This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Condensation covers the walls, dimpling into tiny individual drops that follow an almost fractal pattern, like someone has been writing out the secrets of the universe in the most transitory medium they can find. The smell of damp steel assaults my nose as I walk the hall, uncomfortable boots clumping heavily with every step I force myself to take. The space is tight, confined, unyielding; it is like living inside a coral reef, trapped by the limits of our own necessary shells. We are constantly envious of those who escape its limitations, and we fear for them at the same time, wishing them safe return to the reef, where they can be kept away from all the darkness and predations of the open sea.
The heartbeat of the ship follows me through the iron halls, comprised of the engine’s whir, the soft, distant buzz of the electrical systems, the even more distant churn of the rudders, the hiss and sigh of the filters that keep the flooded chambers clean and oxygenated. Latest scuttlebutt from the harbor holds that a generation of wholly flooded ships is coming, ultra-light fish tanks with shells of air and metal surrounding the water-filled crew chambers, the waterproofed electrical systems. Those ships will be lighter than ours could ever dream of being, freed from the need for filters and desalination pumps by leaving themselves open to the sea.
None of the rumors mention the crews. What will be done to them, what they’ll have to do in service to their country. We don’t need to talk about it. Everyone already knows. Things that are choices today won’t be choices tomorrow; that’s the way it’s always been, when you sign away your voice for a new means of dancing.
The walkway vibrates under my feet, broadcasting the all hands signal through the ship. It will vibrate through the underwater spaces twice more, giving everyone the time they need. Maybe that will be an advantage of those flooded boats; no more transitions, no more hasty scrambles for breathing apparatus that fits a little less well after every tour, no more forcing of feet into boots that don’t really fit, but are standard issue (and standard issue is still God and King here, on a navy vessel, in the service of the United States government, even when the sailors do not, cannot, will never fit the standard mold). I walk a little faster, as fast as I can force myself to go in my standard issue boots, and there is only a thin shell between me and the sea.
• • •
We knew that women were better suited to be submariners by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Women dealt better with close quarters, tight spaces, and enforced contact with the same groups of people for long periods of time. We were more equipped to resolve our differences without resorting to violence—and there were differences. Women—even military women—had been socialized to fight with words and with social snubbing, and the early all-female submarines must have looked like a cross between a psychology textbook and the Hunger Games.
The military figured it out. They hired the right sociologists, they taught their people the right way to deal with conflicts and handle stress, they found ways of picking out that early programming and replacing it with fierce loyalty to the Navy, to the program, to the crew.
Maybe it was one of those men—and they were all men, I’ve seen the records; man after man, walking into our spaces, our submarines with their safe and narrow halls, and telling the women who had to live there to make themselves over into a new image, a better image, an image that wouldn’t fight, or gossip, or bully. An image that would do the Navy proud. Maybe it was one of those men who first started calling the all-female submarine crews the military’s “mermaids.”
Maybe that was where they got the idea.
Within fifty years of the launch of the female submariners, the sea had become the most valuable real estate in the world. Oh, space exploration continued—mostly in the hands of the wealthy, tech firms that decided a rocket would be a better investment than a Ping-Pong table in the break room, and now had their eyes set on building an office on Jupiter, a summer home on Mars. It wasn’t viable. Not for the teeming masses of Earth, the people displaced from their communities by the super storms and tornadoes, the people who just needed a place to live and eat and work and flourish. Two-thirds of the planet’s surface is water. Much of it remains unexplored, even today . . . and that was why, when Dr. Bustos stood up and said he had a solution, people listened.
There were resources, down there in the sea. Medicines and minerals and oil deposits and food sources. Places where the bedrock never shifted, suitable for anchoring bubble communities (art deco’s resurgence around the time of the launch was not a coincidence). Secrets and wonders and miracles of science, and all we had to do was find a way to escape our steel shells, to dive deeper, to find them.
Women in the military had always been a bit of a sore spot, even when all the research said that our presence hurt nothing, endangered nothing; even when we had our own class of ships to sail beneath the waves, and recruits who aimed for other branches often found themselves quietly redirected to the Navy. There was recruiter logic behind it all, of course—reduced instances of sexual assault (even if it would never drop to full zero), fewer unplanned pregnancies, the camaraderie of people who really understood what you were going through as a woman in the military. Never mind the transmen who found themselves assigned to submarines, the transwomen who couldn’t get a berth, the women who came from Marine or Air Force or Army families and now couldn’t convince the recruiters that what they wanted was to serve as their fathers had served, on the land. The submarines began to fill.
And then they told us why.
I drag myself up the short flight of stairs between the hallway and the front of the ship (and why do they still build these things with staggered hearts, knowing what’s been done to us, knowing what is yet to be done?) and join my crew. A hundred and twenty of us, all told, and less than half standing on our feet. The rest sit compacted in wheelchairs, or bob gently as the water beneath the chamber shifts, their heads and shoulders protruding through the holes cut in the floor. There is something strange and profoundly unprofessional about seeing the Captain speak with the heads and shoulders of wet-suited women sticking up around her feet like mushrooms growing from the omnipresent damp.
“At eighteen hundred hours, Seaman Wells encountered an unidentified bogey in our waters.” The captain speaks clearly and slowly, enunciating each word like she’s afraid we will all have forgotten the English language while her back was turned, trading in for some strange language of clicks and whistles and hums. She has read the studies about the psychological effects of going deep; she knows what to watch for.
We terrify her. I can’t imagine how the Navy thinks this is a good use of their best people, locking them away in tin cans that are always damp and smell of fish, and watching them go slowly, inexorably insane. You need to be damn good to get assigned to submarine command, and you need to be willing to stay a drysider. Only drysiders can be shown in public; only drysiders can testify to the efficacy of the program. The rest of us have been compromised.
It’s such a polite, sterile little word. “Compromised.” Like we were swayed by the enemy, or blown off course by the gale-force winds of our delicate emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re a necessary part of public safety, an unavoidable face of war . . . and we’re an embarrassment that must be kept out at sea, where we can be safely forgotten.
“The bogey approached our ship, but did not make contact. It avoided all cameras, and did not pass by any open ports, which leads us to believe that it was either a deserter or an enemy combatant. The few sonar pictures we were able to get do not match any known design configuration.” That doesn’t have to mean anything. There are new models taking to the sea every day. I have my eye on a lovely frilled shark mod that’s just clearing the testing process. Everyone who’s seen the lab samples says it’s a dream come true, and I’m about due for a few dreams.
One of the Seamen raises her hand. She’s new to the ship; her boots still fit, her throat still works. The captain nods in her direction, and she asks, in a voice that squeaks and shakes with the effort of pushing sound through air instead of water, “Didn’t we have anyone on patrol when the bogey came by?”
It’s a good question, especially for a newbie. The captain shakes her head. “We’re here to chart the sea floor and bring back information about the resources here.” What we can exploit, in other words. “All of our sea-going sailors were at bottom level or in transit when the bogey passed near our vessel.”
One of the servicewomen floating near the captain’s feet whistles long and low, a tiny foghorn of a sound. An electronic voice from one of the speakers asks, robotic and stiff, “What are our orders, captain?”
I don’t recognize this sailor. She has the dark gray hair and flattened facial features common to the blue shark mods. There are fourteen blues currently serving on this vessel. I can’t be blamed if I can’t tell them apart. Sometimes I’m not even sure they can tell themselves apart. Blues have a strong schooling instinct, strong enough that the labs considered recalling them shortly after they were deployed. The brass stepped in before anything permanent could happen. Blues are good for morale. They fight like demons, and they fuck like angels, and they have no room left in their narrow predators’ brains for morals. If not for the service, they’d be a danger to us all, but thankfully, they have a very pronounced sense of loyalty.
The captain manages not to shy away from the woman at her feet: no small trick, given how much we clearly distress her. “All sailors are to be on a state of high alert whenever leaving the vessel. High water patrols will begin tonight, and will continue for the duration of our voyage. Any creature larger than an eel is to be reported to your superior officer immediately. We don’t know what the Chinese have been doing since they closed the communication channels between their research divisions and ours. They may have progressed further than we had guessed.”
A low murmur breaks out amongst the sailors who can use words. Others whistle and hum, communicating faster via the private languages of their mods. Rumor keeps saying command is going to ban anything on the ships that can’t be translated into traditional English by our computers, and rumor keeps getting slapped down as fast as it can spread, because the speech is hard-coded in some of the most popular, most functional mods, and without it our sailors couldn’t communicate in the open sea. So people like our poor Captain just have to grit their teeth and endure.
I feel bad for her, I really do. I envy her, too. Did they show her the same studies they’d once shown me, offer her the same concessions if she’d just serve as an example to her yearmates? Was she one of the rare individuals who saw everything the sea could give her, and still chose to remain career track, remain land-bound, remain capable of leaving the service when her tour was up? Oh, they said and said that everything was reversible, but since no one ever chose reversal, we still didn’t know if that was true, and no one wanted to be the test case. Too much to lose, not enough to gain.
The captain begins to talk again, and the buzz of conversation dies down to respectful silence, giving her the floor as she describes our assignments for the days to come. They’re standard enough; except for the bogey or bogeys we’ll be watching for, we’ll be doing the normal patrols of the sea bed and the associated trenches, looking for minerals, looking for species of fish we’ve never encountered before, taking samples. Deepening our understanding of the Pacific. Other crews have the Atlantic, mapping it out one square meter at a time; one day we’ll meet on the other side of the world, a mile down and a universe away from where we started, and our understanding will be complete, and the human race can continue in its conquest of this strange and timeless new frontier. One day.
The captain finishes her speech, snapping off her words with the tight tonelessness of a woman who desperately wants to be anywhere else. We salute her, those in the water doing their best not to splash as they pull their arms out of the water and snap their webbed fingers to their foreheads. She returns the salute and we’re dismissed, back to our quarters or onward to our duties.
I linger on the stairs while those who are newer to this command than I scatter, moving with a quick, dryland efficiency toward other parts of the submarine. The captain is the first to go, all but running from the bridge in her need to get away from us. The heads in the water vanish one by one, the sailors going back to whatever tasks had them outside the ship—those who aren’t currently off-duty and seeking the simple peace of weightlessness and separation from the dry. Not all the seamen serving with this vessel are capable of doing what I’m doing, standing on their own two feet and walking among the drylander crew. Every ship has to have a few in transition. It’s meant to be a temptation and a warning at the same time. “Mind your choices; there but for the grace of God and the United States government go you.”
It only takes a few minutes before I’m standing alone on the stairs. I walk over to the lockers set in the far wall (one more concession to what they’ve made of us; in transition, we don’t always have time to get to quarters, to get to privacy, and so they arrange the ships to let us strip down wherever we need, and hold it up as one more bit of proof that single-sex vessels are a requirement for the smooth operation of the Navy). My boots are the first thing to go, and I have to blink back tears when I pull them off and my feet untwist, relaxing back into the natural shape the scientists have worked so hard to give them. All this work, all these changes to the sailors, and they still can’t change our required uniforms—not when we still have things that can be called “feet” or “legs” and shoved into the standard-issue boots or trousers.
Piece by piece, I strip down to my swim trunks and thermal sports bra, both designed to expose as much skin as possible while still leaving me with a modicum of modesty. The blues, especially, have a tendency to remove their tops once they’re in the water, buzzing past the cameras and laughing. That footage goes for a pretty penny on some corners of the internet, the ones frequented by soft-skinned civilians who murmur to themselves about the military mermaids, and how beautiful we are, and how much they’d like to fuck us.
They’d flense themselves bloody on the shark-skins of the blues, they’d sting themselves into oblivion on the spines of the lionfish and the trailing jellied arms of the moonies and the men-o’-war, but still they talk, and still they see us as fantasies given flesh, and not as the military women that we are. Perhaps that, too, is a part of the Navy’s design. How easy is it to fear something that you’ve been seeing in cartoons and coloring books since you were born?
I walk to the nearest hole and exhale, blowing every bit of air out of my lungs. Then I step over the edge and plunge down, down, down, dragged under by the weight of my scientifically reengineered musculature, into the arms of the waiting sea.
• • •
“Project Amphitrite”—otherwise known as “Mermaids for the Military”—started attracting public attention when I was in my senior year of high school and beginning to really consider the Navy as a career option. I wanted to see the world. This new form of service promised me a world no one else had ever seen. They swore we could go back. They swore we would still be human, that every possible form of support would be offered to keep us connected to our roots. They said we’d all be fairy tales, a thousand Little Mermaids rising from the sea and walking on new legs into the future that our sacrifice had helped them to ensure.
They didn’t mention the pain. Maybe they thought we’d all see the writing on the wall, the endless gene treatments, the surgeries to cut away inconvenient bits of bone—both original issue and grown during the process of preparing our bodies for the depths—the trauma of learning to breath in when submerged, suppressing the millennia of instinct that shrieked no, no, you will drown, you will die, no.
And maybe we did drown; maybe we did die. Every submersion felt a bit less like a betrayal of my species and a bit more like coming home. As I fall into the water my gills open, and the small fins on my legs spread, catching the water and holding me in place, keeping me from descending all the way to the bottom. The blues I saw before rush back to my side, attracted by the sound of something moving. They whirl around me in an undifferentiated tornado of fins and flukes and grasping hands, caressing my flank, touching my arms and hair before they whirl away again, off to do whatever a school of blues does when they are not working, when they are not slaved to the commands of a species they have willingly abandoned. Their clicks and whistles drift back to me, welcoming me, inviting me along.
I do not try to follow. Until my next shore leave, my next trip to the lab, I can’t keep up; they’re too fast for me, their legs fully sacrificed on the altar of being all that they can be. The Navy claims they’re turning these women into better soldiers. From where I hang suspended in the sea, my lungs filled with saltwater like amniotic fluid, these women are becoming better myths.
Other sailors flash by, most of them carrying bags or wearing floodlights strapped to their foreheads or chests; some holding spear guns, which work better at these depths than traditional rifles. We’d be defenseless if someone were to fire a torpedo into our midst, but thus far, all the troubles we’ve encountered have either been native—squid and sharks who see our altered silhouettes and think we look like prey—or our own kind, mermaids from rival militaries, trying to chart and claim our sea beds before we can secure them for the United States of America. We might have been the first ones into the sea, but we weren’t the last, and we’re not even the most efficient anymore. The American mods focus too much on form and not enough on functionality. Our lionfish, eels, even our jellies still look like women before they look like marine creatures. Some sailors say—although there’s been no proof yet, and that’s the mantra of the news outlets, who don’t want to criticize the program more than they have to, don’t want to risk losing access to the stream of beautifully staged official photos and the weekly reports on the amazing scientific advancements coming out of what we do here—some sailors say that they chose streamlined mods, beautiful, sleek creatures that would cut through the water like knives, minimal drag, minimal reminders of their mammalian origins, and yet somehow came out of the treatment tanks with breasts that ached like it was puberty all over again. Ached and then grew bigger, ascending a cup size or even two, making a more marketable silhouette.
Here in the depths we’re soldiers, military machines remade to suit the needs of our country and our government. But when we surface, we’re living advertisements for the world yet to come, when we start shifting more of the population to the bubble cities being constructed on the ground we’ve charted for them, when the military gene mods become available to the public. I’ve seen the plans. We all have. Civilians will be limited to “gentler” forms, goldfish and angelfish and bettas, all trailing fins and soft Disney elegance. Veterans will be allowed to keep our mods as recognition of our service, should we choose to stay in the wet—and again, no one knows whether reversal is possible, especially not for the more esoteric designs. Can you put the bones back into a jelly’s feet, just because you think they ought to be there? Questions better left unanswered, if you ask me.
Adjustment is done: My gills are open, and my chest is rising smooth and easy, lungs filling with seawater without so much as a bubble of protest. I jackknife down and swim toward the current patrol, feeling the drag from my weight belt as it pulls me toward the bottom. One more reason to dream of that coming return to the labs, when they’ll take me one step deeper, and this will be just a little more like home.
The blues return to join me; two of them grab my hands and pull me deeper, their webbed fingers slipping on my slick mammalian skin, and the captain and her bogeys are forgotten, for a time, before the glorious majesty of the never-ending sea.
• • •
We’re deep—about a hundred, hundred and fifty feet below the waiting submarine, our passage lit by the soft luminescent glow of the anglers and the lanterns—when something flashes past in the gloom just past the reach of the light. Whatever it is, it’s moving fast, all dart and dazzle, and there isn’t time to see it properly before it’s gone.
The formation forms without anyone saying a word, the hard-coded schooling instinct slamming into our military training and forming an instant barricade against the waiting dark. Anglers and lanterns in the middle, blues, makos, and lionfish and undecideds on the outside. The five of us who have yet to commit to a full mod look like aberrations as we hang in the water, almost human, almost helpless against the empty sea.
One of the blues clicks, the sound reverberating through the water. A moment later her voice is coming through the implant in my inner ear, saying, “Sonar’s picking up three bodies, all about twenty yards out, circling.”
Another click, from another of the blues, and then: “Marine or mer?” Shorthand description, adopted out of necessity. Are we looking at natural marine creatures, sharks or dolphins—unusual at this depth—or even the increasingly common, increasingly dangerous squid that we’ve been seeing as we descend into the trenches? There are a dozen species of the great cephalopods down here, some never before seen by science, and all of them are hungry, and smart enough to recognize that whatever we are, we could fill bellies and feed babies. We are what’s available. That has value, in the sea. (That has value on the land as well, where women fit for military service were what was available, where we became the raw material for someone else’s expansion, for someone else’s fairy tale, and now here we are, medical miracles, modern mermaids, hanging like apples in the larder of the sea.)
Click click. “Mer.” The sonar responses our makos are getting must have revealed the presence of metal, or of surgical scars: something to tell them that our visitors are not naturally occurring in the sea. “Three, all female, unknown mods. Fall back?”
More clicks as the group discusses, voices coming hard and fast through the implants, arguing the virtues of retreat versus holding our ground. There are still crewmen in these waters, unaware of the potential threat—and we don’t know for sure that this is a threat, not really. America isn’t the only country to take to sea. We could just be brushing up against the territory claimed by an Australian crew, a New Zealand expedition, and everything will end peacefully if we simply stay where we are and make no threatening movements.
One of the blues breaks formation.
She’s fast—one of the fastest we have, thanks to the surgery that fused her legs from crotch to ankles, replaced her feet with fins, replaced the natural curves of a mammalian buttock and thigh with the smooth sweep of a blue shark’s tail—and she’s out of the light before anyone has a chance to react. My sonar isn’t as sensitive as the blues’; I don’t know what she heard, only that she’s gone. “After her!” I shout through the sub-dermal link, my words coming out as clicks and bubbles in the open water. And then we’re moving, all of us, the blues in the lead with the makos close behind. The jellies bring up the rear, made more for drifting than for darting; one, a moonie with skin the color of rice paper that shows her internal organs pulsing softly in her abdomen, clings to a lionfish’s dorsal fin. Her hands leave thin ribbons of blood in the water as she passes. We’ll have sharks here soon.
With the lanterns and anglers moving in the middle of the school, we’re able to maintain visual contact with each other, even if we’re too deep and moving too fast to show up on cameras. This is the true strength of the military mermaid project: speed and teamwork, all the most dangerous creatures in the sea boiled down to their essentials and pasted onto Navy women, who have the training and the instincts to tell us how they can best be used. So our scouts swim like bullets while the rest of us follow, legs and tails pumping hard, arms down flat by our sides or holding tight to the tow line of someone else’s fin, someone else’s elbow. Those of us who are carrying weapons have them slung over our backs, out of the way. Can’t swim at speed and fire a harpoon gun at the same time.
All around me, the school clicks and whistles their positions, their conditions, only occasionally underscoring their reports with actual words. “She’s not here.” “Water’s been disturbed.” “Something tastes of eel.” This isn’t how we write it down for the brass. They’re all drylanders, they don’t understand how easy it is to go loose and fluid down here in the depths, how little rank and order seem to matter when you’re moving as a single beast with a dozen tails, two dozen arms, and trying all the while to keep yourself together, keep yourself unified, keep yourself whole. The chain of command dissolves under the pressure of the crushing deep, just as so many other things—both expected and unimagined—have already fallen away.
Then, motion in the shadows ahead, and we surge forward again, trying to find our missing shipmate, our missing sister, the missing sliver of the self that we have become as we trained together, schooled together, mourned our lost humanity and celebrated our dawning monstrosity together. We are sailors and servicewomen, yes; we will always be those things, all the way down to our mutant and malleable bones. But moments like this, when it is us and the open sea, remind us every day that we are more than what we were, and less than what we are to become, voiceless daughters of Poseidon, singing in the space behind our souls.
The taste of blood in the water comes first, too strong to be coming from the sliced hands of those who chose poorly when they grabbed at the bodies of their fellow fables. Then comes the blue, flung out of the dark ahead, her slate-colored back almost invisible outside the bioluminescent glow, her face and belly pearled pale and ghostly. One of the other blues darts forward to catch her before she can slam into the rest of us, potentially hurting herself worse on spines or stingers. A great cry rises from the group, half lament, half whale song. The remaining two blues hurl themselves into the dark, moving fast, too fast for the rest of us to catch them . . . and then they return, empty-handed and angry-eyed. One of them clicks a message.
“She got away.”
We nod, one to another, and turn to swim—still in our tight, effective school—back toward the waiting vessel. Our crewmate needs medical care. Only after we know she’s safe can we go out again, and find the ones who hurt her, and make them pay.
• • •
So few of us are suited for walking anymore, even in the safe, narrow reef of the submarine’s halls, where there is always solid metal waiting to catch and bear us up when our knees give out or our ankles refuse to bear our weight. So it is only natural that I should be the one to stand before the captain—anxious creature that she is—at the closest I could come to parade rest, my hands behind my back and my eyes fixed on the wall behind her, reciting the events of the day.
“So you’re telling me Seaman Metcalf charged ahead without regard for the formation, or for the safety of her fellow crewmen?” The captain frowns at the incident report, and then at me. She is trying to be withering. She is succeeding only in looking petulant, like a child in the process of learning that not every fairy tale is kind. “Did anyone get a clear look at the bogey? Do we have any idea what could have caused Seaman Metcalf to behave so recklessly?”
She doesn’t understand, she is not equipped to understand; she has not been sea-changed, and her loyalty is to the Navy itself, not to the crew that swims beside her. Poor little drylander. Maybe someday, when she sees that there is no more upward mobility for we creatures of the sea, she’ll give herself over to the water, and her eyes will be opened at last.
“No, ma’am. Seaman Metcalf broke formation without warning, and did not explain herself.” She’s in the medical bay now, sunk deep in a restorative bath of active genetic agents. She’ll wake with a little more of her humanity gone, a little more of her modified reality pushed to the surface. Given how close she looks to fully modded, maybe she’ll wake as something entirely new, complete and ready to swim in deeper waters, no longer wedded to the steel chain of the submarine.
“And the bogeys?” The captain sounds anxious. The captain always sounds anxious, but this is something new, sharp and insecure and painfully easy to read.
“No one saw anything clearly, ma’am. It’s very dark when you exit the pelagic region, and while we have bioluminescent mods among our crew, they can’t compensate for the limited visibility over a more than three-yard range. Whatever’s been buzzing our perimeter, it’s careful to stay outside the limits of the light.” I don’t mention the sonar readings we were getting before. They’re important, I’m sure of that, but . . . not yet. She’s not one of us.
There was a time when withholding information from my captain would have seemed like treason, a time when the patterns of loyalty were ingrained in my blood and on my bone. I had different blood then; I had different bones. They have replaced the things that made me theirs, and while I am grateful, I am no longer their property.
It’s strange to realize that. Everything about this day has been strange. I keep my eyes fixed straight ahead, not looking at the captain’s face. I am afraid she’ll see that I am lying. I am afraid she won’t see anything but a man-made monster, and her future in fins and scales.
“I want doubled patrols,” says the captain. “Seaman Metcalf will be detained when she recovers consciousness. I need to know what she saw.”
“You may want to request that one of the other blue shark mod sailors also be present, ma’am,” I say. “Seaman Metcalf no longer has vocal cords capable of human speech.”
The captain blanches. “Understood. Dismissed.”
“Ma’am.” I offer a respectful salute before I turn and limp out of the room, moving slowly—it’s always slow right after I leave the water, when my joints still dream of weightlessness and my lungs still feel like deserts, arid and empty.
The door swings shut behind me, slamming and locking in the same motion, and I am finally alone.
• • •
The captain has ordered us to double patrols, and so patrols are doubled. The captain has ordered the medical staff to detain Seaman Metcalf, and so she is detained, pinned clumsy and semi-mobile on a bed designed for a more human form, her tail turned to dead weight by gravity, her scales turned to brutal knives by the dryness of the air. I know how I feel at night, stretched out in my bunk like a surgical patient waiting for the knife, too heavy to move, too hot to breathe. Seaman Metcalf is so much further along than I am that the mere act of keeping her in the dry should be considered a crime of war, forbidden and persecuted by the very men who made her. But ah, we are soldiers; we signed up for this. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
The captain has ordered that we stay together at all times, two by two, preventing flights like Seaman Metcalf’s, preventing danger from the dark. I am breaking orders as I slide into the water alone, a light slung around my neck like a strange jewel, a harpoon gun in my hands. This is a terrible idea. But I need to know why my sailors are flinging themselves into the darkness, pursuing an enemy I have not seen, and I can survive being beached better than the majority of them; I am the most liminal of the current crew, able to go deep and look, and see, yet still able to endure detention in a dry room. If anything, this may hasten my return to land, giving me the opportunity to tell the Naval psychologists how much I need to progress; how much I need the mod that will take me finally into the deeps. Yes. This is the right choice, and these are orders almost intended to be broken.
It is darker than any midnight here, down here in the deep, and the light from my halogen lamp can only pierce so far. Things move in the corners of my vision, nightmare fish with teeth like traumas, quick and clever squid that have learned to leave the women with the harpoon guns alone. There is talk of a squid mod being bandied about by the brass. I hope it comes to something. I would love to learn, through the network of my soldier-sisters, what the squid might have to teach us.
The captain has ordered that patrols be doubled, but I don’t see anyone else as I descend into deeper water, the darkness closing around me like a blanket full of small moving specks. Every breath I take fills my throat with the infants of a thousand sea creatures, filtered by the bioscreens installed by the clever men who made me what I am today. I am not a baleen whale, but the krill and larvae I catch and keep in this manner will help to replace the calories my body burns to keep me warm this far below the sea. (Easier to line our limbs with blubber, make us seals, fat and sleek and perfect—but we were always intended to be public relations darlings, and fattening up our military women, no matter how good the justifications behind it, would never have played well with the paparazzi.)
Something flashes through the gloom ahead of me, too fast and too close to be a squid, too direct to be a shark; they always approach from the side. I fall back, straightening myself in the water so that my head points toward the distant surface. The water has never encouraged anyone to walk upright, and the changing weight of my body discourages this choice even more, tells me not to do it, tells me to hang horizontal, like a good creature of the sea. But I am still, in many regards, a sailor; I learned to stand my ground, even when there is no ground beneath me.
She emerges from the dark like a dream, swimming calm and confident into the radiant glow of my halogen light. Her mod is one I’ve never seen before, long hair and rounded fins and pattern like a clownfish, winter white and hunter orange and charcoal black, Snow White for the seafaring age. Clownfish are meant to live in shallow waters, coral reefs; she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t exist at all. This is a show model of a military technology, designed to attract investors, not to serve a practical purpose in the open sea. She smiles at me as I stare, suddenly understanding what could inspire Seaman Metcalf to break formation, to dive into the oppressive dark. For the first time, I feel as if I’m seeing a mermaid.
Seaman Metcalf dove into the dark and was thrown back, battered and bruised and bleeding. I narrow my eyes and whistle experimentally. “Who are you?”
Her smile broadens. She clicks twice, and my implant translates and relays her words: “A friend. You are early,” another click, “no? Not so far along as those you swim with.”
“You have harmed a member of my crew.”
The stranger’s eyes widen in wounded shock. “Me?” Her whistle is long and sweet, cutting through the waves; the others must hear her, no matter how far above me they are. Some things, the water cannot deaden. “No. Your crewmate asked us to strike her, to push her back. Voices can lie, but injuries will tell the truth. We needed your,” another series of clicks, this one barely translatable; the closest I can come is “dry-walkers,” and I know then that she is not military, has never been military. She doesn’t know the lingo.
She’s still speaking. “ . . . to believe there was a threat here, in the deep waters. I am sorry we did not sing to you. You stayed so high. You seemed so, forgive me, human.”
She makes it sound like a bad word. I frown. “You are trespassing on waters claimed by the United States Navy. I hereby order you to surrender.”
Her sigh is a line of bubbles racing upward, toward the sun. She whistles wordlessly, and three more figures swim out of the dark, sinuous as eels, their skins shifting seamlessly from grays to chalky pallor. They have no tentacles, but I recognize the effect as borrowed from the mimic octopus; another thing the military has discussed but not perfected. I am in over my head, in more ways than one.
She whistles again. “I cannot surrender. I will not surrender. I am here to free your sisters from the tank they have allowed themselves to be confined within. We are not pet store fish. We are not trinkets. They deserve to swim freely. I can give that to them. We can give that to them. But I will not surrender.”
The eel-women circle like sharks, and I am afraid. I know she can’t afford to have me tell my captain what she has said; I know that this deep, my body would never be found. Sailors disappear on every voyage, and while some whisper about desertion—and the truth of those whispers hangs before me in the water like a fairy tale—I know that most of them have fallen prey only to their own hubris, and to the shadows beneath us, which never change and never fade away.
She is watching me, nameless mermaid from a lab I do not know. The geneticist who designed her must be so proud. “Is this the life you want? Tied to women too afraid to join you in the water, commanded by men who would make you something beautiful, and then keep you captive? We can offer something more.”
She goes on to talk about artificial reefs, genetically engineered coral growing into palaces and promenades, down, deep down at the bottom of the sea. The streets are lit by glowing kelp and schools of lanternfish, both natural and engineered. There is no hunger. There is no war. There are no voices barking orders. She speaks of a new Atlantis, Atlantis reborn one seafaring woman at a time. We will not need to change the sea to suit the daughters of mankind; we have already changed ourselves, and now need only come home.
All the while the eel-women circle like sharks, ready to strike me down if I raise a hand against their leader—ready to strike me down if I don’t. Like Seaman Metcalf, I must serve as a warning to the Navy. Something is out here. Something dangerous.
I look at her, and frown. “Who made you?”
Something in her eyes goes dark. “They said I’d be a dancer.”
“Ah.” Some sounds translate from form to form, medium to medium; that is one of them. “Private firm?”
“Private island,” she says, and all is clear. Rich men playing with military toys: chasing the idea of the new. They had promised her reversion, no doubt, as they promised it to us all—and maybe they meant it, maybe this was a test. The psychological changes that drive us to dive ever deeper down were accidental; maybe they were trying to reverse them. Instead, they sparked a revolution.
“What will you do if I yield?”
Her smile is quick and bright, chasing the darkness from her eyes. “Hurt you.”
“And my crew?”
“Most of them will be tragically killed in action. Their bodies will never be found.” They would be free.
“Why should I agree?”
“Because in one year, I will send my people back to this place, and if you are here, we will show you what it means to be a mermaid.”
We hang there in the water for a few minutes more, me studying her, her smiling at me, serene as Amphitrite on the shore. Finally, I close my eyes. I lower my gun, allowing it to slip out of my fingers and fall toward the distant ocean floor. It will never be found, one more piece of debris for the sea to keep and claim. I am leaving something behind. That makes me feel a little better about what has to happen next.
“Hurt me,” I say.
• • •
When I wake, the air is pressing down on me like a sheet of glass. I am in the medical bay, swaddled in blankets and attached to beeping machines. The submarine hums around me; the engines are on, we are moving, we are heading away from the deepest parts of the sea. The attack must have already happened.
Someone will come for me soon, to tell me how sorry they all are, to give me whatever punishment they think I deserve for being found alone and drifting in the deeps. And then we will return to land. The ship will take on a new crew and sail back to face a threat that is not real, while I? I will sit before a board of scientists and argue my case until they give in, and put me back into the tanks, and take my unwanted legs away. They will yield to me. What man has ever been able to resist a siren?
A year from now, when I return to the bottom of the sea, I will hear the mermaids singing, each to each. And oh, I think that they will sing to me.
This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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