Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
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The Unnatural Law

by Matthew Cunningham

“So,” the guard said, “have you represented an alien before?”

He meant it as light-hearted banter, but I could hear the query behind his smirk. It was the same question that half a dozen of my colleagues had already asked me. Why are you representing one of them? There were plenty of good, respectable answers. Intelligent species deserve the protection of our laws, the progressives preached in their holier-than-thou tone. Our success as a galactic species depends on preserving the rule of law, my father would have said.

My reasons were more pragmatic. “It’s just a job,” I replied with a shrug. “Believe me, I’d much rather be representing the Platinum Miners Conglomerate, or Soy and Sorghum. But the government is dominated by progressives, who think the Inkers deserve due process like the rest of us.” And they pay damn well, I reminded myself.

The guard grunted. “I suppose, but... one of them? An Inker? Back in the early days, we used to just put down the troublemakers among them, if you catch my meaning.” His eyes looked beyond the walls of the prison reception room to a past only he could see.

“I wasn’t here in the early days,” I admitted. Back when Ceti Prime really had been an untamed frontier. If my spotty recollection of fourth form history was correct, the first settlers had beaten the bloated bureaucracy of the Solar Federation to the punch. The natural law had only come to Ceti Prime when the cumbersome claws of government dug their way into the celestial flesh some years later. Men, money, and markets had followed, buoyed by the natural law’s protection of private property. It was the perfect place for an enterprising young (well, moderately young!) lawyer to make his fortune.

“Oh, there were so many Inkers back then!” He continued, his voice alive with nostalgia. “All up and down the rivers. Bloody nuisances they were, killing all the introduced fisheries and destroying our dams. Nowadays they tend to stay well up the rivers, near the mountains and the ice lakes. I’m surprised one came this far downstream.” He squinted at me. “Say... have you actually seen one before? In the flesh, I mean?”

“I saw a preserved one at the Starport Museum,” I replied, remembering the confusing twist of tentacles in the cloudy water.

“Oh boy, are you in for a treat!” The guard whistled through his grey whiskers. “It’s a big bitch, this one. Bigger than any I’ve seen. The soy farmers used to trap them in huge suspension nets. They’d set them on the bottom of the river, hidden in the sediment, and when the packs would swim past, they’d pull them right out of the water. Woosh!” He lifted his hands for added effect. “Geez, but the ones who escaped the nets make a bloody big racket, I tell you. They’d leap out of the water like salmon, screeching to their trapped friends and squirting their filthy ink everywhere. That’s when the progressives started to think they might be intelligent.” He made a disgusted noise. “I hear dolphins can seem intelligent, too, if you feed them enough treats. But what would I know?”

I winced at his bluntness. I knew little about the Inkers – the government of Ceti Prime strongly encouraged settlers to steer clear of them. They were more of an inconvenience than a threat – a spanner in the machinery of human colonisation. Even the progressives knew the Inkers were destined for extinction, although they admitted it reluctantly and with much hand-wringing. As for me, I had no problem with them, so long as they did not interfere with the natural law. It was pure truth, inscribed more firmly in stone than any religious commandments could ever be. You can try to ignore the natural law, my father used to say, but it will never ignore you. That he backed up his words with the cane was a less comfortable reminder.

The guard shook his head. “Anyway. Come on, I’ll take you to it.” He led me behind the guard’s desk to a solid metal security door, which he rapped loudly with his baton. “It’s Raymond. Got the Inker’s lawyer with me. Let us in.”

There was a loud buzz as the door slid open. I followed Raymond past a sealed glass booth where his fellow guards lazily monitored a series of surveillance screens. Another steel door followed, which Raymond opened by pressing his palm to a worn pad on the wall. Beyond it was a long corridor followed by yet another steel door, and then we were in the cell block. Guards armed with batons and nerve-pinchers walked slowly back and forth in front of the closed cell doors, pausing every now and then to yell at one of the incalcitrant occupants.

“Don’t worry,” Raymond reassured me, “The whole block’s been on lock-down since your Inker arrived.”

“I’m not worried,” I lied. “Which cell is my client in?”

Raymond laughed. “You really haven’t seen one of them before, have you? We had to provide it with... special accommodation. Come on, I’ll show you.”

He led me to the end of the cellblock and through another door and corridor. We emerged into a dimly lit gymnasium that smelled of mould and damp. At one end were a series of weights, benches and racks pushed against the wall. At the other end was a swimming pool. A guard sat beside the pool, well away from the edge, holding a shock-stick and an animal control pole in his hands. A large, closed trunk sat closer to the edge of the pool.

“Ed!” Raymond cried to the nearest guard. “How’s the babysitting going?”

“It tried to grab me again,” Ed complained, gesturing at his arm. The sleeve of his shirt was ripped... no, it was slashed, for no rip could ever have been so smooth and deliberate. “I bent over to tie up my shoelace, and one of its tentacles shot out of the water. Damn near soiled myself.” Ed looked at me, trembling. “Are you going to take it somewhere else?”

I shook my head. “Not today, I’m afraid. I’m only here to consult with it – with my client, that is. If it decides it wants to proceed to trial rather than seek a plea bargain, then we’ll worry about how we move it to the courthouse.”

Raymond rolled his eyes. “Defending a damn Inker, hey Ed? He’d be better off defending a tomato.”

I shrugged. “The government asked me to defend it, so here I am.” I waited uncertainly. “Gentlemen, forgive me for the silly question, but... how do I talk to it?”

The two men laughed. “The xeno-translator is there…” Raymond gestured with his boot to the trunk sitting by the edge of the pool, “built by some progressive academic who wanted to make a study of Inker culture before his funding ran out. Just open it up, and it will switch on automatically.”

I hesitated, waiting for something more – anything to help me navigate such foreign territory. “Is that it?”

“That’s it,” Raymond chirped, slapping my shoulder with one of his meaty hands. “Remember not to get too close. The females carry some kind of hallucinogen in their tentacles – it sends people a bit batty.”

“You’re not coming with me?” I asked.

“Hell no! I’m going to stand right here and watch the show.”

I looked anxiously at the pool. The water was clouded and dirty. The surface danced slightly, but I could not see the Inker nor detect its movement in the water. I took a few hesitant steps towards the xeno-translator, then turned to look at Raymond. “Do I just... open the top of the trunk?”

“Like a toy chest,” Raymond replied. The two men watched me intently. Ready to lunge forward at any sign of danger, I hoped. Or lunge backward, more likely. Who would risk their lives for a lawyer?

I took a few more steps forward, my leather shoes echoing uncomfortably in the silence. The only other sound was the gentle slap, slap, slap of the water as it lapped against the sides of the pool. I craned my neck. Still no sign of the Inker. Perhaps it was sleeping. I wasn’t sure if that was an encouraging thought or not. Was a sleeping Inker angry when woken? Did Inkers even sleep – or feel anger, for that matter? I wished I’d read a book on xenobiology before I’d come.

Another step, and I reached out to rest my hands on the reassuringly solid trunk. I popped the latches on its sides, wincing at the noise, and slowly opened the lid. As I did, the xeno-translator rose up from the bottom of the trunk like a ballerina in a music box. It whirred into life, and lights began to flicker along its sides. I leaned in closer to inspect it. “Do I just talk into it like this?”

The xeno-translator emitted a series of piercing whistles and clicks. I stood up, startled, and covered my ears.

“You don’t need to speak right into it!” Raymond admonished me from his perch. “Just stand next to it, and speak naturally. It will translate whatever you say into the Inker’s jabber.”

I nodded and took a nervous breath. “Hello?” I paused. The xeno-translator dutifully transformed my word into two sharp clicks. “Hello?” I asked again, and then, “Inker?”

“They call themselves ‘Cells’,” Raymond offered. “Damned if I know why. It’s not like this one would fit in a cell.”

“Cell?” I queried cautiously, and the xeno-translator obliged with an almost musical rhythm of clicks and whistles. “Can you hear me?”

The pool remained disturbingly still. Come on, I told myself sternly. You can do this. You’ve defended people who speak a different language before. This was no different. “Cell,” I repeated, more confidently this time, “you stand accused of murdering Martin Delaney, a soy farmer on the middle reaches of the New Thames River, who was in the process of building a dam. The government is leading the prosecution, and they have appointed me to lead your defence. As the evidence seems... incontestable, I would like to discuss a possible plea bargain with you.”

After a moment, the xeno-translator rattled off a long series of clicks and whistles. The sound reminded me of the rhythmic tapping of the old telegraph machine I had once seen in a museum back on Earth when I was a child. This was the height of progress in its day, my father had told me. One small step in the inevitable march of our civilisation.

Silence reigned after the xeno-translator finished its diligent work. I waited, wondering if Inkers could even understand how our system of natural law worked. After a time, I turned back to Raymond. “How do I even know if it is listening…”

The ground shook as the Inker launched its massive bulk above the pool’s surface. Water rose with it like a liquid cloak before splashing down over me. I stared in amazement as it reared itself almost to the roof of the gymnasium. To say it resembled an octopus would be like saying an ape resembled a human. It was familiar in shape, but foreign in substance. Its tentacles were long and muscular, with razor-sharp spikes along their length. Its body was round and squat instead of long and smooth, and framed by odd flares of bone. Its body was topped by a conical structure with a small hole at its base. The cone tapered to a long, membranous end that had a flax-like material woven around it. Woven, I repeated to myself. Like a hat, or a head-dress. Octopuses didn’t weave garments for themselves, nor did apes. Only humans did that, didn’t they?

The Inker lowered itself back into the water, until only the upper part of its torso was visible over the edge of the pool. It was then that I saw its eyes – dark pools of swirling liquid, set in the front of its torso just below the beginning of the long conical tip. They focused on me, like a predator sizing up its prey. No, I thought, it’s more than that. It was weighing me, judging me. Figuring me out. I shook my head free of such fancies and reminded myself to be professional.

“Cell,” I said, as calmly as I could muster, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Would you like to discuss how we should handle your case?”

The Inker watched me as it listened to the translation, but made no sound in response.

“Cell,” I tried again, “you have been charged with a serious crime – murdering a man who was trying to remove an obstacle in a water course abutting his property.”

The xeno-translator did its work, and still the Inker did not respond.

I sighed. “Cell, we really should discuss…”

The Inker emitted a furious stream of clicks and whistles that caught me so much by surprise that I had to lean against the lid of the trunk to avoid falling over. When it finished, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. The xeno-translator, I remembered dumbly. “Why isn’t the machine telling me what it said?” I asked, without turning away from the Inker.

Raymond swore quietly behind me. “Damn Inker must have shorted some of its circuits with that splash. Check the screen on the console – there’s a visual back-up display for when the audio isn’t working.”

I reluctantly peeled my eyes away from the Inker, fearful that it might strike me while I was not looking. I read the words on the xeno-translator’s console.

Water, invader out push. Body protect. Like outside, like inside. Water, vein.

I frowned in confusion and read the translation out to Raymond. “What does it mean?” I asked.

He shrugged. “If you figure it out, you just might win the next Progressive Association Award. The Inkers don’t think like us, or talk like us. If you ask it a simple question, sometimes you’ll get an answer you can understand.”

I sighed and resolved to try again. “Cell, do you understand me?”

The xeno-translator did its work, and the Inker replied with a single, authoritative whistle. I looked at the screen. Understand.

I nodded with satisfaction. “Do you know why you are here?”

More clicks and whistles, and then: Water, invader out push.

“Are you saying the man you killed was an invader?”

Yes, man. Water, invader out push.

“But Martin Delaney was no invader,” I explained, “He was born and raised on Ceti Prime. His family owns that farm next to the New Thames. By natural law, that gives them the right to construct dams to generate power provided they do not impede the flow for downstream users.” I caught myself before I said any more, and reminded myself to keep my sentences short. If the xeno-translator’s rendition of Inker into English was anything to go by, the translation in the other direction must sound equally like gibberish to the Inker. “What I’m saying is…”

The Inker rattled off a slow, patient rhythm of clicks and whistles. Understand, yes. Listening, yes. Natural law, man law. Unnatural law, man law. Body protect, law. Water, invader out push. Understand?

I blinked in surprise. “Was that a question?” I mused, and the xeno-translator happily translated.

Question, yes.

“No,” I replied, “I don’t understand. As I told you, Martin Delaney was not an invader.”

Invader, all human.

I smirked. “With respect... I think you’ll have some difficulty arguing that in court. The natural law governs the peaceful colonisation of planets that are not inhabited by intelligent life. Even if Inkers... even if Cells meet the criteria for intelligence, well, you live in the water. The lands of this planet were unoccupied, and unproductive. By natural law, they belonged to no one.”

The xeno-translator seemed to struggle through my irritated reply, but the Inker was nevertheless quick to respond. Not invader, human, land. Invader, body. Body protect, law. Water, invader out push. Understand?

I sighed. If my client was planning on taking a philosophical stand against humanity’s presence on Ceti Prime, we would be laughed out of court. “I think we’ve taken our discussion as far as we can today, Cell. I will return again in the morning so that we can discuss strategy.” At least the pay is good, I reminded myself as I turned to leave.

There was a splash of water, and then my ankle exploded in pain. I glanced down to see a tentacle wrapped around my ankle. My eyes widened, and a guttural cry arose unwittingly from my mouth. I dimly heard the guards’ cries of fear and consternation, and then I was gone...

...except I wasn’t gone. I was ice melt, gently dripping down the side of a mountain. I moved with the ground, and the ground moved with me. Together, unwittingly, we found the passage most conducive to us both. Eons passed, and I was a river, wending my way through the land. Mine was not a fixed course, but an unintentional meandering. In places I was narrow; in others, I inundated the land with my excess, spawning lakes and swamps teeming with life. They clung to me, and I to them, like a vein pumping blood throughout the body.

I was a Cell, and I knew all of this – the land, the water, and the inimitable connection between the two. I could see it all, and I knew my place. A body acts without intent in its endless battle for equilibrium. A Cell must be the body’s intent, fighting to maintain that equilibrium. When a body is attacked by invaders, it adapts – but when it cannot adapt by itself, its cells fight back until the invaders, too, reach a balance. There is no hatred in this, only acceptance. It is the natural way of things. A natural law.

I was garbed in a black gown and a graduation cap, standing before the Chief Justice of the Solar Supreme Court. After I took the affirmation, my father moved for me to be admitted to the bar. The Chief Justice responded in kind with the standard conferral, and just like that, I was able to practice law. The law is the great galactic equalizer, the Chief Justice told us. It is the sum of all human morals and customs, codified into a set of rules that we agree to abide by as a galactic society. Those rules apply to us all, great or small. They have developed over thousands of years of jurisprudence, rooted in the common and civil law codes of old. They are universal – the natural order of things. That is why we call them the natural law. I believed the words without question, for they were inscribed into the very cells that made up by body. But my attention was focused on my father. He gave me the barest of nods, but even that gesture spoke volumes from him. It was enough.

I was a young boy once more, cowering before my father. There are rules, he said as he reached for his cane, and rules must be obeyed. His first strike across my knuckles made me cry out. Everyone has to follow the rules – do you think you’re better than everyone else? I winced slightly less at his second strike, and even less at the third. By the fourth and fifth, and all that came after them, I had steeled myself to a mask of solemnity. I heard the sound of the cane and the sound of his words, but felt nothing. Strike, strike, strike...

...bang, bang, BANG.

It took me some time before I realized that I was back in my body. Sensation came first: the floor, wet beneath me; the room, so artificially bright that it hurt; the guards, yelling at each other in a confusing jumble of noise. My ankle throbbed, and yet it somehow felt... less. Like something was missing. Memory returned next: the pool, the Inker, the tentacle. It had attacked me... no, attacked was not the right word, was it?

I tried to call for help, but all that came out was a groan. “He’s awake!” Someone yelled. Raymond, I recalled. “Hey, uh... lawyer... are you okay?”

I was lying face down on the ground in a thin sheet of water. I rolled on to my back, grunting and gasping for air. Someone had turned all the lights on in the gymnasium. “Bright,” I murmured, shielding my eyes weakly.

Raymond nodded. “Inkers don’t like artificial light – it hurts their eyes. We turned them all on to try to calm it down after we shocked it.” He looked at me curiously. “Did you see anything?”

I sat up slowly, my head spinning. “See what?”

“When the Inker got you. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy stories from people who’ve been jabbed by one. Seems like kind of a crazy trip, you know?”

 “Crazy trip?” I replied. Then I remembered what he had said earlier. The females carry some kind of hallucinogen. “Oh. No, no it wasn’t like that... I mean, I don’t think it was...” I tried to make sense of things, but my head felt thicker than cement. “May I please have a moment alone with my client?”

Raymond jolted in surprise. “Ah... no offence, but... do you really think that’s a good idea?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I need a moment all the same.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that. It’s my arse if something happens to you…”

“It’ll be your arse if you don’t,” I snapped. “What do you think the government will say when they hear that you denied the Inker the right to counsel? All those hand-wringing progressives with their lofty ideals...”

His face hardened. “You’ve got one minute.” He motioned to Ed, who gave me a strange look as the two of them moved to the far side of the gymnasium.

I used the xeno-translator to haul myself to my feet. “What the bloody hell was that?! Were you trying to kill me?” I wondered dimly whether my cussing would be lost in translation.

She watched me warily over the edge of the pool, her massive bulk submerged beneath the water. The small hole above her eyes narrowed to emit a single solitary whistle. I peered at the xeno-translator.


I suddenly remembered the certainty of being a Cell, of knowing my place in the body of my world. I shook the thoughts from my head. “You poisoned me,” I hissed, “You jabbed me, you... you...”

She emitted a quick pulse of clicks. No. Opened river between. Together, swam.

“What river? That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied. “You carry some kind of hallucinogen in your tentacles – a drug that affects our brains. It’s probably harmless to you, but to us…”

Father, hurt?

A chill radiated down my spine. “What did you say?”

Father, stick, hurt?

It wasn’t possible. There was no way she could be talking about my father, and the way he used to... but hadn’t I seen that very thing when she struck me? I took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. You’re still on trial for murder, and I’m still your lawyer…”

Her sudden flurry of clicks and whistles drowned me out. Unnatural law, man law.

I shook my head. “No, listen, you don’t understand…”

Unnatural law, man law.

“Would you just stop and listen to me for a moment…”

Unnatural law, man law. Unnatural law, man law. Unnatural law, man law.

“Enough!” I yelled, which finally silenced her. “I understand, truly I do. You have different customs than we do. I get it. But that’s not going to fly before a court of the Solar Federation, do you understand? They’ll be judging you by the natural law, by thousands of years of legal precedents that cover every aspect of human custom...” I stopped as I realized what I had said.

She waited silently as the xeno-translator furiously rendered my words into her language. Her eyes continued to study me after the last whistle faded away.

“You have two choices,” I said, “You admit to killing that man, and I strike a plea bargain. Or you don’t, and we go to trial.” I wondered how that could possibly translate for a creature that believed its purpose was preordained, that its actions were purely in accordance with a set of rules that governed the behaviours of its entire species. Did it even understand the concept of choice, of consequence? Rules must be obeyed, my father’s voice came unbidden to my mind.

Finally, she spoke. Kill, no. Water, invader out push.

I sighed. “A trial it is, then.”

“Time’s up, lawyer!” Raymond barked. “Wrap it up.”

I looked at my client. “I will organize an arraignment. Stars only know how I’m going to get you to the courthouse for it.” And with that I left her, if not the weight of her gaze.

“What happens now?” Raymond asked as he led me back through the prison.

“Court,” I said, shaking my head. “A hearing. A bloody circus, probably.”

“Good to know my taxes are paying for something useful,” Raymond chuckled.

It was late afternoon, and the warmth of Ceti Prime’s two suns was a welcome respite on my damp clothes. I knew I should return to my office to work on my overflowing case load, but I was restless. A multitude of competing thoughts swam through my mind. Had it really been a hallucination, a fever dream brought on by some alien toxin? Or, where words had failed to bridge the gap, had the Inker resorted to another sensory mechanism unique to her species? I shook my head. The very notion that two completely independent species, separated for billions of years by the enforced quarantine of interstellar space, could link minds in a way that our most advanced computers could not, was ludicrous. We were separate vessels on a wide river, barely able to discern each other across the vast expanse of water.

Yet she had known about my father. A memory so powerful it formed part of the bedrock of my life. She had seen it, had understood it... hadn’t she?


* * *


Three days later, I was climbing into the back of a truck in the prison courtyard. A wall of reporters, protestors and the generally curious pressed against the compound fence, their voices raised in a mixture of inquiry and outrage. The door shut behind me, and I was alone with my client and a handful of guards in the claustrophobic space.

My client – Inker, Cell, murderer – had been squeezed into a tank of reinforced glass the size of a small swimming pool. Her tentacles, bent awkwardly at the joints, in order to fit, pressed against her sides. Her eyes were dim pools of murky water that barely registered my presence. Tranquilized, I realized. Of course. How else could they have managed to move her? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

“This won’t take long,” I said, trying to be reassuring. The absence of an accompanying set of clicks and whistles made me realize that they had forgotten to bring the xeno-translator. I began to request it when the truck started moving. The sound of the crowd rose in crescendo as we passed through the compound gate, and then fell as we wound our way through the city streets. The courthouse was across town, past the shipyard and the wharves. I wondered how pitiful a sight my client would make before the court, crammed into her glass shell like an overgrown hermit crab. Perhaps it would win us some sympathy.

She twitched.

“Easy,” I said, as if she were a restless sheep dog.

She twitched again, and again, and again, each sudden movement more violent than the last. The spikes along her tentacles, pincered against her side by the confines of her tank, began to leave trails of a thick oily substance in the water. I wondered if it was her poison or her ink... and then I realized. It was blood. She was shaking so much that she was cutting herself to shreds.

“Guards!” I called, “Something’s happening! My client is having a... a seizure of some kind!”

“Calm down, lawyer – it’s probably just the tranquilizer wearing off.” It was Raymond, I realized. He pulled a pistol from his side and shoved past me. “Another dose will set it right, you’ll see.” He opened a small hatch at the top of the glass case, just above the water line, and raised the gun to the opening.

A tentacle shot through the small hole, and suddenly Raymond was screaming. He fell to the ground, clutching at his wrist... his wrist... oh... his hand was gone, and blood was spurting form the stump of his wrist like a macabre fountain. I wheeled backwards, stumbled, fell on my arse. I realized that the Cell was no longer shaking – her eyes were clear, and her tentacle, squeezed through the small opening at the top of her tank, was pounding against the window on the front of the truck. Beyond that window was the driver’s carriage... the drivers!

The other guards reacted quicker than me. Two of them rushed past, fumbling with their tranquilizer guns. But they were too late. Her tentacle shattered the thin sheet of glass that separated us from the drivers and jammed through the opening. I heard screams and the sound of tires skidding, and suddenly we were rolling, rolling, rolling. My world was reduced to the sound of tortured metal screaming, and the pain of shattering bones as I bounced off the walls, floor, and ceiling.

The tumbling ended with a whoosh, and suddenly water was pouring through the back of the truck which had been torn off in our headlong tumble. I saw the two shining suns of Ceti Prime for the briefest moment before the last of the water came pouring in. Figures swam past me as the guards kicked for the surface. I flailed desperately in the water, trying to make my broken arms work, but the pain was so intense that I screamed the last of the air from my lungs. My chest heaved and roiled, and I knew with sudden certainty that I was drowning.

A single solitary whistle filled the ruin that had once been a truck. I stared in wonder at the unbroken marvel of reinforced glass that still held the Cell. I could only see her faint outline, but I knew what that whistle meant. Understand?

And in my dying breaths, I did. She and I were shouting at each other from the bows of our vessels, urging each other to turn. Except my vessel was submerging hers in its wake, and transforming the river to allow unimpeded progress all the way to the headwaters. After my passage, no vessel would ever travel except by the course I dredged. But there seemed no way to avert my vessel’s course, at least not in time to save hers.

How could one person shift such a massive network of machinery?

They couldn’t.

But they could still change what was in front of their eyes. One action, and then another, and another.

With my last ounce of energy, I hauled myself along the side of the glass tank towards the back of the truck, which I could only hope was still pointed towards the surface. I felt more than saw the huge metal clasp that kept the tank pinned in place. There was a small pocket of air in the tank, I reasoned, so if I could only release it, it would float out of the back of truck towards the surface...

...and then what? The small hole at the front of the tank was still open, so it would probably flood anyway, which meant the tank would sink like everything else. And the glass was reinforced, so I wasn’t even sure if the Cell would be able to break free...

...it didn’t matter. Only doing something mattered. I leaned against the clasp with all my might, and felt it shift like Archimedes’ lever. With a deep grinding sound, the glass tank began to slide out of the bank of the truck – or was it the truck that was sinking around us? Either way, I knew I was done. My mind receded and my vision turned black. The last sound I heard was an almighty shatter that split the world, and a familiar series of clicks and squeaks...

...water, invader out PUSH...

...and I awoke, a minute or a lifetime later, on the banks of the New Thames, heaving the contents of its murky depths out of my lungs. I was alive – a mess of shattered bones and illusions, but alive nonetheless. I heard the distant sound of sirens, the forces of law and order that would bring with them the comfort of the natural law and its protections. There would be an inquiry, for sure – a procession of witnesses, experts, and legal arguments, followed by a report full of solemn and sober recommendations on how the law should be changed to prevent this from happening again. But the Cell and I were the only ones who knew what really happened. She had formed a river between us, and we had swum together, even if only briefly. Our styles had been so alien to each other so as to be barely recognisable as swimming, yet we had swam together nonetheless.

I could not change what would come next. But I could still do something. One action, and then another, and another. What those actions would be, I did not know. Right now, I was more preoccupied with the bones jutting out of my skin.

But I did know one thing. The pay probably wouldn’t be very good.


2022 Matthew Cunningham

Bio: Matthew Cunningham is a professional historian and fiction author living in Aotearoa New Zealand. His extensive publication history includes children’s books, research monographs, edited collections, oral histories, peer-reviewed journal articles, commissioned research reports and public interest pieces. His first children’s book, Abigail and the birth of the Sun, won the NZCYA Best Picture Books Award for 2020.

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