by Floris M. Kleijne
This story originally appeared in Leading Edge Magazine in 2008
“Has anyone explained the anatomical details to you yet?” the surgeon said, as the two gowned and masked assistants shaved and disinfected my entire body. Turning my head to my right, I could see her through the reinforced glass, but her mouth was open to the water on the other side of the glass and her lips weren’t moving. Instead, her voice—or rather a synthesized approximation—came from the teletransponder mounted over the glass. She was floating in a vertical position, her perfunctory white coat billowing with each rush of exhaled water. Because I was lying on my back and looking to my right, my whole perspective was tilted by ninety degrees, and her voice seemed to come from the transponder mounted to her left. The effect was disorienting.
I shook my head. I didn’t care about the details, though they had been explained to me at length in the admission procedure. All I knew was that I wanted the transition; I wanted this brave new life for myself.
Or for her.
The surgeon took my shaking head as an invitation to explain once again.
“We’re going to fit you with a set of custom-grown septals. There is a number of known basic design plans available in nature. We’ve found that the septal design is best suited to the human rib cage; the ribs and intercostal spaces correspond neatly to the structures you find supporting the septals in Earth sharks. It’s also a design that is relatively easy to hook up to the pulmonary arteries. As a matter of fact, I have the same design myself.”
I doubted if the surgeon was aware that I had no idea what she’d just told me. Like most medical professionals, she just liked to hear herself talk about her specialty. But the details really weren’t important to me. I knew what I was getting into. I phased out her explanation as one of the assistants hooked me up to an IV drip and the other connected the EEG and EKG electrodes.
I tuned back in to the surgeon’s voice when her tone changed from pedantic to serious.
“Now there is one final formality for the record, Mr. McDonald. You’ve read and signed all the necessary forms, but because the process is irreversible, we are required by law to give you a last chance to change your mind.”
“I’m not going to back out now.”
“Of course, but still… Mr. McDonald, are you absolutely sure you want to undergo the procedure?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Very well. Susan, Achmed, final prep.”
The blonde assistant moved towards a panel of valves and switches on the far end of the OR, while the other one bent over me.
“Hello, Mr. McDonald,” he said through his mask. “You have experience as a scuba diver, yes?” I nodded. “Good. I need you bite down on this regulator. You will breathe through that until we get the intravenous oxygen up and running.”
I accepted the mouthpiece into my mouth and sealed my lips around it. Achmed mumbled “Good luck” and retreated. I heard the waterproof double doors hiss softly closed.
“Here we go,” Susan said with grating cheerfulness. A switch clicked, she spun a wheel on the panel. The hiss of the door closing behind her was drowned in the bubbling white noise of water flooding the OR.
There was water everywhere. My mouth was full of water. Water ran cold and invasive down my throat. Breathing was impossible. Water pressed against my eyeballs, filled my ears. Water leaked between my ribs, warm water mixing with the colder water around me. I should be drowning.
I tried to gasp, but everything felt differently, worked differently. I inhaled water. Mortal terror drove all thought from my brain. I inhaled faster and faster. More warm water shot from my ribs. Dizziness closed in.
A soothing voice spoke in my head.
“Relax, Mr. McDonald. You’ve been breathing water for hours before waking up.” The voice had no sound, yet somehow I recognized the surgeon. And the thought of the surgeon brought me back to where I was. I calmed down enough to let my breathing reflex take over.
I was lying on my back on a bed I hardly felt. Or I was floating above a bed my back just touched. All around me was clear lukewarm water. With each inhalation, water rushed into my open mouth; with each exhalation, I felt water stream from between my ribs. In between, my body somehow extracted oxygen from the water.
I had gills.
“I’m going to Oceana,” Varma had said, seven months earlier. I could see the radiant joy behind her eyes. So this was the reason she’d taken me to our favorite Japanese place. She was leaving me, going halfway across the galaxy to let herself get turned into a fish.
“You passed?” was all I could manage.
“I passed! I finally passed their tests. Aren’t you happy for me?”
“That’s great, Varma.” I looked around us at the old rosewood and rice paper, trying to invoke some empathy, some enthusiasm. “It’s what you wanted. I’m sure I’m happy for you, but… Is it final yet? Have you signed a contract?”
On some level, I knew I should be happy for her. I knew she was sharing something with me that was very important to her. I knew I was pushing her away with the way I was responding. But I couldn’t help myself. All I could think of was the fact that I was losing her. I could see it happening.
“Not yet,” she said. I could hear in her voice that she’d pulled back from me already. “That’ll happen over the next week or so. But I might be going as soon as two months from now.”
She saw my face fall.
“Brian, please! You could at least try to be happy for me!”
And I knew she was right. I knew working on Oceana was her lifelong dream, something she’d wanted since she was a little girl. She’d been trying to get in for years. I had supported her in her latest attempt, but on some level had hoped they wouldn’t take her.
But they had.
Oceana was a high-gravity planet orbiting its star about 50 light years from Earth. Almost all of its animal life was aquatic, inhabiting the giant water mass that spanned 90% of the surface. The manta whales were supposed to be incredible, vaguely resembling Earth’s manta rays in shape if not in size. Not only were they the largest living creatures known to man, their life cycle took them into the deepest trenches of the planet, where the tremendous pressures created the so-called diamond barnacles. As ill-named as the manta whales themselves, the diamond barnacles were semi-vegetable quasi-crustacean creatures that attached themselves to the immense outsides of the manta whales and sometimes contained blue diamonds of uncommon purity.
As soon as genetic engineering and specialized adaptive surgery made gills available to humans, a submerged colony had grown on Oceana, named Toba after the pearl-diving island off the coast of ancient Japan. The colony was controlled by Toba, Inc., the company that had had the foresight to acquire an exclusive exploitation contract.
Toba employed hundreds of so-called diamond sharks, modified humans working off the cost of their adaptive surgery in five-year contracts. The diamond sharks had the job of manually collecting the diamond barnacles from the hides of the gargantuan manta whales. Though the enormous nets they spread across the creatures’ backs provided hand- and footholds and thus some safety, it was a difficult and risky job. Even with their artificial gills, a few diamond sharks had drowned in the complicated swirling currents and eddies. And the creatures were known to suddenly dive into the depths of Oceana’s waters, and this deep sounding cost even more lives. The danger pay alone made diamond sharking a very lucrative line of work, even with the surgical debts.
But Varma wasn’t after the wealth that a job at Toba promised, or the adrenaline. Like me, she was an avid scuba diver, and her joy in the submerged world was even greater than my own. I’d been with her in the Indian Ocean on Earth when she saw her first manta ray. I’d never seen her more moved, more in awe of anything. I’d been stunned myself. It was her dream to escape the limitations imposed by equipment and human physiology. And Toba offered to make that dream a reality.
Toba, Inc. had devised a series of harsh and demanding psychological and physical tests that had proved effective in assessing applicants’ suitability for high-pressure submarine life. And Varma had passed those tests, and would be leaving me in two months to become a diamond shark.
I had experienced nothing like it. Ever. I swam through the blue-green of Oceana’s shallows with water rushing through my gills, and all my senses seemed to awaken fully for the first time in my life and compose a symphony of sheer joy.
There is a deep peace to scuba diving. The weightlessness and the freedom of movement are as close to flying as an independent human can get. Sounds are limited to the rush of water and the bubbling of each exhalation. To conserve oxygen, the scuba diver moves slowly, flippers waving a lazy rhythm, hands folded serenely under the body. It’s a calm and beautiful experience.
But as a scuba diver, I’d always felt an alien in the water. The equipment on my back, the regulator in my mouth, the bubbles ascending past my head, the fins on my feet, they all marked me as a submarine astronaut, a visitor to a world I could never be a part of.
But now! No flippers, but webbing between my surgically elongated toes. No compressed air on my back. And instead of a mouthpiece delivering oxygen, I just let my mouth hang open. The ocean’s water ran through me against the blood stream in my gills, delivering dissolved oxygen before escaping my body between my ribs. My thickened skin and subcutaneous fat were designed to withstand both the chill of the water and the radiation of Oceana’s bright primary; a third transparent eyelid protected my corneas. I could move through the ocean at will, swiftly and silently, and hear the symphony of submarine sounds that scuba divers miss.
And the visibility! In Earth’s waters, I had resigned myself to the murkiness that limited visibility even in the Caribbean. But Oceana’s bright sunlight penetrated much deeper than the Earth’s Sun. What passed for plankton on Oceana lived at greater depths than I needed to be. And there was very little sand and dust. Underwater Oceana was a land of bright colors and wide vistas.
I had thought scuba diving was peaceful; I could never have imagined the deep, undemanding serenity of being a diamond shark at Toba.
“Brian?” Varma floated in the oval opening in the rock face that formed the outer wall of her cave, and looked at me with incomprehension.
“Hey, Varma,” I sent. Learning to use the telepathic organ had been harder than the gills, but by now I was fluent, if that term can be applied to telepathic conversation. “How do you like my new gills?”
She shook her head as if to clear her mind, and moved to the side, inviting me in. I swam past her with an easy flick of my feet. I floated down the hallway into her living space and let myself settle on one of the elastic nets floating in an artificial current of lukewarm water, Oceana’s version of central heating. Varma took the other one. I gave her my best smile, but she didn’t return it.
“It’s good to see you, Varma.”
“God, Brian.” She shook her head again.
“How have you been?”
There was so much I wanted to say to her, so many questions to ask, and that wasn’t one of them. But I had to say something, anything, while I worked up my courage.
“Good,” she said. “Brian, what are you doing here?” She must have realized what a nonsensical question it was; the procedure was irreversible, so she knew I was in Oceana to stay.
“I’m a shark like you, Varma. I have a cave about a mile downreef. I’ll be starting diamond runs in a few weeks.”
Even before she answered, a painful fear settled around my heart.
“What are you doing here, Brian? After all the… after all you said to me when I told you I got into Toba. What are you doing? Did you…? God, Brian. I have to ask. Did you come here for me?”
What could I say to her? Whatever I wanted to tell her, whatever I wanted to ask, her answer was obvious.
“You know I love diving, Varma, I love the water. I understand the appeal of…”
“Brian! Don’t. I can’t believe you’re here, that you would do this. Do you realize what you’ve done to yourself? This is not a fad, not something you do on impulse. Brian, you’re stuck here. Did you come here for me?”
What could I say? My motivations, which had never been entirely clear to me in the first place, now seemed absurd. How could I possibly tell her that I couldn’t bear losing the first woman I had ever loved? How could I admit now that I had somehow believed Varma and I would get back together when she saw what I was prepared to do for her? Had that really been my reason to apply with Toba, to come to Oceana? Had it?
Varma took my confused silence for assent.
“Brian, I love you, honestly I do. We had a good thing. But it was never meant to last. I thought you knew that. I thought you understood I had my dream to pursue. This is… God, Brian, I don’t know what this is. But it’s wrong.”
And right then, I did understand. I suddenly and completely saw the folly of believing we’d get together again. I recognized the huge mistake that coming to Oceana, becoming a diamond shark, would prove to be if it was just for Varma. I’d been irrevocably changed; I was forever bound to this unwelcoming, aquatic, high-gravity world, forever tied to the water. There was no turning back. And the woman I had thought to win back was as unreachable as my life before coming to Oceana.
I pushed off the webbing, floating aimlessly into the centre of her living space.
“I… I should… I’ll see you around, Varma.”
With an unconscious but well-aimed flick of my legs I propelled myself into her hallway and out of the door, into the wide, endless ocean.
“Brian!” I heard her send, but I closed my mind. My throat constricted, and I wished I still had the ability to cry.
The two weeks before my first diamond run went by in a desolate haze. In the first few days after our confrontation, Varma tried to contact me a couple of times, but I kept my mind closed to her until she gave up. After that, I kept hoping she’d try again, but of course she didn’t, and that was even worse.
I went through the motions of training my swimming and breathing skills, my eyelid reflexes, my body heat regulation, but none of it meant anything. On some level, I could still detect the serenity and potential for joy in the swimming, but in my despair I appreciated none of it. I had beached myself on an alien planet, cut off all ties to my former life, and it seemed all for nothing.
On the day of my first diamond run, two Toba officials came by my cave to pick me up. I knew one of them, Ngala; he’d been one of the trainers who had instructed me in Toba signals and procedures. The other one introduced herself as Sah.
As we swam in the direction of the trench, there was something odd in their demeanor. They seemed to share some kind of excited amusement, a private joy that excluded me. They didn’t notice my despondency, and I was not about to point it out to them.
We swam at some speed at a depth of about 30 feet, the rocky ocean floor another 15 feet below us. It was the first time in two weeks that I’d swum any significant distance outside my cave, and despite myself I felt a vague tickling of pleasure at the feel of rushing water, the spectacle of schools of fish wheeling around us, aquatic plants waving in the current.
I surprised myself with the slowly mounting excitement I felt as we got closer to the lip of the trench. Not only could I see the ocean floor opening up some distance ahead of us, I felt it as well; a promise of wide open space, distance and depth to explore, teeming with life and possibility.
Then we swam out over the trench proper, and I forgot everything else.
I forgot Ngala and Sah, who hung back a bit; I shed the depression that had anchored me for weeks; my heartache lifted and was replaced by a huge sense of awe at the immense spectacle that unfolded beneath me.
The ocean floor dropped almost vertically for thousands of feet of steep slope, punctuated by sharp rocks in wild and wondrous shapes, decorated with water plants. Some stood dozens of feet tall and waved lazily in the changing currents, some were shaped like clusters of balloons, others grew close against the trench wall and seemed to bloom green petals or formed arcs and pockets of glistening leaves. The opposite side of the trench, similarly covered, stood at least two thousand feet away.
And between the two trench walls swam an endless variety of what passed for fish in Oceana’s oceans: giant schools of small silvery torpedoes shifting and turning as if controlled by hidden signals; winged sea snakes like flexible glider planes prowling for prey; four-clawed pseudo-crustaceans propelling themselves with their vibrating tails; bulbous and tentacled giants that reminded me of jellyfish; countless creatures in an amazing range of sizes and wondrous shapes that I couldn’t compare to anything I knew.
A distance further into the trench I watched two long, lean fish-like creatures perform an intricate mating dance while they held themselves stationary against the prevailing current with easy flaps of their fins. I watched them, fascinated, as they revolved around one another, and it was minutes before I realized they were both the size, if not the shape, of a mature sperm whale. Suddenly the scale of the whole panorama dawned on me, and all I wanted was to swim among these amazing creatures and lose myself in their unimaginable variety.
Then Ngala and Sah sent out an involuntary gasp of anticipation, and I looked into the direction their broadcast suggested.
Despite the blue haze that blurred its edges, and its giant size that made it impossible to see it in its entirety, I realized at once that the manta whale below me was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
The undulating giant drifted slowly into my field of vision. Its body was shaped like a zeppelin, with two triangular wings on either side to propel itself. Its tail end supported two whale-like flukes, and it had two rows of long low fins on its back that I couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of. There was some kind of shifting grid pattern etched onto its back, and tiny creatures crawled chaotically along this grid as the manta whale made its slow way against the trench current.
It was only when the manta whale swam under the mating couple I had spotted that I realized the sheer size of the creature. The two whale-sized creatures fitted easily onto the manta whale’s back. Then the manta whale came into proper focus and I recognized the grid pattern. It was one of the humongous nets I had seen in the central company cave. The nets were attached to the dorsal fins and provided hand- and footholds for the diamond sharks. But that meant that the tiny creatures I’d seen were fellow diamond sharks.
The beautiful, majestic sea monster I saw floating beneath me was larger than the space ship that had brought me to Oceana.
“You do get used to them,” Sah sent.
“Sort of,” added Ngala with the telepathic equivalent of a crooked grin. “Do you want to meet her?”
We chose a vector that would get us above the manta whale a few hundred meters ahead of its current position. Swimming fast, we reached our spot ahead of the manta and slightly above its course. We floated there and turned to face its approach.
I understood what plankton must feel when it sees a whale approaching. The manta whale swam straight for us. It had a wide open mouth that looked large enough to park a commercial airliner. Instinctively I wanted to swim up and out of its path, but Ngala stopped me.
“We’re good where we are. Just watch.”
So I did, and he was right. When the manta whale was only a hundred feet away, I could tell that hangar door mouth would pass underneath us. I felt a pressure wave precede the creature and then we were above it. A few dozen feet behind its nose was the leading edge of the net, and I could see a couple of diamond sharks clambering around its wide, curved back, between the two rows of house-high dorsal fins.
“Start swimming,” Sah said. I knew what she meant, and I turned and propelled myself rapidly in the direction the manta whale was moving. It swam deceptively fast, and we needed some speed before we would be able to safely grab hold of the netting.
Under Sah’s supervision, I let myself sink slowly down to the curved back until I was able to grab hold of one of the transverse cables of the shark net. I was yanked forward instantly; the rough surface of the braided seaweed dug into my palms.
“You’re a natural,” Ngala said from somewhere behind me.
“Good job,” Sah added. “Now try and find yourself some barnacles.”
For a few minutes, I simply hung on to the net and enjoyed the rush of speed, the view of the two enormous wings propelling the immense creature forward. Then I released my cable and let myself fall downstream to the next one, scanning for diamond barnacles as I drifted rapidly across the broad back.
Diamond barnacles have hardly anything in common with the barnacles I knew from Earth. Like the whales, jellyfish and other Oceanic creatures, the name was a convenience. The barnacles were soft-shelled creatures that attached themselves to the smooth hide of manta whales. With the opening in the top of their bodies, they sucked in great quantities of ocean water that they filtered for nutrients and oxygen. As long as the mouth was uncovered, it was easy enough to pinch a barnacle at its base and make it release its hold on the manta whale’s skin. I should never touch the mouth though, Ngala had warned me. If a diamond shark was clumsy enough to put his hand on a barnacle mouth, the strong suction would practically weld the barnacle to both his hand and the manta whale’s skin.
Grabbing hold of the next cable one-handedly, I cautiously plucked a barnacle with the other. It was empty.
“No such thing as beginner’s luck,” said the diamond shark to my right.
For fifteen or twenty minutes, I clambered upstream and let myself fall downstream along the giant’s back, meeting my new colleagues, plucking barnacles. It was like nothing I’d ever done, nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was exhausting and exhilarating.
Thus began my sharking career. In the following weeks, it quickly became clear that Sah had been closer to the truth than Ngala. Though swimming into a manta whale’s path, grabbing the net and moving around quickly grew to be routine, my awe and admiration hardly diminished, if at all.
It was hard to say what my favorite part of the work was: spotting an approaching manta whale far away in the trench, swimming smoothly over its head and grabbing the net in one graceful arc, the kick of discovering a faint blue glitter in a harvested barnacle, the pride I felt in the rapid teamwork of abandoning a sounding manta whale, or the easy brotherhood of sharing drinks with fellow sharks. In some ways, the best part of every day was perhaps the approach to the trench and the anticipation of that breath-taking vista.
Three weeks after my first diamond run, I was riding the webbing on a huge manta whale female. I had just spotted a promising barnacle when I heard a familiar thought print.
It was Varma. I was so startled I slammed my flat hand on top of the barnacle I was reaching for.
Ngala had been right. The moment I put my hand on the barnacle, I felt it being sucked with disturbing force against the manta whale’s hide. I knew from Ngala’s course that my knife was the only method of detaching the barnacle. I released my hold on the cable, reached for my ankle knife and stabbed at the barnacle. A sudden ripple through the manta whale’s back made me miss. The blade plunged to the hilt into its skin and broke off when the muscles contracted in pain reflex. And even before I saw the specific directional ripple in the manta whale’s back, I heard the uncontrolled broadcast of one of my fellow sharks:
I knew what was happening. I knew the net team would be trying frantically to release the netting. I knew the other diamond sharks would be grabbing the last couple of barnacles they could reach, releasing their hold on the netting, and swimming as swiftly as they could vertically away from the manta whale. I knew the manta whale was about to dive thousands of feet down into the trench.
And my hand was still being sucked to its skin with terrible force.
The manta whale sounded. The shift in speed and direction caused tearing pain in my captured hand. I tensed for the netting that would soon be shooting past me, but that didn’t happen. Apparently the netters hadn’t succeeded in releasing it. But I was still being pulled rapidly down into the deepening dark of the lower trench. Nobody really knew the maximum depth a modified Oceana human could survive, but I was pretty sure I would not survive the depth and pressure the manta was headed for.
It was ironic, really. The same creature that had lifted me out of my depression was now about to kill me.
Then I felt a hand on my ankle; I heard Varma tell me to grab the netting; I saw her lithe shape appear beside me; I saw her slide her blade between my hand and the manta hide. The relief of suction did nothing to lessen the terrible burning sensation, but I was free. My hand spasmed, fingers closing around something tumbling free of the gored barnacle. I turned towards Varma and nodded vigorously.
“Thanks,” I mouthed.
“Let’s go back,” she sent.
I knew my shivering was more of shock than cold, but I still felt I would never want to leave the blessed warmth of Varma’s central heating current. She handed me a squeeze bottle of warm seaweed perfusion. I sipped gratefully.
“Thank you,” I repeated. Our swim back to the shallows had been slow and silent; it was only now that I felt I had recovered enough to speak. “I thought I’d had it. Thanks.”
“Any time,” she answered. “I thought so, too.” Then we just leaned back, sipping our teas. My residual shock dissipated into the water, to be replaced by fondness and gratitude.
But nothing more, I realized with a quiet smile.
I kept smiling at her until she looked away.
“You know…,” she began.
“Yeah, I know.” And I did. My smile broadened. I knew what she was going to say, and I knew what my answer would be. It didn’t matter, because I had finally understood what had brought me here. It wasn’t the wonderful woman who sat across from me.
“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, giving me a stern look.
“It does for me,” I said. “It changes everything.”
The surprised look on her face was enough to send a wave of laughter her way.
“I was wrong, you know,” I said, feeling the truth, the rightness of what I was trying to say. “Of course I was. How else could I have ever passed the tests? I didn’t come here for you. Those manta whales are the most beautiful things I have ever seen, even though one of them almost killed me today. I never want to be anywhere else anymore. I’m here because I belong in the water. This is my life, like it is yours.”
Slow, wondering relief spread across Varma’s face.
“I mean I’m in love with Oceana, and the manta whales, and sharking. But not with you. Not any more.”
“So… So we’re okay now? Friends?”
A beautiful smile curved her lips. She shoved off her webbing towards me and slammed into a fierce gill-suffocating hug.
“Then let me look at that hand,” she said, pulling away from me again.
“Sure,” I said. Gingerly, I uncurled my injured hand and showed her the blue diamond I was clasping. “I guess this one belongs to you anyway.”
© Copyright Floris M. Kleijne
Floris M. Kleijne is a member of a land-bound species of bipedal mammals with no aquatic features of any kind. He can be observed in the wild in or around a centuries-old farmhouse in the Dutch river district. Approach quietly, and you may hear him mumbling bits and pieces of prose to his computer screen. Behavioral characteristics include the publication of some forty stories in publications like Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and Little Blue Marble. Unexpectedly, he recently budded off his first novel, which equally unexpectedly turned out to be a Dutch thriller. More can be learned about this creature on https://www.floriskleijne.com.
Read the Rest of the February Issue
- Leaving to Exist by Ivis Whitright
- Mermaid Tails by John Sies
- Andromeda by Stephanie Nina Pitsirilos and Seth Martel
- Mermaid #288 by Aqua Moon
- Surinla by Amanda Saville and Joyce Chng
- In the Sky, an Ocean by Amanda Saville and Joyce Chng
- Part of Me by Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier
- Diamond Sharks by Floris M. Kleijne
- Mermaid # 282 by Aqua Moon
- Space Needs Mers by Fran Wilde
- Putting a Pin in a Few Things by Meg Frank