“COME ON, Jo-Jo! Polly! Dinner!”
Marin slapped the surface of the water repeatedly, while with his other hand he dug into a bucket of cold, slimy fish. They slipped between his fingers, but he managed to grab one just as Jo-Jo’s beak broke the surface of the water.
“Good girl! Here ya go!” Marin grinned and tossed the fish into the bottlenose dolphin’s open mouth. He patted Jo-Jo’s light gray head, which felt like a neoprene wet suit, and fed her another fish. “Where’s your sister, huh? Late as usual?”
Polly surfaced at the far end of the pool in the next moment, racing toward Jo-Jo and Marin. Rolling to her side, she used her flipper to push up a wave of water, dousing them both before disappearing beneath the surface again. She popped up a couple of seconds later next to Jo-Jo, her mouth wide open, obviously waiting for Marin to toss a fish inside.
“Funny, Polly.” Marin smirked and wiped his face with his arm. A quick look around told him they were alone in the training area. He chucked a fish in her open mouth and spoke in a series of clicks and squeaks. “Next time you do that, no fish for you. You can bloody well eat your own tail before I’ll feed you.”
Polly swallowed before answering in a series of clicks and high-pitched squeaks. “You have no sense of humor.” Her mouth gaped open again, clearly wanting another.
“Don’t hog all the yummies.” Jo-Jo gave her sister a shove with her head. “I’m hungry too. Did you see the jump I did? I had to catch ten feet of air that time, right, Marin?”
“That you did, love. At least as much, maybe more.” Marin smiled and continued feeding both dolphins until the pail was empty. They were his only friends and his last connection to a people he’d left behind, and he enjoyed doting on them. “That’s it, ladies. All gone.” He showed them the empty pail, laughing at their pained expressions.
Jo-Jo whined as she usually did when Marin’s bucket emptied. They all knew it wouldn’t do her any good, but her wheedling was almost traditional. “But I’m still hungry. Come on, Marin! I’m a growing mammal. I need protein.”
Polly laughed. “You’re growing all right—sideways.” She pushed up out of the water and flipped back, disappearing under the surface with a large splash.
“Oh, I really hate her sometimes!” Jo-Jo grumbled a bit, then nosed Marin’s hand before sliding under the water to join her sister.
Marin picked up the empty pail and carried it to the shed that held cleaning equipment and the refrigerator for the feed. Part of his duties at the Aqualand Park was to hose down the deck at closing. It was his last task before he could leave for the night. He quickly grabbed a plastic jug of disinfectant and a bucket from inside the shed, carried it outside, and splashed it over the deck. After unwinding the coil of green rubber hose from the side of the building, he held it by the nozzle and finished washing the textured concrete, making sure all of the suds went down the drain and not into the dolphin pool. He’d catch Poseidon’s own fury from Polly and Jo-Jo if they tasted soap in the water.
His work was done for the day, but he remained where he was, looking with longing at the crystal clear, cold salt water of the dolphin pool. The sun had set an hour ago, and the park, which closed at dusk, was dark and already empty of guests and most employees; only the security lights still burned, casting the park in an eerie, faux twilight. None of the other trainers or workers remained in the dolphin area, and he knew the security guards wouldn’t patrol the pool for another hour or so. The park kept the closed-circuit cameras trained on the entrance to the pool and the outer perimeter, not the water in the pool itself. Certainly it was dark enough at the training pool for him to slip into the water unseen for a quick swim with the girls, right?
He quickly unzipped his overalls and shimmied out of them, then stood naked in the dim light. After a running start, he jumped off the edge of the pool and dove headfirst neatly, almost silently, into the water.
His feet had no sooner cleared the surface of the water than the lower half of his body shimmered. It happened so quickly the eye, human or otherwise, could barely follow the change. Marin’s legs melded together, transforming into a strongly muscled tail ending in a pair of wide, gracefully flowing flukes. Iridescent blues and greens swirled in the scales covering his skin. Gills opened just behind both of his ears and along his rib cage.
With one strong, sure sweep of his tail, he pushed forward through the water, feeling his body instantly relax, as it always did when he assumed his natural form. He opened his mouth, letting the cold water and the taste of home flow through him as well as around him.
Jo-Jo and Polly joined him, the three diving and swooping in joyous underwater play. It was so rare that Marin gave in to temptation and joined the dolphins this way, their happiness bubbled over, infecting him. He grinned, darting this way and that, then going deep, only to rocket straight up and out of the water in an incredible, spinning jump. Fifteen feet of air hung between Marin and the surface of the pool for the space of a heartbeat, before he plunged back into the water with a tremendous splash.
“Show off!” Polly laughed, bumping into him.
He grinned and turned on his back, his tail sweeping slowly up and down, lazily pushing him through the water. Ah, what he wouldn’t give to be able to swim like this every day, unreservedly, out in the open. He ached for the freedom to be himself, but the danger was too great.
He was taking a hell of a chance even now, after hours, with the park closed and no one else around to see him, and he knew it. Should anyone see him like this… well, Marin hated even to consider what might happen to him if his secret was exposed.
When he’d first come ashore, it was different. No one knew about his people, therefore nobody was on the lookout for him. Any inadvertent glimpse of him was chalked up to someone’s eyes playing tricks on them. Now, if a guard spotted him, even for an instant, they would put the park on immediate lockdown and summon the human authorities.
The world had changed drastically during the past decade. He’d come ashore alone and had instantly gone deep into hiding. He was surprised the rest of his people had come on land as soon as they had, and he’d watched with great interest the events that followed, even though he still had no intention of announcing his presence to either the humans or his people.
He remembered the press coverage. Every network, every newspaper, every talk show gave the phenomenon intense coverage, calling it the event of the millennium, perhaps of all time. At first, the Atlanteans were widely welcomed. Photographed, interviewed, stared at, talked about, threatened once or twice, and propositioned more than once, of course, but welcomed nonetheless by the majority of humans.
They’d been the flavor of the month, so to speak. Considered odd but harmless by most humans, the Atlanteans’ unique ability to shape-shift into merfolk was viewed as a benign, and somewhat erotic, talent. There’d been more pool, spa, and sea sex between humans and Atlanteans in that first year than Marin would’ve ever thought possible.
Marin was certain he wouldn’t have been as well received as his brethren, had he been honest about who he was and what he could do. But he was used to keeping his abilities secret, even from his own kind. He’d kept his real talents from the humans as well; his unique gifts went far and above the mere rearranging of muscle and tissue.
It wasn’t difficult to suppress his magic. He’d turned away from that part of himself years ago, when his father and brothers died. He wanted nothing more to do with it. In fact, Marin found his self-imposed isolation among the humans came as a relief in that regard—no one asked about his magic or pestered him with questions or favors; no one treated him as if he were special, as they had under the sea.
Things had gone along—pardon the pun—swimmingly for nearly two years.
The trouble began when the other shifters came out, followed by the Yeti. Then the Leprechauns, Sidhe, Dragons, Trolls, and several other species had followed suit. None of them had taken the slightest pains to hide their true natures from the public at large, and therein had started the trouble. He could still remember seeing the reports:
Dragons Vie with Commercial Airlines for Airspace.
At least one deadly crash and several near misses attributed to radar errors confusing jets with flying lizards. Traffic controllers threaten walkout.
Yeti Arrested for Rampage at Local Zoo.
Several released exotic animals still at large, including species of dangerous carnivores.
Satyrs Destroy and Consume Floats in Tournament of Roses Parade.
Horrified spectators flee in mass panic, leaving the city a mess of mulch and satyr droppings.
Capitol Hill Vows New Others Legislation.
Harpies deface Washington, DC, monuments. Representatives claim cleanup and restoration will cost taxpayers millions.
He pushed himself out of the water and fell backward, spreading his arms and enjoying the feeling of water enveloping every inch of his skin. Gah! Life had grown so complicated and dangerous for his kind that he’d give anything to return to the sea and stay there. Unfortunately, it was an impossible wish.
Humans, who up until then had believed themselves the only truly sentient species on the planet and the apex predator, found they were in competition with several varieties of intelligent, dominant creatures, all of whom had abilities far greater than their own. Frightening creatures. Powerful creatures. Hungry creatures. As far as humankind was concerned, their place on the food chain instantly slipped down several notches, and collectively the species was not happy about the possibility of earning a spot on the menu for the ones who ranked higher on the list.
Almost overnight the nonhuman species collectively became known as the Others and were branded mortal enemies of the humans.
It didn’t matter that all of the species concerned had descended from different branches of the same humanoid family tree, or that they’d lived alongside man from the beginning without humans’ knowledge, with very little interaction except through myth and legend.
Nor did it matter that human was the least favorite food of everyone involved, or that the incidents of humans being killed by Others were far fewer than those of humans murdering their own kind. As far as humans were concerned, the Others were different but close enough to themselves that the similarities became grotesque, which equated—in their minds—to threatening. A threat they could not ignore or allow.
Protests popped up all over the map, and the origins of the different species were hotly debated in every newspaper, magazine, and television show worldwide. Politicians made speeches, heads of state wrote legislation, religious leaders weighed in, and eventually, humans in most of the countries on the earth declared war against the Others.
On a clear summer night, just five short years after the Atlanteans first stepped ashore, while a warm wind blew across the land and stars winked benevolently in a black velvet sky, human armies across the globe rose up against the Others, armed to the teeth and fully intending to wipe out every species of humanoid but their own.
It was a brief but bloody battle. Taken unawares, even the most deadly of the Others had been unable to defend themselves for long against the offensive, which the humans called the “Evolutionary War.”
Marin spiraled through the water, a man-shaped torpedo, then dove deep and skimmed along the bottom. His heart rate was elevated; he could hear it beating in his ears. Thinking about those frightening weeks of hiding, running, and hiding again did it to him every time.
In the end, most of the Others went to ground again, particularly those who could not hide their natures under a humanlike skin, taking refuge in the deep wilderness, jungles, mountains, and tundra, as far from civilization as they could get. They had survived there for millennia; they believed they could do so again.
They were wrong. Now that the humans knew the Others existed, no expense was spared in hunting them down.
The humans captured Others at an amazing rate and shipped them in livestock railway cars to holding areas. They were caged or chained, subdued with tranquilizers if necessary, numbered and branded, and shipped off to “Nonhuman Settlements.” There were several dozen such camps in the US now, each designated for a specific variety of Other, including the Atlanteans. The Others were not only segregated from the humans but from one another as well.
Some, like Marin, who could pass for human, and a few who couldn’t but were extremely adept at hiding either through long practice or magic, managed to elude being captured. They kept themselves wedged firmly in the closet, trusting no one with their true natures.
Marin had been lucky enough to buy fake papers from an eccentric, if extremely talented, forger when he first came ashore. The birth certificate, social security card, and driver’s license enabled him to find work and rent an apartment. They’d cost him a fortune, forcing Marin to sell his golden armbands, gifts bequeathed to him from his mother and all he’d taken with him from Atlantis when he’d left. It had nearly killed him to hand them over to the proprietor of a seedy pawnshop in Miami, but securing those papers had been the only way for Marin to survive. Now they enabled him to remain in one place and to hide in plain sight.
It was a precarious existence at best. He lived with the constant fear that at any time, authorities might find him out, sedate him, and imprison him in one of the camps. Rumors abounded, whispered in the dark back rooms of bars and places where Others who still eluded capture met. The meetings always took place in absolute secrecy, usually with extreme precautions since they were always in fear of humans seeing through their disguises or overhearing them. The rumors spoke of the deplorable conditions in the camps, of horrible experiments on the captives, of death and disease, and unbound cruelty by the humans.
Baring his teeth to the cold water, he vented his anger in a furious jump, breaking the water and seemingly hovering several seconds before plunging back in with a tremendous splash.
Polly’s hard nose butted against his ribs. “You’re thinking about them again, aren’t you? The humans.”
Jo-Jo’s snout caught him on the other side. “You’re always thinking about them. What’s so interesting about them? They don’t even have blowholes.”
“Or flukes.” Polly gave him a light slap with hers. “I don’t know why you ever change yours into those ugly feet-things the humans run around on, Marin.”
Marin smiled in spite of his thoughts. The girls could always pull him out of a funk. Their innocence was sweet and untainted by the horrors being committed on land. He pulled ahead of them, letting them chase him around the pool. Once again, though, his thoughts returned to the same tired subject, and his newfound good mood quickly soured.
Returning to the sea was impossible for the Atlanteans. Hidden from human eyes since the beginning by means of carefully placed spells and wards, Atlantis had been a thriving metropolis under the ocean’s waves. However, a combination of pollution, global warming, and overfishing had destroyed the Atlanteans’ natural environment. Over the past fifty years, Atlantis had grown to be uninhabitable. They’d had time only to learn the human languages well enough to speak them fluently before the conditions forced them to leave their homeland for the surface world. It was the reason the Atlanteans had decided to go ashore and reveal themselves to the humans in the first place. They’d had no other choice but to abandon Atlantis, and they’d held hope the humans would help them resettle elsewhere in the ocean and provide the materials the Atlanteans needed to rebuild.
Now it was too late to go anywhere else. It was practically impossible for the Atlanteans to go back into the ocean. The humans had covered the coastal waters with a tight grid of radar and sonar. The Subhuman Trawlers, a new subsidiary of the US Coast Guard, regularly patrolled it. They netted any Atlanteans found offshore, took them back to the beach, and if they survived capture, sent them off to the camps.
Revolution was brewing. Marin knew it, could smell it in the air. He knew when the tension finally broke free, it would be painful and bloody on all sides. A third world war was in the making, and the victors were far from certain. All he did know was that things could not go on for long the way they were. The Others were normally autonomous of one another, but circumstances would soon drive them to strike alliances among the species to stand against their common enemy. He was sure of it.
He felt guilt pressing on his shoulders like an unbearable weight, his conscience cursing him. In his heart, he believed himself a coward, hiding among the humans like a cockroach, scurrying around in the dark, trying to stay out of sight, trying to stay alive and free, all while his people suffered in the camps.
He, of all people, should be fighting, doing something to free his own, as well as the other subjugated species. He should be using the talents he’d been given at birth to free the Atlanteans and all the Others from captivity, but he just couldn’t force himself to do it.
Couldn’t face what he was or accept his legacy or forgive what had been done to him and those responsible for it, and the resulting guilt was eating him alive.
Was he so petty, so spiteful, that his way of striking back at those who’d hurt him was to make the innocent suffer as he had? In his blackest moments, he sometimes believed it, but in his soul he believed it was fear, both of what he was capable of doing and what might happen should he be captured, that kept him in hiding. It went far beyond the personal freedom he stood to lose. He could lose his life. Death would be bad enough, obviously, but if he survived, and if the humans found out about his powers…. Well, they’d never believe he was the only one to possess such magic. The whole of the Atlantean race would suffer even more grievously than they already did. The humans would exterminate his entire race—every male, female, and child.
Whatever the reason he gave himself, he continued to remain in hiding, keeping his shame and his true nature locked away in a small, dark cell within his heart.
During rare moments of truthfulness, Marin admitted he wasn’t free at all. He lived in a cage no less than the Atlanteans in the camps, but unlike them, his prison was self-made and he was his own warden.
Marin tried to push his guilt aside, but his good mood was ruined. Saying good night to the girls and ignoring their continued entreaties to remain in the water and play, he pulled himself up onto the deck of the pool. He concentrated, his mind on changing. His tail instantly split into two firmly muscled legs. The transformation was never as pleasant in reverse. Grunting, he heaved himself to his feet—he always felt as if he weighed several tons after leaving the buoyant salt water and taking on his man-form—and struggled to pull up his jumpsuit over his wet skin.
After one backward, longing look at the calm, cold water, and sighing deeply, he left the pool and headed home.