This is apparently the year of bizarre novels about time travel and people creating alternate timelines. And the wildest example yet of this subgenre may well be David Kowalski's The Company of the Dead — in which a time traveler goes back and saves the Titanic from sinking, with unpredictable results.
Yes, saving the Titanic from that iceberg results in more changes than just the fact that James Cameron never makes that interminable, Celine Dion-soaked movie. It also changes everything about World War II. Here's the blurb:
The magnificent alternate history The Company of the Dead is set against the backdrop of the greatest maritime disaster the world has ever known – the sinking of the Titanic.
In his debut novel, David Kowalski delivers a thrilling combination of action, adventure, and high-concept conspiracies linking events as disparate as the sinking of the Titanic and the assassination of J.F.K that play themselves out in dark and unforeseen ways.
The journey begins with a mysterious man aboard the Titanic on its doomed voyage. His mission? To save the ship. The result of his efforts is a world where the United States never entered World War I, thus launching the secret history of the 20th Century. Fast-forward to April 2012 and Joseph Kennedy, relation of John F. Kennedy, lives in an America occupied on the East Coast by Greater Germany and on the West Coast by Imperial Japan. He is one of six people who can restore history to its rightful order – even though it may mean his own death.
Check out an excerpt of the book right here:
April 14, 1912
Jonathan Wells stood by the starboard railing, a gaunt figure in a dinner jacket. His coat billowed gently, borne by the ocean liner's rapid passage. His hair, thick and black, lay damp against his brow. His eyes blinked and watered in the frigid air. The strains of a Strauss waltz rose from somewhere behind him, a low soft melody that was swiftly surrendered to the night.
I've entered uncharted waters, he thought. Hic sunt dracones. Here there be dragons.
The enormity of his undertaking began to dawn upon him. Tentatively he placed both hands on the ship's rail. It was one final test of reality, one final test of faith. Cold steel retaliated with teeth of ice. He held his grip till the burn of it receded to numbness.
Two hours earlier he'd found one of the lookouts, alone on the forecastle deck.
"A cold night, isn't it, Mr. Fleet."
"Aye, sir." the man had responded with steady deference. "And it's going to get colder."
"I believe it's your watch."
Fleet nursed a steaming mug of coffee. He nodded between mouthfuls.
Wells withdrew a package from under his coat. "I've been asked by Mr. Andrews to supply you with these."
Fleet's eyes widened at the ship builder's name. Since leaving Southampton four days ago, Thomas Andrews had busied himself about the vessel, attending to minor design flaws and overseeing last-minute repairs. Wells hoped that the delivery of these binoculars would be seen as merely another example of Andrews' attention to detail.
The crewman turned them over in his hands, studying them in admiration. The binoculars were remarkably compact and extremely light by comparison to the standard issue.
Drop them, Wells thought, and it simply wasn't meant to be. His pulse was racing now. He realised he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly. "They're German," he said. "The latest design."
"Bugger me if I can't see all the way to Dover," Fleet marvelled. He reddened at the sudden outburst and doffed his cap, apologising.
Wells, concerned with other white cliffs, offered a polite smile. He'd seen this night play itself out a thousand times in his dreams. He fought the urge to tell the lookout everything he knew. "Just keep a sharp watch, Mr Fleet," he murmured, "Good night."
He walked away briskly, mute fears clawing at his resolve. He had two hours to kill.
Seeking distraction he toured the Cafe Parisian and the first-class lounge. He tried to appear relaxed. In the mahogany-panelled smoking room he bought a round of drinks and spoke with a number of its regulars. Even to the last he maintained his one strict, if morbid rule. His one pessimistic precaution. Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Harry Widener, Isidore Straus, Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor. He only kept company with the dead. There'd be time enough to forge new acquaintances when the deed was done.
He returned to the boat deck, his agitation mounting. He could feel the bourbon's warmth slowly leaking from his bones. He glanced toward the ship's stern and watched as a young couple emerged from the aft stairwell, their burst of laughter cut short by the sudden cold. They huddled together and after a brief exchange returned to the warmth within.
Wells allowed himself a moment's pride. They'd never know how cold this night could get.
Resuming his vigil he was startled by the brittle clang of the ship's bell. Three sharp reports issued from the darkness above. The final peal still rang over the waters as he reached for his watch.
Half eleven. Nodding slowly to himself, he replaced the timepiece. His hands shook violently.
"Steady," he murmured.
He was almost certain that he could feel the ship altering course beneath his feet. Somewhere, orders were being given and received, calloused hands were straining against levers. Fleet must have accomplished his task, for slowly but inexorably, their course was shifting.
He could feel it. The flutter of butterfly wings that would herald a brighter, better world. He looked out to the flat, calm ocean, the moonless night. Beyond the ship's illumination the dark waters rose up so that he felt as if he and the ship lay at the centre of a vast opaque bowl. Then at a distance, under the starlight's dim flicker, he saw it. First, a jagged edge, then two irregular peaks, riding black against the black night sky.
Long minutes passed as the iceberg faded from view. A new melody coursed up from behind him; ragtime. He found himself tapping his foot to the muted rhythm. He turned so that his back now rested against the railing and his face basked in the reflected light of a multitude of windows.
Toward the ship's bow two crewmen shared a cigarette. They stamped their feet while talking, the cigarette smoke mingling with their fogged exhalations. He approached the entrance to the grand staircase, a smile slowly forming on his lips. By the time he reached the crewmen he was laughing openly. They glanced in his direction, nodded respectfully, and returned to their conversation, hushed and conspiratorial in the cathedral night.
Entering the grand staircase he peered upwards. The glass dome filtered out the night sky. A chandelier illuminated the room, its own constellation. One of the stewards silently appeared at his side. "Up late, Mr. Wells?" he said.
"Just taking a turn on the deck. It's a beautiful night. Almost perfect."
The steward nodded doubtfully, and vanished into the first-class lounge.
Wells descended the stairwell two steps at a time. Down three flights and he was on C deck. The door to the purser's office was ajar, the elevator unattended. Here, apart from the soft footfall of other passengers and crewmen down other corridors, and the low steady thrum of the engines, all was silent. He walked down the hallway, withdrew a key from his coat pocket and entered his cabin.
The room was cool and dark. He lit the lamp. Crossing to the porthole he placed an outstretched palm against the wall and opened it, taking in a lungful of cold crisp air before closing the window. Removing his scarf and coat, he drew an ornate chair up to a table that was bare, apart from a dog-eared journal. He took a pen from his breast pocket, inspected its nib, and turning to a blank page, began to write.
April 14, 2012
The night had passed without incident.
Lightholler decided to take advantage of the forenoon watch's arrival to spend a few moments on deck. His mug of coffee sat on a window ledge near the ship's wheel, a film of condensation blooming on the thick pane above it. Picking up the mug he ran a fingernail in lazy swirls on the misted glass. He gazed seaward and spied the bridge's reflection: his spectral crew superimposed over the Atlantic dawn. He focused on the image. Men stood gesturing animatedly against a tableau of gauges and switches. Johnson was handing the ship's wheel over to the First Officer. He caught a glimpse of himself and examined the square jawed, sloe-eyed face that belonged more to a prize-fighter than a Ship's Officer.
He moved away from the window and stepped out onto the deck. He walked over to the first of the lifeboat davits and glanced back over his shoulder at the squat tower of the bridge. The sun crept weakly across the officer's promenade. Lightholler let its warmth seep into his bones and looked out to sea. The tapered ribbon of land that had drawn his eyes at first light was now a thickened crust on the horizon. Above it the threat of thin dark cloud mirrored the image below.
He stood for a while, taking occasional sips from his coffee. He didn't hear the approach of footsteps behind him until he saw a taller shadow engulf his own.
"Almost there, sir," came a familiar voice. Lightholler turned and had to raise an arm to shield his eyes against the morning sun.
"Not long at all now, Mister Johnson," he replied to his Second Officer. "We should make harbour by noon."
"We're still riding low in the water, sir."
"I know." Lightholler replied carefully.
The two stood in silence for a few moments.
"Aren't you even curious, sir?" Johnson ventured finally.
"We're ferrying eight of the world's most important political figures across the Atlantic, Mr. Johnson. Curiosity is a luxury we can hardly afford."
"Sir, We're riding low in the water, and I can't account for it in our cargo manifest. We're carrying something we don't know about."
Lightholler remained silent.
"I'm talking about E Deck, sir," Johnson pressed, his voice low.
"E Deck has been sealed off for repairs, Mister Johnson, and we have our orders."
"I'm an officer of the White Star Line, sir, so why do I feel like a smuggler?"
Lightholler turned again to survey the darkening shore and frowned. "Smugglers usually know what they're carrying."
Johnson turned to leave. Lightholler listened as the footsteps faded away behind him and took another mouthful of coffee. It was cold.
Seabirds could be seen wheeling and hovering over the ship's prow. As she drew nearer to shore, their numbers swelled, driven by the oncoming storm. The morning's breeze rose to a brisk wind that raced along the decks and howled through the maze of her superstructure.
The sun was lost within a fold of heavy cloud, turning the ocean blue-black. Waves beat and broke against the ship's hull in sprays of white froth, the water parting unwillingly before her steady advance. Along the fore deck, men scurried back and forth between the wireless room and the bridge, heads down, scraps of paper clutched to chests or beneath jacket folds, bearing a stream of radio traffic.
Lightholler returned to the darkened wheel-house and turned his attention to the amassed correspondence that awaited him there; confirmations of arrival times, changes in docking procedures and offers of congratulations that seemed premature in the face of the approaching squall.
He examined the close-circuit screens, the only anachronism permitted aboard his floating memorial. A light rain from the west drizzled against freshly scrubbed decks driving most of the passengers indoors. On the poop deck some people stubbornly remained standing by the ship's rail or seated on benches out of the wind's path. He cued the audio. The occasional shouts of children merged with the squawks and cries of circling gulls. At the ship's stern a flag-white star on red-slapped against its pole with every sudden gust.
Passengers sat in the Palm Court drinking tea and coffee, listening to a string quartet play Mozart. In the smoking room they stood in small clusters discussing the recent events in Europe and Asia; the talk mostly of war. The majority, though, would be in their cabins and staterooms, packing away the last of their belongings. The ship sailed on, buffeted by rough wind and water, but in the lounges and dining rooms the only reflection of the turbulence was the gentle swish of liquid in crystal decanters. In fully laden cargo holds naked light bulbs swung pendulously, marking the ship's passage in wide arcs.
By the time lunch was announced the rain had passed and the wind had dropped to a caress. A wall of grey fog greeted passengers who had been summoned on deck by the knock of a steward at the door or the trumpet call of young boys in brass-buttoned jackets. The ship lay swathed in a blanket of cloud, occasional beams of sunlight shining through gaps in the haze like the face of God.
Lightholler sent word to the wireless room, giving instructions to alert the harbour-master. They would be arriving at dock shortly. He requested that a pilot be standing by to guide the ship up the Hudson to the newly constructed pier on Manhattan's lower west side. Then, for the first time in days, he allowed himself to relax. The politics and the ice floes lay well behind them. Staring out of the bridge window into the swirling haze he allowed a smile to form on his face and contemplated his evening ashore.
Manhattan lay crouched in the fog.
The ferries to Liberty Island had ceased running at eleven o'clock due to overcrowding. Later estimates suggested that there were twelve thousand people in Battery Park that day, but no one could say how many people swarmed around the terminal and streets surrounding piers nineteen and twenty. From the pebble-strewn beaches of Brooklyn, on past Governor's and Ellis Island to the Jersey shore, a flotilla of small boats and yachts rose and fell among the waves. Every now and then a shout would rise from somewhere in the multitude, swell to a roar and fade away in false alarm.
Finally, wreathed in the last of the fog, she appeared on the horizon. At first, in the distance, it appeared as though a small part of the city, its prodigal, was returning home. The great ship grew from the armada's midst, billows of smoke rising from her funnels and swirling into the clouds above. The small fleet scampered and parted before her prow. The liner's promenades brimmed with passengers, shouting and waving. All along the boat deck the ship's officers stood at rigid attention as she steamed past Liberty Island.
A small group of tugboats detached themselves from the piers off Battery Park and slalomed a path through the wall of pleasure craft to the approaching leviathan.
Lightholler, standing at the ship's wheel, turned to the First Officer and gave the order. Blast after blast emerged from the ship's foghorn. Johnson, at his station on the forecastle deck, signalled the release of the rockets and one by one they screamed, piercing the dense veil above to explode in flares of blue and white.
New York replied with a series of fireworks that erupted into the grey skies from countless barges. Fire ships in the bay shot jets of steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, turning the heavens into a deluge of rainbows where the sun caught the spray. A cacophony of horns and trumpets bellowed from red-faced men lining the shores and crowding the bobbing boats. Lightholler and the First Officer stood in the wheelhouse watching the spectacle that played out before them.
"Well, sir, we did it," the First Officer said.
"Better late than never, Mr. Fordham." Lightholler smiled.
Giant airships slowly descended from the heavens. German Zeppelins competed with Chinese Skyjunks and Confederate dirigibles, bearing messages of greetings in a host of languages. A century overdue, but heartily welcome, the Titanic nudged her way into New York Harbour.