Fiction

THE CHOICE

Trapped in a sunken ship fifteen frightening fathoms down, Giles remembered life on land, then made his incredible decision

SCOTT YOUNG June 1 1949
Fiction

THE CHOICE

Trapped in a sunken ship fifteen frightening fathoms down, Giles remembered life on land, then made his incredible decision

SCOTT YOUNG June 1 1949

THE CHOICE

Fiction

SCOTT YOUNG

IN HEADQUARTERS of the Royal Canadian Navy in Ottawa the commodore climbed the 11 steps from the street, limply returned the sentry’s salute, and reached around his stomach for the signal a pale Wren messenger held out for him. He read it as he stalked, toes turned slightly outward, along the hall and wheezed a little with the effort of the stairs. At his own desk he buzzed for his captain. He heard the door open and, without looking up, he knew his captain stood there attentively in front of his desk.

“They’ve sunk the Oxbow, Charlie,” the commodore said. “Eighteen miles out of Halifax. Off the Samhro lightship. About half casualties.” The captain picked up the signal and read without speaking.

WHEN the corvette Oxbow was torpedoed at last light on the day of April 29, 1945, a civilian electrician named (liles was at work in the Wardroom. He was aboard because the Oxbow had temporarily lost her electrical artificer to a small blonde on the Northwest Arm and Sub-Lieutenant Harold Marker had arranged informally with shore authorities for the hire of Giles for a few hours, to fix a faulty toaster in the wardroom. When the Oxbow was ordered suddenly to sea to meet a convoy straggler Marker sought and got his commanding officer’s permission to allow Giles to come along.

“On your responsibility, Marker,” the C.O. said. “And see that he doesn’t leave the wardroom.”

In the light of what happened later there was some irony in the? commanding officer's stipulation.

Meanwhile in the wardroom Giles skilfully was rewiring the defective toaster.

He was a man with thick coarse black hair and eyebrows -a wide mouth. His lips had a hard and shiny look, not soft, as other lips. His nostrils flared slightly although his nose was rather (lat, and his eyes were deep-set and as black as his hair, the pupils huge. His ears were large and flat and below each of them was a small mark like a scar or a fold of skin.. He wore a leather windbreaker, a grey

flannel shirt, denim pants, and boots which laced up around his ankles.

“A queer type, sir,” observed Leading Steward Patterson, about an hour out of port, as he ladled into a percolator the makings for more coffee. “But I hope he gets that toaster to go.”

Sub-Lieutenant Marker did not reply, because at that moment a torpedo from the U-198, a German submarine equipped with the schnorkel breathing device which allowed it to stay submerged for as long as there was enough room for both crew and accumulated garbage, hit the Oxbow just aft of amidships. The radio man had time to signal her position once, no more. She sank in 84 seconds. About two dozen men were killed in the explosion, many drowned and the rest were picked up later by rescue ships from Halifax. And in the wardroom, which in a corvette is well forward, Sub-Lieutenant Marker, Leading Steward Patterson and Giles, the civilian electrician, were trapped by buckling steel companionways and went ninety feet down with the Oxbow. Marker and Patterson drowned quietly and without ostentation as many other sub-lieutenants and leading stewards had drowned before them.

"i ILES became unconscious a few minutes after

_F the Oxbow sank, but reached this condition only after a fierce threshing of arms and legs and a feeling of deathly constriction in his chest. This terrible pressure flowed and ebbed, almost with the regularity of breath.

Each flow pushed his chest out farther and each ebb left him emptier and weaker and momentarily clear in his head until a final crushing expansion snapped something behind his nose. A pain as sharp and berce as a heavy electrical shock shuddered down from behind his eyes, splitting outward with an explosion that first'lightened the black waters around him and then left them blacker and blacker until all sight and feeling were gone.

There was no way for Giles to tell how long he lay plastered against the wardroom ceiling before he became conscious again. He felt normal, except

that he was short of breath. His eyes were open, and seemed to have been open for some time— perhaps even before he wakened. They did not feel sticky and reluctant as eyes normally do after being closed a long time. They registered dimly through the opaque grey-green light that he had his face against the steel deckhead of the wardroom ceiling. Without thought or conscious effort he moved his arms only slightly and whirled half around in the water and lay motionless now with his back to the deckhead, and looked at the shattered wardroom where he’d been working— how long before?—at the toaster.

It lay on the floor below him. A rewiring. A simple job. In the opening to the galley a foot showed, swaying gently hack and forth with the imperceptible movement of the water. Giles became curious as to whose foot this was.

His arms moved again, and headfirst he shot down and noted that the foot belonged to the young sub-lieutenant who’d hired him.

The exertion tired him and only then, as he moved his arms again in a brief flapping motion and returned to the deckhead above, the terrible sickness came over him. This sickness swept into his mind irretrievably this time, unrelieved by doubt as it had been before in boardinghouses and ships and hayfields and canneries up and down the Maritimes Coast. His arms were stiff and hard to handle when bent but he moved them and fingered the marks, the scars, the tiny flaps of skin below his ears. They seemed larger and they moved with gentle undulation under his fingers.

He suddenly recalled then the girl in Antigonish who screamed when she saw him in the light after she spent a night with him in a dory tied up at a lonely jetty; the drunken bootlegger in Digby, who staggered across the room and gripped the table before Giles and looked for a long minute into his face before he returned to his own corner with averted eyes; the landlady in the frowzy boardinghouse in Port-aux-Basques who insisted that her husband, not herself, should go each morning to make up Giles’ bed.

They had known.

RATTLING uproar against the steel plates beside him sent him swiftly a few feet away, poised like a goldfish in a bowl, alert. Then he relaxed. He recognized the sound, from six years working around harbors while the war went on in the sea around him. It was the noise a depth charge makes, far away, the vibrations of the underwater explosion rattling as if someone in another part of the ship had hit the steel plates with a sledge.

The war, which had Continued on page 51

Continued from, page 10

seemed to be nearly over, must still be on, he thought. Maybe he hadn’t been here long. But because it was light now at least one night. He had no way of knowing.

Now, in a sudden frenzy, his arms working in brisk short motions from the elbows down as they lay along his side, he explored the wardroom flats. The deck below was tilted steeply. He manoeuvred his way through the opening leading out of the wardroom to the galley and officers’ cabins. It was darker there, the water changing from grey-green to a deep blackish grey. The effort of moving tired him. On the left the heavy twisted steel cut. off the way to one of the cabins. On the right the way seemed clear but the water was black, no light. He moved to the galley door and pushed his feet down gently until they touched the deck. Then ... a movement ... a man! His feet shoved hard and he hit the narrow doorway on both sides getting back into the wardroom, and there he waited, conscious of the rapid pounding within him, but there was no further movement.

Slowly Giles moved down and held aside the sub-lieutenant’s foot and looked into the galley and saw that the body of the leading steward was swaying gently just inside the doorway where he had been. The steward’s clothing was caught on something behind him.

The last five or six months had

been bad for him, as was usual in winter. Even in school, near the shack in the red dunes along Northumberland Straits where he was born, he was always smart in the first month or two of each school year and then a lassitude settled over him. Flach year had been the same-—the months of October, November, December, January, February and part of March had been wasted. At his home, where he had no mother that he could remember, his father slept through most of these months, rousing himself occasionally to send Giles out for food.

One year, when he was a very small boy and his grandfather had been living, he remembered that his grandfather did not move from his room for these five months and that his father moved only slightly, and Giles only more than that—enough to drag himself to school occasionally, although at school the teacher once told him he’d missed two days when Giles was sure that he had not missed a day; that he had gone to sleep one night and had wakened the following morning. “You must, hibernate, Giles,” she had said acidly. Everybody in the school laughed at that.

In his life he had known only enough to recognize the rhythm of his activity through seven months of the year, his lassitude through the other five. No more.

HFI WAS hungry. He reached to the galley counter for a tin of corned beef and opened it with his knife. He soon got onto the trick of eating. It meant closing his mouth firmly and squeezing out all the moisture, then swallowing. He looked into the galley again. There were only a few tins of food. He speculated idly on the chances of catching fish.

The deckhead vibrated hollowly again. Another depth charge. Afterward Giles remembered that as the last time he heard a depth charge.

IN OTTAWA, on the day Germanysurrendered , the commodore accompanied the admiral to the radio station where heads of the Canadian Navy, Army and Air Force made brief speeches on the victory of the Allies.

At a party afterwards, his captain detached himself from the company of two commanders and their wives and came over to him.

“F'lag Officer Newfoundland signaled to say that a submarine has surrendered at Bay Bulls, sir,” he said. “The U-198. The captain told them, sir, that his submarine had sunk a ship off Sambro light on April 29.”

“The Oxbow,” the commodore said. The captain paused a second. “Public relations are after her, sir,” he said.

The commodore grunted and waited. “They want to bring her over with a prize crew and let. the public aboard her at several ports along the coast.” The commodore sipped a pink gin. “Let them have her if they want,” the commodore said. “They’d probably go to the minister anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said.

DEEP in the sunken Oxbow Giles had no way of telling time, but his instinct told him that he had been there about three weeks when his eyesight, which had been good enough, began to get better. He wasn’t sure if his eyes had changed or if he was just getting used to the scanty shaded light.

Once, when he judged it to be night, a long grey shape which glowed phosphorescently at two places in its body moved in and around the galley and wardroom, and then nosed up to within a few inches of Giles and hung there motionless for a full minute before it turned off through the door-

way into the wardroom flats and disappeared. Small schools of normally shaped fish swam through often, and these Giles speared when he could and ate. The movement was not as hard on him now and he was seldom short of breath.

The odd thing was that Giles, although he occasionally was afraid, hadn’t a single moment of panic. At first he was afraid that he would fall unconscious again from the cold, but instead as the time wore on he ceased to notice it. He could feel no sensation at all, neither of heat nor cold, when he moved his hand through the water. Once, when he moved swiftly to his corner to watch a giant squid roam the wardroom floor, he found that his leather jacket hampered his movements so he removed it and it floated softly downward and the squid struck at. it. and then oozed rapidly out of sight into the wardroom fiats.

That was the day Giles began to have hope again about getting out. He noticed that the squid had taken the same route out that he had come in —through the wardroom flats; that was the same route the fish with the luminous inner organs had taken.

GILES had explored that route in the first frenzy of being trapped, but after that he had been afraid. He was neither as sinuous nor as wellarmored (although he’d noticed his skin was hardening) as most fish and he was afraid of catching himself somewhere away from food and being unable to get loose. He was also afraid of tearing his flesh on any of the jagged, swordlike, stemlike, needlelike, sawlike projections of torn metal. He thought the smell of blood might invite attack from the creatures that had so far left him free of menace.

But in considering whether he should seek a way out Giles had another problem. He believed he was no longer a man. The tiny scars on his neck were larger now and seemed lined with a stiffening membrane. What would happen if he got free and swam to the surface?

On land, above, there had been the haunting fear that, he was not as other men. Despite this he had known their women, and paid their rente, and wired their houses and slept in their beds, and eaten their hot hamburger sandwiches and lived almost as a man.

He knew little of newspapers, but he sensed that this would be a sensational kind of story—a story as of a sea serpent, except that this one could be proved.

Giles knew little of science, but he knew this" also would interest the men who were interested in men and fish and animals. They would probe over him, and perhaps his sight would gradually return to what it had been and perhaps his gills would lessen again to what they had been—small moist flaps which appeared from the outside like scars. He winced as he thought of the terrible blinding flashing pain of that first few minutes under water, and wondered if it would come again when he reached the surface.

Giles held his knife close beside him and pondered whether to become a man again, or to remain under the sea; or whether to remain under the sea forever, or to return to man.

ON THE 24th of May, the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday, the commodore left the governorgeneral's garden party early because he w’as bored. But naval headquarters was quiet and after glancing aimlessly at his desk the commodore marched back to the door and limply returned the still salute of the seaman sentry. Continued on page 54

Continued from page 52

“Anyone working today, Briggs?” he asked.

“The public relations officer is the only one in now, sir.”

The commodore stood a few seconds,

; thinking. The U-198 crossed his mind, j the submarine which had sunk the j Oxbow, the last ship lo.ss of the war. j The sub had been in five or six ports j now and the public had filed aboard and ashore and a guard had to be posted every six feet or the sods would tear the very plates off her as souvenirs. The Navy had retained two other sur! rendered submarines for training purposes and didn’t need U-198. Sometime soon a decision would have to be made as to her disposition.

Steps clicked along the corridor j behind him. The public relations j officer turned a corner, halted in surI prise, and saluted sloppily, as all public j relations officers saluted.

“Trevelyan,” the commodore said.

“Sir,” said Trevelyan.

“When are your people going to be finished with U-198?”

“1 was going to come down and see you tomorrow about it, sir.”

“Come in now.” Fíe turned and walked back to his office, the commander following.

The commodore sat down. The commander closed the door and stood at attention in front of the desk.

“Well?” said the commodore.

“We have been wondering if the U-198 is to be declared surplus, sir.”

The commodore blinked. “Perhaps so. Why?”

“1 have been thinking that she might be used in a Dominion Day celebration, sir.”

The commodore looked up and noted the commander’s excitement. Public relations officers always got excited.

If they didn’t, the commodore reflected, the poor sods would go mad, dealing with civilians and writers all the time.

The commander’s words came fast now, in his excitement.

“We could make her part of a Dominion Day celebration off Halifax, sir. Perhaps we could strip any valuable equipment off her and tow her out off the Sambro lightship, where the I Oxbow was sunk, and let the Navy j sink her there.”

The commodore listened, impasI sively. This fool was still fighting that I war.

“There would be an element of j retribution, sir, in sinking her where ! the Oxbow had been sunk.”

I The commodore again was inscrut1 able. This would have to go to the I minister, and if the minister approved I the sod would probably want to ring ; in the Air Force, because all services j were under the one minister. But it i would be one way of getting rid of this submarine, which otherwise would j clutter up some bone yard and would ; require a guard.

“Make a recommendation to that effect and I’ll pass it on.”

The commander saluted, wheeled j clumsily, and marched out the door.

(T 1 LES decision to seek a way out JF of the Oxbow came suddenly. It came without a decision as to what use I he would make of this way out, if he ! found one.

He took the knife from his belt j ! and flipped his forearms sharply and j kicked sideways and guided himself ! j down to the door in the wardroom j ; flats.

He held the doorway with both j j hands and pulled himself through. In | the cabin to his left, where he had ! moved both bodies to facilitate foraging in the galley, he could see the boot of j the sub-lieutenant swaying gently in j the movement of the water.

A dogfish appeared in the cabin doorway.

It vvas more than three feet long and it hung in the doorway menacingly, its blunt snout half-turned to expose the small mean mouth. The strong sharp spines near its dorsal fins were upraised.

Giles seized a mop handle floating against the ceiling and held it ready.

In front of him was a jammed metal door. The deckhead above had buckled against it. Gradually Giles worked himself around to the right between the downward projection of the deckhead and the twisted companionway and felt his way up a few feet and confirmed what he had found the first time—that the opening at the top of the companionway had been blasted inward until it was an irregular slit no more than six inches wide at the widest part.

The steel wall of the wardroom flats slanted toward him, pressing down toward him, and in sudden terror he wheeled with his hand on his knife but there was nothing there. He controlled himself with an effort. The lean readiness of the dogfish had done what the other fearsome citizens of the ocean floor had failed to do. He was terrified, and kept watching to right and left, and behind him—and finally the full terror came again and he whirled and churned the water and scuttled half-swimming and half-pushing with his feet and hands back to the safety of the wardroom and hung in his safe corner with the steel walls around him and trembled.

In a few minutes he began to think calmly again.

There had been no way out that he could see. But the only place he could not see was where the bulkhead had buckled in slantingly on the wardroom flats. If there was a way out it must be to feel his way along that slanting steel wall to where it joined the deck and seek for openings there.

HE STARTED for the wardroom doorway again, then remembered that he would have to go past the cabin and the dogfish if it was still there. He paused, and then moved one of the wardroom chairs down from the ceiling and held it in front of him and approached the door again.

The dogfish was waiting. Giles held the chair between him and the dogfish and when he was close enough jabbed out suddenly with the chair. The dogfish struck tentatively, then retreated into the cabin. Giles jammed the chair in the wardroom doorway so that now he had a defense weapon on each side of the cabin door. The fish’s retreat had helped his morale. He moved his hands swiftly at his sides and in a few seconds was back facing the murky black surface of the leaning wall.

He considered for a minute then, and reached back for the mop handle. He would probe the blackness before exposing himself to whatever might be lurking in that sharp angle. He pushed the mop handle in, and met steel below and ahead and above. Slowly he worked along the eight feet of wall and had covered three quarters of the distance before his mop handle met emptiness. He waved it around to try to determine the extent of the opening. Then he followed the mop handle slowly, bending and swimming with his feet, at the rear, higher than his head, at the fore. For one swift instant he felt terror again and mastered it. Then he was at the hole and felt around with his hands. Not more than a foot at its widest point. Slowly he turned back and swam through the wardroom flats. The dogfish hung in the doorway of the cabin again, but Giles ignored it. In the wardroom he

returned again to his corner and hung there, pondering sluggishly his entrapment. Then for the first time, when he was certain there was no way out, he had an active desire for freedom.

THE commodore stood on the bridge of a tribal-class destroyer nearly two miles from Giles and watched through his glasses as the high-nosed tug, Tenacious, towed U-198 at three knots over the calm sea.

The destroyer captain, beside him, spoke to a signalman. “Make a signal to all ships to stand by until the submarine is in position.”

“Aye, sir.”

A squadron of coastal-command bombers loafed overhead, buzzed down on the tug, and circled widely as the Tenacious suddenly spurted ahead, leaving the submarine sitting in precisely the position the Oxbow had signaled as she was sunk.

The captain gave orders for the destroyers to form line astern at action stations. The gunnery officer gave the range, three thousand yards, and kept calling it less and less as the destroyers closed on the target. The captain ordered the signalman to tell the other ships to fire at will.

The lead destroyer trembled and heeled slightly with the first gunfire.

The first waterspouts rose around the submarine, some over, some short, one direct hit. From above, well out of the gunfire, the aircraft completed their first bombing run. All bombs missed by 500 yards or more and the commodore, observing this, grunted a derogatory epithet.

THE first heavy drumming of engines above didn’t move Giles. Occasionally since the sinking of the Oxbow ships had passed overhead, the vibration growing greater as they approached to their closest point and then lessening as they drove away from the wreck. And anyway, what could they mean to him? A simple warship of small and homely design held no lure for divers or seekers after salvage.

It was nearly half an hour before Giles sensed that this was different. The vibrations were heavier, as of a great ship or many small ones, and they changed only slightly in density as time went on.

Giles tried to puzzle it out. Perhaps there were many ships and they were circling. His eyes roved restlessly around the wardroom and stopped at his jacket, tied by its arms to one of the chairs. He remembered the small fish he had stuffed in its pocket and for a second considered eating it.

Then the first shell hit the water overhead and sent heavy shimmering vibrations through the wreck of the Oxbow. Simultaneously the dogfish shot through the wardroom doorway and crouched in a far corner, excited and tremulous, and a small fish of the type with luminous organs dove through the small jagged hole above and hung motionless as if listening. A small school of fish darted through behind the larger fish and flicked here and there in terror as the shells rained into the water above.

As the minutes went on the proportion of larger crashes grew greater but they seemed to have no greater concussion than the others. The wardroom held dozens of fish now, one with great scales the size of silver dollars and a school of deep red fish and four with flat round bodies like porthole covers. Giles, in deep terror, held his knife ready, but he seemed to be the only one conscious of the others.

He moved his arms tentatively. He didn’t move! He threshed wáldly. He w'as caught! Then he calmed and looked behind him. A jagged spear of

steel shaped like a hook held the back of his trousers. It took only a few seconds to work it off and then he looked around and found that he was alone. The wardroom was cocked at a greater angle but above him was a gaping hole in the steel and above that was nothing but the grey murk of water and disturbed sea bottom.

With one swift movement of his forearms he shot through the gap and then paused to look around. No sign of anything above him. He kicked again, and a long menacing snout loomed up before him, and he darted backward and the snout disappeared.

He was on deck.

The plates below his feet rattled and shook hollowly with the continued drumming of heavy engines.

/ could go up right now, Giles told himself. Ships around, I’d be picked up right away, probably.

He slid over the side of the corvette and hung near the floor of the ocean.

And then as he stood there, the explosions abruptly ceased. An alien darkness moved above him, then slowly, slowly, as he stared transfixed, he saw a submarine sink to the ocean floor. The corvette leaped forward with a grinding crash, from the impact of the new wreck. Giles felt himself thrown violently.

Moments later he swam slowly and curiously around the submarine, peering through the murky clouds it had stirred in half burying itself in the mud of the ocean floor.

By reading the high painted signs on the conning tower one unit at a time he distinguished that she was the U-198. She was riddled with shellfire and Giles considered that there would lx* many bodies inside, but this thought had no effect on him one way or other.

And then he saw high above him, against the surface light, the wardroom chair with his jacket and the fish in the pocket and he was hungry. He pushed hard with his feet and soared after it like a game fish rising to a bait. But. also in the manner of many a fish going for bait, he immediately changed his mind. He sheered off slowly, puzzled with himself for a moment, trying to explain it in his own mind.

The motors rumbled closer overhead,

thundering on his eardrums increasingly. He opened his mouth wide and held his hands over his ears to lessen the pressure.

AS THE lead destroyer closed on the spot where the submarine had nosed downward, a bridge lookout sang out suddenly: “Object fine on the

starboard bow.”

The commodore and the captain and four other officers on the bridge trained their glasses on it.

“Looks like some wreckage, sir. A chair,” said the lookout.

The destroyer slowed suddenly, circled, and came alongside the object. A leading seaman reached with a boat hook and pulled it aboard. The captain shouted through his megaphone, “Bring it to the bridge.”

The destroyer swung wide at top speed to Lake sLition again, and as she swung the commodore looked at the wardroom chair from the Oxbow. The captain untied the arms of Giles’ leather jacket and held it up. One arm came away, the threads rotten. He clapped the pockets gingerly, then felt in one, but jerked his hand rapidly out and turned the jacket upside down. A small fish fell to the deck at their feet.

The officers and seamen silently inspected it, and one detached himself from the group to enter the incident in the log.

GILES watched the warship wheel and turn above him and reflected that going up would be dangerous now, with a ship flailing around so close. When it was gone, after a final turn, he turned curiously again to the submarine and looked in through some of the twisted lacerations in her steel sides. He saw no bodies. Another fish which glowed slightly in the grey gloom slid silently in through one of the holes and emerged through another and a school of small fish of conventional design nosed up and hung motionless for long enough that Giles speared one of them and held it tightly in its gills while it struggled and died.

Still holding the fish he swam up to the conning tower, watching carefully around him for possible attack, and

found that the hatch was open. Perhaps all the crew had escaped. This pleased him slightly, as the happy ending in a movie or a story pleased him, but his pleasure was detached. He hooked one foot through a rung in the conning tower ladder to hold himself in position, and slowly began to clean the fish. He cleaned it expertly in the manner of a man, but the memory of all other fish he had cleaned and of all men he had known was dim and his thoughts kept wandering to the fish with the luminous organs and the rays, of which he must beware, and the dogfish.

Only then, noticing his own preoccupation with the sea bottom and its citizens, he realized sharply that he’d made his decision. He remembered that first impulse to surface, immediately he found himself free, and felt some awe at the lightness with which he’d tossed the idea aside. And then the rush after the wardroom chair, and again he’d halted . . .

He was glad. He didn’t want to go back to land.

But, he asked himself, why? Why would a man, or a being who had once been a man, choose the bottom of the sea instead of the earth? It was a free choice. He knew there was much beauty on earth. He had heard of it many times. But he also knew that beauty was a goddess with short arms. She never had reached his boardinghouses. Her fingers always fell short of hot hamburger sandwiches with green peas. Her touch was unknown in the misty rooms where the happy and sinful and sad and disappointed gathered to blot out what lay on top of their minds. Often her influence was weak even in the singing of hymns for the righteous. For the lonely and ill at ease she had no arms at all. Giles was sure of this.

It was a free choice, free as salt water, the first important free choice of his life. And it was easy to choose between the known and the unknown. He shifted his foot to a more comfortable position in the rung of the conning tower ladder and pulled the last of the skin from the fish. Slowly he began to eat the firm flesh, much in the manner of a man eating a cob of corn. ★