Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 25 – A Sea of Mist

Just before the Smug came up, Fishmael retreated below to his cabin, like a snail illuminated with that star's salt, retreating back into its shell, and locked the door, having left orders for the navigation of the ship with Jerry, who manned the helm, and orders for Mungo to stay aloft in the crow's nest on the look our for anything pale and fishlike, be it tail-fin or dorsal. The course, which had meandered under Fishmael's erratic influence at night, was now set straight for the day, away from the City, away from the happy entrapment of culture and uncouthness, wealth and poverty. When one considers the vastness of the foggy deep that covers Expiscor, and the relatively small hemisphere of visibility from the topmast, it might seem that the mission our protagonists now found themselves upon was stamped with futility from its conception. Think, however, of how often we embark on such missions. How many romances start not only by a chance meeting, but then by further happy coincidences, such as the sharing of an interest, the reciprocal appreciation of each other's unique beauty, the mundane practicalities of geography and working hours that allow for regular meetings and so on. How many battles have been won by a lone pigeon carrying a scrap of paper thousands of miles to a pigeon loft a few square metres across to call for reinforcements? In our immune systems, how many times have antibodies been raised to multifarious pathogens, saving our lives time after time? Indeed, what fortuitous circumstances allowed for a ball of rock to be situated the right distance from a star, with the right chemical composition and the right environmental conditions for life to arise and be sustained until creatures of any level of intelligence arose in the first place?

Miracles are so commonplace as to be ignored by most people. If we stopped and stared at everything miraculous we would simply get nothing done. If we were at all capable of appreciating miracles, we would spend at least a decade contemplating the incredible chemical processes which convert those most basic elements, light and air, into two pieces of carbon-based, conveniently combustible wood, without ever having time to rub the two things together and start a fire to stop ourselves freezing to death. Nonchalance is an evolutionarily acquired characteristic, if you nonchalantly believe in such things.

All this considered, then, we must accept the impossible probability of this unlikely band of mariners actually finding their fish. It is the way of things that sometimes being so hell-bent on some end or other is in fact sufficient to guarantee success. The shelf upon which the trees of the Hundred Boughs and the buildings of the City rest is a large mesa of roughly one-hundred kilometres square, the flat tabletop of which is just twenty metres or so below the mist. The sides of the mesa drop precipitously once one passes over the edge, until the mistbed is one-thousand, ten-thousand, one-hundred thousand metres below the mist. In order to become better acquainted with this foggy medium which is so important to our mariners, it is a good idea to turn to the learned writings of one Earnest Grumble. This singular individual came into his prime many hundreds of years ago in the great age of machines started by Tempura Lanomaly, and was the closest Expiscor has ever come to producing a scientist. Grumble was fascinated by the huge unexplored realm of the mist, and in particular the creatures it may harbour. So, at great expense, he constructed a bronze hollow globe studded with thick glass observation portals to protect him from the unsavoury vapours of the deep mist (and any of the monstrosities which called it home and Grumble dinner) and a sampling hatch. He had a great cord of the type used in fishing lines only much longer and thicker attached to a hoop in the top of the globe. The other end of this cord was attached to a giant winching mechanism, the base of which was set into the bedrock of the mesa, fifty metres or so from the edge. It was Grumble's self-assigned mission to venture down into the great unknown of the deep, deep, deep mist.

“Hurrah!” and again “Hurrah! Hurrah!” came the cries of the spectators as, under a hail of hookblossom confetti, Grumble was sealed in his globe and rolled on a trolley towards the edge. They pushed him over the edge and the cord took the weight of the capsule and the portly naturalist. As he was lowered slowly, his journal began.

Depth: 10 metres. I was immediately impressed by the variety of forms that are found just a small distance beneath the surface of the mist. Most of these are greenish, squigglyform and possess flagella for movement. I strongly suspect these to be the happiest of all creatures (bar, of course, the fish), as evinced by their joyous exclamations of “bree, bree!” when the sample hatch was opened and they were bottled.

Depth: 100 metres. First sighting of an infinity fish in its natural environment – such a wonder! It was fleeting, of course, for it fled as soon as it saw the capsule, its tail fin being the only think visible, but the experience will remain with me for the rest of my life. It should be noted that at this depth much of the Smug's light is blocked by the mist, making things somewhat dim. I switched on the fish-oil lamps on the front of the capsule and was afforded a view of some of the smaller biota at this depth. These generally appear to lack any colour, which I put down to their unjoyful demeanour and carnivorous nature; I have observed one of their larger members eating a lesser creature. Such constant worry at being consumed has evidently bleached these poor creatures of their jolly pigments, as my understanding of photochemistry has it.

Depth: 1000 metres. Things are decidedly dark, and I am glad I brought ample fish-oil for the lamps. The creatures have increased in size, and I must admit to being a little afraid of them. Generally they are two to three metres across, possessed of large and jaunty teeth, exceedingly aggressive to each other and, by their constant exclamations of “Waargh!” most antisocial and unneighbourly. I am glad such monstrosities are confined to these depths.

Depth: 10,000 metres. I must admit to being extremely afraid. Every last glimmer of natural smuglight has long since gone, leaving just a small sphere of illumination around the capsule near the lamps. Such monsters! A large one, multiheaded and quite unsavoury to behold, came very close to the capsule and put an eye as big as a dinner plate to one of the windows, either by way of curiosity or as a means of putting the wind up me, I cannot say which. Another had something like a bell-shaped body with many wispy tentacles trailing underneath it. I am convinced that this is the source of the so-called 'fisherman's fire', the peculiar burns that sometimes affect fishermen when they haul in ropes that have been at extreme depth and are covered with these wispy appendages. I was extremely careful when I used the sampling hatch to snip off some tentacles, which I bottled. I was amazed to discover that attached in strands along the tentacles were other miniature bell-shaped creatures, as if the larger bell was a freighter for its offspring. I can only expect further terrible wonders as I continue my descent.

Depth: 50,000 metres. I have taken to humming happy tunes so as to drive off the terror that thrills me, to little avail. Huge shapes often pass within feet of the vessel, which rocks alarmingly as they swim away. I cannot describe them in their whole, as I can only catch glimpses of appendages or spikes or teeth – however, I must assess their joyousness as being extremely low and their frivolousness to be negligible.

There are also smaller creatures which appear to emit their own kind of light, ranging from an eerie glow to crisp, electric-blue pulses. These are slightly more joyous, as any light in this pitch ocean is welcome, but on closer inspection most of them are troubled with a constant frown that is most unbecoming. Perhaps the most terrifying of all the creatures I encountered was a large mass of tentacles attached to a beak-shaped body. It was not the tentacles that scared me, however; in the lamp light I could see its eyes, and they were like those of a Piscador. The only thing more horrific than brute murderousness is the hint of intelligence ruling such a disgusting anatomy.

Depth 100,000 metres. The capsule now rests on the mistbed. In front of me is a peculiar funnel-like formation which seems to be geological in origin; however, it is heavily encrusted with a layer of life that appears to lack the usual diversity seen elsewhere; mainly tube-worms but crabs also. I sampled one of these crabs through the hatch and had to throw it back out again, the smell of sulphur was so bad. As I did so I noticed that the hatch was decidedly warm – it seems that the funnel is a source of heat. I can only speculate on the metabolism of the creatures that depend on this funnel for life – it is my learned opinion, owing to the sulphurous smell, that these creatures conserve the gasses that we would otherwise emit when we break wind, and, these being flammable, slowly combust them for their energy. I could also make out that, upon the bed of the mist, there are many large bones and some rotting carcasses, presumably from all the creatures that, meeting their end above, fall down into the abyss. I have to say, I am a little glad that I shall be reeled up out of this dismal place in a short time. Imagine being one of these poor brutes! As never before, I count myself glad to be a Piscador.

So there you have it. The mist holds many wonders and far more horrors – be glad that you cannot see down into it! You may, incidentally, wonder why Piscadors are so worried at the fish dying out when there are other potential food sources living in the mist. Well, first of all, these are mostly poisonous and very dangerous to even touch, never mind eat. Most of the rest are large and fierce; many nets of deep-mist fishermen have been torn to ribbons by a mistakenly entrapped beastie, and catching them would be nigh on impossible. There are, however, a very small number of species, like the dugong, which are exceedingly tasty, easy to catch and plentiful in number. However, it is a peculiarity of Piscador biochemistry that Piscadors require the essential oil of the fish, piscoline, to produce and maintain the fatty tissues of the brain. Without these oils, the brain quickly withers and the unfortunate Piscador suffers a mental decline leading ultimately to dementia and death. This perhaps accounts for that terrible, manic laugh which, once emitted from his sweetheart, still troubles Ambrosius to this day, and is a grim portent for the decline of the City into a slowly lethal madness should a new supply of fish not be found.

Some chapters back we heard a ridiculous thing: the great, white Infinity Fish praying. Well, its invocations done, the fish was now on the move. It said a silent hello to the flatulent crabs which populated the deep-sea vents. It bantered with the shimmering chemiluminescent things and the giant spiky things a little further above. It greeted with jollity the jellies and the medusae. It grinned at the shouts of “Waargh!” from the colourless fauna above them. It laughed with the jocund, green things near the surface, and, finally, burst out into the light of Xiphias, spraying mist high in a silvery jet into the night sky (the Infinity Fish has a habit of spitting a mouthful of mist high into the sky as she reaches the surface of the mist, spraying vapour upwards in a concentrated jet). And what does any self-respecting fisherman shout when he sees such a thing?