by Victoria Zelvin

Her fingers hover over the keyboard, touching but not pressing. In the dark of her cabin the white of her screen burns. Fingers over the M and E. Shifting a little bit, ready to hit the R and M again, but not yet ready to commit to the A or the I or the D.

After some time, she gives up. For the first time in her life, Dr. Lise Feuerstein decides it would be easier to call someone instead of sending an email. She may not have known what exactly she’d found or why she feels like she’s crested a hill on a roller coaster, but she’s certain she’s expected to slow down and kick it up to her manager.

“I’m sorry, you found a what?”

In retrospect, calling has not been any easier. Lise shifts in her chair. “An undocumented life form.”

Her manager’s lips purse. He’s grainy thanks to the quality loss between planets, but she can still see enough of his prim face to be painfully aware that her every expression must be visible if he ever looks up from his other windows.

Lise’s own Point Nemo, the lone manned outpost for six thousand miles in any direction, is a respite from the concerns he’s carrying. Or, it’s supposed to be. They’re still there, on the edges, and thrown into sharp relief with every email and holochat she has with the rest of the universe.

Office drama. Layoffs, the promise of more to come.

Her manager, a stout little man named Tim has his glasses perched low on his nose, a pen in hand as he scribbles something on his tablet—but, still, her heart jumps around like he’s staring directly at her, studying her every move. There’s a barrier between them, a barrier more than just the many thousands of miles between them.

The pregnant pause ends with a loaded: “Care to elaborate on that?”

She glances at a little note-to-self stuck to her screen, written in looping cursive writing—stop apologizing—and sucks in a breath to talk. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to derail the meeting. I’m on track to meet my other deliverables and it was in the process of salinity and chemical testing near the hydrothermal vents near mount zone 3bc416, and I just want to say that I know your time is limited—”

“Lise. Can we get to the point, please?”

“It’s just that I think I’ve discovered something anomalous that I am not quite certain might be an unknown, I’ve not done exhaustive research on it as of yet, but all the same I wanted to—”


Lise shuts her eyes. There are more words trying to bubble up her throat, but now she isn’t sure how to say them.

She does hate to make waves.

Only, she’s brought it up. Called him special (or, okay, IM’d him to see if he was busy after checking his calendar to confirm he wasn’t, and then called him special). Lise is sure of what she’s seen, just not how to communicate it.

She takes in a deep breath through her nose. Lifts her face. Opens her eyes.

“I think I found a mermaid.”

There’s a heavy sigh that about bowls her over. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but if that’s an attempt at being funny it’s poorly timed, Lise.”

“That’s what it looks like!”

She hadn’t meant to say it so loudly. She wants to take it back as soon as she hears how loud she’s said it, like she can stuff the words back into her mouth to unmake them, because he’s staring at her. After a second, he even sets his tablet and pen aside and folded his hands over his desk like a principal, leaning forward to make eye contact with her through the screen. “Okay, Lise. What the hell are you talking about?”

She doesn’t exactly know, to be honest. She has a lot to say about it, though. She talks for almost a full half an hour, in rambling circuitous sentences that she is convinced don’t make a lot of sense, but he lets her say them. He prompts her to say more. Mermaid. Once she’s said it she can’t seem to stop. Mermaid. She’s found a mermaid. Deep in the Thetis Sea on an alien world humans have been exploring for almost three hundred years, she’d found a mermaid.

M-E-R-M-A-I-D, mermaid.

She sends him the footage while she’s still on the line. She watches him watch it, watches his expression go from guarded to surprised to intrigued to hungry, his teeth grinding together and a muscle jumping in his temple and her stomach is already sinking before he looks back at her, a hardness in his eyes, and tells her they need to take this higher.

Lise tells herself she hasn’t annoyed him, but doesn’t quite believe it. Her fingers itch to type out a chat, but her only real friend doesn’t work here anymore.

There’s nothing wrong with the word mermaid from an etymological perspective. Maybe in practice it has grown a bit sexist, a primarily male sexual fantasy of a hot blank slate coming out of the ocean to rely on them, but all the same the word itself held power. It has long been a cultural shorthand across Earth, a word that brought the same image of a redhead woman with a fishtail and a clam bra to mind. Cry mermaid and everyone assumes Ariel.

Lise’s mermaid is blubberous, bulbous. Like a seal, all the bones and corners rounded off, built for the crushing cold and pressure of the deep. A defined head, though, angular, with a mouth and a thin nose and eyes in all the human places. Still, it seems more ethereal, if only because its skin was so transparent it looks like it’s floating in the ocean around it. Like there isn’t a physical shape there after all.

In this moment, she envies it that.

Her manager called in the vice president. Her boss’s boss, now on video chat, staring directly at her.

They’re talking, at least. That means she doesn’t have to.

Lise smiles on instinct. Her heart still hammers.

She decides to hold her breath instead, and smiles wider when he glances her way, as if the default setting of Dr. Lise Feuerstein’s face is a smile.

They’re talking their way around it, out of it. They’re both going through points in the second-hand summary Tim gave to Scott, giving reasons why she’s reached the wrong conclusion, asking pointed questions that her AI is copying to her task list each time she nods. Her tongue feels fat. She could speak up, give her own account, refute some of what Tim says (the video isn’t hard to make out, it’s right there, it’s only eleven seconds, but it’s right there) but she doesn’t. She’s focusing on breathing. Or not breathing. Or the delicate balance of breathing and not breathing.

They have better things to do, after all. She can read between the lines. They’re doing this out of formality. They’re just doing their due diligence. They’re showing her kindness, respect, but they think it’s a waste of time. And on and on, until the meeting is over and done with and Lise hasn’t said much of anything at all.

The vice president is looking at her. Her manager is looking at her. The camera’s eye is looking at her.

“… maybe I need to double check my notes.”

And that’s it. Some of the pressure bleeds from the room like someone loosening hold of a balloon, but it comes at the expense of the vice president looking at her like, aren’t you silly, the poor dear’s so fragile. They’re patronizing, they’re taking advantage of her quiet, they’re bulldozing her… and that voice sounds more like her friend Dr. Anna Torva, outspoken until the moment she stepped out the door, instead of her inner anxious monologue.

“I know things have been difficult as of late,” her manager’s manager says, in a gentle tone. “If there’s anything you need to talk about—” Lise quickly shakes her head. “—you know my door is always open. If you need time, too, I get it. Totally okay. Just work it out with your manager, okay?”

“Hm,” Lise hums, nodding. She glances at her manager, who too is looking at her kindly, but with a harder edge. He must be annoyed that she made him call his boss when she didn’t know for certain—

But she did know. She does know.

“If there’s nothing else?”

“No, thank you for your time, Scott,” her manager speaks up. Lise feels a perverse sense of relief that he’s done so. She just wants this to be done. She is less happy that when after the vice president hangs up the video call, her manager lingers.

There’s silence for a little while, Lise staring at him, him staring back, the camera staring at her too for just an extra bit of screw you. She fidgets, low, under the desk, picking at her cuticle.

He knows, buzzes in her head like a hornets nest. He knows, he knows.

He knows she and Anna were about attached at the hip, two halves of the same whole. She’d also very much prefer he doesn’t know she’s anything but supremely happy here, never better, but between Anna and the layoffs, Lise suspects he must also know that Lise would very much prefer to do her job searching on the side while she still has a job as a safety net…

“… are you feeling alright, Lise?”

“You know me,” she replies, quickly. Offers him a smile. “Apologies, wasn’t sure of the protocol for something like this. But I’ve got my action items and will follow up. Thanks for taking the time. Sorry again.”

Tim looks skeptical for a moment, but then he glances down to the bottom right corner of his screen and never looks back up again. “Thanks for your work on this, Lise,” he says, and then it was over.

It’s just Lise again, Lise and her drones and her empty outpost and her titrations and a list of questions and action items pressing against her mind’s eye like a brand.

She reaches to slip the cover back over her webcam. Her stinging eyes catch a moment on the sticky note on the bottom corner of her screen like an accusation.

Stop apologizing.

She takes time to decompress before she goes back to that AI assembled list. The first thing she does is play her music, loud enough to drown out any attempts her thoughts made to echo throughout the empty space. Her home base is a small science outpost, mostly three circular living rooms on the surface of the water built on top of a small rock outcropping with several more rooms and drone bays under the water. There are large windows to let the sunlight in and for viewing fish, and even though they didn’t open because of the toxic atmosphere of the planet, the Thetis Sea still stretched out pleasantly to the horizon.

The rule she gives herself is this: when the anxiety of not checking the list outweighs the anxiety of checking the list, only then would she check the list.

Lise sets the station’s five drones to work on their automated search paths, none of them going back to the lattice covered coral because it’s already been mapped, but she keeps an eye on #3 which comes within the nautical mile. She changes out of work clothes into her usual comfortable pajamas, because she had no one left to be presentable for. Then, she stalls with dinner. Replaces the music with a podcast about the salinity of the far off Pacific Ocean.

In the privacy of her own outpost, Lise stalls and stalls until she feels like a bad person for not getting back to her boss by now. The intertwining feelings of panic hit a crescendo when she sits down and waits for the notes to load, but peaks and dissipates when she actually starts reading. The good thing about expecting the worst so much is that she was oftentimes pleasantly surprised by the actual outcome, even if most of the action items started with her least favorite word: if.

It’s more disheartening than outright accusatory. She grabs a paper notepad and jots action items down into a more digestible distillation than the AI’s near verbatim notes.

  • log the anomaly—coloration, size, DOCUMENT IT
  • what does it resemble most? what could it be? RULE things out before pursuing this new hypothesis
  • “let’s not put the horse before the cart” → i.e., don’t call it a mermaid
  • check categorization manual for correct logging procedures and make sure to hit every bullet point.
  • a lot of work has already been done studying this planet. we have to be careful when attempting to claim a new species. go back through the Thetis marine animal encyclopedia and, if not there, identify at least three close relatives that it could be

A part of her resents the implication that she hasn’t done all of that already. She has done all of that already. The mermaid—the anomaly came to her attention a full three and a half hours before she dared to reach out to anyone. Is it her fault that she didn’t bring it up? A smaller, more daring voice in the back of her head adds the addendum to the question: is it their fault that they didn’t let you speak?

She does now, however, have a good excuse for how long it’s taken her to actually check the list. It’s not suspicious to reply now, several hours after the meeting, if she wants them to believe that she’s taking their directions seriously and is studiously checking her work as requested. She does double, then triple, then quadruple check the manual to make certain that she’s laid out her findings in the correct format (she has) and then spends a good fifteen minutes formatting the work she’s already done into an email, but the hard work had been done long before the meeting. All that’s left is to proofread the email six or seven times, aloud and silently, before sending it.

She sends the email. She checks her sent folder and reads it over twice more to ensure she actually sent something coherent and she doesn’t have to send a quick apologetic follow up with further explanation.

She goes back to work.

She does not hear back.

Unless cornered on holo-chat, Tim is a very poor communicator. Several other researchers had already quit under the protest that they were not clairvoyant, but she thinks that her manager’s lack of communication skills complements her own most of the time. They both favor the path of least resistance: he just didn’t reply to things he didn’t want to talk about and she packs her emails tight with phrases like please let me know if you have any questions and please let me know if you need anything else from me and apologies for any confusion and attached please find the requested materials for your review at your earliest convenience, please let me know if you have any questions or need anything else from me, apologies for any confusion, all the best, thank you again, Lise.

As a result, the attached write-up she’s sent him numbers well over three thousand words, thick meaty paragraphs beneath each question, plus additional analysis to provide context for the eleven second clip of the mermaid she also attaches. She could have summed up in a single sentence and question of her own, had she been more daring.

Yes, I saw a new species and attached is proof. Why aren’t we following up on this?

It’s a question she would have sent to Anna, if Anna were still here. Anna would have proofread it with her, if Anna were still here. But, Anna’s not, and only pre-approved company communications on company services are working. Anything she has to say, she has to wait until she’s off the outpost.

Lise’s trapped in the bath when she finds it.

That isn’t to say that she’d fallen or otherwise hurt herself. Only that she’d gotten into the bath with a reasonable expectation of getting out when the water went cold, but instead she’s still there four hours later. She does this by, from time to time, using her toes to pull the drain cover up, only to push it back down when there was just a puddle of old water left, then using her big toe to push the faucet onto hot, refilling the tub until it’s time to turn off the faucet, relax, repeat.

See, one doesn’t just end up trapped in the bath for four hours, thinking their thoughts. Lise has brought activities. Her phone, her tablet, a book, her water, her coffee, and a plate of pretzels lined the tub, all slightly damp, all toyed with, but really only one used. Her tablet, queued up to play the eleven seconds of footage again and again. Her phone is playing music softly, not enough to drown out the ever present lapping of waves outside, as there’s no audio to the drone pilot feed. It’s never been necessary. But she’s trapped in the bath now, watching it over and over again, wondering at that loss. The mermaid, because she can’t call it anything else in her mind, has an open mouth. She imagines, with no proof, that it is singing. Whale song fills her head, drowning out the soft rock from her phone beside her.

And that’s when she sees it.

The mermaid is at the edge of a hydrothermal vent ecosystem, life that springs up at the bottom of the ocean in the absence of the sun. The energy comes from the vent, the heat, the sustenance. On Earth, the communities around the vents are some of the most unique in the ocean, and in the Thetis Sea that’s no different. It’s the eyes, here. All of the animals, skittering or swimming, they have eyes as big as their bodies in some cases. In others, there’s eye shaped limbs, fragile things in a place that evolved to see in the dark.

The life here is smaller on average than the rest of the life in these seas, less crustacean-like and softer than the other animals of the one-ocean world, and most of it scatters from the flashlight of her drone. Most of the hydrothermal ecosystem is covered in lattice-like coral, mostly multi-colored but white in places of collapse or damage. The mermaid is floating by a large part of it, mouth closed, almost rocking back and forth in front of one spot. It looks to be encased by shadows, but from within, at about the four second mark where the mermaid opens its mouth for the first time there is a flash of rainbow.

Lise sits up in the bath.

There’s something there. There’s something in there.

Now she’s watching six seconds, over and over, tapping the screen to watch a three pixel wide rainbow burst of iridescent light shimmer in the smallest corner of the screen. There’s something in the broken lattice coral.

Lise watches it, again and again and again, until she gets a pain behind her eye. That’s her body telling her to back off of the screen time, but what she does instead is close the video and open another app, her chat feed with Anna (the unofficial personal channel, not the official work email one that the managers had admitted to sometimes reading when an employee leaves during the last round of office drama) and sees the last several messages passed between them as a greeting. They’re all dated three weeks ago, before she got to Point Nemo.

Lise, as she took care to warn Anna before she left, is quite poor at keeping in contact with people. Despite a promise to check in as soon as she’s gotten set up at Point Nemo, her head on straight, she hasn’t. And then they’d shuttered access to everything but the official chat app, which she could use to contact Anna, if she wants, even if just to say hi and she’s alive, but it makes her skin crawl. The log from the personal app is just a ghost of what had happened before, a log of complaints and laughs about Tim, about Scott, about how they have to phrase things so management won’t jump down their throats…

Scientist rogue nation, they’d joke. Get it done, then tell them you did it their way, and thank them for their expertise.

Hopefully Anna just assumes that Lise is just busy, not…

Lise double clicks out of the chat app, and pulls up the feed again. She sits in the bath watching it for another twenty minutes and when she gets out she posts up at the computer for the next nine hours.

If she doesn’t tell anyone, they can’t tell her not to investigate, right? After all, why shouldn’t she?

She almost folds at the first hurdle, not two days later.

“I’m seeing you logging a lot of extra hours on the machines,” her manager is saying during their bi-weekly one-on-one. “If you’re struggling, please say so. I can have Moira jump in, take lead on some things.”

Moira. There’s nothing wrong with Moira, who is perfectly lovely, except that she’s an intern with a bachelor’s degree and Lise is a doctor with four and a half years with this company.

Lise shakes her head. “No, no, it’s—no, I’m doing fine. Is there a problem with my reports?”

“No, they’re—” Her manager gives a small shrug. “Thorough, like always. Your machine usage has gone up, though.”

Because I’m looking for the mermaid and some kind of trapped fish I guess now. “Oh, it’s just. Quiet out here,” she says. Thinking fast, not pausing to consider the implications. “Sometimes there’s not much else to do but work, you know?”

Her manager looks up at her, lips pulling down into a frown. Dammit!

“How long has it been since you’ve rotated back out? Must be missing civilization out there. If it was me, I know I would be.”

She fights off a grimace. No, Lise isn’t missing civilization. She likes the quiet, she likes the work — or, she likes most of the work, when it comes via any other medium but this. But, this dedicated time with her manager would be the perfect time to ask about the follow up to the report she’d sent through, about the mermaid.

She could ask.

She should ask.

“How are you doing, Lise?”

Stop apologizing. “Great,” Lise says with a smile, feeling terrible. She clicks her jaw shut, and resolves to try, just try just say something, soften it if you have to but say something, anything. “I was just thinking. About the —“Mermaid.” —anomaly. There might be a there, there. You want me to follow up?” Casual. Maybe too casual. Like she doesn’t care at all.

Like she hasn’t noticed something massive, something that she thinks they’ve missed, all of them. And yet, she doesn’t want to bring it up. She wants to protect it, keep it safe, keep them from taking it away from her.

Tim smiles at her, all teeth, no warmth. “We think your valuable energy is better spent elsewhere. Don’t worry, Scott and I are taking all the appropriate follow up steps.”

And, for a moment, Lise thinks that maybe that’s enough. What she wants.

But, no, what she wants was for someone to give her permission to do so, but he’s giving her an out instead. Her initial compulsion is to accept it, the path of least resistance. It would be easy to agree.

But, she doesn’t.

She doesn’t ask, doesn’t press him, but she doesn’t apologize for asking. It feels like more of a victory before she hangs up with him.

It continues to bother her. Lise shoves the thoughts away with more and more force until they grew too strong, too resilient, emboldened by her secret new evidence.

But it could just be a coincidence, she thinks, as her boss cancels their bi-weekly one on one check ins, citing meetings with Scott though he removes them all from her calendar, not just the next two.

But I could just be overreacting, she thinks, as Tim submits requests for her to submit her ancillary footage from all dives to that vent directly to him, an obscene amount of white noise data that protocol says he shouldn’t have to bother with so long as she’s employed.

She thinks about reaching out to Anna again, to get a sanity check, but she doesn’t know how to put into words her suspicions without casting unfair aspersions on Tim on the corporate communicator. She doesn’t want a paper trail, not of this.

It could be theft, technically, that she’s thinking about taking the drones off the pre-prescribed paths she’s babysitting them on and driving one herself to follow up on the mermaid shaped anomaly. So she doesn’t do that, even as her daydreams of doing exactly that get more and more vivid and detailed.

She spends her down time looking for references that would help her identify the trapped animal in the coral and keeps her head down and does her work studiously as ever, emailing in her standard detailed reports and receiving no response, not even an acknowledgement of receipt.

It takes a full #AllScienceTeam listserv email three days after she first reports to get her to ask with force, but she finally does. She calls Tim right off the bat too, no IM first, though it does occur to her that it’s probably rude to be doing it while it’s ringing. Still, she lets the line ring and ring and just when she thinks she’s going to have to stumble through a voicemail she has no plan for when the screen shifts and Tim appears.

Just because she’s anxious and shy does not mean she’s going to lay quietly in the path of a bulldozer.

“Lise.” He looks surprised, but not for long. There’s a muscle jumping in his temple, for all his tone remains pleasant. “Thanks for all your great work bringing this to our attention. Scott and I really appreciate it.”

“Of course,” she says first, because even now she’s hiding behind the polite rules of engagement. There’s an edge to her voice that she doesn’t think Tim has heard before, though. She may struggle with talking to people, but Tim has torn down the wall called benefit of the doubt between them all on his own. That makes this easier. “I am curious, though, if you could shed some light on why you didn’t mention me at all? Particularly since you make mention of coming to Point Nemo to resume expeditions yourself.”

She hates how it sounds aloud. Selfish. Entitled.

But Tim had lifted full paragraphs from her write-up and included them in his without appropriate accreditation. He had said “one of our more sophisticated drone outposts” like the drones had found it and flagged it, not the scientist manning them. Worst of all, he made mention of a special grant application for individualized research enabling a group of scientists to follow up on the implications of the discovery that would culminate in the presentation of the new species to the public and scientific community at large at the Interplanetary Ocean Sciences Conference on Europa several months from now. The grant application has only two names on it—Tim’s and Scott’s.

Tim’s expression doesn’t so much as flicker when he speaks, his tone still polite. “You? You’re lucky to still have a job, you know.”

Lise doesn’t move, but she feels herself recoil like she’s been slapped. She feels out of body overall as Tim continues, because she can’t quite believe this is actually happening in the real world, not just in an anxiety-fueled daydream.

“With your recent behavior, you have not demonstrated that you are ready for more responsibilities. Frankly, there are many who are growing tired of covering for you, myself included. I know that the layoffs and Dr. Torva’s exit have been difficult for everyone, but that’s no reason to give you special treatment. This is hard on everyone else too.”

“Okay,” Lise says. She’s quiet. Stunned. Tim’s eyebrows furrow a bit. She’s not sure if he expects a fight, but he’s not getting one. She may be anxious by nature, but she’s not a fool. He’s being woefully transparent.

And this isn’t the first time she’s been gaslit.

He tries to keep going, but her non-reaction seems to have sapped some of his steam. “Rest assured, Scott and I will take all the appropriate steps to ensure this important discovery is handled appropriately. We’re prepping an expedition out to Point Nemo ourselves in the next week, though maybe it’s best if we reassign you before we get there. This frankly is more than a bit above your paygrade and an entirely inappropriate ask, not to mention unfair to your fellow colleagues. You need to learn to wait your turn.”

“Okay,” Lise says.

There’s silence. If they had been in the same room, Lise would have been backing away. As it is, she’s as far from her monitor as possible, arms stretched taunt. She says nothing. Tim stares at her. The camera stares at her. Lise stares back.

This conversation, as far as she’s concerned, is over the second he’s made it confrontational. There’s a reason she’s being ambushed where there won’t be a paper trail.

He gives in first. “Sorry, I don’t know if you had more?” It’s prodding. Bait.

“No,” Lise says, quick. It’s like there’s a klaxon in her head blaring ABORT, ABORT, ABORT. “It’s okay.”

It’s not, but she hangs up. She aborts. She doesn’t spring the trap and engage in something she cannot win.

She reaches up to slip the cover back over her webcam to have something to do. Her stinging eyes catch a moment on the sticky note on the bottom of the screen like encouragement.

She hadn’t apologized once. It occurs to her that Tim did, sort of. That feels kind of like a victory.

She decompresses. Takes a moment. An hour, no more than. Walks around the empty base in silence, running her hands over the walls, checking in on the drones, thinking her thoughts, letting the residual anxiety shake out her fingers and toes and into the cool walls. Her mother would say that she’s letting her anger settle. Her father would say she’s letting her anger fester. In either case, it builds, calcifies.

And then, something inside her just… snaps.

Maybe it’s more akin to a dam breaking. Something that gives way inside her and then there’s a rush of feeling. Cooling, like a shower after a hot day.

There’s a web of bureaucracy around her. More so than everyone else left. She’s on a contract that’s not up for another few months, independent, not an employee marked for layoffs. She’s gotten the sense that it’d be easier for everyone else if she just up and quits, but she hasn’t yet been willing to do so without another job lined up. But now, it’s an option, a potentially catapulting one, and seems to be the best (though she reads her contract a few times first to be sure).

She sends the email first. That’s important. She cc’s the entire HR listserv.

It’s the shortest email she’s ever written.

Dear Tim,

Please accept this notice of my willful termination of my contract, effective immediately.

Please let me know if there are any questions.

Thank you very much for your time.

All the best,

Dr. Feuerstein

Lise disconnects. She disconnects from the work feeds and even goes so far as to shut down her computer. She uninstalls the IM service from her phone. She leaves the email app in place so she’ll hear about how she’s actually leaving this planet, but she mutes the alerts. She’s as alone as she’s ever been.

The drones are luckily powered by a separate system. Lise calls them all back from the automated paths immediately, impatiently. HR will send a shuttle for her, as mandated in her contract. It won’t be soon, since she’s at Point Nemo, but she is on the clock starting from when she hit send.

Drone #3 is back first. 76% charge. Lise commandeers that one.

Thumb light on the joystick, Lise guides the drone back on the long path to the lattice coral and the thermal vents.

The plan is to go find that fish. Based on about eleven seconds of footage, that’s what the mermaid was so interested in. If she’s lucky, the fish-shaped-alien is still trapped there, in which case she’ll loiter as long as she can. If she’s supremely, uncharacteristically lucky, the mermaid will be there and will stay still long enough for Lise to get a super high definition picture to point at triumphantly and shout, “HA!”

Okay, maybe not shout, but it’s a good fantasy to pass the time with.

It’s easy to find the spot again. Maybe it’s because she’s long since memorized the coordinates. Maybe it’s because she sees the footage playing on repeat when she closes her eyes.

Maybe, she thinks, with a viciousness she’ll never be able to articulate, they should have listened to me.

But there’s little time for that. Time feels as though it’s on fast forward, both because of the looming deadline and because she’s out of her comfort zone. Lise’s knee bounces up and down under her desk so rapidly that the monitor shakes, but the drone’s course is steady. Just up over that rise, past the twin protruding vents, and…

“Holy shit,” she whispers. The drone sputters, gliding to a slow stop.

The mermaid is there already, bent over the lattice. Bulbous and shimmering, beautiful as a deep sea whale that sprouted arms. It appears to be forcing something like a long stick of coral between the slats. Prying them? Breaking them? Lise is so distracted by the fact that it’s there, it’s right there and it required no more effort than taking a drone out again that she’s too slow on the draw. The mermaid’s head snaps up, eyes on the drone. Lise’s finger shifts to the take photo button. The mermaid darts away into the darkness.

And the picture she has is blurred beyond belief.

Lise shifts, extending her arms to push herself to sit back as far as possible from the monitor. Her heart is racing as if she’s just run a marathon, though her breathing is even. Quiet. There’s a pain in her chest, exacerbated by her heart jamming against it.

“Okay,” she whispers. She’s not sure if she’s going to vomit or cry or maybe both. But there’s a flash of something in the absence of the mermaid’s tail. A little, dull spark of rainbow against the white. Lise urges the drone forward.

She’s holding the controller too tight now. It doesn’t feel like she’s trying to break it so much as trying not to break it, as if snapping metal and plastic is as easy as breathing. Her finger keeps slipping off the joystick. But she moves.

It doesn’t cross her mind not to.

The drone comes to a hover over the broken stretch of lattice coal. There’s no sound, but through the feed Lise can see that the fish is kicking up silt, see that it’s swimming back and forth in the confines of its makeshift cage. Panicked. Trapped.

“Hey,” she whispers. It can’t hear her, but she thinks it’s the thought that counts here. “Hey, it’s okay, you’re okay… let me see… let’s see what I can do.”

The mermaid had been trying to pry it open with a stick. Lise has claw-arms that extend from the drone, for collecting samples. It’s supposed to be done automatically after careful programming, but no machine lacks manual control. She shifts to the other controller after extending the arms, and grips them lightly. Carefully. If she pulls at it wrong, it’ll collapse.

She prods at it a bit first. Testing. Gripping and letting go. Gripping and pulling. She’s forming a mental map of structural integrity, because she only gets one shot at this. It takes a few minutes, enough time for the fish to stop fluttering around and hide in a shadowy corner, but she’s got a plan. A rough one that she’ll have to adapt if things start to go sideways, but she’s got a starting point and that’s always been the hardest thing for her to find.

She lifts with the drone’s arms, picking up the sturdiest looking piece of coral with the arms clamped tight around it. There’s damage to it, but moving slowly, methodically, she manages to get it up at a ninety degree angle. She had been hoping that the animal would skirt out at the first sign of an opening, but it’s still in there, cowering from the light.

“Come on,” she whispers. “Come on, come on, you gotta –”

It’s too late. Half the coral she’s holding snaps and falls. The fish shifts back further into its hole, shaking. Lise grits her teeth, letting the wave of frustration pass through her so she can think clearly on the other side of it. The opening she’s made is now half the size, not enough. Suppose she could do this piecemeal, shift the part she has in her grip

A webbed, translucent hand slips into view. On instinct, Lise freezes, the drone freezes. She barely dares to breath. She has the sense to keep the grip on the coral, allowing the mermaid to shift the broken pieces aside. The hole widens. The mermaid makes a motion with its lips like its whistling, patting its stomach.

At once, the rainbow fish moves. It looks like a dog with its tail between its leg, skirting a wide path around the drone’s light with a wary eye, but that changes the instant it was within arm’s reach of the mermaid. It darts about, whole body wiggling, as the mermaid reaches out to scratch it, to hug it in the moments before it wriggles away, spinning in circles to see it. Smiling? The mouth is open again—no sound, damn there being no sound!—wide and happy to Lise’s prejudiced eye.

“It’s your dog,” Lise whispers. Her eyes are stinging quite suddenly. “It’s your dog.

All at once, it makes sense.

Why would the mermaid be out here alone again in this same desolate spot? Lise has nothing to base this on but her own anxiety, but it seems risky, close to the hydrothermal vents and not much else, out in the open. Why come all the way for food? But, oh, if the dog ran away and then the dog got trapped, oh, it makes sense. Lise gets it.

Amid the darkness, the rainbow fish seems to glimmer as it swirls around the mermaid’s head. When it passes behind it, the mermaid’s skin takes on a neon glow. Lise could stand by and watch all day, and she nearly does, had her eyes not also slipped to the time. It’s still moving in fast forward. She takes the time to carefully, very carefully, put the coral down. Gingerly, like it’s a china plate that might break. Lise only really starts to breathe again when it’s on the ground and the mermaid and the fish are still there. They’re still there even when she retracts the arms. That’s good, that’s good. Just a little more daring, then she’s done…

“Okay,” she whispers. With a soft touch to the joystick, she urges the drone forward. The mermaid freezes a moment, but does not flee. It does lift a webbed hand and press the rainbow fish back behind it, but it looks… curious, almost. Face pinched more than it had been. Head cocking to one side. Lise dares to extend a probe, slow, very slow, agonizingly slow. She can’t risk spooking it now.

The mermaid stretches out a hand to the probe, as Lise needs, and she grits her teeth before she jabs the needle forward, just enough to catch the corner of that hand and snip a tiny piece of DNA off. The mermaid recoils, snapping its hand back with a soft howl, eyes and mouth narrowing at the drone.

“I know,” she whispers. She holds up her hands, even though she knows she can’t be seen. “I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I had to.”

The mermaid flips a webbed hand at the probe as Lise quickly retracts it, DNA safely encapsulated within. It doesn’t appear angry, at least in so far as Lise’s approximation of emotion based on the almost viscous-looking skin. It turns its head to her, drifts closer to the glass. Lise reaches out there, the instinct of a thousand sci-fi first contact vids in her mind, but before she can touch her screen the mermaid flips away and swims off toward the edge of the coral, dog-fish in tow. Lise lets it go unfollowed, hand coming to rest against the warm screen anyway.

It takes some time to catch up to her, the reality of what she’s sitting on. DNA, video. The physical experience of it rushes to the forefront first, as if she’s experiencing the wonder and fear and joy all in three seconds instead of several minutes. It makes her double over her computer.

“Oh,” she laughs. Hysterical at first, but then fading, the lapping waves outside eclipsing all sound as reality settles in around her like a fog rolling in. She’s gotta get the drone back, she’s gotta pack, but right now all she can do is laugh. Lise shuts her eyes, trying to breath slowly to calm her racing heart. “Oh. Oh, hell.”

She can’t seem to keep the smile off her face, though, not even as anxiety chimes in, charting the perilous path she has ahead of her.

“Oh, I’m gonna have to talk to so many people now.”

But there is one in particular she has to talk to first.

She waits only as long as it takes to land back on solid ground, all her belongings in a bag at her feet and one very important bag on her lap—which, should be noted, no one bothered to search. Which is a shame, really, because Lise had spent hours upon hours practicing what to say should someone have reached for it, should someone had asked about the proprietary information she had tucked away inside. It is, quite frankly, insulting, and she fumes about it the entire launch up from the planet.

From there it’s a lonely flight back to Earth, unscheduled but mandated by law in her severance package—even though she resigned herself (ultimately only a HR representative that would speak with her as neither Tim nor Scott responded or acknowledged her in any way, which despite two sleepless nights spent fretting is probably the best case scenario). By the time the shuttle is driving up to the gate, the Personal Devices Must Be In Interstellar Travel Mode sign still illuminated, she’s got Anna’s bright voice in her ear.

“Lise, my dear! How are you?”

Not all the tension bleeds from her, but it’s enough. It’s like stepping into warm, slightly overbearing sunlight—not as bad as feared, pleasant as some would say, but just hot enough to know she’ll need to duck out after a few minutes to avoid sweating. Lise smiles, but this one is more real.

“Anna. It’s been… way too long. I’m, uh. Back on Earth, actually. Literally on the shuttle, but… just wanted to let you know I resigned and—”

“About time, girl! Hey, I’m proud of you, Lise. That’s awesome.”

The smile widens by about double on instinct. She’s surprised by the force of it and stumbles a bit off the script she’d been rehearsing the entire flight. “Hah, thanks. Um, actually, uh, there’s something I need your help with if you’ve got the time. I need your devious mind’s help in decoding the part of my contract that governs what I get to keep if I discover it after my job’s been terminated—”

“Oh my god, I love you, what did you do?”

Lise’s got a pain under her chest, but it’s drowned out by the sudden heat on her face. “Can I buy you a coffee later?”

Lise’s been practicing, for that and what she hopes will come out of it. What she’ll say, someday, hopefully soon, at some conference. Europa’s the closest, most tangible daydream, and after she hangs up with Anna she goes right back to planning for it, plotting out a hundred anxiety-fueled fears. Whatever the case, she’s settled on how she’s going to open her panel.

“Hello,” she whispers to herself, bag held tight to her chest. She’s never, ever letting it go. She’s back on that roller coaster, free of the fear of falling. All it had taken was a daring step out onto her own. “My name is Dr. Feuerstein and I’d like to introduce you to my mermaid.”


Victoria Zelvin is a writer working and living in Washington D.C. with a day job in ocean conservation, and recently earned her MFA from Emerson College. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity, Brave New Girls, and in various anthologies. To read more, please visit: www.victoriazelvin.com

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