The Unnatural Law
by Matthew Cunningham
“So,” the guard said, “have you represented an alien
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
I sighed and resolved to try again. “Cell, do you
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
More clicks and whistles, and then: Water, invader
“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.
“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
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
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
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,
“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
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…”
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,
“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.
“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
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
© 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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