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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN

PERISCOPE PREY

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Ex Libris

First published in Amazing Stories, April 1943
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-03-04
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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Amazing Stories, April 1943, with "Periscope Prey"



Illustration

Rickhart drew his gun and fired blindly into the onrushing figure.



Rickhart, a young commander of a U-boat, found a new
target for his torpedoes. But a weird diary foretold his failure.




THE hard-jawed young Nazi submarine commander had watched the scarcely moving outline of the old sail-rigged cargo ship for well over half an hour now. Watched through the periscope of his gaunt, gray, sinister undersea shark, while in the confines of its steel walls his crew had grown increasingly impatient.

Rickhart—that was the young U-boat commander's name—had the cunning and the patience of a wolf. Five times in the last four months had less cautious commanders in the West African coastal waters stepped brashly into the jaws of Q-boat traps only to be blasted to the bottom for their foolhardiness.

Young Rickhart was no fool. To his credit was more tonnage sunk than that of any other Axis craft in this area. On the breast of his dress tunic, when he donned it, one could see the decorations bestowed by the Fuehrer himself in testimony to Rickhart's prowess as a crafty hunter.

There was a heavy fog, which had made visibility through the periscope almost impossible at first. Impossible, at any rate, to the immediate extent of studying the leaky old sailing craft to determine quickly whether or not it was a Q-boat whose superstructure would fall away and guns begin to blaze the instant the sub surfaced.

So Rickhart had patiently waited, studying his prey the while through the periscope, straining his keen young vision to make absolutely positive that the ancient sailing bark was absolutely harmless and undefended.

Finally, then, after half an hour or more had passed, young Rickhart pushed his peaked officer's cap back on his closely cropped blond hair, and turned to his second in command.

"Prepare to surface," he ordered.

Throughout the U-boat, as the command was repeated, there was a break in tension and a sigh of relief. Men leaped swiftly to their stations, and the craft's electric motors throbbed to life.

Commander Rickhart's under-officer, a thin, pasty-faced, dark-haired youngster, Lieutenant Borst, studied his superior covertly from his position at the gauge board.

A leaky sailing scow, young Lieutenant Borst was thinking contemptuously, and Rickhart studies it as if its holds were chocked with bullion, bah! If he fears it so, why does he not give it a torpedo and stand off?

But young Lieutenant Borst was well enough aware that one does not waste torpedoes on leaky sailing carriers you can shell into fragments. Nevertheless, he thought as he did through reasons that were purely personal and had merely to do with his loathing of the cruel, cocky Commander Rickhart. For though the young sub commander was famed throughout the Reich, and a hero to the Axis nations everywhere, he'd never been held in anything but hatred by the crews he commanded.

Rickhart had left more than one hapless seaman on deck to be sucked to a watery grave in an emergency crash dive, and rumor had it that on innumerable occasions these desertions had been too hasty, and unnecessary.

The pressure drops were being read now, the only voice sounding in the confines of the sub's bleak gray walls of steel. Commander Rickhart stood by the conning tower ladder, while above him, three seamen stood ready to throw open the hatch.

Then the tilting ascension of the undersea shark levelled off abruptly. The hatches clanged, and cold, fresh, blessed air swept down into the U-boat.

They were surfaced.


BRIEF moments later, the crew stood by the deck gun, Commander Rickhart and his under-officer, Borst, stood in the conning tower, and the submarine rode easily in a listless sea.

Lieutenant Borst and Commander Rickhart both had binoculars raised, and through the fog mists were studying the almost motionless old sailing craft which lay a scant two hundred yards abeam.

Lieutenant Borst lowered his glasses.

"I see no sign of life, Herr Commander," he said.

Commander Rickhart continued to hold his binoculars on the prey.

"My eyes are as sharp as yours, fool," he said. "I am aware that there seems no sign of life."

"Do you think it a trap?" Lieutenant Borst asked. His tone was just as goading as he dared make it.

Rickhart lowered his binoculars and stared hard at young Borst until the other flushed pink beneath his pasty cheeks.

"That is not a trap, I am willing to swear, Lieutenant," Rickhart snapped. "Order our gun crew to hold fire. Prepare a rubber boat. I am making an investigation of that vessel."

Lieutenant Borst saluted, covering the look of surprise that came to his eyes.

"Very well, sir."

As his underling left to prepare the rubber craft, young Rickhart raised his glasses again and resumed his study of the seemingly drifting sailing vessel.

She was a three master, holding deep on the waterline. Obviously a relic of days long past in West African trading, she brought to mind the recent news Rickhart had received of many such old craft being pressed into service for short coastal cargo runs by the United Nations.

Yet, as Rickhart continued to study her, there was something in the gaunt, grimly gray outline of the vessel in the fog, something in the tightly furled canvas on her sticks and the absolutely lifeless appearance to her, that made the commander uneasy.

But Rickhart had sensed the attitude of young Borst, and sensed, too, something of the tension of the crew as they'd lain a periscope depth for that interval in which he'd watched the vessel.

He grinned sardonically to himself, shaking off the feeling. Perhaps there was no one aboard. It could easily be possible. In the storms which had ravaged this coast over the past weeks it would be not an unusual matter for the hapless crew of such a miserable skiff as that to have been lost in entirety.

Rickhart didn't like to think that he wouldn't find someone aboard, however. Otherwise, he'd miss the sport of machine gunning the open boats after the vessel had been tooth-picked by shelling.

He took his glasses from his eyes again, slipping them into the case around his waist. He could see Lieutenant Borst standing by the inflated boat. All was ready.

Commander Rickhart descended from the conning tower to the deck.

"Do you want me to take the boat, sir?" Borst asked.

"You remain in the tower here," Rickhart snapped. "I will personally board our, ah, prize. Pick a crew of four men to go with me."


RICKHART sat in the stern of the rubber boat as the four seamen rowed him across the calm, open water to the listless old sailing vessel.

And when they came alongside the old ship, the sailors in the fore of the inflated boat heaved a line aboard and scrambled for the railings above them—a none too difficult feat, since the old craft lay low in the water.

Rickhart stood up.

"Ahoy!" he called loudly. "Any person aboard?"

From the fog. shrouded hulk of the vessel there came no answer.

The first two seamen were aboard the vessel, making their lines fast. The two still in the boat stood by while their young commander scrambled up the lines to the deck.

As Rickhart climbed aboard the vessel, he noticed the stench for the first time.

It wasn't strong. It was faint, almost imperceptible. The smell of something that has eaten into timber never to be completely washed out again.

The fog on the deck was thicker than it had been along the water. Visibility was difficult.

Rickhart cupped his hands to his mouth and turned toward the bridge deck.

"Ahoy!" he shouted again. "Aboard?"

Again, the fog seemed to muffle his voice in a blanket of mist and silence.

Rickhart spoke to the seaman nearest him, "An electric lantern."

A steel, battery powered lamp, topped by a leather handle, was flicked on and handed him. Its beam bit suddenly deep into the shrouds of fog surrounding them, illuminating the area of the deck on which they stood with eerie phosphorescence.

Commander Rickhart raised the lantern above his head, so that its beams could play further around the deck.

And then he saw the skeleton.

It lay perhaps twenty feet aft of where they stood, bleached and grotesque in the scuppers.

Rickhart's jaw went hard. A sailor behind him gasped. The other gave a choking cry.

Rickhart's laugh was harsh.

"Little wonder I was given no answer. This hulk is a ghost ship." He spoke the words loudly, a little too loudly.

Young Commander Rickhart walked to the side of the skeleton, and irreverently prodded the chalky bones with his foot.

Rickhart turned to the seamen who'd followed on his heels. He grinned.

"Interesting prize we've captured, eh?" he asked. "I think I shall give it more thorough inspection."


HE turned and moved still farther aft. Around the corner of a low cabin hatch they saw the others—skeletons all, about a dozen, lying at weird inter-angles against a companionway leading to the bridge deck.

Silently, Rickhart played the lantern on the bleached dullness of that mass of human bones.

One of the sailors, an older member of the crew, spoke shakily, then.

"If you please, sir. Vessels such as this are unsafe. The very timber of the deck we stand on is unsafe. If Herr Commander were to be injured—"

Rickhart cut him off savagely.

"You old fool! Do you think I know nothing of sailing craft? Do you think I know nothing of rotted hulks such as this? My father, his father before him, and his father before him, were all schooled in sail. My great grandfather sailed vessels such as this off this very coast before you were born. I am no thumb-sucking youngster. I am your commander. Hold your tongue!"

The older seaman cringed back whitely from his commander's rage, his eyes bewildered. Nothing he had said should have caused even Herr Commander Rickhart's notorious temper to blaze like that.

Rickhart turned from the litter of human bone. He gestured toward the rail of the ship, commanding the two seamen:

"Over the side. Wait in the boat until I return. I am going to inspect this floating graveyard without stupid interference from my crew!"

He watched the two seamen scramble toward the rail in obedience to his orders. He grinned as they seized the lines and dropped over the side down to the waiting inflated boat.

Then he turned back to his inspection of the ghost ship.

The portside companionway leading to the bridge deck was beyond use, its rails shattered, its rungs crumbling. But the starboard companionway seemed in better preservation.

Rickhart went over to it, tested it, and started up to the bridge deck, lantern in one hand while the other clung to the rung above each step.

Up on the bridge, Rickhart stood there a moment, looking down over the deck below. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the damp saltiness of the sea fog. Up here the faintly present stench was not so strong.

Commander Rickhart moved over to the wheel, a rotted mess of spokes and lines which almost crumbled beneath his touch. The binnacle before it, once gleaming no doubt, was a thick green-black of sea decay.

Rickhart moved back to the starboard companionway and descended it gingerly until he was on the main deck again. He saw a half open hatch cover and eyed it speculatively. Then, deciding against the hazards of such an under-deck investigation, he turned away. It was then that he noticed the half-ajar hatch doorway of what had obviously been the captain's cabin.


QUICKLY, Rickhart moved over to it. Playing his light on the rotted surface of the hatch-doorway, he saw that it wouldn't crumble if he opened it still more.

He stepped forward and gingerly slid the covering back, revealing a dark hole below it.

The commander shoved the lantern forward, and its beams revealed what lay below, illuminating the scene eerily.

There was another companionway, leading downward on an angle into what had once been a comfortable Master's cabin. And at the far end of that cabin, just faintly discernible on the fringe of lantern's beam, was a figure in a chair before a desk.

The figure was, of course, another skeleton.

"Ah ha, Captain," Rickhart murmured sardonically, "I have come to exchange greetings. And what is this? I find you dead, obviously long dead? How so?"

Rickhart noticed then that the companionway rungs looked as if they'd bear his weight. He hesitated, however, arguing mentally against the sudden temptation presenting itself.

He looked back across his shoulder. He should not linger here too long. It was dangerous, if a patrolling destroyer were to nose around. And yet, the fog was an almost positive security against his submarine's being sighted.

Commander Rickhart, holding the lantern high ahead of himself, started slowly down the companionway into the cabin.

Once at the bottom of the companionway, he looked around.

There was a beam peg just within arm's reach directly above him. Smiling, the young sub skipper hung his lantern there. Obviously other lanterns had hung from there.

Now the cabin was better illuminated. On either side of it were bare bunks, the boards of which were warped in decay. In one corner of the cabin was an open cabinet, and in the cabinet was a small arsenal of rusted, incredibly outmoded firearms.

Startled, Rickhart stepped over to the cabinet, examined the guns, then stepped back bewilderedly. The smile had left his cruel young mouth.

"Not that long," he muttered. "It couldn't keep afloat, couldn't remain unnoticed for that long!"

Then the skeleton seated before the desk and the far end of the cabin attracted his curiosity. Swiftly, he stepped over to it. With his foot, he jarred the chair, splintering the rotted wood and knocking the bones of the skeleton from it.

Stepping over them, Rickhart leaned over the desk, where on open, yellowed volume had rested between the skeleton's arms.

The script on the yellowed pages was so faded that Rickhart was forced to return to the beam peg in the center of the cabin and remove the lantern from it. Then, with the lantern in hand, he went back to the desk.

Now, bending over the yellowed volume until his nose almost touched its pages, and holding the lantern directly over it, Rickhart was able to make out the faint, blurred script.

It was written in German, in a flowing, bold hand!

"Gott!" Rickhart gasped.


HE reached forward and moved the book, half expecting it to fall apart. But it didn't. Thus encouraged, he turned back its yellowed pages ever so carefully until the first page was revealed. Lettered there, in German script, was the legend:


LOG OF THE SHIP "SINISTER"


Involuntarily, Rickhart shuddered at the unhappy choice of a name for this vessel. Then, carefully turning the first page, he read the opening insert.

A list of ports departed from. A crew listing. Navigational statements. Cargo details. Some of it readable, much of it blurred.

Rickhart flipped on for several more pages. Then he came to a faintly readable entry which made him pause.


"Picked up cargo lying close off coast tonight. Two hundred blacks. Fifty lost in bringing them from village. Holds cleared and they are now stored there. Will ... clear for night ... avoid any British warships ... possibly ... vicinity."


Quickly Rickhart turned the crumbling page, only to find that the next page and the page after it were impossibly obliterated. But there was an entry on the succeeding page which he was able to read.


"Think ... made bad choice in Second Mate Stover ... No stomach for this job. Sick easily at sight of blacks chained in holds. Too friendly with crew. Must watch him."


Again Rickhart found the remainder of the page obliterated. And he was forced to turn half a dozen more this time before he was able to find another entry which he could read.


"This is fifth day becalmed. Crew restless. Blacks in hold beginning ... stink. Terrible heat. Stover, second mate, tried issue water supply to blacks. Wouldn't stop when told. Forced to knock him down. Beginning to distrust crew."


The next pages were a matted yellow mass of dried pulp, almost a dozen of them inseparably stuck together. Then there was another readable entry. This much longer than any of the others.


"On this sixteenth day becalmed it happened. Open mutiny. Stover leading crew in effort ... seize vessel ... Personally shot fifteen mutineers ... First Mate Grenheim with me. We seized water and food casks, so they will die of thirst and starvation if ... refuse to surrender. First Mate Grenheim taken over bridge deck. I cover from Master's cabin. We hold sweep of vessel."


There were three obliterated paragraphs, a mark indicating the end of the entry, then the start of another legible one.


"No entry yesterday. Stover and mutineers tried for control of bridge, failed in day-long battle. Killed eight of them this time. Only two left, now, besides Stover. Don't know where they get scant supply of water to keep them alive. First Mate Grenheim badly wounded defending bridge. Think ... will die. Probe for shot useless. He grows delirious. Calm and terrible heat unchanged. Blacks must all be dead by now. Their stench putrid. Mutineers gave up trying to feed or release them long ago. First Mate Grenheim and myself kept hold hatches under fire in ... each attempt of mutineers to release blacks."


Almost frantically now, Rickhart cursed as he encountered another series of illegible entries. Then at last he found another which he was able to read.


"With death of First Mate Grenheim yesterday ... am now quite alone. Suspect, however, Stover's two companions are dead and that Stover's own strength is almost spent. With pitiful food and water supply it is wonder he is not already dead. If I am correct about his fellow mutineers, that leaves but the two of us alive aboard the Sinister. Only one will survive, and I will be that one. Have plan to get Stover to waste last of ammunition this afternoon. If successful, will get him tonight."


THE page and the entry ended there, and Rickhart turned it quickly, suddenly realizing that he had turned to the final entry sheet in this hideously grim logbook of death.

Rickhart noticed at once that the final entry page was more legible than the others, but that the hand that wrote it had been far less steady. Eyes wide, he bent to read it.


"My plan this afternoon succeeded. Stover, fooled by the ruse, expended his last ammunition. He undoubtedly expended much of his last strength. I waited until nightfall, and even then a little longer, before leaving the cabin. I could sense that he knew I crept across the moonless deck, as he waited almost dead behind his barricade of empty water casks. I could feel his eyes following my stealthy approach, even though I was reasonably sure he could not see me. The hideous stench coming from the clamped lids of the holds where the blacks died, almost suffocated me as I inched slowly past. Moments later, and I was but yards from the barricade behind which Stover lay waiting. Another moment of cautious approach, and I could hear the faint groans coming from his accursed throat. The tortures of thirst were becoming known to the foul mutineer.... My swift rush caught him unable to resist, just as I had anticipated. He was lying helpless on his back as I leaped the barricade. His eyes were fever mad, his bearded face twisted in torture, and he screamed at me in a rattling, choked half-human rasp, his horribly puffed lips scarcely able to form the words. 'Enslaver!' he screamed, 'You shall die and die again for every shackle you seek to fetter to the arms and legs of God's children! His mad scream enraged me beyond all power of reason. I lost all caution, not noticing the pistol he'd had clutched beneath the filthy tatters of his blouse, and suddenly dragged forth. Even as I raised my rifle butt to bring it smashing down on his accursed skull, that pistol he'd concealed split the night with flame. I felt the bullet tearing hotly into my chest before I realized how I had been betrayed by this dying swine. And at that moment the butt of my rifle splashed his brains across the deck. He was dead, quite dead. One of us had survived. I had been that one, just as I had vowed. The wound in my chest was ugly. I tried to stem the blood to no avail. In the cabin, now, as I write this, I see that the second effort to stem my wound was not any more successful. I shall have to try again, for even now I feel a dizzying weakness, a frightening weakness, as my blood forms a small, shiny pool at my feet."


THERE was no more. The entry ended there, and the yellowed pages following it were blank. With hands that shook visibly, the young Commander Rickhart leafed back to the first page. Again he saw inscribed in German script:


LOG OF THE SHIP "SINISTER"


And then, down in the lower left hand corner of the page was a small signature which he had not noticed until now. The signature was faded, but still discernible.


"Captain Wolfgang Rickhart," it read. "Master"


Young Commander Rickhart stared in horror at the signature. His own words of but moments ago, words spoken wrathfully to the older seaman who'd advised him against going over this vessel, came back to him with chilling clarity.

"My great grandfather sailed vessels such as this off this very coast before you were born."

And they'd been words of truth. His great grandfather Wolfgang Rickhart, had sailed off this coast—

It was at that instant, as young Rickhart's eyes were drawn irresistibly to the rubble of bones and the grinning skull that had been seated before the desk, the bones of Wolfgang Rickhart, that the voice sounded at the entrance of the cabin. The voice that chilled the very marrow of the young Nazi U-boat Commander Rickhart. A voice that was more of a choked, rasping, scream than a voice.

"Enslaver Rickhart!" it rattled.

YOUNG Rickhart wheeled. Wheeled to see a hideous spectre of a man, a tattered, bloody, filthy caricature of a human being atop the highest step of the companionway and glaring down at him.

"Who are you?" young Rickhart gasped.

The creature began to move down the companionway into the cabin. Teeteringly, relentlessly. And then Rickhart saw its head, or what had once been its head. One half of it was a mess of smashed bone and blood and brain. It couldn't be alive with a skull as badly crushed as that.

But it moved relentlessly on toward Rickhart.

"Stover!" young Rickhart gasped, scarcely realizing he'd spoken the name.

And then he saw the long sharp marlinspike in the creature's hand. And in what was left of the creature's face, the young commander read the intent behind that crude weapon.

Instinctively, Rickhart's hand was at his side. He found the automatic holstered there, and in a single motion whipped it free and was blasting shot after shot into the body of the creature stumbling toward him.

The din was earsplitting, the reverberations thunderous. The creature halted not a second. Now it was less than two feet from Rickhart, marlinspike raised high in its claw-like hand, coming onward.

Rickhart screamed shrilly, piercingly, hurling his empty gun into the face of the thing.

The blow was swift, the marlinspike dug deep through bone and into the brain, embedding itself in Commander Rickhart's forehead as he pitched headlong to the cabin floor....


THE seamen who'd waited alongside the ghost ship for their young commander were never able to explain how that floating hulk of rotted timber had burst so swiftly and uncontrollably into flame.

Inside of a moment, it seemed, the entire craft was blazing wildly from stem to stern.

One of the seamen in the rubber boat tried to get up over the side of the ancient sailing vessel. But his companions prevented any ideas he might have had about delaying them all in an effort to save the commander. They dragged him back into the inflated craft and paddled furiously out of harm's distance.

And it will never be known if the submarine's presence on the surface was revealed to the neighboring British destroyer by the flames of the old ship, or by the sound of the U-boat's recharging batteries.

For the British destroyer arrived at the scene of the blazing old hulk just as the U-boat was starting its crash-dive. The undersea boat never had a chance. Two shells caught it seconds before it started to submerge. There were no survivors....


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.