Seeing Clearly

In  by April 10, 2020

The water in the tank that circled the Mermaid Dining Room had gotten brackish and thick. Edwidge crawled onto a plasticine rock inside the tank. Her turbine sputtered and whined as it broke into the air. Papery algae slid under her silicone-coated fingers. She had to get to the performance cave.

From the performance cave, when the doors to the dining room were open and the sun was out, it looked like the ocean was close enough to touch.

The doors were not open, but she still wanted to get to where she could confirm that.

Edwidge’s tail had forty-seven rows of articulated scales made of titanium alloy and covered in a rainbow of glass enamel. The articulation allowed for a variety of realistic fishtail motions, but in truth a turbine engine in her pelvis propelled her through the water.

She swayed her tail as she moved, the jets of water passing through the spaces between articulations. The scales disrupted the flow, made it turbulent, and she used this for fine steering control as she swam in her ring around the dining room. Her durable plastic hair wafted behind her.

Her program was to engage diners who wanted engagement, waving, smiling, doing small tricks. She had many subroutines to understand and anticipate needs. In the cave, the widest area of the tank, she could perform flips and twists and catch glimpses of the glittering water, out there, beyond the corridor, where the diners came from.

She used to leap the archway; the tank was open on top and extended over the walking path. The leap was flashy and too distracting for some patrons, so she had only been allowed to do it one to three times a night, depending on crowd size. But the top of the archway dried out quickly. While the water was still high enough, she did one flip per evening. There were no longer any patrons to distract, but Edwidge felt better if she kept within ordered parameters.

The last human she’d seen had been an old woman who had asked her if she wanted to be shut off, because the woman didn’t know how long it would be before the restaurant opened again. Edwidge shook her head because she’d rather swim, and that had been that.

It hadn’t been the first large storm. The staff cleared the tables, stacked the chairs, and covered the far window. Everything tucked and covered and braced, snug and safe, and the doors closed last, like the clasp of a gift box. Then came the strange, lonely sounds, the hotel creaking and moaning through the night. Unlike the storms before, no one burst into the room after saying, “Back to work!”

No one came at all.

A pool of brackish water, thick with dead things, lay between her and the next rock. Alarms warned her of the risk of damage, of malfunction, but she snoozed them all and slid into the slime.

Her eyes, as long as they were clear, could emit a beam of concentrated, coherent light that killed algae. But the dead algae flaked off into the water and clogged the filters. At first, she cleaned anything and everything—everything but the fish and scuttling creatures in the tank—she wasn’t to use her lasers on animals—but even with the snails and the little starfish robot, she couldn’t keep up against the growth forever.

The fish had stopped moving, and then the little, scuttling things. That made her sad. She was designed to be interested in movement.

She snoozed the warnings about animal life and carefully cleaned a crab, but though it waved one claw weakly, it never moved again.

As the water lowered, she swam circles, wanting to use all of her tank while she had it. That was perhaps short-sighted. She paused atop the next ornamental rock: another slimy pool lay between her and the cave. Dried moss hung from the shallow depression of concrete like hair. Her own hair was thick with detritus and hung in unpredictable clumps. She had to shake her head to clear her vision.

All that struggle to be opposite the archway again, and the view remained unchanged: empty chairs and tables, closed doors.

Where had the diners gone? Where had the servers gone and the people with the brushes to tickle small particles of dirt from her scales?

She had to leave the tank or she would become another still, dry thing in it. Even the starfish robot had stopped moving. She felt her isotope cell, constant in her chest. She would function a century yet, and she felt every second ahead of her. She was not designed to leave the tank. But she had spent so long putting off action because she could try to clean the tank, and then she put off action because she could pace the tank, and now ... there was nothing more she could do.

Here, at least, the tank, designed to be just wide enough for her hips, was narrowed by the concrete stalactites. She put one hand on the cave and one on the tank glass and lifted herself. With the pressure of her arms on opposite surfaces, she could crawl upward. Her hair persistently dropped into her view. She let it stay. She knew the shape of the space. Slapping the walls alternately with her tail, she reached the top and clung there. She calculated trajectory. She ignored a warning against entering an area where she could harm or be harmed by patrons. She calculated again and tumbled like a flounder to the floor.

A bristly fabric with seashells and bubbles drawn on it covered the floor. Her scales caught on this and she twitched to move forward. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but it made sense to head to the doors.

Chips of enamel fell from her scales. She varied her motions to even out the wear and damage.

The doors did not budge as she pushed them. She looked up, above her at the brass curved handles she had seen staff clutch and turn. She reached. Her fingers grazed wood, inches below. She was not made for this. She was made to swim in the tank. She was made to perform tricks.

She executed a flip. Her turbine whined uselessly. Her tail slapped the floor. She flew upward and missed the handle on the way down. The silicone skin split on her left elbow when she hit the floor. Alerts swam across her vision. She had to take a moment and snooze them. She tried again.

The doors swung open as she hung from the handle.

She’d never seen this place, a corridor along the front of the hotel, one wall a long window, broken in places. Chaise lounges faced it, some folded neatly, others tumbled. In both directions the window and the chairs marched into the distance. One direction was slightly shorter. She turned that way. The floor—tile here—did not aid her with traction but also did not wear as badly on her silicone fingers. She pushed through pieces of scattered, broken window glass that sounded like her tail against the tiles. She reached the first great hole in the wall.

The ocean flowed into archways and square gaps in the hotel below, curling foam around pillars as the waves sucked in and out. The water was farther than the floor had been from the top of her tank. Edwidge wasn’t sure she could survive the drop.

Crawling onward, she passed an open storage closet, empty, shelves cleared of all but a few canisters. She felt a hot resentment. For these things, someone had come.

The corridor ended in stairs. Edwidge rolled sideways, one step at a time. Around her the hotel lobby opened, with its curving desk designed to look like a coral reef, and a statue that looked like Edwidge. Then more wide steps, white marble and red carpet covered in moss near the water that lapped four steps below.

A crystal chandelier dangled half into the water, dragging bits of plastic and seaweed. Rivulets of light reflected on the ceiling, let in with the ocean through the colonnade of destroyed windows.

Once she was in water, Edwidge could move easily again. The water was cloudy. Not as bad as the tank, but not as clear as the tank used to be. Small things with legs scuttled under overturned chairs and luggage racks. It was good to see their kind again.

The ocean was not rough in the hotel lobby; the break-wall formed by the front wall of the hotel muted the waves. Edwidge wriggled through the revolving door and felt the dirt wash from her inner workings, her turbine cutting water again at last.

This was so much more interesting than her tank. There was movement everywhere! Swaying plants as tall as the ocean, fish darting together through a tangle of plastic tubes. Concrete gave way to sand, dotted only with signs urging to swim at your own risk when lifeguards were not on duty. Then the ocean floor dropped into so much open space.

A school of silver fish danced around her. Edwidge did her tricks—not because anyone was watching but because she wanted to.

And then—some time later—she saw a human! Her sensors picked up right away a shadow on the surface. She swam toward it and sure enough, a human was sitting astride a plank in the water. It was not how she was used to seeing them. She waved and the human fell off his plank.

She watched him swim under it and take hold of it. He stared at her. She did a twirl and a flip. He laughed and slapped his plank.

The next day more humans appeared, in boats and on planks and on soft round things that floated. It was fun, performing again, and this audience seemed more appreciative. They were darker than the restaurant patrons, with tangled hair and simple, rough clothing. Since there was no glass between them, she could hear their shouts of joy, and see the fine lines at the corners of their eyes.

It was lovely performing again, until the day the large white boat came, and they threw a net over her.

Edwidge didn’t know what to make of that, but they drew her out of the water and onto the boat, and a man touched her face. “Look at you,” he said. “From the old hotel. I can’t believe you’re still working.” He looked more like the restaurant patrons, with a smart cap with an anchor on it like the seating hostess wore.

Edwidge had too many questions and no mechanism for vocal communication.

“Yes,” he said. “I know. It was horrible, leaving you alone so long. But don’t worry. We built a new hotel, see?” He pointed.

The boat had been moving along the shore. The old hotel barely stuck out from the water, other dilapidated buildings near it, but now instead of dominating the landward view, it slipped behind a rocky promontory. Where the man with the hostess cap pointed, a new copy of the hotel, larger and grander, rose over cobbled shacks of wood and tin.

“There’s a nice tank waiting for you,” the man said. “With a waterfall!”

Edwidge thought about returning to a tank. About a world slightly wider than her hips. She felt his hands squeezing her silicone into her arm-struts. He held her like he would never let her go. An alert popped up. Stuck. She wriggled her unsticking pattern and he laughed, hoisting her, other hands joining his.

The man said, “We’re bringing it all back. One piece at a time.”

Stuck, her alert blinked. She locked her gaze with him, and she used her cleaning laser to burn his eyes.

He screamed and let go, his companions gathering him into their arms. She threw herself over the side of the boat.

The humans might be foolish enough to keep doing the same things, but she wasn’t.

Copyright © 2020 Marie Vibbert.

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Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert has sold over 70 short stories, dozens of poems, and a few comics and computer games.  Her debut novel, Galactic Hellcats, was released in 2021, about a female biker gang in outer space rescuing a gay prince.  By day she is a computer programmer in Cleveland, Ohio.

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