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Chapter 1

       

Susan hung motionless in the warm, sapphire blue water.  Rays of sunlight pierced the water and danced with the wavelets on the surface as they passed overhead.  The only sound she could hear was her heart beating a slow relaxed rhythm in time to the dancing sunbeams.  Faintly, she could make out clicks and chirps followed by an occasional thump and what sounded like a splash or whooshing noise—like a million bubbles bursting at once.  She pirouetted in the liquid blue turning toward the sound and staring off into the distance.  She could see light blue above, dark blue to ebony black below, and azure to the deepest, richest royal blue surrounding her.  Like swimming in the Hope diamond, she thought.  The sounds drew closer and she strained to localize the direction they were coming from.  Still not knowing what was coming, she felt at peace and quite content to hang in this beautiful sea admiring the infinite shades of blue that played around her.  Susan decided that blue was her favorite color.

        The clicks and chirps grew louder and more frequent, accompanied by more thumps, splashes and the rush of millions of bursting bubbles. Out of the deep blue she could finally make out shadows moving and playing among the sunbeams and sliding in and out of the blue veils of water.  A small pod of bottlenose dolphins finally emerged from the dark blue shadows and swam toward Susan as if she were the object of their search.  They split up and darted around her, watched her with their inquisitive black eyes and perpetual smiles.  Eventually they approached Susan close enough to touch her with their fins or nuzzle her with their beaks and she gently reached out and stroked their smooth gray skin.  The dolphins dove deep beside her only to shoot up past her on the other side and to launch themselves into the air at the surface doing somersaults and spins.  With each entry back into the water she saw the clouds of bubbles form and burst, gently caressing her ears.  She was very delighted with her new playmates.  It was only when she saw them surface for air that she realized that she did not have to.  Nor was she wearing any scuba gear, or clothes for that matter, yet she felt no discomfort, no burning desire to get to the surface to take in a much needed breath of air.  That was odd, she thought.  But at the moment she chose not to dwell on it, as she was enjoying the water and her new friends too much.   

        After a fashion the largest of the dolphins stopped in front of Susan and gazed deep into her eyes.  Susan wondered if it were trying to tell her something.  Susan could not decide which it was but she immediately felt a chill run through her.  The dolphin’s gaze lingered for a few more moments and with several loud chirps the pod reformed, circled Susan several times, darted away and returned only to repeat this new dance several more times.  Susan did not know what to do.  They seemed to be trying to tell her something but she could not translate the language of their dance or read any meaning in their fixed smiles. She hung in the water as the pod circled her slowly one last time. Once more the largest dolphin paused to look into her eyes and then with a low series of clicks, the pod swam to the surface for one more leap into the air, dove past Susan into the dark blue below, then down into the ebony black of the deep.

        All was silent again: no clicks, no splashes, no rush of bubbles.  The only sound she could hear was the beating of her heart, much more rapidly now than before.  Susan began feeling more and more uncomfortable.  A sense of apprehension drew upon her like a cloud blotting out the sun.  She fought back the panic that started to rise deep in her stomach and began to search around looking for some sign of the impending danger.  There was no noise, no indication, no warning.  Then, out of the corner of her eye, Susan saw a black shadow approaching!  The shadow loomed out of the darkness, hurtling toward her at an unbelievable speed for its size.  She tried to swim to the surface as the massive black object rushed toward her.  Susan looked over her shoulder while she struggled through the viscous water.  In her panic, all she could see was a massive, scarred, black fin and a lifeless black eye.  It pierced her through to her very soul: sucking the energy from her body.  She tried to swim faster but the beast bore down upon her until the sunbeams were extinguished, and the liquid blue turned to solid black as the beast engulfed her...

        Susan awoke in a panic, struggling against the restraints that kept her from floating out of her sleeping bag and about the cabin.  She looked around and saw there was no liquid sapphire blue or solid black to be seen.  There was no beast crushing her and no water suffocating her.  Her breathing was beginning to slow down as she wiped the sweat from her forehead hoping that no one heard her struggling through her nightmare.  Not the kind of thing a mission commander would want the crew to know about. 

        Susan released the restraints from her sleeping bag and floated freely. Checking the time, she saw she had an hour before Mission Control would officially wake them up.  She floated silently from the flight deck, where she chose to sleep last night, to the middeck and weaved her way past her sleeping crew to the personal hygiene compartment. This was one of the few places on the shuttle where one could have any privacy.  Once inside, she tried to compose herself.  Cleaning up in space wasn’t quite as refreshing as a good shower was on Earth, but for the moment it helped Susan calm down and collect her thoughts.  She gathered up her unruly hair, twisted it into a bun, and secured it with a scrunchie.  She still had that gnawing in the pit of her stomach, not quite as bad as before but it bothered her nonetheless.  Susan tried to focus on the busy day they had ahead of them.  She wanted it to go as smoothly as the rest of the mission had gone.  The launch went perfectly and the rendezvous with the International Space Station to drop off the Crew Return Vehicle, or CRV as it was more commonly known, went mostly by the book.  They also unloaded the supplies the station needed to support a full station crew compliment of seven that were going to arrive next month on the shuttle Atlantis and a Russian Soyuz capsule.  Now that the CRV was at the station, they would be able to evacuate all seven crewmembers at once, if needed.  Today they had to rendezvous with the science experiment satellite, SCIEXSAT, to remove some samples that have been in orbit for a year.  After that task was completed they had some public relations broadcasts to do and then they would prepare the shuttle for tomorrow’s reentry. 

          As Susan thought about the day’s tasks she felt the pain in the pit of her stomach increase in intensity.  The pain did not bother her—she knew it wasn’t a pain that came from a biological cause—it was the sense of foreboding that accompanied the pain that disturbed her more.  The discomfort brought Susan back to a time as a child when she had a terrible dream, and the same sensation of pain and foreboding. 

 Growing up in a close family, with grandparents always around sharing the chores and responsibilities of raising her and her two brothers, gave Susan an appreciation of family not too many eleven-year old children had.  She was especially close to her grandfather.  He spent much of his free time reading to her.  She could listen to him for hours as he read her all the classics of literature, the comics, or told her stories of his youth.  It was always a treat to come home from school and find her grandparents waiting, eager to hear about her day’s activities, and to share a snack.

One night, Susan had a dream in which her grandfather was sailing away, leaving her all alone on the beach of a deserted island.  Susan awoke in a panic, covered in sweat and with a strange pain in her stomach.  The vision of the dream haunted her while she lay awake in bed trying to get back to sleep.  It was so unlike Grandpa to ignore her.  No matter how much she called to him he just sailed farther and farther out to sea with dolphins swimming beside the boat.  Finally, she could take no more and with the ache in her stomach still there she ran to her grandparent’s room.  Seeing them sleeping soundly, she returned to bed assured that her grandparents were all right—yet the ache in her stomach persisted. 

The next day Susan learned that her grandparents were to leave on a trip and she felt the wave of pain and apprehension recur.  She told her grandfather about the dream and asked him to stay.  She begged him not to go, not to leave her.  Susan remembered how he laughed at her and told her that he would be back in a few weeks to finish Black Beauty, the latest book he was reading to her.  The feelings she felt just grew worse when they left and Susan knew, deep down, that she would never see them again.  Her fears became reality as the plane her grandparents were on crashed while landing on their return flight.  The pain and fear that nightmare planted in Susan never returned, until last night.

        It took many months for her to accept the loss of her grandparents and many years before she stopped anticipating hearing their voices when she got home from school.  Right now, Susan found herself yearning for the soothing sound of her grandfather’s voice reading Black Beauty to her.  Right now, she wished she were anywhere but on this shuttle.

 

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