Signal Moon Excerpt
When there was a war on, and when your part in it was so deadly serious it sometimes kept you from sleeping at night, there was really nothing to do but make jokes about it all. It was either make jokes or start weeping at your desk, so Lily made jokes.
“The wallpaper in this place is going to do me in,” she quipped an hour into her shift that Monday. “I can see my obituary now: ‘The Honorable Lily Baines, petty officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, twenty-two, dead of mid-Victorian chintz.’”
The others laughed, a welcome sound of cheer in the chilly parlor. The little seaside hotel, in which Lily and her fellow Wrens had spent nearly every day of the last year, had been made over into a listening station at the start of the war. The space was crammed with desks, naval message pads, and National HRO receivers with their cranky dials and chunky headphones. The only part of the room that still looked like a parlor was the wallpaper, pink blotches that might have been cabbage roses or maybe diseased kidneys, writhing across the walls and down the corridor outside, and in all the rooms upstairs where Lily and her fellow Wrens billeted in a welter of hideous china and starched doilies. “This whole place is a mid-Victorian howler,” Lily had decreed their first day, already slotted into her place as court jester, the one who kept everyone laughing.
And if she often felt like weeping from the stress and the fear and the endless grinding dread of it all, what did that matter? There was a war on; you pinned a smile in place and kept going.
“No daydreaming, Baines,” tutted Lily’s superior officer, a middle-aged woman named Fiddian who had a face like a fist. “Put those headphones back on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lily blew on her mittened fingers. No one bothered to take off the coats bundled over their uniforms; it was far too cold. One of the advantages of joining the Wrens was supposed to be that sleek, dashing, brass-buttoned uniform (designed by Molyneux!), but no one ever saw the uniform here; Lily and her fellow Y Station listeners spent every shift bundled.
Lily slid the big Bakelite headphones back over her ears. Cold enclosed rooms, headphones, and secrecy—that was a Y Station listener’s world in a nutshell. Reaching toward her wireless receiver, she began turning knobs and went hunting.
It hadn’t seemed like hunting when she was doing her training course in Wimbledon over a year ago as a newly assigned special duties linguist. It had been serious business, of course, but there had been a certain fierce pleasure in learning to do it, and do it well: tuning her ears to the next room where a chap with a microphone droned a never-ending series of call signs, code groups, and German words, and Lily and a cluster of German-speaking Wrens scribbled on their pads, straining for every syllable. Can you repeat that? one of the girls had been foolish enough to ask, and the snap from the next room came right quick: Are you going to ask the Nazis to just repeat that, when you’re taking down their transmissions in the North Sea? It was all about learning to listen with every spark of energy you had, straining to hear as the teachers started building in interference: fading signals, interrupted signals, aural chaff (Write down exactly what you hear, and no guessing, girls!). Lily would exchange delighted grins with the others when they got a message clear; they’d compete to see who was best at parsing the transmissions.
But here in Withernsea, everything was deadly serious: they were intercepting live radio communications sent to enemy vessels, the same vessels that hunted their countrymen. Lily saw her quarry the moment she first sat down at this desk: wolf packs of U-boats knifing through the waters of the Atlantic, German surface vessels poking their ugly snouts through the Baltic, looking for soft Allied flesh. She didn’t have a brother out there, thank God—hers were both too young—but she had a whole flock of cousins, a pack of school friends, an entire flotilla of old beaux she’d fox-trotted and waltzed through her deb season with. Willy, Terry, John, Phil, Arthur, Kit, Andrew, Eddie, Dickie, Alan, Fred . . . Just running the list in her head, the ones she could lose, sent an icy hand of pure terror clawing down her throat.
Chin up, she told herself again, fingers resting on the knob like a pianist’s on the keys, sliding the length of the band. German transmissions, always to be found in the 4, 8, and 12 MHz bands— ship-to-ship communications fell in the 30 to 50 MHz band. Listening through the static, through the fuzz, sliding slowly along the frequencies. (Have my ears grown? Lily wondered sometimes in the bleariness of late-shift exhaustion. Do they stick out from my head like platters, the way I strain and swivel after radio chatter so many hours and hours and hours a day?) Straining, straining, straining, never knowing when a voice in German would suddenly jump into your ears. Two hours of static droned through her headphones tonight before a nasal Teutonic tenor emerged; Lily gave a sharp knock on the desk, and dimly heard one of the other Wrens calling, “We’ve got a Jerry ship up. Call Fiddian—” Lily was already writing with one hand, transposing the drone of German letter groups as her left-hand fingers poised on the knob, ready to track the voice if it disappeared back into static. She lost the signal in the middle, got it back within seconds, only a few letter groups dropped out there . . . It was all ciphered, just gibberish in five-letter clusters, but she didn’t have to make sense of it. She just wrote until her hand burned and listened till her ears bled, the entire person and essence of the Honorable Lily Baines stripped down to a pair of ears and a pair of hands.
About the Story
Title: Signal Moon
Author: Kate Quinn
Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption. One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help. An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.
Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.
Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of many historical novels, including The Diamond Eye, The Rose Code, The Alice Network, and The Huntress. A native of Southern California, she received her bachelor’s and master’s in classical voice from Boston University before turning her focus to writing fiction. Her books have been translated into multiple languages, and The Alice Network was featured as a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick. Quinn lives in San Diego with her husband and three adorable rescue dogs.
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