“Cry, Mermaid!” a sharp lash slices into my back, forcing a yelp from my lips.
Screams and sobs surround me on all sides, children crying out for someone, anyone to save them. Their small voices crack and break, a cacophony of squeals and squawks echoing around the vaulted chamber. I wish they would stop. No one is ever going to rescue us, and their constant begging only eggs on the Pearl Reapers.
The lashes fall harder, the shrieks grow louder, and pearls fall like rain into the water around us.
“That’s it, harder!” The head Reaper praises his men. “Give them more!”
We give nicknames to all the Reapers. We know little about them, other than that they belong to the Bloodstone pack. We’ve never seen them in their wolf forms, so we name them based on their human appearances.
We call the head reaper Cyclops – christened thus for the jagged scar running through his left eye socket; his sight solely dependent on his right eye. Unfortunately his aim is no less precise for the disability.
His whip cracks through the air, carving crimson fissures into my back one after the other. Tears stream down my cheeks and I howl with pain. As they drip from my face my tears transform into lustrous white orbs, so solid they splash into the murky red water.
I know water is supposed to be clear and blue, but nothing here is as it should be. Each morning the wolves pump fresh saltwater into our tank, giving us a few moments of blissful peace in the element for which we were born. Within an hour, so much blood and bodily fluid has leaked into the pool that it becomes unrecognizable; dirty and diluted.
My tail rests against the hard white tiles lining the tank floor. The chilly pool is very shallow, preventing even the youngest children from submerging far enough to escape the Reapers.
My friend Isla bobs toward me, wrapping me in a hug as we watch the little ones around us wail pitifully. It wasn’t so long ago that Isla and I were in their position, but as the last generation dwindled away beneath the surgeon’s blades, we slowly took their places. Soon we too will leave, either for land or the grave.
“It can’t be much longer, Viviane.” Isla whispers. “You turned thirteen last week.”
“I know.” I don’t need reminding. Mermaids are only allowed to live in the aquatic farms until they are old enough to undergo The Cut, at which point they are taken from the blood sea – never to be seen again.
Many don’t survive the operation; the blood loss alone is lethal. The recovery is worse. After the doctors complete their Frankensteinish reconfiguration of precious bone and muscle, eviscerating our tails and replacing them with legs, we will be taken from the only place we’ve ever known.
Survivors of The Cut are transferred to the land farms. They must learn to survive in a new body, never forgetting the feel of their tail, never feeling whole without the water.
“Are you afraid?” Isla asks softly. She is a few months younger than I, and her heart has always been more tender than my own. I want to comfort her, to lie and pretend to be brave, but honesty is sacrosanct here. The only thing any of us have is each other; that bond cannot be betrayed.
“Of course I am.” I admit, another tear escaping.
Reapers in training, young wolves aspiring to join the ranks of slave drivers, drag fine seives through the water around us, collecting the pearls stolen from our bodies. The tears are harder to produce the longer we stay in captivity; many young mermaids cry themselves blind or lose the ability to heal their wounds after so many years of constant violence.
“Maybe you’ll survive.” Isla offers hopefully. “Maybe we both will. We can go to the land farms together, find our families.”
I smile weakly and nod, tucking my head down as the strikes continue to fall. The idea is soothing, but we all know it will never come to pass.
There is but one law in our world: beauty from pain.
We are born in pain. We live in pain. And we die in pain.
That is the only guarantee we have in this wretched world.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mermaids were supposed to be blessed above all others, the personification of all that is mysterious and beautiful in the sea. When the world was new the gods bound my people to the water, just as they bound shifters to the land. We were never meant to leave the shore, but fate had other ideas.
For centuries mermaids were considered sacred – untouchable. It only took one man, one man brave and foolish enough to break the laws of nature, to show the world that harming us would not incur some terrible celestial vengeance. When it became clear that only wealth and prosperity would follow a mermaid’s capture, life as we knew it ended.
Our greatest gift became our greatest curse. We were stolen from the sea one by one, until all the magic was drained from the oceans: There would be no more pearls to harvest from the sandy seabeds; no more underwater waterfalls to explore; no more luminous creatures to guide fishermen safely through the dark or scatter glowing particles across distant beaches.
When the shifters descended we discovered the Gods’ failings. In awarding us so much beauty, they did not leave enough room for strength. We were defenseless against the shifters’ power and technology, incapable of challenging their physical dominance.
They herded us into aquatic farms, crude tanks of saltwater where they could raise us like livestock ravenous for the pearls our tears become when parted from our bodies. The pearl-farming industry exploded overnight, and mermaids went from hallowed ocean guardians to slaves, destined to live out their miserable existences beneath the crack of leather whips.
The doors situated at the far end of the room squeak open, and a trio of Harbingers enter. Unlike the Pearl Reapers, the Harbingers only appear if someone is going to be taken for The Cut. They are ordinary looking men, but their presence sends terror through every mermaid in the false sea.
“No.” Isla cries, crushing me to her in a panic, “No, no, no.”
We all know they are coming for me. I am the oldest in the tank now. I rub Isla’s back in soothing circles. “It’s okay.” I lie, “It’ll be okay.”
“I can’t stay here without you!” She whimpers.
“Yes you can.” I promise, “One day we’ll be together again.”
Strong hands catch me beneath my arms and yank me from the water, and Isla sobs as we’re ribbed away from each other. I reach for her in vain, much too far away now to hold her one last time.
I see the other children watching me with wide eyes as I’m dragged away. Every muscle in my body wants to fight, but I don’t want to make it worse for them, I don’t want them to fear the inevitable any more than they have to. I try to remain still, but emotion chokes me and tears clatter to the ground around me like a trail of opalescent breadcrumbs.
Being out of the water feels strange and wrong. Once out of sight of the pool, I wriggle in my captor’s arms, earning a sharp smack and an order to be still. I’m carted through white-walled hallways smelling of chemicals, silently praying for my life.
When we finally reach the operating room I’m dropped onto a metal slab, my arms and tail tied down with thick nylon straps. I jerk against the restraints reflexively, fear spiking my pulse now that this moment has finally arrived. Whatever happens on the other side, I know excruciating pain must come first.
Doctors in white coats and face masks loom above me, silent and foreboding. A blinding yellow light is switched on as medieval looking metal tools are laid out on a tray next to me. A young nurse in green scrubs presses a gag to my lips. I panic, refusing to take it, but the woman clamps her fingers on either side of my jaw and forces it in.
The tears, so hard to summon in the tank amidst constant assault, come freely now. Pearls clatter to the floor around me, and I’m certain the surgeons are smiling behind their masks.
The world goes fuzzy around the edges as they raise their scalpels, and my muscles tense in anticipation for the pain. I feel the blades rest against my scales a second before they push in, the pressure immediately followed by pure agony.
I scream into the gag as blood gushes out of me. Pain and powerlessness are the only things I’ve ever known – but this is something else entirely. This is excruciating beyond description. It doesn’t feel as if they are cutting my body but my soul itself.
The scalpels are relentless, and the metallic scent of blood fills the room. My head feels light and fuzzy, but I’m not sure if it’s the pain or blood loss.
I scream until I cannot scream anymore, until my voice is a hoarse whisper behind my gag. I beg for them to stop, for them to kill me, just end the pain.
My muffled pleas fall on deaf ears. The surgeons continue to rip me apart, and as the tears continue to fall from my eyes, I see one of the nurses bend down to retrieve something from the floor. The doctors pause for a moment, though there is no relief from the pain. My eyes follow theirs to the nurse’s gloved hand, now hovering above me.
A blood red pearl sits in her palm, and a roomful of gleaming, greedy eyes land on my face.
They are the last things I see before the world goes black.