The creature watched the room warily. Natalya and Adele had both wanted to get a closer look, but given Xue’s warning, it had quickly been decided Greg would handle the first couple interactions. For all Natalya was the biology major, he did have the most hands on experience with wildlife, and unlike both girls, he actually had combat training. Still, he felt just a little apprehensive. The creature’s eyes reminded him of a shark. Just solid black.
“Hello.” He felt a little awkward speaking, but it seemed polite to offer a greeting. The creature didn’t react. Greg took a closer look. The creature’s skin looked to have the same texture as that of a dolphin, but with greener tones. There was clearly webbing between the fingers, and the fingers ended in claws. While he might be able to pass for human in dimmer light or… Greg frowned as he looked up. The lights were a bright florescent. “Can you dim those?”
“They aren’t on a dimmer.” One of the handlers shook his head.
“Well, turn off the ones on this side of the room then.” Greg stared at the handler until the man rolled his eyes and obeyed. When he turned back to look at the creature, he was surprised to realize the creature was now staring at him, his head tilted quizzically. Greg hesitated a moment, then indicated himself. “I’m Greg.”
“It doesn’t talk.” The handler smirked.
“Possible his vocal cords don’t align with anything that can make vocalizations for human language.” Greg drew a little closer. The creature’s ears were clearly inhuman, and he could see gill slits behind them that went down to his neck. “Especially since he doesn’t breathe the same way we do.” He looked up at the creature, and smiled, careful not to show his teeth. “Sorry, don’t mean to talk about you like you aren’t here.” He held out his hand a little. “Is it alright if I touch you?”
At first he got no response, then the creature moved. Immediately, the handlers went on alert, their hands reaching for weapons. Greg quickly gestured for them to get back. All the creature had done was lift up a hand, mirroring Greg’s own movement. The lead handler glared at him. “Kid, you haven’t seen that thing’s teeth yet.”
Greg put his palm up, then extended his hand, moving slowly. The creature did the same, then allowed their palms to touch. His skin was cold to the touch, and did indeed feel like the skin of a dolphin, only… “Dry. You’re…” A dolphin shouldn’t be allowed to dry. It resulted in painful lesions. “Don’t you have misters?”
“What?” The handler blinked.
“Misters. Or a fogger or something to keep moisture in the air. His skin…” Greg looked back over his shoulder. “He’s amphibious, like a frog or dolphin. Dry skin has got to be uncomfortable. It could even get infected or blister if allowed to be dry for too long.” He saw the handler’s eyes widen. “Get a humidifier in here at least.”
Then he turned back toward the creature and his own eyes went wide. The creature’s lips had drawn back somewhat, revealing a row of razor-sharp looking shark-like teeth. He swallowed, and glanced at where his palm was still pressed against that of the creatures. Then he met the creature’s eyes again. “Hang on a minute, and we’ll get you more comfortable, alright?”
At first, he thought there was no possible way the creature could understand him. Maybe it couldn’t even actually hear utterances outside the water or… Then, so slight he almost missed it, the creature nodded.
“Greg can walk…” Adele stared. “And I’ve never been more jealous of him than I am at this moment.”
“I’m rather impressed.” Xue folded his arms.
“Greg is really good with animals.” Natalya smiled. “One time this seal trapped in part of a net just swam right up to him. Like it knew it could trust Greg to get the net off and let him go again.” She tried to tear her eyes off the scene behind the glass, and couldn’t. “Mr. Xue, if you already have this creature…”
“I have one.” Xue sighed. “I was starting to worry he was unique, perhaps even the last of his kind. Perhaps the only reason we acquired him is that he had to leave his shelter in search of others. Then…” He turned toward her. “A photograph comes across my desk.” He smiled. “Preserving an endangered species becomes a much easier task if one can acquire a mated pair.”
“You want us to…” Adele turned her chair around slightly. “To find a female.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “I mean, assuming that one is male.”
“We are reasonably certain it is male, though I will grant we are loath to do much in the way of in-depth internal examinations.” Xue shook his head. “We don’t want to risk it.” He sighed. “I will give you access to the results of our examinations thus far, though they are lacking in some ways.”
“What do you mean?” Natalya raised an eyebrow.
“Well, to be blunt…” Xue turned to look at the creature again. “The last time we tried to put it into an MRI, it broke a handler’s neck and tried to eat the technician.”
“I really wish you’d have mentioned that before we let Greg go in there.” Natalya swallowed.
“The handlers are all equipped with cattle prods and dart guns that contain a tranquilizer that has been demonstrated to be effective. As long as it is outnumbered at least three to one it remains relatively docile. But yes, my dear…” Xue nodded. “It is often hostile. Another reason we thought to bring in a different group of experts. It’s an entirely different manner of creature than anything my people have handled before. Give them an alligator or anaconda, and they know what to do.”
“How intelligent is the creature?” Adele rolled forward a little.
“At first, we thought it was a slow learner, but further observation revealed it is simply stubborn. Rather like the difference between a mule and a horse. The horse responds better to humans and thus seems more intelligent at first because it is easier to train…” Xue waved a hand.
“But you’ll never get a mule to run off a cliff because it’s smarter than a horse.” Natalya nodded.
“This creature may be of near human intelligence. Sometimes it seems it is observing us as much as we are observing it. It knows almost nothing of our world, however, so actually measuring its intelligence is…”
“It’s an alien being with different sensory organs and a different evolutionary path. There isn’t yet any common ground.” Natalya started nodding.
“Another reason we would like to acquire a female of the species. If we could raise a young one alongside humans, well…” Xue smiled. “What could we learn?”
Yalathanil stared at the new creature. It’s outer layer, the removable one, was very different from the others. Its decorative fringe was far longer, and extended along its face around its mouth. There was also a small scar under it’s right eye, the skin slightly different in that area. He tilted his head, then looked up as another handler brought a machine in. Water was poured into the machine, and then…
Then it started putting out moist air. He half closed his eyes, then took another look at the creature in front of him. The creature started making noise again. “We can get a mister here tomorrow.” The creature hesitated. “Mind if I come a little closer?” When Yalathanil didn’t react, the creature approached. He heard one of the handlers start to warn it away, but the man ignored it. Slowly, the man moved the hand that was touching Yalathanil’s, letting a finger trail down Yalathanil’s arm. “I’m Greg. I don’t want to hurt you.”
It was touching him. Yet not like the others. There was fascination rather than hostility. Well, let’s see if this one played fair. Yalathanil reached out a hand and touched the scar under the creature’s eye with the tip of one finger. The handlers immediately started to stand again, and the creature gave him a startled look. Then, instead of pulling back, the creature made the strange grimace again. “I was surfing, off the coast of San Diego. Another surfer cut me off and I hit the water. Board caught me in the cheek.” It touched the scar on Yalathanil’s arm. “How’d you get this one?”
He pulled back, then tilted his head in the other direction. Then he reached out again, taking hold of a bit of the creature’s fringe and rubbing it between his fingers. It felt strange. He started to pull it closer to sniff at it, and the creature’s head came with it. “Ow, careful.” The creature made an amused sound. “That’s attached.” It tried to pull back, and Yalathanil tightened his grip, holding the creature in place.
“You need some help there?” One of the handlers started forward.
“No, no, stay back.” The creature waved the handler away before looking up at Yalathanil. “That’s my hair.” It hesitated, then came closer. “See. It’s just hair. Part of my head.” The man touched Yalathanil’s arm. “Yeah, you don’t have any.”
The fringe had several scents, one of which was clearly kelp. Yalathanil released the fringe he was holding, then touched the fringe on the creature’s face. “That’s my beard.” This fringe was thicker, rougher. He pulled his hand back, then sniffed at his fingers. And it lacked the kelp scent. Perhaps the creature had rubbed the other fringe against kelp? Which meant this creature had been near the sea not long ago. Interesting. The creature pointed at itself again. “Greg.” It did it again. “Greg.” Then it pointed at Yalathanil.
Instead of responding, he grabbed the finger. It was tempting to bite it, just to see what this one would do. Then his eyes went briefly to the machine that was bringing humidity to the air. The room was becoming tolerable. He released the finger. “Okay.” The creature… Greg… settled back again. “Guess we’ve got a way to go to establish communication.”
Xue could hardly maintain his excitement. This was paying off already. The girls had already given up the tracking data that had resulted in the photograph, and the young man had actually managed to establish some sort of rapport with Selkie. He’d been certain several times Selkie was about to attack, but instead it had apparently found Greg’s facial hair and unruly locks rather fascinating. Greg reentered the room, and the two girls immediately started talking over themselves asking him questions.
He gave them a few minutes before interrupting. “Young man, that was quite a show.” He smiled. “I think it may have associated you with the humidifier…” He nodded. “An excellent idea, I might add…” He straightened. “And that may be beneficial. If you can establish a means of communication, at least the basics of some language, that may be helpful if we encounter others.”
“Figure out how their kind says hello to each other.” Greg started nodding.
“He was fascinated by your hair. Wanted to smell it.” Natalya suddenly clapped excitedly. “What if it’s pheromones? Xue, can you get us one of those sniff-test machine things? If it’s giving off pheromones one of those —”
“Pheromones.” Xue exhaled. “Of course. No, no if it’s an aquatic predator scent would be an important sense, wouldn’t it?”
“Sharks can detect for miles.” Natalya nodded. “Vibrations and sonar likely also play a…” She lifted her head. “Greg, what about music?”
“Low pitched would be better.” Adele started gesturing. “Higher pitches across air instead of water could either go undetected or be actually…” She pointed at Greg. “You have a deeper voice than that handler. He’s a tenor and you’re like almost a bass. That might be why he responded a little better to you. He could hear you better and you didn’t hurt his, well, ears.”
“Dimming the lights may have helped almost as much as the humidifier.” Natalya grabbed a sheet of paper and started making notes. Xue was starting to think all three had forgotten he was in the room. He settled back a little to watch. “Natural lighting is better. We could also try UV lighting or those daylight bulbs that can be dimmed. You know, the ones used in hydroponics.”
“Put through a filter, so it’s like being underwater.” Adele wheeled over to Natalya’s table.
“Oh god.” Greg let out a small laugh. “He wanted to smell my hair. I use that organic shampoo Nat swears by.”
“The kelp one.” Natalya beamed. “You smell like the ocean.”
“Well…” All three startled a little when he spoke. “Let me show you to your rooms, and you can start planning. Give a list of anything you need to Genna, and she’ll get it here as soon as possible.”
“What did he feel like?” Adele spun her chair so she could look at Greg.
“Kind of like a dolphin, only it was clear his skin isn’t quite as thick. Lacked a little of the rubbery spongy-ness.” Greg looked down at his hands.
“He was curious. He touched your scar.” Natalya practically was skipping as she went over to the small refrigerator and retrieved some cans of soda. “If he’s curious then it’ll be likely he wants to find a means of communicating with us.” She frowned. “Greg, you’ve lost a little enthusiasm.”
“Yeah, a bit…” He sighed.
Adele hesitated, then exchanged a look with Natalya. “Nat, they’ve had that creature here for a while…”
“And this is a marine institute, so why didn’t they already have humidifiers and better lighting…” Natalya slowly nodded.
“That tank…” Greg leaned back. “Creature that size, it’s like putting a goldfish in a teacup. Especially since he’s a predator.”
“Xue said…” Adele swallowed. “He killed some handlers.”
“Wait…” Greg’s head came up. “He’d killed people and they let me get that close without…” He shook his head. “I mean, they were there and armed but…”
“The fish and stuff in the…” Natalya slowly sat down. “The tanks were suitable to keep them all alive, but not really comfortable or…” She swallowed. “That creature is the find of the millennium, and he’s keeping it a secret.”
“And he called us instead of…” Adele looked away. “Shit. Now that I should have seen.”
“Adele?” Greg raised an eyebrow.
“We just got in serious trouble for fraud involving a creature like that one, Greg. Which means NDA or no, if we walk out of here right now and say someone is holding a merman in a tank in Nebraska…” She waved a hand.
“We are the experts no one would take seriously.” Natalya looked down at her soda as though wishing it were alcoholic. Adele couldn’t blame her.
“And we’ll never get Greg out of trouble.” Adele sighed. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Alright. So…” Greg exhaled. “So, let’s do what he hired us to do.”
“Greg?” Adele blinked at him. She’d expected him to be the one advocating for them to march out of there right now.
“Adele, there is a creature down there nobody has seen before. A creature I think is sentient and sapient.” He met her eyes.
“Greg’s right.” Natalya took a deep breath. “He’s right.”
“Yeah.” Adele looked down at her hands, then folded them into her lap. “He’s going to need people to advocate for him, and I think that’s us.” She smiled. “Okay, let’s figure out how to get him to tell us what he needs to be comfortable, and go from there.”