|The Transformation Story Archive||Mythical Beings|
Mariah Halstead had not thought much about dying; at least not the physical reality of it. She had the obligatory will, signed and stamped, that left what little she had salvageable in her estate to various marine wildlife funds. She'd even talked deeply about the metaphysics of the afterlife with Shiela, her grad student, coming to the conclusion that she'd rather be reincarnated then go off to some nebulous paradise, given her druthers, assuming she didn't end up simply as worm food. But the process of dying itself she'd not cared much about . . . until now.
Mariah supposed that if she had a choice, she would have liked a diving accident perhaps, an encounter with a great white shark, or being run over by whalers as she gave them the finger from her Zodiac. A car accident was so prosaic, so mundane. She stared dumbly at the twisted wreckage of metal and plastic and flesh that had once been the car's dashboard and her legs, feeling her life ebb with each ragged beat of her dying heart. She didn't know where the other car had come from. Right now, she didn't particularly care.
"I don't feel pain,"she thought."No pain, no gain."
Her field of vision narrowed slowly, the ending segue to a cartoon of a life. Dimly she heard sirens. Their keening irritated her sense of resigned calm.
"Dammit, can't a girl die in peace!"
Dr. Mariah Halstead died as paramedics were slicing up her car with arc-lasers.
Three hours, forty five minutes and a few spare seconds later, she woke up, fully, as a technician pulled out a needle full of amphetrime. Mariah had never wakened easily, and the sudden jump to awareness made everything glow with irritating presence.
She turned toward the voice and was stopped, her neck and head constrained by a brace she couldn't see.
"Dr. Halstead, my name is Dr. Landau. You are at Harbour Bay Medical Center. Do you understand me?"
Her voice croaked, startling her. "Yes."
"Good. Are you in any pain?"
Mariah closed her eyes, surveying what she could of her body. No pain . . . no feelings at all for that matter, save a curious emptyness. She shook her head.
"Well, that's good."
Landau bent down, coming into her field of vision. He seemed so young, an intern or maybe just beginning his practice. His steel grey eyes looked clinically into hers, seeing her only as so much damaged meat. How bad, she wondered.
"How bad?" she croaked.
"Hmm, well, I suppose that we may as well get this over with. Dr. Halstead, you are currently on critical life support. You have lost both legs, and have taken extensive damage to your lungs, heart and ribcage. You have been given a dose of amphetrine to pull you out of a coma, but only because we need to ascertain your desires. According to Federal regulations, your mental state is considered lucid; anything you agree to at this time is considered binding and not subject to arbitration or lawsuit. This dose will wear off in about ten minutes, and a second dose will kill you."
"Oh,"she said, then reluctantly,"What do you need?"
"We have a procedure that will allow us to regenerate your legs, and your chest, but it is both time consuming and extremely painful. It would have to be started now, since otherwise your tissues will have degenerated beyond help."
"What's the catch?" Mariah said. "Why ask me?"
"It's also extremely expensive. From our own checks you don't have anywhere near the financial resources to do it on your own, and so would have to enter into a contract with a sponsoring agency."
Mariah thought about this for a second, not liking the implications. "What kind of a contract?"
"They post a bond to cover the cost of the operation. In return, you are under mandatory obligation to work for them until the bond is paid off."
"No . . . not exactly."
Dr. Landau looked away uneasily.
An indentured servant, Mariah thought. Do this and become a corporation's slave, or don't do it and . . .
"What other options?"
"None, really," Landau said, his face betraying his own distaste of the subject. "We turn off the life support . . . you would never be able to live without it."
Slavery, or death. She was dead already, a corpse that could say yea or nay as to a return to life. The sum to pay would already be far more than she could ever repay, assuming that they played fair. They wouldn't of course.
To be away from her beloved sea bothered her, bothered her more than the thought of dying did. If she were someone's slave, she could look forward to giving up her career as a marine biologist, perhaps of even swimming in the ocean again. Not that she could do much without legs anyway.
Unless . . .
"Doctor, I accept, on one condition."
"I want a fish tail."
"What?" the young doctor looked incredulous."I don't think I heard you right."
"I want a fish tail, dammit. I want gills. I want you to make me into a mermaid."
"Is it? I'm dead already. I know enough about the current state of genetic technology that you could conceivably do it. If it doesn't work, I'm a guinea pig who donated her body to science. If it does work, I get to work in the environment I choose. You and your meat market sell my contract at a hefty price, and medicine advances."
"But . . ."
Mariah stared at him, giving him that same look that had left undergrads sobbing for mercy.
"All right. I accede. Computer, acknowlege contract between Harbour Bay Medical Center and Dr. Mariah Halstead, this 20th day of December, Two Thousand and . . ."
His voice slipped away into a drone of legalese as the drug wore off. Mariah wondered briefly whether she should have just let them turn off the machine and let her die. Or maybe, she thought in the last flicker of awareness, they had.
Pain is elemental to human existance -- all touch is pain in minutiae, pain in extremis brings only numbness. She knew her pain, came to grips with it, even began regarding it as a friend in the blank void in which she floated. If she was dead, then she was seeing hell up close and personal, the hell of pain and nothing else. Still, it was a hell where bodily functions still worked, where she felt herself eliminating waste, heard the beating of her heart like a hammer beating a steady rhythm against an anvil. There was no light in this universe, though, only pain.
Once she saw a pod of humpbacks swimming off into the distance, their songs familiar and haunting. She tried to go after them but couldn't break free of the net which had snared her. Her legs felt all wrong, but she couldn't tell why. If only she could find the surface. And then the pain took her into its grips again.
Mariah awoke to a change in pressure, and a brilliant light which filled her universe. Slowly she reoriented herself. The brilliant glow resolved to lights that were actually quite dim, the change of pressure due to liquid draining around her. As the mysterious water disappeared, she shivered in the cool air, and someone draped a cover over her, leaving only her head exposed. The pressure in her lungs built, and then her body wracked in pain as she coughed up fluid, bile, and blood. When finally she regained control of herself, her arms and legs trembled with exhaustion.
"Once more among the living, I see."
The voice sounded familiar, and she turned in its direction. No restraining blocks held her, this time. For some worrisome reason it took her a while to put name to face, then she had him.
"Hello, Dr. Halstead,"Dr. Landau said. "I'm impressed. I didn't think you could pull through, but you did."
Pull through? She struggled with her memories, but too many phantoms had stolen them away. "What?" she coughed.
The doctor smiled proudly. "We fulfilled your request. Nurse, get a mirror."
A green-garbed attendant returned with a mirror mounted on an overhead swivel. Like a child performing his first magic trick Dr. Landau pulled back the sheet, and Mariah saw what magic he had wrought.
She stared back at herself, though the face in the mirror was younger and prettier than she'd ever been, framed in a halo of thick black hair that bore no resemblance to her close cropped hair. Her bare breasts lay heavily on her chest, breasts that were far too big to be her own. She'd lost several pounds from her arms and stomach and hips, and even the triangle of pubic hair seemed more clearly defined than she remembered.
However, when she discovered the real change the doctor had wrought, her world began to spin. Halfway down her hips her scales began, blue irridescent plates that reflected the few lights in the room. Her legs merged together into a single body at her knees, and continued well beyond where her feet should have been. At the tapered end, a single fin flared out, horizontal like a dolphin but fish-like nonetheless. Mariah Halstead had been granted her wish.
"Oh, god," she squeaked.
That couldn't be her. This was some monstrous nightmare, and if she concentrated hard enough she could break it. Yet the only thing concentration brought was a headache. The creature in the mirror looked vaguely like her, as if an artist for a porno trivid had been asked to create a simulcra of her as a siren.
She tried sitting up,but her muscles wouldn't cooperate.
"Help me up,"she whispered, panic rising in her as she realized how helpless she was. The top half of the table on which she lay automatically began to lift, and Mariah knew instinctively that she was not dreaming. Her breasts were bigger, much bigger, more appropriate for a nursing mother or a pornovid actress than a celibate scientist. She had a thinner waist -- indeed, with the exception of her overendowed chest she looked, and felt, like she was twenty again, and not the forty two years she had celebrated reluctantly a week before. She refused to look at the tail.
"What . . . how long?"
Mariah's throat hurt from the raspy speech, but she needed to know.
"We've been busy. You went under about three months ago, although it took almost a month of that to reprogram the genetic enhancers."
Three months. The fear and panic that she'd just barely kept in check overwhelmed her, and without warning her lungs quit. Mariah fought for each breath, tears streaming from her eyes, her arms flailing helplessly in the air. Three months! A technician approached with a hypo gun and she desperately, ineffectively tried to push him away. The sting of the hypo bit into her arm and she collapsed, conscious but powerless.
"We've given you a sedative and muscle relaxant. It'll help calm you down, but only if you let it."
The doctor's voice droned hypnotically, and soon Mariah lay in a state of semi-awareness, cognizant only of the voices around her and the rise and fall of her own chest.
"Your body has undergone some radical changes, Dr. Halstead, and your muscles have lost a great deal of strength while you were undergoing the transformation. We'll be working with you to get full control over all muscles old and new. I expect you'll be up and about within a few weeks.
"For now, we'll let you rest. Because of the nature of your changes, and your sponsor, you'll have a room to yourself."
Sponsor. Mariah tugged at that strand, but couldn't quite understand what he meant. Nothing made a great deal of sense anymore, not this awful hospital, not the rantings of the doctor, especially not what she had seen of her own body. Landau turned to talk to the attendants and Mariah lost interest, letting the sedative cushion her from having to deal with the atrocity they had done. Maybe if she could just wake up . . .
Mariah wasn't quite sure when she had been moved to a new room; she had drifted in and out of consciousness too often to trust her own memories. Before, she had been dragged from a coma-like sleep then drugged to keep her calm. Now she was awake of her own volition, thankful not to see any of the zombie-like attendants or maniacal doctors in her room. When she was fifteen she'd had her appendix removed, and she'd spent a couple of nights in a hospital room not all that different from this one. Here it was quieter, and more somber, and the equipment scattered around the room bore little resemblance to the contraptions her doctors had used to pull out an inflamed appendix. Still, it had the same antiseptic stink that she remembered, the same rush of cold, purified air, and the same weird suspension of time. Mariah shivered from more than the overly cool air.
She lay on a standard hospital bed, wearing the standard hospital gown that seemed to reveal far more than it concealed in as repellent a manner as possible. She came to the conclusion that no one could look attractive in a hospital gown . . . it was a physical impossibility. The bedsheet didn't seem heavy enough to ward off the cold, although in the back of her mind Mariah knew that it wasn't cold that was bothering her. The shape under the sheet was wrong, one column instead of two, a column that twisted in a way that she knew feet couldn't twist.
"I feel like I went to a tattoo parlor after getting plastered," she thought out loud, though she had never been more than mildly drunk in her life."I don't want to see the tattoo."
Still, she needed to know more. Her life had been spent in pursuit of knowlege. Running from the truth now, when she most needed to know her abilities and limitations, would doom her more surely than jumping out the window to her death. As she learned once, they could always bring her back.
Her arms weighed tons. Slowly, panting with the effort, Mariah reached over to the edge of the blanket and drew it back. When it revealed enough, her arm collapsed onto her lap. She closed her eyes for a few minutes and rested, then fighting her own fears, she looked down where her legs had been.
In the subdued light of the room the scales didn't seem to shine quite as much as before, and perhaps because of that looked much more real to her. The largest ones, peeking out from under the hospital gown, were about a half inch wide, thin blue-white wafers that tightly overlapped. She touched one, and was surprised to find that she could feel the touch nearly as well as if someone had touched her bare skin. The scales lay flush on her hips; rubbing against their exposed edges didn't pull them up. It was like touching warm, slightly pliant glass. Mariah tried to wedge a fingernail underneath one of the scales and yelped in pain as she lifted it up. She had no doubt now that they were a part of her.
Pulling up her hospital gown Mariah found the demarcation line, a ridge of scales only slightly tinged with blue that started a handspan below her pubic triangle. Certainly, she thought, not the traditional place for a mermaid's tail to start. She ran her finger along the groove that used to separate her legs, and was surprised to find that for a couple of inches it went all the way to the back. Giving it some more thought, Mariah realized that it was necessary, as otherwise urinating would be damned inconvenient.
"So would sex,"she thought out loud.
The idea carried some nasty implications. The tail was a major change, but it wasn't the only one. Mariah had never been terribly attractive, even as a young woman . . . her breasts were small, her figure more like a stocky boy than a woman. Her flat nose and thin lips generally failed to complement the rest of her face. She had never looked like this, although if some minor shifts were made in weight distribution, facial characteristics, in general lots of relatively minor parameters she could have. They had tinkered with her genetic code, making her more voluptuous, the tail only enhancing the mystique rather than serving as a means, albeit unusual, of propulsion. Slowly Mariah was beginning to piece together what had happened before, and the completed picture did not look pretty.
Worse, right now she had to admit she couldn't be more helpless. The muscles she did know about felt like they had all been strained in marathon weightlifting sessions. The muscles she didn't know about -- Mariah glanced back down at her tail, noting that her kinesthetic sense, the subtle ability of being aware of where the body was relative to itself, seemed skewed. She tried to spread her legs and watched as the end of her tail lifted itself, in uneven jerks, off the bed. Bending her knees bent her tail in a similar way, so she had knees of sorts, but below them her tail arced back beneath her. When she tried to splay her toes Mariah gasped in astonishment. Her tail fin, partially covered by the bed sheets, spread out to nearly a yard wide from the eighteen inches it had been before. Closing her eyes, Mariah had the uncomfortable sensation that the ligaments that bound her feet had been cut loose . . . not painful, she noted, but definitely discomfiting.
"What have you done to me, you bastards?"she gasped, anger slowly giving way to fear. A tremor shuddered through her body, slamming her tail fin against the bed. "What have you done?"
She lay there, the question rolling over and over in her head. Mariah vaguely knew the answer, dimly recalled the faustian bargain she had made with Dr. Landau. For some reason, though, she could not bring that memory to ground, her brain refusing to release the key to this madness. Worse, she had trouble recalling much from before that. She had been swimming recently, diving really, but the more she probed the more uncertain she was of even that. Landau had called her Dr. Halstead, but she didn't think she was a body butcher like him. She had been a specialist, though now every attempt to remember what her specialty had been eluded her.
"You bastards,"she said again,"you've taken my legs, you've taken my identity, you've taken my mind! Damn you.
"Damn you to Hell!"
Mariah woke to the touch of a cool cloth on her stomach. She struggled with the disorientation of waking, not really sure when she had fallen asleep. The cloth moved down in deliberate strokes, the hand directing it more professional than sensual, as if more interested in getting the job done than anything intimate. Pushing back her uneasiness, she slowly opened her eyes.
A nurse ran the cloth down Mariah's . . . scales (yes, that's what she had now), diligent in removing dirt without the slightest bit of interest in the marvel she was cleaning. Twenty pounds lighter and she would have been attractive, but the weight and the dirty blonde hair and the look of elsewhere in her eyes served to make her as plain as Mariah herself was -- or had been, at any rate. Mermaid, she thought to herself, remember that.
A reflection caught Mariah's eye, a bracelet the nurse wore catching one of the overhead lights. Then she looked closer, suddenly sickeningly aware that the metal was embedded in the nurse's wrist, flush with her skin. Mariah's gasp drew the attention of the nurse.
"Ah. I thought you were showing a little more life than usual."
She had a pleasant voice, this nurse, a contralto that tempered Mariah's first impression.
"I was beginning to think that you were going to remain comatose."
Mariah spoke for the first time, aware as she did so that her own voice sounded stronger than before.
"Word is that you tried pushing yourself to hard, and went into shock. That's what they tell me."
She sounded dubious, Mariah thought. A little dissension in the ranks, perhaps?
"Who are you?"
"I'm . . . ," the nurse hesitated on this, as if struggling to remember. "I'm Metria."
"Uh . . . yeah. I guess."
Metria looked her in the eye, the silver band of her wrist slashing through the air.
"Look, don't ask me any questions, okay. I shouldn't be talking to you anyway."
With that, Metria went back to work, her cleaning strokes perfunctory to the point of being painful. Mariah was surprised when she felt the damp rag rub against the webbing of her tail fin, a sensation unlike any she'd had before. Oddly, it didn't bother her as much as it had, the tail. She still wasn't wild about the transformation, but she came to the conclusion that the thing which most bothered her was not her nether half but her upper. Her whole being was different, and the scales and the fins were only the most extreme manifestations of that. She gazed down at her breasts, uncovered for the sponge bath. They were still too big, too "perfect," assuming perfection was defined by men's porno-vids. She had occassionally bemoaned to her roommates in school her flat-chested state, before she came to grips with her body. Now, long after realizing the last thing she wanted was large breasts, she was saddled with what one of the cruder men she had dated years before called bazooms.
Mariah's ruminations were interrupted by Metria pinching the webbing of her tail, webbing that seemed extraordinarily sensitive.
"Sorry. I had to do that as part of the evalutation."
"Well, you didn't have to pinch so hard!"
"Uhm . . . look, I said I was sorry. You should take it as a good sign . . . I think it means that nerve regeneration is pretty much complete."
"Nerve regen -- ?"
"Uh, yeah. Hey, look, I'll be back in about an hour to take you to the pool. They'll want to start toning your muscles, and get you used to living in water."
"Uh, yeah . . . I better be going."
Before Mariah could question her more closely, Metria practically bolted for the door, as if afraid she'd done something wrong. Maybe she had.
Mariah thought back on the metallic flesh on the nurse's wrist. She had seen that before, though not lately. Where though? She remembered a man, a young-old man with a boy's face and a shock of thin white hair. He cleaned . . . wherever it was she used to work. The details alluded her. She remembered the sad look, a glance that for just a split second showed a piercing intelligence, before he turned away with his broom to sweep the hall. What had struck her as being so peculiar then was the bracelet he wore, a thin silver strip around his wrist that seemed so out of keeping with the man's personality.
With a vague sense of unease, Mariah lifted her own arms up, fearful of seeing a flash of silver. She only saw smooth flesh and long, thin hands that trembled ever so slightly. Exhausted by even this simple act, she fell back into a deep sleep.
She lay in the pool, letting the warm water from the recharging jets massage her back. More than an hour had passed . . . by her reckoning, as questionable as it was, at least a day had gone by, maybe more. She had drifted in and out of consciousness, at one time waking enough to see the doctor, Landau she thought, looking over her with some concern. She'd wanted to say something awful, even spit in his eye, but all that had come out was an embarassing trail of drool. She didn't remember much after that. Her memory seemed to shift in and out like a camera lens. Sometimes, in her dreams, she found herself dredging up visions from her childhood.. The day she came home from school with a full blown case of pneumonia, the time she first started diving with her dad, her parents' funeral . . .
And yet, now she found herself struggling to remember her own name, or what precisely had happened to her, to change her into the form she had now. She glanced down at her tail, no longer really even noticing it as being different. Movements came more naturally to her. Indeed, she disovered that in a way her tail had a life of its own, undulating ever so slightily unless she consciously stilled it. Mariah ran her hand along her hip, surprised at how sensitive her scales were. Out of the water they looked dull and lifeless . . . in it the scales shimmered iridescently. She had always been a creature of the sea, preferring her times underwater to those having to deal with affairs of the land. Now, form followed function, although the blatant sexuality of her human self still bothered her intensely.
Mariah slid from her perch, a lip about two feet below the surface, and let the water wholly claim her. The shush-shush-shush of the recirculating jets echoed through the pool, coupled with the echoes the water itself made as it sloshed against the concrete sides. The flourescent lights refracted against the surface, spilling patterns of light over her pale skin and darker tail. A cloud of ink played along her peripheral vision, and it took her a few moments to realize that this was her own hair, grown longer than she'd ever worn it.
Moving. That was more of a challenge than she expected. Her muscles had strengthened some since the previous day (indeed, her recovery was noticeable enough that Mariah adjusted the time she'd been out considerably upward). Still, she had to fight the impulse to want to scissor kick, as she normally did when diving. Her first scissor kick whirled her violently around, as the muscles fought one another for control and her twisting tail fin provided her only motion.
Think dolphin, she decided. A dolphin undulated, moving in a sinuous up and down motion, and with a little trial and error Mariah discovered that her own body almost naturally moved in that same manner. Granted, the drag from her breasts (not to mention their annoying buoyancy) cut down her speed considerably, but she knew full well now that they had not designed her for speed. Glancing done at her bare breasts, she had no doubt about the general direction of her design, though she was becoming intensely curious about the details.
Feeling her air running out, Mariah toyed with the idea of letting the water in to see if she had gills, but knew that in her present weakened condition a wrong answer could be fatal. Of course, here fatality did not equate with finality. Still, she'd already died once too often for her own good - the next time around they'd turn her into a frog. With a gentle stroke of her tail, she pushed to the surface.
"You're an impressive sight."
Surprised, Mariah whirled around to find Dr. Landau standing by the side of the pool. Then, conscious of her bare breasts she quickly folded her arms over them and sunk down slightly.
"A body laying on a surgical table looks like so much meat, or fish in your case. Animated and alive, you're quite attractive."
"Thanks to you,"she said, with more venom than even she expected.
"Actually, no, you were already very pretty. Most of the genetic manipulation went into the tail, and the rest actually happened accidentally."
"I don't buy that, Landau, its too convenient. I don't remember much about . . . about before. But someone's gone to an incredible amount of trouble to turn me into a sex toy."
The doctor's face strained in discomfort. Absentmindedly scratching his pale blonde hair, Landau's gaze was no longer on her chest. Reluctantly, he sat down by the pool.
"Yeah. You're right . . . it was part of the contract."
Landau sighed. "Have you ever done something that you were inordinately proud of, only to later discover that what you did was unethical?"
Mariah lifted her eyebrows in surprise. This man had ethics? "What do you mean?"
The doctor looked at her, and for the first time Mariah realized just how young he was. Almost without thinking, she swam toward him.
"Ah, genetics,"he said, "the tools that let us play God. We've mapped the human genome, completely, and discovered that death is an abberation and our own forms cruel hoaxes of nature. At least that's what I heard throughout my training."
Mariah nodded, her arms resting against the poolside.
"I've been doing this for a couple of years, through most of my internship. Playing Dr. Frankenstein. It's not terribly hard any more, most of the restoration is actually done by the computers. At first, it was easy to justify . . ."
Landau no longer looked at her, his gaze fixed instead on the shifting surface of the pool.
"I brought back people from the brink of death, after their heart had stopped, almost after their brains had ceased to function. If they weren't as vital as they used to be, well, that was to be expected. It's hard to bounce back when you're brain's half dead.
"Of course, none of this was cheap. The insurance companies didn't like it; messed up their bookkeeping too much . . . still, that means they didn't see an opportunity. Bloodsucking bastards'll sell their own moms if they can turn a profit on the deals. So, the contracts."
He looked into Mariah's eyes, his own hollow with guilt.
"Give 'em the option to do or die. Most people will opt for life, even if its diminished life. We're all basically cowards, willing to sell our souls to the highest bidder. They die, they're restored, they go to work for damn near ever to pay off the debt. Most of them don't have the mental capacity left to understand what they've given up."
His eyes followed the line of her throat to where her full breasts floated in the water, only partially obscured by her arms. Then he looked up.
"You were different. You were a challenge; god knows that I had a hard enough time convincing the powers that be that a mermaid could be done, successfully. For a while, they were adamantly against it, then one day, out of the blue, my project . . . you . . . was approved -- with some conditions."
"Yes?" Mariah said, intrigued in spite of herself.
"My administrators requested much of the form that you seem to so strenuously object to . . . your tail starting below your hips, the large breasts, the facial sculpting. At the time I was so happy to get started that I really didn't think much about the requests. You wanted to be a mermaid; I'd make you the most voluptuous mermaid I could."
"I'd say you succeeded,"Mariah said dryly.
"Yeah, I succeeded. All too well. I know your genetic structure inside out and backwards. For nearly four months I was a god on a small scale, modifying you here, tweaking you there, and somewhere along the line I lost track of the fact that I was dealing with a human being; an extremely sentient woman, come to that. Most of the restorees spend only a few weeks in the restoration chambers. You spent five months in there."
"Five months!" Mariah's shoulders slumped. Five months in a genetic stew. Goddess! No wonder she felt weak as a kitten.
"We weren't talking about just growing back your legs. Do you have any idea how complicated the physiology of a mermaid really is? The density of surface fat cells was increased to allow for survival in waters cold enough to normally induce hypothermia. Muscles all up and down your torso had to be modified to give your tail flexibility. Mechanisms had to be introduced throughout your circulatory system to eliminate excess nitrogen quickly, to cut down on the chance of your getting the bends.
He eyed her clinically, mentally ticking off all the changes that he had made.
"And in order for everything to minimize risk of total system collapse, the genetic structure to do this had to be integrated into every single cell of your body."
Mariah opened her eyes in shock. "But that means genetically I'm no longer --"
"-- human?" Landau interrupted. "No, not anymore. You are now a mermaid, inside out and backwards. I don't play Dr. Frankenstein half-assed."
He smiled then, a smile that reflected both his triumph and a growing sense of unease. Without really thinking on it, Mariah pulled herself out of the water and sat next to him. Landau looked startled at that.
"You've seen more of me than probably anyone else on the planet, it seems," Mariah replied in explanation. "Modesty at this juncture would be pretty pointless."
She smiled back, the first genuine smile she had made since her re-awakening.
"So what's the cost?" Mariah said, serious again.
"I can't imagine that the powers that be let you play mad scientist just for the hell of it."
"The contract," Landau said flatly.
"The contract," Mariah echoed, impatiently.
He looked at her, his eyes haunted.
"I didn't find out until yesterday. I've always just worked from the specs, and didn't really think about what they added up to."
Mariah waited, her apparent calm belied by the agitated churning of her tail in the water.
"I expected we'd be hard pressed to find a sponsor, but the moment you're contract was solicitated we had several offers. The highest bidder was Wagner Entertainment."
Search as she might in the half-tattered memories she had left to her, Mariah couldn't recall the name. She said as much.
"It took me a little while, too. They produce 'adult' tri-vids, sensaporn, some really nasty pieces. About a year ago, one of their actresses was killed on film, in a particularly gruesome manner. It made its way to her parents and they tried to press charges. On the day of the trial, the actress showed up in the courtroom, claiming that she'd been on vacation in Europe."
Mariah stared at Landau. "So what are you not telling me?"
"A year ago, a body arrived in here, one of an attractive young woman that had been beaten and mutilated. There was just enough of a spark in her that one of the other doctors resuscitated and healed her bodily wounds. She was practically a vegetable at that point, and I hate to think of the abuse they must have inflicted upon her to give her the appearance of lucidity.
"I hadn't been here long at that point, and really only saw her in passing. The two events didn't connect for me until yesterday, while I was preparing the paperwork for you and did a routine net check on the company for address information. They seem to be a regular client of ours."
"So what you're saying is that I've been sold into a tri-vid prostitution ring."
Landau's shoulders slumped. "Yeah."
"Yeah",he repeated. "That's me . . . Richard bastard Landau, MD."
Mariah stared intently at a patch of her tail as it reflected the pool's harsh lights, not really seeing the scales.
"Why tell me this at all?" she asked, her hand idly toying with that reflective patch. She would not look at him.
"I've made a mistake. Hell, I've made a lot of mistakes, perhaps too many to rectify in a life time. I can't change you back . . . your genetic structure is simply too unstable at this point. Much more exposure to the gen-baths and you'd break down into component molecules."
"I'd melt,"she said blankly. They could not change her back. That should hurt more than it does, Mariah thought.
"One of the last things the clinic does before releasing a 'patient' is to attach a silver bracelet to the arm. Legally, it signifies a restoree, though most people are deliberately kept in the dark about that. It also contains a mechanism for locating a restoree and dampening their metabolism. Turning them off, so to speak."
"Like slave robots."
"Yeah, like slave robots. The perfect slave . . . you hold their life in your hands, can never lose them, can disable them with a press of a button. Ain't modern technology wonderful."
"I'm not wearing one,"Mariah pressed.
"No, not yet. I've been trying to stall the press-gang, telling them that your molecular structure was still restabilizing and that to put a metaband on you would probably kill you."
"I doubt it. You actually stabilized about two weeks ago. It's the only excuse I could come up with to keep you here, even before I realized who your 'clients' were. We've never done a total genetic redesign before, and ... uh ... I wanted to make sure ... that you were going to make it."
You bastard, she thought to herself, a smile threatening to show on her face. You've fallen in love with me, and you can't even admit it to yourself.
Mariah looked at the doctor out of the corner of her eyes. Landau looked despondent, his shoulders slumped, a lock of yellow hair drooping over his forehead, his hands clenched. He was young, no more than twenty eight certainly. Thinking back to her own age, she realized that he could, almost, be her son. That wasn't a thought worth repeating though. Looking back over herself, she could pass for mid-twenties, maybe younger.
Still, she had no illusions. He loved her body ... of course her loved her for her body. He was more responsible for the creation of it than she was. She hated thinking like a cold-blooded bitch -- though given the fishtail the analogy may have been more apt than she liked -- but he held the keys to her survival.
She flexed her tailfin and brought it awkwardly in contact with Landau's leg. As she expected, he jolted in surprise, but didn't move his leg away. Mariah smiled a little more.
"Okay, Richard Bastard Landau, what do we do? I don't know about you, but the idea of being a sex slave for a porn company doesn't especially appeal to me. I can't imagine it would appeal to you either."
"Well . . ," She could see him thinking about the girl he'd observed. "No. I don't think so."
"We need to figure a way out of here. What kind of security does this place have?"
"It's tight. They don't like the zombies wandering around out there; it begs too many questions. They also don't like reporters or state officials, and so make damn sure they're caught at the gate where they can be given the 'proper' tour."
"How do they identify the . . . zombies?" She was still uncomfortable with that.
"The surveillance bands are a big part. The moment you're bonded the wristbands transmit your location and send out an identifying signal. They also have visual refs of all the zombies, just in case one gets out before being properly bonded. It happened once, early on, with the zombie practically at the front gate before security found him. Security doesn't like to talk about that one."
"Hmm, I bet," Mariah looked at her smooth wrist. "So they only have a picture of me."
"Yes. Problem is, your picture is rather well known to security. It was fairly revealing."
"What do you mean?"
Landau blushed again. "The photo was taken with you in the tank, down to your waist. The powers that be decided that show your tail gave too much of a chance for a security breach."
"Nude to the waist, and no tail. That's wonderful!"
"It means that the local security guards are going to be looking for a voluptuous pin up with at worst a hospital gown on."
"So?" Landau asked perplexed.
"So?!" Mariah beamed. "Here's what we need to do . . . "
Marcus Wagner did not like to wait. To wait implied that other people's time was more valuable than his own, and there were few men, and no women, who he waited on patiently. This business with the damn mermaid was definitely getting on his nerves.
As the limousine made its way through the city, Wagner reviewed what had happened; he did not like what he saw. Mischati Genetics, hidden under the auspices of Harborview Medical Center, had done work for him before . . . hell, most of his actresses were zombies; they couldn't act worth a damn, but in his business acting didn't matter a hill of beans against large tits and willingness to do anything. No egos to contend with, no prima donas.
He owned a thirty seven percent stake in Harborview, under a couple different dummy companies, although damn near sixty percent of it was for one woman, one he didn't even have yet. Wagner pulled the dossier up in the monitor of his laptop. Mariah Halstead, 39 years old -- he grimaced slightly at that -- former associate professor, Weller University, announced dead five months ago. Five months! Most of his girls were seldom in for more than one.
"Show," he barked at the computer.
Immediately a three dimensional view of Halstead popped up, as she was now, rotating slightly. Damn, at least they did her up right. He felt himself getting hard as he viewed the mermaid, big bare breasts, bare ass, pubic triangle as black as midnight. The tail was electric blue, and in the holovid swept back and forth slightly in a way that was arousingly non-human. When Wagner heard that a "client" had wanted to be turned into a mermaid, he couldn't believe his luck -- of course, the bidding war had left him nearly seventy million poorer, but he now had something no one else could claim: a genuine wet dream, the ultimate sailor's delight.
He glanced briefly at the woman sprawled out fast asleep on the expensive leather seat, her skimpy metallic top completely open exposing enormous breasts. Candy Cups. Star of over two dozen of the top porn flicks produced in the last two years. She had the mind of a child, but unlike most of the other zombies she had just enough intelligence left to be creative. Most men would have paid a king's ransom for a night with her, but Marcus Wagner was definitely getting bored with her charms. He was getting hard staring at the trivid - compared to the mermaid, Candy's charms definitely paled. She'd been so spirited once, before she had to be resuscitated after a particularly kinky scene. No, he was getting tired of Miss Candy Cups. Although . . . he looked at her again, wondering what it would take to turn her into a mermaid as well. The two would make a good contrast. He needed to look into it.
Especially now that disturbing reports were coming back to him. The resurrection process usually left its recipients practically vegetables; Candy was a veritable Einstein among them, and she had trouble remembering her own name. This suited him just fine. He wasn't looking for rocket scientists. But Mariah Halstead was showing unexpected sparks of resistence, and an unusual amount of intelligence for having been dead. The doctor in charge of the case had speculated in the dossier that the 'extended stay in the matrix, coupled with the significant alteration of the existing genome, may have initiated a fertile environment for extensive neural regeneration' or some such gobbledygook like that. The upshot, he thought, was that too long in the bath might actually make the zombies intelligent again. Wagner wanted to meet this Dr. Landau . . . his talents were wasted at a third-rate zombie factory.
"How far to the lab, John?"
His driver and bodyguard looked back at him in the mirror.
"About ten minutes, Mr. Wagner."
Wagner nodded, and went back to the tri-vid. John was a good man -- he was handy with a gun and a damn good driver besides. Not to mention that he looked better than any of Wagner's leading men. If the lab ever managed to figure out how to transfer brains into new bodies, Wagner intended to take his bodyguard's. Of course, he'd be out a decent driver, but life was tough, wasn't it?
". . . you mean to tell me that you use a retro-virus as the primary transmitter?"
Frank looked up from his post at the security desk, still trying to get a balky receiver to come in clearly. Jim, the guard he'd relieved half an hour ago, had told him that the monitor was acting funny, but a search of the area revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Frank saw that the speaker was a woman, probably a doctor of some sort, riding along in an electric wheelchair and talking to Dr. Landau. He mentally thought that if the woman had been wearing something other than institutional glasses and hadn't had her hair in such a tight bun she'd almost look attractive. The visitor's pass dangling from her breast pocket caught his eye.
"Dr. Landau, I'm going to have to retrieve your guest's pass."
The doctor handed him the encased plastic ID which Frank swiped through the reader. The shrill beep caught him by surprise.
"Excuse me, sir. According to my records this one was never checked out."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Oh, I'm sure it was just a glitch in the reader. When'd you check it out?"
"About three hours ago."
"I'll have Karl's hide on this, then. It's not the first time something like this happened on his watch."
Frank cleared the alert buffer and ran the card through again to re-validate it. He'd have to clear it with his boss in the morning, the normal bureaucratic B.S., and then he was going to have a long talk with Karl. Idiot.
"There you go, sir, all cleared. You and . . . .", he left the question hanging as he looked at the woman in the wheelchair.
"Dr. Shelley," she replied in a throaty voice that sent a shiver of pleasure down Karl's back. Damn.
"You and Dr. Shelley have a pleasant evening, then."
"Thank you," she replied again, and briefly Karl wondered what she'd be like in bed. Of course, being crippled and all . . .
They passed through the entrance to the lab, hidden behind stone walls and high security fences. The limousine was of course on the approved list of cars here. . . after practically buying the place he damn straight better be allowed in. Candy was stirring, and Marcus now regretted having brought her along. Hell, he thought, if it looks like the mermaid is panning out as well in the lab as she is in her dossier, he might just have them give Candy a tail too.
They pulled into a space next to a red Porsche, and Marcus stopped out of the door opened by his bodyguard. Leaving the sleeping woman behind, the two walked down the winding path to the entrance. Along the way, they passed two doctors, one a gray-haired woman in a wheelchair, discussing the intricacies of some genetic gobbledygook. Something about the woman tugged at his memory, but by the time he turned around to look at her again the two had gone around a bend. Shrugging his shoulders, he walked into the glass foyer to the security guard's station, followed by his driver.
"I'm Marcus Wagner, and I'm here to see the patient in room 21."
The security guard raised his eyebrows at that, and raised them even more when the computer indicated that Wagner was cleared for that most secret of rooms.
"I'll get an escort for you right away, sir."
"Also, I'd like to talk to Dr. Landau."
"I'm sorry, sir, but you must have just passed him and Dr. Shelley on the way out. He won't be back until much later."
His feeling of unease grew at that. A few minutes later an escort came out, an attractive nurse who seemed annoyed at having her rounds interrupted.
"Come this way, Mr. Wagner. I'll take you to Room 21."
She turned peremptorily and walked off, and Marcus's irritation increased with each cold step. When they reached the end of a long hallway, the nurse walked in and bumped into him as she hurried back out. The haughty look she had worn disappeared into panic.
"She's gone!" the nurse said, almost to herself, then rushed over to the doctor's station and punched a button on a work screen. "Secure the premises, this is a priority alert. Patient MH21 is missing. Repeat, patient MH21 is missing."
Marcus began reviewing the last few minutes as the nurse hurried away, oblivious of the man she'd escorted. The image of the woman in the wheelchair came back to him. Take off her glasses, let her hair down, and . . .
"Come on!" he shouted to his bodyguard as he started running back the way he'd come. "They must be in the parking lot!"
The two men slammed through the front foyer, past the startled security guard, reaching the parking lot just as the red Porsche they'd parked next to pulled out of the lot. One of the back doors on the limo was ajar, and as Marcus climbed in he realized that the woman they'd come with was gone, along with his laptop.
"Son of a bi -- screw her, we need to follow that car!"
His driver looked like he might object for just a second, then dropped into the front seat and started the car. Marcus missed the look that John gave him as they pulled out of the lot.
Candy Cups, star of more than thirty erotic tri-vids, looked up in confusion as the big black car that had been carrying her screeched off. She had needed to pee, and there was nowhere in the car to do it, so she went outside. The picture of the fish-woman on the computer-box had attracted her, so she took it with her, though vaguely she knew that Marcus might not like it. She liked the picture, it was pretty and was almost solid like the videos she made when she had sex. She wanted to be like the picture, be a fish-woman.
She wandered aimlessly in the woods surrounding the hospital, with no real purpose now that her initial task was done. She'd had a purpose once, she knew it. She just couldn't remember what it was. Maybe Marcus knew. A single tear dropped slowly down her cheek . . . yes, Marcus had to know. He knew everything. The tear didn't stop.
Mariah relaxed and let the sights and smells of the area wash over her. The scent of eucalyptus trees, the last traces of a lingering fog, and the ever present tang of the ocean made her realize how long it had been since her nose hadn't been assaulted by antiseptic cleaners trying only semi-successfully to hide the subtle sickly sweet smell of blood and corruption.
Traffic was moving well for being late afternoon, and she smiled as she looked at the passerbys on the sidewalk, kids on rollerblades, young couples with babies, old men and women watching the world go by. Yet, as she thought about her own form, that smile disappeared. She was an anomaly now, something that no more belonged on the sidewalks of this city than she belonged in a hospital ward. Vaguely she remembered coffee shops where she'd read for hours, or occassionally debates with her grad students over some obscure point of international maritime law. That world too was closed to her . . . she was dead, at least from the standpoint of the university, and to show up like this -- "Hi, I've been conducting field experiments in biological morphology!" -- no, that would definitely not wash.
"So what do I do now?" she asked herself aloud.
"What's that?" Richard responded, jolting her out of her reverie. She wasn't sure when Dr. Landau had become Richard in her mind, but he undeniably had.
The need to talk outweighed her reservations,"Look at me!"
"With pleasure,"he responded automatically, then became a little chagrined as she glared at him.
"That's the point. I'm an academic, not a goddamn porn-queen. I've become used to the tail,"she flexed her tailfin and it peeked out from beneath her dress," hell, I almost like it, but I have no desire to become a sex object. With this body I have as much chance of my intellectual views being heard as a whisper in front of a jet engine."
"Well, yeah," he conceded, "in that light I can see what you mean."
"Can you really?" she said, a dangerous note coming into her voice. "Has it ever occured to you how hard it has been to become accepted as a scientist for a woman? That I spent the better part of my life deliberately avoiding looking pretty, just so that men would stop seeing me as something found only in Playboy and start thinking of me as a human being?"
"But you were dead!" Richard answered, nearly yelling. "If it hadn't been for me, you would have become an intellectual zombie, pretty shell or no."
"Do I look like an intellectual zombie to you?!" she practically shrieked, then paused for a second before laughing quietly. "Well, yes, I do look like an intellectual zombie."
"But I don't have to . . ."
"What?" Richard responded, a little surprised at the abrupt turn of her moods.
"I'm beginning to feel like I'm back in my own skull -- there are a few rooms here and there for which I'm trying to find the keys, but for the most part I'm at least close to what I was before. Why doesn't that normally happen?"
"I'm not sure -- it's not just the amount of time in the nutrient baths. If you spend too long in there normally, the mechanisms that activate the regrowth of cellular tissue go wild. It's like every part of the body goes terminally cancerous at the same time."
"So why didn't that happen with me?"
"Still trying to figure that one out. I think it had to do with the fact that we were literally regrowing you from the inside out. Each cell has a slightly different set of mitochondria than it did when you . . . died. There is almost no DNA in you that is exclusively yours anymore. And because of that, the mental deterioration didn't occur. I'm just trying to figure out why you're not a complete vegetable."
"No, seriously. Your neurons and dendrites and other brain structures are completely rebuilt. Why weren't they wiped clean, since they were new. That was my concern from the start."
"Because they didn't grow in a vaccuum," Mariah thought, after a bit. "Memories are basically patterns, not single neurons. When a new neuron grew, it grew within the framework of the other neurons, and they all didn't grow at the same time. The whole time I was in the tank, and even for some time thereafter, I had vivid nightmares about some of the strangest things, stuff I hadn't thought about in decades."
"You did?! Up until a few weeks ago, your dream state was practically flat. That was what worried me most, that you didn't have any dreams at all."
"Weird. I . . ."
"What is it?" Richard asked, aware of a sudden pause as Mariah looked in the mirror.
"That black limo behind us. It was at the hospital."
"Huh? Are you sure?"
"I was thinking at the time that it'd have to be one cocky bastard to have a vanity plate saying 'BIG MAN'. It's the same car. I'm sure of it."
"Hell! What do we do now?"
"How far are we from the nearest beach?"
"Not far, maybe five miles," Richard replied.
"Good. Head there, I have a plan."
"What . . .?"
"Don't ask? What do you mean, don't ask?"
"I . . . turn here!"
"But we missed the turn-off ramp . . . Mari--?!"
Mariah grabbed the wheel and turned it hard, forcing them into the meridian and down a distressingly tilted incline onto the exit ramp. The underside of the car hit the ground with a sickening scrape, Richard groaning under his breath "My car! My beautiful car!"
"What the hell did you do that for?" Richard rounded on her.
"It threw them off our trail, didn't it?" she yelled back, only reluctantly letting go of the wheel. For a second Richard just stared at her, his mouth doing a remarkable imitation of a grouper or a bass. Then he shook his head and took back the wheel, turning at the signs for Harbor Beach.
"What are you going to do?" he asked after a chilly interval.
"Go to the beach, I think."
"Go to the . . . are you mad?"
"No, Richard," Mariah replied quietly. "I am a mermaid."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"What's that got to . . . Richard, what do you think? I was a research biologist before this; its not that big a step. Besides, I don't think Wagner's going to take kindly to you stealing his prize fish."
"It makes sense. He's the one who bought my contract; he apparently has no compunction about torturing, and killing, young women. My guess is that he's been pressuring the hospital to get me released; am I right?"
"Oh, hell," Richard said, a shocked look on his face. "Yeah, that would make sense. I never actually met the man, but I did see a picture of him once -- we passed him on the way out. I knew he looked familiar."
"So we're going to the beach."
With that, Mariah started pulling off her coat and skirt.
"What the hell are you doing now?" Richard asked, his voice sounding like he couldn't take many more surprises.
Briskly, Mariah began unbuttoning her blouse.
"I want you to take me to the edge of the water and drop me in." Each piece of clothing went into a sealable plastic bag, along with her purse. "And watch the road, not me."
"Look, why can't we go back to my condo . . . we can hide out there."
"Think, Richard. You're supposed to be a genius, act like one. A man like that has connections, and some of them doubtless carry nicknames like 'Jimmy the Spleen.' Finding where you live is too easy and too obvious." Mariah was topless now, and Richard struggled hard not to stare.
"But going into the ocean? Mariah, I don't even know how stable your matrix is, let alone whether you have the ability to survive in the sea."
"I will survive. I must. You cannot know how much the sea is calling me right now."
The truth, she thought. The scent of the salt laden air brought ripples down her spine, down to her tailfin. She needed to escape and clothes would hamper her, that was also true and practical, but the air rushing against her bare skin excited her in ways she wouldn't have thought possible. Clothes felt constricting now, confining, and she would not be confined. Never again.
"I will be okay,"she said to Richard, smiling as she realized how discomforting her nudity was to him. She brushed her tailfin against his leg, and the motion so startled him that he gunned the accelerator. Right past a cop.
Suddenly the mirrors were ablaze with Christmas tree lights.
"Oh, shit," said Richard. "What am I going to --"
"What? But you're naked!"
"I don't know why I let myself get involved in this," Richard muttered as he pulled against the curb.
"Because you made me," Mariah replied quietly, "and I'll never forgive you for that."
Joe Sardere had been on the force for twelve years, the last eight behind the wheel. There weren't as many opportunities for advancement here in the suburbs as there were downtown, but Joe had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he was a very good traffic cop and not really good for anything else. A certain comfort in that, he'd thought more than once. He had seen some unusual things, but it was safe -- his wife and kids knew that he wouldn't work later, that the worst he was likely to encounter was an irate councilman. It was a good life.
He approached the red Porsche from the rear -- reasonably certain it belonged to a doctor. They almost always did. His companion's shoulders were bare, probably in a swimsuit. She'd be worth a look if nothing else. Joe reached the driver's side and grunted "License, please --"
And then he saw the mermaid.
She sprawled seductively on the seat, her breasts quite naked, her tail wrapped in such a way as to prove conclusively that she wasn't wearing a costume. She smiled at him, an angel's smile within a cloud of black hair, one hand brushing against her breast, the other lost in her hair. One glance showed Joe how mermaids could do it. Family man or no, he had become almost painfully hard.
"Is anything wrong, officer?" the mermaid asked in a dulcet voice. If anything, he became harder. His pen shook as he tried to write out the traffic citation, and finally it dug so hard into the paper that it tore the ticket in half.
"Excuse me, sir . . . ma'am. My radar must have, er, malfunctioned. Uh, good day to you."
He turned and walked painfully back to the car, his eyes still full of that body and the . . . it had been a fishtail . . . no, probably not. He needed a break.
"Central, car 24," he said shakily into the mike, "cancel that last. I'm going off for 30."
"10-4, car 24," the female voice of the dispatch paused. "Are you okay, Joe?"
"Yeah, Central, I'm all right."
He pulled past the car and into traffic, desperately not looking at the passenger in the red Porsche. It was getting too hot, that was it. Way too hot.
Mariah fished the lab coat out of its plastic bag and put it back on. She felt slightly soiled and all too naked now, even with the coat on. Human values. Strange how sometimes she felt distanced from them, as if the differences within her went deeper than her altered legs. She looked down at her tail, light catching the smooth scales and scattering a thousand rainbows. A twitch of a muscle that had no analog in her previous life spread her tail fin out, the webbing translucent against the bundled sacks of clothing -- she could feel the texture of the bags beneath her fin, feel it in a way that she could not describe to a human . . . to another person.
There was a madman chasing her -- she had no doubt that Wagner would continue to pursue her; she seen men like that before, men who saw women as toys for their own twisted games. In a way, Mariah wanted him to follow her, wanted him to find out first hand the true price of trading in human souls. That she might die in such an encounter did occur to her, but what the hell, she had already died once. Maybe this time she'd get it right.
The cries of seagulls reached a crescendo pitch, and at the periphery of her awareness Mariah could make out the pulse of the sea, the crash and shush of waves breaking against the sand. She could feel that rhythm in her chest and all along the myriad scales of her fishtail. Whether the feeling, the almost erotic tingling that spread through her, was the call that she had heard before in her first life or that her form dictated a primal urge toward the sea she couldn't say. The sea was her element, not the sterile confines of a hospital or the dry streets of a human city or the harem of a deranged man. It was all she could do not to rip off the coat she wore and struggle to the water's edge as they pulled into the parking lot next to the beach.
"So what do you want to do?" Richard asked, quietly. She could hear the anger in his voice, the frustration and perhaps something else.
"Take me into the surf. I can get away for awhile, adapt, and after the heat's quieted down, I'll call you."
"You should be coming with me now," he paused, trying to find the words he wanted to say. "There's too much we don't know . . . I don't know . . . about you. You could be hurt, the genetic processes could start to decay. Mariah, you could die."
Mariah didn't say a thing. Instead, she did pull the lab coat off, so that she sat naked in the car. Richard started to say something, then stopped when he saw the look in her eyes. Seal's eyes, brown with pupils so wide she hardly seemed to have whites. Eyes that bore into him, tearing away at his humanity, eyes that had seen the other side of death. The Sirens had those eyes.
"Take me to the water, Richard, please . . . we may not have much time."
He got out of the car and picked her up out of her seat, marginally aware of how strange this must look to others. There were others; it was a warm day and a popular beach, and though not the crush of people that a weekend brought, enough people did stop and stare to make him uncomfortable. He marveled that Mariah seemed so unconcerned; as if the sight of a man carrying a nude and voluptuous mermaid was something that happened every day. He shifted his grip (god, she was heavy), and nearly dropped her when he accidentally brushed his hand against the side of a breast.
"We are filming a film," she muttered sotto voce, making him nearly again drop her as he realized she was as aware of the eyes staring as he was. "I am a mermaid pretending I'm an actress pretending I'm a mermaid."
Mariah giggled at that and shifted closer, very much closer. She was breathing deeply, and for all that he had seen countless female chests doing the same thing though medical school Richard had a hard time concentrating on walking. They reached the edge of the water, waves tugging at his pant legs as sand filled his shoes. Mariah's tail flexed and swayed in the water, catching the crashing water and flinging it in the air. One particularly heavy wave hit both of them and drenched them, making Richard look like a sorry puppy, but with Mariah, a sea change took place. Rivulets of water ran down her breasts and arms and tail, scales catching the light and sending up a thousand tiny rainbows. Her lips brushed his then they were locked in a kiss that left both of them breathless.
"It's a pity I don't have my cameras set up. This would be a good scene."
Both Mariah and Richard froze, passion fled as quickly as it had flared up. Slowly, reluctantly, Richard turned around to see a short man in an expensive Italian suit, his hand on a snub-nosed revolver. A couple paces behind him stood his chauffer, a tall man in black suit and hat who looked far to hardened to be just a menial driver. He had passed the two on the way out of the clinic with Mariah, and the brief, inexplicable shudder of dread he had felt then became understandable.
"I'm a little disappointed with you, Dr. Landau. I could almost think that you've developed an attachment to one of your patients. The problem is, this one's mine."
"I am no such thing, Wagner," Mariah said, surprising Wagner almost as much as it surprised Richard.
"Oh, she speaks?" the man said, a hint of irritation in his voice. "You're wrong, you know. I have a contract that I paid perfectly good money for that says you are mine to do with as I will. As far as the law's concerned, you're dead and buried.
He looked back at Richard. "You can still redeem yourself, you know. I could use a good scientist like you. The process you developed could make us both very, very wealthy. Just bring her back here and we'll discuss this like reasonable men."
"Yes," Richard replied quietly, "like reasonable men."
He took one step forward, then with a shout of "Go!" flung Mariah into the waters. She disappeared into the waves with a kick of her tail.
He pulled the trigger and watched impatiently as Richard crumpled into the waves, a hand reaching for the red stain on his shoulder. Swearing, he practically threw the gun into John's hands, growling, "You watch him. I'm going to go after the bitch!"
With that, he waded into the surf as John fished the doctor out of the water.
Underwater the gun shot echoed muffled and distant, like a crack of lightning a couple of miles away, but the sound was still unmistakable. And here Mariah was blind. The crashing waves boiled around her, turning the sea into a froth of white and tossing her about with abandon. Her tailfin became a liability, it's surface dragging the rest of her through the undertow, and around her the sounds of the water overwhelmed her as much as the undertow. She struggled against that flow of water to head deeper, away from the breakers, knowing now at an almost primal level while sharks and dolphins didn't approach to close to the beach. She was being reborn into a violent, turbulant world, and Richard was dying if not already dead.
"Push, damn you," she shouted to herself silently as she tried to kick her tailfin against the water. Maybe Richard had been right. Maybe she wasn't strong enough yet to survive. She surged again against the water, then tumbled as she fell out of the slip stream and into more tranquil waters.
For several seconds she lay there panting, watching exhausted as the sand swirled around her, before she realized that she was breathing underwater, effortlessly. She had never asked about that, had never known whether she could or not, afraid to take the risk of dying again from something as silly as drowning. She closed her eyes and let the sounds wash over her, the rumble of the surf, the colorful jumble of children splashing in the waves, an airplane's buzz echoing lazily through the water. And at the limit of her perceptions were the other sounds, the songs of whales and dolphins, the rush of currents beneath the surface, the deep, rhythmic heartbeat of the sea itself as it ebbed and flowed.
Mariah was home. Now she had to do something about the intruders.
She followed the pulse of a wave and stuck her head up behind it, hopefully not being seen. Thirty yards away, she saw Wagner kicking through the water, cursing. On the beach, his bodyguard kneeled over Richard, the servant's coat draped over the doctor's body. Richard wasn't moving.
"You son of a bitch," she muttered, surprised at how vehemently she said it. It was time to put this to an end.
Mariah kicked her tailfin and shot forward, clearly visible against the water. With a splash she re-emerged, a dozen feet from Wagner, propping herself up on her tailfin. She breathed deeply, her breasts rising and falling in an almost exaggerated fashion, her hips just clearing the water. She swayed there, beckoning with her hands. She looked ridiculous, Mariah thought, if the guy had any brains at all he would see through this ruse. She muttered a small prayer to whatever goddess was listening that she hoped he thought with his groin.
For a second, he looked startled, then a huge, silly grin broke out on his face, ear to ear. He stared at her naked breasts, at the nipples shaking slightly in the cool air. Wagner waded out toward her, a look of pure carnal lust etched on his features, oblivious to everything but the mermaid in front of her. Mariah vowed she would become a high priestess of the goddess that had answered her prayers.
Fighting her disgust she embraced him, pressing her breasts against his chest, her arms clutching his back, her mouth reaching for his. Then she whipped her tailfin around his legs and with a jerk, pulled him under.
For a few seconds he tried to struggle from her embrace, fought as he realized now the price of trying to make love to a mermaid. Wagner screamed, and water poured into his mouth. His blows fell weakly against her breasts like lover's caresses, each one lesser than the last. She held him there, held him so that he could see her bare nipples inches from his eyes, held him there so he would feel the brush of her thighs against his, held him there until his stare became fixed in his face for all eternity. She felt his last convulsion, a parody of an orgasmic thrust, and then he was as dead as she had been.
"Oh, damn," Richard mumbled as he returned to consciousness. His shoulder felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer to it, and the pain throbbed almost as badly in his head. This was not the best day he could remember.
Opening his eyes he saw a man peering over him, a look of concern in his eyes. It took a few seconds for Richard to place the face as the bodyguard's, especially since the man's coat now seemed to be used as a blanket over him.
"I think you'll be all right," the man said as his eyes swept the wound.
"Mariah?" Richard said, struggling to sit up. The pain made him grunt, but he was able to sit up.
"She and Maxwell disappeared in the waves," he said dispassionately. "Neither one's come up."
"Oh, god, no . . ." he closed his eyes against the setting sun, and against the possibility, the likelihood, that she would not be coming back.
"I need to go," the man said.
"I thought you were his bodyguard," Richard asked. It wasn't important; why did he need to ask that? It was almost like the man was waiting.
"He was an asshole. I could save him from bullets, but not his own libido.
"Besides, he killed my girlfriend in one of his movies, and brought her back. Sort of."
Richard knew without asking who she was, remembered the vacant eyed woman in the lab several months before. Not one of his, though his conscience began to wonder how many like that were his. He could no longer hide his work under the shield of scientific research -- those were people he had worked with, people that had not truly been given a choice. People like Mariah.
The man turned and walked away. Just as he reached the edge of the sand, he said over his shoulder, "I'll be in touch." Then he was gone.
Richard's gaze flicked out to the water again. Mariah would be long gone, too. He understood now what she had felt, why she had . . . hated . . . him so much. She was in her element now, and he would accept that -- in time. With a sigh he turned away and started back toward the car.
"If you think you're going to abandon me here like this, Richard Landau, I'll . ."
From a bystanders perspective, their reunion was almost comical. Richard turned and lurched toward the figure sprawled on the beach, her tail slapping the ground as she struggled upright. When they did meet, mermaid's tail and injured shoulder and all, Mariah started crying and held him tight. For just a second, Richard caught the haunted look in her eyes as she stared into the surf, then she huddled even closer to him. It was over . . .and it was a beginning.
Mischati Genetics went up in a spectacular blaze a few days later, the fire so intense that it melted much of the strange medical equipment there beyond recognition. No bodies were found, surprising given the number of beds in the facility. In another part of town John Machevnick bought up the production facilities of Wagner communication, apparently after the owner, Maxwell Wagner, had skipped town with a sizeable amount of cash from the company's coffers. Production was stopped, and the strange actors and actresses, many of whom lived on-site, disappeared into the night.
The old man stared blearily into his beer, the sixth tonight. Normally, McConnel would have stopped serving the old seaman quite some time ago, but there had been a look in his eyes that made the bartender realize that this man needed to get seriously drunk. Finally, in a blurry, beer-tinged croak, he opened up.
"'Connel, you ever see a mermaid?"
"Me? Nah, course not. They're not real."
The old man nodded, self satisfied.
"Well, boy, I saw one tonight. Better yet, I saw a whole bunch of 'em. They cut my nets away, then this blonde-haired gal, lord what a figure, she crawls up onto my boat and blows me a kiss, until this black-haired un starts calling to her like a fish wife. I lost my nets, but it was worth it."
McConnel just nodded and walked over to a call a cab. Mermaids. He definitely needed a cab.
"What the hell'd you do something so stupid as that for?" John said, quietly but with definite irritation. His powerful flukes stirred the water at the edge of the dock but he stayed in place, and Cynthia just smiled as she admired his naked body. Granted, she was just as naked as he was, and her tail started as low on her as his did on him.
"He was an old man; and half drunk to boot. I was just having some fun." She breathed deeply, and watched with satisfaction as he responded. It did take him a little bit to realize how much he had responded, and with a growl of frustration (and, she knew) of love, he shook his head and jumped into the water. He did have nice buns.
Still, she knew she had earned at least the ire of Mom, if not his, and that it was well deserved. The twenty seven mermaids and mermen, all brought back from the walking hulks that had populated Wagner's studio, knew full well that they now lived in a hostile world, and it was up to them to at least save a portion of it. Mariah, or Mom, as the others now called her, had already given her a stern dressing down even if she had been every bit as visible to the drunk as Cynthia had. She touched her breasts, once the pride of Candy Cups as she had called herself in her past life, and then fingered the scales that started at mid-thigh. This was what she wanted, this and the mission, a chance to be whole again even if not fully human, a chance to save a world that she could do something about, rather than be a passive victim. That much she had gotten from Mom, and from silent, beautiful John. She grinned her mischevious grin again and followed the merman into the water, intent on letting him now just how beautiful she thought his body was.
Mariah smiled herself as the young mermaid disappeared into the water, a woman who could have been her daughter for the age difference. Not that you could tell by looking at either one of them of course. Still, Mariah still wore her hair in a bun as often as not, and the lab coat she had worn so many months before had become practically her trademark. Cynthia was a success story, and John, two who loved one another with almost painful passion. She had known that feeling.
The sea cave where they had found a home took a lot of reworking to make it liveable for the small colony. Her own area was separate; all of the mers looked to her for leadership, and they would not have it any other way. Richard may have been the one to change them, to bring out the potential for living again that they otherwise couldn't have had, but she was the one that motivated them and kept them in line, that cured their hurts and listened to their nightmares in the night. She was mother to them, and a heavier responsibility she didn't know. Still, this was her destiny.
Sighing, Mariah plunged into the water, lab coat and all, and with a flip of her tail was gone.
Sea Change copyright 1996 by Kurt Cagle.
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