SHANNON KENDRICKS SUDDENLY LOST SIGHT of the green-black waters of the Alaskan Sea. She saw nothing except black emptiness. On her lips she faintly tasted the salty sea, and she smelled a hint of repulsive, metallic blood. Fainter still, she heard the echo of frantic screams.
She didn’t experience hallucinations. In fact, the last time she even thought she had fallen prey to hallucinations, the—oh no. No, no, and no! Surely not an alien visitation again. Shannon buried that thought deep in her mind, hopefully never to be revisited.
Okay, her mind checked out as sound, and capable of the forewarning. But seriously, could a disaster happen here? Shannon looked around. She stood in the Dickson Marine Mammal Research Center Underwater Complex, the UC for short, twenty-six feet below the sea. The UC consisted of a giant wheel with an outer and inner ring, connected, like the spokes of a wheel, by eight viewing corridors that radiated out from a central hub of research labs. At the point where the outer ring bordered the solid rock of the shoreline, elevators led up to the Dickson’s landside buildings. Sure, tons of water pressed down on the UC, but the best engineers Dickson money could buy had sworn that not even a hurricane or an accidental collision by a ship could damage the structure.
Bright underwater lights reached out in every direction, yet revealed nothing alarming to Shannon’s watchful eye, nothing that could cause the disaster Shannon expected to arrive any minute. But her vision told her that when it arrived, it would endanger, or end, dozens of lives. It would shatter the Underwater Complex like a heavy boot on thin ice.
Shannon should alert security, but what would she say? That a cataclysmic event would hit the UC, but she had no idea exactly what would happen or when? Security would simply ignore her until she could give them something concrete.
She closed her eyes and tried to recapture the salty sea, the blood, the tortured cries, hoping a fuller image would form.
As if she didn’t already have enough to worry about with Juneau missing.
Today Juneau, a snow-white beluga whale and Shannon’s research partner, had set out on her very first day of freedom from the steel-and-concrete sea pen that extended from the shore in a great semicircle around the UC. She’d lived in captivity for ten long years at the SeaQuarium in Ocean City, California, in a pool that the designers had declared generous compared to other captive whale pools, but compared to the whole northern Pacific Ocean, um, no.
The Dickson had set her free today at last. And then she had disappeared.
Shannon whipped her radio off her belt.
“Hey, Steve. Shannon here. Have you spotted Juneau on your monitors by any chance?”
“Why hello, Shannon. What’s it been? Let me check my log. Wow, seven minutes since you last asked. I’ve been up here looking for her nonstop and chewing my hangnails, thanks to you. And no, nothing. Nada. She’s definitely MIA.”
“Are you sure?” Shannon said. Steve’s throat rumbled and Shannon broke in. Steve had done his part. “Sorry, of course you’re sure. And I’m not spooked. Maybe I’m a little spooked. Okay, I’m major spooked, Steve. And do not, I repeat, do not log that statement. Please.”
“I’ve got your back. But look, you should call this in. You’ll find yourself in the deepest shit if anything has happened to Juneau, and Moon finds out you didn't sound the alarm. They just beefed up the rescue forces, so now we have more assets on the ground, or more accurately, more bodies and boats in the water, for stuff just like this. Use ’em.”
Indeed, Dr. Moon, the Director of the Dickson, would rain fresh hell down upon her if anything had happened to Juneau. Fortunately for Shannon, just this afternoon he had traveled down to the Dickson’s main facility in Ocean City because of a major fire in the main lecture hall there. She’d gained some time to bring her errant beluga home before he caught wind of Juneau’s absence.
“Yeah, I heard about the new troops,” Shannon said, not really listening. “Let’s give it fifteen more minutes. If I can’t find her, I’ll call it in. Let me know if you spot her. And thanks.”
Steve clucked into the radio and said, “Okay, it’s your funeral. And if I know Moon, we’re talking cremation.”
“Um, Steve, one more thing. Nothing else on the monitors looks . . . I don’t know, suspicious, worrisome, out of the ordinary?”
“Storm coming? Ship near the perimeter? A kraken? Some other giant monster from the deep, anything like that?”
“Nope, everything’s calm and routine, and I’d likely have dozed off by now if I didn’t have your calls to look forward to every few minutes.”
“Okay, thanks. But keep your eye out, Steve. Something’s brewing. I can feel it.”
“Will do. Over and out.”
Shannon pulled her long, thick, silver-blond braid over her shoulder and ran her fingers through the tip again and again as she tried once more to reach out to Juneau. She and Juneau enjoyed a telepathic link, thanks to an alien encounter five years earlier, which no one at the Dickson knew about. She used it now. Again.
Where have you gone? Can I help you?
Juneau always responded. The fact that she hadn’t done so for hours now meant that something was not right. Yet, because of the telepathic link, she’d know if Juneau had suffered an injury, or had become trapped and needed her help. And she knew that if she called in Juneau’s AWOL status, research vessels would go out after her, intending to net her and bring her back. Shannon would not allow that. The biologists from the SeaQuarium had netted Juneau when they first captured her as an adolescent. They’d done enough damage. No more.
Slipping her pale green cell phone out of her pale green sweater pocket, Shannon dialed her friend and research teammate, Dakota Quartermark.
“You again?” Dakota said before Shannon could take a breath to speak. “She isn’t back then, sweet cakes? I still think it’s too soon to worry. I mean, she’s tasting total freedom, out of the pen, or should I say penitentiary, for the first time, practically, since babyhood. Sure, the pen is a step up from that miserable little zoo pool she used to call home, but give me a break, a chance to flex that beautiful fluke for miles and miles? She needed this, Shan. She flat out freaking deserved it. Let her enjoy it.”
Shannon tried again.
“But she’s trained. She—”
“Shan, baby, you are definitely exhibiting mother beluga behavior here. But you didn’t give birth to her. She will not swim alongside your belly forever. Get over it.”
“Cut the apron strings, kid. And trust her. She’ll be back in her own time. Everybody knows she’s bonded with you. Now go away. I’m working. Eat a candy bar. Wash it down with a chocolate shake, like you always do. You’ll feel better.”
“Okay. And thanks. I—”
The buzz of the dial tone interrupted her. She looked at the receiver, shook her head, clicked off, and peered out into the dark waters, her hands fiddling with her braid.
Where are you?
Suddenly, as before, the image of salt water, blood, and screaming smacked her hard, but with greater urgency, like the wail of a disaster siren. To keep herself from collapsing to the floor, she gripped the handrail that ran the length of Corridor Seven.
Checking the crowd down the five-hundred-foot, tubed corridor, she spotted maybe ten tourists and a few researchers. More would be lingering in the other corridors. And in the central hub, rising three stories, housing lecture rooms, offices and research laboratories? Fortunately, at this time of day, ten past six in the evening, probably only a few scholarly types. But only the people up in the Visitor’s Center, the living quarters, and the infirmary—all above ground on the inhospitable rocky coast—only they would completely escape a true collapse of the UC.
She must do something, but without anything concrete to tell security, frustration overwhelmed her.
Do you know anything, Juneau? Are you staying away because disaster is about to strike?
Exactly eleven minutes later, Juneau contacted her. As Shannon struggled to suss out more of an impression of the salty, bloody event to come, Juneau’s telepathic image hit her with the shock and power of a sonar blast.
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