The Cogwork Mermaid
By Matt Tighe
Layla wiped away the last of her tears and looked down at the water. It churned and frothed around the pilings, the surface a deep grey laced in dirty white. Behind her, in another world, people laughed and shouted while children darted between the amusements of the cogwork park, screaming in delight.
In that world, a giant, shining dirigible hovered above the pier, casting a long shadow over those below. In that world, cogworks grinned and waved, hawking their wares and distractions and false promises. Well, she supposed they were cogworks, with their inflection perfect chants ringing out over the heads of the milling, eager crowd. Roll up, come see, everyone’s a winner. Perhaps some were actually real life carnival folk, their pitches and actions passed from generation to generation until they glistened like fish hooks cast out amongst unwary fish.
Layla did not turn around. She had come for the dirigible launch, but she had turned away at the sight of its looming bulk. The old-timey rides and card sharps and clowns with bodies full of cogs that were the pier mainstays didn’t interest her, either. Maybe they should have. Maybe it was her, not them. She was a murderer now, after all.
There was a bright flash, and Layla caught a glimpse of a bronze tail flicking the dirty grey water into clean white froth. The nearby steps led away from the crowd, away from the floating mass in the sky. She made her way down to the landing below the pier.
Some of the mermaids would talk to you for a coin or two, those that were equipped. Some even pretended to grant wishes, a thing from old stories that little kids adored and even some grown children might still seek. Other mermaids simply surged about, occasionally jumping high above the water and laughing, their scales flashing orange and blue and copper and a dozen other colours. They were usually popular, but today the landing was empty. The launching of the giant dirigible was probably too much of a draw for those who were not occupied by rides or sideshows. She had not been to see the mermaids in what seemed a lifetime herself. Most of them looked new, amazingly lifelike yet too bright and so very there as they jumped and splashed and carried on.
“Hello there,” a bright, bubbly voice said.
The speaker lent on the side of the landing on her elbows, her chin cupped in her hands. Her hair was a wavy, bluish green, cut short to hang in wet locks to her jawline. Her small breasts were covered by a thin gauzy wrap, her alabaster skin dripping wet. Her long tail slapped lazily at the water. She was perfect.
Layla dug a coin from her pocket and handed it to the cogwork. The mermaid regarded it blankly and then casually swallowed it without apparent effort.
“You look so beautiful,” Layla said.
“Thank you,” the mermaid replied, and reached up to touch her hair lightly. Her tail flicked and swished in the water. “What would you like to talk about?”
Layla frowned. She had been too caught up in chasing her own fleeting nostalgia to consider an actual conversation. Maybe she should tell the mermaid about her dead father, about the accident, the dirigible. Maybe she should say something about the aloof and bitter woman who had taken the place of her mother. Maybe speaking of those things would help. Maybe. Maybe it would just hurt.
“What’s it like, being a mermaid?”
The mermaid smiled and flicked her tail again, as if to underline its existence.
“Do you want to know what it’s like being a mermaid, or what it’s like being a cogwork mermaid?”
“Oh,” Layla said, hearing the disappointment in her own voice. “You know you are a cogwork?”
The mermaid’s smile flattened a little.
“Yes, today I do. A young boy told me earlier. He laughed when he told me, and his friends laughed as well. He said his daddy builds new mermaids like me, and other things. He told me what happens in my own head, in my own body, like he was reciting a lesson that he had taken great pains to get right. He told me that tomorrow I won’t remember. That my memory will be reset when I rest. That’s what he said.”
The mermaid tilted her head. Her tail splashed against the surface of the water again.
“Do you know I remember swimming in the deep ocean? When I close my eyes I can see a city of mermaids, diving and exploring and living our lives far away from here. I remember my family, and my friends, and I remember coming here to see the humans, to see people like you, to talk and wonder and have fun.”
“What?” Layla asked, confused, but the mermaid just nodded, salt water dripping from her nose.
“I miss my home, when I am here. The thought of my family is an ache inside. But I also know I am on an adventure, and that I will return home when I am done, so the missing is sweet, in its way.”
She sighed. “I remember my parents, and my little sister, and the tall spire we lived in down below. And I suppose that is the point.”
“What is?” Layla asked.
“Would you rather talk to a mermaid, one that is real and has a head full of memories, or a cogwork, a machine that considers the possible responses without even knowing it and then spits out the most pleasant?”
“But those memories are not real. They are just your programming,” Layla said, and then flushed. There was no need to be cruel, even if it didn’t really matter.
The mermaid cocked her head to one side.
“So I have my life, but none of it is real. And maybe I will be happier tomorrow, when I forget, and the people who come to talk to me will be happier as well. Maybe you should come back tomorrow.”
Of course it didn’t matter, but Layla couldn’t help but wonder what would be worse – finding out a whole life was false, just a set of pretend memories, or having that knowledge wiped away, returning to something happier but somehow less. It could happen again and again, and the mermaid would be powerless to do anything about it. She wouldn’t even know. She looked at the beautiful cogwork and felt tears prick her own eyes.
“How do you know it isn’t real?” Layla asked, not believing it, of course not, but suddenly wanting the mermaid to believe it could be.
The mermaid tilted her head a little in the other direction.
“How do you know this is?” she asked.
“Of course it’s real,” Layla said. She pointed up to the where the looming shadow was mostly blocked by the pier.
“That will be the next luxury dirigible to traverse the ocean. My father built it. He died building it. That is what real is.” She looked down and was surprised to see her hands balled into fists.
The mermaid nodded, ignoring Layla’s anger, which made her even angrier. Mermaids were supposed to provide a pleasant little diversion, not upset people, not talk nonsense about life and memory. She started to turn away.
“Tell me about him,” the mermaid said. Layla paused. She could tell the mermaid, she realised. It would be like telling no one. She turned back.
“He was a cogwork engineer.” There was a sudden painful lump high up in her chest.
“He got sick. All the engineers get sick eventually. The assembly might all be done by cogworks in the factories, but the creating is still a human job. The engineers are supposed to be safe, supposed to be in clean areas, but everyone knows the factories are dirty. Poison.”
“Why do they do it then?”
A question she couldn’t answer. But the hot, burning lump in her chest was expanding, forcing more words out.
“He was going to make it. He was going to finish and use the bonus money to buy the best medical treatments, to get himself fixed. He was so close!” She paused, her breath hitching. That lump had turned hard, cutting off her words.
The mermaid nodded as if she were listening. As if she could actually understand. It didn’t matter, Layla thought. Tomorrow the mermaid won’t even remember. The words won’t have been said. It won’t be real, tomorrow.
“He was close. And then I stepped off the curb on the way to school and got hit by a damn cog-hauler, of all things. I should’ve seen it, or it should’ve stopped, but the stupid old cogwork driving it had one broken eye lens, was half blind, and it ran straight into me.”
She drew a breath and reached up to touch the little scar below her ear. Such a small marker of such a large change. She had been thrown several feet by the impact, and her landing in the middle of the road had probably done more damage than the hauler had. She did not remember any of this – her father telling her was her first solid memory after the accident, his face grey and sad and thin as he spoke, holding her hand as she lay in bed.
“He looked so much sicker when he told me about the accident,” Layla said softly. “I had lost weeks, but he had lost more. Mother said he had not been able to work on the dirigible – had not been able to concentrate on anything else until I was better. He ran out of time because of me. I killed him.”
She knew it was what her mother thought. She could see it simmering just below the surface of every word, every action, every tear-filled, hate-filled glance. This was the first time she had said it out loud herself – given voice to what she knew was true. And yet that hot lump in her chest had not lessened with the words.
“So you feel guilty?” the mermaid asked. She looked only mildly curious, and Layla felt another flash of anger.
“What would you know –” she began, but the mermaid cut her off with a splash of her tail and a sunny smile.
“You know, mermaids can grant wishes to those they deem worthy.”
Layla stared at the cogwork. Back on the pier there was cheering and a loud braying horn – three long, hollow calls heralding the dirigible’s launch. That was what she had come to see, but now she barely registered it.
“Have you slipped a cog?”
The mermaid laughed, a tinkling of programmed amusement. “Humour me. Tonight I will be reset and tomorrow if I offer someone a wish, I will think I am real, and that my offer is real. So for now, let’s play make-believe while we both know better. What would you wish for, if you had one wish?”
Layla felt her anger and irritation start to fade, leaving only that aching lump in her chest. It was all just programming and cogs, but in a way, the mermaid would die tonight. Not completely, but a part of her would be gone, and tomorrow she would be different. Different, like Layla was after the accident, after her father’s death. After the way her mother looked at her.
She thought of the dirigible again, and of her tears when she had seen it floating there, shining and huge, the brass and steel and windows all flashing like diamonds, while its shadow fell over her. The last, largest impression her father would ever leave on the world. She showed the mermaid her own small, sad smile.
“Okay. I wish I was not responsible for my father’s death. I wish he had not died because of me.”
“Done!” the mermaid said without pause, and splashed her tail hard against the surface of the dirty grey water so shining droplets flew every which way. Layla laughed despite herself, half in shock, half in embarrassment, and scattered a few fresh tears with a shake of her head.
“And how do you propose to do that?”
The mermaid’s smile faltered.
“Do you really, truly want that?”
Layla hesitated without really knowing why. It was ridiculous – it was just a cogwork, after all. It wasn’t real. None of it. She nodded.
“You asked how I knew I was a cogwork? How I knew the boy who said so was telling the truth?”
Layla said nothing. There was a long beat of a moment in which the mermaid just looked at her, her smile gone, her face solemn. And then she reached up with one perfect alabaster hand and brushed aside a wet lock of her hair. There, bright against her pale skin, was a small, raised scar. Layla lifted a hand and touched the identical one under her own ear.
“It’s a maintenance port,” the cogwork mermaid said very quietly. She glanced back at a couple of other mermaids that were diving in and out of the water, laughing. “All the latest models have them.”
Layla opened her mouth and then closed it slowly. Her mind was suddenly a blank – just like when she tried to recall her accident, or her hospital stay. All she could recall was her father’s thin, sad smile as he sat by her bed, and later, the blame in her mother’s face. Her father had not stopped working after the accident, she realised – he had just stopped working on the dirigible.
“But I have a whole life…” she began, and then stopped. The mermaid’s smile had returned, but it was bitter, now. Very bitter. Layla reached up and touched her scar again.
“You did it,” she said. “You granted my wish.” The lump in her chest was gone. Behind her, in that other world, the horn sounded again and people cheered. Layla watched the shadow of the dirigible start to move across the water, to move away, and her mouth twisted in a smile to match the mermaid’s.
The cogwork started to slide backward off the landing, slipping almost soundlessly into the water.
“Yes,” the mermaid said. “For today.”
About the Author:
Matt lives in northern NSW, Australia. He is an academic with never enough time to write. He has published in Daily Science Fiction, Nature Futures and other places.
The Cogwork Mermaid is his second story in Etherea magazine. He received the 2021 Australian Shadows Award for his short story ‘A Good Big Brother’ published in the award winning anthology ‘Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies’.
He is a finalist in the short fiction category of the 2022 Ditmars for the same story. You can follow his sporadic tweeting @MKTighewrites.