The Healgel Chronicles Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1 – Moving In

March 14

Katherine unpacked her scanty belongings in the kitchen of her tiny apartment in Pinecrest.  The window was open to allow a warm breeze to flow through the room.  The weather was sure nicer here in Florida 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 she would be able to find a job here.  Her new husband, Allen, 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.  Eventually she hoped to be able to stay home and raise their children, but right now they both needed to work so they could save money for that future time.

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 called healglue 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.  There was already speculation that the material could be used in other ways – like growing 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 nearby Coconut Grove.  She put on a long summery skirt, a tight t-shirt, and sandals.  Before long, Allen pulled up in front of the 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 almost done.  We 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 to Coconut Grove, but it took longer to find a parking spot in the crowded area.  They walked along the waterfront for a time, found a restaurant for dinner, but were disappointed by the views.  Instead of a beach they saw long piers full of expensive boats.  They would have to search for a quieter spot for their walks.  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 drove home.  They spent the rest of the evening finishing their unpacking.  One of the last boxes had Katherine’s Nurse Chapel uniform.  She pulled it out and held it up, deciding whether to hang it up or stick it back in the box.

“That’s from the day we met.”  Allen said.  “Seeing you in that short skirt overcame my shyness enough to ask you out.”

“I remember.”  Katherine answered.  “It was at Gen-Con, and you stuttered so much when you asked me I wasn’t sure what you were saying.”

“I was smitten by your beauty.  I’m glad you were willing to give a nerd like me a chance.”

“Considering where we met, I’d say you weren’t the only nerd.”

Katherine decided to hang the uniform up in her closet.

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.  They didn’t have much food in the refrigerator yet, so she made a sandwich for lunch.  With the butterflies in her stomach she didn’t feel like eating much, so that was enough.  She spent some time deciding what to wear, though she really didn’t have much selection of business clothing.  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 down to Virginia key.

As she approached the address in the e-mail, Katherine saw lots of construction along the road.  She approached a huge cylindrical building with a large parking lot in front of it.  Banners flapped from light poles throughout the parking lot.  “The Bay 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 woman in a wheelchair accompanied him.  She wore a green skirt so long that Katherine couldn’t see her feet, and her body, arms, and even her hands were covered with a tight latex top.  Although it accentuated her curves, Katherine thought it a rather odd choice of outfit.  The woman had wavy red hair, and she looked at Katherine appraisingly.

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

This was the famous Audra Burns?

“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 Pinecrest, 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.”

Katherine followed the wheelchair down the hallway towards a pair of swinging double doors.  Just before reaching the doors, Mrs. Burns led her into a small side room.  The room had a closet full of white smocks.  Mrs. Burns pointed to the closet.

“There should be one in here that fits you.”

Katherine put the smock on.  After checking to see that Katherine’s shoes had closed toes, Mrs. Burns handed hKatherine 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.  Mrs. Burns rolled up to the third tank in line, which had a set of movable metal steps in front of it.

“Go 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 the lady in green.

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

“Yes, they are.  Cassiopia Burnsii, the jellyfish I stumbled into while diving in the Gulf of Mexico.  The nematocysts are the key component in healgel, 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.  Mrs. Burns 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 pushed her wheelchair 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, Mrs. Burns 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 Bay 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.  The Miami Seaquarium has been in sad financial shape for years, and when I offered to finance a total redevelopment of the site with my own money, the Miami city council jumped at the chance.  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.”

Mrs. Burns 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 bay.  See that pipe over there?  It goes underground, and then directly out into the ocean.  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 filter out any 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 an elevator.  The elevator doors opened on 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 Bay 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 made it extra deep so that we could store water if we need to.  If we lose power, we have some generators and pumps that will fill the pool with seawater.  When full, the water level in this pool is higher than the aquarium, and by opening or closing some gates we can still feed clean water into the aquarium.”

“I see.”

“Let me introduce you to some of my newest employees.”  Mrs. Burns 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 Mrs. Burns and Katherine.

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

“Pleased to meet you.”  Said Katherine.  “I think those mermaid tails are really neat.  Can I ask why you’re wearing them?”

“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.”

“That makes sense.  How do you like wearing the tail?”

“I love it!  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.  Mrs. Burns 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 someone comes to 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 them.”

They left the pool room and went down a short ramp.  When Mrs. Burns 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 Mrs. Burns 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. Mrs. Burns 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 Mrs. Burns 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.” Mrs. Burns explained. “The acrylic is a foot thick, and we developed a special machine capable of extruding tubes of any length. That’s 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.  Would you mind pushing my wheelchair through this one?  Sometimes the slope can be a bit difficult for me to negotiate.”

“Certainly.”  Said Katherine.  She took hold of the handles on the wheelchair and rolled it down the tube, looking out at the fish swimming on either side.  Mrs. Burns took a spray bottle out of a pocket in the side of the wheelchair and sprayed it on her face.”

“Is that perfume?”  Katherine asked her.

“No, just some water.  I have a condition that causes my skin to dry out easily.”

Maybe that explained the latex top.  They went back through the coral reef and when they reached the middle of the aquarium, the tube crossed over the lower level tube and immediately angled downwards.  Katherine had to hold back on the wheelchair to prevent it from rolling too quickly down the tube. 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 Mrs. Burns 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.

Mrs. Burns explained.  “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’ll 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 Mrs. Burns 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 Mrs. Burns escorted her to the entrance.

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


Chapter 2 – Cooking Dinner

March 15

As soon as he got home from work, Allen asked Katherine about her interview.

“How did it go?”

“Really well, I think.  The president of the company gave me a tour.”

“That’s definitely a good sign.  What was he like?”

“Her name is Audra Burns, and she seemed quite passionate about both her company and the new Bay Aquarium.  Did you know that she is paying for it with her own money?”

“No.  But aquariums are very expensive.  She must be really rich.  Want me to make dinner tonight?”

“Sounds good.  What are you making?”

“I thought I would cook some spaghetti.”

“Mmm, that sounds yummy.  I can’t wait to eat it.”

Allen changed out of his work clothes into some shorts and a t-shirt, then started browning hamburger and boiling water for noodles.  While he worked on that, Katherine poked around in the fridge to find some vegetables to go with it.

“How was work for you today?”  She asked.

“Good.  They’ve put me on the Hippocamp project.”

“What’s the Hippocamp project?”

“It’s an all-electric submarine designed for scientific and industrial use.  It will have those really bright lights I was investigating as well as several different manipulator arms.  The design is already done, but there are still several auxiliary systems to finish, so I’ll be working on the lights and a couple of the manipulators.”

They continued chatting while they cooked, bumping into each other frequently in the tiny kitchen.  Not that either of them minded the contact.  They ate their spaghetti and then sat on the couch and watched a movie together.  It still felt kind of strange not to have any homework assignments to worry about.


Chapter 3 – A New Job

March 17

On Thursday morning, Katherine was sitting in front of her computer looking at more job openings when the phone rang.


“Is this Katherine Landry?”

“Yes it is.”  The voice sounded familiar.

“This is Ray McKenzie with Burns Pharmaceuticals.  I’m calling to offer you a job.”

“Really?  That’s great.”

“Your official job title will be Associate Engineer, and you will be working directly with Mrs. Burns.  Does that sound good to you?”

That sounded pretty good to Katherine.  Getting a job offer after only a few days of searching was fantastic.

“Yes, it does sound good.  What do I need to do now?”

“We will be sending you an e-mail with all the details- salary, insurance, vacation, etc.  Just read it over carefully and if you accept the job send me a reply.”

“When would I start?”

“Would Monday morning be acceptable?”

“Yes, that would work for me.”

“Good.  I’ll see you at 8:00 AM Monday morning then.  Have a good weekend.”

Katherine paced around her apartment, jumping up and down a little bit from the excitement as she waited for the e-mail to come.  She sent a text to Allen telling him the good news.  After a few minutes, the expected e-mail arrived and Katherine read it through.  Most of it was what she expected to see- a boilerplate letter extending the job offer and explaining the salary and benefits.  Katherine was a little surprised at the job description:

You will be working as part of the healgel development team, using your knowledge and skills to increase the production of Burns Pharmaceutical’s core product as well as developing new products based on this technology.

You will also be part of our Gulf Aquarium dive team, helping to feed and maintain the sea life in the aquarium.  Dive training will be provided.  In order to maintain the “Mermaid” Appearance, we request that you keep your hair long – no shorter than shoulder length.

That explained the tour of the aquarium.  Although this was not what she expected, Katherine was actually pleased to see this addition to her job.  She loved swimming, and the thought of spending part of each day swimming in a huge aquarium full of colorful fish made her very happy.  She had always worn her hair long, so that requirement was not an issue.  The instructions said that she should bring a swimsuit with her on Monday, so she would have to go shopping.  Her only swimsuit was an old tank-style one-piece that she had worn once or twice while attending school.  If she was going to be swimming frequently, she would need to get a couple more.  She would probably need to get a business wardrobe as well.  The jeans she wore at school wouldn’t be appropriate for an engineering job.  After reading through the job offer a couple of times, Katherine sent back her acceptance and then went downstairs to her car and headed to store to buy some clothes.  She decided to stick to one or two outfits at first until she had a chance to evaluate what the other workers were wearing.  She also didn’t want to blow through all their money in one day.  That first paycheck would be a few weeks in coming and she and Allen had to live on one paycheck until then.

Katherine and Allen celebrated her job with a nice dinner on the weekend.  On Saturday, they visited Miami Beach.  The crowds were terrible, but they finally got their chance to walk in the sand and swim in the ocean.  Katherine wore her old swimming suit so the new one would be clean for her new job.

On Sunday evening, Katherine packed a small bag with things she wanted to take to her first day of work.  She had a picture of her mother, a picture of Allen, and her new red swimsuit.  She added a towel just in case.  The next day she took her bag and drove to her new place of employment.  She parked in the employee parking and went inside.  She learned that the receptionist’s name was Mark, and he gave her a stack of paperwork to fill out.  Once the paperwork was done, Mark called Mrs. Burns, who came down to meet her again.  This time she was wearing a blue skirt and matching latex top.

“Hello Katherine.”  Mrs. Burns said.  “Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you for hiring me.  I’m looking forward to working here.”

“You will be working directly for me, so I’ll show you to your office.”

“I was surprised to hear that I’ll be working directly for the owner of the company.  Why is that?”

“I like to be directly in touch with the people who design our products.  So at Burns Pharma I decided to hire managers for most things but keep the day-to-day management of product design under my own control.  It does mean that you may have to work independently from time to time when I have other business to attend to.”

“Well, I just hope I can live up to your expectations.”

“Come, let’s meet the rest of the team.”

Mrs. Burns took Katherine upstairs to an office area.  Around the perimeter of the area were a series of offices, and in the center was a conference table with a projector and a screen that lowered from the ceiling, as well as a water cooler and a central printer and copier.  The largest office near the door belonged to Mrs. Burns.  Mrs. Burns led Katherine around the room to an office that already had a name plaque with Katherine’s name on it.  She put her bags down in the room and then followed Mrs. Burns as she introduced the rest of the group.  They were:

Mike Easterson – Mechanical Engineer

Kelly Benson – Marketing Representative

Alfonse Brewster – Chemical Engineer

Donato Gemelli – Medical Compliance Specialist

Samantha Hanes – Human Studies Specialist

Renna Kosmatka – Veterinarian and Aquarium Diver

Lacy Zelinski – Marketing Director and Aquarium Diver

Katherine was surprised when she was re-introduced to the two mermaids and found that they had other titles as well.  Apparently Mrs. Burns liked her divers to be involved in other aspects of her company.  Once the introductions were done, Mrs. Burns left Katherine alone to settle in for a bit.  She left her with a list of online training material that Katherine needed to work through in the next few days.  It didn’t take long to arrange her two pictures on her desk, and then Katherine started learning about Safety and Personal Protection Equipment.  She was halfway through the training on Compliance with All US and International Laws when Renna stopped in her doorway.

“Hey Katherine.  Want to join us for lunch?”

Katherine looked at the time in the corner of her computer screen.  11:58. “Sure.  Let me grab my purse.”

They were joined by Mike and Samantha.  Renna led the way back downstairs and down a hall to the company cafeteria.  The food was OK, though the others groused about it.  They spent their lunchtime getting to know each other a little.  Mike was married with three children and seemed to spend most of his evenings and weekends coaching soccer.  Samantha was divorced with a preschool aged daughter.  And Renna was young and single and spent most of her free time at the beach.  Katherine told them about Allen and then asked about the area.  The others quickly chimed in with recommendations for restaurants, parks, and other attractions.  When they were done with lunch, Renna came back to Katherine’s office.

“You’re with me this afternoon.”  She said.  “First we need to get you set up with a mermaid tail.  Did you bring a swimsuit?”

“Yes.  I have it right here.”

“Good.  To start out, we need to take some measurements, so why don’t you run to the bathroom and change into your swimsuit?  I’ll get my measuring tape and meet you back here.”

Katherine did as instructed.  It felt strange to be walking back through the office in a swimsuit.  She was glad she had purchased a modest one-piece to bring today.  A couple of the men seemed to stare a little as she walked past their offices.  When she got back to her own office, Renna was waiting with a measuring tape and a form.  She had Katherine stand with her legs together and then took several measurements around her legs from her ankles to her waist.  She wrote the numbers down on the form.  Then she had Katherine sit at her computer and go to the web site of the mermaid tail manufacturer.  Renna helped her select a tail and a color pattern, then enter all of the appropriate information and order her tail.  It would take two weeks for the tail to be manufactured and delivered.

“This is really fast for a mermaid tail.”  She explained.  “Usually it takes several months, but Audra pays extra for high quality and fast delivery.”

“Audra?”  You call her by her first name?”

“Oh yes.  We’re very informal here.  I’m surprised she hasn’t told you to call her Audra yet.”

“I guess I haven’t had many chances to use her name yet.”

“Well, just call her Audra.  That’s what she’ll want.”

“OK.  Can I ask you something about her?”


“Why is she in a wheelchair?  And why does she always wear those latex tops?”

“She has some kind of skin condition where she has to keep her skin damp all the time.  I assume you’ve seen her spritzing her face with water?”

“Yes.  Has she always been this way?”

“No, the skin condition was some kind of medical accident.  Nobody seems to know exactly how it happened, but I heard a maid found her with her skin all dried and cracked and saved her life by putting her in a bathtub.”

“What about the wheelchair?”

“I think it may have something to do with her skin condition, but no-one really knows.  I heard she only started using it a few months ago, but she hasn’t explained why.  Samantha asked her about it and she just said she would explain some other time.”

Once her tail had been ordered, Katherine took her street clothes and followed Renna back to the water storage pool.  They went to the far end of the pool from where she had seen it before, and entered a locker room.

“You can keep your swimsuits in here from now on.”  Said Renna as she changed into hers.  After a few moments Lacy joined them and changed into her suit as well.  Both girls wore two-piece suits.  Renna wore a blue bikini, while Lacy had a tank top and brief-style bottoms.

“You’ll want to wear a two-piece suit once your tail arrives.”  Lacy said.  “The top of the tail stays in place better if you have bare skin on your belly.”

The lockers were wide and tall to allow room for the tails to hang in them.  Renna grunted as she lifted her tail out of its place.  They were apparently pretty heavy.  Katherine opened her locker and saw a couple of monofins in the bottom.

“Find the fin that seems to fit you best.”  Said Renna.  “You can practice with the monofin and work on your breath holding while we wait for your tail to arrive.  Come on out to the pool.  Fernando should be here by now.”

Katherine held the door as the other two women carried their tails out.  They walked to the side of the pool, where there was a miniature crane with a sling hanging from the tip.  Standing next to it was a muscular Hispanic man in a black swimsuit.

“Katherine, this is Fernando Salazar.  He helps us put the tails on and serves as a lifeguard while we swim.”

“Nice to meet you, Katerina.”  Said the man.

Katherine watched the process of putting the tails on.  First the women covered their legs with baby oil and then laid down on the floor and slid their feet into the tails.  Fernando pulled as they squirmed and wiggled until the tails were in place.  When they were both transformed into mermaids, Fernando lifted Lacy up and sat her in the sling on the crane, then rotated it out over the water and lowered her in.

“Why don’t you just crawl over to the side and jump in?”  Katherine asked.

“The silicone in the tails is pretty tough, but if we do a lot of crawling around it tends to get scuffed and scratched.  Besides, we kind of like Fernando to carry us around.”

Katherine smiled and Renna grinned at Fernando, who blushed slightly.

“You know I am a married man, Renna.”  He said.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my work.”  She answered.

“Katherine, you can just sit on the side of the pool and slip your monofin on.  Then you can either jump in or ask Fernando for a ride on the crane.  I suggest you take advantage of the ride.”

Fernando picked Renna up and lowered her into the water with the crane while Katherine put on her monofin.

“Do you want a ride, Katerina?”

“Well, it was recommended.  And I need to see what it will be like once I get my tail.”

The handsome man lifted Katherine up into the sling.

“Your wife is very lucky to have such a strong, handsome husband.”  Katherine said as he helped her in.

“Thank you for the flattery.  It seems Renna is teaching you her ways of teasing.”

Fernando lowered her into the water and she dove forward out of the sling.  She experimented with using the monofin to swim and found it a little difficult.  She was not used to having her feet stuck together.  After a few minutes, she seemed to get the hang of the undulating motion required.  Renna swam over to her.

“That husband of yours will like what this mermaid swimming does to your body.”  She said.  “It can be quite a workout.  Are you ready to practice holding your breath?”

“I have been swimming before.  I already know how to hold my breath.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true.  But we need to be able to stay under for three or four minutes when we’re in the aquarium.  Can you hold your breath for that long?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s been a long time since anybody timed it.”

“Come to the side of the pool and we’ll get Fernando to time us.”

They both took deep breaths and sank under the water while Fernando timed them with a stopwatch.  Katherine came up after about 95 seconds, but Renna stayed under for two minutes 48 seconds.

“Wow.  You’re pretty good at this.”  Said Katherine.

“Actually, I started out at less than a minute.  It’s mostly a mind game about learning to stay relaxed.  When you start to feel the need to breathe, there is actually plenty of oxygen left in your lungs.  But as the carbon dioxide builds up the urge to breathe gets stronger and stronger.  Lacy and I have been working on it for a while every day.”

Lacy joined them and they continued to practice for a while.  Katherine managed to squeeze a few more seconds out before surfacing.  Then they practiced swimming the 300 foot length of the pool and back.  It didn’t take long for Katherine to get tired out.  It had been several years since her high school swim team and she was out of shape.  So she rested at the end of the pool while the other two women swam a few more laps.  After a time, Fernando called down to them.  “Feeding time!”

“Follow us!”  Said Lacy, and began to swim the length of the pool again.  Katherine followed them.  When they got to the other end, Renna pointed out a large tube in the side of the pool.  About two-thirds of the tube was under water.  Katherine had noticed it before and assumed it was some part of the filtration system, but Lacy swam straight into the tube, and Renna motioned for Katherine to follow her.  They swam for 30 or 40 feet until the tube met the side of the aquarium.  Where the tube met the aquarium wall, the wall dipped down a foot or so and had a smooth, rounded top.  The water came up to within an inch or two of the lowered area.  Lacy grabbed hold of the top, gave a strong flip with her tail, and slipped over the edge into the aquarium.  Renna held Katherine back when she tried to follow.  Lacy treaded water in front of the tube, and they all waited for a few minutes.  After a time, Fernando appeared on a catwalk above and behind them.  He lowered a couple of tightly sealed buckets and set them into hooks on the edge of the catwalk.  Then he handed a long pole down to Lacy.  She pulled a fish out of one of the buckets and impaled it on the sharp point of the pole, then she grabbed the bucket and swam down through the pool towards the coral reef.

“There aren’t a lot of the bigger carnivores in the aquarium yet, but we’ve started to add a few.  Lacy is going down to feed the moray eels.  In a couple of weeks we’ll start to add the sharks and then we’ll need more help to do the daily feeding.  Audra doesn’t want anybody going into the aquarium who isn’t wearing a mermaid tail, so you can stay here for now.  I’m going to take the other bucket and refresh the seaweed for the grazers.”

Renna slipped over the wall into the aquarium and grabbed the other bucket.  Katherine watched as she swam down to a clip that had been attached to the wall with a suction cup.  Renna pulled some strands of seaweed out of the bucket and fastened them into the clip, then rose up to get a breath.  Katherine watched as the two women swam from one location to another, rising up to get a breath in between each spot.  No wonder they needed to practice holding their breath!  Three minutes was not very long when you were trying to wrangle seaweed out of a bucket or convince an eel to swallow a fish.  When the two women were done with the feeding, they brought their buckets back to Fernando and then slipped back over the wall into the tube.  The tube was wide enough for two to swim abreast, so Katherine tried to keep up with Renna as they swam back to the water storage pool.  When they got back to the far end of the pool, they waited for Fernando to walk back around the perimeter of the pool to the crane.  Renna taunted him good-naturedly while he walked.  Then Fernando used the crane to lift each woman in turn out of the pool and helped the two mermaids pull their tails off.

Katherine volunteered to carry Lacy’s tail back into the locker room.  It was indeed quite heavy – probably 40 or 50 pounds.  Fernando came with them into the room and they carried the tails into a large washbasin.  They used a disinfectant cleaner and a hose to wash the tails out, then hung them back up in their lockers.  After helping the women with the cleaning task, Fernando left them alone in the locker room to shower and change back into street clothes.  By the time they got back to their offices, it was time to go home.

When she got home, Katherine changed into more comfortable clothes and started cooking dinner.  She had volunteered to make dinner for Allen that night.  As she pulled off her slacks and changed into jeans, she noticed some soreness in her leg muscles.  “I guess I needed the exercise.”  She thought to herself.  She decided to go Mexican and started cooking Spanish rice for dinner, with some grilled chicken breasts and some asparagus to go with it.  She was almost done when Allen arrived.  After a few hello kisses, they worked together to put the food on the table.

“So how was your first day of work?”  Allen asked.

“Very good.  I think I’m going to love this job.  The biomedical part really didn’t happen today – it was all paperwork and training.  But I got to spend the afternoon swimming.  How lucky can you be?”

“Well, you could be swimming with me.  I feel sad that I missed out on seeing you in your new swimming suit.”

“That’s OK.  Fernando was there to take your place.”
“Who’s Fernando?”

“Our very hunky lifeguard and mermaid tail helper.”

“Very hunky, huh?  Should I be jealous?”

“Lucky for you he’s already married.  He’s fun to tease, though.”

“I’m still jealous.”

“Well, after dinner why don’t you come shopping with me?  I need to buy a couple more swimsuits, so I can try them on and you will get your chance to see me before Fernando does.”

“Normally shopping ranks just slightly above a root canal in my book, but this sounds like it might be interesting.  I’ll take you up on it.”

Chapter 4 – Two Young People at Work

March 22

Allen found the shopping trip had some enjoyable moments, when his beautiful wife modeled various swimsuits for him.  Tuesday morning found Allen at work.  Unlike Katherine’s traditional office setting, the company Allen worked for had a large, warehouse-like space with no separate offices.  Several desks were scattered around the room, but the majority of the space was taken up by three submarines under construction.  Orca Subs had a total of 15 employees, of which Allen was the newest.  John Sykes, the owner, had built his first sub by himself while working for Electric Boat in Connecticut.  When a wealthy yachter saw him sailing his creation, he ordered one of his own.  John had parlayed that first investment into his own small company.  Allen greeted a few people as he entered the room, then sat down at his desk and started his computer.  He opened up his CAD program and started working on the model for the bracket he had been working on.  He had found a set of powerful LED flood lights for the submarine, and now he needed to figure out how to attach them to the body of the sub.  After a time, his work was interrupted by Phil, the head of the manufacturing team.

“Hey Allen, you know how to work a wrench?  Or are you one a’ those kids with his nose in his phone alla time?”

“I’ve tinkered with a few cars before.  Why do you ask?”

“C’mere and gimme a hand then.  I gotta get these batteries inside sub 11 over here, and all my other guys are busy.”

“Sure, Phil.  You just tell me what you need me to do.”

Allen spent most of the day helping Phil work on sub 11.  This was one of the reasons he had been attracted to this particular job.  He had wanted to work for a small company where he got to wear a lot of hats and learn a lot of different skills.  John stopped by to see what Allen was doing and he seemed pleased to see him getting his hands dirty, crawling around inside a sub with Phil.

“How do you like today’s helper, Phil?”

“He’s not half as useless as I thought he might be.”

“That’s good to hear.  But don’t get too used to having his help.  We still need to get that new sub design done.”

“I’m just breakin’ him in.  He can go back to drawin’ pretty pictures tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, Allen had some bruised knuckles and sore muscles.  But he felt good about contributing his own sweat and labor to help build one of the company’s submarines.  And working on the sub had given him some ideas about how to design the bracket for the lights.  He now had a more personal, visceral feeling for how the subs were put together.  He went home at the end of the day and fixed a quick dinner.

“Hi handsome.”  Katherine said as she came into the kitchen.

“Hi honey.  How was your second day?”

“Good.  I finished all the required training and actually started working today.  We’re trying to improve healglue so it will bond with different prosthetic materials.”

“Why would you want it to stick to a prosthetic?”

“For things like reconstructive surgery.  If someone’s ear got cut off, for example, you could make a prosthetic ear out of silicone and the healglue would hold it in place.”

“How would you take it off?”

“Well, if everything works like we hope it will, you never would.  The healglue would cause your own skin to grow into and over the prosthetic, making it a permanent part of your body.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Once we are done, it should be a big boost to the company.  Audra thinks it will dramatically change cosmetic surgery – for example, instead of having to surgically insert implants for a breast enhancement, a doctor could apply a growth matrix on the outside of a woman’s existing breasts, infused with healglue.  A few weeks later new skin will have covered the matrix and voila! Bigger boobs.”

“I can see how that would be a really big deal.  When will it be ready?”

“The material is ready now.  I’m in charge of organizing the clinical trials and the endless piles of paperwork demanded by the FDA.  It will likely take a couple more years to get all the approvals.  So how was your day?”

“It was pretty interesting.  Phil asked me to help with some assembly on one of the subs, so I spent most of the day helping him install the engines and batteries.  It gave me some good ideas for my designs.”

“So what do you want to do tonight?”

“We could go check out another park, or we could just stay home and chill.”

“Actually, I’m kind of sore and tired from an afternoon of swimming.  Would it be OK if we just rested tonight?”

“That sounds fine.  Maybe I can plan something for tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a plan.”

“OK, it’s a date for tomorrow after work.  I want you to keep Friday night free as well.  I have something special planned.”

“Ooh, that sounds promising.  I’ll keep it free for sure.”


Chapter 5 – A Picnic Interrupted

March 23

The rest of the week continued in the same vein.  Katherine worked on healglue in the mornings and practiced swimming and holding her breath in the afternoons.  Renna and Lacy told her some of the quirks of the individual fish in the aquarium.  They also drove her pretty hard to practice swimming with the monofin and holding her breath for longer times.  They seemed to be pretty self-motivated individuals, and Katherine enjoyed working with them.  She went home every evening with sore muscles, but Allen chivalrously offered to massage her legs, so even the soreness had an upside.

Friday after work, Katherine changed into her little black dress and put on some makeup for her date with Allen.  He wore his dress slacks and a nice shirt.  He took her to downtown Houston to a very swanky restaurant and they celebrated their new jobs and the new friends they were making.

After Katherine’s second week of work, She and Allen decided to have a picnic on the beach on Saturday.  So they packed up their swimsuits and sunscreen and headed to the beachfront park on the tip of Key Biscayne.  Katherine brought her monofin and another one in Allen’s size.  When they arrived at the park they found a picnic table and spread out their food.  Allen worked the grill, cooking up hot dogs while Katherine set out the rest of the food on the table.  Unlike Miami beach, this one was nearly deserted and they enjoyed spending some quiet time together.  When they were done eating, they packed up their food and took their monofins down to the water.  Katherine swam out to sea and Allen tried to keep up with her.  After a few seconds it was obvious that Allen would be left far behind, so Katherine slowed down and spent some time teaching her husband how to take advantage of the monofin.

They spent some time practicing until Katherine decided she wanted to go back and sit on the sand for a while.  Allen decided to take one more lap out to a buoy and back.  As he climbed out of the water, Allen noticed two tattooed men holding onto his wife, dragging her down towards a boat pulled up on the shore.  Allen dropped his fin and raced toward them.  The men saw him coming and one wrapped his arms around Katherine while the other moved to intercept Allen.

The man who approached Allen was tall, heavily built, and muscular.  He grinned as he approached.

“You’re out of your league, punk.  Go back to building sand castles or you might get hurt.”

Allen said nothing.  He just continued to approach the man, a grim look on his face.  When he got within arm’s length, the man stepped forward and threw a punch.  Allen stepped quickly to the side and caught the man’s hand.  With a well-practiced pull and twist, Allen used the assailant’s own momentum and body weight against him.  There was a dull cracking sound and the man fell to the ground.  Not stopping to see what his opponent did, Allen continued forward.

Katherine’s arms were trapped against her side, but she remembered some things that Allen had taught her.  She brought her right foot up and stomped down upon her captor’s instep as hard as she could, then threw her head back.  The man quickly let go, backing up and holding his bloody nose.  As Allen rushed forward, the man with the bloody nose pulled a pistol from his pocket.

“Now you made me mad.”  He said.  “You can just stop right there or your girlfriend gets it.”

Allen stopped and held up his hands.

“That’s better.  Now lay face down on the sand.”

Allen hesitated, looking at his wife.  The man had his gun in her back, and she nodded.  Allen slowly knelt down and on the sand and then leaned forward and laid down flat.  The man with the gun grabbed Katherine by her elbow and guided her down the beach toward the boat.  The other man stood up and walked over to Allen, giving him a vicious kick in the side.

The man guiding Katherine yelled at him.  “Leave the gringo alone Jaime.  We’ve already screwed this one up enough!”

“But that Mother-f***er broke my wrist!”

“If the boss gets mad at you, he’ll do a lot worse than that.  Now get back here.”

The man delivered one more swift kick, then ran back to the boat, where Katherine was climbing in, followed by the man with the gun in her back.  Katherine was shaking, but the man pushed her down, telling her to kneel.  As she did so, Jaime reached the boat and climbed in.  With three people in it, the small boat was crowded and unstable.  The other man handed Jaime the gun and then knelt down to bind Katherine’s wrists behind her back.  Jaime squeezed past the two of them and set the gun down as he started the engine with his good hand.  He pulled back on the throttle and the boat started pulling away from the shore.  Allen was up by now, running back toward the boat, but he knew there was no way he could catch them.

The boat sped away, but only traveled 50 feet or so away from the shore before the engine cut out with a sudden clunk.

“What was that!”  The man holding Katherine yelled.

“I don’t know.”  Jaime answered as he tried to re-start the engine.  “It sounded like something got sucked into the intake.”

The other man said nothing as he moved from Katherine’s hands to her feet, tying them tightly together with another length of rope.  Allen, seeing his chance, ran to the shore and dove in, swimming toward the boat.  Before he got there, however, a strange thing occurred.  A naked woman, her long hair streaming behind her, jumped out of the water and grabbed the side of the boat.  From her waist down, the woman appeared to have the body of a fish, and she kicked out with her tail fluke as she pushed down on the side of the boat.  The boat rocked violently to the side, and Katherine rolled to the low side.  Jaime nearly fell out, but at the last moment he dropped his gun in the water and grabbed the gunwhale to steady himself.  The mermaid kicked again and the boat rocked back in the other direction, propelled upward by her powerful thrust.  She rode up with the boat as it rocked, and the men inside ogled her bare breasts while trying to hold on to their violently rocking craft.  The boat reached its apogee and then rocked back toward the mermaid, who now had her full weight on the gunwale.  This time the boat was too far out of balance and it flipped over, dumping all the inhabitants into the water.

Katherine barely had time to take a breath before being dumped into the water, but with her hands and feet tied, swimming was difficult.  Thanks to her practice with the monofin, she knew how to undulate and propel herself through the water and away from the thrashing kidnappers and their boat. But with her hands tied behind her back she made little progress.   She struggled for a time, glad that for her breath-holding practice – then a hand grasped her arm and pulled her upward.  She looked to the side into the face of the mermaid who had tipped over the boat.  Something about her seemed familiar, but distortion of the water made it difficult to see in detail.  A few strong kicks of the mermaid’s tail brought them closer to the shore and up to the surface.  When her head broke the water, Katherine was pleased to see Allen’s face just a few feet away.  The mermaid kicked again and Katherine was propelled into her husband’s arms.  Allen wrapped an arm around her and began swimming towards the shore, and the mermaid did a flip in the water and swam away.  As she passed, her tail rubbed against Katherine’s legs for a moment, the smooth slippery scales feeling quite different from the silicone tails worn by Renna and Lacy.

It didn’t take Allen long to get to shallower water where he was able to stand up and carry his wife toward the shore.

“Thank you for saving me.”  Katherine said.

“It wasn’t me.  Thank the mermaid.”  Allen answered.

“Did you get a good look at her?  She seemed familiar to me.”

“I only caught a few glimpses.  I was worried about you.”

They arrived at the edge of the water and Allen set his wife down on the sand and started working on the ropes around her ankles.  The knots were wet and difficult to untie.

“Hurry!”  Katherine said.  “Those guys might be coming back!”

Allen managed to loosen the knot and release Katherine’s legs.  They stood up and ran toward their car.  When they got there, Allen had to fish around in his swimsuit for the little pocket with the car key.  He finally produced the key and opened the car, then grabbed his phone out of the glove compartment and dialed 911.  Katherine looked back toward the boat to see whether the men were following or not.  She was relieved to see that they were getting out of the water farther down the beach and running away around the point of the peninsula.  The police arrived within minutes and took their statement.

“Did you see any identifying marks on the men?”  The officer asked.

“They both had several tattoos, but I didn’t get a good look at them.”  Katherine said.

“I caught a glimpse of the arm on the guy called Jaime.”  Allen said.  “I think his tattoo was a crown with flames on it.”

“That probably means they’re with the Kings gang.”  The policeman said.  “They’re a bad group that specializes in human trafficking and prostitution.  You said one of them has a broken wrist?”

“Yes.  The other man called that one Jaime.  He tried to hit me and I did an Aikido move on him.”

“We usually tell people not to fight back, but in this case I think you did the right thing.  We’ll check the hospitals and see if we can catch this guy.  Did you see what happened to the woman in the mermaid costume?  Did she come to shore nearby?”

“She swam away after she flipped the boat, and we haven’t seen anyone else get out of the water other than the two kidnappers.”

“All right then.  I think we have everything we need for now.  We may call you later if we have any more questions.”

“That’s fine.  We hope you can catch these guys before they hurt anyone.”

“I’m afraid it’s probably too late for that.  Try to stick to the more populated beaches in the future.”

The policemen stayed in the area, arranging to confiscate the boat and trying to track down the criminals.  Allen and Katherine gathered up their picnic and headed for home.

Link to Chapters 6-10


19 thoughts on “The Healgel Chronicles Chapters 1-5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s