The sea stretched into the distance, flat, glossy, and almost black as it neared the horizon, the deep reddish brown of dried blood if you stared straight down into the depths of the dead zone. The view from the deck of the Miss Tillie hadn’t changed in days, but Dennis still gazed over the rail lost in thought. The subtle shading reminded him of an antique Venetian glass bowl that had occupied a place of pride in his mother’s house. An incident involving young children and a baseball had shattered it when he was in his teens, but he remembered the play of color in the wavy glass. As Dennis looked into the still sea, faint ripples spread out from the old shrimp trawler’s hull, completing the illusion of gazing into the scalloped crystal.
The afternoon sun beat down from a yellowish-gray sky, distant thunderheads to the south promising an eventual end to the serene seascape. The only sound was a muffled clattering as Lonesome Joe unbolted the cover of the boom winch and prepared to service the motor. The cover of a grease can made a musical tone as it spun on the deck like a coin. Dennis grinned wryly at the sound – the scientists who had chartered the boat had no need for Joe’s services, but Captain Eddie had brought him along in order to charge for an additional crew member. They had no need for the shrimping gear on this voyage either, but Captain Eddie had Joe servicing it because he hoped it would be needed on the next trip. If there was a next trip – the dead zone of deoxygenated water off the mouth of the Mississippi was growing alarmingly, and the areas that were still productive were being rapidly overfished. Fertilizer and manure runoff from upstream farms was to blame, the scientists said, and everybody knew what had to be done, but nobody was going to do it. Farm states a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico would lose tax dollars if they enforced environmental regulations, so they ritually promised to study the issue further while phosphate and animal waste-laden water washed downstream. Algae multiplied in the warm, nutrient-rich waters offshore and died by the billion, exhausting the water of oxygen as they decomposed. The result was thousands of square miles of open ocean that looked as beautiful as Venetian glass, and as lifeless.
The whine of an electric motor and rattle of chain from the stern as Joe ran the winch through its paces was loud enough to cover the sound of footsteps, so it was a surprise when a hand landed on his shoulder.
“Mister Dennis, would you be so good as to get us some more iced tea?” inquired a British-accented voice heartily.
“Happy to, Doctor Coolidge – anything else?”
“Not at the moment, thank you, but we shall be wanting a bigger lunch than usual in case the heavy weather comes in near sunset. We expect to be quite busy with the instruments, and may not have time for even a light snack.”
Dennis went to the cargo hold, usually reserved for tons of freshly caught shrimp or crabs, but turned to a makeshift lab and pantry for the duration of this trip. The canisters of tea he had placed in the refrigeration unit had beads of moisture running down the sides, and he decanted two pitchers, grabbed ice and insulated tumblers, and headed to the small foredeck. The lanky, spade bearded scientist was scowling distractedly at a set of covered canisters that were spaced along a length of bright yellow rope. Two graduate students were working on one of the containers with screwdrivers.
“The five and fifteen meter samples from the rusken bottles are fine, but the ten didn’t open and the twenty didn’t close. It’s the messengers or the trap mechanisms gone wonky, and …ah, here’s some refreshments, take a moment and then back to work.”
The freely perspiring students looked grateful as Dennis filled cups and passed them out. “Y’all sure that crawfish etoufee I made last night wasn’t too hot? “ he asked. “I hear tell where y’all from, they don’t cook with much spices.”
One of them laughed. “If you’re ever in Glasgow, I’ll take you out for Pakistani curry, and we’ll see if you still think so,” he replied.
“Nah, thanks. I had Indian when I was in visiting friends in California, and it took a whole day to recover. I’ll put more hot sauce on the table next time just for ya.”
The glasses were refilled, small talk briefly exchanged, and Dennis went to wash the empty pitchers. It was easy work, at least until the predicted storm came in, and he was glad to have it. The scientists seemed satisfied despite their makeshift lab in the hold and their tiny shared cabin. The more luxurious boat they had originally chartered had rammed into the end of a dock thanks to a pilot who had been celebrating a bit too much the night before. The Miss Tillie had been in the next slip over, hosing out after a week-long trawling trip that had lost money. A deal was struck on the spot, scientific gear transferred, and instead of striking nets and clearing fouled lines, Dennis was acting as cook and general helper. Doctor Coolidge and his assistants took the crew’s quarters, Captain Eddie bunked in the wheelhouse, and Dennis slept in an unused storage room. Lonesome Joe slung his garish Mexican hammock from a net boom at the stern. Joe could have a more comfortable berth in the other half of the storage room, but the taciturn Cajun had earned his nickname.
Dennis took Joe a cup of iced tea, earning a nod for his trouble, before taking a pitcher up to the small bridge. Captain Eddie Domingue was bound to be grouchy – after what happened to the first boat he had chartered, Doctor Coolidge had made it a condition that the crew didn’t drink. Eddie liked to start his day with a little brandy in his coffee, then a cold Abita ale at lunch and maybe another in the afternoon before dinner, after which the bourbon came out. He had agreed to not drink on this trip, and he had stuck with it, but he didn’t have to like it.
Dennis did a doubletake as he entered the small bridge – Captain Eddie had taken advantage of the idle time to clean and polish every knob, switch, and instrument, and the little wheelhouse gleamed. When Dennis came in, Eddie was touching up the paint on the overhead electrical conduits that led to the radar and fish finder. The sonar’s screen was eerily blank, as it had been for days since they entered the dead zone. The featureless green screen caught Dennis’s eye, and Captain Eddie followed his gaze and scowled.
“My daddy used to come right out here and take a full hold of shrimp outta two swings of the net, and half of them were U-10’s that brought in the dough as soon as they hit the dock. Couldn’t fill one of your damned ice tea glasses with all the shrimp that’s out here now, all so some greedy fool in Ohio can raise chickens on bottom land that floods one year outta three.”
“Lots of greedy people in lots of states,” Dennis agreed. “Not like us shrimpers that don’t have a greedy bone in our bodies, and work outta altruistic motives of feedin’ humanity.”
Eddie snorted, then grimaced as he drank the cold iced tea. “I’d kill for a beer right now, but my altruistic nature says I gotta drink this tea instead. It does go down nice when it’s this hot, but…I’d kill for a beer right now.” He lapsed into a moody silence, staring out at the calm ocean.
“What’s with this riding out that storm that’s coming in?” Dennis asked after a moment.
“They wanna see how the wave action adds oxygen back into the water, how it happens and how deep it goes. This little blow-up oughta be perfect – three to five foot swells if it goes how the weatherman says, enough to mix it up and not so much that they can’t work. Lonesome Joe’s got safety harnesses rigged, and two of em’ll be passing samples through the hatch so the third can mark and catalog ‘em. Won’t bother me if they have to wait another day for this to blow in, considerin’ the rate they’re payin’. You got enough provisions in that galley for three more days?”
“Sure, even though them graduate students eat like horses. Might hafta repeat myself on some things, but I don’t suppose they’ll mind. Gonna be low on water by three days on, unless I lay out every pot when this storm comes in and collect some. Either that or you radio back to Bayou Teche and get your cousin Eugene to go to the market, load up his boat, and run it out to us. Probably somethin’ you should consider anyway if you want any fresh vegetables.”
Eddie looked thoughtful. “Might do that, I might. They want to keep sampling this area a few days after the storm. They might pay extra to be able to stay out longer.”
“You’re making me wonder if somewhere down there, you do have a greedy bone or two.”
“Let’s just say my altruistic side needs a paycheck once in a while too, and it ain’t had one lately.” He paused a moment, then continued more softly. “This thing could be the end of us, you know. My daddy made a good livin’ with this boat, you know. I ever tell you the whyfores about the name of this boat?”
He had done it plenty of times, but rarely when sober, and just in case the story changed, Dennis looked inquisitive.
“My daddy was half set to marry Gertrude of the Courville sisters, richest family in Jefferson Parish back then, but he always had an eye for a sweet little thing that worked at the local coffee shop. He thought about askin’ her out and thought about it, but he couldn’t get the nerve, and couldn’t think of a way to get her to talk to him. Her name was Caroline Tillie, and back then this boat was called the Beau de Barataria. One day my daddy bought this boat, and that night he came out and painted the new name, Miss Tillie. Word of that got around real quick, and it soon got to old Mr. Courville, who was already making plans for his daughter’s wedding. Since he had also been the one who loaned my daddy the money to buy the boat, he was quite upset, and he went down to the docks with two of her brothers and, I heard tell, three pistols. I’m only sure about the two brothers, because everybody saw them waitin’ for my daddy to dock after that shrimping trip. Then someone thought to go to the café, and they found that Miss Tillie’s first customer that morning had been the harbormaster, and he told her about the wet paint on this boat. He was the last customer she ever served - she closed the café, walked down to see this boat, and went onboard. My daddy was sitting in this wheelhouse, waiting. They talked for ten minutes, then she slipped the lines and they sailed out to the gulf. They fished out of Plaquemines Parish for about a year until he had the money to repay Mr. Courville, then they came back. Then they found that Gertrude Courville had been married for seven months – she had been sweet on Leander Chauvin and was planning to elope with him all along. So they were all friends afterward, and Gertrude became my godmother, and my mother was godmother to their son Robert.”
After he finished the often-told story, he was silent for a moment, then continued in a soft voice.
“And that is what these farmers and chicken keepers are takin’ from me, not just my job, but the boat where my momma and papa wooed and wed, where I was conceived and woulda been born if a storm hadn’t let up so they could get ashore. If I were to sail this boat up the river and destroy their farms they’d jail me, but they destroy my shrimping grounds and nobody does nothing. So I take the money from Doctor Coolidge and he makes his measurements, but in case he collects the data that makes them stop, I would do this for free. And it is not altruism, it is saving my heritage, that’s on this boat and was in these waters before the oxygen went away. I would tell Eugene to empty every store shelf in Bayou Teche and load up his boat to feed them, and charge it to me.”
They were silent and somber for a moment, both men looking at the deck like the scratches in the well-worn wood might have an answer. Then Dennis chuckled and shook his head.
“And the vegetables Eugene would bring in his boatload are from farms that run off into this water, and help cause the problem that afflicts our sea.”
Captain Eddie looked like he had bitten into something sour. “It is complicated, but things can not stay as they are.” He set his jaw and reached for the paintbrush to finish detailing the electrical conduit. Dennis turned to go and almost collided with Doctor Coolidge, who was standing in the door of the wheelhouse.
“Gentlemen, I do not know if my readings will help to change the situation, but I pledge to you that I will do all that I can to make them known. You must know, though that even if every possible action is taken now, it may be a decade before you see schools of redfish on that screen again.” He gestured at the fish finder, then looked at it sharply. Faint wavy lines flickered near the bottom of the screen. He relaxed after a moment.
“Interesting interference pattern there, probably a cold current going underneath a warm one at the thermocline. Not something I’d expect to see, even with the scope on high sensitivity.”
Captain Eddie frowned. “It ain’t on high sensitivity. That’s standard.”
The three men peered at the screen, where a straight line was arcing upward to resemble a dome.
“Big bubble of gas and mud sometimes comes up from the bottom, looks a little something like that,” volunteered Eddie uncertainly.” Just as he said it, the curve became sharper, and a piece of it separated into a disc and started to move laterally. “It don’t do that, though.”
“Your strip recorder – turn it on!” barked Doctor Coolidge. Captain Eddie flipped a switch, and paper started scrolling past a pen that twitched with each movement. Dennis had a different idea, and grabbed his cellphone from the pouch at his hip, aimed the camera at the sonar screen, and started recording. “Good thought,” said Coolidge approvingly, his eyes not leaving the screen. The disc moved in a slow circle near the bottom of the screen, then came to a halt.
“Depth?” Coolidge asked crisply. Eddie glanced at a readout. “Canyon just south of here goes down past forty fathoms, but here we’re at sixteen fathoms, pretty even.” The scientist stuck his head out the door to call to his assistants.
“Mac Leod, what’s the oxygen level at thirty meters?”
There was a momentary hesitation, then a reply of, “Last reading, one point four parts per million.”
“Nothing on earth larger than bacteria can live under those conditions,” Coolidge said firmly. “The reading’s wrong, or…” he broke off as the thing started moving again. “What size is it?”
Captain Eddie glanced at the gain dial on the finder. “Same as a fair-sized marlin… call it eight feet.”
“I want it. Can you catch it?” He stuck his head out he window and bellowed, “Mac Leod, come here now, and bring a recorder! Davies, to the port side amidships with a recorder, and catch any movement you see in the water!”
Captain Eddie glanced at Dennis. “Lonesome Joe done servicin’ that winch?”
“Oughta be.” Dennis stuck his head out he window and shouted, ”Joe, whatever net you got ready, get it in the water, now!”
There was a sound of scrambling, whirr of an electric motor and rattle of chains, then a splash and a sharp curse in Acadian French. Dennis and Eddie ran to the top of the gangway to see a piece of colorful striped fabric sliding below the deep blue surface of the water. Dennis laughed.
“Joe musta left his hammock draped over the boom, and when he swung it to attach the net, it went over. He’s gonna have to go all the way to Grand Isle to get another one.”
They were interrupted by a shout from the cabin. “What’s that?”
They rushed in and looked at the video screen, where they could see the image of the waterlogged hammock undulating toward the ocean floor. “Hammock,” answered Dennis. “Got a piece of chain on one end to hook it up, why it’s moving like that.” He pointed his cellphone camera at the display as the shape at the bottom of the screen started spiraling upward. Suddenly, it moved forward and struck at the hammock, then recoiled.
“A predator,” gasped Coolidge. “ I want it. How soon will that net be ready?”
“I’ll check,” promised Dennis as he headed down the stairs two at a time. When he got to the stern, Lonesome Joe was grumbling curses as he finished attaching the shrimp net to the swivel. “Don’ like runnin’ like dat,” he grumbled, gesturing to the winch he had been working on. The cover was off and the freshly lubricated gears shone black next to coils of cable. “It snap, and somebody’s killed.”
Dennis nodded and ran back toward the wheelhouse, the deck suddenly vibrating under his feet as the big diesel engines fired up for the first time all day.
“Ready,” he said as he entered. “Closest thing to hand was a crab trawl net, and it’s goin’ in. Current’s gonna carry it a little behind that thing, then we haul it in.”
The image on the screen was circling the place where the hammock hit bottom, watched by Coolidge and the graduate student who captured the image on his video camera. Captain Eddie put the engines in reverse and gently eased the throttle, glancing over at the fish finder every few seconds.
“Aimin’ at it the way we do for schools of redfish,” he commented without taking his eyes of his work. “Gonna try to float the net wide, behind and below it, then give the boat full engines ahead and the net full winch, haul it in quick. That thing down there can move fast when it wants to.”
“When it comes to catching underwater creatures, I trust to your expertise, gentlemen,” said Doctor Coolidge.
“You went out in that boat you first chartered, you wouldn’ta had it,” observed Captain Eddie. “They woulda charged extra for expertise. We throw it in for free.” The conversation broke off as the thing stopped, changed direction, and started spiraling upward. Coolidge started to peer into the monitor, then realized that he was about to block the camera. “Getting this?” he asked the student.
“Every second,” replied Mac Leod. “It’ll be the biggest thing on YouTube.”
“They get it after Woods Hole has a look. Gods, every oceanographer and icthyolologist in the world would give their souls to be here right now. An unknown species that can live in this…“ He broke off, then asked Captain Eddie, “What is it’s depth now?”
“Up to ten fathoms… nine now. Comin’ up eight.” They heard a wordless shout from Davies, the graduate student on deck. “Close enough so’s you can see it, I’d guess.”
Coolidge ran out of the wheelhouse and headed to the rail by Davies, followed closely by Dennis. They peered into the murky brownish depths at the bulbous shape that corkscrewed toward them in lazy circles. “Six fathoms!” came a shout from the wheelhouse.
“Davies, oxygen level at twenty meters?” asked Coolidge crisply.
“Last reading here, less than one point six parts per million. Rises to two point two at ten meters, almost three PPM at five meters.”
“What’s normal?” asked Dennis.
“Six to twelve at the surface.,” answered Coolidge. “This is almost…” He stopped as the thing turned slightly and came out of the boat’s shadow. “My god!”
The two sets of tentacles on each side pulsed in rhythm, while the fins worked independently to both steer and add momentum. Something gaped and closed next to each to the three compound eyes, and there was movement in the huge triangular mouth each time it opened. A dark band encircled its body just behind the tentacles, irregular bulges dangling from it.
As it entered the shaft of light, the tentacles went motionless, and it used its fins to turn so all three eyes faced the sun. The men at the rail stood stock still, gazing at the weird face pointed toward them. Dennis noticed a flicker of movement in the background just as Captain Eddie shouted ”It’s at two fathoms now!” from the cabin.
“Joe, haul the net in, full speed! Eddie, give her the gas!” Dennis shouted.
The engines roared and the boat lurched forward just as a sharp whine sounded from astern. The net that had been spread out behind the creature started to tighten around it, drawing it toward the surface. It thrashed as it rose, and they noticed the tentacles scrabbling toward the dark band around its middle, then working at the net.
“Which rig is that, Joe?” Dennis shouted.
“Six millimeter propylene.”
“Nothin’ can break that! We got it.”
The tentacles flexed convulsively, and suddenly the thing had more room to move. They moved again, and even as a writhing mass of dazzling orange and green striped fins came partway out of the water, the thing leaped free through a ragged hole in the net and spiraled downward toward the ocean floor. This time its movements were erratic, as though the fins that had broken the surface were paralyzed. It swerved as it was at the edge of their vision, toward the undersea canyon to the south. The Miss Tillie lurched to follow it, but it was obvious that the old trawler couldn’t keep up.
Doctor Coolidge’s hands tightened on the rail until his knuckles were white, and he said, “Damn” with emphasis. Lonesome Joe used considerably more colorful language as he viewed the remains of the net dangling from the end of the boom. Nobody else said anything as the big engines stopped and the boat slowed to a stop.
“Lost him,” called Captain Eddie from the wheelhouse. “Swingin’ around like a bat all the way down into the canyon, but gone.”
“Still recording,” called Mac Leod.
Coolidge brightened a bit. “Davies, you got that?”
When the other assistant nodded, Coolidge smiled. “We at least have two recordings of a creature never before seen – three, counting your cellphone, Dennis. Four counting the chart recorder, which probably got something. Plus the most amazing fishing story ever about the one that got away.” He glanced toward the stern and shouted, “Joe, don’t touch that net! Might be DNA on the skin scrapings – or rather, whatever that thing uses instead of DNA.”
“Doesn’t everything use DNA?” asked Dennis.
“Every organism we know above the bacterial level uses DNA or RNA. But then, we may have just seen a product of a separate evolution.”
“A space alien?”
“Another evolution on this earth, one that happened a long time ago. The early Precambrian era, before photosynthesis, when algae started producing oxygen and changed the environment. The shift to an oxygen environment wiped almost all the anaerobic lifeforms out – the only ones we know of are viruses and some bacteria, and a few microscopic creatures that live in the depths of the ocean, mostly near volcanic vents. Apparently some larger forms evolved too, and they still live deep where humans couldn’t see them. And now, for the first time in eons, there is a path to the surface for them. A path humans made through stupidity.”
There was silence or a time except for the sound of Lonesome Joe putting the cover back on the winch mechanism. Captain Eddie came out of the wheelhouse and walked slowly over to join them.
“I wonder why it came up here,” he mused. “Searching for food, I guess, or maybe just curious.”
“Perhaps. I wonder, though. Remember the stripe around the creature? I think it was a tool belt, and I think that when we look at your net, we’ll find that it has been cut. As for why it came here, miles above it’s ancestral home? After two and a half billion years in the dark at the bottom of the ocean, I wonder if it’s kind even has legends about the sun. It would be quite a temptation to see if ancient fables are true. There’s a kind of mind that does that.”
“A scientist?” asked Dennis.
“Their environment is changing, and it needs to know why. Perhaps it travels because it can.” Coolidge looked at the storm building in the east, the clouds now visibly angrier. “Nature is about to stir up this water now, make it inhospitable for them down to ten meters or so. We’ll quantify that as best as we may, then head back to shore. And by the way, I’ll pay for a new net, as our new acquaintance seems to have ruined that one.”
Captain Eddie barked a laugh. “I guess I don’t have to worry about him breaking the next one, seeing as how anywhere he can live, the fishing for me is gonna be mighty poor.”
“And do ask your cousin to stock up at the market and ready his boat, as I think that once my institute sees these films, I shall have a budget increase. We can stay out here as long as we need to. We need to know about our new neighbors, because they now know about us. They may send a party to investigate, and we’ll want to be ready to make them welcome.”
Afterword: The same week this story was published, areas of extremely low oxygen were discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, and to everyone's surprise there was life there. Several types of previously unknown worms and crustaceans were found, but no large animals. Subsequent discoveries in other oceans have shown that there may be other places where anaerobic life may have survived for uncounted millennia. I couldn't have known that when I wrote the story, but it was a delightful coincidence that this was in Analog and that was in the news...
This story originally appeared in Analog.