Reading time: 10 min
Captain Roone Cong flipped through the contract. A bundle of papers—old school—easier to destroy than electronic files. Roone stopped at a recent picture of a girl-almost-woman with lank black hair. She took after her mother. Still frail and lily-white, like a snowdrop after a late May frost.
The case notes were brief, sterile: Eileen Cong, sixteen-year-old with mutated cystic fibrosis. Terminal lung function. Treated by Beyant Gill Sligo, MD, transgenic infusion, stage three.
Brennan—the Stillwater lawyer—cleared his throat. “Sligo worked alone. Seemed best to keep his work from prying eyes, but the gene-slicer started making inquiries to another sponsor. He’s since disappeared. We can only assume the lab is compromised.”
Roone told himself Eileen couldn’t be lost. If she was, Brennan wouldn’t be explaining so carefully. The contract was a job offer. An opportunity to fly out and retrieve his daughter. If Roone succeeded, Eileen’s medical bills would be forgiven. A clean slate. That was how it was meant to look, anyway, but there was more at work here. Sligo was a good man. He wouldn’t have run off without cause.
If Roone refused, the Stillwater board would claim hold of his credits, his ship. They had bound Roone to their schemes, using Eileen, and he didn’t care for their two-faced handling. “How much time do I have?”
“The lab is self-sufficient, to a point. There should be enough juice between the solar and the backup generator to keep the b-tanks fed.”
Roone repressed a shudder at the words: should be.
“If you agree to the terms,” Brennan said, “just sign on the dotted line.”
The Stillwater Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics shared custody of Eileen. Another bone shoved down Roone’s throat, but what else could he have done but agree to this madness? For six years, he’d asked the same question over and over. Transgenic treatments were feared, called unnatural. They were also Eileen’s second chance at life, but it was more than that. Agreeing had freed Roone of a sick child, and he couldn’t forget the guilt of his relief.
Roone eyed Brennan, certain trickery was at work here. “And if I don’t agree?”
“Then you’ll never see her again,” Brennan said, leaning back.
There wasn’t a choice. Roone was a father, first and foremost, and he’d fulfill his duty. With a quick nod, he signed.
As Brennan gathered the papers, Roone watched, his thoughts dark threads unspooling. For too long, he’d failed to protect Eileen. Hers had been a life of needles, antibiotics, and that awful never-ending cough. When Sligo took her away, he’d promised a cure. The gene-slicer couldn’t save her lungs, but there was more than one way to breathe.
Roone trusted Sligo even if his work and lab were funded by the Stillwater board. Their motives were too visible, tied to capital gain.
Brennan took out a palm-sized black storage chip. Activating it, a 3D imager displayed a system of unknown stars. The lab was highlighted, built on the small planet called Morgens. By look, it boasted more water than land.
“Morgens is uncharted on most maps,” Brennan said. “The board also runs an automated fishery there, so Sligo could farm the DNA he needed.”
“I see,” Roone said. He felt numb. He knew the Stillwater board didn’t view this as a rescue mission. It was about saving their investment. In their hands, Eileen wouldn’t be free.
With a confident smile, Brennan deactivated the map and handed the data chip over.
Roone flashed a look that could melt glaciers. His anger was a shield against despair. Eileen had been born to suffer. Hers was a world without dreams.
There weren’t dreams in space. The journey to Morgens employed a wormhole but still amounted to many months lost. At least cryogenic sleep offered blissful emptiness, though it ended in a glitchy aftermath.
Roone woke groggily, memories sliding in and out of place. It must be similar to decanting from a b-tank. Such technology allowed the body to change, and in theory, could be utilized like a second womb, changing out bits of DNA, letting the user sprout wings, alter sexes, or regrow a missing limb. For Eileen, it was a chance to shed her lungs for gills.
Little Eileen had always wanted to learn how to swim.
Roone staggered to the viewing port. A violet and ochre planet greeted him amidst the stark black. He took an adrenaline tablet to flush the remaining frost from his veins. The soft lull of the engine was his sole companion until the ship’s AI probed his vitals.
“I’m awake,” Roone said, brushing aside the cold analytic inquiries. He strapped himself into the pilot’s seat. “Start the landing sequence.”
The AI complied.
Roone closed his eyes. It hurt to be awake, to feel the absence of his daughter’s smile once more. I’ll find you, Roone thought, a promise he meant to keep. Only, he was afraid of what he’d find in the lab. Afraid of what he’d done.
Though years had passed, he remembered the relief when Eileen was taken away to be treated. The long nights had ended for him. He could go back to his life, to his cargo routes and the grind of work and routine. He’d tried to justify his escape. He’d found Eileen a cure. Best not to think of the cost, and why Roone hadn’t fought harder to stay at her side. Roone shook his head. Better to not think of such things, to go numb, to drift without dreams or nightmares to tease and torment him of impossible what-ifs.
The angle of entry was off, and a master alarm blared a warning. He opened his eyes, adjusting the controls manually. The ship broke Morgens’ atmosphere. Roone fought for consciousness as g-force pressed him to his seat, his vision spotting.
A thud. More alarms shrieked, flashing rust-orange. The scrape of waves filled his ears, beating against metal and glass.
Roone exhaled. A rougher landing than he liked, but the hull was secure. The radio antenna was damaged but repairable. Roone unstrapped himself. He ordered the AI to throw an anchor, to start on repairs, then pulled up his map.
Some luck—he’d landed close. The sensors pinged back metal struts and girders about a mile to the west. The fishery was nearby too, but there wasn’t a way to establish contact, and even if he could, he wasn’t interested in talking to drones or another soulless AI.
He popped the hatch. It was dark, the stars above a crowd of unfriendly strangers. The air smelled of kelp and mist and lost years. The sea was a coppery sheen, visible in his ship’s lights, and a memento to the water spirits this planet was named after. A freshwater haven, stocked with Earth varieties of rainbow trout, salmon, bony catfish, and tilapia.
Roone launched his skiff from the cargo bay, glad of his foresight to bring it along, more grateful still for its small engine. He pointed the boat’s nose to the west and high-tailed it to the lab. Before long, a light twirled ahead. Roone headed for it, beaching onto shore. He pulled the skiff onto drier land. The air was cold, the sand wet, his boots sinking a little each step.
The lab was built half on land, half off. Perhaps the sea had risen in recent years, the metal exposed to oxidation and algae and a collection of mussels.
Roone grabbed a flashlight, and in his other hand, he activated the black data chip given to him by Brennan. It was his map and his guide. He headed for the control panel outside the main entrance. Strong winds or worse had broken a couple glass panels, but the electronics held juice, and he scanned the chip at the reader.
With a metallic groan, the door opened.
He arrowed down the corridor. The hum of machinery told him the lab wasn’t in total disrepair. Roone exhaled in relief, then opened the vault. The steel door opened easily, the magnetics in good order.
Inside stood five b-tanks. Each supported a single occupant, all showcasing the advances of modern science—youths with hybrid bodies. Labels denoted one male, two females, and two nonbinaries, though all were adorned with tails and scales, fins and gills.
His mouth gaped open. He clamped it shut. He’d known the theory, but seeing was another matter.
Eileen floated in the third b-tank. Her black mane fanned around her cheeks, dark and luminous. He froze, watching her breathe without a struggle.
Three pairs of arched gills marked each side of her neck. They opened and closed, feeding her blood oxygen. Sligo had cut away some of her DNA and replaced it with a fish-rooted sequence. Her altered legs were a side effect. Starting at her waist, her legs fused, with rifts of pearl and opal scales ending in twin flukes.
On the main lab computer, a message alert flashed. Roone opened it.
It’s a long story. I almost wish I could say the board only wanted to violate HIPAA regulations, but their plans are deep-dwelling. I was sure that bloodthirsty lawyer would send you here if anything happened. I’ve left instructions for decanting. Please. Save them.
The message solidified everything. Roone trusted Sligo. If Roone delivered Eileen back to the Stillwater board, she’d become their toy on exhibit, a showpiece to be stared at in wonder and fear. Confined to a lab or a small pool, poked and prodded once more. He closed his hands into fists.
The contract Roone had signed was binding. If he didn’t return with the b-tanks intact, he’d be ruined forever. His ship would be taken, his credits drained, his name tarnished.
A mistake to think anything else mattered over Eileen. Roone knew what he must do. He hoped in time his daughter could forgive him for abandoning her, again. At least she wouldn’t be alone.
With care, Roone started the waking process. The b-tanks’ lights turned green after a few minutes. He opened each, carrying the limp bodies to the beach and setting them gently in the shallows. The sun’s heat would stir their blood, bringing them back to consciousness. Their tails glistened, the scales sapphire and olivine and rose-gold.
He saved Eileen for last. As he stepped through the outer door the final time, he looked down on her. A mistake, for he brushed against a bit of broken glass. It cut her tail. A shallow wound but enough to stimulate pain. Her eyelids opened.
“Da?” Eileen said, the sound lyrical.
“Hush now,” Roone said. His voice was raw, and he swallowed hard. During the journey to Morgens, to the buried vault of the lab, he’d tried not to think too much. To feel the full gravity of those old choices pulling him down into the shimmer and the dark. Hearing her voice reminded him of the bare, salt-leeched truth: he couldn’t avoid this kind of pain. No one could.
“Are you leaving?” Eileen asked, each syllable joined, a current of her own making.
“No,” Roone said. “I’m staying. Go back to sleep now.” He rocked her back and forth, and she closed her eyes. He’d gladly do anything to free her. Anything at all.
As he held Eileen, it reminded him of days long past, her chest crackling with mucus. Seeing her like this—whole, healed—it was like a dream. A gift he hadn’t expected, and it gave him much needed strength. In time, he promised himself, all would heal.
After settling her beside the others, he rechecked all five. Each breathed in and out through their gills. A few stirred already, murmuring in their sleep.
He leaned down and touched Eileen’s cheek. “Be strong,” he said softly.
Before doubts changed his mind, Roone took off in the skiff, headed back for his ship. The AI chimed the repairs were completed. He pulled up the anchor and took off, heading west. He set a collision course with the lab. Once destroyed, there would be no evidence of his treachery, no chance for the Stillwater board to know Eileen and the others were still alive, and nothing to recover if another was sent to investigate.
So many died before they ever lived. Roone knew this, but it wouldn’t be Eileen’s fate. The master alarms blared, the stupid things. The AI probed gently, asking if he was certain of the course. Roone ignored it, closed his eyes, the controls steady in his hands. For the first time in years, peace flooded his heart.
Eileen lost a part of herself in the Waking. A cold spray wet her cheeks, her skin the same temperature as the surrounding water. She blinked through the surf, the sway of seagrass tickling her sides.
The current carried her into deeper waters. Fully submerged, she swam without effort. Snatches of memory lifted free. She saw the face of Sligo—her father’s trusted friend—grizzled, an e-cig parting his lips. Sligo’s voice was like a spirit’s, distant, telling her she was almost ready. Just one more great sleep and she’d breathe on her own.
Eileen surfaced. It was dawn on Morgens. A golden affair of sunshine and lacy blue clouds. She couldn’t claim the open air, an odd sensation, but her long-known pain was vanquished.
Land loomed nearby. There, black clouds rose from the ruined lab, the smell acidic. An empty shell, this ruin, the remains like metal bones picked clean. The girders sung metallic notes in the strong winds.
She frowned, then opened her mouth, calling out. Her voice was a stranger’s. It formed a melody instead of distinct words—mournful in tone, like a death-song. A sadness she couldn’t explain lurked in the shallows of her mind, clouded.
The island was hard to look at, aflame and asunder. Eileen shivered. She’d forgotten something she shouldn’t have.
Glancing down, Eileen caught sight of her tail breaking through a wave. It had a fine weave of scales, dull white, like the sides of a rainbow trout. Trout—that’s right. That’s the DNA Sligo had chosen for her. Little trout, he’d called her.
A thin red cut marred her tail, and looking at it, a face swam into focus. Her father’s, she realized, and she keened anew. She remembered the warmth of his arms as he’d carried her across the beach and placed her into the sea. He was here. Looking at the lab again, she saw the hint of a ship’s engine. With a shudder, Eileen realized what her father had done. She was free, but this was the cost.
Eileen searched the waters. She hadn’t been the only patient at the lab. There had been a few weeks awake between each infusion stage, and she’d grown used to the others. Eileen dove back into the sea. As her gills drank freshwater, her blood ran cold with a hundred tears. She was healed, but who did she have to share her joy, her loves and sorrows? There, at the sandy floor, Eileen caught sight of another tail, iridescent and lithe and strong like hers.
As she chased it through the water’s coppery depths, she heard unmistakable laughter.
Copyright 2022 Anna Madden
My story combines elements from the Irish fairy tales, “The White Trout; A Legend of Cong” and “The Bride’s Death-Song.” As I wrote it, I hoped to capture my own love of reading stories that have been reimagined, retold, putting new growth on tales carried through time, with deep-dwelling roots.