Monday, October 10, 2011

The Manta – Part 5 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Curiosity was an old friend, and the tug of seeing unknown and unpopulated islands, was enough to turn him north. It was too crowded around the volcano, particularly since Brenda hadn’t come.
Following the sea bed, and knowing a magma bed lurked below, he was more alert to volcanic features. There were lava features here and there, long cold now. Other rifts had occurred, but most had been smaller than the one he discovered.
And then, the sea shallowed out, and when he surfaced, there was a beach and a little cluster of trees.
I wonder if there are any dates or coconuts?
The straps on his long-unused sandals broke. He held them in his hand as he wiggled his toes in the sand. Ground felt funny.
But with a chore–fixing his shoes–and the different scents and textures of the very tiny island, he stayed for a bit, putting together a lean-to from fallen palm leaves. He caught crabs among the rocks and built an open pit fire. He watched the sunset and breathed the air until the stars came out.
But he went back to the Manta to get a good night sleep.
The hard glass hull of the ship took the rap of knuckles and hardly made a sound. But the shifting weight of someone pushing on the wings woke him out of a confused dream.
He looked at the hull and saw a smiling face surrounded by red hair waving in the currents as she knocked, holding her breath.
Luckily, he had settled only a few feet down below the waves for the night. He stumbled to the controls as she pushed off back to the surface for air.
“Hello.” She looked like a drowned cat when he opened the airlock. But a happy drowned cat.
He nodded. He smiled.
“I got here as fast as I could.” There was a seaplane rocking gently a hundred yards away.
“When I reached the volcano, they said you’d already gone. One of the researchers thought you’d gone hunting for this island, so I badgered my pilot into making a search pass. I was never so happy to see the outline of the Manta.”
She waved over to the airplane. A tiny figure waved back, and the propellors started up.
“Your plane is leaving?”
“Yes. There’s a storm in the area, and I could only get him to wait just a little bit.”
“Why did you let yourself get stranded here?” He led her back inside. “You’re wet. Let me get something.”
“Wait a second. Help me with my bag.” It was floating alongside, nearly as big as she was. He pulled it up on the wing and they brought it inside the airlock. 
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me stuck on the island. And if you won’t take me back to get pictures of your volcano, at least you have a sat phone and I can call for another plane.”
“How close is the storm?”
“I don’t know, but the pilot was getting nervous. I’ve been tracking several tropical storm centers and one of them was heading this way.”
“I’ll take you to the volcano, but I need to check on that storm first.” He paused to dig out the gray robe and handed it to her.
He cranked up the spine again.
He smiled and pointed to his shelf. “I’ve got that book.”
“Sorry, but you never gave me a name, and I had to have one for my story.”
He activated the VHS radio receiver and pulled a weather fax onto the display screen. He frowned.
“How bad is it? Will we be okay?”
“Once we get deeper. It’s too shallow here.”
He turned to hull to get a better eyeball view.
“I should have noticed the signs last night. It was mostly clear, but those clouds–I’ve seen the like before. It’s a hurricane.” He pointed at the screen. “See this. That’s the eye of the storm. And it’s heading this way.”
She pulled a camera from her bag and snapped photos of the sky, and then some at the interior of the Manta.
“Well, yes. I thought you knew. You say you saw the story?”
He pointed over at his tilted bookshelf by the chair. It was designed so that the twenty or so books wouldn’t fall out when the Manta banked and turned. None had even been disturbed during the turbulence over the volcano. A folded newspaper was poked into a gap between books. She snapped a picture of the shelf.
He winced at the click and flash.
“I just thought you were an ordinary pest, when you snagged your anchor on the Manta.”
She gave a timid smile. “Several people had seen the Manta over the years. Some thought it was a sea monster, a giant manta ray. I was trying to get a picture, to prove or disprove the stories.” She set the camera down and went to her bag.
He banked slightly, moving from the shallows near the island to slightly deeper waters where they would be lower than the storm’s churn zone.
“Did you?”
“Prove or disprove.”
She sighed. “Sort of. It was a popular story, and most people believed me. But then, there were no photos. Some people thought I made you up.”
“So, you’re back for pictures?”
She stopped trying to force a comb through her wet and tangled hair. She looked at his face, trying to read him.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m not here to chase you down for a story. My boss told me not to waste time on the Manta. My job is to report science and human interest related stories in this area. Your report of the volcano was what brought me here. If I can get some pictures of the hurricane as well, that would be a bonus.”
“So. No interest in me, then.”
She took a step in his direction. “No, I don’t think you understand....”
“Stay put there,” he said firmly. “I can’t have you walking around while I’m settling in.”
She flushed in anger, and then took a deep breath, standing perfectly still as the Manta settled into a flat spot on the bottom. There was a shush sound as the hull came to a stop in the silt.
He smiled. “And now, we wait.”
He could see that she was upset about something. “We’ll be here a while, so get comfortable. I’d rather not try traveling with the storm passing overhead. I could do it, but I’d need to adjust the autopilot to keep it lower in the water.”
She nodded. “Could I rinse off the salt?”
“Yes, but minimize fresh water use. The desalinator takes electricity and we can’t recharge during heavy swells.”
“Okay, thanks.” She rummaged in her bag and went into the water closet. She poked her head out after a moment. “Is it okay if I rinse out my khakis?” She held her collar. “I’ll be sparing of water.”
He nodded. “Things dry slowly.”
She thought, then nodded and ducked back inside.
He looked at her big bag. She’d certainly brought her baggage with her this time. Although it might be camera gear. 
The door opened, and she came out in a white, lacy thing. He’d been expecting the bikini again. Is that a nightgown?
She was toweling her hair.
“I look a fright, I know. And sorry about the gown. It gets hot when you stay down here. I got a rash from last time and I didn’t have time to shop for anything more suitable. I could wear the swimsuit if you prefer.”
She looked innocent enough, trying to get her hair under control, but the lacy garment was as enticing in its own way as the bikini had been. He looked back at his control panel, although settled in, there was nothing more to do.
“It’s fine.” I’ll just not stare.
“Come over here. I brought you some things.”
She sat on the floor and opened the giant duffel.
Out came several large towels. “I noticed all of yours had worn all the fluff away. Here. These are nicer.” 
He fingered the thick fabric. He nodded. It was like he remembered.
“Now, these are vitamins. One a day. This is only about a year’s worth, but I worry about your diet.”
“Thank you.” He stared at the bottle, wondering where to put it. He’d long exhausted his stock of pills. Occasionally he’d find a bottle of aspirin in a shipwreck, but he’d been lucky enough not to need much more than that.
“Now help me take these to the pantry.” She had a little spice rack with a half-dozen little bottles. There were a dozen lemons, and several small bottles of jam.
“I know you live on fish, and here’s no help for it, but it can’t be healthy long term. You need more variety. I’d have brought more fresh fruit and vegetables, but I didn’t think you had any refrigeration.” She dug out several sealed bags. “These are dried fruits, but eat them slowly, so it won’t upset your digestion.”
Most of the bag was for him.
“It was all I could throw together on short notice. My boss said I couldn’t go chasing after you, but this volcano was a special deal, so I had to move fast.”
He was grateful, but he didn’t know how to say the words. “Thanks.”
She beamed, and he was suddenly aware that they were nearly head to head and that lace was distracting.
“Well.” He moved back a step. “We’re stuck here for at least a day or so. I’d better go hunt.”
It occurred to him that he couldn’t change clothes. More often than not, he just wore his shorts, and when there was no chance he’d be seen from topside, he’d go through the airlock to fish or work nude to save the washing salt from his clothes. He was well aware of how easy it was to chafe the skin wearing wet salty things.
There was no help for it. He’d just rinse them later.
“Can I help?”
He shook his head as he pulled a home-made spear from his tool locker. “Don’t get your clothes wet again. I’ll be back soon.”
He went into the airlock and put on one of the two face masks. He’d seen lots of fish around, so maybe he could make do with the snorkel line. Then he changed his mind and slipped on the tank. He needed a bigger fish for the two of them.
A few minutes later, he came up outside the hull and rapped the surface with the hilt of his knife. Because he was in the water and she was in the bubble of air, the optics were a little distorted. She had to come up to the glass before he could see her well.
He held out the fish, still on the spear. He gestured with his knife. He’d be gutting the fish outside and then come on in.
It was a familiar task and the scavengers were there to take care of the cast offs, and he made it back in without having his meal stolen.
“Here, take this.” He handed her the meat, while he removed his swimming gear and took advantage of a rinse himself. His old robe was dry, so he put that on while his shorts were dripping.
She smiled as he came out.
“Teach me how to use this stove, and I’ll do the cooking.” She had already prepared the meat and had a lemon sliced.
“Okay.” He turned on the heating element. “I sear the meat to save electricity.”
“Fine by me.” 
The meat sizzled and they ate. She watched his expressions as he tasted the seasoning. 
“Different is good.”

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