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Denizens: 10 - Jennifer

...Arnold shrugged. “Who knows? I will admit, I was as skeptical as I imagine you were when I first heard the story, but you and I both know there are a lot of places on this planet that haven’t been explored. Who knows what might be found in a place like the Mariana Trench? These sightings…Well, Cheeseman didn’t strike me as a particularly credulous sort. More like your typical spook, actually.”

“What do you suppose they might be? The sightings, I mean,” asked Tom.

Arnold shook his head. “I don’t know.” Then he brightened. “But it’s going to be fascinating to find out.”...

Tom Stoppard gets to know the members of the team, including the delectable Jennifer Oates, who will be investigating the sightings of huge creatures in the deepest ocean levels.

For earlier chapters of Brian William Neal's gripping sci fi novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Dobb’s Point
Oceanographic Institute
July, 2034

Just after midday, unpacked and refreshed from a quick shower, Tom walked into the Institute’s dining room, then paused to look around in admiration. “Canteen” may have been Arnold’s word for it, but the room had a quiet elegance not found in your everyday soup kitchen, and the food, as he was about to discover, was definitely first-class.

There were about two dozen people occupying several tables, all tastefully turned out with lace tablecloths and vases of fresh-cut flowers. Most of the diners had already started on their lunch, and Tom hesitated in the doorway until Arnold saw him, and called to him.

“Come on, Tom. Don’t hang back, or there’ll be nothing left but stale bread and gruel.”

Tom grinned self-consciously, and made his way to a large table in the center of the room, which was occupied by the institute head, as well as Julia Sears and three other people Tom did not know. A waiter held his chair while he sat between Julia and a longhaired man who looked vaguely familiar.

Then the waiter presented Tom with a menu that left him in no doubt as to the extent of Arnold’s exaggeration. Bread and gruel it most definitely was not. After a few moments, he ordered shrimp cocktail, followed by baked sea bass, with Peach Melba for dessert. Pouring a glass of what proved to be an excellent Californian Sauvignon Blanc from a carafe on the table, Tom sat back in his chair to silently observe his dining companions.

Arnold, however, was determined that Tom not be left to his own devices for even a moment, and began introducing him to the others. The first, the man beside him who had seemed so familiar, turned out to be one Dennis Crafter, an English civilian diver who would pilot one of the submersibles. The mystery of his familiarity was solved the moment he opened his mouth; the man greeted Tom in the broadest of Liverpool accents and Tom, being a fan of old rock and roll, recognized him immediately.

The man was of average height, in his early thirties, slim with shoulder length hair, and wore old-fashioned spectacles with small, round lenses that perched on the end of his slightly hooked nose. The glasses, an anachronism in an age when abnormal vision could be easily corrected by laser surgery, appeared to be the same as those worn by Crafter’s famous look-alike, the man whose fabulous career had been cut short by a crazed assassin. Tom loved the man’s music and, along with millions of others, would have liked just five minutes alone with Mark David Chapman. Crafter was a dead ringer for John Lennon.

Next, Tom met the man directly across the table from him, who was engaged in mortal combat with a giant T-bone steak; as far as Tom could tell, the man was winning easily. The man, who was short and rotund, looked up and smiled pleasantly when Arnold introduced them.

“Alex, this is the young man I told you about. Tom, meet Alex van Damme.”

Tom extended his hand across the table, and the man grasped it lightly. “I’ve heard of your work in submersible design, professor,” he said. “I’m very happy to be working with you.”

The genial Belgian nodded, smiled, and went back to his gargantuan meal. With his head lowered over his plate, all Tom could see was a light brown monk’s fringe of hair surrounding an otherwise completely bald head. Tom had indeed heard of Professor Alex van Damme’s work, and he hoped he hadn’t sounded presumptuous in praising the work of a man so exalted in the scientific world. He began to feel a little out of his depth; if the project could attract such heavyweights as the professor of marine engineering from the new University of Euro-Antwerp, then he was among illustrious company indeed.

Just as Tom’s first course arrived, he met the last of his dining companions. He had, in fact, been stealing glances at her ever since he had sat down. She was, without a doubt, the most spectacularly beautiful girl he had ever seen. Arnold, giving Tom a shrewd look from the corner of his eye, introduced her as Jennifer Oates, a marine graduate student from New Zealand, who would pilot the second submersible.

She was quiet, shy even, and wore her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, with two ringlets that fell on either side of her lovely face. Her eyes were large, the color of the sea, both green and blue, and when she looked briefly at Tom he felt his heart jump, and a flush come to his face. She, however, seemed to find nothing of note about him, and met what he had hoped was his warmest, most sincere greeting with a polite nod and a cool gaze. Everything about her was cool; her voice, her looks, her whole air. Tom imagined that her smile, if it ever came, would be like the sun. He tried to engage her in conversation a few times during the meal, but was met each time with polite distance, and eventually gave up. He noticed she wasn’t wearing any rings; that didn’t necessarily mean anything, but he decided to bide his time, and wait for the right opportunity to approach her again. She was definitely someone worth pursuing, he thought, and he decided he could wait. Who knew, maybe Miss Antipodes would thaw.

After lunch, Arnold led them outside to the covered jetty where the submersibles were moored, in a large shed built over a small inlet at the rear of the institute. Once there, van Damme took charge, showing off the subs as his pride and joy. Tom kept his distance from Jennifer, deliberately ignoring her. Two can play that game, he thought; we’ll see how long she can keep it up. He knew, like anyone does, when someone was attracted to him, and he was sure he detected the signs in this case. For the moment, he was content just to observe her. When she wasn’t looking, of course.

The more he saw of her, as they followed the diminutive Belgian over the subs, the more she excited him like no other woman had. She looked like a beauty queen, or a movie star. Tom was, so he had been told, a reasonably presentable guy, and he had certainly enjoyed his share of California beach girls, but none of them compared to the tall, blonde Kiwi. She wore tight-fitting white shorts and a halter top, and her limbs were long and golden. Her rear end, Tom observed as he followed her around the subs, was a thing of beauty, and her arms and legs were smooth and lightly muscled, and showed a short, light fuzz of downy blonde hair. Tom thought she was exquisite.

The subs (they saw them both at van Damme’s insistence, even though each was identical to the other in every way) proved to be a marvel of scientific achievement. The Belgian darted, bird-like, back and forth as he answered questions and demonstrated the crafts’ many impressive features. Of the fabulous new metal of their construction, Tom could see nothing, their hulls being hidden by several thick layers of marine paint. After the subs had been inspected and admired to van Damme’s temporary satisfaction, Arnold took them on a tour of the institute, offering a few glimpses of its history, brief as it was.

The Dobb’s Point Oceanographic Institute had been opened only five years previously, in 2024, funded by an aging American software billionaire who, perhaps feeling twinges of conscience at having made so much money in a world where there were still millions starving, had decided to put some of it to use for all of mankind. Either that, Arnold remarked cynically, or else it was a good tax scam.

Whatever his motives, the munificent benefactor had purchased a private school that had fallen on hard times (Tom was glad to hear his initial observation had been correct), and had spent a medium-sized fortune re-fitting and re-furbishing the classrooms and offices, turning them into laboratories and living quarters.

The institute had, as well as the covered jetty for the subs, an elaborate security system, a small part of which Tom had encountered at the gate. It also boasted a gymnasium, complete with spa baths, tennis and squash courts, and an Olympic-sized pool. In addition to the living areas, there were eight fully equipped labs that ranged in security from P1 to P4, the latter being able to contain CBW organisms and radioactive materials. Neither of these items, Arnold assured them, was present at the institute.

When the tour was over, they dispersed, and before Tom could speak to Jennifer again Katzmeyer intercepted him, and asked him to come to his office. When they were alone, Arnold came characteristically straight to the point.

“I gather the mysterious Mr. Cheeseman briefed you on the reason for these tests, and the odd happenings in the western Pacific, Tom. I’d like that to stay classified for the time being, if you don’t mind. At least until we reach Guam.”

Tom shrugged. “Sure, whatever you say. I understand that, all right. What I do not understand is why I’ve been made privy to the information before anyone else.”

Arnold smiled. “Oh, you’re not the only one. Some of the people you met today have been briefed, like yourself. They are the ones who will form the two submersible teams. The rest are support staff and crew, and do not yet have the full story.”

Tom frowned. “Why tell some and not others? Why did Cheeseman tell me, for instance? I’m not a major player in this. Or am I?”

Arnold spread his hands. “As to the others, who knows? The intelligence mentality has never been one that I could ever fathom. As to yourself, you might well play a very significant part in this operation, Tom. I just ask that you be patient until we get to Guam. Then, everyone will be put fully in the picture.”

Tom nodded, then changed the subject. “There don’t seem to be many people working on this project, for all its importance. I’m particularly surprised that there is only one marine biologist, namely me. I had thought there might be someone more senior; after all, I’m only a post-grad.”

Arnold smiled. “Well, there is another on the project, you know. Besides Jennifer, that is.” When Tom looked blank, Arnold said, in mock outrage, “Why me, of course! I know I’ve been in the admin side of things for a while, but I should hope I haven’t forgotten my own major.”

Tom reddened with embarrassment, and stammered an apology.

“Ah, forget it, Tom,” said the other man, waving a hand. “I’ll be the first to admit it’s been a while since I did any field work. I’ll be relying you and Miss Oates a lot in the weeks ahead.”

Tom assured him of his full support, then asked when they would be leaving.

“Very soon,” replied Arnold. “We’re only waiting on the last member of the second dive team, and a couple of other specialists, and they should be here tomorrow. As soon as they arrive, we can be on our way. Probably Monday.”

“Then the story about the depth calibrations was just a cover?” asked Tom.

“Of course. Although, with two members of the team down, we weren’t ready for a full-scale dive into the trench, and we had to get the subs out of the water. We had begun to believe that they might have had something to do with the strange marine sightings. Just what, we don’t know, but we decided to get them out of the water until we were ready to go all the way.” He paused, then went on. “The fact that there have been no further reported sightings since we left Guam would tend to support that theory.”

Tom looked speculatively at the older man for a moment. Arnold was echoing a theory of his own that he had begun to form since his briefing with the Intelligence man. “Do you believe what Cheeseman told us? About the sightings, I mean.”

Arnold shrugged. “Who knows? I will admit, I was as skeptical as I imagine you were when I first heard the story, but you and I both know there are a lot of places on this planet that haven’t been explored. Who knows what might be found in a place like the Mariana Trench? These sightings…Well, Cheeseman didn’t strike me as a particularly credulous sort. More like your typical spook, actually.”

“What do you suppose they might be? The sightings, I mean,” asked Tom.

Arnold shook his head. “I don’t know.” Then he brightened. “But it’s going to be fascinating to find out.”

They spoke of a few technical matters, then Tom returned to his room. At six p.m., he ate a small meal in the dining room. Only a few people were there, and Jennifer Oates was not among them, so Tom went to bed, and was asleep by nine o’clock.

Exactly on schedule, the last members of the team arrived the next morning. They were a mixed and genial bunch; a few of them were on assignment from the navy, and the rest were civilian scientists, and Tom went out to meet them. He walked through the double doors to the parking lot, and found Jennifer arm in arm with a tall, good-looking fair-haired man. They seemed easy in each other’s company, like old friends. Or, as Tom thought with a sinking heart, like lovers. He smiled, determined not to betray his disappointment and walked forward to greet them.

Jennifer turned as he approached. “Oh, Tom,” she said, favoring him with the first smile he had seen, “I want you to meet Lieutenant Commander John Peel, the leader of the dive team. John, this is Tom Stoddard, our marine biologist.”

Tom took the outstretched hand and found the grip strong, although not overbearingly so. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. Jennifer had pronounced his rank as ‘Leftenant’ Commander, in the British way. “Is that Commander, as in navy?” Tom asked.

The man smiled, his handsome features crinkling in genuine warmth. “Royal New Zealand Navy,” he said, in the same pleasant accent as Jennifer, neither nasally Australian nor plumly British, but somewhere in between. “On loan to the project, Mr. Stoddard. Or is that Doctor Stoddard?”

Tom smiled, responding to the man’s pleasantness. “Just Tom will do fine.”

The two men smiled at each other, and Tom found himself liking the man despite his earlier thoughts about a possible rival for Jennifer’s affections. There was no feeling of two eligible males circling each other, and Tom noticed Jennifer’s look of relief, which tended to support his ‘lovers’ theory. Of course she would want them to get along; they would be working in close proximity, and harmony within the team was vital to its success. Then again, he could be completely off base. He decided to improvise, and let things happen as they may.

“O.K. Commander,” he said, picking up the man’s duffel bag. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you where you bunk down.”

The navy man smiled his easy smile and took the other bag. “All right, Tom. But the rank doesn’t mean much here, so you’d better call me John.”

“You’ve got a deal,” said Tom, and he led the way into the building, and up the stairs.

***


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