Once, and Then, No More

2903 wasn’t sure what possessed him to accompany U-505 up to the roof. On any other night, he would have suspected a trick or trap of some sort. Not that he thought U-505 would actually do anything to him – no one wanted to make trouble for the museum – but there was no reason why U-505 should want to invite him to the roof and it would be foolish not to be wary around an enemy.

He didn’t think U-505 would have asked on any other night though.

Today had been one of U-505’s reunions. Crewmen from the American ships who had captured him would get together and visit him about once every ten years. These events had always been a matter of malcontent for U-505 and he’d be more terse and cutting than usual in the days leading up to them. 2903 had to admit though that U-505 remained professional and would be a good, albeit stoic, sport while their veteran seamen were there. It helped that Pioneer and 999 would turn on their practiced charm and run interference whenever the men would say something tactless or to divert the topic when U-505 chanced to ask what news there was of the ships who had captured him. The ships never attended these parties and he’d stopped asking after them two reunions ago. When the men would leave, U-505 would wait out the rest of the day’s work, then make himself scarce to brood about having to play nice with Admiral Gallery and his rapidly aging crewmen.

This reunion, however, was the first time U-505’s own crew had attended as well.

2903 had maintained his distance from the Germans and they had not sought him out. 999 wasn’t her usual sparkling self with them either, but she couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to ply her charms on the Americans again. Pioneer had schmoozed with U-505’s crewmen just as easily as he did with Gallery’s, talking the U-boat up with his speechwriter turns of phrase.

“That engine would try to make boiler sludge sound pretty,” 2903 had grumbled underbreath to 999.

U-505 himself was as cheerful as 2903 had ever seen him. Where normally he’d make pleasantries with a stony look on his face, maybe indulge the Americans in his improved English if he was feeling generous, he seemed genuinely happy to see his own crew. His face looked strange that way actually. They were excited to see him too and were all too happy to relay what had happened to them from the point they were separated onward. Some of them had seemed a little sad about the holes cut in his hull to allow for his tours. Others gently teased him about his US Navy paint job. The Americans told them about his “service” selling war bonds and then about Gallery’s campaign to keep him preserved.

The seamen were all in good spirits and quite friendly with each other. 2903 found it all very strange that they could have been trying to kill each other forty years ago and be palling around about it now.

When it was time for the reunion party to leave for dinner, U-505 had assured his crew that he was being well taken care of and they assured him that they had been too, war crimes notwithstanding. All in all, it seemed that this reunion had ended on a much higher note than any of the previous ones. 2903 still expected U-505 to run off and pout about it after closing time though.

So it was all the more surprising when instead, something hefty bumped him in the arm and a whiff of tobacco and cedar wafted by his nose.

“Come with me,” U-505 said. “To the roof.”

Any other night, 2903 would have told him to take a long walk off a short plank from that roof. Or to simply go fuck himself. He wasn’t exactly the quickest with a retort. It had been a strange day though. For as happy as he’d seemed earlier with his crew, U-505 looked as dour as he ever had. 2903 was curious about the abrupt change in mood because it might be something he could pick on later. He was even more curious about the box U-505 had swatted him with.

He knew a good cigar when he smelled one.

So here he was, alone with his least favorite yardmate on the roof, overlooking the southface lagoon. 2903 had been permitted to pay his way when U-505 noted with some embarrassment that he’d been given the cigars but no way to light them. Like all steam engines, 2903 had a light to offer. Once their cigars were smoldering properly, they spent several minutes puffing away at them in an uneasy but companionable silence.

2903 tipped the cigar box’s lid up to take inventory of just how many of these U-505 had so he could figure how nice he’d have to be to get another, but saw the note instead. It gave him a twinge of guilt.

To our lucky old boat and his enemies turned friends

“We ain’t really friends though, are we?”

U-505 snorted. “No.”

“You sure you don’t want Pioneer instead?” 2903 asked. The note seemed pretty clear about who the gift was intended for.

“I did not ask you by mistake,” U-505 said, not even dignifying 2903’s uncertainty with a look.

Why me then?” 2903 questioned.

U-505 let out a long stream of smoke and said, “Because I have outlived all of my enemies.”

One would have thought this was a statement of victory. After all, passing out cigars usually was a sort of celebration, but U-505 declared this fact with a definitive resignation. Had it been a statement of victory, or had 2903 mistaken it for one, he’d have asked U-505 if he was proud of it. He remembered U-505 snapping at him about Guadalcanal all those years ago and knew better than to say such a thing.

“You got at least one still,” 2903 offered.

“You? Ha. Alles kleine Fische.”

2903 found suddenly that he much preferred U-505 to be morose than cocky and sought to set him back on course. “999 says you don’t ask about them anymore.”

U-505 grunted. “Chatelain was last. Scrapped in ‘74.”

“That’s the one who dropped them hedgehogs on you, right?”

U-505 gave him a funny look for a brief second, then answered. “Yes. She did most of the work of trying to sink me.” U-505 let out a hollow laugh. “She was angry she did not manage it.” He huffed. “Understandable.”

“Suppose you got the last laugh then,” 2903 said.

“It’s not very funny,” U-505 said. 2903 didn’t know how to respond to that so he left it hanging.

“They tell me I am a lucky old boat,” U-505 commented more to the water than to 2903.

“Ain’tcha?” 2903 wasn’t terribly interested in debating this. Pioneer certainly spent enough time trying to convince U-505 of his fortune. They’d been over the accounting of his turns of fate a million times.

“I almost sank so many times but my crew refused to abandon me and I got them back to port each time. Except the last one.” U-505 huffed and tapped ash off his cigar. “Guadalcanal saw them to land that time. I would have liked to have thanked him for getting my crew back to shore, but he was the first to be scrapped. Gallery’s own boat.” U-505 shook his head and smoke blew out his nose.

“That why your guys’re so chummy with ours now?” 2903 asked. “‘Cause we brought them back alive?”

“They were probably… ‘chummy’ at the time,” U-505 said. “In the ocean, once you are defeated, you accept help or you drown. Naval units try to help each other’s crews once they are sure their ship is sunk. There’s no place in the sea for these grudges that land units seem to keep to the end.”

He was not a military unit, but 2903 wondered if that was not also a jab at him, being similarly bound to land and just as reluctant to bury an axe.

“They say I am lucky,” U-505 went on, “but maybe it’s just my crew that’s lucky. We were not always able to stay and help like we would have wanted after a hit. U-boats don’t have defenses. Or five other boats to help either. It was impossible odds for me, but very lucky for my crew.”

“Caint be too unlucky yourself,” 2903 mused aloud, twirling his cigar around in his hand as he considered. “Even without your crew, you still didn’t sink. You dodged Deadlight. And target practice too.”

“That’s not good luck. Three times that damn Gallery has interfered,” U-505 grumbled.

2903 eyed U-505 suspiciously.

“Do you want to be sunk?”

“No.” He chuckled flatly. “But I was never meant to last this long. Near the end, the crew was saying to themselves ‘A man lives only once, and then, no more’. Things were going badly for U-boats. We all thought it would only be a matter of time. And even if we had made it to the end of the war, we could expect to be scuttled eventually.”

“Shit, us too,” 2903 said. “Uh, my class, I mean. We were only made steam engines because they couldn’t make diesels during the war. All the light metals were going to warplanes so those little motors couldn’t haul our weight around. We knew as soon as the war was over we’d be on the chopping block though. Steam is harder to keep running. Costs more. Figured they’d scrap us as soon as they could.”

U-505 considered. “Locomotives seem to accept scrap with such dignity,” he said.

2903 stared. One could almost construe that as a compliment, even if it was morbid and possibly backhanded.

“Well, we only gotta do it the once, not every time we leave the shed.” He winced as the words left his mouth. He’d returned the serve and said something bordering on a compliment back. And the damn U-boat noticed too. U-505 didn’t turn from the water, but 2903 saw that creepy pale blue eye of his turn in its slashed and scarred socket to glance at him.

“It was… understood to us ships that every patrol may be our last,” U-505 said. “Our crews knew this too, but I think, for people, they do not really think it will happen. Even when it happens to most everyone around them. But I only lost one of them, even with my bad luck. The rest all made it back eventually. I think… I might have been happier just knowing that. They are coming to the end now and I am going to outlive them too. If I hadn’t seen them tonight, I’d still think of them they way I saw them last.”

“Metal lasts longer than meat,” 2903 said gloomily. The U-boat had an amazing talent for being a fucking downer; he’d managed to turn even the survival of his crew against all odds into a pity party. “So… what is this then, askin’ me to come up here?” 2903 asked to change the subject. “A peace offering? You wantin’ to let bygones be bygones like your crew did?” He didn’t really want to agree to that, but he also thought it’d make him look like a jerk if he refused. Worse than letting the U-boat box him into a corner would be letting him do it while being the bigger engine and sharing his cigars meant for his friends.

“With you ? No! Never.” U-505 snubbed out his cigar on the ledge and dropped it at his feet. “If outliving my enemies is this sad, I’d hate to outlive a friend.” He picked up the cigar box and tucked it under his arm. 2903 thought that sounded entirely too nice for U-505 and it made him uncomfortable to think he saw any sort of camaraderie between them. Then he slowly picked apart the statement and realized that it wasn’t nice at all.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 2903 demanded, grinding his teeth on the remaining stub of his own cigar.

U-505 looked over his shoulder, smirking with a fondness that 2903 did not like one bit, and said, “You are starting to rust.”

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