Need to catch up?
In the six weeks since her arrival, “Flicka Star” had consistently arrived at work on time, completed her training faster than most mortal new hires, and earned the goodwill of everyone in her department. She didn’t ask questions or attempt to learn anything beyond her own responsibilities.
If she were a spy, she was a poor one, indeed.
In his office, Marcaeus pushed one of the dark wood wall panels. It sprung open to reveal a mural of a labyrinthine coral reef surrounding a kingdom of twisting spires and glittering columns. He activated it and stepped through, directly onto pier six of the Atlantica off-shore research facility. A huge ship blocked some of the unrelenting sunlight; built off the coast of Morocco, very near the hidden city of Atlantis, it was far brighter and hotter than Marcaeus enjoyed.
“Mr. Johnson!” a booming voice called over the noise of the waves crashing against the concrete pillars that hoisted Atlantica’s complicated system of walkways and tubes far above the ocean.
“Aterian.” Marcaeus lifted his hand.
The merman approached in an above-surface vehicle, a wheeled Paper Nautilus shell crafted from Atlantean glass spun in the blue-green shades of the sea. The vessel of the vehicle held salt-water up to the gills that scored Aterian’s broad, onyx-dark ribcage.
“I was surprised by Hobb’s call. I thought you had lost faith in our project here,” Aterian said bluntly. Most astrals were direct, but perhaps none so much as the merfolk. His silver eyes held no hint of judgment or the passive-aggressiveness Marcaeus would have expected from a human making such a statement.
“Not lost faith,” he explained. “It was only my intent to keep my distance for appearances. Our competitors in the non-compliant sector are circling.”
“Understood.” Aterian put his vehicle in motion once more and indicated for Marcaeus to follow. “Allow me to show you the progress we’ve made on the engines.”
Marcaeus remained in his glamoured form; human shoes navigated the occasional water-slick more safely than hooves.
They entered a huge elevator and plunged down, below the surface. Violent bubbles pounded themselves against the strong Atlantean glass, obscuring any view Marcaeus might have had of the coral reef that Atlantica’s facility had nurtured. Saving the oceans had been the first concern of astrals and mortal scientists; Atlantica had made huge advances in climate repair technology as a result. Yet the merfolk refused to sell their secrets. More than once, Marcaeus had insinuated interest in a possible merger, only to be summarily shut down. Capitalism had driven the mortals to cause the climate problem and the merfolk staunchly believed that no problem could be exploited to solve itself.
The elevator doors opened onto a cavernous underwater lab, more submerged airplane hangar than the shimmering vision of gold and pearls the name of Atlantis evoked. Dark-skinned mortals in stark white coats walked with purpose across the steel grate floors; Aterian had recruited scientists from all over the Origin Continent, of which Atlantis had once been a part before Olokun had brought the kingdom to dwell within their protection. All around the lab, merfolk moved through water-filled tubes, off to their own destinations. One wall was a single pane of glass, revealing Atlanteans and divers working below the surface on the bottom of the ship Marcaeus had spied topside.
“There it is,” Aterian said with a nod toward the boat. “The Leyden.”
Marcaeus moved out of the way of a woman pushing a cart with some type of large, metal component on it, then proceded to the window. The open sea was not an element he particularly wished to explore. He was far more comfortable with a stream running through a wood or the thunder of a river dashing over rock. Though it was large, the ship still seemed far too small when compared to the vast depths below.
“Should it be bigger?” he mused as Marcaeus pulled to a stopped beside him.
“The saltwater capacitors do have a limit to what they can achieve,” Aterian explained. “If we make them much larger, the deionization and resalination equipment will lead us to a point of diminishing returns. You do wish for these ships to carry cargo, correct?”
“Of course.” Marcaeus nodded. Though he didn’t understand exactly how the saltwater powered electric ships would operate, he trusted Aterian and his team.
“I know your kind are not fond of the element of water but these vessels will be safe and seaworthy. And they will help restore the balance of the seas. Olokun has given their approval and a guarantee of safe passage.” Aterian opened his hand, revealing a glowing blue tattoo on his palm, the mark of a God’s blessing.
Marcaeus sucked in a breath. “Far be it from me to doubt an Oshun.”
“It would be wise not to.”
Atlanteans hadn’t acquired a sense of sarcasm.
“Walk with me. Tell me of these competitors you fear,” the merman said, initiating the controls on his shell vehicle.
All through the laboratory, scientists and engineers moved aside, nodding their heads in deference as Aterian passed. Too many ears, Marcaeus decided. Too many humans, too easily tempted by profit.
“You are safe to speak here,” Aterian assured him.
“That Trasket whelp,” Marcaeus said though clenched teeth. “He’s sent a woman to infiltrate our company. His sister.”
“I know her,” Aterian said, surprise tilting his voice. “We met at the Ocean Summit in Portugal last year. She had some very passionate ideas about climate reform.”
Alarm straightened Marcaeus’s spine. “You’ve spoken to her about—”
“About nothing specific,” Aterian interrupted. “I am not a fool. But it does seem strange to me that a member of that family would care about the fate of their planet. I know that humans lie but she exuded such conviction.”
“Perhaps she’s a good actress,” Marcaeus mused. “Deception seems to come naturally to her clan.”
Aterian just made a noncommittal, “Mmm.”
It didn’t rest easy on Marcaeus’s mind. The element of water ruled the Atlanteans, making them more sensitive to emotion, human or astral. If Aterian hadn’t sensed any deception, perhaps it didn’t exist.
More troubling, Marcaeus didn’t want it to be true of her. She’d come to him with a fake name and a glamour…could that have been out of fear she couldn’t get hired by a company whose values aligned with hers if “Trasket” was the first thing HR saw on her resume?
He’d spent several long nights wondering about her and excusing it as work.
“Have you heard anything?” he asked, though anything Aterian might have learned in confidence would never be revealed, no matter how it might affect Marcaeus’s business interests.
“I hear many things. You must be more specific.” Aterian led the way back to the elevator.
“Have you heard anything about Trasket sending moles to astral-run companies?” Marcaeus stepped inside and the doors closed. As they rocketed toward the surface once more, he clarified, “Mole meaning, someone sent to spy.”
“Ah. Not the…” Aterian grimaced in distaste and waggled his webbed fingers to imitate a small mammal’s scurrying feet. Atlanteans distrusted most land-based creatures. “No, I have not heard any rumors of such. But I rarely hear them, anyway. We’re isolated. Our mortal workers rarely leave the compound and they were chosen by our finest truth-seers.”
Atlantean truth-seers were creatures feared even by the Gods. Their ability to discern the motives and character of any being, astral or mortal, was legendary.
“Do you—” Marcaeus began and stopped himself.
“This woman has unnerved you.” Aterian’s brow furrowed. “If you’re so afraid of her, why not simply fire her?”
“Because…” He hesitated, searching for words. “I thought it would be strategic to feed her false information to confound Trasket.”
“Not strategic,” Aterian corrected him. “Conceited. You wanted to feel power over him.”
Marcaeus scoffed in annoyance.
“An unethical man would try to court her. Humans sometimes mistake physical intimacy for trust,” Aterian observed mildly. “If you truly enjoy tormenting mortals on such a base level, I have no doubt Trasket would object to a romantic liaison between you and his sister.”
“Do you think so little of me?” Marcaeus shook his head sadly. “Perhaps I have spent too long in the mortal world. I don’t enjoy their intrigues but I don’t know how else to best them. They’re actively fighting against the progress that saved their world and their species in pursuit of money they won’t be able to spend when the mortal plane has burnt all around them. There’s no logic or reason but—”
But Fiona Trasket didn’t feel like a mortal. And that wasn’t logical or reasonable, either.
“But I admit, I’m intrigued by this woman. It’s as though I can feel her goodness buried under layers of…” he tried to finish, but couldn’t.
“Have you been struck by Eros?” Aterian asked bluntly.
“Of course not!” Eros-struck for a mortal? The Gods would never—
The Gods would, of course. They grew more meddlesome by the day. But even they wouldn’t be so cruel.
“I am trying out humor,” Aterian said with a nod of self-approval. “It appeared to uncover something you do not wish to examine.”
“No mortal has puzzled me so,” Marcaeus admitted. “I wish I had some equivalent to your truth-seers.”
“You could always consider conversation,” Aterian suggested as they reached the portal. “Get to know this mortal. See if she is willing to reveal her truth to you without compromising your own character.”
“I will think on it,” Marcaeus agreed without conviction. For he knew he would think on it. Too much.
And that was exactly why he didn’t care to know her better.