8 THE SHIRAMINE

Niigata City lay about two hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen. The Shiramine Maru was docked at the West Port, located just adjacent to the city centre. Shinsou arrived in the late morning, and was surprised to see Kaneshiro waiting along the road near the port entrance, together with his wife and baby son.

Kaneshiro was, to all intents and purposes, busy showing his son the ships, but he turned his head slightly and gave Shinsou a small nod as he walked past. Shinsou knew that his supervisor had taken leave to return to his home city for a few days, and guessed that his actual motive was to see his trainees off on their first assignment.

The Shiramine was an ageing ferry that had been bought over by Chongryon the previous year, under the pretext that it wanted to bring its members out to the Sea of Japan once a month for a leisure cruise. The ship was supposedly capable of carrying two hundred passengers in forty cabins of different types, according to a brochure produced by Chongryon, and it offered a restaurant, two bars, a shop and other amenities including a sauna, slot machines, a shop and a karaoke room.

What the brochure failed to mention was that none of the above facilities was operating. The restaurant was closed; meals were to be taken in the dining room, which was decked out with North Korean flags and furnished with cheap plastic tables and chairs. The bars were not open, nor was the sauna or shop. Only the slot machines and karaoke room were functioning.

The crew consisted entirely of Zainichi Koreans, all of whom had been screened carefully by Chongryon to ensure that they were sympathetic to the regime in North Korea. They did, however, speak Japanese better than Korean, because they had been living in Japan all their lives; and this had greatly relieved Ryoko, whose Korean was still less than passable.

There were only a few new crew members, and the first thing they did was receive a briefing by the Chongryon official on board the ship, a man who went by the ubiquitous name of Kim.

He was a soft-spoken individual, but there was something sinister about him that made the crew give him their undivided attention. The rest of the crew referred to him as "Chongryon Kim", and whispered to one another that he actually belonged to the Bowibu, or dreaded North Korean Secret Police.

"No doubt you already know," said Chongryon Kim, taking a drag on his cigarette and then blowing a generous amount of smoke into the faces of the newcomers, "the Shiramine is not going on a cruise, but to Wonsan. Our passengers are not on a leisure trip, but are going to visit their relatives in North Korea. The Japanese government suspects what we are doing. Any member of crew on board who is discovered leaking information about this will suffer consequences."

He picked up an umbrella that was lying on a rack nearby, and at the touch of his hand it promptly burst into flames. The crew members backed away, startled.

Chongryon Kim held on to the smouldering umbrella until it disintegrated into cinders. He then let it fall onto the floor.

"You're all new," he said softly to the crew members, "do you know why we needed to employ new staff? Some of the previous staff were suspected of leaking information. They suffered a similar fate as this umbrella, and so did their family members. Have a care not to end up going in the same manner." He let his cigarette fall to the ground, and stepped on it to extinguish it. "Clean up the mess," he said briefly, glancing at the charred umbrella. And then he walked off without another look at them.

Shinsou felt a light touch on his elbow. He turned, but there was no one there. However, someone presently spoke in his ear, and he realised that it was an invisible Nakajima.

"Volunteer to clean the mess up," he whispered, "Send the others away."

"I'll clear this," Shinsou said to the others, "Tell the First Mate I'll be along in a minute for his brief."

He went off and got a broom, and as he slowly swept the remains of the umbrella away, Nakajima said quietly to him, "I've checked the hold and there's nothing but bottled water there. Once the First Mate has briefed you and you've settled in, casually brainwash everyone, especially the Captain, Jang, the First Mate, Hwang, and this Chongryon devil, and find out if there's anything stowed away somewhere where we can't see it."

Shinsou nodded.

"I'll either be at the bow of the ship or in the hold, if you need to tell me anything," added Nakajima. And then he was gone.

Shinsou disposed of the remains of the umbrella, and then hurried off to join the others. By chance he met the First Mate, whose name was Hwang, on his way to the briefing. He greeted Hwang, and since they were alone, he brainwashed him.

Hwang didn't know of any illegal cargo stashed on board. Shinsou spied the crew's roster in his hand, and took the opportunity to check on his own duties. He was sharing a cabin with another deckhand, also surnamed Jang, whom he knew – from the other crewmembers' gossip – was the captain's nephew. The rest of the crew referred to him as "Lazy Jang", for he avoided work whenever he could, or did it badly. First Mate Hwang apparently often shouted at him, but to no avail. And the captain refused to sack him.

Shinsou saw that he himself was scheduled to do the eight to twelve lookout watch, meaning 0800 to 1200 hours and 2000 to 2400 hours. He also saw that he had been rostered to clean the toilets and empty the garbage, so he told the brainwashed Hwang to re-assign these to Lazy Jang, and to let him sweep and mop the deck instead, check on the bottled water in the hold, and regularly bring these up to distribute to the crew and passengers.

After the First Mate had briefed the newcomers, they had a look at their cabins. These had no beds, only mattresses on the floor. Water in the ship's bathrooms was unreliable, and when available, was brown, which explained the huge stash of water in the hold. The water was contained in large, industrial-looking plastic bottles, and it was one of the deckhands' jobs to regularly bring boxes of these up and distribute them, especially to the galley where the food was being prepared.

The next few hours were busy, preparing the ship for departure. Items had to be secured on deck and in the hold, and Shinsou had to help remove the gangway when the ship finally departed.

He couldn't suppress a surge of excitement as the Shiramine made its way out of the port and into the Sea of Japan. He had been preparing for months for this, and now they were finally on their way. Nakajima seemed sober enough at the moment, and even Ryoko had improved slightly in her scatterbrained ways. Shinsou entertained some dim hope that they would be able to survive this one trip, at any rate.

He had gone down to the hold earlier to check that the bottled water was lashed down securely. There was a pretty little brown and white dog there, which First Mate Hwang said was called Yoshi; he was the ship's mascot, and Hwang warned the deckhands not to disturb him. Yoshi considered the far end of the hold and everything within it his territory, including whatever bottled water happened to be placed there, and so the deckhands were not to touch the bottles there until all the others had run out, unless they wanted a hand or leg removed by the sharp teeth of Yoshi-chan.

Distributing the bottled water turned out to be useful for brainwashing. Shinsou managed to casually brainwash the captain and Chongryon Kim, but both said the Shiramine wasn't transporting anything illegal.

He managed to check on Ryoko as well, when he brought the bottled water to the galley. She was with another assistant cook, taking instructions from the chief cook. Her face brightened when she saw Shinsou with the trolley of bottled water, and she hurried over and brought him to a side room where the food supplies were stored.

"Ohh, did you see Kaneshiro-san near the entrance of the port just now?" was the first thing she said, breathlessly, "Oh he came to see us off! Oh it was so sweet of him! Did you see his wife? She's pretty, but nowhere near as good-looking as him! Oh, and his little boy looks just like him! – "

"I hope you didn't go running up to him," Shinsou interrupted, frowning.

"I did, actually," said Ryoko, blushing and looking guilty, "He looked stern and reminded me that I wasn't supposed to know him. But he told me to take my seasick pills before I left, so he can't have been that angry, can he?" She looked hopeful.

Shinsou looked exasperated. "Why don't you think before you do these things?"

"Oh, I know, I know," she said dolefully, "I'll try harder." She looked pleadingly at Shinsou.

Shinsou wheeled the trolley to one side of the room, and deposited the bottles there, with Ryoko fussing around anxiously.

"This is a disgusting old tub, isn't it?" she whispered indignantly, "Only the passengers and senior crew have beds in their cabins! I'm sure our mattresses have bugs in them! And the water from the taps is awful! We're cooking and washing everything with these stupid bottles of water! Have you noticed they're not even sealed? I bet they're just normal empty bottles that have been filled with tap water on land!"

Shinsou hadn't realised this.

"I hope they're clean enough for consumption," he said, sceptically, examining one of the bottles. "Who knows where the water came from."

"Kaneyama-san's making us boil all of it first," said Ryoko, reassuringly. She gestured at an array of bottles nearby that contained boiled water.

"Is the chief cook Japanese?" asked Shinsou, referring to Kaneyama.

"He's a Zainichi Korean who's opted to use his tsumei," said Ryoko – most Zainichi Koreans had a tsumei or Japanese name, as well as a Korean name – "It makes it easier for him to find employment in Japan that way. Chongryon Kim doesn't approve of him, though," her voice dropped to a whisper, "He thinks he's betrayed the Koreans by doing that."

"I hope you've been taking your shapeshifting medicine," added Shinsou, referring to Yoshida's hairs.

Ryoko's eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. She started feeling wildly around in her pockets, a worried look on her face. Shinsou, with a resigned expression, took a small container from his pocket, and extracted one strand of hair from it.

"You'd better be more vigilant," he said irritably, as she hurriedly swallowed the hair, "I may not be able to come to the galley regularly to check on you. If you give us away, I'm going to strangle you!"

"Yes, yes, I know," gulped Ryoko, "I'm so sorry!"

They were interrupted at this point by the other assistant cook. He was a small little man with glasses, and he had an annoyingly high-pitched voice and talked extremely fast.

"Jiyeon! There you are! Chief cook Kaneyama is wondering where you've gone off to! What are you doing here? Who's this?" He stared at Shinsou. "I saw the two of you talking in an intimate fashion! Are you having an illicit and secret relationship with another member of the crew?"

"Oh no, no, no, no, of course not," said Ryoko, going red and looking extremely guilty, "This is Han Young-jae; he's just the deckhand that brought the water up, that's all."

"Wellyouknowit'snotadvisabletogetinvolvedwithanothermemberofthecrew," said the assistant cook, talking even faster, "It'snotintherulesofcourse, butI'vereadupaboutit – "

"I'd best get going," said Shinsou, looking in bemusement at the small man, "I'll bring another load of water up in a while."

"Oh yes, yes, of course," said Ryoko, flustered. She hurried back into the kitchen. The little man gave Shinsou a hard stare, before turning and following her.

Dinner was at six, after which Shinsou had a bit of time before his lookout duty at eight, so he wandered out to the bow of the ship. The wind was blowing hard, and it was rather cold, since it was now early October. It was exhilarating standing near the prow, getting a feel of how fast the ship was moving, with the open sea stretching away around him.

He sensed something move slightly near him, and that he wasn't alone.

"Nakajima-san?" he said.

"I'm here," said Nakajima quietly. "You'd do well to remember I'm Han Kyungju, now that we've left Japan."

"Yes, sir," said Shinsou.

"Anything to report?" asked Nakajima.

"No," said Shinsou, "I've brainwashed almost everyone … the captain, first mate, incinerator Kim, and other crew … there doesn't seem to be anything except bottled water on board this ship."

"What about in the past, or in the future?" said Nakajima.

"I asked them that, too," said Shinsou, "They replied in the negative for the past, and didn't know of any future plans to transport anything unusual, either."

"All right, then," said Nakajima, "But it won't be the end of the assignment for us. Even if they're not smuggling anything now, it doesn't mean things won't change in the future. We'll probably have to monitor this ship for the next few months, at least."

Shinsou nodded. Kaneshiro had briefed him earlier on this.

"And keep an eye out," added Nakajima, "The ship's probably going to transform, soon. It'll be interesting to watch it happening."

"Yes, sir," said Shinsou. He had known about this from the reports that Watanabe, the covert operative based in Wonsan, had sent back to the Directorate. The Shiramine had been going out to sea for the past few months, but never had Watanabe or any of the other covert operatives based in North Korea ever seen it docked at Wonsan or other North Korean ports like Chongjin or Hungnam at those times. Instead, another vessel called the Kirogi had appeared at Wonsan.

Shinsou had asked the other deckhands about it, since the entire crew knew that they were going to North Korea. They had told him that Chongryon Kim had said that the Shiramine, a Japanese ship, could not be seen in North Korea. First Mate Hwang, the deckhands said, had a Quirk that could transform the appearance of the Shiramine so that it would be unrecognisable once it came into port. The captain normally waited until night fell and they had reached international waters before switching the ship's transponder off and telling Hwang to make the transformation.

"You'd best get going," said Nakajima, "Your watch is due to start."

Shinsou looked surprised, but Nakajima said, "I had a look at the rosters. And checked on Hirano. Keep an eye on her, will you? That pesky assistant cook with her is a busybody, and she's going to let something slip sooner or later."

Shinsou nodded again, and then left the bow. Being invisible certainly had its advantages, he thought. It was heartening to know that Nakajima seemed sober and alert and aware of what was going on.

Shinsou's watch was on the bridge, and it had hardly started when the transformation took place. Captain Jang casually had the transponder switched off, and then just said, "OK," to Hwang. Shinsou hardly even saw Hwang doing anything. So long as he was touching part of the ship, it seemed that he was able to effect the change.

There was no immediate obvious difference. The bridge and everything else on board the ship remained unmodified. Because it was night, Shinsou was only able to appreciate the change the next day, when he saw the ship in daylight. The outer hull had changed colour from white to black, and the name of the ship had now become Kirogi, with the Korean words in Hangul positioned below the romanized letters.

Otherwise, the remaining four hours of Shinsou's night watch passed uneventfully. The watch objective was mainly to keep a lookout for other ships in the vicinity in order to avoid collisions (especially now that their transponder had been switched off), or for anything else unusual in the water that might pose a hazard to the ship. Shinsou had been paired with a senior watchstander since he was new, and so things were quite relaxed. The senior allowed him to go outside onto the bridge wing occasionally to get some fresh air and stretch his legs, or even take some time off to walk around the deck.

The next morning passed uneventfully, with another watch from eight to twelve. After lunch, Shinsou was dutifully mopping the deck when he found Lazy Jang lying in a corner, snoring.

He woke Lazy Jang and brainwashed him, and made him do the mopping. He was standing by, looking out over the expanse of blue that was the Sea of Japan, when Ryoko, her face green, came running over to the side of the ship, and threw up.

"Oh dear," she moaned, when she saw Shinsou, "I feel horrible."

Shinsou glanced around, but nobody else was on deck except them and Lazy Jang. He didn't think it a good idea for too many people to notice that he and Ryoko knew each other.

"What's happened to your seasick pills?" he asked, not looking too sympathetic.

"They don't seem to be working any more," she groaned, sitting down on the floor of the deck, "I feel ghastly. Absolutely ghastly."

"And I hope you've been taking your hairs," added Shinsou, sitting down next to her.

"I did," she moaned, "Luckily they seem to have stayed down."

"Aren't you supposed to be doing something now?" enquired Shinsou.

"No, I'm on a rest break," she said, her face looking greener than ever, "Kaneyama sent me out here to get some fresh air."

They were interrupted at this point by the furtive small person of the other assistant cook.

"Aha, Jiyeon! There you are!" he exclaimed triumphantly, spotting her, "I have been searching all around for you!"

"Oh no," moaned Ryoko, "No, no, no, no, don't come and add to my misery."

"Who's this?" said the assistant cook, glaring at Shinsou, "it's your deckhand boyfriend again, isn't it?" He looked jealous.

"Don't be silly," said Ryoko wearily, "and stop following me around. You're making me feel more ill. Go and … and do something else, admire the view of the Sea of Japan, or something!"

"Ohh, you called it Sea of Japan!" said the assistant cook, looking shocked, "You should call it the East Sea! You're not a true Korean!"

Ryoko had clapped her hand over her mouth, but Shinsou said mildly, "East Sea, Sea of Japan, it's the same sea. It's not a big deal, and not worth arguing over."

The assistant cook adopted a militant posture.

"ThenameEastSeahasbeenusedmuchlongerthanSeaofJapan!" he began shrilly, "AttheSixthUnitedNationsConferenceontheStandardization ofGeographicalNames, itwasdisclosedthat – " His face went blank.

"Go back to the galley and make yourself useful there," said Shinsou, looking bored.

The little man obediently turned around, and made his way back across the deck.

"Who is this guy?" asked Shinsou, watching as he disappeared.

"His name is Lee Sang-hun," said Ryoko, with an expression of despair on her face, "He's the other assistant cook. He keeps following me around!"

"Maybe he likes you," commented Shinsou.

"Well, I don't like him," said Ryoko flatly, "He's so irritating! He keeps showing off and spouting stuff, trying to appear knowledgeable!"

"What sort of stuff?" asked Shinsou.

"Oh … politics, history, that sort of thing," said Ryoko distractedly, "Like that United Nations stuff he was spouting just now. He seems to know a lot about it … although," she admitted, "I guess if he's making it all up, I'd be too dumb to know."

Shinsou spotted some other members of crew appearing in the distance. Lazy Jang had finished mopping, so he retrieved the mop from him and made him walk some distance away before waking him up.

"I'm off," he said to Ryoko, "it won't do if people keep seeing that we know each other."

She nodded miserably, then jumped up all of a sudden and ran to the side of the ship to throw up again.

.

.

Theirs was a journey of approximately twenty-eight hours. The ship had left Niigata City at four in the afternoon, and so it was early evening by the time the North Korean coast was finally sighted. Shinsou happened to be up on deck at that moment, and there were no words to quite describe his feelings when he first saw the dark smudge of land on the horizon. He had heard so many grim tales about that country, and had spent so many months preparing for this mission, and here they were now, finally reaching their destination.

And so it came to be, that at eight o'clock that evening, the black ferry Kirogi finally sailed into the harbour, and docked at the port of Wonsan.