The first car that Carlos managed to flag down took him directly to the hospital without his having to ask.
He was treated for mild hypothermia, and, once they were sure his body temperature was fine, given ice packs for the bruises on his shins. Nurses with toothy smiles disinfected his scrapes, made sure he was hydrated, and told him how lucky he was to have survived at all. He asked for a phone, got one, and first called up the lab to let his teammates know he was all right.
Someone stopped in to give him what he assumed was a psych evaluation, with a few unnervingly specific questions about whether he'd had mental images of blood and/or viscera being all over everything. Carlos tried to give normal answers, or at least "normal for Ocean Bluffs" answers. He was banged-up and shaken, his memories a blur of fear and cold and water, and there was a song he couldn't remember ever hearing stuck in his head, but he was basically fine.
Hallucinations didn't count if you knew they were hallucinations, after all. And he knew he couldn't really have been carried to shore by anything with tentacles.
He didn't have a scrap of ID on him; it was just lucky his license and credit cards were at the lab, rather than washed out to sea along with his company ID, his glasses, and his left shoe. (Lucky he had spare glasses at the lab, too.) The landlord who was renting them the space did answer her phone, and he was able to arrange for her to show up in a few hours and let him in.
Shortly before he was released, a Strexcorp Insurance agent stopped by to let him know that the boat they were renting had not yet come back to port, and left him the bill. Carlos was discharged with the invoice in one hand and a gluten-free sandwich (the only kind the hospital cantina sold) in the other.
But we’re still gonna suffer / we got burnt / we met our match and struck first / Suckers should have known better than to let us head our own search and destroy, went the song stuck in his head.
And now, a word from our sponsors.
That word is: Carp!
Moving right along...I'm sure we've all had our share of encounters with magic. Who among us has not sat in our bloodstone circles and done a few simple chants to relieve minor stains, or to boost their children's confidence on the first day of school, or to summon fungus to attack the fins of that brat who bullied their children on the first day of school?
Now, for bigger projects, many people feel more comfortable calling in an expert.
Old Merwoman Josie says her angelfish give her all sorts of helpful tips, so I recommend visiting her if you aren't confident in your own skills, or if you just feel like having a muffin.
The Apache Trout — who is, you will recall, a white steenbras — talks a lot about having ~Indian magics~, which is just one more reason to avoid him, if you ask me. I mean, seriously, "Indian magics"? What a racist jerk.
The Merman with the Tan Scales is rumored to have fearsome and tremendous powers, although where these rumors started I do not know, because nobody who has interacted with him can remember much of what was said. It is also still a mystery what exactly he looks like, aside from having tan scales.
Heron McDaniels tweeted once about what he would do if he were a top-ranked magic-user, and let me tell you, it was inspirational. As a public servant I am not allowed to make an official endorsement, but if I were, let me tell you, I would be all over this! If you want some solid expertise, and are not vulnerable to the siren lure of photophores — which McDaniels has five of, being a five-headed dragonfish — then go visit Heron McDaniels, is what I would say.
But for all those intrepid do-it-yourselfers out there...this is our DIY Magic Corner.
Today we're going to walk you through the steps of a basic short-term shapechanging spell.
Remember that road we’d take? / I swear the devil’s backbone would break / We made it our home and it’s great and it’s good / it’s the same as it ever was, ran the lyrics in Carlos' head, cycling around that verse for the tenth or eleventh time. It went away when he got swept up in work, but any time he rested or let his mind wander, it kept filtering back in.
It was more of a chant than a song, really. He'd pinned down a couple of phrases long enough to google them, but either the lyrics weren't online or he wasn't remembering them right.
(If he was remembering them at all. If his brain wasn't making them up as it went along. The phrases had the disorganized-speech quality found in...well, in the early stages of schizophrenia, but also in music, so he had no reason to panic.)
Most of the day was spent talking with his health insurance company, sending the university a heartbroken-but-professional status report, and trying to put together a list of everything lost with the boat. All the equipment, anyway. For record-keeping purposes.
Around dinnertime, someone came by to let him know that the boat had been found after all.
It was drifting in the open sea, completely out of fuel, with both occupants alive but badly injured. They'd been airlifted to a hospital in the city an hour away. Carlos was too emotionally drained by this point to fully feel the relief, but he thanked the messenger and made an appointment to go down to the docks the next day and judge if any of the equipment was salvageable.
We came, we saw, we came back / We played 'em songs we made quick / We went back home just to fill those pages to the edges, and it’s aces / It’s all coming up roses... ran the chant as he crawled into bed in the tiny apartment above the lab, still in the clothes he'd changed into right after getting back. It was barely even sunset, and there was more paperwork to get through, but he was so very tired.
I am happy to report that the casting was a complete success.
And let me tell you, it has never been more of a relief that I was born without pain receptors! The way some of my tentacles shriveled looked like it might have been a doozy if I could feel it.
According to the parameters of the spell, and the number of eels sacrificed in the process, I will be remaining in this altered form for precisely three days. That is, on sunset on the third day it will expire, and I will revert back to normal — unless some greater force intervenes within that time to make the effect permanent.
A list of forces that have this ability:
A five-legged sheep.
A loved one's kiss.
Emotions you don't understand upon viewing the sunset.
A secret lost pet city on the moon.
Trees that see.
Special disposition of the mayor's office.
THE BROWNSTONE SPIRE.
Kentucky Fried Chicken.
You can probably guess which one I'll be going for! Especially since some of those don't even exist. I mean, come on, mountains? Ugh, pull the other ones.
Now, I am not intimately familiar with humans, having only observed them at a distance, but this new shape is consistent with everything I know. It has two arms with non-webbed fingers, two legs, absolutely no fins, and scale-free skin in a nice brownish hue with absolutely no stripes, markings, or mottling.
It also has — and I am embarrassed to admit that I did not prepare for this beforehand — no gills, and is only able to extract oxygen from air. Lucky for me that Intern Ariel was present, and had the initiative to drag me up to the surface as quickly as possible. Well done, Ariel! You are certainly going to get a good reference out of this.
Of course, since I am currently treading water and speaking into the open air, I have no idea how far this is broadcasting. It may well be that no one at all can hear me.
But isn't that always the case, listeners? How can we ever know if others outside the reach of our senses exist, or if we are throwing useless empty words into the void?
For instance, right now, the only person I am absolutely sure exists is Ariel, who is helping me to shore (where I hope to confirm that Carlos — brave, perfect Carlos — also exists). Thank you again, Ariel. And yes, I will certainly keep an eye out for any opportunity to bring you back a dinglehopper.
Carlos was not giving up on his sanity, and he was certainly not giving up on Science, the one true love of his life.
But he was seriously considering giving up on Ocean Bluffs.
The stress was obviously getting to him. Maybe he just didn't have the constitution to handle scientific impossibility and his growing feeling of being creeped-out by the town (with Strexcorp cameras on every corner, and too many teeth in everybody's smiles) and a near-death experience. Just pulling the truck around a corner and coming in view of the waterfront was making him feel short of breath.
Going out on the water was his failsafe method of decompressing. How could he lean on that here, now, when he knew how fast a storm could blow up?
Besides, he missed working with people long-term. This area drove away all his fellow scientists within a few weeks of arrival, through major injuries or sheer frustration, and none of them had even kept in touch. Carlos rarely minded being alone, but that didn't mean he didn't want friends.
One solid, meaningful human connection. Was that too much to ask?
He tried to put it all out of his mind as he parked at the marina...which just made the song/chant bubble up to the surface of his brain again. Closes may come and we know this / No risk, no fun, no way, nobody’s gonna break my stride, no sir....
Sign in. Go through to the docks. Find the boat. (God, it looked battered.) He wasn't making any decisions until he'd been through the equipment. Not like he could leave until he'd dealt with it either way.
Fixating on this practical train of thought, he got to the dock with the roughed-up boat bobbing unhappily in the waves to his left...
...and everything else was shocked out of his mind.
There was someone sleeping in the boat.
The intruder was a man who looked a few years younger than Carlos, although maybe it was the lack of grey in his hair — which was shortish and black, but not a warm rich black like Carlos's, more of a glossy black with a purple-blue-green sheen reminiscent of mussel shells. He was curled up on the deck, using a spare life jacket as a pillow, and wearing...for a loose definition of "wearing"...what looked like a canvas sail, tied into the shape of a tunic by a rope that might have been filched from a life preserver.
Carlos thought about calling the marina owner on this guy. Then he thought about how strict some Ocean Bluffs businesses could be with their rules, and decided to give the stranger a chance to leave on his own without getting in trouble for it.
He swung his legs over the railing and down onto the deck, sank into a tentative crouch, and said, "Hey. Hey, wake up!"
The stranger's eyes popped open with a gasp.
Both of them were pearly white, so clouded over with cataracts that Carlos could barely find the outline of the iris underneath. Thank goodness he hadn't brought down security on this poor, blind, probably homeless —
Then the stranger looked directly at his face, broke into a dazzling grin, and exclaimed, "Carlos! You found me!"
Well, there went all Carlos' assumptions overboard.
"I got here in the middle of the night," continued the not-blind, probably-not-homeless man who was here for Carlos specifically, "and then I realized I didn't know where you were staying, or how to get in touch with you, and I thought, ugh, Seacil, what were you thinking, leaving without even looking that up? But then I realized I knew what your boat looked like! So I found it, and when I saw all your science equipment still here I just knew you would come back."
Carlos wasn't used to being, well, gushed at like this. "Sorry, did you say your name was Cecil? And you're...a new arrival for the science team?" He hadn't gone through any applications in the past two days. Maybe the university decided they'd have better luck sending him team members than letting him keep picking.
"Yes!" exclaimed Cecil, sitting up. "Yes, I'm here to do science. With you. I'm a scientist."
"And why are you wearing...that?"
Cecil's face fell. "I thought...do you not like it? I thought it was very stylish."
Now Carlos felt even worse. He'd never understood fashion; for all he knew, faux-shipwreck-victim was the hot new look in New York right now. And even if it wasn't, if it was exactly as stupid as Carlos thought it looked, he had a responsibility not to pick on his subordinates.
"Sorry, it just, ah, surprised me," he stammered. "You surprised me. I mean, I didn't get any warning you were coming, I didn't have any time to prepare...not that you need to get started this minute!" His mind was going in five directions at once. Cecil must have had the worst night's sleep ever, and when had he last eaten? "How about if I drive you back to the lab? There's food in the fridge, and you can get some real sleep in one of the rooms the last team left. I'll try to get you a copy of the key by this afternoon."
It was only common decency, but it made Cecil gaze at him in rapt adoration. "You're so thoughtful, Carlos — perfect Carlos! With your perfect hair! But now that I'm here, nothing would make me happier than to help with...whatever you're doing today. What experiments are there to be done? What mystery needs to be explored?"
Carlos ran a self-conscious hand through his hair. "Right this second, nothing. That is, there are plenty of mysteries, but what I'm doing is hauling stuff out of this boat. I guess if you feel up to carrying things...."
"Oh, Carlos," said Cecil, settling into a deep, sonorous voice. "Nothing would make me happier."
Seacil had done it!
He was here. On land! With Carlos! He was carrying things ("It looks bad because the monitor's smashed, but we might be able to salvage the hard drive; just be careful not to cut yourself on the glass") from one place to another, for Carlos!
Carlos, whose hair was even more perfect up close.
His only regret was that he had nobody to narrate this to.
Seacil couldn't even tell the bulk of it to Carlos. The shapeshifting spell came with lots of perks, including a complete command of local Humanish to go with the vocal cords for it, but it also had restrictions, one of which was "no talking about your original shape." Even roundabout mentions were blocked, as he found when he tried to nonchalantly ask how Carlos felt about tentacles.
Not that Seacil would ever have tentacles again, if all this worked out.
Feet and legs were taking some getting used to, but he was adapting pretty quickly. He'd only fallen over once, and with more practice he was barely even stumbling and wobbling any more. Carlos, thoughtful Carlos, didn't say anything about it, but did start giving Seacil only the lightest objects to carry, and no more than a few at a time.
Winning the affections of someone this perfect was going to be tough. Seacil wasn't even technically a scientist...although he was very into science these days...and hadn't they all been scientists, at one point or another?
"I think this is the last of it," said Carlos at last. He was cradling the recording apparatus: the microphone dangling from a cable looped around one arm, his well-padded headphones hanging over the other, and a recording device with lots of light-up buttons in his hand. "The recorder won't power on, but I'm hoping we can get it to work with a new battery, and the rest of it might be salvageable too."
Empty-handed, Seacil followed him out into the parking lot. "I hope so! That's sort of my field, you know. Sounds. Like, for instance, vocalizations. But underwater."
"It's all right, you don't have to dumb things down for me," Carlos assured him. "Marine chemistry is my specialty, but I try to keep up with other fields in oceanography, so I do know the basics of hydroacoustics."
"Neat!" said Seacil.
And then he mentally slapped himself, because Carlos had said all these swoon-worthy science words, and the best he could come up with in response was neat.
Carlos kept right on talking. "We won't be able to take new recordings for a while, but I'll take you through the acoustic data we've managed to compile so far, and then you can dive right into that." With Seacil's help he threw a tarp over the contents of the truck bed and strapped it into place. "Uh, you'll want lunch first, I'm sure. Do you want to swing by the Arby's with me and grab something?"
Were Seacil's ears deceiving him? Was this a date?
"Yes!" he exclaimed, dizzy with glee. Although maybe he shouldn't presume. "But, well, I don't have any money on me," he admitted, and then, on a sudden surge of inspiration, "All my stuff is scheduled to be shipped out here in a couple of days." At that point he would either be able to tell Carlos the whole truth, or, well, or it wouldn't matter what Carlos thought any more. Either way, now Seacil wouldn't look too suspicious in the meantime.
"They sent you down here without any money? How were they expecting you to...?" said Carlos, indignant. Indignant on Seacil's behalf. How utterly charming. "Don't worry about it. I'll cover you. We can take it out of the petty cash box. C'mon, hop in."
He shouldn't get attached, Carlos told himself. No matter how enthusiastic Cecil seemed now, about everything from stop signs to the truck radio to Carlos' hair, he would probably be over it and ready to leave in a few weeks. If he wasn't horribly injured before then.
If Carlos wasn't horribly injured before then. Whatever entity (if any) had rescued him from the storm wasn't always going to be around, after all.
The radio was playing static on all stations, so Carlos' brain defaulted back to the song that had been there all day. No risk, no fun, no way, nobody’s gonna break my stride, no sir / Those days look like these days / except for maybe these grays / But that’s just my salt and pepper, my heart and soul won’t live forever...
He didn't realize he was humming the melody until Cecil — who had been distracted by the view out the window, and thus, for once, not gazing with off-putting adoration at Carlos — turned sharply back to him. "You remember that song?"
"You know it?" said Carlos, maybe too eagerly. "It's been stuck in my head all day! And I have no idea what the title is, or where I even heard it, and the lyrics keep slipping away when I try to focus on them, and I couldn't find anything about it online...I was starting to wonder if I'd just made it up."
"No, sweet Carlos, you certainly did not create that," said Cecil with a laugh.
"I guess not. So what's it called?"
Carlos' eyes were on the road, but he could feel Cecil's prickling gaze on him. "Nothing that can be pronounced in this language. Would it help if I sang it for you?"
"Yes, please," said Carlos fervently. Odd though Cecil might be, he had the kind of voice you just wanted to listen to.
So it was that he pulled into the lot behind the Arby's with Cecil's song pouring into his ears, soothing and reassuring, even when the words themselves weren't. "We all fall for the decoy / Sometimes it slides right by while we’re trying to decide / Don’t lie to yourself / almost ain’t good enough / and there ain’t no extra lives...."