I had just sat down with my morning coffee in the patio. It was only yesterday that I returned from my business meeting and longed to relish the cool autumn breeze and the plethora of colours on the trees. The aroma of freshly ground coffee made the whole affair even more pleasing but it all turned out to be momentary. A loud noise indicating the arrival of a powerful motorcycle squashed my plans for some leisure time.
The rider clad in leathers stopped just in front of the patio and from beneath the helmet emerged a well known smiling face which I hated right now. It was John or Long John as we liked to call him both because of his height and his womanising habits. I wasn’t particularly fond of the latter though. While climbing up the stairs he asked, “hey Leo, what do you know about Kyushu in late 18th century?”
“Not much”, I replied, “It was a busy port and served as a gateway of trade to European nations. As far as I can remember, Mt. Unzen erupted in 1792 and killed a lot of people. Tokugawa Lenari was the shogun during that period I think.”
John said, “Wow!! That is more than I expected out of you. Are you sure about you being a human?”
I answered in a dry tone,”No, I’m a cyborg and I am holding coffee flavoured engine oil in this cup. Now, tell me the reason for ruining my cup of coffee and my peace of mind.”
John jumped with excitement and started,”you will forget your coffee when you hear this. I’ve been waiting to tell you since I got my hands on this” and he brought out a green leather bound notebook which could only be described as ancient. The green cover had cracks all over it. Amidst those cracks was shining a golden insignia which didn’t match any of the symbols I knew about. It was two dragons wound around a samurai sword and the hilt bore Japanese letters. The pages inside also seemed to be made of leather but of softer kind. The content of the notebook seemed to be written in old form of Japanese. I could read up on it and try to decipher but the look on John’s face told me I didn’t have to.
Just as I had opened my mouth to express my lack of knowledge John started again with even more excitement, “I bet you can’t recognise the insignia. It’s because the symbol was used only twice in history of civilisation. First was on a document recognising the existence of an ultra secret organisation and you can see the second instance. And how do I know for sure? I read the whole damn thing. Man, I had to cancel two dates and just because of my sacrifice, you should pay me 10% more than the others this time.”
I said,”I don’t have any problem till you can convince Nutter and Bison. Wasn’t it Nutter who twisted your arm and held it like that till you cried like a baby?”
John fumed,”alright alright, you don’t have to remind me that.”
“So, what else do you have?”
“Well, it gets more interesting. The notebook you are holding is a record of activities of that organisation. It would have been the first yakuza type syndicate if it hadn’t gotten decimated on its maiden voyage to set up a secret base.”
“Hold on. You are excited over a mafia organisation that got destroyed before it could do anything. Have you met me?”
“Even a snake shows more patience before biting someone. If you interrupt again I will use your cup to make your hair smell like coffee beans. Now listen carefully.
As per the record these people tried progressing methodically. The leader who was actually an opium smuggler had taken over a small faction near Kyushu. The daimyo who was actually in charge had been put into voluntary retirement by this leader. His signature says his name was Han Choi. He had amassed a fortune by selling opium and got it converted into gold. The shogun got a whiff of it and tried to extort from Han who had plans of his own. Apparently he had a small group of mercenaries under his command. Some of those mercenaries had been overseeing an excavation in the burial grounds of Kofun period aristocrats. I hope you know about the Kofun.”
I nodded affirmatively. Kofun period dated back to 400AD and provided the first record aristocracy in Japan. However, the records were not something I’d call complete. I sensed Jean, my trusted butler was waiting for instructions. I asked him to bring us some food.
John went on,”Han had been led to the knowledge of the presence of some artefacts. He believed they had some innate abilities and could be used to establish his influence over Japan. He wanted to make Japan a hub for criminal activities. He would have succeeded if he had not sailed that fateful night. He had planned to set up a base on an island near Kyushu to counter the shogunate. He started on the same day on which Mt. Unzen erupted killing thousands and giving rise to a tsunami. Han’s ship sank in that tsunami. The last part is an extrapolation based on Han’s account. He mentioned the eruption which seemed to shake the world around him and an extremely tall wave approaching the ship. The record ends here.”
“And the catch is the wreckage can be anywhere in the ring of fire. That ring which contains 75% of the world’s active volcanoes. Sounds doable. Get Nutter and Bison, I’ll devise a plan till then. Also, do remember not to get cheeky with Nutter. You do remember what happened last time, right?”
Bison was our team muscle and did most of the heavy lifting. We didn’t rely on him for bright ideas for obvious reasons but he was good at what he did, fighting.
Nutter or Natalia was the designated pilot and the only female member of our team. However, she was female only technically. Her behaviour would shame even the most notorious dock workers. She used be a national level gymnastics champion when one fine day which happened to be her selection day, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her ankle resulting in an end to the career in gymnastics. She went nearly crazy, became an alcoholic and then took up a job on a fishing boat. I found her on the docks one evening totally drunk and beating a sailor black and blue. Later I came to know she was the best helmsman around even including the large boats. I decided to hire her as the pilot of my sub.
Since, I had not mentioned it before, my team hunts treasures below the surface of the sea. We procure information about old sunken ships and then search through the wreckage to acquire antiquities which are sold at auctions. Yes, we are filthy rich and this hobby of ours helps a lot.
John left after having a few sandwiches and I got down to planning.
First, I sent word to the docks to prep the submarine. The sub was my pride. I had named it the Atlas after its ability to withstand enormous hydrostatic pressure and thus, could be taken to large depths. It had a maximum speed of 25 knots which was decent. Even though it was not very large in size it could house 6 people comfortably. Six robotic arms had been attached for grabbing stuff and also to provide a stable landing on the seabed. Since it was a civilian ship I hadn’t installed any weapons on it. However there were some self defence mechanism in case of an attack. The arms were enough to fend off sea animals.
The travelling part was simple. We were to go directly to Kyushu. The submarine would have been shipped by air and we would continue in the sub after that. The region inside the ring of fire was in continuous turmoil and thus finding a 200 year old ship was going to be difficult. It was similar to finding a needle in a haystack which was also moving. Luckily, we knew the island that the ship was headed to and had some loose records of the tsunami that resulted after the volcanic eruption.
We started two days after my morning tryst with John. Jean and Bob accompanied my team as was customary. In case the readers are wondering, Bob is my partner in crime, a German Shepherd. The journey to Kyushu was uneventful except the regular arguments between Nutter and Long John. Somehow they didn’t get tired of it. Trouble found us when we landed in Kyushu. A hurricane greeted us with malicious laughter or so it seemed. We would have gone ahead and started our search but the workers on the Kyushu docks were not willing to allow us to risk our lives. We decided to wait for the storm to subside. It gave me sometime to finetune my plans.
The storm subsided after 36 hours and we commenced our journey within 2 hours of its decline. According to the record, Han had planned to setup his base on an island near the Bonin islands adjacent to a seemingly dormant volcano. We moved along his course scanning the sea floor simultaneously. The hurricane had visible effects even beneath the sea surface. We could see destroyed marine life and wreckage of a few boats that failed to survive the storm. The depth of search increased as we moved forward. We had packed enough food to last 10 days. After that we would have to return back to shore.
It was the first time that we had started a hunt near Japanese soil. The terrain was totally new dotted with colourful marine life. Bob didn’t move from the window till we reached depths where light couldn’t reach. Eventually,we reached the point where Han’s ship was struck by the sea due to the tsunami. As expected we didn’t find any piece of wreckage nearby. Extrapolating from the epicentre and the direction of resulting tsunami, it was probable that the ship was carried by the wave and hit some landmass, most probably an island.
We moved along the new calculated path. As we progressed, the sub registered vibrations coming at more or less regular intervals. The epicentre was a nearby island, adjacent to the island we were headed to. We didn’t have any record of this island which meant it had surfaced only a few years back. The journey continued with periodic searches on the seafloor using the robotic arms. As we progressed towards our target, the vibrations became more frequent. It felt as if the earth around us was moving. We could see sea animals rushing in our opposite direction. It was as if they were running from a wildfire. We decided to go up to observe. There was nothing for miles across. Not even a bird. We could see smoke rising from the direction of the newborn island. I had a feeling that we would find the ship on the old island.
We were not strangers to such incidents. This little hobby of ours had put us in dangerous situations more number of times than a man could hope for. However, it was also not going to be a surprise if there was a sudden volcanic eruption. It would have been beneficial if we could move faster but combing the sea was what we were here for. Given the frequency of rumbling I figured we had at least a few hours in hand. As we neared the island, the robotic arms picked up a few pieces belonging to an old ship. The contours around the surface and its curvature told us it was Japanese.
The news brought signs of relief on everyone’s faces except Nutter. Nutter always maintained a stoic expression. John started dancing with my butler and Bison hugged Bob so tightly that he almost crushed his lungs. It was indeed a favourable find but it also meant our work had just began. As I understood the tides had moved some pieces away from the shore of the island or maybe from further inside. Parts of the wreckage pointed in the general direction of the two islands. Given, one of them had recently formed we approached the other one. We continued underwater in case we could find any new clues. The clues we found were the ones we already knew except one which strangely enough was found by Bison. I didn’t know he used his eyes to observe anything other than food and rivals in fights. He saw bubbles rising from the base of the younger island. It felt a little odd and it got me pondered. Unfortunately, the realization of what was happening struck me a bit too late. We moved on and finally, we reached the island following the strewn about broken pieces from the ship.
We took the sub up to the beach using its arms as legs. The island was a natural marvel. The whole island was covered in green except at one side where a mountain rose kissing the clouds in the sky. I expected the rest of the wreckage to be perched somewhere on the mountain. We had our climbing gear with us and we started ascending without wasting any time. Bison was in the lead and he was the first to spot it. The wreckage was not in a position we had expected it to be in. From a scale of one to ten of expected results, ten being the most expected and one being the least, our find was a minus five. The wreckage was on the young island, settled on what seemed to be a sort of depression. After looking a bit more carefully I saw small amounts of smoke rising from the sides of the wrecked ship. Something was wrong with the whole island and I could feel it.
We had lost a lot of time and moved quickly to the other island. This island was completely different from what we perceive as an island. It had a rocky shore littered with dead barnacles and skeletons of other sea creatures. The surface felt warm as if something was cooking below. As we moved forward, the surface started sloping upwards. It felt like we were walking on the top of a dome. Narrow fissures ran across the surface which spewed yellowish smoke, most probably sulphur. I had a feeling that we were walking on the top of a volcano trying to wake up. The ground was rumbling every now and then. Everything pointed towards something frightening but I was not able to gauge exactly what.
Eventually, we reached the wreckage which sat on a crater or so it seemed. Even deeper fissures were scattered around the wreckage. The smoke here had a more pungent odour. Everything looked out of place. It was absurd that the boat was stuck in a depression instead of the mountain. These observations led me to believe that the thing we thought to be an island used to be a mountain but due to frequent earthquakes had sunk down. The fissures spewing out smoke suggested the terrible, it indeed was a volcano and something had woken it up. Suddenly, it struck me. The bubbles that Bison observed were water vapour rising due to the heating up of sea water. The recent hurricane had somehow opened a crack at the base of the mountain and sea water was seeping in. If enough water seeped in, the extreme heat would boil it instantly converting it into huge amount of water vapour. If it indeed was a volcano, it meant we were sitting on the top of a boiler about to burst open. Immediately, I asked the crew to stop and modified the plan. The existence of the fissures meant the surface beneath the wreckage was unstable and we need to move carefully. I sent Bison, Bob and Nutter to prep the sub. Jean was to stay outside to warn us if there was any sudden change in the environment. Me and John proceeded towards the wreckage. The ship had broken in half making it easy for us to climb aboard. Dead seaweed hung from the broken mast and railings. This ship was a plain transport ship most probably chosen to hide from the prying eyes of the shogun. The sails had been eroded away ages ago. There were dead sea shells and barnacles all over the sea eaten wooden walls. I decided to search the stern and John proceeded to the bow of the boat. I expected the chest of gold to be hidden in some cellar. After carefully searching various compartments we could find no sign of the chest. I went to the captain’s quarters on a hunch. As I stepped in the moss covered room, my eyes landed on what looked like a leather wall hanging. It’s sides had been eaten away but the central part was intact. A few half erased figures told me it was a map of areas around Japan. As I was looking for clues, I saw a square shaped hole on the floor. I peered into the hole and discovered a large metal safe sitting in a small chamber which I had somehow slipped during my search. I instructed John to move towards the cellar. And then it happened. I was hurrying down the ship and it felt as if the ground crumbled beneath us. I radioed Jean to find out if he witnessed anything from the outside. He replied in a calm voice,”Sir, a section under the ship has given away. As I can see the fissures are expanding. I would strongly suggest that you make haste.”
I could never understand how that man always spoke in the same calm tone. It was true that under the given circumstances he had no other choice. Me and John ran and jumped to reach the hidden chamber. With every step it felt as if we were moving down bit by bit. I could see smoke coming from the bottom of the hull. The rotten wood was getting toasted slowly. I understood why I couldn’t find the chamber before. It was not built to be found by strangers. The whole chamber was lined with iron and the chest I saw from above was resting on a larger chest. Evidently, the chamber was made to hide the second chest.
What we faced now was a huge challenge. Firstly, the chest was locked and the lock was ancient. I had absolutely no idea how to open it. I was brainstorming on how to break the lock when John dropped a bombshell. He said in a very sweet voice,” Boss, I forgot to mention one thing. The chest can’t be opened without its key and the key is not here.”
I asked with irritation, “What if we blow up the door? Also, why am I getting to know about it now?”
“There will be two problems. 1. The pressure of the blast can destroy the hull and we would turn up as petroleum at the bottom of the volcano after a few million years. 2. The door has a lockdown mechanism. It can’t be broken down by just explosives.”
I was in a quandary. The chest was too heavy to be carried to the sub by just two people. In the meantime, the radio crackled. It was Jean. The situation outside had become even more critical. The island was moving down. Water level was rising and if the water poured down the fissures around the wreckage, the island would blow within minutes like a ruptured boiler. Suddenly, I got an idea.
I asked Jean to go back to the sub and tell Nutter to bring it near the wreckage as the water level rises. I asked John to give me a hand to drag the chest towards the broken deck. I secretly wished that I had a bionic arm at that time. The gold in the chest had to weigh at least 500 kg and taking it towards the deck was not a two man job either. Then a lightbulb blinked. We had to proceed like the Egyptians building the pyramids. They used wet sand to reduce the surface friction and pulled heavy rocks over it.
We ran out as fast as we could with our haversacks, filled them with whatever wet sand we could find and laid it along the path we wished to follow. Time was running out and we were getting tired. We lifted the chest from one side and made it stand sideways. We poured the sand and placed the safe on it. My idea worked. We could pull the chest now but we were not fast enough. As we were struggling to move the chest, it started moving little faster all of a sudden. As I looked up, I saw Bison had come to our rescue. He was pulling the box alongside John. John remarked, “This is the first time your show of strength doesn’t scare me.” Bison smirked which sounded more like a grunt.
In the meantime the island had started shaking more violently. As we neared the deck, I saw the sub slowly approaching us partially floating and partially walking on its arms. The sub was turning around to face the sea. We had to wait a little for the water to rise so that the sub could support itself on the first four legs only. Suddenly, a part of the crater burst open behind us. It was time to move, we couldn’t wait any longer. The sub extended its two arms and grabbed the chest. With a jolt it started pulling the chest towards itself. The increased water level helped a bit in decreasing the load. A few seconds later it was able to put the chest onboard. Me and John hurried inside as another piece blew past us. The island was going to blow up any second.
John moved to his position and Nutter sped away from the island. When I looked behind, I saw the wreckage blow up into pieces and some lava shot upwards vaporising the water around it into a thick white smoke. I shuddered a little. We had just made it in time. I hadn’t realised the ordeal wasn’t over. As we moved ahead I watched the island blow up like a watermelon being battered by a sledgehammer. We dove as pieces of rock flew towards us. The sub was moving as fast as possible. Only a few seconds had passed when the sensors indicated an underwater shockwave was approaching us. If the shockwave hit the ship, there was high probability that our sub would break into smithereens or may get flung towards one of the many undersea mountains. Rising towards the surface couldn’t have reduced the risk. I told Nutter to go under the shockwave. This way was not free of risks either. Just that it gave a higher probability of survival. The plan was to drop to a greater depth so as to get away from the path of the wave but greater depth meant greater hydrostatic pressure which could crack the fibre windows of the sub. The best course of action was to go deep and then rise as soon as the wave had passed.
Nutter acted according to the plan. We went deep enough to escape the wave but it was bit too deep for the sub. The fibre panels had started cracking by the time the wave passed us. Salty water was seeping in through the cracks. I didn’t know if we were going to survive this one but we had to try our best. The ballast tanks started to be evacuated as soon as we were away from the danger zone. The sub was almost flooded by that time making it harder to rise up. We were alarmingly close to the point of no return. I had to do something but I didn’t know what. There was no way to compartmentalize the damage. I stumbled upon an idea. If I used quick setting sealant on the cracks, it would slow the downpour. I did that and asked John and Bison to connect a suction pump to the trash chute. I asked Jean to keep the other end in contact with the accumulated water. My plan worked. Within moments of pushing the trash ejection button the sub became lighter and we started rising rapidly. We cracked the surface of water in a short amount of time. The submarine’s cracked condition prevented us from diving again but at least we were alive.
I looked back and saw the sun going down where the island stood not even an hour ago. It was time for us to go back home.