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HMS Eternity
by Tinkerbell

Note: This was first posted on the fanfic board of the A&E website.
Thanks to Seasprite for the suggestion to post the fanfic here. This
was written by Lydia and Papillion, and was posted by Lydia. We are
very sorry if our fanfic deviates from the storyline set by other
fanfics. It is purely unintentional. Also, this piece uses the
Christian belief system of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and are merely
our interpretations and no offense is meant to anyone by our
portrayal of God, Heaven, etc.

 

Dedication

This story is dedicated to the memory of Jesse Elliot, Adam Wall,
and A.J. Sullivan.
"Friends, brothers, and comrades in arms." Hope to see you one
day on the HMS Eternity.

Jesse, Adam and AJ drowned on March 8th, 2001, in the icy North
Atlantic.

Chapter 1

He had no idea where he was.

The room in which Commander Horatio Hornblower had awakened was
completely unfamilliar to him, small, spare and quite ugly, to tell
the truth. He was lying on a hard bed, with a small table beside him,
and a washstand and jug in the far corner, by the door. His
perceptions were blurred, however, as though the room was filled with
a dense fog. He tried to remember how he had gotten to this strange
room, and where exactly he was. Not on board Retribution, certainly,
but somewhere else...

The effort of trying to think clearly wrung a groan from him, and
someone...yes! Someone who had been standing in the corner was now
beside him. Recognition flooded Horatio's consciousness, banishing
some of the fog in his brain. It was Commodore Pellew! But what the
h*ll was his mentor doing here?

"Sir?" The effort of speaking drained worse than thinking had.
Horatio wondered for a moment why he felt so weak...and why was
Pellew looking so concerned? Yes, it was concern, and Pellew was
doing his level best to hide it.

"Mister Hornblower, I suppose it is a...better sign to see you awake
and alert." Pellew's deep voice brought Horatio back to full
wakefulness. "Do you know where you are?"

Now he would have to admit to the commodore that he, a ship's
captain, had no idea where he was or what had happened to him...wait,
a memory was trying to surface...the battle?

Before he could answer, Pellew sighed, "You don't remember, do you,
Mr.Hornblower?"

"No, sir," Horatio mummured faintly. He made an effort to sit up in
his uncomfortable bed, and felt a horrible pain knifing through his
shoulder, stopping his motion halfway. It was getting harder, to keep
his eyes open, to stay alert. He finally gasped hesitantly, "A
battle? Sir? French corvettes? His reserves of strengh momentarily
exhausted, he fell back against the pillow.

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower, you were a week's sail from Plymouth, and were
engaged by three French Corvettes. You managed to destroy one, and
another turned tail and ran. You were pursued by the third. Do you
remember now?"

"Yes, sir." His voice was getting weaker..."They boarded us...I was
shot."

"You are in the hospital in Plymouth. You were shot, and the wound
grew infected...doubtless had you had a better doctor on board
Retribution, you wouln't be in this sorry mess..." Pellew's voice
trailed off in disgust. "Engaging three French Corvettes in a sloop
of war? What were you thinking?"

Horatio smiled. "They were 'small' corvettes, sir. We couldn't outrun
them...I had no choice..."

He was feeling quite tired now, and the room was beginning to darken.
A memory floated up, unbidden, of sitting by Clayton as he
died..."Sir, is night falling?"

"Dam**t! Hornblower! Stay awake man! Stay awake!"

Pellew's reply was interrupted by the entrance of a grave, middle
aged man. He stood in the doorway, and spoke in a soft, yet firm
voice. "Commodore Pellew, sir, I must ask you to leave my patient
now, you've had him talking long enough."

Sir Edward straightened. "Yes, Dr. Chesterson. I believe we've spoken
enough for today, Commander," he said, addressing Horatio. Even
Horatio, from his pain clouded eyes, could see the commodore's face.
He looked old. Tired, and completely worn out. Horatio could never
remember seeing such an expression cross the visage of his
idol. 'What was going on', he wondered.

He lay back and closed his eyes, but could still hear the quiet
voices of the commodore and the doctor, though they were beginning to
blur.

"Dear God, he's passed out again!"

"That was to be expected, sir. You kept him talking far too long."
Dr. Chesterson's voice held a tone of reproach.

"What now?"

"Sir, the fever...it's worse. The shot itself wouldn't have killed
him, but the infection..."

"Don't prevaricate with me, man!" Pellew's voice was approaching that
old bellow of his, and a smile almost tugged itself onto Horatio's
lips. Almost, but not quite.

The doctor's tone was cold and formal, and his words were the last
thing Horatio heard before the darkness closed around him once more.

"Barring divine intervention, sir, Commander Hornblower is going to
die."

 

Chapter 2

The only sound in the dismal hospital room was the ragged, uneven
breathing of a dying man.

Matthews and Styles had been perched beside their Commander's bed for
18 hours. They had finally persuaded Commodore Pellew to return to
his inn and get some rest. 'Poor man', thought Matthews, 'It's his
protege dying, probably as close as he ever got to having a son.'

Styles sat hunched beside him, and whispered to Matthews, "it's no
good Matty, the docs say that he's done for. It's like he's given
up..."

"Stop that talk, Styles! If the captain can hear you, that ain't what
he needs to hear!" Matthews picked up one of Horatio's limp hands.
With all his soul (if he had one left, that was) he wished that it
was him, dying in this stinking hospital, surrounded by the cries of
the insane, and the screams of the infirmed.

"It's my fault, you know that, don't you Matty?" Styles' hoarse voice
was beginning to break. "He was shot, and none of us realized it. He
was fightin' off Frogs with a d*mned musketball in his shoulder!
Then, afterwards, he was sittin' on the maindeck, callin' orders, and
no one thought to ask 'im why he was sittin' there..."

"Enough, Styles, there's lots of blame to go around! Fact is, he was
still sittin', yellin' orders, half an hour later, when he keeled
over. It's all our faults, not lookin' out for our captain..."

"I keeled over?" A weak groan came from the man lying in the bed. "Oh
h*ll, I bet that caused a racket." To the shock of Matthews and
Styles, a faint smile was present on their commander's face. He was
deathly pale, but his eyes were bright. "On the maindeck? Did I
really?"

Matthews covered his surprise at seeing Hornblower awake. "Sir, have
you been awake long?" He was thinking anxiously about his
conversation with Styles about the captain's imminent...

"It's alright, Matthews, I know I'm dying."

"Sir-!"

"No, do you think I haven't heard the doctor too? I haven't been
unconscious all this time, you know." A measure of his old intensity
crept back into Horatio's voice. "Listen here, Matthews, Styles, the
both of you. It's nobody's fault. Do you hear? The captain has a
responsibilty to his crew just as you feel your responsibilty to me.
And if I must ignore thoughts of my own well-being to keep my men
safe, that is the price of command. So stop with the blame!"

For a brief moment, the spark of life had appeared in Hornblower's
eyes. The spark which caused men to follow him unflinchingly into
danger. It evaporated as he slumped back into bed. And yet, the pain-
Odd. The pain was gone. "You were right, Archie. It doesn't hurt
anymore."

His wayward thoughts drifted back to that day in Kingston. 'You
weren't afraid to die, were you, my friend?' His thoughts called out
as if he expected an answer from beyond the grave. 'If you weren't,
neither shall I be.'

Matthews and Styles saw the commander's face relaxing as he slowly
slipped away. The bosun's mate ran for the door: "Get Commodore
Pellew, NOW!"

Matthews returned to Hornblower's side. "Hang on sir, 'til the
commordore gets here. He'll want to, to...talk to you, sir."

Horatio chuckled inwardly at what Matthews had refused to say. 'No
the commodore doesn't want to say good-bye, he just wants to talk'.
Horatio imagined Pellew coming to his deathbed to give him a mission
briefing, or to dress him down for some error. Or to discuss the
price of spars and sail canvas.

"Styles, Matthews," he whispered. As one, they turned. "Thank you
both. It was indeed an honour..." he trailed off as he ran out of
breath. His lips quirked into the ghost of a grin. "Styles, don't let
any more rats chew that lovely face of yours."

Both men came to attention and saluted their fading captain...

...and Pellew entered the room to see the peaceful face of Commander
Horatio Hornblower, and the tears in the eyes of the two men beside
him. "Is he still alive?" Sir Edward whispered.

Dr. Chesterson had slipped in, wraith-like, behind Pellew. He was now
leaning over Hornblower's prone body. "He's not dead, sir." As the
commodore began to sigh in relief, the doctor clarified: "Of course,
I can't rightly say he's alive, either..."

 

Chapter 3

Horatio fought against the blackness that tried to hold him in
unconsciousness. Unlike before, when he'd let the darkness drag him
where it would, now he fought back. And won.

The first thing that registered was the sound, the gentle swooshing
of waves against...the bow of a ship. He opened his eyes and realized
that he was sprawled on the forecastle of a ship, scrubbed, sanded
and pristine. His eyes flew open all the way. "What the h*ll..." he
muttered as he stood up.

He was standing, as he'd realized, on the forecastle of a ship. But
it wasn't a ship that he could ever remember serving aboard. Her
lines were similar to those of the old Indefatiguable, but the
woodwork was darker as though it had been tarred.

There was a good, stiff breeze blowing from the...odd. Horatio found
that he couldn't get his bearings at all. He looked for any kind of
celestial body to use for reference. No sun. No moon. No stars. Just
an overcast, gray sky. It glowed, though he couldn't see from where
the light shone.

Horatio had no idea where he was, what ship this was, and for that
matter, there seemed to be nobody to ask. Was he a ghost, then, on a
ghost ship? This would make sense, from the talk of the common men
below deck at night. Could it possibly..."No! Get a hold of
yourself!" he spoke firmly. "There is certainly a logical explanation
for all of this."

As though on cue, a song erupted from the top of the
mainmast: "RUUUULLE BRITANNIA! BRITAINNIA, RULE THE WAAAAAAVES!
BRITONS NEVER, EVER, EVEERRRR SHAAAALLL BE SLAAAAAVES!"

Horatio heard the song, and the two singers, and suddenly
realized, "Why, that was marvellous!" He could appreciate the music!
But he was tone-deaf, or he had been...
"Oh, d*mn," It suddenly occured to him.

He had no idea where he was.

The pain of his wound was gone.

He wasn't tone-deaf anymore.

"D*amn, am I really-"

This revelation was interrupted once again by the two singers on the
mainmast. They had just launched into a fine rendition of "Hearts of
Oak". Horatio just closed his eyes and enjoyed the voices. One was a
rich tenor, the other, a clear, sweet treble. Shielding his eyes from
the glare of the oddly bright sky, he tried to make out the singers,
but saw only two vague outlines.
As if sensing his gaze, the two figures finished their song and
seemed to look down at him. Horatio watched in horror as one gestured
excitedly, and the two leapt from the yardarm. He stared, horrified,
unable to move as the two dropped seventy feet toward the unforgiving
deck. His mind flashed back to the poor boy from his division on the
Renown...falling...hitting the deck with a sickening crunch...the
captain watching remorselessly...why was he being forced to watch
this again?

The figures hit the deck, both on their feet, some distance away from
him. Horatio knew that landing this way would not help them. The two
had probably broken their backs, and would crumple to the deck
momentarily...

He watched, unbelieving, as the singers straightened, completely
unharmed. They smoothed out their uniforms...'My god!' Horatio
thought, almost numbly. 'Those are uniforms of his Britannic
Majesty's royal navy!' The singers began to walk towards him...he saw
them, but his mind processed the images without really seeing them.
Two men, one a lieutenant, the other a midshipman...no! Horatio's
mind and knees buckled before the apparition before him.

With a huge grin on his face, Lieutenant Archie Kennedy called out
cheerfully, "Welcome to Purgatory."

 

Chapter 4

"Oh, dear. Mr. Wellard, I do believe that was a bit too much for poor
Mr. Hornblower." Archie's huge grin belied the mock concern in his
voice as he leaned over Horatio's prone form.

Wellard, looking mildly apologetic, reached out a hand. "I'm very
sorry, sir. Mr. Kennedy has wanted to use that line on somebody since
he got here. Apparently you were the first test subject for his
rather odd sense of humour. Let me help you up, sir. And might I say,
sir, that-HEY! You were promoted!" Wellard's manner was one of
complete delight. He clapped his hands together in the manner of a
small child. "Congratulations, sir!"

"Yes, bloody marvellous, isn't it, Horatio? Commander Hornblower!
Well, I can't think of anyone else who would have deserved it more!
Mr. Wellard, if you are finished congratulating the commander, would
you mind helping him to his feet?"

Horatio allowed the ecstatic midshipman to pull him to his feet. Half
his brain had completely shut down from the shock, but the other part
was still capable of observing his surroundings. He noticed that
while Mr. Wellard treated him with the respect accorded to a superior
officer, he treated Archie...he caught a glimpse of Wellard sticking
his tongue out at Archie!

Archie responded with his best Captain Pellew stance, and a mock hard
glare. "Mister Wellard! I do believe that Commander Hornblower has
not been properly welcomed. Nor will I allow him to remain in
confusion through your DAWDLING, sir!"

Wellard cracked a grin, and came to full attention. "Aye sir! Right
away!" Turning to Horatio, he excuted a salute. His manner seemed to
change, subtly. He no longer spoke as if he and Archie were sharing
some great jest, but as if this was a solemn ceremony. "Welcome to
the HMS Eternity, Commander Hornblower: Purgatory for those of us who
sail the sea."

Horatio looked around. Now that the shock was wearing off, he could
view his surroundings with a little more perspective. His gaze
returned to Archie and Wellard. He was shocked to realize that a tear
was sliding down his cheek. Wellard stepped back respectfully.

"D*mmit, Archie, it's just so good to see you again..." He trailed
off as another tear came, and the others that he hadn't cried when
Archie had died. Archie smiled at him as the two friends embraced. It
seemed to Horatio that hours passed, before he stepped back and wiped
the tears from his eyes.

Horatio smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. "D*mn. Now I have
to believe that I really am dead."

"Cheer up, Horatio." Archie's soft blue eyes glistened with tears
too. "As afterlives go, this one's not so bad...Especially since
you're here now..."

Wellard threw an arm over the two men's shoulders, and smiled. "The
only problem is figuring out how to pass the time...can you sing,
sir?"

 

Note* We know very little about medicine in the early 1800's, and
while Dr. Chesterson is our own creation, many of his medical skills
are our own poetic license. Don't try this at home, kids.

Chapter 5

Dr. Chesterson's last words echoed in the still hospital room. 'I
can't rightly say he's alive, either either either...'

Pellew straightened to his full, imtimidating height, and glared at
the doctor, with a fairly murderous look in his eyes. "What, exactly,
doctor, do you mean by that?" His voice was low and menacing, causing
both Matthews and Styles to edge towards the door.

The doctor looked up from his examination of Commander Hornblower,
and stammered, "Sir, his body is still alive. He's breathing. I-don't
k-know, s-s-sir. By all r-rights, sir, he should be d-d-dead."

The commodore exhaled noisily, letting most of his rage escape with
the breath. "So what is the problem, Doctor?" he asked in a more
moderate tone.

The doctor looked slightly relieved. "That is the problem, sir. I
don't know. He might wake up tomorrow and begin to make a full
recovery, if he has any kind of will to live. Or, more likely, his
spirit might be exhausted from the long fight, and he has simply
given up. In that case, his body will die. I don't know when THAT
will be. I just don't KNOW!" The doctor's tone had become irritated,
and he cast an annoyed look at the bed, as if his patient had no
right to be forcing this perplexing drama upon him.

"Very well," Pellew replied. "Might I stay with him, Dr. Chesterson?"

"Yes indeed, Commodore. Stay with him. It might remind him of why he
should fight. I'm not sure." His voice rose in helplessness. "I'm a
doctor, not a philosopher. This is not my area of expertise!" He cast
another glance at the bed, this time in anger, for the patient who
was beyond his ability to help. "His fate is in God's hands, now."

The doctor slowly let the anger drain from his features, becoming
once more the impassive individual the commodore had come to know.
Pellew watched the man quietly exit the room. 'Odd,' he mused. 'Who
would have known the man had such a fiery spirit?'
He was busy wondering how he could get Dr. Chesterson as ship's
surgeon on his next voyage, when he was interrupted by
Styles. "Excuse me, sir. Me and Matthews were wonderin' if we might
stay with Commander 'ornblower too, sir."

Pellew smiled at these men, at their touching display of
loyalty. "Certainly. You heard the doctor as well as I. Perhaps our
presence might remind Mr. Hornblower of his duty...he might yet
return to us."

And so the commodore, the bosun, and bosun's mate began their quiet
vigil.

 

Chapter 6

On the HMS Eternity, ship of the spirits, where the sun never shone
and the wind never changed, three young men were having a serious
debate.

"...really, Horatio, it's all I could do! I was NOT going to lie
there and die without taking the blame! Dying is bad enough, but
dying while your friend is dishonoured and hanged?"

"You should have laid the blame on me, sirs," piped Wellard, his
sweet face set in its conviction. "The dead don't really have
feelings to hurt, and you both would have been saved! Oh sir, why
didn't you?" Wellard pleaded, misery showing in his eyes.

"Because, I would not dishonour someone else's name for what was no
one's fault!" said Horatio. "I also didn't want an angry spectre
haunting me for the rest of my miserable life. I wouldn't be able to
live with myself." His lips quirked upwards into a grin. "Besides,
now I don't have to live with myself, because I'm dead, and I find
myself in an afterlife I never believed existed, bickering about a
past life with my two best friends!"

Wellerd returned the smile. "When he puts it that way, it's a d*amned
convincing arguement."

Horatio turned towards Archie. "Speaking of which, how DID you know I
was going to confess?"

His friend rolled his eyes, and sighed hopelessly. "Because it's what
you DO. You go around being selflessly heroic and trying to shoulder
responsibility and take blame for everything!"

Horatio blinked, slightly taken aback. "Oh!" he replied, looking
perturbed. "Do I really do that?"

"YES!" chorused both Archie and Wellard. They glanced at each other
and began to laugh. After a moment Horatio joined them.

"Seriously, though, I never expected to see you again," the commander
continued. He looked around, the HMS Eternity, pristine and beautiful
all about him. "I suppose I never really believed in an afterlife, or
even God."

Archie's eyes danced with mischief. "I know. That was the first thing
I thought of when I got here: 'Oh, Horatio's never going to believe
this'. So anyway-Horatio look out!"

The young man yanked his eyes from his best friend, just in time to
trip over an eighteen pounder cannon mount. He went crashing to the
deck, nearly pulling Wellard down with him.

"D*mn!" Horatio's hands flew towards his ankle. "Ahh, I think I
twisted it! That hurts!"
Wellard and Archie both blanched. "What did you say?" Archie asked,
horror filling his every word.

Horatio glanced up at his friend's tone, and was suprised to see both
men staring at him in shocked dismay. He hastened to reassure
them. "It's alright, I was more startled than anything, it just stung
a bit..." he trailed off, when their expressions didn't alter.

"Horatio," Archie addressed him very slowly. "Are you saying your
ankle HURTS?"

The confusion evident in his face, Horatio replied, "Yes, just a bit."

"NO!" This single word was spat out by Wellard, his face twisting in
despair.

"Archie...Mr. Wellard...what's going on?"

Archie's blue eyes were sorrowful, as he said quietly, "You're not
dead at all, Horatio."

 

Chapter 7

At Archie's pronouncement, Horatio's look of confusion
deepened. "What do you mean, I'm not dead? I'm here, aren't I?"

Wellard said softly, "You can't be dead, sir. Physical pain...it just
doesn't exist here. Pain is the only way to tell if you're alive."

"Then what am I doing here?"

"Ohhhhh!" Archie gasped, a look of realization dawning on his
face. "You're having an out-of-body experience, Horatio."

"A WHAT?"

"Never mind, they won't be defined on Earth for another few
centuries," Archie replied. "But if you're not dead, you have to go
back. Your body will die without your spirit to inhabit it."

Head reeling from all this talk of spirits, and out-of-body
experiences, Horatio stopped walking. "No," he said firmly. "I don't
want to go back. Why would I, now that I've seen you here, happy and
well again. Do you think I want to go back without you?"

"My body is buried in a shallow grave in Kingston, Horatio. Wellard
was buried at sea. There's nothing for either of us to go back
to...but you! Your body is still breathing! The longer you delay, the
less likely it is that you will survive!"

"But don't you understand?" Horatio said in frustration, "All I want
is here, Archie. If I leave, you'll be stuck here, won't you?"

Archie dropped his gaze. "That's true," he admitted
reluctantly. "Wellard and I won't move on without you. This is not a
bad place to wait. So you must go back. It's your duty, Horatio!"

Astonished that Archie would use this arguement against him, Horatio
was getting angry. This showed itself in his harsh tone. "My DUTY? I
did my duty, Archie. I protected my men! I got them home safely! I
DIED for my duty!"
"Yes," his friend replied calmly. "And now you're going to live for
it."

"No! I'll not abandon you again!"

"Horatio," Archie was becoming angry himself. "Listen carefully. I
dragged myself to a courtroom and made a confession so you might
live, because I was as good as dead. I did not make this sacrifice so
that you could die six months later, after giving up!"

"Is that what you think I'm doing, giving up? I'll have you know that-
"

"Begging your pardon," Wellard interposed. "Perhaps you'd care to
discuss this with Him."

"Who?" Horatio asked, forgetting anger in his curiousity.

Wellard simply nodded towards the quarterdeck, where stood a lone
figure.

"Commodore Pellew?" Horatio breathed, astounded.

Archie followed his friend's gaze to the individual in
question. "Well," he chuckled, "Not quite."

"Then who?"

Wellard said softly, "Everyone sees Him differently, sir."

"Oh." His eyes widened in comprehension. "Ohhhh."

"Come, Horatio, let us see if he can convince you from this mad
course you wish to take," Archie pulled at his jacket sleeve.

"Archie!" he protested, "I really don't think that this-"

And suddenly, He was there. No coming, no time to prepare, He was
simply there, sizing him up through Pellew's eyes. "Well Mr.
Hornblower," he said quietly. "How is it that you've found yourself
here?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned, and said, "Walk with
me."

Horatio turned a panicked glance at Archie, who simply smiled
reassuringly and mouthed "Go."

He quickly turned and followed the retreating figure across the
quaterdeck.

 

Note* This chapter is really long, and so departs from the rather
short chapter format we've been following. Our apologies if this
irritates anybody. It really isn't intentional...well, actually, we
don't really care if you think the sodding chapter is too long. Enjoy.

Chapter 8

On the whispering ship, where the dead walked, the wind blew
constantly, and the sun never shone, two figures strode silently
around the quarterdeck.

"So, Mr. Hornblower," said the first individual. "You wish to
remain here, among the dead. You do not wish to return to your
body." His tone was not questioning, rather, he spoke with the quiet
authority of one who already knows the answers.

Horatio found himself intimidated by the imposing figure beside
him. "Y-yes, sir," he stammered, annoyed with his own inability to
speak clearly. "I do not wish to abandon Misters Kennedy and
Wellard. Not again."

The one who stared through Pellew's eyes spoke gently, almost with
amusement, as though a father with a boy who was trying to be clever,
and not quite succeeding. "Do you think that when you leave, they
will be tied to flaming wheels and tormented by demons until your
return? That is not why Purgatory exists. It is here as a waiting
place, for those who will not truly die...at least not until they are
joined by others."

"But sir-"

"Now, Mr. Hornblower, look at your friends. I have no doubt that
they would enjoy your company...indeed, Archie would give almost
anything to never be parted from you again. But they are men of the
sea, and there is one force in their lives that is more powerful than
any other. That force...is duty. You have a duty to your men, Mr.
Hornblower. You have a duty to those left behind. You have a duty
to those you've not even met, future friends and comrades-in-arms."

Horatio's gaze flicked back to the two lonely figures standing on
the forecastle, both the best friends he had ever had. He returned
his eyes to Him. "It is very difficult to think of duty, sir, when
it is your best friends from whom you are separated."

There was wisdom in the eyes of the face beside him, as he
replied, "It can be the hardest thing in the world, to be apart from
the ones you love. So many have suffered because of this hardship.
But you know your duty, too, Mr. Hornblower. It is as powerful a
force within you as it is within your friends. They understand what
must be done."

Horatio felt his conviction wavering, but he quietly spoke his
last arguement. "Sometimes, sir, the pain hurts too much to live."

"I understand. Perhaps I might show you...it might make this
easier to accept."

Horatio felt confusion rising within him, but before he could give
it voice he was simply...gone.

Time melted, blurred, and seemed suspended for a moment, and his
surroudings changed. He spun around in a vain attempt to reorient
himself, and abruptly recognized this place. "D*mn, it's
Retribution!" He would recognize his beloved main deck anywhere.
Then a horrible thought occurred to him: had he been focibly thrown
back to Earth...would he never see Archie or Wellard again...nor be
given the chance to say goodbye...

"Really, Mr. Hornblower," the voice echoed in his head, holding a
note of mild reproach. "Do you really think you would be cast out
like that? No, you are simply a shade, able to see the world without
being seen. Observe awhile, and then you may return."

Horatio turned more slowly, watching the hustle and bustle of
the ship being refitted. She had sustained heavy damage in the
action against the French. He closed his eyes, hearing the sounds of
the efficient work surrounding him. "D*mn," he thought in
surprise, "I do miss this." He hurried away from the activity,
feeling slightly traitorous for thinking such thoughts while his
friends remained trapped in Purgatory.

Desperate to get away from his own internal turmoil, Horatio
descended slowly belowdecks. The crowd of men simply slid around
him, and he easily walked into the mess. His sharp ears caught his
own name amidst the racket of men, talking and eating. Intrigued, he
sidled closer to the rough group of men in close conversation,
enjoying their rum ration..

"...so anyways, like I was sayin', I don't 'old too much 'ope for
Cap'n 'ornblower's recovery, lookin' at the face on that bosun an'
his mate."

Horatio vaguely recognized the man, Jacobs, as a seaman picked up
in Kingston just before they'd set sail.

"Sod off, mate. What a thing t'say, with Matty an' Styles actin'
like they're the ones dyin'. They've hardly left that `ospital, they
have, since we've gotten inta shore."

"Besides," continued another, "You'd miss the cap'n if he was
gone. He's a gud one, `e is. First command, and here `e is drivin'
off Frog Corvettes without killin' off our entire soddin' crew. He's
one of those special ones, mark my words. `e'll go far, I'm tellin'
you."

A fourth chimed in, "Not ta mention, `e's earnin' us all a fortune
in prize money!"

Rough laughter followed this statement, but another
interrupted, "Seriously, boys, `e's a gud cap'n. Appreciates us, `e
does. Doesn't flog the skin off our backs. Feeds us right. Even
respects us, `e does, callin' us by our prop'r names an' all. Takes
an in'trest in everything."

Enthusiastic nods greeted this pronouncement. "D*mn straight,"
another replied. He raised his voice to the entire room:

"Hear then, men. Let's `ave a toast to Cap'n `ornblower's
recovery."

"Hear hear!" came the deafening shout. Horatio watched in
disbelief as the tankards all about the cramped mess were raised in
toast...and then the room began to dissolve...

...And discovered that he was on the deck of the Renown, in the
middle of the Atlantic. It was the night watch, and bitterly cold,
so few men were stirring. One lone officer paced the deck, swathed
in his dark wool cloak, breathing on his hands to warm them. He
turned- and Horatio started. It was Lieutenant William Bush. As a
smile lit the shade's face, another young lieutenant emerged onto the
deck, clutching two thick ceramic mugs.

"Drop o' hot grog, sir, to warm you through. It's d*mned cold
tonight."

"Indeed it is, Burroughs. Come talk with me for a moment, this
watch has lasted forever."

"Delighted, sir. I've heard rumours about the "Retribution",
seems she took a couple of french frigates off the coast of ol'
England a few weeks ago. Heard the news from the latest supply
ship. Sir, didn't you have a mate on that ship?"

"Indeed, Mr. Burroughs." A smile lit Bush's handsome face. "One
of my dearest friends has command...Captain Hornblower. One of the
most courageous officers with whom it's ever been my pleasure to
serve. I wonder if he's in England now, celebrating..."

Horatio couldn't stifle his snort of amusement.

Oddly enough, Bush seemed to hear it and momentarily glanced in
his direction. Seeing nothing, he turned his attention back to the
other lieutenant. "He saved my life, all of our lives, more times
than I can count." Bush's blue eyes sparkled with mischief. "At
Santo Domingo, on our last mission before Kingston, we had to blow up
the Spanish fort, and to do that..."

Bush recounted every detail of the Spanish fort's explosion, the
young officers' run for their lives, and their harrowing leap from
the cliff. Well, almost every detail, as Horatio realized that Bush
had neglected to mention his scream of "I can't bloody
swwwwwiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmm!" as they had leapt for the sea. The
shadow chuckled at the memory.

Burroughs paying rapt attention, his face glowing in awe. "He
must be some officer, sir!"

The scene was beginning to blur...

...and refocused to sharp clarity fairly quickly. "I'm getting
used to this spirit business," Horatio smiled to himself. He then
examined the familiar room, realizing that it was his own hospital
room. The smile slipped off his face as he saw his own unconscious
form in the bed. His own forced, ragged breathing was the only
noticeable sound in the room. Horatio tore his gaze from his own
tortured face to the others present in the room.

"Sir, might I interest you in some food?" Matthews asked Commodore
Pellew. "Styles and I can bring back a half decent meal from the pub
across the street."
Horatio watched as the commodore glanced up at Matthews. "Yes.
Yes, Mr. Matthews, that is acceptable. See to it." The tone was
absent-minded, quite unusual for Pellew.

Matthews and Styles left the room, and Horatio's spirit slipped,
unseen, to Pellew's side. On closer inspection, his face was
strained, with stress lines etching their way across his brow; and
dark circles under his eyes. Pellew reached down and squeezed
Horatio's limp hand in his. "D*mn it man, why don't you fight for
your life? You're lying here, slipping away!" His voice held a
faint note of desperation. "You must come back, Mr.
Hornblower...Horatio. There is so much you can have to give this
world...you must-" his voice broke.

Horatio was completely stunned. For as long as he'd known his
mentor, he'd seen many emotions flash through those ageless eyes:

Anger.

Astonishment.

Happiness.

Rage.

Pity.

But never this. Disbelieving, Horatio could only watch in numb
shock as a single tear tracked its way down Pellew's creased face...

And the room began to spin wildly, and vision of Pellew was
snatched away. "NO!" Horatio screamed helplessly as he was pulled
from the hospital...

 

Chapter 9

Horatio rematerialized so suddenly on board the HMS Eternity, he
stumbled and tripped. Right into the unsuspecting Archie and
Wellard. All three tumbled to the deck somewhat ungracefully, where
Wellard's head hit with a resounding `thunk'.

Archie started laughing as Horatio struggled to untangle himself
from the knot of human appendages. "Why Horatio," he managed to
gasp, "I believe that you just concussed poor Mr. Wellard."

Wellard smiled sweetly up at them and said, "That's all right sir,
my eyeballs will certainly stop spinning in a moment."

Horatio, his mind still trapped with visions of the hospital room,
snapped without thinking, "It's alright, Mr. Wellard, you only hit
your head."

Wellard stared at him in astonishment, and then began to giggle.

"I'm sorry," Horatio shook his head and smiled ruefully.

"Did you have a good trip to Earth, Horatio? Get a bit more
perspective?"

He opened his mouth to reply. "Well-"

Archie interrupted, "Of course, if you'd stayed with Mr. Bush for
longer, you would have heard a wonderfully exciting tale about how
you and a small crew recaptured the Renown from merciless Dons. I
quite enjoyed it."

"You were WATCHING?" Horatio asked, horrified.

"Oh, please, Horatio, it's not like it's anything we haven't heard
before. We KNOW how much these people hold you in regard. It's just
fun to listen to them gush from time to time."

Mild annoyance overrode the faint sense of horror he
felt. "Nobody GUSHES about anything!"

"Begging your pardon, sir, but yes they do," Wellard replied.

Horatio sighed. "You too, Mr. Wellard?"

"Really Horatio, did you think we do nothing here but sing and
walk the maindeck? We go back to Earth from time to time, watching
over friends and family. In fact, we were present for that rather
formidable battle against those French Corvettes."

"Really?"
Archie looked miserable, as he answered, "I'm sorry we weren't
able to save you properly. Spirits have limited power over those of
flesh and blood." A smile flickered through the emotion. "It was
Wellard, actually, who saw the frog trying to shoot you. He probably
would have gotten you square in the heart, if not for Wellard's quick
thinking."

Mystified, Horatio asked, "What did he do?"

Wellard looked embarrassed as Archie continued, "Well, he dropped
down next to the frog with the pistol, and he screamed a very, VERY
high-pitched, shrill scream right into his ear. It caused the frog
to jerk his pistol just as he fired, so he only got your shoulder."

"I owed you a great debt in life, sir, and if I might pay it in
death, I will do so." Wellard's voice was solemn. Before Horatio
could reply, Archie continued:

"But, we're sorry, no spirit can do anything about a fever and
infection." The misery had returned to Archie's voice. "We saw you
safely to Portsmouth, then returned here."

"My God, it seems I have a few guardian angels." Horatio shook
his head in wonder.

Mischief flashed through Archie's eyes. "Yes, you'd probably be
touched if it didn't mean you had two bickering ghosts flying above
your head, like a swarm of Valkyries on a battlefield."

"Two guardian angels for Mr. Hornblower and his crew," Wellard
added softly. "One who's voice has yet to fully break, and another
that's needlessly sarcastic."

Horatio chuckled. "It sounds to me like I shall need more
guardian angels to protect me from the ones I already have."

Archie and Wellard exchanged glances. "You might have a point
there, Horatio," Archie admitted. His voice became sombre. "You
have to go back now, you know."

Horatio sighed. He stared across the grey waters on which the HMS
Eternity forever sailed. "I know."

"Come on," Archie tugged his jacket sleeve. "There's something
you should see before you go...

...They stood on the yardarm at the top of the mainmast, the wind
blowing past them. Horatio watched the two men beside him. "You are
indeed," he said, "The very best friends a man could ever hope to
have."

A tear trickled slowly down Archie's face as he smiled, "You see?
Better already."

Wellard gasped, "Look!"

Above their heads, the endless clouds broke, allowing a stream of
radiant, golden sunlight to bathe the men where they stood.

Horatio knew that he could live an entire lifetime of pain,
sorrow, and anguish, as long as he had the memory of this one perfect
moment. For the first time in his life, he felt complete
happiness.

 

Epilogue

In the dim, quiet hospital, noisy only with the clamouring of
souls, Horatio's eyes began to flicker. His first vision was of
Commodore Pellew, sitting by his bed, head bowed, still holding
Horatio's limp hand in his own. His face was etched with exhaustion,
and his eyes were shut. Horatio could not force a sound past the
rising lump in his throat, so he squeezed Pellew's hand. The
commodore's head snapped up suddenly, to see a young commander
watching him with clear, steady eyes.

"It's good to have you back, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew whispered,
not trusting his voice for another instant.

"It's good to be back, sir." Horatio could see God in Pellew's
eyes.

Faintly he heard the distant sounds of Matthews and Styles'
approach. And in the corner of the room, so brief it might have been
his imagination, he saw Archie and Wellard, smiling at him. And then
they were gone. Horatio knew that their spirits still followed him,
and drew comfort from their presence. His two guardian angels,
behind him, singing and bickering for all eternity.

Horatio Hornblower, commander of His Majesty's Ship Retribution,
smiled.