Fantasy Humor Romance bad science Merpeople Strange speculative weird ace

Chasing Tail

By Charlotte Platt
Jan 15, 2020 · 3,556 words · 13 minutes

Photo by Steve Halama via Unsplash.

From the author: A story about love, science and merpeople. And a bunch of interns.


“So, tell me again why it is you think you’re suited for this job?” Jer­ome Gunn said, for the fourth time in the interview.

“I’m unaffected by the powers of these particular creatures. I know you’ve lost your last seven investigators to the water, and I know the university’s going to be turning the screw on you if there’s not someone else put in place. You’ll lose your funding and potentially the tank as well. I can do the job.” She said it with the flat authority of a fact, but Jerome was having difficulty adding it up in his mind.  

“Forgive me if I seem uncertain, Miss… ah?” He pushed the papers around his desk, trying to find her application which he had sat down earlier. , more a cupboard full of books and research material, but he liked it that way.

“Brooks.”

“Miss Brooks, thank you. But why do you think you’re immune? No one within the facility is, that’s why special measures must be taken with the housing, feeding, and study of the merpeople. We can’t even have their habitat open for public viewing, the noise cancelling has to be fool proof.”

“Their songs don’t impact me. Never have. I was involved in a boating accident in the late Noughties, when I was a teen; family holiday in Greece. The rest of my family were drawn into the water. I managed to get everyone but our guide free. He was eaten.”

“And there was never an investigation into this, irregularity?” He raised a dark brow.

“.”

“Indeed.” Jerome nodded and flicked his eyes over the woman in front of him. Late twenties if he had to guess, with black and purple hair. She didn’t look like the usual ocean biologist. She looked like a musician, maybe, with pale skin and a comfy blazer that was more chic than business casual.  However, he was running out of options for continuing the work—the merpeople had been voracious. Derek had been eaten, Leon was drowned, Steve had half drowned then run off and was found dead by the beach, Eishun had left the facility and never returned after one of the younger ones whispered something in his ear, Hatsuo had done the same, Ahmed was eaten, . Alex Brooks was also the first woman he had seen applying for the job of merpeople investigation: they were almost exclusively a male-pursued area of cryptid study.

They had to have someone continue the work or they would lose the opportunity.

“You can test me if you want—take me a walk to their tank and I’ll have my ears uncovered.”

“That would not be advisable.” He laughed, shaking his head at her.

“I’m serious—take me down and you can see for yourself. You can wear the usual soundproofing. Hell, if it’ll make you feel better I’ll wear them too and only take them off when we’re at the tank. You can drag me away if I make to dive in.” She sat back in her chair, folding her arms over each other and tilting her chin in challenge. He was not a man to be baited, but

“You are fully qualified otherwise. We would have to take someone else in protective gear, in case there are any issues.”

“Fine by me. Take the caretaker along with us. If I go loco, he can tap me on the back of the head and carry me out.”

“That isn’t the usual containment method,” he began.

“It should be—that’s the only way to stop someone once they’re under the thrall. That or death, but you have a long list of interns to tell you that, huh?” She laughed, shaking her head. He felt the joke like a slap against his skin but went with it, intrigued as much as he was offended.

“All right. Let me get one of the other members of staff and we’ll test your theory. If you’re correct, then I’ll accept your placement and we can arrange a date for you to start.”

“Sounds good to me, thanks.”

That was how Jerome Gunn found himself staring in equal parts shock and fear at a woman pulling faces at a mermaid. Sticking her tongue out, to be precise, and being met with what Jerome would think was a smile if it didn’t have so many brimming teeth behind it.

What the fuck?

She said she wasn’t taken in by the song. Seems she was right, Jerome signed back, watching . It was mimicking her now, the hooked stub of a tongue sticking out and waggling like an angler would tug a lure. It was a younger one, silver and green scales glinting in the lights, a head of weed like hair fanning out around her. They could seem very beautiful as long as you ignored the black, round eyes and the teeth. So many teeth packed into each mouth, you couldn’t mistake them as anything but predators. Provided you weren’t in their thrall. It tapped at the glass with one thin finger, pointing up to the access ladder. Alex shook her head, pointing to herself and the lab, before pointing to the mermaid and then down to the deeper water. It stuck it’s tongue out again, twirling round to show off the impressive length of it’s tail before peering at Alex again. She grinned, giving it a little clap, but shook her head again.

So, do I pass?, before waving to the mermaid as she stepped back from the tank. It was eight foot tall above ground and a further twelve feet below, enough to give the mercreatures space to swim and explore while still being observable. The lab had low level lighting and minimum glare technology to help protect their eyes without compromising observation.

I think so, yes, Jerome agreed. The tank teemed with life, more of the merfolk creeping forward to see what their sister had delighted in. Their habitat was at the bottom of the enclosure, formed of caves and tunnels and rough stones for their housing and seaweed for some vegetation and play areas. He could see dark shapes flitting up from it like air bubbles.

They left the research area, passing through the white noise buffer and back to his office in a potent silence. Jerome wanted answers almost as much as he wanted to report Alex Brooks as a breakthrough.

“When can I start?” Alex asked once they were back before his desk.

“I think just as soon as the paperwork can be confirmed. I’ll get the application in and you can begin under Steven’s remaining funding.”

“I thought that would be wiped with the compensation?” she asked, cocking her head to one side.

“Different fund. The university doesn’t pay that one out; it’s the aquarium itself. Danger pay for the family.”

“Sounds peachy. So, I’ll finalise things tomorrow, then begin on Monday?”

“I look forward to it.” He stood, shaking her hand and smiling at the firmness of the grip. She could do well here.

“You know they’ve learned signing?” Alex asked as she sat down for her first quarter’s review.

“That’s not possible; their limbs aren’t dexterous enough. Their fingers don’t have the scope, they’d snap.”

“Their fins wouldn’t though—the tail fins are prehensile. Anyway, I don’t mean that way—they can understand what we’re signing to each other.”

“How do you know that?” Jerome asked, preparing for bad news.

“I asked them. They responded to basic requests from signing, and they seem to communicate between themselves through a mixture of their songs and signing. I’d have to assess that separately though.” Jerome took that in over a few minutes, chewing her words like gristle.

“That is not a very comforting,” he said eventually.

“It’s only a worry if they have something against you. Which they could easily do. They seem to share the same subjective emotional responses as octopodes and—”

“Octopi,” he said before he could help himself.

“Actually, octopus is a Greek word so octopodes is the correct pluralisation, you’re treating it as a Latin word. But you’re not paying me to argue grammar.” She laughed, shaking her head and pulling her hair up to twist it into a bun. “The point I was making is they show not only the sentience we credited them for in predation and social hierarchy, but they also have personal subjective emotional responses. If they could get out of the tank to score a point for a perceived slight they would do so.”

“Again, not reassuring me, Alex,” Jerome sighed.

“I think it should. It lends credence to the angle your research has been going, long term. You think they’re social and developed enough to be naturalised with humans. This shows they’re not only equal to mammalian intelligence but similarly fickle. That could be useful for the world, if we could get to be on the same side.”

“And do you think we could be?” he asked, brows going high. “We are their natural food source.”

“Only one of them, they eat a variety of other things as well. As evidenced by the fact you feed them beef and not interns. Generally.” She smirked a little with it and Jerome had to laugh with her, the gloomy humour a welcome reprieve from the concern nagging at the back of his mind.

“That is encouraging, but this is much deeper level than I anticipated in your first assessment. Most of the other applicants took this long to set up for their initial developmental ideas.”

“I’m not distracted by the merfolk in the same way.” He raised a brow at her, the security footage of her dancing in front of the tank and playing games with them through the glass still on screen.

“Really?”

“Not in the way they were. Because they know the songs don’t work they’re not bothering to try and tempt me into letting them out, or being a snack.”

“Letting them out?”

“That’s what they want. To get back to the ocean deep.”

“We’ve never had any indication of that.”

“Your chap found dead on the beach wasn’t an indication? I theorise he was carrying a clutch of hatchlings in his stomach but of course we’d need to assess the autopsy report to verify that and I doubt the aquarium would consent.”

Jerome made a mental note not to eat calamari ever again and shook his head, watching Alex closely. “No, it wouldn’t. Why do you think that?”

“Deduction,” she said with a shrug, “If they were hungry for flesh he’d have been eaten fully. The other two they took for food were bones and bits by the time you got into the tank; they can reduce a large human male to remains in a very short time. So if not to eat him, why didn’t they just drown him? They’ve done it with others. What was the benefit in only dragging him under to get a kiss? I think it would be to implant a fresh hatch onto him, which would drive him towards salt water. I could be wrong, we don’t have enough data to test this further and I doubt anyone would be willing to submit themselves for testing, but it’d explain the lack of effective disposal.”

“You have all of this from your primary observations?” Jerome asked, pushing his notebook away from himself. He’d been in the department for three years and hadn’t brought this much forward.

“Did none of you try just speaking to them?” she asked, levelling him a sharp look.

“The rest of us get the urge to throw ourselves into their very toothy jaws.”

“Fair, fair, that is an excellent point,” she laughed, holding her hands up, palms out. “I’ve managed to have some discussions with them. They were pleased, I think, once they were used to the fact they couldn’t lure me in. I know who their pod leader is, and she seems to have taken a liking to me sufficiently that she’ll communicate directly rather than sending a messenger out. We’ve even been able to give each other names, though I don’t know what her one for me would translate as. You can see it all on the tapes.”

“I did notice you interacting with the larger, dark scaled merwoman. You’re saying she’s the hierarchical head?”

“For this pod, yes. They’ve formed an internal structure in captivity, I think in the wild it would be more competitive. I’d have to do some field research to test that further, but I appreciate that’s a way off.”

“Alex, I have to ask you this—I’ve seen you be entirely unaffected by their usual tactics, and holding conversations with them. How is it that you’re not at risk from their song?”

“You haven’t guessed?” She laughed, pulling a sleeve up to reveal a small flag tattoo in her inner left forearm. It was neat—a rectangle with black, grey, white, and purple stacked one atop the other. “I’ve got a permeant ace card, so to speak.”

Jerome blinked at her, unsure what this revelation actually meant. “What?”

“I’m asexual. No sexual attraction and no lust mechanism or drive. The effectiveness of their song relies on seduction, on someone wanting them. I don’t want, and as such there’s nothing for them to snag onto. As a hunting tactic goes it’s highly effective, but I have a natural immunity.”

“I feel very ashamed to say this, but I’ve never heard of that,” Jerome said, sitting back into his chair and disliking himself for an area of ignorance he didn’t know he had.

“Don’t stress it—I would’ve told you at my interview but most people don’t believe me. Or offer to help ‘fix’ me, as if offering me a good dicking is going to magically change my settings.”

“I hope no one here has said such a thing—I’ll have them in front of HR should anything like that be even hinted at!” Jerome said, leaning forward now and tapping his book for punctuation. “My step-daughter and her wife have had that sort of harassment before and I’ll not see any of that allowed in this institution.”

“Thank you very much for that, Jerome,” Alex said, smiling at him. “Working with the merpeople keeps me pretty safe though—no one has time to try and influence me when they’re afraid of getting lured to the depths.”

“An excellent point,” he said, nodding. “I think we need to see what else we can do with your natural talent then. Do you have any areas you would like to explore?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” she said with a ferocious grin, taking a typed-up proposal out from her own notes.

This is a very bad idea, Anthony signed, as he watched Alex make the last adjustments to her wet suit.

Possibly. Jerome signed back, checking the arrangements for the twelfth time. They had a harness on her. They had a flare ready, to scare the merfolk off if things got aggressive. They had the overhead lights to flood the tank if things got worse than that—they wouldn’t see them for a week if they did that, as they’d found with Iain previously.

Why are we doing this?

No one else has managed to get this far into a study. She’s at the point of it being oceanic anthropology rather than just bare research. She feels this is the best way.

If she gets eaten they’ll close the tank.

If she gets eaten none of us will ever be able to do better.

Anthony hummed and nodded, looking over to the figure of Alex scaling up the ladder like an otter up a stream, fluid and quick. She wore a small breathing mask and tank, side mounted for safety, and her goggles were a slight, equally set pair that gave her maximum range.

And if they swarm her? he signed to Jerome.

Hit the lights, try and fish her out.

They watched with tight chests as Alex gave them an OK signal and slipped into the water, hovering by the ladder for a moment before letting go and swimming forward. They could see the merfolk coming out of the habitat, the merwoman Alex had been bonding with leading the way. The merwoman wore a toothy grin, though Jerome couldn’t tell if it was from pleasure or just her teeth, and her hair curled out behind like a briar patch, tangled and dark.

The big one seems keen, Anthony signed, watching the pod leader.

Alex has the most contact with her, they seem close. Makes sense, Jerome replied, moving forward half a step to watch as the pod slowed down, allowing their leader to swim forward and meet Alex one on one.

The mermaid was large, dark scales showing her as an older one, and her arms rippled with the strength matched by her thick tail. She curled her tail up between her and Alex, using the broad fins to sign at Alex. Alex’s hands went to her mouth before quickly returning to in front of her, signing back something that Jerome didn’t understand.

What’s she saying? he asked Anthony and was met with a shrug.

Don’t recognise it.

Jerome watched with his heart choking it’s way up his throat as the mermaid twirled round in delight at what Alex signed, before she surged forward and hugged his student—his new student, who he had agreed to let in the tank despite that being strictly against guidance from any of the other facilities that held merfolk, never mind the university ethics board, who had been the first to get progress from their work in so long it made his head hurt, who he had let get in the tank without a knife because she said it would give the wrong message—and felt his eyes close against what he knew must come next. He couldn’t watch it.

He felt Anthony tense against him and turned to glance at the man, expecting him to be sparking the flare up. Instead Anthony was hammering on his arm, slapping the meat of his shoulder and pointing excitedly at the tank instead.

Turning back Jerome saw that Alex hadn’t had her throat torn out, as he had anticipated, but was being hugged from behind now, the merwoman’s tail curling over Alex’s hips as the arms wrapped over her torso. The spindly fingers were stroking her waist, gentle enough that the wicked claws didn’t even snag on the material of her suit.

Is it spooning her? he signed to Anthony, shaking a little from the adrenaline rush that had flooded him.

Looks like it. I never imagined she’d be the small spoon but with a creature that big you’d do as told I guess. Anthony shrugged, scratching his head. I can’t say I ever imagined one to be so... hands on? I’ve never seen them do anything like that.

They stayed watching the scene, seeing the younger merfolk edge a little closer, signing with their own tail fins. Eventually Alex was let go, and there were conversations had between the various merfolk as they came forward. One merman with a keen scar on his shoulder pointed to Anthony and signed something quickly, before vanishing off back into the habitat at speed. Alex gave the pod leader a further hug and received what looked like a kiss on the hair, as much as a kiss could be given with a mouth stretched thin, before she was left in the tank and the creatures descended again, into their gloom.

She slipped the mask off and fanned herself with one hand as she slipped the tank down from her side. Her grin was miles wide as she glanced back at the tank before looking over to them.

You guys ok? she signed, wiping the excess salt water off her face and taking the bottle offered by Anthony.

We’re finewhat the hell was that? Jerome asked, pointing to the empty tank.

The merman wanted to let Anthony know no hard feelings about the scar from Iainsaid he thought Anthony didn’t like him after that whole incident.

Why was she hugging you? Jerome gesticulated, pointing to the now empty tank.

I explained to her what hugging was, and how humans use it in bonding. She likes me. Approves of me. Wants to stay here. And, has consented to further study, Alex signed back, standing up again and swigging more water.

What? Anthony signed this.

Now that we’re able to communicate she’s willing for the pod to be studied. We’ll need to discuss long term conservation, some of the young ones might still be able to be released, but she wants to work with us.

We were already studying them, Anthony signed.

Yeah, and they were eating your staff. They’re not going to do that now, if we work with them. Alex signed, struggling not to roll her eyes at the two men in front of her.

Why? Jerome signed, looking back and forth between her and the tank.

Because I asked nicely. And because she likes me. She shrugged, smiling at the water. Seems reasonable.

We can’t understand their signing, Jerome signed, What did she say to you before she hugged you?

That’s personal. No comment, Alex signed with a wink, finishing off her water and walking away from them.


Data?1541796973
Charlotte Platt

Charlotte Platt lurks in the woods beside a river and writes horror and speculative fiction.