When Katherine woke up, she was laying on a hard surface with her head raised. Water covered her body, but her neck and head were in air. She opened her eyes and tried to lift her head, but it would only move about half an inch before being stopped. It felt like something was connecting her collar down to the surface beneath. Her hands were free however, though her wrists were chafed and bruised from the manacles and the trip to wherever they now were. She felt around behind her head and found a wire plugged into the charging port on the back of her collar. There was also a steel collar closed around the outside of her breathing collar that was attached to the wall underneath her. It was this extra collar that prevented her from lifting her head. Next Katherine tried moving her tail, but she found that there was still something around her ankles that prevented movement there. She could feel a tingling sensation in her legs, and a kind of “squishiness” as she squirmed in her bonds. It felt like the space between her tail and legs had been filled up with some kind of viscous fluid. Finally, she opened her eyes. She was in a darkened room, but it was not the kind of deep darkness they had experienced inside the tanker truck. This felt more like a room in a house at night, with a trickle of moonlight seeping in through cracks in some curtains.
Katherine looked around, trying to make out details in the gloom. To her right and left, she could see the heads of some of the other mermaids. It looked like Lacy was to her right and Carla to her left. Beyond her immediate neighbors she could not see well enough to make out faces. Whatever window let in the light was behind her head and she couldn’t turn far enough to see it. They seemed to be in some kind of long, narrow pool that was partially covered. The uncovered part was only a couple of feet wide, and their bodies and tails extended down below the covered portion. The light did not reach down into that part of the pool, so Katherine could not see how deep it was or how far it extended. She opened her mouth to try and talk to the others, but found her airway blocked. Only then did she notice the gentle flow of air in and out of her lungs from her collar. Strangely, it was still set to underwater mode even though her head was in air. She resorted to splashing the water with her hands. Lacy and Carla seemed to come around slowly when they heard the splashing, and they both reached out their hands. Katherine found that she could just reach the hands of her neighbors, and their fingers touched and then clasped, holding on to each other for comfort.
The light from behind gradually grew brighter, and Katherine could hear occasional splashing from each side as the mermaids moved around. Eventually, a door opened and the lights were turned on. There was the sound of waves and seagulls for a few moments. Katherine could hear the sounds of several people moving around behind her, with some grunting and shuffling like they were carrying a heavy load. Katherine looked to her left and saw several men carrying another mermaid. She didn’t recognize the tail, but then one of the men turned and she caught sight of Allen’s face. The men dropped Allen’s tail in the water, and then one jumped in and dove down for a few moments, presumably to fasten him in place like the rest of them. The men repeated their actions with another merman. His tail looked quite different than the others, Katherine couldn’t quite make it out from where she was. But then she got a glimpse of his face. It looked like Fernando! But he had never been part of the mermaids. Why was he here?
Once the two mermen were locked down, another familiar person moved into view. He walked around from somewhere behind them and strode out to stand in front of the whole group of mermaids. He waved his ring-covered hands and seemed very pleased with himself as he spoke.
“At last my plan comes together. Welcome to my Central American hideaway. I’m so glad you could come. I’ve been hearing about how entertaining the mermaid show was, but I’ve never had a chance to see it, so I decided to make my own mermaid show here. You may have escaped the Kings before, but now I don’t think you will. The government here doesn’t like to cooperate with the United States much, so there will be no help from your policeman friends. And I now have an ace up my sleeve. Let me demonstrate.”
He pulled out a small electronic box and pushed a button. When he did, the flow of air from Katherine’s collar stopped, but the valve didn’t open to allow her to breathe. With her extensive practice at holding her breath, she didn’t feel distress for a minute or two, but as the time extended to three minutes and more, she started to feel the familiar pressure and desire to breathe. She tried gasping to bring in air, but it only filled her stomach, blocked from her lungs by the valve in her trachea. When he saw the panicked looks and gasping from all of the mermaids, Carlos pressed the button on his controller again and allowed the air to flow once more.
“As you can see, I now control the very air you breathe. You may have heard of the Kings gang and thought we were just a bunch of street thugs. While it may be true that we have some of those kinds of people in our employ, what you may not know is that we own a legitimate business called Crown Holdings that just happens to hold the security contract at the Gulf Aquarium. Our company also has an interest in several contract manufacturing houses in the Houston area, so it was we who actually manufactured your collars, and arranged to have some extra circuitry added to the design.”
“Now, I often have visitors and I expect them to be entertained, so I want to introduce you to Gretchen, my mermaid trainer. She’ll be in charge of keeping you fed and watered as well as working on your choreography. I expect you to do what she says.”
A large blonde woman came to stand next to the man with the rings. She was dressed in a black one-piece swimsuit with a sheer black cover-up, but the look on her face was more drill sergeant than beach babe. Carlos handed her the remote control and left.
“Well, girls, we are going to be getting to know one another well in the next days and months. But right now your two men are still recovering from their trip, so I will just tell you the rules and then come back later for our first practice. Currently you are in the sleeping and eating position. Most of the time, you will be free to swim and practice in the pool, but when I call you will come to this wall and position yourselves in the tail clamps and neck clamps like you are now. It will be obvious how to do so once you can turn around and look at it. As a demonstration, I will release you into the pool now. I want you to swim one lap of the pool and come back and get into this position again so that you can see how it works. We’ll let the two boys sleep and you can show them later.”
Gretchen walked to the side of the room, where there was some kind of control panel. She activated some of the controls and suddenly the bottom of the surface they were resting on started to lower. They were rotated down until they were in a standing position, and lowered until their heads were under the water. At the same time, the cover over the pool extended until the narrow open area was closed. Katherine could now look down and watch the metal clamp that encircled the bottom of her tail open at the same time as the extra steel collar around her neck opened. She was now free to move about, but the power cord for her breathing collar was still in place. She reached up behind her neck and pulled it out, then swam away from the wall. Now that she was down in the water, she could see the full extent of the pool they were in. It was D-shaped, with the back metal wall containing the clamps the mermaids had been attached to. The curved section of wall was clear acrylic, and beyond that wall she could see what looked like a restaurant or dining area with round tables and plush furnishings. The two flat side walls of the pool were decorated with colorful tiles, and a fake reef with brightly colored artificial corals made a hump in the middle of the pool. Katherine followed the other mermaids as they swam a circuit of the pool. Now that she could see all of their faces she could confirm that they were all present, with the addition of Fernando and Anna. Unlike the other mermaids, who were wearing the swimsuit tops they had on when they were abducted, Anna’s breasts were bare. She seemed to be struggling to control her monofin, so Katherine swam next to her and held her hand. Renna took her other hand and they pulled her through the water as they made their circuit. When they came around to the back wall again, Katherine examined Allen and Fernando as she passed by.
They seemed to be in good health and just sleeping from whatever drugs had been given to them all. But Allen’s tail had been changed dramatically. Instead of having a green background with mottled orange striping, this one was mostly white with small gray spots and three large dark stripes. The tail fin was narrower with yellow highlights. More than just the color was different though. Instead of coming up to the waist like the other tails, this one came all the way to Allen’s neck. It seemed to fit loosely on his body with several deep folds in the material. And Allen’s arms were enveloped in the material, with only his hands poking out at about waist level. Katherine thought it would be clumsy to swim in. Fernando’s tail looked even stranger. Now that she could get a good look at it, Katherine realized it was meant to imitate a seahorse. Rather than scales, this one had bony-looking rings around it, and rather than a tail fluke it ended in a long, curling tail. Fernando’s arms were also captured within the tail with his hands sticking out the sides. She didn’t have time to examine either one closely as she continued her circuit of the pool back to her place on the wall.
From this angle, Katherine could see that the name of each mermaid was painted on the wall in their spot. There was an open metal clamp for her tail, and a second clamp at neck level. Katherine backed up against the wall and lowered her tail into the clamp, at the same time easing her neck back into the upper clamp. As soon as she did so, the two clamps closed. She plugged the power cord back into her collar and waited as the other mermaids copied her actions. Once they were all in place, the pool cover opened and the metal wall rotated and lifted back into the reclined position with their heads just out of the water. Gretchen sat on a stool in front of them.
“Very good.” She said. “I am pleased that you all chose to be obedient, though you were a little slow. Next time I will expect you to move faster. Now I will leave you to rest for a bit until the two boys wake up. Then we will have breakfast.”
It took about an hour for Allen and Fernando to wake up. It was hard for Katherine to see because the ring around her neck didn’t allow her to turn her head more than a few degrees, but she could hear some splashing and water movement in that direction. Not long after the two men woke up, Gretchen returned. She was carrying a bag and she stopped at Renna, who was the first in line. She pulled out a foil package and handed it to Renna.
“These are emergency ration bars. According to the literature, they have all the nutrition and calories that you will need for a whole day. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time feeding you multiple times per day, so I intend to give you a breakfast and a dinner. Since one of these bars is intended to supply a whole day’s supply of food, you will need to split it, so each of you share with the person next to you.”
Gretchen handed one of the bars to every other person along the line. Lacy received one, opened the package, and broke the bar in two. She handed one half to Katherine. It tasted like a mild cookie with a slight honey flavor. It was very dense and took some serious chewing to break down the bar, but it wasn’t too bad. Neither Allen nor Fernando was able to lift their hands enough to accept a ration bar or lift it to their mouth even if they had one, so Gretchen slipped off her cover-up and sat down on the pool cover in front of the two men. She opened a ration bar, broke it in half, and held one half in each hand so she could feed it to the men. Everyone worked on biting and chewing for a while, and then Gretchen left and came back with a hose. Cold fresh water came out of the hose, and each mermaid took a long drink from the hose before passing it along to the next. The hose went down the row and back a couple of times as they each worked on finishing their half of a ration bar. When the hose got to the end with the men, Gretchen set the ration bars down and held the hose for the men to drink. When they were done, Gretchen took the hose away and then came back carrying the small remote control.
“I don’t want to repeat Carlos’s demonstration or my instructions from earlier, so I’m going to let Audra talk for a minute so she can explain things to the two boys.” She said.
Then she made some adjustments to the remote control and Audra found herself able to breathe air and talk again. Audra quickly explained what had taken place earlier that morning, and when Gretchen determined she had talked enough, she adjusted the remote again, cutting off the air to Audra’s vocal cords.
“I am still working out exactly what kind of show we’re going to put on, so we won’t be having a regular practice today.” Their new trainer said. “I’m going to use today to assess your abilities and get some ideas. I have underwater speakers installed in the pool, so I’m going to release you into the pool and then go down to the dining area where I can watch you swim.”
After they were lowered into the water and freed from the steel clamps, the mermaids all swam together into a group. They couldn’t talk, but through holding hands and patting backs they communicated their support for each other. Allen and Katherine shared a hug and kiss, though Allen’s full-body tail and trapped hands made it hard for him to reciprocate. Anna and Fernando likewise clung together. They only had a few minutes before they heard Gretchen’s voice through the speakers.
“All right, come over here next to the window where I can see you all.”
They swam to the window. Allen and Fernando both had difficulty keeping up. Allen was able to bend his knees and use his reduced size tail fluke to swim, though slowly. Fernando, with no tail fluke at all, was reduced to undulating his body and flapping his hands at the wrists to move. Katherine thought that he actually did move somewhat like a seahorse. Eventually they all got to the window and noticed Gretchen on the other side. She was standing in front of one of the tables and she had a headset on.
“First I will explain why Mr. Ruiz chose such unique merman outfits for the boys. In his opinion, female mermaids have great sex appeal and will make ideal entertainers for his mostly male clientele. Male mermen on the other hand, are of little use except as clowns. It was decided that Allen would be made into a puffer fish – the paint pattern is specifically for a Valentini Puffer. So, when I activate the right control, like so, he puffs up.”
When Gretchen pressed the control, a small tank of compressed air in Allen’s suit activated, quickly filling the folded volume of his suit with air and puffing him up like a balloon. His arms stretched out to each side with his hands as fins waving futilely about. He started to rotate to one side and float upward, helpless to control his orientation in the water. Katherine quickly grabbed a hand and steadied him. Then Gretchen pressed the control again and Allen slowly shrank back to his normal size.
“Fernando is a seahorse, of course, and he has a pouch in front. He also has a prehensile tail, but it is too long for him to have much control with his feet, so I have a control that I can use for him as well.”
Gretchen once more activated her remote, and Fernando’s long, coiled tail rolled out below him.
“Anna, go swim down near Fernando’s tail.”
Anna followed her instructions and Gretchen activated the remote again. Fernando’s tail coiled back up, wrapping around Anna’s body.
“That seems to work pretty well.” Said Gretchen as she used the remote to have Fernando release his wife again. “I may have to get some decorations put into the pool to give him something to hold onto. Now, I don’t have a specific routine to practice this morning. Instead I want to see in general what you can do. To start with, I want you all to swim around the perimeter of the pool as fast as you can 10 times. Go!”
They got off to a ragged start, but once the mermaids understood that Gretchen wanted them to swim right now, they moved pretty quickly. Allen and Fernando lagged far behind, quickly being lapped by the women as they struggled to make even one circuit of the pool. Anna, who was still learning to swim efficiently with her monofin, also lagged behind, but she watched the other mermaids and quickly improved her technique. When all of the women had finished their ten laps, Gretchen told the men that they could stop.
“Why don’t you two boys just go hang out in the center near the reef? I’m going to have the girls do some more athletic things now.”
Allen and Fernando did as they were told, and then Gretchen had the mermaids go through a series of moves – underwater flips and twists, synchronized movements and team movements like making shapes with their bodies. She worked with them for a couple of hours, and by the end of the time Anna was feeling very sore and weak. The others felt a little tired, but they were more used to being in the water and swimming all day.
“Well, I think that is enough for the day. You have all been very cooperative, so you can have the rest of the day to rest. Once Anna regains her strength, I think she should practice her swimming. She will need to quickly get to the same level as the rest of you. I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
Gretchen left them alone and they all swam into the back of the pool and sat on the bottom. The two married couples sat together, gathering comfort by holding hands. Some of the other mermaids held hands as well. By this time most of them needed to use the bathroom. There was no potty pool here, but there was a large filter intake at the bottom of the pool in a back corner. With a bit of pantomime and pointing, they all agreed to use that area of the pool as their toilet and they took turns doing so. Afterward they gathered together and tried to communicate using hand signals, but it was difficult to get any message across. After a few minutes, Lacy got excited and started making shapes with her fingers. It took the rest of them a bit to understand what she was doing, but then Allen realized she was using sign language. He got excited too, and pointed at Lacy as well as he could so that Katherine would understand. Before long all of them were watching Lacy intently.
Lacy started by holding her hand up with her fingers closed and her thumb beside them, then she unfolded her fingers and folded her thumb across her palm. Next she held her fingers and thumb in a “C” shape. As she continued, everyone realized that she was showing them the alphabet. They started following along, imitating the signs as Lacy made them. A few of the letters had to be modified slightly to account for the webbing between their fingers, but once Lacy chose an alternate, the rest of them followed along. They practiced for a couple of hours until they could all run through the alphabet without error or prompting. From there they quickly moved on to spelling out words.
“A.R.E. Y.O.U. O.K?” Was the first thing Katherine spelled to Allen.
“Y.E.S. H.O.W. A.R.E Y.O.U?”
“I.M. O.K. B.U.T. I. F.E.E.L B.A.D. A.R.E. W.E. S.T.U.C.K H.E.R.E?”
“L.O.O.K.S B.A.D. B.U.T. D.O.N.T. L.O.S.E H.O.P.E. K.E.E.P. E.Y.E.S O.P.E.N.”
They kept spelling slowly with lots of mistakes, but eventually they were all able to communicate with each other. They felt pretty helpless and stuck. Renna wanted to try and grab Gretchen and pull her into the water, but their discussions calmed her down. For now they needed to cooperate while they learned as much as they could about their situation. They would hope for a rescue, but seek ways to help themselves if they needed. Their discussions took the rest of the morning and afternoon, though Anna did take some breaks to practice swimming with the help of some of the other mermaids. She was determined to strengthen her petite frame and keep up with the others. When the evening came, they heard Gretchen’s voice through the speakers.
“Dinner time! Get to your places!”
They all swam to the back wall and lined up against the clamps, which closed around their necks and tails. Then the wall raised and the pool cover opened, but they couldn’t see Gretchen. Renna heard Gretchen approach her from behind.
“Hold your arms out to your sides, Renna.” Said the trainer.
Renna was a little startled by the touch of a pair of scissors to her shoulder. Gretchen cut through the shoulder straps and the side of Renna’s top and pulled it off.
“Mr. Ruiz doesn’t want anything to block his view of your assets.” Commented Gretchen.
She continued down the line of mermaids, removing all of their swimsuit tops. When she was done, Gretchen brought them more energy bars and drinks from the hose. They all ate and drank their fill. When they were done, Gretchen sat on the stool and gave them their instructions for the evening.
“Mr. Ruiz doesn’t have any guest tonight, so he will be dining alone. He’s not interested in the boys, so they will stay clamped to the wall. You girls will be released and I want you to swim around near the front window of the pool so that the boss can enjoy the scenery while he eats. Once he leaves the table, it will be bedtime and I’ll call you back here to sleep. Understand?”
Unable to reply vocally, they nodded their heads as much as they could. Then Gretchen activated her remote and the clamps opened for all the mermaids. They swam toward the front of the pool as instructed. With people watching, they didn’t use their sign language. They just swam back and forth in front of the window. A few minutes later, they saw Carlos enter the room, easily recognizable by his silk shirt and be-ringed hands. A young woman followed him, dressed in white tights and a pink leotard with a very short pink skirt. She was carrying a tray with a plate, cup and silverware, and she set a place at the center table for him. He watched with interest as the mermaids swam around the pool in front of him. The young woman left and then came back carrying a tray of food. She poured a drink into the cup and spooned the food onto the plate, then set her tray down on one of the other tables and stood behind Carlos in case he needed something else.
Carlos ate a long, leisurely meal, watching the mermaids intently as they swam back and forth in front of him. The mermaids watched him back, but there wasn’t much to see other than the one or two times when he signaled his waitress to freshen his drink. At last he left, the young woman staying behind to clean up his place setting. A few minutes later, Gretchen called them all back to the wall and told them it was bedtime. Clamps in place, the wall rotated back up into position. Then Gretchen went down the row of mermaids and changed the discs in their breathing collars. Finally, she turned off the lights and told them to sleep well.
“We will have much work to do tomorrow. I have your performance choreographed and we will begin to practice in earnest.”
Gretchen turned out the lights and left the room. Once again they could hear the waves of the sea when she opened the door. They all found sleep difficult in their restrained position, but they eventually rested. When the morning came, Gretchen came into the room and opened the pool cover all the way, but did not speak to or release the mermaids. A couple of men in scuba gear came in after her and swam down to the center of the pool, carrying a piece of artificial coral in the shape of an inverted “L.” As they worked to bolt the new decoration down, Gretchen fed the mermaids their ration bar breakfast. She waited until the workmen were done to lower the mermaids into the pool and release them. Once she was down in front of the glass where she could see them, Gretchen had Fernando swim over to the new decoration and she used her remote to coil his tail around it. Then she started the mermaids practicing their new routine. At first, she just wanted to run through the whole performance so they would get an idea of how it went. It was much like a synchronized swimming routine or a Broadway dance number, with the mermaids swimming in time with music and coordinating their moves together. It was very athletic, requiring flips and spins under the water. Allen and Fernando found that their parts were very small. For the majority of the time they simply hung around in the center of the pool while the mermaids swam and danced in front of them. Near the end of the half-hour show, they were finally incorporated.
The segment started with Allen swimming out to the front and center and swimming up to the top of the pool, as if he were displaying himself. Then Renna approached him, swimming around him to see what he looked like. The other mermaids also swam around at a slightly farther distance, hanging back to see what Renna did. Apparently satisfied, Renna next swam up to Allen and gave him a kiss. When their lips touched, Allen blew up like a balloon and floated to the top of the pool while Renna and the other mermaids pull back in alarm and surprise. The mermaids swam around as if disoriented for a time, and then Renna “discovered” Fernando. She swam around him, checking him out and finally approached and gave him a kiss. This time, there is no surprise and Fernando was instructed to return the kiss enthusiastically. Then Gretchen had Renna pretend to lay an egg and had her place it in Fernando’s pouch.
“We’ll work out something that actually looks like an egg later.” She told them.
Following Renna, Gretchen had Lacy, Katherine, and Audra also kiss Fernando and pretend to put an egg in his pouch. During this time, Allen had been gradually deflating. At this point he was to swim out to the center again and catch the attention of the remaining mermaids. After a short dance sequence, Anna would be convinced to try Allen out, and she would kiss him, whereupon he would inflate again. The sequence with Fernando would then be repeated, with the remaining four mermaids kissing him and giving him an egg. At the very end, Fernando would open his pouch and a series of fish would swim out.
When they got to the end of the first run-through, Katherine swam to the front of the tank and pantomimed kissing, then pointed to Allen. When Gretchen didn’t seem to respond, She swam over to Allen and gave him a firm kiss, then pointed at herself and Allen.
“Oh, you want to be the one who first kisses Allen, instead of Renna?” Gretchen asked.
Katherine vigorously nodded her head.
“No, I’m sorry. I will do my own casting. Do you want to complain?” Gretchen said, with her finger hovering over the remote in her hand.
Katherine backed away, bowing her head in disappointment. The practice continued, with Gretchen now concentrating on the first few moves, having the mermaids repeat them over and over as they tried to synchronize their movements with each other and with the music. The practice lasted for four hours, and by the time they were done, Anna could hardly move. Even the other mermaids were tired. After Gretchen left, they all kind of collapsed to the floor of the pool. Allen and Fernando were not nearly as worn out, so they investigated their prison. Allen went to one of the clamps and looked at it closely, hoping to understand how it worked. The two half-circles of steel were connected to flat sections at the back that passed through a rubber gasket to the mechanism behind the wall. Allen pushed on one half of the clamp and felt resistance. There must be springs behind the wall, he thought. And a solenoid to press the clamp closed. But how did the clamps stay closed? Did they continue to apply power to the solenoid, or was there some latching mechanism that held it in place? He decided to pay close attention when they were locked in place for the night.
That evening went the same as the one before, with Carlos eating dinner and the mermaids swimming around for his entertainment. The only difference was in the young woman serving him, as this night her leotard and skirt were yellow instead of pink. When Allen backed into his clamps that evening, he listened very carefully to see if he could hear a latch clicking into place, but it was very hard to distinguish the various sounds he could hear as the clamp locked. Was that little clink at the end a latch, or some other mechanical component moving behind the wall? Allen tried to move his neck from side to side to see if his clamp moved or jiggled, but if there was any movement there it was very slight. The next day after their practice time, Allen used his sign language to ask the mermaids to feel their neck clamps. Was there any give to them after they locked? Or were the held firmly together? If it was the latter, then there was some kind of mechanical locking mechanism back there. Allen wasn’t sure how that would help them, but he had a feeling it would be good to know.
That evening Gretchen gave them orange juice to drink in addition to their ration bar and water.
“We wouldn’t want our mermaids to get scurvy.” She told them.
She handed each of the female mermaids a glass of orange juice, but for Allen and Fernando, she had two large baby bottles made up. As had been her habit, she sat on the pool cover and hand fed half a ration bar to each of them. Then she held up the bottles of orange juice so that they could drink. When they were done, she patted them on their heads.
“Such good little boys. I’m so glad you finished your din-din!” She said. Then she leaned back and lifted her feet up, using the tops of her feet to caress each man on the cheek before she stood up and left for the night.
After practice the next day, Allen used his improving sign language to ask about the clamps.
“DID YOU FEEL THE CLAMPS?” He signed to Katherine.
“DID THEY MOVE AT ALL? DID IT FEEL LIKE A STRONG SPRING OR LIKE A HARD STOP?”
“THEY MOVED A TINY BIT, AND THEN STOPPED FIRMLY.”
“THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT MIGHT HAPPEN. THERE MUST BE A MECHANICAL CATCH BACK THERE THAT HOLDS THEM CLOSED.”
Now if only Allen could figure out what to do with the information.