"Great White Ship" was originally published in Daily Science Fiction in May 2012. It was a finalist last year for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and is the leadoff story in my latest collection, "The Clock Struck None".
I was poking at my drink with a swizzle stick, killing time waiting for my connecting flight. The American Airlines Admiral’s Club was nearly empty. I stared at the D/FW runways and watched the flights taking off and landing. I had lost interest in the television a long-time ago.
An elderly Mexican man was cleaning the table next to me. He had stopped, and stared up to look at the television screen in the corner of the room.
“I once saw a ship just like that,” he said to himself.
His tone caught my attention, and I looked over. There was a CNN Science Report on, about building airships in the future with futuristic ultralight materials. It showed a large, white prototype of a dirigible, designed to be used as a cargo hauler.
I smiled. “Hold on, old-timer, that’s a only a model,” I said. “And there hasn’t been anything like that in the sky since the Hindenburg blew up. You’re not old enough to have seen the Hindenburg.”
He looked down, and a crooked smile crossed his face. “I saw it, in Tyler, in 1974,” he said, as if to convince himself. Then he looked over at me. “It was from another world. The government swore us to secrecy.”
I’m a good judge of character, I could tell he wasn’t kidding or crazy. His eyes were bright, he seemed very rational.
I looked at my watch. “I’ve got at least a half hour until my flight arrives,” I said. “You’ve got my interest.” I tossed a fifty on the tabletop. “Get us two drinks, and then come back here and sit down for a few minutes. Keep the change.”
I pushed the bill towards him. “You sound like you have an interesting story to tell.”
He smiled as he palmed the fifty. He went over to the bar, and spoke to the bartender, pointing to me. The bartender nodded, and he came back with another Chivas and Coke for me, and a Sea Breeze for himself. He sat down, took a long sip, sighed, and then began.
“I was an Air Force supply sergeant in Vietnam. When I got back, I picked up work with American Airlines. I was offered a job in Tyler. I was from East Texas, so that sounded like a great idea. I was assigned to the ground crew at Tyler Pounds Airport. They had just started commuter service to Dallas.
“I’ve heard of Tyler,” I said. “Never been there. How big is it?”
“Biggest city in East Texas, maybe 100,000 people now. Back then, maybe 60,000” He took another sip. “You ever been to East Texas? You ever been in an East Texas thunderstorm?”
I shook my head.
“It’s like God dumps a big tin bucket of water on top of your head, then drops the bucket over your head, and then he pounds on the bucket.” He chuckled. “This all happened in April 1974. I remember the date, April 3, 1974. The weather was horrendous all across the country that day, dozens of tornadoes were dropping from the sky north and east of us, in places like Indiana and Alabama. We all followed the weather reports. By mid-afternoon American cancelled the flights for the rest of the day as some nasty thunderstorms began to form in our area, too.”
He rubbed his hands and then clasped them over his chin. “Everyone else had gone home, but I stayed behind to catch up on reading a repair manual. Around 6 p.m. everything turned completely black in the east. The wind picked up like the devil, and a minute later my radio began to squawk. I’ll never forget it. ‘American Airlines LTA Flight 5980, calling Tyler Pounds, request permission for emergency landing.’”
“LTA?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was puzzled, too. Billy Mack, the controller, was still in the tower, and he came on. He said they were not listed in the American Airlines flight schedule. The voice shouted back on the radio: ‘Dammit, I have a wall cloud ramming me up the ass and I’m barely keeping control. Get your ground crew out and get ready for lines! Pronto!’”
“I had no idea what the guy was talking about, but as for ground crew, well, I was it right then. I hung the radio on my belt and ran out, looking towards the storm. I heard the radio again.”
“‘We have no record of your flight number,’ said Billy Mack. ‘We’re an H-Class LTA superliner, Flight 5980, New Orleans to Dallas,’ the pilot came back, sounding very nervous. ‘Requesting permission to land on your Runway AZ-40.”
“You could practically hear a pin drop on the radio. Finally, Billy Mack said, rather slowly, ‘You’re cleared for landing, there’s nothing on the runway, lights are on. Good luck.’”
“My channel beeped. ‘Pete, what the fuck is out there?,’ asked Billy Mack. ‘There’s some damn thing on the radar the size of an aircraft carrier.’”
“I have no idea, it hasn’t broken through the wall cloud yet. I’m still looking.”
“The air to tower channel lit up again. ‘We could use a few people on the ground, we have 20 lines,’ said the pilot. ‘We don’t need a mast, we have an auto-anchor.’”
“Billy Mack raised his voice. ‘Twenty lines of what?! What are you talking about?’”
“’Twenty mooring lines, you putz! This is an airship! LTA, Lighter Than Air. What the hell’s wrong with you?!’”
“I clicked on my radio. ‘Something is just breaking through the clouds, hold on, Billy,’ I said. Then I saw it. ‘Oh, God!’ was all I could mutter. It was like a giant ocean liner parting the clouds only 500 feet above the ground, and lumbering straight towards the main runway. A long, pale cylinder coming at us like the finger of God.”
The old man paused in his story, grabbed his glass and took a gulp. His hands were trembling.
“’You see that, Billy?’ I asked. ‘Uh-huh’, he drawled. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so unreal. Billy’s voice came back on the radio. ‘We’re not rated to handle craft like yours. We don’t have the ground crew. But you’re welcome to make an unassisted landing.’”
“The pilot came back with a series of expletives which clearly showed he had been in the Air Force, too. ‘Any fuckin’ port in a storm,’ he concluded. I could hear the engines, they were so loud, you know, like aircraft engines but moving slowly. It sounded like God clearing his throat.”
“What happened next?” I sputtered.
“Thankfully, we were in the lull in front of the storm just then, and the wind was almost calm as the giant airship lowered its nose and dove towards the tarmac. It was amazing. The runway was 6,000 feet long, and I could see as it floated over the airship had to be at least 1,000 feet long. It was a shiny white, almost reflective. You could clearly see the American Airlines logo--the two As with the eagle--towards the front, and again on the tailfins. There was a name along the side, I didn’t recognize it, I guess it was the name of the ship. It said The William Lemke. This giant thing lowered towards the runway, and I just stood there with my jaw dropped. Just when it looked like it would impact, the nose rose and the whole ship began to straighten out. It leveled off and water began pouring out its underside as it dumped it ballast. It continued forward, and then the wheel under the gondola screeched as it made contact.”
“That must have been something!” I said.
“It was. As the back part of the ship slowly settled down, cables fell from its side. They dragged on the ground and anchors caught. Then the rear wheels made contact, the ship bounced up once, and then stuck. I looked and realized a man had jumped out of the gondola, which was still moving, and rolled onto the tarmac. He picked himself up quickly and ran over to me.
“’How many people do you have in your ground crew?’ he shouted. He was wearing coveralls, like me. ‘I’m it,’ I said. ‘Everyone was sent home.’”
“He cursed and then looked back towards the airship. “We lucked out, it’s almost calm right this minute, we had a smooth landing.’ He smiled. ‘I think we can handle it.’”
“I could see men pouring out of the undercarriage, running out and securing the cables to the ground on either side of the runway with heavy stakes. A loud mechanical whining began.”
“’Excellent, that’s the auto-anchor kicking it,’ said the engineer. “Hopefully, we can ride out the storm here.’”
”The co-pilot had walked over. ‘We have 126 passengers and crew members to wait out the storm in your terminal,’ he said. ‘Where is it?’”
“I pointed. The terminal was barely the size of a McDonald’s. His eyes widened. ‘It’ll have to do.’ He gestured towards another crew member, who was closer to the airship and directing the people who were pouring out. They began to run towards the terminal, shielding themselves as rain began to pelt down. The storm was picking up again as the greenish-black wall cloud came towards us.”
The old man had drained his drink. I hadn’t touched mine. He rubbed his forehead and seemed to be in some pain. “Listen, old fellow, stay put, I’ll get us another round.”
The bartender nodded to me as I walked up to the bar. “You’re being nice to old Pete. That’s good of you.”
“He’s got an interesting story,” I said.
“About the great white ship?”
“I heard it, once,” said the bartender. “He doesn’t tell many people.” He looked at me. “You’re the first passenger he’s talked to about it.”
I smiled. “I guess I just have a kind face.”
I went back and put the drink in front of the old man. “Gracias,” he said, very seriously, and he went right back to the story.
“Billy Mack was still upstairs in the control tower. The only other people there, a janitor and security guard, were with me in that meager terminal when the airship pilot walked up. He was a young fellow, clean-cut and smelling of shaving cream and cologne. The name on the badge said ‘Wilbanks’. I’ll never forget that.”
“’Who’s in charge here?’ he asked rather loudly.”
“’I am. I’m alone. The crew went home after the remaining flights were cancelled,’ I snapped.”
“The wind and rain were now pounding the small building and shaking the windows. The pilot’s attitude seemed to soften. ‘Thanks for the hospitality,’ he said a bit more gently. ‘I’m sorry if I sounded rude. We’re all pretty rattled, you know.’”
“I looked out the window to see the airship being buffeted by the storm. As dark as it was outside, you could still see the enormous white shape through the rain. The pilot walked over. ‘She’ll be OK, with all those cables staked, and we left the auto-anchor running.’”
“’It looks like it’s the size of the Hindenburg,’ I said.”
“’It’s on a Hindenburg IV frame, 400 feet longer,’ he said. “Still considered Hindenburg class, though. I guess you don’t have airship service here. Nearest LTA aerodrome must be Shreveport.’”
“The co-pilot had walked up. ‘Baton Rouge,’ he said. ‘President Long Memorial Aerodrome.’”
“The pilot smiled. “Never flew there. I’ve been backup on the New Orleans to Dallas route since I got back from flying in Czechoslovakia.’”
“Billy Mack has snuck up behind us. ‘President Long?’ he said. ‘Huey Long was never president.’”
“The pilot and co-pilot looked at each other. ‘We’re practically in Louisiana!’ said the pilot, with a laugh. ‘Such blasphemy! You’re daddy must have voted for Roosevelt.’”
“Billy Mack’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, actually, he did. In 1932 and ’36 and ’40 and ’44 and he would have kept voting for him for president, but he died on us.’
“The co-pilot began to sputter. ‘Huey Long was president until…’”
“I held up my hand and interrupted. Something told me to ask a question. ‘OK, I’m probably going to regret this, but…’-- I said pointing to the pilot -- ‘who is the president of the United States?’”
“’What a stupid question. George Wallace, of course,’ he said.”
“Billy Mack’s jaw dropped as I nudged him in the ribs. ‘Call Barksdale’ I said.”
“Barksdale was a Strategic Air Command Base during the Cold War, wasn’t it?” I asked.
The old man was halfway through that second drink. “Yep, and Billy Mack called them. I asked the security guard to unplug the TV, and the janitor disconnected the phone switch box. I figured people would eventually start trying to call home. We told them phone service was knocked out by the storm.”
He took another swig. “Barksdale is just outside Shreveport, only 100 miles away. There were SAC officers there by 8 p.m. They grabbed the pilot and co-pilot and other crewmembers, and took them into a private office. By 9:30, a two large buses had pulled up outside. From what I overheard, they told the passengers that the weather was too threatening for them to take off again and they would take them to Dallas by the interstate.”
“After the buses left, some guy in a suit wearing dark glasses--indoors, mind you--with some Air Force officers standing behind him, took the four of us--me, Billy Mack, the guard and the janitor--into an office and said “I don’t know what you know or heard, but I strongly suggest you forget it all,” or words to that effect. Billy Mack asked what was going on. The suit pounded a finger in his chest. ‘National security, none of your business, keep quiet,’ he said, going on and on, poking Billy’s chest at every period and comma. He said they had an explanation for everything that happened, if we ever raised the subject. It all sounded fairly ominous.”
“I bet you all kept your mouths shut, then?” I said.
“We were all re-assigned or transferred to different places by American,” he said. “I’ve been at DFW ever since. I worked on the ground crew for 30 years, until my knees went out. Now I work here, piling up seniority for my retirement. I don’t even know what happened to the others.”
“What happened to the airship?” I asked. “Didn’t people ask about it?”
“The airport was isolated, miles outside the city, and I guess no one saw it land during the storm. It was gone by the dawn’s early light.” He stopped and drained the glass. “I don’t know. How you can make something that big disappear overnight? It wasn’t there the next morning. Whether it was flown out, or taken apart, or went through a black hole again, I don’t know.”
“Black hole again?” I pushed my drink towards him. “What do you mean, again?”
He took it. “Remember what I said about East Texas thunderstorms? I asked the pilot what had happened up there, you know, before the people from Barksdale arrived. He said that when they got caught in the storm, he started looking desperately for a gap in the clouds to fly through. The lightning was spectacular, he said, and the air was full of ozone. After one incredible electrical barrage, he saw a dark spot ahead, and assumed it was clear air--but it wasn’t. It was more turbulent than ever, and their instruments went haywire. He just gunned the engines full throttle and decide to try push his way through. It seemed to work, and they found themselves just ahead of the wall cloud and on our beacon. That’s when they radioed us. They had lost contact with Shreveport, anyway.”
“But something was, different?”
“Yeah, he didn’t have much time to talk, but he said Huey Long was never assassinated, and he beat Roosevelt for president in 1936. Long was less hostile to Germany than Roosevelt would have been, and the U.S. let Germany have helium--so the Hindenburg never blew up. That’s why airships were still being used, wherever he came from.”
“Uhh, what happened in World War II, then?”
“The U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany, it stayed neutral, and fought Japan instead. But because the U.S. never invaded Europe, the Russians eventually took it over when they beat Germany after a ten-year’s war. That made the Cold War a whole lot worse, and after Long died Joe McCarthy became president, and then Wallace replaced him. Actually, it wasn’t really a Cold War, the Russians and the U.S. had been fighting a number of places for years. The pilot had learned to fly fighting the Reds in Czechoslovakia.”
“Wow, there must have been a lot of nuclear attacks. Things must have been really bad,’ I said.
“Oh, that’s the funny thing. The pilot had never heard of an ‘atomic bomb’”.
He’d finished off my drink. “I need to get back to work.”
I grabbed his wrist to keep him from getting up from the table. “Why are you telling me this?”
He smiled. “I guess I’m so old now I don’t care any more. I’ve only told a few people, and only in the past two or three years.”
He got up. “And only when I’m drunk. Con dios, amigo.”
I went to wave, saw my watch on my wrist, and realized it was time for my flight. I couldn’t afford to miss my connection because of being diverted by some bizarre tale told by a drunken old man, so I grabbed my carry-on and shot through the door.
I was in first class, so while I sat here--trying to relax and maybe forget the story I had been told--I could hear the cockpit chatter. The pilot was a white-haired old fellow, and I overheard him say he was looking forward to his retirement.
“I’ve been flying these birds for American ever since I got back from ‘Nam,” he said. “I am ready to relax and kick back.”
A few minutes later, he stood in the entrance to the cabin and looked over the interior. I saw the name on his badge.
After a moment of shock, I jumped up as I realized he was turning away. “Captain!” I gestured for him.
“Yes, sir?” he said, perhaps a little irritated as well as puzzled. I grabbed the edge of the luggage rack to steady myself.
I looked him in the eyes and asked quietly, “Have you ever dreamed you were the pilot of a great white airship?”
You could see the universe in his eyes. “Who are you?” he asked softly, “to know my innermost dreams? I’ve never even told my wife.”
“No one you’ve ever met before, but I think we have a mutual friend,” I said. “After we take off, and you’re on auto-pilot, we need to talk.”
He looked at me, amazed.
“I want to tell you a story,” I said.