PART 14 - THE MERMAIDS OF NOBIKINI ATOLL
About five hundred feet below a tiny, irregular ring of islands and reefs sheltering a shallow lagoon came into view as the plane wheeled in a lazy arc over it's destination. The whole atoll was less than ten acres across, with most of the islands forming the ragged, southwest facing 'C' -- either rocky piles of detritus and broken coral, or low, sandy spits. The rocky islands held an occasional tenacious palm tree or shrub, while the larger of the sandy ones had a soft brownish green down of dune grass at their heart. The two largest islands were big enough to support a lush growth of palm trees and other tropical plants atop long, low hills. The only sign of sentient life on the island pair was a couple of structures built on a sandy land bridge between the islands under a stand of coconut palms. There were two grass-roofed huts on stilts, and a small shed at the end of a low pier extending out into the lagoon. A couple of canoes and a rowboat sat on the beach, well beyond the high tide mark of wet sand running up from the gently lapping waves at the water's edge.
Beneath the crystal-clear waters of the turquoise lagoon was an expanse of coral reefs, a mottled underwater jungle of gently waving greens, browns, teals, and tans as lush as the forests on the two larger islands; a lace curtain of sparkling, reflected late morning sunlight draped across it.
The rabbit doe nudged her companion, letting out a low whistle. "We've landed, darlin'. Y'all can open yer eyes now. Y'all shouldn't miss this."
Reluctantly, the feline turned her head and allowed her eyes to open a crack, which then widened fully open as a gasp escaped her throat.
As the plane taxied forward into the sheltered lagoon, a wonderland of
colorful shapes flowed by beneath the picture window in the floor.
Undulating folds, sheets, and tendrils of coral, in luminous shades of
blue and green, globular sponges of greenish gold and rusty-orange, sea
anemones in livid reds, violets, and pinks, and among them a teeming
rainbow of tropical fish darting frantically in the wake of the plane.
For a moment, the cat and rabbit adventuresses forgot everything, and
lost themselves in the riot of natural beauty that drifted past the
windows in a dreamlike procession. They were so caught up in the
moment, that the appearance of a figure swimming among the drifting
fronds almost didn't register. It was only when she rolled over and
smiled up at them with merrily glittering, almond shaped eyes that they
reared back in amazement.
She was at once lithe and curvaceous, with pale eggshell colored fur from her waist upward, a scattering of black patches and spots across the supple back and on the tips of her long, trailing ears. A silky fountain of black hair flowed from her head, floating like a cloud when she paused, trailing like a flag when she darted forward with beats of the ruddy fish tail that extended down from her waist and terminated in a flat, amber colored tail. Her only adornment was a girdle like belt that sparkled with sequins around her waist.
Her smile spread wider, revealing a delicate set of chisel teeth, as she swam up to directly below the window, pressing her palms and other parts of her anatomy flat against the glass as her hair drifted and pooled in swirls around her shoulders and ears. She gave the occupants of the plane a wink, before blowing a kiss and darting away with a thrash of her tail.
The feline stared over at the doe who was still strapped in next to her. "Holy mackerel!"
The rabbit returned her dumbfounded look twofold. "H-holy m-m-mackerel is right! Did... did y'all see that?"
The Jane strapped in on the other side looked down at her double in consternation, reaching out to nudge her with a stockinged foot. "Hey, git on up offa th' floor, y'idjit. Y'all're blockin' th' view."
The sprawled rabbit gave a start and looked up at her duplicates and Dorothy with an abashed look on her face, blushing in embarrassment with her ears drooping. Reluctantly, she rose and sat next to the one opposite Jane and Dorothy, vanishing into thin air. The remaining doe drew in a breath and stared down at the reefs below, her blush mirrored in the face of the double sitting next to her feline companion. "I… I think I'm in love..."
Dorothy blinked, shaking her head to recover her wits. As a blush crossed her own faintly striped features, she ignored her smitten cohort and used her uncanny vision to peer through the fuselage of the plane, seeking among the crags and crannies of the reef for the creature that had just crossed their path.
The creature took the hose, blowing out a stream of bubbles and placing the brass fixture at the end to her mouth for a moment, before closing the valve and handing it back to the otter with a nod. With that, she executed a complex turn, bunching her red tail up to her chest like knees folding and kicked rapidly away from her cohort. The otter set the hose in a niche in the rocks and swam after the pale furred creature with powerful strokes of her web feet and hands, her own tapered tail trailing sinuously behind her. The dark furred female stopped a short distance away and treaded water, a watchful expression on her broad muzzled face, as the mermaid made another pass below the boat.
The feline couldn't help but smile, as the mystification of their initial encounter gave way to admiration for the ingenuity of the two girls who sat up front guiding their sea plane up to the pier. She glanced up at Jane with a faint, wry grin. It was probably a good thing the mermaid was just a mortal, judging from the look on her cohort's face as the smiling creature made her second pass.
Her ice blue eyes sparkled merrily as she grinned across at her companion. "I didn't think rabbits liked seafood, Miss Early. Or is there another reason you're drooling?"
The tan furred doe blushed hotter and looked away, crossing her legs and clearing her throat self consciously. The duplicate sitting next to her gave her a scathing look. "So I guess y'all're back t'yer usual smart mouthed self now that we're back on th' ground... er... water..."
Dorothy shifted in her harness and gave her a weary look. "I'm okay for now. I'll be glad to get my feet on solid ground for a little while." She gave her cohort a wink as a twinkle came to her ice blue eyes. "And I think our new friend down there will be too once her performance is over. She's as terrestrial as you or me under that rubber tail."
They turned at the sound of Gwen's voice from the cockpit doorway. The vixen leaned on the door frame with a disappointed look on her face. "Aw, how'd you guess?"
Dorothy gave her a wry smile, pointing at one of her luminous irises. "I peeked."
The female pilot cocked an eyebrow as she stepped up to the doorway to open it. "You peeked?"
The feline gave her a shrug, her eyes glittering. "I can see through solid objects. For example, you're wearing a dark green and white bathing suit with a laced 'sous la queue' style back under your coveralls right now."
Gwen's back stiffened, and she self consciously shielded the root of her tail with her hands as a blush spread across her face. Loretta stepped through the cockpit door with a quizzical expression on her face, her dark mask made lopsided by a raised eyebrow as she stared at her feline passenger. "If you can do that why did you need to charter a glass bottomed plane?"
Dorothy looked at her matter of factly as the raccoon stepped up to help her unbuckle her harness. "I'll answer that with a question of my own. If you and Gwen were looking for a runway in the dark, would you rather do it through clouds or through clear skies?"
The raccoon nodded sagely as she helped the feline to her feet. "Makes sense." A solicitous look crossed her masked features. "You feelin' better? I hope the catnip helped."
The tabby flicked an ear as twin snorts broke out from the identical
tan rabbit does unbuckling their harnesses beside and across from her.
She flashed them a glare and then gave the raccoon a gracious smile.
"Oh, it definitely helped. At the very least I got a little sleep."
Loretta nodded and crouched down to pick it up from the floor,
pocketing it. "Good. It'll be up front in the cockpit if you need it
Jane stepped across the cabin and recombined with her duplicate, and stretched, snapping her suspenders against her chest with her thumbs. She looked at the raccoon with her brow knit in thought. "Any way y'all can cut that stuff back a l'il. We need Dorothy relaxed, not loopin' th' loop."
Loretta stroked her chin thoughtfully. "I dunno, maybe Nolakeli might. She knows a little about herbal medicine."
The feline cocked her head. "Nolakeli?"
At that, the door opened behind them, and Gwen spoke up. "Yeah, come on. We'll introduce you to the mermaids."
The vixen was shorter than Gwen, with ruddier, almost chestnut-colored fur and dark hair, and might possibly have edged the Sylvanian vixen out in terms of how well she could fill out two halves of a coconut shell. Her otter companion was slender and moved with natural grace, with a sleek olive grey pelt and golden underbelly, her long, straight dark hair hanging down to the small of her back. Each had several more leis looped over one of their arms, made with real flowers in white and rich, jewel like reds, purples, and blues.
After they'd laid the leis on the newcomer's shoulders, the native vixen glanced past them to the plane's hatch, an expectant look on her face which soon changed to one of disappointment. She turned to Gwen and spoke in Spontoonie, nodding at Dorothy and Jane and then pointing at the airplane. The mellow orange furred vixen shrugged, and replied, her speech as fluent to the feline and rabbit's ears as if she was a native herself.
The vulpine pilot then turned to the otter, and spoke to her in the same lyrical tongue, waving toward the far end of one of the forested hills of the northernmost large island. The slender female nodded gravely, plucking the flower from her hair and handing it to her, then turned, untying her grass skirt and dropping it with a rustle to the planks of the dock, revealing a scant loincloth beneath. She casually stepped up to the edge and slipped into the water, vanishing under the barest ripple in the water.
Loretta turned to the cat and rabbit and indicated the curvaceous native vixen. "This is Kaleia, daughter of Kamamela. We just sent Nolakeli to get her cousin Malakeli and Miss Junko from the 'Mermaid's Cave'."
Gwen nodded and turned, introducing the Jane and Dorothy to the vixen, who developed a dubious expression on her face as she looked them over. The sandy haired vixen let out a chuckle and shook her head, explaining something to her kindred, leaving both newcomers wondering what they might be saying about them.
Loretta noted their discomfort and leaned over to explain with an uncomfortable expression on her face. "Kaleia's... um... wondering if you two are... um... dating or something."
Dorothy's eyes flared indignantly as a blush spread across her faintly striped features. "What is it with the natives out here? What's so darn unusual about two females traveling together that everybody assumes we must be lesb..."
Gwen self consciously cleared her throat and cut her off, blushing a little herself. "Uh... That impression might be my fault, actually. It's 'cause of the blue flag."
The feline planted her hands on her hips in exasperation. "All right, you're going to explain to us what exactly this blue flag thing is right now."
Loretta cast a dark glare at her cohort. "It's another one of my esteemed partner's crazy ideas."
Gwen rounded on her. "Well you rigged it up."
The raccoon crossed her arms in front of her. "I only rigged up the deployment system. You came up with what they meant."
Jane adjusted the bill of her cap and pursed her lips. "So whut all do they mean, gals?"
Gwen slumped her shoulders in a sigh. She pointed toward the seaplane's
tail. "See that banner hanging off the back of the plane?"
Jane and Dorothy turned, and saw a length of blue canvas trailing from a slot at the tip of the plane's tail and down into the water. The feline crossed her arms and nodded.
The vixen continued, fidgeting and blushing. "Well, the mermaids watch for the flag when they hear us coming. We've got a special code, see, and depending on what color the flag is, that's what sort of tourists they should be expecting."
The brown-furred tabby flicked her tail impatiently. "And..."
Gwen let out a sigh, looking sheepishly over at her partner's stern glare. "W-well. A white flag means the mermaids better have their seashell pasties on and the native girls need to wear their coconut halves." She cleared her throat and dug her toe on the dock. "Blue flag tours, well, it's okay if they leave 'em at home. In fact, it's encouraged..."
She winced as Jane broke out in uproarious laughter while a hot blush spread across Dorothy's features.
Loretta looked hopefully at their customers and wrung her hands. "I... I hope you're not mad about it. It was just a little joke on Gwen's part."
The feline noticed an agitated flicking from the raccoon's bisected tail that belied her expression. She cleared her throat uncertainly, her ears canted slightly back at her discomfort. "Oh, I'm not really angry as much as... Well... I guess I'm just shocked that two nice young ladies like yourselves would be running... um... that kind of show out here."
Loretta sighed and gave a weary shrug. "Well, nice young ladies like Gwen and me need to make our heavily leveraged loan payments on time and maintain a very expensive seaplane -- So there you are."
After catching her breath and wiping away a tear, Jane rolled her eyes and cast a wry look over at her feline cohort. "Aw, quit bein' such a Noreaston bluenose, Dorothy. 't'ain't no harm in takin' in th' beauties o' nature, long as th' gals showin' it off don't mind."
The tabby cast a mildly reproachful glare at Jane while Gwen let out a chuckle. "They don't. In fact it took more persuading to get 'em to keep their tops on for the white flag tours."
Loretta pursed her lips and sardonically jerked her head toward her partner. "Yeah, and it doesn't help that our translator here doesn't lead by example half the time..."
The vixen shrugged. "Hey, fair's fair. I'd never ask my employees to do anything I wouldn't do myself."
The raccoon let out an exasperated breath as Jane gave her and Gwen a grin. "Well gals, far as I'm concerned I didn't mind th' show at all. In fact seein' that purty l'il fish do her act durn near made my whole dang year."
A look of relief changed rapidly to discomfort on the two young partner's faces as the meaning of the rabbit doe's words sunk in. Gwen cleared her throat anxiously. "So, uh... does that mean you're... uh..."
Jane gave them a wink and shrugged. "Lets jest say I can bat with either hand." She ran a finger up one of her long ears. "But I ain't innerested if'n th' tail ain't a hundred percent cotton, so don't y'all worry none. Y'all're safe."
Dorothy crossed her arms in front of her and rolled her eyes in return.
Gwen tentatively cleared her throat, and turned to Kaleia, rapidly
repeating what had been said. The chestnut furred vixen shrugged, and
gave a breezy reply. She then nodded past them at the plane again. Her
orange furred employer gave a brief reply, and the native she fox
nodded, and headed down the pier toward the huts.
Gwen turned to her passengers to translate. "She wanted to know if she could help unload the plane. I told her we'd wait until we'd met with the other girls and explained the situation. She's gone back to get lunch started."
Loretta nodded, gesturing down the dock. "If you ladies would like to accompany us, we should get out of the sun before it gets too hot."
With a shared nod, the four females set out toward the huts.
Following on a ways behind them, her pale furred legs gleaming in the sun, came the nubile rabbit doe, her rounded hips swaying as she walked. She wore a short sleeved, pinstriped baseball jersey that she was still buttoning up with delicate hands, giving glimpses of the curves beneath, and her lustrous black hair was bound loosely around a set of bamboo chopsticks behind her head.
Jane Early stopped in her tracks and stared, cocking an ear as her jaw dropped.
As Dorothy paused at her side, she heard her lapine companion utter a low whisper. "Daaang. Now I KNOW I'm in love..."
The dark furred otter gave a curtsey and flashed a bright toothed smile. "A pleasure to meet you, it is."
Gwen indicated the other otter female, who hovered a bit behind Malakeli. "And this is Nolakeli. She's Malakeli's cousin."
The other girl curseyed, and said something in a dialect that resembled the language spoken on Spontoon and the vixen nodded and replied. Gwen turned to Dorothy and Jane with an apologetic look on her face. "I'm afraid she doesn't speak any Westcommon. They're both from Pipikaula Island, which is about an hour from here to the West by canoe."
She turned back and switched into Spontoonie once more, introducing the
two newcomers. Both otters nodded, and exchanged a few words and
glances, until Malakeli ended the conversation with a statement to her
cousin that was clearly an order, jerking her head toward a fire pit
over next to one of the huts, where Kaleia was crouched by a plank laid
on the sand, folding broad ti-leaves
around something she spooned from a couple of nearby bowls. The vixen
had changed from her grass skirt into a sarong, which struck Dorothy as
a good idea when working so close to a bed of hot coals. The slender
otter nodded to her cousin and hurried over to lend a hand with the
Gwen beckoned the pale-furred rabbit, who'd been hovering back some distance behind the otter girls. As she stepped forward, she gave a shy smile and bowed, lowering her long ears down over her shoulders.
The mellow orange furred vixen gave a bow in return and turned to Dorothy and Jane. "This is Umedaiko Junko. She was a pearl diver in Kokoro."
At this Malakeli interjected. "The best swimmer among us, she is." She
glanced over to the fire pit, where her cousin and the native vixen
were laying the bundles of leaves on the coals, and then leaned
forward, holding a webbed hand up beside her broad muzzle to shield her
words. "Not Kaleia-dear or Nolakeli-dear to tell this Malakeli said.
Tail proud they are."
She turned and said something in her native tongue to the pale-furred doe, and Junko responded by blushing and bowing demurely. Jane nervously cleared her throat and spoke to her. "So... so uh... Y'all a baseball fan, d-darlin'?"
The usagi's almond eyes brightened as a smile came to her face and she gave a little hop on her heels. "Ah. Hai! Baisuboru!"
As soon as the words had passed Junko's delicate chisel teeth, Jane blushed to the tips of her ears, and kicked up a little puff of sand as her right foot started tapping rapidly on the ground. Dorothy's sidelong glance noted that her cohort's cotton tail was vibrating like it was plugged into a wall socket.
Jane laid a controlling hand on her thigh, swallowed hard and shook her head to clear it, and stammered out another question. "Uh... so who d'y'all root fer? Y'all follow th' Akabeni Giants, maybe? That's their logo on yer shirt thar, ain't it?"
Junko's expression became anxious, and her ears drooped as she glanced
at Gwen uncomfortably and spoke in halting Spontoonie.
The vixen turned to Jane with a sigh. "I'm afraid 'baseball' is one of the few words in Westcommon she knows, Miss Early. She doesn't speak that much Spontoonie either."
Junko spoke up in a low voice, bowing repeatedly. "Gomen ne. Gomen. Gomen."
Gwen gave the blushing usagi
a sympathetic look. "From the best we can tell, the poor dear was hired
by a bunch of treasure hunters, but got stranded in the Spontoons with
nothing but her tail and the tale, as the sailors say, when their boat
went down in a storm."
Loretta nodded ruefully. "She was eking out a living shelling
sellfish... uh... selling shellfish from the reefs when we hired her."
Jane took a deep breath, and spoke to the doe carefully in Usagineko, each word pronounced as if she were using them to build a house of cards. Junko cocked an ear, and when Jane had finished her expression brightened, and she gave one final bow and shielded her smile behind a delicate hand, suppressing a soft chuckle.
At the others' questioning glance, the tan-furred doe stammered an explanation. "I... uh... I told her it was okay." A pained look crossed her face. "Or else I said she'd scored a hit to her foe's midsection. I... uh... I only know enough Usagineko t' git into fights, or officiate 'em..."
Dorothy smiled to herself knowingly and murmured. "I'd say she scored a
hit a bit higher... or perhaps lower, didn't she Miss Early?"
The tan-furred rabbit twitched an ear and cast her a glare.
Gwen cleared her throat and broke the ensuing awkward silence. "Well!
Lets all go in and get comfortable. The girls will have lunch ready for
us in a few minutes."