PREFACE: I know, I know… I said my next story would be “The traveler of a thousand worlds.” However, that one has been giving me grief! I am not sure how much longer it will take to finish it off, but I doubt it’ll be done before the end of the month. So, in the meantime, I decided to release this little story about mermaids… because, as Patricia Josephine recently told me: “you can’t go wrong with mermaids.” Ha! Hope you enjoy it.
All it takes is one second to change everything. One second between life and death. One second to make the right decision...
Had I made the right one?
There was no time to second-guess myself.
The ship was racing toward the surface of the planet when the AI’s voice resonated through the cockpit.
“No landmasses detected.”
And yet, the sensors could not lie. Plus, I could see it with my own eyes.
It was all water. Everywhere. All over the planet.
Blue, green, with yellow hues in some spots.
“Where are we going to land?” asked Cornell—worry dripping from his voice.
I did not look at the historian—who sat behind me—as my attention was required elsewhere.
His question was a fair one, though, and one that likely was on my co-pilot’s mind as well.
The damage sustained by the impact had made the ship’s hull too unstable to risk pursuing our journey without repairs. Then again, acceleration through the planet’s atmosphere could just as well make us explode... but we’d have to land at some point—and since we couldn’t inspect the craft while in space, I had made a gamble.
But if we survived this, then what?
In theory, the ship should be able to float. I’d heard of others pulling it off. Though, of course, it had been under less strenuous circumstances.
“We’ll just have to make do with what we have, won’t we?”
I ignored Cornell’s rising panic and gave Royce instructions to bring us down as softly as possible.
He pointed at the weather sensors.
“Have you seen that?”
It was dark; it was turbulent.
I looked through the window, and noticed lightning and the black clouds we had just come out of. The water underneath, wherever visible, was agitated.
“Damn,” I muttered.
“We can’t land here!” cried Cornell.
“Nor can we stay in the air,” I snapped. “We’re going down, whether we like it or not. So I suggest you hold on tight, cause things are about to get rough.”
The closer we came to the surface, the more ominous our odds looked.
Wind patterns were off the charts. Rain was battering the sea. Fifty feet waves kept rising and crashing within a few seconds.
I could feel the ship shaking under my hands as I took us lower.
We brought the tip up before we hit the water. After skimming the surface a moment, we finally settled.
For a few seconds, everything was fine.
Then a gigantic wave rushed toward us. As it crashed down, the ship was thrust into the depths.
“We’re gonna die!”
“Don’t be silly,” I grumbled. “If our ship can withstand space, it can withstand this. In fact, chances are we’ll be safer below than at the surface.”
“How will we get back up?”
“Let’s fix the ship first and worry about that later.”
Our craft continued to sink until we finally reached the ocean floor.
It was dark and quiet there.
We spent the next two hours working on the hull. Our space suits worked just as well in the water, though it was an odd feeling.
Our passenger stayed within. I did not like leaving him alone—though he had simmered down somewhat—but he would have hindered us more than helped. He knew nothing of the ship, after all.
We had agreed to take him to Rimzana for a conference he was to attend there—not something we usually do, but the pay was good and we needed the cash.
Then we hit the meteor storm. Just my luck.
After a fair amount of welding, we returned inside.
Cornell was sitting where we’d left him, staring through the window at the alien fishes that swam by.
“I was expecting to see stars, not... this.”
“Life is full of surprises,” chuckled Royce.
“How can you joke when we’re stuck here?”
“Worry and panic are less likely to help us than a clear and relaxed mind,” I remarked.
My words seemed to have a calming effect on him.
He took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right, of course. Is there anything I can do to help?”
I asked him to watch a display as we turned the engine back on... or tried.
The entire structure vibrated and made odd sounds, but it petered out.
“Could some water have gotten in?” asked Cornell.
“Doubtful. More likely the shock when we got hit by the meteors damaged more than the exterior.”
I glanced at Royce. He was staring at a sensor with an odd expression on his face.
“What is it?”
He pointed at the screen in front of him. I walked to his station and looked over his shoulder.
There was something out there. Something large that emanated a vast amount of energy.
I frowned. “I thought you said there was no life on this world?”
“There isn’t... aside from some fish... nothing anyway that could explain this.”
Cornell had approached and was also examining the display with curiosity.
“Maybe it’s from some ancient civilization?”
“It’s emanating too much energy for this to only be ruins,” remarked Royce. There’s activity here.”
We were on the outer rim of the galaxy, an unknown world that had never been explored or even listed in any of the official databases. If humans had never been here before, then this could be a momentous discovery...
I sat at my station and typed on the keyboard, starting up a sequence.
“Alright, let’s find out what’s out there.”
“What are you doing?” asked Cornell.
With one last stroke, I deployed the probe. It, too, was made for space rather than underwater exploration, but it set out—albeit awkwardly—and floated away toward the energy source.
We all watched quietly as it grew smaller until it disappeared in the distance.
Royce tapped on the console and the window became a screen, showing us what the probe’s camera was recording.
It took over ten minutes to reach the place. We could see light growing as it approached, almost as bright as the sun.
As it got nearer, shapes within the light started to form. Structures. Towers that glistened in greenish-brown hues. Empty streets paved with oyster shells. Gardens made of strange, large seaweeds. Triangular buildings with sharp and unusual angles.
We stared quietly as the pictures became clearer, larger, and more stunning.
The sheer size of it all suddenly struck me. The smallest of those structures would be at least two hundred feet tall.
Another thing I noticed was that there was technology here. The artificial light was a clear sign of this, but there were moving objects on the ground and in the water—vehicles, perhaps?
I glanced at Royce. “Signs of life?”
He pulled his eyes away from the screen to examine the sensors. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I mean... if we hadn’t seen what we’re seeing, I’d have said it was just fish. But now...”
“A lot of fish?”
“Not really. Fewer, in fact, than around us right now. Maybe a dozen spread across five hundred square miles.”
That was ridiculously low for what looked like a gigantic underwater city.
Could it really just be fish?
Was it a dead city?
Only one way to find out.
I jumped out of my seat.
“Alright, guys. Suit up. We’re going to explore.”
The historian blinked. “What? Me too?”
“You’d rather stay here alone?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Alright, then let’s go.”
Royce and I headed toward the back. Cornell followed anxiously.
“What about the ship?” he asked.
“We’re stuck,” I reminded him. “We could spend the next few hours trying to understand what is broken... or we can see what’s out there and maybe find some help. Or, barring that, tools that can make our work easier.”
To be there in person, to stand in those streets, to contemplate the art and architecture of some mysterious, possibly long-dead civilization, was a wondrous experience.
Not long dead, I chided myself. That was not possible. Not when all of this seemed so alive.
I watched as a cylindrical object the size of a man came flying. It hovered above us for a moment, then turned east and sped away.
“No life in it,” whispered Royce as he examined the data on his tasker.
Could it be that everything here was automated? Were there only robots and AIs left?
“Do you have coordinates for those life signs you picked up earlier?” I asked.
“I do. The closest one should be...” He glanced up from the device and looked around. “In that direction.”
He started down a road, and we followed him.
Cornell was possibly the most affected by the experience. He seemed completely entranced by the spectacle around us. I figured this must have been like a dream come true for one of his profession.
After a few minutes of wandering, Royce lifted a hand and we paused. He remained quiet for a moment, then looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“It’s coming toward us.”
My heart beat faster.
“How much further is it?”
“Well, it’s...” He looked back at his tasker and blinked. “What the—”
His head jerked up, and he squinted.
“It’s moving fast,” he said. “It should be here any second now...”
Instinctively, my hand went to my weapon, but I did not draw it.
A shape appeared in the distance. It quickly grew larger, revealing another of those cylindrical objects. It, too, hovered above us. But instead of speeding away, it stopped and came down to rest next to us.
The top slid aside, and a creature of stunning beauty floated out.
Its naked torso was that of a human woman, but from the waist down she was a fish—with scales, fins, and a tale. Her hair was green, long, and floated prettily around her. Her eyes were blue, deep, curious.
She blinked as she looked at each of us. Smiled. Then, she opened her mouth.
Her voice was like music to my ears. It was soft, sorrowful, and enchanting. But the words themselves were incomprehensible.
And yet, there was something familiar in the way they sounded.
I drew my gaze away, and toward my two companions.
“Do any of you understand what she is saying?”
“She can breathe underwater,” said Cornell in awe.
“Who is she?” mused Royce, looking just as mesmerized.
I glanced back at her.
Her large, wide eyes locked with mine. I felt peaceful, at that moment, as if nothing else in the world mattered but this very instant.
Before I knew it, other cylindrical objects stopped around us and more of the lovely creatures came out. They pressed around us, reaching out with their hands to touch our suits. Did they think they were our skins?
There were some males among them, I realized. They shared the same beauty and longing expressions as their female counterparts.
One of them motioned for us to follow, and the whole group started swimming down a street.
It was strange to see them move like this, floating above the ground, flapping their tails and waving their hands as if to part the waters before them.
We walked, because what else would we do? It was tempting to try swimming like them, but the suits would have hampered us.
It was not a long walk.
They brought us to one of the towers and led us in.
One of the males hit a switch, and the floor rose. As it did, I noticed that the water level decreased. The movement stopped when it had reached our waists.
“Look!” cried out Cornell as he pointed toward the walls.
There were inscriptions there. Familiar ones. I frowned.
“What is that?”
“Ancient Greek!” said the excited historian.
One of the females tapped on the helmet of my suit and motioned for me to take it off.
We all did so and found that we could breathe here.
Our hosts smiled. They said something, though still we could not understand.
“Are they speaking Greek?” I asked.
“It sounds a lot like it,” said Cornell.
“How is that even possible?” wondered Royce.
One of the women reached for my face and ran her fingers against my cheek. It sent shivers down my spine.
“What does it mean?”
Cornell started tapping on his tasker. “Maybe we can find out,” he muttered.
“I’m asking the ship’s AI to dump all the Ancient Greek glossaries into my tasker and run their speech against them. Maybe it can fill in the gaps and translate what they’re saying.”
The merfolk were all over us, both males and females, touching our skins, our hair, as if we were the most beautiful things they had ever seen.
They talked a lot, too. There was much whispering, compounded by exclamations. They were fascinated, amused, intrigued, hopeful...
I realized then that I had thought of them as merfolk. How insane was that? It was an old myth that I remembered reading as a child. Creatures half-human, half-fish. Just like these were. It did not make any sense, and yet...
“I think I got it,” said Cornell as he tapped on his device’s mini-screen.
He looked up at the woman closest to him and held up the tasker.
Her voice went into it and came back out in a more mechanical tone.
“... look just like the legends...”
Silence suddenly filled the room. The creatures backed away, startled.
“It’s alright,” said the historian into the device. His voice came out translated. “This is just a machine to help us communicate with you.”
The merfolk remained quiet for a moment, then laughed and started chattering noisily again.
It was chaotic, so that we could not make heads or tails of what they were saying.
I lifted a hand and called out.
“Please! We won’t get anywhere like this. Is there one among you who can speak for all?”
One of the women—the one who had first come to us—slid toward me and smiled.
“I am Nesaea,” she said. “You are humans?”
It was an odd question, I thought.
“Yes, we are. My name is Rick Janner. This is my friend William Royce. And this is Jeremy Cornell, a historian who is traveling with us. Our ship was damaged, and we crashed on your planet a few hours ago...”
“This is not our world,” she said sadly.
They all wistfully shook their heads.
“Okean is our punishment,” said Nesaea.
From within the tower, we were shown the beauties of their prison, but also its harsh realities.
The merfolk had come from Earth, a world where they enjoyed the sun and the company of humans. They would sometimes shift into their likeness to walk upon the lands among them. This, too, they had enjoyed.
But here... there were no humans, there were no lands, and they could not enjoy the sun, for the surface was a constant storm.
“Poseidon is angry with us,” said one of the males—his name was Aegeus.
“Why would you think that?” asked the historian.
“How could we not? What other reason would there be for our presence here? We greatly displeased our god. We all did.”
Nesaea offered us another one of her sad smiles. It made my heart ache.
“There was a cataclysmic event that affected all magical creatures, though the humans noticed it not. We were ripped from our birth world and thrown into these hells, to each our own. We of the sea inherited Okean. It is our fate to die here.”
“I don’t understand... you have an entire world to yourself! And look at all this that you have accomplished... you should be thriving!”
“Our ancestors have done much, it is true,” she conceded. “But that was a long time ago. When hope was still strong in our hearts. We thought our efforts would redeem us in the eyes of our lord. But that hope was dashed after centuries of praying and begging.
“And what are we without the gods to guide us? Our very existence depended on them, but also on the fact that humans believed in us. We lost that as well. And as our hopes began to crumble, our numbers began to dwindle.
“We have not borne children in three hundred years. Our eldest have all passed. There are few of us left. And soon, we too shall be gone.”
“And yet,” said Aegeus, “there is so much for us now to rejoice. For we have seen the faces of humans again.”
“Does that not give you hope?”
“It is too late for that,” said another woman. “But you are a gift from the gods to soften our last days.”
I was at a loss for words.
What could I say to these people?
I had never been a religious person... much less of the Greek persuasion. In fact, I knew very little of their beliefs.
But what I did know was that our presence here had absolutely nothing to do with divine intervention.
We spent the next hours exploring the city with our guides.
They had taken our suits and clothing off, and covered our bodies with a special paste made from local algae that allowed us to breathe underwater. It was a liberating experience.
Later, they swam with us back to the ship. After examining it, they offered to help.
Their technology was highly advanced. Enough so that they easily understood how our craft functioned. This startled me.
“Why stay here? Why not build a ship?”
Aegeus looked just as surprised.
“Why would we do that?”
“To escape your fate?”
He shook his head.
“We cannot escape our god’s wrath. Nor would we want to.”
“Who are we to judge his actions? He is almighty. If he has decided to punish us, then surely we must have deserved it.”
Again, I found myself at a loss for words. How could I sway someone with such deep-seated beliefs that they would sacrifice their own lives to prove them right?
I later asked him if they couldn’t at least find a way to appease the weather. His answer was just as frustrating.
“Without the gods, naught can be done to tame a wild sea.”
Once the repairs were completed, Nesaea came to me. She held a small glowing orb with both her hands. The way she handled it made it seem like it must be either very precious or very fragile—or perhaps both.
“I want you to have this,” she said softly as she held the object up toward me.
“What is it?”
“Everything,” she smiled. “It holds all of our history, all of our knowledge, all of our memories... Our people will soon be dead, but perhaps—with this—we can live on.”
I gently took the orb from her, feeling like I was being gifted something well beyond my understanding.
“I don’t know that we are worthy of this,” I muttered.
What I had initially meant to doubt was my own worth, but then it had occurred to me that humanity as a whole was likely not prepared for something of such value.
Her answer came, as usual, with a sad smile.
“Take it. Examine it. Learn from it. Maybe then humans will remember us. Maybe then, somehow, the gods will deem our sins repaid and bring us back to life. Perhaps this shall be our redemption.”
She leaned to kiss my cheek and whispered in my ear: “Do not mourn for me or my people, Rick Janner. We have lived brightly, and we shall die just as brightly.”
And then she swam away.
They all did.
The ship sped out of the water, through the storm, through the clouds, through the atmosphere, and straight into space.
I glanced back at the screen displaying the blue-green world of Okean.
It was growing smaller by the second.
There was sadness in my heart, but also hope.
If myths such as these creatures had truly existed, then what else was out there?
Impossible no longer meant a thing.
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Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
Final image edited by me.
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