Darn, I missed the – ahem – boat with getting this up on the 100th anniversary. Still it’s a story I’m pleased with. “Berg” first appeared in the Lame Goat anthology, The Next Time, and was reprinted in the Static Movement anthology About Time (which picked up many of those stories from the out of print Lame Goat volume). This piece is a short, humourous, alternate history.
The image by Reuterdahl is from Wikimedia Commons.
by Sean Monaghan
The Zodiac dropped two feet into the icy water and Tony realised that it must have been a different tide. He started looking for the iceberg and saw it off to port, maybe two miles away.
“There,” he said, pointing and Geoff started up the outboard, moving them across the glassy surface.
Tony scanned the horizon for lights but couldn’t see anything. She must still be a long way off. They had plenty of time. Geoff moved them up and Tony put a piton into the ice, then tied the boat up. They looked it over and decided the best place to put the explosives. Geoff got out the hot drill and they clambered up with crampons and ropes. They had to get into the heart of the berg and it took twenty-five minutes longer to drill the hole than Tony had expected. He saw the running lights on the horizon. She would arrive very soon.
“She’s coming,” Geoff said. His breath left a wispy trail. Like Tony he was dressed in full Arctic thermals.
Tony checked his watch. 11.21pm. Lots of time. He dropped the thin explosive pack down and tamped the lead to the detonator, hooked in the radio receiver and switched it on.
“She’s getting close,” Geoff said.
Tony looked and saw that the ship was perhaps a mile away. He smiled to himself as they made their way back to the boat, keeping their crampons away from the inflatable sides. Geoff backed them off and Tony realised that it would be close.
“Stop here,” he said. The ship was perhaps five hundred yards away now, already turning.
“Come on,” Geoff said.
Tony pressed the button. Nothing happened.
“I did it already.” Tony pushed the button again and again. The ship was nearly on the berg.
“Too late,” Geoff said. “Leave it.”
The ship was beginning to make its gradual arc around the berg, moving slowly south of them. Tony was transfixed. It was extraordinary to watch this event occurring just yards away from his eyes. He’d seen it so many times in various movies, and reconstructions. He read about it so much he could have written a dissertation. Yet the experience was something entirely different. He felt his throat clench.
The percussive sound of the hull striking the berg gave him such a start that he dropped the transmitter.
The explosion rocked them back and Tony had to grab Geoff to stop him falling from the Zodiac. When he looked again the ship was already head down, sinking fast. It was supposed to take nearly three hours. It shouldn’t be going so rapidly. The explosives, intended to break the berg up into relatively harmless flows, must have blasted a hole in the hull and the sinking was taking moments.
They bucked in the waves as the wash from the explosion hit them. The propellers were up, the bridge already underwater. Tony remembered the Lusitania, torpedoed, taking only minutes to go down.
There was screaming and in just a few minutes the ship was gone.
“Holy crap,” Geoff said.
Tony stared at the still shivering water, listened to the screaming of the people who’d been thrown clear, freezing to death.
Geoff started the engine again.
“What are you doing?” Tony said.
“Picking them up. Wasn’t that the idea? Save their lives. We’ve surely screwed that up, so let’s do something.”
“How many do you think there are? Fifty, sixty? Most of them were in bed.”
They pulled twenty live ones from the water and got them to the Carpathia.
And that gave Tony an idea for their next try.
Geoff didn’t like that any better than the explosives, but at least it gave them a chance to get there early and stop their other selves placing the package.
A week later they dropped back into the water a couple of hours earlier. They pitoned a buoy to the iceberg with a message to themselves not to blow it up, that everything was under control, then they sprinted for the Californian.
Once aboard, in period costume they sat next to the wireless room and created their own CQD distress message. The captain started the ship moving towards the iceberg, further away than the 1912 estimate, but closer than the 1992 vindication.
“What’s he doing?” Tony said nearly two hours later as they watched from the Zodiac.
The Californian had arrived before Titanic and was slowly turning. The berg rested close by.
“He’s wondering about the distress call,” Geoff said. “This is the position, but there’s no wreckage, no boats.”
Titanic had crested the horizon and Tony realised that the Californian was dark, all the cabin lights out as the crew slept, just her small running lights showing.
“Lost amongst the stars,” Geoff said.
Tony thought he was doing poetry, but then he saw the problem. “They must see her,” he said. “They must.”
The Titanic was bearing down on the now stationary Californian. Lord had heaved to for the night again, unwilling to move into the ice field in the darkness. The Titanic lookouts hadn’t seen the berg, but surely they would see the other vessel. Surely. The big ship had a massive head of steam up. Looking for a record time. It swept past the Zodiac like a black curtain.
“This,” Geoff said, “is just one screw up from the beginning.”
Titanic cut the tiny Californian in half. The split little ship heeled over and began going down. The Titanic, slowed somewhat, still smacked hard, bow first, into the berg.
Tony noticed that their buoy was gone and saw the other Tony, and the other Geoff, silhouetted, arms upraised in disbelief.
And then Titanic began going down too. Her hull must have been cracked by the impact. Both impacts. Tony kept hoping that the watertight doors would work, but she just kept sinking. Faster.
“Any better ideas?” Geoff asked, as Titanic’s took on a list that was preventing half the lifeboats getting away.
“Maybe,” Tony said. He had to put this right. “Something much more simple.”
“Well, count me out.”
“You’ll like this, though.”
And of course Geoff did come.
They pitoned in another buoy, with instructions for the first team to leave their buoy, and not to call the Californian.
“Okay,” Geoff said when they’d backed off. “You still want me to circle the berg?”
“That’s the plan. The lookouts were searching for breaking water, but there never was any because the sea was totally flat. That’s why they saw the berg so late the other time.” Tony waved to himself in the other Zodiacs as they went around.
“Yeah, well, if this doesn’t work, neither of us get born, right?”
Both other sets of doppelgangers had got the idea and soon all three Zodiacs were circling, creating wakes that left breaking waves on the face of the berg.
Tony smiled. “It doesn’t bear thinking about. My head spins with the paradoxes.”