Rolling in the deep, p.2
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       Rolling in the Deep, p.2

           Mira Grant
 
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  “Good,” said Captain Seghers. “Meals will be available in the mess throughout the day, although I believe that there will also be a meal schedule posted by your ‘cruise director’ from Imagine.” A thin ripple of laughter ran through the room. The scientists and camera crews employed by Imagine for this venture knew full well that the drill would include staged “group dinners” where they could discuss their findings like it was a normal, natural part of the scientific process.

  “I’m a vegetarian,” said Anton, looking up from his book for the first time since the captain had entered the room. “Do you know if that’s been taken into account?”

  “Did you tell Imagine that?” asked Jovanie.

  Anton nodded. “It was part of my application file. They wanted everything from medical history and allergies to food preferences and how many hours of sleep we need a night.”

  “Then you’re probably fine, but you should take it up with them.” Jovanie shook her head. “My crew and I are responsible for your health and safety on this journey. If a toilet backs up, notify us. If your bunk is somehow unsuitable, if you’ve been paired up with the wrong cabin mates or if you’re a couple and have been separated, notify us, but be aware that some of the housing decisions have been handed down by Imagine—you signed yourself up for the drama factory, and you get to reap the consequences.”

  Again, laughter, but this time it was nervous, unsure. Most of them had not been involved with the previous Imagine “documentaries,” as this was the first network-sponsored sea voyage. The few who had—Alexandra, Jonny—knew that while drama amongst the scientific team was not a primary focus, Imagine wasn’t above using them for juicy bits of behind-the-scenes footage.

  “Does anyone have any questions?”

  “I do,” said Jill Hale, sounding amazed and horrified at the same time. She was staring out the window. The rest of the room promptly moved to crowd around her and look out on the dock—all save for Jovanie, who had a fairly good idea of what had so captured their attention. The Imagine Network might be funding this expedition, but it was her ship, after all; nothing was coming aboard without her say-so.

  What was currently coming aboard was a group of nearly a dozen women dressed like a roller derby team on shore leave, with hair that had been dyed every color of the rainbow. Nine out of the eleven were walking on their own two feet, while the other two were comfortably situated in wheelchairs. Both had tails in place of legs, long sweeps of scales leading down to horizontal flukes, like the ones on a dolphin, only broader and more delicately veined. One was scaled in shades of dark purple and amethyst; the other in bright blue shading into bright, arterial red.

  “Those are mermaids,” said Jill, sounding faintly baffled. “Why are they bringing mermaids on the ship?”

  “It might be better to ask why they’re bringing people in mermaid costumes on the ship,” said Jonny, turning to direct a hard look at Jovanie. “Captain?”

  “I believe that’s a better question to ask me,” said the man entering through the cabin’s side door. “Hello, everyone. I’m Adrian Curran, and I’ll be your ‘cruise director’ from now until our return to civilization. Drs. Harris and Weinstein will be joining us shortly; they’re on the deck now, helping your interns for this voyage get the equipment secured. As you can see, they arrived alongside the last group who will be traveling with us, the Blue Seas professional mermaid troupe. The Blue Seas mermaids perform at carnivals, circuses, and private events around the country, and will be assisting with the production of our documentary.”

  “Hold on a second,” said Alexandra, stepping forward. “I’m here to do real science. I knew when I signed on that it was real science in the name of monster-hunting, but I never agreed to have anything to do with a bunch of plastic mermaids.” A low murmur broke out among the rest of the scientific team as they agreed with her. None of them spoke up loudly enough to be identified, Alexandra noted, and inwardly grimaced. This was going to be a fun trip if she had to be the voice of reason every time Imagine tried to pull a fast one.

  “You will not be expected to interact with the mermaids outside of normal shipboard standards,” said Curran smoothly. “In fact, if you check your contracts, you’ll find a clause about ‘other entertainment professionals’ aboard the ship which explicitly forbids you from excessive fraternization. You will not be taking your meals with them, and they will not be using the parts of the deck that have been reserved for your experiments. In exchange, you will not be utilizing the areas that have been set aside for them to relax when not working.”

  “Working?” said Jill blankly.

  Jovanie began to laugh. Everyone turned to stare at her. She shook her head, and said, “You’re going out to sea to hunt for mermaids. Only way to guarantee that they show up on camera is to bring a couple of your own. Am I right?”

  “Broadly, yes,” said Curran. “The Blue Seas mermaids will be entering the water at scheduled intervals, which will not be communicated to the camera crews. If they happen to catch the girls in the water, they’ll get as much footage as they can. If not, they’ll get more footage of the ocean itself. Either way, we will be able to honestly say that we were just as surprised as everyone else when they appeared on camera.”

  For a moment, the room was silent. Then, the captain clapped her hands together, loudly enough to make several of the scientists jump. “All right: everyone is on board, your orientation packets are in your rooms, and my crew will be escorting you there shortly. In the meantime, I’m going to go get us moving. Mr. Curran, if you want to film our departure, I recommend getting your cameras in position.”

  Then she was gone, leaving the rest to scramble for the doors.

  It was an iconic shot even before the weight of what was to come was laid behind it: the Atargatis, resplendent with her white sides and her brightly lit windows, pulling away from the dock and sailing toward the distant sunset. The cameras on shore caught every glimmer of light off the glass, and lingered on the silhouettes of the scientists and crew who crowded the deck. None of the Blue Seas mermaids were captured in those lingering images; the only proof that they ever came aboard was a signed contract and a single picture snapped by one of the Imagine interns. In that digital photograph, the eleven women are smiling, laughing, clearly excited about their upcoming adventure.

  None of them would ever be seen again, of course, just as none of the scientists, interns, Imagine camera crews, or ship’s personnel would be seen again—not alive. But in that moment, as the Atargatis sailed, none of this was known. They saw a great adventure. They saw a glorious and entertaining hoax. They saw profit, ratings, everything but the disaster that awaited them.

  The Atargatis sailed blithely on, out of the harbor, and into history.

  According to the official manifest, the Atargatis sailed with over two hundred people on board. The captain, Jovanie Seghers, and her first mate, David Mendoza, had been operating the liner for eight years with no recorded incidents. The majority of their crewmen had likewise been with them in excess of five years.

  Imagine personnel included six scientists, thirty graduate students employed as scientific interns, one “television personality,” thirty-five camera operators and sound engineers, five personal assistants, three dive instructors, two safety monitors, and one producer. Additional personnel included the eleven-person Blue Seas mermaid troupe.

  Only by looking at the numbers involved can we get a feeling for the true scope of the Atargatis tragedy. To lose a man at sea is a terrible thing. To lose a crew of this size, with all hands, is to strain the boundaries of belief.

  —from Modern Ghost Ships: The Atargatis, originally aired on the Imagine Network, December 2017.

  Part II

  Sails of Silver

  It took ten days to travel from port to the Mariana Trench. They could have made the voyage in nine, but the itinerary provided by Imagine included a stop in Honolulu, where the ship’s “official guide” and her cameraman visi
ted a local aquarium and filmed some talking head segments with local marine biologists and oceanographers who were willing to have their names associated with the documentary, but weren’t willing to risk the reputation hit that could come from being on board. Alexandra sat by the rail, recording chemical readings and privately hating them. Lucky, tenured jerks who had forgotten what it was like to live in the trenches of “publish or perish.” For them, the Atargatis and her quixotic mission was some sort of joke. For the scientists on board…

  Alexandra had known most of them for years. Oceanography was a big field, but like all arenas of scientific inquiry, it was plagued by nepotism, rivalry, and the vague belief that whatever your peers were doing, it had to be more interesting than whatever you were working on. It was only natural that people who were working in similar channels would cross each other’s paths from time to time. Every single person on the Atargatis science team was hungry, one way or another. Hungry for data, hungry for results, and hungry for publishable papers. Tenure wasn’t an impossible dream—not yet—but they all knew all too well that they could only chase the rabbit for so many years before it ran out of their reach forever.

  Jill Hale needed solid undersea cartography results; she was trying to attract the attention of the US government, since they funded most research in her field. If she could show that her techniques were the best out there, she’d be able to fund her research for the rest of her life. The military applications alone were worth millions. All she had to do was provide a solid proof of concept.

  Sonja Weinstein was a cetologist who could have written her own ticket to any university or think tank in the world, if she hadn’t been such a devoted whales rights activist. She belonged to Greenpeace, PETA, and a dozen other groups of that type, some of which had managed to make appearances on various terrorist watch lists. Privately, Alexandra admired Sonja’s single-minded dedication to her cause. It took guts. And as long as the Atargatis didn’t somehow endanger a pod of dolphins or something, Sonja would work tirelessly to prove that there was something living in the Mariana Trench, even if she was looking for deep-water whales rather than mermaids.

  Jonny and Anton were unbearable. They fought constantly, they held diametrically opposed opinions just to get on one another’s nerves, and they sometimes switched who held which opinion in the middle of the argument, making it impossible for anyone else to keep up. Alexandra couldn’t think of any two scientists currently working in their fields who would have been more suited to this trip. No one could match Jonny when it came to algae, and he was well-equipped to decode the messages hidden in plankton and other small particulates as well. He was also the darling of the Imagine camera crews, providing sufficient drama to keep them from focusing on the rest of the scientists—something which Alexandra suspected was intentional, given the way Anton shrunk in on himself whenever the cameras were tipped in his direction. Anton was happy to sift the water, teasing out the secrets of the particles too small to hold Jonny’s interest, but he didn’t want to be recorded doing it.

  Then there was Peter Harris, their ichthyologist, and the oldest of the scientists on board. He wandered the decks at random hours, paging through fat books of horrifying-looking creatures and occasionally leaning overboard, like he thought he could see all the way down to the bottom of the water. He was going to be doing the bulk of the on-site diving, since he was certified for deep waters and had already proven incredibly calm under pressure. No one knew why he wasn’t working for one of the large aquariums, and Peter—who preferred to be called “Dr. Harris” whenever an intern or cameraman could conceivably be around—wasn’t saying.

  Laughter pulled Alexandra’s attention from her book. She looked up to see Anne, their “professional personality,” walking onto the deck that had been reserved for the science team. Her faithful cameraman was right behind her, his lens pointing downward for once. Both of them looked relaxed. That was a nice change.

  “Afternoon,” called Alexandra. “We all done?”

  “Captain Seghers just went to peel the mermaids out of the bar,” said Anne ruefully. “Those ladies know exactly the limits of their contracts with Imagine, and they’re running right up to the line. They even got Jessica and Teal out of their tails for the trip.”

  “I don’t think they keep them on all the time,” said Alexandra.

  “Well, no,” admitted Anne. “But they usually wear them outside of their cabins, just to keep the cameras from getting casual footage of the group. They know we can’t use anything where the mermaids are too apparent.”

  “Since we’re on our way to find mermaids, that’s hysterical.” Alexandra closed her book. “Did you get everything you needed?”

  “Oh, yeah. Lots of old white men explaining, at length, how mermaids are myths,” said Kevin, patting the side of his camera. “They make this whole trip sound like a fool’s errand. It’s going to go great at the start of the doc. Then at the end of the doc we cut to the parts where they’re talking about how mermaids might have evolved, and it looks like we changed their minds.”

  “Sneaky,” said Alexandra. She would normally have been appalled by the idea of someone’s words being twisted like that, but the people who agreed to be interviewed by an Imagine film crew knew what they were doing, just like she’d known what she was doing when she signed on for the trip. She’d probably come away looking like a kook who believed that Ariel and her sisters were living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But she’d be a kook with solid, saleable data that no one else had access to.

  She could live with that.

  The deck below them rumbled as the Atargatis engines came alive, pushing the big ship away from the shore. “I guess they managed to find their mermaids,” said Alexandra.

  “I guess so,” agreed Anne. “Now let’s just hope we can do it again.”

  This time, all three of them laughed, and Alexandra found herself thinking that this was nice: this was a good way to while away an afternoon. Maybe the voyage wouldn’t be so bad after all.

  “We’re coming up on the coordinates, Captain,” said Curran, standing off to the left and watching the ocean as it slid by around them, featureless as a mannequin’s face. He didn’t understand how anyone could look at this sort of ocean voyage as a good thing. He’d been uneasy since they’d sailed out of sight of land, and his unease only grew when he had to talk to people who didn’t work for him. Captain Seghers and her crew seemed to take a malicious delight in reminding him how far they were from the possibility of rescue, should something go wrong, while the scientists babbled endlessly about how the isolation and untouched beauty of their destination would be invaluable to their work.

  “We’re aware, Mr. Curran,” said Captain Seghers. Her first mate, who was standing nearby and watching the exchange, made a gesture with his hands. The captain took her hands off the wheel and gestured back. Her eyes never left the ocean. “We can handle things from here.”

  “Is it really safe to have a deaf man involved with piloting a vessel of this size?” Curran realized the question was unwise the moment he asked it. It was, however, too late: it couldn’t be taken back.

  Captain Seghers took her eyes off the ocean.

  As she turned, David moved to take the helm. He was smirking a little, and Curran finally realized what the mirror at the base of the window was for: so that the first mate could follow any conversations happening in the room.

  “Yes, David is Deaf,” she said, signing as she spoke. There was a vehemence to her movements that Curran had never seen before, and he had to fight not to fall back, giving up the ground she was so clearly intent on claiming. “He’s also one of the best men it has ever been my privilege to sail with. He knows the Atargatis inside and out, and I trust him with my life every time we set out from port. He was on the crew roster originally provided to Imagine, along with a medical history describing his hearing loss. Your boss signed off on David’s presence on this vessel. If you have trouble with him being here, mayb
e you should swim home and complain.”

  “My apologies,” said Curran, putting his hands up defensively. He realized that he could be saying something offensive in sign, and hurriedly lowered them again. “I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on his skill, I just…you have my sincere apologies. It won’t happen again.”

  “No, it won’t,” said Captain Seghers. “You are free to leave my control room and see how your people are doing. We should be coming to a full stop within the next twenty minutes, and well within the indicated coordinates.” She turned her back on him, signing something to David as she reclaimed the helm. David looked over his shoulder and winked at Curran, seemingly amused by the whole exchange.

  None of the other sailors had said a word while their captain chastised the man who controlled their paychecks. Curran looked around the room and, seeing that he would find no allies here, turned and walked away.

  ‘What an asshole,’ signed David, once Curran was gone. People seemed to pick up profanity faster than anything else, and while he wasn’t above swearing under the right circumstances, he was enough of a professional not to want to cause his friend and captain any more trouble than he absolutely had to. ‘Thanks for stepping in, Jovi.’

  ‘You don’t need to thank me,’ Jovanie signed back. ‘He should just be glad we didn’t have one of those professional mermaids here. I would have slapped one of their tails on him and shoved him overboard before you could say ‘swimming lessons.’’

  ‘That’s not nice,’ David chastised, with quick gestures of his hands. ‘We’re here to find mermaids, not scare them all away.’

  He might not have been able to hear Jovanie laugh, but he could see the way she relaxed and lit up at his joke, and that was enough for him. The tension finally defused, they returned to their posts, and to the business of bringing the Atargatis to a complete stop.

 
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