Imagine a man cast adrift at sea with five other men, most of whom hate him because he is different. He and his shipmates were the only survivors of a Liberty Ship, the North Star, sunk by a U-Boat at the beginning of World War II. Imagine now that they discover a hidden continent, a doorway into the Perilous Land, the Land of Faery, where the ancient Tuatha de Danaan, the People of Danu, retreated after their defeat at the hands of the Milesians, the wielders of iron. Unfortunately, Amergin and his Milesian army followed the People to their own land, and war between them continued. The Castaways, Tommy McGuffin among them, find themselves in the middle of someone else's war. Will Tommy's difference allow them all to survive or will they die in a war in another world?
Five hundred feet off our stern, the North Star was groaning like a dying animal. She rolled over and shivered as her bow settled into the Atlantic, churning the sea and expelling thunderclouds of steam. Explosions below decks shook her, twisted her, cracking open the hull, spilling burning oil into the water. From the open wounds, flashes of light cast shadows on the sea, and one by one, the living men winked out; their bodies unraveling—burning or drowning—while their spirits floated off, elsewhere. Where there should have been another twenty lifeboats, there was only flotsam – pieces of wood, paper, boxes, and now and then, a body floating facedown. My shipmates were dead, or at least most of them, and I wondered why I wasn’t dead, too. It seemed strange, unfair really, that I was still breathing and they weren’t, but death is no more fair than life, which isn’t fair at all.
"They're all dead, I tell you. I know it.” That was Quartermaster’s Mate Jack Briggs, the bastard. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his face, his eyes big. We stared at each other; I tried to catch his attention but he looked away, across the water. He was ready to cut and run, while I was holding out for the bare improbability that somebody out there might still be alive. Maybe if we could save one of them, even just one, I wouldn’t have to feel ashamed.
Briggs was big, barrel chested and hairy, much of it muscle, but I watched him, and waited for an opportunity. If he left his guard down. I tried to be in control of myself, and to wait, but I still had to wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans.
“All of them? Are you sure that nobody else is alive.”
“Briggs look uncertain, but then seemed to make a decision. “Yeah. All of them. I’m certain of it.”
“You not certain of a damn thing,” I said, though I could see the bodies for myself. A swell pushed the boat up and over, rocking us to the brink of capsizing. One of the bodies, a bridge officer, bobbed up and down. “There’s got to be somebody else out there. We don’t leave sailors in the water; if we do, then we’re no better than the Nazis.” Oops. Too far.
“I ain’t no Nazi.” Briggs glared at me, his hands clenching into fists, while his glance was full of razors. Sweat poured off his face and his voice shook. “We don’t have time,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of here. The real Nazis are out there somewhere.”
What the hell. Go for it. “Chicken shit, Briggs.” I started making chicken sounds.
So far, we were the only survivors, four men and a boy—I was the boy, an apprentice seaman, named Tommy McGuffin—and we sat in a lifeboat off the North Star’s port bow, rowing away from the sinking ship as fast as we could. I felt a great sadness for all the men still aboard, dead or dying, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Was Briggs right? Should we take care of ourselves, so that at least we would survive? No—we had a duty to keep looking. We owed it to them.
The North Star, had been my first ship, and she was dying. What I felt was more than what I could say—trying to put it into words seemed like rattling bones, so I said nothing. For a along time, all of us were silent, not a cough, not a sigh, but only the precarious rocking of the boat, the sound of the lapping of the sea, and then a whispered prayer.. I looked up to see something I never expected—Briggs had tears in his eyes, but when he saw me watching, he hid them, rubbing at them as if to remove a speck of dust.
The moon was full and halfway up the sky, casting a silver ghost light on the water. A fireball, red and yellow, erupted from amidships, and the North Star broke in half, the metal screaming. The bow section disappeared in seconds, while the aft section floated around for a while, and then it too up-ended and slipped into the sea. The wreck of the North Star, even after she disappeared under the sea, shone in a ghastly silver light, glittering on the unsettled water and shining off the floating remains of the dead. I looked back to see that Briggs was staring at me again, that frightened, uncanny stare, and I knew for certain that my eyes were doing it again. He must have thought I was a Jonas. He made an old sailor’s sign against the Evil Eye and turned away, to stare at the dying ship instead.
We fell silent, for dying at sea was on everybody’s mind. I watched the moon on the water, the bobbing of the flotsam, my mind empty, and we sat there for a good ten minutes.
“There could be others out there,” I said abruptly.
“If they’re out there, they’re froze to death,” said Briggs.
“Maybe they’ve got a raft or something.”
“A raft? How are they going to build a raft out here?” Briggs said, his hand gesturing toward the water.
“Maybe not. Or maybe a piece of wood. Something big enough for them to climb onto.”
“You see any wood big enough for that? Besides, half in, half out of the water? They’d be dead by now.”
“Well, what if they’ve got their own boat?”
“If they’ve got their own boat, they don’t need us, now do they?”
“No, but we could help each other.”
“And give them a chance to come over here and steal our food and water? No sir!”
“You’re just making excuses. We got room on this boat. Room for one more, at least. There’s only four of us,” I said.
“With the food and fresh water we have, four of us will last longer than five.”
“That doesn’t mean we should abandon them.”
“I don’t care about them. I care about me.”
“Briggs,” said Corcoran. “The kid’s right. You don’t leave sailors in the water.”
“And if that means we all die, what will your high and mighty morals do for us then?”
“Then we’ll die like men,” said Corcoran.
“Nah,” said Jackson. “I don’t know about you guys, but I want to live.” Jackson was the biggest of us all, six foot three or so, and stuffed with twisted muscle.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You can’t leave sailors in the water.” I felt like I was repeating myself, which I was. “You don’t betray your shipmates.”
“Who’s going to stop us?” said Briggs. “You?”
“Right, kid. Three can survive longer than four. You want to go for a swim?”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I sat and looked away. I had no doubt that Briggs would do what he said.
“Cat got your tongue, kid? Good. Keep your teeth together. Freak.”
My guts twisted into knots. Always a freak.
At that point, Corcoran stood up. “Listen! Hear that?”
A cry, a shout and a call in the distance. The breeze carried it away for a moment, then it came back. Someone was waving at us, just at the edge of the dark.
“Now’s the time,” said Corcoran. “We either row over there and pick him up or we ignore him.”
“We can’t leave him out there,” I said.
Jackson looked like he wanted to object, but stopped himself, then stared across the water at the waving man. Then he shrugged. “We can’t just leave him.”
Briggs stared daggers at Jackson, then nodded. We set our oars in the water and pulled in the direction of the man until he was along side. I didn’t get a good look at his face, until he dragged himself up and over the side, then flopped into the boat.
“Shit. Master at Arms Walsh?” said Briggs. “We should have rowed the other way.”
“Sorry to disappoint, Briggs. Damn that water’s cold. Give me one of them blankets there before I shiver myself into little pieces.” The Chief was a short man, about forty and solid muscle, with a patch of baldness atop his head, and discipline in his eyes.
I grabbed a blanket out of the emergency kits and handed it to the Master at Arms, who drew it around himself, then he glanced up at me.
“McGuffin, right?” he said. “You’re the kid.”
“Yes Master at Arms. I’m the kid.”
“Just call me Chief. I suppose you can row as well as anybody. You men hear anybody else?”
“Nah,” said Jackson. “You’re the only one.” For just an instant, Jackson gave Briggs the eye, and then looked away, his upper lip curling into a sneer.
“Then let’s row over to where the aft section of the North Star went down. I saw some men jump off that direction. If we don’t get them out of that water soon, they’ll be dead.”
“We can’t stick around her too long, Chief,” said Jackson. “That Nazi U-Boat may come back.”
The Chief furrowed his brow and pressed his lips together, as if he was thinking thoughts he didn’t like. “We don’t leave the area until I’m satisfied we’ve gotten everybody who’s out there to get,” he said.
“Then we’re all going to die out here, Chief.”
“Am I going to have problems with you, Briggs?”
“Look, nobody knows we’re out here. The convoy’s long gone, and they don’t know we sank. We got enough food and water to last us a couple of weeks. More people, fewer days we have to survive. Simple as that.”
“I don’t care. We’ll have to go on short rations. We ain’t going to leave shipmates out here to die.”
At that point, a faint meow came out of Briggs’s coat, and then a tiny orange cat head popped up and looked around, then meowed again.
“What the hell?” said the Chief.
“It’s just Peaches.”
“You brought a cat onto the lifeboat?”
“She won’t eat much. Besides, she’s just a baby. I couldn’t let her go down with the ship.”
The Chief shook his head. “You are some piece of work, Briggs.”
Briggs grinned at the Chief, his teeth all yellow from tobacco. “That’s part of me boyish charm, Chief.”
“Then let’s keep Peaches, and let’s row to where where the Chief pointed, and see if we can find somebody,” I said.
“I’m with Briggs this time,” Jackson said. “I got a dame on 42nd Street waiting for me to come back.”
“What about you, Corcoran?” said the Chief.
Corcoran shrugged. “Those Nazi bastards are around here somewhere,” he said.
“So three to two,” Briggs said.
“Good thing this boat ain’t a democracy,” the Chief said. “Row until I tell you to stop.”
Briggs and Jackson grumbled, then Jackson whispered something to Briggs, who nodded, and they took up their oars. As he reached for his oar, Jackson took something metal out of the emergency kit and tucked it in his belt, then glanced at the Master at Arms, who was checking the tiller. The Chief brought the boat about and we headed toward the spot where the aft section went down. For all their bellyaching, the lifeboat was designed for ten people, so with just the four of us rowing, and the Chief manning the tiller, it was slow going. After about fifteen minutes, we arrived at a section of water that was crammed with pieces of wood, the bodies of ten or twelve seamen floating face down, and an assortment of hats, gloves, pieces of paper covered with a black oil slick, which formed rainbows where the Chief shined the flashlight on the water.
“I told you,” said Briggs. “They’re all dead.”
“If you had come over here earlier, they might still be alive,” said the Chief, glaring at Briggs.
“Hey, I didn’t sink the damn ship. Don’t blame it on me.”
The Chief shook his head and pressed his lips together, and I could tell he was hacked off. After a while, he said, “We’ll stay here another fifteen minutes, then we’ll go.”
Five minutes later, Jackson spotted a body floating on a wooden plank, and when he pointed it out, the body started moving.
“Get him out of the water. Now!” the Chief said.
We rowed over to that spot, which wasn’t more than twenty feet away, and Corcoran and I pulled the man into the boat, where he groaned, opened his eyes, and then passed out once again.
“Aw Jeez,” said Jackson. It’s the cook. The last thing we need on this boat is his black ass.”
It was Henry Jones, and I was never more glad to see him alive. I threw a blanket over him, and dipped a ladle of water from the emergency keg, and held it under his lips. Little by little, he came around, sipped at the water, then opened his eyes all the way.
“If it ain’t Tommy McGuffin,” said Henry.
“Hey Henry. I’m glad you made it.”
“Well, ain’t that sweet. The boy and Uncle Tom.”
“Shut your mouth, Briggs,” said the Chief. “Henry is a shipmate. You hear me?”
Briggs stared sullenly at the Chief, without responding.
“You hear me?” said the Chief.
“I hear you.”
At that moment, Corcoran shouted. “Oh God! Look out there!”
“I told you we should have gotten out of here!” Briggs said.
“Man your oars!” the Chief said.
A thousand yards off the Starboard bow, the sea churned, boiling the water into a white foam, until a periscope emerged, followed by a conning tower, and then a submarine. The conning tower had U-235 painted on the side. The diesel engines started, and the submarine growled forward. Seconds later, the U-boat turned in our direction and we sat watching, helpless, as she approached, a shadow in the dark. The crew were silhouettes, darker pools of shadow on the deck and on the conning tower, and they stood like ghosts, the only sound the U-Boat made was the growling of her diesel engines.