Chapter 1: Birth Day (excerpt)
Ocypode dove through the turquoise waters of Tillamook Reef toward the fringes of the celebration. Revelers floated everywhere. Strings of limpets, whelks, and periwinkles glittered around their necks, clicking when they moved. Brightly colored pigments stained their skin of blue and gray and silver with pictograms symbolizing the history of Aquarius. Ocypode ghosted through the crowd in silence. His own flesh bore no ornaments.
Ocypode of Tillamook had no desire to draw attention to himself.
He slipped through the window of an ancient building, its barnacle-encrusted frame long devoid of panes, and hovered in the opening like a misshapen eye thrust into the socket of a skull. Birth Day throngs made him want to flee toward open ocean. He preferred to watch from the shadows.
The surface shimmered overhead as sunlight filtered down to paint the reef. The drowned Human city had been reborn, bones of steel and concrete covered with a growth of corals. Fish darted between caves marked by crumbling doors and windows, danced across the reef like fragments of a shattered rainbow. Waves soughed beneath the chatter of the crowd. When he listened, Ocypode could almost grasp the secrets hidden in that ceaseless whisper.
Ocypode hated secrets. They had ruled his life for far too long…but not today.
“Are you avoiding me, Ocypode? Or are you avoiding everyone?”
Auriga floated a few meters away, skin gleaming silver in the sunlight, the fin ridges along her arms and legs and ear channels paling to a milky white. She had smeared her body with stripes of ebony and gold to mimic the markings of the butterfly fish from which she took her name. The sight of her made him ache. Foolish. Pointless. The Pod Leader’s mate was beyond the reach of anyone, especially an Atavism.
“Stop gaping and come with me,” said Auriga. “It’s finally finished, and I want you to see it!”
Ocypode swam from his refuge and joined her as she kicked toward the center of the reef…toward the heart of the massing crowd. A thousand eyes impaled him. Most Atavisms either learned to ignore the stares or avoided them by hiding in the Archive caverns. Ocypode preferred the second strategy. But, on Birth Day, he could not deny his duty. He could not deny Auriga.
They glided into an open space that had been a park when Tillamook lay above the waves. The coral-crusted facades of ancient storefronts encircled it like the walls of an undersea amphitheater. So many Aquarians packed so tightly into this place! Ocypode felt like an injured dolphin ringed by schooling sharks.
“There, Ocypode, in the middle, beside the banquet nets. See how he rises to share our feast?”
Ocypode saw. A statue towered above the sand, massive limbs and torso shaped from interlocking chunks of stone. The head had been chiseled from a block of basalt, its features sharp, aquiline. Disturbing. Seaweed hair grew from the top of the basalt head, swaying in the current. Keyhole limpets formed the eyes, lustrous shells gleaming with intelligence, but hard. Unyielding. Could the others not see that? There was no mistaking the subject: Peter Cydon, the Great Father, the biosculptor whose peculiar genius had given birth to the Aquarian species.
Auriga bubbled with pride. “It’s taken months, but it was worth it. I felt him guiding me, helping me place each fragment. He wanted to be here. He wanted to celebrate the two-hundredth Birth Day of his children, and he chose me to make that possible. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, Ocypode. My greatest honor.”
Ocypode could not find the words to praise her without betraying himself. She would deify a man who was as much a devil as a god! If only she knew the truth.
It was time for all Aquarians to know the truth.
A hand clasped his shoulder. “Welcome, Ocypode,” said Rhincodon. “I was beginning to fear you wouldn’t show.”
Ropes of muscle twitched beneath Rhincodon’s mottled skin. The Pod Leader had been named after the whale shark, largest fish to swim the oceans. An apt spirit-name indeed. Both were intimidating in appearance; both generally possessed a gentle nature. Yet only a fool would rouse the anger of either.
“My apologies. I got busy in the Archives and lost track of time. A lorekeeper is more slave to his lore than master of it.”
“Then you must be the Great Father’s most loyal servant. I trust you’ll share some of your mysteries with us on this special day?”
Dread squirmed in Ocypode’s belly. Still, he nodded as he knew he must. “Of course.”
I will share more than you ever imagined.
The Pod Leader wrapped an arm around Auriga, pulling her close. “This is a day to share with those we love, Ocypode. I saw your parents near the banquet nets. You should sample the fruits of Mother Ocean and join them.”
Ocypode swam through the crowd, pulled a stone-crab claw from one of the nets and a handful of kelp smeared with spice-paste from another, and rose toward the surface without a backward glance. He didn’t want to join his parents. He didn’t want to see the way their gaze shifted between his eyes and his deformities, to hear the strain in their voices when they told him how proud they were. Atavisms were emotional exiles from birth: marooned in that genetic limbo between Human and Aquarian, possessing traits of both species. Doomed to be less than either.
He did not need his parents’ pity. He needed room to breathe.
The smell of brine and rotting kelp filled his nostrils as he breached the surface. In the distance, Sky-Swimmer knifed above the waves, somersaulting before his streamlined body sliced into the sea. Other Aquarian heads poked above the water to marvel at the dolphin’s agility. They lingered just long enough to fill their lungs before descending to join the others. Mother Ocean shielded them from deadly heat and radiation. Ocypode remained despite the risks. Someone breached beside him: Mobula, his senior assistant in the Archives. She, like all lorekeepers, was an Atavism. Her eyes gloomed dark and fathomless as the abyss.
“So here we are again, Ocypode. The two of us, feasting with all our loved ones.”
Before he could reply, Sky-Swimmer flopped into the sea beside them with a thunderous splash, the chatter of dolphin laughter mocking their somber mood.
“Half-brother, half-brother, why float lonely and broken on top-sea like storm-torn kelp when others of your tribe fill bottom-sea with joy?”
Ocypode jabbed Sky-Swimmer on one white-striped side before the dolphin could dance away. “Half-brother, your spirit glows brighter than the sun but does not burn what it touches. You would not understand.”
The dolphin flicked his tail, showering Ocypode and Mobula with another spray of seawater. “Sky-Swimmer knows only a fool starves when fish are plentiful!”
Sky-Swimmer streaked away before Ocypode could reply. How could he explain the source of his unease? Mobula offered him a bitter smile that never touched her eyes.
“What will you tell them, Ocypode? What fairy stories will you weave for them today?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for weeks. We’re not a child species anymore. The darkest stories sometimes teach the most important lessons, don’t you think?”
He filled his lungs and plunged once more toward the reef, looking for a place to drift into the festival without attracting notice. He spotted Rhincodon and Auriga near the monstrous monument. As much as he despised the image of the Great Father, Auriga drew him like an undertow. Rhincodon waved him closer. Cords in the Pod Leader’s neck tightened as he whistled so piercingly that the entire crowd fell silent.
“My friends, I’m pleased that so many have joined us for this special day. Two centuries ago, the Great Father released the virus that gave us life. Think on that. Almost a hundred and fifty thousand tides have come and gone while our race transformed the Great Father’s dream into reality. It all began here. Tillamook Reef. We who are fortunate enough to call this place home play a special part in history. With that privilege comes a burden. We must breathe the legends of this sacred place just as we must breathe the air above.”
Rhincodon turned to Ocypode and smiled. “Someone makes that easier for all of us: Ocypode, son of Pandalus and Seriola. He preserves the ancient Archives that contain the knowledge of the Great Father, the One who gave us to the sea and gave the sea to us. Today, Ocypode helps us honor our debt. Today, we will remember.”
Dread. Dread so thick and turgid he could not even move. The eyes of the crowd crawled across the not-quite-Human, not-quite-Aquarian contours of his body like crabs nibbling a carcass. Ocypode could do nothing but float there, in a void of stifled merriment and frozen conversations, as scavenger eyes stripped the substance from his bones. A year ago, he had stumbled through some comforting myth about the Great Father’s wisdom without much trouble, but secrets festered. Lies began to burn.
They don’t want to hear the truth about their heritage. What will it do to them?
And…what will they do to me?
Before he could decide how to begin, a mournful cry pierced the ocean’s background hiss. The throng began to murmur. Another cry, closer, chilled the waters of the reef with anguish. Ocypode recognized it first.
The crowd turned like a school of startled herring and swam toward the sound. Rhincodon and Auriga took the lead. Ocypode fell behind the others, cursing his flaccid, puny fin ridges. Something brushed against his back.
“Half-brother, half-brother, Tattered-Flukes calls and I must be your fins.”
Ocypode grabbed Sky-Swimmer’s dorsal fin as the dolphin towed him in the direction of the cry. Ocypode felt a surge of glee as he and Sky-Swimmer torpedoed past the others, leaving even mighty Rhincodon in their wake. His happiness evaporated when another snatch of whale-song filled his ear channels with misery. An immense shape loomed out of the shadows.
The venerable humpback barely moved. He didn’t answer Ocypode’s greeting, didn’t seem to hear. Ocypode moved closer. He rose to scratch around the barnacles that infested Tattered-Flukes’s head, the ritual of welcome between Aquarian and whale, and recoiled. Shiny patches of gray-green rock encrusted the humpback like the skeleton of a giant coral not yet fully formed. Tattered-Flukes trembled beneath Ocypode’s hand, sang in purest agony. Ocypode answered with songs of comfort. But, inside, he could not quell his own panic. This was a pain he couldn’t take away.
He prayed the others would arrive quickly, and bring with them greater wisdom than his own.
Rhincodon was the first to reach them, to share Ocypode’s shock. Dismay. Helplessness. He turned to another arrival — young, powerfully built — and gave orders. “Fetch the Guardians. Maybe they can heal what we can’t.” The young Aquarian extended the fin ridges along his inner thighs and legs, interlocked them, and kicked away.
The Guardians: Human scientists who chose to live beneath the waves and continue the Great Father’s work, generation after generation. Yes. They were the only chance.
“We need to know what did this,” whispered Rhincodon. “Ask him how it happened.”
Ocypode swam to the side of the humpback’s head so he could make eye contact, a source of reassurance for cetaceans as well as humanoids. He crooned a question, rendering the humpback dialect as precisely as he could.
“Tattered-Flukes, half-brother, what did this?”
The humpback’s song grew weaker. So many nuances of tone and pace and rhythm. Ocypode thought he grasped it, for a moment, but that was madness. Madness!
“His words swim away before I catch them,” muttered Rhincodon. “Something about Astoria Reef, I think. The rest eludes me.”
Ocypode nodded, unable to ignore the humpback’s pleading eye as he tried to find some alternate translation. “He’s come from Astoria, yes. He sings of catastrophe and evil magic. It doesn’t make sense! And yet his back… Dead, Rhincodon. Tattered-Flukes says that all of Astoria Reef is dead. He says they were turned to stone.”
Brian Burt won the Gold Award for his short story “The Last Indian War,” in the Writers of the Future Contest, and has been published in small press anthologies, genre magazines, and online publications. He is currently writing the environmentally themed Aquarius Rising trilogy, which is being published by Double Dragon Publishing. His debut novel, the first part of the trilogy, In the Tears of God won the 2014 EPIC e-book award for science fiction. The second novel, Blood Tide, has also been released, and Brian is currently working on the third book, The Price of Eden. This sci-fi/fantasy trilogy of novels stems from Brian’s passion for environmental themes, exploring a potential future in the wake of accelerating climate change when a disastrous attempt to reverse global warming goes horribly wrong. The series focuses on human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians, who have built thriving reef communities among the drowned human cities along the coasts but are caught in an escalating struggle with human scientists determined to restore the continental wastelands at any cost. Brian brings to our moderating team a background in science fiction, fantasy, weird and dark fiction, and horror. He hopes to continue writing speculative-themed eco-novels. He also enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, horseplay, red wine, and local craft brews. Read more here.