All weapons fired at once, sending dozens upon dozens of shells and charges across the skies.
As the projectiles sank, one of the radar operators called out: “Sir, there’s one submarine in front of us, six degrees, four thousand and six hundred meters.”
“Good,” Durand said as he gestured to a weapons officer. “Hammer that position. There must be another one close by.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
One or two junior officers couldn’t help but turn their gaze toward the ocean as it shuddered and burst in front of them. The charges had detonated and sent destructive shockwaves coursing through the waters.
And as Inébranlable was cutting through the ocean, her crew felt her rock and shake as if she had tumbled, and Durand saw the waves erupt with awesome pressure before them.
“Tell Chief Moreau to send his best to the front, there’s going to be water to pump out and leaks to patch,” said the commander.
“What’s happening with Glorieux and Aquilon,” Leclerc shouted.
“Sir,” one of the communications officers answered, “Glorieux is being evacuated and Aquilon is…” The crew heard an explosion in the distance. “Aquilon is hit hard. They… She’s taking on water, but they’re going to keep firing back until it is sunk.”
Leclerc, meanwhile, was imperturbable.
There was no fear in his demeanour.
His hands were calmly held together behind his back.
In front of them, Durand could see Duc d’Alençon firing another salvo of mortars and depth charges as the sea was torn apart from below: if any officer was to push his men to soldier on through the direst of situations, it was Rear Admiral Foch. He had heard stories about the Battle of Faroe Islands, about how the batteries of Belisarius kept firing even after she was cut in half and sinking in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. After the battle, the 62-year-old was found swimming toward Stóra Dímun, about five nautical miles from the wreck of his ship. Perhaps the Gooks had just bitten more than they could chew.
“Torpedoes incoming,” shouted an ensign. “Starboard.”
“Countermeasures,” Captain Leclerc cracked.
They could see the wakes of the projectiles getting closer and closer until once more the ocean rose in violent splashes of vapour just before their ship was hit.
“We’re going to break their formation, Durand. We’ll make them regret striking against the French Empire,” Leclerc boasted in a thunderous voice to cover the tumult of the war machine. “This shall be remembered as the day the presumptuous Japanese drew the ire of a recuperating giant.”
“Yes, Sir,” Durand said, unsure of himself before such a display of rather theatrical patriotism.
But as he looked around across the vast and frightening ocean, he saw the large wake of another torpedo, headed directly for their bow.
“Brace for impact!”
Durand did not have time to grab to anything, and he felt a sharp pain as his head hit a console.
When he came to his senses, he was being dragged off the bridge by two ensigns.
His vision was blurry and red-tinted.
He was dizzy.
In a daze, he could hear the voice of his captain: it was urging someone to stand up and to get to a lifeboat.
He felt a hand on his left shoulder. “He’s alive,” the captain said. “Stout one.”
And then, his voice faded away.
And then, there were stairs that seemed familiar, yet felt like they stretched for miles, and he knew that there was nothing of the sort on board.
The floor was so slanted that it was difficult to maintain his balance. They were sinking quickly.
As he and the two ensigns were making their way to the lifeboats, his head was clearing, although it was still buzzing and pulsing.
He stumbled as the ship was brutally shaken.
On all four, he looked around and had a glimpse of the raging ocean clawing at the steel carcass of the once-proud vessel with watery hands. The blue waves of the Pacific were claiming Inébranlable.
On all four, with his head throbbing and the ship rocked by the ocean, he did his best to keep nausea at bay.
The voice of his captain rose from behind him: “I told you to get him to a lifeboat. Get up, Commander! For Christ’s sake! Pull it together, Durand.”
He pushed himself off the ground and rose on shaky legs. Captain Leclerc was helping a lieutenant carry an unconscious seaman. His uniform was torn up and stained with blood.
“Come, men,” Leclerc said. “Let’s get off our sinking ship.”
He was walking slowly, clumsily, and every step, he could feel resonating in his cranium.
“How’s Duc d’Alençon doing?” he asked loud enough for his captain to hear.
Leclerc scoffed. “Still fighting, I’d wager. With a little luck, she’ll be picking us up when all is said and done.”
“Good,” Durand said “I should hate to have to ask the Japs to sail us to the Platform.”
Durand squinted: the sun was still rising lazily into the morning sky, casting its rays through the clouds of black smoke that were rising from the scuttled ship.
It was a bright day in the Pacific.
There was a deep thud, and then the hull screamed in agony as the ship was again shaken by a detonation, and Durand stumbled once more. Behind him, he heard the captain and the lieutenant drop the seaman. They swore and picked him up as fast as they could, as Inébranlable was growling like a wounded animal.
They were about ten meters from the lifeboat when the entire ship seemed to give way, banking to the side and throwing their small contingent into the sea.
The cool water shocked him into a more conscious state, but his limbs were weak and unresponsive. His arms clumsily grasped at the blue water, he flailed his legs beneath him to propel his heavy and cumbersome body. He was moving up ever so slowly away from the translucent abyss below.
His lungs were burning as he struggled to bring himself to the shimmering surface.
He emerged gasping.
In front of him, about ten meters away, the lifeboat that had detached from the warship in the nick of time.
To his left, his captain and the lieutenant, doing their best to keep the poor seaman’s head above the waves.
And right next to him, the two ensigns. They grabbed him to make sure he would not sink again.
“Let’s get the boy on that boat, men!” shouted the captain. “And help the commander in, you two.”
The two ensigns helped him forward as the waves splashed in his face, and then they pushed him up on the dinghy, where several of his comrades pulled him to relative safety.
He collapsed at the bottom of the raft as they pulled the unconscious seaman out of the water, then the lieutenant, then the two ensigns, and finally the captain.
Every man on that lifeboat looked haggard, dejected, spent; either pale, or bloodied, or bruised, or blackened by soot.
It seemed as though everything was silent, yet a few meters away, Inébranlable was gurgling salty seawater as fires here and there spewed forth dark pillars of smoke that stretched across the blue sky, and the ocean threw itself still at the great metallic raft, sloshing and slapping the hull with spiteful avidity.
They could still hear cannons and detonations in the distance.
Was it Duc d’Alençon?
Was it Aquilon?
Were they firing, or being fired upon?
The sun had come out of the noxious black clouds only to threaten them with its burning rays.
Durand could not help but imagine how the thundering battle must have sent hundreds if not thousands of marine mammals swimming away.
What was happening in their strange primitive brains, he wondered.
Was it fear spurring them forward in a mad flight, or was it merely some primal instinct, some basic drive for self-preservation that overruled the dictates of primeval curiosity and steered them away from the noisy unknown?
Surely these ocean-dwellers did not know, in any true sense of the term, that there was danger afoot: They had heard the explosions, felt them reverberated through the watery expanse like the ominous growl of some new and terrible beast.
Time passed. Whether it was seconds, minutes, or hours, he did not know.
He was abstracted, and the heat was slowly overwhelming him.
He pulled his head out of the thick mist in which it was adrift when he realized that his hand was trailing behind the lifeboat.
Sharks, he thought. There might be sharks about.
The explosions had ceased.
The smoke that Inébranlable had belched out was masking his sight.
The air smelled of oil and gunpowder.
They lingered a long while in the grey silence.
They did not look at each other. Their gazes were lost to the dirtied horizon.
“Well,” the captain said with a sigh, “we have a vessel, and we have oars to go with it. I’m sure we’ll make do… Wouldn’t want to be the last lifeboat to reach the platform now, would we?”