[I wrote this story based on a prompt for the Penprints Flash Fiction Dash. Yay flash fiction! If you check out the Penprints site in early June, you will be able to see the stories from everyone who participated! The Penprints site is <https://rosalievalentine.wordpress.com/> ]
Painted with Light
Duomik slipped through the liner’s banquet hall, a poncho wrapped around him, bare feet sure. Despite the blasting warmth of the liner’s heating system, the floor carried a trace of cold.
“That’s one of them—the divers,” a teenage girl hissed to her mother, abandoning her plate of fish. “Ask him!”
“Excuse me,” the older woman called sharply.
Duomik turned back, squinting against fluorescent lights and tourists’ stares. Skinny, pale, he was anything but impressive.
“Does it work? The lights? Does it bring them out?” she asked.
“It says in the brochure, na?” Duomik wrinkled his nose. The stinks of tourist food filled the room, so he breathed out, then didn’t breathe in.
“Public relations,” the woman scoffed. “But is it true?”
Answering would mean taking a breath. So Duomik shrugged and eeled out the door. He darted up the ladder to the moonlit deck, not bothering to use his hands.
Clean salt air. He breathed deep and swept off the poncho, then held it over his head as he ran toward the stern, letting it sweep behind him like a cloud of jellyfish tendrils. The thrum of the icebreaker ship carried back over the water, a deep song.
“Evening, Dominic,” called the sailor on watch.
“Even-ing,” Duomik called back, careful to answer to the name. His papers said that his name was Dominic Quiroga and that he had been born in Ushuaia, Argentina.
His papers lied.
“Where’s your coat, man?” the sailor frowned. “It’s freezing out here!” Fifty yards off the bow, chunks of ice bobbed in the sea. Beyond the icebreaker’s wake was the ice sheet, almost twenty feet thick, covering the ocean like armor.
“Na, I’m not cold.” But Duomik let the poncho drop back around his shoulders.
“Lights!” came a sudden shout from the upper deck. “We’ve got lights!”
In less than a minute, the crew and passengers were gathered along the rails, staring at the water with binoculars and S84 phone-cameras. Cries of “There! Do you see that?” “I told you they were real!” and “It’s all done with special effects, I say,” echoed from every side.
Duomik, crouching low, watched the lights with mild interest. Pale green and yellow, the lights circled one another in a complex pattern before drifting farther under the ice and out of sight. While the tourists continued to stare at the empty water, Duomik slid backward through the crowd and paced to the far side of the ship, now all but deserted.
Barely visible under the ice sheet, a single light flickered.
Duomik did not shout. Instead, he reached into the waterproof sack at his waist and brought something out. With a flip of his wrist, he sent it flying. As it struck the water, the tiny object began to glow.
Over the next few days, the cruise liner made another seventy miles southwest through the ice sheet. It would not go much farther lest it hit the reefs off the Antarctic coast.
On the fourth day, the liner’s engines fell silent. “Our professionals will be diving first, to make sure that the dive area is free of obstructions!” declared the master-of-ceremonies. Although it was only 0900, he wore a tuxedo, his lapel concealing a wireless microphone. “Once they have established a safety perimeter, those guests who have subscribed to our full tour experience will be invited to dive! Other guests are encouraged to watch from the gallery, where live video from our divers will be available!”
Duomik, shielded in his heated diving gear, waited until it was his turn to dive. Despite the air tanks dragging at his shoulders, he swirled easily away from the ship, following his assigned partner out under the ice.
They did not look for underwater obstructions; the liner’s elidar had already checked. Instead, they activated glowing drones, which would follow a course in and out of the tourists’ sight all day long.
Duomik shook his head as they released the last. He hoped no tanaia-fish would try to eat one.
He was relieved when it was time to return to the ship. The tourists, with their wild movements and bright lights “guaranteed to attract underwater denizens!” were hard to keep inside the perimeter. When they spotted lights, they tried to chase them. Obviously, that couldn’t be allowed—they would discover that they were only seeing drones.
While Duomik did not care what the tourists discovered, he knew that they could die if they ran out of air. So he shooed them back toward the ship, his arms waving like kelp.
Three more days, and the ship’s engines were silent again. “Tomorrow, we turn toward civilization,” announced the MC.
As the sky darkened, the light show began, right on schedule. The teenage girl dragged her mother to the rail, only to squint in disappointment. The lights were too far away!
She let her mother stay there, and jogged along the rail. If she had come on this cruise just to see distant lights that didn’t even show up properly in photos, her friends would tease her to death. “Kylie, you’re obsessed. Everyone knows merpeople aren’t real.” She could hear them now.
Now she had reached a deserted stretch of deck. Up ahead—there was that diver, the blond one. Did he see something? “Excuse me!”
Duomik climbed onto the rail, ignoring the girl. It was time to go.
He dove—no heated suit, no heavy gear—straight into the ocean. He kicked, shooting away from the ship. He had a report for the Council of Six, ai yes. And what a report it would be.
The girl, white-faced, stared after him. He would die in the cold! Was that what he wanted? Should she call someone?
Then she saw the lights. First yellow shapes on his skin. Then rims of blue.
“Look! Look!” she shrieked. But before anyone could join her, the merman was gone—vanished under the ice.