Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off south coast
Approaching from the South they saw the front of the "barn" ahead of them. It was several stories high and its exterior made of some ripple-surface pale-blue painted metal. Its gargantuan body loomed over them from close up, where she saw that the entire front was made of a huge sliding metal door. Closer still, she saw the doors were actually several interlinked narrower ones.
The skinny blond said, "We can actually remove or deliver three spaceships at once. More of the planning for a long history and many contingencies."
Near the doors they sheered off toward the side of the hangar where a large building abutted the hangar. Inside a large double-leaved glass door was a cool modern reception area. A young woman in a light-blue summer suit sat at a receptionist’s desk. She was just putting down a phone and rising as they approached over a thick golden carpet.
"Dr. Connelly, the Director apologizes and asks if you could come up to his office. He wanted to meet you here but is finishing a long-distance call."
Sylvia smiled to herself. She had rarely met a high official who she didn’t interrupt on a long-distance call.
"No, that’s quite alright. We can meet at a more convenient time." She turned to go, not specifying "convenient" for whom.
"No! No! I know his call is just ending. Go on up."
Sylvia turned back, feeling a trifle ashamed for disturbing the blameless secretary over her boss’s (likely) grandstanding.
The tall skinny blond assistant said to the guards, "We’ll not need you for an hour. Why don’t you wait in the cafeteria?"
The two guards nodded and walked back out the glass double doors. She saw them glance back at her with amusement as they pulled open the door. She gave them a wink out of the eye furthest from her other escorts. One of them grinned as he turned away and said something to his companion.
The ambassador’s assistant led her and the PR man along a long hall, up stairs opening off the hall, and along another hall ending in another pair of glass double doors. The large waiting area beyond was carpeted in gold and had large photographs and paintings on all walls depicting scenes in space, air, and on the ground of space or air vehicles.
A female receptionist at a desk near the far wall said, "Director Roosevelt will see you now."
She remained seated and the assistant led Sylvia and the PR man into one of the offices opening off the waiting area. This was large and had a picture window facing toward the sunset and the ocean-way that led to the hangar. A floating spaceship would be visible as tugboats pulled it toward or away from the hangar. Bright sunlight was partly filtered by the smoked glass to give the man rising from his desk good light from behind.
"Director Roosevelt, this is Dr. Sylvia Connelly. Doctor, Sir Doctor Director Thaddeus Roosevelt." The assistant did the honors and stood to the side.
Sylvia advanced and shook hands with the stout sandy-haired fortyish man. He wore a monocle and a heavy mustache not unlike that affected by his famous ancestor Theodore Roosevelt, the Great Conciliator between the United States and Spain more than a century ago.
"An honor to meet you, sir. I hope you didn’t curtail your phone call for my benefit."
His handshake was appropriately firm and he motioned her and the others to chairs in front of his desk after it.
"No. No. Was at an end already. Gave me an excuse to politely end it. Did you have a good trip across the strait?" His Spanish had a distinctly British accent but it was fluent. She stayed with P’Rican Spanish.
"Yes, sir. The guard boat was very smooth and fast and I got an interesting tour of it during the trip."
"Yes. Your Navy are very efficient, very efficient. I’ve had a tour, too, but of course it was an aircraft carrier. Bit different."
The boat she’d been on was a Coast Guard vessel, not Navy, but she let that go.
She looked around the room. "You seemed to be well-settled in here. Very comfortable. Very efficient." Damn. He had her beginning to chop up her sentences.
"Yes. I came here of course when this was just being dug up. Foundations poured. We lived in tents in those days."
She bet that, if true, his tent had been large and lavish. But he might not be all blow-hard. Not even politics could get someone appointed to a post this important, or let him keep it long if it did happen, if he didn’t have something more than connections.
The receptionist came in and set a dining tray on the low table in front of the guests between their three chairs. It contained a frosted silver pitcher and four glasses near-filled with ice and lemon-flavored water. One glass she took to the director, who nodded at her.
"We have something a little more flavorful, if you’d like, Doctor."
"No, thank you, sir. I’m quite a fan of pure water."
She was indeed. Underwater she breathed it, through an invisible filter that stretched between her lips, yet another of the many mysteries surrounding her strange physique. Thin as a soap bubble, appearing when she trying to drink or breathe water, it excluded everything from microscopic particles up to steel balls large enough to ingest. She could not see how such a technology could have evolved, and so concluded (but only every other day) that advanced aliens had reconstructed her upon death.
He steepled his hands before him. "I understand you are near finishing your tour of Space Island. What do you think? Are you going to be joining the team next Monday?"
She grinned. "You do get to the point, don’t you, Director?"
He gave her a wintry smile. "My life is too busy to beat around it. What do you say? There’s not a better outfit in the world — or off it."
"I don’t rush into anything this important. I’m enormously flattered, and interested, and will give it serious consideration."
"Want you right away. Rather have you onboard and happy, though. Take your time. Meanwhile, have a good tour and I’ll see you at the party tonight. A bit of warning. It’ll get pretty raucous later, though not enough to upset the kiddies. Tonight we’re celebrating what we think of as a family event. Culmination of years of work and sacrifice."
He rose, shook their hands all around, and escorted them out into the waiting room area. There he introduce her to several executives who came out of the several smaller offices just off the room, most greying men but one woman who looked as if she fully belonged with the other execs — as well she should, being the second in command of Space Island.
Mission Control: Landing was a large room elsewhere in the building with several semicircular rows of chairs before consoles, familiar the world over from the several national space organizations with launch facilities.
It was sparsely populated but busy for all that.
"Our main job, of course, is during landing," said the chunky man in a white shirt and tie over rumpled pants. He looked as if he’d be more at home beating up other gangsters, but Attilio Horowitz was a double doctor in math and electrical engineering.
He pointed at a large flat TV screen on the wall at the focus of the arcs of chairs. It showed the black background of space. In its center was an image of the Earth. Around it was a pale yellow circle displaying the roughly circular motion of the Moon around the mother planet. Smaller blank screens were positioned on each side.
"That will display the overall view, the smaller screens details echoed from these consoles."
He patted the flat upright computer screen at the desk beside which they were standing, then leaned over and hit a single button on the console. A red X appeared straddling the yellow Moon-orbit line a third of the way ahead of the Moon.
"This is from our first commercial mission. It returned from the Lagrange 4 point." He looked at her questioningly.
"I’ve a double bachelors in physics and chemistry. I needed them to prepare for my masters in marine biology. I understand the background."
A display began to animate on the main screen. A green X separated from the red X and began spiraling inward, trailing a curved line behind.
"This is moving several times faster than real-time and here —" He pressed the button again. The scene on the large screen jumped to show Earth larger and the green X closer to it.
"Here is where it hits the atmosphere, slows, and skips back out into space." The result was a wavy shrinking spiral.
Dr. Horowitz continued with a compressed overview to the point where the spaceship had slowed enough to use its wings to lower to a splashdown in the Caribbean a couple of hundred miles westward.
Then a video replaced the space display. It showed the spaceship, looking like an arrowhead with its dart-shaped body and fat delta wings, from a chase plane above it and the ocean. Twin vapor trails streamed behind the spaceship from the tips of the wings.
This video was followed by one from a ship on the ocean surface, catching the last moments of flight and the splashdown. The spaceship actually skied along on its flat wedge-shaped bottom for quite a distance.
"I saw this on the news, Doctor."
Horowitz jerked slightly and smiled at her. "Sorry. We actually only saw it then ourselves. We were too busy with numerical displays and coordinating efforts. This is the first time I’ve seen the full-resolution images."
"I understand, but I want to see the spaceship before a meeting I have in, ah, an hour’s time."
He switched off the displays and pulled a comic book from somewhere.
"Ah, would you autograph this for my daughter?"
She took it and reached under her jacket for a pen but was forestalled by the engineer, who gave her one.
She glanced at the cover to find a good spot for an autograph. It showed her swinging out of a tree grasping a vine with one hand, wearing a snow-white skin-tight jungle outfit and white boots. The contrast with reality always amused her. She’d not swung on vines, though she had jumped thirty or forty feet into and out of trees. And she’d been completely naked and her skin ‘changed to camouflage colors, mostly dull but with some triangular red, orange, and purple spots.
The large white JUNGLE JANE title made a good spot for her looping scrawled SYLVY.
"Thank you, Doctor. My daughter has studied your life exhaustively and plans to be just like you."
"God forbid! I expect you’ll exert some tactful common sense."
He said dryly, "Since she’s seven I expect she’s safe from foolishness for a good long while."
"I hope so. I had to jerk my biographer around twice to keep in the bare mention of safe practices, and then threaten the publisher with a suit to get them put back in."
More long halls and several twists and turns brought Sylvia and the two men out on an echoing metal balcony above and to the side of the docking bay. The bay was the size of a soccer field filled with water. In the center floated the spaceship.
Close up the slightly scorched-looking silver arrowhead was overwhelming. It made her think of a sleeping whale the size of Leviathan. She wanted to shed her clothes and dive in and swim around it. The image of her escorts’ response to those actions made her chuckle.
"What?" said the PR man while the assistant looked on puzzled.
"It makes me think of a giant whale."
Apparently giant whales did not strike the men as comical.
They had to take stairs to the floor and walk above the pool of water on an openwork metal catwalk raised a couple feet above the spaceship. At intervals bridges crossed over the back of the ship. Mid-afternoon of the day of the splashdown celebration no one was about.
At the hatchway into the spaceship Sylvia had a pleasant surprise. Three men in yellow-on-blue coveralls awaited her. She recognized the lead astropilot from the spaceship and guessed the other two were ‘pilots also.
The lead pilot stepped forward to shake her hand. "Dr. Connelly, Jason Bardi, senior pilot." He introduced the other two men. The younger was the spaceship copilot. The third older man was the one she’d come to interview — the pilot from the party from three years back where she had been drugged, kidnapped, and later murdered.
"I figured I’d come and personally escort you, Dr.," said the older ‘pilot, Victorio Villoldo, "before we spoke together."
"I appreciate it much, Captain Villoldo."
Villoldo led the way into the spaceship and led the tour but not without plenty of help from the two younger pilots who were not about to let a beautiful blond be monopolized by another man. She got a quick tour of the cargo hold and large self-contained passenger sections with three rows of seats, each of which was well-cushioned and ‑padded and had its own air supply and emergency beacon in case of a crash.
She also got to sit in the pilot’s seat and have three good-looking men leaning over her and vying for her attention. The seat was a bit snug for a 5’10" woman with generous bones and solid though well-padded muscles.
The tour over, the group retired to the large cafeteria and selected a corner of the room with a big round table surrounded by metal chairs topped with brightly colored plastic seats.
Everyone got drinks and the PR man managed to convince or bribe a cook or some such in the back to get him a couple of big pastries. Sylvia sat sipping her carbonated soft drink, wondering idly how her magic/supertech purity filter passed complex molecules that were safe and rejected those which were poisonous. Would it classify artificial sweetener poison if she didn’t prefer sugar?
The last of the men sat down at the table. "Now, what was it you wanted to see me about, Doctor?"
"Captain Villoldo —"
"Perhaps you’d feel comfortable if you’d call me Victorio."
Her two escorts maintained a dignified silence.
She looked around the table and hesitated. "It’s a personal matter. Nothing embarrassing. But I wonder if the rest of you really want to waste your time on something boring."
The two other pilots weren’t about to abandon a beautiful woman, and the two escorts were duty bound not to.
"Well, do you remember, Victorio, three years ago when you brought a test flight down here and had a big party in one of the clubs?"
"One of the men in your party, maybe a hanger-on, stole an heirloom from me. It was a necklace with a cameo of my grandmother on it. The clasp came loose and the necklace was picked up by one of the men. He started to hand it to me when I got very sick. Oh, ‘stole’ is the wrong word. He just kept it when I went to the hospital. Then it was a month before I was well enough to look him up, and my memory was poor."
"You got sick?" The assistant leaned forward, concerned. "Were you, ahh…?" He avoided her gaze.
Sylvia pretended not to understand. Then to understand. She raised her hands before her face for a moment, wishing her vaunted powers could make her seem to blush. But no warmth washed her face.
"You think —! Oh, no, nobody harmed me. Except a strange intestinal virus. Other people from the club got sick…"
The astropilot looked thoughtful. "You know, I remember someone getting sick. I just thought she’d had too much to drink…"
He looked at her closely for moments, then slowly nodded his head. "It was you. You’ve changed. Not your face…"
A moment’s scrutiny more before he nodded again.
"You grew since then, and put on muscle."
"I had a late growth spurt. And when I was recovering from my illness I got hooked on physical therapy and body building. Feel that muscle."
She bent her arm, relaxing her muscles as much as she could. Even relaxed they were hard slabs which felt as if she was tensing them the way body builder’s did.
The two young men felt her bicep and agreed she had done a good job. Carlitos, the copilot, who had a short, straight black pencil mustache, said, "Hey, I remember. You’re the Everglades Champ! No wonder you won, with muscles like that."
The other ‘pilot looked at him. "It’s skill that wins those matches."
They turned to look at Captain Villoldo.
He smiled. "I don’t remember actually seeing you. But my future wife was there that night and she took pictures. I know she still has them. I can’t give you names, but I can give you photos."
Her face fell. "And those pictures are home."
"And home has been here for the last two years! She can dig the pictures out of the den tonight."
"Could we meet at the party tonight?"
He could indeed and they set a time and place.