February 9 —
All morning, heavy fog slowed the traffic from Manhattan to Boston and obscured much of the scenery. But after four exhausting hours, the muck lifted, and Eileen whispered a word of thanks to the offshore wind that had done the trick.
Now, skirting the CharlesRiver basin, her eyes kept straying off the road to glance at the chunks of ice and debris floating in the muddy expanse. The messy aftermath was the result of fierce storms and heavy rains that spawned flooding across Massachusetts.
What a relief! The milder day that thwarted the forecasted chilly winds was a welcome change. Yet Eileen shivered, recalling a surge of strange weather had stymied the world’s finest meteorologists. Not that she was a weather nut, but she had a niggling feeling what was happening must be more than just Mother Nature throwing off a fit. A new and unprecedented global nightmare—gales raged, temperatures plummeted. For twelve weeks, sleet pounded New York’s LaGuardia, Newark and JFK, halting all flights. And blizzards blitzkrieged the northern hemisphere from Paris and Berlin onto Moscow and Beijing since early October.
But most bizarre of furies, seven fighter jets had disappeared above the Pacific, east of KyushuIsland, just before a typhoon struck the Japanese archipelago. With fishermen’s claims of seeing streaks of light during the incident and no trace of the crash having been found, alien abduction enthusiasts that normally fielded speculations in tabloids had taken a foothold in the universities.
But Eileen couldn’t resist a troubling suspicion that the downside effect of Mother Nature had taken the seven jets into a suicidal mission, as lately, the Japanese society had ignited a resurgence of seppuku, sparked by movie adaptations of the life of Yukio Mishima’s and other legendary suicides. If so, it could be a sensational “Are the Hornets on a Seppuku Mission?” article for a new upstart monthly magazine, the Raging Planet.
On the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eileen parked her Honda Civic beside the Geology Department. She scooped up her bag and tucked her digital recorder into her pocket. But the moment she opened the door, a gust of wind slammed into her.
“Dammit,” she muttered, hugging her bag tight.
Eileen staggered across the parking lot. As scraps of debris flew and clusters of broken branches fluttered around, she broke into a quarterback’s zigzagging run with her a-frame skirt and on heels. If the Institute’s towering walls made her feel insignificant, this Arctic squall just increased its intimidation. Now the immense buildings and the wide swathes of lawn seemed braced for a battle to the death: the Intellect against Nature.
The door opened for her at just the right moment. “Well, at least something’s on my side,” she said to the boggle-eyed security guard.
Finally in the elevator, on the way to the upper reaches of the edifice where the loftier echelon of genius held court, Eileen blessed the wall mirror for being kinder than she deserved. Once she had straightened her jacket and skirt, she gave her blonde hair a quick brush and reapplied her lipstick. Not bad for thirty-four, her green eyes glimmered with satisfaction; she could still pass for a mid-twenties.
The moment the doors swooshed open, her heart pounded. This really had to work; her career might not hinge on it, but if she could get to the nitty-gritty of Nature’s rage, her article would bump into the frontlines.
Out and down the hallway to the right, she clickity-clacked her way along the oak parquet in rhythm with her racing heartbeat.
The gold-stenciled sign on the clear glass door read: “Professor Wilhelm Wulfstein.”
She knocked. No answer. She knocked again. She pushed the door open.
“Come in,” a gray-haired secretary said from behind her desk.
With a sigh of optimism, Eileen strode inside. “I’m Eileen O’Neill. I’ve an appointment with Professor Wulfstein at two-thirty.”
“I’m sorry; he’s running a bit late.” The secretary gestured toward a corner couch. “Please take a seat.”
Eileen sat down and looked around. It was a memorable sight. A glass cupboard of shelves held plates, awards and other commemorative items that marked a man’s accomplishments in his field. But as she leaned forward for a closer look, she became startled over an oil portrait hanging on the wall; its caterpillar-like eyebrows struck her attention right away. It was Wulfstein, an eminent Professor who had graced every major newspaper. His sharp face, aquiline nose and narrow chin looked too familiar, but it was his alert eyes—piercing and intense, inexpressibly staring back at her—that sent a chill down her spine.
She closed her eyes, recalling her turmoil. Even after three years, the loss of her late husband Jerry was as painful as in those early days. All her dreams and expectations had vanished. How different life would have been if he had survived that expedition to MountUnzen on KyushuIsland. She had warned him to give the volcano more space, but he’d persisted in venturing to the very heart of his research. Still, it came as a shock when Jerry disappeared during that burst of pyroclastic flow.
Calm down, her inner voice said, preferring to savor the good fortune of being granted this interview. Many journalists had tried, but Wulfstein turned them down. She checked her watch—2:46. Has he forgotten? Why so late?
The sharp-tongued weather wizard had been on time for her interview a year ago. She cringed, recalling his response to a Christmas cocktail party invitation by the Dean of his faculty: “I’d rather stroll through a morass of literature than through the twin towers of Babylon.”
Babylon! What a weird expression! Since then, everyone had been anxious about Wulfstein’s statements. His talk around the academic circle about the pulse of the planet and his unorthodox comments on the weather had created scorn and derision among his associates. As a result, he’d become withdrawn and moody, giving his Jekyll and Hyde reputation more credence. Now it was rumored he had an interest in the transcript of the missing Hornets. Odd. Why should a geologist be so interested in an atmospheric incident?
“I’ll be right back,” the secretary said, stepping into the hallway.
Silence, except for a ticking clock.
When Eileen stood and tiptoed to the portrait for a closer look, Wulfstein burst from his office and headed toward the exit.
Her heart jumping, she moved toward him. “Excuse me, Professor. We have an appointment.”
“We do? It’s not on my calendar.”
“I’m Eileen O’Neill. I made the appointment three weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. O’Neill. Next time, verify before you come.”
“We have an appointment, Professor.” She tried to block his path, putting out her hand, but he bypassed her and headed for the hallway. She followed.
Wulfstein held the door open for her to pass through and hurried off.
“What’s happening, Professor?” Eileen asked, trailing behind. “Where are you off to?”
“Not that it concerns you, but I’m on my way home.”
“I can interview you while you drive,” she said. “I have a transcript that will interest you.”
He stopped and turned back. “You mean the Super Hornets?”
She waved some papers before him. “Yes, sir.”
“Who sent it to you?”
“I have my contacts.”
Wulfstein sighed. “Okay, come on then,” he said, quickening his stride. “But I don’t intend to bring you back.”
“That’s fine. I’ll call a cab.”
Once they reached his weather-beaten Volkswagen, Wulfstein signaled her to get in. As she opened the car door, her skirt swirled in the howling wind but she managed to keep it down; but when Wulfstein leaned forward to put his laptop on the back seat, a magnifying glass dropped from his shirt pocket.
Eileen rushed in to pick it up, but her skirt whirled over her head from behind, and after handling the magnifying glass to him, she struggled to appear presentable on her seat before Wulfstein started the engine.
Once neatly belted in, she sighed another relief and pressed the record button of her recorder. “Some scientists are saying the Hornets disappeared because of atmospheric anomalies. What’s your opinion?”
“No comment,” Wulfstein said, looking ahead.
“You’ve said it’s a bad omen.”
“So you already have my opinion.” He drove out of the parking lot, the wind continued to howl.
Eileen weighed her options while more questions flooded her. But a couple of bleeps sounded from his laptop, interrupting her thoughts.
Wulfstein stopped the Beetle at the roadside. He reached for his laptop and switched off the alarm. “It’s nothing serious, only some seismologic activity from SakhalinIsland.”
‘Bloo-oo-oop! Bloo-oo-oop!’ another sound replaced the bleeps.
Eileen looked at the Professor and noted a moment of uncertainty in his eyes. “I’ve heard of this sound before, but what does it signify?”
“Nature has many mysteries. You may Google this ‘bloop’ and find all the speculations you want. What’s strange is that the source of this mystery has been on the move.”
“So what does this mean?”
“Right now, my guess is as good as yours. But I’m picking up underwater soundwaves with the hydrophones in the Pacific and incorporating changes of animal behavior into my analysis.”
“How can you record this sound over such distance?”
“I’ve linked up with Japan’s EarthquakePredictionCenter and relaying via satellites all data to my computer here.” He set the laptop back on the seat.
“And what’s your prediction?” she asked the moment Wulfstein put his car into gear.
“I’m predicting an unprecedented earthquake will soon hit the IzuPeninsula.”
“What sort of timeline are we looking at?”
He looked uncertain for a moment, then whispered, “Within twelve months.”
Eileen looked at him—the dark shadows around his eyes made him look like a tormented soul. He was a bit off kilter and speedy in his thoughts, but IzuPeninsula lay east of the Kantō Plain, and a major hit would be catastrophic to a populated Tokyo. “Can you be more specific?”
“Sorry, I’m still looking into that. There’ve been too many distractions in the office, so I’m doing most of my analysis at home.”
“How can you be sure? Isn’t it true that whatever the computer says depends upon what you’d programmed it to say?”
“This fallacy could easily be avoided if you give the computer intelligence.” He let out a derisive snort when the car stopped at a traffic light. “In integrating seismic activity with changes in animal behavior around Japan, incorporating a bit of aquatic mythology along the way. In doing so, I’ve projected a logical chain of events that could eventuate into my prediction. So I am giving the computer a mind of its own.”
Feeling his smugness, Eileen decided to take a more confrontational route. “The scientific community has called your hypothesis science fiction.”
“Science fiction?” Wulfstein laughed. “No, it’s scientific heresy.”
“They say it’s a product of your imagination.”
“If it’s only my imagination, that’s fine.” His tone hardened. “But my colleagues are so closed-minded. I couldn’t resist stirring them up by poking their asses with a stick.”
“You mean you don’t even care if your science is flawed?”
He stomped on the accelerator when the light turned green, but an edgy silence fell between them. Only a month ago, a tabloid had listed Wulfstein as the most intriguing scientist, a dubious honor. It made him the brunt of endless ribbing from the scientific community. Today, the accolade surfaced to haunt her.
“You may hate to hear this,” Eileen said, “but your statements have created lots of negative reviews.”
“To hell with reviews. On what criteria are they based?”
“They described your hypothesis as unscientific.”
“Then why are you here, Ms. O’Neill?”
“I’m giving you a chance to defend yourself.”
Wulfstein turned silent as Eileen grimaced at his belligerent face. To calm herself, Eileen gazed across the street—the view, lush and grassy on previous visits, was now covered in white. Snow even blanketed the sidewalk. Finally, she decided to change tactics by questioning him on more familiar issues. “I’m interested in your view on the world’s seismic hot spots.”
“There is only one place to watch—Japan—it maybe a Necklace of Islets, but what’s not known is that Japan is also a Necklace of Calderas.”
“Calderas are supervolcanos!”
“Exactly, so why are you shocked?”
Eileen felt heat rushing up on her face. She didn’t realize this odd geologist had taken such an issue so seriously. She stared outside—squatty, hulky and fearsome, a snowplow worked its way like an insect grinding on its feet.
“Besides, Japan sits along the gridlock of tectonic plates that dive into deep trenches,” Wulfstein continued, “yet no scientist has the vision or courage to admit a catastrophe is on its way.”
“These scientists have no vision?” Her husband was different, she protested in her mind.
“Not only that, they’re ignorant, too.”
“I’ve interviewed them, many are experts with decades of experience. Not enough imagination, perhaps, but aren’t these scientists the best in their field?”
“The best?” He sighed, then steered the Beetle through two more turns, maneuvering around icy corners. “In a climate of playing-it-safe, they predicted such quakes could happen during the next twenty-five years, or else, the next hundred years. No one can prove the blind wrong.”
“The blind? Won’t calling them names provoke them even more?”
“If they’re provoked, that’s good.” He tightened his grip as the Beetle bounced over more potholes, spraying roostertails of snowy slush. “Now that you’ve heard my prediction of the Big One, you’re entitled to write more nonsense on the issue.”
Frustrated, Eileen could relate to other journalists who’d enjoyed taunting him. His bloated self-assurance would alienate a colleague or even a friend.
Wulfstein made another turn and stopped his Volkswagen in front of a driveway. “Now that I have answered all your questions, Mrs O’Neill, can you show me the transcript?”
“Certainly.” From her bag, she took the transcript and thrust it at him. “You can read it for yourself.”
Wulfstein scanned the contents. “Mayday . . . mayday. We’re having an unexpected strong tailwind,” he whispered. “This isn’t working. This isn’t working.
“A damned blitz of light. Mayday . . . mayday . . . Can’t do it manually.”
He turned to Eileen. “Do you have any idea what this means?”
“No, not really.” She shook her head. “I was hoping you’d know.”
“It seems bizarre there was a sudden blitz of light.”
“None of the electronics are working. This is bad. This is . . . ” His eyebrows furrowed. “Unreadable. Where’s the audio tape?”
“The Japanese have it. The planes just disappeared, but were they on a suicide mission?”
He flinched, ignoring her question. “But what was that blitz of light?”
“Nobody knows. There were lots of static between transmissions which might give some clues.”
“Damn.” Wulfstein jumped from the car. He slammed the door, rushed into his cottage, and slammed the cottage’s door as well.
What a frosty response! Weird—there hadn’t been a chance to ask him how such an atmospheric incident could be linked to his geological work, or why scientists had been thwarted by a spurt of climatic oddities.
Hoping to pursue such questions, Eileen gathered her belongings and got off the Beetle. The wind had calmed and she strode up the path. All was silent, except for the dog barking inside. She knocked, then pounded, but the dog barked louder.
Weird—there wasn’t any chance.
Eileen gathered her thoughts. A psychologist she had interviewed told her a person environments revealed the personality and character of its inhabitants. So she studied the Professor’s homestead. The brightly painted homestead wasn’t what she had expected.
In the soft haze along the forecourt of cobblestones, a few mighty oaks from the adjacent neighborhood cast long shadows. Snow covered the quaint surroundings, but trimmings of purple and red from a genus of maple still dazzled the garden with a surreal aura, creating a haunting effect in the dead of winter. Although crystalline flakes still whirled about, a sense of tranquility prevailed.
In solitude, she looked across the street. The chestnut trees lay barren, but as thunder rumbled in the distance, it was the dusky twilight that reminded her of the dangers that might come after dark.
She searched her handbag for her cell phone.
“Damn it,” she muttered, realizing she’d left it in her car. Seized with foreboding, she tried to be positive, comforted by the thought of a stormy article for the monthly magazine. Besides, she had little time left—there was that forthcoming interview with Mrs Okino in Tokyo—with an opportunity of asking if this cranky planet had driven the seven pilots to a suicide mission.
Eileen remembered while staying at Mrs Okino’s home years ago as an exchange student, she watched such movies with the Okino’s family, how toward every ascendancy, Yukio Mishima’s and other legendary figures’ agonizing suicides always ended with so much artistry, splendor and intensity. Feeling flabbergasted and yet intrigued, Eileen had sworn she would return to Japan to learn more. Now that such seppuku had taken a revival in Japan, she just couldn’t shake off the inkling that Major Okino had followed the creepy path of Mishima. Why only in Japan were such excruciating deaths so much aggrandized, influencing many of the young and vibrant to follow suit? She shook her head.
Hoping the trek back to the Institute would clear her mind, Eileen turned and headed to the street.
So astounded was the puzzles surrounding Major Okino and the surge of seppuku that she stood implacable near the street corner, not knowing which way to turn. Soon, her eyes just fixed on the mighty oaks swaying in the distance, reminiscing, oblivious to the cold and reverberating danger that could soon arise. Are the latest phenomena an indication that the Japanese are seeking strength from the very roots of their culture—the Hagakure, Chushinguru, Noh and Kabuki—and if so, why do their central themes all converged around a suicide?
A taxi pulled up, startling her. “Are you Eileen O’Neill?” the driver asked, smiling. “I’m here to take you back to MIT.”
Confused and puzzled, Eileen stared at the driver for a long moment. Finally, she asked, “Who called for your service?”