Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off the south coast
The hotel on Space Island was sized for the future like everything else there and was over-large for the present. It seemed near-abandoned and the skeleton crew was even more skeletal when her two escorts helped her get checked in. Half of them were getting ready to go to the island-wide party planned for the evening. The other half were finishing preparations for the part of the party to be held at the hotel.
"We wanted the Presidential Suite on the top floor for you, but it’s still being worked on. I hope this will do."
The PR man was too serious to be joking, but he might well have been. One fourth of the eighth, next-to-top, floor was all hers and it was a large suite.
She entered the bedroom, crossed to the king-sized bed, dropped her go-bag onto it. Then she left the room and went to a corner of the living room. There two huge picture windows butted together. One window looked south where she could see the spaceship hangar standing tall against the southern tail of Space Island. The other looked west toward the approaching sunset. Fluffy clouds westward were turning gold and acquiring faint purple highlights.
"I think this will do." She turned back and approached the two men. She shook hands with both of them.
"Thank you for an excellent job, gentlemen. Perhaps I’ll see you at the party tonight."
"Not me," said the assistant. "The ambassador and I are on our way to San Juan this evening. There’re still a lot of details to wind up for his permanent move here. But Hector —" He grinned down at the little round man.
"Hector," that man said with a big smile, "never misses a party!"
"Beware," the assistant said as he ushered his companion out the door, "Hector is a dancing fiend. Accept one dance from him and you’ll wish you were back at the Everglades doing something restful like airboat contests."
Sylvia hung up the clothing from her go-bag and her body. Then she wandered the suite naked, her skin adapting easily to the over-chill of the air conditioning. There was a mini-kitchen that opened into a generous dining nook in one corner of the room. There were two small bedrooms each with TV, one with a double-decker bunk bed for smaller children, and a small enclosed bathroom between them that could also be used by everyone else.
There was also a huge cleverly designed bathroom that could be enclosed but also opened, via sliding frosted-glass doors, onto the room or the balcony or both. It had a bathtub big enough for two to sit atub sipping drinks and watching the sunset.
Sylvia left the sliding doors closed and took a long shower, washing away the day’s sweat and breathing in water from the full-flow nozzle. She was more at-home in dry country than a Bedouin could be, having discovered a desertform in addition to her seaform, but when possible she felt better each day if she could breath water for a bit.
Afterward she lounged on the huge bed near the window in a luxurious hotel bathrobe, reading the itinerary by the bright light from the window, now touched by red from the setting sun.
Every institution on the island seemed to be getting in on the act, even hospital workers, fire fighters, and police workers, who must be virtually shutting down except for acting as hosts and keeping a few vigilant eyes on their duties. She would bet there had been a good deal of shift-splitting and bargaining and swapping duties in earlier weeks!
There were dances in four different places, all of them with avenues or other routes marked on a map to let people wander from one to the other. The cineplex she had visited earlier had been converted into a central child-care center with two screens showing free movies, one for tots and the other for subteens. The elementary schools and the one high school were open in the early evening and something put on at the high school.
She noticed with a mixture of resignation and laughter that she had a part in that — which, come to think of it, she had agreed to when she accepted the invitation. Signing her Jungle Jane comics, it was.
Well, it was a for a good cause. She got no profits from them. Those were evenly split between the comics creators and an organization for research to help children sickened too early for her juvenile-Alzheimer’s cure to help them directly.
She didn’t need the money. Her modest trust fund from her father’s legacy was enough for most of her needs. On top of that she got some modest income from pharmaceutical companies selling her cure at, she’d insisted before licensing it, low-profit prices. Then there was the ghost-written book about her three jungle forays and the research for her cure, "Life From the Jungle." It had been a surprise best-seller and, even more surprisingly, continued modest but steady sales.
With her "riches" Sylvia had done little, the biggest being buying the summer home she’d been renting when she’d been killed. She splurged from time to time on small luxuries and clothes — she was still a girl despite becoming a weremonster. Her biggest continuing expense was travel. Her minor celebrity gave her chances to attend premieres and such and charity events where she could make some difference.
It also gave her chances to look for her killers, though all the leads she’d found so far had been unlikely ones. Despite that, a slight chance was better than none, and who knew what accidental discovery she might make while trying?
The sun was quite low and its light quite red when she finished her leisurely look at the itinerary. It was time to dress and go to the celebration.
Shorts, sandals, and a tee shirt over bare skin — her weremonster boobs needed no support — and a glance at her face and hair — which took on flawless appearance without make-up or conditioner — was all it took. Fifteen minutes later she strolled into party organizer headquarters.
It was a medium-sized not-yet-open department store near the plaza with the anonymous heroic horseman in the center and the cineplex. A few parents were already arriving at the ‘plex with infants and older children. Both it and party HQ had bright banners on their fronts, mostly colored strips but also a few white ones with black spaceship silhouettes adorning them.
"Dr. Connelly!" The HQ speaker — squeaker, actually, she was so excited — was a tiny thirtyish woman in a voluminous colorful something perfect for the cooling but still-warm Puerto Rican summer evening. Though red/orange/yellow didn’t strike Sylvia as being very psychologically cool.
From just inside the HQ door Sylvia turned to her and grabbed her hands to arrest an onrushing hug.
"I will be highly annoyed if anyone tonight calls me Dr. Anything. Pass the word that it’s Sylvia."
"Of course — Sylvia! Oh, I’m so excited. Let me introduce you!"
It took several minutes for her small guide to pull her to several groups and introduce people whose names Sylvia had no chance to memorize, so quickly was she rushed to the next group. Every third introduction her guide announced that Dr. Connelly was to be addressed as Sylvia.
She was finally rescued when she was turned over to an older mature woman with grey hair and a youthful face, who was introduced as a head party organizer. Like everyone else in the room she was dressed in one or another popular version of native Indian P’Rican dress. In her case it was sandals and a red and green bra and wraparound skirt, not a bad choice for a woman with a tight belly and smoothly muscled limbs, not surprising in a woman who was a girl’s coach as well as history teacher.
Releasing Libertád’s strong warm hand she asked, "Why is an island full of Argentines dressing like Borinquen?"
The woman’s laugh was a low pleasant chuckle. "I can only guess even though somehow I’m given responsibility for it — or blame, though that might explain it right there."
She looked around. "Maybe it’s a statement of solidarity with Puerto Ricans. Most of us are permanent here; we’ve become honorary P’Ricans. Maybe it’s because a third of the permanent residents are P’Ricans, and most of the commuters every day. Or just because it was comfortable and colorful and fun and would give the right relaxed air. It’s pretty hard to be dignified dressed like this."
"I feel overdressed."
Another warm chuckle. "No, you’ll be perfect. Anyway, someone is bound to throw a Hawaiian leii around your neck — or spill purple soda on you!"
Sylvia laughed. "I think the clothes are a great idea. Miami’s my home town and I love it, but I’ve lived here on and off so long that I sometimes think of myself as a Boricua. I feel right at home."
She took a sip from the glass of iced soft drink that she’d automatically accepted earlier.
"So, I understand that I have party duty tonight."
"Just a comic-book signing, and we can get you out of that if you want. Though a lot of little girls will be disappointed. And boys."
"No, I’m used to them by now. The little kids are so adorable. … you know, I still don’t recognize myself on the covers. I only wore the safari clothes into the jungle for appearance’s sake then swapped them to something more practical. Later I had to wear camouflage makeup because I was still too obtrusive to find the specimens I needed. Then I had to leave the guns behind; the smell was too alien."
"That must have been a bit scary."
The woman seemed like a sister despite half a minute’s acquaintance. Sylvia turned the confiding urge into something close to the truth but publicly acceptable.
"No. I wasn’t without protection. I wore a machete and had spears made up and deodorized them with plant juice. The spears had a crossbar and there was always a tree around to brace it against. A couple of tigers walked up to claw me only to get their paws pierced. I dodged their swats at the spear and kept the point between them and me. Tigers went around me after that, pretending they weren’t scared of me. Sometimes you have to be the scariest thing in the jungle."
Libertád had been looking at Sylvia as if to judge if she was telling tall tales. At that last the woman held out an arm with a long grey scar on it.
"In the city jungle too. I got this from someone who wouldn’t take No for an answer. Until I kicked his balls up into his belly."
Sylvia reached out and slapped palms with the woman, then turned as the woman introduced her to someone.
After circulating a while Sylvia collected Libertád and they walked together to the high school where the signing was located.
The woman spoke a bit hesitantly as they neared a back way into the school.
"Ah, Kevin has a screwball scheme of having you swing onto the stage from a fake vine. You don’t have to go along with it."
Sylvia laughed. "I’ve done it so often at these signings that I expect it. As long as the rope is strong it’s fine by me."
Kevin O’Reilly assure her it was. It and its connection to the steel frame of the building had been tested by him that very afternoon. He also asked her if she would do a tight-rope show for the kids. She agreed to it. The two stunts had become part of the signings wherever the facilities allowed it.
Despite his name his Spanish had the same archaic air and soft pronunciation as all that of the other Argentines. She asked him about his background.
"Spain had Irish soldiers for centuries. Some even became generals. So it was natural when some people emigrated from Spain that it included my ancestors."
He was a lithe and muscular forty-something who was one of three coaches for the high school. He showed her how the tight rope was connected at each end. She examined the connections closely and agreed they were safe. Then he showed her to the sturdy table positioned just out of sight of the high-school auditorium audience, from which muted sounds of conversation was coming. Then he handed her the white rope angling down from the ceiling.
"Just put one wrist through this loop and lift your legs. The loop will keep your grip from slipping and you’ll only be airborne for a few seconds."
He left her and went to other duties. She had to wait a few minutes while a speaker quieted the audience, announced her, and gave instructions for bringing the comics up on stage to be autographed. Finally the speaker gave her the cue. She waited while the curtain that hid the stage was opened all the way.
Then she lifted her legs as planned and began swinging. She was going to land short, so she shifted her grip out of the loop to grasp the rope higher. She still had to pull up on her arm to land exactly where she wanted, her free hand lifting the silly pith helmet from her head to place it under her arm. She thought she’d pulled off the maneuvers with some grace and panache.
The audience certainly thought so. She had forgotten how much noise little girls and boys could make. One contingent of them, surely future cheerleaders extraordinaire, stood chanting in unison "Jungle Jane! Jungle Jane!"
Laughter bubbled out of her. Surely making little kids happy was one worthy life goal.
After half a minute she raised her hands and began the job of shushing them. When they didn’t respond quickly, she did what she’d learned worked best. She stood there smiling but still, her arms at her side.
Soon the children were shushing each other, the future cheerleaders in the lead. A silence broken only by occasional coughs settled over the auditorium.
"Before we start I’m going to do something fun for you." As she spoke the man brought a second rope from offstage on one side of the stage and fastened it to a ringbolt offstage in the wall on the other side of the stage. The result was a tight rope about six feet off the stage, ready for a little show she had put on at several signings before. Several other helpers were at the same time hurriedly placed thick foam mattresses underneath the rope.
Meanwhile a teenaged helper had brought out a step-ladder and positioned it so that Sylvia could easily mount the rope. She did so and the helper took the ladder away. As he did so she tilted far over in one direction, seemed frantically to over-correct, then over-over-correct.
For a minute or two she wobbled, her errors slowly correcting. They ceased. She cautiously straightened from a crouch, looked around triumphantly, and took a step.
Only to begin the wobbling all over again, a huge look of dismay on her face.
The children were hysterical with a laughter.
From cautious to confident to optimistic walking back and forth on the crossbar she graduated to sitting on it. Overconfidence led her to fall off the bar, only to catch herself by hooking her legs over it.
This led to some swinging back and forth in an attempt to swing to an upright sitting position — which was successful just long enough for her to beam happily at her audience, then show dismay as she swung inexorably the opposite direction to end hanging upside down, her arms folded in disgust.
Sylvia could have astounded the world with gymnastics far beyond that of any Olympic contestant. But her purpose here was to demonstrate relatively safe tricks and diplomatically remind kids that acrobatics could be dangerous. Far too many kids had taken up rope swinging and riskier behavior because of her comic books.
She dismounted and approached the microphone being hurriedly moved back to center stage. Loud applause met her. She let them make noise for long moments till she repeated the quieting process.
"I know some of you have been inspired by my rope swinging to do the same. I’m proud of you. But something really worries me."
She put a fist under her chin and looked around, an exaggerated look of worry on her face.
She said in a shocked voice, "Do you know what happens if someone falls on their head?"
"They break their neck!" came a big shout from the audience. From various sources they’d already heard this message. Certainly the future cheerleaders had.
"That’s right. And you know what happens then? They become a wobbly-neck." She began walking around the stage, her head wobbling in every direction as if on a spring. She staggered a bit too.
Returning to the microphone she said, "I love you. Do you believe I love you?"
"Yes!" came the roar.
"So I want you to hold up your right hand right now and swear, ‘I will play safe.’ I WILL PLAY SAFE!"
She led them through the pledge twice more, helped by the little cheerleaders.
The comic-book signing went off quite well, children walking in a line onto the stage usually with a parental escort and bringing "one just one" comic to sign. Sylvia did relent when one little boy pleaded with her to sign an extra for his little sister who was in the audience with a sprained ankle. His seeming-father confirmed this excuse.
It took most of an hour and by the end Sylvia was grateful for being a ultrasomething being with ultrasomething wrists and hands.
When event was over and the last happy child was led away the coach came over to her and thanked her.
"Thank you, sir. I really get a kick out of the kids."
"Maybe you’ll dance with me later. I do a mean salsa. And I’ve even learned that new dance they claim is native Indian. The chawalhiri."
"If you see me at one of the dances you’ll have a taker. I’m a mean salsera."
Downstairs outside the school, however, Sylvia was buttonholed by a small group of teenagers accompanied by a twenty-something older man and woman. Kevin introduced them as the Sunrise Surfers and excused himself with a wave.
"Dr. Connelly —"
"Hold it right there. I’ll ignore you unless you call me Sylvia." She smiled to take the sting out of her remark.
They did look like surfers, all lean powerful muscles and tanned skin. Most wore shorts and brightly colored tropical shirts or tee shirts.
"Ah, Sylvia — We get our name because we get up at sunrise and catch the first waves. I know you probably will sleep late tomorrow. But just in case — We get together at the very south tip of the island. When they were dredging the hangar entry way they also built up the water rec facilities."
"I will be there."
"You will? You will! Hey, that’s great. But only if you don’t need to sleep late."
"I never sleep late." She needed half as much sleep as she did before being changed, and liked to start the day with an underwater swim, breathing water. If she didn’t sleep underwater, which she did several times a week.
The first order of business after waving goodbye to the surfers was food. She wandered through the crowds dressed in Boriquen and Hawaiian and other finery, including a few that were quite bizarre, such as the one that looked like a great purple furry monkey. There were enough of people in shorts/tees/tennies so she didn’t feel out of place, though her clothing was fairly plain compared to most.
The first place she found which had food was the police station. She wandered in after seeing a couple wandering out with drumsticks in their hands. A room off the squad room was a large conference room with the chairs pushed back against the wall. A few people sat in them eating and more ate standing up. A crowd was walking along the food-laden conference table, covered in clear plastic to protect the finish, loading paper plates with food. She joined in.
There were some drumsticks available of chicken size, but most of the meat was beef. Argentines seemed to use just about every organ, including some she couldn’t identify. She could ID liver and, though she rarely ate it, had a sudden craving for it. She ate two pieces while moving along the line and found them very satisfying. Such odd cravings sometimes happened when her werewhatever body let her know she had a food deficiency to make up.
She put together a big hamburger with plenty of veggies atop the meat. Next to the table was a drink station where she took up a dark ale in a disposable container.
"Are you old enough for that, little girl?" It was the oldest of the four guards who had escorted her on the tour earlier, the one with the most elaborate shoulder insignia. Tonight he wore a white chef’s hat and server’s outfit.
"Why, officer —" He waved her along the line with a grin, turning to the next customer.
She ambled away, looking at him out of the side of her eyes. Not bad looking. She wondered if she would meet him later on tonight.
Well, the party was supposed to go on till 4:00 in the morning, all-night celebrations being an Argentine tradition even during weekdays. She wondered how such an industrious nation ever got anything done with so little sleep.
She window-shopped a bit at stores closed for the night and stopped to watch events at empty stores set up for, it seemed, stands rented from a circus. This included an air gun contest and ring-toss for small furred dolls and mysterious freaks of nature viewable for only a few coins. She passed on that last, being a freak of nature herself.
Soon she came on a salsa dance, though they were just about to start a chawalhiri demonstration by a couple who appeared to be in their 80s. Though skinny and wrinkled and slow they performed beautifully, wearing festive clothes. The dance seemed to involve a lot of slow walking around each other with short steps with their hips moving very exaggeratedly and everything else very relaxed. During this drums and a chime played very steadily.
Halfway through the old man stood on one leg and very slowly sank down while the woman kept him upright with one hand. His outstretched leg slowly moved in a circle as she promenaded around him. After one circle, he slowly began to rise on his supporting leg.
After loud applause young people took over the floor to do an energetic version of the old people’s dance minus the one-leg trick. When the salsa music came on Sylvia had no trouble finding a succession of partners and let herself go.
Next she had lots of iced milk-flavored coffee, or coffee flavored milk to be truthful, and plenty of ice-cream and cookies. She downed an entire pint of chocolate-strawberry swirl ice-cream, a bit to her shame at her greed and to the servers’ astonishment.
By now it was nearing 2:00 in the morning and the party was starting to wind down, her with it. She remembered that one of the dance floors was for tango dancing. She had seen snatches of it in TV commercials for the last year or two and knew it was having a renaissance in Argentina and the rest of the world.
She wondered what it really looked like when people did it as an ordinary rather than a stage dance, with people jumping about and sliding under each other and staring madly in each other’s eyes from an inch apart. She snagged a couple of fruit-filled croissants from a stand still open despite the hour and ambled toward the tango floor.
She heard the music before she saw the dancers. She even recognized the tune: "La Cumparsita" — "The Little Marching Band." It was the most recognized of all the tangos.
At the edge of the dance floor was a band but it would not be doing any marching itself. Not with a piano in it! There was also a violin and a bass violin whose players could conceivably march, as both were standing up. But sitting on a chair was a woman with long curly blond tresses bent over a lap supporting a small accordion with buttons rather than keys. It was what gave the music an unusual air, the sound a reedy vibrating tone like other accordions she had heard but with a slightly sweeter air.
The dancers were not doing showy stuff. They were moving around the floor in close embraces with a smooth flowing walk that had a casual air to it. Often they would walk in a circle around each other.
There was tricky stuff, she saw after watching a bit, finishing her croissants, though you had to be alert to see it. The women sometimes did little tapping motions with their toes between steps. Or little sideways flicks of their feet.
Hmm. She could do this. But didn’t they get bored with simple stuff like this? Maybe not; they all seemed so caught up in their partners, even that old couple who might seem like they were far past romance.
Wait! Some more fancy stuff. From a teenaged couple no more than fifteen. He placed her to his side as they walked, bent an inch or so, grasped his partner’s waist, and straightened. She gave a little leap that lifted her only an inch or two and plastered herself to him. He smoothly made a complete turn and set her down. They performed casually and stayed so completely in the flow of dancers that Sylvia wouldn’t have noticed if she had not been watching the couple.
The music stopped and another piece started up, something by the same band. A few couples dropped out, a few joined, and the flow around the dance floor began again.
Sylvia continue to watch, seeing ever more subtleties as she did so. There was a lot of foot play, sort of like dueling feet but subtle. A man stepped between a woman’s feet as she walked, ankle against ankle, pushing her foot so that it flew out to the side a bit, less tripping her than helping her do something fancy.
"Like to try it?" She startled slightly, so focused she had not notice a man approaching and standing watching with her for a few minutes. Looking closer, she recognized the launch controller who had looked more like a gangster than the double-doctorate he was. She could not remember his name.
"I’ve never danced this before in my life."
"It’s easy if you don’t want to do anything fancy. Just walking. With a bit of style."
"Well, didn’t I see you dancing with someone?"
"My wife. She told me ‘for God’s sake go over there and make Dr. Connelly feel welcome.’ Not that I consider this a duty." He smiled. Smiling he didn’t look at all villainous.
Sylvia looked at the other side of the dance floor to see Libertád grin at her then turn back to her partner and place her cheek against his. They were dancing very close.
"Well, OK. Just don’t do anything that will make Libertád kick my butt."
"Hell, no. Because first she’d kick my butt and I’m rather fond of it."
His arms slid smoothly around her but he didn’t do anything at first. She felt subtle changes as he adjusted their embrace, his hand behind her back moving a little upward and closer to her shoulder blades, the hand out to her right side adjusting until their hands mated perfectly.
Then nothing. She wondered when he’d start dancing. He was just twisting their bodies to the left then right. Which made sense to her. He was still adjusting their embrace. Then she realized he was dancing, though they weren’t moving a step. The twisting was exactly in time to the music.
No sooner had she realized this than he began stepping in place, "slow dancing" as they had called it in high school, and turning slowly to their right. Of course. He was turning so that he faced along the flow of the dance. So she was not surprised when she felt her body moving in that direction without her thought.
He kept his promise throughout the tune. Then the next. Then he surrendered her to another man who was, if anything, smoother in getting her to do stuff without her knowing she was going to. A couple of partners later she was turned over to a very young man with a heavy black beard despite having obviously recently shaved it. All he did was walk without the slightest attempt at fanciness. But he was so graceful and in tune to the music that she guessed he was an instructor or a performer.
At a dance break Sylvia joined Libertád for soft drinks.
"Well, now you are a tango dancer. So you’re officially an Argentine. Are you going to go to work for us?"
Sylvia burst out laughing. "Is there anyone who doesn’t know about my job offer?"