The Cesspool Mermaid

She was living in a small shallow pond full of toxic waste.

She looked at me with a battered, peeling face that expressed such forlornness that the treachery of sadness was crushing my heart.

Original image by Chris Cornish via Shutterstock. Titling by the author

“I’m not from here,” she said. “I’m just some psycho’s invention.”

She was a mermaid. And when she looked up as she said this, I knew where the psycho lived. What had given birth to her.

Genetically engineered, no doubt. Did she have a soul? Her eyes told me yes.

Whoever created her had to have done it at least a hundred years ago. That was how long it had been since anybody had claimed to have had any contact with the people in the cylindrical moon.

The people who lived there had been silent for at least that long. They had treated Earth as a living experiment, dropping their little DNA projects onto the surface of the planet like little genetic bombs.

And then, suddenly, nothing. It’s not like they had been sending emissaries down or anything. They wanted nothing to do with either magicians or The Gath on this planet. To them, Earth was just a lab. Contact was generally an accident. The diminishment of accidents faded into totality over the years.

And the creatures they sent started dying off. New ones stopped appearing.

Did she not age? Was she trapped in this fetid water for eternity? Was she a hundred years old?

And this. This was wanton cruelty by her makers.

She was living in a small shallow pond full of toxic waste. I wondered how she fed. What sustained her.

“I don’t age, and I don’t eat. My body absorbs the food I need” she said, almost as in reply to my thoughts.

“You read minds?”

She shook her head. “It’s a common question. I guessed you were thinking on it.”

I had been hiking through the Biltmore ruins. Biltmore had been famous once, known as a presidio for a Gath warlord before magicians curtailed its habitability.

I had just lost my friend Franklin, who had stumbled into what he thought was what we call a silent drone — which is just a drone that has somehow lost its power or has in some other way become incapacitated.

Franklin saw a box-shaped device like the kind The Gath employed for surveying a region’s human life, but it was dead quiet. Just a gray box displaying no activity. It didn’t hover a few inches off the ground like they usually did when operational.

People liked to scavenge them because they contained loads of information. Not just on what was left of humanity (there wasn’t much) but a treasure trove of information and books and scientific journals. Sometimes they even stored literature and works from long ago.

Nobody knew why The Gath stored so much information on the devices. Perhaps our common ancestry fascinated them. Perhaps the machines were themselves scavengers of information.

Or, perhaps, I was thinking as I watched Franklin, they did it to lure us closer.

Because that’s what happened. Franklin, excited, rushed towards the thing with gleeful anticipation. I wanted to yell out to him to tell him that there was nothing we could do with its stored information. We weren’t Librarians.

Librarians could lay their hands on the devices and soak in all their information long enough to deliver it to the Oracle. They usually died in the process but they didn’t mind. Especially if there was a Spiritmancer nearby.

But we weren’t Librarians, and we were far away from the Oracle, which was on the Unreachable Coast.

Before I could say anything to him, he was upon the device.

And then it happened. The device flattened itself in an instant and made a buzzing sound as it began to rotate so fast that its motion was a blur. Before another thought entered my head, Franklin was shredded into a red misty storm of a thousand pieces.

I didn’t have time to grieve or even express shock. I had to get out of there.

So I ran through the blighted forests of the Blue Ridge mountains unpursued and found myself at the ruins.

There wasn’t much left in the way of whatever the place had once been. I could make out the general outlines of a broken spire, which peeked out of the ground like a skeletal periscope, but mostly it was nothing more than rubble overgrown with plant life.

Then I saw a large pond. I didn’t expect potable water but I wanted to check it out anyway.

Before I reached the shore her head was bobbing in and out of the water watching me.

I was sure I was hallucinating.

I wasn’t a Librarian, but I was a Scientist. Magicians, of course, are quite leery of Scientists, and so there are few of us. But my magic was chemistry; I was able to read the chemical structures of almost anything just by looking. My skills were always in demand.

We all have our magic. Mine is a little weird.

As soon as I realized that I wasn’t hallucinating, I was able to evaluate the molecular structure of the water the woman was in. It was full of toxins and solvents and chemicals that should have made life impossible.

Magicians wouldn’t have done this, I knew. The Gath must have laid waste to the ruins after the magicians’ attack on Biltmore to make sure nobody came near or tried to repurpose it.

So this is grieving, I thought, again quite sure that I was hallucinating. I didn’t consider that she might be genetically enhanced, but even if I had I would have known that her existence in this toxic soup was a betrayal of known biology.

As she lifted herself out of the water and sat on the shore, I scanned her molecular structure. She was not a drone. She was pure biology. Not a nanowire or bot anywhere inside her.

And she had a tail. Like a mermaid. I knew about mermaids. More specifically, I knew of their myths.

She was completely naked aside from some jewelry, but her tail was such that I wondered about reproduction. She didn’t seem suited for that. Long blue hair mostly covered her breasts but left aspects of them tantalizingly visible. Her skin was an alternating mixture of blue, light brown, and a bruised dark network of scales, some of which seemed to be peeling away.

Her face was ludicrously gorgeous, as if she had been designed to lure victims into the swallowing poison of her home.

I considered this possibility as I approached her, finally concluding that, since I was able to read her cell structure, she couldn’t be a hallucination. My new theory was that she was the work of a Conjurer, and not the sort I would want to get to know.

The problem with that theory was that Conjurors couldn’t do this sort of thing. Could they? Conjurors were more like time manipulators. They couldn’t create living beings.

I wished at that moment for a Psychologist, who could read my mind and tell me why I was losing it.

Before I could get closer she dove into the water. Instead of splashes of water spraying around her dive, there was light mimicking the movement I would have expected from the water. Even the ripples within the water itself spread out as if made out of light, not water.

A trap, surely, I thought. But one doesn’t survive in a world such as ours as long as I have by falling for a trap, no matter how clever.

So I waited, thinking to myself, Waiting for what? The next trap?

“You didn’t follow me,” she said when she popped back up.

“I don’t know who you are. Or what you are, for that matter.”

That’s when she said she wasn’t from here.

“So you’re saying you are a creature of the cylindrical moon?”

She nodded. “I think so. We all are.”

“I’m not,” I said defiantly.

She giggled at that. “No, I mean my people.” She looked over her shoulder and into the water.

“There are more of you?”

“Uh-huh. Lots. Do you want to see the city?”

A trap.

Besides, it would be impossible for me to be in that water and survive more than a few minutes. It was a ludicrous question. I wondered if she knew. But then, I was still wondering if she was real.

“No,” I said.

“I can make you like me.”

“You’re a succubus?”

She laughed again. “No no, what I mean is I can make your appearance like mine” and she dove into the water like a dolphin with her tail splashing a rain of light through the water and air around it.

She came back to the surface.

“You have magic?” I asked.

“Not really. Not like you may think of as magic. I can make you become like me, but it only lasts for a brief length of time. The regeneration of cells reverses itself completely. I don’t know how long it lasts. I don’t measure time. Maybe before your next meal, you’ll transform back. Something like that.”

“I’ll have a tail?”

“Only for a time.”

“That’s truly bizarre.”

“So is everything.”

“Why would you want me to do this?”

“So you can see where I live. And then, after, we will journey to your new home, if you will wish it.”

I looked around. The ruins were surrounded by a forest petrified by some kind of plant toxin that the Gath had clearly been experimenting with. The trees were fully brown but looked full of leaves. They were statutory and unaffected by the wind. The sky was a brown haze, a fall day, clear, but with the usual persistent translucent fog that sometimes bore the chemicals of war.

Anything was better than here. Death roamed every bend, arch, trail, and rock. But still…

“I don’t think I want to, sorry. It just seems like a bad idea. You don't know me, I don’t know you, your people don’t know me, so I may end up some kind of fish food.”

“We don’t eat,” she said, somehow getting the reference. Right, she’s already said that. Where are my manners?

My new theory was that she was some kind of Gath weapon. Had they mastered genetic engineering? I had thought that it had been banned by their society because of the Piltdown Man Accident, but maybe things changed.

Despite her claim of some big city in the filthy pond, which was a ludicrous statement, or maybe because of it, she looked terribly lonely. Her eyes looked haunted by a form of loneliness that, despite my significant losses over the last few years, was probably unimaginable to me.

Because the reality was this: She was probably a genetically manufactured creature created for the amusement of an individual with a very poor sense of humor and was left here, forgotten, to live in her tiny, empty kingdom. Alone.

How do you even talk to someone like that? I felt an unmistakable longing to try to comfort her, but I had no idea how.

I began to consider that because this world we live in was so full of hopelessness, nothing but a daily fight for survival, a fight I knew I’d eventually lose, perhaps a different outlook was required. Maybe, I thought, I should redefine the word “opportunity,” if I had ever in fact defined it.

So I started to talk to her, to try to find out what she did during her days and nights.

She told me grand tales of celebrations and water dancing and wild, playful games that her people played. Stories that were not possible but somehow, from the way she told them, were believable.

She pointed to a bracelet wrapped loosely above the end of her tail. “My friend Maura made this for me,” she said softly. “It’s my favorite thing in the whole world.”

It looked to be made of pearls but there could be no pearls in that water. I scanned it. It was pearl.

Opportunity. In this case, the opportunity to simply do something out of the ordinary. So what if I died doing it? I was going to die anyway, probably much sooner than I’d like. Probably unpleasantly.

“Take me there,” I finally said.

She beamed an illustrious smile whiter than any set of pearls could ever be.

Before I could wonder if the transformation she had spoken of would hurt, I had a tail. That was weird. I was standing in front of her as she looked at me from the water, and I crumpled to the ground, which made her laugh more than I would have liked.

“You can get in the water now,” she said assuringly.

I wasn’t convinced.

“It’s the only way to see my city.”

I doubted the water was as deep as my own height. I shrugged and used my elbows to crawl towards her, my new tail lagging behind in the mud.

I looked into her eyes and noticed for the first time that they were like glimmering topaz. I was astounded at her beauty, wondering about how much of a fool I was showing myself to be.

She took my hand.

I gulped, mostly likely rather pronouncedly, as she led me into the water.

We dove into the brown toxins, which began as a watery bramble but quickly became a clear blue exposition of lush plant and water life I could never have imagined.

Fish of all shapes and colors darted about, floated and hovered, kissed green rock, frolicked and played. Long wavering extrusions of plant life danced as we plunged into darker water.

The floor of the sea, which this suddenly and miraculously surely was, began to disappear.

I marveled at the sunlight failing its wide patterns as we descended.

I could not understand what was happening.

“Be patient,” she whispered audibly, impossibly.

Then I saw it. A massive city lit by some kind of natural illumination. Its buildings looked alive, as if they were constructed out of undersea plant life specifically designed for its residents.

Long tendrils acted as bridges. Massive stumps of tree-like plants rose majestically within the water, carved with windows and emitting the same kind of natural light that I had seen when the mermaid had splashed on the water’s surface. The windows didn’t look carved by human hands but appeared instead as if nature had provided them.

The trees were linked together by soft, thick branches. There were hundreds of these trees, I reckoned. Two massive whales seemed to be guarding an entry, which consisted of a wide gap in the undersea forest.

I wondered if we were going in but she interrupted my thoughts with another audible whisper. “No, no,” she said. “I just wanted you to see what possibility looks like.”

We continued on, past the city.

We swam past thick clouds of fish, past dolphins, past shark and tuna and swordfish and barracuda.

A large white light began to make itself known through the dark waters. We were upon it quickly, my hand still in hers. It was as if she had been charged with an accelerant of some kind that sped us to the light, which looked like a bright hole in the sea.

“We have to hurry,” she said. “Before the regeneration reverses itself.” The light was so bright I could no longer look at it, and before I could react to her comment we were through.

My body began to feel constricted as if I was being crushed by a large vice. My heart raced. I could feel myself begin to want to gasp for air and I nearly swallowed water.

“It’s happening sooner than I thought,” she whispered. To this day I don’t know if those whispers were simply introduced to my own thoughts, or if they somehow carried through the water to my ears. “Don’t breathe,” she said. “Hold your breath. We’re almost there.”

And sure enough, we were. The light had been a tunnel of some kind, but structured in such a way that it was as if it had ended as soon as it began. Before I could process any of this, she led me to a rocky shore.

I looked up and saw a large vermillion bridge.

“You’ve arrived,” she said.

My tail began to morph into legs. “Where?” I asked.


I shook my head. “I don’t see a city.”

“It’s just past that small cliff above.”

Two robed women appeared out of a small clump of trees.

“Welcome to Moria,” said one of them.

“Wait, the land of magic on the Unreachable Coast?”

The two women looked at each other, and smiled.

This is a MagicLand Chronicle, one of several stories that take place during the 2,000+ year timeline of MagicLand. The MagicLand Chronicles contain stories and characters that do not appear in my debut novel MagicLand.