The warmth of the afternoon sun had been carried into the cavernous room by the almost imperceptible breeze, keeping the air both fresh and comfortable as well as dispelling some of the jarring presence of the complex machinery that filled a large portion of the space. But the relative clemency of the surroundings seemed to have no effect on Mischa Brasi, who simply pulled the edges of her silk dressing gown ever tighter around her body as though she were afraid of catching her death without its protection.
The woman’s trepidation was nothing unusual in the eyes of the small group of scientist and technicians who fussed around the equipment, making the final checks before the process could begin. Every one of them knew full well just what thoughts of fear and trepidation were going through her mind and the reality of her role in what they were about to do. For the most part they tried to keep their eyes on their work and away from her, fearing they might add to her sense of apprehension were she to catch them giving her a sympathetic glance.
None of them felt Mischa’s anxiety more then Noa Blackwell as she steered herself into the room in the wheelchair that she had grown accustomed to using over the past months. After all, she had gone through the experience herself and the reality of matter conversion was nothing to be taken lightly.
In her previous life, Noa might have seen the other woman as nothing more than a shallow clothes horse paid to look pretty and keep her mouth shut. But her own life-changing transformation at the hands of the machine into which Mischa was about to climb had taught her to look deeper into others and find the closest thing to their true character as she was able.
Noa was under no illusions that this professional model was hiding the brains of a genius inside her pretty head, but the conversations between them led her to think that the other woman was very much oppressed by the expectations that her looks placed upon her. In fact, Noa was sure that there was not a single person Mischa thought of as a friend or confidant among the contingent of bodies that had become known to her colleagues as “their people”.
It had been the way in which Mischa’s face lit up for the first time when she realised who Noa was that the less statuesque of the two had decided that she would try her best to befriend and support the other. Many people had come face to face with the petite woman who had allowed herself to be turned into the world’s first living and breathing mermaid as she promoted the public image of Matter Dynamics. But none of the adult she had met reacted in the same way as most of the children; save for Mischa.
The expression of pure and simple enchantment that had spread across Mischa’s textbook perfect features had taken Noa totally off guard at the time. The other woman made no show of embarrassment whatsoever at being ecstatic to be in the presence of a real live mermaid. Noa found that she could not resist lifting the hem of the heavy blanket that she used to cover her tail in circumstances when professionalism trumped the need to flash her scales and treating Mischa to a quick flick of her fins.
From that point on there had been nothing but distain from Noa for the way in which the people who were financing their latest project behaved towards Mischa. The formidable presence of the assertive mermaid had become her own private champion in the course of things.
“Look at those arseholes,” Noa almost ran her wheelchair into the legs of Callum Watson as she paid more attention to the men gingerly unloading a large shipping crate than they did to Mischa. “If they’re not gawping at her body then she might as well not exist as far as they’re concerned.”
“Well,” he deftly stepped out of her path, “telling me is going to do you no good at all as they seem to pay less attention to what I tell them with every word that comes out of my mouth. Maybe if I had a pair of tits instead of a face it’d be a different story?”
“We could replace Mischa’s with your face while we’re at it,” Noa succumbed to his efforts at defusing her anger, “that way they might both be able to make yourselves heard.”
“I think the root of their negligence today,” Callum shook his head, “and don’t think that I condone this attitude one bit, is based on the fact that their boss has impressed upon them the fact that there are thousands of models in the world. But there’s only one of those.”
The contents of the crate were just becoming visible as Noa followed Callum’s gaze across the room. She could have sworn that none of the men whose gloved hands were nervously touching the carved wood beneath antique gold leaf had taken a single breath since starting the job, such was their concentration. Their faces showed frayed nerves and barely suppressed frustration as they tried with all their might to ensure that no harm came to the priceless musical instrument.
Almost as tall as a man, the harp was an imposing thing that seemed to have a personality all of its own. Noa was a scientist and not regularly given to flights of fancy, but still she could not escape the feeling that the elaborate patterns into which the wood of the harp’s frame had been shaped somehow lent it a depth that went beyond its status as an antique. It was as though the thing crouched where it was placed rather than simply standing idle, daring anyone to approach it and try to pluck its strings.
The sight of the singular instrument only served to make Noa more concerned than ever for the fate of Mischa after the process was complete. The rational part of her mind was fully aware of what was supposed to happen once the other woman entered the machine and, she was involved in the minutiae of the planning on every possible level. It was on an emotional level that her concern was building and as such there was no way to rationalise or silence her fears.
When it had been her own turn to undergo the process, Noa recalled, at least she had been able to find some comfort in the fact that she was to be melded with animate matter. There had been something to cling to in that despite the alien nature of the experience, perhaps the fact that there was some distant kinship between the stuff of her body and that of the creature she had become one with.
Mischa would be a different case; she would be broken down to a collection of molecules and then bonded to those of an inert and ostensibly dead object. The science was sound and Callum had demonstrated to her on more than one occasion the fact that their control over the process would ensure that the result was a fully living, breathing form of life. But she could not shake the feeling that elements of the transformation were beyond his ability to understand.
After all, there were still changes that had taken place in her own nature that she had chosen for one reason or another to conceal from her colleagues. The gills beneath her arms and the fact that she had swapped warm blood for cold were only the surface as far as her own new nature was concerned. So far she had been able to keep the midnight swimming, cravings for seafood and other less innocent needs secret, but there was always the possibility of them being discovered.
Noa watched as the men began to move the harp once more, perhaps this time with even greater care, into one of the large metal pods which formed a significant portion of the equipment in the room. She glanced over to the left of the pod where its identical twin stood no more than ten feet away.
Mischa had, by some odd coincidence, moved closer to the pod on the left as she stole a nervous glance at the harp. Noa was struck by the proximity she had unknowingly assumed to the apparatus she would soon be required to enter.
The third and final pod from which the result of the process would emerge stood in front of the first two so that they formed a rough triangle. No one seemed to be paying any attention to that pod apart from the technicians running their final checks.
All too soon she saw that the harp was in place and the checks were complete.
“Okay,” Callum raised his voice to be heard over the various noises filling the room, “that’s everything ready. Assume positions and prepare to power up the systems.”
Noa glanced at Mischa, suddenly realising that she had missed any chance of a final few moments of conversation, kicking herself mentally at the time she had spent complaining instead of sharing positive words with the other woman.
Mischa caught her gaze and managed to smile, trying and failing in one motion to assure her newest friend that she was prepared.
Both of them knew this was the point of no return.
Silently, Mischa dropped the dressing gown to the floor and stepped into the pod.
The past year had been a blur for most of the people involved in Matter Dynamics and there had been little time to do anything more than simply trying to keep their heads above water as the fortunes of the company seemed to go from nothing to cutting edge of controversy and public opinion. Noa herself had, if the pun could be allowed, been riding the wave of publicity generated by the images and footage of a real mermaid spreading across the world in mere hours.
In some respects Callum had been right to bet on the power of such an easily recognised and iconic image for their emergence into the eye of the general public, but there had inevitably been critics as well as admirers for what they had done. Some people accused them of playing god, others of meddling with forces they could not understand; accusations that he dismissed as archaic in the case of the former and ignorant in the case of the latter.
They had answered numerous questions and had many parties show interest in their technology, but Callum had been disappointed by the fact that most of the attention they received was focussed on the fantastical possibilities of the process. He had hoped that what he saw as the true potential of their work would have been evident to what he saw as the right audience, but it had simply not worked out as he had hoped.
When their first legitimate enquiry had turned out to be based on Noa’s fantastical new form rather than some sound scientific principle, he had hidden his disappointment and thrown himself into the project as best he could.
This had come in the form of a letter from the secretary of the Austrian National Opera, which seemed at once both impressive and laden with historical authority. Callum had begun reading, half convinced the thing was a hoax, and ended it more confused than he had been when he began. The chances were that he would have forgotten the whole thing if he had not begun to receive a string of emails and phone calls from the same man. During these conversations a bridge between a Scott rooted in the world of particle physics and an Austrian in the world of classical music eventually managed to find a means of communication and from there things began to move apace.
At their first meeting in person, Mr Gupter – which was the name of the Austrian in question- confounded their expectations of a small and neat man in a suit by turning out to be a towering giant in perhaps the most crumpled and abused suit of clothes either of them had seen in years. He filled the room with his person and the air with his personality, expounding on the brilliance of what they had achieved while at the same time admitting with no hint of shame that he did not understand a fragment of it himself.
After he had devoured a number of sandwiches and more than half a dozen cups of coffee all the while calling Noa’s tail a wonder of the modern world, Mr Gupter finally got around to explaining just what it was that his employers were proposing.
“It happened recently,” he began, “that a rather wealthy and in my own opinion rather vulgar citizen of Vienna died without legal heirs, having years before written his own family out of his Will in an act of spite. It seems that apart from acquiring material possessions, the only thing that the man found any pleasure in was the music of Mozart. In his lifetime he hoarded anything and everything that he could lay his hands upon that was either an artefact of or had a relation to the great composer. Perhaps he relished the idea of being the sole owner of such things, but as his death approached he stipulated in his Will that the collection should be passed to us after his demise.”
He paused to indicate that he would like more coffee, the cup seeming tiny in his massive paw.
“In the course of things,” Gupter sipped his refilled drink with a delicacy that boggled the mind, “this man died, as thankfully all vulgar people will and the collection came into our possession. Amongst the items he had amassed, we found many things that we were most delighted to have, but the most intriguing was a fragmentary manuscript for what we believe is a previously undiscovered opera.”
He let the words hang in the air and was rather annoyed when Callum simply stared back at him.
“You uncultured sod,” Noa hissed in his ear. “That’s probably the musical equivalent of an undiscovered Shakespearian sonnet!”
“Oh, Callum tried to mend the damage by looking amazed, “what are the chances of that!”
“Very small, I can assure you,” Gupter was not in the slightest fooled and went on with an expression that registered his noting of Callum as a dullard in matters of culture but at the same time appreciated in a resigned manner his attempt to stay with the story. “Understand this was only a fragment, but with the help of the most gifted talents in the world of the opera we have managed to elaborate on that and come up with what we are sure will serve as at least a fitting tribute to the idea that the great man never had the chance to complete in his own lifetime.”
“A new opera?” Noa tried to keep Callum from making things worse.
“Yes, a new production of what we believe would have been an piece intended to sit alongside ‘The Magic Flute’ in the repertoire and in such circumstances and knowing its plot, we feel we can call it nothing apart from “The Magic Harp” for fear of appearing to think ourselves anything but paying tribute to the great man.”
“And where do we fit in?” Callum’s blunt comment almost made Gupter cringe visibly.
“Dear boy,” he placed the coffee cup down before him, “the instrument in this opera is enchanted, able to play by itself and cause mischief after being carved from a tree possessed by a dryad. I have the perfect harp and the perfect girl to play the part. I was hoping that you could bring the role to life for us?”
Mischa was aware of the fact that she had no idea of what was happening to her. No matter how many times the process had been explained in front of her and how simply Noa had tried to put it, there was just no way that her mind could hold onto the concepts involved. She was not frustrated or maddened by the fact that she was only aware of the process taking place around her in the most simple of terms, it was just another one of the things in life that seemed beyond her to grasp.
Though she had no way of knowing it, Mischa’s ability to accept her own limitations and simply get on with life in spite of them was one of the things that prevented her from being truly stupid. There were many people in her world that may have been higher up the scale as far as intelligence was concerned, but a great number made the mistake of assuming that their limitations lay far beyond what they were capable of in reality. Some might have achieved great things by stretching themselves, but more simply overreached themselves as a result.
It may have been small compensation that Mischa had never overreached herself, but it was there all the same.
When she had been asked to play the role of a harp, she had been puzzled on account of the fact that she had never even plucked one and despite her agent’s wishes, she had never tried her hand at acting.
But then they had explained, in the normal condescending manner, that they wanted her to actually be the harp. They wanted to turn her into the instrument and use her as the centrepiece of a fantastical new opera in Austria.
After they explained they meant a country in Europe rather than an island in the Southern Hemisphere, they had introduced her to Noa and told her that the process would be quick and that they could change her back afterwards.
Mischa had weighed the entire thing up as best she was able, concluding that the money seemed right and the people behind the opera seemed legitimate.
But it had been meeting the mermaid that had swayed her to say yes.
How could they do anything wrong if they had made something so pretty?
So she had trusted Noa and stepped into the booth.
Mischa had no concept of the process that took place within the booth as her body was reduced to its constituent elements. Her conscious mind was simply aware of itself at one moment and then lost in the shattering of her physical form. Her awareness returned in much the same manner as though it had never been absent.
How odd, she thought, to be deprived of sensation for such a long time and then simply to regain it once more.
As the door to the booth swung open and she felt the warm air of the evening reach her naked body, Mischa was no more aware of the unusual complexity of her thoughts than anyone else in the room.
Instead they stared at the sight of her body as the mist cleared from inside the third booth.
There was no hiding the fact that Mischa and the elaborate harp had been melded together to create an artefact of strange and compelling beauty. The largest part of the harp seemed to have remained unchanged, with its body and neck still resembling the gilded wood of which it had once been composed. But it was the elegant pillar at the front of the instrument which had borne most of the changes. Here the old lines of the harp had been merged with the curves of Mischa’s body. From the top of the pillar to the bottom of the foot, the entire thing followed the outline of the woman’s form. Her head met the front of the neck, disappearing into her hair that had been gathered into a classical Roman style. Her skin was a perfect match for the gold of the frame and her torso was naked to the waist, bearing her breasts with the curve of the pillar and revealing the loss of her arms and the rounded shoulders left in their absence. Below the waist, Mischa’s human form was lost beneath a series of ornate carvings that mirrored the original shape of the pillar, but the form had been altered to simulate the outline of her legs and the curves were a wonder to behold.
None of the men in the room noticed it, but to Noa the sight was the most important detail of all. She could see just as well as anyone else in the room that Mischa had emerged from the process alive and able to function. The golden skin of her chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm and she stood proud and erect before her admiring audience. But above all, when Noa looked at her face, she saw that Mischa was smiling.
To her that was better proof than any that the process had been a success.
Noa decided that despite the fact the architect was long dead, she still hated with a passion the man who had designed the opera house. Perhaps he own perspective on the matter was biased, but there was really no excuse she could think of for a person from the eighteenth century to have been able to predict that there might well come a day when a mermaid was required to patronise his building. Even the subtle modifications that had been made to the building in order to allow ease of use to disabled opera goers proved to be insufficient for her own particular needs and she was forced to endure hours of discomfort as they sat through the performance that night.
She was also quite disappointed to discover that she was not a fan of the whole experience either.
Noa had always liked the idea of the opera in vague way, but now that she had been forced to sit through the entirety of one she was nothing but bored by the thing.
It seemed that opera was a foreign language that a person either understood instinctively or was totally bemused by. On top of that she suspected that there was also an unspoken rule that forbade those who did from explaining even the slightest detail to those who did not.
The fact that Callum had been enraptured from the moment the performance began did not help her mood either.
In the end she resolved herself to tuning the worst of it out and concentrated on the spectacle of Mischa on the stage below.
The press attention for their latest creation had been almost totally enthusiastic and images of Mischa had dominated the front pages of newspapers from one end of Europe to the other. There had been no courting the press this time though, the star of the new opera had been kept away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi by her employers. They claimed it was to keep the mystique of the human instrument for the performance itself, but there were rumours to contradict the official story.
Noa was more inclined to believe them than most, having been there and watching as Mischa was eased into the realities of her new physical form over a period of months after the melding had taken place. Right from the start there had been something very different about the demeanour of the woman and Noa was sure that she had an insight into the reason why.
However simple and self-loathing Mischa might have been before she was transformed, that aspect of her personality was long gone. It had been replaced by a serene manner and a look of new found confidence that Noa was sure could only have come from the new influx of genetic material in the other woman’s body.
In her own case, Noa had been well aware of the fact that she was gaining genetic material from a living creature. But Mischa had been merged with dead wood, strings and gold leaf, none of which had been alive at the time. Callum had theorised that some elements of the organic materials may have had an impact on what Mischa became, though he had no cause to take into account the instrument itself in those theories.
Perhaps that was where he had gone wrong.
Although Noa was a scientist to her core, she still wondered if there was some element of the new creature Mischa had become that was down to the harp itself. Could the complex and passionate individuals who had played the harp over the years have left something of their passion and intelligence imprinted upon it? Maybe it was nothing more than Mischa’s own knowledge of the instrument manifesting itself in a personality that differed from her own, some natural trick of the mind to hive off the personality of the woman she had been from the living object she had become.
She hoped that the change in personality would benefit Mischa in the long term no matter what the explanation.
The person she really felt sorry for was the poor girl playing the princess with whom the passionate prince was supposed to be falling in love with, if the plot was to be believed. The look the man had in his eye when he was regarding the magical harp that his character was playing in order to free the princess from her incarceration was far more believable.
Maybe the rumours were true.
Maybe the harp had bagged the prince in reality after all.
Mischa remained totally still and silent as she was gently placed onto the trolley and wheeled backstage. It was a skill that had developed after her transformation and was now one that she found incredibly easy to make use of in order to speak only when and to whom she chose. The effect was uncanny and more often than not people seemed to simply accept the fact that she had fallen into some kind of inanimate trance, simply treating her as a delicate object rather than a living creature.
The contrast was that inside her own head there was seldom anything but a whole galaxy of thought, as though she had looked up at the night sky and for the first time noticed the stars. She had slowly come to the realisation that her mind had become sharper and more focussed in the days after her emergence from the matter conversion device and she found that she was very happy with the results.
The simple fact that she casually used and comprehended the terminology of the process was all the proof she needed.
When she had first come to terms with the realities of her new form, she had been shocked at the loss of her arms and the fact that she was in essence rooted to the spot. But once her mind had begun to come alive, it was as though she had remembered a whole new set of limbs forgotten and left to wither in the past.
At first she had been filled with a sense of outrage that she kept to herself when the subject of her being played had come up in conversation. The idea was enough to make her compare her situation to an animal kept for its milk or meat and she bristled at the idea of hands touching her in such a way. But her attitude had changed when she was given a series of films to watch in which harps were played to produce the most haunting and beautiful music.
Mischa found that she somehow understood the language of the music, as though it were as natural to her as speaking to another human being. Soon she recognised the same forms on sheet music and found herself jumping ahead, able to predict the course the music would take. But no matter how many different performances she watched, there always seemed to be something wrong to her ear that no one else could perceive. The sound of no other harp truly sounded good enough.
It came as a shock for her to realise that the source of the sensation was jealousy.
Mischa realised that she had been biased against the sound that the other harps produced because deep down she believed that she was capable of better. On top of that, she became aware that a large element of her jealousy was also rooted in the fact that she resented seeing other harps played when she herself had been sitting idle all this time.
The battle between her outrage at being played like an object and the desire to produce music was settled when she was introduced to the man who, she was told, would be performing with her when the opera reached the stage. Her minders struggled with the definition of her relationship to the man in question, who would in effect be playing her. The term seemed to belittle her too much in their eyes and they danced around the subject like those embarrassed to look a person with a disability in the eye.
His name was Laslo, and he was very different to the men Mischa had known in the past.
She had been shown footage of a striding man with a storm of dark hair that dominated the stage with his presence. Actually meeting the quiet and nervous man in person was a stark contrast to what she had been expecting. They had told her he had been a prodigy, raised on music and song with a talent for both that made him prized in the world of classical music. He was young, not unattractive and seen as one of the greatest of his generation, but for some reason he sat in front of her looking as though he was terrified.
Once they were left alone, Mischa had a realisation almost as surprising as her own jealousy.
She saw for the first time that Laslo was terrified of her.
His eyes were only fixed upon her for a few seconds before they would dart away and a look of terrible guilt would come over his features.
Mischa had never been forced to coax another human being into communicating with her, but she tried as best she could.
“Laslo?” her voice was as quiet as she could make it.
“Yes,” he still refused to look at her.
“Do I scare you that much?”
“What?” he sounded genuinely surprised and turned to look her in the eye for the first time.
“Am I so hideous that you can’t even look at me?”
Mischa had feared that a person so devoted to the world of classical music and the culture it belonged to would be able to see her as nothing short of an abomination; she was becoming convinced that she had been right.
“God,” he shook his head, “good god no.”
“You have to forgive me,” Laslo stood and forced himself to hold her gaze. “I’m not sure how I am supposed to behave in your company.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I was presented with a beautiful woman, I would compliment her. If it was an exquisite instrument I would ask to play it,” his words were forced out in a tumble of nerves. “When I am presented with what seems to be both…I am at a loss as to which is appropriate and which would be improper.”
Mischa was lost for words.
She had absorbed enough of the type of language those in Laslo’s world used to be able to know that he was, in his own way, trying to say that he found her both stunningly beautiful and totally beguiling at the same time. Even before the transformation, she had been used to people treating her as an object and afterwards they had simply continued that habit once more.
No one had stood in awe of her the way this man was.
“You could always start by getting to know me,” she smiled, “and take it from there.”
From there their relationship had grown rapidly, with Laslo easing her through the experience of being played a step at a time. At first the sensation of another person plucking her strings had been strange, but he was gentle and allowed things to progress at a pace she was comfortable with. Soon she came to love the act of producing music and delight in the feeling of what his hands could do when they came into contact with her strings.
He told her all he knew about the history of the harp and filled her head with tales of the instrument and the place it had occupied for thousands of years of human history. In turn she shared all that she felt able to about her own life and the changes that the process had wrought in her while he listened, fascinated to be the first man in history to actually know his instrument and understand her feelings.
The first time he kissed her came almost as an accident, his hand brushing her naked breast as he passed one evening. She gasped at the unexpected sensation and he glanced down to see where his hand had come to rest. For a moment he remained still, feeling the strange combination of warmth and weight through the golden skin before gently pulling his fingers away.
It was as if in that moment they had both been reminded of the fact that Mischa was not simply some clever automaton that moved and spoke thanks to the winding of a key.
He stepped forwards and pressed his lips to her own, holding her head in his hands.
From that moment on they had been as close to lovers as they were able, the playing bringing them together more and more with every day that passed.
On this night, like so many before, Mischa remained as still as a statue until she heard the door of the dressing room open and was sure it was him entering. Only then did she come alive for the precious few hours they enjoyed every night.
It amused her to think how close to a fairy tale their lives had become. She was the woman who had been turned into a magical instrument and cursed to remain an object until the spell was broken and he was the man who had vowed to wait for her to become human again. They counted down the days until her contract was due to expire and they could be together finally as equals.
But until then there was the music and they plucking of the strings into the small hours of the morning.