Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 3 – An Apparition and A Resurrection
Just how long Ambrosius lay there he could not tell, but when he woke he was freezing and disorientated. The diffuse light that filtered down through the mist from the invisible Smug stung his eyes. The fish was gone, but that moment of eye contact...
The thought was severed by a terrifying noise juddering through the mist that froze Ambrosius on the spot. There was a low base rumble that shook his belly and made his knees weak, a teeth-jarring clang and a high-pitched wheeze. It repeated rhythmically and seemed to be getting nearer. There was no time to climb.
Instinctively Ambrosius dived into the fronds of some slimy green Mist Kelp at the foot of the nearest Hook Tree and lay trying not to move, but shivering in fear and coldness nonetheless. Through bulging eyes Ambrosius peeped out from under the mercifully thick straps of the kelp that hid him.
At first there was just Mist and noise; a terrible rhythm as if the devil himself were playing drums and a chorus of his demons were humming threateningly in between the beats. The ground pulsed. The mist parted and suddenly all Ambrosius could see was yellow. The vast yellow shape rumbled and guttered through the churning fog and then, without warning, stopped in front of the kelp. It was as though the ground itself was trembling at this monster's presence.
Now Ambrosius could read, and read very well. At this moment though it seemed as though this faculty were somehow inappropriate, even though it engaged automatically and shouted at him from the side of the nicotine-yellow leviathan in big black letters:
“Fish Stocks Limited”
Oh. What did that mean? If ever a sentence had harmonics, this one did. It made something flare up in Ambrosius, something which had been communicated to him by the eye-to-eye with the Infinity Fish before his faint. Fish Stocks Limited. Inifinity, it seemed, was under threat.
The yellow monster turned and started off in another direction. Ambros ius watched as the mist enveloped it and the noise grew fainter. His mind still reeling from his encounter with the great chugging jaundiced beast, Ambrosius extracted himself from the fronds of kelp and quickly started his ascent of the Hook Tree. As the ground left him he felt safer somehow, more alive. In a matter of minutes he was out of the ghostly mist and breathing fresh, dry air that tasted like summer and Hookblossom. The feeling of well-being that the clear atmosphere brought stood in sharp contrast to the terror of the ground. Ambrosius put all the energy he had into climbing and scaled the tree as though he were running up it.
“You're dead!” came the shrill accusation of young Moonrise Husk, as Ambrosius covered the last few feet and at last sprawled on a branch again. “I saw you fall! You're dead!”
Ambrosius was too out of breath to talk. Instead he lay panting, feeling the last dampness of the mist drying off his clothing along with the sweat of his exertions in the afternoon sun.
“I'm telling Leatherskin Wrinkly that you fell!”
“Don't make a fuss,” managed Ambrosius. “I'm alive now aren't I? Come and feel my pulse if you want, listen to my breathing.”
“But you've been down in the mist! The mist is for the dead and...” the colour suddenly drained from Moonrise's face. She put a hand up to her mouth in terror. “Zombies! You're a zombie!”
“I'm not a...” started Ambrosius, too late. Moonrise was all ready running, a shrill frightened squeal emitting from her throat that warbled with the rhythm of her pounding feet. Ambrosius sighed. He had never understood the superstitions of his people. If something had a pleasing ring to it they believed it, no matter how absurd. Fish were the souls that hadn't been born yet. The Smug is a great ball of fire where all the evil burn. The last dregs of each pint of Hook Beer has to be tipped off the tree for the souls of the departed. Codswallop! The writings of the great philosopher Bellyfat Chinbeard had thrown all that out centuries ago, if only people would read his books (which were, admittedly, unfathomably boring and written in a largely illegible shorthand). No, Ambrosius knew the truth. He knew that all the matter in the universe was made of tiny Fish. Each Fish swam in a straight line unless it was otherwise disturbed. All the interactions in the universe were mediated by tiny invisible lines with Hooks on the end, that would catch the Fish and yank them out of their trajectories. Indeed, the area of Quantum Fishics was one in which Ambrosius had a special interest in, and, he told himself, gave him deep insights into the nature of reality.
It did not take long for Moonrise to gather a group of worried looking Piscadors together, lead by the elderly statesman Leatherskin Wrinkly and the frankly senile professor Wiseman Cobweb. Some of the younger and more volatile Piscadors who rallied behind them held sharp pointy sticks in the fashion favoured by young and volatile mobs everywhere.
“First things first,” bellowed Leatherskin in a voice that carried authority and a fine aerosol of phlegm. “Are you a zombie?”
“Are you sure?” asked Wiseman from next to him, consulting a battered volume which he had produced from under his long flowing blue robe. His parchment brow creased in sympathy with the velum as he read the text. “Any thoughts of a cullinary nature regarding brains or other such cerebral tissues?”
“No,” said Ambrosius.
“Any uncontrollable moaning or other involuntary atonic vocalisations?”
“No,” said Ambrosius.
“Increased salivation and non-Pavlovian spittle-based responses?”
“No,” said Ambrosius.
“Do you have any sudden urges to participate in a motion picture with a very high gore-to-budget ratio?”
“No,” said Ambrosius.
“Good,” said Wiseman. “You score zero on the Zombification Index, which means that, assuming you don't try anything funny, we don't need to proceed with the standard Angry Mob Protocol as defined by Smallfry et al.”
There were murmurs of disappointment from the more enthusiastic members of the congregation, after which the crowd started to lose interest and disperse. Leatherskin beckoned for Ambrosius to come closer.
“You're in your underpants, boy.”
“I fell out of tree number eleven. My trousers got caught on a Fish-hook.”
“Ah. And you're sure you're not dead?”
“No you're not dead, or no you're not sure?”
“I'm not dead.”
“Glad to hear it. Well, you better be going. Can't have you standing around all day in your scruds now can we?” Leatherskin was a seasoned statesman and had excellent control over his expressions, so the smile that crept over his face showed just how ridiculous Ambrosius looked.
Ambrosius bowed his head deferentially in as dignified a way as possible. He was just about to make his way back to his shack when there came a chesty cough from Wiseman. “Actually I don't think you should go just yet.” Wiseman turned to the nervous looking skivvy who attended him. He was a short Piscador of about fifteen by the misleading name of Stipule Longlegs, with a pimply face and greasy hair.
“Stipule,” said Wiseman, “go and fetch this young man a pair of trousers. Bring them to my residence, quick now.
The pimpled youth nodded politely and dashed off on his errand.
“You are to follow us to my hut,” said Wiseman. “I think you should come along, too, Leatherskin.”
There were mercifully few giggling gawkers along the way. Wiseman, Leatherskin and Ambrosius reached the seclusion of the hut just as Stipule came running panting (pardon the expression) with a pair of trousers. Ambrosius quickly put them on and, at the invitation of Wiseman, both he and Leatherskin sat at the large Hookwood table in the middle of the hut.
“I have grave news,” said Wiseman, leaning heavily on the table, face down and staring at the wood as if he had discerned something interesting in the grain. All of a sudden he looked up, his old rheumy eyes lighting up with something indistinguishable. This unfathomable emotion was curiosity, and it burned bright. “But first,” he said, his mucous-filled lungs giving his voice a purring, bubbling enthusiasm, “in the interests of philosophy, you must tell us of your venture into the mist. We have never had anyone survive an experience such as yours. Is it true that the dead who were fishless at their funeral walk in the mist?” he stopped, surveying Ambrosius' expression for a second, before shaking his head. “No, that is an old fishwives tale, of course. Quite ridiculous for an educated man such as myself to suggest such a thing. No, I must be more sensible. Is Wrigglything's seminal treatise on mist stratification correct? Was the whiteness of the mist an illusion produced by multiple layers of coloured gasses?”
Ambrosius looked blank.
“No, I never liked Wrigglything's work anyway.” said Wiseman. “Tell me, what did the mist taste like? You see there is a theory by Glaucous et al. that posits that the taste of fish is determined by the medium in which they swim. Did the mist taste of fish?”
Ambrosius still looked blank.
“No, of course not, a ridiculous idea.”
“Look,” interjected Leatherskin, “I am a busy man. I have a meeting scheduled in for one o'clock and it's half twelve now. Can we skip this rubbish?”
Wiseman looked hurt. “Well, okay. Unless there was anything important you saw?”
“Actually,” said Ambrosius, “there was. Very important, and this concerns you too Leatherskin.”
“It better be good,” said the statesman. Leatherskin had little respect for a youth such as Ambrosius, even less considering his reputation as a recluse and a hopeless Fisher. Be that as may, from years of experience Leatherskin had learned never to dismiss people with something to say, especially those who were normally quiet.
“I don't know about good. It might be quite the opposite. I saw the future,” said Ambrosius.
Leatherskin and Wiseman each raised an eyebrow in unison.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, son,” said Wiseman. “I looked an Infinity Fish in the eye.”
“Ah,” said Wiseman. “Now there has been much written about this. Every Fisher knows that by the time Infinity Fish are reeled up and out of the mist they are dead. They need the mist to survive – all but the Progenitor.”
Wiseman made the sign of the fish across his chest.
“Nobody has ever looked a living Infinity Fish in the eye before," continued Wiseman. "Most of the texts say that such an encounter would send one irretrievably insane. That is, all apart from Petiole et al. who say that one would absorb the knowledge of the fish and become lost in what is known as a Perspective Vortex.”
“I fainted,” said Ambrosius.
“Can we call that a Perspective Vortex?” asked Wiseman.
“If you like,” said Ambrosius. “I think there might be some truth in what you said about absorbing the knowledge of the Fish. I suddenly had this amazing feeling of… clarity. I can't think of any other words to describe it. When I fell my whole life flashed before my eyes. When I looked into the Fish's eyes all those events were sort of connected and directed. In that moment I knew suddenly that I had a purpose.”
“What was that purpose, boy, what was that purpose?” Wiseman asked, leaning forward eagerly on the edge of his seat.
“I... I can't remember. Well, sort of can't remember. It's in my head somewhere but it's too vast to fit into my consciousness all at once.”
“Interesting, interesting,” said Wiseman. “Such is the nature of the Infinite.”
“Well, anyway,” said Ambrosius. “When I woke up I saw something else.”
“What?” asked Leatherskin. He did not seem at all interested in Ambrosius' experience with the Fish. Fish were an everyday thing. There was nothing special about them.
“When I awoke there was this terrible noise. I saw this great yellow thing come through the mist, and suddenly there in front of me there was this huge ugly monster.”
“Ah, this is more like it,” said Wiseman. “The literature is full of huge ugly monsters.”
“It had writing on its side.”
“Most unusual,” said Wiseman in his rasping lilt. “Do carry on.”
“It was in big black letters. It said 'Fish Stocks Limited'. That was all.”
This made Leatherskin pay attention. “'Fish Stocks Limited'? What does that mean?”
“It means what it says,” put in Wiseman. “It is a message from beyond the mists. Our fish stocks are limited.”
“Limited?” asked Leatherface. “Preposterous.”
“I think Wiseman's right,” said Ambrosius. “There was something in that fish's eyes. It looked incomprehensibly sad. Infinitely so.”
Leatherskin's face was set into an unreadable mask. “You do realise the weight of what you are saying? The entire of Expiscor depends on Fish. To suggest the Infinity Fish is actually finite is political dynamite. Blasphemy even.”
“We cannot simply ignore such a portent,” said Wiseman.
“I don't believe it. I think this youth has been running round in the mist for too long and gone bonkers. He's quite literally out of his tree.”
“Ignore the word of God at your peril!” exclaimed Wiseman. “The message is clear: we have sinned, and for this we will be made fishless!”
“Oh stop that at once,” said Leatherman. “This is nonsense. Now at the start of our meeting you said there was some bad news. Bad news is important news, so out with it man, then I really must be off.”
“Yes, quite,” said Wiseman smoothing down his beard and composing himself.
“Got a little carried away there. The bad news is for young Ambrosius here.”
“Yes?” asked Ambrosius.
“Well, as soon as young Moonrise came shouting her head off about Ambrosius being back from the mist, it immediately made me think of Pinnate Rivet's 'Booke of Ancient Law'.”
Leatherskin audibly sighed. “Not more about your books, Wiseman.”
“No, this is important. We have lived according to the law for generations immemorial. We cannot break a law that is in the literature.”
“I know very well the importance of law,” said Leatherskin, “but I am not aware of any having been broken.”
“With respect, that is where you are sadly mistaken,” said Wiseman. “Young Ambrosius here has unwittingly broken a most weighty of statutes.”
“Cut to the chase, please,” said Leatherskin.
“It says here that any Piscador who so happens to fall from the heights of a Hook Tree and comes into contact with the Mist must be expelled for ever from the company of the tree-dwellers and must walk the face of the bare earth forever. For the Mist is death, and the breather of Mist is dead to the world.”
Ambrosius' face dropped. “But that's unfair! I didn't fall from the tree on purpose.”
“Yes,” said Leatherskin. Despite his professional detachment he couldn't help feel sorry for this lanky, hopeless looking youth that stood before him in ill-fitting trousers. “It does seem a little harsh, don't you think, Wiseman? Perhaps we could just pretend that you never knew about that particular law.”
Wiseman shook his head furiously. “If this rule is broken, then the Fates will stop the fish from biting and the whole of Expiscor will starve. I'm sorry, Ambrosius. I know you are a man of learning such as myself, and I have a lot of respect for you because of that. But laws are laws.”
“So just like that, you'd throw me out into the mist again?”
Wiseman hung his head in silence.
“You're not going to let this happen are you sir?” Ambrosius asked Leatherskin. “Surely you can see this is madness?”
Leatherskin grunted. “I can and I do.” He turned to the old professor. “Wiseman old bean, is there any time limit on this thing?”
“Well, it says Ambrosius here must be expelled for having breathed the mist, but does it say when?”
“Er, not as such,” said Leatherskin.
“There we have it; an equable solution. I say we let Ambrosius stay here for a test period. If the Fish supplies dry up then we can throw him out into the Mist then and get our Fish back. There will be no great harm in a few weeks of fishlessness, we have plenty of supplies. Let us test the Mists, so to speak, before we do anything unnecessary.”
Wiseman shifted uncomfortably. “I don't like it. I don't like it one bit. But then, who am I to argue with you, Leatherskin? Yo u are the leader, after all. I must stress though, that as soon as the catch shows the least sign of decreasing we must throw Ambrosius out, as unpalatable as that might seem.”
“Then we are agreed,” said Leatherskin. “We shall give this young man a probationary period. I hope for his sake this law is baseless.”
“Hang on a second,” said Ambrosius. “I've just told you what I saw. It was a message from beyond the mist telling me the fish stock will run out. Now you're saying that I'll get the blame for it!”
“Your message from beyond the mist was no more than a dream brought on by unwholesome vapours. The fish stocks are limitless, they always have been and always will be.” Leatherskin tapped his finger on the table, his eyes burning into Ambrosius'. “The one thing you can rely on is Fish.”