by Typhon Dreckschtinger
©2005 Typhon Dreckschtinger -- all rights reserved
"Bearing... Mark!" Commander Ron Haywood declared, carefully keeping his head bent over just so. In addition to planning an attack, he was also at the same time trying to keep his oversized rainhat's brim hanging over the periscope's eyepiece. If he failed in this, the continual shower of water cascading from the leaking periscope gland would foul it, very likely ruining the attack and allowing a Japanese ship to escape. I shivered in sympathy with Captain Haywood; we were cruising off the Aleutian Islands, and the water sluicing down the conning tower had to be icy-cold. Despite the chill, our leader was very good at keeping the eyepiece clear. He'd had experience enough, I knew; this was Ron's third war cruise. It was too bad that such an able man had been given command of such a dinosaur of a submarine and one inherently flawed in design at that. Despite the passage of decades no one had ever worked out a fix for the defective periscope gland design of the "S"-class submarines that had formed the backbone of the USN's underseas fleet since the 1920's. Instead, the practical-minded Navy had issued the Captain an extra raincoat, including the special wide-brimmed hat intended to protect the eyepiece. Re-engineering a Captain's wardrobe was much cheaper than re-engineering a periscope gland, and even in the short time I'd been aboard S-52 I was already becoming well aware of the thousand unpleasant ways the austere nature of the defense budgets she'd endured for her entire operational life had affected her. It was amazing how little everyone complained; serving in a pigboat was miserable enough, they all acknowledged. But it was their duty, so they did it.
"Bearing is three-seven-four," a seaman read off the back of the 'scope.
"Three-seven-four," the executive officer muttered more than repeated, scribbling at the target plot. It took up most of the top of his little table. The XO's name was Larry Reynolds; he too was on his third war patrol. I'd interviewed Larry back in Dutch Harbor, and rather liked him. We were both from Des Moines, originally. "Three-seven-four," he muttered again as he twirled the dials on the "Is-Was" that dangled on a cord around his neck. Modern submarines, Larry had pointed out to me a dozen times or more as we sat over thick, treacle-like cups of genuine Navy coffee, were equipped with the very latest sophisticated fire-control computers to solve torpedo targeting equations. Pigboats, as the old S-class subs were not-so-affectionately known, were simply issued thirty-cent circular slide rules and math-minded XO's who often suffered from excessive headaches.
"Estimated angle on the bow three-five degrees," Haywood added helpfully. "Estimated target speed fifteen knots."
"Three-five degrees," Reynolds muttered, working his pencil. The pair made a truly superb team, I noted, each nicely anticipating the other's needs. In fact, the whole crew made an excellent team. Submarines were almost like actual living organisms, I planned to explain in my article, with each man having a vital job to do and playing an important part in the success or failure of the whole. On a sub, a single error by anyone could kill the entire crew. And, usually, everyone either lived or died together.
"Fifteen knots," Haywood repeated. "Target is a maru. Two stacks, large crane amidships. Cruiser stern."
"The target is zigzagging," the Chief of the Boat, Petty Officer Skortz stage-whispered to me. "And 'maru' means 'merchantman'. The Japs are probably trying to supply their garrison on Attu again." Skortz had been detailed, in addition to his other jobs, to keep me informed so that when I wrote up my article about submarine life for the papers back home, it would be at least semi-coherent. "They zigzag to make it harder for us to hit them. That's why Lieutenant Reynolds is working so hard."
"Right," I agreed, nodding and smiling even though I'd already figured out that much. My last assignment had been to ride along on a Royal Navy escort doing convoy duty from Halifax to the Pool of London. We'd zigzagged until I was convinced that there wasn't a British helmsman left in the universe who knew how to steer a straight course, but fortunately had not even so much as seen a U-boat.
"Down 'scope," Commander Haywood ordered, and with a sort of sighing moan the long bronze tube shuddered its way downwards into the lower hull. The act of lowering the scope was supposed to be silent, I knew. The quieter a sub's machinery was, the better its chances for survival. But, like most of the rest of S-52, the mechanism was badly worn.
"Suggest we come to oh-nine-oh at two-thirds speed for ten minutes," Larry suggested, frowning over his plot. I was standing a good seven feet away, but even from there I could see that the paper was covered with scratchouts and hasty calculations. "His next zig oughta put him right off of our bow."
"All right," our leader agreed after a moment's frown; clearly, what the Exec had scrawled on his plotting-board lined up well with the Captain's naked-eye observations. Then he spared a moment for me. "It's still twilight upstairs, Ralph. With scattered fog. If we don't lose him, it'll be a textbook submerged shot."
"Great!" I agreed with a nod and a smile. Ron had been in command of S-52 ever since before Pearl Harbor, surviving disaster after disaster first in the Philippines and then in Java without sinking a single enemy ship. Most of his contemporaries who'd endured such miserable losing campaigns without producing results had been removed from command long since; almost no one at the helm of an obsolete, falling-apart pigboat had been able to do any damage to the modern, up-to-the-minute front-line ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. That, however, hadn't kept the Admirals from ruining the careers of the men they held responsible. Now, soaked with icewater and with a target on his plotting-board, Haywood looked happy for the first time since I'd met him. He was an Academy man, and Larry had explained to me that Ron's roommate from those days, still a close friend, was already wearing a Navy Cross.
Ten minutes never passed so slowly; I tried to use the time to scribble down some notes to use later when I wrote my story, but my notebook was too damp to write in. Everything was always wet in a pigboat, I'd already come to understand, all of the time. This was especially true in cold waters, like where we were at. The freezing-cold water chilled the hull, which caused a continual drip-drip-drip of icy rain everywhere, even in our bunks. Even worse, once a man's clothing was wetted, it would never dry again until we returned to Dutch Harbor at the end of our patrol. The lookouts led the most miserable lives of all; they were soaked to the skin by spray every watch, and therefore had to live in a perpetual state of cold and damp. Wetness and cold and the continual rotting away of the provisions and crew alike; these were the dominant themes of pigboat life, I already understood after less than a week on patrol. And equipment breakdown too, of course. The hull of S-52 was lined with a maze of plumbing, some of it so old and decrepit that something as slight as a light hammer-tap could result in a spray of high pressure water. Even where only the 'normal' leaks were dripping away, like the periscope gland, there was a perpetual danger of either seawater or condensation finding its way into the wiring in new and interesting ways. Even now, a shower of sparks was intermittently blasting its way out of the 'Christmas Tree', or master diving control board. No one besides me even seemed to notice, however. Spark-showers and their accompanying acrid scent of burning insulation were routine matters aboard a pigboat.
In fact, overall there was probably no more miserable posting in the US Navy than an Aleutian tour in a pigboat. Or likely any other navy, for that matter.
"All right," Captain Haywood declared at the end of our ten-minute submerged run. "Ahead dead slow. Come about to two-seven-oh degrees. Ready on the 'scope."
"Aye-aye," a chorus of men replied. "Aye-aye."
"Up-scope," the captain continued, once our speed had died away. This was to make sure that the exposed periscope mast left no telltale feather-wake in the ocean, Skortz stage-whispered to me.
"Right," I whispered back.
"Target has zigged," Haywood confirmed from under his personal waterfall. "Right on schedule, it appears. Bearing, mark!"
"Three-threethree degrees," the seaman posted to read the dial sang out.
"Bingo!" Reynolds replied, smiling. Apparently his laborious calculations had been dead on.
"Angle on the bow twenty degrees. Speed still estimated at fifteen knots. Ready all tubes." The captain paused to make a full-circle sweep of the horizon; he'd explained to me back at Dutch Harbor that it was normal procedure to do this every time our boat changed locations, or else every few minutes even if we didn't move, so as to make sure that no new enemies could sneak up on us. He carefully swung the 'scope around...
...and froze solid, only a third of the way through the sweep!
"Take us down!" he snapped, hand-signaling the seaman controlling the periscope motor to lower the big bronze pole. "Fast! Full speed ahead, left standard rudder. Rig for depth-charges. Move it, people! This is for real!"
"Shit!" Larry declared, slamming his fist down on his scribble-filled sheet. He'd been calculating this attack for hours, and now all of his work had come to naught.
"Shit is right!" Haywood declared, shaking his head angrily. "It's an escort; dunno why I didn't pick her up before. Turning right for us. Saw us for sure." He turned towards me. "Must have been in a fogbank all of this time. Goddamn lousy weather!"
All Aleutian weather was lousy, I'd learned. It was part of the special charm of being posted there. We were trying to fight a war in what amounted to an Arctic wilderness with substandard equipment, bereft of all comforts, and in waters only half-charted at best. Two days before leaving Dutch Harbor, I'd experienced conditions that simply could not exist anywhere else in the entire world; dense, impenetrable fog coupled with a steady seventy-knot wind. There were heavy rumors circulating that an entire USN task force, including heavy units and aircraft, had set out recently to bombard Japanese positions on nearby Kiska Island, but had been forced to return ten days later with unfired guns because the weather had been so bad that they actually had not been able to find Kiska Island.
And Kiska was United States territory!
"High frequency revolutions, bearing oh-eight-five," the sound man reported. Now he notices the escort, I thought to myself. Aleutian waters were plagued with sound-bending complex currents and temperature layers, I knew, and his hydrophones were hardly of the latest model. Probably it was unfair to blame him. "Pinging..."
Almost immediately we could hear the sound of the enemy's sonar through the hull. It wasn't at all like the movies; rather, it sounded more like someone shaking a huge can full of rocks. Rack! Rack! Rack!
"He's got us," Captain Haywood confirmed. "Flank speed, zero rudder. Planes down emergency!"
Suddenly the deck tilted further downwards than I'd imagined possible, and I clutched at the nearest pipe for support. It broke off, spraying ice-water everywhere.
"Shit!" Chief Skortz cursed, twisting a valve until the flow ceased. "Goddamn cheap piece of..."
Splash! I heard through the cursing. Splash! Splash! Splash!
Skortz's eyes widened. He didn't say anything, but I already knew just from keeping my ears open that if you were close enough to hear the splashes of the depth charges as they hit the sea, you were probably toast. I tried to swallow, but couldn't. "Hail Mary," the Chief of the Boat muttered, releasing the valve-wheel and looking down at his feet. "Full of grace. The Lord is..."
Click WHAM! Click WHAM! Click WHAMWHAMWHAM!
I'd been warned that a depth-charging was no picnic, that the shocks would travel up and down the boat and do strange and inexplicable things to equipment and human bodies alike, that I'd desperately need to run about in circles and scream in blind terror. Yet all the warnings and descriptions were not even close to the real thing. The steel deck bucked and heaved beneath my feet like an earthquake I'd been in once, the explosions were like dynamite sticks going off right in my ears, and the very first bomb shattered every single light bulb in the boat. Suddenly it was pitch dark, the deck was slanted at a strange angle, and I realized that somewhere along the way I'd been knocked off of my feet and was lying on the deck.
"...maximum up angle!" the Captain was ordering, his voice faint and distant. Probably this was because the ringing in my ears was nearly drowning him out. "Maximum!"
"She's all the way up," replied the planesman, a rating I hadn't had time to interview yet. "No soap." There was a short pause. "Stern planes are still jammed."
"Shit!" Haywood cursed. There was a faint gleam of light coming from somewhere; I tried to sit up, but banged my forehead on a piece of rusty old metal. So I laid my head back down on the deckplates. It seemed safer down there, even though of course it wasn't. There was water pouring into the hull somewhere, I could hear. Lots of it.
"Two hundred feet," Reynolds reported. "Two-ten."
Pigboats were pathetically weak and fragile things compared to most subs, I knew. Two hundred feet was nothing for a modern submarine, but was perilously close to an S-boat's crush depth. They'd been poorly designed even when new, and that had been much, much too long ago. It was a crime that they were being asked to serve in an active theater so long after their day was done.
"It's the main induction fitting, sir," Skortz suddenly said out of the darkness, sounding a little out of breath. "And it's very bad. The water's almost up to the batteries already." The main induction was back in the engine room; it was the fitting that allowed the diesels to breathe when we ran on the surface or charged batteries. The Navy had lost a sub just before the war because an induction valve hadn't closed properly before a test dive. How had Skortz made it all the way to the engine room and back so quickly? Perhaps I'd lost consciousness for a moment?
"Shit!" the captain repeated. "There's nothing for it, then. We'll have to fight it out upstairs. Blow all tanks, emergency full ahead. Battle stations, surface."
"Beep-Beep-Beep," cried the ship's buzzers. "Battle-stations, surface! Battle-stations, surface!"
"Where's Mr. Emory?" Commander Haywood demanded next. "Ralph?"
"Here, sir!" I replied, trying to sit up again. There was a heavy conduit above my head, I discovered. By twisting a little to the side, I was able to sit up.
"Get your life jacket," he ordered. "When we break surface, you're third up the hatch, right after me. Move!"
I did as ordered, feeling vaguely guilty as I dashed down the sub's main passageway through a surging crowd of flashlight-lit seamen. Each of them had a shell in their hands, I noted; they were forming a human chain intended to feed ammunition to our little popgun. When subs surfaced to fight their last hopeless battle, I'd learned from my time aboard the Royal Navy escort ship, the men on the bridge often survived. The vast majority of the crew, however, performing their duties down below, were almost never saved. I was a civilian, and Haywood was doing his best to save my life. Yet these other men, far younger and more deserving, were almost certainly condemned.
I made it back to the conning tower before we broke surface. "Thirty feet," Reynolds was saying. "God, but she's sluggish!"
"Right," Captain Haywood answered, glancing at me and nodding absently at the life jacket I was now wearing. "Get a repair party together, Larry, just as soon as we're up top. Maybe it's something simple that we can fix in a few seconds from the outside, like debris in the seal. If so, we'll pull the plug again just as soon as everything's squared away. In the meantime, pump like hell. Get both diesels online, and give us all she's got."
"Right," our First Officer agreed, looking down at the scribble-covered attack plot that still lay on the chart table. My heavens, we'd gone from hunter to the hunted!
"Fifteen feet. Ten." There was a much longer pause between the called-out numbers than one would normally expect; we must be half-filled with water already.
Swish-swish-swish. It was the screws of the escort, swinging around at long last to finish us off. We must be well within gun range, for her to be audible.
"Surface!" the First Officer reported, and then S-52 ingested yet another slug of saltwater as the hatch was swung open. First up, as always, was the bow lookout. Next Captain Haywood scrambled out onto the conning tower, and then it was my turn.
"Move! Move! Move!" the man behind me urged, his voice choked with emotion. He was carrying the deck gun's sighting mechanism, and we would be totally defenseless until he got his gear in order.
My legs pumped as hard as they could, and then suddenly I was out in the spray and icy air, standing next to the bow lookout. "There's the maru, sir!" he called out, pointing to a receding dark spot in a nearby fog bank. "It's running away!"
"Right, Charlie!" Haywood agreed, without turning away from the escort that was approaching from our opposite beam. Suddenly there was a flash from the escort's bows, and something large and deadly screamed overhead. It splashed into the sea perhaps a hundred feet from where I stood. "Get that goddamned gun into action!"
The main deck was still awash with ice-water, but already the rating with the sighting-mechanism was tearing at the canvas covering and lifting his burden into place. Next, just as the diesels fired up and we began making way, the man with the breechblock came dashing out, and then a third pulled out the tompion. Meanwhile, the escort turned broadside to us, and fired a salvo of four guns. Once again, all the shells screamed harmlessly overhead.
But this time, they splashed only fifty feet away.
"Hard a-port!" Haywood called down the hatch. Then he turned to me. "That's a Minekaze-class destroyer. "As old and beat up as our ship. Or maybe a Kamikaze. Same difference, almost. Pretty much a re-run of the same design." He shrugged. "Four times as fast as us, and eight, maybe ten times the gun power. He'll never offer us a torpedo shot, if he's got half a brain. All we can do is try to dodge and maybe hit back a little until the induction gets fixed." He turned and looked down the hatch. "Where's that repair party? Move!"
The Minekaze, if that's what she was, fired again. By now our much-smaller deck gun was popping away steadily, its lighter barking like the yapping of a terrier as opposed to the deep, resonant booming of the destroyer's main battery. This time three shells of the four-gun salvo knifed into the sea. So did the fourth, but along the way it decapitated one of the ammunition-handlers, who'd been standing right between Haywood and I. The headless body stood grasping its shell for a timeless moment, then teetered slowly into the sea. The Captain was covered with blood, and so was I, I slowly realized. The seaman whom I'd just watched die had been one of the few enlisted men I'd already interviewed, yet somehow I could not recall his name or anything about him.
"Hard a-port!" Haywood ordered, and the S-52 swung crazily to the left before the Minekaze could fire again. Not only were her guns growing more accurate with every salvo, but the ship herself was growing nearer as well. The very best way to destroy a sub was to ram it, the British captain who'd been my last naval host had assured me. Not only was it a deadly and certain tactic in a sea full of uncertainties, but the act was visceral and satisfying as well. Every escort commander everywhere would always ram, given the choice.
Another salvo hissed into the sea, this one short instead of over. I wondered if we'd live long enough to be rammed.
"Hooray!" a chorus of voices rang out suddenly. "Hooray!" I tore my eyes away from the collapsing spires of the Minekaze's shell-splashes and turned back towards the ship herself. There was an orange glow dying away, high on her bridge. We'd hit her! Haywood slapped my back, and we danced a little jig together. We'd hit her!
But our enemy's next salvo came right on time, and she didn't seem to slow down at all. Our hard-earned hit was just a fleabite, was all. A fleabite on one the greyhounds of the seas. That was the best our gun could deliver.
"How's it look, Chief?" Haywood screamed aft; I thought he'd gone mad, until I recalled that there was supposed to be a repair party working back there. How had they snuck up the hatch and past me without my noticing?
"It's not good, sir!" Ben Shears began. He was much too old for the submarine business, all of forty, and should have been ashore stationed in a nice warm billet teaching draftee kids the ropes, not standing soaked to the skin in ice-water, trying to work miracles on an obsolete pigboat that should have been scrapped a decade before. "There's a -"
Suddenly there was a bright flash, and I thought that the Minekaze's main guns must have found us at last. I closed my eyes and turned away from the searing brightness. This is what it's like to die, I thought to myself. This is what the end of everything truly means. Too bad I won't be reporting this story! But death didn't come; instead there was a roaring and ripping sound as something seemed to claw its way across the sky. It was a lot like the Minekaze's salvos, but a hundred times deeper and louder and more profound.
"Aircraft... Something, sir! A fireball! Bearing oh-two-oh, oh-one-oh -"
"I see it!" Haywood snapped, though how either of them could see through such a bright glare was beyond me. My eyes were smarting, and I looked away. There seemed to be heat coming off of the thing too, I noticed...
"Hard a-starboard!" Haywood screamed down the hatch; modern subs had voice-pipes or even intercoms, I suddenly remembered Frank the XO explaining, while pigboats made do with loudmouthed captains. "Prepare for collision!"
"All hands!" I heard the speakers roar out. "All hands!" But there wasn't any time for more; the great glaring light came roaring across the sky like a thousand freight trains. I raised my arm to shield my face...
...and the damned thing hit the sea, somewhere far too close at hand to suit us or the Japanese on the destroyer either one. BA-ROOOM! the thing went as it impacted the cold Northern waters; there was a humming sound as thousands of shards of whatever went whirring through the sky, and then small pieces of stone came raining down on us. The hull surged up and down violently once, twice, three times, rolling further even than the corvette I'd been aboard during a bad storm, and then out of nowhere thick banks of fog began to roll across the dark ocean. In less than five seconds, visibility went from over ten miles to near-zero.
"A meteor, sir!" the forward lookout cried. He kicked idly at one of the hundreds of little stones that now littered our decks; the shards were smoking, though they hadn't burned me or my life jacket where they'd hit. They were odd things, these stones were; it hurt one's eyes to look at them too closely. "It was a meteor! A big one!"
"Damned big!" Haywood agreed, smiling from ear to ear. "And the heat of it has set off God's own fogbank! I wonder how this is gonna look in that god-damned Jap's combat report!" Suddenly I realized that we weren't being shot at any more; the sudden loss of visibility was shielding us! Even the Japanese couldn't shoot at what they couldn't see! He turned his head downwards. "Any new damage, Larry?"
"How could I tell?" the Exec retorted. "Everything from the control room back was already busted to hell." There was a short pause. "The gyro tumbled, sir. And we've lost the port diesel, at least for the time being. Broken motormount."
"Heh!" Haywood replied. "I'll take it. One miraculous fogbank in exchange for a tumbled gyrocompass and a busted motormount? Even in these waters, that's a deal!" He thought for a second before speaking again. "Left standard rudder, full ahead on the starboard motor. Come to course one-seven-five. That'll move us away from our annoying friend, and put the sea on our starboard bow. I suspect Ben and his boys will appreciate that." He smiled again, then looked me in the eye. "How does it feel, Mr. Emory?"
I cocked my head to one side. It was still aching from hitting first the deck plates and then the conduit when I tried to sit up. "How does what feel, Captain?" I answered.
"Being born again!" he replied, extending his arms out and smiling even wider. "We should all have been dead by now, you know. Deader than hell! But instead, we've got a new chance, a whole new lifetime ahead of us! It's a miracle! We're not out of this yet, mind you. Not by a long shot. But it's an absolute miracle! One in a million, or even more than that!"
I smiled back. "I suppose."
"Trust me, it's a miracle. You learn to recognize them once you've been around a war for a little while. This one's not the first I've seen, not by a long shot. You'd be amazed at the strange..." He frowned and shook his head, then clapped his hand on my shoulder. "Never mind, Ralph. It's not important." He kicked at one of the little stones; oddly, it seemed to have fused itself to the metal deckplate. "Just stand by for now and keep out of the way. Before all is said and done here, I suspect that you'll have the story of a lifetime to write!"
Next Captain Haywood called Larry up to con the ship, then headed aft to see for himself what the damage to the main induction valve was. The Exec scanned the fogged-in horizon several times with his binoculars, then kicked idly at the deck plates. "What's this?" he demanded, kicking at one of the small stones that had welded itself to the hull.
"Parts of the meteor," I explained. "It blew up when it hit the cold water."
"Or more likely just before," Reynold's countered, still kicking at the stone and frowning. It wasn't yielding at all, and looked to me as if were actually more solidly welded in place than ever. "Otherwise the waves would have been a lot worse. Lots of meteors explode just before they hit. They're called 'bolides'." He swept the non-horizon again, then returned to kicking at the pebble. "Odd!"
"Maybe it was still really hot when it landed," I suggested. "And that's how it got welded."
Larry frowned. "My father was a geologist," he explained. "Someone gave him a rock once that took him weeks to identify; it turned out that it was a meteorite. I was maybe twelve. We studied everything we could about meteors together. Bolides aren't generally made of metals, and metallic meteorites don't tend to explode." He bent over to pick at the shard with his fingernails, but got nowhere. "It doesn't look at all metallic to me anyway. More organic, almost. And only welded on one end. But then, if it's not metal, how can it be welded?" He looked up at me. "Did anyone get burned by any of these little bits and pieces?"
I shook my head. "Not that I know of. But I was a little distracted, you see."
"Ha!" He barked one single syllable of laughter, then stood up. "I really ought to try and knock off a sample to save for -"
Suddenly a very loud voice shouted up the hatchway. "Attention on the bridge! Attention on the bridge! Sound man is picking up propeller effects, bearing two-two-five! Propeller effects, bearing two-two-five. Sounds like the Jap escort, making knots!"
"Shit!" Larry declared, meteor sample forgotten. He raised his hands to his mouth to form an improvised megaphone. "Captain to the bridge!" he shouted aft, towards where Haywood was supervising the induction repair. "Captain to the bridge!" Then he bent over and shouted down the hatch. "Come about to course oh-four five!" he ordered. "Come about to oh-four five!"
"Aye, aye!" came the reply up the hatch. "New course, of-four five degrees."
"What gives?" Haywood demanded, scrambling up the short ladder to the top of the conning tower.
"Our friend is back," Reynolds explained. "On the hydrophones. Bearing two-two-five, and making revolutions for high speed. I've put us on a reciprocal course."
"Shit," the Captain answered, shaking his head. "We were just beginning to make some progress back there, and now they'll be up to their ass in waves again." He shook his head. "The thing's totally sprung, Larry. Knocked out of true, so that it doesn't line up anymore. If the depth charge had gone off an inch closer, we'd all be dead. The engine-room types will be hours making any kind of repair, if any fix is possible at all. It's a job for a dockyard."
"Then this fog had goddamned well better hold until dark," Larry replied grimly. "Or else..."
"Jap destroyer!" the stern lookout cried suddenly, pointing frantically. "Dead astern." Sure enough, there was now a dark spot in the fog, right behind us.
"Shit!" Captain Haywood declared. Some submarine captains, I knew, prided themselves on their icy calm in time of danger. Haywood, however, was either not among these, or else had simply been driven past the point of caring. "Shit, shit, shit!" He frowned, then turned towards the gun crew. "Hold your fire!" he ordered. "I say again, hold your fire!" Then he looked down the hatch. "Richen up the fuel feed to the starboard diesel! Right now! Then give me all the turns you've got. Move down there, people! Move!" Then Haywood turned to me. "We're a lot smaller than they are," he explained. "We can probably see him further away than he can see us. But just to be sure..." Suddenly the smoke emerging from the starboard-side engine exhaust port turned blue and thick, and the motor's tempo seemed to increase slightly. Haywood smiled. "Just to be sure, we'll thicken the fog up a little ourselves." He winked at me. "This doesn't go in your news story, all right? It's one of our special tricks."
"Gotcha," I answered, smiling back as the Minekaze seemed to fade away into nothing.
"We should be on divergent courses now," Haywood explained. "And with any luck, we'll stay that way. Blundering around inside a fogbank isn't any way to fight -"
"Hydrophone effects increasing!" the voice below warned us. "Target is increasing speed rapidly! Bearing now two-two-two!"
"Shit!" Haywood repeated, making a fist and banging it on the rail. He looked aft to where the repair party, still awash to their knees, was trying to work on something with an extraordinarily long wrench, then he squinted in the general direction of our enemy. "Must have eyes like cats," he complained. "Or else, maybe they smelled us."
I sniffed at the air; was our distinctive submarine stink that bad? But Larry shook his head. "He was joking."
"Ah," I replied.
"Screw effects increasing," the soundman down below informed us. "He's getting closer!"
"Is the bearing constant?" Haywood demanded.
There was a pause. "Not quite, sir. He should pass off to the port side any -"
By then we could hear the destroyer for ourselves; it sounded rather like an elderly locomotive challenging far too steep a grade. THRUM-THRUM-THRUM-THRUM. Then suddenly the Minekaze-class destroyer emerged from the fog not fifty feet distant, bigger than God himself and so close alongside that not a gun aboard her could depress far enough to shoot at us. Instantly the conning-tower machine gun opened up, not even waiting for orders. It sprayed slugs harmlessly up and down the enemy hull, powerless to penetrate the thick steel but making lots of pretty sparks along the way. The Minekaze's side was covered with some sort of sea-growth, I could see, patchy and dark-green in color. Apparently the ships of the Empire of Japan in this backwater theater of war were every bit as long overdue for maintenance as was our own S-52. Meanwhile, the deck gun's crew was spinning their training wheels like mad, trying to swing their muzzle to bear on the enemy. The Minekaze's guns might be too far above the water to be brought to bear at such a close range on a low-sitting enemy, but the reverse wasn't true. Not true at all! Our deck gun was sitting almost at sea level.
And it would bear just fine.
"Fire when she bears!" Haywood screamed just exactly as the gun's crew pumped a single unaimed round into the towering bulk that was racing by so close alongside. It was literally impossible to miss. A neat, round hole appeared in the enemy hull just above the waterline, and the whole destroyer's hull seemed to shudder and tremble as the shell exploded deep in her vitals. I distinctly heard the enemy ship groan in protest at the abuse, and suddenly there was steam everywhere. Then some sort of dark reddish fluid came coursing out of the ship's wound by the gallon. Meanwhile, a single jabbering Japanese sailor wearing a chef's hat flung a large knife down at us from his position high above our heads, and even before the weapon clattered harmlessly to our deck, the enemy was past and had vanished into the fog once again.
"He missed!" Larry declared, releasing a long-held breath. "Bastard tried to ram us, and he missed!"
I gulped and nodded, then Haywood was issuing a flurry of orders. "Rudder hard a-port! Keep that starboard engine at full emergency power, no matter what! Soundman, let me know when he turns!" He turned towards the afterdeck repair party. "Goddamn it, Ben! We're about out of time, here!"
Shears shook his head and shrugged. "Jesus, sir! All kinds of weird shit is starting to happen back here! I can't -"
"You goddamn well can!" Haywood bellowed. "And will! Or else we're done! Got it? Done!" His voice softened a note. "Do whatever it takes, Ben. Take whatever chances you have to. Haywire everything all to shit. But if I can't dive this boat in five minutes..."
The engineering officer paled, then looked around the deck helplessly. For the first time I noticed that our hull was now covered with sea growth, too, especially the area around the main induction. Finally, the older man shrugged. "Aye-aye, sir!" he replied, saluting formally in a manner that was clearly meant as a form of protest. Then he went back to work.
For a half-second Haywood's face went hard and angry, then he blinked and looked away. Clearly Shears was doing all he could do, and there was nothing to be gained in pushing the man any further. "Give me a bearing!" he finally snapped down the hatch.
"He's just starting his turn, sir. To starboard."
Haywood's jaw clenched, and I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head. The destroyer-captain was clearly going to make another ramming-run at where he guessed we would be, and unless I was seriously mistaken in my geometry so far he was guessing right. "Hard-a-starboard!" our captain decided. "All ahead dead slow!"
"Hard-a-starboard," the men below repeated. "All ahead dead slow!"
It wasn't until the hammering of the diesels, or the diesel, rather, since we only had a single working one left, died away that I realized the bridge had been a cacophony of noise ever since we'd surfaced. Not only had there been all the ear-shattering gunfire, but sirens had been hooting, klaxons klaxing, and my ears ringing. Now all was silent except for my ears and quiet grumbling of our port engine.
THRUM-THRUM-THRUM-THRUM, I could just make out in the distance. We were all straining our ears, every one of us. But less so every second. The sound was growing louder, and louder, and louder...
"Full ahead, goddamnit!" Haywood screamed down the hatch. "Fifteen degrees of port rudder! Prepare to ram!"
I blinked, then looked across the conning tower at Larry. The XO looked as shocked as I was.
And, I noticed for the first time, there was a bit of meteor stuck to Larry's neck. I inhaled to tell him about it, but was interrupted. "There she is!" the forward lookout declared, pointing. This was not how he'd been trained to make a sighting report, I knew, but everything was pretty much going to hell aboard S-52 anyway, so no one corrected him. "Right fucking there!"
This time the Minekaze was slicing at an angle across our bows; instantly she saw us and put over her helm, then fired a broadside clean over our heads. Next an automatic weapon on her bridge opened up, and a crazy line of slugs danced up and down our casing as everyone who could dived for cover. Then our own guns began to fire, and everything was chaos again.
"She's too close for torps, Captain!" Larry screamed over the racket. "They'd never arm."
"I know," Haywood shouted back. He raised his binoculars to his eyes and examined the enemy ship, probably more out of habit than anything else. Heaven knows that we were plenty close enough to see everything we needed to see without magnification. "Port your helm!" he cried down the hatch. There was a pause as Haywood judged the situation with an experienced seaman's eye. "Meet her!" Our two ships were hurtling towards each other at express-train speeds, in a colossal game of chicken. But who would flinch first? Old though she might be, the Minekaze had a knifelike bow, and my eyes locked themselves onto the deadly thing as it grew, and grew, and grew. There seemed to be a lot more seaweed growing from the Minekaze this time around, I noticed; what had been patches were now large adjoining areas, and the stuff had turned a sort of pale, past white. What on earth was all of that about, I wondered to myself. Some new sort of reactive camouflage?
We were going to hit head on, I could see. There was no other possible outcome. The collision would be a tie when it came, one that would probably leave everyone aboard both ships dead. I shivered inside my life jacket; the water was cold, and I hoped that I wouldn't last very long. I'd heard stories about what the open sea was like from the survivors of merchantmen torpedoed by U-boats. For them, there had been at least a small chance of rescue. For us, it would take a miracle.
Suddenly, to my surprise, the knife-sharp Japanese bow began to drift off to the right! The Japanese captain had lost his nerve! "Hard a-starboard!" Haywood demanded down the hatch. "Now! Now! Now!"
But it was too late; the Japanese ship was far more responsive to her rudder than S-52 was to hers. "Fire!" cried out the gun-captain, and once again our little popgun pierced deep into our enemy's hull. And, once again, a curious flow of crimson liquid emerged. Then we were past the Minekaze once more and disappearing into the fog.
"Twice!" Larry hissed under his breath. "Not once, but twice! What are the odds against surviving that?"
"What are the odds against a Jap destroyer captain turning away?" Haywood countered. "They aren't exactly cowards."
"Maybe it was that last hit?" Larry asked. "Maybe we damaged their rudder?"
"I'd buy that before I'd buy him chickening out." Haywood frowning. "It was almost like the destroyer itself... flinched." He sighed and shook his head. "Get down below and check out that motormount," he ordered his XO. "I'll hold down the fort up here."
"Aye, Aye, sir" Reynolds replied. And then Larry was gone, before I could even point out the lump on his neck to him. It seemed bigger than it had at first, too. And had turned a definite silvery color.
It was perhaps another five minutes before Ben Shears spoke up. "Ahoy the bridge!" he cried out, waving his battered hat for attention. "Ahoy the bridge! Give me another five minutes, and I think we'll have something here!"
Haywood's eyes closed in relief. "Five minutes, roger!" he acknowledged. Then he turned to the gun's crew. "Begin securing your weapon," he ordered, making a megaphone out of his hands so as to be heard. "We're about to pull the plug, and when we do, I want to set a new record."
"Aye, aye sir!" the weapons officer replied; for the first time I noticed that he was favoring his left arm, which was bleeding badly.
Haywood turned to the lookouts and the machinegun crew. "Same goes for you guys. Plus, you did one hell of a job. Thank you."
Just then two of Ben's men came staggering up the conning tower ladder, carrying a large, heavy slab of metal between them. One of them was Petty Officer Skortz, I realized suddenly. He seemed to be everywhere! I opened my mouth to speak.
"Don't ask!" he puffed, shaking his head violently. "Please, just don't ask." Then he leaned over the open hatch. "Hey, Jubal!" he cried out.
"Whatcha want, Skortzy?" a young voice answered.
"You got a green light on the main induction?"
"Yeah!" Jubal answered. "Yeah, I sure do! Hooray! You fixed it!"
"What's the story, Skortzy?" Haywood demanded, looking down at the large slab of metal. His face paled. "Say, that's the -"
"Please don't say it, sir," Skortzy interrupted. "Please." He titled his head aft, to where the rest of the party were still working amidst the icy seas. "Why don't you go take a look yourself?"
The Captain looked Skortz hard in the eye for a minute, then looked down the hatch as if to order Larry up to take the conn while he was otherwise occupied. But finally he just shook his head and scrambled down the iron rungs to the main deck as fast as he could and then trotted aft.
"It is, isn't it?" one of the gunners asked Skortz.
He shook his head and looked away. "Not anymore." Then he called down the hatch for help, and a dozen willing hands helped him lower what I was strongly beginning to suspect was indeed the main induction valve, one of the most vital, precision-fitted and irreplaceable fittings on the entire vessel, down into the conning tower.
It wasn't long before Captain Haywood was back at his post; seconds at most. When he returned, he was white as a sheet and didn't speak a word to anyone.
THRUM-THRUM-THRUM, went our enemy's engines, somewhere out in the fog, well aft. He couldn't be a mile away.
"Port ten," Haywood cried down the hatch, trying to keep the sound centered on his stern. But it didn't work. Soon the noise was growing louder again. And, I noticed, our captain had a spot of meteor on him, as well, centered on his right cheek. Why hadn't I noticed it before?
Had it started out as a dust-speck, perhaps?
I looked down at the gratings, right at the place where Larry had been kicking at the bit of meteor welded there. It took me a moment to recognize the spot.
Now, it was a patch of scales. My mouth dropped open in shock.
THRUM-THRUM-THRUM, the Minekaze went, the sound growing ever stronger despite our attempts to run. We'd not be able to attempt a ramming this time around. The geometry was all wrong.
Suddenly Ben was clambering up onto the bridge, his repair party close behind him. "That's the best I can do, sir!" he declared with a mock salute, a sort of mad gleam dancing in his eyes. He had a nice scale growing on his neck, though it was hard to see through all the layers of grease and such that were a normal part of his attire. "It'll either work, or it won't. Either way, we'll be the first to know."
"Right," Haywood agreed. "You and your men get below." He didn't tell them they'd done a good job, I noticed. Just what in the hell had happened back there anyway, I wondered?
Apparently our defensive fog was thinning, because the Minekaze came bursting into plain sight long before the sound of her engines reached the same intensity as before. Her bow gun boomed out, and a shell splashed into the sea twenty yards from my left hand.
"Shit," Haywood murmured. "Why does all the goddamned strange shit..." Then he screwed up his face in determination and made his decision. "Dive!" he cried out, hitting the klaxon button built into the side of the conning tower. "Dive! Dive! Dive!" Then he turned to me. "Get below!" he roared. "Now!"
We were under the surface in something like record time, and immediately began making our pathetic best submerged speed away from our diving point in the probably vain hope of avoiding the avalanche of depth charges sure to come. "We've got thirty percent in the can," Larry reported to Captain Haywood. The 'can' was the battery, I'd already learned. Just as I'd also already learned that thirty percent wasn't very much at all. "There's lots of cracked cells. I've got Jenson down working with the bus bars now. Even with all the dead cells jumpered out, though, I don't expect to pull over forty percent."
"Right," Haywood agreed, leaning on a periscope support and scratching idly at the scale growing on his cheek. The light wasn't nearly so good down here in the control room as it had been topside; I was probably the only one who knew what the blemish really was. In the distance the Minekaze's screws were growing louder and louder, though the soundman assured us that he was going to miss well to port. Eventually the destroyer dropped, and sure enough, the depth charges exploded a long way off to our ship's left.
"Come to one hundred and ten feet," Haywood ordered. Then, once we were leveled off at our new depth, he punched a button on the intercom. "How's that, ah... new induction holding up, Ben?" he demanded.
"Not leaking a drop, sir!" Shears replied smoothly. "Clamped up all nice and tight."
Haywood closed his eyes for a long second, then nodded. "Watch it like a hawk. I don't want to -"
"Sir!" the soundman interrupted. "Our friend is pinging again! Bearing one-one-zero, and growing louder."
"Right," Haywood countered, looking like a man who was juggling far too many balls at one time. "Come to oh-one-oh, max speed again."
"Captain!" a new voice cried out. It belonged to an engineering rating, sent to the control room to fix a leaky pipe. "Look!" He turned a valve that led directly to a fractured bit of tubing...
...and a thick jet of blood-red fluid emerged. "Sir! I mean, I don't know..."
"Shit," Captain Hayw00d murmured to himself again. "Shit!"
"Bearing remaining constant," sound reported. "Getting louder... He's got us, sir! Going to the short scale!"
I was not part of the crew of S-52, and therefore had no battle-station. Nor did I have any specific duties, other then my job as a war reporter. Under normal conditions it would have taken an act of Congress to persuade me to leave the bridge of a sub under attack, especially at such a crucial moment. However, conditions were anything but normal. Our main induction valve had been removed, yet we were a hundred feet down and not leaking a drop. Something was growing all over not only our submarine and ourselves, but our enemy as well. And now, a pipe that until recently had been full of saltwater seemed to be full of blood!
The engine room was my least favorite place aboard the S-52, even though it was the only place one could ever get truly warm. There was oil all over everything in all its myriad forms, from thick sludgy exhaust deposits on the insides of the hullplates to little puddles of light lubricant sloshing about in catch-trays under various bits of equipment. Everything aboard S-52 leaked, not just those things having to do with seawater. Every single time I'd visited the engine room even for a moment, I'd left with a new black smear somewhere on my clothing or skin. The men who lived and worked amidst the big diesel-electric system were awash in filth. "Heya, Ralph!" Stoker Gomez greeted me as I worked my through the tight little hatch. He was tightening something on the starboard electrical motor even as it spun at full speed, his fingers mere millimeters from the smoothly-spinning man shaft. Gomez wasn't very bright, but was personable enough. He'd given me my first tour of S-52's propulsion system back in Dutch Harbor. "Whatcha doin' back here slummin' with us?"
Suddenly the sub slewed to starboard as the Captain changed course again; it took me by surprise back here where there was no verbal warning. Then there was another round of depth-chargesBA-ROOOM! BA-ROOOM! BA-ROOOM-OOOOM! The lights flickered; when they came back on I tried to smile, but couldn't. "Just trying to get an all-around view of what combat's like," I lied. "Where's Lieutenant Shears?"
"Combat stinks!" Gomez replied cheerily. He hadn't missed a wrench-stroke, it seemed, through all of the explosions. "Lots of shit to fix in a hurry, half the time in the goddamn dark." He dropped his wrench into a nearby toolbox and frowned. "Damn thing'll be loose again in twenty minutes," he explained. "Crappy dockyard workers don't wanna fix nothing right!"
I nodded as if I understood. "Where's Lieutenant Shears?" I asked again.
"Back at the main induction," he replied, pointing further aft and smiling as if nothing were wrong at all. "He and Skortz are nursemaiding the shit out of it." The stoker shrugged. "I don't know why they're bothering. If the fucker fails, we're all dead in two minutes anyway. Maybe less." Then he cocked his head to one side and looked at me. "Say, Ralph? Can you do me a favor, since you're going to be seeing the lieutenant anyway?"
"Sure," I answered.
"Tell him that for some reason the main lube oil feed has turned bright red. I dunno why; maybe some kind of shit got into it. All right?"
"Main lube oil feed," I repeated, trying again to smile as the S-52 swung to port in what was clearly another emergency turn.
"Main lube oil feed," Gomez agreed. Then he squinted at me. "And, you've got some kind of really ugly shit on your cheek. Looks like scales, almost." He handed me a not-too-oily rag to wipe it away with. "I've gotta go check a bearing temperature. See ya!"
Sure enough, I realized when I began dabbing at my cheek, there was something odd growing there. The scales felt like fingernails, almost, but were growing in totally the wrong place. There was no mirror available, and nothing had been remotely shiny in S-52's engine room since at least the 1930s. Still, I suspected that I knew exactly what the scales looked like.
Skortz and Shears were both bent over almost double when I found them, their necks twisted at painful-looking angles as they tried to look up a very awkwardly-placed inspection shaft. And Larry the XO was with them. They were only a few feet from where I'd just been , yet such was the crowding of the long, narrow pressure-hull that they'd been virtually invisible. "How's it holding?" I asked, turning sideways and sidling up the narrow central aisle.
"Well enough," Ben replied cautiously, straightening up and frowning. "Shouldn't you be in the control room?"
"Not really," I replied. "The last I heard, I'm pretty much free to wander." Then Larry straightened up, frowning an almost identical frown. "Ralph," he began. "Under ordinary circumstances -"
Larry's neck had an even larger patch of scales on it than my face did, I could see, though a large black patch of grease was strategically spread over them. Probably deliberately, I decided. "It's a blowhole," I interrupted. "Isn't it?" Then I pointed at my cheek. "And these are scales, Larry! Scales! Just like the ones you've got!" I met Ben's eyes. "Like the ones you've probably got growing somewhere on you, too!"
Skortz stood up straight and sighed. He was holding a drop-light in his left hand; sure enough his palm was scaled, though he tried to hide it. And, just then, the sound of the destroyer's screws came pulsating through the hull again. SWISHSWISHSWISH...
Ben looked at Larry, who looked down at the deckplates and shook his head. "All right," he said slowly. "All right. I admit that we've got a little prob-"
BAROOM! The loudest depth-charge yet went, taking the main lights with it. But it was only the first of a long, rippling, overlapping series of detonations. BAROOM! BAROOM-OOOM-OOM! The deck heaved, broken rivets and fittings ricocheted around the engine room and somewhere a waterfall started up again. The other three were knocked to the deck by the explosions; somehow, I maintained my footing.
It was child's play to snatch up Skortz's still-working drop-light before they could recover, aim it up the inspection shaft...
...and gaze upon what on one end appeared to be an ordinary sort of large-diameter pipe, and the other a sort of trachea, with a small transitional area in-between. Beyond the trachea, about where the pressure hull should have been, lay a bundle of powerful-looking muscles that might with very little imagination seem designed to hold a blowhole shut against the terrible pressure of the sea.
It was only a second before Larry snatched the droplight from my hand. "Get out of here!" he ordered. "Now! Get forward! I don't care where."
"Right," I agreed slowly, even though I wanted to point out that his scale-patch had grown even in the few minutes that had passed since I'd arrived. Mine had too, I could tell when I fingered my cheek. Things were progressing faster and faster. But what could anyone do about any of this, with a Jap destroyer after us? "Don't worry. I won't tell a soul. Who'd believe me, anyway?"
"Hey!" Gomez called out as I passed by his station. He sounded very scared. Suddenly I recalled that he was only eighteen. "Hey!"
"What?" I asked, feeling vaguely guilty about having forgotten to let the others know about the lube oil turning into blood. Not that it would have done any good to deliver the message, I realized.
"I'm stuck!" he yelled. "Stuck! Over here!"
If Gomez hadn't been blessed with a naturally loud voice, I'd never have found him. But as it was I traced the sound to a large electrical cabinet. Gomez' s left leg was sticking out. It kicked feebly. "I fell under here when the charges went off!" he explained. "And I can't get out! Everything's all fucked up, man, totally fucked up! I feel all sick and shit!"
I lowered myself to my hands and knees, and stuck my head under the cabinet. Gomez was lying face-down, I could see in the emergency lighting, and had wedged himself under a bunch of conduits. But these weren't just ordinary conduits, or at least they weren't any more. Now, they'd turned all dark and slimy. And, where they touched Gomez's body, they'd sort of melted to him. One of his hands had melted as well, and was now firmly part of the slimy mass.
"I'm stuck!" the young man complained to me again, tears glinting in his eyes. "I can't get out!"
"All right," I answered him, trying to keep my face expressionless. "Everything's going to be all right." Someone was screaming now in another part of the sub, sobbing ululating screams that sounded as if they were being ripped from a suddenly inhuman throat. "I'm going to go see the Captain, all right? He'll send someone back here for you."
Gomez nodded and closed his eyes; he clearly knew that he was more than just 'stuck', and his answer was the bravest thing I ever saw. "All right," he answered calmly.
"Good!" I replied. And then I was dashing off to the control room.
"He's turning into a fucking tooth!" the pharmacist mate was screaming at Captain Haywood as I burst in. "A fucking tooth! We can't free him! Unless you want me to pull him! But that might be fatal!" He spread his arms wide. "It's crazy! Fuckin' crazy! The whole torpedo room is turning into a set of jaws, for fuck's sake! And even the men we got out of the compartment are turning hard as rocks! Except the one going all round and soft; I think he's a fuckin' eyeball!"
"Contact bearing one-one-five," the soundman reported. "Pinging."
Haywood looked around the control room. His head was mostly covered with scales now, and even the control room itself was changing. What had once been circular metal reinforcing ribs were now naked bone, and the maze of plumbing had gone soft and flabby. "It's a yeast curve," I said. "Faster and faster! We can't ignore this any more. It won't go away! Gomez is trapped in an electrical cabinet; I think he's turning into a nerve trunk."
"They've got us again," the soundman interrupted. "But the pings sound funny. They're switching to the short scale again."
"Two-thirds speed!" Haywood barked, thrusting the pharmacist's mate aside. "I'll get to your eyeballs and teeth and nerve-trunks just as soon as I get this goddamned Jap off our ass! Promise! Hard-a-starboard!"
"Helm not responsive, sir!" the man behind the wheel replied. He was all bulked up, I could see, practically all muscle where only a short time before he'd been as thin as a rail. I wondered if he could leave the station if he tried?
"Planes no longer responsive!" another rating replied. "Angle on the bow, up ten degrees. I say again, diving planes no longer responsive."
"We're surfacing, sir! Whether we want to or not!"
I still had my life jacket on, and it was just as well. Haywood sent me up third again, and I was very, very careful not to let my naked flesh touch the hull of S-52. After all, like the rest of the men who'd been on deck when the meteor had hit, by now I was more scales than flesh and blood. "Unnhhh!" our forward lookout cried, pointing at the enemy but by now bereft of the power of speech. His lips were far too scaly to allow for proper enunciation. "Unnnh!"
"Right!" Haywood agreed, raising his binoculars and examining what had once been a proud Imperial Japanese Navy warship from stem to stern. The basic lines of a warship were still there, under the mounds of slick gray flab, but that was all. The two after guns had turned into tentacles, and the number two mount of the forecastle was in the process of changing. The Minekaze was becoming some horrid primeval thing, despite the fact that smoke was still pouring from her twin stacks and she was still making knots.
"Captain!" the aft lookout cried, pointing to where our propellers should have been kicking up a wake. Instead, a huge scaly tail whipped fishlike back and forth.
"An icthyosaur!" Larry whispered in awe. "An icthyosaur!"
"What's that?" Haywood demanded, absently grabbing the rail as he turned.
"A seagoing dinosaur," the XO explained. "The reptilian equivalent of a whale." He nodded towards the enemy vessel/sea monster. "And that abomination is something from the Paleozoic. Or Pre-Cambrian, even. An unknown form of very ancient life."
The Minekaze was clearly still trying to destroy us, even though her newly bulbous shape was inconsistent with speed and her tentacles were very short-range weapons at best. Her last remaining gun boomed out, the shot passing far over our heads.
"Probably the mounting's softened up," Larry observed. "You can't hit shit at sea without a solid gun-mounting." He tilted his head to one side. "She's getting rounder and rounder. Pelagic, I reckon. Or else supposed to be anchored to something. Hell, maybe she's gonna shrink down to something tiny? Look at how she's slowing down."
"Right," Haywood agreed, staring down at where his right hand was now welded to the sub's hull. It grew wider and flatter as we watched, spreading out over a patch of scale-less plating. Our lookouts were in similar straits, I now realized. The fore one was already a patch of scales on the forward face of the conning tower.
Suddenly there was a huge flash as the forward magazine of the Minekaze-class destroyer erupted in flame. "Get down!" Haywood cried out. "There's going to be debris!"
I threw myself to the floor of the conning tower for the second time that day. "Holy shit!" Larry muttered. "Holy shit! They're committing hari-kari!'
"That may not be such a bad idea, Larry," Haywood answered. He was hanging right next to us, his hand immovably fixed to the rail, his face pale. "Maybe not such a bad idea. In fact..."
Larry frowned as foul-smelling debris splashed into the sea all around us. Someone began to scream down below again, this time close enough to the hatch for the sound to carry topside. Probably it was someone in the control room itself. "It's going faster and faster, like Ralph here said." He nodded towards me. "And who knows? It may spread. If we scuttle, maybe we can stop it."
The captain looked down at the deck for a moment, then nodded solemnly. "Duty comes in many forms. Not all of them are pleasant. Not all of them earn you medals. But duty is always duty. Even the Japs understand that." He nodded in the direction of his former enemy, then leaned one last time over the hatch and shouted. "Do we still have control over the ballast tanks?"
"Aye, aye, sir!" a voice responded, straining to be heard over the screaming. "Or at least we think so!"
"All right," Haywood replied, trying to pull himself upright but failing. His flesh was now welded elbow-high to his command. So instead, he sank back down into his awkward seated position with one arm twisted behind his back. "All hands, pass the word to abandon ship. I say again, abandon ship!"
"Abandon ship!" I heard the voices below echo. "Abandon ship!" Presently the voices died away, but no one came up the ladder.
"Abandon ship!" Haywood repeated. "Abandon ship!" But this time the only replies were more screams.
"I'll do it," Larry volunteered, standing up. Like me, he'd been very careful not to let any naked flesh touch anything. Though we were both covered with scales, at least we were still free to move about.
"Unhhh! Unhhh!" Haywood replied. His torso and neck were beginning to adhere to his ship by now, and the twin hisses might have meant "Thank you." Then, even as we watched, his head and face began to flatten out as it spread out over the conning tower.
Larry closed his eyes slowly, then turned to face me. "I'm going down below now, Ralph. I'll give you one minute, and then if the systems are still working I'll flood all tanks full negative. If I can't flood her, I'll set up the scuttling charges." He looked down at what was left of Haywood, then shook his head. "I don't want to go like that, Ralph, and I don't suspect that you do either. But you're a civilian, and it's your choice." He clapped me once on the shoulder, then dropped down the hatch.
What I really wanted was a pistol, I thought to myself as I stood alone on the bridge, shivering in the cold and watching Haywood spread himself out nice and evenly across the sub's plating. Then, suddenly, there was a great bubbling, roaring sound as Larry found and opened the valves that would sink S-52 forevermore right smack in the middle of this god-forsaken theater of war, where so many good men were dying over practically nothing. No one would ever bother finding out what had truly happened to S-52, I hoped. Nor, most likely, would anyone care very much about the fate of the old, broken down Minekaze-class destroyer that would share her grave. "The very first thing ya gotta learn," the Navy's Aleutian Theater press attaché had explained when I'd gotten off the boat at Dutch Harbor, "is that nothing out here at the ass end of nowhere really matters at all. Not to anyone. Our heroes die forgotten by everyone, usually killed by Mother Nature instead of the Japs, in places that never, ever appear in the headlines back home. I'm hoping that you can help us change that, at least a little. But I'm not holding my breath. No one really gives a shit about us, and we know it."
And so, as the icewater crested the conning tower and began flowing down the open hatch of S-52, for the first time I hoped that they would continue not to give a shit, would never become too curious and try to salvage our malformed, perhaps infectious hull, would never trouble themselves too terribly much over what had happened to an old, used-up pigboat and her overage, fought-out crew.
Better for everyone that it be so, I thought to myself. Better by far that S-52 and her last battle be forgotten utterly. I nodded slowly to myself. If such a disaster had to fall from the sky upon someone, I decided, it was probably a stroke of incredible luck that it had fallen upon such a forgettable sub and such a forgettable crew in the middle of a forgettable battle being fought in such an unimportant and forgettable place.
And, I admitted to myself, with such a forgettable war correspondent aboard.
Then I ripped off my life jacket and jumped down the hatch into the lethal icy darkness that lay waiting beyond, to become part of S-52 forevermore.