My name is Dr. Nicole Hart…
No. I’m Nicki. That’s how I think of myself. No matter what other people call me, in my head I’m Nicki.
I am currently imprisoned many miles underwater in a coffin made of yellow plastic. My arms, legs, hips, and the back of my head are affixed to the walls with some kind of permanent adhesive. When I pull hard on the adhesive, it stretches very slightly, just enough that I am prevented from hurting myself or tearing my skin. It then retracts as soon as I become exhausted, returning me to my original position.
The walls of my cell occasionally become translucent, dim lights like anglerfish lures allowing me to see part of the structure in which I am being kept. My view is never the same twice. I’ve seen things that look like trains, things that look like skyscrapers, things that look like slowly rotating ferris wheels.
A transparent mask covers the lower half of my face. It prevents me from biting down on the tube entering my mouth that provides me with oxygen and nourishment. There is no end to the questions of how my situation might be affecting me physically. A short list of the things I cannot explain would begin with…
No. My physical condition is not important. My mental well-being is more inexplicable than my physical condition. I am suffering immeasurably, but have not lost the ability to think clearly. Occasionally, like at this moment, I feel something press against either side of my head…
No. My mental state is not important either.
I officially worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, but the group I answered to was not one the public was aware of. We were the boogeymen division. We showed up at crime scenes and made things disappear, we leaked misleading photographs to the Weekly World News, we told people it was a weather balloon when it wasn’t really a weather balloon.
My job was my life. I didn’t like my job. I did at first— that’s how they hook you; when you’re young, they show up in the middle of the night after you’ve lost your scholarship for submitting one too many papers about flying saucers and sweep you off your feet like a badass fairytale princess. It’s a rush, in the beginning, when you get your password and the keys to the filing cabinet. The downside doesn’t hit you until you’re a few years in. There’s no Loch Ness monster. Bigfoot is a species of ape that’s good at staying away from cameras. The masons are a drinking club.
Mysteries are cool, facts are boring.
It all started with a bunch of dead fish on an island in the pacific. There was something killing the fish, something poisoning the water, bubbling up from somewhere sunlight didn’t reach.
The situation changed very quickly. The poison spread. Soon it was more than just fish dying. The color of the sky changed, like the sun was constantly setting. My little assignment suddenly got a lot more important, but I couldn’t figure out what was happening, what it was I was looking at.
When the machines rose from the water, and they took over the cities…
No. I’m not revealing anything. Everybody knows about this already.
There was a research station on the island. I couldn’t resist having a real facility to work with for a fucking change so I made a phone call and flashed a badge. One of the grad slaves who worked at the place blew town with a bunch of equipment shortly after I showed up. The timing was suspicious, but I was lazy, and when the whole thing still seemed like a bullshit job I didn’t go to the trouble to follow up. That changed when things got worse.
I delegated the job of tracking her down but approached her personally. Her name was… Sarah, I thought of her by her first name, the same way I think of myself. We caught up with her in Hong Kong. She’d been very clever. The materials she’d stolen hadn’t been enough to last her more than a couple of weeks and she’d kept her project funded through just about every criminal activity that lent itself to her skill set.
We planted cameras. You could hear the whispers as the footage slowly made its way to me. She had a tank the size of a backyard pool, hooked up to long plastic cylinders that would empty chemicals into the water periodically. The quality of the video was shit. We could’ve released it to the tabloids just like it was and everybody would have dismissed it as a guy in a rubber suit swimming around.
It wasn’t. The thing in the tank had strawberry red skin that was covered with smooth little orange knobs the size of coins. In motion it could be mistaken for something close to a human being. When it stopped the illusion was broken- it actually looked more like a squid, four thick arm-like tentacles emerging from the anterior end of its axis, with two slightly larger bundles of noodle-sized tentacles at the other end.
It took my breath away, the first time I saw it.
She played it music, read it books. Played house, basically. Every so often, she tied her hair back and leaned forward into the water, and the thing would reach out and touch the sides of her head with its tentacles, and the two of them would stay still for a while. Then she’d hop back up like nothing had happened and start doing all the shit she’d been doing before.
I decided to talk to her. She left the lab every Monday morning to take a cab across town and eat scrambled eggs at an American-style restaurant. The next time she went, I was sitting at her table.
She smelled like lab. Her shirt hadn’t been ironed, her hair was a mess. She was either younger or older than I was— I didn’t know which, only that she was different than me in a way that I couldn’t do anything about. She quickly guessed who I might be but wasn’t scared. She couldn’t wait to tell me everything that was going on. Maybe she thought that we’d see what she was doing as an opportunity. The food shortages had started by then, but they hadn’t come out of the water yet. We didn’t understand the scope of the problem; neither did she. She found it washed up on the beach, like a fucking fairytale. Two fucking hippies from two fucking species, so pleased with themselves for being all peace and love they can’t read the writing on the wall.
Anyway, she trusted me. She thought we were friends.
I didn’t think about it too much at the time. I was looking at the big picture. The damage to the global environment was getting worse and worse and I was the only one who had a clue what was going on. I had to save the day.
It was not a complicated line of moral reasoning. On one hand I had the mental health of a crazy bitch who never quite finished her doctorate. On the other hand I had the survival of the human species. When it was just the plankton dying I could afford to be subtle. Not so much when the giant fucking spider robots were marching across Europe. So I locked her in a cell. I got in her face and yelled at her, I told her I was going to lock her in prison for the rest of her life if she didn’t tell me what I wanted to know.
She said she didn’t know anything and I said that I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t afford to. If there was even a tiny chance that she was holding something back, I had to keep going.
That wasn’t the reason. I thought I was important. I thought it wouldn’t matter what I’d done, after I’d saved the day. But that wasn’t the reason.
When she first let me into the lab, I had a moment alone with the thing. Just watching it and letting it watch me— I didn’t even know what sense organs it had. I knew she played it music. I talked to it.
For a moment I felt like an explorer, like the girl detective with the silly hat and the torch stepping into the secret room. But it only lasted a moment. It didn’t respond. It was like I wasn’t even there. Then she came back and she leaned forward over the edge of the pool, and it reached out and touched her, one tentacle on either side of her head. Her eyeballs rolled back momentarily, her body became rigid. Then she came out of it and smiled cheerfully.
“You got it, buddy.” She smiled and pressed some buttons, some chemicals were released into the tank that smelled like lemonade and motor oil, and all was well with the world. The thing did a little contented twirl and just floated.
A few minutes later, she left me alone with it again. I leaned over the tank and closed my eyes and hoped.
Nothing happened. The thing ignored me.
Of course it did. She’d been working with it for months, I’d only just shown up. It was silly to expect the same results right away. But I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t even admitting to myself that I cared. I was saving the world. I could do whatever I wanted and it was okay.
So as soon as she’d told me everything I thought she was going to tell me unassisted, I did like a fat man at a buffet and went to town. I locked her up and interrogated her, and had her interrogated by somebody else when I was sleeping and eating. Question after question after question. And no answers.
When things really started to get bad, and when I knew for sure she didn’t have anything else to offer us, I went to her cell and told her what we’d done with the creature. I described to her the way that it moved while we dissected it, how long it stayed alive even after all its skin was gone. She sobbed and bent over, didn’t say a word, just shook.
I didn’t feel bad. I was still the hero.
It was all bullshit, of course. I thought I was the ringmaster, when I was barely a sideshow. Any illusions I had about that were dispelled when our nukes did more damage to us than they did to them.
I don’t know if I was taken prisoner because of the events that I’ve just described, or because I was an important person in the government, or because they wanted to have someone my age and gender for their collection. Sometimes when I see through the walls of the coffin I can see groups of them gathered around me. Big ones, small ones, ones that move quickly and ones that move slowly.
The world is a strange place.
Brendan Detzner lives, works, and writes in Chicago, where he hosts the Bad Grammar Theater reading series every 3rd Friday of the month. His short stories have appeared in CHIZINE, PSEUDOPOD, ONE BUCK HORROR, the Twilight Tales anthology THE BOOK OF DEAD THINGS, and other fine publications. You can find his short story collection SCARCE RESOURCES on Amazon and at local booksellers, and keep track of what he’s up to on Facebook at “Brendan Detzner (author)” and at his web site at www.brendandetzner.com.