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Thursday, January 11th 2018, 8:55pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury

An interlude in the voyage of the survey ship Komet.


Thursday, January 11th 2018, 8:58pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (1) - Arrival

Survey Ship Komet, 12 dgs 5 min South, 78 dgs 17 min East, Sunday, 18 July 1948

Fregattenkapitän Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock ordered the quartermaster to alter the ship’s course to the northwest, towards the small plume of smoke that could be seen on the horizon. He had little idea of what to expect, and as they closed it appeared that the smoke they had seen emanated from a small island, or islet. Willenbrock ordered the Komet to slow to five knots and the echo-sounder to search for any reefs, pinnacles of rock, or other hazards of which the ship might run afoul.

“So Herr Kapitän, we have arrived at our destination?” It was the chief scientist on this cruise, Günter Dietrich, who stepped onto the bridge unbidden.

“Yes Herr Professor,” Willenbrock replied with good grace. “Though what we are supposed to find here eludes me.” All through the voyage Dietrich had given the suggestion that he know what they might find.

“If my research is correct,” Dietrich declaimed snobbishly, “we should find the island of great apes investigated by Professor Farnsworth of the American Museum of Natural History.”

Willenbrock recalled seeing the story of the great ape, “King Kong”, in a cinema many years before. He considered it more an example of the feverish imagination of an American hack writer. “Surely you are joking,” he retorted.

“Farnsworth led a scientific expedition to the ‘island of the great apes’ in 1933, and recovered a number of specimens for study. Unfortunately his surviving notes failed to properly document the island’s location, but by all accounts it was in this area. The island was described as having a volcano, which the island ahead, clearly has.” Willenbrock took up his binoculars and scanned the horizon. “Herr Professor,” he asked, “how many islands did Farnsworth’s report speak of?”

“Only one of course,” Dietrich countered. “Why?” Now it was Willenbrock’s turn to demonstrate superior knowledge. “From here I can see at least three islands or islets, widely separated.”

It was true. There was one larger mass that dominated the eastern side, and a smaller yet substantial mass on the western side, with a small islet in the centre of what ought to be a channel into a lagoon. The reports from the echo-locator more than enough water under the Komet’s keel to permit her approach to the island, and Willenbrock carefully conned the ship through the narrow entrance.

Once inside they found the Komet was in the midst of a nearly circular lagoon, with nearly sheer cliffs on the islands forming it. In the centre two small islets poked above the sea. The smell of sulphur pervaded the lagoon, and on the larger land mass – which encircled the eastern half of the lagoon – fumaroles seemed to emit a continuous stream of volcanic steam, dust, and ash.

Willenbrock ordered the Komet to anchor, preparatory to carrying out further investigations.


Friday, January 12th 2018, 5:12pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (2) – Discoveries

The first discovery made by the Komet and her crew presented itself the moment the ship dropped anchor – the centre of the lagoon had no good holding ground, the Komet paying out more than two hundred metres of anchor chain and failing to find bottom. It was only when the ship moved closer to the shore of the eastern island could they find a spot where they could anchor – and then they were dangerously close to a lee shore.

There they rode out the night, delaying a landing until morning. The lookouts noted the eerie absence of natives of any sort, or birds, or any other signs of life commonly associated with islands. If this was the ‘Island of the Great Apes’ they had certainly forsaken their homes. Professor Dietrich and several other scientists insisted on being among the landing party that went ashore shortly after dawn. They were not quite prepared for what they found.

What little level ground to be seen was covered in layers of volcanic ash – small cinders mixed with fine particles amidst fields of larger boulders. Sulphurous gasses were emitted by numerous fumaroles, a danger that all in the landing party were made aware of when one of the scientists collapsed and the party had to withdraw. Not an insect, tree, or other plant – save small patches of lichens – were to be found in the vicinity.

Back aboard the Komet the stricken scientist rapidly recovered – aided by the administration of oxygen by the ship’s medical officer. Willenbrock asked Professor Dietrich for his initial assessment, and the latter was quick to come up with a theory.

“The lagoon,” he said, “is a volcanic caldera. At some point in time this island suffered a huge volcanic explosion, which ripped out the heart of it, and deposited the ash and boulders we discovered ashore. The fact that life has not yet had the opportunity to recolonise the island suggests that this event happened not too long ago. Indeed, the volcano may still be active. You have seen the bubbling of the waters near the centre of the lagoon?”

Willenbrock had seen the disturbance of the otherwise calm waters. “Our anchorage here is a poor one, and if there is the possibility of further volcanic activity the safety of the ship demands we leave the lagoon. Until we learn more, we will stand off the islands and send parties ashore to continue your investigations.”

Dietrich fulminated against the captain’s caution to no effect.


Saturday, January 13th 2018, 10:29pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (3) – Explorations

The following morning found the Komet riding leisurely off the easternmost, and largest, of the several islands that made up the lagoon. Here at least she could anchor in comparative safety, though several kilometres from the shore. The first party sent ashore – composed of naval personnel despite Dietrich’s objections – reported that here at least the presence of dangerous gasses was much reduced – due perhaps to the constant ocean breezes dispersing them. In the afternoon Dietrich’s party of scientists at last had the opportunity to begin their investigations in earnest; while a camp was thrown up on the rocky foreshore Dietrich led a group to reconnoitre the immediate vicinity.

On this side of the main island, at least, there was evidence of life – here and there blades of grass forced their way sunward through ash layers, and the fire-blasted remains of larger trees were mute evidence that once this had been a verdant island. One of the specialists found burrowing insects attempting to colonise the land – the first inhabitants to be discovered.

“Herr Professor!” came a shout from one of the wandering scientists. His call attracted the attention of his fellows, who came running to the top of a small hillock, on the other side of which was mute evidence that the island had once been inhabited – perhaps not by humans, but by some large creature. Before them were the half-buried bones of… something. The extremities of the bones were fire-blackened, but the lower portions were sun-bleached white, suggesting that once the creature whose remains these were had died carrion-feeders had completed the work of the volcanic explosion.

Aboard Komet, Willenbrock was not idle. A complete survey of the island’s coast was begun – a task that would probably take a week or more – and parties in boats taking soundings supplemented the readings from the ship’s fathometer. As was normal, weather balloons were launched to gain data on weather conditions aloft. A coded message was sent to the Admiralstab in Berlin announcing their preliminary findings, with a request for further instructions.


Sunday, January 14th 2018, 11:01am

Some mysterious stuff, wonder how this might turn out.


Wednesday, January 17th 2018, 9:51pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (4) – Excursions and Alarums

While the scientific staff under Dietrich’s leadership continued their exploration of the largest island, the Komet’s crew continued the systematic survey of the coastline of the other islands surrounding the caldera, even sending parties ashore where it seemed prudent to do so. The found most, if not all, of the vegetation swept away, and no signs of higher life – consistent with the discoveries made on the main island. The seaward sides of the outer islands were nearly as abrupt as those that faced the lagoon – with very poor holding ground for any sort of large vessel to anchor.

Dietrich’s main efforts centred on the recovery of the bones – or at least some of them – from the remains of the giant creature they had found earlier. These were carefully extracted and preserved in plaster casts – much like fossils, though these bones were far more fragile. Dietrich ordered them sent to the Komet by boat as soon as possible.

“What we see,” he explained to Willenbrock, “is but an intermediate stage in the life of this island. The cataclysm that wiped out the great apes and blasted it to ashes has but paused. The volcano – now beneath the waters of the lagoon – is merely dormant; it could come to life tomorrow or in a century. We do not know enough to predict.”

Willenbrock realised that had the island proved inhabitable the Admiralstab might have been tempted to develop it as a naval base; but the poor anchorage, the danger of the volcano, and even the lack of water and vegetation on the steep slopes put such thoughts completely out of mine. These warnings he included in his second coded cable to Berlin.

That night – the fifth after their arrival – those members of the survey party who had remained ashore to continue their work were awoken by a strong, sharp temblor – which only served to confirm the dangerous situation in which the Komet found itself.


Sunday, January 21st 2018, 9:35pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (5) – Differences of Opinion

The conference in Willenbrock’s day cabin continued – and Dietrich raised his voice once again.

“You cannot be serious in your intentions to depart! We have only just begun our work here; what we have found is of prime scientific importance. I cannot allow you to interrupt my research…”

Willenbrock looked up from the table and spoke in measured tones. “Herr Professor, permit me to remind you that this is a vessel of the Deutsches Kriegsmarine, and that you, and your assistants, are under naval discipline in accordance with the Articles of War.”

Dietrich realised that he had gone too far. The day before Willenbrock had announced that the Komet would sail from the lagoon within forty-eight hours, citing the danger to the ship due to the lack of a safe harbour, and the potential danger to the scientific staff from the recurrent earthquakes and out-gassing of volcanic fumes. “Forgive me,” said Dietrich trying another tack, “but certainly you can understand the value to science of this discovery?”

“Indeed I do Herr Professor,” Willenbrock admitted. “And if our expedition had known what might be found and been properly prepared for it, I might be willing to risk remaining further. But in the last twenty-four hours there have been three earthquakes that we can be sure of – as we do not have a seismograph to properly record them. Two of your staff have been injured by rock slides, and another still suffers the effects of poisoning from volcanic gas – and we lack the proper protective equipment. There is no safe anchorage for the ship, leaving us vulnerable to any storm that might suddenly appear. My first duty is to the safety of my ship and crew – which, for better or worse – includes yourself.”

Dietrich was not about to give up. “But I and my associates can remain on the island until your return. I am certain that Berlin will follow-up our discoveries with a much more prepared expedition…”

Willenbrock sighed. “Herr Professor, that would take weeks, if not months. What would you eat? What would you drink? The islands are nearly devoid of plant life, and you have yet to find a source of potable water. The stores aboard Komet are finite, and I cannot divest the ship of its lifeblood. My decision is final. We sail tomorrow at dawn – I suggest you complete your initial surveys before nightfall.”

Dietrich was dismissed.


Wednesday, January 24th 2018, 9:56pm

Scenes of Fire and Fury (6) – Open Ended Questions

The Komet departed the lagoon and its islands as Willenbrock had promised, heading eastward towards the rising sun. His intention was to call at the Indochinese port of Cam Rahn Bay and discuss their findings with Konteradmiral Rogge, commander of the East Asia Squadron. As deficient an anchorage as the lagoon was, and as unstable and uninviting as the islands surrounding it were, it was a terra nullius, a no-mans-land claimed by no nation – and as such it had potential strategic value. Willenbrock had eschewed staking any formal claim of discovery or possession during his survey, doubtful of its long-term usefulness; but that did not mean that other nations might not be tempted to do so. As the Komet’s diesels urged her towards her destination, Willenbrock brooded over the implications.

In his cabin below decks Dietrich poured his anger and disdain into a report that would be filed with…? He broke off in mid-sentence – he recognised that the Kriegsmarine would react badly to what he had written. No, he would prepare a straight-forward factual report of their discoveries for the Kriegsmarine, but separately he would write an article – perhaps two or three – outlining the need for continuing investigation of the implications of the volcanic origins of what they discovered, what had become of the great apes that had inhabited the island – or so he believed – before the eruption that had blasted the island into its present state. Further investigations ought not to be under the auspices of the military – no, a purely scientific endeavour under the leadership of an eminent scientist – someone like himself. Yes, that would be his approach. Build popular demand for a return…