Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off the south coast
Sylvia dressed for the beach in a bikini but put on over it a loose summer dress printed with bright green, red, and yellow leaves; they would be visiting other areas before the beach. She slipped on sandals with medium-height heels and grabbed a bag of items she often wanted at the beach. From her fridge she took two plastic bottles of water, one for each of them.
Her brother came out of his bedroom in worn blue jeans and a white tee with a formerly black but now grey Miami Police Academy emblem on the front and back. Worn but bright red tennies adorned his feet. He caught her placing the water bottles in her bag.
"Good idea. We’ll need those soon."
"We can get more at the spaceship hangar and the beach if we need them. Ah, did you bring a bathing suit?"
"Didn’t think I’d need it."
"We’ll pick up one on the way."
They also picked up, briefly, several women the sea monster knew by sight and name. The monster introduced Rickie but only by his first name. If they assumed he was taken that was alright by her. He thanked her after the second obviously predatory woman.
"God, where are the retiring maidenly Latin women?"
"You’re from Miami. You ought to know the answer. Anyway, most of these are Argentine women. They consider themselves Europeans."
They walked down the main street toward the south, Sylvia a bit proudly showing off all the modern stores. In a clothing store with a decidedly youthful bent he bought a trunk-style swimsuit, making Sylvia rethink her swimsuit choice: a bikini made up of three small triangles. This was popular with younger Boricua and women in Miami and probably appreciated by her brother — on women other than his sister. So she bought a suit with a sports bra top and a bottom that covered her bottom. Somewhat further on they bought a snorkel and swim fins for Rickie.
All set for the beach, she led him to the nearest auto tram site. The werecreature examined the posted schedule.
"Hmm. We’ll have to wait fifteen minutes for the next cart. You want to walk to the hangar? Or run?"
"Run? With those heels? You’ll kill yourself."
She slipped her sandals off. It had been a stupid choice for the beach. She had only been thinking of making a better impression at the spaceship hangar.
"No, I won’t. Let’s go."
"No. The concrete will kill your feet, and any little rock will cut those tender tootsies."
She laughed. "My feet are tougher than boots, Riki Tiki. Come on." And she was off at a leisurely jog she could keep up for hours or even days on end. When he caught up with her she stepped up the pace to a fast jog. At first he kept a sharp eye on her but soon seemed to mentally shrug and began to enjoy the view around them.
At one point an automatic passenger cart trundled out of a side street. Sylvia veered to catch up and stepped aboard. The carts moved at a fast walking pace and it was easy. At the main street the cart turned south and they had an easy ride for one block. When it turned into a cross street they dropped off. Then near the edge where residences replaced stores they caught up to an express auto cart, swung aboard, and sat.
"Pretty nice places."
Sylvia nodded, looking at the houses from eyes freshened by his presence.
"They offered me one if I’d sign a long-term contract. But I wanted to keep my options open."
Where the residences trailed off the view was unobstructed all along the island, about half a mile wide and another two and a half to the south. The spaceship barn was about a mile further along to their right. Its true size began to be apparent.
Their elevation was low enough that they could see the dark blue ocean on all sides, glints coming off it to the west as the sun sank in that direction. All about them was brown grass spotted with short grey-green bushes. Some of the area was beginning to be landscaped but it would be many years before all of it became green and beautiful.
"Let’s run. I know a shortcut."
"Your feet …"
"They’ll be fine."
A hundred feet along the side of the road Sylvia said without breaking stride, "This is part of that big secret. Keep up, now."
She plunged into the ankle high grass away from the road. It would scratch a human’s ankles bloody shortly and the stubble stab holes in the bottoms of her feet. It did nothing to Sylvia but prickle slightly.
She ran moderately fast here. Rickie kept up easily but stayed a few yards back so that he could watch her. Once she veered to the side and leaped over a waist-high bush, then veered back in line with him. Coming down from such a jump should have injured her bare feet badly.
When they reached the access road leading up to the front of the hangar she stopped and took her shoes out of her bag. She stood balanced on first one foot then the other to slip on the shoes, implicitly showing her brother both her ankles and the soles of her feet. They showed not the slightest scratch or puncture wound.
He was very quiet as they approached the vehicle gate into the high fenced enclosure with barbed wire on top. The sea monster took her badge out of her bag which she normally used to buzz into the compound. This time she walked through the gate with her brother.
Inside the guard shack she lay her badge on the chest-high shelf that separated the gate guard from visitors. Rickie put his driver’s license beside it. After a glance at her badge the guard handed it back to her. She clipped it to her collar. The guard picked up her brother’s ID and entered his name and address in a registry after a quick but keen comparison of the picture with her brother’s face. Then the guard handed it and a numbered badge to him. Rickie clipped the badge to the neck of his tee shirt and replace his license in his wallet.
"Have a good day, Doctor. Sir."
Concrete completely surrounded the huge hangar and the several buildings on all sides of it. Sylvia went directly to a door labeled AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY and used her badge to buzz herself and her brother into the hangar. Down a long hall she passed through another door into a public area, nicely carpeted in pale green and with sofas arranged around a low table with a few magazines on it. Sylvia spoke in English to a secretary at a desk.
"Hi, Patsy. We’re still having regular tours?"
"For two more days. But you can always give private ones."
"This is my brother in from Miami." She introduced the two and they shook hands, the secretary wishing him a good stay before she turned back to a computer screen.
The next room was large enough for two dozen people on a tour. She gave him a shortened version of a tour she sometimes gave, first showing him pictures of space industry with the arrow-shaped spaceship being loaded or off-loaded at a space dock. Tethered astronauts floated around the ship, overseeing the cargo sliding on rails into and out of the ship, bright sunlight outside atmosphere giving shadows sharp edges on the sides of suits, ship, and space station.
Then she explained how the ship re-entered the atmosphere over the Pacific flying east, crossed into the Caribbean sea just south of Mexico, and landed in the water a hundred miles or so to the west of Puerto Rico. For visuals she pointed out a trajectory map and photos of the spaceship splashing down and being towed.
"Sounds like you’ve done this before."
"Two or three times a month I sign up to give a group tour. It’s part of my job. Be a celebrity associated with ArgenSpace."
He grinned and Sylvia relaxed just a little. He had been awfully solemn until now. "Still hard to think of my little sister being a celebrity."
She poked his arm. "Your older sister."
From the large room they entered a long hall with a view of the spaceship protected from viewers by heavy fracture-proof windows. The giant arrow floated with its thick delta wings mostly out of the water. At least a dozen men and women could be seen working on it or on platforms on the edge of the pool. All wore light blue coveralls with yellow hard helmets.
Her brother took in a deep breath and slowly let it out from ballooning cheeks.
"It’s a big sonofabitch, isn’t it?"
"Length of a football field. Or soccer field, as the Argentines would say."
They strolled along the entire length of the gallery.
"Want to see inside?"
"Could I? Damn right."
"Let’s see if we’re lucky."
They were. A friend of hers was in. She had been over to his house for dinner with his family several times. He answered her request in English for her brother’s sake.
"Of course, querida mia. Come on." He grabbed a yellow hard hat from a hat rack and led the way down a set of stairs, along a hall, then up a set of stairs. At the entrance to the hangar proper was a dressing and shower room with spare helmets hanging on hooks. The two of them found ones that fit and followed her friend through the door. On the other side they entered a long extensible metal walkway that swayed a little at their progress, though not enough to require them to put hands on the waist-high railing on each side.
At the edge of the hatch Rickie stopped, looked toward their guide, and gestured at the side of the spaceship. "Can I touch it?"
"Sure. If vacuum and re-entry heat doesn’t hurt you sure can’t."
Reverently her brother touch the metal skin, caressed it. A grin spread on his face. "Man, oh, man, won’t the guys back at work be jealous when I tell them."
His sister bumped him in the back. "They’ll envy you even more when you tell them you sat in the cockpit."
Inside the former space pilot showed them along a hall, pointing out the rounded hand holds all along the way.
"You’ll notice how this hallway is only six and a half feet high and wide. That’s so you’ll have a handhold in easy reach in free fall. In larger work areas you usually have a tether, or a tether nearby. If worst comes to worst and you get stranded in the middle of the room you can take off a shoe and throw it opposite to where you want to go. That will propel you to a handhold. But it does take some skill to do that. You have to make sure you throw exactly away from your center of gravity. Otherwise all throwing does is start you spinning."
On the way to the cockpit the man showed various workstations, such as the one for internal cargo view and control, the engine room, and electronics-control backup.
"Most functions have back up and here —" he opened one last door. "Here we have triple back up for external view. There are two sets of cameras and a physical port hole if both those fail. That’s behind this panel. I can’t show you that, however.
"And here are the pilot and co-pilot seats."
Rickie looked on in consternation. Both seats were sized for smaller people.
The astronaut laughed. "They resize. Here. I’ll change both to suit you."
He sat down in one seat and then the other, opening a panel in each seat arm and punching some buttons. Both seats re-conformed and the siblings sat in them. They didn’t fit perfectly, but good enough for Rickie to move his hands near various controls as if flying the ship.
After a few minutes of this Sylvia’s friend stood up from his leaning against a bulkhead.
"Well, that’s the tour. Wish I could spend more time with you, but I can’t goof off any more."
Somewhat reluctantly Rickie got up and followed the werecreature and the astronaut out.
Back in the dressing room the two siblings returned their helmets to hooks. Rickie shook the astronaut’s hand and thanked him.
"I’ll never forget this."
"Glad to oblige Sylvia’s family. Ciao." He kissed Sylvia’s cheek and left.
"And now, bro, we go to see the dolphin’s"
They walked the remaining mile and a half to the south tip of the island on the western verge of the island beside a newly paved road. Halfway there a big pickup truck traveling south slowed and stopped beside them. An adult was driving and there was a teenaged girl and boy in the cab with him. Three more teens rode in back on top of various boxes and loads of lumber.
"Hey, Doc," said the driver, sticking his head a bit out of the truck’s window. "Want a ride?"
"Thanks, Giuseppe. Meet my brother Rick."
The two men shook hands and her brother waved at the two teens in the cab. Sylvia nodded at them and they grinned back at her.
Seated on boxes in the cargo area Rickie said to Sylvia, "What’s this all about?"
She turned her head toward the three teens with whom he had shaken hands.
The girl said, "It’s a school project, working on the dolphin sanctuary. We get credit. And it’s a lot of fun."
The girl explained the project Prinny had started, to make the water at the island tip more friendly to dolphins.
One of the boys spoke up. "Today we’re helping add to the surfer support area. All of this —" he waved a hand at the supplies underneath and around them. "This will make the buildings stronger, and add to them. And improve the outhouses." He grimaced, then grinned. "Not my favorite job."
At the end of the ride Sylvia led Rickie away from the truck toward a row of tents. In one they changed into swim clothes and locked their valuables in lockers. Sylvia’s locker was permanently her’s. From it she took a snorkel and face mask.
Outside the tent Sylvia pointed out aspects of the shore-side camp. "This started out as just a couple of temporary shelters and a Porta-Potty. It’s just sort of growing without any plan. A lot of the work is voluntary. It would have been better if it had been planned, maybe. But maybe not. The kids are learning responsibility and self-discipline.
"A couple of them are sitting in on the planning committee to establish a permanent site here, with power, plumbing, garbage disposal, and so on running down the island spine. That way they’ll feel it’s their own decision when all this has to be torn down or cannibalized."
"There could be a ton of safety violations here."
"Got it covered. Kids get class credit for studying safety and finding and fixing problems here. ArgenSpace safety inspectors backstop them."
Rickie was sarcastic. "Bet you get a lot of kids working on that."
"Lots more than you think. Especially when they see yours truly here in work clothes getting dirty." She put her nose in the air and put on a noble expression. He pushed her off her feet. She let herself fall, laughing, got up, dusted herself off.
"But I’m not the only one. Remember that spaceship that almost crashed last year? The pilot who worked miracles to keep it from cracking up works down here as a lifeguard a few days a week when she’s onsite. There’s the guard area."
She pointed at the prefab building a hundred feet or so away. It had a raised body and a tower with a seat and umbrella atop it.
"Too bad she’s not here right now. You should see her in a bikini."
"Don’t important people — not people like you — have better things to do?"
"Spending time in free-fall and shut up in an artificial environment takes a toll on you. Exercising in fresh air here helps astronauts recover. And if she didn’t volunteer her bosses might order her to do really boring exercise in a gym.
"When kids see their heroes down here working they don’t treat it as crap work. Besides, there’s peer pressure. Making this place better is the thing to do."
"Yeah. For a few months."
"Could be. We’ll see."
They had been walking toward and now arrived at a mobile home that had been turned into a sales and rental store for surf boards and powered go-boards.
"Josefina, I need a go-board for me and my friend. Is my favorite board available?"
"Right over here, Champ. And I’ve got a new board that your friend can use. Ah, sir —"
"I’m Rickie, Josefina." They shook hands.
"You do know how to run one of these?"
"My sister taught me." He nodded toward Sylvia.
"Your sister?" Josefina perked up at the news that he was not dating the Champ.
The siblings lugged their boards to a maintenance area beside the mobile home, checked to ensure the boards were indeed in top mechanical condition, and topped off the superbatteries. Josefina, keeping an eye on both to double-check them and to certify the precautions had been properly seen to, extended two clipboards so they could sign the rental papers.
The two donned the orange life jackets that were part of the rental and lugged the go-boards a hundred yards to the water edging the beach, slid them into the water, and waded in beside them. When waist deep they slipped tethers onto their wrists to ensure if they ditched they could not get lost from their board. They donned face masks and snorkels and submerged enough to test that they worked properly.
Satisfied, they mounted the boards. This took a bit of skill. Sylvia, discreetly watching Rickie, saw that he had lost none of that skill. As he mounted he even pivoted the T-shaped control yoke from flat to upright at the end of the mount, locking it in place, all in one smooth controlled motion.
He turned to his sister, face smug. "Thought I’d forgotten how?"
"Just checking. Just checking." She was standing up on her board too.
"Do we go see the dolphins now?"
"Most will still be out on the water until a bit later. We’re going to practice a little. Come on!"
With that she triggered her motor. It came smoothly to life, as did Rickie’s. They gently ramped up the engines to ensure they were running properly at every throttle setting and headed out to sea, their speed increasing more and more until only the tails of the boards and their water-jet engines were below water, the rest canted up at an angle.
Top-notch go boards with very good pilots could top 35 knots. Both Connellys were very good pilots.
Several miles out to sea they circled back toward Space Island and throttled down and down and turned off their motors. The two boards coasted to a halt, settling into the water. Sylvia folded down to sit cross-legged, looking back at the island. The buildings looked like toys in the distance under a blue sky with only wisps of clouds to block the sun.
"You forgot to put on sun block," she said.
"Damn! Your fault, motor-mouth. You distracted me."
"Don’t worry about it. I’ll fix your burn." She looked down at her hands, consciously stopped them from twisting against each other.
"I’m not human any more, Rick."
Slowly, then with more assurance as her brother listened uncritically, she told of being kidnapped. That brought a reaction, but she soothed him down and continued with waking up, fighting, being knocked out.
"They may have raped me before I died. Or maybe after. Thank God I don’t remember any of that. Not just repressed but don’t remember. The memories would have started coming up after a few months, in dreams at least."
She told of waking up underwater at her beach house, rented then, owned now. Coming out of the water, getting into her house by pulling a set of iron bars off a window.
"I later calculated the force needed to do that and accidentally throw the bars more than a hundred yards — and they were stopped only because there were trees in the way. I can shot put over a mile, or throw it through a concrete wall. The energy density of my muscles is way beyond human. That’s why I eat the way I do."
She smiled wanly at him. "And weigh half again what a human my size would. Remember how heavy I was when I walked on your back? That wasn’t just charity. That was the first demonstration to you that I’d changed."
She went on to talk about some of her enhancements. Not all.
"My second demonstration was that run through the grass. Remember it? That was to show you how tough my skin is. It will even stop a knife. I know, because one of the seamen I fought stabbed me in the back."
That got a reaction out of him, an angry one.
"I only felt something like a jab with a fingernail. Then I found out that I could control my skin to simulate a bleeding wound. Which I did. And made sure the photographers got shots of it when the police showed up. If the men ever go on trial I’ll have to simulate a wound scar. Or if I go on trial.
"I don’t know about bullets. And I don’t plan to find out."
"Glad to hear it." He grinned. A slight one, but genuine.
She had first learned she could heal by laying her hands on someone was when she treated her niece Rissa. The thought of other children suffering as Rissa had was what spurred her to look for a general cure in the jungles.
"I can sense inside of people and affect what I sense. I can also read the body at a cellular level, or below, and know how to help by reading their genetic code. At least, I think that’s what I’m doing. What it feels like is that I’m remembering knowledge out of a book I read too long ago to recall reading it.
"That’s how I could tell which snake or bug bites would heal Juvie Alzheimer’s. I also chewed on exotic plants but didn’t find a cure there."
She looked down at her hands again. "I’ve been passing over some stuff. One is that I can change my shape a lot."
"I sort of caught that. Show me something."
She took a deep breath. Then she held up a hand and extruded her claws. He leaned over toward her and overshot, rocking his board. He drew back and she held out her hand so he could see better.
"Retract them. Or just one. Can you do that?"
She had never tried. She found she could, ending up with just her pointing finger claw tipped.
"It looks like you’re growing or ungrowing the claws instead of retracting them."
"I used to shapechange my fingernails but it takes a fair amount of energy. One day I just wished for a better system and it happened. I have several theories about that, but I don’t know which is right. I’m pretty cautious about experimenting on myself. I could harm myself, or maybe get stuck. You don’t want to see me with my fangs out."
Actually she was a little miffed that he was taking everything so calmly. Which was totally stupid, of course.
"Hey. Knock yourself out."
"You asked for it." She let her teeth change so fast they practically exploded into fangs.
"Cool. Lean this way again."
Sylvia secretly laughed at her annoyance at his easy acceptance. What an idiot, to get what she wanted, then not be satisfied.
He snicked a fingernail against the sharp points when she leaned over toward him. When he drew back his hand she straightened and let her teeth return to normal. She said that fast changes took extra energy and the fangs or claws were not as strong as they could be.
"They felt pretty hard. Almost like stone."
"Not that hard when I change them fast. Though they’ll cut flesh just fine. But when I take my time they come out as hard as diamond and can penetrate steel.
"I’m going to find those bastards that stole me, then killed me and maybe raped me. I’m going to tear them into bloody bits. Or slice them into bacon. I’m going to find every one they sell women to, and I’m going to kill them all.
"They treated me like a piece of meat. Like meat. Like nothing …" She found she was weeping, taking in great gulps of air and letting them out as sobs. She leaned over the board, wrapping her arms around her waist, crying, watering the ocean with her tears.
There was a splash and warm wet arms wound themselves around her waist. Her brother was in the water next to her board, his arms atop her arms, hands grasping her hands.
"Sylly, Sylly, I’m here. Rickie’s here. Cry Sylly. Let it all out. You’ll feel better. You’ll feel better."
It took a while but eventually her crying tapered off. With a last sniff, she quit.
"Thanks. Here, get back on your board. I need to clean up." When he released her and turned in the water toward his board she rolled off her own. A couple of minutes underwater cleared her tears and runny nose. By the time she came to the surface he was back on his board, sitting cross-legged. Smoothly and easily she re-mounted her own board.
"I’m not sure why I’m so angry sometimes. Everything since I died has been an improvement. Did you get that I can breathe water now? I actually sleep underwater sometimes. I don’t get bends, or suffer from cold, even when I go down a mile or more where it’s only a few degrees above freezing."
That jolted him. "A mile? That’s weird."
"Now that you mention it, it does seem that way. But for me it’s just business as usual. I didn’t even think about it the first time I went deep. I was just curious about the shape of P’Rico underwater. It drops down into a trench on the southwest side where my house is. I think bottom is about eight miles down but I stopped at a mile because the ocean down there is pretty boring."
"How did you know it was a mile?"
"You know, I don’t know. I just knew. Maybe I was sensing the pressure …"
"How could you see anything? It gets dark pretty quick." Rickie and she had both been enthusiastic SCUBA divers off Miami’s beaches as kids.
"I have something like sonar, but a lot longer range and more detailed. It doesn’t work out of water. Shame. It would be useful."
"You sleep deep underwater? Aren’t there predators down there? Big ones?"
"Yeah. But my not-sonar wakes me if something approaches. And it hasn’t sunk in to you yet, I can tell. Down there — well, anywhere — I’m the monster. Sharks run away from me. Maybe because I snack on them when I come across them.
"Maybe not, though. Squid and stingrays run away too and I don’t eat them. But dolphins and whales don’t run. They’re cautious when they first meet me, but act like they want to be friends."
She looked closely at him. "You’re taking this pretty calmly."
She looked back toward the island toward which a breeze was pushing them, turning the waves choppy and rocking their boards.
"Did you ever see the Creature from the Deeps? No nose, little eyes, grey skin. That’s what I look like undersea."
Turned away as she was she could not see his grin but could hear it in his voice. "When I was ten and you were fifteen and turned into a gurr-ull that made me want to throw up. This doesn’t. Part of me is still ten and thinks all this sea monster stuff is great. So you can just quit trying to convince me how horrible you are.
"And your plans to kill some scumbags in Columbia or Venezuela or where-ever? Also doesn’t bother me. Maybe I’m just not a good enough cop, but it doesn’t.
"What I am bothered by, a little, is how intense you are about killing those guys. I’m scared you’ll lose caution and go head-to-head to guys with heavy weapons.
" But most of all I’m afraid you’ll accidentally kill some innocent people. I’ve seen how bad it is when somebody accidentally kills some innocent woman or baby by accident during a fight. You really don’t want to do that, Sylly."
"Too late. I’ve already been through that. A tiger attacked me in the jungle and by reflex I treated it as if it were as big a threat as it would have been before I died. I tore it to pieces."
She shook her head. "I still think of it sometimes and feel as bad as if it had been a kitten. And it was, compared to me."
They were silent for long moments, looking toward the island. It was getting closer as the wind pushed them toward it, and at a faster pace than earlier. As the sun sank the wind was picking up, making the waves choppier and occasionally whipping up spray that was cool on their backs.
"So. Dolphins. You said something earlier about talking to them? And making a translator to let ordinary humans talk to them?"
Grateful for a subject that was not so much about her she recounted how she had first grown an in-throat translator and created a mechanical translator, with a lot of help from Prinny and ArgenSpace engineers.
"It’s still pretty crude, but it works. Prinny was so excited the first time she ‘talked’ to a dolphin. It was with Miranda, the dolphin shot by those fishermen."
"And just what did happen there? You gave me a quickie briefing on the fight but you left out a lot."
"I had to. I have to be very discreet about revealing my shapechanger nature. That’s why Mom knows nothing about it. And I always act as if someone is spying on me. That’s why we’re way out here where even a shotgun mike can’t hear us."
"Someone could have put a tap on these boards."
She grinned. "I already checked that out. Besides ordinary senses I’ve got some esoteric ones I’ve not told you about."
"So, give me more on the fight. And dolphins."