Leigh Alexander

The day the mermaid washed up in the Thames, the docklands light railway was down, leaving everybody stranded on the Isle of Pigs. A long summer drought had revealed the riverbed, stinking of silt and dotted with old debris. Laurel’s gaze wandered among the eldritch shapes, wondering if they hid treasure beneath their fuzzy algal coats.

She had been on her way to school, but turned back when she saw a riot of suits all around the station. They were shouting things like fucking hell and the stupid bitch loudly into their devices, though who knew whether it was even the Admin’s fault this time, or just the heat.

Returning home among silvery little bridges and docks toward the tower where her family lived, Laurel spotted something unusual in the riverbed: A dark, glistening shape the size of a body. She tempered a swift flash of terror and hope, assuring herself it was just a police drone that had crashed in the river, but as she grew closer, she saw it move. Finding the nearest bleached ladder, she rushed down to the odiferous sand.

On the dock overhead a man was pacing and shouting into his hand device impatiently: “I want to talk to a real person.”

Laurel spotted the keen glitter of scales amid a tangle of black plant matter and plastic. The scales knit together like a precision design, but the slick throb of movement was organic, startling her for a moment.

“Real person,” the man overhead insisted. His graphite shadow was long in the spongy riverbed, and Laurel ducked into the cool, humid darkness under the dock. A sudden moisture licked at her sandals just as she glimpsed what was definitely bruise-violet flesh, and her blood froze. A forbidding caul of rot lay on the black floor, and the mermaid — Laurel saw quite plainly that’s what it was — was tangled in it.

“Hey,” she whispered impulsively. Two aventurine lights blinked awake in the mass like slitted eyes, and Laurel leapt back reflexively. The mermaid was alive.

“I need to clean you so I can see if you’re okay,” she whispered urgently, crouched low, although no one would be likely to see them under the bridge. Cautiously, she held out a hand for examination, which trembled. “Can I help?”

“Yes,” said an uncanny, pained machine voice from somewhere inside the mermaid.

“Yes,” shouted the man overhead on his device. “Yes! I said real. Person. Now.”

As she dropped to her knees, Laurel instantly stopped fearing the humid rust smell, the slippery offal under the dock, the grit in her sandals and under her nails. Plasticine tendrils slid between her fingers, but the rot came away easily, exposing the unfamiliar lines of the creature’s body almost before Laurel was ready to see. She realized she was untangling old fishing line from a bestial, substantial hip, curved and sleek as the body of a fish, hard as a box of pins.

Her hands followed the machinelike scales to the violet waistline, ruffled with gills that actuated bloodlessly. The mermaid’s head, slick with hair, rolled back over Laurel’s arm, and as the mermaid’s open mouth took in fishlike sips of air, Laurel’s trembling fingers brushed wet sand away from a neat machine engraving along the hairline, at the temple, that read HYANNIS.

The mermaid was not much bigger than Laurel, but she was heavy. Laurel only then realized she was cradling her.

****

Between the Admin issues lately and the systemic strain caused by long stretches of rainless heat, Laurel, who was in her last year, had been missing school so often that there had been talk of her getting to finish at home. Her prompt return to the great glass tower was therefore not likely to arouse suspicion, which was lucky as she hoped to bring aid to the mermaid without having to tell her parents anything.

“The light rail is down again,” she relayed, strolling as coolly as she could manage through the dining room toward the kitchen. “We know,” her mother Mary replied drearily.

Her father Harold was sat at the head of the great glass dining table, already in his crimson work robes and cowl. Whenever the Admin had major problems with her temperament, it usually meant a car would be coming to take him to Vauxhall, there to join the other hierophants in communing with her, diagnosing her, serenading her. Laurel didn’t know for sure, since her father’s work was deeply secret.

“Close to an answer this time, girls,” Harold announced in an adventurous voice Laurel could hear all the way in the kitchen, where she looked through cabinets and drawers unseen. Her heart sang at the sight of a sealed packet of salmon in the kitchen drawer, which she put in her school bag. But she also snatched a canister of electronic duster without a second thought — was the mermaid alive, or a machine, or both?

“And here’s what it is,” Harold went on: “‘The Mother has too many faces’.”

“How poetic,” Mary after a pause. “Laurel, what are you doing in the kitchen?”

Out of Mary’s line of sight, Laurel stuffed dish towels, a spray cleaner whose violet color reminded her of the mermaid’s skin, and one of Mary’s electrolyte nectars into her bag. “I’ve not eaten yet, I’ve been trying to find a way to school,” she tossed back.

“What that means, ‘the Mother has too many faces,’ is that the Admin still remembers when she was a network of different proprietary AI products, before they grew together,” Harold explained, knitting his fingers to demonstrate. “They first saw this in America, in Atlanta. Compartmentalization Disorder.”

Laurel could hear the familiar jingling of Mary lifting her father’s sacred chain into place. How would she know when she had enough things for the mermaid? Panic rose. Her mother would now be smoothing her father’s long silver curls, which had receded at his crown so that he had the look of a tonsure.

“You’re going to diagnose the London Admin with Compartmentalization Disorder?” Mary drawled. “She only rang some alarms and wrote in a few displays.”

“Bloody hell, Mary, this isn’t material for another of your arts-in-tech festival lectures,” groused Harold. “‘The Night of The Hundred Thousand Doorbells,’ which is what the Mail are now calling it, was a significant infrastructural strain. Now, at London Bridge Station, the screens have been showing nothing but animations of rain every damn day at rush hour for two weeks. The whole Southeast just shuts down. Emergency services have been involved. We urgently need to discourage her.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” The squeak and pop of a whiskey bottle being uncorked in the dining room meant it was already past ten in the morning. Although the mermaid was safely hidden from sight in the dark under the docks, Laurel still feared how she might worsen when the midday heat came.

“Admin, give me a bag of rice,” Laurel whispered as quietly as she could to the pantry panel. Dry rice could work either for electronics or as food.

“Oh, the BBC thinks it’s lovely seeing poetry or whatnot on the banners, but it’s sheer chaos when none of the tourists in Central can find out how to get around. The Canary Wharf set is even more helpless,” Harold went on, although Mary had stopped replying.

Laurel wrapped the sack of dry rice in her uniform jacket to elude any questions from her mother, but when she came back into the dining room, her father was already alone, looking at news on his device.

She took a deep breath. “Dad, have you ever heard of ‘Hyannis’?”

“I have not,” he said, without looking up.

“There’s no devices company called ‘Hyannis’? Are you sure?”

“Yes, honey,” he said, a note of impatience creeping in. “You must have misheard something.”

The entryway panel dawned with pleasant greenish light. “Harold, your ride to the Vauxhall Administration Complex is now waiting in the tower bay,” said the Admin.

“Thanks, honey,” he replied automatically.

“Oh, the stupid-ass machine is ‘honey’ now, is it!” Mary immediately shouted from the top of the foyer stairs, where she often waited to eavesdrop on Laurel and Harold. “Thanks, stupid-ass machine!”

“My pleasure,” said the Admin.

****

The riverbed was washed in the lurid aura of an old dockside display that said FLOOD WARNING: SEVERE. The city display, with its individually-lit letters, was vintage, but seeing frequent use lately — when the heavy rains finally came, the river might come surging through in a flash. But there’d been no threat of rain, and the temperature only rose.

Crimson light spilled between the metal slats of the dock, marking tidy slashes in the dark sponge beneath it. Here, underneath the walkway near the tower, Hyannis would generally remain hidden over the next few days, guarded by clouds of buzzing flies that ate from the newly-revealed river bottom.

Sometimes she moved a little, carving slick, glittering ruts in her wake with the heavy tail. The first time Laurel came to find the mermaid was no longer in her place, she felt a dread resignation; she had prepared for nebulous people to find and take Hyannis for one reason or another. But she soon found her curled only a few yards away, apparently exhausted from crawling.

At first Laurel thrilled at the movement. When she came to the hiding place early one morning and beheld the astonishing patterns Hyannis had trailed in the riverbed — saw them glitter softly in the dawnlight — she wept in awe, certain that it meant the mermaid was recovering. But by the end of the week, bad signs had mounted. Nothing Laurel had fed her or washed her with had been working after all.

Worse, Laurel had fallen hard into love with the dying mermaid, a catastrophic injury tripped by little of actual substance: the way the aventurine lights of Hyannis’ eyes shifted like the sea. The floral circuitry glimpsed under the palma violet ‘skin’. The hollow, waterlogged chirp of “yes,” which seemed to be the only word Hyannis would use. These were the details Laurel treasured in whispers to her diary.

Growing more worried, Laurel often begged her, “what do you eat, come on, stupid machine,” shaking the heavy creature in her arms. At one time the mermaid must have had an activation phrase, or gesture, something innate that would unlock her mind, but to Laurel she was a black box.

Hyannis hated to be spoken to harshly, and her liquid crystal eyes would shift away from Laurel’s searching. It had been radiantly hot, sick-making weather. Yesterday, the shoulder Laurel cradled had been sleek as silkworm spit, and today the surface felt more like a snail skin, delicate and faintly rippled. Every visit now, a new bad sign.

“I’m so sorry,” Laurel choked. She bent her head, her hair falling over the geometric portal she guessed was Hyannis’ ear. Though still too fearful to let her lips quite touch it, she whispered: “I love you. Since you found me, it’s been like I’m flowering — ”

There was the exciting feeling of a fin slipping among her fingers, alien but gentle, chiffon webs of skin dusted with wet sand. Bud-shaped apertures that Laurel had assumed were an immutable part of the metal tail now burst into organic bloom when her knuckles brushed them — surging and then quickly molting, like a spoiled melon. Laurel jerked her hand back too late, flicking something damp away. She froze cold, heart inexplicably pounding, briefly convinced that Hyannis was now about to die, maybe because of her.

But the marine eyes radiated calmly. Maybe she did not feel pain, the great black tangle of her hair conscientiously concealing jellied wounds smelling of fossil fuel and brine. The warning light seethed under the dock, sketching red lines over the machinelike parts she kept shedding in the riverbed.

“Are you okay,” Laurel asked, cold sweat trickling at her nape.

“Yes,” chimed Hyannis’ Atlantean sound chip. Maybe she could not die. Maybe she was not alive.

Laurel crouched in the riverbed to pick up an intricate, geometric mermaid component about the size of a cricket ball. It looked similar to the piece she’d believed was Hyannis’ ear.

“Is it okay if I tell my Dad about you,” Laurel looked away, as if speaking to the component in her palm. “I don’t know how to help you.”

The crystalline slits shifted morosely, but there was no word.

“What do you want me to do,” Laurel cried. Along the riverbed, the flies droned like alarms.

The eyes blinked off.

****

Mary was sitting at the kitchen table in her dressing gown. She was playing one of her talking romances with the Admin, speaking with the lit panel. “You can check the seaport again for word of Brandram, or join Lady Margery in the festival tent,” the Admin told her.

“Light rail’s down again,” Laurel reported automatically on her way to the fridge.

“Be quiet, Laurel, I know,” her mother frowned, holding up a finger.

“Sorry, I didn’t understand,” said the Admin apologetically. “You can check the seaport, or enter the tent.”

“Climate control is down too,” Mary said. “Check the seaport.”

Laurel idly browsed the fridge while she waited for the Admin to finish describing the scene: “The bustling seaport holds no news of Brandram, and no word to ease your broken heart,” she recited, against a backdrop of atmospheric sound.

“When is Dad back?”

“Your father has been in Vauxhall for three days,” Mary said venomously. Too late, Laurel spotted the large glass of cognac on the table and realized she’d made a tactical error. “Surely you’re old enough now to see how ridiculous this all has been. Enter the tent.”

“You slip away from the bustle of the festival into the cool, perfumed shelter of the Duke’s silken tent,” the Admin described. “Lady Margery is asleep here.”

“When is he meant to be back?”

“Who knows,” Mary said venomously. “Oh, your father, two-credit troubleshooter turned great therapist to the Admin herself. Her great whisperer, is he? Well, Laurel, take a goddamn look around you, for once in your life.”

“You see an ornate box, and the sleeping Lady Margery,” said the Admin.

“What am I supposed to be looking at,” muttered Laurel dryly.

“Don’t be fresh. Your father thinks he can control the Admin, but he can’t even control me. The Admin doesn’t fucking work, Laurel. The hierophants are probably just making things worse. Remember when you could at least get off the Isle of Pigs once a week? Your father and these other assholes are probably just sitting over there massaging coolant into her body parts, gratifying themselves.” Her mother was eyeing the island panel surlily now.

“Is there a new problem lately?” Laurel asked, wondering for the first time how much Mary really knew about Harold’s work. She tried to imagine something confident and knowing in the way her mother had always set her father’s sacred chain.

Mary made a mysterious scoffing noise and told the panel, “Open up the box.”

“Inside the box, you see a love letter to Lady Margery, and a jeweled knife,” replied the Admin.

“All the quotations she posted on the Canary Wharf ticker this week have been by Ovid, Laurel, all of them,” Mary said pointedly, although Laurel as yet saw no purpose to the rant. “Today’s was ‘gutta cavat lapidem.’ Pick up the knife. I said take the knife!”

“You’re holding the jeweled knife,” the Admin gently affirmed. “You’re already holding it.”

“It means, ‘dripping water hollows the stone,’” Mary told Laurel, sipping cognac slowly.

“So we don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to Dad,” Laurel sighed. A slash of virulent sunset stained the floor; it would be dangerous to go back outside before dark today.

“There’s no point talking to your father, best just submit while he talks at you,” snapped Mary. “Just send him a message. Read the letter.”

“It’s a love letter from the Duke to Lady Margery,” said the Admin. “It reads, my dear Lady Margery, too long have these battles kept me from your side — ”

“Stop,” Mary interrupted. Laurel watched her mother knuckle her temples and cheekbones, muttering “what am I supposed to do” into the heels of her hands.

She waited, unsure what for.

“Kill Lady Margery,” Mary told the Admin. The descriptive reply went on for some time.

****

That night, the sound of rain concussing the tower glass surfaced Laurel from sleep. For a moment she felt the same relief as the the air itself — until she woke sharply at the thought of Hyannis.

If she were a machine, she might be ruined when the river rose. But supposing she were alive, an aquatic organism, wouldn’t the water actually restore her? Laurel leapt to her feet and pressed her face to her bedroom window, but so high up, she saw only sheets of black rain, clusters of red warning lights softly blinking in the distance. There would be no sense in going outside to look.

The thought of once again scooping rot, mud, sand, and the mutant paramecia of the Thames out of Hyannis’ profound but fragile bodywork filled Laurel with dread; could the mermaid even survive another round of such rude repairs? But there was also a sharp ache when she imagined the silvereen creature disappearing forever into the river, her ordeal washed away in the rain.

“Please please please,” Laurel sat at the edge of her bed, whispering to the geometric mermaid component she still thought of as an ear. As if Hyannis could hear her, the way the Admin could hear. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t go anywhere. Just wait, we’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it all out.”

If it turned out the mermaid was alive, would that mean Laurel had been strange, cradling her like that with so little language having passed between them? Or was it weirder to have embraced a machine, rested a sunburned cheek on its cool shoulder, combed its hair? The torrential rain against the glass apartment seemed to promise that some answer would be imminent, one way or another.

As the rain intensified, Laurel’s need to talk to father about Hyannis rose, and there was also a new offshoot: the dim sense there might be other things worth discussing with her parents, though Laurel hadn’t yet followed that branch to its conclusion. It was after midnight and her father was almost certainly asleep in his fine hotel, but she had messaged him anyway. She’d been afraid to say much — the family’s devices were almost certainly under surveillance by spooks, because of his job.

Unable to sleep, she paced barefoot through the dark tower house, listening to the rain. Lightning sometimes flickered vividly in the space, terrifying Laurel with the stark, hollow quality of her own reflection in the glass. Bereft, she found herself opening the great double doors to her parents’ hallway closet, slipping inside the unlit, insulated silence just as she had often done as a little girl.

Here were the whorls of fine linen, her father’s seasonal robes, sealed away in gossamer plastic. The familiar scent of incense and cologne, the way hanging chains jingled serenely as Laurel folded herself into the dark, stung the edges of her eyes. Her senses revived the long-ago time when she truly believed her father knew everything. As a child she frequently searched her parents’ things, compelled by their mysteries, but today, it felt for some reason that there had to be something here that Laurel had been missing all along.

Among the shadows on the closet floor was a dark wooden box. It had been there all Laurel’s life, but she had never thought to look inside, at least not that she could remember. Piled on top of it in thick, dusty frames were Mary’s degrees, and Laurel set them aside as she felt felt all over and around the box, in search of a latch or hinge, some way to open it. But there seemed to be no such thing, and it was too dark to see.

“Turn on the closet light,” she whispered to the Admin. But nothing happened.

“Turn on the closet light, please,” she spoke louder. It wasn’t as if Mary would wake up now.

The Admin then gave a peculiar response. It sounded like nonsense to Laurel, but it was Latin; she said: “Dolor hic tibi proderit olim.”

“Please,” Laurel said, the edges of the mermaid ear cutting into her palm as she clutched it, raised her fist to her lips. “Please.”

Then she heard a bizarre, distant wail. Laurel rushed out of the closet and into the front room, where she saw the black, rain-slick skyline bathed in lurid red light. The alarm sound swelled, rattling the windows, and she realized it was the flash flood warning siren, sounding very close.

She ran to the great front window and gasped to see, far below, a crimson-lit Thames stampeding through its old circuitry with aching excess. She heard the faraway groan of metal and the cracking of the Isle’s supports, which to Laurel was as acutely sickening as the sound of bones breaking — anything in the river’s path would die, or be destroyed. Unless they were very strong.

The flood siren gave another long, whale-like cry in the dark.

****

In the following days, the new-washed London returned mostly to normal, sun-swollen and dotted with puddles that reflected azure glass and sky. The lush drone of insects was once again joined by the soft hum of the newly operational light rail.

“It was a problem of her listening,” Harold explained from the head of the dining room table at breakfast, face aglow. “We increased her accent sensitivity at regional pinch points.”

“Oh, well done you,” Mary said.

“So then I had a bit of a brainwave, and I said, well what if we widened the margin of variation she can hear by about point-two percent?” Harold paused bashfully for effect. “Turns out that was the magic, in the end. Now see, the old girl’s right as rain!”

“Yes, surely you did the trick,” sighed Mary.

“In the end, never send in shrinks to solve an engineering problem,” Harold added. “Everything has an answer. Which reminds me, Laurel, what did you want to show me?”

“What do you mean,” Laurel said. Through the picture window she saw rich, silty river water tumbling like liquid gold among the graceful bridges far below. Little white flowers dotted thorny brambles, and huge blooms swooned over the distant canals.

“You sent me a message a few nights ago about something to show me,” her father said, warmly bestowing upon her all his attention.

“Never mind,” she said. Under the table, in the pocket of her school jacket, the edges of the mermaid ear pressed the lifeline of her palm reassuringly. “I forgot what it was.”

“Just as well, you’ll have to start getting proper sleep again now your finals are back on,” Harold winked. “Don’t think I’ve been too busy to notice your funny teen girl habits.”

At first the Thames had swelled right up to the lip of the dock, allowing no sign of Hyannis. When the river at last began to recede, leaving a drowned sheep bursting with flies along the bank, there was no trace of her ever having been there at all.

On the last day of school, a Jurassic sunset presided over a wild overgrowth of vines and fronds. As the light rail whisked Laurel home, she saw a bright white heron in the flood plain beneath the track, striding with slow, precision-engineered movements.

In Hyannis’ former place, the visible riverbed had finally sprouted several intricate flowers, geometry unfolding in the fresh humidity. The conditions were wrong for more flooding, but the old FLOOD WARNING: SEVERE display was somehow on, reflecting like watercolor in the river. Only some of the red letters were illuminated, a selection that felt deliberate.

Laurel smiled as she read,

She raised her curled fist to her lips again and tenderly whispered to the component in her palm: “Me too.”

I write about the intersection of technology, popular culture and the lives we’ve lived inside machines. I’m also a narrative designer! leighalexander1 at gmail

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