When hunting mermaids, it’s best to keep your rudder close and your first mate closer. That’s why Captain Marda has these brief nighttime trysts with Barth. Barth lays his stubble against the smooth white of the place under her collarbone and she keeps the map open on the communicator. He whispers “fins like gold” and “seaweed hair” to himself, into her thighs, and she watches the dot of their sub blink across the blue screen.
During the day she holds the crew like so many round pebbles in her fist, each one slick and wily, insubordinate. Morale is low and she can’t sleep with all of them, so she lets them sleep together. Men and women all intermixed in the metal walls at night, howling.
But each day Marda gets closer. The sub circles coral reefs off the coasts, where mermaids are said to like the colors of the schools of fishes and train them to swim around their necks like jewelry or live behind their ears, beneath their long hair. Archipelagos—the sub skirts strands of islands like gemstones spread across blue lagoons and green shoals. Sometimes Mermaids like shallow places, but mostly they like the dark and the beautiful uncharted, abandoned, soulless parts of the undiscovered world. Superficial creatures, they are easily distracted by gild and shine.
The sub comes up for air only once a week. Captain Marda lies in half-naked dishevelment at the helm, her ear always trained for the ping of radar. The sea is blanket smooth and it is unbearably hot. Barth looks fatter sitting in the sun, his eyes squinting at the sea.
Captain Marda knows she will find the sea dweller. She is ruthless—trained for this moment, a seasoned killer. She wears her long brown hair in braids under her cap and does not smile. They are scouts, not pirates, not picnickers, not mutineers, not smugglers. They have superiors to answer to. The matronship sends sarcastic memos, threatening her with a demotion. Captain Marda reads and then deletes them. She sends her weekly progress memos back with no retort.
But it was the same last war when there were so many mermaids that they lined the beaches with their tails flopping lazily in the sand like fishes out of water. Or more like a cat’s tail, seemingly unaware of itself. Rumors of their return, slow at first from the south then building from the west, instilled in Captain Marda an apoplectic need to be under the water in the hull of her sub, weapons at the ready.
She was the first to be sent out. It’s because of the massacre, she knows. She’s a figurehead, the reason the human race survived, an idol, a story told to children by parents who are feeling patriotic on major holidays.
Finally, on the forty-seventh day of their scouting mission, she sees the flash of a golden-blue tail in the scope. They are miles from civilization. It feels right, the low-lying green weeds lazily drifting in the current like wheat on a summer day, not too deep but not too shallow. Farmlands, she supposes.
“I’m going out,” she tells Barth, and reluctantly relinquishes the helm. Barth watches her stonily as she suits up in the chameleon-colored wetsuit and little white breather that sits between her teeth.
“Alone?” he asks.
“Memo the matron. Let them know I’ve found them,” is all she replies.
Captain Marda swims out to the reeds. There is a tidal shelf beyond, a little merdwelling like a tent made of rock. Sea-fields, with fat water sheep grazing on the seemingly endless green reeds. It is an outpost then, an outlier.
But no one is home in the little stone tent. The silly things always collect shells; they line the walls of their dens with them. Captain Marda pokes around with her sea gun—that shoots vicious steel barbs when fired—and then swims out over the fields. Her breathing is heavy in the white bulb at her mouth. She can hear her own heartbeat in her ears, can feel the current like a smooth, soft wind wrapping itself around her, tugging at her skin.
Then rising up out of the low green leaves like a gold statue—the mermaid’s eyes are cold and yet frightened—her delicate, white hands grip a crook for directing sheep. Marda’s got her gun up but it is too close, damn it. The mermaid seems frozen. Her blue-gold tail swishes uncertainly, but then Marda, absurdly, is reaching for her—she’s never been this close—just to touch the thing’s ugly face. Not ugly, but eerily beautiful and iridescent. The mermaid is trying to pull away and yet her strangely human face is very close. Rod and gun all tangled, they struggle in the silent fields like slow-moving dancers. The breather has dropped from between her teeth—where has it gone? Frantic, Marda reaches but the thing has torn away from its bindings and floats away in the current. She swims for it but the mermaid is pulling at her with strong and yet light fingers that pinch, dragging her away, and her mouth is filling with sharp sea water. She tells herself to be calm but her body flails. She is being dragged upwards against the current. For a moment she sees the fields beneath her, their green reeds disappearing under her feet.
Air. Glorious, sweet air. Two creatures bobbing on a sun-drenched sea. The water is still and cold and they can see for miles. Slowing, they gasp for breath and float, holding on to one another in the empty sea.
This story originally appeared in Pulp Literature.