Short fiction: Charismatic Megafauna
Here's a story about an aquarium starship that has seen better days, and the trouble that befalls it when its crew make some extremely reckless curation decisions. It's unabashed space opera, with exobiological oddness galore, as well as some more familiar beasts...
I’m watching fish swim round the fake easter island head - clockwise, like they always do - when the call comes in.
They’re basically fish, anyway. Eyes placed penti-fashion round a tube with a mouth at one end, an arse at the other, and fat pink frills strung in between. Torgersen (he’s the aquarist for my zone) says they’ve got more in common with ‘chinies than anything else, but to the rest of us, fish is fish. It’s not like the visiting public knows any better.
They found these ones down on New Hawaii, shoaling over flooded ruins where the continents used to be. Alien megacities, drowned and eerie. But whoever landscaped the tank didn’t have any photos of them, so they just went with Easter Island heads. Old Polynesia, via polystyrene. Lovely stuff. And the fish, like the punters, couldn’t have cared less.
That old decorator did, mind. He bloody loved himself an Easter Island head. You’ll find them, with their sullen brows and shovel chins, pouting out of what feels like half the tanks round here. I clean the glass in Zone 8 (Reefs of the Cosmos), so I spend my life having staring competitions with them through scummy glass.
Oh yeah, the call. Right.
At the time, I’m meant to be working. But truth be told, the shift’s nearly over and I’ve zoned out most of an hour back. So I’m glad when the captain comes grumbling over the address system, calling us all to the ticketing hall. Gives me an excuse to turn my back on the glowering totems and those dumb, circling fish.
It’s a long walk to ticketing, and I don’t hurry it. I walk past the cheap plywood where we’ve boarded over Zone 6 (formerly die glühendenflusswürmerzone, but empty since a heater failure four years back), and drum my fingers along the turgasaur’s tank as I walk through Zone 3 (Giants of the Mud). The poor sod’s lying against the glass again, gills flapping - getting old. He gives me an apathetic clack of those three-way jaws as I pass, but that’s it.
“You’re always teasing that thing” says Lin, making a tutting noise as she emerges from the Zone 4 junction. It’s not worth arguing, as it’s not a real accusation. Lin just says whatever pops into her head - if she sees you doing something, however mundane, she’ll describe what you’ve done and consider that her duty towards maintaining a conversation.
“That’s right” I agree, blandly. “I am always teasing the turgasaur”. One of the aquarists would have at least given me a vulgar bark at this - I’ve even tried to make it sound a bit rude - but Lin’s too dull to take the bait.
The two of us used to be the kids of the crew. Me here for my education, her because… I think she was abandoned, maybe? In any case, we were the youngest aboard, so we hung out by default. We’re still the youngest aboard; we’re just not particularly young anymore.
We stopped hanging out after the time we fucked by the threadbare mangroves in Zone 11. Neither of us really fancied each other, but it happened anyway. She thought she was cementing some sort of alliance with me, and I was bored. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t need repeating.
Now she works in the gift shop, sewing plushies of animals we haven’t had in 30 years, and selling them to zee-gee tourists when they pass through. When we do meet, like now, we pass the time reciting the things we’ve done in the last few hours, while I wonder how we ever managed to spend so much time together.
“Why do you think she’s called us in?” she asks, nervous, as we cross the concourse to get to ticketing.
“It’ll be about making more money” I say, irritated at being asked. Every single time the captain calls a meeting before a big tour, it’s about making more money.
And Thynnie - the ship - she needs it, badly. We’re three weeks out of Nazareth, one of her crucial system stops, and a chance to shore up the coffers. The plan’s to tour the belt townships first, taking on a few dozen families at each, then take a week docked with the orbital at Khalkeús. In good years we’d skip the hicks in the belt, but it’s been a damned lean patch and we need every ticket.
If it’s a bad run? Well, after the last bad run - at Bonanza - nine of us got laid off at port. I’ll likely go with the next batch if we can’t balance the books, and end up stuck with the rock-jockeys at Khalkeús. Hell, we all might end up there.
So Miss Galba (she’s the Captain) will give us the usual bollocking to boost morale, knock out some rousing stuff about clean pumps and sparkling floors, and set us to get on with it.
Only, when we get to ticketing, the mood feels different. It’s gloomy.
Gloomier than usual, I mean. It’s always gloomy in ticketing. The dusty bunting, the echoing marble, and the mural with the silhouettes of animals we barely remember the names of… it’s pretty depressing, and the watery blue light coming in from Tank One makes it properly moribund.
But today, the atmosphere is especially dour. The size of the room really shows up how few of us are left, and the tank light makes everyone look ancient as we gather in front of the big windows.
There are the aquarists, sullen and clannish, with their tattoos and their scratchy blue uniforms. Torgersen and all the rest, and Agrei the boss man. There’s Temi, his counterpart in visitor services, glowering at him over a quaking roll-up. They hate each other. Then there’s Temi’s team in their scratchy yellow shirts, the engineers with their overalls, the cleaners, the cooks and a couple of dozen others. Six score of us, for a ship the size of a comet.
And there’s the chief, Tas Galba, looking miserable as rain. We all feel quietly sorry for the captain, as she doesn’t really deserve what she’s ended up with. She had an ancestor, Pertinax Galba, who got rich supplying munitions to a Krax art-war. The story goes the Krax gave him the contract because they quite liked his name. You know the Krax, so go figure. You know the size of their wars too, so you know how rich this guy must have been. Still, he ran out of ways to spend it, so he decided he should own the largest aquarium in known space.
He bought Thynnie - the Anna Thynne, we should call her - from the Abisade Freight Company, a couple of hundred years back. She was a water tanker, back then. Pertinax got her crew spaces scrubbed up as concourses and promenades, and built glass into her freight tanks. They say the Abisade firm had in turn bought her cheap off the Teçi when they gave up on tech to go back to the sea, so she was already wired for aquaculture.
Anyway - she was a marvel. Hundreds of staff, creatures from every world people had rights to harvest, and even earth stock. Everything gleamed. For Pertinax’s daughter Fleur - Galba’s great-grandma - captaincy of the thing was an astonishing 8th birthday present. A watery world, touring the stars and drawing throngs at every stop.
Unfortunately, when Pertinax died, Fleur’s luck ran out. The Krax decided they preferred sword fights to bullet wars, the contract folded, and she lost control of much of the family business. The upkeep of the Thynne beggared most of what was left, and she settled into old age as a drunk.
These days, Thynnie is the Galba family business. There’s no wealth left but dregs, getting thicker and shallower each time Tas has to dip into them after a meagre tour. More corners get cut every year, and there’s no hiding it. The place even looks a ruin from the outside - the masonry, the beams and buttresses and gargoyles that Pertinax clad the outer hull with when he bought her, are pocked and crumbling. Last year at Phoenix, a sixty ton angel came loose when we were braking, made a hell of a light show as it hit atmosphere. Course, we were fined for that, too.
The inside looks worse. Tank One, throwing light on the lines of Miss Galba’s face as she paces in front of the windows, is in an utter state. When it opened it was a marvel - a mile-wide bite of the terran arctic, with silvery shoals, plunging seals and real ice bergs in crystal water. Visitors on the decks above could watch seabirds swoop over its surface. Now it’s just a big, cold, empty space. The water’s murky after a hundred feet, and there’s not so much as a sprat to be seen.
Tas looks up at the blue-green windows, hands stuffed in the pockets of her threadbare coat, and you can see it in her face: she’ll be the last captain of this place, and no one knows it more than her. Today though, there’s even more worry etched in her face.
“As you know, we’re three weeks from the start of the tour” she says, looking to the side of us while she talks like she always does. “Usually right now, we’d be gathered here for the usual talk about best efforts and putting on a show and all the rest. However,” she adds, “today we’ve got bigger problems. The kelp tank.”
The aquarists murmur now, and I twig this isn’t the first anyone’s heard of the problem. It doesn’t sound good. The kelp tank is one of the few big tanks on the ship, along with Tank One, that hasn’t been drained to save on fuel costs. It used to be one of the main attractions, called Monterey something or other (the Monterey system doesn’t even have any oceans, so it seems a weird choice). It used to have a bunch of earth stuff in it, but it all died apart from the kelp - so now that’s all there is. A great silent forest of the stuff, that we harvest and dry and feed to the ship’s algivores. If the kelp tank goes wrong, half the animals’ll starve.
“It’s gone wrong” says Miss Galba, and I swear. “We’ve got a massive infestation of urchins that nobody cleaned up in time - and I mean massive. Don’t know what kind. They’re carpeting the place, and they’re chewing the kelp to pieces. Half of it’s been gnawed free of the bottom, and if we don’t sort the problem in time we’re going to lose the lot.” She sighs, and turns to glare at Tank One, before looking back at us.
“There’ll be time to work out who’s cocked up and caused this once the run’s over with. For now, we just need to drop everything and clean out these urchins. And that’s before we get to tour-prep. As of first shift tomorrow, all teams are assigned to the kelp tank until this is sorted. Dive and collect, in double shifts. I don’t think I need to point out that it’s in all of your interests to get this over with quickly. That’s all”.
A huge shadow descends behind Tas, and I almost groan. It’s like our collective mood, made flesh. Lonely Beth: the only reason there’s still water in Tank One. A Bowhead whale, shipped in at incalculable expense by Pertinax Galba himself, from the polar sea on Old Ares, and still alive all these years later. With the exception of a few invertebrates, and the nemoes in my section (there’ll always be bloody nemoes), we think she’s the only earth animal left aboard.
She starts with her singing behind the algae-smeared glass, and it puts an end to the meeting. Nobody really likes being reminded of the old whale, least of all the Captain, and so we don’t linger in there.
After the meeting, I do what I usually do at shift end; I go to see Young Tom in Zone 7 (Aquifers of Dasht), for a beer. I genuinely like this exhibit - it’s made to look like underground caves, with stalactites in polystyrene, and it makes for a great drinking den. There’s an Easter Island head in there too, of course, but nowhere’s perfect. The spectre crabs, invisible except for where light catches on their glassy legs, watch us as we knock back the cold bottles.
Young Tom ain’t young. He’s about 60. He’s a cleaner like me, but he’s always wanted to be an aquarist. I think he’s the only person who hasn’t realised it’s never going to happen - out of everyone on the ship, he’s alone in not being a miserable bastard. He’s cheerful, and endlessly keen, and he’s not all there - it’s why I love spending time with him.
But tonight, he’s sweating, and nervous. He’s on his second joint before I find out why.
“It was me” he blurts, all of a sudden, like he’s surprising himself.
“What was?” I ask, stoned enough to have to try and remember his previous statement to see if it connects to this one. It doesn’t.
“The urchins” he says, leaning forward with wide eyes. “I put ‘em in the kelp tank. I didn’t mean to, mind. I was trying to help, see. They’re earth urchins and all! Not any of the alien ones, like the captain probably reckons. Earth urchins, no word of a lie. But they’re my fault and now… shit Bea, what am I going to do?”
I take the joint off him and frown as I inhale, trying to work out how to respond.
“I dunno, mate” I answer. “First off though, I’m going to need to know what the hell you’ve actually done”.
So Young Tom takes me back through a doorway cut into the fake cave wall, back into the maintenance corridors, and even further, into the hidden places of the ship. There’s hundreds of acres of this stuff - rooms and corridors and holds machine halls that’ve been closed off during the ship’s decline, or which never even got worked on. There’s even Teçi stuff, if you go deep enough.
For a moment I’m anxious this is leading up to a grim seduction attempt, but then I clock it’s probably the weed talking - Tom’s never shown an ounce of that sort of attitude. What he’s actually up to becomes clear when we clamber over a filthy old doorframe and into what looks like a bio lab run by pissheads.
There’s glass tanks everywhere, with bubblers and filters and all manner of things dashing around in them. There’s shrimps, which I’ve seen before, and some eely things that I haven’t. And floating dead in a big perspex cylinder is, I swear, a proper flying fish. I’ve got my hand over my mouth before I work out why I’m shocked - it’s all bloody earth stuff.
“I wanted to impress the aquarists” says Tom, cringing as he spots the dead fish. “I wanted to be the one what turned things round, you know? I wanted to get things breeding back here. Then,” he says, putting on what he thinks is a suave voice, ”I’d invite them back and say ‘ah, hello mr Agrei sir, welcome to my private collection, now what was that you were saying about me being barely fit to clean filters?’ Course, I’ve had a bit of a rough time with it. I thought the urchins were dead and gone, being honest, so I flushed their pool into the sump that drains to the kelp tank. Didn’t realise they’d released larvae, did I? And so when...” he trails off, as he realises I’m not paying much attention.
“Tom” I say, still staring round his chaotic little hideaway, “where the hell did you find all of this?”
“Oh, well the tanks was just lying around in aquatics, for the most part, though a few of them I...”
“Not the tanks, Tom. The animals. The fucking earth animals.”
He shows me. It’s a huge container unit, sides all frosted, with a date on the side from 170 years ago. All by itself in a cargo hold nearby. It’s got to have been some of Pertinax’s original stock, mislabelled or loaded wrong, and lost for all this time. Who knows what it’s worth. We go inside to check it out and it’s cold - way colder than even the water in Tank One. It’s radiating from stacks of what look like steel bombs, all different kinds, from acorn-sized all up to people-sized and bigger. Most are covered in ice, but Tom’s chiseled some free.
“They’re T-bombs,” he tells me, proud of his research. “Terryformers. Made ‘em during the start of the diaspora, to drop into oceans on the new worlds, get ‘em earthly. Packed with animals, fresh as the day they froze ‘em. I’ve opened a few, just the little ones, and they defrost in a second - it’s properly magic!”
“This is some mad-tech” I gasp, running my fingers along the row of bombs and brushing the ice free.
There’s words etched on the steel, all precise in italic writing, but it’s not in a language I know. No pictures either, so there’s no way to know what’s inside. I shake my head.
“You’ve got to tell the Captain about this”
“Are you kidding? After the urchins? After I’ve screwed up and killed half the things I’ve defrosted? She’ll kill me! I can’t let anyone know about this til I’ve got something to show for all my mucking about. Please don’t tell Miss Galba, Bea!”
He’s right - the captain probably will kill him when she finds out. Still, I’m pretty sure she’ll kill him all the harder if he manages to waste any more bombs by the time she does find out. I think I’d join in - it’s bloody crazy for him to be hamfistedly playing with something so precious. He might mean well, but it ain’t right. Tom’s got himself in a proper mess here, and I can only see one way out. To his credit, he suggests it first.
“Alright, alright,” he says. “I’ll hand this all over to the Captain. And I won’t let off any more of the bombs. But please, in return, will you at least help me sort out this urchin problem before I own up?”
“OK Tom” I say, and hold my head in my hands, massively regretting having shared the joint. We’re a pair of window cleaners, and we’ve got to fix an ecosystem overnight. Then I have an idea.
Half an hour later, we’ve broken into the aquarists’ station at Zone 12 (Oceans beneath the Ice), and made an incredibly reckless decision. It seemed sensible at the time, based on two things we knew - that Zone 12 adjoins the kelp tank and used to be plumbed into it, and that its main tank is full of creatures that will almost certainly eat sea urchins.
Rimecrawlers, they’re called. Massive, brown leather woodlice with beaver tails, and a mess of hooks and razors underneath. They come from Felice-Tartarus, a rock zipping around a neutron star binary, with massive winters and short, completely insane summers. And they’re on the same chemical framework as earth, too - RNA analogue, oxygen respiration, hemo-red blood chemistry and everything.
They live in a big domed tank, with fake ice at the apex, and real stone (not a moai to be seen) as a substrate. And we feed them urchins. Not earth ones, obviously, and we don’t stock any from the rimecrawlers’ homeworld either. But it turns out urchins have a hugely common body pattern, and we breed a kind from the lakes on Malacca. Most every creature on the ship that eats that sort of thing loves them - especially the rimecrawlers.
Given all this, we couldn’t believe our luck that they were housed right next to the urchin infestation, with only a closed-off pipe separating them. It seemed rude not to open it up.
And so now we’re watching them flood through into the kelp tank like a slow stampede of beige sofas, wondering what the hell we’ve done, but too far into the madness to make it worth worrying about anymore. In truth, we’re surprised how quickly they’re moving habitat. We’d turned their temperature down to try and coax them across, but it looks like they didn’t need any persuading. We don’t know whether it’s the smell of the urchins or what, but they’re getting stuck in like belt miners at a real-meat buffet.
When we see the first rimecrawlers emerge into the kelp tank and start hoovering up urchins, we can’t believe our luck. We’ve only bloody sorted out the problem. We’re going to be heroes - at least until the captain works out how the urchins got into the kelp tank to begin with. But by then, we’ll be able to reveal the T-bomb haul, and be heroes again.
I’m just beginning to worry about how deeply I’ve been sucked into Tom’s horrendous logic, when fatigue hits me instead. We’re due back at the kelp tank for second shift, so we decide to make our meddling look like a system failure, call it a night, and let the rimecrawlers get on with it.
The next morning, on the shitter with a fuzzy head, I realise what a terrible mistake we’ve made.
I’m looking through the aquarist’s manual that I keep in my cabin, since I’m curious about the rimecrawlers. But when I get to the section with their picture, I see the heading says ‘Rimecrawlers/Slasher-Jacks’. And next to the picture of the familiar, puffy bottom-feeder, there’s a picture of something I don’t recognise - something explosive and red, with jagged arms.
Then I focus, and the blood drops out of my head as I read the text. I’ll read it for you now:
At perihelion, when Felice-Tartarus sails closest to the star-pair from which it takes its name, an astonishing change takes place. Across the length of its canyon-seas, the ice melts, and vast seasonal storms wash soil from the highlands into the surface waters. Algal spores, long dormant in the ice, burst into life to take advantage of the influx of nutrients, and begin to proliferate. In just a few short days, the canyons have turned a bright pea green - but the changes have just begun. As soon as they detect chlorophyll, the rimecrawlers, after spending the long winter bulking up on the sea floor, will immediately birth the next phase of their lifecycle: the slasher-jack. Originally a parasite of the rimecrawler that would gestate inside its host through the long winter, the slasher has now achieved such a close symbiosis with its former victim that the two species share DNA; in essence, each is now a larval form of the other. One to three will emerge violently from each adult, and begin rapid predation of anything in the area. In contrast to the energy efficiency of the rimecrawler, the slasher-jack has a raging metabolism in keeping with the blistering urgency of summer on Felice-Tartarus. After consuming enough meat, each slasher will anchor itself to a rock and bud polyps, each of which will birth a parthenogenetic copy of the adult, until the photosynthetic season ends. Then, a genetic switch in the polyps will cause them to encyst, growing into rimecrawlers rather than slashers, and the cycle will continue.
I didn’t get as far as that, of course, but I thought I’d finish the paragraph in case you were interested. I get to about halfway through and start cursing, yanking my pants up as I run out of the bathroom and doing frantic mental maths. First shift will have just started, and it’s just shy of four hours since the rimecrawlers made it into the kelp tank. The book had said the change would be quick, but I wish it’d gone into specifics.
I’m just wondering over the definition of ‘immediate’, when I’m answered by the address system. It’s the captain, calling all staff to the sick bay.
As it turns out, things could have gone much worse. Bible Joe’s lost a bit of his leg, but it’ll only be a couple of weeks til he grows it back - it’ll be fine in time for the Nazareth tour.
The big problem now is the slasher-jacks. Not only are they making it impossible for anyone to get in and deal with the sea urchins, they’re a threat themselves. They’re evolved to eat and multiply as fast as possible, to clean out an entire ecosystem while it lasts. At the moment they’re laying into the urchins with gusto, but once they’re gone - and Agrei reckons it’s going to be hours, not days - they’re going to get started on the kelp.
And while the urchins are chewing the holdfasts something rotten, the slashers are going to go mad on it. What’s more, soon they’ll start multiplying. At this rate they’ll have eaten the lot and encysted by the time we reach Nazareth, and we’ll be ruined. The kelp tank’ll be barren, but for yet more rimecrawlers - hardly a crowd-pleaser of a species at the best of times - and we’ll have a massive green food shortage. We’re going to have to buy in hydroponic crops, and it’ll wipe out any profit from the tour, if not bankrupt us outright.
Tom and I are fucked. And justice won’t be long coming - the captain clearly smells a rat. Suddenly, our stoned certainty that we’d made the whole farce ‘look like a system failure’ looks completely puerile. She knows someone opened the pipes last night, and is certain we’ve got a saboteur on the crew. Temi’s yellowshirts suspect Agrei’s blueshirts and vice versa, and everyone suspects the engineers, since they have their own language and keep largely to their quarters on the engine decks. Looking round the crowd in the medical suite, things seem just a couple of degrees from a brawl.
More importantly, there are cameras set up now, round every entrance to the kelp tank, so it’s going to take some serious thinking on mine and Tom’s part - ie, on my part - to sort this mess out now.
I go to see Tom after the meeting, back in his pathetic secret lab, and he’s in a state. His eyes are wide, his hands are shaking, and he stinks of sweat. I’m trying to come up with some sort of platitude to make us seem less doomed, when he cuts me off.
“We’ve got to own up” he says, in a hoarse little voice. “We’ve got to say sorry and take what comes to us. I’ve been an idiot, Bea, and now Bible Joe’s been hurt.”
“Speak for yourself” I snap back, pissed off because I can’t work out who’s most to blame for the mess we’re in. On the one hand, I’m only involved in this at all because I took pity on Tom, but on the other hand, it’s only since I got involved that legs started coming off people.
“If we own up now, we’re off at the next settlement” I say. “We’ll spend our days cleaning urinals in a Nazareth mine-hab.” And that’s if we don’t get quietly spaced on the way there, I think, but keep it to myself.
“Well, what other options do we have?” says Tom, waving his arms about, “start chucking in more animals we know nothing about and hope for the bloody best, do we?”
“Well, yeah” I say, the wind taken slightly out of my sails, as that had been my exact plan. “I mean, we can’t get in any worse trouble now, right? I reckon if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. And anyway, if we’re going to get chucked off the ship at the next stop, don’t you at least want to have a go on another T-bomb first?”
Despite his panic, Tom can’t help himself from grinning.
“Semicossyphus pulcher?” I say, mangling the unfamiliar words as I squint at the side of the bomb.
“Nah, sounds too cute” says Tom, not turning round from his rifling through the smaller canisters.
“Alright then” I say, brushing frost from a long, thin cylinder. “How about Anarrhic… can’t pronounce that... Ocellatus? Looks like there’s a good few of these.”
“Nope, sounds too flimsy”
“Enhydra lutris?” I ask.
“The name’s too short” says Tom, “sounds crap.”
I’m searching the rows of bombs for something new, when it catches my eye. In the ice at the back of the container, there’s something else. It’s so big I think it’s the wall at first, but then I see it’s got a nameplate. Tom’s rambling on about something or other, but I shut him up and get him to pass me a screwdriver so I can break a patch of ice off the metal.
“Carcharodon Carcharias” I breathe, head tilted so I can read the little steel letters.
“Now that’s got a ring to it” says Tom.
“And it must be massive” I say, taking in the size of the cylinder under the ice.
“I’ll get the drill” says Tom, with a nod.
It takes three hours with the drill, plus a blowtorch and a pilfered loading mech, to free the T-bomb, but at last it comes loose. It takes another hour to get it strapped into the mech’s armature, and hauled through the back-corridors to the top of the kelp tank. We pause for a moment before heading out onto the prep gantries over the tank, knowing that everything we do next is going to be on camera, then give each other a silent nod and make a move.
It’s only when you get on top of the kelp tank that you realise how big it is. It stretches down the side of the ship for hundreds of metres, its surface rippling with unseen currents, and green masses swirling deep below. You think it’s silent at first, but it’s not: the air above the water echoes with drips and slaps and sloshes, while the lights hum and the machines chug. And it’s so damned humid - the moisture in the air slickens your skin immediately, and shoves the tang of salt right up your nose.
We’ve got no time to take the place in, though. We know that somewhere an alarm is going off, and we’ve got a few minutes at best to do our business. Tom’s crouched by the end of the T-bomb where the controls are, his tongue stuck out as he stabs in the activation code. Then he slaps an indented panel and says it’s done, and we both grin like idiots. We count to three, wave at the nearest camera, and roll the bomb into the water.
After a splash that echoes for ages, and a ripple that makes it all the way to the tank’s edges, there’s nothing. No flash of light, no plume of bubbles, no heavenly choir. The T-bomb just disappears like a stone, and we feel nervous as hell. Five minutes later, we’re still peering into the dark water, and nothing’s happened. Then Tom pipes up.
“Shit, I hope I hit the 3 rather than a 4”
“What do you mean?”
“In the code” says Tom, face sinking. “I’m sure I pressed 4 now. Shit.”
“Well, surely it gives you a sign you’ve done it right?” I say, desperate.
“Yeah, there’s a little green light comes on. But I forgot to check.”
I’m about to scream at Tom, when a door bursts open at the far end of the gantry, revealing Agrei and a pack of aquarists. They’re scowling through their beards, and Agrei is brandishing a wrench. They’re running at us, furious.
I don’t know why I do what I do then. Maybe I’m trying to be a hero. Maybe I’ve just massively miscalculated what I should be most afraid of. Maybe I’m just irrationally dedicated to solving the problem.
Either way, when I hit the surface of the water, I realise I’ve been incredibly stupid.
Still, I think, as the cold clenches round me like a fist, since I’m here, I might as well get the job done. After a moment’s flailing I bob back to the surface, and fish in my pocket for goggles. I clean the reef tanks from the inside once a week, so I always keep them on me. Yanking them on, I suck in a breath and plunge down, feet kicking hard.
Now I’m in the tank, it’s not half so sinister as it looks from above the surface, so at least there’s that. I listen to the muffled tick and warble of bubbles as they stream past me, and stretch out to grab a rope of kelp. Luckily it’s not one the urchins have gotten to, so I can pull myself down it fist over slimy fist.
Six metres down the water squeezes my ears, so I grab my nose and equalise with a snotty creak. A few body lengths later, I do it again. I don’t think about the slasher-jacks - I just keep my eyes on the bottom and focus on moving down the kelp.
Thirty metres down, I spot the T-bomb, resting on the sand of the tank floor. There’s a green light glowing merrily on its upper end.
An intense feeling of relief lasts about half a second before being barged out of the way with fury at Tom. If he’d just thought to check, I wouldn’t have ended up thirty metres deep in a pool full of monsters. Immediately, the flush of anger drains, replaced by frigid, dripping fear. The T-bomb’s side is wide open, a few rags of red membrane trailing from the inside: whatever was in it is now very much out.
I’m turning to make my way rapidly back up the kelp when something stings me in the hip. My hand moves reflexively to brush whatever it is away, and finds a hot fleshy hook, easily the size of a steak knife, driven into my side. Then another slams into my shoulder, and it’s on me.
On paper, the slasher-jack looked like a stocky red squid. Up close, it’s nothing like one. Its face is something like an eyeless seal’s, a mammal skull with the skin ripped free, snapping dementedly as I try to shove it away from my face. Its body is gelatinous, covered in shifting red plates, and its arms are like whipping, spongy spinal columns. The hook in my side rips free, taking cloth and flesh with it, and another embeds in my back. I’ve got both hands on its neck now, trying to force its horrible face back, but the flesh just slides through my fingers.
I’m screaming, blasting bubbles into that gnashing mouth, and I thank god it’s going to eat my head first when I feel a tremendous, swooping movement in the water. Then there’s an impact, and I find myself travelling sideways at speed, the water thundering in my ears. The slasher-jack’s face is still there, but it’s gone limp. There’s something white and grey behind it.
I can see huge gills, billowing as jaws compress, and eyes that roll back in pits. A deep, wet crunch, and the slasher-jack’s body shudders. Black blood fountains from the cavernous gills, and obscures the scene. The hooks let go and I tumble, stomach flipping as I lose my sense of up and down.
Then I see the spotlamps, in rings of light far above, and I kick as hard as I can. There’s barely a cupful of air left in my lungs. They’re flexing uselessly, and it feels like I’m a rocket without enough fuel, struggling upwards against gravity. Blackness starts to crackle at the edge of vision, and things get too primal even to worry about being eaten by monsters.
A split-second after my mouth springs open to start huffing down seawater, I breach the surface and splutter. The gantry ladder’s ten meters away, and at the top is a thicket of outstretched arms, beckoning hands and shouting faces. I start kicking towards them, but before I reach the ladder, I can’t resist looking down.
She’s ten metres beneath, a dark shape moving like a starship above the tank floor. Sleek and silent, vast and dense, planar and precise in a shapeless world. Newborn, and an empress already. As I glimpse her, the limp body in her mouth quivers and disappears, leaving a cloudy trail like red ghosts. Then she’s gone, her tail sliding into the kelp.
Sally, we came to call her. She saved me that day, and she saved the ship.
When word reached the Nazareth townships that we had a great white, they sent ships out on a fast burn to meet us. Every kid in the belt wanted to see her. For once, ticketing didn’t feel empty - there was even a queue. Lonely Beth stayed by the windows as the tourists flooded in, singing a song we’d never heard before. Like she knew something was different.
Lin sold ten thousand soft toy sharks that season. We sold enough tickets to make up for the lost kelp, and seed a new algal tank besides. We even took on new staff, and Miss Galba bought herself a magnificent new coat.
Sally even saved Tom’s career. While he’s never going to be allowed anywhere near the fish, the aquarists decided it would be fitting for him to be assigned to the Rimecrawler tank, where he does the cleaning, and gives a little talk to visitors on the peculiarities of life on Felice-Tartarus. It seems a pretty fair punishment.
As for me, I clean the outside of Sally’s tank these days (there’s not an Easter Island Head to be seen), and I do a lot of reading. Do you know, they never once managed to keep a great white in captivity, even back on Earth? And while there’s records of some having been seeded on a few of the fallow worlds, it’ll be five hundred years yet before they’re opened up for settlement.
For now, she’s one of a kind.
And looking up at her, as she cruises slowly down the length of the kelp forest, it’s hard to see her as a captive at all. While the windows on one side of her world are smeared by pointing fingers, on the other side they look out on space as black and fathomless as her eyes.
#shortfiction #genrefiction #writing #sff #alienwildlife #sharks #aquarium #spaceopera