The atmosphere of the testing facility for Explore International was a heady mix of angst blended with hopes and dreams and aspirations. Sixty total participants had been invited to interview over the next three days, and apparently only the cream of the crop would even be considered.
The participants were competing to fill twelve upcoming positions as a team of underwater scientists after a round of rigorous training at depths some of them had never thought possible. For most of the twenty candidates of Team Alpha now arranged throughout the room, there was no lack of confidence. Each of them was quite certain of their skill sets, and it was likely that their professionalism would play an equal role in their eventual success or failure.
Once the testing was completed only twenty of the sixty candidates would move on to the training facility, while the remaining forty would be sent back home. There were candidates attending the event all the way from Japan, and even some guy from Amsterdam who seemed cockier than most. Erik Stotz seemed to be either extremely popular or extremely well-hated, but so far Chelsea McDonald couldn’t really tell which.
She, of course, hadn’t traveled halfway across the planet to reach the San Diego based facility, since she had trained in Seattle, but still she already knew she would not be going home. She had been at the top of her class in the specialized college where she’d learned the skills of an oceanographer in a hands-on environment, which probably already gave her a leg up when it came to getting in.
If she didn’t make the cut, of course, she still had plenty of options, but she’d still be really disappointed. Explore employed only the best, and working with people like that could really offer some job satisfaction. Not to mention, where else was she going to have the opportunity to live and work in an underwater research facility like the one Explore wanted to send her to? The very idea of it sent a thrill right down her spine.
Most people didn’t know that Oceanica Station even existed. Situated not too far from the coast of California, the underwater biome rested on top of an inactive volcano at a depth of over three thousand feet, and the crews sent down to man it were some of the top scientists in the field.
Oceanica was considered top secret, and each of them had been instructed not to mention the possibility of working there to anyone during the briefing they’d just been given before the testing began. Since the place could sustain life almost completely without outside help it was no wonder they didn’t want to attract any attention just yet. Technology like that was believed not to exist, so Chelsea could imagine the media circus if people found out it actually did.
But if she didn’t calm down and take her test already, she wouldn’t land the job she craved. Shaking her head to clear it of all her future-tripping thoughts, she buckled down over the next couple of hours and answered four hundred questions to the best of her ability, and then sat back with a sigh of relief. And noticed that every other person in the room was still bent forward, intent on finishing. She appeared to be the first one done. She gave the administrator at his desk an uncertain glance.
Smiling, he held out his hand, indicating that she was free to hand in her paper and go. When she stepped up and gave it to him, he said, “Since you have some extra time, feel free to explore over at SeaWorld until dinner time. You just need to show them your temporary pass.”
“Really? That’s great!” she said with a grin. “I’ll do that.”
“Have fun, then,” he said as he glanced at her first answer. “And I’m probably not over-optimistic when I say welcome aboard.”
Chelsea blushed. “Then I’ll give you a contingency-thanks. See you later.”
The testing facility was close enough to the marine park that it only took about five minutes to walk there, and just a few more to approach the gate and show them the pass as the man had instructed.
“Wow, you must have aced that test if you’re here this early,” said the woman she showed it to.
“I guess I did,” Chelsea shrugged. “I thought it would be a lot harder based on all the hype, but I breezed right through.”
“Isn’t it mostly a written exam though?”
“Well, yeah, but I knew most of the answers off the top of my head and I like writing anyway, so it just seemed really easy to me,” she said. “I guess when I left, everyone else in the room was still struggling. It almost makes me feel guilty—almost, but not really. It just means my dream job’s well within my reach, right?”
“I tried to take that test about a year ago and I only got seventy percent,” she said with a sigh. “I have an idea what’s on it now, though. I’m hoping to take it again sometime when I’m feeling more confident of my answers.”
“Well, good luck to you then,” said Chelsea with a smile.
“Here, have a map,” she said then. “It’ll make it a bit easier to find your way around.”
“Thanks,” said Chelsea as she took it, and then she headed into the park to enjoy the afternoon. After reading the flyer, she became very interested in some of the things she found inside.
She wandered around for a while to kill time until four, when there was supposed to be a guest speaker from Explore over by the shark exhibit who would be giving an in depth explanation of deep ocean dwellers to the masses. Of course he’d be covering more than just sharks during his talk, but since a shark could dive down to six thousand feet into the depths, it seemed like an appropriate place for such a discussion.
Although she was certain that most of the crowd wouldn’t appreciate a lot of what the guy said, Chelsea was willing to give him at least one member of the audience who would enjoy it. She had a special interest in sharks, whales, and undersea mammals, so she might even be able to add to the discussion while she was there.
She arrived a few minutes early for the show, so she spent the time reading the display information and looking at the different enclosures where small specimens of some of the species were on display. A much deeper tank which people had to go downstairs to see housed some of the larger breeds, and she willingly padded down to have a look. She stood watching the sharks inside the tank swim around with an indulgent sort of smile, even laughing at some of their antics.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” said a man who stepped up beside her. “I thought I was the only one who ever smiled like that when I came down here.”
“Yeah,” she said, glancing up—way up—to look into his dark, ocean-colored eyes. “I think sharks are fascinating creatures. So many people don’t really understand them. They think they’re nothing but mindless creatures intent on gnawing off peoples’ limbs or something, but it really isn’t true.”
“You sound like you know a bit about them,” he said with an appreciative laugh.
“I suppose I do,” she agreed.
“Oh, a temporary Explore badge, I see,” he said, tugging gently on the plastic card clipped to a loop on her jeans. “And you’re here early, too. Are you perhaps in a group that’s testing tomorrow or the next day?”
“No, sir, I already did that test,” she shrugged, not wanting to seem like she was bragging as she added, “But I finished it over an hour ago, so the guy said I could have fun coming here. You must be the guest speaker, then?”
“Mark Caerulus,” he replied, extending his hand. When Chelsea shook it, she couldn’t help but look him over more closely. Short, wavy blond hair with a windswept look, sticking out in a few places as if he’d only just come out of the water after a dive—yeah, the tell-tale signs were all there if she’d been looking for them.
“Chelsea McDonald,” she replied with a smile.
“Oh, the valedictorian out of Seattle,” he said with a nod. “Just as I suspected.”
Chelsea tried to place the slight accent in his voice for all of about ten second before the words he had just used sank in. “What? You mean you read my file?”
“I read all of the applicants’ files, and help decide which ones are worthy as well, for that matter,” he explained. “Unfortunately they don’t come with any pictures, so I could only guess at who might have finished her test the fastest, and I guessed correctly, it seems. Yeah, I’d say that you might know a bit about sharks based on your credentials.”
“I also know that Caerulus means ‘sea deity’ in Latin,” she said with a smirk. “Is that really your last name, or did you have it changed to match your profession?”
“Uh, both, in a way,” he chuckled. “My grandfather was a sea captain and a scholar, and he changed his last name to Caerulus when he immigrated to America. So I inherited the new name instead of Papadopoulos.”
Chelsea giggled. “So they might as well have named you something like Mark Poseidon, God of the Sea,” she teased him. “And given you a toy trident for your third birthday while they were at it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he chuckled. “Good thing I decided to become a marine biologist, right?”
“I guess so,” she agreed.
“Well, I best go do my show,” he said then. “You coming?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said, and the two of them mounted the stairs together.
“Well, well, the honor student returns,” said a low male voice with an unmistakable accent from somewhere behind her as Chelsea stepped into the hotel where all the candidates were staying. She had immediately headed for the elevator because her room was on the seventh floor, and hadn’t spotted the annoying young man until it was too late.
Turning around with a smile plastered insincerely on her face, she looked at Erik Stotz as he stood leaning against a nearby wall with his arms crossed over his chest. “Oh, hello Amsterdam. I didn’t see you standing there.”
“Call me Erik,” he said, more of a command than a request. “We’re probably working together from now on anyway. It only took me about a half an hour longer to finish than you, but I couldn’t seem to find you at SeaWorld when I got there. Where did you go, anyway?”
“Oh, I wandered around a bit before I discovered the shark exhibit, and then I got kind of caught up with that,” Chelsea answered, blushing slightly at the memory. Although she had absolutely loved the exhibit itself, it hadn’t been the only reason she had remained there for so long.
Mark had put on the show at four, and another a half hour later, and Chelsea had attended them both, and then the handsome speaker had escorted her back to the hotel. She’d only just left him as he got into his car before she stepped inside. Her cheeks were still glowing in the aftermath of being in his presence.
“I see,” said Erik with a nod. “Well, I suppose it’s not that strange we didn’t meet, then. I was much more interested in the plankton and the exhibit they had about global warming trends. I think those things are on completely different sides of the place.”
In much the same way we are, she added in her head. “Yeah, well, I need to take a quick shower before it’s time to head for dinner, so if you’ll excuse me?”
“Oh yeah, sure,” he said with a nod. “I think we’re eating at the same table tonight, by the way. Shall I wait for you so we could go in the same van?”
“Uh—no, that’s okay,” she answered. “I’ll see you there either way, right?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he agreed, sounding slightly disappointed by her response. “See you later then.”
“Okay,” she said as the elevator door opened and she stepped inside.
In the bathroom of the room she shared with another girl who wasn’t there, Chelsea caught sight of the look on her face. She was literally glowing, it seemed. Her green eyes danced and sparkled, and if the shock of deep red hair on her head could have danced as well, it probably would have.
She had no idea why she should look quite that happy just because she’d come across a kindred spirit in the form of Mark Caerulus, but obviously the time they’d just shared had affected her quite a bit. Because it was a certainty that Erik Stotz hadn’t done so just now. Chelsea shuddered at the thought.
They were supposed to dress up for tonight’s dinner party, and accordingly Chelsea had brought along a fabulous pink cocktail dress and matching shoes. With it, she wore a necklace with a pearl and whale tail charm, and a slim bangle bracelet on each wrist. Matching whale tail earrings complete the outfit nicely.
Even though Chelsea was so short she would have easily benefited from higher heels, she was too clumsy to trust herself wearing them, and had opted for a wide, two-inch heel instead. She preferred the stabilization that type of shoe offered, and these ones in particular were cute enough that it didn’t detract from the design.
“Almost ready?” asked her roomie, Nancy, as she stepped inside and found her fiddling with her make-up by the mirror.
“Yeah, I just put on the mascara,” said Chelsea. “It’s completely waterproof. Isn’t that awesome?”
“It’s not as if we’re going swimming tonight,” Nancy scoffed with a smirk.
“No, but why buy different mascaras for different occasions?” Chelsea pointed out.
“Honey, you are definitely not interested in fashion,” she chuckled. “I’ll be out in a minute, okay? I just have to put on my dress and we can head out together, if you will wait?”
“Oh, sure,” she agreed. While she waited, she sat gingerly down on the edge of her bed and sighed. It wasn’t overly surprising that her mind wandered back to something that Mark Caerulus had said during his show, of course. She’d had Mark on the brain ever since she’d gotten back anyway.
Someone had asked Mark how much scientists actually knew about the ocean floor, and his reply had been, “There’s a vast amount we still don’t know about the ocean despite the fact that they’ve attempted to map the thing via satellite. In fact, if it’s not some huge object a few miles across, the satellite probably isn’t even likely to pick it up, and that’s only if it’s something that is fairly close to the surface. Most of the stuff beyond a mile deep, we have no idea about. And since humans can’t really dive down even half that far without some sort of submersible, there’s no real way for us to see it with our own eyes.”
That was so true, Chelsea agreed with a sigh. Even sending down deep-sea probes with lights attached didn’t do much to help them see everything, since the lights could only illuminate short distances, so they couldn’t really get a clear idea of the larger area using them. It was easier to map outer space than it was to map the ocean, it seemed.
Once Nancy was ready, the two girls headed downstairs and got into one of the vans together. It just happened to be the same one that Erik was waiting in, unfortunately. Seeing them enter, he moved up to their seat and insinuated himself between the two of them. “All of us at the top of the class should unite, right?”
“I doubt I’m at the top of the class,” Nancy grumbled. “I’ll be lucky if I even get in. But we all know who is at the very top, don’t we?”
“Aw, come on guys,” Chelsea complained with a blush. “Can’t tonight just be about dinner instead of bragging rights?”
“Why is it that the smartest person is always too humble?” Nancy chuckled. “You’re top dog, Chelsea. Why don’t you make like a bitch and howl a little? It isn’t hurting anyone if you let yourself celebrate a little.”
“Come on then, Chelsea,” Erik smirked. “Do a little howl with your second-in-line.”
Blushing more than ever when Erik howled and grinned at her expectantly, the next time he howled she did it with him. Then she turned as red as a lobster and hid her face, making not only the two people on her seat, but the other six people behind them chuckle as well.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” she finally admitted, wiping at the mirthful tears at the edges of her eyes.
When they got to the fancy Italian restaurant they were headed to, Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat as she spotted Mark Caerulus helping to place the name cards on the places along with Director Toshi. Toshi Yomura was the man with the final say as to which forty candidates would be chosen, and now that she knew Mark was assisting him, she wasn’t overly surprised to find him by the man’s side.
“Good evening, Team A,” said Toshi with a pleasant smile. His accent was noticeable, but he was still somehow easy to understand. “I have heard that your testing went really well today. You are going to make my job more difficult with your good efforts.”
The group of twenty people gathered around him right then had been only the first set to take the tests, while twenty more would take them on each of the next two days. However, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that this first group had been hand-picked. Why else would there be such a diversity of skill sets among them? At least, that was the opinion Chelsea had formed.
“Chelsea McDonald, have you met Toshi in person yet?” Mark asked at her ear as he stepped up unexpectedly behind her. She had taken a step or two back from the rest of the crowd rather than mingling as she listened to the executive’s speech.
“What?” she said with surprise until his words registered in her brain. “Oh, um, no, we haven’t met.”
“I think that you are about to,” Mark said, nodding toward the man as he turned to look in their direction. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw him nod back.
“Miss McDonald?” he asked then. “Would you please come up here to the front with me?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” she said with a blush. She looked at Mark again, and he cast her a reassuring smile. She stepped up and stood waiting to see what the man wanted.
“This brilliant young woman has broken a long-standing record here at the testing facility,” Toshi told everyone. “Until today, the record for the fastest testing that resulted in a grade of one hundred percent was held by Mark Caerulus, the man standing just over there. However, Chelsea appears to have beaten his record by twenty minutes. Well done, my dear. I believe with a score like that you are pretty much guaranteed to get in. I’d like to shake your hand.”
Chelsea smiled excitedly as she took the man’s hand. In her eyes, this was even better than if she’d just met the president. The sheer number of people who were employed in his company boggled the mind, and yet here the man stood shaking her hand. She wondered if she should pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. A cliché thought if ever there was one, but under the circumstances she couldn’t help herself.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, making sure to give him a confidently firm grip and look him right in the eye. “May I say it’s an honor to meet you? I’ll do everything I can to land a trip to Oceanica. I believe the work you’ve begun down there is very important and I look forward to helping it take shape.”
“Well, then, everyone, if you will find your place settings, I’d like this group seated before we bring in the other two teams,” said Toshi to the onlookers as they clapped.
Everyone did as they were asked, and Chelsea groaned inwardly when she realized her seat was next to Erik’s. Well, he did say he’d finished right after her, so that made sense. Then she saw the other two place cards and realized that they would be eating with Toshi and Mark themselves. Erik must have done really well on his test also, and the two of them were being honored for it.
She remembered how he had convinced her to howl while they were on the bus. Hadn’t Erik called himself her second-in-line? Perhaps he’d already known about this. But of course, she’d never bother to ask him outright if he did.
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