Image by Marcela Laskoski
by Lars Ahn
All Alice ever wanted was to hear them sing.
That’s what I told her father, when they brought me to him, after what happened in Guam. At first, he just stared at me, like I was some bug he was tempted to pull the legs off, one at a time. Then he started talking.
“I want you to tell me one thing and one thing only: Exactly what were you two up to?”
I had heard a lot of scary stories about Alice’s father, mainly from Alice herself, but I kind of thought she was exaggerating. Sitting in front of him in a bare windowless room, the stories started to feel very plausible. So I told him everything, before he handed me over to the agency. Alice might have felt betrayed, but telling her father most certainly saved my life.
And it landed me a job.
I almost didn’t take the gig, because I heard it was some rich kid’s party. But the money on offer would cover my rent for the rest of the year.
While the address fit my expectations, the young woman opening the door sure as hell didn’t. With her pale skin, bleached hair, and multiple piercings, she looked more like the Asian love child of Lisbeth Salander and Roy Batty than the owner of an apartment in one of the most expensive properties in the city. I wondered if the woman was a guest who had arrived early or a personal assistant to the host.
“I’m the DJ,” I said. “Alice hired me.”
“I’m Alice, nice to meet you,” the woman said.
My initial surprise was soon replaced by another when I saw the living room. It was huge and luxurious but didn’t look like it was about to host a party.
“When do the guests arrive?” I asked.
“Aren’t I supposed to DJ at your party?”
Alice frowned. “No, I hired you for a private performance. Didn’t your manager tell you that?”
“Miscommunication. My bad.” For some reason I had never felt comfortable with people contacting me directly about gigs. It made me feel unprofessional. So my manager was actually a freeware bot I used to handle the bookings. It did the job OK, but was not always on top when it came to the specifics.
I looked around, suspecting it was some kind of scam, but I had already received half of my fee.
Alice gave me a tour of her place. I found her easy to talk to, considering one of her bathrooms was bigger than my apartment. Alice casually mentioned who her father was but revealed little else about herself.
“So it’s just you and me?” I said. “What do you want me to play?”
“I have a confession,” Alice said. “I didn’t hire you to DJ for me. I wanted to meet you for another reason.”
I felt my heart sink. Here we go, I thought. She was either a wannabe DJ, who wanted my help to break into the club scene, or I would to have listen to her demos and try to find a polite way to inform her how crap they were.
Instead she took me to the room.
To access the room, Alice had to use not only a keycard but also her fingerprint, her iris, and her voice. I thought locks like that only existed in spy movies. It wasn’t until Alice showed me the chair and asked me to sit in it, that I started to worry, mostly because of the handcuffs.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Alice said. “I’m not into S/M.”
“Don’t worry, I was getting more of a serial killer vibe,” I said, adding a fake, nervous laugh, which ended up sounding more real than intended.
Alice gave me a half-smile. “It’s for your own protection, and yes, I know how it sounds. I totally understand if you don’t want to do it, and you are free to leave. You will still get paid.”
But you will probably not call me again. So I stayed put and let Alice put the handcuffs on. Then she showed me the mouth guard.
“For your own protection,” she repeated before shoving it gently into my mouth. “I can’t be in here with you, while you listen to it, but I will be right next door.”
I wanted to make a joke along the line of “Wow, your music must really suck” but was too freaked out to say anything. I just watched as Alice left the room. Only then did it occur to me how solid the door looked. It wasn’t for keeping people out of the room, I realized. It was for keeping them in.
Then the singing started.
What does it sound like? That’s the question I’m asked the most. Usually I say, no words can describe the experience, but that’s a lie. The truth is, while I can’t recall the actual singing, I clearly remember what it feels like.
“Christ,” I said afterwards, still shivering. “That was…”
“Yes?” Alice said.
“Like being in the presence of something… I don’t know… otherworldly or alien. I’ve never felt anything like that. Where the hell did you get the recording from? I thought it was illegal to own one.”
“It is,” she said. “It’s considered an act of terrorism.”
“I stole it or rather made a copy for myself. You can probably guess from whom.”
“OK. But why does your father have something like that? What’s in it for him? You could both end up in jail.”
Alice shrugged. “If the story came out, my dad could claim he only had the recording to prevent it from ending in the wrong hands, and he would probably get away with it. He might even be called a hero. But the thing is, where others see the risks or the dangers, my dad sees the opportunities. If he had lived during the Black Plague, I’m sure our family would own the world today.”
I remember being struck by the way Alice said it. Resigned, matter of fact, without bitterness.
“So why do you have it?” I asked.
The look on her face told me Alice had been waiting a long time for someone to ask her that question. “Because I want the world to hear them.”
She was obsessed with them, her father told me. Had been since she was a little girl and read The Little Mermaid for the first time. From then on she had consumed anything with merfolks.
“We were never close, but that might have been the actual point I lost her,” her father said, in a rare moment of self-doubt.
I was surprised, and a bit concerned, the first time he came to visit me at the facility, but apparently it was part of the deal he had struck with the agency. We only talk about her. That suits us both fine.
I have no trouble remembering the day the news broke.
MERMAIDS ARE REAL!!!, the headlines had screamed, accompanied by the pictures of humanoid creatures swimming deep in the Pacific Ocean. The group had been caught on camera by a remote-controlled underwater drone on a scientific expedition in the Mariana Trench, and the footage was so high-def there could be no mistake about what it showed.
I was seven at the time, and while I had never been as obsessed with mermaids as Alice, I felt excited when I watched the news together with my parents. For a moment, the world seemed like a fairy tale. I do recall being a bit disappointed by the creatures’ appearance, which was described by an expert as 60 percent dolphin, 20 percent sea cow, and 20 percent human.
“Man, they are ugly,” a boy in my class said, and that seemed to be the popular opinion after the initial excitement had worn off.
But Alice found them beautiful and wanted to learn everything about them. She aspired to become a marine biologist but dropped out, when her professor asked his students to dissect a specimen and suggested they try the meat.
“It’s even better than sashimi,” he told his class.
Afterwards, she had gotten into a heated argument with him and was charged with assault, because some spit had landed on his coat. The next night, someone set fire to the lab.
“It was never proved to be her, but I still paid for a new lab. After that, she stopped talking to me,” her father said.
In the years after university, Alice had been involved with a couple of animal rights groups but became disillusioned when they wouldn’t recognize merfolks as humans. Instead, she started her own research, living off the interest from a trust fund her father had set up before her birth.
By the time she approached me, she had decided to focus her study on one specific subject: their song.
The first recorded casualties were the 39 refugees, whose ship had drifted off course into the protected zone. The only survivor was a deaf old woman, who was nearly catatonic, when she was found alone on board. She passed away the next day. The investigators managed to piece together what had happened by using clips and recordings from a few discarded phones, but even that turned out to be a hazardous undertaking.
The clips, when played without sound, showed the passengers starting to panic when they saw what they were heading towards. Some were even seen trying to pierce the eardrums of their children or their own, but it was too late. Soon, people began to convulse violently before throwing themselves overboard.
One person managed to point the camera in the direction of the merfolks before dropping the phone. The clip was only 2.8 seconds long, but it clearly showed what the mermaids were doing.
They were singing.
I said no. It was a terrible idea, the worst ever in the history of mankind.
“Why would you want to expose people to something like that?” I asked her.
“Because they need to hear it,” Alice said, and right at that moment I started to wonder if she had gone mad.
Alice believed she could change people’s view of the merfolk if they could listen to their song in a safe way. Instead of being indifferent or scared of them, the world would come to see them as the beautiful and wondrous beings she knew them to be.
I was tempted to remind her that even though a lot of people like whale singing, it hasn’t put an end to whale hunting. But I tried to reason with her from another angle.
“Let’s say we somehow manage to neutralize the part that makes everybody want to kill themselves. How can we even be sure people will want to listen to the result?” I said.
“Didn’t you sense it? The poetry in their voices. The longing. The sadness. It was like getting a glimpse of a gateway to an alien world right here on Earth.”
“I guess…” I said. Frankly, I could only recall the scary part, the one where you felt encroached by something so overwhelming and dark, it made you want to… not die… but to escape. Get away from that terrible presence, no matter the cost, even if it meant you had to smash your head against a wall or throw yourself off a building. I found it hard to see the poetry in that and considered telling Alice but she had already had enough disappointments in her life.
“Are you in love with her?” the investigators from the agency asked.
“Yes, of course I love her, but not in a sexual way,” I added, knowing that would be their next question. “It wasn’t something we talked about.”
“But why didn’t you try to stop her? You had every chance,” they wanted to know. And I have never been able to find a good answer to that. Each time I try to explain myself, I can hear how stupid and naive it sounds. Surprisingly enough, Alice’s father seems to be the only one who understands.
“My daughter can be terribly convincing when she set her mind to it,” he once said.
I often wonder if there were others before me. How many had Alice put in that chair and let in on the secret? And what had she done to ensure they didn’t tell anybody about it?
I intended to ask her every time we met to work on the recording project but never got around to do it, because Alice always managed to sidetrack me with something new and exciting she had just learned. And then I couldn’t find the right moment or the courage to bring it up.
At times, she would piss me off with her late night phone calls, and endless texts, and her habit of dropping by without any notice, like she assumed I had nothing better to do than to work on our project. But every time I was about to tell her to go pester someone else, Alice seemed to sense my mood and left me alone for a while, until I found myself texting her with some lame excuse to meet again.
We had less than ten seconds to work with—9.6 to be exact—and the sound quality left a lot to be desired. I tried to clean the recording digitally without actually listening to it, and it felt like I was dismantling a ticking bomb.
The next step was figuring out how to mix the song with music without making the listener suicidal.
“So you were trying to use music to lessen the effect of the song and make it accessible to the human ear?” the investigators said. “Others have tried the same but came up short. Why did you get further than anybody else?”
I decided to play stupid. So far it had worked well. “I’m not sure what you are asking me? Do you mean: Why did they fail, or why didn’t we fail as much?”
“What we want to know is this,” they said. “Why are you still alive?”
“No”, I said. “No, no, no. Absolutely not. Totally out of the question. Find somebody else.”
“But who? We can’t just pick people off the street,” Alice said.
“Then let me do it or let us take turns,” I said, not quite believing I was actually suggesting this.
She shook her head. “That’s a bad idea and you know why. You are the expert so you should monitor the test. And if anything went wrong with you in the chair, I would have to start all over again. So I’m the logical choice.”
I scoffed but knew I had lost. “I still don’t like it.”
She patted me on the shoulder. “I’m getting the chair ready.”
Alice started screaming. I killed the music immediately, but she kept on. The scream was unlike anything I had ever heard. What if she never stops? I thought.
She screamed for a full minute and then she just stopped. It took another five minutes before I was able to get a reaction from her. Five minutes where I was wondering, if she was ever coming back from whatever hell, I had put her through.
“Not hell,” she said afterwards, voice still raw. “Something different.”
“It was…” Alice shook her head, for once lost for words. “I can’t… just can’t…” She started crying and that scared me more than anything, because I had never seen her so unraveled before.
I made a decision. “That’s it. We quit.”
She looked up. “What? No, we just started.”
“Are you serious? You almost didn’t come back. Do you really want to go through something like that again? Because I don’t.”
She dried her eyes, and I noticed the spark in them had returned. “Neither do I, but now we know what to avoid, and that’s a good starting point,” she said.
“No! This ends here!” I said and I meant it. I still meant it a week later, but by the end of the third week I was back at the controls, watching her in the chair.
“How many times did you subject her to the music?” they wanted to know, as if I had forced Alice to do it.
“You must have kept a record of the test results,” they said.
“Of course we did.”
“So where are they?”
“Don’t know. I gave her all the documentation. She didn’t trust anybody else with it. So go ask her.”
“You know we can’t.”
“No, I don’t know!” I said, getting angry. “Because you refuse to tell me anything. For all I know she is dead.”
“She’s still alive.”
They weren’t done, though. “Can you at least give us an estimate on how many times she listened to the song? It would be a great help to the medical staff.”
Clever bastards. Trying to appeal to my concern. It worked. “I know we did at least twenty tests together, but no more than thirty,” I said, not adding Alice had also done some listening on her own as well.
I had been shocked when I found out. “How do you manage it? Aren’t you using the chair?” I’d asked her.
She had just grinned. “Of course I do. Two words: Remote. Control.”
I couldn’t decide if I was angry or annoyed with her. Probably both. “For Christ’s sake. Stop doing it when I’m not here. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I know, but I only use our “safe” files, the ones we have already tested.”
“Because it feels so good.”
I can’t say what worried me the most. The happiness in Alice’s voice or the desperate look in her eyes.
I blame myself for what happened to Alice. If I hadn’t been going on about the poor quality of the recording and citing it as the main reason we had failed to achieve the breakthrough, perhaps she wouldn’t have acted on it.
“It’s what we’ve got. It’s not like we have anything else to choose from,” she told me.
But it must have got her thinking, because one day she announced out of the blue she was going to Guam.
“Don’t look so concerned,” she said. “I’ve got everything set up. I even found a boat that can take me out to the zone.”
“It’s an all-deaf crew. Someone I know at the Marine Biology Institute recommended them. They are very experienced so I will be in safe hands.”
“I need you to help me find the best recording equipment possible. Imagine what we can do with several minutes of song in crystal clear quality.”
“Why do you have to be there? Can’t you just hire the crew to do the job? Or let me go instead?”
Alice smiled at me, like you do to a child who has just said something unintentionally funny.
“My dad always says: ‘If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.’ That’s about the only thing we have ever agreed upon,” she said, and I knew then there was nothing I could say to change her mind.
When I later told her father about it, his reaction surprised me. Instead of being angry, it seemed to cheer him up.
“She really said that?” he mused, strangely proud of the fact his daughter had quoted him.
The trip itself was an undeniable success. It was the aftermath that turned it into a disaster.
We had agreed there would be no communication between us until Alice came home. She was convinced her phone and her email was monitored by her father, and she even claimed she had her place swept for bugs and cameras at least twice a week.
Alice had instructed me never to mention the project on the phone or in any form of electronic text. We were only to discuss it face to face, and if that couldn’t be avoided, I should give the impression I was working on a musical project with Alice.
“So your father knows about me?” I said, feeling slightly disturbed by the notion.
“Of course he does,” Alice said. “He probably received a file on you the day we met.”
“But does he know about the project and Guam?”
“No, I think I have managed to keep that away from him,” she said. “I hope to have him convinced I’m done with mermaids and am now trying to launch a career as a musician. It will either be a relief to him or a further confirmation of what a huge disappointment I have become.”
So I wasn’t that concerned when I didn’t hear from Alice the day she was set to return home. No word from her the next day either, or the next again. A week passed where I kept expecting her to knock on my door without warning, like she used to do.
Then the parcel arrived. I thought it was the new microphone I had ordered a few days earlier, but then I noticed it had been sent from Guam and felt my pulse quickening. I hurried upstairs to my apartment, opening the parcel on the way. It contained a flash drive and a handwritten note.
It said: Dear C. Don’t worry. This is not a recording of the singing. You can safely play it, but please destroy it afterwards. Love A.
I couldn’t tell if it was actually Alice’s handwriting. When I think about it, I’m not sure I ever saw Alice write anything in her hand. I plugged the flash drive into my computer and found a video file. I hesitated a second before opening it.
The message had been recorded in a hotel room, probably with her phone. Alice looked like she had been crying.
“Hi Clem,” she said. “If you’re wondering why I’m sending you this, it’s to say I’m sorry.”
She sounded tired. “You tried to warn me, but I was too stubborn or stupid to listen. I thought I was doing something good, and instead it turned out I was making things worse.”
The way Alice spoke left me with a bad feeling. I was tempted to fast-forward to the end but didn’t want to miss some vital information. So I kept watching.
“To answer the question that must be on your mind right now: Yes, I got the recording. Everything went as planned. Afterwards, I was as happy as I have ever been.”
She took a deep breath. “At the last minute, I decided I also wanted to film the experience. I wasn’t sure if it was OK with the crew, so I used my phone as a hidden camera. I started recording just before the song started, and then I blacked out for the next 45 minutes. It was only when I got back to the hotel, that I had the chance to check the video, and then I discovered what had really happened.”
By now, Alice was staring into the camera with an intensity that made me increasingly uncomfortable.
“You know why they sing, Clem?” she said. “In my childish, fairy tale-infused mind, I imagined they sang out of joy. They don’t. They only sing when they feel threatened. Their song is a defense mechanism. Don’t know why I never thought of that. And guess how I found out? About ten minutes into the video, which I saw without sound, the crew decided I wasn’t going to wake up anytime soon. So they took out their rifles.”
I realized I was holding my hand to my mouth. I really wanted the video to end but knew, there was no way I could stop listening.
Alice’s voice started to break. “It was a carnage. The video mostly showed glimpses, but there’s no doubt what was happening. And… and I was so overjoyed when we were sailing back to the port, and all the time they had the bodies on ice below deck without me knowing. They must have thought I was a fucking joke, paying them to go out on an illegal hunt they had already planned.”
She dried her eyes. “So where does it leave us? Going on with the project will only endanger them further. It could encourage more poaching, because people will want to hear more. On the other hand, our music can be used to tell about the crimes that take place here. I’m in two minds about this, Clem. Shall I erase the recording of the song or not? The only thing I know at the moment is this: I need more evidence. So tomorrow, I’m going out again with the same crew. I told them something went wrong with the recording and I need a second try. I don’t know if they believe me, but I’m taking my chances. As a precaution, I’m sending you this, and I have paid my hotel bill with a credit card supplied by my dad. If things go bad, I will have to rely on him bailing me out, and yes, I’m aware of the irony. Again, I can’t stress how sorry I am about dragging you into this mess. Be safe.”
And that was it. I played the video again. And again. And again, each time telling myself I should follow Alice’s advice and get rid of the file. Instead, I spent hours searching local news sites from Guam for clues about what had become of Alice. I was still looking when her father’s men burst into my apartment.
Eventually, I managed to piece together what had happened. As told in the video, she went out again the next day. When the rescue craft located the boat, she was the only one left.
“What became of the crew?” I asked one of the investigators at the facility, who seemed to have taken pity on me, or perhaps she was just less discreet than her colleagues.
“Gone, and we have no clue where they went. No traces of blood. No signs of struggle. Our best guess is, she somehow managed to drug them and got rid of the bodies all by herself. Either that, or the creatures took them but spared her, which is quite creepy when you think of it.”
According to the investigator, Alice was barely alive when she was found chained to the boat. She was in a deep coma—which she still hasn’t woken from.
“Where is she?”
The investigator shook her head. “Don’t know, and even if I did I won’t tell you. Just accept you’re never going to see your lover again and move on.”
“She’s not my—” I started. “Forget it. I just wanted to make sure she’s OK.”
She sighed. “Our common benefactor is the only reason they haven’t pulled the plug on her. She is way past braindead. Actually, the biggest mystery is why she had any brain activity left when they found her.”
“What do you mean?”
“They estimated she had been subjected to at least 15 minutes of song. No one on record has survived longer than four minutes.”
“How was that possible?”
The investigator looked amused. “Seriously? You’re asking me that?”
She annoyed me. “What do you mean? What’s the reason she was able to survive?”
She smirked. “All those sessions trained her well. You hardened her, made her resistant and probably saved her life. How do you think you’re still alive?”
“What? You thought you were indispensable? That you are the only one who can do this? Your research may have given you a head start, but now they have people working in labs all over the world, and one day someone will improve on your method.”
I stared at the woman with disbelief. Then her phone started buzzing. She read the message.
“Gear up, kid,” she said. “They have another one for you.”
The prisoner had been screaming for five minutes straight. The director of the agency was clearly impressed. Then the prisoner began to convulse, and the look on the director’s face changed.
“Eh… he’s not about to get a seizure, is he? We need to be able to interrogate him.”
I looked at the doctor, who was monitoring the vitals.
“No need to worry,” she said. “He hasn’t even pissed himself yet.”
As predicted, the prisoner stopped shaking. He started to weep and made barely intelligible noises. The director shook his head in disbelief while grinning at the same time. “What is he saying?” he asked.
“He’s probably begging us to make it stop,” the doctor said. “Either that, or he’s begging us for more.”
When I finally found the solution, I felt neither joy nor relief, only disappointment because I hadn’t been able to do it sooner. Turned out Alice gave me the key, when she said knowing what to avoid was a good starting point. So I went in the opposite direction, but it still took a lot of trial and error to work it out.
One day, I promise Alice, one day I’m gonna do the right thing and tell the world what’s going on. It’s not because I’m afraid, I’m just waiting for the right moment.
I find it depressing; I can’t even be honest to Imaginary Alice.
In the meantime, I listen to the song as often as I can get away with it, especially when the screaming becomes too much. When I close my eyes and let the alien voices wash over me, it’s almost like I can sense Alice somewhere in the deep dark, where nothing from this existence can touch us. It is wonderful, the most beautiful thing you will ever hear.