The Lorelei Signal
Flight of the Siren
Written by Jaap Boekestein / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
The English East Coast, a Bomber Command Station 13:00 GMT March 18, 1944
The crews of the Lancaster bombers gather in the briefing room. There is the usual atmosphere of suppressed tension and stolid jollity. There is the usual stage with the usual map, protected by a curtain.
The senior officer pulls open the curtain. The attention of all those present is focused directly on the piece of pinned up paper. What is their destination tonight? Frankfurt Mainz. It is an old acquaintance. They already have been there last October, December, last January… No grumbling, there is never any grumbling. Precise heading data, anti-aircraft guns, tactics, time tables, flight altitudes, radio frequencies and the forecast will be reviewed. The navigators and bombardiers will be presented with their maps.
Also the crew of bomber No. 44. Nigel Bridgewater is the pilot. Aged twenty-five he is an old hand. He already has nine flights under his belt.
~ * ~
The bombs are loaded, the Browning .303’s are inserted through the turrets and loaded. The fuel tanks are full, the final checks have been carried out. The crews get their traditional pre-flight meal of bacon and eggs (prepared by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force). They pick up their flight suits, their parachutes (also controlled by the WAAF) and their getaway packages. Bridgewater checks—like most—everything himself once more.
~ * ~
One last cigarette and then by truck to the aircraft. Lancasters, a crew of seven, four Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 engines, 14,000 pounds of bombs, eight machine guns. They climb aboard and squeeze through narrow passages in confined spaces. The bombardier is in the front, under the cockpit. Above him the pilot and the flight engineer. Behind them the navigator, hidden behind a curtain. The light of his work could be otherwise visible to enemy fighters. In the back of the cockpit the radioman. Cold and vulnerable finally the two gunners: one in the middle, one in the tail.
Together with his crew Bridgewater goes over the pre-flight checklist step by step.
~ * ~
The daylight decreases rapidly. The engines come to life and one by one the flying crates take off. The next hour they circle around to gain height and at an appointed time the journey east begins. They fly close together in large groups, hoping to overwhelm the defenses of the enemy.
~ * ~
Every flight is different, each flight is the same. Searchlights reach into the sky as white fingers of blind giants. Radar-controlled guns bark. The Lancasters scatter foil to deceive the guns.
Freya, the German radar system watches. Fighter planes are directed to the Lancasters. Junkers flying high above the supply routes shed light flares so the English enemy is clearly visible.
Bridgewater is lucky. They reach their goal unscathed.
~ * ~
20:00 GMT / 21:00 local time
The bombs are dropped. Frankfurt suffers. Earlier they targeted the train station Sachsenhausen and bombed the town. Last night it was the turn of Altstadt, Nordend, Westend, Bornheim and the university. The plane jumps up when it loses its charge.
Bridgewater’s luck runs out. A searchlight catches him, then another and another, despite his antics to escape. Flak follows the light. The 88mm cannons roar. The Lancaster is hit, ripped open but continues to fly.
They keep flying. Bridgewater continues to fly. The cockpit is riddled with bullet holes. It's a miracle he's still alive. The bombardier, flight engineer, navigator and radioman are dead. He hears nothing from the two gunners. Maybe they're dead too.
Germany underneath is a black mass, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns have disappeared. Even the enemy fighters are nowhere to be seen. Somewhere behind the tail lights of the Lancaster Frankfurt disappears. Below lies the silver ribbon of the river. Almost none of the instruments work anymore, but Bridgewater knows the river will take him to the northwest, to England, or to the North Sea, or to occupied Holland at least.
Dizzy—he's wounded, he loses blood, why does he not feel his legs anymore?—he follows the river, the Lancaster bucks and rears flying so low, but the plane hardly reacts to his steering. To gain height seems impossible. He continues to follow the river.
~ * ~
Then Bridgewater hears singing.
The wind tugs at her dress and her blond hair. The cold wipes the tears from her face. Lorelei stands on the edge of the cliff. Deep beneath her the river makes a sharp turn.
Her beloved is not coming back. He left her, betrayed her, humiliated her.
With anger in her heart she throws herself off the cliff.
~ * ~
The old faith. After Christianization it persists in hidden places. The deepest part of the Rhine river houses the virgins. They receive Lorelei with all that anger in her heart and make her one of them. They teach her to sing. Lorelei is young and will continue the tradition of the river maidens, long after they themselves have faded from the disappearing beliefs of mortals.
~ * ~
Century after century Lorelei sings. The rock in the river is named for her, her name is cursed. Boaters are extra careful on that part of the river. And when they hear her sing, they know that they are lost.
Bridgewater blinks. He sees the young woman beside him. She is pale, semi-transparent. A long blond braid, Medieval attire. He has no explanation. He knows who she is, he knows why she's there. There is no explanation for how he knows, but he knows.
Lorelei is on board. She is always on board, just before she drags a ship down to the deeps. That's her right, that's her duty, her burden and her curse. Lorelei appears to the unfortunate captains and the last thing they see is her silent sad face. The death of her victims does not give her joy. Those feelings have long gone.
The rock with her name looms, too close to avoid. No cold depths this time, a ball of fire against the rock will be the end.
Bridgewater pulls the stick with all his might. He pulls and pulls and pulls, and miraculously the battered Lancaster reacts. The crate climbs! The impossible happens. Does the plane graze the cliff? It does not matter, the plane brakes free and climbs higher, higher, infinitely higher.
Far below them are the flames of the Lancaster which crashed into the mountain. It was impossible the plane could dodge the mountain, was it not? Still, sometimes Lady Fate is merciful.
And Bridgewater flies higher, in the same plane, but less substantial. Lorelei sits next to him, amazed, delighted. This is the first time the river has let her go and it will be the last time. They fly, they fly.
Together they fly to the light high in the sky.
Jaap Boekestein (1968) is an award-winning Dutch writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers and whatever takes his fancy. Over the years he has made his living as a bouncer, working for a detective agency, the Dutch Justice Department and as an editor. He usually writes his stories in trains, coffeehouses and in the 16th century taverns of his native The Hague, the Netherlands. Five novels, a few novella's and over three hundred of his stories have been published.
Since 2015 he writes mainly for the English market. His story "Kitty Cross Saves the World" ended up with a honorable mention of the Roswell Award 2017.