Adjutor imagines that this is how his simian ancestors must have felt. Chased across the cackling gold savannah by blood-stinking maws that surfaced abruptly from the rustling grass. Rushing up a tree in desperation only to look down and see that death was waiting on the shadow-dappled ground, sleek and gape-eyed.
He knows how it feels to be hunted.
He lies in his pod with his harpoon gun heavy on his chest and exhaustion and fear vinegary in his veins. He can hear Salila clattering about in the lab and he imagines her watching videos of the thing hunting them, smile like a longbow slicked on her face. As if all was right with the world, and even if it was not, all she had to do was wait. The very thought of her makes him grip the harpoon tighter.
But it is alright. Though he does not realize until that very moment at some point that evening he had made up his mind. When he wakes up he will into the DADS and find Salila’s harpoon gun and take it. She won’t be able to fight him if he is in the suit and in any case he wouldn’t object to having to smack her once or twice in the face. Then he will march her to the moonpool and fling her into it and as the beast devours her he will slip into the surviving sub and make a dash for the surface.
He peeks up at the skylight and of course the creature is floating above it cadaver pale and vast. Its clump of eyes, asymmetric and discrepant, swivels to meet his. For the briefest of moments Adjutor is certain of two things. It knows what he is thinking. And it approves.
Even the hunted are sometimes hunters. And, Adjutor tells himself, those are the ones who survive.
The ship arrives in orbit at the edge of day and as it descends the light of the setting sun turns heavy and bloodred upon the horizon. By the time it reaches the landless surface the waves are lit only by the siren light of the planet’s three moons drifting in haphazard formation through the star-smattered sky. For a long time everything is quiet but for the lapping waves and the sporadic clank of some part of the ship moving into position for the dive. Then the ocean climbs gargling up the windows and drowns the sky. As they descend Adjutor can see the slivered light of the moons dancing on the receding surface above him. Soon they dwindle and then there is nothing but the deepening blackness of the ocean.
Adjutor sees nothing for a long time. Then for a few instants the ship is surrounded by a teeming cloud of glittering crustaceans. A manic profusion of light and movement that appears crowding the windows and disappears, up and away, just as quickly as it came.
Now the pressure sets the hull groaning and the ship’s descent slows. Naked grey cliffs and still expanses of dead sand apparate in the questing floodlights. In amidst all this is more life. Things juddering through the sand with fleshy pulses of their tubular bodies. Shelled things with one, two, three claws, some squat and stout, others wickedlooking and as long as scalpels. A long flat creature trailing an assortment of tentacles drifts by slowly with the help of three misshapen mouths that gape and close and gape again as if every second it was amazed at its own existence.
He looks over at Salila and she looks back, enormous frame spilling over the edges of her seat, smile broad and brilliant.
‘Look at your face,’ she says.
‘How many species did you discover last time you were here?’ says Adjutor
‘I was in the shallows. Closer to the surface. It’s easier to catch things out there.’
She winks at him.
‘Have you noticed the effect the assimilation has on them?’
‘I didn’t think they’d look so gross. Some of them look like three or four creatures have melted into each other.’
‘That’s exactly what’s happening. Closest thing on Earth to it is anglerfish mating.’
She settles back.
‘They’re an order of fish. Ugliest things you’ve ever seen. Some of them live in reefs, but some of them live at incredible depths and it’s almost impossible to find mates down there. Plus the males are tiny. So when a male does find a female, he’ll clamp his jaws onto her flank, and hold on. Their circulatory systems melt together and the male begins to atrophy. His brain disappears, his jaws disappear, his skin and his fins and everything else just melts away. All that’s left are his gonads, an endless supply of sperm for the ladyfish when she wants to have babies.’
Adjutor grimaces, and looks back out the window.
Something tumbles past, appendages flailing, looking like three iridescent shrimp clumped together. Six sets of eyes swivel manically up and down until finally they all fix on Adjutor’s face. Then it jerks in his direction and comes at the glass, mouths open, tiny tongues squirming like they too were creatures once free and now desperate to be so again.
‘How can you tell what’s eating what?’ he says.
‘It’s difficult sometimes. Somehow the two systems negotiate until they settle on what’s most efficient and digest what it doesn’t need. Sometimes it keeps more of the meal than it does the old body that ate it. But usually one nervous system is dominant.
Then, below, a green-yellow glimmer that resolves slowly into a hexagonal base surrounded by floodlights. In their ethereal and chilly illumination is an jaggedly cascading geometry of black and bone-white corals and frill-tailed worms and other things for which Adjutor has no name, all luminescing red and green as if in their transparent bodies they each contained a precious fragment of the distant sun nurtured and transmuted and sacred in these depths.
‘Corals? Down here?’
‘They’re not corals,’ says Salila. ‘We don’t know what they are yet.’
‘What do you call them?’
Adjutor turns away, grinning. The base grows brighter with every second and excitement builds in him like an electric charge. Then he hears a gentle thus and looks up. The shrimp-thing is scrabbling furiously against the window. Eyes fixed on him, and full of hunger.
The only person in the base when they arrive is a taciturn and bespectacled xenobiologist from New Shimane called Hamasaki. He spends most of his time in the lab, fussing over a bulbous diving suit like a master over a bonsai. But when they arrive he pops the bulkhead and greets Salila with an awkward hug and then stands there, patting her on the shoulder and staring at his own feet. He smiles briefly, and nods, and then smiles again. Salila watches him, silent and smirking, until he catches sight of her face and does a double take as if he did not expect her to have one.
‘Welcome back,’ he says.
‘Good to see you, Ham,’ says Salila. ‘Where’s Caspian?’
‘Out.’ He begins withdrawing at speed down the corridor. ‘He took a sub two days ago to the cliffs.’
The base is a hexagon of glass-walled corridors linking six circular hubs, each forty feet across and forty-five tall. One is a command centre scaled with screens and consoles and another has sets of sleeping pods and the third is a two-floor lab packed with whirring and beeping apparatuses of myriad function. There is also a moonpool, where one of base’s two minisubs bobs like a harpooned whale in an expanse of sloshing dark blue water so cold that Adjutor’s breath precipitates in a drizzling clouds every time he enters. The final two hubs are a storage room and a canteen decorated with some limp old Christmas decorations hanging in stringy ruins from the ceiling like the shredded remnants of a crimson jellyfish.
None of this matters much to Adjutor. Instead he spends most of his first day staring slackjawed out the glass corridors at the the black reef sprawling all about the base. The underlying coral two-tone as if in negative. Its frantic and swarming denizens bioluminescing with all the metallic vibrancy of a drop of water in an oil slick. A glowing oasis of life in an endless desert of darkness.
After a brief and dreamy sleep Adjutor loads the sub with beacons, barely noticing the frigid moonpool air that slips in and out of his nostrils as thick as butter. Then he guides the vehicle, engines humming, out into the dark, and along the reef. For the next few hours he loses himself in a weightless otherworld of fizzing lights from the corals and the eerie sway of paperthin tentacles reaching up from the dark beneath, so lost that when Hamasaki’s voice comes buzzing over the radio he recoils with shock.
‘This is Base to Sub 2. Come in, over.’
‘Sub 2, Adjutor Tohopka here. What’s up?’
‘Dr. Tohopka, do you have time to spare for a favour?’
‘Yes. Um. Thank you. I haven’t heard from Dr. Acquati since his last check-in this morning. He was due forty-five minutes ago, but nothing. If I send you the coordinates, could you –’
‘Yeah, sure. Send them over.’
A brief silence. He hears Hamasaki clear his throat.
‘Yes. Thank you and over and out.’
Adjutor sets off after the coordinates arrive. For a long time there is nothing but stark gloom that swallows even the glaring twin pillars of the sub’s searchlights. It is dead silent but for the ping of the pathfinder signalling their approaching destination. Eventually he comes to an expanse of crevices and rimming the mouths of these are filigreed black growths like giant cilia and clustered around these are seething hordes of ghostly crustaceans clambering blindly over and around and under each other like a conglomeration of the damnèd dead.
He spots the sub on the seafloor, lightless and rolled over with its hatch wide open. Adjutor loops his own sub around twice and the detritus on the seabed erupts into a billowing storm as he passes. Some of the crustaceans power up into this, claws spread and mouths open, hysterical in search of whatever it was that has disturbed their neighbourhood so.
‘Base, this is Adjutor. Come in.’
Salila’s voice responds.
‘Sub 2 this is Base. What do you see?’
‘Just the sub. It’s dead. The hatch is open.’
‘Any sign of Caspian?’
‘Acquati? No. None.’
‘Have a look around. I’ll keep an eye on your feed over here.’
Adjutor inspects the sea floor, the edges of the crevices, the clusters of worms clinging to the walls like tufts of living ruby, but he sees nothing. Then he notices a clump of milky crab-things
swarming over something not far from the dead sub. He scares them off with a few waves of his vehicle’s manipulators and eaches into the pile of the stubborn and the dead and picks up the thing they’d been clambering over. It is a slender white stick with a slathering of human meat and a few strands of cloth stuck to it, as wavy and stringy as kelp.
It is a human arm.
The subs’ videos feed directly back to the base and after Adjutor returns they gather and watch what Acquati’s has recorded and as they do their faces are bleached by the dead screenlight and thickly shadowed as if some of the darkness beyond was clinging to their skin.
At first they see nothing but spectral blue-green light from the sub and drifting flecks of organic detritus. Then slowly a reef materializes, a complex fractal scaling of living rock clambering over itself in brown-grey monotony and illuminated only by scattering clusters of living colour.
The sub pauses. The camera zooms in, losing focus, and then regaining it. They notice straightaway what Acquati is looking at – a pair of human legs jutting out of a cleft between the clusters of coral, flippered and grey-suited and kicking desperately.
They look at each other and see only their own horror echoed on each other’s faces.
After a while the camera shudders as Acquati scoots past, sealed into an emergency suit like the one Hamasaki is repairing in the lab, the little turbines on its back leaving twin umbilici of twisting crystal bubbles behind him. The camera drifts slowly off to the left. Then it veers off into the darkness and the light dies. After that there is only stillness and gloom until Adjutor’s sub arrives.
‘This is most baffling,’ says Hamasaki.
‘Those were human legs, right?’ says Adjutor. ‘You all saw a pair of human legs, right?’
‘Yup.’ Salila pouts.
‘When is Nadia getting here?’ says Hamasaki
‘Ten days,’ says Salila. ‘Maybe nine.’
‘We must inform her of what’s happened. Find out if there’s anyone else working nearby.’
‘You’re sure it was human?’ says Adjutor.
‘Why wouldn’t it be?’
‘I just don’t know any technology that would allow a human to function at this depth in that sort of a suit, is all.’
Hamasaki and Salila look at each other and say nothing.
‘We must let Nadia know,’ says Salila. ‘I’ll send her a ping. Maybe she can bring someone to help find out what happened. Till then, no one leaves the base.’
Silence. Then Hamasaki gets up.
‘I will be in the moonpool,’ he says. ‘I will run a diagnostic on the sub’s sensors.’
They break up and Adjutor wanders over to the observation hub and stares at the corals and the darting creatures now all denied to him by Salila’s lockdown. Beyond the feeble light of the corals though it is pitch black and with creeping horror he realizes that he and Salila and Hamasaki are all just flimsy bags of flesh and water encased in a bubble of air in the depths of an alien world. Delicate and isolated and now, possibly, hunted. The longer he stares, the harder it becomes to breathe.
It is another sleepless night and eventually Adjutor wanders back to the lab and brings up the video from Acquati’s disappearance again. He drifts back to memories of the day and then away from those to memories of things he had not realized he missed until then. Sunlight and the faint dampness of the oceanside breeze and wide spaces he would not run in but be content knowing that he could if he wanted to. Then he notices something in the video that snaps him straight back to the present.
It is the moment he leaves. He sees the sub’s waterjet spin up and bubbles come gushing out like liquid silver. Then, as the sub begins to glide away, he watches something clamber atop it. Its body is tentacled like a neuron and its substance is clear and studded with an array of pulsing and writhing organs like slick little gems. But one of its appendages is dark and when Adjutor freezes the video he sees that it isn’t a tentacle at all but a half-absorbed and twitching human body.
‘Shit,’ says Adjutor. ‘Shit!’
He runs back to the accommodation hub and shakes Salila awake.
‘It’s here,’ says Adjutor.
‘The thing! The thing that ate Acquati!’
He takes her to the lab and shows her the video. As soon as it is done she stalks over to a storage container and takes out two harpoon guns and hands one to Adjutor. It lies heavy and cold in his hands and as Salila turns the lights up its point glints wickedly in the fluorescence.
‘I don’t know,’ says Salila. ‘He said – crap. He was in the moonpool.’
They approach the moonpool door lightfooted and tense and peer through the small window. At first they see nothing but Sub 2, bobbing up and down in the freezing water. But then they notice the mess of organic matter draping the far lip of the pool and amidst this a pair of glasses and a thumb and other shredded tissue cherry-red and damp and oozing. And instant later the bulkhead door shoves forward and they see the creatures flattened against the window like a great glass octopus. Salila bellows and throws her weight against the bulkhead but it is not enough and with Adjutor pushing too it is barely enough to seal the door. Once the door clicks into place Salila initiates the emergency seal and the thing it glares at them with its cluster of stolen eyes as the metal bulkhead descends and cuts the moonpool off with an airtight seal. They slump against walls panting and weak and the stink of the thing, like salt and rot, creeps its way up their nostrils.
A few moments the thing appears just beyond one of the transparent corridors, underbelly lit by the light from the base. They can see pieces of Acquati disintegrating within it and also Hamasaki’s wide-eyed and fish-mouthed and wax-skinned head. Adjutor retches and by the time he has finished hurling his lunch at the floor the creature has jetted up and away in to the inkiness. A few moments later they hear a thud and something grinds against the walls near the lab. The bases’ lights flicker.
‘Jesu,’ says Adjutor. ‘Jesu, what’s it doing?’
Salila looks up into the dark, and smiles.
‘It’s taking out the generator and the comms.’ The lights die. ‘Very clever.’
A breathless instant later the backup whirrs to life and emergency lights flood the base with a dim red glow. The beast returns to the windows and in the hellish illumination it is like some feverdream demon. Its tentacles wrap around corridor, soft and yielding and pulsing with energy, and its lipless mouth gapes as if it was sucking the life from them out through the glass. Adjutor cannot stand it and flees. But Salila stays in the corridor, watching the creature’s heaving efforts to break in, smiling like a mother watching a child.
They take stock of everything they have. When they have all the fresh water and food and improvised weapons stacked and stored in the empty bunks they sit in silence and just stare up through the window in the ceiling at the nothingness beyond.
‘We’ve enough for two months,’ says Salila. ‘Did you clean up your sick?’
‘No,’ says Adjutor.
‘That’s disgusting. Clean it up.’
‘But it’s there. Right there. Watching.’
‘It’s going to be waiting for us wherever we go. Get used to it.’
Adjutor squirms and says nothing.
After a while Salila gets up and hauls herself up to Hamasaki’s bunk. When she descends, panting, she has two small steel boxes and these pop open with a hiss.
‘Should you be doing that?’ says Adjutor.
‘I’ve known him for twenty years. He won’t mind.’
She roots around one box hands him an old fashioned glossy-paper image of Hamasaki and Salila and another woman, blonde and petite, smiling hugely on a beach.
‘We were the first down here,’ she says. ‘They said it was just water and nothing else but we persisted. Do you know how hard it was to get funding? We wouldn’t have even got this base if it weren’t for Hamasaki’s…well, just Hamasaki.’
Tears pool at the bridge of her nose.
‘Who’s the other woman?’ says Adjutor.
‘Nadia. She’ll be here in a few days.’ Some movement catches Salila’s eye and she watches the beast slides smooth into view above, vast and spectacular and repulsive. ‘What I want to know,’ she says. ‘Is how it knew to take the generator and comms out.’
After a few moments Adjutor winces and points.
‘That’s how,’ he says.
The beast drifts in a circle and off to one side of its body is a cluster of black nodules arrayed around a single large one. Eventually it turns enough for the light to fall straight on the organs and they see that it is in fact a small system of brains in a surging matrix of black neurons. The largest one is human.
‘How interesting,’ says Salila.
Over time they watch as the creature digests Hamasaki. His body disaggregates and moves through the beast like cell bodies through protoplasm. Dwindling as they go, until finally the glossy bones at their core drop out and tumble down into the dark. Eventually all that is left of him is his brain and this migrates through the beast’s body next to where Acquati’s is twitching every now and then as if shocked.
‘It’s fascinating,’ says Salila.
‘It’s an extraordinarily efficient mode of growth.’
‘What’re you talking about?’
‘The way it picks and chooses. The way it takes what’s most useful from a creature, without damaging it.’
‘I’d say Hamasaki looks pretty damn damaged to me.’
She rolls her eyes.
‘That’s now what I mean. You know that’s not what I mean. We know it’s using those brains. We know its got a whole clutch of them.’
‘So imagine the implications. Imagine what its consciousness must be like. Imagine what adding whole new chunks of processing power to your brain would be like.’ She reaches out and puts her hand on the glass and the beast extents one fraying tentacle towards her on the other side of the glass like some glowing god of the abyss. ‘How is it integrating all that processing? What effect does it have on its mind? So many questions.’
‘The only question I want answered is when your friend Nadia’s getting here.’
‘It thought you said –’
‘She’s not coming in a diver. She’s coming on a normal atmospheric. We’ll need to go up and meet her, somehow.’
‘But we can’t go the moonpool. That thing’ll get us.’
Adjutor glares at Salila and then kicks the wall. She glances at him and says nothing. But after that she has less to say to him.
On the third day both of them are picking listlessly at their food in the canteen when Salila sits up, eyes wide, and says ‘Adjutor. Bait.’
‘Bait!’ She gets up and walks over to a console and types. A few moments later an image of an anglerfish pops up on the screen. She points to a growth looping out of the top of its head, a slender sliver pendulumed with a glowing blob. ‘Anglerfish use bait. The beast uses bait – that must have been what those human legs were, in the reef. Somehow, it used them to bait Acquati out of the sub.’
‘So? Hold on. Why isn’t it using bait now?’
‘Haven’t a clue. Maybe since it assimilated Hamasaki it realized it won’t work with us. Who cares. Point is – let’s us use bait. The backup DADS.’
‘Yes! DADS means Deep Atmospheric Diving Suit. It’s good to 2000 meters down and has a built-in decompressor. Someone gets in it, inside the base, and then heads to the moonpool. Then they head up to the surface. Hopefully, it’ll follow. Meanwhile the other person gets in the sub, and heads to the surface too, to warn Nadia.’
‘And what about the person in the suit?’
‘Even if this thing gets them, how will it get into the suit? It’s built like a tank.’
Adjutor ponders this for a moment, and shrugs.
‘Great plan. Good luck.’
Salila narrows her eyes.
‘I assume you’ll be the bait,’ say Adjutor. ‘You know this area better than me. If something goes wrong you can find somewhere to hide.’
‘There’s sonar in the shrimpsuit, so you can find a place to hide too.’
‘I’ve no experience with the –’
‘You don’t need any. You just need to put it on maximum speed and ascend as fast as possible. You just need to get the damn thing away from the moonpool so I can get in the sub. I know Nadia. She’ll believe me instead of some random. She knows me, and she’ll trust me when I say some glutinous starfish monster’s down here eating people’s brains.’
‘Absorbing, not eating. And why wouldn’t she trust me? Plus it’s your idea!’
Salila sits back.
‘Adjutor. Listen. You and I both know that I’m so much more valuable than you.’
‘I’m a specialist on this planet – one of only two survivors. My work speaks for itself. If anyone needs to survive this, it’s me.’
They hold each other’s gazes for a while longer. Then Salila sighs and waves her hand.
‘Alright. We’re not getting anywhere. Let’s revisit this later.’
‘Nothing to revisit.’ Adjutor gets up. ‘I’m not getting in that damn suit.’
He stalks out of the room. When he glances back he sees Salila staring at him. And in the window behind is the beast, tentacles splayed, surrounding her like a halo of cadaverous flesh.
In a film, thinks Adjutor, one of them would have died a heroic death by now. Wrestling heroically with their terror in the dark for the sake of the other. Instead he and Salila descend into a silent and undeclared war and every time they see each other they remember that in their stubbornness they have sentenced each other to death. At first they keep eating together and cooperating on the small tasks around the base. They shut down three of the hubs to preserve energy and work together on the DADS even if they cannot agree on who will use it. But eventually their conversations shorten to terseness and snapping and they start avoiding each other.
Through all this one thought haunts Adjutor. That the brains absorbed by the beast remember who they are. That inside it Hamasaki and Acquati are screaming, bereft of vision or taste or even the slightest hint of the world they surely know exists in all its sensuous glory somewhere beyond their reach. Trapped for an eternity in an insensate emptiness worse than hell.
This, then, is what she wants him to risk. Slowly, it becomes impossible for him not to hate her. Ten days pass and he corners her in the lab.
‘Where is she?’ he says.
‘Who?’ says Salila.
‘Nadia. Your friend.’
‘I don’t know. She’s supposed to be here.’
‘Well, she isn’t.’
‘I can see that.’
‘Where is she?’
‘I told you. I don’t know.’
‘Has she ever been late like this?’
Salila scowls at him.
‘You think somehow I’m responsible for her? That I teleported out of here, killed Nadia, and returned to watch you go nuts?’
Adjutor opens his mouth and realizes that on some level that is precisely what he was thinking. So he clamps his jaw shut instead and storms out.
After that, Salila won’t even look at him.
After ten days one of the backup generators shuts down and the base’s light sinks further into a shadowsmeared dimness ripe for the lurking. That night Adjutor wakes to the sound of something in the lab. He sneaks over barefoot despite the cold and sees Salila’s wide frame silhouetted in front of one of the screens. He moves closer and sees that she is watching videos of him. Of him walking up the corridors. Of him cleaning his face in the lab sink. Of him staring out the window at the beast.
Abruptly she turns and sees him and for an instant her face is sheer panic. Then she presses something on a keyboard and screen goes dead.
‘What’re you looking at?’ says Salila.
‘What they hell were you looking at?’ says Adjutor. ‘Were you watching me?’
‘No. I was just –’
‘Those are videos of me. Turn the screen back on. Why were you watching me?’
‘I wasn’t watching you. Why would I watch you?’
‘Turn the screen back on, then.’
She does. The feeds, clustered in two horizontal rows, are just of the corridor, the cabin, the still and slimy moonpool. Colourless visions as if of an undead netherworld wherein the base was replicated, dead and changeless.
‘See?’ she says. ‘No you.’
He watches her face and the malicious glee emanating from it. After that he isn’t certain what he fears more – the beast, or this woman, whose every move now seems filled with evil intent. He goes back to his pod and clutches the harpoon gun to his chest and thinks of cats hunting simians on the ancient savanna.
Salila makes her move first.
Adjutor hears the clumping footsteps of the DADS coming down the corridor and springs to his feet already half aware of what is happening. She comes into the hub with her arms up and the gyros on the suit whirring and grabs his weapon before he can pull the trigger. He dodges and she is slow but there is only so much room and she gets him by the neck as he’s running for the opposite exit and smacks him into the wall. His harpoon gun clatters to the floor and she kicks it across the room.
‘What are you doing?’ says Adjutor.
When she speaks her voice comes not from her mouth but from the the speakers around the base and as if the whole place has turned into her metallic guts. She watches him down her nose from behind the domed faceplate of the DADS like a heron watching the water.
‘You could have cooperated, Adjutor,’ she says. ‘You’d’ve been in this suit and safe. Really, this is your fault.’
She grabs him around the waist with the suit’s iron fingers. Adjutor squirms and curses but she turns without ceremony and proceeds with the relentless thud of metal feet to the moonpool. He looks up and through the glass roof he sees the beast following them like a great glass flower.
‘Don’t do this,’ he croaks. ‘Please.’
‘I genuinely don’t want to,’ says Salila. ‘But it’s you, or me.’
‘Please. Salila. What if they’re alive in there? What if they know they’re trapped inside that thing and -’
‘I doubt it.’ She lets go of his neck and reaches for the moonpool door.
He is sobbing now and his despair is so intense that he cannot hear the small voice in him begging him to keep his dignity nor conceive even that such a voice could exist.
‘But their brains —‘
She opens the door.
‘I’m sorry, Adjutor.’
He thrashes about until the skin comes off his neck in stinging strips and his nails snap off in bloody shards. Still it takes only a few instants for Salila to heft him overhead and fling him bodily into the freezing water and it crushes him with cold like a storm of hammers and he drowns not only in liquid but in a fear so intense it wracks him like nausea.
At the other end of the room Salila slips deftly out of the DADS. and opens the hatch of the sub and dives in.
A few moments pass. There is no sign of the beast and the icy lip of the pool is close enough to touch. For a moment he thinks perhaps he will reach it and make it back to the base. Then the sub dives and the beast rises in its place. He feels a tentacle wrap around his ankle, sponge soft and strong as silk, and screams. But the icy water claws down his throat and sets it constricting to a straw-thin pipe and the last noise he makes is a gargling bellow that cuts off the instant his head dips beneath the water.
For a while all is blue and burning cold and then it is warm and black as the gelatinous flesh closes about him in a suffocating cocoon. He with every breath the stuff invades him, sour and viscid and vicious like liquid fire. The pain escalates until he can think of nothing else. Then what is left of him cracks and shrivels with madness and after an eternity in the agonizing dark he mostly ceases to exist.
It was neither aware nor ignorant of its own existence. It was neither malicious nor benign. The governing logic of life remain was always obscure but insistent nevertheless. Float in the swift currents to where water percusses with the gentle and flitting presence of other things. Seek ones it can devour and luxuriate in the brief respite this provides. Then move on, and seek some more.
Now it is haunted by alien vision that linger in its mind like the afterimage of a lightning strike. It cannot even understand these things without reference to other things it has never seen. The liquid warmth of sand on its feet. The aching intensity of lips pressed against its own. The warmth of the sun on its skin. It craves these things though it has no toes and no lips and though it knows now that an any length of time in the glaring gaze of a star would dessicate and crack its substance like glass in a furnace.
Now, sometimes, it fears the dark.
Its latest brain takes a few days to settle into place and when does so it unleashes a flood of horror and anger like it has never known. The other two were agitated too but there is a viciousness to this one like poison. Once it has set and the anger passed the beast sees that its rage comes from betrayal. And because the brain is part of it now this betrayal was a betrayal of it too and it feels the thirst for revenge with the same stinging urgency it feels hunger or fear.
It rises. The water growing pale and hot around it until finally shardlike glimmers of the naked sun pierce the glossy undulation above. It circles for days in the shallows, flesh tingling and tentacles tasting the water, subsisting on the gormless creatures there which have never seen its like and are too fearless to avoid capture.
Then finally it finds what it is looking for. A vehicle more glass than metal bobbing up and down in the swell. It surfaces briefly and despite the agony of the sunlight it stays long enough for its human eyes to see the woman pulling herself out of a porthole and waving at a ship descending slowly through the sky.
It dives again and wraps its arms around the sub and pulls. The woman falls back in and water gushes in through the porthole and the weight of the stuff presses her against the glass. She sees the thing and her eyes widen. For an instant the creature feels something to akin to what it feels when feeding. It has a name for this word now – pleasure.
It knows also that it will feel more of this when the woman begins to scream.
Subo Wijeyeratne is a graduate student and writer living in Tokyo, Japan. Subo has been writing fiction for nearly twenty years — primarily speculative — and has had over a dozen short stories appear in print over the past two years. Most recently Subo has had work appear in Fiction on the Web, Aphelion, Bewildering Stories, Electric Spec, and The Future Fire. Subo has had pieces appear in Expanded Horizon as well, and Subo’s short story “They Meet in the Wall” was awarded a Mariner Prize in 2018.