Author's Note: I said there'd been an update in April. I didn't mention the year. Just kidding. That's a bullshark excuse. The truth is simply that life suddenly jumped me in ways I did not expect. I won't list all the reasons - they don't excuse my not having made time - but suffice to say that this chapter was written over the course of two jobs and four countries.
I don't feel comfortable making any more promises about uploads, given my track record. Rest assured, however, that I have not abandoned the girls or my dear readers. If you are still following this, thank you so much! Now read on, and as always, review!
"I have absolutely no idea what Ryan was talking about."
Claire rolled her eyes. "Come on, Aqua, think. There can't be anything he knows about mermaids that you don't."
"Actually, depending on how many bases they've rounded, he could know whether they grow – "
"Oh my God," Claire snapped as she rounded on Hailey, who nearly dropped her chocolate bar in surprise, "thank you for that incredible derailment! Now that you've gotten your mandatory stupid joke out of the way, can we please focus on figuring out what's got Ryan going CIA on us?!"
"Geez, I'm sorry," Hailey muttered. "I was just trying to lighten the mood."
"We don't need the mood lightened," Claire replied testily. "If anything, we need to get even more serious." She turned back on Aqua, who had one eyebrow raised at the out-of-character outburst. "Think, Aqua. Think long and hard. What could Ryan have possibly meant by 'last time'?"
The mermaid chewed her lip thoughtfully for a minute, then shrugged. "I really have no idea." Claire opened her mouth to shout again, but Aqua held up a finger to head her off. "This is probably where I should point out that I've never opened a history book in my life."
"You have books underwater?" Hailey asked.
"So to speak."
"You don't have to have opened a history book," Claire said in exasperation. "If humans and mermaids have ever met before, it would have been big enough to be common knowledge, right?"
"Not if they wanted to keep people from getting nosy."
Both Aqua and Claire turned to Hailey, curiosity on their faces. When she realized that they had no idea what she meant, Hailey almost laughed. "Really? You don't know this? I thought you read spy novels."
"Enlighten us," Claire requested sarcastically.
Hailey took another bite of chocolate before explaining, "The best way to make sure mermaids try to interact with humans is to ban it. The next-best way is to tell them that it would be a good idea. So if you don't want anyone talking about it, let alone trying it – "
"Then you just don't bring it up," Claire finished. "No one gets interested, no one thinks about trying it. Sort of like how Ryan keeps his secret, the way you describe it," she added as an afterthought.
Aqua shrugged. "Makes sense. Dad's never told me to stay away from humans, but he doesn't talk about it even when I want to. He usually just says, 'I don't care what you do as long as it isn't stupid' and drops it."
"You need to start doing some history homework," Claire instructed Aqua. "We need to know what happened the last time humans and mermaids had a pow wow if we're going to figure out why Ryan's so desperate to keep you and Jade a secret."
The mermaid nodded her acquiescence. "Gimme a day. It shouldn't be too hard to find in the archives."
"Archives?" Hailey was being unusually inquisitive. "D'you guys have a public library or something?"
"The culture lesson can wait," Claire cut in. "Aqua, I don't mean to sound snippy, but you really need to get going. The sooner we know what Ryan knows, the sooner we can do something about it."
The mermaid threw a mocking salute and vanished into the water. Claire sighed and pulled her toes from the waves that were gently lapping at the sand. She stood and turned to find Hailey giving her a slightly disapproving look.
"Any particular reason you don't want to know more about Mer-world?"
"I do want to know more: specifically, the parts that are immediately useful to us."
"Hey, we don't know what might be useful," Hailey retorted, tossing a seashell at Claire. "Betcha didn't think we'd have to do any history homework before this happened."
"I can't imagine why we'd ever need to know that they have underwater libraries. Besides, when did you turn into the human Ariel?"
"Actually, by the end of the movie, Ariel's technically – "
Hailey sighed as the two started walking back to her house. "This whole thing with Ryan has made me realize how much we don't know – about him, about Aqua, or anything."
"That last one only really applies to you," Claire joked.
"I'm serious. We've been friends with Aqua for over a year now. We've taught her to play poker, use coupons at the mall, lie to cops, cook fried – "
"Wait, what was that last one?"
"That's not important," Hailey snapped, grabbing Claire by the shoulders and interrupting their progress towards the house. "We are two of maybe three people on the planet who are friends with a new species, and all we know about them is that they can change their hair color! Aqua's spent the last year learning everything she possibly can about our world, and we don't have any idea what her house even looks like! Have you ever thought about that?! Have you ever thought about how much we – " The look on Claire's face stopped Hailey's rant. She studied her friend's expression carefully.
"You have thought about it."
"A lot," Claire confirmed with a nod.
Hailey let her hands drop. "So why don't you want to know more about Mer-world?"
"Is that really what we're calling it?"
Claire took a deep breath. "Because I'm scared, Hailey."
"What? Scared of what?"
"Of all of it. All of them – mermaids, mermen, whatever – and what they can do."
"Whaddya mean, 'what they can do'? All Aqua can do is change her hair color and talk to starfish – "
"And her father can create thunderstorms big enough to flood a beach," Claire interrupted. "Or have you forgotten that little incident, back when we first met Aqua?"
Hailey hadn't forgotten – she just hadn't thought of it in a while, and certainly hadn't bothered to look into it any deeper. When Aquamarine had first splashed into their lives, she'd been a runaway of sorts from her controlling father and the promise of a dull arranged marriage. Once the mermaid had taken refuge in Claire's house, her father managed to contact her through a seashell – a "shell phone", as Hailey had laughingly observed – and threatened to drag her back to the ocean. During the argument – which Claire and Hailey could hear even though they'd headed out to the balcony at Aqua's request – the sky had darkened as gray stormclouds gathered above the ocean, not a mile from where the girls watched in awe. The clouds vanished suddenly when Aqua managed to shout her father down, which meant it was no coincidence: Aqua's dad could control the weather just by getting upset.
Claire knew Hailey had managed to come up with the question on her own, but she felt the need to voice it nonetheless: "What else can they do, Hailey?"
"Are you scared of Aqua?"
The question broke a silence that had lasted nearly half an hour. Hailey had spent nearly that entire time just trying to figure out how to phrase the question – helped by a pack of sour gummy worms, of course. Claire, on the other hand, had been busy: on Hailey's desk in front of her sat three sheets of ruled paper filled with pencilled notes on everything Google, Yahoo, and Bing – desperate times, desperate measures – had been able to tell her about mermaid mythology. A lot of it was ridiculous, useless, or proven false by Aquamarine – Claire knew Aqua's tail didn't change color underwater.
Some of it, however, was scary: merfolk were supposedly able to cause not only storms, but maelstroms and tsunamis. Sometimes it was deliberate – a means of punishing an enemy, or a way to avenge a petty slight – but in some stories a mermaid just had to get angry to cause whirlpools big enough to swallow a ship.
It was hardly a comforting thought, and Claire was almost glad that Hailey cut into it – although the question wasn't exactly a change of topic.
"Not of Aqua," Claire answered, swivelling her chair around to face Hailey, who lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling. "Her dad."
"And everyone like him. Everyone with powers we can't even imagine having, let alone controlling. And you really shouldn't be eating while lying down."
Hailey sat up and swung her legs off the bed, one gummy worm still dangling out of the corner of her mouth. "Claire, you can't be scared of something just because you don't completely understand it. We've never even met her dad, and I'm pretty sure he's not some kind of genocidal maniac."
"I'm not afraid of what he might do, Hailey. I'm afraid of what he might have already done."
Hailey raised an eyebrow. "Ryan really got to you, didn't he? I know he was being all spooky, but he doesn't – "
"What about my parents?"
The question cut right through Hailey's confusion like a lighthouse on a foggy night. Suddenly Hailey knew exactly what had Claire so scared, and she genuinely felt stupid for not realizing it sooner.
Mr and Mrs Brown had died in a storm at sea. They'd been aboard Claire's – apparently incorrectly spelled – namesake, the Claire de Lune, on one of the romantic sails they'd enjoyed taking, when a sudden squall had whipped up the ocean.
The yacht had been found two days later, listing to one side. Everything aboard had clearly been tossed around in the storm – glasses were broken, some equipment was missing, and there was water everywhere.
Claire's parents had never been found.
Given the circumstances of their disappearance, it hadn't been difficult to have them legally declared dead. It wasn't that anyone wanted them that way, but at least it meant their stuff could go right to Claire, who was put in the care of her grandparents. Bob and Maggie were wonderful people, but they were still a long way from true parents.
Nobody had ever been able to explain the suddenness of the storm, not that any specialists had been consulted. It was brushed off as one of those things that just happened at sea; every sailor knew the risks of open water, and some even lived for it.
Now Hailey and Claire knew better: random storms didn't just happen out of the blue. There was an entire species out there that could create hurricanes and who-knew-what-else just by getting their blood pressure up.
Wordlessly, Hailey stood up, crossed the room, and put her arms around Claire, who accepted the hug without saying anything.
Hailey broke the embrace after a few minutes, then sat on the desk. "You don't think Aqua's dad had something to do with – "
"I don't think anyone had anything to do with anything," Claire said as she wiped away a tear. "Not until I get some actual evidence. But I have a bad feeling about it."
Hailey slurped up her gummy worm before answering, "Well, hopefully you won't have to wait long. Aqua should – oh my God, can't I finish a sentence around here?!"
The interruption was courtesy of the coral-pink conch on her desk, which had suddenly begun to vibrate powerfully enough to shake the desk. Claire laughed and grabbed the shellphone from where it lay. "Calm down, Hailey," she said as she lifted the shell to her ear. "Nobody cares what you have to say anyway."
"I resent that."
Claire rolled her eyes. "Hello?"
"Oh, well, make it quick, 'cause I'm expecting a call from the other mermaid who had my shellphone number."
"Cute. Listen, you and Hailey meet me at the coffee shop down the road at ten in the morning. Hailey knows the place – the one with the strawberry doughnuts."
"If you checked out a book or something, it'd be better to look it over in – "
"Got something better than a book. Ten a.m., sharp."
"Ten, coffee shop, got it."
"And bring money for food."
"Of course. Are we talking snacks and drinks, or a full doughnut buffet?"
But Aqua had hung up before Claire had even made it to 'we', her voice replaced by the sound of the sea.
"I hate it when Aqua gets all mysterious," Hailey grumbled as she rejoined Claire at their little table. She reached down to brush Claire's notes aside, making room for her coffee and Danish pastries.
Claire snorted in annoyance – she'd spend five minutes arranging those papers – but otherwise didn't react.
"She could tell us all about mer-human relations back in my room," Hailey continued, "and it would've saved me some money. Instead, we're sitting here waiting, and worrying that Ryan might walk in and wonder what we're up to."
"Number one, you're being paranoid," Claire finally replied, not taking her eyes off the notepad in front of her. "Even if Ryan did walk in, there's nothing wrong with us hanging out in a coffee shop. Number two, Aqua isn't 'being mysterious'; she's probably just too lazy to tell us everything over the phone. Can't imagine she likes reading history books very much."
"Well, then I don't like Aqua being lazy."
"'Kettle, you're black', said the pot," Claire quipped.
"Haha." Hailey glanced at her watch. "She's late."
Claire looked towards the door. "No, she isn't." Before Hailey could say anything, Claire tilted her head. "And she's got someone with her."
Hailey looked round so fast that she nearly gave herself whiplash. Aqua was just coming in through the doorway – and right behind her, holding the door open, was a very tall, very handsome guy. Hailey experienced a moment of panic as she tried to figure out where and when Aqua could've met someone new – but then she realized that what looked like stylishly applied streaks of dark red in otherwise-dirty blonde hair were actually natural streaks of dark red in otherwise-dirty blonde hair. Most people wouldn't have any reason to think so, but most people weren't friends with a mermaid whose human acquaintances could be counted on one's fingers. The wire-rimmed glasses were unusual, but she already knew exactly what this guy was.
Claire had apparently come to the same conclusion: "They're just crawling out of the woodwork, aren't they?"
"Do they all look like fricking movie stars?!" Hailey hissed as she turned back to Claire. "What is it about living underwater that – "
Claire hushed her into silence just as Aqua arrived at their table.
"Claire. Hailey." Aqua motioned behind her; the guy, who'd probably hung back while waiting to be introduced, stepped forward. "This is Danny."
"Danny Mara," he supplied.
"Hi Danny," Claire said with a smile. Hailey just nodded; she and Claire both had their guard up, and suddenly they were very curious as to what Aqua had discovered.
"I'm gonna get us some coffee," Aqua said, "and the three of you are going to start talking." She grabbed Hailey's wallet – Hailey didn't even bother protesting – and headed off in the direction of the counter as Danny pulled up a chair.
"So," he said as he sat down. "Aqua tells me the two of you are interested in a little history lesson."
His accent was Australian, but by now Hailey knew better than to take it for granted. It did make her briefly wonder why Aqua spoke with a distinctly American accent, though.
"No offense, but first I think I'd like to know why Aqua brought you, specifically," Claire said.
"Easy stuff first, then," Danny said, reaching for the plate of pastries. "I'm an archivist. Not the most senior around, but knowledgeable enough."
"And Aqua's told you what it is we want to know?"
A smirk tugged at one corner of Danny's mouth. "She may have mentioned something, yes."
Claire wanted to roll her eyes. This guy was the opposite of Aquamarine: he may have volunteered – or been conscripted – to answer their questions, but he obviously didn't intend to hand out freebies. In a way, it reminded her of Ryan, which put her a little bit on edge. She and Hailey may have had secrets, but at least they weren't incredibly mysterious about it.
She decided to go with the direct route: "What happened the last time humans knew about merpeople?"
It didn't have the effect she wanted. Danny smiled as he said, "You'd have to be a bit more specific about that. I'm pretty sure that technically speaking, the three of you could qualify for 'the last time'."
"Cut the shit," Hailey hissed. "You know what we mean." Claire was only slightly surprised by Hailey's outburst; this was a somewhat stressful time.
Danny's smile faded. "The first thing you need to know is that I'm going to be compressing and generalizing quite a bit. There's quite a lot of politics, social economics, psychology, and such that I'm going to have to omit." His tone had become that of a teacher, one who was fully aware of how much work he had ahead of him. The two girls leaned in, knowing that they were finally going to get answers that actually made sense.
"We made first contact," Danny began as he reached up to adjust his glasses. "It made a lot of people very angry, and was regarded as a very bad decision."
The water-dwellers had been watching humans for a very long time. They knew that at some point, something had to be done for the two species to exist together in the world. However, they also knew that humans generally did not impress them: when their overall incompetence did not slow their progress, their warmongering did.
They were not, however, without merit. It could not be denied that humans were intelligent and creative, and that they had certainly managed to produce something that could be called civilization. More important was the simple understanding that humans fully intended to spread across what part of the world they could inhabit, making contact inevitable unless merfolk either never ventured out of water or decided to commit genocide.
At that point, the Grecian city-states were held to be the most advanced bastions of human civilization. They were far from representative of humanity as a whole, but they had developed a society that seemed worth speaking to – although some sea lords made decent arguments for going instead to certain Asiatic civilizations, especially because these were more dependent on the sea and thus more likely to be exposed to merfolk anyway.
It was the lord of the Mediterranean who was delegated to approach the council of Athens. Despite the significance of the act, he was allowed almost complete autonomy in deciding what terms would be offered, so long as they would allow a peaceful co-existence.
In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to set a few more rules.
"What did he offer them?" Claire asked.
Danny took a sip of coffee before answering, "Too much, most think." He glanced over at the counter. "I don't imagine the rest of this story is worth a doughnut or a slice of that apple pie?" Hailey sniggered, Aqua snorted into her coffee, and Claire just raised an eyebrow. Danny shrugged. "Had to try." He leaned forward onto his elbows.
"They reached a deal: merfolk would help the humans develop their civilization. In return, merfolk would have sovereignty over the sea – not that there was much your kind could do about it at that point in history."
"And by sovereignty you mean…?"
"Control. The final say over where and how much humans could fish, where they could travel – everything to do with any body of water inhabited by merfolk."
"What did you do for them?" Hailey asked. She blinked twice, then amended, "For us, I mean."
"Helped them at the Battle of Salamis. Built the bridge that helped Alexander take Tyre. Designed the Acqua Appia. Made Greek fire. Shall I continue?"
"You could explain what the Acqua Appia is, for those of us – "
"Shut up, Hailey," Claire cut in. "What happened to the deal? What trashed a thousand years of collaboration, and why don't we remember any of this?"
"So absolutely no chance of that doughnut?"
"I'll get it," Hailey said before Claire could make any kind of snippy comment. "You and Aqua probably need to hear this more than I do right now." She stood up and headed for the counter. Danny shrugged and turned back to the other two girls.
"Long story short, humans got greedy. They started wondering what we had underwater that we didn't want them to see. Started trying to figure out how they could get down there and find out. Started actually coming up with things that could work."
"And we didn't like that?" Aqua sounded just as apprehensive as Claire felt about what would come next.
"Well at first we didn't think much of it. Diving bells are fine for fishing and such, but they don't protect divers from pressure, and they are a pretty poor air supply. It wasn't until some very negative reports started coming in that we began looking at humans as a threat."
"Reports of what?"
Danny's mouth twitched. It almost looked like amusement – odd, given the gravity of the topic of discussion.
But then again, maybe he finds something funny in how crappy we are as a species.
Danny leaned forward even more, apparently trying to add gravitas to his words.
"Merfolk were being captured: soldiers were hauling them out of the sea, dragging them to…" He paused, then rolled his eyes, "…to what passed for scientists." Danny shook his head. "There isn't a human scientist alive today who could safely operate on a mermaid, let alone a millennium ago. Dozens were dead before anything was done about it."
Claire hadn't realized she'd closed her eyes, but she opened them as Danny finished speaking. "How were they caught? There are hundreds of ways they could fight back if – "
He'd been anticipating the question. "Well, the humans were smart about it. They didn't go after military officers or political leaders. That lot would've been trained, able to react quickly. Bad targets if you don't think you can take on water magic, and no one was stupid or deluded enough to believe otherwise. They went after – "
"Merfolk like me," Aqua finished for Danny.
The young. The curious. The incautious. Those were the ones the soldiers went after.
Those were the ones who would react poorly when men with swords grabbed them by the arms. Their powers weren't mature enough to be activated by accident, and certainly not on a scale that would have made a difference. Out of and away from any significant body of water, they were worse than helpless. All they could do was scream and kick ineffectively, although some were too shocked to do even that.
The disappearances would have been noticed sooner were it not fairly common for younger merfolk to sojourn inland for months on end. The early years of cooperation had seen considerable regulation of the admittedly lopsided travel between the two realms, but after centuries these regulations had been relaxed to mere formality.
That merfolk were disappearing would have been noticed eventually, but kidnapping would not have been the first thought. Carelessness, however, meant things went far worse than they otherwise could have gone.
The men in charge of guarding the captured merfolk grew lax. Most captives raged and screamed, but tired themselves out within days. The girls fell into quiet intermittent sobs, while the boys simply fell silent. Some tried to escape, but breaking out of a prison wasn't something commonly taught in schools. After eight months without incident, the number of soldiers assigned to guard duty was lowered. Gates and doors were left unlocked for convenience. Eventually they stopped bothering to drag their captives to castles and fortresses – many were simply kept in cages in cellars.
Thus, when someone who actually could break out was captured, the circumstances were almost perfect.
"Wait, hold on," Hailey interrupted through a mouthful of doughnut. "There was a teenage merperson who had been trained to break out of prison?!"
"Not specifically to break out of prison," Danny explained. "She was the daughter of a military officer, and he'd taught her to be very well prepared."
"And she was the only one in, what, a year, whose dad taught her to pick locks with hairpins?"
Danny shrugged. "The humans were lucky. Also, if your father was paranoid enough to teach you to fight and bust out of captivity, he probably would have been too paranoid to let you explore much anyway. She could have snuck out on her own, just this once to get a taste of freedom. Wouldn't have been the first, and she definitely," here he threw Aqua a sly look, "wasn't the last."
Claire and Hailey exchanged a look. Hailey shrugged. "Fair enough. So how'd she escape?"
"Well for one she didn't even think about fighting her way out. After escaping the cage and sneaking past some guards, she stole some rags and walked out with a bunch of servants. No one even noticed she was missing until the next morning."
"That's…kind of sad."
"Like I said: carelessness. To be fair, I'm summarizing everything for the sake of convenience. It was a lot harder than I just made it sound. One doesn't simply walk out of an inland prison all the way to the sea without a worry."
Claire finished the cup of coffee she'd been nursing throughout Danny's story. "Alright. So this mermaid makes it all the way back to…wherever."
"Right, the Mediterranean. She tells her father what's been happening. Her dad passes it on. What happens next?"
"Well, genocide was a not-entirely-uncalled-for solution that was heavily favored by the more aggressive factions. They argued that merfolk had nearly drowned the entire human race before – albeit by accident – and they could probably finish the job this time."
"Wait, you mean the whole Noah thing – "
"Is not relevant right now," Claire hissed. Danny's mouth twitched in amusement.
"Cooler heads and softer hearts won out," he continued, "although you're probably going to question that when I tell you what they decided to do instead."
A key factor in deciding how to react to the humans was the knowledge that there were parts of the world in which human and merfolk co-existed fairly well. The Americas – then undiscovered by Europeans – were largely unaffected by their aquatic neighbors, and many Pacific islands were actually engaged in active trade and mutual learning. Murdering the entirety of humanity was therefore deemed unjust.
That didn't mean the merfolk weren't going to kill anyone – just that they would be more selective about it. They were not above wrathful vengeance.
It started with small-scale attacks. Cyclones appeared out of nowhere, sinking ships before disappearing as suddenly as they came. Sudden and very powerful undertows sucked swimmers into the depths, allowing them to reappear only after days of being thrown about underwater and nibbled on by aquatic scavengers. Sometimes the enraged mermen didn't even bother with any kind of subtlety: corpses would be found by the shore, bled dry from massive puncture wounds in their chests. It was a horrifyingly one-sided war, and yet it wasn't enough.
"If you wanted to kill a million people," Danny explained, "tridents and currents would take an awfully long time and a lot of effort. You want it done faster, you need something that doesn't rely on you guiding it the entire time. Something easy to spread, hard to stop, and ultimately just as deadly as a blade in the heart. What you want is – "
"An epidemic," Hailey finished for him. Aqua and Claire turned to her in surprise. She ignored their apparent astonishment at her having reached that conclusion before them; what she said next was the real kicker. "A plague."
Danny nodded. "A plague. Originally a village-killer in Central Asia that we helped along." He held up a hand to pre-empt Claire's next question. "Don't ask me about the science – not my forte. All I can say is that whatever they did made it far more contagious. The original strain would have died out within weeks – the new one…well, you know what it did."
They did. Even Aqua, who was familiar at best with human history, had heard of the epidemic that had claimed a quarter of the world's population in the 14th century. Two hundred million people died over the course of four years, a death toll from which Europe had needed a century and a half to recover from. Even hundreds of years later, no one was sure exactly what had caused it.
It was certainly a terrifying punishment, except for one thing.
"As far as anyone knows," Claire said, "the Black Death was caused by rat fleas. Shouldn't we remember that merfolk caused it if it was meant to be some kind of retribution?"
"Believe me, at the time everyone knew exactly who did it," Danny answered, glancing at the pastry display. Hailey took the hint and stood to get them another round of food. "For a hundred years, there wasn't a human who would go near water unless he absolutely had to. Then we decided that the best thing to do was just get away from you all."
"How'd you do that?"
"With no small degree of difficulty." He stopped talking to stretch out his back. Claire found the interruption surprisingly welcome; part of her was still trying to process the thought of mermaids being responsible for what was, despite what Danny said, very much a case of genocide. The silence lasted until Hailey returned with fresh coffee and muffins. Danny thanked her before starting on a chocolate muffin. "Anyways," he resumed after a particularly noisy swallow, "there's no exact translation in extra-aquatic languages for what they did, but I personally like the phrase 'mass memory charm'."
"'Mass memory charm,'" Claire repeated. "As in, they made humans forget about merpeople?"
"Not exactly. You'd still heard of us, hadn't you?"
The three girls had the same realization at the same time, but it was Aqua who voiced it:
"They made us into myths."
There hadn't been much more to say after the revelation of what Hailey had begun calling The Great Mermaid Conspiracy. More accurately, Danny didn't have much more in the way of answers.
"How did they create the memory charm?"
"Not a scientist. No idea."
"How many merfolk know about this?"
"Not many. Other than that, no idea."
"Could Ryan have found out from Jade?"
"Don't know them. No idea."
"What's the square root of one hundred sixty-nine?"
After a beat, Hailey looked at Claire. "Is that right?"
The other girl just rolled her eyes.
Danny had been able to give them a bit more information on the spell, though. The way he explained it, it was a one-time solution that no one was sure would ever be doable again due to its sheer scale. They had managed to simultaneously tap into the subconscious mind of every human being on the planet at once, altering just enough to reclassify merfolk as fiction rather than fact. What once were memories were now flights of fancy, the gaps filled in by side effects of the charm. Even hard evidence of the merfolk existence – treaties, paintings, sculptures – became no more than decoration.
Even then there was some work that had to be handled physically. Some documents were simply too detailed to leave alone – the charm obviously didn't guarantee that humans would never believe in the existence of merpeople, else the girls wouldn't be in their current situation. Merfolk had a very strong edge in infiltration, subterfuge, and occasionally knocking someone unconscious. After the atrocities committed by humans became public knowledge, it was easy to find willing volunteers who wanted to do something – anything – to fight back. It was actually harder to restrain them than to get anyone to do the job.
The campaign to fictionalize the children of the sea took five years. The results had lasted over a millennium.
It was a very impressive account. If it were true – and the girls had no reason to doubt it – it would nicely explain Ryan's pessimistic outlook. Hailey herself almost felt guilty for things with which she had absolutely nothing to do.
"Best guess is that Jade knows the story," Claire said. "Maybe her dad was a librarian or something. She tells Ryan, Ryan panics and goes CIA cover-up on everything."
"Sounds right," Hailey agreed with a shrug. "What now?"
They were back in Hailey's bedroom, the electric fans on full blast. Danny had left not long after the memory charm bombshell (Aqua figured Danny had headed back into the sea; Hailey decided he'd gone to the gym to continue "getting swole") and the girls had decided to head somewhere they could carry on their discussion in private.
Neither Aqua nor Claire had an answer for Hailey. They now knew why Ryan was so protective, but there wasn't really anything to be done about it. They couldn't exactly go up to him and say, "Hey, sucks about that whole mermaid torture thing – want to talk about it over a cup of coffee?"
For a few minutes, the white noise of the fans was joined only by the sound of Hailey opening up and starting on a pack of Tim Tams. Once she had two of the chocolate biscuits in her mouth, she tossed the pack to Aqua.
"Why didn't he do anything sooner?"
The two girls fixed on Claire, who was staring up at the ceiling from where she lay on the floor.
"Ryan said he found out about us a year ago," she continued. "Why didn't he move then instead of the other day?"
"Maybe he didn't know the story yet," Hailey tried.
"Why hadn't Jade told him?"
"Maybe she didn't know the story yet."
"Then when did she find out? And why?"
"The, um, mermaid equivalent of the Wikipedia game?"
"Unless he only heard the story the day before he jumped Claire," Aqua interrupted, "it still doesn't explain why he waited so long to do anything. He goes to school with Hailey; he's had plenty of chances to corner her and get the point across."
"It would have been very disappointing if he'd pulled me into a closet just for that," Hailey muttered. Claire snorted.
"What would explain his timing," Aqua continued, "is if he'd needed time to figure out what he was going to do and who he was going to approach. He had time to go to Hailey, but he didn't. He went to Claire, which means – "
"He decided Claire was the best person to talk to," Hailey finished.
Claire sat up and spun to face Aqua. "But how would he have made that decision? We'd never even met face to face a week ago."
Aqua shrugged and said, "Well, the alternative was Hailey, and we can all guess why he'd think she wasn't smart enough to – " Her sentence was cut short as she was forced to dodge a thrown book, but the joke had made it in. Once she'd sat back up, she resumed, "But I can think of one reason he'd think a mermaid sob story might resonate more with you than with Hailey."
Claire sighed. "My parents."
"Okay, that makes sense, but again, how would he have even known about that?" Hailey demanded. "It happened years ago, and it didn't even make international news!"
The three girls fell silent, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation. When none of them could manage to do so, Aqua offered the only course of action that could provide an answer:
"We need to talk to Ryan again."