This is not an adaptation of the made-for-video movie. This is an alternative sequel which takes place instead of The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea -- which is the way it should have been.
Like a spongy mass creeping through a grate into a pool of cool water, consciousness slowly invaded his reluctant brain. He rebelled, tried to escape into the oblivion of which he had no memory, yet seemed as though it had been somehow pleasant. The backs of his eyes ached, and his throat was sore. He wanted to shut out these first vestiges of wakefulness -- yet now a few meandering conscious thoughts were stirring, threatening to wrest him from his total contentedness.
His dawning awareness of the real world was not wholly by his own doing. Drugs were being pumped into his body. Coolant was being drained from his veins, replaced by his own carefully stored blood.
His blood pressure was being monitored, his respiration slowly being increased by electronic stimulation.
Light invaded his eyes, and he knew he would see things more clearly if he opened them. As soon as he tried, he shut them again -- the light was painful, and the images an indistinct blur. But now he was aware of noises -- the beeping of an electrocardiogram, the hissing and whirring of pumps.
Now there was a loud hum, and a change in the air.
He realized quite abruptly what was going on -- the cover of his hibernation unit was sliding upward, and now he heard click-clacking of the flight recorders, the hum of the power system, and the silence where there should have been the roar of the main drive.
He ventured once again to open his eyes. Consciousness had returned in full, and physical normalcy was taking over.
He lifted his head, swung his legs off the bed, and sat up groggily. He saw that across the cabin, Connors had already sat up -- ever the energetic one.
Clumsily, Martin slipped from his bunk above Connors and crashed to the floor.
Connors would ordinarily have found this extremely amusing. Now he simply said, "You okay?"
"Hmm," Martin grumbled, staggering to his feet.
"Skipper?" Connors said.
"Yeah, okay." Time to resume his veneer of authority. Colonel Jason Desmond stood, turned to greet Arabella Hardy. "Everyone okay?"
Arabella's eyes were open, but she did not seem inclined to move from her bunk.
"Time to get moving," Desmond said. "We've had plenty of sleep. We've landed, and it's time to earn our pensions."
"A lot of good that'll do us," Martin said. "How long do you figure we've been gone? Earth time, that is?"
"We'll check the date meter in a sec," Desmond said. "Right now, let's all wake ourselves."
"All right, all right," Arabella said irritably. "Wonder what kind of success the Icarus and the Starfire had."
"We should have landed on the same planet," Connors said. "The only question is, are we anywhere near their landing spots?"
"Never mind the landing spots," Martin said. "It all depends on the relativistic effects. Our three ships could land in the same exact spot, but thousands of years apart."
Arabella had finally sat up and was rubbing her eyes.
Martin staggered forward to the controls. "Uh-huh. Ship time, November 25, 2054. Earth time, July 8, 1805."
"1805!" Desmond made a valiant attempt to run forward, but it became something more of a drunken stagger.
"How could that have happened?" Connors asked. "We should have only reached about two-thirds the speed of light. The divergence in time should have put us in the late 3900s, A.D."
"Well, it didn't," Desmond said.
Arabella had now joined them in the ship's flight area. "So if we're not when we thought we'd be, it's almost certain we're not where we thought we'd be, right?"
"That follows," Desmond said. "We need to get a fix, and then we'll hope that the Icarus and the Starfire ended up here, too. Martin, get up in the tube and read the atmosphere. Connors, put the antenna on wide-band and try to reach the Icarus or Starfire personnel. No point in offloading our colony equipment if there are no other teams here."
Arabella was at her station, tapping up coordinates on her course computer. "I'll try to get an astronomical reading."
Desmond sat in his commander's chair, ostensibly to record their touchdown in the log, but mostly to think. He glanced out the window, and frowned. The vegetation looked exactly like Earth trees. Too much like Earth trees.
It was the most wonderful thing Ariel had ever seen in her life.
She had been taking Max for a walk, her thoughts crowded with the implications of her new life on land, when a tremendous booming sound interrupted her reverie. She glanced upward, and her years of life as a mermaid prepared her to see ships on the surface, blasting cannons at one another -- but she checked herself. Up there was not the surface, but only the limitless sky.
Max's floppy ears bent backwards, and he began to whine and pace nervously.
Ariel saw nothing, but another boom followed, and then she spotted a point of brightness over the kingdom, close to the palace from which she had come.
Like the cannons she had witnessed on pirate ships, the point of brightness shot past her before she could see what it was, and disappeared over the trees. The subsequent crashing sound had to be the noise of its impact on the ground.
She had to see what it was!
"Come on, Max!" she said brightly, trotting over the soft grass toward the trees in the distance.
Max followed her, but paused now and then, uncertain of the strange smell he was picking up.
Despite Eric's insistence, she had refused to put Max on a leash, and she frequently gestured to him now, shouting "Come on!" with a twinge of impatience, but mostly eagerness to see the wonderful thing that had fallen from the sky.
She was sure Scuttle or Eric could tell her what the object was, but she wanted to see it for herself first. And what if it was something not even a human could identify?
A trail of burned earth interrupted the trees ahead, and she saw that the farther the trail went, the deeper it became. Surely this was the path left by that strange object. She followed the trail. Max trailed well behind her, sniffing cautiously at the scorched earth.
The trail ended with a oval-shaped, gray thing which was letting off steam or smoke. From here, she guessed it was as tall as she was, and she couldn't judge its overall shape. Smiling, she sprinted up to it.
The gray oval was only its rear wall. Its sides sported triangular fairings which narrowed as they stretched towards its pointed nose. Indented into flat plates along the hull were two windows. Ariel had only seen horses and carriages, but she knew that this must be some kind of vehicle. And where must it travel!
"Oh, Max, isn't it fantastic?" she raved. She put a finger to her chin. "I wonder what it is." She smiled and reached out to touch its surface. The white material was unfamiliar to her, but it was warm. It felt oddly like sand, but it was not at all grainy.
She noticed a series of letters along the narrow bridge between the two window panes. But not yet knowing how to read the human language, she could not identify these alien letters, UNITED STATES.
Then something strange happened. Near the nose, forward of the windows, an object protruded from within the vehicle. Slowly, it extended, resembling an eel emerging from its cave.
Martin quickly read the instruments as they analyzed the atmosphere, then punched the button which retracted the air-sampling periscope. He called into the cabin, "Atmosphere and pressure are okay."
Desmond poked his head into the tube. "Any dangerous trace gases?"
"No," Martin said. "Oxygen-nitrogen, traces of hydrogen, argon, neon. A fair percentage of methane and carbon. Pressure is exactly the same as Earth."
Desmond backed into the cabin and stood. "Exactly the same as Earth." Then he saw movement outside the windows. "What's that?"
"Oh, my God," Connors said. "It's a human! A human female!"
"Where are we?" Arabella said. "It's just like Earth."
"Martin," Desmond said, "blow the hatch."
Martin nodded, pulling himself forward into the airlock. He hit a red button, and the hatch exploded outward with the sound of a firecracker.
Ariel leaped backward, startled. She wondered if someone inside this vehicle was trying to frighten her away. Well, it wouldn't work.
In fact, Desmond had no intention of frightening his unexpected visitor; he hoped to keep her around. It had never occurred to him that the Helios's explosive hatch would startle her. Fortunately, she regained her composure after a moment of uncertainty.
For Desmond, the uncertainty was only to begin. The vegetation was too Earth-like to be coincidence, the girl was too human, the animal beside her was clearly a dog. They were in the year 1805, when it should have been closer to 3905. Something had clearly gone wrong with the ship's course -- They were not where they should be. . . .
"I can't make contact with the Icarus or the Starfire," Connors said.
"I don't think they're here," Desmond said. "Not on this planet, not in this time."
"Do we begin offloading the colony equipment?" Arabella said.
"Hold it, hold it -- Let's just think this thing through. Without the other equipment from the Icarus and Starfire, our rovers and drones are pretty much useless. Our sensors and food processors are designed to be incorporated into the shelters from the Icarus and the computer systems from the Starfire. We're not where we're supposed to be, and we have to play by a whole new set of rules."
Martin had pulled himself out of the tube and stood in the cabin on the ramp below the control stations. "If we're not where we're supposed to be, what do we do?"
Desmond jerked his head toward the window. "Well, we have a visitor, and a courageous one at that. I think our first play would be to make contact with the natives."
Arabella was quick to protest. "We haven't scanned for diseases in the atmosphere or radioactive levels -- "
"I don't think that's a problem," Desmond said. "Scan if you like, but first of all, we've already opened the hatch and exposed ourselves to the air here, and second . . . " He looked out the window again at the inquisitive girl who was now digging around in the supply compartment on the window pane. "Well, I just have a feeling the air here is identical to Earth."
Ariel was examining a wonderful thing she had found in a part of the vehicle that had been exposed when the hatch had blown out when movement caught her eye.
Someone was emerging from the hole in the hull!
It was a human, a handsome young human dressed all in white with a strange backpack and an unfamiliar blue symbol reading ANSA -- Allied National Space Agencies. He stared right at her intently for a moment, then swung his legs over the side of the hatch and scrambled out to the ground.
"Um -- hello," Ariel said, moving toward him eagerly but cautiously.
Max had trotted over to him and was barking enthusiastically, his tongue lolling out and dribbling slobber all over the man's shoes.
"Hello," the man said. "You speak English."
Ariel cocked her head. "Umh -- English?"
Now another man followed, a tall, dark-haired man whose aura of self-confidence told Ariel he was the leader.
"Stand back, Martin," he said. "Don't be alarmed," he said to Ariel.
Ariel smiled, never imagining these wonderful visitors could mean any harm. "I'm not! I just -- uh -- well, who are you?"
A woman now climbed out of the ship, holding a pretty black thing that was making interesting beeping noises. Ariel bounded over to it. "Oh, what's that?" She snatched the box and watched in helpless, wide-eyed horror as one of its components fell to the ground, dangling from a curled cord.
Another man climbed out of the ship (how many are in there? Ariel wondered).
"That's a Geiger counter," the woman said. "It measures radioactive levels."
"My name is Desmond," the leader of the group said. "This is Martin -- "
The man who had first climbed out of the ship nodded once.
"Connors, and Arabella Hardy."
Ariel tried to peer into the hatch, but Desmond stood in the way. Though he couldn't define exactly why, he was reluctant to allow this girl to see the interior of the ship.
"What's -- uh -- what's in there?"
"This is our ship," Desmond said. "It brought us here from -- we're not sure where. Can you tell us where we are?"
"This is the kingdom of Prince Eric."
Connors was already deep in thought. "Prince Eric . . . 1805 . . . English-speaking humans -- "
"Then you've guessed it, too," Desmond said. "We're back. We're home."
"How?" Arabella asked.
"Something must have gone wrong with our trajectory. Either the computer automatically turned us around, and some sort of relativistic turbulence threw us backward in time, or -- "
"Or we circled the universe," Martin said. "And we looped not only around the circle of space, but also of time. We traveled forward into the past!"
"Either way, we're here now," Connors said. "Too bad we don't have any history texts to pinpoint exactly where we are."
"We know enough," Desmond said. "We're on Earth in the year 1805, in an English-speaking kingdom. The inhabitants here probably have enough rudimentary knowledge of electricity and steam that we could fabricate materials to get the ship back into orbit, where we can engage the relativistic engine and see if we can get back to our own time."
"That's a longshot," Martin said.
"Wait!" Ariel said. "You're welcome to stay here. Uh, I'd like to learn about this . . . this, uh . . . wonderful thing you've been flying in."
"Well, thank you very much," Desmond said. "But there could be some problems with that."
"Yeah," Connors said. "I'd like to hear what Einstein would say about this predicament."
"Ein . . . Einstein?" Ariel said.
"Look, is there someone in charge?" Desmond said. "Someone we could talk to who could help us?"
"Sure," Ariel said. "I'll help ya! This way."
She scurried off, Max following and barking.
Desmond turned to his companions, shrugged, and then, donning their backpacks, the crew of the Allied National Space Agencies' starship Helios set off after their excitable guide.
The light from above radiated from an intensely bright ball fastened to the ceiling. As soon as the brightness exploded from it, Dr. Ogilvy shielded his eyes.
Dr. Vial let go of the hanging chain which had produced the blinding brightness and said, "Electric light, Dr. Ogilvy. Have you ever seen such a marvel?"
"Never, Dr. Vial," Ogilvy said. "We're living in a time of unprecedented scientific advancement."
"And yet nothing can account for what you saw this morning."
"Nothing," Ogilvy said. "A flying machine. An object which appeared to be made of metal, something as far beyond the steam engine as the boiler is above the oar."
"Exactly!" Dr. Vial pressed a button, and a door slid upward. Beyond it, enclosed behind metal bars, was a horrific monster, a humanoid creature disfigured and malformed beyond recognition, its organs mutated into abominations halfway between man and crustacean. It growled a drooled, tearing uselessly at the bars with its unnaturally large claws. "I've specialized in chemistry and biology," Vial said. "But you, Dr. Ogilvy, you can unlock the secret of the flying machine. Your knowledge and mine, put together, can revolutionize the world forever."
Ogilvy stared at the crab-like monster, nauseated and uncertain of the sanity of his old mentor. "What is this thing, Dr. Vial?"
"One of my spectacular failures," Vial said. "There have been many of them, I'm afraid. I think I've discovered where I went wrong. . . . But that isn't important now. What is important is the flying machine. Can you find it?"
"Yes, I can," Ogilvy said. "I saw where it went down. But it will be hard to keep this project a secret. It was also seen by the new princess, Ariel."
"Then that empty-headed Prince Eric will soon know of it," Vial grumbled. "He'll never know what to do with the knowledge. But he won't send anyone to investigate the machine until morning. That will give you time. Find its power source and bring it to me. And if anyone interferes, bring them, too!"
"Vial, I'm not an army!"
"But you'll have this." Vial handed Ogilvy a silver cylinder which was warm to the touch. "Inside is a gas that I've discovered which retards mental activity. Anyone subjected to it becomes . . . malleable."
Ogilvy's hand trembled as held the cylinder. "But how do I avoid exposure?"
"You're already immune to it. The counteracting gas is all around us -- another lab accident. The protection lasts twenty-four hours." Vial studied his old pupil's expression, saw his discontent. "Relax, Ogilvy. What we are doing will benefit future generations. What is more important than knowledge?"
Ogilvy nodded. "All right, Vial. I'll go out to the craft and find whatever its source of power is."
"Very good, my old friend. We will be heroes, not villains."
Ogilvy swallowed heavily, turned, and left in haste. Behind him, he heard the screams of rage from the monster in the cage, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
"It's just incredible."
In the lush anteroom of the luxurious palace, Desmond scratched his head, astonished. "There's certainly nothing in the history books about this."
Ariel had told him the story of her remarkable adventure, how she had abandoned life as a mermaid to win the love of Prince Eric, how Ursula the Sea Witch had deceived her and attacked the Royal Party Liner, and how her father, King Triton, and all the merpeople had gathered to rejoice in her wedding to Eric.
"I read somewhere that Bob Ballard had discovered ancient traces of an undersea city, but I never imagined . . . "
A nagging suspicion that had been bothering Ariel came to surface with Desmond's last comment. "What do you mean history books? You were all talking as if you knew this place. Where are you from?"
Desmond glanced at Martin; Connors and Arabella were off with the captain of the guard to find supplies for the ship.
"You're a remarkable person," Desmond said. "We're from the future."
Ariel touched both hands to her heart, her eyes wide with wonder. Then she burst into a delighted smile. "I knew it! How far in the future? Why are you here?"
"I can't tell you too much -- "
"Why not?" Martin said. "We've violated Einstein just by being here. What will the knowledge do? Destroy the future? That's a physical impossibility, a paradox."
"True," Desmond said. "Look, Ariel, I understand your curiosity -- "
"This is my wildest dream," Ariel said. "Please tell me. I thought I had seen everything when I came on land. I thought this palace and the wedding ship and the sky were -- were the ends of the world -- but -- " She pounded on the table in front of her. "I have to know the rest!"
Desmond stroked his chin, lost in thought. "Martin," he said softly, "would you excuse us, please?"
Martin looked uncertain, but stood. "Sure." He offered Ariel his best approximation of a respectful bow. "If you'll excuse me?"
Desmond watched Martin as he left the rooms, his footsteps echoing loudly on the marble floor. When at last the far-off door squeaked shut, Desmond looked at Ariel with a new expression. Until now, he had regarded her with mild annoyance and forced respect. But now she saw that somehow she had gained his trust.
"I can see that you're truly interested," he said, "and that you're wise enough to handle this knowledge well."
"I am," Ariel said, though her throat had suddenly gone dry. (Dry! That was a feeling she still wasn't used to.)
"What I'm about to tell you remains between the two of us. Agreed?"
For a nightmarish moment, Ariel felt that she was back in the Sea Witch's cavern, striking a bargain with a vicious creature who would betray her. Her close brushes with death had slowly but surely taught her some degree of caution.
"Can't I -- can't I at least tell Eric?"
"No," Desmond snapped. Ariel started at his harshness. "No one, or I won't tell you."
Ariel thought for a moment; it seemed a harmless enough deal. "All right. Tell me, then."
"All right." Desmond relaxed in his chair. "We're from the future, from the United States of America -- From what you told us, you probably don't know what that is."
Ariel shrugged. "I -- I've heard Eric and Grimsby talking about something called 'America'."
"Well, it doesn't matter. That's our country. Under the auspices of a multinational space organization, we embarked on a mission of interstellar colonization."
Ariel shook her head, confused. "Umh -- Space? Interstellar?"
Desmond nodded patiently. "The world, everything you know, this planet, is actually a huge ball floating in space. You perceive up and down only because of gravity. The planet exerts a tremendous field that pulls everything toward it. . . . "
And so Desmond explained, in as elementary terms as he could, the fundamentals of basic astronomy. Within half an hour, Ariel understood the Solar System, gravity, and space travel. Her long fixation on the world of humans had been fulfilled -- now her large, blue eyes turned outward once again, even farther from her home, a home that now seemed quite near in comparison to the awe-inspiring gulf that had opened before her. And now she understood at last the function of that marvelous machine that had fallen from the sky.
"I have your word, then?" Desmond said. "This is just between us."
"How could I tell anyone?" Ariel almost whispered, moving her eyes around thoughtfully. The wonders of sunken shipwrecks had awed her, the sight of Eric's clipper firing off its fireworks had overpowered her, her first journey through Eric's kingdom had intoxicated her. But now these were empty, meaningless things. That little white triangle which could easily fit on the deck of Eric's smallest ship represented to her wonders beyond imagining -- beyond anyone's imagining. She was too overcome by the knowledge to consider the ramifications of her sudden realization that she could never be content with a life of royalty.
She spoke, as she often did, without thinking. "I wanna go with you!"
"That is impossible. Even if we manage to make lift-off, the Helios can only support four people."
"There has to be a way!"
Desmond smiled, seeing nothing more than the empty determination of an adolescent. He didn't know Ariel very well. "There's no way. I shouldn't have even told you all this."
"I wanted to learn!" Ariel began searching through the room, though for what, she couldn't have said, even if she stopped to think about it. "Oh, I left the sea so that no one could tell me what to do anymore. I left everyone I loved. But now it's all . . . all so tiny. There's -- there's so much more that I didn't know about -- and it could mean so much to everyone."
And to Desmond's surprise, she suddenly started to sing.
From ocean to ocean
From shore to shore,
Heart leaping within me,
Soul longing for more,
Do I dare to remember? Do I dare to want more?
I thought I'd arrived,
Had a moment of bliss,
Asked questions -- got answers --
But now, faced with this:
What would I pay to spend just one day
Wandering free? Wish I could be
Out of this world.
From journey to Journey,
From water to shore,
My mer-life behind me, but a new life before . . .
Why can't I be happy? What force drives me on?
How can I leave Eric to soar past the sun?
From ocean to Ocean,
From water to Sky,
What would I give to fly high, fly high?
To break free of gravity,
Find a new place
In a magical, mystical, Ocean of Space?
Wouldn't I love, love to explore that Shore up above?
Out of the sea,
Up from the land,
Wish I could be -- no, I must be --
Part of that world.
As Ariel finished her song, her body draped over the couch in a far corner of the room, Desmond couldn't help but be moved. Clearly, she had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I just can't help you."
Trying to ignore the tears which were beginning to well in Ariel's eyes, he stood, bowed slightly, and left, ostensibly to find Martin and the others.
Thus left alone, Ariel had time to think, and her mind kept turning back to the astonishing fact that the world -- the whole world -- was but one in an infinite universe of worlds, worlds perhaps even more wonderful than this one. She recalled those clear, starry nights she had admired, and marveled at the wondrous thought that each of those lights, and billions -- billions -- of others, were home to other worlds.
She had to see them.
Ogilvy had searched the strange ship until daybreak. He had played with the controls, dissected some of the instruments, and learned a few menial details about how the craft worked. He had succeeded in dimming and then brightening the lights. He had altered the readouts on a few of the screens. But nowhere could he find a clue as to what powered the vehicle. There was no large wheel, such as the wheel and gears which powered Dr. Vial's electricity. There was no boiler. There was nothing but a muted hum which seemed to reverberate from all of the walls.
Now it was morning, and he was ready to drop from exhaustion. So far, no one from Eric's kingdom had challenged him, and there was no sign that a party was approaching. He obviously had unlimited time, and he dreaded returning to Dr. Vial's mansion without anything to show for his efforts -- but surely it was time to quit now.
He never realized he had dozed off until a clanging sound startled him awake. His head jerked upright, and he saw that the hatch below the pilots' seats had opened. Adrenaline shot through him, and he grabbed the silver cylinder at his pocket.
But the man who crawled through the hatch was not one of Eric's guards. He was a strangely dressed man with a backpack. When he saw Ogilvy, he made no hostile move, but merely smiled. "Well, hello. I thought someone would stumble across the ship sooner or later."
Ogilvy relaxed slightly, but kept his fingers around the silver cylinder. "Who are you?"
"That was my line stranger." The man's voice remained friendly. "I'm Lawrence Connors, a member of the crew of this ship."
"I'm Dr. Spencer Ogilvy. I'm a scientist."
Connors smiled broadly; Ogilvy wondered what he had done to so delight this man. "Really? Well, then, you must find the Helios most interesting."
"Most . . . frustrating. A friend of mine and I were hoping to find the power source of this machine -- It's a losing proposition so far."
"So far," Connors said thoughtfully. "So far. Hmm. Let's see, this is 1805. You must have a knowledge of steam engines. It's another forty years or so before the coming of electricity. . . . "
"What are you saying?" Ogilvy said, his nervousness mingling with excitement. "Is -- is that where you're from? The future?"
Ogilvy let go of the cylinder. "This is incredible. There's so much we could learn -- so much we have yet to learn."
"And you could learn it. So you want to learn about the ship's power source. It involves secrets beyond your science, things that won't be discovered for another century, and even then only the rudiments of it will be known."
"Are you saying you'll share the knowledge with us?"
Connors nodded. "Sure. We can't take off again. We don't have the propellant. And even if we did -- well, we have nowhere to go in this time. So let's make a deal. If I share our secrets with you, what could you offer me?"
"I'm not sure," Ogilvy said. "You'd have to talk to my friend, Dr. Vial."
"Then why don't we go to him?"
Ogilvy crawled through the access tube, Connors close behind. As Ogilvy climbed out the hatch, he heard a startled yelp. His eyes grew wide as he saw a woman standing beside the ship, rummaging through an exposed compartment near one of the windows.
As Connors crawled out the hatch, he said to the woman, "Don't be alarmed, Arabella. I think you should come with us."
"What's going on?" Arabella said.
"It's a tad theatrical -- I'm going to take over the world."
Connors quickly pulled a sidearm from his pocket and pointed it at Arabella. "I suggest you don't resist."
"What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm realizing my destiny. Don't you see? We're stranded here. And now I see that it was providence that brought us here. I can advance the rate of human progress by two hundred years. By our time, man may have already colonized the galaxy."
"Don't you realize how absurd -- "
Crack! There was a flash of energy too quick for Ogilvy to follow, or even entirely register. But the woman slumped to the ground as effectively as if she had been shot with a bullet. Connors turned to Ogilvy. "Coming, Dr. Ogilvy?"
"Absolutely. Right behind you."
Ariel didn't know what to say to Eric, or even if she should say anything. She had given her word not to tell anyone, even Eric, about -- the future. But she had to do something.
She had run away from everything that mattered to her before, but somehow this was different. This -- this was what she had run to.
Every father knew his children must eventually leave home, so she had felt little guilt at leaving the sea. But Eric was her husband, and she wasn't even sure how she would smuggle herself on board the Helios, let alone Eric -- if he even wanted to go.
One thing about Eric that had begun to frustrate her over the past few days was his, well, small-mindedness. As far as he was concerned, there was no world beyond his tiny kingdom. How could he fathom the vastness of the universe?
But the thought of leaving him -- she couldn't bear the thought of letting him down. Yet every time she pondered the prospect of staying here, living like this for the rest of her life, she felt that same tightening in her chest, that same threat of gloom that had often overtaken her during her years as a mermaid. She had been able to fight it then, but now, with happiness in the palm of her hand, and the possibility of the fulfillment of her wildest dreams -- she couldn't let it slip by.
The door to Eric's office was open. She went in and saw Eric staring dreamily out the window, ignoring Grimsby.
"Eric?" she said.
Eric turned and walked over to her. Grimsby's voice trailed off with, "But never mind me. . . . "
"Could you excuse us, Grim?" Eric said.
"Certainly," Grimsby said. "The royal economy can certainly wait for a more convenient time, and the housing shortage need not be addressed at all."
Grimsby shuffled out of the room and swung the door shut behind him, muttering, "I'll have Sergeant Guy put up the Do Not Disturb sign."
"What is it?" Eric said. "You look unhappy."
"Eric . . . " Ariel turned away, staring at the ceiling as if she could see the limitless stars beyond. "How would you feel if . . . if I went away . . . for a while?"
"Went away?" Eric's eyes stared vacantly at the back of Ariel's head, uncomprehending. "For how long?"
"I'm not sure -- " Ariel's voice caught in her throat. This was even harder than she had thought. "Maybe . . . indefinitely."
Eric spread his arms in confusion. "I don't understand."
Tears threatened to spill, and Ariel blinked them back. "The . . the guests. They're going somewhere that I really want to see. I think you'd like to see it, too. I'd -- I'd like you to come with me."
"Oh, cut it out," Eric said, waving an arm at her. He tromped off to his post by the window. "We can't go anywhere. I've got a kingdom to run."
Ariel turned to face him. She wiped her eyes and felt her determination starting to return. "I'd really like to go, Eric."
"Hey, Max." The dog had trotted up to Eric, a sopping wet, disintegrating bone hanging from his mouth. "Whatcha doin'?"
"I'm going, Eric," Ariel said firmly.
"Grrrr," Eric said, ruffling Max's ears. "You crazy mutt."
"I don't know when I'll be back," Ariel said.
"Okay, well, how 'bout a song first? Sing that one you sang when you rescued me in the middle of the ocean."
The tears threatened to return now. "Eric, don't you understand? I might not come back. Wouldn't you rather come with me?"
"Oh, knock it off, Ariel. You can't go anywhere and neither can I. Max, I don't want that."
"Eric, this life just isn't for me. I'm not a princess, I'm an explorer. An adventurer. I have to do this!"
The fact of her leaving seemed finally to sink in. Eric shoved Max's head out of the way. "Are you serious?"
"Yes, I'm serious."
Eric nodded. "Well, I just want you to be happy. Come back soon, all right?"
A dawning awareness was beginning to form in Ariel's mind. She had fixated all her passion on Eric at the moment of discovering firsthand the wonders of the human world. He, likewise, had fixated on her as a momentary entertainment in his life of leisure. When she wanted to, and in the right circumstances, Ariel could be quite introspective, and now she began to wonder if what she felt for Eric had ever been love at all.
Leaving Eric and Max in a growling contest, she backed out of the room. A terrible emptiness had begun to creep into her heart which she hoped the coming adventure could fill.
Martin sat on the Helios's side fairing, resting his face between his hands.
Desmond paced around Arabella, who was seated in the hatch. "Connors stunned you and left with this guy?"
"That's right. Said something about conquering the planet."
"Connors always was the smart one," Martin whined. "Smarts is the last thing we need in this world."
"Connors has too much adrenaline," Desmond snapped. "If we ever do get back, there won't be a hole deep enough for him!"
"I think he's found his hole right here," Arabella said. "On the trip out, he was always saying things about reaching a primitive world and taking over."
"Yeah," Martin said. "I always thought he was joking."
"And the muon catalyzer is gone," Desmond said, gesturing angrily in the general direction of the hole in the rear of the ship. "If scientists in this time get ahold of technology that advanced -- "
"Nothing will happen!" Martin said, rising. "Nothing will happen, Skipper. If anything were to happen, well, it would have happened. It would be a part of history. History can't be changed."
"Well, I can't ponder theoretical physics while we have a real and imminent threat here. We can't take the chance, no matter how unlikely, that Einstein was wrong. We have to stop Connors."
"Got an idea," Martin said. "That sweet Ariel wanted to come with us. Why not give her Connors' seat?"
"What, and mess with history even more?"
"If only we knew more about this place," Arabella said. "I don't recall ever reading anything about a Prince Eric or Ariel, certainly no documentation of mermaids and giant octopuses."
"None of that matters now," Desmond said. "I know the theory says history cannot be changed, but I have to assume in the present circumstances that it can. We have to stop Connors, whatever the cost. Arabella, any idea where he and his new ally might have gone?"
"No. Connors stunned me before I could ask any questions."
"Maybe Eric has some skilled trackers or something," Martin said. "Or maybe somebody knows where this scientist operates from."
Desmond nodded. "Right. Well, let's get back to the palace and start asking questions."
Dr. Vial leaned over the waste-basket-sized device, marveled at its intricacy and the power pouring through it. He puzzled over the concentric rings and the odd sound they made as they fluctuated from the outermost to the innermost -- "DOW dow dow do doo doo," they said, "DOW dow dow do doo doo, DOW dow dow do doo doo."
"A muon catalyzer," Connors said. "Fluctuating the energy levels within atoms themselves. In this small device, hydrogen atoms are fused to helium at room temperature, thus providing a literally limitless source of power. The only thing needed to drive our spacecraft is a supply of water to burn as propellant."
"Ingenious!" Vial cackled. "Far beyond any of today's scientific marvels!"
"With control of this device," Ogilvy said, "we could build or do anything. We could grow food, power cities -- "
"Conquer the sea and air!" Vial raved. "Transform everyone but my select progeny into a race of human crabs!"
Ogilvy fell silent as Vial cackled and howled in pleasure. "Dr. Vial," he said after a long silence, "this can be used to benefit all mankind. We can't use it for our own ends. This discovery is too important to benefit only a handful of people."
"Perhaps Dr. Vial and I will benefit," Connors said, "and you will not."
"Yes, Ogilvy," Vial said. "With Connors at my side, I have no further need for you." Vial's emaciated hand hit a button, and the wall slid open. The gate beyond clanked to the side, revealing the hideous ogre Ogilvy had seen before. "Igor, I have a gift for you!"
Stunned momentarily into immobility, Ogilvy watched the drooling monster limp out of its cage. It squealed and roared, and began to limp toward him.
"No use running, Ogilvy," Vial said. "You'll find all the doors locked."
"You'll never get away with this!" Ogilvy said despite his uncontrolled trembling. "Either of you!"
He broke into a run, but slipped on a patch of green ooze. The next thing -- and the last thing -- he saw was that hideous, distorted claw reaching for him.
Any lingering doubts Ariel had were snuffed by her second glimpse of the starship Helios. To think where this machine could travel!
She smiled as she sprinted over to it, pondering the wonderful things she would see as soon as the ship took off. The question was -- how would she smuggle herself aboard? The only way to plan her escape would be to climb inside the ship and explore it.
Let's see -- That round hole in the front was the way the crew had originally disembarked. That must be the way in. Running her hand along the strangely textured hull, she walked across the ship's length until she came to the open hatch. She glanced covertly around to make sure no one was watching, then bent over and peered into the hatch. Yes, there was a tube there which led aft. If she crawled through that, she would probably end up in the living area.
Cautiously, she stepped over the hull and into the hatch. It was awfully small! Bending down, she forced her legs into the tube, then wriggled her back and head into the hatch, so that she was lying with her head under the open hatch and her feet farther aft. She noticed the tube was lined with handholds. Gripping these with both hands, she forced herself down the tube, taking no notice of her dress folding up around her waist.
Her heart pounded as she pulled herself through the far end and into a magnificent control room. As she pulled her head out of the tube, she took in the incredible sight before standing. Curving around her like some huge bee's nest was a cylindrical room filled with unfathomable machines.
Having never been exposed to electronics, it did not strike her as odd that none of the lights were blinking, none of the screens were on, and no hum emanated from the walls. The ship was as dead as one of the shipwrecks she used to explore. But to Ariel, it was the vehicle to her future.
Slowly, she stood, marveling at this alien architecture and the knowledge it must have taken to build it. Soon, she thought, that knowledge would be hers. She would have answers to questions she never would have thought to ask.
She ran a hand along one control panel, pressed a few buttons experimentally. She was disappointed when nothing happened, but not concerned.
She only wished Flounder could be here to see this.
Having no luck with the control panels, she mounted the ramp to the upper deck, where four open chambers were stacked. These must be the beds. She reached into one of them and ran her hand along the tough rubber.
These sure don't seem very comfortable, she thought. But she would bear much to see the Solar System, the galaxy, and the wonders of another age.
On the rear wall was a door with a red wheel mounted on it. Glancing around quickly for any other wonder, she approached the door, reached out, and turned the wheel. It turned easily, then began to spin on its own. She backed away as the door opened.
"We mustn't go in there," a voice behind her boomed, "without permission."
She spun around. "Mr. Connors!"
Behind Connors was an eerily familiar human, an emaciated man wearing a maniacal grin. Where had she seen that face before?
"Delightful," the man said. "Eric's new bride, Princess Ariel!"
Connors nodded. "She'll make a fine hostage. This is even better than blackmailing the others with the ship."
"Indeed it is!"
"What are you doing?!" Ariel demanded.
"Whatever I want," Connors said, reaching out and grabbing her right arm in a painful grip.
Dr. Vial grabbed her right arm. "Shall we take her to Igor?"
"In time," Connors said. "For right now, she can have her own cell. A place where she can think about what's going to happen to her."
Ariel gasped, then shut her eyes in frightened anticipation. "This doesn't look good," she said grimly.
Like the Three Musketeers -- or the Three Stooges -- Desmond, Martin, and Arabella tromped through the woods, following the map that Eric's captain of the guard had given them.
"Yeah, we're sure honored guests," Martin whined. "No carriage, no escort, no supplies."
"Well, we're astronauts," Desmond said. "We're supposed to be resourceful. We were all prepared to tame the wilderness of a barren alien world, remember?"
"Sure," Martin grumbled. "With help and equipment from two other crews."
"According to Prince Eric," Arabella said, "this Dr. Vial has caused trouble before, and he's been associated with this Ogilvy character. Sounds like the kind of setup that Connors would be attracted to."
"All right, well, the main thing is to get that muon catalyzer back," Desmond said. "I don't care much how we deal with Connors, as long as we get the ship and all our equipment off this planet. Eric said he'd have a group carry barrels of water out to the ship. Once we get the catalyzer back, that'll enable us to make orbit, and from there, we can engage the relativistic engine."
"I have another question," Martin said. "Do we take Ariel with us?"
"Why are you so insistent?" Desmond said. "We can't go taking passengers with us."
"Why not? She wants to go. She's a fish out of water anyway -- er, no pun intended. I think she'd make a terrific addition to our crew -- a lot better than that traitor Connors."
"May I ask what her qualifications are? I'd like to see her pass the ANSA technical exam. Does she know how to reboot the computers? Does she know never to initiate main bus burn-out without verifying the delta-vee switches are all set on standby? Can she calculate a launch window?"
"She's got spirit. She's got courage. She's certainly got the willingness to learn. She's got something the rest of us forgot a long time ago."
"What's that?" Arabella asked.
"How to be human. How to be completely honest with herself and others."
"All right, all right," Desmond said. "I'll think about it. But my plan right now is to raid that castle, grab the catalyzer, fuel the ship, and get off this planet as quick as we can."
Half an hour later, at the sight of Dr. Vial's Gothic castle, with its electric generators hissing and sparking, all three of them had someone lost their resolve.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Martin said. "What harm can Connors do with one silly muon catalyzer?"
"I'm beginning to think you're right," Desmond muttered. "Ariel would be a lot better in a crisis situation than you."
Arabella trotted up to where Desmond and Martin were hiding. "I found a back entrance. Looks like it leads to a storage room where they dump garbage."
"Right where we belong," Desmond said. "Let's go."
In a straight line, they creeped toward the entrance, rustling loudly in the tall weeds, until they came to the chute Arabella had noticed.
Desmond gestured toward the chute and pointed at Martin. Martin shook his head. Desmond rolled his eyes and jumped, grabbing the chute in mid-leap. Like a gymnast, he swung upward and landed sideways at the edge of the chute, making a frightful clanging sound. He held out both hands for Arabella, who grabbed them and swung herself up easily. They both proceeded to climb the chute, leaving Martin to ponder why he had joined ANSA in the first place.
Desmond and Arabella reached the top of the chute and found themselves in a filthy chamber crawling with what looked like all varieties of crabs.
"Okay, we're inside," Arabella said. "How do we find Connors?"
Desmond shrugged. "How should I know? Listen for evil laughing, screaming, Frankenstein lab equipment noises, anything."
Far below, Martin steeled himself for his own leap onto the chute when a door opened in the castle wall, receding noisily into darkness.
"Hey, guys!" he called. "There's an opening here -- "
He never finished his shout. A red tentacle, covered with chitin but punctuated with many joints, reached out of the darkness and seized him around the waist.
Desmond and Arabella followed the sound of the truncated shout and arrived at the chute just in time to see Martin's lifeless body being dragged into the recess.
"Okay," Desmond said. "Whatever or whoever we're dealing with, we know it's deadly serious."
Quietly, he led her across the room to the far door, which opened into a dank corridor lit by candelabras. That was when he detected the sound of evil laughter, a scream, and what sounded like Frankenstein laboratory equipment. He pointed toward a door. Through the crack underneath the door, he could see flashing light, as though electricity were being released.
"I believe that's our destination."
"You see, Ariel?" Connors said. "This is what's in store for you."
Ariel had shielded her eyes as the crab-like monster had been incinerated on a platform wired to bizarre and frightening equipment.
"As well as this," Dr. Vial said, pulling Martin's body up through a trap door. "Trespassers are not welcome."
Ariel slumped into the corner of her cell, resting her head on her knees. "Awh -- this is the most horrible place I've ever seen!"
The entrance suddenly swung open, and Desmond charged into the room, his sidearm drawn. "That's enough, Connors! Dr. Vial, I presume?"
"Quite!" Vial said.
Arabella stepped into the room behind Desmond and glanced toward Ariel. "Captain!" she said. "Look!"
Desmond looked toward Ariel's cell. Ariel leaped from her corner and ran to the bars, smiling brightly. "Aw, I knew you'd come!"
Desmond nodded at her. "Let's get that catalyzer and get you to the Helios. We've got to get off this planet and out of this time."
Connors picked up the catalyzer. "This is mine now. You three aren't going anywhere. I'd invite you to join me, but I know you're too dedicated to our pointless mission to -- "
"Give me the catalyzer, Connors!" Desmond shrieked. "Now! I swear to you -- "
Vial suddenly swung his arm against a hanging wire. A sparking cord was released. It swung down and struck Arabella hard in the skull. If she remained conscious long enough, the electrocution was probably not pleasant.
During Desmond's momentary distraction, Connors leapt forward and tackled him. The sidearm flew from his hand and clattered across the floor toward Ariel's cell.
Dr. Vial laughed, bellowed, "Good luck, Connors!" and fled the room.
As Desmond and Connors struggled across the floor, Ariel reached through the bars of her cell, straining to reach the discarded sidearm.
Neither Connors nor Desmond seemed to notice the boom that shook the castle.
Far below, Dr. Vial cackled in glee as he cut off the steam pressure to the other parts of the castle. The boiler quickly built up its energy, and Vial felt no remorse as he felt the last act of his life would be to destroy those who had tried to stop him from conquering the world.
The room itself tipped dangerously as the castle began to tumble. The sidearm clattered against the bars, and Ariel could now easily grab it. She studied it for a moment, slipped its one lever into the red, pointed the weapon toward the bars, and pulled the trigger.
The cage exploded open.
Connors and Desmond tumbled against a nearby wall as Ariel struggled out of the cell and across the shifting room.
"Unh, will you two cut it out?" she called. "We've got to get out of here!"
Desmond caught Connors around the waist and dragged him toward the laboratory equipment. That was when the entire wall of the tower collapsed, opening the lab to the night. Both men looked out in awe at the charged air outside.
Desmond seized his opportunity and kicked at Connors with both legs. The crumbling of the floor helped his cause. Screaming in horror, Connors soared out the opening and tumbled into the night.
Like a sailor in a bad storm, Desmond staggered across the room and picked up the muon catalyzer.
Without another word, Desmond and Ariel both bolted from the lab and out the door. Desmond headed for the chute from which he had come, but Ariel stopped him. "Wait! There could be monsters that way. There's a safer way over here."
Without waiting for Desmond's approval, Ariel scrambled down a crumbling hallway. Desmond, who was not used to being countermanded, followed reluctantly.
The spiral staircase they descended was a bit inhospitable, considering the plaster and chunks of wood which were falling everywhere, but at least there was now a quick jaunt through a foyer and across the drawbridge -- then, a straight shot to the Helios.
Ariel easily negotiated the fragments of castle that stood in her way, but Desmond, holding the bulky catalyzer, took a little more time. She was already across the drawbridge and safe when Desmond was halfway across the foyer. She saw now that the castle was steadily collapsing.
"Hurry!" She gestured. "Come on!"
Desmond dove out the arched entrance just as a massive beam crashed across it, blocking any escape.
He ran across the drawbridge and joined Ariel in watching the final stages of the castle's disintegration.
As the stone fragments settled into the river, Desmond heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. then he held up the muon catalyzer. "Well . . . I got it!"
Ariel giggled, then, quite unexpectedly, planted a warm kiss on Desmond's cheek. Desmond smiled despite himself and, though it could not be seen in the dark, blushed. "All right, do you still want to see the galaxy?"
"You betcha!" Ariel leapt to her feet, enthusiasm overpowering her reason, before she suddenly remembered all that she might be leaving behind forever. "But -- if I go with you, is there any coming back?"
"I'm not sure. We're not sure how we ended up here in the first place."
Ariel looked up at the clear sky, blazing with stars -- and, as it happened, the full moon. It seemed to be beckoning to her, like a lighthouse on a friendly shore to a sailor who had been at sea for many months.
"I'd -- I'd really like to go with you."
Desmond watched her for some time, wondering what kind of astronaut she would make -- wondering what the crews of the Icarus and Starfire, if he could find them, would think of this unorthodox crew. But Martin had been right -- in the moonlight, he could see her eyes. They were full of wonder, of life, of curiosity. He looked back upon his own training, and upon the months he and his crew had spent in space, pushing buttons and taking readings and marking off checklists. Ariel, who had never been in space, seemed to have a clearer understanding of space travel than ANSA's finest crews.
Yes, he decided, she would make a fine astronaut.
"Let's go," he said. "The ship is this way."
The ship was actually much farther than Desmond had thought. Dawn was breaking by the time he began to recognize the woods. At least they could see their way clearly now.
But it had been a long, difficult trek.
Even Ariel had begun to tire. Her boundless energy did have limits. But now she, too, could see that they were nearing where the ship had landed. She thought, in the distance, she could even see some of the taller buildings of Eric's kingdom. She kept scanning for the scorched earth that the ship had left while skidding to a stop after its unimaginable journey through space at speeds she might never comprehend.
She noticed, then, that Desmond's boots were sinking ankle-deep in the sand. She puzzled at this for a moment before she felt as though she had fallen off a cliff. She couldn't suppress a yelp of surprise -- even panic -- as the earth itself swallowed her up, and she found herself chest-deep in quicksand.
"Unh -- help!" she cried.
Desmond turned and, noting that he himself was ankle-deep in the stuff, backed out onto dry land, searching for a long enough branch to reach Ariel. "Hold still," he called. "Don't struggle. Just put your arms out and let yourself float."
Ariel heard him, but unconsciously, she wagged her feet back and forth as though she still had a tail and was immersed in water. Before realizing what she was doing, she had sunk up to her neck.
Seeing her plight, Desmond gave up on the branch and knelt in the shallow part of the quicksand. Balancing carefully on both knees and one hand, he reached out with his other hand as far as he could.
"Grab my hand," he said.
Ariel reached, grunting and stretching as far as she could, unconsciously wriggling her legs and immersing herself still farther. "I -- unh -- I can't!"
Desmond crawled a little farther into the sand, warily, not knowing where it suddenly deepened to some unknown well of water rushing upward. "Let yourself float," he said. "Reach for my hand."
Ariel tried to float, but every time she tried, she only succeeded in sinking farther. Her red hair spread around her head as her neck settled deeper; her eyes were wide with terror. No matter how hard she strained to reach, she just couldn't touch Desmond's hand.
Desmond inched still farther -- and for a moment, just a moment, he grazed the tips of Ariel's fingers. "That's it! Almost! Reach!" But he could already see it was hopeless.
Sand filled Ariel's ears -- she could barely hear Desmond's entreaties. Her self-control was fleeing, and she was struggling to surface herself. As she sunk deeper, she desperately craned her neck above the sand. She felt the sand seeping over her cheeks, and she suddenly drank in the morning light, the dew on the trees, the purple sky. Momentarily forgetting her desperate situation, she basked in the beauty and wonder of this amazing world of which she was so tiny a part. Peace and panic hit her at once. She sobbed a mournful cry and, as her face slid under, knowingly gasped her last breath.
Desmond's arm went limp as he watched Ariel's face disappear, followed by a thick wisp of fiery red hair. It was hard to watch, yet somehow he couldn't tear his eyes away, as her grasping hand sank after her -- was it his imagination, or was there actually a sucking sound as her hand gulped under?
Then there was nothing -- nothing save a flat expanse of undisturbed sand.
Ariel would never again sing. She would never again cheerfully call "Good morning!" Her lovely face would be seen no more. Her musical laughter would never again make the birds sigh in pleasure, nor would the lives of animals in need be brightened by her quick smile and helping hand. No more would her soulful eyes gaze at whatever world existed far above her and beyond her reach, and never would her outstretched hand touch the next world she craved. Ariel was gone.
Desmond exhaled deeply, then crawled his way out of the mush and onto harder soil. He sat, brushing sand off his uniform, wondering if he should detour back to the palace and tell Eric -- but how could he tell him? What would he say? Maybe it was better for Eric to think that Ariel had flown off into outer space and a new life of fun and adventure, never to return.
Besides, he thought, I lost her. I failed to save her. How can I tell her husband that? If that makes me a coward, so be it.
He stood, brushed more of the stubborn sand from his uniform pants, and turned to head back to the ship --
There it was, a few yards away. He could see the blue and red stripes on its white hull. They had almost made it.
He looked back at the innocent-looking white sand. What a stupid way for someone like Ariel to die! And so young, so ready to fulfill her dreams. . . .
But that was the way life was. Cruel, harsh, uncaring. And yet -- somehow poetic. This majestic creature who had risen from the depths of the earth had been absorbed back into the earth. What kind of lesson could a person learn from that?
He picked up the muon catalyzer, which this whole time had droned on with its maddening "DOW dow dow do doo doo," a sound he would forever equate with this terrible moment when, faced with a miracle, he had lost it.
Well, Ariel was dead, and no self-recrimination could bring her back. But he would find the Icarus and the Starfire, or he would return to Earth of his own time. Ariel's story would be told, and whether he passed her memory on in stories or founded a new world in her name, her life would not have passed in and out of the universe without notice.
And so ended the adventures of The Little Mermaid.