Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 11/Uncommon Castaway
by Nelson S. Bond
Nelson Bond, who made his start in the regular pulp magazines, rapidly graduated from that class to star his fine fantasies in the pages of the better popular magazines. Gifted with an easy, smooth narration, his themes may vary from trick inventions to hypothetical reconstructions of the beginning and end of man. In “Uncommon Castaway” he spins an anecdote of the recent war—an odd little adventure which might explain in modern terms one of the older mysteries of recorded lore.
HEED ye! 'Ware and repent, I cry, and woe to him who will not hear my warning! For verily I say unto you that the Day of Judgment neareth, when for your sins and your iniquities shall be visited upon you the fire and the sword of Those whose fury maketh the earth to tremble; yea, the very seas to burn!
They shooed us out of Alexandria when Rommel pressed past Mersa Matruh and down the long sandy highway that leads to Cairo. Shooed us, but fast. The Admiralty said there was nothing we could do but hide out in safe harbors until events disclosed whether Montgomery's plan for a last-ditch stand at a dot on the map called El Alamein was sound strategy or—as almost everyone feared—pure desperation.
The Old Man hated like blazes to run. When I handed him the order, he grunted and his teeth met through his pipe-stem. He didn't even swear. Which just proves how deeply he was moved, because the skipper is an educated man. He cusses fluently in six languages. At trifles.
But this was too big. He just shook his head and said, “Very good. Sparks. Carry on!” And turned and walked forward, very fast.
So the Grampus, under cover of a jet Egyptian night, slipped out to sea and safety. It was a strange leave-taking. The West Harbor was like a coalpit; even the lighthouse on Raset-Tin was blacked out. But the darkness was alive with sounds. The incessant wash of Mediterranean waters against the crags of Pharos … the high, flat notes of a bosun's key, piping-thin against the sigh of a westering breeze … the mute ripple of voices from ships that glided dimly past, cheerless as drifting wraiths. Gray sounds, angry sounds. The petulant farewell of vessels evacuating a harbor that had been, but a few short months ago, Britain's proudest base along the North African coast.
“We're to be first out,” the Old Man told us. “The fleet will need every sub. Particularly if the Jerries take Alex.” He added, glancing skyward speculatively, “The deck guns will be manned. There may be trouble.”
But there wasn't. We didn't lose a single ship or a single man to enemy action throughout the operation. Funny, too, because we were fish in a barrel for the Stukas. Jammed in the bottleneck too tightly to offer effective resistance, and many of us in foul shape. Like the Grampus, which had put in for G. O. and repairs, and got her sailing orders before the job was half finished.
But maybe it wasn't so strange, after all. The Germans were pretty cocky in those days. And I suppose they had reason to be. But their very cockiness was our salvation. I think they didn't bomb us during our flight simply because they expected to take Alexandria any day, and didn't want to move into a shattered naval base.
Anyhow, we cleared the breakwater without a sign of trouble, and were under way. We weren't told where we were going, but since our course was due nor'east, it was clear to every man aboard that Larnaca was our goal. Cyprus, a mere three hundred sea miles away, should have been a snap day's journey, but no one was starry-eyed enough to think we'd make it that quickly. There was, for one thing, the constant possibility of encountering enemy craft, aerial or seaborne. Moreover, a dropping glass warned of weather ahead. And to further louse up an already gloomy picture, our spit-and-prayer-patched engines started coughing and spluttering even before we cleared Pharos light.
Auld Rory, our cook, didn't like the situation, and said as much when I braced him for a cup of tea in the galley after we were safely out to sea.
“ 'Tis a verra bad business, this,” growled the old Scot, “ 'Tisna richt for a navvy to roon awa', wi'oot even makin' a fight for't. 'Tisna”—he scowled, fumbling for the word he wanted—“ 'tisna deegnified!”
I grinned and told him, “Maybe not, Rory, but it's a lot healthier. As Shakespeare says in ‘Paradise Lost,’ ‘He who fights and pulls his freight, will live to fight some other date.’ ”
“The noble Bard,” gritted Auld Rory savagely, “didna write ‘Paradise Lost.’ 'Twas the great John Milton. Nor is the verse as ye've misquoted it, ignorant Yank that ye are!”
“I've told you a thousand times, Rory,” I chuckled, “that I'm not an American. I'm a British subject, born and diapered in dear old Fogville-on-the-Thames.”
“Your words make ye a liar!” flared Auld Rory. “Ye speak the mither tongue as if it had na feyther.”
“That,” I said, “is because I grew up in Brooklyn.”
“Oh? Ye told me once New York.”
“A suburb of Brooklyn. You must come with me to Flatbush one day, Rory. Quite a place. You ought to hear the Ladies' Day crowds at Ebbets Field yelling at the umpires. ‘Moider dat bum! Give him de woiks—’ ”
“Bum!” gasped Rory, outraged. “Wi' ladies present? 'Tis indecent. I'm ashamed o' ye, Jake Levine!” He brooded darkly as I sipped my tea. "And I still say this is a bad business. In the harbor, at least we had shore batteries and a deefensive position. But that wasna gude eno' for the brass. No! So here we are, alone and limpin' in the middle o' the gory Mediterranean, prey to God knows what yon rascals will send to plague us! 'Tis a wonder we ha' na already been attacked, that it is.”
“Calm down, Rory,” I laughed, “and give your ulcers a rest. These waters are reasonably safe. Bet you five bob we don't even sight an enemy, let alone … Hey!”
What a prophet! My forecast ended in a startled yelp as the unmistakable gurroom! of a deck gun shuddered through the ship. The Grampus bucked and quivered. Tea scalded my wrists. Voices rose in excited query, and were lost in the strident clamor of the ship's alarm system.
And over it all: “I'll take that bet!” bawled Auld Rory.
I broke from the galley and raced toward the radio room. Weaving through the passageway, I met members of the gun crew scurrying from topside to their submersion posts. I grabbed Rob Enslow's arm.
“The bloody sky's full of 'em!”
I heard their motors now, droning with the fretful tumult of a broken wasps' nest. The Jerries had not wanted to blast us in harbor, but were coming out to catch us in open sea. The intercommunicating system hummed to life. The Old Man's clipped, unhurried voice was oddly reassuring.
“All hands, stand by! Rig for diving!”
The valves opened, the wheeze of escaping air mingled with the gurgle of ballast water, and we nosed under. I reached my compartment and lurched to the instrument panel. Walt Roberts, ship's yeoman, was there. He glanced up.
“You all right, Jake?”
“Sure,” I said. “You?”
“Top hole.” Then, after a moment: “We're under.”
I nodded. “Yeah. We'll be okay now, unless some of those big babies carry depth-bombs."
“That's so,” said Walt. “But maybe they didn't this time.”
“Probably not,” I decided. “It must be a land-based flight, out of Bardia. I'll bet there's not a depth-bomb in the lot of them …”
Or that's what I started to say. I don't know if I ever finished the sentence or not.
For suddenly there sounded a dull, booming roar. The Grampus jerked as though struck by a monstrous fist. Then it seemed to shake itself and leap, like a sailfish fighting the hook. Again the alarm bell dinned—then stopped abruptly as the lights flared to brief, eye-searing brightness and went out A hot, tingling pulsation, like electricity gone mad, flowed through and twisted me in knots. The Grampus tilted, my feet flew out from under me and I slid head first across the slanting deck. My head struck the bulkhead. That's all I remember.
The umpire bawled, “Stuh-rike!” I jumped to my feet, roaring fury shared by bleachers full of fellow-townsmen.
“Go get glasses, you bum!” I hollered. “That ball was a mile outside!”
I picked up my cushion and spun it onto the diamond. A hand fell on my shoulder, and a park cop glared at me malevolently. “Okay, you! Come wit' me!”
I said, “Get your hands off me!” and struggled to shake myself free. Someone—a friend in the crowd—cried from a distance, “Jake? Are you all right, Jake?”
“Let go!” I snarled. “This is a free country! Let go, before I—”
The hand clutching my shoulder tightened. The voice drew nearer and clearer. “Jake? Are you all right, Jake?”
Ebbets Field faded; its sun-drenched bleachers became the lightless, dank interior of the Grampus. The hand and voice belonged to Walt Roberts. “Jake—”
“Okay,” I said. “I'm okay, Walt.” I craned my neck gingerly. “Thanks, pal. You just saved me from ten bucks or ten days.”
“Skip it,” I said. “Where are we?”
“On the bottom. That depth charge did something to us—I don't know exactly what. Fortunately it's not so deep here.”
“That's swell,” I said. “That's perfectly ducky!” I was scared spitless, but wasn't going to let him know it. “If we were fish, we wouldn't have far to go. Are we taking water?”
“No. Apparently not.”
“Then what's wrong with the batteries? How come no lights?”
"I wouldn't know," said Roberts.
“Well, let's go see,” I suggested.
We felt our way through the ship, and met others doing the same thing. There was tenseness, but no panic. And don't get the idea that discipline had been relaxed, just because we were allowed to do what we wanted. It was just that the Old Man has brains, as well as braid. He knew how everyone felt, and so long as no one got in the engineer's way, he allowed us to satisfy our curiosity.
There were emergency lamps in the engine room, and a sweating corps straining over the motors. The chief engineer was not so worried as frankly bewildered.
“Oddest thing I ever saw, sir,” I heard him tell the Old Man. “It's not just concussion damage, or a short. It's as if the whole electrical unit had been picked up and—and twisted out of shape, somehow.”
“That's the way it felt,” grunted the skipper. “The ship seemed to writhe and wriggle like an eel.”
“Yes, sir. The bus bars are a solid lump. And the wiring—” The chief shook his head.
“But you can fix it?”
“I think so, sir. Yes, I'm sure we can.”
“Very good. Carry on!” The Old Man turned quietly to the rest of us. “You heard the chief, lads. Now you know as much as we do. Let's all go to our stations, and let these men work.”
So we did, and that was that. Some time later, the lights flickered on again. After another long, hopeful wait we heard the tentative hum of the diesels, followed by the throb of a turning shaft. Then the skipper's voice over the intercom system, “All hands, attention. All clear. We're taking her up.” . . .
It was broad daylight when, after making certain no enemy craft were in the vicinity, the Grampus surfaced. We were under a blanket of radio silence, of course, but in the hope of sighting a friendly vessel, the skipper told me to get my flags and come along topside with him.
That fresh air sure smelled good. And the sun felt good, too. But we'd lost the other ships in our convoy—if you'd call it that. The horizon was clear as far as the eye could reach. Not a dot on the water.
No, there was one dot. The Old Man spotted it before any of us, levelled his binoculars on the dancing black fleck and grunted thoughtfully.
“A man. On a raft, or a spar. A survivor, perhaps. I imagine one of the ships didn't get off as lightly as we did.” He sighed. “Bring her about, Mister. We'll pick him up.”
The second saluted and ducked below. A few minutes later, we hove within hailing distance of the derelict.
Now, here's where the whacky part of my story comes in. You'd think that survivor should have been tickled pink to see us, wouldn't you? Would have waved and yelled at us?
But not this lunkhead! For the longest time, he didn't even seem to see us. Or if he did, he tried to let on like he didn't. He wouldn't answer our calls, though we must have been within hearing range.
“Deaf?” wondered the skipper aloud.
“Possibly, sir,” said the second. “But he must see us. He could at least call for help.”
“Deaf and dumb?” offered the skipper,
“Or,” I suggested, “just plain dumb, sir?” Because at this moment the man definitely saw us. He rose from his awkward kneeling posture, but instead of waving his arms, or part of the tattered rags in which he was clad, the damn fool loosed a hoarse cry of alarm, leaped off his rickety old raft, and started flailing away from us as fast as his skinny arms would carry him!
The Old Man grunted understanding. “Oh, now I see! An enemy. Very good! Fetch him aboard, lads!”
So we did. But we had to knock him unconscious to do it. Two of the seamen went into the briny after him. Catching him was like wrestling a barracuda. He kicked and bit and clawed, and almost scratched one of Bill Ovens' eyes out. That made Bill a bit peevish, so while his comrade grappled with the guy, face to face, Bill slipped up aft and let him have it behind the ear.
And the Grampus had picked up a passenger.
Some time later, when I was telling Walt about the fracas, the Old Man buzzed me.
“Levine? Would you step forward, please?”
I found him waiting for me before the compartment in which our passenger had been locked. He took his pipe from his mouth and stared at me thoughtfully.
“Levine, you're Jewish, aren't you?”
“Why, yes, sir.”
I said, “No, sir. My mother and dad are, but I—”
“No matter,” he said. “Listen!”
He nodded toward the door. From within came sounds—the voice of our passenger talking to himself in a high, thin, rising-and-falling whine. Syllables emerged from the patter, and made sense. A word here and there, a phrase.
“Why,” I said, “that's Hebrew!”
“That's what I thought,” said the Old Man. “Can you speak it?”
“I can understand it,” I said. “Most of it, anyway. I speak Yiddish better.”
“Good!” grunted the skipper. “Come in here.”
He ushered me before him into the compartment. For the first time I got a real look at our unwilling guest. He was a queer-looking duck. Lean and hot and angry-looking, with great, smoldering eyes that made you want to crawl when he turned them on you. Not with fear or disgust. With something else. I don't know just what it was, A sort of—well, awe, maybe. That's the closest I can come to it. A feeling that if you didn't watch your step, something pretty terrible was going to happen to you.
He had coal-black hair to match his eyes, and wore a straggly beard that accentuated rather than minimized the acid-bitter thinness of his lips. His high cheekbones had a consumptive flush, and his nostrils were pinched.
He looked like someone I'd seen once, somewhere, but I couldn't remember who it was, or where, or when.
His chanting wail stopped abruptly when we entered, and he cringed, frightened but defiant. Like a trapped animal, I thought.
The skipper said, “Speak to him, Jake.”
I said, “Hyah, pal!”
“Oh!” I said, and took a whack at it. It was heavy going, because I'd forgotten a lot. I said, “Greetings! My name is Levine, Jacob Levine. Can you understand what I am saying?”
Could he! His sultry eyes lighted, and he burst into a torrent of words.
“What is he saying?” asked the skipper.
“Too much,” I complained, “and too fast!” I shook my head at the old guy. “Too fast,” I said in Hebrew. “You must speak more slowly.”
He cut his motors a few hundred thousand r.p.m., and at a more moderate tempo I began to catch his drift. He was, he declared, a humble man, and we were the mighty ones whom he feared. He was too meek and miserable a mortal to be the victim of our wrath. He kissed our feet and begged that he be freed. If we loosed him, he would sing our praise forever.
“Well?” asked the Old Man.
“Sweet talk,” I said. “He's scared stiff.”
“What's his name?”
I passed along the query, and got a tongueful of polysyllables that would have sunk a freighter. It was one of those old-fashioned family-tree monickers—so-and-so, son of so-and-so, son of somebody else, ad infinitum. When I tried to pass it along to the Old Man, he shrugged.
“Tell him we'll call him Johnny for short. Where did he come from? Was he on one of the evacuation ships?”
No, he had been on a merchantman.
Had his ship been sunk in last night's raid?
Raid? He had seen no raid, neither last night nor any night. He was a humble man, unworthy of our attentions. He wished but to be freed . . .
Then where had he come from. What was his ship, and where had it sailed from? Whither bound?
I relayed his answer to the Old Man. “His ship was the Warrior King, Tarshish, bound out of Joppa with a cargo of salt, wine and linens.”
“Joppa?” frowned the Skipper. “That would be Jaffa, near Jerusalem. But Tarshish? Perhaps he means Tarsus, in Turkey? But that's not a seaport. Oh, well, it doesn't matter. How long has he been floating around on that raft?”
“Three days,” I learned from our passenger.
“Then he wasn't shipwrecked last night. Is your wireless working, Sparks?”
“To tell you the truth, sir, I don't know. Everything's happened so fast, and we've been under silence—”
“Yes, of course. Well, get it working and contact Larnaca for an index report on the—what was it?—Warrior King. If the registry is Allied or neutral, I suppose this old fellow is harmless.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Right away, sir.”
“Oh, and before you go, tell our friend he's in no danger. That we're not going to eat him up.” The Old Man chuckled.
I translated the message. The results were—well, astonishing, to say the least! Old Whiskers loosed a little bleat of gratitude, then hopped up from his squat and hurled himself at the Old Man's feet, bowing and slobbering like the skipper was on a pedestal or something.
The Old Man backed away, startled and embarrassed.
“I say, old chap! You needn't be so blasted. . . . Look out! Careful, there! Oh, damn it! Damn it all!”
He glared fretfully at his right hand, bleeding from a long and nasty gash. Retreating from Johnny, he'd snagged it on a bolthead and ripped it open from forefinger to wrist. He clamped a handkerchief to the cut, swearing magnificently.
“Lock him in again, Sparks. I've got to take this to the medico. Carry on!” And he left.
I said to Johnny savagely, “Now, see? You caused that!”
I expected a torrent of apologies and denials, but I was wrong. Johnny just stood there, his lips ashen, his eyes bleak and haunted. He whispered mournfully, "Yes . . . I know. I know . . .”
Well. I went to the radio room and warmed up the tubes. Then, confidently, because a quick examination indicated everything to be shipshape, I twisted the verniers to see who was saying what on which cycles.
I got my tools and went trouble-shooting, I found one loose connection and a condenser that didn't test right. I fixed these, and tried again.
I tried the transmitter. It seemed to work. I rigged up a playback and cross-checked. Nothing wrong there. So I got out my blueprints and went over the whole set from aerial to ground, making any minor adjustments that seemed necessary. Then I tried once more.
And drew a blank.
I went to the skipper. I said, “I don't understand it, sir. If I were getting nothing at all, it would prove there's something wrong with the set. But I am picking up static, so the receiver's operating. But I can't pick up any broadcasts, long- or short-wave.”
The Old Man was mighty nice about it. “Don't worry about it, Sparks," he said. "It's probably something rather unusual, connected with our crash dive. Just keep working on it.”
“But I can't raise Larnaca, sir.”
“No matter. We'll be there in the morning. We'll make inquiries when we get there. By the way, you'll mess with me tonight.”
I gulped, “Me, sir?”
The Old Man smiled. “Yes. I'm having Johnny as my guest, and I want you to act as interpreter. Will you?”
“Yes, sir!” I said.
“Johnny's on his way here now. I asked the second to go and fetch him. We'll—Good Lord, what's that?”
“That” was a series of thudding bumps just outside, followed by a sharp, agonized cry, then moans. We were out the door in a flash. The second lay groaning at the bottom of the companionway, his left leg doubled queerly under him. Johnny, standing over him, was wringing his hands and wailing frantic self-recriminations.
“It was my fault. I did it. I did it.”
“Langdon!” cried the Old Man. “What happened?”
From between teeth clenched with pain came answer. “I don't—know, sir. I must have slipped on the last step. It's my—leg, sir.”
“Did that man shove you?” I cried angrily.
“No. Of course not. It was just an accident.”
But Johnny's stricken moaning did not cease. “It was my fault," he cried over and over. "I did it. I . . .”
From now on, I can't explain the rest of my story. All I can do is tell it, and let you write your own ticket. It's strange. It's mad. It's impossible. But . . .
We arrived at Cyprus in the morning. And I put it that way deliberately. The skipper had said we would reach Larnaca in the morning, but we didn't. We reached the spot where Larnaca should have been. And it wasn't there!
That doesn't make sense? Right! It didn't make sense to us, either. It was a fine, bright, sunny morning. When we eased into the rounded harbor that should have been jammed with refugee ships, should have been aglitter with all the panoply and bustle of a British naval base, we stared incredulously at a narrow strip of beach rimmed by a few dilapidated fishing shacks.
Four of us were topside—the skipper, the third, Johnny and myself. When we stared into that yawning, desolate basin, the third cried uncomprehendingly, “But—there's something wrong. I can't have made a mistake, sir!”
The Old Man took the sextant from the third's hands. He shot the blazing sun with painstaking care. Then he stood for a long moment, gnawing his lip, his eyes gray and distant. Finally, “Mr. Graves?” he said.
“You will change our course, please. We are going to the mainland.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
The mate vanished below, obviously relieved that he had been spared a dressing-down. I said hesitantly, “Are we very far from Larnaca, sir?”
The Old Man said in a curious, strained voice, “I don't know, Sparks. Possibly you can tell me. Which is the farther—a million miles, or a million years?”
“I'm afraid I don't understand, sir.”
“No,” he said slowly. “Nor I.”
“But you said something about the mainland?”
“Yes. We're going to land our passenger back where he belongs. That much if nothing else.”
“How long will it take, sir? A couple of hours?”
“I wish to God it would,” said the Old Man tightly, “but I fear not. When did we pick up Johnny?”
“Why, yesterday morning, sir.”
“Exactly,” sighed the skipper. “So it will take us two days to reach the mainland.”
To tell the truth, I thought the Old Man had slipped his moorings. The Lebanese mainland is not more than five hours from the island of Cyprus. But the skipper was right! It took us two full, nerve-wracking days to reach a coast we should have made easily before sundown.
First the motors conked out. Then, when the chief got them turning again, the electrical system went haywire. Generators spitting and sparking like firecrackers, for no apparent reason. When that was repaired, one of the bulkheads started oozing suspicious drops, and we had to heave to and jury-rig patches before the leak got worse.
Those were the major difficulties. There were more minor ones than I can enumerate. Working on the damaged motors, one of the engineering crew lost half of a finger. One of the oilers came down with a fever—a malarial fever, for Pete's sake, smack in the middle of an inland sea! Then something whipped up for mess by Auld Rory must have come from a tainted tin, for on the second morning half the crew turned green and started upchucking all over the place.
Oh, it was a sweet voyage! Bad luck seemed to have taken over the Grampus in a big way.
Somehow, my private luck held, except for the fact that our passenger, finally recovered from his initial fear, had turned into a human question box. From morning to night he pounded my ear with questions. What was this vessel upon which we traveled, he wanted to know, this wondrous vessel which rode at will on or below the waters?
It was a submarine, I told him.
A submarine? And what was a submarine?
The Grampus, I told him. The Grampus was a submarine. Now, go sit in the corner and croon lullabies, Pop!
Aie, what marvels! The grampus was a submarine. So be it! But what was a grampus?
I knew the answer to that one, too, having looked it up in an encyclopedia when I was assigned to the ship.
“A grampus,” I said, “is a type of dolphin, sometimes known as the ‘killer whale,’ because of its fighting habits and deadliness. Not a bad name for this crate, Pop. We've done a bit of killing already, and we'll do more, as soon as we get patched up for another crack at the Nazis.”
He said solemnly, “You make war upon the evil ones?”
“You can say that again,” I told him grimly. “They think they've got us licked, but we've just begun to fight. Our day is coming—and soon.”
He wanted to know what we fought with, then, and I got a chance to show him, because this quiz program went on during one of the blowtorch-and-hammer sessions, and the Old Man had decided to let the gun crew fire a few trial bursts while we were hove to, just to keep their hand in. With his permission, I took old Johnny topside to watch.
He stared, with sagging jaw, as they stripped the gun and loaded it. And when it fired, belching a gout of flame amidst a roar of thunder, he practically went out of his head. He cut for the rail, and if I hadn't clutched his tattered nightgown, he'd have been back in the drink again, only without a raft.
Anyhow, that quenched his curiosity. He was glad to get back to his own quarters and stay there. Which gave me an opportunity to work some more on my incomprehensibly mute receiver.
I was going over my circuits for the 'teenth time when the skipper wandered in and stood there watching quietly. At last he said, “No luck, eh, Sparks?”
“Skipper,” I said flatly, “there's no luck aboard this ship any more. Here or elsewhere.”
“I know what you mean, Jake,” he nodded. “It's almost as if we were hoodooed, isn't it? Jinxed?”
“It is, sir. I'm not superstitious, but—”
“Nor am I,” said the skipper, “but I'm curious. I wonder if . . . Sparks, you've studied electrical transmission. Tell me something, will you? Just what is electricity?”
I shook my head. “I'm sorry, sir. Nobody can tell you that. No one knows.”
“Electronics,” mused the Old Man. “In the theory of electronics, isn't there something about electrons being in two different places simultaneously?”
I said slowly, “I remember something, sir, vaguely. Nils Bohr, I think. An electron moving from one cycle to another without ever having been in the space between. But I never could understand it, and I never tried. I'm no scientist. I just work with the equipment the smart guys invent.” I stared at him. “But why do you ask, sir? Is it—”
“Just—curious,” repeated the skipper. “Perhaps the answer lies there, somehow. But it doesn't matter. We can't do anything about it. Just wait and see what we find when we reach the mainland.”
“But I don't understand, sir,” I said. “What are you expecting to find?”
But he didn't answer me. He just stood there in the doorway sucking at his cold pipe, staring through me off into space.
On the morning of the fifth day after our flight from Alex, we sighted the mainland. It was a dull, gray, nasty morning, lowering with thick blankets of black cumulus that threatened to split at the seams any moment. The dim roll of thunder growled threat of a storm to come as once again the skipper, Johnny and I stood on the weather-deck. There were two seamen, too, waiting till the Old Man should give expected orders.
“Well,” said the skipper, “this is it. In a few minutes we'll be as close in as we dare go. Then we'll put him ashore, Sparks.”
I said, “But didn't the third set course for Beyrouth, sir?”
“There are docks there. We won't have to lay off shore, sir.”
“Really?” The Old Man smiled a faint half smile. “I wonder, Sparks. I hope you're right, but"—he gestured, as briefly the dark overcast lifted, giving us a glimpse of the shoreline we approached—"but, you see, you're wrong.”
It was Larnaca all over again. There was no naval base at Beyrouth, but I knew it to be a modern Near Eastern metropolis, doubly astir nowadays with war activity. And the drowsy little village I beheld was far from modern. No building on its shoreline was more than one story in height, the few ships in its inlet were shallow-draft wooden vessels of single-span canvas or none.
I said, “Skipper, I think I know what's wrong now. There's only one possible explanation. Your sextant's gone haywire, that's the trouble—”
“No,” said the Old Man, “there's another explanation. Don't you see, Sparks? Don't you see?” Then, shrugging as I just stared at him blankly: “Ah, well! Let's not delay. Tell Johnny goodbye for me, will you?”
I turned to the old geezer, who had been watching the coast draw nearer with a kindling tenseness in his gaze. I touched his skinny shoulder, and he started.
“Well, Johnny, this is it. We're putting you off now.”
He nodded. “So be it. I am yours to command.”
“Anything else, sir?” I asked the skipper.
“Nothing else, Sparks. What is to be, will be.”
I turned to Johnny. “I guess that's all,” I said. “Except a private word on my own hook, Pop. The skipper's sure you're okay, or he wouldn't be turning you loose this way. I don't know, myself. We don't know whether you came off a friendly ship or an enemy. And you've had the run of the Grampus for three days. You've seen a lot more than a civilian's supposed to see.”
“I am a meek and miserable servant,” said Johnny, slipping into the old routine of formal, stilted phraseology, “unworthy of the wonders that have been shown me—”
“Yeah, I know. And you're a gone goose if you go back and spill what you've learned. Understand ? We know who you are, and if you turn out to be on their side, we'll come and get you. Is that clear?”
Johnny's strange, fanatic eyes gleamed, “I hear and obey,” he said strongly. “So be it. I gird my loins to battle the forces of evil by your side.”
“Okay,” I said. “Then—so long and good luck!”
I gave him my hand to shake, but the idiot didn't. Instead, he crouched and kissed it. I yanked it away, embarrassed, glancing at the skipper swiftly. But the Old Man simply sighed and nodded, almost as if that were what he expected. He spoke to the sniggering seamen.
“Very well, lads.”
They lifted Johnny into the inflated raft we were scooting him off in, and shoved him off. The sea was high and choppy. The Old Man nodded. “Oil, lads.”
The boys broke loose a canister, smoothing a patch around the Grampus and the life raft. Johnny moved away slowly, and we watched him go until the skipper said abruptly, “It's raining, lads. We'd better go below.”
The first fat drops of rain turned swiftly to a driving sheet as we ran to the tower. The closing hatch dulled the rumbling drums of thunder. The Old Man frowned.
“Sad old beggar! I hope he makes it to shore before he's waterlogged!”
He moved to the periscope, cranked it around to cover Johnny's passage.
“Can you see him, sir?” I asked. “Is he—”
"He's made it. He's landing now. I see people . . . Gad!"
The Old Man shouted, covered his eyes with his hands, and fell away from the periscope blindly. I cried, “What is it, sir? What—”
Then my voice caught in my throat, even as I put out a hand. For the Grampus was humming . . . yes, humming! . . . with a wild, outré cacophony of sound unlike anything I've ever heard. A weird tingling burned through my veins, and black vertigo danced before my eyes. I couldn't breathe; I couldn't stir. I seemed to be rising . . . falling . . . turning . . . dropping through unfathomable depths of burning blackness to a screaming emptiness. . . .
As suddenly as it had started, it ended. And the Old Man's voice was croaking in my ear.
“Gad! Sparks, are you all right?”
“Yes, sir,” I faltered. “I think so, sir. What was it? What happened?”
“Lightning. A direct smash, forward. I thought for a moment it had blinded me. And—look!”
He gestured to the eyepiece of the periscope. I looked—and drew back. The sea about us was in flames from the lightning burst igniting the oil. I suddenly remembered Johnny. I said, “The poor old bloke! He must think we've been burned to a crisp.”
“Or,” said the skipper, “that we disappeared in a sea of flame.”
I gaped at him stupidly.
“Look again, Sparks. Beyond the fire. The shore.”
I looked. The flames were gone. The storm-clouds had vanished, and the sky was crystal blue. There was a patrol-ship racing toward us, a bone of froth in its teeth, the Union Jack astern. White, modern buildings rimmed a harbor abristle with docks and quays, the glory of a modern seaport. The city was—Beyrouth!
I said, “But—but I don't understand, sir! How did we get here?”
The Old Man said quietly, “When the patrol arrives, Sparks, I will tell them we had trouble, and drifted off our course. I dare not tell them the truth. They'd never understand. No more than you do—or I do.”
“Understand what, sir?”
“Where we have been,” said the Old Man, “or when. I'm not sure I can explain, Sparks. Perhaps there's a clear and logical explanation. Possibly you were right about the sextant; we misjudged our position off Cyprus. And maybe we were all insensible for a few minutes after that lightning struck the ship. I don't know. Maybe we've been laying off this harbor for an hour.”
“But the village we saw?”
“Dimly, through a brief rift in the fog. There is such a thing as a mirage.”
I said boldly, “You don't really believe that, sir. You're just rationalizing.”
He groped for his pipe and pouch, steadying shaken nerves with old, familiar movements. “Yes, Sparks, I am. Logic rejects what I really believe.”
“And that is, sir?”
“Suppose electricity were somehow connected with time? Then what?”
“With time, sir?”
“The present and the past,” mused the Old Man, “and the future. Days and hours leaping like electrons from one place to another, without ever having passed through intervening space. A bomb scored a near miss on the Grampus, and everything was strangely changed. Lightning struck us—and we have returned to our proper era.”
“You mean we've been in the—”
“The past—yes.” The skipper's pipe was lighted, now, and with its indrawn fragrance he relaxed. He smiled at me. “It does make sense that way, Jake. If I were a better Christian and you a better Jew, we might have understood earlier. Think! Doesn't our passenger remind you of anyone?"”
“He always did,” I acknowledged. “From the moment I first laid eyes on him. But I can't seem to— Wait a minute! Now I remember. An old rabbi I knew when I was a kid. A fiery old man, like an ancient prophet.”
“Your wireless worked, but received nothing. Suppose there were nothing to receive?”
“There was a man,” said the skipper softly, “who set forth from Joppa to Tarshish to escape the service of the Lord. But where he traveled, punishment pursued him. And his shipmates rose against him, casting him adrift . . .”
The small hairs tingled on my neck, and a coldness crept up my spine. I was remembering, now, the stories. The old, old stories told by taper-light, and he liquid cadence of the cantor's voice.
The skipper said, “Three days, Jake. He was three days our passenger aboard the Grampus. And you told him what a grampus is.”
“His name?” I whispered. “His name!”
“We called him Johnny,” sighed the skipper. “The nearest English equivalent to the first part of his long name. But his real name, Sparks, was . . .”
Heed ye! 'Ware and repent, I cry, and sue Their mercy ere it be too late; this do I bid and warn. For I have dwelt amongst Them; mine eyes have seen with awe Their strength and righteous anger. These have I seen; yea, even I . . . Jonah of Gath-hephur, prophet of the Lord!