The version of history that we get in school books always make it sound like everything that happened in war and peace was somehow inevitable and preordained. Anyone who's had real experience in the intelligence community knows just how fragile our timeline really is and how just a few isolated incidents can change the course of history.
That's the premise of David Kowalski's debut novel The Company of the Dead. Set in an alternate version of 2012 where Germany and Japan are the dominant superpowers because the United States never entered WWI because a mysterious man traveled back in time and prevented the Titanic from sinking. No wreck of the Titanic, no U.S. involvement in the Great War.
Kowalski's novel involves a group of people who want to restore history to its rightful order at the peril of their own deaths. The premise sounds a lot like Philip K. Dick's classic The Man in the High Castle, which portrays a world where the U.S. stays out of WWII. We've got an excerpt from The Company of the Dead below and the book is out now.
April 21, 2012
New York City, Eastern Shogunate
Showered and dressed, John Jacob Lightholler sat at the dining room table of his hotel suite. He wore a dark blue woollen suit. A crumpled plain burgundy tie hung from his neck like an afterthought. He worried its frayed edge between his fingers.
Before him, smoothed out and spread across the table, lay the letter. A cigarette burned in an ashtray near one of its edges. He found himself staring at its glowing tip.
It had been over two hours since Kennedy and his men had left, yet little had changed—the breakfast tray remained, its contents long cold, and a newspaper that lay unopened on one of the cushioned chairs.
A question formed in his mind. Reverberated through his thoughts to be borne out in a single word.
He said it softly, as if questioning the meaning of the word itself. He said it and wondered how his life could unravel so quickly. From ship’s captain to Confederate lackey in the space of a morning.
Why would the King of England parcel me off to work for the Confederate Bureau of Intelligence?
He had served with the Royal Navy for ten solid years, and in that time he’d never been approached for Intelligence work, never been assigned any post that suggested he was being groomed for anything covert.
True, in the last few days, he’d been approached by a number of foreign dignitaries. He’d sat with the Russian Ambassador. He’d been invited to an audience with Hideyoshi; the titular Governor of the Prefecture of New York, the Shogun of the Japanese Empire’s eastern dominions and twin brother of Emperor Ryuichi.
Finally he'd been asked to attend a short-lived meeting with the German Foreign Minister, whom he’d met on the voyage. The Minister had been preparing to leave for Berlin to resume the Russian-Japanese Peace talks, scheduled to be held at the Reichstag.
For some reason each group had queried his opinion on how the Peace talks had gone. Lightholler had dismissed the Japanese incursion into Russian Manchuria as just another manifestation of the half-century old Cold War between the Empires of Japan and Germany. In the fifty years since Germany had secured the domination of Western Europe and North Afrika, and Japan had extended itself from the borders of China to the American West Coast and New York, both empires had bickered constantly.
But the King’s letter pre-dated those meetings.
Could it have something to do with the centennial voyage itself?
He thought back to the crossing, trying to summon up something anything that would be of value to the Confederates. He recalled a brief encounter with Morgan, the historian who’d accompanied Kennedy that morning.
It had been halfway through the Atlantic passage, on April 15. They had held a Memorial Service for those lost on the maiden voyage of 1912. The crowds were filtering out of the first class lounge at its conclusion, Lightholler had been one of the last to leave.
Wishing to avoid the other passengers, he’d made his way to the ship’s stern, where he spied another man by the railing. Darren Morgan. He remembered those pale blue eyes as the historian had caught his glance, and turned quickly away—a clumsy movement that failed to conceal what he’d been doing.
Morgan had been casting breadcrumbs into the ship’s wake.
Lightholler had walked up to him and nodded in greeting and Morgan responded with an embarrassed shrug.
“It’s just in case,” Morgan said. “Just in case we lose the way home.”
Only then did Lightholler perceive the alcohol on the man’s breath. They parted, and he had all but forgotten the incident.
Little else had happened that was out of the ordinary. E deck had been sealed off due to fire damage, prior to the ship leaving dry dock in Bremen. No one in, no one out. There were Johnson’s concerns about the displacement of the Titanic, but Kennedy had said it was the original ship that they were interested in. It made no sense.
Kennedy had issued a challenge, almost daring him to confirm the validity of the letter. Contact the White Star Line, he’d said. Contact the Foreign Office in London. It was as good a start as any.
Still, Lightholler sat by the telephone for long minutes before dialling the first number.
The Foreign Office in London confirmed that his assignment had indeed come directly from the Palace. No one he spoke to, however, could supply any details.
He contacted the London branch of the White Star Line only to be told that he’d been placed on leave of absence. Indefinitely. If he would be so kind as to come down to the Manhattan offices, there was some paperwork to be taken care of.
Lightholler slammed down the phone. So the letter was authentic, and the Titanic had been taken away from him, placed under the care of Fordham, his First Officer.
He could only think of one man to turn to, Rear-Admiral Lloyd. The officer who had organised his honourable discharge from the Royal Navy, and facilitated his assignment to the Titanic late last year.
He smoked another cigarette to calm his nerves before dialling the number that would connect him to the offices of the Admiralty. Discretion could go fuck itself.