Take heed, all those who would dare to gamble against David Shiffman. You will fail.
It seemed innocent enough. I was in the middle of a job search, paying the bills with consulting, freelance work, and science writing while pursuing the next academic appointment. Finally having a bit of time, I wrote a science fiction novel, something I’ve always wanted to do. Sometime last summer, our resident shark fanatic made a dangerous suggestion. “Why don’t you just cash in on the mermaid craze?” “Fine,” I said, “if I don’t land a job by 2014, I’ll write a marine science-inspired paranormal mermaid romance novel.”
It’s 2014. This is Breaching Blue.
Below, for your enjoyment, is the first chapter.
If you’re interested in my other writings, you can check out Fleet and Prepared on Amazon or read my short story, The Lucky Ones, at Nature. And a huge shout-out to Mark Gibson, who writes the excellent marine science blog, Breaching the Blue, and was kind enough to let me use the inadvertently parallel name. For obvious reasons, this is not the final draft.
Chapter 1: Sisters of the Reef
The reef was old. It rose out of the seamount, a honeycomb of chambers piled one on top of the other; each chamber perfectly sized for Janthia and her sisters. This reef was made for them.
They swam around the perimeter, cautiously. The Pacific Ocean was a dangerous place. Who knew what strange predators lurked inside the labyrinthine palace? Janthia was the first to risk looking inside. She squeezed through a small opening near the bottom of the reef. The once generous entrance was overgrown with corals, generation stacked upon generation, each one building upon the skeletal remains of the last. Whatever strange creatures built this chamber, they abandoned it long ago.
Janthia squeezed her pelvic fins tight against her body to fit through the narrow, improbably round entrance. Even then, she had to reach back with her long, delicate arms and push against the inner wall, knocking bits of coral loose as she forced her way in. She braced against the wall. With one confident flick of her powerful tail, she was inside.
She waited as the cloud of silt, stirred up by her graceless entrance, settled to the floor. The cavern was cozy, just large enough for her to stretch out to her full, impressive length. She turned in lazy circles, studying the walls and crevices, searching for any hint of danger. Tiny shrimp fled as she passed above them, but the cavern was otherwise unoccupied. On the farthest wall, she saw something strange. The growth was thicker, heavy filamentous mats clung to oddly shaped divots. She brushed them aside, revealing deep scars beneath.
As she cleared the thick mat of microbes, the wall markings took form. They began as long lines, four in parallel, cut deep into the chamber wall. She held her hand up to the scars, a perfect fit. She rubbed the fine tips of her clawed fingers against the rock, following the path of the parallel lines. The rock wrapped around her claws, grinding them into sharp points as the limestone wall crumbled away. She smiled. If she wanted to sharpen her talons, this was exactly how she would do it.
She brushed away more of the matting. The heavy, utilitarian scratch marks gave way to carefully carved figures. Drawings on the walls of an ancient reef. She puzzled over the etchings as she exposed a magnificent mural embedded into the heart of the reef. The figures were familiar. Heavy tails thick with muscle ended in a powerful, aggressive fluke, perfect for propelling a large, awkwardly shaped body through the water. At the waist, the heavily armored tail gave way to a more delicate form. The heavy scales faded into fine, nearly invisible denticles, the same denticles that covered her own torso. Two arms sprouted from a pair of broad, powerful shoulders, terminating not in the eminently practical pectoral fins of a graceful swimmer, but clumsy, five-fingered hands, nearly useless in the open sea.
There was no doubt, whoever once lived in this chamber was of Janthia’s kin. She smiled, again. It looked like she and her sisters had finally found their way home.
Janthia scoured the walls, searching for a message from their former occupants. She plunged her freshly sharpened claws into the silt, digging for any traces buried in the sediment. There was nothing. The carvings were all that was left behind.
She squeezed back out through the coral encrusted entrance and joined her sisters in the open water. She wasn’t the only one who plunged headfirst into the mysterious reef. Clymene, in her excitement, managed to get herself wedged, head first in one of the many crevices. Simnia had taken a firm grasp of her tail and was trying, apparently in vain, to free her sister. Amphisamytha laughed as she watched the ordeal, until Simnia caught her eye. Guiltily, she swum down to assist Simnia with the delicate extraction. With one great pulled, Clymene came free and the three of them tumbled out onto the seabed.
They collided with Luidia, who had, until that moment, been patrolling the edge of the reef, alert for any potential predators. She had just begun interrogating an ambivalent octopus that she found nestled in a small crevice, when the three mermaids landed on top of her. Simnia brushed the mud from her tail, rolled her eyes in exasperation at Amphisamytha and Clymene, who were still laughing, rolling around on the seafloor, and swam away. Luidia returned to her investigation, but the octopus was gone.
Freyella watched the entire exchange from her vantage point behind a tall cluster of algae. She had been practicing her camouflage and was prepared to sneak up on Luidia when Amphisamytha and Simnia ruined her plan. Janthia caught her eye through the waving blades. Freyella winked as she swam off, in search of more trouble to cause.
Janthia had been overwhelmed by a sense of security within the dark cavern, but, now out in the open, the fear returned. She swam low and deep, just out of reach of the sun’s rays. Until this day, she and her sisters spent their lives drifting just below the sunbreak, away from the predators that lurked just out of sight. The drift, she thought, why can I barely remember it? We were out there for so long, why does it feel so distant, so small?
Tornus, the strongest of her sisters, waited just below the sunbreak, watching her siblings frolic through the caverns while keeping a careful watch above for any wandering foe. During their long drift, they faced enemies large and small. As they outgrew one predator they found themselves the target of another. Only nights before they had escaped the attack of a bull orca, but not without losses. For the first time, Tornus looked down and counted her sisters. They numbered sixty-two.
From her position, Tornus admired the whole of the reef. The enormous structure reached across a fifth of the seamount, with enough caverns and tunnels to house all of her sisters. Coral grew from the walls, painting the reef in vibrant colors. Massive clams basked just above the sunbreak, absorbing light to feed their algal co-conspirators. Fish of every stripe, from radiant blue rockfish to to regal angelfish danced through the coral columns. Flatfish skimmed across the seabed. Sharks circled the perimeter, watching for their next meal. Though menacing in appearance, they gave Tornus and her sisters a wide berth.
Janthia swam up to her diligent sister and cradled her head, drawing their brows together. She wished to speak to Tornus but she did not want to be overheard.
“This is a good place. The caverns are safe. We can grow strong here.” Janthia whispered.
“Yes,” Tornus agreed, “but what is this place? Why is it here? How did it come to be?”
“Isn’t it obvious, my sister? This is a place for our kind. Others like us built it long ago. It is a fortress where we can live, hidden from the watchful eyes of our enemies. Safe from the hunters. This is a mermaid reef.”
“If our kin built it, then where are they now? We have floated or swum the greater breadth of this ocean, riding the currents, accepting their guidance, and yet, we have never seen another tribe like ours. There are no mermaids that aren’t among our sisters.”
“And yet there must be.” Janthia felt this truth deep in her chest. “Who else could build such a reef? Who else would carve our images into the wall? Who else could? Perhaps they have traveled on. Perhaps they built it for us, knowing that we would come to it. Does it matter? We have swum so far and our sisters are tired. This is a good place.”
“We will stay, for the moment. We need to rebuild our strength and, as you say, we are all tired. But we must not become complacent. I need to know more about this reef and its builders. The lower caverns are ancient, but the summit is young. If mermaids built it, why did they let is rise above the sunbreak? Perhaps they were too rash. Perhaps they built too high and drew the predators in. Perhaps this reef is a hunting ground and we are the prey.”
“You are cautious, sister, and for that we should all be thankful. Let us rest here awhile and explore the caverns. Perhaps that will yield some answers.”
“Very well. You should tell the others.”
Janthia separated herself from Tornus and turned to seek out her sisters. Most of them were assembled in a small circle, playing with a halibut that had been scared from the sea floor. She descended into the circle, startling her sisters and allowing the halibut to escape. She began the low, lilting song that is mermaid speech when they choose not to vibrate their words directly into their sisters’ skulls.
“Sisters, Tornus and I have consulted, and we agree that this reef is a good reef. We will stay here, rest, and hunt.”
She felt their cheers resonate through her jaw.
“But,” she continued, “we must take heed. This reef is a good reef but we do not yet know if it is a safe reef. Tornus is worried. We must be careful. We must be aware. We must not become distracted,” she looked at Amphisamytha, who, when startled by Janthia’s approach, let the halibut escape, “and we must find out all we can about this place.”
“But we know this is a mermaid reef.” Clymene responded, “I saw, in the caverns, many carvings on the wall, carvings that could only be made by others of our kind.” She stretched out her arms, held her hands wide, “carvings that could only be made with these!”
“I did as well,” Simnia interjected. “And I found marks meant for sharpening claws. Claws that could only belong to another of our kind.”
“And the openings,” Amphisamytha began, “They are the perfect size for us. The chambers are just right for us to fold our tails and sleep. And I found this!” She held up a limestone plate, just large enough to fit in one of the cavern entrances and tapered, with handholds along the edges. “It is a perfect fit. With this we can seal the entrances and sleep safely. Nothing from the outside can move it.”
“Sisters, I do not disagree. There is no doubt that our kinfolk built this reef. But if that is so, then where have they gone? Have they been hunted? Did they flee? Did they build it for us and move on? And why does it rise above the sunbreak? These are questions we must answer if we are to stay here.”
Her sisters sung in agreement. Above, Tornus looked down, admiring her sister. Janthia felt a warm glow in her chest. Tornus led them through the great drift. Now it was Janthia’s turn to lead.
Over the next few days, they cleared the reef’s lower caverns. Janthia claimed the largest as her own and she used her strong tail to blow the accumulated silt out of the hole. With the floor clear, she could see it clearly. It was beautiful. A limestone bowl, carved over the years by unknown occupants sleeping on the bottom, grinding away the rough edges with the hard, coarse scales that covered their tails. It was polished so smooth that no coral could settle. Even after laying dormant for so long, it was still pristine. A mermaid’s nest.
In contrast to the perfect floor, the walls were harsh. They were streaked with sharpening grooves. No two made by the same hand. The drawings were equally variable. Some were rough and blocky. Others were carefully planned and artfully executed, delicate, detailed images of the occupant or, perhaps, her sisters.
The entrance was overgrown with coral and Janthia spent the better part of a day scraping it smooth so that the jagged edges wouldn’t rub against her tail as she squeezed in, scraping away the thin layer of mucus and revealing the sensitive scales beneath. It was hard but rewarding work, and Janthia emerged from her cavern, satisfied.
There was just one thing left. Scattered across the reef were the heavy limestone blocks that Amphisamytha had correctly surmised were doors. But they were old and encrusted with corals and sponges. Janthia surveyed the seamount, looking for one that would fit well in the entrance to her new home. She found a slab that looked only slightly too big, just enough extra material that she could work it down. With her freshly sharpened talons, she carved away the edges until the fit was perfect. Floating outside her new chamber, she slid it into place. She realized too late that the slab held tight against the slanted walls of the entrance. She scraped and pulled at it, but it would not move. After all the work, she had locked herself out of her new home.
She caught Simnia swimming by and begged her to help pry the door loose. Slowly they worked it free but, by the end, it was a jagged mess, no longer suitable for use. Janthia went off in search of another while Simnia went ahead to warn her sisters against making the same mistake. A few already had. Luidia’s door was stuck so fast that they gave up and went in search of another cavern.
This is the mermaid paranormal romance I never knew I needed.