I sat on a padded seat next to a bubble window in the lounge and sipped from a cup of hot tea. The warmth from it felt good. Every so often, I saw a vertical stream of foam and larger bubbles flow past the window.
The school's exterior lights were dimming since it was getting closer to bedtime. Beyond their shrinking, darkening perimeter, it was as dark as the night sky above my home back on dry land. All that was missing were the stars.
But what swam out there, at these depths? Sperm whales, probably, and giant squid; then there were the blind fish who lived in literal darkness; and finally there were phosphorescent fish, some with long sharp teeth. Even pale crabs might scuttle about down here.
There were also the myths and fairy tales about underwater kingdoms like sunken Atlantis. Children probably believed them, but surely I was too old now for that sort of nonsense. But sitting here, I wondered how much truth lay at the core of those stories.
Just don't let your imagination run away with you, Shui, I told myself.
Timku's voice asked, “Enjoying the view?”
I nodded. “It's equal parts beautiful and unearthly.”
He came round me and sat down on the other half of the padded seat. “Can't be unearthly. We're still here on Earth. But beautiful I can agree with. It's like seeing pictures and videos about the rain forests. Such vibrant, fascinating places. It's a shame that they were almost wiped out.”
Looking at him, I asked, “Is that why you came here? To study how to save them?”
He nodded. “It's probably nothing more than a pipe dream, but maybe I can repair at least a little of the damage. What about you?”
“When you live on dry land, there are so many things that you take for granted,” I said, looking back out the bubble window again.
A bright yellow-colored saucer-shaped submersible with its headlamps on floated past us. It turned briefly towards us, then backed away. Behind it, I thought I could see some sort of garage. Like a turtle pulling back into its shell, the submersible pulled back into the garage, then shut off its headlamps.
“If you don't see it in videos online or read about it, it doesn't seem real,” I went on. “For years, scientists and activists warned what could happen if we humans didn't take better care of our world. So many of us disregarded the warnings as nothing more than fantasy, a hoax. But the reality is turning out to be far worse than even the worst warning ever given. Many coral reefs are gone and likely will never come back. Most of the fishing stocks have been all but reduced to nothing by overfishing. The increase in destructive storms. The rising ocean levels.”
“All those people with beach-houses,” Timku said. “Now most of those beach-houses are underwater.”
“How could we have been so blind?” I asked, looking at him again.
“Because it's easier to believe the soft fantasy than it is to face the hard truth, Shui,” he said.
“We were fools,” I said. “Idiots.”
“No argument there,” he said. “We thought we could do whatever we wanted with the Earth. Surely it could recover from our worst efforts.”
“Until it just couldn't anymore,” I said. Please don't let me cry. But I felt the tears on my cheeks anyway.
Timku reached out to wipe the tears away. “Some lessons are harder to learn than other ones.”
“Do you think the lessons we'll learn here taught here will be any easier?” I asked him.
He nodded. “At least we won't risk endangering the Earth if we make a mistake.”
“Thankfully,” I said.
“Come on,” he said. “You're just tired from a long trip and your first day here. Maybe you just need some sleep. You'll probably feel better in the morning.”
“You're probably right,” I said. “Thank you for being so understanding, Timku.”
He smiled. “Anytime, Shui.”
I laid on the floor of the throne room, feeling the gentle ocean currents flowing over and under me. Every so often I had to gently push my long green hair away from my face. I played with the pearl necklace around my neck as my fish-tail swept back and forth, keeping me in position.
“But, Father, I don't know anything about them,” I protested. “I'm a mermaid and they're … they're ...”
“Human?” he finished for me, from where he sat on the throne.
“It's not permanent,” he said. “But I think it might be useful for both our species, if someone were to be a liaison, an ambassador. Someone with the right amount of empathy.”
“What about Mother?” I asked.
“She isn't that young anymore, Naia,” Father said.
“And you can't?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I have to stay here. It's one of the limitations of being the king. A king has duties, whether he likes them or not.”
“Then that leaves me,” I said, looking down at my clasped hands.
He swam over to me and lifted my chin. “Would you do it for me, Naia?”
I looked at his tired face, older than I'd ever seen it before, and nodded. “Yes.”
Father smiled. “Good. I think you might even enjoy it.”
“All right,” I said. “When does this job begin?”
“Would right now be soon enough?” he asked. “You'll report back to me every day. That way you can stay here each night, instead of among the humans.”
“But won't they be asleep right now?” I asked.
“That way they won't even know you were there,” Father said, hugged me, and kissed me on the forehead. “Be careful.” He paused. “Oh, and here.” He handed me something. A translator. “You might need it. Humans don't usually speak our language.”
I nodded, held the translator in one hand, and swam away from the throne room. Looking back once, I saw him in the doorway, looking at me. He waved and I waved back. With a flick of my fish-tail, I quickly swam through the palace and then out into the ocean itself.
The bed was big enough for two people, which I hoped wasn't a subtle hint about possible relationships in the school. Or maybe it was just cheaper this way?
There was a console on the night-table near the bed, which controlled various things in my quarters. I'd already experimented with it a little bit. For instance, I could brighten or dim the overhead lights; I could request all sorts of music; I could change the transparency and opacity of the windows; and I could even change the holographic art on the walls if I didn't like what was already there.
Against the wall to the right of my bed was a desk with a chair, and a computer terminal on the desk.
I'd already sent my parents a message: Good evening, Mom and Dad. All is well here. I guess you won that bet after all, as you probably knew you would. It's really nice here, even if the ocean outside feels a bit alien to me sometimes. I've already made one friend, Timku. Classes start tomorrow morning. I'll send you another message tomorrow evening. I miss you both. Love, Shui.
And they'd sent a reply message: Hello, Shui. We're happy that everything seems to be going well already. Don't worry about the bet. Your bedroom seems so empty now. Hope you do well in your classes. Glad you're already making friends there. We miss you, too. Take care. Love, Mom and Dad.
There were two bubble windows, smaller than the ones in the lounge, in my quarters. One was across from the foot of my bed. The other was beyond my night-table and to the right of my desk. Lying in my bed, in my pajamas, I looked out of both bubble windows, even though there wasn't much to see, as far as sea life went.
As I was about to drift off to sleep, I thought I saw a large fish swim past the bubble window across from the foot of my bed. Nothing to worry about, I told myself. Just go to sleep, Shui.
Then I heard knocking on the bubble window.
I looked over at it. It wasn't cracking from the atmospheric pressure down here, I hoped.
The fish was either slapping the bubble window with its tail, or it had something like hands that it was knocking with. But fish don't have hands. I closed my eyes.
I was woken up a minute later by more knocking.
The fish had been replaced by what looked like a swimming girl. She seemed to be about my own age except that she had long green hair. I blinked, rubbed my eyes. Was she one of the students after being changed into an amphibious human?
No. Because even the man who'd given the orientation speech had had human feet. Granted, his were webbed almost as much as a frog's feet were.
And this girl most definitely had a fish-tail where her feet might've been.
I sat up in bed and pinched myself. “Ow!” This definitely wasn't a dream.
The girl outside the bubble window gestured to me and then to herself.
I got out of bed and went over to the bubble window.
The girl smiled and pointed upward several times. I looked at the ceiling above me. She shook her head and pointed past that. Oh. There must be somewhere above my quarters that she wanted me to go to.
I put on a bathrobe, left my quarters, and went upstairs.
There was a smaller lounge near the top of the residential wing of the school. I hadn't known about that until now. I was just used to the lounge where Timku and I had talked this evening.
In the middle of the lounge was a pool. For swimming? Or maybe for people who wanted to go scuba diving?
I sat on the edge of it, looking down into the water. Where was the girl I'd seen?
Then suddenly there was a splash and a giggle. Floating with her head and shoulders above the water was the girl. This time I could see that there was a pearl necklace around her neck.
She said something, but I couldn't understand. It sounded like a mixture of singing, whistling, and gurgling. I shrugged apologetically, pointed to my ears and shook my head, hoping that she understood what I meant.
The girl nodded and tossed something to me. Something wet, solid, and partly metallic and partly plastic or maybe coral. It was narrow, rectangular, and about the size of the palm of my hand. It didn't have as many functions as the console in my quarters, but it might as well have been written in a foreign language for all I understood of it. There were buttons of different sizes and colors. It reminded me of the early cell phones that I'd seen in a local technology museum.
The girl pointed at a round green button about the size of my thumbnail. I pressed it.
“Can you understand me now?” she asked, her voice coming from a speaker somewhere on or inside the item.
“Press the red button above it when you want to talk,” she went on.
I pressed the red button. “I'm a little confused. Who are you?”
“I'm Naia,” she said.
“What are you?” I asked.
“A mermaid, of course,” she said. “Haven't you ever seen one?”
“Only in movies,” I said. “I thought that they weren't real.”
“Oh, we're real all right,” she said. “We just don't usually show ourselves to humans.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because we're afraid you'd capture us and put us on display,” she said. “That happened to one of my great-grandparents. We never saw him again.”
“I'm sorry to hear that,” I said.
“What's your name?” she asked.
“Shui,” I said.
“I like it,” she said. “It's a nice name.”
“So is yours,” I said. “Do you live down here?”
Naia nodded. “Not near here. I live in a kingdom on the far side of the canyon. My father is the king.”
“You're a princess?” I asked.
She nodded again. “What are you?”
“I'm a student,” I said. “Or I will be, starting tomorrow morning.”
“Aren't there schools where you come from?” she asked. “I mean, on dry land?”
I nodded. “My parents thought I might like coming here. I didn't think I would, at first. But I'm glad I came. I've already made a friend.”
“I don't have any friends,” she said, looking sad. “Unless you count fish, crabs, whales, and that sort of thing.”
“Doesn't it get lonely?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said and hesitated. “I probably should be here for too long. This was just supposed to be a scouting mission. I wanted to see who lived here. I didn't think I'd meet anyone until I saw you in your bed.”
“A scouting mission?” I asked.
“My father asked me if I would be willing to become an ambassador,” she explained. “It would mean being the go-between my species and yours. That's why I had that translator with me.”
“Do you need it back?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “You're the only human I've met so far. You can give it back to me later.”
“Do you think we could meet again sometime?” I asked. “Maybe tomorrow night?”
Naia looked thoughtful, then nodded. “Will you be in your room?”
“Every night,” I said. “Unless there's a change in the school's schedule.”
“I'll be back here tomorrow, then,” she said, sounding like she had to leave.
“It was nice meeting you,” I said.
“Likewise, Shui,” she said. “Do me a favor?”
“Don't tell anyone I was here,” she said. “Not until I'm ready to meet you all more formally.”
“I won't,” I said.
“Until tomorrow night, then,” Naia said, turned, and dove back down into the pool.
When I returned to my quarters, I dried off the translator and put it on my night-table. I got back into bed, but I didn't see her in either of the bubble windows. With that fish-tail of hers, she must be a fast swimmer, I thought and drifted off to sleep.
I returned to the palace. Father was waiting for me outside the front entrance.
“How did it go, Naia?” he asked.
“It was really nice, actually,” I said. “I got to meet one of them. A girl named Shui.”
“When I suggested a scouting mission, I didn't mean for you to actually talk to them,” he said. “At least not yet.”
“I got curious, Father,” I said. “And no harm was done. She promised not to tell anyone that she met me. That way I can still meet them all more formally later.”
He looked at my hands. “Where is your translator?”
“I loaned it to her,” I said. “That way we can talk with each other whenever we want to.”
“You're planning on going back there?” Father asked.
I nodded. “Tomorrow night. Don't worry. No one else saw or heard us. I was careful.”
“And a little reckless,” he said.
“You asked me to be an ambassador, Father,” I reminded him. “That means risking meeting them. If they're half as nice as she is, I think we'll get along with humans just fine.”
“Don't forget what happened to your great-grandfather,” he said.
“I haven't and I won't,” I said. “Where is Mother, by the way? I want to tell her the good news.”
“She's in her garden,” he said.
I kissed him on the cheek and swam to the garden.
Mother was softly singing to herself as she made a basket out of kelp and seaweed.
I had often wished I had her artistic abilities, but she had told me that she often wished she had my musical abilities. For instance, she couldn't make a conch shell sound right if she tried. It sounded awful. But when I blew in one, it sounded beautiful. Probably just dumb luck I'd told her.
I gave her a hug. “That looks beautiful, Mother.”
“I'm going to use it when I go harvesting,” she said.
“Do you think you could make one for me?” I asked.
“I could show you how to,” she said. “It's not that hard.”
“For you maybe, but I keep making a mess of it,” I said.
“Your father said that he had a new job for you,” she said, changing the subject.
“That's one of the reasons I wanted to see you,” I said. “He made me an ambassador. I'll be interacting with the humans.”
“It should at least keep you out of trouble,” Mother said.
“And I've already made a friend with one of the humans,” I said. “Her name is Shui.”
She looked at me. “Be careful, sweetie. Not all humans are nice.”
“But she is,” I said.
“Are you going to see her again?” she asked.
I nodded. “Tomorrow night. After all the rest of them are asleep. They'll never know I was there. Twice.”
“But she will,” Mother said.
“She promised not to tell anyone,” I said. “I trust her.”
“I hope she trusts you, too,” she said. “I wish you well in your new job, Naia.”
“Thanks, Mother,” I said. It wasn't often that she gave encouragement. “Maybe someday you'll both get to meet her.”