Beep. Beep. Beep.
My nose scrunches and I moan softly, disturbed by the incessant beeping. What is that? I crack open my eyelids and my vision is instantly assaulted by a harsh light overhead. I blink rapidly to adjust to the bright room. I freeze. This isn't my bedroom and it's certainly not my bed. I turn my head to the side. The walls are concrete, a basement?, and chalk white. I'm lying on a metal table and my headache is rapidly growing more noticeable. I go to move off the table when I learn I am unable to move at all. It's then that I become aware to the feeling of rough leather chafing the skin of my wrists and ankles; both of which are secured to the table.
Panic begins to build inside me, rising in a heavy lump in my throat. I shiver against the draft in the room. It doesn't take me long to realize I'm wearing nothing under the scratchy and thin, hospital style sheet that's draped over my body. Is that where I am? The hospital? Did something happen? Though it doesn't really explain the metal table, it could certainly explain the restraints. Maybe I hit my head and most of this is a hallucination.
There's the click of a door handle being-turned and I just manage to see the door swing open through my peripheral vision. I can't help but pull futilely at my restraints, despite the fact that if I am injured; moving probably isn't helping.
"Relax, there's no need for that," a man's voice says, moments before the owner enters my line of sight. It's an older man, who is balding badly at the front of his scalp. Patches of salt and pepper hair cling around his ears and further back I'd assume. Dark brown eyes are framed by a pair of rectangular, thick-rimmed glasses that look like they're pushed a little further up his nose than they need to be. A clipboard is hugged under one arm.
"Who are you? Where are we? What happened?" My voice is hoarse, but I force the questions out none the less.
"I will explain everything to you, I find keeping people in the loop is so much easier than listening to them fret. All of your questions will receive answers, but first I need you to do something for me. I need you to confirm so information for me, think you can do that?"
I chew the inside of my cheek, but nod.
"Excellent. So we'll start with your name, Katherine Waters, yes? Middle name Loraine?"
"Yes," I reply. "But I prefer Katie."
The man grunts in acknowledgement. "How old are you?"
"Sixteen as of yesterday." I think. What day is it?
"I would presume you mean Tuesday, you've been asleep for the past twenty-four hours. Your biological parents are not in the picture correct, one diseased, the other-"
"Not in the picture," I acknowledge.
"And your guardian, Sophie Brooks right? Does she know where you were headed the other day?"
"Which was where?"
"The docks by the south beach. I was meeting a client. They hired me for an underwater excursion and photography session. We were supposed to be gone a few days. What happened? Was there an accident? Is that why I'm here?"
The man chuckles and the sound sends chills down my spine. "Oh no, I can assure you, you are in perfect physical and mental health."
"Then why am I here?" A touch of terror enters my voice.
"Relax, did I not promise you answers? If you'll turn your head to the left, you'll see a screen." I comply and sure enough, there's and overhead projector and a screen covering the wall. "This is a high security government research facility, the name of which is not important. We do a lot of different biology and chemistry studies here."
A stone settles in the pit of my stomach. I don't like where this is heading. "Um-"
"Hush. Please, save your questions for the end. Now, six years ago, we made an extraordinary find. One that, when released, will rewrite our history books. An aquatic, humanoid creature."
"Like a mermaid?" I ask skeptically.
"Precisely. It may seem difficult to believe, but, to our complete shock, one childhood fantasy is not so mythical. Now, because of the rare nature of the specimen, we have not been able to publicize any of this information. For all we know it could be the only of its kind. And unless we can find another, a companion, we cannot open an exhibit without getting hell from environmentalists, and we cannot release it due to its time already in captivity and the fact that it could be critically endangered and is better off in our care. So, we are faced with a dilemma that, until recently, was unsolvable. But we are in luck. Over the past two years we have been extracting DNA from our aquatic friend in a safe manor that leaves no permanent damage to the host. We have been experimenting with cross-genetics and have been quite successful with many of our specimens. You see, if we cannot locate another merperson, for lack of better term, then we plan to create one. And we've perfected the formula. Now all that's left is to graft the new DNA into a host. A human host. That, my dear, is where you come in."
"What?" I exclaim.
"Calm down, I assure you it has been tested with human subjects before. Coma patients with zero chance of survival and the body takes to the procedure quite well. You are in no danger." Images flash across the screen, showing mice and other animals through this apparent procedure. Each develops a grotesque looking version of a fish tail, many mutilated beyond belief. When he gets to the human attempts, I watch, dumfounded, as three coma patients are put through the procedure. The images flash by rapidly, showing the change overtime. The tails… there's no doubt in my mind that they are real. And that's what frightens me.
I wet my lips. "Why? Why do you want to make me… that," I ask in a shaky voice as I try desperately not to panic. Keep him talking. Give myself time to think.
"Did I not make that clear?" He inquires. "Or is it that it is clear to you and we are about to start the 'why me' stage of this conversation where you tell me I'll never get away with it, like I'm a villain in a film, and then dissolve into pleas to release you once you release that I will?"
"What makes you think you will?" I demand, knowing I'm likely to regret asking. "Sophie will notice I'm missing."
"Several reasons. Firstly, we are secretly funded and supported by the government, I don't have to worry about cops knocking at our door. Secondly, we were very thorough. Yesterday afternoon, two men in uniform showed up at the marine park your Sophie runs. They told her the news." He holds up a photo of a covered corpse, strands of brown-blonde hair sticking out, as well as a single lock of purple; the same shade as the one in my hair. "About the hit and run accident. Drunk driver. How her beloved adoptive daughter was hit, didn't survive. They offered her the comfort that you died quickly. Dentals and medical records of some bone restructuring after a nasty break confirmed the identity. Katherine Waters is dead. It also helps that I chose a subject who resided on the opposite side of the world. Welcome to the U.S. Miss Waters." He leans in close. "And the final reason, just in case that wasn't enough; within the next twelve hours, the effects will not only be irreversible, but also to a point where, even if we were interrupted and you were magically saved, you would want to continue." He shows me another photo of a women with malformed legs, only fused from the ankles down, with her feet cardboard thin and elongated, the skin twisted and warped. "This is the state of the transformation after twelve hours. The procedure takes roughly sixty hours to complete. "By this point, would you want us to finish what we started?"
I turn away and squeeze my eyes shut against the tears that begin to roll down my cheeks. "So that's it then? No way out?"
"No," he replies curtly. "Though I will admit, you are holding up better than I thought you would. You are not going to start begging now are you?"
"I don't see the point," I answer, swallowing the lump in my throat. "Unless there is a way for me to stop it?"
"Again, no. So if that's that, we might as well get started." He pulls a small trolley over. It's filled with medical supplies.
"Wait!" I beg, my resolve slipping. He arches an eyebrow. "Will you walk me through it? Before you start will you tell me what's going to happen? Please?"
The man sighs and runs his hand over the bare skin of his head. "I suppose." He brings more images up onto the screen. "It will start with your feet. The bones will dissolve and they will merge and stretch out, but it isn't until later on that they actually begin to take the shape of the fin. Your eyes will develop a watery over layer, barely noticeable unless you look closely; it will help you see clearly underwater. The jaw is next. It will shift to accommodate the new sizing of your teeth, which will get stronger. The eyeteeth will sharpen into powerful fangs that will actually return to a normal state. We have yet to determine if this is at will, fueled by emotion, or a reflex like a cat's claws," he begins. "You will develop gills here," he touches the side of my neck just behind my jawbone below my ear.
"So I won't be able to surface again?" I ask.
"No, no, for some reason we have yet to determine; the gills, much like the fangs, fade away when not in use. They will merge with your skin when you're above the water. Our specimen has a fully functional set of lungs, so you will be able to breathe freely in both environments. You will of course grow scales on your chest and on the tail once it has fully formed. By this point your fin will have taken shape and become functional, so the scales are the final transition."
"Yes. You will be awake during the transition. Well, not the whole thing, you will sleep, but I am only going to sedate you in the beginning to make applying IV's and such, faster, easier, and a little more comfortable for you. While you're awake, you will be fully provided for, your body kept healthy and hydrated. I doubt you'll care much for entertainment, though I was planning to allow you to watch the transformation through a mirror. Your choice. Before we begin, do you have any allergies or sensitivities, especially to chemicals? I suggest you speak up because it will determine whether or not you survive."
"I don't think so. I've never been tested or anything, but I've never had an allergic reaction to anything either."
"Hmm, we'll keep a monitor on your systems then."
"Does it hurt?" The question slips out. I can't stop this.
"We won't know for sure, after all the only human subjects have had little brain activity, but from scans we have learned that there is discomfort for most of it, perhaps twinges. As far as we know the only significantly painful part will be when your legs merge. This is probably because it is the most intense part as well. The pain isn't enough to kill you though, if that's what you're worried about."
"What happens after?"
"You adjust. Like I said, Katherine Waters is dead, and once your transformation is complete, you'll no longer be human. I don't know how it will affect your mind or your ability to speak, but it won't matter because you won't need to."
"So in other words you plan to make me like an animal at the zoo? I don't get it, why not just hire somebody for this? I'm sure you'd get plenty of volunteers and it would be less of a hassle."
"Actually it would be more of one. Hiring someone means contracts, and payouts, and lawyers, and restrictions and conditions, really this is easier. This way, all I have to deal with is making a person disappear. That's done and now I can do what I want with you." He pats my head. "But don't worry too much; we'll take good care of you. Really, I don't see the issue. You'll have free food and accommodations, a unique new body, full medical care, and you'll never have to go to school or work. You can live a laid-back life. We don't need to use you for experiments beyond some basic observations and scans. The only thing we'll expect from you is to behave. Put on a pretty smile for the crowds when we open the attraction."
"Well I don't want it. I just want to go home to Sophie," my voice cracks a little.
"You don't get a choice in the matter, remember? Now enough chatter, it's high time we got started." He drapes a hospital style gown across my chest. "Now I'm going to let you up. You're going to put that on and we are going to go down the hall and get you prepped. I've been kind enough to ensure that you'll be prepped by women, since you will lose that robe very soon. You aren't going to give me a hard time or you'll seriously regret the punishments that will come with it. I have zero tolerance, you understand?"
"Yes," I sniff. I hate showing him weakness, but I can't stop the tears that fall from the corners of my eyes. He unlatches the cuffs holding me down and moves to face the door. I sit up and slip the hospital gown over my head. It falls to my knees, but does little to keep me warm. I walk over to him, my eyes scanning for a way out.
"Don't bother. We are fourteen floors underground. The elevator's lowest level is two floors above us. Every guard in the facility knows your face as is on the lookout for you. Each stairwell is heavily guarded. All the guards are carrying Tasers and stun-guns, designed to painfully subdue, but not kill. Then you'll have to deal with punishment after that."
"I get it," I retort. "No escaping."
"Watch your tongue. Don't make me decide to cut it out." He opens the door and presses a hand into the small of my back, forcing me forward. The halls are all the same, white cement lit by caged bulbs in the ceiling. He leads me to the end of the hall and pushes me into the room. It looks like a typical doctor's office. A sink and many cupboards line the one wall, an examination bed is against another, and there's a door leading to a smaller room off to the side. It lacks typical medical posters and such though. Two women are waiting inside. One older, her shoulder length hair is fully grey and her calculating brown eyes scare me. The other woman is much younger. She looks to be in her early twenties. Her black hair is pulled into a simple ponytail. She looks friendlier, but I know she won't help me. Probably can't.
"You know what to do?" The man behind me asks.
"Of course, now leave her and let us do our job," the older woman retorts. There's a grunt in response before the man departs. "Take her."
The other woman steps forward and grabs my upper arm. Her grip is firm, but gentle. "Come on," she says as she leads me to the side room. It's a small barren bathroom. A toilet, a roll of toilet paper on a hook, a small metal sink, and a showerhead with a drain in the far corner. I glance at the woman expectantly. She nods towards the toilet. "They don't want anything in your systems before they begin, so unless you want a catheter, I suggest you go now." I blush slightly.
"You'll be getting an enema in a few minutes."
"I have to go prepare that. I trust you'll be okay in here?" I nod. She leaves the room and I turn and glance over the room. Fear grips my heart and I pinch myself, just in case it's a dream. No such luck. I feel my lip quiver and I bite it, hard. I swallow the lump in my throat and fight back tears; crying won't help me. I may not be able to stop this, but I'm not going to make it worse on myself. Lie low and wait for an opportunity. It's the only plan I've got.
I'm tying the sash closed on my gown when the woman walks back in. She sets a small bottle on the counter and I hesitate at the nozzle on it. I've had an enema before, once, when I was younger and I know it's not pleasant.
"Don't bother with the sash," the woman says. "You have to take it off now anyways."
"Do I have to?" I ask, my voice cracking.
She nods as she unrolls a towel on the floor. "Yes. Come on." She reaches for me and I take a step back, hugging my shoulders. "You might as well get it done and over with," she advises. "Stalling won't help you, you know that." A sob escapes me and I move further away from her. She stands up and pulls me against her. "Shh, I know. I know you're scared, but keeping them waiting won't help you any. I wish I could help you, this is wrong, but we're both stuck."
"I don't want to do this," I whisper.
"I know." She pulls me over to the towel. Her fingers pull open the sash and I don't fight as she opens the gown and lets it fall to the floor. "I need you to lie down on your side." I take a deep breath and wipe my nose on my arm before I sit down on the towel. Another deep breath and I stretch out on my side. "Curl up, okay? Your knees need to touch your chest."
I slowly comply to her request. I hear the snap of thin plastic gloves as she pulls them on, feel them as she touches my thigh. I flinch and try to pull away. "Please, don't."
"Relax, it's going to be okay. Have you ever had one of these before?"
"Once. I was younger though. It hurt."
"I know, this one is a little different though. It's far more powerful. The cramps will hurt more, but it will work much faster and the pain will fade more quickly." I feel the tip of the nozzle against my skin and panic.
"No, wait, please!"
"I can't sweetie, but let's talk. Keep your mind off it. What's your name?"
"Katie," I whisper, wincing. "But I suppose that doesn't matter. They'll probably call me something different now, if they call me anything at all, right?"
"Yes, they are giving you a new name, but I figured you might want someone to know your real one. I don't want to hurt you, Katie. I wish things were different. It might not mean much, but I put in a request to be one of your handlers. That way you'll have someone who still looks at you as a person. The tail shouldn't change that. I doubt my chances are high, but I tried."
"Thank you," I whisper. "You said they were giving me a new name. Do you know what it is?"
"Not for certain, but I know they were debating between Aqua and Bailey, but they could have picked another."
"Hopefully Bailey, Aqua sounds stupid."
"Yeah, I suppose it does," she agrees. My stomach make a strange growling noise and I feel it begin to cramp up. "You raising a bear or something?" The woman teases. I let out a small laugh, but it ends in a sob.
"Not that I know of."
She rubs my back gently. "It's going to be okay."
I wince as the older woman jabs another needle into my arm. This is the fifth one and my arm is starting to bruise. She hasn't spoken a word to me, or even met my gaze, just gone about her task quickly and as though I can't actually feel the needles she's practically ramming into my arm. I know this is likely how I'm going to be treated for the rest of my life and the knowledge makes my heart clench.
"There," the woman states as she sets down the empty syringe. She moves away and comes back with a glass. She shoves it into my hands and barks out a single word command. "Drink."
The liquid is thick and yellow and has a horribly pungent odour. "What is this?" I ask.
Jenny, the younger woman, answers me, "it's to make you throw up," she explains. "In case there was anything in your stomach, but I don't see the point since you haven't eaten in the past twenty-four hours at least. Just drink it okay?"
I nod, take a deep breath, and tip back the glass. The liquid tastes just a foul as it smells and I gag on it, but manage to choke down a few mouthfuls. Jenny takes the glass from me and offers me an encouraging smile. Then she hands me a tin bucket. I wait a few seconds but nothing happens. "Are you sure this stuff-" I break off as my stomach lurches. Suddenly the liquid is coming back up along with a fair amount of bile.
Jenny peels my hair away from my face. "Yes, I'm sure that it works."
I groan as my stomach flips again. There's nothing left to come up though, and I spend the next couple of minutes dry heaving. When my stomach finally settles I wipe the corner of my mouth, my chest heaving. Jenny takes the bucket from me and hands me back the hospital gown. I put it back on, grateful to be covered up. She pulls me to my feet.
"Come on," she says. "It's almost time." My stomach begins to twist itself into a huge knot inside of me as she leads me down the hall. She pulls open the door to a stairwell, nodding at the guard seated there, and ushers me up. We go down another hall, up another flight of stairs, and into the elevator.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"Ground level three," she replies. "The operation room has been prepared for you."
"You aren't actually going to cut me open or anything right?" I ask in a pleading tone.
"No, the procedure doesn't require surgery and I don't think they plan on opening you up later. You're forgetting that you're going to be specimen number two. And they've had number one to play with for six years. I think they've learned all they are going to about the insides."
The elevator door slides open and Jenny continues walking. I hurry to follow her, not wanting to be caught alone after the warning I received earlier. This area is much, much busier, with scientists and others bustling about. The walls are still white, but are tiled and there's a large window allowing sunlight to spill into the massive floor. I pause briefly, wondering if I'll ever see outside again.
We pass a huge tank as we walk. A brief glance over the rail tells me it reaches the main ground floor and extends up at least another two floors. The crystalline water is abundant with small reef fish, swaying kelp, and colorful coral. I stare through the glass, glancing around to see if I can catch sight of the merperson. Jenny puts her hand on my shoulder, startling me. "She's not in there. They can't have her in a public tank remember? Not by herself," she gives me a tug and we resume walking. "You know, that's the only descent thing about this whole situation. At least she won't be alone anymore."
"What is she like?" I inquire, suddenly curious about the person who is likely my new roommate for the rest of my life.
"I've never actually met her, not personally anyways, I've seen her being transferred around, occasionally caught a glimpse walking by a room, but she's kept in a restricted part of the building. I don't have clearance."
"Oh." Jenny leads me through a set of double doors into a wide room. It has small plastic chairs and leads off into three separate rooms, all with closed steel doors. I know instantly that I'm wanted inside one of those rooms. Terror floods my senses and I take a few steps backwards and shake my head. "No," I whisper. "No, I can't do this. I have to-" I don't bother finishing as I turn and try to bolt back through the door. Jenny grabs my arms, pulls me back, and hugs me to her tightly.
"Calm down," she orders.
"No, let go, please I cannot do this," I beg, a sob leaving my throat. "Don't take me in there; please don't let them do this."
Jenny rubs my back. "Get your head back Katie, relax. It's going to be okay. You can't stop it; you know that. Don't make it harder on yourself. I don't want to restrain you. Please don't force it to come to that. Take a minute, okay? Relax, breathe, and then we'll go in there. They aren't going to jump you the second you walk in, so relax."
Easier said than done, still, I know I can't win this fight and that Jenny is right, I need to relax. I take a couple of deep breaths and slump against her. "I'm scared, I don't want to do this."
"I know, sweetheart, and believe me; if it were up to me, I would walk you to the front door and turn the other way, but I can't. Do you think you're okay enough to go inside now?"
I hesitate, but nod and allow her to lead me to the middle door. She swipes a card and a small light flashes green. She opens the door and brings me inside. The room is small and has a conjoining door off to the side of a giant mirror. One-way glass. So they can watch. I swallow the lump in my throat. The guy from earlier is in the room, along with a man who looks more like an assistant.
"She's all ready to go?" The scientist asks. Jenny nods.
"Go sit down," she tells me, nodding to the hospital bed. The metal rail that runs around it is already equipped with restraints. I shudder, but take a seat on the edge of the mattress.
"Good, let's get started then."
"Wait," Jenny says. "Look, I know this might be a little out of line, but-" she pauses. "She has been very good about all of this. Far better than we could expect anyone to hold up, given the circumstances, especially someone so young. She hasn't thrown any fits, tried to bolt, or given us a hard time. Mild hesitation, yes, but nothing more. I don't think that should go unrewarded. Just as bad behavior shouldn't go unpunished."
"I suppose you're right. What are you suggesting?"
Jenny turns to me. "If you could ask for anything right now, other than to be let go, what would it be?"
"To say goodbye," I whisper. "To Sophie. If I'm never going to see her again, can I at least call her? Say goodbye?"
"That would be impossible, considering you're dead, remember?" The scientist states. "Pick something else. Perhaps you'd like to be sedated the whole process, or given some form of entertainment?"
"You mentioned that I'm supposed to have caretakers or something?"
"Handlers," I'm corrected.
"Right, handlers. Can Jenny be one of them? Please?" I beg. I meet her gaze. "Stay with me?"
"I don't tend to make staff changes par request like this," the scientist mutters.
"Please? I promise, I won't cause trouble," I beg. I want this. I want to be around someone who will see me as an individual, as a person.
The man sighs. "It would be up to you, Miss Barnes. The hours are much longer than your current position, far more taxing, and you'd have to be on call at any hour. Despite all that, the pay upgrade is very small."
"Yeah, I'll do it," Jenny says.
"Then we'll see about getting you training. Leave for now. I would actually like to get started now." Jenny nods and meets my gaze briefly before she heads outside. "Remove that gown," I'm ordered. I blush but slip out of it none the less. I promised not to be difficult and I don't want to cross this man. "Now lie down." My head has barely hit the small pillow when the assistant has pulled my wrists into the restraints, locking me down. My legs are left free, but I suppose they have to be. A tear slides down my cheek. This is it. I'm about to lose everything in the eyes of these people and become a simply animal. A money grab. And a freak of nature. The scientist approaches with a needle. He says nothing to me as he shoves it into my arm.
Black spots dance in my vision as he moves away. I fight to remain conscious for a few minutes before I lose and slip into a forced sleep.