Take a look at Island 731 by Jeremy Robinson, out now:
Mark Hawkins, former park ranger and expert tracker, is out of his element, working on board the Magellan, a research vessel studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But his work is interrupted when, surrounded by thirty miles of refuse, the ship and its high tech systems are plagued by a series of strange malfunctions and the crew is battered by a raging storm.
When the storm fades and the sun rises, the beaten crew awakens to find themselves anchored in the protective cove of a tropical island…and no one knows how they got there. Even worse, the ship has been sabotaged, two crewman are dead and a third is missing. Hawkins spots signs of the missing man on shore and leads a small team to bring him back. But they quickly discover evidence of a brutal history left behind by the Island’s former occupants: Unit 731, Japan’s ruthless World War II human experimentation program. Mass graves and military fortifications dot the island, along with a decades old laboratory housing the remains of hideous experiments.
As crew members start to disappear, Hawkins realizes that they are not alone. In fact, they were brought to this strange and horrible island. The crew is taken one-by-one and while Hawkins fights to save his friends, he learns the horrible truth: Island 731 was never decommissioned and the person taking his crewmates may not be a person at all—not anymore.
PACIFIC OCEAN, 1942
Master Chief Petty Officer James Coffman awoke to find his leg being eaten. The pain felt dull. Distant. The connection between his mind and limb had somehow been numbed. But he could clearly see the gull tugging at the sinews of his exposed calf muscle. The wound, fresh and bloody, should have sent shockwaves of pain through his body, but he felt nothing. It’s a mercy, he decided as he sat up. He’d seen men with similar wounds—inflicted by Japanese bullets—howl in agony.
The seagull opened its wings wide and squawked indignantly as though Coffman were a competing predator. Even as he reached out for it, the bird took two more pecks at the meat of his leg. When the gull flew away, a string of muscle hung from its yellow beak.
Coffman reached down, grabbed a handful of beach sand, and flung it after the bird. He tried to shout at it, but only managed a raw, rattling sound.
Like many young men in the United States, Coffman had enlisted in the navy shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He began his naval career as a petty officer third class serving on the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific fleet. Through grit, determination, and several battles, Coffman had worked his way up to master chief petty officer. But he took no greater pride than when the Yorktown, with his assistance, drew Japanese blood.
He’d grown accustomed to the sounds and smells of war over the years, so when he drew a long breath through his nose, he found the fresh scent of earth and lack of machine sounds disconcerting. He’d been deposited on a peaceful, white sand beach.
Coffman craned his head around, growing dizzy as he moved. With a hand buried in the sand for balance, he took in his surroundings. That he was sitting on a beach was clear. The sand was smooth, almost soft, and stretched around a crescent-shaped cove. The water lapped at the sand just below his feet, and it appeared so calm that he nearly mistook it for a freshwater lagoon, but he could smell the salt in the air. Following the water out, he saw forty-foot, palm-covered ridges. He couldn’t see the ocean, but could see where it entered through an opening in the natural wall, sheltered from the force of the ocean.
I’m inside a volcanic cone, he thought. Coffman knew most of the Pacific islands were created by volcanoes that sprung up along the “ring of fire.” He didn’t have any real interest in geology, or island life, but since millions of soldiers were fighting and dying over islands just like this one all across the Pacific, he’d picked up on a few facts.
Coffman looked behind him and found a jungle, thick, lush, and tropical. He’d been to Hawaii on shore leave once. This looked similar. Could he be on Hawaii? It didn’t seem possible. It was too far—an entire time zone away from Midway.
Midway . . .
The last few days were a confusing blur. He thought back, trying to remember how he arrived on the shore of this island. The USS Yorktown had sustained significant damage at the Battle of the Coral Sea, but had come out victorious. The ship needed three months’ work to be fully functional, but aggressive Japanese tactics wouldn’t allow the respite. Undaunted, the Yorktown returned to Hawaii and yard workers completed the three months’ work in just three days. Days later, the Battle of Midway began and the Yorktown once again sustained heavy damage at the hands of Japanese dive bombers.
Covered with heavy debris and ruined planes, the giant ship began to list. The crew feared the carrier would capsize, so the ship was abandoned, the men taking refuge on the USS Hammann, a Sims-class destroyer. But the stubborn Yorktown did not sink that night. Coffman returned with a salvage and repair crew the next morning. They worked through the day, breathing air laden with smoke from the burning boiler room. Despite the conditions, the skeleton crew pushed planes and heavy equipment overboard, reducing the vessel’s topside weight. The effort began to work. The list lessened and it seemed the carrier would once again limp back to Hawaii for repairs.
But the Japanese returned, using darkness and the debris filled ocean to cloak the submarine’s approach. Coffman, who stood on deck wearing coveralls coated with black soot and oil, saw the four approaching torpedoes first. He shouted a warning, but there was nothing the crew of the Yorktown could do. The ship was dead in the water.
But they were not alone. The USS Hammann opened fire with her 20mm guns in an attempt to destroy the torpedoes. For her effort, the Hammann was struck amidships. The explosion tore the destroyer in half and the Yorktown’s would-be rescuer jackknifed and sank, taking the rescued crew with her.
Two of the torpedoes struck the Yorktown, punching holes in the hull and flinging Coffman from the deck. He remembered the cool air as he fell from the smoky deck to the open ocean. After that, there was a lull. He woke hours later. The sun dipping below the horizon cast silhouettes of the now distant fleet. He immediately thrashed and called out. But no one would hear him. No one, but the three men adrift alongside him. They’d managed to slip him into a life jacket and had saved his life, but over the next few days he’d wondered if he would have been better off dead.
As days passed, his throat and tongue swelled from dehydration. The skin on his forehead burned with boils from sun exposure. His body ached. And as hard as he tried, he couldn’t move his legs. The last morning he remembered, he woke to find one of the men missing. They didn’t know if he’d simply died and slipped beneath the waves, if a shark took him, or if he’d swum away in delirium. But the end, for all of them, was near, so they didn’t worry about it too much. Resigning himself to death was the last memory he could recall.
Then he woke up here, on this beach.
The boils still stung his forehead.
His throat felt scoured.
And his legs. . . . He tried to move them again, but couldn’t. He’d assumed they were broken, but having felt no pain from the gull’s attack, he knew better. His back had been broken. Either when he’d been flung from the Yorktown, or when his body had struck the water.
But if he had made it here, perhaps the others had, too? He looked around for some sign of life.
Palm leaves shifted a scratchy tune powered by an ocean breeze. Cumulus clouds drifted past high above, their passage reflected by the calm lagoon water. But he couldn’t see any bodies nor could he hear any voices. But there was an aberration in the sand next to him.
Four gouges, like the beach had been tilled by miniature oxen, traced a path back to the jungle. The lines were so straight and evenly spaced that Coffman had little doubt they were manmade. He leaned over to inspect the nearest tracks. The motion sent a stabbing pain up his back.
He growled in agony as he realized that his time in the ocean had kept pressure off his back. Perhaps it had even healed him some. But now, on land, every motion could have dire consequences. As the pain subsided, he opened his clenched eyes and saw that the lines in the beach were framed by footprints.
The other men had been dragged away, their heels plowing twin paths through the sand. But who took them?
As pain flared anew, Coffman straightened out and looked out over the lagoon. He imagined the shape of this inlet from above and recalled nothing resembling it on any of the maps he’d studied. Had they somehow landed on an uncharted island? Had the men been dragged away by local islanders? If so, there might still be hope of survival.
A crunch of dry palms caught his attention. The sound came from directly behind him, so he couldn’t turn to see it.
Crunch. Closer this time. The steps were slow. Furtive. Careful. As though Coffman might present some kind of a threat. That meant whoever was there saw him as a threat. Which meant . . .
Coffman lay back down, craning his head backward. Through an upside-down view of the jungle, he saw black boots and tan pants step into the open. He turned his gaze skyward, but the figure charged and all Coffman saw was the butt of a rifle. Then nothing.
He woke to an all-consuming pain. His scream was dulled by a gag tied tightly ’round his mouth. He fought to move, but had been restrained.
“Calm yourself,” came a voice. The accent was distinctly Japanese.
No . . .
He’d be tortured for information, kept alive for months until they were sure he’d told them everything he knew, and then he’d be shot.
The gag went slack and was pulled away.
“Just kill me now,” Coffman said. His voice sounded better. In fact, despite the pain enveloping his body, he felt hydrated. They’ll heal me first, he thought, and then torture me. It seemed likely, but the pain he felt told him they’d gotten a head start on the torture.
“You are far too valuable alive,” said the voice.
The man didn’t reply.
Coffman stared at a bare cement wall in front of him. He couldn’t see the lamp mounted to the ceiling above him, but felt the heat from it on his skin. He tried to turn his head, but found it restrained.
“I’m going to free your right arm,” came the voice. “When I do, try to move it. Slowly. You were injured.”
Coffman had a list of questions, but when the restraint on his right arm loosened, he felt them melt away. His hand tingled as blood flowed more freely into the limb.
“Go ahead,” the man said. “Move your arm.”
The limb felt heavy. Stubborn. Like it didn’t want to move, but Coffman needed to see something more than this barren cement wall. To know he still existed and this wasn’t hell. Pain pulsed from his shoulder as he moved the limb. He didn’t remember injuring the arm, but he didn’t remember much. His memories of the Yorktown felt distant. Years old.
“Good,” the man said. “Very good.”
When his hand came into view, it glowed in the bright light cast from above. His hand looked different. Thicker. Swollen, perhaps. But that wasn’t all. The shape was wrong. The thickness, too. And the pattern of his arm hair, once thin and faint, now appeared thick, and dark. He turned his arm over and found a tattoo of a naked woman sitting upon the guns of a battleship.
“That’s not my arm,” he said. “That’s not my arm!”
The man behind him tsked a few times and then reached out and pulled the arm down, restraining it once more. “You’ve suffered a great deal,” the man said. “You’re confused.”
Coffman tried to understand. Tried to remember. Images came in flashes. He saw the ocean. A seagull. A beach. Then darkness. And lights. Always lights, blinding him to the shapes around him. Men. Their voices, speaking Japanese, returned like a song heard too many times. But he didn’t know what had been said.
“Now then,” the man said, the tone of his voice as pleasant and soothing as Coffman’s own grandmother’s. “Try to move your other arm.”
There was no tingling this time. In fact, he barely felt the limb, but it was there. He sensed the movement. He needed to see it, to know if he was going mad. Gritting his teeth, he willed the limb up. His eyes clenched with pain and he didn’t see his arm rise, but he felt it.
When the man said, “Wonderful,” Coffman opened his eyes.
This arm wasn’t his, either.
It wasn’t even human.
PACIFIC OCEAN, NOW
Mark Hawkins reacted to the words without thought. He hadn’t even seen who’d fallen and couldn’t identify who had shouted the words. But he heard the confirming splash and saw several crewmembers on the main deck look over the port rail.
At a run, Hawkins leapt up onto the port rail and launched himself over the side. But he wasn’t on the main deck, which was just eight feet above the waterline. He was on the second deck, twenty- five feet up and six feet in from the main deck’s rail. As he dove out and looked down he saw an undulating, solid mass of plastic, rope, and wood. He had no idea how thick the layer of garbage was, or how dense, but when he didn’t see a body languishing atop it, he knew the crew member who’d fallen overboard was trapped beneath it. He also knew that his landing would hurt.
He heard a gasp as he fell past the main deck, just missing the rail. His feet struck the layer of trash a moment later, punching through like a blunt spear. The rest of his body followed, slipping through the chunky fi lm, but not before becoming tangled in rope. Stunned by the impact and chilled by the Pacific waters, Hawkins nearly panicked, but the memory of someone in need of help kept him focused.
His eyes stung when he opened them. Visibility was poor thanks to a swirling cloud of small plastic chips churned up by his explosive arrival, and worsened by the noonday sun being filtered through layers of colored plastic, casting the depths in dull, kaleidoscopic shades.
He tried to swim, but something tugged at his ankle, rooting him in place. He leaned forward and pulled his leg in close. His ankle was wrapped in a loop of rope bound to a lump of congealed refuse that floated like a giant buoy. Had he landed on the mass, his rescue effort would have been cut abruptly short. Not that it was going well at the moment.
But Hawkins was not completely unprepared. He unclipped the sheath on his belt and freed his seven-and-a-half-inch San Mai Recon Scout hunting knife. The razor-sharp blade cut through the rope like it wasn’t there. After sheathing the blade, Hawkins pushed off the heavy chunk of garbage and swam deeper. Six feet from the surface, he came free from the lowest traces of floating debris and immediately saw the kicking feet of the fallen crewmember just twenty feet away.
As he swam closer, he saw that the small feet were attached to a pair of smooth, lithe legs. The man overboard was a woman.
Dr. Avril Joliet.
Despite being a genius, or damn near close to one, Joliet didn’t always make the best choices. How she’d earned two Ph.D.s in biology and oceanography without getting lost at sea, eaten by a predator, or hit by a bus was beyond Hawkins. It wasn’t that she was absentminded, just impulsive. Quick. But it was those same qualities that allowed her to learn fast, blow the doors off conventional theories, and make discoveries while her peers spent time wondering if they should bother. But this time, Joliet’s speed might have finally caught up with her.
Her quick, jerky movements confirmed his fears. She was stuck. Hawkins swam up behind her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Her white blouse billowed as she spun around, eyes wide with fear. There were a number of predators—large sharks, mostly—that prowled beneath the Garbage Patch, waiting for prey animals to become stuck.
When she saw him, she relaxed, but as she turned, a large,beaked face came into view, startling Hawkins. A burst of bubbles shot from his mouth as he shouted in surprise. When the bubbles cleared, Joliet stared at him with a single eyebrow raised. A second glance over her shoulder revealed the face of a sea turtle, its black eyes staring lifelessly into the abyss.
Confused, Hawkins moved around the oceanographer for a better look. She wasn’t tangled at all!
The turtle, on the other hand, looked like a sacrifice bound to a pillar for some ancient god. Loops of rope around the fi ns held it tight, the struggle for freedom long since abandoned. The loggerhead sea turtle looked like all the others Hawkins had seen, with one startling exception— the body and shell were pinched at the middle, narrowed to a diameter no thicker than Hawkins’s forearm.
What the hell?
Desperate for air, and confused by Joliet’s actions, he hitched him thumb toward the surface and kicked through the layer of trash. Pushing through the refuse, Hawkins took a breath and craned around, looking for the Magellan. The ship cut through the ocean two hundred feet away, coming around in a wide arc.
Joliet surfaced next to him, sucking in three deep breaths and then saying, “You have to help me!”
“The turtle is dead,” he replied.
“Hawkins. Mark. This is an important find. It’s tangible evidence. Provoking. Something like this will be hard to ignore. Who doesn’t love a sea turtle?”
Hawkins didn’t disagree. The loggerhead turtle was an endangered species and images of the deformed creature would make a compelling photographic addition to the article he was writing, but that didn’t mean she had to dive in after it. “It’s not going anywhere. Drake would have come back for it.”
“There isn’t time!” Her eyes were wide. Frightened.
Hawkins had only known Joliet for a month, but in that time he’d seen her step between two fighting crewmen, go toe-to-toe with Captain Drake, and haul in a thirty-pound bluefish, which became a meal for the crew. She wasn’t a timid person. But something had her spooked. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean that usually meant one thing.
“Please tell me it’s not a great white,” Hawkins said with a frown.
Joliet’s eyes somehow widened a little bit more.
He had no doubt she was rethinking the wisdom of her actions. She’d seen the turtle, and then the shark—probably just the dorsal fin—and leapt in without thinking. Like he did when he gave chase.
Just like he did the first time he found himself in a similar situation. And while he had no desire to relive that particular event, they were already in the water, and she was right about the turtle. He drew his knife and held it above the water for her to see. “I’ll cut it free, you hold it.”
Hawkins looked over his shoulder. The Magellan finished its turn and headed back toward them. The crane, which normally lowered submersibles and Zodiacs into the water, rotated out over the water, a line dangling down. If they held on to the wire, the winch would have no trouble plucking them from the ocean. He waved his knife in the air, hoping the glint of sunlight off its blade would alert them to their position. A shark was bad news, but being run over by a two-hundred-seventy-four-foot, three thousand-ton research vessel could really ruin a guy’s day. “It’s going to be dead weight once it’s free, so we’re going to have to time this right.”
With the Magellan closing in, Hawkins said, “Ready?”
“After you,” she replied.
Hawkins didn’t really understand how he’d become the ring leader of this unauthorized salvage, but he was determined to see it through. He pushed the air from his lungs and descended through the debris.
The turtle, still bound to the lump of plastic detritus, was easy to find, despite the poor conditions. Hawkins kicked over to the loggerhead and began cutting away its bonds. As the first flipper came free, Joliet slipped up next to him and took hold of the turtle. He had no idea if the turtle would be buoyant at all—it might sink like a stone—but he hoped there was enough gas trapped in its deformed body to keep it afloat. If it sank, there was no way he and Joliet could keep it aloft.
He moved to the second of the four bound flippers and began hacking away at the ropes. The lines fell away like overcooked spaghetti. Free from its bonds, the turtle fell forward, but its descent stopped when it leveled out. Hawkins allowed himself a grin. Gas trapped beneath the shell would make the job much easier.
Gripping the cut lines, Hawkins pushed himself down and started on the line binding one of the back flippers to the mass. But the knife had no impact.
Steel cable, Hawkins thought. Damn.
A distorted shout and hard tap on his shoulder brought his eyes around. Joliet clung to the turtle with one hand, but the other stabbed out toward the open ocean.
A shadow slid through the debris like a wraith through fog. Circling. Closing in. Sharks weren’t above scavenging the dead, but the electric impulses of their racing hearts and kicking feet drew the predator toward the promise of a fresh meal. Man eating sharks, bears, and big cats were often treated as aberrations needing to be hunted and killed, but Hawkins knew his place in the food chain.
With renewed urgency, Hawkins moved the knife up and hacked off the turtle’s rear flipper. The large reptile came loose, but it didn’t sink. Joliet kept it aloft. Hawkins looked for the shark again, but it was lost in the field of debris. That he couldn’t see the hunter didn’t put him at ease. The sharks ampullae of Lorenzini—jelly-filled electroreceptors on the snout—would easily detect the electric field produced by their bodies. While they were blind,the shark would see them with the clarity of a falcon hovering overhead.
A loud rumble through the water announced the presence of the Magellan, reversing its screws and coming to a stop. Hawkins slid over the top of the turtle, took hold of its shell on either side, and kicked for the surface. He felt lumps of hard plastic bounce off his back as he rose. The debris grew bigger as he neared the surface.
Almost there, he thought. But a garbled scream and jarring impact told him he wouldn’t be reaching the surface. He turned to the right and saw the maw of a great white shark open to envelop him.
Island 731 © Jeremy Robinson 2013