Over Mount Fuji (11)
June 12 —
Still grieving over the loss of her mom and brothers, Nobuko took comfort from the golden brown Pekinese that Professor Wulfstein had given her.
After a few days playing together, XiaoLun had settled down and seemed to like Nobuko. Now on her way to join those on expedition, she felt glad she would be seeing her father for a few more days. This being the case because after some pleading she was allowed onto the mother ship, and then, at least the presence of the Pekinese helped to alleviate her loneliness when her dad would dive with the submersible.
“I can’t keep XiaoLun,” Wulfstein said to Nobuko a week earlier. “I’ll be going to many expeditions, and there is no one better to give than to you.”
Nobuko opened her mouth wide, astounded, but couldn’t say a word as the dog stared at her, as if he knew she’d be more fun for company than a man who read books all day.
Wulfstein smiled and ran his hand over the Pekinese. “I hope you like him.”
“Thank you,” Nobuko managed finally. “I promise to look after XiaoLun well.”
When the car stopped at a parking lot in Yokohama, Nobuko hurried her dad to the dock with XiaoLun on a leash. At the gateway, Nobuko bowed.
“Hai!” Byron bowed. “Surprised to see you so early.”
“It’s not that early, is it?” She bowed again as the Pekinese yapped and wagged his tail. “You don’t look surprised. You look stunned.”
“Do I?” Byron asked.
WHENEVER BYRON CHATTED with Nobuko, his heart skipped. “You’ve come to join us?”
She nodded. “Only on the mother ship. I heard we could be away for as long as three weeks.”
“If things go well, it might be just one week.”
Even wearing a simple white blouse with a black skirt, she looked dazzling. While he talked and loaded the equipment into Satsuma Maru, the mother ship, her sparkling eyes, black as onyx, kept on captivating him. Although he couldn’t afford such distraction, her brief presence helped him to forget the pain of Simon’s death and eased the stress of the mission.
Soon the expedition’s pressing issues caught his attention. The trip would involve traveling four hundred miles offshore, board a submersible and dive into the unknown.
As he packed the charts and equipment in the research vessel, Byron thought of the underworld with anxiety. The moment of departure would soon arrive when he would leap into a world of crushing pressure.
“Nervous?” Wulfstein asked.
“Not really,” Byron said and gulped as the ship lurched forward. “Oh, well, somewhat, but at least we’re on our way.”
“Surely we’ll uncover something—be it the Hornet or the missing sub.”
While Wulfstein held onto his laptop, Byron carried several rolls of charts together with his duffle bag. He’d packed light, knowing his cabin would be small.
Byron spotted Eileen O’Neill on deck. Holding her binoculars to her eyes with one hand, she gripped the rim of a baseball cap with the other to keep it from sailing with the breeze. Surprised by her elegance, he strolled over to the science writer, once a familiar sight on MIT campus. Her blonde hair had swirled around her face, and she pushed it back. The light breeze was pressing her blouse and suit pants to her body, accentuating her slender curves.
“You’re taking another shot at weather terror?”
Eileen lowered her binoculars and responded with a smile. “Yeah. A terrific headline. Intergalactic terror, maybe.”
He laughed. “Another article about the unorthodox?”
She laughed along.
A few minutes later, Satsuma Maru sped off into Tokyo Bay. Gulls hovered in the ship’s wake, their cries blending with the surf rolling in, shrieking impatiently as if hurrying the crew.
“We’re having fine weather,” Captain Akita said at the wheel.
Stout and powerfully built with broad shoulders, the skipper had strong arms and well-tanned legs. Though his wrinkled face bore the scars of a life at sea, he emanated a sense of pride as the vessel threw off phosphorescent spray over the bow.
Byron proceeded to the deck to admire the gulls skimming the sea surface for fish. The ship was equipped with powerful telescopes. He looked into one, and studied in details the magnificent view of the surroundings.
At noon, a couple of picturesque islands appeared off the port bow. He could see the shorelines and forested hillsides. As they neared, albatross nesting on vertical rocks, came into view, followed by multicolored wild flowers along the edges of the forest. The cliffs, polished and eroded by wind and waves, plummeted into the seabed.
Swollen clouds scudded across the sky and obscured the sun. A flock of herons overtook the ship and then flew out of sight. Resonating from somewhere, a humming sound broke the silence. It grew louder.
“Look!” Byron pointed at what he thought was another flock of herons flying over the horizon.
“Research planes,” Captain Akita said, looking through a pair of high-powered binoculars.
“What are they surveying?” Eileen asked.
“They are surveying the coastline,” Nishihara said before sneezing. Behind his gold-rimmed spectacles, his eyes were watery from a cold.
The planes flew out of sight as quickly as they’d come, and the humming sound gave way to resonance from the ship’s turbine.
Byron ventured to the bow, but there were only waves and fog around. Annoyed and not knowing what to expect, he stared across the horizon. Less than two hundred yards away, the hungry sea crashed at the black claws of rocks. The foaming line of surf stretched port and starboard, broken intermittently by the pounding waves.
Soon they came across numerous vessels of different shapes and sizes. Boatloads of cameramen on fishing trawlers, private sailboats, commercial and broadcasting ships, all either taking bearings or looking for shoals or hidden reefs. As the vessels streamed in various directions, Satsuma Maru sailed toward an atoll of mixed colors jutting from the deep.
Byron squinted. “Why are these islets so strange?”
“The pinkish ones were formed just months ago,” Nishihara said.
Byron’s apprehension grew. How did that happen? He sensed probing surveillance all around. With pointed guns signaling their authority, the Japanese Coast Guards had closed off certain areas.
“Are we in prohibited waters, Captain?” Byron watched anxiously as one of the Navy vessels broke rank and headed toward Satsuma Maru.
“They’re checking us out,” Akita said, saluting when the vessel passed.
The Navy vessel steamed off. The swirling spray gusted, spilling back and forth onto the deck.
Akita turned to him. “Unauthorized ships aren’t supposed to be here, but we have a special pass.” The Captain increased the ship’s speed, leaving a mass of tumultuous white foam in its wake.
Staring toward the horizon, Byron thought: It isn’t just an ordinary survey. Reports from monitoring stations registered several epicenters at different spots. Surely, it must be the diving tectonic plates, and the problem wasn’t just the sprouting of a few islets. Feeling confident of his hypothesis, he laughed, then climbed toward the anchor winch at the bow.
Despite a brisk wind lifting huge swaths of spume that hurled them around, Byron edged further to the tip, intending to see the depth from where those islets arose. But a sudden gust of wind surged, threatening to carry the youthful student over. He gripped the cold railing with one hand, wiped the salty water from his face with the other and waved, but remained jolly and defiant.
Then a movement threw him up from under his feet. What’s that?
A powerful force jerked the vessel upward. The ship fishtailed, thrusting Byron from the rail. He lost his balance and, before he could shout, an impregnable force shot him into the icy waters.
He kicked upward, gasping for air when he broke the surface. Gagging as saltwater pushed down his throat, he snatched a breath, but was slammed back by another wave and submerged.
He kicked and gagged, swallowing another slosh of salt water. He snatched another quick breath.
A storm had broken out and he scrambled against the cascade of rolling waves. He struggled to stay above the rolling monsters. With his strong arms and legs kicking hard, he managed to stay afloat.
Where’s Satsuma Maru? What happened?
Byron kicked harder, but Satsuma Maru was nowhere to be found. He scanned for any debris, but nothing. Like giant mountains, waves rolled toward him, approaching faster and nearer. They propelled him up, then plunged him back. A lifeboat floated at a distance, and he struggled toward it. But another wave came, launching him with its crest.
Where is it?
All around, the ocean churned. He exhaled and kicked, coughing water out of his lungs and taking a quick breath. Exhausted, he felt himself sinking, feeling as if the whole weight of the ocean pressing down on him. His inert body began to spasm, first a mild jerk, then a more violent one. He couldn’t be dying, not yet—his mission hadn’t even started.
No, please no.
He couldn’t leave his destiny to fate. But what had happened? His body rolled with the waves. Murky patterns danced in the distance. Up again, directly in front of him . . . the same lifeboat, bobbing directly ahead. He swam toward it. But the harder he tried, the further it drifted away.
Finally, the sound of cries echoed nearby. The research vessel was bobbing up and down as if it was about to sink. Yet it remained afloat against the pounding of the sea.
“Hold on!” a familiar voice cried out from somewhere. Byron couldn’t raise his hands; he could only listen.
“Hold on!” the same voice came again. Byron tried, but an invisible force dragged him as the ocean heaved and teetered. A suffocating grip pulled him up.
Oh! It was Wulfstein calling.
Byron felt his body being pushed and lifted. He coughed and spluttered. He struggled, buoyed finally, with deckhands helping. Soon, he and Wulfstein sprawled back on deck, dragged up by many hands. Byron’s teeth chattered, his body ached, and his breath came in short bursts. The research team broke into applause as he and Wulfstein puffed. Even Nobuko smiled, XiaoLun yapped.
The crew brought dry clothes and blankets to keep them warm. Captain Akita checked Byron’s eye to see if he was okay. Once Byron drunk warm green tea that Nobuko had brought him, his shivering stopped and he felt better.
Now relieved, he tried to overcome a multitude of feelings that’d swarmed him: gratitude, embarrassment, guilt. Shame on me! He whispered to overcome his contrition, I should perfect my swimming and save lives instead of being saved. It was another near-death experience, his second. Perhaps his next wouldn’t be so lucky.
Time ticked away until the late evening. A bell rang for dinner. Everyone sat around two tables, eating sushi with miso soup, discussing the day’s experience.
Outside, the sea had calmed, glittering in the setting sun. The deck looked safe once more. Wanting to see how the incident had happened, he trudged back to reexamine the site where he fell off. Nothing seemed dangerous. All back to normality.
And as he gazed across the crimson horizon the sun was setting. He was comforted by the beauty of it all: shades of light, an elastic thread pulled and pushed by billowing waves, separating them from the orange, pearl-like balloon of the sky. Tranquility reigned; he relaxed, breathing in the fresh air, watching the vanishing scene. To the east, night sealed the sky and the sea together. No one had fully surveyed this portion of the sea for reefs, so the ship anchored for the night.
Byron shuffled to his cabin for a much needed rest to prepare for the demands of the crushing days ahead. He listened; the world outside had faded into a hush, yet a deafening silence existed within, which seemed to reverberate back and forth as if the ship was whispering him to sleep.
No more talking, no humming of the ship, no hiss of rain.