8. Kindling

Rebirth

Monday, March 1st, 2010

“We’ve got a live one!”

I lifted my eyelids. A blurry figure screaming.

“You ok, buddy? You speak English, buddy? Get a torch in here!”

I let my head fall back. I’d been out for I don’t know how long.

“Stay with me, buddy!”

The figure shook me and I moaned in protest.

“Hang in there, we’re gonna get you out. What’s your name, buddy?”

I moaned again.

“Rah? Wayne Robertson? Are you Wayne Robertson?”

I moved my head a little, then settled back into the darkness.

“C’mon! Stay with me!”

Fireworks crackled in my ears. I begged them to stop. I remember batting away their hands, and flashes of light tormenting my eyes, but at that moment I only wanted to sleep. The cage doors creaked in my ears as the fiery blade bit through the weld. Just stop. Go away and let me pass. The hunger and thirst had subsided long before they arrived and I had made my peace with infinity. Go away, leave me to my end. I pleaded with them, with the warped little shadow figures beckoning me from the other side of that great chasm. I waved to them and smiled. It’s ok.

“Pull him out!”

The floor thumped under my body. Hands were slapping me. No! Drops of water swirled on my lips.

“You’re going to make it Wayne. Wake up!”

They lifted my head and I moaned in agony as the light screamed into my eyes.

Cheshire Seals

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

The soldiers transferred me to a litter and carried me upstairs to the rec room, the last place I had seen the group of LMOs before Spegg dragged me downstairs and welded me into the cage. Their uniforms were black and gray camouflage and each solider had a dark patch on their left breast pocket—an American eagle clutching an anchor, a pistol, and a trident. Navy SEALs. I’d never seen a real one outside of my living room. This wasn’t going to be easy.

The soldier closest to me continued to say encouraging things and promised me a hot meal just as soon as they could get me stabilized. He was probably early thirties, red hair, and a bushy red beard. I was desperately hungry, but the water they gave me had rejuvenated my spirit, and all I could think about was how to get out of this as quickly as possible. Get out and find Spegg. I gave it a good show. I moaned a bit and tried to act a little worse off than I actually felt.

“You’re gonna be fine, buddy,” the bushy beard said.

They set me down and helped me to the couch. I could have done it myself, but I feigned weakness. The more convincing I was, the more likely they’d believe that I’d been in that cage for weeks, and not someone intimately involved in whatever it was they thought they had found. The red bearded soldier, David Evans, he told me, gave me a small chunk of a protein bar.

“Try this for now and we’ll see about getting you more in a little bit. Don’t want you to put too much down too quickly.”

Another soldier, a little taller, with a black beard, stood next to him and nodded. He handed me a bottle of water. “You’re gonna be fine.”

I shoveled the food into my mouth and drank. It was sweet, sweeter than anything I’d ever tasted and I immediately wanted more. Evans gave me another chunk, smaller than the last, and told me that would be it for now. I finished the water and felt my energy level rise. My stomach churned—awakened—and demanded more. That’s it, sorry.

I looked past Evans and the other soldier. My jaw dropped open. Blood was everywhere: the floor, the walls….What had the Russians done? I wanted to believe Spegg was alive: captured, somewhere in Siberia or Moscow by now. But there was so much blood. The furniture, the billiard table, the ceiling. Other soldiers were taking samples. I suddenly felt a terrible longing. I had to get out and find Spegg immediately.

“Hey, you ok?” The dark haired soldier asked me.

I gasped. “What? Yes, I’m ok. Starving. Weak.” The door was open, wide open, but there were so many soldiers in the room. And more outside. No way out. If I ran, they’d know. If I didn’t start talking, they’d know. Be cool, Wayne. The more cooperative you are, the quicker you’ll get out of this.

“Good. That’s a good sign,” Evans paused, smiling, then gestured to his friend. “Wayne, this is Derek. Derek Childress.”

“Hi Derek,” I said, weakly. He smiled sat down on the couch, to my right. “Save your strength, buddy. You’ve been through a lot.” He patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve definitely got some fight in you, Wayne, I’ll give you that.”

“Definitely,” Evans replied, nodding. He pulled a chair over in front of the couch, a little to the left of me. “Here, why don’t you have a little more,” he said, unwrapping the protein bar. He passed me another chunk. I ate it quickly, chased it with another gulp of water, and the two soldiers smiled.

“So,” Evans said, leaning in. “You think you’re feeling well enough to answer a few questions?”

Bits and Pieces

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Evans stared at me, waiting for an answer. I had to think fast. The SEALs hadn’t been here long, but I had no idea what they knew, and what they might find out. Anything I said could incriminate me. Anything I didn’t say could incriminate me. All I knew is that the Russians had probably taken everything. All the equipment from the pods: the EMDs, the medical kits, the computers. It was all gone. All that remained was a sea of blood. A bit of gray flesh here and there. The soldiers stomped around in their heavy boots, photographing the evidence and placing little numbered markers next to the more interesting bits. I started to feel sick.

“Wayne?” Evans, the red-bearded soldier said. “You ok?”

I bent over, trying to head off the nausea. A couple of soldiers walked into the room, removed their hats, and tapped off the snow. A cold gust of wind swept in behind them. One of the soldiers carried a small, clear plastic bag. I squinted at it and suddenly my heart pounded in my ears. He shut the door and stomped his feet on the wooden floorboards.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be much help,” I wheezed.

“I know a lot of weird stuff happened here. But we need to find out—”

The soldier with the bag approached another soldier with a graying beard who was on a satellite phone. “We found this down in the valley, sir.”

Evans leaned in. “Wayne?”

I clutched my mouth as my stomach strained to void itself.

Childress arched forward. “You ok, buddy?”

I nodded.

The gray bearded soldier put the call on hold and inspected the plastic bag without opening it. Then he looked at me. I bit my lip and looked away. He crossed the room and tapped Evans on the shoulder. “See what you can make of this, Charles.” he said, and stepped away, returning to his sat phone.

Evans examined the bag, and turned it over, furrowing his brow. He passed it to Childress who repeated the process, and asked, “You know what this is?” He held the bag up, Spegg’s EMD, crushed and broken, resting at the bottom. They would find my fingerprints all over it.

I leaped up, holding my mouth. My stomach lurched. Evans scrambled out of the way as soggy bits of the partially digested protein bar spat through my fingers.

By then every soldier was staring at me. I ran for the door, vomiting as I hopped over pools of blood.

“Wayne!” Evans called out. One of the soldiers darted out of my path as I stumbled past him. I threw the door open and puked into the snow. Another soldier outside shouted something and I heard footsteps pounding behind me. I ran. Spegg’s image appeared in my mind, compelling me to flee. “Stop him!” Someone screamed. I didn’t get far.  Two or three SEALs were quickly on top of me. “Careful with him!” Another soldier yelled.

My hands were quickly zip-tied and they yanked me to my feet. I spit snow and puke out of my mouth, struggling against my bindings.

“Where you think you’re going, son?” A dark-skinned SEAL grumbled into my ear.

“Alright, alright,” I heard from behind. They turned me around. The older, graying SEAL strolled through the snow and handed the sat phone to another soldier.

“No more questions,” he said, frowning at me. “Orders are to transfer the prisoner to the Nimitz immediately.”

Sea Dragon

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

The officer studied me, not a trace of emotion in his dull gray eyes. The wind picked up. Most of the soldiers adjusted, turning their backs into gusts, but the officer didn’t move. He wore gray and white camouflage. Only the familiar trident patch adorned his left breast pocket. No rank insignia, no name. He took a step toward me as the wind howled and whipped up little powder cyclones at our feet.

“You brought them here, didn’t you?” He said, his voice deep and crunchy.

“No,” I said.

He shook his head, scowling, as flakes of ice caught in his neatly cropped gray stubble.

“I’m just a victim,” I continued. “They imprisoned me. Beat me.”

The officer set his jaw. “Don’t try to mind-fuck me, Robertson. We’ve been watching you for weeks. Ever since the first pod landed. We even intercepted the transmission that thing sent to his friends. And we know you showed him how.”

I must have looked terrified because he laughed and poked me in the chest.

“And then you concealed information and technology—things that ended up in the hands of the Russian army—things that could threaten the freedom of every single man, woman, and child in America.”

I gasped. “But if that’s true. If you were watching the whole time… why did you just let them take it?”

“America doesn’t want to be the country that breaks the Antarctic treaty,” the officer said. “Better PR if the Russians do it. But we sure as hell didn’t let them get far. We had three battle groups waiting for their carrier out in the Atlantic.”

I relaxed. That was a huge relief. Granted, the situation wasn’t much better, but at least Spegg and I would be on the same continent. “Thank God for that,” I said.

The officer smirked. “And then we lit ’em up.”

“What!”

“Now, we can’t have a bunch of godless Ruskies running around with all that tech in their heads, Wayne.”

“You son of a bitch!” I screamed, straining against my bindings.

The officer grinned, his breath freezing in the air. “Oh, you’re worried about your little friend. Yeah, he probably went down with the rest of them sons of bitches. But don’t worry, our divers will recover the bodies for autopsy. We’ll be sure to send you the photos when we’re through.”

I lurched forward and tried to kick him between the legs, but the soldiers yanked me back. “You mother fucker!” I screamed.

The officer laughed. “Take this bastard to the Dragon,” he said, gesturing toward a giant, grasshopper-like helicopter with seven long blades parked on the north end of the station.

The soldiers shoved me forward. I stumbled. A door near the front of the massive chopper slid open and I was ushered into a wide cabin with rows of folding seats along the walls. A pilot slammed the door shut and disappeared into the cockpit.

“Don’t’ move,” the soldier to my right said. The other drew his Sig Sauer and put it to my head as his partner clipped the zip tie cuffs and released my hands. “Sit down.”

The chairs were folded up, and the soldier behind me snapped one of them forward and shoved me into it. The seat itself was fabric wrapped around an aluminum frame. They cuffed my hands to the exposed corners of the frame on either side of my legs, then buckled a harness around my chest.

“Do you have to make the cuffs so fucking tight?” I said, flexing my hands, trying to pump the blood into my fingers.

“Shut up.”

The two of them took their seats across from me, buckled in, and crossed their arms. I looked away. There were no windows in the cabin. I was about to leave Antarctica forever, and I wouldn’t even see it.

“Prisoner secure,” one of them yelled to the pilot.

The helicopter blades moaned and slowly spun up into a steady whir.

My bottom lip trembled. I bent forward, hiding my face from the soldiers.

As we lifted off I imagined the station, the storehouse, and the destroyed Array below. I imagined Buzz’s body lying next to Einstein, buried deep below the dense bowl of ice forged by one of the pod landings. And further, past the valley, over the foothills, the crowds of Emperor penguins, the flocks of skua overhead, and the elephant seals sunning themselves on the rocky shore. And then I saw Spegg’s lifeless body on some aluminum table, his blood dripping into little gutters as they sliced him open and made curious sounds like “hrm” and “interesting” as they took him apart.

My chest felt like it was caving in.

The behemoth rumbled and creaked as we flew, the belts and vests and assorted gear that hung from the walls, slapping against the bulkhead. Tears pooled in my eyes and splashed on the helicopter’s dull metal floor.

It was over.

Zero-sum

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

MH-53 FlaresThe air smoothed out and the helicopter stopped rattling once we leveled out over the water. The cabin was cold and smelled like grease and fresh paint. I tightened up in the seat, trying to stay warm, and kept my eyes gaze clear of the two SEALs who stared unflinchingly in my direction, arms eternally folded, like wax figures in a combat museum.

The were no windows in the cabin, and the light wasn’t good. Only a small, flickering yellow lamp near the tail, and some ambient light from the cockpit which was hidden behind a wall of corrugated metal. Outside, I imagined Alexander Island slipping away, the bowl-shaped valley and the splintery peaks of the surrounding mountains giving way to patches of icebergs and the cold, Southern ocean.

The officer had said the orders were to take me to the Nimitz, whatever that was. The only “Nimitz” I could remember from my history classes was Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. And if they were going to name something after a five star admiral, it would probably be a carrier.

How high were we flying? Six thousand feet? Fifteen? I was getting hungry again. Really hungry. Whatever I had kept down from the protein bar Evans gave me was long gone. I asked the soldiers for something and they just glared at me. Assholes.

I closed my eyes and imagined the helicopter flying through a high, thin deck of alto-cumulus. I looked down, far below, to the barren Atlantic as it yawned into the horizon. If what the officer said was true, Spegg was down there somewhere. Probably still cuffed or chained to some iron crossbeam in the belly of a sunken Russian ship. For some reason I couldn’t believe that he was dead. Could he breathe underwater? I felt my heart pick up. Being away from him made me feel unsafe and nervous.

I jumped at a sudden pop in the cabin. A shaft of golden light exploded sideways, just above the shoulder of one of the SEALs. He slumped forward against his harness, blood spilling out of his chest. Above my head and to my left, another ray of sun streamed in through a basketball sized exit wound in the bulkhead.

“McHale’s down!” The other soldier screamed.

“We’re taking fire,” the pilot calmly announced over a speaker. “Dispensing countermeasures.” A dull red light flicked on above our heads and the helicopter banked hard, throwing me against the back of the chair. McHale’s blood oozed in my direction. There was a mechanical noise somewhere underneath the craft—a thunk, and a whoosh—like a dozen bottle rockets. Flares. I clenched my jaw shut and leaned forward, trying to minimize the space I occupied. Then there was another pop, and a second pair of yellow beams appeared forward of the cabin, followed by a clattering and whirring from the port side engine. Smoke spilled in.

“Hang on!” The remaining soldier screamed at me, unbuckling his harness.

“What are you doing?!” I yelled back.

“Preparing for evac!”

Outside something exploded. Another volley of flares whooshed out from beneath the dragon. The helicopter banked hard to the right. The solder held on to some piping above his head and unhooked a parachute from the wall. He strapped it on quickly and staggered over as the cabin filled with smoke.

“If you do everything I tell you, you might survive this,” he barked over the clattering engine.

I frowned. His usage of “you” instead of “we” was a little disconcerting. But there was another pop, this time somewhere near the tail, and I quickly dismissed it. “Why aren’t we shooting back?!”

The SEAL rapidly keyed my handcuffs and tossed them away. “Sea Dragons are heavy lifters,” he said. “No armament packages on board.” Great.

He unbuckled my harness. There was a sudden bright light, and a severe jolt, and the world immediately went silent. The cockpit became a gaping maw of shredded metal and fire. Beyond that, the open Atlantic. The Dragon wrenched forward. I watched as one of the rotor blades went spinning ahead and vanished into the clouds. I was sliding. I threw my hands back, grasping for anything to hold onto. Bits of wire and fabric slipped through my fingers. Conduit and sturdy pipes slid by, just out of reach. I kicked my legs, fruitlessly. I drifted past a brown placard with white letters that read “RESERVOIR”, a flaming instrument panel, and part of a black vinyl chair.

I lurched for the chair, snared it, and suddenly both the chair and I slid out of the mouth of the dragon, and into the rushing wind.

MH-53E

Dragonslayer

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Russian MiG

I was in a free fall. The air rushed past me, tossing me like a rag doll. I watched in horror as smoke poured out of the Dragon’s cockpit above me. The rotor shrieked, grinding against its housing, the blades wrenched off by the explosion. I still had the leather chair, and I dug my fingers into it, hugging it, as if it would somehow protect me. I spun wildly, the wind boxing my ears and jabbing me in the face.

As I tumbled, the ocean rolled past. On the horizon I noticed dozens of distant ships. Explosions peppered the sky, leaving ebony smudges in their wake. Thin columns of black smoke rose into the air, then blew sideways in the wind. I pulled my face close to the chair to block the wind. It cut through my clothes and my flesh, and I shivered and screamed. I rolled around and around: ships, ocean, sky, Dragon, ships, ocean, sky, Dragon.

Something else caught my eye. It appeared suddenly, as if it had just popped into existence. First I saw the nose as it approached, and an instant later it roared past. Our killer. It was gray, sleek and stealthy, and had twin tail fins—marked with a red star. A crushing roar filled my ears as the sound of the jet engines caught up with it. The pilot pitched the fighter upward, straight up, white contrails roiling behind.

He rocked his wings at me. I squeezed the chair between my legs and stubbornly gave him the finger.

The jet slowed, and there was a flash from the cockpit. The bastard was taking pictures. He took a few more, and flattened out when he was satisfied. His jets fired, and just like that, he was gone. Just a tiny, receding dot, thundering toward the cluster of ships on the horizon. I screamed, but the rushing wind stole my voice.

I imagined the pilot and his buddies laughing at the photos of the poor bastard he shot down, clinging to his seat as he fell to his death. I cursed and released my grip. The wind caught the chair and ripped it away.

The ocean was closing in. Wind-blown white caps and sharp, knife-like waves readied to swallow my life. Random bits of my life flashed before my eyes. A sunny day in Kansas. My family taking pictures of my brother and me in front of the painted fire hydrants on the American bi-centennial. Rebecca, my first girlfriend in high-school. The first time I saw the Perseids at the Lake of the Ozarks. My college Astronomy teacher lecturing passionately about the life cycles of stars. Einstein staring back at me from the top of the foothills.

The howling wind was deafening. I tried to stretch out, hoping to eek out out another second or two of life, but nothing could change the inevitable. A horrible sorrow welled up in my heart and the wind sucked away my tears. I’d done nothing with my life.

Bang!

The impact was sudden and devastating. I bent in half as something struck me from behind. At first I thought it was the chair, or a piece of the helicopter. Then I felt two arms encircle me and an added weight to my back. The arms gripped tight and I realized that I had been caught by another diver. I heard his voice against the wind.

“Gotcha!”

I turned my head. The SEAL from the Dragon grinned and locked his legs around mine.

“Oh my God! How did you—”

“No time to chat!” He screamed into my ear. The soldier buckled a strap around my chest. “Hang on!”

I yelped as the strap yanked my stomach into my throat. The parachute deployed—flapping in the wind—as my eyes rolled back into my head and rainbows danced on my eyeballs….

I don’t think I was out for long. Thirty, forty seconds, maybe. I heard myself groaning as my senses slowly returned. And then the soldier’s voice.

“—there Robertson?”

I shook my head and opened my wind-battered eyes.

“Robertson?” The soldier tapped his hand on my chest. “You with me? Robertson, you OK, buddy?”

We were floating. The parachute rippled calmly in the wind.

“I don’t believe it,” I said after I had caught my breath.

“Alright,” he said with a chuckle. “Thought I lost you there.”

“Jesus Christ” I groaned. “Where the hell did you come from?”

“Same place you came from!” He laughed. “Did you see that pompous bastard back there?” He said.

I shook my head in disbelief. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “Jack-ass.”

“Goddamn Ruskies. Who’da thought, huh?”

I nodded.

“I took a few shots at him with my Sig on the way down,” he chuckled.

I laughed at that.

“I’m Jake, by the way.” The soldier tapped his hand on my chest and offered it to me. It was covered in blood.

“Oh God, you’re bleeding,” I said.

“Yaw. Took some flak back there. It happens.”

I shook his hand gently. His blood streamed over my knuckles. “It looks bad, Jake. Really bad.”

“Maybe. We’ll see when we get in the raft,” he said. “Check it out!” Jake gestured to our right. In the distance pieces of the Dragon were collapsing into the sea. What was left of the main compartment sailed through the sky, thick, black smoke spewing in its wake. When it hit the waves, it exploded into a shower of fractured metal, and quickly vanished under the surface.

“Don’t see that every day,” I mumbled.

“No, not every day,” Jake replied, smiling. “Alright, Robertson. Here it comes!”

I looked down. The ocean roared. Swells of massive waves clashed and rippled inches below our dangling feet. I closed my eyes and filled my lungs.

Zodiac

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

ZodiacWe plunged into the ocean together, Jake, the Navy SEAL who was charged with my transfer to the Nimitz, and me, strapped to him like a child in a Baby Bjorn. We hit and immediately went under. A blast of cold seized my body and I had to force myself to not to suck in a lung full of ice water. The ocean shoved us sideways and downways and I was sure that we we going to sink a mile below the surface until I felt Jake’s legs kicking behind me. He hung onto me with one hand and I assumed was swimming with the other, and within seconds we surfaced into the roaring swells of the South Atlantic.

There’s nothing like the desolation of the open ocean. It looks ominous enough traveling by ship, as I had done a few months earlier when I began my journey to Antarctica. The meandering churn of the ocean seems insignificant, something you might even be able to dog paddle through, but when you’re in it, when it’s just you and the fucking ocean, even a minor ripple is a towering, unemotional shredding machine, pounding and wrenching your body with the force of the planet.

But for some reason I had God on my side that day. The very God that I had even failed to call out to as I plummeted through the sky. He had cupped me in his gentle hands and delivered me softly into the waves, and it was there that I promised Him that I would not forget or squander his kindness.

“Hell of a day!” Jake screamed over the clamor of the ocean. He unhooked the parachute and let it loose in the ocean. A wave blew by and swallowed it. Jake laid back against the swells, the strap still binding us, and held out a small yellow box with a row of LEDs on the face. Only two of the nine or ten lights were illuminated. They were red and the rest were dark.

I turned my head. “What’s that?”

“It’s a beacon for the Zodiac,” he replied.

I was trying to process what in the hell that might be when he answered the question for me. “It’s a rubber boat. I kicked it out the back of the chopper before I jumped.”

Apparently jumping was simply a choice he’d made, whereas I had practically been ejected from the helicopter. If I hadn’t been feeling totally helpless and inferior before, that definitely sealed the deal.

A swell lifted us out of a valley of water and I caught a glimpse of the wide ocean, and plumes of smoke in the distance.

“Should be along any moment now,” he assured me. “Then we’ll scoot our asses back to the group.”

I frowned at that. “Doesn’t that thing have a beacon or something so they can come pick us up?”

Jake chuckled in my ear. “Robertson, I’m not going to be the laughing stock of the entire Navy by calling for help. We’re got a perfectly good boat and we’re driving home.”

Right. Of course. Wouldn’t want to look like a pussy. I guess I’d spent way too much of my life in laboratories or in front of computers; I didn’t understand any of that machismo crap.

“Here it comes,” Jake said, shaking the yellow box in my face. All but one of the LEDs were lit. The first few were red, then a set of yellow, and then green. I was wondering what kind of range the tiny transmitter had, and how the signal could possibly travel effectively, even in rough seas, when the last green lamp popped on. I scanned the area, looking for an inner tube or something, when a black, rounded rubber boat crested the wave in front of us and rumbled over obediently.

“Grab onto the ropes,” Jake said. “I’m going to unstrap you.”

I reached up and grabbed the ropes that crisscrossed the length of the raft and felt myself sink into the water as the strap came loose. Jake gave me a shove and I pulled myself in and crashed onto the soft rubber deck, turned over, and took a deep, resolving breath. I hadn’t noticed the sky since we landed. It was a beautiful day.

Jake followed. He strained as he lifted himself up and over the edge. He tumbled inside, breathing hard. I remembered his injury and watched in anticipation. He removed his helmet and set it aside. He appeared much different than the scowling, ultra-serious military die-hard I had faced in the Sea Dragon. He had short black hair, a square chin, bushy eyebrows, and friendly green eyes. But I had to remind myself that I was still his prisoner and these last few minutes of congeniality would soon be swept away by the reality that I was by all accounts, a traitor to my country.

He looked down at me. I swear he read my thoughts because he narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then went back to his business. He removed a few clips and things from his vest, his hands shaking. He unzipped his jacket, and slowly eased out of it, then gently and slowly peeled off his camouflage tank top.

I gasped and sat up.

“Fucker,” he hissed.

His abdomen was perforated by a dozen or so metallic fragments, all of them probably survivable. But in the middle of all of that, a jagged, six inch scrap of scorched steel stuck out below his ribs. On the inside, it had probably severed his liver. I’m no doctor, but I was astonished that he was actually still alive, much less talking and swimming and saving lives. Blood dribbled out of the wound in a small, but steady stream.

“Gah,” he moaned, leaning back against the rubber hull. His mood soured, having actually seen the wound. He closed his eyes as the waves punched the boat.

“You’re losing a lot of blood.”

“It’s fine,” he responded. “I’ve had worse.”

I struggled to believe that. But what the hell did I know. Perhaps he would survive. Perhaps he had had worse. He was a Goddamn Navy SEAL for Christ’s sake.

“You’re the skipper, Robertson. Take us home. Head for the smoke.”

Head for the smoke. Head for the place where he’d be given medical attention and maybe a medal or two, and I’d be imprisoned for crimes against the United States.

“Move it,” he demanded. And as I had predicted, our roles as guard and prisoner had resumed. I cursed under my breath. Was this God’s plan for me now? Save my life so I could waste away in some dirty cell? He could be a cruel bastard sometimes. Sometimes I thought He enjoyed inflicting misery on the human race.

“Robertson!” Jake screamed. He had on hand on his gut and in the other was his sidearm. He glanced at it suggestively. “In case you’ve forgotten.”

“I’m going,” I said.

The boat had a basic outboard motor and it was still running. I grabbed the controls, squeezed the throttle, and pointed it into the waves. The Zodiac was much quieter and powerful than I had expected and easily pitched over the swells. At the top of each wave I could see the distant smoke rising up into the air, but we were still too far out to see the ships.

“You’re stalling,” Jake said, his voice slightly weaker. “Open it up.”

I snarled and squeezed the throttle and the Zodiac jumped forward. We hit the waves harder, slamming into them, and water sprayed into the boat. Jake didn’t seem to care. He had lowered the gun to his side and was staring up at the sky. An inch of reddish water sloshed around inside the boat.

I was going to prison. A military prison for Christ’s sake. Spegg was dead, or worse. Either way I’d never see him again. My life was nothing. I had promised God that I wouldn’t squander this second chance, but I had no idea what that meant if I was just going to sit in a cage for the rest of my life.

I steered the Zodiac around a larger wave and bared down on the throttle. One of the battleships appeared on the horizon. Jake mumbled something. His eyes were closed now and the barrel of the gun had dropped into the water.

Surely God didn’t save me for this. I stared out at the smoke and the hazy figures coming into view in the distance. The Americans and the Russians were destroying each other. Even if we made it to a ship, we might not even make it out of the battle alive. No. This wasn’t God’s plan. God may be cruel, but He isn’t stupid. He’d saved me for a damn good reason. I was his Instrument.

Yes.

I let go of the throttle and leapt up. Jake gasped as I dropped my knee into his chest. He tried for his weapon but I slapped it away. I closed my hand around the shard sticking out of his gut and pulled.

“You mother fu-”

Blood gushed out of his wound and spilled into the boat. He heaved forward, his hands batting at my face. I stuck the shard back in and yanked it out, five, ten, fifteen times. The soldier got a hold of my neck, but he was too far gone. His hand dropped, his face whitened, and his body jerked and spasmed…. And then, just like that, I was free.

I wasted no time. I put the shirt and jacket back on the body, put the gun back in the holster, and dumped the corpse into the swells. It bobbed up and down for a few seconds and I feared that it might not sink, but another big wave happened along, like the hand of God, and yanked it under.

I used the soldier’s helmet to wash the blood out of the Zodiac, then dropped it over the edge as well. I stared at the smoke and the ships on the horizon for a moment, then steered the boat in the opposite direction, and punched the throttle.

Aldebaran

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Aldebaran

I headed North, perpendicular to the setting sun. The rough seas broke a few hours later and the Zodiac skipped easily over the quiet plane of the ocean. After the sun went down I navigated by the stars. Polaris, the north star, isn’t visible in the southern hemisphere, so I located the Southern Cross, a five star, kite-shaped constellation that when intersected with a line from Alpha and Beta Centauri, reveals the Southern Pole. I eyeballed it, drew a line to the horizon, and steered away from it. Mars was low in the sky ahead, a tiny, bloody dot wedged between Cancer and Gemini, a planet with a long history of inspiring images of fire, war, and destruction. A fitting omen.

I bared down on the throttle and drove for hours. The seas remained calm, and the half moon cast a weary glow on the endless spread of ocean in front of me. Antarctica seemed far away. Everything seemed far away. My stomach growled mercilessly. Hunger and thirst were becoming a serious issue. The ocean water was undrinkable. I probably had another day or two before I succumbed to dehydration.

Around 1 am I decided to take a break. I had no idea what the range on the Zodiac was, but I had to assume I wouldn’t make it through the next day. My best hope was to find a shipping lane and hitch a ride to Chile or Argentina. Unfortunately, almost no cargo ships sailed this far south. If I got lucky I might run into a Japanese whaling ship. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to flag anything down in the dark, so I shut off the engine and the boat quietly slid forward to a stop.

I laid down and stared up at the familiar heavens. I traced the constellations in my head and recited the names of the brighter stars: Sirius, Procyon, Canopus, Achernar, the Castor system, Pollux, Regulus, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Spica, and Aldebaran—the brightest star of the Taurus constellation—an orange giant about forty times the size of Earth’s sun. What would it be like to orbit such as massive star? Or to live on a planet in the shadow of such a monster? If things had gone a little differently, if the Russians hadn’t stolen everything, and if the Americans hadn’t blown it all to shit, perhaps I would have had a chance to see it up close. I grumbled and closed my eyes. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I dreamed of revenge.

I awoke with a start. It was still dark, and water was crashing hard against the boat. I leaped up, expecting rough seas, and grabbed the outboard, ready to crank it and steer out of the weather. I raised an eyebrow. Most of the ocean was calm. It had to be a boat! Heart pounding, I squinted southward toward the source of the waves. And in the pale yellow light of the moon, a parade of warships appeared, sliding by in a single, quiet column. My excitement vanished. I quickly laid down on my stomach, breathing rapidly, and peered over the edge of the Zodiac. I was North of them, but not far, maybe a kilometer, and hopefully too small to register on any of their instruments. I counted 21 ships as they passed, including a carrier, and probably a couple of submarines below. Reinforcements for the American Navy.

I considered turning myself in. I probably wouldn’t be charged with Jake’s murder. He’d never be found. But death on the high seas seemed a better alternative than a life in prison. They might even execute me for treason. I let the ships pass. By this time tomorrow I might have a different opinion. By this time tomorrow, when I was weak from hunger, and decimated by thirst, and the Zodiac had run out of fuel, I’d probably be kicking myself.

But for now, I still had a fighting chance.

Bare Horizon

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Open OceanAfter the ships passed, I slept and drifted until the sun crept over the Zodiac and shook me awake. I awoke with a sharp headache and a tight pain in my stomach. The muscles in my arms and legs had become stiff and sore and it was all I could do to unwind myself from the fetal position. The cold wind bit and clawed at my body as I stretched out. My soggy clothing had become more of a burden than a defense, and I debated stripping it all off, but I had no idea which was worse.

The Zodiac bobbled in the chop, the waves punching me through the thin rubber floor, and when I tried to sit up nausea caved in and the world spun like a merry-go-round. I immediately fell back and breathed deeply, waiting for it to pass. Every so often I opened my eyes for a moment. The sky had become hazy and filled with low, merging cumulus. A coming storm. I hoped that I was above the system and not directly in its path. In the South Atlantic, storms the size of Australia were not uncommon, but even a minor system might capsize the Zodiac. And if I fell in the water I’d die of hypothermia in less than 30 minutes. The thought of it weighed heavily on me and whether it was the hunger or the nausea or the sheer helplessness of my situation, emotions welled up and I had to choke back the tears.

But I did not have the luxury of self pity. Once I got out of this mess I could lie under a blanket on dry land and weep all I wanted. But not today.

I forced myself to get up and start the engine. The skies whirled, but I got a handle on it and the outboard roared to life. I thanked the U.S. military for keeping their gear in such good order. Again, I steered perpendicular to the sun, hoping to get as far north as I could, somewhere where the water was warmer, somewhere I could flag down a ship. As I drove, saltwater sprayed incessantly in my face. I itched at my arms and chest, and constantly fidgeted and pulled at my clothing, but nothing worked and I felt like hell.

I drove until the sun was directly overhead, then stopped to check my watch. 4 am, Antarctica time. I did some quick calculations. Antarctica is actually on New Zealand time, which is UT+12, so I subtracted 12 hours to get Universal Time: 4:00 pm. The timezones of the world are separated by 15 degrees of longitude, so a 4 hour difference between high noon in the Atlantic and 4:00 pm Universal Time meant that my longitude was approximately 4×15= 60 degrees west. Relatively close to the eastern coast of South America. Finding my latitude was impossible, but if I continued northwest I’d eventually smack into the eastern coast of Argentina. That is, if I had enough fuel, which I didn’t. The gauge read 1/4 tank. How many total hours had I driven? I had no idea. I hadn’t paid any attention. I swear, I’m pretty good at getting out of difficult situations, but it seems every difficult situation I get into is the result of careless or impulsive decisions. Well, perhaps it would kill me this time. Bring it on.

The rains came while I was waiting for the sun to edge west. It didn’t appear to be a bad storm, but the waves crashed like cannon blasts and I was nearly thrown from the boat with each strike. I cursed myself for not saving the soldier’s helmet to catch the rain. Bad planning, once again. However, I managed to craft a rain catcher out of the outboard’s plastic cover and drank liberally. My headache immediately subsided and the effect on my attitude was staggering.

I waited a while longer until I could tell which direction the sun was heading, then set my course northwest into the bare horizon.

A few hours later, I spotted a ship.

Kujira Maru

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

It appeared out of the fog off the starboard side of the Zodiac, hazy and silent at first. I immediately steered toward it, though anxious that it might be another military ship. I debated whether to kill the engine and wait until I could determine the type, but I was moving fairly quickly, so my presence would be obvious to anyone watching their radar.

I opened it up and sped toward it, the six meter Zodiac popping over the swells and slamming hard over the other side. I braced myself against the port side trying to keep the sidelong waves from upending the boat as the sea water spit into my face, but the excitement of being rescued overruled any of the pain and frustration. Moments later the ship’s bow finally broke out of the haze, a mammoth black, sloping prow that dwarfed my little inflatable, and seemingly, even the sea itself. Beige towers rose high above the deck, capped with a staggering array of twirling radar and radio antennas. Thick columns of water streamed into the ocean from holes in the mid-ship, presumably wash from the desk. Written alongside its bow was the ship’s name in Japanese and English: 丸新日 Nisshin Maru, and in the middle of the starboard hull in giant white capital letters was the word “RESEARCH”. A Japanese whaling ship. The thing was massive. I caught myself gawking at the monster and realized just how fast it was traveling—I was on a collision course. I turned hard to avoid being crushed under the prow, and came up up along side of it, matching its rapid clip, which had to be at least 15 knots.

Alarms went off all over the boat. Blaring, deep throated horns pulsing in half-second intervals. I winced at the deafening sound which was suddenly accompanied by a pre-recorded message in English:

Warning, warning! This is the Nisshin Maru Captain. Stop your aggressive action immediately. If you dare board this vessel, you will be taken into custody and restrained as illegal intruders.

Intruders?

Men in blue helmets were scrambling on the deck. One of them grabbed what looked like a small gun bolted to the deck and swung it around. A blast of water erupted from the barrel and suddenly I was drenched in a column of powerful water which nearly threw me from the Zodiac. I braced myself against the stream and steered out of its range. What the hell was going on? I waved my one free arm and screamed at them to stop. Seawater spit and showered me from every angle. Warning, warning! This is the Nisshin Maru Captain. Stop your aggressive action immediately. If you dare board this vessel, you will be taken into custody and restrained as illegal intruders.

“HELP!” I screamed at them. “I’m not an intruder!” But my voice was lost in the noise.

Suddenly one of the helmeted men appeared on a high tower with a circular black dish in hand. Holy shit. They had an LRAD. I clenched my jaw and was immediately engulfed in a screaming, high pitched blast of noise that penetrated and shook my muscles. My eardrums exploded in pain and I had to let go of the throttle to cover my ears. Warning, warning! This is the Nisshin Maru Captain. Stop your aggressive action immediately. If you dare board this vessel, you will be taken into custody and restrained as illegal intruders.

My vision fluttered and I fell over in the boat, convulsing from the deafening power of the acoustic weapon. The Zodiac slowed to a drift and the behemoth growled by, the warning message constantly repeating, the shrill of the LRAD hammering my ears. I choked on the seawater that had accumulated in the boat, the stench of rubber filling my nose and stinging my tongue, and the muscles in my arms and legs twitched as I curled up and buried my head in the boat.

I laid there, shaking until the LRAD was effectively out of range. They kept it on anyway, and it was still horribly annoying, like a ten-thousand ton alarm clock. I got to my knees, my muscles sore from the onslaught. Christ, that thing was effective. I waved my arms in desperation, praying that they’d have a change of heart. What the hell was the international hand signal for S.O.S.? I had no idea. But they weren’t stopping. A few men were gathered on the stern, just watching me flail around. I screamed and screamed, but it was utterly pointless. They couldn’t hear, and apparently they didn’t care. I glowered at the men as the Nisshin Maru disappeared into the fog, the whale’s slipway like a giant white tongue rolled out into the water, chuckling at my misfortune.

I fingered the throttle, unsure if I should chase them, but they had made their point, and death on the high seas seemed like a reasonable alternative to facing the water cannons and the shrieking LRAD a second time. The Zodiac pitched and rolled in what was left of the ship’s wake, and it wasn’t long before even that dissipated and the desperate, horrifying realization that I was alone again settled in.

I sat down in the fucking boat and punched the hull. I stayed there, shaking my head, staring at the sun as it edged toward the horizon. Night was coming. The puddle of fresh water I’d saved in the outboard’s cover was lost in the confrontation, the plastic shell floating around inside the boat. I glanced at the Zodiac’s fuel gauge and found little more than 1/8th of a tank remaining. I had no choice but to drift until if and when I spotted another ship.

I grabbed the outboard cover and starting bailing water.

Australis Yume

Monday, March 29th, 2010

aurora australis
“Do you like the Aurora?” Spegg asked.

“Not the reds.”

“This is the first time I’ve seen them from the surface.”

“They’re not real.”

“No, but I thought you could use some light. I will fix the color.”

The ribbons of light in the sky slowly faded from red to green. Spegg turned over and floated on his back, his breath little clouds of chartreuse illuminated by the dancing lights.

“That’s better,” I said. I crossed my legs in the boat and took a bite out of the bacon sandwich, following it with a long pull from a bottle of J&B. The liquor warmed my throat, coated my stomach and reached out to my limbs, slowly unlatching all of the tiny hardened locks and flipping on the lights. I exhaled a long, deep breath—one that seemed like I’d stored up for days. “Beautiful night.”

“You needed a break.”

I nodded with my mouth full.

“Have you forgotten about me?” Spegg asked.

I swallowed and drank again. “No. But you are dead and I will be too, soon enough.”

Spegg splashed in the water, then disappeared below the surface.

Stars winked through the hazy atmosphere, and the Aurora rippled over the horizon, slowly fading from green to blue to purple and back again. The ocean softly mirrored the colors in a mirthful little duet between the Earth and sky.

“It’s not true,” Spegg said, leaning against the bow inside the Zodiac.

I cocked an eyebrow and passed the J&B to him. “What’s isn’t?”

Spegg took a long drink, finishing the bottle, then dropped it over the side of the boat. I watched as the whiskey bottle morphed into a little sturgeon and scurried away.

“I’m not dead,” Spegg answered.

I uncapped another bottle of whiskey and put it to my lips. I took another long pull and then set the bottle on my leg. “Yes you are. The Americans told me they destroyed all of the Russian ships.”

“May-be.” Spegg said, then snatched a fish out of the water and swallowed it. He licked his lips with his long, shimmering tongue. “But I was not on one of those ships.”

“Then where were you, Spegg?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t know.”

I wedged the bottle between my thighs and scratched my head. “Yes, of course, this is a dream. But, I don’t know that you’re not dead.”

“Robertson,” Spegg said, ribbons of blue light flickering in his eyes. “If I die, you will feel a burden on your soul so acute… so profound, that you will never recover from the loss.”

Spegg brushed his hand across the sky, distorting the waves of color into little rainbow eddies, then continued. “Those bound by the Lilith who have lost their pairing have been known to gouge out their eyes, or throw themselves out of airlocks. The bond is that strong.”

“Yes, I think I remember you telling me that.”

“We are only in transition now, Wayne. You have to find me. This you must do.”

“But I will die out here if I am not rescued. I am nearly out of fuel. No food. No water. I have no time left.”

“No. The ship has come back for you.” Spegg turned his head and looked to the horizon. “Can you not hear their call?”

A distant horn wailed, scattering the Aurora. Spegg stood up in the Zodiac and stared at me warily. “The humans are reckless and destructive, brother. Soon they will annihilate themselves. You and I are the only hope for the future.”  Then he dove over the edge.

I lurched awake in the spotlight of a giant ship.

Odaijini

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

A rope ladder unrolled along the Nisshin Maru’s towering hull. I maneuvered the Zodiac along side the ship and squeezed the throttle, fending off the slashing waves. It was still dark out but the Nisshin Maru was well lit and spotlights illuminated the black hull and the path upward in broad swords of light. On the deck, a crowd of a dozen or so blue helmeted Japanese were shouting “Up! up!”. One of them even started to descend, presumably to assist, but I shouted “No!” repeatedly, shaking the ladder and waving my hands until he gave up and hopped back over the railing.

I knew I was far too weak to be doing it on my own, but I didn’t want to appear as such. I didn’t know why the Japanese had returned for me, but it was possible that they had somehow discovered that I was not just another poor fool lost at sea. The U.S. was obviously busy with the Russians, but if there was a price on my head, this could very well be the end of the line. Nevertheless, appearing weak wasn’t going to help my situation. So I managed to summon the energy, somehow, the last few molecules of adrenaline squeezed into my veins, and I put one hand over the other as the flanking wind whipped and snapped the ladder against the hull. In the mix of excited Japanese voices, some of the fishermen chanted “Go! Go! Go!”. When I was about halfway up I made the mistake of looking down. I suddenly felt dizzy, the ocean doubled in size, and the ship seemed to whirl sideways in a nauseating blur. I closed my eyes and clung to the ladder, my knuckles pinned against the cold steel of the ship’s hull, my wet clothes rippling in the wind.

“Keep it up!” Someone yelled from above.

I took a deep breath and reached for the next rung, groaning as I pulled myself up, battling for a foothold as the wind blew the ladder around below.

“Go! Go! Go!”

I strained against the nausea and reached for the next rung. And the next. And the next. Until finally hands were on me and I was hoisted up. Cool water streamed into my mouth somehow, and suddenly I was covered in blankets and being carried somewhere out of the wind. I let it all happen, too exhausted and weak to care any longer.

When I opened my eyes I was lying on a cot in a small, dimly lit room that smelled of food.

“Please eat” said a Japanese man in jeans and a yellow sweater as he set a bowl and a bottle of water on the table next to the bed.

I didn’t need convincing. I sat up, completely ignoring him, and raised the bowl to my lips. The warm broth poured into my body, awakening my stomach and stretching out into my limbs into places I had forgotten existed. There were a few noodles, a bit of meat,  a brown egg, and some bamboo shoots in the soup. I was about to grab them with my fingers when the man indicated a set of wooden chopsticks in a paper slip on table. I grunted, removed the cover and shoveled the food into my mouth, not even bothering to separate the chopsticks. When the bowl was empty I hung it above my mouth and let the last few drops of broth slide onto my tongue.

The Japanese man took a seat at the table. He had a round face, bushy eyebrows, and thin gray hair combed sideways over the top of his head. He wore rectangular wire-rimmed glasses perched half-way down his nose that he removed and stuffed into his shirt pocket as I gulped water from the bottle.

“Arigatou,” I said, setting the empty bottle on the table.

The man bowed shallowly and said something incomprehensible. I presumed that from the “arigatou” he thought I might speak the language, but unfortunately “thank you” was the limit of my non-food related Japanese. When I didn’t reply he said, “I am Fukuyama Hideki. Ship doctor.”

“Wayne Robertson,” I said, weakly extending my hand over the table.

Dr. Fukuyama’s eyes lit up at the gesture, as if just recalling the traditional western-style greeting, then shook my hand with a hint of embarrassment.

“Nice to meet you, Ooh-ayn-san,” he said with a thick “oooh” instead of a “wah”. “How long were you in ocean?”

I suddenly regretted telling him my real name. I still had no idea what they knew about me, if anything. I searched for a strategy but I had nothing. I felt like shit, even after the food, maybe even weaker for some reason. “I don’t know,” I finally replied. “Many days. A lot of days.”

“So-ka. You are American, Ooh-ayn-san?”

“Yes, American.”

“So-ka.” Dr. Fukuyama replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose. That seemed to be the end of his curiosity, or perhaps the limit of what he was allowed to ask. “I would like to do tests, now is OK?”

I nodded my head. “That’s fine.”

The doctor joined me on the cot with a small doctor’s kit, then took my blood pressure, checked my heart rate and listened to my chest, looked at my tongue, and checked my reflexes. All in relative silence. When he was finished he handed me another bottle of water. “Please drink more,” he said. “You will be OK.” Then he stood to go.

“Wait,” I asked. “What’s happening? What do I do now?”

Dr. Fukuyama seemed confused by the questions, then held out his hand, dismissing them. “Captain will talk you. Please wait and drink.” He added something in Japanese, then bowed shallowly before leaving.

I gazed into the hall and noticed a blue-helmeted man who reached for the door and closed it, glancing at me suspiciously as he did. Then there was the sound of a key and the snap of a dead bolt.

Numb3rs

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I’d been so hungry and tired that I had barely noticed the room. Aside from the cot and wooden table, there was a little metal desk on the far side of the room (which was only about seven feet away) with two drawers on the left side and two legs on the right. The room’s walls were steel, painted light green, and perfectly bare: no porthole, no paintings, no decoration or embellishments of any kind.

I sat on the cot as Spegg crossed the room and checked the door for the eleventh time. “Still locked,” he said, as if he’d truly expected things to change. He huffed and started pacing again, turning every three steps. “Everything is green in here. Even this desk.” He stopped to slide his fingers along the table top. He tried the desk drawers but they were locked as well. Spegg looked at me, scratching his chin. “I’ve always liked the color, though: Greeen.” He jazzed his long, bony fingers as he said it. “But there’s just too much of it here in this room. Too much green. You think they’d let us paint?”

“I kind of like it,” I said, sipping my water. “Simple. No surprises. But, no, I doubt they’d let us paint the room.”

Spegg sneaked toward me and knelt down. He looked carefully to his right, and his left, then put his hand to his mouth and whispered in my ear: “What if we killed them all, Wayne? You think they’d let us paint then?”

I jerked awake, spilling water all over myself. The open liter of water Dr. Fukuyama had given me rolled off the bed and dribbled onto the floor. I sat up and tried to brush it off.

“Bad dream?”

I slowly raised my head. Spegg was sitting backwards in the chair at the table. He eyed me curiously.

I rubbed my eyes and tried again.

“Well don’t look at me like I’m crazy,” Spegg said.

“Oh God.”

“You need help, Wayne.”

“Apparently.”

“Not that kind of help.”

I planted my face in my hands and stared at him blankly.

“You’re wasting time. You need to get your ass back to Antarctica.”

“What? Why the hell would I go back there?”

“Because that’s—” Spegg jumped up. “Wait, there’s something—” He scanned the room with his ear, then shuffled over to the far wall and put his long face against the steel. “You hear that?”

“Spegg, why would I want to go back to Antarctica?”

“Shhh!” He waved me over, then pressed his ear back against the wall.

I got up with a sigh and set the overturned water bottle on the table.

“Come over here! It’s some kind of recording.”

I made a face and put my ear to the wall, praying that no one walked in on us like this. The voice was female. Spegg mouthed the words as they echoed through the wall: “Ichi hachi go nana zero kyuu… Ichi hachi go nana zero kyuu… Ichi hachi go nana zero kyuu….”

I stepped back. “Just sounds like a bunch of Japanese numbers repeating over and over again. So what?”

Spegg rolled his eyes. “Stupid Chikushou. Don’t you understand? It means something.”

“Spegg—”

“Since World War I governments have been broadcasting seemingly mindless shortwave transmissions all over the Earth. Sometimes they’re beeps or buzzes, sometimes human voices. For decades they’ve been repeating. But they’re always nonsense. Meaningless drivel.”

“Yes, I know, Spegg. They’re called numbers stations. I used to listen to them when I was a child with my crystal short wave radio. Early on they were rumored to—”

“Not rumored to! Numbers stations contain embedded spy codes. Subliminal messages. Assignments. Battle plans.” Spegg put his ear back to the wall. “Ichi hachi go nana zero kyuu… Ichi hachi go nana zero kyuu….”

“Spegg…. SPEGG!”

Spegg leaned toward me and poked furiously at the wall. “This is bad, Wayne. Bad.”

“No it’s not.”

“They’re gonna kills us, Wayne!”

“Listen. No one is going to kill us. And no government in their right mind uses short wave radio to transmit sensitive information anymore. It’s stupid. Outdated. Fodder for conspiracy theorists and paranoids.”

“Then you better start getting paranoid, because they’re still in use, even two hundred years from now.”

“Please,” I sighed. “Just tell me why the hell I should return to Antarctica.”

“They’re gonna mix our bodies in with the whale meat, Wayne!”

“Oh you’re fucking insane,” I said, turning away.

“You might want to look in the mirror, Chikushou.”

I spun around and gasped. Suddenly there was a knock at the door.

Sumimasen.

A key slid in the lock and the deadbolt clicked open. I stood frozen in the middle of the room as the door creaked open on its metal hinges. The blue helmeted guard from before leaned in and grimaced. “Ooh-ayn-san.” He paused, scanning the room with a suspicious eye. I bit my lip, wondering if he had heard my “conversation”. A moment later the guard made a little “hpmh” sound, then gestured toward the hallway. “Now captain talk you.”

Out of the Frying Pan…

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

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.”

“Target?”

“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.”

Hehwakarimasen,” 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.

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 probably wasn’t more than twenty years old. He was dressed in an unremarkable beige button down shirt tucked into black polyester pants. And he wasn’t armed, which meant I wasn’t considered a threat—at least not yet. With a low bow, Kenichi ushered me upstairs and out into the cold, walking a few steps ahead of me. It was still dark, but there was the faintest hint of light in the east, which meant that we were roughly heading 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 guess was 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… very much like Caruforunia. My sister, Yukichan, lives in… El-ru-ay”

“Eh-ru….” I paused. “Oh! LA. Los Angeles,” I said, nodding. “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. I suddenly felt like I was in a David Lynch film.

A moment later Kenichi broke the silence, “My sister, Yukichan, very worried.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Eh-ru-ay is big city? Big, um, target. Yukichan think Eh-ru-ay maybe get bomb?”

I stopped. “What? Bombed? Why would LA get bombed?”

Kenichi frowned at me. “America and Roo-she-ah dess. Big war you know?”

“Wait, what? All I’ve heard about is a battle at sea. What are you talking about?”

Hehwakarimasen,” he replied, squinting and shaking his head. “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 Ambercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt, of all things. For my benefit, perhaps. He waved me in and closed the door behind me, leaving Kenichi outside.

“Wayne, 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. “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 telescope 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 an Ambercrombie and 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 placing 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, I don’t care about that,” 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?” 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.

“America is burning,” he said, standing up.

Trinity

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Icebergs and Growlers

If my jaw could have dropped off my face and rolled under the table, it would have. Holy shit. America is burning. I was stunned stupid.

I kicked off the slippers and reached for my shoes. Takeshi was talking to the guard, Kenichi, who had waited for us in the hall. His Japanese sounded sharp and authoritative, a flurry of syllables crackling through the air, as the boy nodded and bowed repeatedly in the shadow of Takeshi’s towering frame. When it was done, Kenichi turned to go, but before he did, he flashed me a furtive, worried glance. I cocked an eyebrow at him as I slid my boots on. He quickly turned away and departed. I took a breath, blew it out, and shoved my wet socks into my pocket.

“Follow me, Wayne,” Takeshi said with a wave of his hand.

No san at the end, just Wayne. Not a good sign. “Where to?” I asked.

“Your new room,” he replied hollowly. Behind his thick black eyeglasses, his eyes had become dull and wide, his polite smile and flash-bulb attentiveness utterly sucked out of him.

“Oh good,” I said.

We exited the captain’s quarters and took another passage down into the ship’s dimly lit corridors.  For the moment we walked in near silence, save a sniff of the nose or the clearing of a throat. I listened as the ship groaned and creaked, almost as if it were trying to stifle the noises it couldn’t help but exude. I followed Takeshi around a corner and down another flight of stairs, past a closed door which muffled the voices of a handful of sailors and a radio or a television set that chattered in the background. The smell of cooked fish seeped into the hallway. I replayed Captain Moriyama’s last words in my head. America is burning. America is burning.

It was impossible to imagine.  The United States embroiled in a foreign war on its own soil? For Americans, wars are something that happen somewhere else. In some far corner of the globe, somewhere you’d never even heard of, and if you have, you certainly couldn’t find it on a map. But a war actually inside our borders? Unthinkable. I had to get some answers.

Takeshi took a right and I followed him down another flight of stairs through a short hallway flanked by scores of gray pipes that hummed and sizzled with the sound of steam. I sped up and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Explain,” I said. “How bad is the war? What happened?”

Takeshi stopped and looked me in the eye. “Saiaku,” he said. “The Russian navy attacked the Americans at sea. Unprovoked, they say. The Americans responded, but they were outnumbered. When word of the battle got out, your government declared war. But the Russians cried foul, saying it was the Americans who attacked first. That they had given no order to fire on American ships.”

That’s not the way I’d heard it, I thought, remembering the Navy SEALs assertion that they had sunk the Russian battle group. But I kept it to myself. “Who’s telling the truth?”

“Who knows what to believe?” Takeshi replied, holding out his hands. “But it really doesn’t matter anymore. After the declaration, the Americans launched an attack on Moscow from their European bases. England, France, Canada, and Germany joined the fight. Russia was set ablaze. Your President thought that he could count on the whole world for support, but apparently the Russians had evidence that it was the Americans who were the aggressors. China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea took Russia’s side.”

I gripped a cherry red valve sticking out of the wall. Steam hissed in the neighboring pipes. “It’s goddamn world war three.”

“Yes. It was.”

My mouth dropped. “Was?”

Genbaku,” Takeshi said with a heavy sigh. “Japan is no longer the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack. We are only one of many now. One of many.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I gasped. “Who shot first? How many fucking bombs have dropped?”

“Hundreds. Thousands. Who knows. No one is sure who fired the first one, and no one knows the extent of the damage,” Takeshi answered, shaking his head. He looked at the floor. “Everything is a blip of transience and impermanent.”

“Apparently,” I frowned. “But Japan? They weren’t involved?”

“No,” Takeshi said. His eyes brightened slightly. “Japan has stayed out of it. For now. Many countries have abstained, and they have been spared. But only the smaller ones. The major powers of the world have fallen.”

“There’s going to be fallout.”

“Yes, without a doubt. Our future, if we have one, is grim at best.”

“Jesus Holy Christ,” I said, dropping my face into my palms. Tears welled up in my eyes. “I have to see! I have to know what happened to my family, my friends! Do you have a satellite phone on the ship?!”

“Unnn,” Takeshi hummed. “But you will not reach any one in your country. All communications are down. I will show you what I can on the Japanese broadcasts. But it is best if you first get cleaned up and have something to eat.” He touched my shoulder. “Please follow me.”

Takeshi turned and continued down the hall. I followed, wiping the tears from my eyes. What in the hell would have caused all of this? Surely a little skirmish over a few LMOs and their little pods wouldn’t be enough to start a nuclear war. What the hell was so important that—oh. Oh god.

I suddenly remembered the paper thin, shiny golden computer that Spegg had let me play with while I was in the initial, mind-numbing throes of the Lilith. My memory is fuzzy, at best, from that time, but from what I do recall, it was something roughly akin to the Internet. A self-contained, mind-bogglingly comprehensive, two-hundred years into the future, database of everything. History, medicine, space travel, weaponry—it was all there. To call it a goldmine would be a severe understatement. It was a goldmine wrapped in a diamond mine wrapped in a shiny interstellar destroyer traveling faster than light with plasma weapons, robot doctors, and a side of bacon. Now that would be something to start a war over. One big, giant, motherfucker of a War. I worked my jaw hard, just imagining the magnitude of the thing. But most importantly, who had it now?

“This will be your room,” Takeshi said. I hadn’t even noticed that we had stopped. “You have everything you need here. Get showered and changed, we will head to the galley and have breakfast. Afterward I will show you the reports.”

“Thank you,” I breathed.

Takeshi unlocked the door with a loose key and pushed it open. I slipped out of my shoes and stepped inside. The room was larger than my previous quarters. It had two twin beds and a large desk with a paper lamp. The walls were the same ubiquitous green steel, and to my left was another door that opened into a tiny bathroom. On one of the beds was a fresh change of clothes: a white tee, a plain brown sweatshirt, and two sets of wool socks. On the floor was a pair of white slippers wrapped in plastic.

“We have a saying in Japan,” Takeshi said, leaning against the door. “Ame futte ji katamaru. After the rain, the earth hardens. Those of us who survive this will be stronger than before.” 

“I guess,” I shrugged, and he pulled the door closed.

I turned around and noticed a 2010 calendar taped to the wall. The art for April was a panoramic shot obviously from the Southern Ocean. I moved around the bed to get a closer look. In the photo were three massive icebergs surrounded by thousands of chunky growlers (what sailors call smaller, Buick-sized chunks of ice) spread out in a calm, glassy sea. The sun was rising behind the tallest iceberg, a sliver of brilliant yellow light that ignited the peaks of the three giants, while the remainder of the foreground ice loomed in shadow. After the rain, the earth hardens. I stared at the photo for a long moment, then turned and gathered the new clothes in my arms.

The bathroom was so small that I could touch all four walls without moving, including the shower. I shut the door and set the new clothes on the lid of the toilet. On a shelf above the sink there were a couple of small hotel-sized bottles of what looked like shampoo and conditioner, a tiny razor, shaving cream, and a thin bar of pink soap that smelled like laundry detergent. I undressed, knocking my elbows and knees against the walls and the sink, then stepped in the little shower with the soap and pulled the curtain. The water was hot and felt great.

I leaned on one hand in the shower, closed my eyes, and let the hot water pour over me. My mind drifted. Far away. The golden computer. Two-hundred years of science and technology knowledge at your fingertips. Jesus, if you could imagine a book of information like that falling into the hands of  Hitler or Napoleon. Or Mad King George of England. Or George W. Bush for that matter. Christ, you could forge the future any way you saw fit. You could be God. You could be the Devil. The possibilities were endless.

After a time, the water ran cold. I didn’t even soap myself. How long had I been in there?

I got out, stepping on my old clothes, dried off, and rubbed the fog off the mirror with the edge of my palm. I looked like a vagrant.

I shaved slowly, removing almost two weeks of growth, and by the time I was done the little razor looked like it had been used to scrape ice off of a 747. I dropped it in the trash. I clumsily put on my new clothes, again whacking my limbs against the walls, and opened the door.

“OK,” I said, meeting Takeshi in the hall. “I’m showered. But for the record, I don’t feel any better.”

Derelict

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Derelict

I was happy to see Kenichi again, who Takeshi had apparently instructed to serve us our meals. After he finished he returned with his own tray, bowed, and joined us at the table. He seemed nervous, or perhaps embarrassed, or maybe he was feigning humility for my benefit. I couldn’t tell, so I smiled politely and left him alone.

Breakfast consisted of grilled river fish, a raw egg on rice, miso soup, a folded egg, a dish with sliced carrots, sesame seeds and a white vegetable I didn’t recognize, and green tea. I’d expected at least one serving of whale, or kujira, as they called it, but no such luck. Perhaps we’d get a showing at dinner.

The dining area had seating for roughly fifty people. We had a table on the port side of the galley, but we were on the bottom floor of the ship, so there were no windows. I sat with my back to the wall. The room was nearly full, and dead quiet. Most of the Japanese were focused intently on eating. A couple of them were reading as they ate, a book or magazine in one hand, chopsticks in the other.

“Is it always like this?” I asked Takeshi in a hushed voice.

“Like what?”

“So quiet.”

“Yes, I think so,” Takeshi replied, as if he’d never considered it.

“Weird.”

At first no one seemed to be paying any attention to the strange foreigner in their midst, but after a while I realized that they were just hard to catch. In my periphery I saw many of them sneaking glances, but as soon as I lifted my eyes they had already looked away. It was an ominous feeling.

“For the Japanese, it’s impolite to stare,” Takeshi said.

I grinned. “You catch everything don’t you?”

“Japanese culture is very different than American.”

“Does everyone on the boat know who I am?” I said, sliding a pair of wooden chopsticks out of their paper sheath.

“They know that we rescued you from the sea,” Takeshi replied. “They know you are an American. But none of us know who you really are, Wayne-san.”

I snapped the chopsticks into two pieces. “Yeah, I’m beginning to feel that way myself.”

“But none of that matters any more. If you were a spy, Wayne-san, you are out of a job.”

“I’m out of a job no matter what.”

Unn,” Takeshi hummed, and plucked at his fish.

I eyed my companions as they ate: they drank the miso soup from the edge of the bowl, and held their bowls of rice close as they snagged clumps of the white grains with their chopsticks. I had never learned how to use them. I ate like a barbarian, cutting the egg and the fish with a chopstick in each hand, knife and fork style, and speared the pieces one by one. For the vegetables, kinpira gobou, Takeshi called it, I just held up the bowl shoveled it into my mouth. It was all very good, especially the fish, but the tea was a little bitter. I left it alone.

We ate quickly, and afterward the three of us went to the top deck toward the bow and found a room with a few couches and a satellite feed. We met a girl there named Yumi, beautiful, young Japanese dressed in a business suit, with short black hair cropped just below her ears. She was seated on the edge of the couch watching the television. Yumi ignored Takeshi and Kenichi straight out, but when she noticed me, her eyes softened. It was a look of sympathy. I nodded at her, but I was immediately taken by the horror on the television.

Most of the shots were satellite photos. It was impossible to tell what I was looking at. Random, unrecognizable cities flattened by ICBMs. The images flew by and Takeshi provided the translation in a somber voice: “Washington D.C, Kansas, Toronto, San Francisco, New York City, Miami, Moscow, London, Shanghai, Berlin, Sydney, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Dubai, Kiev, Tehran, Baghdad, Budapest, Warsaw, Beijing, Los Angeles….”

There was no on ground coverage. Computers, telecommunications—those that weren’t destroyed—were fried by the EMPs, or simply severed from the grid. The world had unloaded. The Russians had loosed their arsenal on America and its allies, and we had responded in kind. Smaller cities had been spared. But the fallout was drifting eastward.

I collapsed onto the couch next to Yumi. “Saiyakuu,” she said, drawing the word out with a long breath. She set the television remote on the coffee table and leaned back, dropping her arms at her sides.

A map of the United States appeared on screen with dark smudges indicating blast sites, and projected fallout patterns in lighter gray arcing to the east. My parent’s home in Kansas was somewhere in the middle of a black smudge. New England—all of it—was reduced to ink. It looked as if someone had splattered the U.S. with paint and smeared it with his arm. Similar maps of Russia and Europe flashed on the screen as the journalist chattered away in Japanese.

It didn’t look real. I had a hard time connecting the images on the screen with the reality of it all. There were no images of the horror on the ground. The human cost was vague, extrapolated from charts and graphs.

The coverage moved on, and Takeshi continued the translation.

A number of foreigners in Japan were interviewed. A weeping American girl from Portland, Oregon had lost contact with her family and didn’t know whether they had survived. A family visiting Kyoto from San Diego claimed that God had graciously spared them. Two Chinese brothers living in Tokyo were too distraught to speak. At a giant intersection in Shinjuku, crowds of Japanese watched coverage of the event on a giant television screen on the side of a building. Shots of Buddhist temples all over Japan were shown, where people gathered to pray and tie paper notes onto overflowing racks. At the American embassy in Tokyo mourners surrounded the building with hundreds of thousands of flowers and origami cranes.

I felt Yumi’s hand on my shoulder. She said nothing. I took a deep breath and settled a little further into the couch.

Some local stories followed. An entire high school senior class had been lost on a trip to Paris. A politician from Fukuoka had been in the UAE when the bombs rained down.

“Kurodasan,” Takeshi sighed. “He is from my home town.”

Soudesune,” Yumi replied.

Some pictures of the politician were shown, then a shot of a cruise ship. It had been docked in Guam when the island had been bombed. Family members were interviewed. Everyone was in tears, even the journalists. The tragedy was endless.

We watched the coverage for hours. Occasionally a report came in from someone who had managed to get a message through. A Canadian on a satellite phone in northern Saskechuan was looking for answers. His city of La Ronge was intact, but he was unable to reach his brother in Vancouver. A woman in New Zealand described panic in Christchurch as the clouds of smoke swept over their city.

“I can’t watch this anymore,” I said, standing up. “Some satellite phones are obviously working. I need to make a call.”

Takeshi took a breath. “Wayne-san, you will not be able to reach anyone in America. Everything is gone.”

“I’m not calling America.”

Takeshi scratched his chin, then said something to Yumi. She stood up, flattened her skirt, and left.

“Yumichan is my sister,” Takeshi said, having caught my eye as I watched her leave. Christ, he never missed anything.

“I—um. Really?”

Takeshi nodded slowly, eying me.

Kenichi smirked and said, “Sis-tah desuneee.”

I cringed and rubbed my eyes. “I see.”

I turned back to the coverage and the three of us watched in silence. A few minutes later Yumi returned with the satellite phone. She extended it to me with both hands.

“I am pray for your family,” she said, bowing deeply.

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the phone. She raised her eyes and blinked away a few tears. I touched her on the arm and nodded. “Arigatou, Yumichan,” I whispered. She wiped away the tears, nodding, and turned away.

I took a deep, resolving breath. There was only one person in the world who I knew would be nowhere near a populated area. I moved to back of the room and punched in the familiar number. It rang. A good start. I tapped my fingers on the plastic as the ring tone droned on and on. “C’mon, man, pick up,” I whispered. I paced a bit, then stopped in front of a calendar on the rear wall. I ran my finger along the glossy paper. The three icebergs again. While the ringing continued, I lifted the page to peek at May: an old, rusted, derelict whaling ship beached on an icy shore. I frowned at it, then sat down in a chair in the corner. The phone continued to ring. Jesus, answer the goddamn phone! Finally, after what seemed like a hundred rings, someone picked up.

“Telders.”

Steamboat Willie

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

“Wayne? Is that you?”

I could barely hear Telders’ voice over the rumbling of machinery and what sounded like erratic gunfire. I put one finger in my free ear and thumbed the volume on the satphone to a suitable level.

“Telders! Yes, it’s Wayne! Where the hell are you? You sound like you’re in goddamn a war zone!”

“Robertson! Oh good, I’m glad you called! Hang on a second!”

I heard the sound of Telders’ hurried footsteps on gravel and a couple of loud, steady pops. Far off, a voice screamed in agony. There was another pop, some rustling, more footsteps, and then the sound of a door creaking open and slamming closed. The noise on the line abated accordingly.

“Hey, sorry about that,” Telders said in an even voice.

The rattle of muffled machine guns echoed in the distance.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, switching the phone to my other ear. “What the hell is going on there? Where the hell are you?”

I heard the sound of metal sliding against metal, then the distinct ka-chink of a semi-automatic pistol accepting a new clip. “I’m in Kaesong at the moment,” Telders replied.

“Kae…SONG?” I said, punching the syllables in disbelief. “North Korea?!”

“Well, a few miles outside of it. Close to the border. Hey Robertson, sorry man, can you hang on one more quick second?”

“I, uh, I, yeah, I guess.”

“Great, thanks.” There was a hollow thunk as the phone found a table or a shelf, and a few seconds later the sound of glass shattering, followed by the rapid bark of a pistol. Korean voices responded excitedly in the distance. I heard Telders yell something in their language. There were a few more distant shots, then the phone rustled, and he was back.

“Alright. I’m back. Sorry, busy day.”

“What?” I slammed my palm against my head. “Telders, what the hell is going on? What the hell are you doing in North Korea?”

Michael exhaled, and there was a thump followed by two smaller thumps, as if he had dropped into  a recliner and kicked up his feet. “Well we had some trouble getting the Array online up here and then this whole war thing started and that put us behind schedule….” He trailed off and there was a clink of ice against glass. “Ahh,” he said. “North Korean scotch isn’t too bad you know? I really didn’t expect that. But, yeah, anyway, the war has been screwing with our schedule. And you know, if I had to do it again, I’d definitely pick a spot further inland. The South Koreans are being a real pain in the ass.”

The phone nearly slipped out of my hands.

“Wayne? You still there, buddy?”

“I’m here,” was all I could muster.

“Great. So how’s 151? Hey, you haven’t filed a report for a while. What’s up man? How’s the weather there? How’s Buzz?”

I swallowed and took a moment to gather myself. “Michael, you do realize that there has been a global nuclear war? Like everywhere?”

I heard Telders take another sip of his drink. “Yeah, and it’s really screwing with our timetable. But these things happen, you know. We’ll work around it.”

“These things happen?” I gasped. “Are you serious?”

“Well sure… one does try to make the best of things. You okay, Wayne? You don’t sound like yourself.”

I laughed. “Telders. The world’s blown itself up. You’re sitting in a shack somewhere in North Korea, apparently sniping South Koreans from your window while drinking Kim Jong-il brand scotch whiskey… and you think I sound a little strange?”

“Hrm. Well, yeah, I mean, if you put it that way. Guess I never really thought about it. Good point, Robertson.”

“You think?” I said sarcastically. “How the hell did you get there in the first place? There wasn’t supposed to be an Array in North Korea for God’s sake.”

“Oh, you didn’t know? That’s right, you’ve been off the radar for a while. Remind me to kick your ass about that later. You know,  I was about to send someone down there and make sure you hadn’t frozen to death or something.”

I bit my lip, waiting for him to continue. He did.

“Anyway… Station250, as you know, was supposed to go in near Seoul, but we hit a snag with the South Koreans. It’s an election year, you know, and apparently the Array was being politicized by the challenging party. They drummed up all these crazy suspicions and all of a sudden there was a boat-load of public outcry and all kinds of messed up accusations and yadda, yadda, yadda you know how it is… politicians. Anyway, long story short, we had already arrived in the country with everything and then they told us that we had to basically get the eff-ing, eff out. So… North Korea seemed like as good of a place as any. We gave them a buzz and zing-zang-zoom, here we are.”

“Zing-zang-zoom.”

“Here we are.”

I rubbed my eyes. “And the North Koreans just let you in? Just like that?”

“Oh God, no. They wouldn’t even talk to us at first. But I had made a lot of contacts in China when we were assembling Stations48, 49, and 50, and they were nice enough to facilitate the negotiations.  But even then North wasn’t interested. We offered money, food, oil, weapons… everything you could think of.”

“Weapons?”

“Oh, yeah, I… ignore that. Is this a secure channel? Oh hell, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Nevertheless… they weren’t having it.”

“Okay, but you’re in the country now, so how the hell did you do it?”

Telders paused. I swear I could hear him grinning on the phone. Finally, he said: “Steamboat Willie.”

“Steamboat what?”

“Steamboat Willie. You know, one of the very first Mickey Mouse cartoons? Actually, the very first cartoon, ever, with completely post-produced music, dialog, and sound effects. And you know Kim Jong-il is a huge Disney fan. It’s almost weird how much of a fan he is, what with all the stuffed animals and action figures and everything. But hey, live and let live, right?”

I shook my head. “Wait, you bribed Kim Jong-il, the brutal North Korean dictator, with a… a cartoon?”

“Wayne, Steamboat Willie is not just any cartoon.”

“Right, of course. The very first cartoon with completely post-produced whatever, whatever.”

“Music, dialog, and sound effects. But, no, I didn’t just give him some stupid DVD. For the privilege of building Station250 on North Korean soil, I traded Kim Jong-il the original hand inked cels from Steamboat Willie. All of them. And all of them signed by Walt Disney, who directed the effing thing himself!”

“Jesus, Telders, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Only you could pull off something like this.”

He laughed. “True. I mean, okay, they weren’t technically the original cels. And Walt Disney didn’t technically sign all of them, but what the hell, Kim Jong-il isn’t ever going to know, right?”

“What? You gave him fakes? Man, you better hope he never finds out.” I paused and scratched my head. “But I guess he’s probably dead anyway, if he was anywhere near Pyongyang when the fireworks started.”

“Oh,” Telders replied. “Don’t you know? Neither of the Koreas were even touched in the war, if you can believe that.”

“You mean we just went through World War III and no one thought to take a shot at North Korea?”

“Oddly enough. They don’t have nukes—at least not yet—so I guess they weren’t a huge priority.”

“I guess.  Japan survived as well. I wonder who else?”

“Thailand, Malayasia, Burma. A few others, not really sure. But most of Eastern Asia seems to have dodged the bullet.”

But, okay, so if the Koreas didn’t get hit, why the hell is the South shooting at you?”

“Well, the Koreas survived, but their allies sure as hell didn’t. And with China, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. obliterated to hell, there’s no one keeping these guys in check anymore. I mean, we’re probably five miles from the border and there are South Koreans all over the place.”

“That could get bad real quick. You may want to get the hell out of there, Mike.”

“And go where? Antarctica?” He laughed. “I like you Wayne, but it’s like 85 degrees here today. And at least there’s a functioning government in North Korea. I’m legal for the time being, and well protected, so I’ll pour me another scotch and see what happens. But let me know if it warms up down there.”

I shifted in the chair and switched ears. “Yeah, well, you see, Mike, I’m, uh, not exactly in Antarctica right now.”

“Huh?” I heard Telders set his glass down. “Not exactly, Wayne? Then, where should I stop sending your paychecks?”

“Telders, listen, we need to have a serious talk.” I lowered my voice. “How long would it take you to get to Tokyo?”

Full Stop

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Life ring

The four of us were fairly subdued from watching the reports on TV, and the conversation between was limited to little things that weren’t reminders of the war. I wasn’t hungry, but I ate to feel normal. I glanced at Kenichi as I sipped a bit of miso soup from the bowl. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t even looking. Since we’d seen the reports he’d developed a limp, unfocused stare, broken only by an occasional tremor or weary sigh.

“Kenichi,” I said, breaking the silence. “Your sister… there’s still hope for her.”

He didn’t understand. Takeshi adjusted his thick, black glasses, and translated. “Hope,” he said in English, then spoke the Japanese equivalent. Yumi looked at her hands.

Kenichi’s eyes darkened as he shook his head. “No. No hope. L.A. shinda. Yukichan shinda.”

I looked at Takeshi.

Shinda,” he said. “It means dead. L.A. is dead. And his sister, Yukiko….” He looked down without finishing.

“No, no, Kenichi,” I replied, leaning toward him. “We don’t know anything yet. She could have survived. My parents, my friends, they could have survived. We have to be strong while we wait for more information.”

Takeshi spoke the translation in a soft voice.

Dahmeh!” Kenichi screamed, and with a sudden swipe of his arms, he scattered his lunch onto the floor. The already quiet room went cold. “Dahmeh, Dahmeh!” he repeated. He jumped out of his chair and bolted from the dining room. I immediately got up to follow, but Takeshi yanked me back. “No. Respect him. Let him go.”

I shot a look of disbelief at Yumi, and she nodded. “Daijyoubu,” she said with soft eyes, gently motioning for me to sit.

I took my seat and pushed my tray forward. Yumi watched me for a little while, then went back to her lunch. A few moments later a worker came by to quietly clean up Kenichi’s tray. As I watched her picking up the bits of fish and rice with her hands, my thoughts began to wander to my own family and friends. Because we new almost nothing about the casualties on the ground, I hadn’t fully considered the possibility of all of them perishing in the blasts. I still held out hope that they were somewhere safe, that they’d had some kind of forewarning. Perhaps I was being dense. Perhaps, like Kenichi, I needed to start the grieving process.

“Wayne-san!” Said a gruff voice, interrupting my thoughts.

I looked up. Takeshi and Yumi were already getting out of their chairs, bowing to the gray-haired captain. He was flanked by two very serious looking, blue helmeted men.

“Yes?” I asked, rising from my chair.

“You come with us,” the captain said. He gestured to his men, and they circled around each side of the table, grabbing my arms.

“Hey, what the hell?”

Yumi’s eyes widened. She flashed a confused look at the captain, but he ignored her, and she didn’t push it. Takeshi also questioned the captain’s actions and he was given a terse response in Japanese. He looked at me askance, then nodded as if he understood.

“What’s going on here?” I said, stumbling over the leg of a chair.

“You are North Korea spy,” said the captain.

“What?!”

“We hear your phone call. You are spy.”

I laughed. “No, no, that’s insane. I am just a scientist. Telders, the guy on the phone, was only setting up a radio telescope in North Korea. Just like the one in Hokkaido. Nothing to do with the government. I didn’t even know he was there!”

“No more lies!” The captain shouted. He barked at his men and turned to go. They shouldered me to follow.

“Hold on!” I tried to hold my ground. “This is a huge misunderstanding!”

The guards shoved me forward. “Move!”

“Okay, okay, Christ,” I said. I didn’t want to make a scene. Yumi’s mouth hung open in disbelief as the guards dragged me away. Before we excited the dining room, I heard her voice, followed by a sharp rebuke from her brother.

We followed the captain up the stairs at the end of the corridor, heading in the direction of my room.

“This is a only a misunderstanding,” He didn’t even look at me. I repeated to the guard on my left. I checked the one on my right. “A translation problem, perhaps.” Nothing.

The guards escorted me to my little room. The captain stopped and turned to face me.

“Captain Moriyama, please,” I said. “I’m no spy.”

“Japanese police waiting you in Tokyo. No more talk. You are prisoner.” The captain waved his hand. “Sayonara, Wayne-san.”

He turned to go. He was just around the corner when the loud hum of the engines suddenly cut out, and an ear-splitting horn sounded throughout the ship. The captain spun back around and yelled something at the guards. One of them immediately took off, and the other squeezed my arm and yanked me forward. He ran fast, and I stumbled trying to keep up with him.

“Run!” He yelled in my ear.

“Why?! What’s going on?” I screamed over the wail of the horn.

“Run!”

“But…”

He loosened his grip so I could run freely. We cut through lower-deck toward the bow of the ship and clamored up the stairs. I briefly considered taking off, but I had nowhere to go. Plus, if we were all about to die or something, then that tactic might just work against me. I had no choice but to follow.

We broke out into the evening air. At the bow, a crowd of frantic sailors had formed at the rails, scanning the ocean. The sun was low in the sky and giant spotlights from atop the ship were searching the waves. The withering horn continued to blare: man overboard.

The guard took off, but I joined him at the rail and started looking. The sea was raging. I didn’t know how long whoever had been in the water, but he wouldn’t last long. The waves crashed hard against the prow, tall, vicious crests followed by brief, deep troughs. Nothing but water. I ran to the other side of the bow. Someone handed me a bright orange life ring and I slung it over my shoulder. Same story on the port side. I started scanning in ten degree increments. In the distance, the rest of the whaling fleet, three other ships, was slowly closing in, sounding their horns in unison.

Someone screamed. It was Yumi. I ran to her side.

Ah-re! Ah-re!” She yelled.

“Yumi! Where? Where?”

“Ah! Wayne-san! Mi-te, mi-te!” Yumi pointed at a giant wave. I watched, and after it had passed I saw a flash of white. A shirt. “Kenichi!” She hollered. “Kenichi!”

Oh God. Kenichi. I didn’t have time to think. “Move!” I shouted. Yumi jumped aside and I waited for the next trough, then flung the life ring into the hole. It landed only a few feet from the body, but Kenichi wasn’t moving. Panicked voices shouted, and few more life rings went out, peppering the water. Another wave crested over him, and he vanished.

“Kenichi! Kenichi!”

There was still a chance. I kicked off my shoes, climbed the rail, and dove.

I sliced into the freezing water and nearly sucked in a lung full of water from the shock. I tried to move as quickly as possible, but my muscles resisted. For a second I had no idea which way was up—the momentum had carried me farther down than I’d expected. I struggled against the icy water until I caught sight of a spotlight. I broke the surface at the prow, gasping for air. A sudden, giant wave slammed me into the hull, knocking my body against the hard steel. I tried to catch my breath, but a trough followed, and I knew I had to go, quickly. I dove into the base of the coming wave and let it crash over me. I came up to a chorus of excited voices from above. They were pointing toward the spot where they had last seen Kenichi. I dove under again and swam underwater for a good minute or so and came up underneath a life ring. I looked back to the ship for direction. The crowd was pointing straight down. I was in the right spot. Yumi and her brother were drawing out ladder. They tossed it over and started to lower it along the side of the ship. A flurry of life rings followed.

No time to waste.

I took another full breath and dove. The searchlights weren’t helping much beneath the water. I fought the current, reaching out, searching with my hands. Nothing. I surfaced and the waves blew me back to my original position. I was already exhausted. My skin felt like rubber. I cursed and I took another breath, then dove again, straining to swim out farther, deeper, frantically kicking and swiping the depths with my arms. My chest started to burn. I headed back up for air.

The current had carried me along the starboard side of the ship and I found myself dragging along the side of the hull. My shoulders exploded in pain as a row of barnacles ripped into my flesh. I howled and grabbed onto a cluster of them to catch my breath. I almost had nothing left.  What the hell was I doing? There was no way Kenichi had survived this long. No way.

Suddenly there was a scream from above. I whipped my head around and caught a flash of Kenichi’s white shirt. With quick breath, I pushed off from the hull and dove toward him with my arms out. I grabbed his limp body from behind and kicked my way back to the ship. The sailors above were moving the ladder toward us. I reached back and caught it with one arm, fighting to keep Kenichi’s head above water. The waves pounded, repeatedly throwing us against the hull. It was all I could do to hold on. I had nothing more. I felt the ladder jerk, as they tried to reel us in, and Kenichi’s body slipped. I tried to hold on, but my muscles protested. I couldn’t do it.

Kenichi fell, and I followed. I barely held on to him in the ocean, just enough to keep him close. There were a dozen life rings around us, and a few more dropped from above. I finally caught one and wrenched his legs through the hole. I managed to get another and wrapped it around his right arm and head, then turned him over. Kenichi’s face was still and white.

“Come on, Goddamnit!” I shouted.

The waves pushed us in toward the hull and down along the starboard side. More rings sailed through the air as they tracked us from above. I caught another one floating by, and hung on to it.  With my free arm, I grabbed Kenichi around the back of his neck, pinched his nose, and blew into his mouth. Nothing. I tried again. No response. I didn’t have any kind of leverage to do CPR; I tried to brace him against my knee and push on his chest, but it was impossible. I checked his pulse. “Goddamnit,” I whispered.

I floated in the water with him until the Nisshin Maru’s zodiac came for us. The two sailors in the boat pulled him in first, and then helped me up. They worked on him for a while, then shook their heads. Kenichi was gone.

They brought their Zodiac up with a giant crane on the stern. Kenichi’s body was moved to the deck. Takeshi and the captain stood over him as the ship’s doctor finally made the call.

A few of the sailors bowed to me as I staggered away. I found my way to the back of the crowd where Yumi waited. She covered me with a thick blanket.

“I should have gone after him,” I said. “In the dining room. I should have followed him. This would have never happened.”

She shook her head. “You are good man, Wayne-san. You did all you could.”

I looked back to the body on the deck. “No, Yumi, I didn’t. I was slow, weak, and I failed.”

A sailor brought out a green tarp to cover the body. Captain Moriyama looked up, caught my eye, and gestured to his guards.

I sniffed in response and leaned my head against the cold steel hull, watching as Takeshi and another sailor wrapped the body in the tarp.  The wind was blowing hard and they had to struggle to keep it from flying away. The captain handed them a roll of electrical tape and Takeshi held the tarp in place with his knee as they ripped pieces from the roll.

Yumi smoothed out a few wrinkles in the blanket. “They are wrong about you,” she said. “You are not spy.”

I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly as I watched the guards weaving through the crowd.

“I don’t know what I am anymore,” I breathed.

The wind kicked up and blew Yumi’s long hair into her face. She tucked it behind her ears, then moved closer to me and took my hand. “I fight this,” she whispered.

The guards closed in. “Okay,” one of them said, grabbing my arm. I didn’t fight it.

Saite!” Yumi barked.

The guard rattled off a few sharp words in Japanese. Yumi met him with a sneer.

“Let’s go,” he said, and yanked on my arm. Yumi flinched, and the other guard immediately flashed his palm at her. Don’t.

Baka!” Yumi growled at them as they pulled me away. “Baka! YAMERO!

Down Time

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Solitary confinement is lame. This is day six. Or maybe seven. I can’t remember what day I’m on and I’ve only been held in this goddamn place for about a week.

This room is a prison cell. I have four walls of green steel. It smells like old paint and salt air. There’s a door that opens into a really, really tiny bathroom where there’s a shower, a sink, a toilet and a mirror. Above the sink is a shelf. The shelf is boring. I don’t look at it much. Sometimes I sit on the toilet for no reason. I stood fully clothed in the shower once. Stupid.

The mirror. Ugh. The mirror is a problem. I look into the mirror and I see only myself. I talk into the mirror and I hear only myself. I’m not good company. I’ve already heard all my own jokes.

So… the following is a complete inventory of my personal effects and surroundings: two twin beds, a large desk, paper lamp, one set of clothes (soiled), another set of clothes (not so soiled, wet), slippers, plastic wrapper from slippers, a razor, a small sliver of pink soap, several hotel-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shaving cream. A couple of days ago, I tasted the shaving cream. Don’t try this at home.

For as sparse as the accommodations may be in this little room, I can only imagine what the Japanese holding cells will be like after we dock at Tokyo.

I have nothing here in the way of entertainment. There’s no TV, no radio, no books. Not even a plastic Buddha. The only thing to read is the 2010 calendar taped to the wall. It’s in Japanese. A few days are marked, probably holidays. May 3rd, 4th, and 5th looked like something to celebrate. I should remember to ask about that next year.

The artwork for the month of May is a derelict whaling ship beached on an icy shore. I’ve logged countless hours staring at this rusted old ship in the photo. The ship appears ancient. Maybe built in the Twenties or Thirties. I don’t know. Whatever. It’s old. Only the starboard side is visible. The ship is locked in on the top and port side by a huge snow avalanche that has cascaded into the water from above. The stern is almost completely submerged. The bow sticks up at a thirty-five degree angle. It’s rusted and abandoned and solitary.

They come with food and tea and nothing else. I don’t recognize the attending guard and he’s evidently been instructed not to speak to me. He’s courteous but stoic. He brings me food. I should be happy for that, I guess.

The tea is always cold and the meals are repetitive, but good enough. Usually fish, rice, a vegetable, and some kind of pickled something-or-other that is crunchy and sour. If I were being held in an American prison I’d be eating some kind of spit and gristle loaf and washing it down with weak Kool-Aid. So, I make a point to eat everything they give me. Aside from my morning crap, meals are the most exciting part of my day.

I’d sleep but it’s not easy. It’s not quiet here. Not at all. There’s a persistent sound that permeates every nook and cranny in the room – in the whole ship. It’s a deep churning, droning, rumbling thing that comes from the diesel engines. It’s a remarkably low and mournful sound. At night I toss and turn. I hate it.

I also hear the continual sound of water breaking off the bow and rolling away from the ship. Sometimes I hear horns, beeps, blats and spoken alerts in Japanese. Occasionally, a group will pass by my room and I’ll catch part of a conversation. I don’t understand what they’re saying and they don’t know I’m actually listening. This must be what it’s like to be an infant or a house pet, surrounded by noises and talk you can’t comprehend.

Christ, where is Spegg when I desperately need a hefty dose of his quirky craziness? Can he possibly be done haunting me? I look for Spegg out the porthole and in the mirror and under the bed… but he’s never there. Not even a shadow or a whisper. No tingling. No goose bumps. No madness. I guess the Lilith has run its course. I’m clean and sober now.

I lie on one of the twin beds and stare up at the ceiling. I’ve wadded up the plastic bag that my slippers came in and I’m tossing it up at the ceiling and catching it when it falls. I spent some time calculating the object velocity and distance traveled, as well as the time taken to achieve the given velocity and distance. That was fun for a while, but oddly enough, even math can get boring.

Toss the plastic ball wad. Up to the ceiling… and back down. Up to the ceiling… and back down again. Catch and release.

I once read Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault for a requisite Philosophy course at Yale. In it, Foucault wrote that solitary confinement was a subtle but incredibly powerful controlling mechanism. In extended periods of time, the pains of solitary confinement were supposed to be more effective than those of torture or threats of execution. One week in and I absolutely believe him. The only positive aspect of solitary confinement is that it gives you time to think. If you’re an innocent prisoner, you spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re doing to you. If you’re guilty, you think about what you’ve done. I guess I have both to think about.

I spent my time wisely. I thought long and hard.

Spegg was foremost in my thoughts. I’m just an astrophysicist, goddammit. I was there in Antarctica to do a job for Michael Telders. It was Spegg who landed his fancy space pod on top of my array and came dancing out with his crazy assortment of futuristic bio-engineering toys. He lured me in, juiced me up and turned me. Sure, it was good stuff. What rational scientist would turn away from an opportunity to play with knowledge and technology from 175 years in the fucking future? Mozart would probably shit his breeches twice if he was offered the chance to dick around with a new Roland Synthesizer Keyboard.

We did some crazy shit, Spegg and I. We trashed the lab, got high on Lilith, and played around with his golden computer. Those were the halcyon days, a wonderful state of drug-induced bliss. I only remember the high-level stuff now. We made really long-distance phone calls to all his friends in outer space. We played around with DNA and hatched an LMO-seal hybrid. We let that freaky thing run wild and feed on penguins. Good times.

Things quickly got out of control in Antarctica. I can’t shuck myself of the bad feelings from playing a part in the grand scheme of things. But I can rest in the knowledge that I was not entirely myself. The whole experience had its positive and negative aspects. When I was under the Lilith, I was overjoyed with most every little aspect of life. That shit’s like a massive dose of mood elevators, tempered with a sweet opium high. You’re blissfully okay with everything going on around you. You’re incredibly suggestible. Then a living modified organism that’s half human and half fish tells you that you’re going to help it call in a small army of the same fish-type creatures from 200+ Megaparsecs out and 175 years in the future. I was so zonked out that I couldn’t rationalize any aspect of what I was doing. Just let it all happen.

The Station soon became home base for nineteen more LMOs that Spegg had called up and directed to our location. This led to a raid by Russian soldiers and a subsequent raid by American soldiers. I was locked in a cage until the American forces released me. They were suspicious, sure. But at that point, I had been drugged up and locked up. I was innocent of everything except not reporting the signal I found and the arrival of Spegg’s pod. So, I made a run for the door.

The SEALs were all over me in a heartbeat. Not a wise choice. That shit almost got me transferred into the custody of American forces on a naval super carrier called the Nimitz. Fortunately, we had to ditch the naval helicopter they were transporting me with because Russian fighter jets decided to shoot the damn thing to pieces and send it all crashing into the water below. A Navy SEAL and I fell out of the sky and parachuted into the ocean where I kinda killed him and commandeered his boat. He was going to take me back to the authorities and have me tried in a military courtroom as a traitor to the country. Ever seen someone plead their innocence to a military court? Not good. It was a tough decision but that guy had so much flak in his abdomen that I had probably helped him avoid a slow death. Still though… I wince when I think about it. Jesus, what a world of shit.

From there, my ocean journey brought me here to the Nisshin Maru. It was then that I learned that the Russians attacked the American Navy off the coast of Alexander Island and touched off one great big motherfucker of a war. It’s like a really depressing and final Tom Clancy book. Everyone dies in a great big ball of fire. The big players – the United States, Russia, England, France, Canada, and Germany – they’re all gone. You like fine food, rock music, and fast cars? Find a new hobby.

Tensions are high. Having been found in a military raft in the middle of the ocean, I stick out like a sore thumb on a three-thousand pound gorilla wearing a pink ballet tutu. Needless to say, I attracted some serious attention. I made another mistake in phoning up Michael Telders at his new station in North Korea.

Fearing that I’m some super spy turncoat traitor, good old Captain Moriyama now has me all locked up in my little green metal room. Here I am, waiting to be turned over to Japanese authorities who are anticipating our arrival in Tokyo.

I don’t know how the Japanese managed to escape thermonuclear eradication but it’s now their planet to rule. It’s a brand new world. And the rules are being re-written on an hourly basis. Thinking about it makes me anxious. I have no idea how this is going to go down. I can only anticipate the worst. Great.

There’s one card up my sleeve. Unbeknownst to the people on this ship and the authorities I’ll meet in Tokyo. I’m one of the few living people on Earth who knows just what the hell happened and what precipitated that hailstorm of fission-boosted fusion weapons that left most of the planet uninhabitable. I may be able to hold out under questioning. It’s a relief of sorts that the Lilith is apparently out of my system. I can think a little clearer now.

Nevertheless, it’s going to be really interesting to try to explain all this shit to a bunch of over-anxious Japanese officials who have no reason to believe any of it. No sir, I’m not a spy or a traitor. I’m just a lab guy who befriended an alien creature from the future. Check me out. I’m an innocent bystander in this colossal fuck-fest we call The End of Civilization. Can I go now?

Even if the Japanese believed me and decided to simply let me go… where would I go and what the hell would I do for the duration of the Apocalypse?

That tears it. I gotta get out of here any way I can. Maybe Telders will know what to do. That would be cool. What I wouldn’t give to be safely back in Antarctica working for Telders. We were working on something really great together. Opportunity of a lifetime. It was gonna be huge.

Oh, well… Toss the plastic ball wad again. Up to the ceiling… and back down. Fuck. The wadded ball bounced off my palm and popped up behind the headboard.

I rolled off the bed and was about to fish it out, when I saw a scrap of paper lying against the baseboard. I looked up at the open porthole directly above. At first, I thought that some belligerent passer-by had thrown his trash into my little cell room. As I picked it up, I realized that it was intended for me. The small note had been carefully folded into an envelope shape. I pulled at the small tab in front and stared in disbelief at the words on the paper.

‘Wayne. Do not stop believe. – Yumi’

What did she mean? Was she trying to be encouraging? Was she a Journey fan? Or did she actually have a plan? I read it again and again, trying to discern her meaning.

I reached for my wad of plastic behind the headboard and bounced it on the back of my hand. Hrm. Perhaps fortune somehow smiles upon the doomed.

Japan

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Today for breakfast the guard brought a small portion of rice, weak miso soup, and two strips of raw whale meat. My guess is that the ship was running low on provisions and the crew was beginning to dip into their catch, because that was the first time whale appeared on the menu. Oddly enough it tasted more like beef or elk than something that would come out of the ocean, and there was almost no fat whatsoever in the meat. I finished quickly, setting the bento tray on the bed, and stared out the porthole into the rising sun. Japan felt very close. The other whaling ships were closing in, one of them clearly a harpoon boat, with its exposed kill weapon mounted on the bow, and several others further out, bright white rectangles cutting across the horizon.

I stuck my hand in my pocket and removed the now well worn scrap of paper Yumi had dropped through the porthole: Wayne. Do not stop believe. – Yumi. I turned it over, as I had done a thousand times, and a thousand times saw nothing new.

“You can’t trust her.”

“Heh?”

I turned to find Spegg, his sinewy arms folded over his chest, leaning against the far wall. It’d been a long time since I’d seen him, and the sight of his big, black eyes and thick, rubbery lips sent a jolt up my spine.

“Spegg.”

“Hello, Wayne.” Spegg leaned off the wall and surveyed the room. “I see you and the Japanese have had a falling out.”

I frowned. “What the hell do you want?”

“Ask yourself,” Spegg said, swiping a bony finger on my breakfast tray. He stuck his finger in his mouth and hummed. “Mmm. Delicious. You know whales were hunted to extinction in the early twenty-second century.”

I rolled my eyes. “Like I give a shit. What do you mean I can’t trust her?”

Spegg picked up the bento box and licked it. I sneered as he tossed it back onto the bed, smacking his lips. “The Japanese are a proud, tight-knit group, Robertson. There’s the Japanese, and then there is everyone else. Do you know what the Japanese call people who look like you?”

“Black?”

“No, asshole. They call you Gaijin. That’s what they call anyone who doesn’t look like them. It means foreigner. But not in the way that you understand it. Their definition goes much deeper than that. To the Japanese, gaijin means stranger, alien, and in some cases… enemy. But above all, it means you’re a lower class of human. And now that the entire Western world has gone up in smoke, they’re probably feeling pretty proud of themselves. Do you really think Yumi is going to risk her life for some bastard gaijin who doesn’t even have country?”

“I really hadn’t thought about it.”

“Oh, wow. Imagine, Wayne Robertson not planning ahead.”

“Fuck off.”

Spegg grinned. “Look out the window, Wayne.”

I shook my head and checked the porthole. “Oh, look… it’s the ocean.”

“A little to the left, buddy.”

I grumbled and pressed my face against the glass. There, creeping over the horizon, was the coast of Japan’s main island, and the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo.

“It’s bigger than I thought.”

“In less than an hour this ship will glide into port, and the Japanese military will escort you to another, probably much smaller room, where you will be interrogated, tried and convicted as a spy for North Korea, and likely spend the rest of your life in prison, or worse yet, traded to the DPRK in a prisoner exchange.”

“No, that’s not going to happen,” I said, drumming my fingers on the window. “I’ve got the truth on my side.”

Spegg shook his head. “The prisons are filled with people who have the truth on their side. You’re a goddamn scientist, Wayne. Surely you’re not that stupid.”

“I just need to make a convincing case.”

“Oh, right. Let’s see. You used a radio telescope to intercept a transmission from the future, and eventually brought a man/fish hybrid and a score of his friends through a wormhole to Antarctica where they were captured by the Russian navy, who got into a sea battle with the Americans, and somehow a nuclear bomb got loose and started World War Three. Meanwhile, the owner of the radio array, Michael Telders, an American celebrity playboy was supplying North Korea was cash and weapons so he could use their land for another radio telescope array, the very one which Japan refused to have installed in Hokkaido. And the only reason you made that call to him was to say what’s up, I’m going to be in Japan for a while, let’s meet for a drink and catch up.”

“Well, if you put it that way, it does sound a little weak.”

“A little? That story might even get you hanged.”

I rolled my eyes. “So what do you suggest I do? Kill everyone on the ship and drive this fucking thing back out to sea?”

“Now we’re talking.”

“That’s impossible. No… no way. Yumi is my only hope,” I said, glancing at her note. “I trust her. She’s got a plan.”

“You’re blind. You expect her convince the Japanese that you’re a decent guy and all this is just a big misunderstanding?”

“I don’t know. But she’s all I’ve got. She’ll come through. She has to.”

“Then I’ll see you in prison,” Spegg said. “Don’t bend over for the sushi,” he added, and vanished.

I took a deep breath and sat down on the bed. Perhaps he’s right, I thought. I looked at Yumi’s note, then crumpled it up and pitched it into the trash can. Fuck this. Time to kick some ass.

Just then Nisshin Maru’s air horn blared. I got up and checked the window. The fleet had drawn in close, and they each sounded their air horns in rapid succession. To my left, Japan was in full view. I clenched my jaw.

Suddenly there was a noise outside the door, and then the sound of a key wiggling into the lock. I spun around, clenching my fists, ready to sucker punch the guard, grab his weapon and start killing shit. The door swung open.

I flinched, ready to fight, but what I saw next stopped me cold. There, in the doorway, in a tight, black diving suit, with cold, determined eyes, and gripping a huge fucking gun, stood Yumi. At her feet was the guard’s crumpled body.

My mouth dropped open.

“Wayne-san!” She screamed. “Follow me now!”

Hurt Locker

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

red lamp

Yumi stared at me through her tight, black diving hood. I hesitated.

“Wayne! Go now!” She said, hastily checking the corridor for others.

“Wait,” I said, my palms toward her, “Are you sure you want to do this, Yumi?”

The girl’s eyes widened. Her hands were shaking, and I could tell she didn’t understand. “Go now!” She said in a fierce, urgent voice.

“Yumi, give me the gun and get out of here,” I said, reaching for the weapon.

She quickly yanked her hand back. “Why?”

“Look, I’m already in trouble. If you give me the gun, I can take care of myself. There’s no need for you to get caught up in all of this.”

She shook her head, frustrated. “No time!!”

Suddenly there was a noise around the corner. I couldn’t see from inside the room, but Yumi turned quickly and raised the weapon. A man shouted excitedly in Japanese. Yumi flinched, her gun barked, and whoever it was collapsed to the floor with a hollow thump. Yumi turned her head slowly to me. “NO. TIME.”

“Gotcha,” I said, and grabbed my shoes.

Yumi sprinted down the hall past the dead sailor, and flew down a staircase into the belly of the ship. I chased her past the kitchen and the lounge, and into a small, closet sized room at the end of the hall. Once inside, Yumi flipped on the light and quietly shut the door. She glanced at me, then pointed at a hatch in the floor. “This way.”

I nodded and yanked on the handle. Underneath, a ladder disappeared into darkness.

“Go,” she said.

“Where does this go?”

“Down.”

“Are we getting off the ship?”

Yumi glared at me. “Hayaku.”

I didn’t know the word, but I understood: Hurry the fuck up. I quickly put on my shoes, then turned around and stepped onto the ladder. The rungs were cold, and I shivered as I climbed down. Yumi followed, and pulled the hatch shut as I was stepping off onto the floor below. I rubbed my arms and waited. When Yumi was down, she flipped on a little flashlight and found a switch on the wall. A red light in a little protective cage flickered on above our heads, followed by a few more every ten feet or so that led out of the room and down a hallway.

“Come,” she said, and quietly jogged down the hallway past a row of heavy steel doors, each secured with thick, steel latches and fist-sized padlocks. Yumi paused in front of one of the doors, her breath visible in the dull, crimson light, and removed a key from a little zipper pocket on her right thigh.

“What’s—” I began, but my voice was immediately drowned out by the piercing shrill of the Nisshin Maru’s emergency sirens.

Yumi looked up, briefly, then narrowed her eyes, and snatched the padlock.

“That’s our song!” I said, raising my voice above the noise.

Yumi slammed the key into the lock and snapped it open.

“I hope you know what you’re doing!” I added.

The door swung wide, and Yumi flipped on the light. I recoiled, shielding my eyes from the bright, white fluorescents.

Yumi anxiously tapped me on the chest. “Wayne-san!”

I nodded, holding up my hand, waiting for my eyes to adjust. “Hang on.”

The shock passed momentarily, and when it did, I peered into the room. It was a room like any other on the ship: low ceiling, green walls, and a white tile floor. The only difference was—this room was filled with guns.

Yumi looked at me expectantly.

“Oh, God.”

Who Trains My Hands for War

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

chinese grenades

I’ve killed two people since I landed in Antarctica. One of them was in self defense, and the other, the Navy SEAL, well, you could at least argue self-preservation. But staring into that room full of guns, and the crooked path that lay ahead, I knew that once I slung one of those assault rifles around my chest, or clipped a grenade to my belt, I would no longer be just some hapless victim of circumstance. Whatever moral counterweight that had balanced the choices I’d made in the past… was about to come unhinged forever.

I glanced at Yumi, then stepped inside.

There were at least fifty Chinese-made AK-47’s racked side by side on wooden shelves, plastic drawers brimming with 9mm and .45 pistols, and scores of clips pre-loaded with ammunition. Leather gun harnesses hung on pegs above a couple of rectangular wooden boxes stuffed with paper ticking and hand grenades lined up in neat little rows like cartons of eggs. On the far wall was a rack of thin-bladed swords. Stunned, I gaped at the tiny arsenal.

“What in the hell does a whaling ship need all of this for?”

Yumi looked away, as if she were trying to process the English.

I did a little mime of a fisherman reeling in a catch, then looked side to side with my arms out. “Why?”

“Ah,” she said, a flash of understanding crossing her face. “In case of… pie-reh-to.”

“Pie-reh… oh, pirates?”

Un, hai. Pie-reh-to, deshou?

I laughed. “I didn’t realize Antarctica was such a hotbed of pirate activity.”

Yumi set her gun down on the table and raised her eyebrows to me. “Wayne-san,” she urged.

“Right. Okay.” I looked up at the wall of death, and grabbed a harness from a peg. I loosened the straps, and shrugged into it, then took a 9mm from a drawer. I ran my finger along the cold, metal barrel, and turned it over in my hands. Chinese characters were etched along the barrel and the handle. “Hey, what does this—”

“Watch,” Yumi said, snatching the gun away from me.

“Hey, I just wanted to know—”

Yumi raised her hand to shut me up. She pressed a lever above the grip and yanked the slide back. Showing it to me, she said, “Open.” She grabbed a clip from the drawer, jammed it in underneath the grip, and clicked the lever again. The slide released and shot forward with a ka-chink. “Closed.” Yumi flicked a lever on the slide and the hammer snapped shut. “Uncock.”

I let out a deep breath.

Looking downward, Yumi held the gun out in both hands, like a bowl of rice, and offered it to me with a deep bow.

“Something tells me that sailor wasn’t your first career,” I said, slowly accepting the gun.

Yumi cocked her head slightly. “Wakaranai,” she said. “No understand.”

“Just remind me never to lend you money,” I quipped.

She shook her head, then repeated the lesson for the AK-47. She slung it over my chest and tugged on the straps of my gun harness, making sure it was tight. When she was satisfied, Yumi began filling the little pockets with 9mm clips, shoving them in, and giving each one a double tap with her palm.

I felt like my mother was getting me ready for my first day of kindergarten. Bad, evil kindergarten.

“But mom, all the kids are going to make fun of me,” I joked.

Yumi was too busy clipping hand grenades on my harness to reply. I rolled my eyes and watched her slide the little key rings onto the hoops on my waist belt. She bit her lip as she was fastening them, and after each one clicked into place she’d tap on it, then nod her head slightly, almost like a little bow. I smiled a little.

When she was done, Yumi stood up straight and laid her hands on my shoulders. “Show time.”

“Wait,” I said. I looked her up and down, then pointed at the machine gun slung around my chest. “What about you?”

Un,” she replied, then brushed past me. At the far wall, Yumi looked up, and plucked one of the swords off the rack. She held the blade out vertically, then flicked her wrist and swung the sword side to side with a sobering whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. She dropped the blade to her side and pointed her brown eyes at me. “Only this.”

I grinned widely. “I can’t tell if that’s the scariest… or the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The corners of Yumi’s mouth turned up slightly. “Ganbatte, Wayne-san.”

“I have no idea what that means,” I said, yanking the 9mm out of the holster. “But let’s get the fuck off this boat.”

Sushiland

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Station151: Sushiland

Out in the hallway the alarms blared. As I pushed the heavy door shut, it scraped along the floor, following a dark, groove etched in the tile. I threw my shoulder into it a few times until it latched, then took the key from Yumi and jammed it into the lock. I turned the key hard, and with a click, the gun room was secured.

“Actually…” I said, twisting the key against the tumblers until it snapped. “Just in case they get any bright ideas.” I tossed the severed bow onto the floor, leaving the blade inside the keyhole.

Yumi nodded, her face emotionless under the hallway’s red lamps. She held her sword taut at her side, the tip pointing at the ground, and waited for me to move.

“Alright, let’s do this,” I said.

I jogged down the hall back to the ladder, the grenades thumping at my waist, and grabbed the rungs. The lights flicked off below as I felt around for a grip on the hatch. When I found it, I raised it just enough to see that the door to the room was ajar. Someone ran by, their footsteps drowned out by the sirens.

“Shit,” I said, quickly, dropping the hatch. “Yumi? Are you there?”

Hai,” her voice came out of the darkness.

“The door’s open.”

Hai,” she said again, whether or not she understood I had no idea.

“We’re gonna die,” I added.

Hai.”

Shit.

I shoved the hatch open and climbed out as quickly as I could. When I was up, I  helped Yumi out, then closed the hatch behind her. She noticed the open door immediately and flattened herself against the wall, out of view. I followed and we stood there for a long moment. The sirens were too loud to hear anything, but Yumi remained intently focused on the three inch gap between the door and the jam. I was just about to open my mouth when she looked at me and smiled.

Yumi flinched.

She burst through the door, her blade flashing.  There was an abbreviated shout, cut off by a shriek, as the tiny Japanese girl, in her black diving suit and ninja-like hood, plunged her sword through the chest of a helmeted guard. She ripped the steel out and the man fell—in slow motion—his eyes wide and frozen, his helmet tumbling from his head, turning end over end, as ribbons of blood twisted out of his flesh and loped through the air.

Yumi spun around, flicking the sword to her side. The guard’s body thumped onto the floor behind her.

“Let’s go,” she said coldly, little drops of blood dotting her cheek.

I had to will my gaping mouth shut. “Anything you say.” I drew my sidearm.

Still below deck, I followed Yumi down the port side toward the bow of the ship. I didn’t know where the hell this girl came from, or what she was thinking, but she wanted blood. We were already near the stern, and could probably have made a relatively quiet escape from the back of the ship, but Yumi was charging forward, where we would likely find the thickest resistance. I considered splitting off and fending for myself, but after seeing her wield a blade, I figured I’d be safer with her, no matter how deep the shit got.

The sirens were a serious problem. If anyone was coming, we wouldn’t hear it—and when they did, we nearly collided. Two sailors in blue hats appeared at an intersection, about a hundred feet into our jog. I put on the brakes and raised my 9mm, inches from the pair. I fired. My guy shouted something in Japanese an instant before the bullet ripped into his chest. I caught his eye as he stumbled backward, a look of complete surprise… surprise and bewilderment. As strange as it may sound, it felt good to take him out clean. No pain, no horror, just a flash of shock. He was dead when he hit the floor.

Yumi took care of the other blue hat. I didn’t look, just a slash or two and the splatter of blood in my periphery, coupled with a prolonged, agonized scream. Her kill wasn’t so clean.

We continued down the hallway, side by side this time, and banked right at the next intersection.

“Here!” Yumi shouted over the sirens.

She crashed through a steel door and we clamored down four sets of metal stairs without incident. At the bottom Yumi yanked open a door and I followed her into the engine room. It wasn’t what I expected. It was small and organized. The walls were clean and white (for now) and in the center of the room was what was probably the motor, a giant hulk of a thing covered in a plastic shell, also white. Innumerable pipes and ducts littered the ceiling. Along the far side of the wall were myriad instruments and controls, none of which I can accurately describe: wheels and levers and monitors and blinky lights will have to suffice. The three men sitting at the controls, and the other, who was leaning against the engine, started shouting as Yumi leaped into the fray.

Yumi led with a knife. Where the hell did that come from? It sailed through the air and found her mark—in the stomach of the man leaning against the engine. She immediately turned her attention to the closest guy at the console and raised her sword. The other two became intensely unaware of my presence as they glued their eyes to the bizarre sight of their friend’s head bouncing off a keyboard and tumbling through the air. Heads shouldn’t tumble—it’s weird and scary—so I took the opportunity to double tap them each in the chest, hoping to ease their minds as quickly as possible. They slumped over peacefully, and blinked out of existence.

The guy with the knife in his stomach wasn’t so lucky. He was screaming like fucking crazy. Yumi was already after him, ready to slice him into maki rolls, but I had a clear shot, and I took it. Yumi lowered her blade and glanced back at me, grinning; I even thought I heard her giggle. I shrugged and smiled. Weird.

I hadn’t had time to wonder what the hell we were actually doing down in the engine room, but Yumi quickly provided the answer. She stepped over the dead man, casually, as if he were nothing more than a mud puddle, retrieving her knife as she did. The engine had an access compartment, secured by two silver latches. Yumi snapped them open and lifted the clamshell, peering in as she wiped the blood from her knife on her leg. I stayed back as she reached in and severed a braid of thick, colorful wires.

The ship’s engines died instantly, and the whole fucking room went black.

Flashlight War

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Flashlight War

The engine room was on lowest deck of the Nisshin Maru—well under the water line—some twenty feet below, in fact. There were no windows down there, just heavy machines with steady lights, and bright sodium vapor lamps suspended two floors above our heads. So when Yumi cut the power, the engine room turned, not just dark, but pitch black, in the strictest, blackest, inkiest sense of the word. I kept waiting for a backup generator, or a few of those red emergency lights to kick in, but it never happened. We were dead in the water.

Yumi clicked her flashlight and swept the thin beam around the engine room as the Nisshin Maru’s powerful engine gasped and sputtered. The ship-wide alarm system had croaked along with everything else, leaving us with nothing more than the occasional, eerie groan from the hull.

I shoved one of the bodies from his chair and put my foot on the seat. “Yumichan,” I said. “What the hell are we doing down here?”

Matte,” Yumi replied, yanking an emergency flashlight off the wall. She turned it on and screwed a small orange signaling cone onto the lens.

“I don’t know that word,” I said. “But I hope it means that you have invisibility cloaks or laser guns or something because in a few seconds, half the ship is gonna be down here screaming the Japanese equivalent of WTF.”

Matte, matte,” she repeated.

Ugh.

Yumi turned to a large toolbox on a nearby table and set the cone light down next to it. She lifted the lid and started searching though it, her white light stuck between her teeth, until she found what she was looking for.

Atta!” she exclaimed, holding it in front of the light.

I scratched my head. “Duct tape?”

She smiled, picked up the orange light, and stuck it under her arm. Then she tore off a long strip of tape and started wrapping it around the handle of the orange light.

“Alright then,” I said, ejecting the half spent clip from my 9mm. I popped in a new one and racked a round into the pipe. A ka-chink! echoed throughout the quiet room. Cool.

I trained my ear toward the door, or at least where I thought it was, and listened. Nothing. I had to assume that they’d found the three bodies we’d left upstairs. Maybe they wouldn’t come down here at all. Maybe they’d just lock themselves in a safe room and call in the Imperial Navy. Either way, the window for our escape would close soon, if it hadn’t already. Nevertheless, I holstered the pistol and slid the AK-47 into my hands.

Yumi extinguished her white flashlight. All that was left was the dim glow of the orange cone. She drew a few arcs in the air, accompanied by the deadly swish-swish of her blade.

She’d taped the damn thing to her sword.

“Groovy,” I said, grinning.

Her lips curled into a devilish smile. The cone of light  swept down in a swift, coral arc and pooled on the floor.

Just then I heard the sound of a door. Someone was in the stairwell.

“Go!” Yumi whispered, then bolted across the room, the orange glow trailing behind her. She waved the light over the small flight of stairs that led up to the door, then extinguished it. Total darkness. I jumped up and felt my way over to the massive engine, nearly killing myself as I stumbled over knife-in-stomach guy.

“Hilarious,” I growled, and took cover behind the giant shell.

I pulled on the rifle’s slide and stuck a nervous finger in to make sure that there was a live round in the chamber. Okay.

The door creaked, and a beam of light peeked into the engine room. I crouched down out of sight and pulled the stock of the rifle close to my shoulder. Something clicked, followed shortly after by another click, then a third. Shit, they were armed. I peeked around the corner to find roughly eight men entering the room. The lead man had the only flashlight.

Yumi’s cone light flicked on. A long swath of orange cut through the darkness, forming a beautiful, electric parabola. The leader was, for a split second, bathed in a soft, orange glow: his mouth was wide open, his eyes frozen, gawking at the pretty, pretty citrus rainbow sweeping toward him. When the blow landed, his flashlight dropped to the floor and snuffed out. Only a minor gurgle escaped his throat. Then, thump-tha-thump said a couple of fleshy things as they hit the floor. Yumi snapped off her light and vanished into the shadows.

Silence….

The room suddenly erupted in wild, erratic gunfire. I dropped to my knees and scrambled backward, watching as the walls and the faces of the dead men flashed in concert with the hail of bullets. I took cover behind the rear-end of the engine as lead whizzed over my head and exploded into sparks on the nearby control panels. I desperately wanted to leap up and spray the shit out of the crowd, but I had no idea where Yumi might be hiding. I was stuck there until she gave me a sign.

One of the men started howling. I leaned and checked the corner. In the strobing light of gunfire, one of their own staggered sideways and collapsed in a ridiculous, funhouse-like, snapshot motion.

Amateurs.

Another one shouted above the din and the shooting instantly stopped. I flattened myself against the engine and held onto a breath as I listened. Where had I heard that voice before? I imagined the faces and the voices of all the people I’d met on the Nisshin Maru, but it wasn’t until he spoke again, softer this time, that I recognized it. The captain was here. I didn’t understand what he said, of course, but a few seconds later another flashlight clicked on. The walls and the ceiling slid into view. Bullet holes littered a cluster of pipes directly in front of me. A black telephone receiver hung from its shattered base, dust particles clogged the air, and grit and debris covered everything. Oh, and one of my shoelaces was untied.

Click… ka-chink. Someone was reloading.

The captain whispered something and the light grew a little brighter. Footsteps advanced in my direction. I squeezed the rifle’s wooden grip, ready to spring if he got too close, when I noticed Yumi, kneeling between two giant water tanks on the opposite wall.

That was my cue.

I rolled and fired a quick burst at the encroaching light. Its owner shrieked and clamored backward as his flashlight went spinning toward the floor, then blinked out. Several people gasped. Would they never learn? I rolled again and emptied the clip at the sounds. The room lit up again. Bullets, like angry bees rushed over my head and rattled on the wall. I scampered back to the cover of the engine and heaved the spent clip across the room. The noise instantly drew the fire away. Awesome, I thought that only worked in movies.

I yanked a fresh magazine from my belt, just as a broad, orange wave exploded out of Yumi’s hiding spot and morphed into a swirl of twirling figure eights.

I peeked my head out and watched as the tangerine ribbon illuminated the face of its first victim. He took a swift, deep cut to the jowls, but not deep enough: his head hinged back and dangled over his shoulders, still attached by a few bits of stubborn flesh. Amazingly, he stayed up for a good two seconds before he toppled backward, and landed right on his face.

Yumi’s blade darted off, painting a chaotic mess of color between the two remaining men. I thought I might have a shot at one of them, but the girl was everywhere. I crouched and crept along the side of engine so I’d have a clearer shot if the opportunity presented itself.

Gunfire resumed.

Yumi immediately ducked, her blade sweeping a wide halo a few inches from the floor. Her intended victim saw it coming and jumped, barely escaping a double amputation. He raised his weapon again as Yumi darted away. I took aim and let him have it. He crumpled to the floor and I bent around the engine to see if I could get a beat on the last man. He started firing randomly at Yumi and I.

I ducked down, when Yumi suddenly gasped, and I heard her sword clatter on the floor.

“No!” I shouted, and leaped up to unload on the last man.

A white light flicked on. And there was Yumi, perfectly intact, positioned directly behind the captain. A knife gleamed at his throat. She grinned widely at me, then whispered something sweetly into the captain’s ear.

He dropped his gun.

“Jesus, I thought you were dead,” I said, stepping out to retrieve the pistol. I started to say something like “I could have killed you”, but my complaint was cut short as I slipped in a puddle of blood, and careened backwards like an idiot and landed on my head.

“Goddamnit.”

Yumi giggled. “Omoshiroi.”

“Yeah, whatever.” I got up, rubbing my neck. “Alright, move,” I told her, drawing my 9mm.

Matte!” Yumi yelled, holding up her free hand. “Hostage.”

Powder

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Yumi held Captain Moriyama from behind, her blade pulled taut against his neck. She spoke to the captain in a polite, almost sweet, tone, informing him, I guessed, of the natural consequences if he didn’t obey her every word.

The captain nodded and replied in curt, one or two word answers. Yumi nodded, smiled, and patted him on the head. “Iiko,” she said.

They appeared to have an arrangement. The captain would be our hostage.

“Let’s go,” Yumi said, handing me her flashlight.

I cupped it under the barrel of my rifle and followed as she maneuvered the captain through the door and up the stairs, the point of her sword nestled between his shoulder blades. Moriyama took great care not to make a sound, lifting his legs almost in slow motion, and gradually letting his weight settle on the steps. At the top he gently tugged on the door handle and pulled it open, making space for me to pass.

I crept through the doorway and swept the flashlight into the darkness.

“Clear,” I said.

Yumi didn’t budge. She cocked her head. “Daijyoubudesuka?”

“Uhh, what?”

Okay, Waynesan?”

I gave her the thumbs up. “Okay.”

“Okay,” the captain said in a deep baritone. “Okay doukay.”

Yumi smacked Captain Moriyama on the shoulder with her blade. “Ikou.”

They moved into the hallway and turned right. I hustled to the next corner to the long port side corridor and shined the light in both directions.

“I can’t see all the way down there,” I said. “But it looks okay.”

“Okay,” Yumi said, and rounded the corner.

I ran up ahead, swinging the light into the shadows. We passed a row of open rooms each furnished with one bed and one desk, and a familiar calendar of Antarctica on the wall. In one of the rooms there was an unopened can of Asahi beer lying on the floor.

Yumi prodded the captain ahead and I swung around to check our rear. A faint yellow light suddenly appeared from the corner where we’d turned.

“Freeze!” I yelled, and sprayed a burst of lead down the hallway.

The light vanished. No thump, no bloodcurdling scream. It just sort of withered away into the darkness.

Captain Moriyama yelped. I spun around to find him against the wall on the ground, Yumi holding him down with her sword extended.

I rapped myself on the head. “Sorry,” I said. “False alarm. I’m seeing things.”

“Okay?” Yumi said.

“Yeah, okay. Sorry.”

Yumi yanked the captain off his feet and continued down the hall.

I followed, checking over my shoulder every few seconds. “Fuck this boat,” I mumbled.

“You’d be dead if it weren’t for this boat.”

I gasped. Suddenly, floating next to me in a bath of sparkling yellow light, was Spegg, the eight foot transgenic fish who had been haunting me ever since I left Antarctica.

“Holy fuck, get the fuck out of here,” I said under my breath.

“You put on quite a show in the engine room,” Spegg replied.

“Can’t you see I’m a little busy here, Spegg?!”

“If I’m not mistaken, you almost seemed to be enjoying yourself down there. All that shooting and killing and swordplay. I’m impressed, Robertson.”

“I do not enjoy killing people,” I said, flicking my light into an opened room.

Spegg pursed his giant lips. “Maybe, maybe not. But she sure as hell does,” he said, pointing a sinewy finger at Yumi.  “Quite the little dragon, that one. Fierce.”

“I guess.”

“I find that very attractive.”

I winced. “Gross, Spegg, what the hell are you talking about?”

“And I imagine you do too.”

“Oh Christ,” I growled.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I mean, look at her. When was the last time you were with a woman, Wayne? Much less a broad who can take out a room full of armed sailors with only a sword?”

“Feel free to fuck off anytime, fish.”

“Fucking off,” Spegg said, and vanished into the wall.

“Waynesan!” Yumi shouted. “Naniwoshiteimasuka?”

I pointed the light down the hallway. They were already at the end. I cursed and ran toward them.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Okay?” Yumi asked, touching my shoulder.

The captain scowled at me.

“Okay,” I replied. I glanced at the captain and gave my rifle a quick pat. He made a brief growl of displeasure and looked away.

Yumi smiled, paying no attention to the captain. “Good,” she said, then gestured toward a set of stairs. “Onegaishimasu.”

“Gotcha,” I said. “Just a sec.”

I bounded up the stairs to the landing and swept the flashlight toward the next level. At the top there was a windowless steel door.

“Okay,” I said. “All clear.”

Yumi mumbled something to the captain and he started up. As she passed me on the landing she said, “Arigatou, Waynechan.”

“Anytime,” I replied. I checked the lower level one last time, then joined them at the top.

The captain slowly pulled the door open. Sunlight poured in. Moriyama stepped out first, then Yumi followed with her blade. I checked my shoulder, then headed out, shielding my eyes. The door clicked shut behind us.

We were in Tokyo bay. And surrounding the ship were at least a dozen police boats.

“Ah fuck,” I said.

Something exploded in front of us, and half a second later, a shot rang out.

“Snipers!” I screamed.

Captain Moriyama bolted, disappearing around the corner. Yumi growled, then yelled, “Go back!”

I grabbed the door handle and pulled. It didn’t budge. “It’s locked!”

“Run!” Yumi shrieked.

We ran across the deck as fragments of steel shattered around us, followed by the distant pop…pop of sniper fire.

Yumi ducked into another doorway underneath the main towers. We took the stairs down into a cold passageway. At the end of the hall, Yumi she wrenched open another thick, steel door. A flash of foggy, freezing air swept into the hallway. We rushed in.

Yumi closed the door behind us and set the lock. I rubbed my arms, looking around. Thousands of cardboard boxes were racked on stainless steel shelves, marked with Japanese lettering and little pictures of whales.

“Let’s go,” Yumi said.

We ran down the aisle to the other end to another door that led into a room filled with aluminum tables and packing materials stacked neatly on wide shelves.

At the far end was a downward staircase.

Yumi tugged on my arm and we clamored down the stairs. At the bottom there was a single red door, secured with a heavy padlock.

I scrutinized the lock, then raised my rifle.

Matte!” Yumi cried.

“What?” I said, lowering the gun.

Abunai, yo,” she said, brushing past. Yumi fished a silver key out of her pocket and waved it in front of my eyes. “Key.”

“Of course.”

Yumi removed the padlock, and tossed it on the ground. She paused for a moment in front of the door without opening it, then turned around. She bit her lip, staring at me.

“Waynesan,” she said.

“Yeah?”

She touched my shoulder, staring into my eyes, then leaned in and placed her lips against my cheek. “Suki,” she whispered.

My rifle nearly slipped out of my hands.

Yumi pulled away slowly, her cheek brushing against mine, then tapped her finger on my gun. “Careful,” she said, grinning.

I reached out to touch her and she batted my hand away.

Atode,” she said with a smirk, then grabbed the door handle.

The room, no larger than a walk-in closet, was packed with explosives.

Next: Chapter 9. Brownstone