In the weeks to come Sylvia tied up loose ends in two areas, her dissertation and her “seamonsterage.”
She worked diligently on the first. She was determined to finish the editing and get through the last formalities needed to get her PhD. It would open all sorts of doors for her. And once Sylvia was well launched on a project Hell would freeze over before she quit.
She had lost interest in her subject, the speed and mechanisms in neural propagation in sea life, but all she had to do was relatively mechanical actions to finish the dissertation. She was also helped because she now needed only half the sleep she had formerly needed. Perhaps that was because her dreams came twice as often as formerly normal, as essential as dreams were to a healthy mind.
Most of her dreams, that she remembered anyway, had an underwater theme. She suspected many of them were memories of her lost month — the time she joyously chased just to chase a stingray, the time she caught and ate several fish, and the time she had fought and killed several sharks. She had raged among them and gloried in tearing them apart. In the end dozens of sharks fled in panic from her while she ripped apart and ate the losers.
She wondered about that. Was the memory symbolic of her desire to punish her human killers? Or a real memory? She had a hard time reconciling her raging murder with what she thought of herself. But if it had really happened she had only been an animal at that stage of her recovery from death, hadn’t she?
She did remember over and over trying to escape her bondage only to be murdered. If it was a memory and not a dream offering a theory for her disappearance.
On the monster front she reconfirmed all the impossibilities she had already discovered and discovered a few more.
Her muscles were immensely strong. She could lift well over a ton and throw it dozens of feet, leap thirty to forty feet in the air, run as fast as an automobile, crush stone with her fingers and break it with a blow from the knuckles of her fist. She had enormous endurance so that she could, for instance, run at a trot for days without sleep. She needed much food in exchange for these abilities, but she also could eat many pounds of food and drink several gallons and store it without needing to urinate or defecate.
She wished she could biopsy one of her muscles and study the tissue, but she was afraid of upsetting some delicate balance. She was also afraid of triggering some arcane defense. It would be a Hell of a thing to kill herself by, in effect, trying to scratch herself!
Besides, this came up against her anomalous skin. The harder something tried to stick it the harder her skin became. Yet despite that it had pores and perspired to cool itself. She wondered what would happen if she inserted a microprobe in a pore and pushed, but the better part of valor etc.
Her nerves acted several times as fast as those of every normal species, but she did not feel as if the world was slower than she was — though she did seem never to have to hurry to decide or begin an action. She was (temporarily) one of the world’s greatest experts on neural mechanisms and functions, having already excited other experts with her research results and several of her published papers. Yet she was totally baffled by her own nervous system! Ouch.
Then there were her hairs. Even the tiny ones all over her skin were living organs. She was just as glad that her pubic and underarm hairs had disappeared. Having them be alive would have been quite queasy making.
She had claws and fangs that came and went as she wished, shaping themselves within certain limits, and webs between her fingers and toes at will. Her skin and hair changed color to her desire.
Recently she had discovered that she could increase and decrease the sensitivity of all her senses.
She could breathe water.
Underwater she had a sense like sonar but which seemed to be some kind of radar, somewhat like long waves well below radio broadcast levels but not requiring a several-meters-long antenna. It could be a gravitic detector.
She had a bachelor’s in physics, a master’s in biochemistry, and almost a doctorate in neurochemistry. And all the knowledge was totally useless to her.
She felt like a big dummy.
Was she the butt of some extraterrestrial joke? Nah. Too paranoid.
Well, she had solved difficult puzzles before. Meanwhile she was having the time of her life. She no longer needed SCUBA gear to play with the fishes. And the undersea was even more beautiful than it had ever been before with absolutely nothing between her and it.
At last she was finished with her dissertation. She emailed her committee chair saying, as agreed, she could deliver the last part of her dissertation in person on the week agreed. Did he still want her to do that?
He did indeed, an email said an hour later, and set a time for the delivery.
The next day, packed for a week’s stay, she took a taxi to San Luis’ airport and left for Miami. Her clothes she checked. Her dissertation she carried in her hot little hands.
“Sylvy? Is that you?”
“God, Mom. Don’t you recognize your own daughter?” Sylvia chuckled as she took her mother in her arms. People moved around them hurrying from the airplane exit. Someone bumped into her. Sylvia swayed a fraction of an inch forward and back. Her sea-monster muscle was dense and she weighed a third again her human weight. She was also a big girl now, five feet ten and with a wide frame, though she still looked as she had from a distance.
Her mother Margaret pulled her out of the flow of hurrying people and away from other obstructive greeters. She held her daughter at a distance, a small blond woman still quite pretty. She was wearing a red-and-green floral print against the Miami heat and her inevitable spike high heels.
Her eyes widened as she took in her over-sized daughter. “What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Working out, Mom. I got into this weight-training kick the way Arlen did. Remember how he shot up?”
“You are twenty-four years old, young lady. Your growth spurt is over.”
“Well, now it is. I gained an inch a month for a while there.”
They began to walk down the concourse toward the baggage carousels, her mother glancing at her.
“I think you look better. You don’t have all those lumpy muscles weight-lifters do. You were always too skinny. Now you aren’t.”
Sylvia had commanded her body to put on some softening fat and it had obeyed. More and more she was thinking less of herself as a wereseamonster and more like those shapechangers in Irish folklore. Her father had told his children many tales about them.
Turning a corner and heading down some stairs Sylvia said, “I’m getting to be a red-hot-mama like my Mom.”
“Sylvy!” But Sylvia knew the protest was pro-forma and did not have to look to see that her mother was blushing with pleasure.
“You still going with Meyer?”
“We’re still together, yes. What about you? Is there a special someone?”
“Too busy. But as soon as I’m done with school I’m going to take some time off. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for.”
She would be looking for some men who had killed her. And then she would let their blood run free.
Three weeks later she was Dr. Sylvia Connelly. Her brother and his family flew in for the summer’s-end graduation ceremony held by Miami University. She caught up with his life as she had her mother’s in the weeks before and played with her two nephews and niece and came to know her sister-in-law better.
And she discovered a new side of her monsterdom.
Sylvia dandled her two-year-old niece in her lap. Despite the warmth of the day the girl had to be kept wrapped a bit because she was sensitive to cold. She should be walking now, or at least crawling, but she was not.
Sylvia tickled the little girl’s chin and grinned down at her. She grinned up at the woman. It was a happy grin, and she seemed bright. Her eyes were always scanning curiously around. But her grasp of Sylvia’s thumb was weak.
Amber Connelly looked anxiously at Sylvia. The three of them were in deck chairs on the spacious deck of Everly Meyer’s boat, the Busted Flush, a few miles out of its slip at Fort Lauderdale. He and Randy Connelly and the two boys, seven and eight, were sort-of fishing while Margaret Connelly provided snacks and drinks for the two groups. She had just left the three females for the males.
“Doctor Connelly —” Amber was a slender woman with sharp attractive features and prematurely grey hair. It was well-coifed and looked smart rather than aging.
“Just Sylvia, Amber.” The sea monster smiled affectionately at her sister-in-law. Amber had been good for Randy, who had always been as wild as Sylvia had been studious. That wildness had been replaced by ambition tempered by caution since he had started dating Amber. By the time they married he had become a financial investor with a good record. He had become moderately wealthy in the last few years and he loved Amber very much.
“Doctor. Give me a second opinion. What should we do about Rissa?” The woman’s anxious expression had been replaced by resolution.
“Amber, I’m a PhD, not a medical doctor.”
“Randy says you are the smartest person he knows. And you have degrees in neurobiology and neurochemistry. I’m not some crazy woman mixing up titles, Sylvia.”
Crazy from desperation, perhaps, but not stupid. She had a degree in art history, wrote art criticism for distinguished magazines, and had a small but respected art gallery in Manhattan. Her family was wealthy but her career was not a rich girl’s hobby. She was also solidly practical. She had not agreed to marry Randy as he had been, as much as she loved him. Sylvia gave her much of the credit for, she thought, literally saving Randy.
Amber held out a manila folder thick with papers. “This is Rissa’s complete medical history. Please look at it.”
Sylvia took it from her. What else could she do? To say no would almost kill this woman.
“Here. I’ll take her so you can read this.”
“No, I’m fine. I like to hold her. But you can help by angling that umbrella so I can read better.”
With that she opened the folder and began to read.
There was a lot of material, including general articles on several neural diseases and the results of all sorts of tests.
Sylvia became lost in the material. From time to time the light changed to keep good light on the contents of the folder but she hardly noticed. Once someone tried to take Rissa from her, but Sylvia merely smiled up at them and said, “Shhh. She’s sleeping so well.” And her mother or Amber occasionally repositioned the cushion behind her back. Once someone readjusted the folder’s contents to make them easier to hold. Her brother, that was. She just smiled at him and thanked him.
Finally she was finished reading It was dusk and the wind had picked up. She surrendered the baby, still sleeping peacefully but beginning to awaken and demand food. Sylvia herself ate, hot-dogs roasted over an electric grill, with Mom’s terrific German potato salad, and a couple of glasses of wine. Her body instantly burned the alcohol to sugar but she enjoyed the bouquet and taste. The others spoke around her but not to her.
The moon rose and Sylvia asked to hold Rissa some more. She sat with feet up on a bolted-down table and watched the moon come up. It was just past full again and very beautiful with its slow-dancing image floating on the water.
All this time two threads of action had been taking place inside her. Her mind had been making ever better sense of the material she had read and how it related to what else she knew. She had decided Rissa’s illness was a variant of Alzheimer’s. And another part of her mind had been connecting with Rissa’s nerves through their mutual touch. Some subterranean talent inside herself was repairing Rissa’s body.
It was near midnight when she knew Rissa was cured. She shifted, looked around. Only Randy was on deck with her, seated much as she was but watching her face as she had watched the moon.
She stood in a lithe movement. Randy stood also, a bit unsteadily at first. She placed the little girl in his arms.
“Here, guy. She’ll be better now. And I’m going to swim a bit.”
“Sylly. You mean it?”
“Cross my heart.” It was an old, old promise that each knew was an absolute promise.
Tears came to his eyes. “I can’t let myself believe it yet, Sis. The disappointment would kill me.”
She smiled. “You know what’s funny? You’ve actually learned sense.
“Now, I’m going to take a long swim. Don’t be worried when I don’t come back right away. I literally float like a, well, rubber ducky now.”
“Hey! They’ve reported sharks out here.”
“Any that bothers me I’ll eat.”
“This is crazy, Sis. Don’t do it. Please.”
She studied him a moment, cranked up her senses to detect anyone eavesdropping, then returned them to normal sensitivity. “Will you keep a secret, Random? Cross your heart? Even from Mom, and Amber?”
“Not if the secret is you’ve gone crazy.”
“Come over here. Watch.”
There was a miniature derrick bolted to the deck at the end of the boat. It was used to lift heavy cargo into and out of the boat.
She sat down and took one of the bolts which held the derrick in place in both hands. Bending over it she gritted her teeth and turned with the whole force of her body. It resisted for a moment, then cracked loose. She sat back and began turning the bolt easily with one hand. She stopped and looked at him.
“Can you imagine how much strength that takes? Here, try turning it with both hands. I’ll hold Rissa.”
He kept the child in his arms. He looked at the bolt, squinting a bit because of a night light casting glare across the deck.
“I’m not hallucinating, am I.”
“Nope. About three months ago I became pretty much Ultragirl.”
He looked at her, a mixture of doubt and hope on his face. If she was “Ultragirl” she might really have cured his daughter.
“OK. More proof.” She put one hand to the deck beneath her, leaned over till she was centered over it, then smoothly lifted herself to into an upside down position supported solely by the tripod of three fingers of her hand.
When he had taken in the details she threw herself up, flipped upright, and alighted with legs flexed so smoothly that she did not even thump down.
She sat cross-legged again and tightened the bolt back to spec.
“I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil ‘bats do that.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you shittin’ me? Damn, I still can’t get through that poker face. OK, Random, it gets scary now.”
“Bring it on, infant.”
She held one hand up to his face and triggered the amphib hand. It took several seconds, so it was like time-lapse movies of flowers blooming.
She shifted the hand back and forth, held it out to him. He touched it gingerly. “Damn, girl, you’ve turned into the Butcherman.”
She giggled at the reference to a popular movie boogeyman. “The claw and the rest of my skeleton is damned tough. I think it’s made of very long chain molecules, so it’s at least as tough as steel but more flexible. The web and the skin on my fingers — my flesh — are a different story. It resists pressure at a rate matching the force applied. A feather touch and a sword cut feel the same, but neither can hurt me. I don’t know about arrows or bullets. I’m not crazy enough to shoot myself with either to find out.
“So that’s why I say a shark doesn’t bother me. In fact, I scattered a whole pack of them a couple of months ago and ate one of the losers.” Or so her dreams told her.
“Shark meat is supposed to be pretty tough.”
“Not once you get through the skin. And for that I have fangs. You want to see those? They’d probably scare you to death.”
He looked down at his daughter tenderly. She eased into a different position and sighed. It was a contented sigh.
“No. I can’t afford to die young anymore. OK, squirt, I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die. Aren’t we getting too old for that one?”
“No. Only if we mean it will we swear such a silly oath.”
She rose smoothly to her feet and, still in one single complex motion, leaped upward and outward and over the rail, entering the water so smoothly there was barely a splash.
Randy rose and walked to the rail, stood cradling Rissa. He saw her surface in moon-dappled water impossibly far out in such a short time except for an impossible creature. She twisted and waved then dove. He waved back but she was gone.
He began to hope again.