Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off the south coast
"And is this Tom Snout?"
"No, Sylvia, that’s Peaseblossom!"
"Prinny, you are so silly. I knew that. Didn’t you know I knew that?"
Princesa Piasola grinned at the wereseamonster. Being kidnapped had not affected her at all. She had been nearly or totally unconscious all that time and rescued before she awoke. What she remembered was being saved by dolphins. That had taken most of the sting out of being lost at sea when Sylvia had explained those memories were not delirium but that she herself had witnessed it.
Prinny had decided to throw over art and become a marine biologist. Of course, she wanted to specialize in dolphins. She had been planning to write about her adventures and Sylvia’s heroism, but Sylvia persuaded her the dolphins deserved more attention. Now the girl was writing about the dolphin pod and photographing and painting the actual dolphins. This was possible because Sylvia had managed to get the cetaceans to follow her to the water near the south end of Space Island, which was shallow and fertile with plants and fish, and they had made this a regular part of their nomadic hunting and grazing pattern. Prinny was naming the dolphins after characters, mostly fairies, in Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream."
"Tom Snout does suit him, with that nose of his. You’re a clever girl."
Prinny beamed, "I am, aren’t I?" She adjusted her mask and snorkel and went underwater for another look at the half-dozen dolphins hunting in Space Island’s south end pelagic under-land.
At first the girl’s parents had wanted to forbid their daughter any contact with the sea whatsoever, but the school counselor had convinced them this would slow their daughter’s trauma recovery. He’d suggested they convince their daughter to take up SCUBA and snorkel diving, reasoning that their daughter’s occasional dreams of drowning would be eased if she mastered working underwater.
Sylvia had helped Prinny stay in water sports by conspiring with the Piasola’s in that most dastardly way grownups have of subverting kids. They made Prinny responsible for teaching other kids. And naturally an underwater-skills teacher had to become an expert in underwater-skills safety to do it.
One thing led to another. The girl’s artistic impulses had not gone away. They’d just been redirected. In her studies she’d discovered that concrete rubble properly arranged increased the richness of underwater marine wildlife habitats and encouraged growth. Sylvia found herself agreeing to aid Prinny in making South End "welcoming" for the dolphins. Other kids got involved in the underwater fun. Then other adults besides the area’s most famous marine biologist got involved to ensure things were safe personally and environmentally.
South End was beginning to attract tourists, some of who naturally wanted to stay in the Sylvia Connelly Dolphin Suite at the Space Island hotel. This was, however, occupied by Sylvia, who’d accepted a position with ArgenSpace to, basically, do whatever the Hell she wanted. The hotel then hatched a solution. Sylvia slept one night in another suite which was then named the Dolphin Suite, and her own reverted to a mere number designation.
"Sylvy!" Prinny was out of the water, toweling off. "It’s time!"
"What? Oh." She sat up in her beach chair and began putting away the papers she’d been working on, a bit of marine research she’d been doing to keep her hand in. Not that she could have concentrated much longer. A water-jet-driven silver surfboard was racing south just offshore, Prinny’s brother Emilio coming to alert them that it was time to watch a spaceship come in and join them in watching it land.
An hour later she and Prinny and her brother were in the Barn, spiffed up and dressed for company rather than the beach. They were joining several dozen other local and not-so-local celebs and friends of ArgenSpace and a few privileged ArgenSpace employees in a large room just off the press room. The other room was a bit luxurious and highly official while this one was more comfortable, official furniture sharing space with second-hand sofas and easy chairs.
The press room and the observation room were open to each other, however, and it wasn’t unusual for journalists to troll the room for a snappy quote or statement.
"Dr. Connelly, what’s your reaction to the historical maiden flight of the Argentine Space Consortium’s second billion-dollar spaceship?"
The reporter thrusting his dictaphone toward Sylvia was a tweedy English reporter whose name she couldn’t remember. She answered him in his language.
"Sorry, luv. I already recycled a quote for Hildegard over there."
He hesitated, eyed the two young people with her, then decided they offered too little chance of verbal salt and pepper.
"Don’t you ever get tired of being famous?" Prinny’s taller bulkier older brother had her same pale good looks and cornsilk hair but was less careful about sunblock. His nose peeled.
"No. But it gets everyday pretty quickly. And can go away pretty quickly, too."
"It shouldn’t!" he said. He was one of her Everglades-Champ fans and even had a fair chance of becoming one himself someday.
She used her height and mass to push a bit ahead of the crowd and led them to three seats with a good view of the huge wall-mounted TV flat screen. Then she dispatched them to get a serving tray of goodies for the three of them.
She lounged, feet out and ankles crossed, idly watching the crowd. The view on the screen showed the wavy tight spiral showing the path of the spaceship in and out of the atmosphere. Periodically a flat engineer-announcer voice would mutter an indistinct milestone over the loudspeakers.
A slender figure detached itself from the milling crowd and dropped into a chair beside her. Argentine newspaper reporter and occasional lover Rafael squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.
"Been good, beautiful?"
"Unfortunately. You in town long?"
"Leaving early afternoon tomorrow."
"Oh, good, then I won’t have to refuse to have brunch with you in my room."
"You still in the Not-Sylvia-Connelly Suite?"
"And I’ll still be not-available at, 10:30 a good time?"
"Perfect. I’ll not-be-there at 10:30 sharp."
"Who was that?" Emilio wisely had brought back a second tray along with the one Prinny carried.
"He’s cute," his sister said, looking after Rafael as she knelt to set her tray on the long curving table mounted desk-style in front of the seats they had commandeered.
Sylvia tapped the girl’s nose tip. "And you’re still too young for him."
"Are you seeing him?" Emilio set his tray beside hers. His had drinks, hers snacks.
"I am definitely not-seeing him."
His scowl eased. Prinny smiled slightly at Sylvia.
A comfortable hour passed. Occasional visitors stopped by to exchange comments with Sylvia, give Emilio’s shoulder a manly fist-tap, or say a flirty compliment to Prinny. Mostly the sea monster chatted with Emilio since she spent so much time with Prinny, subtly encouraging him to learn to draw women out in conversation rather than monolog about himself.
Another engineer-voice announced a milestone but this time the volume had been turned up.
The three and most everyone else in the room sat more upright. A third of the way around the planet the Argentine spaceship had slowed and cooled enough that it had committed to stay in the atmosphere. It was streaking over the Pacific an hour before sunrise local time but high enough that red light was making the contrails streaming back from its arrowhead wings seem aflame.
The TV screen blinked and the diagram was replaced by an image of the Earth ahead of the spaceship, curved, black of space above softening into red-tinged atmosphere. They were over Australia but couldn’t see it even if they could look down. It was in darkness, as was most of the Pacific ahead of them except the narrow red arc of lit ocean on the horizon. High wispy clouds over the Pacific flamed, a brighter red than the ocean, visible as curving lines just inside the atmosphere.
The spaceship was committed fully to its new identity of hypersonic gliding dart, ramjet engines running but only to keep aflame if needed for maneuvering. It was too deep and too slow to return to space.
One of the smaller flat screens beside the big one flashed into life and began to show a scrolling line of numbers and letters, mostly green but a few orange. Red would have drawn especial attention but there were no danger signs so far.
A second of the smaller screens flashed into life. Two helmeted heads looked into the camera, one focused off to the side, the other looking directly at the camera. Names on the screen below the helmets identified the two. The astropilot looking into the camera was the man whose wife had supplied Sylvia with nightclub photographs. He was the co-pilot. The other, the main pilot she saw with a little shock, was the Australian Leoni, the Surf Master’s aide on the beach a few month’s earlier when Prinny had gone missing.
"Leoni." She didn’t know she’d spoken until Prinny answered.
"Yes. Isn’t she something?"
"Hot," was Emilio’s comment.
Sylvia blinked. Well, she supposed men would think of that first.
"Hello, Ground. Everything is looking good up here. We’re keeping our eyes on two or three alerts but so far they’re nominal. Captain Leoni Campbell is busy, of course, or she’d say Hello so I’ll say Hello for her. Ah, we’re a tad busy as always but feeling fine. So it’s back to work for us. We’ll keep you posted with occasional bulletins. And looking forward to a longer chat on the ground."
The screen blanked back to beige dimness. The other small screen had continued to scroll and seemed to be repeating. It had shown some orange notations several times in the same pattern.
"Wonder what those alerts are?" She spoke more to herself than anyone but she addressed her two companions.
A bearded young man leaned over from the seats behind them and spoke to her. "Dr. Connelly. Eduardo Rodriguez. We’ve met here and there."
She shook his hand as he continued.
"One of them is a communications glitch. Nothing to worry about even if that system fails entirely. The second is a slight irregularity in the ramjet fuel flow. A little more serious but they shouldn’t need the ‘jet unless they have to maneuver. And they won’t. The third is more serious. It — look. They’re going to explain." He pointed past her head at the screen.
The large screen showing the view to the front had been slowly changing as the spaceship sped over the Pacific. The red crescent of the planet ahead of them was growing fatter and more gold than red as the sun rose ahead. Now the view was banished to a side screen as it was replaced with two talking heads dressed in dark suits and ties. The younger one asked questions and was answered by the older one with grey hair beginning to recede. They covered what the man in the seat behind had said but with diagrams of the effected systems.
"This last is the one with the possibility for trouble. You know that spaceships can’t use control surfaces. They’re too fragile and complicated. So instead they use this."
A diagram showed up on a side screen. It showed a cutaway of the space ship with a six-limbed star like the jacks game piece in the center. The star looked like three hollow pipes connected and crossing in the middle. This turned out to be exactly what they were, as could been seen as the viewpoint zoomed in on the near end of one pipe.
"Imagine a can of water at each end of the pipe. It can be pulled toward the center and pushed away from it. This is the way surfboards are steered, by the surfer moving his center of gravity, his belly, in various directions."
The talking heads video blinked to another of the smaller screens and a video of a female surfer coming down a wave-hill blinked onto the large center screen. She was "dancing" a board through a complex figure, swapping ends back and forth and then doing a loop-the-loop off a curling wave.
"Captain Leoni Campbell, shown here as it happens, was an All-Australia surfing champ twice while she was working on her master’s degree in engineering. That makes her eminently qualified to pilot a spaceship based on this mechanical principle."
"And this is the system that has a minor glitch in it?"
"Exactly. We don’t expect any real troubles but of course we are keeping a close eye on this situation."
The talking heads vanished and the large screen continued to show Leoni until she brought the surfboard smoothly onto shore. As the image froze and faded out the sunrise image regained the main screen. The sun was well up in the sky now, the sky blue tending toward black at the zenith, and the ocean was no longer a crescent but a navy blue carpet dotted with white clouds. Sylvia imagined that she could actually see the slight stippling of waves on the ocean. The spaceship was little higher than the highest jetliners now though her speed was still several times theirs.
"Hi, there. I’m going to take over for Leoni for a little while to let her chat a bit." The big screen showed the two helmeted figures. Leoni looked up as her copilot looked away from the screen. She smiled.
"We’re always a bit tense up here but we’re relaxing a little more. We’ve got that comm problem fixed. José what did you do?"
The screen split and another helmeted figure looked out at the camera.
"Captain, I just tangoed down to the corner store and bought a part. Pull out, push in, and we’re chatty Kathys again."
"Miguel, you got that fuel flow problem fixed. How’d you do that?"
José was replaced by Miguel, though the helmet made the faces look little different.
"What I always do, Captain. I have this big wrench… Well, I might have adjusted the metering a bit."
The faces were replaced by a view forward. Land was below now, mountains and valleys folding up and down, a long narrow lake. The landscape was still sliding by pretty fast. Leoni’s voice continued.
"Hey, Mexico. Hey, Guatemala. We see your chase planes. Thanks for the company."
The landscape was replaced by skyscape, deep blue, buttermilk clouds. And an arrowhead moving rapidly overhead, gone in a few seconds.
Another skyscape. Far to one side another view of the arrowhead. This chase plane was hauling ass. It actually kept up with the spaceship for nearly a minute.
The big screen blinked, showed a map of the Caribbean with Mexico and its cousins to the west. The line with its arrowhead showed the spaceship over the ocean again.
"We’re on home turf now. Hello, we just went subsonic. We’re just a big old jetliner now, if we had jets. We’re still burning the ram but not for propulsion. It doesn’t work this slow. We just want to run empty to make for a safer — yep. Fuel’s all gone. We’re a glider."
Leoni seemed so casual, as if she were just chatting. Sylvia wondered if all the patter had been written beforehand, and if the crew had practiced it. Well, no, she didn’t wonder. Argentina was spending way too much money and had way too much more money on the line, not to mention national reputation, to take chances.
"They’re reading from a script, aren’t they?" She spoke to her two companions, then turned and repeated her question to the bearded talker behind them.
He looked uncomfortable and looked around him uneasily. "Sort off. They know where they have to be any second of their flight and what they’ll be doing, so it’s structured. And they improvise and discuss what they’re going to say. But they’re not faking…"
Emilio said quietly. "That’s them, Sylvia. It sounds a little like some comedy writer is putting words in their mouths. But you don’t get to be where they are without being able to say what you mean."
"Spaceship 2, Spaceship 2, we have you on radar. Our chase planes have you on visual. This is Control. Over." The voice had a hollow in-a-tunnel sound.
Prinny said, "Leoni’s no faker. She says just what she means, and to … Heck if someone doesn’t like it."
"Control, Control, understand that. We’re preparing to deploy brakes. Over."
The main screen map was replaced by split-screen images of the spaceship taken from a plane above it and one just barely over the ocean. The near-beneath shot was behind and to the side. It showed the knife edge back of the barbs opening slowly, becoming open flaps above and below the wing.
Suddenly the arrowhead yawed, then rolled. Coming down into water like that the spaceship would be destroyed.
The entire audience gasped or surged forward in their seats or both. Only Sylvia with her inhuman reflexes showed no reaction though she felt as if splashed in ice-water. She stared hard at the screen, unaware that one of the seat-arms had cracked loudly from her grip.
The spaceship lurched slightly and began to straighten back toward normalcy. It didn’t quite make it and must have jolted harshly but the drag of the water evened the ‘ship out so that it eased down off its foamy white wave and glided smoothly to a halt.
Prinny leaped up and started jumping up and down and Emilio instantly abandoned any grownup pretense to join her. Nor was Sylvia more than an instant behind. They screamed and shouted and held each other and jumped up and down some more.