Monday, October 31, 2011

The Manta – Part 14 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The Manta’s new batteries went flat right when he’d expected. It was so nice to have a power system at the peak of its performance.
But right now, he had to keep from tumbling.
With the water pumped out of the ballast tank, the Manta was rising from the dark depths at an uncomfortable pace. He made tiny adjustments to the ailerons to dampen out some instability.
He dared not shift his own position either. Climbing so fast air bubbles were created from nothing in his wake, he had to stay right on the edge of stability. Those vertical fins had been an extra, when he designed the Manta. They distracted from the elegant look of the wing. Certainly the real manta ray had no little fins sprouting from its back. But without them, he’d never be able to climb at this speed.
The darkness was dropping away like a sunrise in fast-forward. He gripped the railing tighter.
Like a whale breaching, the Manta popped through the surface, and even cleared air for a heart-pounding instant, before slapping the surface and skidding along like an unmanned surfboard.
Finally, the slush and sway told him that he’d come to a stop. The windows were still seeing spray splash down.
Nemo dashed to deploy a sea anchor so he could extend the tail.
He was dead in the water until the batteries recharged.
Residual juice was enough to give him a GPS reading. Over two hundred and eighty miles on that last charge. It was still going to be a very slow crossing from the East Caribbean to the West, but he couldn’t go any faster.
He’s considered all options.
He had no money, and even if he could talk resources out of Frank as he suspected he could, his passport was long gone. Likely he’d dropped totally off the radar–a dead man. He had no visas, no official presence. Other than swimming ashore like he did last time, he’d be lucky if they let him on any of the islands.
But suppose he could cross that legal barrier. Taking an airplane, without the Manta, would mean he was just a homeless traveler. He could never air-ship the Manta without disassembly, it was too wide.
Much the same applied to catching a ride on a ship. The Ocean Ray had a special rig to handle the Manta. That didn’t exist any more.
Besides a commercial liner wasn’t all that much faster than the Manta.
He smiled.
No, making his own way across let him arrive unannounced, like he did on Antigua. With clothes, he could move around incognito. With the Manta, he could investigate off-shore locations, hoping the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service would do all they could on land.
Like Brenda said, the Manta was his freedom. And he had to have freedom to act.
“I should never have let this happen.”
“What do you mean?” he asked the editor.
“I sent her into a potential active crime scene, and she’d not a crime reporter. Science and human-interest. That’s her job, not dealing directly with people who might pull a gun on her. And I let her go alone.”
“Is that usual? A reporter on assignment as an individual?”
He hesitated, “Well, actually yes. I mean, it’s not uncommon for a photographer and an investigator to work as a team, but normally, a reporter works alone.”
“Karl, if you made Brenda take a bodyguard, she’d freak on you.”
He sighed. “I know. It’s second guessing. It’s an editor’s hazard. But she was always right on top of everything, and I fell down on my side of the job. We should have had a solid check-in schedule, and I should have acted the instant she went silent.”
“I did have a phone schedule with her, and I got distracted. My fault as much as yours.”
The editor didn’t let himself wallow more than a couple of minutes. In spite of everything, and Brenda’s priority, he had dozens of other tasks demanding his time.
Nemo claimed his charging was done and he had to go.
But some of the details the man revealed were disturbing. The RCIPS were not hopeful they would find her. There were a huge number of people leaving Grand Cayman every day–air liners, cruise ships, private charters and just individual travelers. It was a small island with a large tourist presence.
There were regular missing persons reports, not all of them unplanned. It was a usual story for someone to drop out of sight, and Grand Cayman was nice place to do it.
But there was a hint that there were more women going missing than was usual.
A hundred gallons of fish guts came splattering down into the trough, and Brenda immediately stuck her hands to the elbows in it. With wooden paddles, she pushed the stinking, gagging mess down the metal channel, trying to keep the feeding channels from clogging. There were a dozen large tanks filled with all sizes of sea turtles, and she had to do her best to see that all were fed, and none were poisoned by an over abundance.
It was a nightmare sweatshop version of the feeding tanks she’d seen in the official turtle farms. Theirs were bright and sunny, these were dark and dank. Theirs were spacious and had plenty of room to walk about and see all stages of the turtles’ development in clean water ponds, she had to wedge herself between the wall and the tanks, with barely room to breathe. Theirs fed the turtles a carefully designed food in tidy dried pellets, Brenda recalled them fondly as she shoveled the fish guts. 
The official turtle farm was right next to a lovely restaurant where she’d watched the sunset. Brenda was so hungry the fish guts were tempting. Almost. And she collapsed between feedings on a metal bench.
But there was one advantage. None of the other crew were the least bit interested in feeling her up. They couldn’t get close enough without gagging.
She sagged on the bench. The turtles’ future was bleak. Grow big enough to harvest for meat or shell in the dark tanks, and then face the knife.
Hers wasn’t much better. She’d overheard their plans. When her face healed, they’d rinse her off, paint some cosmetics on her, and put her on a plane to meet her new owner. She suspected she’d be learning a new language soon, if her owner allowed her to talk.
Nemo circled Grand Cayman at a respectful distance. Close to shore, the waters were full of scuba divers and snorkelers, and kayakers. And around the Georgetown port, there were even tourist submarines to look out for.
But one thing he had discovered as he recharged off the coast of Jamaica, with an appropriate antenna on the spine, he could pull WiFi signals from the land. It took some hunting to find ones with no password, but he could hover about three feet below the surface with the spine up like a periscope and browse the net.
He pulled detailed maps and identified places Brenda’s article mentioned. He’d be retracing her steps.
At least that was the plan.
But the first step was to find a place to hide the Manta close enough so he could get ashore. That was going to be a tough one.
Rounding West End, he saw a southern stingray bury itself in the sand. It was an idea. The problem was to avoid all the enticing dive spots he saw marked on the chart he’d downloaded.
Waiting until dark, he found a particularly dull stretch of sand ‘downhill’ from the inner bay and settled in. The hull color and the white coral sand weren’t too different, but he spent some time shoveling sand all over the wing area. He couldn’t risk the snorkel this time, as it was practically identical to a dive buoy and would likely attract others to see what was interesting below.
He swam ashore with nothing but his change of clothes, snorkel, mask and fins. For all the bad things that could be said about his hermit lifestyle, he was an excellent swimmer.
Taking advantage of a tourist shower on a pole, he found a changing booth and was soon walking the road toward the restaurant Brenda had mentioned.
No one thought it odd when a man in a white suit and carrying snorkel gear came in for dinner. His server was friendly, and when he mentioned coming because of the article by Brenda deMay, he found out that he wasn’t the only one.
“Is it true that she’s gone missing?” asked his waiter.
“So I’ve heard. The police are looking for her. So is her newspaper. I hope she didn’t get caught up in the turtle scandal.”
At first the waiter disclaimed any idea that there was a problem with the turtles. But it was after sunset, and the crowd had thinned out considerably. When Nemo appeared to be content to let his prime rib settle until the place closed, the man dropped by again and pulled up a chair.
“You talked like you knew her.”
“Oh yes, I do. She’s a friend. And she’s done me a big favor. I’m looking for her.”
“Are you a reporter too?”
“Not a reporter, not a policeman, not anything official. I’m just a friend, seriously worried about her.”
The waiter leaned a little closer. “I liked her too, and I’d hate to think she was caught up in anything seedy.”
“If you know anything, I’d treat it as a personal favor if you’d tell me.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Manta – Part 13 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The phone buzzed, shaking him out of the nightmare.
“Nemo, or is it Oscar? The hotel didn’t have a record of her checking out. They sent someone up with a key. It looks like her place was ransacked. Some of her luggage was still there, but her papers, her computer, and her camera are all gone.”
“She wouldn’t have left her camera.”
“I’d agree with you there. I’ll get the local police on it. I don’t know what else to do right now.”
He remembered Grand Cayman. A fancy place. I won’t fit in there. But I have to go.
He rubbed his beard. Maybe he needed a trim. 
She called the pilot ‘Joe’. The airport at Antigua might have information on him. It’s worth a shot.
The dark haired boy saw a snorkeler coming ashore and raced across the sand, conch shell in hand to try to get him to buy it.
But Leon’s run faltered when the swimmer shifted his load. It was a huge shell, nearly four times the size of his conch. Still, he might want to buy something else.
“Hey mister. Where did you get that shell?”
He looked scruffy and his beard looked like it had been roughly cut.
“Out in the water–deeper than usual.” He nodded to the conch. “Do you sell shells to the tourists?”
“I’ll sell anything. Beads, shells, coconuts. I can get you a map of the shipwrecks or a taxi.”
He shifted his load as he hooked his snorkel, mask and fins to his belt. “I’m short on money. Take me to someone who’ll buy my shell for a good price, and I’ll give you a percentage.”
Leon hesitated as he balanced the idea of trying to buy it himself, versus taking the percentage.
“I’ll take it for twenty, American.”
He chuckled. “I can get much better than that. What do you say, twenty percent?”
Now he was talking real money. Faces flickered through his head. Who would pay the most?
“Come with me. I know a man.”
“I thought you might.”
The shopkeeper looked more like an island version of Abraham Lincoln, tall and angular, than one of the seedy types in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but it was the latter image that came to Nemo’s mind as the merchant examined the shell.
“Where did you get this?”
He waved his hand in a general direction. “Oh a few miles that way. It wasn’t the largest shell in the bed, but I hesitated to take one that was still growing.”
He was a little giddy from moving around among all these people. It took practice to ignore all the individual movements, and he very much lacked it. He fought the urge to turn and watch people pass by on the street.
Experienced hands scratched at worm holes that testified to his story.
“I would pay 2000.”
Nemo was watching Leon’s face. “Is that US or East Caribbean?”
“Um. Perhaps 700 US.”
He frowned. “I really need more than that.”
“Don’t we all?” the merchant smiled. “Do you have anything else to sell?”
“Oh, lots. I just grabbed the first thing handy.”
“What kinds of things?”
“More shells, of course. Mollusks and sea turtle.”
The man frowned. “You do know that any trade in sea turtle products is forbidden.”
“Except in the Caymans.”
“Well, yes, of course.” That government had rejected the sea turtle ban and instead had aggressively farmed them, allowing turtle products internally as a way to make the turtles pay their way out of endangered status. As a result, the turtles they released to the wild had boosted the overall population.
But any export of sea turtle products from the Caymans was strictly forbidden.
Nemo shrugged, dismissing the idea. “I’ve always had the idea that when the critter no longer needed its shell, there’s nothing wrong with making something of it.”
The merchant sighed. “Yes, I know. I have seen turtle-shell items and they are quite exquisite. But to be caught making such a transaction is not worth it to me.”
Nemo nodded. “Then how about these things.” He pulled a couple of manganese nodules from his bag. “You know what they are?”
Eager hands fingered them and hefted them to test their weight. “Whose water’s?”
“A n’ B.” There had been a lot of interest in the metal balls that grew on the ocean bottom, mainly for the nickel in them. But what with the cost of deep sea mining, and the payoffs to the international community for harvesting in international waters, the big mining operations bailed out. “The bed is in pretty shallow waters, too.
“Tell you what. I’ll throw in these, you pay me 1000 US for the shell, and maybe we can do more business in the future.”
As they walked away, Nemo counted Leon’s share of the cash. “I cut your in for a bigger deal. You point me to a barber shop and a place where I can buy some decent clothes.”
“No, Saul. I told you not to do that!”
King slapped the big man’s hands away from her and examined Brenda’s face. The bruise ran down the left side of her face from a cut near her eye down to her jaw. She glared at him.
“Someone called in the police. We’ll either have to get rid of her or move her.”
“She called me stupid.”
“Well, so do I! Now we can’t sell her until her face heals up. I had a buyer, now I’ll have to cancel.”
He locked eyes with his captive. “You know, you’re not helping yourself by taunting Saul. It’s all your own fault for sticking your nose into other people’s business.”
He could tell that she was thinking up something particular clever to say, but he didn’t have the time.
“Saul, get Woody on the line. I think we’d better use Miss Girl Reporter here to feed the turtles.”
Bathed, beard trimmed to a shorter length, and in a white suit with a matching hat, Nemo walked onto the grounds of VC Bird airport. From Karl’s report, this was where Joe the pilot refueled before taking Brenda to the Caymans. It was a long shot, but if he could find out anything about Brenda’s plans, it would be some light in a very dark tunnel.
He had the urge to race to rescue her, but without some knowledge it would all be a waste of effort.
The little charter companies had ticket offices and he located the one she took easily.
“Hello, sir.” The attendant in her uniform and tilted cap was cheerful and pleasant. Not that she distracted him from Brenda in any way, but today had been a revelation. There were so many pretty girls in the world.
“Hello, I was told a friend of mine was chartered between here and the Caymans by a pilot named Joe.”
“That must be Joe Tomlinson. He runs banking charters and ferry runs to many of the smaller islands that don’t support long landing strips.”
“Banking charters?”
“Oh, yes. Some of our clients are Americans who fly here and to the Caymans to take advantage of our favorable tax laws.”
After a long chat, he came away with the impression that Joe was a favorite of a number of businessmen who liked to move cash off shore without necessarily filing all the paperwork that would be required taking a regular commercial airline out of Miami International.
He’d seen the seaplane. It would he handy to pick up a ‘businessman’ with a suitcase full of undeclared cash and ferry him to a place where a suitcase full of cash was business as usual. He had no solid proof the man was crooked, just a feeling.
A second stop by the shell vendor’s shop led to a mention of a couple of names that just might be interested in good quality sea turtle shells. There was a bigger market for the stuff than he had originally been led to believe.
“Leon, can you take me on a little boat ride?”
“Yes, sir. How far?”
He changed back into his shorts and packed his new clothes in tightly sealed, collapsed plastic bags and met Leon at the beach.
As they motored out into Fort Bay, Leon looked puzzled as Nemo strapped on his swim fins and prepared his snorkel. “Are you taking your new clothes under water?”
“Right over there. See the buoy flag?”
The boat slowed to a stop. “Sir, how long will you be down?”
“Oh, I’m leaving. Thanks for your assistance. He handed Leon a few bills and then went over the side. From nowhere, he pulled a net out of the water and Leon helped him stuff the clothes bag into the net, and then he and his purchases went out of sight into the water.
Just a moment later, Leon jerked when the buoy slipped below the water as well.
“What is going on?”
He hurriedly dug into the gear that came with the rented boat and strapped on goggles. Leaning far over the edge, he dunked his head, just in time to see a giant devilfish sail silently away.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Manta – Part 12 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

He was back on the island, treating himself to a nice grilled grouper with jam glaze when he suddenly remembered that she hadn’t called in days.
He checked the phone and put it back on the charger.
I can afford to do that now.
The next project was to take the leftover pieces and put together a secondary power system for the island–something to have packed up and ready, just in case.
It was a shame Brenda wasn’t calling, but perhaps he’d done something to offend her.
Food stocks were getting low, so he returned to his regular kelp beds and harvested enough to make a batch of his staple flour he used for breakfast and the times when fishing was poor. There were also salvaged canned goods from recent shipwrecks and her gifts, but as Brenda said, his diet was poor. 
He shredded the kelp and followed a finger stained recipe written in a feminine hand that he'd been using forever. 
For some reason he paused when he pulled out the fragile sheet. By this time, he knew the steps by heart anyway, so he carefully put the page back in a safe place. 
Wednesday again. Why am I paying so much attention to the calendar? Maybe it’s that computer. I should turn off its calendar display.
Then it occurred to him, hadn’t Brenda called on Wednesdays?
But noon came and there was no call.
I’ve got it wrong. There’s something I’m supposed to remember. What is it?
Maybe Brenda would know.
He had written down her office number when he tracked her down the first time to report the volcano. He punched the buttons.
“Hello, is Miss deMay there?”
There was a silence. “Who is calling?”
He had a moment of panic. “Uh... Nemo?”
“Oh, you mean she isn't with you?”
“No. I haven’t seen her since ....” He strained to remember. “She was going to interview turtle-breeders.”
“That was a week or more ago. She turned in that report and then went missing. I just thought she’d gone to spend time with you. I was about getting ready to track her down and threaten to fire her.
“Are you sure you don’t know anything more?”
“No. Sorry. I’d thought she was just busy at her job. Now I’m worried.”
“Me too. Call this number if you find out anything. I’ll check my sources as well. Can I call this number and get you?”
“I’m underwater most of the time, but you can try. I’ll check in when I can.”
I need more information. He looked at the laptop. Where can I get a network connection?
He stowed the island project just well enough so it wouldn’t be ruined by rain and made a run for the oil platform.
He was pushing it, but he was surprised at how much faster the Manta could travel when he had enough energy to push the ballast pumps faster. Faster rise and sink times meant more thrust on the wing.
He surfaced near the platform, intending to call for the man he talked to the other time. But the laptop flickered an icon. There was a wireless connection coming from the platform. The computer automatically connected, and there were suddenly a dozen alerts, warnings of various systems coming awake that hadn’t bothered when there was no network.
Frustrated, he clicked the little boxes until everything settled down.
Okay, Brenda said there was a website.
He pulled the old newspaper and found the highlighted box that advertised the paper’s companion on the web. He connected and began reading every article that had her name.
He was coming up to speed, when he made the mistake of reading the article that had pictures of him. There were comments, several of them, that claimed to identify him.
His eyes blurred.
“No! No time for that.”
He forced the noise growing in his head off to the side.
I have to find out what happened to Brenda. That’s the only thing that matters.
The memory of signing a paper forced its way back.
There was a scribble.
“You did it! I’m so glad.” The signature said Oscar Gerber. It was his.
No time. Deal with that later.
Brenda got the power system for him from Frank Hancock.
Frank picked up the phone.
“Sir, there’s a call for you, from Oscar. Oscar Gerber.”
“Put him on.”
“Hello, Oscar! I’m glad to hear from you.”
“Um, Frank. When did you last see Brenda deMay?”
The voice was Oscar’s, but he sounded different. A lot of years and a lot of miles, he guessed.
“It was over a week ago, when she picked up that power system for you. How is that working out for you, by the way?”
“Fine, Frank. But she’s missing. What can you tell me?”
“Oscar, I have no idea. I don’t know what she told you about the stocks, but certainly we wouldn’t do anything illegal.”
“Huh? No, Frank. I’m not saying that. I just want to know everything about Brenda.”
“Oscar, I’m afraid it’s very little. She came here, asked about Sally, haggled for the power system. She delivered it to you, and then faxed me the document from some hotel on Grand Cayman.”
Sally. It hit him like a brick to the head. He staggered, but he didn’t drop the phone.
Stay focused.
“What hotel?” It was almost a whisper.
“I can look it up. Hang on.” There was the sound of a file cabinet being opened.
“It was the Meridian Grand Cayman.”
“Thanks Frank.”
Before he began the next step, the phone buzzed.
“This is Karl Hansen, Brenda’s boss. She took a chartered plane from Jacksonville Florida, two of them in fact, to a spot near Antigua.”
“That was me.”
“Good because she didn’t charge those to the paper. But she did charge one part of the flight. She stopped in Antigua, apparently to refuel, and then turned around to go to Grand Cayman, which is where I told her to go to research stories of turtle poaching.”
“Turtle poaching. Really?”
He could hear the man shrug. “It’s news. That’s what we do. Grand Cayman has a big sea turtle breeding facility. Reports were that a lot of the turtles that were being released to the wild were going missing–more than normal losses. She went to do a little research, and turned in a story about the turtle farm and such as background.
“And that’s the last I heard of her.”
“So, did she go off to do another story?”
“She didn’t charge a flight to the paper. As far as I can tell from her expense account, she’s still on Grand Cayman. That’s why I thought she went back to you. She’s pretty good about paying for personal things.”
“She stayed at the Meridian.”
“Hmm. I don’t see that. I’ll call and check. Can you stay by the phone?”
It was unbearable to wait. His memory played back her voice complaining about waiting.
He pulled out his charts and estimated how long it would take for him to get to Grand Cayman with the Manta. It was days, at best. Even at his new best speed, he’d still have to take breaks to recharge. And this would be over unfamiliar waters. Deeper waters than he was used to. No settling down on the bottom to anchor for the night. Not unless he wanted to do so in Cuban waters.
Is the US still hostile towards Cuba? Maybe it’s all changed. Who knows?
How much time could he afford to waste by the oil platform to find out simple common knowledge that he’d skipped over these past ... how many years?
He checked the calendar, and felt the weight of lost years.
I’ve been like a man in a coma. All because of ... Sally.
There was a flash of memory. Racing back to the Ocean Ray, trying to dock with the ship while it was still sinking. Seeing the flames running over the surface of the water. Pushing into dead corridors in scuba gear. Finding her. She’d barricaded the door to keep the fire out. She’d drowned instead.
Oh, my dear Sally. So afraid of drowning that you couldn’t go into the water.
What did I do? Why did I make you go?
He remembered a noise. A strange wailing noise. His own screams of madness into his scuba mouthpiece.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Manta – Part 11 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

He sweated in the sun, using a hot knife to seal segments of the rubber tube together. It was slow work, and then he had to test his welds. The wave power system had to flex, and his repairs left the rubber much weaker than it had been originally. He’d created a fifteen foot length system, which was barely long enough to span the distance between wave crests, and it had to be at least that long to even work.
The power from the spinning blades was just a trickle charge to the batteries. His repairs were working, in theory, but in practice, he needed to change out the tubes.
He looked up at the palm trees. I don’t think I can make rubber from that.
A stick jammed into the sand cast a shadow that was creeping closer and closer to a conch shell.
He went over to the waterproof case and turned the sat phone on.
It buzzed. He grabbed.
“Nemo, are you still at the island?”
“If I air-dropped a package offshore, could your retrieve it?”
“If it is close. The Manta doesn’t have much power.”
“Be ready tomorrow at noon.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll explain when I get there.”
He prepared the Manta, burning all but two gallons of his fuel to bring it up to half-charge.
I hope she knows what she’s doing.
He pushed the Manta out of the shallows by hand and climbed on. Without a clear idea of where the drop zone was going to be, all he could do was be ready to move.
Two specks appeared from the west. He waited until a parachute appeared out of the back of one. The plane banked and headed away.
That’s my package. 
He ignored the other plane and tilted the Manta’s nose down, banking to port. In a couple of minutes, he surfaced next to the floating package, about the size of three refrigerators, side by side. He hooked a line to it and pulled the parachute in. That could be useful someday.
The seaplane was landing. With a splash of spray, it turned towards the island.
The Manta was never made to tow packages, but a force is force. It was like trying to sail while anchored, but the package moved. Ten minutes into the struggle, he was close enough for Brenda and the pilot to wade out into the shallows to help.
The three of them dragged the package to ground. He dropped an anchor line for the Manta and waded ashore himself.
Brenda was smiling, but she was worried.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She hugged him, and they kissed. It was a little dazzling.
“Okay. I’ll take that as a yes.”
Brenda still looked worried. She turned to the pilot. “Joe, we’re going to need some time to talk.”
“Sure.” He turned back toward the plane.
She grabbed a satchel from the beach. “Come on, let’s talk in the Manta.”
He helped her up, and they went inside.
“Okay, what’s the big secret?”
She sat on the couch and patted beside her. When he sat, she opened her satchel and pulled out a printed booklet.
“The package outside is a charging system very similar to the one you built for the Manta. This is the technical description.”
He opened his mouth, but nothing made sense. He opened the pages, and flipped through the numbers.
“Where...where did you get this?”
“Frank Hancock gave it to me. To you really. I need you to sign this.”
She held out a sheet. His eyes glazed. Down at the bottom, there was a place for Oscar Gerber to sign.
“It’s important, Nemo. I really didn’t want to have to confront you with this just yet, but it’s worth a lot of money and they wouldn’t let me take it without promising to get your signature.”
He ... couldn’t think. Brenda put a pen in his hand and set the paper on top of the booklet.
“Nemo. My Nemo, we need to have a nice long talk together, someplace quiet and safe and away from all the pressures and deadlines. I hate this, but you’re going to have to do it. This is the only way to keep the Manta, your Manta, alive. You know it. This is life for the Manta.
“Don’t really think about it. Just put the pen on the line and let your hand take over.”
She had her hands on his and moved it to the paper.
He looked at her, looked at her eyes.
“Nemo, do this for me? Okay?”
He blinked. His eyes blurred. He looked down at the paper again.
“You did it! I’m so glad.” She hugged him and took the pen from his hand.
There was a scribble there, but he couldn’t focus to see what it said.
She put the paper away in her satchel.
“Come here.” She put his head on her shoulder and rocked him. “It’s okay. Everything is okay.”
Brenda latched the airlock door behind her. It twisted her up that he was still asleep and couldn’t say goodbye. She paused long enough to check the rope that tied the Manta and the charging station together.
It wasn’t a perfect match for the one he built for the Manta, but she had a couple of Green Wavepower technicians cross check between the Manta designs and their current products to find one that would work.
It was a devil’s bargain. She had promised to hold off reporting this part of the story until Oscar Gerber could talk with Frank Hancock personally. But it was a million dollar part that had been pulled out of their shipping department, delaying their delivery to some town in Maine. He demanded Oscar’s signature on the delivery notice, and it would be charged against Oscar’s fund.
She wanted nothing more than to stay here, to be by his side when he woke up.
But he’s a survivor. I’d probably have curled up and died if my grand plan ended up killing my love. He did the next best thing, but that didn’t keep him from surviving.
Joe was twiddling his fingers with a leer on his face. “We’re going to have a hard time making it on to your destination. Have a nice ... talk?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Joe. It was just business. I had to explain the delivery and get his signature. It was complicated.”
He woke with a headache, and trouble remembering where he was.
The island. Yes. Now, I remember. Brenda came to visit.
He got up to look around, but there was a letter resting on the control console.
I have to go to the Cayman Islands for a news special (on turtles) and I apologize for leaving you alone. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Check your phone at noon, and I’ll call when I can.
Until then, I hope you can repair the Manta with the new power unit. I also left you a couple of other presents. We really need to find more time together.
New power unit?
“New power unit!”
Suddenly, he remembered the air drop and the planes.
He snatched up the technical data that rested beside the letter, ignoring the fresh sat phone batteries and the laptop computer.
It was all too good to be true.
He hurried out to crack open the shipping crate.
He caressed the brand new black tubes wound tightly into the crate.
I can make this work.
Frank Hancock examined the papers that had been faxed to his office from a hotel in Grand Cayman.
“Yes, that’s Oscar’s signature. So he’s in the Caymans? I thought he was in Antigua?”
The attorney shook his head. “I don’t care where he is, as long as I don’t see a lawsuit with his name on it.”
He worked until the light faded. His power miserly instincts wouldn’t let him turn the floodlights on to work during the night.
He stumbled back the Manta. But even in the faint twilight, he could see the items on the console.
Fresh phone batteries. Great.
He opened up the laptop. There was a note covering the keyboard.
Nemo, computers may have changed just a bit. Here’s a quick cheat sheet.
It was basically a list of icons and what they represented. About two-thirds were familiar, not that the email or web browser did him a bit of good out here in the middle of the ocean, but the word processor and spread sheet would come in handy. Shortly, he’d have enough electricity to afford it.
The last computer he had was lost when ....
He blinked and shut it down. More things to deal with tomorrow.
Noon, the phone buzzed. With batteries that held a charge, he could afford to turn it on beforehand and not have to watch the ‘clock’.
“Hello, Brenda.”
“I’m so glad to hear your voice! Did you find everything?”
“Yes, I’ve got the power system mostly in pieces–in a good way. I’m using a spreadsheet, and I’m using the new batteries. Do you have time to talk?”
“Unfortunately, not today. I’ve got an interview with some turtle-breeders in a couple of minutes.”
“Long story. I’ll get you a copy of the article when I’m done. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m okay. Getting sunburned, but okay.”
“Great. Talk tomorrow?”
The next day, noon passed with no call. But he was deep in recalibrating the power system and didn’t notice it until later. He was sad she hadn’t called, but the new system had given him fresh batteries for the Manta and he was thrilled at how much better performance he was getting from his systems. The previous batteries had been aging, and he hadn’t really noticed.
The day after that, he had install the new system and was on a test cruise, seeing how well he could recharge in open water with a sea-anchor. He forgot to recharge the phone battery.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Manta – Part 10 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Right on time, the seaplane came down, throwing up rooster tails of water until it slowed, and then taxied over to the Manta.
Getting the generator unloaded an onto the Manta’s wing without dunking it was a little difficult. The gasoline tanks just floated.
“It’s a project of his,” she explained to the pilot. “He’s going to set up a home base on a tiny little island near here.” They said nothing about the Manta’s damage.
He gave the pilot instructions about her head injury and insisted he ignore anything she said about feeling fine. She had to get to a doctor.
Brenda got onto the plane with her camera and the clothes on her back.
He stared off to the northwest long after the plane had shrunk to nothing in the sky. He might have done so for days, if his repair work hadn’t been so urgent.
The trip to the island was slow going. Soon he ran out of battery and had to surface, haul out the generator onto the wing in the open air, run cables through the airlock and burn gasoline. The weather had to be perfect, so for three days he had to drift before he could get a charge. 
Finally he arrived at the island and secured the Manta for an extended stay.
He anchored her in the shallows, and he hated that. Getting well below the churning surf was rule number one in keeping the Manta safe. But he needed to access the damage in the air to make repairs.
He’d need to watch the sky very carefully.
Wednesday noon, he turned on the sat phone.
“Before you ask, Nemo, the doctor gave me some pills, and I have to go back next week for another checkup, but she says I look fine. But she did say you did the right thing getting me checked out.”
“I’m glad. I was worried.”
“Well don’t worry. I’m back on the job. The photos of the volcano and the hurricane from the underside are already on the company’s website and I’m getting emails from girls all over the place telling me how sexy you look.”
“Hmm. Don’t tell them where I am.”
“Your secret is safe with me. How are you doing?”
“I’ve disassembled the charging spool. It’ll take some work, but some parts can be salvaged.”
“That’s great. Will there be any problem, keeping the same call schedule?”
“No. Wednesday is fine.”
There was no answer. The battery had gone dead.
He turned off the phone. He went inside and put it aside, hoping to get it charged again before the next call.
I need to get back to work.
Instead, he went to the closet and opened the drawer where he’d put her washed and folded nightgown. He felt the lace and remembered the texture when she wore it.
“Enough of this.”
But in the airlock, he paused and ran the tips of his fingers over the name “Sally” written on the edge of one of the face masks hanging there.
On the shore he had built a platform above the high tide line where he was cutting the charger spool apart and separating the segments that could be salvaged from the burned and ruined ones. With luck he could splice the good parts together to make a smaller charger. It would produce less than half the power of the original, but it was enough to keep the Manta alive, if he used little artificial light, bathed infrequently, and traveled very slowly. It would also be fragile. If it broke in use, he could lose it all, far from any shore.
I’ll lose her. In spite of her best intentions, there’s nothing to bring her back.
Frank Hancock, president of Green Wavepower, in Jacksonville, Florida picked up his phone.
“Sir, there is a Ms. deMay asking to see you.”
“She’s here? With no appointment?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Hang on.”
He hit the mute button and hit the button for his Chief of Research.
“Jerry, she found us. And she’s here, now.”
They conferred. He put his secretary back on line. “Send her in.”
Brenda had learned that sometimes, pretending to know the whole story would shake out more details than she could ever ask for.
It looks like this is one of those lucky breaks.
She only came here because she found references to the company by tracking down a very sketchy list of Oscar Gerber’s work history. But from the moment she walked in the front door, it was plain that practically everyone at the small company had a guilty conscience. Without asking, she had been directed higher and higher on the org chart. Clearly no one wanted to be fall guy.
She walked into the president’s office with a confident smile and shook his hand.
“Have a seat Ms. deMay. I must say, I’ve enjoyed your work.”
She looked at his face, and the way that he was struggling to look her straight in the eye.
“My Haiti stories or my ... more recent work.”
He actually flushed. He spread his hands.
“I’m not going to try to stonewall you, Ms. deMay.”
“Brenda. Call me Brenda.”
“Ah, yes. Brenda. The thing is, from the first article showing the photo of the Manta–copies spread like wildfire around the factory–we knew that Oscar’s submersible had been found. We just weren’t sure that Nemo was Oscar.”
He went to a file cabinet and pulled out a large leather bound folder. He opened it up and handed it to her.
“The Manta was built here in the large building you passed when you arrived here.”
She flipped through photos and blueprints, progress reports and material work sheets. It looked very different, a machine up on stilts surrounded by cranes, not like the creature of the depths it seemed to her before.
There was a photo of Oscar, clean shaven and in a business suit, standing beside a woman in a white lab smock.
Mr. Hancock said, “Of course, when the photos came out, ‘Nemo’ was obviously Oscar Gerber. I suppose you wonder why we didn’t contact you?”
She looked up at him, as he hovered around where she sat. “In a bit. But first, I have a few questions about Sally.”
He nodded, sadly. “I gather she didn’t survive.”
“She’s buried under a rock cairn right beside the burned hull of the Ocean Ray, sitting on the sea bottom.”
Frank sighed. “It’s rather ironic.”
“How so?”
He gestured, pacing. “Sally was a gifted scientist. She came to us originally for custom aquarium tanks and fittings. She was a bit of an odd duck, a marine biologist who was much more comfortable in a lab coat than in a swimsuit, if you get my meaning. She loved sea life, but she didn’t like getting wet.
“When Oscar fell in love with her, he fell all the way. Marriage wasn’t enough. He sunk practically everything he owned into the Manta.”
“He told me that it had been built as a marine biologist’s platform.”
“He built to be Sally’s lab! A place she could work, in her lab coat, if you will, but out there close to the animals she loved.”
He gave up pacing and pulled another chair close where he could sit down. “It’s a small company. We all pitched in. When they sailed away with the Manta loaded aboard the Ocean Ray, everyone thought it was like the last curtain of Snow White, with the loving couple heading off to live happily ever after.”
He stared at his hands, shaking his head. “It was two months out when the word came. The cook washed up in Antigua with the story. Something in the engine room blew, starting a massive diesel fire. The Ocean Ray went down fast. He saw bodies, but he was the only one out alive.”
She nodded. It certainly matched what she’d seen. But Oscar had been spared, perhaps out in the Manta. He came out alive, but broken inside.
But it didn’t explain Frank Hancock’s guilt.
She tapped the folder. “And Oscar Gerber’s relationship with the company?”
She could tell she was close. He hesitated a moment, and then got to his feet and dug out another folder.
“Oscar was our Chief of Design. We were so supportive of the Manta because he was churning out new inventions almost daily, it seemed. He had the vision, you see. And when problems came up, he invented a solution. He invented a lot of solutions.
“We changed the name of the company because of one of them.”
She rummaged through the patents, stopping when she came to the wave charging system. She held it up. “You sell many of these.”
He nodded, solemnly, “More and more. And that’s what happened.
“Oscar left with little money. He sold his house, his car, and cashed in his life insurance policy to get the Ocean Ray launched. But he had some shares of the company and these patents. He left us a power of attorney, just until he returned. And then he never returned.
“The money?” she prompted, guessing.
He nodded. “We leased some of the patents, and manufactured some other things.” He looked out the window. “I suppose someone should have moved to declare Oscar dead, and then we would have had to turn it all over to his estate.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. We didn’t.” He sighed. “We pretended he was still sailing away, and that the power of attorney was still perfectly valid. The company needed to grow, and we were managing this fat trust fund.
“So we traded shares for cash. All legal. I think. It’s just, what with the green energy surge, Oscar now owns a controlling interest in the company.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Manta – Part 9 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The thumping in her head made it hard to think. She still wasn’t quite sure what happened. Nemo was out and about and taking care of everything, just like he always did. But she wished he could get her an aspirin.
But there was no response. Did he hear her?
Did he fall off in the water? Her pounding heartbeat made the pain in her head ten times worse.
With her hand to her head, she looked around.
Everything was a mess. Things had fallen out of the pantry, the same with the closet. Tools and books and her jars of jam were all underfoot.
But where is Nemo?
There was a sound. The airlock.
She put her hand on the lever, and then hesitated. Would the water come in?
It took her so very long to think it through. No. They were right-side-up in the water, on the surface. It should be okay.
She pushed the lever and opened the door.
He was struggling with a huge spool of rubber tubing.
His face was dark and his jaw was clenched tight.
“Nemo, what’s wrong?”
He let go of the tube he’d been struggling with. Then he kicked it.
“We...I got too close to the lava. Touching close. A big part of my charging system melted.”
He looked up at her with pain written all over his face.
“I can’t recharge the batteries. Once the current charge runs out, I’m dead in the water. Once there’s no power, the Manta becomes unlivable. No way to move. No drinking water.”
He got to his feet and went to the console and shut every power drain down.
She could feel his pain. This was his life, his baby.
“We can call for help.”
“You can. And we need to, to take care of your concussion. If they take me, the Manta is done for.” He took her hand. “I know they'd consider me incompetent. They won't leave me out here in the middle of the ocean with a stranded ship. You'll have to pretend I'm okay. The Manta is okay.” 
“But what will happen to you?”
He sat on the couch and made her sit too. He checked her out again. The bump on her head was as painful as ever.
He shrugged, “I know a sunken ship near here where I can get tools that I can use to work on the charging system. Maybe with repairs I can limp to the little island where the plane dropped you off. If I can get enough juice to keep the water desalinator running, I can live.”
“You’d be like a castaway on the island, stranded.”
“Maybe. With tools, maybe I could get things running again.”
“Then let me stay with you and help.”
“No.” He touched her bruise and she winced. “If there are any complications, you're dead. I can't have that, even to save the Manta.”
He stood up and dug out the sat phone.
“The battery is dead again. I’ll have to recharge it.” He made the connections to the charger. Then, when he cranked up the spine and turned on his navigation system, she could see him sag.
He nodded. “The GPS receiver–everything on the radio spine is out. More damage from the accident.” He checked some connections, then walked back and sat down beside her.
He took her hand, “Brenda, I can make the phone call for help, but I have no way to tell our current location. We were over the volcano, but you were knocked out, and so was I. The unstable winds related to the hurricane have pushed us somewhere, but I can’t make a guess close enough to give co-ordinates to a rescue plane.
“I guess we could send out a general distress call, and let the Coast Guard or their like to determine our position from the radio signal, but then they’d know for sure that the Manta is disabled.”
He stared at the floor. “I guess that’s what I need to do.”
“No. Don’t. This is your freedom. You can’t give that up. I am getting better. The fuzziness has gone away. Isn’t there some other way to get a fixed location? Don’t you have one of those sextants or something?”
He smiled and shook his head. “No. Sorry. I was always going to get around to it, but the GPS was always there for me.
“But I do know where some fixed locations are. If I could get to the island, or sunken ship–I’ve marked them on my maps, then we could tell your plane to go there.”
“But how can you find those places, if you don’t know where we are?”
“Oh, I can navigate by ocean floor landmarks. I do it all the time. The ocean may be featureless up here, but not down there.”
Brenda leaned against him. “Then do that. Go to the sunken ship and get your repair parts.”
“I’m going to turn nearly everything off. It’s going to be a balancing act. I can travel using less energy for a slower pace, but navigating manually, I have to have sunlight strong enough to reach the sea bed. So, no crossing deeps, unless I know exactly where I am.”
First order of business was getting her settled on the couch, with a pillow of folded towels, and a cup of water at hand.
“Stay still as much as possible. Rest for your concussion, and minimize motion to keep my course adjustments small.”
“I can still talk.”
He chuckled. “I couldn’t stop you, could I?”
He checked his directions by the sky, and started them down.
Every now and then, he’d grunt or say, “Ah!”
She questioned everything. He’d see a bed of shells, or the edge of an old coral reef, and he’d recognize it from previous trips. Soon, he’d changed course and cut across an undersea valley, taking them deep enough that all the light changed color, and any fish out the window looked nearly monochrome.
“Every time I change tilt, up or down, I have to run the pumps to shift balance. So I’m taking deep swings to minimize the changes.
“You know, once, just to see if I could do it, I trimmed the Manta absolutely level, then turned the pumps all the way off and sailed by walking forward and backward in the cabin and compressing the ballast air with the foot pump. It worked, but I took a whole day to get a quarter mile. I’d have better luck just making little adjustments to move into and out of the currents–if I had a good map of them.”
“It amazes me how much you do know about this world.”
He shrugged. “I live here.”
“There. I see it.”
She sat up, only a little dizzy by her enforced idleness.
He blew ballast and they rose to the surface. As soon as he dropped an anchor line, he handed her the phone.
“The battery says it’s charged, but the phone will die in about five minutes or so. Talk quickly.”
She pulled out her note pad and called the air charter service. She sweated while they took her latitude and longitude and the description of what to look for.
She added a request for a portable generator and a hundred gallons of gasoline. Her boss might not cover that part, but she could afford it out of her own pocket.
The phone died, but after she had a confirmation.
She handed it back to him. “They’ll arrive in about four hours.”
“That gives me time to make a scavenging run. I’ll take her down.”
The Manta settled into a cleared spot on the floor only about a fifty yards from the strange looking derelict. There was another depression next to them, and she was positive the Manta had left that mark on a previous visit. She could see the name of the ship.
“The Ocean Ray. What do you know about it?”
He did that little shake of his head she’d come to recognize as shorthand for “don’t bother me” or “I’m never going to tell you”.
The burned hull was of a peculiar design, like one of those research vehicles with a split hull at the rear with cranes to raise and lower buoys and shuttle craft. 
And submersibles.
Nemo was already in the airlock, getting on his scuba gear. Brenda looked around the Manta, with all the debris from their accident still on the floor. She walked over and picked up some of the diving gear. She began collecting them to tidy up the place, but she turned each item over in her hands, looking for any clues.
On three of the hand tools, someone had etched OCEAN RAY. On the BC she had used, there was a very faded label, written in pen, “Sally Gerber”. On one of the unused scuba tanks, there was the marking “Oscar Gerber”.
She looked outside and was surprised to see Nemo off to the side of the Ocean Ray, near a pile of rocks. She rapidly dug out her camera gear and snapped the telephoto lens on it. Zooming in, she could see him hovering near the top of the pile–obviously built by hand–where there rested an isolated round port-hole that he must have cut free from the hull of the ship.
She’d have given anything to see if there was some kind of inscription. But she knew what was under that pile, and who authored all the feminine traces she’d found in the Manta.  Sally Gerber.
But does Nemo know? Can he remember it?
She’d read a story long ago about a man who lost his wife and unable to deal with it, lost his memory. Just how broken was her Nemo?