Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Aquatic Age

by McCamy Taylor




When the jet thrusters on my aerocar gave out just as I was entering the Southwest Skyway, I swore I would never buy Mongolian again. The next day, with my car in the shop, I took the subway to work. The aquatran was late. Good thing, too, because some idiot bumped me from behind and I ended up in the water. Barely had time to scramble to safety before the 810 express pulled into the underground canal with a splash.

"Never take the subway," my coworker, Frey told me over lunch. "The Urk virus lives down there, in the rockfish." Urk was the common pronunciation of IRC or Infectious Respiratory Calcinosis, an infection that slowly turned the lungs rock hard. Like getting a big lungful of concrete a close friend once told me.

"That's an urban legend," I replied. I was eating seaweed salad with sliced jellyfish. Back in the old days, before the oceans rose, and farm and grazing land became hard to find, people ate things like burgers and burritos for lunch. Now, all our food came from the sea. You could still get a burrito, but the tortilla was likely to be made from kelp flour and the meat would almost certainly be catfish or tuna. "The only animals that get stone lung are apes and humans."

"The fish carry the disease," he insisted. "The way rats used to carry bubonic plague."

"Fleas carried plague. Rats carried fleas."

Frey snorted. "Same difference."

I cut lunch short so I could visit Tilde in the hospital. My friend and occasional girlfriend in college, Tilde came down with IRC while she was a third year medical student, newly married and pregnant with her first child. Lost the baby, almost lost her life. Crap-eating husband divorced her--afraid of catching the disease. Luckily, Nektar Corp came out with TAZ just in time. Tilde had lived for four years with the disease, longer than most people. The drug cost a small fortune, but that was what health insurance was for, right?

Three months ago, fate struck Tilde a double whammy in the form of aplastic anemia, acute bone marrow failure. Almost overnight, she turned pale as a ghost, with big purple bruises all over her skin and blood red eyes. When I wheeled her into St. Mary's ER late one Sunday night, people stared. The triage nurse took one look at her and rushed her straight to ICU. Tilde had not set foot outside the hospital since that night.

It wasn't fair. Some people--like me--never got sick, while Tilde developed two life-threatening diseases. I was relieved when the tests showed that my blood was a match, and I could donate bone marrow. Hurt like hell when the needle punctured my pelvic bone, but I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that my friend had endured much, much worse.

The transplant ward smelled of antiseptics and floor polish. Tilde, I was pleased to see, had been moved to the transitional area. That meant her counts were good. She was sitting up in bed, watching the news on the holo. Her oxygen mask lay on the bedside table. Her skin looked slightly less dusky than usual. Maybe the anti-rejection drugs were having an effect on her stone lung. There had been anecdotal reports about a handful of transplant patients who miraculously recovered from their IRC infection, all of them in Asia. However, clinical trials using immunosuppressants had been a disaster. I followed the medical literature about IRC pretty closely, because of Tilde and because of my job as a biostatistician at the medical school.

"Jorge!"

"How you doing, kid?" I gave her a big hug.

Tilde smiled. Her hair, once her crowning glory, now hung in a few red-gold wisps over her scalp. Hair loss was not the worst side effect of TAZ, but it was the most dispiriting. I was growing my own auburn hair long, so that I could get it cut to make her a wig.

"Turn around," she said. "Let me see."

Self-consciously, I showed off my hair. "Another few inches, and the wigmaker says there'll be enough."

"Maybe I won't need a wig."

I pulled up a chair beside the bed. "What do you mean?"

"The doctor says my lungs are getting better."

"That's great!" As I hugged her again, I surreptitiously checked her oxygen monitor. It read 94, bad for a young nonsmoker, great for someone with stone lung.

We chatted about the news. Venice had finally been reopened as an underwater theme park. Chile and Australia were at war again over grazing land in Antarctica. Scientists in Japan had genetically engineered a human being with gills as well as lungs. None of it seemed quite real compared to the immediate misery of my best friend. I helped Tilde brush her few strands of hair. Staring down at her pink scalp almost broke my heart. I could not imagine a world without Tilde.

"You gonna marry me after you get out of the hospital?" I asked.

She treated my proposals as a joke. "Only when I have enough hair to play Rapunzel." She pointed to the clock. "You're going to be late."

It was 1315. "Damn, you're right. I'll come see you tomorrow." I dropped a light kiss on her cheek.

"Oh," she called as I was halfway out the door. "I forgot. The doctor says he wants to talk to you. Something about some papers."

Tilde's transplant doctor was a short Korean named Park. I found him in the nurse's station. "Jorge! Tilde told you the good news, right? We're going to write up her case and submit it to JAMA. I need your permission, since you were the bone marrow donor. We'll keep your identity a secret, of course."

"No problem. Where do I sign?" At that moment, my phone went off. Whoever came up with the idea of implantable hearing aids should be shot. Not for the hearing aid part. The ambient noise level in cities was so loud that most people over twenty-five were partially deaf. However, someone in the insurance industry had decided that the number of accidents would be reduced if people stopped using hand held cell phones, and so they got a law passed requiring that all implantable hearing aids include phones. And though no one was required to use the phone, almost everyone did. Including my boss, who was in the habit of calling me if I was even a minute late getting back from lunch.

"Sorry," I told Dr. Park. "Gotta run." I grabbed the documents. "I'll bring these back tomorrow."

The "emergency" was a statistical report that was needed by next week. I silently counted to ten then told my boss, Siva, that he could rely on me. The tenure committee had passed him over last time, and he desperately needed to publish a paper if he wanted to keep his job. Like half the doctors at St. Mary's, he was working on a new treatment for IRC, which was why I stayed with him, even though he was an ass.


* * *

After work, I got my aerocar out of the shop. According to the mechanic, there was nothing wrong with the thrusters, which meant it was a glitch in the controls. "Maybe you downloaded some bad software? We wiped it and reinstalled the manufacturer's code. It should be as good as new."

Not likely, since the trash inside the car was ankle deep. However, takeoff was smooth, and the flight home was uneventful. Flying cars were becoming more popular as sea level rose and streets flooded. It was cheaper to maintain a state of the art air traffic control system than to build thousands of miles of elevated road, and with nuclear batteries now so affordable, the cost of operating a commuting plane had come way down in recent years.

My home was on a hillside about ninety miles outside the city. The steep incline made the land useless for anything but terrace farming and small, private homes. My condo was perched on stilts in the middle of a vineyard. The landing pad was on the roof of the house. After spending all day in the city, with its canals and lakes and 99 percent humidity, it was nice to come home to someplace dry. I circled my home a few times, so I could watch Venus rise next to the moon. The sky in the west was still faintly pink behind a low line of lavender clouds. Tilde loved to watch the sky from the roof of my condo. Maybe the doctors would let her out of the hospital soon. Maybe if her disease stabilized, she would stop brushing me off every time I asked her to marry me. For the first time in months, I allowed myself to hope.

According to my flight plan, I was due to arrive home at 1925. However, at 1940, I was still in the air admiring the sunset. Therefore, when an explosion knocked down one of the beams which supported my house, I was not inside, and I did not get hurled down the side of the mountain to my death.

It hit me like a fist in the gut--someone wanted me dead. Once my racing heart slowed, I looked around for a place to land. The obvious spot was the roof of the mall, near the base of the mountain. I was just climbing out of my car, when my implanted phone rang.

"Who is it?"

"Stay away from your house." The voice belonged to a man. Eastern European or Russian. Hard, rolling R's and W's pronounced like V's. I did not recognize him. More to the point, the voice recognition software in my phone could not ID him.

"Thanks for the warning, but it's a little late," I told him sourly. "Who are you?"

"Stay away from the ruins... of your house." He sounded out of breath, as if he had been running. "They will be waiting for you to return."

"It's gonna be hard to get the insurance adjuster to write a check if we can't survey the damage." Was there some way I could trace the call? "I think we have a bad connection. Give me your number, and I'll call you back."

Heavy breathing at the other end. "I will contact you later. Stay away from friends. And do not... call the police." He hung up.

Call the police. Good idea. After speaking to three different people, I was told to come to the downtown station tomorrow to make a statement. The dispatcher refused to believe that someone had rigged my house to collapse. The mountains near the city were notoriously unstable, with crisscrossing fault lines and regular earthquakes.

I left the mall and started looking for someplace to stay the night. Most of respectable hotels would not accept cash, and I didn't want to use my card, which could be tracked, so I ended up in a rundown little motel near the waterfront attached to a bar where men and women in diving suits came to unwind after a hard day of work. With many of the world's biggest cities now underwater, salvage was a huge business.

I ordered a bowl of chowder and a mug of seaweed beer. Sitting at a table in the back with one eye on the front door, I finished my food. After ordering a second drink, I remembered the papers Dr. Park wanted me to sign. Since I didn't have anything better to do, I decided to read them.

It is amazing what you find when you read the small print. I dialed the doctor's number. No one answered the call. Two close brushes with death had left me in a sour mood. I decided to leave a message.

"Why on earth would I want to sign away the rights to my bone marrow? I'm using it!"

Chuckling at my own cleverness, I ordered a third beer. Then a fourth. I was somewhere between tipsy and drunk when my boss, Siva phoned.

"Jorge? Where the hell are you? The news says your house fell down, and Dr. Park called. He said you're giving him grief over a disclosure form. I'm a coauthor on that project--"

It felt good to hang up on Siva. I was remarkably mellow for someone who was now homeless and the target of assassins. Then I remembered that Tilde would have seen the evening news by now, and I phoned her hospital room.

"Jorge? Jorge is that really you? Oh God! I saw your house on the news. I thought for sure--"

"It's ok, hon. I wasn't anywhere near when it collapsed."

"What happened?"

"Termites." The last thing I wanted to do was worry Tilde.

"You're sure you're OK?"

"Never been better. Get some sleep. See you soon."

The bar had gotten quiet. Two women were playing darts. Everyone else was watching live feed of Japan's new aquatic man. He looked Southeast Asian, short and slender, with even brown skin and straight black hair. Perfectly ordinary until he took off his robe revealing web like flesh on his neck and chest. He dove into the ocean, and the membranes unfurled. Gills. An underwater camera followed him as he explored a coral reef. The announcer explained that Japanese researchers had managed to unlock a bit of ancient human DNA that coded for gill slits. "After that, it was just a matter of engineering a three chambered heart so that blood can bypass the lungs and go straight to the gills when the subject is underwater."

They made it sound so easy. From college, I knew that genetic engineering was a trial and error process that resulted in many failures for each success--which was why most countries in the world had outlawed recombinant DNA studies on humans. Japan got away with it because they only experimented on immigrant refugees.

The divers watched as the first aquatic man passed the eighteen minute mark underwater--eighteen minutes being the longest time an adult human had ever survived in the ocean at 28 degrees Celsius without oxygen.

"So what?" said a middle aged man with salt and pepper hair and a full beard. "There're yogis in the Himalayas that can hold their breath for hours."

"That's sitting still," replied the woman standing next to him. "Look at him. He's fishing. He's a freaking fish and he's fishing."

The divers consoled themselves by declaring aquatic man one of a kind. "No way they can make more of him. And even if they could, how much would it cost to grow them in test tubes in a lab?"

No one gave voice to their fear--that in an aquatic world where humans had gills, there would be no place for an air-breathing diver.


* * *

At 323, I was trying to sleep on a lumpy mattress in a motel room that smelled of black mold and stale cigarettes when my phone went off.

"You did not tell me you have implanted phone," yelled the mystery man from Russia.

"What the fuck!" I turned down the volume. "Everyone has an implanted phone."

"Everyone in your country. Americans think they are entitled to every luxury--"

I didn't need this, not at 3 am. I hung up.

He called again a few minutes later. "Sorry. I have been through a lot--"

"That makes two of us." I hung up again, and this time I switched my phone off. I had left it on in case Tilde wanted to talk, but at this hour of the morning, she would be asleep.

Ten minutes later, the motel room phone went off.

"They can trace you through your implant," the stranger said quickly, before I could hang up. More heavy breathing. "I know where you are... which means they know where you are."

"How? How could they know? I turned my phone off."

He swore in some other language, probably calling me an idiot. "Unless you take it out, it is never 'off.' Your government... uses it to track you. Which means my employer... can use it to track you."

"Your employer? You work for the government?" I was operating on a time of kind delay, thanks to sleeplessness. The impact of words he had spoken earlier finally hit me. I know where you are which means they know where you are. I jumped out of bed and hurried into my clothes, then began gathering my possessions. "Who are they? Are they the ones who want me dead? What the hell for? What did I do?" Footsteps in the hall. The doorknob turned. Panic moment, until I remembered that it was locked and chained from within. The footsteps retreated. Wrong room or someone looking for me? My heart was pounding. "I'm putting the phone down" I whispered. "Call me back on my implant."

I slipped out through the bathroom window. The night was warm and humid. The air felt like tepid soup and smelled of salt and tar. No one in sight. I moved from shadow to shadow. With my implant off, sounds were muffled. I felt rather than heard water lapping against the pier. Sound of music and laughter around the corner. Divers apparently partied hard and all through the night. I pulled up the hood of my jacket and tried to blend into the crowd, hoping that the old adage, safety in numbers, was true.

When my pulse returned to something near normal, I switched my implant back on. Within seconds, I had a call.

"It is not what you did. It is what you are. It is what is inside..." Gasping breath. "...your bone marrow."

For one wild moment, I thought he was talking about Siva and Park, telling me that they were trying to kill me so that they could win the rights to my bone marrow, but that was crazy. For one thing, if I died, so would my marrow.

"Who are you working for?" No one seemed to be following me, but the docks were dark between the widely spaced electric lamps. It would easy for someone to plant a knife in my back and then push me into the water.

"I work for Nektar," he told me. "Or rather, I worked for Nektar. You have any idea how much they make on sales of TAZ last quarter?"

"No, and I don't care." The lights would be brighter at the mall. More people, too. And my car was parked there.

"You should care. When someone with stone lung is cured by transplant, the donor dies..." Wheeze. "And the doctors who perform the surgery suddenly get rich." He was interrupted by spasms of coughing. I recognized that cough. It sounded like Tilde's. "And no one ever hears another word about it."

"You're saying a drug company wants me dead? Why?"

"You have any idea how expensive it is to move to lunar colony? Or build an underwater home? Land is running out. People are running out of time."

"Out of time?"

"To get rich enough to save themselves from the flood."

I was within sight of the mall when I realized my mistake. What if someone was watching my aerocar? Maybe they had rigged it to malfunction again. What if it exploded upon takeoff?

"This is no longer our earth," the Russian continued. "You have heard the news? They make man with gills."

"Yeah? So?"

"So aquaman is reason we are dying."

A rental! I could rent an aerocar. I would have to use my card, but if my Russian friend was telling the truth, they could locate me at any time thanks to my implanted hearing aid/phone. At least if I was flying a rented aerocar, I would know that it had not been tampered with.

The sign on the door of the rental agency said they would open in half an hour. All I had to do was keep moving and be back here at 500.

"You're gonna have to explain that last part. How is aquatic man killing us?"

"Not man himself. Genetic engineering. Plasmids. They are everywhere now. Used to be…" Cough. "Only bacteria could be infected. But scientists make them so they can be insert into embryo--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know about genetic engineering." Was that sushi deliveryman following me? I paused, pretending to read a poster advertising houseboats. He passed by without glancing at me. When he rounded the corner, I went the other way.

After another long bout of coughing, the Russian said "Urk virus is never isolate. Is because there is no virus. It is animal plasmid. From ocean research. DNA that makes sea shell…" Wheeze. "Supposed to make bones stronger. Instead, puts calcium in lung."

"And you know this how?"

"I tell you. I work for Nektar."

"Son of a bitch!" I swore. A couple passing by glanced in my direction. I dropped my voice. "Are you saying Nektar created Urk?"

"Not at all. Urk just happen. Plasmids escape from labs all the time. Some of them mutate, can infect people. Nektar isolate plasmid that cause Urk six months ago."

If true the news was huge. "Why haven't they told anyone?"

"They want to make a plasmid vaccine. A new plasmid vaccine."

The eastern horizon had gone from black to dull grey as I walked. I checked my chrono. Fifteen more minutes. "So they can get even richer. But what does that have to do with me and my bone marrow?"

"Is already a vaccine. Old vaccine. Used by lab workers for almost thirty years. So they do not get infect with animal plasmids."

Suddenly, it all made sense. Back in college, when I was working part time in a microbiology lab, they made us take a bunch of shots. One of them was to keep us safe from the materials used in recombinant DNA research. AntiPlas, that was the name. Made me sick as a dog. It had since been replaced by a newer vaccine with fewer side effects.

I slumped against a storefront in order to catch my breath and get my thoughts in order. "You haven't told me your name."

"No names. If you must have name, call me... Squee."

Squee? "What's your stake in this, Squee? Do you have Urk?"

"Correct."

"Why haven't your tried the vaccine?"

"I did try vaccine. Is why I am still alive. I was test subject for Nektar when they did secret trials of vaccine. The other three subjects got better, too. Then they die. Accidental deaths. Car wreck. Falling statue. House fire. Someone try to push me in front of train. So I run. And I hack. Is what I do for a living, hacking, but no one believes anonymous stories about how old vaccine no longer made can cure stone lung. Need medical journal to say it. Then, they make more____." He said something in Russian, possibly their name for AntiPlas. "Nektar wants time to make a new vaccine, one they can patent. So, when transplant patient gets better, they kill the donors so that no more tests can be done. They bribe the doctors to hide their findings, so that no one put the cases together. If few random people die, no one asks questions."

At this I had to laugh. "Maybe in some backwater in Asia the doctors can be bribed to bury their results. Here in the United States, results are money. Do you have any idea how many research grants you could get if you came up with a cure for Urk? Hell, you'd probably get the Nobel Prize. No way Park or Siva or the medical school will ever shut this thing down."

"In China, same thing happens. Doctors say no to money. Nektar uses plan two."

"Plan two?"

"Eliminate the transplant recipient. No cure, no paper. No paper, nothing for researchers to piece together."

Eliminate the transplant recipient. Tilde. She had just been moved to the transitional unit. That meant no more direct observation, no more monitors. Someone could sneak in her room and--

My blood turned to ice. If Nektar had been waiting for a chance to get to Tilde, they would strike tonight, in case her condition worsened, and she got moved back to ICU. "Dammit! Look, I've gotta go. Tell me how I can get in touch--"

The line was dead. It was now 504. I hurried around the corner to the rental agency. Luckily, my pilot's license was up to date. I told the woman at the counter I was late for a wedding.

I flew into the rising sun. The ocean was the color of fire. Very few private planes were in the sky at this hour of the morning. No one flying suspiciously close. I filed a flight plan under an assumed name. A crime, but so what?

On the way to the city, I phoned Tilde to warn her, but how do you tell someone who is sick in a hospital bed that their life is in danger? She couldn't leave the transplant unit, not without risking an infection or rejection.

"Hon, I want you to promise me something. Don't eat or drink anything until I get there. And if a new nurse, someone you don't know tries to give you any medicine, even if it's your regular medicine at the regular time, think of some reason why you can't take it."

"That's funny, because there's a new nurse tonight. He was just in to check my vitals. Said he'd be back in a few minutes with my meds."

"Goddammit!" I swore softly. Not softly enough.

"Is something wrong, Jorge?"

"Get in the bathroom quick. Lock the door. When the nurse comes back, tell him you're having diarrhea. Tell him you'll call him when you get back to bed. You got that?"

"Why? Jorge, talk to me."

Desperate, I answered "Because he isn't a real nurse. And that isn't your medicine."

Silence, then "Okay, I'm in the bathroom. The door is locked. Now tell me what the hell is going on?"

I told her. Everything. When I was done, she was quiet for a long time. Then she said "You believe what this Squee person told you? It sounds crazy to me." I heard knocking. Tilde called out "Sorry, I'm on the toilet. Diarrhea. I'll let you know when I'm back in bed." In her regular voice, "Jorge, if this is some practical joke--"

"Hon, you know me better than that. I wouldn't scare you if I didn't need to. I love you."

I had not said those three words in a long time. It felt good.

"I love you, too, Jorge. But don't you think you ought to call Dr. Park, let him know what's going on?" Tilde was always so level headed.

Saying goodbye to her, even for a few minutes almost broke my heart. What if I never talked to her again? But I called Park, gave him an abbreviated account of what was happening. He confirmed part of Squee's story. "Some drug company tried to hire me last week, but only if I bring all my notes."

"And you told them...?"

"I told them to get lost. We're on the verge of a breakthrough here. Your girlfriend's Urk is cured. There is something in your marrow--"

I told him about the vaccine.

He was silent for a moment. Then, Siva joined in the conversation. "What's that, you say? A cure? A vaccine?"

"I'll tell you later. Right now, you need to get security up to Tilde's room." Recalling Squee's warning about the police, I added "Hospital security, not the police. If Nektar kills her, there's no paper." That ought to light a fire under both of them.

The landing pad of St. Mary's was within sight. I bypassed the passenger lot and went straight for the one used by air ambulances and helicopters. Hospital security was all over me as I climbed out of the cockpit of my aerocar. I told them to call Dr. Park, chief of transplant. They told me Dr. Park had issued an order to lock down the hospital. We argued for a while, until Park himself showed up and escorted me to Tilde's room. I was so happy to see her alive that I picked her up, swung her around and then kissed her on the lips. She only hit me over the head once, and she was smiling when she called me an "idiot."

They did not catch the imposter who had pretended to be Tilde's nurse, but they found the IV bag full of succinylcholine that would have paralyzed her lungs, killing her.

I never heard from "Squee" again. The only penalty Nektar paid for their string of murders was decreased sales of TAZ. As soon as news of Siva and Park's upcoming NEJM article leaked, drug manufacturers all over the world began turning out AntiPlas again. When Nektar finally debuted their new CureAl vaccine the next year, priced at $2000 a dose, the market was a fraction the size of what they had hoped.


* * *

Tilde's hair is now chin length. She says she will consider marrying me--after her hair is longer than mine. So, tomorrow I am going to get mine cut so this story can have a happy ending.

Wish me luck.


THE END


2013 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here.

E-mail: McCamy Taylor

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.