Life on the abyssal plain at the very bottom of the ocean was slow and cold. There was no sunlight, and there were no seasons, and there was hardly any food to be had apart from the silent fall of marine snow. Decades passed in the blink of an eye; the turn of the centuries meant nothing; and Sil, who’d lived for a thousand years or more, hadn’t had a bite to eat in years.
That was all to the good. She didn’t require much energy down here in the frigid darkness, not with her mind empty of thoughts and her body in virtual torpor. None of the Mother Ocean’s creatures would dare harm a mermaid like her. Could harm a mermaid like her. And so she only needed to move enough to keep the water flowing over her gills, cruising languidly in the uncharted vastness, her pallid body flashing occasionally with its own blue bioluminescent light.
But mermaids were not immortal, and every once in a great while, even Sil had to rise up to the surface. Finely tuned instincts informed her subconscious mind of the need to feed, and her body acted of its own accord, hunting down her favored prey and consuming them from top to tail, one after another after another. Only after she’d gorged herself again and again would she regain full sentience and—
No. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
Her heart should have been beating faster in the warm, sunlit waters, but it should not have been beating this fast. Her skin should not have been cracked and peeling and prickling from the spines of a kelp bed’s worth of sea urchins. Her muscles should have been stronger, not weaker, precise, not uncoordinated. Her thoughts should not have been as hazy and dispersed as a squid’s cloud of ink. This close to the surface, this soon after feeding, Sil should have been fast and strong. She should not have been this. She should not have been feeling – she should not have been feeling—
She heard the ship approaching, of course, but she could do nothing. She could not flee back down into the depths, and she could not hide. She could not, for that matter, even swim aside. She could only wait and do nothing if the humans decided to come.
When they decided to come.
They’d thought she was a passenger fallen overboard at first. A lady in a white dress, the little girl who’d first spotted her being tossed about by the waves had said. Probably drunk, a cabin steward said, rolling his eyes, the usual story.
Dorothy wasn’t rolling her eyes, however. Dr. Dorothy Cole was The Serenity’s shipboard physician, and she was heading at speed towards the medical station. A fall from a cruise ship’s balcony could break bones on impact, and that was assuming the patient hadn’t gotten any water into her lungs…
But the patient, as it turned out, wasn’t a lady fallen overboard, and she wasn’t wearing anything, let alone a white dress. She also didn’t seem to have any obviously broken bones, and if she had water in her lungs, it was probably meant to be there.
The patient was a mermaid. A real, live mermaid! A real! Live! Mermaid!
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” Dorothy tried. “Can you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying to you right now? Do you know where you are?”
The mermaid’s head lolled, and her tail twitched. If she was capable of understanding human speech, she gave no sign. Nor did she seem aware of her surroundings.
There was no mistake about it – this mermaid was a patient. Although Dorothy had never personally laid eyes on a mermaid before, and few people had, let’s be real, she could tell in an instant that this mermaid was seriously sick. Her skin was flaking, for one thing, and it had an odd pinkish cast, neither of which looked like sunburn. Her muscles looked slightly atrophied. Her pulse was thin and fluttery, and although she wasn’t completely unconscious, she wasn’t responding strongly to visual or aural stimulus.
Dorothy cast her mind back to what she’d learned about mermaids in school. They were rare and incredibly long-lived, she remembered, average life expectancy unknown. They alternated protracted periods of torpor in the deep sea with brief periods of intensive activity close to the surface near coastlines to breed with the, uh, well, that was mighty interesting, but it wasn’t important right now, was it? And, ah yes, they came to the surface in order to feed. Hmm, to feed…mermaids were obligate carnivores at the tippy tip top of the marine food chain…and nowadays they said that it wasn’t safe to eat most seafood anymore because of the…the…
“Mercury poisoning,” Dorothy announced, surprised by her own diagnosis. “This mermaid has mercury poisoning. I’m going to need a blood test to confirm.”
Sil was panicking as soon as she awakened. The weight of gravity was pulling her downwards – no, she was beached—! She couldn’t move, couldn’t swim—!
Then a human appeared above her and placed hands on her shoulders. The human’s head was turning back and forth, from side to side, and its mouth was moving; it was making urgent but, as best Sil could discern, nonthreatening noises. The human’s hands did not attempt to hurt her, but the grip was firm; only when Sil stopped thrashing did their grip begin to loosen.
The human made more noises from its mouth and waited, its attitude expectant. Humans communicated with one another using noises produced by the mouth, Sil recalled, but the particular sounds changed so rapidly, practically from generation to generation, that Sil had no hope of decoding them. Whatever the human wanted, though, it still hadn’t removed its hands from Sil. Sil didn’t like being touched, but she tried not to squirm – she didn’t want to provoke the human to violence, not when she was so utterly helpless…
The human moved its head again, this time up and down. Finally, it removed its hands from Sil’s shoulders. It made more noises, turning away momentarily as it did so and then turning back, holding out two strange reddish pebbles out for Sil. They were about the size of oyster pearls.
It wanted Sil to take the little pebbles from it. She didn’t see why not. Hesitantly, she opened her palm and held it up. The human dropped the pebbles into her hand, right in the middle where there was only flesh, not fingers and webbing. Sil just stared at them, confused and curious; she had no idea what to do with them!
The human made a strange rumbling noise – frustration, perhaps? – and again turned away momentarily, only to return a few seconds later with its own set of two little pebbles. The human’s little pebbles looked different; they were white and oblong. With exaggerated movements intended to demonstrate the action, the human placed the two little pebbles onto its tongue. Then it took a vessel of water and drank. When it opened its mouth and stuck its tongue out, the pebbles were gone. It had swallowed the pebbles whole!
The human pointed to the two reddish pebbles in Sil’s hand and then pointed to Sil’s mouth. It wanted Sil to swallow the pebbles.
Well, why not, in the end? If the human intended to hurt Sil it would’ve done so already. Sil opened her mouth and put the pills on her tongue. The human cringed a bit at the sight of her teeth, so Sil clamped her mouth shut and swallowed.
The human handed Sil a vessel of water. She didn’t need it, but the human put an arm around her back and helped her stay sitting up while she drank, which was nice anyway.
Sil decided then that the human was probably female…and that it – or rather she – was quite pretty.
They’d been less than six hours from port when the mermaid was first brought onboard. This was most fortunate, since the mermaid wasn’t in any condition to be transported onshore and it wasn’t like the cruise ship pharmacy kept a supply of dimercaptosuccinic acid on hand to treat mercury poisoning. Dorothy had had to order out for that.
The mermaid was responding well to treatment, though, so the mercury poisoning had to have happened relatively recently. Had ethyl mercury been accumulating in her system over a long period, chelation therapy would not have been effective, and any damage inflicted would likely have become permanent. So the mermaid could be expected to make a full recovery.
Once Dorothy had taught the mermaid to take her pills, the hardest part, really, had been humoring the many walk-in passengers who appeared at her door in the weeks to follow with, well, the generous term would be “non-emergency” medical complaints because what they really wanted was to see was a real live recuperating mermaid. Dorothy listened to their complaints patiently, gave them their Band-Aid or Extra Strength Tylenol or Dramamine as relevant, and sent them politely on their way.
“Good news today!” Dorothy announced to the mermaid.
The mermaid blinked slowly. Attentive, but no sign of comprehension. She was always watching Dorothy, her huge, dark eyes following her keenly as she worked, like she found Dorothy utterly fascinating or something. And it was hard for Dorothy not to feel the same, to be honest. The mermaid’s face was symmetrical and lovely (provided you could ignore the pointy teeth!), and her body was smooth and sleek. She was ghost pale all over, with faint azure markings on her tail which twinkled with bioluminescent light. Dorothy could totally understand why, when the mermaids came close to land in order to breed, that some people, well, they would happily, uh…you know.
“Right.” Dorothy chuckled, feeling ridiculously self-conscious about her unvoiced train of thought. “So, anyway – your latest blood test results just came back, and it’s good news! Chelation therapy has cleared the mercury from your system. Once I finish the discharge paperwork, you’ll be free to go!”
The mermaid didn’t react to the declaration, of course; she couldn’t understand what Dorothy was saying. Still, Dorothy couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the mermaid didn’t look disappointed.
They put her back in the ocean. It was a part she recognized, so perhaps they’d found her there. Then they returned to their floating palace, and their floating palace and all the humans on it – including the one Sil had some to think of as her human – left her behind.
Sil didn’t understand what precisely had been wrong with her, but it was clear that her human had, and that her human had known how to treat the illness. The treatment was successful, too, because Sil hadn’t felt so good in centuries. She was, all in all, very impressed by the whole affair. Very impressed indeed.
And that, in turn, meant that she was, for the first time in her long, long life, not entirely certain what to do. She’d gorged herself when she’d first risen to the surface, and the humans had kept her exceptionally well-fed since, so she wasn’t hungry. She hadn’t yet begun to undergo the physiological changes which had to occur prior to courtship and mating, since she needed to be in water for that, not beached in a floating palace for humans, but she’d already become fixated. The vent on Sil’s underside softened and started to open as she remembered her human, the competence she’d brought to her dealings with the other humans who approached her for help, the compassionate firmness with which she’d dealt with Sil’s own problems.
She drifted in the currents of pleasant fantasy as she underwent the change, wondering how it would be to mate with a female human and paying no particular attention whatsoever to the time that was passing around her.
A moon’s turn later, the change was complete, and Sil was shaken from her reverie by the rumble of one of the human floating palaces. She wondered if it was the same one she’d been beached on. She decided to swim determinedly toward it, and as she got close, she realized she could see her human standing on one of the floating palace’s many protruding structures.
Sil’s human was surveying the surface of the water. She was looking for something – she was looking for Sil. Sil swam along, close to the floating palace, until she was certain her human could see her.
Then, she flipped backwards and showed her human her newly grown legs.