When they came in, Fitzmoore was already seated and busy calibrating her instruments. She rose and stood at attention. She was a serious young woman, in the first half of her twenties, yet hard-eyed and resolute, with strong but feminine features. She was tall and slender, which made her stand out among her peers, but she was also quite reserved in her dispositions. Although not unpleasant to look at, she lacked the sophistication and the agreeableness that was typical of the fair sex.
He gestured at her to be at ease and went straight for his working table.
“Atkinson,” Grey said, “how long has Fitzmoore been in my employ, by your estimates.”
“Oh, no more ‘an four months, I’d say,” the pilot answered while taking his woollen cap out of his pocket to put it on his head.
“And she’s still standing at attention like a good barrack-rat. Can you believe that?”
Atkinson winked at the young woman. “Well, cap’n, a’ leas’ she’s no’ salutin’ you anymore.”
“Quite so. Now, Simpson, you’ve been in the Marine Corps. Know of any medicine that might rid young Fitzmoore of the urge to behave like a good little trooper?”
“Actually joinin’ the Marines, cap’n,” Simpson said without cracking a smile.
“We’ll have to think about that, unless she stops acting like we’re on the bloody HMS Victory.”
“Sorry, Captain,” she said stiffly as she sat back down.
Grey smirked. He was a traditional man, and he had always appreciated the Navy’s sense of discipline, but he had left its protocol behind when he had resigned his commission, and that was very many years ago. After the Battle of the Channel, he had lost all heart for warmongering, although he still would have had the stomach for it.
“Now, then! According to our passengers’ information and calculations, the ruins should be around here: perhaps a mile from our current position, perhaps more, but they are quite close. Once again, we’ve been given coordinates of… 32°20′ North, and 33°10′ East. We may very well be directly above them (although I do doubt it), but we’ll have to scan the bottom with our own two eyes. I’ll need you to go very slowly, Atkinson, so we have time to get a good look at what’s under us. As for you, Simpson, although you can’t make out a pile of rocks from a sculpted pile of rocks, you might be able to catch a pattern.” He turned to his communications officer. “Fitzmoore, call the Black Cat and the Peary…”
“…and inquire as to their state of readiness,” Simpson muttered.
“…and tell them that we’re ready to depart and that they should let us know if they find anything of interest. Otherwise, we’ll call them in five hours.”
“Aye, cap’n,” they all said nearly in unison.
Grey smiled, beaming, hands on hips. “You have the bridge, Simpson,” he said as he left the room to head for the diving chamber. When he reached the door, however, he turned around with a finger in the air, then went back to retrieve his mahogany pipe and his small bronze tobacco box before leaving.
After exiting the bridge, he immediately took a right and went down the spiral staircase to the lowest deck of his ship: the diving chamber was in the belly of the Scion, and that is where the three scholarly passengers were waiting for him.
The stairs led directly to the changing room, which was outfitted with four portholes through which passengers could observe the bottom of the sea with the help of a set of krypton-filled searchlights.
Nervous and twitchy Sir Clifton greeted him as he arrived, eager as he was to finally go searching the clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Stout and smiling Doctor Kenyon, with her dull gray hair in a loose bun and her large glasses on the tip of her large nose, was already peering through a porthole, wondering aloud if it was possible for someone to turn on the searchlights already. She was an exuberant and good-natured woman, and one could practically read the desert and the adventures of the Levant in the deep wrinkles that adorned her round face.
Next to her, standing rigidly with his hands behind his back, there was Doctor Grimes, a stern image of the pater familias of old, like the bust of some senator of Rome mounted upon a body, for the man was indeed quite stone-faced. When he had first met him, Simpson had quipped that in a staring contest against a slab of granite, the good doctor should easily have the upper hand. Whereas other men would have let their failing bodies bend and shrivel, he did not comply with old age, and carried himself with an air of austere dignity, with his back straight and stiff, and his white hair impeccably sleeked back.
Despite Doctor Grimes’ stoic character, there was an air of excitement about the dimly lit chamber. Indeed, the three students accompanying the professors seemed a bit feverish. One was a woman who looked younger than she probably was, Ms. Darby: small, distinguished, if a bit skittish at times, with a round face and polite demeanour, and her hair in a classic ponytail. The other two were McKinley and Hallewell, who were quite similar in physique and temperament: lithe and perpetually enthused. However, where Hallewell was moustached and youthfully virile, with an aquiline nose and a long dandyish face, McKinley was smooth-shaven and red-cheeked, and his eyes were twinkling with a naïve breed of curiosity.
He strode to one of the consoles and activated the searchlights, and Doctor Kenyon gave him an appreciative look.
A few seconds later, they felt and heard the engines starting, and he informed them that the two other ships had been advised that the search was commencing. Doctor Kenyon immediately rubbed her hands together as she turned back to the porthole. Doctor Grimes barely blinked and went for his own post. And Sir Clifton thanked him once again.
Grey took a few seconds to light his pipe before going to the porthole that he would be sharing with McKinley. There was no doubt that this survey was to be quite a bit more entertaining than usual.
As the ship hovered above the jagged landscape, they peered through the thick glasses.
The hours passed by as they slowly advanced in the blue expanses, as though they were aimlessly wandering among banks of silver fishes.
The waters of the Mediterranean were pale, and the sea was not dark and gloomy, but rather steeped in a luminous haze. It was like a canyon covered in translucent fog, with sharks like livid phantoms lazily floating by.
This had nothing to do with the inky depths of the ocean, where the oppressive gloom seemed to push against the hull. Shadows were soft and blurry, and sat idly on the tranquil sand.
It was a windless world, engulfed in the gelatinous light of the morning.
And they were intruders in this realm of ghostly silence: a monstrous beast of painted steel.
If only they really knew what they were looking for amongst the great stillness of the sea.
Grey could not help but be fascinated.
Before them: tranquility.
Nevertheless, he had to admit to himself that he was getting impatient: the allure of the sea was constant, everywhere, but the appeal of mystery, the call of History, was stronger, keener, sharper.
Doctor Kenyon sighed and smiled as she removed her glasses to rub her eyes.
They had already been at it for more than five hours. Noon was approaching. Around him hung a wreath of blue smoke.
He realized that he was hungry already, and Darby and Hallewell seemed to have lost focus.
Although it was not his place to propose a break for lunch, he could at least make sure that food was prepared by a cabin boy should his passengers feel the need for a snack. Besides, he had been off the bridge for hours, and it was high time he at least checked in with his crew. Everything was probably fine, considering no one had come calling, but he felt compelled to go back to the bridge and make sure that all was well and good.
He excused himself without any of the professors even raising their heads.
He had almost reached the stairs when the chamber’s speaker buzzed with Simpson’s voice. “Cap’n, we’ve received word from the Black Cat. They say they’ve found somethin’.”
Grey rushed to the internal radio, grinning like a child. “Capital, Simpson! Where is she right now?”
“Coupla miles south, Cap’n. We’ll be there in no time.”
“Splendid! Tell Atkinson to get us there. I’ll remain in the diving chamber.”
“Alright, Cap’n. I’ll call again in a few minutes.”
Everyone in the chamber let out a shout of victory and relief.
“Mortimer!” Doctor Kenyon exclaimed. “How does he always pull it off?”
“Well,” Sir Clifton said, “Sir Wheeler is quite the intuitive man, indeed.”
The scholars and their students then started taking turns at trying to predict what kind of discovery they would be making. One thought they would find a simple Phoenician trading post, another believed it would be a Greek colony, another put forward the possibility of a Minoan settlement, and another still went so far as to propose a Hittite colony.
“Preposterous,” said Doctor Grimes. “The Hittites were no sailors. Don’t be so foolish, McKinley. I expect better from a doctoral student.”
They kept chattering with curiosity infused with a palpable enthusiasm for a short while until they felt that the Scion was slowing down.
And then it came into view under them.
At first, it seemed like strange clutches of rocky forms. But then, they grew more definite as the ship advanced, becoming obviously too regular to be made by nature.
They could distinguish patterns of streets, and enclosures, and manmade structures, dozens of them.
From the small and simple to the grand and awesome.
From the houses and shops of the common folk to the temples and the palaces of the great and powerful.
There were walls, and hearths, and shattered statues, and colonnades laid low by some calamity, or perhaps by time implacable.
And where the earth would have claimed all wooden things, water had preserved mighty ships, hovels, warehouses, tables, chairs, carts, and all sorts of tools of various trades.
Many buildings were little more than dilapidated ruins, but others were admirably preserved. The architecture, however, seemed rather strange to the captain. The largest construction, in particular, was drawing his attention: it was simple and angular in most places, yet organic, flowing, with pure lines that morphed into sinuous circles and ovals, and, where it was not covered in algae, the swirling mosaics that embellished it were visible even from afar. The animals and creatures and plants that were on those mosaics he did not recognize through the thick glass of the porthole, for they were stylized in a way that he was not familiar with.
And as Grey tore his gaze from the ruins, he realized that neither were his learned passengers. They were visibly puzzled, intrigued, and even Doctor Grimes seemed captivated, his features betraying his amazement at the volutes, and the spiralled columns, and the balconies that could be seen upon the larger ensemble.
“What people might have lived here?” Grey said out loud. “Minoans?”
Sir Clifton shook his head.
“No, no, no,” said Doctor Kenyon. “It doesn’t look like anything Sir Evans found at Knossos. Too many circular rooms…”
“Pylon gateways, just like in Luxor,” Grimes mused. “And these look like papyrus capitals on these columns…”
“…with sculpted bases, it seems. How unusual.” Sir Clifton said with glee. “How very unusual,” he added, shooting a look at Doctor Grimes, who failed to manifest any sort of emotion.
“Forgive me, Sir,” Darby said, calm and polite, “but again, who do you suppose might have built such a city, then?”
Sir Clifton chuckled like an excited child as he rubbed his chin.
“For God’s sake, Alfred, don’t spoil these young people’s education with your fanciful theories.”
“Oh!” Sir Clifton said, raising an eyebrow without his smile fading at all. “Perhaps I should extoll your reasonable and plausible theories? What shall it be, Addison? Achaeans? Mycenaeans? A Hellenistic city, perhaps? Or Roman, maybe?”
Doctor Grimes rolled his eyes and sighed faintly. “Well…”
“Oh, shush! We both know that you don’t have a theory, Herbert. None of us has ever seen such architecture.”
“A theory is not proven by an absence of evidence to the contrary, Alfred. Obviously, I cannot prove that this city was not erected by the Sea Peoples: the burden of proof is on you.”
At the mention of the Sea Peoples, the students’ and Grey’s eyes went wide: Was it really possible that they had found traces of a civilization that was deemed at best theoretical, and sometimes mythical?
“Why, indeed it is, and I shall endeavour to fulfill it. However, it is most evident that this is not the doing of any civilization that we know of. That, at least, you ought to admit.”
Grimes inhaled and exhaled loud enough for everyone in the room to hear him over the low rumble of the engines. “Yes. That, I shall admit.”
Sir Clifton let out a hearty laugh. “Marvelous. Simply marvellous.”
Everyone cheered and rejoiced. Truly, they had lifted the watery veil of time, and posterity would reap the rewards of this expedition. It was a momentous event, an instant of true discovery.
“I suppose we should…”
Simpson’s voice crackled out of the speaker. “Cap’n, we’re gonna need you on the bridge. There’s a ship approaching We’re in deep.”
Grey strode to the internal communicator. “What seems to be the problem, Simpson?”
“Turks. An old Alp Arslan or Tamerlane-class, judging by its size.”
“What the Bloody Hell?” He said, gritting his teeth. “Stay here. We’ll straighten this out.”
“Are we under attack, Captain?”
He didn’t answer and climbed the stairs as fast as he could.
“What’s going on?” he asked as he arrived on the bridge. “Did you hail them?”
“They hailed the Black Cat first, but I guess someone managed to tell them that nobody on board speaks Arabic, so they called us.”
Grey put his pipe on the table and turned to Fitzmoore, who seemed to be already trying to reason with an officer of the Turkish ship. He approached her and patted her on the shoulder. She finished her sentence and lifted her head-phones.
“Trying to explain to them that our captain doesn’t speak Arabic… they’re not thrilled that they have to talk to a woman.”
He gave her a little grin. “Tell them you speak in my name and stead, and that you’re the highest-ranking officer on this ship after me.” He looked at Simpson, who shrugged. “What’s her name?”
“Djerba, Sir. Frigate, I think. They say they’re with the Egyptian Navy…”
Grey gave her an incredulous look and nodded as she put the head-phones back on her head and addressed the Egyptian ship’s officer.
He heard footsteps behind him and turned around to see Sir Clifton timidly entering the room. “Captain Grey, may I inquire as to what’s going on? Are we being attacked, or threatened?”
“Not yet, Sir Clifton.”
“Our embassy in Cairo has negotiated a safe-conduct for this expedition with the Ottoman authority. I don’t understand…”
“Guess their Navy’s got better things to broadcast to its patrol ships,” said Simpson.
“I suppose,” Sir Clifton said with a hostile glance at Simpson.
“Fitzmoore’s gonna swee’ talk ‘em. No biggie,” Atkinson said, reassuring.
Grey furrowed his brow. He certainly hoped his communications officer would be able to reason with the Egyptians, for the London Museum had absolutely disallowed the carrying of any kind of weaponry. During this expedition, the Scion, the Black Cat, and the Peary were to be completely unarmed. They would be unable to defend themselves should the captain of the Djerba judge them to be enemies of their government, whatever it was.
“I managed to have a word with their second-in-command,” Fitzmoore said with a bit of spite in her voice, “but the captain won’t speak with me. They say they haven’t been told about any archaeological expedition, and they’re none too happy about our presence here, Captain.” Grey opened his mouth to speak, but Fitzmoore raised a finger as the Djerba contacted her again. “They want us to surface… Now. They’re calling us looters, Captain.”
“Looters?” Sir Clifton cried, outraged. “This is absurd. We…”
Grey bluntly interrupted him. “Tell them we are an unarmed civilian ship. The Treaty of Athens applies in full force, and we should be escorted to the nearest port for verifications of our credentials.”
Fitzmoore immediately transmitted back to the Djerba, speaking frantically, repeating twice and thrice her message. They waited in silence as the seconds crawled by, sluggish, and all that could be heard was the young woman’s voice, fighting to reach an uncaring officer’s ears.
After a long moment, Fitzmoore removed her head-phones and threw them on her console. “They’re not answering, Captain…”
“…but they’re movin’,” shouted Simpson. “I think they’re turnin’ around to face us.”
Grey swore under his voice. If they were to surface, the Egyptians would see a reconditioned Meteor-class military submarine.
He did not dare to wager on a measured reaction on the part of the Egyptians.
Perhaps if the Black Cat went first, it would soften the blow: it was just a freighter, after all.
“They’re accelerating, Cap’n. They’re gonna be within torpedo range in less than a minute.”
No time to ponder. Not worth the risk. No choice but to comply.
“Fitzmoore, tell Bradshaw to surface right now! We’re going to go second.”
The young woman put her headphones back on, but instead of talking, she paused with a curious look in her eyes and listened intently.
Grey gave her an inquisitive look, and she pushed a button so that the transmission could be heard through a speaker.
“… répète, vaisseaux inconnus, ici l’Inébranlable, croiseur de la Marine impériale française. Veuillez vous immobiliser et vous identifier immédiatement. I repeat, unidentified vessels, zees is ze Inébranlable, cruiser of the French Imperriol Navy. Immobilize your sheeps and identify yourselves immediately.”
“Cap’n, Djerba’s slowin’ down… and the French have just appeared on my radar, west-southwest.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Grey with a snarl. “It’s most certainly the first time I’m glad to see the French coming to the rescue.” He nodded at Fitzmoore before adding: “Oh, but don’t bother speaking French. They addressed us in the King’s English, so let’s not be so sheepish as to renounce it for their sake.”
“Yes, Captain,” she said before activating her transmitter. “Croiseur Inébranlable, this is the ISV Scion of Albion. We are on a scientific expedition for the London Museum, and we have several scholars and students onboard. We were accused of being looters and asked to surface by the frigate Djerba of the Egyptian Navy. We were about to comply when you hailed us.”
The Inébranlable did not answer immediately. They must have been receiving answers from the Black Cat and the Djerba as well.
“Scion of Albion, this is the Inébranlable please proceed to ze surface. The Djerba is standing down. We will want to see your papers and credenshials. Is zere anyone who speaks French on your sheep?”
Grey looked to Atkinson and raised two fingers to order him to surface, and within a few seconds, they felt the pressure of the ship’s ascension upon their shoulders.
“Inébranlable, this is the Scion of Albion, surfacing right now. And we do have one or two people who speak French on board.”
“We will rendezvous wiz you shortly… Terminé.”
Everyone on the bridge let out a sigh of relief as the ship continued its ascent.
Grey walked to his worktable and grabbed his pipe. Then, he took his bronze tobacco box out of his pocket and stuffed his pipe with a wad of Cavendish before lighting it with a match.
“Sir Clifton,” said he, “it seems the expedition will be postponed. Please, inform Doctor Kenyon and Doctor Grimes that we will be diving later today, or possibly tomorrow. I fear I’ll have some explaining to do.”
Sir Clifton agreed and left precipitously.
Winston Grey pondered recent events with circumspection as a blue cloud of smoke slowly swirled up above his head.
Standing there, reflecting on the queer circumstances, he imagined that perhaps the captain of the Inébranlable would have to cut this expedition short. To be treated with such vindictiveness, and by a ship of a so-called Egyptian Navy, could very well mean one alarming thing: Revolution in Egypt
How strange it was to feel that as they were captivated by an elusive facet of the past, History was being shaped, and the future was taking a rather unexpected and dire turn. How very strange…
(c) Jean-Philippe Savoie