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Novella: Smoke on Water Part 2 of 4

Author: clonesgirl
Fandom: The Sinking of the Laconia
Rating: NC-17 for sex and adult situations
Pairing: hartenstein/mortimer
Timeline: 1943 A/U
Word count this section: 4,100
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: Just who has taken a shot at them?
Beta: None. If you find goofs please let me know.
A/N: This is a sequel to "The Lone Freighter". 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.

Came the day of the Great Transatlantic Race and all was in readiness. All ships had allowed cabin space for picking up extra passengers along the way but were otherwise brimming with cheering, waving passengers, bunting, flags, banners, streamers, balloons and all manner of good cheer. As it was Titanic's belated 30th Anniversary she was given the honour of leading all of the others out of the harbour. The U-boats were already assembled, each with their own assignments. There were now so many U-boats in this realm that there were plenty to spare for the race so that each ship had three to guard it and all were lined up ready to take their place as the ships arrived. They watched and waited as a heavy shower came and went. The sun came out once more and a rainbow appeared over the water directly in her path as Titanic sailed slowly and majestically through the heads.

"Here she comes!" Mortimer exclaimed.

Hartenstein was watching her through his binoculars. "She is reversing now. I can see the water at her stern."

Titanic gradually approached before slowing to a halt, the water churning at her stern signifying she was reversing in order to cease forward motion, no mean feat for a vessel over forty thousand tons.

"And here come the others," Mortimer declared as first Lusitania then Britannic followed her, each executing the same procedure of slowing to a halt. Then came the 20,000 tonners and all the others in between, all gaily decorated and duly lining up as closely as possible. Nearby was a tall ship in full sail and they all waited until the Admiralty officers aboard it were satisfied that the vessels were lined up as closely as possible. The canon was fired to begin the race which would take them all the way across the North Atlantic to New York.

Some of the smaller, less bulky vessels came up to speed far faster than the giant ones and rapidly passed them to the sounds of their horns and the cheers of the passengers to be rapidly joined by their respective U-boats. The three largest vessels slowly began to move, their giant screws propelling their enormous bulk through the water as gradually they gained momentum. Mortimer noted that, for now, all three were keeping pace with each other as they came up to speed while the smaller, newer vessels with their respective U-boats were fast disappearing into the distance.

We'll see, he thought. We'll see who wins this race, especially if the weather turns, then the smaller vessels would be slowed by the height of the waves whereas the larger ones would carry on regardless. His glance met the captain's and he winked at him, causing the other man to appear momentarily puzzled.

Aboard the ships the passengers were eating, drinking and making merry, crews busy attending to their needs. All was well until that evening when one of the other two U-boats guarding Titanic was hit by a torpedo. As it lost forward momentum this was followed by a second torpedo which only just missed the now-vulnerable ship. It had happened so suddenly that the object had only just appeared on the radar when all hell broke loose. The ship was undamaged. The U-boat's damage was manageable, the leaks were contained, and all considered themselves fortunate that there were no casualties.

"Of all the ships in the race they have to attempt to hit Titanic," Hartenstein muttered to no one in particular.

The rest of the fleet were ordered to continue on course while he pursued the newcomer leaving Titanic to be guarded by her two remaining U-boats.

The newcomer was quite badly damaged and U-156 was able to catch it with little difficulty. However, all aboard were surprised when it became clear that, far from a German U-boat, it was revealed to be a British submarine, the Bristol.

"Well that's one for the books," Mortimer muttered. "A British sub attacking a British vessel."

Hartenstein, too, was shaking his head and running his hand through his hair. "Sheisse. What was her commander thinking?"

Gambling that the sub had used up the last of its torpedoes and, noting that the guns appeared to be out of action, he ordered the his own vessel to close quarters so that he could speak to her commander from the bow and invite him aboard. However, his invitation and offer of assistance was rebuffed in no uncertain terms by the British commander, one James Alexander.

"Look here, Hartenstein, or whatever your name is, we may not be in tiptop shape, but we'll manage - and without the help of you gerries, thank you."

"Commander Alexander, I assure you I only wish to talk. You will be quite safe and will be able to return to your vessel."

"No, thank you. We do not need assistance."

Hartenstein sighed, muttering. "Stubborn Britischer." From the corner of his eye he caught the twitch of Mortimer's lips. He called out again. "Commander Alexander, I do not have time to waste. My vessel is fully armed and my men are most efficient, so you will come aboard now. That is an order!"

Given no choice, Alexander was forced to acquiesce, which he reluctantly did.

Once below, he seemed surprised by how clean and efficient the U-boat was. That much seemed to impress him.

Seated in the captain's small quarters he seemed more at ease when he was offered hot coffee laced with brandy and cream accompanied by shortbread biscuits. He seemed surprised and said so.

"Oh, we do well now, Captain, not like the old days when we were back in the Third, where I gather you have just come from."

Alexander appeared puzzled. "I... I beg your pardon? The third what?" he inquired in earnest.

"Why the Third Realm of course," Hartenstein answered.

"You are now in the Fourth Realm," Mortimer added.

"You're British!" Alexander spluttered, staring at Mortimer. He turned to glare at Hartenstein accusingly. "You have a captured British officer on your boat? Or is he a spy?"

"Not at all," Hartenstein answered mildly. "He's my first officer, and a very good one too."

"What! That's impossible!" Alexander spluttered "A British officer cannot serve on a gerry U-boat. Why the very idea is... is preposterous!"

"Calm down, Commander, and drink your coffee. Now I need you to answer a question: what is the last thing you remember before you fired your torpedoes?"

Alexander seemed momentarily taken aback. He took a gulp of coffee and Mortimer arose to fetch the man a whisky which he accepted gratefully.

"I... I..." He shook his head. "We were in a battle with two U-boats. One of them got lucky and hit us amidships with their guns. We were disabled and sinking... and..." He shook his head. "The next thing I knew we were still disabled but... not sinking, strange as it seems, and I can't... I can't seem to remember how we came to be that way," he finished somewhat uncertainly.

Hartenstein and Mortimer exchanged a knowing look.

"Tell me why you fired on a British ship," Hartenstein inquired, his eyes boring into the man.

"I... We saw it being escorted by U-boats. I thought it must have been captured by them so I thought it would be better to sink it. I knew it was risky - I mean it meant we'd most likely be detected and fired on by the U-boats - but I felt I had no choice."

"So you fired even knowing that you might be firing on British citizens?" Hartenstein inquired.

Alexander appeared troubled. "I know what you think. I reasoned that if I managed to sink the ship the passengers and crew would have time to escape in the lifeboats and the U-boats would pick up the remainder. I... I thought it was better then letting the ship fall into German hands, which it apparently has. It was a moral judgement."

"Made in a time of war," Hartenstein responded gently. "I understand. But what made you think the U-boats would automatically pick up the survivors?"

"I... I'd heard that U-boat commanders did that. That they'd see survivors safely into lifeboats, or rescue them them themselves."

Hartenstein gave a small smile and Mortimer was pleased that U-boat commanders, although ruthless when it came to sinking Allied vessels, nonetheless had a reputation for compassion when it came to survivors.

"Lucky you didn't ruin Titanic's race," Mortimer remarked.

"Titanic?" Alexander queried. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"Not in the least," Hartenstein replied. "She's taking part in a race and she's now running last but at least she'll have survivors aboard."

"Surely you noticed the resemblance?" Mortimer prodded.

"Well, yes, but... but that's impossible. What are you talking about? Titanic's at the bottom of the ocean these thirty years."

"Thirty-one to be exact but she's having a belated thirtieth anniversary this year."

"Are you both stark, raving madmen?"

"Not in the least," Hartenstein replied.

Alexander shook his head, staring from one to the other. "You... You mentioned a race?"

"We're all taking part in the annual transatlantic race," Hartenstein answered.

"Poppycock!" Alexander exclaimed. "No country would hold a transatlantic race in a time of war, especially with the number of U-boats at large. I swear there's a whole wolf pack of them out there."

"Perhaps there is - in the Third Realm," Hartenstein said gently. "That I know not. I do know that you and your crew have made the transition to the Fourth Realm where there is no war except what bleeds over from the Third - witness your own arrival - and we are in the middle of a race. Many of the ships are British, some American."

"And all are escorted by U-boats for protection from new arrivals such as yourselves who don't understand that there is no war here in the Fourth Realm," Mortimer added.

Once more Alexander appeared upset with Mortimer. "Look here! Who the hell are you? You're clearly British, yet here you are on a damn gerry U-boat. What I can't understand is how they haven't executed you for a spy."

"Perhaps because I'm not a spy."

"Nor is he a collaborator," Hartenstein added. "I sank his ship, the Laconia. In fact she's one of the ships taking part in the race."

"I was Third Officer, and you're quite right about U-boat commanders rescuing the survivors. Captain Hartenstein rescued everyone he could. Later, after his U-boat - this very one - was sunk, we both made the transition here to the Fourth Realm. We had become friends and he promoted me to first officer. He's an honourable man and I would trust him with my life. Believe me we wish you and your crew no harm. We are here only to rescue you."

"And we are wasting time and must catch up with the rest of the fleet," Hartenstein continued. "Commander, I believe you will be surprised when you see the identity of the some of the ships we are escorting to New York. I think then you will truly understand that for you the war is over. This is a new beginning for you and your men. Titanic has already launched boats to pick up your crew and then we really must rejoin the race. You and your men are in for a great celebration, are they not, Mortimer?"

"You can bet on it, Captain. You and your men are in for a ball," he added with a smile.

"Please, gentlemen, we have lost too much time." Hartenstein rose.

When they returned to the deck it was to discover Titanic's lifeboats nearby, as was the ship herself.

Mortimer listened to the conversations of the British sailors on the nearby wrecked submarine.

"I tell you it not only looks like the bleeding Titanic it's even got the name on it. So do those boats."

"That's damn impossible and you know it. She's at the bottom of the Atlantic and we all know it. Dunno what that ship is but it sure ain't the bloody Titanic."

"I tell you it is!" somebody else protested. "Look at it. Four stacks and there's the White Star Line pennant. I tell you it's her."

"Oh, shut up! If that's the bleedin' Titanic we're all in some kind of dream world."

Mortimer climbed down to join them. "Not a dream world," he said to the man who had said that. "Just the Fourth Realm. It's where ships and those who sailed in them go. Her sister ship, Britannic, is also in the race as is Lusitania and many other names you might be familiar with."

The men around him stared open-mouthed. "You're not... serious," one queried. "But I mean they're sunk. They're all at the bottom of the ocean."

Mortimer smiled. "Yeah. And here in this realm of peace they are all very much alive as you can see. Look at Titanic there." The men were staring up at the huge ship which was now very close. "Isn't she a wonderful sight? There's quite a party aboard too and plenty of accommodation for all of you. So cheer up. You've all made the transition to the Fourth Realm and you'll be taking part in a race too so you can cheer her on to victory."

"But... But what if we hit an iceberg?" one queried.

Mortimer chuckled. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. She's iceberg proof now. Mind you, her captain says she likes to ram the things. Can't imagine why, can you?" He waggled his eyebrows at them before returning to the conning tower.

In the conning tower Captain Alexander had been listening to Mortimer and staring at Titanic like he had seen a ghost. "Is that really Titanic?"

Hartenstein smiled. "It is. She is commanded now by Thomas Andrews, her chief designer. She has undergone an extensive refit and her hull is far stronger than before. She also has many more watertight compartments and lifeboats. Mortimer is quite right - she is now iceberg proof."

"My god," Alexander muttered, shaking his head. "I tried to sink... Titanic. Of all the damn ships in the ocean I tried to sink Titanic, the unluckiest one of them all."

Hartenstein smiled gently. "Yes, you could say that, but look at her now - she is the luckiest and most popular of all of them. Everyone wants to go for a cruise on her." He grasped the man's upper arms. "Wait until you see her," he assured.

"All right. You seem sincere, Hartenstein. I... I'm going to have to take your word for it."

In due course, and with considerable grumbling, the men from the Bristol were transferred to the waiting lifeboats, thence to Titanic. The huge liner wasted no time coming up to full speed once more as the new passengers were greeted warmly and given food and drink.

In due course Hartenstein heard from Andrews to say that the British submarine crew were settled in and getting into the spirit of the festivities. However, the hour's delay put the vessel and her accompanying U-boats dead last in the race. The fleet was now spread out over some one hundred nautical miles, the leaders now well out into the North Atlantic. Already three of the smaller ships had had to divert some miles off course to rescue crews from two freighters and a U-boat. Hartenstein decided that, on the whole, the race was going smoothly and the Atlantic, for once, was relatively calm. However, the air had turned cold and passengers on the various vessels stayed indoors where it was warm out of the wind.

The next weather report indicated a broad cold front heading south from the Arctic and directly in their path. So far there were no reports of icebergs. Hartenstein knew that all the ships were safe even if there turned out to be a whole field of sea ice. He also knew that all vessels were equipped with excellent radar systems, nonetheless he worried. Mortimer chided him and told him he was worrying for nothing.

Throughout the night there were further reports of rescues necessitating further vessels diverting to take aboard more souls who had made the transition to the Fourth Realm. Mannesmann calculated that at this stage the race was wide open and anybody could win. The crews had all placed bets so were all following the race very closely as were all passengers on the liners.

Later that night Hartenstein received a radio call from Titanic. "Don't know about you, old boy, but I'm exhausted."

Mortimer chuckled as he listened. "How are the celebrations going?" Hartenstein inquired.

"That's what's got me exhausted, my friend, and it's still going strong. Can you hear that?"

Hartenstein held the receiver close to Mortimer's ear and they both grinned. The band was going strong, especially they could hear the trumpet.

"We can hear," he answered.

"Hold on," Andrews said and they waited, listening.

"Now you must come and dance with me, Captain Andrews," they heard. "Madam, ..." "Now you must call me Ella," they heard. "Madam, I mean Ella, I really must take a turn around the bridge. After all, I must see to the ship's safety. You know, safety first." "I'll be waiting," she said, the invitation clear in her voice. There followed the sound of a kazoo, a very loud one. They heard a sigh. "See what I mean? No rest for the wicked, and zero chance of winning the race either," he added.

"You never know, my friend," Hartenstein reassured. "The way things are there's no way to tell. Six vessels have now had to divert to perform rescues. And how is the British crew?"

"Splendid, old boy. They all got into costume and dressed as English gentlemen. The last I saw of Captain Alexander his head was in the lap of a rather buxom lady whose costume seemed to be somewhat too tight - if you get my drift." Mortimer chuckled. "He said that he was honoured to be on the real Titanic and she was the finest ship he'd ever seen. Mind you, he did inquire about icebergs."

Hartenstein chuckled. "No reports of any."

"Hm. It's been a long time now and... Hold on."

The two men on the other end listened as a voice said "Urgent message from the bridge, sir." The next thing they heard was Andrews's voice. "Iceberg! Gotta run!"

The two U-boat officers stared at each other in alarm before both heading to the radar station only to discover an object had appeared a half mile to the south-west of Titanic's position.

"Sheisse! Is that an iceberg?" Hartenstein inquired.

"I believe so, sir. Object is more or less stationary and is considerably larger than a U-boat. However, it's not in our path, sir, and we will comfortably miss it." He stared at the radar. "Sir! Captain, Titanic is turning towards it."

Hartenstein ran to the radio room. "Fiedler, get me Titanic's bridge!"

An officer answered.

"Titanic? Hartenstein. You will not ram the iceberg! Repeat: You will not ram the iceberg. That is an order. Do not hit the iceberg! You will return to your assigned course."

He listened as the officer relayed his instructions to Andrews, who promptly came on.

"What do you think we've been trying to do, old boy? It's useless. The wheel is jammed. She's dead set on hitting it. Rather thought she would. She's been good as gold on rescue missions but this is a race. Hold on." They heard him inquire how long to impact and was informed impact in two minutes.

Hartenstein ordered U-156 as well as the other two accompanying U-boats to also divert but stay well out of the giant vessel's path. He then heard Andrews make the announcement that all should brace for impact as they were about to hit an iceberg.

Mortimer had climbed up to the conning tower and in the clear moonlight he watched as the huge ship bore down on the large iceberg, its passengers hanging out over the sides of the vessel waiting for the impact.

There was an almighty crash as Titanic ploughed full speed into the iceberg, her bow shattering it and breaking it into several pieces which spread outward in all directions to the sounds of prolonged cheers and waving from her passengers. The impact barely slowed her down and she carried right on, her horn blowing repeatedly.

Hartenstein, who had joined Mortimer in the conning tower, noticed that she appeared to be slowing.

He shook his head. "Andrews always said she liked to ram icebergs. Never thought I'd see it."

"What a ship!" Mortimer said admiringly.

Hartenstein called down to Fiedler to request a damage report. The reply came that they they had stopped engines and were checking.

They watched as she slowed down more now, gradually drawing level with them. They received a radio message that the ship was going to check for damage.

"Let's check her bow," Hartenstein said, ordering the helmsman to bring them around her and the spotlights to be brought on deck.

When she finally came to a halt they were able to position the U-boat close enough to shine lights on her bow, checking both sides as much as they could, also aiming the lights underwater. Andrews, who was on the ship's bow with several officers who were also wielding lights, called down, "See anything?"

"Some big scratches but the plates all look good."

"Excellent," Andrews called out. "Report says no gushers, or even seepage. Looks like we're home and dry, but that was a whopper. That has to be the biggest one she's ever hit."

Shortly thereafter Titanic and her three accompanying escorts got under way for New York once more, though she was now more than thirty nautical miles behind the nearest vessel, her sister ship Britannic.

It was after 0130 when the captain and first officer of U-156 finally retired for the night, Hartenstein leaving Mannesmann in charge with instructions that he be woken if anything untoward happened.

"What a night," Mortimer sighed when they were in bed. "That ship is a regular ice breaker."

"Sheisse. The sight of her hitting that iceberg... I will never forget it."

"Her bow must be super strong now."

"Andrews said he had to have it reinforced just like an ice breaker."

"He's serious? I mean they really can't control it?"

"He told me the wheel jams, the keel jams and the engineers can't slow her down. And did you notice her horn blowing afterwards?"

"Yeah. They blew it several times."

"Well, no. He said she blows off steam afterwards."

Mortimer shook his head. "She blows her own horn?" He chuckled. "What a ship! Really does have a mind of its own. Incredible."

Hartenstein rolled over to gaze at him. "And so are you, my friend - incredible, that is."

"Whatever else we are we'll always be friends, won't we." Mortimer turned to stroke a bearded face.

"You make me so proud of you," Hartenstein murmured. "No matter the names you are called you are always... what is the word? Steadfast! Yes, that is the word. You are steadfast... and you're loyal. I always know that I can count on you."

"Water off a duck's back. I know none of it's true. Anyway I'm so proud of you," they drew closer until their lips met, "and I'm privileged because I get to kiss you."

Hartenstein grinned and hugged him, the length of their bodies pressing together in delight. "Oh, you feel so good. Mmm..."

"But we're both tired, so let us sleep now."

Hartenstein gave a regretful sigh. "You're right. We may get woken up in the night so we should sleep while we can."

"And we're making good time. We should pass some of the fleet during the night - that is assuming we don't have to stop again."

They kissed a bit more. "No tongues or we'll never sleep," Mortimer decided.

"Then sleep in my German arms."

Mortimer buried his face in the other's neck, the warmth and familiar scent of his lover soothing the unsettled feeling he had in his stomach.

"Will I be safe in your German arms?" he whispered.

"I will keep you safe, meine liebe. Always keep you safe."

"I have one of my odd feelings again."

"Is it bad?"

"Just a queasy sort of feeling."

"Shh. Go to sleep."

They settled down for the night, Hartenstein satisfied to discover that his lover really had fallen asleep. For himself, he dozed fitfully, wondering what was to happen. He knew from experience that Mortimer's feelings were never wrong.