigned to No. 3 Squadron was hardly a blot on her record, even if defence cutbacks did make their position increasingly insecure. She’d heard that some of the top brass were worried about their ability to defend the UKADR if more squadrons were placed in reserve, or eliminated altogether. Buying the Eurofighter might have seemed like a good idea back before 9/11, but now the money was flowing to the army and aircraft that could provide support to British troops on the ground. The Eurofighter was an excellent piece of kit, yet it didn’t have the close-support capability of an Apache helicopter. Their service in Afghanistan had always been far less decisive than the MOD had hoped.

“Horton and Davidson, you’ll be on routine patrol, taking over from the lads out there now,” Paddington said, finally. “Jackson and Stuart will be on QRA, ready to provide backup if there’s a problem or you need to return to base. Don’t forget to keep one eye on your radar sets at all times. You never know what you might run into up there.”

There were some chuckles from the pilots, although they all knew that a mission could shift from routine boredom to sheer terror within seconds. Up in the air, they would be in the front line, not some paper-pusher in Whitehall who would happily question every little decision made by the men at the front. Alex knew pilots and soldiers who had been hounded out of the service by the MOD, or the government, merely for making poor decisions on the battlefield. It seemed to have escaped their notice that soldiers and pilots had to make their decisions within seconds and there was no time to take a balanced view of anything…

She shook her head as Paddington dismissed them and headed for her plane. The flight plan said that she would be in the air within half an hour. There was nothing quite like flying over Britain as the dawn rose. And if she was lucky, it might even be a routine patrol.

***

Darkness shrouded Salisbury Plain, but the sound of humming engines could be heard – faintly – in the gloom. Dawn was approaching, the horizon starting to light up in the distance, leaving the French with little time to get across the river. Brigadier Gavin Lightbridge-Stewart allowed himself a tight smile as he lay on the ground, using his night-vision goggles to peer into the shadows. The French didn’t know it, but the British Army had prepared a nasty surprise for when they tried to reach the mock town.

Full-scale exercises were rare – the days when the British Army could roam across Germany on exercises were in the past, and it was incredibly expensive to ship men and equipment to Canada or the USA – but the bean-counters had finally agreed to allow a joint exercise with the French. A section of French tankers had agreed to play the attacking force, simulating an attack from Russia into the European Union. Officially, the French were playing a fictional nation – it was typical of the politicians to be more worried about upsetting the Russians than helping out the soldiers who defended them – but everyone knew the truth. Russia had been rather more noisy than usual over the last few months and senior officers had been warning the politicians that important skills were being lost.

His lips twitched into a smile. The British Army was intimately familiar with the terrain and they’d used it to their advantage. A troop of Challenger tanks had been positioned to give the French a bloody nose, while ground-based air defence systems had been deployed to prevent the French from using a drone to spy out the British defences. Once the French tanks started to cross the river, they’d find themselves caught in a trap – unless they had a surprise of their own up their sleeves. The politicians on both sides of the Atlantic might deride the French, but the French military was tough and very professional. And it had picked up rather more experience in the years since Algeria than many outsiders realised.

He keyed his radio, speaking barely above a whisper. “Prepare to engage,” he ordered, calmly. It wasn’t common for a Brigadier to lead from the front, but he’d missed the advance into Iraq and knew himself to be less familiar with armoured warfare than he would have preferred. Besides, paper exercises were all very well, but it took real manoeuvring to gain a real understanding of what his force could – and could not – do. Murphy never failed to put in an appearance in the real world. “On my mark, launch flares and then engage at will.”

***

“The bloody protesters are still there, I’m afraid.”

Sergeant Robin Harrison, London Metropolitan Police, nodded as he strode up towards Buckingham Palace. A small army of men and women carrying signs protesting against the latest cause of the month were gathered outside the gates, shouting at passer-bys while sharing drinks and food amongst themselves. It seemed that there was no shortage of protesters in London; Robin knew from secret briefings that anarchist and other radical groups were streamlining their ‘rent-a-mob’ systems. The Police had responded by monitoring Facebook and other social networking sites, but the technical staff had warned that their ability to take down parts of the internet was very limited. Robin wouldn’t have cared so much – people had the right to protest, as long as they behaved themselves – if criminal gangs hadn’t started using protests as places to rob the protesters blind. It had only been three months ago when the Police had had to intervene when the dedicated protesters started turning on freeloaders within the camps.

“So I see,” he said, tiredly. Overtime seemed to be a fact of life in the Police force these days, as was permanent tiredness and general unhappiness. The number of Bobbies on the street was going down and, despite the vast number of CCTV cameras all over London, crime was going up. Every few months, they’d even get new targets from politicians who didn’t realise that they’d systematically crippled the Met over the last two decades. “Anything we ought to keep an eye on?”

“They seem a surprisingly nice bunch,” Sergeant Singh said, seriously. He nodded towards the protesters, who were trying to convince a pair of pedestrians to join them. It didn’t look as if they were having any success. “No real fights or anything, just shouting. A few of them keep looking daggers at us, I’m afraid.”

“Nothing to worry about then,” Robin agreed. The small police force would keep an eye on the protesters, some of whom might even be relieved that the police were there. They might claim to be an anarchist commune, but in his experience those broke down rapidly into chaos and the rule of the strong if there was no presence from the forces of law and order. It hadn’t been that long since the London Riots of 2011. “Don’t worry – we’ll keep an eye on the Palace for you.”

Singh gave him a one-fingered gesture and sauntered off in the general direction of the police station, where he’d catch something to eat and a few hours of sleep before he went back on duty. Robin watched him go and then turned to look back at the Palace. It was all lit up, allowing the protesters to see the very heart of the establishment they hated so much. The handful of policemen didn’t waste time staring at the Royal Residence. They had to worry about keeping the peace.

A pair of protesters made eye contact with him, and then looked away as if they’d seen something dirty, or obscene. Robin wasn’t too surprised. Some of the protesters saw the police as the enemy, the men who broke up protest marches and beat up protesters. His father had been a policeman, as had his grandfather, and neither of them had to endure the level of public distrust modern policemen faced. But back in their day, the police hadn’t been cut back to the bone, to the point where ordinary citizens started to see them as the enemy.

He shook his head tiredly. Maybe he’d jack it all in early and find a place in a private security firm. They were hiring and the pay was generally better than the Met. And maybe then his family would get better care than they could from the NHS. His wife wouldn’t even come into London. She preferred to live outside in the suburbs, away from the crowds and pressure. He couldn’t really blame her at all. London just wasn’t a safe place to bring up one’s children any more.

***

“Wake up,” a voice snapped, in her ear. Doctor Fatima Hasid swallowed a word as her mother pulled away the blankets. “Get up, you lazy girl. You’re supposed to be on your way to work.”

Fatima scowled at her stepmother, but couldn’t quite bring herself to snap at the older woman. At twenty-seven, she should be married and producing kids of her own – at least according to her stepmother. If only her father hadn’t married again…but he had, leaving her to put up with an older woman who resented Fatima’s presence in her life. Her stepmother had started putting forward the names of suitable boys, most of who lived in her grandmother’s village back in Pakistan. Fatima had responded by taking more overtime with the NHS every time her stepmother arranged a meeting. None of the boys she had met had seemed keen to marry a woman who was far more qualified than they could ever hope to be.

She pulled herself out of bed and scowled at her face in the mirror. Dark eyes set in a dark face stared back at her, leaving her with an almost waif-like expression. The uniform she donned rapidly belonged to the nearest hospital, where she worked ever since graduating as a medical doctor. It would be years before she could pay off her debts and go into private practice and until then the NHS owned her, body and soul. She washed her face and headed downstairs, to where her stepmother was banging pots and pans together. It wasn’t as if she was doing anything useful either. Fatima had to get her own coffee and cereal before heading out of the house.

“They’ll give you the sack and then where will you be?” Her stepmother demanded. Fatima ignored her as best as she could. Her father was already on his way to work, after visiting the mosque for morning prayers. “Who’ll want you if you lose your job?”

“The boys you seem to think are suitable for me have no jobs,” Fatima replied, as calmly as she could. It was true; her stepmother’s family had been pressing her to convince Fatima to marry a boy from Pakistan, who could then be brought to Britain. The fact that Fatima herself didn’t want to marry a stranger didn’t mean anything to them. They’d all had arranged marriages and they’d turned out fine…well, publicly, at least. Fatima knew that at least one of her stepmother’s relatives beat his wife. “And I still have an hour to get to the hospital before I start scrubbing up.”

Her stepmother started to bleat again, but Fatima tuned her out with the ease of long practice. There were times when she cursed her decision to study medicine, even though it provided an independence many of her friends would envy. The screaming kids in the waiting room, the injuries inflicted by chance or deliberate malice, watching men and women dying slowly in front of her…there were days when she just wanted to walk away from it. But that wasn’t an option, not when she still had to pay off her debts. The NHS was dreadful when it came to arranging life-saving medical treatments, yet somehow it was very good at tracking down students and demanding that they repay the loans they’d taken out to study…

She shook her head as she finished her coffee and headed for the door. She’d just have to endure until the day she could leave the NHS behind. And then perhaps she could set up in private practice, or maybe even leave the country. There were high-paying jobs for medical staff in America, she’d been told. Maybe she’d emigrate and leave her stepmother behind. The thought made her smile, even as she saw the dawn rising over the horizon. Another day was about to begin.

***

He couldn’t sleep.

Prime Minister Gabriel Bryce stood in Ten Downing Street and peered through the bullet-proof glass at the protesters at the end of the streets. It seemed that there wasn’t a day when the protesters weren’t there, screaming and shouting as if they blamed Gabriel personally for the economic malaise that had gripped Britain over the last ten years. The country didn’t seem to be able to hold together a government for more than a year either, not after the latest round of parliamentary scandals. Gabriel, two years ago, had been nothing more than an up-and-coming MP, a safe pair of hands for a Parliamentary seat that was solidly Conservative. He’d never dreamed of becoming Prime Minister, certainly not after his predecessor’s career had been blown out of the water in the latest expenses scandal. His opponents had remarked that the only reason Gabriel had avoided being implicated in the scandal had been because he didn’t have the imagination to fiddle his expenses, let alone do anything more interesting. There were times when Gabriel feared that they were right. Nothing he did seemed to please everyone, or even anyone.

He looked down at his desk and shook his head, bitterly. It was covered in folders, each one a wordy report from the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence or the Security Services. He was supposed to read them all, but reading them was a chore. Didn’t anyone use plain English these days? He’d once spent an hour reading a briefing paper on recent developments in Iraq only to discover that it could have been condensed down into five or six sentences. At least he’d been able to make his feelings clear on that point. It was a shame that the Civil Service took so long to adapt. The next Prime Minister would probably not see any improvement.

One of the walls of his office held a large painting, commissioned by his immediate predecessor. It showed all of the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, from Pitt the Elder to Gabriel himself. He’d been surprised to receive it, only to be told that it had taken so long to produce that the Prime Minister who’d ordered it had left office by the time it had arrived. The Prime Ministers seemed to be gazing disapprovingly at him, as if they felt that he was letting the side down. They were probably right. When Gabriel compared himself to Pitt, or Churchill, or Thatcher, he always found himself lacking. But then, they’d never had to worry about an economic crash that was slowly bringing the country to its knees…

“Lucky bastards,” he muttered, as he returned to his desk. The files sat in front of him, mocking him by their silent presence. His secure palmtop buzzed, reminding him that he had the daily security briefing in an hour, followed by several meetings with MPs before his speech in Parliament in the afternoon. The speechwriter had promised him a good speech, one he could read out before the assembled MPs, but it wouldn’t go down very well. It never did, not when all he could deliver was bad news. There were times when he felt that the only reason the Opposition hadn’t pushed for a no-confidence vote was because they didn’t want to be saddled with commanding the sinking ship. They found it more congenial to snipe and shout abuse.

He opened the first file and looked down at it. It was just as he feared; a short summery, and then twenty pages he’d have to read, just in case some bastard with press credentials hurled a question at him. They’d have a field day with an ignorant Prime Minister. Cursing under his breath, he tapped the intercom and called for coffee. He’d read through one of the files, he promised himself, and then he’d have some time to relax. And then he’d attend the briefing.

And then all the alarms went off at once.

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4 Responses to “Snippet–Their Darkest Hour”

  1. Ian_B January 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Chris,
    The roles of an Apache and a Typhoon are wildly different. The Typhoon is capable of delivering several thousand pounds of HE onto widely separated ground targets after penetrating controlled airspace and potentially fighting an air battle. The Apache can hunt tanks across the battlefield with its AT missiles and engage troops and lightly armoured vehicles with its gun. It’s not so good at dealing with hostile air forces. It can however closely follow ground troops, resupplying from mobile facilities moving with the troops it’s supporting whereas the Typhoon needs to return to a prepared runway to rearm and refuel.
    Comparing the two is like comparing apples and cucumbers.
    Ian

  2. chrishanger January 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    True – but if you were buying the RAF’s aircraft for the next few years, what would you consider to be more useful at once? If it was a choice between a Typhoon and an Apatche…?

    It isn’t a fair comparison – they are different peices of kit. But there’s only a limited defence budget.

    Chris

    • Ian_B January 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

      And the Apache is operated by the Army Air Corps I believe. The problem with defence procurement (not realy germaine to your story) is that it’s quite similar to crystal ball gazing. The planners have to guess what their needs will be in the future and then kick off a development process to produce that equipment. Fifteen years plus down the road they get to discover if they guessed correctly.
      Ian_B

  3. The Deposed King January 27, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    IMO too many POV’s, I skimmed the police person and the medical problem.

    That said modern day stuff has to really grab me, even if I suspect aliens are about to invade.

    I’d probably give it another chapter because I know you but if it didn’t grip me by then I’d have to opt out of this one.

    That said I’m a sci-fi and fantasy guy who tends to groove on armies and fleets. A little Han Solo, Privateer action gets me going as well. But this one not so much. I might not be your target audience on this one,.

    The Deposed King

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