Island of Jaros, Aegean Sea
David Ben-Avi walked along a trail on the rocky, windswept island of Jaros. The barren clump of land was just three miles in length and no more than half a mile wide at its broadest point. It sat in an isolated spot of the Mediterranean, a hundred miles northwest of Crete. Though it was officially uninhabited, Ben-Avi and a dozen others had called it home for nearly two years.
With hands shoved in his pockets, Ben-Avi kept his face to the wind, walking briskly. The Mediterranean air had a bite to it in January. Fresh and pure in comparison to the stuffy laboratory and cramped barracks they lived in.
The solitude wasn’t bad either . . . while it lasted.
“David,” a voice called from behind him. “Where are you going?”
The words came in English with a distinct French accent.
Ben-Avi stopped in his tracks. Mother Hen had found him.
He turned to see André Cheval, rushing after him. Cheval was leader of the French contingent on the island but also acted as overall commander for the entire group. He was always after them about something. Trash in the correct receptacle, no outside lights after sundown, be careful near the cliffs.
He was dressed in outdoor gear and carrying a wool peacoat, which he handed to Ben-Avi. “Put this on. It’s freezing out here.”
Freezing was an exaggeration, but Ben-Avi took the coat without objection, he knew better than to argue.
“Where are you going?” Cheval asked.
“You know where I’m going,” Ben-Avi said. “Out on the bluff, to watch the sunset and think.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Cheval said.
“Can’t I go anywhere without a chaperone?”
“Of course,” Cheval said. “You’re not a prisoner.”
That was true. Ben-Avi and the others were here as part of a joint Franco–Israeli research project. They had all volunteered, but after so long on the barren island, with only the monthly arrival of a supply ship to break the monotony, it felt like they were marking time and waiting to be paroled.
“I have a feeling,” Ben-Avi said, “that all who come to Jaros must be prisoners in one sense or another. The Greeks kept captured communist insurgents here after World War Two, the Turks used it five centuries before that and the Romans picked this desolate spot to exile a troublesome daughter of the Emperor Octavian.”
“Really?” Cheval said.
Ben-Avi nodded. At the same time, he wondered how the Frenchman could live on the tiny island so long and not know a thing about it.
“At least the Romans put some thought into the place,” Ben-Avi said. “All the Greeks did was put up those terrible rock huts we’re living in. The Romans carved the harbor out of solid rock. They set up catchment basins, dug a series of tunnels and underground cisterns to hold the rainwater, even found a way of using limestone to purify it and keep it from becoming stagnant. You should really have a look at them, they’re quite remarkable.”
Cheval nodded but seemed unimpressed. “It seems Octavian’s daughter commanded a nicer prison than communist rebels.”
The two men continued walking, though because the path was narrow in places Cheval was half a step behind.
“So, what do you think about when you’re out here?” Cheval asked. “Getting back to Israel?”
“That and the implications of our work,” Ben-Avi said.
“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts? It’s a little late now. The project is all but finished.”
Ben-Avi stopped and glanced sideways at the Frenchman. The project, as he called it, was a giant step forward in an entirely new branch of science called genetics. It involved manipulation of cellular codes, tampering with the instructions of living things. The field had been talked about in theoretical terms for years, but
Like many scientific endeavors—everything from atomic energy to spaceflight—once the military became interested, progress had accelerated dramatically.
“We’re changing living things,” Ben-Avi said. “Distorting life, creating new life. That’s an awesome responsibility.”
“Yes,” Cheval said. “Some of the others have suggested that we’re tampering with the designs of God. Do you feel this way?”
“Which god?” Ben-Avi replied briskly.
“Any god,” Cheval said. “Yours, mine . . . the universe at large. Take your pick. Is that what you’re worried about? Divine retribution?”
Ben-Avi resumed his walk, continuing along the path, angry now. “If God chose this moment to get into the retribution business, I would find that a very funny thing indeed. I would ask Him where He was when the Nazis came to power and Kristallnacht occurred. Ask Him where He was when the fires burned in the camps, incinerating the bodies of murdered Jews, day and night.”
“So, the Holocaust shook your faith?”
“Not just the Holocaust,” Ben-Avi said. “The entire war. I was an engineering student before it started. Because of my skills, the German Army dragged me into Russia with them. Whoever the Germans didn’t kill on the way in, the Russians killed on the way out. After that, I was in Berlin when the Allies bombed it to rubble. Buildings shattered to bricks, bricks pounded to dust. Day and night the raids came until the air was black and we choked with every breath. And that was nothing compared to the firebombing of Dresden. It’s a wonder that anyone survived.”
Ben-Avi focused his attention back on the path, they’d come to the steepest section. When they reached the top, he would be able to see the ocean. “If there is a God, then either He doesn’t care what we do or He’s grown so disgusted with us that He’s given up on His creation. And who could really blame Him?”
Cheval nodded. “You are troubled, my friend. If it’s not God you’re worried about, then what?”
“I’m concerned with the power we’ve unleashed,” Ben-Avi said.
“Every invention of man, every discovery ever made, has ultimately been used in war. This will be no different. Mark my words.”
“Then why continue the work?” Cheval asked, suddenly sharper in his tone. “Why wait until we’ve finally succeeded to question our acts?”
Ben-Avi had asked himself that question a hundred times. He had a pat answer waiting. “Because the world is a harsh and unforgiving place and Israel must do what it needs to survive. With or without God’s help.”
“So, it’s every country for itself,” Cheval said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It has to be,” Ben-Avi said.
Ben-Avi was breathing hard as he climbed the last section, too hard to keep pontificating. He made it to the top of the bluff and looked out over a sheltered bay. The sea was calm, the sunset glinting upon it, the long arm of the breakwater protecting the small harbor as it had since the Romans built it. But the harbor was not empty as it should have been. A long, thin, sinister- looking vessel lay at anchor inside the bay, a surfaced submarine. Its bow pointed to the heart of the island like a dagger.
Ben-Avi turned around and saw that Cheval was holding a pistol on him.
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Cheval explained. “It is every nation for itself. If we didn’t act, your government would. And that we cannot allow.”
The sound of muted gunfire reached them from farther back down the hill. A fight had broken out—not a battle-on war, but a burst here and a burst there.
Ben-Avi took a step toward the camp.
“Don’t,” Cheval warned. The Frenchman’s face was grim as if performing a task he would have rather avoided. “I’m sorry. But if we had not acted, your country would have. The power you’ve unleashed with your genetics can reshape the world we live in more easily than a dozen armies. It’s a weapon already. And it’s a threat to France in particular. We cannot allow it to end up in foreign hands.”
“No,” Ben-Avi said. “It’s a deterrent. No different from your atomic bombs. It would never be used.”
“I’m afraid my country cannot take that chance,” Cheval said.
The sound of additional gunfire reached them from the camp.
“So, you’re killing us?” Ben-Avi said.
“No one was supposed to be hurt,” Cheval replied. “Someone must have resisted.”
Ben-Avi didn’t doubt that. Though he suspected the French commandos might have hoped to encounter resistance. “And what about me?” he asked, his voice filled with disgust for his former friend. “Do I suddenly fall off the edge or are you going to shoot me first and then throw me in?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Cheval said. He nodded toward the submarine.
“You’ll be coming with us.”
French Submarine Minerve, approximately twenty-five miles from Toulon
Eight days after leaving the island of Jaros, the French submarine Minerve was nearing her home port of Toulon. It was operating forty feet below the surface, running at eight knots and using the diesel engines, which gulped air through a long metal tube known as a snorkel. They’d been running in this configuration almost continuously since leaving Jaros and André Cheval could not wait for them to surface.
The claustrophobia of being trapped underwater was bad enough. That the Minerve was carrying extra cargo, plus the equipment, supplies and samples from the laboratory, made it worse. That the submarine was overpopulated and carrying nearly twice the number of people it was supposed to house— thanks to the presence of Cheval, the other French scientists and the ten French commandos who’d conducted the raid—made the situation nearly unbearable.
The gnawing guilt that the commandos had killed all the Israelis except Ben-Avi did not help and Cheval had taken to drinking each night to put himself to sleep.
Still, they were in French waters now and almost home. By this time tomorrow, Cheval would be sitting in a café in Paris, forgetting his sorrows in the fresh air with a bottle of fine wine.
Until then, he stood in the submarine’s cramped control room, watching everything that went on. Across from him, the Minerve’s captain leaned on the periscope handles with his face pressed into the viewer. Every few seconds he turned to scan a new section of the surface—dancing with the gray lady, as the sailors sometimes called it.
Finally, he flipped the handles closed and stepped back. “No vessels in sight,” he said. “Periscope down.”
As the periscope descended into its well, the captain turned to the radio officer. “Advise, Command. Weather deteriorating. Eight-foot swells and chop. We will remain at snorkel depth until we reach the channel.”
This news was like a kick in the gut to Cheval.
And he wasn’t the only one.
A man named Lukas stood nearby, hovering over the navigation charts. Lukas was the head of the commando team, a member of the SDECE, the French external intelligence apparatus. He was a harsh man in his mid- fifties.
“Must we crawl into port like this?” Lukas said. “We’ve achieved a great success. We should arrive with dignity, if not fanfare.”
The Minerve’s captain was a lifelong sailor. Like many in the regular military, he distrusted secret operatives, with their hidden agendas and lack of oversight. His reply was blunt. “Do you really want to surface the boat and become a target at this point?”
Lukas pointed at the chart and a red line, approximately four hundred miles behind them, that indicated the nearest possible approach of Israeli ships. “There are no Israeli ships within twelve hours of our position. They cannot possibly catch us.”
“They have aircraft, too, Monsieur Lukas.”
“None with this range. And nothing our Mirage fighters could not handle.”
“You might be right,” the captain said. “Regardless, we shall remain submerged until the very last moment. And you shall remain silent while a guest on my boat.”
Lukas fumed at the reprimand, turning his back on the captain and heading aft to join his men.
Cheval looked at his watch, fighting the claustrophobia. It was early morning on the twenty-seventh of January. They’d left the island on the evening of the nineteenth. They were almost home. Once they were back on land, he would report Lukas for what he considered war crimes.
Even though he could do nothing about those who’d already been killed, he told himself he’d would find a way to keep Ben-Avi from vanishing into an unmarked grave.
Three hours. He just needed to hold it together for three more hours.
“The Minerve will reach port in three hours.”
The words came from a grim-faced man, standing in a darkened control room very similar to the one on the Minerve. His name was Gideon. He was the executive officer of the INS Dakar, an Israeli submarine recently purchased from the British.
His face sported two weeks of patchy beard. Scars on his jawline cut across it like furrows in a field. He was tall for a submariner and spoke with his head ducked down to keep it beneath the pipes that ran overhead.
“The French have stolen something precious from Israel,” he told them. “We’re the only ones in position to prevent them from succeeding in this latest treachery.”
The Dakar had been two days out of Southampton en route to Haifa when an ultra-coded signal from the Israeli high command had interrupted their shakedown cruise. They’d been ordered to proceed to the southern coast of France at top speed and lie in wait, while the high command entered false position reports into the record and prepared cover stories and obituaries should their high-risk mission fail.
For the better part of two days, Gideon and his men had been waiting and planning. After finally picking up a sonar contact, and confirming it was the Minerve, they’d allowed it to pass and had moved in behind it.
They’d quickly closed to within a hundred yards. So close that they could hear the Minerve’s screw turning without using their hydrophones.
The next task seemed impossible to accomplish. Gideon and his men were not commandos, most weren’t even experienced sailors, but every single one of them was ready to fight and die for his country.
Gideon explained. “In the ancient times sea battles were not won by sailors but by soldiers. The Romans, the Phoenicians, the Greeks—they rammed their enemies and stormed on board, where the fighting and killing was done by hand.”
The men looked on without blinking. Their smooth faces belied their desire to right a terrible wrong. They didn’t know exactly what was at stake, but they knew the French had betrayed them yet again.
After enacting an arms embargo on Israel during the Six-Day War. After keeping a squadron of Mirage aircraft and a small fleet of patrol boats that Israel had already paid for. After suddenly cozying up to Israel’s Arab enemies. The French had now crossed a line that could not be tolerated. They’d killed Israeli citizens and taken something the Israeli high command was willing to risk war over.
“This will not be easy,” Gideon insisted. “There hasn’t been a ship boarded and captured in these waters for many centuries. One is damned well going to be boarded and captured today!”
The men cheered. They had only a few submachine guns and pistols as weapons, but they most certainly had surprise on their side. They were tucked in so close behind the Minerve that the French submarine could not possibly hear them over its own engine noise.
As the men readied themselves to go topside and storm the Minerve, a radioman several feet away sat with a hand pressing a headphone to his ear. “Intercepted transmission,” he said glumly. “The Minerve is remaining submerged until they reach the channel.”
This was unwelcome news.
“We can’t board them in sight of the coast,” one officer pointed out. “We’ll have the French Air Force down on us before we can even find the materials.”
“We could put a fish in their side and be done with it,” the tactical officer suggested.
The captain shook his head. “Our orders are to get the stolen materials back at all costs. Those orders come directly from the Knesset and the Prime Minister. We’re to sink the Minerve only if we’re in danger of being destroyed ourselves.”
“But we can’t board a ship that’s submerged,” the tactical officer said.
Gideon took it from there. He’d been considering the problem for a while. “Then we’ll have to force them to the surface.”