Quarter 3 Week 5 February 22 – 26, 2021

TeacherMelissa Forney
Subject AreaELA/Reading
Grade Level7
Week #5
Unit of InstructionAuthor's purpose, vocabulary, reading class novel
Standard(s) Taught

LAFS.7.RL.1.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to supportanalysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.Level 2

LAFS.7.RL.1.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text andanalyze its development over the course of the text;provide a summary of the text.Level 3

LAFS.7.RL.1.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).Level 3

LAFS.7.RL.2.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the

Level 3impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of astory or drama.

LAFS.7.RL.2.5 Analyze howa drama’s or poem’s form or structure(e.g., soliloquy, sonnet)contributes to its meaning.Level 2

LAFS.7.RL.2.6 Analyze how anauthor develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.Level

2LAFS.7.RL.3.7 Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects ofLevel 2techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).

LAFS.7.RL.3.9 Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of Level 2 understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.

LAFS.7.RL.4.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas,and poems, in the grades 68 text complexity and Level 2proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Learning Targets and Learning Criteria

7th Grade Writing Assignment

Write a two-page book report about the novel Submerged. Use 14 point font. Divide the story into three sections, and tell the details in each section. When you introduce a new character, be sure you tell the relationship between him/her and Violet, the main character.

Don’t forget main events:

Violet comes to OSCAR with Julian and Zach.

There is an airplane crash her first day.

Julian, Scuba One and Scuba Two go to the rescue.

Julian rescues a little boy.

Violet sees Monty slap Julian’s face.

Violet doesn’t pay attention in class.

Violet goes to the coral reef with her class.

Violet and Julian catch lobsters.

Liam goes to school with Zach McGann.

A virus breaks out on Terra Firma and thousands of people begin to die, including Pavel.

OSCAR has a weekly memorial service.

Epstein’s mother and Judy’s sister die.

Part of the crewmembers go home even if it means they might die.

Fernandez leaves to be with her little sisters.

Violet breaks Monty’s nose.

Dan is shot through the leg.

Lexi Miller is shot through the chest.

Julian admits he has feelings for Violet.

Violet sees Julian with Monty.

Violet swims security and sees Julian with Stana.

Julian asks Violet to dance a tango at the end of the show.

Julian and Violet kiss.

Julian and Violet take Liam to the dolphin lagoon.

Word comes that a sunken yacht is headed on a collision course with the OSCAR facility.

Violet drives a Manta 6000 to help her group excape.

Julian and a team of divers head to the sunken yacht to see if they can tie it off and avoid a bad collision with OSCAR.

mjforney@volusia.k12.fl.us

Classroom Activities

Monday – Greet students, go over vocabulary, discuss the week, read and discuss Submerged.

Vocabulary

involuntary – done without will or conscious control

seven forevers – a long, long time

replenishment – to replace materials so your supply is full and ready 

segue – change the subject or the musical key

glissandos – long strokes on the piano keys that slide up or down

charmer – a person with the type of personality that draws others to him

autoclave – a machine that heats and sterilizes medical supplies or tools

demystify – take away the mystery, make ordinary, take away the secret

mortified – deeply embarrassed 

bribery – to give money to someone so they will agree to do what you want them do

lagoon – a small portion of the ocean that is hidden, or surrounded, or set apart

splaying – opening wide

limestone outcroppings – limestone ledges

Tuesday – Discuss the many aspects of Submerged, writing assignment

Wednesday – Morning – Read chapter books. Afternoon – iReady

Thursday – Read and discuss

Friday – Summative test on Vocabulary Words, Kahoot, Discussion

 

 

 

Assignments Due

 

 

SUBMERGED

By Melissa Forney

about 90,000 words

Preface

The dog was bleeding, crumpled, and panting hard. His eyes stared at nothing, and his body trembled. One leg was obviously broken, jutting out, exposing bone.

I felt the familiar blow to my gut. I hated this, the watching of an animal in pain. I liked the healing part: surgeries, sutures, firm bandages that stabilized wounds. But this, this was the price I had to pay to work in Dad’s veterinary office. He needed me, and I loved animals, but suffering came at me in daily waves. Even after hanging around here for years, I never got used to the pain.

Dad’s assistant, Emma, placed the dog on the examining table as gently as if it were a newborn baby. The dog’s piercing howl filled the examining room and faded into a long, whistling whine. I held on to the edge of the table. Breathe, Violet.

“Start a line. Five of Meperedine.” Dad spoke in the tone he used with serious cases. Emma hung the bag of IV fluids and I drew up the syringe. Even though I was only 19, I’d done it many times, always under Dad’s teaching eye. He talked to the dog as he inserted the needle into the IV line. “That’s it. That’s it. You won’t hurt so bad now. Easy. Easy.” I watched him run his hands along the dog’s body, using his fingers to determine the extent of the dog’s injuries. Occasionally he would get in close and look, adjusting the light and squinting. I held my breath.

Dad took off his glasses and rubbed the top of his nose. “Poor fellow. His injuries are…” He turned his hand over, palm up. He didn’t meet my eyes.

I reached to touch the dog’s ear. No one said anything. The dog panted noisily. From the front office, the phone rang. Emma left to get it.

“Dr. Coltrane, it’s Mrs. Lupo. I know you’re busy but this morning she—”

“I’ll take it.”

Alone, I leaned in to whisper. “Hey. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” The lump in my throat almost shut me down. I stroked the dog’s head. I had helped set broken bones, suture wounds, and scrub in on surgeries. I had assisted with difficult deliveries, given medications, and cleaned cages more times than I could remember. It was the suffering that made my heart almost stop.

Breathe. Just breathe.

“Dad?”

He was standing in the door.

“Dad?” We could both hear pleading in my voice. I wanted him to try. I wanted him to put this dog back together and say he would be alright.

“We can’t save them all, Vi.”

“I know.” Talking was difficult. “But isn’t there something we can do?”

“He’s dying, Honey. All we can do is make sure he doesn’t suffer any more.”

We stared at each other for a long time. I tried to think of some gesture, some word that would tell him how I felt. There was nothing. This beautiful animal would never again curl up with a kid reading comic books. He would never lick the face of a master who had missed him during the day. He would never chase a ball in the rain.

I registered my protest by leaving through the back door.

Later that night Dad stopped by my room on his way to bed. “Violet?”

At first I thought about pretending to be asleep. But I didn’t want Dad to wake, Liam, my three-year-old brother who had crawled into bed with me, cradling his beloved stuffed bear, Beanie.

“Yeah?”

Dad found my hand on top of the covers and held it. “We can’t save them all, Vi. We try, but we just can’t. But we do save a lot of them.” He squeezed my fingers. I didn’t squeeze back. “I’m sorry Honey,” he said.

I hated myself then. I had talked to the dog like it made a difference. He was a stray. Hit by a car. Dying when someone brought him in. Why had I petted him and whispered those things? It was all so stupid. I was stupid. Why did Dad have to come in here and stir things up again? I yanked my hand away. Everything he said was stupid. I hated Dad then.

“I know.” The anger in my voice cut like acid.

But later, I had a nightmare about the dog. He was bleeding and broken, and his howls were pitiful, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. Mom was there, too, cradling the dog, crying. The sadness sucked the breath from my lungs.

The next thing I knew, Dad was shaking me awake, gathering me in his arms.

“Easy. Easy, Baby. That’s it. Just a dream.” He stroked my hair. “That’s it. Going to be okay.” He rocked me back and forth. I clung to him. I loved Dad so much.

“Dad, Mom was there. She was there. She was crying for the dog.”

Dad never stopped rocking. He whispered, “Of course she was. Of course she was. She always had the most heart. Of course she was.”

And the words did not sound stupid. Not one bit.    

CHAPTER 1

I added the last handful of sliced mushrooms to the pan. They landed on top of the onions and peppers already sizzling in olive oil. I gave everything a stir with a wooden spoon and inhaled the steam. What was missing? Garlic. I’d forgotten the garlic. Again.

I broke four cloves off the head of fresh garlic and lay them on the cutting board. I pressed a small saucer on top of them and the skins came away cleanly. I smiled inside. It was a neat trick. I held the knife blade tip down with one hand and minced through the cloves, chopping quickly, repeatedly, until the garlic bits were tiny and even. Using the flat of the knife, I scooped them up and swept them into the pan. I inhaled again. That did it. Garlic. I reached to wash my hands.

Before I could turn on the water, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but it might be one of my friends. I reached for the faucet, but the bell rang again.

“Coming.”

I hurried to the door, and opened it with my palms, trying to keep from getting garlic on the knob. Two guys stood side by side, dressed in uniforms. I recognized them, but I was shocked to see them here, at my house. They were from OSCAR. Why were they here? I’d already gone through all this. Heck. What now?

I said, “I smell like garlic.”

I smell like garlic. Geeze.

The guy with blonde hair spoke first. “Violet Coltrane?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” My stomach started doing flip-flops.

“You smell good,” he said.

I opened my mouth to speak, but all I could manage was my What did you just say? face.

He smiled. “I mean, something smells good.”

            The guy with the brown hair spoke. “I’m Julian Fenley with the Oceanic Submerged Community and Research project, OSCAR.

“I know who you are.”

“And this is Zach McGann.”

It was a total ambush, the result of which my words came out in sputters.

“I was…rejected. I mean, I made it…to the finals.” My shoulders sagged. “Then you… picked the other…girl.”

Julian nodded. “That’s true. But—”

Zach interrupted. “Could we come in? We’d like to talk to you.”

The flip flops in my stomach turned to spasms. “Okay. Come in.” I pointed to the living room. “I’ll be right back. I smell like garlic.”

 “Like I said,” Zach said.

In the kitchen, I looked at myself in the window over the sink. Oh my god. I’m such an idiot. I washed and dried my hands, sniffed them, and scrubbed a second time. What’s this about? What’s going on? I checked my teeth in the reflection, used my can of 7-Up as mouthwash, and spit into the sink.

Back in the living room, I tried again.

Calm down.

“Why are you here?” I said. “I was rejected.” Rejected. Such an ugly word.

“Yes,” Julian said. “I’m sorry about that. Your scores were only one point apart, though. Very close.”

“It’s not that you were rejected,” Zach said. “You passed everything with flying colors. We only had one more opening and—”

“—And I was rejected.” Any semblance of manners was long gone.

The disappointment I had fought for months balled in my chest. If I had been accepted, I would have had my tuition completely paid for, not to mention the college credit.

My smile was bitter. I didn’t care. “I was pretty disappointed.”

Zach nodded. “I bet.”

Get to the part about why you’re here. My knees were shaking.

“Excuse me. I need to turn off the stove. I’m cooking dinner for the fam.”

I zipped out of the room. Back in a flash.

“We’re actually here with good news,” Zach said.

Finally. Spit it out. “We have an unexpected opening. We have to act fast for the integrity of the program, but you are our first choice for the replacement position.”

“Replacement?”

“Our first and best choice,” Julian said.

“What?” Talk about stunned. “When? I mean, how?” Hope nudged my rib cage.

Zach leaned forward. “Violet, you were selected for OSCAR because you had such high scores and your interview was stellar. Your highest aptitude was leadership, almost tied with problem solving. You’ve got a medical background. You already SCUBA. You’re brilliant. We’re here to tell you that you’ve been accepted into the program. We want you.”

“But, what about the other kid, the girl who beat me out?”

“She’s had to leave.”

“Why?”

Julian shook his head slightly. “Uh, that’s really not something—”

“It’s classified, but she can’t rejoin the program,” Zach said.

I stared stupidly. “So, just like that, I’m accepted?”

“Yes,” Julian said. “You’re accepted.”

I tried to grasp what this meant. Why did I feel angry? Wasn’t this good news?

“When? When would I need to leave?”

I wanted to protect myself from another big letdown. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Joining OSCAR had been my dream for two years, but to go through the entire application phase and miss by one point had been excruciating.

“Tonight.”

Tonight? Insane. No way. I smiled. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Not kidding.” Julian shook his head. “It’s urgent. Time sensitive. We’re opening the hatch tonight at midnight.”

Opening the hatch tonight at midnight. It was now 4:47pm according to the living room clock.

I tried to think. OSCAR was everything I had wanted, had dreamed about, would have killed for. I’d lost out by one point. It felt like being run over by a semi. Dad had been supportive, and my little brother Liam had volunteered to send out a ninja hit squad. My friends were really nice about it, but it was still so painful I didn’t talk about it with anyone. That subject had been off the table for months.

Now these guys were saying I was accepted. Accepted because the other girl had to leave the program. I was being invited to join tonight. Be gone for months. Be part of the team. This should be the happiest moment of my life.

I pictured myself leaving tonight, joining the others tomorrow morning, saying goodbye to Dad and Liam and Pavel, my best friend and dance partner.

A thought came screeching into my brain, and the blood drained from my face.

“I can’t” I said.

Julian literally jerked. “Why not?” His eyebrows drew together.

I rubbed my top lip. I could still smell garlic. I tried to explain.

“I’m in a dance competition. I have a partner, Pavel. I made—we made—a commitment to each other months ago. Actually, we’ve been dancing together for three years. I told him I wouldn’t be able to dance in the competition, but after I got the rejection from OSCAR, I said yes, I could. He’s counting on me.”

I would cry later, when they were gone. I would rage and scream and wail. Dad always stressed personal integrity, and here it was rearing its ugly head.

Julian acted like I wasn’t speaking English. Zach looked stricken.

“I can’t,” I said. “Can’t you wait for me?” I heard despair in my voice. The second chance was slipping away with no one in my corner to fight for me. “It’s only three days till the dance competition.”

“It’s set for tonight,” Zach said. “Opening the hatch on a six-billion dollar project is almost taboo. We resurfaced late last night because there was a personnel emergency. We have just until midnight to submerge again.”

Julian stood, frowning. “You need to know how important this is. The program must continue with as little interruption as possible. You are our choice.” He pointed. “We need you to accept.” His voice was bossy. Pushy.

He was clearly trying to intimidate me. Oh, I don’t think so.

“I can’t. I gave Pavel my word. We’ve worked for months on our routine. We’re dancing in three days.” The competition was important to me, but right now it sounded lame.

“Can’t you tell him you’ll do it some other time?”

I shook my head.

“Another partner?” He sounded pissed.

I shook again.

“Then just tell him you’re sorry, but this is more important.”

The arrogance in his voice, the superior tone is what did it.

Dude, you better back up. I might just pop you.

“No.” My voice was loud. I felt lightning flash from my eyes. “I wanted to be part of OSCAR more than anything. I still do. But I gave my word to my dance partner, and I’m not going to break it.”

See? I can be intimidating, too.

Julian glared. “This is ridiculous. We have to submerge tonight.”

Was this guy for real?

I stabbed my finger in his face. “I’m dancing in that competition in three days no matter what. So if you have to open your hatch tonight, then that’s a deal breaker for me. I’m out.”

It was like watching a 3-D movie. Opportunity was right in front of me, but when I reached out to touch it, it wasn’t real.

The silence between us crackled with threat.

Zach stood and shook my hand. His voice sounded kind.

“We understand, Violet. Thanks anyway. We’ll leave you to your cooking.”

Julian stood his ground.

“You’re letting a dance competition stand in the way of an incredible opportunity. The United States Navy has been building OSCAR for eight years. You could be part of something world-changing. You must not have wanted it as badly as we thought you did.” He laughed, but it was an angry laugh.

I hated him, right on the spot. I felt it coming from the tips of my fingers. It zipped through my arms and radiated into my core.

“How dare you.” My voice was a mamba’s hiss. “How dare you.”

Zach put his arm on Julian’s shoulder. “Julian, I think—”

I interrupted.

“How dare you come to my house without so much as a phone call, tell me that I’m now accepted into your program, and try to bully me into leaving tonight!” I made some crazy arm wave. “And let me tell you another thing. This dance is a commitment I made to someone who has stood with me and had my back when no one else did.”

Liam’s ninja hit squad would have been proud.

I took a breath to steady myself. “You must not know a thing about loyalty.” It was rude, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going, so why not let it all hang out. “I. Won’t. Break. My. Word!”

My heart was hammering. I needed to calm down. Breathe, Violet.

“Being part of OSCAR was—” My voice broke. I wouldn’t let him see me cry. I took a few seconds to get it together. “I would love to go, but I can’t.” Even an insensitive fool could hear the heartbreak in my words.

There was that silence where no one looks at each other.

Julian finally offered his hand. “I get it, Violet. I’m sorry you can’t accept.” I could hear it. He meant it.

“Yeah. Me, too.”

I watched them go, wishing they had never come in the first place. I wanted to cry, to let the tears wash away the anger and sorrow and embarrassment, but I just felt numb. Violet, the girl who goes numb.

I cooked the rest of the supper mechanically, a robot snapping fresh green beans, seasoning the French loaf. Zombie chef. I used a rag to wipe the counters, counters that were already clean.

It would have been amaze-balls to live in OSCAR’s underwater compound. Meeting other kids and working with experts who shared my passion for the sea. Free tuition. College credit. I had a pounding headache.

I decided not to tell. Dad had supported me through tears and rejection once. I couldn’t bear anyone’s pity. If no one knew, I could keep my dignity.

My little brother Liam bumbled through the back door.

“Hey, Monkey.”

“Hey, Violet.” He was still young enough to let me hug him.

He lifted the lid on my pot. “Mmmm. What’s this?”

“Chicken Paprikash. Want to help me make a salad?”

“Nope. But I’ll watch. And sample stuff.”

“Want some ice tea?”

“7-Up.”

Liam was eight, and he smelled like it. I’d been the only mother he had known. That meant he usually got away with murder. He drained the 7-Up in three long, drippy gulps and let out an impressive burp.

“Nice.”

Liam yakety-yaked about a new video game he and his friends were into. I listened, laughing at all the right places, cutting baby carrots into tiny, neat circles. I peeled the reddest tomato in the basket and cut it up for the salad. I sliced the pickled artichokes and threw in a handful of Greek olives.

I listened to my little brother talking on and on and on and blinked back tears and swallowed hard. I overreacted to his jokes and stories, laughing too loud. I pretended to be interested, but all the while my heart was cracking into little, brittle pieces. I wasn’t numb after all. And, when the tears came anyway, I made sure I was cutting onions at the time.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The ballroom lights were dim. I stood in the shadows, arms outstretched, drying the cold sweat in my armpits. I didn’t dare lick my lips or fidget with my hair. Everything was sprayed to the max. My girlie-girl dress was a form-fitting swish of charcoal sequins and Swarovski crystals had a built-in pushup bra. I actually had a figure.

“You look great,” Pavel said.

“Not as great as you.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“You. Hey…You’ve got…cleavage.” He was clearly impressed.

I looked down at my chest. “Nice, huh?”

“We’re going to rock this.”

“Yeah we are.”

It was true. At least if I didn’t blow it. If I didn’t step on my hem. If I made the lifts. I warned myself not to think about the routine. Just enjoy it. You’ve got this, Violet.

 Our tango was the result of months of meticulous practice, and the choreography was breathtaking. Tonight was our night to show it off. I loved performing, but Zach’s and Julian’s visit had put a damper on everything. I had given up the chance of a lifetime for this dance, and I never even told Pavel.

I’m kind of a tomboy, and my friends thought it was hysterical that I was involved in the ballroom scene. When I was six or seven, before Liam was born, I liked to watch Mom get dressed for dance competitions. She was so beautiful with all the jewelry and sparkles and feathery dresses. She died when Liam was a baby and I was 12. I always felt she could see me when I was dancing, like we were connected.

Pavel drummed his fingers on the back of my neck and whispered in my ear. “Rev up, you sexy maniac.” He cracked me up. We weren’t girlfriend and boyfriend. What were we? Close friends. I had never had a boyfriend, really. I mean, I liked boys, but between working for Dad and school and dancing, it just never came together.

I shook out my shoulders and arms and concentrated on slow breaths.

“We’re up.” We went through our pre-dance ritual, a complicated series of slaps and hip bumps that made us both laugh.

Pavel spoke in Russian. “Udacha.”

I answered in Gaelic, “Sláinte.”

I arched my neck. Pavel placed his hand on the small of my back. The announcer’s voice rang through the ballroom.

“Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen. Next to dance—Pavel Aleksandrov and Violet Coltrane with an Argentine Tango.”

We took the floor. The room settled. The lights dimmed, except for the spotlight.

Balance. Hold. Character. The transformation started the moment we locked eyes.

An Argentine tango is a risky agreement. The couple dancing is locked in an almost constant embrace, with the man in passionate control. The message to the audience is clear: You may observe, admire, shout encouragement, and hold your breath at times, but this is all about us.

Our tango started with a low drop, dramatic and fluid. Pavel and I matched each other’s power and thrust, barridas and ochos. The arching of my back, flicking of our legs and head turns were sharp and staccato. My dress became the third dancer in the routine, snapping and spiraling its long glittery fringe. We sailed through the lifts and plummeted to the floor. The dance was like hot sand, poured through loose fingers. When the end came, we were covered in sweat, breathless, and triumphant, two gods of dance. Pavel held our pose until we became mortal again.

The audience exploded: applause, whistling, and congratulations. There had been no misstep that I knew of. We walked off the floor to a small crowd. I saw Dad. He always came to congratulate me after I danced, and Liam was there, too. And our coach. And someone else.

Julian. My heart just about flopped out of my chest.

That bossy, demanding, know-it-all was here at my dance competition.

Dad moved in for a hug. Liam bounced on his heels.

“You were awesome, Violet. Wow.”

“Thanks, Monkey.”

Our competitors hugged us. I still hadn’t made eye contact with Julian. Dad took care of that.

“Vi,” Dad said “I believe you know Julian Fenley, from OSCAR.” Julian was wearing a leather jacket over dress jeans. “He has some exciting news.”

“Great dance. An Argentine tango, no less.” Julian said. Is he mocking?

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just stared.

Julian got to the point. “Violet, we decided to wait for you. There’s still an opening, and we’d like for you to fill it.”

Again, surreal. He’d shown up twice in one week. Who does this guy think he is?

I forced myself to stay calm. Anger and excitement arm-wrestled each other.

“When?”

“Tonight. Midnight.”

Dude, why always midnight?

“Isn’t that wonderful, Violet?” Dad was over the moon.

I hadn’t even received the scores for our tango.

“Tonight?” I needed to hear it again. The last time I heard all this I had felt stupid.

Julian nodded. “Yep. We submerge at midnight.” He cocked his head slightly. “Last chance.”  

I considered turning him down, just so I could put him in his place.

Dad prompted, like I was 12. “Vi, it’s what you’ve been hoping for.”

Julian’s eyes had not left mine.

Tonight I didn’t feel stupid. Tonight I felt powerful.

They were announcing our scores. “9.8, 10, 9.9, 10, 10.” Cheering rocked the room. I looked for Pavel across the crowd of well-wishers, and we high-fived in the air. Friends pressed in with congratulations and pats on the back.

My eyes finally went back to Julian, who stood perfectly still in the midst of the chaos.

“Great scores,” he said.

 I laughed. “Shut up. What do you know?”

“I know good scores when I see them.”

 “Why did you wait for me?”

He hesitated. “Integrity.”

The skin on my arms tingled, and my ears went all buzzy. Julian smiled. A beautiful smile, by the way.

“You in?”

I had that feeling. That feeling you know when it happens. The my-life-is-about-to-change feeling.

Liam had stopped bouncing and was staring at me. “You going, Vi?” When I nodded he asked, “How long?”

“Nine months,” I said. The look on his face killed me, killed me dead. I couldn’t hurt this kid. “Hey, would you be willing to sleep in my room and use my big television for your games while I’m gone? I need someone to look after my stuff.”

Liam went berserk. “No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

“Dad!” Liam called. “Guess where I’m going to be sleeping for the next nine months?”

Julian offered his hand. I wanted to take it, but some part of me wanted to hurt him.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m in.”

I turned my back and was immediately surrounded by other dancers.

I packed in a whirlwind. I didn’t need much. OSCAR provided just about everything, but I stuffed some personal things and a few photos into my duffle. No time for sloppy goodbyes. Dad sent me off with all the dad-rituals.

“I’m proud of you, Vi. Mom would be, too.” I heard tears in his voice. He kissed my forehead. “I know you’ll make the most of this opportunity.” He kissed my cheek. Dad. Always there for me. Always steady.

I thought Liam might go all silly-boy, but he surprised me. He stood there blinking, as if he couldn’t believe this was happening. I scooped him up and swung him around like a rag doll.

“I love you,” he said when we stopped spinning. My arms were still around his middle.

“I know. I love you more.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

He put his forehead against my belly. “You’ll be gone a long time.”

“Hey, we can keep in touch. We can still talk. Every day. On big screens and stuff.”

“Okay.” His voice was barely a whisper. He smelled like caramel.

I looked at his imp face. He had a cowlick on the left side that stuck up if his hair was too long. His nose was a single jelly bean. I loved his eyebrows most of all. They were flat and sprawled out like weeds. I had rocked this kid. Changed his diapers. Bathed his nasty little carcass. Held him when he was too sick to hold his head up. Taught him how to tie his shoes. Laughed at his jokes.

I pulled him tight. “Liam.” I had a huge lump in my throat. I kissed the top of his head. I loved him more than chocolate-covered strawberries.

It was hard to let go. Hard.

CHAPTER 3

Julian and Zach picked me up in a limo a few minutes after 9:00 pm. I was exhausted. We drove to a helicopter pad and boarded a US Naval transport helicopter. I should have been impressed, but I was just too tired. Things were pretty quiet on the one-hour trip to OSCAR Terra Firma, somewhere along the Florida gulf coast. Believe it or not, I slept the whole way, lulled by the thrum of the helicopter filtered through the foam padding of my helmet.

Zach shook me when we arrived. “Violet, we’re here.”

I followed the two of them through a security check and down the ramp into an enormous warehouse marked OSCAR: Authorized Personnel Only. Inside looked like a Hollywood version of Mission Control.

Houston, do you copy? The eagle has landed.

There were large computer screens, lights, graphs, levers, electronic panels, switches, and people to operate all of it. A total bee hive. Controlled chaos.

Jump big, Violet, jump big.

We were greeted by a woman with an I’m-in-charge attitude.

“Cutting it close, guys.”

“But, here we are,” Julian said.

“Sam, this is Violet Coltrane,” Zach said.

“Violet Coltrane, the dancer?” I clearly heard the sarcasm in her voice. She turned her hands palm-up. “We’re running a six-billion dollar ocean research program here. Can she do anything besides dance?”

Oh no you didn’t just say that. She hadn’t even looked directly at me yet.

I took a step forward. 

“I am a dancer,” I said. “I’m also a straight A student, and the recipient of the National Marine Educators Scholarship Award.” I smiled, but my voice was all snap-crackle-and-pop. “I also have good manners. Nice to meet you, Sam.”

Sam looked at Zach. “Scrappy.”

“She’s also is a great chef. Lots of garlic,” Zach said.

“And she dances a wicked tango,” Julian said.

Sam spoke directly to me. “We delayed the opening of our hatch for three days for you, Coltrane.” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you worth it?”

What was the deal with this woman? Did I have to prove myself to her? My voice was full of gun powder.

“Sam, I’m the bee’s knees. The full enchilada. The prize in the Cracker Jacks. I know how to lead, but I don’t have any problem being part of the team. I’m loyal. I play well with others. I don’t run with scissors, but I’ve run a household by myself since I was 12. I’m a hard worker, I’m fair, and I know how to stand up for myself. So, yes, I am worth it.”

She smiled. “A fire-eater. I like her.”

“Told you,” Zach said.

“Okay, enough fooling around. Welcome, Coltrane. We’re glad you’re joining up with OSCAR.” She handed me some papers and forms to sign. “I was just giving you a hard time. I actually run things around here. I’m Samantha Matisse.” She pointed to the papers. “I need your signature, and we’ll be off. The shuttle boat is a go.”

My emotions were on a see-saw. It was hard not to like Sam Matisse.

I signed the papers, and Sam introduced me to the people who were operating the computers. “This is our ground crew. They monitor many of the daily operations of the actual OSCAR facility that is located out here in the Gulf of Mexico. The exact location is not public knowledge.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Guys, this is Violet Coltrane, our newest crewmember.”

Everything was dream-like: the lighting, the computers, this many people working so late at night. It was still hard to believe I had been accepted into the program.

Sam gave me a nylon parka to wear, and rode the shuttle boat out with me, Julian, and Zach. The moon was a sliver, and the night dark. The roar of the motor made talking impossible. We skimmed over the surface lickety-split, and my hair flew out in all directions. The nylon parka fluttered and snapped.

Eventually, the launch boat slowed. We drifted in to the dock of a structure that looked sort of like a small oil rig, only not so high off the water. The motor cut off, and I heard the slap, slap, slap of the water against the dock pilings. Some crewmembers shouldered our duffels, and Sam showed me the ladder to the rig. A single dim light on a wooden pole was the only light.

“Looks like a fishing pier,” I said, “only dimmer.”

“Yeah, we like it that way,” Sam said. “We don’t want folks to know you’re down there.”

“But OSCAR’s not a secret. It’s been all over the news for months.”

“True, but the exact location is secret. OSCAR is here for an important purpose, and everyone on board has a job to do. We don’t want sight-seers getting in the way of things. This rig is staffed 24/7 by Navy and Coast Guard personnel to make sure you’re safe. We call it OSCAR Launch.”

The building on the rig was a smaller version of the mission control building we’d left 30 minutes earlier: Bright lights and a few crewmembers.

Sam looked at her watch. “Guys, you know the drill. Violet, I need for you to take a shower and put on this jumpsuit. Use the soap in the shower and leave it on your skin and hair for two minutes. Rinse, dry off, and put on these clothes and shoes.” She handed me a folded stack. “We have all your sizes from your application, remember?”

Ready, set, go.

“Showering is the first protocol for submerging. It’s routine, but follow my instructions exactly.”

I did. I emerged ten minutes later with wet, combed hair and wearing the jumpsuit. Mine looked exactly like Zach’s and Julian’s.

“Your duffels have been irradiated,” Sam said. “We can’t take a chance of exposing the rest of the group to any bad germs that might be harmful.”

We nodded.

“Put this wafer in your mouth and clamp down. Keep your lips closed until I tell you to open your mouth.” She handed us thin wafers that were about two inches in diameter. I put mine on my tongue and bit down. The wafer was like peppermint except it foamed and sizzled. In less than a minute, it had disappeared. Sam handed us small cups of water. Next came eye drops and nose drops.

 “We’ve just effectively killed any bad bugs in or on your bodies. This also protects the others against anything you might bring down.”

She led us to the next room. Crewmembers were standing around a large, circular, gray structure and staring at the clock on the wall.

“11:58,” someone announced.

Wow. When they said midnight, they weren’t kidding. Zombies. Vampires. Werewolves. Underwater hatches. All midnight. Who knew?

“We’re a go,” Sam said. She turned to me. “Violet, you’ll enter the OSCAR facility by submergible, hydrostatically pressurized spiral conduit.”

By what?

One of the crewmembers said, “A giant slide.”

Someone else said, “Yeah, a REALLY giant slide.”

“We don’t SCUBA down?” I said. Surprise!

“No, this is OSCAR’S preferred entry,” Sam said. “The conduit is pressurized. There’s no water involved. The spiral is wide and long to give your body a chance to adapt to the depth and pressure.” She pointed to Julian and Zach. “Just follow the guys. They’ll show you the next step down below.”

Julian said, “The tube is lined with special material that eliminates static electricity. These suits make you shoot down like a rocket.”

Oh great. A rocket. That puts me at ease.

“It’s a sweet ride,” Zach said.

I wondered if they knew how nervous I was.

“Can’t wait,” I said. My mouth was as dry as popcorn.

Someone called, “15 seconds to automatic unlock.”

Julian was first, then Zach, and I stood third in line.

The loud speaker began a countdown. “Five, four, three, two, one.”

There was a series of clicks, and the crewmembers pulled up the heavy hatch lid. Inside was a small chamber, big enough for one person. In front of the sitting place was a large hole. An entrance. I tried to picture how the slide spiraled and twisted down through the sea, but I couldn’t see beyond the first three feet.

Julian climbed over the side and sat down. He crossed his arms over his chest, pushed off, and disappeared.

The crew watched stop watches. “Four minutes.”

Zach vaulted over the side, sat down, and positioned himself like Julian had.

He winked. “Easier than the tango, Violet.”

Zach whooshed out of sight, letting out a long, loud Tarzan yell. Everyone laughed. Who doesn’t love a cowboy?

“Four minutes.”

Sam gave me a thumbs up. “Go get ‘em, Violet.”

Sweet Baby Jesus.

The crew enjoyed giving me a hard time. “Are you sure you’re up to this, Violet? I mean, this isn’t a dance competition.” They were having fun teasing the new girl. I got it.

But, I could give as good as I got.

I put both hands on the top rim of the hatch, pulled into a perfectly balanced handstand, held it motionless, then rolled out and down into a seated position in the chamber below.

The crew went bazonkazoo. Score one for Violet.

 “My money’s on this one,” Sam said.

I folded my arms over my chest, took a deep breath, and pushed off through the hole into complete and total blackness.

 

CHAPTER 4

Julian was right about the rocket part. I whipped around the curves of the corkscrew with my stomach holding on for dear life. I spread my legs, but there was no slowing down. It was thrilling and horrible at the same time. After a minute or two, I either slowed down or got used to the speed. I was disoriented, with no sense of anything but forward motion. The descent was way longer than I expected.

No one had mentioned brakes. Near the end of the tunnel, the texture of the walls changed. I slowed, dramatically. I saw light up ahead and came to a gentle stop at the mouth of the chute. I was in a bright room. A bright room that was spinning.

Zach and Julian helped me stand. It took me a while to get my head working right, not to mention my balance.

“Wow. Just WOW. That was amazing.”

 “Coltrane, Violet,” someone said. “Welcome to OSCAR. Fenley and McGann, welcome back.” It sounded official. Coltrane, Violet.

“I’m Dr. Daniel Boylston.” He nodded. “Now that you’ve adjusted to your anemotropism, my crew will assist you in orientation. You’ll be here with us for the next 24 hours in quarantine.” He spoke to an assistant. “Make a note of the time: 12:15 a.m.”

Anemotropism. I was sure it was the first of a jillion things I’d never heard of before.

“Fenley, McGann, sorry, but you’ll have to go through everything all again. I’ll take the two of you. Coltrane, you’ll go with medical assistant Fernandez.”

Fernandez looked like what I wanted to be when I grew up: lean and muscular and cooking with gas. I instantly pictured her rebuilding car engines and winning street races in front of a cheering crowd.

Fernandez pointed with her chin. “This way, Newbie.” I followed.

She led me to a small room. “Take off everything, including underwear, jewelry, and watches. Put on this gown. I’ll be back in a minute.” She pointed. “The opening goes in the back. I’ll help you tie it, so you don’t show your butt the first day.”

I did as I was told, and Fernandez returned. She turned me around and tied the three ties at the back of my gown. “This is all part of orientation, Coltrane. Everything is precautionary. Nothing to worry about.” She opened a cabinet and pulled out a medical tray. “I’m going to run a few tests. We repeat these every three months or so to make sure the crew is doing well under pressurized conditions and artificial sun.”

Fernandez took the cover off the medical tray and removed a hypodermic needle kit. I’d seen plenty of them in Dad’s office, had drawn blood myself.

“When was the last time you ate?” she said.

It was hard to concentrate. “Uh…lunch, I guess. I kind of forgot supper in all of the excitement.”

“Good. I won’t have to stick you again in the morning. This will count as fasting.”

Fernandez tied a rubber tourniquet around my arm and started thumping for veins.

“I’m going to take some blood,” she said. “I’m a pretty good stick. Don’t move. I don’t want you spoiling my record.”

I never felt the needle. I sat patiently while she took a million vials of blood.

“Why so many?”

“These are routine tests for chems, enzymes, a bunch of other things, and mean corpuscular volume. That last one measures the size of your red blood cells.” She gave me an eye-roll. “Besides, while you’re out with the SCUBA squad, I’ll be stuck in the lab. Processing your draws gives me something to do.” She removed the needle and placed a small square of gauze over the puncture.

Fernandez weighed, measured, prodded and poked me. We went down the hall for the EKG and stress test. I passed Zach in the hallway. He was also wearing a gown and thought he was a comedian.

“Did you faint when she took your blood, Violet?”

“She did good,” Fernandez said. Zach’s gown gaped open in the back. As he passed, we both got the full view.

“That’s the last full moon we’ll see for a while, Coltrane.”

Fernandez put me through chest x-rays, a full-body scan, and a bone density test. She asked a bazillion medical questions and keyed my answers into a computer. This took a while. I was sick of answering questions about me…talking about me, yackety-yak-yak about me.

“What’s your story?” I said. She looked up, surprised.  

“No one asks that.”

“I just did. Seriously. I’d like to know.”

She moved some tubes to another tray, counting and moving them into place.

“Me? I’m from Miami. I used to run with a girl gang. I skipped so much school there was no way I was going to graduate. Always in trouble. Fooling around in all kinds of stuff. Then my friends started getting killed or sent to prison. I realized that was what was ahead for me: dead or locked up. I changed schools two more times. The last one didn’t want to take me, but I made them take me. The principal told me this was my final chance.”

Fernandez took an exact measurement of the length of my femur, stretching the tape from hip joint to knee.

“So I turned it around. I started studying. Did my homework. Made it to class. And you know what, Coltrane?” She looked up.

“What?”

“I found out I was smart. This Latina has a brain.” She keyed some numbers into the computer. “So, I graduated. I made it to college, made straight A’s, and got a scholarship to grad school. My acceptance into OSCAR counts for all the course work.” She smiled. “I leave here with a full master’s. Not bad, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle. I actually chose to have a different life. Now I’m always after my little sisters to stay away from the gangs and do good in school. They know I’m serious, too. I make sure they bring home good grades, and I take them on trips as a reward.”

“How old are they?”

“Aurora is 14, Anna is ten, and Amelia is the baby. She’s eight.”

“My little brother is eight. What about your parents?”

Fernandez shook her head and said something in Spanish. “Drugs. Alcohol. Don’t get me started. I don’t even know where they are.”

“Who takes care of your little sisters?”

“My mother’s sister. My Aunt Esperanza lives in New York City. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to go away to school. She’s great with them. I couldn’t just leave them alone.”

My thoughts flew to Liam. I was going to be gone for nine months. Would Dad know which multiplication tables Liam knew and which ones he needed to work on? What snacks he liked? How to comfort him when some dumb kid called him “frog eyes” at school?

Fernandez keyed into the computer for a few more minutes. I tried not to fall asleep. She finished and handed me a plastic cup.

“Give me a urine sample and we’re done with medical,” she said.

I took the cup and headed to the bathroom. This would soon be over.

When I handed her the cup, she wrote with Sharpie on the front: Coltrane, Violet.

“I’ll take you to your temporary sleeping quarters, Coltrane. Get some shut eye. Breakfast will be delivered at 9:00. They’re giving you guys extra sleep time because you got in so late, but don’t get used to it.”

She led me to a room that contained a chair, a table, and a small bed built into the wall. The walls were blue. Everything looked restful. The door was open to an adjoining bathroom.

Fernandez handed me a pair of scrubs. “Put these on. They’re your jammies for tonight.” She untied my gown in the back and handed me a pair of cotton underwear. “Here’s some undies. They’re not pretty, but it’s better than going commando.”

“Thanks.”

She handed me a white paper bag. “You need to eat. There’s a sandwich, an apple, and some juice in here plus a bottle of water. I’m sure your blood sugar’s in the basement by now.”

“Great. I’m starving.” It was true. My stomach had been growling for a while.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Coltrane. Dr. Boylston will answer any questions in the morning.”

“Thanks.”

“Buenas noches, Newbie.” Fernandez finally smiled. I felt like I had won a prize.

For the first time, I was alone. I slipped off the gown and put on the underwear and scrubs.

I was overwhelmed. My mind was full of faces, places, conversations, instructions, and events. The giant slide. Medical tests. I ate the sandwich and drank the juice. The bed was comfortable. I lay my head on the pillow and covered up with the blanket. In less than a minute, I was asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

“Good morning, Coltrane. This is your wake up call. Breakfast will be delivered to your room in five minutes.” The voice was female. The sound came from some sort of speaker at the head of the bed. I sat up. As I did, ambient light came up in the room. Like, on its own. Cool. I stretched. Yawned. Scratched.

I could have slept for 40 years. Maybe 50. Okay, 60. What’s another decade or two?

In the bathroom, I found a toiletries kit and used the toothbrush, mouthwash, and hairbrush. My stomach was killing me, and I realized it was hunger. I was in grave danger of dying of starvation. Seriously.

 Someone knocked. “Breakfast!”

I opened the door, and in came a guy with a tray loaded with…deliciousness. The aroma made my stomach spasm.

“Normally, we eat in the dining room, but you’re still in quarantine, so they want you to eat in here.” He set the tray on the table. Did I mention the tray was loaded? Loaded.

My stomach let out a growl that would draw whales.

“Hungry?” Food guy asked.

“Well, just a little.” Liar liar pants on fire.

“Good stuff here. Eat up.” He left me alone, and I pounced like a savage.

I am a breakfast girl. It’s my favorite meal of the day, and I can eat like you wouldn’t believe. This meal did not disappoint. Orange juice, crisp bacon, scrambled eggs, waffles, syrup, hashed browns, and melon. By the time I finished, I was sticky with syrup and licking my fingers.

Heaven.

“Violet?” It was speaker-girl again. I rushed to the bed.

“Yes?”

“Clean clothes have been delivered to your door. You have 30 minutes to shower, dress, and report to Orientation.”

“Uh, thanks.”

I had to get a move on. I’m slow in the morning, and worse when I’ve eaten an obscene amount of carbs. I found the clean clothes on a rolling rack just outside my door. There was some sort of uniform. A uniform. I couldn’t wait to put it on.

I took a quick shower, washed and dried my hair, put it up in a French braid, and brushed my teeth again. I put on the blue uniform pants and shirt, ankle-length black socks, and black boots. The boots were totally cool. I made sure the laces were even and the bow wouldn’t come undone.

I checked myself in the mirror. It was the uniform that did it. It finally rushed at me: I was officially part of OSCAR. Coltrane, Violet: Crewmember.

I’m not what I consider pretty, but my hair is decent, and I’ve got good skin. Nice eyes. Maybe people thought I was cute? I don’t know. That sort of thing embarrasses me. And somehow, I knew Fernandez had never stood in front of her mirror admiring herself.

I went looking for the classroom. I heard voices to the left, so I headed that way. Zach and Julian were drinking coffee with several crewmembers.

“Violet,” Julian said. “Good morning.” He was a cool customer.

“Good morning.” I didn’t make eye contact. I still hadn’t forgotten how arrogant he’d been when he came to my house.

“Sup, Violet?” Zach said. He had a big old grin. “What do you know?”

“I know what your butt looks like, for one thing.” That was fun.

Before Zach could answer, Dr. Boylston appeared and led us into a classroom. “There are only three of you, and you’re all here, so we might as well get started. You’re early. That’s a good sign.”

We took seats in the classroom. The doctor didn’t waste any time. “Fenley and McGann, you’ve already been through this, so I’m going to excuse you after a short debriefing. You have to stay in Quarantine until 2400 tonight, but you can get some rack time or just hang out. Tomorrow morning you’ll both report to your stations.”

Julian and Zach nodded.

Dr. Boylston looked at me. “Coltrane, welcome to OSCAR. We are grateful you could join us.”

“Thank you.”

Boylston went over a few details on some paperwork. He seemed satisfied that everything had been done in a professional manner.

“So she made you wait on her?” I could tell he was teasing.

“She was a hard sell,” Julian said.

“McGann, you got anything to say about Coltrane before I dismiss you men?”

Zach smiled. “She can stand up for herself, that’s for sure. I think you’ll get your money’s worth from this one.”

The doctor dismissed the guys. He had a fatherly way of speaking that helped me relax.

“Coltrane, what was the reason behind the three-day delay?”

“Keeping my word, sir. I had a previous commitment.”

“Something about a dance partner?” He sat down across from me.

“Yes. I’d given my word. But just to set the record straight, I told them that I was opting out. It was Julian’s decision to wait for me.”

“Yes, he told me so.” He turned his chair sideways and stretched his legs. “I’m glad he waited for you. I’ve looked at your resume and your interview. I think you’ll be a great addition to the OSCAR program.”

“I’m a hard worker.”

“I bet you are. Worked in your dad’s veterinary office?”

“Yes, from the time I was eight.”

“Your dad’s a good man. Before we accept people into OSCAR, we vet them and their parents, which in your case is your dad. You’re 19 now?”

“Yes.”

He looked at me. “Your position will be on SCUBA One. They are a top-notch team, let me assure you.”

“I’ve had only a little experience with ocean diving,” I said.

Oh great. I’m going to bring down a top-notch SCUBA team on my first assignment because of inexperience.

“You’ll learn on the job just as it would be if citizens came here in an emergency situation,” he said. “We expect that. Only a few of our divers have had much previous experience. But we train, train, train.”

That made me feel better.

“SCUBA One leaves the OSCAR compound on a regular basis on reconnaissance, research, mapping, marine biology, fishing, and so forth. Every 7th and 8th days, however, you’ll all be on rotations.”

“Rotations?”

            “Yes. Our goal is to live underwater, unaided, for a 12-month period, to see if long-term underwater existence would be feasible for the future, if the need should arise. Each participant has been chosen because of specific abilities, talents, and skills. However, just in case, we all need to know how to pitch in and do someone else’s job should we have an emergency.”

            “An emergency?”

            “An emergency where we could not surface or reintroduce personnel.”

            Woah. Could not surface.

            “Good idea,” I said.

“When Morgan Bennett had to be evacced, that left SCUBA One short-staffed. SCUBA One also helps out with aquaculture and fish husbandry. Basically, this is the foundation of our unlimited protein supply. You are Morgan’s replacement.”

 “Yes, sir.” I was a little sad to be a replacement and not an original. I’d already missed three months.

            For the rest of the morning, Dr. Boylston taught me the different staging areas of OSCAR and who was in charge of each area. I took notes. He went over the rules and regulations, schedule, and mission goals.

            I skipped lunch. I was still full from the enormous breakfast. The boy who picked up my tray had probably already notified everyone that Coltrane, Violet had broken out of Quarantine and was headed toward their one-year supply of breakfast foods.

            That afternoon, I had visits from Security, Dietary, Room Assignment, and Housekeeping. I took notes and repeated everything they said until my brain was scrambled eggs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

My last appointment, with the Communications Director, was by far the most interesting. No, make that fascinating. Her name was Dr. Persennia Nyaga. She had a stunning face and soulful eyes. She wore a traditional African headdress made of colored cloth and thick gold earrings. She caught me staring.

            “Don’t let the chair fool you. I’m not a pussycat…I’m a warrior.”

            It was the first time I noticed her wheelchair.

            “I was staring at your headdress. Wow.”

            “You like my gele?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then, one day I’ll show you how to wrap it.”

            That voice. Low like tree roots. Rich like gumbo.

            “I’d like that.”

            She bumped the wheelchair up against the table.

            “Well, Violet, we meet.”

            Again, the voice. She didn’t speak. She proclaimed. 

            “Tell me about your name. I’m a collector of names.”

            “Violet was my mother’s mother’s name.”

            “Your grandmother.” She said this as though she and I had just solved a mystery. “I love violets. A flirty little flower. When I was a girl in Nigeria, my mother would sometimes reward good behavior with a taste of Crème Yvette. That little sip of purple liqueur was the most exotic thing in the world to me and my friends. It’s made from violets, you know.”

            I’d never heard of Crème Yvette. Ever.

            “Sweet and mysterious.”

            “My grandmother grew violets,” I said.

            “Aren’t they lovely?”

            I was under her spell. Completely.

            Dr. Nyaga placed her hands on the table. She had long, elegant fingers and wore a variety of rings.

            “Well, I guess we’d better get down to it. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, Violet. I wish all of our participants came in one by one like this. Getting to know each other builds community.”

            Her mood changed slightly.

            “I’m the Communications Director for OSCAR Submerged. Samantha Matisse, who you’ve already met, is the Communications Director for OSCAR Terra Firma. In this underwater world you have entered, Violet, communication is vitally important.”

            She reached into a pouch on the side of her wheelchair. “I brought you a present.” She removed a thin, slightly-curved box.

            “This is your comm unit. You are to wear it at all times: working, playing, diving, showering, and even sleeping. The comm units are waterproof, shatterproof, and pressure proof down to 180 feet.” She stopped. “Which hand do you write with?”

            I held up my left arm. She reached for my right and fastened the comm unit around my wrist.

            “See? It’s not too tight, but it won’t slip, either. You’ll get used to it in a day or two. Think of it as a bracelet that you never take off.” I bent my right arm so that I could see the unit up close. It was a high-tech device with a screen.

            “What does it do?” I said.

            She laughed. “Absolutely everything.” She spent the next 30 minutes or so showing me the features and abilities of the comm unit. “We don’t invade your privacy, per se, but there is a locator in this device that allows us to track your movements both within the OSCAR facility as well as in the ocean, if we need to.”

            “You’re kidding.”

            “There’s even a depth meter so we can monitor you when you’re diving. We keep all of our divers between above 130 feet and below 10 feet of the surface.” She smiled. “The comm unit is extremely handy, Violet. Watch this.” She touched a few keys and Fernandez’s face appeared on the screen.

            “We’re ready for you, dear.”

            Fernandez answered, “Right there.”

            While we waited, Dr. Nyaga put me through a few of the paces of the unit, checking to see that I could use it on my own.

            It was smarter than a smart phone. A genius phone.

            Evidently, I would be able to make calls, see my family, watch television and movies if I wanted to, fill out duty rosters, check in to classes, order purchases from the pizza place (The Octo-Pie), and Starbucks (Yes! We have Starbucks down here), and a zillion other things.

            Fernandez appeared in the open doorway with a medical tray.

            Dr. Nyaga smiled and put her arm around Fernandez’s waist. “Now this is one of my favorites. Don’t let her tough exterior fool you, Violet. She’s tough on the outside, but marshmallow cream on the inside.”

            Fernandez blew out her breath. “And don’t let this one fool you, Coltrane. She’s all I’m-from-Africa on the outside…but on the inside…100% low-rider.”

            The affection between them gave me a sharp little pain. I wanted that.

            Dr. Nyaga said, “This one is an example for us all. I want her to go to Africa with me one day soon and speak to my girls over there. They need to see what you can do if only you put your mind to it.”

            Fernandez shook her head. “She gives me too much credit.”

            Dr. Nyaga turned to me. 

            “Violet, Fernandez will complete the last part of your orientation by inserting your internal tracker.”

            Internal tracker? Just how was this tracker going to be inserted, and where?

            Dr. Nyaga said, “It goes under the skin on your left side. It’s not too bad. We’ve all got one.”

            “What’s it for? I mean, isn’t the comm unit supposed to be able to track me?”

            “Yes, of course,” she said. “This is an emergency backup plan. Because we’re under the ocean, and because you’ll frequently be out in that ocean, this is an insurance plan to enable us to find you—if there is any sort of accident.”

            My look to Fernandez said it all.

            Fernandez smiled. “Piece of cake, Newbie. We remove it after the program is completed. You won’t be tagged for life.”

            “Okay,” I said.

            “Raise up your shirt on your left side,” Fernandez said. She swabbed an area near my heart with an alcohol swab. She readied some sort of gun-gadget. “Now, lucky for you, Coltrane, the implanter is also loaded with Zynefercaine, so you won’t feel the tracker going under your skin. Zynefercaine is an instant form of Lidocaine. Very cool.”

            I tried to man up. Piece of cake. Walk in the park.

            “You’ll feel a punch,” she said. “That’s all.”

            The device clicked. She was right. A punch, but no pain.

            “That’s it?”

            “That’s it. I put a butterfly over the site to protect it. Don’t get it wet until tomorrow. You’re good to go.” She took the tray and left.

            Dr. Nyaga smiled. “Now you’re official. She backed her wheelchair up and offered me her hand. I shook it.

            “I hope you’ll be very happy here, Violet. Call on me if I can help you. I can be reached in seconds on the comm system.”

            “I will. Thanks for everything.”

            “They’ll serve dinner in your room. Spend some time getting used to what all you can access from your comm unit. Dr. Boylston will release the three of you at midnight.”

            “Dr. Nyaga?”

            “Yes?”

            “I hope you will show me how you wrap your gele sometime.”

            “Girl, you know just how to get on my good side.”

            Her African laugh was like music trailing down the hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

Midnight came quickly. Speaker-girl’s voice came on.

            “Coltrane?”

            “Yes?”

            “You are being released from Quarantine. Your 24 hours are up. Gather your things, and meet Fenley and McGann in the hall in 5 minutes.”

            “Okay. Thanks.” I made a whirlwind dash to brush my teeth and check my hair. I gathered my belongings, put them in the small canvas bag that had been left for me, and opened the door.

            Julian and Zach appeared at the same time. Dr. Boylston greeted the three of us.

            “Thanks for your cooperation with Quarantine. Everything is in order. Someone will come to get you for breakfast, Coltrane, and you’ll spend the day touring the facilities. If you need anything at all, use the comm system. Fenley and McGann will walk you to your private quarters.”

            He shook my hand and left.

            Here we were—midnight again—Julian, Zach, and Violet.

             I noticed both guys were wearing comm units.

            “You ready?” Zach said.

            I nodded.

            Julian held the door, and I stepped through… into another world.  

            We were in a clear, Plexiglas tunnel. Exterior lights lit the sea and cast eerie, aquatic, shimmery shadows. Walking through the tunnel was like being in an aquarium. Fish glided by. The external lights highlighted the deep aqua-blue of the ocean. It literally took my breath away. I was unaware that I had stopped walking, that I was holding up the group. My mouth hung open.

            “Impressed?” Zach said.

            Some garbled noise came out in place of words.

            “Yeah, we were all like that. It’s still awesome.”

            Julian was watching me. He probably thought I was an idiot. I probably was.

            We were in the tunnel a long time, The Tin Man, Dorothy, and The Scarecrow, walking the yellow brick road. I kept moving my head all around to see one incredible view after the next. I would never get used to it. Wowzilla.

            The tunnel turned left.

            “This is your pod. Apartment number?” Julian said.

            “Oh. Um. Let’s see. I’ve got it: 107. But I don’t have a key. Housekeeping met with me, but I forgot about getting a key.”

            Zach picked up my right wrist. “See this comm unit?”

            “Yes.”

            “This IS your key.”

            We arrived at a set of clear glass doors.

            “Hold your hand up like this,” Zach said, “right over the receptor.”

            The doors parted, and we walked through. We were in what looked like a really cool hotel lobby. The room was oval-shaped and had sofas and tables and video games and a snack area. Several people were lounging on sofas, talking, or watching the news on a giant television screen.

            The news anchor’s voice sounded urgent. “More cases of a resistant strain of virus has been found in hogs in China. The CDC is concerned that…”

            “Turn it to something else,” a guy called.

            “Dude, I’m waiting for the soccer scores.”

            “Get it on your comm.”

            “You get it on your comm.” 

            “This is the Pod One lobby,” Zach said. “Your apartment is around this way.” He turned left down a long, curving hallway. I was glad he didn’t stop to introduce me to the television crowd.

            “Here you are. 107.” Zach raised his eyebrows and pointed at my comm with his eyes.

            I held my wrist to the receptor, and the door opened with a soft click.

            “Look at you,” Zach said. “Okay. See you tomorrow. Or, I guess I should say later today.”

            “Thanks,” I said.

            “You going to be okay?” It was Julian. I hadn’t noticed his eyes before. A strange shade of…hazel?

            I smiled. “Fire-eater, remember?” Do you think I’m a baby? Geeze.

            He nodded. “Okay then. Goodnight.”

            I watched them leave and turned to check out my new home.

            Wow. My room. My space. My duffle on the bed. Mine.

            There was a bed, closet, dresser, nightstand, and so forth, and an enormous round bubble window with an underwater view. I felt like dancing. I was here. I was in. It was great to have my own stuff. My plan was to put on pajamas and crash, but I never made it that far.

            As soon as I unzipped the overstuffed duffle, Beanie Bear popped out of the top. Liam must have stuffed him in before I left. Beanie was his most precious possession. I’d given it to him for his birthday the year he turned three. Beanie had gone on picnics, to the doctor’s office, overnight at Aunt Maggie’s, up in our treehouse, and a gazillion other places. Liam slept with Beanie nightly, but he had given him to me. Given me his precious.

            Beanie’s lumpy, scraggly, fuzzy body smelled like my little brother.

            Liam. Liam. I shouldn’t have left you. Dad is too busy. I left you alone.

            I was glad the guys were gone. I would have been mortified if Julian, especially, had seen me. I lay back on the bed and crushed Beanie to me. I howled into that bear. Howled. I cried myself to sleep. The night passed, and I was unaware.

            “Coltrane?”

            I jerked awake. Speaker-girl’s voice now came from my right wrist.

            “Yes?”

            “This is your wake up call. Epstein is picking you up for breakfast at 0700.”

            I looked at the clock. I had 30 minutes.

            “Thanks.” I was curious. “Can you see me?”

            Speaker-girl laughed. “No, not unless you put it on video. Why?”

            Yeah, why? “Cause I look terrible.” Lame.

            “Just don’t be late,” Speaker-girl said. “You have a full schedule.”

            “Thanks.” How did we end one of these conversations? “Uh, do I say goodbye?”

            She laughed again. “Just say, Understood. That way I know you got the message.”

            “Okay. Understood.”

            “Oh, and Coltrane?”

            “Yes?”

            “Has anyone told you about your 30/60?”

            “30/60?” Had they? “I don’t think so.”

            “Well, here at OSCAR we conserve fresh water. You have 30 seconds to wet your body. Take whatever time you need to wash and shampoo, but you only have 60 seconds to rinse, so keep that in mind.”

            “You’re kidding, right?” She probably played this on all new crewmembers. 30/60. Ha ha ha ha ha. So funny.

            “Not kidding. You’ll get used to it.”

            Not kidding. 30/60. “Uh, understood.” Anything else? “Uh, what is your name? You know mine.”

            “Fillinger. I work switchboard.”

            “Have a good day, Fillinger.”

            “Thanks. You, too.”

            When she signed off, I looked out the giant window. Fish, filtered sunlight, SCUBA divers. SCUBA divers! One got the attention of the others and pointed. They all waved. I was too astonished to move. They swam across my bubble window.

            I’d slept in my clothes. My hair was a tangle of knots. My French braid had come undone during the night. I badly needed to brush my teeth and rinse my mouth. I needed privacy, though. I couldn’t be on display all the time.

            Just for the heck of it, I pressed the button on my comm and said, “Close window.” Immediately the glass turned frosty. Amazing. Instant obedience. I laughed out loud. I could learn to love it here.

            The bathroom, too, was insane, especially the shower. There was a recommended temperature setting on the computerized panel that could be turned warmer or cooler. I decided to leave it where it was. I pressed the first button and wet my wash cloth, body, and hair during the first 30 second spray. I had just enough time. I soaped up, washed my hair, and pressed the second button. There wasn’t time to goof around, but 60 seconds—believe it or not—was enough time to rinse, condition, and rinse my hair again. I pressed the third button. Warm jets of air dried my body and feet. It felt great, and I couldn’t help laughing because it was genius. I pressed the fourth button. Bigger jets dried my hair, causing it to fly out in all directions. Crazy. Next time I’d know to have my hairbrush with me.

            When I stepped out of the shower, I thought that would be it, but there was more razzle dazzle. Beautiful music came from speakers somewhere in the room. The extraordinary thing was that it was one of my favorite, go-to pieces when I felt like flying around the house back home. I had no idea how they’d known to play that song, but it lifted my mood to the clouds, or whatever passed for clouds deep under the ocean.

            When it comes to music, I’m a little nuts. I play music in the car, music when I’m cleaning or cooking, music when I’m studying. I sang to Liam when I rocked him to sleep or when he was afraid of storms. I sang all the time, really. My musical tastes are eclectic. No one would believe my playlist. I love the weirdest stuff. The piece that was playing this morning was pure magic. How had they known? It was crazy cakes.

            I hurried to get into uniform. I was dressed and ready when I heard a loud knock at the door. I opened it. A force of Nature blew into my room.

            “I’m Epstein. Good morning. I’m your tour guide for the day.”

            Whoa. Epstein had brown curly hair that bounced around in all directions and a bigger-than-life personality. Like, really big. Huge.

            “You’re looking at my hair, right? I get it. It’s wild, like me. Can’t tame it. Can’t really brush it. Might as well grow it out and scare little children with it, right?”

            I liked her immediately. “Hi. I’m Violet. I mean, Coltrane.”

            “Yeah, I got that from the comm. Plus you’re all over the Bubble Babble.”

            “Bubble Babble?”

            “The scoop. The buzz. The talk. You know: we’re under water, so we call it the Bubble Babble.”

            “Right.”

            “Yep, you’re pretty much the topic of conversation these days. You know. New girl. Hot. Yummy.”

            “Uh, I might be the new girl, but I’m certainly not hot. I hate to disappoint everyone.”

            She laughed. Curls bounced alarmingly. “Yeah, right. Have you seen yourself?”

            “I’m ready to go.”

            “Good. I’m starving. Let’s hit chow first while the good stuff is still there.”

            “Do I need to lock my door?”

            “Happens automatically with your comm as you leave.”

            Epstein walked me through another maze of clear, Plexiglas tubes toward the dining room. The sea was brighter than the night before, and it still shocked me to see we were surrounded by turquoise water, schools of fish, the occasional larger fish, and SCUBA divers.

            We turned a corner and the tube was much larger.

            “Main street,” Epstein said. I shook my head. Main Street. Main Street under the sea.

            Two guys stopped us.

            “Ep, is this the new girl?” From the looks on their faces, they were all about mischief and sneaky stuff.

            “Well, who else could it be, Taylor? Guys, this is Violet Coltrane. She’s on SCUBA One.”

            “Hey,” the taller guy said, “I’m Taylor. I’m on SCUBA Two. Maintenance.”

            The other guy, said, “Nice to meet you, Coltrane. I’m Dan. SCUBA One Captain. Maybe we can hang out sometime.”

            “Hi.” I felt shy. An awkward moment of silence passed.

            “Later,” Epstein said. We kept walking. She knew everyone we passed. “Coltrane, you’re going to love it here. This is an awesome place, I guarantee.”

            She spotted a couple walking toward us and called to them. “Judy. George. Come meet Violet.”

            The man and woman were older, older than Dad, but Epstein called them by their first names.

            “Violet Coltrane, I’d like for you to meet George and Judy Skerski. They’re officially Skerski One and Skerski Two but everyone—even the captain—calls them George and Judy.”

            George had friendly eyes and a sweet face. “Welcome. Happy to meet you.”

            “Thanks.”

             Judy could have been my Aunt Maggie’s twin. No kidding. “You look just like my mother’s sister,” I said.

            Judy smiled. “Then let’s be family, okay?” She hugged me. “Epstein, I’m keeping this one,” she said. Her hug felt great.

            “Not today,” Epstein said. “My orders are to give her the OSCAR tour. But tomorrow…we could negotiate.” I wish I was like that, clever, quotable.

            “Nice to meet you,” I said.

            We arrived at the dining room.

            Epstein stopped just before we went in. “You know, Coltrane, you’re about to bust this place wide open.”

            “What?” I tried to keep the alarm out of my voice. “Why?”

            “Cause we’ve all been looking forward to meeting you,” she said. “Your arrival is like a match going off in a fireworks display.”

            “Don’t make a big scene, okay?”

            “Of course not.” She drew the worlds out as though talking to a child.

            She smiled and opened the door to the dining room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

I’ve always been fascinated with documentaries that show rock stars back stage just before they go on. Their people psych them up. The stars grab a quick sip of water. At the announcer’s voice, and the explosion of guitar music, they burst out on stage. Cell phone flashes form thousands of starbursts. The audience goes wild. I had imagined what that would be like, and now I knew.

            Epstein’s over-the-top voice filled the room.

            “Here she is: Violet Coltrane, our new crewmember!”

            I’m an extravert. I love attention. I enjoy speaking in public. I’ve danced in front of thousands of people. But I wasn’t expecting to be a celebrity. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I thought I might have to prove myself before anyone would give me the time of day. After all, I was the girl who lost out by one point. Maybe they liked the other girl and would resent my taking her place.

            Did I look stupid with a cheesy grin on my face? Did I look like a loser? There was no time to dwell on it, because Epstein was working it like we were prizefighters about to take the ring. The whole room of people clapped, shook my hand, or said their names and work stations. Stupid-looking or not, I put on my best rock star smile and tried to keep up with the curly-headed berzerkazoid who pulled me around the room. I would kill her later.

            Epstein finally stopped at the table where her friends were sitting. “Hi, everyone. We’re going to go get some breakfast,” she said. “I’m starving.”

            The breakfast buffet was outstanding, with everything from blueberries to bacon to an omelet station. For a breakfast girl, it was another home run.

            “Is it like this every morning?” I said.

            “Just about,” Epstein said. “The chefs vary some things. Last week we had a full-on Mediterranean with hummus, pita bread, olives, sardines, and a whole bunch of other stuff.”

            “I’ll have to be careful. I’ll get fat eating like this every day.”

            Epstein laughed. “You haven’t seen how much walking you’re going to do every day. Plus, you’re on SCUBA One. Eat up. I’m on SCUBA Two and I need every calorie I can get my hands on.”

            Epstein cheerfully filled her plate. “I’m a Jew, but girl, I can’t pass up crispy bacon. My mom would die if she knew.”

            “I’m not judging.”

            Epstein’s friends were fun. There was teasing, but everyone was hungry and mostly involved in eating. Between bites, I took a better look at the people. I was surprised to see some kids Liam’s age.

            “Hey, they have kids here?” Wow.

            “Yeah, a few. There’s some married couples and a few oldies, too. Remember Judy and George? They’re like grandparents to everyone, and then there’s about eight or nine little kids. They go to school here.”

            “Really?” What a shocker. This was a city. An underwater city. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

            “I think it’s because OSCAR wanted this experimental living to reflect more of the general population. That’s why they didn’t use people from the Navy. Just a few of the top brass.”

            I tried to picture Liam living here. Liam. The thought of him reminded me about Beanie Bear. My eyes watered.

            “I have a little brother.”

            “You can talk to him, you know, right from your comm. Or, you can see him better on the big screen in your apartment.” She smiled. “I could even come meet him some time. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. How old is he?”

            “Eight.”

            “Yikes. Are you close?”

            I didn’t even have to think about it.

            “Yeah. Our mom died when Liam was one. I’ve been like his mother ever since.”

            “How old were you when she died?”

            “I was 12. It’s been seven years, but I think about her every day.”

            “Wow. So, who does all the cleaning and cooking and stuff?”

            “We all pitch in. My dad’s a veterinarian. His office is right next door to our house. A cleaning lady comes in twice a week. I keep up with the laundry and do most of the cooking.”

            “That sucks.” She made a face. “I mean, don’t you think you’re too young for all that?”

            “In a way. The hard part is not having my mom. I miss all the things we did together. The other stuff I do around the house isn’t too bad. Taking care of my brother is…complicated. I mean, I love him and all, but he leaves messes everywhere and he’s a picky eater, and sometimes he has nightmares.”

            “But, you’re like…18—”

            “19.”

            “So right…yeah…but that’s a lot of responsibility for a girl 19. Don’t you just want to get away sometimes? Not be the mama-to-the kid? Does your dad make you keep him all the time?”

            “No, it’s not like that. My dad doesn’t make me do anything. My dad’s cool.”

            Epstein chewed her lip. “Did you hate to leave them, or are you glad to get away for a while?”

            “Both, I guess. It’s good to be off on an adventure.” I nodded. “But, I already miss them. And, I still have work here to do, so it’s not a vacation, really.”

            Epstein shook her head, and her curls did the crazy-dance again. “Not me, girl. I’m glad to get away, period. I needed space, I needed time for just me, and, I needed to get away from all the women in my family who want me to get married. They’re totally meshugganah.”

            Married? At our age? That was the farthest thing from my mind.

            Breakfast was over. Everyone seemed ready to go somewhere, like they had appointments and didn’t want to be late.

            “Let’s get started,” Epstein said. “We’ve got a whole lot of ground to cover and only one day to do it.”

            “Let’s go.” I was eager. Epstein switched into teaching mode.

            “Our first stop is the Ag Dome. OSCAR is made up of 11 giant domes made of six-inch thick Plexiglas.” Epstein walked like she was going to a BOGO sale, but I was used to hustling. We passed all kinds of people in the tunnel.

            “Oh! Do we have time for me to go get my camera? I forgot.”

            Epstein never broke stride. “No need. Your comm takes pictures.”

            The Ag Dome was not far from the dining room, and, as Epstein had said, was covered by its own enormous, clear dome. The size of it left me speechless. You could’ve fit my entire high school in there. Seriously big.

            “This is where the Ag Team grows fruits and vegetables, just like on a farm.” She took two pairs of goggles from a bin near the door. “Here. Put these on. They use special growing lights and we’re supposed to wear these for protection.” She opened a tall cabinet and handed me a pair of white overalls, a cloth cap, and a pair of plastic shoe covers that came up to our knees.

            I must have looked shocked. “I know. It’s weird,” she said. “But it’s required.”

            Epstein showed me how to tuck my hair so that it was completely covered by the cap. “I forgot once, and look at my hair. It used to be short and straight.” She gave me a face. “Kidding. Kidding.”

            A guy a little younger than Dad greeted us. “I’m Wingers. My team and I are in charge of everything in this building. We have a working farm in one area, and hydroponic and aeroponic crops in another. We use a variety of growing lights, and some are hard on your eyes.” He leaned in close. “I’ll have to do a lot of pointing, because we use internal ventilation fans, and they’re loud.”

 

            Wingers knew his stuff. We walked up and down rows of fruits, vegetables, salad greens, peppers. I lost count. Water jets sprayed a fine mist on some plants. Others were watered with drip tubes. It was interesting to see the foods we would be eating. Fresh herbs. Sprouts. Lettuce. Spinach. The whole place smelled healthy.

            We finally took off the goggles and gear. Wingers added one last explanation. “Coltrane, you’re looking at a marvel. Who would ever think we could grow food under the sea? Many of these varieties were contributed by American, Chinese, French, and Indian farmers and adapted by Naval researchers. We are now proving that in the case of real survival, we can produce fresh foods we would need. Food from a can has one-fourth the nutritional benefits of fresh foods.”

            “My grandparents had a farm, but nothing like this. Thanks for showing me around.”

Epstein and I were turning to head to the poultry farm when we heard an enormous crash. We not only heard it, but we could feel the impact through our shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

I instinctively covered my ears from the shattering blasts of the Klaxon horn, which sounded every few seconds. I fought down waves of panic, immediately looking up to see if the dome was holding. It was.

            “SCUBA One and Two to Central Command stat!” This repeated several times over the loud speaker.

            Epstein took off running and motioned for me to follow. I stayed on her heels, no idea what was happening. My stomach was one big stress ball.

            Central Command was a large control center with a 360° view of the ocean. As Epstein and I came skidding in, others were arriving.

            “An aircraft has crashed into the sea,” the captain announced. At least I presumed he was the captain. “That was the explosion we just felt and heard. It was especially loud because of our underwater microphones. There might be survivors. We must act quickly.” He faced the small crowd pressing in. “SCUBA One and Two gear up and launch. Fenley, take lead. I’ll rely on you for eyes and ears. Divers, take the scooters, extra tanks, and masks. We’re triangulating sonar as we speak.” He paused. “Wear face comm dive helmets. No exceptions.”

            A woman who must have been second-in-command said, “Look out for each other. We’ve already alerted the Coast Guard and Naval Security, but you’ll be first-on-scene.” She paused. “You’ve drilled for this. We’re counting on you.”

            Everyone scattered.

            “Gotta go,” Epstein said. She was off in a flash with the others. I decided to stay put. No way was I leaving Central Command unless someone forced me to. This was too exciting, and I wanted to know what was going on. I wedged into a corner and tried to calm the knot that was now my stomach.

            A plane crash. Could there possibly be survivors? I couldn’t believe this was happening my first day. Kids my own age were going to the rescue.

            In minutes, divers were in the water, passing the giant windows of Central Command, propelled by powerful diving scooters. They wore close-fitting bubble helmets on their heads and long fins on their feet. I felt a thrill. They looked almost alien, like they had come from another planet. Would I be asked to do something like this? I was assigned to SCUBA One.

            “Mercer, turn up the volume on the transducer.” It was the captain.

            “Sir, yes sir.”

            “Is it set to 12 kiloHertz?”

            “Yes sir.”

            “Have you finished triangulating?”

            “Almost sir. The computer is calculating now.” There was a pause. “Got it,” Mercer said.

            “Go audio guidance,” the captain said.

            Mercer flipped some switches and spoke into a headset. “Attention, divers. Destination is 23 degrees southwest from your present position. Correct heading.”

            Seconds ticked by.

            A voice came over the speaker. Julian’s voice. “Heading corrected.”

            For the first time it dawned on me that it was Julian out there leading the search. I had heard Fenley, but somehow I had missed that it was Julian.

            Mercer continued. “Heading corrected understood. Stay this course. The object you seek is 421 meters dead ahead. Just over a quarter of a mile.” The divers were no longer visible through the Plexiglas walls of the Central Command.

            “Go large screen,” the captain said.

            Mercer spoke aloud while his fingers flew over the computer keyboard.

            “Large screen with diver I.D. and location.”

            Computerized images of all the divers appeared on a huge three-sided screen in the middle of the room. The location of each diver was identified by his name and a diver icon. We watched them move across the screen. Epstein. Taylor. Dan. Julian. Others. It reminded me of a video game, except that this was for real. If there were survivors, it could be life and death.

            Quit holding your breath, Violet.

            “Staying course,” Julian said. “SCUBA One, right flank. SCUBA Two, left and rear. Tight formation. Buddy system.”

            A chorus of voices answered. “Understood.”

            Long seconds ticked by.

            Mercer broke the silence. “The object you seek is 200 meters ahead.”

            “Understood 200 meters ahead.”

            More silence. More waiting.

            The captain spoke. “Fenley, your job and the job of your divers is to search for survivors only. Observe. Relay your findings. Do not go into the aircraft even if you find it intact. Understood?”

            “Understood observe only,” Julian said. “Team, did you copy?”

            Again, voices came back. “Understood.”

            Julian. Julian showing up for my dance competition. Commanding me to accept the position with OSCAR. Arrogant. Bossy. Leading this search for survivors. He was many things.

            The woman announced, “Captain, Coast Guard has dispatched a rescue team via helicopter. Their divers will be in the water ETA 20 minutes.”

            “Survivors might not last 20 minutes,” the Captain said.

            Someone slipped in next to me. Zach. I was glad for the company.

            “Julian,” I whispered, pointing.

            Zach nodded. “Figured.”

            I bit my cuticles raw. Zach sat rigid. Our eyes stayed focused on the screen.

            “We just received word from FAA that this is a Gulfstream G450 private jet with two pilots and eight passengers,” the woman said.

            “Fenley,” the captain called. “Your eyes-on target is a small private jet. A Gulfstream G450.”

            “Fifty meters,” Mercer said. “You should see it soon.”

            “I have visual,” Julian said. “Moving in closer.”

            “SCUBA One and SCUBA Two are 75 feet from target,” Mercer announced.

            “What do we have?” the captain said. “Go visual.”

            The computerized icons disappeared from the screen. Instead, we saw chaotic images: eerie beams of light, a hand, sea grass. It gradually became clear that we were looking at things from a camera mounted on Julian’s helmet.

            “One and Two, approach only. Hand signal.” It was Julian’s commanding voice.

            “Understood.” Divers swam in different directions.

            We waited.

            “We’ve got survivors,” Julian said. “I can see movement through the windows.”

            “Repeat, observe only until I give you orders. Is the fuselage intact?”

            On the screen we saw divers looking at the front of the plane. They communicated with hand signals. Julian’s helmet cam panned in several directions, sending chaotic images back to our screen.

            “Fenley? Report,” the captain said. We waited for Julian’s answer.

            “It looks like the cockpit is a no-go, Sir. It must have shattered on impact.” The visual on the screen showed shadowy images of the rest of the plane. “The passenger area and the tail look intact. There’s no wing on this side. I can’t see the other side yet.”

            “Any falling debris?”

            “That’s a negative.”

            The captain and the woman second-in-command conferred.

            I nudged Zach and pointed with my eyes. “Who are they, exactly?”

            “Captain Jasper. The woman is Lieutenant Commander Brady. LC. They’re the Navy brass in charge.”

            “Captain, how should we proceed?” Julian said. “We have survivors.”

            “So you said. You’re sure?”

            “One hundred percent.”

            “Is the plane resting on the bottom?”

            “Yes sir, but at a weird angle. The cockpit is hanging over a deeper ravine.” 

            “Can you wait for Coast Guard divers? ETA 10 minutes?”

            “The plane is compromised, sir. Passengers are banging at the windows. It looks as if sea water is leaking in.”

            “Then there’s no time to wait. Can you get the survivors out without entering the plane?”

            Julian said. “We’ll do our best.”

            “Do not allow your divers to enter the cabin. Make the passengers exit. Understood?” His voice was sharp.

            “Understood do not enter cabin.”

            Captain Jasper said to the LC, “I’m not going to risk the lives of these kids.”

            Lieutenant Commander Brady spoke over the microphone. “Fenley, do you have access to the door hatch?”

            “Yes sir. It’s now on top.”

            Brady continued. “When your team removes the door, the passengers might panic because sea water will immediately rush in. As they exit, divers will need to be ready with the masks, tanks, and panic-pens.”

            “Understood. My team is standing by with equipment.”

            “There are eight passengers, two pilots.

            “Understood eight and two, but the two pilots might be dead.”

            I tasted blood. I had bitten my cuticles raw.

            The captain said, “Fenley, I’m giving you the comm.”

            “Copy. Taking comm. One and Two, listen for my instructions.”

            My heart jackhammered against my ribs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

It was not easy to follow all the actions. Divers crossed Julian’s path. Swirls of sand rose and fell. Headlights from the diving scooters lit up the scene.

            Divers crowded the windows of the plane. I couldn’t be positive, but It looked like they were holding up masks and SCUBA tanks. Was this to reassure the survivors that they would have a way to breathe? Thinking about not being able to breath under water made me gasp.

            The wrecked plane was laying on its side. Julian directed two divers to the door hatch on top. At his signal, they twisted the outside handle. Nothing happened. They strained again and again. Nothing. Others came to help, but the door wouldn’t budge.

            Julian’s voice came through. “Listen up. The hatch will not open manually. We’ve practiced directional explosive extraction drills. You guys did great. This time it’s for real. Epstein, place charges. Vardo and Leyzer, assist.”

            The three divers swam up to the hatch. One diver, probably Epstein, took something from a pouch strapped to her leg. She and the other two divers bent over the hatch.

            “Diego, use your message board to tell the passengers to move toward the tail,” Julian said. “Urge them to stay calm. When the door blows, they need to move forward to the hatch.”

            Diego moved to the windows with his message board and a few moments later called, “They’re in place.”

            Epstein, Vardo, and Leyzer swam down from the top. “Charges set?” Julian said. They gave him a thumbs up.

            “SCUBA One and Two behind me,” Julian said. “When the door blows, our primary goal is to get to the passengers. Remember: we are not to enter. They will have to exit.”

            “Understood.” I heard urgency in their voices. I closed my eyes and ran my hand through my hair. Would I be able to do something like this? Would I panic?

            Julian’s order was loud and clear. “Epstein, make it rain.”

            There was an explosion, and a torrential rush of air blew the hatch out of view. Everyone, including Julian, swam to the opening to help the passengers.  

            The first survivor pushed up from the open hatch. Then another. Two divers tag-teamed each passenger. While one diver covered the survivor’s face with an air mask, the other jabbed him in the leg with some sort of device. The victims jerked violently, then melted into immediate calm. Those divers moved the passenger along the way, and other divers strapped the oxygen tanks to his back.

            I asked Zach, “Panic-pen?”

            “Yeah. Some people lose it big-time when they think they’re going to drown.”

            That would be me.

            “Fernandez did a training, and we all had to be certified to use them in an emergency.”

            Julian spoke. “SCUBA One, SCUBA Two, I need a survivor count. Call in.”

            Their answers came over the speaker.

            “One.”

            “Two and three.”

            “Four.”

            “Five.”

            “Six.”

            “Here’s seven.”

            Julian’s voice came again. “That’s seven. All breathing?”

            Divers called in to assure Julian that the survivors were breathing.

            “Does anyone have eight?” No response.

            “Did anyone see number eight at the windows? Silence.

            “Does anyone have the pilots?” Silence.

            “Has anyone checked the cockpit? It looked smashed, but I want to be sure.”

            “I have.” It was Dan. “The windshield is shattered. Cockpit’s full of water. The two pilots are dead.”

            “Captain? Lieutenant Commander? We have seven survivors. The pilots are dead. Should I send the team back to OSCAR Command with survivors?”

            “Negative,” Captain Jasper said. “The Coast Guard should be arriving on scene momentarily. They’ll take them to the surface for evac.”

            I whispered to Zach, “Why doesn’t our team take the survivors to the surface and just meet the Coast Guard?”

            Zach shook his head. “Our mandate is to stay 10 feet below the surface at all times unless absolutely necessary.”

            Wow. You’re kidding. Doesn’t this seem absolutely necessary?

            Zach saw my face. “That’s why it was such a big deal when we surfaced to come get you. They want us submerged at all times.”

            I thought about that. This whole OSCAR thing was a much bigger deal than I had realized. I cringed when I remembered demanding my own way.

            “Understood,” Julian said. “Captain? I’m going to check the cabin one more time.”

            “Seven survivors are accounted for, Fenley. The Coast Guard divers will do further reconnaissance.”

            “Sir, as team leader, it’s my responsibility to at least look for the eighth survivor.”

            The captain practically barked his response. “Please respect my word!”

            Whoa. Zach and I exchanged looks.

            “Please respect my on-scene assessment!” Julian’s voice was just as fierce.

            .

            There was a pause. The captain looked in deep thought. He conferred quietly with the LC.

            “Alright, Fenley. Proceed with caution.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            As Julian moved, the scene grew chaotic again, with flecks of light, and whirls of bubbles. There was sudden movement. Sand swirled and cut off our view.

            The captain spoke. “Fenley? Eyes and ears.”

            “Sir, the fuselage is slipping toward the ravine.”

            “Then back away. I don’t want you getting trapped in there.”

            “Sir, I hear something.”

            “Repeat: Back away.”

            “Sir, someone is calling for help. I must at least check.”

            The captain’s voice was reluctant. “Take every precaution.”

            Julian’s spoke to his divers. “All units remain in place with survivors. Coast Guard will be arriving momentarily. Dan, I need a spotter.” Another diver joined Julian and swam to the open hatch.

“Going in.”

            It was impossible to see inside the cabin. Instead, I imagined Julian’s arms pulling him forward through seawater, fighting his way through darkness and debris. We heard bubbly swirls and an eerie, high-pitched wail. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. 

            Julian’s head must have found an air pocket because the high-pitched cries grew louder. The distorted noises sounded like a child.

            A child. Oh, dear God. I grabbed Zach’s shoulder with a death grip.

 Julian’s voice came over the comm. He spoke like had all the time in the world.

            “Hi there. I’m Julian. What’s your name?”

            “Everybody left me! I can’t get out!”

            Julian’s voice was soothing. “That’s why I’m here. I’m going to get you out.”

            “Am I going to die?”

            “Not today,” Julian said.

            “Are you an alien?”

            Julian laughed. “I probably look like one, Buddy. Now, hold still while I unbuckle your seat belt.”

            “You can’t. It’s stuck.”

            “Not for long. We divers carry knives just for times like this.”

            There was a pause. “See? How easy was that?”

            “I’m Isaac,” the voice said. “I’m six.”

            “I’m Julian. I’m 24.”

                        A loud scraping noise made it impossible to hear Julian. Zach gripped my free hand.

            “Fenley, the aircraft is tipping. Get out.” It must have been Dan, Julian’s spotter. His voice was urgent.

            My knees shook violently.

            “Isaac,” Julian said, his voice still calm. “Time to go. I’m going to put this mask over your face so no water gets in and you can breathe. Arms around my neck. Close your eyes. Here we go.”

            Thirty seconds ticked by.

            “Fenley?” It was the captain. Fifteen more seconds passed. “Fenley, acknowledge.” More seconds passed. “Acknowledge.”

            There was more scraping and several deep, shuddering thumps.

            I saw black spots before my eyes and gulped in air.

            “Captain.” It was Julian’s voice. “The aircraft slipped down into the ravine. I had difficulty getting out. But, we have survivor number eight. His name is Isaac, and he’s six.”

            The command center burst into applause. Zach let out a long breath. There were similar reactions all around the room. My legs—complete Jello.

            Captain Jasper spoke over the speaker. “This is the Captain. We have another survivor, a six-year-old boy named Isaac. That makes eight for Coast Guard floor to surface escort.”

            My breathing began to calm.

            My first day as part of the OSCAR community wasn’t even half over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

What a difference an hour makes.

Central Command was all buzzy-buzzy with shouts and whoops and congratulations. I joined the crowd that went to greet the divers as they resurfaced through Ocean Entry. Those that stood around the opening pool reached down to take their scooters and give them a hand up.

            Do I belong here among these gods and goddesses? Could I save someone’s life like that? I’m just a kid. But so are they.

            Three days ago, it was all dirty clothes and what’s-for-supper and the Argentine tango. Today it was propulsion scooters and panic-pens and survivors. Panic-pens. That’s what I need right now. A panic-pen.

            We welcomed the divers like conquering heroes. They were heroes. Heroes with dripping hair. Champions in diving fins. They fist-bumped, high-fived, and cheered along with us. It was weird. This would be my group, SCUBA One and Two, but for now I was still on the outside looking in. I would be a part of them, but not today. Today I was just a groupie.

            Captain Jasper called for a debriefing, so the rest of us drifted away in small clusters, chattering about the rescue. Epstein was with the divers, and Zach was gone, so I decided to check out OSCAR on my own. I didn’t want to have another day’s setback because I hadn’t completed the tour. The question was, where to begin? I wouldn’t be able to see everything in one day, but it was a start.

            I spoke into my comm unit. “Dr. Nyaga, please.”

            “Good morning, Violet. Nyaga here. If you want video, touch the screen.”

            Her face came into view. “Lots of excitement,” she said. That smile.

            “Unreal. I’m still processing.”

            “I, as well.”

             “Is it possible for me to get a map and a roster for the OSCAR facility? Epstein was giving me a tour, but she’s involved in the debriefing, so I thought I’d finish the tour on my own.”

            “Sure. Stop by Communications. We’re near Central Command.”

            Dr. Nyaga was waiting for me at the door. Today her gele was hot pink with tiny giraffes. She handed me a colored map printed on heavy paper.

            “You can get the map on your comm, but this large version is also nice.”

            “Thanks.”

            “Excellent idea to continue the tour on your own. ‘You cannot roast corn with two eyes.’ That’s a saying in my village in Nigeria.” She laughed. “Everyone knows about the rescue. Just introduce yourself. The whole purpose is for you to familiarize yourself with the specific sites.”

            “Thanks.” It was impossible not to smile at her, just for no reason at all.

            “While you’re here, come in and meet my staff. Central Command might be the brains of OSCAR, but Communications is the heart.”

            Communications was surrounded on three sides by see-through Plexiglas walls that showcased a wide view. Large television screens covered the fourth wall.

            Dr. Nyaga took me around to various desks and stations. I met speaker-girl—Morgan—so now I could put a face to her wake up voice.

            “We have direct visual communication with Samantha Matisse at OSCAR Terra Firma, OSCAR Launch, and other important communication centers. Sometimes we talk to the President of the United States and her staff.”

            “Really?”

            “Yes ma’am. She keeps up with all the details about OSCAR.” She pushed a few keys on her keyboard and checked some numbers on a list. “I can’t let you speak with the president just now, but let’s see if I can raise someone else.” She extended her two pointing fingers and thumbs on both hands so that they each made an L shape. She moved them in front of a large screen. It was impossible to keep up with the sequence.

            Dr. Nyaga spoke into her earpiece. “Good morning. This is Dr. Persennia Nyaga from the Oceanic Submerged Community and Research project.” There was a pause. “Nice to meet you, too. Would you please turn on your screen? We are attempting a visual communication.” Another pause.

            I wasn’t prepared for Dad’s face to appear, four times larger than life.

            “Dad!”

            “Violet, hello!”

            Dad! 

            “Are you alright? Do you miss me yet? Where is Monkey?”

            Dad laughed. “Everything’s fine. Of course we miss you. Your brother’s right here.”

            Dad stepped aside and Liam appeared on screen. I grinned.

            “Hey, Vi. Guess what? Brody is spending the night Friday.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah. We’re going to watch movies in your room. Dad said we could order a pizza.”

            “You didn’t waste any time making yourself home in my room.”

            “Yeah, right?”

            Dad came back on. “Are you seeing amazing things?”

            “You can’t imagine. Just this morning there was an undersea rescue. A plane went down, and we were the closest to it. Very exciting.”

            “Wow.”

            I didn’t want to tie up the line for too long. I was sure Dr. Nyaga was doing this as a favor.

            “I love you guys. Take care of each other for me.” I thought of something. “Hey, would you call Pavel for me? Just tell him I’m okay, and it’s amazing down here. No dancing, though. I miss that.”

            I thanked Dr. Nyaga for the call, consulted my map, and headed out alone to learn as much as I could about the OSCAR Community.

            This place was huge. It seemed so much bigger than it had last night. I visited the game room, laundry, classrooms, Medical, dentist, pizza restaurant, Starbucks, and theater. Every square inch of OSCAR was impressive, especially the athletic center. From what I could tell, no expense had been spared. Everything was innovative and creative. I guess word had spread that the new girl was touring the facilities. Everyone I met was friendly and helpful. I made my way down the clear tube called Main Street that connected all 11 of the OSCAR domes until I got to the last one on this side. The map read, THE PARK.

            I used my comm unit to open the double doors and stopped dead in my tracks. There, in its own domed building, was a humongous park, just enormous, complete with full sized trees, a flowing creek, walkways, benches, and grass—thick, inviting, green grass. Artificial light gave the appearance of sunlight. I even felt its heat on my skin. Cool air blew from who knows where and rustled the branches and leaves of the trees in a breeze. Was this real?

            Magical. Enchanting.

            I crossed over a curved footbridge and studied the creek. A small waterfall cascaded at one end, and the light was bright enough to illuminate a variety of colored fish swimming through the currents. It was breathtaking.

            I followed the path that winded through the park and found secret sitting places where you could spend time if you just felt like being alone. There was an ice cream wagon, painted pastel colors, but no one was manning it. In fact, the entire park was deserted. Maybe everyone had jobs, and I was the only one free to wander about.

            I could have stayed the rest of the day. I wanted to try out one of the hammocks and walk the paths between flowerbeds. The flowers reminded me of kaleidoscopes: their colors and varieties changed every few feet.

            Unbelievable. How can this be under the ocean? How is it possible?

            There were trees—big ones. One of the largest trees had a smooth, thick trunk and massive branches. Liam and I had climbed most of the large trees in our neighborhood, and it was one of our favorite pastimes, especially at the age he was now. I put my foot in the crotch of the trunk, found the toe-holds, and pushed up toward the top. A high, thick branch forked to the left. I moved aside leafy branches, and sat down. The leaves closed around me, and formed a little private hiding place. Perfect. This was just what I needed after all the excitement of the rescue.

            I sat for a while, going over all of the recent experiences in my mind. This is what I wanted. I was really here. Tomorrow I would report to SCUBA One and…

            I heard voices. Footsteps on the gravel. Someone was walking through the park, but from behind the branches I couldn’t see who it was. More voices. It sounded like one person calling to a second person. They were headed this way. There wasn’t time to climb down, so I kept still. I felt weird being hidden, but it would have been more awkward to reveal myself now. They were right beneath the tree.

            It was a guy and a girl. I didn’t have a perfect view of him, but I could see her. She was stunning. I was mortified. I didn’t want to spy.

            “What did you want to talk about?” It was Julian. “I’ve got to get back.”

            She purred like a Dodge Viper.

            “Well, I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you rescuing that little boy.” She paused. “I mean, you saved his life.”

            Julian said, “We all had a part in that. It wasn’t just me.”

            “You and I both know it was all you, Julian.”

            “Not really. Thanks, though.” He cleared his throat. “But what did you want to talk to me about? You said it was important.”

            For the second time today I was observing Julian Fenley.

            The Viper shifted into high gear. “I want you to know that I admire you so much.” She leaned in and put her arms around his neck. “I’ve had a crush on you since orientation.” She was taking the corners at high speed. “And I know you like me. I’d like to show you what I can do for you.” She leaned close.

            Julian swerved. “Whoa, Monty.”

            “What’s wrong?” She pressed in closer.

            “You’re a friend.” He pulled her arms from around his neck. “That’s all.”

            “What?”

            “I said I think of you as a friend, nothing more.”

            The slap echoed like a gunshot. I almost fell out of the tree. Julian reeled. I sat there with my mouth literally hanging open.

            She morphed into a different kind of viper. “You don’t want to kiss me? You’re an idiot, then. Try to find someone who comes close to me down here, and you won’t. I don’t like you, after all.” She set off through the park, and her footsteps crunched on the gravel walkway as she made her way out.

             I sat perfectly still and tried not to make a sound.

            After a long minute, Julian stepped out from under the tree. He didn’t make eye contact, but his voice was directed at me.

            “I know you’re up there, Violet. I saw you climb the tree.” His voice was sharp.

I groped for something to say. No word would come out. My face burned like I imagined his did.

            Julian walked toward the exit. I heard the click of the door behind him. When I was sure he was gone, I climbed down and left, too.

            I didn’t know who Monty was, but I’d seen enough. I’d known other girls like her, girls who expected to get everything they wanted. Selfish, dangerous girls. Monty had taken what was probably one of Julian’s best days and crushed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

At supper, the dining room was all about the rescue. Who was the little boy? Why had the other passengers not helped him get out? What was it like to rescue the survivors? Did you see the dead pilots?

            Fernandez saw me and nodded. She was eating with Dr. Nyaga, so I looked for another table.

            Don’t let me see Julian. Don’t let me see Julian. Why do I always feel so foolish around him?

            I didn’t see him. I sat with Zach and made the discovery that he loved huge, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salads as much as I did.

            “Goat cheese?”

            “You know it. Garbanzos?”

            “For sure. Palm hearts?”

            “Absolutely. Olives?”

            “Three kinds.”

            “Really?”

            “Calamata…Manzanilla…”

            “I don’t even count Manzanilla.”

            “Okay, if you’re going to be that way…Garlic stuffed Queens,” I said. I loved those huge green olives more than popcorn.

            “Marry me.” Such a clown.

            We munched. There is something comforting about eating with a serious salad foodie. Talking is not required. Slurping and dripping pretty much covers it. I was enjoying my blue cheese crumbles when I saw Monty come in. Maybe it was my imagination, but the volume level went down a few notches.

            I tried to sound casual. “Who’s that?” I pointed with my chin.

            “Who? Oh, her?” He made a you-don’t-want-to-know-noise.

            “Tell me. Who is she?”

            “She’s trouble. Keep your distance.”

            I know first-hand. That chick is bad news.

            “But I mean, what does she do here?”

            Zach stabbed a mushroom with his fork. “Well, she’s on SCUBA Two.”

            “But I didn’t see her yesterday when they—”

            “—Yeah, she had a headache and didn’t report.”

            I decided not to mention what I had seen from my tree perch.

            Zach changed the subject. “But who wants to talk about Monty, anyway, when we could talk about cheese?”

            Let the food flirting continue.

            “I’m not sure that I know you well enough,” I said.

            “Roasted brie?”

            “With praline sauce.”

            “Be still my heart.”

            “Homemade…praline sauce.”

            “You vixen.”

            “Are you man enough to discuss…racclette?”

            “You’ve been to Paris?”

            “Racclette is originally from Switzerland.”

            “I might have to have my way with you.”

            “Hey, what do you do here? I don’t even know.”

            “I have the coolest job, so I keep it under wraps.”

            “What? Tell me.”

            “Okay, but only because you’re a fellow gourmand.” I waited. “I’m the school teacher for the kids.”

            “Seriously?” I had not seen that coming.

            “Yep.” He grinned. “I’m a book nerd. Love learning, love teaching, love kids. On Terra Firma I taught middle school for two years. Here I teach twelve kids in five grades.”

            I was surprised and impressed. “How cool for them…and for you.” Zach seemed like a big kid himself. I bet he was a fun teacher.

            “And, I’m the entertainment director.”

            “Get out! Double duty?”

            “This much incredible couldn’t cover just one job.”

            The next morning, I reported to SCUBA One, which met in a classroom in the Aqua Wing. I knew I’d have to see Julian. I had tried to prepare myself.

            You’ve done nothing wrong. You were not spying. You just happened to be there when Monty decided to go all psycho-chick on us. You’ll have to see him sometime, so just get over it.

            It turned out that Dan was the SCUBA One Captain, but Julian Fenley was over both SCUBA One and SCUBA Two. He was also one of the instructors. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. I guess I had just pictured him sitting in the classroom with the rest of the team members. 

            Julian introduced me to the ten members of the team. Cool as a cucumber.

            “This is your new teammate, Violet Coltrane. She’ll be diving with you from now on. She’s got skills. You’ll like her. Welcome, Coltrane.”

            The team gave me the usual good-natured insults and welcomes and fist bumps and high fives. I loved it. Julian continued.

            “Again, good job yesterday. I was proud of you. You worked as a team, and because of that, we saved lives.”

            As he started the lesson, I looked around at the walls. There were colored photos of various members of the team. Underwater pictures of fish, sharks, coral reefs, SCUBA tanks, and more. When I saw a person in one of the pictures I tried to match him or her to the correct team members sitting here in the classroom. I wanted to be able to recognize them, to know them.

            I’m here. I’m part of OSCAR. I’m part of this team.

            “So let’s practice that right now. Buddy up. Coltrane, you’re with me.”

            What? I hadn’t listened to a word.

            Everyone stood and partnered up. I walked to Julian.

            “First, let’s all assume the chest to back position, with the vulnerable partner in front, like this.” He spun me around and pressed his body to my back. His hands closed on my hips and pulled me in tight.

            While everyone got into the same position, Julian hissed, “You weren’t paying attention in class, Coltrane. You’re more interested in the pictures on the walls. That could cost the life of one of your team members.” He was pissed.

            I felt the heat rush to my face.

            He didn’t give me time to answer. “Now we’re going to simulate using an octopus breather system with an injured buddy underwater. Most of your tanks have this ability, but we need practice using it. Some of the time we use helmets, but there are times when we might be using regulators. Who can tell me why we assume chest to back?”

            Someone said, “Because this position keeps the vulnerable partner in your control until they calm down.”

            “Correct,” Julian said. “If I turn her this way—” He spun me around face to face,” she could panic and try to rip off my mask or regulator.” He turned me around again so we were chest to back. “But this way, I’m in control. I can easily reach for the octopus breather, slip it over her shoulder, and give her air.” His hand covered my lips. “Establish a pattern of two breaths per diver. See? Now you try.”

Everyone began.

            I turned to face Julian. “I wasn’t spying in the tree. I was just sitting there.”

            Oh God. Oh God. Why did I say that?

            Julian pushed me back by my shoulders so we were eye to eye. “Coltrane, get your head in the game. You’re still not paying attention.” More anger.

            “Alright,” Julian announced. “Switch places. Remember that the vulnerable diver may be injured, panicky, or fighting to keep conscious. Practicing now could prevent disaster out in the sea.”

            He strolled around the room checking on the various buddies before he came back to me. He stood in front. I put my hands on his hips and pulled him back against me. My chest was pressed to his back. I reached for an imaginary octopus device and realized I was too short to bring it up over his shoulder and to his lips. I slid my hand under his arm and reached his lips with my hand. I held him pressed against me with my other arm wrapped around his abdomen. I felt his two breaths against my fingers and then pulled my hand back to take my own two.

            Julian stopped the class. “Coltrane has just reminded me that sometimes due to height differences you have to pass the octopus up under the arm. In the sea we don’t usually have that difference, but you never know. Practice both ways.”

            He turned to face me. “Better.”

            To the group he said, “Suit up. Rendezvous at the Ocean Entry pool in 15.” He spoke to a girl. “Fleur, show Coltrane diving suit protocol.”

            I felt sad and awkward. I’d fumbled the ball on my first day.

            While we were dressing, Fleur said, “You know the girl you’re replacing had to leave because her parents died.”

            “Really? Both parents? What, were they in some kind of car accident?” I thought of Mom.

            “No. It was kind of strange, actually. Her parents were traveling in China, and got some type of virus. It was quick. Morgan tried to get there in time, but I heard they were already gone when she arrived.”

            “Did she want to come back here?”

            “I don’t know, but, can you imagine losing both your parents at once?”

            Fifteen minutes later, Fleur and I joined the rest of the team at Ocean Entry, the same location we had welcomed them back from the rescue. Only today, I had on the same wet suit the others did. Everyone sat on the edge of the platform to put on swim fins and diving helmets.

            In high school, I’d had the good luck to go to a Florida school that had SCUBA diving as part of the curriculum. We did most of our learning in an Olympic size pool, but occasionally we’d gone on short dives in the Gulf. This was a whole new ballgame. We would be entering the ocean from a depth of 80 feet.

            I tried to pay close attention. I didn’t want to mess up again.

            “What’s our mission, chief?” It was Dan, Julian’s spotter from the day before.

            “It’s Coltrane’s first dive with us,” Julian said. “Let’s swim up to the coral reef.”

            “Lobstering?” Dan said.

            “Yes,” Julian said. “Torgani will love us.”

            Torgani. I had met Chef Sal Torgani on my tour of the OSCAR kitchen. He was the head chef.

            My fellow divers cheered. “Lobstering: Yes!”

             Julian continued.

            “Remember we’re on the buddy system. Stay at least 20 feet under the surface. Tito and Doreen, grab the tickle sticks and nets. Team, what’s the first rule of diving in a coral reef?”

            The group answered as one, “Don’t touch the coral.”

            “And the second rule?”

            “Don’t touch the coral.”

            “Third rule?”

            “Don’t touch the coral.”

            “Coltrane, you’re with me. Stay focused, everyone.”

            I was mortified. What else could I do to show Mr. Perfect that I was a total goob who wasn’t fit to be on this team?

            As SCUBA One captain, Dan fitted my diving helmet, checked the seal and air flow.

            “Good to go,” he said.

             Julian nodded, and we slipped into the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

It was one thing to admire the ocean from the Plexiglas walls of the OSCAR facility. It was another to be in it, surrounded by liquid beauty on all sides. The sun’s rays lit the water so that it shone all around. The rest of the divers were slightly ahead.

            Julian’s voice came through my helmet. “Okay, Coltrane. Stay on my right side, so I can see you.” I gave him a thumbs up. “You can talk. We’re on open comm right now.”

            “Really? I’ve never talked underwater.”

            Someone’s voice said, “Amazing, huh?”

            I thought of a question that had been bugging me. “Hey, how far under the ocean is OSCAR, anyhow?”

            “The units are moored at 110 feet at the bottom.”

            “What exactly do you mean by moored? Isn’t it sitting on the bottom?”

            “We float, actually. We’re tethered to the ocean floor. That gives each building some flexibility in the ocean currents. The tethers are virtually unbreakable, linked to pilings deep in the sand. But the movement is minimal, so you hardly ever feel it.”

            “How far are we going today?”

“The reef we’re going to is at 20 feet. It’s about a 15-minute swim.”

            I was full of questions. “Why don’t we use the scooters like you did yesterday?” I said.

            I heard laughter. Someone said, “Don’t we wish.”

            “Yeah. Ask Fenley about that.”

            Julian laughed. “Violet, we all need to keep solid core strength. Can’t build muscle if we always drive scooters.”

            It was true. As I swam, I used my powerful fins, but I also felt the workout in my abdominal muscles. Epstein was right. I would need every calorie I could burn.

            The water around us was becoming a paler green as we swam, and the ocean floor was sandy white. We passed a school of small silver fish. Their movements were perfectly synchronized, turning sharply together to the left or right.

            “Sardines. Anybody bring a can?”

             A large, rather ugly fish passed us on the right.

            “What’s that?”

            “Grouper,” Julian said. “We have some in our underwater aquarium back at OSCAR.”

            “I’ve eaten lots of grouper. I just didn’t know they looked like that.”

            “How will we know when we’re at the coral reef?” I said.

            Laughter echoed over the comm again. Dan said, “We’re almost there, Violet. You tell us.”

            The divers parted, and the view hit me hard. It was as though we were entering a fairy land. The sun’s rays pierced the white sea bottom and bounced up, illuminating the richest blues and greens I’d ever seen. I’m talking water that was positively turquoise yet crystal clear. Small, brilliantly colored orange and red fish swam in schools. Blue and yellow tangs, clown fish, angelfish, and mollies crisscrossed through the current. It was easy to see the coral shelves that formed the reef, but I wasn’t prepared for the amount of sea life growing on top of it and all around. It was like looking at the most exquisite garden on Earth. A garden of Eden.

            “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, seeing the scene for the first time. There was no mistaking the awe in my voice.

            My fellow divers gave me high fives as they passed. Julian near, watching as I saw everything for the first time. I looked down. I saw sea stars and sand dollars and what I thought were probably giant abalone shells.

            Fleur swam over. “Indescribable, isn’t it? There are over 200 species of fish here. This is one of my favorite places in the sea.” She sounded as giddy as I was.

            Parrotfish nibbled the coral, a dark brown eel wiggled through a coral arch, and an octopus crawled along the bottom on his tentacles. Dan pointed to himself. Tiny damselfish nibbled at his helmet. I shook my head.

            I turned to Julian. “I wouldn’t even have words to describe this.”

            He nodded. “Most people will never get to see it, at least not in person.” He was relaxed and easy, not the guy who barked at me for not paying attention. Ah, the many faces of Julian Fenley.

            “Time for lobstering,” Connor said. “We want to take a load back. Let’s get cracking.”

            Tito and Doreen gave out the tickle sticks and nets.

            “Buddy system,” Julian said. “Coltrane is with me for today. The rest of you call it.”

            “Fleur and Tito.”

            “Dan and Annalise.”

            “Connor and Seth”

            “Julio and Doreen.”

            “Okay,” Julian said, “let’s catch some bugs.”

            We fanned out across the reef. Julian picked a spot for us that was off by itself and showed me the tickle stick. He tied a catch bag around his waist and handed me a short-handled net.

            “We’re looking for spinys,” he said. “They can’t pinch you, so don’t be afraid of them. They don’t have claws like Maine lobsters, but they’re fast.” He guided me close to the coral. “Look for an overhang, anywhere they can hide. “You’ll see their antennae first. They look like sticks poking up from the sand.”

            I swam in close, searching. “Like this? This stick twitched. I just saw it.”

            “Exactly. Good eye. Now, you hold the net down low in front. Come in easy. Yeah, that’s it. I’ll tickle him from the back. Be ready. They shoot out like a rocket.”

            I felt the heavy lobster rush into my net, but the sand was swirling up so I couldn’t see him. “I think I got him.” Julian reached in to grab him. He held the lobster so I could see. It looked like a foot-long, wriggling, fat bug.

            “Thank goodness these hideous things are delicious cause they sure are ugly,” Julian said. “Have you ever had lobster?” Julian asked.

            “Yeah. My mom loved lobster. I don’t remember having it since she died, though.”

            “Wait till you taste one you’ve caught yourself cooked by Chef Sal.”

            I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was having fun searching for lobsters, and I didn’t feel as awkward and stupid in front of Julian. We worked as a team and celebrated our successes with hip bumps and laughter. We consoled each other when a big one got away. We caught so many lobsters Julian’s catch bag was full. I offered to put on another catch bag, but he said no.

            “I’m keeping my eye on you on this first dive. I want to make sure you’re alright. These spinys are heavy. I’ll be swimming with 50 or 60 extra pounds on my back on our way back to OSCAR.”

            It turns out there was no law or quota for Florida spiny lobsters, not for OSCAR, anyway. Since ours was a Navy experiment in surviving under the sea, there were no limits on fish, oysters, scallops, or lobsters. The only rule about lobsters was not to keep females with eggs sacs. None of ours had egg sacs.

            When we’d been at the coral reef for about an hour, Julian called us together. The team bragged as they showed their catch bags filled with lobsters. Between the five buddy groups, we’d caught 154 spinys and 23 slippers.

            Dan was pumped. “That’s got to be a record. I don’t remember SCUBA Two ever bringing back that many.”

            “Not bad for an hour’s work.”

            “They’re whoppers.” Fleur said.

            “I’ve never seen that many lobsters in my life,” I said.

            My wrist comm announced, “You have 31 minutes of air left.”

            “Time to go,” Julian said. “balance your bags on your backs. Buddy formation.”

            Back at OSCAR, we swam to the underwater aquarium, which was behind the huge dome of the dining hall and kitchen. It was just what the name sounded like: an immense holding tank for live sea creatures. It was easily as large as a gymnasium, and the sides and top were made of some sort of woven mesh that allowed sea water to flow through it with the currents of the ocean. It was even lighted! Inside the mesh were thousands of fish, all edible, including the big groupers Julian had told me about. Most of these fish had been caught and released here by my team members. Securing protein was one of our most important missions, and we were in the sea procuring several days each week.

            When Chef Sal wanted to serve seafood, he sent our divers in to the aquarium to net or vacuum up the number of fish he needed to feed the OSCAR population. Tom and his team had created an artificial reef, and down in the sand next to it was where we released the spinys and slippers we had caught. On the bottom of the aquarium, especially along the four sides, were oyster and scallop beds. Our lobsters would live here, in their fishy Disney World, until Chef Sal announced it was lobster night.

            Once again I shook my head. A few days earlier I had been helping Liam do homework and making supper. Now look at me. Violet under the sea.

            That afternoon, we were required to attend a fire safety drill and a class on skin health in artificial light. Afterwards, they served fruit smoothies and herded us into the auditorium for the mandatory weekly OSCAR meeting.

            I saw Monty with a group of girls. She was talking, playing with a strand of her hair while she spoke. I turned another direction.

            Epstein waved me over.

            “Saved you a seat.” The buzzing of talk was so loud I almost couldn’t hear her.

            “Thanks. Wow. How many people are there? I mean, in all.”

            “My bad. I was supposed to give you your OSCAR handbook that had all that kind of info at the end of the tour, which we never got to because someone decided to crash an airplane into the sea.” She smiled. “But, to answer your question, there are 162 of us in all.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah, they call us the original 162. We’re the guinea pigs. We’re the ones who get to prove that mankind can live beneath the ocean, if it comes to a survival situation.”

            I spotted Fernandez two rows behind me and waved. She nodded. She was a favorite with everyone, including me. Even with all the people I’d met, she was the coolest. No, make that the toughest. A low-rider street queen of Heavenly glory.

            Dr. Persennia Nyaga called the room to order.

            “Good afternoon and thank you for coming.” She looked at her wrist. “According to my comm, we have 100% attendance. Thank you for following protocol.” That voice.

            I’m part of this. I belong here. I stared around the room. Was anyone else impressed that they were a part of all this, or was it only me?

            “Before we get to OSCAR business, a short item of breaking news,” Dr. Nyaga said. “We’ve got a situation top side. There have been a few cases of an unusual virus that have broken out in The People’s Republic of China. It was thought to be a mutated form of the PED virus that recently caused complications here in the pork industry. The only reason for concern is that China has now had…a zoonotic event.”

            Someone called from the audience. “Zoonotic?”

            Dr. Nyaga said, “Dr. Prumb, would you elaborate?”

            Epstein whispered, “That’s Cindy Prumb from Medical.”

            “So we have Boylston and Prumb as doctors?”

            “Yeah, and Fernandez is medical assistant, but she knows more than both of them.”

            Dr. Prumb took the microphone. “Zoonosis happens when a virus jumps from animal to human. From a medical standpoint, it’s not good. There are now 17 known cases of Shenyeng Swine Virus, known as SSV. At this time, there are no other cases that we know about, but the CDC in Atlanta as well as the World Health Organization are watching the situation carefully.”

             “Why are you informing us? Are we in any kind of danger here?” It was George Skerski. Epstein had introduced him the first day.

            “No, not at all, George. Especially not us. The CDC wanted you to be informed personally because we are a survivor center. It will be on the national news this evening.”

            The rest of the meeting was business as usual, and I made sure I paid attention. Various people had announcements. Captain Jasper again congratulated SCUBA One and Two on the rescue. Dr. Nyaga formally introduced me as our newest member. Fernandez announced that eye exams would be next week.

            At supper, Dan and Fleur pulled me away before I could go through the line. “Sorry Epstein. She’s ours tonight.”

            SCUBA One was seated at one long table. They already had food on their trays, salads, and drinks. Dan seated me at the head of the table, which was empty. Julian sat across from me at the other end of table. His smile was triumphant. Mine was awkward.

            Chef Sal came out with a domed platter, which he placed in front of me. He lifted the cover and presented an enormous lobster and a bowl of melted butter. “I heard you were an expert at catching lobsters,” Chef Sal said. “Tonight is not lobster night, but for you, we make an exception.”

            I looked at Julian down at the other end. He was watching me.

Lobster never tasted so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

I liked living under the sea. I was catching on, figuring out new things, beginning to fit in to the new rhythms of my life. SCUBA One took up most of my time during the day. In the classroom, we learned about sustainable protein, the ability of oysters to clean sea water, how to read ocean currents by studying sand markings, underwater emergencies, and rescue and recovery. In the ocean, we made long swims to catch fish or chart oxygen stations.

            I enjoyed my new friends. I hung out with Epstein, Zach, and friends from the SCUBA teams. Twice, Fernandez invited me to join her for snacks and a movie. George and Judy Skerski had me over to play Rummikub with a few others, and that was a total blast. Dr. Nyaga invited me to tea in her quarters, and we had crustless sandwiches, petit fours, clotted cream, and scones.

            I was impressed. “But how?”

            She fiddled with a fold of her dark green gele and smiled. “Chef Sal and I are old friends.”

            The hot tea was delicious, but the sweet surprise at the end was the Crème Yvette in small crystal goblets. The purple liquid shone under the lights.

            “You have it with you? Here?” I remembered the story of her childhood.

            She smiled. “It reminds me of my mother, so I keep it close.”

            I sipped. It was like drinking spring flowers.

            “Isn’t it delicious?” she said. “Exotic.”

            I held it up to the light to admire the purple color. “Hypnotic.”

            This pleased her. “Made from violets,” she reminded me.

            “I remember.”

            Life in the Oscar community was good.

            About a week after our lobstering trip, Dan was teaching a lesson on SCUBA tank maintenance. My wrist comm flashed. The message on the screen said Coltrane, Violet, REPORT TO CC.

            Central Command. Why would they call me?

            I’d have to get Julian’s permission. He was already looking at me nodding for me to go. He must have received the same message.

            At Central Command, someone ushered me in to a small conference area. Captain Jasper, the LC, Dr. Nyaga, Dr. Prumb, and a man I didn’t know sat at a round table.

            Have I done something wrong? Are they sorry they picked me?

            “Violet, welcome.” It was Captain Jasper. “I’m sorry to take you out of class, but we need to discuss something with you.”

            My stomach tightened. I nodded.

            “This involves your father.” Oh God. What’s happened?

            “Nothing’s wrong with your father,” Dr. Nyaga said. She frowned at the captain. “Keith, you’re scaring her.”

            “Nothing’s wrong with your father,” Captain Jasper said. “We need his help.”

            What? Dad? Why?

            “We have a swine herd here at OSCAR of 350 hogs, and we farrow all the time, so that number is flexible. They were bred under the strictest of conditions, and they’re in prime shape. However, all of the hogs here in the United States have to be tested to prove they are not carrying or have not come into contact with the SSV virus. If not, they’ll have to be destroyed. Even though our hogs have been submerged here for 10 months, the USDA says we must comply like everyone else.”

            I was confused. “What does that have to do with my dad?”

            “A fair question.” Captain Jasper took his glasses off. “Here at OSCAR we have our own veterinarian, Dr. Kelsey.” He pointed to the man I had not met before. He was nice-looking. No, make that great-looking.

            Dr. Kelsey leaned forward and shook my hand. “Violet, Aaron Kelsey.”

            Captain Jasper continued. “Unfortunately, Dr. Kelsey cannot be the one to test our hog herd. It has to be an independent vet, one who is approved by the CDC. We’ve been in talks with the CDC, and they have far more requests than they can handle. They suggested your dad.”

            My brain still had not caught on. “My dad? My dad would come here?”

            Dr. Nyaga leaned forward. “It’s unusual, Violet. Not something we expected. We have our own vet who has planned and bred our hog herd with tremendous care under the auspices of the US Navy. Our hogs are completely disease free and have been isolated from all other animals. But, we still need a vet to test them, and it can’t be Dr. Kelsey.”

            Dr. Kelsey spoke. “The vet who will perform the testing cannot be a vet who has worked with swine, been around swine for the past two years, or has been on any farm with swine. He cannot have been to any other foreign country, especially China, for the past two years. Your dad is a seasoned veterinarian, has an excellent reputation, and has served as a consultant for the CDC in the past. He has a small animal vet practice and doesn’t treat farm animals.”

            Consultant? Consultant for the CDC? Did I know that?

            “Plus, he’s just a few hours from here,” Captain Jasper said. “We’d like to get this testing done as soon as possible and get it behind us.”

            I finally got it. “That’s terrific. I’d love to see Dad.”

            “We thought as much,” Dr. Nyaga said. “We just wanted to inform you as a courtesy.          Dr. Coltrane will be staying in guest quarters for the two days it will take to do the blood draws. You can have meals together.”

            “After two days, he’ll surface, take the samples to the epidemic investigators at the CDC in Atlanta, wait for them to run the tests, and send the results,” said Dr. Kelsey. “Then he’ll repeat the process 21 days later. We will pay him for his time and effort, of course. This expedition will take him away from his veterinarian practice.”

            “He gets to come here twice?” Dad would be here at OSCAR. How cool is that?

            “Yes, the protocol is two blood draws three weeks apart.”

            “Wow. When?”

            “He’ll be here Thursday and be in quarantine for 24 hours. You can see him on Friday.” I hadn’t expected to see Dad for nine months.

            Incredible.

            “What about my little brother, Liam?” Any idiot could hear the hope in my voice.

            “Your grandmother is coming down to keep him,” Dr. Nyaga said.

            Thud. Of course. A kid couldn’t come on a scientific/medical trip. I got it, but I was still sad. Monkey would have thought this place was totally amaze-balls.

            “Sorry, Violet. This is a quick trip. Unexpected.”

            “Of course, OSCAR will cover all expenses,” LC Brady said, “even for your grandmother.”

            I was overjoyed at the chance to see Dad. Heartbroken that Liam couldn’t come. Of course, when I thought about all the protocols surrounding OSCAR, I knew that would never be possible. Still, it made me miss my little brother like crazy.

            “Do I need to keep it a secret?”

            “For a few days,” Captain Jasper said. “It’s not classified, but I’ll be announcing it at the OSCAR meeting Thursday.”

            “You know how people love to talk,” Dr. Nyaga said. “And speculate. Petty jealousies.”

            “The bubble babble. I get it.”

            I walked back to class deep in thought. What would people think about Dad coming here? Would they think it was unfair? I scolded myself for worrying. Get over it, Violet. Who cares what anyone thinks?

            SCUBA One continued to make daily swims in the ocean. Those swims were what I lived for. Each time I learned something new. My favorite was net guns. The net guns were devices that encased long, round nets made of thin monofilament. Each net had thin weights around all the edges. The “gun” part had a propellant cartridge that shot the net out at lightning speed.

            So, if you saw a school of fish on Chef Sal’s list, you announced your target, aimed, and shot. I was still memorizing the fish chart. Who knew there were so many kinds and varieties of fish? I might be the new girl, but I could spot a school of bonita instantly. They were big and beautiful and silvery. You can’t imagine how much fun it is to catch eight or ten bonita in your net at one time. At first, they went crazy trying to escape as the weights closed the net around them. But then they settled in as you secured the net, towed them back with a scooter, and released them in the underwater aquarium. We caught redfish, grouper, yellowfins, jacks, and pompano. Trust me. Net guns were the wild, wild west under the sea.

            Another thing I loved was counting fish. One day, SCUBA One had rotations inside the underwater aquarium, and we were asked for an accurate count of numbers of fish in the enclosure. At first I thought, Geeze! How could we possibly count all these fish? But it turned out to be easy and involved another cool high-tech gadget.

            We were given computerized camera devices that looked like a police radar gun. Each diver was assigned a specific fish, and our device was set to take pictures of those fish and only those fish. It went off automatically with a brief flash and click. All we had to do was swim and point. Tom Larzo, the guy in charge of the underwater aquarium, showed us how to slowly swim in a grid pattern using a GPS system so we would cover the entire inside of the aquarium. The cameras were so sensitive they wouldn’t count the same fish twice. How was that even possible? I was simply blown away.

            For this job, we wore masks and regulators instead of our regular diving helmets. “It’s good to expose our ears to this depth every now and then. If you need to communicate, practice your diving signals,” Dan said.

            I didn’t need to communicate. That was one of the things I loved about this rotation. I was alone in the quiet world of the sea. Thousands and thousands of fish swam around me. Lights lit the inside of the aquarium and highlighted their brilliant, glittery colors. The aquarium was enormous—bigger than big—and we were spread out so far I hardly saw another diver.

            Tom Larzo assigned me rainbow runner jack, an iridescent silvery fish with a yellow split tail. They tend to travel in schools, and they are speedy. I followed Tom’s advice, though, and stayed on the grid, slowly aiming my camera to the left and right. An electronic dive belt kept me at the same level in the water—all I had to do was kick my fins occasionally. When a school of rainbow runners darted in front of me, I was momentarily dazed by the quick flashes and clicks of the camera. . I was part of something far bigger than just me. Totally crazy cakes.

            When something was impossibly difficult, Mama used to say, “That’s like counting fish in the sea.”

            Mama, I wish you could see me now.

            When I finished, several hours later, Tom showed me how to point my camera into a special diffraction device to get the grand tally. By OSCAR’s standards, we always had to have at least a three-month supply of ocean protein, but our totals were actually much greater. Chef Sal liked to plan his meals six months in advance to make sure we were circulating protein between pork, poultry, eggs, milk products, fish, tofu, beef, beans, shrimp, crab, and lobster. As needed, the harvest team came down to vacuum up what was needed for a specific meal so that we were eating the freshest, most delicious meals possible.

            Well, Violet, you wanted to be a part of OSCAR, and here you are, counting fish in the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

The next Friday, I woke up excited. Dad was coming today. He’d actually arrived yesterday but had been in quarantine for 24 hours. He was on official business today, but I’d get to see him at suppertime. I hadn’t discussed it with anyone because I didn’t want to make it a big deal, but I couldn’t resist telling Epstein at breakfast.

            “Are you okay with it?” she asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like my dad and all, but it would make me nuts to have him here.”

            “It’s just for two days,” I said, “and I can’t see him while he’s working. It’ll just be in the evenings.” I thought about it. “Yeah, I’m happy to see him. We’re pretty tight.” 

            Epstein snapped her fingers, “I almost forgot. Girl, I was in the changing room yesterday, and Monty was talking smack about you.”

            “Yeah?”

            “She was talking to some of her friends and didn’t see me because I was in one of the stalls. She said, ‘I heard her mom’s dead, and she lives with her dad. She’s not that cute, really, and she didn’t start with us, so I don’t really consider her like, part of our group. She’s an add-on.’ ”

            “Someone said, ‘Everyone seems to like her, though.’

            And, Monty said, ‘Just because she’s new, that’s all. She’s a snooze fest.’ ”

            I stared at Epstein. Their opinions didn’t matter, but it still hurt to know I was the topic of their conversation. I stared at Epstein.

            Epstein’s smile was wicked. “I stepped out, right in front of them, and quoted part of the OSCAR motto we all have to memorize. ‘I will respect and support my OSCAR colleagues at all times in the spirit of honor and community.’ ”

            “And…?”

            “Busted! The other girls were mortified. They know we’re buds, so they probably also know I’d tell you.”

            “Thanks, Ep.”

            “I got your back, girl.”

            Julian came into the dining hall with Persennia Nyaga, and Epstein saw me looking.

            “A lot of girls flying over that airport, but no one’s landing.”

            “Who, Julian?”

            “Yeah. He’s always so serious.”

            “Well, I’m not interested, so it doesn’t matter.”

            We were on rotations at the park for the morning, trimming bushes, feeding the fish in the pond, and generally cleaning up. I looked up at the tree where I’d hidden from Monty and Julian. Remembering that scene made me cringe.

            Someone called my name.

            “Violet. There you are.”

            I turned to look, and it was Zach, surrounded by a group of children. A boy broke away from the group and ran to me. It was Liam.

            Liam? LIAM?

            I didn’t have time to process anything before he tackled me and almost brought me down, laughing like a hyena.

            “Wha—? What on Earth?” I danced in happy disbelief. “Where—? How did you—?” I looked to Zach for answers. It was obvious Liam was too excited to explain.

            Zach sent the other children off to play in the park, and they scattered in all directions. “I was coming to tell you,” he said. “Captain Jasper asked me to include Liam in my class, and of course I was delighted. What a surprise, huh?”

            “But, how? I mean, how did he get to come here? To OSCAR, I mean.”

            Zach looked as shocked as I was. “Hasn’t anyone notified you? This just happened.” He pointed to Liam.

            Liam had calmed a little but still talked 90 miles an hour. “Grandma was supposed to come keep me, but she fell and broke her hip. Dad called OSCAR to tell them. They said it was really important for him to come, so they let me come, too.”

            My brain simply couldn’t process it. I shook my head and frowned.

             Liam misunderstood.

            “Don’t you want me here, Vi?”

            I gave him a hug that would stunt his growth. “Of course, silly head. I missed you most of all.”

            “Good.”

            I noticed a piece of gauze with clear tape on the crook of his arm. “Did you have to see Fernandez?” I’d forgotten about medical and quarantine.

            “Yeah. I like her. She said to tell you I was brave.”

            Zach said, “Liam, I think the other kids are looking forward to playing with you. See over there? They’re at the pond.”

            “Later, gator.” Liam ran off.

            Zach’s smile faded. “Evidently, this virus is causing quite a stir up on the surface. I’m glad your father could come help Dr. Kelsey so soon. The powers that be want to rule out any chance of a virus down here.”

            “The powers?”

            He made his voice scary. “The poweeers.”

            “Where is he? Dad, I mean.”

            “Not sure. They’ll be calling on your comm any second, I imagine. I’ve got to go supervise. See you later, Violet.”

            “Thanks for letting Liam join you,” I said.

            Zach smiled. “He looks like a cool dude. The other kids are overjoyed. New kid equals playing in the park for a while. I’ll bring him to you later.”

            As Zach turned away, my comm buzzed. It was Dr. Nyaga.

            “Violet, your father is here…and…a surprise. Your little brother.”

            “Yes, I just saw him here in the park.”

            “I thought as much. I know SCUBA One has a rotation there this morning. Were you surprised?”

            “Totally.”

            “I tried to call you sooner to prepare you, but we’ve been swamped with communications in and out all morning. I was just on with the White House.”

            “Liam is with Zach’s class. I guess I’ll see Dad at supper?”

            “That is correct. The captain had to make an exception to allow your little brother to submerge. Liam must be supervised at all times. He’ll be with Mc Gann during the day, but could we call upon you to keep him in your care in the evenings and at night?”

            “Of course. He can bunk with me, right?”

            “Right. It’s just for two days,” Dr. Nyaga reminded me. “But enjoy him while you can. He is a lovely little man.”

            “Thanks. We signed off.

            Dan called our group together. “We’re done with park rotation. You have an hour off for lunch, then report to the classroom. This afternoon we’re going to learn all about shark attacks and how to respond to them.”

            Shark attacks. Dude, say it ain’t so.

            At lunch, I sat with Epstein. “So, I hear there’s a tiny Coltrane in our midst,” she said. “A miniscule boy-child. A Lilliputian kiddo from Clan Coltrane.”

            I stared at her, mouth open. “How did you know? He just got here.”

            She smiled. “Bubble Babble. Word gets around.”

            “I’m still in shock.” I hesitated. “Good shock, but still shock. Everything I see down here makes me wish he could see it, too. But in a million years, I didn’t expect him to get to come down here.”

            “When do I get to meet him?” she said. “The young one?”

            “Um, I don’t actually know. He’ll be here for two days. I’m not sure when they’re leaving.” I remembered something. “But this afternoon, as though I haven’t had enough excitement for one day, we’re learning all about shark attacks.”

            Epstein made a face. “Yeah, SCUBA Two had that yesterday. I hope you have a strong stomach.”

            “Is it gross? I mean, does someone’s head come off?”

            “It’s a cross between puke your guts out and oh-my-god-did-you-see-that, but they want us to be prepared, just in case.”

            Wow. Shark attacks. And, I signed up for this.

            “Don’t eat lunch.” She stuck out her tongue.

            Turns out Epstein was right. The class was gruesome, but interesting, in a weird, can’t-turn-away-from-the-screen kind of way. I’d been around blood and surgery since I was a kid, so that part didn’t bother me. What did bother me, though, were the videos of actual shark attacks—real attacks. I hated seeing anything that caused people or animals to suffer. There were a number of real life videos taken by SCUBA divers that showed sharks attacking swimmers. It was chilling. In most cases, the sharks swam slowly past the diver, then circled back to strike with devastating force. Yikes.               

The whole purpose of the class was to teach us how to react if a shark attacked us or our partner. We learned the importance of applying tourniquets, keeping the victim calm, buddy swimming back to safety, and First Aid for shock. I was glad to know what to do. I hadn’t thought too much about sharks. On my few swims with SCUBA One, I hadn’t seen many sharks. But more were out there. Somewhere. I knew it in the pit of my stomach.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

At suppertime, I finally saw Dad. No one hugs like a daddy-bear. He told me about Grandma breaking her hip and having hip replacement surgery.

            “That’s awful.”

            I told Dad about the coral reef, driving sea scooters, rock climbing, and classes, and he told me about taking blood samples from the hogs.

            Dad is sitting here with me talking. Is this reality?

            “So, I’ll finish the blood draws by noon tomorrow, resurface, and then head to the CDC.”

            The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Everyone had heard of that.

            Captain Jasper surprised us. “Mind if I sit down?”

            I was flabbergasted. The captain of OSCAR sitting with us.

            “Dr. Coltrane, Violet.”

The captain spoke to Dad.     

            “I appreciate your coming so quickly for the blood draws. You’re set to leave at noon tomorrow?”

            “Yes sir, if all goes well.”

            “There will be a Sikorsky S-52 helicopter to take you to the CDC in Atlanta. You’ll return in three weeks for the second draws.”

            “Yes sir.”

            “I’d like to suggest that you leave your son, Liam, in our care while you’re gone. That way he won’t have the stress of urgent travel or having to go through quarantine again.”

            “Liam gets to stay?” I said.

            “For…three weeks.” The captain smiled. “I thought you’d enjoy a few more days with the little guy.”

            Dad nodded. “He’d love that. Sure. That would be great.”

            “Violet, during the day he will continue studying with Zach Mc Gann’s class.” Captain Jasper explained to Dad. “He’s our school teacher. Wonderful guy. The best, really, and I know, because we searched through hundreds of candidates for our teacher.” I was proud for Zach that the captain had such a high opinion.    

He continued. “But, after school, Liam would be in your care, Violet. You must keep up with him at all times or know that he is under supervision. Understood?”

            “Yes sir,” I said. “Understood.”

            Not long after Captain Jasper left, Zach brought Liam to our table. “He’s had supper, and he’s all yours, Violet.”

            “Thanks, Mr. McGann,” Liam said.

            Mr. Mc Gann, teacher extraordinaire.

            Dad said. “Thanks for letting him learn with your class.”

            “I understand he’s to be here a little longer. We’ve got some good things planned.”

            “I’m sure these are experiences he’ll not soon forget.” Dad pulled Liam to him. “Be on your best behavior. Listen to Mr. McGann and to your sister.”

            Liam smiled. “I know. If I don’t…….shark bait.”

            When we got back to my apartment, housekeeping had been there to set up another bed, complete with pillow, sheets, and a blanket.

            “I bet this is mine,” Liam said, “for a whole three weeks.”

            “Windows open,” I said to my comm. The large bubble windows went from frosty to crystal clear.

            “Wow, Violet. You have an underwater view from your room. Cool beans!” He spent the next hour looking at fish and waving to SCUBA divers. Even at night, we had security forces who swam the perimeters of the 11 domes. Sometimes they swam close to the window, sometimes far away. Some swam around the domes, and others swam up over the domes. Video cameras covered every square inch of the exteriors and interiors of OSCAR facilities. We were safe.

            The nighttime lights were on, and the ocean glowed a deep iridescent blue. Liam waved and chatted and pointed out fish, both large and small. He talked to the divers as if they could hear him, adding his own inventive sign language. A few divers signed back, and Liam would practically roll on the floor every time they did.

            I let the boy-child enjoy himself. It was still just as impressive to me. We were both exhausted, though, and breakfast would come early. When we got into our beds, I said, “I don’t want you to sleep alone.”

            “I’m too big to sleep with you, Vi.” Oh yeah? Since when?

            “Not me, silly head, someone else.” I handed him Beanie Bear.

            “Hey.” He grabbed Beanie. “He was supposed to keep you company.”

            “He did. But, now I have you to keep me company for three weeks.”

            We watched more fish swim by in the dimly lit ocean outside our room. Liam said, “Violet, is this real?”

            “Yes, it’s really real.” It was fun to experience this through the eyes of an eight-year-old. At least now I knew someone was as excited as I was.

            That night, my body craved sleep, but my brain was on overload. So many unexpected things. Dad’s visit. Liam getting to stay. I heard the little noises Liam made in his sleep. I heard him mumble a few words, probably dreaming. I heard his deep, rhythmic breathing. Happiness lulled me to sleep.

            When morning dawned, we woke to the ocean. We’d left the windows open the night before. Liam wanted to stay all day and just stare out the windows.

After breakfast, I took him to his class and headed for the SCUBA One classroom. SCUBA Two was there, too, and about 20 other people from various OSCAR departments. We had a class on leadership, took a cheese and crackers and energy juice break, then regrouped for a class on basic First Aid and air-way resuscitation. SCUBA One was scheduled to go shrimping after lunch, but I got permission to see Dad one more time before he left.

            I found the animal husbandry dome with no problem, put on one of the sterile jumpsuits over my clothes, and found Dad finishing up his work with Dr. Kelsey.

            “Hey there. Violet, isn’t it?”

            “Yeah. I came to say goodbye to my dad.”

            “Just about finished,” Dad said. “Good timing. We’ve got all the blood draws crated and padded for our trip to the surface.”

            “Yeah. How does that work? It can’t be the slide again, can it? That works by gravity,” I said.

            Dr. Kelsey explained. “That’s right. Our ascension will be by small submersible. A tiny little sub, to be exact. It’s pressurized, so the blood vials will be safe at this depth. I’ll take your dad to ten feet below surface. OSCAR Terra Firma will take over from there with dry clothing and shoes. A helicopter will be waiting to take your dad and the blood draws to the CDC in Atlanta.”

            Dad gave me a long, long hug. “Take care of the boy, and yourself. I’ll see you in 21 days.”

            I whispered into his shoulder, “Hey, I love you, okay?”

            Dad pulled back and stared at me.

“What?” I said.

            “You have become such a fine young woman,” he said. He kissed my cheek, and something deep inside said: remember this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

Shrimping was a blast. Shrimp are fast little suckers, so the way we caught them was absolute genius. They swim in enormous schools of millions and millions of shrimp. People on the surface catch shrimp with nets pulled by powerful boats. Not SCUBA One. We needed a lot of shrimp, so we coordinated our efforts and surrounded an entire shrimp cluster, called a ball. At Dan’s signal, we set off light charges. The sudden, intense light that flashed away from us stunned the shrimp, and we scooped them up with what looked like long butterfly nets. When the nets were full, we tied them off and pulled them back to the OSCAR facility with our propulsion scooters, woodsmen returning from the hunt with fresh game. I couldn’t wait to tell Liam we were going to have shrimp Po-boys for supper. Po-boys were catnip for that boy.

            Speaking of Liam, he was over the moon at being with all the other kids. I hardly saw him until supper, and he was all bubbly and yakety-yakety about everything he did during the day.

            “Violet, we went to the park and fed the fish in the pond.”

            “Cool. What else?”

            “We had SCUBA class.”

            “You’re kidding.” I was stunned.

            “Mr. McGann said we all need to know how. He and Miss Janus are teaching us in the pool. I hope I get to stay long enough.” Annalise Janus sometimes helped as Zach’s co-teacher.

            I smiled. “Watching television back home in my room will be boring compared to this.”

            “We also had a cooking lesson with Chef. We made our own pizzas.”

            I rumpled his hair. “Totally spoiled.”

            That night we crashed again. Liam was circling the drain, and I was exhausted from shrimping. As I lay in bed, I thought about Dad flying in a helicopter to the CDC in Atlanta. I still couldn’t get over it. Who would ever believe that Dad and Liam would get to experience this?

            “Night, Monkey.” My words were a sleepy mumble.

            No answer. Liam was fast asleep, and I was right behind him.

            Three weeks later, the day before Dad was due to return, Captain Jasper called everyone to the auditorium. The meeting was unscheduled. The call came in the middle of a lesson Julian was teaching on harvesting fish eggs. I met up with Epstein, and we sat together. People chatted back and forth to see if anyone knew the purpose of the meeting. There was a weird tension in the room. I noticed the heavy-hitters—Dr. Nyaga, the doctor, Captain Jasper, Lieutenant Commander Brady, Dr. Kelsey, the vet, Dr. Boylston, and Dr. Prumb—stood together at the front.

            Captain Jasper started before the last stragglers were seated. “This isn’t easy to say. Something of grave concern is going on up on Terra Firma. There is a sickness—a virus—an epidemic, as we are now being told—that has manifested itself with astonishing speed. We first heard of it some 35 days ago and let you know as soon as the news broke. But evidently, it’s more serious than anyone suspected.”

We sat waiting, uneasy.

            The sickness we’ve seen on the news lately? It can’t be more serious.

            But it was.

 “We’ve been told it’s a virus,” he said, “the same virus we mentioned before, SSV. It’s worse than we knew. Worse than anyone knew. Communication is spotty, at best. There are conflicting stories being reported in the news, and it’s difficult to discern truth from panic.”

            Butterflies fluttered and lurched in my stomach. Epstein’s hands were trembling.

            “What do you mean, spotty?” George Skerski called.

            Captain Jasper looked toward Dr. Nyaga, who was already moving her wheel chair to the center aisle. “Persennia?”

             She faced us. “I’m afraid we’re not getting any communications from OSCAR Terra Firma.”

            What? What does that have to do with the virus?

            George called out. “What are you saying? Tell us the extent of it.”

            Dr. Nyaga raised her hand to one of her heavy gold earrings. “What I’m saying, George, is that no one is manning the communication center at OSCAR Terra Firma. We’ve tried repeatedly to get them online, but since last night, no one answers.” She spoke quietly. “I am in contact with the White House, as well as the CDC in Atlanta. They all have their hands full, but they haven’t forgotten about us. People do know we’re here.”

            Martin Kaplan stood. “What about the virus? What do you mean by epidemic? Are you talking about deaths, here, in America?” There was fear in his voice.

            Dr. Boylston raised a finger. “I can answer that. Yes, the virus has already proven fatal to humans. Lots of them. Atlanta thinks it first came in through hogs that were imported from Asia. But the virus unexpectedly jumped to humans, and it’s faster and deadlier than anyone previously knew. The Center for Disease Control estimates the virus has an incubation period of about 21-42 days—three to six weeks—so people who were exposed to the disease in China, Asia, or anywhere, really, have carried it with them. Everywhere they’ve gone they’ve exposed more and more people. Everything they’ve touched is a possible infection source. When the symptoms begin to manifest themselves—” He looked down. “It’s too late. The news stations are reporting some shocking statistics.”

            “These deaths…tens? Hundreds?”

            “I’m afraid its thousands. Here. In America.”

            The impact hit us like an 18-wheeler.

            “Whatever the news reports, there’s much more that isn’t being told to the public. We are usually privileged to receive such information from OSCAR Terra Firma. But as you know, for some reason they are not answering. The White House and the CDC are too busy to talk with us.”

            “Did you say thousands? Could that be an exaggeration?”

            “Thousands.” He took his glasses off. “Possibly tens of thousands. This is an epidemic.”

            An epidemic. Thousands of deaths. No communication.

            The auditorium exploded: cursing, shouts, angry questions, whispered conversations, blank stares. Nausea and fear arm-wrestled in the pit of my stomach. Dr. Boylston waited while we all basically fell apart.

            Fernandez called us back to continue. “How is it spread? Let’s get the facts, people.”

            “That’s a fair question,” Dr. Boylston said. People began to sit again. “It’s spread by personal contact: coughing, sneezing, saliva…touching things that have been infected. Thank goodness it’s not airborne.”

            “How long have you known?”

            Captain Jasper nodded. “Last night around midnight Dr. Nyaga discovered the loss of communication with Terra Firma and was unable to reestablish. She alerted us, and we began to make other calls. By 1:15 this morning we each had part of the information. We met, pieced it all together, made additional calls to verify, and this is the earliest we’ve had to let you know.”

            My hands ached from gripping the back of the seat in front of me.

            “Why did we lose communication? What does that have to do with the virus?”

            “How many are we talking about? Where are we talking about?”

            “What about our families?”

            “I’m sorry to say this is widespread. In the last 48 hours, large cities and urban areas have been slammed. People who ride mass-transit transportation…workers in large office buildings…schools.”

            “Why are we just hearing about this now?” There was no denying the panic in Epstein’s voice.

“The White House told us in China the death toll has been rising for weeks to tens of thousands. They didn’t inform the rest of the world because they didn’t want to cause worldwide panic.”

“Oh great. They didn’t warn the world because they didn’t want to cause panic?”

            “Where? What areas are being hit?” It was a repeat question, but it was hard to grasp everything all at once.

            “It started in urban areas,” Dr. Boylston said. “San Francisco, LA, New Orleans, New York City.” He rubbed his lower lip. “But basically, wherever people have travelled over the past weeks the virus is taking its toll. We don’t really know the total extent of it, for sure.”

            This can’t be happening. This is a drill. That’s it: a drill to prepare us for just such a scenario.

            “Why no comms with Terra Firma?” Tom’s tone was demanding. “Why are we the last to know?”

            Dr. Nyaga answered. “I am asking the same question, Tom. Something drastic must be happening for Samantha Matisse not to have people manning their stations. You know our comms have been world class. Impeccable.” She tucked in a loose edge of her gele. “I’m waiting on another call from the White House as we speak.”

            Captain Jasper cleared his throat. “An OSCAR leadership team will surface in two hours. We’ll get the most up-to-the-minute information, so we can make major decisions. We will do some reconnaissance and establish communication with you within 24 hours.”

            Resurfacing. That pretty much said it all. The whole point of OSCAR is that we weren’t supposed to surface. This was a disaster of epic proportions.

            “What about the new girl’s dad. Didn’t he just come down here for something and bring that kid with him?” It was Monty. Her voice dripped with accusation.

            In a rush of embarrassment, I realized she was talking about Dad and Liam. People involuntarily looked my way. Flames burned my cheeks.

            “What if they brought the virus with them? What if we all get sick and die now because of them?”

            I thought of Dad. Liam. Her words turned their visit into a death threat.

            “That kid’s still running around here.”

            That kid.

You did not just say that in your stupid, snotty tone. I pictured myself scratch her face with my nails.

            I started to my feet, but someone behind me beat me to it. His voice cut through the ugliness. “I don’t think that kind of talk serves any purpose. We needed Violet’s dad to come help us test our swine herd, and he dropped everything and came. He had to bring his son, Liam, with him. What’s done is done. Let’s stay focused on staying calm and gathering information.”

It was Julian. Julian knew Liam’s name. He didn’t call him “that kid.” I focused on that and fought the urge to rip every hair out of Monty’s head.

“Besides, we have precautionary measures to prevent any accidental infection down here. Both Dr. Coltrane and Liam went through the full quarantine.”

            “Fenley’s right,” the captain said. “We’ve got enough to worry about without adding confusion.” He talked about the importance of the OSCAR program even in the face of adversity. I thought of Dad and the bells and whistles he had to go through to be considered “safe” to enter the facility. I thought of Monkey having the time of his life with all the other kids from OSCAR in class with Zach. A little eight-year-old boy had gone through the same medical screening and tests.

            “I encourage you to contact your families,” Dr. Nyaga said. “They’ll want to hear from you, I’m sure. They might have other information for us that would be helpful.”

Something caught my eye. Monty was looking at me with a death stare and then turned to the front like she was listening to Captain Jasper. She reached up as if to smooth her hair and gave me the finger.

Who do you think you are, you stuck up cow?

I leaned down like I was tying my shoe. I didn’t want to give Monty the satisfaction of knowing I’d seen her do it.

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

Classes were cancelled. Those of us who weren’t on active duty went to our rooms. I curled up on my bed and stared at the wall until Epstein knocked. I got up to open the door.

“Remember you can unlock your door with your comm,” she said.

“Huh? Oh yeah. I keep forgetting.”

“I called my family,” Epstein said. “They pretty much confirmed what Captain Jasper said. It’s all over the news.”

I hadn’t even turned on the television. I needed to call Dad.

“It’s pretty bad,” she said. “They’re urging people to stay home. Quarantine. All this has happened within a few days. No one saw this coming, and people are panicking.”

I turned on the TV. No shows. Just news. Every channel. Videos of people wearing medical masks over their mouths and noses. Paramedics carrying people on stretchers. Schools closed. Ambulances. Overcrowded Emergency rooms. Cars abandoned on the side of the road. Buses with signs that said EVACUATION. After switching to a million different channels, I turned off the TV. I was fighting down panic. Why make it worse when I was down here under the ocean and couldn’t help anyone?

Epstein and I sat in silence. A large snapper swam by the window behind her. He was followed by a school of silver sardines. How bizarre. The ocean was business as usual in its quiet isolation. I bit a shred of skin off my lip.

“I need Dad,” I said.

Epstein left, and I spoke the command to call Dad’s number. While it rang, I switched to the large screen TV on the wall. He didn’t answer. Of course. He was working. I redialed his vet office. He answered on the fifth ring.

“Dad! Oh my God. What the heck?”

“Violet. What? Oh, the epidemic. Yeah. It’s horrendous. I’m swamped. People are coming down with it suddenly and are afraid their cats and dogs will be trapped with no one to feed them. Emma and I have been picking up animals all morning.”

It was just like Dad to be concerned with animals.

“I’m worried for you. Are you okay?”

He nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Dad, I’m worried.”

“You’re in a great place, actually. Nothing can get to you there.”

“That’s great for me, but what about you? What if you get infected?”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry. How’s Liam?”

“He’s great. I hardly see him, though. We have breakfast together, and then he’s gone almost all day with the other kids. They have classes, and he’s actually learning to SCUBA dive. By the time he gets back here after supper, he’s pretty much ready for a few video games and then bed. He loves his new friends. Zach says he fits in like he was here from the beginning.”

“Is he well?”

“What do you mean?”

“Has he shown any signs of a cold or a fever?” I heard concern.

I shook my head. “Nothing. This kid is a Tonka Truck.”

“Good.”

I thought of something. “Are you coming back to recheck the swine herd?”

Dad looked grim. “I was supposed to. But…I don’t think they’ll want me to do that now. Too dangerous.” They’ll want to keep the OSCAR facility as pristine as possible.”

“What?” My voice rose. “You’re not coming back?”

“Not right now, I don’t think. The CDC doesn’t think it’s advisable. I’ll speak with Captain Jasper about Liam.”

“What do you mean?”

Dad’s smile was sad. “This epidemic is everywhere. It’s not wise for him to resurface.”

My heart almost stopped. He was saying Liam was safer down here than up there with him. Dad’s life was in danger, but he was thinking of how to keep his son safe.

“Please don’t get this, Dad.” I didn’t care if I sounded ridiculous. “I want you to stay well, okay?”

He nodded. “I will, for sure. You stay in touch and take care of that boy for me. I’m glad he’s where he is. That worked out perfectly. I know he’s okay if he’s with you, Violet.”

Emma came into the picture on my screen. She was pulling a flatbed cart loaded with cages.

“Hey, Emma.”

She turned at the sound of my voice. “What? Oh Violet. How nice to see you. We’re all so proud of what you’re doing.”

“Stay well, Emma.”

“Honey, that’s what we’re all trying to do.”

“I’ve got to go,” Dad said.

“Dad?”

“Honey, I’ve got to go. Emma and I need to finish these transfers so she can go home.”

“Dad?” What did I want to say? “Don’t let anything happen to you.”

We said goodby, and the TV screen went dark. I stared at nothing for a long time.

Just before lunch, Captain Jasper called a second meeting. There was no chit-chat this time. We braced ourselves.

He didn’t waste any time. “Four of us will resurface at 12:00 noon.”

Of course. 12:00. The Witching Hour. Noon. Midnight.

“Lt. Commander Brady will reestablish our communication link with OSCAR Terra Firma. Her goal is to find out why we lost contact in the first place and other vital information to help us continue living in a safe, protected environment. Dr. Prumb will go on a reconnaissance mission to the CDC in Atlanta to find out the most up to the minute medical protocol. Dr. Boylston will stay down with you. I wouldn’t leave you without a doctor.” He paused. “Dr. Kelsey, our veterinarian, will also consult with the US Department of Agriculture. I will go to Washington DC to meet with the President, the task force, and the Surgeon General.”

George said, “When will you return?”

“Hopefully, in three days.” He looked at his notes. “Normally, someone from the Navy would command in my stead, but there isn’t time to arrange that. They’re busy assessing the number of casualties in the military and setting up quarantine stations. In my absence, Dr. Persennia Nyaga will still be in charge of communications. We’ll be in touch as we can. Dr. Boylston will be on duty for any medical emergencies. As far as personnel, I’ve asked Julian Fenley to take command. He’s proven himself a competent leader, and I trust his judgment. You will respond to him as you would to me.” He looked at us over his half-glasses. “Understood?”

            We answered as a single voice, “Sir, yes sir.”

            “In my absence he is the acting captain. He is my choice.”

I looked at Julian. He was sitting across the aisle, one row behind. Was he afraid? Did he ask for this assignment? Did he dread it? His face showed nothing.

The captain addressed us all. “You were selected to be here,” he said. “Thousands of other young people were considered, but we chose you. I know I can rely on you to do the right thing.” He smiled. “Fenley, I’m counting on a lobster dinner when I get back.”

And, just like that, our world changed.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

People scattered. No one cared about the day to day running of OSCAR. All that was on our minds was family and friends and a million unanswered questions about SSV. I wanted to call Dad again, but I knew he was busy sheltering animals. Besides, I didn’t want Liam to know all the details, at least not yet.

But Liam already knew. At supper, he slid in next to me with his tray.

“Hey Vi, did you know people are getting sick? Up on Terra Firma, I mean.”

Again, he was quick with the lingo. OSCAR crewmembers spoke of the land above us as Terra Firma.

“Yeah, I heard.” I decided to play it down until we heard from the team who was surfacing.

“Lenny said a bunch of people died. It’s serious.”

“That’s right. But we’re okay. Don’t worry.

“But, what about Dad?”

“I talked to him today. He’s fine. He and Emma are extra busy right now caring for a lot of dogs and cats.”

I thought about Dad. He was probably exhausted and hungry. For the first time, I wished I was home to cook for him. I could help out with the overflow of animals and lighten his load. I could make sure he had clean clothes and answer the dozens of calls that would be coming in from worried pet owners. But my job was here, working at OSCAR and taking care of Liam. Dad had asked me to do that. I was helping Dad.

Watching TV was out. Every station showed gruesome videos of virus victims. Some had blood flowing from their noses or scary-looking sores on their bodies. These images were interspersed with color-coded maps that tracked the spread of the disease. The newscasters used red to show areas where the virus had spread. The map was the most frightening, because they compared the images of a week ago to the ones of today. The encroaching red was alarming. How could the virus spread so fast? Why weren’t they doing something to stop this? How could this be happening? My stomach cramped with fear.

I forced myself to stop obsessing and focus on Liam and his needs. He needed something distracting, something entertaining.

“Hey, want to go rock climbing? I don’t know if you’ve been to the athletic dome, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, nothing you can even imagine.”

I wasn’t exaggerating. The athletic dome was amaze-balls. It was the largest of the eleven OSCAR domes, even dwarfing the park. If we were going to be under the sea for a year, the Navy wanted us to keep in shape. One of its most talked about features was a Herculean size artificial tree that was perfect for climbing. The trunk and branches were silver, and the leaves were every brilliant color of autumn. This tree, nicknamed Neptune, was the center focal point of the entire dome, and its colors were echoed everywhere you looked.

 The entire dome was ringed with a six-lane running track. There were state-of-the-art gymnastic equipment, weight lifting benches, treadmills, zero-gravity tubes, trampoline features, trapeze swings over foam pits, current pool, robotic massage stations, obstacle course, a see-through racquetball court, tennis courts, zip-line, hot tub, steam room, polar dip, juice bar, salad bar, showers, some weird-looking motorcycle thingies, and a rock climbing wall that went all the way to the top of the dome, through a tunnel, and back down the other side.

Liam’s eyes were as big as pancakes. Kids weren’t allowed in the athletic dome except on Saturdays, and even then they had to be accompanied by a guardian. Liam was temporarily speechless. This was a great idea to get away from all the worry. At least 30 other people thought so, too.

We signed in with my comm unit and put on helmets and harnesses. “The wall, or the tree?”

“Both,” Liam said, jumping with excitement. He had the ear-to-ear smile of an eight-year-old boy who’s completely bedazzled. In other words: bazonkazoo. “Let’s do the wall first.”

“Okay, we’ll need climbing shoes, then. They’re over here.” I was surprised they had shoes Liam’s size, but they had thought of everything. The shoes were in a vending-type machine. We signed them out with my comm unit and put them on.

One side of the wall was more beginner-friendly, although it did go half-way up to the top of the dome. The other side was clearly for the more experienced climbers.

“Whoa!” Liam looked straight up at the top. “How high is that sucker?”

I pointed my comm at the top of the wall and information appeared on my screen. “It’s 72 feet to the top. That’s about the size of a—”

“Seven story building!”

“Yeah, but we’re not going that high. We’re beginners.”

Darlene Statton, the athletic director, clipped us onto harness lines. She pushed a few buttons on a machine that sized us up and took out the slack from our lines. Since this was our first climb, she pointed out a light green color section of the wall that she felt would be the best for the two of us. After 35 feet, the color of the wall changed. That was as far as we would go. Darlene gave us each a small bag of chalk to keep our hands dusted, and we clipped them onto our carabineers. She checked our helmets, went over the safety rules, rechecked our harness lines, and gave us the thumbs up.

“You two have fun,” Darlene said. “Don’t take unnecessary risks. Be safe.”

We started climbing. Liam had boundless energy, but I had strategy. It didn’t take him long to catch on, though. We could hear each other breathing hard and grunting as we reached up for hand crimps and stretched out for toe holds. The lines attached to our harnesses would catch us if we fell, but we didn’t fall. The wall gave us a workout, but it was doable, and both Liam and I were pretty proud of ourselves.

We’re doing it. Oh yeah. We’re doing it.

When we reached the top of the 35-foot light green section, a camera took our picture as proof of our success. We pushed a switch next to the camera. A machine in the ceiling took out the slack in our lines with a zipping sound. We pushed off from the wall as Darlene had shown us and lowered ourselves to the ground.

Liam had originally wanted to climb Neptune after the wall, but we decided on the zip line, instead. The track was suspended from the top of the ceiling, and it was designed to glide its riders in enormous concentric circles around the dome from one end to the other, descending from top to bottom by the end of the seven-minute ride. We put on a second harness, which also attached to our ankles. Stepping off the platform was the scariest thing imaginable, but I couldn’t chicken out in front of Liam.

“You ready, Vi?”

Not even a little.

“Of course, goonybird. I’m known for my bravery.”           

It was glorious. Liam and I zipped in tandem, and it felt like we were actually flying, soaring silently over people sitting below. I say sitting, because although they were in the athletic dome, very few were working out. No one was playing tennis or racquetball. They were mostly alone, staring like so many zombies. I guess they didn’t have 8-year-old brothers who needed entertaining during a crisis.

That night at dinner, no one talked. We were either worn out from the stress or too numb to think of anything to say. Liam sat with his friends, and even they picked at their food without the usual jokes and dares and riotous laughter over the stupidest things. We couldn’t discuss much, anyway, before we knew the real scoop from the captain and the others. Any talk now would be just speculation.

I stayed awake staring out the window for a long time after Liam drifted off. In our quiet home beneath the sea, it had become my ritual to allow the fish and seaweed and shimmery sea to lull me, calm me, soothe me into a restful trance. But tonight, my mind rebelled. Viruses, casualties, and death had been whispered about in hushed tones and then shouted in angry protests. Thousands of deaths, they said. Tens of thousands of deaths, they said. The television was a nightmare of scary images. With each scene, adrenaline surged through me and left me feeling sick and cold. All afternoon, I had played with Liam in the athletic dome and pushed worry as far down as I could. Now, it rushed back, a tsunami of fear and dread. The virus. The victims. The dead and dying. Dad.

I wasn’t aware of time. My eyes burned. My stomach was an acid pit. At some point, I must have crashed, because I woke the next morning having slept on top of the covers in my clothes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

“Good morning, OSCAR colleagues.”

             The rich voice of Dr. Persennia Nyaga came through my comm at 6:00 a.m. Liam didn’t stir. “A departure from our normal routine is in order. We are serving brunch all morning until 1:00 p.m. Classes and most duties are cancelled. Sleep in, enjoy some recreation, and otherwise take it easy. We’ll contact you when we have any information from the resurfacing team.”

I used the bathroom, drank a glass of orange juice, covered Liam, and went back to bed.

That afternoon, Julian called us together.

“I’m expecting a video call from the team any moment. Rather than relay the information to you second hand, I decided we’ll all listen at the same time. That way everyone has a heads up.”

A murmur went through the crowd. I felt the menacing crackle of anticipation.

The giant screen at the front of the room snapped to life. It was the LC.

“Lieutenant Commander Brady,” Julian said. “We’re all here with the exception of Zach McGann. He has the kids with him in the athletic dome. Other than Zach, my comm shows 100% attendance.”

“Can you see me?” she said.

“Yes sir. We can see you. Can you see us?”

She leaned forward and touched something out of our line of sight. “Now I can.” She paused. “I have news. It’s not good news, but it’s what I know at this time.”

My heartbeat thumped in my ears.

“Samantha Matisse, the head of communications at OSCAR Terra Firma, has succumbed to the SSV virus.”

“Samantha Matisse has fallen ill from the virus,” Julian repeated.

“No, I’m afraid it’s worse than that. She’s died from the virus.”

She’s died from the virus. . I did not just hear that. Samantha Matisse? No way. The woman who called me a fire eater? Uh uh. No way.

“Samantha Matisse has died from the virus,” Julian said. His voice was quiet.

“That is correct. The rest of her staff—I believe—has gone home to be with their families—”

Dr. Nyaga’s voice broke in. “They’ve abandoned the communication center? Abandoned it?” Her voice rose. “I refuse to believe that—”

“I don’t know all the details,” the LC said, “but it looks that way, Persennia. From what I could piece together from the scene, I think Sam collapsed at work. There is evidence of a hemorrhagic event, if you will.”

Hemorrhagic event. Bleeding.

“There were some written messages. Some of her staff left to take her to a medical center. No ambulances are taking calls for individual cases. From other notes I saw, the rest of her people left immediately afterwards.”

“But these people are under the auspices of the Navy,” Dr. Nyaga said. “They don’t just pick up and leave.”

The LC nodded. “I understand. I’m Navy. It could be that some were reassigned on a temporary basis to the National Guard. The Navy is also moving people to medical centers and quarantine stations to help. I don’t know. I just know that I’m here now, and no one is manning or operating this communication center. All lights and computers were left on. That’s why I was able to establish contact with you so easily.” She looked away from the camera. “It looks like people left in a hurry.”

We stared at the screen.

“When will we hear from the captain? From Dr. Prumb?” Dr. Nyaga’s outrage was fierce.

She is a warrior.

“When we split up, the doctor was on her way to the CDC in Atlanta. She said she’d call as soon as she has some recommendations. I’ve tried contacting her several times, but no answer.” She took her glasses off. “You have to understand how difficult it is up here right now. All communication is on overload.” For a second or two she was more human than officer. “There’s no way to fully explain the panic and chaos up here. It’s unimaginable.”

“And the captain?”

“He was picked up by helicopter and taken to the White House. I’m sure he’ll contact all of us as soon as possible.”

“Thanks for the update. We’ll wait to hear from the rest of the team. Stay safe,” Julian said.

“I’m going to leave this line open,” the LC said. “I don’t want to take a chance of turning something off and not being able to get things working again.”

Another spasm stabbed through me. Please. We can’t be cut off!

“Good idea.” Julian rubbed his forehead. “There’ll be more information coming. Roggenkamp, stay here and monitor. I’ll give Zach McGann the update. The rest of you, don’t panic. We’ll figure this out.”

Once again, I thanked my lucky stars for Zach. The kids were off having a blast while we faced the grim news of what was happening on Terra Firma. The kids didn’t have to be exposed to this. Yet.

No one spoke. Our looks said it all. We were stunned. Horrified. Mind blown. We faced an uncertain future.

I sprinted off to call Dad. I could have called him from anywhere on my comm, but I needed the privacy of my apartment. I got him at the clinic on the 7th ring.

“Hey, Honey.” He looked beat. Guilt washed over me.

“Dad. I should be there helping you.”

He smiled. “Don’t make me feel helpless, Vi. I’ve got a system going here, and I’m pretty proud of it. I open 60 cans of dog food, fill the bowls, and—”  

“No, I mean with everything else. I could be cooking for you…doing the laundry…helping pick up the animals.”

“Are you keeping safe and keeping Liam safe?”

“Of course”

“Then you’re doing your job. That’s a load off my mind. With all of this craziness, my children are safe. How many people can say that right now?”

I had a pounding headache. I blinked back tears.

“Speaking of Liam, how is that old fellow?”

“He’s great. We went rock climbing, and ziplining. He’s with his class right now, and they’re in the athletic dome. This morning they played kickball in the park.”

Dad washed stainless steel feeding bowls while we talked. “What kid wouldn’t want to do all that? I’m a little jealous, myself.”

“Dad, how bad is it?”

He rinsed a silver bowl and placed it in the dish drainer and dried his hands on a towel.

“It’s severe. Catastrophic. Something I never thought we’d have to face.”

“The TV shows victims everywhere.”

“Yes.”

“We’re waiting to hear from the captain. He, the LC, and Dr. Prumb resurfaced yesterday to get firsthand information. The comm center at OSCAR Terra Firma wasn’t answering. The LC went to find out why, and she just told us that Samantha Matisse, the woman in charge of OSCAR Terra Firma, died from the virus…at work. Her staff transported her somewhere, and then apparently abandoned the comm station. There’s no one manning the Communication Center.” I thought Dad would be shocked and angry.

“Yeah, we’ll probably be seeing a lot of that. This virus hit so suddenly…people are in panic mode. Nothing is more important to them than staying alive and taking care of their families.”

“But what about you, Dad?” There was urgency in my voice. “Can’t you get away? Away from danger—”

He cut me off. “Vi, there is no ‘away’ anymore. This virus is widespread, and getting worse every moment. People don’t know they’ve been exposed. They pass someone in a restaurant, share a conversation on a bus, or pick up children from school. Then, weeks later, when the symptoms manifest, death comes quickly.”

“But what about an island? Wouldn’t you be safe on a small island?”

Dad’s smile was sad. “Do you think the people who live on islands are going to let others on? They don’t want to be exposed, either.”

“Is there anywhere safe?” My voice rang with anger. 

“Yes,” Dad said. “And thank God both of my children are there.”

If you had poured a bucket of ice water over me I couldn’t have been more chilled. Of course. OSCAR. Liam and I were safe. Dad and everyone else were in danger.

“Can’t you come here? You were cleared for medical when you came for the blood draws.”

He shook his head. “That was three weeks ago. No, they couldn’t let me back in. I wouldn’t go back in.”

“Why?” My voice exploded like dynamite.

“Well, think about it, Violet. I’ve been gone for 23 days. Down there, you’re not in contact with people other than your crewmembers. They’ve created a safe survivor center. No one from up here can reenter. They’d potentially expose the virus to everyone who lives and works at the OSCAR facility.”

Then that would mean that the captain and the others—

“But, Dad…”

“I’m taking precautions, staying mostly at home. When I did go out, I wore a mask. I’m maxed out now, so I’m not picking up anymore pets. I have a good supply of food for me and the animals. Now, I’ll just take it one day at a time.”

“But what if…”

Dad stared off to the left.

“Then you and Liam are going to remember everything your mother and I taught you.”

I couldn’t swallow for the lump in my throat. My head throbbed.

“There are no guaranties in life. We live with integrity and do the best we can. We’re in God’s hand. Let’s not dwell on endings now. Things are uncertain.”

“I love you, Dad.”

That sad smile again. “I love you, too.”

After our call, I sat staring out the window again for who knows how long. Up on Terra Firma, the country was facing a devastating crisis, but down here, fish swam by, thousands of them, in an unending parade. Sunbeams shimmered, their rays bent and distorted by the current. I tried to focus on a sea turtle that had soft, green algae growing on its back. He was close enough to rake my window with his front flipper. I put my palm up to the window to meet him. We stared, eye to eye. Then he slowly turned and swam out of sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 21

 

I set out walking. I had no agenda other than to put one foot in front of the other over and over and over and over. Anywhere. Everywhere. I fell into a rhythm, walking through the tubes that led from dome to dome to dome. My thoughts raced ahead of my steps, questions and what-ifs and chilling scenarios and guilt and sorrow and despair. It wasn’t certain Dad would die, but it was very possible. How could I raise Liam without Dad? How many people would die? Everyone? What would happen to the infrastructure of the country? Of OSCAR? Why hadn’t they sent someone to man the Communications Center? What if we ran out of food, or weren’t able to keep making air and fresh water?

Julian called another meeting that night. The kids were with Epstein watching a movie, so Zach could be at the meeting this time. Captain Jasper and Dr. Prumb were already on the large screen waiting to communicate with us and answer questions, I hoped.

“Is everyone present?” the captain said.

Julian checked his comm. “100% with the exception of Epstein, who is with the children.”

“Good. Wish I could tell you this in person.” He cleared his throat. “The virus, known as SSV, is being considered a global pandemic, catastrophic event.”

“A global pandemic, catastrophic event,” Julian said.

“It is widespread. To have been in human contact, any kind, anywhere, is to have potentially been exposed. It is spread by human contact. And, we just found out for sure 15 minutes ago it is also airborne, which is one of the reasons it is so widespread.”

“It is spread by human contact, and it is airborne,” Julian repeated.

“If contracted, SSV is 100% fatal. The situation is drastic and frightening, to say the least. People are panicking. The White House is urging citizens to remain calm. The National Guard is out in full force. So are other branches of the military, including the Navy. The president will address the nation again tonight.” He looked at his comm. “Actually, in a few minutes.”

He continued. “Now, what does this mean for you, for OSCAR? First of all, neither the LC, Dr. Prumb, Dr. Kelsey, or I will be able to submerge to join you again.”

There was an outcry from everyone in the room. Julian held up his hand. The captain waited for things to die down.

“We didn’t realize it before we left, but by resurfacing, the four of us have been exposed in one way or another. We knew the virus is spread by human contact, and we’ve carefully avoided all contact with anyone infected. But the CDC announced a few minutes ago that the virus is also airborne. If we were to submerge again, we would only succeed in bringing the virus down to you, where it would spread like wildfire. By joining you, we would take away your only chance for survival.”

My knees shook uncontrollably. Dad had been right.

“After consulting with the White House and the CDC, Dr. Prumb and I agree that the rest of you should remain submerged…for at least…another…18 months or…even two years.”

What?

The bottom dropped out from under us. Everyone went bananas.

The captain held up his hand. “You have every resource to make that happen. The Navy stocked supplies for 4 years as a precaution. I’m afraid staying submerged is your only chance of guaranteed survival. Resurfacing is…a death sentence.”

18 months? Two years? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is not happening.

Between a throbbing headache and the pain in my gut, I could hardly focus.

“Do not try to resurface until the virus has had a chance to die out completely. We’ve all cross trained, so you’ve had a chance to learn a variety of jobs. You’re going to have to rely on each other more than ever now.”

“Could you give us more details?” Julian motioned for us to quiet down.

“Of course. Assuming I’ve contracted the virus, which is still unknown, I would be asymptomatic for at least 21 to 42 days, and I plan to stay in daily communication with you, Dr. Nyaga, and the others. Dr. Prumb and I will try to answer your questions and prepare you as best as we can. For now, I want every member of the OSCAR community to hear the urgency of my words. Do not resurface for at least 18-24 months. To do so would expose you to the virus, and if you contract it, you have no chance.”

My jaw ached. I reminded myself to stop clenching my teeth. Dad. I wouldn’t be able to see him again for 18-24 months. Or ever. Surely some people would survive, wouldn’t they? This couldn’t possibly mean everyone would be wiped out. That was ridiculous. Maybe Dad would be one of the lucky ones. There would be lucky ones, right?

People around me sobbed. Some mumbled to themselves. Others stared blankly.

“We’re at the Pentagon,” the captain said. “I couldn’t get into the White House in person, but I’ve spoken with them on camera. I was able to meet personally with the President, Homeland Security, the head of the Navy, and the head of the CDC in Atlanta. They’re all in agreement that you should stay submerged. There is a contingency plan for an emergency extended stay.”

He took his glasses off. “I know this is a lot to take in, but when you resurface in two years’ time, you might be the very ones who…restart society as we know it. I hope there will be other survivors, but there’s no way to guarantee that.”

Restart society. Restart society? Small birds fluttered to get out of my chest, beating their wings against my ribs.

After a long silence, Julian spoke. “This information is devastating. We’ll need time to process.”

“Yes. Dr. Prumb and I dreaded to tell you. I’m sure you’ll need time to think about all of the repercussions. We are also reeling.” He paused. “In light of our circumstances, we want to give you wise counsel…while facing the probability of our own mortality.”

His words hit me. We were freaking out with fear about our own situation when the captain, Dr. Prumb, Dr. Kelsey, and the LC were looking at a few more weeks of life.

“What will you do?” Julian said.

“For the next few days, I will stay in constant contact with you and give you all the guidance and advice I can. Help you plan for the next few months. Then, before any symptoms manifest themselves, I’d like to spend time with my wife and daughters. Dr. Prumb will do the same. We can both be reached at home if need be.”

We were stunned. Totally and completely stunned. Wiped out. Numb.

After the call, I gradually became aware again of my head and stomach pounding and lurching. I needed to get to my bed, to tuck into a tight ball in the cool, dark room, but I simply sat rooted to the spot. We all did.

I don’t know how much time passed.

Dr. Nyaga’s voice was like healing salve on a scalding burn.

“We all need time to think. Let’s table any discussion for now. The President of the United States is coming on in a few minutes, and we would benefit from hearing what she has to say. Julian?”

“Wise counsel.” He looked around the room. “I do want to leave you with the thought that we are survivors. We can and will get through this. It may not seem like it now, but we will.”

We can and will get through this. I needed those words. I needed them desperately.

The president’s message was sobering. She repeated much of the same information Captain Jasper had told us, but with a different spin. The people up on the surface—Terra Firma—didn’t have the same promise of hope we had down here. We had not been exposed. We were safe. The president’s main message was about acting with integrity.

“I wish I had better news,” she said, “but I can urge you to show the world that Americans help their fellow Americans. Their friends and neighbors. The homeless. The elderly. The sick and dying. Now is not a time for looting and destroying. Don’t lose sight of the fact that many will not live through this virus. If you survive, and you have need, there will be time later to find things to help with your own survival. For now, do what is right, what is good and fair. You don’t want to survive physically…and die morally and ethically. Those of you who do live through this will be called on to restart our country with the highest of attributes and intentions.”

My brain latched on to her last few sentences. I etched them into my permanent memory. “For now, do what is right, what is good and fair. You don’t want to survive physically…and die morally and ethically. Those of you who do live through this will be called on to restart our country with the highest of attributes and intentions.”

Her words wrapped themselves around me like a blanket, but I was still shivering.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 22

 

Epstein delivered Liam to my door an hour later. I was grateful for the time to pull myself together. Liam needed to know what was going on, and I had to be the one to tell him. I hated that his carefree childhood would be shattered, but I didn’t want to live a lie, either. He needed to know he could trust me to always be honest.

Liam already knew some of the details. I guess kids had their own version of the Bubble Babble down here. I filled in the rest, about how the virus might affect Dad, our friends, and life as we had known it. I think Liam wanted me to tell him. Probably had been waiting. I laid out everything I knew. How much could an eight-year-old understand about a virus? I had to talk about death. Liam wanted to know what would happen to all the animals out there and specifically the dogs and cats at Dad’s vet practice. The horses in the meadow near our house. He wanted to know if all of his friends would die. If Dad would die. Who would bury Dad if he died. He wanted to know what would happen to him and me, and if we were really safe down here. We talked late into the night, holding each other, unable to accept the thought of so much loss. Grief is ugly, and that night it spilled out like a festering wound.

Later, as I cradled Liam’s sleeping body, I thanked God for the thousandth time for the circumstances that brought him down here to the OSCAR facility where he was safe. It was bad enough thinking about the possibility of losing Dad, but I couldn’t have borne it if I had the chance to be safe, and Liam was on the surface facing this virus alone. Dying. By himself. I laid him on his bed so my fresh spasms of grief wouldn’t wake him.

The next morning brought another terrifying development. After breakfast, Julian announced there would be yet another meeting of everyone, including children.

Another meeting? No, no, no, no, no. We always get bad news at meetings.

“This meeting was not suggested by me,” Julian said. “There are those among us who have something to say, and they asked us to gather. I don’t know all the details, myself.”

Martin Kaplan spoke. “It’s me. I called this meeting. I’m not ashamed. There are some of us who met last night—all night long, I might add,—and have decided that we want to surface. Let me be clear. We will surface. We know the virus is deadly, but we’re going up anyway.”

What?

Cries of shock exploded all around. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would choose to leave the safety of the OSCAR facility. What were they thinking? Epstein’s curls did the crazy dance as she shook her head.

Martin continued.

“If our families are going to die, we want to be with them. If what we’re hearing is correct, that could be just about anybody, anywhere. I have a wife and two sons on Terra Firma, and they need me.”

It hit me. I felt the same way about Dad, but he wanted me to keep Liam and me safe by staying submerged.

Zach stood. “Martin, you heard the captain. To surface now is to be exposed to the virus. That gives you a possible survival rate of little more than six weeks.”

More outbursts from the crowd.

“That’s precisely why I’m going, Zach. I want to spend whatever time I have left with my family. What kind of man would I be if I left my wife and children at a time like this?”

“But to surface is to face almost certain death,” George Skerski said.

“Then so be it. I’d rather die with my family than spend a lifetime without them.” Martin’s passion was a raw snarl of agony. I’d seen it before with animals who felt trapped and in pain. They lashed out at the very people trying to help them.

“I’m going, too,” someone called. “I want to be with my parents.”

I was flabbergasted. Liam turned to me with a face full of questions. I squeezed his hand.

Those who wanted to leave became a firing range of shouts and bursts, scaring us, daring us to tell them they couldn’t go. Like the haze of gunpowder over a battlefield, the reek of fear hung in the air.

“I’m going with you. I’ll make it to Cincinnati somehow.”

“I want to be with my sister. I’m going, too.”

“That’s stupid. We’re talking about life and death here, not to mention the jobs you do to keep the OSCAR facility running. What about your commitment to us?”

“I don’t care. I want to be with my fiancé. I’m not going to let him die alone.”

Julian gave each speaker his attention, allowing them to vent.

“I want to be with my husband. We’ve only been married six months.”

You could hear the anger in Ethan’s voice. “All that is well and good, but you’re throwing away your chance to live. Think of what people would give to be in your shoes down here.”

It went on and on. At some point, Liam covered his ears and shut his eyes. I pulled him to me while the barrage of emotions raged over our heads.

“I just want out of this place. The captain said we’re stuck down here for two more years. I feel claustrophobic! I’d rather die up there than run out of air down here.”

“Everyone calm down. No one’s running out of air,” Julian said.

Martin Kaplan’s retort was vicious. “Don’t think you can stop this, Fenley.”

People fed off Martin’s tone, snarling and threatening. It reminded me of the dogs in cages at the city pound when Dad and I walked between the aisles. Each dog barked and growled out of terror of the unknown. A few sat mute, forlorn. Each dog felt threatened and hopeless. It was the same here in this room.

Julian’s voice was the sharp crack of a cannon. “Calm down!” There was no mistaking his authority. “I’m not going to stop you, Martin. I’m not going to stop any of you. I’m going to help you.”

Martin stopped mid-sentence, mouth gaping. The room quieted, a string of cheap firecrackers popping its last, now reduced to bits of paper and ash.

Julian continued.

“I’m sorry you’ll be going, but I get it.” He nodded. “I don’t have a wife or children, but I understand your desire to go be with yours. I won’t stop you.” He paused. “This is something no one saw coming, totally unexpected and life-changing.” Everyone sat transfixed. “But, I need to remind you all of three things.”  

“One, if you resurface, you have to accept the reality that you might only have weeks or months to live. Your death will most likely come with little or no medical help, as the system has already been stretched to ridiculous lengths. You’ve seen the television footage.” He rubbed his forehead with his palm.

“Two, while I do understand if you decide to resurface, your absence will definitely make things harder for those of us who choose to remain. Each of you has been selected to do a specific job, and that job is vitally needed by the OSCAR community. When you leave, we’ll have to take up the slack and keep things running for the common good.” He leaned against a table.

“Three, and I state this with no malice, if you leave…if you resurface…you cannot return to the OSCAR facility, ever. To let you back in would jeopardize the health and safety of everyone here.” He paused to let his words sink in. “I repeat, if you leave, even if you don’t develop any symptoms of the virus, we cannot let you back in. I want you to hear that. Please hear that.” The room was so silent I heard Epstein breathing beside me.

Martin nodded. “Fair enough. We get it. I’m speaking for me, of course, so I guess I should say, ‘I get it’ and let others speak for themselves.” No one said a word. I guess people were considering all the ramifications.

Julian continued. “I ask one thing for the good of the OSCAR community. Give us one day—a single day—today—to explain your jobs to those who choose to stay. I’ll give you one hour to decide if you are going or staying. At 10:00 a.m. you will make your choice. If you choose to resurface, Dr. Nyaga and I will pair you with someone to go over your responsibilities and posts. Show us how you run things. Show us where things are stored. Explain how to make repairs. Give us a crash course on continuing your job. I know there are plenty of how-to videos down here, but there’s nothing like learning from you personally, your successes and mistakes. Then, tomorrow morning, I’ll help you resurface. I give you my word.”

.

Everyone immediately broke into smaller groups to discuss options, and some left to call families for opinions and current information. Liam had dozed off beside me. I already knew Dad’s decision. Liam and I would stay put.

Fernandez slid in next to me.

“Newbie, let’s talk.”

I smiled. It was always good to see Fernandez. She was just the diversion I needed.

“This is important. I don’t know if you want to talk with…” She pointed her chin towards Liam.

“Liam?” I shook him awake. “Hey. I think Zach is taking the kids to the park. See over there? Go have fun.” He trotted off to join his friends.

Fernandez waited until Liam was out of earshot.

“I’m going to resurface.”

I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I wasn’t expecting that. At all. Fernandez leaving us? Going up to be exposed to the virus? Hot tears burned my eyes. I blinked hard, but they spilled down anyway.

She saw. “I know.” She put her hand on my arm. “I was looking forward to more time with Dr. Nyaga…and you, Chica.” The lump in my throat made it impossible to speak.

“I’m going to spend whatever time I have with my little sisters. I told you about them, right? They always look to me for strength. I want to be there for them. They’re up in New York with my mother’s sister, Esperanza. They need me, Newbie. But the truth is, I really need them.” She brushed hair out of her eyes. “So, enough about that. Right now, I need you.”

“What? Why?” I was confused. And heartsick. I didn’t want to be needed. I needed Fernandez and her strength. I needed her to be here with us, with me.

“Because Dr. Prumb is on the surface, and she’s not coming back. Dr. Boylston will be staying, but he needs a medical assistant.”

What?

“No. Not me.” Panic rose up and filled my chest. “Pick someone else. I don’t do that stuff.”

She frowned. “Yes you do. I read your file. Your dad is a vet, and you’ve helped out in surgery and wound care.”

“I’m not qualified. I’m not…” I couldn’t think. I was too tired and too stressed to argue properly.

“Just spend the day with me,” she said. “I want to feel like I’ve got someone with a brain to explain things to.”

I raised two palms. “I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s—”

“Coltrane.” It was a roar. She got up in my space and practically stabbed me with a Latina death finger. “Do you see what’s going on around here? On Terra Firma? None of us wants to be responsible, but now is the time when we have to step up. Dr. Boylston needs you. Everyone here needs you.”

“I won’t do it.” I shook my head over and over. “No.”

It was as though she was talking to a child who needed firm discipline.

“Oh. yes. you. will.”

I felt angry. Desperate. Cornered. I didn’t want her to leave us. I didn’t want to be in a position to have to make medical judgments or do procedures. I didn’t want to watch people’s physical suffering.

“No. I won’t.”

Fernandez glared. “I’ll be in Medical in ten minutes. Your butt better be there.” She stormed off, sizzling with fury.

Well, Sister, you’ll be sitting there all alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 23

 

I spent the next eight and a half hours in Medical with Fernandez. Time rushed by in a duets of instructions and horror. Anger and reluctance. Terror and dread.

Fernandez didn’t waste time.

“There are lots of videos for every medical scenario imaginable. The Navy has been very thorough. Those will be your main help.”

“Won’t Dr. Boylston do all the real stuff?”

“Yeah, but you never know. Make sure you watch the videos repeatedly.”

“Repeatedly?” My voice sounded thin and dry.

Fernandez smiled. “Yeah, repeatedly. What do you think I do all the time while you’re out catching lobsters and stocking up fish? I watch procedures over and over, so I’m familiar with them in case Plumb or Boylston needs me to assist, or I have to do something on my own.”

“On your own?”

“If Plumb or Boylston are busy.”

 “Well, Plumb won’t be coming back.”

“So, you’ll assist Boylston. He can be a weenie sometimes, but he’s decent at procedures.”

She pointed. “There’s some really cool equipment here. Experimental stuff. Futuristic medical inventions. Like you can’t even imagine. Outrageously expensive, but the Navy commissioned all sorts of new, inventive, medical devices. The videos are on the mainframe, but there are also laminated printouts in case you have to perform a procedure underwater.”

“What?” It was a shriek of desperation.

“Underwater.”

I could barely string two words together. “Uh, what would that be?”

“In case someone is trapped and you have to perform an amputation. Heart attack, possibly. Spear gun accident. Shark attack. Cadaver recovery.”

Amputations? Cadaver recovery? Oh Heck no. Not under any circumstances.

“Uh, what?” My words were a garbled rasp.

“The best case scenario is if the patient can be brought back here to the surgical suite.”

My stomach spasmed. “You’ve got the wrong girl, Fernandez.”

“Don’t panic, Coltrane. These are just possible scenarios.”

“Can’t the Navy send someone? I mean, surely there are other doctors that can replace Dr. Prumb, right?”

Fernandez turned me to face her and spoke as though calming a frantic child. “Newbie, no one from the surface can come down here. They run the risk of infecting everyone here with the virus, remember?”

“Don’t leave. Don’t leave us.” My voice was a begging whisper.

She took my hand. “Ay, Chica. No quiero dejarte, pero debo estar con mi familia.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

She nodded. “None of us wants to do what is ahead of us. None of this is easy.” She wrapped her strong brown arms around me. I sobbed silently, tears and snot wetting her uniform.

“What if I make a mistake?”

“I’m sure you’ll make mistakes. I do. Just do the best you can. No one’s asking you to be perfect, Chica.”

“I’ll need help. Someone to assist me.”

She chewed a hangnail. “Yeah, you will. You’ll have to train someone. Choose someone you can rely on, someone smart who can take direction. Maybe even two people, but you guys are going to be spread pretty thin. Train them. Have them watch the videos. You’re in charge of medical assistance.”

I’m in charge of medical assistance. This is not my circus. These are not my monkeys.

I dried my eyes and face with a tissue, and blew my nose. I took a long, deep breath.

Fernandez showed me Medical’s complete inventory. The Navy had been thorough. There was everything needed for setting broken bones to doing surgeries to delivering babies.

“Deliveries?” Why would we ever have to deliver a baby?

“You never know. We’re prepared.” She shrugged her shoulders. “We have married couples here.”

I stared silently, morosely, hoping my protest would register.

“Go eat,” she said. “Take a breather for 30 minutes. Then we’ve got to go over pharmacy.”

Fernandez. Are you listening to me? Don’t you get it?

We worked until the wee hours of the morning, fueled by adrenaline and coffee. With pharmacy, there was a strict protocol to follow. All drugs were kept locked, so Fernandez programmed the code into my comm. Dr. Nyaga’s comm was the only other way to access the pharmacy.

“Don’t broadcast that you have the code.”

“Okay.”

“Keep up with your inventory. The Navy supplied us with drugs to last four years, so you should be okay. What isn’t on the shelves is in the storage room, again, opened by your comm.”

Eating had given me energy, and I listened more carefully and took notes. Salves, creams, lotions, pills, and syrups. Injectables and IVs. Sometime during our session she called Taylor, from SCUBA Two.

“I need a guinea pig. I knew you wouldn’t be a big baby.”

“Uh, okay.”

“Newbie, almost anyone can give an injection. But in an emergency, the real trick is to know how to start an IV.”

I swallowed. “I’ve watched a lot. I’ve done a few.”

“Good. Show me.”

It was easy to recall the many times I had helped Dad do this. Gather all supplies. Put on gloves. Attach the tubing to the IV bag and prime the line to remove any air. Release the roller clamp. Fill the drip chamber one third full. Clamp the line. Apply a tourniquet. Look for a vein.

“Look at you,” Fernandez said.

“Pump your fist a few times,” I said. I tapped Taylor’s arm. “Here’s a good one.”

Clean the area with an alcohol swab. Take the cap off needle.

Without knowing it, I was on autopilot. My nerves quieted, and I channeled Dad’s actions.

“Bevel down, 20% angle.” I slid the needle into Taylor’s vein. Blood came back into the flash chamber. I knew I was in. I had hit the vein on the first try.

I advanced the catheter down near the skin and pulled out the actual needle, attached the tubing from the IV bag, and slowly released the clamp. The drip chamber began to drip.

Fernandez’s smile lit the room. “Can I pick ‘em or what?”

I let out breath I didn’t even know I had been holding. “I honestly didn’t feel a thing,” Taylor said. I sighed. Maybe I wasn’t so dumb after all.

Fernandez removed the needle from Taylor’s arm. “Now, he’s an easy stick, Coltrane. You’ll want to practice on a number of people so you become familiar with different types and sizes of veins. It’s tricky. Some roll. Some blow. Some are teeny tiny and you have to go for a smaller gauge needle.”

I still couldn’t accept that this was really happening. I didn’t sign up for this. I was happy on SCUBA One. I liked my life here the way it was.

“You’ll want to train your assistants to do this. You never know what will happen, and you can’t be in two places at once.”

By this time, I was drunk with exhaustion and stress. It must have been at least 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

“I’ve got to pack, Newbie.” Fernandez rubbed the back of her neck.

I realized this was my cue to leave. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t find the words. I thought she’d punch me as her way to say goodbye, but she surprised me by wrapping her arms around me again. I understood, then, how much strength she would be to her little sisters, how much comfort they would feel when she came home to them.

I would have given everything I owned not to cry, but I did.

“What is your first name?” I asked. I’d only heard Fernandez.

She hugged me tighter. “Arlette.”

Arlette. This amazing person even had a cool name. Arlette.

I stood to leave.

“I’m glad I got to know you,” she said. “You’re a good kid.”

All I could do was nod.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 24

 

On my way back to my room, I saw a message on my comm from Dr. Nyaga.

“Liam is with me. See you in the morning.” I felt a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought of Liam all day or night. I was glad he was with Dr. Nyaga. I was bone weary, and it was way past the middle of the night.

There was another message. Julian. “Comm me when you’re done with Fernandez.” So he knew she had tapped me for medical. It was late. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t feel like calling, and it turned out I didn’t have to. Julian spotted me when I turned the corner down Main Street.

“Violet.”

“Hey.”

“I haven’t heard from you about your decision.”

“What decision?”

“You know. Whether you and Liam are staying.”

“Oh. We’re staying. I talked to Dad, and that’s what he wants.”

“What do you want?”

The question made me angry. As if there was a choice. Stay down here for two years or resurface and die. What fantastic options.

“We’re staying.” My voice had an edge.

“I figured you were since you were with Fernandez all day, but I wanted to hear it from you, directly.”

“Okay.”

“I think you’re making the right decision.”

I didn’t answer. Did I ask your opinion? Don’t act like you know what’s best for me and Liam.

In the morning after breakfast, we were called to another mandatory meeting.

Here we go again. I’m so sick of meetings I could scream.

“100% attendance,” Dr. Nyaga said, checking her comm.

“There are 158 of us left here at the OSCAR facility. As of my count right now, 21 have opted to leave,” Julian said. “All adults.”

That sucked the air out of the room. 21? That many? That leaves…137.

The room immediately filled with buzzing. How could we cover all 21 jobs?

Julian held up his hand. “If you’re wondering if we can still function cut down by 21 crewmembers, let me put your mind to rest. Dr. Nyaga and I have done the math. We can make it work. It will take some getting used to, it will take patience, but it’s doable.”

“I still can’t believe so many people are deserting us. They’re leaving us stuck with all their work.” It was Monty. As usual, all she could think of was herself.

Girl, you are a piece of work. A wedge of rotten cheese.

“Yeah. We’ll have to work more jobs to keep this place running,” Darlene Statten said.

“Look, I’m not deserting my family just to make life easier for you.” Martin Kaplan’s tone was sharp.

Stana, the girl who ran the Starbucks, raised her hand.

“I don’t think we should judge each other. None of these decisions came easy. There’s a deadly disease on Terra Firma. Are we now going to add blame and guilt to what we’re all having to face? Staying is agonizing. Leaving is horrifying.”

Spontaneous applause. Stana blushed. “By the way, I’m staying. There will be coffee.” The laughter cheered us.

“How will we resurface?” Martin Kaplan said, addressing Julian.

Julian nodded. “Also under control. We’ll be using an Escape Manta 6000. As you know, each Manta will seat 40, and we’ve got six. 21 of you are leaving, so we’ll just need the one Manta. The Navy made provisions for quick escape in case of any emergency. There’s one catch. You won’t be able to take much with you because you’ll have to swim the last few yards to the shore from the drop-off point. I have net bags for you, and you can take anything that will fit in the bag. Sorry, but our priority is getting people safely to shore.”

“How will it work?”

“We had a drill for this when we first arrived, remember? The Manta is a large, flat, underwater people-mover. Each person leaving will be assigned a seat and breathing apparatus. Mercer has triangulated a drop spot at Destin, Florida. We’ll take you to within 8-10 feet of the surface, right near the shore. You’ll swim the last few yards in, and you should be good to go. Again, that’s the reason for the net bags. You don’t want to be overburdened with things you have to swim to shore with. Keep in mind the real reason you’re going ashore is about people, not possessions.”

“I think most of us would be glad to leave almost everything we have so the rest of you can use it,” Martin said. Nods around the room.

Dr. Nyaga spoke. “We’re sending each of you with a thousand dollars cash to help you return to your families. We were up all night making arrangements. The captain, LC, Dr. Kelsey, and Dr. Prumb have agreed to meet you at the drop point and give any help they can on shore. It’s not going to be easy. We don’t know exactly what you’ll face up there.”

 “I think most of us are eager to get going.”

“Estimated time of departure is 60 minutes from now,” Julian said. “Dan will pilot the Manta, assisted by TR Washington. I’ve asked eight more of us who are not leaving to ride along to help you get to the surface. You will have our help and support until the last possible moment.”

People scattered. I craned my neck to see if I could figure out who was leaving and who was staying. It hadn’t been announced. I looked for Epstein, and saw her staring at me from across the room. She pointed her finger down and bounced it, like, I’m staying. I smiled and made the same sign.

Zach rushed by with SCUBA gear and shouted, “You’re stuck with me, Coltrane. I’m an underwater man.” I was relieved. Liam could continue with school, and Zach was a close friend. I need my friends.

So many goodbyes. Hugs and tears. Words of encouragement. Promises to keep us informed. A whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. All of us valued life. All of us loved our families. But we had each made choices that would affect our futures differently.

We crowded around the launch pool, Ocean Entry. Dr. Nyaga and her crew handed out sealed plastic envelopes with cash. Epstein ticked off names from a list as people took their seats on the Manta. No adults with children were leaving. That was good. The best chance of survival possible was down here with us.

The eight helpers, including Dr. Boylston, George, Julian, and Epstein, wore SCUBA gear. They would assist with the final ascension from 10 feet below the surface. They were the last to get on the Manta.

The send-off team, including pilots Dan and TR Washington, wore masks and were attached to air tanks on the Manta.

“God speed,” Dr. Nyaga said. “It was an honor to serve with you. Best of luck to you and your families.”

The Manta slowly submerged. We watched as our former crewmembers lowered deeper and deeper and propelled out of sight.

My hand hurt. I looked down. Liam was holding on for dear life.

 

 

CHAPTER 25

 

“Let’s get a pizza,” I said.

“Yeah, pizza.”

“I’m ready to watch movies and play video games and pig out.”

We stopped by the pizza shop, The Octo-Pie. I could have easily ordered one from my comm, but the delicious smells in the restaurant were part of the healing experience. Liam and I took our hot, cheese, pepperoni, black olive, tomato, and mushroom pizza back to our room. It was our go-to order since forever. Our fridge was stocked with water, juice, snacks and sodas, and I didn’t care what or how much we ate or drank.

Bring on the comfort food. Keep it coming.

“I miss your cooking,” Liam said. He held a slice up high and bit off a long string of cheese.

“You do? I’m going to tell Chef Sal on you.”

“Will not.”

“Will too.”

I had an idea. “You know, I bet Chef Sal would let us go in and cook together sometime. Would you like that?”

“Yeah.” He paused. “Will you make chicken Paprikash? And teach me how?”

“Of course. That sounds good.” Chicken Paprikash was the family favorite.

We snuggled and ate and watched movies and played and burped and had a pillow fight. Sometime after the snacking and horseplay, we both fell asleep, exhausted from stress and fatigue.

We woke up to Dad calling on the big screen. His smile was huge.

“Hey. My two favorite people.”

“Dad. What’s going on?”

“Hi, Dad. Vi and I ate so much pizza.”

Dad filled us in on the latest. He was pretty much routine, taking care of the maximum load of animals next door at his vet practice. “Emma’s staying home with her family. There’s no reason for her to come anymore. I can feed and water the animals and let them out for exercise. Emma calls to check on me daily, though.”

I felt sad. Dad had always run things with Emma’s help. “How are you feeling?” I held my breath.

“So far so good.”

Liam and I told Dad about the people who had decided to ascend. He went all crazy dog.

“Do they have any idea what is facing them up here?” His tone was angry. “And they’re leaving you shorthanded.” He rubbed his top lip. “Can you guys make it down there with 21 of your workforce gone? That’s a lot of people to lose.”

 “I think they’re coming up with a plan for us to job share. But that’s not all. Get this: Fernandez, our med assistant, tapped me to take her place. I tried to tell her no. Well, I actually told her no, but she dragged me, kicking and screaming, into Medical and went over protocols and procedures for an entire day and night.”

“She’s leaving?” His voice was a jolt.

“She’s gone.” He stared, uncomprehending.

I explained about her little sisters, and how she wanted to be with them.

Dad scratched the underside of his wrist, something he did when deep in thought. “That’s too bad, but you’ll do great. The doctor will need an assistant. You’ve assisted me countless times. Call me if you have any questions.”

I wondered how long I would have that privilege.

“Of course. But I haven’t said yes, yet.”

“Well, thank you for staying down there. You did what is best for you and Liam. Those were my specific wishes.”

“Dad, if it wasn’t for Liam—”

“I know.”

We promised to talk again, soon, and signed off.

.

Later that afternoon, the send-off team returned with the Manta. We were eager for details, so we were happy when Dr. Nyaga called us together. I planned to speak with her afterwards to tell her that I couldn’t possibly be the main medical assistant. I knew she’d understand.

We were now down to 137, so we met in the theater, which was smaller and more intimate than the auditorium. I sat between Zach and Epstein. I instinctively looked for Fernandez before remembering she wasn’t there. Her leaving was bittersweet. Heartbreaking for us, but she would be an amazing comfort for her little sisters. I refused to think of the inevitable.

Julian stood at the front. “The ascension went as planned for the most part. We stopped just beneath the surface near a beautiful white, sandy beach. You’ve got to love Florida. Those who were going ashore had just 20 yards or so to swim, the send-off team made sure everyone was safe. The captain and the LC were onshore and in communication with me by comm.” He smiled. “I guess everyone is still wearing their comms, even on the surface. They had dry clothing, shoes, towels and blankets, and several vehicles at the ready for all those who ascended.”

He looked down and cleared his throat. He cleared his throat a second time.

It felt like there was something Julian was hesitant to tell. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. I imagined he was weighted down with stress and responsibility.

“I never want to lie to you,” he said. “I have some bad news. As people were leaving, Dr. Boylston suddenly swam up to shore with the others.”

What did you just say?

“He’s left us, I’m afraid—unannounced. He’s gone. Dr. Boylston is no longer with us.”

Dr. Boylston is no longer with us.

The bottom dropped out.

“You didn’t know ahead of time?” The angry voice was Zach.

“No clue. He volunteered for the send-off team and left without a word.”

“Well, that’s pretty selfish, if you ask me.” Zach voiced what we were all thinking.

“Coward.”

“He left us?”

“Boylston is gone?”

“So you’re saying we now have no doctor,” Judy Skerski said.

“And no way to get a replacement down here with the virus raging on Terra Firma,” Ethan said.

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” Julian said.

“And Fernandez left, as well.”

“Yes. We knew she was leaving. She has three little sisters, and she wanted to be home with them in case…She spent all day yesterday and most of the night training Coltrane to take over.”

Every head in the room swiveled to look at me. I felt like the biggest idiot that had ever walked on two legs. I saw the looks of horror on their faces. We have to rely on you?

“Oh my god.” It was Monty. “That loser?”

            I couldn’t focus on Monty. I was too busy hating Julian for making the announcement. I didn’t want to do this. I hadn’t said yes, even to Fernandez. I had hoped to meet with Dr. Nyaga later and tell her I refuse. Why had Julian announced that I had been picked by Fernandez?

Taylor stood. “Not having a doctor is a blow, sure, but I’ll have to brag on Coltrane. Fernandez called me in to be her guinea pig at 3:00 in the morning last night. Coltrane started an IV on me, and let me tell you, she hit the vein the very first time. I honestly didn’t feel a thing.”

Monty called out, “She’s the last person I’d go to for a doctor.”

Girl, I might have to punch your lights out. Right here. Right now. Punch you out.

Zach let out a sound of disgust. Epstein’s curls shook back and forth with rage.

Seriously, I’d like to knock you silly.

Before I could stand, Dr. Nyaga maneuvered her automatic wheelchair up the aisle. Her voice came straight out of Creation, God speaking the world into existence.

“Would the speaker please stand?”

No one moved.

“Monty Petry, I believe? Rise to your feet. I have something to say to you, and I’d like to see your face while I’m saying it.”

Monty stood, but she didn’t meet Dr. Nyaga’s gaze.

“Miss Petry, I am disappointed in your choice to make rude comments based on nothing but your own sour attitude. Miss Fernandez is a close friend of mine. In a selfless act, she chose to leave us to be a comfort to her three younger sisters and face what probably will be her own mortality. I have complete confidence in her decision to tap Miss Coltrane as her replacement. It won’t be easy for Coltrane, but I know her, and she’ll do her very best. We are in a difficult situation here. Don’t make it worse by being impolite. Do I make myself clear?”

Monty didn’t answer.

Dr. Nyaga’s voice actually lifted everyone up slightly from his seat. “DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?” She had the weight of the whole of Africa behind her.

“Yes.” Monty’s answer was a whisper.

“Good,” Dr. Nyaga said. “I’m glad we’re clear on that.” She whirled her wheelchair in a slow circle, giving us all a fierce look.

“Never before have people been in the situation we are in. We have a chance to show the world that we acted and reacted with dignity and honor.” She nodded. “We’ll figure it out. Just be willing to help where you are needed. Life won’t be the same as it’s been, but who knows? It might be even better.”

And that was that. We left to rest up, have dinner, and start fresh tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 26

 

Our new temporary assignments were on our comms the next morning. Even the kids had jobs, although their shifts were shorter to allow time for school. Liam would be a prep cook under Chef Sal. He reacted by bouncing all around our apartment yelling, “Sweet!” and “Cool!” and “Wicked!”

When I saw my own assignment, panic welled up within me. Coltrane: Medical.

I asked Julian to meet me at Central Communications so I could speak with him and Dr. Nyaga at the same. I knew they were both busy, but to me, this couldn’t wait.

“I never told Fernandez that I would accept the position as medical assistant,” I said.

“Well now, the position is far more than that, isn’t it,” Julian said. “Dr. Boylston left, so that means…I know it’s a lot to handle, Violet, way more than you bargained for.”

You got that right Charlie. A lot more.

“What is your biggest reluctance,” Dr. Nyaga said.

Uh, there is no doctor…I’m not a doctor…I’m being place in a position where I have to pretend to be a doctor. That’s my biggest reluctance.

I would never be rude to Dr. Nyaga, though. How could I put it into words?

“I don’t feel qualified, for one,” I said.

Julian nodded. “You’re not, plain and simple. That has to be very stressful for you.”

Yes. You do get it.

“Oh Violet. I can only imagine. This isn’t something you saw yourself doing when you came here,” Dr. Nyaga said.

Are they tag-teaming me?

I tried to make my voice strong. “I didn’t choose to go into the medical field because frankly, I don’t like suffering. I have a little technical knowledge, yes, but what if there is a real emergency? I don’t think I could handle it. I’d let people down.”

Julian and Dr. Nyaga sat quiet.

“I’m not a doctor. Not even a nurse. I might make mistakes. I’m not prepared for this.”

Finally, Dr. Nyaga said, “Violet dear, have you considered someone to help you? Someone who could assist?”

“That’s what Fernandez suggested, but we’re so short-staffed now, I didn’t know if that was possible. I was thinking of Ethan Roggenkamp, but he’s on Security.”

“He’s yours,” Julian said. “I’ll arrange it today.”

“I wish there was a way that this wasn’t necessary, Violet, but we’re in a pickle,” Dr. Nyaga said.

“Tell you what,” Julian said. “If there is any kind of serious emergency, I’ll come help you get through it. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll be there.”

“That’s an excellent offer,” Dr. Nyaga said. “You are also welcome to come see me day or night if you need to talk about difficulties. Will that help some, Violet?”

I don’t want solutions. I want out of this job. Aren’t you listening?

“I know you don’t want to do it,” she said, “but I have every faith that you can do it to the best of your abilities.”

“Is there anything else you’re worried about, Violet?” said Julian.

“Yes. I’ve loved swimming with SCUBA One. I loved the ocean. I loved learning. I would miss being part of the team.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think we can arrange for you to still swim with the team at least part of the time. I’m not going to be able to go out every swim, either.”

I felt ashamed. Julian hadn’t volunteered to be put in charge of this whole thing. Other crewmembers were being asked to do two and possibly three jobs. Here I was whining about something that no one else had the background to do. This wasn’t just about me. It was for the good of the entire group.

“Okay,” I said. I swallowed hard. “I’ll do my best.” Breathe, Violet.

“That’s all we can ask of any of us,” Dr. Nyaga said.

I slowly, reluctantly closed the door of the past and began to wrap my head around the new reality.

While Liam went to school and then to help Chef Sal, I spent the day in Medical getting my feet wet. My plan was to look at my notes and go over the protocols Fernandez had briefed me on, but my first patient came knocking. It was Judy Skerski. I’d been there less than an hour.

Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up.

“I have a splinter, Violet. George usually takes care of things like this, but he’s in the park trying to fix a problem with the fish pond. Can you take a look?”

I examined Judy’s big toe and saw a long, dark splinter on the bottom.

“Oooo. I bet that hurts.”

“That’s what I get for going barefoot in the park.” She smiled a goofy smile. It was hard not to love Judy.

I pulled the magnifying lamp over for a closer look. “This shouldn’t be a problem.” I cleaned the area with an alcohol swab and got sterile nippers and tweezers. I carefully nipped the skin back and exposed the end of the splinter, grabbed it with the tweezers, and pulled it out. I put triple antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid on the wound.

“All set.”

Judy smiled. “Thanks. You’ve got a knack for this.”

Bless her. I knew she was just trying to build my confidence.

“We’ll see,” I said. “You’re my first patient.”

“Great,” Judy said. “Maybe I’m entitled to a discount.”

When she left, I watched several procedure videos. Well, Fernandez called them videos, but they were actually 3-D holograms that depicted life size patient presentations in full color. They were so realistic it was hard to believe there wasn’t an actual human patient and doctor there. They were fascinating, but I couldn’t imagine that I would ever need to do any of those procedures on my fellow crewmembers here at OSCAR. Not in a million years.

After lunch, Ethan arrived.

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

“Hey. Thanks for coming. I bet you hate me for asking for you.”

“On the contrary. The chance to experiment on our friends and inflict pain on our enemies? Let the games begin.”

Ethan was full of fizz. Sometimes when he swam by my window on Security duty he played tic-tac-toe with Liam on our big round window. He’d be fun to work with.

We opened drawers and cabinets, learning where things were located, making mental inventories. Ethan checked out the computer records.

“This is cool,” he said. You just speak everything into the mic and the computer fills out the blanks for you. It even offers suggested treatments.”

Suggested treatments. That was good news.

My next patient was Wingers, from Ag.

“I hate to complain, but this isn’t getting any better. I’m sure it’s from working with plants and washing my hands so many times a day.” Ethan and I examined the open cracks between Winger’s fingers. I’d seen cracks between dog toes, especially in winter. I knew Dad’s remedy.

“These are fissures,” I said. “They’re painful but easy to fix. I’ve got some wool wax in my room. It’ll take a few minutes for me to run get it, but it’ll be worth it.” I’d brought a big jar of it in my duffle because it was good for all kinds of stuff, like calluses and dry skin.

I rubbed the wool wax into the fissures between Winger’s fingers.

“Feels better already,” he said.

 “Try to keep your hands dry as much as possible,” I said. If you need to wear gloves, make sure they’re all cotton.” I scooped out some of the wool wax into a little container and included several wooden spreaders. “Rub this in morning and night, and I bet you’ll see a big improvement in two or three days.” I’d heard those exact words come out of Dad’s mouth.

“Well, thanks,” Wingers said. “You get the first ripe avocado.”

I showed Ethan the same 3-D holographic procedures I’d watched that morning and he was thunderstruck.

“Unbelievable.”

Ethan stopped the action every now and then, so we could question each other and locate the instruments and equipment we would need for specific presentations. I was relieved to have him here. He was a quick study, and I felt more confident about not messing up.

Just before supper, Darlene Statton came in holding her shoulder. “I was cleaning and dusting Neptune’s big trunk, and I tripped over a large root and landed on my shoulder. I can climb the rock wall, but I can’t walk around a tree trunk.”

Sore shoulder. A fall. Make sure there’s no fracture. I pictured Dad’s fingers carefully probing for broken bones. I did the same with Darlene’s shoulder.

“Let’s get a quick scan. Something new. Fernandez showed me the other day, and it’s amazing. You might have to wait a few minutes. This is our first ride at the rodeo.”

Ethan manned the computer, and I placed Darlene in front of the InternaScan, so her side was in front of the camera. The machine projected a 3-D hologram of the interior of her shoulder.

All three of us were gob smacked. Videos were one thing. Seeing inside an actual human was another.

“Look at that,” Darlene said. This was David Copperfield stuff. Harry Houdini stuff. I loved everyone’s reaction at what this machine could do.

Ethan cut away portions of the scan, so we could see specific bones and joints. We were knocked out by how precise and detailed the image was. This was way better than an ordinary x-ray.

“It doesn’t look like anything’s broken.”

I remembered a juvenile Doberman Dad treated after it injured its shoulder falling down icy steps. “There’s no doubt it’s sore, though. Let’s put it in a sling for a few days and give you some Tramadol for pain.”

I filled a tiny plastic bag with her pills.

“Cracker jack job, Coltrane.”

That was better than a hot-fudge sundae. “Come back for the next three days. We’ll need to rub it with emu oil.”

I’d used emu oil on an elderly mare who had arthritis in her hips. Each time I’d enter the barn to rub her, she would lay down and roll on her side to enjoy her massage. After I’d finish one side, I’d help her roll over to the other. I always rewarded her with an apple or a pear, so that might have helped with the healing, too.

“Emu oil? Like the bird?”

“Yeah, it penetrates muscles and eases pain.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

When she left, Ethan and I bumped bellies and hips and danced around the room.

“We’re good. Oh yeah. We’re good.”

“InternaScan!”

“Tramadol for pain!”

“Emu oil massages! Oh yeah!”

Medical would not be dull.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 27

 

Life was complicated, its ups and downs twisted like a peppermint stick. On one hand, I was happy for Liam and his new sense of purpose with Chef Sal. He loved the feelings of responsibility and accomplishment. He bragged about the new kitchen jobs he was learning. Not baby stuff, either. With 137 people aboard, and some of them working two jobs, Chef Sal still had to produce three great meals a day for a hungry crew, not to mention cleaning up afterwards. He taught his young helpers proper knife skills and how to cook basic sauces. How to wash and sterilize dishes. How to portion food. He bragged about their capabilities. Why hadn’t we been giving kids jobs all along?

On the other hand, Liam was just eight. Was this too dangerous?

“You’re going to get cut at some point, and a burn or two…or three…or ten, but all that comes from working in the kitchen,” Chef said. “Just suck it up.”

Turns out he was right.

“Sauté pan,” Liam said, pointing to a nasty red welt on his wrist. He spread his fingers to showed me a nick. “Fillet knife.” Those were followed by a bacon grease spatter, a potato peeler blunder, and a wicked steam burn. He beamed. The wounds were badges of honor, battlefield scars that gave him status with the kitchen crew.

Like it or not, Liam was a prep cook and sometimes sous-chef. My eight-year-old brother, who still slept with a stuffed bear, worked with razor sharp chef knives and meat cleavers.

Our situation had changed so drastically I really didn’t have time to process it. Life rushed along at an incredible pace in our new reality. We were a skeleton crew, scrambling here and there, trying to cover all bases, isolated from the world above, 137 of us, living under water.

On the other hand, there were frequent updates about the virus on Terra Firma and the terrible toll it was taking. The sheer numbers were frightening. How could so many people die? Who among our families would be next? Was anyone working on a cure?

I tried to stay away from television. They were still playing shows, but frequently interrupted with news updates, graphic scenes of hospital ER waiting rooms, and the daily death toll. When we did watch, there was little more we could do than stare in silent shock.

I talked to Dad every day, sometimes several times a day. He tried to keep up my spirits by telling me funny stories about the menagerie of dogs and cats that were now in his care. Most lived in his office, but he’d taken home a few favorites.

“That old blue tick hound has taken residence in my recliner. I have to wait till I feed him in the kitchen and then run claim my spot. There’s a three-legged cat that follows me everywhere I go. I don’t know her real name, but I call her Petunia. Last night, I reached for my bathrobe on the bed, and there she was, curled up on top of it. She looked at me like, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Between Petunia and the others, they keep me company.”

When I told Dr. Nyaga about Dad’s calls, she showed me a button to push that would video record our calls.

 “You might value these someday.” We both knew what she meant.

 I recorded the calls automatically every time we spoke now, but I never mentioned it to Dad. I told him about all of the cases that came through Medical. He was mystified by the technology I described. Sometimes he offered old-fashioned advice I never would have thought of.

So far, none of us at OSCAR had heard from any of the people who had left to be with their families. That irked me. Couldn’t they call to let us know if they made it home? Couldn’t they check on us and say they were concerned? Couldn’t they give us a firsthand image of what was really going on up on the surface? Six days had gone by. We all speculated different scenarios. What must the hospitals be like? Were the interstates open? How were people traveling? Were stores running out of food?

I missed Fernandez. I wanted to call and make sure she had made it home to be with her little sisters. I’d just been so busy I never seemed to remember to call until I woke up in the middle of the night or was running late to breakfast. Is that why no one has called us? Are they frantically trying to make it home? Are their families already—I didn’t want to think the word. To imagine parents and children dying reminded me that Dad was also exposed to whatever virus was floating around up there. I squeezed my eyelids shut.

I was working on preparing In-Sea First Aid Kits when Epstein came bopping in. “I’m here to ruin your girlish figure.”

“What? How?”

“You’re stuck down here in Medical, but I lead the exciting life of one who happens to be good friends with Chef Sal. He just got through making cream puffs.” She opened a small cardboard box and offered me one.

Delicious.

“Thanks. What’s new with you?”

“I saw your little brother, for one thing. He sure does know his way around the kitchen.”

“Well, he didn’t learn from me. Any time I wanted him to help or learn something fun in the kitchen, all he wanted to do was play video games.”

“Hey, don’t knock video games. The kids found out I’m the queen of gaming, and now I’m quite the popular girl. My goal is to beat each and every one of them so my reputation grows.” She popped a cream puff in her mouth. “Mmmm. These are good on so many levels.”

She licked her fingers and stood to leave. “Gotta go, G.I. Joe.”

“Cheerio, buffalo.”

“Toodle-loo, coo coo kachoo.” She bounced off with the box of cream puffs under her arm.

Medical responsibilities had actually become my lifesaver. I couldn’t do anything to help those who were sick on land, but I was doing everything I could to help those down here. Ethan and I threw ourselves into watching procedure holograms, familiarizing ourselves with pharmacy protocols and which drugs we should prescribe for different presentations. We practiced stitching on fish filets.

When it came to suturing, another word for stitching, I had it over Ethan in the beginning, but his competitive nature pushed us into contests, and he was soon as good as I was or better. The cool thing was the Navy had provided new pain-free patches called Hevador Epidermis Semiconductor Circuits that blocked feeling on the skin. Instead of having to inject Zynefercain or Lidocaine, which hurt like a bee sting when it was injected, you placed a Hevador patch over a patient’s skin and voilà: no pain. This allowed us to easily suture cuts with no pain or stress for the patient. Dad told me he didn’t know of any vet or human doctor who had even heard of such a thing up on Terra Firma.

“Vi, you’re dealing with medical technology of the future. These are protocols we’ve never even imagined possible.” I heard longing in his voice. For the millionth time, I wished that Dad had been forced to stay down here like Liam had, that he hadn’t taken the helicopter to Atlanta. “Imagine a device that relieves pain by just placing it over the skin. Have you used one yet?”

“Not yet.”

One of Liam’s fellow kitchen helpers was our trial run the very next day. Hannah, aged ten, had cut her index finger while dicing chicken, and Chef Sal knew it would need stitches. Hannah came to us with a kitchen towel wrapped around her hand and a distrusting look on her face. She was trying to be brave, but she was terrified of needles. Her mom, Angela, came with her, and she was concerned.

“Have you put in stitches before?” the mother asked. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

I don’t blame you. I’d feel the same way if it was Liam.

I nodded. “Yes, I’ve sutured many times. I’ll do my best.” She didn’t need to know that my patients had been dogs, cats, and an occasional ferret. I didn’t feel offended. She was this kid’s mother, and she was looking out for her child. “And, I don’t think you’re rude at all.”

“Hey, Hannah. I’m Violet. This is Ethan.”

“Yeah, I know.” She held her arms tight by her sides.

“We’re going to fix you up, and you won’t feel a thing. I’ve got a magic patch I’m going to put over your skin. No needles, okay?”

She still looked wary.

“Check this out. The patch is actually thinner than your own skin, but wait till you see what it can do.”

I cut an oval out of the middle and wrapped the patch over Hannah’s finger. It was activated as soon as it touched skin, so it worked instantly. I gently poked Hannah’s finger near the cut.

“Do you feel anything?”

“No.”

“Here?”

“No.”

“Here?”

She giggled. “No.”

In the name of all that is holy, thank you.

Ethan washed the cut and draped Hannah’s hand with an eye sheet to keep the surrounding area clean. It was my turn up to bat. I was nervous, but I took deep breaths to steady my hands. While I sutured with the curved needle, Ethan flirted and teased with Hannah to keep her from watching what I was doing. It was astonishing to push a needle through skin that felt no pain but had not been an anesthetized.

Push through both sides of the wound. Up. Cross threads. Pull through. Close skin. Knot and cut.

I repeated the process seven times, trying to keep an even depth and length. I concentrated so hard I felt sweat beads on my forehead.

When I finished, Hannah’s mother breathed a loud sigh of relief.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to doubt you. I was worried this was going to be an ordeal for Hannah. I can’t thank you enough. I’m Angela, by the way. I’m the barber here.”

It was my turn to let out a long sigh when they left. “Thank goodness you’re here, Ethan.”

“Thank goodness the Navy has access to futuristic medical inventions—even experimental ones.”

I was riding high, but I knew there would be times when I would make mistakes or not know what to do.

Just breathe, Violet. Enjoy the moment and breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28

That afternoon, surprise, surprise. Ferndandez called. Ethan put her up on the big screen. It was thrilling to see her.

“Hey you.”

“Hey you.”

“Are you home? Are you with your sisters?”

“I got here last night.”

“What?” She’d been gone a week. She read the shock in my voice.

“Chica, there are no words to tell you how bad it is up here. Interstates are clogged with cars. They’re practically parking lots. There are no busses or planes or trains. Rental cars are all gone. People are either sick, helping the sick, burying the sick, or trying to get to their families. It’s a long way to New York from Florida.”

 “How did you do it?”

“It was brutal. Captain Jasper and the team had cars for us, and I got a little Toyota, which is good, right? Gas is hard to come by, so I had to plan carefully. If you stop, even for a minute, someone runs up begging for a ride, tries to take your stuff, or worse.”

“You’re kidding.”

“One guy threatened me with a crowbar. He actually tried to take the car from me.”

“What did you do?”

“I showed him how convincing I could be with a baseball bat.”

Ethan and I waited for her to go on.

“I had to push on. Take off-roads. Sleep in the car. Get food wherever I could. I paid $50 a gallon for gas four days ago. I finally ran out of fuel in Virginia, and there was none to be found—anywhere. I was bummed to have to abandon the car, but what could I do, right?”

“What did you do?”

She smiled. “What didn’t I do. It’s going to sound like I’m making this up, but I swear it’s the truth. I rode in the back of a pickup with a load of hay and two mud-covered dogs on backwoods dirt roads. Then a guy on a motorcycle took me as far as Tappahannock. I couldn’t find anyone with wheels, and the ferry wasn’t running, so the only fisherman out that day agreed to take me across the Chesapeake. It was really nice for him to take me because of the gas shortage, so in return I gave him medical care for his legs. He’s diabetic, and they were a mess.

 “Then I walked to Pocomoke City, Maryland. The fisherman’s sister owns a bed and breakfast there. She’s not taking any guests, but he called and set it up. She let me stay there, and it’s a good thing because I was dead on my feet. She fed me a big dinner, and I crashed for the night. That’s the only real cooked meal I’ve had since I left OSCAR.”

“Did you leave the next morning?”

“Way before sunup. The team who met us on Terra Firma in Florida had several boxes of shoes for us to choose from. I found a pair of hiking books my size, and that’s what I’ve worn ever since. I walked all day until dark. The fisherman’s sister had given me a sleeping bag, a back pack, and a bunch of food. I slept in the woods.”

“Was it creepy?”

“Yeah it was, so I crawled behind some bushes and slept with the baseball bat next to me. Two days later, I met an older guy who was also walking to the city. New York, I mean. I shared some food with him, and we walked together for two more days. That was cool because when we stopped for water or bathroom breaks, we could watch each other’s stuff. He was a great guy named Raul, 67-years-old, and trying to make it home to his grandchildren in the Bronx. Then last night, about an hour after dark, I finally made it home.”

“What did your sisters say? Were they excited?”

“Oh my goodness, Chica! They were all over me. My aunt couldn’t believe it, either. She prayed and cried and sang all night long. My little sisters asked me a thousand questions.”

“Are they…?” I wanted to be careful not to say the wrong thing.

“So far, no one has shown any signs. Amelia has a cold, but that’s all.”

I was relieved for her. I wish I had gotten to spend more time with Fernandez while she was still at Oscar.

“I miss you. We all miss you.” Then I remembered. “Hey, did you know that Boylston abandoned us?”

Her tone turned bitter. “Yeah, I saw him when we all came ashore. The captain asked how he could abandon 137 people with no doctor. Boylston said he wanted to be with his wife. I felt like slashing his tires, and I would have, too, but then I realized I had done the same thing: abandoned you all. We’re all in a pretty desperate situation here.” She put her hair up in a ponytail while we talked. “That’s why I’m calling because I realize that Boylston’s leaving has really left you in a bad situation. I’m so sorry, Chica. I never meant for you to have to do everything.”

“Yeah, it took me several days to agree to take over. I didn’t want to do it. Well, you know that. You had to drag me in here.” I paused, remembering my conversation with Julian and Dr. Nyaga.

I had so much to tell Fernandez, to ask, to show her, but one of her little sisters came and stood by her side. Fernandez brushed a strand of long, black hair out of her eyes.

She was about ten, and she looked just like Fernandez.

“This is Amelia. She’s the little one.” Fernandez pulled her sister to her. “Are you going to sleep in my bed tonight? We’re going watch You Tube videos and laugh, right?”

My eyes moistened. How long did they have to be together? A few weeks? A few months?

“Hey. I didn’t mean to change the subject. How are you doing in Medical?”

Oh yeah. Medical. Hello.

“Okay, actually. Ethan Roggenkamp is helping me. We’ve been learning all the equipment and devices.”

“That’s good. Seeing patients?”

“Yeah. At least six a day.”

“Are you able to handle it?”

“So far.”

“Nice. I knew you were a natural for this. We can always do a conference call if you have a serious case, and you can’t get a doctor on the line. I’ll try to talk you through it.”

A Serious case: my worst fear.

“Who keeps in touch with you guys? Matisse is still manning the Communications Center at OSCAR Terra Firma, right?

“Funny you should mention that. The answer is no. Samantha Matisse died of the virus, and her staff left to go home to their families. The LC stayed for a few days and spoke with Julian Fenley and Dr. Nyaga several times a day, but she’s gone now, too. The lines of communication are open, but no one’s there that I know of.”

“Wow. Unbelievable. What about Captain Jasper?”

“He met with us as a group several times. He met with Julian and Persennia more times before he finally went home. He wanted to be with his wife and family and spend time with them before—”

Silence. I reminded myself to be careful with what I said.

“You can’t blame him,” Fernandez said. “It’s hard to know what to do. No one’s ever faced a situation like this before.”

“True,” I said. Dad had made the decision for me and Liam, and I was glad. I wouldn’t have known which was the right thing for us to do: go home to be together and risk dying from the virus or stay here at OSCAR. People everywhere were facing complicated life decisions.

“I better go,” she said. “These jelly beans all want my attention.”

            I wanted to say something more, something important, and I didn’t know if I would have another chance. “Hey Fernandez.” Tears welled again. My throat closed. I wanted to tell her. What? That I looked up to her? That she was my role model? That I was happy she made it home? That I hoped she and her sisters wouldn’t die from this virus? Tears spilled down my cheeks. Stupidly, I just rubbed my heart. I was trying to say something, and I couldn’t. So instead, I cried and I patted my chest like an idiot.

                        “I know, Chica. I know.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 29

 

After we signed off, Ethan hurried off on some imaginary errand, so I could cry alone. Was this to be our lives—an endless series of goodbyes? Would it ever get any easier? How would the world go on if good people like Fernandez ceased to exist? What would our values be? What would we have to live for?

The next day, I got a chance to swim with SCUBA One. I worked Medical in the morning while Ethan worked Security, and after lunch he relieved me, so I could go on the swim. He and I decided we would cover for each other occasionally unless there was an urgent emergency. We could always call on our comms, so the other one could return to Medical.

I made my way down to the Ocean Entry pool to join the group.

What made this swim extra special was Zach and his students were coming with us. Julian and Zach felt it was important for the kids to experience sea swims and be comfortable with SCUBA equipment and diving scooters. Zach and Annalise Janus had already taught them the basics in the swimming pool. Now, they would take their new skills farther than ever before: to the coral reef. I was tickled to death that Liam would get to see the reef in all of its incredible, mysterious beauty.

“Hi, everybody,” Dan said. “How cool is this? We’ve got nine of the world’s smartest kids diving with us today. This is a first, so let’s make it the best day in history.”

The kids, already suited up, were sitting on the side of the Ocean Entry pool putting on fins. Their bubble helmets were beside them for now. Liam waved. I waved back.

Dan was the Man with the Plan. He buddied up each kid with a partner from SCUBA One. Liam was with Fleur Anders, and she was a perfect fit for him. I saw Julian was there for the swim, too. Surprise, surprise.

Dan said to the two of us, “I didn’t know if either one of you would be able to swim today, so I didn’t pair you up with any of the kids. I guess you two will be buddies again.”

I felt a little quiver.

“Good,” Julian said. “I need to talk to Violet, anyway.”

More quivers. Stop it, Violet.

Julian and I put on our fins while Dan talked to the others. “What’s the number one rule when swimming in a coral reef?”

“Don’t touch the coral,” the kids said.

“What’s the second rule?”

“Don’t touch the coral.”

What’s the third rule?”

“Don’t touch the coral.”

I watched Liam laugh at the joke. We all would be driving scooters, and Dan went through his expectations of how they should be used. I don’t think Liam blinked once. Dan told the kids to put on their bubble helmets, and the mentors from SCUBA One checked and rechecked them. Dan himself checked their air seals and flow before giving the thumbs up.

“Hey. I need to tell you something.” It was Julian.

“Okay, what?”  

“You’re doing a great job in Medical.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know?”

“Word gets around.”

“I’m just trying to not mess up.”

“Listen, I know this is extremely difficult. I appreciate what you’re doing.”

“Thanks.” Having a casual conversation felt strange. Things had been so stressful lately few of us had time for chit chat.

“Fernandez was scheduled to begin maintenance physicals next week. Can you handle that?”

I didn’t know exactly what all was involved with maintenance physicals, but I had Ethan to help me. “Sure.”

“Great. That keeps us on schedule. With 146 adults and 11 kids, we need every person healthy.”

“Yeah, okay.”

We put on our bubble helmets and slipped into the water. I fought the urge to swim by Liam’s side. He was so little, and we were under 80-something feet of water in deep ocean. I was programed to take care of him, but he was already partnered with Fleur. He didn’t need me hovering.

Julian and I took up the rear, swimming 50 feet behind the others. It was a good vantage point if a kid faltered or got off course. Dan circled the group, giving constant feedback.

“Good job, Hannah.”

“Harrison, always the pro.”

“That’s the way, Kyra.”

“Liam, lookin’ good.”

The sea was invitingly blue and filled with fish of all kinds. I was proud that I now knew many of the varieties of fish by name, which ones were good to eat and how to catch them. I knew one thing: I certainly was in my environment. As long as I could remember I had loved the sea.

Julian asked me to change channels so we could speak privately.

“How’s Liam doing?”

“I’d say pretty good, considering. He loves school, and he’s crazy about his new job with Chef Sal.”

“And your dad? Do you talk with him often?”

“Yeah, we talk every day and sometimes several times a day. He’s taking care of a whole bunch of cats and dogs and other critters people abandoned. He even has a horse. He’s a small animal vet, but he can’t turn his back on any animal in need.”

“Does he have to go out much?”

“No, when this first started, he stocked up on food and water. Since he’s a vet, he orders through companies that deliver whole truckloads of foods, water, and medicines. He doesn’t go anywhere now except to his office right next door to our house. He has to feed and water the animals two or three times a day. There’s a fenced-in yard and he lets them all out to run.”

Julian let me talk.

“I miss him a bunch. Sometimes we talk about medical cases and treatments. He’s always interested in the experimental equipment from the Navy. He gives me advice, and that’s good, because as we all know, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.”

“Is Roggenkamp a help?”

“Ethan?  I’d go nuts without him. He’s great. We’ve spend a bazillion hours together studying protocols and presentations. He’s smart.”

“I’m glad. I’ve always liked him.”

A large grouper with big, fishy lips and bulging eyes swam between us. He was bigger than I was. One of him would have made a meal for the entire crew. Ha! I had swallowed the Kool-Aid when it came to looking at fish as food.

“What about you?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…are you keeping in touch with family? Are you holding up with all the pressure on you?”

Julian laughed.

“What?”

“It’s just that no one ever asks me that.”

“Really?”

“Really. Not now. Not in the midst of all this. But, it’s okay.”

“You and Zach are best friends though, right?”

“Yeah, Zach’s a good guy. We’re buds. But we haven’t had much time together lately. He’s in the weeds teaching 11 kids every day and making sure they have someone to talk to about all this. Plus, he’s taken on a few extra jobs, too.”

“Dr. Nyaga? Does she ask how you are?”

“Ah, Persennia. Yes, she’s one who would ask. I’ve never met anyone quite like her. She’s fine perfume. A great resource for me. Persennia’s invited me over to her apartment several times for dinner, and it always does me a world of good.”

“Dinner? Does she cook there?”

He thought that was funny. “No, not very often, but she gives Chef Sal the recipes she wants, and he delivers the meal to her apartment himself.”

“Wow.” Amaze-balls.

“Yeah, wow. I don’t know anyone else who gets that kind of treatment.”

“Did she have other people over at the same time, like a party?”

“She may have parties, but when she invites me, it’s been just the two of us.”

He didn’t sound like he was bragging. I was glad Julian had a friend in Dr. Nyaga. “Is it okay if I’m a little jealous?” I asked. “I’d like to get to know her better. She invited me to tea once. It felt like such a privilege.”

“She told me that she wanted to ‘invest’ in my life.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” I was curious.

He thought. “She calls it sharing of herself. She teaches me about life…etiquette…leadership…family…which wines go with specific foods…French…integrity…how to dress. Lots of things. Once she brought out the Atlas and spent an hour explaining why English is the official language of Nigeria. She tells stories, and they’re always fascinating. I could literally sit for hours and listen to her talk. I have listened for hours.”

“So, would you say the two of you are friends?”

“Yes, I suppose we are. She’s like a mentor, really. I didn’t ask her to, but she’s taken me under her wing, I guess.”

A shoal of sardines balled in front of us. We parted, outflanking the fish, then came back together.

“After dinner, she likes to talk. I just sit and soak it in. Violet, this lady has lived all over the world and knows so many people.”

I remembered her invitation to teach me how to wrap a gele. I was sad that I hadn’t taken her up on it. I remembered her story about the sweet, purple liqueur from her childhood and the delicate taste of it when she had me for tea. Crème Yvette. Yes, that was the name.

“I actually write down some of the things she teaches me in a notebook when I get back to my apartment,” Julian said. “Things I don’t want to forget. Things I don’t want to let slip away.”

“I’ve never met anyone like her, either.”

“She’s a character.”

“How did she end up in a wheelchair?” I immediately regretted asking. It sounded like I was only interested in the juicy details of her physical disability. Violet, you are so stupid. I back-pedaled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that.”

“No, it’s okay. She tells it herself. I was curious, too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 30

 

I moved my hands on the scooter’s handlebars to a more comfortable position. The constant vibrations numbed my fingers if I kept a tight grip for too long.

“You know Dr. Nyaga grew up in Africa. Her father was a powerful chief in southern Nigeria. He was popular with the local people, the British, and other politicians. Persennia grew up in a privileged and loving household. She had the best education and a guaranteed place in society, but when she was 16-years-old, she was kidnapped by warlords who opposed her father. They were cruel and depraved—the worst kind of men—and they used her as a pawn. They kept her prisoner for six months, and she was tortured…starved…and worse. When she tried to escape, they caught her and beat the bottoms of her feet. Her father tried desperately to get information on where they were keeping her, and finally located her. She was injured in the escape, though, and she’s been in the chair ever since.”

“What happened?” Images of Dr. Persennia Nyaga being tortured and starved and beaten would stay in my head for days.

Dan’s voice came over the speaker. “Hey, you two. I thought you might be on this channel. We’re about to arrive at the reef.”

“Understood,” Julian said. “Violet, to be continued.”

It was a perfect day for visiting the coral reef. The sun’s rays penetrated the shallow waters and lit the reef, highlighting the rainbow of colors and shapes. We tethered our scooters, and I located Liam and Fleur. The kids were totally bananas, pointing and squealing and talking at once.

“Wow.”

“Look!”

“Sweet.”

“What’s that?”

“Ooooo! Move out of my way. I want to take a picture.”

“Look over there!”

“Come see!”

“I see Nemo! This, ladies and gentlemen, is a clownfish.”

Their comments were just background noise to me. I was zoned in on my little brother’s reactions.

Liam, who is usually a total chatterbox, a talk-90-miles-per-hour magpie, was knocked speechless with wonder. Fleur guided him around the reef, pointing out fan coral, parrot fish, horseshoe crabs, anemones, sea stars, and a green sea turtle. I moved my fins gently so I could see him but not get in too close.

Most of SCUBA One were working with their kid-partners. Their helmet speakers were tuned so they could have individual conversations. The result for me was temporary silence. Blessed, calming, restful silence. I swam alone in the quiet ocean.

This was only my second trip to the reef, and the stunning coral and brilliantly colored fish still made me breathless. I used my fins to guide me down to the reef floor to look closer without touching anything. I saw movement in the white sand below. A stingray was burying itself in the sand. Lobsters twitched their antennae.

The last time I was here, Julian had shown me how to tickle the spinys so they would run out into the net he had waiting. We had netted quite a few. I remembered wishing that Liam could have been there with us to see everything and now, by some quirky wrinkle of fate, he was.

A seahorse floated directly in front of my bubble helmet, twitched, and disappeared. I watched a small octopus camouflage itself as it nestled in front of the coral wall. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have known it was there.

Someone touched my arm.

It was Fleur. She held up nine fingers. I switched to channel nine.

“I know I’m buddied with Liam, but I thought you might like to be with him for a while.”

I smiled. “Yeah, thanks.”

As we swam, Liam, who had been too stunned to say much with Fleur, pelted me with questions.

“Is that an eel? It looks like an eel. It’s ugly, don’t you think?”

“Look, Vi. Isn’t that a clown fish?”

“What’s that?”

“Do sea turtles bite?”

“What if I have to pee?”

“Is coral really alive?”

“Hey. See that weird looking fish? That’s a lion fish. We saw a video on lion fish yesterday in our classroom.”

“OMG! Look at that, Violet? See? Right there?”

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I’d been just as giddy on my first visit to the reef. A pristine coral reef is a sight most people never get to see in person. I used my comm to take pictures of Liam making discoveries, so we could share them with Dad.

Zach swam over. “He’s quite a kid, this little guy. Is he asking questions non-stop?”

“I can’t even get an answer in sideways.” I snapped a photo of Liam looking closely at a bed of clams. “How’s he doing in class? Is he keeping up?”

Zach’s eyebrows raised. “This kid? Mr. Curious? I can’t teach him fast enough. One of the good things about our program is that kids can learn at their own pace. Some are interested in a certain topic and want to take longer, to research more, to become experts on that subject. Others move on to topics they enjoy more. Liam? He’s interested in everything. When you guys first arrived, it was fish and sea creatures. Then he was on to how whales communicate through sonar. Right now, it’s recipes and cooking videos.”

“Tell me about it. He went on and on last night about how to sauté flounder without burning the butter.”

“Good. Ask questions. Be excited about his new knowledge.” Zach turned to look directly at me. “And when it comes to what’s going on up on Terra Firma, keep the channels of communication open. One day he might not want to talk about any of it. Another day he’ll have lots of concerns and questions. You are his world. He needs to know he can come to you.”

“Yeah. I just have to learn how to balance my time in Medical with Liam’s schedule and needs. We’re both used to Dad being part of the equation, and he still sort of is, I guess, but I never planned on raising Liam alone.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Terrified.”

“But you’re Violet Coltrane, Fire Eater.”

“Yeah?”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, my gourmet, genius, gorgeous friend, I do.”

“I guess we’re all scrambling, these days.”

“Me, too. In addition to teaching, I’m also learning how to desalinate water, drive one of the Mantas, and make pizzas at The Octo-Pie. Come by later, and I’ll impress you with my veggie Stromboli: artichokes, mushrooms, tomato, and eggplant Stromboli.”

“Fresh artichokes, or canned?”

“Canned? You wound me. Fresh.”

“Where did you get fresh artichokes?”

“Connections, Baby, connections.”

I loved my OSCAR friends, and Zach in particular.

Liam and I circled the reef one last time so he could show me all the things he’d learned from Fleur. He was a sponge when it came to knowledge. And here he was in a bubble helmet, wet suit, and diving fins teaching me how sea stars eat clams by punching a hole in the shell and pushing one of their stomachs inside. Did I know that? I don’t think I did, and it was hard not to find it fascinating when an eight-year-old explained it with such enthusiasm.

On the trip back to OSCAR, Liam regrouped with Fleur, and I swam stern again with Julian. We talked about how much the kids had enjoyed the reef. When we were almost back to home base, Julian said, “Do you still want to hear the rest of the story of Persennia’s rescue?”

“Absolutely.”

“Why don’t we eat supper together, and I’ll tell you then.”

Supper. Together. The two of us. Butterflies in my stomach.

“Uh—supper. Let’s see. I think Liam has kitchen duty till 8:00. Chef Sal and his crew eat early, so—yeah—I could do that.” Do I sound stupid? Too eager? Not eager enough?

“What time is good for you?”

I checked my Comm. I had to take a shower, dress, and close up Medical. “Does six work for you?”

“Six it is. Hey, how ‘bout pizza at the Pie?”

“Sure. Zach was talking about his veggie stromboli earlier, and it made me hungry.”

“Okay, stromboli sounds good to me, too.”

What just happened? My stomach was quivering again. It’s just two friends meeting together. Get over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 31

 

Epstein fell into step with me as I walked back to my room from the ocean swim.

“Hey, Snazzy Pants. I see SCUBA One just got back from their reef trip. Have fun?”

I nodded. “I got to watch Liam see the reef for the first time. It was bazonkazoo.”

“I think having the man-child here has been good for everyone.”

“I thank my lucky stars every day.”

“Hey—Want to grab an early supper and go to the movie?”

“Can’t. I’m meeting someone.”

 “Bummer.” She frowned. “Who are you meeting?”

Warning bells. I didn’t want her to turn this into something it was not.

“Just a friend. We were having a conversation earlier and didn’t get to finish.”

Her curls bounce and jiggled as she overreacted. “Just a friend? If it was just a friend you would have said his name.”

“How do you know it’s a him? There you go, jumping to conclusions. Really, it’s just a friend, and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.” My voice was a little peppery.

“Okay, I get it. Just a friend. Just a friend.”

Yeah, just a friend. It’s not a date. We’re meeting for dinner and conversation. If it was a date, he would pick me up at my room or in my lobby. This is not a date.

I showered and changed and left in time to walk to The Octo-Pie. When I opened my door, Julian was leaning against the railing across the hall.

“Hey. I thought I’d pick you up.” He smiled. It was a wicked smile, and it made him look handsome.

“You didn’t think I could walk alone?”

“I did. I just felt like picking you up.”

“Thanks.”

We walked through the clear, Plexiglas tunnels that led from dome to dome. There were fewer people now, but we still passed some along the way. I could almost hear the Bubble Babble bubbling.

The Octo-Pie was one of my favorite places at OSCAR. It was relaxing and dimly lit, with large posters of various places in Italy on the walls. Bottles of wine and wheels of cheese were stacked on rustic wooden crates. But the centerpiece was an old dinghy, complete with oars and life vests, in the center of the room. It was the “salad boat,” lined with crushed ice and bowls of baby spinach, arugula, romaine, gorgonzola cheese, hearts of palm, and tons of other delicious things to make a salad. The booths were placed so you could have a conversation without disturbing other diners. Julian and I ordered  Zach’s veggie stromboli and the salad bar.

“You know, before you finish telling me the story of Persennia Nyaga, I realized something about our conversation earlier.”

“What?”

“You never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“Actually, I asked two questions. Are you keeping in touch with your family? And, are you holding up with all the pressures on you here?”

He nodded. “So you did.”

I took a bite of salad. It was glorious. I secretly felt like I was cheating on Zach.

“Okay, I’ll answer. No on the family—and I’m holding up under the pressures—so far.”

“No family?”

“No on keeping in touch.” His voice said leave it alone.

I considered not keeping in touch. My relationship with Dad was my lifeline. I couldn’t imagine not having family or not keeping in touch. Julian dropped the subject, so I did, too.

Our stromboli arrived, and it didn’t disappoint. Between bites of melty cheese and caramelized veggies, Julian told the story of how Persennia Nyaga came to be in a wheelchair.

“As I told you, Persennia was just 16 when all this happened. She was kidnapped and held in dirty hovels, where she was given little to eat or drink. She was chained, and she grew weaker by the day. She was abused by her captors in ways we can’t imagine—wouldn’t want to imagine. Her father’s men tried frantically to locate her, but her captors moved Persennia from place to place.

There was a man in her father’s guard who was in love with her. She was too young to marry or even have a serious relationship, but she loved him, too. His name was— Abhayananda.”

I almost choked on a bite. “How did you remember that name?”

He smiled. “How did I know you would ask that?” He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “I wrote it down. I practiced saying it. When she told me the story, she cried when she said his name. I knew it was important to her. She said Abhayananda means brave one.”

It touched me that Julian had made the effort to remember the name of the man Dr. Nyaga had loved when she was just a 16-year-old.

“One of the cooks who was with the kidnappers felt sorry for Persennia. She leaked information of her location to a distant cousin who worked in Persennia’s household. When the chieftain’s men found out where the kidnappers were hiding Persennia, they immediately prepared an elaborate rescue. Commandos repelled in to the area at night, broke into the compound, and fought their way to where she was chained to the wall. They released Persennia from her shackles, but she couldn’t walk, so Abhayananda carried her. Although it was forbidden, he kissed her as he carried her from the house, and Persennia told me that kiss has stayed in her memories and dreams.

As they were retreating, though, a massive firefight broke out, and it was a bloodbath. Her father’s men held them at bay, so Persennia could escape. When he ran for the escape helicopter with Persennia in his arms, Abhayananda was shot with a high-power rifle. The bullet passed through him and struck her in the spine. He died in her arms on the flight home, and she was flown to a hospital in London.”

Julian ate another bite of stromboli. I sat thinking, picturing Dr. Nyaga as a young woman who had endured torture and cruelty. I couldn’t imagine the horrors of being kidnapped, abused, and starved. To think that someone—anyone—would hurt such a radiant soul was unimaginable. I would never look at her the same.

Our dinner together was relaxing. I didn’t need to keep up a running banter of funny quips like I did with Zach. Julian’s presence was quietly calming. When we finished eating, he asked questions about Mom and dancing and school and my hopes for the future. I enjoyed his questions. They made me think.

When dinner was finished, he folded his hands on the table. “It’s been good to get to know you better, Violet.”

“Am I the mysterious new girl who might lead a secret double life? Is that why so many questions?”

“Busted.” His smile was his secret weapon. “Ever since the dance competition I’ve wanted to know what makes you tick.”

That surprised me. “The dance competition? What’s up with that?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m not really sure. I guess everyone else was so eager to join OSCAR they dropped whatever they were doing and came immediately. With you, it was more complicated. I’m not saying I agree or disagree. It was just intriguing. I was curious about the person who decided to stay for a dance competition.”

Stay for a dance competition.

I felt fire surging through me and burn down my arms. “Listen to the way you say it: I was curious about the person who decided to stay for a dance competition. Why does everyone act like a dance competition is juvenile or stupid? It’s actually huge. And, legitimate. My mother was a ballroom dancer, and I am, too. I’m proud to be a dancer.”

He was mortified that I was offended.

“I didn’t mean it was juvenile or stupid. Not at all. It’s that you were determined to be in the competition even if it would cost you your place in OSCAR.”

I frowned. “Well, it wasn’t that I just had to be in the dance competition. If that’s what you think, you’ve missed the point.” I made sure we had eye contact. “My dance partner, Pavel, is a good friend of mine. When I thought I might make it into OSCAR the first time, he was more excited for me than anyone. When I didn’t make it, he put up with my crying jags and didn’t judge. There are very few people I can really show that side to, but Pavel is one. To take my mind off it, he suggested we prepare for the competition by learning a new Argentine Tango. We worked on it for months, every evening, to learn the choreography. The lifts were crazy difficult, but we practiced until they were perfect. Then, what? I’m going to break my word and weasel out three days before the competition just because my Plan A suddenly worked out? No way. I’m a person of my word, Julian, and once I make a commitment, people know they can count on me.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. I’d gotten a little worked up. “Tell me you get that. Tell me you know OSCAR is important, but there are other things that are important, too.”

Julian’s head was resting on his palms with his elbows on the table. He nodded. “Yes, Violet, I get it. Totally. But most people don’t have that resolve, and so to me, you are something of a curiosity. I mean that as a compliment.” His look was gentle, and I knew he meant it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 32

 

The deaths started the next day. Unfortunately, Epstein was first. She pinged my comm at 4:00 in the morning, and I could tell from her sobs that something terrible had happened. She wasn’t even able to get out a word except my name.

“Violet.” It was a wail. “Violet.”

I checked that Liam was sleeping and dashed for Epstein’s room.

She was standing in the open door.

“My mom.”

Once again, the word came out as a tortured wail.

“She started getting sick yesterday. I thought—we thought—that it was just something ordinary. But my aunt just called.” Epstein looked at me with pleading eyes. She couldn’t say it, couldn’t tell me.

I spoke the words reverently, aware of their terrible impact. “Did your mom die?”

Epstein’s sobs were gut-wrenching. I held her. The two of us sunk to the floor. She cried, and I cried with her. I knew what it was like to lose a mother.

Later the same day, George and Judy Skerski were on Main Street, surrounded by a crowd of people. Judy’s eyes were red and swollen. I was concerned. We were a tightknit community.

“What’s happened?”

Judy said, “My sister, Joyce. The virus took her in less than 48 hours.”

I turned away in shock. My heart thumped wildly. People we knew. People we loved. Death was reaching out with icy fingers, taking our loved ones one by one.

I knew Dad didn’t have any symptoms yet. I’d spoken to him that morning.

“So far, so good.” He said, smiling. “Snails and nails and puppy dog tails.”

I wondered about friends I knew from my neighborhood, from school, from dance. Suddenly, the skin on the back of my neck prickled. My stomach felt icy.

Pavel.

I ran to my room. On the way, I thought of the countless times I meant to call him, to tell him how awesome this place was. To ask about his family. To find out what was going on in his life. I meant to call, but my busy life at OSCAR was overwhelming.

I dialed Pavel’s number, eager to hear his sassy voice and funny insults. He answered on the fifth ring, and I was relieved. “Hey you! Who are you dancing with now that I live down under the sea?”

But it wasn’t Pavel. It was his older brother, Dante. “Violet? Is that you?” He sounded exactly like Pavel.

“What? Yeah this is Violet. Dante? Where is Pavel? Why isn’t he answering his phone?”

“Violet, Pavel is…Pavel is very sick. He’s dying from the virus.”

No no no no no no no. Panic engulfed me.

“What?” My brain couldn’t connect. “What? What do you mean?” I tried talking louder. “What do you mean?”

There was a long pause.

“Pavel is sick. He’s dying.”

“No, not Pavel. He’s healthy.” Dante was joking. He had to be. But, who would joke about something like this? I was suddenly angry. “Where is he?”

“He is here with us. My mother wanted to take care of him herself. There is nothing they can do at the hospital, and they have no room, anyway. Most of the doctors and nurses have died of the virus, too.”

“What do you mean?”

Dante tried to be patient. “Violet, people are dying. Pavel is dying. By tomorrow, he will be gone. He’s bleeding a lot, and he can hardly breathe. It’s this virus that is everywhere. Where are you? How do you not know this?” Now he sounded angry.

“I’m under the ocean. Remember? I got accepted to the program where we live and work under the ocean.” I chewed my lip. “But I know about the virus. We watch the news. I talk to Dad every day. It’s just that…Pavel…It’s hard to believe.”

“I know. It’s true.”

“Is it terrible?” What a stupid thing to say. Of course it’s terrible.

Dante’s voice was quiet. “Worse than you can imagine. But we are lucky. Our uncle, my father’s brother, is a pharmaceutical rep. He has drugs to make it easier for Pavel. He will sleep until the end.”

My mind whirled.

Until the end. He will sleep until the end.

I would not get to talk to Pavel. I would not get to tell him. He would be dead in a day or two. I wanted to thank him for being my friend. And for being my dance partner. And for our secret handshake. And for noticing that I had looked pretty one evening on the ballroom floor when I wore a smoky black dress covered with Swarovski crystals.

I sobbed. “Dante. He is my friend. I love him so much.”

“He loves you, too.”

My voice was probably unintelligible. “Please tell your mother and father and the rest of your family—”  

Tell them what? Would any words make a difference?

“Tell them I’m so very sorry. So very sorry.”

“Thanks, Violet. Thank you for calling.” And he was gone.

I sat on my bed and stared at the rug, sobbing and burning with sorrow and regret.

Liam opened the door and came in. He looked at my tear-stained face.

“Pavel,” I said.

Liam sat next to me and put his skinny little arm around my shoulders.

“It’s happening,” he said. “People we know. It’s happening.”

.

Dr. Nyaga suggested we all have breakfast together the next morning, and afterwards, the warmth of her voice wrapped around us like a blanket.

“My friends, I have called us together as a family, because in truth, we are family. We live and work together. We play and share life together. We have celebrated each other’s accomplishments and joys, and now, we share in sorrow and loss.”

She chose her words carefully, making eye-contact with each of us in turn. “We have begun to hear of the deaths and soon-to-be deaths of our friends and loved ones back home. While this saddens me deeply, it does not surprise me. We are dealing with a pernicious virus that is widespread. As the captain informed us, the virus is 100% fatal. There will be more deaths to come. We must stand in the gap for each other, for this is what families do.”

“Now, as you can imagine, we are unable to ascend to Terra Firma to attend funerals, so I suggest that we set aside one day each week for a joint memorial service. Let’s use the chapel. We want to hear your stories and anecdotes. We want to know those you have loved. We want to help keep your memories alive.”

And that’s how I happened to tell the group gathered in the chapel the next Sunday about Pavel Aleksandrov, my friend and dance partner. I wanted his memory to count for something. I wanted people to know that he was talented and bright and funny. I wanted them to know that he was in the process of opening a dance studio and hoped to teach street children a better way than drugs and addiction.

I didn’t know how I would really get my point across, but Dr. Nyaga had a plan.

“Let’s ask each speaker pertinent questions,” she said, “so we can understand the beauty of these lives that were taken from us.”

And they did.

“Where is Pavel’s family originally from?”

“What made him your perfect dance partner?”

“What did Pavel do in rehearsals that made you laugh so much?”

“What type of dance did you most enjoy with Pavel as your partner?”

That last question caused a sharp pain in my heart. Pavel and I had worked so hard on our Argentine tango, and it had been glorious. I would never again get a chance to dance with such majesty, such passion. Explaining this to the group made them understand how devastating this loss was for me on so many levels.

Even though they were painful, the questions helped me tell details about Pavel’s life that I might have left out, so when it was Epstein’s and Judy’s turns, I tried to ask questions that would help us know the mother and sister they had loved.

After the service, Julian found me. “I want to show you something,” he said. “We’ll need a couple of hours. Can Ethan cover Medical?”

“I think so. I’ll ask.”

“What about Liam?”

“Annalise Janus is hosting a Monopoly tourney in the game room. All the kids are going.”

“Great. Pick you up about 1:00.” He had one last instruction. “Oh, I almost forgot. Wear your wet suit.”

 “Really? Okay.”

Surprise, surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 33

 

At the Ocean Entry pool, we put on fins and bubble helmets. “We’ll take scooters, if that’s okay,” Julian said.

            Five minutes later, we were zipping through the ocean, headed to parts unknown. Where was Julian taking me? I didn’t really care. It was great to be away from everyone else for a while, in the quiet, soothing currents of the sea.

            Some miles out, the ocean floor rose, and we were in shallower water, perhaps 30 feet deep. I was shocked to see a small building tethered to the bottom of the ocean.

            Julian read my mind. “That’s an OSCAR oxygen station. They’re located all over the place at different mileages from Home Base. If for some reason you’re low on oxygen, you can swap out tanks. You register with your comm to release the tanks, and it automatically lets Home Base know to replenish and replace the tank you checked out.”

            The place Julian had brought me was a wide expanse of white sandy floor surrounded by limestone outcroppings. The sea was shallow enough that sun rays lit up the water with their brilliance. We stopped and tethered the scooters. It was only then that I noticed Julian had a net bag with something in it.

            “What’s that? Where are we?”

            “We’re at my favorite place,” Julian said. “As far as I know, I’m the only one from OSCAR who knows about it.” He opened the bag and pulled out three colored rubber rings.

            “Now it’s you who is being mysterious,” I said. He obviously wanted to show me something, and I didn’t want to spoil it by asking too many questions.

            “Good things come to those who wait,” he said. He pressed some keys on his comm, and I heard a piercing, high whistle.

            “Did you whistle?” I was intrigued.

            How did he do that?

            “Yeah, I can’t actually blow since we’re under water, but this does the trick.” I floated in the sunlight while we waited, but it didn’t take long.

            A pod of eight to ten dolphins zipped into the clearing, squealing and clicking and flipping their tails. They parted and swam in circles around us, dipping and diving. I thought my heart might literally fly out of my chest. Ever since I was a little girl I had always wanted to see dolphins up close, to swim with them, to touch them. Now that I was here, and it was happening, all I could do was babble.

“How did you know?”

“This is the best surprise of my life.”

“Oh look.”

“ Did you see that?”

Julian handed me a yellow ring. “They want to play. Push it sideways away from you.”

Almost before my hand was off the ring, a sleek female stuck her nose through the ring and zipped it away from me. She pushed it to another dolphin, and he took over. A third one grabbed the ring and brought it back to me. I shook my head in wonder. They wanted to play. I pushed the ring away from me again, and three more dolphins rushed in, each competing for the ring.

 This is really happening. Memorize everything.

Julian pushed his foot through a red ring and stretched his leg out in front of him.  He held a blue ring in his right hand. A baby dolphin swept in, nudged the ring from his foot, and took off just before a darker gray dolphin slipped the blue ring from his hand. Julian laughed.           “Violet, did you see the baby?”

It dawned on me then, that I couldn’t remember Julian laughing before. Smiling, yes, but not a full-on, carefree laugh like now. It sounded like music in the sunlit clearing filled with playful dolphins.

“They’re so cute. Can we feed them?”

“We don’t need to. They’re much better fishermen than we are.”

Of course.

I had been so crushed about Pavel, but now I was bubbling over. “How did you find this place?”

He was shy about his answer. “I found it while I was out on a recon swim. I was by myself, but I had my dive bag with me. When I came to this clearing, the dolphins were here first that day. One of them snatched my dive bag, and they played keep-away with it. I could swear that at one point they were even laughing at me—laughing at how easy it was to take something from a dumb human.”

“When do you come here?” 

“Sometimes when I want to be alone. Living in a closed community can crowd in on you. Seeing the dolphins, playing with them, always lifts my spirits.”

Julian had shared something intimate with me, something that before today had been just his. My stomach went quivery again.

“Why did you bring me here?” That didn’t sound right. “I mean, this is your secret place.”

Julian nodded. “I wanted to do something to make you feel better. You lost Pavel.”

“Hearing you say it—it still seems unreal. He was my friend, and it’s unbelievable that he’s just…gone. We danced together for four years, and It seems surreal to think that that’s all over. The tango we did at the competition was a one-time performance, I’m afraid.”

“What a terrible loss. I’m glad I saw you dance it.”

“Hey. I forgot about that.”

“You were both spectacular.”

“And you met Pavel, too.” Somehow knowing that made me feel a tiny bit better. Someone knew. Someone had seen.

 “Thank you for bringing me here. I’ve wanted to swim with dolphins my entire life. I never dreamed I would.”

“I’m glad you came. We can’t go up to Terra Firma, and I miss the sun. Here I can see and feel it shining on me.

“Do you ever touch the dolphins?”

“Haven’t yet. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to touch them until they’re ready, if ever. If they want to be petted or touched, they’ll initiate it.”

“I get it. They’re wild.”

 We watched the dolphins zipping and zig-zagging across the lagoon. They swam effortlessly, almost without moving their flippers or tails. How did they do it?

Julian said, “Here, give me your hands. Let’s try something.”

He held both of my hands in his, one high and one low, so we made a big circle. He whistled again, and the group of dolphins swam in closer to see what these curious humans were doing. We waited. Suddenly, the baby dolphin broke from the group and swam between us, right through the circle. Julian and I burst out laughing. When they heard our laughter, the adults backed up and watched us closely. The baby swam through our hands again and again, circling around, joining the group of adults, then breaking away again to swim through the circle. I thought we were the luckiest people on the planet.

The baby rejoined the other dolphins, but Julian held on to both of my hands as if he were unaware he was still holding them. His eyes were shining, his mood radiant. Too bad we were wearing bubble helmets. If our faces had not been shielded by glass, I would have leaned in to kiss him and let the sun’s rays dance around us and bounce off of the white, white sand. It seemed like the most natural thing to want to do. I knew this was a day I would never forget, a day woven with sorrow and loss, closeness and happiness.

 

 

CHAPTER 34

 

It was back to Medical the next morning. I really hadn’t talked much to anyone else after my trip to the dolphin lagoon with Julian. I was lost in my head, reliving the moments, unknown by anyone else. Julian was being kind, wanting to comfort me after the loss of Pavel. He would probably do the same for anyone else.

            Don’t read too much into it, Violet.

            Remembering that I’d thought about kissing him made me feel stupid now. Thank goodness we had been wearing bubble helmets. Life was complicated enough without my reading more into it.

            Geeze, Violet. Remember when Monty tried that?

            .

Ethan and I started maintenance physicals for the entire OSCAR community. We did blood draws, urine tests, eye and hearing tests, bone density scans, and…(insert trumpet music)… InternaScans. InternaScans were quick, painless, and fascinating, and let us know if there was any hidden health concern.

Zach scheduled all the kids on one day and used it as a teaching opportunity, gathering all of them together to see the InternaScan screen.

“There’s Lenny’s heart. See it beating?”

“Breathe for us, Darby. See how her lungs expand? It’s like blowing up a balloon.”

“Harrison has two kidneys, just like most people.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Quinesha’s pancreas. Quinnie, that’s about the best looking pancreas I’ve ever seen.”

Zach was a hoot.

When it was Liam’s turn, Zach scanned his brain. Ethan, ever the prankster, made it look like Liam’s brain was empty except for a video game. The kids laughed, and everyone looked over at Ethan, who held up his hands and pretended to be innocent.

The InternaScan was hugely popular. Almost all of my patients were impressed with being able to see inside their bodies. Make that everyone except Monty.

She came to her appointment with her usual snarky attitude. Her nose had healed by now, and she strutted in like she was the queen. I had no idea why she disliked me so much, but it was obvious she did. What had I ever done to her? I don’t think she knew that I had seen her slap Julian Fenley in the park. Surely he wouldn’t have told her, right?

Monty changed into a gown, like everyone else, but complained about each part of the physical.

“I have to take my jewelry off? That’s stupid. It better all be here when these tests are over.”

“I hope you don’t bruise me with this blood test. Just because you’re inexperienced doesn’t mean I have to suffer for it.”

“Lighten up, Monty,” Ethan said.

“I’m just saying.”

When Ethan stepped into the pharmacy to get some supplies, Monty lowered her voice.

“I saw you and Julian at the Octo-Pie the other night. Don’t get your hopes up, Coltrane. You’re not his type. Trust me. I know Julian Fenley. I’m just warning you so you don’t get hurt.”

I ignored her. “Okay, Monty. Almost finished. Stand right here on this gray floorplate. Put your feet together like this.”

Ethan signaled that the computer was ready to scan.

“Hey, Ethan,” Monty said. “Want to check out my body?”

Ethan said, “That’s what we’re here to do.”

“Hold as still as you can,” I said. “I’m going to do a quick scan of your body, just to be sure there are no ill effects of living so deep under water.”

I moved the wand side to side across her head. Like everyone else, she was shocked with the image on the big screen.

“Oh my god. Is that my brain?”

“Yep.”

“Wow! Can you tell how smart I am?” She laughed.

“Of course,” I said. ‘You’re brilliant. You got into the OSCAR program, didn’t you?”

“The first time. I didn’t have to wait until someone left.”

Girl listen to you. Are you always this way?

Outwardly, I ignored her insult. She was right. I did have to wait until someone left.

I continued to wand her body, each arm and leg, her spine, and abdomen. Ethan and I searched for tumors, scar tissue, or any abnormalities. When I got to her heart, there was a vacant hole, but only a teeny-tiny heart appeared on the screen.

“What’s the deal with my heart?” Monty said. “It doesn’t look big enough to—”

 “Just like the Grinch,” Ethan said. “Two sizes too small.”

He and I both laughed at his joke.

“You guys are so stupid and immature,” Monty said.

She didn’t speak to either one of us again. She got dressed, left, and slammed the door behind her.

“She had it coming,” Ethan said. “She dissed on you.”

“I don’t know why that girl hates me so much. I’ve never done anything to her.”

“Coltrane, everyone knows the reason she hates you but you.”

“Well, clue me in, then.”

“Well, for starters, you’re pretty. That’s a threat to her. Monty’s all about looks.”

“I’m not pretty.”

“Yeah, right. And, for another thing, everyone likes you and thinks you’re cool.”

“Why would she care about that?”

Ethan rocked back in his chair and looked at me over his glasses, which were always slipping down his nose. “Well, let’s just say that a certain someone has taken an interest in you, and Monty’s jealous and angry.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Violet, we live in 11 clear domes. Do you think we don’t have eyes?”

“If you’re talking about Julian, we’re just friends.”

Ethan nodded. “Yeah, okay. You might see it that way, but I don’t think he does.”

“What do you mean? What do you know?”

“Julian is different than the rest of us. He’s friendly and fun, but he keeps to himself a lot. For instance, I’ve never seen him ask someone out for dinner before.”

“How did you know about dinner?”

“Bubble Babble.” His smile was wicked. “We don’t have much to do down here, so we spill the tea.”

“You’re terrible.” I pictured Ethan, Epstein, and Zach swapping juicy news with the rest of the gang.

“And…someone took a sea trip together yesterday…Just saying.”

This time I was mad. “What is this, The Spy on Violet game?”

He raised his palms. “Hey, I’m not spying, but a certain someone we both know—with  big curly hair—now does double duty tracking and monitoring ocean swims.”

Epstein. I reminded myself to kill her later.

As I was starting the maintenance exams for Judy and George Skerski, all three of our comms went off at the same time. Dr. Nyaga appeared on screen.

“I’m afraid something has come up. Julian Fenley has asked us to please report to the meeting area in five minutes. This is mandatory and urgent.”

I quickly locked the door to Medical, and three of us took off for the meeting, dreading the news.

Julian didn’t waste any time. “We have an emergency situation, one that I was hoping we would never have to face.

My palms started sweating.

“I was just contacted by Martin Kaplan. As you know, Martin made the decision to resurface, and was adamant about his choice. But today, he and some others are at OSCAR Terra Firma asking to come back down to our facility. I told him under no uncertain circumstances could they do that. Even with no symptoms, their presence here would contaminate the safety of our environment. Captain Jasper told us that to admit anyone who had come from Terra Firma would be a death sentence. I told Martin a firm no, but he wants to still make his case to the rest of you.

You have got to be kidding.

Julian touched the computer in front of him and Martin Kaplan’s face appeared on the large screen on the wall.

“Go ahead,” Julian said.

Martin looked like he hadn’t slept in days. “Folks, all I ask is that you keep an open mind. Things are really bad up here. The infrastructure is practically nonexistent. Medical treatment is a joke because hospitals and clinics are totally overcrowded. I want to come back to OSCAR and bring my wife and two sons.”

Just as I expected, a storm broke out in the audience. Julian finally raised his hand to calm us. Martin continued.

“The boys are 22 and 24, and they would mean two more people on the daily work force. None of us has been around other people much, and we have absolutely no symptoms. I feel great. We all do. But if we stay here, we’ll eventually die. Dr. Boylston wants to come back, too. He’ll be bringing his wife. She’s a registered nurse, so you’d get a doctor and a nurse as a bargain.”

The bumblebee sound of the agitated audience began on cue.

Dr. Boylston! He’s a real doctor, even though he deserted us when we needed him the most. My heart leaped. His coming back would let me off the hook.

Dr. Nyaga patted her gele, and she and Julian exchanged looks.

“Martin, let me get this straight in my mind,” Dr. Nyaga called. “You left OSCAR voluntarily, saw how bad things are, and now you’d like to return down here?”

“That’s right,” Martin said. “But remember, we’ve not been around sick people. Not directly.”

“But Martin, we now know the disease is airborne, right? That means that anywhere you stopped when you traveled home, any store, gas station, or pharmacy was a potential exposure. You or your family could be harboring the virus right this moment and not know it. If you were to come back into this community, without meaning to you could expose every one of us to the virus. I’m sorry, but that’s an impossible situation. We are under strict orders to keep the OSCAR facility pristine.”

Martin shook his head. He was angry now. “I’m speaking to everyone in the room. Would you condemn us to death without trying to help us? Down there you have plenty of food and water, medicine and supplies. We want to come back. We’re willing to stay in quarantine quarters for four weeks—28 days—to prove we are healthy and don’t carry the virus. We could take our meals there and stay isolated from everyone else. Please folks, take a vote. Don’t turn us away.”

Instead of talking, the audience sat silent, stunned.

Martin hung his head. “I want my sons to have a chance to live,” he said quietly.

Julian stood and addressed the crowd. His voice was commanding.

“No, we will not take a vote. Let me make myself clear: this is not up for a vote. Captain Jasper put Dr. Nyaga and me in charge and we both agree. The OSCAR community is not a democracy. It is a hierarchy governed by maritime law. To put this to a vote would place every one of you in a moral dilemma. We have already told you that Martin and his family will not be allowed to reenter the OSCAR facility. This is for your health and safety. If Captain Jasper felt it was safe to reenter, he would have gone to get his own wife and children and come back to us. I know it’s hard to stand by and reject those we care about, but we must.”

He turned to the screen. “I’m sorry, Martin, but our decision is final.”

Martin screamed his response. “You are condemning us. Give us a chance to live. The virus is everywhere.”

“I’m deeply sorry. I wish we could let you and the others in. It’s simply impossible. We have to think of the safety of all crewmembers.”

            Martin’s anger rose to rage. “You’re sorry? I’ll make sure you’re sorry. I’ll find a way. Then you won’t be so secure in your ivory tower! You don’t want us to live? Well, what if we don’t want you to live?”

 Julian snapped off the connection. The audience chewed on Martin’s words, trying to make sense of it all, wondering how one of our own crewmembers had turned to violent threats.

Julian finally addressed the group.

 “I can’t let one person’s desperation jeopardize our entire group. I feel bad for Martin, but we will not let him come back into the OSCAR facility. The choice to leave us was a serious one, and he must live with his decision.”

Live with his decision.

We all heard the irony in that. Martin’s decision would actually cause him to die, most likely, but Julian was right. Letting Martin Kaplan or Dr. Boylston or anyone in from the outside world would be a death sentence for all of us who had not been exposed. We had not asked any of the others to leave. As a matter of fact, we had begged them to stay. They had insisted on leaving.

 

 

CHAPTER 35

 

Later that afternoon, Dr. Nyaga called my comm. “Do you make house calls?”

I smiled. “What do you need?”

“Not for me,” she said. “It’s for Fenley. This is not for common knowledge, but he has a migraine, and he’s too sick to go to Medical. I thought maybe you could help him at home.”

“Sure. Let me gather some things, and I’ll be right there.”

“Violet, there’s more to the story. Martin Kaplan caused a scene this afternoon. He decided he would come down the sea slide without permission and crash his way in to Quarantine. Fenley thought he might pull something like that, so he was there to lock the entryway. The two of them had a verbal showdown, and Martin had no choice but to climb all the way back up on his own, which must have taken hours since the slide was not meant to be used to go up. I think the stress of having to turn Martin and the others away has caused this severe migraine.”

Wow. What a mess. Captain Jasper had chosen Julian because he was dependable and good in a crisis. Now, he had to make life or death decisions that effected all of us. The stress must have been unbearable.

After I gathered supplies, I realized I didn’t know which was Julian’s room. I called Dr. Nyaga.

“I thought you might not know. Room 109, B dorm.”

I nodded. The long walk would do me good.

When I knocked softly on the door, it clicked open, and I entered.

Julian was lying on his bed with his eyes closed. The room was dim.

“I hope that’s you, Violet.” His voice was soft.

“It’s me. Dr. Nyaga thought you might need medical help with your migraine.”

“They’re not usually this bad. Thanks.”

“Nauseated?”

“Terribly.”

“Vomiting?”

“Every 10 minutes.”

“Light hurt your eyes?”

“Yep.”

I chewed on a hangnail.

“Let’s get you stabilized, first. I have a cold roll for the back of your neck and a cold strip for your forehead.” I saw that he was still in a button down shirt. “Do you have a t-shirt on under there?”

I helped him take off the button down shirt and slipped the cold roll under his shoulders. I covered his forehead with the cold strip.

“I brought an injection. This should help with both nausea and pain. I need to give this in your hip.”

I was good at injections. He didn’t flinch.

“Now, this medicine is powerful, so keep your eyes closed while it kicks in.”

I covered him with a blanket and quietly watched him for 10 minutes.

He reached for my hand. “Thanks. So sick.”

“I know you’re miserable, so don’t talk. I’ll stay a little while, and then I’ll come back to check on you later.”

He didn’t answer. I wanted to stay. I wanted to sit and watch him sleep. I wanted to whisper that he would be better soon. I wanted to keep holding his hand.

Be professional, Violet.

I tucked his hand under the blanket and slipped out the door.

.

Liam joined me for supper. He wanted to tell me all about his day cooking with Chef Sal.

“I was the sous chef today. I made the gumbo by myself. Dad’s favorite is gumbo, Vi, and I made it all by myself. Now, when we get home, you don’t always have to make supper. I can be the cook!”

I tasted the gumbo he had brought for me to try. I couldn’t believe it. It really was the best I’d ever had.

I stared at Liam’s impish little face. I forced myself to veer away from the fact that we might never go home to “home” as we’d known it. The important thing was my eight-year-old brother had made seafood gumbo by himself.

“Wait a minute. Are you sure you made this by yourself? What about the roux? Do you know how to make a roux?”

He burst out laughing. “Crazy, that’s how I got picked! Chef Sal taught us how to make a roux, and mine was the best. Some kids couldn’t even do it. Hannah and Chijoke burnt theirs. Not me. My roux was nice and dark, and Chef chose me to make the gumbo. I watched a video two times.” He was almost bouncing. “The other kids had to peel all the shrimp and crawfish for me. Chef Sal shucked the oysters. They’re right out of the ocean, too. All of it is. This is the freshest seafood gumbo you ever had, Violet.”

“And delicious. Monkey, you have the seasonings just right. Mama would have been so proud of you, too.” Why was happiness always mixed with sorrow? Mama never even got a chance to know him.

“Really? Mama?”

“Really. And Dad. And Chef Sal, too.”

“Did you taste the okra?”

“The okra was perfection.”

Okra. There’s something about okra I need to remember. Something important.

We enjoyed the rest of our meal and talked about the day.

“What about that guy?” Liam said.

“What guy?”

“That guy who wants to get back in?”

“Oh that guy.” I nodded. “Yeah, that’s complicated, isn’t it?”

“I hope Julian won’t let him in. I mean, I feel bad for him, but I still hope he doesn’t get back in.”

“He won’t. Julian knows it would be too dangerous.”

Julian. Okra. Ah! Okra’s good for a migraine.

Right after dinner, I knocked softly on Julian’s door and it clicked open. I heard voices inside. Dan and Epstein were conferring with Julian.

“He threatened to come in through Ocean Entry. That was just about 15 minutes ago,” Epstein said.

“Call Security. Ask them to stand guard. Martin is desperate and angry. There’s no telling what he might do,” Julian said.

“I’ve already called Security,” Dan said. “TR Washington’s on it.”

“There are no ocean swims at the present moment except for Security. They could use Hatch Two. No one knows about it but Security. We could close the Ocean Entry pool, lock it off at least for the next 48 hours,” Epstein said.

Julian was propped up on some pillows. “Excellent idea,” he said. “Put it into immediate effect. Keep me informed, please. This threat could be life or death for all of us.”

They turned their attention to me for the first time. “I’m here to see my patient,” I said.

Dan and Epstein left.

“How’s your headache?”

“Better, actually. I’m still groggy, but the nausea is gone.”

“I brought some seafood gumbo for you. Even if you can eat a little, okra is great for a migraine.”

“I’m hungry.”

I put the tray on his lap. “Easy does it. Try a little, and if it goes down well, it’s all yours.”

Julian tried a spoonful. “Mmmm. What is this again?”

“Seafood gumbo. The sous chef made it tonight.”

Julian ate another spoonful. “Wow. It’s good.”

We sat in silence while the gumbo settled. Normally, silence might have made me awkward, but now it seemed natural. Julian didn’t put on any type of mask. He was the same as he was in class or in front of the crowd. The only time he had seemed different was the day we swam and played with the dolphins.

He ate a third spoonful. “I think I’m good. So hungry.”

“There’s rice in the bottom of the bowl, and here’s some French bread.”

For a while, he ate in silence while his stomach got used to the gumbo.

“Tell me what’s going on in Medical.”

“The maintenance physicals went well. I’m just missing you and Persennia Nyaga.” I gave him the rundown of the minor injuries that presented themselves on a routine basic in Medical.

“I’m so glad you said yes,” he said. “I don’t know what we would have done for Medical without you.”

“I’m just doing my job. Ethan and I watch a lot of 3-D videos—holograms—to learn new techniques that might present.” I sat on the side of his bed and told him some of the stories and funny things that had happened in Medical. When I told him about the guy who had been bitten by a pig, he laughed out loud.

He lay back against the pillows, and I thought he might have dozed off, but he whispered, “Thanks, Violet. Thanks for being my friend.” He was still groggy from the medicine and full of rich, warm gumbo.

Julian’s eyes were closed, so I made sure he was covered with blankets and picked up the tray. I was happy he was getting some rest, away from the stress and the heavy, earth-shattering decisions he was required to make.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 36

 

Tensions were running high at OSCAR. Each day, more and more deaths were reported, and many people were tired from working two and three jobs. I talked to Dad about it.

            “You have the opposite problem I have. I have too little to do and too little human contact. You guys have little down time, and people are in your face constantly. I don’t know how any of you do it, Vi.”

            It was true. I tried to stay on an even keel, especially for Liam’s sake. He deserved my very best. Liam was never in a bad mood. He loved school with Zach and kitchen duty with Chef Sal. He loved SCUBA diving and the park, and rock-climbing, zip-lining, and playing with all the other kids.

            .

            I had worked Medical all day and Ethan couldn’t relieve me because he was needed for Security. Martin Kaplan was still a threat. He harassed us from OSCAR Terra Firma on a daily basis, demanding to be let back in. He screamed and threatened us over our comms. Sometimes those calls came in the middle of the night, waking us, leaving us too frazzled to go back to sleep.

            Julian called a meeting for everyone but the kids. Annalise and Chef Sal were teaching them to make crème Brule. Things at the meeting got off to a bad start.

            “What would be so bad about letting Martin and his family into quarantine, like he asked?” It Wingers, from Ag.

            “We can’t do that, Phil. There is no way to feed them there, take care of them, or even interact with them. Imagine when they finally present with the virus. I hate to be blunt about it, but we would have dead virus victims in our facility. Imagine trying to dispose of dead bodies without getting contaminated. I can’t ask anyone to do that. I won’t risk lives,” Julian said.

            George Skerski spoke up. “This is the last safe haven that we know of. We can’t do anything to jeopardize that, Phil. I feel bad that we can’t let them in, but we can’t.”

            “It’s not easy doing my job and someone else’s, too.”

            “Can’t things go back to normal?”

            The talk went back and forth, around and around. People were in a nasty mood and not willing to listen to or put up with the opinions of others. I was glad Liam was not there. I would make it a point not to be there next time even if I had to make up a fictitious scenario in Medical.

            It got worse, and I looked to Julian. He was trying to stay calm and let folks vent. I hardly ever spoke up in these kinds of discussions. I mean, who would listen to me, for Pete’s sake? I wondered when Dr. Nyaga or Julian would make everyone settle down, but for the moment, people were still raging, complaining that they were overworked and someone else wasn’t working as hard as they were.

            The bickering made me nervous. For the first time, I felt claustrophobic.

            Why can’t people listen to each other without butting in?

Someone shouted, “Well, Captain Jasper put Julian and Dr. Nyaga in charge, and I think we—”

“Dr. Nyaga told us—”

“Dr. Nyaga said she expects us all to act like—”

It was then Monty stood and said in a shrill voice, “We don’t have to listen to that old maid cripple in a wheelchair—”

I plead the 5th. I don’t know what happened. One moment I was standing there, and the next second I drew back my fist and punched Monty in the nose. Hard.

All the air was sucked out of the room. Everything stopped. The world stopped.

Julian’s voice exploded. “Violet!”

You could have heard a pin drop.

His voice was thunderous. “Violence is never allowed at OSCAR. Under normal circumstances, I would have no choice but to send you home immediately.” More silence ticked by. “As it is, I fine you $1,000 for hitting Monty.”

She was in pain, I’m sure, but she still managed to give me a hateful little grin. White-hot anger surged through my core. I punched her again, harder. The crowd gasped.

“Make it $2,000,” I said.

Monty’s head snapped back, and her nose poured blood.

But I wasn’t through. I spoke directly to Monty. “Rules or no rules, if you ever disrespect Dr. Persennia Nyaga again, I’ll show you what else I can do.”

She touched the blood flowing down her face. “You broke my nose,” she said, wailing in shock and pain.

“I hope so. I paid $2,000 for that privilege.”

I turned and left, but not before I noticed everyone frozen in utter disbelief. I was halfway down the long hall before I realized I was singing.

As expected, Monty showed up in Medical, and was I waiting for her.

Her face was swollen and bloody. Anger snapped from her eyes. “Well, do something. You’re in charge of Medical. My nose is broken.” Several friends stood by her side.

“Yes, I’m in charge of Medical. And yes, you have a broken nose. We’ll have to set it soon so it doesn’t heal crooked.”

She cried louder. “Heal crooked? You have to help me. Do something. You caused this in the first place.” She was stomping mad. Seething.

“I will not do one thing to help you.” My voice was quiet but firm.

She screamed. “You have to help me.”

“No, I don’t have to help you. I will not do one thing to help you…Unless you apologize to Dr. Nyaga. Now. In person.

Monty looked at me with pure hated. “Get her on the phone.”

“No, you have to apologize in person.”

“You are so hateful.” She waited to see if I would change my mind. “I’m in pain here!”

“You have 20 minutes.”

Monty and group left.

Exactly 20 minutes later, she returned alone, still smoldering in fury. I’d called Ethan to assist, and we had the table ready. I started an IV and gave her some twilight sleep meds. We used the InternaScan to examine the inside of her nose, and I was relieved to see that it was actually broken. Now I had bragging rights for life.

The break was minimal, though, and Ethan and I used a Lubripack up each nostril to help stabilize her nose, so it would heal correctly. When the swelling went down, she’d be fine. But in the meantime, she’d be miserable for days.

We finished, and Ethan called for Security and a whiz-car to transport Monty back to her room. I went along to make sure the packing stayed in place. It was my first experience riding in a whiz car.  They were reserved for emergencies and special circumstances. I buckled Monty in to the back seat and took my place up front next to the driver. The car, which hung from a track overhead, was open and fast.

The security guy shook my hand. “Nice jab,” he whispered. “I mean, jabs.”

When we got to her apartment, I helped Monty put on her pajamas, and placed a chill strip across her nose. I gave her an injection for pain, and made sure she was propped up on pillows.

“I’ll check on you in a few hours,” I said. She was out.

When I got back to my room, I was exhausted, and my fist ached from the two punches to Monty’s nose. Liam was already asleep. I took a hot shower, put an ice strip on my knuckles, and sat by the clear bubble window. Security divers passed by every now and then, and schools of fish darted around in unison. I stared out the window, lost in my own thoughts.

Julian was probably furious at me. His voice had been angry. I had hit someone from the OSCAR community. Normally that would have been grounds for dismissal. No, not grounds for dismissal. Automatic dismissal. I felt cold and miserable.

Violet, what have you done? What will Julian think of me now? Dr. Nyaga?

I relived the entire episode again. Monty’s ugly words about Dr. Nyaga. My punches, coming like meteors out of the sky. Hitting her once. Hitting her twice. Which had felt better? Both.

I did not feel sorry. I felt glad. I pictured Persennia Nyaga at 16, escaping and being beaten on the bottoms of her feet. I thought of the man she loved dying to save her, and a bullet hitting her spine. I thought of her grace and beauty and kindness and loveliness.

No, you didn’t mess with that, not in my world. Not in the world of Violet Coltrane, Fire Eater.

Something small and brilliant caught my attention. It was a reflection in the window of something in my room. I turned to look and squinted to focus. There it was, on my nightstand, sparkly and purple. A small crystal goblet filled with Crème Yvette.

I was still smiling when I fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 37

 

The next morning, I went to Julian’s office and handed him a check for $2,000.

He gave me a look. “You know this is worthless, right?”

“You’re the one who fined me. I’m following your orders.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Violet, we can’t have physical violence down here. That’s strictly against the rules. You knew that when you signed on.”

I nodded. “Did you tell that to Monty when she slapped you across the face? Did you fine her $1,000?”

He gave me another look. “I’m not saying she didn’t deserve it.”

I nodded again.

“How is she, by the way?”

“I’m on my way to see her, now. Ethan and I set her nose, and I made sure she wouldn’t feel any pain.”

“It’s ironic that you broke her nose and then had to set it yourself.”

I decided the less said, the better.

I took my medical bag and went to see Monty in her room.

“My head feels like a bowling ball,” she said. Her voice sounded funny because her nose was stuffed with Lubripacks.

“Yeah, that’s normal,” I said. “The set looks good, though. I think you’ll heal up just as pretty as always.” I shined a small flashlight into her eyes and made her track back and forth.

“Any pain?”

“What do you think?”

“I’ll give you another pain injection. If you stay as still as possible today and tomorrow, the packing can come out.”

I called Chef Sal on my comm and ordered a breakfast tray for Monty. I helped her to the bathroom and freshened her bed while she gingerly brushed her teeth and used the toilet. By the time she was back, her breakfast had arrived, and I reminded her to take small, careful bites.

“Why are you being nice to me?”

“It’s my job.”

I let that sink in.

“Actually, it’s all of our jobs. We’re stuck down here, Monty, all 137 of us. As Dr. Nyaga reminds us, we are family. It’s just as easy to be nice as it is to be nasty.”

She turned away from the breakfast tray and frowned. “I’m not hungry.”

“Just a bit. Eating is good for your healing.”

She tried some oatmeal. I’d added butter, brown sugar, and a little cream.

“Little bites,” I reminded her. She was obviously hungrier than she thought.

She sipped apple juice through a bent straw.

“While you eat, I want to tell you a story I heard.” She didn’t object, so I continued. “It’s about a girl who was kidnapped. She was tortured, starved, and beaten.”

“What kind of sicko would do that?” She tried small bites of the grits and scrambled eggs.

I slowly told the story of the kidnapped girl and the torment she had to endure. Monty listened, even if she was a captive audience. I made the story last as long as she ate. I told about the rescue attempt, and the man who loved her and died carrying her to the helicopter.

As I cleared away her breakfast tray, Monty asked, “What ever happened to her?”

“She lived,” I said. “She’s had an incredible life helping other people all over the world.”

“Where is she now?”

“The last I saw her she was busy running the Communications Center here at OSCAR.”

“Communications? That’s Dr. Nyaga.”

I nodded. “Yes. Dr. Nyaga.”

Her eyes went wide.

I carried that image with me the rest of the day.

.

I called Dad for a face-to-face. He loved to hear all the details of everything. I told him about my ocean swim with Julian, the dolphins, and dinner at the Octo-Pie.

“Sounds like there’s something developing with Fenley and you.”

“No, nothing developing. As a matter of fact, he’s mad at me right now.”

“Mad? For what?”

I told Dad the story of my punching Monty, and he laughed like a drunken sailor.

“That’s my Violet! Not going to put up with any crap.” He ate it up. I told him about making Monty apologize and setting her nose with Lubriderm packs.

“You are an incredible girl,” he said. He acted like I’d just been honored for some amazing feat.

I told him the story of Persennia Nyaga, and he was intrigued. “What a woman. You are lucky to have her around. Get to know her better for my sake, will you?”

I told him about Liam’s seafood gumbo, and how proud I was. I told him about the roux contest, and how Liam had wished that Dad could taste the final dish.

He hung on every word. Asked questions. Responded with appropriate emotions to show his support for both of us.

“Have I got two kids to be proud of, or what?”

As usual, I asked about his day-to-day routine and all of the animals in his charge. They’d become his close friends by now.

“I named the blue tick Ruffian. Call him Ruff. He sticks close by my side and steals little bites here and there every time my head is turned. He’s old, like me, but he’s a fine dog. He and the others are a lot of company.”

It seemed like there was something he wasn’t telling me.

“Dad, what is it?”

He licked at a little piece of skin on his bottom lip. “It’s grandma. Her sister called. Grandma passed away from the virus.”

“Oh Dad. I’m so sorry.” Poor Dad.

“You’re never ready to lose your mother. I only wish she could have travelled down here, so I could have taken care of her. She was especially good to me when your mother died.”

I had not been that close to my grandmother. I loved her, but I didn’t get to see her very often. She lived way up north, but she was Dad’s mother, and I was sad he couldn’t even go to her funeral.

“There are few funerals nowadays,” he said. “People are either cremated or buried in mass graves.”

“Dad. What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know, Baby Girl.”

Neither did I. Nobody did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 38

 

Liam had not felt well all day. He’d vomited a few times, and his belly hurt. Annalise had offered to watch him in our room while I worked Medical. She called me about 6:00 pm.

“I think I better send for a whiz-car to take him to you in Medical. He’s getting worse, and I think he has a fever.”

I agreed. My heart beat faster as I considered what it could be. Food poisoning? Perhaps, but no one else had complained of any symptoms. A virus? Possibly, but again, no other complaints.

When Liam arrived, I knew we’d have to step it up immediately to relieve his symptoms. He was sweating, burning up with fever, crying, and writhing in pain. I carried him from the whiz-car to the exam table and told Ethan, “Get the InternaScan ready.”

I called Fernandez and prayed she would answer her phone. She answered on the third ring. I put her on the large screen.

“Hi, Newbie. What’s going on?”

“It’s Liam. He has a fever of 104, intense belly pain, and vomiting.”

“Appendicitis.”

“Appendicitis?”

“Yeah. Feel his belly on the lower right side.”

She waited while I probed. Liam cried out when I released my touch. Not so much when I pressed, but when I released. That’s odd.

 “Yeah, I’m almost positive.”

Oh dear God. My little brother.

I shifted into auto-pilot. “Appendicitis.”

“Yeah. I think you should call your dad on this one unless you’re in contact with another doctor. I’ll stay by the phone in case you need me.”

“Yeah.”

Ethan drew blood while I called Dad. When Dad answered, I put him up on the big screen.

“Hey Honey.”

“Dad, it’s Liam. I think it’s appendicitis.”

“Uh-oh.” Dad immediately became Dr. Coltrane.

“Fever?”

“104.”

“Vomiting?”

“All afternoon.”

“Pain in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen?”

“Yes. Intense pain. He complained of a stomach ache earlier, but this is much worse.”

“When you pressed on his belly did it hurt worse when you pressed in or when you released your hand?”

How could he have known?

“When I released. I thought that was weird.”

“An inflamed peritoneum will do that.” Dad ran his fingers through his hair. “Have you done blood work?”

“Ethan just ran it.”

“His white blood cell count is high,” Ethan said from the lab. “Very high.”

I turned on the InternaScan and placed it over Liam’s belly. There was his appendix, inflamed and swollen.

“Bingo,” Ethan said.

Dad leaned closer to the screen. “Violet, is there any other medical personnel there with you?”

“Only Ethan.”

Dad closed his eyes and was quiet for a moment.

“I knew that. I was hoping beyond hope.”

What did he mean? I was confused.

“Honey, you are going to have to operate. The sooner the better. We don’t want to take a chance of the appendix rupturing.”

Operate? Operate on my little brother? Out of the question. I had to draw the line somewhere.                

“Uh, no,” I said.                                             

“At least you’ve had a good look at it, so you’ll know what to look for when you’re in there,” Ethan said.

My voice took on an angry tone. “Are you listening? I won’t be ‘in there’.”

Dad waited for me to calm down. “Violet, you’ve assisted me many times. The only difference is that your hands will be making the incision. Your hands will be cutting and clamping.”

“You mean the only difference is that I would be operating on Liam. Dad, are you listening to yourself?”

“I can’t think of anyone I’d trust more in this situation. I’ll talk you through it.”

My stomach churned.

Mayday! Mayday! Someone rescue me from this impossible situation.

“I can’t. I won’t. No way.”

“You are the only one who can save his life right now. You can’t let him die,” Dad said.

Can’t let him die?

“Take a few minutes to think about it, Vi. Pull yourself together,” Ethan said.

I ran into Pharmacy and slammed the door. I slumped to the floor, crying. Liam needed surgery before his appendix burst. Someone had to operate. I was the only one who could do it. But that was the problem. I couldn’t do it. This is what I had feared. I couldn’t do it.

Oh dear God. My brother’s appendix. Surgery.

“Hey.” Someone had come in and was sitting on the floor in front of me. “Hey.”

Julian.

All my anger, all my desperation was focused at him. “I can’t do this. I told you not to make me do this job. I told you I would let people down.”

“And I promised that if something was a serious emergency I would come help you get through it.”

“I can’t do it.”

He took me by the shoulders. He forced me to look at him. “Violet, this is difficult. I get it. Dangerous and stressful. But you’re not going to let your brother die. Pull yourself together. Get your head in the game.”

“Dr. Boylston left us. I hate him.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Julian, what if he dies?” My voice was a whisper. “Liam, I mean.”

Julian stood and pulled me up with him. He took my face in his hands and leaned in to whisper, “Violet, he’s not going to die. You know why? Because you are going to save him.”

I dried my eyes and face on paper towels and followed Julian back into the main Medical suite.

Dad was leaning on the kitchen table, his weight on his outspread fingers.

“First, prepare for surgery,” he said. “Prepare the patient, prepare the instruments, and prepare the surgical table, then gown and glove. Let me know when that’s ready.”

For the first time, I noticed Epstein. She had set up a second screen and called Fernandez, who was quietly watching onscreen. Fernandez gave me a thumbs up. I loved Epstein. What a friend.

Epstein and I undressed Liam, laid him on the surgical table, and covered him with a sheet. I stifled a sob. He was so little. His body was barely half as big as mine. I could see the delicate tracings of his veins through his thin, white skin. I used Betadyne swabs to clean the lower quadrant of his belly. He was conscious, but so sick he couldn’t really concentrate to talk.

“Hey sweet boy,” I said. “We’re going to get you better.”

Liam moaned. Epstein combed her fingers through his hair to comfort him.

I started an IV, and Liam didn’t even flinch. Ethan calculated how much twilight sleep medicine to give him based on his weight. This is where we didn’t want to mess up.

I gowned, scrubbed, gloved, and put on a mask, as did Ethan and Julian, and Epstein helped us, tying gowns and making things ready. Ethan gathered the instruments we would need. Actually, he didn’t have to gather much. We used sterile packs already set up for many different surgeries.

 “Dad, almost ready,” I said. “We’re going to watch a 3-D video. You can watch with us.”

“Okay,” Dad said. “Good idea. Vi, this is going to be very similar to a sterilization surgery on a female cat. How many of those have we done together, hey? The only difference is that instead of working on a healthy uterus you’ll be working on an infected appendix.”

“Epstein,” Ethan said, “Start the video.”

We watched intently, noting how to open the abdomen with a cauterizing blade and carefully split the tissue layers underneath. Next, use a retractor to hold the wound open. Locate the appendix next to the cecum. Tie off the appendix with sutures. Use the cauterizing blade to remove the infected appendix without letting it burst in the abdominal cavity. Check for perforated bowel. If there is none, irrigate, begin closing the layers of tissue, and finally the skin, itself.

“Just the way I’d do it,” Dad said. “But what about pain. The twilight sleep medicine won’t be enough for abdominal surgery. Could you inject a local anesthetic? Without an anesthesiologist, that would be the safest course.”

Ethan and I looked at each other and said the same thing at the same time.

“Hevador Patch.”

“Yeah, I was going to suggest that,” Fernandez said. It was the first time she had spoken.

Ethan was already opening a pack. There was no time to explain it all to Dad, so I said, “Remember I told you about the magic patch I used to sew up a kid’s finger? She didn’t feel a thing.”

I injected the twilight sleep medicine in Liam’s IV. “Monkey, you’ll feel kind of sleepy now. Epstein will stay up by your head while I’m fixing your belly.”

Ethan used surgical scissors to cut a rectangle out of the Hevador Patch. “Place it where you will make your incision,” he said.

I placed the patch right over the hot spot on Liam’s lower right belly, and Julian taped it in place.

“Ready,” Dad said. “Violet, look at me.”

I flicked my eyes up to the screen. “You can do this,” he said. “I’m not false flattering you. I know you can do this.”

Ethan handed me the cauterizing blade. I looked down at Liam’s belly. The audacity of what I was about to do hit me like a wave. My legs turned to jelly.

“I…I…This is my baby brother.” Tears rolled down my cheeks.

Julian stood across from me. He spoke in a calming voice. “This little fellow is very sick. He needs you now.”

I swallowed hard and made the first incision. The skin split like cutting into a ripe melon, exposing snow white tissue underneath.

“Would you look at that,” Dad said. “He doesn’t feel a thing.” There was awe in his voice.

“Good job,” Fernandez said. “Great incision. Boylston couldn’t have done better.”

“He doesn’t have a lot of fat,” Dad said, “so your next few incisions should be shallow, like operating on a six-month-old puppy.”

Julian and Ethan held retractors on either side and pulled the tissue open as I cut through it. My hands steadied. I’d helped Dad through many surgeries. He loved to teach. He had let me do things vet students would have begged to do. I was never nervous then. Dad’s voice had guided me through each step. I took a slow, deep breath.

Dad said. “Now locate the appendix.”

I knew from the InternaScan and from the video that the appendix was a long, tube-like structure connected to the cecum. I used a rounded probe to move the bowel to the side. There it was. I immediately saw the angry, dark inflammation of the appendix. It was infected.

“Insert a gauze 4×4 underneath, in case it bursts. Make one slit in the gauze from side to center. That’s it. Now slip it underneath the appendix. We did this same procedure on that pig with the infected umbilicus, remember? Gauze underneath just in case. You don’t want pus and bacteria in the belly.”

I did just as Dad said, and the isolated appendix stuck up through the center of the gauze.

“Now tie off the base of the appendix. Try to go low. Lower than you think necessary. Good. Now tie it off.”

Loop, cross, pull. Loop, cross, pull. Loop, cross, pull.

“Excellent,” Dad said. “Dissect.”

I pulled the cauterizing blade across the base of the appendix and cut it free. Ethan placed it in a stainless steel basin.

It didn’t burst. No pus to contaminate the body cavity.

 I probed the bowel, looking for any nick the cauterizing blade might have caused. It was hard to see down in the incision.

“Light,” I said.

Epstein pulled the surgical light down and angled it so I could see better.

“Not good enough,” I said.

“Epstein, in my front pocket,” Julian said.

She found Julian’s flashlight and shined the bright light into the incision.

I probed the wound and examined the stump of the appendix, just to make sure my knots would hold true.

“Saline.”

Ethan squeezed a bottle of sterile saline solution into the wound. I then used sterile gauze packs to soak up the saline. I examined the gauze for blood or infection. It was clean.

“That’s exactly what I would have done,” Dad said.

“How is Liam?” I asked.

“He’s fine,” Epstein said. She was more controlled and quiet than I’d ever seen her.

“Ethan, would you help me close?”

The two of us wound the sutures around our forceps and sewed the inner tissue shut with curved needles. It was quick work because Liam was so small. Julian held both retractors while we worked.

When it was time to suture the outer skin, Fernandez had a suggestion. “There’s something new,” she said. “I didn’t have time to teach you everything, but there is a new gelatin tape that works well as sutures on children. It’s strong but flexible. The tape dissolves in a week.” She gave Epstein directions of where to find the gelatin tape, and Epstein opened the package for me.

I taped the outer skin opening shut. When I was done, I looked up. Julian smiled at me over his mask.

Ethan helped me bandage the wound, and we left the Hevador Patch taped in place. “These patches last for 48 hours, so our little guy won’t feel any pain,” he said.

“Violet, I’ve never been more proud of you,” Dad said. “An inflamed appendix is a serious condition. In this situation, it’s safe to say you just saved your brother’s life.”

“I hope he’ll be okay.” My voice sounded weak. Tired.

“Only liquids until this time tomorrow,” Dad said. “But keep him hydrated.”

“And I’d recommend a round of antibiotics,” Fernandez said. “Is he allergic to anything?” She and Dad had a conversation about antibiotic protocols via both of their screens. I took off my gloves. We were under water and Dad and Fernandez were linked to us and to each other by technology. What a world.

Ethan wanted to throw a party to celebrate our first real operation, but I was concerned with Liam’s well-being and too exhausted to party. It was enough that I had been able to take out the inflamed appendix. It was enough that I hadn’t killed my sweet little brother.

My legs were still weak, and my stomach was queasy.

“I’ll stay with Liam,” Epstein said. “Violet, I’ll call you if I need to. You go get some rest.”

“Then I’ll stay up with you, Epstein,” Fernandez said. “The girls are asleep, and I finally have a little time of my own. I have lots of questions about how things are going down there. We can talk while Liam sleeps.”

I hesitated.

“Go rest,” Julian said. “I’ll help Ethan and Epstein clean up here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 39

 

            I walked.

            I didn’t know what to do with myself after the emotional roller coaster of the past hour. I wasn’t sleepy. I was coming down from an adrenaline high. Seeing Liam so sick had torn my heart out. I’d lost it when I realized I would have to operate on him. I was touched when Julian and Epstein had joined in to help. But I was mortified that I’d had a meltdown. It was great to have Fernandez standing by. Dad’s support had been the reason I had been able to do the surgery correctly. The night was a swirl of highs and lows, and my thoughts bounced and ricocheted in my pinball machine brain.

And now…what? I didn’t want to go back to my apartment. Few people were even up. The Pie was closed. I wished I could swim in the ocean, silent and alone, but only Security was allowed out at night now because of Martin Kaplan’s threats.

            So, I walked. I walked and walked and walked, walking to somewhere, walking to nowhere. I tried not to think of the surgery, of Liam, or the stress of cutting into a live human being. I just…walked.

            And, that’s how I ended up in the park. The door to the dome was open, but it was dark inside. Only a few lights shone from under bushes and trees, casting shadowy shimmers and reflections. I thought about climbing my old friend the tree, but I was too tired, and it was too dark. The koi pond had little lights lining the edge of the pond, and it was soothing to watch the fish, mouths opening and closing, floating almost still or swimming slowly with a mere flick of a tail. I sat on a bench by the edge of the pond. The dim light and beauty of the park created a magical nightscape.

            I soaked up the silence. I breathed out stress and inhaled calm. I lost track of time.

            Someone called my name, calling softly, almost a whisper.

            Julian.

            “I’m here,” I said.

            He was barely visible in the low light. “I came to check on you.”

            “How did you find me?” Yeah. How did he find me?

            He smiled. “I wish I could take credit for being the world’s best tracker, but you’re wearing a comm unit.”

            Oh. Right. Dr. Nyaga told me I could be located anywhere.

            “I’m not going to disturb you,” Julian said. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. This has been a traumatic night for all of us but especially for you.”

            I nodded. His words were true.

            “Do you want something?” he asked.

            I looked at him, standing in the shadows.

            “Yes,” I said. “Would you please just sit with me? I mean, we don’t have to talk.”

            “This is a good place to sit and not talk,” he said.

            He sat down close, closer than you sit if you are just a friend. As tired as I was, I felt it, the hum of electric current between us. It wasn’t a jolt. It was an arc, an arc that sizzled and hummed while the two of us stared at the koi and the water and the lily pads.

            Julian’s arm was stretched along the back of the bench, and at some point I lay my head back against it. I closed my eyes and breathed in the smells of the grass, and the flowering plants, the earth, and the sweet, manly smell that was the dampness of Julian’s shirt.

            We sat for a long time, quiet and comfortable. I wanted to touch his hand, to feel the warmth of his fingers, to feel them wrap around mine, but the electricity between us radiated even without physical touch, and I didn’t want to move for fear of breaking the bond.

            An hour later, Julian’s comm pinged.

            “It’s me,” Epstein said. “Just reporting on my little patient. He’s awake, and he’s asking for Violet.”

            “She’s right here. We’ll be there in five.”

            Julian and I left the sanctuary of the park. We were slaphappy from lack of sleep.

            “Are you as hungry as I am?” he asked.

            “Starving. Is anything open?”

            “I can rustle up something from the 24/7.”

            “Oh yeah. Lobster with butter?”

            “Would you settle for a BLT?”

            “Happily. A BLT sounds great.”

            Liam was indeed awake and asking for me. He was in one of the eight beds we had in Medical. The twilight sleep was wearing off, but the Hevador Patch kept him pain free. How would we keep this kid still while he was healing?

            “Violet, I had surgery. I have 22 stitches. You can’t see them right now because I’m all bandaged, but it’s cool, anyway.”

            “Let’s tell Dad, then. I bet he was worried about you.”

            Dad was in his recliner, waiting.

            “I thought I might get a call,” he said. “Liam, old man, how the heck are you?”

            “Finer than frog’s hair.” It was their running joke. “I have stitches.”

            “Lucky duck.”

            “Yeah,” Liam said. “Twenty-two of them.”

            “He looks good,” Dad said to me. “Keep a close eye.”

            “Will do. I’ll call you as soon as he’s up tomorrow.”

            Zach knocked at the open door.

            “I’ve waited long enough,” he said. “Now I’m here to take over for the rest of the night.” He had a stack of books under his arm and a dinosaur puzzle.

            I ate my BLT, went back to my room and slept the sleep of the dead.

 

 

CHAPTER 40

 

The next day, Liam was a celebrity and had the fan base to prove it. Visitors came in a steady stream and stayed to read books or tell knock-knock jokes and riddles. He ate it up. George and Judy Skerski came and brought him a t-shirt that said Shark Bait and had a cartoon of a kid standing in a shark’s mouth. Chef Sal personally delivered a gourmet lunch of Welsh Rarebit and toast points.

            “Come back to the kitchen. I can’t cook without you. You’re new nickname is ‘Roux Sous.’ “

            Liam thought that was hysterical. “Roux Sous. Get it, Vi? Roux—Sous. It’s a joke. A kitchen joke, so you probably don’t get it.”

            I came back from delivering a First Aid kit to the athletic dome, and there was Monty, sitting beside Liam’s bed, watching an episode of The Great British Baking Show, Liam’s favorite. She had two black eyes and a bandage across her nose. I wondered if she’d told Liam how she got them.

            As for me, I had begged Ethan, Julian, and Epstein not to talk it around a lot about the surgery. I was secretly relieved that Ethan and I had pulled it off, but I didn’t want to make a big deal to the rest of the crew. Technically speaking, I had just done my job, and I hadn’t even done it willingly.

            I was also the girl who had hit another OSCAR crewmember, not once, but twice, and had broken her nose. Not only that, but I’d done it in front of God and everybody. Monty’s ugly remarks about Dr. Nyaga had been outrageously rude, but my response was excessive and anything but professional. I wondered what my fellow crewmembers thought of me now.

.

            The situation with Martin Kaplan contacting Dr. Nyaga and Julian on a daily basis had gone from annoying to alarming. When he finally realized that they were never going to let him back in, Martin began to make more dangerous threats. At first, they sounded juvenile and petty, but things had grown dramatically worse. Julian had talked to the local police as well as Navy officials to make them aware of the situation and file complaints, but compared to the chaos and emergencies on Terra Firma, they considered one man’s threats to a fortified community small potatoes.

            Julian updated us after breakfast while the children were at school.

            “We have a situation. Persennia and I thought it best to keep you updated as it concerns every single one of us.”

             Brace yourself, Violet.

            “In the last few days, Martin Kaplan’s threats have become increasingly intense. I don’t mean to scare you, but you have a right to know what’s going on and a duty to help us defend the integrity of this facility. Your safety has always been important, but even more so now that Martin’s threats have become a matter of life and death.”

            Life and death? The virus is life and death. Liam’s appendicitis is life and death. Now some nut case is threatening to ruin our facility, and it’s a matter of…you guessed it…life and death. What ever happened to our calm, happy life without the drama?

            Julian continued. “Martin threatened us again yesterday. Since we won’t let him and the others in, he is threatening to sabotage our facility. Sabotage it so we won’t have a safe place to live, either.”

            That took a moment to sink in.

            “Is he serious? He can’t be serious,” Ethan said.

            Julian was quick to set him straight. “Believe me, he’s serious, Ethan. He and his sons are making plans to do it.”

            “Can you be more specific?” Ethan said.

            “Yes,” Julian said. “That’s exactly why we’re having this meeting. Martin has threatened our fresh water—our desalinization plant—as well as our electrolysis equipment, which provides the oxygen we breathe and the hydrogen we use for power. As if that’s not bad enough, this morning he threatened to take us out one by one if we’re out in the ocean.”

            This time the reaction was huge—a mixture of outrage and panic.

            “Take us out one by one if we’re out in the ocean? You realize that’s a murder threat.”

            “What can we do?” Dan shouted. “Are we allowed to defend ourselves?”

            “Have him arrested! Put that wacko behind bars.”

            “Increase security immediately. Is that possible?”

            “Have Dr. Nyaga call the Pentagon. We’re not playing around here.”

            “Yeah. The White House needs to send someone to take him out.”

            “This doesn’t sound like Martin. Do you think he has the virus already, and it’s messing with his head?”

            “Are he and his sons alone in this, or are the others a threat, too?”

            “We’ve got children down here. We must protect them at all costs.”

            “Let me get this right. So you’re saying that Martin Kaplan, formerly part of the OSCAR community, is planning to kill us, his fellow crewmembers, because we won’t let him back in?”

            And on and on.

            While they were yelling back and forth, I remembered Julian—in the midst of all this chaos—coming to Medical to give me courage. He must have had a pounding headache with all the decisions he had to make, stressed out with responsibilities, but he assisted during Liam’s surgery and sat with me in the park until all hours of the night. He never once mentioned his own problems.

            Dr. Nyaga raised her palm. The room quieted.

            “My friends, I do not say this lightly. At this moment, the White House and the Navy have their hands full. In times of peace, they would be the first to assist us, but with the virus spreading on Terra Firma, we are going to have to rely on ourselves. I spoke with Captain Walsh at his home this morning before breakfast. He sends his regards and concerns. As you know, the captain is an expert in maritime law. According to him, we are to stand our ground against any threat. We have every right to defend ourselves, our children, and this facility against any intruders.”

            “The OSCAR facility is five miles off shore, which clearly places it within the boundaries of the United States. This give us the right to use whatever means necessary to defend ourselves against hostile threats.”

            She adjusted one of her heavy gold earrings. How often had I seen her do that?

            Silence.

            “What exactly does that mean?” someone called.

            “That means that we will have to step up our security. We will need extra vigilance. And…” She unconsciously rubbed her neck. “And if need be, we will stop any threat…permanently.”

            Silence.

            “Allow me to speak plainly. If Martin Kaplan, his sons, or anyone else try to harm this facility or take any of our lives, they will be met with deadly force.”

            We sat riveted.

            Deadly force.

            “Who makes that decision?”

            Persennia turned her wheelchair to face the speaker. “Good question, Dan. In this strange situation, we have been deprived of our Captain, LC, and our advisors from OSCAR Terra Firma, the Navy, and the Pentagon. Captain Walsh asked for Julian Fenley to take his place and for me to continue in my job as head of Communications. Technically, that makes Fenley our new captain. Captain Walsh was a fully vested Naval Officer at the time of his decision, and emergency law dictates that, in an emergency situation, he has the right to appoint his successor.”

            “I’m not disputing Julian’s leadership,” Dan said. “Just trying to clarify. You’re saying, then, that Julian Fenley has the power to sanction lethal force toward hostile intruders?”

            “Yes, if need be.”

            “Our present security force is not enough,” Julian said, “And so, we’re going to step it up. Some of you will be assigned a time and place to swim the perimeter of one of our domes, day or night. While you are swimming around and over the domes, we will have smaller police squads who will be prepared to meet any hostiles with the power to overwhelm and stop them.”

            “Who will that be?”

Julian sighed audibly. “None of us came here with the intent that we might ever have to end someone’s life. We came for the life-changing OSCAR experience. But no one bargained for a deadly virus on the surface, either, and that 21 of our crewmembers would…leave us.”

            We all were thinking the same thing: abandoned us, you mean.

            “I’m looking for 6-8 crewmembers: strong swimmers, good in a crisis, willing to handle weapons, and who wouldn’t be afraid to use lethal methods, if need be. In addition to security, this group would aggressively stop any hostile intruders. A task force.”

            Wow. We did not see this coming.

            Someone said, “My money’s on Coltrane,” and the room burst into good-natured laughter.

            I rolled my eyes.

            “If you’re willing to be considered,” Julian said, “Male or female, we’re having a meeting right after lunch.”

            Death threats and a task force were part of our new reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 41

 

Ethan had to swim security all morning, so I was alone in Medical. A few crewmembers came in with minor complaints, but nothing earthshattering. I’d checked Liam’s incision and changed his bandage earlier. He was healing so quickly it was mystifying.

I cleaned and restocked supplies in various drawers and cabinets in the lab and the pharmacy. While I worked, I couldn’t help but think about this latest situation with Martin Kaplan. What I couldn’t understand was, why would Martin want to destroy the security of the OSCAR facility? Why would he want to kill those who had been his friends and colleagues? Surely he understood that his exposure to the virus—no matter how limited—would be lethal to the rest of us. We did not send him out into the danger zone. He made that decision himself. The details rolled around in my head like so many marbles, back and forth, this scenario and that.

After lunch, I decided to go to the task force meeting but not because I wanted to join. Being in charge of Medical, I needed to know what could possibly be coming as far as injuries or casualties. I had to learn to stand on my own two feet. Julian couldn’t always be saddled with having to beg me to do my job. I still wished someone else had the main responsibility, but no matter how many times I twisted the Rubik’s Cube, it always came back to me. I wasn’t trained, I didn’t know a lot, and I felt out of my depth, but the OSCAR Community needed me, and I was gearing up to do my best.

Besides me, Dan, Zach, Epstein, O’Leary, George Skerski, Chef Sal, Valentín, Taylor, Connor Davis (who had two kids in Liam’s class), Fleur, and TR Washington came to the meeting with Persennia and Julian.

“Thanks for coming,” Julian said. “Let’s get to it. We’re looking for a serious defense task force that might have to use lethal force to stop a hostile or hostiles. How many of you are volunteering for that?”

Everyone raised his hand. I surprised myself by raising mine, too. What was I thinking? My face flushed.

“Sal, I’ll excuse you right away,” Julian said. “You’re too vital in the kitchen.”

“Understood,” Sal said, “But if things come inside, count on me. I’m good with knives.”

We smiled at his joke. I believed him though. I’d seen Chef Sal in action.

“Violet, the same for you,” Julian said. “Being in charge of Medical is too important to risk your involvement in this.”

“Yeah, I get it. I wasn’t really volunteering. I’m actually here to scope out what I might possibly need to be ready for in Medical.”

Julian nodded. “Good thinking. You can stay as an observer.”

He looked us over. “George, you’re—”

“Don’t say I’m too old, Julian. I don’t want to hear it. I’m a former Marine, and I have the skill-set.”

Julian smiled. “Actually, George, I was going to say you are my first pick. If you were too old, you wouldn’t be here, and we can use someone with your wisdom and gravitas on this team.”

“George,” Persennia Nyaga said, “We’re the same age. I’ll not hear any more talk about too old, do you hear me?” There was teasing in her voice.

“Thanks. I just want to be sure you have confidence in me,” George said.

            “Dan, you are one of the most reliable crewmembers here, a strong swimmer, and you have extensive knowledge of the ocean. You are a definite,” Julian said.

            Dan nodded.

            “Epstein, Fleur, you’re in. You’re both more than capable, and it will be good to have women’s input and not just a bunch of jocks.” We laughed. “Speak up,” Julian said. “We need all opinions.”

            “Since when have you ever known me not to speak up,” Epstein said.

            “Why are you telling us to speak up,” Fleur said. “I didn’t hear you ask the men you’ve picked to do that.” Her voice was full of snap-crackle-and-pop.

            “Because I am a politically incorrect, insensitive Neanderthal,” Julian said. “Sorry. I won’t do it again.”

            Epstein and Fleur high-fived with a resounding smack.

            “Zach, your job with the kids is too valuable for you to be on the team, but I need your wisdom and knowledge more than anyone’s, with the exception of Dr. Nyaga. Would you consider standing with me as an advisor?”

            “Absolutely. Whatever you need.”

            “Valentín, Taylor and Davis, you’re solid and reliable, perfect for this team. O’Leary, no offense, but your swimming isn’t strong enough. We appreciate you volunteering, though. You may be excused.”           

            O’Leary nodded. “Call on me for anything else.”

            “I’ll keep that in mind.”

            O’Leary waved. “Good luck.”

            “That brings me to TR,” Julian said. “As a former NYC policeman, I’d like to tap into your experience and ask you to lead the team.”

            “Happy to.” That brought on the trash talk. Everyone loved TR.

            Zach said, “You picked Washington last? What kind of leader are you?”

            Julian played along. “I didn’t see much future in it for someone like him.”

            Dr. Nyaga wanted in, too. “Zach, he didn’t pick TR for the team. He picked him for the captain of the team. Pay attention.”

            “My bad,” Zach said. “Set me straight, PN.”

            Persennia folded her arms over her chest. “Mm-hm.”

            “I want to be part of the team” Julian said, “because I don’t think it’s fair to ask you to do something that I myself am not willing to do.”

            “But I vetoed the idea,” Dr. Nyaga said.

            She leaned her face back and fluttered her eyelids. I was once again struck by the mixture of her beauty and regal authority. “And folks, he listened! Isn’t that grand?”

            “It’s about time he listened to someone,” Zach said.

            “I’d like to know about our fire power,” TR Washington said. As the new leader, he brought us back to the purpose of the meeting.

            “Certainly,” Julian said. “I think you’ll be impressed. Let’s continue this in the armory.”

            “We have an armory?” Dan said.

            Julian actually laughed. “Dan, this is the Navy. We have an armory and a half.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER 42

 

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting trauma supplies and the various First Aid kits that were stationed at points around the 11 domes. I brought extra supplies in my medical bag to replenish those that had been used up. One of my stops was Chef Sal’s kitchen.

            “Violet, hey.” It was Liam. He was sitting on a tall stool bellied up to a workstation.

            “What are you doing here?” I said.

            “I was bored.”

“If I remember correctly, you are recovering from appendicitis. You’re not supposed to be working.”

            “He has stitches,” Harrison said. “Twenty-one.”

            “Twenty-two,” Liam said. “But I’m not working. Just watching.”

            Chef Sal came out of the deep freeze. “He’s my taste-master. I promise that’s all.“

            I pulled Liam’s ear lobe. “Okay. Just take it easy.”

            I checked the kitchen First Aid kit, and half the items were missing, so I replaced them and added more burn cream and Band-Aids. Being here in the kitchen reminded me that Liam and I had talked about something special for the two of us. What was it?

Oh yeah.

            “Chef. Could I ask you something?”

Liam had warned me that Chef Sal could be explosive sometimes.

            “Sure.”

            I got in close so our conversation was just between the two of us.

“Uh…I was wondering if sometime when things aren’t busy maybe Liam and I could cook something together.”

            He stopped dicing tomatoes. “Cook together?”

            “Yes. I’d like to cook with Liam.”

            His eyes narrowed. “You don’t like my food?”

            “Yes. Everything is always great.”

            “I made you lobster, remember?”

            “I’ll never forget it. Delicious.”

            “Then why you want to cook in my kitchen?”

            I tried not to be flustered. Just explain yourself, Vi. It’s not rocket science.

“It’s just that at home I did all the cooking, and Liam only watched. You’ve taught him to love cooking, and I thought it would be fun for us to cook together.”

“What do you want to cook?”

“Uh…Chicken Paprikash.”

            “You want to come into my kitchen and cook Chicken Paprikash? Just the two of you?”

            I finally caught on. He was teasing me.

            “Sure. Great idea. Liam has become quite a cook. Sometimes he is my sous chef. You come cook in the morning after breakfast tomorrow. Can Liam cook while he is resting on the stool?”

            Whoa. Tomorrow? Could I pull this off by tomorrow? I just meant sometime.

“You cook in the morning, I will warm for you and bring to apartment for dinner.”

            “Wow. Thanks.”

            “I know Chicken Paprikash. My mother was Hungarian. Come 9:30 tomorrow morning. I have everything ready for you.”

            “You’re wonderful.”

            I continued making my rounds. Making chicken Paprikash would give me a chance to connect with Liam and let him show off his newly learned skills. It would feel almost like home, a throwback to the days of housework and dishes and laundry and after school snacks. It would also be a celebration of Liam’s recovery from appendicitis and surgery.

            I could have taken a whiz-car, but I needed the exercise. I also loved walking through the Plexiglas tubes, surrounded by fish and the occasional stingray perched over the top. The sea was an iridescent blue, illuminated by outdoor lights and dim rays of the sun. It was quiet and beautiful. Here in the tube there was no talk of police squads or viruses or threats.

I reminded myself to speak to Julian and Dr. Nyaga about Sol Day. It was on the calendar for a week from today, but I wondered if they still wanted to have it in light of all that was going on. Julian and Persennia were both busy and had full schedules. They needed a getaway from the stress. We all did.

Mentally, I snapped my fingers.

Of course. Liam and I could invite Dr. Nyaga and Julian over for dinner to enjoy the Chicken Paprikash. And, I’d have to include Zach, my buddy foodie, and Epstein, my person. They had done nice things for both Liam and me. This would be a fun way to thank them. Tomorrow night was short notice, though. If they could come, great. If they couldn’t, Liam and I would eat alone.

I stopped back by the kitchen to ask Liam’s opinion. “Would you like to cook tomorrow, just the two of us? Chef Sal is going to set it up for us. I thought we might make Chicken Paprikash and invite Julian and Dr. Nyaga, Mr. McGann and Epstein over for dinner.”

Liam flung himself at me and wrapped his arms around my waist.

“Easy. Easy. I’ll take that as a yes,” I said. “Careful of your incision.”

I could still hear him squawking about it when I was down the hall from the kitchen.

Fortunately for us, both Julian and Dr. Nyaga accepted our invitation and so did Zach and Epstein. I hadn’t realized how much I would look forward to the idea. A project with my little brother and four friends for dinner. Wow. We’d never had company before in our apartment—with the exception of Epstein one time for pizza and a movie—so this was almost a first for us.

.

Cooking was terrific. Chef Sal had laid out two aprons and two chef’s hats, plus everything we would need to make Chicken Paprikash: sour cream, onion, garlic, oil, butter, tomatoes, sweet paprika, and deboned chicken thighs. Deboned chicken thighs. What luxury. I’d always had to debone them myself, and that was a slimy, tedious job.

“Mise en place,” Liam said, strutting his kitchen French.

 “I think Chef Sal’s my new hero.”

“Avoir le melon,” Liam said. He circled his hand in the air.

Show off.

For the next hour, we made Chicken Paprikash. There was a skeleton crew washing up breakfast dishes, but other than that, it was just the two of us. Chef Sal was nowhere to be found. Liam and I measured, sliced, diced, sautéed, stirred, and whisked. When it came to tasting, Liam introduced me to the tasting spoon. He laid out a number of them so we could “adjust the seasonings.”

“Fancy,” I said.

“Lemon water,” he said, producing two small glasses.

“What is this for?”

“To cleanse your palate.”

“Cleanse my palate.” I stared.

“Between tastings,” he said. “So you have a fresh perspective for the seasonings.”

I had to remind myself that he was eight.

As if by magic, Chef Sal appeared just as we finished the dish and were preparing to put it in the oven.

“I have an idea,” he said. “We will cover this excellent dish, and I will pop it in the oven for you before I bring it.”

“That would be great.” I had a thought. “Do we need to take knives and forks now?”

“Tableware,” Liam said.

I was being corrected by an eight-year-old cooking expert.

“Leave the rest to me,” Chef Sal said. ‘’I will take care of you.”

“We’re having guests,” I said. “Mr. McGann, Epstein, Julian Fenley and Dr. Nyaga.”

You would have thought I had invited the Queen of England.

“Ah! Dr. Nyaga.”

His enthusiasm was comical.

“Time?”

“6:00,” Liam said.

If Dad could see you now.

“Ciao, bella,” Chef Sal said. “I will not disappoint.”

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 43

 

Chef Sal Torgani blew into our room at 5:45, a whirlwind of commanding efficiency. It was the height of the dinner hour. How did he have time to fool with our home-cooked Paprikash? He flapped a tablecloth in place, lit candles, produced a lettuce and vegetable salad, crusty bread, olive oil with herbs, and placed our main course in the center of the table. He and Liam set the flatware and napkins in place in seconds. Sal was out the door at 5:55, I kid you not. I don’t remember breathing in or out the whole time he was here.

Epstein, Zach, Julian and Dr. Nyaga arrived at the stroke of 6:00, and we visited for a while before we sat down to eat. It was nice just to take a breath and relax together. At first, I was nervous if they would like our Paprikash, but I reminded myself that the whole purpose was just to get together as friends.

I shouldn’t have worried. Dinner was delicious. No, make that scrumptious. Liam was proud, and I was relieved that our dish turned out well. Chicken Paprikash always reminded me of Mama, and I knew she would have been proud, too.

“Mmmm,” Zach said. “This is great.”

“Indeed.”

“Really good.”

Their compliments made me smile.

“This is my mother’s recipe.”

“We did good, right?” Liam said.

Dr. Nyaga had a surprise. “Violet,” she said, “I brought something special for you. It’s one of my geles, and I think it will be beautiful with your coloring.” She handed me a folded rectangle of cloth, royal blue and deep pink with tiny, glittery gold stars.

“It’s stunning,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I haven’t forgotten that you asked me to show you how to wrap a gele.” She moved her chair. “Here. Come sit in front of the mirror.”

Julian brought a chair, and I sat. Dr. Nyaga pulled my hair back, twisted, and pinned it up with hairpins. Zach, Julian, Liam, and Epstein watched.

“All over Africa women wear the gele,” she said, “but nobody wraps it like a Nigerian woman.” She folded the fabric twice and knotted it behind the nape of my neck. She pulled the left side up and then the right, making pleats across the top of my head.

“The gele is worn whenever women want to look pretty. You secure it with a safety pin like so…and then close the back to cover the hair. Do you like it?”

“Yes. It looks elegant.”

“Now you look like a proper African woman,” Dr. Nyaga said. “What do the rest of you think?”

“Awesome.”

“Spectacular.”

“Girl, you are just as pretty with none of your hair showing,” Epstein said.

I stared at the girl in the mirror. She was not the same girl who had lived at home with Dad and danced the tango with her friend Pavel. She was not even the same girl that had arrived at midnight by sliding down an underwater slide.

“Aren’t we all blessed,” I said.

“Yes, my daughter, we are blessed,” Dr. Nyaga said. Her voice was as rich as a spice market.

“I wanted to have the four of you here together so I could thank you for welcoming Liam and me to be your friends.” We were silent for a moment, even Liam.

“Here, here,” Zach said. “This calls for cheesecake. I just might happen to have a fresh one, baked by Chef Sal.”

“Liam’s favorite,” I said. “How did you know?”

“I am an educator, Violet. I have my ways.”

 “I also wanted to ask Dr. Nyaga and Julian about Sol Day,” I said. “It’s on the calendar for next week. Should we go ahead with it?”

“Yes,” Persennia said. “I personally think we should have it as scheduled. Julian, what are your thoughts?”

“Well, Sol Day is really for the body’s well-being. Violet, what do you recommend? You’re in charge of Medical.”

I nodded.

“From a medical standpoint, we need to have it. Fernandez stressed keeping the regularly scheduled element exposures.” Element exposures. A few months ago I’d never heard of element exposures.

“Bring it on, then. I love Sol Day,” Julian said.

Zach and Epstein had to leave. Julian stayed. 

Liam, who was sitting on the floor, reached up and touched the dashboard on Dr. Nyaga’s wheelchair. “What’s this?”

“I should have known,” Persennia said. “Boys are fascinated with all things electronic. Liam, this is the most sophisticated, magical wheelchair in the world. Watch this.”

She pressed a button. Her seat rose higher and higher, until she was in a standing position. The seat split in two and slid around to support her hips. It was the first time I’d seen Dr. Nyaga at full adult height.

“Whoa,” Liam said. “You’re standing.”

“This chair can do 22 functions,” Dr. Nyaga said. “It was designed just for me as a prototype.”

“What’s a prototype?” Liam asked.

 “There’s not another one like it in the world. Four scientists at Stanford University worked on it, three women and one man. I went to graduate school with Dr. Elinor Fisher, and she recommended me to be the guinea pig. If this chair helps me function like it has so far, someday it will be available for others.”

I wanted to share in her enthusiasm, but with the condition the world was in on Terra Firma, I wondered if that day would ever come.

She let herself down until she was once again sitting. She pointed.

 “See those two flat things down near the bottom of my chair in the back?”

“Yes.”

“Those are called hitchhikers. They’re specifically designed for curious boys who know how to cook.”

“I know how to cook,” Liam said, “and I’m curious.

Persennia acted surprised. “What are you waiting for, young one?” she said. “Hop on.”

I didn’t want Liam to take up too much of Dr. Nyaga’s time. “Are you sure?”

“Don’t take away my swag, Violet. We’re two souls in search of adventure.”

Persennia Nyaga’s wheelchair sailed down the hallway with Liam perched on the back. At the end of the hallway, she did two doughnuts and turned left.

“See why I love her?” Julian said.

“Absolutely.”

“Liam is a cool guy. I’m glad he’s here.”

“Me, too. I never expected to have to raise him, though.” That didn’t come out right. “I mean, I love him. He’s a great kid. But—”

“—But,” Julian said. “It would be nice if your dad was here to help.”

“For so many reasons. It’s never easy raising a kid, and when you’re 19 and on your own, and underwater, and responsible for Medical…it’s…challenging.”

I was in a playful mood. I looked in the mirror again. “Do you think my gele makes me look pretty?”

“No.”

“No?”

Julian smiled. “The gele doesn’t make you look pretty. You were already pretty to begin with.”

My cheeks felt hot. Stay calm. It’s a compliment, nothing more.

“Let me help you clear these dishes,” Julian said.

We put the dirty dishes in the plastic tub Chef Sal had left for us. Julian called for a whiz-car.

“I’ll take them back to the kitchen for you. I’m headed that way.”

“Uh, thanks, but I need to go. I want to wash and dry everything so Chef Sal doesn’t have to do it.”

“Let’s go together. I’ll call Persennia and tell her to hang on to Liam till we pick him up.”

Chef Sal’s kitchen was dimly lit, but we only had a few things to wash, so we didn’t turn on the big light. I ran a sink full of hot, soapy water. I washed, Julian rinsed. Our shoulders touched as we stood side by side. Our hands bumped as I handed him wet, sudsy dishes. His fingers slid over mine in the spray of hot rinse water.

Did he feel it, too, the surge and crackle of electricity?

Stop it, Violet. This is friendship, nothing more.

We washed the dishes and soon we were through. I was sad. I could have washed dishes for 40 years.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 44

 

Sol Day arrived at a perfect time. People’s spirits needed lifting. There were more deaths every week of family members, friends, and neighbors. Our memorial services were a weekly occurrence. I frequently saw crewmembers with red, swollen eyes and knew that they had been crying. I saw some of my friends staring into the distance at dinner, stymied by the pain of their losses. Sometimes in class, teachers had to repeat verbal questions because we found it difficult to concentrate.

Sol Day was designed to reinforce the brain’s familiar sights, feelings, and sounds and the elements in which we lived on Terra Firma. Down here, it would be easy for our brains to forget what wind through our hair felt like, the warmth of sunshine on our skin, or the patter of raindrops wetting our faces. Hearing was important, too. It could be ghostly quiet under the sea, and we needed to remind our ears of the many sounds we normally took for granted on the surface. Our brains also needed smells to remind us of scents and clues that informed and directed our thoughts on Terra Firma.

So, every now and then we had Sol Day, where we all met in the park and spent the day together. We wore bathing suits or shorts so we could amplify our exposure to the “sun” the Navy had designed for us. We cranked up the brightness to give our eyes a chance to remember to squint and our skin a chance to darken with melanin. Hidden speakers played everyday street sounds, including traffic, voices, sirens, crying babies, and barking dogs.

One of the best features of Sol Day was the variety of vendors around the park who grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and offered gyros, Indian food, cotton candy, roasted nuts, tacos, nachos, salads, veggie kabobs, and subs. Chef Sal’s crew went all out. In addition to food aromas, computers pumped in urban smells of asphalt, exhaust fumes, ozone, and the electrical smell of the subway.

We played volleyball, marbles, jump rope, relay races, badminton, croquet, chess, checkers, and horseshoes. Once or twice during the day, you could count on rain, from the soft mist of an afternoon shower to a full-on deluge. It was glorious.

No one wanted to miss Sol Day, although it was actually mandatory. Sol Day was the brain’s way of resetting itself—rebooting—but it was a major source of fun, too. As our memorial services bonded us with sorrow and loss, Sol Day bonded us with laughter, cheering, and outrageous entertainment. Zach was in charge of the games, and he had a black belt in high jinx. He and his team planned games and prizes and activities for every age.   

Normally, security teams swam around the OSCAR facility 24/7. But Sol Day was different. The security teams were replaced with camera drones so all humans could participate. While the entire community played inside the park, a fleet of camera drones swam around the perimeter of all 11 domes, climbing the sides, snapping pictures of ceilings, and diving beneath to inspect the floor and the tethers that kept the Plexiglass domes in place. The camera drones sent pictures back in real time, so security took turns monitoring the feedback.

The only reason I knew about the camera drones was because Ethan was part of the monitoring squad. I wanted him to be my partner for the three-legged race, but it was his turn to watch the video feed, so Epstein jumped in to save my honor. It had started to drizzle, but the rule was to stay in place and continue to enjoy ourselves, even in the rain.

Epstein and I tied our knees and ankles together and took our places at the starting line. We were competing against four other teams, and we were hoping for bragging rights. At the signal, we took off, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, running and sliding towards the finish line lickety-split.

The blast came out of nowhere.

One moment we were running, and the next moment we were airborne, then everything went humbledy jumbledy. The dome shifted to the left and back to the right. Epstein and I fell from six feet in the air into a tangle of arms and legs and bodies tied together at the knees and ankles.

The Klaxon horn, shrill and disorienting, sounded an immediate alarm, and it was ear-splitting. A desperate feeling of panic washed over me. I was tied to Epstein, tangled up with other racers, and I could hardly tell down from up. I needed the noise of the Klaxon horn to stop. I needed to know what had happened. I needed to know where Liam was.

Someone blessedly shut off the Klaxon horn, and it was a good thing, because my ears were temporarily deaf at that point. Epstein and I sat up, arms and legs akimbo, and tried to untangled ourselves from those around us and from each other. It wasn’t easy. Everyone was pulling and pushing at cross purposes in their efforts to get free.

Liam stepped over and on people to get to me. I squeezed him so tight he pushed me away. I gradually became aware of the shouts and cries around me in the chaos and confusion.

“Were we hit?”

“Was it a bomb?”

“What just happened?”

“Is the dome going to crack?”

“Do we need to evacuate this dome?”

“Was this an accident or on purpose?”

“Did Martin Kaplan do this?”

I looked for Persennia Nyaga. She was upright, and her wheelchair looked unharmed, which was strange, given the circumstances. All around her were piles of spectators, trying to untangle themselves.

What has happened? How can I protect Liam?

Zach spoke into the mic he’d been using to announce the games.

“Folks, help your friends and fellow crewmembers.”

The security team and the newly formed security police were scrambling, running to TR Washington and George Skerski for orders and directions. Epstein finally untied the ties on our knees and ankles, pushed to her feet, and joined them. They huddled for a few minutes, then ran off in all directions.

Julian crossed the footpath and came to kneel by me and Liam.

“Hey Liam,” he said. “Are you okay, buddy?”

Liam nodded. He put his hand over his incision. It was still bandaged.

“Wow,” Julian said. “You’ve had quite a week. Appendicitis, cooking with Violet, a wheelchair ride, and now this.”

Liam said, “I know why Dr. Nyaga’s wheelchair didn’t tip over.”

“You do?”

“It has a gyroscope.”

“How in the world do you know that?”

“She told me. It’s a prototype, remember?”

Leave it to Liam to think of a gyroscope in the midst of danger. How random.

Julian took the microphone from Zach.

“I honestly don’t know what just happened,” he said, addressing us. “Is anyone hurt?” It was hard to hear anyone over the noise.

“We’re trying to figure it out. It seems the park dome has withstood some sort of blast. We’ll want to inspect the integrity of the building. For now, I suggest you go back to your rooms, change into dry clothes, and give us time to investigate. The minute we know something, I’ll fill you in.”

“Was this Martin Kaplan’s work?” someone called out.

“Could be,” Julian said.

One of the things I liked about Julian was his honesty. He didn’t pull any punches. He was calm, so we were calm. Calm on the outside, that is.

“If you have any injuries, even minor ones, please report to Medical. Coltrane and Roggenkamp will be there to help you.”

Taylor had a bad scrape over his ribs, Judy Skerski had a broken toe, and Harrison, a kid in Liam’s class, had a minor cut on his wrist. Nothing really serious, but I was grateful to have Ethan’s help, because they all presented at once. I took Judy’s broken toe, and Ethan handled the scrape and cut.

“I don’t know what it is with me and my toes,” Judy said. “Last time it was a splinter, and now, this.”

I used the InternaScan to see inside her toe. “It’s fractured, but the bones are still lined up. I’m sure it hurts, so I’ll bandage it for protection. In week or so, it will be fine.”

I wrapped the toe and secured it to Judy’s foot with paper tape. “If you get it wet in the shower and need for me to rewrap it, I can.”

After the injuries were taken care of, I headed to the Communication Center to find out the latest on what had really happened at the park dome. Julian wanted to keep me in the loop since I was in charge of Medical. My head was buzzing with questions.        Was it some malfunction? Had someone done something on purpose? Was it Martin Kaplan making good on his threats?

When I got to Communications, I didn’t have to ask. Martin was on the large screen raving and crowing.

“How did you like my little blast? Scary, huh? Check the integrity of the dome walls yet?”

“Quit playing around with people’s lives, Martin.” Julian’s voice was angry. “What kind of integrity do you have to do something like this?”

“What kind of morals do you have to keep out me and my family?”

“I’ve explained many times, Martin, that you and your family are a medical risk. We cannot take the chance of letting you in. It’s life or death.”

“Then be prepared to face the consequences.”

“Martin, don’t do this. Spend time with your family,” Julian said.

We all heard the implication.

Whatever time you have left with your family.

“Don’t preach to me, Mr. Perfect. You’re always so noble, aren’t you? Well, I can’t expect you to understand protecting your family, because you don’t have a family, do you? And neither do you, Nyaga. So you don’t know what I’m going through. I’m trying to protect my family. I’m trying to save the lives of my children here.”

“What did you use, Martin, some kind of grenade?”

“Grenade? That’s a laugh.” Martin smirked at his cleverness.

“What kind of damage do you think a grenade would do to those 10-inch-thick Plexiglas walls? Nothing. Do you think I’m stupid? No, my friend, I used a depth charge set to go off at 40 feet—that’s 40 feet over your park dome ceiling. Next time, I’m going the full distance: 80 feet. This time was just to get your attention, to let you know I’m serious. This time you felt it. Next time you won’t: there’ll be massive structural damage that will take you with it.”

“You don’t have access to depth charges.”

“You think so? With what is going on up here on Terra Firma most buildings are open and abandoned. You’d be surprised what I can get my hands on.”

“Martin, don’t push this, or we have no choice but to stop you.”

Martin laughed. “Bring it on, Fenley. Bring it on.”

The screen went blank. We stared, chilled into speechlessness.

Dr. Nyaga put her finger over her lips and motioned for us to follow her to Central Command next door.

“I don’t want there to be any chance of Martin hearing us. Just because the screen is blank doesn’t mean he can’t listen in if he knows what he’s doing. He’s at OSCAR Terra Firma, our command center. My main fear is he might sabotage things there to damage our ability to communicate. That’s our main link…our only link to the outside world.”

A shiver went through me. Please don’t let anything cut off our communication. Being able to talk with Dad and see him on the screen was what was getting me through this.

“He doesn’t seem to have thought of it yet,” Dr. Nyaga said. “He needs the communication center to talk with us. But Heaven help us if he decides to break and destroy everything after he’s done playing around.”

“Right now, Martin can do anything he wants to, and we are basically powerless to stop him on the surface,” Julian said. “But, if he comes down here, under water, that’s a different story.”

“He’s a definite threat. If he is intent on causing physical harm or death, we’ll have to take action,” TR said. “I’m willing. He’s no different than any other lethal criminal.”

Julian nodded. “I hate that it has come to this.”

“But it has,” Dr. Nyaga said. “It has come to this.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 45

 

Later that day, I got to see Plexibots in action. Plexibots are neat little computerized bot drones that crawled every square inch of the park dome inside and out. They were another in the long line of mind-boggling technology we had at our disposal here at OSCAR.

George Skerski and his team stationed the bots on the inside wall. Dan and his SCUBA team placed a matching set of bots along the corresponding outside wall. The bots were programed to find a specific partner and communicate while they each scanned the surface of the Plexiglas in tandem, inside and out. They synched up, then crawled along the two surfaces of the dome, inspecting for cracks or damage. George followed the progress on three large computer screens. The bots reminded me of so many ants crawling, reaching out to touch and probe with their slender legs, making weird, tonal clicks while they worked.

            Several bots working near the ceiling of the park dome suddenly sparked brilliant, blue-white light that hurt my eyes when I looked directly at it.

            “They’re mending,” George announced. “They’ve found minor cracks. Not very deep. A quarter of an inch, but cracks, nevertheless. The bots synchronize their movements, and using electrical welding currents, fuse the Plexiglas to repair any damage.”

            Crewmembers came to watch. Zach brought the kids too, and they spread out all over the park to see the bots in action. Liam waved to me from the other side of a big tree, peering through binoculars. The Plexibots worked all afternoon and way into the night, long after most of us left the park dome for our own apartments.

Early the next morning, George gave the all-clear signal over our comms.

            “Good morning. Skerski One here. Ah, heck. Just call me George. Wanted to let you know that we sustained only minor, minimal surface damage to the Plexiglas at the peak of the park dome. The bots made an initial assessment, repaired a few minor spots, and have completed a second assessment. The dome is as strong or stronger than the day it was built. All is well.”

            All is well.

            I remembered Martin’s threat on the big screen in the Communication Center. How could anyone say all was well when we had a psycho trying to sabotage our facility? The first strike was only a threat.

            What would Martin do next?

            We didn’t have to wait long to find out. SCUBA One was scheduled to check the oxygen stations and make sure all equipment was in good shape and the oxygen tanks were full. The oxygen stations were the little houses tethered to the ocean floor set out in all four directions from the OSCAR facility, 16 in all. Julian had shown me one the day we went to visit the dolphins. If divers went on a particularly long dive, which was sometimes required for data, mapping, and reconnaissance, they might need to replace low oxygen tanks for full ones to help them get back to Ocean Entry. Computers kept track of how many tanks needed replacing, but it was up to human divers to substitute the empty tanks for full ones. This meant swimming out in all directions from our home base towing full tanks of oxygen and towing home empty tanks.

            I had to work Medical, so I didn’t get to go on the dive, but the rest of the team buddied up in partners and were assigned specific oxygen stations to check. This was a routine assignment, easy to complete in an hour or two.

            The first distress call came midmorning. Julian pinged me to come to Central Command ASAP. I grabbed my medical bag and took off at a dead run. I was there in under two minutes, so I heard most of the conversation between Julian and Dan.

            “I’ve been shot with a spear gun. Martin Kaplan. It was Martin Kaplan.”

            My medical-self took over.

            “Where are you shot? Can you describe the wound?”

            “Yeah. I’m shot through my upper thigh. The spear went through and is sticking out the other side.” His voice was full of agony, his cries were gut-wrenching.

            Stay professional, Violet. Ignore his suffering for now. Tune it out.

            “Did it hit bone?”

            “I can’t tell.”

            “Bleeding?”

            “Yeah, bleeding a lot. The water around me is all red.”

            TR Washington and Taylor immediately headed for Ocean Entry to get to Dan at Oxygen Station Nine.

            “Who is with you?” Julian asked Dan.

            “Fleur.”

            “Okay, let me speak with Fleur.”

            “I’m here. It’s just like Dan said. He’s shot through the upper thigh. The spear is sticking out both sides of his leg.” She paused. “And Julian, we’ve got company. I’ve already spotted five hammerheads circling. More are arriving.”

            “The blood is drawing them in. Can you stay inside the station?”

            “That’s where we are.”

            “We don’t want to antagonize those sharks, but the important thing is to get you both to safety. Washington and Taylor are on their way with scooters. Hang tight till they get there.”

            He turned to me. “Violet? What do you recommend?”

            “Fleur, do you have anything to make a tourniquet with?” I said.

            “There’s rubber tubing here in the station. You know, for the SCUBA tanks.”

            “That would be great. Don’t try to take out the spear. It needs to stay in place until we can control Dan’s bleeding. Place the rubber tubing above the wound. Tie it around his thigh snuggly but not too tight. You should be able to get your fingers under there. Do that now.”

            I was on my own this time. I didn’t have Dad or Fernandez or Ethan. But I had watched many procedure videos, and several were on gunshot wounds. A spear gun was a gun shot with a twist. Most gunshot wounds were not under the ocean with the patient bleeding out into shark-infested water. My heart was thumping, but I managed to stay calm.

            We heard a loud thump.

            “What was that?” Julian said.

            “It’s a hammerhead. I can see them out the bubble window. They’re bumping the station. Please hurry.”

            I tried to keep Fleur focused.

“Keep Dan awake and alert. Salt water is our friend in this case because it actually helps disinfect the wound.”

We heard two more deep thumps.

            “Fleur,” Julian said. “Is Martin still there? Can you see him?”

            “No, he left after we went inside.”

            “Did you see him leave?”

            “Yes, through the window.”

            “But you’re sure it was him?”

            “It was him,” Dan said. His voice was ragged. “He ambushed me, Julian. I know it was him. I saw him, clear as day. He shot me from six feet away.”

            “We’d just arrived at the station,” Fleur said. “I was unlocking the door with my comm. Dan was right behind me. Suddenly I heard him cry out. When I turned to look, there was Martin Kaplan pointing a spear gun at us. Julian, he was smiling. Without warning, Martin shot Dan, and the impact drove him back into me and pinned us against the door for a second. It all happened so fast. Martin then started reloading his spear gun. I knew he was going to shoot again. Lucky for me, I’d already unlocked the station, and I managed to get the door open, drag Dan in, and lock it behind us.”

            I would have been part of this swim if I didn’t have to be in Medical today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 46

 

Julian pinged Washington’s comm. “Be advised that Martin Kaplan left the scene but could be anywhere. If he saw Dan and Fleur checking the station, he might go after other stations. Please be on the lookout. Martin is armed and dangerous. There are also a number of hammerhead sharks circling OS9 because of blood in the water.”

            Julian had barely stopped speaking when the second call came in.

“Mayday. Mayday. This is Palmer at OS7.”

Oxygen Station Seven.

“My partner, Miller, has been shot with a spear gun. Please help us.”

            There was no mistaking the panic in Palmer’s voice.

            “Take over, Violet,” Julian said. “I’ve got to warn the other stations. Persennia, send another Security team out to OS7 for immediate evac.”

            This couldn’t be happening, but it was. A second shooting.

            “This is Violet Coltrane, Palmer. Tell me about the wound. Where did the spear enter Miller’s body?”

            “In her chest. It’s deep.”

            Her chest. It’s deep.

            “I understand. Don’t remove the spear or move it in any way. Help is on the way. Are you inside the station?”

            “Yes. He shot her outside. I brought her in here because I didn’t know what else to do.”

            “That was exactly the right thing to do. Is she bleeding?”

            “No, not really.”

            “Okay, try to keep her in a sitting position with her head up. Can you do that?”

            “Yeah, yeah. I think so.”

            I pinged Ethan’s comm, gave him the news, and asked him to prepare for one and possibly two surgeries. I pinged Epstein and Zach and asked if they could assist. I gave instructions to have things ready for a blood transfusion for Dan and possibly Miller. OSCAR had done its homework. Every person already had an individualized backup blood supply in the freezer for just such an emergency. I asked the team to place blood in the warmers so it would be ready as needed.

            “Call Dad,” I said. “Fill him in and have him on standby if possible.”

            Dan arrived 13 minutes later, pale from loss of blood and shock. Ethan and Zach had a gurney on standby at Ocean Entry, and Washington and Taylor placed Dan carefully on it, taking extra care not to move the spear any more than possible. Even so, Dan’s screams of pain rocketed to my core.

            I started an IV immediately and hooked up the thawed, warmed blood. Techniques and protocols swirled through my brain. Dan had lost a lot of blood, which meant that putting him totally under would be risky. Anesthetics were dangerous even in the best of circumstances with professionals administering them. I was a veterinarian’s inexperienced daughter.  

            Ethan, Epstein, and I scrubbed our hands and arms, gowned, and put on sterile gloves and masks. Dan tried to stifle his cries, but he was obviously in tremendous pain.

            Epstein helped me cover Dan with a sterile sheet that had an opening for the wound site. I added a piggyback IV and gave Dan some Kahnophine, a synthetic morphine that alleviated pain but kept the patient coherent enough to answer questions.

            “Dan, this should help with pain immediately.”

            “Violet, you beautiful, beautiful person,” Dan said. “Help with pain is good.”

            “Let’s look at your wound with the InternaScan.”

            Ethan worked the computer while I moved the wand between the entry and exit wounds. Miraculously, the spear had missed bone. A broken or shattered femur would have been disastrous.

            “Good news. The spear missed your femur completely. Even better, it didn’t nick your femoral artery. There’s been quite a lot of bleeding, but that’s from torn muscle at the entrance and exit wounds.”

            Dan grinned. “Isn’t that nice.” His voice was slurred from the Kahnophine. We all smiled.

            The communication screen flashed on. It was Dad. I filled him in quickly.

            “No bone, no femoral artery? That’s terrific. That’s the best news in a situation like this. How will you proceed?”

            I was so focused on his words I was almost unaware of anyone other than Dad. “I’m going to remove the spear tip with a Hyke’s cutter and gently reverse the spear out the entrance wound.”

            “Precisely,” Dad said. “Remember that Dalmatian who fell from the fire truck onto the five-foot rebar? Same presentation.” He paused. “But be sure to sterilize the spear shaft that’s sticking out of the exit wound. In the ocean, salt water would have taken care of bacteria, but now the wound is airborne, and you can’t risk infection. Even though the shaft didn’t penetrate bone, it’s close to bone.”

            I almost fainted from relief. I wouldn’t have thought of sterilizing the shaft. Thank God for Dad’s expertise. I carefully cleansed the spear shaft, swabbing and cleansing the exit and entrance wounds.

            Ethan appeared with several Hevador patches and secured them over both wounds. Bless him. We worked together so well now we could almost read each other’s thoughts.

            “Dan, these patches are going to alleviate all pain on the outside of your wounds. That’s the good news. Then Ethan is going to cut off –“

            Dan sat bolt upright. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “No cutting off! I need my leg.” He slurred his words like he was drunk.

            “No one is going to cut off your leg,” I said. “We’re going to use a Hyke’s cutter to remove the spear tip. A Hyke’s cuts in concentric circles and doesn’t cause vibrations along the spear shaft.”

            My hours of watching procedures was once again paying off. A few weeks ago I’d never heard of a Hyke’s cutter.

            Zach gently pushed Dan back down on the table. “It’s okay, Buddy.”

            Ethan rotated the Hyke’s cutter along the shaft that was sticking out and cut off the spear tip. “Leave the rest of the shaft,” Dad said. “It’s tempting to cut if off at skin level, but sometimes you run into trouble that way.”

“Dan, you might feel movement in your thigh. Just remember, it’s not pain, it’s just movement.”

“Movement,” Dan said. “Movement is good.”

I pulled gently.

“Help me,” Dan screamed. “They’re cutting my leg off.” My stomach clenched with dread. There was nothing for it but to keep pulling, in spite of the pain Dan felt.

 The shaft resisted, but I kept steady pressure. My forearms quivered. Dan thrashed about.

“Dan, lie still.”

Epstein cradled Dan’s head. “Almost done,” she said.

Ethan placed his hands next to mine and added his strength. The metal rod slid slowly through the muscle and tissue and came free. My legs were jelly.

“Are you done?” Dan said.

“Done.”

“Thank God,” Dan whispered. “Thank God.”

.

“No stitches,” Dad said. “Cleanse entry and exit and bandage. Follow with an antibiotic protocol.”

Epstein and Zach bandaged Dan’s leg under Dad’s guidance.

“Now give him a dog biscuit and put him in a comfy cage.”

Vet humor. You gotta love it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 47

 

Epstein and Ethan put Dan to bed and placed a leg frame under the sheets and blanket to keep anything from touching his wound. They gave him more medication so he was pain free.

Dan was taken care of, but we didn’t have time to rest. The second security team blew in with Miller. I had them place her on a second surgical table.

“What’s this?” Dad said. “Oh dear God. Another one?”

I took a deep breath and put on fresh gloves and a fresh gown. I knew not to cause cross contamination. Epstein was an expert at tying my gown quickly.

Miller, Lexi Miller. She was on SCUBA Two and sometimes ate with Epstein and her friends, so I knew her, had eaten dinner with her. A spear was embedded deep in the left side of her chest, and she was gasping for breath. She was a pitiful sight. Lexi had gained some consciousness in the last few minutes and was trying to speak.

“Wha—uh—”

Her words came out as whispers, punctuated with blood and bubbles coming from her mouth, and it was impossible to understand what she was saying. We started oxygen, an IV, and blood pressure. When I leaned over to secure her oxygen line, she reached for my hand. Her eyes were glassy.

“Hey, Lexi. We’re doing all we can to help you. You’ve been shot with a spear gun. Can you imagine anything so crazy? But it’s going to be okay. You’ll be fine. Please know that we are doing our best.”

Somewhere inside me the switch was thrown.

“Thaw and warm reserve blood. At least three units.”

“Get the camera over here.”

“Dad? Can you see?”

“Ethan, give her Kahnophine and the twilight sleep meds. I don’t want her feeling any pain.”

I needed to consult with Dad. I needed to know how we were going to fix this.

Lexi moaned and clutched at her upper abdomen. Ethan gave her an injection of Kahnophine. She quieted.

“Dad?”

He looked grave. “This is going to be touch and go, Violet. She has suffered severe trauma to the chest. We really need a thoracic surgeon. You cannot simply back this spear out like the other. There is a wide, sharp, arrow-like spearhead deep in her lungs, I imagine.”

“But what can we do? There has to be something. We don’t have a thoracic surgeon. We only have me and you.” My voice was angry, desperate. “Tell me what to do.”

“Honey, if this were a large dog, we would be looking at immediate euthanasia. The internal damage that has been done is probably beyond the capability to save the patient.”

I wanted to slap him. “Dad! This isn’t a dog. It’s Lexi Miller. She’s a friend and a crewmember.”

“Of course. I know that. I’m just trying to prepare you that there is very little chance of saving this patient.”

“Okay, I get it. I have to do something, though. I can’t just give up. What should I do? I don’t know how to operate on this kind of wound.”

Dad rubbed the back of his neck. He took a deep breath and let it out, then another one. “Okay,” he said. “You’ll need a thoracic surgery kit and a rib spreader.”

“I’m on it,” Ethan said.

“Call Fernandez. Tell her to get a thoracic surgeon on the line,” I said to anyone listening. I wanted to give Lexi Miller the best chance of living.

In the meantime, we prepped Lexi for chest surgery. We cut off her wet suit and covered her with a sterile sheet with an opening for the surgery site. I started an IV and hung saline. Ethan, Zach, Epstein and I gowned, gloved, and masked. Ethan swabbed Lexi’s chest with Betadine swabs. Then he carefully cleaned the shaft of the spear that was sticking out.

“Should I use the Hyke’s cutter?”

“Yes,” Dad said. “I’d remove all but the last 6-7 inches. Leave that. You’ll need something to manipulate and pull with.”

“I watched the video for the rib spreader. I’m not saying I can do it, but I watched the video,” Thank goodness for that tiny bit of hope.

“Do you think we should try Hevador Patches?”

“That won’t be enough. We’re going to have to go through her ribs. Dad, what should we do about anesthesia?”

“I know the Propofol protocol.” It was Fernandez.

Epstein must have called her and put her on the other screen. I was so grateful. “Thank God. Please help us.”

Fernandez needed to know Lexi’s weight, but there was no time to remove her from the table and weigh her. “I think she weighs a little less than I do, and I weigh 120 pounds.”

“How much less?”

“Maybe five pounds or so.”

Fernandez talked Ethan through the Propofol protocol. We didn’t have an anesthesiologist, but this was life or death. She had to take into consideration the Kahnophine and the twilight sleep meds Ethan had given earlier and mathematically work out how much Propofol to administer. She and Dad conferred. It was dicey at best.

“I can’t be sure,” Fernandez said. “This is an educated guess.”

We were so flying by the seat of our pants, but it was either us—our bumbling, fumbling team of neophytes—or nothing. There was no one else to help Lexi Miller but us.

“Did you get a thoracic surgeon?” I said. I needed Fernandez to say yes.

“I tried, but the one contact I knew died of the virus two weeks ago. I have calls in to two others.”

“Blood’s ready,” Epstein said.

I hung the first unit of warmed blood.

We heard gurgling from Lexi’s throat.

“You can’t wait,” Dad said. “It’s now or never.”

We used the InternaScan and saw that the spearhead had gone through Lexi’s chest and embedded itself deeply in a back rib.

I wanted to sob. I felt so inadequate. We were like television actors pretending to do surgery, only our patient was real, and she would die without our help.

“Violet, there’s no easy way around this surgery. Make a deep horizontal cut, insert the rib spreader, and crank it open so you can remove the spear tip and shaft. Be ready for bleeding. Someone should be watching her blood pressure second by second.”

“I’m on it,” Zach said. We listened to the slow beats of the monitor.

With Ethan’s assistance, I made the deep incision between the ribs with the cauterizing blade. He inserted the rib spreader and cranked. Lexi’s ribs easily spread apart, until I could see the tip of the spear below.

“Violet, you’ll have to use clamps on any blood sources that start bleeding when you remove the spear. Clamp them off first, then suture. Then, pull the spear up and out.”

I pulled, but nothing happened. I pulled again, concentrating with all my might. Epstein leaned in and wiped my forehead with a sterile cloth. I wasn’t even aware that I was pouring sweat.

The problem was, with the spearhead stuck in the back rib, I needed more force. Ethan pulled with me, slow and steady, rocking it back and forth, until we felt the tip jerk free. Ethan lifted it out. I called for more light.

I peered into Lexi’s chest cavity. My face went cold. Her chest was filled with blood. She was bleeding internally.

“Hang another unit of blood.”

“Is she bleeding?” Dad asked. “Use the suction if the chest is filled with blood. You don’t want the lungs to shut down. Find the source.”

Ethan suctioned quickly. “I still need more light.” Epstein stepped in with a bright flashlight and focused the beam above Lexi’s chest.

In the brighter light, I saw a tear in the left lung. A blood vessel that had been pierced by the spear was pouring blood with each beat of her heart.

“Blood loss first,” Dad said. Clamp and watch to see if there is a secondary blood source.”

“Okay. I think that’s it.”

“Suture the vessel. You’ve done that for me before. Remember when Emma couldn’t be there to help with Donibelle? You stepped in like a champ.” Donibelle, a pigmy donkey, had been hit by a car and had to have surgery to stop internal bleeding.

“Now suture the lung tear. Use gelatin stitches.”

Epstein must be a mind reader. She opened a pack without touching them and presented them for me to use. She also noticed the second unit of blood was out and hung another in its place.

I sewed the tear in Lexi’s lung, carefully tightening each gelatin stitch. Her heart was still in the pericardial sack, but I could see it beating. A human heart. It was surreal to have my hands inside of another human being, fighting to repair the terrible damage of the spear. Maybe there was hope that this would do the trick, that Lexi could pull ahead and get well.

The beats on the blood pressure monitor suddenly sped up, galloping like a horse at top speed. We all heard it.

“What’s happening?”

“Cardiac arrest,” Fernandez said.

“Oh no. What should I do?” I felt my own heart thumping wildly.

“Ethan,” Dad said. “Spread the ribs farther apart. Don’t worry. They’re flexible. Violet, reach in to the chest again. Through the pericardial sack, press against the heart and squeeze. Then release. Then squeeze again. We would normally do this with two hands, but you don’t have room. Think CPR.”

I did as Dad directed, squeezing and releasing Lexi’s heart. We heard the beats on the monitor slow down. I continued to do the internal CPR as the minutes ticked by. I was willing to do this as long as it took if it meant Lexi could live. The desire for her to live gripped me with a fierceness unlike any I had ever known.

Squeeze, release. Squeeze, release. Squeeze, release.

After a while, Dad said, “Okay Violet. Slowly remove your hand.”

I listened for the monitor. Lexi’s feeble heartbeats were barely audible.

I panicked. “Should I massage again?”

Dad’s voice was grim. “No. The heart is too weak.”

“What then?”

The beats on the monitor were slow, slow. I looked from Dad to Fernandez. Nothing.

“What then?” Lexi’s lungs were no longer rising and falling. There was no gurgling in her throat.

“I’m not giving up,” I said. I reached back in between the rib spreader and grasped Lexi’s heart. I felt a faint quiver. “It’s moving.” Hope surged in me.

I pressed and released, pressed and released, and pressed and released. Each time the quivering grew less, until her heart was completely still.

The monitor flat-lined. The long tone sounded, a grim proclamation, until Zach finally reached over and turned it off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 48

 

Lexi Miller was dead. Epstein’s face was wet with tears. I was in shock.

“Dad?”

“We can’t save them all, Vi. You tried harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. She came in with so much damage. It just wasn’t possible to save her,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Chica,” Fernandez said. She was wiping tears. “The way you tried to save her makes me very proud of you.”

Ethan put his hand on my shoulder. Zach wrapped his arms around Epstein.

To my credit, I didn’t fall apart. From somewhere deep within, I pulled up strength I didn’t know I had. “Time of death, 12:07.”

Everyone stared at me. Right now I didn’t need their sympathy or anything that would cut the thin strand of self-control. “Thank you for your help,” I said. “Ethan and I will take it from here. We have some things to do to prepare Lexi for burial.”

For burial. To prepare Lexi for burial. Who just said that? It couldn’t be me.

When the others left, I drew the curtains around the surgical suite. I called Dr. Nyaga and asked for someone to bring Lexi Miller’s formal uniform, hairbrush, and makeup.

“I just heard. I am heartbroken, of course. Thank you for all you did to try to save her. Epstein is gathering her things and will be there soon.”

Ethan and I removed the rib spreader and closed Lexi’s chest with our best sutures. We washed her body and shampooed her hair. We bandaged her chest so the wound itself could not be seen. When Epstein arrived, Ethan busied himself checking Dan’s wound and going to get him some lunch.

“Get soup,” I said. “No heavy meals till tomorrow.”

In complete silence, Epstein and I dressed Lexi, blow-dried and arranged her hair, and put on her make up. Epstein had brought pale pink polish for her nails. When we finished, she looked lovely. Even so, this was a solemn and curious task for Epstein and me. Lexi was a girl we had seen at breakfast just that morning. Epstein had kidded her about something silly, and the two of them had giggled like schoolgirls. 

Julian arrived at Medical. “Violet, what a blow. I don’t have any words to express how sorry I am. Thank you for all you did to try to save her. Epstein, I know she was a good friend. I mourn with you. I’ve already called her family. Her parents are devastated.”

He hesitated. “Violet, could her parents see her?”

“Of course. Epstein and I just got her ready. You can use either of these screens.”

“I’ll make a conference call in a few moments, then. You and Epstein need rest. I’m sure this was off the charts stressful. I’ll have Security transport Lexi after the call with her parents. We’ll have her lie in honor in the rotunda for 24 hours. Friends and crewmembers who want to can see her one last time.”

There seemed to be nothing left to do. Epstein left, and Ethan was taking Dan’s vitals. I was numb. A girl had died today. A girl I knew. A girl I knew who I tried to save with my hand in her chest around her heart. I hoped I could save her. I had told her she would be okay. Such a letdown. Such a loss.

For the first time since it had happened, I allowed myself to think of Martin Kaplan, the man who had murdered Lexi Miller. For no reason other than to bully us, he had shot and killed her, a girl who loved the ocean as much as any of us did. Anger washed up and down me. No, make that fury. This man had to be stopped. At that moment I felt like I could pull the trigger myself.

I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to see Liam. I didn’t want to see Julian. I didn’t want to chat with Zach or Epstein. Without planning to, really, I ended up at the park dome, hoping it would be empty. It was.

I took off my shoes and socks. I needed to feel the grass and the earth beneath my feet. I needed to wade in the creek and feel the cool water. I walked all around, marveling again that there were real birds flitting about, real squirrels scampering for an acorn or nut, real koi swimming in the pond. How had the Navy known these things would bring us such joy? How had they made this happen? I knew it had taken eight years, supposedly, to build everything, but their attention to detail was so impressive, they had to be geniuses. How had they transported giant oak trees and made them thrive? How had they created a running creek with tiny minnows and a hill for kids to slide down on cardboard?

I eventually ended up in front of my climbing tree. Its fat trunk was bald like it had been climbed by generations of children. The tree called to me as I knew it would, and soon I was reaching for handholds and pushing myself higher with my feet. I found the widest branch and sat down, nestled next to the trunk with my legs hanging down over the side. Here I was above it all: the virus, the insane murderer, and an innocent girl whose greatest happiness was swimming with her friends in the beauty of the coral reef.

Without drama or hysterics, I knew I was different now, changed forever. I had crossed over to some place important. I didn’t exactly know what the difference was, but I had wrestled with Death and Death had won. It was a sobering experience, losing to Death. I would never again look at life with the same carefree attitude. How did real medical professionals do this? How did they deal with the shock and finality of death? For the millionth time, I circled back to the fact that I didn’t want this job, hadn’t volunteered for this job, had signed up for SCUBA One so I could be out in the ocean. But yet, this was my job, and I had to deal with it. I remembered Fernandez’s words: “None of us wants to be responsible, but now is the time when we have to step up. Everyone here needs you.”

I thought of Lexi Miller. She was one year older than I was. Earlier this morning she had put on her wet suit and went out to do a routine maintenance job with her buddy, Palmer. Now she was dressed in her formal uniform lying in honor in the rotunda for the rest of the OSCAR community to come gawk at her. She would not swim again or have a boyfriend or a little house of her own. She would not graduate and throw her cap high into the air. All because Martin Kaplan wanted to punish us for not letting his family in to the OSCAR facility, a selfish act that would’ve ended up killing us all.

Life was not fair, but then I already knew that. I lost my mother when I was just 12 years old and Liam was one. He would never feel her swing him around the room or sing to him at bedtime or dry his tears when he was hurt. I would no longer watch her get dressed for dancing or make red beans and rice or have long talks with me in the hammock. Pavel had died of the virus, and that happy chapter of laughter and competition was closed to me forever. Life was not fair, but you had to make the best of it. We had lost Lexi, but we would make the best of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 49

 

That evening, we had a meeting in the armory. Until this matter with Martin Kaplan was settled, anyone who ventured out in the ocean would need to be armed for his own safety. SCUBA One and SCUBA Two, the special task force, and anyone connected to Security was asked to come to the meeting.

Washington and his team introduced us to an impressive array of personal safety devices. One was called “The Octopus.” When the trigger was pulled, The Octopus shot out long, tiny arms that squirted ink in all directions. One moment an attacker (or shark) could see you (or smell you), the next, the water was pitch black for 30 feet around, and had its own confusing scent for sharks. The special ink stayed in the water for at least 15 minutes.

Another weapon was called “Spiderman,” or, “Spidey” for short. If you shot an attacker with it, a sticky web surrounded him and made it impossible to swim. The web stayed sticky even in ocean water, so the more he struggled, the more caught up he might be.

And the hits kept coming. There was a neuro-toxin dart gun that would stop a human attacker cold and keep him motionless for 15 minutes or until an antidote was given. As a joke, they called it, “Everlasting Gobstopper.” To impress us with how quickly it worked, Washington asked for volunteers. There were none. “Taylor, you’re up.”

Taylor said, “Oh man, why do I always have to be the—” and Washington pulled the trigger. Taylor’s mouth stopped speaking. He remained standing, but completely immobile. We had some fun laughing at his expense. Dan waved his hands in front of Taylor’s eyes. No response. Epstein gave him a kiss on the cheek. Nothing. When Washington gave him the antidote, Taylor said, “guinea pig?” We fell over each other laughing. I’d never seen anything like it. It would be just the thing to use if you had to stop an attacker.

“Wear bubble helmets,” Washington said. “They’re made of specially formulated polycarbonate, and are practically impenetrable. And Kevlar vests for your core. Protect your head and core at all costs.”

There was even a Invisibility Cloak much like the one from Harry Potter. It was a camouflage limestone shell, and It started out as a tiny, folded up cloth square, small enough to wear strapped to your leg. But with one pull of a cord, it sprang open and you could get inside or underneath. The outside was designed to look exactly like a small limestone outcropping, so within a few seconds you could suddenly become part of the ocean floor, all but invisible to your enemy.

Then came the more serious weapons.

I’d never really been around guns, so I didn’t know what to expect when it came to deadly force. However, any knowledge might come in handy when I least expected it, so I determined to learn about every choice. It was surprising that there was such a variety, but Washington explained that the Navy had prepared for every scenario. OSCAR had been designed as the ultimate survival center if things got bad up on Terra Firma, and they didn’t know if for some reason we might be attacked by another country, or rogue forces, or in this case, a disgruntled former crewmember. The Navy had planned every minute detail they could imagine, and the evidence was all around us.

“I’m going to go over weapons we would need in the ocean as well as weapons we would need in case there was a breech in the OSCAR facility, itself.”

A breech of the OSCAR facility. What a chilling thought. It was bad enough Martin Kaplan was attacking us out in the ocean, but the thought of him entering one of our domes was terrifying. I’d seen firsthand what he could do. He might decide to kill us all. I immediately thought of Liam. Martin would have to come through me, first.  

There were in-ocean grenade launchers that fired 20 mm grenades, shock wave launchers, semi-automatic dart guns, Neptune’s Eel (a metal trident that sends a directional electric charge) and a maser (highly focused microwave amplification). When I heard and saw what a maser could do to the human body, I shuddered. There were also rifles and handguns for the most extreme circumstances.

Our special task force would now patrol the surrounding sea in mini-submarines equipped with torpedoes. We didn’t want trouble, but If Martin or his sons came into our area armed and on the offense, they would be dealt with in a severe manner. Martin had already taken one person’s life and severely injured another one who almost bled to death.

“He called again this afternoon,” Julian said. “He bragged about shooting Dan and Lexi. When I explained that Lexi had died in surgery, he said, ‘Dude, I warned you, didn’t I?”

“We have to be ready for any scenario,” Washington said. “This dude has picked a fight. My daddy taught me not to start one, but if someone else starts it and you can’t avoid it, get in there and end it big time.”

From a medical standpoint, I knew we were not equipped or savvy enough to repair any devastating wounds these weapons might generate.

“Guys, try not to get injured, okay? If Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall,” I said, “I don’t know if we can put you back together again.”

“We get it, Coltrane. If anything happens, we’ll try to make sure it’s the other guy that gets it and not us.”

“Man, if we’re taking heat, I want Coltrane on my side. Did you see her roundhouse?”

“Twice, Dude.”

“I wouldn’t want to throw down with her, that’s for sure.”

“Girl’s got a punch.”

“She had Dr. Nyaga’s back. I didn’t see anyone else jump up and—”

Julian waved a hand. “Lay off. Violence among the crew isn’t good.”

The chatter stopped, but their smiles said, “Want to bet?”

Later that week, something wonderful happened, and I needed wonderful. First of all, it was Liam’s 9th birthday. I was the closest thing to a mother he had, and I knew everything about that kid, like his favorite snack was to mix peanut butter with honey and eat it with a spoon. He cried every time we watched E.T. He was deathly afraid of spiders. But somehow, in all of that knowledge, I failed because I forgot it was his birthday. Forgot. Totally.

However, Dr. Nyaga did not forget. Even though Liam was technically a guest here, she had gathered all the information she could while Dad was here and had entered Liam’s birthday into the computer.

After supper, Epstein asked everyone to stay in the dining hall for a special dessert. Chef Sal brought out a cake with nine candles. When Chef set the cake in front of him, Liam’s eyes were as big as silver dollars. Everyone sang Happy Birthday and shared cake and ice cream. My kid brother’s 9th birthday was under the ocean. Who gets to claim that?

But Dr. Nyaga had more.

“We have in our midst a young man who came to us by accident. Through no fault of his own, he was not able to return to Terra Firma. But that has left him in limbo. Up until now, he’s been an unofficial guest. Tonight, we want to instate Mr. Liam Aubrey Coltrane, as an official OSCAR crewmember.”

The crowd responded with applause and raucous cheers.

“We have a gift for you, Liam, from your OSCAR family,” Dr. Nyaga said. She handed him a long box wrapped in shiny paper. He tore it open and lifted the lid. I will remember the look on his little face as long as I live.

“Well, show us,” Judy Skerski said.

Liam turned the box around. It was a kid-sized OSCAR uniform, and a pair of regulation black boots.

“I’m official!”

I couldn’t imagine how Persennia Nyaga got her hands on a uniform and boots that would fit Liam, but somehow she worked her magic. It made up for the fact that I had forgotten his birthday. I didn’t beat myself up about it, though. Life was coming apart at the seams, and we were all caught up in the craziness. Chaos was the new normal.

Liam had to try on the uniform before bedtime, of course. He turned and preened and admired himself in front of the mirror. I thought he was the cutest thing alive. So did he.

Dad called.

“Liam, old man. If my calculations are correct, you are now nine years old. Happy Birthday.”

“Dad, I’m official.” He told the story of Dr. Nyaga’s making him an official part of OSCAR and the uniform and boots, chattering like a magpie, mixing up all the details so it was hard to follow. Dad listened like it was the most interesting story in the world. I watched the two of them, one yackety-yacking and the other watching with proud eyes and the right responses in all the right places. At the end, Dad put his hand up to the camera and Liam put his hand up to the camera. Dad swallowed hard. Liam was strangely quiet. My heart ached with all the what-might-have-beens. But, it was good.

Even separated by an ocean, we were family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 50

 

I had patients to tend to. Dan was recovering in Medical, and I wanted to make sure there was no infection in his wounds. I needed to check Monty’s nose and remove the last of the gel packing. George and Judy Skerski came to prepare Lexi Miller’s body for cremation.

            “We don’t bury at sea?” I said. I hadn’t really thought about it before.

            “No, the water here is too shallow and clear,” George said. “The Navy felt even if we towed a body several miles away, it would be a risk that someone might see the cadaver on an ocean swim. Cremation leaves nothing to chance, it’s hygienic, and respectful.”

            Judy said, “George and I volunteered for this job when we joined OSCAR. We have a burial kit. We’ll wrap her first.” The two of them went into the curtained off area where Lexi had been placed after lying in honor in the rotunda for 24 hours. They wrapped her body mummy-style with long white bandage rolls over her official uniform.

            “Would you like to come with us?” George said. “The crematorium is at the nuclear plant.”

            I hesitated. Did I want to go with them? Absolutely not. But in this mixed up life of ours you never knew when vital knowledge might be valuable. I said yes.

            The nuclear plant was off site in its own smaller dome. Only specialists came here to monitor the machinery and make necessary adjustments. This dome was where oxygen was made and other processes that required atomic energy.

            The crematorium was in a small concrete room within another concrete room, and it looked a little like an enclosed tanning booth. Judy and George lifted Lexi’s wrapped body and placed her inside as gently as if she were still living. They closed the lid and secured it shut with eight different latches. We went into the outer room, and George programmed the computer to begin the process. That was it.

            “This is much more specialized than a crematorium on Terra Firma,” George said. “There, loved ones pick up the ashes. Here, being that the crematorium is powered by atomic energy, there will be nothing left. Nothing.”

            It was sobering. Lexi Miller had been a vital part of the OSCAR community, and now, with the stroke of a few keys on a keyboard, she would be reduced to nothing. I had tried to save her life, even held her heart in my hand as its final beats grew dimmer. But I had been filling a bucket that had a giant hole in the bottom. No matter how desperately I worked, no matter what I tried, nothing could stop the death of Lexi Miller.

I was familiar with the cremation process because Dad had a small crematorium for dogs, cats, and small animals that had to be euthanized or who had passed way from old age or diseases. Some owners were too sad or too old to bury their pets at home, so they appreciated Dad’s professional cremation services.

            Later that afternoon, I did not want to be alone. I wanted to be surrounded by friends and laughter and funny stories and chaos. I would have liked to have spent some time with Julian, but he was busy, always needed here or there by one person or another. I needed a diversion to keep me from thinking about Lexi Miller passing from life to death when she was so young and alive.

            Wingers from Ag came through for me in the most unexpected way. He pinged everyone’s comm.

“I have a bumper crop of the sweetest, most delicious watermelons. I propose a watermelon-eating contest. The winner will be given full bragging rights and will be carried in to the dining room tonight on a wooden plank. The competition will start at the Octo-Pie in 30 minutes. If you think you’ve got what it takes, come compete for the title.”

I love watermelon. I’m also competitive. A contest was just what I needed to lift my spirits. Lots of us must have felt the same way because everyone and his brother showed up. The Pie was jammin’ with eaters and spectators talking smack and shouting jeers. Money changed hands. It was ugly in a good way.

Dan blew in. “Make way for the champion!”

“I will when I see one.”

“We who are about to die salute you.”

“Watch and weep. You don’t know me and watermelon.”

“I feel sorry for all of you,” TR said. “You fools challenging me to a watermelon eating contest? Get out my way.”

“My money’s on TR,” Dr. Nyaga said.

“Yeah, but who could carry him into the dining hall on a wooden plank?”

And so on. There was standing room only, with people pressed into the walls and wedged between side tables, some on the floor and others lucky enough to have scored a chair. The contestants were kids, SCUBA divers, ag-heads, maintenance, cooks, a chef, one coffee barista, a barber, two from Medical, and Mercer from Central Command. We took our places at the tables lined up and down the center of the Pie.

Wingers raised his hand for quiet.

Suddenly, Spaghetti Western music boomed over the PA. The doors of the Pie slammed open. A lone bandolero stood in the doorway wearing a serape and a cowboy hat. pulled down low. He had a thin cigar between his lips and a fierce squint.

“I hear there’s a watermelon eating contest in town. I’m here to win it.”

Zach McGann knew how to make an entrance.

Wingers placed watermelon wedges in front of us. He blew a whistle, and the game was on. The watermelon was cold and sweet. We tore it up while the crowd egged us on. The trash talk was bold. We tried to hang in there, but one by one we fell by the wayside. When it came down to it, the contest was between Judy, Washington, and Dan. How could petite little Judy compete against those two? Where was she putting it all?

“You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din,” Dan said.

“I could eat more, but I’m about to wet myself,” Washington said.

“Hang in there TR. I’ve got a 20 riding on you,” Persennia Nyaga said.

But in the end, Judy ate the last bite and was declared the winner. Dan and Washington wanted to boost her up on their shoulders and parade her around the Pie, but Judy, laughing, ran for the bathroom.

Everyone’s comm pinged at once.

“Be advised. Martin Kaplan and two others have been spotted by drone camera one–half mile out. They are armed and driving scooters.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 51

 

Dan and TR Washington took off running with Security and the special task force right behind. Julian, Epstein, Zach, Ethan, Mercer and I followed Dr. Nyaga to Central Command. Mercer slid into his spot in front of a bank of computers.

“Washington, do you copy?” Julian spoke into the mic.

“I think they’ll need a minute,” Persennia said.

“Of course. What am I thinking?”

“I think you’re thinking about stopping trouble before it starts.”

“You know he called earlier.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I was on my way to tell you, when Wingers called the watermelon eating contest.”

“Did he threaten again?”

“Oh yeah. His exact words were, ‘I hope you’ve enjoyed having fresh water.’ That’s why I had drone cameras scouring the entire area, but especially out by the water distillation plant.”

We waited, silent. Mercer’s fingers flew over the keys.

“Washington, Skerski One, and Dan in the water,” Washington said. “We’re in the mini-sub. I want the upper hand this time.”

“Go visual,” Julian said.

A camera came on in the Sub, and we saw George Skerski manning the controls and the view out the big window straight ahead. We also had a split-screen view of Washington’s head camera, so we could see from his point of view, as well. He stared out one bubble window, Dan out the other.

Mercer said, “Camera drones show action by the water filtration station a quarter mile off the Athletic Dome, confirmed. Two, possibly three swimmers. Their depth is 30 feet at present,” Mercer said.

“He’s got his sons with him,” Julian said.

“Copy,” Skerski said. “Headed that way.”

“We have to assume they’re here to do damage,” Julian said.

“Yes,” Persennia said. “His intent must be to deprive us of fresh water. That would be disastrous. Since we cannot surface, we would have to rely on only the water we have at present.”

“Target should be in front of you,” Mercer said.

“I see him. Three swimmers with scooters, one carrying something heavy.”

“A depth charge,” Julian said. “He said he’d come back with another depth charge.”

“We are in pursuit,” George said. “I’m on him.” He spoke to himself. “You weren’t expecting us, were you, Buddy?”

“I’m going to use the web gun,” Washington said. “We need to disable whatever little goodies he’s brought to take out our water plant.”

“George, can you maneuver close enough for the web gun to be effective?” Julian said.

“I think so. They clearly didn’t expect us to be out here in a mini-sub. I think Martin thought they’d sneak in and out.”

“Or, he counted on it being mano-a-mano.”

“Yep, three of them,” Dan said. “They’ve all got spear guns and one has the payload.”

“Get in close,” Julian said. “You’ve one chance with the web gun. Make it count.”’

I held my breath. My pulse was racing. As far as I knew, Martin Kaplan had no idea we had a web gun.

“Trying to get…almost…no,” George said. “Sorry. I’ll have to come back around. They are trying to evade.”

George turned the sub.

“Alright, brother. Ease in. Focus on the one with the package. Almost…Ooo. Too bad.”

“Stay on him,” Julian said. “Is it Martin?”

“That’s a negative,” Dan said. “Looks like two younger men with Martin.”

“His sons,” Julian said.

“It’s despicable to use your sons to attack people,” Persennia said.

“One has the payload,” TR said. “His scooter is slower because those depth charges are heavy.”

“George, can you try again?”

“Moving in,” George said. “Closer. There he is. Hold still, Buddy. Closer…Closer….Yeah!”

“A direct hit. Good on you, man.”

“He’s covered with web,” Dan said. “He’s struggling. Oh, not good. He’s off his scooter, and he’s still got the payload. The more he struggles, the more he’s stuck.”

As Washington changed windows to get a better view, we saw that this was true. The attacker hardly looked like a SCUBA diver anymore. He was thrashing wildly, trying to pull off the expanding web.

“He’s sinking,” Washington said. “He can’t swim because he’s wrapped up in web. He can’t get rid of the package, either. It’s stuck to him and pulling him down fast.”

“Heavier than I thought,” Dan said.

“Get out of there,” Julian said. “We don’t know the depth that it’s set. It could go off any second.”

George turned the sub sharply. “Full throttle.”

Thirty seconds ticked by.

We all heard the explosion.

No one said a word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 52

 

Later that evening, Martin Kaplan, who had once been our friend and fellow crewmember, was in complete and total meltdown mode. He was in a rage that knew no bounds. It actually made me tremble to listen to him on the huge screen in the Communications Center.

            “You killed my son! You blew up my boy! I don’t care what it takes, I’m making it my mission to destroy the OSCAR domes and every person in them. I will kill you! Do you understand? I will crush you.”

There was no reasoning with him to point out that he was the one who brought the depth charge in the first place. Julian wisely remained silent. To have expressed sorrow for the death of his son would have rubbed salt in Martin’s wounds. To lecture him about his irrational quest to come back into the OSCAR facility when he, himself, chose to leave would have been futile. To remind him that he had killed one crewmember and attacked another would have been trying to reason with a madman.

But clearly, after raging nonstop for several minutes, he expected some reaction, some verbal response. We all waited in awkward silence. Seconds ticked by. What could Julian say that he hadn’t already said?

But it was not Julian who spoke. Persennia Nyaga rolled her wheelchair up to the computer camera close enough that her beautiful face filled the frame.

“Martin Kaplan, I myself was on your interview committee for acceptance into OSCAR. I met a man who told us his two grown sons were his very life and breath, his magnum opus. I saw a man of honor, a father to be proud of. A man who taught his children to live with integrity.” She paused. “Take the son you have left, and go back to your wife. Both of them will need you now.”

            Martin Kaplan wept.

            Minutes ticked by.

            “I want to know I have your word,” Persennia said. “We have little children down here. I don’t want them to live in fear.”

            Martin nodded. His voice was small and far away. “I wanted to save my family, my sons.”

            “I know.”

            “My son is dead now.”

            “Yes. It is a shame it has come to that.”

            “I just wanted to come back in. To bring my family to shelter.”

            “And we cried when we were not able to let you back in. Our hearts were broken.”

            “My son,” Martin said again.

            “It would be tragic to lose two of them.”

            A long silence passed.

            “Alright. No more violence.”

            “Do you give me  your word?” she asked.

            Martin looked directly at the camera. He wiped his eyes. “Yes, I give you my word.”

            If Martin meant it, we had won a victory, but we had also lost at the same time. Lexi Miller was dead, cremated until there was nothing left, not even ashes.

            .

            After lunch, I went back to my room and called Dad. He looked healthy, and I was glad the virus had not reached him. I told him the entire ugly story of Martin, his threats, and the death of his son. I needed Dad to unload on. It’s odd how much we all craved conversational contacts with our families. Living all together here at OSCAR, most people knew all our news and events before we had a chance to tell it. We needed others to listen and bounce ideas off of.

            “This is the guy that killed that poor girl, right?”

            “Yeah, and the same guy who shot Dan through the thigh.”

“This is nasty business,” Dad said. “The world has gone crazy. We see the same up here, people who snatch and grab and fight and kill over the slightest things. Food, medicines, you name it. It’s all over the news. That’s why I quit watching.”

“Me, too. I don’t dare turn on the television anymore. They show the scariest, grossest videos and pictures of people dying of the virus. I don’t want Liam to see it. I don’t want to see it.”

“You know what I’m doing?” Dad said. “I’m watching all of the old movies you and Liam loved best, and good old movies from my childhood. I’m having the best time. I sit here and laugh. Sometimes I pretend you two are here with me, and I make popcorn. Ruff loves it ‘cause he knows he’s going to get some.”

            “I wish we were there with you.”

            He frowned. “How are you holding up, Honey? I worry about you with all the stress and pressure on you: being a mother to Liam, operating on difficult cases, watching people die.”

            Somebody knows. Somebody cares.

            “Yeah, it’s challenging. I’m not going to lie. But I’ve made a choice to make the best of it. Lexi Miller was too young to die. She’d give anything to be here. I’m here, alive, so I’m not going to complain. Complaints don’t get me anywhere, anyway. Dad, everyone here is working hard, helping cover jobs left by those who left us for Terra Firma. People’s families are dying right and left, and we mourn them fiercely. We worry about those who are still living. Liam worries about all the pets and the animals. We’re just trying to keep it together.”

            Dad smiled. “A fine kettle of fish, hey?”

            I smiled back. “Speaking of fish, I’m on the harvest team this afternoon. We’re rounding up bonita for Chef Sal’s supper tonight. He’s making ‘Bonita Meunière,” and Liam swears it’s delicious.”

“Bonita manure?”

I smiled. “How did I know you were going to make that joke?”

“I’m a vet, Honey. Manure is in my line of work. Tell your chef I’ve got a constant supply now that I’ve got a horse.”

“Liam would love that.”

“How is my good man?”

“Dad, he’s a chameleon. By day, he’s a student and chef’s helper. He plans menus, writes the harvest order for SCUBA One, makes salads, and works the line under Chef Sal. By night, he still sleeps with Beanie Bear. When we go to the athletic dome, he can climb the rock wall and ride the zip-line down from 70 feet, but he still wants to sleep with me if he has a bad dream.”

            Dad laughed. “Snails and nails and puppy dog tails.”

Dad told funny stories about when I was little. I’d heard them countless times before, but I enjoyed hearing them, and telling them kept Mom’s memory alive for us both. His favorite was the time we went fishing with Mom, and she taught me how to catch blue crabs. I caught more than she did, and we had a crab boil that night in the back yard. Another favorite was our trip to Indiana when they had the biggest snow storm in years, the year I was five. I made snow angels, but I couldn’t get up because my snowsuit was so big and bulky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 53

 

The phone call with Dad cheered me so much I thought I’d call and check in on Fernandez. I missed her. We hadn’t had too many chances to get to know each other better when she was here, so talking with her and picking her brain over a screen call was always fun.

Fernandez’s face came on the large screen. I immediately saw she had been crying. Dread gripped me with an icy hand.

            “Fernandez?”

            She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Hola, Chica.”

            We stared at each other. “Has…something…?”

            “Amelia.” Her voice was hoarse. “This morning.”

            My stomach lurched. “Oh no.”

            She held the crumpled tissue tightly over her eyes. 

            “Oh no,” I said for the second time.

            “I thought we would miss it. I swear to God I did. I didn’t let them go out. We had no one over here. How did it happen?”

            I didn’t know what to say. “Did she have…symptoms?”

            Fernandez nodded. “Three days ago she started with a fever. I hoped and prayed it was just a cold.”

            I wanted to put my hands over my ears. I wanted to drop the call and run away. I didn’t want to hear about a virus taking this beautiful little girl, but Fernandez needed me.

            “I treated her as best I could here. There’s nowhere to go, really. The day I left OSCAR I packed a bag of medicines because I didn’t know what we’d face, and I knew there would be no place to get drugs now that this…” She waved her hand.

 “I kept her comfortable. That’s all I could do.” She blew her nose. “I held her all night. I wanted to be there for her. We all did. Even though she’s eight, I rocked her and held her. She wanted me to sing.” Fernandez sobbed. “Coltrane, can you imagine singing while your baby sister is dying?” She spoke to herself in Spanish, mumbling so low it was hard to hear.

            All I could do was stare. My own face was wet with tears.

            “She couldn’t keep anything down. Had a raging fever. Sips of ginger ale from a spoon, but nothing helped. Early this morning I was holding her, watching her, and she opened her eyes a little wider. I thought she was trying to tell me something. Her lips parted, and I heard her last breath leave her body.”

In my mind’s eye, it was me holding Liam. I worked hard to stifle the sobs that threatened to burst out. My body trembled with sorrow, sorrow for my friend.

“I didn’t waken the others. They’d been up half the night, and everybody was pretty much exhausted. I held Amelia for a long time, just the two of us rocking. It was my time. Our time.”

My stomach was now a fierce knot of pain, and all I could do was pat my heart like I had when Fernandez left us. I had no words to offer.

“I buried her a little while ago out back. Esperanza and I dressed her in her favorite dress and wrapped her in a lace tablecloth. The National Guard comes around with trucks, and they’re actually very nice, but Coltrane, could you imagine putting my beautiful little Amelia in the back of a truck? Not while there’s breath left in my body. I dug her grave out back, where Esperanza’s roses are, and we sang and read Madeline and prayed.”

The huge lump in my throat made it impossible to swallow or talk. I’d never met Amelia, but I hurt for the loss of her life and for Fernandez’s broken heart.

That phone call was my breaking point, and afterwards, I went completely and totally cracker dog. I howled like an animal writhing in unimaginable pain. I rolled on the floor and covered my eyes with my forearm. In the depths of my sorrow, I ranted and screamed and raged and eventually surprised myself by laughing hysterically. At some point, Liam must have come in because I vaguely remember hearing the click of the door, and then a few minutes later the sound of Epstein’s voice, and then, nothing.

At some point Julian was kneeling in front of me. I had to force my eyes to focus.

“Amelia’s dead. Fernandez had to bury her in the rose garden. They’re all going to die, aren’t they? Everyone we know and love is going to die.” My words were barely intelligible.

He picked me up in his arms and laid me down on the bed. He got a box of tissues and a cold wet rag for my face. He wiped my eyes and nose and mouth and lay beside me and took me in his arms. I had no sense of self, no sense of shame, no desire to explain or discuss. I cried until my body went into involuntary spasms, jerking and twitching in place of the sobs. Julian’s arms held me tight, a life raft in a sea of sorrow, and at some point in time I became aware of his heartbeat. Someone’s heart was beating. Someone was alive when others were dying. I didn’t try to make sense of any of it. I just gripped him fiercely and concentrated on letting breath slide in and out of my lungs.

Eventually, I calmed. My swollen eyes dried, and I could breathe out of my nose again. I rolled on my side and looked at Julian’s face. We had never been this close.

“Do you like me?” At any other time, I might have cringed at the inappropriateness of this question, but I had asked it without a trace of self-consciousness.

“A lot.” We lay eye to eye.

“Really?” I paused. “I think I liked you first.”

Julian shook his head ever so slightly. “No. I liked first.”

“What?” I frowned. “How do you know you liked first?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Boy see girl dance tango. Heart beat faster.”

That night? At the dance? I never suspected. He had seemed so formal and official.

“Have you ever wanted to kiss me?”

“Many times.”

.

“When?”

“The time we sat by the koi pond. The night we did the dishes late at night. At the dolphin lagoon when we were holding hands and the baby dolphin swam through the circle. When you didn’t pay attention in class, and I busted you. When you punched Monty in the nose the second time.”

Wonder of wonders and Abraham Lincoln. Julian Fenley had feelings for me. He wanted to kiss me. Glory hallelujah.

Our faces were so close we shared breath. The pillow beneath our heads was damp with my tears. Electricity crackled and swirled. Julian touched my lips with his thumb.

The door clicked, and Liam and Epstein blew into the room like a cyclone.

“Rut-row,” Epstein said. “Sorry.”

“Violet, are you better?” Liam said.

Julian and I stood up.

“Yeah, I’m better. I was just really sad.”

“Well, don’t do that again, okay? I was scared.”

Emotionally, I was a black hole, but I gathered my living, breathing, healthy little brother in my arms. He did not have a fever. He was not buried beneath roses in the back yard. He was able to hug almost all the air out of my lungs.

“Okay,” I said. “I will try not to do it again.”

As Julian left, he looked at me in a way that made me want to tap dance and moon walk at the same time. I wanted to lean in and kiss his beautiful lips with the sweet softness of cotton candy.

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 54

 

All of the OSCAR crewmembers clung to daily regimen like it was our lifeline. Schedule was our friend. Structure was our Dutch uncle.

I got up early each day, made sure Liam and I got to breakfast on time, sent him off to Zach’s school with whatever homework or supplies he needed, and reported to Medical. Most mornings Ethan was available, so we watched procedure videos, cleaned and organized, replenished supplies, and treated patients. We broke for lunch, and Ethan headed off to swim with Security. I went back to Medical and searched through all resources to learn surgical techniques, eye exams, broken bones, anaphylactic shock, obstructed airways, shark bite repair, and more. Sometimes I made house calls to check in with patients who were under my care.

            Physical health is terribly important when you live under the sea. I couldn’t tell others to get daily exercise and ignore the same advice for myself, so I routinely took long walks down the corridors that ran through the Plexiglas tubes circling the OSCAR domes. These walks gave me a chance to familiarize myself with locations, because I lengthened my walking distance by going through the domes, too. At first it might have seemed weird, Violet Coltrane walking through the rows of fruits and vegetables in the ag dome, Violet Coltrane walking by pig pens and chicken coops, or Violet Coltrane walking through the Communications Center. But, people got used to my walking through and soon asked me to take papers or books or purchases or whatever to someone way on down the line. I was happy to do it. It gave me a chance to get to know my fellow crewmembers better—many of whom were in jobs where I wouldn’t normally get to see them: the laundry, in the kitchen at the Pie, down in maintenance, in the barber shop, the Starbucks, dental, carpentry, water filtration, and Security.

            “Oh hi, Coltrane. Would you take this to Mercer when you go through CC? He left it here yesterday when he was having a latte.”

            “Violet, looking good.”

            “Will you see Fenley? Please give him back this key for me.”

            “Violet, if you’re going down to maintenance, would you ask Tansky to take a look at this? It worked yesterday, but today this little thingy right here…seems to be sticking.”

            These quick visits also gave me a chance to check on the crew’s general health.

            “Washington, how’s your toe? Did the wool wax work?”

            “Stana, let me see that burn on your thumb. Yeah. I think you can leave the bandage off now. It’s best to let these things heal in the air.”

            “Zach, you missed your blood draw last week. Could you come by after school this afternoon?”

            When I had lived on Terra Firma, I enjoyed walking in the glitzy new mall near our house. At first, I walked the center from end to end, but I got the idea to walk through the larger stores, too, up and down all the aisles, to add distance and interest to my walks. That’s one way I kept in shape for dancing. I didn’t want Pavel to complain that I was too heavy to lift. Down here at OSCAR, I also needed exercise on a regular basis, so walking the length and levels of OSCAR kept me going now that my SCUBA trips into the sea were few and far between.

            On one of my trips I zig-zagged through the kitchen where Chef Sal was holding a pastry class for his underlings. Sometimes there were benefits to dropping by the kitchen.

            “Violetta,” Chef Sal said. “I would appreciate if you could deliver these little boxes of palm fans: One for Dr. Nyaga, one for Captain Fenley, and one for you.”

Captain Fenley. Chef is the only one who calls him that.

We had not had a chance to talk or be alone since Julian had comforted me about Fernandez’s little sister. I missed him. I wanted to sit and talk—alone with no one to interrupt us. And now I was supposed to deliver palm fans from Chef Sal. Yes.

            Palm fans were crazy delicious, made with layers of butter, pastry, and sugar.

            I peeped through the clear film on the box tops. “Sure. Thank you.”

            “Today we make puff pastry.”

            I delivered the first box to Dr. Nyaga.

            “Delightful. Would you stay for tea, and we’ll share these?”

            “I wish I could,” I said,” but I’ve been gone from Medical too long as it is. Could I get a rain check?”

            “Certainly. Any time you feel like dropping by my apartment, we’ll have fun talking, and I might bring out the Crème Yvette.”

            I smiled. “I’m in.”

            I planned to deliver Julian’s box next since his office was close, but when I checked for him in Central Command, he wasn’t there. I decided to check if he was at his apartment. I felt a little funny going uninvited, but I’d promised Chef Sal I would deliver the palm fans. Besides, the thought of seeing Julian again made me feel giddy.

            He answered on the third knock. He looked surprised to see me.

            “Violet! Hi. I uh…….What’s this?”

            Something was odd. “Hi. A goodie delivery. Chef Sal sent you a box of palm fans.” I handed them over. He didn’t invite me inside.

            “Thank you for bringing these by. Sal was telling me how good they are.”

            He still didn’t invite me in.

            I hesitated. I thought he might say more, but he didn’t. “Yeah, well, okay then.”

            My face felt flushed. I was confused. Questions whirled like birds fluttering to get out of a cage.

I sat down in a stuffed chair in one corner of the lobby next to thick lady palm. It was real. No silk plants down here. OSCAR made sure there were plenty of plants to replenish oxygen naturally as well as the manufactured oxygen they created and pumped in.

Why didn’t he ask me to come in? Is something wrong? Don’t jump to conclusions, Violet. You’re imagining things. Julian is probably busy. What did you expect when you dropped by out of nowhere? It’s nothing, silly head.

The key. I’d forgotten to drop it off at Julian’s. Rats. I didn’t want to go back to his apartment again since he acted so weird, but I’d promised George Skerski I’d deliver it.

I walked back down the hall. Julian’s door was open a few inches.

“Hey,” I called. “I forgot to return this key for George Skerski.” I pushed the door open.

Monty’s arms were wrapped around Julian from behind, and her cheek was resting next to his.

All the air was sucked out of my body.

Yep, that’s right. Shatter City.

Julian opened his mouth to speak, but Monty beat him to it.

“Thank you, Julian. You are such a love.”

The awkwardness was hilariously painful.

I needed to say something—anything—so they wouldn’t know how humiliated I was.

“Sorry to interrupt. I forgot to return this key from George Skerski.”

“Thank you,” Julian said. “Did you need to talk to me?” He sounded hopeful.

“I wanted to talk to you about something that happened yesterday, but I realize now it was nothing.”

Julian looked stricken. Monty smiled like the cat who ate the canary.

“Violet, would you stay? Monty is leaving,” Julian said.

Now, I smiled. “Thanks, but I’m delivering things for Chef Sal. See? One more box to go.”

“Who’s the lucky winner?” Monty said.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s definitely not me.”

I shut the door behind me.

 

I saw Julian twice the next day, but both times we were surrounded by crewmembers and not able to talk privately. I tried to avoid running into him. My emotions were all over the place, and I didn’t know what to say. I missed him terribly. He had held me in his arms and comforted me, and I had I had acted like a goonybird drunk with happiness. But, when I’d seen him in his apartment with Monty, my feelings had shattered into little glass shards. Had he lied to me? What was he doing with Monty, of all people? Did he really have feelings for me?

My heart ached. Confusion and hurt hurled in from all sides. I should have talked with Julian, asked him what was going on, but I didn’t know what to say. Or maybe I didn’t have the guts to say anything.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to. He showed up at Medical 30 minutes before closing time. I had seen three patients that afternoon, all with minor concerns, and I was shutting down and cleaning up before I left for the day.

“Is the doctor in?” Julian said.

It took me by surprise. I hadn’t heard him come in. My heart jumpstarted.

“No doctor. I’m all you’ve got,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

Cool as a cucumber. Proud of myself.

“I have a problem.”

“Tell me about it.”

“I’ve had a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding.” I paused. “A minor misunderstanding?”

His smile was sad. “No, I think it might be more like a major misunderstanding.”

“Ah.”

“You know how sometimes you see something, and you think it’s one thing, but it turns out to be something totally different?”

I nodded. “I’ve heard of that.”

“Well, that’s what’s happened.”

I considered this. The last time I’d seen them together, Monty had slapped Julian as hard as she could. He’d never said as much, but I could tell he disliked her almost as much as I did.

“What are your symptoms?”

Julian stayed in the game.

“At first it was embarrassment. Humiliation, actually. Someone who’s a known flirt came to my apartment under the guise of needing some information, and, when someone else came in, this person I have no feelings for made it seem like there was something happening between the two of us.”

“I see. And, how do you feel now?”

“Heartsick.”

He broke character. “Violet, there’s nothing between me and Monty. There never has been; there never will be.”

I stared into his eyes. Hazel.

“I know just the cure for your misunderstanding.”

“What?”

“A pinky swear.”

“A pinky swear?”

“Works like a charm.”

We hooked little fingers. He said, “Violet, I have feelings for you, and no one else.” His voice was so sweet.

I was trying to think of something clever to say when Zach walked through the door.

“What is this? Am I witnessing a pinkie swear? Never underestimate the power of the entwined pinkie swear.”

“It’s true,” I said. “Research supports that theory.”

Julian’s comm went off. He read the message on the screen and frowned.

“Sorry, have to go.”

When Julian left, Zach said, “You’re not going to believe it.”

“What?”

“They’re having raclette at the Octo-Pie this evening. I’ve already asked Epstein to go, but I’d feel like I was cheating on you if I didn’t invite you, too, my fellow foodie.”

“Raclette? Here? You’re teasing, right?”

He used his DJ voice. “One night only for your dining pleasure.”

I was over the moon. “I’d love to. I just have to figure out what to do about the boy child.”

“Got it covered. Annalise is showing a movie, and the kids are making omelets.”

“I’m in.”

I thought about the gooey goodness of melty raclette cheese. Oh yeah. I was already salivating.

“I asked J-Boy to join us if he can get away.”

Zach gave me a look.

“What?”

“You know what. I saw the pinky swear.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“Make me.”

“See you at the Pie in 30.”

If you’ve never had raclette, do yourself a favor. Put it on your bucket list now. Like, right now. Run. Do it before you take another breath.

The Octo-Pie was hopping. No one wanted to miss the fun of tonight’s special menu. I navigated through the crowd until I found Zach and Epstein in a corner booth. Epstein looked stunning with her bouncy, floppy curls pulled back with a red headband and just the right touch of makeup. She and Zach were sitting on one side of the booth, close together, I might add. I gave Zach the same look he’d given me earlier.

“I’ve heard about raclette, but I’ve never had it,” Epstein said. “Girlfriend, I’m going to bring shame on our table. I’d rather eat melted cheese than buy jewelry.”

Epstein, I need you in my life. I hope we’re always friends.

I took my place on the other side of the booth and, no sooner was I seated, Julian slid in beside me.

I couldn’t help smile. “I thought you might not be able to make it.”

“And miss all this? Not in a million.”

A waiter brought an electric cheese melter to our table and plugged it in. He returned with half a wheel of Swiss cheese, boiled potatoes, grilled onions, mushrooms, peppers, and thin slices of medium-rare steak.

“Oh yeah,” Julian said.

“To cheese or not to cheese: That is never the question,” Zach said.

We toasted the wheel of Everything smelled delicious. My mouth was watering.

cheese and scraped huge, melty mounds of it over the grilled vegetables and steak on our plates.

For cheese lovers, for foodies, it was Heaven. The Promised Land. Utopia. Nectar of the gods.

When I had eaten close to the danger zone, I pushed my plate away and lay my head back against the back of the booth. Julian moved his arm around my shoulders. I immediately felt the familiar electricity course through me. Zach and Ep chatted happily, thinking they were including us in their humor and gossip, but I couldn’t have repeated a word they said if my life depended on it. My brain was riding a runaway horse.

Julian’s arm is around my shoulders. I could sit here for seven forevers.

A group of people walking by accidentally bumped our table. One of them was Monty, and we made eye contact at the same time. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but she didn’t.

When the waiter came to clear the table, Julian leaned closer to my ear.

“You look great,” he whispered.

Before I could answer, the waiter said, “I hate to ask, but would you guys mind giving up this table? There’s a waiting line of people out the door.”

“I’ll walk you home,” Julian said, but his comm buzzed with a message that he was needed at Central Command.

“I’m sorry. Something urgent.”

“We’ll walk her home,” Zach said.

“It’s okay, guys,” I said. “I’ve got to pick up Liam at Annalise’s apartment. I like to walk.”

It was good to walk, to be alone for a little, to fall into the rhythmic cadence of my steps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 55

 

Martin Kaplan must have taken Dr. Nyaga’s advice because we didn’t hear from him again. One week passed, then two, then three. The threat was gone. Once more, the sea was safe and beautiful and inviting. Julian and Dr. Nyaga lifted the ban on ocean swims and treks as long as there were at least two of us swimming together. I could hardly wait to get out into the water. I wanted to be surrounded by liquid, to feel my hair swirl around me, and to watch the sun’s rays dance. But, for today, I had to stay close to Medical because it was my turn to be on call.

            I decided on an impromptu visit to Judy and George, two of my favorites.

            Their living room was covered with stacks of small cloth bags and mason jars. “What are you working on?”

            George laughed. “Okay, Judy. Fess up.”

            “I have a workroom here at OSCAR, but I prefer to work at home sometimes.”

            “What’s all this?”

            “I’m the curator of the OSCAR seed bank. One of my main functions is to catalogue and keep thousands of varieties of seeds cool and dry in case they are ever needed for replenishment.”

            “Replenishment for here, or on Terra Firma?”

            “Terra Firma. Wingers has plenty of seeds for down here.”

            “What are these little bags?”

            “They’re silk. We store the seeds in silk and then in water-tight boxes.”

            “Where do all these seeds come from?”

            “That’s the fun part. I’m in touch with contributors and seed libraries from all over the world. When the time comes to plant fruits, grains, and vegetables, we’ll be ready.”

            When the time comes…we’ll be ready.

            “Do you think the time will come?”

            “I do,” Judy said.

            “No one knows what we’ll face when all this is over,” George said.

            The next evening, about two hours after supper, Tyler came in with a nasty laceration. Ethan reported first, so he cleaned the cut and started suturing. It was a complicated wound, and suturing it would take extra time and effort.

When I came in, I took a careful look at the laceration. It was ugly and deep.

“How’d you do that?”

“I had a fight with a rusty pipe. Not here. We routinely clean up sea debris. This was something someone probably threw off a ship or boat.”

“Lucky we’ve all had tetanus shots.”

Ethan said, “Hey Coltrane, would you finish suturing Tyler’s arm? I’m due to swim Security in a few minutes.”

One thing I’d learned from Dad is when someone starts a suture job, they should be the one to see it through, especially when it was somewhere that would show, like a forearm. Each person’s stitches were unique.

            “Why don’t you finish suturing, and I’ll swim Security for you till you get there? I’ve been dying to get back in the water. You’re partnered with Washington, aren’t you? I can change and be at Ocean Entry in ten.”

            “You’re a pal. I’ve actually sewn his arm to my sleeve, and that’ll give me time to fix it and finish.”

            “Everyone’s a comedian,” Tyler said.

            “I’ll be down there by the time you’ve finished the first lap,” Ethan said. “This shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes to an hour.”

            “Take your time. Make sure Tyler has a pretty scar.”

            I met Washington at the Ocean Entry pool and explained the situation while we put on fins and bubble helmets.

            “Sounds good to me,” Washington said. “You’re tougher than Roggenkamp, so I won’t be scared if we see any bad guys.”

            “Hey hey,” I said. “I’ll have you know Roggenkamp is a force to be reckoned with.”

            “I saw your left hook.”

            “Pretty good, huh?”

            “My money’s on you anytime, anywhere.”

            I was good-natured about it. I’d brought it on myself. Clock someone in the nose twice in front of a cast of thousands and see where it gets you.

            “We’ll circle B Dome. You swim at window level, and I’ll swim above you 25 feet. Blake and Goetzmann are swimming a grid across the bottom.”

            “What do we look for?”

            “Anything unusual. Anything suspicious. Anything that might need to be fixed.”

            “I’m down with that.”

            “If it’s the big, bad wolf, let me know right away. If it’s something that needs repair, hit record on your comm and give a detailed description and location. Got that?”

            “Sir, yes sir.”

            It was a long way around. The domes were massive. I swam about 6 feet from the windows so I wouldn’t scare people but close enough to examine the structure of the building.

            “Look for any device that could have been planted, cracks, listening equipment, and so forth,” Washington said. The guys that swim dome top have it worse. They carry brooms and ropes. Just before you got here, the body of a dead manta ray sunk down and landed on this very dome. Security had to tie onto it and swim it out to deeper water. Part of SCUBA Two’s regular ocean duties is to hose off and sweep the upper domes.”

            “Really? I never knew. Hose off?”

            “Yeah, we have a piece of equipment that pulls in sea water and squirts it out long hoses. We use them for cleaning and maintenance all over the outside of the domes, but they can also be used if we ever have a fire inside.” 

This was one of the dorm domes, and I didn’t want to pry, but all crewmembers knew the perimeters were routinely covered by Security. They could easily have made their windows frosty so no one could see in, but most people never did. Too many of us liked to sleep with clear windows so we could be lulled by the beauty and wake up to the charms of the sea.

 Tonight, some people were watching movies, working at their desks, snacking, cleaning, or resting. Every six rooms there was solid wall for about 30 feet. Those were the laundry facilities.

            About half-way around, I spotted someone on my right. “Washington, there’s—”

            “Skerski One here.” It was George Skerski. He shined a high-powered flashlight around us in the sea. “Just checking. I was expecting Roggenkamp on this swim.”

            “You got a visitor?” Washington said.

            “Yeah, it’s Skerski One.”

            “Should’a warned you about him. We call him The Invisible Man because all of a sudden he just materializes.”

            “A warning would have been good. My heart is galloping on a horse.”

            “Not to worry,” George said. “We’re the Security that keeps watch over Security.” He shut off his light and melted back into the darkness.

            We were a little more than halfway around the dome when the room coming up was brightly lit, so I instinctively looked over to see what was going on. A man and a woman were poised in an intimate embrace. It was romantic because she was partially bent backwards, his hand was on the small of her back, and it looked like they were about to kiss. I should have looked away, but I froze, because I recognized the man’s thick, brown hair, even from behind. It was Julian.

            I was gob smacked.

            Am I crazy? Am I imagining things?

            This could not have possibly happened twice. I hung outside the window, and something I did must have caused the woman to look up. It was Stana from the Starbucks. She pointed, and Julian turned. I would have given everything I owned to have the ocean swallow me whole.

            “You okay?” Washington called. He was 30 feet ahead. “We’re almost done with the first lap.”

            “I’m okay,” I said. “Something just caught my eye.”

            “Tell me about it. This is a dorm dome. You name it, I’ve seen it.”

I’d seen it, all right. I’d seen enough. This time, there could be no explanation, no saying what I’d seen was a mistake. Maybe Julian did have feelings for me, but it was obvious that he was interested in other girls, too. I finished the swim in a daze.

 

            Lately, life was a runaway wagon with the wheels coming off, and I wanted to spend some quality time with my little brother. I needed to focus on something other than my personal hurt and questions with no answers. We went to the athletic dome for a getaway.

Liam and I decided to ride the zip line, which meant taking the lift to the ceiling platform and strapping in to special harnesses. We stepped off side-by-side and began the long concentric circle ride around and around the massive dome. It really was like flying, and for the time being, we forgot we were 80 feet under the ocean. The wind was in our face, our feet stretched out behind us, and the glorious ride stripped away the stresses of the day. We laughed like crazy cakes.

            We decided to end the day at the Octo-Pie with Stromboli. Liam let me order, and I chose one loaded with veggies and extra cheese. There were new flyers up in the Pie, announcements for a talent show. Liam was over the moon. He read the words on the flyer.

First OSCAR Thalassic Talent Show.

“Tha-what?”

Thalassic? No clue. Liam looked it up on his comm.

“Of or relating to the sea.”

I bet Zach came up with that word. Show off.

            “Entertainment! Won’t that be a blast, Vi?” He was almost jumping up and down.

            I was distracted by my hurt about Julian and Monty and Stana, but I tried hard to stay in the game. “Yeah. That does sound like fun.”

            “What will you do?” he demanded.

            “What? Me? Oh no. You’re barking up the wrong tree, Fido.” I shook my head for the full effect.

            “You’re funny, Sissy.” Sissy. He hadn’t called me that in seven forevers.

            “Funny? You’re the one who can wiggle your ears and cross one eye. You’re the one who can burp the Star Spangled Banner.”

            A talent show. That was something we could all look forward to. Television was practically a thing of the past with the onset of the virus. Movies were good, but…a talent show. Who knew what talents were hiding among our fellow crewmembers? There would be a lot of laughing and silliness, I was sure. I needed laughter and fun. I hoped a lot of people would agree to perform. Not me, of course. I didn’t sing. I didn’t tell jokes. I couldn’t make chicken Paprikesh as a talent. I would have danced, but there was no one to dance with. Besides, I was bummed about Julian. He had not come to me. He had not apologized.

            “Hey. Why aren’t you eating?” My mind came screeching back to the present. Liam gobbled in a long string of melty cheese hanging from a slice of Stromboli.

            “Because I gave you a head start, that’s why.” I ripped off a huge bite and growled with my mouth full.  

            . . .

The next day, Dan asked me to come to class with Scuba One if I could get away from Medical for an hour. The topic was underwater injuries, and he thought I would benefit from it. Just before the class started, as we were milling around in the hall, Julian approached me.

Oh great.

“Hi, Violet. Was that you swimming with Security last night outside B Dome? Because if it was, I—”

“Let’s go, people,” Dan said. We pushed into the room. Julian sat next to an empty seat. I moved to the back, as far away as I could get.

Was the demonstration on underwater injuries riveting? I’ll never know because all I could do was stare ahead at nothing and feel hurt and sick from head to toe.

.

The next morning, in the dining hall, when Epstein was still in the breakfast line getting her bacon, Julian slid into the seat next to me.

“I know you’re upset,” he began.

“Nonsense. You pinkie swore,” I said. “Remember?”

I left my tray, uneaten, and headed out the door for Medical.

            The talent show caused big buzz on the Bubble Babble. It was hysterical how something as ordinary as a talent show caused so much excitement for people who were separated from family, friends, and most entertainment. People went bazonkazoo. Some partnered up. Some were secretive. Others borrowed items they could use for costumes and props. Zach was in high demand because he had access to a truckload of music CDs. Judy Skerski could sew costumes and had a huge stash of fabric, so she was the go-to costume gal. Liam was in full-on-practice-mode with his version of “Back in the Saddle Again.” I offered to help, but no-deal-Lucille. He and Persennia were all over this. They even spoke in code when anyone else was close enough to hear their plans.

            As for me, I stayed busy trying to block out my hurt and confusion. I reminded myself not to think about it, but my brain came back to it over and over again like a magnetic pull. It was embarrassing, actually, because it felt like I was obsessing over a schoolgirl crush. But I was not a schoolgirl anymore, and Julian was a 24-year-old man. My feelings were real. They’d come on gradually, but there was something about him that stirred me, drew me in, and made me want to know him. I didn’t imagine it. The electricity I’d felt was real.

            Monty. Of all people. That egotistical troglodyte who had publically insulted Persennia Nyaga. Julian knew the way I felt about her. That’s what hurt the most. And Stana. She was a nice girl. Everyone liked her, even me. But, from what I’d seen, there was more between the two of them than there ever had been between Julian and me.

            I couldn’t simply ignore him. He was in charge of everything and also taught classes I attended. Not speaking to him would be awkward and embarrassing for us both and let everyone know we’d had some sort of rift. That was the weird thing. We weren’t a couple. No one would even suspect we had feelings for each other. Julian had comforted me several times, and I’d gone to him when he had a migraine.

            We had almost kissed once. Almost. And now, we probably never would.

.

Two days later, Julian pinged my comm and asked me to come to Central Command.

I’ll go because I have to.

“Violet, please come in.”

The two of us were alone in his office. Julian waited until we had both been seated. He looked serious, sad even.

“Violet, there’s been a major misunderstanding.”

“Didn’t we just sing that song a few weeks ago? Didn’t you tell me that Monty came on to you suddenly when I came to your apartment with the palm fans?”

“Monty is a pest. I care nothing for her. I think you saw that when you were up in the tree in the Park.”

“Monty’s one thing. Stana is another. You were holding her in your arms.”

“Yes, but that’s why I want to apologize.”

“No apology necessary. You see, I’m a fool. I’m sorry I wasted your time. I’m the one who was under the impression that we cared for each other. Aren’t I stupid? I assumed that it would be just the two of us.”

My words were a mixture of sorrow and anger.

“You’ve really got it all wrong.”

“Then, by all means, help me out. Were you and Stana in an intimate embrace when I saw you through the window? Alone in her apartment?”

“Yes, but—Violet, trust me—”

I held up my hand. “No, sorry, no can do. I’m all out of trust.”

I walked away without looking back, but with every step, I wanted to run back and hear his explanation and put this to rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 56

 

Preparations for the talent show were totally cracker-dog. It was the subject of all conversation, and everyone tried to guess all the secrets and mysteries ahead of time. I was looking forward to the talent show because I didn’t have to do anything. When they found out I had not signed up, my friends looked at me like I had three eyes. I laughed off their horror. No extra stress for me. I needed a night of entertainment. I needed a night of laughter and relaxation. I didn’t have to worry about a costume or music or props or a routine. I would sit back and enjoy everyone else’s hard work.

            Out of the blue, Persennia Nyaga called me on my comm. “Do you like lobster salad?”

            “Uh, only as my like…favorite thing in the world.”

“Good. Liam’s costume is ready. I’ve already pressed it, and it’s in a garment bag. Come pick it up, and we’ll have a bite of lunch.”

I looked forward to it all morning. My budding friendship with Persennia was the crown jewel of my OSCAR experience.

When I rang her bell, she opened the door with her comm. I heard the click and went in. Washington was holding Persennia in his big arms like a baby. He set her gently in her wheelchair. A look passed between the two of them. Their eyes said we know, don’t we. He kissed her wrist. She touched his face.

I wasn’t very successful at romance, but I knew the real thing when I saw it.

“Violet. Come in, dear one. TR has been helping me prepare for you.” Her voice spiced the room like quills of cinnamon.

“I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble.”

            “That’s exactly what I enjoy doing for my friends: going to too much trouble.”

            Washington left us, and I joined Persennia at the table, which was beautifully set with a pearl, shell, and seahorse theme. I was knocked out by the stunning elegance.

            “You did all this for our lunch?”

            A smile lit her face. “And why not? You are valuable to me, Violet. You are young, and I must show you the ways.”

            Her words made me catch my breath. She had taken Julian under her wing. Was she reaching out to me, too? I felt a surge of joy and belonging.

            The meal was simple but tasteful: hot yeast rolls, lobster salad, fresh mango slices, and raspberry lemonade.

            “Chef Sal?”

            “Not this time. TR and I enjoy cooking together. He caught the lobsters yesterday and steamed them for me.”

The lobster salad was so delicious I forced myself to eat slowly and savor each bite. She had served it in large rounded shells coated with iridescent mother of pearl. She seemed to enjoy the fact that I found it so tasty.

 

“Have you figured out my secret ingredients?” She leaned forward as if she actually expected me to answer. That rascal. She knew I was a cook.

I took a bite and closed my eyes.

“I taste curry, but not so much that it overshadows the sweetness of the lobster.”

She clapped like a schoolgirl. “You have a discerning pallet, Violet. Anything else?”

I liked this game. “Fresh lime, celery, capers, and…something else.” I thought. “It’s distinct. Something I don’t cook with.”

She was eager to tell the secret.

“Champagne,” she said. “Just a splash. Really good champagne.” She pursed her lips. “Violet, never drink cheap champagne. It’s one of life’s unfortunate practical jokes.”

Lunch was so much fun I found myself wiggling my toes in the thick, white carpet under the table. I was away from Medical, Liam, and any other responsibilities. For some reason, I had been asked to this dear woman’s apartment to eat her delicious lobster salad and to soak in the essence that was Persennia Nyaga. I had won the lottery.

Dessert was chocolate orange ice cream and tiny cups of Nigerian coffee.

The silence was musical, and I enjoyed listening to the ebb and flow of sips of coffee, the tinkling of silver spoons against elegant demitasse cups, the plop of sugar cubes, and our mutual exclamations as we ate chocolate orange ice cream.

“I know you have feelings for Julian.”

My breath stopped.

“And I know he has feelings for you.”

My cup was poised in the air, unmoving.

“That’s where you’re wrong.” I waited. “I saw him. With someone else.”

She watched me, and her expression changed.

“Violet, things aren’t always as they seem. Julian is a good man. An excellent man. He is not a man who would ever break your heart.”

Why do you defend him? Did you hear me say that he was with someone else?

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I know him. He is not a man to play games.”

“Would you trust him?” I said.  

She lay her beautiful, ringed hand over mine. “I do trust him. I would trust him with my life.”

 I looked into her tobacco-brown eyes. “How does one get to be a Persennia Nyaga?”

She thought that was funny. “The perfect segue belongs to you, Violet. You have taught me something new.” We ended our lunch with tiny goblets of Crème Yvette. I sipped the exotic drink. It touched me that the two of us shared this little tradition that was uniquely ours.

“Now don’t forget Liam’s costume, and no peeking. He wants it to be a surprise.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “What is your talent tonight, Violet?”

“I’m just going to watch, Dr. Nyaga.” I shook my head. “I don’t feel like getting on stage. I don’t even feel like going. In fact, I wouldn’t be going except for the fact that Liam is performing.” I ran my hand through my hair. “I’m glad I’m not in anything. I don’t feel like dressing up or wearing makeup. I’m just going in jeans.”

She gave me a look.

“I’m going to give you some advice, dear one. When you feel down, when you feel disappointed or your heart is sad, put on your prettiest dress and wear perfume. Go to the party and act like everything is grand. Trust me. You’ll feel much better in the end.”

Trust me? Sorry. Not today. Fresh out of trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 57

 

I spent the rest of the day in Medical, ate a quick supper with Epstein and Zach, and headed home to see if Liam needed help with his costume. He was already gone. Rats. I was looking forward to seeing him in his cowboy get-up before the show.

The First OSCAR Thalassic Talent Show was due to start at 7:00. I took a quick shower and threw on jeans and a comfortable t-shirt. Everyone else would be in costume, and some might even have masks, wigs, or special makeup. I would be one of the only ones who could just relax in comfy clothes. But, Persennia’s words kept repeating over and over, and that irritated me. Why would I dress up? Why on Earth would I put on perfume? I only had one dress here, and that was for rare, formal occasions like the Captain’s dinner. I’d never worn it before.

I straightened a few things around the apartment and turned back our beds. We’d be home late, and I knew Liam would be exhausted. I brushed my teeth one more time.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked fine. I nodded. I stared. I considered.

The dress was way to one side in my closet. I hadn’t thought about it since the day I’d unpacked, and Epstein had a fit over it. The dress was a deep shade of turquoise, with a strapless bodice and low back. The skirt was waltz length but with long, gored, slits and purple tulle that didn’t show unless I twirled, and of course I wouldn’t be twirling anytime soon.

I was a little angry when I put on the dress. I had been fine in jeans and a t-shirt. I half hoped it wouldn’t fit, but it fit like a fairy-frock that had been made for my body. The bodice alone took my breath away, and no one would question whether I was a girl or not. The long swirly skirt hung straight and calm, and I forbid myself to twirl. I slipped on the heels I had brought to wear with this dress and laced the ribbons around my ankles. The outfit made me think of Pavel. He would have been all over this dress and would have given me confidence and made me laugh at the silliness. Oh, Pav. I miss you.

I’d put the dress on just for a look, just to check to see if it still fit. Not because Persennia said I should dress up. I’d put it on for Pavel. Thinking of him made my heart ache. I decided to wear it for him. Tonight would be my private tribute to him.

This is for you, my crazy, satirical, always-ready-for-a-challenge friend.

I took one last look at my reflection, turned out the lights, and left my apartment. I stopped, went back in, sprayed on a tiny bit of perfume, and felt like the biggest dodo that ever walked on two legs.

.

The First OSCAR Thalassic Talent Show was just about to begin, and the theater was alive with sizzle and pop. Epstein took one look and said, “I knew you were going to perform. You just didn’t want to tell me, did you? Gee, Coltrane. That hurts.”

“Not performing.”

“Liar, liar pants on fire.”

“Repeat: Not performing.”

“Wow, Coltrane. The beauty pageant is tomorrow night,” Ethan said.

“Shut up.” I pinched him. “I’m self-conscious as it is.”

I spotted Liam sitting next to Persennia Nyaga and went to wish him good luck.

“Hey, Monkey.” He was dressed head to toe in vintage cowboy, fringe hanging from his sleeves, gauntlets, boots, silk scarf tie, and hat. The word adorable just wouldn’t cut it. “You look positively bodacious.”

Liam threw his arms wide. “I am El Magnifico,” he said.

“Wish Dad could see you.”

“He can. See that video camera? Zach hooked it up so families at home can tune in and see the whole thing.”

“You mean Mr. McGann, right?” He smiled. I could have kissed every freckle on his face I loved him so much.

“Did you invite Dad, so he’ll tune in?”

“Of course, silly.”

“Violet, you are particularly beautiful tonight,” Persennia said. Her nod of approval was gratifying. I pursed my lips. “On the advice of a friend, I dressed up. Now I feel like I’m calling too much attention to myself.”

“Then don’t think of yourself,” she said. “Just enjoy the evening.” I got the message. I took a seat on the second row.

Wingers from Ag was the talent show MC because Zach McGann was the stage manager and in several of the skits with various people. I saw Julian across the room sitting on the first row. I swallowed hard. Enjoy the evening, Violet.

The show started with a bang with Epstein and her all-girl song and dance routine. They were great, and the choreography was off the chain. The girls wore brightly colored blouses, and I was more than a little sure that Epstein’s blouse was actually mine. That rascal.

Several kids did a tumbling routine. They were awesome.

Stana sang a Russian folk song and accompanied herself on the guitar. She had the voice of an angel. I could see why Julian was attracted to her. I reminded myself that she was my friend and refused to think of anything else. Tonight was for fun. Tonight was for laughter.

Several more acts came and went, all clever and entertaining. Someone read original poetry. Three or four did skits. Two did an interpretive dance.

A crowd-pleaser was the men’s synchronized swimming routine in old-fashioned bathing costumes. They performed behind a long cloth “ocean” and from the audience’s vantage point, it looked like they were diving left and right. It had been months since I had laughed this much.

Judy and George sang a cute duet in a row boat. She held a parasol, and George pretended to row with cardboard oars.

Zach did stand-up and the crowd ate it up. Laughter was good medicine.

Then came Liam. Right away, the audience clapped and whistled over his costume. That little ham was in his element. Persennia accompanied him on the piano, and she was a wonderful pianist, with trills and glissandos thrown in for sound effects. His singing was adorable, and he worked the crowd with every word. He danced during the musical interlude and brought down the house when he roped Persennia with a lasso. How much practice did that take? I was so proud of him I thought I might jump out of my chair. When the audience gave them a standing ovation, Liam rode across the front of the stage on the back of Dr. Nyaga’s chair and waved his cowboy hat.

Chef Sal sang the most beautiful Italian tenor song I’d ever heard. He took his time and teased every note, drawing them out, making us wait for the thrilling ending. We jumped to our feet, thundering applause.

The evening was a huge success and did a lot to lift my spirits. Now that it was over, I realized how much I loved these people who had become my family. Seeing them out of uniform, performing a variety of talents, made me appreciate them in a whole new light.

“Folks,” Wingers said, “We have one more act, and it’s a mystery. I’ve tried to get it out of him all week, but he’s tighter than a clam. Put your hands together for…our captain…Julian Fenley.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I couldn’t imagine what Julian would do for a talent. He was always so serious. But there he was, dressed in all black, his thick brown hair combed back. We were all spellbound. Magic? Singing? A recitation?

Music began. It was haunting and engaging. It was—it was the introduction to the Argentine tango I’d danced in competition with Pavel. I sat in total astonishment. What was this?

Julian came to me as a man comes to a woman in an Argentine milonga, making eye-contact and extending his outstretched hand. Everyone gasped. No one blinked. I tried to disappear.

My heart beat wildly, so loud I was sure others could hear it. Julian’s hand was in front of me. My eyes were full of questions. Surely he did not expect me to dance with him. I had not danced since I was with Pavel. There was no way Julian could have known the complicated and intricate steps. I shook my head ever so slightly as if to say, “Please, don’t do this to me.” I thought I would die on the spot.

He leaned in and whispered, “Trust me. Trust me, Violet.”

Persennia. She’d known. I turned to look at her. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a look that said, What will you do now that life has come calling?

How it happened, I’m still not sure, but I rose to meet him and took Julian’s hand for the last few steps to the stage. Since I couldn’t die on command, I’d have to go through with it. We positioned ourselves as the music started at exactly the right place. I prayed this would not be a disaster of epic proportions. I hated him for making me do this. Hated him. Hated him. My anger was a living being with a soul.

Balance. Hold. Character.

Julian pulled me into a tight embrace, chest to chest. We locked eyes. Mine said I won’t trust you. His flashed oh yes, you will. I had danced with Pavel as a brother, but this was no brother and sister. This was a man and a woman and crackling, white-hot lightning.

From the first drop, the audience ceased to exist. It was just the two of us. There was danger, and mystery, and fear, but also exquisite, painful beauty.

Julian pulled me down in a low, dramatic drop, guiding me with his hands around my waist as we extended our legs in a perfect tango line. Then came the barridas and ochos, and I responded to his passionate control and skill. There was not time to question, only time to arch my back and match his leg flicks and head turns, a duel of fury and desire.

The turquoise dress, now slit to my thighs, snapped and fluttered and raged around me, refusing to be ignored. Its back was cut low, and I felt the heat of Julian’s hand as he spread his fingers across my bare back. As the music surged, he lifted me effortlessly, holding strong as I towered over him, his eyes still saying trust. He changed the lift to a second position, an artistic move that made me gasp at the wonder of it. When I plummeted down, he swung me around to his hip. The dance burned and sizzled, fierce, consuming, full of risk.

Julian bent me backwards, holding my torso, his face an inch from mine. The heat of it was so intense I couldn’t draw breath, and it took both of us more than a few seconds to realize the dance was over. We were panting, sweating, locked in an embrace.

The audience burst into applause and gave us a standing ovation that went on and on, yelling and whistling. I know this because Epstein and Zach and Dad told me about it later, but I have no memory of those things happening. After the dance, all I could do was look at Julian and know that I loved him, a love that took me out of myself and left me exposed for all to see.

I don’t even remember going back to my apartment or tucking a sleepy Liam in bed, but I did. I sat on the end of my bed, still in my dress, deep in thought. I had almost gone to the talent show in jeans and an old t-shirt, but Persennia had planted the thought of dressing up in my mind. I had no idea on Earth that Julian would ask me to dance in front of God and everybody. I had no idea that he knew the routine. In fact, it was impossible. How had he done it? How had he dared? When he came to me, I thought I would die on the spot, and I was angry and mortified and terrified. He had said trust me. He had been sure. He had been—

There was the softest of knocks at the door. I answered, uninterested and robotic.

It was Julian, still in his black pants and shirt.

“How did you—how did you know—I mean—where did you learn—?”

“Not tonight. I’ll answer all charges tomorrow. I came here tonight for one thing.”

He pulled me to him and kissed my lips, a kiss so desperate it made the room spin. His hands wound in my hair, pulling me to him. The kiss came in waves, once sweet and soft, then savage and urgent. The force of it made us sink to our knees, and it wasn’t until neither of us could breathe that it broke off, ragged and torn.

Julian pulled me up. He spoke like he’d been out for a long run, pacing his words to catch his breath. “That is what I came for, Violet. I came to kiss you that way. I couldn’t live another day if I didn’t kiss you that way.”

He had walked down the hall and out of sight before my own panting stopped.

I touched my lips and felt my breath against my fingers.

It took minutes for my heartbeat to slow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 58

 

The next day, I called Dad.

“Am I a proud dad or what?”

I knew he wanted to go over both of our performances, but I couldn’t wait. “Dad, how do you think Julian knew the routine? How could he have done it?”

Dad’s smile was sorrowful and sweet at the same time. “He’s a good man, Vi. Even before Pavel died, you must have mentioned that you’d never have a chance to dance that routine again. Julian asked me to send the video of your routine. You remember he saw it in person?”

Of course I remembered. My heart had lurched at the sight of him.

“I sent it, but you’ll have to ask him the rest. Do you know how special it was?”

I looked surprised. “Of course.”

“When I saw you dancing, you looked so much of your mother.” That reminded him of something. “I want to leave you her pearls. It’s a small strand, but they’re real. She always planned for you to have them. I’ll hide them for you.”

“What? No. Give them to me when I come home.”

“If anything happens to me, there might be looters. Look under the third step going up to the second floor.”

“The third step?”

Dad laughed to himself. “That’s where Vanessa and I hid all kinds of things. No one ever even thought of looking there.”

That was funny. “I never knew, you old fox.”

“We had our secrets. Sometimes we left each other notes there.”

“Dad, I think I love him. Julian, I mean.”

“I thought you might.”

“Really? Why?” I’d never discussed Julian with Dad.

He laughed. “You might want to watch the video, Honey. No one dances that way unless they’re in love.”

“Well, I’m still just figuring it all out.”

“That’s the fun part, figuring it all out.”

“What do you think?”

“Ah. What do I think? I think the world as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. It would be nice for you to have a good person by your side for whatever you’ll have to face sooner or later. He’s a role model for Liam. He’s thoughtful and kind. He’s obviously in love with you. I like Julian Fenley. He’s the kind of man who thought about what would make you happy and took the steps to make it happen.”

To hear Dad say it made me see the dance in a whole new light. I had worried that I would look like a fool if it had been a disaster. Julian, who might never have done anything like that before, looked at it as an opportunity to do something incredible for me, to make a wish of mine come true. That blew me away.

“Thanks Dad. He’s really special.”

“I agree 100%.” He paused. “Just do me a favor, okay?”

“Anything.”

“Enjoy this, Violet. Enjoy every step of it. Savor it. Treasure it. There’s never enough time when you love someone.”

Oh Dad. I don’t want to think of a future without you in it.

When I reported for work at Medical, Zach came by for his blood draw, and he was full of his usual snap, crackle, and pop.

“Talk about surprised,” he said. “How long did you and Fenley practice in secret? I mean, how did you pull that off? No one had a clue.”

“I didn’t have a clue, Zach. That was the first time we’d danced together. It was a total surprise.”

“What? No way. Uh uh. Not believing it. No way, Jose.”

“It’s true. I don’t know how he pulled it off. Seriously.”

“Well, that dance is the hot topic.”

Epstein popped her head in. “Every female wants to be you right now, Coltrane. That dance was—I can’t even. People are talking. It’s everywhere.”

“Bubble Babble?”

“What else?”

She spoke to Zach. “Your stand-up rocked, by the way.”

            “You think so? Well, there’s more where that came from. I was just getting started. Why did the sea star cross the road?” Pause. “To get to the other tide.”

            “Get the hook,” Ethan said.

            “Okay, Cheeseball, sit down and give me your arm,” I said.

            I tightened the tourniquet and thumped for a vein.

            “Statistically speaking, nine out of ten injections are in vein.”

            “Quit. Do you really want to make me laugh when I’m sticking you with a needle?”

            “It won’t matter,” Ethan said. “They’re not funny.”

            “I’m leaving,” Epstein said. Julian passed her on his way in.

            “Hey fearless leader. Who knew you were such a charmer?”

“Violet gets all the credit. Zach, need me to hold your hand?” Julian said. “It’s all over the Babble that you’re a little crybaby.”

            “Hey Dude,” Ethan said, “That dance you did with Coltrane was hot. I mean, seriously.”

            “It was the turquoise dress,” Zach said.

            My cheeks immediately turned to radishes.

I went to the lab to process Zach’s draws. Julian slipped in behind me.

We stared at each other, remembering. I wanted to reach out and touch his hair.

            “Hey, why don’t we go to the dolphin lagoon this morning?”

            Wild horses couldn’t have stopped me.

            “Yes.”

“I was thinking we could take Liam this time.”

            “Wow. He’ll go nuts. Are you sure you’re up for that much enthusiasm?”

            “Well, there’s two of us and one of him.”

            A crash in main Medical was loud enough to rattle my bones. I could tell by Zach’s laughter he was the one who had tripped over a stainless steel table and scattered instruments in all directions.

            “My bad. I did not see that standing there.”

            “Stop scaring everyone,” I said. “Geeze Louise.”

            Ethan was not amused. “Dude, do you know how long it took me to autoclave and sort those?”

            “I’ll pick everything up. Sorry.”

            “I’m supposed to take Persennia Nyaga’s blood pressure in five minutes,” Ethan said.

            “I’ll go.” I lifted the blood pressure cuff from its hook.

             Julian walked me down the long corridor to Persennia’s office.

            “How did you learn that tango? That’s a competition level dance.”

            “You really want to demystify what might be the hottest dance of a lifetime?”

            I smiled. Maybe I didn’t want to know.

            “I watched the video a million times, then I worked it out with Stana. Her parents are dance teachers and she grew up dancing.”

            I was glad we were both looking ahead. I’m sure my face was mortified. I had seen him with Stana from the window when I was swimming for Security. Thankfully, Julian didn’t mention it.

            “Why did you go to all that trouble?”

            “I wanted to make you happy.”

            “Well, it didn’t make me happy at first. I almost dropped dead right on the spot.”

            “But you didn’t.”

            “I came mighty close. How was I to know you knew the routine? You have to admit it was a terrible shock.”

            “I’m sure it was. But if I’d asked you ahead of time, it wouldn’t have been the same dance.”

            “What if I had said no? What if I had refused?”

            “It would still have been worth the try.” He laughed. “Violet, that dance was smokin’.”       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 59

 

I had to do a little bribery with Chef Sal to get Liam out of kitchen duty, but I managed it. Liam and I met Julian at Ocean Entry in an hour. We were ratcheted up for adventure. The three of us wore wet suits, bubble helmets, and fins, and Julian matched us with scooters. He had arranged for Washington and Tyler to escort us most of the way. They had some security work at OS16 and would take care of it while we went on to the lagoon. Later, they would escort us home. Julian’s thoughtfulness made me feel protected.

            “Just a little extra precaution,” he said. “I don’t expect trouble, but just in case, some extra muscle is a good idea since we’re taking Liam.”

            We drove the scooters the long trek to the lagoon, passing shoals of sardines, shrimp, and shiners. An octopus jetted through the water, splaying his tentacles out and pulling them in. A six-foot shark passed over our heads.

            When we saw the limestone outcroppings, my heart began to beat a little faster. Would the dolphins be there today? Would they come when Julian whistled? For a while, it had been too dangerous to swim here. Would the dolphins even remember to come play with us? The coral reef had been a terrific experience for Liam and his classmates, but nothing could equal our own personal dolphin encounter.

            “Hey Liam,” Julian said.

            “Yeah?”

            “This place we’re going is kind of like a secret. It’s really special. The only person I’ve taken here is your sister.”

            “Really? Why? Do you like her?”

            Julian cracked up. “Dude—who doesn’t like her? She’s outrageous.”

            “Yeah. Outrageous. That’s a good word for her. Vi, you’re outrageous.”

            We tethered our scooters at the edge of the lagoon. It was empty, but that was to be expected.

            Julian used his comm to whistle for the dolphins. We waited. I was giddy with anticipation.

Liam used his fins to kick slowly to the middle of the lagoon. Once again the sun’s rays pierced through the dazzling blue water, lighting the lagoon like a stage. I looked at my nine-year-old brother out in the ocean, so tiny and yet so capable. In the short time he’d been here at OSCAR, he’d proved that he could do so much more than society usually expected from a kid. He’d grown up so far without a mother—with me as a substitute and Dad, of course. He’d learned to cook complicated recipes by trial and error, winning the roux challenge and making excellent gumbo. He practiced using professional kitchen knives and in spite of the fact that he’d had a number of small cuts and slices on his fingers, he kept at it until he was pretty good.

No dolphins. Julian whistled again. We waited.

“Will they come?” I said.

Julian looked at me sideways. “They’ll come. I know it.”

“And how do you know that they’ll come, Mr. Julian Fenley? How do you know?” I was in a mood to tease.

“Well, Miss Violet Coltrane, I am the Dolphin Whistler. I know they’ll come because this is a perfect day. Two of my favorite people have come to a secret hideaway to see these magical creatures. If we are patient, they will come.”

We heard Liam laughing and looked. The baby dolphin shot across the lagoon and was now swimming circles.

“Violet,” Liam called. “Violet, they’re here.”

Several adults entered the lagoon and swirled around us, up and down. One must have been the baby’s mother because she swam in close and watched carefully as he circled Liam. Another hovered just above Julian’s head. It nodded several times and backed away, using only his tail to propel himself through the water. “Where have you been?” he seemed to say. “We hope you’d come back to play.” Two adults touched our power scooters with their noses.

I swam to Liam, and the mother dolphin and I eyed each other. A boy and a baby dolphin playing together in the wild. I could only shake my head at the wonder of it. Julian showed Liam how to offer the baby the colored rings to play a game. No sooner would Liam hold one up than the baby or his mother would slip their noses through it and pass it to the other adults. It travelled so quickly, in fact, that it was hard to follow which ring was where during the game. After a bit, the baby would bring one of the rings back to Liam and shove it close for him to get, and the game would begin again. I used the camera in my comm to take pictures and videos.

Julian swam in close. “Hey Vi, Liam, let’s try something.” The three of us made a large circle with our hands. The dolphins watched closely. The baby could hardly wait. His tail swished up and down and he zipped through our outstretched hands, made a U-turn, and came back through. Liam and Julian and I burst out laughing. When we did, the dolphins backed off a little and watched us with open curiosity, but the baby would have none of it. He came back nudging the yellow ring to Liam, and the chase was on again.

Without warning, Washington’s voice boomed through the speakers on our helmets.

“Mayday! Mayday! Fenley, do you copy?”

We looked at each other. Our dolphin fairy tale was most likely over.

“Fenley here. Understood.”

“Julian, rendezvous immediately. Imminent danger. Over.”

Fear gripped me and held on.

“A reminder that we have a nine-year-old with us. Should we take an alternate route?”

“Negative. Rendezvous at the agreed location ASAP.”

“State the nature of the danger. Over.”

“Massive object on collision course with OSCAR.”

What?

.

Julian and I stayed calm for Liam’s benefit. In seconds we were driving our scooters toward Oxygen Station #16. We kept Liam between us.

Washington and Tyler met us.

“What have we got?” Julian said.

“About two klicks directly west, an overturned, 40 foot yacht is careening through the sea.”

“A yacht?”

“Yeah.”

“Near the surface?”

“No. That’s just it. It’s overturned, and still partially buoyant. Must be air trapped inside because it’s not sinking to the bottom. It’s about 50-60 feet down and headed towards the OSCAR facility. It’s being propelled by the current like an unmanned vehicle with no brakes. It’s not that it’s fast, it’s that it’s big and heavy. If the current continues on the same course, it could take out an entire dome.”

“How far is it from OSCAR?”

“My estimate? Maybe an hour or two”

“Epstein?” Julian said.

“Monitoring.” I’d forgotten that one of Epstein’s new jobs was to monitor all ocean swims.

“Good. Have Mercer triangulate using sonar and satellite. Get everyone ready for evac on Mantas. Have them report to Ocean Entry with wetsuits and helmets. This is a level five threat.”

“On it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 60

 

The five of us sped back to the OSCAR facility. I stayed silent, but my mind was a swarm of questions. Would we lose a dome? Would we lose more than one dome? If this was a total catastrophe, would we have to surface early and take our chances? Would I be able to protect Liam?

When we arrived and entered Ocean Entry, we quickly took off our fins and bubble helmets. People were already gathering, and it didn’t take a genius to see their fear and concern. Julian took my hand and pulled me to the side. “Violet, I’m going to have to help deal with this. I don’t know what will happen. Keep Liam close at all times.” I nodded, and he dashed for Central Command.

“This is Julian Fenley with an urgent announcement. A heavy sunken object—a 40 foot long partially sunken yacht—is headed our way. This object is being propelled by strong currents. All crewmembers report to Ocean Entry. Full wetsuits, fins, and helmets. Epstein has already made an announcement, and it is mandatory that you are here in the next five minutes.”

Washington, George Skerski, and Tyler herded us into groups. “Don’t panic,” Washington said. “We’ve got six Mantas, and each one can take 40 people. There’s only 132 of us, so there will be plenty of room.”

“Folks, according to my comm, we have everyone here but two people. McGann, are all children present and accounted for?” George said.

“Yes,” Zach said. “We were missing Liam, but he’s here with Violet.”

Dr. Nyaga appeared. I’d never seen her in a wet suit before and not wearing a gele. Her thick hair hung in a neat braid.

Julian reappeared and gathered the Security team. Liam and I were sitting close enough we heard their conversation.

“I’ve been thinking,” Julian said. “We can’t be sitting ducks. It’s life or death that our habitat remains fully usable. If there’s a massive collision, it could take out the water plant or our ability to create oxygen. If one dome suffers a sharp enough blow, it could sheer off and damage other domes. We’ve got to stop this thing.”

“Any ideas?” Washington said.

“What if we were to blow it up?” George said.

“With the amount of dynamite we’d need, the explosion would be massive. We don’t know for sure how close it will be or what an explosion of that size might do to our facilities.”

“Could we tow it away from us?”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” Julian said. “But it won’t be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be dangerous. We’d need at least eight divers, and I don’t know if we can do it with just scooters and a three-man sub.”

“What about two of the Mantas?” Dan said. “We don’t need all of them to evac the crew.”

“Now you’re talking,” Julian said. “TR, could you tie on somehow? We’d need long cables or ropes.”

“We’ve got all that” George said.

“The problem is getting to the yacht and tying off quick enough to tow it before it gets to the OSCAR facility.”

“I’m on it. George, come show me exactly where the ropes and cables are,” Washington said.

Julian called, “Epstein, Zach, Wingers, and Coltrane.”

We were there in seconds. “You’ll each drive one of the Mantas loaded with personnel. Drive east one mile and hover at 25 feet below the surface. Wait for my instructions. Make sure everyone is strapped in properly and hooked to the oxygen system.”

Epstein gave me a bear hug. “Be safe, Bestie.”

“You, too.”

The others turned to go. “What about you,” I said.

“We’ve got to stop this thing,” Julian said. “We’ll tow it farther out to sea. If all goes well, we’ll scuttle it so it doesn’t wash in on the current and threaten us again.”

“But it’s dangerous. Tying on to an object that big that is moving all the—”

“The real danger is if it hits one of the domes or out buildings.”

I was sick that we would be separated. I was worried that something might happen to him. “But what if—”

He put his fingers over my lips. “Nothing is going to happen to me. We’re both going to do our jobs. When this is over, I’m going to come back and kiss you again, just like I did last night.” He smiled.

I reached out to touch his face. Please come back to me. Please.

And before you could snap your fingers, he was gone, shouting orders, disappearing in the crowd. Please come back to me.

I took Liam by the hand and headed for Ocean Entry. Someone called my name.

“Violet.” It was TR. “I would like for Persennia to be with you.”

“Of course.” I wondered if she needed help.

“Once I’m in the water,” she said, “I have incredible upper body strength. I’ll do fine.”

Zach was in charge of the evacuation of the Mantas. He quickly checked the groups on the four Mantas and watched his comm to make sure he had 100% attendance.

“Don’t want to leave anyone behind,” he said. “We don’t know how much damage the impact might do.”

I fastened Liam’s bubble helmet, then my own, and put on fins. The four Mantas were waiting beneath the water at Ocean Entry. We found Manta #2 and swam on board with the other crewmembers who would ride with us. Liam and Persennia sat side by side near my pilot seat. I made sure all passengers were hooked into the oxygen system. They also wore SCUBA tanks, but that was in case of an emergency. As part of my early training, I had to get my license to drive one of the Mantas and be checked out by Dan. Now I was glad for that training.

Zach led off, and we followed one by one. I thought about the people who had left us by Manta so many weeks ago. They were leaving to surface, but we were fighting to stay down beneath the ocean in our safe haven. I thought of Zach and Julian coming to my house to talk me into joining OSCAR, my friendship with Fernandez, the coral reef, Dad and Liam coming down below, the Octo-Pie, SCUBA One, the airplane crash and rescue, breaking Monty’s nose, the talent show, the kiss outside my apartment, and the people whom I had grown to love. This was my new reality. Would it be crushed and ruined by a heavy object carried by the current? Would we have to surface before it was safe? Would the divers be injured or perhaps even killed in the attempt to capture and tow the upside down yacht out to sea? Would Julian come back to me just as my heart was crying out for him?

I looked at the watch on my comm.

12:00.

The witching hour.

END

 

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