The guard called himself Kenichi, and he was friendly enough. He was at least a foot shorter than I, probably five and a half feet, with soft, boyish features. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Kenichi was dressed in an unremarkable beige button down shirt tucked into black polyester pants. He wasn’t armed, which meant I wasn’t considered a threat—at least not yet. With a low bow, he ushered me upstairs and out into the cold, walking a few steps ahead of me. It was still dark, but there was a faint glow of twilight behind us, which meant that we were headed roughly northwest.
“This is a factory ship, yes?” I asked, tapping the handrail. “Whale boat?”
Kenichi hummed, pondering the English. “Yes, yes. Hogeisen. Whales research,” he said with a shy smile.
And where’s the rest of your fleet? Other boats?”
“Eh-to….” Kenichi studied the sea for a moment, then pointed into the blackness. “Ahre.” Then he indicated another spot behind us with his finger. “Ahre.”
I squinted but I couldn’t see anything. I half expected to see Spegg out on the waves riding a fucking krakken or something, but no such luck.
“So-ka,” I replied, reusing Dr. Fukuyama’s words, which I guessed meant something like “uh huh” or “cool”. Kenichi seemed to understand.
We walked for a few moments in silence and I took a moment to get my bearings. The room I had been in was mid-ship and we were walking toward the bow along the starboard side. Above us was another deck, where the bastard with the LRAD had been standing. White sodium vapor lights illuminated the ship from high above, as well as the cluster of radio, GPS, and twirling radar antennas. The ship was absolutely enormous. There must have been at least a hundred people on board.
Kenichi canted his head toward me. “Cariforunia?”
“Hmm?” I said, breaking away from my thoughts.
“Cariforunia.” He paused, as if trying to put the words together, then said, “You are from there?”
“Oh, no. I’ve been there, but I’m from Kansas City. Kansas. Originally.”
The guard twisted his face at the words. “I don’t know.”
“Kansas? Yeah, no one does. And it’s probably better that way. Nothing to see.”
That didn’t seem to register, either. Kenichi looked at his hands for a moment, then said, “Eh-to… I very much like Caruforunia. My sister, Yukichan, lives in… El-ru-ay”
“Eh-ru….” I paused, repeating the sounds to myself. “Oh! L.A. Los Angeles,” I said. “Wonderful place. Botox. Schwarzenegger.”
“Yes, yes,” Takeshi said politely. “The Gabunetaa.”
I laughed at that.
We continued along the mid-deck. About a minute later we passed a pair of illuminated portholes and I locked eyes with a middle aged, round-faced man who was staring out one of the windows, smoking a cigar. He winked at me, almost in show motion, and a shiver shot up my spine.
An instant later Kenichi stopped and I nearly crashed into him.
I looked around. “What’s up? Are we there?”
Kenichi gave me a serious look. “My sister, Yukichan, very worried.”
I stared at him for a moment, gathering my thoughts. “What is she worried about, Kenichi?”
“Eh-ru-ay is big city. Big… uhh, nandaro… targeto.”
“Yes. Yukichan says Eh-ru-ay maybe get bomb?”
I cocked my head. “Bombed? Why would L.A. get bombed?”
“America and Roo-she-ah dess. Big war you know?”
“No. All I’ve heard about is a little naval skirmish. Nothing about any bombings.”
“Heh—wakarimasen,” he replied, squinting and shaking his head. “Big war… big war.”
A sense of urgency welled up in me. Small talk was over. “Alright. Where’s the captain?”
“Here, go up” Kenichi said, gesturing toward a flight of stairs. I took them two at a time. “Which way?” I said impatiently.
Kenichi directed me through a steel doorway and down a short hallway to another door. He rapped on it and said something in Japanese. A muted “Hai” came from within. The door creaked open and we were met by a tall Japanese man, easily my height, thin and wiry with short black hair and black framed glasses. He was dressed in jeans and a yellow Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt, of all things. For my benefit, perhaps. He waved me in and closed the door behind me, leaving Kenichi outside.
“Wayne-san, I’m glad you are on your feet,” the man said, bowing. “I hope you are feeling better. I am Takeshi Utsunomiya. I will be interpreting for you and captain Moriyama.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Yes, I’m feeling much better.”
The captain’s room looked nothing like a typical western captain’s quarters. Gone was the wood paneling, the antique maps and compasses, the oil paintings of clipper ships, and those collapsible telescopes you often see mounted on the wall lying on a stand on the captain’s desk. The room was simple, green steel, like mine, and the captain’s desk on the far side of the room was void of anything other than a lamp, a wooden Buddha figurine, and a notebook and pen. To my left was a dark, wooden cabinet on a steel table which also held two candles and an incense burner full of ash. The room smelled accordingly, like a mixture of sage and sandalwood. The only thing missing from the captain’s room was the captain.
“The captain will be with us shortly,” Takeshi said, practically reading my mind. “But first, if you wouldn’t mind, please remove your shoes,” Takeshi said.
“Oh, right, of course.” I quickly unlaced my boots and pulled them off. My socks were soaked through, so I removed them as well and stuck them into the boots. Takeshi bowed slightly, picked them up, and slid them into a small wooden shelf near the door. Then he removed a pair of slippers from a higher shelf and laid them at my feet. I wiggled into them, thinking about what Kenichi had said.
“Takeshi, is there a war going on in America?”
“Please, be patient. We must wait for the captain,” Takeshi said, gesturing toward a low wooden table in the center of the room which was covered with a thick white cloth that hung all the way to the floor. “Please have a seat, Wayne-san.”
I obliged and sat down on one of the cushions that surrounded the table. I stretched my legs out under the heavy tablecloth. The pocket of air underneath the table was at least twenty degrees warmer than the room.
“Mmm,” I hummed, enjoying the warmth.
Takeshi immediately said, “That is a kotatsu–a heated table. Very common in Japan.”
Christ, what I wouldn’t have done for one of those in Antarctica.
Takeshi crossed the room and knocked on a wooden door I hadn’t noticed before, tucked away along the wall behind the tall, polished cabinet. Another “Hai” came from that room, and the door slid open, revealing a dimly lit bedroom. The smell of cigarettes wafted into the room. The captain stepped out wearing a red sweatshirt, jeans, and black slippers. Embroidered on the left breast of the sweatshirt were the initials “A&F” in black lettering. Apparently there was an Abercrombie & Fitch outlet somewhere on board.
Captain Moriyama was shorter than I had expected. He was probably fifty years old or so, with short, but thick gray hair, and narrow, brown eyes. He rubbed them as he stepped into the light, as if he had just woken up. Takeshi spoke quietly to him in a flurry of Japanese. The captain nodded, looking at the floor, peppering Takeshi’s pauses with “Un. Un. Un.”
The conversation was over when the captain glanced at me and said a few words to Takeshi that sounded more like a series of punctuated groans than anything else. Takeshi broke off and Captain Moriyama joined me at the kotatsu, sitting cross-legged on the cushion. He didn’t look at me instantly. He just stared at his legs, rubbing and slapping them, as if he did this sort of thing every single morning, and I was just another lost soul plucked out of the sea. I stayed silent, waiting for some kind of cue.
“Green tea,” Takeshi said, immediately providing said cue. He placed three small, white, handleless cups on the table, then stepped away and returned with a matching pot, filling the cups with steaming, light green liquid. He joined us at the table.
The captain slapped his legs once more then took his cup and lifted it to his mouth. “Mmm,” he groaned. Then, as if that was all he needed to get going, he looked at me and said in a gruff voice, “Wayne Robertson-san. Welcome to the Nisshin Maru.”
I opened my mouth to thank the captain, but he charged forward in Japanese. Takeshi provided the translation as the captain’s low voice grumbled in the background.
“We are truly sorry for how we treated you during our first meeting. And as the captain of the Nisshin Maru, I personally apologize. I think you may understand why we reacted in a such a way. If not, please let me explain that we have been dealing with increasingly aggressive encounters with pirates and environmental terrorists who will do anything to stop the legal research we perform on this–”
“Look, that’s fine. Really,” I said, interrupting him. “You did what you had to do. I’m just glad you changed your mind and came back for me.”
Takeshi rattled off the translation and the captain nodded, humming into his tea.
“I see. Well, we will leave it at that then.” The captain finally said.
“Is there a war going on in America?” I asked. “Kenichi mentioned something about California being attacked. What the hell is going on?”
“You have heard nothing?”
“I’ve been a little distracted.”
“Of course. Well I can only speak from the Japanese perspective. And I am not an authority, you understand. We may know only a little more than you. But first, I must ask… were you somehow involved in all of this? Are you an American soldier? Intelligence? How were you lost at sea? Unless you are military or a pirate, you were in a very unlikely place. Especially considering your craft. A Zodiac is not your typical life raft.”
“That is true,” I said quickly. “I was an astrophysicist at Station one-five-one, in Antarctica. Its a radio telescope array, one of many currently under construction around the world. There’s even one being built in Hokkaido, Japan. Station twelve, I believe.”
I paused for a moment and both Takeshi and Captain Moriyama nodded affirmatively. “Yes, that was big news. We are aware of it,” Takeshi added.
“Then you know it’s a civilian project. Not military.”
“Some would disagree,” the captain said in a resonant baritone. “But please continue.”
“I hadn’t heard that,” I frowned. “Nevertheless, after the Russians attacked the American Navy off the coast of Alexander Island, I was evacuated for fear that I might get caught in the crossfire. However, that is exactly what happened while we were returning to the carrier group. We crossed paths with a Russian MiG and were shot down in the Southern Ocean. I was the only survivor.”
It sounded good. Damn good. And almost completely true, too. I leaned back a little, listening to Takeshi’s Japanese, and sipped my tea confidently.
“It is a good story,” the captain said. His eyes brightened and a grin crept over his face. “So naturally you would like us to contact the American Navy and let them know you are here?”
I gulped, and I think they heard it. Fuck. I shifted on the pillow, desperately trying to come up with something reasonable. “I, uh” was as creative as I could get.
“I didn’t think so,” Captain Moriyama smiled, cutting me off. Takeshi’s eyes darkened. Briefly, he seemed almost disappointed.
I touched the edge of my tea cup.
“What would you have us do with you, Wayne-san?”
In my blatant arrogance, I hadn’t thought of that. I just assumed things would work out.
“Are you a Russian spy? A double agent, perhaps?” Takeshi interjected, then translated the question back to the captain.
“No! God, no. Nothing like that,” I said, waving my hands. “It’s all a big misunderstanding, really.”
“Well,” the captain growled, “I suppose if you were, we’d never get it out of you.”
“Probably not. If I was. Which I’m not. Seriously.” I rolled my eyes as I backed myself into a corner.
“Too stupid to be a Russian spy,” Captain Moriyama said dismissively. He uncrossed his legs and stretched them out under the table. Then he picked up his teacup, drained it, and set it down hard. “We have ten days until we reach Japan,” he continued. “We will figure out what to do with you by then.”
I glanced at Takeshi, biting my lip. He didn’t look back. “OK,” I said. “I understand. I accept that. But I’m not a spy. I love my country, and I have family back in the States, so I’d really like to know what is going on.”
The captain looked at me gravely. “America is burning,” he said, and stood up.