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Fiction Fantasy

Arvin Wurlie watches with idle curiosity as the man brooding at the end of the bar downs his third scotch in as many minutes.

Arvin knows he’s a fellow warrior because Grumman’s Tavern only attracts servicemen. Grabbing his beer, the sturdy sixty-six-year-old navy veteran decides he has to know what destroyed the man.

“You’re really accomplished at being a sponge, friend. Don’t you ever ease up?”

The dark-haired, thirty-ish man looks up at him. The black circles under his puffy eyes and his dark stubble make him look utterly defeated.

“I’ll sober up when the navy gives me another command.”

“They see you in this condition and it’s likely to be the long side of never,” Arvin says.

“Well, until then, cheers,” the man replies. He downs his drink, signaling the bartender for another.

“What happened to you?”

“I’m Cole Custer, the former Captain of the battleship Valiant.”

Arvin nods in recognition. “The sole survivor. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, friend. We all understand what you were up against.”

“I let the gravity of the moment overwhelm me. I came home. Fifteen hundred sailors under my command didn’t.”

The bartender places another glass of whiskey in front of Cole. He looks up at the photo hanging above the bar. The picture, taken two weeks before the loss of the Valiant, captures the jubilant crew sitting on the ship's forward 15” guns and standing on the bridge.

“You need to forgive yourself,” Arvin says.

“A captain is supposed to go down with his ship, not be the only one who survives.”

“I was on two battleships, the Orion, and the Neptune, during the last war. The Orion hit a mine while I was on duty. If I’d been below deck in my bunk I would have been killed. The Neptune collided with a minesweeper on a foggy day. We cut that little boat in half. We lost the two men who’d been standing on the bow trying to help guide us through the fog. Thirty-six of the seventy men on board that minesweeper lost their lives. So, you see, friend, the sea is a cruel mistress. It humbles everyone.”

“It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t let myself be intimidated by Heinrich Hartmann.”

“The Saxon Admiral?”

“The bully I could never face,” Cole replies. “Hartmann is the boogeyman in the closet who keeps you shivering under the covers at night because you never know when he’ll strike. We were classmates at the Naval Academy. I was just a farm boy. I never looked good in a uniform and was just happy to have made it through training, hoping to get assigned to a desk job. Hartmann was descended from old Saxon money. He was blonde, fit, and wore the uniform like he was getting ready to have his portrait painted for a naval museum. He couldn’t wait for the chance to command a battleship and be important.”

“His ego and talent for self-promotion were a poorly kept secret,” Arvin says. “He wanted to be the one to liberate Saxony from the supposed tyranny of the Empire, even though Saxony was barely bigger than a province and only had two dozen ships in their navy.”

“Hartmann was hell-bent on making history. He always wanted whatever I had and took immense pleasure in making me miserable. Probably because of my great uncle. He was always joking about what George Custer’s last words were…”

“What were they?”

“Uh-oh.”

Arvin rolls his eyes, groaning.

“Hartmann used his charm and family standing to steal Elena, Admiral Drucker’s daughter, away from me because he saw their marriage as an opportunity to advance his career.”

“Drucker commanded the Northern Fleet.”

“Yes. Hartmann’s taking Elena away from me changed my life. We were dancing at a club, and the D.J. was playing an oldie, ‘Come and Get Your Love.’ Hartmann cut in and I was cut out. My heart breaks all over again every time I hear that song.”

Arvin starts to hum the tune. “…Sorry, it’s catchy…”

“He married Elena and was promoted to Commodore practically overnight. It wasn’t long after that his mistress called Elena and told her she was pregnant. Another woman demanded money to keep her pregnancy quiet. Elena was devastated. I still loved her and thought I could rescue her…”

Hartmann arrives at the Admiralty’s staff meeting holding his war games trophy.

“Three years in a row,” he boasts. “At this rate, I’m going to have to get a bigger trophy case. Maybe I’ll put this one on the bridge of my new command. How does it feel to be a bridesmaid again?”

The corners of Cole’s mouth twitch but he can’t speak.

“Yes, I know my brilliance leaves you speechless, Custer. I can’t believe you keep falling for the same tricks.”

“I heard you divorced Elena,” Cole says, changing the subject.

Hartmann’s perfect smile gleams, matching the shine of the medals on his uniform. “Yes. You know, when I think about it, you two were perfect for one another. You’re both indecisive, and wishy-washy. I’m marrying Lady Greta Strasburg in two weeks. She’s the sister of King Kaiser II of Saxony, which puts me in line for the throne. I’d invite you, but it’s for blue bloods only. You understand.”

Hartmann gives Cole a smug, oily smile. Cole silently wishes he had the courage to slap it off his face.

“When I marry Lady Greta, Kaiser will make me Admiral of the Saxony fleet.”

“You’ll still be answerable to the Empire.”

“For now.”

“And what about Elena?” Cole asks.

“You haven’t heard? She killed herself.”

“Elena, the loss of the Valiant. That’s a lot to live with,” Arvin says.

“Hartmann was promoted to head of the Saxon fleet just like he said he would be. There was talk about Saxony seceding from the Empire, and he was behind most of it,” Cole said. “Our navies continued to hold war games together, which was a mistake because it gave Hartmann a chance to perfect a strategy to use against us if we went to war.”

“Part of his self-acclaimed brilliance,” Arvin says.

“His favorite maneuver during the war games was to get our ships to chase after his squadron, have his ships raise a smoke screen, then turn and fight. He would turn his ships broadside so they could fire all their guns at us while we could only fire our forward batteries at him. When Saxony declared its independence from the Empire and war was declared, Hartmann knew how to defeat us. Hoping that knowledge worked both ways, the Admiralty sent me out to sink Hartmann’s flagship. But I already knew what the outcome would be...”

Cole paces on the bridge of the battleship Valiant nearly walking into Lieutenant Wilson Quay, his second in command. At twenty-six, with a boyish glint in his blue eyes, a gymnast’s slim build, and energy to spare, Wilson, understands what defeating the navy’s most dangerous enemy could do for his career.

“Smoke screen ahead, Captain,” the navigator says. “We’ve picked up the Markgraf on radar.”

“Is the Markgraf alone?”

“Yes, sir.”

“At least that’s in our favor.”

“We can defeat Hartmann, Captain,” Wilson says. “And when we do, the rebels will surrender. We’ll make this war the shortest in history.”

“The Markgraf is four months old. Our ship is twenty years old. The Markgraf is more maneuverable,  better protected, and has modern weapons,” Cole says.

“I understand your concern, sir. But we have something the Markgraf doesn’t.”

“What’s that Lieutenant?”

“You.”

“Target sighted!” the starboard lookout shouts. “She’s turned broadside on us, Captain!”

“Commence firing,” Cole says.

The forward batteries of the Valiant belch out black smoke as they send a salvo hurtling toward the Markgraf.

The shells splash around the Markgraf.

The radioman pipes up. “Captain, I’m getting a message from the Markgraf. It’s Admiral Henrich Hartmann.”

“Admiral Hartmann… I presume you’re calling to surrender. The sixth fleet is only a short distance away. We have you surrounded.”

Hartmann laughs. His menacing tone makes Cole shiver. “You don’t have your great uncle’s ability to pull off a good bluff. I know your fleet is hundreds of miles away and you’re alone. They sent a country boy to do a man’s job. It’s a shame your brave men will die while under the command of a wishy-washy rube…”

“He’s not wishy-washy!” Wilson shouts.

“No? He’s as careless as his great uncle. Ask him what George Custer’s last words were…”

Wilson looks over at Cole.

“Uh-oh.” Cole's voice cracks in response. “We’re coming for you, Hartmann.”

Hartmann laughs. “I’m quivering Custer… Come and get your love.”

“We should turn the ship, Captain,” Wilson says. “We need to be able to bring all our guns to bear on the Markgraf.”

“We have to close the range between us,” Cole replies.

Wilson raises his binoculars in time to see the Markgraf fire a broadside at them.

The whistling sound of the heavy incoming shells freezes everyone on the bridge.

The ship shudders and the men are knocked off their feet.

“The conning tower has been hit, Captain,” Wilson reports.

“Any casualties?”

“Yes, sir. I think I saw Lieutenant Sawyer go by. At least I think it was him. The man was wearing his uniform, but he didn’t have a head or arms.”

Cole moves to the captain’s platform as the Markgraf unleashes another salvo.

Cole watches a shell fly overhead. The shell hits aft where the ammunition for the smaller guns is stored.

The ammunition explodes, crackling like firecrackers. Shrapnel from the explosion cuts dozens of dazed crewmen in half, turning the deck into a slaughterhouse.

Wilson rushes to Cole’s side as the ship recoils from another explosion.

“The Markgraf is tearing us apart, Captain. We need to turn the ship to port!”

Smoke belches from the Markgraf’s guns.

A shell whistles past, striking one of the aft turrets. It explodes, and shards of metal cleave through the fire crews trying to fight the raging flames.

The Valiant lists to starboard. A shell hits near the base of the bridge, wiping out the men manning one of the ship’s secondary guns. Cole looks down at the dismembered sailors, no longer able to recognize them as men.

He turns to Wilson, his voice a dry croak. “Turn. Turn the ship now, Lieutenant.”

As Wilson runs inside, shouting the order, a shell rakes the bridge, killing him and everyone inside.

Another massive explosion shrouds the ship in smoke. Making a loud creaking sound, the Valiant splits in half. The ship’s stern curls toward Cole as the forward part of the ship begins to capsize, dumping him into the sea.

The massive wake of the sinking battleship nearly pulls him under, but Cole pops to the surface, gasping for air.

He watches the stern of the Valiant sink. Looking around, he realizes he’s alone.

Gagging on his own vomit, Cole wakes up. Wondering how he made it home he stumbles to the sink, washing out his mouth. Looking up, he barely recognizes himself in the mirror.

Stepping out of the bathroom, Cole once again finds himself on the bridge of the Valiant.

Hartmann’s voice shouts, “COME AND GET YOUR LOVE!” over the radio for the crew to hear.

“Awaiting your orders, Captain,” Wilson barks.

The bridge crew’s confidence erodes as Cole leaves the bridge.

A shell whistles past overhead. It lands amidships, sending a ball of flame a hundred feet in the air.

Wilson rushes to his side. “Should we initiate evasive action, Captain?”

“…He wins again… He always wins.”

“What?”

“Stay here, Lieutenant.”

“I’m sorry, sir, why? I’m going back inside. We must turn to port!”

Wilson takes a step forward. A shell hits the bridge, killing everyone inside.

Wilson stares at Cole. “How did you know?”

“Because I relive this every day.”

A massive explosion near the ship’s stern nearly knocks them off their feet. The Valiant groans, splitting in half. Cole and Wilson are tossed into the water.

Cole fights his way to the surface in time to see the ship’s stern plunge into the sea.

Looking around, Cole spots Wilson floating nearby. Assuming he’s unconscious, Cole wraps his arms around Wilson’s torso, pulling him up.

The lower half of Wilson’s body floats away.

Sitting on a secluded park bench, alternating between consciousness, and passing out, Cole finally gives in drifting off, the bottle of scotch he’s held so dearly slipping from his grasp.

Cole comes around when he hears someone calling his name.

“You look like crap,” Wilson says.

“Well, you look pretty good for a dead man. Why are you disturbing my sleep?”

“Let’s just say the crew got together and decided it’s time for you to end your pity party and move on. After all, how do you expect me to get promoted to my own command if you keep letting Hartman get the better of you?”

Cole is back on the Valiant, standing on the captain’s platform. He looks over at Wilson.

“Should I give the order for evasive action, Captain?”

Cole rushes inside. “Abandon ship!”

Astonished, the bridge crew hold their positions.

“Are you sure, Captain?” the navigator asks.

“ABANDON SHIP!”

The men quickly file through the doorway.

A shell strikes the conning tower. Wilson looks up and is sprayed with blood. Body parts bounce past the bridge crew as they make their way down the stairs to the life rafts.

The ship shudders violently as Cole exits the bridge. Looking toward the Valiant’s stern, Cole sees the ship break in two, knowing the part of the ship he’s standing on will soon begin to capsize.

Cole is tossed in the water. Rising to the surface, he sees the bridge crew floating nearby.

He watches helplessly as the stern of the ship crashes down on them.

Cole wakes up on the bench.

“That didn’t go very well,” Wilson says.

“How do you know what happened?”

“C’mon, Captain. The dead know everything.”

“Then you know what I should do.”

“Yep. You can’t continue to let your future be your past. Instead of trying to survive, fight to win.”

Cole finds himself on the bridge of the Valiant again staring at the Markgraf through his binoculars.

“Fire at her bridge and radar,” he commands.

“Yes, sir. It’s a long shot from here, but we may get lucky,” Wilson replies.

“I don’t believe in luck anymore. Commence firing!”

The two officers watch as the shells splash around the Markgraf. A second salvo whizzes past the Markgraf’s bridge. The third salvo hits the forward mast and conning tower, destroying the ship’s radar.

Hartmann grunts as the ravaged remains of his men fall from the conning tower.

“We’re blind, Admiral,” the radar operator says.

“But not helpless.”

“Good shooting,” Cole says. “Are the lifeboats ready, Lieutenant?”

Yes, sir. But I don’t understand your plan.”

“Launch the boats. Just make sure Hartmann can see them burning. Then give me the thickest smokescreen this old bucket can make and turn northeast. I want us to be a spec on the horizon, twenty miles from the Markgraf. When we reach the Markgraf’s position, turn to port.”

Hartmann looks through his binoculars, laughing as he sees sheets of flame and thick smoke on the horizon.

Hartmann turns to Dolf Danner, his second in command. “They’re dead in the water at least fifteen miles south. There’s so much smoke I can’t even see his ship. He’s done for.”

He speaks into the radio, gloating.

“Nice shooting, Custer. You may have knocked out our radar, but I can beat you even when I’m blind. I can see your ship is burning. Once again, your dreams of defeating me have gone up in smoke.”

The Valiant moves parallel to the Markgraf.

“Put this in your trophy case,” Cole says. “COME AND GET YOUR LOVE!”

The Valiant’s four main batteries fire, raking the Markgraf. One of the Markgraf’s after turrets explodes, spinning off the deck like a misguided frisbee. Hit amidships, a sizzling fire spreads across the Markgraf’s deck.

“UH-OH!” Cole shouts into the ship-to-ship microphone.

Another salvo from the Valiant’s guns wreck the Markgraf’s forward turrets, which are still pointed in the wrong direction. One of the Markgraf’s 5” guns spins into action, firing at the Valiant’s bridge before it's destroyed.

“We’ve been tricked Admiral,” Danner says as thick plumes of smoke engulf the Markgraf’s bridge. “The Valiant’s not behind us, she’s alongside of us!”

“I can see that for myself, Danner. Turn the guns and return fire!”

“We can’t. Our main batteries are destroyed. Most of our secondary guns are also out of action.”

“Well then, throw something at them!”

Danner glances at the glass case holding the war games trophy.

The Markgraf groans, heeling to starboard, knocking the men off their feet. The glass case breaks. The trophy hits the deck, shattering into pieces.

Hartmann defiantly regains his feet.

“Should we surrender, Admiral?” Danner asks.

“To that rube? Never!”

Hartmann raises his binoculars. The Valiant fires another salvo, the shells hurtling toward the Markgraf’s bridge.

Entering Grumman’s Bar, Wilson sits down next to Arvin, looking up at the picture of Captain Cole Custer.

“I served with him,” he says proudly.

“Well, here’s to the man who defeated Admiral Hartmann at the Battle of Custer’s Revenge and ended the war with Saxony,” Arvin says, raising his glass.

“He used some of Hartmann’s own tricks to defeat him,” Wilson says. “We only lost one man that day…Captain Cole."

September 01, 2022 17:03

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10 comments

Graham Kinross
04:05 Sep 07, 2022

Is the title from the song by Redbone from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack? “One of the Markgraf’s after turrets explodes,” aft? I like the fantasy nautical story. A lot of people don’t put the two together. They make a good combination here. Are you a history buff? A lot of the names sound familiar.

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12:47 Sep 07, 2022

Yes, it's the Redbone song. (We performed it a lot in the band I was in). You're right again about the names. Valiant and Markgraf were actual ships, and the names come from people throughout history. And yes, I am a history buff, I minored in history in college, And thanks for picking up on the aft mistake.

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Graham Kinross
13:40 Sep 07, 2022

Have you seen the scene that uses Come and Get Your Love in Guardians of the Galaxy? Do you approve or is it not your kind of thing? What role did you have in the band?

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19:47 Sep 07, 2022

I remember being surprised when I heard it in Guardians of the Galaxy, which I thought was a pretty good movie. I was reluctant to watch it because it had a talking raccoon and a tree with one line, but the raccoon was a great character (Groot not so much). I really enjoyed Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista's characters as well. As far as the band is concerned, I'm the lead singer. It's a twelve-piece band that performs mostly rock.

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Graham Kinross
21:16 Sep 07, 2022

I was a bit disappointed by the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie after enjoying the first so much. It felt like it just remixed a lot of what worked in the first one with less success. What’s the name of your band?

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12:24 Sep 08, 2022

Yes, the second movie wasn't quite as good, I'm a fan of Kurt Russell and initially liked his character, but when he made his intentions clear the plot became a little too predictable. The name of the band is The Holy Innocents.

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