Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cardan's Pod Preview

I currently have a Kickstarter Project running to get the second book in the Pod series, Marta's Pod, edited and published. In order to let people get a feel for the Pod stories, I decided to post the first three chapters of Cardan's Pod here, for potential backers to preview. My Kickstarter is running until May 3rd, 2013, with a goal of $2500. You can find my Kickstarter here.

If you're new to the blog, feel free to visit the archives, where I have excerpts from most of my novels, along with short stories and even a few Ponderings. Thanks for visiting, and I hope you enjoy your stay.

Cardan's Pod
by Rick Higginson
Chapter 1

I am counted with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man who has no strength,
Adrift among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And who are cut off from Your hand.
Psalm 88:4,5
Joshua Cardan teetered on the deck of the sailboat, fighting to keep his eyes open as he drifted in and out of awareness. His attention wandered to the bottle dangling from his left hand, and he tried to remember if he had really consumed that much of the liquor. Having only been drunk once before in his life, he could not grasp what would have motivated him to repeat the unpleasant experience.
A pair of hands held tight to his arms, keeping him balanced. Turning toward the face at his shoulder, Josh focused sluggish eyes enough to recognize his wife, Cynthia, beside him.
"Hullo, dear," he slurred with a laugh, finding the statement unusually witty.
When she didn’t answer him, his mind wandered to the open ocean off the side of the boat. He didn’t remember setting sail, but since none of the marina’s other boats were beside his, he decided he must have done so. Looking at the glass in his right hand, with the remnant of liquid in the bottom, he found it odd, since he never drank when sailing.
"Hurry up," his wife hissed. Though she stood right next to him, her voice sounded far away.
His inebriated mind worked over that conundrum for a moment, until Cynthia stepped away, leaving him swaying. He was about to ask her why he needed to hurry, when his eye was caught by a motion on the other side. For a fraction of a second, Joshua’s trained sailing instincts cleared his mind enough to alert him to the impending collision between the mainsail and his body. He tried to duck beneath it but, slowed by his drunken condition, succeeded only in placing his head in line with the oncoming boom.
The alcohol did little to numb the pain of the impact on his skull or the wrenching feeling in his chest as he flipped over the lifeline. Landing flat in the cold water, Josh gasped in surprise and gulped a mouthful of brine. He bobbed back to the surface, coughing and spitting while a wave of pain-induced nausea swept over him. The salt burned the fresh wound on his forehead, and his fingers were streaked with diluted blood when he wiped his eyes.
With his wits somewhat restored after the dunking, and despite the pain, he searched around him for the boat, only to spot the dark craft moving away on the gentle breeze. Over the sound of the waves, Cynthia’s laughter reached his ears.
Laughter?’ He strained to focus, though the effort sent new pulses of pain throbbing through his head. In the moonlight, he could see her figure silhouetted against another in a passionate embrace on the deck, before the two climbed into a small inflatable tied to the stern.
In a brief moment of clarity, Joshua realized he was witnessing his own murder. Feeling stupid, and struck by the irony of figuring it out much too late, he tried to swim for the boat, but with arms and legs that felt too heavy to move, he managed only a few feeble strokes.
With the abrupt growl of the outboard motor, the inflatable pulled away, leaving his body for the sea to claim.
His best friend had tried to warn him about Cynthia, but he had not wanted to hear it. ‘Good advice is so much easier to recognize when it’s too late to receive it,’ he thought, as his soaked clothing and shoes weighed him down. Looking back at the surface, just out of reach, Josh couldn’t muster the strength to even tread water. As he sank deeper, the sensations of the world he knew were replaced by the eerie noises of the ocean, twisted by the memory of Cynthia’s laughter.
His last thoughts were of apologies that would remain unspoken, before he slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *

Lt. Franks of the Coast Guard surveyed the deck of the sailboat. The nearly empty liquor bottle and glass told him much of what he needed to know, especially when coupled with the traces of blood and skin found on the unsecured boom.
‘No matter how many times we tell them alcohol and boats don’t mix, too many of these fools don’t take it to heart.’ Franks released an exasperated snort with the thought. He didn’t want to think about how much of his time in the Coast Guard had been spent cleaning up the aftermath of that deadly combination. Even the warm mid-morning sun did little to brighten the dark mood that had descended on him.
The lieutenant’s thoughts were interrupted by the voice of one of his crewmen.
"I think you should see this, sir. It’s on the table in the cabin."
He followed the recruit to the undisturbed scene, where an open and almost empty bottle of pills rested in a cup holder. Franks bent down to read the label, careful not to touch anything.
"Sedatives," he noted, shaking his head in disgust at the implications. "It will all have to be recorded before we can do much more here."
After viewing the scene, the lieutenant didn’t hold much hope for success for his colleagues out searching for the missing sailor. If anything was worse than mixing drugs, alcohol and boats, it was mixing drugs, alcohol and swimming. Everything he saw told Franks they would be lucky if they managed to find the body. It would be a miracle to find a survivor.
* * *

Cynthia Cardan took her time walking to the door to answer the insistent knock, irritated that Josh had never agreed to hire servants for the household duties. ‘A wealthy household should have a full-time maid, not a once-a-week service,’ she thought as she opened the door.
The deputy sheriff on the porch looked up from his clipboard. "Good afternoon, ma’am," he said. "I apologize for the intrusion, but is this the Cardan residence?"
"I’m Cynthia Cardan," she said. "Is there a problem?"
"I hope not, ma’am. Is Joshua Cardan at home?"
"No, he’s not. This time of day he’s normally at his office. Have you tried there?"
"Yes, ma’am. They suggested we look here. He’s not been in nor called his office today. Did he leave here this morning to go to work?"
"Actually, no. He, uh, wasn’t here last night."
"When was the last time you saw him?"
"Yesterday evening. My husband and I, well, we fought at dinner last night, and he went to spend the night on his sailboat."
"You haven’t heard from him since?"
"No. Why?"
"I’m sorry to tell you this, ma’am, but your husband’s sailboat was found adrift this morning by the Coast Guard."
She leaned against the doorframe for support and covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, no; is he all right?"
"Mrs. Cardan, no one was on board when the Coast Guard found the boat. They’re conducting a search, but so far we have no word on your husband’s whereabouts. We’d hoped to find him at either his office or here, and that maybe the boat had been stolen and our missing person is just a thief who abandoned the vessel. Are you certain he made it to his boat last night?"
Cynthia slumped toward the floor, accepting the deputy’s assistance to a chair. "I don’t know," she replied. "Is his car at the marina? He drives a red ‘69 Datsun 2000 Roadster."
"Which marina?" he asked.
She told him, and he relayed the information to the dispatcher. "They’ll send someone to check the parking lot. Are you going to be all right, Mrs. Cardan? Can I call someone to come and stay with you?"
She shook her head and made a helpless gesture with one hand. "I’ll be fine." Then, looking up with wet eyes, she added, "You will let me know if you find anything, won’t you?"
"Yes, ma’am. You’ll be the first person we tell."
He stayed with her a while longer, and asked for a list of other places they might look for the missing man. Cynthia complied with some names and locations, all of which the deputy took dutiful note. Then, after again asking if she would be all right, he left.
Listening until she heard the car leave the driveway, Cynthia dried her eyes and retrieved a glass of wine from the dining room before retiring to the bedroom to watch television.
* * *
He awoke in darkness, surrounded by cool, damp air and with the presence of a warm body against his back. His head still throbbed, and when he reached up to feel the knot on his brow he brushed against several days’ worth of stubble on his chin. He recalled waking up a few times before, but couldn’t be sure what memories were real, and what had been dreams. Lying quietly, he took stock of what he could tell for certain. He was not dead because, he reasoned, heaven would feel much better than this, and hell much worse. His clothes were gone, and his naked body ached from his injuries.
Sorting through the blurry recollections that came to mind, he tried to place them in order. He knew he was Joshua Cardan, the heir of the Cardan Pharmaceutical Corporation and the principal stockholder in the company. He remembered arguing with Cynthia over dinner; an occurrence which had become much too frequent in their year of marriage. After the argument, he had driven to the marina, where he had poured himself a drink on his boat, as was his usual habit for such cool down times. It had tasted a little odd, but he had dismissed that as the remnants of that night’s dinner. He remembered little more until the memory of the boom coming at him, then the shock of the cold water and the final insult of seeing Cynthia embracing the stranger as the boat drifted away.
He puzzled over his current situation--lying naked in a strange location, warmed by the presence of another person behind him. He felt bare breasts against his back, indicating his companion was female, and he recalled the other times he had drifted in and out of consciousness, someone, whether her or another person, had been always beside him.
The arm wrapped around him was strongly muscled, and based on how her torso matched up with his, Josh surmised she was heavyset. Her breathing was slow and paced, with the occasional deep inhalation of someone asleep.
He knew he was not in a hospital. While he avoided hospitals whenever possible, he would have recognized the various noises associated with them. Besides, no medical center he’d ever heard of used topless women to keep patients warm, nor did they tend to place their patients on smooth rock. The patient bed he had once occupied had been hard, but not nearly as unyielding as what was beneath him now. The hospital had never been dark, either, even at night. Wherever he was, his eyes had so little light they could not see his arm, mere inches from his face, pillowing his head.
The only logical conclusion he could reach was that he had been found by a homeless woman and brought to her camp. He’d been around some homeless people before that had reeked of stale sweat and human waste, but was relieved that he detected none of that close to him. Instead, he smelled algae and seawater, and it reminded him of the time he and his dad had explored some tide pools when he was a boy. Sniffing again, he noticed a trace of his own sweat more than any odor coming from his companion.
Cautiously, he reached behind to feel her side. What his fingers encountered was not shaped like the hip he expected to find, and while the surface was warm like skin, it was unlike any he’d ever touched before. He wondered if she might be wearing some kind of strange bodysuit, and traced his fingers upward to see if he could find a waistband or something similar. While he found a transition above to what felt like normal skin, and below to an odd texture, he could detect no separation in the continuity between the two.
As he moved his fingers back and forth, trying to visualize what he was feeling, his companion stirred, sighing contentedly at his touch and shifting position until he could feel something against his feet. His heart pounded at the realization that what rested against his heels weren’t her legs, and he wondered for the first time if he was suffering from a delusional state.
His mind insisted it was not possible; he had to be mistaken in what he felt. Still, he rubbed his foot against whatever it was behind him. Whether he was delusional or not, he could not mistake the shape of the dolphin-like fluke his foot found.
Through a mélange of disbelief, panic, and fascination, one clear thought surfaced.
He was being held by a mermaid.

Chapter 2

The pangs of death encompassed me,
And the floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
Psalm 88:4,5

He was being held by a mermaid.

Part of his mind protested that it was impossible; mermaids did not exist. They were the fabrication of sailors, either mistaking some other sea creature for a beautiful, half-woman siren, or else the erotic fantasies born out of too many months at sea.
Another part of his mind pointed out the obvious: a person could hold onto a myth, but a myth could not hold onto a person. At his back lay the torso of a woman, warm and breathing and holding him close. At his legs, the tail and fluke normally associated with a dolphin or porpoise. Not half-woman, half-fish, he noted, but half-woman, half-dolphin. Even in the dark, he knew only one creature occupied the space behind him.
Joshua remained quiet while he thought, afraid of what might happen if he disturbed his companion. He could conceive of only two logical possibilities for his situation. Either he really was being held by a mermaid or by an elaborate hoax. He wondered if Cynthia had set him up for some horrible joke. Or, he considered, maybe it was one of those stupid T.V. shows. It made no sense, though, for there were too many opportunities for something to have gone wrong, with too many variables to orchestrate, and no way to have predicted how each would turn out. No; he couldn’t imagine any T.V. crew would have risked the liability issues it presented.
‘Maybe I’m hallucinating,’ he thought. He had been drugged and suffered a head injury, so it would not be unreasonable for him to have delusions. Josh weighed whether being crazy was preferable to mermaids being real. He was certain his thoughts were clear, without the disjointed quality that dreams had, while his perception remained consistent and linear. ‘Perhaps that’s what makes delusions so powerful,’ he considered. ‘They seem completely real to the person experiencing them.’

He stopped the mental debate when he heard water being disturbed. A soft splash, as of someone getting out of a pool, sounded somewhere behind him, followed by a heavy flopping noise.
"Is he awake yet?" a feminine voice asked.
The arm around him withdrew, and his companion rolled away. "He’s stirred a few times more, and I awoke to him actually touching me. I’m not sure if he has really awakened though."
"I’m worried; perhaps his injuries were worse than you thought. Maybe we should have taken him where people would have found him."
"Where? Dr. Marcel chose this place because no one comes here and it would be easier for us to hide."
"Are we to keep him here hidden with us?"
"I don’t know. Maybe I was wrong, but when I saw what happened to him, I couldn’t let him drown."
"The Pod still isn’t happy about it, but we’ll worry about that later. You need to eat. I’ll stay here and keep him warm for a while."
"How was the foraging today? Is there enough?"
"Nothing but fish, but everyone managed to make up for you being here instead of out looking for food. You know they’re unhappy about that, too."
"I know; I just don’t know what else to do."
"Go and eat. You’re going to be more trouble if you make yourself as sick as he is. Then we’d need someone to take care of you, as well as someone to take over caring for him."
"I won’t be long."
He heard more of the flopping sound, as his companion moved across the rock. They obviously did not have legs, and in his mind he pictured how they might be moving. Could they bend their tails up underneath them and waddle like a sea lion or walrus would?
The newcomer plopped down behind him, scooting herself closer. She seemed taller than the other, though no less stout in build. He thought about all the depictions of mermaids he had seen, and it made no sense for them to have fish tails and thin "fashion model" torsos. They would be marine mammals, he reasoned, and like their sea mammal cousins, they would have strong muscles for swimming, with sufficient fat to insulate them from the cold water.
What of the Dr. Marcel they had mentioned? Did they have their own doctors in their society, or was Dr. Marcel human? He was inclined to think the latter, as their English was too contemporary. They had to have been exposed to modern language through a human contact. How had they stayed hidden from scientific scrutiny for so long? Or had they not stayed hidden, and that was who Dr. Marcel was?
Of two things he was certain, though. He had been cared for by at least two mermaids, and they spoke of others. If they wanted to hurt him, they would have had ample opportunity while he was still unconscious.
Despite his questions and doubts, he felt no reason to be afraid of them. He turned his attention to the second thing, which was that he could not wait much longer to empty his bladder. If he did not find where he was supposed to take care of such business, he was going to end up doing so right where he lay.
His mental assurances did little to alleviate his trepidation as he rolled away from his spot. The effort produced an involuntary groan as his muscles protested after the prolonged inactivity, while the knot on his head throbbed anew from the exertion. He pushed himself up onto hands and knees, again groaning from the soreness the movement exacerbated.
"You’re awake?" his current caretaker asked. He thought he detected a hint of panic in the voice.
"I’ve been awake," he said through his dry throat. "I need to--"
He hadn’t finished speaking when he heard her moving away from him and, before he could interrupt her progress, heard the splash as she hit the water.
‘So much for asking where the bathroom is,’ he thought.
He groped about in the darkness with his hands, trying to determine where he was in relation to anything else around him. Moving slowly, not just from caution but because his body still refused to move any faster, he found a vertical surface and explored it with his hands, a bit fearful of what he might find. Were there spiders that lived in absolute darkness?
The vertical formation appeared to be nothing more than a large stone in the rock floor, without anything that would indicate it was special. With little other choice, he decided it would have to do. While still on his knees, he steadied himself with his hands against the stone and took care of the most demanding need he had.
‘Man,’ he thought. ‘Who would have imagined taking a leak would feel like so much work?’

Moving to the uphill side of the stone, he lowered himself to a sitting position with a moan. ‘Heaven would feel better and hell would feel worse,’ he reminded himself. At that moment, though, he wasn’t sure hell would feel all that much worse.
* * *

Cynthia Cardan smirked as she watched the television news from the privacy of her bedroom. The reporter was talking about Josh’s disappearance again and how the Coast Guard had suspended the search for the missing pharmaceutical tycoon.

‘Too bad,’ she thought, as finding his body would have been ideal.
She expected the phone to ring any moment as one friend or another reacted to the news report. She had already turned off the ringer on the bedroom phone, and although she would be able to hear the downstairs phone, she planned to ignore it and listen to the messages later.
Many of her friends and acquaintances already treated her like a bereaved widow, and she intended to strike a perfect balance between sad and sexy in the black wardrobe she selected from the fashion magazines on her bed. She already had a very special black outfit on order from a certain designer, especially for Lonnie when he came over to comfort her. ‘Not too soon, though,’ she thought. If she was seen moving too quickly into a new relationship, it could arouse suspicions, and she had spent far too much effort cultivating her marriage to the Cardan heir to have the final goal snatched from her by rushing.
In a way, she did feel sadness at losing Josh. He had been something of an old school romantic, although far too trusting for his own good. If she had not gotten to him first, some other woman would have reeled him in and cleaned him out. She just made it as painless for him as she could, instead of making him go through a miserable divorce procedure.
Cynthia smiled as she admired her naked form in the full length mirror. Her mind had dreamed and planned, but it had been her body that opened the door. As the new Cardan heiress, she could feel the power of doors to which she herself now held the keys.
* * *
Lonnie Grinnell nursed an expensive German beer while watching the game on the television behind the bar. One benefit of his relationship with Cynthia was being able to afford the beverages he preferred, instead of the cheap brew his normal budget allowed. The good beer, though, failed to assuage the disgust he felt at how his team was playing. The other team scored again, and he turned away.
A young woman at a nearby table met his eye and shook her head. "It is painful to watch, isn’t it?" she said.
He snorted. "They were already two runs down and just allowed a three-run homer. They should’a retired the pitcher two innings ago." He walked over and stood by her table.
"Their bullpen’s too shallow; he’s actually a very good pitcher, but they’ve been using him too much lately." She finished her drink. "So, are you a Houston fan? I haven’t seen you in here before, and it’s unusual to find anyone who roots for someone besides the local teams."
"I spent a few summers workin’ the fishing fleet out of Galveston right after high school. When I had the chance, I’d head up to Houston for the games, and I’ve been a fan ever since," he said. "Although watching ‘em play this afternoon, I wonder why."
"So what brings you so far from the Texas shore, Mister--?"
"Grinnell; folks mostly just call me Lonnie, though."
"Cheryl," she reciprocated.
"Pleased to meet’cha. I’ve been travelin’ here and there, takin’ odd jobs as they become available. I’m stayin’ at the marina down the street for a few days before I head south after more work."
"The marina, huh? You have a boat?"
"Yeah. She’s old and she don’t look like much, but she’s home."
"I’d love to see her," she said.
He looked at her and noted the implied offer in her expression. ‘Why not,’ he thought. Cynthia didn’t have to know, and besides, she had no room to talk. Her husband had still been alive the first time she’d visited his bed.
* * *

Josh heard the water disturbed and what sounded like two bodies crawling up onto the rock.

"Where are you?" his first companion asked.
It was funny; even though he had not heard her voice all that much, he was certain it was her and not another who sounded like her.
"Over here," he said, wondering if their dark vision was no better than his. Her sounds drew closer.

"Be careful; there’s a puddle over here that you don’t want to get into," he added.
She stopped near him, and he heard her sniffing. "Oh, that," she said. "We’ve washed plenty of that from beneath you since we brought you here."
He jumped in surprise when her hand touched him out of the darkness.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Like I’ve been drugged, clubbed, drowned, and left on a hard rock floor for too long."
"You’ve moved around; that’s a good thing."
"I wish it felt as good as it sounds."
"Do you feel up to a swim? The Pod needs to see you, and we don’t hold council in our sleeping chamber."
"How far do I have to swim? I’m an okay swimmer, but I’m really not at the top of my game right now."
"If he was an okay swimmer, he wouldn’t be here," the other mermaid said.
"Shh," the first responded. "You don’t have to swim on your own," she explained, directing the statement back to him. "All you have to do is hold your breath and we’ll take you there." She traced her hand up his side and then down his arm, taking his hand and placing it on her shoulder.
He had pictured her sitting up in the dark across from him, but now that he touched her he realized she was on the floor, front side down, and propped up on one arm while she guided his hand with her other arm.
"Follow me to the water," she said.
He dropped back to a hands and knees position, placing his weight on one hand while he kept his other on her shoulder to follow her.
After losing his contact four times in the first few feet, she sighed in frustration. "Wait," she said. "Let me get just ahead of you, and then you can trace your hand along my back to get beside me again."
When she had crawled forward a few feet until her fluke brushed against his hand, he ran his fingers up the back of her tail as he moved forward. Hesitating just below where he thought her bottom should be, he worried how she might react to his touch on her behind.
"Come on," she said. "Or we’ll never get anywhere."
He resumed his progress, surprised to feel the ridge of vertebrae leading to the small of her back. He realized then why she had not been sitting near him. Unlike the classic mermaid tail that appeared to be a fish-skin suit over human hips and legs, her tail was an extension of the spine, just as a dolphin’s tail was. She had no bottom to sit on, or for him to worry about rubbing.
They alternated moving forward until she splashed into the water ahead of him. The cold water was a shock as he followed her, but the shiver that traversed his spine was not from the temperature. The memory of Cynthia’s laughter was much more chilling than the dark pool. He heard the other mermaid slip in behind them, and a moment later she broke the surface close by his side.
"Take some deep breaths," the first mermaid said. "Leanna will take your hand on one side, and I’ll take your hand on the other. When you are ready, hold your breath and we’ll tow you to the Pod. Grasp by the wrist; it’s more secure that way."
He doubted he would ever feel ready, but followed her instructions and filled his lungs several times. "Okay," he said. He gulped in one more deep breath and held it, and then felt himself pulled beneath the surface.
The salt water stung his eyes, and he closed them tight against the onrushing current as he was pulled faster than he had ever imagined swimming. He tried counting the seconds to see how long their journey took, but became distracted when his lungs screamed for fresh air. He was on the verge of panic when his escorts turned upward, and they surfaced once again.
When they released his hands, he rubbed the salt water from his eyes and opened them, blinking several times from the pain of having been too long dilated in the dark.
He was in another cavern, lit by sunlight streaming through various cracks in the rocks overhead. Treading water all around him were numerous others, all watching him with suspicion. The female faces outnumbered the male, he noted, as he turned in the water to see them all. At least two dolphins swam around the group, their gray heads and dorsal fins appearing at the surface for breaths of air.
His original companion remained by his side, while the one she had called Leanna joined the circle surrounding him. He remembered the brief conversation he’d overheard earlier. The one beside him was concerned for his safety, but what if the rest of them decided to finish what Cynthia started?
The silence around the chamber persisted for a few long minutes until it was broken by the eldest-looking female in the group.
"Well, Marta, now that he’s awake, what are we going to do with him?"
The question did not sound friendly.
Chapter 3
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
Psalm 139:15,16

His companion seemed surprised by the question. "Why would you even need to ask that, Eva?"
A male voice behind him added, "Dr. Marcel told us to stay hidden!"
While a murmur of agreement erupted throughout the cavern, his companion stayed focused on the mermaid who had spoken first. In the absence of proper introductions, he accepted their names for each other as the ones he could use. Marta had to be his companion, while the eldest-appearing female must be Eva.
He reasoned Eva could not be the matriarch, as she did not look old enough to be the mother of even the youngest present; he guessed she was only in her mid-twenties. She had all the appearance of being in charge, though, for when she raised her body out of the water with strokes of her powerful tail, all the rest fell silent again.
It was the first real look Josh had of one of them, and he stared with jaw agape at her revealed form. When she had been floating in front of him, he could have taken her for any average woman. She had long, dark hair and a heavy build, much the same as many women he’d seen in his life. Her breasts were rather ordinary, far removed from the voluptuous depictions of mermaids in paintings and movies. However, the exposed gray tail, kicking just as he’d seen the dolphins do at ocean parks, dispelled any hope he might have maintained that it was all pretend. The human belly blended with the pale skin on the underside of the tail, and as he had noted when he’d touched his companion in the dark, the body had no hips. Instead, the muscular tail tapered from the human abdomen, becoming narrower side to side while remaining thicker front to back.
She gave no indication whether she cared she was naked or that he was staring at her. Neither did Marta seem to take any notice of the attention he was paying to the "standing" mermaid.
Eva settled back down and continued her questioning. "Robert’s correct, Marta. You know Dr. Marcel taught us that hiding was our best defense, and especially hiding from his kind. Now he knows we are here, how are we to correct the danger he poses to the Pod?"
Her question was met by another smattering of voices, until his companion likewise raised herself out of the water. Once silence had been restored, she settled back down, though the group did not respond as quickly to her "standing" as they had to Eva’s.
"Dr. Marcel did tell us to hide. He warned us of the terrible things that might happen to us should we be found, and we all saw the fear in his eyes when the machines first came close to our home. He taught us to stay hidden, but he also taught us of kindness and compassion. Which did he teach us to value more? Did he teach us to kill in order to stay hidden?" Marta slowly spun about, fixing each one around the perimeter with her gaze. None flinched away from meeting her eyes. "We know what might happen if we are found, but we don’t know what will happen. I can tell you what would have happened if I had not brought this one here. He would have died, and Dr. Marcel taught us that not acting to save a life when we can is no different than killing."
She completed her spin and returned her attention to the eldest female. "What of ‘his kind,’ Eva? Was not Dr. Marcel ‘his kind,’ yet we trusted him completely?"
Another murmur ran through the assembly, carrying a different tone than before.
She did not wait for the sound to die down before continuing. "How long have we waited for Dr. Marcel to come back to us? I wish he could be here to offer us his wisdom on what we should do, but Eva, you and I knew him longer than any other here. Could you hear him telling us to do anything terrible to someone, even to stay hidden?"
‘I hope not,’ Josh thought.
"No, Marta," Eva replied, a softness breaking through her voice. "I cannot. Yet, we still must decide what we are to do with him."
A young male near Eva’s side rose up slightly and blurted, "Could he find Dr. Marcel for us?"
That brought on the loudest muttering so far, and it took both Eva and Marta rising up on their tails to bring order to the assembly. When both had settled back into the water, Eva looked Josh in the eye. "Man, what is your name?"
"Joshua Cardan," he said, surprised by how timid his voice sounded.
"Is that what we are to call you, Joshua Cardan?"
"If you’d prefer, you can just call me Josh."
"What do you have to say, Josh?"
"I can say that even if I went right now and told everyone about you, I would be called crazy and no one would believe me. They would say that my head injury gave me hallucinations, and to tell you the truth, I still find all this hard to believe myself. What’s more, I could not even tell anyone where you are, because I have no idea where I am."
"What of Dr. Marcel? Could you find Dr. Marcel?"
"I don’t know. I’m not sure where I would start to look for him. I’m not even sure where my clothes are."
Marta leaned over to him. "Your clothes were making you sink. I removed them from you to make it easier to bring you here."
"You didn’t save them, did you?"
"I was more interested in saving you."
Eva tolerated their muted exchange for the moment, before returning to the subject at hand. "Dr. Marcel has a small chamber of his own here, but we cannot reach it. I fear to ask, though; can we trust you, Joshua Cardan?"
"I owe you my life. I don’t know what more I could offer to gain your trust," he said. "For what it’s worth, I only trust you because I haven’t much choice."
Stoically, Eva considered his reply for a moment before responding. "I suppose none of us has much choice. Show him the way to Dr. Marcel’s chamber, Marta. Maybe he can learn something there that will tell us what has happened."
* * *
Cynthia smiled at the latest news coming across the television. A sport fisherman had snagged Josh’s pants and brought them to the surface--with the wallet still in the pocket.
Of course, she had first heard about it from a deputy, and although such evidence did not legally prove her husband was dead, the Coast Guard held out little hope of finding him alive. They were now more attentive to whether they would find his body washed ashore somewhere.
Turning off the television, she rose from the couch and stretched, feeling the first pangs of hunger. Even grieving people needed to eat, and Cynthia had never enjoyed cooking for herself. No one needed to know she was enjoying the upscale restaurant meals far more than she was letting on, so she again transformed her face to the haggard look she’d been publicly wearing since the morning she’d first received the news. Then, grabbing her purse and car keys, she stepped out the front door. Perhaps she’d eventually pursue a career in acting, she told herself. It seemed she had a knack for it.
* * *
Lonnie stood in the bright sunshine on the deck of his boat, watching with amusement as the people nearby sent disapproving looks his way. His disreputable, old, sport fishing boat floated in stark contrast to the well maintained yachts and sailboats in the crowded marina, and he knew he was regarded as "riff raff" by most of the folks there. They were likely also wondering what might have possessed the Silversteins to allow him to use their berth during their annual cruise south.
‘Let them wonder,’ he thought with a snicker. He’d worked mighty hard to secure just the right location to tie up the Wicked Wanda for the plan, and even Cynthia had been impressed by how he’d managed to make it happen.
Looking across the pier, and over two slips to the empty spot where Cardan’s boat, the Bitter Pill, usually resided, he doubted any of the disapproving people would recognize him later when he took over as captain of that vessel. The Bitter Pill was still moored somewhere farther up the coast, where the Coast Guard had taken it when they brought it in.
He liked the upscale marina, though, and smiled at the idea that a "low-class" working man like him would soon own a fancy sailboat among all those "high-class" people with their expensive yachts.
Cheryl sunbathed on the deck, behind him, and more than once he’d seen condemning glances sent her way. If they needed fuel for their gossip, her plans to stay the night should give them plenty. ‘Talk all ya want,’ he thought. ‘We’ve done had a good time already, and we ain’t finished yet.’
He thought it funny that the rich busybodies hadn’t been watching as close on the night he’d snuck over to the Bitter Pill. Then again, thinking about Cheryl, he figured he’d also rather stare at her than at a roughneck like him. Chuckling, he raised his bottle of beer toward one attentive woman, wondering who she would watch when he turned the borrowed berth back over to its owners.
The proper folks might not like him much, but he was confident that none of them could testify he’d been anywhere but on the Wicked Wanda that night, probably passed-out drunk on his bunk.
That is, if anyone ever thought they had a reason to ask.
* * *
Marta towed him deeper into the cavern, but they hadn’t gone far before the bottom sloped up underneath them and she stopped, indicating ahead to where a metal ladder was affixed to the cavern wall.
"We know Dr. Marcel’s chamber is up there somewhere, but we’re not built for climbing ladders."
"I’d say not," Josh said, turning to face her. "You risked a heck of a lot to save me, didn’t you?"
"I didn’t stop to think about it before I did."
"Thank you doesn’t really feel like it’s enough to say in exchange for a life."
Marta’s expression seemed a mix of both hope and dread. "This Pod is all any of us has; this is our life. If you owe us your life, as you said, then thank me by being careful with ours."
She pointed to a trickle of water flowing from a crack in the far wall. "That’s fresh water, if you need to drink."
He nodded and then proceeded up the slick rock, on hands and knees when it became too shallow to swim.
Although he wasn’t sure why, Joshua felt self-conscious with most of his body exposed in the light. It was obvious his hosts were not concerned about nudity, but then again, their genitals were safely ensconced within a fold of their flesh, exposed only when needed.
Once on dry rock, he took a few moments to feel steady again before trying to stand and walk. Instinctively, he cupped his hands in front of his groin, embarrassed that he felt shy about his body when he’d stared without hesitation at Eva’s.
Joshua headed first to the trickle of water and, once there, began to drink. It had a heavy mineral taste, but he was much too thirsty to care.
Despite the urge to keep drinking, he finally stepped away, afraid if he drank too much he would risk throwing it back up.
Putting one hand on the ladder, he looked up and tried to determine how far it went. The cavern ceiling was lower at this end, and maybe ten feet up the ladder disappeared inside an artificial shaft carved into the stone. He glanced back to where he’d left Marta.
She was floating on her back in the shallows, watching him. "I’ll be here when you return," she said.
He nodded, and gave her what he hoped was a confident smile before stepping up the first rung. As he began to climb, his muscles protested the exertion, while his stomach grumbled that he needed more than just water to consume.
He continued up until he caught the faint line of sunlight shining under a doorway. Holding tight to the ladder, he felt for the edge of the walkway he was certain was there, and upon finding it, stepped out onto it.
The door wasn’t locked, though the hinges squealed from being unused for too long in the salt air. The room beyond was small and sparsely furnished, with a twin bed, a small desk and chair, and a file cabinet filling the limited space. It was lit overhead by a skylight, though a few light fixtures punctuated the walls. Joshua switched on the nearest of these, and was surprised it still worked. The glow was that of a low voltage, battery operated system.
On the bed he found a dusty swimsuit, and though large on him, he slipped it on and pulled the drawstring tight. A pair of flip-flops rested on the floor, and again, while larger than his shoe size, he decided they’d have to do. No longer completely naked, he felt more assured as he looked about the room.
There appeared to be no other door leading out of the chamber, save for the one through which he had entered. Leaving that door open to provide some light, he walked back to the ladder and looked up. It went further into the darkness, and Joshua guessed it led to another room or, at least, to a door to the outside.
Deciding to catch his breath before another climb, Josh returned to the room. There he tried the file cabinet and found it unlocked. The cabinet contained an older laptop computer and a thick envelope of papers. He removed them both and sat them on the desk, noticing that a power cord for the laptop rested against the wall. Glancing under the desk, he saw it was an automotive type adapter modified for the DC system in the room. He connected it and attempted to turn on the computer, only to have it shut down almost immediately. Disappointed, he left it connected to the adapter, hoping the battery would charge sufficiently to let the computer power up.
He turned his attention instead to the papers in the envelope, removing the stack and setting it in front of him. Opening the top folder, he saw a corporate logo and the words "Company--Private" printed in bright red ink. ‘Marcel Research Laboratories,’ he read. If he’d heard the name before, Josh didn’t recall where at that moment.
Turning the page, his breath caught in his throat.
In his hands he held the lab notes for a genetic engineering project.

Cardan's Pod, (c) 2008 by Rick Higginson