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A Strange Experience in the Devil's Sea
My name’s Roland Duffy, but most people call me Duff. I’m an American by birth, a pilot by occupation, and for reasons not relevant to any of this, an expat by necessity. So now I live on Green Island, off the coast of Taiwan, where I run an extremely modest charter flight business with my partner, Seamus MacMillian. Being Scottish, he’s got a bit of a brogue, but I understand him just fine. Most of the time. Mac owns the planes but doesn’t fly very well, so I’m the pilot and he’s the first officer. It works for us.
Mac and I were getting drinks at a local haunt, like we do, and it was another balmy island night. Only two rounds in and I was already starting to sweat through my nice floral shirt. I sat at a crummy little table amongst the palms and bamboo, waiting for Mac to come back. He’d gone inside to fetch the next round and I was beginning to wonder whether he’d gotten lost when he came back with two beers in his hand and two strangers in tow. A man and a woman. The woman was cute, a blonde. The man had striking features, and was also a blonde, but I’m not into that so good for him I guess. I figured they were a rich couple doing the tourist thing and needed a flight back to Taiwan. We’d just gotten back from a charter to Shanghai, so I just wanted to drink and not think about work for a while. Fucking Mac, always prospecting. At least he had the beers.
“This round’s on our new mates, Duff,” Mac told me, settling my beer before me. I saluted them with the bottle and took a swig.
“Franz Böswecht,” the man said with a big smile and a German accent. He offered me his hand and I shook it. He gestured to his companion: “And this is Dr. Ilsa von Schrödinger.” Doctor; like that was supposed to impress me.
“Oh, please,” she said, “just Ilsa.” Humility; like that was supposed to impress me. She flashed a pretty smile, and her German accent made her that much cuter. I shook her hand.
“I’m Duff,” I said to them.
“Ooh, an American,” Ilsa said.
Mac brought two more chairs over to our table. “Have a seat.” He bore that cheesy smile that he reserved for schmoozing customers. The Germans sat, eager looks on their faces.
“So, Duff,” Ilsa began, “you’re a pilot, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “And I see you’ve met my co-pilot.”
“First Officer,” Mac interjected.
“Yes we did,” Franz said. “He tells us you guys fly all over Taiwan.”
“That’s the bulk of our business,” I said.
“But we go to all the islands,” Mac said, “and the mainland, if you like.”
“Wunderbar,” Ilsa said.
“Yes, great,” Franz said.
“Where are you guys looking to go?” I asked.
Ilsa’s eyes gleamed. “Have you heard of the Devil’s Sea?”
I looked at Mac. He grinned. “Yeah,” I said.
“What do you know about it?” Franz asked me.
I sipped my beer. “It’s an area in the Pacific, roughly triangulated between Japan, the Philippines, and the Bonin Islands, where some ships and planes allegedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Some people think it’s where Amelia Earhart went down. It’s been called the Pacific Bermuda Triangle but it’s not as famous. If I remember correctly, most of those disappearances are rumors or myths.” They both seemed excited. Mac kept grinning; these wouldn’t be the first thrill seekers we’d flown over the area for a little sight-see. It was boring for me, but easy money.
“Very impressive, Duff,” Ilsa said. “Hopefully you can fly us there?” She looked back and forth from me to Mac.
“Well, given the essence of the area,” Mac said, “it could be dangerous. We’ll have to factor that into the cost.” He laughed, and so did the Germans.
“It’s a pretty big area,” I said. “Do you have a particular site in mind?”
“As a matter of fact,” Franz said, removing a piece of paper from his pocket. He slid it towards me.
I read it. “What are these? Coordinates?” I slid the paper over to Mac, who was peering over at it.
“I’m afraid it’s only a general area,” Franz said, “but it should be narrow enough to cover in a couple of hours, at most.”
“I imagine so,” Mac said. “But why here?”
“What are you looking for?” I asked, somewhat suspicious.
“Have you ever heard of the Krake?” Ilsa asked.
“No,” we both said.
“The Krake is a German aircraft carrier,” Ilsa said, “that disappeared in 1945.”
“I didn’t know the Germans had aircraft carriers then,” Mac said.
“To be honest,” she continued, “they really didn’t. After several naval campaigns, the Kriegsmarine planned to construct some, as well as convert several passenger vessels into carriers. But interest in the project waned and focus was shifted towards U-boat development.”
“Hitler loved his U-boats,” Mac said.
“The plans were scrapped,” Ilsa continued, “except for two. The Graf Zeppelin was nearly completed but the crew scuttled it when defeat became imminent. The other was the Krake, which was completed and launched.”
“But a sense of urgency hastened its implementation,” Franz said, “so it was never ceremoniously launched.”
“What kind of urgency?” Mac asked.
“A secret mission,” Franz said. “Germany had developed a powerful weapon, that would have changed the tide of the war.”
“What?” Mac asked. “A nuke?”
“No, nothing like that,” Ilsa said. “We’re not sure exactly, but we know it wasn’t radiological, biological, or chemical. Not nearly as unstable. But the Allies were closing in, so the Wermacht transported it to Japan aboard the Krake.”
“But it never made it to Japan,” Franz said. “It disappeared en route, in the Devil’s Sea. Given the nature of its mission, its disappearance was never publicized, and with the haste of its launch and the defeat of the Axis powers shortly afterward, the world never knew.”
“How do you guys know about it?” Mac asked. Good question.
“We are, how you say, agents, for the Deutsch Gesellschaft für Denkmalpflege,” Franz said.
I tensed up at the word agents. “What kind of covert shit is that?”
Ilsa giggled. “It means the German Society for Historical Preservation. And through our work we came across the scarce records of the ship’s construction and its only mission. Our society endeavors to essentially preserve and enrich German history. And we’re very interested in Germany’s first aircraft carrier.”
“So you want to see where it disappeared?” Mac asked. “And these are the coordinates?” He sipped his beer.
“Not at all!” Ilsa said, excitedly. “We’re not sure where in the Devil’s Sea the ship disappeared. These coordinates are where it has reappeared!”
. . .
We flew out over the pacific just before sunrise the next morning. The Germans were anxious to leave right away, before salvagers or the local navy found the vessel, but I had been drinking and we all agreed it would be better to search in daylight. This meant I couldn’t get my drink on like I’d wanted, lest I be hungover for our pre-dawn flight, but Mac had negotiated a good price to book the flight – $5,000 – so I guess I didn’t mind postponing my bender.
I nearly spit my beer out when Ilsa told us that a missing aircraft carrier had suddenly reappeared. They couldn’t explain its lengthy disappearance, hoping our trip might provide some answers, but said the coordinates were reliable and that this excursion was sanctioned by the German government. I wasn’t entirely convinced of any of it, but the price was right. Still, something didn’t sit quite right with me.
Mac and I were in the cockpit of his 2009 Quest Kodiak 100. She’s unpressurized but rides pretty quiet for passengers. She’s comfortable, too, with the Summit Package. The two Germans sat in the cabin designed for eight. It was absurd since Mac had a smaller aircraft for such flights, his Cessna 185, which held four people and could be fitted with floats as a seaplane, but the Germans insisted. I guess they wanted the extravagance, and it worked for me since we don’t put headsets in the cabin, so Mac and I could talk about them without them hearing. Plus, as long as their funds cleared, who was I to question it? Mac informed me that their funds had indeed cleared, as they paid in cash. Must be nice to fly on the government’s dime.
The Devil’s Sea has no precise boundaries, as it depends on who you’re asking, but we were far enough out to sea to be in the commonly recognized area. As we approached the coordinates, I took in the scenery. Vast blue ocean surrounded us, and the early morning sun beamed in the horizon, glinting off the reflective sea. I’ve done hundreds of these flights and I never get sick of this view. Seeing it from a portal as a passenger is pretty cool, but the perspective from the cockpit as the one actually flying the plane is never short of amazing. It’s why I do what I do. The infinite ocean was immediately humbling – agoraphobic, even – stretching beyond the limits of vision. If the plane went down, we’d have nothing but three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of water around our helpless bodies, abyssal depths below, and endless sky above. It’s hard not to comprehend just how fucked we’d be.
Mac brought me out of my rumination on our insignificance. “So you think we’ll find this thing?”
“We get paid either way.” Our voices sounded tinny and unnatural in the headset.
“Yeah,” he said. “But imagine if we did.”
“Then we find it.” I shrugged. “Makes no difference to me.”
“Come on. It’d be the find of the century.”
“You guess?!” He was getting excited. “A ship disappears for the better half of a century and all of a sudden, poof! here it is, back again, and all you can say is I guess? Come on, laddie.”
I shrugged. “I guess.”
“Jesus,” he said, exasperated. “You’re broken inside.”
“Either we find it, or we don’t,” I said. “Life goes on.”
“I can’t believe your feigned apathy over this.” He shook his head, chuckling. “This is exciting stuff, boyo.”
He let out a frustrated laugh. For a while we didn’t say anything, then he asked, “How did it disappear, you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, it’s incredible,” he continued. “A ship, a military ship – fuck, Germany’s only operating aircraft carrier during World War II! – goes missing, and no one finds it until now?! It can’t be that no one looked for it. I mean, shit, it was on a top-secret mission, carrying some weapon that would supposedly win Germany the war? How can a ship that important just disappear unmissed?”
“It happens, Mac, even today. Look at Malaysia airlines. How many planes have they lost?”
“Those weren’t prides of the fleet, sent by the German war machine to deliver a critical, war-winning weapon. How does that ship go missing?”
“Really?” I said. “You have no idea how that ship could go missing?”
“Not a ship that important. The Nazis thought it carried their salvation, for Christ’s sake.”
“That’s exactly it, Mac. That weapon it was carrying? You don’t think that had anything to do with the sudden disappearance?”
“What do you think? The ship’s own payload destroyed it? That it sank?” He laughed. “Then how did it come back?”
“Apparently it didn’t sink,” I said, “or get destroyed. Or maybe it did. We haven’t found it yet. But even those Germans back there don’t know anything about that thing this ship was transporting, and all of a sudden the ship disappears without a trace?”
“And now it’s back!”
“Maybe, yeah. Let’s say it is back. We have no idea how. It was carrying some doomsday device, disappeared for a few decades, and now it’s back. And we don’t know a fucking thing about it or what it was carrying.”
“So, what exactly? You heard Ilsa – it wasn’t anything unstable.”
“They don’t know shit, Mac. Come on. And I’m Harry Fucking Potter if those two are actually working for some historical society.”
“So, what? You think they’re some kind of spooks?”
“Maybe. This whole thing is just weird.” And pretty awesome, I had to admit.
“So why did you take the job, then? Why not just let me fly them? I have to admit, I wouldn’t have minded keeping your share.”
“Because your piloting is shit.” We laughed. “And I need the money, too. Too much to tell you and the Germans to go fuck yourselves.” Plus Ilsa is pretty cute.
“Ok, well let’s consider the facts. Either the ship is no longer missing and what it was carrying obviously didn’t cause its disappearance, so it’s not that volatile and we have nothing to worry about; or the ship’s still gone and maybe the thing it was carrying did cause its demise, but we have nothing to worry about because it’s gone. Either way, we have nothing to fucking worry about, mate.”
“I don’t know. And that’s what I don’t like.”
“Yeah . . . .” He said it like he was giving weight to my anxieties, but I could tell he wasn’t.
We came up on the area.
“Alright, boyo,” Mac said. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
“Aye, aye, first mate.”
“Fuck off.” He unfastened himself and retreated into the cabin to let our passengers know to start gazing. When he came back in and put his headset back on, I said, “There’s a whole lot of nothing out here.”
“Yup,” he said, peering out the cockpit windshield. “But we still have some area to cover, so let’s not get our hopes down.” He winked.
We flew for almost an hour. Looking out over the vastness of the Pacific, the old cogitations of how minuscule we all are returned to me. It’s easy to take our own existence for granted, comfortably perched atop the animal kingdom amongst fellow human beings and sheltered by our technological advancements. But here, hundreds of miles away from our nearest fellow sapiens, peering down at oceanic oblivion, one can’t help but be reminded of our vulnerability. Up here, nestled in this steel bird, we’re soothed by our species’ achievements in science over raw nature; but withdraw that variable and dump us in that callous ocean and nature gives no fucks about what our fellow man has accomplished on our behalf. Our technology separates us from the other members of the cosmos; together, as a species, we are superior and immortal, but individually, we are nothing and assailable, exposed to nature’s whims. We may have conquered land, but the abyss of the sea is still hungry and insatiable. It’s little wonder how it’s swallowed up so many of our achievements. Maybe Mac was right; maybe the Krake needed no help from its human-concocted payload to disappear into the void. What a discomforting feeling. I should have heeded my instincts and turned back.
Ilsa popped her head into the cockpit and said something, but given the din of the unpressurized cabin and that Mac and I were wearing headsets, we couldn’t hear her. I indicated a spare headset hanging behind my flight seat, and she donned it. She spoke into the microphone, “See anything yet?”
“Nothing yet,” Mac’s voice crackled in my headset.
“Maybe we should go back,” I said.
Ilsa playfully slapped my shoulder. Damn, she was cute.
Franz peered in over her shoulder and tried to say something. She gestured toward the remaining headset behind Mac’s flight seat. He popped it on and said, “Anything?”
“Ilsa was just saying that we should head back,” I said. Franz chuckled as Ilsa gaily hit my shoulder again. I didn’t hate it.
“Nothing yet,” Mac said. “You’re sure about these coordinates?”
“Yes,” they both said. Then Franz said, “It is a pretty sizable area. We still have some ground to cover, no?”
“Yeah,” Mac said, “we haven’t seen it all.” I groaned, inaudible over the headsets.
“How are we on fuel?” Franz asked.
Mac peered over at the dials on my side and informed them, “We’re good for a little more reconnaissance.” Great.
We flew for a bit more, the four of us looking out the cockpit windows. I hate when the customers hover like that, but I minded Ilsa over my shoulder a bit less.
We kept looking a little longer before I saw something on the horizon. It was just a black spot that could have been anything, so I kept quiet. Mac saw it too, unfortunately, and he spoke up. “What’s that?”
“It could be anything,” I said.
“That might be it,” Ilsa exclaimed.
“Let’s check it out,” Franz said.
“It’s a bit of a ways away,” Mac said, “but Duff will swing by it.” Thanks, Mac.
“Aye, aye,” I said, adjusting the yoke slightly to bear in that direction.
We flew towards it for a few minutes and, as we drew nearer, it was clearly a ship. A large ship.
“Could just be a tanker,” I said hopefully.
“We’ll know in a few,” Mac said.
We were about five miles out from it before Ilsa confidently said, “That’s it! That’s the Krake!”
As we got closer, its details became clear. It was a large ship, even for an aircraft carrier, almost the size of a tanker. I guessed its length to be at least 1,100 feet. Very impressive. We flew right over it, it resembling a skateboard from directly above. It wasn’t like any aircraft carrier I’d ever seen. There was no visible bridge platform, and the flight deck was completely flat save for two masts on the starboard side, one with antennae and wiring for communication. There were a few small facilities that I guess were some kind of storage sheds. The ship was dark gray in color, with a few gun emplacements scattered about, and some open-air flight hangars peeking out the port and starboard sides. It was rather uninteresting in its shape, but I awed at its massive size. There were no signs of life, not that I expected any, and there were no aircraft parked on the flight deck. No other ships could be seen and it was clear we were the first to stumble upon it. It was just a giant, empty ghost ship floating in the tremendous, empty sea. I shuddered.
After two fly-overs, I said to Ilsa, “You may want to take some pictures or something before we have to head back.”
She didn’t seem to hear me, and Franz asked, “Can you do another fly-over, this time from the bow to the stern?”
“Sure,” Mac said.
I obliged and worked the yoke, bringing the plane around. We flew over it lengthwise, each of us taking in its impressive breadth.
Ilsa and Franz had removed their headsets and were shouting in discussion to each other, inaudible to Mac and me. After the brief exchange, Franz gestured to replace their headsets. They did, and Ilsa spoke into her mic: “It appears there is plenty of room. Can you land?”
“What?!” I exclaimed.
“That’s not a good idea, lass,” Mac said. Thank you, Mac.
“Aside from logistics, there isn’t any problem,” Franz said. “We have the sanction of the German government, who this ship belongs to, and there doesn’t appear to be any salvagers or military in the area that we'd need to contend with. Can you do it?”
Back in New York, I’d often fly over the USS Intrepid, real low, fantasizing that I was landing on it. And even though I’d get that low – illegally low, truth be told – I never sincerely considered actually landing on it. It was something I always wanted to do, but here? Something just didn’t feel quite right.
I looked at Mac. He raised an inquiring eyebrow at me. He wanted to land on this thing just as bad as the Germans.
“There are no LSOs to guide me in,” I said, “and the deck will pitch and yawn with the flow of the sea, not to mention it will be a very abrupt landing given the runway.”
Ilsa batted her eyes at me. Damn her.
“It does seem to be long enough to effect a landing of this type of aircraft,” I said, “but I don’t know about taking off again.”
“I’ve seen you manage worse,” Mac said. Now my ego was at stake. Damn him.
I had one last card to play: “But we have no idea what condition that ship is in, or the condition of that weapon on board.”
“There doesn’t appear to be any damage,” Ilsa said, “nor should there be. And it wouldn’t be a rectilinear landing as the ship isn’t sailing, nor are there obstacles like deck traffic, or arresting cables since the crew obviously wasn’t prepared to effect fighter plane landings and takeoffs.” Where did she learn all that?
“If it’s beyond your capabilities, that would be one thing,” she continued, “but you seem like a competent pilot. It couldn’t be any worse than that rickety runway you took off on.” Damn her.
“We’re only asking that you try it,” Franz said. “If it’s too rough, just ascend back up and we’ll fly home.”
“Of course we’d pay you an additional fee,” Ilsa said. “An additional $5,000.”
That was all Mac needed to hear. “We can do another fly-over,” he said to me, “and worst case scenario we just abort the landing and take off again.”
I had to admit, the extra cash would be a great boon to our checking accounts. Plus, my ego was at stake and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to impress Ilsa. “If I can land,” I said, “and that’s a big if, we stay for fifteen minutes and then I’m taking off again.”
Ilsa and Franz looked at each other, then said, “Deal.”
I did the additional fly-over, which confirmed what we already knew: there was plenty of room and zero obstacles to impede a landing. I brought the plane back around a good distance from the ship and prepared my descent. “You two,” I said to Ilsa and Franz, “sit down and buckle up. It’s gonna be rough.”
They retreated to the cabin. Mac said to me, in the privacy of our headsets, “Are you sure about this?”
“It’s your plane.”
He considered that for a moment, but I could see dollar signs in his eyes. “With that extra cash I could almost pay this thing off.”
“Assuming you still have a plane to pay off.”
“Can you do it?” he asked with sincerity.
“Of course I can.” I could, couldn’t I?
“Let’s do it,” he said.
"Stop saying that."
I brought the plane down to the appropriate altitude and lowered the landing gear. My stomach was in knots – I’d performed thousands of seaplane landings but I’d never landed on an aircraft carrier before. I told myself it couldn’t be worse than landing on a dirt runway. The flight deck came up underneath us, and it was time to act. I held my breath. I tilted the yoke and we touched down, bouncing once and coming back down. Mac cringed. I fought the pitch of the ship on the waves while disengaging the thrust of the engines, and thanked the gods there was no bridge tower to swerve away from, since I was all over the place. I slowed the plane down, coming to a stop a little too close to the end of the deck, but we didn’t end up in the drink. There was enough room to turn the plane around, and I combat-parked facing the length of the runway, engaging the brake. I spied some wheel chocks strewn on the deck, and noted that for later use when we disembarked. For fifteen minutes, I reminded myself.
Mac and I shut down the engines and the plane, and hung our headsets up. He whistled and high-fived me, letting out an enthusiastic “Yeah, lad!” I realized I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, probably too loudly.
“You did it, lad!” Mac said. “I’ve got to admit, though, I was a bit nervous for a minute back there.”
“I’m still nervous,” I said. “Want to see if our customers are still alive?”
“Yes, I’ll go check.”
He unfastened his belt and went back to the cabin. I let the anxiety of my landing hit me, and hyperventilated for a few seconds. I brought it back under control and forced myself to admire my brilliant landing. My first time landing on an aircraft carrier. Whoo hoo! I mentally patted myself on the back, despite the retrospective recklessness of it all. Hopefully I’ll be able to take off from this thing.
I heard Mac open the hatchway and heard the pneumatic whoosh of the door and little stairway descending. “Lady and gentleman,” Mac said, “we have arrived.”
Part II - https://redd.it/6cbi1e
Part III - https://redd.it/6cjt7q
Part IV - https://redd.it/6cr3om