Chapter One: Scales and Songs
October 9th, 2099
Lying in a bathtub filled with cold saltwater, Freddie Molloy screamed in agony as his skin turned to scales.
His hands grasped at the tub’s slippery, chipped ends, his knuckles turning white. They were the only part of him that could keep still. Everything else was movement. His legs kicked about, splashing bucketfuls of water onto the cracked tiled floor. He threw his head back, baying like a dying sea lion. His chest and stomach heaved and stretched, his ribs sticking out. His skin rippled against his muscles, changing and shimmering beneath the flickering lights.
Almost done, Freddie’s feverish mind whispered, cutting through the fog of anguish. Goddamn it, you can do it. Almost done.
And then, at last, Freddie could eliminate the almost part. The agony stopped, as suddenly as someone had flipped a switch. Freddie leaned back into the blood-tinged water, panting and hissing as though he had just fled a pack of hungry lions. His hands still gripped the tub’s sides, albeit in a loosened grip. Shaking some damp hair out of his eyes, he glanced at the clock.
It was five-thirty. He had to be at the lab by eight. Good. He had time. If he wasn’t going to be in here for at least an hour, then he could expect to repeat this entire ritual tomorrow instead of next month. Freddie looked down at himself. Completely hidden beneath the seawater was his now scaly body, shimmering like polished nickels. He ran a hand down his arm, which was now slippery and cool to the touch. It felt no different from the thousands of fish he’d handled in the lab, syringe and scalpel at the ready. And yet, it wasn’t enough. He still had two legs instead of a tail. He lacked gills and webbed hands.
Ten years, and the failure still stung as it had that day.
Freddie scowled. An old, black anger, as familiar as a lifelong friend, flickered within him. “Fuck,” he spat out, free for the moment to say anything he wanted. Then, taking a deep breath, he submerged himself completely beneath the rippling surface. Silent. Dark. Frigid. He lay there, beneath the saltwater, with his lungs contently filled with air. The coldness numbed his scaly skin, burning through to his muscles. But it was better than acid. Freddie had learned from past mistakes and resolved to collect water farther out into open sea. The bay and port were surrounded by little more than acid.
Did it hurt when you walked out into that storm, Mother Dearest? Freddie’s voice, made raspy by anger, hissed soundlessly. Did the acid burn through your skin and muscles like they were paper? Did your bones melt like wax? Was that enough to convince you that you’d fucked up, or did you embrace it? Grateful to be at death’s door instead of with me and Dad?
I hope it hurt. I hope it fucking hurt like hell.
Breaking the surface for air, Freddie leaned back again. Trying to relax, he pushed his wrath in the back of his mind where it belonged. When he was underwater, cut off from all sights and sounds—distractions—certain thoughts came out to play. Thoughts that felt good to indulge in from time to time, but could easily drive him mad. Freddie raked a hand through his drenched hair, working through a couple of knots. Might as well enjoy the peace while it lasted. In a little less than an hour, he would have to climb out of the tub and towel himself off. Once his scales were dry, they would revert back to skin. The pain would return with all the sudden and terrible force of a thunderbolt. And all he could do was scream until it stopped.
He would forget that terrible pain by the time breakfast was cooking. That is, until next month.
The city began to awaken as the tea kettle began to whistle. Funny. Freddie thought his shrieking would have woken everybody up five times over. Maybe they were all used to it by now. Perhaps they wrote it off as a ghost. Or maybe, they knew what he was and gave him a wide berth. Just like everyone else except for Dad (and even then, his companionship was mostly born from guilt and pity).
Whatever the reason, Freddie welcomed the solitude. For the most part, he didn’t like people.
As the sky paled from indigo to cerulean, Freddie worked by the light of a small, ceramic lamp. His latest discovery, found in a thrift shop two miles south. White and veined with pale lavender, it may have once decorated an old granny’s parlor. Now, it formed a halo of warm light as Freddie prepared some Earl Grey. The hot mug and familiar scent immediately put him at ease. Chased his thoughts further away. Holding it close for warmth, he raided the cupboards for something sweet. Ah, triumph! The last pack of chocolate biscuits.
As he claimed three, his mouth watering in anticipation, Freddie saw how little food he had left. It was only thanks to his latest dinner with Dad (just two days prior) that he had anything left in the fridge. Specifically, it contained half a homemade pizza, and two small plates of brownies. Not much by any stretch. Just as well. Three more days, and a month will have passed. Once that happened, all he had to do was go to the food department, show his documents, and claim his food rations for November.
Freddie had been told that he was one of the lucky ones. After all, he got housing, food, free schooling for his future kids (though he wasn’t holding his breath on that one), and semi-decent healthcare. All he had to do in return was let the government keep his fees to cover his past education, plus interest, live in a bugged apartment, keep his mouth shut, not say a word when his pension would undoubtedly disappear, and do whatever his current paymaster ordered. That was more than what most people could say. Still, he found it a bit hard to be grateful.
Chomping greedily into the first biscuit, stale and scant in flavor, Freddie took to the window. Pushing the curtain aside, and making a mental note to wash it soon, he took in the early morning. Situated as high as he was, Freddie felt that he could almost reach out and touch the thick, lead-colored clouds. Out in the distance, dwarfing everything around it, was a cluster of buildings that gleamed like slabs of volcanic rock. That was where the wealthy lived, with everything they could possibly need (from supermarkets to private clinics to gyms) under the same roof. It was no wonder they almost never left.
It would be all too easy to wipe them all out, with some careful planning and a few powerful, home-made explosives. But Freddie was a geneticist, not a chemist. All the same, fantasizing about those buildings going up in flames, the upper-crusts screaming as they died, their money unable to save them for once, gave Freddie the same kind of relief as a shot of heroin or a drag of a cigarette. He gave it a withering look, imagining one person in particular living there, before lowering his gaze.
Fifty-odd feet below, the ocean churned. Dark as ink, frothy and white-capped. No headlights out yet, or so few that they made not a lick of difference. The docked boats and water scooters looked like children’s toys as they bobbed to and fro, powerless to the current. Even though he could not see it from this height, Freddie knew that his own water-scooter was down there, chained to one of the Anemone Apartments’ many metal hoops. No fancy self-driving limo-boat for me, no sir! Because unlike some, I don’t have oil pumping through my veins!
He could hear the ocean roar even from up here. It was subtle, almost a hum. But it was always there. Nobody could get away from it. Not completely. They had summoned it through decades of greed and willful ignorance, and now it was here to stay. Like stupid kids that play with Ouija boards and wind up tormented by demons. Not that Freddie believed in demons. He didn’t believe in much of anything.
The tea was cooler now, and that biscuit was getting lonely in his belly. Freddie downed his beverage in three deep gulps, scalding his tongue, and chewed his way through breakfast. He had no idea how he would break his fast tomorrow. Just as he didn’t know whether or not he would be able to stock up on food today. Hell, he might not even manage tomorrow. The lab was getting close to its deadline, and that would no doubt call for double shifts and all-nighters.
But that was life for those like him: Hard work. Ass-kissing. And the occasional taking of what wasn’t offered.
Freddie got to work half an hour early, and easily found a spot in the enclosed parking lot. The only other water vehicle was a Neptune 2000, a swift, high-tech, and resistant speedboat that cost more money than most families got in a year. Painted a brilliant turquoise, it greedily sucked up the misty morning light and used it to shine all the brighter.
Immediately, Freddie was on guard. Nobody at Gaia Corporations had this kind of money. Even their fucking dreams were scrabbling for pennies. Gaia Corporations was a cauldron of different sciences. Even though Freddie did not particularly like any of his colleagues (except dear old Dad), he knew that this contained the wealth of the city’s knowledge. But it was not the city’s source of literal wealth; the rich had that on lock-down. Fucking dragons sitting on piles of gold, ready to reduce anyone who came nearby to cinders.
Thus, the Neptune 2000’s presence could only mean one thing: One of the elite had descended from their luxurious towers and come to pay them a visit. Oh, yippie! If it was who Freddie suspected, then they were all in for a scolding. And threats. There were always threats. As if that could magically bring them closer to finishing.
Just. Fucking. Wonderful. Sighing, Freddie ran a hand through his shaggy, dark blond hair. Trudging up the steps, he made it to the front doors. Shifting his attention to the door labeled STAFF ONLY, he pressed a button. There was a moment’s pause. Then, a robotic voice spoke to him through the microphone. “Name and print.” The screen beneath the button glowed green.
Freddie yanked off one of the gloves of his anti-toxins suit. Pressing his bare thumb on the screen, he leaned close to the microphone. By design, the nozzle of his helmet did not muffle his voice. “Fredrick Molloy, assistant to Dr. Martin Molloy.”
He felt a thin band of warmth rush beneath his thumb as it was scanned. Then, there came a mechanical chirrup. With a hiss, the door was unlocked. “Welcome, Freddie Molloy. Please enter and await decontamination.”
Freddie passed through the front door, removing his helmet and tucking it under his arm as he did so. The door swung shut behind him. For a split second, the chamber was dark. Then, fluorescent bulbs blazed with life above his head. He squinted at the sudden brightness, already turning in a circle as the sprinklers went off. Freddie felt the disinfectant soaking him through like a warm rain, dampening his hair and running down his cheeks. It stung his chin where he’d shaved that morning. Wincing, he continued to spin like a ballerina in a music box. He counted to ten.
Once he got there, the sprinklers were promptly shut off. He stopped moving, already facing the elevator. Hot gusts of wind blew in from all directions, trapping him in a powerful vortex. He stood as still and strong as a pillar, feeling the cleansing fluids dry. At last, the elevator unlocked with a click. That was his cue. The doors slammed shut the moment he got in.
There were a total of eighty floors above sea level in this building, and over a hundred and forty beneath it. Each floor tackled a different, scientific purpose. Agriculture. Births. Engineering of various sorts, from environmental to medical. Computer and informational. And so on. Unless you were the head of your own department, you could only go where your job required you.
Being the son of the head of the genetics department did not grant Freddie that privilege. But Freddie didn’t mind. Besides the fact that he could not bring himself to care even if his life depended on it, he had still heard the stories floating about the concrete walls. No matter the specific branch, science was the city’s single mother with three jobs. It worked tirelessly to provide, only to be screamed at by red, hungry mouths. Always demanding more, more, more, not caring how that ‘more’ was obtained.
One such mouth was there right now. Arguably, he was one of the biggest mouths out there. Both literally and figuratively. Freddie heard him before he saw him. As usual.
“It’s been three weeks, Molloy!” He was shouting. “How much longer do I have to wait?!”
“I-I-I know, Mr. York. I’m t-terribly s-sorry. But we’re d-doing everything we c-can.” Freddie knew that voice. Unlike a certain woman who had decided that death was preferable to living in this shitty world with her family, that voice’s owner had been there through it all. Every scraped knee. Every lightning storm. Every food shortage. All of it. It was almost soft, like wool. On the rare occasions in which Freddie had really pushed his luck, that voice had yelled. But in moments like these, when the voice’s owner was stuck between a rock and a hard place, it would stutter.
Well, Freddie cracked his knuckles, guess it’s time to step into the phone booth. Or whatever it was. God, the Dry World was weird!
“Oh, you are, are you?!” Mr. York snapped, shaking his head. “Puh-leeze! After all the money I’ve given you, and after all the fancy new equipment, too, I should be seeing some kind of progress! Instead, what do you have? Nothing!” He crossed his huge arms. “This is so unfair! I already told Gerald and Ray I’d have the weapon today! But, no. You got nothing.”
“I-I-I’m sorry!” Besides being sorry, Dad sounded downright scared.
“You’re always sorry!” Mr. York bellowed. “It’s pathetic! Maybe I should look to someone else to get my little project done, hmm?”
“You could try.” Freddie spoke up, causing the other men to turn around. Dad actually had frightened tears in his gunmetal-gray eyes, and his posture was hunched even by Dad’s standards. As was typical, Freddie felt a mixture of pity and disgust for his old man. He understood why he let himself get pushed around like this. But it still got his blood boiling. Especially when rich assholes like York were so ready to take advantage of his father’s demure nature.
Speak of the devil. Mr. York was his usual, haughty self. His company’s world-famous Dew had frozen his features in his late-thirties even though, in actuality, he was well into his fifties. He wore a three-piece suit made of alligator skin, which stretched to accommodate his three hundred-pound frame. His dyed red hair was slick with pomade, and his plump hands were warted with rings. Mr. York looked nothing like the posters plastered all around the city. In those, he serenely looked onward to a clean, hopeful future. Now, his face was beet-red and his brow was furrowed. Smirking, Freddie wondered what the polls would look like if the city saw Mr. York like this.
Mr. York snorted when he saw him. “I suggest you stay out of this, child. Adults are talking.” He smirked as he said this, so eager to dominate the son as he already had the father.
“I’m the child?” Freddie asked, trying to keep (most of) his anger hidden. “You’re the one who’s kicking up a fuss.” He approached them, collecting his white lab coat from the hanger and slipping it over his thin shoulders.
“And for the record, we do have something. We’ve been running tests day and night. You didn’t exactly ask us for the moon, sir, but you did ask for the next best thing. We’re still studying the genetic makeup of every damn species of fish that your men have brought in. Though there are a few possible candidates, we belong to a group of animals that split off from fish some four hundred million years ago.”
He offered Mr. York a smile that was barely better than bared teeth. “So, we’re going to need something to bridge the gap. And finding one will take time. No matter how much you stomp your feet.”
Mr. York’s eyes narrowed. “You’d better watch how you talk to me, boy. I was running a fifty-million-dollar company while you were still shitting your diapers.” He took a single step forward, pointing at Freddie with a sausage-like finger. “With one word, I can erase your fucking birth certificate. Never forget that.”
Freddie’s jaw tightened. “How can I, when you people oh so love to rub your privilege in everybody’s fuckin’ face?”
Mr. York looked like he was about to bust a blood vessel. “Now you’ve gone too far.”
Freddie grinned wickedly. I’m just getting started, tubbo!
“No!” Dad planted himself between Freddie and Mr. York, making himself as small as possible. Holding his hands up as if trying to stop a charging bull. “Please, sir! Please! He—he’s not feeling well today.” He clapped his hands together, bowing his head. “Please, excuse him. It won’t happen again. Please.”
Freddie clenched his jaw so tightly that his teeth hurt. Mr. York, on the other hand, looked like the cat that had just got the cream. (By the looks of it, York regularly got the cream; both figuratively and literally.) Thoroughly enjoying the groveling, York played with the rings on his fingers. Humming. “Fine. Since you asked so nicely.”
Dad looked ready to pass out from relief.
That is, until Mr. York reached forward and grabbed Dad by the tie, yanking him so close that their noses almost touched. “You have three months. That’s when Mayor Lovette officially steps down, and a new mayor will be elected. I don’t care that my rivals are also my friends. Give me my secret weapon, and I’ll donate a million dollars to this lab. Fail, and I’ll shut it the fuck down.”
“Y-y-yes, sir!” Dad nodded frantically.
“Yeah, whatever.” Freddie rolled his eyes.
“And for Christ’s sake, get some manners in your failed science project of a son.” Mr. York hissed. “Or I’ll have my boys do it for you!”
Dad whined like a scared puppy. “I-I-I w-w-will, sir! I p-promise!”
With an unconvinced humph, York let go of Dad’s tie and marched away, intentionally slamming his shoulder into Freddie’s on the way out. With the push of a button, the elevator opened its doors and swallowed the billionaire whole. Unable to resist, Freddie flipped the bird at the doors. Wishing with every fiber of his being that he could do it in front of the fat fuck, without facing guaranteed imprisonment and/or death afterward.
Freddie smelled a lecture coming. He crashed in one of the chairs planted in front of his father’s desk, propping his feet against the smooth wood.
“I’ve asked you not to put your feet up,” Dad reprimanded as he claimed his usual seat.
Freddie shrugged. “I’m in trouble anyway. ‘Sides, it’s comfy.”
Dad sighed but otherwise did not protest. Unsurprising. Dad had a severe allergy to confrontation. Freddie, on the other hand, had a taste for poking the bear. If nothing else, he could enjoy a good, loud roar before sprinting for the hills. “Son,” Dad began, the stutter gone, “you have to stop antagonizing our clients. We need them.”
Freddie ran a hand, roughly, through his dark blond hair. “Please. We’ll always have our customers. These people have too much money and too few brain cells. Even if York decides to take his chances without us—and, believe me, Pops, he fucking won’t—some other rich asshole will take his place in a month or two.”
“Without York’s support, we’ll be shut down by then.” Dad replied sternly. “What will happen then? Do you know how much the city relies on us to feed them? To give them children? To provide them with energy? Medicine?”
“If they need us so fucking much,” Freddie retorted, “then maybe the city council could fork over some damn dough every once in a while!”
“Honey, I’ve asked you not to swear,” Dad scolded, earning him an eye-roll from Freddie. “But besides that, son, that’s just not how things work. They barely worked that way in the Dry World, and they certainly don’t work that way now. The city council is at the whims of the wealthy, and the wealthy only care about us when they need something from us.” Dad met Freddie’s eyes, his own pleading. “Like it or not, son, that’s just the way things are. Try to fight it, and you’ll just get hurt. Please.” His cracked voice gave Freddie pause. “I can’t lose you, too.”
Freddie closed his eyes, exhaling through his flaring nostrils like an angry gorilla (that is, if the Dry World nature documentaries were right; the last wild gorilla died back in the 2040s, and the ones in the zoos were far too cowed to do anything cool like that). He chewed his bottom lip, deciding on a course of action.
He knew that, technically, Dad was telling the truth. This was indeed the way things were, and trying to go against it was foolhardy. But did Dad really have to kneel and beg so readily? Did he really have to be such a submissive bitch whenever the elite so much as looked at him funny?
Much to his relief, Freddie had mostly taken after Dad in regards to appearance. They were both pale and thin, with blond hair (dark blond, verging on light brown for Freddie, platinum for Dad), and large eyes. But Dad’s deplorable upbringing had left him standing at five feet in height, nearly an entire foot shorter than Freddie. Dad also had a cherubic face, the very picture of wholesomeness and sweet naivete. Nothing like Freddie’s thinner, more angular face, complete with an aquiline nose and a resting expression that screamed, go away.
Their faces reflected their innermost selves, and it was in that regard that Freddie felt the most different from his father. Freddie had no problem butting heads with people, no matter how rich or powerful they were. Dad, on the other hand, feared confrontation the same way in which some people might fear sharks or quicksand or heights.
Then again, Freddie supposed that this behavior was to be expected. Dad was a transit. He had been born in the painful transition between the Dry World and their current, noticeably wetter, reality. Like most of his generation, Dad had been born in a survivor’s camp and spent his formative years scrounging for food and evading an endless revolving door of natural disasters.
He’d seen the government sell off parts of America one chunk at a time, to the point that it was stuck with the states nobody wanted. He’d seen the flood drown millions, and leave billions homeless and desperate. He’d seen dozens of horrendous diseases emerge from melted ice caps like swarms of hornets from crushed nests. He’d watched his own parents die of one such ailment when he was half Freddie’s age. Eventually, he had lived long enough to see order be reestablished, with new laws, and an even newer—yet ancient—pecking order.
Still, an unfair system was better than no system at all. Order, even massively biased order, surpassed unbridled chaos. So, Dad, along with everyone else who had lived through the world’s growing pains, bowed their heads and fully accepted their place in this new world. Accepted that they were cattle, so long as a shepherd was there to guide them through the dark. Because, as far as Dad was concerned, dignity and a backbone were small prices to pay for living in relative security.
Freddie was not wholly unsympathetic of his father. Of course he wasn’t. He was a cynic through and through, and he identified as a misanthrope. But he was not heartless. Especially not towards the man who loved him even though Freddie was unlovable. Who had raised him alone while still dealing with being a widower. And Freddie was aware that he had been a handful. Still was, in most regards.
So, really, he could afford to cut Dad some slack now. Especially since his little scuffle with York had probably frazzled Dad more than helped him as Freddie had originally intended.
Freddie took a deep, calming breath. When he spoke again, it was in a lower tone. “Okay, Dad. M’sorry.”
Dad’s look of relief made it worth swallowing his pride—not to mention a good chunk of his honesty. “Thank you.” He leaned back in his chair with a sigh, closing his eyes, reassembling himself. After a moment or so, he ran a pale hand down his face and smiled at Freddie. “I’m going to make some coffee. Would you like some?”
“Great.” He headed for the espresso machine sitting on a table, eager to tackle an easy, stress-free task. “While I’m at it, could you kindly refresh my memory on what we’ve got to do today? If I’m not mistaken, we have twenty specimens of fish to examine.”
“Sure thing, Pops.” Reaching into his lab coat’s deep pockets, Freddie came up with a holographic clipboard. With a few clicks, he summoned the day’s schedule. The glowing letters hovered in the air, color-coded to signal urgency. Deftly, he scheduled the red tasks sooner than he did the orange. Green was left for last. Even if he did want to see how the fish-brain-in-human-body simulation was going. “Yeah, you’re right. The specimens we’re looking at today include,” with the touch of a finger, he got a list, “eel, zebrafish, shark, stingray, and dolphin.”
“All protected species. All living in zoos and aquariums.” Dad sighed. “We’d better keep this under wraps, or every environmentalist in the city will bay for our blood.”
Freddie shrugged nonchalantly. As far as he was concerned, those clods had been backing a lost cause since society as he knew it came into being. If they wanted to keep kicking up a fuss, then so be it. It’s not like they had ever changed anything.
There came the familiar hisses, gurgles, and churning that came with making coffee. Father and son knew better than to try to talk as the machine got to work. Luckily, they did not have to wait very long. By the time Freddie had counted to ten, the noises had stopped. He heard the tinkling sound of a spoon tapping against a mug’s ceramic rim. “Two sugars as usual, or do you want to try curbing that insatiable sweet tooth of yours?”
Freddie blushed. “Christ, I got sick from Halloween candy once. Are you ever gonna let that fuckin’ go?!”
“Considering it took quite a bit of bleach and several hours to clean up your sick, I’m going to go with ‘no’.” Dad chuckled as he claimed the two mugs, bringing one to Freddie. “No need to feel shame though, son. When I was a child, I would get sick from any candy I could find.”
Freddie took his mug with a nod of thanks. “Were Halloweens as cool as you said they were?”
Dad sat back down at his desk, a wistful look in his eyes. “They were even better, if my parents and neighbors were to be believed.” By ‘neighbors’, he meant the people who had lived in tents surrounding his. From what Dad had told Freddie, life in a survivor camp had been hellish in many aspects.
There would be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people crammed into what amounted to five city blocks. Fighting for literally anything: Clean drinking water, food, a space to sleep, you name it. But every once in a while, in between the desperation and hunger and outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and osteomalacia, the people there would sit down and talk. The older ones would share stories of the dying world to those too young to have seen it.
Now, all those elders were dead, and their world with them. Not for the first time, it stirred a mixture of curiosity and melancholy in Freddie. Especially where his grandparents were concerned. Did he remind Dad of them in any way? Would they have liked him? Liked the world that he (sort of) called ‘home’? Freddie did not dare ask. Afraid of ripping open old wounds.
Instead, Freddie drank his coffee. Dad did, too. For a brief moment, there was silence in the office. Not quite peace, but an absence of anxiety. Of obligations. In those compressed sixty seconds, they were not the chief of the genetics department and an employee, working on a seemingly impossible project. They were simply a father and son sharing a cup of coffee.
Then, the moment ended.
Dad spoke quietly, almost to himself. “Mr. York wants his secret weapon, all neatly packaged with a bow on top. And he wants it soon.” His eyes clouded over. “If this is his idea of an advantage, I wonder what his rivals will cook up.”
Freddie shrugged, uninterested as usual. “Each of them already has a slice of this city. Some even have deals in other cities. So chances are, it’s going to be interesting.”
Dad sighed. “I really hope neither of them comes knocking at our door. Asking us to spill the beans, or to work for them instead. I really couldn’t handle that kind of conflict.”
Yeah, but your therapist would. I mean, if you fucking had one. If our bosses gave us money instead of food. Rather than voice his thoughts, even if they were humorous in tone, Freddie opted for reassurance. Poor Dad’s heart had the resilience of a hummingbird (again, Freddie had to base his theory off of Dry World nature documentaries). “I’m sure they won’t. And if they do, hey, we’ll deal with it.”
That seemed to do the trick. Dad smiled at Freddie once more, sitting a little straighter. “Yeah, you’re right.” He finished his coffee in a single gulp. “Go check on the test subjects and update their statuses if need be. We’ll be having a video conference with some marine biologists soon, and it’d be best if both of us did our chores before then. So,” he smiled, jerking his chin at the office’s door, “go on.”
Smiling sardonically, Freddie gave his father a military salute. “Aye-aye, captain.”
“Don’t get cocky,” Dad chided.
“Hey,” Freddie threw his hands up, “I gotta be me, Dad.”
Dad chuckled, raising his cup at Freddie. “So you do, my little tadpole. So you do.”
If someone had asked Freddie what he wanted to be when he grew up, back when he was a gap-toothed youngster with a spark in his eyes, Freddie would have said that he wanted to read. Especially fairy tales. He had loved fairy tales as a kid, especially when Dad would read them to him, doing the voices and everything. But he had enjoyed reading them himself, too, breathing life into the words printed on paper, imagining the fantastical lands they described. How easy it had been that these places were real, that such incredible people truly walked among us.
But life has a way of beating the dreams and flights of fancy out of you.
To Freddie, it had happened in the same way in which one falls asleep: Slowly, then all at once.
The books that he had once so lovingly poured over were now balancing the table in Dad’s apartment. Originally, Freddie had wanted to throw the damn things in the nearest dumpster before setting a match to it. But Dad had convinced Freddie to give them to him instead. Why? Freddie hadn’t a clue. Maybe Dad had assured himself that Freddie would one day regain his wide-eyed innocence. Or maybe he still clung to the hope of passing those raggedy old books along to a grandchild or two.
Fine. Let Dad keep them. Let them fuel his own flights of fancy. Freddie had not had any use for them in a long, long time.
Now, if anyone asked Freddie what he wanted to be, his answer would be simple: Alive. And in order to stay that way, he had to trudge through quite a lot of shit. Even if he had studied enough to be able to navigate the swamp, so to speak.
Once again using his thumb and vocal recognition, Freddie entered the updated containment area. Even though he’d been expecting it, the smell still hit him hard. Fish. Seawater. Closed-in and damp, close to rot. It was to be expected: This was the only section of their floor that lacked windows and security cameras. Normally, this would be an open dare to the Department of Sciences. But Mr. York had already paid them all off. Nobody else knew of this ace up his sleeve, and he wanted to keep it that way.
Fine by me, Freddie coolly thought, less paperwork for us. Pulling the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose, he reached into his pocket. As his hand reappeared, it held two items: His examination glasses, and his pad. He pressed a small button on the former, and slipped them on. Inserting the password (fuckingpassword) into the latter, he summoned the files one by one.
Test Subject Nine was a middle-aged male whose DNA had been spliced with three other animals just three days ago.
Percentage? Human: Fifty percent. Sea turtle: Thirty percent. Salamander: Ten percent. Cow: Ten percent.
The first component was natural. The sea turtle was what they were most interested in. The other two had been added in much smaller percentages in order to bridge the gap between Homo sapiens and Chelonioidea.
Freddie looked up, and his glasses got to work. The creature swimming in the first tank, illuminated by the fluorescent lights overhead, met his gaze with round, black eyes similar to a cow’s. His nose had flattened completely, reduced to two flaring slits. TS Nine’s skin, too, had changed since the alteration. It was much thicker, more leathery, and tinged green. He lacked a shell, but made up for it with the flippers that had replaced his arms and legs. Interestingly, two fingers and a thumb were growing at the ends of said flippers, much like a salamander. Freddie also noted that TS Nine’s size had changed as well. Before, he had been a man of average height; similar to Freddie himself, in fact. But now, he had gone down to maybe three or four feet.
This was all that Freddie could see without help. His examination glasses, already recording everything, now entered the field.
TS Nine was viewed on a black backdrop, outlined in white. His body appeared to be divided into subsections, like cuts of pork in a butcher’s shop in the rich part of town. One by one, Freddie selected them and collected the data. He started with the basics.
General state of health: Good.
Organ function: Normal.
There had been changes in TS Nine’s skeleton, obviously, with the shoulder blades and vertebrae fusing to form a parody of a sea turtle’s shell. The organs were a bit of both species. A second pair of lungs now rested against the first, allowing TS Nine to breathe underwater. The original set had shrunk down due to lack of use. If TS Nine died, and the chances of that were quite high despite the promising results, they could not harvest the organs.
This disappointed Freddie more than he’d expected. It would have been nice to profit off their failure, as they occasionally would. Organs were in high demand and in drastically short supply. All the time. Even trips to the black market could wind up being wasted journeys. Not because nobody ever donated them, but because the rich and powerful bought as many as they could get their hands on. Hoping to literally buy themselves more time on this drowned planet.
Ah, well. If those assholes wanted to extend the time they had left in this shitty place, then let them. Personally, Freddie had no care to live beyond the age of sixty-five, if only to prove himself right when his pension ‘disappeared’. Only forty-one years left to go!
The last of the data collected, Freddie recorded his hypothesis. Thus far, TS Nine was adapting to the change and was in overall decent health. The empty feeding tube (which Freddie refilled with the push of a button) indicated that his appetite was normal as well. But all of TS Nine’s predecessors had made it this far as well; and now, they were all in sealed boxes attending incineration. Things usually went downhill after the third day. The chances of TS Nine meeting the same fate were over sixty-five percent.
Oh, well. At least Winters would have a new toy to cut into. The guy was a sicko, no matter what anyone said. Freddie had seen that manic little gleam in his eye whenever he’d cut into something. Dead flesh was fine. But if the poor subject was still alive, then it was fucking Christmas for Winters.
A shuddering Freddie turned away from the tank. He made his way to a metal closet in the far end of the room, and unlocked it with his copy of the key. Inside was everything that a chamber such as this could need, neatly filed away in see-through plastic cabinets. First-aid. Stat sheets. Morphine. Sedation shots. And—joyest of joys—boxes for failed subjects. Airtight zippers. Extremely flammable fabric.
Freddie counted them. There were ten, folded into squares no bigger than his hand. Once they were opened, though, they could hold anything up to six feet in height and three hundred pounds in weight. He closed the closet once more, and locked the door.
He gave one last look at TS Nine. Then, his gaze turned to the other tanks. The creatures within them either swam or slept. Awaiting their turn. He sighed. “One of you shitheels better fucking live. For all our sake.”
Four hours later was lunchtime. In order to avoid absurdly long lines in a crowded cafeteria, as well as the risk of scientists not making it back to their floor in time, every field of study had its own, small lounge. It was almost pleasant, containing a microwave, a few coffeemakers, and a large television nailed to the wall. Scientists could either sit at small tables or on one of three sofas, donations by a satisfied patron some five years ago. Freddie had once read somewhere that, in the Dry World, these types of environments had contained large boxes filled with snacks—and back before monthly rations, tags, and lab-grown food became a reality.
Speaking of which. Today’s lunch was the same as the last three days: A covered dish of chicken curry. Freddie always left this in the freezer, meant to brave the month, so that he could enjoy it several days in a row before it was time to restock. Chicken curry was his favorite savory dish. It couldn’t beat chocolate, though. Few things could. Freddie stuck the recyclable plate into the microwave and punched in the numbers. The microwave whirled loudly, his meal spinning like a drunken dancer.
“Hey, quit holding up the line, Fish Boy!” A guy behind him snapped.
Freddie felt himself redden at the name. Normally, nobody on this floor dared call him names or give him trouble. He was the chief of genetics’ son, after all. But there was always an exception. And this exception was currently tapping his foot as though the floor had offended him. Growling under his breath, Freddie shot the guy the middle finger without turning around. “Wait your damn turn, ya fuckin’ guppy!”
Thankfully, the guy did not point out that calling him a guppy was a bit hypocritical. These days, everyone was a consumer. It was either that or starve. Before the guy could retort, the microwave dinged.
“Finally!” The guy barked.
“Honestly,” a girl’s voice chirped, “can you just cool it? Please?”
Freddie’s eyes followed the voice and found teal-haired Louise sitting on one of the sofas, a carton of unseasoned noodles on her lap. Having shrugged off her lab coat, she sported an azure shirt with the black silhouette of a mermaid printed on the front.
Freddie liked Louise well enough. A little ditsy, kind of a klutz, but not too bad. He acknowledged her with a nod that she returned before slipping on her headphones. Tapping her foot in tune with the music as she got back to eating.
Speaking of eating. Freddie collected his piping-hot lunch and hunted a chair, making sure to shoulder past the guy as he did so.
“Freak.” The guy muttered the last word under his breath. Freddie still heard it. Without thinking twice—indeed, without thinking at all—Freddie set his lunch down, turned towards the guy, and clocked him full in the face.
A gasp resounded across the lounge as the guy stumbled back several feet, crashing into a wall. For a minute, he looked as though he had been trapped on a roller-coaster ride one time too many. Then, he recovered, and glared at Freddie with beady eyes. “Oh, ya wanna fight?!”
“Yeah, I wanna fight!” Freddie tackled the guy again, slamming the back of his head into the wall. The guy seized him, pulling roughly at his hair and clothes. Before Freddie knew it, the two of them were rolling on the floor, trading punches and kicks like their ancestors did with baseball cards. Freddie could feel the bruises forming already, but his anger burned too hot for him to stop. The people in the lounge, including Louise, were clapping. Cheering. Chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” And how could anyone blame them? This was no doubt more entertaining than whatever inane shit was on TV.
That was when foreign hands, gloved in blue, appeared out of nowhere, grabbing the guy and tearing him off Freddie. The crowd whined in protest. The guy writhed and kicked, spitting out curses that would make a sailor staple their ears shut. Another pair of hands, same as its predecessor, grabbed Freddie with a grip that was sure to leave a mark. Roughly, he was yanked to his feet. Freddie, panting through clenched teeth like an angry animal, shifted his gaze from the hand to its owner. A security guard. Of fucking course. “Fighting again, tadpole?” The man chided.
Freddie scowled. “He started it.”
“Bullshit!” The guy yelled. “You’re even more messed up than your brain-dead daddy!”
The anger returned with a vengeance. Freddie tugged against the guard’s grip like a dog straining against a leash. “I dare you to fucking say that again!”
“Enough!” The security holding Freddie’s rival shook him like a doll, much to Freddie’s immense satisfaction. “Do we have to take you two away?”
The guy sighed, tearing himself free, before jerking his chin at Freddie. “Just keep that punk away from me!”
Freddie hissed at him like a burned cat. The security guard—Freddie could never remember any of their names or their faces, but they had all manhandled him at some point—tightened his hold on him a bit. “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that so we don’t have to add any more pages to your disciplinary folder. ‘Cause it already looks like a Dry World novel!” The security guard let him go. “One more outburst today, and we’re telling your father.”
“Maybe you ain’t noticed,” Freddie reclaimed his lunch, “but I ain’t pissing my pants at the prospect.” And with that, he shambled away, red-faced and fire-lunged, wishing the fight could have continued, but still strangely glad it was over. Even the crowd had lost interest at this point, returning to distractedly watching television and resuming their conversations, all the while waiting in line to heat up their meals. Just another day in the office.
Freddie sat on the sofa with a sigh. The two other geneticists who had been seated there saw who had joined them and quickly moved to another seating arrangement on the other side of the lounge. They may have enjoyed watching him pummel—and get pummeled—by some half-wit brute, but that did not mean that they saw him as any less of a freak than said brute had. A smirking Freddie swung his legs onto the rest of the sofa, dominating it with the length of his thin body. This done, he attacked the chicken curry. Glad that it was still warm—though not as much as his blood, still thirsting for violence. The meat was tender and plump, as to be expected by an animal born and bred in a lab and fed vitamin-strengthened corn for the entirety of its short life. Same as pork, beef, and duck. On certain days, one could hardly tell them apart. But the spices were rich and hot, flooding Freddie’s palate and warming his body. The chicken died a second death in less than three minutes.
Wiping his mouth, a satisfied Freddie looked at the clock. He had ten minutes left, and he was not going to attend his next job in any hurry. So, he directed his attention to the television.
And immediately regretted it.
“… Even though all ten of our cities have officially closed their gates to refugees, thousands are still camping outside the borders, waiting to be let in. Over eighty percent of these refugees are confirmed to be from the Midwest Wetlands, recently hit by its third hurricane this year alone. Left without homes, jobs, or material possessions, they flee to larger establishments in search of a fresh start. Now, even though the mayors of every city have made it clear that they simply have no room, they will need to do something about it soon. Especially with Wet Season underway, and heavy rain on the menu for the next six months.”
The lady onscreen recited her words with the passion and skill of an amateur porn star. Even as she tried to look serious, Freddie counted her gaze flickering to the side thrice. As if she were counting the seconds left before she could move on to the next bit of news. Or, possibly, go to the beauty parlor for her next Dew injection. People like her were rich enough to be able to afford a few, to slowly freeze their physical appearance in their forties. Not as young-looking as the elite, but better than the plebs forced to age the natural way.
The bird’s eye view of the fugitives offered no respite to the viewer. The lady may have been bored, but she hadn’t been exaggerating the number. Thousands upon thousands of people were clamoring before the cities’ entrances, yelling to be let inside. They all looked like drowned rodents, shivering and embracing each other in a vain effort to keep warm. Coughing and hacking, unused to the toxins that hovered above the cities in thick, grimy clouds. Their boats, too, looked ready to sink beneath the trash-choked waters.
It wasn’t the first time Freddie had seen things like this. Far from it. But it still made him shiver. His joy over the chicken curry completely gone, he kept watching.
“In other news,” the lady visibly brightened as she spoke these words, “Disney is about to open the final installment of the Disney Islands. Kaua’i, just like all of the other Hawaiian Islands before it, was purchased by Disney. The Garden Isle joined the party early last year in order to create one of Disney’s most audacious projects to date: An entire chain of islands dedicated to the magic of Disney! Those who grew up with Disney—and really, who hasn’t—will be able to book a room in Disney’s five-star hotel, the Magic Castle, and enjoy entire days of family fun!”
Immediately, trembling and desperate families were switched out for pastel-colored castles, gleaming roller-coasters, and young women in princess costumes, waving and grinning like their lives depended on it. Freddie could just make out copper-skinned locals in the background, sweeping the sidewalks and serving drinks. Dressed in round, black mouse ears, they did their best to seem cheery but instead looked miserable. Freddie wiped his mouth of residue curry.
“Just like with all the other islands, the locals initially protested. They even tried to stop construction more than once. However, the communities changed their minds once Disney bought the land they stood on! Including the national parks and beaches, which were converted to parking lots, theme rides, hotels, and, of course, pure Disney magic! And because of this amazing business transaction, the entire island will experience an economic boom unlike anything it’s ever seen!”
Now, the lady was barely suppressing her glee. Freddie had no doubt that she would spend tonight begging her husband to take her there for their wedding anniversary. On her knees, hands clasped, the whole shebang. “Tickets cost five thousand per person, for the moment. But just like its predecessors, the costs will eventually go down.” The lady continued, grinning like a demented clown. “So you, too, can enjoy the magic of Disney!”
“Pass,” Freddie muttered. The lady, however inane, had been right about one thing: Pretty much everyone had grown up with Disney. Once upon a time ago, Freddie had loved Disney films almost as much as he had fairy tales. Which had made it hurt all the more when he had learned the truth behind the glass slippers, and bewitched apples, and long-haired maidens.
The only thing that Disney loved more than new, young audiences was the formerly-young audiences coming back for more. Because in a world as harsh, unforgiving, and ruined as this, nostalgia is a cow that never goes dry. Freddie glanced at the clock and was relieved to find that he still had three minutes. Good. Just enough time to get ready for the next task.
However unpleasant, Freddie was certain that he would perform it a thousand times over rather than watch this crap. He got up from the sofa, his mood three shades darker. The lady’s excited yammering followed him out of the lounge. The guy sent a rude gesture his way as Freddie made for the exit. Freddie gleefully returned it.
Outside, thunder rumbled. The rattling of rain soon followed. Freddie tried not to think of the refugees.
As the rain persisted, Freddie spent the afternoon in another sector of the lab with his father. In that sector with them was silent company: Twenty specimens of fish floating about in twenty bowls and aquariums of different sizes. Each Molloy was tasked with examining five. The remaining ten were handed over to two volunteers: Daisy Brooks, and Bart Nguyen. Both of whom promptly avoided Freddie and avoided speaking to him as much as possible.
Freddie was used to it, and was in fact relieved that he only had to put up with two people. He wouldn’t have minded throwing punches again, but Dad hated it when he saw him fight. So, Freddie tried to shield his father from most of it. Besides, everyone else had other, more publicly-open projects to tackle. Freddie barely noticed that there were only four people in the sector, including himself, because they were all in constant communication with marine biologists.
Six in total, and indeed, the only ones left in the country, they were all thrilled to see living specimens. Of course, they had all signed a dozen non-disclosure agreements beforehand, and had indeed been warned of the repercussions for speaking of this project to anyone outside of the geneticists. But that mattered little to them, so long as they got a good look at animals that, until now, had only been seen in photographs and holograms.
Each specimen was surveyed with the help of examination glasses. Their statistics were cataloged, and the marine biologists were consulted to fill in any gaps. They were also questioned in regards to the fishes’ eating habits, water temperature, and saline percentage.
Then, they abandoned fact for speculation. This was where excitement and interest gradually crumbled away in the face of anxiety and uncertainty.
“The problem,” Dad was explaining to the biologists, “is that none of our test subjects have survived more than three days after the transplant thus far. Their bodies simply reject them, shut down, despite our best efforts. We’ve tried changing the other animals we add in order to bridge the gap, just as we have attempted giving the test subjects smaller percentages of animal DNA in order to make them more malleable to the change. And yet, no matter what we’ve done, nothing has worked.”
“Because no matter how you try to bridge that gap, it’s still a damn big gap.” Dr. Mary Tompkins, who’d been helping Freddie in particular with the zebrafish’s data, spoke up. “Such a complex riddle you’re trying to solve. It will take many, many more tries before you solve it.”
“Yeah,” Freddie spoke up, crossing his arms, “except we got a fucking deadline.” He pointedly ignored the look that Dad gave him in response to the f-bomb.
“Don’t remind me,” Bart grumbled.
“I won’t need to, the calendar will,” came Freddie’s smooth rebuttal. “We can just mark the day with, ‘Unemployment ahoy!’”
“Freddie,” Dad said softly, “please.”
Oh, I’m sorry! Freddie thought heatedly. Maybe I should just go home, then. But he didn’t say this. Nor did he want to go home. Not really. He knew how important this was to Dad. He also knew that helping people in such a hopeless world was more than a little trivial. Caught in the middle, Freddie decided to stay quiet and do a little listening instead. And not a minute too late.
“Overall,” another biologist, Wanda Speak, was, well, speaking, “we think that pretty much all of these specimens have the potential to contribute to a successful splicing experiment. Especially if you couple their DNA with that of animals that both bridge the gap and already share human DNA sequences. Examples include cats, cows, primates, and worms.”
Daisy wrinkled her nose, and Freddie couldn’t blame her.
“But the big issue is that this is all guesswork. None of us know for certain that this will work. All we can do is theorize.” Wanda sighed. “And, honestly, it just seems like a massive waste for us. Yes, we know you don’t need a lot of the animal to get their DNA, nor does it take long for the final result to be concluded. But still, all that hard work, all that development. It all ends up in a box. And soon, that altered body is nothing but a pile of cinders.”
For a moment, tense silence hung in the air like a damp curtain. Failure was more than just an option. It was a blade waiting to drop, ready to slice through quite a few necks.
That is, until Dad spoke up. “Hey, now, look on the bright side. We’re doing this for the betterment of humanity. Yes, it’s being done on the orders, and payroll, of a single man. But if he does win the election, can you imagine how many people we’ll be helping? Eighty-five percent of this planet is covered in water, and even though the water near us is mostly acidic, open ocean is still proven to be clean. Well, cleaner. So imagine how much easier it will be for us to live when we can breathe and move in something that covers most of the planet. Earth has changed. We have to change with it.” He did his best to smile. “So let’s not get too discouraged, okay?”
Bart and Daisy nodded slowly, drawing comfort and hope from his words. Freddie had already heard this discussion several times since this project’s genesis, and he had yet to believe it. But he, too, nodded. If only because he did not want to upset Dad any more than he already had.
With everyone’s spirits officially lifted, if only a tiny bit, the marine biologists wished the geneticists luck and promised to provide assistance should they ever need it again in the future. Dad, in turn, graciously thanked them for their help and said he hoped their own research progressed smoothly. The marine biologists logged off, and Dad leaned against the wall. For a brief second, his mask slipped, and Freddie saw how exhausted his old man was. Now, he was relieved that he’d nodded just a moment ago.
“Chief,” Bart asked, “do you mind if Daisy and I go now? We’ve examined our share, and we have to work on other things.”
“Plus, my month is up. I have to pick up my rations at the center before they close for the day,” Daisy added, holding up her tag.
“Of course, of course.” Dad smiled, waving them off. “Go ahead. I don’t want to keep you from other duties.”
Freddie knew, though, that Dad would have let them go even if he had not been happy about it. He hated confrontation that much. Even though his employees could not do much more than pout if he did not let them have their way.
But, they still seemed to respect him enough. So, Freddie supposed that that was something.
Nodding and still spouting thanks, the two youngsters exited the sector. Daisy stumbled over her untied shoelaces, blushing all the way up to her roots as she scampered out. Freddie watched them go. He was a tadpole, just like them. Only a couple of years their senior, with his twenty-fifth birthday on the horizon. But there were moments where he felt much, much older. Especially when he saw them acting so nervous and juvenile, like little kids being released from their lessons by a tutor. Then again, no one was ever really ‘young’ in this world; not at heart, not for long.
He turned back to Dad. Who, by contrast, looked to be a hundred years old. He moved sluggishly from one tank to the next, making sure that the saline and temperature levels had been adapted to each animal’s needs. Yet even as he worked, Dad lacked the steadiness that he’d displayed just a moment ago. He didn’t look hopeful, or confident. He just looked tired, in body and mind.
That was what compelled Freddie, for all of his cynicism, to speak up. “Dad, if you want, I can wrap everything up here. You can go home.”
Dad gave him a gentle smile. It was a disarming simper, one that radiated pure goodness and trust. A smile that screamed, please rob me blind. “Oh, son, I appreciate it. But I should do this, if only to remember these stats before putting them away for the day.”
“You’re gonna see them again tomorrow anyway.” Freddie argued.
“So will you. But I’m older. I’m older than most of the people on this floor, in fact. So I need to work extra hard to keep up.” He winked playfully. “Otherwise, I might make a real mess of things. Like feed one of the test subjects normal food.”
Freddie winced at the possibility. “Yeah, don’t do that. The janitor’s in a lousy mood already these days.” Then again, Freddie supposed that he would not fare better if he spent his days cleaning up the bodily waste of human-animal hybrids. In fact, Freddie was certain that he would tear the damn building down.
Dad chuckled. “Speaking of food…” He reached into his lab coat pocket and brought forth a small package wrapped in plastic. Handing it to Freddie, he winked. “Just a treat I thought you’d like.”
Freddie blinked at the gift, sensing what it was through the dense plastic cocoon. “Baked bread?”
“Soda bread, to be precise,” Dad replied, sounding more than a little proud of himself. “I found the recipe in Grandma’s old cookbook.”
Freddie felt at a loss. This wasn’t a new occurrence. Ever since Freddie had moved into his own place, Dad had insisted on regularly giving him treats and snacks to bring home. An unnecessary practice, given their monthly rations, but one that Dad followed without fail. Freddie offered Dad a dim smile, too overwhelmed to do much else. “Thanks, Dad.”
Dad squeezed his thin shoulder. No doubt feeling the bird-like bones beneath the coat. “Have a safe night, Freddie. Please message me when you get home.”
A still-smiling Freddie pocketed the soda bread, barely suppressed an eye-roll. “Yeah, okay. Bye, Dad.”
“Bye, son.” Dad looked Freddie right in the eye. Forbidding his boy to ignore him. “You did good today. I’m proud of you”
Freddie felt a strange lump in his throat. Those words were just like the homemade goods. Especially when he thought about the brief battle he had engaged in during lunch. Swallowing hard, Freddie managed a shaky, “Thanks.”
By the time Freddie got home, two things had happened.
First, the storm had cleared. For now, anyway. He still had to wear his anti-toxins helmet upon exiting Gaia Corporations, and couldn’t remove it until he stepped into Anemone Apartments forty minutes later. Not unless he wanted to spend the next week—at least—in the local hospital. And yet the rain had cleared away some of the city’s grime. Not a lot, but some.
The second thing that happened was that someone messaged him. Sending him a very enticing picture. And not just ‘someone’, but a very significant ‘someone’. The type of ‘someone’ whose messages always gave Freddie a spring in his step. The breed of someone who, despite Freddie’s asexuality, made Freddie go lightheaded and dopey-eyed. The sort of ‘someone’ who, over the last two years, had filled Freddie’s nights with thrills that no drug could ever achieve.
That’s right: Gwilym Murphy, a thirty-year-old overweight guard who worked at the docks.
Grinning darkly, Freddie hit the ‘call’ button. Gwilym answered on the second ring. “I’m glad you saw the message. Took you long enough, blondie.”
“Hey, cut me some slack, cat-lick. I had work.” He raised his brows, adopting a mocking tone. “Ya know what that word means? ‘Work’? Not just smuggling shit from the ships to the black market?”
“Fuck you, too, man.” Gwilym’s smile was audible.
Freddie stepped out of his shoes, cracking his toes against the hard-wood floor. “Now that we’ve whipped ‘em out and measured ‘em, let’s get down to business. Is it really that much? And are you sure it’s coming in tonight?”
“Yep. Tonight at around nine. Mr. Plester’s men will be there to pick it up by then. We have to loot it in a minute, maybe two. We won’t get much more time than that.”
“Ooh, a challenge. Me likey.” Still talking on the phone, Freddie headed for his closet. Without bothering to switch on any of the lights, he fumbled in the dark. After a few seconds of searching, his hand found the prize. All ten pounds of it. “Now, you mentioned how much it is. But what’s really in it? I want the details, G. If I’m going to risk jail time for heavy theft against a politician, I want to know what I’m risking it for.”
“Okay, guppy.” Gwilym replied. “It’s food imported from Europe. You know they’re not doing as badly over there. Even if they did lose Italy’s north Adriatic coastline. And Venice. And the Netherlands. And Denmark. But, yeah,” he got them back on track before Freddie had to, “lots of exotic goodies. Pasta. Sausage. Olive oil. Pierogi.”
“What’s pierogi?” Freddie interrupted.
“Polish dumplings.” Gwilym replied. “They’re made of dough, and filled with things like meat, potatoes, cheese, or even fruit.”
“Wow.” Freddie breathed out.
“You’d know this shit if you used the fucking internet, man.”
Freddie scoffed. “You know I can’t stand all the fucking ads!”
“You can pay a fee to avoid ‘em!” Gwilym protested.
“That’s fucking robbery, G, and you know it.” Freddie growled. “My dad’s okay with paying an arm and a leg just to cruise the Web, but I ain’t! Can we go back to talking shop already?”
“Okay, okay. Cool it,” Gwilym agreed. “So, as I was saying. They also got lots of canned goulash from Hungary. Moussaka. Haggis. Lots and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. The list goes on.”
“Fuck.” Freddie shook his head. “How did David fucking Plester get his hands on all that? I mean, didn’t he just get out of a really sketchy scandal with a thirteen-year-old hooker?”
“With money like that, he could get away with shooting the Pope,” Gwilym commented. “And as for how he got all that stuff, he dished out four million dollars to each country in Europe. Think of it like paying the food suppliers under the table for expensive treats, but in extreme.”
“Gotcha.” Freddie ran a hand through his dark blond hair. “So, how do we want to do this?”
“It’s going to be seventy crates in total,” Gwilym reminded him. “The thing is, Plester wouldn’t notice if a few go missing. But his men will. So what I was thinking is: We get on the boat before it enters the port, grab four crates—two for you, two for me—and empty their contents into our boat. Then, we stuff the crates with rocks or bricks or whatever so they weigh as much as they did before. Finally, we nail those suckers shut, and get the fuck out of dodge.”
Freddie was nodding as he listened to the plan, laying out his tools on the bed. They were all rusted and worn from use. He was proud to own every single one of them. Some had been gifts. Others were relics from the Dry World, waiting to be found and treasured in the antique shop. A few had belonged to a few rude neighbors who had insulted Freddie one too many times while they’d fixed their boat engines.
Freddie collected the crowbar, screwdriver, and hammer. “Okay, sounds like a good plan. I don’t really have any bricks or rocks, but we can collect some by the beach before then.”
“Good idea,” Gwilym replied. “Let’s go to Briny Beach. It’s pretty, and the water’s cleaner than most, so a lot of people go there during the day.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” Freddie told him. “At night, there’s nobody around there. Especially during Wet Season. And we gotta be careful about not being seen. Lotsa fucking bums live there.”
“Right, right.” He could almost hear his partner in crime nodding. “But what if someone does pass by? What do we tell them?”
“Uh… Fuck, what do we tell them?” Freddie bit his lip, thinking. After a moment, he brightened. “We tell them that our fishing boat’s anchor broke, and we’re using sacks filled with rocks to weigh us down. Kind of like those big balloon thingies people used to fly around in, back in the Dry World.” He tapped his chin. “Ah, goddamn it, what were they called again?”
“Damn, I know what you’re talking about! But I don’t know the name,” Gwilym replied remorsefully. “I saw one in an old movie once. A black-and-white one. It looked like a lot of fun. I wonder where they all went.” He spoke this last part quietly, as if to himself.
“My fucking guess? Their owners packed whatever they could carry, and flew as far away as they could. As high up as they could get,” Freddie theorized morosely. “But still, yeah. I think my bullshit’s believable enough.”
“Not as good as a politician’s, but it will do,” Gwilym agreed. “Should I come pick you up at around seven-thirty? That should give us plenty of time to stock up on rocks and reach the docks.”
“Okay. Seven-thirty. Call me when you’re downstairs; my buzzer’s broken again.” Freddie informed him.
“Again?” Gwilym’s exasperation was impossible to miss. “Shit, Fred, how long are you going to wait to get it fixed this time? A month? Two?”
“Hey, fuck you, man!” Freddie playfully retorted. “Once I sell some olive oil at the black market, I’ll be able to hire a doorman, never mind fix the damn buzzer!”
“If you say so. I’ll use my half to treat my lady to a nice dinner. I love her, man, but the stuff she cooks is unholy.”
“It’s not entirely her fault,” Freddie pointed out. “The food suppliers don’t exactly give us the deluxe treatment. Mostly prepackaged, precooked, pre-washed shit.”
“Says the guy whose dad bakes for him on a weekly basis.”
Freddie’s ears turned bright red. “Okay, just for that, you’re not getting any fucking soda bread!”
“I figured.” Gwilym sighed. “Okay. See you later, rattlecap.”
Freddie hung up. So did Gwilym. Partners.
Briny Beach was a crescent-shaped patch of sand. Littered with the bleached bones of seabirds and fish. It was forever situated in the shadows of five huge, rotting apartment buildings. Those edifices had been built twenty-odd years ago in the hopes of bringing classier people in the district. But the only people who ever slept there were squatters, and even they never stuck around. Just long enough to snap those beached bones in half and suck out their dry and grainy marrow.
Bad for the neighborhood. But very good for Freddie and Gwilym.
They were like lightning. In a silent flash, they were there; in another, they would be gone. Their anti-toxins helmets now protecting their identities as well as their lungs, they rolled their pants legs up to their knees. Then, they slipped into rubbery boots. Large burlap sacks were tied to their waists, ready for use.
The two men shared a nod before waddling in. The boots were knee-high, but they offered little protection against the frigidness. Freddie barely suppressed a gasp, while Gwilym merely quickened his pace. “Come on, tadpole.” His voice was strained. “We got three minutes at best before the acid in the water kicks in. I do not want to explain acid burns to my wife.”
“See, now, that’s the advantage to being a bachelor,” Freddie teased through chattering teeth. “Besides, asshole, you’re a damn tadpole, too.”
Gwilym flipped him off as they kept moving. Once they were up to their knees, their pants’ legs dark and heavy with moisture, they stopped. Freddie bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. His knees were burning, right where the wet cloth touched it. He could feel it changing and rippling in the dark. Turning to scales.
But Gwilym had no idea what Freddie was. Otherwise, he never would have agreed to work with him, no matter how many goodies he was promised. Nor was he going to learn the truth. Wishing that he could wipe his eyes, Freddie assessed the water. It was cloudy. Garbage and fish bones floated around them. The air stank of brine, oil, sewage, and other things that Freddie did not want to think about. “Well, no use standing here trying not to fucking puke. Let’s start digging.”
Gwilym grumbled. “Here we go.” Holding his breath, he crouched in the water. The garbage and bones shivered in the ripples. Gagging, Gwilym fumbled blindly before finally crying out, “Aha!” He rose, reeking and soaking, holding a slimy rock the size of a football. “The first of many!” He dropped it in his burlap sack, which would have sunk it out of sight if it hadn’t been tied to the guard’s waist.
Freddie sank in. Even gloved, his hands came alive the moment he slipped them into the foul water. The pain was instant and brutal, and he barely silenced a scream. It felt as though someone were skinning him alive with a rusty knife. Tears leaked from his eyes, and blood dribbled from his broken lip. “Fuck.” He whimpered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…”
“Hey. You okay, blondie?” Gwilym, damn him, actually sounded concerned.
No, Freddie was the exact opposite of ‘fine’. But he wasn’t about to let his partner in crime in on his dirty little secret. Lapping up the blood crusting along his bottom lip, Freddie spoke. “I’m fine.”
“I said I’m fine, dammit!” Freddie barked, wrenching a football-sized stone out of the water with a queasy squelch. “Let’s stick to the program, yeah?”
Gwilym shrugged, holding his gloved palms out. “Okay, okay. No need to bite my head off.”
Freddie scowled as he dropped the stone into his burlap sack. “Whatever.” With trembling hands, he continued to search. Even as the pain continued, roaring dully in his ears. The smell was awful, and the water’s freezing temperature contrasted the hot agony coating his skin like the crust on a pie. Twice in one day. Twice! Are you fucking kidding me?!
With his anger fueling him, he searched the sandy floor. It seemed that that first rock had been beginner’s luck. He found nothing but tires, used heroin needles, a few diapers, and deflated floating devices. Once or twice, he came across a crab’s skeleton. Just when he was about to give up, he came across something large and compacted. “Oh, thank God!” He dropped the second stone in his sack.
The seconds ticked by. The partners found more stones. The water began to sting. Mildly at first, but growing more intense by the moment. After dumping in another two rocks, Freddie turned his back on Gwilym and pulled up his gloves. Examining his hands, Freddie blanched. Angry red welts, courtesy of the water’s high acid content, were beginning to spread across the half-formed scales. His nails were blue from the cold. “Shit,” he said, “we’re running out of time.”
“Don’t tell me.” Slipping off his glove, Gwilym held up his hand for Freddie to see. Two of the nails had come clean off. Shuddering, Freddie did his best to keep his voice even. “Let’s just get a couple more, and call it a fucking night. If Plester’s men notice, well, too bad.”
“Yeah, I agree.” Gwilym suddenly stopped. Straightened. He was silent for a moment, and still as a boulder. He turned to Freddie, who’d found a water bottle and had chucked it back into the waves in disgust. “Did you hear that?”
“It sounded like a voice.”
“What?!” Freddie spun around, scanning wildly. Already imagining the bluecoats pinning him down and cuffing him. But all he saw was the cloudy, filthy water, and the bony beach ten feet away. There were two sets of prints. Theirs. And just like that, all the pain and fear and anger that had been building in the last few minutes broke like a dam. He turned to Gwilym, teeth on edge. “Oh, very funny, G!”
“No, man, I’m serious.” Gwilym’s tone backed his claim, but Freddie was too angry to care. “Who else would be here? Did you tell anyone about this?”
“What do I look like, a moron?!” Freddie yelled. “Of course, I didn’t tell anyone! Who would I tell? The friends I don’t have? My asshole neighbors? My goody-two-shoes dad? Yeah, right!”
“Pipe down!” Gwilym snapped. “Do you wanna attract the cops, get us busted?!”
Freddie was about to say that he’d simply blame it all on Gwilym. But he never got the chance. Because this time, he heard it, too. A voice, barely louder than the east wind. And it wasn’t coming from the beach.
Freddie glanced at Gwilym. Wondered if the look of confusion and terror on his flabby face mirrored his own.
The voice grew in volume. Gradually, like a rising wave. And it was the sweetest sound that any creature on land had ever heard.
As one, the two men turned.
There was a woman in the water with them. Singing softly into the night.
Freddie had never seen her before in his life, but she was eyeing both him and Gwilym as though they were old friends meeting up for lunch. As she drew closer, she kept singing. Her song reached Freddie, curling sweetly around him like a tendril of incense. The more he listened, the less afraid he felt. Freddie identified as asexual. Unlike many tadpoles, who made love like there was no tomorrow since they were all shooting blanks anyway, Freddie had never had any interest in having sex with anyone.
And yet, he now found himself returning the woman’s smile, his head growing light and his heart growing full. He took a step closer. Vaguely, he heard Gwilym do the same. But Freddie never looked away from the woman, who was now just five feet away. She had the bluest eyes that he had ever seen. They seemed to glow in the dark like a cat’s as she drew even closer, reaching out to them with a dripping hand. Her dark hair, plastered back with seawater, was as black as a moonless night.
Freddie couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t even blink. The song was all he could hear. It overpowered the sound of his beating heart. Of his thoughts. Of his breath. And he liked it.
The woman was now within arm’s reach. She was still singing her sweet song. It poured from her lovely lips like juice from a ripe melon. It warmed Freddie to the core, chasing away all thoughts of anger or pain. The more he listened, the more content he felt. The happier. Her eyes were small embers of blue fire. Her skin was translucent.
Without the shadow of a doubt, he took her hand. So did Gwilym. Smiling as she sang, she pulled them closer to her. They let themselves be pulled. The water reached their shoulders. Beneath his clothes, Freddie’s skin turned to scales. But he felt no discomfort. All he could see and hear and feel and care about was this beautiful woman. This angel. This muse.
Smiling, she pulled them even closer. Underwater. Her blue eyes never left them, even as her head disappeared under the surface. Their hard hats, which had never been designed for submersion despite their resemblance to Dry World diving helmets, began to fill with acrid, toxic water. Turning into fish bowls with their heads trapped within. Their flesh already beginning to burn. Even so, they looked on, uncaring. Enchanted. Mesmerized.
The woman’s face changed. Her skin shifted into scales. Her face became monstrous. And her mouth was a red pit filled with sharp teeth.
Freddie opened his mouth to scream. It filled with fetid water. Cold darkness rushed up to embrace him. The grip on his hand became strong enough to crush bones. And that wasn’t even the worst part.
Beneath the dark, scummy water, with his lungs fit to burst, Freddie threw his head back and shrieked. Fat bubbles rushed from his mouth. His eyes squeezed shut, but it did nothing against the pain. The nasty water scuttled down the collar and filled up the suit. In desperation, Freddie tore the helmet from his head, ripped the gloves from his twitching hands. But it changed nothing. From head to toe, his body began to writhe. Burn. Peel away. Break down. Change.
His lungs burned. His vision blurred. His head got ready to pop like a pimple.
The grip on his hand loosened. Freddie tore it free and kicked his legs.
Air had never tasted so sweet. After a few, desperate gulps, pushing aside thoughts of lung poisoning, Freddie emptied his helmet before securing it back into place. This done, Freddie looked around for Gwilym. All he saw was the choppy, dark waters, and Briny Beach just fifteen feet away. But no sign of his partner.
His eyes widened. “Oh, no…”
The water suddenly became a lot warmer. Freddie looked down, cupped his scaly hands into the water, and saw crimson.
“Oh, God! Gwilym!” Freddie took a deep breath and dived. The water swooshed back into his helmet, eager to drown him. His eyes burned as he struggled to see. Following the water’s warmth, he searched.
And there, just within reach, he saw the woman—no, the monster—dragging Gwilym down. Tearing through his anti-toxins suit as though it were made of wet tissue paper. His helmet was roughly wrenched off. Then, she sank her fangs into his neck. She tore into him with the desperation of a starving animal, his meat disappearing down her ravenous throat. Her hands—no, claws—pinned Gwilym down as she ate. Her body shimmered as it curled around his, almost protectively. Her tail—holy Mother of God, this thing has a tail—in particular, slender and eel-like, formed a barrier. Beyond it, Gwilym’s blood flowed like new wine and his entrails shivered in the current like seaweed.
Freddie’s mind shut down after that. He no longer thought. He only acted. Breaking the surface once again, he gave in to adrenaline. His limbs acted on their own, paddling and kicking towards Briny Beach. Soon, the horrid water dropped to his knees and the burning lessened. Freddie dragged himself towards the shore. His body numb and his mind a mess.
Pain shot through his shin, as sharp as an arrow. He screamed. It rang through the night. A lonesome, desperate sound. Shadowy silhouettes appeared in lit windows. The squatters. Go figure.
Freddie kept moving, even as the pain intensified. Even as he felt a great weight slowing him down. He didn’t care. He had to keep moving. If he stopped, he would die.
Finally, dry land! He threw himself on the gray sand, amid the bleached bones and rubbish. The weight on his leg wouldn’t budge. He turned and screamed again, this time in horror.
The mermaid was there, between land and water. Washed up like a beached shark, vicious yet vulnerable. One claw sinking into his shin, slicing through the material of his anti-toxins suit. Gasping and heaving, she clung to him as she lay on the wet sand. Every time the filthy foam washed over her, she threw her head back and yowled.
Freddie saw chunks of Gwilym’s flesh stuck in her fangs. The bottom of her face was clotted with gore. Bits of bone fragment were sticking to her hair, white against her black hair.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Freddie kicked at the claw holding onto him. The mermaid shrieked, baring her fangs at him. He kicked her again, and again. “Get! The! Fuck! Off! Me!”
At last she let go. Freddie crawled backwards, on safe dry land, putting as much distance between them as possible.
The mermaid lay there, gasping and helpless. Whimpering. Every time the acidic waves hit her scaly body, she let out a moan of pain.
Freddie sat in the sand. Scales painfully reverting to skin. Heart beating at a million miles per minute, his mind still a tangle of yarn, yet slowly growing quiet. All the while, he never took his eyes off the mermaid. Once upon a time ago, when he was young and naive, he would have loved to meet the characters from his fairy tales. Silly yet brave Jack and his magic beans. Hansel and Gretel, working together to survive—first starvation, then the evil witch. And the Little Mermaid herself. Now, as he sat there, bleeding and in pain, with visions of death still fresh on his mind, Freddie renounced that old wish.
Like with everything else in the world, fairy tales eventually lose their glamour. And when they do, they are fucking terrifying.