Battle-worn and battle-tested, Lt. Jordan Cole seethes with anger toward Lt. Commander Michael Edland, the man he holds responsible for the deaths of many of his men. Now thousands of more lives are at stake as the German navy has unleashed a new menace on the high seas.
Blazing across waves at unmatched speeds, the "Sea Eagles" carry the firepower of far larger warships. Commanded by Richard Reubold, a former flyer and fearsome leader who struggles with demons all his own, the shadowy S-boats imperil the crucial Allied assault.
As the clock ticks inexorably toward D-Day, Cole and Edland must put aside their rancor and carry out a daring strategy before the Allied invasion force is smashed and Europe is crushed beneath the heels of the Nazi jackboot.
"Chilling and compelling. . .will keep you up all night."
--John J. Gobbell, author of A Call to Colors
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By Steven Wilson
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Steven Wilson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSomething was wrong. Cole was aboard PT-155, standing to one side of the tiny bridge with the microphone in his hand, but it was much too light and yet he couldn't quite make out the other PTs. Something was wrong.
Then he knew-they were out in daylight. They never went out in daylight. A thick veil of fog smothered everything so that at first it looked dark. That was all right, the darkness was all right. But it was a false night. He could see the other boats, to port and starboard, but they were vague, ghostlike shapes that floated silently over the flat sea. He looked aft in confusion and could just make out DeLong with the 40-millimeter, its long snout trained over the stern. He was comforted by DeLong's presence.
"Some soup, huh, Skipper?" It was Harry Lowe. He was at the wheel, his easy smile just as much a comfort as the presence of Eckstam, Murray, or Tommy Rich, or any of the other crew members of Cole's boat. Except that Harry Lowe was dead.
Cole stood, stunned-watching his handsome executive officer pass the wheel lightly through his fingertips, scanning the compass, glancing out into the fog. But they were out in daylight-they never went out in daylight.
You go out at night because that's when the enemy convoys sailed, trying to passunnoticed. Cole knew that-Lowe knew that-why were they out in daylight? Had somebody made a mistake? Cole's mind stopped on that one word, mistake. It was a mistake.
"Some soup, huh, Skipper?" Lowe said again, but this time, when Cole looked at him, half his head was missing.
Cole stifled a scream, but when Lowe turned to him this time, he was fine.
"What's going on, Harry?" Cole asked. He didn't hear himself speak. It was as if he had imagined the words.
"Orders, Skipper," Lowe said. Again that smile on a face so handsome most of the guys had said, at one time or another: "Mr. Lowe, you oughtta be in pictures."
"Orders?" Cole said, confused. He didn't remember the orders. They go out at night-hunt for freighters, barges, and E-boats-because that's when they go out. Maybe run up against MAS boats if they were lucky. F-lighters if they weren't. F-lighters were thick skinned and the most heavily armed enemy boats.
"We've got something off the starboard quarter, Skipper," Lowe said, and looked at Cole expectantly. Cole didn't reply-he was trying to think this situation out. Everything about it was wrong, and underlying that awareness was the sharp stench of fear. After a moment Lowe reminded Cole gently: "Better tell the other boats."
Cole knew to do that. He should have done it immediately. He had the microphone in his hand and he always took station on the starboard side of the bridge so that when he got the word from radar he could pass it on to the other boats. He looked at the microphone as if it were some mysterious device. He pushed the TALK button, held it close to his mouth, and said: "Cole, to all boats. Starboard quarter." He realized that he didn't have the distance and speed and suddenly grew frightened because in this fog-just like at night when there are no stars and no moon and you might as well be swimming in ink-the enemy could be on you in no time.
Cole turned to Lowe, Harry Lowe with the Clark Gable mustache on William Powell features with a Robert Taylor smile, and was about to ask him speed and distance, because he was suddenly very afraid. But now everything was in slow motion, and his words hung in his throat. He felt as if he were drifting with no way to control what he was doing.
He had to warn Lowe. He remembered now. It wasn't in daylight, in a thick fog. It was at night, and it was very cold. And then he had the speed and distance, but it didn't make any difference. He had to tell Lowe but he couldn't; he could feel his body moving like a plump, tethered balloon, but he had no voice.
Lowe was smiling at him again and Cole grew angry, wanting to scream at Harry Lowe to pay attention to what he was doing, to call off the attack because it was a trap. He heard himself screaming, but his words were sucked into the silence of his dream, and he felt rage and impotence. Call off the attack! He was cursing Harry Lowe now, something he had never done when Harry was alive; but Harry wasn't listening, he was just maneuvering the boat into position, sailing inexorably toward his own death.
Now Cole was sitting in the tiny shack that they used for the ready room at the base, trying to explain to a very sympathetic but tired debriefing officer what had happened and why Harry Lowe's blood and brains were all over him. Cole leaned forward in his chair-he didn't have enough strength to hold himself upright-and told the debriefing officer, who kept yawning, what had happened.
"Why'd you go out in daylight?" the debriefing officer asked, sliding his hand over his mouth to cover a yawn.
Cole tried to straighten up to answer, but he thought if he stayed hunched over like this, he could hold himself together. He didn't tell the debriefing officer that he was afraid that his body would fly apart like Harry Lowe's head. Cole realized that the officer had asked him a question. "We didn't," Cole said, trying to make the man understand. "We went out at dusk, like we always do. We ran into the convoy at oh-two-forty-eight."
A tiny yawn was forced into submission by a shrug. "Yes. But why did you go out in daylight?" he asked again. And then he looked at Cole with a mixture of sympathy and pity and said: "Was it your fault?"
"My fault?" Cole thought, and realized that he could save himself by just waking up-knowing now that it was a dream and he didn't have to put himself through this. Everything was very familiar now, and the confusion that Cole had felt earlier in the dream was replaced by dread. He knew where the dream was taking him. "No," he said. "You see, the E-boats and F-lighters were hiding behind the slower vessels. In the convoy. We didn't pick them up until it was too late."
The debriefing officer was writing something down, and Cole knew that what he just said was an excuse. It was my fault. I should have known better. I should have made sure.
Cole could tell now that he was close to waking up, how, he wasn't sure, but something told him that he would wake up soon. It wasn't much comfort.
He was on the bridge of PT-155 again, but this time they were in the middle of a battle. Red and green tracers were sawing through the air and someone had fired star shells into the fog in a vain attempt to illuminate friend and foe. They were on the step now, racing ahead at full speed, with the boat shaking from the recoil of the guns, her hull trembling out of fright or excitement.
Cole knew what was going to come next. He'd seen it when he was awake and a thousand times in his dreams, but he couldn't stop it. The memory of it, the sight of it, was always present. Harry Lowe, rich, good-looking, decent-"That Mr. Lowe is a helluva guy," the crew said ...
Cole's eyes shot open. He saw the patient blades of the overhead fan turning slowly, pushing a touch of air throughout his room. He rubbed his face roughly, felt the tears mixed with the sweat, swung his legs out of bed, and dropped his feet to the floor. Sometimes the tears kept coming even after he woke up. He stifled his sobs with the ball of his fist, trying to choke back the sounds and the taste of guilt.
He sat on the edge of his bed, knowing that none of the other officers were up yet, thinking that maybe he could get dressed and make his way to the base galley for coffee. But he decided against it. There was always some guy over there who wanted to talk about something or other, and Cole just wanted to be left alone.
Guilt had become his companion. It was in him at all times; sometimes he could hardly feel the weight of it, but he could always feel its presence. It snapped at him when he had nearly forgotten that it was there. Cruel reminders of his faults, responsibilities, mistakes-sometimes embellished or distorted-guilt taking a perverse pleasure in coating reality with imaginary failures. It didn't make any difference-he accepted them all.
Jordan Cole took a deep breath, wiping the corners of his eyes with the heel of one hand, and stretched the stiffness out of his back. Harry Lowe.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and lapsed into an inventory of duties out of habit. All of the boats needed engine overhauls. The few remaining boats, his guilt reminded him, but in a surprisingly gentle manner as if to show Cole that guilt was not without compassion.
His eyes fell on a gray, battered metal ammunition box. In its previous life it had held .30-caliber ammunition, according to the stenciled legend on its side. Now Cole used it for another purpose. Pictures from home, his will, mementoes of friendships, and a stack of letters bundled by a thick rubber band.
Sometimes Cole would slide a letter out and read it, remembering Rebecca. There weren't many letters-eight in fact-but there were so few because Cole wrote nothing in return, and Rebecca did what Cole wanted her to do. She stopped writing. One tiny victory for Jordan Cole.
He sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes, his mind frozen into inaction by fatigue. The best way to stop thinking, Cole thought one day. Insomnia. Lack of sleep turned the brain to mush; pretty soon you don't have enough energy to form a single coherent thought.
He stood, fished around the room for his clothes, and got dressed. He glanced at his watch; oh-twooh-five, and shook his head in disgust. Two fucking hours-he'd slept for less than two hours. He'd decided that maybe he'd go over to the galley and pick up some coffee and head to the duty shed, find a quiet corner, and settle in, listening to the radio chatter.
Cole had the door open when he turned and glanced at the ammo box. He hadn't read her letters in a while. He'd thought about her, first with regret and then with anger at what she'd done, and finally with a longing so intense that he could barely stand it. Well, he thought, it's over anyway. Things happen, there's nothing you can do about it.
Guilt reemerged, refreshed and ready to accompany Cole. Lowe's face flashed before his eyes-guilt taunting him again. And in a whisper so faint that it could have been the distant rustle of leaves, guilt told him: "There was plenty you could have done about it."
Chapter TwoThe English Channel, Spring 1944
Seaman 1st Class Foster watched a tiny blip dart across the SG radar screen under the slow pass of the strobe. "Hey, Mr. Lewis? Take a look at this."
Lieutenant (j.g.) Lewis shook his head in disgust as he moved through the crowded Combat-Information-Center to the radar station. Foster should have made petty officer, but his mouth and holier-than-thou attitude had kept him at seaman 1st. Maybe he had the prerequisite ten hours of training, but that had been on the old SC radar and the SG was far more complex than the SC. Lewis never let on that he still didn't completely understand the intricacies of the SG. Not to the captain or the exec, and certainly not to the enlisted men. And never, never to the chiefs. They could make a young, inexperienced officer's life a living hell aboard a destroyer escort. Better to act like you knew what you were doing even if you didn't, especially in the CIC. They sure didn't teach you that at the Reserve Midshipman's School.
The tiny room, pulsating with life, was stuffed with speakers, situation tables for surface and air activities, and plotting boards with the names, call signs, and other data of the ships in the convoy. The bulkheads and overhead were alive with cables, wires, and conduits-the nerves that carried the information in and out. It was a clearinghouse for information that came in from radio, radar, sonar, and from the lookouts positioned at various stations on the Southern. It was dark in the CIC; the only light allowed was the eerie red glow of the emergency lamps. To the uninitiated the cramped room was a confusing maze of instruments half hidden in the gloom. The five or six men who manned CIC were ghostly images who moved silently in the tiny space, caring for the instruments. The fragile electronic gear needed constant tending; rangefinders, radars, transmitters, identification gear, direction finders, and receivers, everything sensitive to saltwater, salt air, and the pounding that the ship endured while under way. The only other movement was that of the strobe arm that flicked across the pale green face of surface and air radar screens.
"Foster, how many times have I asked you not to say 'Hey, Mr. Lewis'?"
"Yeah, but, sir, something screwy just happened."
"You see, that's what I mean," Lewis said. He'd tried since he came aboard to bring a sense of dignity to the USS Jeremiah B. Southern, but the captain and the other officers had ignored his efforts. The crew followed suit, behaving in a lackadaisical manner, completely lacking in professionalism. Lewis studied the screen. It was blank except for the column of steady ships in the convoy. "I don't see anything." He was tired and anxious for his relief. They had been steaming Condition II, half the guns manned and the men working four on and four off because they were nearing E-boat Alley. It was a state of readiness ordered by the captain. To Lewis it was a waste of time and another example of Captain MacKay's inability to grasp the obvious: the Nazis were on the ropes, anybody could see that. And the invasion would be a cakewalk. Lewis had seen the buildup in the ports, the long columns of infantry marching along the narrow British roads, and the flights of bombers that thundered overhead on their way to Germany.
Now the captain was worried about a bunch of torpedo boats in the goddamned English Channel. Where the hell was his relief? Lewis thought again. He suddenly realized that Foster was talking.
"Yes, sir, but it was there a minute ago. Just on the edge of the scope."
Lewis's eyes traveled furtively over the screen. "Whatever was there is not there now. You know we've got a couple of AOGs just aft of us." He felt salty using the official acronym for tankers that carried aviation fuel, oil, and gas. He hoped it made up for his youth and inexperience.
"Jeez, Mr. Lewis, even I can tell the difference between a gasoline tanker and something that shouldn't have been there. Besides. That last target was to port."
Lewis was unconvinced. He looked over the array of intimidating gauges and dials covering the console to either side of the screen, his mind racing over the operating instructions about the SG that he had tried to commit to memory. But his mind wasn't fast enough and the dials warned him to leave them alone. "Maybe you just imagined it," he finally said, ending the mystery.
"Yes, sir," Foster said grimly. He felt Lewis leave his side and cursed the officer silently. That guy was an embarrassment to the ship and to the uniform. Nothing but a chicken-shit attitude.... Foster leaned back in his chair and motioned to Chesty Marx at the Plotting Board. Marx looked at him quizzically as Foster mouthed the word Chief.
Foster saw Marx nudge Chief Petty Officer James and gestured toward Foster.
James walked over to the surface radar station. "What is it, Foster?"
"I picked up a skunk, right at the edge of the screen. It was gone in a flash. I mean sixty or seventy knots."
"Switch to max-range," James said, reaching for the bridge phone.
Foster did as he was told. The screen flickered briefly and settled into the new range setting. With the greater distance the resolution became distorted and smaller images were hard to pick out. Even larger targets at maximum range had a distinctly fuzzy appearance under the sweep of the patient strobe that swung loyally around the screen once every three seconds.
"There it is," Foster said excitedly, but the words were barely out before Chief James had the bridge telephone off its cradle and up to his mouth.
Excerpted from ARMADA by Steven Wilson Copyright © 2007 by Steven Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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