How to Survive a Fish Attack – Kato Thompson

Metaphorosis_2016-02_1k-1[From the memories of Sample AH537272. Transcript created using the extended Mahala method.]

I remember tracing words in the memory mat with my mother. She showed me her favorite passages and we repeated the words together, sonicating the tiny algae into alignment and preserving the ribbon of knowledge for our future.

I sang for the mat once. It was a great honor and I am proud. Our mat is not so large, so we can only record what is important. One day, the tenders will probably consolidate my story with others about surviving a fish attack, but for now it is my voice imprinted there in the mat, telling the story.

Our mat grows very close to the thermal vent. If the vent caves in, the only memories we will have will be the ones we carry in our own heads. My mother tells me if the vent caves in, we will all become wanderers in search of another vent. The memories in our heads will be enough to get us there.

I have sisters and brothers. Our generation is special that way. My parents said that there was a period of time when the water became too salty and the microbes wouldn’t grow, so there were no shrimp to eat. Nobody could lay an egg and the oldest generation died off without replacement. When the water finally cleared and the shrimp came back, everyone felt that it would be okay for parents to lay more than one egg. My mother felt that it would be okay to lay several.

I read about the salty era in the mat. What my parents don’t talk about are the giant crabs that came with the salty water. The crabs attacked us, ending many of our lives early. It was Old Crehar who figured out the right way to zap the crabs, stopping them cold and drifting. So, in the absence of the shrimp, my parents survived on crab meat. My mother doesn’t like crab meat, but here she is and I have sisters and brothers.

Old Crehar was a wanderer before he set down at our vent. He claims to have traveled all the way to the upper boundary. He says that if you rise very slowly your head will not explode. This was recorded in the mat, but some of us wonder if it is true. Old Crehar can carry two conversations at once. My sisters and I sing, “Of Old Crehar take heed, the love he flashes you, the same he flashes me.” Not that Crehar flashes to me in any special way, but I have seen him proposition two or three of my sisters at the same time. He flashes chemiluminescent images of monogamy to each, the old fool.

There is no one flashing at me in a special way. It may be because of my lack of symmetry, but it is true that I have always been a drifter. When we gather together over the mat and groom our memories, the smell of contentment permeates the water and the warmth of my sisters and brothers becomes too much for me and I can’t help rising to the fresh coolness above. Perhaps it is hard to flash at someone who is always on the verge of drifting away.

To survive a fish attack, don’t become distracted by the teeth. Instead, grab the fish with your strongest legs and squeeze until the gills pop open. Quickly slip the tips of your delicate legs deep into the gills. Then, zap its tiny brain and feast upon your enemy. That is what I learned and what I sang for the mat.

Old Crehar says that the world goes on forever in every direction except up. He says that the mat at his first vent was so large that everyone must be a tender, and everyone must lay an egg. The entire history of the world is recorded there. Or so he says. He also said that my missing leg would grow back after the fish attack, but it is still short and stubby.

Sometimes when we are gathered together and the water becomes too warm for me, I drift up and up and I wonder if I could make it to the upper boundary. I wonder if I could drift all the way to another vent. I know it is dangerous to wander out there, but I am missing a leg and I know how to kill a fish.

#

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Grover glanced at the chemical signature of sample AH537272 and then wished he hadn’t. He wished the samples sent back from the Lemnosa probe network had never been collected. He wished the Lemnosa probe network had never been deployed. He wished he had never noticed the tiny orbital blip that had revealed Lemnosa’s frozen face to the elemental hunger of Benoit Mining Venture. He wished he and his brother Reuben had never founded the Benoit Mining Venture. He wished Reuben were here.

At that moment Reuben was little more than information. His last checkpoint in life was recorded on Earth, where an atomic imaging machine had recorded the location and relationship of his every atomic connection to the world, and in the process reduced his physical body to an insignificant pile of carbon.

Reuben’s information was now traveling across the vacuum of space to Sedna Way, where a nonillion nanobots were waiting to reassemble him in a molecular printer. Even at the speed of light, it would be seven days before he lived again. And the first tribulation of his continued life would be Grover’s message following him, explaining that their risky venture had just become significantly riskier.

So risky, Grover thought, that perhaps they should fold. Perhaps they should announce to the world that life existed on Lemnosa and settle for the minor fame, though not fortune, associated with the discovery. But they had invested everything they had in the mining expedition. If the venture folded there would be no resources to pay for another atomic shuffle across space. The brothers would be separated indefinitely and very possibly forever. And it wasn’t like it was the first alien ocean discovered to have something strange swimming in it.

If the venture succeeded, Lemnosa would become the next big way station. If the brothers were correct about the elemental composition of the moon’s mantel, their mining expedition could support the creation of the newest node in the Interplanetary Light-speed Transportation system. They would be united on Lemnosa, in possession of one of the new economy’s most highly sought charters and all of the mineral wealth needed to exploit it.

But all of their data and statistical models had predicted a barren moon, and the charter Reuben was on his way to apply for might not be granted if life existed on Lemnosa.

And exist it did. The earliest samples imaged on Lemnosa and transmitted back to BMV headquarters on Earth had revealed a wide variety of microbial life forms living in and under the ice at the moon’s equator. Further samples captured an array of multicellular organisms swimming in the ocean. And now, here was another unfortunate organism that had been reduced to carbon dust and an image file. Grover turned his attention to sample AH537272. It had a significant mass compared to the other Lemnosan organisms, but was not the largest the probes had discovered. He twirled the 3D image on his display. It was kidney shaped, with no discernible sense organs. It didn’t even have a mouth. Grover frowned. He examined a cross sectional view and saw a diverse group of internal organs, several of them highly complex. Well, he would throw it in the Box and see what happened.

Grover’s Box AI read the atomic image of Sample AH537272 and simulated the organism. Then it began to run through the most basic of stimuli. Did it respond to electromagnetic radiation? Did it respond to pressure? Did it respond to magnetic fields? Did it respond to thermal radiation? Did it respond to chemical gradients? Once the sense organs were established, the AI set about establishing optimal parameters for each sense, fine tuning the simulated environment for further interactions. Again and again, the box AI initiated the sample’s simulation a billion times simultaneously, each existence stressed in a slightly different way, then terminated. All of this happened so fast, that before Grover had time to message the future existence of his brother, a simulation of sample AH537272 was drifting in a dimly lit, slightly salty simulated ocean, unaware of the sensory horrors her fellow iterations had experienced to place her there. Grover watched curiously as she cautiously unfolded her legs, her kidney shape blooming into a flower of billowing tentacles. He dropped an avatar into the simulation and picked up the Box controllers.

 

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.1. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Impossibly, I was drifting near the vent of my childhood. Everything was slightly wrong, but not in a way that was easy to sense. I was near the vent. The warmth, the pressure of the water, the shapes and smells drifting just over the horizon all told me I was, but the vent was not reachable.

A shadow in the distance began to worry me. Unlike the familiar things that hovered at the edge of my perception, this shadow grew. It scuttled through the water using long legs like a crab, but as it approached I could see that it had no shell or pinchers, and it had only four legs. It had soft skin like mine but it looked forward like a fish and I could hear hard teeth around its mouth. It swam toward me with its strange, pulsing leg movement. As it came closer I saw that on top of what must be its head there were thousands of incredibly thin tentacles, waving in its wake. Was it a shrimp eater? Or a fish?

I drifted toward the unreachable vent. My heart began to race. The creature never stopped coming and the vent never came any closer. I flashed the colors of the water. I am not here, I said. I am just a shadow on the edge of your perception, drifting by. But the thing could see me. It tracked me with its bulbous eyes and it was much too close. It began to smell of excitement. I unfurled my longest legs. It kept coming.

I was swift. I propelled forward and back, my legs were fast. It was strangely un-ferocious. It tasted like crab.

 

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Grover dropped the controllers of the Box simulator and gave himself a moment to adjust to the real world. The attack had been so vicious. He had only wanted to make contact. Apparently he was not going about it the right way. After a few minutes he thought of an alternative approach.

 

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.2. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Impossibly, I was drifting near the vent of my childhood. Everything was slightly wrong, but not in a way that was easy to sense. I was near the vent. The warmth, the pressure of the water, the shapes and smells drifting just over the horizon all told me I was, but the vent was not reachable.

A shadow in the distance began to worry me. It drifted closer and its shape emerged. I could hear the familiar form of many legs. I began to drift toward it. Was it someone from the vent? Someone I knew?

It was one of my sisters! No. No it was not one of my sisters. I unfurled my longest legs and she mirrored my every move. She was not intimidated. Strangely, she and I were missing the same leg. My heart began to race. I could not smell her in the water, but every smell of mine seemed twice as strong.

Hello, we sang at each other.

Of who are you? We sang at the same time. My fear in the water was suffocating.

I was swift. I propelled away. Away into the fresh water. Away as far as I could go.

 

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Grover watched Sample AH537272 v1.2 interact with herself and then picked up the Box controllers to try again.

 

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.1.1. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Was it a shrimp eater? Or a fish?

I drifted toward the unreachable vent. My heart began to race. It never stopped coming and the vent never came any closer. I flashed the colors of the water. I am not here, I said. I am just a shadow on the edge of your perception, drifting by. But the thing could see me. It tracked me with its bulbous eyes and it was much too close. It began to smell of excitement. I unfurled my longest legs. It stopped and drifted in place, a body’s length from my reach. Its longest legs drifted down but its shorter legs remained up. I paused to give it time to consider the greater reach of my legs, then I mirrored its gesture, my legs drifting down. But not all the way.

Hello, it sang through its mouth.

Hello, I sonicated back, startled.

The skin around its mouth receded, the teeth flashed. It was a fish.

I didn’t wait. I propelled forward and back, my legs were fast. It was strangely un-ferocious. It tasted like crab.

 

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.1.1.1. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Its longest legs drifted down but its shorter legs remained up. I paused to give it time to consider the greater reach of my legs, then I mirrored its gesture, my legs drifting down. But not all the way.

Hello, it sang through its mouth.

Hello, I sonicated back, startled.

It pressed the skin around its mouth together tightly. It seemed to be waiting for something.

Of what you eat? I sang.

Of shrimp, it replied.

I eat of shrimp as well, I said.

I was swift. I propelled forward and back, my legs were fast. It was strangely un-ferocious. It tasted like crab.

 

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.1.1.2. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Its longest legs drifted down but its shorter legs remained up. I paused to give it time to consider the greater reach of my legs, then I mirrored its gesture, my legs drifting down. But not all the way.

Hello, it sang through its mouth.

Hello, I sonicated back, startled.

It pressed the skin around its mouth together tightly. It seemed to be waiting for something.

Of what you eat? I sang.

There was a long pause.

Of fish? It said, as if it weren’t quite sure.

I eat of shrimp, I said. We can be friends.

#

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Grover and Reuben disagreed about Sample AH537272. Grover, who had spent Reuben’s transit time twiddling his thumbs over the controllers of the Box simulator, was rather cautious. Reuben, being the one potentially stranded at Sedna Way, was feeling more opportunistic. Their conversation was choppy, separated as they were by space.

“Think about it, Grover, she’s the first truly intelligent being we encountered and we killed her. How is that going to play out when we need permission from these squid-things to mine their ocean floor? What if she could be our ally… our ambassador…?” [seven weeks ago]

Growing up, it had always been like this. Reuben saying what if, what if, while Grover clung stubbornly to the plan. If Grover said first person to the fence wins, Reuben would say what if the first person over the fence wins? If Grover said let’s build a telescope and look at the moon, Reuben would say what if we build a bigger telescope and look at Saturn’s moons? If Grover said lets send an expedition to Lemnosa and establish a mine, Reuben would say what if we could get a charter…

“We don’t need an ally, Reuben, we need a charter.” [six weeks ago]

“What we’ll get is a provisional charter. What if the squid-things object to our mining operation? Would the charter be renewed? All of this is new, there is no precedent for placing a way station on an occupied territory.” [five weeks ago]

“We only have enough raw material on Lemnosa to print the mining bots.” [four weeks ago]

“So we reduce the initial number of mining bots we print. We’ll have enough. Think Grover, we can’t begin our relationship with the squid-things by killing one. Our probe imaged her, now we need to return her.” [three weeks ago]

“But even if we bring her back into being, it’s not likely she’ll be our ally. In the simulations I end up as her lunch more often than as her friend.” [two weeks ago]

“What if, instead of printing Sample AH537272 on Lemnosa, we print Sample AH537272 v1.1.1.2? Give her the best impression of us you can, then upload her to the printer.” [one week ago]

Grover frowned. There was no precedent for bringing a simulation into being either. He sent his response.

“I don’t want to do it.” 15 December 2017

In a week he expected a message would arrive from Reuben convincing him that he should.

#

[From the memories of Sample AH537272 v1.1.1.2.9. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

Grover said goodbye and the world changed. I was floating in the dark, then a great whoosh of current pressed me up against a smooth rock. The rock shifted and I was washed into the frigid, bright water of the upper boundary. My legs contracted involuntarily while I drifted, adjusting to the sudden change. The blue and white contours of the boundary glowed painfully above me, speckled with algae and skirted by fish. Emerging from the icy boundary was the rock that had just spit me out, which I could now see was one of Grover’s machines. I listened to the hollow chambers inside of it and the gentle humming of its entrails. Below me, currents traveled deeper than the light. I was a wanderer again.

Before meeting Grover, the ice seemed so hostile. Where it glowed, the light was blinding, and where it didn’t glow, lurked the hungry fish. But now the very threat was comforting. What is a fish to me? I know what to do with a fish. I listened to the ice groan and pop above me and tried to imagine that another world existed on the other side, a world like the one Grover flashed for me. How did Grover flash an entire world?

When I could extend my legs, I drifted up to Grover’s machine and explored its surface. Once I found the hinge and edge, I popped it open like a shell. At the very center was a small chamber that hummed. The guts of the machine were acidic in places and there were many long tendrils radiating out from the noisy chamber.

I zapped the chamber until the humming stopped. It tasted terrible and I didn’t eat it. Then I began the long journey home.

When I get there I will sing to the mat about how to kill a machine.

 

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Grover watched the simulation of his ninth attempt to send Sample AH537272 v1.1.1.2 home with despair. She didn’t trust him. She destroyed the printer every time. They would never be able to return her to Lemnosa. Why wouldn’t she trust him? If only Reuben were here! Reuben would say what if… what if… but Grover’s imagination failed. He did not know what Reuben would say.

Grover’s next idea was as simple as it was preposterous. What if Reuben were here? He had Reuben’s check point image file. He had the Box. He knew how to hack the safeguards. The possibility tickled his brain and impulsively he acted on it.

 

[From the memories of Reuben Benoit v1.1. Transcript created using the Mahala method.]

I did a quick audit of the print job. I counted my fingers and toes, calculated the amount of ore we would have to pull out of the Lemnosan mantle to pay for my return trip, and said “Hello, my name is Reuben.” Everything seemed to be in working order. The chamber door opened with a hiss of released pressure. What seemed like ten minutes ago, I said goodbye to Grover, but now I was 1200 AU from home. I wiped my hands on my pants and looked out curiously. It’s not every day that you get to travel across the solar system and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It looked like Earth. The same bioengineered construction materials, the same tracks of led lights guiding the same people down a gently sloping corridor, through customs and out the door. And then a canned voice:

Welcome to Earth. Thank you for traveling the Interplanetary Lightspeed Transportation System.”

Christ, I hadn’t even left the planet? I waved a hand at the nearest attendant. “Hey, there must be a mistake. I’m traveling to Sedna Way!”

Any questions you have regarding your destination may be directed to the Customer Service Desk on the other side of customs. Thank you for traveling with Interplanetary Lightspeed Transportation.”

Reuben! Over here!” Grover appeared and his voice sounded relieved. He waved to me from the other side of customs and I hurried through.

Reuben, There was a problem at the Sedna Way station so I had them send you here.”

My stomach lurched. A problem?

But it’s a good thing because I need to talk to you. Come on, let’s get some lunch.”

Look, just tell me, did I have a near miss or something?”

No… and they don’t know how long the delay will be. Listen, I met someone, and I want her to like me, but I don’t know, she doesn’t seem to trust me,” Grover looked at me expectantly.

We’re getting a refund, right?”

Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of the refund. So what do you think I should do? How can I get her to like me better?”

Where are we?” I asked.

New Camden Station. It was the first place I… It was the first place I could get you printed at.” Grover looked a little queasy. Was there something he wasn’t telling me?

Look, Grover, if there’s something you need to tell me, just tell me. You know me, I’ll imagine all kinds of crazy things until you tell me…”

Grover laughed and nearly knocked me over with a hug. How long have I been gone, I wondered.

It’s okay Reuben, I’m taking care of everything. Lemnosa is still a go.”

I pounded him on the back. If he said it was fine, that was all I needed to know.

Let’s get some lunch,” I said, and we followed the trail of lights out of the station.

We stepped out onto the red brick walkway of Pratt Street and shouldered our way through a slow procession of orange-shirted Orioles fans making the pilgrimage to Camden Yards for a ball game.

What if we grab a beer and take in the game?” I said, prepared to make the best of the delay.

Grover shook his head and propelled me against the flow of fans, past the street hawkers, past the Pratt Street Ale House and into a hamburger joint.

Outside a cheer went up as someone dressed as a large black bird with an orange beak trotted by, shaking his wings in the air and hugging people dressed in orange.

Inside, a neon light flashed: Shakes. Burgers. Fries. The floor and walls were covered in black and white tile and red leather bar stools lined one side of the restaurant. We slipped into a hard plastic booth. A cheerful waitress in a pink apron and a tight polyester dress took our order, pen to pad and a big smile for Grover. I wondered how often he came here.

I’ve never noticed this place before. How’d you find it?”

Uh, I don’t know. So this friend of mine, got any idea how I can make her like me more?”

Outside a cheer went up. The big black bird was hugging people again.

The waitress leaned over our table, giving us a nice glimpse of her cleavage. “Have you tried flowers? I’d like you if you sent me flowers,” she said, winking at Grover and setting down our burgers.

Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I said, staring at the waitress. She looked familiar. “Girls like that stuff… some flowers or a gift or something…”

No, it’s not like that Reuben, it’s not that kind of thing…” Of course it wasn’t. Grover didn’t even notice that the waitress was hitting on him, he never did. He should be asking for her number, not chasing this girl that doesn’t even like him. He just never sees the possibilities.

The hamburger was the best burger I have ever had. Grover put his aside and leaned across the table. “I don’t think she wants flowers. Maybe you should meet her, then you’ll understand.”

What if you got the waitress’s number,” I said, “and just forgot about this other girl?”

There is life on Lemnosa.” Grover said.

I choked. Christ, that was going to complicate things.

I put this organism in the Box and it’s smart, really smart. We may have to get its consent to mine on Lemnosa.”

The waitress passed by and winked at Grover.

Outside a cheer went up as someone dressed as a large black bird with an orange beak trotted by, shaking his wings in the air and hugging people dressed in orange.

Grover, there’s something wrong with this place. The people here are repeating themselves…” Grover looked queasy again. Suddenly I remembered where I had seen the waitress before.

Grover, is that the waitress from your Derby Box simulation?” My jaw dropped. What if he had simulated a real person in the Derby Box? What kind of trouble was he in?

Grover what have you done?”

I just needed to talk to you…”

And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the waitress he had simulated.

Did you hack my image file? Did you simulate me? Why would you do that?” Christ, I thought, what if I’m dead? What if I’m dead but Grover still needs me? “What happened at Sedna Way?!”

Relax Reuben, you’re fine, you’re fine, nothing has happened to you. You are at Sedna Way. It’s just a pain talking over long distance… so I…” Christ, Grover looked ill. He was sweating and the blood had left his face.

I’m not at Sedna Way, Grover! Someone else is at Sedna Way. I’m right here, in your stupid Derby simulation!”

It’s not the Derby, its Baltimore.”

But I’m alive in here! You’ve put me in a goldfish bowl!”

Grover flinched and looked like he was going to vomit. Suddenly he reached for something I couldn’t see. I grabbed his arm, “Are you turning it off? Christ! You’re going to turn it off aren’t you? I don’t want to die! I don’t want to d…”

#

[From the memories of Grover Benoit. Transcript created using third person extended Coi method in conjunction with secondary sources.]

Reuben’s next message arrived:

“The good news is it looks like we’re getting the temporary charter. The snag is that by the time we renew we have to have proof that we have a good relationship with the Lemnosans. What if we printed a team of AH537272s? We could really jump start this relationship.”

Grover replied:

“Worst idea you have ever had. Don’t worry, I’m taking care of it.”

#

[From the algae mat of Lemnosa’s fifth largest vent field. Translation courtesy of The Lemnosan Historical Society, methods unknown.]

The vent of my adulthood is new and the mat is filled with the memories of many wanderers like myself. I have sung for the mat everything I remember from the old mat. I have sung how to survive a fish attack and what to do if you are missing a leg.

What Old Crehar says is true. If you rise very slowly, your head will not explode, and you can travel all the way to the upper boundary. It’s a long time to be drifting with the fish, but if you tuck your legs in and flash the colors of the water, the fish will swim right by.

The blue and white contours of the boundary will glow painfully above you, speckled with algae and skirted by fish. You are looking for a very special fish. It is metallic and white and it hums as it swims through the water. It will listen for you, and if it hears you it will open a large black eye and blink.

Your world will go black, but if you listen you will hear that you are in a cave with no opening. The water will smell of stale contentment and once you settle down a voice will sonicate, “Of we are pleased to meet you. Of please accept this gift from the Benoit of Mining Company.”

Then a great whoosh of current will press you against the side of the cave. The side will give and you will be washed into the frigid water of the upper boundary. To your new leg, the water will be shockingly cold and unnervingly fish scented, dangerous but gloriously right.

###

2 Comments

  1. What a fascinating and vividly imagined story! I don’t usually like stories that are told through journal entries, but the narration through transcripts works really well here. The simulated exchanges between Grover and the sample and Grover and Reuben are so creative!

  2. This writer has a terrific imagination and a skillful pen! I was captivated by “sonicating,” the “upper boundary,” creature-sensitive regulation of mining activity in outer space, and much more. I hope we’ll see a sequel or another story soon.

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