Once the show was over, Gretchen instructed the mermaids to continue swimming around and looking pretty. They watched the guests continue to eat and chat until their plates were taken away. Carlos and his guest seemed to be involved in an intense conversation, and apparently their subject did not make the woman sitting with them very happy, as she pouted and turned away from the two men. As the conversation continued, the other guests seemed to be getting bored, until the man at Carlos’s table made a dismissing motion with his hand. Carlos followed up by speaking to the servants, and soon the other guests were escorted back out of the room. The serving women quickly cleared the other tables and all but one of them left the room as well. Gretchen stayed, seated by herself at a table in the far corner of the room. After a few more minutes of conversation, Carlos signaled to Gretchen, who walked over to stand next to him. He spoke a few words to her, and she put her headset on and issued some commands.
“I need Katherine and Daphne to come to the center of the window. The rest of you go get into your clamps.” Gretchen ordered.
The two men turned to fully face the pool as the mermaids obeyed. Katherine and Daphne held their position in the center of the window so the men could look at them closely. The guest seemed to be very interested. Carlos made a circling motion with his hand, and Gretchen told the two mermaids to twirl around. They each made a slow revolution with the guest watching intently. He spoke to Carlos for a moment more, and Carlos spoke to Gretchen, who relayed their command.
“Lift up your flaps.” She told them.
Although they had become used to Carlos staring at them, this request startled the two women. They hesitated for a moment, but then lifted up their flaps to show the man what he wanted to see. He looked intently for a minute or two, then Gretchen told them they could lower their flaps again. The two men continued to talk for a time, and Katherine noticed Carlos make scissors motions with his fingers. At last the two men finished and walked out of the room, followed by Gretchen, who told Katherine and Daphne to get into their clamps first. A few minutes later, Gretchen entered the pool room and rotated the mermaids up into their eating and sleeping position. She was still in her black dress, but she had apparently kicked off her shoes before entering. She walked in front of the mermaids and crouched down.
“The performance was a great success, though I noticed one or two mistakes.” She said. “General Pak seemed quite taken with you, especially Katherine and Daphne. Now, let’s get your dinner.”
She brought the usual ration bars and water, supplemented with orange juice. Allen was almost ashamed at how eagerly he sucked the juice from the bottle as Gretchen held it for him, but the occasional juice treat was one of the few bright moments in their days of captivity. Gretchen still sat on the pool cover for the feeding, though the bottom of her dress got wet with pool water. Even though it meant getting her pantyhose wet, she still rubbed Allen and Fernando on the shoulders and neck with her feet while she gave them their food and orange juice.
“Get a good night’s rest.” Gretchen told them all when she was done. “The guests will be here tomorrow night for an encore performance. No splashing this time.”
Before leaving, Gretchen lowered the wall slightly until their heads were under water, then activated the pool cover, closing it completely. There would be no nighttime excursions that night. Since the guests were still present, Audra did not practice opening her neck clamp. Instead she tried to get rest as ordered. The next day went pretty much the same, with an all-day practice followed by a short rest before the performance. Fewer guests filed in this time. There were two couples who sat at one table and Carlos sat at the other with the same Asian man and woman from the day before. Gretchen still sat at a table in the corner, dressed in green this time. Once again the mermaids were told to swim around and look pretty until the main course was served, and then they began their performance. With the extra day’s practice, their performance had fewer hiccups this time, and they all felt pretty good about how well it went. Carlos’s main guest didn’t even pretend to talk business during the performance this time, instead turning his chair so he could watch the whole thing attentively. Once the dancing was done, the man turned to his dinner and ate. This time all of the guests and Carlos left at the same time, and Gretchen sent the mermaids to their places on the wall.
Gretchen gave them juice for a second night in a row.
“You all performed very well today. I am very proud of you.” She said when they were done eating. “Carlos and his guests will be leaving tomorrow, so we will have a few days rest from performing. That will give us time to practice a second routine in case we have two nights in a row again. I have not forgotten the splashing incident, so there will be no breakfast tomorrow. But I will still give you water to drink—I need you to stay healthy for Mr. Ruiz.”
Gretchen closed the pool cover all the way again. Apparently this was going to be the new normal. Did she suspect more than just splashing? Audra had the length of broken off filament, and she spent that night practicing the technique to open her neck clamp. She spent several hours learning where to insert the filament under the gasket behind her neck and how to twist it just right to lift the hidden catch. Each time her neck clamp released she closed it again and went back to work. When her fingers got so sore that she almost dropped the filament, she finally had to stop, and she wasn’t yet consistent enough to try an escape. Allen patted her hand and made a thumbs-up sign to indicate that it was OK. They could go a few more days while she got it right. Audra hid the filament under her flap and went to sleep.
They went without breakfast that day, and Gretchen introduced some new routines for them to practice. They were all grateful when she left them alone for the afternoon. That evening and for the next few nights Audra continued to practice releasing her neck clamp. At last she felt like she was ready, and the mermaids all agreed that they would try their escape in the morning. They were disappointed when Gretchen told them that Mr. Ruiz was back and they needed to swim around while he ate, but they were still determined to make their attempt. When Gretchen came to feed them dinner that evening, she seemed strangely subdued. Instead of her usual foot games while feeding Allen and Fernando, she just gave them their food and water and stared off into space. Then she sat down on the pool cover and cupped Katherine’s cheek in her hand.
“You are a pretty one my dear.” She said, sighing. Then she stood up and announced. “And you will all be getting a special treat tonight. Tomato juice!”
Though Allen had never been fond of tomato juice, he guzzled down his bottle, happy for anything different than the usual fare. Since this was the night before their planned escape, he tried to stay awake, but he found that his eyes were extremely heavy and he soon fell into a deep sleep. It was nearly morning when he woke suddenly at the touch of Audra’s hand. She had opened her neck clamp and was getting ready to release her tail clamp. He squeezed her fingers to indicate he was aware of her. Audra continued her work and soon had her tail clamp released. With her tail free, she put her neck back in its clamp and closed it, then waited for morning. It didn’t take long—apparently they had all slept through most of the night. Once the lights came on and the pool cover opened, a ripple of shock spread through the mermaids. There was a gap between Lacy and Carla where Katherine used to be. As each mermaid noticed the missing member of their group, they splashed or reached out to the mermaid beside her to communicate the news. When she understood what had happened, Audra splashed some water on Allen. He turned and when he saw the panicked look in her eyes he scanned the row of mermaids and saw the gap in the line. His stomach felt like it was full of lead, and his heart started pounding. He thrashed back and forth but was held in place by the clamps.
“I understand.” Gretchen said, leaning down and patting Allen’s head. “It was distressing to me as well when Mr. Ruiz told me he had sold Katherine to General Pak. But he promised me that he wouldn’t sell anyone else for a while. I brought some milk to drink, so maybe that will help you feel a little bit better.”
Gretchen got up and handed out the ration bars. Audra watched as Gretchen fed Allen and Fernando, waiting patiently until they were done with the bars and Gretchen came back with the milk. Audra drank it very quickly and then slowly raised her hand up behind her neck. As usual, Gretchen sat on the pool cover and held bottles for Allen and Fernando, rubbing them on the neck with her feet as she did. This time Allen turned his head into her toes, as if seeking comfort even in that demeaning touch. Gretchen leaned forward a little, and then Audra made her move. She used the filament to release her neck clamp, and then with a powerful kick of her tail she raised herself out of the water. She grabbed Gretchen’s left arm and pulled, causing her to fall forward into the water. Gretchen kicked with her feet and tried to punch Audra with her free arm. She started to call out, but Audra pulled her under the water before she could make a sound other than a startled yell. Gretchen was a large and strong woman, and it was hard for Audra to hold onto her as she fought desperately, but Audra had been swimming hard every day for months and she was very strong as well. She held on to Gretchen’s left hand and dove deep with powerful kicks of her tail.
Gretchen changed strategies, giving up on pulling away from Audra. Instead she reached into the top of her swimsuit and pulled out the remote she had stashed in her bra. Seeing her, Audra let go with one hand and pulled with the other to bring Gretchen close so she could try and grab the remote. She did not succeed in getting it, but she did manage to knock it out of Gretchen’s hand. It drifted down to the bottom of the pool. With Audra holding only one hand, Gretchen saw her chance and yanked hard on her left hand, trying to break Audra’s grip. She almost succeeded, but as Gretchen yanked, Audra propelled herself closer and wrapped her left arm around Gretchen’s neck. Their struggles soon exhausted Gretchen’s supply of oxygen, and she panicked as her lungs strained to breathe. Audra held on tight until Gretchen went limp, then quickly swam back towards the wall, pulling Gretchen up over the edge and lining her neck up with Audra’s neck clamp. As Gretchen gasped for air, Audra closed the clamp. Now that Gretchen was able to breathe, she recovered slightly and started to scream and claw at the neck clamp, kicking her feet. Audra took her filament and released Daphne.
“FIND SOMETHING TO SHUT HER UP.” Audra signed to Daphne.
Then Audra released Maria and motioned for her to come help. They swam down to Gretchen’s thrashing legs and each caught one leg. Despite Gretchen’s struggles, they were able to pull the legs together and down into the tail clamp, then close the clamp around them. Without the material of the tail to pad them, there was room around Gretchen’s ankles, but it appeared it would take some careful maneuvering to get them out of the clamp. In her current panicked state, it didn’t seem like Gretchen would be doing that any time soon.
When Audra and Maria surfaced, Gretchen’s screams were now muffled. Daphne had climbed out of the pool, grabbed Gretchen’s cover-up, and used it to gag their former captor. The three women crawled across the room to the control panel to see if they could use it to release the remaining clamps. Unfortunately, they quickly found that a password was required to activate any of the controls. So Audra got back into the pool and used her filament to release the remaining mermaids and mermen. Daphne swam down and retrieved the remote control, but it appeared to be broken due to being submerged in the water. Once all of the mermaids were out of the pool, they had a quick conference to decide what to do next.
“WE NEED TO FIND THE EXTRA BREATHING DISCS AND TAKE THEM WITH US.” Allen signed.
“THEY ARE IN A BOX IN THE CABINET. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF THEM.” Answered Renna.
“GOOD. THAT MEANS WE CAN BE UNDER WATER FOR A LONG TIME. WILL THEY FIT IN FERNANDO’S POUCH?”
“I THINK SO.” Fernando said.
“WHAT ABOUT CHARGING OUR COLLARS?” Maria asked. “WE’VE ONLY GOT ABOUT 24 HOURS BEFORE THEY STOP WORKING IF WE CAN’T PLUG IN.”
“I HAVE AN IDEA, BUT WE WILL HAVE TO BE LUCKY.” Allen answered.
Fernando pulled his pouch open and they loaded it full of the discs. They all fit, making a large bulge in Fernando’s belly. They also found a bag loaded with thirty or forty of the emergency ration bars. They decided to take that with them. The bridge from the door was extended across the glass, and Carla crawled across it and opened the door. There were no guards in sight on the small stretch of beach behind the pool room, so they all followed Carla out onto the beach. The mermaids were able to crawl pretty well on their hands and knees, though they couldn’t move their knees individually so they needed to lift up with their hands and scoot their knees forward. Allen and Fernando found it much harder to crawl. With their arms trapped at their sides by their body-covering tails, they could only waddle like a walrus, scooting forward a few inches at a time. They made little progress until the other mermaids worked out a way to help them. Maria finally figured out that she could lean down and let Allen grab her shoulder, then raise up on her arms. This lifted Allen off of the ground so that he could scoot forward in time with Maria. Seeing her idea, Daphne let Allen grab her shoulder with the other hand and the three of them were then able to make pretty good progress. Anna and Renna helped Fernando likewise, and soon they were all crawling down the beach to the water. When they got to the water’s edge, Allen looked up and down the beach until he saw what he was looking for. He pointed to the left, where they could see a small dock with a large yacht and several small speedboats tied up to it.
They slipped into the water and crawled out until it got deep enough to use their tails. Then they were able to move much faster. Fernando and Allen each held hands with two other mermaids who helped them to keep up with the much faster women. They swam along the shore until they got close to the dock with the boats. Apparently the alarm had not yet been raised, as the dock and the boats were deserted. Lacy climbed up into the first small boat while the other mermaids waited under the water. She did not find what they were looking for, so she slipped back over the side and tried the next small boat. In this one, she had more luck. As Allen had hoped, the boat had a solar-panel on top. Not only that, but the panel had a charging cord for a fishing sonar attached to it. Lacy pulled the cord out of the sonar and it had a standard charging plug that matched the port in their collars. Lacy found a tool box in the bottom of the boat and got a screwdriver so she could take the solar panel off of the boat. After removing four screws, the panel came off. While Lacy worked on the second boat, Carla climbed into the third. It too had a solar panel, along with two small marine batteries that fit into a waterproof case. The case had an assortment of different charging cords inside for connecting the panel to the batteries and for charging various electronic devices. The two mermaids collected their loot and put it all into the case, then slipped back into the water. Meanwhile, underneath the water, the other mermaids had been pounding on the propellers of the boats with rocks they had found on the bottom.
Once they had their charging equipment, the mermaids swam straight out to sea, getting as far and as deep as they could go before stopping. They finally decided to rest in the shelter of a kelp bed in water about 30 feet deep.
“WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT KATHERINE?” Allen asked the others.
“I DON’T THINK WE CAN DO ANYTHING ALONE. WE NEED TO GET HELP.” Maria answered.
“I AGREE.” Fernando added. “WE NEED TO GET OURSELVES TO SAFETY FIRST, THEN FIND HELP FOR KATHERINE.”
“WHERE SHOULD WE GO?” Asked Anna. “I’M SURE CARLOS WILL HAVE BOATS OUT SEARCHING FOR US SOON.”
“WE HAVE FOOD AND BREATHING DISCS, SO WE CAN GO A LONG WAYS WITHOUT SURFACING. BUT EVENTUALLY WE WILL NEED TO FIND FRESH WATER.” Commented Allen.
Renna added her thoughts: “WE WILL HAVE TO GO TO SHORE FOR WATER. AND I’M SURE THAT IS WHERE CARLOS WILL CONCENTRATE HIS SEARCHES.”
“WE SHOULD SWIM AS FAR AS WE CAN BEFORE HEADING TO SHORE, THEN.”
“AND AS FAST AS WE CAN. MAYBE HE WILL UNDER-ESTIMATE OUR SWIMMING ABILITY.”
“THE PROBLEM IS FERNANDO AND I.” Said Allen. “WE’LL HOLD THE REST OF YOU BACK WITH OUR CLUMSY SWIMMING.”
“IF YOU HOLD OUR HANDS AND KICK WITH YOUR TAILS, WE CAN STILL MOVE VERY QUICKLY.” Carla signed.
“WHICH WAY DO WE GO THEN?”
“THE OBVIOUS DIRECTION IS NORTH. CARLOS SAID WE WERE IN CENTRAL AMERICA.”
“BUT WE STAY AWAY FROM SHORE UNTIL WE HAVE TO GET WATER.”
Their discussion done, the mermaids swam north, keeping the shoreline just barely in sight as a faint smudge on the horizon to their left. They hadn’t gone far before they heard the noise of engines through the water. They risked sending Audra to the surface to see what was making the noise. She saw the yacht moving slowly out to sea, accompanied by a long black cigarette boat. The cigarette boat was following a zig-zag search pattern in front of the yacht, and they were both getting closer. Audra quickly dove to inform the others of what she had seen. The mermaids also began hearing another noise—a regular chirping sound. The regularly spaced high frequency chirps were obviously artificial.
“THEY’RE USING SONAR!” Allen signed.
The mermaids immediately swam harder, staying close to the bottom and trying to get away from the boats following them. Before long, however, the speed boat had caught up to them, and the dark shapes of divers splashed into the water from the sides of the boat. Four men swam down towards the mermaids, each armed with a spear gun. With two mermaids holding the hands of each merman, however, they were much faster than the divers. They continued swimming and easily put some distance between themselves and their pursuers.
The engine noise got louder as the yacht pulled ahead of the mermaids and dropped two divers in front of them. Allen tugged on Renna’s hand and his fingers flew as he explained an idea to her. She tapped Carla on the shoulder and the two of them swam off at a right angle, going very fast and hugging the bottom. The remaining mermaids circled around Allen and Fernando in a defensive posture. The two divers from the yacht were closer, and when they got about 15 feet away from the mermaids they both fired their spear guns. Lacy watched one of the divers aim at her tail, and she twisted and kicked as the harpoon shot towards her. It flashed past underneath her tail. Maria was not as lucky, and the harpoon from the second diver penetrated her tail just above her knees. She looked down at the harpoon in her tail and saw that the harpoon had gone all the way through the tail, grazing the side of her thigh. Blood oozed out around the opening. The barbs on the harpoon had opened up, making it impossible to pull it back out. At the other end of the harpoon was a strong cord that extended back to the diver. Maria expected him to be pulling on the cord, but instead she saw him push the tip of his spear gun into the ground and activate a second trigger. Maria felt a burning pain as the cord was jerked sharply, and then she understood what the diver had done. The diver had driven a stake of some kind deep into the sea floor, and Maria was now tethered to it. She looked at the cord where it connected to the harpoon, hoping there was a knot she could untie, but the rope attachment was an eyelet clamped onto the rope with a metal ferrule. Heart sinking, Maria pulled on the cord, but it did not budge.
Both divers paused to unclip a second harpoon from their belts and load it into their spear guns. The mermaids did not passively wait for them to reload, however. Daphne and Anna reached the diver who had captured Maria just seconds after he pulled the second harpoon from his belt. Daphne swam into him, grabbing him around the body and pushing him backward. He flailed at her with the harpoon. Anna swam over his head and approached him from the back. While the diver was distracted by Daphne, Anna pulled his diving knife out of its sheath on his leg and used it to cut his regulator hose. When the diver felt his air cut off, he stopped trying to pound on Daphne and twisted around to see Anna swimming away with his knife. Daphne let go of him and grabbed his spear gun, jerking it out of his hands. Unarmed and running out of air, the diver released his weight belt and swam for the surface.
The other diver swam backwards to give himself time to reload his spear gun, but he wasn’t nearly as fast as Lacy, who quickly caught up to him. He turned and waved his spear gun in front of him to prevent her from approaching closely. Audra also swam over to him, forcing the man to split his attention between the two mermaids. Whenever one of them would rush closer, however, he would swing his spear gun around like a club and force her to back up. The stalemate continued for what seemed like forever, but was more likely about 30 seconds, before Anna, having finished with the other diver, swam up behind this one to cut his air hose. He felt the water move as she approached and twisted around just as she was ready to slice. He dropped the spear gun and grabbed her wrist, preventing her from achieving her goal. As they struggled, Lacy and Audra joined in the fight, struggling to grab his arms or pull his regulator out of his mouth. The furious struggle ended suddenly when the diver’s hand slipped off of Anna’s wrist. Anna had been pushing hard against the resistance so when his fingers slipped, the knife drove forward, driving deep into the man’s throat. Although they had not intended their attacks to be deadly, the mermaids had no time to regret what had happened. They pulled a second knife out of the dying diver’s leg sheath and turned to see about the divers approaching from behind.
As the mermaids had battled, Fernando had joined Maria. He inspected the harpoon through her tail but could see no way to remove it with only his hands. The wound was not bleeding too badly, so he assumed it was not severe. He stayed near Maria in case any of the divers got through the other mermaids. Allen picked up the spent harpoon that had missed Lacy, ready to use it as a weapon if needed. The four other divers caught up just about when the other two had been dealt with. All of the mermaids gathered together, with two of them holding knives. The four divers held their distance, spreading out and moving around to the sides to surround the escapees. They could hear the thrum of the yacht’s engines as it approached from behind. Would they send more divers?
Suddenly, the divers backed up and there was a splashing sound from overhead. The mermaids looked up to see the web of a large net drifting down upon them. They tried to swim out from under it, but it was too large and was weighted with heavy weights. The netting settled down over the group of mermaids, pulling them down and trapping them against the sea floor. Then the four divers moved back in. Audra was the farthest from the group, so two of the divers approached her first. One of them knelt on her body and held her arms down to keep her from struggling. The other used his spear gun and fired its harpoon through the center of her tail just above her ankles. Audra could feel it scrape along the sides of both her legs as it passed between them. The man then went a few feet away and fired a stake in the ground. Even if she escaped the net, Audra would now be caught, held in place for future collection by Carlos and his goons. The divers moved towards the writhing mass of mermaids in the center of the net, but halted when a crunching noise assaulted their ears. Looking up, they could see that the cigarette boat had rammed into the side of the yacht. Several human forms were splashing in the water, and the two boats were now inextricably entwined and taking on water. The divers signaled to each other for a moment, and then left their captives trapped on the bottom to go see what they could do for their employer and their fellow employees.
While the other mermaids had been battling the divers, Renna and Carla had escaped to one side and then circled around to come up under the cigarette boat. Carla pulled herself up the ladder on the side and flopped into the back of the boat. The driver turned around to see a shivering mermaid, holding her hands up as if begging for mercy.
“One of you decided to give up, eh?” Said the driver.
Carla nodded her head and let tears flow from her eyes. The driver opened a cabinet to retrieve a coil of rope and crouched down in front of Carla to tie her hands together. As he wrapped the rope around her wrists, Renna climbed quietly up the ladder behind him and quickly wrapped her arm around his neck. When he let go of Carla to try and pull Renna’s arm away, Carla pulled back her fist and punched him in the solar plexus with all her might. He went limp for a moment as his body reacted to the shock of the punch, and before he could recover the two mermaids lifted him over the edge of the boat and dumped him in the water. Then Renna went to the pilot’s position and pressed the throttle forward, steering the boat in a course directly for the yacht. Carla grabbed the rope and a spear gun from the bottom of the boat, and Renna grabbed a case that looked like a first aid or emergency kit. They waited a few moments, making sure the yacht did not manage to steer away from the upcoming collision, before they dove over the side and swam down to find their friends.
By the time Renna and Carla had joined the others, Anna and Lacy had managed to cut a hole in the net big enough for them to slip out. The four of them helped the others get out of the net’s embrace, and then they looked to see what could be done for Maria and Audra. The harpoon that hit Maria had only gone through the outer edge of her tail, so it was easily removed by slicing through the side of the tail. For Audra, they had to cut the cord behind the harpoon and slide the harpoon forward all the way through the tail and out. Both Audra and Maria were in considerable pain from the salt water in their wounds, but the water had washed them clean and neither one was now bleeding. The mermaids now had a couple of spear guns as well as some rope, several harpoons, and whatever was in the kit that Renna had taken. They didn’t want to stick around to see what happened with the boats, so they all started swimming again, moving as fast as they could to get away from Carlos and his agents.
They stayed deep, only sending a single scout to the surface occasionally to maintain their distance and bearings. At first, they swam hard, fear driving them to push their bodies to the limit. But an hour or so of that left them exhausted and sore. After resting for a time, they continued swimming at a more sedate pace that they could keep up for longer. From the direction of the sun, it appeared that the shore actually trended northwest, so that is the direction they swam, trying to keep the shore just barely in sight. On one of her jaunts to the surface, Carla saw speedboats cruising up and down the shoreline, but there were no other signs of pursuit. After two or three hours the shore started curving away from them, and their heading changed almost straight west as they followed it.
As they swam, they started to notice a few shadows following them on the seaward side. The shadows grew closer after a few minutes and resolved into a pod of dolphins. The dolphins seemed quite curious about these strangely shaped swimmers and soon they were all around them, swimming up close and staring at them as they swam. After a time, the dolphins backed off, but a small group of them continued to keep pace with the mermaids as they traveled.
After a couple more hours of swimming, Renna noticed what looked like a river entering the sea. They decided to swim closer to shore and see if they could use the river as a source of fresh water. They were all starting to get thirsty after the intense efforts of the day. As they approached the mouth of the river, they could see a few houses tucked into the trees on the south bank of the river, and one or two small docks along the shore. The mouth of the river was about half a mile wide, and there did not appear to be any houses along the northern shore. The mermaids stayed in the center of the river, trying to stay out of sight of anyone along the shore.
Not long after they started their swim into the river waters, Daphne poked her head up to check their location. She came quickly back down and her fingers flew as she told what she had seen.
“A BOAT! THERE IS A BOAT HEADING THIS WAY!”
They all dove deeper and quickly headed back out to sea. After a minute or two they could hear the sound of the motor getting closer, approaching faster than they could swim. They kicked harder, trying to keep ahead of it. They could hear the high pinging sound of the boat’s sonar. Suddenly they were joined by a group of dolphins who seemed to think it was a game. They raced alongside the mermaids, staying even with them as they swam. Several of them would swim to the surface and leap out of the water, then dive back down to join the mermaids again. In a few minutes the boat reached their location and slowed down to circle above them. The dolphins increased their movement, with most of them swimming in a large group around the mermaids, weaving their way in between the swimmers, diving over and under them and generally surrounding them in a constantly moving ball of dolphins. Individual dolphins would swim up to the surface and leap out of the water before returning to the scrum around the mermaids. The dolphins continued this behavior for some time while the mermaids continued swimming farther from the shore. After perhaps fifteen minutes, the dolphin mob suddenly dissipated, swimming away in all directions, though a few seemed to hang around at the periphery of the mermaid’s vision.
“WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?” Signed Audra.
“I THINK THEY WERE PROTECTING US.” Said Daphne.
“LISTEN. THERE’S NO ENGINE NOISE ANY MORE. THE BOAT IS GONE. I THINK THE DOLPHINS WERE HIDING US FROM THE PEOPLE IN THE BOAT. WITH ALL THE DOLPHINS SWIMMING AROUND THEIR SONAR COULDN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US AND THEM.”
“SHOULD SOMEBODY SURFACE AND CHECK?”
“I DON’T THINKS SO. LET’S PUT SOME DISTANCE BETWEEN US AND THE BOAT BEFORE ANYBODY STICKS THEIR HEAD UP.”
The coastline had shifted again and was now oriented almost straight north-south. They swam north for half an hour before Maria poked her head out of the water to see where they were. The coastline seemed to be covered in trees, with no sign of human habitation and no boats in sight. There were also no streams or sources of fresh water in evidence. They kept swimming, sending someone to the surface every half hour or so to check for any indications of a fresh water source. The sun was getting low in the sky when they finally saw another river. They swam cautiously towards it, glad to see the shadows of a few dolphins still keeping tabs on their group. This was a much smaller river than the one they had passed before, and there were no signs of boats or houses along the shoreline. Thick tropical forest lined the banks as far as they could see. They followed the river inland around a bend until they found a large sandbank.
The river was brown and full of sediment. But they were all very thirsty. Audra sat on the sandbank and was about to scoop some water into her mouth when Allen stopped her.
“WAIT A MINUTE.” He signed. “LET ME SHOW YOU A TRICK I READ ABOUT.”
Allen scooted up onto the sandbank and dug a hole down into the sand. When he got about a foot deep, clear water started to seep into the hole. Allen scooted away and soon there were several holes dug all along the sandbank and the mermaids were scooping the water out and drinking thirstily. They also broke out the ration bars and they each ate one. Under Allen’s supervision, they set up the solar panels to catch the rays of the setting sun. With the set of cords in the box, Allen was able to make up two charging cords and hook them to the batteries. Audra and Daphne plugged in their collars for a recharge and they all spent the time before dark signing to each other and making plans for the next day. They opened the box Renna had liberated and found it to be a well-stocked first aid kit, so they used the supplies in the kit to soothe Maria’s and Audra’s injuries. As the sun set, they changed out the discs in their collars and lay down on the sand to sleep. Renna stayed awake to keep watch, trading with one of the others after an hour or two. They also took turns charging their collars from the batteries, switching when they changed who was on watch.