The Sea Vixen
by John R. Plunkett
©2001 John R. Plunkett -- all rights reserved
As I approached the posting board I stuffed the wad of weather faxes, fishing reports, and newspaper clippings into my back pocket. By the look of things I wanted the Indian Ocean, west of Australia. I scanned the listings; there had to be a longline boat headed that way that needed a crewman --
"Hey," a voice called. "Aren't you the fellow who saw the mermaid?"
I turned slowly. The speaker was a young fellow, in his early twenties. Not that I, only in my middle thirties, had much justification to call him young. He looked at me with an expression of wide-eyed wonder. With a sense of growing dismay I realized that I'd hit another true believer. "Yeah, I saw that," I replied. Saying I hadn't heard of it was a dead giveaway; the story got all over the news. Because of that bloody reporter... and the trial, of course. I ended up being acquitted; the prosecution couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I'd killed the rest of the crew. I just told them I was too sick to remember what happened, a story backed up by the condition I was in when the Coast Guard finally found me.
"No," he said. "You are him. That guy from the Sea Vixen. I've looked at hundreds of pictures. You gotta be him."
"Kid," I replied tiredly, "If I was him I wouldn't be here lookin' for a boat. I'd be living it up in the condo I'd bought from hawking my cockamamie story." I glanced around; people were looking. All I needed now was someone else to recognize me --
The kid opened his mouth. "Hey," a gravelly voice growled. "What'd I tell you about botherin' people?"
The kid stomped off in a huff, muttering.
"Thanks," I said, turning to the source of the voice. It was a wizened old fellow; he looked about a zillion years old. And those eyes --
"Don't mention it." He chuckled, a dry, rasping sound like rattling bones. "I know what it's like to have kids pestering me." He lowered his voice. "So where'd you see her?"
I blinked. "I don't know what --" I began.
"Aw, cut the crap," he interrupted. "You are the fellow from the Sea Vixen. You need to do more than just dye your hair if you don't want people recognizing you."
I licked my lips; they felt suddenly dry. "Look," I said tensely. "I don't know what your angle is but I really need this job --"
"I saw her in '74," he cut in. "Off the Grand Banks. Caught her in a drift net. She slashed her way out of it with a knife she kept on a lanyard around her neck. The First Mate took a shot at her with a harpoon gun. It nicked her butt. After that every time we let out a net it came back torn to ribbons. We ended up having to put back early with almost empty holds."
I stared at him. Suddenly I recognized the look in his eyes. I should have recognized it sooner; I'd seen it in the mirror often enough. "You been looking for her ever since?" I asked.
"Yeah-huh." He nodded.
"That why you're here?"
I looked again at the notice board but I didn't see it any more. My eyes saw another time and place, the beginning of the last few weeks of my life without her...
"You ready to catch some fish, Chris?" Ibanolis inquired.
"You bet!" I replied brightly as I came up the gangway, my duffel on my shoulder.
"Good man." Ibanolis clapped me on the shoulder. "Welcome aboard the Sea Vixen. Stow your gear below then come back up and help us load provisions."
"Aye aye!" I took the opportunity to look around as I headed forward. I saw all the gear I expected to on a longline boat but Sea Vixen herself didn't look anything like any fishing boat I'd ever seen. A blocky, rectangular superstructure sat on a rectangular deck; from the side she looked like a barge. Only from ahead or astern could one tell that she was in fact a catamaran, her flat deck supported by two long, narrow hulls. I ducked down the forward companionway into the bunk room and tossed my duffel onto the last empty bunk -- an upper, of course -- and hurried back on deck.
"Here!" Ibanolis waved me to a spot on deck. I formed part of a human chain with five other men including Ibanolis; we passed boxes of supplies from a truck on the jetty to the Sea Vixen's storage lockers. A longline voyage can last up to a month and the destination, often as not, is somewhere out in the middle of the ocean. A boat has to carry everything six or more men require for that length of time. Running out of toilet paper's no laughing matter when the nearest market's a thousand kilometers away. I passed packages of toilet paper. Boxes of soap. Cans of fruit and vegetables. Dried peas. Dried beans. Rice. Coils of line. Boxes of fish hooks. Towels. Brass polish. Brillo pads. Screwdrivers. Chisels. You wouldn't believe some of the things these boats carry. But you can't afford to be without something you need. Outfitting a boat costs a pretty penny, anywhere from fifteen to thirty thousand dollars and the price seems to go up every year. A boat that doesn't produce becomes a financial black hole for its owners right quick. Provisioning took an hour and a half and by the time it ended my shoulders felt like they were on fire. Then there was gear to be stowed and last-minute maintenance. Working the fishing fleet ain't an easy job. On the other hand I could earn enough during a good season to keep me going for the rest of the year if I lived frugally. What other career lets a fellow work three months and take nine off?
Bit by bit I met the rest of the crew. Ibanolis was the first mate, a long time friend of Captain Mithradates. Ship's mechanic was a skinny fellow named Erkenbold; everyone told me that the machine he couldn't fix hadn't been invented yet. That may have been so; I'm hardly a mechanic myself but it seemed to me that Erkenbold's repair technique seemed to involve mostly cursing and hitting things. Nolan had been around the fishing fleets for many years but he lacked the imagination to rise in the ranks. Taiaroa was, like me, a relative newbie. He and I hit it off right away because of being close to the same age and sharing a love for video games. If I said "All your base are belong to us" he'd crack up while the rest of the guys just looked at me funny.
In the morning Ibanolis came through banging a pot with a spoon. "Everybody up!" he shouted. "All our fuel and bait's on board so we're casting off!"
I struggled out of my bunk, yawning hugely. To my way of thinking I hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep after all that work yesterday.
"You're on bowline, Chris," Ibanolis said.
"Got it," I replied, pulling on my trousers and shirt. With my boots laced I dashed up on deck and took my station near the bow. In the wheelhouse I saw Captain Mithradates walking back and forth. Through the deck I felt a vibration as the Sea Vixen's twin diesels coughed to life.
The captain opened one of the wheelhouse windows. "Secure shore power!" he shouted. Taiaroa hopped across to the dock and unplugged the extension cord that provided power when the Sea Vixen's engines and auxiliary generator weren't running. He coiled it up and stowed it below decks. "Single up lines!" the captain commanded. I leapt onto the dock, untying the bow line and jumping back. I held the running end in my hand; now only a single turn of line around the bollards held the bow against the quay. Ten minutes passed while the engines warmed up. "Cast off bow!" came the shout. I dropped the line and hauled from the tied off end, pulling the rest of it on board. I wrapped it around the cleat and tied off the end. Captain Mithradates applied forward power to the right engine and reverse to the left while leaving the stern secured; Sea Vixen's stern thumped gently against the quay and her bow swung out. "Cast off stern!" he shouted, and switched to forward on the left engine. Sea Vixen pulled smoothly out of her berth and motored sedately out into the harbor.
I lingered on deck. The rising sun painted the eastern horizon with orange and gold. A soft, crepuscular glow lit the Auckland skyline as we steered out into Hauraki Gulf. It was so breathtakingly beautiful I wished I'd thought to bring a camera. I wished that at the start of every voyage but I never did it. I always managed to convince myself it wasn't worth the trouble of carrying and stowing the thing for an entire voyage just so I could snap a few pictures at the beginning. By the end of the voyage I wouldn't be in the mood to take pictures. I'd just want to get off the damn boat.
We spent five days cruising southeast, to the outer fringe of the New Zealand Blue Fin Tuna fishing zone. The best Blue Fin fishing was off southeastern Australia but the captain hadn't managed to get a permit there so here we were. The weather started out good but worsened as we headed further south. High clouds scudded up out of the horizon, gradually turning the sky from blue to leaden gray. Waves came up too, driven by fierce winds and currents roaring out of the Antarctic Sea. I must say I now appreciated Sea Vixen's catamaran design; she rode over the swells as gracefully as a gull without a tendency to roll sickeningly.
Finally the big day arrived. Captain Mithradates leaned out of the wheelhouse and shouted "Okay, people! Let's catch some fish!"
Ibanolis undogged the big winch and set it to paying out line. Nolan attached the first float -- a long pole with a flag on top, a weight on the bottom, and a float at the center -- and lofted it over the stern. Taiaroa grabbed a leader and slapped a hunk of bait onto the hook. Erkenbold snapped it to the mainline and flung it out into the water. Me, I fetched floats, leaders, and bait from below decks. Baiting's a tricky job; the mainline runs out pretty fast. Those hooks are heavy gauge steel with barbed points, designed to catch a tuna or swordfish that might weigh over a hundred kilos. One of those suckers'll go right through your hand. Then the mainline'll take you overboard and the float line'll let it sink about ten meters down. The mainline's nylon, just like on your fishing reel at home, but it's as big around as your little finger and it weighs a lot. If your friends don't notice and pull in the line real quick you wind up one big, expensive hunk of bait. Not a happy way to go.
In theory longlining's just like reel fishing. You bait your hook, toss it out, wait for a bite, and reel it in. In practice it's a lot more work. The Sea Vixen's mainline measured thirty kilometers in length and carried three thousand leaders. That means you spent all morning paying it out and all afternoon reeling it in. At that point Erkenbold pulled in the leaders and Taiaroa assisted him with a boat hook to drag the fish on board. I helped Captain Mithradates gut and clean the fish -- everyone works on a longline boat -- while Ibanolis and Nolan stacked them in the hold. It doesn't look like it in the market but fish blood is red, just like ours. After about ten fish it coated the deck, making it treacherous. In hot weather the stink would about knock you down. Even in the cold it weren't no picnic. After a while it's just like factory work: you stop noticing the smell and your hands do their job without conscious intervention from your brain. Once its over, then you notice how desperately sore and tired you are. At this point I always swear I'm gonna leave the fleets and take a regular shore job with coffee and lunch breaks. But I never get around to that during the off season. I fritter away my time tramping around the central highlands. Then I run out of money, I need work, and what do you know, the fleet's hiring again. In fifteen years I'd probably be Nolan.
Then, on the fifth day, the fish gave out. Erkenbold hauled in a big one -- sixty kilos -- and grabbed the next leader. Nothing. Another leader, another zero. I turned to watch because I hadn't anything to do at the moment.
"Crimeny!" Erkenbold exclaimed. Leader after leader turned up empty.
"What happened to all the fish?" Nolan asked, poking his head up out of the hatch.
"We musta caught 'em all," Taiaroa commented. He propped his boat hook on the deck and leaned on it.
"Help clean and pack the leaders," Captain Mithradates told me.
"Okay." I pulled in the leaders, took off any remaining bait, washed them, and packed them away. Captain Mithradates hosed down the deck. It felt strange to be doing this in the middle of the day. Usually we didn't finish until well after dark.
The next day we ran out the mainline and pulled it back without catching even a single fish. What we did catch was the strangest thing I'd ever seen on the end of a fishing line. Erkenbold hauled in a leader and up came a stainless steel kitchen knife attached to a lanyard braided from bits of twine.
"Get a load of this," Erkenbold said, holding it up for all to see. The lanyard had caught over the hook.
"How the Hell did that get there?" Nolan demanded. Even I could see that the heavy metal blade should have sunk the knife straight to the bottom of the Pacific. But if you stay at sea long enough you see some pretty strange shit. An old fellow once told me he pulled in a leader with a Pachinko machine hooked to it. I never did find out if he was being straight or pulling my leg.
Ibanolis took the knife and tested the edge with his thumb. It seemed to be quite sharp. "Now you got a story to tell the 'lubbers, Chris," he said, and hung it on the rack of gutting and cleaning tools.
By now we were all starting to get a little concerned. Sea Vixen's holds weren't more than a third full, which wouldn't even pay outfitting costs, to say nothing of crew shares. We needed fish and we needed them in the worst possible way. Ibanolis and Captain Mithradates didn't come down for dinner that night; they stayed up in the wheelhouse. Finally Nolan gave me a bowl of stew and told me to take it up to them.
As a side note I've noticed that fishermen never eat fish while at sea. Some might say that's due to knowing what goes on in the cleaning and packing process. Those nice, clean fillets and steaks you pick up at the market go through some pretty grotesque evolutions the shopper never sees. I don't think so; you simply can't stay in the fishing fleet if you continue to be grossed out by cleaning fish. Everyone I know -- including myself -- just stops noticing after a while. Rather, I think it's because everything on the boat is about fish. You live, work, breathe, and sleep fish for weeks on end. Having to eat them as well just adds insult to injury. Since you don't have to, why do it?
I came up the wheelhouse ladder with the tray balanced on one hand. I heard Ibanolis and Captain Mithradates talking. Not shouting exactly, but speaking in voices that carried. I couldn't understand what they said; the closed door muffled it and more than half the time they lapsed into Greek. Not wanting them to think I was spying I knocked loudly and entered. The wheelhouse looked like a mess; crumpled fishing reports and weather faxes littered the deck. The captain's face looked hard and set; Ibanolis was rubbing his temples. They glared at me; I stepped forward, opening my mouth to announce my mission.
The only thing I remember clearly about what happened next was that I saw a flicker of dazzling light, as if someone had shoved a flash camera in my face and snapped a picture. Then I found myself lying flat on my back on the deck while Ibanolis shouted at me in Greek and slapped my face. My head seemed to be ringing; it sounded like a telephone dial tone but higher pitched and much louder. Even if Ibanolis had spoken English I couldn't have made out his words over the din. I tried to ask what had happened but none of my muscles seemed to function. After that I remember being carried down to my bunk, then things sort of gray out for a while. Finally I woke up, feeling more or less myself. I started to rise only to find I was completely naked. I shouted for Taiaroa.
"Yo," Taiaroa said, materializing at my bedside.
"Where are my clothes?" I demanded.
Without a word Taiaroa ducked away and returned with a box, which he held up for me to see. It contained a elastic band with some shreds of cloth dangling from it, several buttons, and my boots. The boots looked as if someone had used a lighter to burn out the stitching; the uppers had separated completely from the soles and the leather panels were charred around the edges. "These are your underpants," he said, holding up the elastic. "These buttons are your pants. When the Captain tried to pick them up they burned his hands. There's nothing left of your shirt at all. It was vaporized."
I stared at Taiaroa for what felt like about a year. "What happened?" I finally managed.
"Lightning," Taiaroa replied. "Goddamn bolt from the blue it was. Blam, right on the monkey's island. Through the wheelhouse roof and through you. Not to mention the electronics gear."
I blinked. "The electronics?"
Taiaroa grimaced. "Yeah. Radio, radar, GPS, Loran, weather fax, it's all so much slag. Welcome to the nineteenth century, feller me lad."
"Oy," was all I could think to say. My first thought was, How the devil are we going to fish now? An instant later I frantically investigated myself. Finding no important bits missing -- I seemed to have not a single hair anywhere on my body -- I sat up carefully. I felt fine. "Um... can you get me something from the slop chest?" I asked.
"Sure." Taiaroa fetched me some new duds. They didn't quite fit but it beat going naked. I hurried up on deck.
It was mid-morning and the longline was going out. Briefly I wondered what day it was then decided it didn't matter. I quickly assured everyone I was fine and pitched in. It felt good; it kept me from dwelling on what had happened. And what hadn't, for example me being killed instantly. That afternoon as the line came in every one of us watched for the first leader. If we didn't get some fish --
"Fish!" Erkenbold shouted joyously, hauling on the leader. He landed an enormous tuna. Next leader had a fish even bigger than the first. We started cheering; our dry streak had broken spectacularly. Not only that, I swear we broke all the records. Some of those fish took two or thee men to haul on board. That one catch added considerably to the Sea Vixen's haul.
Near the end of the line we made another very startling catch. "Fish!" Erkenbold shouted as he hauled in the next leader. By now it had become a litany. We'd all shout it with him. Just as we drew breath this time Erkenbold let out a terrified shriek and stumbled away from the rail.
"What is it?" Ibanolis demanded, rushing forward.
"We hooked a body," Taiaroa replied, apparently unaffected.
Ibanolis grabbed the leader and pulled it in. The rest of us crowded against the railing, watching with bated breath. Then -- quite suddenly -- a hand broke the surface, with a hook firmly embedded in its palm. We all gasped. Erkenbold crossed himself.
"Cut it loose," Nolan said in a tense voice. "Ain't nothing we can do for that poor sucker now."
Ibanolis stared down at the hand. I saw a head bobbing just below the surface, with hair flying around it like a fine-tentacled jellyfish. Ibanolis reached for his knife -- and the hand spasmed, as if clutching at the line.
I think every one of us screamed. Ibanolis didn't cut the line because he'd dropped his knife; it vanished into the water, narrowly missing the body. He dropped the leader and stumbled back; the body started slipping away.
To this day I can't say why but I leapt forward and caught the leader before it vanished. I pulled it in; I distinctly saw the fingers twitch, then close around the line. "He's alive!" I shouted. "Taiaroa, help me get him on deck!"
At these latitudes the ocean is perishing cold. It should have occurred to me that no unprotected person could live long in that icy water. The others knew it; that's why they reacted so fearfully. But for whatever reason I didn't think of that until later. Taiaroa used his boat hook -- gently, this time, without stabbing -- to help me.
"Good God!" Taiaroa exclaimed. "It's a woman!"
That brought everyone back. I didn't notice until I'd hauled her up on deck like a fish. Then, for the first time, I really looked at her.
No one said a word. I couldn't even think them. I just stood there staring. We'd caught a body, yes. A female one, even. But not human.
Taiaroa whispered something. I didn't catch it but it sounded like Maori. That startled me because even though he was one by birth you'd never know it but for the color of his skin. "It's a mermaid," he said.
Not quite, I had to say. The traditional mermaid is a woman -- almost invariably a northern European one, I've noticed -- with the lower body of a fish. This creature fit that definition in a general way; the arms and torso looked quite humanoid, complete with rather nicely formed breasts. Just below the waist her body thickened as if for a pelvis then tapered down to a muscular tail a bit longer than legs would have been. There obviously wasn't any major bony structure in the pelvic region though it did support a short dorsal fin and two flippers that looked like a dolphin's. Instead of scales, like a fish, or skin, like a dolphin, slick fur -- like an otter's -- covered her lower body. Her flukes ran horizontally like a dolphin's but instead of attaching to the end of her tail her tail continued a little bit past them. That fur, by the way, covered all her body, not just her tail. And her head... looked like a fox's, with a long, slender muzzle and sharply pointed ears. The color of her fur looked fox-like as well; a deep, rusty red except for a white patch starting at her chin and running along the underside of her body all the way to her tail. Black fur covered her arms up to the elbows, the backs of her ears, and the lower half of her tail. Unlike a fox she had hair, or at least a mane, a wavy mass of honey-gold that reached all the way down to where her hips would have been.
"It's not a mermaid," Nolan said in the detached tone of one who's already gone far beyond shock.
"Then pray tell what the Hell is it?" Erkenbold demanded. Hysteria tinged his words.
"A sea vixen," I said. It just popped out of my mouth.
Before anyone could say a word Captain Mithradates burst out in thunderous laughter. He laughed until his face turned purple and he choked. I didn't think it was particularly funny and I didn't feel much like laughing but I did. We all did. I think we had to; otherwise the insanity of the situation would have driven us mad. "Well, well, how appropriate that we of all boats should catch her," the captain chortled. The Sea Vixen hooks a sea vixen." He laughed again.
Just then the sea vixen spasmed, spewing water from her mouth and nose. She drew a shuddering breath and coughed.
"Fetch the cutters and medical kit," Captain Mithradates commanded briskly. Nolan ducked below and returned with the indicated items. The captain took the cutters and knelt by the sea vixen's outflung arm. He snipped off the hook's barb and pulled the severed shank out of her hand. She twitched and moaned. He shifted position, running his fingers through the fur on what would have been her buttocks. Clearing a spot with one hand he used a disposable injector from the medkit to give her a tetanus shot. Lastly, he hosed her down with fresh water and bandaged her hand. "Chris, Taiaroa, take her below and put her in my bunk," he directed. "I'll use the bunk in the wheelhouse."
Taiaroa grabbed her under the armpits, leaving me to struggle with her tail. First I grabbed it just above the flukes but that didn't work out. Her tail wasn't made of rigid sections like a person's legs; probably it was just an extension of her spine. I shifted my grip up her body until I had my arm under her non-buttocks. That seemed to be her center of mass; with her tail flopped over my shoulder I could carry her. Taiaroa and I struggled down the companionway and lay her in the captain's bunk. I draped a blanket over her though water draining from her fur quickly reduced it to a sodden mess. After that we finished drawing in the catch but even the size of the fish didn't much interest us any more. I couldn't help wondering what would happen when we put into Auckland. I could imagine a crowd of reporters but beyond that my imagination failed me. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I couldn't quite bring myself to believe it was real. I wouldn't admit it even to myself but I was afraid.
People who live on land seem to get this feeling that modern technology has the world tamed, that everything's safe and comfortable. With hot and cold running water, electricity, and all the luxuries of life at one's fingertips -- or a least no farther away than a short drive -- I can imagine how a person might come to think that way. Buildings, houses and roads insulate you from nature. The cold, the rain, and the sun don't touch you. Storm sewers and sea walls hold even Mother Nature's more violent outbursts at bay. Sometimes, though, something happens. A hurricane sweeps through, grinding everything in its path like a hundred kilometer wide router blade. Storm surge destroys beaches and wipes away roads. Screaming winds smash houses into kindling and toss cars around like jackstraws. Survivors crawl out of the wreckage with dazed, terrified looks on their faces. They'd just been reminded how fleeting and insignificant are the works of Man against the power or Nature.
People who work on ships -- particularly small ones, like fishing boats -- feel that way all the time. When frothing waves tower higher than the mast truck and screaming winds lay your boat practically on beam ends every time she crests a swell you feel very much how tiny and fragile your little steel shell really is. Your start feeling that you live only at the ocean's sufferance, because it can't be bothered to dispose of you. To make sure you don't forget, every so often a boat doesn't come back. Sometimes you hear an SOS and reports of an accident. Sometimes you don't. Boats and entire crews just... cease to exist, as if they had never been. I once made the mistake of trying to explain that to a 'lubber. He looked at me funny and wanted to know why, since I felt that way, I kept going back to sea. I couldn't think of an answer so I told him it was the money. All I can say is that you might as well ask a soldier why he goes to war. Frankly I think the soldier's got the better deal. His enemy is merely human and can be defeated. Our enemy is the sea itself. The best we can hope for is to survive.
Now I'll admit it's not like that all the time. When the weather's nice and the fish running, you sorta forget about the rest of it. Life is good. At the moment, though, the sea vixen represented one more strange thing the sea had thrown at us during this trip. I couldn't help thinking that the ocean was toying with us. Fortunately for me, working the line drove those thoughts out of my mind. By the time I staggered below after washing up all I could think about was how much I wanted to get to bed.
I flinched. The voice sounded female. I turned. The sea vixen sat up, sort of, her torso propped up on her elbow. Her eyes were pale yellow-gold.
"You talk?" Taiaroa demanded, pushing past me.
"Yeah, I talk," she retorted. Her accent sounded... I don't know, Canadian, maybe. "That surprises you?"
"I've never seen a talking vixen before," I said.
"Pity," she replied. "I see talking apes all the time."
"We saved your life, you know," Taiaroa cut in indignantly.
"You nearly cost me my life with your damn fish hooks," she snapped, brandishing her bandaged hand. "Since I'm in this bunk instead of the water I can guess what comes next. You gonna sell me to a zoo for a fortune and retire?" By now we'd all gathered; she looked around at each of us. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful but from my standpoint things are looking more and more like I'd be better off having died."
Erkenbold's face darkened. "Well, if that's how you feel we can easily fix it!"
"Hey, hey, hey." Ibanolis restrained Erkenbold gently. "Look at it from her side. You think fish like being caught?"
"Ma'am?" Taiaroa asked, pushing forward.
"Misu," she replied.
"Huh?" Taiaroa blinked.
"Misu," she repeated. "My name is Misu."
"Pleased to meet you, Misu," I said, offering my hand. "I'm Chris."
Misu took my hand and shook. Her skin felt clammy, wet, and cold. Somehow I'd expected her to feel warm, like a regular person. Upon reflection I supposed she couldn't; she'd lose heat too rapidly in the cold water.
Taiaroa, Nolan, and Ibanolis introduced themselves. Erkenbold held back. "So anyway," Taiaroa continued. "Misu, there's something I've wondered for a long time. How do mermaids have sex?"
Ibanolis drew a sharp breath. By the way his eyes bulged I thought he'd inhaled something. His face turned purple. "Taiaroa!" he thundered. Erkenbold and Nolan collapsed on the floor, shrieking with laughter. Taiaroa grinned hugely.
"That's a fair question, actually," Misu replied, settling down on her side. She lifted the blanket away, exposing the front of her body. She lay her hands on what would have been her crotch had not her belly blended smoothly into her tail. She spread the fur aside -- and there, about a hand's breadth below her belly button, was a slit in her skin. She pulled back the edges with her thumbs, revealing a vagina that looked exactly like what a human woman would have. "Cetaceans are mammals, remember," she pointed out. "They have genitalia just like you do. They just keep them inside their bodies until they're ready to use them." Her face wasn't really designed to smile but she managed to convey the impression by opening her mouth and letting her tongue loll out. "Just like me."
At that moment you could have cut the tension with a knife and sold chunks at a souvenir shop. Except me and Taiaroa everyone had a wife. That didn't necessarily make the weeks and months without female companionship any easier to bear. Erkenbold licked his lips, tugging at the front of his trousers. Ibanolis looked back and forth between him and Misu. I could see the thoughts forming in his mind --
Captain Mithradates dropped down from the wheelhouse. "What's going on?" he inquired good-naturedly. "Ah, you're up," he said to Misu. "Feeling better?"
"I suppose," Misu allowed, propping herself once more upon her elbow. Her other hand she rested just behind one of her fins. On her hip, I would have said, had she possessed one.
The captain's eyes narrowed slightly. I think at that moment he suddenly appreciated the discipline problem he'd brought on board. "Nolan, it's your turn to cook, isn't it?" he said. "Why don't we get dinner started?"
The group broke up, after a fashion. The bunk room was pretty much all our space on board. Fishing boats aren't cruise liners. Captain Mithradates stared intently at Misu; she stared back just as intently. He shook out her blanket and rather pointedly covered her with it. She never said a word but she kept staring at him as he headed into the galley. At that instant I knew it was only a matter or time before someone nailed her. I kept wondering how it might happen. Where on board the Sea Vixen could a person go to do it? I could just imagine someone throwing Misu over his shoulder and staggering off with her. What would she say?
During dinner my misgivings came back stronger than ever. I felt the ocean all around us, just waiting for us to screw up. Here we were, already almost at each other's throats over Misu. Captain Mithradates brought Misu a plate of food rather than carry her to the table. She ate with utensils just like a regular person, though she picked at her food some first.
When sack time rolled around I climbed into my bunk but despite the work I'd done during the day I couldn't get to sleep. I lay awake wondering who would make the first move and how they'd do it. I played scenario after scenario in my mind; each one ended up in a mass orgy or gang rape. Thinking about either only made me even less able to sleep.
"I gotta go to the bathroom," Misu said. I just about jumped out of my skin.
"I'll help you," Taiaroa jumped in. He scrambled out of his bunk and lifted Misu out of hers, staggering under her weight as he edged of toward the head. Misu weighed significantly more than would a regular woman her size.
I waited but no one said a word. After a long time -- much longer than necessary just to go to the bathroom -- Taiaroa brought Misu back. I lay wide awake, my body tense as a violin string. Who would go next? How would they go?
Erkenbold slipped out of his bunk. He didn't speak; he stared at Misu for a moment, then gathered her up and carried her to the head. She didn't say a word either. They did their thing and came back.
The night continued like that, each person taking a turn. When Ibanolis went I started shivering. Only one remained after him, that being me. Now don't get me wrong; I like cuddling as much as the next guy and since this afternoon all I could think about were Misu's luscious breast and oddly positioned but entirely normal looking vulva. I wanted to, I wanted it so much I could taste it. Though it all, though, I felt the ocean. Not just how it moved the boat but I felt it staring at me. It could imagine it thinking. Okay, let's see how far I can push before they realize it's too late. When Ibanolis returned I rushed to the head without Misu. For quite a while I just sat there, shivering miserably and trying not to throw up. Then I started jacking off. I stroked and stroked until I had to stop because my dick hurt. I returned to my bunk and tried not to notice Misu staring at me. Even when I faced away I felt her eyes on me. They reminded me of how a fox would watch a vole it had cornered.
I don't think I slept at all that night thought I'm sure I did. The others kept taking turns; some of them -- Erkenbold and Taiaroa, I'm pretty sure -- went back again and again. Through it all I never heard Misu complain or even object in the mildest way. But she didn't exactly invite it, either. To the best of my recollection she never said or did a single thing that could be considered even slightly flirtatious. Despite how she'd flashed us earlier she didn't seem particularly interested in sex. Yet she endured being used quite stoically, even with a hint of amusement, as if she found our antics mildly humorous. Somehow the fact that she just didn't seem to care disturbed me more than if she'd cried or tried to resist.
At dawn I went up on deck because I had to escape the atmosphere in the crew quarters. I saw at once that things had changed dramatically; mild swells rippled the ocean but dark, ominous clouds roiled on the southern horizon. I saw Captain Mithradates in the wheelhouse; he'd stare at the binnacle for a while, glance at the chart table, then look out the window. Around and around he went, occasionally pausing to adjust the wheel. Curious -- and because I needed human contact -- I went up. He looked at me with heavy, sunken eyes; I don't think he slept last night either but there was something else about him as well. He looked like a man contemplating his own death. He muttered something in Greek and resumed circling. He stared at the compass for quite some time, then chuckled grimly.
I moved up beside him. Sea Vixen's compass was, like the boat herself, a thoroughly modern device: a hemispherical card suspended in a fluid bath under a glass dome, all set neatly in a black metal case. According to it we sailed south by south west, an odd course I thought. Captain Mithradates grinned crookedly at me, then turned the wheel to the right. Our course swung northward... and kept swinging even after the captain centered the rudder. After two complete rotations the card shuddered to a stop and spun lazily back the other way, this time completing three complete rotations before indicating us on a course of due south.
"You might want to keep this to yourself for a bit," Captain Mithradates commented, moving to the window and glancing out. I suddenly realized that he was checking the position of the sun. "The lads might not care for it, you see."
I licked my lips. They felt as dry as old leather. I glanced at the bank of instruments along the back wall of the wheelhouse. Repeater displays and controls around the wheel allowed the steersman to use the instruments without turning around but the actual electronics were on the wall. They all looked fine; I couldn't see any trace of damage. If I didn't know better I'd say someone had simply switched the rack off. Unable to resist I flicked the power switch on the Loran set. Nothing happened.
"Erkenbold and I traced the power all the way down to the engine room," Captain Mithradates commented, making a small course adjustment. "All the lines are good, all the breakers in, all the fuses intact. It's the instruments themselves."
I left the wheelhouse and hurried out to the bow. I gripped the railing, riding the deck as Sea Vixen rose to meet the challenge of each new wave. The scudding clouds would block out the sun before too long and I could tell that the swells had risen since last night. The storm would probably hit us some time during the night.
When you're tramping or driving on it New Zealand seems like a pretty big place. Compared to the vastness of the Pacific it's nothing. The Pacific basin covers more area than Asia and Europe combined and there aren't any landmarks except in the sky. Which of course don't do a lick of good if you can't see it. I realized that I, too, had been lulled by faith in technology. I'd never questioned the electronic lifeline connecting my boat to the rest of the world through other boats, satellites in orbit, and powerful shore stations. I'd never believed that I might find myself in a place where that lifeline might not reach. I thought of Misu and suddenly wondered exactly who had who. If Sea Vixen foundered in a storm all she'd have to do is swim away. At the moment it didn't seem so much like we'd caught her. It felt more like we'd stumbled into her world.
With the swells rising like this I knew we wouldn't be running out the longline. I went below to eat; the others had started without me. Misu, wearing a tattered plaid shirt from the slop chest, sat with us. She didn't sit with her tail bent forward like you see mermaids doing in pictures. She sat up like a seal, on her belly with her torso bent back until it stood straight up. Her chair had been turned backwards and she held herself in it with a belt around her waist.
"Good morning, Chris," she called, nodding to me. The others -- including Taiaroa -- just looked at me.
"Morning." I sat down and took my plate. Taiaroa at least nodded. But suddenly I'd become an outsider and it didn't take a genius to see how. We made some small talk but I don't remember any of it. In the back of my mind I heard the ocean laughing. Look at them, turning against each other at the very moment they should be pulling together. They're mine now.
"Morning, lads." Captain Mithradates came down the ladder from the wheelhouse. "Looks like we're in for a bit of a blow so I'll need everyone to turn to and secure gear." He took a plate of food. "Excellent cooking as always, Nolan." He sat down right next to Misu. "Feeling better this morning?" he asked her.
"Yes, thank you," she replied.
"How is it you know English?" I asked.
"There's quite a few English speaking sailors in the world," Misu replied. "Since I've been kicking around in the Pacific I've picked up some Japanese as well. I can't read it but I speak it passably."
"How long have you been around here?" I continued.
She shrugged. "Where I live there aren't clocks or calendars. Seasons come, seasons go." She fluttered her fingers. "Truth is, I really don't know. Sometimes it seems like a very long time."
"I imagine you meet a lot of sailors," Captain Mithradates commented.
"I do," Misu replied. "I don't hang around settled coastlines. They tend to be pretty stinky, frankly." She wrinkled her nose. "Sometimes I meet people on lonely beaches or empty fjords but yes, most of the people I meet are at sea."
"If other people have seen you how 'come I've never heard of you before?" I couldn't help asking.
Misu chuckled. "How many people have seen the Loch Ness Monster? Sasquatch? Aliens? What person would admit seeing me? If they did tell it's just another crackpot story. Say, if you're going to be busy on deck for a while can I come up and watch?"
"Captain, we shouldn't do that," Erkenbold cut in quickly. "She'll try to escape."
"Don't talk about her as if she's not even here," Captain Mithradates reproved. "I'm sorry, Misu, but I must insist that you remain with us at least until we reach Auckland. Given that, I think it would be wise for you to remain below."
Misu shrugged. The announcement didn't seem to bother her any more than the activities of last night. "See y'all later, then." She unbuckled the belt holding her to the chair and slipped to the floor more gracefully than I would have expected. She humped across the deck like a seal and wriggled up into what had become her bunk. Some of the buttons seemed to have come off her shirt; it didn't close completely in front. I couldn't see her nipples but I did see the entire length of her cleavage. There weren't any bras in the slop chest and I couldn't imagine that she'd be particularly comfortable wearing one, what with her fur and everything. She noticed me looking at her and she smiled. Not just lolling out the tongue like last night but the corners of her mouth seemed to quirk up a bit. I packed away my dishes and hurried up on deck because I felt Erkenbold glaring at me. I'd had my chance last night and I didn't think Erkenbold would approve if I suddenly changed my mind and wanted in.
All through the day the clouds thickened and the sea grew choppier. As I hurried about the boat bolting, securing, and tying anything that might come loose I noticed the others going below from time to time. No explanation was offered and none requested; everyone knew. Somehow, without any words being spoken an agreement had been reached. Captain Mithradates noticed it too; I saw him glaring at people behind their backs. But he didn't say anything either. Probably because there wasn't anything he could say. In a group this small you can't have open dissension and things were already precarious.
By nightfall the weather looked quite grim. We never saw the sun set; the sky just darkened until it finally turned completely black. The waves grew until they towered over Sea Vixen when she slipped down into the troths. She didn't slide over the swells like she had earlier, she leapt and swooped. After dinner I climbed into my bunk and wedged myself in. Ibanolis went up to the wheelhouse with the captain. Nolan and Erkenbold watched a movie, though I didn't think they could hear any dialogue over the wind's roar. Taiaroa lay down in his bunk but tossed fitfully.
Misu stared at me. At some point she'd bathed and obtained fresh bedding. Even dry her fur didn't fluff up; it retained its otter-like sleekness. She still wore the shirt I'd seen her in earlier but she'd completely unbuttoned it. While I watched she pulled it back, baring her breasts. Her nipples were light gray, not pink or brown. She caressed one with her hand, then lifted it she could run her tongue over it. Her eyes never left mine.
I didn't move or speak. I couldn't look away. Nolan and Erkenbold faced the TV, which put Misu behind them. Taiaroa's bunk was part of the same rack as Misu's so he didn't see either. But there wasn't any way I could go to her without them noticing. Why, oh why hadn't I taken my turn when I had my chance? I climbed out of my bunk and staggered to the head. Misu had me so keyed up I orgasmed after only a handful of strokes. After that I sat on the toilet a while. What the Hell was Misu playing at? Why did she want sex now when she'd seemed so nonplussed last night? If she really did want it why not ask one of the others? The only explanation I could think of was that I was the only hold out. Then why was it so important that we all have sex with her? Particularly when she didn't seem to much care for it in the first place?
I returned to my bunk. Erkenbold looked at me suspiciously, then turned back to his movie. I tried not looking at Misu but I couldn't help it. The first time I actually looked at her she slipped two fingers into her vagina and started masturbating. I gave up and watched; either she faked convincingly or she actually came several times. Even after finishing and apparently going to sleep she lay with the front of her body toward me so I could look at it as much as I wanted. After the movie Erkenbold and Nolan played cards a while, then went to bed. Erkenbold paused, looking down at Misu. His lip curled back; for a minute I thought he'd slap her. He noticed me looking, though, and turned away with a curse. But he covered her before going. I couldn't understand him; Misu gave him apparently unlimited sex but he acted as if he hated her. I'd like to think I'd be more grateful under those circumstances.
At exactly oh three hundred -- three AM -- Taiaroa let out a strangled cry and tumbled out of his bunk. I know the time because I'd been staring at the bulkhead clock. By now Sea Vixen's motions had become quite energetic; Taiaroa tumbled back and forth across the deck as the boat rolled and pitched violently. I struggled out of my bunk -- trying not to lose my own footing in the process -- and managed to trap him against a bulkhead. He thrashed, apparently in some sort of fit or seizure. His eyes darted about randomly and he frothed at the mouth. When I tried stuffing him back into his bunk he struggled. His skin was burning hot.
Erkenbold let out a shriek I heard even over the wind and leapt out of his bunk. His hair had come out in clumps and his face looked sallow and drawn. In his hand he held a knife. The knife, I realized, the one we'd hooked from the sea the day before catching Misu. He lunged at me, swinging it. I yelped and dove away; he missed because he seemed only nominally more coordinated than Taiaroa. The blade rang from the metal bunk frame. He turned -- aided by the roll of the boat -- and lunged again. I screamed with him because I saw that knife coming straight toward my heart.
Misu swept with her tail. It knocked Erkenbold off balance; he slammed headlong into a bulkhead, propelled by his own mad strength and the steep tilt of the deck. He slumped to the floor; somehow the blade had turned in his hand. As he flopped onto his back I saw the hilt jutting out from beneath his collar bone. Judging from the angle the blade was probably embedded in his throat. I sat there, braced in the corner, holding Taiaroa, and staring at Erkenbold. I couldn't bring myself to believe what was happening. Not until much later did it occur to me that no one else had responded to the noise. By now Taiaroa had subsided and I managed to get him back into his bunk. When I finished I noticed something black covering my hands. It was Taiaroa's hair. Every strand of it had fallen out. I checked Nolan; he lay on his back, holding the edges of his bunk in a white knuckled grip. His whole body quivered, his eyes wide but glassy. His hair wasn't too thick in the first place but now it was gone completely. His skin looked so deeply flushed it was almost purple and I felt the heat radiating from it.
"It's not your fault," Misu said.
I spun around. She'd slipped out of her bunk. While I watched she jerked the knife from Erkenbold's neck -- with a deft twist to free the blade -- and wiped it clean on his shirt. Then she hung the lanyard around her neck.
"What --" I managed. I wasn't sure how I could understand her over the roar of the wind but I did. "What did you do to them?"
"Only what they asked." Misu pulled off her shirt and tossed it onto the bunk. She rode the pitching deck like an old salt, far better than I could.
"Where are you from?" I shrieked.
"The ocean," she replied.
"Bullshit!" I started toward her, stumbled, and fell heavily across Erkenbold. While scrambling for purchase I noticed something. My arm lay across his chest and something about the feel of his flesh felt very, very wrong. I grabbed his shirt and ripped it open.
Erkenbold had breasts. Small ones, but clearly defined. With pale gray nipples, not pink or brown. As I ran my hand across them I felt a fine dusting of soft, peach-like fuzz. Not at all like the coarse, wiry hair that used to coat his forearms. Somehow I knew that if I turned on the light the new hair would be white. I looked at Misu.
"Haven't you ever wondered why mermaids are always female?" Misu asked.
I blinked. Frankly I'd never thought mermaids were real at all. Sailors half-dead from malnutrition after being at sea for months saw manatees and their fevered imaginations made them into beautiful women with fish tails. Nothing but myths and legends, spread for idle amusement. "Do you save drowning swimmers?" I asked.
"Sometimes," Misu replied. "I... I feel like I owe it to them."
"What about the rest of it?" I continued. "Singing songs that cause people to throw themselves overboard and run their ships onto reefs?"
"I never did any of that," Misu replied. "I've known some who did, though."
"What... what's happening to Taiaroa and Nolan?"
Misu sighed. She looked... sad but resolved. It was the sort of expression you use when you have to explain to a little boy that his mommy and daddy need to live apart for a while. "I think you know. They're becoming sea vixens."
"From having sex with me," Misu replied. "There's... something in me that makes it happen. If... you'd eaten my flesh it would have happened too, even if you cooked it. The, the vector is pretty hardy."
"Why?" I screamed. "You knew this was going to happen and you let it!"
"Exactly what else could I do?" Misu demanded sharply. "If I'd refused to have sex with your friends they would have raped me. If I hadn't shown them my pussy at the very least Taiaroa would have found it soon enough. Would you rather it came down to people knifing each other in the dark?"
I looked at Erkenbold. It had come to that.
"Besides," Misu added, "Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life in an aquarium?"
I said nothing. I remembered stories I'd heard, about ships found drifting without crews and no explanation of what became of them. How often had this little drama played out before?
"Chris, you need to take off their clothes."
"Your friends, Taiaroa and Nolan," Misu continued. "Take off their clothes, especially their pants. If you don't the clothing might bind and choke them during the transformation."
I stared at her without moving or speaking.
"Chris!" Misu thundered. "Strip them! Now!"
I leapt to my feet. Misu's tone cut through the horror clouding my mind. I rolled Taiaroa out of his bunk and pulled his shirt off. His breasts looked well developed and fur covered his entire torso like spring grass. I grabbed his shoes and found them empty. Only after taking off his pants did I see why. His legs had shrunk to less than half their original diameter and his feet... simply didn't exist. His calves terminated with rounded stumps. From there I couldn't help but look at his crotch. His penis and scrotum had already shrunk away to nothing and I saw what could only be the beginnings of a labial fold. I looked away because I was afraid I'd throw up on him. Stripping Nolan was easier because he didn't look like himself anymore. His mouth and nose had begun to jut forward, the top of his head flattening out, his ears moving up. Getting his trousers off proved difficult because a thick, fleshy tail had grown down one leg and pulled the material tight.
"Better go see what the captain wants," Misu commented.
I looked over my shoulder. The annunciator board was lit up. Probably Captain Mithradates had been calling for some time but I hadn't heard over the roar of the wind. I hurried up to the wheelhouse.
Sea Vixen tossed and turned in a watery Hell. Lightning split the heavy, black sky almost continuously. Screaming winds tore away the wave tops, driving a haze of spume across the heaving water. Rain and spray hammered against the wheelhouse windows like machine gun fire. I saw dark rivulets streaming from the frames of at least a dozen of the ports and felt water sluicing across the deck as the boat pitched. Through it all Captain Mithradates stood at the helm, working the wheel with one hand and the throttles with the other. He beckoned me close. "Chris!" he shouted, yelling almost into my ear just to be heard over the screaming wind and driving rain. "Get me a bandage!" He waved his right hand, lifting it momentarily from the throttles. I saw blood streaming down his wrist from a jagged line of punctures, as if -- as if --
I glanced at the bunk at the back of the wheelhouse. Something lay there, lashed securely against the boat's violent motion. At one time it might have been Ibanolis but it wasn't anymore. Now it was a sea vixen, just like Misu. She thrashed against her bonds, yowling and snapping her teeth. I hadn't noticed the sound against the greater noise of the storm. I dashed below and grabbed the medical kit but paused on the way back up.
"Misu," I asked, "Could you infect someone by biting them?"
"Yes," she replied.
"How... how soon after, after changing could it happen?"
"Ibanolis bit the captain?" Misu ventured. I nodded. "How far along did he look? Ibanolis, that is?"
"He looked... just like you. But -- he was thrashing and wailing like a nut."
"Some people take to the change, some don't," Misu replied. "I'm sorry but the captain's probably infected. In about half a day he'll get sick. By this time tomorrow the change'll be complete."
I rushed up to the wheelhouse and carefully bandaged Captain Mithradates hand. "How bad is it?" he asked once I finished.
I swallowed. I didn't want to have to tell him but I owed it to him. "Misu says you're infected too."
For a long time he stared out into the storm, his hands moving the controls automatically. "I always wanted to get out of fishing but I never figured it would be like this," he commented, chuckling. I couldn't have made out the words if I hadn't watched his lips move. "Chris, my boy, I don't think we're going to be out of this storm in a day."
My blood seemed to congeal in my veins. Suddenly I saw where this conversation was headed.
"Chris, you're a good sailor but I don't think you can manage Sea Vixen by yourself in this," Captain Mithradates continued. "You should... go to Misu now, while there's time, and... do what the others did. Then at least you won't die out here alone. You deserve better than that."
I returned below. Taiaroa slept peacefully but all traces of the man who'd been my friend were gone. He was a sea vixen now. Nolan still tossed and turned though his transformation looked complete. I crouched by Misu's bunk.
"I'm so sorry," she said, stroking my face. Now her flesh felt warm. "I know you helped me. And... I appreciate your restraint. I think you're the only person who bothered talking to me."
"I'm not a gentleman," I confessed miserably. "I'm just -- scared to death."
"Being able to say that takes cohones," Misu replied. "Don't sell yourself short."
"The captain says I -- I should -- like them --" I gestured vaguely at Nolan "-- while there's still time. If -- I mean --"
"Chris, that's as close as anyone on this boat's ever come to asking me politely," Misu said, stroking the hair back from my forehead. "For what it's worth, I appreciate it. And... I wouldn't mind at all. In fact... I think with you I'd even enjoy it." She nuzzled my cheek.
I scrambled away. "Misu, I have friends!" I shouted. "Family! If I, I do this I'll never see them again!"
"You think I didn't?" Misu replied hotly. "I had a nice cottage in New Bedford. A beautiful wife. A child on the way. I don't even know if it turned out to be a boy or a girl. Then, in the south Pacific, a bull sperm stove in my boat after hauling is all over Hell and gone."
"Wait," I cut in. "A bull sperm? You mean a whale?"
"Yes, a whale," Misu replied. "Chris, I left New Bedford for the last time in the spring of Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-one."
My mouth worked. "How... how long do you live?" I finally managed.
"Until we die," Misu replied. "I once met a person who called herself Celesta. She claimed to have sailed to the New World with Francisco Pizarro. Chris, my point is that every one of us ended up where you are right now. I floated for days clinging to a piece of my boat. I never saw any trace of my ship. No food, no water, with the sun beating down on me. Then Pele appeared. I thought she was a hallucination. I asked her if she'd come to save my life like I'd heard mermaids did. She said she could save me but there'd be a price." Misu stared at me, holding my gaze. "Of course Misu isn't my original name. I changed it because it didn't really apply any more and just reminded me of things that no longer existed, at least for me. Chris, I don't have to go up on deck to know what this storm is like. I feel it all around me. In somewhere between eight and fourteen hours Captain Mithradates is going to collapse. After that only your skill at the helm will keep us from driving under. If you fail, what then? Me and the others, we just swim away. What about you?"
I found myself staring at Erkenbold. He still lay on the deck because no one had moved him. The trouble was I knew the truth of Misu's words. I couldn't possibly keep the Sea Vixen afloat on my own unless the storm moderated. Even if it did what then? I couldn't call for help or navigate without electronics. I'd probably end up driving around aimlessly until I ran out of fuel. Then I'd run out of food and water. Then...
Then I'd end up like Erkenbold. Dead on the floor.
The simple fact is that I'd never thought about dying. Even with Death staring me in the face I couldn't bring myself to believe it. Death isn't supposed to be something you choose. It sneaks up and catches you unawares. I always took comfort in that; Death would spirit me away before I knew what was happening. I wouldn't have to think about it beforehand. But it wasn't happening that way. Assuming I survived the storm -- no guarantee there -- Death would take His sweet time with me. Dying of thirst is excruciatingly unpleasant and it actually takes quite a while. A week or two, I seemed to recall.
Or I could save myself the trouble and end it all right now. But that was just another kind of death. I'd never see my friends and family again. I'd never see anyone or anywhere on land ever again. No TV, no computer games. No fast food burgers, no tacos. When I thought of everything I'd be giving up --
"Chris," Misu said, "you're running out of time to make up your mind. If you've reached the second half of your transformation I can keep you alive while it completes. If you haven't at least gone though the gestation period you'd die in the water while you're waiting."
"Okay!" I shrieked. "What... what do I do?"
Misu rolled her eyes. "What comes naturally, silly." She reached out and unbuttoned my trousers.
I hate to admit it but at that moment I had never in my life been less in the mood for sex. I knelt by Misu's bunk while she massaged my penis. It wouldn't stiffen, though. Even when I wasn't looking at her I was all too conscious of the fact that Misu wasn't human. That wouldn't have bothered me except for knowing that this dalliance would cost me my own humanity. She licked, which helped some, and tried to suck, but her mouth really wasn't designed for it. She caressed my testicles, lifting my cock with her other hand and licking the underside of it. That almost worked. Until I realized that someday I might be lying in a bunk, licking some hairy sailor's genitals. That killed off any gains I'd made and left me pretty deep in the red. "Can't... can't you just bite me?" I asked.
"It's not reliable," Misu replied. "If you injected some of my blood I think that would work if it didn't kill you. It, it's like a sexually transmitted disease. It passes through contact between mucous membranes." She repositioned herself, stretching out on her back. "Come here, Chris. Just... lick." She guided my head down to her vagina.
Misu's vulva looked the same as ever. Last night I'd been ready to do far more than just lick it. Now I could barely even bring myself to look at it. The rich, musky smell of it, though just like a normal woman's, made my stomach churn. Whatever it looked like there was a man under it somewhere. I could even imagine it, having seen it happen to Taiaroa. I gagged, scrambling away.
"Well, you can't say I didn't try," Misu sighed. "You know, Chris, I'll be sorry to see you go. I think... we would have had fun together. In the ocean."
I fled to the wheelhouse. Captain Mithradates looked at me rather intently but he didn't ask what had happened. I asked him what I could do to help. He sent me around to check seals and sound the bilges. We'd buttoned the Sea Vixen up tight but even so I found water coming in. It even poured down the exhaust stacks for the diesels. A trap caught it before it reached the engines and vented it into the bilges. I measured the depth of water collected there as best I could and reported back to the captain. He told me not to worry; all that water had come down from topside. Only if the hull sprang a leak would we be in trouble. I didn't ask what we'd do if that did happen. Other than occasional runs for food or various checks I stayed in the wheelhouse. I offered to help with the controls but the captain declined. Ibanolis stopped howling eventually. I avoided looking at her. In this way that eternal night slowly passed.
"Well, well," Captain Mithradates commented. "Looks like the wind's letting up."
"Cap?" I looked around. The noise had been so prevalent that I'd stopped noticing it. Only belatedly did I realize that I'd heard the captain talking without him screaming.
The wind died out quickly. The sea still heaved and the lowering, dark clouds still spit lightning but the waves no longer scudded. I actually laughed; compared to the fury of the storm this felt like deliverance. Then I gasped. Pale, radioactive green fire spread along Sea Vixen's railings. It collected at edges and corners but sometimes flitted across flat surfaces, bathing the boat in eerie phosphorescence. It danced on the wave tops, dyeing them with strange light. All around us, with the sky as black as midnight, the sea glowed.
"Pretty impressive, no?" Captain Mithradates commented, chuckling. "Saint Elmo's Fire. Scientists still don't know what causes it. I think it's just something to remind us that no matter how smart we think we are we don't know everything." He grinned at me. Then his eyes rolled back and he collapsed.
"Captain!" I shrieked, rushing to catch him. I wondered what time it was. Too soon? Too late? It could have been midnight or midday. With no one at her helm Sea Vixen fell off her course. The next wave caught her on the beam; she staggered as water foamed green across her deck. I struggled with the wheel but I couldn't bring her around. Only the excellent handling qualities of her catamaran design and the thorough job we'd done securing all the hatches kept her afloat. She bounced over the waves like spindrift but each time one drenched her she popped back up like a cork. Now I saw the face of grim Death leering at me and felt the icy touch of His bony finger. I started for the ladder; at this point even if Misu had still been a man I would have fucked her. Hell, I would have drunk her piss if I thought it would save my life.
Something caught my leg and threw me to the deck. I hit my head; when the stars passed I saw a terrifying creature snarling at me. It was Ibanolis; she'd managed to escape her bunk. "You bastard!" she shrieked. Her voice sounded like Misu's, not like Ibanolis at all. "This is all your fault! You brought that devil on board!" She cursed vehemently in Greek. I tried to scramble away but she lay on my legs, pinning me with her weight. She screamed at me in Greek then tore at the fastenings to my trousers. Failing to get the buttons loose she cursed again and opened her mouth very wide. Almost too late I realized that she meant to bite me. I twisted; her teeth sank into my thigh instead of my pecker. I punched at her head until she let go and scrambled away. She came after me, wriggling across the deck. She hadn't got the hang of humping like a seal or I would have been in serious trouble. She snapped at me as I leapt by and lunged as I dropped down the ladder. "I'm gonna get you, you little shit!" she screamed down at me, apparently reluctant to plunge headlong down it. I ran to an equipment locker and grabbed a boat hook --
As I dashed back through the bunk room a blast of icy water knocked me off my feet. I lost the hook. I regained my feet, spitting water and wondering what the Hell had gone wrong when I looked up and saw the forward hatchway swing open. Just then another wave crashed across the deck. A lot of it thundered through the bunk room instead of draining away. This time as I regained my footing something heavy -- not water -- slammed me down. Hands grabbed me, forcing me down. By now a good forty centimeters of ocean surged back and forth across the bunk room in a small-scale model of the one outside. Meaning that with my shoulders pinned to the floor my face was under water most of the time. I tried to scream and managed to swallow what felt like about a hundred liters. A sea vixen lay on top of me, screaming back. I couldn't tell who it was but I knew that if I didn't close that hatch real quick we'd all be swimming with the fishes. That prospect might not have alarmed the sea vixens, but it bothered me a great deal. I straight-armed my assailant in the jaw. A blast of water swept her away. I got to my feet just in time to see another sea vixen hump up the ladder and vanish outside. The other still surged around the room, trying to shout even though she was under water more often than not. With a skill developed slinging wet, slippery fish across a wet, slippery deck I caught her by the tail and dragged her up on deck. Her head bumped on the stair treads but at that point I didn't particularly care. A wave ripped her out of my hands and very nearly pitched me overboard as well. I fell headfirst down the companionway, scrambled back up, and hauled the door shut. I didn't leave it until I'd dogged it down as tight as my hysterical strength could make it. Then I hurried down to the bilges. I felt the boat struggling; she'd taken on an awful lot of water. In both engine rooms water surged just under the gratings and slapped against the diesels. I switched on all the pumps and crossed my fingers; the engines were Cats and tough as nails, but if they broke down I couldn't possibly fix them. I grabbed another boat hook and headed back up to the wheel house, advancing cautiously with the hook in front of me.
Ibanolis waited until I peeked up to see where she was before lunging. I managed to throw the shaft of the hook in the way so she bit that instead of my neck. It occurred to me then that the boat hook wasn't really suitable for this close quarters stuff but it was too late. As I leapt out of the companionway she tore a hunk out of the seat of my trousers. Felt like she tore a hunk out of my seat, too. Once free to maneuver I beat Ibanolis with the butt of the hook until she stopped fighting and glared at me balefully. Captain Mithradates lay where he'd fallen; Ibanolis and I had run over him repeatedly in the process of our battle. I opened the wheelhouse door, then hooked Ibanolis around the waist. Unfortunately I'd forgotten I was dealing with a mermaid, not a fish; she grabbed the shaft. I'd meant to fling her out but instead I dragged her. She grabbed the railing and cursed at me in Greek. I dropped the hook and ran back inside, slamming the door and dogging it down before she could force it open. I saw her pounding on the windows as I dragged Captain Mithradates down to the bunk room. My plan to put him to bed fell through when I found his bunk occupied. Misu still lay there.
I confess I stared. But then I'd only counted three sea vixens. That accounted for Nolan, Taiaroa, and Ibanolis. I held the captain in my arms and Erkenbold sloshed around in the water still covering the deck.
"Put him in another bunk," Misu said.
"Right." I felt like an idiot. I loaded Captain Mithradates into Nolan's bunk and strapped him down. "Why are you still here?" I asked.
"Because I knew that unsealing the boat would put you in danger," Misu replied. "I figured I could at least wait until the weather moderated some. But your friends didn't want to be trapped in here if the boat went down."
"Well, neither would I," I replied harshly. My whole body trembled from adrenaline reaction. I felt desperately tired. Just then the lights flickered and dimmed. I checked the engine rooms; one of the diesels had stopped. I switched off the fuel feed and everything but essentials, meaning the boat's running lights, the pumps, and the light and heat in the bunk room. The water in the bilges had gone down and I felt cautiously optimistic. Then the other diesel died. I still had the auxiliary generator but without the main engines Sea Vixen became a big, expensive raft. I could draw fuel from the main tanks to feed the auxiliary generator; I'd have power for quite some time if I used it frugally. A bit more than half the food remained in the lockers; two weeks worth of grub for six men amounted to some three months for one. That got me to thinking about how long it would take to be rescued. Assuming, of course, another storm didn't come up and swamp me. I couldn't call for help or fix my position. As the end of the season approached the weather would turn progressively worse. If it took more than a couple weeks....
I returned to the bunk room, sat down on the edge of Misu's bunk, and let my head fall into my hands. It seemed like Captain Mithradates had been right. I should have shagged Misu when I had the chance and become a sea vixen. Then we'd all swim away together, all our troubles ended. At that moment spending the rest of my existence with Misu didn't seem so bad. The thought of becoming a woman -- and even blowing some hairy sailor -- didn't upset me nearly so much as it had earlier. "Misu?" I asked.
"Would... would you stay with me? For a while longer?"
"Sure." Misu sat up and slipped an arm around my shoulders.
I sighed. Even here, contemplating the likelihood of my own demise, I felt strangely comforted. Because... because I wasn't alone. Somehow Misu's warm presence made everything all right, though the situation hadn't changed any. I slipped my arm around her. She laid her head against my shoulder and I rubbed my cheek against hers. At that moment I would have slept with her quite happily.
When I awoke I lay on the bunk alone. The sea felt calm under me. I struggled up on deck. Warm sunlight streamed down from a clear, blue sky. The storm might have been nothing but a nightmare if not for the badly disarrayed condition of Sea Vixen's deck gear. I searched the boat but found no one, not even Erkenbold. Misu and Captain Mithradates had gone, leaving me alone...
"...then, four days later, a Coast Guard cutter picked me up," I concluded. I took a sip from my drink, only my second of the evening. Early on I'd drank a lot because it made me stop thinking about Misu. Later on I stopped drinking because I said things while under the influence that I later wished I hadn't.
"What are you gonna do if you find her?" the old timer asked, downing the last of his third beer. We'd retired to a restaurant I like not far from the docks. It didn't serve anything even remotely like seafood.
"Sleep with her," I replied. That shocked me. Never once -- not while sober, at any rate -- had I ever said that to another person.
"Sounds like a plan." The old man belched and set his empty glass aside. "We'll check the lists again tomorrow. If there's no billets maybe we can work our way as deck hands to Perth and try there."
I looked up at the old man. He looked at me. I got that feeling again, like looking into a mirror. I realized that I'd keep looking until I was as old as him if that's what it took to find Misu again. It seemed like that should have bothered me but it didn't. What did bother me was that with a normal life span I could only expect another, say, another fifty or sixty years to search.
Tears blurred my eyes. I couldn't blame Misu for leaving me to die. She gave me what I asked for.
If only I'd known then what it would cost...