The doctor let out a low whistle. “Even if they are only temporary, the effects are rather incredible.”
Xue buttoned his shirt back up. “What’s the prognosis?” The fact that the effects were temporary was somewhat disappointing, but he should be able to continue the treatment without difficulty. At least, as long as he could keep his captive alive. The creature was remarkably uncooperative. It was clear it was growing to understand English, yet it had stopped vocalizing entirely. Two days ago it had succeeded in killing another handler.
“It’s knocking progression back far enough that your organs are showing signs of recovery. It’s also helped clear up some of the other, minor issues, such as the damage to your joints. You’ve seen a reduction in the chronic pain.” Doctor Kovac closed the folder. “If you can keep the treatments regular, I think you’ll live a normal lifespan.” He smiled. “Really like to get my hands on some samples, see if we can synthesize it in any fashion.”
“I have some of my best working on that problem already.” Xue exhaled. “Unfortunately, the treatment requires most of what we can safely take from the creature. And if I kill this one, I’ll likely not be able to get my hands on another.”
“You’ve considered acquiring more?” Kovac raised an eyebrow.
“Of course. It’s admittedly difficult when there are few I can trust with knowledge of the thing’s existence.” Xue stood. “I told my contact he can name his price if he can acquire me a female. If I can breed them…” He smirked. “Especially if they reproduce like fish…”
“Keep me in the loop.” Kovac smiled. “Like to see what this can do to cancer.”
“Little closer, little closer…” Adele leaned forward, staring at the screen. “Come on…” Far beneath the ship, Greg, Natalya, and the divers were moving through the dark water. Three months, and this was the closest they’d been. Her eyes focused on Greg’s camera. The video picture was murky, but there was definitely something moving in the water. “Come on, get us a clear shot…”
There it was, on the screen. A humanoid shape, with clearly recognizable eyes. The tail flowed as it turned and shot back in the other direction. But they had it. They had it on film. She threw her head back and howled in glee.
He thrashed in the restraints. They’d increased the number of handlers to six since the events of the previous week. Not that it mattered. They’d also improved the restraints after he’d managed to claw through the last ones. Not that it mattered. He’d made it out the portal, only to learn there was nowhere for him to flee. The air outside the structure had been so dry it had nearly choked him, and all he’d seen in every direction he turned was wasteland without water. There was no ocean toward which to run.
Two of the handlers were at his head, forcing his mouth open painfully. Something metal was put in his mouth to keep it open, wide enough to hurt. Trying to bite down just made it hurt worse, and he heard one of the men laughing. The torture with the screen had taught him some of their barbaric tongue, enough to realize they were taking pleasure in what they were doing to him. One of the men held up a tube and smiled.
Then he began shoving the tube down Yalathanil’s throat. He gagged and started struggling again. The tube was repositioned twice before being forced down his throat, making him choke. Were it not for the fact they’d already put a tube up his nose and down the airway, he wouldn’t be able to breath. A gray concoction was poured into the tube, and he realized that they were feeding him. All three days of refusing to eat had gotten him was this. If he could have screamed, he would have.
“I see everything is going well here.”
“He’s pretty unhappy about this, boss.” The man pouring the food in looked pleased by that.
“It may be time to take more drastic measures.” The sickly man, the one that kept harvesting his blood, stepped into view. “His cooperation could be beneficial.” The man raised his head. “Don’t put him back in the tank tonight.”
Not back in the tank? Not back in the water? His eyes widened, and he saw the man smile. “So, you do understand.” Yalathanil glared at him. “You killed a friend of these men.” The man glanced at the handlers. “I am going to allow them twelve hours to express their displeasure with that action.”
“Heh.” The man feeding him grinned. “But I promise, fish boy…” He leaned in to look Yalathanil in the eye. “It’s going to feel like a hell of a lot longer.”
Natalya threw herself into his arms, and he laughed as he spun her around. “It was clear?” Greg grinned.
“Clear and already uploaded via the satellite link.” Natalya grinned. Around them, the rest of the team was opening beers. Most of them still had looks of disbelief. It was easy to figure out which two had also gotten good looks at the creatures. Marco and Lisette both looked stunned.
He really couldn’t blame them. They’d known going in what they were looking for, but most of them expected to find a creature that had given rise to myth, like the manatee. Seeing the myth itself was something else entirely. He’d seen one before, or something like it, and he still barely believed. Greg accepted the beer Adele tossed him. “What next?”
“Fame, fortune…” Adele threw her head back and spread her arms. “Nobel prize acceptance speeches…” She sat back up. “I think I’ll have some movie star flings.”
“A couple flings with movie stars, or a fling with a couple movie stars?” Greg raised an eyebrow.
“Eh…” Adele shrugged and took a long drink of her own beer. “Both?”
“Good ones though.” He pointed at her. “No C-listers.”
“Heh.” Natalya cackled. “Sea-listers.”
Greg groaned. “Oh, Nat…”
Adele wrinkled her nose. “That was bad even for you.”
Xue stared at the creature. It huddled in the corner, flinching when anything came near. Its hands weren’t manacled, but the collar was blinking red. And for the first time, it wasn’t hissing and snarling at its captors. It just sat there, panting. Beaten. He smiled.
The handlers had taken turns at the creature all night. It had fought, at first. That had only caused the handlers to increase their brutality. He’d been worried, but the creature’s regeneration had proved up to the task of keeping it alive throughout the punishment. Now, perhaps, it knew its place.
His nose wrinkled as he stepped into the chamber. A couple of the guards had shown their contempt by urinating on the creature. “I know you can understand me…” It turned its head away from him and made no sound of response. “Any further attempts to harm your handlers will result in another session of discipline.” He saw claws start to appear on the tips of its fingers before being withdrawn once more.
The collar was working as he’d been told. The creature was strong and agile, but its powers were indeed very limited. It was not much stronger than the handlers, for all it was vicious. And now… He smiled. Now all the handlers knew just how powerless it truly was. And so did it. “It’s time to go back in your tank.” When the handlers started to move toward it, Xue held up a hand. “It’s time to go back in your tank.” He stared at the creature. Then he turned to the handler. “You may have three more —”
In the corner, the creature stood. Fists clenched and fury in its eyes, but it stood. Xue smiled. He pointed at the door, through which the tank hatch could be seen. “It is time to go back in your tank.”
Slowly, the creature looked in the direction Xue pointed. For a moment, it looked as though it were considering lunging. Each of the handlers had a prod, and they were all starting to smile. The creature stared at Xue a moment longer. Its eyes went to the remote he held in his hand.
Then it started walking toward the tank.
Natalya kicked the door open. Then she kicked the door four more times. She came into the room, kicked off her shoes, then kicked them across the hall. Then she kicked the side of the couch too, just for good measure.
“I take it the meeting did not go well.” Adele rolled into the room.
“They dismissed the photograph as a hoax.” Natalya threw herself down on the couch.
“It’s really not that unexpected an outcome.” Adele sighed. “Nat, we knew —”
“They cut off the grant.” Natalya folded her arms. “They even threatened to get lawyers involved and sue for…” She felt tears threatening.
“They think you committed fraud.” Adele gave her a heartbroken look.
“No. No, it’s so much worse than that.” She wiped at her face. “They think I’m an idiot who got scammed.”
“They think —” Adele blinked. “What?”
“Doctor Sokolov pointed out the connections and backgrounds on the team, and noted that Greg wasn’t part of the college but a personal friend I brought on and…” The tears spilled over. A full year. They had one photograph to show for a full year. One photo of a humanoid aberration living beneath the sea. She’d captured a mermaid on film with an underwater camera drone, and in doing so had likely ruined a good man’s life. “They think he doctored the photograph to either stay on my payroll or just to make me look good or…”
“I need to tell him.” She swallowed. “I don’t know what to say. How do you tell someone…” She laughed. “What do I tell him? Change your name and go on the run because I just fucked up your life beyond imagining? They’ll sue him for everything he has and…” She shook her head. “I got Viktor killed, put you in a wheelchair, and now I’ve destroyed Greg. I should have just —”
“No.” Adele’s voice was sharp. “Nat, this isn’t your fault.”
“Then whose fault is it?” She was aware she was shouting, and couldn’t make herself stop. “If it isn’t my fault, whose fault is it, Adele?”
“It’s not anyone’s fault, except maybe that…” Adele took a couple deep breaths. “Nat, I saw that thing to. I’ll contact my parents, maybe there is something they can do to help.”
“Yeah.” Natalya stood. “Yeah, I’ll uh…” She wiped her face. “I’ll call Greg.”
He swam back and forth in the tank. There was barely enough space for him to lash his tail more than once before he reached the side of the enclosure. The first day he’d tried beating his fists against the clear part, but if he did that the collar came alive with pain. If he touched the hatch, the collar came alive with pain. And if he yanked at the collar, it came alive with pain.
Saelethil had tricked him. Tricked him and sold him to the land above. Saelethil had done this to him, given him to humans who had… He lashed his tail again and considered bashing his skull into the side of the tank. But he couldn’t build up enough speed to be sure the act would be fatal. And if he died, he could not avenge himself upon Saelethil.
Yalathanil made himself go still, slowly sinking to the bottom of the tank. His scales and fins darkened to near black. Almost immediately, the lights in the tank sprang to painfully bright, and the sound started. He shook his head from side to side as the sound became painful, then shifted his fins and scales to a brilliant yellow. The lights dimmed to bearable, and the sound vanished.
Not just a prisoner. A trophy. Something to be displayed. He was to remain colorful and pleasing to the eye, and never a moment of privacy. His great grandmother had given him the spell for protection. The being that killed him would be cursed. It had never occurred to him that life could be worse than death.
Something splashed into the water, and he looked up to see two fish swimming in the tank. Feeding time, then. He watched the two fish swimming. The lights started to brighten again. He continued watching them, and then the noise started. His tormentors wanted to see him hunt. He made a snarling sound and launched himself after the closest of the fish.
“I’m not mad.” When Natalya started to open her mouth to object. “Fine. I’m not mad at you.” Greg sighed, then leaned on the railing of his boat.
“I’ll tell him I did the photo. It’s an academ —”
“I’m not letting them.”
“Natalya.” He shook his head, then spread his hands. “Let them sue me. The boat and my gear I bought as an LLC. Offshore. It was to make international waters easy, but it means they can’t touch my shit.” He shrugged. “All they can get is a condo I haven’t lived in since…” Not since he and Viktor had been roommates. “The guy renting it from me made an offer. I’ll take him up on it, move the money. It’ll be done before…”
“Greg.” Natalya sighed. “You’re being entirely too understanding about this.”
“What do you want, Nat?” Greg sighed. “I’m pissed. I’m seriously pissed that they are doing this to you. It’s fucking ridiculous and shitty. They’d rather crash your research than admit that there is more to the world than they think. But…” He looked down at his hands. “You’re not the one I’m mad at, and it’s not your…” He looked up at her, and realized she was crying again. “Ah, shit. Come here, Nat.”
She let him hug her as she sobbed into his chest. “I’m sorry.”