Puerto Rico, Space Island
just off the south coast
By 3:00 Sylvia had had enough partying and said goodnight to her new friends. Back at her hotel room she was pleased to find a large manila envelope on her bed. With them was a note saying the photos were copies and hers.
There were also notes with each photo, saying who some of the people in them were and where the picture had been shot. The notes were new and so the memories of the woman who took the photos must be faded, but they would be very useful for all that. The effort to get all this together for her was an extraordinary kindness on the eve of the celebration that was no-doubt busy for a wife and possibly a mother. Sylvia wondered what she could do to reward the pilot’s wife.
Sylvia only took time to shuffle through the photos. She was too tired to do them justice. She locked them in the room’s wall safe in the back of a closet and got ready to sleep. Then could not.
After tossing and turning in bed for a half hour she decided she’d rather sleep underwater. She made up a beach overnight kit, little more than a beach towel and some toiletries stuffed in a cloth bag, and dressed in a bikini under jeans shorts and a tee shirt. She wore her second pair of tennies, the old ratty ones not the new ones she’d worn all evening.
There were still die-hard partiers out, though not many. At a deserted and nearly empty banquet table she rescued some croissants and waxed-paper milk cartons from some seagulls and began jogging toward the south end of the island.
The spaceship hangar soon loomed up on her left, its sides and its surroundings brightly lit. She wondered if any of the guards had been able to party. She jogged across the bridge over the canal to the hangar which slid open when a space plane was maneuvered by tugs into the hangar.
The beach at the tail end of the island was deserted. It included some fairly new cabanas, portable outhouses, and such. She commandeered a cabana and settled her stuff there, the towel draped over a plastic beach chair and toiletries arranged on a shelf to show which one of the three closed sides of the cabana was hers. She also folded her tee and trunks beside the toiletries and neatly placed her tennies and bag beneath the shelf. The cloth bag contained the croissants and milk, which would probably be safe from morning marauders. Her room key she tucked into the hidden pocket made for just that purpose in her bikini trunks along with a large-denomination bill. Then she made sure the flat PlasFast tabs were locked.
She looked around the cabana, wondering what color the broad stripes on the three closed sides would show as in sunlight. Now they just looked grey, even to her photoreceptors, which she could make three or four times as sensitive as those of ordinary human eyes.
Satisfied that everything was ship-shape and that she knew which cabana was "hers" Sylvia walked into the water and dove under it so smoothly a watcher might have thought she melted into the waves.
Sunrise brought slow but certain changes sliding across and into the ocean. Sylvia woke as the first of the changes washed over her.
She had found a little grotto at the tip of the island about two hundred feet under the water. There she tucked herself into a corner along with the hundreds of other organisms large and small which lived in the cave.
A lazy wave of her webbed feet sent her gliding out of the cave and a twist of her body angled her upward. Around her the dark green of the sea was warming toward lime green and even gold. Plants waved, silver fish glided or sometimes darted.
Northward along the shore she saw, dimly with her eyes and sharply with her esoteric distance sense, the beginning of a long wall of massive blocks of concrete like checkers arranged on the bottom in openwork waffle arrangements. A protection from tsunamis for the spaceship hangar? And how far did it extend? Was the whole island to the north protected?
Nearing the surface Sylvia extended her esoteric distance sense to longer range. No boats, surfboards, or smaller debris dotted the water. She broached her head just enough for her eyes to pan around.
Seeing no interesting (or boring) objects near, she increased her buoyancy till her shoulders were out of the water. Still nothing so she relaxed back to average buoyancy. With smoothly powerful strokes Sylvia swam toward the beach.
It was half a mile away. A shallow bottom had been planed out leading up to it. This would make for good incoming waves. She wondered if this was part of the anti-tsunami effort. The balked waves near the hangar would be channeled here in a pressure-relief effect.
She stood up a hundred feet away from shore and walked in. Dozens of teenagers and a few sub-teens and twenty-somethings walked and lounged on the beach.
"Hey, it’s the Champ!"
"Hi, Dr. Connelly!"
"Sylvia, over here!"
The sea monster ambled over to the small group who had yesterday invited her to surf with them at the sunrise.
"Hi! It’s been a hundred years since you introduced yourselves last night. Better do it again."
They did so. This time she caught maybe one out of every four names.
"I’m going to have breakfast before I do anything. Hey! They’re selling coffee over there?"
Beside the cabanas and the porta-potties were several crude shacks selling stuff, even this early after a holiday, mostly food and drinks.
She located her cabana and found her few bills and coins had not been stolen, so she didn’t have to break out her emergency big bill in her bikini trunks. She bought coffee and combined it with the milk she’d brought from the party. Then she ate the lukewarm coffee-milk and ate her croissants.
As she did so others of the Sunrise Surfers joined her, pulling up chairs from other cabanas or sitting on their surfboards. They chatted, people-watching and watching the ocean with the sunrise behind them. The day was clear with a few very high cirrus clouds stretching across the sky. Sylvia got to learn a little about several of the two dozen or so Sunrisers.
"Hey, here comes the Master."
She glanced in the direction the speaker was looking. A lean muscular man in his thirties with a crew-cut was walking their way. He wore a blue tee and red shorts and a billed cap with sunglasses. His skin was tanned like that of everyone else on the beach and was whitened with sun-block atop critical sun target areas like the bridge of his nose, upper cheeks, forehead and the tops of his shoulders. He carried a megaphone hanging from a strap on one wrist.
Sylvia stood as he approached. "Surf Master? Hi. I’m —"
He took the last few steps and shook her hand. "Connelly. Right. Welcome, Champ."
He looked around at the Surnrisers. "I see you’ve got in with the criminal crowd."
They crowd grinned back at him, unabashed.
"Here are the rules…" Several of the crowd groaned dramatically.
"Hush, pinheads," said Sylvia. "This is like grandmaster pianists playing the scales. Go ahead, Master."
He did so. The rules were the usual commonsense ones but Sylvia listened to ensure there were no surprises. About the only one not expected was to stay away from the tsunami breakwaters. Her guess about the huge underwater checkers was correct, she saw, following the man’s pointing hand northward toward a number of buoys sporting flags marking their position out to about a half mile.
"What are you doing for a go-board, Connelly?"
"I thought I’d be able to rent one or borrow one."
She nodded her head at one of the shacks where a renter in shorts and sandals was putting the finishing touches on a board display.
The Master nodded. "His are OK but I think your friends have a better idea."
She looked around. Two of the Surfers, a boy and a girl, were bringing over a board from an electric cart parked further up the island at the end of a paved road.
The head of the Surfers, one of the two twenty-something men, said. "It’s an Embry my father used in competition. It’s a little old-fashioned nowadays —"
Sylvia interrupted him. "It looks great. Thank you. This is very considerate. I’d expected to rent a clunker."
"You didn’t bring yours with you?"
"I mostly SCUBA here at home. In the ‘Glades is where I get fierce. So here you guys are the main guys and are going to have to give me pointers."
"They’re a bunch of pinheads like you said, Connelly, but not total losers. Have a good time."
"Thanks, Surf Master."
The Sunrisers were delighted to give the Everglades Champ pointers. She took them all in good humor as the group finished snacks (no heavy eating before exertion) and went into the water for some simple maneuvers (always warm-up before advanced work). Then they began tricky stuff, such as loop-the-loops, sliding through the curl, and formation stuff like pairs-surfers braiding the curl.
Perhaps two hours into the morning the youngest of the Sunrisers began yelling about something. The leader, Bronco, pulled everyone out of the water.
"When did you see Prinny last?"
"God, Bronc, nearly an hour. You know she tires easily. I figured she was in a cabana. Then I found her board. Look, her strap came loose!"
The boy handed the older man a four-foot nylon strap. He’d unclipped one end from the girl’s board so he could run bringing the strap for display. The other end was frayed.
Sylvia took the frayed end and smelled it.
"I can’t be sure, but I think I smell battery acid."
The leader sniffed, as did two others, but of course merely human noses could smell nothing.
"I don’t," Bronco said. "It’s been in the water too long. But this discoloration could come from battery acid. Does she store her board next to batteries?"
The young Sunriser said, near tears, "Sis is careful about stuff like that, but Dad might have moved some stuff this weekend."
Sylvia said, "It doesn’t matter. We’ve got a situation. Get everyone out of the water so we can find her."
The leader began yelling to the rest of the ‘Risers. "Get everybody out! Find Prinny!"
The group scattered, half running south along the beach, the other running north, calling "Diver lost! All out! Diver lost! All out!" Soon almost two hundred people were streaming out of the water onto the beach. They were joined by perhaps another hundred from cabanas and beach blankets and electric carts parked on or just off the paved road.
The Surf Master came running toward the Risers and Sylvia went to meet him, legs flying, dashing at more-than-Olympic speed.
She told him the situation. He unclipped a heavy black walkie-talkie off his belt from behind his back.
"Leoni! Get the word out. Surfer lost. Surfer lost. We need a copter and a patrol boat."
"Do you have a heavy-duty go-board?"
"Yes. I’ll get out on it right away."
"No. You know the beach. You have to coordinate. I’ll take the go-board."
The Master was torn between two desires. His hesitation was short. He gestured for her to follow and ran back the way he had come. She paced him. He ran easily, was even able to talk.
"We also have a windsurfer like you drive. That would be better."
"No. The fan couldn’t fight this wind. And I’m good on a go-board, too."
He nodded and spoke into his walkie-talkie, having "Leoni" prep the board.
At the surf-shack, a small aluminum framed building on stilts, a muscular blond woman Sylvia instantly recognized as Australian was bent over an extra-large surf board placed on two A-frames. She was just topping off its superbattery from a charger at the end of a heavy red cable.
The Master pounded up metal stairs to the open surf-shack. He went quickly to a large ocean chart mounted on the inside wall and pointed out something on it.
"This is the current flow around here lately. Anyone lost will go in this general direction. Does this map make sense to you?"
She studied it a moment. It was clear. For one thing she knew the general underwater contours for miles around from swimming over and through them, though less so near Space Island. Plus she had an instinctive understanding, as if the ocean somehow echoed itself deep inside her.
"Right. And I can use these landmarks as guides." She pointed to the spaceship hangar and three onshore landmarks in or near Ponce.
"Good. Here swap your sports-jacket for this full one." He quickly helped her into a large orange life-jacket when she’d stripped off her minimum-flotation jacket. He also clipped a survival belt onto her waist which included a knife, compass, and a few other items.
The Aussie woman came in. "She’s going? Not me?"
"I need you here more. She can search as good as you but she can’t do what you can do. Have you been looking from the tower?"
"Naturally. The go-board is ready."
She turned toward Sylvia, any resentment she might feel dismissed. "I’ll help you get her into the water."
Sylvia grinned. "No offense. But I can handle it better by myself."
"You know how to start it?"
The Master ignored the two women. He was on a heavy-duty radio to someone, one finger tracing something on the wall map.
Leoni followed Sylvia as she plunged barefoot down the metal stairs, running lightly. She looked on in surprise as the sea monster hefted the heavy go-board as if it were nothing and began running toward the water.
Once in the water the werecreature popped the T-handle up from its recess in the board and surged out of the water onto the board, first onto her belly then easily standing while remaining centered.
"Thanks!" she yelled to the Aussie. Then she smoothly gunned the throttle mounted on the T-handle and sped away, dancing on the board as easily as ever on the swamp airboats.