The Mermaid Experience Chapter 3

  • 10 years later –

March 14

Katherine unpacked her scanty belongings in the kitchen of her tiny apartment in Texas City. The window was open to allow a warm breeze to flow through the room. The weather was sure nicer here in Texas than it had been in Indiana. She had left 5 inches of snow on the ground to come to breezy, 70° March weather. She hoped it had been the right decision to follow Allen down here. He had his dream job, right out of college, but she could only hope that her newly printed diploma would enable her to find work as well. She didn’t want to lose Allen. They had been dating for 5 months, and she was pretty sure he was the one she wanted to be with for the rest of her life. Maybe after he settled down a bit, he would finally feel ready to propose. It wasn’t like Katherine hadn’t dropped enough hints that she was ready.

When she finished her unpacking, Katherine turned on her laptop and checked her e-mail to see if anyone had responded to her online résumé push. There were several e-mails from likely companies, but most of them were polite refusals. One seemed promising however – Burns Pharmaceuticals was looking for a biomedical engineer. That was the right major. They also wanted someone with experience in fish biology. Well, Katherine had owned a few aquariums before going to college. Maybe she could count that? She went online and researched Burns Pharmaceuticals. They were the manufacturers of healgel, a substance derived from jellyfish that was used in burn and wound care. Katherine was familiar with the product, as they had mentioned it in one of her classes. She even had a box of healgel strips in her medicine cabinet. They were proven to promote healing of minor cuts and burns without scarring, and they had come to dominate the adhesive bandage market, passing band-aids within a year of their introduction.

Further searching revealed other uses of this miracle material. A variation was undergoing medical testing as a medium to promote re-growth of skin and other tissue over a silicone template. If approved, it could be used to help re-grow ears and noses after disease or injury, and there was even the possibility that fingers and toes could be re-grown over a template of artificial bones. The material was already being used in unapproved ways by body modification enthusiasts to grow living elf ears or demon horns.

Wow! This sounded like an up-and-coming company to work for. Katherine quickly wrote a cover letter and tweaked a few items on her résumé, then sent a copy off to the address listed in the e-mail. She spent a little more time going through her e-mails, and then got up to get ready for the evening. She and Allen were planning to explore the waterfront in Galveston. She put on a long summery skirt, a tight t-shirt, and sandals. Before long, Allen pulled up in front of her apartment. She met him at the door, received a pleasantly long kiss, and then followed him to his little red civic.

“So how did the unpacking go?” Allen asked as they drove toward their destination.

“I’m all done. I don’t have a lot of stuff so it doesn’t take long. How was work?”

“Pretty good. I’m starting to learn everyone’s names and figure out where I fit in. John seems to be a pretty good boss.”

“What have they got you working on?”

“Well, I’m the new guy so they haven’t given me much yet. John has me researching some more powerful external lighting, so I spent most of the day looking at data sheets on the internet.”

“I guess you would need some good lights when the sub gets really deep.”

Allen chatted some more about his job. He had been hired as a mechanical engineer by a small company that made submarines for underwater industrial uses, like oil extraction. Allen felt lucky to have the job.

It didn’t take them long to get onto Galveston island and find a parking spot. They walked along the waterfront for a time, found a restaurant for dinner, and sat on a bench to watch the ocean for a time. Katherine told Allen about her job prospect, and he agreed that it sounded like a good opportunity. When it started getting chilly they got back in the car and Allen took Katherine home. They spent a few minutes kissing on her doorstep before Allen left for his own small apartment a few blocks away. Katherine looked forward to a time when they would be sharing a space, but they had both agreed that they would wait until they were married before taking that step.

The next day was a Tuesday, and when she checked her e-mail, she found one from Burns Pharmaceuticals. They wanted her to set up an interview! She called right away, and the human resources person asked if she was available that very afternoon. She agreed to come at 2:00. That gave her just enough time for lunch and to make sure she had everything she might need. She had to dig a little bit to find her social security card and a school transcript. She found an old folder left over from school and put those documents as well as another copy of her résumé inside. She didn’t have much food in her refrigerator yet, so she made a sandwich for lunch. With the butterflies in her stomach she didn’t feel like eating much, so the sandwich was enough. She spent some time deciding what to wear, though she really didn’t have much selection of business wear. If she got the job she would have to do some shopping. Katherine finally selected a straight brown skirt and a cream-colored blouse. She braided her long blonde hair to keep it out of her way. Clutching her document folder, Katherine walked down to her car and drove Galveston, and then across to Pelican Island.

When she got close to the address in the e-mail, Katherine saw a huge cylindrical building with a large parking lot in front of it. Banners flapped from light poles throughout the parking lot. “The Gulf Aquarium – Grand Opening May 1” they proclaimed, accompanied by pictures of brightly-colored sea life. Katherine’s phone guided her around the parking lot to a set of large buildings behind the aquarium. The Burns Pharmaceuticals logo marked these buildings as her destination. She found a visitor parking spot and went in the front entrance. A good-looking man in a polo shirt greeted her as she entered.

“Welcome to Burns Pharmaceuticals. How may I help you?”

“Hello, my name is Katherine Larsen. I’m here for a job interview.”

“Miss Larsen. Of course. We have been waiting for you. If I could just make a copy of your Social Security Card and Driver’s license?”

Katherine handed over the cards. The man handed her an i-pad.

“There are a few electronic forms on this i-pad. Please have a seat and fill them out while I check to see if Ray is ready to talk to you.”

Once Katherine was done filling out the forms, she was introduced to Ray McKenzie, the human resources manager. He took her back to his office and asked about her qualifications. She showed him her transcript and explained about her home aquariums and about the nursing home where she had worked to earn money for college. He seemed pleased about the nursing home job and asked her more about what she did there. She tried to make changing diapers and pushing wheelchairs sound like valuable experience. Ray told her about the history of the company and what kind of products they were making. He also told her about their insurance and vacation policies. At the end of their interview, he seemed pleased enough. “I think there might be one other person who would like to talk to you. Would you mind waiting here while I go see if she is available?” He asked.

“No, of course not.” Katherine answered. Hopefully it was a good sign that he wanted her to meet someone else. Katherine went over the interview in her mind while she was waiting. Had she been convincing? Her hands felt clammy, so she wiped them on her skirt. After a few minutes, Ray came back. A short woman with curly red hair accompanied him.

“Katherine, this is Audra Burns, the owner and CEO of Burns Pharmaceuticals.”

This sounded really good. The owner wanted to talk to her?

“Pleased to meet you.” Katherine said as she received a firm handshake.

“Ray seems to feel like you might be a good fit for our company.” Audra said. “Would you like me to give you a little tour?”

“I would love to go on a tour.”

“Do you have any other appointments? Do you need to catch a plane this afternoon?”

“No. I just moved to Texas City, so I don’t need to catch a plane or anything. And I don’t have any other appointments today.”

“Good, we can take our time then. Come with me please.”

They went down the hallway towards a pair of swinging double doors. Just before reaching the doors, Audra led her into a small side room. The room had a closet full of white smocks. Audra looked appraisingly at Katherine, then picked one and handed it to her.

“Let’s see if this one fits.”

Katherine put the smock on. Audra went to a small closet at the end of the room and pulled out a smock of her own. Audra’s smock was light blue and had her name embroidered above the pocket. After checking to see that Katherine’s shoes had closed toes, Audra handed her a pair of protective glasses and put on her own pair as well. Once they were dressed, they left the room and went through the swinging doors.

They entered a large room filled with rows of cylindrical stainless-steel tanks. A bundle of pipes and wires hung over the tanks, with some of the pipes extending down into the containers. Beside each tank was a computer monitor, and Katherine could see lines and icons on the screens indicating water temperature, salinity, rotational speed, etc. The quiet hum of pumps could be heard, and several people in white smocks circulated among the tanks, adjusting a setting here or there. Audra walked to the third tank in line, which had a set of movable metal steps in front of it.

“Come on up and look inside.” She said.

Katherine climbed up the steps and looked into the tank. Inside, she could see masses of jellyfish gently circling the tank.

“We use a gentle current to keep the jellyfish from contacting the sides of the tank.” Explained Audra.

“So these are the jellyfish you use to make healgel?”

“Yes, they are. The nematocysts are the key component, but we also use the bodies of the jellyfish as a component in the gel. If we choose to hire you, you would be helping us improve our techniques for growing and breeding the jellyfish. It is a very delicate process and there are several parameters that must be balanced just right to make it all work.”

“That sounds like a very interesting challenge.”

“Let me show you the next step in the process.”

They walked farther down the row of tanks toward the back of the room. Audra stopped at one of the tanks and pointed to a clear pipe that had been lowered down into the tank.

“These jellyfish have reached the optimum size and they are being harvested.”

Katherine could see the jellyfish being sucked up into the tube.

“The tube takes them into the next room. Come with me.”

Audra walked to the end of the room and through a door. Beyond the door was a smaller room, and Katherine could see the pipe coming in overhead and then discharging its cargo into a strainer. A woman stood by the strainer with gloved hands and picked up the jellyfish that were in the strainer. She loaded them into a glass bowl with a line on it. When the bowl was filled up to the line, she picked up the bowl and loaded it into a machine behind her. Through the clear door, Katherine could see robotic arms in the machine squirt liquid into the bowl and then stir it. After a set time, the bowl moved on a conveyor belt back into a covered portion of the machine.

“The chemicals that are added to the jellyfish help break down the cell walls without causing the nematocysts to fire. The bowl then goes into a centrifuge where the nematocysts are separated from the rest of the material.”

They passed through several more rooms. The jellyfish parts were shipped away to a different facility where the material was combined with various chemicals to make the base gel material. The nematocysts were added to the base material in a different room, where there was less automation and more hand work. Katherine watched workers packaging the finished healgel into containers for use in hospital burn units. Other workers spread the gel onto bandages that were then packaged for retail sale. It all looked like a very progressive and interesting place to work. As they approached one last door, Audra asked a puzzling question.

“So, Katherine. Are you a good swimmer?”

“Pretty good. I was on my high school swim team for a few years.”

“Have you ever done any snorkeling?”

“No. There’s not much opportunity for that in Indiana where I grew up.”

“Have you ever used swim fins?”

“I played around with them once or twice.”

“The next thing I want to show you is another project of mine. You saw the signs for the Gulf Aquarium?”

“I did. Is that your project?”

“Yes. It is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. It wasn’t until healgel became such a big success that I was able to do it, though. Until a year ago, I always had to beg the banks and governments for money, and I could never get it all to work out. But now, with the profits from healgel, I can use my own money. That made it a lot easier to get the government to go along. Are you ready to see it?”

“Oh yes. I’ve always loved aquariums.”

“Follow me then. We’re going to enter by the back way.”

Audra opened the door and led Katherine down some stairs. They continued down a utilitarian hallway and entered a large room filled with pumps and huge pipes. There were several large tanks of water in the room with fish swimming around in them.

“This is our filter and quarantine area. The tanks have fish that we plan to introduce into the main aquarium. They stay here for a time so that we can make sure they don’t have any diseases or parasites that would affect the other aquarium inhabitants. Eventually we will also have tanks for breeding certain species.”
“What kind of filter do you use?”

“It is a large sand filter. But we don’t need to do a tremendous amount of filtration because we pump sea water in from the gulf. See that pipe over there? It goes underground, and then along the bottom of the bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico. We bring enough water in through there to completely change the water in the aquarium every three days. The only thing we need to do to the water is check it for contaminants and heat it to the correct temperature. Our next stop will show you where the water goes.”

They left the room and went up two flights of stairs. When they came out of the stairwell, they entered a huge room with what looked like the largest indoor swimming pool Katherine had ever seen. Skylights filled the room with natural sunlight, and the room smelled humid and salty like the ocean. The pool was probably three times larger than the Olympic swimming pool at college. It looked very deep as well, though it was not filled completely to the top. Two women were swimming down at the far end of the pool.

“This is our water storage pool.” Audra explained. “The water we pump from the Gulf comes in here first, so that we can test it and raise or lower the temperature if needed.”

“Why is it only half full?”

“Actually, it is about two thirds full. The pool is 20 feet deep, and I think it is filled to about the 12 foot level right now. We need to leave room in case there is a problem. If we find contamination or some other problem in the water, we can let the pool fill to the top while we figure out how to fix the problem.”

“I see.”

“Let me introduce you to some of my other new employees.” Audra said. Then she raised her voice and called the two swimmers. “Renna, Lacy! Can you come over here please?”

The two women started swimming towards them. Katherine was surprised by their swimming technique, until they got a little closer. Then she realized that they were wearing mermaid tails. She had heard about such things, but never seen one up close before. The women seemed to be swimming quite well with their tails, and in a few moments they were treading water directly below Audra and Katherine.

“Katherine, this is Renna and Lacy. They just started working for me a few days ago.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Said Katherine. “Why are you wearing the mermaid tails?”

“Audra needs divers to feed the sharks and maintain the aquarium, and she had this idea to use mermaids instead of regular divers.” Answered the woman who had been introduced as Renna.

“Why are you in the water storage pool?”

“We’re practicing. It takes time to learn how to swim with one of these tails, and we need to be ready when the aquarium opens in May.”

“Thank you. Your tails look terrific, by the way.”

“Thanks. I love mine. I’ve been dreaming about being a mermaid ever since I was a little girl.”

Katherine’s compliment about the tails was sincere. These were not simple cloth leg coverings. They were hand crafted and painted works of art, and they looked very realistic. Audra indicated that she was ready to move on, and Katherine followed her towards another door.

“How do they get out of that pool?” Katherine asked.

“Well, as you would guess, they need some help. We have a kind of crane and sling down at the other end of the pool. When they are done practicing, they can push a button and a couple of people come help lift them out of the water and then help them take off the tails. It is quite a process to get into and out of one of those tails.”

“What are they made of?”

“A special kind of silicone. It is very durable and waterproof.”

They left the pool room and went down a short stairway. When they opened the next door, Katherine had to stop and stare for a moment. In front of her was a huge clear Acrylic wall, with hundreds of fish swimming behind it. The water behind the wall seemed to recede into the distance, as if it was a part of the ocean. Only after a few minutes of watching did Katherine notice that there was a back wall.

“Walk a little closer.” Said Audra, once Katherine seemed ready to move on. Katherine did so, and when she did she noticed that the aquarium was two stories deep. She was on the second floor, so she could look down and see into the bottom half of the tank. She could see three clear tubes crossing through the aquarium – one on the lower level, one on the upper level, and one that started on the upper level and angled down to exit on the lower level. Katherine looked around and saw that she was in a wide gallery area that surrounded the aquarium. Several workers were busy building pedestals and displays in the gallery. Smaller aquariums were set into the outer walls. A few of them were filled with water and fish, but most were empty. More aquariums were situated in the center of the gallery. One was a large, cylindrical tank with jellyfish swimming gently around in a circle. Audra led her farther around the gallery, following the wall of the aquarium.

“How big is this aquarium?” Katherine asked her.

“It is 300 feet in diameter and holds over 10 million gallons of water. It is by far the largest single fish tank in the world.”

“It’s incredible.”

They continued around the curve until they came to a spot where the second floor ended. They looked over a railing into a large, 2-story atrium that looked like it would eventually become the main entrance to the aquarium. One of the tubes opened out near the railing, and Audra led Katherine through it. The floor was flat, with a pattern of ridges cut into it to help them maintain their footing on the acrylic surface, but you could still see down through the material and watch the fish swimming beneath you.

“We had to develop a special technique for casting these tubes in place.” Audra explained. “The acrylic is a foot thick, and we developed a special machine that created a six foot long segment of tube and then moved gradually across the floor, extruding the tube behind it. That is why these tubes have no seams, unlike those you may have seen in other aquariums.”

As they approached the other side of the aquarium, they passed through a ridge of coral. The fish in this section of the aquarium changed from the large, free-swimming fish they had been viewing to the smaller, more colorful reef fish. Beyond the coral, the tube exited into the other side of the gallery. Near the exit of this tube was the entrance to another one.

“This tube will take us down to the first floor gallery. We are taking the tour in the reverse direction that most visitors will take.”

They walked back through the coral reef and when they reached the middle of the aquarium, the tube crossed over the lower level tube and then immediately angled downwards. They continued out into the lower level gallery, where more workers were busy installing tile on the floor. They headed back around the aquarium, avoiding the areas of newly laid tile, and Audra led Katherine through the last tube. This one had an opaque floor as it was on the bottom of the aquarium, but the view up through 8 or 10 feet of water above was spectacular.

“Rather than divide our fish by putting them in different tanks, we separate them the same way that nature does- by changing their environment. The reef fish could swim anywhere they want to, but they prefer to be near the safety of the coral where they can hide and where they typically find their food. The large, pelagic fish prefer to swim in the wide open areas of the aquarium.”

“How do you keep the large fish from eating the little ones?”

“That’s where our mermaids come in. They will be hand-feeding the sharks and other large carnivores. Basically, they won’t attack the smaller fish because they aren’t hungry. It isn’t a 100 percent foolproof solution, but that’s how it has been done for years in other aquariums and it works pretty well.”

“Where are the sharks? I don’t see any.”

“They are in quarantine. We will be introducing the larger more aggressive fish last to give the other fish time to establish territories and find hiding places.”

Soon they reached the other side of the gallery again, and Audra led Katherine through a door marked “Staff Only” and down a hall back to the Burns Pharmaceuticals building. Katherine thanked her for the tour as Audra escorted her to the entrance.

“We’ll call you within a day or two with our decision.” She told her.

Link to aquarium illustrations

Link to chapter 2

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