Over Mount Fuji (10)

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 May 15 —
Eileen O’Neill knocked.

Silence.

She knocked again.

Still no answer. She turned the knob and pushed the door open. When she entered Wulfstein’s stuffy lab at the Earthquake Research Institute, the smell of coffee overwhelmed her.

Upon seeing her at the door, Wulfstein’s face lit up with twinkles in his eyes. “It must be over two months since Boston? Sorry for my hastiness then, Ms O’Neill.”

“Three and a half months to be exact,” she replied. “It’s okay; I’m used to such crises.”

He shut the door and ushered her to a seat facing his desk. “My old secretary just quit, and the new one hadn’t quite worked out my system, so the clutter stacked up and not much got done.”

“It must be inconvenient,” she said, her eyes roaming around—equipment and models, maps and files—cluttered every table. With a lab this cramped, he might as well work in a closet.

“Look at it all.” Wulfstein gestured at the files on his desk. “Three days of scribbling and reports are piling up like garbage.”

Mount-FujiEileen studied him while he cleared his desk. Poor guy. His hair appeared thinner and grayer. “Can I help?”

“It would be difficult unless you know my job. Just give me a minute.” He stacked a few files up to clear some space, then removed a magnifying glass and placed them all beside a globe on another table.

His easy manner softened her apprehension. He stood and smiled at her as he pushed the antenna back into his laptop. She returned his smile and for a few seconds felt a connection.

“Coffee?” Wulfstein asked.

“Black, thanks,” she replied, looking at his aquiline nose and narrow chin with fine wrinkles before he strolled to the coffeemaker in one corner of the lab. “Professor, how do you handle the stress here?”

“Please call me Wilhelm. Why do you ask?”

“You look tired and composed,” she said, waiting for the professor to return. “Yet you seem easy going today.”

“Here’s your coffee, and I also have some macadamia nuts.” Wulfstein poured them into two bowls and placed each on the table. “Now, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.”

She took her cup and bowl of macadamias, feeling flattered the Professor had taken time out to discuss a subject close to his heart. She turned on her recorder. “You predicted an IzuPeninsula earthquake, but not the Rockdale quake?”

“We’re still behind in our analysis.” Wulfstein leaned forward. “Some years ago scientists in the States thought they had elements of precursors which might indicate a quake is imminent.”

Eileen checked her recorder to ensure it was running.

“They looked for patterns of movements in the earth’s crust, changes to water levels in wells, quantity of radon gas seeping from the ground. But their findings were complicated by the presence of some electromagnetic signals.”

Her heart jumped as Jerry’s voice rang in her ears. He had mentioned these mysterious elements. “What are these electromagnetic signals? And why are they relevant?”

“They’re emitted by rocks under compression or split from tectonic forces.”

“But these same electromagnetic elements were detected just before Ito Maru and Kaiiko disappeared. Is there more to it than earth science?”

Wulfstein sighed, his face inscrutable. “Planet Earth is full of mysteries. It keeps plaguing us with confusing signs.” He stood up and strolled to the window facing the southwest.

She followed him. “Even with all our technology?”

“Yes, unfortunately. In China, their predictions have more success and recognition.”

His words stunned her—such acknowledgement was coming from an academic of Ivy League. “How do the Chinese make their predictions?”

“Just by observation. But our seismological analysis doesn’t give much credence to empirical methodology.”

“Should we then consider their method as common sense?”

“Common sense isn’t that common, Eileen. Much like one needs two eyes to see distance, our singular approach to issues isn’t just incomplete but misleading.”

Wulfstein squinted at Mount Fuji in the distance. Summer had come early and droplets of sweat trickled down his forehead.

“Science and mythology are compatible fields that can be used to find the same truth.” He sighed and then turned to Eileen. “Haven’t you heard of the Unifying Theory? Can’t you see that this broader approach is a much better way to understand the same issue?”

She arched her eyebrows but remained silent. Something seemed to captivate him as the sacred volcano appeared floating in the mist.

“The problem is that quakes are hard to pinpoint,” he continued. “For a start, there are about ten to twenty miles of dirt, rock and fluid between us. And we can’t place our sensors deep in the mantle where a major rupture may occur.”

Eileen squinted over the horizon. All his points seem valid. But why the scientific community doesn’t take him seriously? Mount Fuji had not erupted for almost two months. But when the volcano emerged from the mist into the sunlight, it seemed to have grown in size, and she marveled at the mountain of majestic tranquility.

The scene brightened as the sun strengthened, bathing the snow-covered peak in blazes of golden light. Its brilliance and beauty so peerless and overwhelming she wondered whether the Professor was engrossed in an ethereal vision, hampering his ability to distinguish between the real and the imagined. But as he lingered longer than she expected, she began to speculate as to what he was seeing beyond the sacred mountain.

“We need something beyond what the sensors are telling us.” Wulfstein returned to his seat. “We need imagination, even wild imagination. Any minor displacement of the earth’s crust may be a prelude to a larger one.”

“How could that be possible?” She followed him. “Aren’t minor ones always preceded by major ones?”

“It often does, but not always, Eileen. I won’t go into clinical detail, unless you’re prepared to listen to more hours of jargon.”

“No problem, Wilhelm.” She took her seat. “That’s what I’m here for.”

So she listened, munching macadamias and sipping coffee as Wulfstein spoke about earthquake prediction and tectonic plates. He handled the topics like a craftsman who expertly worked through wooden blocks of a puzzle, as if he had made a special study of each, connecting one to another with great skill and fluency. Never had she seen anybody whose knowledge was so articulate and eloquent. And when Wulfstein enunciated further on Japan’s Necklace of Islets verses its Necklace of Calderas, he seemed incredibly lucid.

Eileen was glad the Professor had delved at great length into his theory, surely more like Jekyll than Hyde, confirming what her husband had said of him. But as he went on for a long while, she began to feel bewildered. No further scientific explanations had been expounded when he continued with a lecture on history, medieval pottery, the visible and the invisible in the same breath with traces of ancient philosophical themes like literal and metaphor, Alpha and Omega, our consciousness and subconsciousness, Babylon the Great and Mystery of Religion.

Odd! How could the piecing together of different subjects lead to any cohesive theory of truth? Although baffled by some sense of logic, she became astounded to hear him rant and rave about behemoth and Leviathan, archer fish and TWA Flight 800, mathematical puzzles and even optical illusion . . .

“You look overwhelmed, Ms O’Neill,” Wulfstein said.

“Just call me Eileen. I’m confused. Why do you throw in many odd topics as if there’s a link?”

“Our society has been bombarded by so much disinformation and lies. Once these are discarded, only small elements of truth remain—and these little jigsaws need to be reassessed and reassembled carefully, to link and form a puzzle of ultimate truth.”

“I appreciate your wide spectrum of imagination,” Eileen said. “Still, I’d prefer something scientific but practical, something more down-to-earth; issues my readers can visualize and understand.”

“Okay, Eileen.” Wulfstein’s eyes darted left and right on the globe. “Without the water in the Pacific, what’s left?”

“Mountains and valleys.”

“Correct.” He drew closer. “Could you imagine some form of unknown creatures lurking in the ocean that is causing this blooping sound?”

“Probably not.” Her thoughts reeled, sensing Wulfstein’s agile mind had leaped from one speculation to another.

“Okay, I’ll present a simpler image. Can you imagine Hawaiians sitting on top of the EiffelTower?”

“Oooh,” she said, smiling. “I’d have to use my frantic imagination.”

“It isn’t an oooh, Eileen, but you’re right, you need frantic vision. Hawaiians live on a height higher than ten Eiffel Towers.”

She stiffened. “Then they would have to live like monkeys.”

“You sound skeptical. Japan is not the EiffelTower, of course. Living here is more like living on top of the leaning tower of Pisa.”

“That’s surely worse than the Eiffel.”

“That’s right. If that masterpiece of hubris can blithely defy gravity and subvert the laws of physics, then there’s hope. But we should know better, even monkeys would be too frightened to climb around if a small quake were to strike the city of Pisa.”

Eileen shook her head. She wasn’t sure the Professor meant it geologically or metaphorically, but he sounded gloomy.

“Perhaps we should take a break here.” Wulfstein stood up and took their cups, as if intending to refill them. “I might be giving you too many unpleasant details.”

She stood before him, hands outstretched. “No, let me.”

He handed her the cups.

When she returned with their coffee, she said, “Please, I want all the sagas. That’s what I need as a writer.”

“Okay. Let’s look at the map for an illustration.” Wulfstein led her to one wall of the lab. “Here the ocean floor lies over 36,000 feet below sea-level. That’s in the Mariana Trench,” he said, pointing. “Mind you, that’s the deepest graveyard.”

“I know it’s the deepest part of the earth, but a graveyard?”

“In geological terms,” he said. “But actually, it’s more than that, it’s a black hole that submerged into the mantle.”

Eileen studied the map—a neat arc of red and purple magnets peppered the circumference of the vast ocean, looking as if a hundred bees had stung the map from the Alaskan and Californian coastline, Colombia, Chile and New Zealand.

“There’s this proliferation of volcanoes,” Wulfstein said, “inactive and active, gripping the Pacific with life in a rim of fire.”

She followed his hand as he moved in a circle with tongue-twisting exotic names—Cotopaxi, Popocatepetl, Krakatoa and Ruapehu. Knowing these explosive mountains were hiding their violent nature, she cringed.

“Look at this cluster of magnets,” Wulfstein said. “They indicate where massive earthquakes have shaken the rim.”

Eileen studied the arc in details: Earthquakes hit New Zealand 1931, Chile 1960, Mexico City 1985, San Francisco in 1906, Anchorage 1964, Tokyo 1923; Kobe in 1995; the Tōhoku seaquake in March 2011 that hit Fukushima. “But why is this magnet PINK?” She pointed at a magnet on Mount Fuji.

“PINK means it is online and active. And since Mt Fuji is extremely dangerous, I’m monitoring any signal here from my laptop.”

“So do you mean these results would be incorporated into your laptop?”

“That’s right, but my main worry is that it’s potentially a major blowout.” Wulfstein’s eyes grew misty for a moment before he threw his hand up. “Now, let’s go to the other side of the board.”

An entire map had been devoted to the southeastern slope of an undersea chain of volcanoes off the Japanese archipelago. Speckled in a variety of colors, large red arrows pointed to the bottom left section.

Looking like the chaotic terrain of Reykjanes Ridge, deep gullies bisected rough terrain of jumbled and interlocking ridges. Others appeared smooth-sided Fujiyama-type volcanic cones.

Wulfstein led her to a seismograph at one side of the lab from which periodical beeps marked every quake movement and intensity. Then he pointed to a chart where miniature seismographs showed the peaks and troughs according to the Richter scale.

“What you are seeing is the oceanic crust pushing and ruffling the continental crust,” he said, “creating subterranean cliffs that plunge a mile or so into the ocean floor. Of the twenty major trenches, seventeen are found in the western Pacific.”

She shifted her gaze.

“On this side,” Wulfstein continued, “the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake near Kobe released enormous stress that has built up along the faultline. It’s the same with the 2011 Tōhoku seaquake along the seabed off Sendai, Honshu. This Tōhoku seaquake moved Honshu 2.4 meters toward North America and between the epicenter and the Japan Trench, it also shifted the seabed by 50 meters eastward and lifted itself up by 7 meters as a result of the quake.”

“Professor Blackmore has been saying no one can predict the next quake. And all those who’d predicted a Big One to hit Tokyo were proven wrong.”

“That’s right, no one is sure of its exact timing.” He focused on the IzuPeninsula. “Although some stresses were released by these quakes, more are building up. The more I study Japan’s geology, the more I’m realizing it’s like a balloon that keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

“Why? Can you elaborate? Why Japan more so than any other place?”

“There is yet another plate boundary that exists inland, somewhere under the substantial bulk of Mt Fuji.” Wulfstein gazed at her intently. “What this means is, where the Philippine Sea plate is subducted below the Japanese mainland, the solid mass of Izu is in its way. It collides head on . . . and acts as a brake. Once the blockage fails, an unimaginable quake is going to strike.”

“We know that. Your prediction was reported in numerous magazines.”

“No. It’s after that.”

“After what?” Did she miss something? She followed his gaze to the northeast of the archipelago.

“The IzuPeninsula is only a small part in the larger scheme of things.” Wulfstein pointed to the spots. “Starting from the northwest of the Pacific plate lays the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench. It continues down the Japan Trench to the Mariana Trench.”

“Do we know what it’s like there?”

“No one is sure.” He shuddered, then stepped toward the door. “We’re planning a trip to the Izu-Ogasawara Trench. EQ-Lun has detected some strange seismic activity there.”

“Really? Could there be a spot for a journalist in the expedition?”

“No, it’s too dangerous, Eileen,” Wulfstein said.

“I can handle it, Wilhelm. Let me come.”

“No, no.” Wulfstein frowned. “Going to such depth isn’t the same as getting into a bathysphere. Besides, I’ve told you enough.”

“There are always risks being an investigative writer,” she insisted. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

“What question? I’d especially set today free from any other engagement, and I know I’ve inundated you with too much details.”

“You haven’t explained why electromagnetic signals were generated before Kaiiko’s disappearance.”

“Electromagnetic signals?” Wulfstein froze, his eyes staring out into a vacuum for a long moment. “I’d heard this question before?” The perplexing question appeared to sting his head like a hornet, as if something of an issue he had being trying to avoid. Finally, he raised his brows, whispering, “Jer . . . Jerry . . .” The words caught in his throat. “Jerry O’Neill.”

Eileen sensed his pain mingling with her own. “Yes, I know Jerry asked you this question before.”

“Yes, Jerry phoned to ask about electromagnetic signals before he died,” Wulfstein said. “So, you . . . you’re Jerry’s wife?”

“Yes, I’m Eileen O’Neill.” The image of her husband, a burst of pyroclastic flow that left him no room to escape, burned in her mind.

Wulfstein looked stunned; the truth seemed to hit him like clashing cymbals. “I’m immensely sorry for your loss, Mrs O’Neill.”

He reached out and hugged her. She responded and he cradled her head on his shoulder and rubbed her back gently. “It’s too much . . . it must be hard for you to bear, Eileen.”

Her palms moistened, yet her fingers turned icy cold in his compassionate embrace. Sorrow and terror bubbled as memories flooded back. She shuddered, reacting to what had haunted her day and night. She wanted to avoid bringing out the past, knowing that her emotions would devastate her.

For a long moment neither could speak. Wulfstein drew in a shallow breath. “A star graduate of MIT. He was one of my top students.”

“I miss him and I’m scared,” she murmured, her body trembling from the frightful image. Tears ran down her cheeks as he held her tightly. “Yet I’m committed to finding out how electromagnetic signals play in this scheme of things.”

“Besides the discomfort of seasickness,” he said, “the trip will be risky, Eileen. I’m afraid the chance of surviving may not be better than for a sheep returning from the slaughterhouse.”

She glanced at Wulfstein, speechless. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, his presence comforted her. Familiarity perhaps? It was as if he had held her before.

“My life has been restless and I haven’t been sleeping well,” she managed. “I need answers, so it’s a chance I’ll take. But right now, I feel the world is exploding around me.”

Wulfstein seemed overwhelmed, unable to say more, chocking back his own emotions. Yet, he flinched at her determination to find an answer. Finally he held her shoulders tighter in his arms and gave her another compassionate hug.

“Are you sure you really want to come?”

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