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The biologist exhaled when the elevator doors closed behind them. “This is cruel. You need to release it.”
Eero rubbed the bridge of his nose, pressing together with both hands as he composed himself. “I do not need advice on her care. I just need to know what she eats.” His chef had brought in the highest quality meat — nothing lab-grown for her — but it had been weeks. She got less energetic by the day.
“I can’t...” The biologist looked back to the door, and then to Eero again as though he was waiting for something different. Eero didn’t oblige the unspoken demand for further explanation. Eventually, the biologist caved. “Fish, undoubtedly. That creature is a hunter. It’s not a woman, not like you’re imagining. It’s a predator. Bring it live fish. You’ll see.”
The elevator opened. Eero gestured for the biologist to follow him through the short corridor that lead to the main area of his home. It was a few short flights up from the shoreline; the sound of the surf greeted them as they entered Eero’s office. Open windows let in the evening chill. “How long have you been cryptozoologist, Dr. Norris?”
“Marine cryptozoologist. I haven’t spent my career looking for the shug monkey.” The biologist took the offered seat opposite the desk, speaking while Eero retrieved his tablet from the desk drawer. “According to my mum, I was born with the ocean in the veins. It was the new surveys of the deep ocean when I was at university that led me to marine cryptozoology.”
Eero indicated with a roll of his hand that the biologist should continue speaking. It would keep him busy while Eero checked the documentation loaded onto the tablet that morning. Both files seemed to be in order.
“It was the pressure implosion of Kelpie Station caught got my interest. I never believed that nonsense about deliberate sabotage by the crew — the theories regarding unknown animal attack accounted for more of the discrepancies. My theory posits that it was an attack by a large intelligent animal.” The biologist looked down to the ground, as though he could see through the concrete and into the basement below. “It’s occurring to me now that it could have been a coordinated attack by something smaller.”
“Not a lot of money in cryptozoology, I imagine.”
“It’s not the sort of wealth you’re accustomed to, Mr. Järvinen, but I make a living.”
“Surely you could make a better one.” Eero set the tablet face-up in front of the biologist. “On the screen you will see a contract to work under strict secrecy for my company. The salary is listed. If you are interested, we will negotiate. If this is disagreeable to you in any way, swipe the screen to the left. The non-disclosure agreement is quite standard. I will have you flown to London back to your present appointment. Take your time to consider the details in private.”
Nearly an hour later the biologist joined him in the living room. “I’m interested in doing business, Mr. Järvinen.”
When the business with the biologist was settled, Eero went back to the basement. He adjusted the night-vision goggles before stepping out of the elevator. The bright lights that used to illuminate the oceanic tank had caused her such pain that he had immediately removed them. Dim runners would have allowed visitors to navigate the path to the vast glass wall of the tank, but Eero kept them turned off. He knew the path by heart.
When Eero’s father built the tank, it boasted a variety of oceanic wildlife, alive with bright fins and copious schools of fish. Much of their wealth had gone into keeping the ecosystem healthy and thriving, purely for the joy of having a piece of the ocean in their family home.
The mermaid had entered the tank a few days after his accident. Video feeds showed the fish fleeing not long before her arrival.
He stood at the glass, pressed one hand gently to its cool surface, and waited. First he saw the eel, the only other creature still living in the tank; it had arrived with her. Then she shook her way out of a small pile of sand, her color shifting to reveal the place she had camouflaged herself against the ground. She moved in slow circles, surveying the area before looking to him. She swam over and straightened out as though to mimic how he stood.
She would stand taller than him if measured from the tips of her narrowed fins to the top of her smooth head. Even after weeks of trying, he couldn’t make out where her skin made the transition from flesh to scale — perhaps it didn’t. The only time he had felt her, deep in the thrashing ocean with lungs full of saltwater, he remembered her skin rough under his grasping hands.
He had heard her voice then, sharp but lyrical: You will not die.
Her long arms had been firmly muscled when she arrived in the tank, but weeks of hardly eating seemed to have weakened her. She pressed a hand, webbed up to the first knuckle and bulbed slightly at the tips, up against the glass and across from his. He had seen her light her fingertips more than once. It was the light that he had first seen when she found him underwater.
She stared at him, the large dark bulbs of her eyes unblinking. The eel swam protective circles around her, and she idly traced its skin with her free hand.
“We will have better food tomorrow.”
She had no exact brow line, but the lines of her face furrowed in frustration. She tilted her head as though looking for an answer to a question he couldn’t hear.
“It will be easier soon.” He wondered if she understood. He had not heard her voice since the first time. She would not come above the water of the tank, and he had been advised against climbing in to be near her. It’s a carnivore, sir. Have you ever seen a piranha eat its prey? Fear continued to overrule the tug of his heart, even as they both stared at the space where their hands couldn’t meet.
“I will stay with you,” he said softly. He sat, and she lowered to mimic him.
Her long tail coiled as she came to rest. She moved her mouth as though attempting to speak as he did, but the movements were wrong. He could just make out the long narrow lines of sharp teeth hidden within her lipless mouth. After moment, she sagged and pulled her hand away from the glass. Instead she drew her hands together as though in prayer, but Eero knew that was not her intent.
He removed the night vision goggles to watch as she began a dance of her illuminated fingertips.
The biologist returned from the basement quite a bit more ashen than when he had gone down with the bucket of flopping fish. He carried a tablet and scribbled on it with a stylus, walking without looking up. “You should have seen it, Eero.”
Eero huffed. The biologist had come highly recommended as one of few within a thousand miles who still entertained the idea of creatures not yet known to man, mermaids included. But more than one reference had referred to him as “casual“ and “stubborn.”
Eero turned back to his computer, rearranging his schedule as he spoke. “Did she eat eagerly? The cooks had seen little interest in anything they offered.”
“Oh yes.” The biologist chuckled. “It seems eager for the sport: it chased half the fish and lured in the rest. I didn’t see any preference for a type of fish, so long as it was alive.”
“Good. Monitor how often she needs to eat, and draw up a schedule.”
“I’d like to run other tests — “
“No. Observation only, Dr. Norris. Do not chase her if she avoids you. You are a stranger to her.”
The biologist sighed. “It’s a fish. It’s not scared of strangers, and it’s not calculating. You’ve imparted too much humanity on it, just because it has adapted a human facade. I wouldn’t be surprised if that only exists to lure men in to eat them, too.”
“Your cynicism is noted,” Eero said without looking up from his work. “I require another project of you.”
“Other than feeding your pet?”
“You are rapidly approaching the end of my patience. I need you to draw up everything you can on deep ocean habitats. What does she need for comfort? What does she need to thrive? I have a meeting shortly, but I would like a draft of what changes you would make to her home by tomorrow morning.”
“Eero.” The biologist set his tablet on the desk and sat down. He didn’t speak up until Eero looked up to him to acknowledge the intrusion. “Keeping it is dangerous and unethical. It’s a wonder, and there’s a greater scientific curiosity to be had. You need more scientists, and it needs a larger habitat more suited to its needs.”
“You knew the terms when you signed the contract.”
“I can...” The biologist sighed and looked up to the ceiling. “I can keep our agreement, but I’d like you to reconsider.”
“I have noted your concern,” Eero said. “I gave you a task.”
The biologist stood and grabbed his tablet from the desk. “You’ll have your report by the morning, and I’ll work on that feeding schedule.”
After the biologist left, Eero pulled up the video feed from the basement. There were still fish swimming in the tank, including the mermaid. It was the most he had ever seen her move around — she seemed to be playing. He smiled, though it faltered as he saw her mouth unhinge, allowing her clamp her long jagged teeth down into the body of a fish she had lured in. Blood plumed through the water, a dark cloud obscuring her face on the monochrome feed.
Eero turned off the screen and stood. He smoothed the front of his shirt gesturing for the man at the door to enter. “Hello, Mr. Payne. Thank you for coming. I trust the flight was smooth? The supplies made it without trouble?”
“Yes, thank you.” Mr. Payne stifled a yawn as he took the offered seat. His company had been working around the clock with the new money that Eero had injected into their work. Two nights previous the news had come in: Payne’s company had a working prototype of the optical implants. “I brought four of my top technicians and our in-house surgeon with me, though I would recommend giving them a few days to adjust to time difference before you undergo the modification.”
Eero sat down when Mr. Payne did. His hands shook, and he folded them in his lap. “That is perfectly fine. I plan to delay installation until a few other companies arrive. I would rather get everything done at once. Your prototype has been performing well?”
“Yes. Please understand that I usually wouldn’t recommend jumping right into another human installation, but your terms stressed the importance of speed.” Mr. Payne cleared his throat. “If I may ask, what interest do our dark-vision implants hold to an oceanographic survey company? It seems as though the current hardware you have in your suits would be more efficient than human modification.”
“The modification is of a personal interest.”
“Ah.” Mr. Payne yawned again, covering his mouth with the back of one hand. “Excuse me. It’s been a long week. You wanted me to look at some paperwork before the surgery?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary — it is a standard NDA.” Eero turned his attention to pulling up the paperwork. “How long do you expect the recovery to be, and how sturdy are the implants? Will they affect my ability to see during the day?”
“The rats are fine, and our human test subjects haven’t reported anything more than a mild light sensitivity. The implant will be deep enough in the eye that they shouldn’t be any more sensitive than the eye already is.” Mr. Payne sat upright as he asked, “What do you mean, ’get everything done at once’?”
“I am working with a team of surgeons, who will of course consult with yours, regarding several biological modifications. The implants are just one of the changes I am making.”
“What other modifications? We haven’t tested it with any other neuroprosthetics or physical alterations. It may impact performance.”
The tremor in his hands intensified; Eero was glad for the keyboard tray under his desk, where Mr. Payne couldn’t see his fingers slip while he typed. He briefly turned the display so his guest could observe. “I plan to have three modifications made. Each technology is ready, or close enough to ready.”
Eero’s father had always taught him that innovation required risk — that to thrive, they would have venture into places that others were too afraid to go. It had proven true for their business. Eero had no intention of letting fear rule his personal life.
He continued, “In addition to the implants, I plan to have a sliding membrane installed over the eye — not unlike a nictitating membrane — so as not to impede vision while protecting the eye. I am also having oxygenating filters installed in my esophagus and nostrils, to allow me to spend more time underwater without an oxygen tank.”
Mr. Payne leaned forward in his seat, adjusting the glasses on his nose to better look at the plans. He reached forward and flicked back and forth between schematics and photos on the display. “It looks as though you plan to spend a lot of time underwater, Mr. Järvinen.”
It took two weeks for all the surgeons to collaborate, take notes, and decide on the day of the surgery. Eero found himself in the basement the evening beforehand, after the biologist had brought a fresh round of fish for the tank. She didn’t need food often; the net they had installed at the end of the tank allowed ocean water in but kept the fish from escaping.
Her health had improved, but it led to a restless than Eero hadn’t anticipated. The eel followed her in her furious laps, first around the edges of the tank and then in lines through the middle, as though she was looking something. An escape? He couldn’t stomach the thought.
She swam to the glass long enough to gesture to him, the glow of her fingers beckoning him to come deeper into the water. She had stopped trying to touch him through the glass, but he had not stopped reaching out to her.
But she would not settle, and he could not help.
“It’s restless. You cannot cage it forever.”
Eero jumped in the dark. He hadn’t heard the biologist enter the basement. “I do not intend to cage her forever.”
“No, you intend to become a mermaid.” The biologist had become serious after he had learned of the plans and his role in the transition. “You can’t survive at the depths it lives at. The water is going to crush your bones. You’ll freeze. And that’s ignoring the obvious: it’ll devour you.”
She swam up to the glass again, looking to where the biologist stood behind Eero. She lunged at them, baring her teeth with the full expansion of her jaw. She illuminated each of her fingers, then darkened them in a flash.
The biologist exhaled and took a step back. “You’re just big, exciting prey to it.”
She could have killed me already. Eero hadn’t spoken of the accident that had brought them together, not even to the biologist. He had taken his personal boat out alone in bad weather. He had gone too far, paid too little attention, and the ocean had shown him no mercy. Only she had, deep in cold waters when he was surely doomed.
Eero said, “I may die or become permanently disabled tomorrow. I have, of course, set up trusts ensuring all the proper payments are made, yours included. My lawyers know what to do with that information. I need you to promise me that you will release her if my recovery does not go as planned. Do not study her. Do not enslave her.”
The biologist was silent for several minutes. “Do you know how long I spent looking for mermaids? As a kid, it was the Loch Ness, obviously. But mermaids? That seemed plausible to me, if perhaps not in the way fairy tales imagined. It is... not what I imagined, either.”
“What did you imagine?”
“Something less vicious.”
Eero smiled. “She is strong. You only see viciousness because you fear her.”
“Perhaps. But you only see beauty because you’re too foolish to be afraid.” The biologist sighed, and his hand came to rest on Eero’s shoulder. “I will release it if you die.”
Eero looked out into the distance of the tank where she was luring another school of fish in with the lighted display of her hands. “Thank you, Oliver.”
Eero did not die — though he sometimes wished he would. The first week was spent in a long medically induced sleep, and the second with a deep fever. When the medication wore off, the pain lit up every nerve in his chest and head. When he had enough medication to dull the pain, his senses went with it.
The doctors came and went, perfunctory in their announcements. “You’re doing much better than we expected,” one doctor said on a day when Eero hurt too much to think. “You should be able to breathe on your own in another week.”
The biologist was a more constant and honest companion. “Stop it, you’re not supposed to talk around that thing,” he had said the first time Eero had tried to ask after the mermaid. “It — she’s doing fine. I tried to tell her you were in surgery, but I don’t think mermaids have a very good understanding of human medical procedures. She just keeps baring her teeth at me.”
The weeks wore on, the third and fourth dragging on in artificial darkness as the pain began to dull. Once Eero’s throat and nasal implants were deemed to be healed enough, doctors removed most of the tubing and allowed him to begin drinking his food. He still couldn’t open his eyes, but he could hear when Oliver entered the room. His footfall was always slow and slightly uneven.
“How is she?” Eero asked. His throat was hoarse from disuse.
“She’s starting to come near the surface of the water,” Oliver said, the chair at the side of the bed groaning as the biologist sat. “She stuck a hand out the other day. It’s an interesting development, because she seems scared of it. I’m a little worried she’s going to try to make a jump for it.”
“Should I release her?”
“You know I think you should. But, the doctors are optimistic. They want to do a few scans, and if those indicate that your eyes have healed around all the new hardware, they’re going to let you open them.” Oliver fidgeted. Eero could hear the thumping of the biologist’s feet against the floor, the minute sounds of the chair as he moved. When he spoke again, it was with some hesitancy. “She built a tool today.”
“Aye. A crude one, but I watched the footage. She sharpened a bone against some rocks. I thought it was a weapon at first, but she’s been trying to cut through the netting at the water line. With no luck – the bone broke.”
A long and guttural sound rolled through the halls. It made Eero’s blood run cold.
“What the hell...?” The sound stopped, and started again a moment later like a low, deep siren. “Is that coming from...?”
Eero sat up. Unseen IVs tugged at his arms, and he pulled the tape from his eyes. His first blink felt as though his eyes had caught fire. Worse was flickering the new membrane with muscles he had never used before. It ached like stretching a tense limb, but it worked. Growling, he pulled the IVs from his arm, blood pearling at the injection points.
“That is her!” Adrenaline powered him as passed Oliver, passed bewildered doctors in the hallway outside of his bedroom and down through the sun room. He stumbled down the stairs, too rushed to stop at the elevator. Oliver followed behind him, but the bursts of noise coming from the basement that kept Eero moving.
When he turned the corner at the base of stairs he saw her braced up on the edge of the tank, her head thrown back as her inhuman throat made only the most basic of noises. Anger. She could feel anger.
Eero scrambled up the ladder at the side of the tank, his limbs shaking and weak. She plunged underwater before he was halfway up and paused when she saw him through the glass.
He pushed faster up the ladder and tipped himself up over the edge of the tank. The shock of the cold water struck through his body like lightning. For a second he couldn’t remember how to breathe. Saltwater stung his eyes without the membrane protecting them. He closed his eyelids. Her hands struck his chest as their bodies crashed into the glass.
Then he breathed. Water came deep through his nose and out through his mouth, oxygen filtering into his confused body. She grasped at him, holding him close, their disparate skin finally touching. He could hear her again, her voice like a shout, as raw as the roaring of her throat. It lit a match in his brain, more feelings and energy than words. His understanding was like listening to stilted lyrics sung by someone who barely knew the language.
They took you.
Her noise had his total attention, the cacophony of idea and emotion all tangled up into something entirely foreign. Then it was gone. She was gone.
It took Eero a moment to shake off the shock and open his eyes, first engaging the membrane that would protect his eye.
She had Oliver pressed into the sandy bottom of the tank, holding him down by the throat. Her bared teeth grazed his face; her fingers illuminated his terror.
Eero moved as quickly as he could, but no amount of yanking or prodding budged her. He held tight to her wrists, yelling underwater as he tried to communicate in her way through brute force. “He is a friend! He is my friend!”
She loosened her grip enough that Eero could pull Oliver free. The biologist was dead weight. Eero struggled to get him to the surface — but once in contact with the air, Oliver sputtered and coughed up water over the edge. While he held tight to the edge of the tank and retched, Eero went back underwater to the mermaid.
She touched his arm, her anger and confusion palpable. Enemy.
Eero tried to lace his fingers through hers, but she pulled away from the gesture and away from him. He reached out to touch her arm the way she touched his. It took all his concentration, and he had no way to know if she heard him in the way he heard her. “I will explain, but I need to care for him now.”
She did not try to stop him from leaving the tank.
Eero did his best to help Oliver down the ladder and into the elevator. They both stumbled and collapsed together in a wet heap just past the doors.
“She hates me,” Oliver croaked, still coughing. It sounded wet and hard, as though he couldn’t quite get the water out of his lungs. “I felt — She thinks I’m the one who trapped her.”
“I am sorry.” Eero clapped the man on the back, as though that might help him cough up the rest of the water in his lungs. “I never thought of how much she would not understand.”
“I told you!”
“I know. But we can communicate now.” Eero pressed the button to take the elevator up. “She is intelligent. We can understand each other.” The doors opened again a moment later, he yelled to the staff doctors: “We need help!”
Once Oliver was situated and under the care of the doctors, and after the doctors had forced Eero to undergo examination to see how his new modifications responded to the unexpected stress test, Eero went back down to the tank.
She was waiting.
He eased himself into the water. It was easier to adjust to how to breathe and how to see the second time. He had weighted his feet before getting in to combat his natural buoyancy while they spoke.
She grabbed for him as soon as he was within reach. Are you hurt?
“I am not hurt.” The bubbles that escaped his mouth as he spoke obstructed his vision of her, and he forced himself not to open it as he tried to communicate through the contact of their skin. “Can you hear me?”
I know your touch.
“Are you well?”
I am trapped. He is captor. He is danger.
A rush of guilt made Eero’s skin prickle, and he forced himself to look her in the eye. “No. I am the captor; he was only here to help me understand you.”
He wove the trap. She indicated the end of the tank that had been netted to keep the fish inside.
“The fish, your food — we needed to keep them inside. I was not thinking. I trapped you here until I could come underwater.”
She reeled back and broke the connection of their skin. Her absence felt as though someone clamped their hands over his ears. He darted out to feel her again.
“I am sorry. I thought you would leave.”
I would not leave. Her voice was fierceness, heat in his heart — there was a danger in her that he hadn’t understood until he truly heard her. You are mine.
“I began to wonder if I had imagined it. I was drowning.”
Yours cannot breathe here. How can you?
“I changed to be more like you. And you? You almost look human.”
Mine once lived near, almost above. We looked more like yours. We dove deep. Their hands and nets could not reach. Why did you change?
“So I could be here with you. I — “ He bit back the thought, but her grip tightened. He was certain that he couldn’t hide his thoughts the way he could bite back his words.
Mine know love.
“But no amount of modification will make me as you are. I cannot live deep in the ocean. I cannot ask you to suffer in this tank.”
Water whooshed as her arms wrapped around him. She rested her forehead against his. You live above. Mine live below. Our space is the waves.
With so much of their skin in contact, she was too bright in his mind. His heart raced and his hands trembled, his thoughts impossible to form, his own voice drowned out. As much as he wanted to hold on, to stay forever, breathing through the water felt too much like drowning.
His distress must have been present in his thoughts, because she released him. It took a moment to unhook his weights and break the surface of the water, balancing himself on the edge of the tank. He took deep breaths of the humid air.
She settled just below the surface of the water, looking up at him through the uneven ripples. She rested her palm on his leg, and he knew what he didn’t want to hear — that she had to go.
“I know. I will raise the net,” he said, both aloud and to her. “Come back when you can. I will have a plan.”
I will return. She swam away faster than he could have imagined. The eel appeared as though summoned. It looked at Eero for too long, too appraisingly, before both disappeared into the darkness at the far end of the tank.
He pulled himself over the edge and climbed down. The tank’s control unit was on the wall to the side of the glass, and he hit the buttons that would raise the netting. Gears whined and the water rolled as netting moved. He sat on the ground, knowing she was gone by the time the sound had stopped. He wasn’t sure for how long his mind had wandered through possibilities before he heard the chime of the arriving elevator.
“What’s happened?” Oliver asked.
“My father kept working until he physically could not anymore. He was always looking to create better surveys and more efficient work. He put together most of a prototype for a long-term ocean operations base. It is meant for deep sea exploration, but I cancelled plans to build it after he died. We were finding better resources close to the coast.”
“She is gone, but not forever. And when she returns, I plan to discuss with her where we will build our base.” Eero turned to Oliver and smiled. “How would you like to expand your work into deep sea exploration?”
Oliver sighed and looked back at the elevator. He rubbed his face with both hands, then looked back to Eero. “You’re out of your mind.”
“I do not need you as a therapist, Oliver. I need a marine cryptozoologist who explores with an open mind.” Eero cleared his throat. “I also would not mind having a friend along. She and I cannot be close, not like...” Like he had hoped, but love had fueled his blind optimism. “I would not want to be lonely. Or bored.”
“Oh, it certainly won’t be boring.” Oliver cracked his knuckles and leaned forward. “Well, you know me. I’m still interested in doing business.”
“Excellent. We have work to do.”
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