By: Clint Wastling
There are very few open spaces in a city of 50 million souls and less opportunities for fishing. This pastime brought John’s grandfather to this icy moon on the edge of the solar system before it was developed as a colony. Now the only place which occasionally yielded a catch was Prince Justinian’s Park.
This place possessed a lake with water kept liquid by using geothermal heating. Geothermal energy was the key to keeping everyone alive orbiting Jupiter. The park was crowded on Sunday’s but adjoining the park were ornamental gardens associated with ambassadors from the outer planets and one secret garden.
It wasn’t really a secret, only John called it that. Everyone knew it was there, but no one knew or cared how to gain access, except John, who felt some sort of affinity with the place. A walk around the perimeter revealed no gates, no doors, no overhanging branches, yet John could see treetops. He’d heard one fisherperson had put up a ladder (very old fashioned) and settling to fish had been disturbed by the owner. Things had not ended well. His granddad had warned him never to become involved with the fish who claimed the moon as their own. He’d warned him about lots of things before returning to Earth, to swim in what was left of the Mediterranean Sea.
John ran his ID through the scanner. The metal gates opened and revealed steps descending into darkness. Quadribrate guards clung to the ceiling, their black wings concealing weapons. He descended and heard music. People sat around listening to a bioluminescent jellyfish sitting in a spray of water singing. John turned his attention to the bar. Here at Numeri’s drinking was an expensive pastime. John swiped his ID again and tapped in the code for a beer. A half of something frothy materialized.
“Is Numeri around?” He asked a droid.
“If you are here for the fishing post, sit at table 16 and wait.” The droid bustled off. John sat, waited, and drank. For a Friday afternoon this subterranean bar was busy, then he remembered the edict. When royalty were overthrown and subjects became equal citizens, Friday afternoon became part of the weekend.
“Next!” Numeri stood and stretched, rolled her shoulders. Her assistant was more interesting, slim, dark skinned, blue hair. John smiled and winked. They each placed a finger on the Harmony app. It flashed red – incompatible match. The assistant raised his hands hinting it wasn’t his fault and walked away.
“So, you’re John, John Cobbler. Your name gave me a laugh, no numerics or hyphens.”
“Just plain old John. Jokes about my name go back as far as…” He couldn’t remember the first time.
“You haven’t worked in a while, why?” Numeri placed a transparent lie detector between them.
“I’m a dreamer. Mum says I’m useless but now she’s injured I need money for her treatment.”
“Can you fish?”
“I come from a long line of fisher-folk. Granddad fished the thermal vents here when the city was just foundations. He went back to Earth to fish and I, well there are public parks.”
“And some private ones.” She studied John, remembering something. “I once fished in a garden, I don’t recommend it.” She tapped her bionic arm.
“The Lady Fish?”
Numeri nodded. “You could earn a lot of money fishing like I used to. This place needs fish to keep the protein lovers happy.”
“Fishing?” John stroked his chin. He thought about sitting with a rod and line in city light.
“Yes, John. Fishing. People pay a high price for real protein.”
“It’s all legal?”
“All legal, just don’t touch the water or the Lady Fish will devour you.”
“And what happens if you do?”
Numeri rolled back her sleeve to reveal where the bionic arm joined her real arm. “The part of you which touches the water is eaten.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“Do. Pick up all the kit at 12 noon tomorrow and finish when you’ve caught one pirarucu.”
“Noon.” John repeated not quite believing his luck.
Keen on his first day, John arrived early to pick up his kit. He swiped his ID at the door and it flashed staff. The doors opened with the quadribrate guards clinging to the ceiling. This time, one unfurled its wings revealing a hairy body and several guns. “Good morning.” Numeri seemed pleased. “From now on you’ll be arriving and leaving via the back door. Direct access to the kitchens, where you’ll do the preparation.”
John nodded assent. “Is that all for me?”
Numeri pointed out the items. “Gravity pad, fishing kit and top of the range psychic bait and of course a stasis box to keep your catch fresh. Here, let me help you with the backpack. Now step on the gravity pad. It will take the weight of you and one fish. Never be tempted to be greedy, we didn’t find a single piece of flesh from the last fisherman we sent.”
John thought Numeri’s was trying to frighten him. She was just another person who thought a dreamer was an imbecile.
“Wait!” Ordered Numeri and she programmed his flesh USB with directions. The sat nav played via his optic nerve and John followed, not really taking anything in. He was dreaming of laying on a warm bank and lazily catching a fish, like the pictures from long ago when his grandfather fished on the newly terraformed surface of this ice planet with its amazing subterranean sea. The sat nav alerted him to his destination. John stared at the wall and the tops of the trees beyond. He checked his position, there was no error, this was the place. Numeri had sent him to the secret garden. He removed the gravity pad from its case. This model was worth a year’s salary. John entered the codes and lights flashed. He stood on the board, and it slowly lifted him to the wall top. He felt a mixture of amazement and trepidation as the board turned. The river, if such it was, etched a pattern around a perfect lawn dotted with trees of such beauty. The contrast in colors of purples, burgundies and greens made his heart race. At the very center the water steamed as it entered a vast open mouth surrounded by fangs.
John descended and left his gear ready for a potential quick get-away. Finally, he set up his rod and line, choosing a bait which hummed the correct frequency for his prey, the pirarucu.
John positioned himself in the false sunlight, cast out the line and waited. Here, he could believe anything, he saw strange blue and yellow flying creatures and smelt a perfume like the one mum used for society do’s. Slowly John relaxed and as the shadows lengthened his thoughts turned to the picnic his mum had kindly put together. Just as he brushed the last crumb from his shirt, he saw – or thought he saw – a large fish climb out of the mouth -like structure and drag out a young man by a silver chain. The man was tethered to a post and the fish creature adjusted layers of algae over the man’s skin. Finally, the fish climbed back into the gaping mouth, lost in the churning and steam.
John was distracted by a catch. Slowly he reeled in a three foot long fish. The visage of the pirarucu was not unlike that of the fish creature. He tried to dismiss the idea. Placing the fish in a stasis box and closing the lid, John began to pack away. The fish creature appeared at the mouth of her subterranean home and looked around. John dived for cover and watched through reeds. The fish walked upright on two feet which were webbed. Her scales shone iridescent in sunlight. She sniffed the air and feelers like those on a catfish, sampled the atmosphere. Some presence had disturbed the Lady Fish. John realized he was discovered and searching the ground, found a stone which he threw into a distant loop of the river. The Lady Fish had darted to the spot in seconds.
John reached the gravity pad with his catch and gear and lifted from the ground. From this vantage point he saw the agility of the Lady Fish as she swam her river. He had the sense to take a memory snap of the layout. It was a watery maze with a handsome prize at the center. Who was the prisoner? And why such an elaborate scheme to hold him?
In a city of fifty million people on the outer rim of the solar system, seeing aliens was expected but John had never seen anything like the Lady Fish. He resolved to ask Numeri about this creature..
“A Lady fish you say?” Numeri turned the glass on her midnight blue table, lights played a virtual night sky over every surface. In this establishment the nocturnal ruled. She changed the subject. “Excellent catch, worth sufficient for a bonus. I’ve credited your account.”
Thanks, but…” John stared at Numeri.
“Did I ever see anything? Yes, once on my last day. A great fish creature emerged from its subterranean lake and staked a young man to the island. I didn’t hang around to find out anymore.”
“Weren’t you curious?”
“I was this curious.” Numeri downloaded all she knew into John’s memory bank. John’s eyes widened in terror, not for himself but the prisoner. It was like mother basting the Sunday joint, only here the food was human. Maybe the Lady Fish was the last of the planet’s original inhabitants? The great ocean beneath the ice and on which this city is built was rumored to contain life warmed by geothermal vents. John thought about the possibilities of a world of life beneath his feet, vast ecosystems, and this river maze one of how many connections to the surface?
Perhaps it was best not to know? John bought food for himself and mum and placed the change in an account for her operation.
“Wait!” Numeri seemed agitated interrupting his thoughts. “You haven’t killed and gutted the fish. My chef doesn’t do living food!”
John followed his boss into a clinically white room and showed him the obsidian glass area reserved for meat. John opened the stasis box. The fish looked around. It was a beautiful creature, streamlined, iridescent. Slowly it’s breathing became labored as the water drained away. “I’m sorry,” John said to the fish, “it’s you or me and I have the knife. The fish lay still on the glass, awaiting the steel edge. In a second the head was removed and thrown in the bin labelled to compost. John sliced the knife along and gutted the creature. There was something hard and solid in the stomach and with bloodied fingers he removed the object. It was a key, a golden key! Checking no one was looking, he pocketed the prize and finished preparing the carcass. The chef looked at the product with disgust but took it, knowing the profit.
John cleaned himself up and went home. “Hello, mum.” John presented a gift of various food items.
“Thank you.” Mum looked suspiciously at her son. “They didn’t fire you, did they?”
John grinned, “No, I received a bonus as I caught a pirarucu.”
“They only exist on Earth; it was your granddad’s favorite catch. I suppose it must occupy a similar place in the ecosystem here, so they look alike.”
“Spoken like a true science teacher.”
“After the operation, I might get back to lecturing again.” Mum shifted uncomfortably and stretched her leg encased in a bionic caliper. “Now, do hurry, wash and change, you smell of fish!”
John vanished for several minutes and when he returned a dinner had been concocted from the ingredients he’d bought. They both sat at a translucent table. The reconstituted protein and green algae swam in a sauce just spicy enough to make the food interesting.
“Something is troubling you.” His mother carefully lined up knife and fork when the meal was finished.
“A creature emerged from a subterranean vault. A Lady, sort of half fish, half human with beautiful iridescent scales. She staked a young man to an island and left him imprisoned on a grassy knoll. Numeri, my new boss, said it was the equivalent of basting a chicken.”
His mum thought for a long time. “You fished in the secret garden. When I arrived the passage to the underground ocean was there for all to see. We sank geothermal pipes to heat this vast city, thinking little of those creatures who lived in the sea below. When their food dwindled they began preying on us. Now they’re fed criminals, dissidents, deposed royals.”
“You mean the royal family deposed in the coup?”
“Yes all the irritating offspring of the emperor, curse his memory. They were the last obstacle to equality, always thought themselves better than anyone else. You didn’t rescue him?”
“No, although he was handsome. I felt more of an affinity with the Lady Fish. She was only doing what I was, taking food. Here’s a photo.” John shared the memory file, and his mother traced her finger round the maze. “water is positive and the grass negative. Human’s must never touch the water. I remember people have lost limbs, their lives…”
“Yes, Numeri lost an arm to the Lady Fish.”
“But you don’t feel you’re in danger?”
“No. The place is beautiful. I only need to catch forty fish to have enough money for your operation. At last, I’m doing something useful!” John felt the key in his pocket. He was about to show his mum but remembered the beautiful fish he had killed to retrieve it and changed his mind.
“You have too much empathy.”
“I just want to understand.” John’s dreams that night were occupied by the Lady Fish. She strung him up, wrapped him in algae and left him. Later she returned to slit his wrists, the blood dripping into buckets on the floor. John woke in a sweat. His second day as a fisherman had begun.
It was tedious, he sighted nothing and caught just two small fish. Numeri accepted them and paid his wage. The day after was no better and after a week John was resigned to his beginners luck in catching a pirarucu.
Perhaps fish are also creatures of habit because at the same time, one week later, the Lady Fish appeared with her captive. Her movement out of his subterranean lair displaced a second pirarucu, which John caught and placed in the stasis box. He watched how she padlocked the captive to a metal stake. John thought of the key he’d retrieved.
When he was certain the Lady Fish had vanished, he took the grass maze towards its center by the entrance to the underworld. The captive watched in silence. John approached cautiously. “Who are you?” he asked in a whisper.
“I am Prince Justinian.”
“A real prince?”
“No longer. I am Lady Fish’s prisoner and tonight’s main course at her banquet.”
“I think you are very good looking. I have a key, found in one of the fish I caught from here. Would you like me to try it?”
“Apparently handsome men taste better. I’ve been hung in her larder all week wrapped in algae.”
John took out the key and tried it in the padlock. It opened.
“Hurry up, peasant!” The prince hissed. “Get your knife out and kill the Lady Fish!”
John looked aghast. “I don’t want to kill her!”
“Oh! My fairy godmother sends someone to save me, and it turns out to be an ecologist!”
John snapped the padlock closed.
“What’re you doing?” Prince Justinian asked.
“Ensuring the Lady Fish gets her tea. I might be a fool and a dreamer but if we’re not equal then I’m not endangering myself for a stuck up prince who thinks he’s worth more than anyone else!”
“But I’ll be eaten! I thought fairy tales had a happy ending?”
“They do. Mum will get her operation; I’ll keep my job and the Lady Fish…” John bowed low as the creature reappeared and stood no more than six feet away. They looked at each other and John feared he would be the next victim, wrapped in algae in the larder.
The prince struggled and cursed. “Peasant, rescue me, I order you!” The Lady Fish stared at the poacher then took out a long knife. One slice and the prince’s head was off. Another slice and he was gutted ready for her feast.
Her work done; The Lady Fish acknowledged John. John bowed again and returned to the gravity pad and his catch. He looked back, the Lady Fish had already taken her meal down into her subterranean lair.
John had learned a valuable lesson. Over the next year, he counted the princes and princesses the Lady Fish prepared and ate. Quite often she would raise her hand in greeting and John would respond in kind. Slowly he earned enough for mum’s operation and enough in bonuses to buy his own flat. From here he had a bird’s eye view of the secret garden and the distant space port. Perhaps, now he had his own place, he’d meet a charming young man and maybe both could holiday on Earth fishing in the Amazon delta for a real pirarucu.