A Crashing Joy: Entry 1 (Roughest Draft)
None among the Mer are born ‘Solved. Let me rephrase that; unlike the Terrans who think that the Mer are simply a sub-species of Were, Mer themselves are an entirely different species…well, in a certain cycle of their lives, at least.
Crap I’m not making much sense, am I? Let me start over.
Our lives are short. Whereas Terrans build the things they need to protect themselves from their environment, the Mer simply live, and die, like all the other creatures beneath the waves. No fuss, no artifice; we swim, we eat, we mate and we die.
Some among us go on ‘walkabout’ during adolescence. An unfortunate condition of inter-breeding, some Mer are cursed to spend a cycle above wearing legs instead of fins, flippers or what have you. A single cycle, because while most return to the water, if you don’t…you can’t. We can always tell those among the Terrans that used to be Mer. The small, mincing steps, combined with the fluidity of their limbs, and the fact that they will not even glance at any who live beneath give them away.
But I started out by mentioning the ‘Solved. While those not of the Mer believe ‘Solved stands for ‘dissolved’—due largely in part to the fact that most ‘Solved stay in a water-shape instead of choosing to clothe themselves in flesh—it actually denotes their place in the Great Mystery. More specifically, the fact that they have SOLVED a piece of the Great Mystery, and in doing so have become MORE than they were before.
My name is Niharika. It means many things. And I am one of the Lesser ‘Solved.
But no one, other than you, knows that.
“Envoy, I’d like to introduce you to our Captain,” the vampire drones as we step onto the bridge. Unlike the rest of the ship, the bridge hasn’t been altered from its military configuration except to add more padding to the seats and cover them with something softer than industrial-grade vinyl. The crew hurries about their tasks—we are about to leave port—in that brisk, efficient way a well-trained group develops over time. Given that the night watch is comprised almost entirely of vampires, I assume they’ve had a LOT of time to develop their teamwork.
“Welcome aboard, Envoy,” the captain, a vampire man of Asian origin, mumbles without looking up from his table full of charts and notes. The oversized screens are full of red-pen corrections annotated with dates that range back before the Unveiling, and so I believe that this captain has been at his post for a very, very long time. “I hear you’d like to make a request of me?” he doesn’t turn to face me but that’s all right.
“Yes, Ship Master,”
“Captain,” he growls and I smile. The Mer call those who pilot vessels Ship Meisters, because in our tradition those in charge of the lives of others are Meisters. Pod Meisters guide the whales, School Meisters guide the fish, and so on. All of the migratory species have Meisters devoted to their care and well-being, and ships are seen as an extension of human migration. It is a petty thing to do but all Envoys are instructed to maintain the ways of the Mer first, without accommodating those to whom we are assigned.
“Of course,” I murmur, casting my eyes downward even as the corners of my mouth turn up. “I would like to request that my cats be allowed to accompany me while I serve as Envoy to your vessel.”
“Cats?” the Captain turns, a puzzled expression creasing away his semi-permanent scowl, “why does a Mer have cats?”
“It’s a hobby,” and none of his—or anyone’s—business why I have a deep affection for cats. My gaze remains steady as I watch him shift his hip against the table before his defeated exhale.
“Fine. But I expect you to be responsible for their care while embarked,”
“Of course, Ship Master,”
“Captain,” he barks, but his eyes twinkle as he turns his back to me and reaches for one of the many small microphones stationed above his head.
“Now hear this, now hear this,” the Captain drones as my escort sweeps his arm toward the door…hatch…whatever…indicating that I precede him off of the bridge. We step out into the cold, damp evening and my escort says,
“Don’t worry about him, he’s always like that,”
“Have you been with the Ship Master long?”
“Captain Niran?” he asks, attempting to correct me much more diplomatically than his Captain, “No. I was only recently assigned to this crew.” The vampire pauses as he descends the perilously steep stairs, but when he reaches the bottom he hurriedly adds, “But I hear he’s the best. Why else would they let him Captain one of the few remaining nuclear-powered vessels in the world?”
Perhaps there wasn’t anyone else, I think, but I say, “Of course.” We reach the bottom of the control tower and the deck rumbles as the propellers start and the whole ship strains—against the mooring lines on one side and the tug lines on the other—to get to the ocean and be freed.
“Your berthing is in the forward guest quarters, Envoy,” my guide says, wrenching open another hatch and motioning me toward it. Instead of sedately stepping through the portal, I take a few steps toward the bow and his voice quavers as he asks, “Envoy?”
“Forward Guest Quarters,” I murmur, turning away from him and adding, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to be above when we put out.”
“Oh,” I hear his feet shuffle against the harshly textured deck—non-skid I think they call it—before he says, “all right Envoy. Please stay well clear of the edge. If you need anything just ask and we’ll be happy to serve you.”
“Thank you,” I say and I know he’s gone when the door whumps shut, followed by the tremendous banging of the hatch fixtures engaging and the airlock pressurizing.
Where once the top deck was an aircraft landing strip, now a series of slightly convex geodesic domes enclose an indoor park. I step lightly across the girders to make my way to the front of the ship while calls travel from the pier to the ship, ship to tug, and the enormous lines are cast off the pier before being whisked back inside the ship. I feel a wrenching from the left side as the tug’s lines—already taut—now take on the added burden and we ponderously turn out into the channel. Smiling, I laugh when one of the seals lounging on a nearby dock bellows and barks his annoyance.
If you’ve never been on a ship, you wouldn’t know, but the closest thing I can compare it to is air travel. The engines start, a sub-sonic hum courses through the skin of the vessel and you hear it for a moment before filtering most of it out, though you can still feel the vibrations in your bones. Rather discomforting, to be certain, but (unlike in the air) when the ocean starts buffeting a ship the ship doesn’t thrash about wildly. Instead, a ship adds the resonance of the waves to the underlying thrumming of the engines and they sing a discordant melody to your animal brain.
It also explains as to why modern mariners are a little bit (or a lot) crazy. Back in the days of sail the only song was that of the ocean against the ship, and playing in harmony the sounds of the sails against the wind. The advent of steam engines and metal ships changed the whole dynamic and sent a lot of the older sailors clamoring for shore. And while a TRUE sailor will never leave the sea for more than a season, many couldn’t understand why something they once loved went so horribly wrong.
But enough of that, right now I don’t have time to discuss The Chanteys. The sun has set hours ago and the moon peeks over the hills in the east as we trundle through the channel and out to sea. The ship lurches slightly as the ocean current pulls us from the mouth of the channel, and I know the crew feels it too as shouts resound below decks to cast away from the tugs. The engines whine as they’re spun up and the ship surges forward, not unlike a bull released from the pen in Pamplona. I hear a titter of laughter from near the superstructure—some of the other guests have come outside to witness our initial push into the deep—and I grin, starting to unbutton the little fasteners of my slate-grey suit.
First I slip my flat-soled loafers off, gritting my teeth as I step onto the harsh deck. Then I let my suit-jacket slip to the deck, eyeing it as it flutters away from me and is snagged by the deft hands of one of the elderly human crew members.
“Ma’am,” the grizzled man nods to me, but will not meet my eyes.
“Do you know who I am?” I ask as I start sliding my pants down my tawny thighs.
“Our new Envoy,” he dares to look up for a moment and I see the twinkle of a life-long sailor heading out to sea flash in his bright, blue eyes, “it’s an honor, Ma’am, even if the Captain won’t say it.” I nod, straightening up and folding my slacks over my arm before he slides—sailors don’t step, even the best balance on the waves won’t save you from an incautious step—over to take them from me and fold them with my jacket.
“Thank you, Mr…” I pause, realizing that I have no idea of their ranking structure, but he obliges me, adding,
“Just Caleb, Ma’am, I don’t stand on titles like most of the…” I watch him choke back his disdain for his night-dwelling crewmates before he continues, “…like the others do.”
“I understand,” I say as I slip off my silk camisole and pull my hair free of the severe bun at the nape of my neck. Caleb quickly studies the polish on his boots as my ebony curls are whipped free by the wind and soon, though I may be naked, I am cloaked by the intertwining of my hair and the wind. “I shall return by way of the aft break in an hour,” Caleb nods, still intent on the play of starlight on his black but scarred boots as I add, “please meet me there with my things and a towel, won’t you?”
“Of course, Ma’am,”
“Niharika,” I say as he starts moving back. I step out onto the dive platform (newly installed) and instead of reenacting the female bit of a doomed romantic love story, I unclip the safety line and leap forward, aiming for the churning waters below. If not for physics (and an enhanced musculature courtesy of my heritage) I’m sure I would have been blown back into the bow and crushed between the ship and the waves; but being who I am, in a flash of neon ultramarine I’m no longer only human, but a woman that is also dolphin.
Are you surprised? Did you expect me to turn into some kind of exotic fish? Well, lovely as the Sirens of the South Pacific may be (with their long, flowing fins in a multitude of rainbow hues that flash from scales the size of quarters) they aren’t built for speed and an Envoy must announce their ship. If you can’t ride the Breaker then you can’t precede the ship. I plunge into the tepid water, maneuver with a few swift strokes of my tail while my fins provide the minute correctional elements, and burst before the breaker while drawing breath for the opening aria.
There are proscribed times that an Envoy must be in the water and not aboard their vessel. The first (and most obvious) is after leaving port, when entering the open ocean for the first time. The second is when pulling into port. Another song is sung when there are course corrections greater than a league, and more are required for the three days of the full and new moons. I know it sounds like a lot—why bother boarding the ship at all?—but to someone who’s lived the majority of their life beneath the waves an hour’s immersion is more like a bath than an adventure.
There is no way to translate our songs, and before you get all indignant with the whole, “Well, Sirens used to sing sailors to their doom,” argument let me remind you that they sang in the sailor’s native language, and not OUR native tongue. First I sing our designation, then I sing our projected course; I sing about our planned duration, locations at which we plan to stop and anchor, and finally where we plan to pull into port. The first response I get is from the local Pod Meisters, rapid clicks and whistles wish me well and ask after my family. I trill a short response—father is in the North and mother remains with the Reefs—just as the farther School Meisters ask for a detailed itinerary for the next two days, in order to better direct the spawning away from the ship. I feel as if I’m belching water to answer but when I finish they respond in kind and wish us well. My hour is almost up—and it can’t end too soon—as we approach the first of the truly deep troughs. I can hear faint traces of the songs from the Deep, but I have no wish to converse with those who choose to dwell in the darkness.
I finish quickly and peel off the breaker, riding the trough to the rear of the Queen Averna and pumping my tail furiously as I head toward the (now submerged) launch deck. As with the bow, this platform has been renovated for my use and after I snuggle my body into the mesh sling I use my tail to kick the retract button flush with the platform. The hydraulic winch engages, pulling the fabric free from the waves and I do my best to relax and let the net settle instead of crashing to the deck when I’m lifted free from the water. Before the net comes to a complete halt I flash back to my Terrestrial body and am crouching—one hand on the deck, one on the lift webbing—as Caleb’s boots slide into, and past, my line of sight. An enormous, fluffy, navy blue robe drops onto my shoulders and after I slide one hand into the robe I take Caleb’s gnarled hand and stand. He guides me to step forward into some luxuriously plush slippers that cushion my feet from the unforgiving deck of the main storage bay.
“Did everything go well, Ma’am?” Caleb asks, pausing when I wince on my first few steps. “Are you all right?”
“It’s nothing, Caleb, but thank you,” I murmur, catching his old, knowing eyes with my younger, frothy green ones, “I’m sure you know about the Curse.”
“I’ve heard stories,” Caleb hedges as we move through the darkened hold. The old sailor finds his way unerringly through the half-gloom and I do my best to follow him without faltering.
“It’s not exactly like the stories say,” my toes bark against the raised edge of a hatch when I fail to lift my leg high enough and I bite back a curse while Caleb growls an apology. “It’s more a price we pay to be allowed to return.”
“Of course, Envoy,” he murmurs quietly as he opens another hatch, steps us through the airlock, seals it, and opens the corresponding door into a rush of warm, fragrant air. “Allow me to show you to your quarters, Ma’am.”
“Thank you, Caleb,” I sigh. I am just now feeling the weight of my journey in the lethargic response of my limbs and the labored way my lungs expand and contract. Instead of taking the direct path through the main section of the park, we skirt the periphery and come to a lovely blue door set with cobalt, azure, aquamarine and indigo tiles depicting the Mer’s involvement during the Unveiling. “It’s not very subtle, is it?” I grumble and Caleb scratches his head, looking away from my displeased stare.
“The last Envoy ordered it, Ma’am,” he murmurs as a set of chimes rings throughout the hallway followed by an automated announcement of the local time, and time remaining until sunrise.
“I bet he did,” my murmur earns me a nod from Caleb as I think, useless, pompous, over-important asshole. No wonder the Captain threw him off with little more than an official request for replacement strapped to his wrist. “Can it be replaced?”
“Of course,” Caleb replies, turning the handle and stepping back from the opening door. “I hope you don’t mind, but while you were off-ship I took the liberty of letting your pets out.”
“Oh, thank you,” my smile is genuine and he blushes under the light of it. In all the fuss I almost forgot that I hadn’t seen to Whisker Princess’s comfort, but she would have been fine in her case for at least another couple of hours (though I would have been told about it with a number of long, angry meowls.) Tuxedo Katman doesn’t care where he is—as long as he’s dry—and greets me by twining himself around my calves, purring fit to shake the ship apart. “Give me at least a few hours of shut eye, all right?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Caleb steps into the corridor while I step into my room, and another bit of black and white bit of fur immediately pounces on my slipper as I turn to shut the door. “Will noon be all right?”
“Perfect,” and it is. Plenty of time to get some sleep and eat some food before introducing myself to the day crew, as per regulations. “Thank you Caleb,”
“Good night Ma’am,” the old sailor says before shuffling off down the passageway that separates the guest quarters from the actual workings of the ship. I securely fasten the hatch (odd that they’ve stuck with the hatches instead of installing more modern doors) and have to step quickly to avoid falling.
“Yes, yes, Princess Whiskers,” I murmur, picking up the angry tuxedo kitten from around my legs, “yes it’s far past time for the tuna I promised you.” Tuxedo Katman adds an inquisitive meow to the Princess’s incessant bawling as I search around the haphazard pile of my luggage for the black bag with white paw prints. Of course I find the can of tuna on the bottom. I’m too tired to bother finding her dish, so I pop the peel-away lid from the can and set the whole container on the floor. When I go into the bathroom to rinse off I find her catbox already set up and smile. A good one, that’s what Caleb is, both a good man and a good mariner.
“What do you think, Princess?” I ask the kitten who is FAR too busy eating to deign to acknowledge me. “I think so too,” I say as I step into the shower. Maybe this duty won’t be as bad as I thought. After soaping and rinsing, I step back into my suite, check the hatch locks (engaging the burglar-proof latch which will do NOTHING to stop a post-human), and turn the lights off. Another benefit of the renovations is that my suite has a large number of windows, complete with opening latches and storm shutters. I close all the windows save the one directly over my bed, opening that one to allow the wind and spray-mist admittance, and gratefully sink into the plush bedding. As the mattress conforms to my curves, a cold-wet nose that stinks of canned tuna pushes into my face before tiny paws pat my brow and force themselves under my ears.
“Good night Princess,” I yawn and lulled by the contented purring of a well-fed kitten, I fall asleep.
Crashing Entry: 02