June 18th, 2005.
As the morning sun rose above Nagasaki Bay, the Nine Star Division’s patrol boat sped toward the dead city on the horizon.
The city’s real name was Hashima, but it was known to the whole nation as Gunkanjima – Battleship Island – after the shape of the huge sea walls, resembling the squared-off stern and the long pointed bow of a warship.
For ninety years the tiny city of Gunkanjima had been a densely populated mining community, with over five thousand workers and their families burrowing out undersea tunnels and extracting the rich seams of coal. In April 1974, the mines were closed and sealed off, and the population hurriedly evacuated. The official story was that the mines had simply run out of coal.
The real reason was a closely guarded secret, kept secure in the files of the Nine Star Division.
For over thirty years the island city had stood abandoned, pummeled by high waves and typhoons, in a terminal state of neglect and disrepair.
But not forgotten.
The 200-tonne Shin-Hayabusa cut effortlessly through the waves toward the island. The hydrofoils lifted the aluminum-magnesium-alloy hull gracefully out of the water, and the Kawasaki-Maizuru four-stroke supercharged engines thrust it forward at the top speed of fifty knots. The crew aboard was an elite collection of personnel recruited from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, the National Police Department, and the Coast Guard; in short, the Nine Star Division, the secret organization charged with investigating supernatural and extra-terrestrial threats to Japan’s national security.
Sergeant Ryuji Kato waited nervously in the assembly chamber located directly underneath the control room, feeling his seat lurch up and down with the boat’s movements, hearing the nine other soldiers around him speculate in hushed voices about where they were going and why. All discussions ceased when the door opened and Captain Uchida entered the room, his face grim, and his eyes hard beneath his peaked cap. Behind him walked a grey-haired bespectacled man in a laboratory coat; this was Dr. Nanjo, the Nagasaki unit’s civilian scientific advisor.
“I apologize for the lack of notice for this launch,” the Captain began, “so we have to conduct this briefing on the way to our mission. At 09:27 this morning, we lost contact with a regular patrol crew, tasked with checking containment seals at HRA # 42/56.”
Kato closed his eyes. The Captain was only confirming what he and the other men suspected. HRA: Hostile Recovered Artifact. If their destination was Gunkanjima, there was only one reason why they were going …
“We have a suspected containment breach. Gunkanjima is now in a state of quarantine, and Central Control has declared a Code Red threat. Our mission is to locate the team, establish the level of threat, and secure the facility.”
There was a general muttering of alarm throughout the room.
“For the junior officers,” Uchida continued, “Let me establish the timeline here. The mines were closed down in 1974 and the population was quickly evacuated. That was the official version of events. The real story is that the miners accidently uncovered something underground. Something so dangerous that every human being had to be immediately taken off the island, and the entrance to the mine sealed forever. Ever since then, landing on the island has been strictly forbidden, and the NSD has undertaken daily patrols to check the integrity of the seals.”
“Let me add something,” Dr. Nanjo said. “It might sound difficult to believe that if the earth’s crust covers an area of millions of miles, the drills of the Hashima coal miners encountered HRA # 42/56 by sheer chance because it happened to be lying underneath the island. That is not the case. HRA # 42/56 is a distributed intelligence; it is a living mind, spread all through the crust like a neural net. For some reason that we do not understand, the mining at Hashima attracted its attention, and it concentrated itself on that area, seeking an entry point. We managed to prevent that entry, but lost several lives while doing so. That is why this threat has the highest security level.”
Captain Uchida stepped forward to an open laptop on the desk, and pressed several keys. “This is the last message that the patrol sent to Sasebo base.”
A male voice, distorted by interference, crackled through the room’s speakers. Uchida turned the volume all the way up so they could hear it over the sound of the boat engines.
“We request immediate assistance. Officer Tomatsu is down, repeat, Officer Tomatsu is down, over.”
Sasebo base: “What is the extent of his injuries, over?”
“He’s not injured, he’s … We have a situation here. We need immediate back-up, and -“
A deafening burst of static drowned the man’s voice. The harsh interference was suddenly cut off, and the man’s voice resumed – but only for one word. A question, spoken in surprise, or fear.
Silence. Captain Uchida looked up from the computer and said, “There have been no more transmissions since then, and they are not responding to calls. The patrol consisted of Officers Hayama, Tomatsu, Okubo, and Koshimizu.”
Kato’s heart sank. He knew all of those men; had eaten and drank with them in the officer’s mess.
“In addition to SOP,” Uchida continued, “there are certain things you must be aware of. Reports from the initial attack in 1974 say that HRA # 42/56 attacks through mirrors, windows and any dry reflective surface made of glass. Fortunately, the windows of virtually all the buildings have been blown out and broken over the years because of storms and typhoons. However, if you enter any structure and encounter any mirrors still intact, you are to fire upon them immediately. Understood?”
The members of the NSD Search-and-Recover Unit nodded in unison.
The men had assembled on deck, and Kato looked out over the side of the boat.
They were approaching the island. The sky was graying with a fine mist-like drizzle, but visibility was excellent. As Gunkanjima approached, it was easy to see how it got its name. The sea wall stretched around the island like a ship’s hull, with the eastern side a pointed prow. The massive grey-black slabs of concrete apartment buildings resembled conning towers, bridges and charthouses. It was only as they got closer Kato saw that the black squares along the walls were gaping holes where windows used to be. When people lived here, the huge Brutalist structures had also served as wave barriers, sheltering the island against Nagasaki Bay’s notorious high tides. The ocean-side windows were smaller, to prevent them from breaking during storms. All the glass had, of course, long gone.
Captain Uchida pointed at something low in the water near the western end of the island. “There’s the patrol boat,” he said. “It means they’re still on the island.”
“Well, it’s not likely that they swam to Nagasaki, sir,” called Nanjo from the railing. The Captain shot him an angry look.
Captain Uchida and his second-in-command Kurata were trained Fulgurkinetics. They had the ability to release electrical discharges from their bodies, or absorb electrical fields from outside without harm. As such, they were leading this team, with the Bio-PK Medics Tamura and Yasumoto along as the unit’s healers. There were five other psychics, three men and two women from the Nine Star Division’s ESP Section, but they would be confined to the boat; the island’s constant background radiation of psychic interference would immediately paralyze any sensitive who set foot on the island.
The five-person ESP unit stood lined up against the railing, watching the island approach. Next to them, his movable trolley of computer monitors and cameras sheltered beneath an overhead canopy, Dr. Nanjo sat watching data scroll rapidly down the screen of his laptop.
“There is an electro-magnetic field all across the island,” he announced. “It was not there yesterday.”
Captain Uchida turned to the ESP unit’s leader, a young uniformed woman named Kira.
“I’m picking up sensations,” she said, “but I can’t establish where they’re coming from.”
“Do you sense that the four men are still alive?” Uchida asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t say. There is life, for certain, but it’s all over the area … as if the island itself is alive.”
Uchida muttered something that Kato couldn’t hear and turned to the troopers getting ready for landfall.
“Now listen,” he announced to everyone. “We’re coming into the southern quay soon. Dr. Nanjo is your acting Comms officer. Run through your final equipment checks now. This island is Code Red; nobody gets off it without our permission.”
“Understood,” they shouted in unison.
The boat cut power as it moved alongside the southern quay. The engineers switched on the EM clamps to secure the hull to the quay, and then lowered the gangplank.
“Squad, on me,” Uchida shouted. “Move out, double time!”
Kato and the NSD officers ran across the gangplank, boots thudding on metal and wood, and spread out in defensive formation across the island’s loading zone. They carried Howa Type 89 assault rifles with flashlights, video cameras and tiny protective amulets from Tokyo’s Yasakuni Shrine attached to the barrels. They wore filter masks under their goggles and helmets, and the sleeves and cuffs of their Flecktarn camouflage uniforms were sealed with Velcro strips, to guard them against asbestos dust, mites and fleas.
Kato knew that if what the Captain said were true, however, asbestos dust would be the least of their problems.
The troopers picked their way over a ground covered with loose stones of all sizes. A sea of broken concrete and shattered facades stretched away up an artificial hill overgrown with stunted, sickly trees. To their left was the Mine Complex, where colossal arches and rusted conveyer belts marked where the coal had been stored. The warehouses were empty shells without doors or windows. Warped steel girders and corroded shards of metal jutted from the skeletal infrastructure. Behind it rose the giant slab of concrete, stained and befouled by time and weather, that used to be Apartment Block 30.
“Sir!” yelled the trooper standing next to the Captain.
To their right a road led away toward the school, the hospital, and Block 65. Someone stood on the road by the trees, looking back towards the approaching soldiers. The figure was unmistakably human. One arm was raised in a curious, defensive gesture, and the face was downturned, with its eyes on the ground.
The figure didn’t speak or react as the soldiers approached.
“Nanjo, we have visual contact on Officer Tomatsu,” said Uchida. “Stay online.”
Tomatsu remained unmoving as the men arrived and circled him. It was like a manikin, Kato thought, not a human being. Nobody could stay as still as that. If he was dead, or unconscious, why was he standing up? Was he paralyzed? Could he communicate in any way at all?
Then Kato noticed what Uchida was staring at: Officer Tomatsu’s service pistol. It was halfway between his hand and the ground, and it hung in the air, with no visible means of support. It was as if something had attacked Tomatsu, and the scene had frozen in the midst of the attack, with the soldier and his gun remaining in their last position.
“Nanjo, are you getting this?” Uchida said into his mike. “I need analysis.”
He put his mike on speaker mode so all the troops could hear Nanjo’s reply. “I’m running a bioscan, Captain.”
“Is it a parasite? A mutagenetic virus?” asked Uchida. “Demonic possession?”
After a few seconds, Nanjo’s answer crackled into the still air. “I’m trying to make sense of the data … it doesn’t look good. Tomatsu seems to be right at the center of a localized standing quantum wave.”
“Plain language, Nanjo!”
“He’s standing in a vortex where time has stopped, Captain. He’s frozen between one moment and the next. It’s a field surrounding him and the small amount of physical space around him, which is why the gun has stopped on its way to the ground.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“How is this possible? How can time stop in one tiny place and not stop everywhere?”
A brief pause. “My expert technical opinion? I haven’t a clue, Captain.”
“Any leads on the three other patrolmen?”
“I’m handing you over to our resident psychic supervisor, Captain.” Another pause, and then Kira’s voice.
“Can you see anyone else in the area?” she said.
“The three soldiers are still alive and they’re close to your position, Captain. Very close.”
Kato felt a wave of tension go through the whole unit of soldiers. Eyes moved up and around, scanning the jagged rooftops, the countless piles of rubble, the shadows deep within the gaping doorways.
“Continue scanning, all of you. Uchida out.” The Captain turned and raised his voice to address the whole unit.
“Now listen! We need to fan out and search the whole island. Furuya and Sagano, you stay here and secure the perimeter. Kurata, Yasumoto and Aikawa, you take the school and the hospital. Ishikawa, Hamano, and Kato, you check Block 65. Tamura and Misawa, with me, checking Block 30.”
He opened his jacket, and took a number of slender metal tubes from the loops attached to his belt. They were quickly distributed among the soldiers. “I want O-fuda placed at the entrance to every section that’s been checked. Go!”
The soldiers fanned out, picking their way over collapsed walls and scattered bricks, and made their way through a silent wasteland ruled by dereliction and decay.
A wide avenue led from the quay up the man-made hill, past the Nikkyu apartment buildings where the day-wage laborers had lived. The buildings had fallen into total disrepair, their fronts choked and overgrown with weeds and stunted bushes. In some parts trees were actually growing out of the walls. The battered remains of a Shinto shrine could be seen on one of the rooftops, and behind it loomed the shipping beacon, a tower placed there after the evacuation, after the main electrical grid had been permanently switched off.
They passed a number of smaller apartments and a crumbling, covered staircase that led out of sight. Kato looked at the schematic of the island Uchida had sent to his mini-tab.
“See that? It’s what the residents called the Stairway to Hell,” Kato said. “That must have cheered them up.”
“Don’t you mean Stairway to Heaven?” said Ishikawa.
“Nope,” said Kato, putting away the small device and walking towards the base of the steps.
“Why’d they call it that?” asked Ishikawa.
“Because their legs hurt like hell when they got to the top,” said Kato.
Hamano smiled. “Seems like you know a lot about Gunkanjima.”
Kato shrugged. “I’m interested in old wrecks.”
“Must be why you applied to Captain Uchida’s unit.”
Kato gave him a quizzical look. “You know he’s probably listening to us through the headsets, don’t you? Now come on.”
Kato’s squad trudged up the slope toward Block 65, the towering concrete monstrosity that housed most of the regular workers. The entire front facade was now a grid of massive concrete struts and gaping square holes where the living quarters were open to the elements. A massive stairway zigzagged in a distinctive X-shape up the western side of the apartment block.
“We’ll take that and go in on the fifth floor,” said Kato.
“Why don’t we take the stairs inside?” asked Ishikawa.
“None of these buildings are safe. Use the stairs inside, and your foot could go through the steps, or the ceiling could fall on your head.”
Kato noticed Hamano and Ishikawa glance at each other. He started to climb the steps, looking up and keeping his rifle pointed forward, turning his head in sweeps to take in all directions. The air was still, humid and oppressive, and the island was almost silent. Even the sound of the waves and the cries of the seagulls were muted. His mask itched, and he tried not to imagine all the disturbed dust motes floating through the air.
“Man, that’s just wrong,” muttered Ishikawa behind him. “They should have called it Stairway to Heaven. I used to be in a covers band at college, man. Zeppelin … Bon Jovi … Nirvana … all the foreign classics.”
“You’re chattering because you’re nervous,” Kato said without turning round. “Relax, Ishikawa. I feel it too. Concentrate and keep looking all around you.”
The younger soldier lapsed into a guilty silence.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Kato examined the corroded lock to the outside door. One well-placed kick sent it crashing inwards with a hollow metallic boom and an explosion of dust.
The soldiers advanced cautiously through corridors that stank of mildew and damp. They switched on the flashlights attached to the barrels of the guns, and stood at the doorway to each apartment in turn. They swept their torches over rotting tatami mats and dust-covered Formica tables. They probed the silent shadows behind sewing machines, rice cookers and empty refrigerators all stamped with the Mitsubishi Mining Company logo.
At the end of the corridor Kato announced “Clear” into his headset, and took an O-fuda cylinder from his belt. He cracked it open and applied the self-adhesive paper with its elegant calligraphy to the door that used to be the fire exit.
They retraced their steps and went up to the next floor, rifles at the ready, beams of light stabbing into the dark. Your back can’t take the place of your belly, Kato told himself, remembering the proverb his school baseball coach was fond of saying, whenever courage was called for.
The silence of the tower block was broken by the sound of distant gunfire. The three men froze, staring at each other.
Within seconds, Uchida’s voice crackled in their headsets. “All units, report contact!”
“Yasumoto reporting, sir,” came another voice. “We found an intact mirror at the back of the hospital.”
“Roger that. Kato?”
“Sir?” Kato instinctively stood to attention.
“Watch out for the television set. There’s meant to be an intact one up there. If you see it, fire at will.”
The voice clicked off, and the three soldiers lifted their rifles, ready to continue searching.
On the next floor, after passing four more open doors into derelict rooms and finding grimy dial-telephones and empty shochu bottles, Kato saw something that made him stop in his tracks. He advanced slowly into the apartment, and crouched down to gaze at the object on the floor that had caught his eye.
It was an NSD issue Flecktarn jacket. A clear, glutinous slime covered one arm. Kato lifted it with the barrel of the rifle to see the nametag on the left side.
It read KOSHIMIZU.
“They’ve been in this building,” Kato said, straightening up.
“Sir, do you think there’s something they didn’t tell us at the briefing?” asked Hamano quietly.
“I think we know what we need to know,” said Kato. “Which is – keep your eyes open and don’t do anything stupid.”
Kato pressed ‘send’ on his mike and reported the find to the Captain.
“Nanjo,” he heard Uchida say. “Anything to report?”
“I’m still getting readings of that electro-magnetic field all over the island, Captain. The computer’s trying to identify it. Officer Kato, apart from the jacket, have you made any contact with any of the three patrol members?”
“Negative, sir. There’s nobody in the building except us.”
“According to Kira and the ESP unit, there is. Proceed with caution. Tell us as soon as you have contact.”
“You’ll be the first ones to know about it,” muttered Ishikawa.
They went up one more floor, cautiously treading on the cracked stone steps of the internal fire exit.
Kato stepped into the corridor. The gaping hole of window at the far end was partly obscured by something blocking the sunlight. With a sudden shock, Kato realized what the shape was.
The outline of a man’s head and upper body.
He brought up his rifle but the shape ducked away to the left, into another corridor, moving so fast it was hard to register any movement at all. “Wait!” Kato shouted.
He started running down the corridor, the other two behind him.
“Is it them?” Hamano asked.
“Yes, it’s one of them. I saw the Kevlar vest.”
Kato paused at the corner and then swung round, rifle first. It was empty, but disturbed dust swirled in the air, and heavy boots thumped on stairs somewhere close by. He ran in the direction of the sounds.
“We’ve got movement,” Kato said into his headset.
He came to the bottom of a decaying flight of wooden stairs leading up to the next floor. The shape rushed across the doorway at the top, too fast to see it clearly.
Ishikawa jerked his rifle up, but Kato put an arm out to stop him. “Wait! Hold your fire!”
The Captain’s voice crackled over the headset. “All units, converge on Kato.”
Rifle held steady, Kato began to climb the stairs, which creaked and sagged dangerously under his weight. The wood felt soft and spongy under his boots, and the sensation repulsed him. Sweat broke out on his brow. He was trying furiously not to blink.
He reached the top of the stairs, braced himself, and leaped through the doorway into a crouching position. He was in a large communal waiting area, with a moldering carpet covered with filth and smashed furniture. It was empty.
“Where did he go?” asked Ishikawa behind him.
“Or where did it go?” said Hamano.
Kato jerked around at a sudden movement to his left. The wall on that side was now a gaping hole, open to the elements, and something had flashed past it, heading downward. Something large.
Kato knew he wasn’t mistaken when he heard the thump of impact.
The three men ran to the edge of the floor and Kato slowly leaned out over the edge, holding on to the side of the wall for balance. Sure enough, there was a human figure spread-eagled on the concrete below.
“Captain?” he said into his headset.
“Someone has either jumped or fallen from the roof, sir. Looks like one of the patrol.”
“Get down to the ground floor and I’ll meet you there.”
Kato turned to relay the orders, but saw there was only one person behind him; Ishikawa. “Where’s Hamano?” he asked.
Hamano was further back in the waiting area. Kato found him standing in the center, staring at something on the begrimed shelves on the wall opposite.
“What are you looking at?” Kato asked.
“That,” said Hamano quietly.
Kato followed his gaze, and saw something that reminded him of his own childhood. One of the old self-righting Poron-chan dolls, that wobbled and swayed but never fell over, was still on the shelf.
“The eyes of dolls,” said Hamano quietly. “Have you noticed how they follow you around?”
“The other day, I saw a news clip of a plane crash in South America. The camera had a close-up of a kid’s doll found among the wreckage. It was lying there looking blackened and chipped but it still had its head and arms and everything, and I thought to myself, If that’s still intact, why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff the doll’s made out of?”
Kato frowned. “What’s the matter with you, Hamano?”
He turned and gave Kato a nervous grin. “Sorry, sir. It’s this place. It’s giving me weird thoughts.”
“Yeah, I can believe that. But you’ve got to stay focused, especially when the Captain gets here and starts asking questions.”
They took the external staircase down to ground level, and the other troops were already running up when they reached the bottom.
The body lay with arms and legs splayed at awkward, twisted angles. Kato realized with a shock that there was no blood, and hoped for a second that this was a fake, a dummy that had somehow been thrown out as some kind of decoy.
Uchida nodded, and Yasumoto stretched a hand over the body, closing his eyes. “No signs of life,” he said after a few seconds.
Uchida crouched down, pushed the man’s shoulder, turning the body over. Kato caught his breath when he saw the face but fought to keep silent. He realized that the other men were also trying to keep calm, and show no emotion.
The man who had fallen from the roof had no face. From the hairline to the jaw was a pale expanse of blank pink flesh – no eyes, no nose, no mouth, and no scars to show that any kind of mutilation had occurred.
“Nopperaboh,” someone behind Kato muttered.
to be continued …
this is the second prologue to book 3 of the “sword, Mirror, jewel” trilogy!
the first prologue can be found here
more information on the trilogy can be found here