A mile beneath the surface of the ocean it is dark. Cold. Quiet. And under tremendous pressure.
Dr. Sylvia Connelly slept there about once a week during the summer, clad only in a bikini but in her seamonster form. At this time of the year she dreamed more often about the time three years ago when she had been murdered. The dreams never troubled her this deep. Here she was at home. The men who killed her would die a quick and horrible death here. Her subconscious knew that, and feared them not.
Or such was her theory. Whatever. It worked.
Sylvia awoke. She kept her eyes closed. They were of little use open. Instead she used the mysterious sense she had underwater that she theorized about occasionally but had no hope of ever understanding.
A few solitary deep-benthic fish moved lazily within the surrounding half-mile. None a threat. None even interesting.
She stretched. Biothermic processes inside her quickened slightly and her need for oxygen grew. She opened her mouth wide and gulped a lungful of water. The water held less oxygen than in shallow water so she gulped another. A slight tickle on each side beneath her ribs heralded outgushes of oxy-depleted water.
She untwisted the screw she had twisted into the rocky underwater hillside and pulled. Her tether came loose. Her internal buoyancy control would keep her at the same depth while she slept but there were stray currents even this far down. They could move her far from where she wanted to rest.
She made herself a tad lighter and angled her body upward. A lazy twitch of her froggy toes gave her a little added push, then another. Not to raise her but to aim her toward her home above the waves.
A few hundred meters below she sensed a gathering train of would-be predators following her thermal trail. They would not catch up before they neared the top of their depth but she was in no danger if they did. Sylvia was the deadliest organism under the waves. Even sharks learned that and somehow passed the news on. For the last two years they had avoided her in the waters around Puerto Rico.
Sylvia sometimes wondered how sharks communicated the danger. They were little more than brainless mechanical eating machines and were totally asocial. Some chemical transmitter that linked her scent with the scent of fear? She let the idle thought go. She had no interest in the answer even if she could find one, which would take years of research that she had rather use otherwise.
Such as finding the men who had killed her and (perhaps) raped her while unconscious or dead then dumped her into the ocean deeps.
The rest of her amble upward was spent dreaming of bloody retribution that a shark could not better.
“Miss Connelly —”
“It’s either Dr. Connelly or Sylvia, Robert.”
“DOCTOR Connelly —”
“Though I DO like Doctor.”
The reporter seated in one of the private rooms of the Piazza Cucina restaurant in the Hilton Hotel in Ponce City looked visibly annoyed. Two of the other reporters looked down and three turned to look out the big picture window overlooking the busy southern port of Puerto Rico to suppress their smiles. The Miami Herald correspondent was notoriously abrasive to his colleagues as well as the subjects of his questions.
“Dr., what’s your reaction to the accusation that you are profiting from black-market sales in the drug Neurasben?”
After curing her niece Rissa of her Alzheimer’s-like disease Sylvia had felt bound to look for a cure for other children, from a source other than a shapechanging seamonster. Reasoning that finding a natural source first would be easier than synthesizing a cure from scratch she had explored Brazil’s deepest forests. There she searched for snakes and bugs which killed with neurotoxins and prey with neuroactive defenses against them. Failing that she went to Africa and then Southeast Asia. In Borneo she had found a drug good enough to use as a synthesis model.
She had become famous for her success in creating such a drug. Though it helped also because of her looks and because she had “gone jane,” setting out alone with only a rifle, pistol, and knife. Though she had actually gone tarzan as soon as she could, abandoning white men’s clothes and boots and other protections, letting her skin take on camouflage, and her claws and fangs grow. It had interested her greatly that she had been able to ‘change her extremities to a land version of her sea monster body, shorter and without paddle webs.
No one beyond illiterate natives saw that version of her, of course.
“I have no reaction to offer, Robert.”
“Is that a ‘no comment’ and if so why?”
She chuckled. “I answered that question completely the last two times you asked me. I see no reason to repeat myself when you willfully misquoted me to make me look bad and get a headline and no doubt will do so again. I much more appreciate your creative lies than my own dull truths, dear Robert.”
This time the smiles couldn’t be hidden.
Anse Davies spoke up. He was a distinguished older journalist with fierce mustachios, not someone for a comparative newbie like Robert Hancock to talk back to.
“Damn, Robert, don’t you know better than to piss off a woman who goes into jungles by herself and probably kills lions with a knife?”
“Sylvia,” said Alberto Sangupta of the New Delhi Times, “are you getting any money for Neurasben?”
“No, not a penny, Al. As I’ve formally stated before, the only money I will accept for it or its analogs is from the American production of the drugs when the FDA approves them.”
“Then why do you actively assist other countries to produce this drug, Dr. Connelly?” Elegant blond Iluria von Trapp of Zurich was one of the new hard-as-nails breed of women journalists. She and everyone else there knew the answer, but she hated Hancock and this, like the previous question, was meant to give Sylvia an easy innocuous question to answer. Plus, of course, every news story had to give a discreet review of the facts for the oft-forgetful newspaper readers.
“I’m aware that other governments have different pharmaceutical standards than those of my country. However, I also believe that if these drugs are to be made that they should have someone who helps ensure they do so to the highest standards. That’s where I come in.”
“Dr. Connelly,” said Robert, not about to give up looking for controversy, “is it true that you put seven employees of the Venezuela Neuropharm Company in the hospital?”
“No. I put two in the hospital, idiots who pulled guns on me. I broke their arms. And three others I concussed. They didn’t keep those in the hospital.”
He stared at her. “You admit it?”
“Why, of course. There is after all a police report on it.”
“Then why weren’t you jailed? Who covered up this scandalous activity?”
“Oh, I was jailed, for four days. Then I posted bail and left. In the end I was fined $30,000, which was paid by an anonymous benefactor. I should point out that no company since has dared to make ineffective or dangerous neurotherapy drugs. Uhm, surely, Robert, this is old news? Aren’t you usually in the forefront of new news?”
Before he could continue a dark haired, slender, and awfully good-looking correspondent from Argentina’s La Nacionál broke in. “Rafael Canaro, Dr. Connelly, here to cover the first commercial Argentine spacelift splashdown in the new Caribbean spaceport facility. Have you ever thought of visiting the Space Station? And what do you think of Argentina’s entry into the space industry competition?”
“I’ve thought of visiting the station and, frankly, the idea scares the pee out of me. But I might do it someday to do biological research in free-fall. Though that would be pure self-indulgence. Last time I heard there were something like two dozen very capable researchers already up there.”
She took a sip from the glass of lemon-flavored water on the table in front of her.
“I’m happy that Argentina is entering the space industry alongside Australia and the US. Added competition can only improve the efficiency of astro-industrial processes and lower price-points for customers.”
There. That got the official line delivered. She looked at her watch. “We’ve been at this well over an hour now. I’ve time for one more question. Yes, Hector, you’ve had ants in your pants for the last ten minutes.”
Laughter arose from the near-dozen reporters, including Hector Arroyo, the Miami Herald sports reporter who always came to Sylvia’s press get-togethers and asked her about clean-environment airboat racing on the Florida Everglades. Unlike the power airboat racing which was brute-force pretty-much straight-ahead drives, “cleanboat” races were all about acrobatics, sharp turns, and elegant maneuvering around each other — occasionally with a spectacular crash — which made it increasingly a more-watched sport than the rather boring powerboat races.
“How are you going to do in the Spring Equinox competition, Sylvy?”
“I’m going to beat the pants off Big Bertha this time.” Bertha was an elfin boat pilot the size of a jockey.
“Yeah, that’s what you said the last time.”
“She cheated. She did a better job.”
They all laughed and began to get up and out of the room, chatting and not hurrying to go. Sylvia walked over to the Argentine reporter who was giving his card to Anse Davies. She kissed the older man’s cheek.
“Hi, Anse. Mind if I buttonhole your young Argentine friend? I want to get some info on their space program.”
He gave her a hug, fatherly but with one hand straying a tad toward her bottom. “Sure, dear. See you at the party for the astropilots and passengers the night after tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“I am a fan of the space program and enthusiastic about Argentina’s part in it, Rafael.” They were sitting at a table in the public area of the Hilton’s Italian restaurant. The lunch hour well over, they had much of the dining room to themselves.
“However, I wanted to talk to you about something else.” She took a sip of from the wine glass. Her metabolism was too fast to let her get drunk on even pure alcohol but her enjoyment of wines hadn’t changed.
He was cradling a cup of iced chocolate drink. He had already complained about the 90-degree heat in P’Rico. Argentina, she recalled, was mostly a temperate to dry climate.
“Anything you want.” Sylvia was having just a bit of trouble understanding his Spanish. Her own Spanish was native-fluent, but the Argentine accent had a distinctly archaic sound, rather like someone in English using thee and thou.
“Three years ago about this time of year two astropilots took up the Commerce II ship for a final test before being declared operational. It was also a test of your Caribbean splashdown procedures. They celebrated here in Ponce and I met them one night, along with three other men. I’m trying to trace those three men.”
“Hmm. The names of the two pilots would be public, though maybe a bit hard to find. It’s too bad not many newspapers are archived on this new internet thing. I’ll have to phone in a request to my office. But they should have the information.” He glanced at his watch.
“I might even have an answer by the time for dinner. Would you join me this evening?”
“Love to. As long as you keep in mind that I don’t sleep with reporters.”
“Darn,” he said and lifted one of her hands and turned its back upward to kiss.
Rafael was as good as his word. One of the pilots from then would also be on hand the night after next. Rafael said he would try to wangle a short interview with the man.
“I’ll try to get him to see you before the party. He’ll probably be too drunk later to be useful to you.”
The reporter was a charming and widely read man as well as easy on the eyes. They spent three hours together, dining then walking on the Hilton patio and sitting there watching the ocean. And when he escorted her to her room she grabbed his tie at her door.
“For tonight you aren’t a reporter,” she said and pulled him to her.
The next day they had lunch together. After ordering Rafael said, “They can’t see you today because they’re all getting medical tests. Tomorrow they’ll be preparing for the celebration ceremony that afternoon. But you’re invited to the festival that evening. That’s better; the event will be relaxed and the pilot will have more time to try remembering the information you want.”
She kissed him and matters went on from there.