Rolling in the deep, p.5
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       Rolling in the Deep, p.5

           Mira Grant
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  “Science: it’s really more of an art sometimes,” said Jill, without looking up from her map. This one was hand-drawn, and covered with notations in her small, fine hand. “Imagine’s going to want that genetic sequence and you know it. Anything that might prove that mermaids are real, marketable, and ready to turn a profit.”

  “Aren’t you the cynical one?” Anton was reading a book on fish found in the Mariana Trench: as was usually his practice while reading, he kept his eyes glued to the page as he spoke. “Look, whatever the blood came from, it’s a good sign. Means there’s lots of life around here. Lots of life means lots of protein traces for me to play with, and lots of algae for Jonny, and lots of fish for Peter, and maybe even whales for Sonja. We already knew we were going to find chemicals for Alexandra and a seafloor for Jill. Let’s just be happy that none of us are wasting our time on this three-hour tour, all right?”

  “You’re so smart,” said Jonny, blowing him a kiss.

  “Damn straight,” said Anton, and turned the page.

  The mass spectrometer beeped, signaling that it had finished analyzing its current sample. Alexandra was aware of everyone’s eyes on her as she got up and crossed to the machine. Everyone wanted to make the first breakthrough. Everyone wanted the prize, even when that prize was currently just a little more airtime in a lousy documentary on a channel mostly famed for terrible movies about giant spiders. Science was competitive because it was full of scientists.

  “All right, let’s see,” said Alexandra. “I’m showing low levels of industrial pollutants—that’s good—and high levels of methane, sulfur, and diffuse proteins. Both plankton and nekton. We’re looking at a living ocean, ladies and gentlemen. Hooray for us.”

  “A living ocean that we have already managed to injure,” said Sonja. “I’m so proud of us.”

  “The ocean will injure us right back if we let it,” said Peter. Anne jumped. They had been on the ship for more than a week, and she wasn’t sure she had ever heard his voice before. It was low, pleasant, and oddly intense, like he was getting ready to pronounce doom on the entire voyage. “This is a good boat. It rides high in the water and it seems unsinkable. But this is the ocean. It’s sunk better boats than this one. It’ll sink us all if we’re not careful.”

  “I’m pretty sure the correct term is ‘ship,’ Peter,” said Anton. “Nice of you to join the conversation. Did you get a chance to look at the blood Sonja’s got? She says it’s fish blood, and that means it’s your bailiwick.”

  Peter turned slowly to face the biomolecular biologist, his eyes seeming to swim behind the thick lenses of his glasses. Anne thought—not for the first time—that of all the scientists on board, he was the one who looked most like he had been hired from a casting agency, and not from a university lab. He was tall, thin, and virtually cadaverous, with thinning hair and skin as pale as the bellies of the fish he studied. Having him stare at you the way he was now staring at Anton had to be like looking into the face of death.

  “It was sampled from the bathypelagic zone, and the probe gave off no light or sound,” he said, words slow and measured, like he was talking to a very small child. “Marine mammals are attracted to light and sound, as much as to movement. Whatever the probe brushed up against was almost certainly some sort of deep-sea fish or cephalopod. The fact that it did not come up with a tentacle wrapped around it leads me to believe that it did not encounter a squid, which means fish or deep-sea octopus become our most likely candidates. Given the number of fish in the bathypelagic versus the number of octopodes, it stands to reason that the sample is from a fish. Logic stated from the start that it would fall to me. By allowing the rest of you to exhaust your interest in the matter before I begin, I guarantee myself a calm, measured period of study, rather than the circus you have all been putting on for your own amusement.”

  The rest of the scientists blinked at him. Anne and Kevin did the same, briefly united with the research team by their own bewilderment. A few of the interns who had been moving around the edges of the room backed up and made their way out to the deck, where it was less likely that an old ichthyologist was about to start stabbing people with scalpels.

  Then Peter smiled, revealing surprisingly large, horsey teeth, and said, “Besides, I wanted to finish reading my book before I begin unsnarling the mysteries of the deep.”

  A few of the others laughed, some of the tension going out of the room. Sonja slid off of her stool and stepped aside as the older scientist put his book aside, rose from his seat, and walked over to take his first look at the sample.

  Everything was quiet. Finally, Peter raised his head, a slight frown on his face. “I think I will ask about that genetic sequencing after all.”

  “Why is that?” asked Anne.

  He turned to face her, and consequentially the camera. He didn’t seem to notice it; all his attention was on the young woman. “It’s difficult to tell species from simply looking at blood. There’s too much variance even within a single type of animal—deducing that something comes from a fish as opposed to a mammal is often the most we can do under such primitive conditions. I am thus not in any way criticizing Dr. Weinstein’s work when I say that she is wrong.”

  Sonja Weinstein frowned but didn’t say anything. Anne frowned, and did say something. “Are you saying that it’s not fish blood, Doctor?” She stressed his title ever so subtly. The camera would pick that up, and the audience at home would be reminded of his credentials.

  “I am saying that it has many qualities in common with fish blood, and that further examination may find that I am being a foolish old man, and that it simply comes from a species of fish that has some documented aberration from the rest of its kind. But I do not recognize some of the qualities of this blood; they match up to no species or clade that I can call to mind. There are aspects that seem more mammalian than piscean. Without further information, I can’t say much more than that.”

  Anne wanted to kiss the old geezer. He had spoken so clearly, and with such obvious regret for what he was saying, that the audience was going to eat him up with a spoon. She kept her face composed as she leaned forward and asked, earnestly, “Are you saying that this blood comes from a creature unknown to science?”

  Peter Harris sighed. “I am afraid, my dear, that there is a chance I am saying precisely that.”

  Captain Seghers liked to run a tight ship, and more, liked to know at all times that things were functioning properly on all fronts. The Atargatis was mostly booked for private cruises and the occasional scientific expedition, none of which had been as large or involved as many moving parts as the Imagine documentary. They had dealt with as many people, yes, but always in pursuit of a single goal, and never isolated to different decks.

  She mentally ran down the list of tasks ahead of her. Check to be sure that the scientists were obeying safety protocols. Check to be sure that the camera and support people weren’t disabling in-cabin smoke detectors or overloading electrical systems in an effort to suck a little more productivity out of the already-laboring generator. Check to be sure that the mermaids were remaining on their designated decks, and not sneaking into the water when not given approval by the crew. It was a constant parade of little tasks, none of them insignificant enough to ignore, all of them inconvenient enough to become a trial.

  David walked along the balcony of the lower deck with a crewman whose name—Billy? Bobby?—had never seemed important enough to learn, since he had only been hired on for this voyage, and wasn’t working out. He was slow to respond to the captain’s orders, apparently due to her gender, and he had refused to learn more than the bare minimum of ASL required by his contract. David had long since come to see this as a sign of someone who wasn’t intending to stay with the ship after that first contract was up, and if short-time crew weren’t willing to do him the courtesy of learning how to communicate, he wasn’t going to do them the courtesy of learning their names.

  The man tapped him on the shoulder. David tur
ned. The man was saying something, speaking with the exaggerated care of someone who really had no idea how to speak to the Deaf. Normally, that would have been all right, but it was dark on the deck, and not even the world’s best lip-reader could have decoded what the man was trying to say. David shook his head.

  ‘See, if you could sign, this wouldn’t be an issue,’ he signed.

  The man looked at him blankly.

  For his part, Bobby was coming to regret signing on with the Atargatis more than he could have guessed when they were still sitting safely at port. It had seemed like an awesome way to make a little scratch and pick up some spoilers about a big TV production at the same time. Spoilers were worth bank if you were the only one who had them.

  He hadn’t considered the physical labor involved, or what it meant when the requirements for the job were entirely things like “how much can you lift” and “how much do you sleep.” The captain was a real ball-buster who didn’t seem to understand that men needed time to themselves once in a while, and she didn’t allow fraternization between crew members. Since all the chicks in the crew were long-timers, they weren’t willing to risk their jobs for a bit of fun—not even when he assured them that he was very fun. Worse, the captain also forbade fraternization with the passengers. What an ugly word that was. “Fraternization.” Made it sound like some stupid college rush party, and not the most fun men and women could possibly have together.

  If he could just get the captain away from her control room for five minutes, he’d show her how much fun it could be.

  And then there was the dummy. Who the hell hired a dude who couldn’t hear to work on a cruise ship? It didn’t make any sense. Bobby figured the guy had been made First Mate out of some sort of weird affirmative action thing—like, he was Mexican or something, and he couldn’t hear, there was no way he’d been the best man for the job—and that he’d mostly be confined to the control room, where he couldn’t fuck anything up. As if. The captain kept sending David to go on patrol with Bobby, like he was the one who needed supervision.

  This sure wasn’t the pleasure cruise he had been planning on. And now there was a weird humming noise coming from the water, which naturally the deaf dude couldn’t hear. “I said, there’s a funny noise,” he repeated, louder and more slowly.

  The dummy looked at him flatly and shook his head.

  “Shit, I thought you could read lips.” Bobby scowled for a moment before pointing to the rail and saying, “Not that you can hear me, but I’m going to go check it out, you useless sack of shit. Okay?”

  He turned his back before David could shake his head again, and thus missed it when the other man held up the middle fingers on both hands. Bobby was already moving toward the rail, a puzzled look spreading across his face.

  “I really wish you could hear me, asshole, because this shit is weird,” he said, as much to hear something besides the humming from the water as for any other reason. He leaned out over the rail. Lights danced off the waves, tinted green by the algae or plankton or whatever it was that could tint light green. “It’s like…a lullaby, or some such shit…”

  David tapped his foot. When Bobby didn’t turn back around, he stomped it instead, hard enough that he knew the other man would be able to hear him. Bobby didn’t react.

  ‘Asshole,’ David signed, and continued on down the deck. Jovanie didn’t require him to do his rounds with another crewman—hadn’t in years—and he’d only agreed to take the new guy because she had asked, very nicely, if he would give the kid another chance. Well, the kid had been given his last chance as far as David was concerned. After he finished checking on their passengers, he was going to go back to the control room and tell the captain that Bobby Warwick needed a sharp kick in the ass.

  David turned the corner. He never heard the splash when Bobby hit the water.

  By the time anyone came looking for the missing sailor, the blood had long since washed away, leaving only the calm, empty sea.

  The difficulty with determining exactly what happened to the Atargatis falls, ironically, on the number of cameras that were running during the last twenty-four hours of the voyage. The ship continued to float for some time before it was pushed out of position by inclement weather, at which point it was noticed by military interests who had been monitoring that general area. As to why they did not notice the motionless vessel before that point, no explanation has as yet been forthcoming.

  Upon retrieving the vessel, it was quickly determined that there were no survivors, and that whatever had occurred there had been both violent and swift. Saltwater had eroded or removed most blood trace evidence from the open decks of the ship, but traces were found in the bilge and inside the closed cabins. It is unclear why the wounded, who had apparently been able to flee to safety, chose to go back out into the open.

  The Atargatis brought with it several hundred hours of raw, unedited footage, much of which was filmed simultaneously. Rather than clarifying the situation, as might have been expected, the sheer volume of material complicated it further. Were the attackers Imagine employees in specially designed suits, planted by the network for the purpose of gathering realistic, Blair Witch-style footage? Were they sea creatures of some sort, rising from the depths to object to the disruption of their habitat? Or was there some other answer that we have yet to fully uncover? Many who have viewed the Atargatis recordings have declared them to be clever, if ill-considered, hoaxes. Others have said that they are unquestionably real, and proof of alien intelligence living right here on Earth.

  We have received special dispensation from the families of the victims of this tragedy to show you portions of that footage tonight, so that you may reach your own conclusions. Warning: what you are about to see is graphic, violent, and has not been edited to obscure partial nudity or excessive gore. The Imagine Network has already agreed to pay the FAA fines for this one-time display of the unedited footage, because we believe that it is important there be no question of what really happened on the Atargatis.

  The official record says that all hands were lost at sea. We believe that something far worse occurred.

  We believe that they were found.

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

  Part IV

  Red Sails in the Sunset

  Morning found the ladies of the Blue Seas mermaid troupe in a standoff with their so-called “cruise director.” Adrian Curran stood in front of the group, blocking them from the portion of the deck that had been reserved for their use. Kevin and Anne stood off to one side, Anne barely managing to smother her yawns behind her hand.

  “Shouldn’t have stayed up so late talking to the fish guy,” murmured Kevin.

  “I like the fish guy,” she said, and yawned again. “He’s like science grandpa. He’s nice.”

  “He had you half convinced that there were monsters at the bottom of the Mariana Trench,” Kevin said.

  Anne laughed. “Isn’t that the whole point of this trip? To convince us that there are monsters down there?”

  “If the monsters look like them, I might not object too much,” said Kevin, nodding toward the gathered mermaids.

  The mermaids were nowhere near as jovial. Sunnie stood with her hands clenched tight on the grips of Jessica’s wheelchair. That may have been the only thing keeping her from taking a swing at the man from Imagine.

  “We have a contract,” she was saying, voice tight with anger. “We are allowed to go into the water.”

  “I am simply reminding you that according to that same contract, you are all risking your payment for this voyage if you are picked up by any of our cameras before we have given you the official go-ahead,” said Curran. He sounded much calmer than she did, probably because he truly felt that he held all the cards. The payment Imagine was offering these women was not inconsiderable, and no one would be foolish enough to risk it for a little morning swim.

  He hadn’t counted on the Blue S
eas mermaids. Sunnie suddenly smiled. It was not a pleasant expression. “See, here’s the thing. I don’t know if you realized this, but before I became a mermaid, I was a paralegal. We’ve all read our contracts, even the fine print, and according to that fine print, we automatically received the official go-ahead to enter the water as soon as the Atargatis reached the Mariana Trench. While Imagine officials are absolutely free to declare us in breach for whatever reasons they like—I bet at least one of your cameramen picked us up when we were sunbathing, for example, and Teal and Jessica were definitely wearing their tails, even if no one else was—once that happens, we are no longer bound by our NDAs.”

  Curran’s eyes widened. “I am sure that is not true,” he said.

  “It is,” said Jessica brightly. “I ran it by our contracts lawyer before we signed. According to the contract, if we are not paid, we are not bound by any agreements we may have made with Imagine.”

  “We already spoke to the Captain about what she would charge if this suddenly became a pleasure trip for us,” said Teal. “She said she would want us to pay for the food we’ve eaten, which is totally reasonable, given the prices she quoted, and that she would be more than happy to take the passage in trade. Something about how she’s been wanting to branch out into mermaid cruises.”

  “Bets that the captain only said that because she likes Curran about as much as everyone else does?” whispered Anne.

  “No bet,” replied Kevin.

  Curran had gone white. “You wouldn’t dare,” he said.

  “We might, if you don’t let us go swimming,” said Sunnie. “You all are here to make a television show and get big ratings, and that’s swell. We’re here to get experience swimming in open waters. Now are you going to stand aside, or are we going to break our contract?”

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