Tao only had a little bit of time. The pain gripped her body fiercely and she struggled to stay afloat. The unpleasant twitch in her side had grown into a full-blown ache.
Tilting her head toward the sun, she glanced at the shore.
“Only a few hours more,” she panted, willing her body to continue at whatever the cost.
* * * *
Sarah Redmond walked along the beach. The moisture streaking down her face a few scant hours before were gone.
She had no more tears for the dead.
The culmination of all her dreams, all her fears, had coalesced into this one moment, a time of hollow and empty grief.
Walking numb and uncaring, she moved along the edge of the horizon, ready to accept the decree of fate.
Was it just yesterday she lay in the hospital bed watching in horror as her body self-aborted another baby?
Did she only imagine her husband leaving her alone in a cold, empty room?
Sarah didn’t have any answers. This was the real reason she walked alone on the beach in twilight, searching for the mercy of death. Only true darkness could relieve her suffering, answer all the uncertainties rioting through her mind.
As the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean swelled against her bare feet, she wandered further down the shore, searching for oblivion.
* * * *
Tao’s abdomen clenched in excruciating pain, the muscles tightening in a steady, unrelenting grip.
“I must continue,” she said, strangling the words through her lips as she willed her body along the rough, gritty sand.
Slowly, each inch a measure of extreme torment, Tao moved toward the safety of the rocks nearby.
Weary and nearly willing to give over to the sounds of death knocking at the door of her soul, she continued to crawl, dragging the useless portion of her body across the bristling terrain.
Soon, she thought, it would be soon.
* * * *
How did anyone learn to exist with pain?
Sarah pondered the question, wondering why she cared.
Pain had been all she knew. If it weren’t for the never-ending emotion, there would have been no existence at all. She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t suffering.
She had no family, and now never would. She’d married a man who didn’t love her, and now never would. Her baby had died on a cold hospital table while she watched, helpless.
Tears streaked down her face and Sarah wiped at them automatically, curious she could still cry for her misery.
* * * *
Bearing down in extreme agony, Tao pushed hard against the contraction.
“Please … please… Vala, hear me.”
Grimacing and groaning, Tao bore down, her legs spread wide, as she struggled to bring the life of her child into being. She didn’t care that the world was cold and unforgiving. This babe was all she had left, all she had to give.
The labor was long, every exertion causing precious drops of lifeblood to flow.
She tried not to scream, her teeth grinding.
Tao prayed harder. Vala! Please don’t let me fail. Please! “Please. Help my baby. Please. Do not forsake her as you have forsaken me!”
The last words echoed on a high-pitched yell she could no longer contain.
* * * *
Sarah’s mind screeched, the sound carrying along the wind.
Raising the .357 Magnum, she lifted her head toward the horizon. The last rays of the day warming her skin as a cooling breeze lifted tendrils of hair she had always thought shone a lifeless brown.
Her eyes flickered over the dropping sun as it turned the sky a brilliant, burnished orange. The smell of the ocean haunted.
Odd, this night seemed more beautiful than any other in her long, useless life.
A pity it would be the last.
* * * *
The loss of blood made her dizzy. Tao struggled to clear the dots before her eyes, praying for strength.
Why had I thought to escape?
Her cravings for freedom had doomed her and the child to a miserable death.
Holding the tiny, bloody infant closer against her breasts. Tao let loose the tears she'd struggled to maintain.
* * * *
Sarah had nearly pulled the trigger when a noise stopped her, a listless scream floating along the wind.
Frowning, turning her face toward a small outcropping of stones, she took the long barrel from her lips, swallowing the nasty taste of gun oil.
Wandering closer, moving like a robot, the haunting noise echoed in her ears.
Maybe it was some kind of morbid curiosity, the desire to witness another soul struggle through life. Or perhaps it was her own helpless fate causing her feet to move forward. Whatever the reason, Sarah continued walking, her toes coursing through the grainy earth.
Stopping short near a small outlaying of stones, nearly stumbling. The sight greeting her eyes gorged the fluid in her heart. Stuttering the intrinsic motion of the restless beating inside her chest.
A naked woman lay motionless near a pool of blood-ridden sand. On her breasts was a newborn infant still attached to the umbilical cord. The baby fretted, moving like a muscled reed in the wind, like it was desperately trying to abide by nature’s call to live.
The muffled crying sounded loudly in her ears, and Sarah figured it was the hushed tones of the child she’d heard earlier.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, struggling to push the words past her throat.
Glistening, near lifeless blue eyes raised, the gaze glassy and distant. Long strands of dark red hair plastered to the woman’s face, thick, wet chords clung to the cheeks. Bright blood leaked from a multitude of wounds all over the body, but the majority came from the birth and a large slash in the side.
Skin glowed under the oncoming moonlight, and Sarah recognized the signs of approaching death.
She had seen the same look on her mother’s face before she passed.
Forgetting her own desire to meet the maker, she dropped the gun in the sand, rushing to kneel next to the prone form.
“I’m going to take you to a doctor. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
The woman’s breathing became more shallow with each passing second, and she responded weakly, “It’s too late for me. Pl-please take care of the child. Vala has taken mercy on my plight.” Reaching a shaking hand toward the long chain resting on the rise of her breasts, she gasped, “M-my necklace. It’s all I have to give. Take it. Give it to … her.”
Staring at the woman, something deep inside Sarah broke loose, and she began to cry. She’d seen despair. She’d seen it every morning when she looked in the mirror, but the look from this woman captured all the moments she had ever felt, reflected the emotion in one extreme, fraught-filled gaze.
Pity, a foreign emotion, welled in her breasts.
“Pl-please,” the woman breathed. “You-you are my last hope.”
Sarah cringed, afraid to be anyone’s last hope.
She didn’t have enough fumes to see her through the night, much less an innocent, defenseless child.
Still, she gingerly took the baby, running probing eyes across the skin to check for obvious signs of distress.
Cutting the umbilical cord with a small utility Gerber attached to her key chain, she raised the infant for a closer inspection.
A girl. It’s a girl, same as mine.
Blood and dirt were caked on the stomach and knees, but Sarah had never seen a more beautiful sight. Laughing helplessly, holding the tiny life in her hands, she smiled happily, in spite of herself.
* * * *
Tao leaned further into the coarse earth surrounding her, knowing death rode on quick wings.
Praise Vala! The appearance of the woman was an answer to her prayers.
Sighing in weary thanks, she knew no harm would come to her child.
The Goddess would see to that.
As darkness descended, shadows eclipsing her gaze. Tao struggled to convey her final words.
Her eyes turned toward the only home she had ever known.
“Nev-ver let her go there.”
* * * *
The woman died on the beach, her blue eyes gazing at the ocean, and tears streamed down Sarah’s face, deep, encompassing sobs racked her slight frame.
Mere minutes ago, the thought of death had bothered her little. Now though, as she probed into a pair of insensate eyes, the idea of dying disturbed her more than she could say. She felt weak, unsure of how to continue on, the morbidity of the moment suspending her limbs, freezing her in place.
Lifting her head toward the fading dusk of the horizon, she wondered. “God, what can I do?”
Strangely, the ocean roared loudly, strong waves crashing against the shore. A cool breeze whispered across her face, and the smell of ocean careened through her nostrils.
The surreal effects startled Sarah, infusing her with a measure of strength and fear. Suddenly, but with hesitation, she turned away from the gruesome sight.
Sighing, she walked along the shoreline, the water flowing and receding as she watched.
I will succeed, Sarah vowed.
This baby needs me.
Retracing her path, following the imprinted footsteps to where the gun lay, she gazed at the blue steel glinting with wicked intent.
Gingerly, she replaced the pistol inside the thick lining of her coat pocket, sparing another glance at the bloody newborn in her arms. Pondering the miracle lying so near her heart, she frowned as the woman’s parting words lingered in her mind.
Where was she never to let the child go?
The woman had glanced toward the sea, but that didn’t make any sense.
Looking over her shoulder at the deceased mother, Sarah wondered what to do next. She couldn’t leave the woman lying there. The marine life would have a field day. Eventually, somebody would discover a body bloated from the sun, picked over by nature.
The remote area of Cabrillo Cove kept it hidden from visitors, but natives like Sarah could find it easily.
There was only one option.
Placing the toddler inside her jacket, snug and secure, she walked back toward the lifeless figure to grab the woman by the ankles. Bracing, she pulled with all her strength till the dead weight moved.
It seemed more fitting to put the woman in the ocean, instead of leaving her to become the carrion of the shores.
When water rushed past her thighs, Sarah finally let go.
Shocked by the loud voice in her head, she reacted quickly, grasping again for one of the woman’s limbs. Holding on against the current, Sarah leaned over to unclasp the jewelry, clutching the warm stone in her palm.
The baby gave a muffled cry against the jostling, and instinctively she soothed the child with murmured words of love, watching in mild astonishment as another wave closed in.
It almost seemed like the sea was taking back one of its own.
The body drifted away and she stared for a few more moments, as the woman floated further.
What if I'd never gone to investigate that cry? Shaking her head to clear it of the morose thought, Sarah looked down at the bundle snuggled warmly against her chest. Smiling, she unzipped her jacket, pulling the infant free.
Cupping a bit of salt water in her hands, she washed away the dirt, blood, and grime.
The restless child tossed, crying loudly.
Seconds later Sarah’s happiness faded—fear replacing her joy.
“It look likes some sort of pre-historic dolphin or whale. Damn! I wish we were able to get closer.”
Marissa Redmond rolled her eyes in the direction of her mentor and friend, Dr. Jonathon Nash. “Any closer, and they would have scared it away”
“Marissa’s right, but good job on tagging it, team. The beacon sonar is already transmitting coordinates. Hit the lights, Tom.”
The illumination flickered for a second before coming on.
Dr. Nash speared a quick glance at his notes before looking up to stare at the occupants of the room. “Well that proves it, folks. We got a new species on our hands. I want everyone geared up for tomorrow.”
Murmurs of excitement spread throughout the room. A few high fives were exchanged as everyone chatted at once. Marissa tried to be happy, but her smile faltered. She’d give all she possessed to be out there with her friends and colleagues.
Turning toward Jon, she tried to reason with him one last time.
“No … you can’t go, Marissa. I need you here.”
“Jon, I’m the best biologist you have on board.”
“No, Marissa. And, that’s my final answer.”
“No, I already went against my conscience when I allowed you to come out on the Suzy. I’m not sending you out on a small raft.” He glanced at her, a hard look in his eyes. “Forget it.”
Marissa sighed, conceding defeat.
Dr. Nash would never let her travel with the expeditionary team. Since it was hopeless even to argue with the man, she counted her blessings. At first, he wouldn’t even let her on board the Suzy.
“Don’t worry, Mar. I’ll have the blood samples ready and waiting for you when I return.”
Marissa narrowed her eyes, frowning at Brian’s retreating figure. God! She hated that man. She’d never met anyone who so delighted in being a royal pain the ass.
Silently counting to ten, she waited for the room to quiet, before repacking the notes in her worn, brown leather satchel. Striding out of the ship’s conference room, she felt Jon’s gaze boring into her back.
A part of her wanted to turn, argue further, but she decided against it.
Outside, several groups were clustered to discuss the latest accomplishment. Brian and Jillian smirked as she passed, but Marissa kept her eyes downcast, refusing to look at their arrogant faces.
Right now she needed some air, not more funny looks.
Leaning against the rails, she gazed at the vast, endless ocean, the rays from the sun casting a lustrous sparkle across the blue beyond.
Strange how something so cold and dangerous could look so beautiful.
Born with a fatal, anaphylactic reaction to seawater, she classified herself as the official “landlubber.” If she so much as stuck a pinkie toe in the ocean, her body systems would shut down, resulting in death.
As a child, it didn’t matter she couldn’t actually explore the realms. Books and magazines had availed. Yet the older she’d become, the more she really began to feel the limitations plaguing her life.
For as long as she could remember, any activities involving the sea were off limits. Beach parties, whale watching, even benign trips to Sea World were solid no-nos.
But, not even the threat of death could change her enthrallment.
When she decided to become a marine biologist, changing her undergraduate major from teaching, her mother had balked, raising her constant fears as an issue.
Scowling, tightening her grip along the railings, doubts tumbled in her mind, her mother’s stern visage appearing behind her eyes as guilt eased along her spine.
Why do mistakes always follow on the heels of some great event in your life?
It always seemed, at least for her, that just when things were going good, more problems ensued.
Shaking her head, Marissa pondered the complexities of her job. A job made much harder by the limitations of her life.
Working with seawater on a daily basis made it an absolute necessity to protect her skin from any latent contact. In the lab, she wore elbow-length rubber gloves and heavy, protective clothing. While on the large, two-hundred-forty-foot research vessel, the Suzy, Marissa had to stay doubly covered to guard against the ever-present ocean sprays on the weather decks.
Thankfully though, she didn’t have to wear the hot restrictive clothing inside the confines of the ship. But if she didn’t already feel like a bumbling, totally inefficient biologist, albeit a very good one, standing outside dressed inappropriately for the blazing sunshine completed the effect.
“I look like a friggin California Eskimo.”
Brows puckered, Marissa wiped a weary hand across her forehead, inhaling the crisp, freshness of the air.
It seriously didn’t help that some of her colleagues laughed behind her back. Oftentimes when she’d walk in a room, all conversations would cease. She always got the distinct impression of disrupting a very funny scene, starring her of course.
Marissa knew most thought her a hindrance, or worse, incapable of performing her job.
An aching sense of unfairness overwhelmed her, and she clinched her jaw tight at the injustice. Tears threatened, but she staved them off with force. For all her talent, for all her skills, the inabilities plaguing her life continued to haunt her.
Marissa wished she had some other credits to stand on, like an Ivy League education or a super high IQ. But, by all comparative standards, she was still a rookie learning the trade.
She’d just obtained her doctorate from UCSD. Most of her colleagues were at least five to ten years older in experience than her twenty-six years.
The only feather in her in her cap came from being in league with one of world’s finest marine biologists, Dr. Jonathon Nash.
Her association with the noted biologist opened an avenue to the competitive world of academia, and a much-needed job in one of the finest institutes in the country, The Hearder Institute of Aquatic Life.
But she knew, without Jon, none her limited success would have been possible. No one else would have given her a second glance.
Nepotism, no matter how well deserved, didn’t set well with her.
For years, she been trying to shake the stigma, but it stuck like a piece of gum on a shoe.
She loved her work. Nothing thrilled her more than studying the intricate nuances of marine biology. It was exciting. She really had a knack for it. Marissa just wished she could prove that to everyone else.
Frowning down at the gleaming beauty of the ocean she loved, she wondered why she had to be prohibited from fully enjoying her job? A lot of people worked in professions dangerous to their health. Policemen, firemen, soldiers—all risked life and limb.
Why do I have to be any different?
Groaning aloud, she remembered the heated arguments with Jonathon.
At first he wouldn’t even listen to her pleas to join the research team. She spent twelve long, infuriating days arguing her case.
Eventually she wore him down, and he reluctantly agreed to let her come on board.
He wasn’t happy, but she guessed he relented because she’d been adamant.
Of course, she did have to swear to stay off the lower decks entirely and only walk about on the upper decks in protective clothing.
Sighing, Marissa pinched at the thick material of her cotton jacket. Her insides were baking. Sweating like a pig, she yearned to strip down to the jeans and t-shirt underneath. But the last thing she wanted to hear was Jon bitching. If he saw her without the shielding gear, he’d be sure to have an apoplectic fit.
Gawd! Why does everything have to be so hard?
The Suzy wouldn’t even be out here if it weren’t for her. She deserved more than anyone else to be one of the first to view the new species up close. If only she could get Jon to stop thinking of her as a surrogate daughter.
I’m twenty-six years old, for crissakes! Old enough to make my own damn choices!
Dismissing her depressing thoughts, Marissa smiled when a bottlenose surfaced next to the vessel, the high-pitched squeaks and ticks from her silver companion lightening her mood.
“Lean over any closer, and you’ll be joining him.”
Startled from her reverie, she turned to greet Dr. Shannon Winters, leading marine archeologist on board the Suzy.
“You scared me,” she muttered, stepping back from the guardrails.
“Sorry, I thought you heard me stomping.”
Marissa sneered. “Naw, I was just thinking.”
“Looks like you were talking to a friend.”
“I was wishing I could join you guys tomorrow,” she said forlornly, frowning when the dolphin dove deep under the blue, murky waters.
“Marissa, you’re the best marine biologist I’ve met in a long time. You’re talented and smart. The fact that you can’t go into the open ocean doesn’t diminish your skills. I think it makes you better because you have a deeper affinity for the life you study.”
“Tell that to Brian.”
“Who cares about Brian? He’s an asshole, who thinks Yale turned him into Superman. Without your research we wouldn’t even be here.”
Marissa raised her eyebrows, concurring with Shannon’s sentiments. “Yeah, but you guys will be the first ones to see it up close. The closest I’ll ever get is pictures and blood samples.”
“Well, it could be worse. You could be deaf, dumb, and blind. Then where would you be?”
Marissa shook her head, marveling at her friend’s strange wit. “Yeah, I guess it pays to look on the opposite side of the fence.”
“So, where’s everyone now?”
“Eating in the galley. Nash decided to break out the champagne in celebration.”
Marissa turned away from the ocean, glaring at Shannon. “They haven’t even found it. Don’t you think a celebration is a bit premature?”
“No one asks me, Marissa. I’m just an archeologist,” Shannon smugly replied. “They won’t care about my opinion till some bones are found.”
“I guess we’re just the two stragglers on board, right?”
“It would seem so.”
“Well, I don’t think we should miss out on the fun.” Marissa’s voice dropped into a faux British accent. “I say we go and join them, my dear. What say you?”
Shannon grinned, linking her arm to Marissa’s, her voice dropping into a similar fake intonation. “Yes, my dear, let’s be off. We shan’t let them drink all the spirits without us.”
Marissa smiled back, before taking the lead toward the large, industrial-size galley located three decks below the observation level.
Although she had spent hours memorizing the layout of the research vessel, nautical landmarks weren’t needed. The raucous sounds of high-pitched voices, along with the thrumming sounds of rock music echoed throughout the windowless confines of the ship.
“Wish I had a camera,” Shannon mumbled. “The way they’re in there partying, you wouldn’t believe this boat is full of researchers and scientists.”
Marissa smirked as she moved a stunned gaze around the room.
Everyone appeared to be having a good time, laughing with drunken exuberance. Even the eminent Dr. Nash, premier authority on marine life, held a plastic champagne flute.
Pausing at the threshold, Marissa debated joining her colleagues. She didn’t really want to. She would have preferred to be out on the deck looking at her beloved ocean, or in the lab, studying.
Partying had never been her forte.
“I think I’ll leave this to you, shipmate” she said over her shoulder, moving to the side, intent on returning to the observation deck.
“No way, Jose, you’re coming with me,” Shannon quickly replied, grabbing her hand in a firm grip.
“Marissa… Shannon, so, nice of you to join us,” Dr. Nash said, waylaying the two women shortly after they stepped into the galley.
“Well, it’s not like we had any other place to go,” Marissa retorted, unfazed by Jon’s gruff tone.
She’d known the man her entire life, seen every one of his varying moods. She attributed his wily nature to the greatness of his intellect, or at this moment to the amount of alcohol he imbibed.
“Your mother would kill me if she were alive. I can’t believe I agreed…”
“Why don’t you get me a drink, good doctor? And save the impassioned speech for another time,” Shannon interrupted.
Jon looked like he had more to say, but Shannon continued to yank on his arm, leading him toward a table of hors d'oeuvres.
Marissa sighed, glad her friend had dragged him away. Wearily, she sent an astonished look around.
Hugging, laughing, partying, all things scientist didn’t do, abounded. But the joy of the moment did not lift her mood.
She’d always be an outsider, even if she tried to fit in.
“How are you enjoying the celebration, Mar?”
Marissa cringed, turning unhappily to meet Brian’s leering voice. “Obviously not as much as you,” she groaned, backing away from the reeking smell of alcohol.
“You know, I’m normally not into blondes, but I could make an exception for you.”
Marissa laughed, lifting her lips in what she hoped imitated a smile. “I wouldn’t want you to make an exception for me, Brian,” she rejoined, enjoying the brief moment of shock passing over his sunburned face.
“You know, Mar? Nash won’t be the director of the institute forever. If I were you, I would think about ensuring my position at the center. Your disability is a … hindrance … in this line of work. You might want to help yourself out by trying not be such a bitch all the time.”
Marissa gasped, counted to ten in her head, desperately trying to ignore Litchfield’s bait.
Failing miserably, she snapped, “Fuck you, Brian.”
Turning on her heels, she walked away, not wishing to spar with the pompous prick any longer.
Looking to the far side of the galley, Marissa smiled.
Jonathon and Shannon were enjoying a bit of a laugh. She took two steps forward to join them, but stopped suddenly, as the confining atmosphere of the Suzy began to weigh on her shoulders.
Shaking her head, she turned to exit the galley.
Five minutes later, lounging against the railing of the observation deck, listening to the sounds of steel slicing through the water, she savored the peace of nature.
The sun had dropped below the horizon. The sky shone a brilliant shade of reddish-orange. The stillness and harmony of the moment filled her with a deep contentment.
“I’d thought I find you out here.”
Marissa jumped, pressing a palm to her chest. “Doesn’t anyone announce themselves these days? You scared me half to death,” she muttered, looking over her shoulder at her friend and confidante, Dr. Jonathon Nash.
“I could have announced my presence with a bullhorn, and you wouldn’t have heard me.” Jon took up a position next to her, turning his head to peer at her strangely. “You’ve been acting very weird, Marissa. I wanted to make sure everything was all right.”
“I’m fine,” she lied.
“No, you’re not. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She closed her eyes, trying to block the visions that plagued her. “Nothing. I guess it’s just taking a while to get my sea legs.”
“Marissa, when your mother died, I promised to take care of you, protect you. If something’s going on, I need to know what it is.”
Unconsciously, Marissa smoothed her long, blonde tresses behind her ears. “Why am I so different, Jon? I just don’t understand it.”
“You’re special, Marissa. More special than you know.”
“But, I feel like such a foreigner. Like I don’t belong.”
“Is this about you not being able to go out with the team tomorrow?”
“That’s part of it,” she replied hesitantly, not wanting to go in detail.
“Marissa, I can’t let you go out there tomorrow. I shouldn’t have even let you come on board. But I know this is your discovery. Understand. It’s just too dangerous. I would if I could.”
“Why can’t you? I’m a grown woman, Jon. I’m capable of making my own choices and decisions. Why can’t you understand that?”
“You’re like a daughter to me. And I love you. I don’t ever want to see you hurt.”
A faint smile touched her lips. She knew he did what he did to protect her, but the smothering security was stifling.
She had lived her whole life restrained under dictates, first by her mother and now by him. Now, something inside of her ached to be free.
Forcing her lips to lift at the corners, she smiled, hoping it looked convincing. “And, you’re like a father to me, Jon. The only one I’ve known,” she paused, resting her hand on top of his. “Thanks for letting me come out here. I’ve been feeling a little melancholy lately. Don’t worry about it.”
Jon sighed, his expression one of concern. Marissa frowned at the familiar pose.
Lord. She just wanted a few more minutes alone to think. Unsure of how to convey that message to Jon without being rude, she inhaled deeply.
“If you ever need to talk to me, Marissa. I want you to know that I’ll listen. Don’t be afraid to talk to me,” he said, before disappearing through the hatchway.
Marissa watched him go, pondering his words. Turning her attention back toward the sea, she was glad he decided to leave on his own.
Shifting her head back toward the ocean, she glanced at the sea.
Darkness covered the sky like a rich, thick mantle, though the water remained calm, peaceful. Strangely, she felt a stirring in her mind, that sixth sense telling her someone was watching.
Moving away from the railing, she called out, “Is anyone there?”
Silence answered, but the bizarre feeling remained.
Walking back toward the gray metal bars guarding the edges of the ship, she looked down into the ocean’s depths below.
“What are you hiding down there?”
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