Ship traffic in the English Channel was now almost overwhelming; it seemed to both Taggart and Mike that every ship left in northwest Europe was now trying to flee the region by taking this more southerly route, and as there was no northbound traffic Taggart moved in as close to the surf as he safely could. Larger ships would keep well away from them – as they had to travel in deep water far off the beach – but that also meant he and Mike would have to keep a close eye on the sonar to spot any uncharted shoals in constantly shifting sand. If they missed just one their trip would be cut permanently short.
When they’d exited the locks at the opening of the Amsterdam Canal they were within a few yards of the Channel and so right in the thick of the so-called Channel Traffic Separation Scheme governing all commercial and military traffic in this normally very congested waterway. All transiting commercial traffic was usually under positive radar control so it was just about impossible for large ships to dodge small recreational craft – unless authorized to do so by the controllers – but now there was the very real possibility of submarine attacks on ship traffic to add to the confusion. Reports of periscopes were being taken seriously now, and several P-3 Orion ASW aircraft were orbiting the Channel to ensure rapid response times.
As Time Bandits approached Rotterdam and the Eurozone channel entrance, Mike kept binoculars trained on the breakwater jutting out from the Hook of Holland, staring in awe at the number of ships leaving the port.
“You do know,” Mike said, “that we’re going to have to cross that traffic lane…which means we’re going to have to shoot the gap between ships.”
“Okay? What am I missing?”
“Well, there are at least three traffic lanes working now, so after we cross one we’ll be seconds away from entering the next lane, and from what I can see none of the ships are maintaining anything like a constant speed.”
“Sounds like fun,” Taggart sighed as he looked at the plotter. “Okay…looks like about five miles to go to the breakwater…”
…then, somewhere behind them a huge fireball erupted, and seconds later the sound reached them, a deafening crumbling roar that caused Henry to flinch; Clyde turned from the sound and hurried down the companionway, and seconds later both Dina and Rolf came charging up the steps…
“What was…” Dina tried to say…just as the shockwave hit…
Time Bandits’ stern was shoved hard to the left and her bow dug into the water; Henry countered with full left rudder and she pulled out of the broach just as a wave of putrid LNG pushed through the air…
“Goddamn!” Mike shouted. “Someone just got a bulk liquified natural gas ship…”
Henry flipped the radar to full-screen and he could see remnants of the blast on radar; “Can you see anything out there?” he said to Mike.
Mike lifted the binoculars to his eyes: “Two, no…make that three smaller ships on fire, and it looks like one of the P-3s is dropping on a contact…”
A cruise missile burst through the water’s surface about a mile away and after it got airborne the missile turned for England and disappeared…a second later another missile launched, this one headed to a target in the channel to the southwest…
“Gimme the radio,” Mike said as he sat down next to the plotter. “Pan…pan…pan…two cruise missiles just launched, probable submarine location six miles north of the Hook of Holland…”
“Tiger 758 to unidentified vessel reporting launch. State your vessel type and exact location.”
“Sailing vessel Time Bandits reporting from 52 07 06 North 04 01 05 East. Two cruise missiles at low altitude, one leading east possibly London, one headed southwest down the channel.”
“Bandits, are you US flagged?”
“Affirmative. I’m retired fleet intel out of Norfolk.”
“Okay Tiger 758, a third cruise missile is in the air now, heading due south.”
“Bandits, give me a relative bearing to target.”
“Three one zero relative, range still about a mile.”
“Bandits, are you the southbound sailboat off the beach?”
“Recommend you take cover now.”
“Rolf, get Dina below, and don’t come up until I give you the all clear,” Mike said.
“Right, come on, Grandma-ma…”
“Here they come!” Mike yelled, pointing at two orange torpedos hanging from parachutes. “Get down, Henry! Now!”
A second later the first torpedo hit the surface and disappeared, the second torpedo moments later; about ten seconds passed before the surface of the sea erupted – then billowing gouts of black smoke and red flame seemed to ignite on the surface as a fountain of white water rushed skyward.
“Tiger 758, that’s a hard kill, repeat hard kill,” Mike said over the VHF radio.
Taggart stood and called out to Rolf. “Clear up here…come on up if you want.”
Rolf came up and looked at the still bubbling sea. “Was that a submarine?”
“Yup,” Mike replied. “They got off three cruise missiles…”
“No, probably not. Henry, do you have traffic on radar yet…behind the breakwater?”
“Yes…I can make out all three traffic lanes, I think.”
“Good. Look for big gaps.”
“Yeah, got it.”
Dina came up with cups of tea, but she looked shaken this time around.
“We should be okay once we get past all this traffic coming out of Rotterdam,” Taggart said, noting her shaking hands.
“That was frightening,” she sighed. “And unexpected.”
Mike shook his head. “With all this noise,” he said, pointing at the ships exiting the port, “it will be impossible to pick them up on sonar. My guess? This is how they picked off that LNG carrier.”
“So, you think more of this will happen?” Dina asked.
Mike nodded. “Look at what happened in Amsterdam, Dina. The Russians moved on the city to capture the fuel stored there, so it makes sense that they’ll go after fuel shipments leaving the continent, too.”
“And that’s why they’re moving on the Persian Gulf,” Henry added. “One more war over oil.”
“When will we get to France?” she asked, wanting to change the subject quickly, for Rolf’s sake as much as her own.
“It’s about 250 miles now, so we make it to LeHavre tomorrow evening,” Henry said.
“I am very concerned about my mother,” Rolf sighed, turning and looking at the large male orca swimming behind them.
Henry smiled. “She’s okay, Rolf. She’s with friends now, but I think she wants to talk to you.”
Britt was on her back in the water; two female orcas were beside her now, their body heat keeping her warm. When they had first approached her, and just as Henry’s voice came to her within roiled waves of insight, she hadn’t known what to think or do as the whales brushed against her. Yet she had followed his voice, grabbed hold of something in his words – when he’d told her to reach out with her mind –
And it wasn’t like she hallucinated what happened in the moments that followed. What she saw, what she felt and heard and smelled was as real as yesterday. The white, sandy road, the greenish sky dominated by the huge ringed planet overhead, the sea ahead – with a fresh breeze coming off the water scented with eucalyptus and strange, unseen flowers…then the terrifying jump to deep space before, literally just seconds later, she was back here in the water.
She was beyond relaxed now, the warm water lapping against her eardrums, the sky overhead a cerulean curtain dappled with drifting balls of shredded cotton coming apart before her eyes. She turned her head just a little and she was eye to eye with one of the females and it felt like the orca was examining her, literally looking into her soul, but it was her own reaction that startled her most now.
She wanted, somehow, someway, to hold onto the huge creature and drift away, to let go of everything. To reach out…
“Close your eyes, Rolf. Just take a few deep breaths and concentrate on the darkness. Feel it all around you, feel it like warm water surrounding you…”
Henry kept talking to the boy, instructing him, moving him closer to the moment.
“Reach out with your hands, out into the darkness. Now…reach out with your mind…”
Dina and Mike were staring at Rolf – laying on the deck beside Henry – as something seemed to happen…
“…reach out now…can you see her yet?”
Taggart’s body lifted from the deck and seemed to hover, then Rolf’s began to lift…
“Mother? I can see you…”
“Rolf? Is that you?” Britt said. “I’ve been so worried…”
Taggart wanted to hold his breath…he’d never been this far in before, and he’d never successfully taken anyone else this far into the zone. He knew he was levitating now but he was trying to keep Rolf’s first journey to his mother as simple as he could. Let them both discover how to reach out when their need was greatest, but when he pulled back he saw that Eva was with Britt and the females now. And he could tell Eva was very strong now, that she’d already been reaching out to places he’d never been before, and that Eva was helping him make this connection. He could feel her probing him, reaching into his mind, making a second connection even as he struggled with this one to Rolf.
“It’s alright, Henry,” he felt her say, “I’m here with you now. I’ll always be with you.”
He felt water, icy cold at first then spreading warmth all around and he knew the big male was with them now, then he felt Rolf’s hand reaching out for his and he took it – and in an instant the connection whirled away, leaving them in the water with three orcas.
The large male rolled on his side presenting a pectoral, and when Henry took it they moved slowly through the water to Bandits’ swim platform, where Mike helped them up and handed them towels. Dina was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Dina?” Henry asked, and Mike shook his head.
“I think that was just a little too much for her, Henry. Matter of fact, it was just a little bit too much for me, too…”
Henry nodded. “How’re you feeling, Rolf?”
But the boy was smiling now, and staring at the large male just off the stern. “Thank you,” he said as he turned to Henry. “I’m alright now, Henry. I don’t understand, but I’m good.”
“You’re not the only one, kid,” Mike sighed as he walked back to the cockpit. “Henry, about a mile to go to the departure lanes.”
“C’mon, buddy,” he said to Rolf. “Go get into some dry clothes. We have some work to do.”
Taggart went to the helm and looked at the radar display, then at Mike…
…who was staring at him. “I’m just curious, Henry. Are you even human anymore?”
Henry tried not to laugh – but failed and looked away. “Klaatu-barada-nicto, eh Mike?”
“Yeah, whatever. You really are one strange mother-fucker, Taggart. I mean, like, you do know that, right?”
“Me? Strange? Hell, Mike, I just go where the road takes me.”
“Remind me not to get in any more cars with you – like ever again, okay?”
Henry smiled and looked at a gap in the traffic and measured their distance to the breakwater. “Call it twelve minutes at current speed. Looks like a gap forming…” He stopped and turned around, looking at a wave of turboprop troop transports southbound just over the beach. Moments later they moved inland in climbing left turns – and paratroopers started their jumps – again. “Russians?” he asked Mike, now looking at them through the binoculars.
“Yup. Going for the airport and the oil storage tanks…looks like Frogfoots are coming down from Schiphol, too.”
“So…Amsterdam has fallen. Sheesh…looks like they caught Nato asleep at the switch this time.”
“Well, Henry, time to think the unthinkable. If the fuel reserves here are at risk someone is going to put two and two together…”
“You mean tactical nukes, right?”
Mike nodded. “We need to get the fuck outta Dodge, Taggart. Time to start pushing that diesel – hard – and I mean rig…” – but his voice was cut off as a wave of fighters – apparently coming from England – passed just overhead on their way to cut off the Sukhoi-25s.
Henry pushed the throttle up a notch and watched the head temp and water temp gauges inch up a bit, then he nudged the throttle up a little more, shaking his head as he did. Rolf came up the companionway and looked at the clusters of green parachutes falling to the earth, then at several dogfights that seemed to erupt in flash fire and smoke that dissipated just as quickly.
“What are we doing now?” Rolf asked.
“Let’s get ready to roll up the sails,” Henry said. “We’ll be heading right into the wind for about a half hour or so.” As Rolf and Mike started to roll up the sails two large explosions rippled through the air, and Taggart could see tanks moving across a bridge, then aircraft diving on the tanks. Several large explosions – less than a mile away – rocked the boat, and he watched as a missile hit one of the Russian jets, just one more explosion in what was turning into an almost continuous concussive roar.
Then he saw two Frogfoots – that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere – in a mad dive to attack traffic in the shipping channel leading out of the port, firing missiles as they came down and setting ships on fire as they passed low overhead, but then a huge tanker erupted in flames as small explosions peppered it’s deck, and a second later the ship disappeared from view in a blinding white explosion that knocked Mike and Rolf off their feet and laid Time Bandits on her beam. Taggart, holding onto the wheel, screamed out in pain as his body whipsawed around the cockpit – and as a wall of flame and soot engulfed them…
Bandits’ keel pulled them upright, tossing Taggart across the cockpit again, this time into the port-side coaming as the boat righted, and he felt his ribs giving way then cracking under the force of the impact. He turned, saw Rolf holding Mike’s hand, but he couldn’t see Mike? Was he…overboard? Rolf was pulling now, calling for help and he saw Dina coming up the companionway, a small laceration on her forehead bleeding profusely.
By the time he realized he couldn’t hear he was standing behind the wheel again – the engine seemed to be pulling okay but when he looked at the plotter he found the radar was down. He looked towards the ship channel and saw several ships totally engulfed in flames, then people jumping from listing decks and swimming away as ships turned-turtle in the middle of the channel. Choking black smoke filled the air as Taggart tried to pick his best route through the remaining ships that were now making mad dashes for the open sea as fast as they could – then he saw dozens of Nato helicopters approaching from the south. And then he knew that, just like Amsterdam, they were soon going to be right in the middle of another strategic land battle.
He looked over to the right, saw Dina helping Mike and when he looked close he could see that the skin on Mike’s face was charred, with little black flakes of scorched flesh falling from his head and neck as he sat up and coughed. Dina looked at Taggart and shook her head; he wondered what that meant as the boat crossed over into the departure lane…
Only there was little traffic to be seen, the entry channel now full of flaming wreckage and floating debris. Looking at the carnage, the first thing Henry noticed was that there were no emergency services responding to the scene – and he said to himself that in one more bold stroke one of the largest ports in Europe had just been neutralized. Then, after Time Bandits exited the shipping channel and as they motored south along the coast, he felt another concussive blast and he turned, looking to the north this time, and he saw another wave of turboprops bearing down on Rotterdam, then another blossoming of dark green parachutes.
As Dina and Rolf helped get Mike down the companionway, Henry watched as another rushing wave of Belgian helicopters approached Rotterdam – and then the plotter beeped and restarted. A moment later Dina came up the steps and started talking, but Henry pointed at his ears and said “I can’t hear!” She nodded and went below, came back up with her little black bag and a note pad.
‘I had to give Mike some of your pain medication,’ she wrote on the pad, then she pulled out a penlight and looked in his ears. She pulled out a pre-filled syringe full of saline and washed his ear canals, then he pointed at his rib cage. “I think I busted a few ribs,” he said. She pulled up his shirt and lightly palpated the area he’d pointed out and he flinched when she hit the spot.
‘Does it feel difficult to breathe?’ she wrote.
“No, just a sharp pain if I take a deep breath.”
‘At least three broken, maybe more. I need to tape you up but we don’t have enough tape here.’
“We can try somewhere around Bruges, maybe Ostend.”
She nodded and gave him his evening meds and half a Vicodin, then went below. Rolf came up a minute later and took the wheel, so Henry leaned back and tried to collect his thoughts…
Two hundred miles overhead four spinning orbs came together. Two disappeared and one remained where she was, while the pale yellow orb returned – slowly – to the planet’s surface, this time heading for the remnants of a very strange hurricane.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next chapter will drop in a week or so.