A 4500-word sci-fi, partly inspired by and styled on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and loosely based on a true story.
I have neglected to date the enclosed account, for I am no longer certain what year it is.
Although I hate to leave a work unfinished, its completion has been denigrated to a formality by circumstances beyond my control. To any who would doubt, my sanity remains intact, however, augmented by the tenure of betrayal.
I initially took this job as a matter of personal interest for the subject matter was local to me.
I grew up in Philadelphia, not far from the shipyard. Though my family was not of the class to be employed on the docks, I was aware of its existence, and am certain it has always been there, for I have also seen it on maps, and such things are incredibly difficult and impractical to fake when the area is publicly accessible and documented so thoroughly by convergent historical accounts.
It was the first naval shipyard in the United States and remained, throughout the 1800’s, one of the largest of its kind in the world. The site of construction for many of the navy’s greatest military vessels, it produced over its lifetime dozens of battleships, aircraft-carriers, destroyers and destroyer-escorts. The focus of my investigation was one ship in particular: the USS Elderidge.
The Elderidge was a cannon-class destroyer escort, 306ft in length, boasting four diesel engines outputting a combined six-thousand ship-horsepower. It was equipped for war with three 76-mm main guns, eight 20-mm anti-air guns and one 40-millimetre; three 21-inch torpedo tubes, an anti submarine mortar launcher and the standard complement of depth charge racks and projectors. It had, at the time of its disappearance, 201 enlisted crewmen on board, and fifteen officers.
On the morning of the so-called Philadelphia Experiment, 28th October 1943, the vessel, freshly painted and fully loaded, sat in the dry dock of the navy yards. The entire crew were on board and over one hundred officers attended the dock to witness a ground-breaking, and potentially critical experiment which, they hoped, would turn the tide of the war with Germany.
The Elderidge, designed for escorting troop transports and merchant vessels, had been outfitted with a high-voltage generator, designed to alter its electromagnetic and gravitational fields. This experimental device would, in theory, use powerful on-board emitters to produce an electromagnetic field strong enough to bend the rays of light reflecting off its surface, in order to render the vessel completely invisible to both radar and the naked eye. If successful, it was proposed that the ship could be used to secure much depended-on supply lines to Europe that had to-date been severely compromised by attacks from German U-boats.
By this stage in the war over five million tonnes of steel and nautical equipment had already been lost to the Atlantic depths, along with thirty-thousand lives. Winter was on its way and the allies were struggling. The US was getting desperate, and such was given as the justification for why such a radical experiment was proposed and sanctioned by the military.
The science supporting the mechanism was, and is, even now – 30 years later – dubious at best. And yet by some accounts the experiment was a success, though it came with an unforeseen cost.
As the story goes, the on-board generators were energised, and for a moment nothing happened. Then an outward ripple spread across the waters of the dock, bringing with it a sound both loud and quiet. By accounts of the surviving officers who claimed to witness it – and I have interviewed more than a dozen – it was a sound that could only be approximately described as that of a newborn baby screaming under water.
Before the eyes of all in attendance, 900 tonnes of steel vanished from all sensors, mechanical and organic. It didn’t just become impossible to detect with sonar, it became completely invisible.
After a few moments the machine was powered down and the vessel reappeared. But what the investigating officers found on board was deeply disturbing.
Several sailors had received intense burns on their body. More than a few had visibly, and poorly aged. All reported feeling nauseous; many were terrified, and the officers themselves were so emotionally unhinged from the experience that they failed in every capacity to describe what they had seen. One man was displaced onto a lower deck than the one he had been standing on, as if the floor beneath him had temporarily phased out of existence – and stranger still – his hand, which had been resting on a guard rail, had become fused with the bulkhead.
The ship, it was allegedly concluded, had vanished not from sight, but from Philadelphia entirely. Reports arrived within thirty minutes of a sighting of an American destroyer-escort appearing, seemingly out of thin air, at a harbour in Virginia three hundred miles away, before it vanished again just as mysteriously.
The ship was retired without ever seeing active duty. All of the crew were honourably discharged, except for three who are still listed as Missing-In-Action – a curious designation for a trio of officers who had yet to be deployed outside of the United States.
This is the story I pieced together from various 1940’s newspaper articles, declassified government documents and interviews with willing ex-military officers.
In my myopic naivety I imagined it would not be difficult to disprove such a fabulous and fantastical tale. It is, however, an exceptionally difficult task to prove a negative. To do so requires a rigour of logic and strict adherence to sensibilities not often celebrated by the common man. I, however, being endowed of such skills, have ever been keenly suited to the task.
Over the course of my career I have successfully exposed numerous claimed-psychics, UFO abductees and disturbed proponents of alternative medical practices. My work has been cited in numerous scientific journals and more-than-once I’ve been called to appear on national radio, credited to my expertise as a fact-checker. So when I heard of the Philadelphia experiment of 1943 by way of a populist magazine (purchased by my partner), I immediately set about disproving the farce.
By the time I came to it a lot of the groundwork had already been done, the claimant credited with the story having been thoroughly exposed as a hoaxer. Others had come before me to this tale and demonstrated that its perpetrator, Allen, was not only a liar, but perhaps clinically insane. Along with his claims of an invisible boat, he also pointed to the existence of UFOs, concealed by the government and hidden from the public. Such, under normal circumstances, would be enough to invalidate any further claims a man could make. Nevertheless, despite official documentation to the contrary, the conspiracy continued in its propagation. Reasoned logic had seemingly evaded the grasp of the general public, and so I sought to put this matter more thoroughly to rest – to eliminate any possibility that such a lie might again be believed, even by the most uneducated and delusional in society.
I took to the task with the utmost diligence. It was critical that I did it right, or I would risk being made a strawman for conspiracists everywhere. To haphazardly present fallacious arguments only strengthens the rabid conspiracist’s perspective – akin to throwing water on an oil fire, as Demosthenes to flat-earthers. If not air-tight my research might later be turned against me.
My investigation began in earnest, but took a strange turn unexpectedly on what should have been one of my nights off.
I had been attending a show with my long-time partner, Eleanor Woods, and after its conclusion we headed to a nearby Irish bar off Locust street, within Philadelphia’s historic district. We ordered drinks, and had not long been sitting in one of the window-side booths when a younger man approached us. I say us, because I was there too, though it was blatantly obvious from the outset that the man was interested only in conversing with Eleanor.
He was shorter than me, with somewhat messy hair, a shirt and blazer, but no tie; and two, maybe three buttons undone, exposing a tacky faux-gold chain necklace. His shoes, I noticed, had thick soles, adding more than a well-needed two-inches to his meagre stature. He did not acknowledge me as he approached, and I was somewhat taken aback by his lack of consideration for the fact that this woman was obviously taken.
He took her hand and told her a joke I couldn’t quite hear over the jaunty music, but it must have been funny, for she gave quite a laugh and slapped his shoulder. I admit, in that moment, I was jealous. And rather than let the façade continue, I elected to intervene.
“So what do you do?” I asked.
“Oh, as little as possible, really.” He winked at Eleanor and she responded with a giggle. An unnecessary charity – it wasn’t that funny. I waited for him to provide some further detail, but he merely returned the question.
I replied straight-out that I was a professional de-bunker. I explained that often people publish pseudo-factual miss-information, and that it was my job to prove their claims false, publicly; to speak out against those uneducated, foolish or insane who were too loud and too foolish to know better than to keep their opinions to themselves.
“Interesting…” he said. “So you get paid to bully mentally-disadvantaged people over the airwaves?”
“No, absolutely not! My role is a protective one, concerning the public interest. I spare people who might not know better from being duped by charlatans, and fiction writers who have stepped outside their remit. I put them back in their box, re-categorise their ravings in line with reality.”
“Well when you put it like that, it sounds like a noble pursuit,” he said, and offered to buy me a drink, to which I accepted, gladly, as reconciliation for his previously offensive comment.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and darted off to the bar.
When he was gone I suggested to Eleanor that we not spend too long here. A polite chat with this man who was buying us a drink and we’d head off.
“Not too long here? This will be your fourth drink, won’t it?”
“Mistake-me not, Eleanor, I should kill myself if you ever leave me for a man like that!”
“Oh Davey that’s a horrible thing to say! And only three drinks? How dare you put a thing like that on me. You would not. And he’s not that bad.”
The shorter man, who would introduce himself as Terry Gillespie, returned with two drinks. One for me and one for Eleanor.
“You’re not having one yourself?” she asked, too sweetly.
“Oh no I don’t drink…”
I was going to ask what on earth he was doing in a bar, not drinking, but he quickly turned his attention to me before I could put the words together.
“What are you working on debunking at the moment?” he asked.
So I told him the story of the USS Elderidge. Of the massive ship that temporarily vanished from all sight and sensors before a crowd of decorated military officers, and which subsequently reappeared with its crew all warped and suffering from an indefinable madness. I suggested the conspiracy story was likely propagated in the first place as a form of counter-propaganda to unsettle the German forces. What would be easier, after all, and probably more cost-effective than building an invisible warship, than to convince the enemy that the allied forces already had one? Wouldn’t it be a great way to waste the enemy’s resources, to send them out searching and paranoid upon the seas for a ghost ship that did not exist? Such an exercise would not be unprecedented for the US propaganda machine, as many such ludicrous activities had since been conducted and declassified. Though I conceded that this was so far just speculation on my part.
What I found particularly offensive about the whole story was that it had already been conclusively disproven, beyond what I would consider to be all reasonable doubt, and yet people continued to spread the story online and in what remained of populist tabloid newspapers. I attributed the attracting fancy in part to the masses’ ongoing obsession with aliens from outer space, and a failure of the government to fully stamp out such claims by their insistence on keeping information on related subjects a secret for reasons of national security.
I did not wish to delve into such issues as UFOs again at this late stage in my career, and decided that I would find other means to debunk the fallacious conspiracy. For true logic is unassailable, and the truth is everywhere around us, if only we care to take a closer look.
“That’s amazing!” Terry exclaimed, when I had finished my diatribe.
His excitement I initially took to be forced. Obviously he had not yet given up on the impetuous enthusiasm he at some level thought might enable him to woo Eleanor away from me. Though I, apparently, was mistaken.
“I actually think I have something you might be terribly interested in,” he said.
He spoke of a friend of his great grandfather who had served on the USS in question, and who had kept a diary of all his experiences throughout the war.
“On his passing he left the notebook to my great grandfather, rest his soul. A family hand-me-down, of sorts. I could loan it to you, if it would provide some assistance in your research?”
“You would really loan me such a book? That’s been in your family for generations? We’ve only just met!”
“Sir, I realise we’ve only just met, but I have a strange confidence that you will return the book to me when you are finished reading it. I can tell that you take your work very seriously, so I feel I can trust you.”
“What if I were to tear it accidentally, spill coffee, or drop it in a puddle?”
“I will certainly do my very best not to.”
“Well that’s good enough for me. There is just one caveat. The book is in French. Can you read French?”
“Fluently” I lied. I was far too intrigued at this point, and aware of having told just such a lie to Eleanor on our first date – a lie which I had yet in good faith to rectify.
“In that case I will once again be right back. I will fetch the book from my father’s house.”
“Your father’s house?”
“Oh it’s just down the road. I’d invite you to accompany me, but you have your drinks to finish and I’m afraid I have already intruded on this – your first date, is it?”
He smiled at Eleanor again.
“Oh no, Davey and I have been dating for several years now! And nonsense – you’re not intruding at all. If we wanted to keep to ourselves we would have stayed home.”
“Yes,” I chimed in, despite it having been her suggestion to come out this night. “Stay with us until we finish our drinks and we’ll walk with you on our way home” I suggested.
“Oh how lovely… ”
We chatted jovially for another fifteen minutes or so, discussing local history and politics. We spoke of the inflation of property prices and the presumption that what goes so interminably up must eventually come down. Terry, although largely agreeing with us on the direction we felt the nation was headed, expressed some rather odd sentiments relating to what he called the ‘reality based community.’ The conversation once again shifted topic when Eleanor in passing mentioned an experience she’d had at work with another man who had used the same expression so casually.
“Wait a moment,” interjected Terry with slack-jaw. “You wouldn’t by chance be the Eleanor Woods, featured in Modesty magazine last month, would you?”
“Wow, I knew it! I mean, I didn’t know it, but I had a feeling, at some level that I’d seen your picture before somewhere…”
“Are you an avid reader of women’s beauty magazines, mister…?”
“Gillespie – very pleased to meet you. And no! Not usually. But I never forget a face. Especially not one as captivating as yours, my dear.”
This must have been the last straw, or perhaps I had grown overly tipsy from my downed beverage. I stood at once and announced that we had better get moving. To my mild relief neither Terry nor Eleanor disputed my suggestion and we set off on what really was a very short walk to Mr Gillespie Senior’s house.
“There is… another stipulation on the loan..,” the young Gillespie explained as we approached the great marble-clad entrance to his abode. “You will have to get the book back to me by Monday. My father will return from overseas next week and he will surely notice the heirloom missing if it is not returned by then. He would throw quite a fit if he found it gone. I trust the weekend would be sufficient time for you to read it?”
“Of course. Totally understandable.”
Terry dashed inside and momentarily returned with a cyanic-blue hardback notebook, almost as thick as the soles of his shoes.
I can only hope my inebriation was enough to conceal my anxiety on the matter, for on inspection of the livre I became aware of having lied once again. A book of this thickness, handwritten entirely in French, would take me longer than two nights to read and translate. Such a task would likely require the best part of a week. I had already agreed to return the book by Monday, so as soon as I got home that Friday night I set about transcribing it word-for-word. The translation could come later.
After Eleanor went to bed I set about my typed-transcription by candlelight, staying up into the small hours.
The book’s contents, at first glance, appeared strange, and only got stranger as deeper I plunged into it. I initially assumed I had been duped, though I knew not what ploy was at work upon me. Skimming the tops of the pages I noted non-sequential dates from the early 1800’s, and subsequently the mid 1700’s – well over two centuries prior to the official date of the Elderidge’s construction. The handwriting was equally inconsistent, and I might have assumed it written in collaboration with multiple people if not for Terry’s insistence that it had been the sole, personal diary of his late great grandfather’s friend.
It was as the sun departed on the second day that I began properly to digest the story. Trailing the rambling author in and out of peculiar segues I found myself intermittently shivering, despite the warm, roaring fire of my living room. Often I had to re-read segments, and trace back beyond bizarre tangents to re-locate lines of reasoning, and consult manuals to tease out scientific points of which the author seemed only rudimentarily initiated, but which he continually referred to. As the account rattled on I came to suspect the narrator’s mind had snapped somewhat more than a trifle.
I went to sleep late, harangued by strange dreams, and found myself awakening early on Sunday to continue my interpretation.
The constant use of obscure references and apocryphal analogy kindled in me a new disdain for the language I had studied so briefly in my school years, and diminished any interest I might have had in learning it properly. Betimes I sought alternate definitions for words and phrases that I assumed could not have been accurate, the implications of which assaulted all sensibilities in me, and might have driven me prematurely mad had I taken them as fact.
Much of the material in the mid-section of the journal was completely unverifiable. The author’s claims seemed to me ridiculous – even more-so than the story I initially set out to debunk. He regularly referenced events never recorded in our history books, spoke of war at a future date, and described a vessel under the miss-spelled moniker ‘Eldritch,’ whose capacity to transport troops and munitions to unknown lands was outside any paradigm of understanding accessible through the lens of contemporary science.
It all began, Monsieur Sauvé wrote, with the Philadelphia experiment. However, the date he gave was not the date I knew. ‘The great war of 2036’ had, by my reckoning, not yet come to pass, and yet this was the date he cited for what I had initially presumed to be World War II, herein only referred to as ‘La Grande Guerre.’ Many of the details in his account corroborated the popular story of the Philadelphia experiment, though equally many did not, and seemed entirely to contradict the ignorant, populist narrative, of which – though I thought it not possible – I increasingly became even more doubtful.
And yet I could not put it down.
Perhaps I overestimated my initial scepticism. Perhaps there was a layer of wonder yet quenched from my being, the presence of which I dared not admit but which, by my unconscious grasp upon it, drew me again and again to weather the ravings of lunatics in search of some nugget of sense. It was as if, on some level, I sought to apprehend the method underlying Allen’s madness, the motivation behind his propagation of ludicrous lies. I sensed it was this same curious, unconscious layer of my being that had taunted me to tolerate Terry the moment he first approached Eleanor, instead of shooing him away.
Posthumous fantasies of striking him then and there occurred to me; I wished to have displayed dominance, where I realised I had been only feeble and petty. It was just that, though: a wish. I had not and have never struck anyone in my life. I freely imagined I might have knocked the smaller man out with a single punch, but sincerely doubted my capability to actually do so, and though it was cowed by hate, intermittently re-imagining the scene I experienced an emergent fear that he might strike back and subdue me with ease.
Eleanor arrived on Sunday evening while I was still deep in it. She asked if the book was helpful in my research and I said it was still too early to tell. Many of the tales within were interesting, though most terribly strange, and I was not sure if I would be able to verify any of the contents in such a manner as to make them useful for public consumption. I worried that in failing to do so, I might just become that very thing which I in the first place sought to stamp out of existence.
She asked if we might go out to a show after dinner, but I regretfully had to decline. I told her I wanted to get the last of the notebook transcribed before it needed to be returned in the morning, as I was anxious to get this job completed. In truth I was by that time utterly engrossed in the ongoing accounts of Monsieur Sauvé and simply could not tear myself away.
He certainly had a wild imagination, and even in its most mundane aspects lived a life unquestionably more interesting than my own.
In 1742 he changed his name (though he did not state from what) and defected from the army. He took three wives, one after another, and lived on the fringes of society, influencing – he said – many events that transpired outside of the ‘reality based community’. These included such grand events as The Fall Of Rome, the invention of electricity, and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at a location 8,000km north-east of Waterloo.
It occurred to me that the errant electromagnetic field on board the Elderidge (herein named the Eldritch) might have scuttled his memory. The man, no longer able to tell reality from hallucination, had convened to record both in his journal without distinction.
He wrote regularly about two members of his cadre of officers, to whom he gave the assumedly conciliatory names of Weishaupt and Rothschilde. On searching these up I found documentation relating to engineering patents (the purpose of which I could not decipher) as well as a plenitude of conspiratorial rabbit holes I deigned not to burrow into.
I sent the book back with Eleanor yesterday who promised to return it on her way to work. My transcription complete, I had but a fraction of the book left to translate, so, she said, she would stay at her sister’s a night to give me time to finish. I couldn’t help but note a slight anxiety at her departure. I dismissed the feeling as residual excitement from reading this incredible story, though I now realise that was a mistake.
The final third of the notebook was plagued with miss-spellings and historical inaccuracies, including repeated references to Napoleon Bonaparte, 450 years before his time. Taking the dates as they were, Terry’s great grandfather would have appeared to be centuries older than any man could have lived.
Surely, I had to presume, it was all made up. A strange fiction constructed to pass the time. The late author, I surmised, had a truly fantastic imagination. The only alternate explanation for his fantastic claims, excepting sheer madness, was one he provided himself:
“From the fringes we created a new historical narrative. We grafted it onto the mainstream timeline of events meticulously, so that the general public would never become aware of our manipulations. They would know of the war, but not of the war within the war, and not who it was really against.”
I checked and triple-checked the translation, and found no more reasonable-sounding synonyms. Not once did he reference the ship’s capability to turn invisible. He described, instead, an entirely different mechanism by which it had vanished from the dry dock.
It was as the reports from Virginia had suggested – that the vessel had not, in fact, been rendered invisible, but had instead been transported ‘en arrière’ across space and time.
One would think this was enough for an astute disciple of reason such as myself to toss the translations aside and forget about it, but it was the very last part that truly disturbed me, shattered my perceptions, and dropped a pit like an anchor into my stomach; it was the part where the author outlined his family lineage and genealogy.
As I stare at the clock now and the hand comes back around, I realise I have been sitting here immobile for almost a day. Eleanor will not be returning home. I know this, but little else. The rest of my considerable library of facts has been torched to make room for this one – a fact elucidated by the single, solitary line upon the last page of the ancient notebook:
Dedicated to my loving parents, Eleanor Woods and Terry Gillespie Jr.