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In the warm tropical waters of the Aardvark Archipelago swims a fish that no one likes. The consensus is that the species, Deiectio Piscis, colloquially known as the "Poo Fish", is a bit of a jerk. Inedible to humans and other predators, the Diarrhoea Fish has evolved explosive bowel evacuations as a defensive mechanism when threatened.
Ascott Pudding stopped typing and looked up, staring out from under the palm-leaf roof of his beach hut veranda. He gazed over the sunlit crystal waters of the lagoon, past the jagged fangs of the coral reef where the waves burst into foam, all the way to the horizon, where he saw the pale smudge of a man striding across the low waves.
"This," he announced to the parrot that was drawing with crayons and paper on the table, "may require pants."
"Bithcuith," the parrot replied around the stub of Hibiscus Yellow clamped in its beak.
By the time Ascott had dressed in shorts and a loose shirt, and walked to the end of the small island's narrow dock, the man was crossing the lagoon. Even at low tide, the water was two metres deep. As far as Ascott could tell, the man wasn't walking on stilts, or wearing some kind of boat shoes. He was barefoot and walking across the pristine surface of the sea with the same casual stride of someone crossing a well-tended lawn.
"Morning!" Ascott called. The man raised a hand and shaded his eyes. From the dock, Ascott could see the walker was wearing the first pair of trousers he had seen in nearly two years. The man also wore a loose white shirt, a white hat and dark sunglasses. A pair of white sneakers hung around his neck by their laces and he clutched the handle of a small suitcase in his hand.
"Ascott Pudding?" the man said, looking up as he reached the water below the dock.
"Son of Daedius and Krismiss, also known as Dorothy, Pudding?"
"The very same." Ascott stepped back as the man climbed on to the dock and set his suitcase down.
"And you are?" Ascott said as the slender man removed his sunglasses.
"You have a sister named Charlotte?" the man asked, ignoring the earlier question.
"I have a sister named Charlotte, yes. Look, what is this all — ? AARRGH!" Ascott fell back on the dock, blood streaming from his nose.
The man put his sunglasses back on and said, "I've travelled a long way to punch a member of the Pudding family in the face. Now that chore is over, how about a cup of tea, hmm?" He picked up his suitcase and walked away towards the small house above the beach.
* * *
The tea tasted of blood, which Ascott assumed was because he couldn't smell anything through his bruised nose. He pressed a damp cloth against his face and regarded the man sitting across from him. The stranger had introduced himself as Vole Drakeforth and, when he wasn't punching strangers in the face, he looked almost civilised, like a crocodile in a business suit. Inside the clothes he seemed tall and thin, with dark hair and skin that looked as manicured as his nails. His eyes were a piercing blue and he wore an expression of mild contempt that seemed habitual.
"So ... you're a god?" Ascott said eventually.
"I'm a retired god. I'm Arthur, the founder of Arthurianism."
"I thought you said your name was Vole Drakeforth?"
"It is Vole Drakeforth. I also happen to be Arthur."
"Aren't you supposed to have a beard or something?"
"The problem with religion," Drakeforth said, "is that everything becomes codified."
"Which is why you don't have a beard?"
"Which is why I'm retired."
"You've retired to a small island in the Aardvark Archipelago?" Ascott blinked. The island was small enough without sharing it with anyone else.
"No, this is just a place I wanted to visit, specifically to punch you in the face."
"Oh, right." Ascott dabbed his tender nose. "It hardly seems fair to punch me in the nose because you're angry with an ancestor of mine."
"Well, I am having an entirely different encounter with your sister," Drakeforth explained.
"Please, don't try to explain the quantum nature of perception to me again. It makes my head ache worse than my nose."
Drakeforth ignored the request. "Simply put, at a quantum level, everything is taking place at the same time. While I am here, drinking tea with you, I am also drinking tea with your sister, Charlotte."
Ascott groaned and sipped the blood-flavoured tea.
Drakeforth watched Charlotte's younger brother wince. There was a definite family resemblance. They both had hair that black-brown shade of the possibly still edible bits of burnt toast. He decided to delay the bad news for a moment longer.
"What do you actually do here?" Drakeforth said, looking around at the bamboo-walled hut.
"I sleep with fish," Ascott said.
Drakeforth spoke with exaggerated slowness. "Why do you sleep with fish?"
"Because to truly know a fish, you have to interact with them completely. Swim where they swim, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep. The more we know about the natural world around us, the more we can know about ourselves and our place in the Universe."
"What if I told you that fish exist only to make more fish. The only reason they are so dedicated to making more fish is that bigger fish eat them all the time. There's your parallel to humanity's place in the natural order of things right there," Drakeforth said.
"I've seen species do things that no one has ever observed before. I've learned about their mating habits, their life cycles, the way they protect themselves from predators. I'm sure that they know more than they're letting on."
Drakeforth stared at the thin, slightly unkempt young man who had Charlotte Pudding's eyes and a swollen nose. "Have you told anyone else about these ideas of yours?"
"Not yet. I'm writing a book on it. A study of the fish species of the Aardvark Archipelago."
"Good for you. I suppose you survive on a diet of fresh fish and milknuts?"
Ascott blushed slightly. "I don't eat that much fish. There's a girl, Shoal, who comes from Montaban every couple of weeks with frozen pizzas."
The parrot flew up and landed on the table, where it tested the strength of one of the tea mugs by biting it.
"Get off the table, Tacus." Ascott waved his hand ineffectually at the bird.
"Bithcuith," the parrot said.
"Your bird appears to have a speech impediment," Drakeforth observed.
"Tacus, this is Vole Drakeforth. Say hello to the nice man."
Tacus hopped from foot to foot and kept his beak shut.
"He is an excellent judge of character," Drakeforth said.
"Are you hungry? I can heat up a pizza?"
"Bithcuith!" Tacus squawked.
"Not necessary; the tea is quite sufficient," Drakeforth said.
"I really did see you walking across the ocean?"
"Hardly," Drakeforth said with a snort. "I flew into Montaban, then I got directions from some fishermen, then I hired a small boat, which —"
"I'm sure I saw you walking on water," Ascott said.
"— Which sank. From there I walked."
"From Montaban? That's twenty miles."
"From some point between here and Montaban, it was far less than twenty miles."
"That's still quite an achievement," Ascott said.
"It is possible that instead of walking I could have simply materialised on your doorstep and punched you in the face. However, doing that would have been far too easy and it's nice to appreciate something that you have actually worked for. Besides, it was a nice day for a stroll."
"Now that you bring it up," Ascott said thickly. "This may be a silly question, with an obvious answer, but why in the Hibiscus did you come all this way to punch me in the face?"
"You've been here since your parents died?" Drakeforth asked.
"Pretty much. I ran away after their funeral."
"Leaving Charlotte to take care of things?" Drakeforth made the accusation sound like a throwaway remark.
"She is good at taking care of things."
"Yes – if the manuscript she hasn't written yet is to be believed, she will soon be taking care of your great-grandfather."
"You haven't been paying attention." Drakeforth nodded.
"I have, but mostly to the fish," Ascott said.
"Your sister, Charlotte, is dying. She is also presently uncovering a grave conspiracy to enslave the world and discovering the truth about many things, including the true source of empathic energy."
Ascott's mind reeled with cold shock. "Charlotte always has been good at multi-tasking," he managed.
"So I am seeing," Drakeforth agreed.
"Charlotte ... is dying? I need to go home." Ascott stood up and turned in a complete circle while trying to decide what to do next. He didn't have anything to pack other than the elderly typewriter and hundreds of pages of notes, drawings and manuscript.
When he turned back around, Drakeforth was gone.
"Bithcuith!" Tacus squawked.CHAPTER 2
The clear waters of the Aardvark Archipelago were as warm as a bath just before it gets too cold to be comfortable and you start thinking about actually having to get out. Ascott floated on his face, breathing through a snorkel and peering down at the coral fish through large goggles. He had left his canoe anchored on the outer edge of the reef and for the last few hours had been following a bright red male zyngus as it swam from seaweed frond to seaweed frond. The zyngus was dining on the tiny aphish molluscs that swarmed over the dark green sea plants that waved in the current.
Ascott came out here to think, to work through things in his own way. Crowds, noise, and the insufferable input of the world left him feeling nauseous. Floating in the warm brine of the ocean, he could hear only his steady breathing, and review the ticker tape of his thoughts in peace.
Charlotte was dying. Not like Mum and Dad, there for breakfast one morning and gone by lunchtime. This was the slow unravelling of a life. Like a sand sculpture eroding under the waves of the rising tide.
Charlotte was dying.
Ascott mentally walked around the idea, writing it on his mind's Thinking Wall and pacing around it, considering what it meant. Charlotte dead. Dead as Mum and Dad. Dead as everyone else in the Pudding family line. Being an orphaned adult was bad enough. However, the thought of losing his entire family, Ascott felt, left an emptiness that could not be filled.
The zyngus flicked the feathery fronds of its tail and zipped downwards to a fresh buffet of molluscs. Ascott waved his arms in the water, propelling himself forward and maintaining his observation.
He hadn't cried when his parents died. The news came via an email from Charlotte, sent to him at Brix University where he was in his first year of studying marine biology. That moment was an anchor stone in his life. The lecturer had been speaking on the diversity of sea life in the Aardvark Archipelago. The potential for unknown species and behaviours to be observed, catalogued and presented to the world was breath-taking, he enthused.
The email said,
Scotty, Mum and Dad are dead.
I'm making the arrangements.
PS: I'm calling dibs on the old desk.
Ascott had stood up in the lecture hall, the air having left his lungs and the room in a sudden rush of shock. His vision blurring, he stumbled over a haze of brightly coloured legs and shoes. He had just reached the aisle when a voice crashed in on him.
"Pudding?" the lecturer's voice cut through the kaleidoscope fog. "What are you doing?"
"I ... have to go," Ascott managed.
"Where is so important that you go at once?"
"There ... I have to go there." Ascott had waved a tremulous hand at the projected image at the island of Montaban, the only permanently inhabited island in the archipelago.
With the vacuum around him growing, Ascott blundered out of the hall. He had collapsed on a bench outside in the quad, gasping for air and feeling the sweat turn to ice water on his skin.
He took a sharp breath now, feeling the almost mechanical whisper of the air in the snorkel tube. Moving his arms, he felt the tension drain away again. Slow, deep breaths allowed the anxiety to fade.
Charlotte. He'd barely spoken to her since their parents' funeral. Ascott remembered staring, puzzled, at the people who claimed to have known his Mum and Dad and now mourned their passing in a way Ascott could not.
Ascott's sister had graduated college the year before their parents died. She had studied computer psychology and empathic systems programming, and was working in the field when it happened. She related to people in a way that Ascott never could, so it was better for her to deal with the stream of grieving faces. Charlotte knew what to say and how to accept the heartfelt condolences of the mourners.
Ascott had walked out of their parents' house smothered by the same sense of asphyxiation that had hit him when he received his sister's email. Charlotte had found him in the garden, pale, shaking, and short of breath.
"You okay, Scotty?" she said in the almost formal way of siblings with nothing in common.
"Yeah, just stuffy in there. I have to go." He couldn't look her in the eye.
"Back to Brix? It's a bit soon isn't it?"
"No, the Aardvark Archipelago." He waved vaguely southward.
"Why do you want to go there?" Charlotte sounded more like their mother than ever.
"Fish. I need to swim with the fish."
"There's Dad's aquarium, you could stick your head in that if you think it will help."
"Goodbye, Charlotte. Thanks for taking care of everything."
Ascott had gone straight from the house to the airport. He had found a zippilin flight that would (eventually) reach Montaban. That it wasn't a top tourist destination had reassured his need for isolation.
The zyngus vanished into a thick mat of weed called Bloody Seaweed by the local people. The name came from the strong, sinewy nature of the strands, which made clearing snarls of it from outboard motor propellers a frustrating and time-consuming chore. The motors, like most technology in Montaban, ran on imported empathic batteries. They also used solar panels to take advantage of the gigawams of free energy pouring out of the sky on a daily basis.
Ascott took a deep breath through the snorkel tube and dived down. The warm water slid past, cocooning him. Underwater he could fly, moving his arms and legs in gentle beats as he soared and plummeted. A single tanned fish in a Universe of other colours.
The Zyngus fish, Ascott mentally dictated, feeds on the tiny Aphish molluscs that swarm the broad leaves of seaweed in the sheltered lagoons and reefs of the Aardvark Archipelago. Using its specially adapted snout, the zyngus sucks up the shellfish whole and it is either a testament to the aphish's sense of fatalism or an indication of their complete lack of perception that they do not seem at all concerned by this decimation of their numbers. It is yet to be determined if they view the zyngus fish with a sense of religious awe, or if, as the data suggests, they are less aware of this predator's involvement in their life cycle than the seaweed is of the aphish that live on its fronds.
The sudden awareness that he was in desperate need of air disrupted this train of thought. Ascott swam upwards through an exhaled stream of silver bubbles. Breaking the surface, he drew breath through the curved tube of his snorkel and resumed floating and observing the underwater landscape.
With no sign of the zyngus, Ascott swam out from the reef and explored new territory. In the last year and a half, he had identified and named one hundred and thirty-six new species of sea life. Each one received an entry in his Encyclopaedia Brixichthyus.
The bottom dropped away here in a long, steady decline to the deeper ocean. Ascott knew that the islands were a mountain range, with the summits broaching the surface of the water, and the slopes spreading gently out towards a distant submarine plain.
The seaweed changed out here, becoming thicker and more gnarled, like old-growth forest. It obscured his view of any fish that might be down there. With one last intake of breath, Ascott swam down. The water pressed in on all sides as he kicked his way through the thermoclines. Reaching the bottom, he crouched in a patch of cold sand and waited.
Without SCRAM (Self-Contained Reticulating Air Mechanism) gear, he could hold his breath for about three minutes. The water at this depth was still clear, though several degrees cooler than the layers above. Around him were rocky outcrops, covered in seaweed, coral and shells. The fish he saw bustling about were familiar to him and not worthy of closer observation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pisces of Fate"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Mannering.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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