Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off south coast
The morning of the festival Sylvia received a message while she was having breakfast at the Hilton. Calling back from her room she found herself talking to a public relations officer for ArgenSpace.
It seemed that the corporate officials thought she was a celebrity. They wanted her to take a tour of the space-dock right after lunch along with a few other celebs like herself. This would be photographed and she was asked to wear a summer formal outfit. Then she could relax at the festival. This would not be formal, so she would want to bring a different outfit for that.
This was better than the shapechanger had hoped for, despite the annoyance of pleasing officials. She dressed in a cream scoop-necked dress of thin material that flared from a tight fit at the waist to a full skirt whose hem played peekaboo with her knees. Over this she wore a feather-weight light-blue open-front jacket and under it matching blue heels with only an inch’s height. She let her curly golden hair hang free but controlled it to a smooth fall about her shoulders. A pair of fashionable but scholarly looking eyeglasses, fake corrective lenses of course, completed the formal picture.
At the dock slip to which she’d been directed was a large grey US Coast Guard cruiser. Its khaki-clad lieutenant welcomed her at the entry ramp with a salute.
Sylvia turned and looked down the quay where people she was sure were minor officials were boarding a large barge headed to her destination, Isla de la Muertes, newly christened Space Island. "Shouldn’t I be with everyone else?"
He smiled at her. "That’s for the stuffed shirts, Dr. Connelly. You are the Everglades Champ."
"Big Bertha would object to that."
"If she were here we’d give her the same title."
She smiled. "And you’d be right."
She took the hand of a white-clad petty officer and let him hand her aboard, thanking him as she did so. She got a crinkle of his weathered face in reply.
The lieutenant escorted her forward to but not into the low command station. She looked around, at the neat stowage and hatches, front- and rear-mounted and -facing small cannon, and the speedy but not hurried crew making ready. One of them stopped beside her and helped her into an orange life-jacket.
"Give me a tour when we’re under way please. I’ve never been aboard one of these."
He smiled at her and nodded at the petty officer. That man gave a few orders over a megaphone and the crew cast off, the engines grumbling almost silently. The boat, facing out of the slip, moved smoothly into the bay. It began to pick up a barely noticeable motion from the chop about it.
Properly under way the lieutenant lead her about the boat, pointing out features, answering questions. Sylvia was quite diverted. She loved smoothly functioning machinery, and these men and machines made up one.
The lieutenant finished with the above deck tour and looked at the doors leading down into the interior. Sylvia said, "I want to see it all, Lieutenant. I’m not a tourist."
He grinned and led her down into a well-lit neat interior that was beginning to jostle more as they moved out into the more open water. An engineer was very happy to answer her questions, and she asked many, some quite technical.
"Excuse me, Dr. But we’re out of the bay and you’d enjoy sights better upstairs. We’re ready to open her up just a bit."
"Just a bit, Lieutenant? You’d better do better than that."
His face lit up. "We can do a lot better than that."
With the wind in their faces Sylvia looked about. They were about two miles off shore, well out of port and with clear seas all around.
"Looks like you can open it up all the way," she said. She took off her shoes, tucked them into her large go-bag, and slung it crossways over her shoulder so that it hung backward out of her way.
"All hands. All ready. Prepare for maximum acceleration."
The petty officer repeated the orders and the pilot did the same. Then the lieutenant dropped his formal manner for a moment.
"Inigo! Hit it!"
Sylvia could see the pilot inside the control cabin act totally irregulation. Instead of easing the throttles rapidly forward he smashed them forward.
The engine roared and the boat deck leaped up to a tilt. It’s motion became a dash.
Sylvia had not caught onto anything, nor did she need to. She was an Everglades Champ. She rode the deck as she rode the slender fan-powered surf boards, legs slightly crouched to absorb shock, one leg forward, one back, arms only slightly out to her sides, her body dancing.
They were making thirty or even forty knots in seconds, smashing into waves and riding through them. Then the boat, alive, began to rise in the water, planing over the waves, not through them. Her speed rose further.
Full-voiced, needing no megaphone, Sylvia’s voice went all through the boat. "Yeee-hah! Let’s see some action, sports fans!"
The pilot swerved violently left, then right, then a circle so abrupt water sprayed out to the side. Then he straightened her out and she really began to travel.
Put-putting into the Space Island marine port Sylvia saw that it was quite extensive, obviously prepared for much future expansion. Already the dock contained several dozen boats of various sizes and types, some quite large, including a huge and expensive ocean-going yacht futuristically streamlined.
Several lanes into the quay were marked by lines of floats. The slip they were headed for was in an area labeled with a high black sign: OFFICIAL BUSINESS ONLY. As they got near the slip they saw a red-lettered smaller sign: WARNING: YOU ARE ENTERING THE TERRITORY OF THE REPUBLIC OF ARGENTINA.
The lieutenant beside her said, "From here you’ll be the guest of the Argentine government."
"They leased the island for ninety-nine years, didn’t they?"
"It’s going to make for some interesting patrol duties."
She grinned over at him. "Let’s hope the drug smugglers don’t make it too interesting."
The boat smoothly reversed and backed into it’s slip. Apparently Coast Guard craft had to be ready for instant departure.
Lines were deployed to both sides of the boat. Sylvia noticed that the line-caps on the clips on the boat were of the radio-triggered quick-release type.
A short ramp was slid down to one of the dockside walkways and she was led to it by the petty officer. The lieutenant stayed on the slightly raised command deck part of the boat.
"Dr. Connelly, it was an honor to have you aboard." He saluted and held the salute. Every crewmember save the petty officer, who had one of her arm’s in an escort’s grasp, copied him.
She placed her free hand over her heart in what she hoped was the correct civilian response.
"It was an honor to be aboard."
As she turned away the scene went watery through the tears in her eyes and for a few moment’s she actually needed the petty officer’s escorting arm down to the dock.
Now off the ramp she turned and looked back at the still-saluting crew. A mischievous grin sprang to her face. She called out loudly.
"Here! This is for all of you!"
She grabbed the petty officer’s lapels and kissed him full on his lips. Startled, he colored, then grinned. Catcalls erupted from boat as he turned, instantly stern-faced once more, and walked back aboard. Crew on the ship hurriedly got VERY busy.
Turning, Sylvia was met by three men in traditional white summer suits, one of them an older distinguished-looking man. They were escorted by four soldiers in the light-blue cloth with yellow accents that declared their Argentine allegiance. The soldiers carried assault rifles held at relaxed-arms.
"Dr. Connelly, welcome to Argentina. I’m Doctor Ambassador Felipe de Angelis." He introduced his two companions as his personal assistant and a representative of the public relations office.
"If you’ll come with me please we have some refreshments for you out of the sun."
Sylvia looked around. "Shouldn’t we wait around for the rest of the guests?"
He smiled austerely and held a hand out to his side in invitation to walk with him. She joined him and the others as they began to walk landward, two soldiers in abreast before and behind.
"If there’s a person on the island who doesn’t consider you the only celebrity visiting today I don’t know them. It certainly isn’t me. You see, one of my son’s was born with juvenile Alzheimer’s."
She nodded. The rotund PR officer spoke and she turned toward him. "We hope you don’t mind a bit of an extensive tour, Doctor. Most of it is well-shaded and in air-conditioning. We’re quite proud of what we’ve done here."
"It will be my great pleasure. I’ve watched the construction from a distance on and off and been curious." Actually in her seaform she had occasionally watched from quite close up, in day from off-shore and walking around on the shore at night, her skin and hair turned midnight black.
The skinny assistant got into the act. "We’ve been working on this for thirteen years, when we decided to get decisively into space industry. In planning at first, of course."
Sylvia glanced at the Argentine ambassador. He watched the three of them calmly, obviously having planned to have his assistants do most of the presentation.
As they walked along the docks the two assistants took well-choreographed turns discussing the extensive area. Though he was tall, skinny, and very blond in contrast to the dark-skinned and -haired and round other man, the assistant and the PR man seemed for the moment interchangeable.
"We’re prepared to handle ten times more than the boats you see docked and we have two phases of expansion planned for when it’s needed. We expect Space Island to be a major distribution center for goods in this hemisphere."
The docks had inspection and oversight stations to meet incoming people and products. Beyond them was warehouse and transportation facilities, for the time brightly painted and mostly empty.
"This is the immigration facility." This was a large multistory building amidst the warehouses. The air felt near-frigid when they entered it but Sylvia’s skin, able to handle the near-freezing temperatures far below the ocean’s surface, instantly adapted.
The diplomat said, "You may notice signs that route Puerto Ricans into one channel. At first they’ll be expected to show a passport, but soon any picture ID will do. Argentina and Puerto Rico have signed an agreement of inter-territoriality. Citizens will be able to pass freely back and forth."
That was an interesting development, since P’Rico had been a state of the USA since 1893. This meant that Argentina and the US also had inter-territoriality
Beyond the multistory building they entered a big plaza. A statue of a man on a horse centered it, some Argentine historical hero, no doubt.
The plaza had trees newly planted and more were being planted. They were also being planted on the two sides of a wide pedestrian street that stretched perhaps a half mile ahead of them further to the south.
The ambassador led them to the first building on one side of the street. She saw that it was a multiplex cinema. Inside workmen were busy. She was led to a semi-enclosed area near the front with large picture windows onto the street. In it a table covered in a snowy cloth and surrounded by four chairs had been set up near a window. Refreshments waited on it and two waitresses stood by.
The distinguished man held a chair for Sylvia so that she could look out onto the street. Sylvia obligingly sat and pulled a delicate white china cup in a matching saucer an inch closer to her. A waitress leaned over her.
"We have chilled chocolate milk and iced tea and coffee if you’d like, miss."
Sylvia indicated the chocolate and, once filled, took up a cup and sipped. The sweet mildly sugared drink was perfect.
The others sat and accepted drinks. Sylvia waved away croissants and other snacks. The PR man took a sample of each.
"I am enormously impressed, and pleased that you would honor me with such attention. But you, Sir, are I know a very busy man. You’re the head Argentine ambassador to Puerto Rico, headquartered in San Juan, aren’t you? Why would you honor me so?"
A tiny hint of satisfaction touched the skinny blond assistant’s face. She’d bet there was going to be an I-told-you-so moment back at the office soon.
"I moved here from San Juan, so I didn’t travel far. I’d have traveled far, however. We want you to work for us," said the older man.
She considered that. "Doing what?"
The PR man swallowed a bite of cucumber-filled croissant. "You’d be a God-send in public relations, no matter what you did. You could pretty much write your ticket. Do research, for instance. Do you have a project that you’re planning? We could help. You’d only have to spend a little bit of time occasionally representing ArgenSpace."
He took another bite of the croissant and the assistant smoothly took over. "You could still promote more responsible use of the Everglades by competing in the enviro races. And you’d not need to curtail, ah, your nightlife."
She smiled faintly. So her party-girl activities had gotten around. She’d known it had but not that it had gotten attention beyond the society pages and tabloids.
What a reaction she’d get if they knew she was not searching for lovers but for some men to kill them, probably quite horribly.
"This is so unexpected. I don’t know what to say."
The ambassador nodded. "Of course we expected that. However your presence here was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up to meet you and introduce the idea.
"Now, I’m going to let you continue the tour and enjoy yourself tonight. Don’t feel rushed about answering us Yes or No. Take your time. And if you decide No then at some future time decide otherwise, we’d still be happy to discuss matters with you."
She rose as he did. "Thank you. I will give this some serious thought."
The ambassador leaned over to kiss the back of her hand lightly, squeezed her hand, and left, accompanied by two of the guards.
Why, she wondered, were guards along on this? P’Rico was not over-run with bandits, nor was Argentina. This island especially was very safe, most of the people on it being hand-picked. She shrugged off the matter.
As Sylvia sat back down the PR man finished a drink of tea. "Your salary would be quite generous. You could almost name your price."
"That’s … very persuasive."
Perhaps knowing — hoping — that the hook was set the two men were quiet for a few moments. The PR man munched, the assistant sipped. Then the latter put his cup down.
"What we’d like to do is to take you quickly through the offices and the residences then to see the spaceship. They’re right on the way anyway."
"Sounds good to me." She grabbed a chocolate-filled croissant from the PR man’s plate and stood, grinning down at him. He laughed and made wrapping motions to the waitresses who quickly and efficiently made him a package of his plate’s contents. Each waitress filled take-out cups of the three’s favored drinks and stood back as the three headed toward the door, preceded by the two remaining guards.
Sylvia waved back at the two women as she exited the door and they grinned and waved back, one of them calling "Bye, Doctor!"
The offices were extensive, very modern, and nearly empty. So were the residences further to the south, which were one-, two-, and a few three-stories tall. All the roofs were of dark-red, -blue, or -green tile and the walls a light beige faux-adobe. The houses intertwined with each other almost organically with enough separation not to be claustrophobic. There was a lot of greenery, and some of the trees in the first section they visited were quite mature and must have been imported from the mainland.
Each house had a garage barely big enough to hold an automobile. When Sylvia commented on that the PR man explained.
"There will be no private vehicles on the island, except for small electrically powered ones for those who need them. There will be taxis and emergency and service vehicles, of course, but most of those will be go-carts, too."
The assistant said, "You would have a permanent office and residence even though you might want to travel extensively."
"And they would be sized and furnished as you felt you needed, of course," said the PR man, still working the bribery angle.
All this time they’d been working their way southward. They came to a wide flat area sparsely covered with tough sea grass and knotty bushes. Quite a ways beyond loomed a large building, seemingly a barn for gigantotheres. Surrounding it were several other large buildings made small by comparison.
A long observation go-cart with a single driver and seats for a couple dozen people pulled up on the road leading to the spaceship hangar, as the barn must be. Sylvia smiled at the closest guard, receiving a miniscule nod, as she stepped up into the row of seats behind the drive, followed by the two men. The two guards got on the rearmost seats. The assistant sat beside her, the PR man behind and to the side. The cart started off smoothly.
The assistant said, "As you’ll see when you get closer there’s room for three ships even though normally we’ll have only one at a time landing here for several years. But it’s better to plan ahead with a facility like this rather than expand ad hoc."
They spoke no more as the cart whined along the service road. Wind off the Atlantic, unhindered for hundreds or thousands of miles, scoured their faces, making conversation difficult. The land seemed almost oppressively flat with its scrub grass and stubby bushes. She wondered if a tsunami jarred into being by one of the surrounding earthquake faults would inundate the island, and if the planners had guarded against that.
The sky had become a slightly faded blue. Very high cirrus clouds striated the sky with nearly invisible curdled white.
As they got nearer she saw that the entire spaceship dock area was surrounded by two high fences, one inside the other with a walkway between for dogs, topped with spikes and barbed wire.
Finally they pulled up at gates guarded by two soldiers with automatic rifles in a shack. All of them, the soldiers and driver included, had to show photo IDs. One guard carefully examined the IDs while the other watched balefully, gun slung across his chest with his hands on it. At the end, however, the guards spoiled their ever-vigilant threatening air by asking her to autograph two copies of her "Life From the Jungle." They’d known she was coming at least a day early.