Science Fiction Drama

I did not care much for pretzels. Chips did not come up in craving, nor did crackers, or most processed meats slathered in sodium, for that matter. My mind popped in the recollection of such flavors, dripping the memory of them onto my writhing tongue if I let my thoughts wander. I was never one for salt, but my childhood brimmed with memories of Podrezovo beach, and so salt lingered. The taste I could not stand, but the smell I cherished more than anything in the world.

 Liquid sodium teemed with a life that the sea breeze carried in its salted grip, brushing up against the rest of us on land. Odd to think that the world took its deepest breaths within the ocean. Approximately fifty to eighty percent of the Earth’s Oxygen levels could be attributed to oceanic plankton—small, photosynthetic organisms that kept the world spinning.

Data sheets littered my desk, recounting the plummeting populations of various species of shark, tuna, and algae. Nothing but decreasing numbers, unsurprising given the bare minimum conservation efforts we’d managed to scrounge funding for and put into motion. I tightened my hair tie, hearing the pressured pull of my thick follicles; I found that the pulsing headache helped me focus. It was grounding, and grounding was necessary when one’s head was incessantly drowning in graphs and charts. 

As a member of S.W.I.M. (Scientific Works In Marina,) I was left to submit, sort, and salvage the quantitative data of humanity’s rampant disregard for the ocean’s finiteness. We’d taken overconsumption to the depths of gluttonous sin, far below the reach of reason, stripping the waters of everything until they were naked and bruised. Now the world scarcely breathed at all, with seas in an almost perpetual dead zone. I tossed the numbers aside, deciding to analyze them further later. I still had time until our big conference with the Oceanic Governance Federation. There was new pressure in light of—

“Dr. Darya, it is asking for you,” a humming voice spoke from behind me. At my doorway without so much as a knock, there stood fellow coworker, and expert annoyance, Aarush. He pushed his thick glasses up his crooked nose. I registered what he said. Asking for me?

“What, how?”

“It made a motion above its head, signaling your very pretty ponytail.”

“Do wipe that smirk off your face.”

My colleague’s smug expression aside, I could not hide the elation in my voice. The subject exhibited nothing but standoffish behavior since we recovered it a month and a half prior. I walked past, Aarush scurrying in tow. His glossy boots reflected the blue, fluorescent lights above us that bathed the peppered tiles below in oceanic ambiance. S.W.I.M was plastered on the halls at various points, as though we would all forget where we worked otherwise. Mobs of researchers swished by us like schools of fish; the facility had not seen so much action in a while. I buckled an O2 masked around my face, inhaling until it gave off a high-pitched beep and the indicator turned green.

“You’ve got to stop putting Oxygen maintenance off until last minute.” Aarush slid his card over the elevator panel, opening the doors. “I can’t handle finding you unconscious again.”

“Noted. I’ll be sure to faint somewhere more private next time.”

“My tender heart thanks you.”

The temperature dropped in correlation with the elevator as the steady hum around us grew louder. One would think we could afford more silent forms of vertical transportation. A ding, and the doors gave way to an enormous sublevel area. A looming aquarium tank adorned the back wall, dousing the bare room in a serene, green bounce light. I could hardly register the presence of a ceiling.

Something swam forward in the tank, pressing against the reinforced glass, its long tail swaying in an ethereal dance only aquatic organisms manage. My footsteps echoed off the walls as I walked up to it, clip board in hand. I skimmed the lifeform as if seeing it for the first time yet again. I could never quite get accustomed to it. 

The skin folded and stretched, pulsating with a moving aurora-like glow that seemed to give the water around it an effervescence. It possessed various fins—dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic—in a soft blue hue, but its tail, long and graceful, was a deep cobalt. It had gems of green for eyes, and hair fell around its face like a cloud of sandy brown seafoam. Most striking of all was its round face—an expressive small thing with tinted cheeks and childish features.

 It was a mermaid, observing us from the other side of the tank in a miserable petulance. I felt infantile referring to it as such, but we had no other classification. Ridiculous that our oceans were next to void of fish, of whales, seals, sharks, coral, algae or even Oxygen; but we had a mermaid in our tank. Still, I could not help but be awestruck. It smelled of salt even through the thick glass separation.

The subject leered at me as if pondering. In my time studying it, I had gleaned very little. If it possessed the ability to communicate, it refused to, at least until now.

“What do you want?” I asked.

It blinked at me, then flicked its tail as if in exasperation before opening its mouth and uttering a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. It sang. The slits in its neck fluttered, and a series of euphonious tones flowed from its mouth, forming a silvery melody. The voice had an alluring, unmistakable echo. It swam up to me expectantly, but I was shocked into stillness. The creature appeared frustrated, throwing up its slender arms in a fit before motioning toward its mouth. It cupped its left hand as though holding something delicate, then made a scooping motion with its ring and middle fingers, bringing them up to its lips.

“Is it hungry?” Aarush asked, breaking me from my trance. His voice was filled with a childish wonder, and to avoid sounding the same I steadied my tone.

“It is asking for something specific, I’m sure.”

“Have you ever heard something so otherworldly? Do you think it was trying to hypnotize us?”

I ignored him and flipped through the writings in my clipboard, coming upon the page with the subject’s diet. I held the sheet up to the glass, pointing to pictures of nutrition we had provided thus far. The creature flicked its tail, displeased.

I tightened my hair tie, sitting on the floor. Not keen on leaving the tank, I asked Aarush to bring down a book, specifically with illustrations of various sea life. He obliged, albeit unsure of where he would find such a thing in S.W.I.M. Regardless, he returned, face in triumph, about half an hour later with a thick leather book in hand. I eagerly presented the pages to the subject, who sluggishly leaned towards them with marginal interest.

After some time, we landed on a picture of an oyster and the creature’s demeanor shifted energetically. It pressed up against the glass, swaying side to side with what appeared like a smile plastered upon its face. It wanted to eat an oyster. That wouldn’t be terribly difficult to acquire, so I returned a smile, nodding.

In the coming weeks, I spent more time with the subject, making certain to offer oysters with each form of contact. It relayed to me its desire to learn English via obscure pantomime. Pointing between us, it chomped its mouth cartoonishly in a display of, what I presume, it felt was an accurate representation of human speech. This was incredible news, as more direct communication would lead us to finally performing tests on the subject. It needed to participate willingly; we could not pin it down otherwise. I felt this would take a considerable amount of time, but the creature picked up on our language with an impressive amount of competency.

I had English tutors conduct lessons on the floor above its enclosure, and everyday it’d promptly swim up to the edge to meet them. On occasion I would catch Aarush asleep against the creature’s sublevel tank, a small book resting open upon his lap. Fatigue often overtook him while attempting to read it a story. It would peer over him, studying the page without end and digesting the symbols of our language. It achieved proficiency in a matter of fifty-two days. Eventually I learned that she was female, and only the equivalent of twelve human years, though she had lived thirty-six mermaid ones.

Her language was unlike other forms of communication studied by linguistics specialists. She did not speak, but made connected musical sounds, much like a whale. In this, I could not get an accurate translation of her name. The closest I could decipher was a honeyed sound like the linking of E’s, Y’s, and G’s. I dubbed her Marina. It felt apt.

One evening as I fed her above the tank, I asked her, “Why did you call for me the day you wanted these?” I held an oyster up.

“Your hair is the same color as mine, I trusted you,” she said, scooping the meat off the shell. She spoke this as if perfectly sound reasoning, elaborating no further. Her accent mimicked my own, despite her American tutors. I gave a pressed smile.

“Marina, do you think it possible for us to meet other mermaids? Do you know where they are?”

“I am the last. On this side of the ocean, at least.”

“How can you be sure?”

“We sense each other,” she said, diving backwards a few meters and motioning below her. “When our tails slide past the water, they release a vibration that we can feel. I did not feel it at all leading up to the days that I washed up near this facility.”

I waded my feet in the tank, naively hoping I could feel the stirring of the water, but to no avail. “What of your parents?” I asked.

“Mama had me hibernate in a deep cave once the imbalances in the ocean started getting more severe. Lots of us got sick and couldn’t find food.” She gazed into the gloss of the empty oyster shell between her webbed fingers, lips puckered. “She said she would come wake me, but so much time passed that I couldn’t take it and woke up on my own.”

“Perhaps other mermaids are hibernating still,” I offered.

She receded into the water, her head peeking out and blowing soft bubbles. “Maybe, but only the younger ones can.” The atmosphere was solemn, something Marina did not enjoy. It was in these moments that I recalled her being just a child.

To my dismay, she suddenly switched the subject to Aarush.

I splashed her with my feet.

In the coming weeks we were, after much anticipation, finally able to run tests on Marina. S.W.I.M. found her to be one of the healthiest forms of sea life in a long time. I assume this was due to her extended hibernation, though we could not calculate the duration without any point of reference. Her bloodwork opened possibilities to new medicine, perhaps even more effective production for serums required in O2 masks. These findings would prove notable for presentation to the Oceanic Governance Federation, whose conference drew closer. For further research, however, Marina would need to undergo constant medical procedures and extended limitations to her free movement. She would not take kindly to that. 

I observed her from the sublevel tank as she swam about, playing with my cat Ryby. I sometimes brought him to the facility in times of stress. He dashed left and right, pouncing upon the glass, trying to swipe at her. This was a favorite game of hers. She had never seen a cat before and found it quite amusing how they trotted on their tiny paws. Her laugh sounded like wind chimes. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to hear it.

“Are you really on board with possibly killing the last of the mermaids?” Aarush leaned on the wall behind me. I had not heard the ding of the elevator.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Are you serious?” he scoffed dryly. “You’ve complained day in day out about the way we slaughtered the ocean and now you consider this?”

I snapped my neck towards him. “I’ve slaved over those numbers for years Aarush! You think it is easy for me?”

“How could you even entertain this? I thought you loved the ocean.”

“I love it more than you will know!” The words came spilling like the breaking of a fragile dam. “But there is no helping us, there is no reasoning with people who want to keep sucking the ocean dry, no reasoning with the profit of it all, do you understand? I cannot undo the damage, God knows, but I can provide solutions.” The muscles in my neck throbbed, the sensation sliding up to my temples. My anger felt aimless, falling on every target yet none at all. “Get your head out of your ass for once! You are a marine biologist not a babysitter.”

He swallowed, looking past me. My face sweltered with an exhausting heat, boiling me to the tips of my toes. Aarush excused himself, and in his absence came a flurry of coldness. I felt damp. Ryby rubbed up against my leg, and I turned to see Marina floating inquisitively. I would give her extra oysters tomorrow.

The following morning, she did not light up as usual upon my arrival, despite the inclusion of more shellfish. The hairs on my arms pulled, tingling.

“Aarush told me. About the plan to use my body,” She said simply. It sounded filthy, and cold.

“He had no right.”

“He felt I should know.”

“Are you angry with me?” I slid an oyster over to her, fingers trembling. My response felt small and unnaturally feeble. One would think I was the child of the two.

Accepting the gift, she spoke tentatively. “It’d feel strange to be angry. You bring me things I like.” We sat in a silence for a while, save for the sound of sloshing water around her. I opened my mouth to speak, but what could I offer her that made the situation any less damning?

“I’d like to leave,” she said.


“Not because of what you’re doing.” She rested her chin upon the tile at the edge of her tank, nose wiggling. “I want to try and find other mermaids. They can lend aid, and we can work together, I think.”

I fidgeted, unsure of how to process her response, my brain pulsing against the thickness of my skull. I tightened my ponytail. “There is no guarantee that you’ll find anything.”

“And if I do?”

“There is no guarantee you will return.”

“Even if I don’t find others, I will return to you. I will help.”

I bit my lip, trying to read the thoughts behind the hard candy greens of her eyes. She reduced me to a guilty, unsure nothing. She was better than me, than all of us put together. I could only ask, “Why?”

“Because,” she flicked up her tail with a tiny smile, sending a light mist over our frail faces, “We both live here, and we are both dying.” Her voice bubbled softly, like the lightest of streams to a pond. She traced her finger over the tile in swishes. “My people always talked about avoiding humans because we would outlive them anyway. Your small presence was not worth intervention. Thinking we were better, we let the ocean wither just the same.”

I found my face slick with a salty wetness. I wanted to dive into the water with her and forget all else, forget the damage and the accountability and the numbers. Above everything, for once in my life, I wanted to forget the need for a solution.

“It is not up to me,” I said. “I would have to convince the OGF at the conference.”

“Allow me, then.”

I blinked, desperate. “Words fail, Marina! There is nothing known to man to be said for convincing hungry fools.”

“Then I will not use words known to them.”

 Spoken with a succinctness I’d never seen exhibited by any adult in all of science, I acquiesced. The following week, the federation piled into the room far below the depths of S.W.I.M. where we housed a girl full of possibility. Suits and ties slumped atop bodies wearing expensive cuff links and receding hairlines. They gathered in front of her tank and watched with an intensity that would buckle the strongest of us. I stood before them and introduced her by her native name, though my voice could not do it a fraction of justice. I wanted them to know, truly and fully, who was speaking to them.

She swam forward, crowd below her, surrounded by more humans than any mermaid likely had ever seen. With a slow, gracious spin of her cobalt tail, she sang to people who had greedily clawed at the ocean’s back.

And they listened.

April 23, 2021 20:17

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