Issue Two: Deep Trouble
Most of us, I suppose, are a little nervous of the sea. No matter what its smiles may be, we doubt its friendship.
- H.M. Tomlinson
“You have the best summer job, hands down,” Jen said from the backseat of the car. “It totally beats running drive-through at Burger World.”
“It’s not always this fun, I promise,” Scarlett said, half turned in her seat so she could talk to her friend. “Right, Aunt Elaine?”
“It could be worse, I could demote you from intern to experiment subject. Send you down to work with Roger and all his mice.”
“So, what are we going to be doing this weekend?” Jen asked.
“Officially, we’re going to spend the next three days doing extensive final trial testing on the artificial gill,” Elaine answered. “Unofficially, we’re spending a lovely weekend out on the ocean before you girls have to go back to school.”
“Josh is jealous that he couldn’t come,” Scarlett said.
“I’m afraid I have certain reservations about bringing together my niece, her boyfriend, and a weekend of scanty bathing suits.”
“Aunt Elaine!” Scarlett exclaimed, flushing with embarrassment. “I do not have a scanty bathing suit.”
“Besides, he knows I’d drown him if he tried to pull something,” Jen said with a smirk. “He may have been born a few minutes sooner, but I’m in charge and he knows it.”
“Be that as it may, I see no reason to invite any escapades.”
Elaine pulled into the marina and, after a few moments of searching, parked next to a very large boat. A tall, shirtless man waved at them from the deck and then started making his way in their direction.
“No escapades, huh?” Scarlett asked, quirking an eyebrow at her aunt.
“Dr. Curry is a well respected marine biologist,” Elaine said, schooling her face into an expression of complete innocence. “He was kind enough to volunteer his boat for this expedition, and I’m sure he’d be shocked to hear any implication of an ulterior motive on my part for taking him up on the offer.”
“So, you’re saying the field is clear?” Jen asked.
“Keep your claws to yourself, Blondie. That man is marked, he just doesn’t know it yet,” Elaine said, giving Jen a melodramatic glare in the rear view mirror.
“Good morning,” Dr. Curry said as the women climbed out of the car. He paused and glanced from face to face and then said, “Why do I feel a sudden urge to go hide in my shark cage?”
“I have no idea,” Elaine said, stifling a laugh. “Could you give me a hand with the luggage, please?”
“I’d be happy to.”
The adults walked back to the boat, carrying the bags and talking cheerfully about the trip ahead. Jen and Scarlett stayed behind, leaning on the car and watching as the other two walked up the gang plank and across the deck.
“He’s pretty buff for a science geek,” Jen said.
“I bet he works out,” Scarlett said. “We should make sure to give them some space, ok?”
“Sure, as long as nobody blocks my line of sight.”
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” Scarlett asked.
“Shaggy has a stack of magazines under his bed, so it’s ok for me to check out Dr. Well-Toned.”
“And I’ll neglect to tell Josh you were drooling over the guy, too.”
“I was not drooling!”
“Ok, girls. Are you ready to try out the new equipment?”
The boat was anchored a couple of miles off shore, but as far as the view was concerned they may as well have been in the middle of the Atlantic. This far out the ocean was a rolling sheet of green glass, and the sky was blue enough it almost hurt to look at it. The crisp scent of the sea filled the air, faintly tinged with the human smells of the boat.
“I think I’m ready,” Jen said, a slightly nervous note in her voice.
“Just stay near me,” Scarlett said. “I’ve been diving plenty of times before, so I think I can keep an eye on a newbie.”
“Be careful, you two. And if anything starts to go wrong, head back to the surface.”
Scarlett nodded and leaned over to double check Jennifer’s gear. When she was satisfied that the blonde was ready to go she pulled her own mask down and popped in her mouthpiece. With a jaunty wave she slowly tipped over backwards and dropped off the side of the boat, hitting the water with a loud splash.
She shivered briefly in the cold water and then relaxed, wistfully wishing for the warm, blue water of the Pacific. A moment later, Jennifer hit the water and bobbed back to the surface. Scarlett swam over and smiled inwardly when she peered through Jennifer’s mask and saw that her eyes were still clenched shut. She tapped lightly on the mask, and when Jennifer opened her eyes Scarlett pointed down at the water and then dove.
The redhead dropped a few meters and then slowed, rolling over to face the surface and keep an eye on her friend. Jennifer seemed hesitant at first, but as the minutes slid by she relaxed a little and seemed to start enjoying herself. Scarlett waved lazily to get Jennifer’s attention and then started gradually heading for the bottom.
The ocean floor was relatively shallow here, only about forty meters down. The girls skimmed along within sight of the coral and kelp beds below, watching the fish flit back and forth. Scarlett dropped a little lower so she could get a better view and spent several minutes watching a small school of fish hover around a particularly tall spire of coral.
Large movement to her right caught Scarlett’s attention and she glanced over, her heart skipping a beat at what she saw. A short distance away, Jennifer was drifting along with the current and had somehow lost all of her gear. Fighting panic, the redhead started swimming towards her friend.
When the figure gracefully turned in the water to face her Scarlett stopped stroking, although she continued to drift slowly. When the blond haired, athletically muscled, and very obviously naked young man smiled at her the only thing that kept her jaw from dropping was the instinctive need to continue breathing. They stared at each other for what felt like forever, until he kicked his feet and slid away into the dark water.
Scarlett didn’t know how long she floated in the water, staring in the direction the mysterious man had vanished, before she felt a hand on her shoulder. She jerked and flailed around in the water, finally turning to see Jennifer floating behind her looking concerned. After a moment, Scarlett grabbed the other girl’s arm and started heading back to the surface.
“So,” Jennifer said, gesturing with her hotdog. “You saw a mermaid?”
“He was in no way a maid,” Scarlett said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop brandishing that thing at me.”
Jennifer snickered and waved the hotdog in her friend’s direction.
“Girls, settle down,” Elaine said, walking over and placing a plate holding a couple of hamburgers on the table. “This is serious, if Scarlett was having some kind of hallucination there may have been a problem with her equipment. We’ll have to strip it down and figure out what happened.”
“Maybe she’s been secretly pining for a real man,” Jen said, still smirking. “I always wondered what she saw in my scrawny brother. What do you think, Dr. Curry?”
“Please, I said you girls could call me Arthur,” he said, mostly focusing on the grill. “I wouldn’t immediately leap to the conclusion it was a hallucination or equipment failure. There are a lot of strange things in the ocean, and sailors have been seeing mermaids and mermen for centuries.”
“So you think she saw a naked man, cheerfully swimming along near the bottom with no breathing apparatus?” Elaine asked, taking a seat.
“Hmm? No, of course not,” Arthur said, moving his own dinner from the grill to a plate. “I’m just saying that there’s any number of things that Scarlett could have seen, and then misinterpreted what her eyes were telling her.”
“Great,” Scarlett grumbled, “so I’m either crazy, blind, or I was slowly asphyxiating and didn’t realize it.”
“People have been seeing things in and on the ocean for centuries,” Arthur said, taking a seat. “Perfectly credible witnesses, just like you. There are all kinds of things that can play tricks on your senses, and you happened to stumble into one of them. There’s nothing to be upset about.”
“He’s right,” Elaine said. “Quit looking so gloomy and finish your dinner.”
“Ok,” Scarlett said with a small sigh. “Oh, Arthur, thanks for bringing the veggie burgers and the veggie dogs. How did you know I was a vegetarian?”
“Your aunt mentioned it,” he said. “Oh, that reminds me; Dr. Moore wants to see you on Monday.”
“Why?” Scarlett said, looking upset and annoyed.
“He’s nearly finished with his current run of experiments, and he said that you’d volunteered to help him dispose of the test subjects.”
“Oh, the mice. Yeah, I know some people that can find homes for them, as long as they’re not diseased or anything.”
“Good,” Arthur said, giving the redhead an encouraging smile.
“I’m a little stressed,” Scarlett said, rising from the small table. “I’m going to hit my bunk a little early, ok?”
“If you’re not feeling better tomorrow, we’ll head back to shore and you can see the doctor,” Elaine said.
“I’ll be fine, really.” Scarlett turned and walked towards the stairs leading below deck.
“If you see the merman, send him my way,” Jen called out.
“Scarlett Gwendolyn Allen!” Elaine said, seeing Scarlett’s response. “That gesture is very unladylike.”
Hours later, Scarlett’s eyes snapped open in the darkness of the cabin. She stared at the dark with a small frown and tried to figure out why she was suddenly awake. Listening carefully, she heard Jennifer’s steady breathing from the bunk on the other side of the room. Other than that, she could only hear the sound of the water slapping against the side of the boat.
Her frown deepened when she realized it was the sound of the water which had awakened her. The sound was wrong, and she couldn’t put her finger on exactly how it was wrong but the rhythm seemed off somehow. She climbed out of her bunk as quietly as she could and snuck out into the hallway. She listened again for a moment, and then took the stairs leading up to the foredeck.
Scarlett walked out onto the deck and looked around, seeing nothing out of place. She sighed quietly and glanced up, stopping to stare at the brilliant stars filling the night sky. The redhead had begun to relax a little and enjoy the stunning view when she heard a strange thump from off to one side, followed by a quiet scraping noise.
After a moment of dithering, curiosity overcame fear and she walked to the side of the boat and looked out. Something large was floating in the water next to the boat, and Scarlett turned her head one way and then another in a vain attempt to figure out what it was.
“It’s a boat,” a man said from behind her.
Scarlett turned with a high pitched squeak of alarm, her eyes going huge when she saw the pistol pointed at her. The man holding the gun was only a little taller than she was and wore all black, including the balaclava over his face.
“I know it’s hard to see it in the dark, but that’s because we painted it black.”
“Shhh,” the man said and gestured with the pistol for Scarlett to precede him to the foredeck. “You just stay calm, Princess, and I won’t have to hurt you.”
She nodded and quietly walked ahead of the man until they reached the middle of the boat, where he put one hand on her shoulder and pulled her to a stop. There was a sound like paper tearing, and then her hands were pulled behind her back and duct tape was wrapped around her wrists.
“You kneel down,” the man said, his voice calm and gentle.
Scarlett trembled slightly as she dropped to her knees. With a grunt, the man bent over and wrapped more tape around her ankles.
“There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?”
A scream rang out from below decks, followed immediately by shouting and a gun shot. Scarlett tried to struggle back to her feet, but between the tape and the man’s free hand on her shoulder she stayed in place. After a moment another man, this one moving with an obvious limp, came up from below decks with Jennifer. He had one hand wrapped in her hair, pushing her ahead of him as she kicked, screamed, and swore.
“Tell your girlfriend to calm down,” the man behind Scarlett said. He rested his other hand, and the pistol in it, on her other shoulder.
“Jennifer,” Scarlett said.
The blonde looked over at the sound of her friend’s voice, and stopped struggling when she saw the gun. She was still muttering curses when the second man pushed her next to Scarlett and shoved her down on her knees.
“Double tape this one,” the second man said, his voice full of pain. “The little bitch is made of corners and edges.”
“Screw you, tubby,” Jennifer snarled as her hands were pulled behind her back.
The second man reached out and took a piece of tape from the first man and slapped it over Jennifer’s mouth.
“You didn’t shoot her, did you?” the first man asked.
“No, but I was damn well tempted.”
“Oh, God. Scarlett,” Elaine cried out as she came up onto the deck. A third man had her by the arm, and two more masked strangers followed along behind carrying Dr. Curry.
“I’m ok, Aunt Elaine. What happened to Arthur?”
“One of these barbarians shot him,” she said, glaring around at the men.
“What is it with women these days?” the second man muttered under his breath as he grabbed Elaine and spun her around so the first man could secure her wrists. “None of them have the smarts to be quiet and not fight.”
“Edward, shut up,” said one of the men carrying Dr. Curry, just before they dumped him onto the deck. “Or else when we get back to port I’ll tell everybody you got beaten up by ninety pound teenage girl . . . again.”
“I’m going back to the boat,” Edward muttered. “I’d rather monitor the radio than stand around up here and take abuse from you assholes.”
The other four men watched him walk away, and then the first guy shook his head and asked, “Can we please replace him? He’s so unprofessional.”
The only other man who had spoken shrugged, and then turned to his prisoners. “Now then, let’s talk business. My name is Henry, and I don’t care who you are unless you think you’re valuable enough to be worth a lot of money to somebody. Are you, in fact, worth a lot of money to somebody?”
“Arthur and I work for Star Labs,” Elaine said, glaring at the man.
“So, probably not then,” Henry said. “Regrettable, I suppose. Throw the man overboard.”
“What?” Elaine shouted. “You bastard, how dare you . . . .”
Her rant was abruptly muffled when the first man slapped a piece of tape over her mouth. The obstruction didn’t stop her, but it made most of the words unintelligible. The other two men on the deck grabbed Arthur by the arms and pulled him over to the side of the boat, lifted him, and dropped him into the water.
“What do you want from us?” Scarlett asked.
“Nothing from you in particular,” Henry said. “It’s nothing personal, just the way we do business. We’ll sell your boat, and there’s always a market for pretty white girls. Well, young and pretty white girls. Sorry, Aunt Elaine.”
The man pulled his pistol and leveled it at Elaine’s head, eliciting a scream from Scarlett. As he pulled the trigger, the boat shifted suddenly causing his shot to go wide and all the men to be knocked off their feet. The entire boat shuddered and groaned as it rolled heavily in the water.
“Goddess,” Scarlett murmured, as she watched the most incredible thing she had ever seen. A huge black form was rising up next to their boat, and it seemed to get larger and larger by the second. When it blew water, she realized it was a whale . . . a whale had swam under their boat and knocked against the bottom, saving her aunt’s life.
With a light thump, the pale blond man that Scarlett had seen underwater landed on the deck. Sea water streamed off his naked body as he gently lowered the unconscious Dr. Curry to the deck.
“Oh, fuck this noise,” Henry said, staggering to his feet. He and his men turned away to flee back to their small boat.
“I have already destroyed your craft,” the blond man said. “Your armsman did not survive, I suggest you surrender if you do not wish to share his fate.”
The pirates turned and, following Henry’s lead, opened fire on the blond man. He flinched away from the noise and lifted one arm to shield his face, but the bullets that hit him struck with a thud and fell harmlessly to the deck. With a feral snarl he bounded across the deck and grabbed one of the men by the shirt, throwing him into Henry and knocking both of them over the railing.
The two remaining men looked at each other and simultaneously tossed their weapons overboard, raising their hands in surrender.
“Unbind these people,” the blond man demanded. The men hurried to obey.
“I’ve got basic first aid,” Jennifer said, immediately moving to Arthur when she was freed. “Have we got a kit on board? I need a couple of blankets, too.”
“Scarlett, get her what she needs. Come with me to the wheel house for the first aid kit, I’m going to get on the radio to the Coast Guard and have them meet us on our way back to port.”
A minute later Scarlett helped wrap Arthur in a blanket, leaving his stomach exposed so Jennifer could bandage the gunshot wound. After that she stepped away and looked around, seeing the blond man glaring down at the two pirates he’d taken prisoner. Scarlett walked over and lightly tapped him on the shoulder.
“I wanted to thank you. If you hadn’t come along when you did,” Scarlett’s voice trailed off as she shuddered.
“The sharks told me there was human blood in the water,” he answered. “You seemed nice when we met before, so I thought I’d check on you.”
“Well, let’s just say that I’m awfully glad now that I wasn’t hallucinating this afternoon.”
The man chuckled lightly. “I am Orin. There are many humans near the land shore, but not so many swim in the water just to see the wonders of the sea.”
“I used to go diving all the time when I lived in California, but then I had to move out here,” Scarlett said wistfully.
“The opposite side of the continent.”
“Ah, yes.” Orin smiled. “The waters there smile more, friendly but also filled with teeth. Why did you change oceans?”
“My parents died,” Scarlett said with a shrug. “Look, have you considered doing the superhero thing full time? You could really help people, you were really incredible when you were not getting hurt when they shot you. And the thing with the whale, and you said sharks talk to you?”
“Yeah, like Supergirl back in Lawndale. She runs around all over the place and stops crimes or helps out if there’s a building on fire or something. Ah, there’s just one thing,” Scarlett blushed slightly, “you’d, ah, you’d need to put on some pants.”
“Mmm,” Orin said, looking bemused. “I’ll consider this ‘superhero’ thing. I get lonely sometimes, even though I love my home all that lives within it.”
“My name is Scarlett,” she said. “Scarlett Allen. If you decide to visit the land people, come find me. I live in Lawndale, my aunt’s name is Elaine and our address is in the phonebook. You have no idea what any of that means, do you?”
“No,” Orin said with a small smile. “But I will remember and figure it out if I decide to walk upon the earth. I will also remember to find myself some pants.”
“That would be good,” Scarlett said, blushing again.
“I must return to the sea.” Orin leaned over and bared his teeth at the two tied up pirates. “However, I will be watching this craft all the way back to the land shore. Do you understand me?”
The two men nodded rapidly.
“Be careful,” Scarlett said.
“I am always. You also be careful, Scarlett Allen from the Blue Ocean.” Orin leapt into the air, and gracefully arced over the stern of the boat to the sea below.
“So,” Dr. Moore said, looking up when Scarlett walked into his lab. “I hear you had quite the adventure this weekend.”
“Adventure, nightmare,” Scarlett said with a noncommittal shrug. “For once I’m looking forward to talking to the school shrink at the beginning of the year.”
“Adversity builds character, that’s what I say. After all, it’s not like you came down with Ebola or something, right?” He grinned broadly and went back to packing notebooks into a box. “So, have you talked to your animal rights friends?”
“Yes, there are four different shelters willing to take the mice as long as they’re certified as being safe to handle. I thought we could split the population up between the four of them.”
“Whatever you like,” he said with a shrug. “I’ll leave it up to you to move them into their travel cages, I’ve got the whole rest of the lab to pack up.”
“Pack up?” Scarlett asked as she got to work.
“This facility isn’t going to be doing any more research requiring live animal specimens,” the scientist answered. “Once the equipment is packed up, it’s being shipped to the Central City lab.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you going to Central City, too?”
“Heavens, no.” He shook his head and said, “I put in for a transfer to McMurdo Station months ago, and it finally came through. I’ll finally be able to get back to working with arctic wildlife. Better than all these dumb mice, none of them ever did respond to my experiments. Total waste of time.”
“Oh,” Scarlett said. A few minutes later she finished her work and said, “Ok, I’ve got the mice divided up but there’s one extra.”
“So, you keep it.”
“I dunno, I’ve never had a pet before.”
“Eh, mice are easy. I’ve still got a couple hundred pounds of mouse food and a couple of guide books you can have. All kids should have a pet.”
“Yeah, ok.” Scarlett lifted the small travel cage with the left over mouse in it, and then glanced over at the scientist. “I think I’ll name him Roger the Mouse.”
“Funny,” the scientist said, rolling his eyes. “Kids these days have no respect for their elders.”