“He’s beautiful,” Mile says when he comes back up to the surface, treading water and clinging to the edge of the boat. “I thought maybe I was seeing things, but he’s real and…” he takes a deep breath of fresh air. It’s much better than the stale imitations in his oxygen tank, but he knows he’ll go back down before long. “He’s gorgeous. If I can, I’ll bring him aboard. He seems really smart. Maybe cast a net down, I’ll lure him in? We still have a tank on the deck, right?”
“Dimensions eight by three by six. That gonna be big enough?” Nick asks, similarly poised over one of the rails to talk to him.
Mike nods. “He isn’t much bigger than me. Go ahead and have the net cast, I’ll let you know when to reel.”
He pushes his air supply back into his mouth and dives again. The water is cold even through his wetsuit, but he’s not in danger of hypothermia. He’s moving, he’s keeping warm, and the line around his waist keeps him attached to the boat in case he throws his distress signal, a red foam ball, to the surface, or there’s an emergency they need him for. But that’s rare, and he doesn’t think there will be an issue with a creature as intelligent and seemingly gentle as the one he’s encountered.
Everything has a blue tint to it under water, and it’s dark even this shallow, but he can still clearly identify what’s in front of him. It looks human, to an extent. The form is certainly humanoid. But it also has a pattern of scales edging around its face, long and sleek legs with minute scales on them too, and fingers with webbing when they part. It’s also naked, obviously, but it looks so human that Mike feels awkward examining it.
On instinct more than anything, he waves at it. It tilts its head to the side like a puppy, and then waves back. When Mike reaches for it, it takes his hand without hesitation and blows bubbles from its mouth. It must be able to breathe air, if it can make bubbles. It’s part fish, part mammal. The best word to describe it is mermaid, however atypical it is of the stereotyped image in fairytales.
Mike leads it by the hand back to the boat and catches the shimmer of the net by the smooth grey hull. He’s careful to lead it over, but as soon as it catches sight of the net, it turns around and goes back deeper, pulling Mike with it. For a moment, Mike is afraid and thinks of releasing his distress signal, but once they’re away from the net, it lets go. It’s still friendly, though, and makes another happy bubble pattern. Mike holds up a single finger, telling it to wait, and it blows more bubbles and watches him ascend back to the surface.
“Well?” Nick asks.
“Reel in the net. He knows what it is, it spooked him. Maybe lower the lifeboat down, he might be okay with that.” Mike thinks back to the way it blew bubbles at him. “He can breathe air, and he’s really smart. Pretty humanoid too.”
“How do you know it’s a he?”
Mike clears his throat uncomfortably. “He’s pretty humanoid. You’ll see when I bring him up- if I can.”
He checks the level of his oxygen tank and notes he still has about twenty more minutes before he’s out. Hopefully that’s enough. Once the lifeboat hits the waves, Mike goes back down to find the creature watching him, right next to the hull. It blows even more bubbles and reaches for him again. He lets it and tries to pull it back over to the raft, this time with more success. While he watches, it skims around the lifeboat as if to check it. When it’s satisfied, it lets go of him and pulls itself up onto the raft with muscles Mike thinks look like those of a human upper body.
When he breaks surface, it lounges on the raft with its chin resting on its hands, humming a repetitive tune. Above the waves, Mike can identify its coloring much better. The wet hair on its head is blonde-brown with edges of silver in it at the temples. The same silver tint covers its scales, although some are black or even an icy blue the same shade as its bright eyes. It’s even more beautiful when Mike can see it properly.
“You’re smart, aren’t you, beautiful boy?”
It nods and smiles, revealing a mouth of pointy teeth as Mike gets onto the boat beside it and calls upwards for them to be brought on board. He dries quickly in the harsh sun looming over the Pacific, but the creature seems mostly alright. It’s adapted to surface life, then. When they hit the deck, before any of the other researchers approach, it stands on its feet a little unsteadily. Mike hurries to help it before it falls, and it lets him with another smile and a hum.
“Do you think we should get him in the water?” Olivia, another researcher, asks.
“Your tank is too small,” it says in a deep, matter-of-fact voice mangled in a Staten Island accent. “It’s barely suitable for a minnow, don’t even think of putting me near it. And the net? Ignorant at best, dangerous at worst. It could seriously hurt someone.”
No one makes a sound in response. It talks. And with a Staten Island accent, at that. When no one responds, it huffs and takes a few more steps to get used to walking as opposed to swimming, showing off the way its scales reflect prismatic colors in direct light. It really is gorgeous, and a little bit prissy. But once the initial shock is gone, Mike tries talking to it.
“Okay, no tank, and no more nets. Do you have a name?”
“My name can’t be pronounced above water. The men I met in-” it pauses and thinks for a moment, “-they called it New York? The men I met in New York who taught me to speak, they called me Sunshine. But I don’t like it. I don’t like them.”
It crosses its arms in front of its chest defensively and won’t look at anyone. The humans it met must’ve hurt it somehow, and yet it was still so trusting towards Mike when treated kindly. And Mike wants to learn so much more about it. What it is, where it came from, if there are more.
“How about Sonny? Is that okay?” Mike asks tentatively.
“I like that.”
“Great,” Nick chimes in. “How do you feel about clothes, Sonny? Because I know it’s different in the ocean, but up here, it’s awkward when we can see… everything.”
Sonny looks down at itself and shrugs. “Some stuff bothers me. I- maybe we can compromise?”
“What bothers you?” Mike takes off the oxygen tank, grateful to be relieved of the weight. He’s really concerned about what Sonny may have been through, but he’s also beyond fascinated with it entirely. There’s so much to study.
Instead of a verbal response, it gestures towards the camera around Olivia’s neck and then goes over to the duffel bag of Mike’s clothes waiting for him when he strips off the wetsuit. It rifles through them with still damp hands and comes up with Mike’s windbreaker.
Next is his undershirt.
The jeans are also labeled as bad, as well as his underwear, belt, socks, and shoes. The only acceptable item is Mike’s slightly oversized tee shirt.
“This, but longer,” Sonny says. “Pants feel wrong. And the stuff that goes under, or the tight stuff-” it swallows hard, “really bad.”
Mike nods thoughtfully. “That’s okay, I’m sure we can find something. Liv, any ideas?”
“Alex has some tee shirt dresses, maybe those’ll work?” Olivia answers. “They’re long enough to cover you up, Sonny, but they’re loose and lightweight.”
As Olivia goes to the shared room to find one, Sonny takes a hesitant seat on the ground and watches them all with apprehension practically radiating off of it. It, Mike should stop calling Sonny it. This isn’t a creature he anthropomorphizes with human names and pronouns. This is practically a human. A human who’s smart, capable, and full of things to teach them, but also traumatized and sensitive. They have to figure out what works for him, if he stays aboard.
Before long, Olivia returns with a soft looking long shirt, handing it to Sonny so he can cover himself. Alex is already tall, but Sonny’s proportions are different enough for it to be a little short on him. He’s still covered, but it’s more revealing than it was probably designed to be. It’s better than nothing, however, and Sonny seems content.
“Now that that’s settled, can we ask you some questions?” Mike sits down beside Sonny despite how warm he’s starting to feel in the wetsuit. “We’re researchers, we want to learn about ocean life, like you.”
“I’d like to learn about people too, if they’re nice.”