“Salazar. But my friends call me Sally.”
“Sally, we haven’t met formally. I’m Nora. I know you’ve been through interview after interview—”
“Some felt like interrogations to be honest.”
Nora pressed her lips together and shifted in her chair as she glanced away from the man sitting across from her. She wanted to commiserate, having gone through something similar herself. But the security procedures for the more secretive projects at the Institute were probably nothing compared to what Mr. Salazar had gone through. They were interrogations, not because anyone thought he had done anything wrong, but because someone thought he might be the key to answering big questions. Questions such as, is there a civilization living deep under the sea?
But whether or not merpeople were real wasn’t what concerned Nora. Even knowing that many creatures from childhood stories and ancient myths were real, she didn’t think what had happened and was happening to Mr. Salazar—to Sally—was mystical. She had a theory. She had proof, proof that she and her hand-picked team of bright young scientists had gathered. And despite using some unauthorized means to get that proof, she convinced the right people to grant her an interview with Sally.
Nora had been given a script and instructions on how to answer his questions, and their interview was being monitored. Sally had been blindfolded and brought to a few different “undisclosed locations” because the sites that held the instrumentation needed to study him needed to remain confidential. So he didn’t even ask where they were. She wished he had. She would have told him, even though she’d been instructed not to.
He deserved the truth about his condition. And he deserved to hear it from the person who had pried the most into his life.
Nora held Mr. Salazar’s file in her hands, but didn’t open it. She’d reviewed it multiple times, so she wouldn’t wear him out asking him the same questions that others had already asked. It wasn’t the whole file anyway. That wouldn’t have been something she could carry around, not in hard copy form. The file was a prop, a shield. She didn’t need to reference anything but her own mind and memory.
The investigation didn’t start at the Institute. Mr. Salazar first came to the attention of the mysterious agency that partnered with the Institute on many a clandestine project. And he came to that agency’s attention when he began to speak of hearing a song. He described it as a faraway and echoing song. It didn’t sound like music, but he couldn’t quite tell if it was a voice. Sometimes it sounded light and twinkly and other times it was lilting and watery and still other times it sounded deep and vast, like the humming of a whale the size of the moon.
It could have been an auditory hallucination, or it could have been all in his head. He did, after all, admit that sometimes it felt as if he wasn’t hearing the song with his ears, but with his mind. So it wasn’t just that one detail that brought him to the attention of the Agency. It was the circumstances under which he began hearing the song.
Sally was in his mid-fifties now, but about twenty years prior, he had been involved in an unusual incident that became one of the Agency’s most mysterious cases. There was a joint investigation with the Institute, an investigation that didn’t go far. All other individuals involved seemed to be leading normal lives.
Sally was a young deckhand on the crew of a ship that took on some researchers for a routine survey mission. The ship went missing. It seemed to have vanished along with its crew and passengers. Then, a couple of weeks later, the ship reappeared. Everyone aboard was accounted for, but there were serious injuries and one near fatality. The crewman wouldn’t have made it if their rescue had come any later. And there were the stories.
People expected tall tales from sailors. According to the crew and passengers, their ship got lost when the instrumentation stopped working and the sky became overcast. They drifted for days and found a derelict ship. They attempted to scavenge the derelict for necessities. They spoke of being attacked by an unseen creature, of being haunted by a ghostly presence.
Sally had not been one of the people who went over to the derelict ship. He remembered seeing the injured and the terrified looks in the eyes of everyone who’d been on that derelict. They had brought back food and water, and the captain gave permission to consume the scavenged good. But the crew got superstitious and stayed away. They were rescued shortly after. But on a dare, Sally drank some of the water that was brought over from the ship. He told no one.
After they were rescued, he started hearing the song. He didn’t tell anyone about that either. At first, he thought it was someone singing from a different room or listening to a radio. He blamed cabin fever. The back of his mind was tickled and troubled by the notion that it might be some after effect of the water he drank from that strange derelict ship. But he pushed the thought away. He noticed that he didn’t hear the song when he was on land. The deckhand job wasn’t special or lucrative, so he left it. He went on with his life. And he made a subconscious pact with himself to avoid venturing out onto the water.
And so the song and ordeal faded from memory. Sally moved on.
It so happened that a few weeks prior to his encounter with the Agency, Sally attended his niece’s wedding ceremony aboard a chartered yacht. For the first time in twenty years, Sally boarded a ship. And for the first time in twenty years, Sally began to hear the song again. This time, he continued hearing it, even when he got back on dry land.
The song and the sea and that incident. It was enough to get the attention of the Agency, which always kept its ear to the ground for stories like Sally’s. They watched him for a while. He was on dry land and yet he seemed to grow ever more distracted. And he began to speak of the song. Not just about the song, but what he felt about it and thought about it.
It was beautiful, the song, he would say, but there was something about it that was unsettling. Sally couldn’t really put his finger on it. He was drawn to it, but he also wanted a break from it. There was something there, a message, a feeling, that he couldn’t quite figure out. At first it was no more bothersome than forgetting the title of a book one knows well during a casual conversation, or forgetting where one left one’s car keys after coming home exhausted. It felt like something his mind knew but had forgotten. Then it felt like he was on the verge of something, a realization perhaps, an insight. It felt hopeful at times, the song, and at other times, he just got a bad feeling about it.
So when the agent in the business suit came by the convenience store that Sally owned and ran, Sally was ready for someone to provide him with some answers. Sally said he probably wouldn’t have sought those answers out himself. And no one would have found out how extraordinary Sally was. But that agent was paying attention, following up on what seemed like a lead with some intriguing potential. And the story the agent spun after he got Sally’s account of the song and put it together with that case file was something extraordinary. It just wasn’t the truth.
“He told me it was mermaids,” Sally said. He smiled a crooked, handsome smile. He didn’t mind repeating this part of his story to Nora. He was obviously charmed by the romantic notion of a sailor hearing the song of a mermaid. “Well, he said it might be mermaids.”
Nora smiled. But then Sally suffered a fit of coughing and paled just slightly. Nora’s smile faded as she handed him a glass of water, glanced at her file, and then looked at him again.
Like Nora and like so many others who had to be debriefed when they became involved in unusual events (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), Sally became aware overnight that many of the mystical magical things from human legend were real. The agent who broke the news to him was one of many agents who routinely investigated and studied those things.
At first, even though he was overwhelmed and flabbergasted, Sally was relieved to have some answers. But then the agent told him that of all the things from legend that people had discovered to be true, merfolk were still considered legend. So if Sally was hearing their song, if something had changed him during that incident from his youth, it might be an even bigger deal than the Agency first thought. They thought Sally had more than a clue to an old case.
As it turned out, Sally might have held the key to discovering a new species, a new people.
Because no one could hear what he was hearing, the Agency hooked him up to as many machines as they had. They took his blood, his urine, even his spinal fluid. They took hair samples and tissue samples. They did most of that analysis at the Institute, which had a few instruments and experts that the Agency did not.
That’s where Nora came in. She had consulted with the Agency on so many of their science-based cases that she often joked with her contact that she should be given an honorary badge. A few years past, she put together a team of brilliant young scientists at the start of their careers from different fields of study. She wanted them to combine their knowledge, challenge each other, challenge their own expectations, ask questions, and look for more than one answer. She hoped for them to make leaps of insight together that they wouldn’t be able to make alone.
She wasn’t authorized to show her team the results of Sally’s tests. She wasn’t authorized to run some of the additional tests that she ran. But she went ahead anyway. Because she and her team saw something that the Agency’s experts did not or could not see. Perhaps because the Agency was used to quickly classifying cases and phenomena into particular categories. She and her team put clues together from hundreds of sources, including the Agency case on that derelict ship, the new case opened on Sally, and data coming from a new detector built and operated by the Institute. They put together a theory, a theory that Nora had already presented to the Agency, and one that she was now ready to present to Sally. That included telling Sally that he might have held the key to her team’s first leap of insight.
But Sally had already been told he was the key to another big deal discovery, so Nora wanted to tread lightly. She didn’t want to add to the poor man’s stresses any more than she had to. He had been cooperative, a good sport, but he was tired by now. Tired because he didn’t just want answers, he wanted some rest. Tired because what was happening to him was taking its toll in more ways than he knew.
“I know now that it’s not mermaids,” Sally said. He shrugged. “Or maybe it is. Maybe they’re in there somewhere. It’s not mind-reading. They did tests to see if that’s what I was doing. They thought if I was involuntarily reading everyone’s minds, it would sound like a jumble, like a pleasant humming.” He shook his head. “But I’m sure it’s not that either.”
“What do you think it is you’re hearing?” Nora asked.
Salazar leaned back in the couch. He folded his hands in his lap and glanced to the side, creasing his brow just a little as if he were concentrating. He glanced at Nora, relaxed his brow, and smiled. He threw up his hands. “All right, Doctor, come on out and say it. I know you’ve been tiptoeing around it because you know I’ve been put through the ringer over the past week, but I can take it. Lay it on me.”
“Have you ever heard of the cosmic microwave background radiation?”
Sally raised his brows. “Is that what I’m hearing?”
“That’s what I thought at first. And it may be part of what you’re hearing. But it doesn’t make sense. The CMB has been around since the beginning of…since the beginning. It’s the leftover radiation from the big bang. It’s everywhere and always has been since all of existence started. So if that’s what you were hearing, I imagine you wouldn’t have stopped hearing it.”
“Then what makes you think that’s what I’m hearing?”
“Some of the tests we’ve run. It’s hard to tell because we don’t have direct evidence or observation. A lot of this is based on extrapolations from calculations.”
Sally raised his brows.
Nora smiled and shook her head. “Don’t ask me to explain the details. Cosmology and physics are not my fields of expertise. We think something changed you, your physiology, when you encountered that derelict ship about twenty years ago. It might have been the water that you drank. But it might have been something particular about you, your genetics, your condition at the time, your age at the time, or all of that combined with other factors. It’s hard to tell, especially without baseline measures. You haven’t visited the doctor often enough.”
Sally looked down sheepishly.
“Sally, the agent who first found you told you that you might be hearing the song of mermaids. And that was wondrous. But I think what you’re hearing is even more wondrous than that. I think you may have stumbled onto a way of detecting changes to the very fabric of existence. How and why, I don’t know. What changes, I don’t know.”
Sally looked at her, his bright brown eyes filled with wonder.
“Now, we are made of what’s called ordinary matter. It makes up humans, this table, the sun, everything we can see or detect with telescopes. But there is another kind of matter out there, or actually, all around us. We call it dark matter. We can’t directly detect it because it doesn’t interact with us. It’s like…trying to grab smoke.”
Sally nodded. “I think I follow.”
“Our current theory is this. Due to a combination of factors that caused a ‘perfect storm’ of changes in you, you are able to interact with the dark matter in the universe, to perceive it.”
“Not the song of mermaids,” Sally said. His eyes widened. “The song of the cosmos.”
“There’s a scientific explanation for your current condition after all.”
Sally tilted his head and sighed. “Doc, did you ever consider that maybe what happened to me is a little bit of both? A little bit of science and a little bit of magic?”
Nora smiled. “I’m one of those stubborn people who believes that all magic can be explained by science, if not now then eventually.” She raised a finger. “I’m also one of those people who isn’t afraid of understanding. I don’t believe that understanding a thing sucks all the joy out of it.”
“Really? So you don’t think knowing how a magic trick works would ruin your enjoyment of it?”
Nora peered at Sally. “All right. There are some things in this world that I’m willing to stay ignorant about,” she conceded.
Sally chuckled and nodded at his small victory.
Nora’s smiled faded. She hesitated. “But the human body is limited in its ability to adapt to things we weren’t originally built to do or comprehend. The change is taking its toll. You’ve gotten sick, Sally. And our medical tests show that your body is deteriorating.”
Sally smiled. He nodded and exhaled as if in relief. “Thanks for telling me the truth, Doc. Finally. It was stressing me out to see you so stressed out. I almost blurted out the truth myself a few times.” He said “whew” and leaned back into his chair.
Nora blinked. “You…knew?”
“I feel a little run down. I don’t feel like I’m…deteriorating just yet. But your heart was hammering so fast. Tell the truth, I was more worried about you.”
Sally suddenly sat straight up. “Doc, something bad is coming. You’d better call the captain and—”
There was a boom somewhere below them. The room quaked and Nora stumbled as the floor suddenly tilted. Sally reached out, but he couldn’t catch her. She slammed against the table that came sliding toward her. It knocked her to the ground. Sally dropped from the chair he’d been sitting in and crouched to the ground beside her. They held onto each other as the room tilted one way, then the other.
“We’re on a ship,” Nora said.
Sally nodded. “I know.”
The room began to stabilize as the ship did. They had been struck by something.
“Doc, it was a missile. I’m sorry I didn’t know what it was until it was too late. But now I know. There’s another coming. This ship will sink unless the pilot steers where I tell him. Can you reach the bridge from here?”
Dazed, all Nora could do was stare ahead. Sally put a solid hand on her shoulder.
Nora squeezed her eyes shut and nodded. She opened her eyes, rose, and helped Sally up. She went to the phone mounted on the wall by the door and called the bridge. The captain thought she was calling to find out what was happening. He gave reassurances and almost hung up on her but she gave him the code she was instructed to give if ever she had some intelligence that was of immediate importance during an emergency situation. She’d never had to use it before, but she looked at Sally and decided to trust him. She told the captain that she had an asset with information that could guide them to safety.
Sally took the phone. He directed the pilot where to maneuver. The ship was a high security vessel. It was equipped with state of the art detection systems, but none of them warned of the three additional missiles that almost hit the ship. The ship was also equipped with weapons. Sally directed them where to fire. Trusting to his word, the captain ordered the crew to fire the missiles. Sally confirmed that the missiles had hit, but it wasn’t until the ship turned and came within detection range of the attacking vessel that they could confirm the hits themselves. They had crippled the attacking vessel, a submarine.
As they sailed closer, and readied themselves to board the submarine, Nora helped Sally back to his chair.
“You’re hurt,” he said, gently grasping her arm.
The corner of the table she’d slammed into had torn through her lab coat and her shirt and her skin. But Nora didn’t care.
“Sally, I’m so sorry. I deceived you. Being out on the ocean…we thought it was facilitating your ability. It wasn’t a theory. It was just plain hunch, gut feeling. I didn’t want you to be biased, so I didn’t tell you. I was going to ask you if the song sounded louder.”
Sally patted her arm. “We’re both a couple of liars, then, Doc. I’ve been deceiving you too.”
Nora heard the banging of shoes on metal as sailors and guards ran through the corridors. She wondered what Sally heard. She knew he heard more than the song of the cosmos.
“I never stopped hearing the song,” he said. “I just…pushed it away to the back of my mind. It was easier to do that on land. You’re right about the water. It was like the ocean was a megaphone or something. It magnified the song. Made it more profound, harder to ignore. So I avoided the water. But when I went on that yacht…I couldn’t ignore it. I’m older now. I see things differently, you know? I’m not as scared, I think. I mean, I am. I’m scared. But I know I have a responsibility. That’s why I was glad when I found out I might be able to help solve the mystery about merfolk.” He shook his head. “And then you told me it was bigger than that.”
He inhaled and straightened his shoulders. “But I was still scared. I knew if I admitted the whole truth, it would be more trouble for me. I didn’t mind getting poked and prodded and questioned, but I didn’t want to get dissected, or recruited to be some government spy. Ever since I started hearing the song, I could hear everything else in the world too, clear as a bell. So I knew we were on a ship. I could hear the rushing of the water, the hum of the engine. And I knew you had difficult news to break. I could hear the rapid beat of your heart when you walked in here with that file tucked under your arm. That file with news of doom and gloom for me.”
Nora sighed. All that time, she was bracing herself to break some bad news to a sweet shopkeeper. He had probably heard every word she and her team and the agents had said about him and his case.
“It’s not like regular hearing,” he said. “It’s more like sight. You can’t open and close your ears, but you can open and close your eyes to control what you see.”
“So you can shut it off?”
“I can with the…ordinary matter, you called it? People talking, animals, cars, building groaning. I can shut that stuff out.”
“But not the song of the cosmos.”
Sally shook his head. “I hear that all the time. And something has changed, I think. That’s why I was glad that agent found me. I wouldn’t have had the guts to come in by myself. I don’t know what it means, but I felt like I should finally tell someone.”
“Sally, can you hear the other ship? Can you tell if we were attacked because of you, or are there other assets onboard that could have been the target?”
Sally nodded. He opened his mouth and then his face contorted with pain. He clapped his hands to his ears.
Nora glanced around. She knew what must have been happening. Somehow, someone was attacking Sally. She had to stop them. They might be on the other ship. They might be onboard the ship she was on. She had to stop them and to do that, she had to know who they were.
“Sally, who’s doing this? Do you know?”
His face suddenly went slack as if the pain had receded.
“Sally, do you know who attacked you?”
“Those who fear change,” he said. And then he swooned and collapsed into Nora’s arms.
Sally lay unconscious not on a cot or a hospital bed, but on a plush king-sized bed lined with silk and satin. All the monitoring equipment was arranged so it would not obstruct the cool morning sunlight streaming through the window. The sunlight could reach him, but no human eyes or weapons could. They were high above any other buildings.
Nora entered the room. She was one of only five people allowed to come in and see him and that was because she had helped to get him safely off the ship and into the custody of the Agency.
The submarine that had attacked the ship was found to be empty by the time it was boarded. There were no clues left behind. No documents, no forensic evidence. The submarine was identifiable, but it had been stolen under mysterious circumstances. That investigation was ongoing.
Nora hadn’t revealed Sally’s secret to the Agency, but they knew anyway. They probably knew before they handed his case to her. And they believed that they weren’t the only ones who knew about Sally’s super-hearing. The Agency believed that Sally might have heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear, or that someone thought he had. But Nora wondered. Someone had known just what to do to put him to sleep. And all the Agency’s agents and all the Institute’s doctors didn’t know how to wake him.
She set aside her speculation and walked over to the chair and table beside the bed. She set down the paper bag of pastries and two coffees. She brought enough breakfast for two, just in case she walked in to find him awake. She would be doing that every day until he did wake.
“Hey Sally, good morning.” She settled into the chair. “I’ll have a lot of questions for you when you wake, but for now, how about a story?”
She had done enough research on him to know. He liked his coffee with a couple of sugars and a bit of cream. He wasn’t a fan of donuts. He preferred savory breakfast, like the egg and bacon sandwich she’d brought. He liked reading mysteries. He wasn’t a fan of sports or politics, but he kept up with the latest on space exploration—and that was something from childhood, not because of what happened to him that lent him a peculiar ability.
She knew he could hear it, the song of the cosmos. She knew he was still being haunted by the song. She just hoped he could hear her too.
“I’m here for you, Sally,” she said. “Whatever else you hear, I hope you hear that.”
Copyright © 2016 by Nila L. Patel.