While everyone assumed that the fleet was about to sail into the Gulf of Aden, en route to Suez, it was spotted some seven days later off the Comoro Islands, sailing into the Mozambique Channel, heading south toward the Cape of Good Hope. There could be no doubt in the minds of the French pilots, flying back from a routine patrol to their base in Diégo-Suafez. What they saw was the Last Chance Armada, no question. Ninety-nine ships in two long lines, strung out behind two big, rusty, lop-stacked steamers—the India Star and the Calcutta Star—whose description had been sent to every navy and air force in the Western World. The weather was holding fair. The sea was strangely calm. Nothing, in fact, seemed to threaten the relentless course of the fleet from the Ganges. But if no explanation could be found, there was no less surprise at the shift in its course, which apparently had taken place—figuring an average speed of ten knots—somewhere to the east of the island of Socotra, the outpost guarding the Gulf of Aden.

Although it was careful to keep the news secret and not leak it out to official circles or the press, the fact is that the government of Egypt had taken a hand in the matter. It had done so by itself, without consulting its Arab partners, without informing the appropriate world bodies or foreign powers, in an atmosphere of intrigue and alarm bordering on sheer panic. The mere thought of a million desperately impoverished refugees stuck in the Suez Canal through some sailing mishap, or perhaps through some move by the Western nations, was enough to strike terror in the ministers’ hearts. Understandably so. Egyptian indigence has long since proved its powers of elasticity, but accepting the impossible is quite another matter. Diplomatically, politically, economically unthinkable! And so, in total secrecy and total confusion, orders were radioed to the last Egyptian torpedo boat still left intact from the wars with Israel, to proceed to confront the armada, and persuade it to alter its course. “Just how?” asked the Egyptian admiral. “Should I use my guns if I have to? And if so, how much?” The reply was as terse as it was ambiguous: “You have a free hand. May Allah guide you! Bon voyage! Over and out.” The Egyptian ministers, obviously, had no wish to go into detail. Besides, what could they have said? Still, one mustn’t conclude that they were speaking idly. In those unprecedented times, when divine will made itself felt at every turn, they were placing their faith in Allah, fervent Moslems that they were. And Allah heard them. Who knows how things might have worked out if the peoples of the West, in similar straits, had put their faith in God, by name, and stormed their churches the way they did in those blessed ages past, when plagues and invasions buttressed their faith?

The confrontation took place some six hundred kilometers east of Socotra. It didn’t last long. The admiral was up on the bridge, relaxing, amber prayer beads in hand. All at once, the first clouds of smoke puffed over the horizon, closely followed by that first noxious whiff, growing thicker by the minute. With all the speed still left in her engines after twenty-five years of service and three unsuccessful wars, the Egyptian craft headed straight for the fleet. Once she was abeam of the India Star, she hauled around in a broad arc and came up abreast of the steamer, cutting her speed to let her sail side by side, just long enough to send a message over. As for what went through the actors’ minds in this drama of confrontation between the two ships, there isn’t much to tell. It was noon, and the sun, in a cloudless sky, flared like the fires in a blazing furnace. On board the India Star, the mob lay drowsing. Nothing could have wrenched it from its torpor. Nothing, that is, but the news that the long-promised paradise was at last in view. Now then, the Egyptian sailors, with their dark skin, their black hair and eyes, were surely no harbingers of the white man’s Promised Land. A few of the passengers lifted their heads, only to let them droop, next moment, back to the deadening stupor of sleep. Two or three children waved a friendly hello, but they soon gave up: every Egyptian eye, transfixed, was gazing at the bridge of the India Star, where some kind of hideous pygmy, perched on a giant’s shoulders, and wearing a gold-braided cap, was waving a pair of twisted, handless arms. These men were no strangers to woe and despair; and grotesque, misshapen bodies were a common enough sight the length and breadth of Egypt. Still, they were staggered by what they saw. Never, in Egypt’s darkest hours of suffering and shame, had they seen the fearsome likes of that monster’s face, epitome of woes untold, but of woes infused with a kind of sacred fire, peopled by strange, dark powers, supreme and unbending. The admiral shuddered in spite of himself, in the presence of this nemesis incarnate. “Allah preserve us!” he murmured. “Praised be his name for making us poor! Now send the message! There must be someone over there who understands Arabic An officer put the megaphone to his lips. “Aim at the bridge of the India Star, “the admiral added. “That’s where the brain and the soul of the fleet are, believe me!”

“The admiral and commander in chief of the Egyptian navy sends greetings to you, his brothers from the Ganges, and wishes you a safe voyage. The government of Egypt, however, is concerned for your security, and strongly advises against your attempting to pass through the Suez Canal. Some of your larger vessels run the risk of sinking. Our country is poor. We can be of no help. The admiral has orders to make sure that you receive this message, and that you give it your utmost attention. Good luck and Godspeed!” His binoculars trained on the bridge of the India Star, the admiral watched and waited. As if, by some miracle, a ship unlike any that had ever sailed the seas could play by the rules and send back an answer. Any kind of answer—by megaphone, signal flags, semaphore, or just an old-fashioned hand-to-mouth shout. Did these people have the slightest idea of such things? He felt a kind of deep distress well up within him, a feeling he had never known, not even in the thick of battle, like a sudden awareness of how helpless we are to cope with the superhuman. And that message? Absurd! Just so much official jargon, meaning little, saying nothing concrete, and with no teeth whatever … All at once, on the India Star, the mob seemed to rise up from their sleep, in a body. The monster was still waving his arms, high atop the bridge, and thousands of pairs of eyes were watching in rapt attention.

“Repeat the message,” the admiral commanded. “This time tell them they’ve got five minutes to change course. Or else …”

“Or else what?” asked the officer.

“Or else … Or else, nothing! … No, wait. Just say this: ‘May God show you the way …’ No, damn it! Strike that! … Let’s stop playing games. That’s not our style or theirs. Make it plain and simple. Tell them: ‘You’ve got five minutes to turn around. If not, I open fire. So God damn well better show you the way!’”

On the bridge of the steamer a man made a sign as if he had understood. He was wearing a blue pea jacket with four gold stripes on the sleeves, but his head was bare. The captain, most likely. He pointed to the monster, astride the giant’s shoulders, then disappeared into the wheelhouse.

“Load the anti-aircraft guns,” said the admiral. “Tracers. One round. Aim them over the bridge, up between the mast and the smokestack. Forty-five degrees. Then stand by to fire.”

He shook his wrist free and looked at his watch. As the seconds ticked past, the India Star and the Egyptian craft sailed on, side by side, due west, toward Socotra and Suez. The endless fleet trailed on behind, meek as lambs, blind, dumb, and unthinking … The fourth minute went by.

“Open fire!” the admiral shouted.

He was used to the guns, but never before had he heard them make such a deafening din! Could it be that his nerves, stretched taut, made them seem all the louder? Or perhaps … Perhaps they had thundered from some unknown sky, in some other dimension, bouncing off some mysterious reflector … The admiral pulled himself together. The volley traced its streaks of fire over the bridge of the India Star, and disappeared into the sea. Seconds later, a noise burst up from an unearthly silence, a howling wail unlike any sound of man or beast. A kind of spasmodic pant, like gusts of wind moaning through some vast, sepulchral cavern. The monster child was bellowing out his cry! More incredible still, he turned his head! Just once, but he actually turned it! When you realize that he had no neck, that he couldn’t move a muscle in his misshapen body, except to thrash his truncated arms and twitch his contorted, featureless face; when you realize, too, that the flap of skin that passed for a mouth had opened just once in a similar cry—on the banks of the Ganges, when the India Star was stormed by the mob—then you have to believe this was something of a miracle. At least, such was the thought of the thousands teeming on deck. And such was the decision of the fleet’s high command, up on the bridge, as they gathered around the latterday Christopher, towering above them. Of course, there must be another, more rational explanation. No doubt, when the shells went whizzing through the air, booming overhead, the creature’s sudden terror, for just a split second, shook up centers in his feeble brain disconnected since birth. Hence the cry. Hence the twist of the head. In this day and age, that’s how we explain, quite simply, such miracles as the ones at Lourdes, for example. The sun at Fatima? Mass hypnosis. And so on and so forth … Perhaps there’s a clue to be found in this basic disparity in viewing the marvelous. Two opposing camps. One still believes. One doesn’t. The one that still has faith will move mountains. That’s the side that will win. Deadly doubt has destroyed all incentive in the other. That’s the side that will lose. The monster had turned his head toward the south. A moment later, the man in blue came out of the wheelhouse, where he must have gone to consult his maps and chart his course. Again he gestured, and his eyes met the admiral’s. Despite the distance, both men seemed surprised to discover a look of relief in their glances. The tension fell. The mob settled back, like grass in the wind … Little by little the channel between the two ships grew wider, broadening to a river, and finally to the open sea. The India Star was pulling away, and behind her, ninety-nine wakes, describing a great, sweeping arc, a quarter of a circle, heading due south. An hour later, the fleet had vanished beyond the horizon. At which point the torpedo boat sailed off full tilt, as if to escape the armada’s path, like those Western ships that had fled at its approach, before they could be snared in the traps of compassion. On board, an admiral, deep in thought. Feeling rather like someone who has seen a ghost, wondering if he really did, and knowing that no one will believe him.

At this point in our story, it’s clear that the fate of the West has just been sealed. Let’s take stock and see why. Had the fleet passed through Suez, the West might perhaps have been saved. On the shores of the narrow canal, at the gates of the white world, in fact, there would have been no dearth of objective observers to describe the bare truth, see it for the threat that it was, and bear witness against the unnatural marriage about to take place; no lack of diplomats stationed in Egypt, tourists, businessmen, foreign nationals, reporters, photographers—all there to watch the antiworld sail by, and get themselves an eyeful, almost close enough to touch it. Just imagine them cheek by jowl with the fleet. Picture them confronted by that floating debauch. Seen from a plane, in cleverly captioned pictures, that suffering, stinking mob was a pitiful sight indeed. But seen up close, on its nightmarish ships, passing one by one just a few yards off shore, it would have caused more than a little dose of fear. A good, healthy fear, and one that certain observers—partisan blindness and conventional ethics notwithstanding—could have injected just in time into the flesh of our Western World. It would have been hard to quash their stories, to rub out their panic before it could spread. We might have remembered poor Consul Himmans and his lonely death by the banks of the Ganges, killed for being the first to see the light. We might have understood the crime of Captain Notaras a little better, or paid more attention to the warnings of a man like Hamadura, gagged for his high taboo-treason. If only the Last Chance Armada had passed through the Suez Canal …

But no, it turned south, and headed for the Cape. If a last chance was lost, it was the West that lost it. And if the slightest flicker of a flame still remained, the affair of the so-called South African threat would put it out once and for all.


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