Prompted by a mysterious advert, a pair of mermaids travel to a cave that promises to make people better in every way.

Nerine struggled to keep up with Océane as they swam through the field of neon purple seaweed. Every mermaid at their school was jealous of Océane’s speed and agility. Nerine knew Océane’s vigorous training regiment that she put herself through and honestly didn’t mind trailing behind her best friend. As Océane continuously pushed herself to be better, she didn’t put that pressure on her friends, which Nerine appreciated. Nerine was tough enough on herself. 

Nerine put her hand on her networker, which her model resembled the look of a red starfish necklace. A display of holographic icons emitted out from the device. She tapped on the map icon, bringing up a 3D model of the area to figure out where Océane was taking her. No point of interest markers appeared. She sent out a call.

“Where are we going?” Nerine asked, using the networker to transmit her voice as a thought Océane heard via her networker.

“It’s probably fake,” Océane said back. Her networker had the appearance of a smiley face watch around her wrist. “There’s supposedly this cave that promises to make those who enter it better in every way.”

“But, you’re already awesome.”

“You know it,” Océane said with a playful wink. She stopped and faced Nerine for a serious talk. She unzipped a pocket on her black aquatic jacket that sported their school’s logo and pulled out a plastic flyer. “I found this floating around outside after class. This place is guaranteeing to make you better. For all I know, it’s just a drug dealer, or maybe they’re legit in bettering people. I thought with you being a journalist, this could be an interesting story.”

“This could be exciting for our school broadcast,” Nerine admitted. “I don’t get why you didn’t just tell me this upfront.”

“Cause I love whisking you away on an adventure without explanation,” Océane teased as she swam forward, putting the flyer away.

As they swam deeper, the seaweed gradually changed colors from bright neon to a sickly gray, and fish were less common. Océane slowed down, carefully swimming alongside Nerine. Their networkers brought light to the area as they approached a cave. The entrance had a metal facade resembling an immaculate jaw of wolf teeth. There was no signage like the entry was the sign. Nerine thought it was an interesting artistic choice to display strength. From the looks of it, Nerine bet the jaw could open and close too. 

“This is the place,” Océane announced, creeped out by the decor. “Think anyone is inside?”

Nerine swam forward. “Might as well find out.”

Océane caught up as Nerine activated her danger app should anything unfortunate happen. The app would send all relevant data, including location and media, to a user-determined list of contacts. Nerine used it almost every time she did an interview. The app has never saved her, but she found it reassuring to have it active.

Upon entering the cave, lines of electric neon yellow lights guided them through. The straight forward tunnel was unnatural in design with spiraling characteristics indicating the work from a drill machine twice their size. They didn’t travel far before they entered a vast, brightly lit room with metallic blue walls. 

Down below in the room, they discovered piles upon piles of flayed merpeople corpses mixed with scrap metal. Océane covered her mouth while Nerine used her networker to take pictures of the bodies. 

“This is going to be epic,” Nerine said with giddy. 

Océane felt the opposite. “Maybe we should leave and contact the protectors?”

“Don’t worry. I already activated my danger app. Let’s investigate!”

A red light focused on them, nearly blinding them. A colossal mechanical octopus – the size of a blue whale – emerged from the bodies, as the red spotlight on its head remained focused on the mermaids. Its black rubber tentacles twirled about with no pattern nor motive, but they still put the two on the defensive. Its white eyes housed in the metallic silver body were the size of Nerine and Océane. Overall, the mechanical was in pristine condition without any visual indication anyone had fought it.

“Have you come here for an upgrade?” the octopus asked with a lively, elitist tone. “I can make you swim faster and be stronger, leaving your weak flesh behind.”

“I like who I am,” Océane firmly defended.

“What she means is,” Nerine interjected, “we would like to know more about this upgrade service before we commit.”

The octopus opened its mouth, revealing an automated factory soaked in blood. “I strip the flesh that makes you weak and replace your mind with blissful logic.”

“Oh, well, as I said earlier, I’m happy with who I am, so we’ll just be leaving now.”

“Why?” Its eyes changed color to red. “When you can be better.”

The mechanical whipped out a tentacle at the mermaids. They split up, dodging the grab.

Robot Discovery - art by Janine De Guzman at Design Pickle

“Get out of here, Nerine! I’ll distract it.”

“Got it! I’ll see if we can’t lock it in.”

Nerine escaped through the tunnel while the tentacles pursued Océane. She dodged every swipe until she caused the mechanical to get tied up in a knot with two of the tentacles. With it focused on trying to undo the knot, Océane zipped out through the tunnel. The yellow tunnel lights were now dark red. Another tentacle followed.

Océane made it out of the cave.

“Océane, help me close this!” Nerine called out. She was on top of the entrance with her back against the metal jaw, trying to shut the door.

Océane swam up to help, but then the tentacle wrapped itself around her.

“Barnacles!” Océane cursed as she fought to wiggle free.

Nerine gave an extra hard push, causing the jaws to close and bite off the tentacle. It immediately loosened its grip on Océane. Nerine hugged her friend, and she hugged her back.

“Let’s get out of here,” Nerine suggested.

“Agreed. That should be the last of that.”

“I don’t think this is over yet.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You saw all those corpses. What if it did convert merpeople into mechanicals?”

Upgrade Cave - art by Janine De Guzman at Design Pickle

This week’s short story was roughly inspired by the following writing prompt: “There is a strange cave where, rumor has it, the people who go in come out better in almost every way. Deciding to investigate you walk into the cave, and soon discover piles upon piles of flayed corpses.”

I haven’t written any short stories on the Blue Planet, which is part of the Five Following Planets system. I liked how this turned out, especially the “is it over” ending. 

I feel like this story has the potential to be a young adult novel. I got a few ideas of what that story could look like and how parts connect with my universe. I’ll see what people think, but for now, thank you for reading!

UPDATE: It’s officially going to be a book. This and their other story, Temple Guardian, are part of the book.

Thank you to Janine De Guzman at Design Pickle for bringing this scene to life with both pieces of artwork!

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