“What was that furry talking about?” Sami asked, combing out a snarl in her hair with a shell. Niko sat on the rock beside her, tightening the band to his scuba mask.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
She looked up from the tangle she was working on. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying you’re stupid. I just said that I didn’t know what the furry was talking about, that’s all.”
She looked at him for a moment, then returned her attention to her hair. A seagull’s call carried over the water from the shore as the sound of the waves lapped against the rocks.
“He was mistaken. That’s all.”
She found another snarl in her hair and began working at it with her shell. “Does it have something to do with your… scar?” she asked after a moment.
Niko looked down at the upper part of his chest. No matter how tanned he got, the burn mark running diagonal across him remained visible. Sami had never asked him about it before, whether out of politeness or lack of interest he wasn’t sure. He sighed. “Probably. Could be. Heck, I don’t know. You know how furries can be. Half the time no one can understand what they are talking about anyway.”
She giggled. “Only half?”
He smiled. “Well, okay, maybe three quarters.”
They sat silent, listening to the quiet of the water and enjoying the sunshine.
“You can tell me if you want,” Sami said after a few minutes. “I can keep a secret, you know.”
“Yeah, until someone offers you a nice shrimp or chunk of tuna. Then it’s blab blab blab.”
Sami’s tail flicked and a splash of water drenched him.
“Like you didn’t deserve that.”
He smiled. “Well maybe a little,” he said with a laugh. She finished with her hair and tossed the shell back into the water. “Now you have to tell me.”
“Oh, I do, do I?”
“Careful what you promise,” he said.
“That’s a threat, not a promise.”
He sighed. “Okay, fine,” he said. “But it’s not as interesting as you think it is going to be.”
She watched, waiting for him to continue.
“Well, a couple of years ago, before I came here to the ocean, I used to live in the cities. About as far from the ocean as you can get. You would have hated it.”
“One night I was at a party where a friend of mine was showing some of his photographs and paintings. It was the first night, so a lot of us were invited to come see his work. While I was there, someone attacked me.” Niko paused and pointed to his chest. “I got hit with something, some kind of a surge. It almost killed me.”
“Did they ever figure out who it was?”
Niko shook his head. “No, not really. I mean, they never figured out who had been the one who actually zapped me, if that’s what you mean. But I knew who was behind it, even though I could never prove it or anything. I know who it was.”
Her eyes widened. “Who?”
Niko looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I should tell you. It’s really more of a rumor.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Was it the furries? They’re devious and sneaky like that, you know.”
He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t them. In fact it was kind of the opposite of them.” He glanced around to make sure that they were still alone. “This is going to sound kind of stupid, but I think it was… the Lindens.”
She gasped. “The Lindens? I don’t understand. Why would the Lindens have done such a thing? They don’t try to hurt us or harm us. They love us and take care of us.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, why. To tell you the truth, I didn’t stay around long enough to even try and find out. I got the message and got the hell out of town. Out of the mainlands, even.”
He leaned back, closing his eyes to enjoy the sun. “Best thing I ever did,” he added.
Sami mulled things over for a bit. “What did you do to make them so mad?”
She shrugged. “Them or whomever it was. They didn’t just come up and say, ‘oh, hey, let’s zap this person and not that person’ and then pick you out of the crowd. There had to be a reason.”
He sat back up and looked at her. “Well, if there was, nobody bothered to tell me. I remember walking into the gallery and saying hi to people, and then I was rezzed back from Akasha in my home. I don’t know how it happened or even how long I was away. Parts of my inventory were missing, I’d ghost, couldn’t tp or anything. My skin was scarred like this. For the longest time I couldn’t even rez a prim. It was the weirdest thing. I got the message, though, and got out as fast as I could. It took me forever to fly off the mainland and get to a private island.”
“Maybe it was a griefer.”
Niko shook his head. “I don’t think so. No griefer I’ve ever heard of has had access to something like that. It wasn’t a push gun or anything like that. It was more of a zap. Like a shock or something and…” He paused.
“And? And what?”
“Well, there’s something else, too. Something that I have never told anyone.”
Sami’s eyes were wide and she was grasping the edge of the rock. “What is it?”
“I promised you, remember? And a mermaid can never break her promise.”
Niko dipped his foot into the water, making small waves with his toes. “Okay,” he said after a moment. “I want to tell you but I know you aren’t going to believe me. That’s why I have never told anyone about this. It makes me feel so… stupid.”
“Just tell me. I double promise.”
He sighed. “I can’t go to Akasha anymore.”
“Very funny. Would you please tell me your secret?”
“I just did,” he replied, turning to look at her. “Whenever I rez on, there’s nothing there. It’s like there is just a continuation from when I rezzed off. Nothing happens in between. It’s not even dead space. It’s like a switch, I’m on then off then on again.”
Sami shook her head. “You’re not serious. That can’t happen…” Her voice trailed off as she watched him. “Is that really true?” she asked quietly. “You don’t visit Akasha at all?”
“Did you used to? I mean, before?”
“Yes, all of the time. In fact, some of my most vivid memories were from my time in Akasha. I would hear things, like melodies and songs. The ones I could remember I would use for my own songs. Being there was my inspiration. But now… nothing.”
She was silent for a moment. “I- I don’t know what to say. It sounds incredible, I’ve never even heard of anything like that happening before.”
“I don’t think anyone has. I didn’t even think it was possible myself.”
Sami’s eyes welled up. “It sounds so horrible, no Akasha! I’d go crazy if I couldn’t share fleshy stories with my friends. And talk about how real everything seems when we are there. Like how if you press against something it not only presses back it like it does here but you kind of sink into it. Or those colors that fill your head when you bite something.”
Niko looked back down at the water. He could see the colorful coral not far below and watched as a few small blue fish chased each other under a coral archway and into the sunlit water below.
“Have you seen someone about it? Maybe a scripter?” she asked.
“What am I going to do, walk up and tell someone I don’t know that I can’t visit Akasha anymore? I mean, you didn’t even believe me. Why should they?” He shook his head. “No, I’m not telling anyone. And you won’t either. You promised. And a Mer never breaks her promises, right?”
She nodded. “By the shell of my Queen, I won’t tell anyone.” They stared at each other for a moment, until Sami dropped her gaze.
She smiled at him, then looked around. Although everything looked fine and they were still alone, she had a feeling that something had changed and things would never, ever be the same.