Mark Harris was an enigma; a puzzle; a complete mystery. And like all good scientists, Dr Elizabeth Merrill was a sucker for a good mystery.
That he lived at all was the biggest puzzle. Six months earlier, Elizabeth had been at a party for a retired Navy man when her date, Dr Doug Berkley, had been called away by the resident on call at the hospital.
"A man seems to have forgotten how to breathe," was all Doug could say, and that had piqued Elizabeth's interest a lot more than the stilted conversations she'd been having with uniformed Navy men who were almost as awkward around civilians as they were around women—let alone pretty Naval marine biologists.
A lightbulb had gone off over Elizabeth's head the moment she'd peered at the images transmitted by the bronchoscope tube and had seen what were not "desiccated lungs" as the doctors had assumed, but gill-like membrane tissue. She'd bullied and blustered until Doug had allowed her to follow up on her hunch as the man gasping for air on the table—his extremities darkening at an alarming rate—was in his professional opinion, "a dead man".
Doug had stood by her right up until the moment she'd had the ambulance drivers help her lift the dying man into the water. She'd waded waist-deep into the freezing cold ocean, her fashionable gown tangling around her legs as she pulled him in circles like one would a shark, trying to force water into its gills, all the while chanting "Breathe. C'mon, breathe," like a mantra.
And against all odds, he'd breathed. Underwater. The biological find of the century—all wrapped up in a 6'1", 165 pound, green-eyed and black-haired package she'd named "Mark Harris".
He hadn't just forgot how to breathe, as it turned out. He'd forgotten how to speak, where he came from—even his name. The supercomputer at the DOD was no help at all, as she'd fed it all of the parameters they'd gathered and it had spit out "Last citizen of Atlantis?" She suspected some programmer deep in the bowels of Ft Meade through that was funny. She wished it were. Instead, she just felt enormous pity and empathy for the man she'd rescued and who was now in her care.
That night on the beach, shivering and draped in a red hospital blanket, Elizabeth had convinced Berkley to release him into her care, and she'd got him back to her lab at Point Loma before dawn. Aside from his respiratory distress and the cracking and darkening of his skin, he appeared concussed, and had what Elizabeth's mother would have called "a heck of a goose-egg"—a lump raised by a blow on the back of his head. According to the on-call physician, he'd been found nearly naked on the beach after the storm, wearing only a pair of yellow swim trunks emblazoned with an abstract design of a conch shell above the waves.
They had done extensive studies on the swim trunks. At the molecular level, the yellow fabric appeared to be some kind of silk, and the stitching indicated a culture which used machines rather than hand-sewing fabrics. However, while the fibres approximated silk fabrions produced by spiders and silkworms, further testing indicated they were not from insects, but that the protein chains were closer to coral.
He had no memory of wearing any other clothing, and was loath to remove them. Elizabeth believed this was because they were the only item he had with any link to his origins. He had watched her carefully remove a few stray threads for testing, patting his shoulder and promising him the entire time that they would be returned to him whole and quickly.
His dolphin-like skin had no tan lines from the trunks, but then no matter how much ultraviolet exposure Mark received whether from being in the water on a sunny day, or accompanying her around Point Loma, he remained pale. His nails and hair seemed not to grow. Or if they did, it was so slowly that it couldn't be measured. His cheeks and jaw were as smooth as a baby's, and Elizabeth had more than once caught herself thinking blissfully about kissing a man with no threat of beard-burn, and tried desperately not to dwell on those thoughts as she'd exposed Mark to test after test.
It wasn't easy, as Mary Garrett, her primary lab assistant, had teased her from day one about what a pretty fish Dr Merrill had caught.
"He's not a fish," Elizabeth had said for the first time—but not the last as "Project Atlantis" took over first her lab, and then her life. "And I didn't catch him. If anything, he caught me."
Mary had been read into the project by necessity, as she'd already worked with Merrill for the past two years in the Marine Mammal Program. A perpetually cheerful MIT PHD student from the East Coast, she routinely complained good-naturedly about San Diego specifically and Californians in general as being alien to someone from New Jersey. She'd once gone on a twenty-five minute rant about fish tacos that still made Elizabeth smile every time she thought of it.
While it was true that Mark's lean and well-defined swimmer's build and thick black hair were attractive to her, Elizabeth had several times had to insist to both the Admiral Pierce and other Navy brass that there was absolutely no danger of her "falling for" her test subject. It had annoyed her that they had automatically assumed that as a woman she was in danger of throwing all her research away to have a mad passionate (unethical) fling with an amnesiac stranger, no matter how physically attractive she'd found him. And when she'd icily informed Pierce that she was in no more danger of a romantic attachment than a male researcher in the Navy would be with a female specimen, Pierce had covered by saying he'd been merely teasing her.
Admirals were not supposed to tease their section heads. That alone had annoyed Elizabeth for days afterwards. She was not some niece with pig-tails to be humoured and patronised. She had several post-grad degrees in marine biology, oceanography, and the behavioural sciences, and was more than qualified. If it was a matter of the Navy still not being comfortable with women in senior posts, then as far as Elizabeth was concerned, they could suck it up and deal with it. It wasn't her problem if some of the brass didn't know what to do when their staffers came in skirts and heels rather than unisex dress blues. She refused to dress like a man in order to command the same respect as a man, preferring to wear what made her comfortable and was practical for the work she did. While she generally wore skirts and blouses to work, truth be told she was happiest in her diving suit, wearing her long, sun-bleached blonde hair loose around her shoulders.
Mark had been fascinated by her hair, and she'd allowed him to pet the loose curls and run his fingers through them as she ran tests. He sometimes came up behind her to remove the clasp that held her hair back from her face as she worked in the lab, and she'd had to scold him from time to time.
"Mark, give me back my barrette."
He'd solemnly place the plastic hairclip back in her palm, and she'd whip her hair back into a pony tail. But invariable an hour later, she'd feel his fingers in her hair and the clip would come free once more.
"How come he doesn't play with my hair?" Mary would ask, tugging on the end of her long dark braid.
"Maybe they don't have blondes underwater?" Jeff, the dolphin's trainer, would respond, and Elizabeth's cheeks would grow hot with embarrassment from behind the microscope. But the fact remained that Mark seemed as interested in Elizabeth as she was in him.
Dr Merrill believed, based on his interactions with her and her lab assistants, that like dolphins, Mark had most likely socialised in pods with others of his kind. He spent a great deal of time with her bottlenose dolphins, Icarus and Winter, but also seemed to crave human companionship. When they were together in the water, he would swim in circles around her—particularly if she wasn't in her scuba gear. He seemed to understand without being told that, like the dolphins, she needed to remain near the surface to breathe. That she wasn't like him. As protective of Mark as Elizabeth was on land, Mark was concerned for her in the water.
The Navy wouldn't allow Elizabeth to take Mark out into the open water—not even with a tracking anklet, for fear he'd bolt. She was frustrated, but Mark seemed happy enough for the time being restricted to the outdoor pool and the dolphin tank. Elizabeth had to constantly remind herself not to project her own emotions onto him. It was difficult, as his placid, docile demeanour made it all too easy to try and constantly imagine what he was thinking and feeling. But the only consistent behaviour he showed was a child-like curiosity about everything from the light switches on the wall to the electric pencil sharpeners.
His insatiable thirst for knowledge meant that every time she took him into a new part of the base for testing, the first hour was spent watching Mark examine the room, opening all the doors and cupboards, examining everything from clipboards to chalkboard erasers. And to be there to stop him from unintentionally harming himself. He'd learnt the hard way, for example, that the burners beneath the glass coffee pots were hot and would burn him. Even then, he had merely quickly withdrawn his hand and started. No yelp of pain or surprise; no concern as Elizabeth had chastised him as she'd dressed the mild burn with cream and a bandage.
He'd almost immediately removed the bandage and washed away the burn cream with salt water. That was his default for any injury—to rinse it with salt water. Since his recuperative powers were remarkable, Elizabeth trusted he knew what was best in those instances. She told herself time and time again that as much as he trusted her, it was just as important that she trust him. But without two-way communication, it was impossible for her to truly know that he did trust her, or if he was merely humouring her.
She'd believed his curiosity was just that—curiosity. He'd never touched her without permission. If he had sexual urges, she had yet to see any evidence of them. He had no sense of body consciousness, and submitted to her tests without shame or a desire to cover himself. She had to explain to him carefully how he could not leave the lab in nothing but his swim trunks. That it was not considered acceptable behaviour. He had merely watched her impassively, those bright green eyes following her every move. But he had obeyed—even humoured her as she had dressed him like a giant Ken doll, so they could attend meetings and tests outside the confines of the lab.
He had nipples and a navel, as well as external genitalia, which allowed her to theorise that wherever he had come from, reproductive systems were similar if not identical to other placental mammals—not just humans, but cetaceans. She had taken semen samples along with blood, urine, faeces and tissue samples. Watching him in the water with the dolphins, he had seemed tolerant of the male and female dolphins' attempts to mate with him. But she had never seen him aroused or sexually aggressive in any way. Getting the semen sample had been difficult, as she could hardly hand him a cup and a magazine and ask him to bring the sample back, as she would a human male. Mary had offered to help, but Elizabeth had insisted on going it alone.
"The things we do for our unforgivable mistress, Science. I had a friend once who had to collect a sample from an Indian elephant. One place you don't really want to be is up to your shoulder in an elephant's butt, massaging its prostate, you know? Still, it could have been worse."
Elizabeth's eyebrows had risen toward her hairline at the mental image. "How?"
"She could have been the poor guy standing in front of the elephant, with the bucket."
Sometimes, Elizabeth wondered about Mary.
"You want me to hang a sock on the door?" Mary had asked.
"Very funny. However, if you can make sure we're not disturbed—"
Mary had given her a jaunty salute. "We're closed for business. I get it."
Elizabeth had taken Mark by the hand and led him to the small lavatory attached to the lab. Locking the door and trying to ignore the flush that had crept into her cheeks, Elizabeth had taken a deep breath and explained why they needed the samples.
As always, Mark watched her impassively, even when she'd asked him to remove his swim trunks. She'd examined him a dozen times, but this was different and she knew it. It was one thing to collect a sample from a dolphin or a whale. It was something else entirely to collect it from a sentient being who couldn't (or wouldn't) communicate. But out of the three of them, she was the only one he trusted most.
She outlined as clearly as she could what she wanted him to do, and tried to give him privacy, but he had placed one hand on her arm, preventing her from leaving the small bathroom.
"The things we do for science," Elizabeth had muttered beneath her breath, and using hand lotion from the dispenser for lubricant, and taken his flaccid penis in her small hand, gently stroking it.
Just as she had begun to wonder if he had the same number of nerve endings in his skin that a human male might, he'd begun to harden and rise at her gentle ministrations. She'd risked looking up into his face and saw his pupils were blown wide, as if he were deep underwater, halo'd by only a thin ring of vibrant green. His breathing had increased in pace and his hands, which had been resting loose at his sides, were now balled into fists. Slowly and carefully she'd taken his left hand in hers and wrapped his fingers around his erection, encouraging him to repeat her movements.
The absurdity of teaching a grown man how to masturbate had not been lost on her.
She'd struggled to remain impassive, clinical, as she'd manipulated his hand until he had began stroking his erection himself, with her hand only resting atop his lightly. She had expected he would ejaculate quickly once aroused—like a dolphin or whale. But he seemed better able to control his arousal than a human man of his approximate age. Elizabeth had felt her cheeks growing hot as she'd caught herself thinking about the other, personal implications of his control. Flustered, she had looked away, closing her eyes against the sound of skin on skin, and his short exhalations as she assumed he grew closer and closer to release.
When she had opened her eyes again, he had been staring at her with that same frank, open, curious gaze he always did and for the first time she'd felt self-conscious about the intensity of his gaze. She'd known that if she had glanced sideways in the small framed mirror over the sink her face would have been beet red. So instead she'd kept the specimen jar ready and, blessedly, after only a few more minutes, she was able to collect a sample for the lab to analyse.
"Thank you, Mark," she'd choked out as she washed her hands in the sink, and he pulled his yellow swim trunks back on. She'd tried not to glance at the still half-hard bulge in his trunks as she'd splashed cold water on her face, and then patted her cheeks dry with a folded paper towel from the dispenser.
When she'd finally come back out into the lab, Mary had just looked at her with a raised brow as Elizabeth had handed her the specimen jar to be labelled and stored in the fridge until they could send it out to the Navy lab for analysis.
"How'd it go?" Mary asked.
"I need a drink," said Elizabeth, and then shook her head. "I need a lot of drinks."
"Well, look at it this way," Mary had said as she'd scrawled Mark's name, the date, and the project code onto a white label and affixed it to the tiny jar. "At least we know that, unlike most men, he doesn't think with his equipment."
"Face it, kiddo. You like having him all to yourself," Mary observed that night over dinner in Elizabeth's Spartan base apartment. They had spent the day conducting speed tests with Mark racing one of the dolphins in the outdoor pool that they now thought of as "Mark's pool". The tests had been successful, and to celebrate Admiral Pierce signing off on a new annual budget for "Project Atlantis" that would allow them almost unlimited funds and complete freedom to continue studying Mark, they'd picked up a cheap bottle of Merlot and pasta from Mary's favourite Italian take-out joint.
"That's not fair! He doesn't remember anything before waking up in the surf with me. If anything, he imprinted on me like, I don't know, a baby duck."
"Some duck. He can shake a tail feather my way anytime."
"You're making me sound like one of those crazy people who drop acid and have sex with dolphins," Elizabeth muttered into her wine.
"First of all, dolphins are the randiest creatures God ever made, will have sex with anything that holds still for more than 30 seconds, with or without a pulse, and you and I both know it. And secondly, Mark Harris is no dolphin. If you feed me that 'he's like a little brother' line, I swear I'll dump this glass of truly appalling red wine right over your head."
Elizabeth sighed as she pushed a forkful of spaghetti bolognese around on her plate. "Why does everyone think I'm in danger of falling in love with my subject?"
"Aren't you? C'mon, Liz. How long have we worked together, two years? Almost three? And in all that time, you've always had relationships on your own terms or not at all. You have zero interest in having a husband or kids. But here you are, mother-henning this gorgeous hunk of a water-breathing man day in and day out, without a word of complaint. Not even when he broke a three thousand dollar microscope because he thought he could use it underwater."
"I loved that microscope."
"And if I'd broken it, you'd have taken it out of my pay—or my hide. But because it was Mark, you just laughed it off and got Pierce to write you another cheque."
"I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"It has everything to do with it. Mark is the one man who doesn't argue with you."
"That's because he can't."
"Even better. How many times in your life have you ever had a guy who does everything you ask, without lip, and even picks up his own clothes off the floor and hangs them up of his own volition?" She refilled her glass from the half-empty bottle, and took a long swallow. "Jesus, if I thought he'd have me, I'd marry him. He's perfect."
The first time Mark Harris spoke, Dr Elizabeth Merrill damn near had a heart attack.
Just two days before, Admiral Dewey Pierce had hit Elizabeth with the news that the experimental submarine the Sea Quest had gone down in the Mariana Trench with all hands. Her friend of five years Lt Commander Phillip Roth had been in command, and she'd been struggling with shock, grief and anger ever since.
Then Pierce had treated Mark like one of the Navy's dolphins, ordering him to go down into the trench to recover the sub and the bodies, and for the first time in all the months Mark had been in her care, Elizabeth had seen him angry—or anything even approaching angry.
Mark had retained that calm, stoic demeanour—his pleasant, attractive features composed in the same blank mask he'd worn since she had first set eyes on him. He neither smiled nor frowned, except when he was mirroring her expressions as a child might, but in all the months since she had first seen him staring up at her from under the waves at Burger's Beach he'd never expressed any emotion. Sadness, happiness, frustration, joy; all those things had been missing from his habitual expression of bland interest. She'd fancied she could read small changes in those electric green eyes, but she knew that it was just her mind filling in the blanks based on her own hopes and fears.
Eighty percent of human communication was in non-verbal cues—body language, eye-contact, stance, gestures, touch, and what scientists like behavioural psychologist Paul Ekman termed "microexpressions"—and in that regard Mark was a cipher. She'd never even been able to tell if he resented or embraced the name she'd given him—"Harris" for an old lover she still thought of fondly, and "Mark" after her uncle, a retied WWII Navy "frogman" who had taught her to swim when she was a child. He'd accepted it; that much was clear as he responded to it, and came when he was called by it. But she hated the idea that she had named him much as one would a stray cat or puppy. And worse, that the Navy treated him like her pet rather than a man.
She'd thought she'd made herself clear to Admiral Pierce when she'd told him if he wanted Mark's help to recover the Sea Quest, he had to ask Mark directly with the emphasis on "ask". She'd thought after all this time, after all the endless meetings and review sessions, that Pierce understood her research and where Mark actually stood within the Navy.
She'd apparently misjudged the situation. Badly.
She'd been in her lab as Mark had been escorted back to the outdoor salt-water pool at the Naval Undersea Center by armed military police. By the time she'd been told what had happened by that obsequious little toady Lt Ainsley, Mark had been swimming in circles for hours, occasionally splashing the guards who remained at the pool's edge by Pierce's order.
Mark had never been aggressive, not in all the time she'd known him. The fact that he had pushed men away from him and knocked them to the ground in a desperate attempt to return to the ocean told her all she needed to know. She had torn Ainsley a new one before heading straight to the pool. It was a small one—barely thirty feet in diameter, and she was sure it was little more than a cage to a man who had had the world's oceans to explore before he'd washed up on the beach that spring night so many months ago. The sight of four MPs guarding the gate only made her angrier, and she glared at them as they parted to allow her through even though she knew they were only following the admiral's orders.
Elizabeth had tried to stay calm as she'd explained to Mark that he wasn't being ordered to go—but that they were asking him as a favour. She was exhausted; she'd been sleeping on the sofa in her office, when she did sleep. Most nights she went over the results of the extensive tests they'd put Mark through over the past six months, trying to understand more about both his physiology and the man himself. Mark had simply stared at her with those unnerving, unblinking green eyes. Finally, after much coaxing, he'd allowed himself to be removed from the pool and taken back to the lab where she'd dressed him in dungarees, black turtleneck and Navy-issue blue cotton button-down, the white canvas shoes he preferred, and the special glasses with dichroic filters.
He refused to wear socks, and she'd long since given up trying. Like a child, he'd only remove them once she was out of sight. Mary was still finding single white tube socks squirrelled around the lab in unexpected places. It was a charming if occasionally exasperating practice.
Elizabeth had led Mark into Admiral Pierce's office, where Mark immediately moved to the side as he always did to study the large map of San Diego Bay on the wall. He appeared not to be listening, but Elizabeth knew he heard every word. She took care to try and remain calm, impassive, briskly businesslike. Growing up a Navy brat, she knew Pierce and his type. They would dismiss her as sentimental, frivolously "female" if she tried any kind of impassioned plea on Mark's behalf, so instead she'd stuck to the facts.
The Sea Quest was at the bottom of the trench, over 36,000 feet down and Mark was the only diver who could withstand the water pressure or even see, that far down on the ocean's floor. She'd shown him the classified schematics of the sub's controls, and had gone over the automated systems as best she'd could. He had memorised the sequence that would bring the submersible up to the surface if eh found it. If the cabin was flooded and the controls unresponsive, he would be able to attach the mines that would destroy the sub so no one else could salvage it and use their technology against them.
But her conditions were simple: Mark would undertake this mission if and only if he would then be allowed to return to the ocean from whence he'd come.
"Doctor, if he suffers from amnesia as you reported, going home seems unlikely," Pierce had pointed out, seemingly unmoved by her presentation.
"Medical science can't determine the duration of his amnesia. But one thing is certain: Mark wants to return to the ocean. He wants to be free."
Pierce frowned. "And with no tether line?"
"I'm sure he won't go into the water with it. You'll just have to trust him." What was unspoken, of course, was that Pierce would have to trust her.
"And with one supervisor—you." Despite the fact that Pierce had been the one to initially assign her the task of supervising Mark, he now made it sound as if she was the one trying to put pressure on him, and it made Elizabeth's blood boil. But she schooled her features, remaining calm and impassive.
"I'm the only one he trusts," she insisted, lifting her chin and refusing to back down.
Pierce shook his head, the frown never leaving his face as he opened a locked drawer and removed a thick file folder. "Doctor, you had better be right. For both our sakes."
Elizabeth opened the folder with photographs of the Sea Quest prototype and her crew. She tried to remain impassive as she showed Mark the black and white service photo of Phil Roth, but her eyes began to prickle with tears and there was a tightness in her chest as he impassively studied the photographs.
"You find us the sub and the bodies of the men, and I'll consider your request—"
Elizabeth rose out of her chair, her cheeks flooded with colour. "It's not a request, Admiral. It's a deal, or it's—"
"Yes, Doctor?" There was an edge to the admiral's voice she had never heard before. The entire time he'd overseen Project Atlantis he'd purposely presented an air of fatherly concern, but that façade had been dropped and she realised that she'd been played like a fiddle in the name of national defence, and she'd delivered Mark right into his hands. Furious with him and with herself, she lost her carefully maintained cool.
"This man has a name! It's Mark Harris, and he has rights."
The admiral's voice rose to match hers. "I know his name, and I know his rights. He has whatever rights I decide he has. And I don't need any rudder orders from you—"
The admiral slammed his fist down on the desk and Elizabeth started as Mark laid his hand over the admiral's closed fist.
"Yes," Mark said—his voice was calm, speaking unaccented American English as if he'd never spent the last six months mute. She stared at him in shock, struggling to keep her mouth from dropping open. Pierce seemed similarly unnerved, but controlled his bluster as he stared down at the hand, with its webbing between the fingers covering his.
"I say 'yes' to the Admiral." Mark laid his other hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. "I say yes."
As soon as they walked through the door of the lab, Mark began immediately stripping off the offensive clothing until he was clad once more in nothing but his yellow swim trunks with their abstract conch shell emblem.
Mary was already gone for the day, as was the project's other lab tech, Rob. She and Mark were alone in the lab and for the first time, Elizabeth felt uncomfortable with that. She wished Mary were there. She'd joke about baby's first words, and dispel some of the tension. But it was up to Elizabeth now to navigate the treacherous waters she found herself in.
Over the last few months, she had found herself constantly talking to Mark; narrating what she was doing, what she expected of him, explaining her actions thoroughly as she prepped him for test after test. But more than that, particularly late at night when they were alone in the lab, Mark resting at the bottom of his tank, 'sleeping' with his eyes closed, she had found herself telling him all about her life. Growing up moving from base to base—wherever SecNav had sent her father, the Merrill Girls had dutifully followed. Her mother had been a Navy wife through and through, and Elizabeth had lived everywhere from Yokosuka to Spain, from Greece to the Persian Gulf, before they had finally settled at Point Loma. She'd spent most of high school in and around San Diego, and it hadn't surprised either of her parents when she'd gone into marine research at the UC San Diego.
The only thing that had disappointed her mother had been Elizabeth's firm refusal to consider marriage as an option. She was married to her work, and the men she became involved with accepted that about her. Or at least, she'd believed they had. She'd always tried to keep her romantic entanglements casual, resisting any kind of long-term commitments. Phil Roth had understood that, and once they'd stopped seeing one another, they'd at least been able to maintain a firm friendship, in part because they were both Navy through and through. But her break-up with Doug Berkley had been messy and awkward, especially as he'd been the one to be called to the hospital where Mark had first been brought, and all Elizabeth had done was "tag along" after him. Doug had accused her of becoming obsessed with her "fish" when she'd finally pulled the plug, refusing to answer his calls, or allow him to visit her at base housing.
She'd babbled to the silent, amnesiac Mark about the entire affair, comforted by the idea that he hadn't really understood a word she was saying, and it just felt good to confide in someone who was even more of a clam than she was. There was no need to worry that Mark would ever break her confidences because he'd never communicated with anyone on the team—not even her. But now she felt awkward and ashamed for treating him like a favourite plant she'd babble to as she'd water it. He wasn't a pet or a possession. He was a human being—albeit an extraordinary one—and he had apparently understood every word she'd said.
"You are angry," Mark observed, and she was startled once more by the sound of his voice. It was as if one of her dolphins had suddenly started talking to her. Absurd, but that was how it felt.
"I'm not angry, Mark. I'm just confused." She sat down on the low green sofa that leaned against one wall of her office, and patted the cushion next to her to prompt Mark to join her. "If you can speak, why haven't you spoken before now?"
He sat down gingerly, his webbed toes flexing on the linoleum floor as he carefully considered her words. "I needed to understand," he finally said, meeting her gaze.
"Your world, your language. They are new to me. I did not understand. Then... I did. But I needed to learn more."
"I thought you trusted me," she said, hating how petulant she sounded.
"I trust you. You are my first memory. I trust you, Dr Merrill."
"You should call me Elizabeth."
"Mary calls you Dr Merrill. So does the admiral."
"Yes, but that is because... 'Dr Merrill' is my title. But 'Elizabeth' is my name. My friends call me by my name. You are my friend, aren't you, Mark?"
"Yes. I am your friend."
"And I am your friend. And you have to promise me that from now on, if you have any questions—you have to ask me. And if you have any reservations at all about anything I ask you to do, you have to tell me."
"Do you remember today, by the pool, when I said I would never desert you, and never lie to you? That was a promise. That what I said to you was true, and I will always tell you the truth."
"I understand. I promise that I will tell you things."
"Good. It's important to me that I understand you, Mark. Understand what you want, and what you need, and not speak on your behalf when I might not know for certain exactly what you want. I don't want you to be unhappy here. I want you to do only the things you wish to do. Not to please me, or because Admiral Pierce orders you."
"I understand. I will tell Mary that I do not like sushi," he said with a resolute nod of his head.
Elizabeth laughed. She couldn't help it. When they had first been testing food sources for him, and measuring his appetite, Mary had tried to get Mark to eat sushi. He'd eaten the seaweed and the raw white tuna, but left the rice. He hadn't made a face exactly (he never did), but Elizabeth could tell from the way he pushed the rice to the far side of the plate that he did not enjoy the vinegar smell or taste. He'd similarly avoided fruit juices, pickles—anything with a high acid content, preferring instead to snack on krill, algae and kelp to the exclusion of almost everything else they'd tried.
"Okay. You can tell Mary you don't like sushi. And if you tell Mary that you don't like fish tacos, she will be very grateful."
"I do not like fish tacos."
Elizabeth couldn't keep from smiling at his seriousness. "Oh, Mark. The last few days would have been so different, if only you'd spoken up before now."
"Admiral Pierce said that this land was his responsibility. But the ocean is different. When I am in the ocean, I do not have to obey orders, or do what anyone older and white-haired says because they believe they are wise. There are no orders. You swim, you eat, you try not to be eaten. It is... peaceful. It is very different from land."
Elizabeth watched his face as he spoke precisely and carefully. He still gave off few if any non-verbal cues, but his intonation made it very clear how he had felt about Pierce's "orders".
"You don't have to obey anyone's orders. Not even W. Graham Claytor, Jr. himself. You are my responsibility, and not the property of the Navy. If I have to leave the Navy to keep you safe, I will. I promise."
She laid her hand over his, and Mark allowed her touch.
"Do you remember being in the ocean? Before?"
"It is like when I am sleeping. I know that I have been many places in the ocean, but I do not know when or for how long. When I am sleeping, I can see the ocean. But I never see anyone like me."
"Those are dreams. People have dreams, while they sleep."
"Am I people?"
"You are definitely people. A special, very rare person. I've never known anyone like you. And not just because you can breathe underwater. Do you understand me?"
"Yes. I understand."
"The dive ship the Elk River is set to sail the day after tomorrow. Admiral Pierce has told them that you're a civilian diver, testing new equipment for the Navy. We even have dummy scuba gear that you can wear until you get to two hundred feet. Then you can discard the gear."
"You already knew my answer?"
"No—but I had to be prepared, either way. The Navy is a little like the Boy Scouts that way."
"Your navy employs children?"
"It's alright—it's a cultural reference. Mark... will it be pleasurable for you, returning to the ocean?"
"I understand the ocean. It will be good to once more be in a world I understand, when I understand so little about this world. But finding your friend's body... that brings me no pleasure."
She had not been prepared for empathy from him. Her smile faded as she remembered that the purpose of Mark's mission wasn't just to recover the Sea Quest, but to recover the bodies of her crew. Against her will her eyes began to prickle with unexpected tears. Mark watched with fascination as she brushed the dampness away from her cheek, and reached out to touch the tears that still clung to her lashes, tracing the path of her tears down to the corner of her mouth. She remained perfectly still as he brushed the pad of his thumb over her lip, and then stared at the wetness on his fingers.
It was an intimate gesture—even though she knew that it was yet another expression of Mark's boundless curiosity. His eyes widened almost imperceptibly as he rubbed the moisture between his thumb and forefinger. His own lips parted slightly, and she subconsciously touched her mouth, just as he had done.
He lifted a finger to his mouth, tasting her tears.
"It tastes of salt," he remarked with something like wonder.
"We're not so different after all. People are mostly salt water—people like me, and people like you."
"You have never produced water from your eyes before. Is something wrong?" he asked her as she reached into her pocket for a tissue, startled out of her moment of reflection by his question.
Blinking rapidly and breathing through her nose, she snapped back into teacher-mode almost without thinking. "When people feel intense emotions—particularly helplessness or sorrow—or as a reaction to physical pain, their tear ducts produce tears to moisten their eyes even when there is no ocular irritation. We call it 'crying'."
"You are in physical pain?"
"No—no, it's just... Phil Roth was a very dear friend of mine. I miss him very much, and I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. That is why I am crying. Your tear ducts are not like ours."
"They are not." He nodded slowly, as if unused to the gesture. "I do not cry."
"No—you don't. But that doesn't mean you don't feel, does it? You've learned to mimic people's expressions, like smiling or frowning. But is it just mimicry? I've never seen you smile because you felt joy or happiness. Does that mean you have never felt joy, these last few months?"
He was silent, as if contemplating her words and trying to find the words to answer her. Finally he said, "I have felt... content. Satisfaction. I enjoy learning new things. I enjoy swimming with Winter and Icarus, as you call them. I enjoy spending time with you, Dr Merrill. I do not wish you to cry."
"Thank you, Mark. That means a great deal to me. But I don't want you to put yourself in danger for my sake. Or just because Admiral Pierce asked you to."
"Danger? I do not understand."
"We don't know why the Sea Quest was lost. It might be very dangerous."
"There is no danger for me, in the ocean," he said quickly and firmly. She bit back an automatic denial, and his eyes flicked from her pursed lips to her eyes. He reached out and laid his hand over hers.
"I will try not to be eaten. That is all I can promise."
Even through her tears, she smiled. "Please don't let yourself to be eaten. I would miss you, too."
"When you smile, I 'feel' something. Here." He laid his open palm against his heart, fingers spread to show the delicate webbing between them. "It is like... it is a lightness. I wish you to smile more often."
"I'll try." She wiped her eyes one last time with the crumpled tissue, and then stole a glance at the clock mounted on the wall. "Tomorrow will be a very long day. We should get some sleep."
She rose, and he followed her into the lab. The tank where he slept was full of seawater, its temperature regulated by a thermostat and heater, much like a commercial tropical fish tank, only much larger. He climbed the metal ladder mounted on the side, and stepped over the thick glass wall to stand in the waist-deep water. Elizabeth looked up at him, and he looked down at her. His lips curved in a faint smile, which she tried to take as a sign that he was learning to express his emotions.
"Mark... the Mariana Trench is over 35,000 feet deep. That's over seven miles. It's the deepest part of the world's oceans—at least that we've discovered so far. The view from down there might give you a pretty different perspective."
He cocked his head slightly. "Perspective? Explain."
"The way you see things. Not just with your eyes—but with your heart. Do you understand what I'm talking about?"
He sat down in the tank so that his eyes were at the same level as hers, allowing the water to come just up to his chin as he spoke.
"I will find the Sea Quest for you, Dr Merrill. Because I want to. And I promise that if I leave, I will give you a chance to say good-bye. And if I cannot..." he paused, again seeming to search for just the right words, "I will remember you. You taught me to breathe, Dr Merrill. I will not forget."
With that, he closed his eyes and drifted down to the bottom of the tank. Within seconds, the computers which measured his respiration and heart rate showed he was asleep.
Elizabeth wished sleep could come as easily to her as it did to him. She hoped tonight at least, it might.
Clicking off the lights in the lab, she took one last look at her mythical water-breathing man, and then locked the door to the lab behind her.