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|This story is a work in progress.|
|Constructive criticism and in-depth critiques are welcome|
"Is this the charter boat to Thalassinia?"
Must be my last passenger, Mark thought as he turned around toward the pier. And froze in surprise when he saw her. Rolling up in an old-fashioned unpowered wheelchair was a mermaid. Her heard a gasp from one of his other passengers—probably the little girl.
She was sitting with her tail curved around so that it went underneath her and up her behind her back, with her caudal fin spread out behind her shoulders like a peacock's tail. It made for a pretty striking sight.
"I should have guessed when you mentioned the wheelchair," he said, trying to recover some aplomb. He hopped back up from the Half Moon's deck to the pier.
"Not many paraplegics left in the age of biotech," she agreed as she rolled up to him. She locked the wheels on her chair and held up a webbed hand. "Judi Mrozinski."
He shook it. "Mark Wheeler. Nice to meet you. Need a hand getting aboard?"
"Please. I'm not very mobile on land."
He had to pick her up, and he gave a silent thank-you to those muscle grafts he'd picked up a few years back. She put her arms around his neck to hold on, and he tried not to blush. Thankfully she was wearing clothes—a ruffled skirt that would have been knee-length on a human, and a t-shirt that said "Jersey Girl—you wanna make somethin' of it?"
She was attractive—well, everybody was attractive these days, but she'd managed to find a more original face, distinct from the "off-the-shelf" prettiness most people chose. He got her settled in one of the seats built into the rear deck, then went back for the wheelchair. It folded up easily after he removed a totebag—apparently her only luggage—that was hanging from the handlebars.
When he turned back around, he saw she'd stretched her tail out to its full length. It was easily five feet, maybe closer to six, tapering to a very narrow peduncle, then flaring out into a deeply forked caudal fin. Probably a carbon fiber monofin implanted in there too, he thought. With more than half a century as a boater and fisherman, Mark knew something about fish, and he could tell that Judi had opted for performance over looks. She'll be a rocket in the water.
While Mark drove the boat, Judi was getting to know the other passengers. David and Mindy Curtis and their nine-year-old daughter Lyra, from Iowa. They looked unmodded, although the kid was almost certainly genefixed given her age.
Lyra very much wanted to be a mermaid when she grew up. "That's why we're making this trip," David was saying. "When she didn't give it up after a couple years, we figured it wasn't just another phase she was going through. So we thought we'd visit Thalassinia and see what it's really like, and if she really wants to do this."
"Can I touch your tail?" Lyra asked.
"Sure, honey," Judi replied with a smile. She lifted her tail off the deck so it was easier to reach. Lyra tentatively ran her fingers along the frilly edge of the caudal fin.
"So howcum you're taking a boat with us?" she asked. "Couldn't you just swim to Thalassinia?"
"Sure I could," Judi answered, "but it would take a long time and be very tiring. You have legs—would you walk from Miami to Fort Myers instead of taking the maglev?"
"Oh, right, duh."
"Going home after vising the mainland, huh?" David said.
"No, actually I'm from Fort Jefferson. I'm in town visiting my parents—they're at Jackson Memorial getting de-aged. Unfortunately there's nowhere to stay in Miami, not that caters to mers. I found an apartment in the Thal, and I'll be staying there for the duration."
"So what do you do for a living?" Mindy asked. Then she blushed. "Sorry. Old habits die hard."
Judi laughed. "I know what you mean. But actually I do have a job, albeit a very part-time one: I'm a physical therapist. Mostly I teach new mers how to breathe underwater."
Lyra, who'd been running her hands over Judi's scales, looked up at that. "Is it very hard?" she asked, obviously interested.
"Not really. Most people get the hang of it very quickly. But there's a lot to remember, about how deep you can go, and how fast you can ascend without getting the bends...things like that."
"Mers can get the bends?" David asked.
Judi nodded. "Yeah. We have some adaptions that unmodded humans don't, but even whales get the bends." She turned back to Lyra. "If you're serious about becoming a mer, well, obviously they won't let you have the surgery till you're sixteen, but in the meantime you could take scuba lessons. They'll teach you a lot of same stuff you need to know."
Seeing the parents exchanging a concerned look, Judi hastened to reassure them. "It's not that bad, really. We're shallow-water fish, most of the time. Mers seldom go down past 60 feet or so, and we've all got diving table apps loaded in our phones. If you need to decompress, your headware will tell you."
"You have phones underwater?" Mindy asked.
Lyra rolled her eyes. "Duh, Mom, of course they do," she said, making that "grownups are dumb" expression kids were so good at. "Where do you think all those videos I watch come from?"
Judi smiled. "If living underwater meant giving up the internet, there'd be a lot fewer mers. You start dropping connectivity past ten fathoms, but I seldom go that deep anyway." She tilted her head and pulled her hair back, to show the waterproofed mUSB port behind her ear. "I've got a Tsutano Aqua, myself. Had it implanted last year."
After giving them a good look, she sat up and let her hair fall. "Don't get me wrong, I love cruising the reef. It's beautiful down there. But you can only spend so much time admiring the scenery. Mostly I'm spending my time the same as everybody else."
"Can I see your gills?" Lyra asked. She made the most adorable puppy eyes. "Pleeeeease?"
"Sure." Judi pulled her shirt off and bent over. "There's not really much to see, though; they only really open up in the water. No, down here honey—below the shoulder blades. See how they follow the ribs?"
"Coooool," Lyra said, running a finger along one seam. "They look like shark gills."
"Actually they're modeled after manta rays'," Judi said. "But you're right, sharks aren't that much different. Closer to them than a regular fish's, anyway."
"Your skin's really cold."
"Of course. You know we're cold-blooded, right? We have to be, there's not enough oxygen in the water to fuel a warm-blooded metabolism."
"Yeah, I read that online," Lyra said, "but I guess I never really thought about it. Is it...different?"
"It's just fine when I'm in the water, as long as I don't go too deep. I prefer it, actually—back when I was a biped it always seemed like my apartment was either too hot or too cold. Now I never have to fuss with a thermostat. But it makes visiting land difficult. Extreme temperatures won't kill me, but anything below 70 or over 95 is really uncomfortable. So's any air-conditioned building."
"Which is pretty much every building in Florida," David said drily.
"Yeah. Visiting my parents in the hospital was...pretty tough. Two sweaters, a giant tail-sock and a tailfin-cozy, and my teeth were still chattering. Thank god the sushi bar near the hospital had an outdoor patio."
"Is there anything you miss?" Mindy asked. Her eyes flicked to Lyra, who had moved on from her gills and was now exploring her dorsal fin. She wants to give the kid as much information as possible about her decision, Judi figured. Especially the downsides. Not that Judi minded; she'd figured as much from the beginning, which was why she'd put up with all the questioning.
After thinking it over for a minute, she said, "Ice cream. And a lot of the other land foods we can't have, but ice cream most of all."
"You can't visit land and have them?" Lyra asked.
"Some of them, sometimes," Judi replied, "and when we get to Thalassinia you'll see we've got restaurants, and a wide variety of food, just like you have on shore. But not ice cream. It was already really fattening back when I was warm-blooded; now it's like fifteen times worse." She sighed. "Same goes for anything else that has a lot of calories. When I think of some of the epic chocolate binges I had back in the day...they'd probably kill me now."
Up above them in the pilot house, Mark signed off from his radio exchange with Thalassinian harbor control and turned the boat over to google with a sigh. It was old-fashioned of him, he knew, but he preferred to drive rather than letting the boat pilot itself. That wasn't allowed in the harbor, though.
Thalassinia was named after a fictional mer kingdom in some old children's novel—or so Mark had heard. Located in the same place, too, at the outer end of the so-called "Bimini Road" off the Bahamas. It was the newest and smallest of the three mer colonies in North America, but it was also the most tourist-friendly, which was probably why the Curtises were going here instead of, say, Fort Jefferson.
Thalassinia's harbor was actually outside the town proper, and powered boats weren't allowed inside—the locals understandably didn't want to get run over while they were swimming about. The harbor itself was just a circular platform surrounded by a breakwater, with docks radiating out from it like the spokes of a wheel, and a small terminal at the hub that housed the harbor control and a departure lounge. A central trunk ran down to the sea floor—less than thirty feet down, here—where air-breathing tourists boarded a monorail that took them to the town, running through a clear tunnel on the sea floor.
The Half Moon was slowly cruising around the harbor. As usual there wasn't an open berth—the Thalassinians had really underestimated the amount of tourist traffic when they designed the place. He turned around to tell his passengers there'd be a delay in docking, and froze, going beet red with embarrassment. Judi had lost the shirt sometime during the trip, and was now getting rid of the skirt as well, stuffing them both in the canvas totebag from earlier. Contrary to all the old jokes about "the mermaid problem", her...ah...equipment...was plainly visible. As he'd heard, it looked pretty much like a dolphin's.
She didn't seem the slightest bit uncomfortable letting it all hang out, and neither did the Curtises. Times like this, he felt every one of his 64 years. Modern medicine could rewind his biological clock back to 25—or earlier, if he'd chosen—but it couldn't help him acclimate to all the cultural changes.
Doing his best to put all that out of his mind, he cleared his throat and called down, "folks, it looks like there's gonna be a delay docking. Harbor control says it'll probably be 15-20 minutes."
"How come your face is so red?" Lyra asked innocently.
God...bless...little girls and their unique combination of perceptiveness and no tact, Mark thought. As soon as she'd spoken, all three of the adults had looked sharply at him, then started smirking. "Uh...just a bit of sun," he said lamely. He knew he wasn't fooling anyone except the kid, and probably not even her.
And of course, being a kid, she didn't see any reason not to say so. "It's not that hot today," she said. "If it was, Judi'd be in trouble." She turned to Judi, who was trying not to laugh. "Right?"
Finally, Mindy came to his rescue. "Lyra, hon, is there anything else you want to ask Judi before we dock?" She too was trying to control herself. "I assume you're not taking the monorail with us," she added to Judi.
The mer nodded. "As soon as I can get a dock robot to take care of my wheelchair, I'm going over the side. I've been out of the water since early morning; my gills are starting to itch."
"I could take care of it for you," Mark offered.
"That eager to get rid of me, huh?" she teased.
"No! I mean—uh, it's fine, I just...I mean...." He trailed off, flustered. She was leaning back in her seat to look up at him, and he was obviously looking everwhere except straight down.
"Wow, Mark," she said, "I got the impression you were a bit old-fashioned, but...don't you run a charter out here, like, two or three times a week? Don't you see mers all the time?"
"Not out of the water," he said. "Heck, you hardly see them out here in the harbor at all."
"I see. Well, I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. If you'll have a bot take care of my things, I'll get out of your hair."
"No, I—" but she was already gone, disappearing over the side with a splash.
Lyra's "grownups are so dumb" expression was back.
Judi flew through the water, swimming with powerful, angry strokes of her tail. The last bubbles of air blew out of her lungs, and she switched the valve in her trachea and started breathing water. As the sea began flowing through her parched gills, it soothed away an ache she hadn't realized was there.
It didn't take her more than a minute to find the monorail tunnel and oriented herself. That's also how long it took her to cool down and start feeling guilty. So Mark was a bit of a fuddy-duddy. So what? It hadn't been an attack on her.
She swam through a shoal of damselfish and startled a bonnethead. The little shark took one look at her and skedaddled. That's right buddy, keep walkin'. You know who the bigger fish is.
And now she was snapping at sharks. This was getting ridiculous.
She owed Mark an apology, that was clear. Fortunately in this day and age that was an easy thing to take care of. Pulling up his website—the same one she'd originally booked passage through—she found the little "contact us" link at the bottom and started mentally composing an email.
- I apologize for flying off the handle like I did. I overreacted,
- and I'm sorry. I'll be heading back to the mainland on Tuesday,
- and I'd be happy to hire your charter again.
- I'll keep my shirt on. Promise. ^_^
She hit SEND, feeling much better.
Thalassinia was below her now, and she dove down for a closer look. The town consisted of concentric rings of houses radiating out from a huge central building—the famed Coral Palace. As the name implied, it was styled up to look like a castle made of coral. The outlying buildings were also designed to look like organic structures.
It all looked like something out of The Little Mermaid, a storybook Disney idea of an underwater fairyland. To Judi, who lived on an actual coral reef, the result was somewhat gauche. But real corals and barnacles were already colonizing the structures. Another generation or two, and this place would be just as much a living reef as her home.
There was a waypoint on her phone's augmented reality display, highlighting her new apartment, but she ignored it for the moment. She wanted to check out the Palace.
She'd seen pictures and videos of it, of course. The Coral Palace boasted of being the first building designed to create "a shared social space" for mers and air-breathers. The three upper towers were completely dry; they contained hotel rooms for the bipeds and weren't much different from any landside hotel, albeit one decorated in a coral-castle motif.
But its real claim to fame was the Promenade, a gigantic half-flooded mall where mers and air-breathers could intermingle. Depth varied, but most of the shops, restaurants, and parks were around three feet deep. Waist-high on a biped, and just deep enough for a mer to sit with their head above water. Judi had read several accounts of the place; she was looking forward to experiencing it for herself.
The price of becoming a mer was a certain isolation from the surface world. As Judi had found out firsthand, there were a lot of challenges facing a mer who went back to land. Most mers didn't bother, especially when modern social media made it trivially easy to stay in touch from a distance. But despite her hippie naturalism, Judi was an old fuddy-duddy herself, in her own way. Augmented reality may have come a long way since the first smartphones, but it still wasn't the same as physically being there.
Judi missed her old friends, the ones she'd been close to before going to the sea. Not to mention her parents—she'd been very close with them, before they went into suspension. A few more days and they'd be waking up, for the first time in over a decade. A phone call just wouldn't do.
But she couldn't visit them either, not very often. Being out of the water was just too much of an ordeal. She'd lied to the Curtises, a bit—extreme temperatures would kill her, if she was stupid enough to stay out in them long enough. And a typical summer day in Florida counted as "extreme" by her standards. The hospital and the rest of her family had been willing to accommodate her, scheduling her parents' treatment for early spring, but in a few more weeks she'd be unable to go ashore at all.
So a place like the Promenade, where her friends and family could come to her, and they could spend time together without killing her or making her miserable—that was something Judi was very much interested in.
There had been attempts at creating warm-blooded mers, of course. And biotech firms continued to make progress on some of the engineering challenges—just last fall Pelagia had announced a new subdermal nanofilm that insulated as well as blubber, without adding more than a few nanometers of bulk.
The real killer was endurance. A warm-blooded mer had to be an air-breather—as she'd told Lyra, there just wasn't enough oxygen in the water. And even with cetacean myoglobin, military-grade hyperlungs—including a big third one in the tail—and every other possible genemod the boffins could cram in, a warm-blooded mer could only stay under for an hour and a half. That was still an impressive feat of engineering, considering that nature's champion diver, the sperm whale, had an endurance of only 45 minutes even with trolley-sized lungs.
But for the kind of person who wanted to become a mer, 90 minutes didn't cut it. Not even close.