Chapter One: The Tank
“Hello,” the young man in the lab coat purred into a round speaker, his hands fidgeting. Ripples of azure light reflected on his cheeks. “Are you awake?” There was no response. He stood with a few other stiff-backed men, among them the nation’s secretary of defense, in a room divided in half by a wall of thick—and perfectly soundproof—glass. Behind the glass was something that resembled the kind of fake habitat found in a zoo, like an enclosure for keeping penguins or seals. Bubbling salt water filled most of the tank to a depth of about five feet, but on the right there was an artificial shore of baby blue cement sloping down into the water. That was where the resemblance to a zoo display ended, though. A giant flat-screen television blazed high on the wall above the tank’s deep end, playing what appeared to be a reality show about rich teenagers. Flouncy pink satin cushions were heaped along the shore just above the waterline, and a large white dresser decorated with golden scrolls perched on a ledge at the back. Various electronic gadgets were scattered on the cement, but beyond the clutter the tank gave no sign of being inhabited. “You have a very important visitor today, so . . . your full cooperation . . .”
The crowd behind him shifted impatiently, and the young man flinched as if he could feel their disapproval pricking his skin. “Getting on with it! I’m going to be turning on your microphone so you can talk to these men. But I have to warn you . . .” Far back in the tank something sky blue and pearlescent flicked up for a moment from behind a pile of cushions. For a second the young man’s voice grated to a halt, and he stared urgently before he mastered himself enough to keep going. “We’ve programmed the computer to recognize any hint of singing. If you try anything, it will send out an electric shock automatically. A pretty severe one. All right? I’d like you to be on . . .” There was that blue flash again, and a trace of rippling gold. “On . . . your best behavior, please.” He turned to look at the secretary of defense and offered a tight, ingratiating smile. Then he flicked a switch in a small control panel set into the glass beside the speaker. “Please meet the United States secretary of defense. Secretary Moreland?”
Moreland leaned toward the glass, an odd smirk rippling over his heavy reddish face with its sagging jowls. His white hair shone like meringue above his gleaming pate. “Anais,” he snapped, then waited, scowling, for a reply. It didn’t come. “I’d suggest you get your damned tail over here. You’re our little mermaid now.”
The sky blue tail rose above the water again, twitching irritably. Pinkish iridescence shone on its scales, and the cushions stirred as a golden head shifted up into view. Dreamy azure eyes turned to gaze through the glass. Several of the men stepped forward as if involuntarily, and others visibly braced themselves. She shook herself, and her inhuman beauty came at them like a living wave. Moreland’s smirk tightened, and his upper lip jerked sharply higher to expose his perfect teeth. “Hello there.”
“Hi.” She examined Moreland’s crisp, expensive suit with a trace of approval. “Are you really important?”
It was hard to tell if Moreland was leering or snarling in response. “Oh, I’d say so.”
“Then I only want to talk to you.” She scanned the other men disdainfully. “Having all these people staring at me makes me feel so shy!”
She didn’t look shy, but Moreland smiled almost indulgently. He made a quick motion to the young man in the lab coat, who hurried to tap at the control panel, cutting off Anais’s sound. “Do you mind, gentlemen?” Moreland asked.
“We can observe through the monitors in the next room?” the lab-coated man asked anxiously. “She is—I mean—I am her primary handler, and I should know—”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Moreland’s lip hiked up again. “I don’t think you should observe. I’d like to allow her”—he cocked his head toward the tank, where Anais, piqued at not being able to hear what they were saying, was now swimming toward the glass—“a chance to confide in me. Privately.”
“But—of course you’re aware, Mr. Secretary, that she’s suffered some very serious trauma. Those mermaids she was living with all . . .”
“A fragile flower,” Moreland agreed, grinning horribly. “I’ll use my most delicate touch.”
The young lab-coated man didn’t look particularly reassured, but he still nodded. “The blue switch controls sound going into her side. The red cuts her off over here. Given the precautions we’ve taken, though—”
“Thank you, Mr. . . .”
“Thank you, Mr. Hackett. I’ll let you know when I need your assistance.”
Anais was tapping, though inaudibly, on her side of the glass. She was supporting herself in the deepest water with a slight circulating motion of her fins so that her face and shoulders floated just above the surface. Her golden hair rippled and shone around her, and she looked sulky and eager. Hackett gave her a coy little smile and a wave as he turned to leave. “Even without any singing,” one of the men observed as they walked to the door, “she’s still remarkably . . .
“Remarkably?” one of his companions asked archly, eyebrows raised.
“Compelling, I would say.”
“I’d use a different term, frankly.”
Secretary Moreland didn’t watch them go. Instead he was staring fixedly into Anais’s blue eyes, though the look on his face didn’t exactly suggest attraction. It was somewhere between caressing and murderous, and a smirk kept tweaking his lips. Once everyone was gone he reached to flip the sound back on, still keeping his gaze locked on Anais’s face. “Better now, tadpole?”
Anais pouted. Her lips were slick with strawberry pink gloss. “You have a problem.”
“I’d say there are some other—you really can’t call them people—some other nasty animals who have much bigger problems these days, tadpole. You should be very, very thankful that we’re taking such good care of you. When you could be in the same mess as your little killing-machine friends . . .”
Anais shrugged impatiently, sending a quick surge through the water around her. Her golden hair lapped at her shoulders. She was wearing a sparkly, sky blue tank top that matched her tail almost perfectly, and diamond studs sparked in her ears. “I don’t care about that! Charlie told me about that boat of yours that got trashed.”
“Mr. Hackett. He said there was a big wave that came out of nowhere and, like, totaled the boat with your guys on it after . . .” Anais suddenly seemed a bit uncomfortable. “After . . . I surrendered. I knew you’d want to talk to one of us, if we just acted nicer. And—”
“That wave didn’t come out of nowhere, I think, tadpole. You shouldn’t assume that Mr. Hackett’s information is entirely reliable.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” Anais was getting exasperated. “I just didn’t want to tell . . . Mr. Hackett because I didn’t think he could really...