The Hydra Competition 2nd Place Winner
By a Thread
by Flávio Medeiros Jr.
A man has a lot of time to think when darkness and silence are absolute. In those moments, in
which he discovers he is irreparably abandoned to himself, the mind becomes his only
companion, even though, at least in my case, it may not be the most desirable one.
I turn off the weak gas lamp, which provides my only source of light, since the flame consumes
oxygen: at that moment my most precious possession. Moreover, all I could see were the walls
of the narrow cubicle that I call the "commander's cabin", and in the hatch's glass a distorted
image of the shadows of my face, furrowed from years of hard battles. We're not deep enough
for the ocean outside to be so completely dark; which means that it's still night. From time to
time a creek runs the full length of the submersible, as if, in its sleep, it briefly adjusts itself in its
bed of mud. But most of the time we're reduced to this: a handful of troubled souls in the belly
of a submarine tomb. My men await me with canine fidelity. I, with all my experience and
fisherman's patience, also wait. Strategy is nothing more than the most refined intelligence put
to service in war, even though, in principle, "intelligence" and "war" can appear to be two
incompatible words when placed in the same sentence.
Despite being built on the foundation of thousands of dead, this conflict, which had lasted
hundreds of years -- but with the advent of hypocrisy by the governing received the euphemistic
name "Cold War" -- had its origin in a sequence of brilliant strategic maneuvers. First, when
English pirates made useful their artifices and intrigues to wrest the Aztec Empire from the
hands of the Spanish, and shortly thereafter transformed those plumed savages into the principal
allies of the British Empire. On the other side, when the vanquished Spanish knocked on the
doors of the French Empire in search of aid, the French made the intelligent play of annexing the
Spanish Peninsula and its domains. Adding this to the invasion of Prussia and the alliance with
the Russian Czar, the formation of the principal power of Continental Europe came to pass. To
the British remained almost absolute control of the Americas and distant possessions in Asia and
Africa, which made them the largest empire in the world, also however, the most disperse,
weakened by excessive distances. Thus was established the fragile balance of antagonistic
forces which commanded the planet, which persisted through the eras like an eternal dispute of
two invisible vampires, thirsty for blood.
It has been some time since the principal countries in the conflict have realized significant
territorial invasions. The war remains limited to skirmishes in distant waters or in neutral
territories, or in the unsteady border regions. Most of the time, in places so distant from the
great population agglomerations that the press plays an important role in manipulating public
opinion, minimizing their own defeats or amplifying without measure the heroic acts of their
Civilization's refinement brought technological advances: most of the time, I admit and declare
here mea culpa, created to act in the service of death and domain of the same. It also brought so-called "diplomacy", which for me doesn't pass beyond a hypocritical attempt to minimize losses,
and the curious "codes of ethics".
The lights of my memories repel the room's suffocating darkness, and transport me back some
few months, to a table hidden in shadow in one of the least noisy corners of a sailor's bar in Le
Havre. My second-in-command, the experienced Lieutenant Le Beau, perhaps under the effects
of excess rum, vented some deep uneasiness:
"Perhaps you can explain to me, Admiral, why we didn't send the lifeboats to the bottom of the
sea together with the damned ship."
Le Beau could barely hold his frustration. The Abraham Lincoln, from the U.S. navy, had
inflicted heavy losses on our North Atlantic fleet, including sinking seven cargo vessels that
should have supplied the French and Iberian combatants on the Brazilian front. I had entrusted
myself to hunt it personally, and we finally located it on a stormy night off the coast at La Baule
Bay. Knowing the Lincoln's firepower, we didn't give them time to react. We emerged on the
enemy's portside like an infuriated narwhale, and we emptied half our store of torpedoes into its
flank. The giant split in two, and while the rent metal screeched its last breaths, our crew howled
with delight. Meanwhile, the flames allowed us to glimpse close to ten lifeboats withdrawing
from the tragedy's locale, fighting against the billowy waves. Le Beau immediately sent two
sailors to man the prow machineguns, but I immediately ordered them to ignore that command
and return to their posts. Since then I could perceive a subtle curtain of resent which had arisen
between myself and my second-in-command, and that was the moment to bring everything to
light. I took a prolonged sip from my cup of rum and responded:
"The true threat had already been eliminated, Le Beau. The Lincoln would never bother anyone
again except for the fish. Our mission was accomplished, there was no reason to proceed with a
"The Lincoln was just a machine." He bent forward over the table, fingers locked together and
teeth showing in a fierce smile. "You're well aware of that, sir. It was nothing more than a
metal cocoon spitting smoke from its chimneys and fire from its cannons into the ocean beyond,
but it had neither soul nor free will. The true enemy, that feeds the boilers and fires the cannons,
was in those lifeboats. They were the ones who killed dozens of our soldiers who now lie on the
bottom of those waters, and they just rowed over the carcasses on their way to the safety of the
coast because we let them escape."
"It's likely not all of them made it, Lieutenant." I tried to appear casual. "The storm was strong
that night, and without adequate orientation it is possible that many of them also succumbed to
Le Beau sat back, making the chair creak, and frowned. He shook his head feebly from side to
side in an unconscious negation, like a child not accepting his parent's decision to deprive him of
his favorite sport.
"That doesn't satisfy me, sir. Forgive my frankness, but leaving Neptune to perform the best
part of my job doesn't make me happy."
"Perhaps that's not the 'best part' of your job. Do you still trust me, Le Beau?"
"As always, Admiral. Don't you dare question that."
"In that case, I ask that you bide your time. I'm certain that this old sea lion will live long
enough for you to understand the meaning of all this."
Looking at my second-in-command, I saw myself in the first years of this madness. I grew up in
a small mountain village, but my love for science took me far away from my family while still
very young. In the big city, I could dive into oceans of knowledge -- physics, mechanics, naval
engineering -- and I dreamed of one day being able to reach sufficient success to provide a
decent life for my parents and siblings. At least until the news arrived, and struck me like a
I never saw those scenes in real life. I wasn't there, in the mountain village, when the English
soldiers arrived. I never felt the heat of the flames that consumed the houses of those farmers. I
never heard the screams of pain and terror, including those of my parents and siblings. I didn't
see my little sister captured alive by those filthy, smelly men; I didn't see them rip off her
clothes and . . .
I wake up covered in sweat, and my scream echoes through the walls of the miniscule cabin.
Everything is darkness, and I thank God for that. It was a dream. The same dream again, that
led me to sell my talent to the war, that bloody tyrant to whom I find myself obliged to serve,
and whom I hate for making me feel like the worst of creatures.
I'm not given to false modesty; I recognize that I have great value. The first submersible ship I
built was a resounding success among the French, who welcomed me with joy. It's the same one
that accompanies me to this day, here near the dark ocean floor, equipped through the years with
the finest armament that exists. Today I personally command the oldest unit, but still the most
feared of the entire French fleet of submersibles that make the English crews tremble in the
Atlantic and Mancha Canal. The explosive power of my torpedoes is unmatched. My repeating
prow machineguns transform meat into bloody powder. My groundbreaking surface-to-air
missiles remain exclusive to the French navy, and can reach a flying fortress without the
submersible breaking the ocean surface. Like that, I became king of the seas, while the damned
American who is somewhere within the darkness which surrounds me dominated the air with his
battle dirigibles, in favor of the British Empire.
It was inevitable that we meet one day. The stories told by the tabloids with respect to my
nemesis, many of them probably legends, practically make us twin brothers. One time they
dared assert this literally, referring to us as "twins born on opposite sides of the war". What can
be taken as fact is that the man was a disciple and protégé of Doctor Fergusson, the brilliant
English scientist settled in America, pioneer in the construction of airships and who, thanks to
his valuable contributions to the development of the British war machine, ended up being
assassinated by a French spy in the United States. Little did the French Intelligence know that
his protégé was an even more brilliant scientist, who dedicated all his talent and fury to
increasing the dirigible fleet, so that it became what it is today: practically unbeatable flying
fortresses, each one endowed with firepower capable of striking an entire city from the map.
The maneuvering velocity and possibility of three-dimensional movement give them a
significant advantage over simple ships, those of two-dimensional movement on the water's
surface, which, beyond that, suffer a much greater resistance to their movements than those
imposed by air.
This is why my submersibles are recognized as the greatest adversary of the flying fortresses.
Beyond counting on the same advantage of three-dimensional movement, which permits us to
seek out shelter as we have now, the ocean provides us the gift of invisibility, allowing us to
attack with great velocity and absolute surprise. The Americans were obliged to invest in the
creation of powerful depth charges, bombs which explode several meters below the watery veil
and which have already caused us considerable losses. It is for this reason that the
confrontations between these two great enemies, the American aerial fleet and the French
submarine fleet, already number in the dozens, and they have without doubt written a unique
chapter in the history of this long war. The fragile balance between the antagonistic forceswhich command the planet continues. The eternal dispute between two vampires thirsty for
I look in the direction of the cabin hatch, and I have the impression that I can make out the
circular outlines of the glass, a tenuous dark blue ball that still barely stands out from the
complete blackness which surrounds us. That means that up on the surface, dawn must be
I recall the previous afternoon, even though a year seems to have passed. We were covertly
patrolling the west coast of Ireland, some miles west of Westport, where the English maintain an
important ship factory. If we could prove that they were building warships there, Westport
would instantly become a military target.
The sea was exceptionally calm, something uncommon in that particular region, and the red sky
forecasted a cold night. Perhaps it was a good opportunity to risk a closer approach, to give us a
good look at our target.
I found myself on top of the external tower, the overcoat's collar lifted against the inclemency of
a frigid wind, scrutinizing the horizon with my spyglass in search of some sign of life on the
rocky coast, when I noticed an elongated shadow pass through my field of vision, before the
dying rays of the setting sun. The flying fortress's strategy was impeccable: position itself at a
point where it could spend the most time possible camouflaged, thanks to the obfuscation
provided by the sun on the horizon, and approach us silently just a little above the ocean surface.
When I shouted the alarm, it was already on top of us. I had just shut the external hatch and
given the first orders to a band of gasping sailors when the submersible was shocked by a violent
explosion just outside the hull. The electricity, our source of life below the water, blinked
terribly but resisted. I ordered the emergency discharge of all the bombardment cannon's
external batteries and the launch of four surface-to-air missiles in inverted cone formation above
our ship. The order had barely been executed when new explosions made us rock in terrifying
fashion. The hull creaked as if to give, several ship lights went out, and different sectors
reported to the bridge with afflicted voices, a series of flood points and electrical failures.
My voice rose above that clamor to order emergency submergence, and trembling hands which
yearned for that order set in motion a series of buttons which opened the ballast tanks at once,
provoking a sound similar to manifold bells pealing beneath the sea. The salty water filled the
compartments, and we sank at full velocity until reaching the muddy bottom, where we halted
with a muffled thud. During one or two minutes there were no sounds beyond the confused
screams of the crew, either motivated by panic or simply exchanged commands in the attempt to
stabilize our precarious situation. But soon the explosions resumed, and they seemed to occur
very close to our position.
"Depth charges!" shouted Le Beau. "Turn out the electric lights and nonessential equipment!"
"Silence the motors!" I added.
"The order was obeyed exactly and even the screams ceased, although perhaps more from
absolute dread than from obedience. The vessel's belly became completely dark, until feeble
points of gas lamps began to light up one at a time through the corridors and decks, launching
ghostly shadows all around. We remained within the penumbra in total silence, listening to the
explosions outside. The first ones still made the submersible rock, but little by little the booms
became weaker, like a storm withdrawing from our position, until they ceased completely. For
the first time I breathed, relieved. We were still alive, and from what I knew of my enemy, that
was no small thing.
Looking at it one way, a submersible without energy isn't much more than a coffin decorated
with technological equipment. The air would already be precious in normal circumstances.
Buried under inexorable tons of saltwater, haunted by the impossibility of getting out, and
feeling the burning of an atmosphere defiled by clouds of smoke in your lungs, a poor mortal
needs a lot of courage to not give in to the tentacles of claustrophobia and panic. Walking
through the corridors, I could feel the crew's desperation as something palpable; I ignored the
uncontrolled moans and quivers here and there. Inwardly, I gave heartfelt thanks for their heroic
efforts to maintain calm and discipline in the face of disaster.
It didn't take long for Le Beau to approach me, and he whispered a summary report of the
accounted damages. The situation was not good.
"We received reports of five crewmen with minor wounds, and two more who require greater
care. Three outbreaks of fire have already been completely controlled. Part of the bombardment
armament has been rendered useless, as have the rear surface-to-air missile exits. The rudder is
stuck, the stern helices won't respond. We lost two-thirds of the electric batteries and a large
part of our air supply, not just from the tanks that were hit, but also from hull leaks. Three decks
are completely flooded, but have been properly isolated. Luckily, the pyroxylin tank was not
affected by the attack."
"I don't see much we can do down here at the bottom."
"An external inspection could give us a more precise idea of the true extent of the damage,
principally in the rear, which has greatly compromised our maneuverability."
"Obviously, we would need to emerge to do that."
"I was thinking of launching a diving bell with two or three divers on board."
"For that we would need to operate motors to pump air into the bell. Air, by the way, that we
can't waste at this moment. And since it's already dark, we would need to turn on lights for the
inspection, which would be a fatal oversight. With the lights on, I don't believe the sea is deep
enough at this point to keep us from being spotted by the enemy."
"Perhaps at daybreak we'll have enough external luminosity to . . ."
"The more light out there, the more easily the flying fortress will spot us from above. We don't
know if they still have any depth charges at their disposal. Therefore, I believe we have to think
of something different, and quickly, Le Beau."
The lieutenant snarled an unflattering curse.
"I hate feeling like a rat stuck in a submarine rat-trap. I'd like to have enough time to wrap my
fingers around the throat of every Englishman alive, and a sharp blade to test the leather of their
"May you find some relief in your dreams, at least. Well, I don't see any better option than
taking advantage of the darkness to keep quiet and rest a little. I believe I'll go to my cabin."
"If you don't mind, I'll stay here for the time being, Admiral. I don't see how the hatred I feel
will allow me to enjoy any rest."
"I want you to inform me of any news, and one way or another call me to relieve you in four
With the aid of a gas lamp, I retired to my quarters, unable to withhold a sad smile before the
impetuosity and rage manifested by Le Beau. It wasn't the moment to confess, but I was once
exactly like him. Who could condemn me for that? What man on this planet, no matter what the
colors of the flag he defends, could say that he managed to live his life immune to the direct or
indirect effects of this insane conflict that had persisted for generations? It was precisely the
hate and the desire for vengeance that drove my intelligence and my creative hand into the
storm. This prevailed for an eternity, until the precise moment in which something changed, as
if the muddy waters suddenly became a little clearer, allowing me to see unexpected contours
It happened a short time ago, one or two years before Le Beau joined my crew. My second-in-command was Lieutenant Rochelle, a good sailor, who after his promotion received command of
the submersible Calamar.
We were six days patrolling waters close to the entrance of the Mediterranean, hunting an
English destroyer that terrorized the unified Iberian fleet, attacking solitary patrol boats along the
Atlantic coast with speed and precision. It was a very foggy night when we detected the ship
flying the British flag, using reduced illumination to try and pass through the fog undetected,
toward the African coast. We were all tired and irritated by the lingering mission, since during
those tedious days we hadn't come across a single hint of the enemy, although the reports of
attacks kept arriving. I gladly gave the order, and a discharge of torpedoes downed the ship. We
celebrated briefly with rum, before heading back to Le Havre. Halfway through the next day we
received a transmission: we had sunk the wrong ship. The ship was indeed English, and the
furtive attitude probably owed itself to the crew's dread of crossing the Ocean along the coast of
countries known to be hostile. Instead of a destroyer, I had ordered the destruction of a
passenger ship, the Prince of Wales, headed for an English colony in Africa. There were reports
of survivors, but the deaths of more than eighty civilians had been confirmed.
In wartime, mistakes of this kind are relatively common. In practical terms, politicians and
commanders of the Armed Forces condemn them officially, but in reality they are treated as
"acceptable losses." An unfortunate accident. A fatality.
It pained me immensely to find myself the protagonist of an "accident" like that. More than
ever, my few hours of sleep began to be ravaged by nightmares, which reproduced in vivid
colors the massacre of my native village by the English colonial army. As I already said, I
wasn't present on the fateful day, but my spirit took upon itself, through dreams, to torture me
with images that, I was painfully sure, were as terrible as those that actually occurred there. But
now the nightmares came with an added touch of cruelty: I saw my family on the deck of a
passenger ship at the moment in which, coming up from the depths, a submersible ship surged
from the sea. My submersible! My father pointed, frightened, to the white lines of foam which
marked the deadly trail of approaching torpedoes. I would awake bathed in sweat at the moment
of the explosion, when the fireball enveloped my mother and siblings.
For me, the label of "unfortunate incident" wasn't enough. I was sure that the few survivors
didn't define the episode in those terms, and certainly didn't refer to me with such
condescendence. On the other hand, I knew my heart wasn't one of a bloodthirsty monster. By
analogy, despite the atrocities committed against my people and relatives, it would be fair to
consider that, in the ranks of the immense British army spread around the world, there were good
and righteous people, as I regarded myself, that for some tragic fatality I found myself obliged to
label as "enemies", but who could possibly be of agreeable conviviality and even friends, in a
hypothetical world better than this one.
After that, I dismissed hate from its rank of general in my life, and I put it in the background
under strict watch. I began to strive so that balanced reason and sensibility, even in the most
critical moments, always participated in my command decisions. All I could hope for was to one
day have the opportunity to make my dear second-in-command share that vision. But aground
on the sea bottom, wrapped by impenetrable darkness, I admit that, at that exact moment, the
enemies we faced weren't collaborating well with my new concept of war.
My reflections are interrupted by a timid knock on the cabin door. I relight the lamp and open
the door. Even under the dim light, I can perceive Le Beau's disheartened look.
"Excuse me, Admiral. You asked me to inform you at the end of the four-hour shift . . ."
"Perfect, Lieutenant. Any news about our situation?"
"Nothing regarding the enemy. There is no way of knowing if they still wait for us at the
"Oh, he's there, you can be sure."
Le Beau contemplates me with an enigmatic gaze. He wants to know from where comes such
conviction. I explain:
"While I was up top, on the external tower, I got a good look at the flying fortress that surprised
us. It was the Albatross."
"The Albatross!" My second-in-command's exclamation shows legitimate surprise, mixed with
a touch of veneration.
"That's right, Le Beau: it is the flagship of the United States aerial fleet, facing the flagship of
the French submarine fleet. Ironic, isn't it?"
"So their commander must be . . ."
"One and the same. The newspapers say he and I are 'twins', did you know that? In case that's
true, I believe I can anticipate his behavior based on my own. If I were up there, above the
waters, I would be sure that I had managed to seriously damage this submersible. I would know
that it's just a question of time until it must return to the surface, if it is even still capable.
Therefore be certain, Le Beau: he's going to wait. At least for the time being, he'll be out there
My second-in-command sighs, dejected.
"In that case, I fear he won't have to wait long, Sir."
"What news is this, that you bring me in the darkness of my own cabin?"
"The electrical failure is worse than we first imagined. The entire surface-to-air missile launch
system is compromised. The cannons that still function, in case of necessity, will have to be
reloaded and aimed by hand. However, the most serious is our oxygen reserve."
"That doesn't surprise me. Right here, as we speak, I already feel difficulty breathing."
"Exactly. In a few hours, we'll have no alternative except surfacing to renew the air reserves.
Well, unless . . ."
Le Beau's hesitation doesn't pass unnoticed, even before the pause in his speech.
"As you know, sir, an emergency oxygenation system exists. That should resolve the oxygen
problem for essential bridge crew for twenty-four hours."
The insinuation behind that simple phrase has the force of a treacherous, invisible underwater
current, and nothing else needs to be said. The "emergency oxygenation system" was a Naval
Command requirement to increase the chances of submersible recovery after a tragedy. It is
secret technology and legitimately French. Through a simple process, the heating of eight kilos
of potassium chlorate can liberate three kilos of oxygen, converting it into potassium chloride.
As Le Beau said, it would resolve the oxygen problem for essential bridge crew for twenty-four
hours, but only the essential bridge crew.
"The bridge crew consists of six seamen, Le Beau."
"I'm aware of that, Admiral."
"Then you must also be aware that the complete crew of this ship numbers thirty men, correct?"
Le Beau holds his head down in silence. I can't blame him; he is obliged to keep me informed of
every possible alternative.
"Thank you for the reminder, but you know well my way of thinking; either we save all, or we
save none. Understood?"
"In that case, what other options do we have?"
He glances at the cabin hatch, behind which the ocean water has already assumed a visibly blue
"In order to not die asphyxiated, we should return to the surface in no more than three hours.
And even so, by what you assume, Sir, surviving will be no small task."
I get up from bed and take two steps toward the hatch. I hadn't realized that, for many years
already, the ocean is my home. It is here that I live, and it is here that I wish to die. But not
now. Not yet.
"Are you aware of the news of the technological advances of the American aerial fleet,
"I'm not sure, Admiral."
"Our intelligence verified that they're trying to transform the flying fortresses into amphibious
vehicles, capable of moving in the air as well as under the water. Did you know that?"
Le Beau's disdainful smile is clearly visible in the shadow. His voice distills contempt when he
"Without any success, I imagine."
"Correct. Still without success." I'm careful to emphasize the word "still". "If I were in
command of that flying fortress up there, do you know what would be going through my mind?"
He remains silent, waiting.
"I would see this incident as an invaluable opportunity to put my hands on an authentic French
"That's never happened, Admiral!"
"And it wouldn't be right to happen to the flagship of the entire fleet, don't you agree? I'd rather
die than put our technology at the disposal of the British Empire."
"I'm sure that's the opinion of the entire crew."
"Me too. But nothing stops us from defending what is ours to the last instant. We don't have
any surface-to-air missiles, and maneuvers with the lateral cannons are compromised. But while
those English attempt to close in and grab their prize, I believe we can do some nice damage
with the prow machine guns, don't you think?"
"Most definitely. It will be a pleasure to try, even though I don't think it's enough to stop a
"How is our pyroxylin reserve?"
"Full almost to the top."
"Then please arrange the installation of explosive charges in the repository. When there is
nothing left to do except capitulate, I believe we can still provide a beautiful pyrotechnic
spectacle for our enemies, and who knows, depending on their proximity, make them join the
Le Beau gives an impeccable salute and asks permission to withdraw. I had practically declared
a death sentence for him and the entire crew, but I could clearly see the pride with which he
undertook the preparations. He is a good soldier. They all are, I had chosen them carefully.
None of them deserved an end like this, so young. It was one of the brutal insanities of war.
Pyroxylin was a French invention, but already available to the British side, thanks to the
efficiency of espionage. More potent than gunpowder in its explosive potential, it also occupies
less space, which was essential in submersible vehicles where physical space is precious. It is
what supplies our missiles and cannons. In the worst case, I wouldn't hesitate in blowing my
ship to pieces, before the enemy could make it a trophy.
The next two hours, which I spend on the bridge, seem like weeks. By the end of it, the simple
act of breathing requires heroic effort. Through the hatches, I can see the ocean inexorably
clearing. We are in waters even shallower than I had imagined. Soon the risk of being detected
from the sky by the enemy will be too great. In that case, if they still have depth charges, we'll
lose our only chance of fighting for survival. There is no way to delay the confrontation any
longer. I give the order:
"Crew, combat posts. Lieutenant, drain the ballast tanks. Let's rise up and see what these
Americans are made of."
The igniting of the motors makes the submersible shake, but the sound is sadly more feeble than
normal. My dear ship is on its last legs. I hear the creak of the lower hatches, and the entire
belly rocks. The pumps which drain the water contained in the ballast tanks initiate a lazy buzz.
Slowly, we begin to rise.
"Permission to operate one of the prow machine guns, Sir."
"It will be a pleasure to have you by my side, Le Beau. But first, please, assign one of your most
trustworthy men to remain with the pyroxylin detonator."
The Nautilus, pride of the French submarine fleet, although mortally wounded, breaks the
surface, displaying the full glory of her metallic profile to the rising sun. Immediately, I open
the upper hatch and leap to the prow, aided by a sailor who carries the ammunition belts. Le
Beau jumps right after me with his own helper, and immediately gives the alert:
"Enemy fortress at ten o'clock!"
I curl my calloused hands around the metal handles of the machinegun and spin it in the
indicated direction. What I see is shocking.
The Albatross is thirty meters away, very close to the water line. If a storm hit, the highest
waves would lick the bottom of its rectangular cabin, which hangs from the central point of a
gigantic dirigible balloon. That cabin, to my surprise, finds itself in an oblique position, curved
starboard over its horizontal axis. Taking a better look, the entire balloon is curved. Instead of
its traditional cigar format, the balloon exhibits a grotesque banana shape, with the central part
lower than the extremities. I notice that, on top, almost half its formidable set of helices, which
enable its floatation and movement at high velocity, are immobile. That image gives the
impression that the Albatross can barely stay in the air, fighting with all its force not to succumb
to the ocean.
The ocean wind makes the colossus rotate laterally, and only then I discover the cause of the
phenomenon: the entire back end of the elongated cabin, which should house the machines, finds
itself blackened and partially destroyed. A thin, dark smoke bears forth from the deep cuts in the
metal in its flank and bottom. Le Beau pronounces out loud the diagnosis that I have also
deduced; his voice comes out loaded with excitement:
"Sacre Bleu! It was one of our missiles, Admiral! Those four we shot blind, before we
submerged, one of them hit the target full on!"
Indeed, to our surprise, the enemy finds himself in a situation very similar to ours. Even though
the damage suffered justified giving up the fight, they had remained there the entire night,
waiting, putting out their fires and trying to recover their navigability as we did below the
waters. Now, much as ourselves, they find themselves ready for combat.
The dirigible turns its prow in our direction, and the innumerable metal plates which cover its
slightly deflated balloon sparkle in the sun like scales. The hum of the motors, at least those
which remain, grow in intensity. It approaches slowly, but decidedly.
I hear when Le Beau disarms the safety on his machinegun. The metal clack coincides with my
hurried hand gesture, indicating for him to wait. I raise the scope of my gun and order the
lieutenant that, at whatever cost, he await my first shot.
Now the adversary is so close that I can see the crew's silhouettes through the cabin's ample and
rectangular front hatch. The bombardment cannons find themselves, thanks to the cabin's
abnormal position, facing upwards. They certainly won't be able to aim at a target on the ocean
surface. The starboard cannons are inclined excessively downwards, and the dirigible would
have to come very close to us to have a sure shot, just like the lower cannons, or what is left of
them, would have to be almost directly above the submersible to be effective, considering the
balloon's low altitude. At the front of the prow, however, two machinegun barrels similar to
those of the Nautilus point at us in threatening fashion. It is when the dirigible comes a little
closer that the rays of the rising sun fill the lower window, and then I spot him clearly. Right at
the center, supported by an uncomfortably inclined gunwhale, a man wears a command kepi and
a sailor-style blue-and-white striped shirt, covered by a blue jacket and raised collar. For the
first time in the history of this war, the two so-called "living legends" Admiral Nemo and
Commander Robur find themselves eye-to-eye.
Le Beau wipes the sweat from his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket. He rocks from side to
side with uncontrolled excitement. To my mind comes the image of a ferocious mastiff waiting
for its owner to release its leash so it can shred an aggressor, and a nibble of fear runs through
me that, despite his habitual respect and obedience, this time I won't be capable of holding him
back for very long.
"Sir, they're already closer than we could ever have hoped! We should fire, before they . . ."
"Control yourself, Le Beau," I interrupt, mixing serenity with firmness. "Don't shoot until I give
During several seconds, it is as if the very sea interrupts its tireless rolling, and the very wind
becomes silent. From high on his reluctant floating castle, Robur faces me unmoving, from
behind the deadly barrels of his weapons. For a single moment, that feels like an eternity, my
mind feels a sting of fear of being wrong; that I am a foolish romantic, fully believing in human
dignity; that a fatal piece of incandescent metal will explode in my skull at any moment,
scattering pieces of my ingenuity-soaked brain to the seven seas.
But, like I said, it is only for an instant. I erect my spinal column, without removing my fingers
from the trigger of my own gun, and reciprocate his look. The silence is almost unbearable,
broken only by Le Beau's astonished gasp.
Commander Robur raises an arm in a respectful salute, and the gigantic Albatross turns on its
axis, slowly setting off along the Irish coast and leaving us behind. Obviously, I return the salute
in the same fashion, and hold position until the leviathan's shadow no longer forebodes any
An inevitable sigh of relief caresses my nostrils, weather-beaten by the ocean wind. By my side,
an open-mouthed second-in-command stares at me with fish eyes.
"Admiral Nemo . . ."
Why didn't they shoot? is the question stuck like a fishhook in his throat.
"They could have . . ." he says, "and we could have as well . . ."
"And where is the honor in that? 'Code of ethics', Le Beau. Do you remember that night in the
bar in Le Havre?"
"But, Admiral, we were visibly incapacitated for combat!"
"And they were also, isn't that right? There is no sense in attacking a defenseless enemy.
Despite what they may say of Robur, I have nothing personal against the man. Quite the
contrary, I admire his valor and respect him enough to not want to be responsible for his death in
such a degrading manner, coldly executed like an animal in a slaughterhouse. The Albatross
won't be a threat again too soon. Much less the Nautilus. The best thing to do, and it appears he
and I agree on this, is to return to our dens and lick our wounds, until such time as we're capable
of once again realizing proper combat.
"You couldn't be sure, sir," retorts Le Beau, mocking. "If he had decided to fire those
machineguns . . ."
"In one thing the tabloids are correct, Lieutenant: Nemo and Robur are twins born on different
sides of the same war. We just proved that, I suppose."
"Right. But suppose for a moment, Sir, that you were wrong about the man . . ."
I walk over the prow's wet metal and place my hand gently on the still tense shoulder of that
"This is a long and arduous war. Thanks to it, this world has seen much pain and unhappiness.
After all this time, my friend, that which still makes us human dangles by a thread, hanging over
the abysm of savagery. Men of honor need to live under a code of ethics that makes us
remember that, despite it all, we're still human. I bet that Robur was one of those men of honor,
who, if God allowed, could use the time which is left him to set a good example for an entire
generation of soldiers."
At that moment, one of the officials emerges from the hatch, and announces:
"Admiral, we've renewed the oxygen reserves. I believe this will allow us to pass several miles
submerged, in case the English navy decides to give pursuit. We can finally head home and
realize definitive repairs with tranquility."
"Then let us welcome the ocean's embrace and set course. There don't appear to be any more
thrills worth staying out here for."
My second-in-command is a stubborn young man. On the way to the bridge, he insists:
"Sir, I still assert that you could have been mistaken about Robur. In that case, I'm afraid we
would be irrevocably dead."
"If I had been mistaken about my 'twin brother' . . . Well, Le Beau, what would be the fun of
living in a world like that?"
The Nautilus dives into the calm waters, slowly moving away from the conflict zone. The sun
and clear sky forecast a serene, pleasant day.
Translated by Christopher Kastensmidt