Past Tense Future

AU Pem story.... 





Eastern Atlantic Ocean, 1840



The twelve-year-old hung over the bow railing in the darkness, so tired that the swooshing of the waves against the hull and the rhythmic rise and fall of the ship had no allure for him as they had when he had sneaked away from his school and signed up as a cabin boy for this voyage to Asia.   While he had promised to work toward the education his father had planned and envisioned for him, the young man just couldn’t bring himself to stay at the college boarding school any longer.  So he had found the mate of a French sailing brig and had happily signed on as cabin boy.

It wasn’t that he had trouble with his work at school.  On the contrary, his studies weren’t overly difficult.   He was quite well versed in Latin now.  His mathematics grades were very good, in fact better than his older brother, Paul’s were.  No, it was just that he had always dreamed of sailing on the ocean, of seeing what was beyond Nantes.  Now, though, after the first day, he wondered about his decision.   It had been non-stop work all day.  He had polished more shoes, laid out more clothes, cleaned up after more meals than he cared to even think about.   Some of the junior officers were pigs, he thought morosely.

Not only was he thinking that his father would be livid at his defection from school, but that he might have been right to insist on him studying to become a lawyer.  Then he mentally shook himself.  The young man let his body relax, soak in the sea air.  After a while, he did feel a bit better; a little more ready to continue this adventure he had begun.  Something else his father had told him—to finish what he started.  He was determined to do just that.   Taking in a deep breath, he felt the tangy air invigorate him.  He smiled as the salty spray peppered his face. 

It was then he saw something that almost had his eyes bugging out of their sockets.  Something was approaching from starboard; something that glowed.  No, its eyes glowed; all four of them.   The creature was coming up out of the sea, the glow rising and becoming more defined.  The boy had heard of monstrous denizens of the deep, but never had he believed that they actually lived.   At the very least they only lived in their hellish world far below the surface.  Didn’t they?

He looked behind him, wondering where the watch was.  Probably asleep, if the man had been worked as hard as he had that day.   Turning back toward the ocean, the boy saw the monster break the surface, only the changing tenor of the waves and its radiant eyes marking its passage into the world of men.   The moonlight glowed on its back and made it appear like some huge monstrous whale with large fin on its back, like the pictures he had seen of orcas or sharks.   This had to be much bigger than any of those creatures, though.  He couldn’t even see the end of the beast in the darkness.

As he stared at the creature, the boy was shocked and startled to see movement behind the eyes.  There was a person inside it.  More realization.  It wasn’t a beast, but some kind of ship that could sail underwater.  He had heard that such was scientifically possible, but that it existed?  An echo of heavy metal against metal floated across the water along with muted noises that he couldn’t quite understand.  It astonished him that no one else on his ship, Vent Juste, had heard this phenomenon yet.    He saw vague figures at the top of the strange ship and then heard a voice calling out to him. 

Il y quelqu'un a là-bas qui peut m'aider?” (Is there anyone there who can help me?). 

“Oui!” he called back.  Splashing near the beast told him that someone was in the water.  He looked to make sure that the rope ladder was let down for the swimmer.  Muted cries of surprise behind told him that the watch had finally come to life. 

Michel was standing next to him, cursing and crossing himself when he saw the strange ship.  “What is it?” he asked. 

“Some kind of underwater ship,” the young man answered.  He ignored the bark of derisive laughter from Michel.  “There is someone swimming toward us.”  He pointed to a dark form slowly making his way toward them. 

Michel saw and climbed part way down the ladder to help the swimmer. 

The boy continued to gaze at the bizarre ship.  Suddenly it wavered in the moonlight and then disappeared as though it had been smoke instead of iron.  The man in the water reached the ropes and began to climb aboard.  Michel helped him and soon the soaked and bedraggled man was dripping on the deck.   The stranger turned back and than crossed himself when he saw that the waters were empty. 

“You will not believe my tale,” said the frightened man.  “So I will refrain from telling you anything.  I am just grateful to God that you were along.”

“But the strange ship brought you, didn’t it?” the young man asked. 

“God brought me here,” he snapped.  The man turned away and allowed Michel to escort him to the galley to warm up.  

The gray-eyed boy looked back out toward the inky seas.  The moon had passed behind a cloud, but still he could see that there was nothing out there but water.  Waves slapped against the side of the ship, wind rustled the sails.  Finally, he followed the pair to the galley.  Fatigue was gone now.  Perhaps when the man was rested, dry and fed, he would be more talkative.  

In the galley, Michel was pulling out some bread and cheese for the grateful man.  Strangely, though, he didn’t seem hungry, but he gulped down a flagon of wine without taking a breath.  “I have to go back on watch,” Michel told the boy.  “Take him down below and find him a hammock when he is finished.”

The cabin boy nodded and sat watching the man as he slowly ate a portion of the bread. 

“I am not that hungry.  Do you want the rest?”  The man looked thoughtfully at his young companion.  “Boys are always hungry.”

Nodding, he picked up the rest of the bread and began eating it. 

“So you saw the great iron monster?” the man asked, almost shyly. 

The boy nodded.  “I saw it before it even came to the surface.”

“Then you will not laugh at my story.” 

The boy shook his head.  “Absolutely not, monsieur.”  He looked eagerly at the man, anticipating a rousing tale.

“There is not much to say.  I was not inside the thing for long, but while I was….”   He paused and crossed himself again.  “There were many men inside.  And marvelous machines that clicked and pinged and clattered and had colored lights that blinked on and off.  They all spoke another language.  English, I think, but the words didn’t even seem like the English words I have heard.  One of them did talk French, but it was not very good.   They wore uniforms, the officers in one color and the sailors in another.  The captain was fierce; they all were.  But he was like a Prussian in his intensity, like they were at war.”  He paused and ran a hand through his hair.   “They gave me some food to eat, but I could not do more than taste it.”

“How did you get onboard the strange ship?” the boy asked when the man paused. 

“The ship I was serving on was carrying powder.  Lots of it.  Someone was stupid, I guess and there was a huge explosion.  I was thrown into the ocean where I clung to a board from the early afternoon until the darkness fell.”  He shuddered.  “Then I felt the water churn and I was bounced around as though I was a tiny chip of wood in a garden pond.  The monster rose beside me and then men pulled me out of the ocean.  I was so grateful, I didn’t think about where I was until they had pulled me down inside.  They tried to talk to me inside a room with windows that looked out on the sea.   But it was under the water.  We were under the water!  We were in a metal ship underwater with glass windows!”  His large, frightened eyes seemed ready to fly from his head. 

The boy remembered the four eyes that turned out to be windows and the people that showed inside them.   “Why did they let you go?”

“The one who spoke a bit of French told me that they were only waiting until there was a ship that could take me and then they would let me go and be gone,” the man replied.  “That is what they did.  Your ship came along and they came to the surface and let me go.  I could not get away too fast.  Such a thing is unnatural.”  He sighed and looked down at his trembling hands.   “Thanks be to God for my deliverance.”

“But you said they didn’t hurt you,” the boy reminded him.

“No, but I was not there long enough.”

“Did they say where they came from?” the boy asked.

“They only said it was an accident; that they weren’t supposed to be there.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know.  It was so confusing.”  Then he laughed.  “And they say that below decks is crowded on a warship.  I don’t know how they kept from running into each other on that iron ship.  No, it was too much.  I only want to sleep now.”

The young man nodded.  “I will show you to a place to sleep . . . uh, what is your name, monsieur?”

“Françoise.  What is yours?”

“Jules.”  And the boy beckoned and the man got up and shuffled after Jules to a place where he could sleep and forget.




The sub rocked and then was still.  Lights that had been blinking in crazy notation now quieted.  Captain Crane looked at the read-outs and took a deep breath.  From his seat in the observation room in the bow, the admiral watched carefully, not daring to hope.  

“We’re getting messages from Washington, sir,” Sparks finally called out.  “We’re home!”

Crane let out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding and turned to Admiral Nelson.  “It’s about time,” he said with a relieved and then wry smile as he realized just what he had said. 

“That damned Pem,” Nelson muttered, remembering the last words that the pesky alien had whispered.   “He didn’t have to be so literal when he got clever and said it would take time.   Three jumps from the Revolutionary War adventure and one of them had to be witnessed.”  He sighed and got up.  “I think I’m going to get the sleep that had been so rudely interrupted when Pem showed up.”  Crane nodded as the admiral left the control room. 

Nelson walked into his cabin and turned on the light.  A book was lying on the bunk.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.   It was one of his favorites and he fully intended on spending a few peaceful minutes reading before he fell asleep.  Soon he was doing just that, even as he silently cursed the intrusive alien for interrupting him when all this mess began….


Author’s note--  I don’t remember the final episode in the series, so am taking liberties with the plot and guest character….  This takes place at the end of that episode.

 The section with the boy, Jules, is based on a rumor that was circulated by one of Jules Verne’s biographers who claimed that Verne attempted to sail to Asia as a cabin boy but was quickly intercepted at an early port of call by his father.  Whether fact or not, I liked the idea that came from that little anecdote and used it.    





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