During the journey home, the Ark Royal was joined by a small flotilla of other British ships and boats. Several warships and cargo vessels took up position to the rear of her, and around 20 other smaller craft followed in close proximity. Normal operating procedures would have a small screen of destroyers, and other escorts spread out around the aircraft carrier, but this was not a normal time, and the threat of attacks was almost negligible.
The tourists had been restricted to an upper deck throughout their journey. This was a warship after all, and they had only made limited contact with the crew. They were all looking forward to going home. More than 800 British tourists were crammed into a hospital deck that was designed to accommodate up to 300.
Jim, Dave and Ella were sat in a corner of the mess hall, they had found it easier to stay together in the mass of displaced people.
"Another 2 ships joined us last night." Dave and Jim heard Ella’s voice, but neither responded. "Did you hear me?" Her voice rose, a little indignant.
"Yes Ella, we both heard you, but it doesn’t mean anything to us. What difference does it make?" Dave’s voice sounded flat, bored.
"Don’t you think its strange that all of these ships are heading to England now?"
"Ella, you’re too suspicious." Dave laughed at her, "Not everything has a conspiracy behind it you know."
"I just think it was strange." She sipped from her foam cup.
"Go on inspector Ella, what’s strange?, the walking dead?, the infections, or Spanish troops blowing up Spanish civilians?"
Ella leant forwards and gently hit Dave in the head.
"No need for sarcasm David!", she deliberately used his full name, knowing he didn’t like it. "All i’m saying is, did this number of ships normally sit at anchor in the Med?, did this number of ships always carry enough food for thousands of people. It all seems a bit organised to me."
"Oh stop with the....." but Dave was interrupted by Jim, who had been silent up to now.
"Go on Ella, tell me what you’re thinking?," He had been staring out of the porthole up to now, The passing Atlantic looked grey and cold, but as Ella spoke she had his full attention.
"I just find it odd that the Spanish were attacking civilians so fast. It’s like they knew how to deal with it already. And don’t you think it’s strange that all of these British ships were waiting in the Med? Did they know we were going to need evacuating? It all happened so fast, it’s like they were expecting it, ready for it almost.", She played with the cup, eyes looking at the table.
"I think you might have a point there". Jim spoke quietly. "Go on Ella".
"Well if you think about it, if people were attacking other people, you would expect the authorities to try to contain it, to arrest the perpetrators. The Spanish didn’t. Did they know there was no point?. They just starting killing anyone infected. Why would they do that?."
"Now you put it like that sis, it is pretty weird." Dave was listening intently too.
"The whole thing is wrong. We were allowed to fly to the islands by our government, so the outbreak had’nt happened yet. The Spanish army were shooting the infected over night. We were evacuated in the morning. So the day we flew everything was OK, the first night we were there the infection started, by morning the Spanish Army went nuts and by the afternoon we all got to fly out to a conveniently waiting aircraft carrier." She paused for a minute, then continued, "I think they planned for it happening, they just didn’t know when it would."
The trio sat silently for a few minutes, digesting Ella’s thoughts. Before anyone else could speak, a uniformed sailor entered the mess hall.
"Can i have everyone’s attention please." His loud London accent boomed out. He waited patiently, until the hall fell silent.
"I am Commander Tate. One of my responsibilities is to document where each and every one of you is from, where you live, and where to send you if that’s not possible. To do this i will need details from everyone. I...."
Before he could continue, he was interrupted by a small ginger haired man.
"Why do you need to know all of that?, why can’t we just go home?"
"I will answer questions shortly, but for now, i have a room set up for this, you will need to come through ten at a time, and talk to the sailors who are waiting for you. We have a list of every ones names, and we will be calling them out, so please listen." With this he turned around, and quickly left the room.
"Some explanation!" Dave exclaimed.
"We never get told anything Dave, it’s just normal on this ship." Ella spoke quietly. They all just sat and watched, as two sailors entered the hall, and started calling names out.
Many hours later they still hadn’t been called. The mess hall was nearly empty, only around thirty people were left, and they were spread around the hall. The Commander came back. He walked to the centre of the room, put both hands together and stood silently for a minute.
He then said "Can everybody left please come together?." He stood and waited for the remaining passengers to move towards him, then he took a chair, and sat in front of the rough semi circle.
"Right. I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is this. We have reached our home waters and we should be in sight of Southampton within the hour."
"What’s the bad news then?" Jim asked.
"The bad news is that we have been unable to reach our home port via our communications."
The news hit the group like a brick. How can a ship as big as this not be able to reach England.
"What does that mean." The woman who asked the question stood up.
"Well it could mean any number of things." The Commander paused for a few seconds. "We know our communication equipment is working OK, we can talk to the other ships, and we have established a link to another Naval base, just not Southampton. It’s possible the base has been over run. Or maybe some kind of power failure. The base itself may have been abandoned."
"Surely if that was the case sir, someone would have informed you." Jim’s voice carried clearly across the group. "What do you think has happened?"
"It’s impossible to know and I am not a man who speculates. We are planning on sending a shore party in the morning."
"Why not just send a plane or two?" Jim said, "Why not just go and have a look?".
"We cannot use the aircraft on board, we have no pilots."
Confused expressions rippled across the group. Only Dave’s laughter broke the mood.
"This is a sodding aircraft carrier mate, how come you’ve got no pilots?
"This is irrelevant to your positions. Now can we come back to the point at hand?"
Yet again he was interrupted. This time Ella was responsible.
"I don’t think its irrelevant. I’d like to know why you don’t have any pilots."
"We don’t have any pilots because," he took a deep breath, "Because we had to leave Gibraltar before they could be recovered. We had stopped over in Gibraltar, on our way to the Indian ocean, and we had three days leave. The bulk of the crew were gone, and we received the strangest of orders. Recall all personnel immediately. Do it quietly and with as little fuss as possible. Do not inform locals of our intent. Around four hundred men made it back, a mixture of sailors and fleet air arm. We should have over a thousand men on board. We don’t even have a Captain, I’m the senior rank on board." This revelation made sense, the crew hadn’t been steering clear of the tourists, they were at less than half strength, and this was big ship. "The Senior staff and flight officers, the pilots, were all attending a charity function on the far side of the island. We were able to gather up most of the crew, but before we could locate the officers, the docks came under attack." He wrung his hands together, and stared at his knees. "We lost around thirty men before we realised what was happening." He fell silent.
Ella asked gently, "What was happening?" Every person was staring intently.
"Stage 1 infected swarmed the docks. Smashing everything before them. They were attacking anyone they found, and our small guard was overwhelmed within seconds. Poor bastards wer’nt armed you see. We reacted within minutes, and we shot the first ones who had climbed on board. We thought it was a riot at first, then the dead started rising." He slumped forward in his seat. "The next set of orders came through just after the attack. If they’d come ten minutes, five minutes earlier, we wouldn’t have lost those men. We cleared the docks, then sent four trucks to collect the officers. We waited for nearly 4 hours, but we heard nothing. Each truck carried a 30mm machine gun and four heavily armed men. Sixteen altogether." Commander Tate rose to his feet. "Well none of this will help anyone on board now. We should be moving on."
"Why are you telling us this Commander?" Jim’s voice had taken on a softness.
"I’ve told everyone up to now. I think it’s important for everyone on board to understand the position. We have a hanger full of planes and helicopters but no pilots, a ship running on adrenalin, and no contact with Portsmouth.
I intend to travel to our traditional moorings, then re-establish communications with the Admiralty. Until we discover the cause of the radio blackout, no one can leave the ship. Depending on how long it takes to do that, you may all have to stay on board for the near future."
The mess hall emptied in minutes. Only Jim, Dave and Ella remained.
"Well that explains why the ship was in the Med then. So, what do we do now?" Ella as usual initiated the conversation.
"I need to get drunk" Dave laughed.
"I need to get home" Jim said quietly. The laughing stopped abruptly.
"You will get there love." Ella reached over, she put her hand on top of Jim’s. He just looked at her.
"I just can’t understand how all of this has happened. In only a few days the world has turned to shit, and now we’re stuck in here, for God only knows how long!"