Rodney Freeman hadn’t been in the ocean since he nearly drowned at age seventeen. Still, here he was, his robust middle-aged frame stuffed into a wetsuit and atmospheric diving gear, riding in a matchbox to the bottom of the Pacific.
I should’ve taken that retirement package, he thought as he half-listened to the resident whippersnapper drone on about seals and tethers and oxygen gauges.
“Look, youngblood.” Rodney’s eyes narrowed with impatience. “I spent half my adult life in space, done more spacewalks than anyone else in the history of NASA. I know all about safety suits and oxygen supplies. So why don’t you go swab the deck and let me adjust this damn diving suit in peace?”
The young man disappeared, but not before mumbling, “We’re on a submersible. It doesn’t have a deck.”
The twinge of guilt passed so quickly Rodney barely noticed it.
Two hours later the sub reached the ocean floor. Thirty minutes after that, Rodney took his first step into the deep. He’d been told deep sea walking would be like walking in space, but all he saw were the differences: the wet, the gravity, the pressure, the life.
I should be hunting bass on Lake George, he pined as he stepped through a field of tubeworms. Instead I’m fishing for answers at the bottom of the ocean.
He shook his head. Hindsight was always sharper. When NASA shut down last year, he’d been given two options: take early retirement or sign on with NOAA’s deep sea exploration unit, currently tasked with exploring ocean-based energy sources. Today’s assignment: find a missing hydrothermal vent.
“Your three o-clock, Roddy.” Mila’s voice interrupted Rodney’s pity-party. Sweet Mila. Only a pretty girl could get away with calling him Roddy. “About nine feet. You should see what looks like a black plume of smoke.”
The astronaut-turned-aquanaut maneuvered right. The sweep of his chest-mounted light sent all manner of creatures scurrying away into the dark. Rodney was fairly sure he’d seen many of them in his nightmares. He shivered before shuffling forward through more tubeworms.
“Too far, Roddy. You just passed it.”
Rodney turned around, bending at the waist to shine his lamp on the ocean floor. “I know I’m just a space cowboy, but shouldn’t a vent be like a hole or something?”
“Because the ground here is solid. There’s no hole and no sign a hole was ever here. You sure we’re in the right spot?”
Something bumped the back of Rodney’s right shoulder. He turned, only to catch sight of a tail fin cutting through the water.
“Roddy! You with me?”
Another bump. Another tail fin.
“Loud and clear, Mila. Just having a close encounter with the local wildlife.”
“Roddy, the local wildlife shouldn’t be anywhere near you. Your light is too bright. It would hurt them.”
“Tell that to whatever fish-thing keeps side-swipin’ me.”
“Roddy, move! You might be standing on its eggs.”
Rodney stepped backward. He froze, waiting for the next bump. None came.
“Mila, you’re as smart as you are…” Bump. “Wrong.”
Freeman turned again. This time he saw more than a tail fin. On the edge of his range of visibility, a pair of startling human-like eyes glowed in the shadows—and they were looking right at him.
“Hey, Mila. What kind of fish has people eyes?”
“’Cause one’s staring at me right now.”
Rodney could hear Mila in muffled conversation with the whippersnapper he’d ignored earlier. “Roddy, get your caboose back to the sub. We need to check your line.”
Rodney slid backwards until the eyes disappeared into the dark. Ten minutes later, he was climbing back into the submersible.
He didn’t have his helmet off before Mila stuck her hand in his face. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Rodney’s correct answer was rewarded with an oxygen mask and an animated lecture. Once again, his impatience won the day.
“I’m fine,” he grumbled as he tore off the mask. “There’s nothing wrong with my line. Something out there was making contact.” Freeman picked up his helmet. “Don’t you people have a video camera on this thing?”
Mila and the whippersnapper exchanged glances before the young man grabbed the helmet out of Rodney’s hands and jogged toward the research module. By the time Mila and Rodney caught up, the images from the helmet-cam had been downloaded.
The young scientist started to explain that the camera didn’t record video, only black-and-white still shots every five seconds, but Rodney cut him off. “Just show us what it caught, kid.”
Sure enough, it had caught the escaping tail fin and then, near the very end, the eerie eyes. On the screen, they appeared as small gray blurs against a black background.
“They looked much more exotic in person,” Rodney explained. “Yellow sclera, purple irises. What kind of creature looks like that?”
“None,” the others responded in tandem.
After a moment of silence, Mila spoke. “It would seem that you’ve discovered a new species.”
“Technically, ” Rodney corrected, “the new species discovered me. What’s next?”
Next was another walk to the location of the missing vent. Mila explained that the vent had to be close. Tubeworms depended on vents for survival. The location also seemed to be a focal point for Rodney’s mysterious creature.
“Two birds, one stone,” she’d quipped as she checked the seals on Roddy’s helmet. “And this time we’ll be watching your video feed in real time.”
Freeman shuffled his way back through the field of worms. Once again, there was no sign of a vent. Once again, the creature played tag with him, bumping him and then hovering on the edge of the lighted area.
Rodney held out his right hand toward the creature. It worked with lost dogs. Why not a curious sea critter?
Then Mila’s words came back to him. Creatures this deep didn’t like bright light. He put his left hand over the chest lamp. Light still streamed out between his fingers, but at least the ocean wasn’t lit up like a football stadium anymore.
About the time that Rodney’s right arm fell asleep, his new-found patience paid off. The owner of the mysterious eyes began to move closer, zigging one way then zagging the other, bringing it slowly into view.
Rodney couldn’t speak. The creature looked like nothing he’d ever seen back home. Its yellow and purple eyes were set in a human-like face framed by flowing blue-black hair. Its neck had gills just below its jawline. Its skin appeared bluish-gray in color. The creature looked human—and very female—down to its mid-torso. From the ribcage down, it was pure fish.
“Oh my God,” Mila whispered over the radio. “A mermaid.”
Rodney dropped his left hand. The mermaid shrieked and darted away.
“Go after it, Roddy!” Mila’s command came too late. Rodney had lost sight of the mermaid.
“What about the vent?”
“Screw the vent. You found a frickin’ mermaid!”
To be continued . . .
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