The day Alex met a mermaid was unusual only for the fact that the person she was complaining too actually agreed with her.
"I think he's just not interested in my project anymore. I mean, you'd think he'd want me to go for that fellowship. He's certainly making a big enough deal about Gregori applying." Alex pushed her fingers over the keyboard, distracting herself from the constriction in her chest. She had two more published papers than Gregori and a patent in her name. That ought to count for something. Somehow it never seemed to.
"Yeah, he'd kinda been a dick to you lately. I mean, Schmidt's always an ass to girls but up until lately he kinda overlooked your gender...hey, I think I can see the bow." James sat up as straight as he ever did as the pale ghost emerged from the inky black. The constriction in Alex's chest warred with her excitement as the almost unchanged form of the Titanic swept through the view screen. It looked just like the videos Alex had watched obsessively since high school, only this time it was live and Alex was sitting next to the guy piloting the ROV. Alex wanted to whoop with joy, to dance around the lab, to kiss James square on the lips. This was so far from where she thought robotics would take her, some days she still felt like pinching herself.
She closed her laptop and turned her full attention to James' screen.
"You know, you could be a little more excited," James said.
"And how do you know I'm not excited?"
In trademark James style, he raised a single eyebrow.
A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. She gave in and smiled. "Whatever. Let's test out this baby. We've got to look for some suitably delicate task to test the fingers and then we can move into the vessel. Can you move through that opening there?"
"Here you go." James waved the joystick under Alex's nose.
She looked at him for a split second then snatched the joystick from his fingers.
"I knew you were excited."
For two hours they tooled around the Titanic, cataloging. The robot's fingers worked perfectly, gently sifting delicate articles from the ooze. Once or twice Alex let go enough to smile.
"This is awesome. The fingers are still working perfectly, even at these pressures. This'll be another paper for sure." Alex shared one of her rare smiles with James.
"Hey congrats, I'm gonna hit the head. Don't find anything exciting without me, 'k?" James didn't wait for her response.
She turned back to her work. Of course he wouldn't be excited for her.
An open door in a lower deck beckoned. Inside she found a simple room filled with what must have been barracks for the third class passengers. As she rotated around the ROV kicked up fines, momentarily turning everything white.
Pale fins flashed across the screen. Big fins, moving fast. Alex caught a breath. There shouldn't be anything big down that far. Perhaps something swam close. Perhaps she was a little tired. She leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, rationalizing she needed to wait for the sediment to settle out anyway.
Refreshed and calm, Alex slowly, carefully moved the ROV into the room. A jumbled mass of something caught her attention--could it be someone's belongings? A body? It was morbid, she knew, but she would love to discover the remains of one of the passengers. She also knew the prospect was basically nil with the way organics decomposed under water.
The deft fingers of the robot fished a man's satchel out of the ooze, still intact after more than a hundred years. With everything that water corrupted it was amazing that some things were so well preserved. She made a note of the position of the satchel and the time on the video feed and ordered the robot to place the satchel in the basket. The arms moved slowly through beams of light.
Ghostly, freakishly white hands opened the bag and pulled out a pocket watch and disappeared.
Alex's heart beat loudly in her chest and her head felt like it was full of bees. She wanted to rewind the feed, to see if she'd really just hands--human hands--rumaging through the belongings of a dead person. She wrote down the time stamp, vowing she'd look it up when the dive was finished, when doing so wouldn't compromise the record.
The hands returned, accompanied by a face and body. And a tail.
The last graduate student Alex knew of who had claimed to see a mermaid left science soon after to become an organic farmer somewhere in the Midwest. Suddenly Alex wondered if she still had his email address somewhere.
The mermaid wasn't beautiful. It looked like a bloated corpse, like a zombie more than a creature capable of luring sailors to their doom. Its gender was indeterminate, its hair twisted and matted and full of things Alex was sure were once living.
The mermaid held up the watch and opened it, showing the broken face to the ROV. It pantomimed pushing the button down a couple of times then pushed the watch into the robot's fingers. It blew a kiss at the camera, then swam away, kicking up clouds of detritus.
Alex stared at the screen for a few moments. She shook her head, then ordered the robot to resume putting the satchel and watch into the basket. A sourness settled in her stomach, like she'd stayed up too late. She couldn't possibly risk such an amazing find, especially for a figment of her imagination.
The hands came back and snatched the watch away. The mermaid swam back into view, stuck its barnacled tongue out at her, and again pantomimed pushing the button on the watch. With a sharp swat of its hand it again replaced the watch and swam off.
Ah, so the thing was watching. Alex didn't want to damage the priceless relic with the robot's hands, but definitely didn't want to explain that a mythical creature's capricious behavior was responsible. Choosing the lesser of two evils she clicked.
The mermaid's barnacled tongue was out. It pantomimed pushing the button, replaced the watch in the grasp of the robot and swam away.
She waited and clicked again.
The mermaid was replacing the watch. It swam away, stirring up sediment just as before.
Alex looked at her own watch then pushed again.
Ten seconds were returned to her.
"Hah, you didn't listen to me. Good for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair. His cheap cologne made her suddenly nauseous.
Alex looked up at him. "Can I tell you something?"
"I saw a mermaid."
"What? You're crazy."
"...didn't listen to me. Good for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair. His cheap cologne made her nauseous again.
"It's a magic pocket watch. When I click it time rewinds ten seconds."
James smirked and rolled his eyes. "We haven't been awake THAT long."
"...for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair.
Alex said, "I'm pregnant. Schmidt knows."
Too bad it's only 10 seconds.