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Friday, 25 April 2014

Saturday story - 'Hoverjack'

This was my first published story, written under the penname Platen Syder, which appeared in Parade on February 6, 1971. I was very pleased with the illustration that accompanied it, too. Naturally, in hindsight I would tighten up certain bits. Still, its 2,000 words possess a fast pace and reflect the Cold War period.
 

Hover-Jack
 
 
 

Keith Segal boarded the hovercraft at 8.15pm sharp. There were only six other passengers: the last trip to the Isle of Wight. As he edged up the aisle, his gun-harness felt tight across his broad shoulders.

Then he spotted his quarry. The little fat man sitting near the rear emergency exit window. Avery.

The hatch lowered. The revs mounted. Amidst the banshee wail of the props, the cushion lifted them and swung the craft round onto water.

As the first waves were buffeted by the air-cushion, Segal rose, withdrawing his automatic. Ignoring the gasps of dismay from his fellow-passengers, he pressed the gun to the pilot’s temple. “Out to sea – between those two Palmerston forts!”

In the rear-view mirror he espied Avery raise his fist to smash out the emergency window.

Pivoting round, Segal fired. The shot puffed deep into Avery’s seat. Cold-bloodedly eyeing him, Segal yelled above the din. “The next one’ll hit, Avery!”

By now the coastguard up ahead would be alerted. He glimpsed their wave-crests nearing. An MTB with them.

“Radio the coastguard!” he ordered the pilot. “Tell them it’s a hijack and these passengers are hostages. Any sign of pursuit and they die…”

Tremulously, the pilot obeyed. Cackling back, the radio acknowledged their message. Segal watched as the boats veered off, heading back inland. Being ex-Navy himself, he knew the Senior Service better than that. They’d now be a little orange blip on the radar screens.

Fifteen minutes later they sidled up to a dirty old tanker commandeered for this operation only, its fuel pipes dangling. Two swarthy sailors speedily refuelled the hovercraft.

As they headed out into the Channel, a slightly built passenger dived at Segal. Viciously chopping the bridge of the balding man’s hooked nose, he saw that two others had also found courage. He was thankful the narrow aisle prevented them both attacking at once. He ducked a ham-fisted blow and elbowed the stocky attacker’s stomach, following up with a knee to his groin.

He didn’t want to shoot if he could help it – the Bossman wouldn’t approve. As the first assailant slumped to the deck, the second, shorter one kicked out. The suede shoe winded him. Ruthlessly he clamped onto the short man’s leg and jerked it high up, unbalancing him.

In control now, he turned to notice the pilot serving the craft inland. The coastguard and MTB were visible ahead on the hazy horizon. They were following all right.
 
Clubbing the pilot’s chin with his automatic, he urged a course-correction. Then, steadying himself against an upright, Segal surveyed the passengers. Avery hadn’t moved – resigned to his fate, probably.
 
The meeting place had better be near, he thought, as I’m not likely to hold this lot at bay for long, unless I start shooting.
 
Heavy thunderclouds hovered, darkening the dusk. In the greyness he discerned a hulk rising. The submarine! Seconds later, the phosphorous wake – a gemini motoring across. The hovercraft. The hovercraft spluttered to a halt. The fuel had just lasted.
 
Warily studying the others, Segal pushed Avery up outside and down into the bobbing gemini. In a way, Segal felt sorry for Avery. He’d lost his wife in a confrontation with the Special Branch eight years ago. For three years they’d kept the grave under surveillance, but he never showed, so they gave it up as a bad job.
 
But Segal didn’t – and it paid off. He soon learned that Avery had moved his Southern Spynet to the Isle of Wight. And wisely, Segal kept the knowledge to himself.
 
Now, Avery’s reports were suspect; he was due for recall. The Kremlin reckoned his work was below acceptable efficiency. So they asked Segal – their Northern operator – to bring Avery out as they guessed he wouldn’t leave of his own accord.
 
As they approached the black fin, he wondered what they would do to Avery. Thank God they don’t know I’m doubling for MI6, he thought.
 
Avery’s enforced return would at least help him to dispel any doubts the Kremlin may have had about his loyalty to the cause.
 
The metal surface of the submarine’s casing clanged hollowly underfoot as they boarded. A pattern of barnacles twinkled wetly in the moonlight. The skipper called down to his two ratings dressed in black. They used English – unnecessarily for his sake – he observed, since he could speak fluent Russian.
 
Hastily, they were urged through a door in the front of the fin. Segal followed Avery into the dark confines of its skeletal framework. From above, an officer clambered down through the network of steel girders.
 
The short rotund Russian shook his hand heartily. Grinning a broad, golden-toothed  smile. “Welcome aboard my vessel, Mr Segal. I am Captain Karistavok.”
 
“Thanks, Captain, nice to be here.” He looked pointedly at Avery flanked by the Executive Officer and a rating. Both held machine carbines. “He’s in safe hands I see.”

Karistavok arched a picaresque eyebrow. He said, “Yes. But now we are about to dive, Mr Segal. Shall we go below?”
 
“I’d appreciate it. Wouldn’t like to get caught up top as she goes under,” he joked.
 
“Ah, yes, your sense of humour, no?”
 
Suddenly he heard the tannoy bawl: “Dive the submarine!” And, alarmingly, he was pushed in the dark, down into the black gap. His feet touched nothing the first six feet, then bruisingly hit into a metal ladder in the dark.

He felt the wind-blast hammering at his face. With the hatch open the turret was like a wind-tunnel. Grabbing hold, he cast a quick glance down at the red lights under him as a rubber-soled boot almost landed on his windswept head.
 
“Get down, man. Do y ou want yhoiur MTB to discover us?”
 
Obediently, Segal lowered himself, hand over hand, down the control tower. Again his hands slipped on the greasy rungs. The raucous wind forced him back, pummelling him. Slitting his eyes against the gale, he heard the hatch echo shut.
 
Above him, the Executive Officer cried, “One clip secured, two clip secured, three clip…” The dive-klaxon ground out its harsh music.
 
Clumsily, Segal landed at the foot of the ladder, in the centre of the control room. On either side of him rose the shafts of two periscopes, the for’ard one with a smaller snout, used for attack.
 
He heard the high-pressure air being released from the tanks as they sank under the waves. Now he whiffed the clinging odour of diesel oil and grease.
 
Instinctively, he surveyed his surroundings. Behind the attack ‘scope sat their Coxswain, gently raising and lowering the steering lever. Above him he saw the course indicator.
 
They were sinuating between 120 and 160 degrees – a wide zigzag. The magnetic compass showed them heading SSE. The telegraph dials read Full Ahead, both in Russian.
 
As the others joined him, he realised he was glad to see them. Somehow he believed the ratings already down here – especially those two bearded fellows on the hydroplanes – were hostile towards  him.
 
“I think you deserve a rest, Mr Segal,” suggested Karistavok.
 
He nodded wearily. “Yes, I am rather tired now. Thanks for taking Avery off my hands, anyway. I imagine you’ll be landing him off Algiers?”
 
“Perhaps…” Karistavok replied evasively.
 
The steward showed him to a spare bunk up for’ard in the fore-ends. “We don’t bother to undress,” he was told. All of the eight fold-up bunks ranged along the bulkheads. Alongside his own bunk two huge gunmetal-blue torpedoes were stacked on top of each other, resembling two young whales mating.
 
For the length and breadth of the boat’s bulkheads and deck-heads, bare wire circuits snaked and coursed, valve wheels protruded; dizzying, claustrophobic.

Fully clothed, Segal dozed fitfully for about three hours. An incessant p-e-e-e-nnng invaded his subconscious. He surmised they were being searched for on active sonar.
 
Eventually, unable even to doze, he rose cautiously from his bunk. Silently he passed tightly packed, musty smelling messes on the port side, and stowage lockers on the starboard. In the twilight of red-lighting, he likened the messes to a squashed London tube train.

Eyes unaccustomed to the red light, he accidentally kneed the pantry hatch-door, bruising himself from a row of extinguisher-refills let into the door-rack. A wheel-spanner clattered to the metal deck. Groping and finding it, he replaced it on the door’s ledge.

Karistavok was pacing the control room, hands clasped behind him. Avery lounged near the underwater telephone, unsupervised. “I don’t–” Karistavok began when he noticed Segal. “Hallo, Mr Segal! Sleep well?”
           
“Reasonably, Captain.”
 
Reaching for the microphone that hung above him, Karistavok said, “Excuse me – duty, you know…” He flicked the handset’s switch. “XO to control room, please.”

Studying the actin plot, Segal estimated they were well into the Bay of Biscay. A shadow crossed over the plot. He looked up.

Illuminated in the ruddy glow, he saw Avery flanked by Karistavok and his XO. The XO raised his machine carbine.

So they did know! All that about Avery was a ruse!

“I was bait, Segal,” Avery murmured, grinning.

They wanted him, not Avery.

Levelling his carbine on Segal, the XO twisted his moist lips, sneered, “Your gun – throw it over – slowly…”

He did as he was told, watching them through narrowed eyes. As the gun clanged on the deck, he edged backwards, into the gangway, near the pantry’s hatch.
 
Oblivious to what was happening, a young radio operator stepped from the state board. Unhesitatingly, Segal pushed him into the XO. The gun clattered to the deck, loosening a spurt of lead. Sparks splattered the ultra-violet gloom. The after-hydroplanes operator screamed, his thigh reddening.
 
Segal slammed the hatch door shut, shot the clips. The wheel-spanner fell again, but this time he kept it.
 
At that instant the steward emerged from the senior ratings’ mess. “Hey!” Without compunction, Segal rammed the sharp spanner in the steward’s ashen face. As the blood poured he dashed through the corridor leading for’ard. It was narrow and cramped. His shoulders buffeted against wheels, dials, pipes and cupboards.
 
A crew-cut mechanic wearing overalls moved out from his mess, barred Segal’s path. Without slowing, Segal thrust his knee into the Russian’s stomach and sprawled over as the man fell backwards. Landing catlike on all fours, Segal saw a red padlocked box labelled in Russian: Sten guns.
 
Loaded, he hoped, bashing his steel heel down on the lock. As the wood splintered open, he heard the others emerging from the pantry hatch. Wrenching the sten from its bracket, he trained it and fired. The nearest was a matter of five yards off; he jack-knifed head over heels with lead puncturing his chest.
 
Suddenly the noise was ear-shattering. Bullets ricocheted off pipes and metal boxes, severed cables and holed ducts. Water and high-pressure air gushed everywhere.
 
Taking advantage of the confusion, Segal backed through the hatchway leading into the fore-ends. As he slammed the hatch shut and wrenched the pins down, clamped tight, he turned to face three seamen rising sleepy-eyed from their bunks.
 
At that instant the tannoy addressed him: “You can’t escape, Segal…”
 
The three sailors must have realised what was happening. They rose and hit the deck and advanced on him. He had no choice. The sten barked its staccato message and they received the jerk from life to death. A few bullets rebounded and he felt a burning sensation in his left arm.
 
But his naval training had been thorough. He knew only too well Karistavok would seal off the fore-ends and increase the pressure, blacking him out within seconds. He had to work fast!
 
“Give yourself up, Segal, you can’t escape. You have one minute!”
 
Eyeing the depth-gauge nearby, he realised they were already down to four hundred feet: Karistavok was right.
 
Spotting the fore-ends fuel-dip to the right of the torpedo-stowage compartment, he used up the remainder of his ammunition blasting off the lock and unscrewed the short chain of the dip itself.
 
Fully aware of the precious seconds ticking by, he withdrew his false pen filled with high-explosive – standard equipment which he’d often shunned – and gently lowered it into the dip’s half-inch hole.

Then the pressure mounted in the compartment. He could feel his head reeling, everything going black…
 
***
“A Soviet submarine with fifty-eight men on board mysteriously exploded and sank in the Bay of Biscay during naval manoeuvres yesterday” – Reuter.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

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