Short Story – Seal Skin

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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Seal Skin

by M. Leigh Hood

The Majesty sat on water so still, Abigail saw her reflection over the rail. She met her own eyes as fish darted through her curls, tails flapping behind her. Everything was blue, and clear, and perfect. She’d never seen a better day for a dive.

What a waste.

“Is good Doctor Teapot giving you trouble again?”

Abigail forced her attention from the ocean. Captain Marden stood behind her. So many decades at sea had pickled him, but the light in his eyes blazed steady. Behind him, the ship’s low smoke stacks released twin black snakes into the air, the fumes drifting like banners behind Marden, the ship’s king.

“Doctor Herret and I are having a disagreement,” Abigail said, “about the Oyster.”

“Nah,” the captain scoffed. “The two of you never disagree about the Oyster. You’re convinced it’s man’s best gift to himself. It’s the timing you can’t discuss.”

Abigail smiled and tasted soot. The taste clouded everything, but at least by the rail it came mixed with salt. “You’re not wrong.”

“Well, I’ll have a word,” the captain said, glancing over his shoulder at the renowned Doctor Herret, whom he’d christened Teapot on account of both shape and accent.

“Thanks.”

“Nah. The sooner you’re finished, the sooner we can dock and waste our wages. They have fine rum in these ports, and it’ll sell high in Baltimore.”

He turned to cross the deck, and Abigail’s attention drifted to her great love – the tremendous bronze and steel box sitting aft. The Oyster.

Oceanography was a frustrating science. Scientists drew conclusions about their field from half-rotted corpses and abandoned shells. They studied the flotsam and jetsom, not the functioning system. The Oyster would change that. The brainchild of multiple geniuses, the device was the first of its kind – a submersible craft designed for undersea observation. A rebreather could provide a single scientist in the closed observation cell with breathable air for up to seventy three hours. Glass thicker than Abigail’s wrist allowed optimal viewing on a nearly panoramic scale, and a specially designed engine anchored to the deck of the ship would lower the Oyster into the sea. On the deck of an elegant steamer, the Oyster looked like an impractical curiosity from a traveling circus. But in the water, it would become another creature entirely.

The beautiful thing made her heart flutter, and she hurried after the captain, who, by now, had worked himself well into negotiations.

“Our schedule is set to dive tomorrow,” Doctor Herret was saying. “Today will be busy enough with our examination, and it would be dark before we could prepare.”

“Is there a problem with your sinking ship?” the captain asked.

“Not as such,” Doctor Herret said, “but I would be more confident in its security after a full day of checks.”

“A full day of double and triple checks you mean,” Abigail said, stepping up beside her ally. She shrugged off her colleague’s frown. “We won’t see anything we haven’t seen already. I say theOyster’s seaworthy.”

“I would be more confident…”

I would be more confident if we put that bauble in the water and see how she fairs on a still day like this,” said the captain. “Tomorrow may bring stronger winds, and any weather but blue skies and a still sea make your trip down a riskier business than it already is. You don’t have to stay down long, just so we know if the tub leaks.”

Doctor Herret took a deep breath, and Abigail grinned at the captain. Good Doctor Teapot would need a mighty good reason to refuse the captain, especially when the captain claimed it was a matter of safety.

“If you insist.”

And that was that.

Doctor Herret swung down from the ladder and Abigail hurried to claim his place. “If it’s all the same to the two of you,” Doctor Herret said, “I would like to run a few last minute checks.”

“Of course, Doctor,” the captain said. He spared Abigail a wink and left, strutting away with the roll of the deck.

As Doctor Herret labored, Abigail climbed up the side of the Oyster to peer in at his work. His hands tapped and fluttered over the same controls she’d just calibrated herself, and she stifled the hissing cry of her wounded pride. Of course he didn’t think she would take the Oyster for her maiden voyage. He didn’t even think she could turn a few dials and knobs.

“The pressure gauge you’re checking is spot on,” she said. “I tested it twice.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” Doctor Herret said, absorbed in his task. “But it is far better to be overly cautious than under prepared.”

“And a perfect itinerary is useless if one never boards the train.”

 “We’ll dive today.” Doctor Herret kept his eyes on his work, but Abigail could read the tension in his shoulders. “After all, it’s two against one.”

Three hours and a rapid barrage of tests and checks saw Abigail at the mouth of the Oyster. She held her position, conscious of the moment’s gravity and her precarious balance on the lip between worlds. The weather had held, just as the captain predicted. The slightest whisper of breeze brushed a curl in her eyes, and she tossed it aside as Doctor Herret, crouched beside her atop the capsule, lifted the hatch.

“The first dive will not be deep,” he said. “Forty feet at most. If even a drop of water finds its way into the pod, pull your alarm chain.”

“And if something goes wrong with the engine, I’m abandoning decorum, modesty, and petticoats and making for the surface.”

He smiled – quickly, uncertainly, but enough. Doctor Herret seemed fond of his new expression, and he tried it again. “Good luck, Doctor Clark. I will eagerly await your report.”

Abigail was no artful debutante, but she knew how to smile, and she graced him with an exquisite example. “Thank you, Doctor Herret.”

She slipped her feet into the open door and searched for the rungs of the ladder. They came under her boots, and she began her descent. Inside, the capsule resembled a tall room decorated exclusively in gears, pipes and knobs save for the long glass viewport. A second window spread over the floor, ending at the foot of the red leather chair in which the scientist would sit.

Abigail looked through the front portal as she dropped from the final rung, meeting the eyes of her colleagues like fish behind glass. The steam engine coughed and chugged to life, and Abigail assumed her throne.

“All well?”

Abigail looked up and grinned. “Oh, everything’s grand.”

Doctor Herret gave her a final salute. “Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

The doctor’s face disappeared and the hatch swung home, cutting off all light from above. The crane rose, and the chain’s slack rattled up. Brass and steal creaked as the Oyster’s leash went taught and took the weight of the pod. The Oyster swung up and over the side of the ship, and the motion made Abigail faintly sick. Like sea-sickness without the sea. Air sickness? She watched through the bottom viewport as the surface came closer and closer until it pressed against the glass, offering Abigail her first glimpse of the world beneath the surf. Waves rippled and pushed against the bottom of the viewport, rising in bubbles and licks as Abigail slowly sank away from her natural environment. The water accepted the pod gradually, and Abigail sat secure in the observation chair, watching the sea rise around her. She remained composed, hands in her lap, folded over her notebook.

As she descended, the water’s color deepened. She knew the effect was simply a matter of less light, but the Egyptian blue tint turned her view far more alien than it had seemed a few dozen feet higher. On the surface, the sea could be animated land. Its hills and valleys shifted with the wind and tide, but the surface, like the ground, proved ultimately chartable and finite. Beneath the mirror skin, the sea became another beast, an endless, ageless creature. In the dappled blue, Abigail could see the planet’s biological mechanics.

Life spread in every direction. Above, a handful of curious reef sharks prowled the shadow of the Majesty. In the distance, dozens of little shadows revealed the fish disturbed by the Oyster’s drop. And below, the reef seethed with twitching, roiling, brilliantly colored shapes of all sizes. She made out dozens of fish navigating the coral metropolis, a rippling eel, and even a languidly sailing turtle gliding along the rim of a deep drop off. Abigail’s hands didn’t stay at rest for long. In a few minutes, she had pages of quick sketches to flesh out from memory in her cabin. She captured beast after beast, marveling, smiling, drawing.

As she traced the mottled pout of a grouper, the pod jerked. Something arrested her descent, and aside from the pull of the tide, the Oyster hung stationary.  Abigail leaned forward in her seat and tried to twist about in order to peer up, but she could only just see the edge of the ship’s shadow, and it told her nothing of the world above, nothing that could explain the sudden stop. Another jerk, and she began to ascend. Muttering an oath, she sat back down and applied herself with all due haste to her notes. Doctor Herret must have ordered an end to the dive. Abigail was determined to see something wonderful before they fished her out again. She would see something wonderful or she’d raise hell until she had another dive.

The pod stopped again, and once more Abigail pressed her cheek to the glass. A bright flash erupted around the vessel’s silhouette, and a moment later the pod gave an almighty shudder.

The chain fell slack, and the pod began a freefall. Abigail tried to sink her nails into the glass. She didn’t dare look down. She didn’t dare check to see if she had swung out over the drop off.

Freefalling through water wasn’t like falling through air. The descent was not uncomfortably quick, for all that it was uncontrolled, and Abigail fought the overwhelming nightmare-sense that she was being pulled down into that endless gulf. Each second she fell farther away from her precious air, slowly but inexorably sinking into her grave. She dropped back into the chair and clutched her notebook.

And then she stopped.

With a mild bump and a puff of sediment, the sea floor ended the pod’s descent. She had not fallen into the void. She still had some hope of rescue.

When she pressed her face to the glass for the third time, she could find no sign of the ship. She couldn’t understand. She might not be Doctor Herret’s dearest friend, but he’d hardly leave her to suffocate at the bottom of the ocean. Nor would the captain. Even if she were the world’s most odious baggage, the men would want to rescue the Oyster for its own sake at the very least. But facts were facts, and the ship was not there. Abigail struggled with her thoughts and let her eyes drift shut as she arranged the available data into hypotheses.

  • An interruption in the chain’s feed.
  • An effort to return the pod to the surface.
  • Another interruption.
  • A flash, presumably an explosion.
  • The fall.

The likeliest possibility – something went wrong in the steam engine powering the winch. A malfunction? Whatever the problem, it must have triggered the final blast, and any blast visible from fifty feet underwater would dramatically damage and possibly sink the ship. Given her available information, it seemed a sound theory, but only time could prove it.

But even a theorized explosion raised a number of questions – about the safety of the crew, the likelihood of rescue, and immediate danger to the pod. Had the ship sunk? And if it had, did the chain break in the explosion, or was the pod still tethered to the plunging vessel?

She faced two options. Neither ideal. She could wait for rescue. If the ship had indeed sunk, then this was a poor option. Rescue would be long delayed, as it would take some time to notice the ship missing, and even if rescuers should find the wreck, there was no reason for them to seek the pod separately. Once word reached Boston of the wreck, doubtless some professor would petition for the recovery of the Oyster, but by that time Abigail’s corpse would smell like meat left too long in the butcher’s window. While she hoped any survivors of the wreck might at least try to free her from her submarine prison, they would be as vulnerable to the elements and predators as she, and such survivors would be fortunate to survive alone, let alone rescue any beleaguered comrades.

The second option – break for shore. She faced a swim of some miles, and once free of the pod she would be at nature’s mercy, and the sea would likely hinder rather than help her journey. However, no matter the risks, swimming offered a far better chance than merely waiting in the pod. Eventually, she would run out of air. The carbon dioxide would build to intolerable levels and she would die.

The pod gave an almighty jerk, shattering her train of thought, and Abigail’s world tilted as theOyster crashed backwards. She screamed and reached to steady herself, but there was nothing except smooth glass before her, and soon it was above her. Shrieking, she tumbled back into the nest of gears surrounding the chair, bruising her knee against the vertical seat. The pod fell on its back, offering the floundering scientist a clear view of the rippling surface, dozens of yards above her. The pod bumped over coral and skidded across the ocean floor, rushing backwards. As she struggled to find a firm place to put her feet, Abigail found the answers to her questions.

The chain was still linked to the ship, and the ship was sinking. The Oyster would be dragged off the edge of the drop off.

She had precious few moments before she plunged into the abyss, and she crawled over the Oyster’s equipment, ignoring stabbing levers and cogs as she strained for the hatch. Water pressure was against her, but if a mother could lift a cart off her child with the aid of adrenaline, maybe one desperate scientist could force open a door.

As suddenly as the race across the ocean floor began, it ended, and Abigail rolled face-first into the closed hatch. She lay still for several minutes, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, fearing the consequences of motion.

The pod didn’t move again. It had come, at last, to its final rest.

It had not tipped over the drop off.

Abigail’s heart pounded hard enough make her gorge rise. Claustrophobia squeezed her mind. She had to get out of the pod. But it was the only safe place. The last safe place.

Bubbles filled the water, fragments of another world dragged below, rising from the sinking ship, and hopefully not from a crack in the pod. They rose like smoke, and when a shark ghosted through them, Abigail started back – right into a lever. The bubbles made the silhouette murky, but the right pectoral fin pressed against the glass as the shark passed.

Abigail’s teeth had cut into her cheek, and she tasted the salty copper, savored it – medicine to quell her panic. She still faced the choice to stay or swim. She wanted to rip open the hatch and throw herself into the sea, but she knew the ocean’s law, the gamble every sailor took, and she knew in her current state, with the noise of the wreck and the smell of blood in the water, the cards were against her. With the blue outside darkening to a midnight hue, and Abigail decided to delay her choice until morning. Leaving her safe haven to risk the dangers of the reef in the dark would be foolhardy. Fate had already sided against her. No reason to further tempt it.

Slowly, Abigail crawled away from the door, more aware than ever of the instruments stabbing her shins and palms. She found just enough room to rise up on her knees, but nowhere near enough to stand. Her prim little room had become an awkward coffin. After several minutes’ battle with her skirts and the sharp gears on which they were caught, she managed to pull herself to the chair. Curled over the chair’s back, she stared up at the darkening ocean. A hammerhead undulated above the pod, yards away, but her racing heart held no more room for fear. She couldn’t be any more aware of her current predicament, and she couldn’t be any more afraid. But even with all that horror creeping up her throat, smothering her, the scientist’s mind still worked, and it marveled at the graceful beat of the shark’s tail, at the sweep of its head, the marvelous design of a predator.

The tide brought evidence of the wreck. Doctor Herret’s logbook came tumbling along the sea floor amid a forest of shattered timber, much of it scorched. Pages of the journal waved and fluttered, animated by the current. One of her own petticoats drifted by, ballooned out, floating with suspended grace in the attitude of a jellyfish.

The sun sank, and the surface glowed gold. The water grew dark. Then darker. The moon rose, and in the silver gloom a fleet of shadows appeared. Reef sharks cruised in lazy circles, all sharp angles and fluid turns. Hundreds of little fish darted about, feeding, preyed upon in turn by dozens of larger fish. An eagle ray flew in from the drop off, its wings lifting and falling like a perfect bird as it slipped through the scene.

At last Abigail closed her eyes, empty after the rush of adrenaline, and she dreamed that she floated up to the moon, swimming all the way out to the stars.

 

She woke to a face. Disoriented, she prepared to demand what the crewman thought he was doing above her bunk, but then she felt the cog digging into her ankle and saw the glass fogging ever so slightly with her breath. No ship. Only the pod, the glass, and the ocean.

There were no men in the ocean. She ground the sleeping sand from eyes and looked again.

There was a man in the ocean. But he was not a man. A man should not have four gills in place of nostrils, or skin the color of turquoise and algae.

Science and self preservation warred. Should she sketch or scream?

The face above blinked with sheer, lateral eyelids, and the creature drove a rough spear directly towards her face.

Abigail didn’t choose to scream, but she did anyway. The spear barely scratched the glass, and the creature rebounded. It swam back in a loop to press a wide webbed hand against the viewport – three fingers and an opposable thumb.

She was baffled. Mortified. Fish did not look like men. Fish did not have opposable thumbs. Fish weren’t meant to have thumbs at all. And fish certainly did not use weapons.

This one not only had the thumbs, but the face and arms of a man. And yet its body terminated in a tail. Even the tail was wrong. Where dolphins and whales had horizontal flukes, with two joined fins, this impossibility was gifted with a third fin, which rose between its horizontal brethren like sail.

She staunchly refused to call the creature a mermaid.

She didn’t quite mean to, but she screamed again. Startled, the creature sprang back from the glass, and this time he swam away, out of sight behind the roof of the Oyster.

Abigail took the opportunity to try the hatch. The crawl hurt as badly as it had the first time, and she hissed as a sliver of broken glass from a pressure gauge nicked her palm. Panic threatened. It had ridden up with the scream, and it refused to be stuffed back down. Abigail’s hands shook as she grabbed the handle. How much time did she have? Was the creature really gone? What about the sharks? Should she stop to remove her petticoats before she unsealed the hatch? No. She had to get out of the cage. All it should take was a few good turns, and she could breathe free air again. She gave the handle a good yank. It didn’t move. Resistance was to be expected, but she couldn’t force the wheel to turn at all. Maybe it was the angle. Ignoring the pain in her shins, she writhed around to find better leverage. She tried again with no success. And again. She screamed and fought with the thing, all too aware of the weakness of her flesh.

The door’s emergency opening mechanism must have been twisted in the fall. Each gasp of air became precious. How many were left?

Her nails broke against the brass handle, and her palms bruised. The most important tools of her trade – her hands – and she was treating them like a shipbuilder’s wrench. A narrow cut severed what palm readers would call her life line.

           

She was thinking about the creature when he reappeared. This time, he approached the pod cautiously, spending an hour circling before he decided it safe to approach. Abigail sat ready for him. She’d tried the hatch again, but it was well and truly stuck. Though the Oyster had held up amazingly well during the wreck, the door would never open again. Either the mechanism had been warped by a strike against the corral, or it was simply wedged against the rock which had halted the Oyster’s first and final run. Or, no matter how much adrenaline coursed through her system, Abigail simply wasn’t a match for the water pressure. Regardless, the Oyster had her trapped. She had not resigned herself to defeat, but the panic had faded to a scalding simmer in the back of her thoughts, leaving more than enough room for questions and curiosity.

She sat on the back of the throne, her sketch book balanced on her knees as she studied the mystery into which she’d fallen. The creature’s fins and eyes took up page after page of notes. She dedicated an entire sheet to capturing the texture of his mottled skin.

Comfortable at last, the creature began investigating the glass he’d struck the day before, going over it with broad sweeps of his strange hands, analyzing the barrier.

He was just human enough Abigail  had to struggle not to think of him as such. His features compelled an instinctive kinship, but logic told her he was simply another obstacle between her and the shore. Even if he did not willfully attack her – either as prey or competitor – a few playful dunks would kill her just as surely as an intentional assault. He may see her as she saw him – a distant relative, a potential friend or playmate. One innocent assumption, that she breathed as he did, and he would be the end of her.

Abigail couldn’t tell if she imagined the attention of sentience in the creature’s face. Did she presume to see advanced intelligence because of its humanoid shape, or was it the same as all other creatures, and in her human arrogance she only dared to consider the possibility of a soul because of the creature’s startling resemblance to her own species?

Did this aberration spring from a civilization or a pod of mindless carnivores?

What criteria might she use to even define a submarine “civilization”?

She rose closer and closer to the viewport. Her breath fogged on the glass, and an idea struck her. She huffed a few more pants until the portal was well clouded. As the creature watched, she drew a simple star on the pane. The creature swam up to the glass and pressed a webbed finger at the edge of her pattern. It squeaked as he drew it along, and he blinked, baffled when it left no mark. Abigail laughed, and the creature continued his efforts, trying and trying until Abigail wondered if he’d leave a groove in the glass. At last he stopped, wriggling in confusion.

Music soothed the savage beast? What rubbish. Art was the best child of the illuminated mind.

And then she had an idea.

She rapped her nails against the glass, and when her creature looked up, she lifted the sketchbook for him to see. Amid all the fragmented bits of the creature’s anatomy, she had composed a single united image. He appeared, frozen on paper, mid-stroke.

His eyes bulged, and he pressed his face to the portal, hands spread flat. His nostril gills squashed against the glass like a sample between a cover and a slide. Pumping his fluke, the creature stayed fixed there, looking at himself. Then, abruptly, he pulled away, casting a bewildered glance at the pod. He looked away and swam a quick lap around the nearest tower of corral, returning only to look with greater perplexity at the viewing window. Another lap, and he pressed himself once more to the glass.

Abigail lowered the sketch to her lap. Did he think it was one of his own? A child, perhaps? Did he expect it to follow him? Perhaps not. Maybe this was a man pacing the room, a simple aerobic action meant to calm the nerves and stimulate thought. And there she went, trying to make him human again.

Still, she didn’t believe such a link farfetched. The creature resembled a hominid too closely to be of no relation. Precious few creatures possessed opposable thumbs. That alone was basis for her presumptions.

The creature stroked the glass, and Abigail sat back to think. Perhaps the creature had never seen a human before, at least not a live one. From below, a boat was nothing but a tapered shadow. Unless he came very near to shore, what interaction might he have had with mankind? Dead sailors from a shipwreck? A woman in a glass case was entirely different from a drowned man’s bloated corpse. If he seemed strange to her, she reasoned, she must seem impossible to him. He wasn’t human, true, but he was more intelligent than any fish. His investigations of the pod showed thought and consideration. He wielded a weapon – a tool more advanced than any mindless animal would think to use, let alone build.

He seemed as intrigued by her as she was by him. As she studied the sweeps of his tri-finned tail, he pressed close to the glass, watching the way she moved: so quickly but with so little grace. Water turned everything to ballet. An air-bound bi-pedal creature such as she must seem incredibly clumsy.

The  roiling diamonds at the bottom of the sea faded as dusk approached, and the creature left, swimming in the direction of the drop off. Abigail curled up to sleep and felt the first strain of a headache stretching over her mind.

 

 

Abigail’s parents sent her away from the city the summer she turned fifteen. They meant for her to pass the season with her grandmother on the coast of Maine. Abigail decided she hated Maine before the train even left New York. Her grandmother’s home was remote, with too many trees and too few books, she was sure. She found the train stuffy, and all the mothers passed the hours combing ticks from their children’s hair. It would be terrible, this banishment, and she would suffer every tick-ridden moment of it.

But the sea spread wide from the foot of her grandmother’s hill, and the salty breeze rushed fresh life into her lungs.

Perhaps her fate was not so tragic as all that.

The sea did not wake a fire in her soul. It simply washed away all other ambitions. Its mysteries became her prime care and concern. The seals, with their disdain for the border between elements enthralled her, and during the short nights, her grandmother surrendered tales of the old country, of the selkie women. Faerie creatures of the sea, a selkie might shed her seal skin and walk about on land as a human. To return to her life as a seal, she need only don the skin. A magical explanation for a scientific fact. Some industrious fisherman always caught himself a selkie wife in the stories, stealing her skin and forcing her apart from the sea. Abigail had always seen the stories as she saw her grandmother – antiquated, practical, and bitterly sad in the face of lost opportunities.

But as Abigail watched an octopus explored the Oyster’s viewport, she felt no derision for her grandmother’s stories, only empathy for the folk bound to an alien world.

The cephalopod made itself comfortable in the top right corner of the window. Abigail filled several pages with its undulating tentacles, rippling and curling with suckers clustered like soft round blossoms along its dusky flesh. The bizarre animal served as a practical reminder that reality was not simple, that it was diverse, and strange, and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility for gilled creatures with sapient attributes to live among the reefs of the Caribbean.  It also served as a good distraction from the sharks.

She feared for her creature as if he were human. Drawn to the disturbance of the wreck, reef sharks and hammerheads still prowled constantly in the distance. Sometimes, that distance was not so distant. They bumped her pod more than once, investigating, nibbling at protruding cogs and bolts. The creature chased them away, harmless as they were, and Abigail feared not for herself, but for the one on the other side of the glass. The teeth snapped nearer him, and he had no qualms swatting them away with the long spear he carried. In a man, such courage would border on insanity. But he was not a man. She must remember that.

The creature proved clearly territorial. He had claimed her pod as his to investigate, and no curious passersby were welcome.  After a shark slapped the glass with his tail, the merman prodded it in the gills with his spear and pressed his hand against the window. He flicked his own tail against the pod as he swam around, testing the intruder, Abigail knew, but also staking a claim, making a public show of investigating his property.

He didn’t seem to mind the octopus. Or, at least, he didn’t chase it off. Abigail wondered if his passivity came from the octopus’s lack of teeth, or Abigail’s interest in it.

Her attention drifted; she turned to a fresh page in her notebook, and the octopus disappeared from her thoughts. Webbed hands and dappled skin grew to life in flat shades of grey. Abigail looked out at her subject, who had taken to teasing the octopus with the end of his spear.

Would this strange face be the last she ever saw? Inside the pod she was perfectly safe and certainly dead. Outside, well, there were sharks and furious tides, stingrays, strangers and mermen. There. She’d said it. Or thought it. Her great discovery, and she could finally acknowledge him for what he was. What a shame she couldn’t share him.

She began to cry, and before she could stop herself she was gagging on sobs. The merman discarded the octopus and approached the glass. He thrashed, performing the wide loops Abigail understood as signs of alarm or frustration. Two quick lashes of his tail took him away and brought him back, and he gave the portal a solid smack with his fluke. In all her years studying marine animals’ behavior, she’d never come across anything that even remotely resembled her merman. Perhaps he behaved as a dolphin? So could she translate the smack as an act of aggression? Or was it simply his only means of communication? Was he trying to speak with her?

Fancy confused itself with fact.

How many pretty dreams had she mistaken for logical conclusions? She calculated her assumptions as she wilted back into her seat. Her patience depended on the hope of rescue. The placid restraint she showed in the face of her entrapment grew from the understanding that she was too weak to change her surroundings. Flesh couldn’t best metal. Too small. Too weak. Too young. Too American.

Her head hurt terribly.

Outside, night was descending, and the merman had disappeared. The daytime reef dwellers retreated into their coral caves and beds of sand, clearing the way for the evening tenants.

Was there anything left of the Majesty’s brave crew? She was responsible. The engine must have had a fault, one they would have found if they had taken the entire day to run the necessary checks instead of rushing to dive before nightfall.

She would have to live with that.

A rescue ship would come; she knew it.

She just had to watch.

 

Human instinct said anything that moved was alive. That was why, after thousands of years, humans still jumped at their own shadows.

The sea was always moving.

Abigail didn’t have the strength to try breaching the hull again, and she sat still, watching the golden morning light seep through the blue water as the reef began to stir. She thought it a pity her thoughts were so loose. They’d broken free some time during the night and they refused to come to order in her waking mind. A passing idea suggested it was because of the air. The rebreather must be failing. When had it failed? Wait. Had it failed already? She couldn’t think.  Her clever fingers found the peeling spine of her notebook, and she clutched the weathered book to her chest as a child would cuddle a stuffed bear.

Was it really morning already?

Her merman would be there soon. He wouldn’t abandon her here, at the bottom of the ocean. It was such a shame there were no seals.

Her head hurt too much to stay awake. She lied down on her throne and closed her eyes. She was asleep in moments. She didn’t even know when she died.

 

The jellyfish woman was dead.

He pressed close to the glass and saw the terrible color she’d turned, noted how still she was, and knew she wasn’t respiring. He couldn’t quite understand it. She was safe inside her quartz bubble. But she was certainly not breathing. The rock in his hand weighed heavy. He’d brought it to tether his nets deeper in the reef, but now the tool was turned to a new purpose.

After his startled assault on the bubble when he first found it in his territory, he hadn’t tried to break through to the creature within, the creature he knew must be from above, the world beyond his. He hadn’t believed she was real until he returned and found her there again. Legend said she couldn’t survive in his world. That was why creatures from above never stayed long, maybe long enough for one of the Folk to see them, but then they’d break through the border and disappear into one of the hard shadows.

One breath would kill her, which was why, even in this strange exile, she’d been sent with a bit of her world to protect her.

But it hadn’t protected her. Something was wrong, and it was time to take more drastic action. He lifted the stone and brought it down hard on the transparent bubble. Over. Over. Over. Again. It was very strong. He was strong as well; he was also patient. After many strikes, the bubble shattered.

He retreated as suffocating billows of air poured out, entering when there was enough water to breathe. The creature from above bobbed in the water; her long jelly-fish fins ballooned about her. He took her around the middle, where he was certain she had no gills, and made for the edge of the world. Cradling her head, he lifted her face above the border. He held her so for a long time, but she had taken in too much of the world, and it had killed her. The stories were true. But she died before he broke through her shelter. He knew she had. What had killed her, then? Had she died of a broken heart, too saddened by her banishment below to endure? It hurt to imagine.

Cradling her in his arms, mindful of her ensnaring fins that flared around them, he took her past the drop off.  He left her thoughts as she’d left them, turning idly in the tide, slowly falling to pulp as little creatures came to nibble at the corners.

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