"Welcome to the Dutch Colmy Show," said the host into his mike. "With me this morning is author Sydell Ridley, whose fantasy novels have been granted approval by the board of censors for portraying women in empowering positions."
Empowered? Ridley figured it more in line with the overlords' obsession with the occult.
"Mr Ridley's new collection, Undersea Empires, is available for download, subject to your social credit score. Re-education camps: see your counselor. Mr Ridley, your interest in fantasy began at the age of six while attending a mermaid show. An incident occurred that had a profound effect on you."
"That's right. I pieced it together years later, so I'll start at the beginning."
Ellie was shaking Binia, who dozed in bars of warm autumn light. "Time to get your hair up, missy. Out there in the water, you'll look like a drowned collie."
"Not that one," said dark-haired Sirtis. "What are those blonde-haired dogs. . . ."
"Very amusing." Binia took her swimsuit off the rack. Gleaming white became green and purple at the flukes. The trio carried their suits down the performers' corridor to the changing room.
Their opening act involved a slide down the giant chute, then a backflip into deep water. Spectators had to yield the waterways until the various routines were complete. Later, in chest-deep water, the mermaids would mingle with visitors at graduated depths, while kids remained in the shallows. That came all too soon for red-haired Ellie.
She surfaced next to Sirtis, who had been cruising below, touching the legs of startled waders. "Guys are the worst. They know we aren't supposed to speak, but they flirt anyway."
"Let's get with Binia over at the autograph thing," Sirtis said.
The blonde supported herslf on one elbow at poolside, signing pictures with the other hand. At that moment, a mishap occurred nearby at the deep end.
Sydell had climbed outside the railing for a better view. Some of the onlookers were even getting splashed when the mermaids came close enough. His aunt was momentarily distracted. It was mostly young folks crowding forward, like the devious punk who pushed him over the edge.
He'd been under before, at the beach, when a wave swamped him. But his dad was right there, thumping his back while he spluttered for breath. It was nothing like this.
Shock of cold water plugging his ears, pushing up into his nose; wavering light overhead as he sank; bubbles carried his life upward, and he couldn't hold them in. Couldn't any of those folks swim?
The dark-haired mermaid swept in like a torpedo. One hand grabbed his shirt, and he flailed in the vortex of her fin as powerful strokes carried them to the surface.
Air never tasted so good as he gulped it in. The mermaid, satisfied he was okay, lifted him up to grasping hands. She did backstrokes to rejoin the other two, while applause filled the arena.
"Amazing," said the interviewer. "I understand you never got any of the photos, because your aunt whisked you straight home."
"True, but I found some on the website. Here's Ellie.
"And here's Sirtis."
"Quite the lookers, aren't they? Tell me this, Mr Ridley--do you have any more info on their strange disappearance just before the Fall? Their emails had weird reference to a parallel world."
"Yes, they were in touch with the Wicca Horror Show on the east coast. Their staff disappeared at the same time. The leading theory is they were the ringleaders."
Colmy laughed heartily. "And for those of us who missed the bus, life goes on!"
So it does, Ridley thought, so it does.