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J.R. Rustrian

 

is  a Latino writer living and working in Southern California with works published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Synthetic Reality Magazine and Hispanecdotes. He is a big fan of video games, movies and hiking

After Midnight, We Sighted the Land

     An account of a journey west across the Atlantic, taken from the personal diaries of Captain Gonzalo Jimenez de Alvarado, found in a library in Madrid in 1969.

7th of April 1494

      After many delays and struggles, our small sailing fleet departed from Palos de la Frontera towards distant lands as of yet undiscovered. Much fanfare accompanied our departure towards the western seas, as we were publicly supported by Queen Isabella of Spain and her eagerness for our mission to find new trade routes to China, India, and the rest of the Orient. In secret, however, Her Highness tasked us with another mission: to ascertain the fate of the 1492 expedition of that navigator-in-name-only, Christopher Columbus.

     It is common opinion that the three ships commandeered by Columbus had run out of food and water on their journey, but if for whatever reason they did manage to get to Asia, the information from the crew, or what remains of them, would be invaluable to any nation attempting to find faster routes there. As such, we sail west in search of a doomed expedition, but nevertheless with high spirits and hopes of riches and glory.

     En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amen.

9th of April 1494

     We have scarcely made it past the Azores and already I am pining for the life I have left behind. During the little time I have to myself, I set my focus on the sextant that my wife and children gifted me only a year ago. It is a small, insignificant piece of metal that I put all my drive and desires into and is a reminder of our way home.

     My first mate Humberto Rodriguez often tells me of his own family that he leaves behind in Spain. I find myself laughing in disbelief that such a seasoned helmsman who had traveled to every corner of the Mediterranean and veteran of the Reconquest would spend hours talking about his grandchildren. He tells me that helping raise grandchildren is a much harder job than any naval assignment in Europe.

     Still, I am happy that I am not alone on this perilous journey. Humberto keeps us thrilled with ghost stories and tales of adventures as we head towards an uncertain horizon. I have noticed the sun, usually so brilliant in its shine, muted and with an off color during the afternoon hours. Maybe just a trick of the latitudes that we sail off into.     

    

 

10th of April 1494

      Good winds and clear skies. We have made good time these past few days with little hardships. I have noticed a certain restlessness among the crew as we sail into uncharted waters. It is very odd indeed, as my handpicked crew of the Santa Catarina are all seasoned sailors. Some have sailed against the Ottomans while others have been on exploratory missions to Africa in service of the Portuguese crown. These men spread rumors and stories among the less experienced crew and, most alarmingly, share them with the men of the other ships. My communications with my other captains have warned them of such superstitions and have instructed them to not let such nonsense be spread among the easily panicked. We are on a mission of discovery and, as such, must remain grounded and ready for anything that may arise.

 

11th of April 1494

     Light rains and light fog. El Futuro Encantador has sprung a small leak today while the Santa Catarina has torn one of its sails. Just a few of the many problems encountered thus far on this perilous journey. I pray to God that we find better fortune as we enter the unknown edges of the map. The talk about unknown creatures and deadly waters has given way to nonsense about demons, strange spirits in the mist, and how the proper protocol was not taken as we departed on our journey. Some have talked about how this fleet has been cursed ever since we left Spain. There is a priest or chaplain on board each ship. It should be the duty of each of these men to dispel any talk of curses or any such witchery. They have no basis in reason and no part of our expedition.

 

10th of May 1494

     Our fleet of fifteen ships has crossed into uncharted waters. All we have to guide us is the calculations of Columbus and his proposed route to Asia. If, for whatever reason he was right, we should only be about a week or two out from the various sultanates of the Indian Ocean. I, however, know that there is nothing else out here but endless ocean and nothing more. If anything will give me solace, it is the fact that all superstitious and blasphemous talk about curses and creatures lurking beneath the waves has seemingly faded away from the men. They grow restless and anxious, however, as my quartermaster continues to offer us smaller and more meagre rations. I can only hope that we have enough supplies for a return trip to Spain.

 

11th of May 1494

     I was awoken late last night by Humberto. The man was in such a state of panic and terror that I first believed we may have encountered an enemy fleet just off the horizon. Humberto, a sixty-three-year-old man and veteran of the struggles against the Moors, had difficulty explaining what was happening and beckoned me to come out to the deck to see the phenomenon for myself. Once outside, the sky was bright with flashes of green and orange straight in the direction we were sailing, with a strange, otherworldly hum to accompany its arrival. Northern sailors and maps mention these lights to be known as the aurora, signaling one’s own party they have entered the far northern reaches of the world. It is rather bafflingly that these lights are making their appearance at such a low latitude. I keep this information from my crew to keep their spirits up and assure them they are just harmless weather phenomena, but I cannot help but feel a slight sense of unease at these lights.

 

13th of May 1494

     Fog and rough seas. It is a testament to explorers to always be wary of the changing weather, but what we have encountered today defies logical explanation. Our fleet began the day with clear skies and calm seas with a nearly perfect wind for sailing. Moods were jovial, yet slightly cautious.

At half past seven, clouds set in obscuring our sightline so much, one could not see their own hand in front of their face. It forced us to light lanterns in order to guide ourselves around the deck. In the distance, powerful cracks of lightning and thunder were seen and heard with the bright lights of the auroras glowing in the distance.

     The loud, otherworldly hum returned, only to be accompanied by the sound of a massive explosion. Some of my crew reported being shocked by small arcs of lightning upon touching metal objects. One of Humberto’s lieutenants, a man by the name of Mauricio, swore to seeing a ghostly shape in the distance. I pray to God he was just drunk on watch.

     As mysteriously as it had appeared, the auroras vanished, and the hum silenced. The fog, so thick only moments before, lessened somewhat. The silence, almost welcome before, now left each man with a feeling of isolation and dread. Humberto nervously tapped his wooden cross that hung around his neck. I must admit here that I find myself grasping the sextant tighter and tighter everyday now.

 

16th of May 1494 

      

     I give thanks to the Lord almighty that he has brought us safely across this perilous sea and into the arms of a land as yet untouched by Europeans. One of our own, a man by the name of Mauricio, sighted a rather large island early this morning. The men of the fleet erupted in cheers at the mere thought of the bountiful food and fresh water that is bound to be on the island, rather than any dream of riches and glory. As of this entry, we sit on the beach and begin to set up a camp for our protection. It should only be a matter of time before we encounter the people of this island who will lead us towards the large, sprawling cities that the Portuguese have claimed to have traded with.

    

17th of May 1494   

    

   Exploration into the interior of the island has revealed traces of people, but none of the civilizations described by explorer’s past. I am beginning to suspect that we have not reached the islands of the Indian Ocean, but rather a new, virgin land with peoples never before encountered. If that is so, it may be an amazing opportunity for Spain. One can imagine the riches and trade goods that a land such as this could offer. Just access to the trade routes alone would make a man as wealthy as any monarch in all of Europe. For this reason, earlier today I proclaimed this land as part of the Spanish Crown and all its peoples as subjects. I cannot, however, ignore the irony that these people must first be found.

 

19th of May 1494

     A turn in the weather signaled the return of the half-dead remnants of the search party to the interior of the island. The man Mauricio was among this group and had a most harrowing story to relate to us. He said of the group’s journey into the thick jungles and their discovery of abandoned villages and homes, some with the fires still burning. The group searched deeper into the wilderness and that was when the ambush was unleashed. Savages with stone spears and bows and arrows attacked our heavily armed soldiers. Interestingly enough, Mauricio described the natives setting traps for the men, such as pits full of sharp spikes, unseen pools of quicksand, and poisonous darts. Curiously, they also did not directly engage the men most of the time, being content with firing arrows at the unarmored areas of the soldiers and waiting for them to reload their firearms.

     It could just be the ravings of a shocked man who had just seen his friends die, but he continued to press the idea that the natives somehow knew of our coming and how to engage our men. I can’t help but wonder if something else is at work here. Has Columbus somehow survived his journey here? If so, then why would he attack fellow Europeans? Did he, for whatever reason, train the people of these shores about our ways and tactics? There is no time to speculate, however, as we must load ourselves into our ships and find much friendlier shores. Supplies are running short and we cannot leave empty handed.

 

20th of May 1494

     Foggy skies and moderate wind. Waves rock our ships and some of the men are seasick. Our fleet anchored at a bay that I named El Refugio; a natural harbor near a beautiful, scenic beach. We are currently taking this time to attend to repairs to our ships and collect as much food and water as we can. As for the island, we still have seen signs of natives, but they remain elusive and, dare I say, hostile. I have ordered no engagement as we still have no idea of their numbers or what tactics remain, though I remain cautiously optimistic of finding some sort of sign of previous Spanish settlement. If Columbus was here, then perhaps we may be closer to a route to the Orient than we realized.

 

21st of May 1494     

   

     No wind and slight haze. Fear has gripped even my most seasoned of sailors. The auroras hang overhead with the strange hum in everyone’s ears. In the early morning hours, a loud horn was heard, followed by what seemed to be gunfire. I try to calm the nerves of my crew, telling them that perhaps a rival warship has followed us here, possibly a Portuguese caravel or English freighter out to scare us.

     I hang on to the hope that perhaps one of Columbus’ ships is out to attract our attention for a rescue or some other unknown reason. Out towards the horizon, a small black shape wanders across the ocean; its outline illuminated by the blues and greens of the unholy aurora. If it truly was a Spanish caravel, then why not come closer to us? What possible reason do they have to ignore us? It leaves me with the terrible feeling and trepidation that this mystery ship is not something familiar or comforting, but rather unknown and, dare I say it, hostile. 

 

22nd of May 1494

     It is currently midnight. Out on the sea, fog and mist as impenetrable as a solid stone wall. Overhead, the auroras sing their awful siren song, which keeps our already anxious crew without sleep and completely on edge. The ocean is still and occasionally shimmers with moonlight like a looking glass. No matter how beautiful the sight, everyone’s eyes are fixed on the mystery lights that lay past the starboard sides of our fleet. These lights dart in and out of the fog, keeping just out of sight and out of range.

     It has confirmed my worst fears. It is indeed another ship in the area; its origins and purpose unknown. The unmistakable outline of a bow and stern cruises softly out on the greyish sea. I try to calm my nerves and tell myself that our overwhelming numbers will see us safe in the end. Have I really lost myself to fear and doubt over strange weather and unknown trespassers in this area of the world? I need to keep a strong face on, if not for me, then for the fearful crew.

 

23rd of May 1494

     La Aventura and Correo are gone. Early in the morning, the sound of cannons awoke me from my restless slumber. In the light gray fog, we found the wreckage of the Correo strewn across the waves. The few survivors we pulled out of the sea reported the mighty roar of a cannon firing, a loud whistle for a few seconds, and then a massive explosion blowing the ship to pieces. All of this while the culprit remained hidden among the dense mist. I made the mistake of ordering La Aventura to engage this mystery ship. We lost over twenty men in a matter of a few minutes.

     Something does not want us to be here. I pray to the Lord to keep us safe in these times of strife. Whether it be Portuguese, English, or even an undiscovered nation, we shall make our names known in this new world. I have already ordered my other captains to prepare to search out and destroy this new threat. I will not let fear turn me into some quivering fool. We owe it to our brothers who lie dead in the depths of the sea to avenge them. For tonight, however, we mourn the dead.

 

25th of May 1494

     More thick fog and no wind. The phantom ship still teases us through the gray.

 

26th of May 1494

     Winds starting to pick up and choppy waves. Still much fog. The phantom lights are close now. Some of the men are very nervous, clinging onto their rosaries; others are eager for a fight. The sun has started to rise; an advantage we need in the thinning mist of the ocean. Our intended strategy is to entrap our foe and bombard it from all sides with our cannons; not leaving anything to chance. I must admit that I, too, am a bit nervous. This fog will make it initially difficult to identify the mystery in the mist and I fear we may hit a friend yet undiscovered. If indeed Columbus or some other unidentified Spaniard, then may God forgive me.

 

27th of May 1494

     I sit here, surrounded by nothing but death and water. The initial shock of the battle has started to wear off and I fear the emotions I felt during the engagement will be forgotten, so I have chosen to inscribe my thoughts while staring at a sea full of charred wood and blood. The engagement opened up with a volley of cannon fire from all ships, hoping to put an end to this mystery once and for all. I gave the order for the cannons to be reloaded and that is when the ships Espiritu de Ferro and Lluvia de Dios exploded, sending hot shards of wood and metal in all directions.

     One by one, the fleet fired on the phantom ship. The air was filled with the loud pinging of iron cannonballs bouncing off thick iron plating which signaled to us that we were scoring direct hits on its hull. It was then when I first got a fleeting glimpse of the mystery ship through the fog, almost to wink at me before it disappeared back into the mist. From what I saw, and hopefully my mind was not playing tricks on me, it carried no sails on its massive mast and was colored in a dull gray, most likely covered in iron plating. The most striking feature, however, was its two massive cannons, which were not situated in the sides like in a traditional ship but rather mounted on a large turret near the bow.

     Leaving us in our own despair, the turret rotated itself to face my flagship in the manner of an eagle’s head. It stayed there for a few seconds, before rotating forwards and finally vanishing from sight. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. My God, what was this instrument of destruction that has come to prey on us?

 

28th of May 1494

     No fog and calm seas. Light winds coming from the east. We have traveled far away towards another uncharted island for repairs and recuperation. I can sense the crew’s eyes darting at me as they gather food and water while also tending to the repairs of the Santa Catarina, as well as the San Bernardo and the Nuestra Senora de las Nieves; the last remaining ships of our initial fifteen ship fleet. The crew have every reason to look at the man that has led them to ruin. Engaging the mystery ship was a massive mistake and now many men lie at the bottom of the ocean. The auroras were a sign from God to not continue this journey. The men knew. They knew but I ignored it out of my own deadly curiosity.

     None of that matters now. We are anchored in a well-hidden cove and have arranged ourselves in a defensible position. I ask the men to make haste and finish the repairs. I do not let them know that I am terrified. We came to these lands as conquerors. As missionaries and warriors for God. As pioneers and glory seekers. We are being punished for such foolishness. This is no longer an exploration mission. This is an escape.

 

29th of May 1494

     No fog. Light winds from the east. Bright, blue skies. My first mate Humberto knocked on my cabin door at noon with frantic news. He spoke of an incredible find in the jungle and pleaded for me to follow the group of men who had made the initial discovery. I obliged and after several minutes of trudging through dense forest, my eyes laid upon a most horrific sight.

     Several tombstones lay in a row next to a large rocky outcropping bearing crosses and dates. The largest in the middle bore the name of Christopher Columbus; date of his death as December 8th, 1492. One can only speculate at his and his crew’s ultimate fate, but more questions abound, such as who buried these men and how did they know the fashion in which to bury them? Was it perhaps the mystery warship that we have been hounded by ever since we entered these waters?

     We said a prayer for our fellow Christians at their gravesites and let them rest in peace. I fear that the discovery of their final resting place will do little to heighten the already poor morale among our crew. Only a few moments ago, I convened the crews of the surviving ships and let them know that as soon as the repairs are made, we will set sail for home.

 

30th of May 1494

     Significant winds and choppy seas. Not a cloud in the sky. One of my men discovered a small cache of trinkets near the gravesite of Columbus’ crew. In it, a sizeable hoard of strange metal, wooden crosses, metal and glass syringes, and a peculiar glossy parchment featuring unintelligible writing. The metal parts do not seem to be made of iron or lead but rather some lightweight metal forged by some unknown process. As of their purpose, it remains to be seen. The only recognizable find was the heavily damaged journal of Columbus himself. Only a few small portions are legible, but I shall inscribe one of his writings here.

    “…I was right, but I am now paying the price for my boldness. Here I lie a captive of some enemy that knows me and my crew backwards to front. What have I done to deserve this fate? Or perhaps, it is what I will do, as my captor speaks of. He is a guardian of immense strength and knowledge, but short temper. I will soon know what they intend to do with me. May God have mercy on us all.”

 

1st of June 1494

     Strong winds and small waves. Bright sun high in the sky. We finally set sail for home after much jubilation. So far, we are making good time with winds pushing us back towards Spain. The feeling aboard the ships is one of relief and anticipation. We have a few plant specimens and a collection of artifacts found on the islands and our story alone should make us famous across Europe but there still lingers a sense of failure and regret. I believe the sight of home will ease any sorrow that may come.

     My mind still clings to Columbus’ final entry and what he meant about what he was about to do. What could have prompted such a response to seal his own fate? What could have we done to ensure the same fate? I try not to dwell on such thoughts, but rather focus on the long journey ahead of us. I cannot wait to see my family again and forget these terrible lands.

 

2nd of June 1494

    Destruction. Nothing but destruction on this day. San Bernardo and Nuestra Senora de las Nieves lie in broken pieces among the waves. It is almost unexplainable as to what transpired out on the sea only a few hours ago, but to find the words and relay to the rest of our compatriots what sails out in these dangers is of utmost importance.

     The fog. The terrible fog returned under the cover of day, sheltering our phantom adversary until the last minute. A blast of a cannon and a familiar whine signaled the end of the Nuestra Senora de las Nieves, sending precious cargo and dead men flying high into the air. After a brief lull, the mystery ship revealed itself in all its terrible grandeur.

     It dwarfed all other ships in our fleet, making my remaining fleet look like rowboats. The shape was terribly alien to anything else modern, civilized man had created. The middle of the leviathan stood a fortress of steel and glass, with pipes and railings surrounding the section. The massive cannons previously seen were complemented by another turret mounted pair near the stern. As it turned, I made out the English name of U.S.S. Washington emblazoned on its side; the meaning of the three letters only one can speculate.

     In a strange Spanish dialect, a voice called out from the ship and ordered us prepared to be boarded. Out of fear for the safety of my crew, I ordered no resistance to the invaders. A large bridge extended from the steel behemoth and connected the Santa Catarina to the Washington. Across that bridge, a man of small stature, long hair, and fierce demeanor crossed and asked who the captain was.

     I answered that I was. The man identified himself as captain of his own vessel. He looked me up as I stared back at his unusual blue clothing which sported alternating rows of different shades of blue. Before I could utter a word in our defense, another massive shot from the rear cannons rocked both our ships and destroyed the San Bernardo. The captain, who I was beginning to suspect was of native origin but with mixed ancestry, was only here to defend his land.

     His Spanish dialect, unfamiliar to me and everyone else on board, explained to me that any other Spaniard, or other European for that matter, will befall the same fate if they attempt to cross the ocean to these lands. I asked him what was the reason for this hostility. The captain looked at me with his deep-brown eyes and quietly told me that it was virgin land and any European contact would spell the end of any of the peoples of these lands.

     The last thing he told me, before he retreated to his own ship was for me to tell the rest of my homeland the warning he laid upon me. He then turned around and boarded back his own ship. I stared daggers at the man and his crew, unable to do anything but watch as the ship slowly pulled away. Before disappearing into the fog, the captain pointed at his eye and then towards the sky. The auroras were obviously his doing. I sighed out of relief, thankful to God that he spared not only myself, but my remaining crew.

     We stayed adrift for a few hours, fishing men out of the sea and picking up stray pieces of cargo wherever we could. The initial shock of the encounter took a full day to wear off, when I realized we were overstaying our welcome in this part of the world. I retreated to my cabin, leaving duties to Humberto to get us to full sail. Here is where I sit, crying tears of remorse and guilt. Sleep is overcoming me. Tomorrow will hopefully see us home and away from memories of this vicious native captain and his advanced warship.

 

3rd of June 1494

     We sail for home, uninterrupted and unmolested by any strange forces. The question hangs on every man on board this ship. Who or what was this ship and its strange captain and crew? Was it some curse we put on ourselves, or rather some demon from the sea? Was it Columbus who first encountered this beast? Or rather was it always here as some sort of guardian to the natives of the islands? Most importantly, where did they find such a powerful warship in the first place?

     Whatever the case may be, it has deeply affected every man on board, myself included. I know now it was folly to discover what happened to Christopher Columbus. For the price of discovery, we have paid dearly, as is with the case of the man Mauricio. The poor man stumbles around below deck, muttering outlandish tales of different eras and advanced civilizations. After what we have been through, some may be keen to believe in the rantings of a man gone mad. But alas, we finally get to sail home, into the safety of our mother kingdom.

     What will navigators after myself say after they hear our tale? Will they attempt the crossing again? Or will they take heed of the warning of the mystery captain of the Washington and leave well enough alone? From my own sense of wonder, someone somewhere, many years from now, will discover the true secret of the new world.

 

     En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo, Amen.

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