The air was breathable but the water was poisonous. That’s what explorers found when they landed on Oresfree, the “Planet of Mermaids” as it was nicknamed. Dena instantly regretted going there. She got along with the members of the colony, but a sense of foreboding seized her as she looked out into the untouched wilderness.
“Did we set up any other camp to meet at, in case one of us gets lost too far out?” Dena asked Henri, but he shook his head solemnly. Dena wore a black suit and brimmed hat to keep the sun and rain out. Her hair was dyed blue, as was a common fashion for her generation. It was long and swept past her elbows.
“There’s nothing out there. And since the water’s poisoned, you can’t travel far without a few days’ worth of water.” Henri said. He was a bit shorter and lankier than Dena. He wore a vest with pockets on the front and cargo pants, both brown.
“I see.” Dena said gravely. The reality of how confined they all were was just sinking in.
“Don’t sound so sullen.” Wilhelm chimed in. She was the lead biologist on this trip. She had short brown hair and wore a green overcoat. She and Dena were friends, and it was through Wilhelm that Dena was hired as a guard. Dena had excellent aim with a laser gun, and was an adept swimmer.
“We won’t go out too far, but we will make a journey to Siren Lake. That’s where the first mermaid was sighted. But with only a few photos, that’s not definitive proof. They could have been altered…but the scales the robotic probe found? They’re unique, but they could belong to quite a fascinating fish.” Wilhelm and Dena stared in the direction of the lake.
“We’ll check it out later today after we get set up.” Dena took off to her tent. It was state of the art, climate controlled and with a soft mattress and a small bathroom. She sat at the fold out desk. A diary, camera, and durable portable computer sat atop it. She glared at it. It was as useful as a brick to her. They certainly couldn’t get email from earth: it was a whole solar system away. As far as her parents or fiancé Samuel knew, she could be dead.
Samuel was kind and considerate to her. They were happy together. But Dena had wanted so badly to go on this trip, the first journey to a planet outside the Milky Way Galaxy: it required frightfully complex and unpredictable wormhole technology to get there. Dena had been so afraid when their spaceship went through the wormhole outside of earth and landed in front of Oresfree. The planet was green and blue like earth, but from looking at it in orbit, the continents seemed thinner than earth’s, and scientists were estimating that Oresfree was 90% made of water. But all of the samples they’d collected since arriving showed the water to be toxic to humans.
Dena’s heart sank: if they didn’t make the water drinkable, they had a year supply of it on the ship, then it would be over, unless earthlings operated the wormhole generator again and sent supplies. Dena tried writing all these feelings down in a journal, but all she could write was “we’re trapped here forever.” over and over. She started breathing rapidly. The tent felt like it was closing in on her. She couldn’t recall ever having a panic attack before, and wasn’t sure how to stop it.
“Are you okay in there?” It was Henri’s voice.
“No.” Dena said in a gasp of air. Henri peeled the tent flap back slowly.
“Is there anything I can do?” He said. Dena clutched her journal and looked into Henri’s concerned eyes.
“There’s not much you can do.” She said bluntly. To her surprise, tears welled up in his eyes.
“I know.” He said, his voice shaking. “There really isn’t much I can do. Or anyone here with us. Or anyone on earth. We’re stuck here. The probes said the air was breathable, the water samples were fine. But sometime from the time the probe arrived to the time we landed our ship, something happened to the water.” Henri was gasping for air now. Dena threw her arms around him, comforting him and herself. She was glad he was crying instead of her: it would be easier to do the comforting than to be the one needing comfort, she though. She mustered up the tiniest bit of courage from this.
“Well, if we’re stuck, we may as well make the most of it. Earth will send a ship one day. Either to save us or gather what we left behind in our demise. So I think it’s best for us to gather as much knowledge as we can, write it all down by hand if we have to, so that the next explores who come here won’t suffer from whatever dangers we suffer in our ignorance of this planet.” Henri nodded to this.
“Yes, great idea, we’ll throw ourselves into our work, leave no stone unturned!” Wilhelm threw open the tent.
“Okay, we’re ready to go exploring. Hey, Henri, are you okay?” Wilhelm said, approaching Henri.
“I’m fine!” He said as Dena fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and handed it to him. He wiped his face and put on a wobbly smile.
“Let’s go exploring! I’ll take lots of notes!” He said, and the three of them left the tent.
“We’ll take the hover car because it’s quieter than our footsteps, but we’ll have to get out when we reach the lake because the light the car emits could scare the mermaids.” Wilhelm said happily. The hopped into the hover car. It was black and streamlined, with a quiet engine and windows wrapping all around the roof. There was a net launcher on the front, to capture any specimen in case it became hostile. As they drove along, they observed the scenery: many large-leafed plants covered the ground. The trees were thin and full of purple and orange flowers, and some were white barked with translucent leaves. The grass was a pale lime green, and they photographed all of this with fascination. Dena forgot any worries she’d had, and was spellbound by the bright colors. Though this didn’t last long, and they heard as sound not unlike a high pitched piccolo.
“What is that?” Dena said, lifting her laser gun in front of her, seeking out the noise.
“Look!” Wilhelm exclaimed, raising her camera and snapping frantically to capture the sight of the large, eagle-sized birds with blue and purple feathers. They had triangle-shaped faces and their long, feathered tails curled at the ends. Six of them soared overhead.
“A new species? I wonder if we can name them Wilhelm Hawks?” Wilhelm giggled at the thought.
“Sure, why not?” Dena said, happy to see Wilhelm so elated. They drove further into the woods, finding squirrel-like creatures with a horn on their heads and three ears, and a deer with green fur and transparent antlers. Each new thing they saw was shocking. Then their hovercraft reached a circular pond. Wilhelm said:
“Ah yes, the water. We’ll have to take new samples. We need to figure out what kind of chemicals to filter out of it.” They exited the hovercraft and gathered around the water. Dena knelt down and a gust of wind blew her hat off into the water.
“Dena! You contaminated the sample!” Wilhelm exclaimed. But then something stirred underneath the water. A clump of magenta hair ascended to the surface and a pale girl with gills on her neck and scales over her chest and arms stared at them with deep blue eyes. Her scales were silver and glinted in the light. Dena, Wilhelm and Henri jumped back from the water and Wilhelm snapped two pictures before they raced to the hover car, slamming the door.
“Okay, so the mermaid rumors are true!” Henri exclaimed.
“How is it the creature evolved into something so humanoid?” Wilhelm asked. They stared at the pond as the girl lifted up her tail to splash a wave of water at the hover car. The tail was long and had a flexible fin like a goldfish.
“It must not like us.” Dena said.
“A humanoid creature on a faraway planet! The biggest scientific discovery, and we made it!” Wilhelm exclaimed.
“What are we going to do about it? We can’t quite communicate with earth about our discovery.” Dena pointed out.
“Who cares?” Wilhelm said. “We just have to get it back to camp! We can study it there, we’ll build an aquarium for it.” Henri put up his hand in a “halt” gesture.
“Hold on Wilhelm. We shouldn’t do that. What if the specimen is poisonous?” Dena nodded.
“I agree. The water is toxic so maybe the mermaid is toxic.” They all felt a bit deflated by this. Besides, no one would praise their discovery or know about it unless another ship came in.
“Well, we don’t have to touch or handle it to study it. I’ll take pictures, we can study its behavior from a safe distance! Oh, I’m so thrilled! I knew I’d get to study a new species on this trip, but such a human-like one? The odds are so very unlikely!” They returned to the edge of the pond and stared down at it. The mermaid peeked out of the water. She opened her mouth and a noise, high pitched and accented by clicks came out. Wilhelm gasped.
“It communicates with sonar capabilities? Then the marine life here may have evolved in a manner not unlike dolphins on earth?” Dena nodded.
“It’s kind of scary to hear that coming out of her mouth. It must have some strange vocal cords?” Henri had been shocked-still by these discoveries, but when he heard the mermaid’s voice, he frantically rifled through his pockets and pulled out a voice recorder that he turned on immediately. The mermaid continued vocalizing for a minute, its features pressed into a scowl, then dove down into the pond and swam away.
“What a productive first encounter!” Henri said. Wilhelm was beaming.
“Photos and a voice recording! We’ll have to wear better protective gear before we attempt a scale and hair sample, but maybe we can get it tomorrow?” Dena overheard this, feeling like an outsider. She was thankful she hadn’t had to shoot the mermaid, glad it hadn’t attacked them, but she also felt useless. They took the hover car back to camp and Wilhelm and Henri fussed over their findings. Dena nestled in her tent. She couldn’t remember loving mermaids as a young girl and had always been a tomboy. She preferred action movies and laser guns. Her cousin owned an aquarium focused on marine conservation, and as a teenager, Dena had spent the summer caring for fish and swimming with dolphins. In one such encounter, she was swimming too long and nearly drown. It gave her a sense of caution about the water and creatures who lived in it. After all, the dolphin had been indifferent to her suffering, surely this mermaid would be too.
Every night after that they heard screaming.
The first night, Dena awoke with a start, barely able to drag herself out of her dream and peer out the window. Nothing appeared to be on fire or amiss. Still wearing her pajamas, she grabbed her laser gun and bleary-eyed, she wandered to Wilhelm’s tent.
“Are you okay?” She asked, throwing open the tent flap to find Wilhelm swiftly pulling on a jacket.
“I’m fine. I don’t know where the screaming’s coming from!” The rest of the camp was running about frantically. Wilhelm called everyone to the center of camp and did a roll call, but all earthlings were present and not screaming. They realized it was emanating from the woods.
“I’ll go check it out.” Dena said.
“I’ll come with you!” Henri added.
“How good are you with that knife on your belt?” Dena asked.
“I’m sure I could use it if I had to. My reflexes aren’t bad.” Henri said, a little nervous.
“That’ll do.” Dena said. “Come with me.” Dena and Henri marched into the woods, weaving through trees and startling birds as they went along. They heard the sound grow more intense and found themselves at the pond again, staring at the screaming mermaid.
“What’s it doing? It could only make dolphin noises before.” Dena said.
“I’m as surprised as you are.” Henri said. “Maybe it mimics sounds it hears? We screamed when it showed up, right?”
“You think we could do anything to calm it down?” Dena suggested.
“You mean like, sing to it? Like it’s a baby?” Henri asked.
“We could try.” Dena and Henri agreed to hum the melody to “Mary had a little Lamb”. To their surprise, the mermaid hummed along with them.
“Well, it stopped screaming. Now what?” Dena said. The mermaid stopped humming and glared at Dena.
“What are you doing here?” The mermaid said in slow, high-pitched English. Dena and Henri stumbled away from the pond, terrified. “Oh, don’t look so afraid.” The mermaid continued. “I merely read your minds, unearthing the memories you had as young children learning your language and pieced it together from there. I’ve been reading all of your memories since you arrived. It seems it’s not a skill you humans possess. You can’t talk to other animals: tell me, is that lonely?” Dena un-froze.
“I suppose so.” Dena said, shocked to be speaking with a mermaid. “You’re astonishing. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Dena.” The mermaid shrugged.
“I know. I recall the moment when you learned your name. Please call me Serena. Now I know you humans have intentions of living on this planet. But my presence here makes the water poisonous, so you’re probably going to kill us.” Dena recoiled as though she’d been struck.
“No! Not kill you, you’re so beautiful, and you can speak! There’s no way we’d want to hurt you.” Serena rolled her eyes, a gesture she’d clearly just learned from humans since she did it with such a slow flourish.
“When I was talking in ‘whale’ sounds before, you were going to trap me in a little aquarium like you once did to whales?” Dena shook her head.
“No! Humans used to, but nowadays, we only do that if the animal is sick or hurt. You’re safe with us.” Henri nodded.
“Please, we just want to learn more about you.” Dena said.
“Oh, so it’s just Wilhelm who wants to put me away. Maybe I should kill her.” She said. Dena and Henri exchanged a worried glance. Dena came to Wilhelm’s defense.
“She means well. I promise. We all do. We came here for the sake of discovery and knowledge, to meet creatures of different kinds that we can’t find on earth. We don’t gain anything from harming you.” Dena said warmly.
“Then what do you want from me?” Serena said.
“To know all about you, what life is like for you, how you interact with other mermaids, that sort of thing. And can we video tape you? It would be so important to leave that behind for the humans who come here one day.” Henri said. Serena nodded.
“I suppose I could. I do enjoy being the center of attention.”
“Thank you so much!” Henri said. “So tell me…let’s start with the basics.” Henri focused his camera on Serena. “What do you eat?”
“Moss, fish, whatever’s around the pond.” Serena said, cozying up to the lip of the pond and resting her cheek on her hand.
“With other mermaids, do you reproduce laying eggs or live birth?” Henri asked.
“Live birth. We’re more like the dolphins you have on earth.” Serena replied.
“And you’re not nocturnal?” Dena asked.
“No, but I hunt at dusk and dawn when the fish are more active.” Serena said.
“How do you protect yourself from predators?” Dena asked.
“I’m at the top of the food chain, as you call it. We can scream for a long time in order to scare off creatures, which didn’t work with you, by the way. But when mermaids fight each other, it’s a lot of clawing and biting, or poisoning the water, of course.” Serena said.
“How does that work?” Dena asked.
“It’s from this gland under my gills.” Serena pointed to a bump under her hair by her neck-gills. “It makes the poison. It’s mostly to kill schools of fish when needed.” She said it a bit glumly. “I don’t like killing fish, but I need to eat.” Dena nodded.
“Do you think you could turn off that poison gland somehow? That way we could co-exist?” Serena shrugged.
“I’m not sure how. I do know some mermaids are born without it, or maybe lack the ability to release poison from it.” Henri and Dena smiled.
“You know, if you could all find a way to block that ability, we humans and mermaids could drink the water. That would be a big deal for us and our survival.” Dena said.
“Assuming we could filter out the toxin with a special system, she may not have to do that. It’s the design of such an advanced filter that we may have to contend with.” Henri was grinning from ear to ear.
“Do you want to live with us on your planet?” Dena asked.
“Well, I am curious about you strange, finless, tailless, scale-less creatures who look like me. I want to study you too. And to know more about your odd world. I wish you luck on neutralizing the poison.” Henri and Dena smiled.
“Thank you.” Henri said.
“We’ll do our best.” Dena added. The two of them returned to camp and showed the video they made of their talk with Serena. All the scientists and explorers were thrilled and optimistic, quickly devoting their resources to a high-tech water filter. They were nearly out of bottled water by the time the filter was complete.
“The water filtration is a success!” Wilhelm exclaimed.
“What luck that it worked out okay.” Dena said as the campers toasted the occasion with a glass of pure water. They sat in the camp in folding chairs enjoying each other’s company. “You know, for the first time, I can really imagine living my life here.” Dena said happily.
“Yeah, so can I.” Henri agreed.
“It’s great that Serena wanted to cooperate with us.” Wilhelm said.
“I’m glad we can call this place home.” Dena added, and they looked out towards the purple and transparent trees, beginning to feel used to their bizarre surroundings on their new home planet.