Escape Pod 875: The Hagfish Has Three Hearts
The Hagfish Has Three Hearts
by Monica Joyce Evans
The beacons were in the wrong place.
Noma swallowed her roasted squid and clicked, still staring at the sea. It was hard to be accurate on land, of course. She’d have a better sense once she got in the water. But the beacons had moved.
Which wasn’t possible.
She turned the squid in her hands. The water was quiet and gray under the brilliant blue sky, barely touched by the hot wind. There was always wind on the coast, cradling the thatched village and the ancient hotel and the fish market. Pairs of men and women were laying their silver catches in lines on the wet sand, amberjack and dorado and corvina. The inshore trawlers had left before dawn and were now cautious points on the horizon, keeping a respectful distance from the bright aquamarine line that marked where humans were allowed in the water.
Noma set her squid down and clicked again. Out past the trembling shoals of fish, the aquamarine line had shifted. Not quite aligned with the currents, or the tideline. Wrong.
She felt her hearts beating rapidly and took a moment to quiet them. Nobody could move the beacons, even if they wanted to. Nobody knew how. The whales could, but had no reason to do so. At least, none that Noma could think of. Whales were inscrutable. And unforgiving.
“Why are you clicking?”
Noma looked up. A gaggle of young children stared at her, expectantly. They were scrawny in the way of busy, well-fed children who nevertheless had heavy work to do. Noma smiled. The village had been doing well.
“I’m looking at the water,” she said.
A little girl frowned at her. “That’s what eyes are for,” she said. Behind the group, a pair of older children nudged each other, smugly.
“I can see underwater with noises,” Noma said. “Like this.” She made a series of clicks and frilled whistles to demonstrate, which set them hassling her in two languages.
“Can you see all the way down? Are there any octopus?”
“Can you see whales?”
“Abuelita says whales are liars.”
The fish were making odd patterns in the sea. It nibbled at the edge of Noma’s consciousness, like a remora harrying sharks. “Hey,” she said to the distracting, squabbling children. “Want to see something really gross?”
That shut them up. Noma stood, brushing sand from her thin trousers, and borrowed a bucket from a wry fishmonger, who had seen this trick before. She set the bucket, full of fishy water, between her feet and rolled up her sleeve, exposing the line of small whitish holes that ran like a tattoo up the inside of her forearm. “Cuentan hasta tres,” she said. “Count to three.” She spurted a tiny blob of mucus, no bigger than a fish’s eye, from the hole closest to her wrist, then swirled her forearm in the water. The mucus expanded like a cloud of spiderwebs. On three, Noma stood, raising her arm out of the bucket and pulling four feet of thick whitish slime into the air.
The children squealed gleefully, and one of them reached out. “Don’t touch it,” Noma said. “You’ll get stuck.” She lowered the slime back into the bucket and shook it off her arm. Even on the beach, it gave off an intense smell of seawater.
Another little girl leaned in, eyeing the bucket suspiciously. “What’s it good for?”
“Tying up children,” Noma said. She made a face and they giggled.
Behind them, a small wrinkled woman in a black hat rolled her eyes. “Enough now,” she said, flapping her hands at them. “Leave Noma alone.” The children whined but scattered anyway, already interested in something else. The older children hung back, making hopeful eyes, and Noma smiled. “Cuidado,” she said, handing them the bucket. “Let it dry before you try anything with it.” They nodded and scrambled away. They’d taken slime from Noma before, to make simple nets or connections for little bioelectronic toys. Most of the adults didn’t want it near their systems. Trust was hard to gain, here.
The small woman tilted her hat back and ran a finger along the brim. “Dolphins,” she said. “Octopus.”
“Hello, Alfreda,” Noma said, and stretched back on the sand. The warmth felt good on her skin, pulled tight outside of the water. She let it loosen, just a bit.
“Sea turtles,” Alfreda said. “All these beautiful things, and you picked a hagfish.”
“They’ve survived for three hundred million years,” Noma said. “Good chance they’ll survive these years too.”
“Sharks haven’t changed much.”
“Sharks are killers.”
Alfreda nodded. They both looked out at the sea, sparkling gray in the midday light, like a rough-cut diamond. “The children are too interested in you.”
“Are they?” Noma looked for the remainder of her roasted squid and frowned. “Maybe they need more interesting things to do.”
“They have enough to do.”
Noma let it go. The older children, she knew, were interested in more than fishing. Boredom was a powerful force. But it wasn’t her business. “They’re good kids,” she said. “Seems like things are going well.”
“Another birth last month. A little girl. Hopefully the cultivators can handle all of us. Harvests are never simple. And the fishing, you know, it never goes well.” Alfreda’s voice was stern, and Noma smiled to herself. The complaints were for show, part of the way they protected themselves from outsiders. Noma knew Alfreda well enough to see her preening, just a little, as she glanced at the driftwood huts, teched up on the inside; and at the old hotel on the cliff where most of them lived, weathered wood and plaster covering polished, comfortable rooms. It could be a fortress if they needed one. Only the arrays of solar panels and the healthy look of the villagers gave them away. “And the net’s down again,” Alfreda was saying. “Not that there’s much interest.” She tipped her black hat down and turned to Noma. “They’d rather talk to you.”
Noma smiled, and made a clicking trill. Which reminded her about the beacons.
It had started before Noma was born. Shipping vessels were borne back to the coasts, full of silent crew with splintered eardrums. Floating cities had been sunk. Huge, multi-species herds had been spotted working in tandem, changing currents and temperatures by some unknown calculus. Then that first clear transmission, in four halting languages. Humans were banned from the sea.
Nobody on land had argued, preoccupied with other problems. But the few people left on the shorelines, or those with planes or helicopters, noticed changes. Large swathes of blue water turned deep green or gray. The plastic islands vanished. Rarely, someone spotted giant, algae-covered structures, even bigger than the whales, churning and churning in the far ocean steppes.
Noma had learned to speak whale for a government that no longer existed. Her body modifications, once a back-alley technology for thrill seekers and fanatics, became essential for negotiating the whales’ mathematical language of waves and currents, temperature and depth. When her services were no longer required, Noma had retreated to the coast. Now she mediated yearly trade agreements between migrating whale clans and a few small villages that depended on access to the sea: minor, very minor fishing rights for a few oddities of the human world. Popular music, mostly, and holos of ancient statuary, repackaged as echolograms.
It wasn’t clear if the whale clans were independent or part of some larger nation or something else, but there was certainly a cloak-and-dagger feeling to their dealings. Noma suspected they weren’t supposed to be talking with the villagers at all. It made her feel better, in a small way, that whales apparently had guilty pleasures. And thankful that nothing else in the ocean was sentient.
“How’s the water?” Alfreda asked. Noma looked up into her hard black eyes and wondered how long she’d been lost in her own thoughts.
“It’s fine,” she lied, ignoring the strange patterns of the fish. “Nothing unusual.”
“Good,” Alfreda said. “Dinner tonight, then. Luz wants to argue for an expansion this year. I think she’s being greedy.”
Someone is, anyway, Noma thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, still frowning over the beacons. Then, remembering, she brightened. “Fanesca?”
Alfreda laughed. “For you, always.” Noma smiled at the joke. The time-intensive twelve-bean soup was made once a year for a holiday that, happily for Noma, coincided with the whales’ migration.
Two of the women on the beach had raised their voices, something about the placement of a fish. Alfreda headed toward them, preparing to smooth away the argument as easily as smoothing lines out of wet sand. Noma had often thought her long-defunct government might have survived with an Alfreda in charge. Elsewhere, children were shrieking: someone had invaded someone else’s sandcastle, Noma guessed, and the wars were on.
Noma leaned back in the warm sand. This was a nice village, nice people. She much preferred being a border creature, with skin in both worlds. The villagers would never feel the press of deep water or be moved by heavy currents–and the whales would never sit on shore and smell the salted breeze.
This thing with the beacons, though… There was no chance the whales wouldn’t notice, and they wouldn’t care who was at fault. The people would leave, the whales’ migration routes would change, and Noma wouldn’t be needed anymore. Not here, anyway.
A seagull swooped down and cocked an eye at her. Noma knew better than to feed them, the pests. Seagulls were disgusting.
Of course, so were hagfish.
She tossed the remains of her squid to the ratty bird, and stood. “Don’t mention it,” she said, as the bird scrabbled in the sand and flew off.
She could simply not mention it, she thought. It wasn’t her problem. She looked out at the ocean’s edge and the little fins and dots of the early morning trawlers. People she knew were out there, fishing their silver and black catch and diligently respecting the aquamarine line. Which wouldn’t help them one bit.
“Dammit,” she said, and strode toward Alfreda with her unhappy news.
“Oh, come on,” Noma said. “She can’t still be serious. It’s been hours.”
Eduardo looked at her with the eyes of a jailer. “Abuelita is always serious,” he said.
Noma pressed her head against the door and stared at Eduardo through the narrow space. They’d stuffed her in a disused hotel room on one of the upper floors, away from where the villagers lived. At some point, someone had moved the deadbolt and chain to the outside of the door, which now opened out into the hall – by a few inches at best. They’d probably shortened the chain too. “You had this room ready, did you?”
“Not for you. For Tio Francesco, when he got older. Abuelita used to put him here when he’d been drinking.”
“He was dangerous?”
“He was a bad singer.” Eduardo looked embarrassed. “Up here, the yowling didn’t bother anybody. It’s a nice room, though. We made sure.”
“Great.” Noma picked at the edges of the white holes on her arms. She was stuck there, watching seagulls wheel past a flat sunset while the villagers ate dinner and argued. And the whales were coming.
“Why won’t you people let me help you?” she muttered, exasperated.
Eduardo coughed. He was a big man, deliberate in his thinking and occasionally insightful. “I think,” he said, “because you said ‘you people.’”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“We trust you, of course,” he said.
“But not enough.”
Eduardo shook his head. “It’s a village problem,” he said. “We need to decide for ourselves, before we tell the whales what we want to do.”
“But I talk to them for you!”
“And you talk to us for them,” Eduardo said. Noma glared at him, but he was looking at the gills at her throat, the white spots on her arms.
“Look,” she said. “The beacons are in the wrong place. If you go out there, where you’re not supposed to be…” She tried not to clench her hands. “Whales control water, currents, tides. Boats won’t come back. People won’t come back, people that you and I care about.” She was rubbing the spots on her arms, she realized, and stopped. “There may not even be any fish out there to find, after they’re done. And right now, nobody in this village can talk to them. Nobody except me.”
Eduardo shook his head again. “I don’t disagree,” he said.
But you’re not in charge, Noma thought. “Fine,” she said. “At least talk it through with me.”
“No vayas buscando la quinta pata del gato,” Eduardo murmured. Don’t go looking for the fifth paw of the cat. As in, don’t cause trouble looking for something that isn’t there.
“I’ll talk and you listen, then.” Noma said. She wiggled against the door, trying to get comfortable in her loose skin. “Look, people don’t do things for too many reasons. Love. Greed. Fear.”
“Survival,” Eduardo said, and Noma smiled. He couldn’t help himself.
“That’s fear,” she said. “But yeah, the beacons moving threatens your survival.”
“Maybe,” he said.
It absolutely does, Noma thought, but didn’t press it. “Greed makes sense. Move the beacons out, get more fish. Hope the whales don’t notice.”
“We can’t actually move them, though,” Eduardo said.
“Somebody can. But ignore that for now,” Noma said. “Maybe it’s need. How many new babies are coming again?”
Eduardo hesitated. “Three,” he said. “But there’s more than enough for everybody. Nobody’s in trouble.”
“That we know of.” Eduardo’s face furrowed in the open slit between the deadbolt and the door. He had the same dark eyes as his grandmother, Noma thought. She remembered him dancing, one evening, with his girlfriend Marietta, barefoot under little twinkling lights. Laughing at small secrets in the golden shadows. Such beautiful creatures, both of them. Too many beautiful creatures had gone extinct, she thought, pinching at her loosened skin, mottled and practical. Too much had been lost already.
“Need,” she said again. Eduardo had hesitated, when she asked about babies. “Greed. What else?”
“I don’t know,” Eduardo said. “It seems so stupid, to move the beacons. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Idiocy.” Noma added it to the list. “Or maybe an accident. Someone moved them but didn’t mean to, maybe doesn’t even know they did. In which case you should really let me out so I can fix it.”
Eduardo shook his head slowly. “Maybe you’re wrong, and they haven’t been moved at all. I mean, nobody’s noticed it but you.”
Noma raised an eyebrow at him.
“Or the whales did it.,” he went on. “We don’t know why they do things, not really.” Eduardo’s face brightened. “Maybe they want us to fish more? Like, thinning out populations or something.”
Noma tried not to sigh. “They have reasons,” she said. “Just because we don’t understand them doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons.” The hagfish in her strained to get down to the water, to immerse herself in the tidal language of the sea. It would help her think. “Revenge,” she said. “Anybody angry at the village? Angry at Alfreda?”
Eduardo looked shocked at that. “Would people do such a thing?”
“Or blackmail. That’s revenge and greed put together.”
“No,” Eduardo said. “Absolutely not. Everyone’s happy here. We all get along.”
Meaning, you get along with everyone, Noma thought. Let’s not forget I’m currently locked up for drawing attention to a problem.
“Even if someone wanted to do that,” Eduardo went on, “they couldn’t move the beacons. We don’t even know how they work. And anyway,” he said, “as long as we stay behind them, the whales can’t blame us.”
“Yes, they can,” Noma said. “The beacons don’t actually delineate the agreement. They’re just guidelines for you. The whales know how far out you’re supposed to go. They won’t care if the beacons match that or not, if you go too far.”
“So what’s going on?” Eduardo asked.
Noma gritted her teeth. Her stomach rumbled, saving her from the rest of the conversation. “Alfreda wouldn’t leave me in here without dinner, would she?”
“We were supposed to have fanesca,” Eduardo said.
“My favorite,” Noma sighed. Sometimes whining helped. “You can’t leave me alone for the five minutes it would take to get it?”
“I’m not supposed to,” Eduardo said.
“I’m starving,” Noma said. “What does she think I can do behind a locked door in five minutes?”
Eduardo looked at her, maybe a little too long. She tried to look small and frustrated.
“Five minutes,” he said.
“I won’t move.”
“Don’t do anything I’ll regret,” he said. Noma watched his face, then his shadow, move away from the door, listened for his footsteps receding down the hall to the stairs. As soon as he was far enough away, she dashed into the bathroom and turned on the tub. No water came out. There was none in the sink or toilet either. “Dammit, Alfreda,” she said. The woman was too smart, denying her water. No hagfish slime without it. She sprinted to the window, which didn’t open more than a few inches. They were six floors up, she knew. Damn Tio Francesco and his drunken singing too.
She was settled back against the door when Eduardo returned. “I don’t actually have the keys,” he said apologetically, looking at the deadbolt chain. He passed a shallow bowl sideways through the slit, followed by two squishy bags, one full of broth, the other of beans and vegetables. “You’ll have to assemble it yourself,” he said, passing her a spoon.
“Not a problem,” Noma said. Outside, the sea pulled at her, like a thrumming in her radiated ribcage, her flexible bones. She’d been away from the water for too long. “If Alfreda’s not going to let me out tonight,” she said, “then I’m going to sleep.”
“Okay,” Eduardo said. “I’m supposed to leave the door open, though. So I can see you.”
“Fine, but I’m moving to the bed.” She took the soup with her. Eventually Eduardo would get distracted or fall asleep, or Marietta would come to keep him company. Noma ate the beans and vegetables with her hands, knowing that the protein was more important than the taste. Then, sighing at the waste, she poured the broth into an empty trashcan, stuck her arm in, and swirled. The slime expanded immediately. She hoped Eduardo wouldn’t notice the seawater smell.
Alfreda had considered water, but not other liquids. It was easy to underestimate a hagfish.
She spread the slime out behind the bed to dry. The window didn’t open all the way, not enough for a grown woman to fit through. Noma stuck her arm through, knowing she was out of sight of the door, then her shoulder. She rippled muscles in inhuman places, and squeezed, and smiled. Easy as pie.
“Hey,” Eduardo said.
“Are you awake?”
Noma pulled her arm back through and put some sleepy irritation in her voice. “I was,” she lied.
“Oh.” He coughed. “Can you come over here?”
“I just wanted to say,” he said, then stopped. “I’m sorry. That this is happening, I mean. You don’t deserve this.”
“Are we in trouble?”
Noma nodded. “If the whales find out you’ve gone past the line and you have nobody to speak for you…” She didn’t need to say what would happen. They all knew about the remnants of other villages, the refugees that had tried to find new homes inland.
“We want to have a baby,” Eduardo said. “Marietta and me. I don’t want the village to fall apart.”
She was already pregnant, Noma realized. Had Eduardo done something he shouldn’t have, fearing for his child?
No. The village was doing well. Something else was going on.
“Let me help,” she said. “Let me get down to the water. We can fix this together.”
“I can’t,” Eduardo said. The fear of Abuelita was stronger. “But I’m going to go talk to her. Tell her she should let you do what you can.”
“Thanks,” Noma said.
“In the morning.”
Well, she would have had a harder time slipping through the deadbolted hotel door anyway. The window was still the better option. “I’m going back to bed,” she said.
“Okay.” Eduardo sounded miserable. He was smart enough to be worried, Noma thought. And he had good reason to be.
Sometimes the well intentioned could do the most damage.
She flipped the bedcovers back noisily and waited. When she was sure he was lost in his own thoughts, she pulled the dried slime into a thick rope, squeezed her bulk through the window opening, and swung down to the ground below.
There was chatter all the way down. The hotel housed most of the villagers and there were lights and noise everywhere, mostly cheerful but with undercurrents of unhappiness: a word choice here, the tone of a voice there. People standing too close together. Other people standing too far apart, watching and wary.
Nobody saw Noma in the dark. She left the dried rope coiled against the hotel wall, knowing she wouldn’t go back that way. She felt bad for Eduardo, though. She hoped he wouldn’t get in too much trouble.
If he was lucky, it would be his only trouble.
She hesitated on the beach, both feet in the sticky-wet sand, looking at the small waves in the gray-black water. Sometimes she wondered how long she could stay away from the sea. She suspected it might make her sick, after long enough, maybe even kill her. It would certainly be a death of the soul.
All the more reason to fix the problem with the beacons now, before the whales banned everyone. Including her.
The sea felt strange, though, in a way it usually didn’t. She shook it off and let her skin expand. The water pulled at her, chilling her flexible bones, and then she was underneath, warming, eyes closed, seeing with her skin and with sound, feeling the temperature and the currents and the pressure, all speaking with her as she swam further down, knowing she had hours before she would need to return to the surface to breathe.
The hagfish exulted, knowing she was home. The human was suffocating, still terrified in some small subconscious place. Noma had learned to wait until the terror passed. It was the same on land, when the hagfish squirmed and shriveled in the air. Underwater, the hagfish wanted to head straight to the depths, where the pressure would be too much for her delicate human hands and ears and eyes. She was limited: a small price to pay for the beauty of two worlds.
A few clicks to get her bearings, and Noma swam out toward the beacons, huge tangled structures that reached into the bottom of the sea. The bioluminescent line between them was bright in the darkness, a technology that even Noma didn’t understand. She opened all her senses and saw the busy expanse of fish and coral, jellyfish and octopi. The shallows teemed at night with marine life and other, newer things – like the living nets, gray and sparkling, that regulated the water temperature, or the coral spiders that crawled meticulously over the scarred and bleached places on the reef, making their slow repairs. The whole place was scarred, Noma thought, but healing. Still beautiful. And it felt good being underwater, with the pressure and the slickness on her skin.
Noma swam through the shallows and out into the deep. Shoals of fish made pretty patterns in the water, patterns she hadn’t noticed before. Pretty, and deliberate. She paused, thinking, but shook the thoughts away as she came up to the closest beacon. There would be time for other mysteries later.
She reached out for the beacon with both hands. The tangle of stable bubbles and algae was meant to move with the currents, hanging long tendrils from the water’s surface down to a depth Noma couldn’t reach. Out each side, a chain of bright, bioluminescent creatures made the aquamarine line, visible from all angles, a clear and obvious barrier.
And it was closer.
Noma stared at it. It wasn’t easy for a human mind to track the beacon’s complex movements, but she was sure, in that instant, that the line had been moved closer to the shoreline, not farther away.
Someone had shrunk the village’s fishing grounds.
It made no sense. The whales had no reason to trick the humans into violating their agreement, not when they could ban them outright. And nobody in the village would have deliberately reduced their own territory.
She was still puzzling it over when her fingers closed around the little black box, wired into the algae strands. A tidal current generator. Wrapped in place with a knotted line that she recognized as her own slime, dried and woven, and insulating the black box enough that the beacon accepted it as part of itself.
And she knew.
For a moment, she was perversely proud that they’d thought to do it. Hagfish were useful in all sorts of places.
Noma floated in the black, thinking wild thoughts. The moon rippled overhead, through the thin surface of the water. She was still thinking when the bubble trap rose around her, sealing her in place, and the great beasts loomed out of the darkness.
The whales were early.
They circled her, the giants, fifty feet long, unimaginable tons of flesh that hung regally in the water. Three humpbacks, with two of their calves: grandmother, mother, two daughters, aunt. Two southern right whales, smaller. And two bottlenose dolphins, skimming the edge of the circle. Not playful now.
The clan whistled and pulsed to each other. From far below, remnants of a song rose. A male, Noma thought, not part of the group, but letting them know he was here.
She always felt strangely fearful among the whales. They were krill-eaters, barely carnivores, and had occasionally been protective of humans, even before the ban. Noma wondered sometimes if the humpbacks had been their advocates, arguing for a gentler treatment of the humans that had ruined so much.
But they were huge. They could easily destroy her, if they wanted, especially trapped in the bubble net. And there were probably orcas about somewhere. There usually were.
The whistles and pulses continued. It wasn’t a dialect that Noma understood. I’m sorry, she said, knowing that her small body would never produce the resonance needed for true fluency, hoping that her meaning was clear regardless. I know it’s not time yet. Something is wrong.
The largest whale moved, pushing the bubble net gently but with enough force that Noma was swept aside. Then they all started talking at once: not the polite, conversational dialect that Noma could understand, but real language. Like tonal Morse code, dependent on rapidly changing equations, and shaped by the position of each whale and the currents in the water. Noma let the conversation shimmer around her, buffeted by the water. She could tell which whale was speaking, but otherwise struggled to understand as much as she could.
Early on, Alfreda had asked for a direct translation of her conversation with the whales. She couldn’t do it. No wonder the villagers didn’t trust her.
Now, she gathered that the whales were arguing. They were unhappy because the beacons had moved, because humans had been in the water, farther than they were supposed to go. And something else as well. Something they didn’t want her to know, that she was just barely catching as subtle waves in the dark water. They were worried. Not for themselves, and certainly not for the village. But something fundamental had changed.
The largest whale drifted in front of her, blocking the rest of the conversation. As always, Noma was awed by her heavy gray bulk, pitted with scarring; the white patterned flippers; the great eye, small in context. She had lived through krill blooms and calvings, lean years and dangerous ones when the orcas were starving and hunting stranger prey. Noma called her Grandmother Moon when talking to the village.
Please, Noma said. They meant no harm. Let me undo it.
The great whale paused, hovering over the deep. All three of Noma’s hearts were beating too rapidly. She couldn’t do anything about the human one. Carefully, she slowed the two that pumped seawater through her interior currents and the channels of her skin. Please, she willed at the ocean, feeling salt in too much of her blood. Please, let me fix this.
The whale spoke to Noma directly, simply enough that she could understand. There would be a reprieve. She ended with the five-note coda that was her true name, untranslatable, but something like One-Heart-Survivor. She had lost calves, Noma thought, or maybe was the last calf of another.
Noma couldn’t say her name. She was too small and the wrong shape to make those resonant notes, nor would she ever have the social standing among the whales that would permit her to say it. But she could say thank you, fervently, and did.
The great whale nosed forward, and the bubble net dissipated, one link at a time. From deep below, another whale sped upward, one Noma hadn’t seen, and breached, spewing foam and bubbles in all directions. The thunderclap resonated through the ocean, to all members of the clan. The pact was struck. She had until morning to remove the human tech from the beacons, and she had promised it would never happen again.
Noma spent the rest of the night swimming from beacon to beacon, removing the tidal generators. There were only three, tied to the beacons closest to the village, but she checked all of them. She was exhausted by the end of it. And angry. The whales had let her go too easy. She was missing something.
She flopped up on shore in the first light of morning, with the wet sand sticky on her loose skin and the waves lapping at the soles of her feet. It was comforting to feel both worlds at once.
She felt them before she heard them, their heavy feet flat on the beach. It felt like the whole village had come out to meet her. “What the hell have you been doing?”
“Hello, Alfreda,” Noma said to the sky. “Saving your fishing rights. You’re welcome.”
“How dare you,” Alfreda started, and Noma held up the tiny sack of current generators, netted in slime. “I don’t know what those are.”
“They were supposed to move the beacons farther out,” Noma said. “Give you more space.”
Alfreda pressed her lips together. “Nobody would do such a thing.”
“Nobody grown up, no.” Noma rolled over and looked up, an ugly mermaid in the surf. She almost laughed at herself. Eduardo was there, looking hangdog, with his girlfriend beside him. Marietta had put on weight, not so much that it was obvious yet. She wondered how many people knew. “You like to complain, Alfreda. You know it, and I know it, and your people know it. Things aren’t that bad. You’ve got enough food to feed yourselves, to keep growing. Look at the number of kids you’ve got running around. Smart kids that are interested in tech.” There were two or three of them on the beach, even, far back enough that they thought they hadn’t been noticed. Noma shook her head. “You keep them busy, sure, but they’re not challenged, so they challenge themselves. And when you say things are terrible, they believe you.”
Alfreda stared at her, mouth pulled into a thin line. Noma stood, bracing herself on the sand, and unwound the hagfish slime from the current generators. “Look, I’m not blameless here,” she said, handing the generators to Alfreda and curling the slime around her fingers. “No more bragging from me about all the things this can do.”
Alfreda turned the little devices in her hand, eyes black and hard. She looked back at her people. The older children ducked down when she spotted them. If they were trying to look guilty they couldn’t have done a better job. “Do I want to know how you got out of the hotel?” she said finally.
Noma sighed, too tired to argue. “Just, don’t be too hard on them,” she said, looking at the kids. “They meant well.”
After a moment, Alfreda nodded. “Too smart,” she said. “Maybe they need more to do.”
She turned and spoke rapidly, too fast for Noma to follow. Once it was clear that nothing was going to happen, people dispersed in twos and threes, heading to their daily fishing or their early morning chores. Eventually, Noma and Alfreda were alone on the beach.
After a moment, the little woman sat down, cross-legged on the sand. “Will they still negotiate with us?”
Noma sat back down. “They will.”
They were silent for a time.
“I’m sorry,” Noma said. “I didn’t think there was time, to do it your way.”
Alfreda hesitated, then nodded. It was enough.
Noma squinted out to sea, her eyes tired from the long night underwater. In a moment, she’d be clicking at the shallows.
“Something bothers you,” Alfreda said.
“Your kids,” Noma said. “They’re really smart, but they’re not trained engineers. I know what they were trying to do, but these devices, they don’t work. I’m certain they don’t.”
“But the beacons.”
“The beacons were moved inland, not out. Your kids would have wanted them to go the other way.” And the whales were worried. She’d never seen that before.
Some of the inshore trawlers were heading out toward the horizon’s edge, where the aquamarine line bloomed. Noma clicked at it. Still wrong. The fish were moving out there, swirling in patterns that almost made sense.
“They were lucky,” Noma said, realization dawning. “Very lucky. Or very unlucky.”
“Them too.” There were a few remaining carcasses on the beach from the previous day, staring dead-eyed and mournful at the sun. Noma looked at the bodies, dorado and corvine and amberjack, and shuddered.
Alfreda followed her gaze. “The fish? They’re just animals. Not like the whales.”
“Not exactly, anyway,” Noma said. “At least, they didn’t used to be.” They were making the same patterns out there in the changed water, dancing the language of tides and currents and temperatures that Noma barely understood, but that was the key to all the whales’ technology.
Why move the beacons inland at all, Noma wondered. It would have been easier to find another home elsewhere. But they were new at this, she realized. They were reacting, very simply, to a threat. Simple didn’t mean stupid.
And the whales knew. Noma wondered how long they’d known. Not long, she suspected.
“No,” Alfreda said, looking at the trawlers, then back at the silver carcasses, ready to be salted, saved, eaten. “All this work. We’ve given up so many things already.” Her hands made little fists in the sand. “You said they would still negotiate with us. Why would they do that, if the fish are…”
“Sentient,” Alfreda said.
“I don’t know,” Noma said. “They’ll talk, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll talk about fishing anymore.”
Alfreda clenched her hands. “You’re sure,” she said, still staring at the water.
Noma took a deep breath. “No,” she said. “I’m not. But I’m pretty sure the whales are.”
Alfreda was quiet for a long time. Farther down the shore, men and women were preparing boats for the day’s fishing, blissfully unaware. Noma ran her fingers up and down the line of white holes on her arm and waited.
“Krill,” Alfreda said finally.
“They eat krill,” she said. “Some of them, anyway. We still need access to the water for kelp, algae, never mind the fishing. We’ll meet tonight, look at the cultivators, see what we can rearrange. What else we can start growing. Or farming.” She stood abruptly, brushing sand from her skirts and adjusting her black-brimmed hat. “All this fuss about how far we can go. It’s time we started trading things of value. Get on equal footing, if we can.” She looked sideways at Noma, hard eyes calculating. “Tell me the krill aren’t sentient, too.”
“They’re not,” Noma said.
“Good,” Alfreda said. “Some of those whales are going to need new things to eat. Things that can’t negotiate back. Can you talk to the fish?”
Noma thought back to the strange patterns, like clusters of new thoughts burbling through the water. “I can try,” she said.
“Try,” Alfreda said. “I’d be interested in speaking with them too. Nobody’s going to be happy about this,” she added. “They’ll probably blame you.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Noma said.
Alfreda nodded, then paused, as if she was going to say something else. Instead, she turned and strode back up the beach, toward the thatched huts and the hotel.
Noma leaned back, watching the sea. Gray and sparkling, beautiful and strange. Just under the surface, schools of fish swimming in new patterns. Noma couldn’t understand any of it, not from outside the water. Maybe it was how they moved the beacons in the first place. Maybe it was a cry for help, still repeating. Maybe it was nothing. The pattern continued for a few more minutes and than vanished, as the school moved away from shore, out of Noma’s range of vision.
She should have felt good. Maybe she did. Things got fixed, nobody got hurt. She uncovered something awful, of course, but now that they knew about it, they could change. Hagfish had weathered three hundred million years of change. Noma could handle a few more.
Things weren’t easier, but they were better.
That’s how it’s supposed to be, right?
The hagfish didn’t reply.
My best friend from college was obsessed with hagfish, so I enjoyed this story on an interesting, personal and nostalgic level. When quizzed about what super power people would choose, it almost always boils down between flight and invisibility. Along the same lines, when choosing which animal DNA you’d want to be spliced with, I can’t imagine anyone saying a hagfish. The creatures that live deep in the ocean are absolutely alien, as they don’t seem to jive with any other member of the animal kingdom. I won’t go into a lecture about how freaking weird hagfish are, but every fact I found out about them mentioned that they were unlike any other living thing, or that scientists are still arguing about hypotheses, or they flat out don’t know. Which of course just makes me want to know more.
Authority deciding that whistleblowers are more dangerous than the situation they’re warning about is an all too real situation, though. It’s a short term look at a larger problem and it’s quite dangerous. Then there comes the issue of the fish gaining sentience, and the whole thing is a mess. I think I’m the product of suburban grocery store abundance since it took a second for the sizable issue of what losing fishing would mean to this community. It seems they’ll need their “ugly mermaid” now more than ever.
I admire Noma’s tenacity here, because I’m pretty sure that if I reached out my hand to help, and got it slapped away (or if I got imprisoned and blamed for stuff) then I wouldn’t be working too hard to save people against their will. I’d like to think it stems from me avoiding conflict, not from a lack of empathy. It’s what I tell myself at night, anyway.
My final question, turning this story darker, is if the fish are the latest to gain sentience, then are the krill next? Would the whales eat krill if they could speak with it? I wonder where they stand on the issue.
We will see you next week with another free story, told well. Until then I leave you with the words of Sewer Urchin from the original Tick cartoon: Oh yeah, down here I’m considered the apotheosis of cool.”
Thanks for listening. Have fun, be mighy. Stay safe, and stay kind.
About the Author
Monica Joyce Evans
Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game scholar and designer who also writes speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple publications including Analog, Nature: Futures, and Flash Fiction Online. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios (they/them) is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about the movies we watch in childhood that shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. They’re @omgjulia on Twitter.