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The Kiss of the Gill Fish
The Kiss of the Gill Fish
by John David Rose
Iaera snaked in and out of the kelp bed, a flourish of curves and muscles. Even with the aquatic gear, Lorcan struggled to keep up. He fired his water jet and shot forward like a brick, while she swam from side to side like an underwater butterfly. He marveled at her nearly naked body which he caught glimpses of through her train of long brown hair. Obviously, she wasn't affected by the cold the way he was. Lorcan couldn't help but wonder at the diversity of the human race.
"Watch there," she signed to him and pointed to one side of a large rock formation. He readied his camera as she swam off in the opposite direction around the hulking mass and disappeared into the darkness. As he waited listening to the mechanical click of the diaphragm in his rebreather, Lorcan felt a pang of claustrophobia. Moments later she flushed out her quarry, the rare Steller ursinus, or whale-bear. At first it bolted into the open, and Lorcan, surprised, thought he would miss his opportunity. But it wasn't completely spooked, and after a moment, lumbered to rest in the kelp. Sure enough, Lorcan could make out the symbiont covering the muzzle of the beast, an air bladder on either side of its neck. Lorcan almost forgot to record; the whole thing was much larger than the one attached to Iaera's face.
When Lorcan's branch of the human family tree discovered their cousins on Steller's Planet, they had already been there for 3000 years. The first immigrants left old Earth the same time Lorcan's people had, both fleeing an overpopulated and dying planet. They spread out into the galaxy, gambling everything on one-way generation ships looking for any habitable planet.
95% of Steller's Planet is covered by water. And it was inevitable that humans would take to the seas. They made what changes they could to prepare themselves for their new world, but what really secured their survival was a single stroke of luck, the discovery of the mammalian whale-bear and its symbiont, the gill fish.
Iaera ran her fingers through Lorcan's hair. He involuntarily winced, but then looked at her apologetically and smiled. It was good to be out of the wetsuit, breathing fresh air. The awkward sound of the exhaust of hydrogen from Iaera's gill fish reminded him that she wouldn't be able to stay long. He was seated at a console and bringing up the footage he had shot of the ursinus. As it started, she let out a muffled squeal of excitement.
"Will I see myself too?" she asked, speaking instead of signing. Lorcan had her repeat the question. As an anthropologist and a polyglot, he prided himself on being able to master a language quickly. But even after months he still struggled. The primitive ceremony of placing a young gill fish on the face of a newborn fascinated Lorcan. How could it be anything but traumatic? Over time the gill fish integrated itself into the human face. Human lips and the skin and cartilage of the nose atrophied. Bilabial and labiodental sounds like p and f which required lips to make were absent from Iaera's language.
"Yes. There," he said pointing at the screen. There she was in the background watching the ursinus with triumph in her eyes. Lorcan felt embarrassed as the ursinus fell out of frame and the camera auto-zoomed in on her.
Iaera's arms folded around his neck and she hugged him close with excitement. "Wonderful," he heard her say as the mouth of the gill fish opened near his ear.
Gill fish was a misnomer. In its symbiosis with the ursinus the gill fish evolved the ability to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. Much like the mechanical rebreather that Lorcan used, the gill fish scrubbed the air exhaled by the ursinus of carbon dioxide, and replaced oxygen. And since the ursinus had to pass its prey through the mouth of the gill fish to reach its own, they shared food as well.
"You should go back." he said with concern, pulling her arms from around his neck. There was some danger of the gill fish drying out in the air-conditioned base. She pressed her lithe body against his and ran her finger along his upper lip. Instinctually his hands encircled her waist and he pressed his forehead against hers.
"Come with me," she signed. There was a pleading look in her eyes and then something seductive. He knew she meant forever. He heard the mouth of the gill fish gasping and gently he pushed her away.
"I have work," he said, still shaken by her closeness.
Lying in his sterile bed, Lorcan plugged in, dropped into REM sleep and awoke in a virtual dream. There he stood before the Temple to Camelopardalis and there Philomena waited in white robes, only her face exposed. They saluted. Long ago, in another corner of the galaxy, the real Philomena had been his mate. In a sterile laboratory, they had watched as their comingled DNA was programmed to produce a single perfect offspring. In all their time together their skin never touched. This was not her, only a virtual representation, programmed to give him comfort.
"Have you presented her with the proposal yet?" she asked.
"I don't know if she can understand the consequences." Lorcan allowed himself a moment of arrogance. "They are so primitive."
"But she will learn and see so much, maybe even old Earth. The exchange will benefit everyone."
He looked at Philomena's lips and wondered what they felt like.
Lorcan ached. "This is goodbye?" Iaera signed. He realized she would never understand the rejection. She touched his forehead with hers and leaned in to brush his lips with the gill fish. For a moment he let her. Her village would send someone else to work with him now. She would return to her people under the sea, and remain forever. Someday he would return to his people too, but remain forever alone.
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