My very good friends.
I have been absent, for the most part, for a while. Have you noticed? Probably not, and I am genuinely grateful for that. My natural inclination to live in the shadows has only been enhanced by a recent tragedy in my life (though, unfortunately, not in my life alone – I could survive anything if it were only me) and remaining unnoticed has only become more attractive.
Nevertheless, this blog was setup to record my writing failures – most specifically in the NYC Midnight competitions, and, I am here to report that, within the depths of sorrow, I was talked into entering this year’s short story competition (thank you , Meg, I mean it).
The requirement was to write a short story (max 2500 words) within a genre of ‘historical fiction’ featuring ‘blood brothers’ and the concept of ‘landlocked’.
The entire thing was written in one sitting in the library of the University of Western Australia where I sat grieving with my son, the ex-professional footballer and current professional academic. There was a cricket match happening outside the window – that was the main reason that we were there, I think.
That, and the silence.
So it’s a crap story.
But …. just so you know …. Bolivia really does have a landlocked navy based on Lake Titicaca. And The Department of Investigation of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena really does exist – set up to investigate strange sightings over Lake Titicaca in 2001.
The rest of it is mostly bullshit.
My name is Hans Rojas. Together with my friend and colleague Ademir Flores I served, between the years of 1994 and 2005, in the Bolivian Navy, or Armada Boliviana, as it is officially known. Ademir left God’s earth just six months ago as a result of a rare blood disorder. I suffer from the same condition and expect to join him within the next six.
There is precious little time left to tell my story.
Ademir and I were more than just friends. Prior to naval service I knew him through childhood and through ten wasted years of education. We enjoyed a bond that comforted us through life and will hopefully continue to do so onwards after death. One night, in fact, at the age of about fourteen, we sliced the palms of our own hands with a rusty penknife and firmly shook them.
“Blood brothers,” Ademir solemnly declared us that day, as the life force oozed between our fingers. At the time, though, I was less convinced of the wisdom of the act and more concerned with the unnecessary depth of the incision.
“Okay,” was all I could say.
But Ademir was captivated by the moment and had drafted a poem, which he formally recited.
“Blood Brothers now, forever
This holy, bloody, bond
Through mud, through blood, together
To pastures green beyond.”
It was as though he was speaking not just to me, but to God, Himself.
I was less inclined to believe in such things back then, but I have learned to believe in a lot of things since.
But there are no Russian submarines in Lake Titicaca. I need to make that clear.
Allow me to provide a little historical information about the Bolivian Navy which, as I say, Ademir and I joined together. I quote from Sea Battles of the West Pacific1672-1982 (Edition 2) by G.S. Muñoz,
“The War of the Pacific, ending in 1883, resulted in Bolivia ceding its entire 250 nautical miles of coastline to Chile, rendering the country landlocked, and the navy, for all intents and purposes, superfluous. Nevertheless, Armada Boliviana remains defiantly in existence, and the recovery of its coastline a matter of national honour, to this day.”
Can you understand the lure that a sedentary fleet held for young men such as ourselves? We were, prior to enlistment, uneducated, unmotivated, and essentially unemployable; financially stretched to manage our everyday living expenses let alone a growing casual drug habit.
Ademir put it best himself. “It’s a no-brainer,” he explained to me, “a navy with no ocean, no enemies and no battles to be fought. The whole charade is conducted on the peaceful waters of Lake Titicaca. It’s a tourist resort, for goodness’ sake! They house us, clothe us, and feed us. And they pay us. All we have to do is cruise up and down the lake in fancy uniforms looking at girls in bikinis. And we do it together!”
It was a convincing argument.
“No chance of being shot?” I asked him to reassure me.
“Hardly any,” he promised.
In truth, Ademir had done little research prior to us both signing the required paperwork, but his predictions proved to be reasonably accurate. Bikinis were a rare sight (the water temperature rarely rose above 15C), but the food was surprisingly good and the hours undemanding.
We were fortunate enough to serve under the leadership of Almirante Sergio Vasquez, who, by the time of our arrival, had all but given up hope of provoking war with any neighbouring countries (he cared little with which, specifically) and had instead devoted focus to the task of drinking himself to death. He left his private quarters infrequently, and then only to stumble down to the dock to board his private vessel, La Creyente, for a change of scenery. When he was aboard, brass band renditions of the national anthem were frequently heard playing at high volume from speakers on the back deck and occasionally the sound of unexplained rapid gunfire emanated from the forward porthole. The policy of us enlisted men was to politely ignore the Almirante as much as possible. His reputation for dramatic and unpredictable mood swings, combined with a temperament of resentful unfulfillment, lent him an air of dangerous absurdity. It was thought best to avoid eye contact.
To maintain the egos of the officers, we endured the mindless boredom of marching up and down, from time to time, and we took boats out on ‘exercises’ every couple of days, in order to consume our monthly fuel quota.
Other than that, though, during work hours we drank coffee, played cards, went fishing, or watched TV. As a long-term career this was as close to perfect as we could have hoped.
Ademir and I were in the habit of warming ourselves around a campfire each night down by the lake. There we would watch the sun set over the Andes, drink beer and smoke marijuana. And we were sitting there one evening, in our little cocoon of light, watching suicidal insects dart in and out of the flames, when we were disturbed by Almirante Vasquez himself.
Evidently, he had taken a wrong turn in the dark in search of the dock and found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was swaying like a mast in a gale.
“Evening men!” he bellowed, attempting to restore both dignity and balance, “just out for a stroll in the night air. I don’t suppose you’ve seen my boat. It seems to have sailed off without me.”
He was a big man. But, looking at him closely for the first time that night, he appeared empty, pale, weak and tragic. I stood and saluted dutifully before directing him along the shoreline to lights about fifty metres away. “Just up there, Sir. The usual spot.” Ademir remained seated. “Easy for even the best of us to become disorientated on a dark night,” I added.
He paused for a moment, swaying thoughtfully, as if to consider whether or not he was being insulted. “True, enough,” he murmured at last, “and whilst my intrepid sense of direction may not be all that it once was, there’s nothing wrong with my sense of smell. What’s that dreadful odour?”
The joint was still burning in Ademir’s hand.
“Can’t smell a thing,” I replied.
The old man shook his head in disgust, “Peruvian nerve gas experiments I’d wager. Those dogs will stop at nothing!”
Ademir lifted the last of the burning weed to his lips and inhaled heavily. “Could be, Sir,” he nodded, as the smoke drifted out through his teeth, “and it’s not for us to question the opinion of an expert.”
Vasquez was an old fool, to be sure, and likely insane, but I felt sympathy for him that night. His world would have been happier if bloody war and mayhem had have featured more prominently within it. Every man deserves to have a dream come true at least once in a lifetime.
He may have been having similar thoughts of his own, for he peered at us intently as if searching for an old reflection of himself. “What are you men doing down here, anyway?” he enquired eventually.
“Watching for enemy warships, Sir,” offered Ademir
This cheered him up a bit. “Anything sighted?” he asked, with renewed enthusiasm.
“Not since 1879.”
“Ah, yes. When they took the Huáscar? The blighters caught us unaware that night. Won’t happen again….1879, eh? How time flies….”
“Only 122 years, Sir. Can’t let our guard down, now.”
The Almirante mustered a drunken smile before continuing, his enthusiasm for the glories of war momentarily rekindled. “Quite so, my good man,” he blustered, “not with new threats appearing everywhere before our very eyes! Cuban missiles. Russian nuclear subs…..”
“Russian submarines in Lake Titicaca, Sir?” Ademir enquired earnestly. He seemed to be enjoying the exchange immensely, “how do you suppose they got there?”
“Dropped from the air. Some sort of massive flying machine. Seen it myself. Hovering over the water. Bright lights. Wind everywhere. Big splash. Then gone. I fired off a few shots at them last night, as a matter of fact, but they got away.”
He had turned around and was muttering to himself and stumbling away back into the darkness when another thought came upon him and he stopped to address us again. “Tell you what,” he announced conspiratorially, “I’ve sensed a bit of scepticism within the officers about this Russian sub business. Take my boat out tomorrow night. Secret mission. Just the two of you. Watch for the lights. Catch them in the act. Get photos. Solid evidence ….”
I interrupted him reluctantly. Ademir and I had long ago agreed upon a strategy of doing as little as possible and volunteering for even less, “Well, Sir,” I began, “whilst we are honoured by your offer, I really think that more suitable …”
But Ademir pushed in over the top of me. He jumped to his feet, stood at attention, and saluted. “Aye, aye, sir!” he beamed, “consider it done! Come Hans! We must rest and prepare ourselves! We sail on the tide!”
“Have you gone mad?” I demanded of Ademir as soon as we were out of earshot, “What if he’s right? What if there are Russian subs out there?”
Ademir looked at me gently for a moment, as he had many times before, when encountering what he referred to as my ‘sweet naivety.’
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he whispered.
When we were back within our quarters (we shared a room not much bigger than a large cupboard) and sitting on our beds, Ademir expanded on his plans for the following evening. “Here’s what we do,” he explained excitedly, “we pick up a few sandwiches, a few beers, a few girls, and a fresh bag of hooch. We lay anchor a couple of miles out and enjoy the sunset. Sometime the next day we drop the girls off and return the boat.”
“And what do we tell the Almirante?”
“We report –‘Nothing sighted. Yet’. With any luck we can make it a weekly event until he gives up on the idea.”
We boarded La Creyente at around 4PM the following afternoon and were pleasantly surprised to find that both engines started on the first attempt. We were similarly impressed to discover that the vessel was remarkably well-catered. The galley fridge was stocked with breads, fresh meats, cheese, and salad, as well as prawns and lobster. The bar was resplendent with imported wine and liquor and a wide screen television adorned the bedroom wall. An ancient collection of pornography was discovered hidden beneath the bed.
“We’ve sufficient supplies to go sub hunting for a week!” Ademir announced cheerfully. He had assumed command of the mission and, by the time we picked up the girls, had even donned the Almirante’s cap to enhance his credibility.
It was a splendid evening. It was remarkably warm for October and there was not a breath of wind. The surface of the lake was like glass and the early snow on the tips of the Andes shone like brilliant white beacons as the mountains slowly engulfed the sun.
We dropped anchor at around 7PM and commenced ‘surveillance’. By 2AM the following morning the back deck was littered with a collection of discarded cans, bottles, marijuana butts, lobster shells and underwear. In the middle of it all we four lay naked on a bed of pillows staring up at the stars and giggling. The universe remained quiet and respectfully uninterested.
Until the aliens showed up.
I don’t really remember if I was asleep, or in some sort of coma when it all started, but suddenly everything was chaos. Under an angry, blood-red sky the wind was blowing hard from seemingly all directions. I remember being conscious of huge deviations in temperature. And I remember a humming noise growing louder toward the point of becoming deafening. Directly above us, several cigar-shaped objects of at least sixty feet long appeared emitting a blinding orange light. The whole boat, by now, was rocking violently and waves were forming all around us. The girls were screaming in terror. I was too.
Yet strangely, within it all, I recall realising that we hadn’t even bothered to bring a camera.
“Abandon ship!” screamed Ademir, before disappearing over the side.
“I can’t swim,” whimpered one of the girls, clinging desperately to my arm.
“Neither can he,” I yelled back at her, by way of reassurance.
And then it was over.
As suddenly as the visitors had arrived, they departed. The mysterious objects and their orange lights turned west in the direction of Peru before ascending at impossible speed and disappearing altogether. The lake was, once again, serene, and silent. Ademir’s sodden head appeared over the bow, as he completed his climb up the anchor chain.
“That’s amazing ganja!” he tried to joke.
But there seemed little hope of dismissing the occurrence as a shared psychotic event. And there seemed little wisdom in reporting anything to the authorities. We held no evidence but for our own testimony, and any subsequent investigation would dismiss that as highly questionable. By way of collaboration, we had only the supporting stories of two B-grade prostitutes. Providing an explanation for just what they were doing aboard a secret naval reconnaissance mission was not something that we wished to undertake.
So, we elected to return to our original plan. We dropped the girls off at the same beach from where we had collected them, with the stern advise that they had witnessed a top-secret military exercise and that any disclosure on their part might pose a risk, not only to national security, but to their own safety.
We returned the boat to the dock where, surprisingly, the Almirante was waiting for us. There was clear disappointment in those bloodshot eyes when Ademir reported to him, with as much sincerity as he could muster, “Nothing sighted, Sir. At least not in the direction that we were looking.”
“Oh, well,” he replied sadly, “perhaps I really am losing my marbles, at last.”
And that was that.
The Almirante passed away three years later and Ademir began exhibiting symptoms within four years. Myself shortly afterwards.
But may I read you another short quotation? This time from The South American Journal of Paranormal Observation, April 2011.
The Department of Investigation of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena was established in response to events of October 13, 2001, in Chulucanas, when hundreds of people observed eight spheres of red-orange light moving intelligently through the sky for over five hours. A couple of weeks later, someone caught video of a bright, tear-shaped object about eighty feet long hovering near the city. A few minutes later, several others saw mysterious lights landing in the woods. Observers have subsequently reported symptoms normally associated with lymphoblastic leukaemia developing within five years.
Reports of similar sightings from a Bolivian Naval vessel remain unconfirmed.
Thank you for your attention.