Dust jacket illustration by Julie Dillon.
When the Imagine Network commissioned a documentary on mermaids, to be filmed from the cruise ship Atargatis, they expected what they had always received before: an assortment of eyewitness reports that proved nothing, some footage that proved even less, and the kind of ratings that only came from peddling imaginary creatures to the masses.
They didn't expect actual mermaids. They certainly didn't expect those mermaids to have teeth.
This is the story of the Atargatis, lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy. Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the bathypelagic zone in the Mariana Trench...and the depths are very good at keeping secrets.
Limited: 1000 signed numbered hardcover copies
From Publishers Weekly:
“In this slim, grim tale of aquatic horror, Grant (Symbiont) unveils the tragic last voyage of the SS Atargatis, hired by the Imagine Network to help film a fake documentary on mermaids while also performing deep-sea scientific studies... In true horror fashion, Grant introduces a large cast of colorful personalities, giving many of them brief chances to shine, before unleashing the horrors of the deep upon them.”
From Library Journal:
“A well-crafted little monster tale from Seanan McGuire (author of the popular ‘October Daye’ urban fantasy series as well as horror/sf under the Grant pen name), this novella is a treat for her fans…”
From Romantic Times:
“…Without belaboring her point, Grant deftly explores the oddly and shamefully satisfying exploitation inherent in reality television, while still crafting a chilling and unrelentingly dark tale.”
Rolling in the Deep
The “documentary block” on the Imagine Network was initially regarded as a mistake. Who would turn to a channel which had built its reputation on B-grade horror movies and reruns of old science fiction classics for their nature and historical programming? Faith in the network among subscribers and advertisers was at an all-time low, with fans accusing Imagine of “losing their way” and disrespecting their core audience. Many believed that this decision would spell the end of the Imagine Network, as it had been plagued for some time with declining ratings and reduced advertising commitments from previously loyal sponsors.
It came as a shock to all save the network president, Mr. Benjamin Yant, when the network’s first foray into documentary programming, Loch Ness: A Historical Review, brought in their highest ratings in well over two years. Combining the network’s flair for low-budget sensationalism with the meticulous attention to story that had been the basis for their few successful original series, they now saw a whole new era beginning for Imagine: an era of what they would quickly come to refer to as “hyper-reality programming,” documentaries that were as much about exciting fiction as they were careful fact. It seemed as if Imagine’s future would be as bright as the one they had always predicted for the human race.
Then came the events of May 17, 2015. We may never know how much of the footage from the SS Atargatis was faked, or how much of it was real. Imagine has never been above falsifying their results in pursuit of a good story, and we, the viewing public, encouraged them. What we do know is that none of the scientists, crewmen, or actors who set sail with the Atargatis were aboard when the ship was found, adrift, some six weeks later, and none of them have resurfaced since.
If this was a hoax, it was one of the largest in living memory.
—from Modern Ghost Ships: The Atargatis, originally aired on the Imagine Network, December 2017.
Come Sail Away
“Captain Seghers, permission to come aboard?”
The request was made in a tremulous voice, almost drowned out by the sound of the ship’s engine being put through its paces. All systems needed to be checked before they set sail: a six-week voyage was nothing to sneer at under any circumstances, and spending six weeks completely cut off from communications, in waters so remote as to be effectively uncharted, made the equipment checks doubly important. One mechanical failure could spell a great deal of discomfort for the crew, and for the passengers who had paid so much to set sail. Deaths were unlikely, given the number of precautions in place, but Jovanie Seghers had been working the ocean long enough to know that nothing could be ruled out.
She had also been hiring herself and her ship out for long enough to know that ignoring the men who paid her bills would never end the way she wanted it to. She waved until she got her first mate’s attention, and then signed ‘Stepping out, watch the meters.’
David—who wasn’t wearing any ear protection, despite standing directly next to the snarling engine; unlike the rest of her crew, he didn’t need it—waved enthusiastically back before signing ‘OK’ and returning to his task. Jovanie glanced one more time around the engine room, fingers itching with the need to get back to work. Then she turned, standing a little straighter, and climbed up the short flight of stairs between her and the deck.
The accountant from Imagine was waiting for her there, his eyes darting anxiously back and forth as he listened to the groans and whirs coming from below. Jovanie assessed him quickly, and just as quickly wrote him off. He wasn’t going to sail with them; no one who looked like he was about to be seasick from standing on the deck while they were anchored at the dock would willingly spend one minute on a moving ship. And if he wasn’t going to sail with them, he was just one more obstacle to overcome before she made her way back to the open sea.
“Captain Seghers, the men are ready to begin loading our equipment, and we’re expecting the rest of the team to arrive inside of the hour,” he said. “I’m still missing confidentiality forms from three members of your crew. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how important it is that we maintain absolute secrecy for this mission—”
“Really?” She pulled her phone out of her pocket, pressing “play” on the queued video before holding it out for the gray-faced man to see. “Because this was all over the news feeds this morning.” She didn’t need to see the screen to know what he was seeing: a reporter from the Imagine Network’s daily web show, standing on the dock just far enough from the Atargatis that none of her crew had seen the little rat before it was too late. The woman on the screen would be excitedly gesturing over her shoulder toward the Atargatis, projecting the mix of aw-shucks girl next door and canny wild genius that Imagine cultivated in their young, photogenic “faces of the network.”
The accountant sputtered for a moment before saying, “Perhaps I misspoke when I claimed that the mission would be conducted under the utmost secrecy.”
“No, perhaps you misspoke when you insisted that you trusted my crew.” She stuffed the phone back into her pocket, ignoring the fact that the video was still playing. “Why are we signing confidentiality agreements?”
“Because there will be real scientific work conducted during your voyage, and the results will be confidential and wholly owned by the Imagine Network until such time as we choose to release them,” said the accountant. “Some of the people sailing with you will be spending time on private projects as well; this has been approved, providing it does not in any way interfere with their duties to the mission, which will take first priority from the time you launch until you turn around and come back home. There will also be unavoidable storyline elements played out by some members of our team—they have already received their scripts—and while our viewers are aware that we fals—er, fictionalize certain elements in our documentaries for the sake of a better narrative, we depend on them not knowing which elements have been enhanced.”
Jovanie frowned, puzzling through that statement. “You mean no one knows for sure which parts are lies, so they’re welcome to believe whatever they like.”
“I don’t believe I would put it in those terms,” said the accountant.
“That means ‘yes,’” said Jovanie. “I’ll get my crew to sign within the hour. Your people know that we’re setting off at six, correct?” That wasn’t the time she would have chosen to set sail, but everything about this voyage was being dictated by Imagine, even down to the time they left port. A sunset departure would allow the camera crews to get some dramatic shots of the Atargatis sailing away, and her crew had dealt with night sailing before. There wasn’t a woman or man in her employ that she wouldn’t trust with her life. That was a damn good thing, too. Six weeks was a long time to spend with a bunch of coddled Hollywood types and absent-minded professors. She’d need her crew if she wanted to sail out the other side of this work-for-hire and into the clement harbor of fiscal solvency.
The accountant looked like he wanted to say something else. Jovanie fixed him with a stern eye and waited until he muttered, “Please be sure to deliver those forms to the assistant before you leave.” Then he turned and fled, leaving her alone on the deck.
“Amateurs,” she muttered. She raked her hair back with her hands before opening the engine room door. There was a lot to finish before sunset.
“How’s my light?”
“Your light’s good.”
“I don’t think my light’s good.”
“Your light’s amazing. Fantastic. The best light that has ever been seen by anyone in the world. It’s a crime that I’m going to be filming you, instead of focusing on the light. The light should be my sole focus.” Kevin kept his eye on the monitor, seeing his subject only through the filter of a lens and a screen. It was easier that way.
The subject in question pouted, pushing her lips out in a clearly calculated manner. She must have practiced that expression a thousand times in her mirror, figuring out exactly how far she could take it without either smearing her lipstick or distorting her attractively nerdy features into something that would have the geek boys changing the channel. If there was one thing Anne Stewart knew, it was how to catch and hold an audience. That was what had gotten her the job as one of the Imagine Network web correspondents, and that was what had allowed her to parlay her admittedly specialized experience into a position on the documentary team.
The Imagine audience was already accustomed to taking her as an authority, and having her following a team of scientists as they looked for lake monsters, or Bigfoots, or—best of all—mermaids just added an air of legitimacy to the proceedings. Anne said it was so, and so it was. Being a professional tautologist paid well enough that she was planning to stick with it as long as she could. Knowing just what shade of Felicia Day red to dye her hair, and what glasses to wear to give herself the exact right combination of cute, approachable, and “I know something you don’t know” was all part of the game.
“My light?” she prompted.
Kevin sighed deeply. He liked Anne. Out of all the documentary “faces,” she was the most consistently professional, and was remarkably low-bullshit when she wasn’t standing in front of a camera. Too bad it was her job to stand in front of cameras, and his job to stand behind them. “Is swell, okay? We’re live in five, four, three…”
As soon as he finished the countdown, Anne smiled. It was an expression as carefully practiced as her pout, and like the pout, it worked. “We’re here at an undisclosed dock in Washington state, where the majestic ocean vessel Atargatis is getting ready to set sail on what promises to be a historic journey of discovery and danger. Because this isn’t just any voyage, and we’re not sailing with just any crew. Some of the world’s best minds have been assembled—scientists, scholars, researchers from all over the globe—to answer, once and for all, the question that has plagued mankind since we first took to the seas. Are mermaids the hallucinations of lonely sailors? Or are they real?”
She walked over to the rail keeping passengers and bystanders from toppling into the water, shooting a meaningful look at the horizon before she turned back to the camera. “Cultures around the world have reported sightings of sirens, selkies, and other sea-dwelling peoples for millennia. But we’ve never been able to find any hard scientific evidence that could prove things one way or the other. Could so many historical accounts be wrong? If they’re not, why can’t we find these elusive creatures? Are they smarter than us? Faster than us? Or are they just that determined not to be found? Whatever the answer, the Atargatis will return with conclusive proof. Whether mermaids are myth or misunderstood reality, we’ll be bringing you all the facts, all the details, and all the excitement of an answer that humanity has been seeking for ages. Join us. Learn the truth.”
Anne stopped speaking as she turned and looked back toward the horizon, extending her neck and tilting her chin so that her profile was presented at its best possible angle while the sea breeze whipped her hair around her cheekbones. After she had held that position for roughly eight seconds—long enough to give them as much footage as they were going to need in editorial—Kevin hit a button on the camera and called, “We’re clear.”
“Great.” Anne spun around on her heel, beaming. She looked less calculated now, and more like a real person. Maybe that was why she wasn’t allowed to smile that way on camera. If she looked too real, she’d become less of an idealized fantasy, and half their viewers would run. “How’d I do?”
“Well, you were nothing compared to the light, but…” Anne made a face. Kevin laughed. “You did great. You’ll have everyone believing in mermaids in no time.”
“That’s the idea,” said Anne. That was the idea that would secure her a new contract with the network and keep her on the air for another year—long enough for her agent to convince them to take a chance on her genre-oriented talk show. She wouldn’t be young and cute and beloved of the camera forever. Better to get ahead of the game. If it took mermaids to do it, well. She’d convinced people of more for less.
“How do you feel about getting some more atmospherics before we set sail?” asked Kevin. “We don’t need much. Just enough to give the crew back at the network something to play with.”
Anne’s TV-smile snapped back into place, as vivid as if it had never left. “I’m game.”
“This is ridiculous,” announced Jonny, putting down the crate he had been instructed to carry aboard the ship. It joined a pile of similar crates, all of them empty, all of them with Atargatis stenciled across the side in large block letters, on the floor of the cabin. “We’re not porters.”
“Which is good, since you didn’t port anything,” replied his boyfriend Anton, earning himself a brief but vicious glare. Anton ignored it in favor of continuing to read his book. It wasn’t that enthralling—he could only read about the life cycles of jellyfish of the Mariana Trench so many times before he stopped really caring—but it would keep him from starting off this tour with one of their historic fights. Dr. Jonny Chen and Dr. Anton Matthews came as a package deal: the best marine phycologist in the world and one of the three best marine biomolecular biologists in the world. Expeditions could get two for the price of one if they didn’t mind the way the pair would attack each other at random, a highly unprofessional behavior that somehow bound them closer together than anything else could possibly have done.
It helped that deep water phycologists were incredibly rare, and marine biomolecular biologists working outside of pharmacological research even more so. If the Atargatis hadn’t been willing to take the two, they might have been forced to sail without an algae expert, and without anyone who could accurately explain the results of the water protein sampling that was planned by the network.
“We’re performing,” said Alexandra MacMillan. She was the head of their chemical analysis team, a young, enthusiastic doctor from Colorado who had gone into marine chemistry almost to spite her landlocked home state. “They’re filming us carrying these boxes aboard so that they can spin it like we loaded all our scientific equipment.”
“I’ll never understand why Imagine doesn’t want anyone to know we have a crew,” said Jill Hale, their deep-sea cartographer. Her sounding machines had been among the first loaded on board. While the terms of their expedition didn’t actually allow for deep dives, she was incredibly excited by the thought of taking measurements of the sea floor. Some of the spots they were supposed to be sailing through had never been properly mapped, and with the equipment Imagine had provided, she’d be able to get full sonar readings. Maybe even some photos, depending on the depths involved and how quickly she burned through her pressure-rated cameras. “They can’t think anyone will believe we’re running this boat by ourselves.”
“She’s a ship, Dr. Hale, and since Imagine expects people to believe that we’ve found proof of mermaids, I suppose we shouldn’t question them insisting that a group of scientists can run the Atargatis without help,” said the short, dark-haired woman who had appeared in the cabin door. The scientists turned toward the unfamiliar voice. Most of them stood, or at least sat up a little straighter, as they recognized their captain.
Jovanie Seghers was a small woman, but made up for her lack of height through the sheer strength of her presence. Her mother had been Nicaraguan, and her father had been from the Pacific Northwest; she had her mother’s looks and her father’s easy smile. That smile was not in evidence as she looked around the room, assessing the people there.
Finally, she spoke again, asking, “Who are we missing?”
“Drs. Harris and Weinstein,” said Alexandra. “They’re supposed to be here inside of the hour. They’re bringing the interns with them.” Thirty fresh-faced young things recruited straight out of college by Imagine, lured in with promises of publication and television exposure.
“Good; if they’re not, we sail without them.” The captain folded her hands behind her back, giving the assembled scientists a slow look. “I know that you are all in the employ of the Imagine Network. For the duration of our trip, so am I. My crew, however, remains in my employ. They do not run errands for you. They do not check readings for you. They do not interact with you in any way unless it is either vital to the operation of this ship, or has been approved by me. In return, I will not throw any of you overboard. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“You’re a little snippy,” said Jonny, narrowing his eyes. “Aren’t you getting paid enough?”
“Believe me, I’m getting paid just as well as you are,” replied Captain Seghers. “And yet I somehow don’t feel that constitutes sufficient justification to allow you to damage my ship in the name of science.”
“We understand completely, Captain,” said Alexandra hurriedly. She had been on privately owned vessels rented for scientific purposes before, and knew both what kind of damage careless civilians could do to the vessel and what kind of damage an angry captain could do to those same civilians. “We won’t be touching anything but our own equipment without your full permission.”
“Good,” said Captain Seghers. “Meals will be available in the mess throughout the day, although I believe that there will also be a meal schedule posted by your ‘cruise director’ from Imagine.” A thin ripple of laughter ran through the room. The scientists and camera crews employed by Imagine for this venture knew full well that the drill would include staged “group dinners” where they could discuss their findings like it was a normal, natural part of the scientific process.
“I’m a vegetarian,” said Anton, looking up from his book for the first time since the captain had entered the room. “Do you know if that’s been taken into account?”
“Did you tell Imagine that?” asked Jovanie.
Anton nodded. “It was part of my application file. They wanted everything from medical history and allergies to food preferences and how many hours of sleep we need a night.”
“Then you’re probably fine, but you should take it up with them.” Jovanie shook her head. “My crew and I are responsible for your health and safety on this journey. If a toilet backs up, notify us. If your bunk is somehow unsuitable, if you’ve been paired up with the wrong cabin mates or if you’re a couple and have been separated, notify us, but be aware that some of the housing decisions have been handed down by Imagine—you signed yourself up for the drama factory, and you get to reap the consequences.”
Again, laughter, but this time it was nervous, unsure. Most of them had not been involved with the previous Imagine “documentaries,” as this was the first network-sponsored sea voyage. The few who had—Alexandra, Jonny—knew that while drama amongst the scientific team was not a primary focus, Imagine wasn’t above using them for juicy bits of behind-the-scenes footage.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
“I do,” said Jill Hale, sounding amazed and horrified at the same time. She was staring out the window. The rest of the room promptly moved to crowd around her and look out on the dock—all save for Jovanie, who had a fairly good idea of what had so captured their attention. The Imagine Network might be funding this expedition, but it was her ship, after all; nothing was coming aboard without her say-so.
What was currently coming aboard was a group of nearly a dozen women dressed like a roller derby team on shore leave, with hair that had been dyed every color of the rainbow. Nine out of the eleven were walking on their own two feet, while the other two were comfortably situated in wheelchairs. Both had tails in place of legs, long sweeps of scales leading down to horizontal flukes, like the ones on a dolphin, only broader and more delicately veined. One was scaled in shades of dark purple and amethyst; the other in bright blue shading into bright, arterial red.
“Those are mermaids,” said Jill, sounding faintly baffled. “Why are they bringing mermaids on the ship?”
“It might be better to ask why they’re bringing people in mermaid costumes on the ship,” said Jonny, turning to direct a hard look at Jovanie. “Captain?”
“I believe that’s a better question to ask me,” said the man entering through the cabin’s side door. “Hello, everyone. I’m Adrian Curran, and I’ll be your ‘cruise director’ from now until our return to civilization. Drs. Harris and Weinstein will be joining us shortly; they’re on the deck now, helping your interns for this voyage get the equipment secured. As you can see, they arrived alongside the last group who will be traveling with us, the Blue Seas professional mermaid troupe. The Blue Seas mermaids perform at carnivals, circuses, and private events around the country, and will be assisting with the production of our documentary.”
“Hold on a second,” said Alexandra, stepping forward. “I’m here to do real science. I knew when I signed on that it was real science in the name of monster-hunting, but I never agreed to have anything to do with a bunch of plastic mermaids.” A low murmur broke out among the rest of the scientific team as they agreed with her. None of them spoke up loudly enough to be identified, Alexandra noted, and inwardly grimaced. This was going to be a fun trip if she had to be the voice of reason every time Imagine tried to pull a fast one.
“You will not be expected to interact with the mermaids outside of normal shipboard standards,” said Curran smoothly. “In fact, if you check your contracts, you’ll find a clause about ‘other entertainment professionals’ aboard the ship which explicitly forbids you from excessive fraternization. You will not be taking your meals with them, and they will not be using the parts of the deck that have been reserved for your experiments. In exchange, you will not be utilizing the areas that have been set aside for them to relax when not working.”
“Working?” said Jill blankly.
Jovanie began to laugh. Everyone turned to stare at her. She shook her head, and said, “You’re going out to sea to hunt for mermaids. Only way to guarantee that they show up on camera is to bring a couple of your own. Am I right?”
“Broadly, yes,” said Curran. “The Blue Seas mermaids will be entering the water at scheduled intervals, which will not be communicated to the camera crews. If they happen to catch the girls in the water, they’ll get as much footage as they can. If not, they’ll get more footage of the ocean itself. Either way, we will be able to honestly say that we were just as surprised as everyone else when they appeared on camera.”
For a moment, the room was silent. Then, the captain clapped her hands together, loudly enough to make several of the scientists jump. “All right: everyone is on board, your orientation packets are in your rooms, and my crew will be escorting you there shortly. In the meantime, I’m going to go get us moving. Mr. Curran, if you want to film our departure, I recommend getting your cameras in position.”
Then she was gone, leaving the rest to scramble for the doors.
It was an iconic shot even before the weight of what was to come was laid behind it: the Atargatis, resplendent with her white sides and her brightly lit windows, pulling away from the dock and sailing toward the distant sunset. The cameras on shore caught every glimmer of light off the glass, and lingered on the silhouettes of the scientists and crew who crowded the deck. None of the Blue Seas mermaids were captured in those lingering images; the only proof that they ever came aboard was a signed contract and a single picture snapped by one of the Imagine interns. In that digital photograph, the eleven women are smiling, laughing, clearly excited about their upcoming adventure.
None of them would ever be seen again, of course, just as none of the scientists, interns, Imagine camera crews, or ship’s personnel would be seen again—not alive. But in that moment, as the Atargatis sailed, none of this was known. They saw a great adventure. They saw a glorious and entertaining hoax. They saw profit, ratings, everything but the disaster that awaited them.
The Atargatis sailed blithely on, out of the harbor, and into history.
According to the official manifest, the Atargatis sailed with over two hundred people on board. The captain, Jovanie Seghers, and her first mate, David Mendoza, had been operating the liner for eight years with no recorded incidents. The majority of their crewmen had likewise been with them in excess of five years.
Imagine personnel included six scientists, thirty graduate students employed as scientific interns, one “television personality,” thirty-five camera operators and sound engineers, five personal assistants, three dive instructors, two safety monitors, and one producer. Additional personnel included the eleven-person Blue Seas mermaid troupe.
Only by looking at the numbers involved can we get a feeling for the true scope of the Atargatis tragedy. To lose a man at sea is a terrible thing. To lose a crew of this size, with all hands, is to strain the boundaries of belief.
—from Modern Ghost Ships: The Atargatis, originally aired on the Imagine Network, December 2017.
Sails of Silver
It took ten days to travel from port to the Mariana Trench. They could have made the voyage in nine, but the itinerary provided by Imagine included a stop in Honolulu, where the ship’s “official guide” and her cameraman visited a local aquarium and filmed some talking head segments with local marine biologists and oceanographers who were willing to have their names associated with the documentary, but weren’t willing to risk the reputation hit that could come from being on board. Alexandra sat by the rail, recording chemical readings and privately hating them. Lucky, tenured jerks who had forgotten what it was like to live in the trenches of “publish or perish.” For them, the Atargatis and her quixotic mission was some sort of joke. For the scientists on board…
Alexandra had known most of them for years. Oceanography was a big field, but like all arenas of scientific inquiry, it was plagued by nepotism, rivalry, and the vague belief that whatever your peers were doing, it had to be more interesting than whatever you were working on. It was only natural that people who were working in similar channels would cross each other’s paths from time to time. Every single person on the Atargatis science team was hungry, one way or another. Hungry for data, hungry for results, and hungry for publishable papers. Tenure wasn’t an impossible dream—not yet—but they all knew all too well that they could only chase the rabbit for so many years before it ran out of their reach forever.
Jill Hale needed solid und
- Julie Dillon
- Mira Grant
- 128 pages
- United States
- Subterranean Press
- Out of Print