Friday, September 30, 2011

The Manta – Part 1 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

He was shoved sideways and almost fell out of his reading chair. His book slid across the floor. Angrily, he looked through the ceiling. 
It’s that girl, back again. What has she done now!
He checked to the side as the floor rocked under him. She’d snagged her anchor on the starboard wing.
The surface was churning above. The wind was strong. The pull could hurt the Manta.
Hurriedly, he slipped on his face mask and cycled through the airlock. The warm Caribbean waters were as familiar as air. He swam easily over to the wing, trailing the thin snorkel line that allowed him to breathe.
It’s bad. The anchor had bent the aileron. A minute later he was back with a carborundum blade and sawed through the braided metal anchor line. He paddled back out the way as the last thread snapped, trailing bubbles from its cavitation through the water.
He could see the boat on the surface move.
But he could also see the girl in the water, swimming after it.
She’ll never make it. The wind is pushing it too fast.
Stupid situation, or stupid girl–it was all her fault anyway.
They were thirty miles to the nearest shore. Unless she could catch her boat, and she couldn’t, she would drown.
Serves her right. The Manta is down here on the bottom for peace and quiet. She had no right to come pester me.
She damaged my ship. I had every right to protect it.
It was hard to sigh into a face mask regulator. It lost some of its expressiveness. No matter, he’d have to rescue her.
But first, he had to repair the aileron or he’d get nowhere. In the airlock, he slapped at the big red button that used to be labeled, ‘Stow Tail’. The markings were long worn away.
In the tool bin, he found a large rubber mallet. Not the best tool for underwater work, but it would have to do. With a piece of coral as an anvil, he bashed the aluminum reasonably flat. No telling what it would do to his flight path, but he needed to move fast before the girl wore herself to exhaustion.
Back inside, still dripping from the sea water, he checked that the tail was fully stowed. Familiar strokes on the control panel and the pumps began blowing the ballast water out of the wings. Before too long, the nose lifted abruptly from the silt and the Manta slipped silently free of her bed.
Using the wings and the slow rise of the ship, he steered in the direction he’d seen the boat, heading downwind.
How long had it been?
If she wasn’t a good swimmer, there was no hope for it.
What will I do if she’s already drowned?
His first impulse would be to leave her be and let the fish take care of her.
It’s not like I’d killed her. She got herself into this mess.
The Manta had a variety of light-shades on the inner surface of its transparent glass hull. He shifted the front ones back. He’d be flying this manually and he’d need the visibility.
On its own, the Manta sensed the surface and shifted ballast so the nose tilted downward. That was how she moved, in slow arcs through the water, using the rise and fall of the ship and its wings to propel it forward. He set a limit this time, keeping no deeper than thirty feet, rather than the deeper dives the ship normally used 
There!  He saw her. Her legs were kicking and she sculled with her hands, fighting the waves that threatened to knock her down below. 
He adjusted the trim and eased under her. Slowly, so as not to drift out of position, he came up under her feet. 
She must have thought he was a shark for an instant, the way she tried to swim straight up into the air, but she settled down once she saw the transparent central hull break the water beside her. She grabbed hold of one of the wing’s ridges gratefully. Their eyes met, and it was hate at first sight.
He waved backward, toward the airlock, but she didn't get it, clinging to the trim fin like it was a life buoy. He sighed, tapped the control panel and went outside himself.
The wind was higher than he liked. Normally he just stayed below when there was any kind of weather. As soon as he stepped out onto the wing, he faced another kind of blow.
“You cut my anchor line! I might have drowned! And I lost my underwater camera!”
He chuckled inwardly at her priorities, but just pointed at the mangled aileron. 
She didn’t even look in that direction. “Are you some kind of maniac? Why did you do that to me?”
Inside his head, he was going to say, “Your anchor was damaging my ship!” But all that came out was “Ah. Look.”
It had been so long since he’d actually talked to someone that his mouth felt wrong. The words sounded strange.
She frowned, glancing back but concentrating on him. She still was clamped on the fin like a barnacle in a dark blue bikini. Her wet, red hair obscured half her face.
He sighed and walked over, grasping her wrist and pulling her up to her feet.
She wobbled, and he realized she was exhausted from fighting the waves.
He held her upright and walked the both of them over to the aileron and pointed at the mangled mess. He wanted to push her nose in it like a misbehaved puppy, but perched on the edge of the wing like they were in unsettled waters, it was hard enough to keep them both upright without falling in.
She looked down at the bent metal and he guessed it was enough.
“Come on.” He pulled her toward the airlock. She stumbled and he had to help her back up on her feet. Her eyes were on all the details as they went through the airlock, but he had no time to waste on a tour.
“There,” he pointed to the couch. She gratefully collapsed on the seat, feeling the cushion gingerly, as if not knowing what it was.
“Sponge,” he said, and she nodded, and leaned back, closing her eyes.
He looked her over, partly checking for any injuries. In salt water, even serious wounds could be washed clean and be undetectable from a cursory inspection, but they would need to be cared for. Luckily, he didn’t see any injuries.
But he hadn’t been this close to another human in years. He knew she was a girl when she made her two trips overhead by the bikini. The first time the Manta had been too deep for her to get any closer without breathing gear. This second time, because he’d been in the shallows charging the batteries, she had gotten closer, too close.
But at this range, the fact that she was mostly bare skin was kicking over some hormones that had laid dormant for a long time.
I can’t have this.
He rummaged through his closet and although he had next to nothing, he found an old gray robe that was mostly threadbare.
“Here.” He tossed it her way.
“Thanks.” She pulled it on, keeping suspicious eyes on him. “My boat. We have to catch it.”
He paused, thinking about it. He’d thought he’d just get her close enough to a shoreline and let her swim the rest of the way back to civilization. 
I guess I might be able to catch it.
Without saying anything, he went over to the controls and manually cranked up the spine–an antenna poke that usually rode flat against the main hull.
The display screen came on with no problem, although he hadn’t activated it in some time. Most of the electronics were sealed tightly behind the console, so that the salt air that inevitably crept inside the cabin would not affect it. But they did take power, and he was always conscious of power usage.
Radar showed the blip.
“Moving fast. Try it.”
He powered it off and cranked the spine down again. The girl was watching everything he did. Not that she’d be likely to make sense of it. All the controls were custom. The Manta was unlike any other submersible on the planet.
“What’s happening?” She gripped the couch as the Manta began to sink.
“Chasing your boat.”
She glanced up fearfully as the water level on the transparent sides crept up to cover up the sky. She looked over at the controls, but there were no fancy indicators, other than a ball bearing in a curved glass tube, a tilt meter, to show what was going on.
He went back to his chair, picking up the book where it had fallen. He settled in and thumbed the pages to find his spot. The light dimmed as they got deeper, but he was used to it, and they’d be swinging back shallower soon enough.
The floor tilted slowly, almost unnoticeably. The girl stood up, testing her balance.
He didn’t look up from his book, but said, “The more you move about, the harder it’ll be for the autopilot to stay on a straight course.”
She nodded. “I need water. I’m dehydrated.”
He sighed and put a bookmark in place. He rose and walked over to the water closet. He opened the door for her. “Faucet. Red is fresh water. Blue is salt.”
She looked around. “Do you have a cup?”
He looked puzzled for a moment. “Stay put.”
A moment later he walked back from the pantry with a washed out tin can that still held a scrap of label. It had probably been canned fruit. She took a drink.
“Yes.” He walked back to his chair, but he kept an eye on her until she timidly closed the door. A moment later there was the sound of the power flush. And then came another noise.
He knew every pipe, every valve, and he could practically feel the change in ballast as she used the fresh water to rinse the salt off of her.
He sighed. It wasn’t worth complaining about her use of his limited supplies. She’d be gone soon.
She walked out soon, drying her hair with the edge of the robe. She looked his way, but he concentrated on the text of a book he’d read dozens of times before. It did no good to look at her.

No comments:

Post a Comment