Seas High and Low by Gustavo Bondoni

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in English. He has recently released two science fiction novels: Siege (2016) and Outside (2017).  He has nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries.  They have been translated into seven languages.  Many of the stories are collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel.  His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.


Seas High and Low

His name was Benedicto García, and he knew that the sea would be his grave.  He’d known it ever since he’d first walked up the steep gangplank of the María Purísima all those years ago, and he knew it still.  Whether it would be a fall from the rigging or a ball from an English musket or the ravages of typhoid on some densely packed troop ship, he didn’t know.  What he did know was that death lived in those waters.

This knowledge allowed him to face the gale that churned the breakers into froth with equanimity.  A wind that seemed more likely to have emanated from the very mouth of the devil than from the slate-grey sky.  He stared into it, wondering whether this was, finally, his destiny reaching out for him.

It would be fitting; he preferred to die here with the Grand Armada, killed by a vengeful, outraged sea, than of a nameless disease contracted from some dalliance ashore.  Better this way, drowned by hidden rocks off the forbidding Scottish coast.  His country, his king, and the one true God would honor him forever.

While some bemoaned the fighting that had forced them to flee, leaving behind their anchors, and others cursed the British and yet others prayed for deliverance, he watched the water beneath them for hidden rocks.  It was almost with satisfaction – a sense of destiny fulfilled – that he heard the splintering and felt the ship lurch with the contact.  His safety rope snapped as the impact pushed him over the side.

He savored every instant of the flight toward the surface, felt every droplet of spray on his skin.  He knew he would drown, but the ship was doomed anyhow.  Why delay the inevitable? The Armada sent to punish the English in the name of his glorious majesty Phillip II was going down in the gale. Who would be left to save him, even if he fought his way back to the surface?

The ocean swallowed him whole.

***

Midshipman Jonathan Brown huddled against the October chill. The biting pre-dawn wind seemed to cut through his coat as if it were made of paper.  He suppressed a shiver.

But it wasn’t the cold making him shiver as he looked over the railing, scanning the water for a sign, any sign of activity below the surface.  Death lived in those waters.  Death in the form of underwater killers that ran in packs of metallic wolves.  No convoy was entirely safe from them.  The U-boat was the lord of the seas.

All one could do was hope.  Hope that German intelligence had missed them, hope that they wouldn’t come across a pack by sheer bad luck, hope that the destroyers could do their jobs before any of the ships were hit.  And, most unlikely of all, hope that some sharp-eyed midshipman could spot the telltale signs of a submarine’s wake as it came up to torpedo depth.

Success was an unlikely outcome at the best of times, made unlikelier yet at night, when the only illumination available was that of the floodlights.  But this was wartime, and unless he was called to battle stations, Jonathan Brown would remain on the railing and do his duty.  A duty that could save hundreds of lives in the convoy.

Conscience of the vital importance of each and every ship in Convoy SC 48 was the only thing keeping him awake.  They’d already run into a wolf-pack farther west, and only the heroic action of the Gladiolus had kept the damage from being worse than it had.  Jonathan knew that, if any more U-boats attacked, it would be the Broadwater’s turn to do its part, and he was there to help her achieve it as they approached the dark Scottish coast.

The water reflected the floodlights; the waves, driven to froth by the wind, looked like nothing more than a flock of seagulls taking flight.

Jonathan reflected that there was little likelihood of spotting a wake in seas like these, but he kept watching.

***

Kapitänleutnant Ernst Mengersen pushed the periscope away in disgust.  The unsettled sea and the darkness had allowed them to approach unseen, to center the British destroyer in their sights and to fire their first torpedo, all without being detected.  He had been elated.

But, as the torpedo was being released, a shudder ran through the ship.  He wasn’t certain whether it had been a sudden shift in the currents or something else, but it had moved the ship just enough to cause the missile to deviate by a hair’s breadth.  Just enough to cause it, at this distance, to miss.

Ernst, like most submarine commanders, was a student of maritime history. He knew that these very waters were the grave of countless Spanish sailors, victims of the unexpected storm that had sunk the Grand Armada. He prided himself on being less superstitious than his men, but it when a perfect shot was ruined by a sudden swell, it was hard to keep from thinking that maybe the British couldn’t be defeated in these waters. That the ocean and the winds themselves would intervene to prevent it.

Now, the destroyer’s crew would know they were there and would launch the countermeasures, that, though not perfect, had been effective enough against other U-boats.  The playing field had just been leveled.

They had two options: they could run, use their stealth to attack at another moment, ensuring the destruction of yet more enemy ships, or they could stand and fight, risk losing his crew, and, more important, the valuable U-boat, to the deep sea just for the pleasure of fighting it out with this destroyer.

In reality, that choice was an illusion.  True men would only see one path from his current position.

“Prepare another torpedo,” he ordered.

His crew obeyed without protest.

***

Benedicto García could feel the water against his face.  It moved quickly, caressing him lovingly as it sped around him at a rate quicker than any current he’d ever encountered in all his years in the navy.  He could feel it flowing all around him, bitingly cold.

It took him a few moments to remember the last time he’d felt water this cold: it had been off the coast of Scotland—he’d fallen off the mortally wounded María Purísima into the frothing fury of the Atlantic.  He could remember the surprising silence under the crashing waves and the sudden pain as he was washed up against a sharp rock and gashed open, salt water immediately turning the long cut into a beacon of agony.  He could remember the water entering his mouth, filling his lungs.  He’d felt himself growing heavy, sinking towards the sea bottom.  And then a blackness that eased all sensation.

The memories were somehow faded, as if innumerable years had passed since the events took place.  Ages upon ages.  And yet, he could remember nothing after that.  It was as if the sea had kept him safe in its cold bosom until that night.

Water flowed and churned.  Benedicto noted with more interest than horror that as it frothed, it swept through his body as if it weren’t there.

And then he remembered. Remembered watching from his watery grave as one  empire, the empire that had given him birth, disappeared from the high seas and another, the descendants of men he’d bitterly fought, took its place.

The British had ruled the seas for centuries, and he’d watched helplessly as they’d

become ever more powerful. From his watery resting place on the shore near the Scottish coast, the sea showed him all.

The apathy and resignation he’d felt when he died had turned to hatred, and the

constant plea to the spirits of the deep: give me one chance to make my mark. Give me the

final battle that was denied me.

His wish, it seemed, had been granted, albeit in the strangest of ways.

He felt very little in his new state. Deep emotion seemed beyond his capacity, only

a kind of determination remained. He was there for a reason, even if he knew nothing of

what was expected of him. But there was no curiosity as to how he’d arrived, only a sense

of purpose.

Likewise, he felt no curiosity about the strange semi-submerged vessel he was riding.  A large metal tube shaped like the barrel of a cannon, with a rounded nose that split the water ahead of him.  He couldn’t make out the back end.  All he could see was a sensation of movement under a churning fountain of white water.  No matter.  It would be adequate to his needs.

He peered forward into the night.  A light rivaling the sun seemed to make a small area ahead of him shine like noon on midsummer’s day.  But the true wonder was that this tiny sun moved from side to side, as if a star were being harnessed to search the ocean for creatures that displeased the demon that controlled it.  This domesticated star seemed to come nearer as he sped through the water, but he realized that he would pass to one side and miss it by a large margin.

Suddenly, it became clear to him that the light was mounted on some kind of ship, floating in the water, and he knew what he had to do – he had to guide his new vessel to that light, and thereby strike a blow against his eternal enemies, the British.  Revenge, finally, would be his.

His thoughts briefly analyzed the fact that he understood none of what was going on, but that faded immediately.  He’d been conscious long enough to understand the feeling that underlay his entire existence: he felt the weariness of the ages on his shoulders, as if he’d been living in eternal toil and hardship since the day he’d drowned.  The most important voice was that of the tiny piece of his soul that knew he would have peace if he could guide his vessel to the light.  He was far past caring about his country’s enemies.

So, with one final effort, he began talking to the sea.  Coaxing a capricious spirit into creating a current here, cajoling another there, and soon, the nose of his tube began to arc toward his salvation.  Despite his weariness, this partial success gave him strength to redouble his efforts.

***

Midshipman Brown could scarcely believe his eyes.  “Torpedo,” he screamed.

Even as he said it, he knew it was too late.  The fish was less than fifty meters away and would hit them before any action could be taken against it.  He watched, like a rabbit transfixed by a bright light, as the wake approached.  Elsewhere on deck, frantic, panicked motion erupted as the crew prepared for the strike.

But Jonathan didn’t move.  Twenty meters.  Ten.

An instant before the strike, Jonathan was certain he saw, shining in the night, a huge sailing ship from another era, pale faces lined up along the railing, accusing eyes burning into the very depths of his soul.  His jaw dropped.

And then the torpedo hit, and he saw nothing more.

***

The meeting room, deep beneath the Admiralty, was silent.  This was always the most sobering segment of any briefing: the convoy report from the night before.  Highly decorated men shifted uncomfortably in their seats as the designated aide strode to the head of the table.  While all were aware that the convoys were vital to the survival of Great Britain as an independent nation, they were also aware that, were it not for orders issued by the men in this room, the seamen they’d be hearing about in the briefing would be home, having nice warm tea with their wives and children instead of braving the terror of the dark, cold Atlantic nights, and the chill, loveless arms of Davy Jones.

The aide wore the war-weary face of someone who would have preferred to be elsewhere.  After droning about the arrival of vital supplies at different ports, he got down to the segment known as the U-boat report. “SC 48 was attacked off the coast of Iceland last night.  The Broadwater was torpedoed and lost.  There were survivors, but the number isn’t clear at this moment.”

Broadwater was a destroyer, right?”

“Yes, an old American ship.”

“And the freighters?”

“No losses, sir.  They managed to lose the sub after the first strike hit.”

“Thank God for that, then,” a Rear Admiral said, thinking of the country, and trying to ignore the watery fate of the destroyer’s crew.  “Anything else?”

“Yes, intelligence is nearly certain that this one was U-101, which means that our earlier assessment that the convoy had managed to shake 101 off was premature.”

“You say only one torpedo was fired?”

“Yes.  We think he was preparing to fire again, but retreated after the first impact.”

“Damn.  One torpedo, one ship.  These bloody U-boats never seem to miss, do they?”

Sober-faced heads nodded agreement around the table.  The meeting went on to other important topics.  The Broadwater, after all, would no longer be participating in this particular war.

END

 

Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/