Over Mount Fuji (12)
Early the next morning, Eileen lay in her bunk, still awed by the forces of nature and the insignificance of mankind.
The rhythmic vibrations of the turbines and the sound of the propellers soothed her. As memories flushed back, she wondered how Wulfstein had that noble energy to rescue Byron in the midst of enormous danger. Is this an instinctive virtue? A paternal responsibility? Or, has his student some critical contribution to make?
A humming noise of approaching planes rose from a distance.
She rushed to the deck. The sea, still chilly, had calmed during the night. Now, only small waves splashed against the hull. Despite the saltiness of the air, the new day smelled fresh. The research planes disappeared over the horizon. She tried to catch the direction of the hum that sounded like the reverberation of airborne propellers, but as the faint whirring sound remained, she became skeptical. Could this be the same noise I’d heard in northern Honshu?
Moments later, Eileen stood with Wulfstein, Byron and other crewmembers on the portside of the ship, glancing at the horizon. As roiling mists shrouded the seascape, sunlight tried to break through a blanket of clouds.
“We believe in kami,” Nishihara said, pointing to the southwest.
“Is that a force of a god or goddess or a force of nature?” Eileen asked.
“It’s a force of nature, but we always look beyond the physical. Can you separate the visible from the invisible?”
Eileen stared in awe, marveling at the roiling mists above the churning sea, a vibrant and changing scene. “I guess not,” she said, inspired by the mysterious forces behind what could be seen, and what couldn’t, as if life circulated within nature the way blood circulates a human body.
Torn between excitement and nervousness, Eileen continued to stare at the waves until the mist cleared. Across the horizon, a string of islets appeared like musical notes strewn across the sea. Sunlight broke through and glistened on the towering spires. Reefs sprawled ahead. Waves and white surf clawed and leaped at the cliffs. Young and lofty, the islets jutted skyward like the soaring walls of a fjord from the ocean floor.
“Where are we?” Eileen asked.
“We’re near Iwo-jima,” Yoshino said. “It’s part of the Izu Islands Chain. It’s about a 750 miles south of Tokyo.”
“What are its co-ordinates and why are we here?”
“We are 25°N and 141°E. Submerged below us lies the Iwo-jima Caldera, which is spewing plumes intermittently.”
“Is this where the Super Hornets disappeared?”
“Pretty close. That was 26°N and 140°E, just a short distance from here.”
Seabirds flew by, saluting the visitors as the vessel approached. Fearful an impact might shatter the ship, Eileen grabbed the railing when Satsuma Maru steamed toward a chain of rocks.
“Not too close,” Professor Yoshino yelled at Akita, pointing at the protrusions. “It’s dangerous.”
“No problem, Sensei.” The daredevil Captain pressed on. “I’ve been here many times.”
Eileen studied the scene. She peered through her binoculars with her heart pulsing, her view frequently interrupted by the spray that flew over the bow. In the distance, surfbirds cruised near the surface, picking fish, while albatross floated on the waves.
How strange! How awesome! Just ahead, new formidable islets had spiraled in their furious birth. Humbled, yet exhilarated by the magnificence of nature, Eileen’s elation vanished when she noticed Byron’s look of anxiety. “Are these the results of the earth’s crust being pushed up?”
“We’re above an active supervolcano,” Byron said. “Any eruption could cause havoc, and any gas released could be poisonous.”
“But these birds are normal,” Eileen said. “They would die if these gases are poisonous.”
“The poisonous gases are either in low concentrations, or they aren’t lethal.”
Eileen squinted at the newly formed chain, curved like a protective wall a mile wide. Some lay low, scarcely visible above water; a tide of a few more inches could submerge them.
She took a closer look at the pinkish rocks. A sense of doom hit her, though she couldn’t place it. But when she studied the shape further, those sky pointed cliffs looked menacing, more like the teeth of a T. Rex than any volcanic rock she’d seen.
Eileen turned to Wulfstein. “What are these pinkish rocks?”
“Nature has many mysteries,” Wulfstein replied, staring with intensity. “But if you pump up your imagination, you might visual them as inverted talons.”
“We will, Eileen, but for now, we can only speculate,” he said, pointing. “These have pierced the surface. Maybe they’re intergalactic monsters that are now peeking over the waves.”
Eileen laughed. Scientists have eccentricities and quirks of their own. An earthly or an unearthly monster? Certainly, the sea surrounding the archipelago had a life imbedded with an invincible system of its own, as if nature, indeed, was manifesting the theme of Shintoism.
“Sailors say these islets glow at night,” Yoshino added. “That explains what mythologies say about a phenomenon illuminating the night sky.”
When darkness fell, Eileen marveled at the horizon floating in unmitigated radiance as if manifesting the inexpressible splendor of God’s throne. As she took more photos, a light breeze from the south continued to blow over the research vessel, bathed in the light of an emerging moon.
Soon, the crew drifted to their cabins, and Eileen shuffled to hers; the long day of observations had given way to weariness.
MINUTES INTO SLEEP, an explosion rocked the vessel, then another almost threw her from bed. Footsteps clattered as crew dashed on deck. Eileen willed her legs to move faster, but when she reached the deck, a gust of wind pushed her back. She fought her way forward. Over the horizon, crackling fires lit up the southwest. They shot like missiles, accompanied by lightning.
“What’s happening?” Eileen asked.
Commotion drowned a burly sailor’s answer.
“Look!” Byron pointed. “An eruption.”
Eileen shuddered, stunned by the clouds of steam rising against the marvels of flying missiles. Flashes continued in the southwest, followed by more eruptions. Columns of ash, smoke, and clouds blocked out the moon and stars.
The wind strengthened. A vague outline of an atoll appeared in the light. Mystified, she held onto the railing as the ship rolled like flotsam. She groaned in amazement, feeling privileged to watch the dawn of a new world, yet terrified, sensing birth and death had merged into such a petrifying force. She noted the time: 10 p.m.
More turbulences shook Satsuma Maru, followed by gusts and stronger rumbling. In the distance, something crested, like frost above the waves. The storm stopped and a flickering light appeared to the southwest.
“Tsunamis! Tsunamis!” Captain Akita yelled. “The waves are coming.”
The skipper spun the wheel, turning Satsuma Maru into the waves to ride them out.
The ship pitched and water rushed onto the deck. Her heart pumping, Eileen clung to the railing, her hair and clothes soaked by mounting sea spray.
On a tiny atoll to the east, a cluster of fireworks blazed like an angry monster spouting flames. Shattering the air, the blasts sent missiles of cloud, steam, and lava into the sky. They rained down a moment later, sizzled, and disappeared into the darkness. Another volcano had erupted.
“Oh, damn!” She looked up. “Not a supervolcano, I hope.”
Ashes filled the sky. A foul odor in the rippling mist wafted into her nostrils. “It stinks.”
“Sulfur,” Byron said.
Akita pushed the throttle and the ship sped off.
Eileen’s optimism grew when the flashes faded and noise from the rolling waves subsided. She peered into the distance, whispering to herself: “Has our planet turned into a boiling cauldron?”
Boo-oo-oom! More flashes shot out from the southwest. The sky billowed with unraveling lights in a display of blinding red and orange, illuminating the entire sky.
Some missiles landed in the sea. Others picked up speed, racing toward the research vessel.
Lava landed on the deck. Night became day. Blinded and terrified, the crew gave a collective gasp, shielding their eyes and crying out in unbridled fear. Specks of light sparkled and ignited life rafts with a burning, brimstone stench.
The deck shook and the men stumbled forward with fire extinguishers. The reverberation circled around, followed by a sudden stream of smoke. But, whenever they doused the frames, the wind came and blew the haze away.
Once the fires had been extinguished and the storm abated, the crew advanced to the railing. “The Pacific plate is bulldozing its way into the Eurasian plate,” Byron said.
“If this is the case,” Wulfstein said, “then these islets should line the edges of the Pacific plate.”
“Let’s check the seismograph relayed from the lab,” Yoshino said, directing the team to the data room below deck.
Charts relayed miniature seismograph readings of peaks and troughs. Beeps of varying intensity sounded on every quake movement. Yoshino tore off a reading. The seamounts rose to form two chains, northeast and southeast. Some loomed above the sea, many below the surface. The epicenters scattered over a large range, from three hundred to five hundred miles out in the Pacific Ocean, southeast of Tokyo.
“The seamounts must have formed from the downward pressure of the Pacific plate,” the Sensei said, pointing to the charts. “If you follow this chain of rocks, you find a path to Shikoku Island, another all the way to Hokkaido.”
Eileen tottered back to the bow to observe. She peered toward the south. More half-submerged islets and rifts appeared. Is an intergalactic monster below the waves made a move?
The wind subsided and the sea calmed, but her thoughts continued. Could this have anything to do with the Sinking Syndrome? Or a new era of climate change? Eileen shook her head. Too weary and exhausted for the day, she trudged to bed.
THE NEXT MORNING, the cries of seagulls awoke Eileen. Once dressed, she rushed on deck. Seeing nothing more than a great expanse of water, she knew Satsuma Maru had steadily sailed away from the islets.
At noon, they arrived at the place where they would board Keiko, the deep-sea submersible. As if in the clutches of a giant insect, the diving sub hung suspended by a large crane at the stern of the mother ship, waiting for its mission. Hexagonal-shaped, it resembled a turtle, with the bow of the ship protruding from the glass-and-titanium body.
Designed to view underwater scenes, its sides consisted of ten-inch-thick portholes, video cameras, and strobes at each corner. Its side-scan sonars enabled the sub to link communication with remote-sensing space satellites. A pink cube of pressure-resistant epoxy foam encased two linked pairs of vertical and horizontal thruster motors.
Kiichi, a brawny bald man with a Ho-Chi-Min beard and triangular sideburns, would pilot the sub.
Eileen hesitated for a moment. “Is this sub named after the famous killer whale?”
“Keiko has nothing to do with Hollywood,” Kiichi said. “Otherwise it would be named Willy. This sub is named after the twelfth Emperor of Japan, Keikõ Tennõ.”
“Both uses are right,” Captain Akita said. “But I can assure you that this sub was named after Emperor Keikõ.”
Eileen raised her eyebrows at the involvement of Japan’s imperial heritage, but said nothing.
“Let’s keep focused,” Yoshino said. “Our primary mission is to find the lost sub, Kaiiko, and its mother ship, Ito Maru. We would also try to find anything unusual along our trip.”
“Hai! Hai!” The Japanese crew bowed to the Sensei; Wulfstein and Eileen also bowed.
“What are its co-ordinates?” Eileen asked.
“26º N, 139º E. That’s about where we are, about a thousand miles southeast of Kyushu.”
As the moment arrived for final departure, Eileen felt the pain of Byron saying sayonara to Nobuko before boarding the sub. She would be left behind on the mother ship, together with her XiaoLun.
With no distraction in sight, Satsuma Maru was only a tiny speck on the great expanse of water. The coastal sea meeting the Pacific Ocean often created sankaku-nami waves. However, the surrounding was now calm enough to launch Keiko for a probe of the ocean floor. The crane lowered, allowing the crew to enter.
The Captain ushered and helped Wulfstein in to board, followed by Professor Yoshino, Eileen, Byron, Nishihara, and Kiichi. Once inside, the pilot sealed and locked the tiny door.
Eileen stiffened. Although an enormous space lay over the horizon, she felt constricted. And when she wondered about her mission into the deep, she shivered. Now, for the first time, she felt trepidation of being trapped into an uncertain journey, as if she were a sheep heading into an abattoir. Is this really a trip of no return?