Fugue for Forgetfulness By Ronald D. Ferguson

Fugue for Forgetfulness
By Ronald D. Ferguson

sci-fi short story

The first injection is easy, a hodgepodge cocktail to soften my genes, to make my DNA pliable for the nano incursion. The needle stings, and the IV marches the tiny engineers into my bloodstream. Icy tendrils crawl inside my arm and echo the cold invasion.

My mind drifts much as I have drifted through my life, letting circumstances and other people’s choices mold me. Now my research, my esoteric equations incarnate, drip from the IV into my bloodstream, and I . . . drift with them. I allow the nano-biotics to control who I am to become.

Over the coming year, these rampaging miniatures will reshape me to match my destined environment. Nature did not design humans to survive a quarter kilometer beneath the ocean surface, but I agreed to new genetic blueprints.

Agreed? Well, I signed the paperwork put before me, but I expected my research would be used for the others. I answered the call, but I didn’t want to be chosen.

The body the tiny engineers will construct for me should thrive in the savage ocean depths. My equations say so. My reshaped body can then drift with the sea.

Is God a topologist? Will she recognize my continuous deformation?

I repeat my mantra. A topologist doesn’t distinguish a coffee cup from a donut. . . .

But please, dear God, will I still be human?

###

“What are you doing here, Tim?” Sweat drips from Sheila’s perky nose. At the side of her house, the heat pump strains against the afternoon sun. The sky streaks red and orange. The hard-blown dust sands my exposed skin.

“I need to say goodbye.” I suppress a burp although most of my nausea had passed by the end of February. Despite my dark sunglasses, I squint at the sunlight.

“We said goodbye five months ago, or rather you said goodbye.” She folds her arms. Her voice sounds muffled and far away because my ears are skinned over.

“I know you didn’t want me to take this job, but please don’t be angry.”

She ignores my plea for forgiveness. “What’s wrong with your face?”

“Psoriasis,” I lie. In another month, the changes to my body will be too prominent to venture into public. In another month, I won’t be able to withstand the heat.

“Psoriasis? Is that why you wear the long sleeve shirt? Isn’t that awfully hot?”

“Yes, it’s very hot. May I come in?”

“That’s not a good idea.” Sheila shifts her weight and avoids my eyes. She unfolds her arms and assumes a defiant pout that evokes cherished memories. “I don’t think John would like it.”

I am speechless. Does she mean John Santini? My mind drifts. How can she be with John Santini?

She stamps her foot to catch my attention. “What did you expect, Tim. I told you I wouldn’t wait five years while you played sea quest. Look at the world. Look at the sun. Do you think anyone has five years to wait?”

“It’s more than a game. The world–”

“I don’t want to hear it.” She closes the door halfway. “Please, Tim, don’t come back. For both our sakes, don’t ever come back.” Her eyes fill with tears before she slams the door.

###

By July, I spend most days in my personal tank in the research facilities near Monterey Bay. They pipe me air because my nascent gills remain immature. The experience is quite different from the hours I trained with SCUBA gear. With my body changes, I can hold my breath for ten minutes, so I don’t feel tethered to the breathing tube.

The research group in San Diego gave up on the gills-only approach. Because my gills press into intestinal space and impinge on lung capacity, I regret the dual lung/gill strategy for the thirty of us in Monterey. I have no idea what happened in the other trials in China and Brazil.

The technicians no longer treat me like a person. They are friendlier with the dolphins, Moe and Larry, than with me. Maybe I look too human, or maybe I look too bizarre. How am I to judge?

Moe and Larry are my watery companions. They visit me daily, usually for an hour at a time.

I studied dolphin DNA for three years, but that only familiarized me with their chemistry, not with dolphins. When I first met Moe, I couldn’t distinguish him from the female Larry. Common bottlenose dolphins all looked alike to me. Later, when Curly– an Indo-pacific bottlenose– joined us, the gray spots on his belly separated him. With familiarity, even Larry and Moe became distinctive, as easy to recognize as any close friend.

I miss Larry, Curly, and Moe when the technicians take me from the water and administer the next cold march of nanos into my bloodstream. The technicians are indifferent to my discomfort. I’m a piece of meat. Whenever one of the technicians responds to me, I can’t understand most of what they say. A heavy membrane now seals my ears, and I need water as a conduit for sound.

“. . . from Texas?” The technician adjusts the needle for the IV in the back of my hand.

“Jessss.” I’ve spoken more distinctly from a dentist’s chair. My lips no longer flex. I haven’t seen a mirror in months, but I imagine my mouth as a narrow slit. Certainly, my mouth feels thin and narrow.

The technician increases the drip rate. She mumbles, “July . . . 115 degrees in Austin. . . Houston . . . underwater . . . Riots . . . Dallas.”

Dallas? Sheila? Is Sheila still in Dallas? John Santini is an idiot. He can never protect her.

“. . . Congress . . . emigrate to Antarctica.”

“Ph . . . funding?” I ask.

“Cuts . . . San Die . . . Space settlem . . . gone. . . .”

How can they cut the funding? Survival is at stake. Antarctica? Relocation? How many can relocate to Antarctica? What about flooding? What about those already in the biomorph programs?

What about me?

###

The pain begins in September. I fantasize that the nanos repent and revolt against the atrocities they forced upon my body. Likely, I give them too much credit.

The bio-engineers argue that my metabolic changes are skewing the programming. They propose tweaking not the program but my body. I have no vote. Perhaps they are desperate to satisfy the bean counters , or perhaps they are more concerned about the delay than about the agony they produce. Whatever the reason, the pain is unbearable. Drugs become their recourse. I sleep through October and most of November.

Of the thirty who started the Monterrey biomorph program, only seven of us remain in December. Most were lost in September. Others quit and some died in October, but those are just the two most likely explanations. When my pain returns, I want to join the dead ones. Quitting is too much like taking responsibility for my life.

Rumors suggest Congress cancelled the programs in San Diego and Florida. Whether to divert funds or because of excessive mortality rates, I don’t know.

When threatened, Congress always buries itself inside a mountain, both metaphorically and in Colorado. From the cool, Rocky depths, they represent us all as we fry. The technicians are full of such rumors. However, I suspect management starts the stories. They use rumors like whips to drive our fears.

I have only one vivid memory from November: a surgeon slices open my chest without anesthesia. Unlike my other restless dreams, this memory does not fade with the pain.

###

The date and time flashes across the far side of my tank: 9:31 A.M., Monday, January 5, 2079. A New Year. Where am I?

Larry and Moe circle the tank, they playfully nudge me on each pass. By the clock, they have repeatedly nudged me for at least an hour. At first, I am annoyed and sleepy. Slowly, movement returns to my arms and then to my legs. By late afternoon, I follow them in a dreamy daze and enjoy the texture of icy saltwater across my naked body.

The game lasts until I am too tired to continue. I curl into a contented ball near the bottom of the tank.

When I wake, I panic. Where is the air hose? However, no pressure squeezes my lungs, and the panic fades. I relax and palpate my stomach. My diaphragm sluices water in and out the array of narrow slits that wrap the ribs beneath my shoulder blades. My gills are operational.

Suddenly, I feel the loss of the upper world. No longer can I easily walk upright along a rugged mountain path and breathe freedom. My residual lungs are sufficient to sit in the lazy surf, but they lack the capacity for strenuous activity. The tank walls close around me and imprison me. Claustrophobia and loneliness fill my soul. When I cry, the cold, salt water absorbs the tears.

As she has done on each of the previous major markers in my evolution, the psychiatrist wants to know whether I am depressed. Damn right, I’m depressed. I tap my depression and anger message on the tank wall. Psychological screening cannot prepare you for harsh reality. The detached psychiatrist takes careful notes and ignores my plight.

###

I’m nervous when they spill me into the Monterey Bay in late April. From the technician’s sign language at the tank window, I expect to meet the other biomorphs, my companions for the next three years.

“Go?” Larry asks when the gate opens. Well, not really, but ‘Go’ is a reasonable translation of the dolphin’s sonic burst. I try to buzz agreement, but my new physiology has left me short on noisemaking talent. Except for hand gestures, water slaps, and wall taps, I’m mute. I sub-vocalize a sigh and indicate the gate. Larry shakes her head in vigorous agreement and shoots toward the opening. Moe waits to wrangle me through the lock. I’ll never achieve the speed of either dolphin, but with some pride, I tell myself no human can keep pace with me in the water.

I’m wrong. Five who match my speed wait in the bay, but are they still human? Am I?

The dolphins withdrew from the six of us. From the rumors, I expected seven.

I never met them before. The technicians meticulously separated us for our conversion to . . . what? What are we now? Mermen, like the old legends?

Clothes encumber swimming, and so we are naked. The technicians say three of us are female ,and three are male. I cannot tell which is which. Each is smooth and silky, like me, like the dolphins. Persistent, unrepentant nanos reshaped us and carved away any body protrusion that could interfere with efficient motion through the water. The sleek skin folds of our bodies hide our sexual identities.

The others swim hairless and svelte. With minor difference, they resemble me: legs extended to froglike feet, webbed fingers, arms widened and shortened for fin-like dexterity. An ancient image comes to me; we are the illegitimate offspring of Flipper and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The faces are unexpected. I immediately know why we were denied mirrors. No matter how well you understand what’s happening, when fear of the unknown mixes with altered DNA, the results are unpredictable. Confronting a strange face in the mirror can super-charge emotions. Even knowing my face looks like theirs, I have trouble accepting their faces.

No ears or nose clutter their pointed heads. Wide, dark eyes bulge to smooth each cheek. The eyes have no lashes, and seldom blink against the salt water.

Each mouth is a thin, unexpressive cut across an impassive face. No smiles. There can be no smiles. The face is too stiff, the mouth will no longer bend that way. The uniform grayness that disguises the intimate features of our bodies also shrouds our souls.

A boat cruises overhead to the steady purr of electric motors. Four technicians in wetsuits splash into the water. The bay is murky, but the bright sunlight filters into the depths and outlines the technicians where they hover overhead. They watch . . . and wait.

Wetsuits and all, they once called them frogmen. I regard my webbed feet and appreciate the irony.

How will they announce us to the world? What will they call us? Gillmen? Can Gillmen save the world? Mermen sounds less threatening. Will they announce us? How many in the population prefer death to manipulation of human DNA? For them, God never practices topology.

I venture to my closest companion. For a moment, we each examine the other like a teenage girl checking for flaws in the mirror. We say nothing. We can say nothing. Although we’re both mute, my companion grows agitated. I know he sees himself in my face because I see myself in his face. Is he panicked beyond reason? Doesn’t he know how to drift? How to let life pull you along? In sympathy to his plight, I flex my hand to indicate, “Go.”

As if desperate for air–or escape–my companion nods and with a double-legged kick, shoots up toward the technicians.

Another merman swims to me. A distinctive odor accompanies this one. The merman points at me and then outlines an hourglass figure using both hands. Am I a woman? I shake my head. As an afterthought, I look down at myself to check. I know I’m not a woman, but until this moment, I haven’t wondered whether I’m still a man.

Apparently, she is, or had been, a woman. She points at herself, nods her head, and then outlines the hourglass again before she glances at her own body. She shrugs as if to wonder where the hourglass shape went. Is she a mermaid? How do dolphins distinguish potential mates? The biomorph blueprints included sex, but the best laid plans of mice and . . . is it still men? Laid plans? Merpeople? My mouth doesn’t allow me to laugh.

Except for the gill-lung combination, dolphins inspired much of the design for the Monterey merman body. There was a rumor–I never discovered whether it was true–that the Florida mermen kept lungs like dolphins.

The Florida group intends to work primarily near the surface. Our group needs to work at depths for long periods to establish the viability for deeper habitats. Lungs alone won’t do the job. Unfortunately, the supplementary gills severely reduces both my stomach and my lung capacity, and I gasp for air whenever I exert myself out of the water. I also need to eat every three to four hours. Specialized designs always have trade-offs, especially in biology.

The mermaid points upward. Overhead, the panicked merman fights the technicians. Three technicians struggle with the malcontent while the fourth technician circles with a hypodermic. Some of the drug leaks when they administer it. I smell the acrid dispersion into the bay.

The merman ceases his struggle and ungracefully lists toward the surface. With some effort, the technicians wrap two lines about the inert body and winch it from the water.

Five of us remain in the water. Five of us remain to test the viability of an alternate human existence in the ocean. Five of us, each a stranger to the other, have become aliens to the remainder of humanity.

###

By the end of May, I know the three mermaids, Doris, Jan and Crystal, fairly well. Jan is the first mermaid I met, and she is invariably good company. Doris is often depressed, but she assumes a pleasant disposition whenever the technicians visit. A medical doctor and psychologist, she manages to hide her adjustment problems. Jan spends much time consoling Doris; Doris tolerates me when I drift close.

Despite her constant struggle with depression, I don’t mind the dolorous Doris; in fact, I understand her discontent very well. Perhaps my own melancholy is why I enjoy Jan’s company. Doris reinforces my depression. Jan makes me remember the meaning of a smile.

Crystal spends her time trying to draw Jack from his isolation. Jack is the other merman in the crew. He keeps to himself in the large commons tank and disappears for hours when we relax in the bay. I only try friendly hand-signs with him twice. Twice is enough. Even the gregarious dolphins stay away from Jack. I don’t understand why Crystal bothers. She’s one of those people compelled to fix whomever she finds broken.

Jack has no room to be sad, regretful, or overwhelmed because Jack’s passion is anger. I don’t know whether he is angrier with himself for volunteering or with those who allowed it.

On the first of August, without warning, the technicians release a sedative into the commons tank. When I awake in my personal tank, my throat is sore. Surgeons augmented my useless larynx with an electronic transducer. I’m no longer condemned to be mute underwater.

###

In September, the Monterey-based research ship Last Resource releases Larry, Curly and Moe to acclimate to the open Pacific about five hundred kilometers south of Hilo. Two days later, Jack, Jan, Doris, Crystal, and I slide into the same waters. One-hundred-twenty meters below the surface waits the saucer-shaped Pacific Research Station Two. PRS 2 was optimistically designed for occupation by twenty mermen, but the project is seven months overdue, fifteen mermen short and severely underfunded. Now, five of us will try to fill the job. Our task is simple: establish that we can survive as inhabitants of the sea rather than as ill-equipped intruders.

From the hot, stormy surface, Larry, Curly, and Moe guide us through the depths to PRS 2. They will be our guides, protectors, and friends during our three-year stay. The quarters would have been snug for twenty mermen, but are spacious for the five of us. Technicians told us there will be eight or ten land-men who will join us to work some of the open berths. The special quarters and equipment they need is already in place. We expect them to arrive within the week. The land-men will track our progress and monitor methane rising from the warming ocean floor. Without land-men in authority roles, Doris, Crystal, and I concede nominal leadership to Jan.

Jack goes his own way.

The saucer embarkation area pressurizes air to match the external sea pressure. When I first bubble-up into the saucer through the open floor hatch, my lungs easily take over in the pressurized air. The helium-oxygen mixture transmits my remaining voice as squeaks. For communication, each of us has an electronic transducer that broadcasts sub-vocalizations. The device conducts any received message directly from the jawbone to the inner ear. The system is suitable for short bursts of communication, but lacks nuance.

Until we each retreat to a private cubicle, I hadn’t realized that I had missed privacy. Technicians have observed me constantly over the last two years. Finally, I can be alone. Once alone, the full impact of all that I had given up weighs in on me. For one brief moment, I am angry and believe I understand Jack. Perhaps I understand how he feels, how anger rather than despair can dominate your soul.

Then the anger dissipates and underneath my fading rage, I know I’m wrong. I don’t understand Jack at all.

The station extracts oxygen from the surrounding cold Pacific. Filters separate and recycle the inert helium with little loss. Membranes and absorption devices extract carbon dioxide from the air mixture. As a result, the air in the saucer is fresh, but tastes metallic. The entry hatch at the bottom of the station remains open so that the dolphins don’t have to make the long journey to the surface to breathe.

Larry, Curly and Moe aren’t immune to loneliness. Sometimes the dolphins squeal through the saucer opening if we ignore them for too long.

The land-men crew never arrives. Our last contact with the surface world is October 17, 2079.

###

The computer system that controls communication malfunctions in December. We still have light and power, but the promised supplies never arrive from the surface. Jack’s specialty is electronics, and with a few angry monosyllables, he pronounces the communications un-repairable.

Despite our compulsion for frequent meals, food is no problem. The abundant ocean surrounds us, and we have spear guns and nets. Still, the isolation from the topside world casts a dark desperation into our souls.

Jack disappears.

Crystal says he swam to the surface to look for the Last Resource. When he returns three days later, his only response as to what he saw is “storms” and “tipping point.”

By February the sea around us becomes depressingly dark. We adjust the ballast tanks to raise the saucer forty meters. The storms and murky water have diffused the winter light. Raising the saucer brings us out of the darkness and into the euphotic zone.

We don’t consider raising the saucer to the surface. The storms are ferocious and the waves enormous. Besides, what remains for us at the surface? The upper world has abandoned us.

###

Is it spring or summer? With the computer malfunction, we first lose count of the days until we can no longer name the months; then we lose the seasons.

Is this part of their grand experiment? Did they abandon us to see how we would manage alone? Or had there been some terrible disaster that makes the plans for us obsolete? Has the world warmed beyond its capacity to care? Does anyone remember we are here?

One thing is clear. We arrived too late to pioneer an alternate course for humankind.

Curly often disappears for weeks at a time. He returns sporadically, each time with less enthusiasm for rejoining the pod with Larry and Moe.

###

We find Crystal’s body near the emergency exit, felled by a heavy blow to her skull. Who else could have killed her except Jack? I don’t know whether it was passion, rage, or just cold-blooded intent. I don’t understand Jack, or what he has become.

Jack disappears into the blackness of the nighttime sea before Jan and I can confront him. Doris examines Crystal’s body and then locks herself into her cubicle. Despite our entreaties, she refuses to come out.

Jan and I tie weights to Crystal’s body and wrap it in a sheet. We take it outside the station. Jan holds my hand while we allow the corpse to sink in the darkness. In memoriam, Jan says Crystal was a warm and kind woman.

I rig a barricade across the hatch to the open-sea lock and curse the designers who saw no reason to fit the entrance with a latch. I don’t want Jack to return while we sleep.

With supplies exhausted, we must be able to exit to hunt for food. I can barricade the entrance while we are in the Station, but the entrance is vulnerable when we are away. Although Doris volunteers to block the hatch while Jan and I hunt, her fear flavors the conversation, and I can’t subject her to that pain. I don’t say so, but I’m also afraid she might become too distraught to open the hatch when we returned. As Jack’s eyes had flashed madness, Doris’s eyes have dulled to hopelessness.

I create a belt of flexible nylon mesh and wrap it about my waist. I slip a kitchen knife into the belt. Several fishing spears remain in the supply cabinet, but we’ve exhausted the compressed air that propels them. I select a spear that feels comfortable in my hand.

I leave Jan with Doris to guard our watery equivalent of home fires and recruit Moe to hunt with me. Spontaneously, Larry joins the expedition. The dolphins scout the murky waters for schools of fish while I try to keep up. My transponder picks up their voices and keeps me following their wake.

I don’t see the shark before it hits me. My mind numbs at the impact, and I wonder whether all that blood in the water can be mine. The shark circles coming back for another strike.

The dolphins return before the shark hits again. Larry shoves me toward the Station, while Moe batters the shark into submission. After Larry maneuvers me like jetsam to the saucer entrance, he squeals to attract attention. Jan and Doris haul me inside by lowering the air pressure and allowing water to partially flood the chamber. The rising water lifts me aboard.

Jan is too distraught to act decisively. I’ve never seen her like this. She’s always the calm and purposeful one. I’m curious why I don’t share her concern over my injury. I’m also curious why there’s no pain. As I contemplate her difficulty, I realize that shock has invaded my system and rendered me detached. In response, I drift with the cold tide.

They secure me to the deck, and Doris increases the air pressure to force out the excess water. Larry takes a quick breath at the entrance and sinks into the water. Now the air serves as an effective barrier to sharks attracted by my blood.

The last thing I remember after I close my eyes is Jan. She strokes my head as if I still have hair.

###

Doris stitches me up. She says it takes twenty-three stitches, but that can’t be right. Fortunately, the arteries and major veins were untouched when the shark tasted me, and Moe butted the shark away before he could re-grip and thrash. Over the next three days, Doris tops me off with a couple of quarts of artificial blood from the medical lockers.

I worry that I might lose my right leg, but there’s plenty of antibiotics on hand. Doris overdoses me and kills all the bacteria in my intestines, which produces some unpleasant side effects. What I don’t worry about is bedsores because they float me face down in a specimen tub to recuperate.

A week later, Curly returns for a few hours before he vanishes again.

Even while she cares for me, Doris retreats into profound depression. If I weren’t injured, I don’t think Doris would leave her room. Only Jan remains to hunt with Moe and Larry.

I don’t worry about those expeditions. The bottlenose dolphins are very protective of Jan. They like her better than they like me.

Well, so do I.

###

During my recovery, the lights and power become erratic. With the erratic power interfering with the air scrubbers, the carbon dioxide levels rise. The long periods of darkness and stale air leave Doris whimpering in her cubicle.

As soon as I’m able, Jan and I hunt with Moe; we both breathe better through gills in the open sea than with lungs in the stale confines of the saucer. Larry stays at the saucer entrance to keep Doris company. Larry does her best, but her idea of comfort is to play nudge and swim. Because Doris will no longer enter the water, Larry can’t nudge her. Over the next few weeks, Doris becomes more unresponsive to our efforts to get her out of her room.

The sea provides a rich harvest, but Doris eats little. Even the declining air quality can’t force her into the water. The constant effort of exercising her lungs exhausts her. You can watch the life draining from her, one small breath at a time.

###

Larry catches up to us with frantic chirping and squealing. In response, Moe quickly joins the agitation. I recognize the extreme distress signal from the dolphins and query Jan.

Jan presses the transducer at her larynx. “Doris?”

I nod in agreement, and letting our catch for the day drift into the blackness, we race to the station. My electric torch repeatedly flickers, and I worry that there are only two more replacement lamps in the saucer.

When we arrive where the station should have been, Larry circles in confusion before she flees to the surface for air. The station is gone. Moe follows Larry upward.

The only direction the station could have gone was down. Has it taken Doris along?

Jan is better with the dolphins than I am. She reconstructs the events from a long, but sketchy, dialogue with Larry after the dolphins return.

We neglected to barricade the entrance to the station. Perhaps we thought that Jack was dead, or maybe we forgot why we put up the barricade: that part remains vague. One week we scrupulously stacked barriers before every excursion, and the next week the effort seemed frivolous. Time had dulled our motivation from worry to vague uneasiness.

Lately, many of our memories seem to go that same way.

Apparently, Jack came back. Larry clearly trills the Jack recognition signal, so there’s no doubt.

Jack forced his way into the saucer, and Doris screamed to Larry for help. Confused by the confrontation and unable to follow Jack and Doris into the waterless area of the saucer, Larry left the PSR 2 for the open sea. While she circled the station, bubbles erupted from the top of the Station, and PSR 2 slowly drifted downward. Larry then raced to find us.

I press the transducer embedded in my larynx. “Bubbles? . . . buoyancy released? Jack scuttled . . . deliberately?”

Jan nods. “Buoyancy . . . no accident. . . Why?”

I shrug and look down to the darkness. “Crush at . . . eight hundred meters. Doris . . . not dead . . . before then?”

“. . . Horrible. She . . . know.”

“Hope Jack . . . still in saucer.”

“What do?” Jan casts about.

“Do?” I’m always slow on practical matters. “Doris . . . dead. What can . . . do?”

“Know . . . Doris gone. What . . . we do? No shelter.”

“Cannot stay. If Jack lives . . . us next.”

I massage the electronics embedded in my throat. They include locator beacons. Can Jack trace us through those? What equipment does he have?

“Your spear,” Jan says. “. . . Did not drop.”

In surprise, I glance at my hands. I hold the spear in one hand and our last lamp in the other.

###

Moe has few words for the pod of dolphins that ease past us. On the other hand, Larry finds the group fascinating. The pod is large, fifty or more common bottlenose dolphins with two Wolphin hybrids in tow. A handful of curious bottlenoses cruise about us when the pod passes. Larry circles us several times and repeatedly nudges us; she squeals her enthusiasm.

My heart sinks when Larry follows the pod into the murky distance. Will Moe eventually seek his own kind, too?

Whose kind are Jan and I?

###

Our lamp plays out. Jan has trouble adjusting her buoyancy, and she tends to list and slowly sink when she’s not actively swimming. I pray she doesn’t have an infection.

We can’t allow ourselves to drift below the euphotic zone. The water pressure is much greater in the darkness below the zone, and in total blackness we would become disoriented and unable to distinguish–not only horizontal direction, but more dangerously–up from down. Fifty to one-hundred meters seems a good depth, and my body easily can make the pressure adjustment. I’m determined to find some shallows where Jan can rest on the bottom without fear of sinking to her death while we sleep. Jan depends on me. I can no longer let my life drift.

Despite the extra expenditure of energy, at least once each day, curiosity forces us to follow Moe to the surface. The upper world rages with hot, violent storms that churn the sea surface. We see no living creature above the water line.

###

The island has a deep harbor, which protects us from all but the worst of the surface storms. During the day, the twenty-meter deep ocean floor is visible, and at night, the warm sands near the coral reefs provide Jan a safe place to sleep. After several weeks in the harbor, we settle into a daily routine. At first, I hunt while Jan rests. After two weeks, she’s better able to control her buoyancy, and we share the task of finding food.

Moe was never as demonstrative as Larry was, but he became more restless after Jan and I turned to each other for closer companionship.

He doesn’t attempt a long goodbye before he leaves, but he chirps an unmistakable farewell when he launches himself into the open Pacific.

Moe has been our loyal friend. He placed his duty to us above his own needs. I wish him well. He deserves whatever happiness a dolphin can achieve.

Jan and I are alone in the harbor. Strangely, we talk less, but draw closer together.

###

Jan rides the wave past me and onto the sandy shore. Her eyes sparkle, and she playfully kicks her feet to swirl the sand when I approach her. The wave recedes and our bodies break free of the surf. The beach lies vacant and unusually calm. The sand is unpleasantly hot, and the noonday sun glows red behind the dusty haze.

My voice transducer no longer works as a transmitter. The device still amplifies outside sound, but it won’t relay my sub-vocalizations. I point to the beach and incline my head: Do you want to go ashore? Jan glances at the beach and then stares into my eyes. Her transducer is fully functional.

“No.” She tilts her head and looks out to sea. Her eyes smile, and she pulls me into the ebb flow of the next wave.

###

When first born, the baby moves vigorously, but never looks right. Its color is an unhealthy pink; its mouth gapes open, and its eyes squint while it struggles until its lips turn blue.

The baby ceases its struggle before I think to rush it to the surface for air. The child hangs limp and lifeless in my arms after I breach the surface. I hold the flaccid body above the waterline for several long minutes in the hope that air might revive it.

What didn’t work? Its lungs? Does it have lungs? Does it have gills? I examine the limp body. No gills. Peculiar. I recognize that it’s a male, but he isn’t like me. He isn’t like Jan. He’s a stranger, who died in a world he did not comprehend. I nudge the baby several times and massage its stomach, but the body has already cooled in the brisk seawater.

I cast about in despair. The surface is unnaturally calm. The red sun pleasantly warms my face. After several minutes, I recognize the anomaly. No storm scours the shore. The waves lap peacefully about my son’s small, still body. The boy has ceased his struggle, and exhausted by the war against turmoil, the world also rests.

Entropy pursues chaos, but is that all there is to life?

The boy struggled until he died. I resolve to do likewise and never again drift on the whims of fate. I slip beneath the gentle swells to return the body of my dead son to his grieving mother.

###

With the yellow summer sun, warmer waters fill the harbor. Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen than cold water. Jan is pregnant again, and she moves slowly like a Beluga whale. Her gills are inadequate to support two lives against the lost oxygen. She struggles against the warmer waters until anoxia forces her to gasp at the surface, simultaneously using both lung and gill to provide for her and the baby.

Lolling at the surface makes Jan more vulnerable to predators. I scout the south side of the island and find a cove, not as nice as the harbor, but with enough coral to keep out the larger sharks. Recently, sharks are far too common near the island. Jan needs more security. Neither of us can bear the thought that we might have to move onto the beach and suffer the humiliation of gravity for the duration of her pregnancy.

So we risk the move from the harbor to the cove. The tide carries us farther out to sea than I had expected, and there, the orca hears us struggle.

The orca is more interested in us than seems safe. Usually orcas are friendly, sometimes they are playfully aggressive, but they are always too intimidating for casual encounters.

Curiosity drives the orca closer. Surely, he’s seen nothing like us before.

Fortunately, a small pod of bottlenose maneuver nearby. Jan chirps at them. They squeal in response and surround us like an armed guard to escort us back to the island shallows. One of the dolphins wears a curious collar strapped just ahead of its dorsal fin.

The orca chortles its amusement while the dolphins herd us to the safety of the cove. Apparently, the orca enjoys grand theatre, and we are the parade du jour.

Jan and I time our strokes to ride a wave over the coral reefs. No sooner do we clear the reefs into the cove than a long net springs up behind us. Two dolphins trapped within the rising net swarm to the surface on powerful flukes and vault beyond the net. Each loudly whistles when it clears the net and splashes into the open sea to rejoin the pod.

Moments later, acrid chemical smells flood the water, and my body stiffens in paralysis. I try to find Jan, but I can’t turn my head.

Dark, rubbery forms splash into the water alongside us and secure us with lines. They hoist us from the water. My lungs struggle to adjust to the paralysis and the unaccustomed need to breathe with my lungs. I gag and choke, but my body fails to respond.

The land-men gently lay us on the hard deck. My head droops to one side, and I see Jan beside me, her belly swollen with our child.

Noise and muffled voices. I almost understand them. Then, a sting at my neck and unconsciousness sweeps me into its dark current.

###

The voices pull me awake.

“How long do you suppose they’ve been like this?”

“At least as long as the other one. Six years, maybe more. See, they have the same tracking devices in their throats. Strange that we could only track one of the signals. The poor devils must have been transformed during the Turmoil.”

“The one they found last year died from a massive infection. Maybe we should dump them back into the sea. There’s been enough death.”

“The autopsy of the other one taught us a lot. These two should have a better chance. Now that we’ve found them, we can’t abandon them. Which antibiotics should I use?”

“Lars has an information download from the San Diego data banks.”

“Try Monterey. I think they had a program, too. This one must be a female. She looks pregnant. Do you suppose they’re married?”

“Look at her eyes. She’s so frightened. Can’t you tell them that they are safe now, that we’ve rescued them?”

“The pregnancy could complicate the procedure. We may have to process her after she gives birth. Then we can do her and the child separately. The big male is the stronger. We can practice on him before we work on her.”

“They don’t understand. They’ve been isolated for too long. The one last year was a raging lunatic, no more than an animal.”

“We need to get underway. This weather lull can’t last more than a couple of more weeks.”

“It won’t hurt to explain to them what we are doing. If they don’t understand, what harm have we done?”

“Should I tell them about the Turmoil? Do you suppose they remember any of it? Will knowing that we lost three-quarters of humanity make them feel better? Will that relieve their dissociative fugue?”

“Always the cynic, Jacques. We need to soothe them, not recite history. Let me talk to them.”

A warm brown face leans close above me. The dry flesh sags below long, wet strands of alien black hair. The recessed eyes repeatedly blink. The mouth moves in impossible ways.

“Don’t worry,” the face says. “We are the research vessel Alliance out of Antarctica. I’m just going to start an IV in your arm. The antibiotics will protect you from infection. We’ve data-mined the lab notes from the Monterey project, and we have the research results from the other merman. The antibiotics include a virus to soften your DNA. It will take some time, but the nano engineers can restructure your body. You will become one of us again.”

Become one of them, one of those creatures?

My ears roar. My eyes glaze, and I can’t see. I can’t move. I can’t stop them from touching Jan, from injuring our child. I can’t stop them from injecting me with their cold invaders. I feel the needle and then the march of destiny into my arm. Although I can’t read their faces, a fragmented memory foreshadows my fate.

Is everything lost? Not this time. Give me a chance to break free and take Jan with me. If necessary I will kill these things that kidnapped us.

Can I?

Yes. If I must. I will fight, else no longer can I swim free beneath the pulsing sea. No longer can I ride the untamed surf nor search the cool, pastel beauty of sheltered reefs and coves. Instead, the burden of relentless gravity will squeeze me against the dry land, and subject my family to the vagaries of weather and harsh circumstance.

These creatures, these beasts, fill me with their merciless machinery. They threaten to reshape me for a world I don’t comprehend. I will resist.

Then I remember our dead son, who could not live in the sea. What choice do we have if our next child is to survive?

So I resolve to accept the cold invaders that reform me for the land. I will do what must be done.

. . . And if they succeed, please, dear God, will I still be human?

-End-

©Ronald D. Ferguson
science fiction short stories

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Ronald Ferguson
Ronald D. Ferguson, PhD, is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Except when his wife's travel obsession dominates, he writes full-time, both fiction and non-fiction. His short fiction has appeared twice in each of the following: Daily Science Fiction, The Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette and Futures:Nature. Other stories have appeared in New Myths and elsewhere. In non-fiction, he published four mathematics textbooks, one with McMillan and three with West.

Among his other interests are making stained glass, painting, woodworking, wine making, gardening, and travel. He and his wife had a 75% complete house shell built on two oak-laden acres of the Texas Hill Country. Over the last ten years, they've finished the other 25% and added even more. Living with them is a dog, five feral cats, and a broad assortment of deer and other wildlife.

He is very pleased that Buzzy Magazine has chosen to publish "Fugue for Forgetfulness."
Ronald Ferguson
Ronald Ferguson

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Ronald Ferguson
A list of his Roanld Ferguson's short stories that have on-line links and available novels can be found at Google Site RonaldDFerguson.