Ghost Flotilla U-boats: Embarkation by Susan R. Matthews
Goond—for “Gunther,” Oberleutnant zur See Gunther Hols, First Officer on board the “Smoking Salmon”—leaned up against the railing of the gun platform aft of U-818’s bridge, enjoying the warm breeze in his face and smoking a rare cigarette. It was a beautiful day.
The watch on the bridge had their jackets open to air out whatever they wore next to their skins. Two men of the crew were re-painting the boat’s maeling on the sides of the conning tower, the Smoking Salmon itself, shown curved into a relaxed arc—as if sitting in an arm-chair—and smoking a pipe whose rising smoke was meant to indicate the plume of oily black plume a tanker sent up as it sank.
They’d sunk one off the Cape this cruise, but otherwise the pickings had been slim. They’d missed the latest Allied convoy from Freetown but Headquarters wanted them in place for the next one, so here they were, idling along, burning fuel if not at a very great rate and catching up on boat maintenance. They could afford it. U-818 was an IX-C/40, one of the longer-range boats, and they’d successfully refueled from U-459 south of St. Helena, and taken on torpedoes.
“Sail?” one of the watch said, suddenly, binoculars fixed on a point on the far horizon to the east—Africa. He didn’t sound at all certain. “Masthead, no steam, ZweiVo.”
It wasn’t Goond’s watch, but he was here. As Sclarvie—the second officer, “ZweiVo”—lifted his binoculars to search, Goond raised those without which an officer never climbed onto the bridge to see for himself. It took him a moment to bring the ship into focus: yes, sails. There were sailing vessels a-plenty in the coastal waters, though such things weren’t likely to be good wartime targets. Still—
“We’ll have a look,” Sclarvie said. “I’ll tell the captain. EinsVo?”
Their commander would be “Lieutenant,” in the British Navy. But on board a boat, any boat, there was only one captain, and theirs was Herr Kaleun Verricht Lachs—the “salmon” of their cheeky boat-icon. And Goond was “EinsVo, first officer.” Goond leaned over the open hatch of the conning tower to yell down into the control room.
“Ship,” Goond called. “Under sail, unidentified, bearing two sixty-five. We dive?” A dark-hulled U-boat riding just above the surface of the waves would be much more difficult to spot from a sailing ship than vice versa, and of course a U-boat could get away much faster. But there was a line between confidence and recklessness, and while Lachs had pushed the line on occasion he generally avoided irrational risks. It had taken more than solely good luck to make U-818 a “lucky” boat.
“Periscope depth.” That was their engineering officer—“Ellie,” for Leitender Ingenieur Vilsohn, who had been with U-818 since its construction training. “Close hatches.” No, not an emergency dive, and they wouldn’t go deep. But Goond and the watch cleared the bridge in expeditious haste anyway, in order to not get into a habit of dawdling. Goond was next-to-last man down, with Sclarvie securing the hatch behind him.
It took a moment for Goond’s eyes to adjust to the relative dimness of the boat’s interior. Lachs was there in the Zentral control room, navigation periscope coming up as the boat gently settled beneath the surface of the water to minimize their profile. “I can’t make it out,” Lachs said, frowning a little in his concentration. “Closer, Vilsohn. It’s probably nothing for us.”
The words were mild, calmly stated, unremarkable. And yet a sense of sudden dread and horror overtook Goond, for no reason at all. What was the matter? An attack of vertigo?
It was gone as soon as it had come. The lights, Goond decided, nothing more. There seemed to be a bit of a haze in the control room that made the familiar surroundings just a little strange in his eyes. He blinked, and things were clear and ordinary once again.
Time passed. Half an hour. Goond took over at the periscope, because he and Lachs had the most exposure to sailing ships between them. Navigator Rathke had their copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships out and ready for consultation, but it had little information on anything like the ship on scope; it seemed to have no smoke-stack at all. Completely unconverted. Remarkable.
The closer they got the less threatening the ship appeared, but also of less and less value as a military target. “It appears to be a merchant ship,” Goond said. “It isn’t any one of our cadet ships, nor does it seem to be British.” Could such a thing even carry war materials? Yet almost anything could be classified as war materials, that was true.
He felt an itch between his shoulder-blades, a little tension in his chest. There was no reason for alarm. They’d encountered British decoy ships—“Q” boats— before, but this one was nowhere near enticing enough a target to hope to lure a U-boat close enough to attack. Or was it? U-818 was approaching, wasn’t it? Goond shifted his feet irritably. He was only regretting the unfinished portion of his cigarette, he told himself. That was all.
Lachs took the periscope for another moment or five, and came to his decision. “Surface,” Lachs said, ducking his head to call through the hatchway toward the radio room. The radio closet. Where Bentzien was keeping his ear on the hydrophones for any chance British submarines, Goond supposed. “Bentzien, any traffic? Can you make contact?”
But Bentzien just shook his head. Why would there be radio contact? Goond asked himself. A ship of its apparent vintage might not even have a radio. A tramp. A relic. Perhaps it had a belly-full of grain, or perhaps it was even more useless than that, perhaps it was in ballast. There would be no torpedoes loosed on this one. If sinking was to be done the deck gun would do it, but Lachs didn’t seem to be anticipating any such action, because the gun crew had not been called for, nor the ammunition train.
By the time the hatch was opened and Goond clambered up onto the bridge they were close enough to see the ship without any need for binoculars, which was closer than Goond had expected. He didn’t recognize the flag the ship was flying, a private flag of some sort, no nationality identified; there was a boat in the water making for them, but going by the short distance it had put between it and its mother-ship they had only just started rowing.
Sclarvie put the signaling flags away. Clearly a face-to-face was anticipated, clearly there was no immediate danger of destruction. Get away. There was a voice in Goond’s mind, his own voice, speaking urgently, with increasing panic. Go away get away get away. He didn’t understand it. So he ignored it.
“Alle hagel schip,” the man in the forefront of the row-boat called. A niggling unease was worming around just outside of reach in the back of Goond’s mind: the clothing the speaker wore seemed archaic, somehow, the bloused trousers, the outdated pattern of that plain cloth coat. “Trensferlettrs let?”
Goond didn’t understand. All hail ship, yes, that would mean heil Schiffe, hello boat. Transferlettrs, can you take letters. There was a square bundle perhaps twelve inches square in the bottom of the row-boat, wrapped in leather and tied up with thick twine.
“Wait, we will bring a man up,” Sclarvie called back, because what the man in the boat was saying didn’t translate into good solid German. It sounded a little Dutch, to Goond. To the man nearest the hatch Sclarvie said “Call for Heimsat, yes?”
Heimsat was one of the machiner’s mates. His people were from the borderlands with Denmark, if Goond remembered; maybe he would communicate more effectively. Goond didn’t understand the sense of panic he was feeling: as though he knew that something horrible was going to happen, as though it had already happened, as though he had to stop it from happening while at the same time there was nothing he could do to prevent the disaster that was almost upon them.
“We zullen wachten,” the man in the boat said. We will wait. Goond could hear the meaning as clearly as though he actually spoke the dialect. There were plenty of cognate words. It was not a far stretch. Here was Heimsat on the bridge, calling down to the rowboat that was now bobbing in the water just beside the saddle tanks; “Hallo!” Heimsat said. “U letters? Geef hem aan ons door, wij zullen ze nemen voor zu.”
It was clearly the right thing to say, because the man in the boat smiled—almost too eagerly, but why would that be?—and picked up the parcel. “Hier zijn ze, veel dank,” the man in the boat said. But Heimsat had squinted off into the distance at the other ship’s flag and gone pale, pointing.
“Not right,” Heimsat had said, urgency and disbelief alike in his voice. “Dutch East Indies? Ancient history, Herr ZweiVo, impossible, we should get away from here—”
And the alarm bells went off in Goond’s mind. Something was catastrophically wrong. They should not touch that parcel of purported letters, they should not, there was something badly amiss, why would any antiquated sailing boat be handing letters over to a U-boat, wrong, danger, warning—
“Herr EinsVo!” Someone was shaking him by the shoulder, and Goond realized he’d been dreaming. He was not off the coast of Africa, three years ago. He was here in the safety of his own berth on U-818. They were in Arctic waters. They had left Hammerfest in Norway. But fast on his glad realization of his near escape from whatever he had feared from the encounter in his dreams came the memory of where he was here and now, and why it was a much more immediate peril. “We are ready. Herr Kahloin raises the boat.”
On convoy duty from Hammerfest in Norway, hunting Allied supply missions to the Soviets by way of Murmansk. Surprised by bombers from an Allied aircraft carrier not five days out, because where was their air support? The same place it had always been. Functionally nonexistant.
Sent down into the basement with damage to the diesels, damage to the ballast tanks, to the fuel tanks, to every gauge and meter on the boat. The electrics on emergency reserve. All nonessential personnel confined to lying down in their hammocks or their bunks breathing through the damned potash cartridges that were supposed to protect them from the inevitable build-up of carbon dioxide in the air as the available oxygen inevitably, unavoidably, deteriorated.
Goond tore the respirator away from his face with a convulsive movement and struggled up out of his berth, his head as sore and tender as a burn wound or a boil. “How long?” he asked, but whether he meant how long they’d been down or how long it would take them to reach the surface rather escaped him at this moment. It didn’t matter. The man who’d awakened him—one of the sailors on the second watch, Dekert—was obviously as impaired as he was, and did not answer either of those questions.
“You are requested in control room. With respect.” Goond was glad of the helping hand. He’d been dreaming. He remembered now.
He’d felt no presentiments of dread or fear or panic at the time. It had been only at the point at which the rowboat had regained its parent ship, the point at which the packet of letters Sclarvie had accepted had disappeared, the point at which the ship had turned abruptly and hove away toward Table Bay at an angle and a speed that was impossible given current weather conditions, only at that point had Goond realized that there was no ship. There were no letters. There’d been no rowboat.
Only then had Goond realized that they’d had intimate contact with a ghost ship, and were doomed.
“Thanks, I am coming directly.” The lights were still dim. The atmosphere was heavy, the potash cartridge breathing apparatus heavy and burdensome. He was lucky he’d managed to keep it in place for however long it had been that he’d remained unconscious.
He’d wanted to be awake, because his was the first watch: but it was the engineer who would save them, and up to a skeleton crew to stay out of the way and let the engine room and the technical people save their lives. Also Lachs had insisted. That had been unfair, perhaps. Lachs laid no such restriction on himself: but Lachs was their captain. So, Goond told himself, perhaps Lachs had a right.
Goond stumbled aft to the control room. Ellie—Joachim Vilsohn—was there, of course, standing behind his hydroplane operators; and Lachs leaning up against the chart chest with his characteristic sangfroid and nonchalance, aware of everything, surprised by nothing, always that beat of consideration before he reacted. The boat was nose-up and rising.
“Faster,” Lachs said. “Heinze?” This was called through to the radio operator, and Lachs apparently liked what he heard, because he nodded. “Yes, still good, all quiet upstairs, gentlemen. Just the way we like it.” So there was no sign of the enemy. That didn’t need to mean anything.
There could be a destroyer topside, sitting in the water, waiting them out. There could be a regular bomber patrol, like the one that had almost sunk them, scanning the seas for them. But there was nothing actively moving in the water above, and they were out of time, because it had been surely more than twenty-four hours now since they had been forced down.
Goond could hear Ellie issuing his instructions to the hydroplane operators, forward hydroplanes up fifteen, aft eight. The engines had started to hum a little more loudly: the boat was under active propulsion, not idling in place. They couldn’t have much battery power left, after this long. Lachs would be getting desperate, in his own laid-back fashion. Was it his imagination—Goond asked himself—or could he feel a change in the angle of inclination beneath his feet, as the boat climbed?
One hundred and fifty meters. That was what the depth gauge said. The last Goond could remember seeing that gauge, the covering had been cracked to the point of unreadability; but it was whole and entire now. He didn’t know how many replacements the boat still carried, not exactly, but he suspected that there weren’t many left.
The closer they got to the surface the less risk of the bends the crew would have if they had to make an emergency exit from the boat while it was still underwater: but what difference did it make? Anybody who had to leave the shelter of their U-boat was dead anyway, because the waters of the Arctic Ocean were cold, very cold, and would kill a man inside of half an hour as surely as any more active measures could.
One hundred meters. Eighty-five. Lachs pulled the speaking tube toward him and issued the warning order himself. “Prepare to surface,” he said, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, as though they had not been deep below and in fear of their lives for more than a day now. “First watch, crew to stations. Diesels, prepare to activate.”
Maybe that was technically up to Ellie. But Ellie was busy. Goond could hear activity starting to pick up, through the open doorways in the bulkheads; people rousing themselves and being roused. It was time to return to the land of the living or make their final peace with the lords of the dead. One or the other.
Forty meters. Thirty-five. Twenty-five meters.
“Up periscope,” Lachs said, straightening up and away from his casual perch on the chart chest to take the navigation periscope for his own. Twenty meters. Fifteen. Any moment now the bosun would call all hands forward to bring the nose of the boat back into trim as it breached the surface on the rise—
“Nothing,” Lachs said, but there was some hesitation there that Goond didn’t quite understand. Goond’s watch was assembling, struggling to fasten their anoraks and pull on their heavy fur-lined gloves. Fischer handed Goond his. Goond didn’t have to get into his thick boots and his two pairs of socks because he’d never taken them off. So they were ready. And the boat was on the surface. “First watch topside, gentlemen, and tell us what is what, up there.”
It was always a rush of adrenaline, climbing the ladder through the conning tower, opening the bridge hatch. Because they never knew quite what was waiting for them. Goond went first: it was his privilege, as well as his responsibility.
The onrush of stale contaminated air from the interior of the boat boosted him up and through onto the bridge so persuasively that he knocked his head against the hatch while still in the process of opening it. Bad air out. Good air in. Below they would be crowding around the air-well, and drinking that clean fresh sweet cold oxygenated air in greedily. Even from the bridge Goond could hear the interior ventilator fans that had been switched on, but his watch were the lucky ones. They got first crack at it all.
Goond hurried on up and out, his head spinning from the blow it had taken against the hatch, stumbling forward to fetch up against the high wall of the bridge and hang there, sucking the air into his lungs. His confusion started to clear. But not quickly enough.
There was something wrong. What was it? The seas were calm, the stars outside the halo of the full Moon’s gracious white-pearl light were bright and beautiful. Pushing the hood of his anorak back and away from his face Goond turned his face to the sky, guzzling the air. Visibility was excellent all around; no fog rose on the horizon to disguise a destroyer, no clouds gathered overhead to conceal the approach of a bomber until it was too late to avoid being spotted. What could be wrong about that? What did he smell that was so out of place?
The merciless wind did not whip the exposed portions of his face raw within an instant of its first exposure. His gloved hand did not freeze to the cowling of the bridge when he steadied himself against the bulwark. It was cold, but temperately so, cold like Christmas at home in Germany, not cold like northernmost Norway; barely freezing. The Moon was full. It had no business being any of those things. It was all wrong.
“Herr Kahloin,” Goond called down the narrow hatchway, forcing the words out past the knotted fist of perplexity in his throat. “Your presence requested on the bridge, please.”
Lachs clearly knew it, too, or at least part of it; that was what Goond had sensed in Lachs’ voice. Lachs had seen the light: that of the full Moon. Lachs knew as well as Goond did that they’d set out from Hammerfest in the dark of the Moon with only the Northern Lights to betray them on the cold black choppy sea, and even those obscured by fog and rain. The Arctic waters were never so warm as this, not in February, maybe not ever. Nor was that the whole of it.
Lachs came up the ladder with deliberation, as if reluctantly; perhaps he was afraid the moonlight he’d seen through the periscope had been a hallucination—but if it was, it was a shared delusion, because Goond and the men of his watch could see it too. Goond waited. Lachs tasted the air; then Lachs took off one glove and dipped his fingers into a little pool of water that had puddled in a dimple in the rim of the bridge cowling, bringing a few drops to his mouth, tasting of it, raising his eyes to meet Goond’s waiting gaze with wonder.
Yes. Goond nodded. The air was not salt. The water was not salt. That was the final thing that was wrong about this, they were not even at sea, they lay in fresh water. There were rivers in the world as wide as the many miles from horizon to horizon that stretched all around them, yes, that was so, but they were all in warmer places than this—the Amazon, the Indus, the Ganges, and all of them with current.
It was not a river. It was a lake. It was an immense lake. How they’d gotten here, where they were, when they were, these and so many other questions were too vast and numerous to be grasped in the moment; there was only one thing of which he could be absolutely, completely, categorically certain.
“Don’t say it,” Lachs warned. So Lachs knew, too. He and Goond had seen the same movie, after all, in 1939 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in California with their hosts from the local German community, just before they’d had to hurry home to Germany, just before the declaration of war.
But Goond had to say it. The conviction grew in his mind into an imperative of Irresistable force. “I mean it,” Lachs said. “I’m not joking. Don’t.”
It was no good. Not all of his training, not all of his self-discipline, not all of his affection for Lachs as a friend and respect for Lachs as his commanding officer, not all of his conviction that Lachs was going to kill him if he said it could stop him now. He was cursed to say the words, and die.
Weren’t they all cursed? Was this the revenge of the ghost ship, was this the fate to which they had been condemned since the moment they had all seen that phantom off the west coast of Africa three years ago? Was this the curse of the Fliegende Höllander, the Flying Dutchman?
“Toto,” Goond said. Teeth clenched and eyes flashing Lachs snarled through clenched teeth don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it, but not even that could stop Goond now. It was his doom. There was no help for it. “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Lachs clenched his gloved and ungloved hand alike into fists and shook them at the sky in outraged protest, crying out “Alarm!” with impassioned determination. Dive.
They all fell down the hatch and through the conning tower to the decking of the command center below, but not without a thorough drenching before Goond could get the hatch secured. Because the water was calm but the boat sank that much more willingly and readily and quickly in fresh water. They were heavier here. Vilsohn had already noticed the difference, Vilsohn was the engineer, it was his business to notice such things.
Vilsohn would assume there was some undetected damage in the ballast tanks, taking on water prematurely, weighing them down. There might well be. But that was not the reason. “We say nothing as yet,” Goond told his watch, quietly, as the controlled chaos of an emergency dive exploded all around them. “We give Herr Kahloin time to chew on this, yes?”
And to sink down into the comfort of a familiar environment, a watery one, to give themselves time to process what they’d seen. But now Goond knew why he’d been dreaming of that evil day. They had seen the Flying Dutchman; they’d taken the cursed packet of letters offered them. But they hadn’t actually touched hands. Did that mean they were only partially cursed? Was that why they found themselves here in fresh water under the light of a full Moon, and not dead on the bottom of the Arctic ocean?
Goond fled from Zentral to the radio room to evade Lachs’ wrath and see whether Bentzien could find an answer to where, what, when, and why that did not bear the towering sails and cursed habilments of the Fliegende Höllander.
Verricht Lachs leaned up against the jamb of the doorway into the radio room, tiny as it was, listening as his radio-man—it was Zoller’s watch—tried to find the signal from the Goliath high-frequency transmitter, trying to make contact with U-boat Command. There should be a transmission. Goliath sent regular updates. Command sent a registry signal over VLF as well, a comfortingly familiar point of contact with their homeland.
They’d never replied—there was danger in that. The Allies were listening, and though the enemy could not cover the entire ocean, if you were the boat unfortunate enough to be caught on intercept you were found. But they should be able to hear Goliath. Shouldn’t they?
The Western Allies had landed in Europe in June, last year. It was February. The Soviets had been advancing from the east. Was Goliath overrun? Because if Goliath had been captured, by whose army? And what had become of Berlin itself?
Nothing. Zoller tracked slowly across the twelve-meter band, listening for anything. Even the English propaganda stations would be worth something, a point of reassuring contact with reality as they understood it, some solid evidence that they had not simply fallen somehow off the map of the world. Zoller had already scanned and scanned for weather reports, because there should be some explanation for how a wintery Arctic environment had resolved within less than two days to a so much milder temperature, cold, but calm, the Moon phase impossibly and inexplicably advanced.
No weather report could explain the turning of the entire ocean from salt to fresh. Lachs had only the wildest surmises to explain that. German scientists had been working on some astounding breakthroughs in weaponry; the Old Lion, Admiral Dönitz, assured them of that with increasing urgency and sincerity, even as the credibility of their beloved commander declined.
So the Allies logically been doing the same as well. Could the first deployment of some cataclysmic doomsday weapon have so altered the chemical balance of the arctic waters that they were as fresh? If that was the answer, could it not explain the silence of the radio equally as well, something had gone wrong, Goliath gone mute, radio traffic stunned into silence by an incomprehensible catastrophe?
“Twenty meter band,” Lachs suggested. Zoller switched to the main receiver; then suddenly Zoller found a channel. A crescendo of radio contacts piling up on either side of a control frequency like an avalanche that was relentless, almost terrible in its density. Code, in blinding speed. Data pairs. The operational shorthand he’d learned during his school days with the radio program offered through the Hitler Youth, British convention for hailing, CQ, CQ, CQ, all signs repeated in rapid bursts.
Lachs thought he knew what they were hearing: had the world not been at war it could be a contest, one of the great joys of the amateur radio service. Operators from all over Europe—from all over the world—would be reaching out to one another along one narrow band, trying to make as many far-flung contacts as they could within some limited period of time. CQ. CQ. CQ. Shorthand in Morse code.
The world was not ended. But apart from that, there was no information to be drawn out of the noise other than that there were people talking to one another, Jim in Milwaukee, Hans in Unterramingen, Toshi in Hitachinaka, Debreeze in Kent.
He was wrong, Lachs realized. It was information. He could hear operators identifying themselves from all over the world. They did not seem to be partitioned by politics: it was hard to imagine Japanese talking to Canadians, French with Russians, Germans with Egyptians without any apparent notice taken, if they were still at war.
Zoller glanced over his shoulder at Lachs, who nodded. Scan on. So intense was the range of signals all aimed for the same frequency that the dropping off of information came as a relief; but now that they’d found traffic, there was more. Much of it incomprehensible, welcome to the Fipps repeater, what was that? Some Allied piece of equipment?
And that was not all. As Zoller scanned further through the twenty-meter band, catching fragments of voice traffic in amongst the familiar music of Morse code, one message seemed to leap out of the transceiver with explosive force for all that Lachs was only listening to the sound from one ear-piece of Zoller’s head-set, that Zoller had left cocked to one side so that the sound could be shared.
U-818. U-818. U-818. Lachs.
Calling for them out of nowhere. U-818, Lachs. U-boats were frequently called by the names of their commanders. But how could they possibly respond? There was no secured traffic on this frequency, and the call was in the clear, so there was no sense in encoding a response.
They were still within the twenty-meter band, yes, but that covered a lot of territory, and they’d left all of that confusing traffic—the contact frequency—well behind them. The code-stream offered no additional information, no explanation for the call. Was this a trap?
If it was a trap, wouldn’t the enemy have taken care to conform more closely to a signal they would have responded to without thinking twice about it, suspecting nothing?
Straightening up Lachs turned his back to the doorway with his hands flattened to either side of his head, thinking. The ZweiVo and Ellie were both here, but they did not speak Morse code as Lachs and Zoller—and Goond Hols, for that matter—did. They wouldn’t know that U-818 was being hailed.
Lachs was not a reckless man, but he had the capacity for swift decision within reasonable parameters. And he knew how to take risks. Their situation defied all logic. They had to find some explanation.
Every man on this boat knew that things were not going according to plan: they were not returning to their base at Hammerfest. They were not traveling to intercept a convoy; they were making enough speed—on the surface, since it was dark night—to recharge the batteries; and apart from that there was no information shared because nobody had any. Everybody knew by now that the water was fresh and the Moon was full. He owed it to the crew to seek out a solution. It was time to take a chance.
He nodded to Zoller. “U-818,” he said. “Reply.” He was afraid that everyone within earshot was to be robbed of the sudden hope he could see in the expressions of his subordinate officers, because he had not taken time to lay out a rationale for his actions and they would not know what he and Zoller knew. He wished he had Goond beside him, because Goond could read Morse code as well as he did; but Goond was in the control room, and Lachs didn’t care to send for him, because it would create more strain in what was for now a calm if perplexed boat. He shook his head at Sclavie and Vilsohn. Sorry. Nothing to report. Stand by.
Zoller keyed the response. U-818 Lachs, U-818 Lachs, U-818 Lachs. Calling station identify. That would be innocuous enough, perhaps, if someone heard: standard format, someone calling themselves U-818 Lachs responding to someone not transmitting according to customary practice.
But there was silence. Were there technicians being placed on alert in some Allied operations room, retransmitting messages to listening stations, alerting remote observers to relay the information that would let them triangulate on U-818’s position and send bombers? Destroyers?
If that were so, would U-818 not at least find out where they were? Or did the enemy have as little knowledge of where U-818 had gone as they themselves did?
The code came back at a much slower speed, hesitant, surprised. Or perhaps playing for time. Zoller reached out for the controls of his locator apparatus, with a questioning glance. Lachs nodded emphatically. Two could play the game.
U-818. Okay. Who’s the joker? Lachs.
In English: another piece of potential evidence. Surely the Allies would have a German speaker to lure a German boat. The calling station was calling himself Lachs, then, not calling for U-818 Lachs by name. It was a point of clarification. “Ask him for German,” Lachs said, turning back to lean up again half-in, half-out of the radio room so that he could better hear the muted sound from Zoller’s headpiece. “No, but wait—” Lachs held out a warning hand as Zoller reached for his Morse set. He had to say something to his officers, even if it could not make very much sense.
“We have a radio contact. They ask for us, but in English. I don’t know if they’re enemy. I’m going to risk it.” More later. Dropping his hand away Lachs nodded to Zoller, whose hand betrayed a certain degree of hesitancy on his own part; something Lachs knew because he knew Zoller’s touch on the Morse transmitter key, something only two other people on board—Goond and Bentzien—and certainly no outside contact, was likely to be able to interpret, except by instinct. Lachs did not discount the instinct of a telegrapher. He had just made his own assumptions, after all.
I ask who is the joker. The calling station’s German was hesitant; German was not his first language, apparently. The German that the Allied propaganda stations spoke on their broadcasts was indistinguishable from that of a native speaker, right down to the reproduction of a recognizable dialect—because they were native speakers, though they were working with the enemy. If the calling station was an Allied double agent his German should be better. Name and call sign please.
You first, Lachs thought. But rudeness raised barriers to communication, and he wanted information out of whomever he was talking to. The calling station already apparently believed he was not in earnest: so Lachs decided to try an honest answer.
“This is U-818,” he said slowly, so that Zoller could keep up on the Morse key. “Believe me or not. My name is Verricht Lachs. And you?”
His officers reacted with predictable unease, but Lachs felt confident of their trust in him. Not as if any of them had much choice on the issue of trust. It was also a matter of military protocol, whether or not they had established a strong relationship over the course of so many shared war cruises. He and Goond went even further back.
U-818. Get real. If you’re U-818 you went down with all hands on the tenth of February. 1945. Lachs.
Zoller started in his seat, but kept his station. Lachs stared at the floor to process this information. Of course U-818 had gone down in February of 1945. And with all hands. But they’d come up again. The Allies could easily have deduced their identity; there were spies in Hammerfest as at every U-boat base, and the security of their transmissions to and from Headquarters were consistently being compromised for all the care in the world that they could take.
The calling station owed him information. Lachs waited. Here it came. And Verricht Lachs was my father. A break; and then in English, come on. Share the joke. George. It’s you, isn’t it? And then, as an afterthought, the customary declaration of call sign, this time with a name attached. This is Charlie. Lachs.
Then he was not Lachs’ son. Lachs’ son was named Pieter, Rudolph Zimmer Mattias Ulrich Pieter Lachs. Five years old. Lachs made it a practice to think seldom of his family while he was on war cruise, because there was no sense in dwelling on the fact that he might never see his wife and child again. During the dark hours past—not knowing whether they would return, this time—he had sent a silent parting prayer to God for them, but the circumstances had been exceptional.
Before he had time to puzzle out what he should say next he heard a new signal, weaker, English; not me, Charlie, what’s up? Just bringing the DPK repeater back up. WVREF George. It was slightly off frequency, then, but Zoller didn’t try to adjust, concentrating on his task. Acquiring a fix. Locating the original signal. The original caller had not moved off frequency to match.
Eh, somebody out there having a go at me, that’s all. I make the station out as offshore. Middle of Lake Superior somewhere, as if. Someone out on a boat, maybe.
You’ve been calling your daddy’s U-boat again. Zoller was frowning; but whether it was concentration or sheer perplexity Lachs couldn’t tell. The Smoking Salmon himself. How long has it been? WVREF George.
Zoller’s face was clearing of tension, his forehead smoothing out, his eyes untroubled as he turned his head to give Lachs a satisfied nod even as he wrote something down on his log. Transcribing something from his direction finder. A bearing. Was Zoller really listening to the conversation, any longer? Was it that Zoller’s English was not as good as “Charlie’s” German? It didn’t matter.
Well, I make it sixty years. Give or take. Somebody’s about three weeks late for April Fools, ain’t they? Anyway. On for net? I’ll hop onto the freq. This is Charlie, LACHS, clear.
Lachs waited; but there was nothing more. “Good work,” he said to Zoller. “Well done. Keep looking. Especially if you can pick up the same operator, by chance, we know his call sign.”
There was a heading, there, on Zoller’s log. There was at least a hint to a claimed location. Lake Superior. In North America, as Goond had claimed, shared between the United States and Canada, if Lachs remembered his geography. Equally confounding claims about when, as well as where, they were; and from a man who claimed that “Verricht Lachs” had been his father.
They had not come from sixty years ago. They had come from less than three days ago, and it had been February, and not April or May. U-818 down with all hands? Were they a ghost, then? They weren’t ghosts. They would be able to tell. Wouldn’t they? He’d eaten. He’d had some coffee. He’d used the head. He wasn’t a ghost.
But he had seen the Flying Dutchman, in October. Of 1942. And he’d studied all available—if fragmentary—information about other sightings, since then. There was consistent confirmation of Lachs’ own observation: that if that had been a ship crewed by the damned, the admittedly few crewmen he had seen working its rigging hadn’t seemed to feel themselves to be particularly diabolic.
Had it not been for the archaic presentation of the ship, for Heimsat’s horrified identification of its flag, the novelty of its appearance in an age as much of smoke and steel as sail, there would have been nothing remarkable about the ship at all. Until, of course, the ship’s sails had billowed out without a breath of wind, and the ship had turned away and disappeared.
He would call a council of war over dinner. Breakfast, lunch. Whichever meal it was. He saw three possibilities he wished to lay before his officers for consideration before proceeding.
One, he’d gone mad, and only was imagining this all; in which case no one would resist him, because they were all imaginary, and he could do as he pleased with his imaginary boat. Two, some wonder weapon had wrought such changes in the natural order that they seemed to have surfaced in fresh water sixty years and sixty days from the time they’d gone down under attack in the Arctic.
Or, three, they’d been displaced in space and time by a curse fallen on them because they’d seen the Flying Dutchman.
He would take the heading Zoller had derived and point U-818 toward the signal intercept. When he got there if it was an Allied trap he would fight. If it was anything else—if U-818 had been destroyed sixty years ago, if they were unmoored from their reality—
They would run on the surface until they found some harmless inanimate target to shoot at. And they’d find out whether ghost rounds could still blow up material objects. Perhaps they were ghosts; perhaps they were displaced in space and time, but they could still defend themselves. Because they had torpedoes. And they knew how to use them.
Ten hours of daylight, a balmy eleven degrees—practically tropical—and clear weather: another sign, if further proof was needed, that they weren’t in the Arctic any more. The preliminary bearing Zoller had taken on the radio signal intercepted yesterday called for a southwesterly course.
They’d been running on the surface for hours, seeing nothing, hearing nothing; but gradually a shoreline was coming up on the far horizon, and when they’d spotted the ship rocking ever-so-gently along like a boat whose anchorage wouldn’t be available for another few days they’d gone to periscope depth to try to figure it out.
It looked familiar.
U-818 Lachs been there for the “second happy time,” just after the declaration of war between the United States and Germany, before the U.S. Navy had begun to develop its increasingly effective U-boat hunting forces, before coastal shipping had come to realize that there was in fact a war on and that perhaps some blackout discipline was in order.
They’d been called away early for the coast of Africa, which had been fortunate as it turned out—they’d avoided the troubles—unless one factored in the fateful encounter with the Dutchman; and they’d only scored one tanker, but it had been a T2 model like the one in the periscope sights even now.
“It seems quiet enough,” Goond said dubiously, and stood away from the navigation periscope to give Ellie Vilsohn a chance. “Perhaps carrying diesel, do you think, Herr Kahloin?”
Lachs was leaning up against the chart-chest with his arms folded against his chest, one hand at beard-height with his index finger curled against his lower lip. He dropped his hand and sat down. “I’m more interested in charts,” he said. “If there’s fuel, well, all to the good. But we need more information on where we may be going.”
It was possible to navigate in foreign waters. They’d done it off the coast of Africa; there’d been very little available by way of soundings off the coast of Madagascar. At this point even a child’s map of Lake Superior would be more information than they had access to. There was the old joke about finding a coast to land at—go straight until you hit the beach, then back up five hundred meters or so—but it would be no joke to run aground in this completely unknown environment.
Goond shrugged. “It will be dark soon.” He remembered the other tanker, the one they’d found adrift off the Carolinas. There’d been damage aforeships, and the ship had been abandoned—no trace of a soul, so the lifeboats had gotten away. Unless they’d all foundered. Goond had been with the boarding party; there’d been plenty of fresh fruit and baked goods in the ship’s stores.
They’d sunk it just to be tidy, of course, because in those days they’d still had a deck gun; but that wasn’t the point so much as that he’d been on board of a T2 tanker that had certainly looked like the one they had in their sights now. “We could go have a closer look before the light goes.”
Lachs nodded. “Take us around, Rathke,” he said. “Nice and slow. Unless someone starts shouting.” Or shooting. Under other circumstances they wouldn’t risk their periscope being spotted on the surface by the light of day, but nothing they’d heard from the radio gave the slightest indication that there was a war on and that people were keeping a look-out for enemy U-boats.
All of the advertisements were for automobiles, politicians, movies—that was a comforting point of familiarity. There were still movies. And scandals. And political arguments. But no wars. Not anywhere near Lake Superior, though the Middle East was apparently a problem—still. Ever. Always.
If there was still a war in Europe, if there was a shipping war in the North Atlantic, then perhaps an old—seemingly dilapidated—T2 freighter idling on the surface of the waters without an escort or any apparent sense of urgency was a trap. Yes. But otherwise tankers didn’t fire torpedoes. Nor depth charges.
It was second watch, and Goond was the first watch officer. So he yielded the control center to ZweiVo Sclarvie and went forward to the wardroom, where he could snuggle up close to the bulkhead and keep an ear out for anything happening in the radio room. Lachs had told him all about the hail for “U-818 Lachs” and Goond had been sorry he’d missed it, but they hadn’t caught the same hail again since then, though the radio operators had been looking.
There was plenty of radio traffic, but of limited usefulness, someone’s casserole, someone’s new antenna or equipment, whether or not sporadic “e” was open for skywave propagation. It was exhausting, trying to make sense of it all.
He closed his eyes. Then he heard Lachs give the order to surface, and opened them again, sitting up with interest. The watch was called topside. They did not come tumbling down again immediately; so after a moment he went up to join Lachs on the bridge.
“There’s a small boat tethered to port,” Lachs told him. “With no lights. And very little evidence of any movement otherwise. I thought we might send a small boarding party, introduce ourselves. There’s a pumproom forward that will do the trick for us, do I remember that right?”
And the galley had been immediately below officer’s quarters which had been in turn below the bridge deck, with the store-rooms below that. Oh, the store-rooms. They’d been like Christmas morning, after weeks on a U-boat. “Just as you say, Herr Kahloin. A few men to secure the tethered boat in case there is an alarm, and seven or eight up the other side, I wonder?”
Lachs nodded, smiling, though his grin was but dimly glimpsed in the dark, half-masked as it was already by a week’s growth of beard. “I will await your gleanings, if there are any. Your action, EinsVo.”
No more needed to be said.
Within the hour their largest inflatable had been secured to the starboard side of the freighter where the anchor-point was in easy reach of the ladder going up, and Goond’s kommando were going up it. He’d brought a pistol; for the rest, they would rely on surprise and sheer body heft, because Goond had drawn some crew from the torpedo room and those men were accustomed to managing the heavy and ungainly “eels” in all manner of conditions. Men weighed much less, and required less careful handling; it was much less important if men were damaged.
There were some external lights along the wall of the bridge deck, but no sound; all doors, disappointingly, secured, except for the last one they checked—small, and possibly forgotten by people not particularly concerned to guard against intruders, and it was the last door they’d checked simply because of course once they’d found it they stopped checking and went in.
There was a narrow ladder-stair leading upwards, a feeble light in a metal cage, and all signs pointed to a disused passageway which was just as Goond liked it. He went up, and his kommando followed: so far, all reassuringly familiar. There was the galley, dark, silent, cold; that was odd, but since they hadn’t seen any crew thus far—the ship apparently running along with a skeleton crew—perhaps only cold meals were being taken?
Three of his men were in charge of taking stock of ship’s stores. Goond took five with him up the next flights to the bridge, because surely there was at least a night-watchman on the bridge as well as one making rounds, and he was hoping for the cooperation of reasonably-minded men to hurry the refueling mission along. If the ship had any diesel. Had it not, Goond supposed they could draw from ship’s own tanks, but that problem would wait its turn.
On the third level up it was warm and comparatively bright when they opened the door, so Goond knew at once that they were on the bridge deck. Through the narrow corridor, forward, and there was a door propped open at the end of the second stretch; Goond stepped to one side of the light spilling out of the bridge to take a cautious survey.
It was larger than he’d expected. He could recognize enough of the equipment consoles to confirm that this was the nerve center of the ship, but there was much that he didn’t recognize at all, and a great deal of information was apparently displayed on small screens no larger than the open-paged extent of a large atlas, like a tiny movie: but with no projectors that Goond could detect, at first sight. And quiet.
There was only one man there, and he was most comfortably disposed with his hands clasped behind his neck and his feet up on the desk or table in front of him. Goond cleared his voice, and the man nearly fell out of his chair in astonishment, stumbling to his feet to turn and face Goond.
“Good evening,” Goond said politely. His English was not so good as Lachs’, or that of several others on board, if it came to that. But he had done his advanced courses, and his training cruise as well: he was confident of his ability to get his message across. “We would like a drink from your diesel, please. If you’ve got any. Are you the watch officer?”
Goond himself had not changed for the occasion, so what rank he wore on his old jacket was not perhaps in such impressive condition if a person didn’t know how to interpret it. And they were sixty years into the future. And the war was over. There was no reason to assume that the tanker’s watch officer knew what Goond’s rank markers meant. Goond was relying on his unannounced appearance with a party of men to communicate a degree of gravitas in its own right.
“Uh,” the man said. He was as young as Feufel, who claimed to be nineteen but who was probably younger than that; and clean-shaven, but one could do that, on a tanker. There would be showers. Perhaps even a laundry, and almost certainly bake-ovens for fresh bread, but Goond focused his attention with a stern effort. Showers and laundry were not for them. “I, ah, yeah. Watch officer. Jonesie. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow, change of plan? Where’s Kalf?”
Goond noted the young man’s quick glance toward a console once removed where an unholstered pistol lay on the angled desk before one of the movie-screens. So there was a Kalf, and possibly armed. That was a data point. Also there was a party of men expected: and Jonesie didn’t know them on sight. There was a chance of getting U-818’s business done and getting clear before their imposture was recognized, then, if they could act convincingly.
“We didn’t see him. So we came up on our own.” True things made the best deceptions. “Is there someone to help my men with the pumps?” Jonesie hadn’t said no to diesel. So there was diesel. “Or if you would just point them in the right direction, assuming we need no keys.”
U-818 was standing by. Ellie was on the bridge, waiting to supervise refueling. It was going to make adjusting the trim of the boat a little more complicated. They were heavy enough as it was, with the thinness of fresh water taken into account.
Now with a mixture of confusion and proud competence Jonesie turned toward one of the consoles. There was a keyboard. It ran the movie. “Ah, no alarms, no keys,” Jonesie said. Goond suddenly recognized the movie: it was the forward pumproom of a T2 tanker, with lights coming up as he watched.
It wasn’t a movie. It was live-broadcast television, “TV,” and the technology was clearly advanced further than he had extrapolated from the radio announcements he’d been hearing if a tanker as old as this could afford to broadcast to the bridge from multiple locations all over the ship. “Need any help?”
There was a clear note of “I hope not” in Jonesie’s voice that made Goond smile, inside. “We’ve done this before,” he said. “We’ll be fine.” From here he could drop back into German, for a moment at least.
“Obermachinist Oldorp. Report when action is complete. And there is one other aboard.” It needn’t take long, not with the seas quiet and the tanker a stable platform. They just needed a top-off, after all. “And update the others.” He glanced quickly at the pistol, in case Oldorp hadn’t seen it. Oldorp would know to put the word out.
He didn’t want to give Jonesie time to wonder what he was saying. “I would welcome a chance to consult your expertise, watch officer,” he said, switching back into English. If Jonesie was one of the ship’s officers Goond was a trapeze artist, but civilian ships in inland waters might reasonably run on relaxed rules, especially in peacetime. “I’m afraid our charts have been badly damaged. Have you any to share?”
Which he would simply take. The tanker would have communications. It could call for replacements. He had a strong suspicion that ships in this modern age didn’t even need printed charts: there were things called “apps” that one used on one’s “cell,” or one’s “eyepod.” Goond had no moral qualms about robbing this freighter blind, because it wouldn’t be staying that way for any significant period of time.
Again with the confused expression as Jonesie looked around him. So he didn’t know. Goond was beginning to seriously question whether Jonesie had any business on board ship at all. There came a sudden clearing, a wave of relief, on Jonesie’s face, however; it was as Jonesie’s eye fell on a long low steel chest-with-drawers that stood well back along the wall to Jonesie’s left. It looked like a chart-chest. So it was. There was that taken care of, then.
“It’s been years since I’ve been on a T2,” Goond said, and come forward now to put his hand to Jonesie’s shoulder, turning Jonesie around to cover Oldorp’s exit. “I’m sure the technology has changed, but I don’t know how much. I’d love a tour.” Again, all true.
He wanted a closer look at each of those television monitors right away to see if he could gather any information that might help him figure out what was going on and whether any Kalf, or any crew expected to arrive within hours, was going to pose a problem for U-818.
Jonesie Banks had his suspicions about this whole thing. The gang leader, Harris, had assured him that there was no risk involved in taking over the tanker, and it was for less than a day—just enough time to bring up the transfer vessel to off-load the contraband for delivery to the drop point on the Ontario side of the lake, and then out. Nobody was going to get hurt. He was just here to keep an eye on things, him and Kalf. So who were these people? Not the police. Not the Coast Guard. Who?
“A tour? Of course,” he said. When unsure of the situation the best thing to do was punt off of whatever the other guy had said last. They wanted diesel? They weren’t after the drugs over the forward tanks, then, and he could get rid of them before the rest of his brothers-in-street got back. For all Jonesie knew this sort of drop-in traffic was normal socializing for old tankers like this one, a little off-the-record income to line the crew’s pockets, maybe. “Happy to oblige. What’s your name?”
The clothing the man wore was unfamiliar, grey leather. Who wore grey leather? “Call me Ainsvo,” the man suggested, moving toward that low art-print-chest-looking-thing at the wall. Weird name, Ainsvo, but it had a hint of familiarity about it. Where had Jonesie heard that name before? “Let’s have a look at your charts.”
Jonesie was happy to let Ainsvo take charge. He didn’t know anything about the tanker, not really; he could drive a small cabin cruiser with the GPS to provide him instructions, but that was about his limit. “I have sent some people down into your galley stores for resupply,” Ainsvo said, pulling drawers out, checking chart titles one after another. “There will be no problem? I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Jonesie wasn’t sure he understood that, exactly, but he’d heard Ainsvo speak German—he was pretty sure it was German, he’d heard it in movies—so he made allowances for the translation of a non-native speaker.
“No problem,” he assured Ainsvo, who had started to extract charts from the chest, rolling them up into tubes. Jonesie could help. They weren’t his charts, but with luck Ainsvo wouldn’t guess that. Anything to get these people off the ship before the rest of his gang returned. Jonesie didn’t know whether he was supposed to have stopped them from getting on, so it was better all around if the issue didn’t come up.
It wasn’t as if he was in a position to resist Ainsvo, him with just a pistol. It had taken all ten-twelve of the boarding party to herd the tanker’s crew into the store-room to lock them up, before the others had left. “Here, let me—”
He knew where to find the rubber bands. He’d searched the bridge once he’d been left alone on it, looking for a bottle of booze or some pornographic media—print or digital, he didn’t care—to occupy his time while they were waiting, he and Kalf, for the yacht to come in the morning and retrieve the tanker’s smuggled cargo.
“You are very cooperative,” Ainsvo said, his eyes meeting Jonesie’s for just a moment longer than Jonesie was comfortable with. “We stack these here, to take away. I have an hour, I think.” Picking a seat near the front of the bridge Ainsvo moved Jonesie’s gun casually to one side and folded his arms. “I admit I recognize very little of this equipment. What can you tell me about all of this, yes?”
Jonesie had initially taken Ainsvo as someone from the gang that he hadn’t been told about, or as someone familiar with the tanker’s crew and out for a little free diesel. Maybe Ainsvo was something more than that. How had Ainsvo gotten here, exactly, with no radio traffic on the marine band transceiver, and nothing Jonesie had seen on approach from the bridge? Maybe Jonesie was accidentally in the middle of something much bigger than a small home-grown drug smuggling operation.
All right, Jonesie decided. He’d play along. Fortunately for Jonesie he’d been a quick study all of his life, and he’d been bored once the others had gone. He’d toggled all the toggles and switched all the switches. He could wing this, just so long as Ainsvo was telling the truth about lacking familiarity. He could open up the software binders for Ainsvo to read. If English wasn’t Ainsvo’s first language Jonesie could be reading ahead as they went, and cover for his ignorance that way.
“Well, you can see what condition some of this stuff is in,” Jonesie said, gesturing broadly with an air of regret. “But there’s your usual stuff, depth finder, navigation, environmental monitors. All of it strictly 1990, I’m afraid. Here. Course and steering. Password is ‘tankerbridge,’ all one word, no caps.”
He’d wondered, Jonesie had, when he’d threatened it out of one of the ship’s crew, whether that would turn out to be a warning signal, an alert of some sort. That would have been what he would have done. He thought. But he’d found it written down in the margins of more than one software documentation binder, and so he felt pretty sure of himself about that.
“Good, you’re in. Now. Top view. We’re here. Got that? Sorry, let me know if I’m talking down to you. Respect.”
Ainsvo shook his head, thoughtfully. “No, this is perfect,” he said. “Just as though I knew nothing. Walk me through this. I’d like to see as much as I can before we have to leave you in peace once again.”
Couldn’t come fast enough for Jonesie. “So you can see, here. We’re only making enough speed to stay in place, more or less. Treading water. Have a look at the specs on the engines.” If that was what they were. He didn’t care. They looked like engine specs to him.
If it was a test, Jonesie knew he could spin a line of bullshit with the best. And if it was anything else he didn’t even care, so long as Ainsvo was gone before Kalf turned up to demand what was going on, so long as the ship was all theirs again by the time Harris and the rest of the gang got back.
By the time Oldorp came up to let him know they could leave Goond’s brain was stuffed so full of new knowledge that he thought his skull would crack. All of this equipment. All of this information—much more than he was getting from Jonesie, because he could read English much better than he could speak it, and statistics were statistics in any European language. And what information—not just the quantity, but the quality, and Jonesie denigrating the equipment for being old at every opportunity. If only Jonesie knew.
Goond wasn’t going to tell him. He didn’t like the boy. Jonesie apparently thought they were something quite other than they actually were, although Goond wasn’t very sure of the details. Jonesie was young and stupid enough to be taken in by a bit of fancy footwork, though, so that was something Goond could be grateful for.
“And on this station, radio communications and satellite up-link with the Coast Guard,” Jonesie was saying. They’d moved on from where they’d started at least an hour ago, Goond making sure he absentmindedly tucked that pistol into his waistband as he rose to relocate. He’d checked the safety. The pistol was an unfamiliar make, but there were familiar elements, and fortunately the safety was one of them. “We’ve disabled it, of course. By the time they can get a signal out we’ll have been gone for hours. Clean get-away—”
“Herr EinsVo.” And there was Oldorp, thank God. There seemed to be a hidden message in his tone of voice; Goond sharpened his alertness. “Fueling operation is finished. I also report that stores are loaded, with assistance from a man named Kalf. The captain of this ship has asked for a word before we go.” In German. Goond didn’t know whether Jonesie could understand any of it: Oldorp had apparently spoken carefully.
And there was a lot of information there. It connected with the hints Goond had been collecting from Jonesie’s remarks; just now, for instance, with his indication that Jonesie’s “they” would be gone before the other “they” had restored their communications and called for help. That was why there’d been so few lights, why there’d been no crew. Jonesie was a pirate. Goond had thought they were going to have to deal with his misgivings on that issue prior to their departure, but perhaps the situation was dealt with, without him.
“We will take these charts,” Goond said in German. Though what he had learned from Jonesie confirmed that this ship was in no real need of them—except as back-up—Goond still felt a little awkward about annexing them. He switched to English to take his leave of this child-pirate. “Keep to your post until you are relieved, Jonesie. I have appreciated your company, thank you.”
He had Jonesie’s pistol. Helping Oldorp with the charts—there was an armload of them, even tightly rolled—gave him a natural cause to go to the door; he kicked the stop away from under the lower edge and swung it shut with decision and dispatch. The latch was also original issue. Goond knew how to secure it from the outside.
Then he hurried after Oldorp, through the corridor, down the ladder-stairs, toward the galley—where the ship’s crew waited. Six of them; and one prisoner, Kalf Goond presumed, but apart from that one everybody seemed relaxed and friendly. At least at first sight. Taking a quick scan of the group Goond made his nod to the one he took for the senior among them. He felt a little exposed: but he was closest to the door that would lead him to the deck, and they wouldn’t know whether people were waiting out there to cover him.
“There were maybe ten of them,” the captain said, without preamble. He was an older man in plain civilian clothes, but there was old worn tarnished braid along the shoulders of his jacket. “Locked us up in our own dry stores locker. We’re lucky your people heard us.”
At the same time Goond could see quite well that the captain had his thoughts about Goond and his people as well. It was a good time to get away, before anybody could get a clear view of the boat: Goond knew what he could use for a distraction. “There is a boy called Jonesie on the bridge. I have locked the door. He is expecting people to come back tomorrow, and it may be that he and Kalf were the only pirates left on board. Here is his pistol.”
Please do not shoot me with it. They wouldn’t know he was carrying his own side-arm and Goond saw no reason to mention that. He pulled the clip out of Jonesie’s weapon and checked for a chambered round before he put the pistol and the clip down on the floor beside him as a wordless way of making the request. “We have taken some diesel for our boat and helped ourselves to some of your ship’s stores, including some ice cream, I hope. And I have raided you for ship’s charts. Wishing you all the best, gentlemen, good-night.”
It would be dark. With luck the master control for the ship’s lights was on the bridge and the ship’s crew could not get to it in time to embarrass U-818. There would be little enough to see with the boat low in the water. They could tow the inflatable rafts until they were safely out of sight, when they’d have the time to stow them.
“God-speed,” the ship’s captain called to Goond’s now-turned back as Goond retreated. “Safe passage.”
Goond locked the last door behind him on his way out, for insurance. It wouldn’t stop the ship’s crew if they came in pursuit, but it might slow them down, and maybe they would take their time about it. And maybe there would be ice cream—that had not melted—when he got back to the boat with the charts, and the amazing story that went with them.
Charlie Montrose was still sitting in the kitchen of the house he shared with his old mother, enjoying his morning cup of coffee, when the tone from the general store sounded to alert him to the fact that someone had come in. Oh, well, he told himself. It was nearly May. The weather had already begun to moderate, though the boating season wouldn’t really start into full swing until Memorial Day.
Pushing himself to his feet he walked slowly down the corridor that separated his living quarters from the store and went through to the front counter. “Hello,” he called out. “How can I help you?”
He didn’t see anybody, not immediately; but he heard someone, rustling amongst the shelves where he stocked wine—stovetop meals—snacks for the benefit of the vacationers that would come to enjoy the bit of lake-front and the recreational opportunities that the Salmon Shore resort, established 1950, had to offer families during the summer season.
People did turn up before and after, attracted by the lower rates: but he’d seen nothing on his parking lot monitors that would indicate the arrival of a car or an RV. Maybe it was a hiker stopping in. That happened. Sometimes people who’d gone for a long walk in the woods found that they weren’t quite as prepared for the rain and wet and cold as they’d thought they were, and decided to check themselves in to one of his cabins for a warm dry night and a hot bath before returning to their communities with tales of their adventures as modern-day explorers.
Charlie was all in favor of that. It wasn’t just that they generated revenue for the little old-fashioned resort; it also cut down on the number of search-and-rescue efforts that had to be mounted, at taxpayer expense. One way or another a man got used to walk-ins. His cabins could be warm and ready to receive customers within ninety minutes. They all had in-line hot water heaters. Salmon Bay was an old-fashioned resort, perhaps, but they weren’t still living in the 1950s, even though their architecture was.
Then suddenly his guest appeared from between the shelves of packaged chips and sugary-salty grazing foods, a genial moon-faced bearded fellow in a double-breasted black leather coat with a ready smile and the proverbial piercing blue eyes and a cap pushed to the back of his head, black hair curling over his forehead. He wore what seemed to be a standard Army-surplus officer’s headgear, if lacking the horsehair ring that would stiffen it; and with a somewhat dirtied white cotton cover, as though he thought he was the commander of a U-boat. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “The door was open. Look, I found beer.”
And so he had. The man was carrying a six-pack canned, and had another tucked under his arm. First thing in the morning, but Charlie didn’t judge. For all he knew it was actually at the end of a long night. “That you have,” he said. “I keep the hard stuff behind the glass. If you’re in the market.”
He cocked his thumb back over his shoulder at his locked cabinet. It wasn’t that his prices were tempting: just that a pocket-flask of rye hid out in a man’s pocket that much more easily, and nobody could be faulted for having forgotten to pay, surely? Why, yes. Yes, they could. “Thank you, but no for now,” the man said. Charlie noticed his accent, slight but present. German. “Let me just put these on the counter. You have rooms? I have people.”
He unloaded his beers, and some packets of candied caramel corn as well. “And questions,” Charlie thought the man said, but under his voice, so that Charlie wasn’t really sure. His hearing was perfectly good for a man in his age: the doctor told him so every six months. Yet and still Charlie was sixty-five, and couldn’t be bothered to keep up on all the biological peripherals all of the time.
So, all right, things on the counter. “We have rooms, yeah,” Charlie said. “How many people, how many nights? We’re on winter rates for another ten days. And there are group discounts. Veteran’s discounts as well.”
This seemed to spark the man’s interest; he seemed to find it funny, in a mild way. Charlie hoped he wasn’t going to be one of those “veteran of the race wars” types: they’d been getting the white supremacists through the woods, in the past few years, perfectly law-abiding people by and large but Charlie didn’t like them. He’d been far too young for Korea and physically rejected for Viet Nam, but he knew how to respect a genuine soldier.
His father had been an officer, whether or not his mother had ever wanted to talk about it. Both of them, really, both of the men his mother had married, but Charlie’s genetic sire had been on the wrong side of the war.
Charlie’s widowed mother had married an American, and Charlie’s stepfather had been as good a dad as anyone could have asked for. Charlie had grown up hearing about other peoples’ fathers, so he knew. “We believe we may be veterans,” the man said. “But never mind that for now. There are fifty and some of us, but not all at once. And I understand there may be a family discount.”
Fifty-plus people? That was one heck of a family. A reunion of some sort, then, though why they’d elect to gather at a seen-better-days resort in the off season was anybody’s guess. “Big family,” he said, because surely that would be expected. “We can offer a ten percent additional credit for any booking of eight of our cabins or more. I’ll need a credit card. Your name?”
“I have no credit card.” And, strangely enough, the man didn’t seem to feel that was a problem. Charlie was starting to have his suspicions. He’d been taken for an Aryan sympathizer himself, more than once: just because he’d been blond, before he’d gotten grey. And blue eyes. His father’s eyes. “And I think you misunderstand about the family discount. My name is Lachs. Verricht Lachs. I spell—”
Wait, there had been that one peculiar contact, nearly a week ago now. Someone claiming to be U-818. There’d been people in high school who’d dug up his past, his mother’s past, and teased him about it. And the man was spelling out his name by tapping his finger on the counter, staccato bursts for the “dit,” finger pressed to the surface a little bit longer for the “dash,” as though the sealed wooden surface was a Morse code key. V-e-r-r-i-c-h-t L-a-c-h-s.
“You have my device up there, on your banner,” the man said, even while he continued to tap out Morse code against the counter-top. Verricht. Amherst. Heinrich. Stefan. Annamaria. Lachs. “You are not my son. But by tradition, you have declared yourself with our flag, and therefore we are your guests here, is it not so?”
Charles fought to process the signals. Yes. There’d been the strange radio contact. Yes. He’d discounted it. Yes. That was his father’s name. Yes. He had the cartoon that had been painted on his father’s boat, his father’s personal artifice, his sigil, on the resort flag, flying on the dock along with the United States flag and that of the state of Michigan. No. This could not possibly in any rational sense be happening.
“Some joker made contact with me some days ago.” That much was not in question. “Claiming to be U-818. Which sank in 1945, with my father on it. You want to stay here, you give me a valid credit card. But I’m about thirty seconds from turning you away, credit card or no credit card.” He was getting angry. This went beyond pranking. His mother had mourned his father for all the days of her life; it had been only a part of her new life in America, but it had always been there.
“Some joker claimed he was the son of Verricht Lachs,” the man retorted, as though he were the one who was offended. “And that his name was Charlie. While I am in a position to know that the son of the Smoking Salmon was baptized Mattias Ulrich Pieter, among others. Pieter. What kind of a good German name is Charlie?”
Suddenly something had gone sideways. It was thinking of his mother, Charlie thought. His baby pictures were in her special box, tucked away; he’d only ever seen them once or twice, and never since he’d gone away to college. There was one of his mother sitting with him as a baby on her lap, and a man at her shoulder, dress uniform, proud happy smile. His natural father. His mother’s first husband. The man in front of him. Something about the eyes seemed suddenly, unfairly, provocatively familiar.
“So you’ve gone through the records. For some sick reasons of your own. Are you from the old country? Because I want nothing to do with any of those people, the way they treated my mother.”
That blow had struck home. It was what Charlie had said about his mother; that look of grief and sorrow was too real. But it went quickly—masked with deliberation and skill. “This is getting nowhere. I’m sorry about the beer.” Which meant nothing. And what the man said next, that should have put an end to this farce once and for all—it was certainly put to Charlie in what started out as a tone of considerable finality. “We will go elsewhere. But you may wish to reconsider whether you call yourself U-818 Lachs, does your mother know?”
“Why don’t we ask her?”
The words were out of his mouth before he realized what they were. And once they were said he could not un-say them. There was no questioning the sincerity of the emotion on the man’s face: and yet there was no explanation for it, either, absolutely none, no possible explanation, not within a rational world in which science ruled the physical universe and the stream of existence ran one way and cause led to effect in a chartable and reliable manner with logic and reason.
“My Papadum,” the man said. “My kaiserling. She is still alive?”
Charlie had no intention of letting this man anywhere near his mother. She was nearly eighty-five years old, no matter the health of her heart and her spirit. No manipulative schemer would be allowed to cross the threshold of her apartments: he would come up with some excuse why she could not take her turn around the garden, the daily exercise she insisted upon rain or shine. For as long as these people were here he would have to keep her closed away, somehow.
He would give them three days. Because there was a picture with an inscription on the back from his birth-father to his mother, with love from “Fergie” to his “Papadum,” his precious “kaiserling.” That was a mushroom. He’d looked it up when he’d been thirteen. He’d asked her about it. She’d just laughed.
“Her Fergie has been dead for sixty years.” Charlie said it deliberately, watching for the reaction. Only those people on the other side of the water could have known what his parents called each other, and that meant this man was his enemy. Or his father. Which was self-evidently impossible. He’d keep them for a few days and he’d be doing his research, too. “Shouldn’t he stay that way? Come on, I’ll give you the keys. Your people can stay through Saturday. You’ve got a bus?”
“In a manner of speaking. Yes. Come with me, I’ll show you.” All right. No more talk of credit cards, then. No offered identification. There was no law requiring him to demand any, though, and it was Charlie’s resort, it belonged to him and his mother free and clear. He could let them use his cabins if he pleased. Whether he was going to feed them he had yet to decide. “And oh, you’ll want your binoculars, if you have any,” the man said, as an afterthought, starting for the door.
Charlie swept the peg-board behind the service counter clear of the keys to all twenty cabins and dumped them into one of the bags he kept there for peoples’ purchases. He grabbed his field glasses. He followed the man out, locking the door behind him, since his mother would still be asleep at this early hour.
They weren’t going to the parking lot in front of his small restaurant, fine, closed for the season anyway. No bus, no RVs, the man—what was Charlie going to call him? Because “Lachs” was out of the question—headed off down toward the dock anyway, straight for the flagpoles. There wasn’t anything out there on the water. There was only an inflated rubber boat, and an old-fashioned one by the looks of it.
So there was a boat standing far enough out that it took binoculars to see it? If these people were smugglers, criminals, had Charlie just put his mother in jeopardy? He could call for help. He had more than one nook and corner where he had a radio, and could get a signal out.
The man shaded his eyes with the flat of his hand against the early morning light. Then he waved, with his arm high overhead, and took Charlie’s binoculars. Pointing with them at the flagpoles, at the Smoking Salmon banner—a sanitized version, of course, because Charlie had no intention of glorifying the war—the man stared into Charlie’s eyes with a certain degree of humor in his face.
“That is not U-818 Lachs,” the man said, emphatically. Taking a sight through the binoculars he nodded toward the water, waiting until he could tell that Charlie had seen something to aim at before holding the binoculars out for Charlie to take. “That is U-818 Lachs.”
Because there was something out there. Charlie hadn’t really noticed it at first, a stick bobbing in the water, except that it wasn’t bobbing, and it was getting taller. Quite tall. On top of something. On top of a structure of some sort, rising from the waves with a frothing of water from the sides of something long and low and grey. Suddenly sure of what he was going to see, horribly reluctant to see it, Charlie raised the binoculars to his eyes and focused.
There, on the side of the structure rising up inexorably out of the water. The original Smoking Salmon, a fish with a pipe in its mouth and a stream of black haze rising from a wrecked ship in the bowl, one lateral fin brought forward and enlarged as though it were a hand with its fingers splayed to show its blissful enjoyment of yet another enemy freighter going down, sending its billowing clouds of burning oil up to Heaven as if in an unspoken and unanswered prayer.
The utter and surreal insanity of it all was too much for Charlie, and he laughed. “All right,” he said. He understood it, now. “Come on ashore. Detail me one or two of your, er, crew, to prepare the cabins.”
World War Two Kriegsmarine re-enactors. That was the answer. Intense young nut-cases bent on recreating conflicts safely in the past, focused so completely on the technical challenges of building obsolete technology that the manifest tastelessness of what they were doing escaped them completely.
They weren’t dangerous. These weren’t neo-Nazis or white supremacists. Nobody with anything truly serious in mind would build a U-boat. Nobody who built a replica U-boat would have any money left over to buy beer, but who was to say whether the amusement value of their presence wasn’t return enough?
He felt much better about the whole thing: so long as he didn’t think too hard about the look on the man’s face when Charlie had suggested that they ask his mother about U-818.
Lowering his binoculars Herr Kaleun Raimond Dietsch shook his head, the corner of his mouth quirked toward the front of his mouth in a characteristic grimace of perplexity. “H’mm,” he said, although he knew how frustrated his men would be. “It’s not a tanker. It may be a troop ship. Let’s get closer.”
They’d been on their way back to Bordeaux, stopping near the Cape Verde Islands to refuel a sister U-boat outbound for the Indian Ocean. They’d been located, attacked, depth-charged in high style by the “hedgehog” depth charge bomb clusters that the enemy delighted in dropping on the heads of U-boats. When they had surfaced they had been safe from Allied attack, but much closer to South America than to Africa; of the coast of Brazil, in fact, which meant Allied territory.
The radio equipment had been too badly damaged during the depth-charge attacks to find a friendly voice at any frequency, or any voice at all. Dietsch had decided to run down to Mar del Plata, in Argentina. Yes, Argentina was technically neutral—they’d broken relations with Germany in January. But a small party might hope to slip ashore and gain some intelligence; and, with luck, a blind eye turned to refueling and refurbishment prior to setting course for France once again.
There had been no U-boats in the coastal waters of Brazil since 1943, no convoy traffic south of Bahia. He’d felt safe proceeding on the surface to sustain his crew, give them all some relief from the hellish heat that built up in the boat in these warm waters.
They’d had a chance to air the boat out, dry their clothing, touch up the ship’s seal on the conning tower—Moby Dick. Someone had told some of his crew that he, Dietsch, was as fixed on the hunt as Captain Ahab from that novel, and the white whale was what the crew had painted on the conning. They hadn’t asked him. He really didn’t object. It wasn’t his place.
They’d seen no traffic worth remarking, certainly no targets, but on the positive side no American destroyers or bombers looking for them to kill them for good and all this time. Nobody seemed to be looking for them. But he was always looking for something to eat, so it was wonderful to see the huge ship on the horizon. It was like no ship he’d ever imagined: a large box, as much as anything else, and so brightly painted that it might be taunting him.
Since he didn’t know what it was he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a warship. He’d sent his engineer to consult Jane’s; now Englhardt was back, shaking his head in turn. “There is nothing like it in the book, Herr Kahloin,” he said. “It must be a new building program. Something from the Americans?”
Yes. That would make sense. They were a diabolically inventive people, but he would test them out all the same. “Periscope depth,” he told the watch officer. “Dive.”
The sun was blinding on the bright water. It was worth the risk that his periscope would escape observation, and the hydrophone operator didn’t hear more than one strong almost overwhelming noise of the single ship. The watch officer saw no escort ships as they ran closer in: just row upon row of what seemed to be windows rising in ranks into the heavens.
Troop ship. A repurposed pleasure craft, of monumental proportions. Dietsch climbed into his conning tower and gave the order to raise the attack periscope. He was the eyes of U-797. He was its Ahab. He had a full load of torpedoes for harpoons.
The target was so large there was no fear of misdirection; no need to finesse his course and speed, and the ship showed no signs of even the most basic of defensive maneuvers, but sailed in a straight line. He brought the boat into perfect position—nose on to broadside—and issued his command, three torpedoes to launch, in a fan; there, he said to himself, with satisfaction. That will serve you out for those depth charges.
Then he—and everybody else—waited, counting out the seconds either under their breath or, like Englhardt standing on the ladder half-way between Zentral and the conning tower where Dietsch sat at the attack periscope, on his stop-watch.
They were late. The size of the ship had confused him, Dietsch realized: it was farther away than he’d realized, the figures of the passengers he’d seen on one upper deck too indistinct to judge the distance by their height.
Late, but on target, and Dietsch rejoiced in the sweet sound from the hydrophones of the eels sinking their teeth into the hull of a juicy Allied transport. Once. Twice. Three times. Eye pressed to eyepiece of his periscope he scanned the ship to see what it would make of the gift that he had brought to their first meeting.
It didn’t seem to have made much of an impact. The ship had not slowed down. It didn’t seem to be taking on water. He knew his torpedoes had hit. All three of them. He knew a ship in ballast could eat up two, three torpedoes and still float, but that was a troop ship, it would logically be carrying people rather than ballast, why wasn’t it showing him that it was wounded? Hadn’t it noticed that it had been attacked?
He’d heard of that happening. When Prien had torpedoed the Royal Oak none of its crew had realized what had happened until it was far too late. This ship showed no sign of turning turtle. He needed more information than he could acquire from the conning tower. “Surface,” he told the watch officer. “Get a little nearer. And join me on the bridge.”
But it didn’t get any better when he climbed into the daylight to train his binoculars on the scene. Nobody was manning the ship’s boats, if that was what they were, those peculiar yellow objects like a cannoli or a tube-balloon. He could see some wisps of black smoke rising from the hull at the water-line, but when he looked up to the top of the boat he saw no signs of panic, or even alertness. And he was closer to the target than he’d been before. He could see things better.
What he saw made his heart sink. Those weren’t soldiers. There were men, yes, but there were at least as many women, and there were children there as well. This was a mistake. He’d made an error. He had to get away as quickly as possible, before he was seen, before he was identified, before the news of a U-boat attacking a defenseless passenger ship—a refugee ship, perhaps—could become a weapon in the propaganda war. He didn’t hesitate. He stooped over the hatch and yelled at the top of his lungs. “Alarm!”
Emergency dive. U-797 was a VII-F, they were the heaviest VII series made, they could dive like a cormorant. Hatch secured. Decking, already awash, now underwater. Conning tower slipping fast beneath the waves. Bridge flooded. Boat—disappeared. Had they been seen?
Should he go back and try again?
It was too late for that now. The word would spread throughout U-797 too quickly. No wise commander risked an order that would raise too many questions in men’s minds. Slumping against the chart table—his hands braced to either side of his rump to keep himself steady as the boat drove down into the deep—Dietsch listened to his engineer count off the meters. Twenty. Forty. Sixty. One hundred. He straightened up.
“That will do,” he said. Now he had to take control of his larger situation, define for his crew what their reality was going to be going forward. “I was misled by the unfamiliarity of the ship.” That was true. It cost him nothing in the eyes of the crew to admit to his mistake right away, and take any potential guilt on himself. “However, they do not appear to have been damaged very badly. We have avoided a grave error.”
Was there anything he could have done differently? Would any rational man have looked upon so large a target and risked an open hail, not knowing whether or not the ship was armed? That would have endangered the boat and its crew. No. No man would have gotten close enough to see women and children on so high an upper deck before launching his torpedoes, and by then it was too late.
They had been sent into the Indian Ocean with their load of torpedoes to replace ones whose batteries had degraded to uselessness in the damp heat of the tropics. Those of U-797 had clearly been affected as well. That would explain their failure to do significant damage, with three clearly heard detonations.
“We resume our course. We surface when we have some distance between us. Next stop Mar del Plata, gentlemen. That is all for now.”
A ship so much bigger than the Bismarck, one torpedoes did not sink, sailing blithely along on holiday as though there was no war on at all. Where was the shipyards in which such a monster could be built? Who was the national genius behind such an innovation? What nation in all the world was not at war?
And when, when would they find a true target against which to unleash their fury, and burn away the embarrassment and shame of having almost murdered a cruise ship full of women and children?
It was a beautiful day. Verricht Lachs stood on the low veranda of the command cabin—the one he shared with his senior officers, First Officer Goond Hols, Second Officer Theodor Sclarvie, Engineering Officer Joachim Vilsohn—facing the crew leaders, who stood on the lawn facing him. Out beyond his men Lachs could see the lake, glittering in the light of the Sun in a cloudless sky.
“We have considered the situation, Herr Kahloin.” Their navigator, Harald Rathke. “As you have asked. We can derive no explanation for how we got here. And in the absence of any other information our only suggestion is that we go out the same way we came in.”
They had to escape from the trap they were in if they were to hope to survive in the long term. Lake Superior was a very large body of water, and deep, four hundred meters in places; but it was less than half the extent of the Bay of Biscay, and it had been proven that a U-boat had to have luck on its side to traverse Biscay safely now that Allied air carried the new radar. The newer radar, Lachs reminded himself.
It had been difficult to hide in 1945. In 2005 it would be that much harder, if anybody started looking for them, which meant that Lake Superior offered no long-term sanctuary that could be safely relied upon, not even here at the Salmon Shore resort.
Sooner or later someone would happen upon their boat. They had to get out of here. A U-boat did not belong in Lake Superior, and there was a route from the lake out to the Atlantic Ocean, but to get there one had to traverse the complex system of locks that was called the Saint Lawrence seaway and there was no way to sneak a U-boat through those.
“I risk the lives of everybody in our crew,” Lachs pointed out. It was his decision, absolutely; any hint of collective action was entirely out of the question. Nobody wanted to invoke the shameful shadow of the Kiel mutiny. Nobody hated Communists more than a U-boat crew. “I risk the boat. Have we really no alternatives, in your view?”
Now there was a little uncomfortable stirring amongst the gathered officers, the chief diesel man, the top torpedo man, one of the radio operators. The navigator, of course. The warrant officers assigned. What?
“A point of interest, Herr Kahloin,” Heimsat—one of the machinists’ mates—said, diffidently, when Rathke didn’t speak. “There was U-728. Does Herr Kahloin remember? They also saw the Höllander. And when they were depth-charged their position was off Jan Mayen Island, but by the time they got their radio working they were near Gibraltar, and there was no explanation.”
That was not a completely accurate statement. There had been several explanations proposed. “I have heard of that,” Lachs said slowly, wondering how much was known amongst the crews of what was said amongst the officers. Also vice versa. “It was said there was an error in navigation. Milrauch insisted there had not been any such thing.”
Milrauch had been transferred away from his boat, condemned to shore duty. There had seemed little doubt that the boat had sustained severe damage in a massed Allied attack in the Arctic Ocean; Milrauch had lost his nerve, it was said, and fled the scene. Lachs had heard some perplexity as to how the boat had gotten from Jan Mayen to Gibraltar with its fuel tanks so little depleted, but since there had been a suspicious whiff of cowardice about the only possible explanation the matter was not much discussed.
Heimsat nodded, as did some of the others. “In fact no rational explanation, Herr Kahloin, so it was said that errors had crept in to the story as it was told. But now we consider that U-728 had descended to an unknown depth as a result of an attack, and when it surfaced it was someplace very much else. That is what we have heard. That is why we suspect that the only way out of Lake Superior is to descend as deeply as we dare, and see where we are, when we come up.”
Lachs took a deep breath. Then he let it out again. “Thank you for your report, men,” he said. “I will let you know when I have made a decision.”
They made their salutes. He returned them. Then he waited while everybody left, the men, his LI, his ZweiVo; it was just him and Goond, and Lachs leaned forward to lean his crossed forearms against the railing to disguise his involuntary slump of indecision. Yes, he was the commander. Yes, it was his decision, and he had accepted the responsibility years ago.
And still he was very glad to have Goond here to help him clarify his thinking, and would wait to see what Goond had to say about the problem that they faced.
Now that the crew had made their report and gone away Goond stood with Lachs on the lake-facing rail of the porch that surrounded their cabin, looking out across the water. It was a nice resort, and if it was not entirely up to modern standards—the old man had made a remark about that from time to time, in passing—that only meant it was closer to their own time, which reduced the psychic strain of their situation a little.
Closer to their own time, maybe, but still nowhere near to their own place. Goond felt farther and farther away from that with every reference article he read on the PC the old man had made available for their use—one in each cabin, some older, some newer, all technological marvels that had too much information on them to be grasped. Goond had done his best to stick to the essentials: it was 2005, “World War Two” had been over for sixty years, and U-818 hadn’t survived it.
Lachs was leaning over the railing with his folded arms braced to the weathered wooden cap-board, squinting into the westering sun. He hadn’t had much to say about the old man. The old man kept clear of Lachs as much as possible, while at the same time offering every apparent courtesy. There was an old woman about the place, though Goond didn’t think anybody had seen her. He’d decided he had better things to occupy his mind than that. How old would the captain’s lady be, in 2005?
“We can’t stay,” Goond said. “No matter how easy it might seem.” Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was pleasant, comfortable, safe, and they were alive. But they hadn’t any business being here. Goond wasn’t sure anybody wanted to go back—since that could well be going back to being dead—but what else were they to do? There was no role for a U-boat anywhere in this modern world. There were genuine submarines now, nuclear-powered. Goond had read up on the subject.
“We have hypotheses, but no understanding.” Lachs’ voice was contemplative, with a subtle undertone of unwillingness to accept Goond’s remark, of wishing to stay safe and warm and comfortable. Goond understood completely. He agreed. “There is only the one thing clear, above all others. I can think of no other way around it.”
Goond could think of several things that were clear. He waited. Lachs surprised him, time and again; they knew each other well enough to rely on each other’s decision processes, on each others’ actions, but not well enough to be able to guess each others’ innermost thoughts too readily. It kept the relationship from becoming boring, which was important, when men spent as much time together as they had in quarters as close as a U-boat. Friendships could be broken under such strains, as well as forged and strengthened.
“Look at this lake,” Lachs said. “We used to own the oceans of the world. And now the lake has become our prison. We can’t get out, Goond. We’re trapped. Unless we abandon U-818, which I will not do, not if I am the only man remaining.”
This was no Bay of Biscay. There were no enemy mine-layers between them and the Atlantic, no British bombers, no destroyers. There were only the locks. Gunther Prien—the first of Herr Hitler’s incomparables—had barely slid his U-47 into Scapa Flow and out again; there was no creeping through these locks from lake to lake, and there were how many, between them and their freedom? Did it even matter? One was enough.
The world might be at peace. But locks were attended by their very nature, their fill-and-flush cycles carefully controlled, every close and open documented, and every ship as well. There was no hope that any fifty men could break in to the dockmaster’s control station and sneak anything through in the middle of the night.
“I don’t think any of us really can leave U-818,” Goond admitted. “Though if someone wants to badly enough, I don’t know how we would stop them, short of tying them up in the torpedo room. Which could be bad for morale.”
Disappearing into the local population could be done—at least for the short term, to go by the news. But they all had experience in wading through propaganda for underlying facts. They were undocumented. They had no money with which to purchase documentation. The boat had no registry. Nobody was licensed to own or operate.
Lachs nodded. “We overstay our welcome, if we’re not careful. Then who knows what might happen.” An internment camp; one not likely to be as comfortable as the “Salmon Shore” resort. They could move the boat to Duluth, or any one of a number of smaller ports: but they’d just be postponing the inevitable. “The best escapes are made the closest to the point of capture. I personally see few better alternatives.”
When they’d seen the Flying Dutchman, they’d seen a ghost. To see a ghost was to share the same liminal space as a ghost, between the worlds of the living and of the dead. To share that space was to become contaminated. They were in that space now.
And the last thing that had happened to them before they had surfaced sixty years and four thousand miles from where they’d gone down was that they had been bombed into an emergency dive that had become an uncontrolled descent to an undetermined depth. At the time Goond had assumed that they were not at impossible depths, because the boat had not collapsed in on itself, because the water pressure forcing the water in through every minute crack or tiny fault did not have the force of a blow-torch cutting them into pieces.
Maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe the boat hadn’t collapsed in on itself because something in the deeps had taken them out of their time, out of their space, and brought them here. Maybe it was the pressure itself that flattened them into a mote upon the wings of time and carried them through dimensional channels yet unimagined all the way to Lake Superior. Maybe there were sub-oceanic ducts beneath all of the world’s great waters. Stranger things were attested in the science of this modern age, or if not stranger, at least very strange.
“Do I announce your decision, Herr Kahloin?” Goon asked. This was serious. It called for formal language. “Have you made one, and when do we leave?”
Lachs seemed to consider this question. Suddenly, however, Goond found himself with no time to wait upon the commander’s word. “Yes, I understand,” Goond said. “Meeting of officers, then all-crew muster. I’ll just go right away to get that organized. Immediately yes? I’d better get started—”
Because he saw something that Lachs had not yet spotted, lost in thought as Lachs was and staring at the lake. Goond was not staring at the lake. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the house up-slope at the head of the resort with its cabins and its little restaurant, where the store and the office was. The house where the old man lived, though the old man had gone on a drive today, to run some errands. The house where the old man lived with the older woman, about whom Lachs had said nothing at all, whom none of them had seen but at a distance.
There was a woman coming now. She was thin like the branches of a hawthorn tree well adorned with its wicked sharp slender thorns. She was wearing the sort of a dress that might be worn by any respectable European woman within living memory, to judge from the TV, something long and patterned blue and white, and she was striding with purpose and determination across the long lawn between the big house and the cabin at whose railing Goond stood with Lachs.
Goond did not want any part of it, but she called out, her voice startling Lachs into the sort of whiplash-spin that was almost never good for a man’s balance. “You too, Goond,” she called, clear and strong. “The both of you. I will have words. No time to spare.” In German. And, oh, Goond recognized that determination in her voice. He hadn’t wanted to.
Lachs had gone as green-white in the face as ever he’d been at the end of a long cruise, apparently stunned into paralysis. The woman climbed the two low steps up onto the porch. There was something in her hand. “You are not the only U-boat that has found itself in strange waters,” she said, holding the something out—papers, papers with notes. “There is traffic. Goond. You look well. Has my husband been eating his breakfast?”
She’d gotten old. Well, of course she had, “Charlie” was an old man, older even than he looked to Goond; and Emrys had been only two years younger than Fergie when they’d married. She was wearing her hair short, in iron-gray curls; without make-up her features were sterner than Goond remembered, but she had always had that hint of unfathomed strength in her eyes.
Fergie had turned away and put his hand to his forehead. The look Emrys gave his hunched shoulder blades was one of infinite compassion; Goond felt uncomfortably like he was peering through someone’s bedroom window. “He is my commander,” Goond said. “And nobody tells him to eat his breakfast. Except you. How did you know he was him?”
A foolish question, really, and Goond wished he could call it back. “You and Charlie quarrelling in the store-front, when you came,” she said, to Fergie’s turned back. “Do you think I would ever forget your voice? My love. —But Charlie is not the only ham radio operator in our family. There has been an incident near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that should concern you, because we may be the only people with any idea of what might be happening, and what could happen if something is not done.”
Goond scanned the papers she’d given him. Notes. A cruise ship, yes, he’d seen ads for cruise ships on TV and then he’d had to look them up on the computer and study them in sick fascination. There were three times as many people on some of those ships than had been lost when the Bismarck had gone down. The news Emrys brought said that there had been very few casualties; these things were built with phenomenal redundancies in their survival gear, and besides the ship had stayed afloat. That was a very great blessing: but it also wasn’t the point.
There were the official reports, and then there were the fringe elements. Some of its passengers insisted that someone had tried to sink them. There was gossip about torpedoes, a periscope, the conning tower and bridge of submarine. Someone claimed that someone had a photo, howsoever blurry, and was holding out for a fat enough offer from a tabloid magazine.
Someone had seen a cartoon on the conning tower of the supposed submarine that someone was supposed to have seen. According to Emrys’ notes the media discounted any such sightings, but gossip spoke of a big white fish. Moby Dick. The White Whale.
Which to anybody who knew anything pointed exclusively and immediately to U-797 Dietsch. Goond knew that ship, or at least he knew U-797 Dietsch. VII-F. A monsoon boat, one of possibly only four VII-Fs as far as Goond knew, tasked with bringing fresh torpedoes into the Indian Ocean; so they’d rounded the Cape of Good Hope: and could have seen the Dutchman.
This changed things. Over the past few days he’d realized, he thought they’d all truly realized, that the war was over. It would take a certain amount of willful blindness to look at one of those huge floating hotels and see a troop transport, even off Allied Rio de Janeiro. There hadn’t been a threat to commercial shipping since 1945, and a cruise ship had no conceivable protections. But Raimond Dietsch had never been quite right in the head.
“I’ll go speak to our officers,” Goond said. It was more than something that had to be put into motion right now. It was also a good exit line. Raimond Dietsch meant trouble. Someone needed to reach out to him, somehow, and put him straight.
Goond left Emrys Lachs to say what she had to say to her husband—her husband, to say to her—and went forth with concentration on the emergency that would impel them to their grand experiment sooner, rather than later.
By the time Charlie got back from his errands it was past dark. He came in through the back of the house, as he always did; that meant the kitchen door. So comfortably familiar was the sight of his mother sitting at the kitchen table with her old-fashioned drip coffee pot sitting on a trivet in the middle that he didn’t think twice about her being there, and started talking as he turned to secure the screen door behind him. He hadn’t taken it down for the winter, and it was too late now, because summer would be here soon.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Bad traffic on the road past Benson. Need to put a light on some of those cross-streets, and soon.” He heard the clink of her mug against her saucer. Always a saucer, even with a mug. And always picking up her mug, taking a sip, and setting it back down again, even when it was only to pick it up again for a second sip immediately.
There was another chime of mug against saucer, and Charlie realized that she wasn’t alone.
He turned around. That man. He sat beside Charlie’s mother, not across from her, the chair drawn around to sit at the diagonal so that he’d been partially screened from view. He wasn’t looking at Charlie. He was wearing the jacket he’d had on the first time Charlie had seen him, and there was a pile of cabin-keys in front of him on the table.
“So you’re leaving, then,” Charlie said. If he’d been paying more attention the fact that the cabins were dark would have tipped him off; they’d been fully lit for three, four days now, he’d been getting used to it. Someone had noticed he’d had company. He’d claimed there was paint drying.
“It’s time,” the man said. “Your mother and I have just been going over our accounts.”
And that could be taken two ways. Each of them had an envelope on the table in front of them, inscribed; with their name across the front, Charlie realized, of course. Once upon a time he’d seen his mother’s stack tied up with a black ribbon, one for each time Charlie’s father had gone off on a war cruise. She’d told him. He’d never asked about them again. “All settled and satisfactory, I presume?” He hadn’t decided what he was going to call the man, yet. It had only been a few days.
The man looked up at the kitchen clock above the stove. “Eight o’clock,” he said. “Time to catch my ride back.” He stood up, tucking the envelope with his name on it away inside his jacket. Inside pocket, Charlie presumed. “Thank you for the use of the facilities, Charlie Montrose. It’s been of invaluable help to us.”
Charlie’s mother hadn’t moved. She turned her face up toward the man as he moved past; the man stooped and kissed her mouth with a sort of businesslike tenderness that erased the apparent difference in age between them. Suddenly Charlie was desperately worried: was his mother ever going to see this man again? She certainly took him for exactly who he claimed to be. Charlie couldn’t let this happen.
“Well, you’re welcome to come back and see us again,” he said, trying not to notice the startled hunger on his mother’s face that she turned to him as he spoke. “We get busy during the summer, but we’ll find some way to manage. Any time.” And Charlie stood aside, so that the man could leave through the kitchen door. The store would be locked up. It would be dark all the way down to the dock, and nobody to see what might be waiting for its captain out there on the water.
“Be good to your mother,” the man said, in German now, and held out his hand. “Until I can get back to you both. You’re a good boy, Pieter. I am so proud to have you as my son.”
Charlie couldn’t move.
Those were the words. And in that voice. And the hand-shake. He only barely managed to shake himself loose from his paralysis in time to get his own hand out, to clasp that of his father. “I will,” he promised, because those were the words, though he hadn’t thought of them for decades. “Safe journey, swift return, sir. We will await the day.”
Now, only now, he believed that the man was his father. Only now that the man was leaving. But his mother knew. And his father had known all along, after their first meeting. His father was gone, and Charlie remembered this emotion, the brave front for his mother’s sake, when all his nearly-six-year-old self had wanted to do was cry.
“Your coffee will get cold,” his mother said. He could hear the sound of a mug filling. “Sit down, Charlie. There’s nothing to be done.”
He wasn’t six years old. His heart had not been broken. His father was gone, but it was because Charlie Montrose senior had died of cardiac disease just seven years ago. Nothing to do with Verricht Lachs.
So as inexplicable events went, it was one. “I’ve got to get the groceries,” Charlie said. “Ice cream will melt.” But he sat down anyway and reached for his mug, because she’d told him to. The ice cream wouldn’t melt very quickly. He could take another ten minutes for his mother’s sake; and go see to the cabins in the morning.
Once Lachs was back on board they’d run on the surface for as long as it felt safe—the lookout finding no aircraft, no boats on the water. They kept underwater for the daylight hours, so it was near dawn on the second day after they’d left the Salmon Shore—thirty-six hours, more or less—that they reached their target position. Maybe nobody was up in the sky looking for a U-boat, specifically, and they were a small boat in the grand scheme of things. But U-boats didn’t survive by making assumptions.
They were making one assumption: that the vague reports—rumors—conspiracy theories, outlandish though they were, were founded on fact: another U-boat displaced in space and time; and a specific U-boat, whose commander had been gossiped about. The entire crew of U-818 Lachs were the only ones with certain knowledge that such a thing could happen.
If nobody got to U-797 in time to warn them that the war was over, a catastrophe might occur. One of the gigantic cruise ships torpedoed, with no time to evacuate all of the passengers and crew. The safety redundancies on those cruise ships were impressive: Goond had studied up on them. But nobody had prepared a cruise liner in 2005 to be attacked by a war machine from sixty years ago. U-797 was a torpedo resupply boat. Who knew how many torpedoes it might have on board?
How long would it take the world’s navies to realize that there was what amounted to a terrorist-by-default on the loose? How many torpedoes would it take the White Whale to sink a cruise liner, how many cruise liners would U-797 sink before it was tracked down and destroyed, how many thousands of people might be killed? What if U-797 fired on a British Navy ship, a United States Navy ship, a Russian war-ship, in the current political environment?
For the last hour and a half everybody on the boat got their chance to come up to the bridge for a few minutes, breathe the air, look at the horizon. Goond wanted to linger on, but it was getting lighter and there was no sense in drawing things out. There would be plenty of time to wonder whether they had made a terrible mistake once they started down.
One last look around at the night sky—at the stars—one last breath of the beautiful pure fresh air—and Goond climbed down into the conning tower to secure the bridge. Into your hands, oh Lord, do we commit our spirits, he said to himself. “Tower hatch closed, Herr Ellie!” Goond called down, firmly, decisively. Did they not commit themselves to God every time they closed the tower hatch? Was this really all so very different?
Yes. It was. There was no way to tell whether diving past three hundred meters would reproduce the physical displacement they’d experienced between the Arctic Ocean and the Salmon Shore resort, even for a boat that had been contaminated by contact with the Flying Dutchman. And if it did, what if they were displaced in time once again, as well? What then?
But U-797 had come up in 2005. U-818 had come up in 2005. Maybe they were called to the same year by accident, but maybe once they were here they would stay. They had to try something, and there was simply nothing else to try. They were fifty-three; a single passenger cruise line carried thousands. It had to be done.
Goond descended into the control room, where Lachs already stood—back to the periscope housing—watching the depth gauges past Vilsohn, over the shoulders of the men seated at the hydroplane stations. “Take us down,” Lachs said. “U-818 into the deeps.”
The diesels had fallen silent. Indicator lights went from red to green as air intake valves were closed and secured. The lights were already dimmed to conserve battery power, because even though they were fully charged, who knew how deep they would be able to go, how far they’d have to travel just to get to the surface again? Who knew how much power they would have to call upon, and for how long?
“Flood tanks forward,” Ellie said. Nobody spoke, except to repeat orders. They could do this in their sleep. That was a good thing. The air had been so thick, before they’d come up from the deeps that last time, that he had been all but sleep-walking.
The boat began to tilt, forward, driving down. Almost as quickly as an emergency dive, but it was just the weight of the boat that was giving them the extra impetus to sink. There was a delicate trade-off, Goond supposed, between the desire to get deep as soon as they could because only then would they know whether they would meet their doom there; and a natural reluctance to cling to the life they might be leaving, not so fast, take your time, there’s no hurry.
Nobody wanted to die. They wanted to live. That meant the risk of dying. Ellie Vilsohn floated his hands in the air, giving instructions for the hydroplanes, decreasing angle of dive, continuing to descend. Maintaining control of the boat as it went deeper. No steeply-sloping slides, no forgotten bits of crockery going flying; no.
Only the boat sinking, sinking, there was one hundred meters, there was the horrid creaking of the wood veneer panels over cabinet doors, there were the groanings and snappings which signified the reaction of the superficial elements of interior trim to changing air pressure—or the leaking, rupturing, fracturing of the pressure hull itself—or nothing.
Should he just go lie down on his bunk, and wrap the pillow around his head to cover his ears and muffle the sounds? It wasn’t as though there would be depth charges. He could have a nap, almost. No. He couldn’t go lie down. He had to watch, with fascination, as the boat continued its dive. One hundred and thirty. One hundred and forty-five.
He had heard the boasting stories in the officers’ mess between war cruises, who had not? But was all hearsay. The design specifications said that boat was meant to go to no more than two hundred and thirty meters with safety, but the boat could go to two hundred and fifty. The boat could go to two hundred and seventy-five meters.
Nobody had ever sat across from Goond and claimed to have been on the boat that had come up from two hundred and eighty-five meters. Goond had never been below two hundred and ten—that he could swear to—but how far down they’d been in the Arctic he did not know. “How deep do we go, Herr Kahloin?” Ellie asked, and Lachs stirred himself.
“We go down until everything breaks.” Perhaps not completely helpful, Goond thought, when “everything” could include the pressure hull itself. Clearly there was some sort of a guideline in Lachs’ mind; but nobody challenged him—because they trusted his judgment, not just because he was the commander. The Smoking Salmon was not that kind of boat. “Then we surface, and see what’s what. We don’t have to get all the way back to Norway. We only need to get out to the Gulf.”
So they went down. One hundred and thirty meters. One hundred and sixty. One hundred and eighty-five. Where would they be, when would they be, when they came up? Goond had a private suspicion, but it was too speculative, even with all of the unreality that surrounded them already.
Two hundred and thirty meters, maximum depth for the IX-C/40. Two hundred and forty meters, and continuing to dive. Why had U-818 surfaced in Lake Superior, of all places? Had nobody else wondered? Nobody had spoken of it if they had, not in Goond’s hearing. Lachs himself had confided no suspicions. Everybody knew, though. Everybody knew that Lachs had found his wife and child here.
His wife and his son would not have been foremost in Lachs’ mind when they’d gone down off Hammerfest: Lachs had had plenty of other things to think about. But Goond was certain that the issue had at least arisen in Lachs’ mind, as it did for many of them, during the long hours they’d lain in the depths of the ocean not knowing whether they would live or die.
Now Lachs had found his wife and child, although the boat had had to come to Lake Superior to bring them back together. Lachs had ways to keep in touch with his loved ones going forward, because Charlie Montrose himself had sat down with the radio-men to talk about things like amateur radio “repeater” stations, and “nodes,” and “inter-ties.” All of those ways were here and now, May, 2005.
And for that reason, if for no other reason than blind faith, Goond believed they would reach the Atlantic, and that it would still be May of 2005 when they did so. Because Lachs meant to find the White Whale. And what Lachs meant to do was what was going to happen.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. They would surface. Or they wouldn’t. And all of the other questions would simply have to wait, perhaps forever.
On the night her husband had left, again, after all of those long decades of being dead, Emrys had propped the note he’d given her up against the mirror above the dresser in her bedroom, next to the picture of her other dead husband—Charlie Montrose, from whom her son Charlie had adopted his name—and gone to bed, leaving it unopened.
She had an idea of what the note contained. It had been a tradition, if one of few years’ duration; still, they’d been young, in those days, and the separation of months had been as painful as that of years. He would tell her that he loved her. He would tell her that he had to go, he’d sworn his oath, and that he would not be worthy of her love if he did not show himself honest and true in the eyes of the world.
He would tell her that he would be thinking of her, that he would be cherishing thoughts of her as his guide and armor against the challenges he faced, that he would do his best to come back to her loyal and true. And he would tell her again that he loved her.
Hers were of similar tenor, and also similarly repetitive. She loved him. She would always love him. She cherished their son and hoped to cherish their son’s younger brothers and sisters as much, in time. She would pray earnestly and every day for his return. She knew that he would do his duty with courage and honor, but she wanted him back, to her house, to her embrace, to her bed. And she loved him.
When he came home on leave he would bring her last note back with him, and put it in a cigar box that he’d inherited from his grandfather in a drawer with his handkerchiefs and his other odds and ends. Pipe stems with fractured mouth-pieces. Cracked bowls of briars. Stubs of railway tickets. They’d all been lost in the bombing.
Next morning it was waiting for her there, but she didn’t open it. It was too soon. They meant to reach Lake Superior’s deepest waters before they tried their theory out; thirty-six hours, more or less, on the surface and beneath it. It was still there on the morning after that, two days after the Smoking Salmon had departed.
She lay down for a nap after lunch-time because remembering, re-living, grappling with the fact of her husband come back to her from across space and time—only to leave her again—was exhausting. The unopened note had yellowed, the ink on the envelope faded to a rusty brown. She left it where it was. They’d both known there was a risk.
She overslept. It was dark outside by the time she opened her eyes and sat up to go and see about some dinner, near midnight; the quarter-moon was rising north-northeast. She saw the envelope gleaming in the darkness from the corner of the mirror above her dresser, next to the picture she kept there of Charlie Montrose.
Her name was as sharp and crisp as though it had been written yesterday across against the clean white paper. Smiling, she reached for it, and opened it up to read.
U-818 had sustained damage. Some of the leaks, some of the creaking and groaning of the boat, that had been sustained earlier; there’d been no U-boat pens at Salmon Shore. They were going to have to find a shipyards before they tried this trick again, Goond told himself. Maybe they would go to Brest and ask for some maintenance: the Internet said that the German World War Two submarine pens at Brest were still being used for the same purpose by the French navy.
“The boat is lighter, Herr Kahloin,” Ellie said. “I’d swear on it.” They were on their way up. The boat had gone deep and this time they’d been able to tell, because the gauges had not blown out over the depth reader. Not at two hundred and fifty meters. Not at two hundred and seventy-five. At two hundred and seventy-five, Lachs had stopped. It would work or it wouldn’t. They could always go down deeper, next time, and try again. “Can you feel it?”
Lachs shook his head. “I will only imagine it now, Joachim.” Goond had thought it was his imagination. Maybe it hadn’t been. Ellie was the one who would know. If Ellie said the boat was lighter relative to its medium—if Ellie said that the boat was no longer in fresh water—
One hundred and forty meters, and rising. They were not dead, and that was the most important thing. For Goond, at least, and for the rest of the crew; for Lachs? Because if not being dead were more important than escaping Lake Superior, for Lachs, how would Goond be able to test his hypothesis?
“Do you get a signal, Bentzien?” Goond called back, quietly, to the radio room. But Bentzien shook his head.
“We are still too deep, EinsVo. Not yet.” Goond waved a hand in apology. He was just anxious. He had a GPS in his pocket. He was still sure there was a risk of trace-back, but Charlie had almost convinced him that there was so much traffic that U-818 would be lost in the noise. It would have to wait until they surfaced, one way or another.
One hundred and ten meters. One hundred meters. Ellie gave the hydroplane operators a correction, low-voiced. The boat was lighter. They needed to be sure the boat did not breach on surfacing, to be mistaken perhaps for a whale by some vacationer in a small boat. That would be unfortunate, though it would continue the whale theme of their problem, their mission to locate U-797 before “Ahab” Dietsch found his Moby Dick, like an ocean-going Don Quixote torpedoing a wind-mill. There were no whales in Lake Superior, any more than there were U-boats.
One hundred. Ninety. “What are you thinking, Herr Kahloin?” Goond asked Lachs. He tried to make it lighthearted, to give no hint of the importance of the question in his mind. He would find out. Very soon now. He would find out.
“Dietsch has always been a good warrior,” Lachs said. “But not a man so suited for peacetime. He lives to fight. He will keep on fighting. Now we may have to fight him, U-boat to U-boat. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
So Lachs was focused on his aim, and that was a data point. The boat was at seventy-five meters and rising ever more quickly as it neared the surface, and Ellie made some more adjustments to trim. Seventy meters. Sixty. Goond did his best not to hold his breath. All around him, in the relative quiet of the electrical motors, he could sense the crew doing the same in their own ways, pretending nonchalance, trying to maintain their calm in the face of their relief at being on the rise and at not being quite dead yet. Fifty meters. Thirty. Twenty.
They seemed to be rushing to the surface, the closer they got, no matter how careful everybody knew Ellie was. Fifteen meters. Ten meters. Five meters—“Up periscope,” Lachs said, calmly. Goond knew Lachs was not calm. That wasn’t the point. The point that everybody knew Lachs was being calm for them, to hearten and reassure them as best he could.
They had not breached the surface. Ellie was once more in his familiar element—salt water—and he was in complete command of his boat, of the mechanical creature, of the machine to which they owed their lives. U-818 was a good boat. Goond had not been on a better.
Periscope up. Lachs took a first scan, then started talking as he scanned again. “I see no traffic,” Lachs said. “It is a dark night.” As it should be, based on ship’s chronometers—since they had gone east. If they’d gone as they hoped to. “If that is the moon, it is low on the horizon, and half-full. I see no lights. Surface, Ellie.”
So far there was little information, except for Ellie’s sense of the relative weight of the boat. In the Gulf of Saint Lawrence they might see much the same as they had on Lake Superior: no coastline; no particular traffic.
Goond passed his GPS to Lachs as Lachs passed, and Lachs turned it on with a decisive gesture, climbing the ladder up through the conning tower to wait at the bridge hatch for Ellie to give him the signal. It had been designed for use on a boat, Charlie had said. Waterproof.
When Lachs opened the bridge hatch the second watch followed him up, Goond bringing up the rear. Goond did his best to judge the quality of the fresh air being drawn through the boat by its fans: salt? Fresh? Climbing to the top the ladder, his head barely clearing the hatch, Goond waited. Lachs bent down close, his expression unreadable against the clear dark sky. It was warm. They were not on Lake Superior any more.
“We made it,” Lachs said. “We’re off the coast of Barbados. East-southeast for Brazil, according to this instrument. And Argentina. The GPS finds a date-stamp, it has been only three days since we left Salmon Shore. Tell the crew.”
Every U-boat man knew how to do a controlled fall down from the bridge through the conning tower to the Zentral, using the uprights of the ladder to guide and brake them. Goond hopped down now. “We’re out!” he shouted. “Caribbean Sea. 2005. We’re out, we’re free, it’s worked!”
They would find U-797. They would find the White Whale. They would save Dietsch, and all he might encounter, from disaster. Goond knew they could do it. Because now he thought, he thought for almost certain, that whether or not Lachs himself understood what was going on, the ship—and the crew—would follow Lachs’ heart.
Fortunately for them all, Lachs’ heart was true.
Copyright © 2018 Susan R. Matthews
Susan R. Matthews is the creator of the Under Jurisdiction series of science fiction novels featuring protagonist former Fleet Inquisitor Andrej Koscuisko. The latest entry in the series is Blood Enemies, with series omnibuses Fleet Inquisitor, Fleet Renegade, and Fleet Insurgent also available. Matthews lives in Seattle with her wife, Maggie. She is a veteran of the U.S. Army, where she served as operations and security officer of a combat support hospital. She is also an avid HAM radio operator. “Ghost Flotilla: Embarkation” is the first in a projected series by Matthews featuring German U-boats wandering unmoored in time and space.