Rolling in the deep, p.8
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       Rolling in the Deep, p.8

           Mira Grant
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  Faster than a snake, the mermaid struck, lashing out and clamping its mouth closed around the first three fingers of his hand. Anton’s eyes bulged in his suddenly pale face. Then, as the blood began to well up around the corners of the mermaid’s lips, he screamed.

  The sound seemed to be a catalyst for everything else to start moving again. The mermaid pulled back, its throat pulsing as it swallowed the remains of Anton’s fingers. Blood jutted from the stumps that remained. Anton stared at his shattered hand, still screaming. He was still screaming when the mermaid lunged forward again, mouth opening to an impossible width, and bit his face off. His screams stopped abruptly. The mermaid, which had released the camera in its lunge, wrapped its tail around his body in the same serpentine fashion. It leaned hard, putting all its weight into the motion. Anton’s body hit the rail and toppled over, taking the mermaid with it.

  The whole thing had taken less than six seconds. When it ended, there was only blood on the deck and thick white mucus on the camera to show that anything had happened. Silence reigned…but only for a moment. Then, just as quickly, panic took over. Some people ran for the doors. Others began to scream and raced off down the deck. Anne remained rooted to the spot, staring at the bloody spot on the rail where Anton had gone over.

  “What the fuck just happened?” demanded Sonja, stabbing a finger at the empty rail. “That mermaid ate his fucking face off!”

  “Oh God oh God oh God,” said Alexandra. She couldn’t seem to say anything else. She wasn’t a particularly religious person, but somehow in the face of what had just happened, she couldn’t stop.

  “We should have guessed,” said Peter. He slumped backward in his chair. Unlike the frozen ones, he seemed capable of movement; he just wasn’t moving. “We should have known. Mertensian mimicry. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

  “Oh, fuck,” said Jill. It was the first thing the statuesque cartographer had said since coming onto the deck. Heads turned to look at her. A few people even stopped screaming. “All the stories about mermaids drowning sailors, all the men lost at sea…we never took those into account.”

  Kevin’s camera swung around, framing her face in the lens. It was the only thing he could think of to keep himself from screaming.

  Heedless, Jill continued: “We said ‘pretty women in the sea,’ and that was good enough, because who doesn’t want there to be pretty women in the sea? We turned monsters into myths, and then we turned them into fairy tales. We dismissed the bad parts. We were too interested in…in…in pretty women in the sea.” She began to sob, her voice breaking on the last words before she buried her face in her hands. Slowly, she sunk down into a crouch, and stayed there, just crying. Under the circumstances, it seemed like the best thing she could do.

  Alexandra looked at the scene around her. Then, with a shake of her head, she turned and stomped off down the deck.

  “Where are you going?” asked Anne. The story unfolding around her might not be the one Imagine had been looking for, but she couldn’t deny that it was compelling in its terrible reality. If she could just keep thinking of it that way—as a story—then she would be able to hold herself together until it was over. Journalistic objectivity, that was the key. That was what would allow her to survive.

  “To tell the captain that we need to turn this boat around,” said Alexandra, and kept on walking.

  There was one group aboard the Atargatis who had not yet heard about the incident on the deck: the surviving members of the Blue Seas mermaids. They were sitting in the main cafeteria, silent and despondent, unable to decide how they could best go about remembering someone who had been alive and vibrant and real, and then suddenly gone. That was the problem, really. It had been too sudden; there wasn’t any time to adjust to a world that didn’t have Jessica in it.

  Teal played with one of her decorative hip fins, rolling it between her fingers and smoothing it back down, over and over again. There was a permanent curl in the neoprene from her worrying at it. She liked it. She thought it gave her tail character. Jessica had liked it, too.

  “This is wrong,” she said abruptly. The other mermaids turned to look at her. She kept looking at that curled fin, spiraling it in and flattening it out as she spoke. “We shouldn’t be sitting here, all dry and sad, because Jessica went too deep. She knew the risks. We all know the risks. I won’t pretend that drowning is fun, but I’d rather die with my fins on than off.”

  “What are you saying, Teal?” asked Sunnie gently.

  Teal raised her head. “I’m saying that if we want to honor her life, we should do it in the water. She wouldn’t want to take that away from us. She’d say that when you swallow half the pool, you should jump right into the other half and keep on swimming. Anything else would be letting fear win.”

  Slowly, the other mermaids began to nod. “Kim?” said Sunnie.

  “Paula and I can bring everyone’s tails down to the dock,” said the woman Sunnie had addressed.

  “Good.” Sunnie stood. “Let’s go swimming.”

  The portion of deck outside the cafeteria was deserted. The sun was trending downward in the sky; it would be sunset soon. Swimming after nightfall wasn’t necessarily any more dangerous than swimming during the day. The Atargatis was always lit up from within. As long as no one tried for any deep dives, the reflections off the water would be more than sufficient. After what had happened to Jessica, none of them felt very much like diving deeply.

  It was a solemn group of women who stripped down to their bras and bike shorts and squirmed into the safe embraces of their tails. Neoprene and plastic hugged hips like a second skin as the mermaids began dropping, one by one, into the waiting deeps. Even then, they didn’t begin their normal frolicking or splashing around. They swam to form a loose circle, their weighted tails making it easier for them to float with their heads and shoulders above the waves.

  They looked at each other. Then, slowly, Sunnie smiled. “You were right, Teal,” she said. “This is how I would want to be remembered. In the sea.”

  That seemed to be the permission they had all been waiting for. The circle broke, the mermaids swimming in all directions—and while none of them dove deeply, or laughed from the joy of being in the water, they all seemed to be at peace, back in their chosen home. While none of them was quite ready to declare Jessica lucky for her untimely death, they each felt, in their own way, that being lost at sea, while terrible, wasn’t the worst way for a mermaid to go.

  Teal was near the edge of the group when a motion caught her eye. She glanced down, and saw a tail whisk by, rendered black and gray by the shadows in the water. She gasped and looked up again, taking a quick head count. All of her fellow mermaids were present and accounted for.

  All but one.

  Feeling suddenly lightheaded, Teal took a deep breath and let herself slide beneath the surface, straining to see through the dimly-lit water. For a moment, all she could see was herself: her arms, pale against the dark, moving in and out of view as she held herself suspended; the washed-out cloud of her hair. Then, the shadow flickered by again. It was definitely the outline of a mermaid, arms pointed out in front of her to direct her passage through the water, tail beating against the sea.

  Teal didn’t notice the differences in outline between the mysterious figure and her missing friend—or if she did, in that moment, she didn’t care. She dove after the other woman, swimming as hard as she had ever swum in her life. She cut through the water with a speed and grace that would have made her a legend in the world of professional mermaids if she’d been doing it on camera, in some well-lit aquarium a hundred miles from the coast. But she did it alone, in dark water, and there was no one to see her.

  When the hand reached up from below to hook her arm and pull her under, there was no one there to see that, either.

  Several minutes passed before any of the other mermaids noticed she was gone. “Teal?” said Kim, turning around in the water. “Has anyone seen Teal? This isn’t a good time
for hide-and-seek, Teal! Come out now, okay? Come out n—” She was cut off mid-word as something jerked her under the waves. Faced with the proof that something was in the water with them, that the disappearances hadn’t been natural, the mermaids did the natural thing.

  They panicked.

  The screaming from the water attracted the attention of the crewmen on the decks above. Heads appeared above the rail, their eyes going wide with shock and dismay as they stared down at the roiling carnage in the water. Shrieking mermaids were disappearing into the waves, only to pop back up again bleeding from wounds that had mysteriously opened on their chests or bodies. The crewmen shoved themselves away from the rail, running for the stairs that would take them close enough to be of aid.

  Sunnie felt hands grab her waist and pull her under. She responded with a mighty kick of her neoprene tail, knocking her assailant away. She resurfaced, and found herself face to face with Kim, who was no longer screaming, because she no longer had a face to scream with. Sunnie did the screaming for her, and when the hands from below grabbed her again, her shock was too profound to let her fight.

  Kevin came pelting down the deck, drawn by the sound of screams. He arrived a few seconds before the descending crewmen, and had time to capture footage of the sea alive with thrashing bodies and stained red by arterial spray before those same crewmen knocked him aside, throwing life preservers and ropes down into the blue. None of them dove in to help the women in the water. They were brave—Captain Seghers had always insisted that the people who worked for her be brave—but they weren’t stupid. The sea looked like something out of a horror movie, and no one who entered it would have any hope of getting out alive.

  All too soon, the thrashing ended. The body of one of the Blue Seas mermaids floated atop the water, facedown, her tail too covered with blood for its original color to be seen. It could have been almost any of them. Then, slowly, a gray-skinned creature reached up from below the body and pulled itself onto the makeshift raft. The glowing points in its hair twinkled like stars as it raised its head and hissed at the crewmen gathered at the rail.

  “My God…” one of them breathed.

  “Teal?” said the mermaid. “Has anyone seen Teal?” The voice wasn’t quite Kim’s—it was deeper and throatier, with a soft lisp around the sibilants, thanks to the creature’s many knife-like teeth—but it was close enough, and the words that it spoke were distinctly English.

  “It can talk,” said Kevin, feeling sick. He kept his camera trained on the mermaid.

  “Teal?” it said again. “Come out now, okay? Okay? Okay?” Then it launched itself from the body back into the water. With a flip of its fins, it was gone, and a second later, so was the floating body of the last of the Blue Seas mermaids.

  Silence reigned.

  On behalf of the Imagine Network, we wish to apologize for the graphic nature of the images which you have just seen. As we stated before, they will be removed from all future airings of this documentary. Our goal is not to sensationalize this tragedy, but to better understand what transpired in that single long and unforgiving night.

  Based on the time stamps taken from the equipment remaining on the Atargatis, less than an hour elapsed between the first appearance of a so-called “mermaid” on the ship and the first of the mass attacks. The women of the Blue Seas professional mermaid troupe never stood a chance against an enemy that attacked from the depths with an inhuman ferocity.

  There were some who would say that their mistake was entering the water. What, then, would those people say was the mistake of everyone else aboard the Atargatis? They remained on the ship they thought would save them until the very end. An end which came all too quickly.

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

  Part V

  Safe on the Shore

  Bringing a ship the size of the Atargatis back to full thrust was no small feat. Captain Seghers stared unbelieving at the scientists and crewmen now clogging her control room. Mr. Curran from Imagine stood next to her, the two of them transformed by circumstance into uneasy allies.

  “I don’t understand,” said Captain Seghers. “You want me to turn this ship around? Do you have any notion of what that would mean for our fuel reserves? We won’t be able to come back here—we’ll have to head for shore. Not to mention that we’d be sailing after dark. The sun is almost down.”

  “You sailed dark to get us here,” snapped Alexandra.

  “Yes, with preparation and charts and a good idea of what the weather was going to be,” said Captain Seghers. “You’re telling me that one of your colleagues was eaten by a killer mermaid. I hope you can understand that this isn’t something I can just believe. I have to verify the situation before I can do anything else. I’ve sent someone to examine the scene where this supposedly occurred.”

  “You’re wasting time that we don’t have,” interrupted Alexandra. “We need to leave now.”

  Jovanie frowned. She didn’t care for being ordered around on her own ship. While she tried to be sympathetic, she had her limits. “This all sounds like so much bullshit to me. There’s no such thing as mermaids. If they existed, we’d all know about it by now, and this expedition would never have been approved!”

  “Then how do you explain what happened to Anton? Or to Jessica?” Alexandra shook her head. “We saw it take him. We all saw it. There’s video! Call any of the cameramen who were there, they can show you!”

  “You mean cameramen working for a network that makes monster movies can show me footage of a monster? Well, there’s a surprise.” Jovanie shook her head. “I’m not turning this ship around without more than that. I have a contract with Imagine, and it says we stay where we are.”

  “And the Imagine Network is not about to abandon one of the most expensive fact-finding expeditions we have ever funded just because you have bad feelings about something that showed up on your monitors,” said Mr. Curran.

  Alexandra stared at him. “It wasn’t on the monitors,” she said. “It came out of the water. It was on the ship. It ate Anton’s face right off of his head! How can you be so calm about this?”

  “I’ve seen no proof of your claims and, as Captain Seghers says, we have a contract.” Mr. Curran smiled smugly. “If you’d like to be released from your contract, I would be happy to discuss reimbursement of your travel and housing expenses, all to be paid to the network before we return to land. For legal purposes, you understand.”

  “Why you—” Alexandra began.

  A commotion behind her cut her off before she could say anything more. David shoved his way through the group, waving his hands for the Captain’s attention. She looked at him, and he signed, ‘We have a big problem. Monsters in the water. They killed the mermaid women. Ripped them apart. I’ve never seen anything like it.’

  “What?” demanded Curran. “What is he saying?”

  “Hang on,” snapped Jovanie. To David, she signed, ‘Monsters? What did they look like?’

  ‘The light was bad—I couldn’t see everything. Their skin was gray, and they had long hair, full of little lights, like Christmas trees. I know this sounds crazy, but they looked like mermaids. Real mermaids, not women playing dress-up.’

  Jovanie stared at him for a split second before turning decisively to the helm and saying, “Ready us for departure, get the engines back online, and pull up all the weights. We sail within the hour.”

  “What are you talking about?!” Curran grabbed her arm. Jovanie turned slowly to look at him, her eyes blazing with barely contained rage. He didn’t let go. “We have a deal. Even if you don’t want the money for this trip, I’m sure your crew does. We budge from this spot, and no one gets paid. Do you understand me?”

  Captain Seghers jerked her arm out of his grasp, her posture suddenly stiff and furious. Curran was the taller of the pair by almost a foot, but in that moment, he felt dwarfed by her fury. “I don’t think you understand me,” she said, v
oice low and dangerous. “David Mendoza has been my first mate since the day I took command. If he says that something in the water is killing people, I believe him. Maybe you’re willing to risk your life for money, but I’m not—and even if I were, I would not be willing to risk the lives of my crew.”

  “You’ll never work again,” he spat. “We’ll sue you for everything you have, and when you don’t have anything left, we’ll find a way to sue you for a little more. We’ll have your ship.”

  “I see you didn’t read the entire contract your legal department drew up,” said Jovanie. She sounded almost serene. “I am allowed to call off the trip at any time if I have credible concerns for the safety of my passengers and crew.”

  “You can’t genuinely think that mermaids are a credible—”

  “Even if I don’t, do you really think Imagine will sue me when that’s going to be my public position? Or are they going to spin this into the best promo money can buy? I’m a sea captain. I can afford to be a little eccentric.” That wasn’t entirely true, and Jovanie knew it. Some of the jobs would drop off after this, if Imagine publicized it—and they would. It was too good not to share. But there would still be work, and her people would still be alive to do it. She couldn’t ignore that.

  “You’re making a mistake,” said Curran.

  “Maybe. But I trust my crew.” Jovanie turned back to the helm.

  The sound of screaming from the deck dragged her eyes back to the door only a second later. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone but David was looking, although none of them moved a muscle to go and see the source of the commotion.

  ‘What?’ signed David, catching her eye. ‘What’s going on?’

  Jovanie didn’t have an answer.

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