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INVASION OF THE HAZMATS



By Susha Golomb





Copyright 2017 Susha Golomb


Smashwords Edition


TABLE OF CONTENTS


PART I – JOURNEY TO THE ABYSSMAL ZONE

Chapter 1 – A Less-Than-Willing Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Chapter 2 – Power Pebbles

Chapter 3 – Not a Diplomat

Chapter 4 – Road Trip

Chapter 5 – Crash Tag

Chapter 6 – Reading, Writing and the Sleep Spell

Chapter 7 – Bubbling Along

Chapter 8 – Spiders

Chapter 9 – Dr. Who?

Chapter 10 – Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!

Chapter 11 – Lost in a Lake

Chapter 12 – I’m a Poet! I Know it!

Chapter 13 – Free at Last

Chapter 14 – Into the Abyss

Chapter 15 – Seahorses

PART II – CASTLE DOWNALOT

Chapter 16 – Gloria Mundi

Chapter 17 – Oops

Chapter 18 – Jaws Will Drop

Chapter 19 – Know Your Enemy

Chapter 20 – The Not So Secret Garden

Chapter 21 – The Salt Lake

Chapter 22 – Glori the Secret Keeper

Chapter 23 – Runaway Bride

Chapter 24 – Miriam Vanishes

PART III – HUNTING HAZMATS

Chapter 25 – Lake Francis...Again

Chapter 26 – The Maiden Voyage

Chapter 27 – Pink Unicorns or Fluffy Kittens

Chapter 28 – Miss Sweet and Reasonable

Chapter 29 – Feed the Birds

Chapter 30 – Feather Pillows With Feet

Chapter 31 – I Yam What I Yam

Chapter 32 – The Pirate’s Secret

Chapter 33 – Into the Woods and Under the Sea

Chapter 34 – Leaving Things Out

Chapter 35 – The Great Reveal

Chapter 36 – Three Sisters and Four Mad Dogs

PART IV – A MONSTER LIKE ME

Chapter 37 – Nothing But a Halfandhalf

Chapter 38 – The Pathfinding Spell

Chapter 39 – Back at Casalot

Chapter 40 – Goodbye...

Chapter 41–...And Farewell

Epilogue

Note to the Reader

Appendix

1. Seahorses and Geography

2. The Land of Little Lakes

3. Verona

4. The Dolphins Become Scribes to the Bubble People


INVASION OF THE HAZMATS



PART I

JOURNEY TO THE ABYSSMAL ZONE

CHAPTER 1

A LESS-THAN-WILLING SORCERER’S APPRENTICE

I wasn’t born with a fish tail. It isn’t even a permanent arrangement but it means I could finally visit my adoptive grandparents, formerly known as Grandma and Grandpa Mermaid. Who knew the stories my parents told me when I was little were true?

I was officially here on a summer visit—my first—with my grandparents but plans change. Sidetracked is probably a better way to describe it. I am now officially apprenticed to the rogue Sky, Zazkal.

The work/study thing was an add-on, meant to give me some basic life skills in magic and to give Zazkal some basic life skills, period. Since he hated being with other people, it was a sort of punishment for kidnapping me and my sampo. What he really wanted was the sampo, but since we can’t be separated, he was stuck with me, too.

Zazkal was waiting for me when I arrived. He did not look happy to see me. No ‘hello’. No ‘how was your trip?’ As soon as I showed up, he turned tail and I followed. He led me directly to his workshop, the largest of a series of interconnected natural openings inside the remote coral atoll where he lived and worked.

“Memorize the name and location of everything in this room. The least you can do is learn to fetch things when I am working.”

That was it. My entire first lesson. He swam off muttering under his breath about wasting time. I couldn’t decide whether to be offended or overwhelmed.

Every wall in the big room was covered with ceiling-high wicker chests of drawers. All the chests were bolted down and all the drawers were latched shut, not unlike the cabin of a ship, and for much the same reason, only they were under the water instead of on it.

I swam to the nearest wall and began pulling open one drawer after another. Every one of the unlabeled drawers must have contained a dozen or more jars and bottles of strange-looking stuff.

I decided to be overwhelmed.

Groaning, I floated limply to the floor. For a full five minutes, I sat there staring wide-eyed at the endless supply of supplies.

Finally, I took a deep breath, swam over to the nearest chest of drawers and got to work.



Three hours later, Zazkal was back with an armful of bright green seaweed. He dumped it on the big worktable in the middle of the room and started barking out orders.

“Get me pink sand, red algae and compound 221B.” Miraculously, I managed to find all three before he finished assembling an assortment of bowls and tools from a drawer in the worktable.

He slammed shut the drawer, started fiddling with the jars and rattled off his next list. I knew I was doomed even before he finished.

“Good. Now get me hydroxy-oxydoxy number 6, sea cucumbers…pelleted, not powdered, tincture of scalymoss and fractated coral shards in that exact order, and quickly.”

I somehow managed to find the hydroxy-oxydoxy and the sea cucumbers but then I gave him the wrong kind of scalymoss and was now floating nervously in front of a cabinet that held at least twenty different kinds of coral, afraid to ask him which one he wanted. I floated just a little too long for Zazkal’s limited patience.

He blew up and threw the jar of algae, or maybe it was the pink sand. Who could tell? Zazkal threw the jar all the way across the room, no easy task underwater.

“Useless, useless, useless. You’re nothing but an undersized ten-year old with a mouth bigger than your brain. I refuse to have you hanging around, interfering with my work.”

I cracked.

“What is this? Education by intimidation?” I hollered back. “You’re supposed to be my teacher. Anyway, you can’t kick me out and I can leave whenever I want. I’m not your prisoner anymore.”

The first day was going much better than expected. Here we were…already on speaking terms.

“Allow me to remind you, Miss Miriam Mermelstein,” he said with quiet menace, “that taking on an assistant was not my idea.” The water around his head actually sizzled, he was that mad. Maybe I should tone it down a notch.

“It was your grandparents’ idea to make the punishment fit the crime and right now, the alternative of permanent exile is starting to look a lot more attractive.”

The truth was, Zazkal couldn’t care less about permanent exile, but he desperately wanted the use of my sampo and had already kidnapped me twice to get it. The sampo has a homing spell on it, so the only way to steal it is to steal me, too. My little drawstring bag can produce just about anything that will fit through its opening, in other words, an endless supply of the ingredients he needs for his research in deep-ocean magic.

For Zazkal, the only good kind of time is alone time. His reputation is that he’s the best magician and the worst-tempered fairy in the Seven Seas. My sampo not only gives him instant access to the rare and not-so-rare ingredients he needs for his work, but it effectively eliminates face-time with all the people he normally has to be nice to if he wants to get his precious supplies.

“Zazkal,” I said, trying hard to speak in a more conciliatory tone, “I have learned an awful lot of these already, but I have no idea what any of the labels mean. It makes it a lot harder to remember. Half of my time with you is supposed to be as a student anyway. Couldn’t you use that time to teach me what all this stuff means? It would make it much easier to remember if it made sense. Besides, once I understood more, I could just take things out of my sampo for you. Isn’t that why I’m here?” I swallowed hard, nervously waiting for him to speak.

Fixing me with one of his now familiar icy glares, he finally spoke.

“All right, Miriam,” he said through clenched teeth. “I can see it will be some time before you will be any good as an assistant. Besides,” he crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at me, “it’s unthinkable for me to spend my time with an illiterate.”

“I read all the labels on your stupid jars. I am not illiterate.” Most…of the labels would have been more accurate, but I thought I was doing pretty well, since I had only just learned to read Sky, as these air- and water-breathing sea-fairies called themselves. Even in my mind, I was careful to say Sky and not use the ‘M’ word

“Well, I can see there’s no help for it,” he said acidly. “We’ll spend the rest of the morning reviewing the contents of some of my inventory, and this afternoon, I will begin teaching you to write.”

“What a waste of time!” he muttered, loud enough for me to hear, adding a dirty look to make sure I got the point.

Anyone with an ounce of sense, I thought, pressing my lips together to keep the words inside, would have realized that if you are going to have an assistant, someone has to spend time training her. Any normal person would have planned for it.

Still… Writing underwater required magic. This would be the first real magic I would learn.

I kept my mouth shut and listened, trying not to ask questions, while Zazkal began to explain the system he used to organize his supplies. As time passed, he began to warm to his subject. He may not have been very agreeable on most things, but when the topic was magic, and the listener was clearly interested, he became enthusiastic and articulate.

He’ll be a pretty good teacher, I thought with some relief. At least, as long as I pay attention and don’t ask dumb questions.


CHAPTER 2

POWER PEBBLES

Once I learned what and where everything was, Zazkal gradually reduced his conversation back to grunted instructions. My mornings were spent watching quietly while he worked. I floated close by, trying to figure out what was going on and ready to fetch, return and clean up as requested. I had lots of questions, but not enough nerve to interrupt.

Still, it would be a long time before the excitement of being a ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ would wear off. Watching magic happen was very different from the way I used my three fairy gifts, which worked more or less on their own.

The sampo that Zazkal so coveted was a birthday present from fairy friends of the family. There was also a pair of grafted-on wings and a fern-seed coat that made me invisible, all intended to help a traveling ten-year old get safely to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Their house wasn’t over the river and through the woods, but in an ancient coral-reef makeover, now known as Casalot, a combination community center and high-rise apartment building.

Of course, there was also the family fish scale. Grandma gave it to Mom and Mom gave it to me providing me with the necessary magic to let me make the switch from legs to fishtail, making the whole trip possible.

My afternoons, on the other hand, turned out to be pretty boring. Writing insea, that is, underwater, used a spell to bypass hands and send the words directly from the brain to the stuff they used for paper. It took me less than ten minutes to learn the spell that activated the writing process. Actually being able to do it was different.

While Zazkal played with my sampo, my time was spent in tedious, repetitive practice with improvements coming in very small increments.

After the first three days, I could not understand why both Zazkal and my grandparents insisted on me spending so much time learning to write. What for? So I could label Zazkal’s bottles? Doesn’t that sound like fun? I only had six weeks before I had to go home for school in September. Shouldn’t I be learning more important things?

Meanwhile, I began to notice some basic distinctions in the kind of work he was doing during my fetch and clean workshop mornings, and one day I commented innocently how like cooking much of his activity was.

“What do you mean ‘cooking’?” he said, lifting his eyebrows and stopping his work to look at me. “Be explicit.”

“It just seemed to me,” I answered, “that the formula you use to mix your ingredients is like a recipe. Then, instead of applying heat to make things change, like we do on the land–” he grimaced. “I mean outsea,” I quickly corrected myself, “–you repeat another magic formula. That incantation is your ‘cooking fire’.”

Zazkal smiled. Not a very big smile mind you, and only slightly marred by the arch in his brows, but a smile nevertheless.

“Cooking, Cultivating, and Concentrating. Most magic,” he said, moving into lecture mode, “is generally accomplished by one or more of these three basic methods, usually a combination.”

“The Three C’s,” I chimed in.

“Yes,” he answered dryly. “That’s the way we explain it to little children.”

“Oh.” Reduced from ten to two years old by one short sentence, my ego plunged to an all-time low.

Still, I was never someone who knew when to keep her mouth shut. I had more to say and I wanted to say it. At least I took my time and chose my next words carefully.

“I only know one formula. That’s the one you taught me for writing with. But I can’t just say the words and make the writing appear. I have to really work at it. Is that what you mean by Concentration?”

“Well done, my little koi,” he said with only a hint of sarcasm. I was caught between my dislike of being referred to as a goldfish and the first thing remotely resembling a compliment I had heard.

“You still write like a five year old,” he said. You can’t do any kind of magic until you master writing.

“Go away,” he said impatiently. “Practice. Don’t practice. I have work to do.”

I resolved to take my writing practice a lot more seriously.



It was about a week later. I was sitting in the storeroom next to the workshop practicing writing and getting pretty good at it. I looked up and saw Zazkal floating in the doorway staring at me. He looked mad.

“Where did you get that?” he said sharply. I had gotten into the habit of holding my pet rock in one hand when I practiced writing. It helped me focus.

“Don’t look at me like that.” When the subject was not magic, I was a lot less intimidated by Zazkal’s bad manners. “I’m not in the habit of taking things that don’t belong to me, you know. I found it on the Maiden Voyage after the pirates left.”

The falling-apart fishing boat with the mismatched name had belonged to four seriously weird-looking and weirder-acting people. On my way to visit Grandma and Grandpa Sky, I had gotten caught up in their fishing net and hauled in with a bunch of random fish. None of us were what they were looking for.

My rock was just a big pebble really, hardly big enough to qualify as a rock, but it was so pretty, all blue and green swirls and warm from the sun…so I sort of pretended that they were pirates and that this was an uncut jewel that had fallen from their treasure box. There was, of course, no way I was going to say this to Zazkal.

“May I see it?” he said with uncharacteristic courtesy. I opened my hand and showed him the stone. He took a good long look at my pet rock and at me, then swam up to one of the three gently bobbing globes that lit the storeroom, reached out and put his hand right through it.

The globe part of the fairy light closed over his open hand like a soap bubble, leaving no entry. He withdrew his fist, the hole in the globe followed the contours of his hand so that there was never any visible opening. The light had gone out.

Zazkal opened his fist and showed me the small stone that he held. It was bright with blue and green swirls that seemed to move as I watched. I’m sure that if I held it, it would feel warm in my hand.

I had seen how the fairy lights worked at Casalot. I knew that each globe held a small, shiny stone. They were the light bulbs of the fairy lights.

“My pet rock is a power-pebble? That’s what the pirate treasure was?”

“I’m going up to the surface to get a traveling bubble ready,” he said. “Get the sampo and meet me at the bubble. We’re going to Casalot to see your grandparents.”


CHAPTER 3

NOT A DIPLOMAT

A little less than two hours later, we were swimming into the Great Hall at Casalot. Grandma and Grandpa were there chatting with a small group of Sky. Even from a distance, you could not mistake Floradora’s small size and red hair or Mele’s dark curls. It takes a lot of curl for hair to stay curly under water and Grandpa had plenty.

They saw us swimming over, and looked first pleased and then grave.

“Is everything all right?” Flora said.

“Everything is fine. Miriam is doing very well,” Zazkal answered politely, obviously willing to pay my grandparents the compliments he withheld from me. I would’ve sworn the fish thought I was an imbecile. Probably he does.

“I came to talk to you about something else altogether.” Flora, Mele’ and Zazkal swam through a cluster of empty fairy lights that served as a kind of floating curtain over the floor doors and into a smaller room where they could talk privately. Since nobody said otherwise, I followed along, trying to look inconspicuous. Zazkal was his usual, short and to the point.

“Miriam, show your grandparents what you found on the boat after the Hazmats left.” He knows who they are? I thought. Then seeing Grandpa and Grandma nod in acknowledgement, I realized that I was the only one in the room who had no idea of what was going on. I held out my power pebble and their eyes widened.

“So that’s what the those shapeshifters were smuggling,” Mele’ said. His smile faded to serious.

“Apparently.” said Zazkal. “Have you heard anything?”

“There have been rumors,” Flora answered, “that some of the abyssmal cities are having problems. We use the fairy lights for our convenience,” Grandma said to me. “An inner room like this would only be good as a storeroom without them. It’s nice, but not really necessary.

“But, in the abyssmal realms, people are completely dependent on the lights. It’s too dark even for fairies, Sky included. Not just to see. Their agriculture relies on fairy lights. Without light, whole cities would be deserted. Thousands of people would be displaced. Many more would go hungry. Any problems with the fairy lights down there are serious. Very serious.”

“I have already given the matter some thought,” Zazkal announced.

What he meant was – ‘I have decided what must be done and now I am going to tell you what to do.’

“We’re working with only the vaguest sort of information,” Mele’ said. “Someone needs to be on the spot to confirm what we’re hearing up here.”

“It will take weeks for anyone to reach the nearest abyssmal city,” Zazkal said. “But… it will take Miriam and me only a couple of days using the travel-bubble. It got us here. It can get us there.”

I was beyond bored at the coral reef. The only time Zazkal talked to me anymore was to yell. Cleaning up after him may have been stressful, but it was still boring. As far as writing practice went, well, I prefer reading. A road trip to the bottom of the ocean, even with you-know-who for company, sounded like heaven.

I smashed my lips together to keep my mouth shut. I knew that ‘no way is this going to happen’ look on Grandma and Grandpa’s faces. That was Mom’s look and now I know who she got it from.

All eyes now turned to Zazkal.

“That is correct. I have been working on a new spell to use with the bubble. It’s an amplification of the natural tendency of outsea people not to notice fairy things. Chances are that land people wouldn’t notice it anyway unless it bumped into them. This is just an extra sort of security.”

Very politely, Grandpa pointed out his reservations about sending Zazkal at all.

“We have very little contact with the fairy communities in the deepest parts of the ocean. Past experience tells us that a trained diplomat is the best way to acquire information.”

That was what he said. What everyone knew he was actually thinking was that Zazkal couldn’t spend more than five minutes with anyone without getting into an argument. We were way past five minutes now and he was getting testy.

He proceeded to prove Grandpa’s point by losing his temper. Zazkal had very little patience for anyone who did not immediately see his point of view and agree with him. Convincing people of anything they did not already think was not his strong point.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “How would your so-called ‘diplomat’ get back? You know perfectly well I’m the only one who can construct the traveling bubble. And I’ll need that bag to do it,” Zazkal said. “Therefore, Miriam must come.

“She’ll be perfectly safe. We will be traveling in a practically invisible bubble to another Sky kingdom. It’s not as if we are going chasing off after the Hazmats ourselves or some such foolery.”

“Why,” asked Flora “do you need the extra assistance of Miriam’s sampo on such a ‘safe’ trip?” Why can’t you preset the bubble for the return trip when you make it?

Not having an answer better than ‘Because I want it’, Zazkal said nothing and turned on his best eye-piercing glare. The non-conversation continued to deteriorate in this manner until finally, Flora said, “Both of you please go outside. Mele’ and I would like to discuss this privately.

“Miriam,” she added, “Verona is somewhere in the library stack. Why don’t you look for her? One of us will let you know what we decide.”

I was gone before Flora finished talking. The last thing I wanted to do was hang around with Zazkal, while my grandparents made decisions that he thought should be his.


CHAPTER 4

ROAD TRIP

I found my salt sister, Verona, in the music library. She was pretty focused on the scroll on her lap and didn’t notice me come in.

Verona was not exactly the big sister I had imagined, but if Ethelred my science project partner from school was telling the truth about her own sister, then Verona was probably pretty standard teenage sister material. We may have taken an oath to take care of each other, but apparently BFF wasn’t part of the deal.

I wasn’t complaining, but I was careful.

“Hey, Verona.”

“What are you doing here?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Of course. What else would it be? Zazkal kicked you out, right? I knew you wouldn’t last a week.”

“It’s been two weeks, and no, he hasn’t kicked me out…yet. That would be okay. This is… like I said…complicated.

“Zazkal wanted to talk to Grandma and Grandpa about the fairy lights…and...he wants to go on a kind of fact-finding-mission…and…he wants me to go with him.”

She crossed her arms and looked me in the eye.

“Okay. Details. Now. Don’t leave anything out.”

Verona knew about my encounter with the weird pirate people but I hadn’t mentioned my little souvenir. When I did, she was not impressed.

“How could you be so dumb? You should have seen at once that they were the same thing as the power nuts in the fairy lights.”

“Well, I didn’t. I bet you wouldn’t have, either. It had been days and days since I had taken my lucky pebble out and looked at it, and I just didn’t think of it.

“I don’t think Zazkal cares if I come or not,” I said. “All he really wants is access to my sampo.”

“So, do you want to do this?”

“If you mean, do I want to spend two days in a traveling-bubble with Zazkal, what do you think?

That produced Verona’s famous snarky smile. “Hey, better you than me, but visiting a abyssmal city, that’s like, the trip of a lifetime. I don’t know anyone who’s ever gone.”

“Don’t forget,” I said. This is already the trip of a lifetime as far as I’m concerned, but yea, that part sounds pretty cool.”



We were still in the library when Grandma and Grandpa showed up. Grandma got right to it.

“Mele’ and I have decided that you can go, but with two conditions.

“The first is that our chief minister, Bibi, will be coming with you. As an official emissary, he will be able to open doors.”

I shifted into adult-speak translation mode and heard…nobody will talk to either of you on your own.

She paused and said to me. “I see you’re a little skeptical,”

“Zazkal is okay with this?”

“Actually, I think he is relieved to have someone else to do the talking. But Miriam, it will not be easy having Bibi along. Do try to stay out of the middle.”

I was thinking that we are going to need a really big bubble.

“This sounds like a good time for me to concentrate on my writing practice,” I said. Preferably with top notch pair of noise canceling headphones, I thought.

“What’s the second condition, grandmother?”

Flora smiled and said, “Something much simpler I hope. Zazkal thinks you have progressed enough with your writing to be able to learn some simple magic.”

I perked up immediately. This was more like it. I am dying to learn some real spells.

“We want you to learn a sleep spell before you leave.” She turned to Verona. “Verona, Miriam needs someone to practice with. Do you think you have time to help?”

“You mean like, put me to sleep, wake me up, put me to sleep, wake me up, about a million times.” She rolled her eyes.

“Miriam’s bubble friends were hanging around onsea earlier. I bet they would think that kind of thing was fun.”

I didn’t think that anyone in the dolphin pod would find endless nap and repeat any more fun than Verona did, but it was worth a try

“I’ll go onsea and ask,” I said. Maybe Stan and Ollie will help.”

“If it doesn’t work out, you know where to find me,” Verona said. She must have been feeling guilty.

“Zazkal is still in the Great Hall. He’s waiting to teach you the spell before we take him to meet Bibi.” Verona and I exchanged glances. Hanging around with Zazkal was not on Verona’s list of fun things to do.

“Well, you won’t be needing me anymore, so I’ll just take off.”

“Coward!”

“If you spend the rest of today practicing,” Grandma said as we left, “you should be ready to go first thing in the morning.”


CHAPTER 5

CRASH TAG

I found Zazkal swimming around impatiently in the Great Hall.

“You realize that you could have spent the two days in the bubble learning the sleep spell, using Bibi and me to practice on.” He was mad.

“I told your grandparents that you were ready and would have no problem learning such a simple spell before we reach our destination. The only magic involved is the actual putting to sleep. Once asleep, the person is not under any kind of spell. If they’re tired, they will sleep for a long time. If they’re rested, they will just nap.”

“Just because they insisted that you learn the sleep spell before we go, does not mean that I will tolerate any pointless delays. I am leaving in the morning, with or without the sampo.”

It only took a few minutes to learn the actual spell. Zazkal took the sampo and left to find Bibi. I headed onsea to look for the pod.



When I got to the surface, I took a small whelk whistle out of my sampo, making sure it was pitched to dolphin-speak. I swam around for a while, whistling and listening, until I heard the answering call.

Another minute and I could see a group of dolphins swimming towards me. Two of them cut out of the group and kept coming while the rest turned and swam in another direction.

One of the dolphins speeded up, racing ahead of his companion. I hung loose in the water. When he swept past at full speed, I reached out quickly and grabbed his tail. There was a sudden jerk, and I was pulled through the water at a terrific speed.

In less than half a minute, my fingers were torn loose and I found myself floating in the water again

“That was our best yet,” Stanley said as he swam back. “You’re getting really good.”

“Where’s Ollie?

“Here I am, Miss Miriam.” He surfaced right next to us. “Really, Stanley, don’t you think you’re a little old for that kind of game?”

“Miriam’s not.

“Want to try again?” Ollie said to me.

“Only if you can catch me,” I said, swimming off. I reached back with both hands and pulled the chameleon tape off my shoulder blades, opened my wings and rose up and out of the water. I skimmed along the surface with the tip of my very strong but very heavy tail dragging in the water. Flying with a fish tail may not work, but skimming is fun and I can go really fast.

I made pretty good time this way, but not as good as Stanley, who was already circling back towards me. I saw him coming up fast and started to veer left. As usual, I wasn’t fast enough, and got knocked back into the water as he swam under and past me.

“Well, this is a nice surprise,” Ollie said, waiting politely for me to catch my breath.

“Are you rested yet?” Stanley asked.

“Come on, Stanley, give me a break. I’m exhausted. Anyway, don’t you want to hear why I’m here?” I didn’t give them a chance to answer, but launched immediately into the story of the pebble and the pirates.

“…so, I need someone to practice the sleep-spell on, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind helping.” I said when I was done.

“Wow!” Stanley was blown away. “There are whale songs about the cities of the abyssmal realms. I didn’t know they were true.”

“It would be an honor to assist you, Miss Miriam,” Ollie said. “It is the least we can do, since we won’t be able to come along to protect you. We will, of course, be happy to advise you on such a sensitive diplomatic mission–”

“–Oh, Ollie, we don’t know anything about the cities down there. We’ve never been much past Casalot.”

“Of course we do. I have heard all the whale songs. I can tell Miss Miriam everything she needs to know.”

“You told me those songs were just made up stories–“

I decided it was time to change the subject and I knew just how to do it.

“Hey, Stanley,” I said, swimming off to put some distance between us, “See if you can catch me this time.” I muttered the spell under my breath staring hard at Stanley as he swam at me at top speed...

It took us a few minutes to recover after the collision.

“How come you didn’t go to sleep,” I said. If Stanley had eyebrows, he would have raised them. All he said was,

“Really!”

“Yeah, well, I guess maybe I do need just a little practice.”

“Small steps, Miss Miriam,” Ollie said. “Small steps. Perhaps if we both swim still it will be easier.”

He had a point. This time, I said the spell in my head and looked Ollie in the eye while we floated next to each other in the water. He closed one eye.

“It worked Miriam. You did it.” Stanley was elated.

“Yea, well, I guess that half asleep is not bad for a first try,” I said to Ollie’s open eye. He opened his other eye.

“I was most certainly not half asleep!” he said.

“If you were all the way asleep, how could you hear me?

“Sleeping and hearing are different things. We sleep differently from Sky.

“Can you hold your breath when you’re asleep? We can, but we have to be awake to breathe. So we only sleep on one side at a time. The other side is for breathing–”

“–And for noticing where we are so we don’t breathe underwater,” Stanley added. “That’s how Ollie could hear you talking. He heard you with his noticing side.”

“So you can be all awake and perky on one side but sleepy and ready for a nap on the other?

“Exactly.”

“Precisely.”

“Weird.”

After that, we followed Ollie’s advice and the drill conformed to a less mobile and more traditional form.


CHAPTER 6

READING, WRITING, AND THE SLEEP SPELL

By the time Zazkal showed up, Stan and Ollie fell asleep more or less reliably about half the time and got sleepy the other half. I could even pick which side went to sleep, but matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make them fall asleep on both sides…which was probably good.

We demonstrated my new skill for Zazkal

“Now try it on me,” he said. I did. Three times. Nothing happened, not even a yawn.

“Keep practicing,” he said and left.

“Maybe we should try the chase thing again,” I said.

“If that is your wish, Miss Miriam, then I will leave you to your childish pursuits,” Ollie said. “Farewell, Miss Miriam. I trust I will see you when you are ready to learn about places you are about to visit.”

“Is he pissed?”

“I don’t think so. He gets bored when he’s not the one doing all the talking.”

“Well, it is pretty boring. I thought we could start with slow swimming and build up. At least we would be moving.”

An hour later, we had mastered speed swimming plus sleep spell. Stanley had gone to sleep and been awakened so many times, that he had doubts of ever feeling sleepy again.

“You know Miriam,” Stanley said. “This sleep thing gives you an unfair advantage when we are playing.”

I reached into my sampo and took out a blank scroll. “What makes you think you can’t learn the sleep spell,” I asked.

“I thought you had to be a fairy to do magic.”

“I’m not a fairy. Just knowing the spell isn’t enough, though. You need the three C’s, Cooking, Cultivating and Concentrating.

“Actually, you only need the concentrating part for this spell, because we’re not making anything new. You can learn it the same way I did, by practicing writing first.”

It was nice being the teacher for a change.

I held the scroll for Stanley while I taught him the words of the writing spell,

“I started by trying to write just one letter,” I said. “Stanley, do you know how to read?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he answered. “Most bubble people learn how to read, because the Sky write so many lovely books.

“A couple of us hold the book and someone else reads out loud. Usually, there’s a group listening as well.

“We don’t really understand why reading is such a lonely activity among the Sky. Half the fun for us is reading stories with friends.”

After a dozen tries, and just as his brain was starting to fuzz up from the effort, a short squiggly line appeared on the page.

Several backward somersaults and triple twist leaps later, Stanley bumped me out of the water and said simply, but with great animation,

“I did it!”

We kept practicing, but Stanley got tireder and tireder. We thought about using the sleep spell, but he needed a real break.

I said goodbye to Stanley and swam down to the library in Casalot, leaving the scroll on a shelf where he could easily retrieve it when he wanted to practice.


CHAPTER 7

BUBBLING ALONG

I met Bibi the next morning when I went to the great hall looking for Grandma and Grandpa. He was facing the entrance and saw me first.

Bibi smiled and waved. I smiled back, looked him in the eye and concentrated.

He was on the small side for a Sky, with a short pointy beard, older than Mom and Dad, but younger than Grandma and Grandpa and by the time I reached him, he was asleep.

“Okay? Do I get to go?”

“Yes, you get to go,” Grandpa said, nudging Bibi to wakefulness with his elbow. My smile expanded.

“Don’t look so pleased with yourself. That was very rude.”

Maybe it was the oversized grin or just a side effect of one too many sleep spells, but I was suddenly consumed by a giant yawn. I barely got my hands up in time to cover the gap.

I heard someone snigger.

“Nice to finally meet you, Miriam,” Bibi said. He had a big grin on his face too. “I’m guessing you didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“I was too excited.”

“Miriam,” Grandma said, absolutely deadpan, “you spent nearly all day yesterday practicing the sleep spell…”

I waited a moment for someone to finish the sentence. No one did. They were waiting for me to dig myself in deeper,

“I only learned how to put other people to sleep, not myself…”

The noise coming from three pairs of pursed lips changed from suppressed to barely suppressed laughter, indicating I had given the correct—in other words—the wrong answer. Finally Bibi spoke.

“Miriam,” he laughed, “There are lots of other people here who know the sleep spell. Practically anyone in fact could have helped you go to sleep if you were having trouble.”

“Oh… Right...I guess I didn’t think of that,” I mumbled.”



Zazkal who could not bear the thought of bumping around at the bottom of a bubble with two other people for a couple of days had gone all out. He had built three interlocking bubbles. One for each passenger.

“Most impressive,” Bibi said when he saw the huge triple bubble bobbing gently on the surface.

The bubbles were held together by three short fat pieces of hollow white plastic that would allow us to pass things between the bubbles.

“What’s that stuff that looks like PVC pipes?” I asked.

“PVC pipes,” Zazkal said, nodding towards my bag of inexhaustible delights.

I put my hand up to one of the bubbles to climb aboard, but instead of letting me in, it bounced gently away.

“Hey! What’s the matter with this bubble.”

“It’s not yours,” Zazkal answered. He put his hand up to the same bubble, and again it moved away. “It’s Bibi’s. Try one of the other two.”

I put my hand up to another bubble and this time, it went through. The skin of the bubble closed around my hand so that there was never any visible opening between me and the bubble, like putting your finger into a soap bubble when it doesn’t break. There was a slight tugging sensation. I relaxed and let the bubble pull me all the way in. Unlike the fairy lights that they’re based on, the traveling bubbles let you in but not out until you get to your destination.

Zazkal swam over to the third bubble and did the same.

Clearly nervous, Bibi watched until we were both in our bubbles. Finally, he gave his bubble a cautious poke with one finger. As soon as it went through the surface, he changed his mind and tried to pull it out. It didn’t work. The more he tugged, the faster his hand and then his arm was pulled into the bubble.

Bibi was only in up to his armpits, when the big triple bubble began to rise up and move forward, leaving his tail dangling foolishly in the air

Seeing the terrified smile on Bibi’s face, even Zazkal’s standard sour expression mutated into the crooked grimace that was as close as he ever got to a smile.

Eventually, we all got settled, traveling just above the tops of the waves. The bubbles got faster and faster until the ocean below was a gray blur.

“We never went this fast before,” I said.

“We never needed too,” Zazkal answered. “It’s a long trip.”

“How come we don’t go this fast all the time? It takes hours to get to Casalot from the reef?”

“Hmfpt.”

Translation, ‘I didn’t know how’.

Bibi was all bouncy and excited, but I was not a newbie to bubble travel and I was tired, really tired. I managed to pass out snacks from my sampo before I conked out.



When the water began to tickle my nose, I woke up. The bubble was leaking. I smelled salt and I smelled trouble.

We weren’t on the water anymore. We were in it. I pushed and pushed but the bubble wouldn’t let me out. We were trapped. Bubblephobia started to kick in.

“We’ve just stopped for a bit of a stretch,” Bibi said calmly, as if nothing was wrong. It was hard not to notice me thrashing around

“Stop eeling around like an idiot. I can’t concentrate,” Zazkal grumbled. He refocused on whatever random distant point he had been focusing on, and the bottoms of the bubbles suddenly ceased to exist. We were now comfortably under water again. Catastrophe averted.

“The longest I can get it to stop for is a quarter of an hour,” said Zazkal. “But I can do it as often as we wish.”

“You were asleep,” Bibi said, “but Zazkal and I have been sitting on our tails for almost four hours. My skin feels positively desiccated. My, this feels good,” he said as he somersaulted through the water. “I don’t mind breathing air, not really, but ahh, the taste of salt in your mouth, you can’t beat it. Air does the job all right, but it has no flavor. You can’t taste it.”

“Come on, I’ll race you to the bottom,” he challenged, and surprisingly, Zazkal came, too. He must have been really cramped. As soon as we touched bottom, we automatically turned and headed back up still going at top speed. It had taken us a good five minutes to reach the seafloor, and no one wanted to ‘miss the bubble’.



We took three more swimming breaks while the sun was out. It seemed that the longer we traveled in the bubble, the more frequently we needed breaks.

Finally, near dusk, we spotted land. Zazkal and Bibi stopped reading and we watched silently as our ocean shrank. Even though we had technically been out of the water all day, the ocean was always just below us with a comforting closeness. A boundary was being crossed as we passed over the surf and onto the beach, moving from one world into another.

Bibi was the first to break the silence.

“Look,” he called out excitedly, “a person with legs.”

The ‘leg person’, a man walking with a dog along the shore, looked up at the sound of Bibi’s voice. We all shrank back in our bubbles in a pointless but automatic gesture to not be noticed. I covered my mouth to soften the unrequested giggle.

“Be quiet,” Bibi whispered sharply

“It’s okay. He can’t see us,” I whispered

“Zazkal,” I hissed. “How come we’re traveling so slowly?”

“I didn’t want to miss anything, so I slowed it down,” came the hoarse reply.

Once the surprise of having the land person hear our voices passed, Zazkal and I calmed down. Only Bibi remained anxious. Finally, as we passed over more and more people who didn’t seem to notice us, Bibi lost his nervousness but we kept our voices low.

We passed into a large city as it was growing dark. Lights began to go on around us as the bubble, at first bumping gently off the buildings, gradually rose higher into the air.

Just past the city was a large oil refinery, the high girders covered with tiny lights. Zazkal did a double take and Bibi gave out a small gasp when he saw it. From this distance, the refinery, with its dainty lights hanging in the air, looked a lot like Casalot. They both turned wordlessly to me for an explanation

“It’s pretty, isn’t it,” I said. “But they’re not fairy lights. If you could see it during the daytime, you would be disappointed. Just a bunch of girders and big tanks.”

It was not long before even the outskirts of the city were behind us and we were passing over dark, invisible countryside.

“It’s not much to look at, is it?” Zazkal commented dryly…extra crispy dry. He managed to condemn the entire continent and push all my buttons in one short sentence.

“Like the ocean looks any different at night? Dark is dark,” I snapped. “Wait till the morning.”

“We should be well out into the ocean by then. I suggest you go to sleep. We’re safe enough in the bubble. I don’t think there’s anything interesting to look at in this place.

I turned my back and lay down, not to sleep—I was too annoyed to sleep—just to end the conversation.


CHAPTER 8

SPIDERS

We expected an ocean sunrise when we woke up the next morning.

There was water…and there was sunrise over the water. All true, but instead of the ocean, it was a lake sunrise.

The bubbles should have bounced off the trees and sailed above them when we got to the edge of whatever lake this was, but we were hopelessly tangled in sticky spider webs. The long-legged six inchers were all over the bubbles trying to repair the damage to their webs, or maybe they were just excited about the huge bugs they had captured.

I’m usually okay with eight leggers, but this was serious creepy. The woods were covered with huge tree-spanning webs. Every web had its own little monster right in the center. You couldn’t miss them. Their long, skinny legs were striped red and yellow and they were everywhere. Visions of being wrapped up for spider supper were starting to penetrate my brain.

“What in Neptune’s ocean are those?”

Oh, good. Zazkal was awake. His yell woke up Bibi and drew the attention of some people working on a boat at the edge of the water.

“They’re called spiders,” I answered quietly, hoping he would get the hint and keep his voice down. “In the bug world, they are apex predators.

“They look so delicate,” Bibi said, more fascinated than scared. “The nets, I mean. How can they have stopped our bubble?”

“They’re super sticky. That’s how they catch things to eat.” I felt a ‘ghost walking on my grave’ shiver.

“Every time the bubbles try to bounce away, they get more tangled.,” I said, looking to Zazkal for confirmation, but he seemed to have lost interest in the specific nature of our predicament.

“Sit very still and keep quiet,” he said. “Those drylanders are coming over. Two heads, automatically disobeying, swiveled in the direction of the water, and then froze.

A man and a boy, maybe eight or nine years old, were walking this way. The man had his light brown hair in a short ponytail. The boy’s hair was the same color, but long on top and shaved on the sides.

They were wearing shorts and t-shirts and were ducking under and around the giant webs with their exposed arms and legs like it was no big deal. I shivered again.

“It was over there somewhere,” the boy said, “near that bunch of mixed up looking Banana spiders. It sounded like somebody in trouble.”

They had heard Zazkal. Well, he can’t blame me for this.

We may have been practically invisible, but the spiders were not.

All they saw were spiders walking around in the air, and webs that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. Some of the spiders had already started new webs, anchoring them to the bubble, making everything look even wronger.

“Stand back, Bob,” the man said.

He reached up with one hand, carefully pushing away the dangling bits of broken web. When he made contact with the bubble, it bounced ever so gently upwards a bit, and then back into place. The spiders all rushed around like crazy, and the two people moved even faster.

They crouched behind some shrubbery and watched us, probably waiting for something terrible to happen. If anyone had been looking at that moment, they would have seen five people—three with tails—sitting as still as possible, all five of us desperately trying to look invisible.

The man spoke first.

“It could be a giant kite made out of clear plastic? Or maybe a weather balloon? I bet it’s a weather balloon.”

He rose cautiously and began to come a little closer, but the boy did not move.

“What about the people, Dad? I think they can see us.”

“What people?”

“Those people,” he pointed at us. The father looked again and could now see what they had not been able to notice before.

“I think there’s a fish design on the kite,” he said. “Yes, I see it now. It’s some kind of mythical representation of sea gods, or something. They’re holding fish, I think. Quite impressive, actually.”

“Dad, they’re not pictures, they’re real. Look, you can see them breathing.”

We all automatically held our breath. Unfortunately, as this involved visibly expanding our chests and taking a deep breath first, it did the opposite of help.

Reluctantly, the father permitted his brains to register what his eyes had been seeing all along.

“Maybe they’re statues, statues of mermaids,” he said, weakly.

He really didn’t want to see us.

“Dad,” said the boy, “they’re not even girls, and besides you know there’s no such thing as a mermaid. They must be some kind of space traveler.”

Great, I thought. I’m a boy and I don’t exist, but it gave me an idea.


CHAPTER 9

DR. WHO?

“Land people have very funny ideas about what’s real and what isn’t,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. “Remind me to tell you about it some time.

“Don’t anybody move or talk,” I said quietly, trying not to move my lips. “No matter what I say,” I added.

“Listen,” said the boy, “I think one of them is trying to speak.”

“Ohhhh. Where are we?” I groaned, loud enough for everyone to hear. “What planet is this?”

“I knew it,” the boy said.

I looked right at him and spoke. “Oh, no! Humans! I forgot. We are on the planet Earth.” I turned to face Bibi and said,

“Doctor, Doctor Who, are you all right? Why aren’t you coming out of suspended animation?”

The boy looked confused, but his father’s eyes widened in recognition. “Dr. Who?” He looked around embarrassedly for the TV cameras.

“The cameras must be in the trees. Come on, son. We’re in the way, let’s back off a bit.”

I turned to them and put my hands to my face pretending to hide my mouth from the hidden cameras, and mouthed a silent thank you to the father and son as they moved off.

Then, I turned dramatically back to the still silent Bibi and hoped that it sounded like I was speaking from a script.

“I’ve got to get you back to the mother ship where you can get help.

“Here,” I said, opening my sampo. “Here’s enough food to last till you get there…in case you wake up on the way,” I kept pushing food from my sampo through the opening into Bibi’s bubble.

“…and don’t forget your scarf,” I said, pushing an interminably long wooly scarf through the opening.

I took a couple of books out of the sampo and pushed them through to Bibi. “…and here’s the data we collected on this planet. It contains all the information the mother ship needs to save the earth. I just hope it gets there in time.”

I gave Zazkal a look to make it clear that I was really speaking to him and only pretending to talk to Bibi.

“I noticed, Dr. Who,” I said, “that your space pod isn’t caught up in the spider webs like the other two. All I have to do is detach it, and it will return to the mother ship automatically.” Then I whispered to Zazkal,

“Can you do it? You and I will be O.K. if we can get Bibi safely away.”

He said nothing, but I could see his lips moving, and after a moment, Bibi’s bubble broke away and began to drift upwards.

“Don’t worry, Doctor,” I called to his anxious, looking face, “I have legs, and Zazkal has other resources. We’ll be fine, and we’ll meet you at the mother ship.

“If only there was a way of untangling the space pod,” I said, using my best stage voice. “I would be able to return to the Tardis and get help for my other companion.”

Waving my arms theatrically, I looked directly at the father and son. “Perhaps those humans I saw earlier could be persuaded,” I said rolling my eyes at them.

To their credit, not my acting ability, they seemed to get the message and slowly walked towards the bubbles looking around for the movie cameras.

“I don’t see any cameras,” the father said.

“They’re camouflaged,” I answered in a stage whisper.

“I’ll be happy to help you get unstuck from those spider webs,” he said, “but first I’d like to see the cameras.”

This was the tricky part. I kept my mouth shut and waited. Please, please let them figure it out.

“There aren’t any, are there?” he said at last.

“I didn’t think you’d believe me if I told you the truth.”

“That was a pretty fancy trick you pulled when your friend sailed off into the sky like that. Is that what you propose to do after we get you untangled?”

“Yes. Only it wasn’t a trick. I really do have to get my other friend away soon.”

It was only half a lie. After all, we were on a mission, just not the kind I wanted them to think.

“Well, young lady, or whatever you are, when you get back to your ship or whatever it is, you had better arrange for a different disguise. Nobody would believe you were from another planet looking like that.”

Nailed it!

I relaxed and tried keep looking worried

“We didn’t expect to come in contact with any humans,” I was totally on a riff now. “We chose these shapes as ideal terran forms for visiting the sea bottom.”

He chuckled and said, “Well, I don’t know what picture book you got the idea from, but you look like mermaids and they’re just a made-up thing. There aren’t any.”

Zazkal flinched.

If I was ever going to learn telepathy, now would be a good time. ‘No talking. No talking. No talking.’ I thought at him as hard as I could. The two people on the ground couldn’t have missed my worried expression.

“Oh dear,” I said, “I guess we really messed up,” and if it rang true, it was because it was.

I took a big watch out of my bag and pretended to look at it and said, “the most important thing is for us to get back to the ship quickly.

“Can you help us? We’ll be in terrible trouble if we don’t get back before we’re missed. Our ships are only permitted in this sector as observers. We are forbidden by our government to have any contacts with the surface dwellers.”

“We thought it would be fun to visit your great oceans, but my friend needs to get back immediately. If we’re discovered, I’ll never be allowed off-planet again,” I added for good measure.

The father and son looked at each other for a moment.

“So,” said the Dad, turning back to me, “what about the great gifts you have for my people.”

Uh oh!


CHAPTER 10

HI-YO, SILVER! AWAY!

“Are you crazy? I’m just a stranded tourist.”

“Yea, I know,” he said, grinning. “In the movies, the bad guys all come bearing great gifts for humankind. Then, after the intermission, it always turns out that what they really wanted was slaves for their salt mines or something like that.”

“You have very strange movies,” I answered deadpan.

“You’re probably right,” he said. “But I guess you’re not a bad guy. Let’s see if we can’t get you back to where you belong.

“Bob, go back to the boat and bring me the long boat hook.”

“Da-ad! Why can’t you go?”

“Go!”

He went.

“What are you called, little mermaid?” the man asked after the boy left.

All of a sudden my brain dried up. I knew I couldn’t give them my real name and my knowledge of Klingon was nonexistent. Looking at Zazkal for inspiration, I finally said,

“My best friends call me Koi.”

“Are you sure you’re not really a mermaid?”

I gave him my most innocent look.

“I thought you said that form doesn’t exist on this planet.”

Bob came back with the boat hook and the subject was dropped.

Ignoring the webs clinging to his bare arms and the spiders dropping down on his head, Bob’s father bent his head down to protect his face while he used the pole to break through the webs around the bubbles.

I looked at Bob. We were both cringing. He was as creeped out as I was. We saw his Dad flinch when one of the spiders decided to have a taste. We flinched too.

“Are you okay?” I asked anxiously.

“It’s nothing. I’ve got some baking soda on the boat. That will fix it up in no time.”

Most of the spiders had already jumped ship and the bubbles were starting to rise up on their own, pulling away from the last of the anchor threads. We were still covered in sticky webs with long dangling strings that made us look like a pair of deformed hot air balloons.

“I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t helped us. I really am very grateful. I wish I really did have a ‘great gift’ for you.”


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