Xue turned toward his secretary. She was holding a piece of paper, and staring at it with a slightly awe-struck expression. “Yes, my dear?”
“I think you need to take a look at this.” She held the paper out to him.
He took it from her, then turned it around to look at the photograph. His eyes widened. “Where…”
“One of the grants you sponsor.” She gestured toward the other stack of papers. “They’ve dismissed the photograph as fraudulent and canceled the researcher’s funding, but…” Her eyes went to the tank. “Sir…”
“Find the researcher.” He looked down at the image. The fins were similar, as were the eyes, the shape of the features, the gills… He smiled. “Offer whatever it takes to get them here as soon as possible.”
“I can’t cash this.” Greg shook his head at her and offered the check back.
“Yes, you can.” Natalya put her hands on her hips. Then she sighed. “Look, the grant is gone, but I still have my own funds. So, you are still on the payroll.”
“Please tell me you aren’t thinking of purchasing all the equip —”
“Not all of it.” She shook her head, and gave him an awkward smile as she gestured around them. “I mean, we already have a really nice boat.”
“I think you mean my residence.” He rolled his eyes at her, then went to the grocery bags she’d brought. “What’s for…” He took out one package, then another, then another, then looked up at her. “Nat, where is the food?”
“That is food.” She walked over.
“For rabbits, maybe.” He held up on off the packages. “What the fuck is a vegan souffle?”
“It’s organic.” She snatched it out of his hand. “Good for the environment.”
“Okay, one, a souffle kind of by definition isn’t vegan, cause it needs eggs. Two, anything you have to nuke to cook and comes in a Styrofoam container is not good for the environment.” He pointed at the package. “Seriously, you’re the marine biology major. You should know what microplastics do to —”
“It’s recycled, and we will recycle it.” She glared. “A vegan diet reduces our carbon foot print.”
“Due to everyone choosing to starve over eating over processed bean sprouts and gummied lentils and —” He looked at the back of the package. “Okay, if this is organic how come I don’t recognize any of the ingredients as native to planet Earth?”
“Barbarian.” She snatched that package out of his hand, and started stocking them into his freezer. Then she sighed. “Cash the check, Greg.”
She swallowed. “Greg, when…” She blinked back tears. “When that thing took Viktor, you believed me. Without hesitation, without…” She couldn’t turn to look at him. “You believed me, and you went back and you…” She leaned on the refrigerator. “You’ve been looking after me for six years, Greg. You can at least let me look out for you until this blows over and your assets get unfrozen, okay?” She exhaled, then turned and met his eyes. “Cash the fucking check.”
“You know…” He sighed, then nodded. “You fight really damn dirty.” He looked down at the check, then took out his wallet and tucked the check into it. “You win.” He looked up at her. “I’ll cash it in the morning.”
“Right, now, what do you want for dinner…” She started to turn back to the freezer.
“Barbarian.” She put her hand on the freezer door, then grinned. “Come on, I’ll take you to that place out on —” She cut off when her cell phone rang, then picked it up. “Hey, Adele, we’re going out to —” She cut off again at Adele’s excited voice, then looked up at where Greg was raising his eyebrow. “I’m going to need you to run that by me again.”
Yalathanil glared at the handler. It was all he could do not to lunge forward and sink his teeth into the man’s throat. He was secured to the pillory. If not for the collar around his neck, he’d have simply ripped the thing apart, but the enchantments worked into the metal kept him weakened. Weakened and at the mercy of these animals. A couple of them had begun regularly using him for carnal purposes. It seemed to amuse them.
He let his mind start to drift, and then he smelled the sick man. He looked up. The man actually reached a hand out and petted him. He submitted to it, knowing what would happen if he did not. “Selkie.” The man smiled. Selkie was the name it had chosen to call him when he’d refused to speak and provide his own. “Look.”
An image was placed in front of him. An image of… His eyes widened when he saw one of his own kind depicted, and he yanked at the pillory. “Shhh, shhh…” The man petted him again. “It’s alright.”
“Maybe it’s a male one.” One of the handlers glanced at the photo. “Could be like those siamese fish, territorial and shit.”
“Possible.” The man nodded. “Selkie, I have some people coming, and I want you to be on your best behavior for them.” He patted Yalathanil’s head again. “They are going to help me find you a mate.”
Greg looked around. “Okay, are you sure this job was with a marine institute?” He started pushing Adele’s wheelchair toward the building.
“Yes.” Nat frowned at him. “Why do you ask?”
“Well…” He looked around again, then back at her. “Because we are in Nebraska.”
“I asked about that.” Adele looked back up at him. “They said they are working with a variety of species and some experimental hybrids and potential cloning, and that being inland prevents possible invasive species contamination.”
“See…’ Nat punched him lightly in the arm, then grinned. “If only everyone was that ethical.”
“Right.” He sighed. “Do they even have flushing toilets yet in Nebraska?”
“Remind me again why we put up with him?” Adele glanced at Natalya.
“Someone has to carry the heavy shit.” Natalya shrugged. She led them toward a waiting vehicle. The driver, a tall blond slab of rather nice muscles, opened the door to allow a frail looking oriental man to step out. “And here is our new boss.”
“Ah, you must be the researchers from the Rusalki project.” He held out his hands to them. “I am Mr. Xue.”
“I’m Natalya.” She stepped forward and took his hands. “I’m the marine biologist on the project. This is Adele, she’s our technical support person.” Adele shook his hand. “And this is Greg.”
He accepted the handshake Mr. Xue offered him. The man’s hands were slightly clammy. “I carry the heavy shit.”
Natalya rolled her eyes. “Greg is a diver, engineer, and occasionally animal handler.”
Mr. Xue laughed. “Welcome, welcome.” He gestured toward the vehicle. “I arranged a van to accommodate the wheelchair. It will be at your usage during your stay.”
“Thank you, Mr. Xue.” Adele smiled, and he couldn’t help but feel a bit of relief when he noted the loading ramp. He put her wheelchair on it.
Maybe this would go well after all.
His guests were actually delightful company. Both Adele and Natalya were well educated and gentile ladies of excellent breeding. In addition to her knowledge of oceanography, Adele turned out to be a classical violinist. “You must play for me at least once.” Xue beamed at her.
“I would love to.” She smiled at him. “Nothing is quite as lovely an experience as playing out on the open water, letting the waves set the tempo.”
“On our last trip out…” Greg gave Adele a proud grin. Xue hadn’t wanted him along. He was older than the girls, an ex-military man who would likely be more difficult to manipulate. Genna, however, had informed him of Greg’s current precarious position and noted that Greg might well be the lever he could use to acquire the cooperation of the girls. “We heard a noise and looked over the side of the ship. She’d apparently managed to summon about a dozen dolphins.”
Natalya nodded. “They just listened quietly while she played Glass’s Violin Concerto Number One.”
“Well, of course.” Xue took a sip of his wine. “Dolphins are clearly creatures of excellent taste.” He set his glass down. “Now…” He folded his hands. “As enjoyable as this is, I did not invite you here solely for your company. As I said on the phone, I have a project I am interesting in hiring you to help me complete.”
“Yes.” Adele mirrored his gesture. “You also said you would require us to sign non-disclosure agreements before you could discuss details.”
“Indeed.” He nodded at where Genna was entering the room. She handed each of them a packet. “You’ll find it’s the standard template.” A small smile came to his face as he noted all three actually reading the documents. Not fools. That boded well. They also didn’t object to signing. That also boded well, though he hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Genna collected the documents from them, and Xue stood. “Now, if you’ll be so kind as to follow me.”
Adele couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive. Mr. Xue had several creatures in his collection she recognized as endangered species. He’d said on the phone that his purpose was conservation utilizing newly available techniques, including potentially cloning, but this was… She felt Greg take his hand of the handle of the wheelchair to briefly pat her head, and grinned even as she smacked his hand away.
An elevator took them down at least a couple levels. Mr. Xue led them to another office. It was tastefully decorated, with several seats facing a curtained off area. “A theater?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Not quite, my dear.” Mr. Xue smiled. “I told you we share a common interest.” He picked up a piece of paper from his desk, then held it up to reveal the photograph Natalya had submitted as part of her thesis. “I requested a copy of the video from your academic adviser. They provided it, though I would like to request a complete copy at some point.”
“We can arrange that.” She exchanged an apprehensive look with Natalya. “Is that what we will be watching.”
“No.” Mr. Xue shook his head. “I brought you down here to see the pride of my collection.” He dimmed the lights, then went to the curtain cord. “Voila.” He yanked it dramatically.
Any amusement she had at his theatrics vanished as she caught sight of the creature in the tank. “Holy shit…” Natalya’s voice was breathless. Greg made a sound like he was tying to say about three different curse words at once.
The being in the tank looked like cross between a lion-fish and… “That’s a…” She swallowed. “That’s a…”
“You have a —” Natalya put her hands over her mouth.
“Is that real?” Greg was staring in open-mouthed wonder.
“That’s a mermaid.” Adele pointed. “That’s a…”
“I call him Selkie.” Mr. Xue nodded. “And my dears…” His smile widened. “You’ve seen nothing yet.” He held up a remote and pressed a button.
Her legs wouldn’t quite hold her and she fell back into one of the chairs as the creature in the tank swam to the hatch. It was opened, and the creature leveraged itself out of the water. As it did, it’s form started to shift. The tail’s color vanished as it split in two, forming legs. And the creature stood up.
Greg, on the other hand, sank to the ground, his own legs unable to hold him. “I must suggest you be careful, my dears. I fear the creature is not entirely tame.” Mr. Xue gestured to the top of the tank, where the handlers were watching the creature warily. “We’ve get to establish meaningful communication, though it’s become clear it has learned to understand some of our language.” He glanced at them. “I’m hoping you can be of some assistance with the matter. If we can learn where this creature comes from, establish…”
“If we can make contact with their culture…” Natalya started to nod. She swallowed. She was staring at a creature that could tell her why her brother had died. The handlers gave the creature a sort of sarong to wrap around itself, though they had some kind of prod like weapon ready as soon as any of the handlers got within arms reach. “How dangerous is he?”
“It has killed five people, two in its initial capture.” Mr. Xue sighed. “Which is why I must request you ladies not go near. Among other things, well…” He gave them an apologetic look. “You two would be the first human females it has encountered, to the best of my knowledge. I am not entirely certain how it would react.”
“Greg?” Natalya immediately turned toward him. He was slightly pale, but got back to his feet.
“It’s vision seems to be somewhat poor in brighter lights.” Mr. Xue gestured toward the dim light. “In fact, we’ve discovered on of the fastest ways to make it back down from hostility is to turn the lights up to their maximum. It causes the creature some discomfort, but does not seem to do it actual harm.”
“Is it noise sensitive?” Greg raised an eyebrow. When Mr. Xue glanced at him, he shrugged. “A lot of aquatic…” He shook his head. “If it’s amphibious, why…” He swallowed. “How can it shape-shift at such a level? Where did it…”
“All questions we would like to have answered.” Mr. Xue folded his arms. “So, are you in?”
“Oh, hell yes.” Natalya spoke up immediately. She glanced at her friends. Adele nodded immediately. She had to wave to get Greg’s attention as he was still staring at the creature, but he too, nodded. “We are all in, Mr. Xue.”