Up or Down
David M. Allan
Gavin glanced at the assignment board expecting to see the usual ‘Salvage Team 4’ against his name. However, it read ‘Escort, Lock Three’.
“What’s this, Mark?” he asked.
The supervisor looked up from his desk. “What’s what, Gavin?”
Gavin waved at the board.
“Oh, that! There’s a couple of norms here for a look-see. Thought we’d give you a chance to talk to them since you can’t seem to make up your mind. You haven’t got much time left.”
“Still two weeks,” said Gavin. He turned and walked away before Mark could say anything else. He understood that Mark was trying to help but he was getting annoyed with the way everyone wanted to push him into making a decision. People seemed to think that he wasn’t worried about it, but he was. He had been thinking of little else since his nineteenth birthday. There was one thing he was sure about, up or down had to be his choice, nobody else’s.
The problem was that there was something to be said for all the options. If he went up he would be reunited with his sister Petra. Down would keep him in contact with his best friend. Then there was the other option, the default option that was ignored in the ‘Up or Down?’ question asked of everybody on their twentieth birthday. He could choose to stay as he was. Safe, comfortable, unadventurous.
Was that what he wanted? He was quite contented as a mer, would he be as happy in another form? Was it just the possibility of change that made him uncertain? Was he attracted to change for its own sake? The questions took their well worn paths through his mind as he went to his assignment.
Judith, the other half of the escort team, was waiting for him with the two norms. Ewan was tall, for a norm, and muscular while Melanie was petite. He found himself staring at Melanie, realised what he was doing and forced himself to look away. She wasn’t the first norm female he had met but he always found their prominent milk glands distracting. They made her look so top heavy but she seemed to be quite proud of them, drawing attention to them with the scraps of brightly coloured cloth norms called a kini. Judith noticed this, grinned at him and flicked her nictitating membranes in a knowing wink. He felt his gills open slightly in embarrassment and knew Judith would notice that too. Judith’s nipples were no more conspicuous than his own and they didn’t break the streamlining of her torso.
Gavin was attracted to Judith and also in awe of her. She was two years older than him and already a conservation supervisor. Also, there was an unofficial, and largely unacknowledged, social hierarchy in the mer community dependent on a person’s mer lineage. That was another reason he felt inferior to Judith. She was a fourth generation mer on both sides of her family while one of his parents had been born norm.
Gavin shook hands with Ewan who said, “Wow, you’re big. I mean I know mers are generally taller than norms but – wow!”
“Gavin’s bigger than most of us but it’s not just height, we’re bulkier than you too. It’s all the fat we need for insulation.”
“No, it’s not fat,” said Melanie. “Fat’s all lumpy and saggy and you’re so smooth.”
Judith snorted and said, “You might not want to call it fat, Melanie, but that’s what it is. You’re very slim. If you decide to come down the change will bulk you up. Do you think that will be a problem for you?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Melanie after a slight hesitation, “we’re pretty sure we want to mod. Mer is just one of the possibilities, we’re also considering angel.”
“Mers and angels don’t have much in common,” said Judith. “I’ve seen pictures but I’ve never met one. Have you?”
“Yes, I have. One of my sisters went angel a couple of years ago. I was going to follow her until I met Ewan. Now we’re thinking mer.”
“Yeh,” said Ewan. “I’ve been thinking mer for a long time but we’ve got to consider angel too.”
“Well, let’s get you kitted and let you see what life in the ocean is like.”
Gavin helped Ewan with his suit, breather, mask and fins while Judith did the same for Melanie. Ewan accepted the kit quite happily. Melanie grumbled about the weight of the breather even after Judith told her it would weigh nothing in the water.
When they were ready Judith told Gavin to lead. The lock flooded. Gavin’s gills distended, filling the angles between his neck and shoulders as he changed from air breathing to water breathing. He unfolded his feet so that the elongated webbed toes became fins and kicked out into the ocean. The two norms followed him with Judith bringing up the rear.
The first sight of the reef brought gasps from the norms. Bright orange fish swarmed around the coral, all facing into the slight current then suddenly darting in unison for the safety of the coral when something startled them. The colours of the coral were brilliant in the morning sunshine and other fish moving in and out of the coral added splashes of blues, purples and other colours.
Gavin made a series of clicks. The software built into the masks translated the merspeech for the norms. “Can you understand me?” he asked, “How do you like it?”
“It’s wonderful,” said Ewan, turning in the water to watch a school of bright blue fish with deeply forked tails go past.”
“It’s pretty good,” agreed Judith. “Particularly when you think that this section of the reef was almost barren only fifty years ago. The corals were bleached and dying and there weren’t many fish around.”
“Is it all like this now?”
“No, unfortunately. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Conservation and recovery are our main concerns. We’ve done a lot on the reefs near the habitat but even around here some are in better condition than others. You’ll see as we go. This one’s not too bad. Gavin, let’s go to the nursery.”
The trip was slow because Ewan was constantly pausing to look at fan corals, tube worms, hermit crabs and anything else that attracted his attention. He was enthralled by a turtle swimming out from the reef and heading towards the surface to breathe.
“This is where Judith works,” said Gavin when they reached the nursery.
She showed Ewan and Melanie the expanses of wire mesh where corals were being grown. “These will be transplanted to those broken up areas we passed,” she told them, “but it’ll be years before the reefs are anything like the way they were before the die-off. The only advantage we have is that some of the corals we work with have been gene modified to be more temperature resistant.”
Gavin took them north and deeper to another reef. “Not all conservation is as attractive as reef restoration,” he said. He pointed at a heap of metal being worked on by teams of mers. “We’re still doing clean up in places like this. This is the wreck of the Nolusay Venture. She hit the reef and sank about forty five years ago. The contamination from oil, toxic chemicals and even some radioactives made a real mess of the reef here, and it was already in poor condition. Cleaning up situations like this is also part of the conservation programme.”
“Do you work in conservation too?” asked Ewan.
“We’re all in conservation to some extent. At the moment I’m in the general labour pool but I’ll specialise if I stay mer.”
“But you might go pro,” said Judith.
“I’m not that good.”
“So why was Kaspar trying to sign you last week?” asked Judith. Then seeing the puzzled looks on the norms faces she explained that Kaspar was the manager of one of the semi-professional Vertiball teams in the area. “But I don’t suppose you know the game.”
“I’ve heard of it,” replied Ewan, “is there any chance of seeing a game while we’re here?”
“You’ve a game tonight, don’t you, Gavin.”
“Yes, but it’s just a knockabout.”
“It’ll do to let Ewan and Melanie see what it’s about.”
“That’s great,” said Ewan, “isn’t it, Mel.”
“Yeh! – great.”
The fish farms were far enough away that for the next stage of the tour they used the propulsion units the mers wore as backpacks and which were built into the breathers for the norms. During the trip Gavin had a chance to ask Ewan why he and Melanie were considering modification.
“There’s no adventure left on land,” Ewan replied. “It’s all safe, easy and boring. We want to be different. We’re looking at all the choices but we’ve pretty much ruled out trog, neither of us fancies it. What about you? You said you’d go into conservation if you stayed mer. Are you thinking of going norm?”
“Or benth. That’s the only other possibility for mers. I haven’t made my mind up yet.”
“How long do you have left to decide?”
“Just over two weeks.”
“Wow. Cutting it a bit fine aren’t you. We’ve still got almost a year”
“I wish the change didn’t have to be permanent.”
“Don’t we all,” said Ewan.
“It doesn’t have to be permanent,” said Judith, who had been listening to the conversation.
“No. But you have to be rich to be able to buy a second mod…”
“…or even a first one if you don’t change at twenty.”
They carried on in silence for a while. Gavin’s thoughts and worries about his inability to decide kept running through his mind and he was glad when Judith interrupted them.
“Look there,” she said, pointing left and up. “We’re in luck.”
The sight of a manta flying effortlessly past brought awed gasps from the norms.
“Nobody knows how they survived the extinction,” said Judith. “They’re the only one of the big plankton eaters that did. There still aren’t many of them around but their numbers do seem to be increasing. I was hoping we’d see it. I checked before we left and I knew it was in the vicinity.”
“It’s tagged. We tag all the big animals we can – mantas, whales, dolphins, sharks. Mostly so that we can understand their movements and behaviour but partly to protect them. It’s difficult to believe but even after so many species went extinct and so many more are endangered they’re still at risk from poachers.”
“Yes. Just last week an oceanic white tip was killed for its fin only about forty klicks south of here. I’m afraid there’s still a market for shark’s fin soup in some places.”
“I don’t think you’ll get any argument about that from any mer.”
“Hey, Gavin. Have you ever spoken to Andy Pelson?” asked Mark when Gavin reported back to the assignment office at the end of the tour.
“No. I’ve heard of him and some of his ideas but I’ve never met him. Why?”
“He’s here for the day. Why don’t you talk to him. Might help clarify your ideas.”
For once Gavin didn’t resent Mark trying to help him. Pelson was from one of the other habitats. He was well known some would say notorious, for his opinions on mods. “Do you know where I can find him, Mark?”
“Try the lounge.”
He joined the group of younger mers sitting with Pelson in one corner of the lounge. Pelson, with his back to the window looking out on to the reef, was explaining why he wanted to go up.
“…I didn’t choose to be mer. I don’t see why I should have to live with a choice my parents made,” he said.
“You don’t,” said Gavin. “You’ve already decided to go up, haven’t you?”
“It’s where my family are.”
“What do you mean?”
“My parents were both born norm. They met after they came down and then they died when I was less than a year old. I was brought up in a crèche. My nearest relatives are norms and I can’t be with them because my parents made a lifestyle decision that’s stuck me here. I’m mer and my relatives don’t want to know about me. They belong to the Basic Human movement. I’m not even sure if they’ll accept me after I go up. Drown it, I should have been brought up with my family, not in a crèche.”
“I’m sorry for you,” said Gavin. “I can understand why you want to go up but it doesn’t explain why you’re so against mods.”
“I’m not. I just believe that people shouldn’t be locked in to whatever their parents wanted. Everyone should have a chance at norm and be able to mod if they want to.”
“They do. At least they do if they’re only one stage from norm.”
“But it’s a final choice for anyone not born norm.”
“Why do you think it’s so important to be norm?”
“Norm is what humans are supposed to be. That’s the way we evolved.”
“And we’ve consciously evolved in other directions.”
“Yes, but norms have more possibilities, and I’m not talking about choice of mod. Norms don’t swim as well as mers but they can swim; they can’t fly as well as angels, even with artificial wings, but they can fly; they can’t see in the dark as well as trogs but they can see well enough to work underground to some extent. Norms are just more versatile than any mod.”
“I think I see what you mean. But I met a norm couple today who’re thinking of moding. I’m not sure they will, though. He wants mer but I don’t think she does; I’m sure she’d prefer angel. Either one of them is going to be unhappy or they’re going to stay norm.”
‘They might split up.”
“Possible, but I think it’s unlikely, they’re very much together. Anyway, they got me thinking. If born norms aren’t satisfied with what they are why should I be if I become one.”
“I can’t answer that for you.”
“Everybody can’t start norm,” said one of the others in the group.
“So they say,” replied Pelson. “But it’s not true. The ModBoard won’t admit it but it’s possible to do mods at any age, even before birth, so everyone could be born norm.”
“If that’s possible why won’t they allow it?”
“Because it would be too expensive, that’s all. We need to put pressure on them to get them to change.”
Gavin listened to Pelson for more than an hour before he had to get ready for his game. “Thanks,” he said as he got up. You’ve given me a lot to think about, but I still don’t know which way to go.”
“Your problem,” replied Pelson.
Gavin was easily the best player in the game and he scored twice but he was still worrying and not really concentrating so he also missed a couple of opportunities. After the game he and his friend Sam met Judith, Ewan and Melanie in the lounge. They managed to get one of the alcoves with windows on three sides so that they could watch the activity on the reef. Ewan was only half paying attention to the discussion of the game, he was focussed on the reef. The sight of a two metre moray undulating past excited him.
“Oh, that’s just Hamish out hunting,” said Sam.
“Hamish? Is he a pet?”
“No. He’s not tame, but he is used to people and doesn’t worry about us.”
“I was talking to Andy Pelson earlier,” said Gavin.
“Pelson? What’s he doing here?” asked Sam.
“I don’t know. He didn’t say. He was talking about the ModBoard.”
“And that crazy idea of prenatal mods I suppose.”
“You know that’s nonsense don’t you,” said Sam. “I’ve learned enough to know it can’t be done.”
Gavin paused to explain to Ewan and Melanie that Sam was going down and was studying benth physiology so that he could get a job as a medical technician after the change.
“Did Pelson persuade you to go up?” asked Judith.
“No. He tried, but I’m not convinced. It would be nice to see Petra again but I don’t know if I would be satisfied up there.”
“You’re probably fed up hearing this but it’s got to be your decision. Your friends can give support but can’t make up your mind for you.”
“I know it,” said Gavin, and wanting to change the subject, he added, “Anybody ready for another drink?”
Everyone said yes, so Gavin and Sam went off to the bar.
“You want him to stay mer,” said Melanie.
“Yes,” admitted Judith, “but I don’t want to push him into it if he’s not sure.”
“Even if you lose him.”
“Is it that obvious that I want him?”
“It is to me. I guess not to him or he might be more inclined to stay. Why hasn’t he decided?”
“He’s confused, that’s all. His mother was born mer but his father was born norm. He’s got an older sister who went up three years ago and Sam, who’s one of his best friends, is going benth. He just doesn’t know which he wants.”
“What about you? Would you follow him if he decides to mod?”
“I would if I could but I decided to stay mer when the choice came up for me. I’d have to pay for a mod and there’s no drowning chance of that. I was born mer and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
The norms were fascinated by Sam’s decision to go down. It wasn’t an option for norms but they questioned him when he returned with the drinks.
“Why do you want to go down into the deep ocean where it’s dark and cold?”
“It’s the frontier. The benth mod has only been available for about forty years and they’re building a new society down there. It’s got to be satisfying, I’ve never heard of anyone coming up from benth.”
“Have you ever talked to a benth?” asked Ewan.
“Oh, yes. Our deep limit overlaps with the benth minimum and I’ve met a few. I’m looking forward to the change.”
“Isn’t it confusing,” said Ewan, “you want to mod because it’s different and exciting and so do we. But if we go mer we’d be moving into the environment you’ll be leaving. If it’s not enough for you, will it be for us?”
“Funny,” said Gavin, “I was wondering the same thing about going up when you’re thinking of coming down.”
“I wouldn’t want to put you off going up, if that’s what you would like. Just because we want to change doesn’t mean it won’t suit you.”
“I know. That’s the problem.”
“If you don’t decide you’ll have no choice and stay mer by default,” said Sam. “Wouldn’t you rather make a definite decision?”
“Sam’s right,” said Judith. “A couple of my friends didn’t decide and now they’re unhappy about it. One of them says she feels that she cheated herself. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”
“But don’t they say that choosing not to choose is also a choice?”
“It is, but is it a good one?”
The subject was dropped when more of Gavin’s team joined them. The conversation turned to an analysis of the game and the prospects for the next one.
The quiet hum of the propulsion unit made a background for Gavin’s thoughts as it pushed him through the water towards the fish farms on a courier trip. Only a week left now, what am I going to do?
Go down? Sam’s got a job waiting for him but I’ve got nothing special to offer. What would I do down there? I’ll miss him when he goes. I suppose I can always meet him at Interface. Will that be enough to keep our friendship alive? Won’t we grow apart? But I like swimming on the surface and breathing air and I’d miss that too.
Up? That’s more attractive. Pelson talked some sense about the land being the natural environment for humans. It was awkward when I went to visit Petra but that’s because there had to be special arrangements to let me get wet every day. That wouldn’t be a problem if I went norm, I’d be properly adapted to life on land. And there’s worthwhile work up there too with desert reclamation and rainforest preservation. I could get into that.
Is deciding to stay mer just an easy way of not making a choice? I do like it. I’d like it even more if Judith gave me any encouragement but that’s too much to hope for. It’s so difficult. Just a week left to decide, drown it.
He switched off the propulsion unit to swim for a while thinking the exercise might calm his thoughts. The panniers he carried produced a lot of drag and he had to work hard through the darkening waters as the sun set. Half an hour later he was surprised to hear engine noise. Still quite some way from the farms he couldn’t think of any reason for there to be a surface boat in the vicinity. He stopped to listen. There was a splash as somebody entered the water then he heard the clicks of merspeech saying, “There are three here. I should be able to get one of them. Come twenty metres to port.” The boat moved towards the reef.
Gavin suddenly realised that he had stumbled on a boat load of poachers and he was horrified to realise that a mer was assisting them. He slipped the panniers and let them fall into the depths. Then he switched on the propulsion unit and accelerated towards the reef. The sound attracted the mer’s attention.
“Intruder!” he called and turned towards Gavin.
The poacher raised his speargun and waited until Gavin was within ten metres before firing. Gavin twisted away from the missile without difficulty and switched off the propulsion unit before it carried him past the other mer. Before he could grapple with him the speargun came up again. It was one of the double load varieties and a second spear was ready for use.
Gavin’s Vertiball skills served him well. He flipped up and over to his left as if evading a tackler. The spear tore a gash in his left shoulder but did no other damage. Then he thumped into the other mer and raked his right hand over his gills. The pain made Pelson drop the speargun and head for the surface.
Gavin followed him. They broke surface only a few metres from the boat. There was a burst of gunfire as it zoomed away. Pelson jerked and collapsed. Gavin supported him and kept him afloat. He didn’t know how badly Pelson was injured. He was unconscious but breathing.
Gavin’s left shoulder started to feel numb. The gash didn’t seem too bad and it had already stopped bleeding. But the numbness was spreading; could the spear have had a neurotoxin on it? He tried to get his bearings but the sky was overcast and he wasn’t sure which way to go. In any case he couldn’t tow Pelson very effectively. The only thing he could do was trigger the emergency beacon on the propulsion unit and wait and hope.
Gavin had been semiconscious from the effect of the neurotoxin when the emergency team reached him but he had kept hold of Pelson, and probably saved his life. Pelson had recovered consciousness. His testimony had led to the arrest of the boatload of poachers and the ship they had come from had been seized. He explained that getting involved with them had been his way of taking revenge for being forced to be a mer when he didn’t want to be.
Gavin was treated as a hero on his return to the habitat. When he managed to be alone with his friends he said, “It annoys me that I’m indebted to that piece of scum for helping me decide, but that incident has cleared my mind. I know what I’m going to do.”
“Just as well,” said Sam. “It’s your birthday tomorrow. What’s the verdict?”
“I’m staying mer…”
He was interrupted by a whoop of delight from Judith who jumped up and wrapped him in a crushing hug.
He squeezed back and realised that there might be another advantage to his decision. “…I realised I’m happy here. And I know what my career is going to be too. I’m joining the anti-poaching squad.”
David M Allan was born in Edinburgh but has been living in England for many years. When asked why he moved south his usual answer is on the lines of ‘someone has to civilise the English’. He currently lives on a houseboat on the Thames with his wife and cat. He has a website at davidmallan.com