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The Ghost of the Mediterranean

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So, what is the best way to come back with a bang, after being absent for months and years?

Write a fanfic, duh! 😜

...So, being Italian, I chose to write something about the Regia Marina. And I chose to delve into a confusing situation, between an unclear international situation, infighting between the politicians and the brass, and uncertainty towards navies that may be both allies and enemies... or not.

I am open and welcome towards any constructive criticism, I know well that my style can use several improvements. But I hope the setting of this work may prove sufficiently interesting. Also, I'll put in a few historical domain characters (admirals, engineers and the likes).

I would like to preface that I took a small liberty, and without spoilering anything, I'll just drop here that, unlike IRL, in this story a certain large ship that was never completed had a different fate than the blowtorch... Chapter 2 may clarify things.

...

Oh, I'll drop quite a bit of Italian expressions and words here and there, but I'll strive to keep them easy enough for Google translate! 🙃

Spoiler

Chapter 1: Fear itself

Ligurian Sea – 9 September 1939


There were few things more frustrating that unsatisfied curiosity. Especially when one does not know who to ask.
Guardiamarina Franco Pallanca had outright grilled his immediate superior, Tenente di Vascello Bianchini, but he had been met with a shrug and the expression of someone who sincerely can't answer because he doesn't know the answer.


So now he was still in the dark, and moreover still stuck with this hellish service.
For somebody, operating as the commander of a MAS would seem like a honor, or a springboard for loftier assignments. For Franco, it was nightmarish.


As he grunted yet again, the elderly Capo di Seconda Classe who was his XO smiled sympathetically.
“Another useless patrol, eh?”
“...How the hell are you still here, Capo? Why haven't you asked to be transferred away? Even a cursed minesweeper is a better post than this!” the young officer grumbled, slamming his fist on the wooden side of the boat.
“Eh, after the first few weeks, one ends up with brass skin and bones. And I'd never dream to place this curse on anybody else!”
The chuckling coming from the other seven crewmates caused the reluctant face of Pallanca to open up in a small smile nonetheless.
Well, no reason to shut down a glimpse of good mood. “Your dedication and self-sacrifice are noted, Capo. Once we're home, I'll put you in for a Croce di Guerra, for saving countless warrant officers from this sad, sad fate.”
This time the laughter was resounding enough that even the other MAS heard it. It could be barely glimpsed, in the wee hours before the dawn, with the sky just beginning to pale.


With the two boats bobbing on the sea towards home, Franco wondered idly if somebody would finally say more about what the heck had happened down in Brindisi, and why, since a week, their Squadriglia had been ordered out every goddamn night. As far as they knew, they weren't at war, so what was the issue?
He looked up to the sky, wondering if they'd hear the aircrafts again. It made him feel a bit better knowing that, whatever was going on, those daddy's boys in the Aeronautica were suffering with them.


“Signals from the 538, sir!”
He turned his head, in time to see the familiar sequence with the lamps that told him to go for the safe course and close up.
“Acknowledge, Sandri.” he ordered, and the warrant officer went for their own lamp.
It would still take time before they got home.


Without even saying anything, he stretched and slumped down on his chair, pulling his cap down onto his forehead.
Franco could almost hear the officers at the Accademia Navale droning on how an officer must never show laxity or laziness before the men, insisting on how this was bad for morale and damaged their reputation beyond repair. They had tried, several times, to rip that disgraceful bit of laziness out of him; he fondly remembered the times when he'd been placed under arrest for such transgressions.
He almost wished to be able to ask them whether he gave a damn.
Plus, his secondo was more than able to handle anything, he didn't even need to tell him anything. And he couldn't care less if he looked like a poor officer.
It was with this less than pleasant thoughts that Pallanca dozed off abord his MAS 539.
-
His eyes flew open, a gasp escaping his lips.
As he hurriedly stood up, bending under the canopy, it took him a few seconds to realize why he had woken up just like that.
His heart was tight in his chest, something cold was finding its way down its spine, and he could feel his hands shaking a little.
Franco looked at Sandri, and was even more disturbed by the pale look on the middle aged men's face, his slightly wider pupils.


Looking around, he could not see anything that justified that. All good, the gaping maw of Genova's harbour breakwater right before them, some three thousand meters away, their sister boat sliding on the water on their starboard side, and the sun sizzling out up the sea and the hills on their right side.
What was going on?


“Signore!” A seaman's panicked yell caused him to painfully jerk his head around.

Oh.
Damn.


Gesù Cristo!!” he cursed, disbelief laced with sheer terror.
Even then, though, the rational part of his mind was hurriedly trying to analyze the situation before his eyes.


Alright, warships.
Surely not their own. These were cruisers and destroyers at the very least, and he knew that north of Messina, this side of Italy, there was nothing bigger than a torpedo boat. 
And what were the chances that the Frenchies had chosen to go for it and drag Italy into conflict?
Maybe the Brits... yeah, no way. They wouldn't have come this far, not when there were far juicier targets down south.
So, who the hell was right there, sailing so damn close to one of the biggest cities in the peninsula?
And why had nobody told them? Had they somehow gotten here unsighted?
At the end of these hurried reflections, Franco's brain chugged and pushed out an infuriatingly simple verdict on the situation.
Bad. Bad. BAD!!


AI VOSTRI POSTI!! AVANTI TUTTA!!” he bellowed.
As the MAS gathered speed, its bow starting to furiously part the war, he kept his gaze on the unidentified shapes.
His throat was as tight as it could be, it was almost painful to breathe.
Looking around at his men, the officer saw similar feelings etched on their faces. Plenty of pale faces, horrified expressions, and cold sweat.
Another set of bad news for his grey matter to announce.
No way we can fight, not like this, if they are hostile...


Almost on cue, the closest ships blinked once, twice, thrice. And an instant later, the deafening noise of gunfire reached them.
Franco opened his mouth to yell a panicked order, but Sandri had preempted him and had desperately jerked the steering wheel, hard at starboard.
Not a moment too soon; the water around them exploded, and the MAS shuddered.
“Make for the harbour!! Evasive maneuvers!”
It hadn't taken much time to reach that decision, but there was no way he was standing around for that. Not with that hand clenching his insides, not with a crew looking about to piss themselves (speaking of which, were his pants ok?).
Right now, thinking of a firing squad was almost relieving.


Pallanca was forced to hold for dear life, as the tiny boat lurched and tilted around, trying to be as difficult a target as possible, while making for safety as quickly as she could.
Turning around, he saw two ships (destroyers?) following them, still firing. And it seemed like they weren't gaining much.
Porco Dio!” he growled, anger overcoming for an instant the fear.
That's what he got for not insisting on having the engine repaired, for not refusing to go out with a MAS unable to make more than thirty-four knots.
As he remembered Bianchini's shrug on how it didn't matter, he felt the urge to wrap his hands around his neck.


A loud crash and a crushing pressure made him jerk backwards and hurt his sides on the dashboard. A near miss. Like, really, really near.
Hissing from the pain, Franco glared at a seaman close to him, who looked back with glass eyes.
“Alberti, with me!”
And he jumped out of the canopy and made for the stern, where the 13.2 mm machine gun was hanging limply from its mount.
The comune followed him, mouth wide open.
“Sir, what can we do?!”
He ignored him, and instead pointed at the magazine boxes stowed under it, while unlocking the machine gun and aiming at the lead destroyer.
As soon as the hesitant crewman had placed the curved magazine box in its place, Franco pushed with his thumbs the firing pin, and the Model 1931 gun began to bark.
He could almost feel the rational part of himself laughing at him. Even if the ship was (barely) within range, this fire couldn't do anything of substance, except perhaps causing a bit of confusion, in the best case.
He didn't care. Was it useless and pointless? Sure. Did he feel better? Heck, yeah.
So he kept blasting away, with a few shots going wild when the MAS jerked one way or another, occasionally drenched by another near miss.


Four thirty rounds magazines had gone, when a yell made him turn around. They were right upon the breakwater.
“Go!” he waved at Alberti, who was all too happy to scurry back under the canopy.
As he took a few careful steps following him, another shot crashed near the boat.
And his world disappeared.


For the briefest moment, Franco felt as if the law of gravity had ceased to apply to him, his arms and legs curiously moving about.
Then a horrible impact, and the cold.
Something in his mind told him he had fallen overboard.
Reacting, he trashed with his arms and legs, but just as his head emerged something hard struck it and took away all his strength.
His limbs still moving weakly, the young officer slowly sank, aware with a curious detachment of the burning sensation in his lungs.
Another impact, this time on his back, on something large and hard. His mouth twisted in a grimace, and even more water entered, to hurry down into his airways.
With the light slowly fading before his eyes, Pallanca wanted to chuckle (his body was refusing to obey him, sadly). And he wished he could at least pay... well, whoever was on those strange ships back for a death for which he had no reason, no context to comfort him.
His right hand twisted onto the hard surface, as a last, tiny rebellion.


And, just before Franco lost consciousness, he felt heat coming from under it.
-
Hurt.
He was hurt. He was hurting.
His chest was gripped by convulsions, as his lungs desperately tried to breathe, and ended up expelling the water.
For long moments, with his eyes kept firmly shut, all that existed was that furious need to breathe, to get air and oxygen.
Coughs. Water dripping from his mouth and nose.


At last, with the burning in his chest subsiding a little, he opened his eyelids.
A rough shape was right before his eyes. He blinked a few times.
The shape morphed into a face. A face of a woman.
...What?
Wheezing, he tried to say something, to ask something.
A hand went to his shoulder. The face spoke.
Andrà tutto bene!
It took Franco a few seconds to recognize how those soothing words had cleared his heart, that was now beating normally. No more fear.


Still in the dark, but no longer afraid, he weakly nodded.

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34 minutes ago, Legate of Mineta said:

Very cool, it's great to see the RN represented. :)

If I may, that should be the RM (Regia Marina). RN could indicate the prefix used for Italian ships (Regia Nave - Royal Ship), but I think it's more common used to mean the Royal Navy.

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