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
“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
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
“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
“No, but I was not there long enough.”
“Did they say where they came from?” the boy
“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
The young man nodded.
“I will show you to a place to sleep . . . uh, what is your name,
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
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….
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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