Hatching Night

The sign said ‘Do Not Cross’ in large red letters, and, in smaller black print beneath it, ‘Endangered Species Nesting’. It was stuck to a hastily made fence of rough wooden palings, and someone had taped a sheet of paper over the graphic of a bird below the text. Claudia supposed it was in case anyone got really pedantic, and wanted to know what sort of bird made a crater five feet across and buried their eggs in the sand.
There was a CCTV camera mounted on a pole above the enclosure, and she squinted up at it, waiting. There was no tell-tale red light, nothing to show it was feeding images of a wind-scoured night time beach back to some bored watcher in a small room somewhere, but she could feel the hiss of its transmission rasping just below the mewling of the wind. And then: a shift, a click to silence, leaving the autumn beach wilder and more empty than it had been a moment before. The watcher could watch all they wanted now – they’d see nothing more than a staticky screen interspersed with just enough glimpses of grey sand and greyer sea to make them believe they didn’t need to get the camera checked out til the morning. She got up and stretched, glad the angels liked dealing with technology. She hated it.
“We’re in.”
“And we’re sure it’s tonight?” Phyllis scratched her ear with one back paw, peering out over the empty beach. “Doesn’t seem to be much going on.”
Claudia nodded at the moon, pregnant over the sea. Little drifts of cloud scudded across its face, torn by the wind. “It’s always at full moon.”
“Are we sure, though? There hasn’t been a nest here in how long?”
“Climate change,” Reggie said, nodding in agreement with his own words. “Messes everything up.” A gust of wind rumpled his fur and flung a handful of sand in their faces, and in its wake he pounced on a lost feather that tumbled towards the sea, catching it and flinging it exuberantly skywards again.
Phyllis rolled her eyes. “Good to see we’ve got your full attention.”
“Ladies, I am totally with you.” He let the feather go, somewhat regretfully, and looked at the fence. “What’re we doing, anyway?”
Claudia huffed softly. “You been at the nip again, Reg?”
“Aw, c’mon – just a little bit to mellow things out. I mean – mers, sea dogs, cameras – who wouldn’t want a little mellowing out?”
“Those of us that are actually here to do our job,” Phyllis said, and Claudia left them squabbling in the dunes as she slipped soft-footed through the tussocky dune grass to inspect the enclosure. It was well above the high tide line, nestled into the foot of the dunes themselves. Too far from the sea for the mers to reach, else they’d have dug it up already. She glanced out to sea, but it was hard to be sure of anything in the wind-torn swells. It might be heads breaking the surface out there, or it might be nothing more than patches of rough water. They’d be out there somewhere, though. Sea dogs weren’t as common as they once had been – none of the old creatures were. The mers’d be keen to get their hands on them as babies, start training them. Nothing said social status like a pet sea dog, but once they were old enough to think for themselves you didn’t really want to be around a feral one. Altogether too many teeth and too much attitude.
#
Inside the fence, someone had placed a metal cage over the collapsed crater of the nest, and driven it securely down. The sand around its base was soft and powder-dry – the first big storms of the season were still to come, and the hot summer had leeched away any lingering dampness. Claudia scratched at the mesh, then spluttered as Reggie, exploring around the cage, kicked sand in her face.
“Oh – sorry, Claud.”
She shook herself, tortoiseshell coat dimmed in the moonlight, but her odd-coloured eyes still bright. The blue one always made Reggie nervous. It seemed to see far more than it should. “It’s fine,” she said. “But they’ve put this thing so far into the damn sand – I don’t think we’re going to get under it.”
Phyllis paused in her digging and peered into the centre, where the rough peaks and troughs of the eggs’ burial had been smoothed by the wind. “I think you’re right,” she said. Her hairless body was skeletal and ghostly against the sand.
“We need help.” Claudia turned to look towards the tide line, where darker shapes now moved clearly among the swells and white caps. They knew it was almost time, too.
“The mers?” Reggie sounded dubious. “I don’t fancy getting that close to them. And we’re meant to shift the pups away from them, anyway.”
“We may have to strike a deal,” Claudia replied. “Otherwise the damn things are still going to be in the cage by morning, and then the humans’ll turn up, and then we’re screwed.” Even as she spoke, the sand shivered and shifted, moved by life deep beneath the surface, and they looked at it expectantly. It didn’t come again, but the pups were on their way. No doubt about that.
Claudia made up her mind and trotted towards the darker sand, where the waves chased in foamy curves up the beach. “Oi!” she shouted. “Mers! You want a chance of getting hold of a pup?” There was no response for a moment, then a grey face surfaced out of the water, eyes huge and unblinking. The mer looked at her, then up the beach to where the other cats had stopped digging and were arguing about how to topple the cage. Eventually he stood up, exposing a skinny bare chest and scaled legs.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we can’t get them out,” Claudia said. “If you help us, I’ll look the other way and make sure a few pups get left behind.”
The mer grinned, exposing several rows of sharp teeth. “But if you can’t get them, we can just wait until they get out themselves.”
“No,” Claudia said, her voice strained. “Because they’re trapped, see? Big metal cage? Human stuff? So the humans get them if we don’t.”
“Oh.” The mer stood where he was, waves breaking around his waist, turning this over. “You think the humans’ll keep them?”
Claudia swallowed a sigh. “The humans won’t know what they are, so they’ll take them away, put them in a lab, and cut them up. That’s why we need to get them out.” And because it’d blow their little Homo sapiens minds if they tipped to the fact of the rest of the world rocking on around them.
The mer frowned. “That doesn’t seem very cool.”
“Not cool at all,” Claudia agreed. Her tail was twitching with impatience. “So what d’you say – give us a hand to move that cage and I’ll leave you a few pups?”
The mer looked at her with eyes that were hungry enough to make her muscles bunch, then turned to the sea and whistled. She didn’t relax, but she didn’t move, either – she waited as more pointed heads began to surface, eyes reflecting the light of the moon. The mer looked back to her as four of his fellows started to wade towards the shore. “One each,” he said.
Claudia shook her head. “That’s too many. The wild population’s not too healthy, you know. Two.”
“You said a few. That’s three.”
“That’s being pedantic.” He stared at her – not that he could do much else, with his lidless eyes – and she sighed. “Fine. Three.”
“Four.”
“You can’t go backwards when you’re bargaining. Three.”
He scowled, then nodded. “Okay. Three.”
“Right.” Claudia turned and trotted up the beach. “Come on, then – do you have your squid?”
#
Phyllis and Reggie were still arguing.
“How the hell are you still high?”
“I’m not high,” Reggie protested. “This is me normal!”
“Then what happened – your mum drop you off a high ledge?”
“Stop the flirting, I can’t stand the tension,” Claudia said as she loped up to them. This was taking too long already. “We ready?”
Before either cat could reply they were interrupted by a explosion of sand in the cage, and they turned to watch as a small, scaled snout emerged, followed by a couple of bleary eyes and big, fin-like ears. The sea dog puppy blinked at them, gave a soundless squeak, and struggled wildly, thrashing in the soft sand until he could flatten webbed front feet out in front of him. As he hunched and pawed at the sand, another little nose appeared next to him, and a foot kicked out a little further away, as if some strange and rapidly growing plant were sprouting. The first pup squeaked again, with a little more success this time, and hauled himself forward, the sand caught around his dorsal fin giving him a funky triangular shape. They were the same colour as the sand, too, and in the moonlight it looked like the beach itself coming to life, as if someone had spilled magic on a collection of fanciful sand sculptures.
“Aw,” Reggie said, and pressed his nose to the cage.
“Don’t,” Phyllis warned him, but it was too late – the first pup staggered forward, squeaking, and licked the cat’s nose eagerly.
Reggie made a face and stepped back. “Gross.”
“He’s just imprinted on you, idiot,” Claudia said with a sigh. “Congratulations, you’re now a proud sea dog daddy.”
“Oh.” Reggie looked down at the pup, who was clambering up the bars in a effort to get closer to him. “Damn.”
“There’s a reason why they hatch rather than get born.”
“Well, I didn’t know, did I?” He examined the pup, who was reaching out to him through the bars. “Could be fun.”
“Don’t count on it.” Claudia watched as the pup pushed his snout against the cage, exposing small sharp teeth. “They eat their mums.”
Reggie drew back hastily, and from just below the high tide line a mer called, “Stand aside.”
The cats retreated from the cage as the mers detached squid from their calves, beginning to swing them like lassos as the creatures goggled around in astonishment. The squid’s long grasping tentacles were wrapped around the mers’ wrists, and when they let go, sending them sailing over the fence to land on the cage with soft, accurate splats, the tentacles kept their grip, stretching impossibly long and fragile looking.
“Gah,” Phyllis said. “Those things give me the creeps.” One of the squid glared at her as they wrapped their short swimming tentacles through the wire mesh, anchoring themselves firmly.
“Three, remember?” the lead mer said.
“Three, yes. I said, didn’t I?”
The mer muttered something that might have been about untrustworthy cats, then called, “Alright – bring it in, lads.”
Gills flaring, eyes watering with the assault of the wind, the mers began to reel the squid back towards them. The cage trembled as the squid’s tentacles strained and stretched, and more and more pups burrowed their way out of the sand, squeaks gaining strength and starting to form a chorus as they piled up against each other inside the cage.
“Gently, gently!” The mer barked, and the squid shifted their grip, trying to find the right angle to pull the cage over.
“It’s moving,” Reggie called. “Nice one, almost there!”
“A little more – easy, easy!”
With a final shiver, the cage released its grip and rolled ponderously sideways, spilling sea dog pups across the sand, wailing piteously to each other and snapping at the alarmed squid.
“Release!” The mer ordered, and the squid let go gratefully, pinging back to the mers as their grappling tentacles contracted, and scrambling down their masters’ legs to wrap around their calves again, eyeing the pups balefully as they started ploughing towards the fence.
“Grab them,” Claudia ordered. “Fast shift, don’t let any of them lick you – any more, I should say, Reggie – Shetlands’ll be best for release.”
“You promised,” the mer reminded her warningly.
“Gods dammit,” she snapped. “I know I did! Chill out!” The first of the pups had already reached the fence, and was starting to claw its way up the wood, ears flaring as it sensed the sea beyond. Phyllis snatched a straggler up by the scruff of the neck, and in that moment the world filled with light.
“What the hell?” A man’s voice said, and the light swung towards the mers, who ducked away in alarm, covering their eyes, torn between wanting to run towards the safety of the waves and not wanting to lose the promised pups. “What – what – what the -”
“Oh, Old Ones take you all,” Claudia snarled. “Where the hell did he come from?” He was wearing a big jacket with a park ranger badge on it, and he swung the light back to pinpoint the calico cat.
“Did you – did you just say -”
A squid sailed over the fence, grabbed a pup and retreated. “Stop that!” Claudia bellowed, but more were following, and the man’s light was dazzling everyone, flickering over the squalling sea dogs and the startled cats, then back to the mers. Two more squid snatched up pups, and Claudia shouted, “That’s three! Don’t take the piss, mer!”
Another squid grabbed for a pup, and Reggie was on it before Claudia could react, biting down hard on its head, making it squeal and drop the sea dog, retreating rapidly. The next one that came Claudia leaped to meet, and in its panic to retreat it tightened down so convulsively on its grasping tentacles that the mer behind it yelped in pain. There was a pause then – Phyllis still had one pup in her mouth, and it sobbed piteously, hanging curled and helpless as a kitten. The man turned his light back on the enclosure.
“What the hell?” he repeated wonderingly, and leaned over the fence. A pup flung itself forward, lashing a long pale tongue across his face, and he stumbled backwards in fright, the torch beam swinging wildly.
“Get the pups out of here,” Claudia said. “Now.”
“But what -” Reggie started.
“Now!”
He grabbed the nearest sea dog and stepped sideways into the Inbetween, hearing the soft pop of air rushing to fill a Phyllis-sized space as he did so.
#
The man steadied his torch. There was only one cat now, and less of the – the lizards? Iguanas? They weren’t native, that was for sure. He leaned over the fence, examining them carefully, wondering if they’d bite if he picked one up. He’d already half forgotten that he’d seen something else on the beach, something vaguely humanoid and utterly alien. His brain had filed it under Too Much. He reached out for one of the lizards, thinking that if he got it behind the head it wouldn’t be able to bite. Those little teeth looked sharp.
#
“You’ve got your pups. Get out of here,” Claudia said.
“What about him?” the mer asked, nodding at the man leaning over the fence.
“I’ll take care of him.”
The mer snorted. “Sorry if I seem unconvinced.” He unwound his squid from his leg. “I think we’ll deal with him, instead.”
He moved before Claudia could even respond, and the man shrieked as the squid hit his shoulders, wrapping its legs eagerly around his neck and hauling him backwards. He dropped the torch, clawing at the tentacles even as another squid came whistling out of the night and grabbed his arm, pulling it behind him. He was gagging, gasping for air, and the mers began to retreat towards the water, towing him with them like a trussed deer.
Claudia came over the fence and across the high tide line, her hackles up and her teeth bared, tiny and formidable. “You dare!” she bellowed. “You dare defy the Watch?”
Behind her, there were two small pops of displaced air as Reggie and Phyllis reappeared.
“Oh, bollocks,” Reggie said, and followed the sphynx cat over the fence, stalking over the sand towards the sea.
“Drop him now,” Claudia said, “And there’ll be no repercussions.”
“What’re you going to do?” the mer said. “Shed on me?”
A ripple of harsh laughter greeted this, and he grinned, but it faded as the little cat advanced, her ears back and her gaze unflinching. “I’ll drag you into the Inbetween,” she said. “And I’ll drop you there. I’ll leave you crying in the dark like a day-old kitten, blind and helpless. Maybe I’ll watch as the monsters come. Maybe I’ll pull you out after they’ve had a bite. Or maybe I’ll just leave you there. I haven’t decided yet.” Her voice was calm, her words more fact than threat, and the mer looked around uneasily. His companions had withdrawn to the edge of the waves, waiting. “Or,” Claudia continued, “Maybe I’ll take you out of the Inbetween and drop you in the desert, a thousand miles from the sea. A thousand miles from any water. And I’ll watch you sob and mewl and shrivel, until you’re nothing but leather and dust.”
“That’s against the treaties,” the mer said uncertainly, all bluster gone. “You can’t do that to us!”
“It’s also against the treaties for you to snatch humans off beaches. You know you only get them when they’re going to drown anyway.”
“But he’ll remember!”
“No. He won’t.” She waited, odd eyes as unblinking as his. He tried to hold her gaze, but after a moment he looked down and mumbled something. “What was that?” Claudia asked pleasantly.
“I said, it’s not right. Threatening us like this.”
“What? You thought the Watch was treaties and peace talks?” She huffed her amusement, and it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “How do you think we broker them?”
For a moment the only sound was the waves snarling onto the shore and the whisper of the wind across the sand dunes, the cats as immobile as carven idols in the moonlight, even the man’s struggles silenced, although whether from fright or lack of oxygen was hard to say. Then the mer shook his head in defeated fury, and tugged on the squid.
“Heel,” he snapped, then turned away without another look at the cats. The squid scrambled back to his legs as he entered the water, and they could see the other mers trailing the sea dog pups on squid leashes as they submerged. The man on the sand let out a whooping gasp, and Claudia looked over her shoulder at Reggie and Phyllis.
“What the hell are you two doing?” she demanded. “Get the rest of those pups moved – they’ll be over the fence in a minute. Last thing we want is them colonising bloody Brighton.”
#
The park ranger’s name was Frank, and he woke up in the chill hours of early morning, lying in the sand dunes beside the turtle enclosure. He sat up slowly, wincing as his neck spasmed, and stared in dismay at the overturned cage and the destroyed nest. The night before was foggy and confused, but he definitely remembered the damn thugs that had been here. Stealing turtle eggs! Bastards! And they must have disabled the camera, because no one had come to help him. He checked his watch – god, he’d been lying here for over two hours. They must have given him a hell of a thump on the head. No wonder everything hurt. That’d teach him for wanting to check on a damn turtle nest at two in the morning.
He got up unsteadily, and looked at the rolling waves with a queer revulsion he’d never felt before. They looked – sinister. As if things lurked beneath that meant him no good at all. He frowned at the sea and turned to stumble his way back to the car. This just – it was all wrong. It felt sour and ugly in his stomach, egg thieves and being assaulted and it – it was horrible.
​In the car he turned the heater on full blast and peeled his jacket off. It smelled fishy, and had some strange black stains on it – he must have rolled in something when they knocked him to the ground. He inspected the welts on his neck, which boasted a weird pattern of red circles. Christ knew what they’d used on him. He slumped back in his seat with a sigh, and thought that after a cuppa and a shower, the next thing he was going to do was ask for a transfer. He just didn’t feel safe near the sea any more. Not with things getting so bad that people would assault you over turtle eggs.


 According to the ever-handy ‘Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend & Myth by Carol Rose’, a Sea Dog is “a hybrid beast in the heraldic repertoire of Europe”.  That seems to be about all the info there is on them, so I see no reason not to believe they hatch in large, turtle-like nests on the beach, eat the first thing they imprint on, and are seen as quite the status symbol among well-to-do mers.

And what are mers? Well, those are my creatures – a little Lovecraftian, a little in the spirit of the classic mermaids. After all, sailors were at sea for a long old time. Anything vaguely humanoid probably looked pretty good.

And squid are, well, squid. Look on Wikipedia.


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