A TALE FUELED BY AI DUNGEON AND TOO MUCH TIME ON MY HANDS
June 31, 1942
Docks of Narvik, German occupied Norway.
The Type VII U-boat was quite the sight to behold. 871 tons of displacement submerged, with 2 supercharged 6-cylinder 4-stroke diesel engines capable of 17.7 knots on the surface, a range of 8500 nautical miles, 230 meters of diving ability, five torpedo tubes, an 88mm deck gun, and enough anti-air to kill off a flock of migrating geese in one salvo. All of this power now rested in my command. I watched from the docks of the Narvik fjord as the deckhands rushed to load and up and prepare my boat, U-77, for its impending combat patrol. The day was clear and sunny, a rare occurrence in the Arctic Circle. Next to me stood my colleague, Captain Oppenhaim, bundled in his great coat. "Well Kessler, I shall be leaving this god-forsaken town soon, as will you. I trust you have prepared your boat well?" I indicated to the sailors carting the last crates of supplies up the gangways and into the hatches. "As prepared as one can ever be, Captain. Departure is in about...15 minutes?" "Correct." I stole a glance over at my fellow skipper. Oppenheim was a stern, uncompromising man, cold as the Arctic air around us, with eyes that gave nothing away. Sometimes I mused that he would not be out of place in the SS rather than the Kriegsmarine. Yet he was a U-boat captain, same as I, here to see this war through for the Fatherland. At least, that was the slogan. And in fulfillment of that slogan, we Germans had been tasked by the powers that be to sortie out from our Norwegian base to hunt American and British shipping headed to Russia via the Arctic Ocean. "Yes, all for the Fatherland…" "What was that Felix?" I started. "Nothing Franz. I was just thinking to myself how we slog through the ice and waves to bring death in the name of the Fuhrer." "If our Fuhrer calls for it, and it brings our final victory closer, I shall carry it out with all the violence needed." I thought again how much the man would fit in in the SS- even now he still held onto the hope for Endsieg. There was a commotion on the deck of U-77- the crew had finished loading the stores and now milled about. It was time.
Franz broke the pause. "I must be on my way then. Fair seas and good hunting, Captain. I shall be seeing you at sea." I tipped the brim of my cap. "Likewise Captain. Farewell." We parted ways and headed for our respective boats, him for his U-89, I for 77. I proceeded briskly down the docks and up the gangway onto the deck of my boat, as my crew bustled around me on the pier and deck, eagerly awaiting what I had to say. It was customary in those days for the captain of any boat to give a rousing speech before departure, and so I made my way to the top of the boat's conning tower. I sized up my audience. Most of the sailors were old salts, veterans who had sailed with me on this boat before. However, a significant proportion of the men were new recruits, enlisted to fill gaps left by the high casualty rate we submariners endured. Products of Goebbels's education system, they would no doubt need more ideological comforting to earn their trust. I decided to keep my speech short, simple, and to the point. Raising my voice, I called, "Men, we are setting out on a great mission! We have been entrusted by the Fuhrer to lay waste to the Anglo-American and Bolshevik ability to wage war on our Fatherland. Follow orders, stay vigilant, and we will return home not merely as aces, but heroes." The simple and quick speech seemed to have just enough directness and ideology to make both veterans and rookies happy, and the crew gathered below me burst into murmurs and cries of general approval. I basked for a few moments in the praise of the crew, then dismissed them to their stations in preparation for our imminent departure. For my own part, I remained above decks on the conning tower for a few moments more, taking in my surroundings. The cliffs and mountains of the fjord rose around me, carpeted with green forests and crested with white snowy peaks. The town of Narvik itself was a quaint fishing town, once the site of savage fighting during the Norwegian campaign. Nowadays the waterfront was crowded with rudimentary naval infrastructure, servicing everything U-boats to battleships. I was shaken from my observations by the blare of a horn from the docks- it was time to go.
I climbed down the hatch and called out, "It's time! Engineers put us at forward two! Navigate us out of the fjord!" There was a cry of "Jawohl!" and the diesel engines roared to life. The boat pushed forwards into the waves, and just like that we were underway. As sailors watched and waved from the docks, the U-77 and 89 gained speed and plowed forth toward the entrance of the fjord. I recalled the first time I had sailed my command out to sea- in those early days, I was still impressionable, and I remembered being so awed by the spectacle and excitement of our departure. Years later, most of my awe was gone having seen this scene many times. But I could still feel the tingling of suspenseful excitement in my heart- the kind that comes from knowing I was back in the place that I knew best. The boat was a home for lack of a home to a sailor like me, and it filled me with a kind of happiness to finally be home again as I led the U-77 and 89 out into the shimmering sea.
Below the waves, in the cramped hull of the U-77, I made my way to the captain's quarters. We were cruising on the surface, a few hours out of port, and sailing alongside the U-89. The plan, as far as I had learned so far, was to cruise together for this first day, then split in opposite directions at nightfall- they would head west toward Iceland, ourselves northeast in the direction of the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. I opened the door and entered my cabin- and my jaw dropped. The room was a mess- uniforms, books, papers and other debris lay scattered across the floor and my bunk. I made a mental note to formally reprimand whatever dockhand had brought my luggage aboard after drinking schnapps when we returned to Narvik. I took a deep breath, and another look round the room. Despite its current disheveled condition, the cabin was the most spacious and best upholstered living area in the boat- whatever that counted for on a U-boat. The bunk was a step above the typical Standard Issue No.1 Rock and was instead a No.2 Tough Sponge. A large map of the Arctic region was pinned to the bulkhead along with a picture of a beautiful blonde women standing proudly with her arm around a smiling soldier. The latter was a memento from a fellow captain who was no longer among us. My gaze fell upon the small desk on the right-hand side of the cabin. Besides the mess of papers on it, there rested upon it a single, small, unmolested black briefcase. The most important of my luggage had made it onboard unscathed. I walked over, took a seat at the desk, and gingerly opened the case. Within was a thin packet of crème colored paper, stamped with the seal of the Kriegsmarine- my official orders for this patrol, which would need to be returned intact when we returned to port. Taking the papers forthwith, I read the text on the first page:
OFFICIAL KRIEGSMARINE DOCUMENTATION: DO NOT TAMPER
COMBAT PATROL ORDERS, U-77, 31/6/42, NARVIK
FOR EYES OF CAPTAIN FELIX KESSLER AND SENIOR OFFICERS ONLY
Captain Kessler and Officers,
As you are no doubt aware, the task you have been assigned is of the greatest importance. Anglo-American shipping through the Arctic Ocean to the Soviet Union poses a threat of the gravest order to our own war efforts on the Eastern Front, a threat that is growing with each passing week and month. Your immediate task is to destroy as much of this shipping as possible. You have probably been made aware that you will sail from Narvik at 0900 hours on this day alongside the U-89, and patrol northward together until nightfall, at which point you will split up. U-89 will sail due west, and U-77 will sail northeast. Once you have sailed into the main Allied shipping lanes, drive due east. Limiting use of radio is advised, but you will have access to aerial assets during your northeast leg. It will be to your discretion as to when to return to base, but do not take unnecessary risks that could result in loss of crew and/or boat. Good hunting.
I skimmed through the next few pages- mainly details on radio usage, emergency procedure, weather reports, etc. The last two pages held what really interested me. It was a list of bullet points going over the various rumors and intelligence collected on supposed future enemy movements. Running my eyes over it, I found myself a bit disappointed- there were no specific names of any special ships this time. But there were two points that caught my eye: Unidentified enemy capital ship spotted in region around North Cape with small escort/ Advise against engaging and Large enemy convoy spotted leaving Iceland, crew are to consider priority target. I set the papers down on my desk and leaned back in my chair. There was a knock at the door. "Come in." The door opened and the tall, fair haired figure of Lieutenant Gunther Klenze stepped inside. I smiled warmly at him- as a jolly Bavarian, fellow veteran and my longtime second-in-command, Gunther was always a welcome sight. "Anything interesting in our orders, Captain?" "Not particularly, Klenze," I said. "Apparently a capital ship of some sort was spotted in the area we'll be sailing, but I can't say if it's true or not." "Probably not sir," replied Klenze, "You know how shitty Abwehr can be sometimes. If that's not the case, why are we stuck in Russia now?" I chuckled. "So it would seem. I'm sure you've had a look at our supply situation by this point?" Klenze nodded, somewhat grimly I thought. "Aye sir. We're just about loaded up with everything we could need. Torpedoes, fuel, shells, food, everything is as covered as can be." Satisfied, I stood up and looked about my cabin again. "Well Klenze, I suppose I ought to go check these things for myself. But first, mind helping me tidy this cabin up first." Klenze laughed. "Of course, Kapitan."
That night- which was lit by the sun due to the Arctic summer-, the crews of the U-77 and 89 stopped their boats beside each other and met for a final potluck of sorts before parting ways into the unknown. Men congregated on their respective decks to exchange gifts and keepsakes, share good food while it was still good, and sing songs. I watched the mini-jubilee with Gunther from the conning tower with a smile on my face. Soon there would be no opportunities for our crew to enjoy such merriments, out in the cold, cruel Arctic. Best to take such moments and savor time while we still had them. I met eyes with Captain Oppenheim on his conning tower and exchanged our final salutes. My counterpart then seemed to decide that the party was over and gathered his men below decks. I decided to do the same, and with Gunther we herded our merry and slightly intoxicated crew into the hull. As the two boats dimmed their lights and parted in opposite directions, I could hear the crews singing the same song:
It's a long way to Tipperary!
It's a long way to go!
It's a long way to Tipperary!
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye to Piccadilly!
Farewell Leicester Square!
It's a long long way to Tipperary!
But my heart's right there!
The next few days passed uneventfully, as days on patrol often do. The ocean is massive, and ships are small and scattered over hundreds of miles. As we sailed along toward the shipping lanes, we mainly busied ourselves with maintaining the boat- no easy task in the Arctic-, listening to the radio, and getting acclimated to the harsh life that was combat patrol. Heat and cold took turns afflicting us, and the lack of space rendered all the new kids claustrophobic. In such discomfort the next six days passed. The morning of January 5, after yet another restless sleep, I was surprised to be awoken by someone at the door. I bade him in, and the door opened to reveal the slight frame of Radio Operator Primm. "Sir, we received this transmission from Norway just now. I think it would be of interest to you." He thrust a paper into my hand, which I took groggily and read over:
TOP PRIORITY/ ALL COMMANDERS
LARGE ENEMY CONVOY SPOTTED DISPERSING SOUTH OF SVALBARD/ NORTH OF BEAR ISLAND EVENING OF JULY 4, 23:15
ALL COMMANDERS TO CONVERGE ON AREA IF FEASIBLE
LIGHT/ NO ESCORT RESISTANCE ANTICIPATED
I handed the note back to Primm and turned to the map pinned to my wall. I realized that we were just about literally within the area specified in the dispatch. Assuming that most of the merchants had continued east, there was a good chance we would be able to catch up to at least a few ships. I smiled grimly. "So the hunt begins."
As it cut through the waves and bobbed up and down, the prow of the U-77 cast a screen of salty spray behind. Which was unfortunate for Gunther and me, standing on the conning tower, searching for silhouettes on the horizon through our binoculars. Each plunge of the bow sent a wave of spray crashing over the boat, soaking our parkas as we tried to steady our lenses. We'd roused the crew early that day, working to get our craft into perfect fighting form. Sailing through the region where we believed most of the allied freighters were, every man was tensed, ready on a moment's notice for the right command. It didn't seem like I would be issuing that order for the moment, though. "You see anything Klenze?" "Same answer as the last time you asked, sir." I sighed. Already other captains were coming over the radio with triumphant news of their rapidly mounting kills, but even with clear seas and constant daylight we hadn't found a trace of a ship. "I suppose I'm a bit keyed up," I said. "It's been a while since we had a good kill, eh?" "You can say that again sir." Our last kill had been two patrols ago- a few months ago? Everyone was looking forward to seeing true action again. "You remember that one freighter, Klenze? The oil tanker we sank on our first patrol?" A smile crossed Klenze's lips. "How could I forget? The fireball rising like a dragon into the sky, the sound of the ship snapping in half. My, it'd be poetic if it wasn't for the fact there was a crew on board." The warm smile on my own face faded a bit, remembering those poor souls trying to escape the flames in the icy sea. "I suppose their fate is the fate that befalls all crews unlucky as themselves. That's the way of wars at sea." "I suppose so sir." Focusing my mind, I realized there was something in my binocular lenses. I squinted, increased the magnification a little….
"SHIP! There's a ship!" Gunther whipped around. "Where?!" "Off the port bow, about a thousand meters out!" There was a fumbling noise as my second in command dug his ship recognition book from his coat pocket. "It looks like a…Liberty class freighter. About 14,000 tons, bearing east at…5 knots?" "It must be damaged. Is it armed?" Gunther nodded. "There's a 4-inch gun mounted on the stern; I can see it from here." "Damnit," I cursed, "if it's armed, we can't risk a surfaced attack, especially if it's guns are facing us from it's stern. We're going to dive and close with it for a torpedo run." "Jawohl. Take the honors, Captain." I turned to the hatch behind me and screamed with all the air into my lungs, "ALAAAAAARRRRM!" I could hear the bedlam breaking out in the tube as Klenze and I descended the ladder into the tower as shut the hatch behind us- klaxons ringing, men shouting and sprinting as fast as they could to prepare for our crash dive. As I bounded off the ladder and to the periscope, a sailor rushed past me with his britches half off his ass, fresh off the heads. In the bow of the boat, other crewmen manipulated the valves and switches, allowing the U-77 to gently descend bow-first into the waves. In the electrical glow of the U-boat, I ordered the crew to level us off at periscope depth and took a look through the periscope lenses. On the surface, the Liberty ship seemed unaware of our presence. At 800 meters, I could see men milling about on the decks. The gun crews, however, looked primed and ready to go. Fighting aircraft and submarines was a 24/7 job even in the best of times, doubly so now that this ship was isolated from its disintegrated convoy. In addition, there also seemed to be some bomb damage around the stern and midsection, which was probably why this ship was going slow enough us to catch while submerged. "Load torpedo tubes one and two, now!" My command was relayed to the front of the boat where the crew set about the arduous task of loading the torpedo tubes and preparing them to fire. 700 meters….600 meters…500 meters…. We were outpacing the freighter quickly. "Tubes 1 and 2 ready to fire sir," Gunther relayed to me, "we've worked out the firing angle to be 30 degrees to port." I took a deep breath and muttered quietly: "Fire."
A mechanical hiss followed as the compressed air in the tubes sent the tin fish speeding towards their target. We had fired from about 350 meters away, and now every man waited anxiously to hear the fruits of their labor. Through the periscope, I could see that we were still undetected by the enemy ship. The rising and falling waves made it impossible to see exactly where our torpedoes were and forced us to hope they wouldn't be knocked off course. Our stopwatches counted five seconds, then ten. Fifteen. Twenty. "They should've struck by now," I heard my lieutenant whisper apprehensively. Twenty-five… Then there was a roar and I could see two massive geysers smash up against the side of the freighter. "Hit! Two hits!" There was a second roar as the crew burst into cheers and hollering. Looking through the scope again, I could see the geysers receding back to the waterline. The Liberty ship began to list to starboard, then a mighty CRACK as the ship split in two as the water rushing in proved too much of a strain for her welded frame. "She's going under lads! Bring us to the surface and let's see what's left," I called. A kill was always something to be celebrated, and the crew set about exuberantly ejecting our ballast. As they worked, I continued to watch as the crew of the enemy freighter rushed to the lifeboats that were still operable and lowered them into the water with a similar feverish energy. Poor bastards. The split halves of their vessel continued to sink rapidly into the waves, seeping black, thick oil into the sea. Before long, the U-77 was back on the surface. I ordered our helmsmen to sail us slowly into the wreckage field left by the sinking as I went with Gunther towards the ladder to the deck. As an afterthought, I grabbed an MP-40 off of a nearby rack- just in case. Opening the hatch and proceeding down to the deck, I saw the small lifeboats of the enemy bobbing in the waves. It seemed that most of the crew had managed to get into the boats. We came alongside one lifeboat occupied by about a dozen or so frightened looking seamen. Most of them looked young, like some of our own men, but there was one man who seemed to be dressed like an officer. They waved weakly at us as we came to a slow bob next to them. "You there," I called while indicating to the officer, "stand up." The man stood unsteadily in his boat, evidently trying to regain some semblance of confidence. "What is your name, rank, and the ship you serve on sailor?" "M-my name is Edward Henning," the officer call stammered, "I am- well I was- the Chief Engineer of the Nathaniel Shaw." I nodded. "And what was the cargo of the Nathaniel Shaw?" Chief Engineer Henning seemed to hesitate for a moment, before I gestured to the black oil slick that marked where the two halves of his ship had gone down. "Mostly trucks and their replacement parts, sir," he said quietly. "It's quite odd really, a lone merchant ship on these waves," I continued, "How did this come about?" I already knew the answer to my own question, but I wanted to see what other information I could draw out. "Well sir, late yesterday our convoy was ordered to scatter. Threat of surface ships they said. Early this morning, we were attacked by a bomber, which led to you catching up to us." A smart move- not revealing anything that wasn't probably already known to me. I decided we were done spending time on this crew, so after a few moments of directing the lifeboats to the nearest land- Novaya Zemlya- and transferring some provisions we were on our way once more, plowing east.
There was a toast held that night to our first victory of the patrol. The crew passed around some ale- enough to fortify our hearts against the cold Arctic night, but not enough to impair our duties. Looking around the men, I could see that the trademark beards that would mark us as submariners by the end of the journey were already growing in on most of us. Some of the younger crew also refused their pints, which I found odd but didn't object to. Gunther sat next to me on the bunk, his Bavarian senses already in high gear from the alcohol. "Well sir, it's our first kill of the voyage! How are you feeling?" I searched my thoughts. The one thing that stood out to me was how fast it was all over- it felt like mere seconds had passed between us spotting the freighter and interrogating the crew. Might the same speed apply to our own demise? "You ever feel, Gunther, like time passes so quickly and yet so slowly in the heat of action? Something that's so dramatic and terrible should take hours to play out it's full tragedy and drama, and yet when it's over it feels like it was all over in a flash?" My friend closed his eyes and seemed to gather his own thoughts. "I get that, sir." "You do?" "Definitely. Waiting for our torpedoes to load and then to find their targets, it feels like bloody hours. But in reality, it was only a few minutes. Or sometimes events will go by in seconds, but then I look back and realize it was hours, days, weeks. It's an odd feeling." I stared into the lamplight as the celebrations continued. Would the whole war feel like this? It felt like yesterday when I had first led the U-77 out of port, all those years ago. Things were different then- we were younger, more idealistic. I thought about all the friends and companions I'd lost over the years of war- most of the men I'd known from outside my own crew were dead, I realized. There were plenty of terrible ways to go in our service, and everyone knew a sinking sub almost always went down with all hands. Given this, our own end must be inevitable, I thought to myself. If that is the case, let our fate come quickly, rather than slowly.
The next few days passed slowly and uneventfully. As it so often does in life and war, the tedium of daily life reestablished its oppressive reign once the excitement of action had passed. We whiled the days away with our daily duties- seeing to the machinery of the boat, taking stock of our supplies, watching fruitlessly for ships on deck, and of course, sleeping. The radio continued its stream of news from other captains declaring their victories at sea. Sometimes I found myself wishing that I was assigned to the Atlantic, for at least those crews had the luxury of tuning to Radio Marseille. On July 8, things suddenly changed. A thick fog rolled over the sea, dropping visibility to almost nothing.
I had the misfortune of being above decks on the conning tower at around 15:00 when this anomaly of weather occurred and made my job of looking for enemy ships much more difficult. This fog was also odd because it seemed come out of nowhere. The last few days had been clear and calm, with no sign of changing anytime soon. "I suppose sudden weather changes is just part of being a sailor," I muttered to myself. "What was that, sir?" "Nothing Gunther. Just talking to myself about this lovely weather, that's all." Gunther next to me chuckled. "Well, it could be worse sir. We could be out at sea during the winter!" The uproar of laughter from the tower must've bounced off the low clouds of fog for miles around. When we finally managed to bring our laughter down to a controllable level, I took another look through my binoculars. More fog…nothing. But then there was something. I called out, "I see something! Dead ahead!" Gunther snapped his binoculars at where I was pointing and cursed. "Damnit! Unidentified ship, 400 meters out!" The ship was small yet obviously nimble, and I could tell it was not a German design even through the fog. "It looks like an enemy minesweeper," I said, "get the deck gun crew up here now!" My order was passed down into the hull, and as every man scrambled to his combat posts, I continued to watch the enemy ship draw closer. We had obviously been spotted ourselves- the minelayer was taking an evasive maneuver to our starboard, and I could see sailors rushing to man what looked to be a two-pounder gun mounted on the bow. It's smaller than our own 88, but if they hit us they'll make a mess of our decks, I thought. "Hard to port now at flank speed!" I bellowed. The U-boat kicked up speed and began to steer to port as the gun crew ran past me to the gun. A cold sweat held me firmly in its grasp as we tried to swing our gun around and fire- I knew whoever could shoot first would probably win the day. A loud BLAM crashed out over the sea as the minesweeper fired at about 250 meters. Fuck. Gunther and I threw ourselves to the deck as the shot whistled just above the conning tower and splashed into the sea off our port. A cry came from the deck gun crew- "Ready to fire!" "Fire, now!" There was another cymbal crash as our 88mm cannon propelled a high explosive shell toward the target. To my surprise, a large plume of fire and smoke flared up from the very stern of the enemy craft, as a horrible renting sound indicated our shot smashing through metal and exploding. "Hit! Good shit lads!" I cried. "That was a lucky shot, sir!" "You can say that again, speaking of, fire again!" I called. By this point our two ships had blown past each other, but the minesweeper wasn't turning to meet us again. Instead, the ship was still in its turn to port at what seemed to be a slower speed, as black smoke belched from the wound we had inflicted. "We must've hit it's rudder," Gunther said with what I thought was awe. "It seems so. Hurry up with that loading!" My call was answered with another roar from our gun, accompanied by a "Chock away!" This shell sailed over the superstructure of the ship at length, smashing though the bridge without exploding and falling into the sea at the enemy's bow with a white puff of seawater. I yelled while looking through my binoculars, "Shot passed through, prepa- wait, they're running down their colors!" Indeed, the enemy was running down the Royal Navy ensign from their mast and in its place ran up a large white flag as their ship slowed to a stop. On our deck, there was an immediate and jubilant outburst of victorious joy, followed by the same below decks as I gave the unneeded order to cease fire and bring the boat alongside.
"Another victory to our name. Soon we'll be counted alongside the likes of Kretschmer and Prien, eh sir?" The mood was bubbly as we prepared to board the enemy ship, tying ropes to connect our ships and running up a ladder to the hull of the other craft. "I might hope so Lieutenant Klenze. The thing is, the former was captured, and the latter is dead at the bottom of the ocean. I certainly hope we aren't counted among them in that regard." I realized that this was a common trend in our conversations- Gunther would be ebullient in his Bavarian way, and I, in my minor Prussian gentry way, would sober his words. There was shouting as the ladder was laid, allowing us to climb up to the deck of the minesweeper. "Let's go." "Yes sir." We made our way to and up the ladder with MP40s and a few other similarly armed sailors in hand and clambered onto the enemy deck near the bow. The British were arrayed in a neat line in front of us, with their officers in their well-trimmed uniforms at the forefront. Even in defeat, the Tommies have to make the best showing of themselves, I thought with a bit of admiration. The officer with the most braid on him stepped forward. "I am Captain Frederick Lunn, skipper of the HMS James Cook." "I am Captain Felix Kessler, skipper of U-77. This is my second-in-command, Lieutenant Gunther Klenze. We are here to accept your surrender." "Of course," my counterpart answered with a grim smile. "I surrender the HMS James Cook to you and your crew." "You have fought with honor, Captain Lunn. Your men will be allowed to leave in the lifeboats unharmed and proceed to the nearest land. But first, I would like to have a word with you in the bridge." The slightest hint of surprise seemed to cross the enemy commander's face. "O-of course. Follow me." After barking out some quick orders for the rest of my crew to see to seeing off the British in their lifeboats, I followed Lunn with my entourage up a flight of steps at the rear of the bridge island and into the bridge itself. The room was a wreck- there were two holes in the back and front of the space from where our second shot had smashed through and scattered papers and debris everywhere. There were also several bodies in uniform slumped on the floor and tables who were undoubtably killed in the calamity, with the attendant gore smeared on the walls and the hardwood floor. "Search the room for any papers that look valuable," I whispered to my men in German. They didn't need to be told. I turned to the British captain as the crew fanned out and began methodically searching through the papers on the floor and in the desks and packing them into bags. "I'm sure you understand captain," I told him in English, "that it's just a necessity of war." Lunn's face was visibly distressed by this searching- I thought I saw a slight paling in his skin. "You'll do what you must. What did you want to say here anyway, Captain?"
"Take a seat," I said whilst indicating to a table with chairs still intact, "I'd like to ask you some questions about your ship. Firstly, where did you set sail from?" Lunn sighed as he sat in his chair. "The United Kingdom. Specifically Scapa Flow, two weeks ago." "Did you sail with any other ships?" "Four others. Three destroyers, and one battleship." I raised an eyebrow. "Care to explain your mission?" "Well, we were told to set sail for the North Cape in Norway. Something involving the landing of troop and reconnaissance- it was explained to us on a pretty need-to-know basis." I considered his words. I had to wonder why he was so forthcoming about the details of his flotilla and mission, but there was also just enough plausibility for me to grasp onto- commando raids in Norway were not unprecedented. The Cape had some military targets- airfields mainly- but why choose a target so far north? "North Cape, hm? What's there that the British would want?" "I don't know. As I said, it was a need-to-know basis. My ship was just there to make sure the fleet didn't run into any trouble with mines." It occurred to me just how odd it was for a craft as small as the James Cook to be sailing alone here. "You set out with four other ships, yet you were alone when we encountered you. How did that happen?" Lunn took a deep breath and leaned forward in his chair. "It's…interesting. We were sailing smoothly but a week ago, when we were nearing the Cape. I don't know how or why, but…we steadily lost our powers of communication- radio between ships was jammed, the intercoms failed, everything. We were reduced to using bullhorns and flags. That was when the storm hit." "What storm? As far as I know, this region has been calm for weeks." Lunn spoke with a hint of frustration. "That's what we were told. But this storm came out of nowhere…scattered the lot of us. Waves higher than the bridge of our flagship, winds coming in at easily 100 kilometers per hour…it was bad. We lost a lot of men overboard and when it was all over there was no sign of the rest of the fleet. Our ship was battered and there was little chance of us finding our friends without radio, so I decided to turn back to Scapa. That's when this fog rolled in and you lot found us not long after."
The story of the James Cook's misfortune rung in my ears. There were so many coincidences and facets that ran against all the evidence that should disprove them…but then I sized up the captain's face. He showed no signs of lying, I could tell. He completely stood by his tale. I sighed and realized that my men had just about turned the entire bridge over in their search for papers at this point- no point in wasting time here. "That will be all, Captain. I thank you for your time. As I have stated, you and your men may leave unharmed." There was a bit of bitter irony in Lunn's voice when he spoke. "Thank you, Captain. I suppose I'll be on my way now." "Yes, yes. My men will see you off." With that, the interrogation was over, and we all returned to the deck. Most of the lifeboats were already loaded and set down in the sea- my men had done a splendid job of supervising the British crew while I was away. After a brief commotion involving confusion over different maps while showing the Brits the nearest land, the officers set off in the last lifeboat which led the other ones off to the east. Once they were gone, we set about scuttling the ship they had just left. Explosives were planted in the boiler room of the minesweeper, and once all of our crew and their plundered papers packed in briefcases were back on the U-77, the charges were set to explode in five minutes while we backed away to a safe distance. Our crew watching on the decks, the charges exploded in the bowels of the enemy craft, setting off a chain reaction as the coal and boiler systems also went off. The resulting steam blast ripped through the midsection of the ship violently, blowing the smokestack wide open and causing the HMS James Cook to quickly list to starboard and sink out of sight in less than a minute.
The same celebrations that marked the sinking of the Shaw marked the demise of Cook aboard our own vessel that evening. However, I had more pressing concerns than passing around bottles of schnapps. I retired to my cabin and made a quick note in the ship's log- 7/8/42: Sank minesweeper HMS James Cook. Lieutenant Klenze followed me in carrying a pair of briefcases. "Do you believe what that Tommy said, sir? It sounded so extraordinary, but a ship that small all on its own in the Arctic? That's extraordinary too." I slumped into my chair, took off my peaked cap, and rubbed my temples in thinking. "That's true. But a British convoy did break up not long ag, did it not? The ship could've been from that doomed convoy and the captain could've been lying to us to throw us off." "Perhaps so sir. Maybe these documents could clear things up," Gunther said while lifting his briefcases onto the desk. I cracked open the first, then thought better. "Go fetch Radio Operator Primm, would you Gunther? He might be able to help us with British radio codes and what not, and in any case, he can still help us sort through this stuff faster." Gunther nodded and left the cabin, returning a few moments later followed by the thin, bespectacled frame of Primm. "You called for me, captain?" Primm asked in his typical Rhinelander accent. He was a newer addition to the crew- his predecessor had perished in an bombing raid a few months ago. "Yes. I was hoping you could help me and the lieutenant here with these documents we got from our latest victory." "Of course, sir. Let's take a look at them." We cracked open the two cases and sifted through their contents. There were a lot. Over the course of about half an hour, we sorted through what must've been at least a few hundred papers and came up with a pile of a dozen that weren't mundane in nature. The first dozen documents in this latter pile seemed to be technical schematics for the James Cook. Primm took one page in his hands and squinted at it. "Look here. The minesweeping nets on that ship were modified to operate in shallower water before it departed." Gunther cut in, asking "That captain claimed that his mission was at the North Cape, didn't he?" "He did," I said. "The Cape is known its extensive fjords- we've seen them on patrols before. Having shallow drag nets would be ideal for operating in a fjord…" The implications were clear. "You think he was telling the truth about the fleet's destination?" Gunther nodded. The radio operator's face suddenly lit up as he was sifting through some of the other relevant papers. "There's more," he said, "take a look at this dispatch that was sent from the British ship about a week ago." I sidled over and read the small paper thrust into my hand:
TOP SECRET- DESTROY WHEN READ
Assemble complement and rendezvous at coordinates 73 degrees north, 23 degrees east.
I stood and turned to the map of the region pinned to the bulkhead wall. Those coordinates marked a point about equidistant between Bear Island and the North Cape. "It would seem that your hunch is correct, Klenze," I said. "The question is, what do we do now?" My second-in-command spoke first in a quiet tone. "The way I see it, sir, this fleet is not our concern. If everything the Brit said was true, they've been scattered across the ocean with no way to regroup. And besides, our orders are not to engage battleships and task forces- we're here to hunt merchant ships. We're supposed to be taking on easier, safer targets, which we were. We have a whole convoy dispersed and, on the run…with all due respect sir, we can't afford to let up this opportunity and endanger our men to chase rumors." Primm shook his head. "You never know. Even if they're scattered, a battleship and its escorts are a substantial force that needs to be investigated. And the dispatch indicates that there's a second party involved assembling some sort of 'complement.' Did the enemy captain say anything about his mission?" I thought back to the bridge of the James Cook. "He did. He mentioned something about reconnaissance and troop landings, I think." Primm's eyes flashed behind his spectacles. "Exactly! A minesweeper alone at sea, mysterious messages…the British are planning something." Gunther shook his head and but in. "How do we even know that this fleet exists? We're only going off of an enemy captain's words and some vague dispatches. What if this is all some elaborate ruse?" The radio operator seemed to consider this. "Granted, we don't really know how truthful this information is. But that is why we need to pursue these leads. If we let the British carry out a scheme while we could've stopped them, we'll be in deep shit. What are your thoughts captain?"
I took off my cap and ran my hands through my hair. Chasing a rumored British fleet was risky business- we would use up time and fuel that could be spent hunting convoys, and even if we found them engaging alone would be nearly suicidal. But Primm had a point- if these rumors were true and we didn't investigate, the crew would be in perhaps even more peril once we returned home. Neither option was great, but…there was something else. There was an urging, deep in my soul, my very being. An urge to go, not to serve the war but to serve myself in the most irresistible way- that sensation to go because what else would I- could I- do? I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and made my decision. "Primm is right. Our orders do not instruct us to divert from our assigned course to investigate these reports but also don't tell us not to. Additionally, letting these reports, as fantastic as they seem, go uninvestigated would be deeply irresponsible given the supposed stakes- the British could be there right now. And if there's nothing there, that's not much skin off our ass- at least not as much as there would be if there is something there. Lieutenant, tell the helmsmen to chart a course for those coordinates." "Aye, sir," he said as he and Primm turned to leave. On his face and in his voice, there was, I thought, the faintest hint of bitterness.
The fog persisted as we plowed southeast toward the Cape. As the days passed, a tedium of silence and seeing to each man's duties once again established its vice-like grip. The decision to change course had been met with subdued acceptance by the men, some more enthusiastically than others. I hadn't told them all the details, just that recent developments had necessitated a change of course and target. That was probably a mistake on my part, because immediately rumors began to fly below decks. There was large-scale Kriegsmarine operation on, we had been assigned some secret research mission- but a few of the connected dots our crew made. I suppose that it was merely natural for such men as us to speculate when not given all the details, but I did my best to keep such guessing to a minimum. There was at least, a wide variety of chores to keep the men's minds sharp- accounting for food and fuel supplies, keeping machinery well-greased, and that age-old hobby of sailors, scrubbing the decks. I personally found a hobby in reading through some of the literature brought from my home-leave spent away from home. As the foggy days passed by on the conning tower and in my cabin, I often found my thoughts drifting back to my childhood home in East Prussia, the verdant seaside estate where I had once played and fenced and grown to manhood. That life was gone now, I knew. In building his new Germany, the Fuhrer had stamped it out. Where was my family now? I often wondered. Communications between sailors and their families is always sketchy at best, even when those sailors aren't serving the frozen ends of the earth. I knew dimly that my parents and siblings had been relocated from the estate to a farmstead in occupied Poland, but beyond that I hadn't heard anything from them. Gert…Fritz…what were they doing now?
My eyes drifted back to the page. In my hands was a treatise on esoteric sea life, the chapter in particular focusing on reports of strange behavior of cetaceans in the southern Atlantic in recent decades. The words were winding and sometimes slow, but the stories made good reading to pass the time. There was the noise of a rush outside, then a knock at the door. "Enter." The door opened and there was a sailor, hair and uniform streaked with sea salt. "Herr Kapitan, an unidentified ship has been spotted on the horizon!" I followed the sailor out and to the ladder to the tower, where I was joined by Gunther. "Have you identified the ship?" Gunther shook his head. "It's too foggy to be sure. But it looks big. And armed." I clambered up onto the deck and took a look through my binoculars. The silhouette of the ship loomed off to the starboard of our boat about 700 meters out, bow towards us. "I thought it was a cruiser of some type, but it's much too large for that…" I fingered through my pockets and produced my ship identification handbook. Flipping through the pages, I found the entry I was looking for. "You're right. It's a battleship. A Queen Elizabeth class, to be exact." "Shit," Gunther swore under his breath, "you're right." I took another look through my lenses. "There's something wrong. It's not moving." "I noticed that too. Should we sink it?" I pulled the fur collar of my greatcoat a bit closer- the fog made the Arctic chill that much worse. "No. We're going to close in and investigate. Get the gun crew here and load two torpedoes just in case, however." As Gunther went below decks to relay the orders, followed a few moments later by our boat turning and our deck gun being prepared for action, I watched the battleship as it grew closer. It's odd indeed, I thought. Aren't the Queen Elizabeth battleships deployed elsewhere? From the latest intelligence I'd received, most of England's capital strength was located in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic- then again, as Gunther had pointed out, our intelligence wasn't always the most accurate.
We closed the distance to 400 meters, with no sign of any action on the part of the battleship. The ship's outline was clearer now- I could see the chipped paint on her bow spelling the name Agincourt. Besides the chipped paint, the whole ship seemed to be in a state of extreme disrepair- rust was crawling up the hull and turrets, the smokestacks seemed to be blown open, and even the flags were ragged. Most concerningly, there was no sign of crewmen anywhere on the ship. The decks, the bridge- I couldn't see any movement. Gunther came up onto the deck beside me with a bullhorn. "There's something wrong. Very wrong." "I've seen," my lieutenant replied, "let me try to hail them." Gunther stepped up and put the bullhorn to his mouth. "Salutations sailors! This is the U-77 to Agincourt, prepare to be boarded! I repeat, prepare to be boarded!" Nothing. I swore under my breath. "Fucking hell…wait a second." "What is it?" Glancing back at the pages of the identification handbook, I spoke in a low voice. "There's no battleship called the Agincourt listed here. Absolutely nothing in the entry on the Queen Elizabeths or similar classes." The lieutenant sighed. "The mystery grows further. Should we continue closing in?" I whistled quietly. "Look at that. The lifeboats are all gone," I said. "What do you mean by that?" "Why would the British abandon their ship intact? We need to investigate. Prepare the boarding crew." Gunther nodded. "Very well."
The silence pervaded the already quiet sea as we prepared to come alongside. As this was a battleship, I ordered more men and weapons then normal to join us in the boarding. With the team of about a dozen men assembled on our deck I quickly ran through the basic plan- Gunther, two men, and myself would head to the bridge as usual, while the rest would fan through the ship in teams of two to try to find any trace of the Brits. After about fifteen minutes- long enough to conduct a basic search of the ship I reckoned, we would regroup on the main deck. The boat slowed to a halt parallel to the battleship, and the boarding ladder was brought up and hooked to the railing of the empty enemy deck near the bow. I let Gunther lead the way up the ladder, MP-40 in hand and myself behind. We filed onto the deck and quickly split into our assigned groups, watching the decks and windows above us carefully. Cautiously, I led my team up the flight of stairs to the upper decks and the bridge. I could see no signs of the ship's crew anywhere as I sidled up to the rusted door leading into the topmost deck, where the bridge was. The stairs creaked beneath me, and the Arctic wind howled as it picked up speed, chilling us through our fur trimmed greatcoats. I reached slowly for the handle of the door and pulled. The door creaked open and I stepped inside, sub-machine gun raised. A dark corridor lay ahead, another door on the left that I guessed led to the bridge. As I stepped toward the next door, I noticed that all of the light bulbs were dead- the only light was the doubtful rays that reached us through the clouds. A quick pull of another knob and we were inside the bridge. The space was much better furnished than that of the James Cook, but my eyes were immediately fixed on the sight of the ship's captain and several officers laying eviscerated on the floor and furniture.
The men behind me swore and gagged as the stench hit them, and I myself couldn't stop from recoiling. The sickly sweet smell of death permeated the room as we stepped inside. The bridge itself was well appointed, with wood desks and chairs and paintings decorating a few of the walls. Stepping forward and doing my best to cover my nose and mouth, I examined one of the uniformed corpses slumped over a desk in the center. His back had been what can be described as ripped out- the flesh was split open and the lungs pulled through so that they, I thought, looked like a pair of wings. Besides that, the skin was dried out and pale, and I looked up and realized that several of the windows at the front of the bridge had been shattered. On the ground near the desk, there was a fire axe with dried blood on the blade. "There was a struggle here," Gunther said. "Definitely." I leaned over and spoke in a low voice. "Fan out and look for anything with the word Arcturus. We are near the coordinates given, aren't we?" My second-in-command frowned. "I believe so. Very well." He relayed to orders to other two men with us, who nodded in a way that signaled obedience but not quite comprehension, and then they turned to their work. In the meantime, I turned to the papers on the desk in front of me. There was a large map arrayed on the table, and a few smaller papers on top. Sifting through the papers, I was a bit disappointed to find that they read off as letters from the captain of the ship to his family. They weren't even recent, but several months old. The map was a bit more interesting. It laid out the northern coast of Norway in extensive detail, and on closer inspection I could see markings around certain areas of the North Cape. Pins and red lines of yarn charted out long lines over the sea. There were also three circles demarcating a beach and two fjords respectively- one large fjord to the east part of the area and a smaller one running through the very north.
I looked up as one of the sailors spoke. "Sir, we've looked in all the desks and cabinets and such. We couldn't find anything with the word 'Arcturus' on it." "Are you sure Axmann? You've looked everywhere?" The man nodded. "I apologize sir, we'll try again-" There was a crack at the other side of the room. Gunther stood with his SMG in hand over a remains of a painting that had been freshly knocked off the wall. "Sorry guys, but I had an idea, a pretty crazy idea but…wait." He reached up and felt at where the painting had once been on the wall. "You're trying to find a safe in the wall, aren't you? Just like in a novel." "Yep, but I think I might actually have found something. Come over here, sir." I sighed but grabbed the fire axe off the floor and walked over. "There's something behind it, sir. It's a different texture from the rest of the wall, I can feel it." Gunther stood back, and I took a swing with the axe at the spot he'd indicated. There was a metallic clang as the blade made contact with the wall, and it didn't break through the way I'd expected. I leaned in and used the edge of the blade to peel away at the paint on the wall, revealing a gray steel surface with a recessed keyhole.
A couple of bashes with the flat side of the axe loosened up the door enough to pry open. Age had evidently compromised it somewhat. Opening the door with a creak, the light flooded into the darkness of the safe and revealed several small stacks of crème colored paper. I gingerly reached for and pulled out a stack of papers and ran over the top paper with my eyes. A note was scrawled in pen at the top header- Arcturus. "Well, Lieutenant, it seems the investment in detective novels paid off. This is what we're looking for. I'm still looking for my money back when we get to Narvik, though." Gunther beamed as I stood aside to let my team carefully gather the papers into their briefcases, but then he came up to me. "It's time to go, sir," he said, "the teams below-decks will be expecting us to meet at the main deck about now." I nodded. "You're right. Men, before we go, make sure you take that map on the table there. Ensure the pins and yarn aren't disturbed." I turned to leave as the sailors delicately placed the map in a case and packed it in, then followed me out and down to the deck. We left the bodies of the officers where they lay.
As expected, the rest of the teams quickly met us at our starting point on the main deck. A quick count revealed that all of our men were present, and none seemed worse for wear- at least that I could tell. I addressed the men first. "Well men, what happened? Was there any sign of the ship's crew?" The sailors looked among themselves, as if daring each other to speak first. Something was off. There was an eerie silence as the men tacitly decided among themselves. Finally, after what seemed like several years, a man stepped forward- an engineer by the name of Zimmer, I recalled. "Well sir…" "Yes? Speak up sailor." The man clutched his rifle closely and stammered. "T-there was n-no…sign of the crew. We couldn't find anyone." I cocked an eyebrow. "Nothing, you say?" Zimmer continued, composing himself somewhat. "Not much, anyway…we found some clothes strewn about, personal effects…I'd reckon that the crew left in a hurry." He indicated toward the empty moorings for the lifeboats, and I thought about the murdered men in the bridge. "What of the officers' quarters?" Engineer Zimmer shook his head. "Empty, just like the others. The items in them seemed more…shaken around though." Officers murdered brutally in the bridge and their quarters ransacked, and a hasty departure by the crew…how odd. A mutiny was the first thought in my head, but why would Royal Navy sailors mutiny against their commanders, and in such a grotesque fashion? "Was that all?" Suddenly, there was a commotion as another sailor stepped forward. He was a younger recruit, whose name I hadn't memorized. "That wasn't all sir. The crew being completely gone…that wasn't totally true."
A murmur rippled through the men, low and disquieting. "Speak, sailor." The recruit shuffled and cleared his throat. "Well sir, we…err…we actually did find some Tommies below decks." I turned to Zimmer and the rest of the sailors. "Is this true?" Before they could respond, the recruit spoke again. "Thing is, sir, that all of the British…they were all in their bunks…they were all violently ill. Sick to the point of near-death, not moving, covered in buboes…it was bad." I looked back to the men, who after once again silently consulting each other began to slowly nod their heads. "How many sick men were there?" I asked. The kid sighed. "At least…several dozen it must've been. But there's more sir…they were chanting something quietly; I could hear them…" I stole a glance at Klenze- he seemed more than skeptical. "Well, what were they chanting then?" he said. Zimmer responded. "I heard them too. Something about Njord…Tyr…Vidar… that's about all I could make out, sir." My lieutenant shook his head. "I don't believe it," he said to me. "Murdered officers, an abandoned battleship, dying men chanting gibberish? It all seems a bit much to me, don't you think sir?" My thoughts were skeptical as well, but then again, at least two of those points had been proven true. How was that possible? "We'll discuss it further when we're back on our own boat. Men, you are dismissed. Return to your stations on U-77 and await further orders."
With every man accounted for and on board, we pulled away from the Agincourt and motored out to about 300 meters away. From there, I ordered the two torpedoes we had previously loaded to be fired at the midsection of the battleship. Watching from the conning tower, I watched as the tin fishes slammed into the side of the vessel, sending fonts of water flying into the air and causing the hull to buckle and soon list to starboard. The ship keeled over in her death spasms, seawater washing over her decks and soon swallowing the bow, then the bridge. In less than five minutes, the HMS Agincourt and anything- or anyone- we had left onboard had slipped beneath the waves and was gone, leaving nothing but a dark mass of oil and some debris floating on the surface. It was ignoble end for such an old and venerable class of ship, perhaps- to be sent to the bottom abandoned and ransacked, rather than in the heat of battle in the line. But so it was.
The weather was clearing somewhat on the surface, I knew, as I sat at my desk in the cabin. It was much as it was when we had sunk the minesweeper four days ago. Gunther and Primm crowded around, carefully sifting through the papers we had collected from the bridge. The gentle glow of the overhead light illuminated the room in its soft light, and the diesel engine continued its monotonous hum to the stern. I had ordered the helmsman to hold our position for now, to allow us a chance to recharge our electric engine batteries and figure out our next move. My eyes flicked over the various documents we had seized. There were two maps, and three folders-worth of papers. The ones in the folder I was examining seemed to mostly mundane- logistics and crew manifests, weather reports, so on- in nature, making me wonder whether or not my logic on the bridge was sound. But then two papers caught my eye. They were clipped together, and they differed from the others I'd seen in that it was both lined and written on exclusively in ink. Skimming over it, it seemed to be diary entry from a seaman aboard the Agincourt, written not long ago:
July 3, 1942
I was on the deck by the bow of the ship tonight, on watch as usual. It had been another awful day for all of us- more men had gotten sick, and the ship's doctor was no closer to figuring out what the hell they had. They were feverish, with boils all over them that made me think of the Black Death I'd learned of in school. They won't let us visit our mates in their bunks- fear that the disease would spread, I guess. People are still getting sick though, so I don't know how effective that is. We're not any closer to fixing our radios either, according to Ian.
Anyway, I stationed on the forecastle, looking out to sea as you do when on watch. It was a quiet night, which was welcome even a few days after that bastard of a storm. I was watching over the horizon, maybe in the hope of sighting one of the ships from our flotilla or something. The moon was out, which illuminated the water's surface a bit. That's how I spotted it. There was something in the water, I knew, but I couldn't quite make it out. I wanted to move to one of the searchlights, but I didn't. Somehow, I felt like I wasn't just watching it. No, it felt like the thing, whatever the fuck it was, was watching me. Cole, who was standing next to me, seemed to have seen it too. The thing was moving closer, I realized, slowly but surely. I could see now the conning tower and periscope on top- it was a submarine of some kind. It looked like a U-boat- but it just wasn't. There was something very off about it, and I didn't move to raise the alarm. Instead, I watched it.
I realized that although it was surfaced, there was nobody on the deck. That was pretty odd. The hull itself also didn't look right- it was larger, sleeker, like the prow of an old sailing ship. I'd never seen a craft like it in all of my years of sailing. It was coming closer. Looking around me, the other men on watch also seemed to have seen it, but they weren't moving either. We all watched as the vessel closed to about 50 meters out. The black hull suddenly came to a stop, and that's when this ungodly wailing noise started. It was like the shriek of a thousand widows, forcing us into sudden movement to cover our ears. There was a brilliant green flare in the submarine's periscope, crushing my eyes like a hammer. Then there was the horrible sound of an explosion deep in the bowels of our own ship, and I was thrown to the floor. I slammed headfirst into the railing and was out cold.
When I came to, the first thing I could tell was that there was a fire. Thick black smoke was spilling out of the doors blown wide open to the interior of the Agincourt, and I could feel the heat burning. I was propped up against the railing, Cole was standing over me and talking with a few other blokes. From what I could make out, there had been a massive steam explosion in the boilers of the ship, which had killed almost all of the stokers. Some guys were running past me with fire extinguishers and disappeared into the bowels of the ship. That's when Cole noticed I was awake and helped me up. To my surprise, I was somehow able to stand a bit unsteadily, and besides some bruises I was unscathed. "Fucking hell, that was close, eh?" he said. I nodded, but then I remembered. I looked back over the water's surface, but the U-boat…thing was gone. No sign. Nothing. Then the officer of the watch came over and ordered everyone to get their asses over to help fight the fires. Except that he told me to head to the crow's nest instead- said that the guy who was there got knocked off and broke his neck in the fall. I didn't waste a second. I ran as fast as I could, away from everything that had just happened.
I set the diary entry down and leaned back in my chair, taking a deep breath. Looking at my fellow officers, I could tell by the expressions of disbelief on their faces that they had just read something similar. Primm set his paper on the table and glanced up at us. "Are you guys reading what I'm reading?" Gunther sidled in. "A U-boat entity with anomalous powers? Is that what you're seeing?" Everyone at the table slowly nodded. "I don't fucking believe it. This has to be some kind of ruse." "With all due respect Lieutenant, almost all of the papers here confirm it. I've got sighting reports from other ships dating back to January…internal memorandum…it's all here and as far as can tell it's all legitimate." I looked through the rest of the papers in my folder. "Look here. There's an entire order here from the office of Churchill to the Admiralty ordering an investigation into this." I slid the pertinent paper to my subordinates who passed it around. Gunther shook his head. "There's no way, no fucking way…this is insane."
Pulling the two maps out of the pile, I carefully rolled them out on the table. The first was the large map I'd taken from the table on the bridge of the Agincourt. The second was smaller, and also showed the coast of Norway, but this one also depicted the southern and central coasts. There now marks on various small coastal towns and anchorages along the coast, arrows pointing out what I surmised were objectives of some kind. The red yarn and pins around the Cape were still present, but in a different configuration from the first map. We gathered around and studied the two maps. "Didn't the captain of the minesweeper mention that his mission was related to landing troops?" Gunter said. I nodded. "He did. I'm guessing that this second map indicates targets for commando landings along the coast, then." Primm pulled another paper from his pile and spoke. "Look at the yarn on the smaller map. I'm looking at some of these sighting reports, at the pins seem to mark coordinates where the entity was spotted." The locations of the pins ranged from around the Faroes to Iceland and terminated at the North Cape. Lieutenant Klenze produced a couple of papers clipped together. "Take a look at this. I think it's some kind of operational plan." The paper was titled OPERATION ARCTURUS, and skimming over it, I could see that it confirmed some of my hunches. The plan called for a succession of raids along the coast of Norway on the night of July 16, including a naval task force to be sent to the area of the North Cape. There was a list of ships to be assigned to the latter force, including the Agincourt and James Cook. However, the purpose of the fleet was not specified.
The final paper clipped to the packet listing the plan was not, in fact, part of the plan at all. It read: "All preparations are in place. Given favorable weather, operation commences June 23."
I looked over my compatriots again. Gunther still seemed to be in disbelief, while Primm seemed a bit more acceptive of everything we'd read. "Anything else of particular note?" I asked. Primm slid another paper across the desk. "This seem to be a shipping manifest for a freighter. The Dacia." The paper was short of a shipping manifest, I thought, but that was explained once I looked at it. The only thing listed as the cargo was a complement of ten commandos and their equipment. Judging by the names given, most of the men weren't British- I could see Norwegians, French, and other nationalities in the list. "Classic," Gunther said next to me. "The British are sending in their allies first." The radio operator laughed. "That's just the British way. Even in the last war, it was always first in, last out for them." I gestured for quiet and spoke. "Was there any message given to cancel the mission?" Both men shook their heads. "No, sir. If this is all true, I reckon that the North Cape flotilla would've been unable to signal to abort. Seeing as they lost radio communication and all," Klenze said. "But there's no way…we can't chance pursuing this thing, sir. If it's as real and powerful as all of these papers say, it would be criminally insane to try to go after it." He spoke with desperate conviction in his voice. "You'd be putting our entire crew at risk…and for what? We find this thing, and then we probably can't kill it- assuming that's what you want to do-…we're fucked. Utterly. This is above our paygrade. We're here to intercept shipping, not investigate eldritch abominations!" The raising of his voice at the end caught me off guard- Klenze never raised his voice, except to tell a joke or laugh. Silence filled the cabin.
Then Radio Operator Primm broke the silence. He spoke in an equally convicted tone, but it was a different brand of sureness. "Sir, we know what power this thing holds. We all saw the abandoned battleship, and now we know how that came about. This thing,"- he said it with a harshness that reminded me of a speech from the Fuhrer- "this thing could devastate a British battleship and then disappear. I heard about the dead and dying men- how did that happen? That thing did it, we know it from these papers. And we now know that the British are after this entity, and they're going after it soon. What do you think happens if they get their greasy hands on it, sir? We lose the whole damn war. It's over for us if they manage to use that thing for their own purposes. And you, I, and all of our crew can look forward to reprisals from the Allies- or our own men when we return to port- if we just let them have it." The menace in his voice at the end was unmistakable. Gunther was about to stand and respond, but I waved my hand for silence.
I was racking my head to try to find a solution. My two subordinates would be at each other's throats if I let the conversation continue the way it was, but I couldn't think of any way to bring them to common ground. Then an idea hit me. I turned to Primm and asked, "Hold on. Can't we just radio command and get orders on how to proceed? If they tell us to turn back, that's that. If we're to proceed, then at least we'll know we're carrying out our orders. We'll tell them we've come into possession of critical information and go from there." Primm seemed to consider the idea. "Let me go check the radio, sir. I'll be right back." With that, he stood, went to the door to the main tube of the hull, and left the room. Gunther stayed seated next to me. "You can't be serious about this, sir." I turned to him. "Lieutenant, I know you're worried. And I commend you for showing concern for our crew. But the radio operator has good points. If the war ends and our service is over, where will I go from there?" The officer's face visibly registered his realization of what I meant. He shook his head. "It's madness. Madness and insanity." I put a hand on his shoulder. "I know, this whole war is madness. But we'll get orders from HQ, and we can know what we need to do to stop this confusion for ourselves." The door swung open as I finished speaking. Primm appeared, his face a shade paler than usual. That was concerning. "The radio, sir…I couldn't get a signal. Anywhere. It's dead."
I could hear Gunther swear under his breath next to me. "How are far are we from the North Cape?" I asked. My second-in-command answered. "From our current position…I'd reckon it would be a few days voyage if we made good time…but you can't possibly…" His voice trailed off. I thought of hapless Captain Lunn, and the dead men of the Agincourt. We could turn back; we could always turn back I knew. But Primm's words were sticking in my head. What would become of my home if the British won the war? Would I have a home, in any sense of the word, in that timeline? I looked over the two men next to me. Their bearding faces were tense, waiting for my word to fall like a hammer to shatter the tension, and perhaps our fates. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
"Chart a course for the North Cape," I said quietly. "and set us to top cruising speed. I'll not let anyone but us decide the fate of our men and home."
I stared out to the shimmering sea beyond, past the cliffs and precipices that gouged their way into the blue evening sky. The Arctic day and night cycles were always intriguing to me- and frustrating for men attempting to adjust their sleep schedules accordingly. Standing on a small grey gravel beach at the northernmost point in all of Europe, I found myself remembering my old home, far away in both memory and distance. The voyage to this point had started less than well-omened for our crew. Despite a valiant effort by Primm and the rest of the crew, the radio had refuted every attempt to repair it. With the crew itself, the whispers that had sprung after our original deviation from course had festered once the crew realized our new destination. At a point, I found myself having spontaneous mental images of having the boarding crew for the Agincourt thrown overboard- the fear roused by the rumors was so demoralizing. I did my best to stamp out the fear-mongering- by force in at least one case- but as was the case after the minesweeper, there was no way to completely suffocate the sparks. There were no more raucous drinking and card games, or even just the general friendly chatter. Walking through the tube of our hull, the men were tense, anticipating something but not knowing what they were waiting for. And in their faces, there was the beginning of something else- fear, fear of not knowing, fear of not understanding- and the beginning of the anger that comes from it. Not only were they getting angsty, the crew as also getting sloppy. Critical dials were left unattended, ordnance mishandled, and even hatches almost left open during dives. After the third day, I found myself keeping to my cabin and reading more often, only coming out to tend to the necessary duties of a skipper. It was better that way, I felt, better not to agitate my men further by trying to lighten the mood. Sailors are a prickly bunch- no point in making it worse.
For all the tension and occasional looks from the crew, nothing major happened in regard to the actual voyage. No storms, no mysterious plagues. Besides the radio, nothing adverse had struck our boat down. We'd made good time too, all things considered- four days, just in time according to the plans we'd captured. Using the English maps, we charted our way into a smaller fjord just to the west of the main, larger fjord where I suspected our quarry was located. The plan that the officers of the U-77 had worked out was simple- from our hiding place, we would ambush the British freighter carrying the commandos, then quickly move to investigate the entity in the next fjord over. Our good fortune had held up even to this point- to my surprise, the fjord was deep enough to navigate, and near its mouth a fishing camp with a deep-water pier rested on the gravel beach I now stood upon. I took a breath of the chilly northern air and watched as it floated away from me in a puff. There was a hand on my shoulder. I turned, and Gunther was behind me.
"Sir," he said in a low voice, "there's someone approaching the perimeter." My eyes involuntarily widened a bit. "Has he been identified?" "No sir, but I think he's military of some kind. He's armed, and he keeps shouting from a ledge in Russian that he wants to speak to you. Follow me sir." I followed after the lieutenant as he turned and led me past the wooden cabins and buildings that compromised the village. When we'd docked, we had thoroughly searched the place for signs of life. Not a soul was found, nor any sign of one. It was common for such settlements to be abandoned seasonally, I knew, but I also knew that that typically happened in the winter. I had surmised that the inhabitants of this particular settlement just hadn't returned yet and ordered the crew to set up a perimeter around the border of the hamlet. As we drew near the scene, I could hear the commotion of shouting growing louder. Then I saw one of my own sailors shouting, "Drop your gun and come forward!" at the cliffside in front of us. A voice responded from the ledge, which was covered in vegetation, shouting "Is your commanding officer here?" When I approached, I signaled for my men to stand down and shouted back, "I am the commanding officer here! Step forward slowly!" A figure appeared on the bluff, on which I realized he'd been laying, holding what I could just barely make out as a rifle above his head. He clambered down from his hiding spot swiftly, and slowly walked toward our lines, rifle still raised as we kept our own guns trained on him. He drew closer, and as he did his ragged uniform and beard came into focus. I realized that his parka and cap were of British make, and his rifle a Lee-Enfield. All of them looked like they had seen better days. The man stopped about ten meters away from us- visibly shaking, I would later realize- and I waved my hand. On the signal, two sailors stepped forward and promptly wrested the rifle away from the fellow, then quickly patted him down. He made no attempt to resist and kept silent, so I quickly ordered my men to march over to and inside one of the cabins. I followed after the procession with Gunther in tow. The man was silent the whole way.
Once all were inside the cabin, I quickly ordered my men except for Klenze to return to their stations, then gestured for the man to sit at one of the chairs at a large table in the center of the one-room building. He did so, and we took our seats at the other side. Our detainee was the first to speak, to my surprise in fluent German. "I know why I am here, and I know why you are here. I have information that you need, and I am willing to give that information to you, because it not only concerns me and you, but the world as we know it." I glanced at Gunther. He seemed just as caught-off-guard as I was, but he nodded. After a moment, I decided to start with the basics, keeping my voice clipped and unattached. "What is your name, rank, and unit then, soldier?" The man's voice wasn't much more than a whisper. "Corporal Reuben Stuyvesant, 3rd Commando Group, British Army, sir." I sized him up. Beyond his tattered clothes, his beard and eyebrows were frosted- frozen really- and his skin was a bluish pale. The eyes were recessed in his eyeholes, and his cheeks were drawn and shallow. He'd evidently been in the elements for some time. His bearing was military, but not quite. Something in his blank facial expression and the way his hands fidgeted on the table told me that his martial form had been cracked somehow. I thought of his meek surrender- no words, no fighting. Something was not quite right with this Stuyvesant fellow.
"Stuyvesant, eh? Certainly doesn't sound British. In any case, I am Captain Felix Kessler, the skipper of U-77," I continued. The man made the first move of his face I'd seen this entire time- a small movement of his mouth that could be construed by a drunkard as a "smile." "You're correct, Captain," Reuben said. "I'm not British, nor Norwegian. I'm a German, just like you. Lived right on the border with the Netherlands, hence my name." Cocking an eyebrow, I did my best to conceal my surprise. His accent was one I'd never heard before, which lent credence to his words. Klenze took over with the next question. "A German in the service of the British? How did that come about?" The soldier was looking past us, his eyes glazed and evidently in thought. "I was pressed into service not long after the war began in Poland, with the 22nd Infantry Battalion. We never saw action in the east, but then we were sent to Norway during the invasion there." A hidden memory in head went off with the mention of the name. "I knew a few men in that unit," I said, "it's a damn shame what happened there." The man nodded slowly; his face still unmoving. "Indeed. We were cut off of the main line around Narvik when the Brits counter-attacked us there. We fought hard-" there was a hint of what might have been pride in his voice-" but it was hopeless in the end. After I was captured, they took me back to England, where I rotted in a camp for a year. Then I got an offer- to join a new unit the Tommies were forming, a 'special operations' force they said. I guess they saw some kind of unique skills in me, or maybe it was just the fact I had been in Norway recently. Between this or continuing to freeze in my cell, it wasn't much of a choice."
Stuyvesant stopped for a moment, seemingly collecting his thoughts, then continued. "You'd understand if you were in my shoes. Anyway, I went through my basic training, then the training for mission we were formed for. They said that we were being sent to the Cape to find an 'object of interest' and secure it for transport. They told us it was a suspected new U-boat model, but nothing else…they never told us what we actually needed to know…" His voice was starting to trail off, so I stepped in. "I've heard about this mission. But from what I've seen, it is to proceed tonight, is it not?" He nodded again. "It is, but I was chosen to join a small detail to perform reconnaissance on the area. We arrived in the area…what…it must've been…a month ago? The trawler that brought us in landed me and my partner on a beach not far from here…that's when it happened…" The whispering voice fell silent again, and I noticed that there were the beginnings of tears in his dead eyes. "What happened?" Reuben hung his head, his eyes staring down at the desk. The unsettling realization hit me that he had not blinked once during the entire time. "We were walking away from the beach and up to the cliffs…then…there was a noise behind us from the water…some kind of fucking whistling, like a windpipe from hell…" He put his hands up to his face at this point, clutching his temples with a ferocity that made me instinctively reach for the machine pistol I had slung on my shoulder. "I turned around…took out my binoculars and watched the trawler backing out of the bay…" His voice was still quiet, but now it was picking up in ferocity. "There was something coming at it… a dark shape in the water…it was a U-boat I thought…but it wasn't! It wasn't! I could see the conning tower and everything, but somehow…I don't know how…then there was a new noise, like metal on metal…and a brilliant light like a herd of shimmering angels! I couldn't see, but then I saw…I knew…the trawler had been crushed like an egg…I knew no one could be alive on it. The sky was illuminated like the Northern Lights…so I could see that some people were jumping off the wreck and into the water…then the vessel got closer. It stopped next to the wreck…and…oh god…I could see the crew of that thing, those things that clambered out…they were men but they weren't, they were hollow…shells of men…and they dragged the survivors from the water and into their wretched craft…I turned and ran with Peter and…oh my fucking god I can still hear them! I can fucking hear the chants! WHY CAN I STILL HEAR THEM?!"
Before I could move from my stunned spot, Reuben was on the ground, kicking and sobbing and clawing at his hair. The froth at his mouth barely concealed the words that quietly flowed forth, words in a language I had never heard before. It sounded Norse, melodic yet terrible ringing in my ears. I couldn't understand them, but somehow, I knew they were words of doom, words that deserved to be feared. Then, without thinking or even really moving, I was on my feet and the submachine gun was at my shoulder and my finger slammed down on the trigger. Pap-pap-pap-pap. There was a gunpowder-laced silence, the only sound being the casings of my bullets falling to the floor. The gun sights fell away from my face, and I looked down. The commando was laying on the wooden ground, a deep scarlet stain spilling out over his chest like ink. His feet twitched slightly, and there was a tilt of his head up that brought his empty eyes into contact with mine. They seemed to not look at me, but through me, and his mouth was still moving, making no sound but still spewing forth those words. Then the blood ran out over his lips, his head tilted back onto the floor, and Corporal Reuben Stuyvesant was still.
Lieutenant Klenze was still in his seat, his mouth agape. The door opened behind me, and I knew that a sailor barged in asking what the hell was going on before looking to the floor and falling silent. I kept my eyes on the corpse on the ground, watching it. What felt like a very long time passed in the cabin in silence. The body did not move, the mouth did speak, the eyes did not stare back. I turned to Gunther and the other man behind me. The voice of the former spoke, deeply unsure of itself. "Sir…" Then there was rush in my head, as my mind finally caught up with what had just happened. I swallowed back the bile that rose up in my throat, then waved for silence. I spoke quietly. "Take the body outside. Search it for anything useful, then dispose of it. That is all."
I found myself standing on the gravel beach again that night, watching the waves come to shore and retreat again like Napoleon's Grand Army. How many times had the story of those waves played out throughout time, coming so close to the achievement of washing over the land, but being stopped by their very nature and circumstances? I looked out to the pier and watched the crew returning to the boat to prepare for what was to come. There would be no sleep tonight for them- the British would be coming any hour now, and the U-77 had to be prepared for combat. The body of Reuben had been buried quietly and quickly, but not before a small map was found in one his pockets with an X marking a point nearby. A patrol sent to the area had discovered a weapons cannister containing enough rifles and ammo to arm half of the crew and hauled it back just an hour or so ago. I'd chosen to distribute that new weapons to the newer members of the crew primarily, leaving the older men to man the submarine's weapon systems. My rationale was that the latter were more experienced in using their assigned weapons, but I knew deep down my real reasons. The veterans would be safer in the tube, I knew, than on the deck where could be potentially exposed to enemy fire. It was the least I could do, I reckoned, to make up for having endangered them by undertaking this voyage. And the newer, fiercer recruits would be better suited to the type of action I planned to take.
As he did in the morning, Gunther came up behind me. I turned to meet him. His face was grim, in his voice a tinge of nervousness. "The crew is ready to go, sir. We await your command." The enthusiasm, or at least upbeat tone of usual voice was gone. I wanted to reassure my old friend, to bolster his confidence and restore his spirits. It was clear the interrogation earlier had shaken him badly, and the words the commando had said had done nothing to settle him. That was the point of such troops- to sow fear and uncertainty among the enemy- I supposed. Stepping in, I placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "I know how you are feeling," I said. "I know you're afraid and that you don't want to be here." Klenze's face was blank, but his head bobbed up and down almost imperceptibly . "But we're in this too deep in this rabbit hole to back out now. I'll do my duty, to my home and to my crew. And you will too." Gunther blinked, then nodded again slowly. "Yes sir." He then turned and boarded the U-boat, with me close behind. As I clambered onto the deck and into the tower, I realized that the sun was setting rapidly on the horizon- something that should've been impossible in the middle of the summer. It was a sign of things to come, I would know later, but I didn't know it as the U-77 cast off from the dock and I ordered her, full speed, toward the blackening sea beyond.
The stars stayed hidden behind the clouds that night, but curiously a full moon shone brightly through, dusting the land and water with its ethereal light. Standing on the conning tower straining my eyes through my binoculars again, I found myself grateful for that small bit of illumination. The dozen men beneath me on the deck idled quietly, their rifles gripped tightly in their hands. Their eyes, lit by the moonlight, betrayed the tension that every man was feeling on board the U-77. I didn't blame them- the sudden and extraordinary falling of darkness had caused quite a stir in our already well-stirred pot, so to speak. As we idled our vessel by the mouth of the fjord, looking out to sea, I could feel the nerves applying crushing pressure to the psyches of every man aboard, including my own. What if the Dacia didn't show? What if this whole endeavor was a wild goose chase? But then I thought of all the things I'd seen and heard and read along this voyage. And a more terrible thought struck me- what if this was all true, as real and as terrible as all the clues seemed to indicate? I shivered, pushing the thought to the back of my head. As I'd told my compatriot standing beside me once more, there truly was no going back now.
Looking through the lenses, I continued to watch for any sign of a ship approaching. The only movement on the water was the flow and ebb of the waves and flashes of moonlight reflecting on the surface. The plan we'd set out was simple and well informed- the best kind of plan. But then again, no plan survives contact with the enemy. I hadn't accounted for this sudden nightfall, which left us struggling to see just a couple hundred or so meters out. My lieutenant beside me seemed to reflect my mounting doubt. "Are you sure they're coming…sir? I mean…they could've stopped last minute or…" Turning my head, I locked eyes with him, and Gunther fell quiet and back to his lenses. I sighed and put the binoculars back to my face. Nothing. The minutes were starting to turn into hours now, with nothing to show for it. I could feel myself nodding off…then I snapped to. Going off of reckoning, I guessed it was about 0100 hours. I looked down onto the deck and saw that some of the men were laying by the railings and snoring. Setting my binoculars down, I clambered slowly down the ladder to the deck and walked over to the first sleeping man, a boatswain by the name of Muller. Just as I was reaching out to shake him back to consciousness, there was a cry from Gunther, who apparently was awake on the tower. "ALAAARM! SHIP, DEAD AHEAD!"
Klenze's alert brought Muller and the rest of the sleeping men back to their senses. No time to discipline them for their lapse of duty now, I knew. Rushing back to the tower, I grabbed my binoculars and looked out. The hull of a ship was darkly illuminated by the moon, broadside to us about three hundred meters out. I watched it sail slowly onwards to the east as Gunther began to work out the firing solution. The hulk was a pack freighter of the most basic kind- I guessed it must've been built in the last war. "It's the Dacia. For sure." It continued steaming forward, and Lieutenant Klenze shook my arm to say that the firing solution was ready. I was about to relay the order to the torpedo room below decks, when suddenly the Dacia turned hard to starboard, coming right for the mouth of the fjord we were concealed in.
"Damnit, it's coming right at us!" I hissed. The freighter was closing quickly, and although we hadn't been seen yet, the moonlight was bouncing dangerously around us. On our deck, the sailors crouched, dead-still and silent as the hulk closed in. The men manning the deck gun seemed especially tense, for good reason- if the Dacia passed within our minimum torpedo launching distance, it would be down to them to bring her down, likely while under small arms fire themselves. She closed in, 250 meters…two hundred. Then the scratching of Gunther's pencil performing calculations ceased, and he quickly whispered the needed firing angle. I leaned over the hatchway into the tube and relayed the information inside. Critical seconds passed as it was passed up to the torpedo tubes…closer the freighter came. Then, when the ship was just 150 meters out, there was a hiss as two tin fish were propelled out of their tubes. At such a close distance, only a few seconds passed until a bright flash lit the night sky and two geysers smashed up against the starboard bow of the Dacia.
The final element of the plan went into motion as seawater rushed into the bow of the enemy ship and the crew began jumping over the side into the freezing water. A couple of commands and the U-77 slowly motored forward toward the pack freighter now fully sinking, stern high in the air and the hull shooting perpendicular to the surface down to the bottom. An oil slick was spreading across the water, in which bobbed some debris and rafts to which clung a couple dozen men treading water. Some of them had sailor's clothes, others had military uniforms- but it didn't matter in the end. The crack of our rifles and submachine guns rung out off the cliffs of the fjord, and both sailors and commandos slumped off of their rafts and into the murky water. I watched on as the recruits carried out their dirty work, without a smile on my face but knowing this was necessary. As long as there were survivors, the British plan could continue on, and if that happened, Primm's prophesy would come to pass. The veterans on the deck and Gunther also gazed on, their faces stoic as soldiers but their bodies and hands obviously shifting uncomfortably. The lieutenant glanced over at me, his eyes telling me everything he meant to say. I locked eyes with him, my eyes saying everything that needed to be said. He turned away and hung his head as the last shots rang out. Silence reestablished its reign over the night, leaving our U-boat floating in the debris field alone, surrounded only by the dead slowly sinking to the deep.
But the silence did not last. As the last bodies sank away, I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing. A sensation washed over my body, my being, the feeling that comes with knowing that you are being watched but don't know by whom or from where. It was a feeling of dread, and I could see it seep into and grip the men around me. Gunther spoke in a whisper: "Does anyone else feel that?" I nodded slowly, then I saw them. The eyes. They glared out at us from the cliffs and bluffs around us. They were animal eyes, I knew, but like none I'd ever seen. All around, the eyes glowed a soft green, mixing with the dull gray of the moonlight to illuminate the fjord around us in a ghastly sickly pale light. Dozens of pairs, I managed to reckon, gazed down, judging us, watching us. By now, everybody on the deck had seen them, but nobody moved a muscle. I thought to reach for the machine pistol slung on my shoulder, and my arm twitched toward achieving this.
At that moment, a terrible howl broke the night sky, reverberating off the peaks with supernatural force. The men around me were thrown down to the ground instantly, and I was only barely able to grab a railing to balance myself. Pulling myself up, I could only watch as the eyes began to rush forward from the shadows, revealing the forms of the dozens of silver-white wolves that they belonged to. They surged ahead as one, bounding down the rock faces and down to the water. Then, to my astonishment and horror, they began to run on the surface of the water, bounding over it with the same elegance and swiftness that they would on land. On all sides, dozens of them came at us, mouths frothing, and teeth bared. There was only time for a few desultory rifle shots before they fell upon us.
However, in the moments before the wave of beasts washed over our deck, a man leaped overboard, then another, and another. Before I could even think to bring my MP40 to my shoulder, the entire veteran crew of the 88mm deck gun and several anti-aircraft guns were in the water, swimming for their lives toward the coast. Even without my intervention, they didn't get far. The wolves swept over them, tearing into their soft flesh as they struggled in the waves. The deserters' screams were enough to shake the remaining crew onboard to their senses, and we laid into the pack with a furious barrage of small arms fire. A few wolves went slack and sank into the abyss, but the rest took the bullets and kept running, sweeping over us in a furry mass. Pandemonium broke out with a furor as men were knocked over and ripped into with tooth and claw. Gunshots and the wet sounds of primal violence and screams mingled into a horrific symphony of death on the deck of the U-77 as man and beast clashed. Every man was in reality now- or whatever nightmare this might be called- and fighting for his life, firing rifles point blank and stabbing with knives. The latter seemed more effective, managing to pierce the thick hides of the wolves and puncturing vitals. But the animals fought back with a ferocity that was supernatural. A man's arm was torn clean off here, another fellow was disemboweled there. I joined the sailors on the conning tower in firing down into the melee, doing our best to not hit our compatriots. Despite our efforts, it was clear that our men were being laid low.
What happened next isn't clear to me. It happened so quickly that my human mind simply couldn't process it. There was a clambering sound behind me, and I turned and saw a wolf on the tower with me. Its pale white hackles were raised, and its bloody teeth were bared, ready to pounce. Stupidly, I'd let my gun fall away from my face, and there was no time to raise it again. I raised my arm to protect my face and waited for the inevitable as the creature leaped forward at me. But then there was a yelp, and I lowered my arm. A sailor had body slammed into the side of the wolf, sending them both tumbling to the ground. I couldn't make out who the man was in the darkness and confusion, but there was red spurt as they hit the floor and then both were still. Then another howl filled the air, this one different from the first. It was higher in pitch and carried none of the triumph of the first. I pulled myself over to the railing toward the bow and watched as the wolves suddenly pulled away from the struggle and leaped off the bow. They moved as one, like a swarm of bees running over the sea foam, leaving the deck strewn with bodies by their departure. Also left behind were a couple survivors out of the two dozen or so men that had been stationed on the deck, dazed and slowly pulling themselves to their feet. We all watched as the wolves ran out toward the sea, nobody thinking to move, much less open fire. I didn't think to order them to either- I was so struck by the wonder and perhaps terror the spectacle instilled in all of us. Still in unison, the wolves then leaped down into the sea, disappearing into the depths as swiftly as they had come. Before anyone could move or try to comprehend what had just happened, there was a flash of green light that crushed the eyes and thoughts of everyone on board. I closed my eyes as the green turned to white…then I opened them again. And floating there on the surface dead ahead was a U-boat, black and sleek as the night itself.
I didn't move from my spot. Nobody did. We all stared at the vessel bobbing in the waves in front of us, intimidating in its silence. Looking back now, I don't think there was much we could do anyway, seeing as our heavy weapons had been abandoned by the deserters. But nobody pointed that out then, because the boat suddenly rocked violently, throwing us all to the ground, and a wretched renting sound of metal on metal. The unsettling feeling of lightness took me, and I realized the boat was starting to shift. Not shift, no. It was sinking.
A bearded head popped up through the hatchway. Primm. "Fucking- we're going down sir! They're all dead, and the guts are all over…the hull's got gashes in it all over!" I looked back to the bow- it was already awash. Something in head finally connected me back to reality, and I turned back to the radio operator. "Get everyone and as many of our dead as you can inside! And get those fucking leaks sealed! Now!" As I ran over to the ladder to the deck, Primm called after me. "Where the fuck are you going sir?!" The deck was already underwater up to my knees as I settled my gun on my shoulder and called back: "I'm going to solve this. Once and for all." With that, I jumped off the sunken deck and into the sea toward the U-boat entity.
Growing up by the coast, I was taught from an early age to be a strong swimmer in the cold waters of the Baltic. Years later now, I found myself thankful for that experience as I swam for my life in the freezing water of the Norwegian sea. Somehow, I'd managed to leap clear of the suction of my own sinking U-boat, and now the black and rusted hull of the submarine was coming nearer. Coming alongside, I managed to reach my arms out and pull myself up to the deck. I lay there for a moment, shivering and dripping seawater from my soaked coat. The steel beneath me, I noticed, seemed to be glowing quietly in a green hue. And there were strange markings scratched into the metal too- Nordic runes, I remembered from a book I'd read in my youth. Something about them compelled me to stand and pull myself over to the conning tower and clamber to the top. The hatch to the interior below was open, spilling that same soft green light into the air. I found myself once again called forward by the sight, and so stepped forward and slowly climbed down the ladder into the ethereal darkness below.
When I stepped off the ladder, the first thing that struck me was the stench. It was the same fetid malodor that had greeted us on the bridge of the Agincourt- the aroma of death and blood. But here that dank smell was compounded by rot and decay- whatever was done here had been dead for quite a while. Once I'd gotten over the punches to the gut and throat and retched all the dry retches, I walked forward toward what I reckoned was the stern. The tube was dark, with no lights, and I hadn't brought a flashlight. Maybe that was for the best, judging by the smells and the glimpses of what I could see as I walked. The perfume of rotting bodies persisted and grew stronger the deeper I went. I could figure out that the interior wasn't that different from that of my own vessel, except for a few things. On many of the beams and pipes, the same runes I'd seen on the deck were inscribed, glowing their foul light forth into the darkness. By this light, I could see that there were much larger side rooms built into the hull than would be accommodated on the U-77. I could hear the grinding of gears and the whistle of pipes, but there were other noises too. The whirr of generators and what sounded like the bubbling of…vats? Tubes? The latter noises were coming from a particularly large side room, in front of which was another hatchway into another section of the ship. The scent that filled the whole boat was particularly pungent here. My hand instinctively reach for the handle, but then stopped. Did I really want to know what was behind the door? But then another subconscious part of my mind took over, and my hand twisted the knob…then something gripped my ankle.
I screamed and turned from the door. Looking to the ground, the thing I saw grabbing my leg almost caused me to collapse from the shock of it all. It might've once been human, but now was hollowed out, the eye sockets empty and the bottom half missing. The flesh and rags of clothing that clung to its fetid bones weren't what got my attention. That was because I realized it was looking up at me, staring into my eyes. And although its eyes were long gone, they blazed in their meaning which was clear to me immediately: Don't go inside. Whatever you do, don't. For what seemed like an eternity, I held eye contact with the wretched thing. It spoke to me further, uttering the same things, I realized, Reuben Stuyvesant had uttered in his death throes. Then I felt my leg lifting up, and before I could think my boot came slamming down on the hollow man's skull. There was a wet crunch, and as I pulled away my boot the thing slumped down and was still. I looked around, and realized I was standing by some crew bunks. In them, I could see figures- men they might've once been, same as the one on the floor- covered in their sheets and barely moving. But they moved, surely, breathing and stirring perhaps. A shiver took my spine, cold and unforgiving. Then the instinct that had sought out answers once again compelled me to go for the doorknob, and this time I twisted it all the way.
Immediately, I came to regret that choice as the reek washed over me. It was even stronger than when I'd first entered this place, to the point where I could almost see it rush past and I had to physically lean on the doorframe so that I wouldn't fall to the floor. The sight beyond kept me there, now in sheer fear rather than shock. Bodies. They were stacked like logs in the middle of the room, illuminated by the green light. Toward the end of the room were tables, with what seemed like scientific equipment mounted on top. Beakers and tubes full of liquid, thick papers strewn everywhere. I looked back to the stack of dead people in the center. They'd been ripped open like the dead men of the Agincourt, I realized, lungs pulled through their backs in crude parody of wings. Somehow, I found the strength to step forward toward the stack of bodies. They all wore various types of clothing, I realized. Mostly random sailor's attire, but I noticed British uniforms too. And near the top of the pile were corpses dressed on Kriegsmarine gear. The blood seeping from these cadavers was still bright red- fresh. I stumbled backwards, out of the room, and shut the door quietly behind me.
I leaned against the bulkhead wall for a moment, trying to take a deep breath. Then I turned to the hatchway, reckoning that forward motion would delay my mind from shattering itself trying to comprehend this nightmare. I turned the wheel and pried the hatch open and stepped inside.
What I found inside somehow managed to catch me off guard. The stench of flesh disappeared as I stepped into the space. It was a well-lit room, with electric lights instead of the glowing vibrance of the runes. Moreover, it seemed to be a small, fairly opulent study, with bookcases and upholstered chairs neatly organized around the area. In the center stood a large desk, behind which sat a figure. He was a human figure, not like the living corpse I'd seen, but something about him was deeply wrong. His skin was paler than should've been possible, his eyes two chips of dirty ice. The sharp face gave the impression of youth, but somehow, I knew that was not quite right. He was dressed in a sharp black leather uniform- the same dress uniform, I realized, as the ones worn by U-boat captains like myself. A peaked cap covered his snow white hair as he reclined at his table and read a book, seemingly taking no notice of my entrance. The man looked up, slowly, and locked eyes with me. I could feel the frost spreading through my body as a smile worked its way up his face and he spoke in a chillingly warm tone. "Ah, Herr Kapitan. Please, make yourself comfortable." I could hear myself stammering something out of my mouth. "W-who are you?" His voice was a shade firmer as he gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "I was Captain Karl von Altberg in a previous life, but they call me Fenrir now. Please, sit. I've been expecting you."
My body walked forward and sat down in the chair as I watched on in my mind. A soft, leather chair with mahogany furnishing, it reminded me of the officers' lodge back in the Narvik. Now that I was closer to Fenrir, I could see to my curiosity that he wore a longsword in its scabbard on his belt. I managed to speak again. "You are the one I've been searching for then? And this is your ship…?" The same unsettling smile. "Boat, you ought to know better than that captain. Yes, I am the thing, as your lovely subordinate put it, you've been hunting for." There was pause from Fenrir. "Please, do forgive the bit of show craft back there- what with the night sky and the wolves and what not. I was always one for theatre, and those wolves took quite a bit of effort to pull off. But that's not why you're here, to listen to me ramble about such things. I know you have questions- many of them in fact. So I will allow you to ask them." Another pause of silence. "Well then? Speak."
I was trying to concentrate my thoughts but failed to. Maybe for the better. I could feel the instinct open my mouth and carry the words out. "I've hunted you since the James Cook and the Agincourt. Quite a long way, you probably know. I want to ask you- who are you? What is this vessel? And what is your end goal?" Fenrir rolled his shoulder, seemingly easing himself into his chair. "Ah, that old battleship. Such a shame, it's fate, but that was necessary." I found myself cutting in. "I want to know why you attacked that ship and its fleet. How did you attack it in such a way? How were you made? You wear the uniform of an officer of the Kriegsmarine, but I don't recall us having any ships or men quite like…yours." My voice trailed off when his eyes somehow grew a shade colder. "Yes… it is a bit of long story. I suggest you get comfortable. I'd offer you a drink to go with it, but I haven't had any for quite some time now." He did something I thought resembled a chuckle, judging from the puff of cold air it created from his mouth, then continued.
"It was early 1941," Fenrir said, "I had just received my commission and my first posting- an auxiliary support ship stationed in the northern regions they called the Dolphin. It was tasked with supplying our surface raiders and submarines at sea, gathering weather data, collecting any prisoners our ships had taken at sea for transport to the Fatherland…all the duties expected of such a ship. But that was not why I was there." He seemed to pause for breath and to decide what to say next. "You see, I had been assigned to the Dolphin by a certain department of the Ministry of the Interior that I was employed by. You'll have never heard of it, but suffice to say, I and my team were tasked with…processing some objects of interest that had been collected after the conquest of the Scandinavian countries the year before. Mainly manuscripts and bits of stone, but also some more…interesting pieces." Fenrir tapped the hilt of the sword on his belt. "Let me put it this way. The Fuhrer searches for any way he can gain an advantage over the enemies of the Fatherland. That's why he employs U-boat likes yours, it's why he devotes so much effort into developing new weapons of war. My researchers and I also hunted for an advantage, just a more…unconventional one. We were tasked with studying these artifacts and devising ways they could be…shall we say harnessed to Germany's benefit." I sat in mute silence, but before I could take in what the captain had said he continued.
"The Dolphin was a perfect location for our work," Fenrir said. "Remote in the middle of one of the most desolate oceans on Earth, nearby many of the areas that our artifacts had been sourced from and furnished with all of the materials we needed- including manpower. As a supply ship, as I mentioned, one of our duties was to collect prisoners of war. Having been given the power to override the ship's crew in matters that concern my work, I was able to easily secure these bodies- which would've been rotting in a POW camp otherwise, mind you- and instead divert them to…facilitate my work." I somehow had the clarity of mind to think back to the bodies I'd seen in the side room full of scientific equipment. "You experimented on them," I said. Fenrir nodded. "You could put it like that. But it was needed, Captain Kessler. The knowledge I gained from those trials helped me to finally start making breakthroughs into the purpose and meaning of many of the pieces. It was slow going, but with the steady stream of POWS we were finally managing to figure out which rituals and which incantations would prove useful. But just as we were getting somewhere, fate struck." He seemed to be tense now, as if recalling a terrible memory. "We were off the coast of Iceland, refueling a U-boat, the U-478, in accordance with our cover story. It was smooth going, but then over the horizon a British task force appeared, led by none other than the Agincourt. By sheer bad luck we'd happened to be right in their patrol path. Needless to say, they blew us out of the water."
A smile suddenly started to present itself at the corners of Fenrir's lips again as he looked up at me. "But by the intervention of the gods, I'd seen them coming. I was able to escape to the U-478 before it submerged, with a couple of assistants, the majority of my research papers, and two of the most promising artifacts. A small book of rituals that was nearly completely translated from Norse, and this sword." Again, he tapped the hilt of the weapon on his belt. My attention drawn to it, I could see that it was a straight edged thing, with an ornate leather sheath inlaid with precious metals. The black hilt terminated in a steel pommel that seemed to be shaped as a wolf's claw. I'd barely managed to begin fully admiring the blade before Fenrir spoke again. "Both of them dated back to the Viking era, if you can believe it. So perfectly preserved after all of these years…I digress. We weren't out of the woods after our narrow escape, however. The British destroyers began depth charging us in the U-478, and pretty soon we'd sustained several direct hits and were going down. Again, however, Odin intervened. The sub set down on a sea shelf just before we hit crush depth. Despite that, most of our critical machinery was smashed beyond repair, the vessel was slowly filling with water from several leaks, and we were running out of air fast. The crew did their best to seal the leaks and repair what they could, but it was clear that we weren't going to be able to surface and would suffocate sooner rather than later. Then I stepped in."
"I offered them another way," Fenrir said. "In the book I'd saved, there was a ritual- a sacrifice to Odin that had apparently been used by a Viking captain of the Grand Heathen Army long ago. I offered to perform it in an attempt to save the boat and our lives, but the captain of the U-478 and his officers refused. Said my offer was pagan nonsense, that I should face my death like a man. But when the ratings heard my plan, they were more receptive. They wanted to live, I needed to continue my work. A deal was made. They pressed their officers to accept my plan, and when they refused again, they mutinied and took control of the U-boat. Fulfilling my end of the pact, I took my sword, said a few incantations, and blood eagled all of the officers we'd captured, including the captain. It was only a few minutes before, I'd reckoned, we'd run out of air. But the ritual had worked. The machinery was good as new and moving again, the oxygen hadn't run out, we weren't dead. In recognition of my actions, and because all of the commanding officers were now…deceased, the crew named me as the new captain of the U-478, and I took my new name in honor of the beast chained in the underworld." The man once called Karl drew silent again, and I found myself once again unable to speak before he continued. "After we escaped with our lives, I settled in to my new circumstances. We used the boat's weapons to sink a few British freighters, just to acquire some resources and get the ball of my work rolling again. More sacrifices allowed us to refurnish the submarine to assist in my research, as you may have seen on your way in. Pretty soon, I was beginning to replace much of the work I'd lost on the Dolphin."
Then he stopped again and sighed. "But it as it turns out, denying souls to Hel proved to have…unforeseen consequences. It was smooth sailing, so to speak, for the first couple months. At that point, the effects of the initial sacrifice started to wear off. Machinery began to fail, men started falling ill. We should've been dead men in the eyes of the underworld, along with our vessel. I was forced to divert more and more of my captives to maintain our condition as time passed, slowing my work. Worse, the British started to tighten up their convoys and patrols around that time, forcing us to go longer and longer without scoring kills and taking prisoners from the sea. All of that was before the British started actively hunting us. When I learned that it was the Agincourt leading the force sent to destroy me…well I couldn't resist the opportunity. But the cost in blood to scatter the fleet and cripple the battleship proved to be too high, and we ran out of sacrifices before we could finish her off. I had to pull back to our hideout here in the Cape-" I suddenly found myself speaking. "Why the North Cape? Why not some other fjord closer to the shipping lanes, or Germany itself?" Fenrir smiled, the kind of smile a teacher gives a reluctant student. "Although I'd saved the U-478 and her crew by it, I was still technically guilty of mutiny. My department could prevent me from facing charges, I suppose, but it would take too long in the bureaucracy. Some bumbling naval official would detain us once they realized all of the listed commanders of the boat were gone and order a court martial. All of that would waste precious time- time that could be spent on critical work. And there's another reason, too. The artifacts I'd saved- they both originated in this area. I was planning to either get in contact with sources here or search for clues to aid in my work. But then Operation Arcturus happened, then you."
He fixed me with that icy stare again, both endearing and terrifying. "We managed to take a few fishermen in the village in this fjord," he said, "which gave me almost enough blood to prepare for our encounter. But a bit more was needed…and as it was a good chunk of the crew had already rotted away to the point of being useless." I blinked, a couple pieces of what I'd seen in past few days sticking together in my head. "It was a fair run thing- I'd expected more of your men would perish in the wolf attack. But your U-boat should be at the bottom now, your crew desperately working to save it." He leaned forward onto the desk, bringing the cold, clean shaven face closer. "So instead of that, I offer you and your crew now a choice, just as I did my old crew. How about instead of you all suffocating to death, you instead join me?" I blinked again and stammered. "W-wai-" Fenrir made a wave of the hand. "You heard me, captain. It's a simple process, really, to incorporate you lot into my crew. You're a skilled commander, Kessler- and determined to nearly the point of being bloody minded. I could use someone like you as my second-in-command, and a fresh crew for that matter." It was evident he could see the hesitation on my face. "In the event that you should refuse, my dear captain-" the menace growling in his voice was unmistakable- "in that case, I wouldn't mind some new sacrifices to get my old crew back on their feet." Another tap of the sword hilt- this time he left his hand around the grip. "So, what will it be?"
I took a sudden, deep breath. My mind was back. To my surprise, my sanity hadn't been crushed by what I'd just heard and seen- at least I didn't think it was. I spoke in a quiet voice. "You're mad. You sacrifice men- your own men- to these gods to wreak horror upon your enemies- for what end? Driving to the ends of the earth, committing arguable crimes against nature and reality itself, and running from your own demise…why?" The same condescending smile flashed itself. "I thought I made this clear, captain. What I do, I do in the name of the Fatherland, in the name of my home. You fight for your home too, do you not? It's why you send men to an icy death on the high seas, and it's why you've pursued me all this way despite the danger and disapproval from your dear lieutenant and crew. You believe that you're protecting what you define as your home, that's why you fight. And it's why I do the things you say I do. It's just that my home happens to be the whole of Germany rather than my submarine, and my family happens to be the millions of Germans, rather than the couple dozen crewmates who share a metal tube with me." No words came from my mouth to counter his. I simply sat stunned, absorbing what Fenrir had said. "But it's clear that you have qualms about what is needed. I respect your moral upstanding, and I must say, I've gotten a bit rusty with my sword here. I won't mind some practice." Then the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as the rasping sound of a blade leaving its scabbard reached my ears.
He swung hard and fast, faster than I'd expected. It was really one movement as Fenrir rose and slashed the blade high, evidently trying to sever my throat and head in one fell swoop. But my body managed to jerk away and back in one of those spontaneous decisions your body makes for you. I slid backwards and down to the floor, so that only the tip of the blade made contact with the flesh of my face near the nose. The edge cut through in a clean arc, barely missing the left eye as it left a gouge not unlike a Prussian fencing scar. I barely felt the wound as I scrambled to my feet with Fenrir closing in. Somehow, I managed to get my body to bring the MP40 slung on my back to my shoulder in a swift movement. But before I could go for the trigger, there was another swing of the blade, this time going low. I reflexively lowered the gun down to block the attack. My eyes widened when the blade cut clean through the metal of my own weapon, cleaving the barrel right off with the tip of the sword narrowly missing my gut. I found myself stumbling back from the force of the blow, toward the hatchway. He was coming in for another strike. Just as he was raising the blade for a downward blow onto my head, my body made another instinctive choice. I felt myself ripping the now useless submachine gun off of my back and launching it as my attacker at full force, sling and all. It flew awkwardly, but it had speed when it impacted with Fenrir's face with a thunk. He'd evidently been caught off-guard and was now off balance and tripping backwards. As he fell back, I found myself lunging headfirst forward. I slammed into Fenrir's chest, toppling him over and sending us both crashing into the desk. The sword in his hand fell to the floor beside me with a clatter.
The blade, I could now see, was just as ornate as its hilt and scabbard. It was a smoky gunpowder grey, which highlighted the rippling effect of its Damascene finish. As my hand reached out and seized the soft, leathery grip and pulled it close, I could see that the steel bore engravings upon it. Runes, like those I'd seen all over this damn submarine, were neatly carved in a line up the length of the thing, pulsating gently in the warm lamp light of the study. Any admiration for the craftsmanship in my head disappeared as a boot slammed into my side, with such force that I thought all of my ribs there were shattered. Fenrir was rising again, and another stomp came down on my chest. I curled my legs up as he knelt down. I could feel the hands wrapping around my throat, tightening and crushing as surely as pack ice crushes a ship's hull. Fenrir was whispering something, I realized. Those terrible words bearing death and decay that had rung from Stuyvesant and the dead man in the submarine filled my head again. Odin, Hel, Njord, Tyr, Vidar…I didn't understand the words beside those, but I knew the terrible messages they bore. The death of mankind, the death of the world, the death of the gods themselves and existence itself….slow and inexorable like the hands squeezing the life from me. I closed my eyes…then I opened them again. And saw that the blade in my hand had embedded itself in the ribs of Fenrir, and the shock in his face as he realized his mistake.
A breath ripped into my lungs as the hands finally let up the pressure. I managed to rise somehow, bringing Fenrir up with me, the blade still embedded in his side. No blood came from the wound to soak his uniform as I drew the blade out, the same rasp as when it had been pulled from its scabbard. He stood before me, clutching his wound but still. He knew what was next, and his face showed his acceptance of it. Now with the chance to properly wield it, I found that the longsword was surprisingly light. Nimble, really. It sped forward like a hunting dog toward a downed bird as it plunged deep into Fenrir's chest, making a crunching sound more akin to an icepick on ice than blade on flesh. The sword stuck itself almost half of its length into his body- I later realized the very tip must've come out his back. I released the grip, and Fenrir stood there with the sword in him for a moment, swaying. Then he fell, onto his back and hit the floor with a thump. As he lay there, I realized his arm was moving, snaking its way toward a coat pocket. His eyes locked with mine again, and I could see his mouth moving. Laughing. The hand entered the pocket, and I thought I heard him say something- "To Valhalla then, so long!" Then his hand stopped moving, his mouth fell silent, and Fenrir, once Captain Karl von Altberg, fell still.
His decomposition was swift and perhaps expected. He'd been dead for well over a year, after all, I reminded myself. I would've retched from the smell of putrefaction if it hadn't been for everything else I'd seen this night. A few moments and all that was left of Fenrir was little more than a skeleton covered by a captain's dress uniform. The hand was still in the pocket. I bent down and reached into the coat pocket and came away holding something. A book, small and leather bound. More runes were engraved on its cover, but they no longer glowed in the light. A sensation washed over me, a feeling of intense dread. Then the lights went out. There was a sound- rushing water I realized, and the groans of creaking metal. I set the book down beside the corpse and left the sword where it was. And I ran, out of the hatchway and back the way I'd come. The perfume of death was being supplanted now by the aroma of seawater, which I could feel sloshing around my boots. It was rising fast. The groans continued as the boat began to shift to its bow, and I somehow managed to grope around and find the ladder to the conning tower. Clambering up, I found myself on the top of the tower, looking out into the fjord and sea. To the stern, I was somehow not astonished to see the U-77 floating on the surface, its lights extinguished. Just as I had earlier in the night, I jumped overboard and swam for my life toward a U-boat. As I clambered aboard, I looked back. The U-boat entity was sinking, bow first, into the sea. In less than a minute, it- and anything left onboard- was underneath the waves, for what I found myself hoping was the last time.
Climbing up to the conning tower, Primm stuck his head out of the hatch again. "We…we managed to patch up all the leaks and…what the fuck…" I waved my hand. "Try not to worry about it…good job to you and the crew and…" I paused. "Wait…where's Lieutenant Klenze?" Primm sighed and climbed out of the hatch onto the tower. "He's…just follow me." He led me down to the deck, to the stern. A small line of bodies were arrayed there, covered in tarps and coats. The radio operator pointed to last body in the line, closest to the stern. "We collected all the ones we could…" He let his voice trail off as I apprehensively stepped forward. Pulling the coat away from the body, Klenze's glazed eyes stared up at me. They carried no blame, no emotions at all really. A claw gash ran its way over his throat, and my heart sank as I recalled the events of the night. He was the sailor on the tower who had saved me from the wolf. I walked back to the tower and climbed up. Leaning against the rail, I covered my face and tried to weep as the waves ran up to shore as they always do.
When all was said and done, we lost sixteen men the night of July 16, 1942. We buried them quietly on the gravel beach, their caps on the crosses we left behind. No words were said, no tears were shed- there were no more of those left to be given. I found that I didn't even need to give the commands to set sail for Narvik- everyone seemed to understand silently that it was time. I spent the voyage mostly in my cabin, trying to first rationalize, then deny, then finally try to come to terms with what my abused mind had seen and heard. When I did venture out, I found the surviving crew silently tending to their duties. The eyes that watched me were those of Gunther- not blaming perhaps, but also not sympathizing. I don't think I got a lick of sleep the whole trip.
Finally, we arrived off Narvik fjord during the early morning hours of July 20. The sky was dark and cloudy, enforcing its own night upon the land Despite the radio still being out of action, we were able to signal our arrival and receive permission to dock. As we sailed into the fjord and pulled up alongside our pier, I knew something was wrong when I saw the platoon of soldiers standing on the pier, waiting for us. They were arrayed in neat lines, and a man I took for their commanding officer stepped forward as the dock gang finished mooring us and scattered.
He was sharply dressed in his uniform which I could see clearer as he stepped closer. An SS uniform, I guessed, judging by the heavy use of black leather and the swastika armband. But unlike any other uniform I'd seen, it bore symbols on the collar lapels like no other. They were runes, I realized- the same kind I'd seen that night. The man's face likewise bore the same kind of iciness that Fenrir's had, with sharp and frosty ice and lips that were more lines than flesh. He came to a crisp stop just short of the gangway and raised his head to bring his eyes to bear against me on the tower. "Greetings, Captain Felix Kessler," he called. His voice, too, was chilly, perhaps a shade more bureaucratic. I didn't speak- I didn't need to as it would appear. "I am Lieutenant Helmann, from the Department of Special Affairs, Ministry of the Interior." I stared at him blankly, the name snapping itself into the puzzle of my mind. "You'll have not heard of me or us," he continued, "but we have heard of you. Moreover, we've received word of your recent…experience at the North Cape. An experience involving one of our assets." He paused, letting the words sink in. "I would like to ask you to come down from your ship and follow us. We can discuss this matter further then." I didn't move- none of the crew who had come up did. Helmann sighed and snapped his fingers. The platoon behind him leveled their weapons up at us. An innocently murderous smile crossed the lieutenant's lips. "Perhaps I worded that poorly. That was not a request." I looked back to my crew- their eyes didn't say much, but they said enough. I turned back to Helmann and nodded slowly.
We were lead off the U-77 and through the streets of Narvik at gunpoint. To my relief, the crew made no effort to resist our detainers. The lanes and avenues were awfully empty for this time of night- usually they'd be occupied by at least a few intoxicated sailors. Marching past the naval areas toward the edge of town, I couldn't help but wonder where exactly we were heading. That question was answered when we finally stopped at a checkpoint on one of the main roads in and out of Narvik, just outside the limits of the town. Three unmarked trucks and four motorcycles were idling there, their crews standing ready. We were directed to load ourselves into the rear of the trucks, a dozen to each. Pulling myself into the truck, I found myself with no will to try to resist or even try to make light of the situation. I was empty. As I sat on the uncomfortable metal bench, Lieutenant Helmann came up to the truck beside me. "Well captain," he said in a light voice, "I'm sorry it had to be this way. I suggest you get comfortable, as I think you'll be with us for quite some time." He turned and left to clamber into the passenger's seat of the truck, and a few moments thereafter the convoy revved its engines and began to move. Watching the column of vehicles roll down the road into the mountains beyond, I suddenly heard a tinny tune playing from the radio of my truck. I sighed and leaned back as my ears received the lyrics:
It's a long way to Tipperary!
It's a long way to go!
It's a long way to Tipperary!
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye to Piccadilly!
Farewell Leicester Square!
It's a long long way to Tipperary!
But my heart's right there!