Another body had drifted in that evening. Bloated and discoloured it was the second in five days to be found in the shallow, watery grave of the rock pools. This one was a woman. Her arm was missing, probably wrenched from its socket by the look of the rotten, torn flesh which hung from the shoulder joint like a lifeless squid, it’s red and purple tentacles swirling in the waves. The last body had been of a man. His corpse had been complete, but it was battered and bruised, one side of his face caved in from an extreme blow. And there had been others before that. One week previous, a small bundle, wrapped in grey cloth and bound in twine, had washed in. The person who found it was an elderly man. He had been walking alone, foraging on the shore under the cool glow of a twilight moon. At first, he had thought the cloth-covered bundle might be treasure, something that could be sold or bartered; so quickly he pulled it from the rock pool, laid it on dry land and began to open it. With excited breath he unravelled the knotted twine. It took a while. It was tied very tightly, and the man had to find a sharp rock to cut it in places, but finally, with a firm beat in his heart and a thrill in his chest, the twine fell to the ground and the cloth was laid apart. The man peered into the package. It was dark so he had to lean in closely and feel with his hands, but in an instant, on realising what he had unveiled, fell backwards and even he, who had witnessed a hundred tragedies and many more brutalities in his long lifetime, could not help but whimper as the bile rose into his throat and nausea hurled from his mouth.
All the bodies found so far had no link to one another and no cause of death other than extreme violence. But even though each death felt so random and unpredictable, many people had their theories on what had really happened, and those suspicions were turning into fear, for everyone knew that at any time, they could be next.
A few hours after the body of the woman had been found, and the crowds on the shore had dissipated, Marianna made her way down to the old wooden jetty. Lying on the edge she swirled her hand in the seawater five times anti-clockwise.
“Jess! Jess! Are you there?” Marianna called.
With her fingers drifting through the dark, rippling ocean, Marianna waited, but there was no response.
After a few moments she called again. “Jessica!”
The water was eerily calm and there was not a sound in the cold night air except for Marianna’s own solitary voice. Marianna shivered and pulled herself up. Jessica had still not answered. Five anti-clockwise swirls of the ocean water at end of the jetty was their agreed signal. It was unlike Jess not to come immediately.
Marianna looked around. Night-time had cast a dark, silken veneer over the ocean, and from the rocky shoreline to the far away horizon the water lay undisturbed except for the movement of a few discarded oil-drums which bobbed under the gentle swell of soft, moon-tinted waves. Inland were the mountains, and the human city where Marianna lived. And above all of that, above the land and the sea and the huge rocky mountains, sat the majestic pegasian city, known as the “Third City of Gemini,” which ruled over them all, twinkling with brilliant light, hovering like a giant star-filled satellite.
Across the earth there were fifty pegasian cities, each built into strong mountainous rock which firmly rooted their colossal structures. Known as “tree cities,” they had been designed and constructed to closely mimic the structure of the world’s natural trees. Each tree city consisted of a huge trunk which rose up from its deep roots in the earth’s crust, then fanned out at the top into hundreds of flat “branches” which served as platforms upon which the homes and offices of the pegasian’s were built. These cities were a new world in the sky, a world away from the harsh, barren land below, and to all who looked upon them they symbolised wealth, power, luxury and freedom.
Shivering Marianna wrapped her arms round her body. It was late, dark, and she was very cold, but Marianna wasn’t ready to leave and go home, not yet. She really needed to talk to Jessica about something that had happened, something she could make no sense of at all, and something that she desperately needed to understand. But where was Jessica? Why had Jessica still not answered her call?
Leaning down so her nose was only millimetres from the calm, black water, Marianna swirled her fingers around anti-clockwise five more times. Then she waited, first counting to ten, then holding her breath for fifteen seconds before slowly exhaling. Marianna watched her fast-gushing breath escape over the water, hypnotised by the soft, little waves it created, but in her daydream she was completely unaware of slow, stealthy movements approaching from just under the surface of the dark, rippling sea, until a face, as pale and ghostly as the moon, broke through the black veneer.
The face was starkly white, almost luminous, contrasting sharply with the darkness like a shimmering sea ghost. The creature had long, golden hair which flowed out through the water, billowing like long, thin tentacles. Marianna took a sharp intake of breath and jerked back in fright.
“Jessica!” she gasped.
Jessica’s face was eerily still. She had not completely surfaced, and her body still floated under the water.
“Jessica?” Marianna said again in alarm.
Jessica’s long pale arms extended up to grab the edge of the jetty and slowly she heaved herself upwards, emerging from the ocean like she was shedding a second skin.
“You look…terrible,” Marianna said in honest worry. She knew immediately that there was something wrong.
Jessica sat next to Marianna without saying a word, just staring straight out to the black horizon with distant eyes, large and woeful, while her long, turquoise-scaled mermaid’s tail drooped wearily into the water below. The silence between them felt grave and sombre, and at the same time it felt fragile. Marianna didn’t speak; she didn’t ask any questions. She just waited. Jessica was here and she was safe. For now, that was all that mattered. Marianna moved closer to embrace her friend, who in her forlorn weariness, looked at the very least like she needed a hug.
“Don’t!” Jessica abruptly replied. “You will get dirty if you touch me!”
Marianna winced at her friend’s reaction. “What do you mean I’ll get dirty?” she replied. “You are the cleanest mermaid in all the ocean.”
Marianna laid her hand on Jessica’s shoulder, but again she pulled away. “Don’t!” Jessica growled. “I told you not to touch me!”
“What is that on your back?” Marianna asked as she lifted her hand away.
Jessica’s shoulder had felt sticky and cold. Marianna rubbed the tips of her fingers over her palm. What was this stuff? Marianna looked more closely at her friends back and shoulders and saw that they were covered in dark, smeared, blotches. It was obvious what they were made from. Oil. Thick black oil. And it was everywhere; over Jessica’s body, sliding densely through the turquoise scales of her tail, and mingled into her long, golden hair, streaking it black as it sat heavily matted upon her shoulders and breasts.
“Jess? What happened? Did you get caught up in an oil slick? I thought you knew how to avoid them. I thought you knew how dangerous ……”
“Don’t ask me stupid questions! Why are you asking me stupid questions? Why? Because I am a mermaid? Because I am the lowest of the low?! Because I am worthless and poor? Uneducated and illiterate? Is that why you think it is OK to ask me such stupid questions? Is it?” There were tears in Jessica’s eyes as her teeth bit and her lips spat out bitter words. She began to ease her body back into the ocean. “I am not going to stay here to answer your stupid questions Marianna! I don’t even know why I came to see you! I thought you were my friend! But even you are ready to taunt me!”
Marianna grabbed her arm. “Wait! Don’t go! Just wait! Please. You know that is not what I meant! You know that is not what I think of you. I am your friend. I am your best friend. Please don’t go Jessica. Stay and tell me what happened. Please.”
Jessica’s body stilled and her head dropped, and then she sighed and eased herself back up on to the jetty.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you. Sometimes it all just feels too much, and today…well today, was just ….it was awful. I don’t know how else to describe it. I don’t even want to remember it. But it won’t go away. The thoughts and the memories just won’t leave my head. I have been swimming around all evening, trying to tire myself out so that I can just sleep. But my head, it won’t stop spinning, and….and…..”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but it might help if you do.”
“You can’t fix it,” Jessica replied.
“I know. But I can listen. I am a good listener.”
“And not a bad talker too when you get going,” Jessica smiled.
“So try me,” Marianna replied. “You can tell me anything.”
Jessica raised her gaze up to the moon, briefly catching its image in her eye before a dark cloud eclipsed its light, and with her hands resting on her lap, and her long, oil-smeared tail drifting in the ocean she quietly said, in a voice that was so meek it was almost muffled, “They attacked me. Four of them. There was nothing I could do. Nothing at all.”
A knot tightened in Marianna’s stomach. “By them, you mean pegasians?”
“Did they hurt you?”
“I was fishing for oil, out near one of the old oil rigs that has just begun to leak. It was very far from shore, farther than I have ever swum before. I wouldn’t normally risk it, but things have been so difficult at home, with David, and Dad, that I had to try. And I was almost there. I could see it. I was so excited, and so relieved. I was exhausted. But I had the empty oil canister tied with a rope to my back, and I leaned over it to rest a while before I began harvesting the oil. And then, from out of nowhere, they came. They just swooped out of the sky with their huge black wings and suddenly there was a shadow all around me. Everything went cold. The sun seemed to disappear and all I heard were jeers and taunts. I didn’t even see their faces properly, but I could tell they were young. I heard male voices and female too. They were laughing. Can you believe it? It was fun to them. Sport. They enjoyed what they did to me.”
“What did they do?” Marianna gently asked.
“It was like a coffin in there. I couldn’t breathe. My body was wrapped up so tightly my head was crushed down onto my chest and knees. I was upside down. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe.”
Although she had not explicitly stated it, it was clear what the pegasians had done to Jessica. They had dragged her through the oil which had leaked from the rig then quite literally stuffed her body into the small oil drum she had brought with her, leaving her to a slow and painful death. Marianna choked back her tears.
“How did you get free?” Marianna gently asked.
“The drum hit a rock and dislodged the lid. I was able to swim out.”
In silence the two friends looked out across the ocean. The horizon was a perfectly straight, black line. One could imagine a different world beyond it, but this world was all they had. Since the floods of the twenty fourth century had caused sea levels to rise far higher than science had ever predicted, the great cities of the world had been destroyed under the power of the tides, and much of the flat fertile land now lay as part of the ocean floor. While the oceans had reclaimed the land over a billion people were forced from their homes and a further billion perished in the race to stay alive, and when the seas finally calmed, amongst the devastation, dirt, death and disease, there was chaos. Mountainous regions had become the only land left for man to populate. Wandering masses lived in squalor or were squeezed into the small settlements that had survived the floods. Homes and cities had to be rebuilt with limited resources and power, and man came to soon realise that the human race could not survive unless something fundamental was changed.
“I brought you some soap,” Marianna finally said.
Marianna pulled out a bar of white soap and a large sponge from her small yellow rucksack and offered them to Jess. Every time Marianna came here, she brought soap so her friend could wash the dirt and oil polluted sea from her delicate scales, sensitive skin, and long golden hair.
“Thanks,” Jessica smiled. “You are a good friend.”
Jessica dipped the soap into the water and lathered it up on the sponge. She began to wipe the oil and dirt from her arms, and as the soft, clean scent of lemon filtered through the air it became filled with something other than cold, dark, fear.
“So what do we do now?” Marianna said.
“What do you mean?”
“About the pegasians.”
Jessica laughed. “What can we do about the pegasians? They are out mighty rulers. They do what they like. They have all the wealth and power. We are just their minions. What can we possibly do?”
“But do you think it’s true what they say?” Marianna asked.
“Stop being cryptic Marianna. What are you talking about?”
“They say Aleksandr Zidan is one of them. They say he is evil. They say he is a ringleader for the young pegasians who are brutal and who torture. They say he enjoys their games as much as they do.”
“Who is Aleksandr Zidan?”
“He is the son of our ruler. He is the heir to this empire. When his father dies, he will take over.”
“Then it probably is true. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was one of them. The more power they have the worse they tend to be. Pegasians are beasts. We are ruled by beasts who mask themselves as men. Why should Aleksandr Zidan be any different?”
“But they are not all bad,” Marianna replied. “Not all pegasians are bad.”
Jessica turned to her friend with a look of pitying scepticism. “Marianna, your head has always been in the clouds. You have always believed that change was possible. You are wrong. We are not strong enough to change the control that the pegasians have over the world. Humans are their servants and slaves, and merpeople are the slime that needs cleaned up. We are their puppets, and they play us, they play with us. Their lives are decadent and luxurious and carefree. They soar above the clouds and look down on us like they are gods, and they may as well be our gods because we all worship them. We all want to live the life that they live. We all want what they have, we all want wings. We all want to fly.”
“Jess you are wrong. We can fight back. And just for the record I have never wanted wings. I have never wanted to be one of them. I am glad to be human. But I have always wanted to change things and I know change is possible, now more than ever. But I do need your help to try.”
Jess frowned. “You are crazy Marianna. I love you, but you are crazy. And you have that look on your face; that look of a woman with a crazy plan. Blurt it out Marianna. If you have a mad scheme you need help with, tell me now before I swim away as fast as I can.”
“Can you take me to the Research Platform?” Marianna quickly asked.
“What? The Research platform! Why do you want to go there? It is an ocean grave for all the gruesome and grotesquely deformed creatures which were created in order for people like me to exist. I will never go there. It is hideous. I will never go there. How can you ask me to take you?”
“I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important,” Marianna replied. “Please? It is important. I am your friend. We have been friends for fifteen years. I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important.”
“OK,” Jess sighed. “I don’t know what bright idea has got into your head, and I don’t know what you hope to achieve, but I will take you because I trust you.” A reluctant smile crept onto Jess’s face. “Plus, I haven’t got you a birthday present yet,” she added. “Although this was not exactly the kind of present I had in mind.”
“Thanks Jess. You are the best friend I ever had,” Marianna said.