by Roxana Ross
1925, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean
Deep below the ship, something stirred. Vaguely female, she was as old as time and ached with a powerful, dark hunger. Alone in her watery prison, her influence could still reach out. It had been a long time since she’d had companionship and longer still since she’d been able to sate herself. Such was her nature that her emptiness and loneliness constantly gnawed at her, but she could not possess without destroying, and nothing she consumed or destroyed could satisfy either her hollow hunger or her desire for revenge.
Once a goddess, known and feared by every people that ever plied the seas, she was now reduced to a petty, slightly mad, and very trapped entity. She had been bound so long ago that even legends about her had passed from every collective memory except her own. She remembered.
It had been a much shorter time, just three days, since the Japanese freighter Raifuku Maru had left Boston Harbor and headed out to sea. It had been an even more recent time, a few hours before, since any of the 38-man crew knew where they were. Before that, after the coast had slipped over the horizon, a thick fog had risen out of the choppy Atlantic Ocean, despite it being a clear April afternoon.
Unaware of their peril, the ship sailed on without problem until the navigator fell ill, complaining of a massive headache. He stumbled off to his bunk, fighting blurry vision, dizziness, and an almost crippling pain behind his eyes. Unwatched, the needle of the ship’s compass spun around in circles for 30 minutes before anyone noticed.
1945, 20 years later
The roar of the radial engine was so loud that Tom O’Halloran could barely hear the pilot’s voice in his headset, asking for a check of their course. As one of five planes in a training mission, Tom didn’t see why the pilot couldn’t just follow the other planes, but apparently his fellow trainee wanted to do everything by the book to impress the old man. As the plane’s radioman and bombardier, Tom felt he was mostly just along for the ride this time. Today was Tom’s twentieth birthday, and a quick jaunt out and back in formation was not a bad way to spend the afternoon. Hanging out at the beach would have been better, but there was always tomorrow. Spending December in Florida was great.
Fort Lauderdale vanished behind them quickly, leaving nothing but dancing ocean and wide open skies visible from the rear of the plane. Facing backward as he watched the coast disappear, Tom didn’t see the dense, grey cloud until it was around them. The three-man crew soon found themselves lost in the sullen gloom with almost zero visibility. Far below the plane, something stirred.
The ship’s cook, Satoshi, was an ancient, wrinkled, and nearly bald little man who made the sea’s best gyoza dumplings. While he worked in his cramped, steam-filled galley, he kept up a constant muttering of curses, prophecies, and blessings, emphasizing his incomprehensible statements by banging a wooden spoon against the edge of the iron stove.
“Not good, not good,” he moaned, wiping sweat from his brow with a dingy edge of his apron. In front of him a large metal pot of rice bubbled to the point of boiling over, then abruptly calmed. Gingerly, Satoshi lifted the pot lid with a chopstick through the handle. Inside, the rice lay uncooked at the bottom of the water. As he watched, the water began to boil again. This time he didn’t stay to watch, but ran to find the captain.
“The cloud didn’t look this big when we were outside it,” said the pilot, Greg Yosten, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “I could see blue sky on the other side before we went in.”
“Come in, Flight 19, this is Tom. Seems Greg’s gotten this Avenger a little off course. Any of you guys still in the cloud?” O’Halloran heard nothing but static on the radio, which had fallen silent shortly after the bomber entered the cloud.
“All my gauges, everything, they’re all going haywire up here,” Greg’s voice sounded calm in Tom’s headphones. “When we get out of this mess, you may have to read me directions from your old Boy Scout compass to find a heading.”
Tom pulled a little leather box out of his jacket and flipped it open. Inside, the compass needle whirled around, seeking north but not finding it.
Satoshi flung open the bridge door and hurried inside. At the shiny brass wheel stood the ship’s captain, Katsu, who worriedly stared into the endless fog on all sides of the freighter.
“Honorable captain,” the cook began to say.
“Not now, Satoshi-san. We’re having difficulties.”
“I believe our situation is worse than you know, captain.”
The captain, a striking figure in his starched uniform and cap, turned to look at the wizened man who stood before him, reeking of old grease.
“I don’t want to hear any more of your superstitions, Satoshi. Auspicious timing or not, our hold of grain is due across the Atlantic by a certain time. Nor do I believe whatever other nonsense you have for me today.”
The cook, who had joined on with the ship because he believed its name was a good omen, had begun to wonder if the name might also hint at a cursed existence they were now stuck in forever. In Japanese, the name Raifuku Maru could mean “coming full circle” or “returning perfection,” but the problem with circles was that they had no end, and the problem with perfection was that it could never be reached.
“What time is it, Captain? What direction are we going? How far is the nearest land?”
The captain’s watch had stopped shortly after the navigator, a long-time friend named Tomoharu, had fallen ill, but the captain didn’t notice right away as his concern for his friend was replaced with concern for his ship. Checking the clock on the wall, he saw that it had stopped, too.
“My rice pot has boiled three times,” Satoshi said. “Each time, when I check the finished dish, the rice is uncooked and the water cool. Something has happened to us in this fog, and I fear we are more than simply lost.”
Back in his bunk, Tomoharu tossed and turned in agony. Inside his head, a female voice painfully whispered words of loss, hunger, and a desire for a destruction of all things that were human. Convincingly, she told him lies and made her feelings his own. He was nothing in the face of such power. He should give himself, the ship, everything, to her. To sink to the bottom of the ocean and be with her forever was a fitting tribute to her terrible majesty.
“No… no, I can’t. Stop it, stop it!” he cried. Now her insidious voice changed tone and spoke to him of eternity and loneliness, pleading, and cajoling. He could help. He must help. He was hers, to cherish or destroy.
Tomoharu suddenly knew what to do, but he would need to talk to Katsu. The captain kept the only key to the fuel supply room on his belt. There was enough fuel stored for their journey to blow a giant hole in the ship, big enough to bring them all down to his fearsome mistress. Katsu would understand the need to soothe such awesome pain and sadness, or Tomoharu would make him see. Anything to ease the monstrous agony Tomoharu now felt as his own.
“How long can we go before we need fuel, Greg?” It seemed like they’d been circling in this cloud forever. They had to be circling, somehow getting separated from their formation and now out of radio range.
“Keep your shirt on, birthday boy, you’re not going for a swim any time soon,” Greg answered. He sounded jaunty, but he was beginning to feel a touch of fear. With no working gauges, he had no idea how much fuel they had. They could always bail out in a hurry, but he didn’t want to be known as the trainee who ditched his plane in the ocean.
Back in the turret, David Lorenzo, the plane’s gunner, finally chimed in on the conversation.
“I don’t want to hear any more about this stupid cloud, or fuel. Until the weather changes, let’s talk about something else. Anything else… Tommy, give us all a free Japanese lesson so when we get over there we can tell ’em to kiss our ass in a way they’ll understand.”
Tom had learned some Japanese from a neighbor when he was a child in Hawaii. Since Pearl Harbor, he’d brushed up his rusty phrases and taken a serious interest in learning the language until the Navy put him in a plane instead of an office.
“How about, ‘Hajimemashite,’ instead? That means, ‘nice to meet you,’” Tom said with a grin.
“Nice to meet ya,” David snorted. “Yeah, that’ll do. Right before we blast ’em, make sure you yell, ‘Hajimemashite!’ on the radio. Nice to meet ya, and sayonara!”
Tom began to feel a headache coming on, and he took off his headphones to rub his temples. When he put them back on, they increased the pain so much he almost took them off again, but before he could, he finally heard something on the radio.
“Danger like dagger now. Come quick!” The voice with its broken English on the radio wasn’t from one of the other planes. Not unless there was a Japanese pilot up here with them.
Tom hastily tuned the radio equipment in hopes of finding the voice again. The first sentence didn’t make sense to him, and he mentally translated the word “dagger” back to Japanese while he waited for more. In contrast to the quiet panic that had been building inside him when the plane seemed alone in a void, his found his mind calming down as he went through the possibilities. Futokorogatana meant dagger, but it also meant “right-hand man,” like aikuchi meant “dagger” or “friend.” Oddly, all the words that he knew for dagger also had other meanings. A tanken was a dagger, but also a word that had something to do with time, or exploration, and a tantou was either a weapon or a charge. Dagger was a tricky word.
Tomoharu walked purposefully through the door and stared at the captain, who was sitting at a desk with his book of English phrases, carefully puzzling out a distress message that he planned to broadcast on the radio. When he saw his friend, Captain Katsu felt relief burst inside him.
“Feeling better, Tomo-san? I’m pleased to see it. I need you to help me translate and then we need to figure out how to escape this unnatural fog.”
“We must make a sacrifice to her,” Tomoharu said.
“Have you been talking to the cook? That sounds like something crazy he would say.” The captain set down his pen and took a better look at Tomoharu. “You don’t look well, now that I really look at you. Perhaps you should go back to bed.”
“You don’t understand! She’s out there and she’s alone. Horribly alone. But we can go to her and then she won’t be so sad. By giving ourselves, our ship, to her, we will make her happy.”
“What are you talking about? Are you feverish?” Katsu stood up to feel the navigator’s forehead but jumped back when Tomoharu lunged at him.
“Give me the keys! I’ll show you!” Tomoharu was enraged now, as the voice in his head fought to take control of him. “She wants us, everyone! This ship will be hers, too. Hers to destroy!”
The two friends grappled for a moment before the captain broke free and ran out the door. Outside, the deserted deck was slick and water dripped from every surface in the dense mist. Tomoharu was right behind him and skidded slightly as he gave chase.
“What has come over you, Tomoharu? Why are you doing this?”
The evil grip on the navigator’s mind eased slightly as the pleading of his friend almost broke through to him.
“We—we—we have to… go to her.”
Before he lost complete control again, Tomoharu decided to sacrifice himself in hopes that it would be enough to save his friend and the others on the ship. As Katsu watched in fear and horror, Tomoharu ran straight at the edge of the deck and threw himself over the railing.
For a moment Katsu was paralyzed, and then he dashed to the railing himself, but it was too late. His friend was gone.
The fog, however, was still there. Not fully understanding, but mindful of his duty, Katsu slowly walked back to the helm and shut the door behind him. He had a distress call to make but little faith in its usefulness. Tomoharu had been the one with decent English.
“Katsu…” with a rush of nausea, Tom O’Halloran had visions of another time, another life, when he’d also felt smothered in a grey miasma, so similar to what wrapped the bomber now. Sweat rolled down his face as he turned to look out the window, knowing and dreading what he would see. He could feel her, now, at the edges of his mind.
“Hot damn!” Lorenzo saw it, too. There was a clearing in the fog. And not just a sucker hole, either, but a space that showed all the way down to the ocean. And there, sitting, almost waiting for them, was a big, grey ship flying the Rising Sun flag, the Raifuku Maru.
Like a tunnel meant just for them to find and sink the freighter.
“It’s not a war ship,” Greg said. “What do we do?”
“Hell, it’s a stinkin’ Jap ship, and it’s in the wrong ocean. It could be a spy, or maybe they’ve made up one of theirs to look like somethin’ harmless.”
“We’re coming in range. We can drop a few on them,” Tom said the words with a twist in his gut. He knew now that they were all doomed, but maybe, just maybe, if he gave her the Raifuku Maru this time, as he had refused to do before, she would let them go.
“Ok,” Greg said. “Let’s do this.”
The Avenger’s bomb bay doors creaked open. With a sob, Tomoharu sent down gleaming death into the past to save his present. Hajimemashite, sayonara.