Over Mount Fuji – Chapter 1 –

An Epic Novel 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 reporter Eileen O’Neill whispered a word of thanks to the offshore wind that had done the trick. Now, skirting the Charles River basin, her eyes couldn’t resist 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 had spawned flooding across Massachusetts.

What a relief! The milder day that thwarted the forecasted chilly winds was a welcome change. Yet she shivered, recalling a surge of strange weather that had stymied the world’s finest meteorologists. Not that she was a weather nut, but she had a niggling feeling that what was happening must be more than just Mother Nature throwing off a fit. A new and unprecedented global nightmare—gales raged, temperatures plunged. For twelve weeks, sleet pounded New York’s LaGuardia, Newark and JFK, halting all flights. And blizzards blitzkrieged the northern hemisphere from Paris to Moscow to Beijing since early October.

But most bizarre of nature’s furies, seven fighter jets had disappeared above the Pacific, east of Kyushu Island, just before a typhoon struck the Japanese archipelago. Made for a good ‘How they vanished?’ article for a new up-start monthly magazine, the Raging Planet. With fishermen’s claims of seeing flashes of light during the incident and no trace of the crash having been found, alien abduction enthusiasts had fielded numerous speculations in tabloids and were taking a foothold in the universities.

On the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eileen parked her Honda Civic besides 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 tightly.

Eileen stumbled across the parking lot as scraps of paper flew and fluttered around with the newly fallen evergreen leaves. Gathering her strength, she broke into a quarterback’s zigzagging run as a cluster of broken branches headed toward her. If the towering walls of the Institute made her feel insignificant, this Arctic squall just increased its intimidation. Now its immense buildings and the wide swathes of lawn seemed to be braced for a battle to the death. Mother’s Wrath appeared far more threatening as another branch crashed-landed where she’d been a split second earlier.

“Well, at least something’s on my side,” she said to the boggle-eyed security guard who’d opened the door for her at just the right moment.

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 finished straightening her jacket and smoothing her skirt, she gave her blonde hair a quick brush and reapplied her lipstick. Her green eyes glimmered with satisfaction. Not bad for thirty-four; 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 and pushed the door open.

“Come in,” a gray-haired secretary said with a motherly smile from behind her desk.

With a sigh of optimism, Eileen strode inside. “I’m Eileen O’Neill. I’ve an appointment Professor Wulfstein at two-thirty, I believe.”

“I’m sorry, he’s running a bit late.” The secretary gestured toward a couch at the corner. “Please take a seat.”

Eileen sat down and looked around. It was a memorable sight. Opposite her, a glass cupboard of shelves held plates, awards and other commemorative items. Leaning 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. The personage was Wulfstein, an eminent Professor that 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 Mount Unzen on Kyushu Island. She’d 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! 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 division among his associates. As a result, he’d become withdrawn and moody, giving his Jekyll and Hyde reputation some credence. Now it was rumored he had an interest in the transcript of the missing Hornets. Odd. Why should a seismologist be so concerned in a sky-based 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 after 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, it’s not on my schedule. Next time, verify before you come.”

“We have an appointment, Professor.” Putting out her hand, she tried to block his path, 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 up, Professor?” Eileen asked, feeling dejected. “And 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. “My contact in Tokyo faxed me a translation.”

“I’ve gone through hell trying to get that. Who sent it to you?”

“I’ve my contacts.”

Wulfstein sighed heavily. “Okay, come on then,” he said, quickening his stride. “But I don’t intend to bring you back.”

“Fine, I’ll call a cab.”

Once they reached his weather-beaten Volkswagen, Wulfstein signaled for her to get inside. When he leaned forward to put his files and laptop on the back seat, a magnifying glass dropped from his shirt pocket.

Eileen picked it up, and after handling it to him, she pressed the ‘record’ button of her recorder. “Some scientists are saying the Hornets disappeared because of atmospheric anomalies. What’s your opinion?”

“No comment.”

“You’ve said it’s a bad omen.”

“So you already have my opinion.” He drove out the parking lot as the wind still howling.

Eileen weighed her options while more questions flooded her. But a couple of bleeps sounded from his laptop, interrupting her thoughts.

Wulfstein stopped the car at the side of the road. He reached for his computer and switched off the alarm. “It’s nothing serious, only some seismologic activity from Sakhalin Island.”

‘Bloo-oo-oop! Bloo-oo-oop!’ another sound replaced the first.

Eileen looked at the Professor and noted a moment of uncertainty in his eyes. “I’ve heard of this bloop sound before, but what does it signify?”

“Nature has many mysteries, young lady. You may Google this ‘bloop’ and find all the speculations you want. What’s strange is that the source of this signal has been on the move.”

“So, what does this strange movement mean?”

“Right now, your guess is as good as mine. But my work is not only on seismic activity. 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 sub-oceanic sound over such distance?”

“I’ve linked up with Japan’s Earthquake Prediction Center and relay 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 Izu Peninsula.”

“What sort of timeline are we looking at?”

“Within twelve months.”

Eileen looked at him—the dark shadows around his eyes made him look like a tormented soul. Izu Peninsula lay east of the Kanto Plain, and a major hit would be catastrophic to a highly populated Tokyo. “Can you be more specific?”

“Sorry, I’m still looking into that. I haven’t been able to collect all the data yet. There’ve been too many distractions in the office, so I’m doing most of my analysis at home these days.”

“How can you be sure that your analysis is correct? Isn’t it true that whatever the computer says depends upon what you’d programmed it to say?”

“That fallacy could easily be avoided if you give the computer some 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, I’ve projected a logical chain of events that could eventuate into my prediction. So I am trying to give the computer, based on its own experience, 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 grew serious. “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. An edgy silence fell between them, as though he was fighting an inner war. Only a month ago, a tabloid listed Wulfstein as the most intriguing scientist, a dubious honor, making him the brunt of endless ribbing from the scientific community. Today, the accolade had surfaced to haunt her.

“You may not like to hear this,” Eileen said, “but your statements have created lots of negative reviews.”

“Lots of censure too, but to hell with that. On what criteria have they based their criticisms?”

“They described your hypothesis as unscientific.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m here to get your perspective, to give you a chance to defend yourself.”

Eileen grimaced at his belligerent face and felt inclined to calm down. She gazed across the street. The view, lush and grassy on previous visits, was now covered in white. Snow had blanketed the sidewalk. Wide, hulky and fearsome, a snowplow worked its way like an insatiable insect grinding on its squatty feet. Finally, she decided to change tactics by questioning him on issues that were more familiar. “I’m interested in your view on the world’s seismic hot spots.”

“For the foreseeable future, there are three places to watch. First, along the coast and the southern Alps of Chile. Massive earthquakes occurred during the 1800s and, since then, it has been silent. Second, around the islands of Indonesia, with Java the main focal point. Third, the gridlock of tectonic plates southeast of Tokyo.”

“Why these places?”

“Besides forming a ring,” he said, “all three regions sit on the edges of deep trenches, yet no scientist has had the vision or courage to admit a catastrophe is on its way.”

“These scientists have no vision?”

“Not only do they lack vision, they’re ignorant, too.”

“I’ve interviewed them, they are normally experts with decades of experience. Though they have extensive data, their conflicting hypotheses rarely settle into a final viewpoint. 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 expertly 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. With that time span, 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 numerous potholes, spraying roostertails of water. “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 even a friend or colleague.

Wulfstein made another turn and stopped his car on a hillside in front of a short driveway facing a cottage. “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 her. “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.”

He stared away from the transcript to meet her eyes. His face scrunched as he turned back to the manuscript. “None of the electronics are working. This is bad. This is . . . ” His eyebrows furrowed. “Unreadable. Where’s the master tape?”

“The Japanese have it. The planes just went off radar.”

He flinched. “But what was that blitz of light?”

“Nobody knows. There were lots of gaps and static between transmissions which might have provided some clues.”

“Damn.” Wulfstein jumped from the car. He slammed the door, rushed into his cottage, and slammed the cottage door as well.

What a frosty response. Eileen gathered her belongings and strode up the path. The brightly painted homestead wasn’t what she had expected. All was silent, except for the dog barking inside the cottage. She knocked, then pounded, and the barking grew louder.

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 oddity.

Eileen turned back and gathered her thoughts. She’d interviewed a psychologist who told her a person’s environments revealed the personality and character of its inhabitants. So she studied the Professor’s homestead. 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 around for inspiration. The chestnut trees lay barren, and the wind had calmed. And while 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. She had little time left—there was that interview with Mrs. Okino in Tokyo. Hoping the trek back to the Institute would clear her mind, she turned and headed to the street.

A taxi pulled up, startling her. “Are you Eileen O’Neill?” the driver asked, smiling. “I’m here to take you back to MIT.”

Puzzled and confused, Eileen stood still for a moment. Finally, she asked, “Who called for your service?”

“Professor Wulfstein.”

©) Joel Huan, author of Over Mount Fuji (available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

~ by Joel Huan on January 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “Over Mount Fuji – Chapter 1 –”

  1. Thanks, Ashley, if you like my chapter 1, you’ll like the mystery involved and the story setup, because this chapter is a microcosm of the whole novel.
    Also, when you are reading the rest of the story, be aware that the bloop is an authentic sound, a mystery, puzzling many who tried to find out more. (https://wulfstein.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/the-bloop/)
    Thanks again for your encouraging comment!

  2. Joel, interested enough to delve into Chapter 3 when I should be doing my own writing, lol. Could Eileen have both upset and unsettled him at once. He still runs off but she offers something intriguing before he leaves her alone. As for, “a person’s environments revealed the personality and character of its inhabitants” — I looked around my own place and came to the same observation as Eileen had of the Prof. . .”a sense of tranquility prevailed.” – Great stuff!

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