Why are the chapters out of order? -Because I goofed. I missed chapter 29 in my earlier posts. So here it is now. The links at the bottom will still take you through the chapters in order.
When Allen checked his e-mail on December 6, he found a message from the consultant who had been investigating the absorbent materials.
The e-mail said that they had developed a prototype device and would like to demonstrate it. Allen excitedly told Audra and they arranged for the consultant to come on the 8th. When the man arrived that Thursday morning, all of the mermaids except for Maria were in the practice pool waiting to see the demonstration.
Allen was sitting in a wheelchair at the edge of the pool when Fernando escorted a man into the room.
“You must be Grant Hightower.” Allen said, reaching out for a handshake.
“And you must be Allen. It’s nice to meet you at last.”
“It’s nice to meet you as well. Thank you for being willing to come.”
“I’m almost as excited as you are. We’ve done some testing in our lab, but we’re very interested to see if our device works under field conditions. Are you ready to try it out?”
“You bet. Do you have it here?”
Grant held up the hard-sided equipment case he was carrying. “It’s right here.” He said, then opened the case and pulled out what was inside. It was a plastic box about 1 inch by three inches by two inches, with a set of clear tubes coming out of it and entering a clear flexible face mask. Grant placed the mask over Allen’s nose and mouth and adjusted the elastic strap that held it in place, then pressed a sealed button on the box.
“Just breathe normally.” He said. “Then maybe you can get in the water and see how it feels.”
Allen got into the sling and Fernando lowered him into the water. He dove down to the bottom of the pool and swam in a slow circle for about 20 minutes, breathing normally through the mask. Other than feeling a gentle air flow into and out of the mask, he really didn’t feel anything unusual about his breathing. When he felt like the test had lasted long enough, he swam back to the sling and Fernando pulled him back out of the water.
“That worked remarkably well.” Allen said. “How long is it good for?”
“Well, of course this is just a prototype, but we think we can make a production model that will last for 24 hours or more. It really just depends on how much absorbent material you have and how long your battery lasts. This unit should be good for several hours more.”
“I’m sure there are some others who want to try it. Can you hang around for a few hours?”
“Yes, if there is a corner where I can sit with my laptop I can be here all day. My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning.”
“Wonderful. Fernando can show you to one of our conference rooms while we give your unit a thorough testing.”
Fernando lowered Allen back into the pool and then left with Grant. Allen passed the test unit on to Audra, who was practically jumping out of the water in her eagerness to try it out. Over the next few hours, they all tried the underwater breathing prototype, and everyone agreed that it worked extremely well. When they felt they had used the prototype long enough, Allen got out of the pool and took it to the conference room where Grant was waiting.
“That works amazingly well.” He said.
“Thank you. We were able to take the original cobalt salt material developed in Denmark and make it even more efficient at absorbing and releasing oxygen. Then we found a promising new magnesium based organic material that absorbs carbon dioxide and releases it when heated. The device you just used has about 5 cc’s of each material in it. The oxygen absorber is already saturated with oxygen, and we heat it at a controlled rate to release the amount needed. The CO2 absorbing material removes the carbon dioxide from your breath and stores it. It can be regenerated by heating it to a high temperature.”
“So what do you envision a production device would look like?”
“We believe we can reduce the size of the system down to maybe the size of a fat cell-phone. You could strap that to an arm or hide it in your tail, and then clear tubes would run to your mask. We would make the absorbent materials into two replaceable cartridges that you could swap out once a day, and the battery could be re-charged at the same time.”
“What about pressure differences for different depths?”
“You didn’t notice any difference when you dove to the bottom, did you?”
“The system automatically compensates for pressure changes, down to about a depth of 30 or 40 feet. To control for deeper dives we might have to add nitrogen in some way, and the device would get bigger.”
“This is great. Can you send me the specs for your miniaturized production device? I want to work on figuring out where to put it so that it will be as unobtrusive as possible.”
Though he dearly wanted to keep the prototype and try it out some more, Allen let Grant take it with him for analysis. Then he went back to the rec room and told Audra what he had learned.
“I really like it.” Audra said. “The function is perfect. The only problem is the size and the ugly mask. Somehow we need to get something that is less obtrusive.”
“Well, Grant is sending me the information on their miniaturized version. I’ll try to come up with some ways to package it that are a bit less obvious.”
“Good. I hope you come up with something good.”
Allen got all the information from Grant the next day, and he immediately started to work. His idea was to arrange everything around the mermaid’s neck. They could disguise it by making it look like a large necklace or choker, or they could put silicone scales over it and make it look like part of the mermaid’s natural covering. It was a difficult problem and it took Allen a couple of weeks, but eventually he figured out how to arrange all of the parts in a two inch tall cylinder less than half an inch thick. The two discs of absorbent material went into slots on either side of the back of the neck. That was the thickest part. The electronics were spread out around the rest of the neck on flexible circuit boards, and the two tubes came out the sides and wrapped up to the mouth. Allen’s plan was to have the tubes enter the mouth on each side, and meet in a mouthpiece inside. Hopefully, someone outside looking in at a mermaid in the water would not see the two clear tubes. Allen spent a day modeling some scales on the outside of the apparatus and then called Audra over to look at his CAD model. He rotated it around on the screen and explained it all to her.
“So do you like it?” He asked.
“I do. I think it is almost perfect. We can get Cammy to sculpt some scales on the outside that will match our tails, and it will look like it belongs. You showed me how the discs get changed, but how do you recharge the battery?”
“It has a standard charging port on the bottom of the back side. You just plug it in like you would a phone.”
“Now if only we could figure out a way to get rid of those tubes. Why don’t you contact some manufacturers and see if we can get a few samples made? And send me a link to your model. I want to think about those tubes for a bit.”
Allen contacted some of the contract manufacturers that Burns Pharma had used in the past. Within a few days, he had a quote for producing three samples. Audra approved the cost, so he ordered the parts, which would come near the end of January. Audra added a sample of her own design to the order, but she wouldn’t tell Allen the details about what it was.
Before long it was Christmas week. Like Thanksgiving, it was a busy time for the mermaids as they went out into the galleries for customer interaction. Lacy had designed red and white elf-themed swimsuit tops for the mermaids and a red Santa top for Allen to wear. This time Renna won the draw and took the week before Christmas off. The aquarium was closed on Christmas day, which was a Sunday. Maria had the week after Christmas off. And finally, Allen and Katherine took their vacation the first week of January. They flew to Ohio to visit Cherise, Allen’s sister. Allen got his first taste of going through airport security with his crutches. The guards didn’t seem to know what to do with his fused legs and skirt, but eventually satisfied themselves with a thorough wanding and a pat-down. Cherise hadn’t seen Allen since the accident, so she spent some time in the first day or two staring at his legs. Eventually, she got used to the situation, and even suggested they go shopping for a new skirt for Allen.
“Not you, too.” Allen said. “Katherine thinks it’s quite a fun game to take me shopping and play dress-up with all the skirts. But we’re in the mermaid quarters most of the time now anyway. I really have plenty of skirts to wear for the four days a month when we aren’t in our tails.”
Katherine had to agree and Allen escaped another shopping trip. They had an enjoyable time with Cherise and made sure to invite her to come visit and see them in the aquarium. As a nursing student, she didn’t have a lot of money or time for a visit, but they tentatively decided she would try to come during her spring break.