[Jiro Matsumoto’s first email is here. Ed.]
My last email related how Haruka, my girlfriend and crewmate aboard the whaling research vessel the Nisshun Maru, had abruptly ended our relationship. Her rejection had completely dazzled me and I would remain stupefied for days. My full character was now crouching behind a sort of representative self, who could submit the passable impression of a functioning person and meet the ship’s demands with a brisk, perfunctory reasoning. Every attempt to coax this robot out of my cabin – to make it talk and open up – would impel it to recite airy excuses, blankly, reluctantly, sometimes with incredible weariness, wincing as if with pain.
My work was suddenly too shallow – I could no longer plunge into the folders of data on my desk and immerse myself. Yet each evening still had to be worn away and so I spent them prowling about the golf course up on deck. The links were only used when the Nisshun Maru was sailing in warmer climes; they were deserted now that we were crossing the Antarctic Ocean, with ice snapping at our hull and forty foot waves head-butting the sides. The sailor whom I had appropriated to be my caddy was spitting like a kettle with mutiny.
A week ago, there had been nuts of ice bobbing on the waves. Now the ice was strewn everywhere, like foam packaging discarded from some astronomical electrical appliance.
Shigeyoshi joined me one night for a round of golf, horrifying me as I was not even aware that he was on the ship. He is a huge, chubby man – over six foot five – which makes him stand out amongst my countrymen. The fact that his head is always bowed makes him look meek and polite, but in reality he cannot see any of us if he looks straight ahead.
“I am so sorry for you,” he told me, almost immediately. “I cannot imagine what you are going through.”
“Thank you,” I returned with annoyance.
“You know, when I was a teenager and I joined the merchant navy, I had to leave behind my sweetheart, but…” I tried to tune out of Shigeyoshi’s memoirs and focus on my shot. Yet the ship rolled suddenly and my ball plopped off its tee and scuttled away to the far side of the deck.
“I can only pay tribute to your bravery, to your understanding and compassion…” Shigeyoshi enthused. This was depressing – it was dawning on me that Shigeyoshi was a genuinely lovely man. He was now trying to prove that he was amateurish at golf in comparison to me, but the effects of his intentionally wild shots were unintentionally clownish. Quite involuntarily, I was suddenly picturing him and Haruka surrounded by countless children, which he fussed over with infinite kindness.
The caddy had taken shelter under some awning, but he was now waving at us. He had received a text message from the captain.
Captain Tadatoshi was alone in his cabin. He looked tired and distracted, and I had the overwhelming sense that he wanted to be left alone, to lie on his bunk and bury his face in the pillows. “There was an item on the sonar which we needed to investigate…” he explained weakly.
He gave me a sour look, quite out of character, and I was suddenly unnerved. I found myself unexpectedly struggling for words. “A whale?”
The captain was eventually able to say that the object on the sonar was ten times bigger than any whale.
Shigeyoshi prickled, seeming to square up. “A submarine?”
The captain could not reply. He sat shaking on his bunk.
Haruka entered and she was briefed on the situation. She looked exasperated. Could none of us be trusted to show any initiative? “Well, why don’t we launch the ROV?”
Bizarrely, the captain stood up and walked out of the cabin. I glanced at Haruka and caught the amazement stark in her eyes. Distantly but with awful clarity, we could hear the captain retching into the sink next door.
Haruka was on the phone. “Is that the bridge? I assume that the ROV has intercepted the… whatever it is. Can you email me the feed?”
It took some time to set up her laptop. The computer had been automatically updated and it insisted upon elaborately restarting itself and reporting on its progress. We listened without comment to the captain gasping next door.
The footage was eventually on the screen. We waited together like passengers in a descending lift as the ROV nosed through the murky blue swill. Then there was suddenly a vast vague silhouette in its path, conceivably the size of a small airport terminal. This structure was so still that it might have been resting on the ocean floor, but I jolted at the realisation that the ROV was still thousands of metres from the bottom.
Soon there was a meeting and the surface of the structure was dipped into the ROV’s headlights. The ROV began to pour over the surface, which looked bare and unremarkable, like a portion of rooftop. Its ostensible smoothness was occasionally interrupted by a leathery crinkle, perhaps part of some wider and as-yet unrevealed pattern. And then, suddenly frustrated by the vehicle’s proximity, the operator was pulling away from the surface. A little more of the object was revealed, and the operator pulled away again in response.
We found ourselves gazing at a human face.
There was no spark of intelligence in this face, and yet it regarded us with a fixed and slightly sickly smile. The nausea began like a steady humming in my ears. That smile was floating like a zeppelin within the face, both savage and meaningless. Haruka found my hand.
There was no telling the size of this face, but it was likely that the ROV could have swum into its mouth and down its throat and then parked behind its tonsils.
And then something horrible happened.
The face blinked.
The camera was shaking too much after that for us to distinguish anything further. The ROV was rising like a balloon. I turned from the laptop, to gaze around the cabin dumbfounded. Haruka relinquished a hand that had been sealed to hers with sweat. She could not have failed to see what I had seen. Yet I still could not help jumping when she screamed at me.
“What the fuck is this? What trick? What stupid trick?”
I burst into tears and collapsed on to the captain’s bunk. The terror was rising to my neck and over my head. For a blind moment, I was like a drowning man who can only thrash and twist.
It had been my face.
I do not know who first used the term “Ningen.” There seemed to be an unstated agreement to make no allusion to the creature’s resemblance to myself. Perhaps this was all that was now holding our sanity together.
For four days, the Nisshun Maru circled over the creature, as distraught as a plague ship. Yet the captain must have been making excellent progress for before long we were aghast at the news that he had recovered sufficiently to summon us all to the bridge for a conference.
Several senior officers did not attend, whilst the rest of us were only able to converse with each other like wooden actors who have not fully learned their lines. The captain spoke so quietly that Haruka had to interrupt him and ask him to speak up. He snarled at her and waved his arms in fury, now truly wretched.
The Ningen was not supposed to exist. The creature was an urban legend and one which all too transparently reflected the fantasies of anti-whaling protesters. How convenient that there would be a sentient whale with a human face at the bottom of the sea – a whale just like us!
Yet Tadatoshi was obliged to investigate further. He could not just sail away and leave it at that. Two divers with grenade harpoon guns would have to intercept the creature and kill it. We would be able to carry most of the head aboard the Nisshun Maru, although the smell would be truly abysmal. No doubt our hold would be packed with gigantic shiny innards, whilst the ship towed a huge severed arm after it.
The conference continued uneasily, if only because nobody knew of a polite way of stopping it.
The mission would be conducted the following morning. Only two crewmembers had received the training necessary to conduct the mission. With Haruka and Shigeyoshi looking very alert at this point, we gathered that the captain was referring to them.
There was no time to delay. The heroes proceeded straight to the deck to review their equipment and prepare for the mission. The rest of us fled to our cabins. Perhaps I could have drunk myself into a stupor and resurfaced the next morning, to hear with relief that the mission had been concluded successfully. But the captain came tapping at my door – there was no getting out of it that easily. The mission would be supervised by a skeleton crew, but he needed his best men in their posts.
“We could stay here in my cabin and drink until it is over.”
He refused to smile at this. “Up on deck!,” he said brusquely.
Haruka and Shigeyoshi reported for duty at dawn the next morning, looking so keenly perky that they almost convinced me that their enthusiasm was for real. Perhaps if they were really going to be executed, they would still be beaming at everybody, just to set some kind of deranged example.
They were surprisingly slimly attired, considering the depths to which they would be diving and the sub-zero temperatures of the water. Both were experienced divers, but on this mission they were, so to speak, decidedly out of their depths.
There was a surprise on the sonar. At some point in the night, the Ningen had turned over. Nonplussed by my news, the divers waddled towards the large metal platform which had been assembled in the night like a scaffold, and they then climbed into their positions amongst the lights and film cameras. We watched the platform being winched over the side of the ship to settle in the choppy waters.
On the bridge I made radio contact with the pair. I would have liked to wish them a cheerful good morning, but I could not manage this in the end. I twittered about technicalities and they replied sparingly.
This time a great deal more of the creature would be illuminated by the floodlights from the platform. The Ningen was waiting where, for all we knew, it may have always been. The lights duly distinguished the outline of a gigantic gun-metal humanoid, which lay naked and floating on its front. It was completely still, as if it was a carcass and time had frozen as it was rising to the surface.
Haruka and Shigeyoshi unclipped themselves from their platform and begin to descend upon the creature. The assassins would have to traverse the length of the Ningen before they reached the head, where they would attack it with their harpoons, stinging like scorpions. The pair separated, with Haruka apparently intending to make her way up the Ningen’s spine, whilst Shigeyoshi followed the outline of its right hand side.
I wanted to radio words of encouragement, but both divers were by now utterly enraptured in their work. Midway to the head, however, the proceedings came to a halt.
In a movement imperceptible to the platform’s cameras, the Ningen had apparently crooked the little finger of his right hand. Shigeyoshi was trapped.
“I’m stuck,” Shigeyoshi reported glumly.
Sitting beside me, the captain took a deep breath. “Can’t you access your harpoon gun?”
There was a long silence. “Nope,” Shigeyoshi admitted finally. “My arms are pinned against my sides.”
Haruka was making her way energetically to Shigeyoshi’s rescue, in a frenzy of limbs and flippers, like an infuriated daddy-long-legs. She had skirted back down the spine and she was now crossing the creature’s vast buttocks.
Then this happened: a fleet of shining bubbles were suddenly released, in a single jet, seemingly from the humanoid’s anus. Haruka shot up like the cork from a champagne bottle, the harpoon gun dropping from her hands. Ricocheting within the dancing bubbles, bouncing from bubble to bubble, she was spiralling towards the surface. Her scream was so deafening that the captain and I were jumping back from the controls, pawing at our headphones.
Men were scrambled. Haruka was unconscious when she reached the surface, the bubbles pecking at the air around her, a strident choir of pops.
“Hey?” Shigeyoshi demanded, his voice suddenly small and childlike. “You have to seriously do something to help me.”
I suggested at this point that we turn off the radio. Shigeyoshi would remain trapped in the crook of the Ningen’s finger, presumably until his oxygen ran out or he froze to death.
When the Nisshun Maru returned to Japan, Haruka and I were married.
I entrust that the facts of this story are now sufficiently clear.