- Published: 16 March 2021
- ISBN: 9780241467893
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
PROLOGUE THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD
TERRA AUSTRALIS (ANTARCTICA) JANUARY 1939
The droning of aircraft propellers echoed across the stark winter landscape. It caromed off snowfields and along rivers of ice, a reverberating hum never heard before in this part of Antarctica.
A colony of emperor penguins nesting on the land below caught wind of the noise. They looked skyward for the cause of the disturbance, turning their heads in unison. Finding the source, they watched in rapt curiosity as a large gray “bird” lumbered across the sky.
That bird was a Dornier flying boat. An all-metal silver aircraft with a registration number painted in large block letters. It boasted a high-mounted wing and two powerful radial engines arranged sequentially along the centerline of the fuselage—one engine pulled the plane forward while the second pushed it from behind.
Those who flew this model of the Dornier called it The Whale, mostly because of its great size, but also because the plane’s ribbed sheet metal resembled the distinctly folded blubber on the underside of many ocean-dwelling leviathans.
Inside the aircraft, a middle-aged pilot sat at the controls. He had brown eyes and graying hair, but with a thick growth of dark stubble on his face. He wore a buttonless blue jacket known as a Fliegerbluse. A captain’s badge on the collar indicated his rank, while an eagle grasping a swastika on his breast identified him as a Luftwaffe pilot. A temporary name tag, only recently sewn onto the Fliegerbluse, gave his name as Jurgenson.
Tilting the wings and glancing down at the penguins through the heated cockpit glass, Jurgenson marveled at how the birds lined themselves up in near-perfect rows.
“Kleine Soldaten,” he said in German. Little soldiers.
The copilot laughed and then pointed to something else. “Blaues Wasser,” he said. Blue water. “It must be another lake. That makes three in the last fifty kilometers, all along the same line.”
Jurgenson turned his attention to the lake up ahead. He saw a long, narrow stretch of aquamarine water shimmering in the sun. The color was intense, standing out like a sapphire in the endless field of white snow.
“This one’s larger than the others.” He pressed the intercom button. “Navigator, I need a position report.”
From deeper inside the plane, the navigator responded with the current latitude and longitude, adding, “We’re nearing the two-hundred-kilometer waypoint. Time to perform our duty for the Reich.”
Jurgenson rolled his eyes and exchanged a knowing glance with the copilot. They were officially here as explorers, photographing large swaths of the unexplored continent, but in 1939 exploring unknown lands meant claiming them for King and Country—or, in this case, for Führer and Fatherland.
To press that claim, they were required by the high command to deposit evidence of their journey every fifty kilometers. That meant dropping weighted markers through the cargo door of the plane and hoping they would land in the ice like flags.
The markers were three feet long, made of steel and shaped like arrows. They were weighted in the nose, designed to fall like spears and embed themselves in the snow and ice. If all went well, they would remain erect, proudly displaying the swastikas emblazoned on their tails.
Jurgenson found the exercise a ridiculous waste of time. As far as he could tell, the arrows either fell down upon impact or plunged so deeply that they’d vanished from sight.
Jurgenson made a quick decision and pressed the intercom button. “Our true duty to the Reich is to find things of value. Liquefied snow and ice suggest geothermal heat, which shall be of tremendous use should the high command decide to build a base here. Strap yourself in. We’re turning back for a landing.”
With the intercom silent, Jurgenson addressed the copilot. “Contact the Bremerhaven. Tell them we’re landing.”
As the copilot reported back to the freighter they’d launched from, Jurgenson adjusted the controls and put the Dornier into a slow, descending turn. He passed over the lake once, eyeing it for rocks or obstructions, and then set up for the landing. On the approach, he lowered the flaps and feathered the throttle.
There was no wind to speak of, which made things easy. The Dornier touched down at one end of the narrow lake, splitting the calm water in two and carving a long, thin wake down the middle.
The drag of the water reduced the plane’s speed as effectively as any brakes and the big craft was soon coasting along like a heavily laden boat. Jurgenson maneuvered the craft using the pedals at his feet that were attached to a small rudder under the plane’s keel. As the speed dropped further, he added some power, turned the plane to the right and then shut the engines down.
The Dornier went quiet, drifting to a stop against the far end of the lake.
“Time to stretch our legs,” Jurgenson said.
As Jurgenson released his shoulder harness, the navigator popped his head into the cockpit. “Captain,” the navigator said. “I must insist that we—”
Jurgenson cut him off. “Lieutenant Schmidt,” he said. “I insist that you join us. You may bring as many markers as you wish. We can even outline the lake with them, if you please. As a further honor, you shall be given the right to name this lake for the Fatherland.”
Silence for a second, and then, “Danke, Kapitän.”
The navigator disappeared back into the fuselage of the plane. The copilot grinned. “We’ll make a politician out of you yet.”
“Not in a million years.”
Jurgenson couldn’t have cared less for the National Socialist Party—in fact, he’d been an opponent of the Nazis in their early years, back when that sort of thing was still allowed. It had driven the Gestapo to put a red flag next to his name and they’d tried to keep him off the expedition. But after years working the overseas routes with Lufthansa, his level of skill in flying The Whale could not easily be matched. Those skills—along with a written rejection of his unionist past—had gotten him onto the expedition and out of working a coal mine in the Ruhr.
Reaching up, Jurgenson opened a hatch above his head. Most versions of the Dornier had an open cockpit, but the aircraft chosen for the Antarctic expedition had been given a glassed-in canopy for obvious reasons.
As the hatch slid back, frigid air poured into the stuffy cockpit, freshening it and making both men feel more alert. Jurgenson inhaled deeply and then pulled himself up, climbing through the hatch out onto the spine of his aircraft.
Behind him lay the Dornier’s engine pod with its two inline propellers. They had come to a halt, but he could hear the hot metal parts of the engine pinging and creaking as the cold air circulated through.
Down on the side of the fuselage, a door opened. Lieutenant Schmidt and two others climbed out onto the stubby lower wing, called a sponson. This secondary airfoil had been incorporated into the flying boat’s design to help with stability when the craft sat on the water, but it also made a perfect ledge to stand on when entering or leaving the plane.
Perched there, Lieutenant Schmidt fired a harpoon into the ice. A rope connected to it spooled out. Schmidt and the two crewmen pulled hard on the rope, generating just enough manpower to drag the aircraft up against the shoreline.
With the plane moored, Lieutenant Schmidt placed a long wooden board across the gap leading from the aircraft to the ice. “How much time do we have, Captain?”
Jurgenson read the temperature. Fifteen degrees below zero. Yet with the sunlight and the lack of wind, it felt quite pleasant. It reminded Jurgenson of a day he’d spent in the Alps, skiing in the morning and sitting outside at a picnic table in the afternoon drinking good Bavarian beer.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said. “No longer.”
The time limit wasn’t for the crew—they would be fine—it was to prevent the pistons from cooling too much, which would make it harder to vaporize fuel in the pistons and, thus, harder to restart the engines.
He leaned back into the cockpit. “Keep an eye on the oil temperature. If it gets low, start the engines. I’m going ashore.”
The copilot saluted and Jurgenson left him, walking along the top of the aircraft. After ducking past the propeller and underneath the wing, he hopped down onto the sponson. From there, he crossed the wooden plank to the shore.
Stepping on the solid ground, he found the snow to be packed and firm with only a thin layer of powder over the top. Walking away from the plane, he marveled at the near silence. He heard only the sound of his own breathing and the snow crunching and squeaking beneath his boots.
The landscape around him was vast, quiet and utterly stunning. The air itself was so cold it held no moisture. And though his breath seemed to freeze in his nostrils, he saw no sign of vapor when he exhaled. He found the white of the snowfield blinding, but in the distance he spied several peaks devoid of snow that looked to be dark volcanic rock. Glancing upward, he marveled at a sky that was the bluest he’d ever seen.
He walked slowly, taking it all in. He couldn’t be sure, but he guessed he was standing farther south than any German in history. That had to count for something. He passed Lieutenant Schmidt, hammering his metal arrows into the ice, careful to ensure that the swastikas were prominently displayed.
Next came the obligatory photograph. As Schmidt unfurled a Nazi flag, another crewman set up a camera. They gestured to the captain, urging him to join them.
Jurgenson walked over and posed for the photo, standing lackadaisically. He kept his arms at his side as Lieutenant Schmidt and the others stuck out their arms and hands in the salute.
Official functions completed, the captain walked farther down the narrow stretch of ice, arriving beside one of the scientists who crouched at the edge of the lake.
The man was taking samples, casting a large glass bottle into the water, allowing it to sink and fill, before drawing it back to him with a length of twine.
“What do you think?” Jurgenson asked, crouching beside him. “Volcanic?”
“Ja,” the scientist said. “With great certainty. You can smell the sulfur from here. This lake is definitely being heated by geothermal forces.”
“But aren’t we on top of a glacier?”
“You are correct,” the scientist added. “That’s what makes this a rare discovery—geothermal heat burning through the heart of the glacier. Very unusual. And then there’s this.” The scientist pointed to one of the glass bottles beside him. It contained an earlier sample from the lake.
“The water is filled with contaminants. It should be pure meltwater, but it’s not.”
The captain looked closer, staring into the glass jar. A temperature gauge bobbing inside read thirty-eight degrees, but ice had begun forming along the top. As the scientist stirred the water to break up the ice, a swirl of green impurities could be seen in its vortex.
“Or even living material, possibly—”
“Captain,” a voice shouted.
Jurgenson stood up and turned back toward the plane. One of the crewmen was standing on the aft section of the Dornier, holding on to the tail and pointing across the lake, back in the direction where they’d landed.
“The water is icing over,” the crewman shouted. “We need to take off or we’ll be trapped.”
Jurgenson turned. He could see the aqua blue color fading to lead in the distance. Even at the shoreline beside them, a paper-thin sheen of ice had begun forming, a sheen that hadn’t been there minutes before.
“Everyone back to the plane,” Jurgenson ordered. He helped the scientist cap the samples and store them on a carrying tray, then left him and raced toward the plane. He reached the gangplank, bounding over it and climbing up onto the top of the aircraft.
He took a few steps toward the tail. From higher up, he could see more clearly. What he saw chilled him more than the frigid air. Ice was growing up along both shores fast enough for the naked eye to track it. At the same time, it was spreading across the lake, moving from both sides toward the middle, like frost creeping across a windowpane in a time-lapse exposure. For the moment, a channel in the center of the lake remained clear.
He bounded across the top of the plane, ducking under the wing and heading for the cockpit. “Start the engines.”
“But not everyone is aboard yet,” the copilot replied.
“Start them anyway,” Jurgenson ordered. “Hurry.”
As the copilot went to work, Jurgenson paused at the front of the plane, glancing back along the shore. The scientists were lugging their equipment and water samples toward the craft, waddling through the snow as they approached the plane. Schmidt was foolishly hammering in one last marker. “Come on,” Jurgenson ordered. “Move.”
The aft propeller screeched into motion, with the engine belching black smoke. The pistons fired and the propeller spun up quickly, becoming an instant blur. Down below it, the scientists clambered aboard. Lieutenant Schmidt was still coming.
The captain dropped into the cockpit and slammed the hatch above him. “Number two up and running,” he said. “Start number one.”
As the forward engine fired up, Jurgenson took over. He adjusted the propellers and prepared to move.
“Head count,” he demanded over the intercom.
“All on board,” a breathless Lieutenant Schmidt called out.
“Release the line. And shove us off. We need space to turn.”
In the aft section of the aircraft, Schmidt cut the line and used the plank to push the Dornier back from the ice. It moved sluggishly, drifting a few feet out, but that was all the space Jurgenson needed.
He eased the throttles forward while stepping hard on the rudder. The effort coaxed the plane into a tight turn, the tail swinging around until the nose was pointed back down the length of the lake.
With the aircraft lined up, he set the props for takeoff and pushed the throttles to full. The engines mounted above the fuselage roared and the Dornier began to pick up speed as the power streamed through the airframe.
At first, The Whale moved like its namesake, plowing forward with brute force, shoving the water aside and picking up speed slowly. But as the airflow over the wing increased, the plane rode higher on its keel, reducing the drag substantially. Now The Whale began to fly across the water, picking up speed briskly.
Up ahead, the ice continued to grow, a crystalline pattern merging from both sides.
“How could a lake freeze so quickly?” the copilot asked.
“We must have stirred up cold water from down below,” Jurgenson suggested. “Full flaps. We need lift.”
The copilot deployed the flaps and the Dornier rose until it was skimming across the water, desperate to fly but not yet free.
“We’re not going to make it,” the copilot warned. He reached for the throttles to pull them back.
Jurgenson blocked the man’s hand and kept the engines at full power. The aircraft charged into the leading edge of the rapidly forming ice. It was slush at this point, but it sprayed up against the metal skin of the aircraft, freezing instantly. The struts on the wing and the aft section of the fuselage and part of the tail were coated in seconds.
Jurgenson felt the controls grow heavy and sluggish. But the high-mounted wing and the propellers above it were still clear and dry. It was now or never.
Jurgenson pulled back on the yoke. The Dornier lifted free of the lake, climbed for a moment, then began to drop. It kissed the surface once, skipping and bouncing higher. This time, it held on and began clawing its way toward the sky.
“De-ice the wings and tail,” Jurgenson called out.
His copilot flipped a pair of switches. “Heat’s on.”
The de-icing system channeled electrical power through heating coils in the wing and tail. The coils would melt the ice, but the process was slow. In the meantime, Jurgenson fought to keep the aircraft flying.
“We’re too heavy,” he said, pressing the intercom button. “Dump all excess weight or we’re going to fall out of the sky.”
Focused on the instruments and keeping the wings level, Jurgenson had no idea of the panic his directive had set off in the aft section of the aircraft. The cargo hatch was shoved open. Spare parts, equipment and cold-weather gear were thrown out. A sled, several pairs of skis and a fifty-pound sack of rice, provisioned to keep them alive if they ended up stranded, went next. Everything that could be thrown out was, except for Lieutenant Schmidt’s weighted markers, which the navigator guarded with zealous intensity.
With the aft compartment cleared, the plane was three hundred pounds lighter. Just enough to keep it airborne.
And then the number one engine sputtered.
Captain Omar Rahal tracked the small boat racing across the placid waters of the narrow strait.
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
Through his periscope, Kapitän Hans Schultz watched the chaos aboard the schooner Carroll A. Deering and smiled.
Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria. The mud brick dwellings burst with anguish, as the sorrow swirled into the night desert.
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings.
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses.