The Undaunted Dead

Craig Chalquist

An archetale of the Assembling Terrania Cycle

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

— Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

It’s no small thing to move an antique aircraft carrier, even when the occasion warrants it.

During the Resource Wars, a planet-wide scramble by wealthy countries seizing what was left of overheating Earth’s hydrocarbons, metals, and minerals, San Francisco languished, as it periodically does. Perhaps its ruling deity is young Dionysus, who according to Orphic lore was dismembered by Titans, who distracted him with gadgetry long enough to erect a pot to cook him in. Only his heart survived; from it he was regrown.

The motif plays out there over and over. In the early 21st century, for example, tech giants dismembered the city through gentrification, driving thousands of residents into the East Bay and beyond. I left my heart in San Francisco… As billionaires moved in, large sectors of the city fell into gloomy neglect, ignored by limousine liberals more focused on their stocks than on the decay spreading below their hilltop palaces. The once-proud United Nations Plaza built to celebrate international justice housed drug dealers, discarded beer bottles, and the defaced 5.2-meter-tall granite obelisk bearing words from the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Once humanity finally stood up at long last and threw the power-hungry out of office, the subway stations stopped smelling of urine, the bottles disappeared, residents returned, excess carbon left the clearing skies, and the representatives of Earth’s human beings calendared April 22nd as the day a group of Signers would gather in rejuvenated San Francisco.

Their happy task was to ratify the Terrania Charter, extended into a series of Accords accepted by popular vote, and officially give birth to true world governance from the ground up rather than from the top down.

“A momentous occasion,” noted Radantia.

All across the cosmos, species tell stories about their gods: sentient natural forces at play everywhere, locally or universally. Humans on Earth are among an eccentric group of relatively immature lifeforms who upon reaching the stage of planet-changing industrialization forget that the Sky god is Sky, that all water is animate Water, that every existential quality of being expresses its own kind of consciousness.

When this happens, the forgetters either worship these “gods” as parent figures, staying stuck to them forever, or arrogate godlike status to themselves. The first group become followers and apologists, the second conquerors and overlords.

The Komuay knew this, of course, having seen it on many worlds. Even so, the stories spun everywhere, though filled with an infinite variety of spirits and deities, always centered on certain archetypal numina. On Earth alone, for example, the Power Wisdom, called Vaeda by her celestial siblings, appeared as Amaterasu, Matangi, Nuwa, Norea, Saraswati, Athena, Fatima, Au Co, Ástse Estsán, Cihuacoatl, Mawu, Mami, Neith, Nzambi, Yemayo, and many others.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” remarked Kluni to Vaeda’s mother Radantia, called Ein Sof by human Kabbalists. But the day is young, he thought to himself.

The committee charged by the people of Earth to arrange the ratification ceremony discussed at length where the signings should take place in San Francisco. City Hall? The U.N. Plaza, now a human rights educational center? The Wangari Maathai Civic Auditorium?

The spouse of a delegate told her partner about a recent dream featuring an aircraft carrier…

“All right, who influenced the decision?” Radantia asked the other Powers, there to watch humanity take a giant step into maturity.

Paesha replied, “Bellum and I thought a highly decorated naval vessel stationed nearby might be fitting for opening an era of lasting peace.” Bellum gave the cosmic equivalent of a grunt; on Mars, a hemispheric dust storm lifted.

The strange thing about Alameda is its time-warping shape. From the air it resembles an aircraft carrier. This was so before its use as a naval base. A shipyard built vessels on the Alameda/Oakland side of the San Francisco Bay as early as 1890. The United Engineering Works set up a yard and marine railway in 1903, Moore Shipbuilding Company laid the keel for a steel vessel in 1909, and Bethlehem Steel followed. In addition to the hundred west-end acres deeded to the Benton Field Army base in the mid-thirties, nine hundred twenty-nine acres, some dry and some wet, welcomed the Navy as well in 1935. The Alameda Naval Air Station opened in 1940.

In October 1998, with its military presence fading, Alameda would provide a site for a museum consisting of the decommissioned aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet.

This was the eighth vessel to bear the name. The original Hornet was one of the first two vessels in the Continental Navy; the second ferried Marines to Tripoli. Its seventh incarnation, CV-8, was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz after fighting hard at the Battle of Midway. During WW II, CV-12, an Essex-class warship, sent the first planes to strike Tokyo since the Doolittle raid. After participating in several battles, then receiving upgrades for service in the 1950s, Hornet retrieved astronauts splashing down from the Apollo 11 and 12 missions. During the 11th, human beings first set foot on the Moon.

Having earned fourteen awards and nine battle stars, Hornet was decommissioned in 1970, mothballed for a time at Puget Sound, designated both a national and state landmark, and opened as a museum in Alameda. There the “Grey Ghost” sat until summoned to the Port of San Francisco.

Today, its spacious metal deck held rows of chairs, tables filled with refreshments, speakers for music and announcements, ceremonial carpets of blue and green, balloons of every color, and banners from every land waving from lines running down from the island off to one side. Aircraft circled overhead, projecting bright messages and images of hope into the Bay Area sky clearing of morning fog.

Near the center of the deck stood the curved table upon which the representatives would leave their imprint per the ancient custom. Giant screens would relay the festivities to everyone present as well as those watching from around the world.

“They forgot something,” said Doja in his driest thought-tone.

The festivities started with music, a true international language, playing while delegates and visitors dressed in traditional garments rather than Western suits walked to their seats. Here and there, corners of carpet curled up off the deck, causing trips. A mix-up with the chairs had to be sorted out. A port-side light stand toppled.

“It’s not me,” said Kluni. Vaeda watched him carefully but saw no signs of mischief.

An audio test failed, unlike earlier ones. Bunting came loose in the breeze and had to be retied.

As these strange events multiplied, a diverse group of visitors gathered to starboard for an urgent conversation. They went below. Doja nodded.

After a delay, three of them reappeared accompanied by technicians who quickly set up projectors. Images of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and other military personal wearing the uniforms of bygone times appeared on the grey surface of the island. All had served on some Hornet of the past.

Seeing this, the audience understood and broke into spontaneous applause.

“A remembrance of those who went before,” stated Doja with a nod to Cronicus.

Before the Hornet was a museum, it and its sister ships through time served as a temporal mausoleum, an unacknowledged memorial to the undaunted dead who had served. Even granting that Hornet’s suicide count was the highest in the U.S. Navy, three hundred sailors killed in battle aboard one vessel, though not unheard of, is a rather generous death rate.

The Grey Ghost had been aptly nicknamed, for it was a haunted ship. Volunteers, security guards, maintenance workers, and public visitors had testified over and over to ghostly doings. Opened hatches and lockers; fan and light switches clicking on and off. A blue light hovering in the forecastle; other lights in the brig. Soldiers talking near a bathroom sink; a headless soldier near the catapult. Officers restlessly stalking the corridors. Sailors working on the boiler firebox. A pilot strapped to a chair in the medical wing. The Dress Whites Ghost done up in the starboard main passageway.

The spirits came not just from this carrier, but from times before her construction. In some mysterious sense, all her prior crews were one, all her missions part of one endless campaign, and all Hornets somehow one Hornet steaming down the ages toward a rendezvous with itself as the warriors endlessly returned to their stations.

The planners of this momentous ceremony had forgotten this history. They were reminded by malfunctions, and by members of cultures who take revering the ancestors seriously.

As the audience clapped to acknowledge the projected memorial, a grey haze gathered at the stern of the flight deck. In it could be glimpsed the faces of men: most young, some commanding, some scared, some scarcely out of boyhood, some grizzled with battle, all determined, all wanting to go home, and all dressed in the uniform—grey, white, olive, khaki—of their time.

The audience clapped again, bowing toward the apparition, believing it to be part of the digitized memorial.

After that, nothing went awry. Mercifully short but heartfelt speeches alternated with ceremonial music. When the last signature was recorded, everyone aboard stood and cheered, a shout of joy heard around the world. Fireworks and messages of triumph lit the sky, the Bay, and the city skyline.

“Now comes our part of the ceremony,” said Zoe, who situated herself near the presence of Doja and Athara.

To the audience assembled on the deck of the Hornet, the cloud of faces merged with the last of day’s departing fog and disappeared.

From the perspective of the Powers, the liberated forms of men too long at sea crowded toward them.

Athara moved forward. To the assembled men she seemed a black-haired young woman in a WAVES uniform of navy blue wool jacket, navy tie, white shirt and skirt, white gloves, and Oxford shoes.

“Brave and faithful men, I welcome you,” she said, opening wide her dark arms. “Your long mission is finally complete. Each of you, in his own way, fought, bled, and gave up life to bring into being a better world, a world of peace beyond war. We are here to honor you for that.”

Athara, queen of the Underworld, held close her opinion of why humans chose to fight each other. Some glorified battle and their notion of patriotism before finding out what war was really like. The overriding reality here, however, was the underlying sense of duty that had prompted these men who had suffered so much. At bottom, they had sensed a future now coming into reality. Eager faces regarded her.

“The people of today have taken a large step forward toward that world, one of the most significant ever taken. Your devotion to duty made that step possible. May their gratitude and our blessings be upon you as you find your way to rest so long deferred.”

Each serviceman was then greeted by Doja and Zoe, who guided them toward their new lives beyond the bright portal of stars. The gateway led out of the cosmos to lands not seen by living eyes.

One sailor lingered. Had he still been enfleshed, he would have been crippled by the loss of an arm and a leg and burns on his face and shoulder. He looked into what he perceived as the eyes of the three Powers.

“We held,” he said. “All of us. We held our posts. We gave up everything to hold them. Our loves and friends and families never saw us again. We never saw us again. But we stayed at our stations, and we would have until time itself ran down and died. I thought you should know that.”

He made to walk on. Looking at Athara, he paused:

“You remind me of my girl. Long dead by now, I guess. I still love her.”

Then he too joined his comrades as they made their way forward together. Athara silently stared after him.

“They were dutiful,” said Cempa the hero, “unto the end and beyond it.”

“May there be no more wars requiring such terrible sacrifice,” said Paesha.

“I was glad to see them lose the albatross,” Kluni acknowledged. “Who needs centuries of disembodied duty?”

“Yes,” said Aluere. “They needed to be witnessed at the proper occasion so they could finally rest in peace. Not just in their peace, but in everyone’s.”

“All the same,” put in Kluni, “think of all the paranormal investigators who just lost a lucrative attraction…”

That evening it rained—a sign of luck in many traditions—in San Francisco. A new era for humanity had begun.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Water from the skies washed grey decks now free of their ghostly burden of sorrow.

For the first time since its birth, Hornet, whose name goes back to “trumpeter,” floated at last in quiet peace.