To accommodate the reader, the chronicler has translated the characters’ speech from its native French to the King’s English. Therefore, one must keep in mind that all dialogues should sound properly conceited, as is the natural inclination of many a self-identified Frenchman. Among other things, some ranks of the French navy, such as Capitaine de frégate and Capitaine de vaisseau, have been converted to their commonwealth equivalent, that is, Commander and Captain. The reader has, however, been spared an accurate rendering of the French accent.
“Long night, Vincent?” asked Commander Durand as he entered the bridge.
“Not overly, Sir,” the young officer said, standing at attention and barely holding back a yawn.
It was the man’s first night shift, and he still had a few minutes to go. Durand patted him on the shoulder. “At ease, Lieutenant. You know, we have a great blend of exceptional Yemeni coffee with which I deem it wise that you get keenly acquainted,” he said raising his cup at him.
“Aye, Sir. I’ll consider it.”
Durand examined the instruments: they were perfectly on course. “Ensign, anything on our sensors?”
“No, Sir. We passed about a dozen whales during the night, but aside from that, the water’s clear.”
Junior officers were progressively getting relieved as their comrades were coming in for the day shift. Dawn was just breaking, and the sun was extricating itself from the liquid bounds of the horizon. The doors had been swung wide open to let the marine air into the bridge.
He took a deep breath and a sip of black coffee. “Still here, Vincent?” he said without looking at the young officer who was still standing at attention. “Get off my bridge, Lieutenant,” said he after a few seconds of awkward silence.
“Aye aye, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
Durand nodded without turning around. He put his saucer and his cup down on the console and took a look at his watch: just about six o’clock. He brushed his uniform sleeves with the back of his hand, made sure that it was not creased or ruffled, and lightly tugged on the front. Then, he turned to face the starboard door to the bridge and stood at attention.
“Captain on the bridge,” he shouted as his commanding officer walked in with a cup of coffee in hand.
The junior officers on the bridge saluted at once.
“Commander,” Captain Leclerc said as he put his own cup of coffee on the console. “As you were.”
As always, Captain Leclerc was perfectly groomed, with thin sleeked moustaches and side whiskers, and an air of austere nobility that betrayed a severe yet benevolent character. Despite his age, he had an athletic physiognomy which manifested his natural acuity and inclination toward leadership. He was also somewhat prideful, and he kept his cap on as much as possible so as not to show his baldness; however, he was not so ashamed of it that he resorted to dressing his hair in the outrageous manner of those who naively try to dissimulate their lack of it by using what little they do have as camouflage. The Tricolore flew high and mighty in the warm Pacific wind.
Sunlight bounced and danced on the teal water around Inébranlable and her three sister ships. They sailed swiftly and gracefully, with Glorieux on the right flank, Duc d’Alençon at the vanguard, and Aquilon at the rear.
“Beautiful morning isn’t it? But then again, all mornings are beautiful in this part of the world.” Captain Leclerc said as he put his cup on a table and picked up his binoculars.
“Yes, sir,” Durand answered reflexively.
“Oh,” Leclerc exclaimed as he was about to bring the binoculars to his eyes, “I received a telegram from my wife this very morning: it seems La Ramée won by a landslide.”
Durand hesitated but for a second. “So we’ll have a Labour Party Consulate for the next five years. It’s comforting to think that the Royalists are undone at this point.”
“Quite so,” the captain said, twirling his moustache.
Durand had become very much adept at hiding his uneasiness whenever his captain mentioned his wife: it was well known among most senior and even junior officers of the fleet that it was an understatement to say that Mrs. Leclerc did not care much for the notion of fidelity. Captain Leclerc was eighteen years her elder and more preoccupied with his career than by anything else. In fact, he seemed to give it no thought, and although Durand could not believe that he was ignorant of it all, the Captain never gave any sign of aggravation over his wife’s promiscuity.
Captain Leclerc had raised his binoculars and was gazing directly ahead of them.
“Here we are. Look at that, Commander. That is what mankind can accomplish. I’m telling you: this will stand as a symbol of the ingenuity and power of France.”
Durand grabbed the binoculars. On the horizon, there was a black dot, and as he peered through the binoculars, he realized that sprawling in front of them was a facility of untold proportions. Such was its size that it must have been nearly as large as the Île de la Cité itself, with its very own sets of towers, walls, and even drawbridges so it could be made even larger by connecting to other such structures. A fortress of steel had been thrown in the middle of the ocean; a greyish blue rock bristling with antennae. That a construction such as this could float seemed preposterous, and yet there it was.
“Incredible. Men, the Napoléon Platform is in sight.”
His exclamation was met with clapping and cries of “hurray”. They had been at sea for more than a month, and every man onboard was anxious to get off the ship, even if it wasn’t to get any kind of shore leave. Certainly, the Admiralty was not so open-minded as to have on board the sort of entertainment that most seamen were looking for.
Captain Leclerc grumbled. Durand knew that his commanding officer would have liked nothing more than to get on with drills and manoeuvres as soon as they reached their destination: he didn’t need downtime, and neither should his men. However, he was not one to question the judgment of his superiors, and Vice-Admiral Marquis was adamant that everyone in the fleet should enjoy a few days rest before there were to be any operations so close to the territorial waters of the Japanese Empire. Such precautions seemed wise to Durand, as he had heard that Emperor Yasuhito was quite the warmonger. He was, in fact, the reason why the project of the Napoléon Platform had been initiated. In the last fifteen years, the Japanese had annexed Korea, taken over China, assumed control of the Philippines, conquered part of Indonesia, and were now eyeing Indochina. French presence had to be secured in the region for France to retain access to the vast quantities of darwinium nestled in the depths of the oceanic trenches of the Pacific.
“I would’ve paid a month’s wages to get a look at Yasuhito’s face when he learned about the platform. It’s been reported that he became absolutely livid,” said Captain Leclerc.
“I heard Baldwin was also quite irate when his advisors told him about it.”
“Bah! The Rosbeefs have nothing to be displeased about. We’re bending over backward for them and their worthless alliance. So far, the Society of Nations has been a tremendous waste of energy and resources. It’s only served the Japanese and the Turks to halt our expansion while they’ve been warring all across Asia. Meanwhile, our good friends from the other side of the Channel have kept their colonies and profited from the exotic fruits of their global empire. Mark my words, Mister Durand, this travesty will come to an end sooner rather than later, and it’s high time we take matters into our hands.”
“That it is, Sir,” said Durand.
He was more or less in agreement with his commanding officer. Although it was true that the Ottomans and the Japanese were seldom acquiescing to the demands of the Society, both the Imperial Confederation of Russia and Sweden and its dominions had welcomed its formation and were receptive to the concept of a new world order for the peace and prosperity of all. In Durand’s mind, anything was preferable to another Great War and the loss of two generations of good men.
Officers like Leclerc, however, were more comfortable in wartime than in peace. It was not that they were cruel, or brutal, or bloodthirsty: he was ready and willing to put his own life on the line for every man in his crew. It was not that they enjoyed the screams, the death, and the bloodshed: Leclerc grieved for every young seaman who perished under his command, and he was well known for successfully negotiating a number of surrenders rather than resorting to battle.
In their mind, there was a kind of clarity to war: the simple distinction between enemies and allies, the order of battle lines, and regiments, and formations, the efficiency of the war machine, the respect of the soldiers.
In their mind, war was not a calamity, but a crucible of valour, in which mere mortals were smelt into heroes as the impurities of ego and vice were driven off like slag until there was nothing left but purified manly virtues: bravery, camaraderie, selflessness, duty, patriotism.
In war, there was fellowship between allies, and there was honour between foes.
Peace, Leclerc would have said, was nothing but a cruel game of hypocrisy and fake smiles. Durand himself rather enjoyed the perks of peace, although he ultimately couldn’t bear so much tranquility. He also was a man of few talents, but he knew discipline, and he could be as stubborn as he was efficient.
“Come to think of it, Durand, the Californians too are going to be quite happy about the platform,” Leclerc said.
“How so, Sir?”
“Well, they do have ambitions to expand in the Pacific beyond Hawaii, and they haven’t been quite comfortable with the proximity of the Japanese as of late.”
“As they should,” said Durand. “Their fleet would be no match for the battleships of the Rising Sun.”
“Indeed,” said Captain Leclerc as he took his cup in hand and had a sip of hot coffee. “What’s happening with Duc d’Alençon?” he added as he saw the cruiser turn to starboard.”
“Commander Durand!” called a young radar operator. “I have something on my radar heading for Glorieux. Bearing: 290 degrees.”
“Bigger, but it’s nearly invisible on my instruments… And here’s another one.”
“Warn Captain Beauchamp immediately,” cried Leclerc as he put down his cup.
“Admiral Foch is ordering us to take evasive action, Captain. Glorieux is…” But before the young officer could finish his sentence they saw her stern erupt in a geyser of white steam and black smoke. They felt the detonation as much as they heard it.
“Ensign, evasive manoeuvre, hard to port,” Leclerc shouted. “We need to be parallel to those objects.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
The helmsman complied, they were nearly thrown to the ground as the ship heeled and abruptly changed course.
“Red alert,” Durand shouted as he grabbed the internal communicator. “All crew to battle stations.”
“Torpedoes, it is,” said Leclerc. “Operators, remain vigilant and try to adjust your instruments.”
After a few seconds, Aquilon and Duc d’Alençon were behind them, out of sight.
“Captain,” a radar operator called out, “if we maintain course, we will have two torpedoes abeam in about fifteen seconds. They should just pass us by.”
“Indeed,” said Leclerc. “Ensign, maintain course.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
It was less than fifteen seconds before they saw the wakes of the torpedoes on both sides of Inébranlable.
“Hard to port again, Ensign,” said Captain Leclerc.
Durand headed for the communications officer and put his hand on his shoulder. “What’s happening with the other ships, Garnier?”
The officer didn’t turn around as he answered hastily: “Glorieux is trying to deploy countermeasures, but they’re not evacuating yet. Aquilon was hit, but her armour held. Duc d’Alençon is closing in on the enemy. They’re transmitting a frequency that they think might help us detect some torpedoes, and maybe even the enemy submarines.”
“Start loading the mortars and the depth charges,” sounded Leclerc. “I want them ready to fire as soon as we turn around.”
As they were turning, they could see another projectile pass them by, and they heard the low rumble of a second explosion, like the roar of the depths. When the ship ended up facing the enemy’s purported position, Captain Leclerc raised his hand in an imperious manner.
“All mortars are to fire in a thirty degrees forward arc. Starboard depth charge launchers in a forty degrees arc centered at seventy degrees. These yellow bastards won’t get to surprise us twice in one day. On my mark…”
At that point, the bridge had turned into a beehive, with every officer and junior officer going at their task, carrying the will of their master and commander with uncanny efficiency. Nothing but a rising musky scent could have betrayed their excitement.
“On your mark, Sir,” Durand said as he saw the green lights of the batteries flicker on.
All weapons fired at once, sending dozens upon dozens of shells and charges across the skies.
As the projectiles sank, one of the radar operators called out: “Sir, there’s one submarine in front of us, six degrees, four thousand and six hundred meters.”
“Good,” Durand said as he gestured to a weapons officer. “Hammer that position. There must be another one close by.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
One or two junior officers couldn’t help but turn their gaze toward the ocean as it shuddered and burst in front of them. The charges had detonated and sent destructive shockwaves coursing through the waters. And as Inébranlable was cutting through the ocean, her crew felt her rock and shake as if she had tumbled, and Durand saw the waves erupt with awesome pressure before them.
“Tell Chief Moreau to send his best to the front, there’s going to be water to pump out and leaks to patch,” said the commander.
“What’s happening with Glorieux and Aquilon,” Leclerc shouted.
“Sir,” one of the communications officers answered, “Glorieux is being evacuated and Aquilon is…” The crew heard an explosion in the distance. “Aquilon is hit hard. They… She’s taking on water, but they’re going to keep firing back until it is sunk.”
Leclerc, meanwhile, was imperturbable. There was no fear in his demeanour. His hands were calmly held together behind his back.
In front of them, Durand could see Duc d’Alençon firing another salvo of mortars and depth charges as the sea was torn apart from below: if any officer was to push his men to soldier on through the direst of situations, it was Rear Admiral Foch. He had heard stories about the Battle of Faroe Islands, about how the batteries of Belisarius kept firing even after she was cut in half and sinking in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. After the battle, the 62-year-old was found swimming toward Stóra Dímun, about five nautical miles from the wreck of his ship. Perhaps the Gooks had just bitten more than they could chew.
“Torpedoes incoming,” shouted an ensign. “Starboard.”
“Countermeasures,” Captain Leclerc cracked.
They could see the wakes of the projectiles getting closer and closer until once more the ocean rose in violent splashes of vapour just before their ship was hit.
“We’re going to break their formation, Durand. We’ll make them regret striking against the French Empire,” Leclerc boasted in a thunderous voice to cover the tumult of the war machine. “This shall be remembered as the day the presumptuous Japanese drew the ire of a recuperating giant.”
“Yes, Sir,” Durand said, unsure of himself before such a display of rather theatrical patriotism.
But as he looked around across the vast and frightening ocean, he saw the large wake of another torpedo, headed directly for their bow.
“Brace for impact!”
Durand did not have time to grab to anything, and he felt a sharp pain as his head hit a console. When he came to his senses, he was being dragged off the bridge by two ensigns. His vision was blurry and red-tinted.
He was dizzy.
In a daze, he could hear the voice of his captain: it was urging someone to stand up and to get to a lifeboat.
He felt a hand on his left shoulder. “He’s alive,” the captain said. “Stout one.”
And then, his voice faded away. And then, there were stairs that seemed familiar, yet felt like they stretched for miles, and he knew that there was nothing of the sort on board. The floor was so slanted that it was difficult to maintain his balance. They were sinking quickly. As he and the two ensigns were making their way to the lifeboats, his head was clearing, although it was still buzzing and pulsing.
He stumbled as the ship was brutally shaken.
On all four, he looked around and had a glimpse of the raging ocean clawing at the steel carcass of the once-proud vessel with watery hands. The blue waves of the Pacific were claiming Inébranlable.
On all four, with his head throbbing and the ship rocked by the ocean, he did his best to keep nausea at bay.
The voice of his captain rose from behind him: “I told you to get him to a lifeboat. Get up, Commander! For Christ’s sake! Pull it together, Durand.”
He pushed himself off the ground and rose on shaky legs. Captain Leclerc was helping a lieutenant carry an unconscious seaman. His uniform was torn up and stained with blood.
“Come, men,” Leclerc said. “Let’s get off our sinking ship.”
He was walking slowly, clumsily, and every step, he could feel resonating in his cranium.
“How’s Duc d’Alençon doing?” he asked loud enough for his captain to hear.
Leclerc scoffed. “Still fighting, I’d wager. With a little luck, she’ll be picking us up when all is said and done.”
“Good,” Durand said “I should hate to have to ask the Japs to sail us to the Platform.”
Durand squinted: the sun was still rising lazily into the morning sky, casting its rays through the clouds of black smoke that were rising from the scuttled ship. It was a bright day in the Pacific.
There was a deep thud, and then the hull screamed in agony as the ship was again shaken by a detonation, and Durand stumbled once more. Behind him, he heard the captain and the lieutenant drop the seaman. They swore and picked him up as fast as they could, as Inébranlable was growling like a wounded animal. They were about ten meters from the lifeboat when the entire ship seemed to give way, banking to the side and throwing their small contingent into the sea. The cool water shocked him into a more conscious state, but his limbs were weak and unresponsive. His arms clumsily grasped at the blue water, he flailed his legs beneath him to propel his heavy and cumbersome body. He was moving up ever so slowly away from the translucent abyss below. His lungs were burning as he struggled to bring himself to the shimmering surface. He emerged gasping.
In front of him, about ten meters away, the lifeboat that had detached from the warship in the nick of time. To his left, his captain and the lieutenant, doing their best to keep the poor seaman’s head above the waves. And right next to him, the two ensigns. They grabbed him to make sure he would not sink again.
“Let’s get the boy on that boat, men!” shouted the captain. “And help the commander in, you two.”
The two ensigns helped him forward as the waves splashed in his face, and then they pushed him up on the dinghy, where several of his comrades pulled him to relative safety. He collapsed at the bottom of the raft as they pulled the unconscious seaman out of the water, then the lieutenant, then the two ensigns, and finally the captain. Every man on that lifeboat looked haggard, dejected, spent; either pale, or bloodied, or bruised, or blackened by soot.
It seemed as though everything was silent, yet a few meters away, Inébranlable was gurgling salty seawater as fires here and there spewed forth dark pillars of smoke that stretched across the blue sky, and the ocean threw itself still at the great metallic raft, sloshing and slapping the hull with spiteful avidity. They could still hear cannons and detonations in the distance.
Was it Duc d’Alençon?
Was it Aquilon?
Were they firing, or being fired upon?
The sun had come out of the noxious black clouds only to threaten them with its burning rays. Durand could not help but imagine how the thundering battle must have sent hundreds if not thousands of marine mammals swimming away. What was happening in their strange primitive brains, he wondered. Was it fear spurring them forward in a mad flight, or was it merely some primal instinct, some basic drive for self-preservation that overruled the dictates of primeval curiosity and steered them away from the noisy unknown? Surely these ocean-dwellers did not know, in any true sense of the term, that there was danger afoot: They had heard the explosions, felt them reverberated through the watery expanse like the ominous growl of some new and terrible beast.
Time passed. Whether it was seconds, minutes, or hours, he did not know. He was abstracted, and the heat was slowly overwhelming him. He pulled his head out of the thick mist in which it was adrift when he realized that his hand was trailing behind the lifeboat. Sharks, he thought. There might be sharks about.
The explosions had ceased. The smoke that Inébranlable had belched out was masking his sight. The air smelled of oil and gunpowder. They lingered a long while in the grey silence. They did not look at each other. Their gazes were lost to the dirtied horizon.
“Well,” the captain said with a sigh, “we have a vessel, and we have oars to go with it. I’m sure we’ll make do… Wouldn’t want to be the last lifeboat to reach the platform now, would we?”
(c) Jean-Philippe Savoie