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Fic: The Lone Freighter

Author: clonesgirl
Fandom: The Sinking of the Laconia
Rating: NC-17 for sex, violence and death of OCs
Pairing: hartenstein/mortimer
Timeline: 1943 A/U
Word count: 3,765
Warnings: Historic and fictional characters, some violence
Spoilers: None
Disclaimer: Characters borrowed from BBC strictly for playing with, not profit. No offence intended. This is purely a work of fiction.
Summary: Back at sea once more U-156 has a dangerous encounter
Beta: None. If you find goofs please let me know.
A/N: This is a direct sequel to "Convoy Duty". If you haven't yet read that fic then you really need to go back and read it first as this won't make a lot of sense otherwise.

U-156, now out of dry-dock and back in the water, was escorting the liner Titanic on their way back to Homeport. In the Third Realm the war in the Atlantic was worse than ever. In the Fourth Realm the number of rescue vessels simply could not keep up with the number of damaged vessels though the Admiralty prided itself on being able to rescue all those who had made the transition. Because of this shortage many U-boats, alone on patrol, were having to perform rescues and were badly overcrowded as a result, many having to tow people in lifeboats and rafts. Several liners had been damaged by newly arrived U-boats and other German vessels who did not realize they were now in the Fourth Realm, saw what they took to be an Allied vessel and tried to sink it. Eventually all were persuaded that they were now in a realm of peace but, in many cases, not before the damage was done.

Hartenstein, now in the conning tower, thanked his lucky stars that he had an advantage over many of his colleagues in that he was escorting Titanic. One look at her and that was enough to persuade commanding officers, of whichever persuasion, that they were definitely not in the Third Realm any more. He also never failed to be amused at the difference in them when they disembarked from the fine old ship. People who had boarded her were angry, miserable, or perhaps resigned to their fate. However, by the time they departed they were different people, their mood full of hope for the future. The number of people who simply fell in love with that ship was unbelievable. It seemed that all who travelled on her promised to return for a cruise as soon as the war was over.

He shook his head. Where once the mention of her name had only been associated with tragedy, now she simply bred happiness. He turned to gaze at her giant bow following in their wake and remembering the number of nights he and Mortimer had spent aboard. At the end of each mission Captain Andrews would invite them for dinner and a night in one of her luxury first class suites complete with champagne supper, his way of thanking them for their care and protection.

The captain glanced at his first officer. The man was sun-tanned and thoroughly fit as was befitting someone who had just returned from three weeks of leave. In fact they were both very fit. Mortimer had insisted that they explore England and they had travelled to many places staying at inns in small villages rather than large hotels in the cities. Instead of driving they had bicycled everywhere - Mortimer's idea - and he had got to know the country and its citizens, many of which to him seemed rather bizarre from the man from an ancient family who was obsessed with cleaning his moat to the woman who was obsessed with growing giant vegetables and the various village fairs where everyone was dressed in costume and which Mortimer insisted they take part in. When he had ventured an opinion that many of these people seemed odd Mortimer had merely shrugged and said the word was 'eccentric'. At that point he gave up. At least they had had a few sunny days during which he had learnt about cricket, not that he understood it; archery which, to his surprise, he was quite good at; and croquet, at which Mortimer beat him. He had also developed a taste for English beer which he had decided was quite excellent though, of course, not as good as real German beer. However, mostly it rained, which Mortimer insisted was quite normal for a British summer so they had hired a car. Finally, deciding they'd had enough of the rain, they repaired to their small villa on the coast of northern Spain and spent the rest of their holiday in the sun; swimming, snorkelling, even going out on one of the local fishing vessels and coming home with a fresh catch. He had subsequently taught Mortimer how to properly skin and fillet fish. Of course they'd also thoroughly indulged themselves when it came to pleasures of the flesh. In fact, now that he came to think about it he couldn't even remember how many times they had simply got thoroughly horny and, not being on duty, had acted on their carnal impulses, the freedom to enjoy themselves too enticing to resist.

Mein Gott, the places they had done it, he thought, deciding that it was more a case of where had they not done it; everywhere from the back seat of a car in a thunderstorm, to under a sun umbrella on the beach, to standing in the ocean, to lying in a forest where they'd been having a picnic, to sunset on an old deserted dock; not to mention the various beds in sundry inns, some of which squeaked so badly that, after being asked to leave one place for keeping the other guests awake, they had felt obliged to place the mattress on the floor.

At present, Titanic was carrying more than four hundred passengers who had made the transition from the Third Realm, quite a few of them British. However, the majority consisted of four German U-boat crews. The British passengers, having boarded last, at sight of the Germans, were at first convinced that they were boarding a German replica of Titanic in spite of the ship's majority British officers and crew. This led to speculation that she never had sunk in the Atlantic in first place and it had all been a German plot. Hence they were quite reluctant to board her at all and took some persuading on the part of Captain Andrews and his officers. However, once aboard, clothed, fed and comfortably settled, they soon changed their minds.

It was at this stage that an anomaly appeared on the radar - a vessel on its own. Sea-going tugs travelled on their own, as did rescue vessels, U-boats and some other vessels. Unarmed ships, including liners and freighters, never travelled on their own any more as it was considered far too dangerous, and yet this vessel which they would pass some ten nautical miles distance, was, to all intents and purposes, alone and heading in the opposite direction.

On receiving the report from the radar officer Hartenstein trained his binoculars on the still-distant vessel as did others in the conning tower. The Admiralty was contacted with a request for the vessel's identity, however, they reported that they had no record of any vessel at those co-ordinates. Hartenstein's suspicions were aroused and he requested Fiedler to contact the vessel by radio. This produced only static.

"If her radio is not working she must be from the Third," Mannesmann suggested.

"Nein, Mannesmann. Any vessels arriving here from the Third are so badly damaged they're waterlogged and barely afloat, yet she is clearly moving under her own steam." Removing his cap, Hartenstein ran his fingers through his unruly hair before replacing it once more and turning to Fiedler.

"Fiedler, tell Titanic she is to maintain speed and continue on course no matter what."

The vessels were now much closer to each other and, as Fiedler moved to obey, Hartenstein ordered the helmsman to intercept the freighter. Meantime he ordered the lamp to signal the freighter requesting identity, cargo and destination.

All waited for the freighter to return the signal. Finally, it came.

"Union Star, mixed cargo, destination New York."

"Ask them where is there escort?"

The answer came, "Assisting vessel from Third."

Hartenstein shook his head. "Ask them who is their escort?"

"216," came the reply.

Hartenstein ordered Fiedler to contact U-216 and ascertain her current whereabouts. He returned shortly reporting that U-216 was in the English Channel off Dover. Hartenstein shook his head. Just what was this vessel? he wondered, and who were they trying to fool?

"Fiedler, ask them why their radio is not working."

Again, Fiedler used the lamp and they waited for the reply which came in the form of a single word. "Broken."

"No vessel is allowed to put to sea with a broken radio," Hartenstein muttered, gazing at Mortimer who was shaking his head, "and he must know that." He turned to Fiedler. "Fiedler, tell him to heave to and we will fit a spare radio for him."

Again, they waited. "Captain, they thank you but say the radio is under repair."

"Tell them to heave to and I am coming aboard for inspection."

They waited, all with binoculars still trained on the freighter. Finally, the answer came. "Message understood."

However, to their eyes the ship was not slowing down at all. This was confirmed by the radar operator who said she was moving at the same pace as previously.

"Captain, there appears to be activity on the deck," Mortimer reported, as several men appeared on the deck but they were unable to see exactly what they were doing.

"Sheisse!" Hartenstein muttered, promptly ordering the gun crews on deck.

The men scrambled on deck and within two minutes the plugs were removed and both guns were armed and ready.

Hartenstein ordered the forward gun to fire a shot across the bow. "Let them see that I mean business."

However, the freighter did not slow.

"Captain, she's sped up!" the radar operator reported. "She doing approximately twenty-six knots, sir."

"Well, well. So she is no ordinary freighter, her rusted appearance to the contrary. Aim at her bridge and fire when ready."

The two vessels were now at close quarters, U-156 heading directly for the port side of the freighter. Of a sudden a shot rang out and whistled over their heads as the crew aboard the freighter took aim at them.

"Damn them!" Hartenstein muttered, ordering a turn to starboard in order to utilize both the U-boat's guns. The men in the conning tower covered their ears as one after the other both guns were fired with a deafening roar, the deck vibrating with the shock of the explosives as within seconds the bridge and upper deck of the freighter exploded with the impact of the shells.

They waited, but still there was no sign of surrender, the ship continuing on its way and her crew scrambling to fight the fires now raging topside.

"Are they mad?" Mortimer muttered. "They must surrender."

"Not if they are a ship of the dark," Hartenstein replied, his voice grim.

The freighter had now passed them by and Hartenstein ordered the helmsman to take them around to the ship's starboard side. Leaving Mannesmann in charge he went below, Mortimer following.

Mortimer poured scotch as Hartenstein shortly entered their quarters.

"Let me guess. We have to sink her."

Hartenstein nodded grimly. "I have to sink her."

"We," Mortimer emphasized. "We have to sink her. I know you're the captain but we're together in this." He refilled their glasses.

Hartenstein shook his head, finished his drink and slammed his glass on the table before heading to the door and shouting for Weber, who shortly appeared.

"Weber, check the radar. See if there are any other vessels near Titanic."

Weber reported that the vessel was now some twenty nautical miles distant and alone.

"Sehr gut. She is safe." Taking a deep breath, he turned to Mortimer. "We have a duty to perform, and it will not be pleasant."

Mortimer came to stand before him, gazing into his eyes, his faith in his commanding officer absolute. "Yes, sir. We must do our duty."

Hartenstein's shining eyes revealed his deep gratitude for his first officer's support.

When they returned to the conning tower U-156 was just coming up on the other vessel. As fast as she was, the U-boat was faster, her sleek hull and weaponry as deadly as ever, and she soon passed by the fast-moving freighter. Hartenstein ordered half speed as she turned to port, her torpedo tubes now open. He checked the range and, as the burning freighter came into view, ordered both tubes fired.

All aboard counted the seconds as the deadly weapons slipped into the ocean, speeding inexorably on their way.

"She's turning, sir!" Mortimer shouted as the vessel began to turn to port.

However, her turn was not fast enough and first one, then a second explosion wracked the vessel from end to end. The fires, still burning from the earlier shots, now engulfed the stricken vessel, plumes of black smoke rising into the air to be blown far by the easterly breeze.

Hartenstein ordered the helmsman to close in. "We will finish her off with the guns."

Four volleys rang out, the freighter now engulfed from bow to stern and beginning to list.

Aboard U-156 all watched in silence as the screams of those aboard the sinking ship rent the air amidst horrendous explosions which tore the doomed vessel apart. Although all knew deep down that this was a ship of the dark and that this was the only way to dispose of such vessels, none were pleased. When she rolled over and sank without trace, they truly knew that she did not belong in the Fourth Realm, nor did any of her crew for none had survived.


Aboard Titanic everyone had heard the gunfire and passengers had demanded to know what was happening as they ran onto her outer decks to gaze anxiously astern at the black smoke billowing upward on the horizon. "Just an exercise. Nothing to worry about," Captain Andrews had assured them, well-practised in appearing calm though he himself was worried sick for his friends. He assured himself that they would make contact in good time. He knew that Hartenstein was a competent U-boat commander; also that, since he was only partly healed, the man could still be ruthless when necessary. He remembered the time when his own ship had been hijacked and how the decisive actions taken by the German commander to recover it had saved them all. Whatever action Hartenstein had had to take now he knew that the man would never act arbitrarily. If he had had to sink the freighter then it must have been necessary. But what if the freighter had been armed? He tapped his hands on a nearby railing.

One of the British passengers cornered him. "I say, Captain, there's smoke back there. What's going on? We have a right to know," she demanded.

"Merely target practice, madam," he said with an ease he was far from feeling. "Nothing to fear. We are quite safe and well away from it."

The ensuing explosions elicited gasps from the passengers, as did the cloudburst of smoke and the orange glow of the flames, the sounds of battle echoing across the empty ocean for miles around.

A message arrived from the radio room, Andrews eagerly opening it to read, 'All is well. Rejoining you. Hartenstein.'

The sense of relief he felt almost flattened him. "Take a message. Say 'We missed our escort.'"

He went to the bridge and ordered reduced speed until U-156 caught up with them.

Mortimer loved to look at Titanic. As U-156 sailed past her to once more take the lead he had his camera out snapping pictures. Fiedler was filming with his cinecamera. As often as they saw her the crew of the U-boat never ceased to be amazed that they were escorting the most famous ship in the world; the one that had sunk in the most tragic of circumstances taking so many souls to the bottom with her, only to have most of them end up here in the Fourth Realm as did she herself. Who would have dreamt that she would be here, large as life and twice as regal as she ever was. Her officers and crew were the best there was and were the envy of the docks. Any positions that came up on her were eagerly filled though very few did; according to Andrews officers and crew tended to stay with her for many years.

Aboard the great ship the sight of a passing U-boat was unsettling to many of the passengers. To the many Germans aboard the sight was reassuring if odd. They found it exceedingly strange that a German U-boat would escort a British liner and not sink it. But was it even German? The insignia certainly wasn't even if the crew was, well except for the British first officer - and that was an impossibility; but then there was Hartenstein, and many had heard of him and knew that he had been awarded the Knight's Cross and was therefore deserving of their respect. They also knew for a fact that Titanic had sunk in 1912 so this couldn't possibly be the original. They were convinced that some eccentric American millionaire had built a replica. Some decided they were in some kind of dream world and simply got drunk. Many others just refused to believe that they had died. What kind of a topsy-turvy world was this where a German U-boat, which they had thought lost, commanded by an officer they had thought dead, would have a British first officer and escort a British liner sunk some thirty years ago?

One thing they couldn't complain about was their accommodations which were excellent as indeed was the food, drink and entertainment. Last night they had even persuaded some of the British women to dance with them. They had also been assured that their boats would be towed to port and repaired to better than standard. So for the present life was good - if somewhat disconcerting.

As for the British passengers, they had all been sunk by a German U-boat and were none too pleased to be outnumbered four to one by Germans. As one put it, they were 'surrounded by gerries'. However, the majority decided that their current accommodations were too nice to complain about and that if they were on a luxury cruise they may as well enjoy it. The Germans were in no way hostile to them and everyone seemed to be getting along quite well. The only time they were perturbed was when they saw a U-boat passing them by. However, there was an announcement on the ship's PA system to say that this was simply their escort and was in no way a danger to them.

"Now that's what I call downright odd," a small, slim man with a pencil moustache bemoaned, "and I don't care what the captain says, that's a gerry U-boat if ever I saw one and they don't escort Allied ships, they sink them!"

"Quite right they sink them!" his blonde wife echoed. "We all got sunk by one. So what do they mean it's our escort? And didn't it just sink another ship? I mean all that smoke and the gunfire we heard. It can't be safe for us to be around it."

"Now why would the gerries escort a British liner?" her husband wondered. "Unless of course they're going to capture it. Hey, maybe they're in league with all the gerries aboard and they're going to sabotage the ship!"

His wife shrugged. "Who knows."

"How do we know they won't turn around and pop a torpedo into us just for the heck of it? After all, they're gerries; they can't be trusted."

"Well aren't you the cheerful one."

"Here's another cheerful thought for you: if this is the real Titanic, like they say, what if we hit an iceberg? You mark my words, we could get sunk twice in twenty-four hours."

His wife rolled her eyes and walked away.

"Hey, where are you going?"

"I'm going to get changed."

"What for? It's not dinnertime."

"I'm going for a swim."

"Haven't you had enough of water?"

"The pool is heated."

"But what if there are gerries in it?"

"Well they can ogle my new swimming costume, can't they."

"That's not all they'll be ogling. Wini, come back!"

Aboard U-156 it was a quiet night. Crew spoke in low voices, if they spoke at all. Captain and first officer spent time with them. Many said that they hoped that in this realm they wouldn't have to sink ships any more especially after they had had to sink the Bismarck. Hartenstein had explained to them that there were many ships of the dark and they would have to sink them whenever and wherever they found them in order to protect this peaceful realm; there was no alternative. Mortimer reminded them of all the good work they do now, especially in the last week when they had rescued so many souls who were now aboard Titanic and could look forward to a better life here. Both men also knew that this very night the boat herself would do her best to heal all of them even if it meant everyone waking with a raging headache in the morning.

When the two senior officers finally retired for the night it was to undress and prepare for bed in silent companionship. Once in bed they lay quietly side by side. Finally, Mortimer turned to his companion.

"Goes without saying that we had to do it."

"Yet you say it anyway," his companion mused.

"Also goes without saying that we'll wake up with massive headaches."

This elicited a faint smile. "At least we know what to expect."

"So do the crew."

Hartenstein shifted a little closer to rub a warm, bearded cheek against his companion's smooth-shaven one. "My Mortimer. Whatever happens you're with me."

"And we know how to deal with the dark, do we not."

"Ja, meine liebe. The Admiralty were pleased."

"I should think so."

"They say that many more ships of the dark are coming here now. Approximately three a week are being sunk."

"We will sink them as we find them."

Mortimer gazed into his lover's eyes. "Will you sleep in my arms?"

Hartenstein looked him up and down. "Would a German be safe sleeping in the arms of a Britischer?"

Mortimer's mouth turned up at the corners. "You'll just have to take that chance, won't you."

His companion pretended to give it some consideration. "Very well then, I will spend the night in your British arms. Do you guarantee to keep me safe?"

Mortimer smiled. "That's a risk you'll have to take."

"Then I will take that risk."

As strong arms gathered him close and soft lips kissed his forehead, the German captain drifted off, profoundly grateful for the love of a British officer.

* * *