Edition 6: Endangered Species X by Guy Prevost
This story was the second placing for the 2012 Story Quest Short Story competition, a disaster tale with a science fiction flavor. Two men at sea, working to clean up oil slicks, encounter an unexpected sea creature. Their concern for the animal may be misplaced. Perhaps they should be concerned for themselves… SY
They were five miles from shore on the trawler and it was Hollis who first saw the slick. He signaled from his lookout on the starboard bow.
In the pilothouse Cody throttled down and scanned the horizon. He discerned not one but two pools of oil each about a quarter mile wide, separated by a channel of clear water. The oil didn’t glisten, as you might expect. It was just a shade darker than the ocean surface. Cody could see the entire circumference of each slick. The contours reminded him of the terrain maps he’d used in Iraq.
Hollis stepped back from the foredeck, momentarily lost his footing, then recovered and made a theatrical bow. Cody smiled, though he had been a bit concerned when his former college roommate had arrived at the dock that morning: he’d put on considerable weight. He hadn’t seen him in several years, ever since Hollis had gone down to Galveston to work quality control for a chemical company. It was a desk job, sure enough, so that must have accounted for the added girth.
“Looks good, we can handle it,” Cody said, gesturing to the slicks. Hollis nodded, taking a long drink from his water bottle. The sweat beaded above his dark eyebrows.
Cody brought out the lab gear provided by NOAA, recalling how his son Billy thought all you had to do to burn oil on the ocean was light a match to it. Hell, if that was the case, the Exxon Valdez and every other spill could have been cleaned up, no problem. Here down in the Gulf, the seas were calmer than in Alaska, which was a help. But conditions needed to be just right for ignition. The thickness of the slick had to be greater than two millimeters and the water to crude ratio below 50%. Cody had performed 15 successful burns since the disastrous blowout two months earlier. He’d become one of the Coast Guard’s go-to guys for these operations. By trade he was a shrimp fisherman, but there was a moratorium on fishing and the government paid well for this work.
Cody was confident that he could judge if a slick was burnable just by looking at it. He was pretty sure these were. Still, there were protocols. Hollis took out the long test shaft, leaned over the side, and dipped it in the water. He withdrew the stick, measured the width of the oil residue, nodded to Cody. Cody took a sample with an eyedropper and squeezed it into the analyzer. He turned a few dials and switched on the machine that would give the oil/water ratio.
“Talk about low-tech,” said Hollis. This was his first “live” burn.
As they waited for the results, Cody idly scraped some of the oil off the test stick and let it drip into an empty coffee can. He asked Hollis about his job at BioGreen, where he’d been involved in the cleanup because the company had developed the all-important dispersant carrying the bioremediation microbe. This microbe actually consumed oil and was credited with keeping a major catastrophe from going global. It had worked better than anyone expected, especially deep underwater near the well’s rupture where they had poured on vats of the stuff. Cody thought it remarkable that there were living organisms with a ravenous appetite for oil—a happy accident of nature.
“They must be celebrating down at BioGreen,” said Cody.
“Wish I’d bought the stock.”
“Well, maybe…but what I heard, it isn’t so pretty.”
Cody looked puzzled.
“There’s a rumor that BioGreen didn’t use the microbe for the cleanup, well, not the microbe they claimed anyway. There’s the one that occurs in nature that’s legal and approved by NOAA. But they also had invented a synthetic variety, much more aggressive, it turns out, than the natural form. They had quite a supply that they kept under wraps, and untested, kind of a corporate secret. Some say BioGreen substituted the synthetic for the natural without telling anyone. That’s why it worked so well.”
“OK, good move, I’d say,” said Cody.
“Yeah, maybe, but it’s illegal. The Madrid Protocol forbids the introduction of synthetic life forms into the ocean. There’s no telling how they might interact with natural species, especially at those depths. There’s some weird stuff down there: vampire sharks, viper fish, squids that you’d seen in a sci-fi film.”
Cody was familiar with these creatures. After the spill, Billy had done a school report on the marine life that might be threatened near the ocean floor. Still, he’d had his fill of government regulation in his shrimp business and tended to side with the foresighted fellow who made the substitution.
The indicator beeped, meaning they could go ahead with the burn.
“Told you,” said Cody.
So they started on the first slick. Hollis moved the big barrel of accelerant to the port side. Cody passed him one end of a hose that he inserted into the barrel valve. Cody grabbed the other end, gave it a short burst test, and then nodded for Hollis to take the wheel. Hollis obliged and pulled the boat up to the edge of the slick.
Cody signaled for Hollis to idle the engine. In the quiet he listened for the faint wind, which seemed to be coming from the south. By turning his head slowly, as he learned to do when working with his father in the early days, he could balance the low wind whoosh in each ear and hence determine its precise direction. More low-tech technique. He knew that by lighting the slick at the south end the breeze would gradually fan the flames north. He nodded to Hollis who turned up the valve.
Cody looked again at his target and hesitated. He saw something move under the inky black surface, at the far end, just for a moment. The last thing he wanted to do was take down a dolphin, or shark, or any fish for that matter. It made him sick, how more sea creatures were becoming endangered and now he might actually set one on fire. Not to mention the media flack.
“What’s up?” said Hollis.
“Thought I saw something move out there.”
“I don’t see anything.”
Cody wanted to be careful. They waited another hour, talking about Billy, and Hollis’ divorce from a woman they both liked at Tulane. Finally Cody retrieved the field glasses from the aft cabin and once more scoured the area in all directions. No movement. He still felt uneasy; something had been there earlier. Hopefully it had swum away. He turned on the nozzle.
He coated the south end with the accelerant, like watering a lawn at dusk. Then he and Hollis took the fire starter devices, the same kind he used to light the barbecue at home (he’d bought them at OSH), and leaned over the side of the boat. They lit the edges of the slick and watched as the flames started, slowly at first. The sea didn’t leap into a dramatic conflagration. Rather the almost invisible fire rose not more than six inches off the surface. The best evidence of the burn was the black smoke corkscrewing into the air, rising to the bright blue sky. For now, better to foul the atmosphere rather than the water: eco-triage.
Hollis backed the trawler away and they watched the flames migrate to the far end. Again, Cody saw a ripple in the slick. But now it was more of a bulge, speeding below the surface. Hollis saw it too.
“Get out of here, dammit!” Cody shouted.
The bulge vanished, and then re-appeared, this time closer to the trawler. Whatever was underneath was now creating a visible wake in the black ooze. Cody felt his stomach tighten and he flashed on strange marine life from Billy’s report.
“What the hell?”
This time the thing breached, or part of it did. What surged to the surface was a giant fin, trapezoidal in shape, at least five feet high and the length of a school bus. God knows what it was attached to. It was covered in oil and flames.
“That’s not a dolphin,” said Cody. The fin plunged out of sight, and moments later heaved to the surface like a nuclear sub. Only this time it rose even higher and Cody thought that what was underneath must be bigger than any whale he had ever seen. Again the fin submerged and there was a sudden stillness.
“We can’t stop the fire now,” said Cody
“No, I know.”
“So this thing may be collateral damage.”
“I just don’t want to be the collateral damage,” said Hollis.
They surveyed the smoky, slicked-down burn. Cody looked up to see a flock of gulls circling the area, as if waiting for carrion. He had had much worse experiences in Iraq. But now he was feeling the same dread as when he’d prepare for a firefight with an unseen and unidentified enemy, hidden inside one of many primitive concrete huts or bunkers.
Cody turned quickly. Not more than one hundred yards in front of him the thing breached again. Flaming, covered in the accelerant and oil, the fin was attached to a behemoth body clad in a leathery, shell-like skin. A fierce head swung around: the immense jaws opened to reveal three rows of tiered razor sharp teeth, all dripping oil. The head was reptilian—framed by narrow, slitted eyes. Between the eyes was a protuberant snout, and above this, like the third eye of an Indian mystic, was a blowhole, shooting a column of flame at least thirty feet long. It was as if the creature was exhaling napalm or methane. Cody was not sure, but he thought he saw nascent legs sprouting from its side, like the ones he saw on the young lizards down in Tuscaloosa, which, as a boy, he’d mistaken for snakes.
The dripping slavering thing hung momentarily in the air and then descended back into the flaming waves.
Hollis was on the radio. “This is a mayday. Some kind of whale, or shark, or something is out here at the slick!” He fired off the coordinates as Cody backed the trawler away.
There was no motion now.
Through the radio static Cody heard that the Coast Guard was sending a chopper and other support vessels. He geared back on the engine, and then he noticed that the second slick, the one they hadn’t lit, had vanished.
“The other one’s gone,” he said.
Hollis stared out where the slick used to be.
“That thing ate it,” said Hollis, his voice flat with fear.
Cody pondered this possibility as he looked over the gunnels. The engine had leaked some gas, adding a sheen to the placid surface of the water. It was very quiet.
“This is some kind of crazy,” said Hollis.
Cody stepped back onto the rear deck when he felt the bottom of the boat slide out from under him. Before he could react he was catapulted in the air, away from the trawler, which was now, incredibly, flying upward, thrust by something from below. He could see Hollis tossed against the sky like a rag doll.
As Cody hit the water, he was surprised by how warm it was. He was submerged, fighting his way to the shimmering air above. The dark splotches of oil clung to his skin as he scissored his feet and stroked. Breaking the surface, he saw his trawler, now capsized but still afloat, some forty yards beyond him. Nearby Hollis was treading water, his face mired in crude. The creature was bearing down on him from behind.
“You OK?” shouted Hollis, unawares.
The creature unleashed a stream of fire from its blowhole, blistering Hollis before Cody’s eyes. Hollis screamed as the creature’s jaws struck and not so much as ate him but processed him through the rows of teeth. The thing seemed to suck out Hollis’ fat and then, having feasted, released him. His body drifted by Cody, the charred head still attached and bobbing like a puppet.
Cody had seen violence many times. The smell of burnt flesh, and of death, was familiar. He knew not to panic but swam toward the capsized trawler. He turned back and the creature was gone. He kept his arms moving, kicking steadily, and reached the hull. He climbed up on the slippery bottom, grabbing the exposed keel for support. The barnacles cut deeply into his hands but he was immune to the pain.
Standing upright, he spotted the tiny dot in the sky to the north: the Coast Guard chopper approaching. Before he could take heart, or signal, there was a flash of flame from the sea below, like a laser blast, and suddenly the chopper was on fire, pitching and yawing until it disappeared into the waves, leaving a trail of black smoke.
Cody turned his gaze south, surveying the ocean surface. He remembered the sprouting legs on the creature, which meant it was amphibious. And then he saw thousands of trapezoidal fins, moving swiftly in formation, an armada, all headed toward shore.
Guy Prevost is a writer/director living in Los Angeles with his wife and dog. A graduate of Wesleyan University and UCLA film school (MFA), he has written and produced episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, Dead Man’s Gun, and co-authored the film Dinoshark (SyFy Channel, 2010). His fiction has recently appeared in The North Atlantic Review, Quantum Realities, and Lively-Arts.com and his short films have been major prize winners at national festivals. He has no website but is happy to connect on Facebook or GBPrevost@cs.com.