Do Mermen Dream of Aquatic Sheep?

"All hands prepare for maneuvers," O'Neill ordered from the cockpit of the minisub. They were testing a new radar system. O'Neill and Kreig were on a launch providing a target; Ford, Crocker and Lucas were in a second minisub equipped with the new radar system Lucas and Ford had designed. Ford began proceeded through a standard set of search maneuvers after O'Neill reported ready.

Kreig kept an eye on their radar as O'Neill piloted the minisub around the ocean trying to be sneaky. It wasn't long before he was moved to comment on O'Neill's tactics. "Careful, you're going to run into that seaweed."

"I'm not worried about seaweed, Kreig," came the first calm reply.

"You will be after we get it smeared all over the portholes."

O'Neill didn't respond, except for a brief, unimpressed, glance.

Kreig made another check of all systems, then said casually, "You're not going very fast."

"I don't have to," came O'Neill's short reply. "I just have to evade detection."

There was a pause. "Watch out for that sunfish," Ben pointed. He grinned as O'Neill ignored him. A moment later he noted, "That swordfish seems to be doing a better job of hide and seek than we are. Maybe we should let Ford chase after it?"

"Be careful, Lieutenant, or you may be walking home... like those fish you're so fond of."

Kreig just laughed. "You're just jealous of my wit."

"Jealous isn't the word. Try 'disgusted' or 'nauseated'."

Kreig laughed again. The job they were doing wasn't a difficult one, really, so he saw no reason not to make jokes. The distraction kept O'Neill from worrying about the sub stalking them.

The two minis swam around for half an hour with little trouble. Both Ford and Lucas seemed pleased with their design, but not overly ecstatic at the results of the first test. It worked only marginally better than conventional radar although its design structure made it easier to install into a variety of craft, like the minisub or the probes they had tested the previous week.

Ford was about to order a new series of tests when seaQuest reported that a pirate sub had been spotted nearby and they were going to help a UEO police sub catch it. There was no time to bring the two minisubs onboard, so they were ordered to run along as spotters and help as they could. Over the radio, Kreig and O'Neill heard Lucas exclaimed excitedly, "Our new radar should be able to--"

The Captain responded instantly and sternly, "A minisub with experimental equipment is not allowed on the front lines, Lucas."

Before the boy could protest, Commander Ford spoke up. "Don't worry, Captain. I'm aware of UEO regulations; we won't get too close." Kreig thought that the Commander did not sound all that pleased to say it -- he knew the Commander would no doubt prefer to take a more active role.

Acting first on radioed reports from the police, then her own radar, seaQuest homed in on the pirates. The two launches spread out to flank it on the third side -- the police and seaQuest taking front and rear. The chase seemed calm enough, as everyone thought the pirates would simply surrender as soon as it was made clear they could not escape. No one expected the two missiles sent out to clear the way through the weakest link -- the two launches. A third missile headed for the police almost immediately after, hitting just hard enough to make the sub make a run for the surface before losing all its air.

SeaQuest was left to chase down the pirates' sub, constrained to capture them before looking for survivors. Another police sub was on its way, which could gather up those on the damaged launches.

Unfortunately the launches were too badly damaged to wait.

"O'Neill?" Kreig looked up from the panel where his head had smashed when the missile had exploded between the two launches. Kreig saw O'Neill slumped over, apparently unconscious. Kreig unbelted and staggered over to check. The lieutenant was bleeding from a gash on the forehead, his breathing shallow, and definitely unconscious. Kreig swore briefly and started checking the sub's damage. It didn't take long to discover they would have to abandon it... and that the escape pod was destroyed. Kreig swore again and tried to raise the other launch. He didn't try raising seaQuest, knowing they had gone out of range and not wanting to worry them about a rescue they could not yet effect.

"Launch Four calling Launch Three. Come in Launch Three. Do you read?" Kreig's radio was working, he knew that. But he was getting nothing from the other launch. According to his readings the other sub was receiving his message, so there must not be anyone able to respond. They had been closer to the explosion, after all. Kreig swore again, reverting to his native language for a particularly good deep-water curse after glancing at O'Neill again. Still unconscious.

Kreig made a quick check of the sub and found out the stream of water that had filled the escape pod was streaming into the launch proper. He stood in the main compartment and racked his brains. He had to save O'Neill, and couldn't with this launch. He realised he probably had to rescue those in the other sub, as well. How to do that with only damaged craft?

Aha. Kreig jumped for the pilot's panel, and discovered that after a fashion he could manuever his sub. He did so, heading it for the other launch. If he could get the launches hooked up, he could transfer the personnel to whichever sub could get them closest to the surface. A short swim wouldn't -- he hoped -- hurt anybody. Kreig swore again three times while trying to get the sub near enough the other launch, which was drifting unhelpfully, and get the hatches lined up. He tried again to raise the launch and was still getting no response.

He took back his last two curses when he heard the launches clang against each other. After some painful piloting, he was able to hook the hatches together. He shook his head and promised to either take another piloting course, or dispense with vehicles altogether after this. Kreig checked on O'Neill one last time, then went to secure the airlocks. Without even another curse he was opening the lock and headed for the other launch. He found it in much worse shape, both the sub and the people. Broken bones and bruised heads all around left Kreig alone to rescue his shipmates. It looked as though Ford had attempted a rescue before losing consciousness himself; Kreig stepped carefully around the body of his commanding officer as he checked on the launch's condition. The hull of the second launch had been breached worse and was taking on water almost twice as fast.

That left the first sub to get them to the surface. Kreig found first aid kits, stretchers, and webbed harnesses. He quickly transported each man to a stretcher, strapped him in, then carried him over to the other sub. They were still sinking, even though he'd given the first sub's marginally working autopilot a push towards the surface before coming over. He could feel their descent, and knew they were too close to hitting the seafloor. Kreig wrestled the three over to the first sub as quickly as he could, ignoring their injuries as much as he needed to. Then he locked the hatch closed and let the other sub go. It began sinking quickly; it would hit the floor in ten minutes at most.

Ben left the three injured men on the floor of the main compartment and went back to the pilot's cove. He transferred O'Neill to a fourth stretcher and sat down in the pilot's chair, trying to coax the sub into swimming upwards again. He alternated between curses directed at pirates, and prayers directed at the First Storyteller as he tried to convince the sub to move. If he could just get the sub to the surface, he could get the four humans to safety... safely.

The sub began sinking again at fifty feet. Kreig let loose with one last disparaging remark about pirates and their fathers, grabbed up the harnesses from each stretcher and put oxygen masks on all four men. Kreig took a second to rip off his uniform and boots, knowing speed would be of the essence. He grabbed a first aid kit and tied it to himself, then slung the harnesses over his torso. Swinging the hatch open, he let the water rush in, pulling the sub farther down. As soon as the water hit him he began to change -- his legs quickly morphing into a tail, green scales growing over the skin, extending upwards past his hipbones. Inside, his lungs extended certain flaps of skin which would hold water out, letting him extract oxygen from the seawater. Ben felt the change, glad it only took a few moments. He had to get out before they sunk too deep -- he swam against the water pressure, pulling the weight of four stretchers behind him.

He knew he was strong enough. It felt fantastic just being in his skin again, underwater, even if it was a life and death situation. He let the water fill his lungs, swirl around him, holding him up as he swam upwards. He felt the humans lying unmoving -- still unconscious, or close enough to it. He hoped they would stay that way until he got them to the surface. He flicked his tail as hard as he could, luckily he'd gotten out shallow enough for the humans' comfort. It sounded like there were islands off to the northwest, about a mile and a half away. He angled in that direction, climbing carefully so the humans wouldn't get the bends, but not so slowly that they'd run out of oxygen or be in greater danger from the injuries they'd suffered.

Kreig started to swear again, then changed his mind and said a short entreaty aloud. "It would be nice to swim for fun once."

Commander Ford woke up and couldn't figure out where he was. He hurt; his ribs and his head both assured him he was alive, wherever he was. He pushed himself upright and looked around. A beach. Lucas, Crocker, and O'Neill were around him -- in fact, all four were lying in a square around a fire. Ford pulled himself closer, and discovered that four coconuts were sitting against some rocks, punctured and stoppered with grass. Ford crawled over to check each his people's injuries, hissing against the pain in his ribs. He found that no one was injured badly, though all were all still unconscious.

He suddenly noticed that everyone had been bandaged. He found the first aid kit lying nearby. Ford looked around, wondering where they were and how they'd arrived.

"Kreig." Ford saw footprints around the fire, the group, and leading back and forth to the waterline. Ford started to stand up to look for Kreig when the pain in his ribs flared. Gasping, he sat back down and surveyed the area from where he sat. He took one of the coconuts and drank the milk as he sat there.


Ford turned and saw Crocker sitting up, looking at him. "Are you all right, Chief?"

Crocker stared about him, taking in the same things Ford had. "I'm all right, sir. A bit banged up from the feel of it. Where's Lieutenant Kreig? Are they all right?" He nodded towards Lucas and O'Neill.

Ford was spared answering that he didn't know by their waking. He and Crocker waited as they regained their facilities, and figured out where they were and what had happened. Lucas asked the same question. "Where's Kreig?"

Ford finally answered, "I don't know. He's the one who got us all here, and brought these," he said indicating the coconuts. He stood up, slowly and with a couple of hisses of pain, and looked around. He considered shouting for Kreig, but the pain told him his head would pound too much. Crocker leaned over and fed the fire from the stack of wood near him. "He's gotta be around here somewhere." Ford took a deep breath, then thought of a better plan. "Anybody not have head pains?"

Lucas and Crocker both looked up; O'Neill shook his head slowly -- his pounded. Ford asked Crocker to yell for Kreig. The Chief nodded and stood up, cupping his hands and yelling. He yelled a couple times, in different directions. Ford noticed that the trail of footprints led back and forth to the treeline from the beach, as well to the water. There was no way to tell where Kreig had gone.

"He'll probably be back soon, Commander. He knows he's got four injured people here."

Ford looked at Crocker, knowing he was right. "What if Kreig is injured? He might be--" He was interrupted by a splash, and a yelped intake of air behind them. They all turned and saw Kreig, in the water, just risen up from the lagoon's depths. Kreig waved at them; Ford waved for him to come back.

Ben started to swim towards them. He had gone back and picked up his uniform, and rechecked the radio to see that it was transmitting a distress signal. There were only two chains of islands in the area, so he figured seaQuest wouldn't have much problem finding them. Ben glanced over at the beach, saw the others had all awakened and Ford and Crocker were standing. Hopefully the others weren't too badly injured. Ben took the pants he'd tied around his waist, intending to put them on before he swam ashore. His shirt he'd used already as bandages on the others. He grinned at Ford's stance, obviously grumbling under his breath at Kreig's apparent frolicking.

He froze when he felt the current change; something was swimming nearby. He turned to listen, even though he was upwater. He stayed very still, ignoring Ford's softly called question. Ben pushed himself below water to check it out -- it wasn't a sub, it was a living creature. It might be a helpful living creature. Ben listened, waiting for it to swim closer.

In the split second when he identified the creature, it was on him and he only had time to propel himself upward again, into the air, shouting....

He had to expel the water from his lungs as he went up, trying for the only safety he had -- the shore nearby where it couldn't follow. Ben felt his throat tighten as his instincts fought to swim away, yelling the mer's death yell. Shark attack. His head broke water as the teeth sank in.

"Shark!" He yelled again in English, his vocal cords adapted for air breathing. He tried to swim up out of the water, pulling himself through the water towards the beach. Teeth riped through his body and the panic sank in. He began screaming, the mer's death scream adapted to air breathing as well -- making it a totally wordless but understandable yell to the humans standing on the shore.

As soon as Kreig had yelled 'shark' Ford and the others were in the water, heading for him. He was not so far out they couldn't reach him in time, but the water got deep quickly. Ford felt the sand angling downward, and hoped they could get to Kreig without exposing too much of themselves to the shark. He realised they had no weapons to fight it off with, lacking even a club or large rock from the island behind them. There was no time to go back and find something.

They watched as Kreig managed to hurl himself towards them, into shallower water as more of his torso became visible above water. They couldn't tell if the shark was still on him or not, or even where it was. Kreig was still screaming, an awful high-pitched howl that didn't sound human -- or even sentient. Ford could tell that Kreig had already gone into shock- - his eyes weren't focused on anything and he seemed oblivious to the four rescuers headed his way. He pushed himself towards the beach, lying on the sand in only two feet of water.

The blood floating in the water was obviously Kreig's, and made Ford and the others work all the faster. Ford and Crocker grabbed his arms, pulling him up and towards the shore. As O'Neill and Lucas came up to grab his legs, they stopped, unnoticed by Ford and Crocker as they pulled him out of the water.

"Commander...." O'Neill began, shocked out of worrying about the shark, which wouldn't follow them into such shallow waters.

Ford looked back, irritated at their lack of help, and stopped. Ford and Crocker stared, then Ford quickly directed O'Neill and Lucas to get Kreig out of the water and to shore, as the wound the shark had inflicted was a large one and was bleeding profusely. They carried him to shore ignoring, for the moment, the scaled tail where Kreig's legs should have been.

They laid him down on the sand, just out of the water. Crocker looked up and asked, "Should we take him completely out of the water, do you think?"

Ford looked down at Kreig, who was breathing fast and still in shock, and shrugged. "He's been out of water the entire time he's been on board seaQuest. He should be all right now. Besides, he's bleeding. Lucas, go bring me the first aid kit." Startled, Lucas jumped up. Ford and the others just stared at Kreig where he lay on his back in the sand. His breathing became faster and more ragged. Ford noticed, but was at a loss as to how to help. He leaned over, and tried saying Kreig's name, to get his attention and bring him out of shock.

As Lucas plopped down beside him with the kit, Ford told O'Neill to move to Kreig's head and talk to him in an attempt to get his attention. Then he directed Crocker and Lucas to help him make bandages out of their shirts, cleaning and finally binding the gaping wound. Kreig's breathing was getting worse, and he wasn't responding to any of O'Neill's words. When Ford finished tying the last bandage into place he looked at Kreig, wondering what the problem with his breathing could be.

"Maybe he can't breathe cause he's out of the water." Lucas suggested. Ford looked at the boy, feeling there was something wrong with that assumption but not willing to argue about it while Kreig suffocated. The commander nodded and motioned for the others to pick Kreig up to carry him back into the water, just deep enough to place him under.

O'Neill and Ford had his torso up first and they all heard Kreig suddenly take in a lungful of air. They stopped lifting him, and saw that the only difference was Kreig was in an upright position instead of lying flat on his back. "Maybe he can't breathe lying down. There could be pressure on his lungs...." Lucas started to speculate, then trailed off as Ford glanced at him. As Kreig was noticably breathing better, Ford had them set him down again and hold him upright. O'Neill crouched behind him, propping him up. They waited, tensely, as Kreig's breathing deepened, then steadied. Ford nodded.

"Okay, let's carry him up closer to the fire." They were careful to keep him upright, and they set him down in the sand carefully. O'Neill sat down to hold him again. Ford leaned closer, looking into Kreig's eyes which were still wide open but not seeing anything. "I think he's still in shock. The only thing I know to do for him is keep him warm and comfortable, and try to talk him into calming down."

Crocker said, "Yeah, but he's not... I mean, that only works for humans. What if--" He sounded unsure talking about Kreig as if he weren't human -- which he didn't seem to be.

Ford shrugged. "Well, he passed the Navy's physicals, he must be... close enough to human." He stared down at Kreig, at the tail which was obviously real and part of him the same way his arms and human-looking skin were. The realization that Kreig was not human began to sink in.

Lucas knelt down in the sand beside him, his voice and eyes full of awe and excitement. "A real merman. And he's been on our ship for over a year -- mascerading as a human. He must be almost indistingiushable from humans, if he passed all his physicals, all his medical exams, and nobody ever suspected he wasn't human. I wonder how he can survive in the ocean. If he has a human... or almost human body...." Lucas trailed off, not aware of the glances he was getting from the others who were just as intrigued but less likely to get distracted in exploring the possiblities.

Ford looked down again at Kreig, wondering what else they needed to do, what else they could do, to bring him out of shock and keep him from dying. That stopped him -- that Kreig could die, and then they'd never know anything beyond what they were seeing now. Then, with a bit of shame, he told himself it would be unfortunate for Kreig to die, regardless. Ford whispered, "We've got to do something."

None of them knew what. They remained gathered around him beside the fire, keeping it burning, drinking the coconut milk Kreig had provided for them. Ford tried once to get Kreig to drink, but he coughed up what was poured into his throat. Finally they realized all they could do was hope for a rescue, and that Dr. Westphalen and her team could figure out something to save Kreig. Ford looked at him, caught up in the wonder, and saw the total fear in Kreig's eyes. He suddenly felt something that he hadn't expected to feel for Kreig.

He didn't want to lose him. He didn't want one of his officers dying, and not just because there was suddenly a wealth of information to be learned, a whole new species to explore. Here was a man he knew -- maybe he had never liked him much, but he knew him and had served with him and knew that it would be a greater loss than he'd ever realized before were Kreig to die now.

Ford wondered about other merfolk out there and how they would ever learn about it, if Kreig died here.

Fortunately he didn't have to find out. An hour after the shark attack, a launch pulled itself onto the beach. Kreig's condition had not changed, although it had not grown noticeably worse. That in itself Ford considered good. He sent Lucas down to meet the launch and to bring the medical team to them. The young man jumped up and ran down the beach. They saw as he met the first crewman off the launch, saw Lucas pointing and talking, then they both came running towards them, followed by Dr. Westphalen and a couple others.

They stopped as they got near enough to see. The crewmen stared, transfixed by the gleaming green scales. Westphalen stared for a second, then saw the bloody wound and moved over to kneel beside Kreig. She checked the bandage, and asked Ford what had happened. He told her everything, including the trouble he'd had breathing, his shock, how he'd yelled and how he hadn't responded to anything after the initial attack. He even told her that Kreig had coughed up the coconut milk, and since then they'd had nothing to try.

Westphalen nodded, then sat on her heels and stared. She could check his vital signs, and compare them to those she'd taken during his physicals... but she didn't know how to change them when she found his normally high blood pressure even higher, and his slow pulse rate almost undetectable. His body temperature was low and his eyes were dilated in fear. She cursed under her breath at her lack of knowledge. How could she save him? She realized all she could do was take him back to the ship, treat his wound, and hope.

She directed the crewmen to pick him up and carry him, carefully, to the launch. She nodded in understanding at their hesitation to touch his tail, but fortunately they were compassionate and knew it was more important to help him than to ask their questions. She glanced at Ford. "What about the other injuries?"

He shook his head. "I don't think we're too bad. K... Kreig had us bandaged up, when we woke on the beach. He... he saved us, got us to this island. We'd be dead, if it weren't for him." Ford realized the words only as he'd said them.

Westphalen helped the commander onto the launch, and he sat on a bench where he could watch Kreig. They rigged a harness to hold him upright and steady. Then they headed for seaQuest and Westphalen reviewed everything she knew about marine life and the different ways it reacted to injury, the different ways it reacted to healers' efforts.

Bridger met them at the docking bay. The bay had been cleared, of no-doubt curious eyes and ears. Bridger himself took only a moment to stare in wonder at his officer's obvious species and then simply went with them to sickbay. None of them had come up with any ideas as to how to help him. When Westphalen told them she couldn't even reliably interpret his vital signs, they realized they might not have any way to help.

Suddenly O'Neill looked up from where one of the nurses was tending to him. "Why don't we ask Darwin?"

Everyone stared at him for a moment, then Westphalen broke into a relieved smile. "Of course! If anyone stands a chance of knowing anything about this, it's him."

Bridger went to the pool, and called Darwin on the comm. They waited impatiently until the dolphin swam into view. Bridger spoke into the translator again. "Darwin, we have a problem. We want to know if you can help us."

"Darwin help Bridger," came the response.

"Good. Darwin, Kreig has been injured. Badly injured. We don't know how to help him... can you tell us what we can do?"

There was silence, and Bridger wondered if Darwin had understood. Then, "Benjamin hurt. How hurt?"

"He was attacked by a shark. His... he's bleeding, the shark bit off part of his... his tail, where his thigh would be." Bridger almost managed to say it as if it were completely normal.

Darwin swished the water, obviously upset. "Shark bad. Much danger. Darwin help. Darwin fix...." The dolphin turned and disappeared into the water tube. The humans simply watched, not certain that Darwin was going to give them the help they -- Kreig -- needed.

"Where is he going?" Westphalen aked.

"Maybe he's going for help. Let's hope it means he knows what to do." Bridger stared at the pool of water, where Darwin had disappeared. "I suppose we'll just have to wait." They stared at each other, saying nothing, each aware of the myriad of questions that swam through their minds. Westphalen finally decided to ignore them for now and began checking on her teams' ministrations in tending to the others' wounds.

I followed the dolphin as fast as we could go. My heart was pounding, and I was more scared than I had been in a long time. Not just because we were headed for a human ship, but because Benjamin was hurt. Shark attack. I was scared.

Darwin took me into the ship, and we followed a course of tunnels through the ship's interior. When we reached a pool, I changed into my legs and stood up... and caught sight of Benjamin, lying on a platform, his tail wrapped in a white cloth. I went right to him and looked him over. He was still in shock, not even keening for comfort. I moved the cloth out of the way and saw the bite -- it was huge, but healable. I felt Benjamin's head, arms, and tail, and found his heart rate was too slow and his breathing was too shallow.

He was lying too flat, for one thing. There was also no sun to keep him dry. I looked up and around at the tiny lights that were nearby. I pressed my hand close to one to feel if it was hot enough. It was a little warm; if I could move it closer maybe it would work.

The humans in the room were watching me. One moved forward and spoke. Its voice pounded at my chest, reverberating low and soft. I was going to ignore her, trying to get some light to warm Benjamin, when Darwin called out to me that she wanted to help.

I told him, "I need sunlight to make him warm."

Darwin took my words and said them in his own language... which was apparently then turned into the humans' language. The humans conversed for a moment, then the one nearest me said something which Darwin translated.

"Humans bring light to make warm."

"Good." I left the light I'd been fiddling with alone and moved closer to Benjamin. I put my hand on his face and got no response. Well then, I would simply have to hold him and hope. I pulled him into a sitting position and climbed up behind him. Leaneing him back against me, I put one arm around him, and let his head fall onto my chest with his best ear next to my chest.

I watched as the humans began setting up larger lights and turning them on. Very quickly it was warmer. I told Darwin when it was warm enough and he told them.

"Humans want to know what more Benjamin needs."

"Nothing I can't give him. He is healing."

It was time to encourage him. I softly called to him, wordless purring. At first there was no response, then suddenly he began crying. His keening made my body ache as my instinctive response echoed his own. He keened and I called back; I held him, bringing him comfort and the sounds to draw him out of his shock.

I was so glad when the rhythm of his keening fell into a regular cry; my own call settled with it and I felt myself relax. Now all there was to do was sing to him, and hold him. I noticed that the humans were still standing around, watching, talking to themselves. Maybe they were talking to me, too, but Darwin didn't translate for them. He knew, of course, that I wouldn't talk while I needed to call to Benjamin. I listened to his heart beat, and felt his skin -- dry and warm. I suddenly realized I wouldn't have to worry through the night whether he'd remain warm enough. Here with these little sun lights I could keep him warm all night long. It was a good thing, because most Mer don't survive even a tiny shark attack.

I don't know how long I sat there with him -- as long as necessary. I felt him move, stirring in my arms before his keen dropped away. I kept singing to him for a bit, until he answered me with his own comforting song. I smiled and nuzzled his neck, and let him turn enough to look at me. His eyes were clear, but I'd known he was all right when his singing started. I asked him how he felt, and he said he hurt.

When I smiled at him, happy all over, he gave me that affronted tone of his. "You shouldn't be happy if I'm hurting!"

"But you're saying so... I am so happy you are well enough to say so." I squeezed my arms around him, holding him against me tightly and safe. "I was so scared." It was safe enough to say so, now that he was awake.

He looked scared, remembering the attack. I nuzzled his cheek, singing a bit to keep him calm. It wouldn't take much to put him into shock again this soon. I needed to distract him. "Are you going to tell your friends you're awake now?"

He blinked, startled, and looked over. He watched the humans, still gathered around listening to us. Two of them walked forward and spoke to him. I listened to the rumble in his chest as he spoke their language, felt the tremble in his voice. He was still scared, but this was a scared he could deal with.


"Yes, Benjamin?" He was holding onto my hands, as if telling me not to let go. Like I would have!

"I'm not sure I know how to explain this."

"Tell them we're not the mers they're looking for."

That made him laugh and I grinned. One of the humans turned a funny expression my way, so I smiled at him. I didn't trust him but there was no reason to let him know that. He smiled back and said something.

"He is saying thank you," Benjamin told me.

"For what?" I knew what the words meant, because the dolphins kept saying them. Mers don't use them because almost everything we do is instinct. "For saving my life."

I knew humans were weird, but this.... I said to Benjamin, "Why is he saying thank you? Did he think I couldn't?"

Benjamin started indulging me... a sign he thought I should know what was going on. He knows I don't consort with humans, but maybe he thinks I listen to his stories of his own encounters with them. "He doesn't know who you are or why you would come save my life."

"Oh." I looked at the human. "I... Benjamin, tell him I have to save you. It's my job."

I won't describe the tone I got for that one, but he said something to the humans -- and from the noise I heard they were amused. Benjamin said something else, and they calmed down quickly.

"What'd you say?"

"Why it is your job. That you're my mate."

"Why do they have funny tones for us?" They did, such odd ones, like they'd never imagined such a thing.

"Because humans come in two sexes, like dolphins."


Benajmin sighed at me. I was beginning to think he'd been on a boat too long if he were already tired of answering my questions. He was out of practise, apparently. "Love... they're only just finding out about us. They're going to think everything is odd." "So why do they act surprised?" "Because they don't know they're going to think everything is odd."

I thought that one over. "Benjamin.."

"Yes?" I'd interrupted what he'd been saying to the human.

"Why don't they know it is odd?"

He ignored me, which, to be honest, is easy to do. I let him and just curled up against his back and held him. He talked to the other humans and they talked back. Their voices sounded weird -- being in air will do that, though. I closed my eyes, and soon I felt myself begin to purr. I was holding my mate again. It felt good.

Benjamin woke, hearing his mate behind him singing softly. He turned around and discovered it was true -- he wasn't dreaming. Then Ian had to remind him where they were. He turned and found the Captain and the others staring. Captain Bridger and Dr. Westphalen walked forward and asked him calmly if he was all right.

"I will be... I'm awake now." He leaned farther into his mate's hold, wondering what to do now. As ever, his mate's irreverent sense of humor -- and reality -- got the better of him. He listened as Bridger stepped forward, and spoke to Ian.

"I'd like to thank you.. for what you've done."

Benjamin translated, and was glad he didn't feel up to strangling his dearest love. He turned back to the Captain. "He says... he says he had to save me, because it's his job."

"His job? Why... who is he?" Westphalen was as surprised as any of them, but still apparently able to speak.

Benjamin grinned, and answered, "He's my mate." He was surprised to see the looks given him, but wasn't surprised to hear Ian's questions. When Ian fell silent, Bridger asked if that meant what it did in the humans' world.

"More or less.. well actually more. Mers mate for life, and-" He had to answer another of Ian's questions, then ignored him. "There are things we are, and do for each other which is... instinctive, because we're mated. We can't not do them. Even if he annoys me, I can't not love him. I can't not be with him."

"But you've been apart from him all the time you've been on seaQuest." Westphalen pointed out.

"It's only a few years that we've been apart. It isn't that much."

"A few years isn't a lot?" She sounded like she couldn't believe it.

Benjamin squirmed a bit, then replied. "Not when you live as long as we do." He was saved from answering by the soft purring which began behind him, nestled up against his back. It felt so wonderful, he was being held by Ian and they were both content, happy; he wanted to close his eyes and listen to his love's voice. Something of that must have shown on his face, for Westphalen smiled.

"I imagine now is not the best time for questions," she said. "You get some rest. Let us know if you or your mate need anything."

"I will." Benjamin leaned his head back, felt Ian's hold shift slightly so they could both lean backwards, faces together. Benjamin saw out of the corner of his eyes as the Captain and the others moved away, then he closed them and was filled with the sound and smells of his lover.

I didn't know what Benjamin had done, but the humans moved away. Not out of hearing range, but far enough that they probably thought they were giving us privacy. Well, since they didn't understand us, maybe they were. It occured to me that I wanted desperately to caress my mate; it had been a long time since I'd heard or held him. His injury was still new, though, and I didn't think he needed that sort of arousal.

Not physically, anyway. From the way he snuggled against me I knew he needed it every other way. His skin smelled so good -- not as healthy as it ought, but then he'd been dry for a long time, and recently afraid. But it still smelled like him and that was all I cared about. I purred at him, and I felt him suddenly relax, limp, as the shock and pain finally wore away.

"Do you want me to put you to sleep, loved one?"

"No, I'm okay... I want to sleep when you do." Benjamin's voice was soft, like the touch I wanted to give him.

I tingled at that, but I worried for his safety. "Do you think we ought to? Here, on this boat?"

"I trust them," he answered, but then continued, "but I'm not protecting." He trilled at me. "You will do whatever you know is right. How long before you sleep?"

"A while." It wasn't imminent, that's all I knew. I would stay awake while he slept. "Do you need to sleep?"

He sighed. "Yes, I do." I heard a fearful tremor in his tone. "You'll hold me."

"Of course!" I squeezed him tightly. I knew he didn't think I'd leave him alone, but he just needed to hear it. "I love you, Benjamin. Go to sleep, I'll listen around you."

He kissed me, and settled his cheek on mine. I waited until he was still, then began singing to him. He fell asleep on the right measure, and I finished singing more quietly. Then I raised my head because the human who'd spoken to me earlier had come closer. He said something and I heard Darwin translate. "Bridger ask if sleeping mer good."

I wasn't sure that what Darwin said was actually what the human had asked, but that's the limitations of dolphins' languages. I told him, "Benjamin will be fine. He is sleeping, now, his injury will be healed tomorrow. I put him to sleep so he won't be scared."

I heard the human's tone change, and wondered what I'd said that was so odd. Rather, I wondered why they still thought it wasn't supposed to be odd. Darwin said, "Bridger say Benjamin heal fast. Ask if attack makes Benjamin still scared."

I appreciated Darwin's not saying the word. There are three things which will put a mer into shock quickly and directly -- the sound of a shark, the cry of a shark, or a dolphin's warning of a shark. It has something to do with their agreement to hunt them for us. Or maybe that's the other way around? I answered the human's questions. "Benjamin does not heal fast. Does not heal slow. Benjamin supposed to be afraid of the attack, by instinct. Won't be not afraid until he heals. Should be afraid of humans now."

It was ok to say it, since he was asleep and couldn't argue with me.

Through Darwin, the human said, "Why should Benjamin be afraid of humans? We haven't hurt him. We aren't making plans to." I tried to explain. "Not intellect-afraid. Instinct-afraid. He's not afraid of humans while humans think Benjamin is human. Now afraid because he's found out as a mer." Talking about it was beginning to tire me.

I waited as Darwin spoke to the human Bridger. Bridger spoke back-- facing me, but speaking at Darwin. Darwin translated. "Humans not hurt mer. Not on this ship. Benjamin and Ian safe. Bridger protect." That surprised me; then I decided that Darwin probably didn't mean what it sounded like. A human couldn't swear to protect a mer -- not the way a mate protects or a parent protects. Perhaps he meant wall protects. That would be okay. It would be nice having some walls between us and sharks, anyway.

I told Darwin to tell him I appreciated it, and then watched as the human moved away again. It walked around the room, going from one human to another, each of whom were sitting on beds like the one we were on. I listened to everything and held Benjamin close. I wondered what would happen to us once he was healed.

Benjamin woke slowly, feeling warm and safe and for a moment not understanding why. Then he felt the warm presence behind him and smiled. He clicked a soft hello to his mate and smiled wider at the reply.

"If you're awake does this mean we can eat now?"

Ben laughed, relieved at his mate's straightforwardness. Humans were always so duplicitious, even when they were being honest. Ian, and most other mers, were too driven by instinct to worry about things which were not real and happening at the moment. Mers who worried about other things took vacations upworld, passing for human for a few years at a time. Tolerant mates simply waited patiently; mates like Ian hovered nearby making faces whenever their mates could take a day off and join them for a swim.

It wasn't that Ian minded Ben's forays, Ben knew that. His mate merely preferred being nearby. In this case, Ben was grateful -- Ian had saved his life. Ben turned around and faced his mate. Ian was grinning at him, waiting for his breakfast. Ben kissed him. He ignored the human who had approached and was now standing back a few feet. Finally he let his mate go and turned back.

Kristen was trying not to stare, and trying not to smile. She was failing at both. "Lieutenant..." she began, obviously not sure if it was all right to interrupt.

"Yeah, Doc?" Ben gave her a happy smile. He felt fantastic and not even the prospect of trying to explain all of this to his crewmates could tarnish that feeling. "I was going to ask 'how do you feel' but I'm not sure I need the answer." Ben laughed, and she continued. "Would it be all right if I inspected your injury?"

"Sure, go ahead. It's almost healed anyway."

She gave him a doubtful look, and moved forward to remove the bandage. Ben felt Ian move behind him, trying for a view himself. Westphalen cut through the outer bandages, then carefully peeled back those beneath. Ben could feel the wound twinge -- much better than the sharp pain and aching he'd felt before Ian had put him to sleep. He heard the inhalation of surprise when the wound was completely revealed. "I don't believe it. I see it but I don't...."

<Looks pretty good, love,> Ian clicked, drawing a intrigued glance from Westphalen. Kirsten looked back at Ben. "Is this normal?" "Yeah, it's normal. One of our advantages... the other being our natural charm." He gave her a wink, and elicited a short laugh from the confounded scientist.

"Is this... I mean...." She just shook her head. "Good lord, Ben, I have about a thousand questions."

This time Ben didn't smile. "I figured...."

<What's wrong, Benjamin?> Ian asked, catching the change in his mate's tone. <Nothing. Human curiousity.>

He felt Ian shifting, and knew that had the way been clear Ian would have simply picked him up and taken him back into the water, leaving the submarine behind. Ian didn't trust humans who learned mermen were real -- he remembered the stories of the captures and killings of centuries before too well for that. Ben had never been able to convince him that some humans could be trusted.

<So we should leave now,> came Ian's expected statement.

Ben sighed. He didn't want to -- he enjoyed being on SeaQuest, even if it meant being separated from his mate. Being in deep water all his life was boring -- mers had little culture of their own which had survived the catastrophic decrease in population in the last three hundred years. He'd go crazy if he had to stay underwater all the time. He had to admit, however, that the gleam in Dr. Westphalen's eye was not going to go away; scientific curiousity had overcome a lot in the past, including the subject's reluctance to be studied. Ian was right. <Let me wait a few more hours, for the skin to finish growing back.>

Ian tightened his hold around Ben's waist. <Then we are leaving.>

<Then we are leaving,> Ben agreed.

"Kreig?" Westphalen asked when their conversation ended.

He managed a slight smile for her. "I don't think I'll be able to answer any of your questions."

"Why not?" She seemed sincerely surprised.

This time Ben's smile was half-hearted; he didn't like saying this, he didn't like it being true. "It isn't safe... what do you think is going to happen to us once everyone finds out about us? Every marine biologist is going to descend on us and the rest of the rest of the ocean, looking for more mers." "Ben! You're a sentient species, you can't imagine that we'd capture and study you--"

"Like you have every other species on the planet? You think it'll be any easier when humans find out they've been sharing their planet with another intelligent species? It's hard enough now staying hidden from the military forces around the globe; if they're looking for us we won't stand a chance."

"That's not necessarily true...." she began, but Ben could hear the doubt in her voice. She knew, as well as he, that the human race tended to destroy what it did not understand -- whether deliberately or accidentally, out of fear or enthusiasm to take it apart and undertstand it, humans were destructive to the world around them. It had only been recently, in the last few decades, that efforts on any reasonable scale had been made to prevent and repair the damage done over the years. Ben waited, seeing that she wanted to offer arguments for them to stay and was relieved to hear her finally say, "Nathan was right." She looked at them both, unhappy but willing to accept it. "He said we couldn't tell anyone... only the handful of personnel who saw you, know about it. Nathan ordered them to say nothing." She looked away. "He knew. He knew...." "I'm sorry, Doc." Ben tried to sound sorry. "Believe me, I don't want to go. I like it here... but I can't risk it. The stakes are too great, even if it were up to me to decide. But it isn't. There's a lot more mers out there who'd be in danger as well. I don't have the right to say or do anything that might endanger them."

For a moment she said nothing. Then she nodded. "I understand. I wish I didn't, but I understand. Will... when will you leave?"

Ben shrugged. "Soon enough. Tonight."

"I see." Her voice was quiet, her whole manner subdued. Ben felt sorry for her, but he was beginning to feel the same fear he knew Ian felt. He wanted to get off this boat and away from these humans before it was too late. He hated the feeling of paranoia and it made him angry to know it would not be go away for years to come. "I'll let the Captain know." It was half a question, and Ben nodded. Without anything more, she left. <I'm sorry, Benjamin.> Ian said quietly. <I know you like being with humans.> Ian nuzzled gently at the back of his neck, and Ben felt better. Someday he'd have the best of both his worlds -- his mate beside him every day, and the excitement and interest of the humans' world. Believing that was the only way he could face leaving so soon. <You are coming back later?>

Ian's soft voice wrapped inside him, and Ben rested his head on his mate's shoulder. <Yes, I'll come back. In a few decades, when they're all gone and no one remembers us.>

<You're not happy.>

<No,> Ben couldn't lie to his mate. <I don't want to stay away that long. I don't want to leave.>

<You don't like being in the oceans.> Ian was quiet, and though Ben knew his words hurt, none of it sounded in Ian's tone. Ian said nothing, and Ben started to reply when Ian spoke again. <Next time I will come upwater with you.>

Ben turned, jaw dropping. In all the years they'd been mated Ian had never once offered, never wanted to go upworld and live as human. <You will?> Ben asked, merely to hear the words again because he knew Ian hadn't been joking when he'd said it.

<I will.> Ian gave him a short kiss, and then pulled him back into an embrace. <Rest now and your leg heals.>

Ben was speechless. He could barely imagine what it would be like; he could barely wait and they hadn't even left for the oceans yet.

Four hours later Ben and Ian were standing by the moon pool. Each was wearing a short robe -- for the humans' comfort, not their own. Bridger, Ford and Westphalen were standing nearby; the others who had seen Kreig stayed away, each for his own reasons. Kristen had said only that she wished them well before she turned and left.

Bridger stepped forward, glancing down at Darwin, who had swum up, ready to accompany the two mers into the ocean. He held out his hand to Ian who stared for a moment before remembering the gesture and shook the human's hand. "I wish there was something we could do," the Captain began. He then turned to Kreig, hand out and stopped when Benjamin saluted him. Bridger returned the salute solemnly; Ben then accepted the proffered handshake. "If you need anything, let me know. Anything at all...."

"Thank you, Captain." Ben gave his superior officer a serious look for perhaps the first time since he'd come aboard. "It's been an honor serving under you."

Bridger smiled. "It's been interesting having you on board, Lieutenant."

Ben laughed. "At least you're honest." He grinned. "I'll let you in on a secret, Captain. I drive my own people nuts, too."

"Why am I not surprised?" Bridger shook his head. "Take care of yourselves, Ben, Ian." He gave them both a final nod farewell, then stepped back. Commander Ford came forward, gave Ian a careful look and returned the wary half-nod with a calm one of his own. Then he turned to Ben. "I wish you didn't have to leave," he said honestly. Ben stared at him. "You're serious." When Ford nodded, he protested, "But you don't like me. You never liked me -- I didn't peg you for the scientific type," he began, explaining the Commander's reluctance the same as Westphalen's. But Ford shook his head. "It isn't that. Ben... when you nearly died out there, on that beach... I found myself thinking what a waste it was. If you'd died we'd never have learned anything about you, about your people." Ford looked guilty but didn't break eye contact with Kreig. "Then I realized what I was thinking. It didn't matter what species you are... *you* nearly died. I realized for the first time that I would miss you. You're a good friend, even if I never appreciated that. Even if I never took advantage of it the way I should have." He held out his hand, and Ben shook it, still somewhat dazed. "It has been an honor serving with you, Lieutenant. It won't be the same on seaQuest without you." Ben didn't quite know what to say. He shook his head in amazement. "I never expected anything like this from you, Commander. I... it means a lot to me. Thank you."

"I wish I'd said it sooner." Ben grinned. "Don't worry about it, Commander. If you'd been nice to me earlier you'd have just found out I really am annoying." He gave the man a wink. Ford laughed. Then it was time. Ben looked over at Ian who was standing beside the edge of the pool, waiting. He didn't know how Bridger would explain his disappearance and for a moment, reluctant to leave, he wanted to stay behind and help with all the details. Then his mate held out his hand and Ben simply dropped his robe and dove into the pool with his love. Darwin swam beside them, telling them that the way was clear of other subs; even seaQuest's WSKRs were on the other side of the boat, taking scans safely away from their departure. Ben felt the cold ocean water surrounding them as they left seaQuest. The ocean was so huge, he could hear for miles around them. It seemed so empty. Ian reached over and tugged at his hand. <Let's go, love.> Ben swam beside him, leaving Darwin behind with one more farewell.

Many years later a retired Admiral Ford headed down the stone path to the private beach of his family's home. The grandkids were all in town with their grandmother, being spoiled with treats and presents as usual. Jonathen smiled. It was a good day, sun shining clearly through the recently-cleaned atmosphere. The Pollution Control Boards had released their newest reports just last week, and even the air above places like London and Bombay were beginning to be clean again.

He breathed in the fresh sea air and smiled. "What a beautiful day!"

"Yeah, it is isn't it?"

He whirled at the unexpected -- and familiar -- voice. Standing on the beach were two figures he thought he'd never see again. "Kreig! Ian!"

"Hey, Admiral. Long time." Benjamin's smile was warm and welcome.

Jonathen walked forward slowly, "Ben? Ian? It's really you? I haven't hit my head and started dreaming?"

"Yes, it is really us." Ian gave his mate a look. "Benjamin wanted to see you again."

Jonathen laughed. "And you don't approve, right?"

Ian was startled. "No, I don't." He smiled suddenly. "But Benjamin wants it, so here we are." "How have you two been?" Jonathen looked them over -- they looked well, happy. "We've been good." Ben shook his head. "It was tough, the first couple of decades. Spent a lot of time trying to find new places to hide that could support us all. The Wildlife preserves helped a lot with that, once we re-wired all the sensors to ignore us." Ian laughed. "Proving that it is not a waste of time to learn humans' ways!" Jonathen grinned as Kreig gave his mate a nudge. "Told you so."

"You are always 'telling me so'." "Now what? You're back for another visit to our world?" "Sorta..." Benjamin gave his former commander a sly look. "We've been elected, by our Elders, to find a few trustworthy humans."

Eyes wide, Jonathen found himself grinning. "You're kidding! For--?"

"Yes," Ian nodded. "We are ready to try to talk to you, tail to tail. A little, at least."

"I wanted you to know," Benjamin added. "Since you knew, and you never told anyone... I thought you deserved to know."

Jonathen couldn't believe it. He wanted to shout, and ask these two all the questions that had plagued him since they'd disappeared. Instead he simply nodded. "Thank you. I hope it works out." "Don't sound like that, Admiral!" Kreig suddenly chided him. Jonathen saw that old familiar grin, the one which said the man was up to something he shouldn't get away with. "We want you to be part of the group!"

"A part...?"

"Yeah... know any trustworthy humans?" Benjamin continued grinning, and all Jonathen could think was the last time he'd heard that tone coming from Kreig, they had all ended up in Shore Patrol detention for the weekend.

"Am I gonna regret this?"