by Andrew Leon Hudson
The forecastle shook as the gun-crews beneath unleashed another volley to port, and Thomas Laughton flinched in spite of his already ringing ears. The air was dappled black and grey with smoke, the sharp, stinging smell of gunpowder filling his nose with every breath--along with burning wood, the salt of the sea, and (in the imagination, at least) the salt of men's blood.
His Majesty's Ship Marvellous led a narrow line of English vessels to the east of the enemy, mirroring another to the west, the wallowing galleons of the Spanish silver fleet trapped in between. Her guns roared again, peppering the nearest enemy’s sails with grapeshot, and Laughton braced himself against the foremast. Thousands of miles from home, yet the blue of the Caribbean sky was as dull and muted as any English winter's, and its emerald waters cast as dark as the North Sea in a storm.
Distant thunder roared, but from behind him--no, it was cannon fire. "Enemy on the starboard side!" a rough voice bellowed. “Where in blazes did this one come from?”
Laughton raised his spyglass. Through the smoke drifting across their decks from the battle he made out the familiar design and rigg of a Portuguese caravel, flying Spanish colours. Too far away to be an immediate threat, but she was showing her flank with gun-ports open and coming around their way.
"Where's the captain?" Arthur Jones, the ship's Master, called out again.
"Here, Mr. Jones." Laughton snapped shut the spyglass and strode back to the quarterdeck where his senior officers awaited. He was tall, with a cavalryman's lean, upright posture--exactly what he had been before England’s growing need for naval commanders brought him into a different service.
The ship’s Master barely came up to Laughton’s chin, but was as broad across the shoulder as the wheel gripped in his slablike hands. Beside him, First Lieutenant William Forthley was more in Laughton’s mould: only just out of his teenaged years, the junior officer was obedient and kept his head under pressure. He might make a good captain himself, once he was more seasoned.
“Shouldn't be anything to the east,” Jones growled, his surly tone not one of disrespect. “There wasn't at the outset."
"That was then, this is now." Forthley held a handkerchief across his nose and mouth. "In this mess, you could sail up the Thames and not make out either bank until you struck London bridge," he mumbled through it.
Laughton held out his spyglass to Forthley. "Tally the Spaniards to port. I want to know if one slipped through our line, or if she’s the vanguard of more to come."
"Yes, sir." Forthley hurried forward, quickly obscured by smoke and distance.
To Jones, Laughton said, "Ready the starboard guns. She's not in our range yet, but we must be waiting when she is."
Jones flexed his hands upon the wheel. "Are we to break off and take after her?"
"No. We'll hold our position and continue giving fire on their ships. Unless Mr. Forthley reports that the singleton brings company--" trapping them between two fleets, the way they currently had the Spanish "--in which case, the day becomes interesting."
Jones jutted a belligerent jaw. "Plenty interesting already, you ask me,” he grunted, but Laughton was focused on the enemy fleet and didn’t register the words. Taking the silver fleet would be an incomparable prize, but far harder than merely sinking it--all the treasures of the Americas would do King James little good at the bottom of the ocean.
His focus was broken as Forthley raced onto the quarterdeck. "Sir, there's a second ship to starboard!" Laughton and Jones turned to see another vessel trailing the caravel: but this one was English. Laughton reclaimed his spyglass and raised it, sighting... their sister ship, the Fabulous. Of course.
"It's Masterson," he muttered. "Damn fool, breaking the line." Forthley and Jones shared an awkward look at this criticism of a superior officer, even one not present. Masterson’s reputation for impulsiveness and bravery lent a swagger to his crews on shore leave, but made him no friends amongst the navy’s other commanders.
Laughton tracked the progress of both vessels. Smoke from the battle had drifted ahead of the fleets, thick as a fog-bank, and the Spaniard reached the cover of its edge before the Fabulous drew close enough to fire upon her. Before the caravel disappeared from view, Laughton saw her begin turning into the wind, back towards the Marvellous--a move that would bring her port guns to bear on the Fabulous's prow.
"Masterson is sailing into disaster." Laughton cursed under his breath. "Mr. Jones, put the wind hard at our back and take us with the smoke. Lieutenant, get below and prepare to fire from either side. We may not know where that caravel is until the last second--and you're aiming to sink her, not for capture."
As his officers barked orders to the crew, Laughton strode to the stern rail and sighted back to the following ship in the line, the Due Repulse. He quickly picked out her captain, Martyn Kelvin, looking back at the Marvellous through his own spyglass. Kelvin lowered it long enough to salute.
Laughton pointed to the Due Repulse and then swept his arm up and along their current path: follow the course of the line, and the plan. Then he touched his own chest and swept his hand towards the Fabulous, and the almost hidden caravel. When Laughton raised his spyglass once more, Kelvin indicated his understanding.
Laughton rejoined Jones at the wheel. Ahead of them, the drifting smoke now obscured the caravel completely, but the Fabulous was exposed. Instead of showing his port side and keeping with the wind, Masterson had belatedly followed the Spanish ship's lead in a futile attempt to come alongside her--but he was shedding speed by the minute, striking sails to reduce their profile, as though he could drift into combat…
Cannons thundered--from within the cloud. Smoky trails jutted outward towards the English ship and the Fabulous quaked under brutal impacts. The fine lines of her upper deck were reduced to broken and splintered wood, cast up into the air in a cloud of their own, and her fore-mast burst open midway to the yardarm, breaking forward like a felled tree to lie against the bowsprit.
"Damnation," Laughton said.
The bloodied English ship foundered, slowly turning with the wind to offer her flank for a killing blow. Too late, her own guns fired in a ragged sequence, wildly overshooting as the wind forced her to lean away from her smoke-shrouded target.
For a long moment, her hull was laid bare beneath the waterline.
Another chain of reports sounded, more fingers of smoke trailed from within the cloud, and Laughton saw the Fabulous holed all across her lowest amidships. She rocked under the force of the blows, the damage immediately dropping beneath the ocean's surface as she rolled back, the sea pouring into her hold.
"She's done for," Jones said behind him.
"Yes," said Laughton. “But we have a position for the caravel, mark it.”
The caravel didn’t fire again, and could have been anywhere in the thick clouds of smoke, but Laughton assessed and reassessed her likely position as the Marvellous closed in, keeping to the edge of the drifting smoke to hide her own position. Further to starboard, the Fabulous lay low in the water, slumped so heavily over her wounds that her top deck almost touched the waves.
Laughton addressed his senior officers tersely. “I’m going to the prow, be ready at my command. Mr. Jones, turn hard, she’ll be close. Lieutenant, whichever way we turn we’ll give her our flank, so be ready to fire from either side. When her captain sees us he’ll turn away and get off a shot too. Hit her with everything we’ve got until I say otherwise. Now get moving.”
“Aye, sir,” Forthley said, and ran for the hatch to the gundeck below.
Laughton turned back to Jones. “If we treat her badly enough, we’ll continue direct to the Fabulous to give aid. To save her crew, that is. But until that caravel is sinking you’ll keep her under our guns, understood?”
“You have the conn, Mr. Jones, I have the deck. Listen for the word.” Laughton strode towards the front of the ship and took up position overlooking the prow, gazing through the depths of the smoke all around them, waiting for the first glimpse of their enemy. The first to see the other, the first to turn, would be the first to fire.
The Marvellous rose and fell beneath him, like a slumbering giant, the sounds of the battling fleets drawing slowly, slowly further to stern.
Something moved within the smoke ahead.
A ghost form became visible: the erect, shovel-like silhouette of a hull and single mast--the caravel, coming on at them still.
Ahead, and off the port side.
“To starboard!” he cried. “Starboard!”
The Marvellous leaned, leaned harder, then levelled again with Laughton looking off the port bow, the angle of her guns rising…and as the Marvellous emerged from the smoke the caravel began to turn away, deeper into cover, her own gun ports coming around.
Fire, Mr. Forthley, he mouthed.
The Marvellous shook, the report like a thunderclap, a slap of the face. Fresh smoke burst from her side and the caravel’s hazy profile crumpled like a child’s paper toy in a careless hand.
The enemy’s flank faced them with no return of fire, but…
Not enough, not to be certain. “To port!” he roared, waving an arm with urgency. Now they leaned the other way, gunports angling high as the cannons were reloaded under his feet.
As the caravel passed them, the Marvellous’s port gunwale dipped with their straightening. The second barrage fell low across the caravel’s aft hull and the gallery, punctured her at a dozen points, surely ruining her rudder in the process. Even through his ringing ears Laughton heard Jones’s long, grating “Yeeessss!” rise over the cheers of his crew.
He started back to the poop deck, smiling grimly. “Take us to the Fabulous, Mr. Jones,” he called ahead, barely able to hear himself. “We may deal with the Spanish when the Englishmen are safe.”
There was a fresh thunderclap, this one stunning in its power.
Laughton found himself on his back, temples pounding, ears no longer ringing--all sound was gone entirely. He forced himself to his feet, dizzy, the thought vaguely in his head that they’d lit the caravel’s powder store, blown her apart, and at such close quarters possibly harmed themselves in the act.
He stumbled against the port rail and gripped it for balance, looking over the side in dread anticipation… but the smoke-shrouded enemy was still afloat, the Marvellous undamaged.
Then all the smoke that had drifted from the battle was swept clear as if by the hand of God himself. The ruined caravel was unveiled as the long, mottled, grey-black cloud was snatched away like a fine silk scarf and carried across the waves.
Laughton turned and his eyes widened at the sight of a great wave rolling their way, the fallen Fabulous borne up upon it for a moment before falling out of sight behind, even to the top of her tilting main-mast.
And beyond that racing swell, a glimpse of something no ocean had ever known.
A window onto midnight, he thought, dully. A vast window.
“All hands brace!” came Jones’s cry.
Just as the wave struck, Laughton reached blindly out and by pure chance his fingers closed around a bowline--and then the Marvellous seemed to take flight. Laughton came off the deck, whipped like a banner by arm and rope. His grip held even as something gave in his shoulder, tearing, and then he was smashed down as the ship wallowed in the wake. His knee bent wrongly and agony lanced through his right leg, a shocking pain that muted anything from his arm.
The next thing he knew, rough hands were on him and he was lifted again.
“Jones,” he managed, “Jones.”
His carriers hesitated, their direction changed, and Jones’s face appeared, a weal swelling his forehead, deeply split and welling blood. “Get him down to the surgeon,” he barked.
“Up.” Laughton grabbed the front of the master’s shirt with the hand that still worked. “Put me upright. I must see.”
Jones reluctantly obeyed, one deckhand putting the captain’s good arm across his shoulders, another forced to hug his chest when he tried the same on the other side and Laughton moaned with pain. They struggled him around to face to starboard, and Laughton tried to make sense of what he saw.
The impossible thing rose from the waters some distance behind the Fabulous, which was now on her side, thrust over by the great wave. There was no better description: it was a circular porthole, looking out of the day into night’s pitch black, bisected by the surface of the sea. It appeared strangely dark and solid despite the distance--and was there some movement in that darkness, or just the waves, seen through it like tinted glass?
“Sir, the Fabulous is drifting!” Jones was correct: the stricken ship was moving... towards the darkness. They were half a mile away at least, yet it was possible to track its drift by eye, half-capsized through she was.
Laughton heard whispering--the sailor under his arm was reciting some prayer.
“What is it, sir?” asked Forthley, his awestruck tone far from one appropriate to command.
“Unless we’re to find out first hand, we need to make to port,” Jones said. “Whatever it is, there’s a fierce current drawing that way.”
“Do it, Mr. Jones,” Laughton said, and the master spun the wheel, barking instructions.
Laughton watched the poor Fabulous with a mixture of doubt and fear. No mere current could drag such dead tonnage, surely, not with such speed. A vortex, on the other hand… but no vortex stood upright from the sea. This was more a doorway, a portal, with the Caribbean’s waters pouring into its dark void and taking them with it.
Its blackness drew the eye relentlessly, and it was some moments before Laughton noticed that the steady exchange of cannon-fire from the battling fleets had ceased. When he tore his gaze away he found every vessel in sight, be it of the Spanish convoy or the English raiders, was at full-sail. The furthest were tacking away at an angle, the closest showing their tails, but all were closer than they had been before.
“We’re making good speed for the fleet,” he said.
“No, sir.” Jones’s face was stony, guarding against all expression. “The current is drawing everything this way. The westernmost line should make it clear, but our lot are being pulled right in. And all those Spanish galleons, they’re far too slow and heavy to fight it. They’ll be right behind us.”
“Behind us to where?” asked Forthley.
Jones ignored the question. “We’re losing our position, it’s all I can do to keep us in a straight line. Look at the caravel.” The ship they had holed was still afloat, listing a little, but she was also moving backwards towards the portal. Without a rudder she went drunkenly, the wind catching her sails and pulling her one way then the other, but still she drifted aft.
“Behind us to where?” Forthley shouted, and Jones fixed him with a glare.
“We’re going the same way she is: towards the Fabulous. All the wind can do is slow us down.”
Laughton raised his spyglass with his awkward left hand, pinching the near end between cheek and brow like a half-yard-long monocle. The Fabulous was moving faster by the second, throwing up neither wave nor wake. Tiny figures clung to her masts and the arc of exposed hull; as they drew closer to the portal some leapt into the water only to be carried alongside, unable to defy the strength of the current.
At the last she began to turn, bobbing and rotating in the turbulence as the blackness loomed, her path chaotic. For a moment it seemed that she would sweep across its face and miss the target entirely, but at the last she was gripped again and drawn in.
As the Fabulous crossed the threshold, the dark arch took on a faint glow. She was lifted on fearsome waves, higher and more violent than those the Marvellous sailed--then a point of hot, deep light blazed at the centre of the darkness, overwhelming any glimpse of the stricken ship, flooding the entire portal with a powerful red-amber radiance. Laughton was forced to look away, blinking his eyes furiously.
“She’s burning!” Forthley cried. “An explosion?”
“That’s no fire,” said Jones, his voice hollow. “It’s Hell.”
“No,” said Laughton. A writhing haze of blue, white, purple, green floated in his vision. A familiar haze. “It’s a sunrise.”
“Are you mad?” said Forthley, oblivious to the insult. “It’s past noon!”
“Yes it is, Lieutenant. But nevertheless, that is a dawn.”
What had previously been all blackness now showed a broken band of fiery red, lashing like a streamer in a high wind. Heavy clouds lay low like blankets, below them the peaks and troughs of a brutal sea, momentary mountains gleaming in the sunrise.
“What are we to do, sir?” Forthley’s voice was weak.
“Look at the Spanish!” Jones shouted. Lacking the Marvellous’s control, the caravel had overtaken them in the race to their doom, speeding into the chaotic water at the mouth of the portal, and--unlike the Fabulous--her final approach brought her away from the centre of the portal.
She slid directly upon its edge.
The caravel was cut through in an arc from stern to prow, with the ease of a blade carving a slice from an apple. One half of her flowed through the portal and was borne out of sight upon the huge grey waves beyond. The other--without masts, her hold and quarters open to the air, exposed as in a diagram--remained on the Caribbean side, twisting in the vortex which foamed where the portal’s edge met the water. This half sank so quickly it didn’t even tip over; simply descended into the water and was gone.
“God help us,” muttered Forthley.
Laughton swallowed back his own fear. “We can’t rely on God now, Lieutenant. Either we go through it, or it goes through us. My vote is for the former, and mine is the only vote today.”
He twisted to address Jones, the deckhands belatedly turning to face the ship’s master. “Arthur, with our nose into this current we’re at least controlling our bearing. Keep us aligned to the centre of that damned hole, don’t let it cut us in half.”
He beckoned Forthley. “William, get the sails struck with all speed, we’ll ride the current through. When we get to the other side… well, who knows what we’ll find, but the waves look far rougher over there. Make sure everything is battened down as tight as can be, and then get everyone below decks that can be spared.”
“I can’t do anything with just one arm and one leg. Master Jones, you have the conn, Lieutenant Forthley, the deck. You have your orders, make them happen. Take us through alive.”
Laughton directed his two deckhands to take him to the mizzen-mast and had them tie a length of rope around it and thrust it through his belt--a modern day Odysseus, he thought mockingly. With his good arm gripping the mast for support, one leg throbbing without cease and his other arm tucked useless into his tunic, he watched as his crew raced to make them secure.
He felt the wind falling from them as Forthley furled the sails, the ship surging as their fight against the current faded. Laughton hobbled around the mast to face astern.
The portal rose above him, all painted with storm and dawn-fire.
We get hell and high water, he thought.
Then it sucked them through.
...To Be Continued
Like what you read? Subscribe now! For just $1/month, get three episodes of the ongoing adventures of the Archipelago.
And up next, " "Whatsoever Is New " by Kurt Hunt!