There was an old painting in my grandparents' attic. Neither beautiful nor ugly, it simply depicted an empty room with no figures, an old living room with an armchair, library, and fireplace ... [+]
The first pods, the originals, were the size of her fist, oblong, with a smooth but springy shell. They shimmered with swirling colors, like an oil slick, but bright.
By the time she'd bent to pick it up, the next wave had brought more of them. A dozen. Then a dozen more. In minutes, hundreds of the rainbow glimmering pods had been tossed up onto the beach, and people started gathering them.
It took about a day for someone to consider eating one.
Jess's grandma spoke longingly upon occasion about "real" hamburgers. Steaks. Chicken tenders. Nobody of Jess's generation, or even of her parents', had eaten meat like that. Plague, drought, melting glaciers and rising seas had eliminated the world's ability to sustain meat-based eating, and a lot of the plants used for plant-based foods had also gone extinct. The fish population was thriving but – because of ocean pollution – too toxic for humans to consume. Jess had never felt deprived. Cultivated algae grown in tanks could be processed to resemble just about anything, and how could you miss what you'd never had?
The pods, though, turned out to be rich in protein. Vitamins. Nutrients. Easily eaten raw or cooked. And, available in seemingly endless supplies. Every day, on beaches all around the world, more pods swept up onto the sand. They were all the same, no matter what sea or ocean they came out of.
Of course, the corporations came in. The government. The places that had once been crowded with humans on vacation were now closed off as gathering and processing plants for the pods. Trucks backed up to sandy dunes and were loaded high with pods, which were then shipped off to packing plants. Laws controlled who was allowed to gather them; fines and even prison time punished those who dared try and get them on their own.
Jess still had that first pod, the one that had settled near her feet that first day. It had been five years since then, and the world had changed a lot. She kept the pod in a small box in her top drawer, and she looked at it, sometimes, remembering herself as a kid with her toes in the sand.
She never had managed to get up the courage to duck beneath the waves, and she regretted it now. She'd never have the chance again, not with how strict they'd become about granting access to the beaches. Riding the waves had gone the way of burgers and buffalo wings.
At fifteen, Jess had passed the final placement tests sorting her into the career path that would be determined to best utilize her skills. Her parents and friends seemed shocked when she was assigned to work as a pod gatherer, but Jess was thrilled. She'd have her chance at dipping her toes in the ocean again, even if she didn't get to swim in it. As for the pods, the prices of which had of course grown steadily more expensive even though they were nowhere near in short supply, well — she'd have her fill of them as part of her compensation package.
Her first day on the job, Jess got through the mandatory holo training and testing that taught her how to use the pod rake and basket. She learned how many pods she'd be expected to collect, in what amount of time. When she'd be allowed to take her breaks. How many pods she'd be given to eat — but not sell, that was strictly prohibited.
As it turned out, pod raking was pretty easy. The pods washed up with the tide. Jess and her co-workers swept the beach, collecting the pods in their baskets and then taking them to the sorting tables to be sorted according to size and quality. Eight-hour shifts, with one lunch break and two shorter breaks. Two pods per break. If she went to the water's edge to gather there, she even got her feet wet.
"You never eat them," Kara said to Jess with a wave toward the small table they all sat around during their breaks. "The pods."
Jess shook her head. She took her pods home to her parents and grandma, but she never ate them herself. "Never got a taste for them, I guess."
"I'll never get enough," Kara said as her teeth dented a pod's shimmering exterior. They broke through the skin with a pop, and the creamy interior seeped out. She sucked the pod dry with a groan of delight. "Delicious."
It wasn't a bad life, overall. Jess had a job. Friends. She got to be next to the ocean every day. It was about as much as she'd been brought up to expect, and in some ways, better.
She'd worked there for a year before she finally got to swim. That day, her basket was full, but she hadn't yet started toward the sorting table when the cold wave twisted around her ankles. Her feet sunk into the sand as the water went out, giving her that odd rushing feeling, like she was the one moving.
Another wave came up, high, and nearly took her feet from under her. She staggered, dropping her basket. She grabbed for it before it could float away, and something in the swelling water took her hand.
Jess didn't scream. The fingers clutching hers were cold. Webbed. A beautiful silver-blue, faintly scaled. The hand pulled her harder, and then she was swimming, grateful she'd had the chance to gulp her lungs full of air before she went under.
The mermaid in front of her bared sharp, serrated teeth and blinked at Jess with dark, pupil-less eyes. Unlike in the fairy stories, this creature did not have breasts. Fish, not mammal, Jess thought, mind whirling. She wondered if she might drown.
The mermaid let go of Jess's hand. She twisted in the water, showing a dorsal fin. Her waist tapered into a tail. She twirled again, those webbed fingers clenching and releasing. Her entire body strained. A pod ejected from a small opening, and she caught it. With another of those horrible, grimacing grins, she pressed it into Jess's hand. Bubbles emerged from her lipless mouth.
Then, she was gone.
Jess's supervisors hauled her out of the water. Gave her CPR she probably didn't need. They wrapped her in warm blankets, and she had to fill out an incident report. Nobody asked her what she'd seen. They did try to pry the pod from her fist, her fingers curled so tightly they left dents in the pod's skin.
"You'll be fine," the supervisor told her, nervously. "You're going to be fine."
Jess was fine. She got two days' leave and was back to work after that. Gathering the pods into the baskets. Taking her breaks with her co-workers. Living the life she'd been given, such as it was. Such as anyone in this world could expect.
"You really never want to eat one?" Kara asked her again at the break table as she sunk her teeth into it. "These pods saved the world, ya know. They've done studies. If we hadn't started eating pods, it could have been bad."
Jess thought of the mermaid. Where the pod had come from. What it was. "It's poo," she said. "It's mermaid poo."
"You're funny," Kara said, and took another bite.
"I'm not being funny."
Kara paused to look at Jess. Then, she shrugged. "So what? It's delicious."
And that was that. The world turned and time went on, and as far as Jess knew, nobody else had ever learned the truth the way she had. She still let her feet get wet, hoping that one day, she'd once again have the chance at swimming, but no big waves ever came up to wash her away...and no mermaids ever again took her hand.