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The Hydra Competition 2nd Place Winner

By a Thread
    by Flávio Medeiros Jr.

By a Thread
Artwork by Jin Han

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 armies.

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 slaughter."

"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 the sea."

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 torpedo.

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 blood continues.

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 breaking.

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 Aztec friends."

"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 hours."

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 and details.

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 surface."

"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 waiting."

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.

"Continue, Lieutenant."

"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?"

"Perfectly, sir."

"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 tone.

"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, Lieutenant?"

"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 says:

"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 submersible."

"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 flying fortress."

"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 party."

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 the command."

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 threat.

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 impetuous youth."

"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

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