I was dead tired, but the thought of sleep terrified me. Too many odd things had happened in the last few hours. My mind was feverish with dark thoughts. What ancient mysteries did the dark depths of the ocean hold? What lurked beneath us as we glided over those deep, black chasms in our man-made machines, arrogant in our confidence that we were the true rulers of the sea?
Since time immemorial the fear of the unknown has always existed in the back of a sailor’s mind, that creeping realisation that we are only passing through, and that we have not a chance of fully discovering or understanding the secrets that were hidden long before we came, and will continue to dwell in the blackness long after we have departed.
During my time at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, I had read several journals concerning the mythic city of Atlantis, sunk thousands of years ago beneath the waves. Some said that the lost civilisation was the birthplace of our great Aryan race. If such a city existed, we might well pass by it in our metal hull, oblivious as a blind fish. This ridge we were snared on might not be a ridge at all but the crumbling spire of a temple or a wall or a pillared palace or a hundred other buildings in that fabled city, cracked and coral-encrusted, home to the ghosts of the deep.
My mind finally gave out and I succumbed to a troubled sleep.
I was awoken from my slumber by the sound of screaming. The Hammer thundered into the officer’s quarters in a frightful state. His face and arms were marked by deep scratches as if he had been attacked by a wild animal.
‘The crew has gone mad!’ he exclaimed. ‘They suddenly turned on each other, ripping and tearing with their nails and teeth! I tried to break some of them apart, but they attacked me. It’s mutiny! I had no choice but to seal them in the fore of the boat.’
Krause looked up at the man with bleary eyes. ‘It’s all over’ he uttered in a barely audible whisper. ‘He’s here. He has come.’
We listened in painful silence to the hideous sounds of slaughter coming from the front end of the boat. If I have ever wondered what the pits of Hell sound like, then I now consider myself knowledgeable.
The whisky bottle was empty by the time the ghastly sounds abated. A deathly silence had descended. The Hammer and Ziegler volunteered to go about the gruesome business of opening the hatch and discovering the fate of our crew, leaving myself and the captain alone. I took this opportunity to inquire as to what exactly Krause had seen in the engine room that had induced him to open fire on a petty officer.
He looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. ‘See? What are you talking about, Gottlieb? I saw a crazed man lurch towards me.’
‘Captain, at the time you seemed to see something else. And you said some things. You said that you were sorry, and that it had been an accident.’
Krause stared at the stained tabletop in silence for a while. He exhaled slowly. ‘Gottlieb’ he said. ‘What I am about to tell you I have not told anyone since I was ten years old. As you know, I am a country boy. I grew up on a farm in Dithmarschen. Nearby was an old barn that had been abandoned for many years. The local children liked to say that it was haunted. It became something of a game for my friends and I to visit the old barn after school, when the daylight was waning and the shadows were long across the fields. We would dare one another to enter the darkness of the barn alone and we would count aloud to see who was brave enough to stay inside the longest.
One day we had a younger kid with us called Klaus. He never had anyone his own age to play with, so he chose to follow us around. He so wanted to be a part of our group that he was willing to do anything to impress us. We found him a nuisance and used to think up the wildest and most humiliating dares for him.
Well, you can bet that he was sent into the barn that day with our assurances that if he stayed in there a full five minutes, then we would recognise him as the bravest boy we had ever seen. Once he was inside, someone came up with the bright idea of bolting the door on little Klaus to give him a real scare. Another boy and I crept forward and closed the door, sealing Klaus in with the darkness.
Whether Klaus thought it was part of the dare or not, he never made a sound. We were frustrated that our plan to scare him witless had failed and so decided to leave him in there for a while. We quietly crept away from the barn and went home for our evening meals with the intention of meeting up afterwards to release Klaus from his prison.
But my conscience began to weigh on me as I ate. I felt sorry for Klaus, and began to worry about him there in the darkness, alone and frightened. I ate quickly and as soon as I was excused, I bolted out of the door and made my way to the old barn.
But when I got there, half the village had turned out. Men and boys ran back and forth with pails of water, passing them along in a line. Then I saw the burning barn. The roof had fallen in before I got there and the remaining walls blazed with all the furies of Hell. The sky was marred by a thick black plume of smoke. I saw my friends huddled together amidst the confusion. Quietly, we slunk away without being seen.
Nobody ever found out how the fire started. Barns just burn – its nothing uncommon in the countryside. They found Klaus’s remains of course, nothing more than charred bones. Miraculously, nobody had seen us playing at the old barn, so we never came under suspicion. But my friends and I swore an oath that we would never reveal our dreadful secret to anyone as long as we lived.’
Krause finished off the rest of his whisky in a gulp. His hands shook and he looked dreadfully ill. But he was not yet finished.
‘You ask me what I saw down there in the engine room,’ he continued, looking me dead in the eye. ‘Well, Gottleib. Would you think me mad if I told you that instead of Bohm, I saw poor Klaus? He was horrible. Burned to a crisp – his skin hanging away from his face in long strips. His clothes charred from his body and his hair all gone. But his eyes, God his eyes! They were looking straight at me. Accusing me, cutting right through me like knives. And so, God help me, I shot him. I shot little Klaus, not knowing that it was Bohm possessed by the spirit of that little boy.’
‘Come now, Kommandant,’ I said.
‘But don’t you see?’ he continued. ‘Everything that’s happened. Getting stuck on this reef, the tapping, the murders and then what I saw in the engine room. It’s all him! It’s all Klaus! Somehow he has found me, down here beneath the waves, where I thought I was safe from nothing else but my past!’
‘I don’t believe it, captain,’ I said. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t believe that Klaus is here on this vessel. Don’t you remember what Urner said before he passed out? He said that he had seen something that wasn’t there. That’s why he killed Drescher. Don’t you see captain? Exactly the same thing happened to you. I think that there is something onboard, something malevolent that uses our own fears and guilt against us.’
As I said this, an image flashed before my eyes, an image from my own past. I saw Frieda at the bottom of a cliff, her body smashed and broken, staring up at me with lifeless eyes. I pushed the thought from me.
‘Perhaps this reef we are stuck on is part of some greater mystery, but you can be sure that it is scientific in its origin, not spectral.’
I came to eat my own words of course, for the Hammer and Ziegler had not returned.
We found the fore of the boat awash with blood. The bodies of the crew lay where they had fallen - eyes gouged out, ears torn off, flesh punctured by tooth and nail. And their newest members lay atop the pile – the Hammer and Ziegler – their hands locked around each other’s throats in their death grips.
‘It’s not going to stop,’ said Krause, leaning against the hatchway. ‘It won’t stop until we are all dead. And it’s my fault! It’s my fault that he’s here, come to take an entire crew to Hell for the sin of their captain!’
A body stirred. It was Ziegler – not quite dead. He sat up like some hideous reanimated corpse, a glimmer of life rekindled in his wide eyes. Krause screamed and levelled his pistol at the man.
‘Put your gun away, Ansgar Krause,’ said Zielger in a slow, almost disembodied voice. ‘You have killed enough people in your life. You’ve always been a killer, haven’t you Ansgar? Ever since you were a little boy.’
The captain’s eyes bulged and he looked as if he was about to throw up. I reeled. There was no earthly way Ziegler could have known that which Krause had confessed to me but a few minutes ago. I saw a half-dead man being used by some elemental force as if he were a puppet. I dreaded to think what the captain’s mind was seeing.
‘Don’t you recognise me, Ansgar?’ continued the voice. ‘Don’t you recognise your little friend Klaus?’
Krause’s eyes rolled in his head and he screamed. The Luger went off and blew the top part of Ziegler’s skull away. The man sank back down to the blood-filled bilge.
‘Oh, God!’ cried Krause. ‘What’s happening to me?’ he looked at me and a kind of cold sanity briefly flashed into his terror-filled eyes. ‘This ends now.’
The captain straitened, clicked his heels together and lifted his arm in salute. ‘Heil Hitler!’ he shouted and lifted the barrel of the gun to his right temple.
The shot never went off. I managed to grab him and wrestle the firearm out of his grip. It skittered across the iron decking.
‘Why do you stop me?’ wailed Krause. ‘If you have any sense of decency left, you would let me end it all now. I can even help you first. We can go together. One bullet each – that’s all it would take. You should have died with me long ago. We should have fallen together. It was your fault after all.’
And here is where my own sanity fled. For before me was not the captain I had known and loved for the past three years, but instead a grotesque image from the darkest depths of my imagination.
I remembered the dress she wore, but it was now tattered and in rags. She walked stiffly on thin, pale legs marked with patches of corrupted flesh where the worms had got at her. Her head lolled about on its broken neck, her jaw hanging slack. Her eyes rolled in their sunken sockets, although they showed signs of conscious thought, of recognition. She came forward, her left arm outstretched, reaching towards me with broken fingernails and clammy grip.
‘Frieda, Frieda,’ I mumbled. ‘I am so sorry.’
She heard me, I am sure, for her head rolled to the left and she looked at me askance.
‘The shortcut down the mountainside was your idea, Gottlieb – your fault.’
But something suddenly snapped inside of me. I had seen this happen to too many of my companions over the past few hours to let it happen to me. This was not Frieda! This was a trick on my imagination, caused by some hidden evil. I must kill it! But how?
The gun! It still lay on the floor where it had fallen. I dived for it and in the same instant, the hideous apparition that masked itself as my beloved Frieda lurched towards me.
I rolled on the deck, the Luger gripped in my hand. I fired off two shots at the monster and the barrel clicked empty.
The creature fell backwards and crashed to the deck. But it was no longer a creature. It was Krause – dead.
But the thing was very much still alive, and I saw it now, standing over the physical body it had just left. Its host was dead and now it was naked, stripped of all its illusion – visible in its native form.
If the theorists and professors back in the Fatherland believe that the ancient beings of Atlantis were anything like the blond-haired, blue-eyed super race they promote, then they are dead wrong. The creature that stood before me was the very essence of primordial life.
Bulky and hunched over, this being had dark skin – not a Negro, but something other - a race forgotten by time. Its arms and thighs bulged with sheer muscular power and its body was decorated with some sort of tattoos or ritual scarring that formed great flowing shapes and patterns across the glistening mahogany skin. Its eyes burned with a ferocious yellow glare; a look of primal intelligence and they focused on me with an expression of pure hatred.
My flight through the length of the boat was the stuff of nightmares. As I ran through compartments and leaped through hatchways, I could feel its presence ever at my heels, its foul aura reaching out to me with slippery tentacles. Finally I reached the torpedo room and I slammed the hatch shut behind me and spun the wheel-lock.
As I sit in this tiny room, awaiting death, I have nothing to do but dwell on my fate. What happens when the monster possesses (as he surely will) his one remaining victim? Will the creature and I be forever entwined within each other’s consciousnesses? Will I exist for all eternity with that thing inside my mind, tormenting me so that I rave and shout myself hoarse?
No! I will not let that happen! I may be of an inferior race, but even rats fight when cornered. There has to be some other way!
As I look around me, I see the torpedo tubes. My mind drifts back to our discussions on how to resurface. There had been suggestions that if we were to fire the empty torpedo tubes, then we might dislodge ourselves from the reef. The idea had been abandoned as the reef was the only thing keeping us above the hundreds of tons of pressure that would crush us if we toppled over into the abyss.
It is worth a try. I begin the process of filling the tubes with water from the outside. I check the compressed air gauge. I have just enough to fire two of the tubes.
The tubes are full now. I fire them. The entire vessel shudders and I can hear the sound of rock breaking apart outside the hull. The boat lurches forward and I am thrown from my feet. A painfully loud scraping sound fills the vessel as we slide over the reef and plunge down into the yawning blackness of the unknown.
Again the tapping sounds - frantic. He knows I have beaten him! I laugh hysterically! When the vessel reaches three-hundred-and-seventy-five meters, it shall buckle under the pressure and we shall both perish. I’ve got you now, you bastard!
I can hear the groaning of the hull and somewhere a bolt shoots free with a loud ‘ping!’ Not long now.
The tapping continues. I am put in mind of the Fuehrer’s rallies I occasionally hear on the radio.
Tap tap – ‘Sieg Heil!’ – tap tap – ’Sieg Heil!’
Not long now.
Tap tap – ’Sieg Heil!’ – tap tap.
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