Horla Fiction (January 2022)

 

FOR THE LOVE OF FISH AND BIRD

by GUIDO EEKHAUT

They loved each other as no two creatures may ever have loved. In later years, when all this was over, the myths about the lovers got in the way of the real historical events, but people preferred the myths. There can never be enough myths in people’s lives.

But then, in their own days, people were not amused by their love for each other. It was unfitting, some mused. It was a sin, some sputtered. It was against nature, some muttered. It was a mistake, many whispered.

Because the lovers crossed boundaries. No cultural boundaries, which had been done before. No racial boundaries. Not those of religion or custom, but of species. He was a Bird, she was a Fish.

They met in a traders’ office on New Caledonia, a shabby world at the outskirts of the Known Galaxy, a bit adrift from usual trading routes, were intelligence permitted itself many physical forms. It was a region of high radiation, so Humans seldom ventured there. Birds didn’t care about radiation. Fish had to live in protective suits. They had one reason only to meet: commerce. Humans – and even Builders – avoided the system as much as they could. They used middle-men, of any race or origin. Traders and their agents ruled on New Caledonia. Strict rules were observed. Commerce was saint.

His name was A’aperkoch. He was a Bird. His slender, elongated body seemed made entirely out of feathers. Usually these were chestnut brown. Sometimes they became golden, or dark yellow, depending on his mood and on the time of the day. A’aperkoch had many years behind him as a trader and agent, working mostly for Humans who lived on other worlds. He was experienced. He knew which way the trade-winds usually blew.

Humans liked Birds, because they reminded them of the small, flying creatures on their old planet, a world which had disappeared thousands of years before, leaving only myths and longing. They liked them, but in a somewhat superficial way, as if they were still pets. It worried the Birds, but the subject was never discussed.

The Birds understood the strangeness of Humans. They were complex and haunted creatures, these Humans. Haunted by their past in which they had been alone in the Universe. They had fought violent wars in that past, in interstellar space, and they would fight them again, because they were a violent species. That was their nature. Violent but resourceful. Resourceful but given to melancholy. They had conquered large part of the Known Galaxy, and had only found their masters in the Builders.

A’aperkoch did not like the Builders. Fortunately, there were few on New Caledonia.

*

Belinda was a Fish. When not on a water-world, she had to live in a sort of suit filled with the appropriate liquids. In her case, mostly water. The suit was nothing cumbersome. Just a contraption with headgear that kept her body moist and cool, and provided her gills with oxygen-rich water.

She moved easily on her engineered legs. Even the gravity of New Caledonia proved no more than a nuisance. She wore the emblems of her family and rank. A small artificial brain translated her speech into one of the more common inter-species languages. She was out here for a few loads of minerals. She was not new to the game, but on New Caledonia only for the second time.

The crew of her ship had been transferred to the surface of the planet in a shuttle. The ship itself — nearly twenty miles in length, more an asteroid than a ship, pockmarked and dark — had remained in high orbit, guarded by machines. Soon, other shuttles would start transporting minerals and other goods to the ship’s enormous hull. In a matter of two weeks it would be filled, and ready to depart for her home world.

She had brought machines, ice, kelp and rice to trade. She would get good prices for these. Her trip would make her rich. In a few standard years, she would be able to retire. By then she would be old and brittle. That was the fate of those who travelled through space.

She noticed the Bird sitting on a chair in the office of her agent. She could not read his body-language, but he looked tired. She had seen Birds before. They usually looked energetic on the surface of planets, even more so in space. This one — male, she noticed — looked worn-out. Temporal fixation, perhaps. The plague of his kind, she mused. She did not know Birds all that well. Another planet, another planetary system even.

But then he looked at her. He turned his head and looked at her.

And his feathers turned an impossible gold.

They met again, some days later, at some official occasion, in one of the palaces on the eastern seashore of New Caledonia’s only continent. History has never bothered to record exactly where this happened, and the stories tell only of a deep and slow sunset, waving treetops, and whispering insects.

He was wearing his feathers deeply yellow. She had changed into another suit. Her artificial limbs had been decorated with jewels from the sea. Music played in the background. A fire-eater performed in front of indifferent guests. Little fried creatures were being served to those who ate flesh.

“I am A’aperkoch,” he said. “We met before, but did not converse.”

“There was some chemistry between us, I believe,” she said.

He did not seem uncomfortable by her directness. “I must admit that a connection was made, from a distance. You are here by coincidence?”

“Nothing happens by coincidence,” she replied, admiring the curve of his head, the pure line of his limbs. “We are both traders and have the same agent.”

“Maybe it is a game.”

“Whose game?”

His feathers slowly changed colors. They darkened even more, as the night crept over the horizon. “All games in the Known Universe are played either by Humans or by Builders. Maybe we must be thankful to both.”

“Let us wait until we find out if this is a game, and what sort of game. It may hurt us, as games often do.”

He made a gesture. “We may even call them Posthumans, as some of them do.”

“That may be dangerous. There are several factions that dislike the name most deeply.”

“Danger is inherent to our trade. You live between the stars, as I do. We may, one day, join their commercial forces, even join their way of life. Life is short for us, and often perilous. Let’s exchange experiences.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “The agents might not like that. They prefer us independent from each other and more dependent from them. New Caledonia is not a friendly world.”

“You are a Fish. Your planet is all water. At least I can breathe air. Indeed, you are in more danger than I.”

She let it pass.

 “You must pardon me, if I sound rude,” he said, after a pause. It was, she thought, as if he had sensed her feelings. Things were being said about Birds …

“We both are tense,” she said. “We have responsibilities.”

Music sounded from behind them, through open doors and open windows. Some species danced, gracefully. The music has now been forgotten since, so we don’t know how the dance was performed, but it is told that Belinda liked it very much. “I wonder. Do Birds dance?”

“Of course they do. Usually they do. On certain occasions. But seldom in public.”

“Why not?”

“Because to us dancing is a show of intimate feelings for others. To dance is to invite others to join in these intimate feelings.” He stopped. “Maybe I am not using the right words. This language, which is constructed by and for Humans, is difficult when feelings are concerned. It is a language for technical things and for commerce.”

“We should try other languages. Why not try yours?”

He made a surprised sound in the back of his throat. Then a series of guttural noises. “Was I clear?”

She smiled in a way that she hoped he would understand. “I’m afraid not. We shall have to restrict ourselves to this artificial, Human language. Mine is even more strange than yours.” And she smiled again. In her own, fishlike way.

His feathers turned from deep yellow to a surprising gold.

What did happen later that evening? The myths don’t tell. Nothing much, we may assume. They talked, perhaps light-heartedly, perhaps even in a frivolous way, like creatures do when food and drink are freely available.

*

They met again in a garden, filled with the most ancient machines. “You know,” he said, “we might get involved with one of these old computers. I know of some species who treat them as gods. They do no longer function, these computers, but the belief still exists that they have power.”

She thought this quaint, a Bird who believed such ideas. She had thought Birds to be the most rational of species. She told him of her surprise.

“Nothing more difficult than to distance oneself from the common beliefs,” he said. “Birds are no more rational than other species. We come from a world of slight gravity. I find it difficult to walk on most planets, although I was altered for higher gravities. Look at me, I’m too frail for most worlds! Do you belong on any of these worlds?”

She did not want to respond directly. She did have no clue what direction the conversation was taking her. “Space — and I am talking really Deep Space, between galaxies even — has no room for physical laws. It is incomprehensible to any intelligent species but a few. But even those that do not understand space, are able to travel through it. The Builders gave us that capacity.”

He thought about that for a moment. Then he said: “The Builders have given us many things. One wonders about their motives. We have all been moulded by our own cultures. Moulded and moulded anew. Is it the study of diversity the Builders are after? Or mere commerce, like many suggest.”

“You are speaking of a conspiracy of some sorts?”

“I am merely suggesting an intrigue. It would be dangerous to mention conspiracies here on New Caledonia.”

“An intrigue? Of the Builders? Or the Humans?” She kept the volume of her translator down.

“Strange things happen around the commercial stations of both species. We are always kept in the dark when strategies and long-term planning in concerned. They need us for trade and transport. To our advantage, usually. But we are the ones who forfeit a normal life. We are their go-betweens, who live on a different time-scale.”

“It makes us rich.”

“But our lives lose their meaning. These riches, they lose their meaning. We live for our people’s future, but not for ourselves.”

She knew he was right. In his off-worldly way, to her, he was right.

*

A’aperkoch was invited into the office of one of New Caledonia’s few resident Builders. He found it unpleasant to be in his vicinity, but had no choice. The office was in a large central building, mostly run by Gaunters and other technically mindful species. There were few Builders on the planet, so he wondered why he had the questionable honor.

The Builder was old, that much he noticed. His voice sounded weary and slightly annoyed. Perhaps it was due to the biotranslator. The vat, in which his flesh and mind where kept in isolation, was ancient. “You have been doing commerce with us in the past, A’aperkoch,” the Builder said.

“Indeed, Builder, I have. And to the benefit of the both of us.”

“Of course. Why else would we do commerce? There is an advantage to both of us. But today, we have observed you for entirely different reasons. We noticed your interest in a member of another species. This is intriguing to us.”

A’aperkoch opened his beak.

“No need for explanation,” the Builder said. “It is of no concern to us, this affair. Mere curiosity, that is all. You know we are interested in all sorts of information about other species. If you had been Human, we would even been more interested. Consider the plight of Humans. Their most ancient world has been lost. All its artifacts, its poetry, its philosophy has been lost. Even its memories. We all find delight in this fact. Yes, we do. That way, we can imagine that world more freely.”

“Imagine?”

“Yes, imagine. Like most Humans do. If their world had still existed, they would have restored it, or perhaps not. But they would have had a physical reference for their memories. Perhaps it would have been a dead world. But still it would be there, as a physical reference to their past. But now, all they have is the dream of a forgotten world, which in their minds was a pleasure-garden, a heaven, anything they could hope for, anything they could long for. They are dreamers, these Humans.”

“Yes they are,” said A’aperkoch, wondering were all this would lead to. He had never given much thought to the loss the Humans had to endure.

“You are a dreamer as well, A’aperkoch,” said the Builder.

“Perhaps I am.”

“You are. You dream of unison with a member of another species. You dream of love beyond the limit of your species. Why not, do you say. Why not indeed?”

“We are not at all that different.”

“She cannot breathe the atmosphere that you live in. You can only love her from afar. You will die in water. There is always at least one physical barrier between you.”

“Perhaps,” A’aperkoch said. “We are not that much interested in physical love.”

The Builder was silent.

“Is this all?” A’aperkoch inquired.

“Yes,” the Builder said. “For the moment.”

They slowly walked through the old crumbling parts of the city, where most of New Caledonia’s citizens tried to build an existence. Roads were paved with concrete blocks, houses made out of the same material — which was cheap. Catwomen roamed the streets, looking for food and customers. They wore eclipse daggers under their clothes, so A’aperkoch and Belinda avoided them. Ghants and other races crowded the streets, but avoided the lovers. Stolen glances, impatient whispers. The trickle of spent blood in an alley. Real birds overhead, who were curious of A’aperkoch. He ignored them. Belinda was there, and he had eyes only for her. He didn’t want to tell her about his meeting with the Builder.

A fortune-teller approached them, but finally hesitated. Later he would say, to those who wanted to hear the story of Belinda and A’aperkoch: “They already knew all about their own destiny. There was nothing sensible I could tell them.”

Slowly they walked towards the better part of the city, where diamond towers spiraled in the air and landing platforms were overcrowded. Heads turned. More whispers. They ignored it all, or were unaware. They kept the Builders’ headquarters to their left and walked on, not with anything specific in mind. Her ship would depart in two days time, filled with goods. His ship — on which he was the navigator — would be Out only in two months. They knew that they would never meet again after this.

He told her: “If this is love, it is also our fate.”

Her legs moved awkwardly, as if they were no longer able to carry her emotions. “Why is this? Because we are condemned to travel this immense space, instead of staying on our planet?”

“We would never have met if we had stayed on our own planet.”

“But now: all grief. Because our travels condemns us to remain alone.”

The myths tell us of their passion, and this is probably where that passion began: in the moment when they realized that their love would separate them forever. Maybe they went to find a place where they could consume their love — although this is most uncertain, since they were so different in biology. Maybe they vowed each other eternal love — possible, but fruitless, since eternity is not for living creatures. Maybe they tried to make arrangements, like jumping ship, disappearing in the crowds of New Caledonia, finding another job — but senseless, since they would have been found out by the Builders in no time.

This is were the myths become vague. There was love, of the unconditional sort, of the eternal sort. But everything was against them. In a few days she would be Out There, and he would be Elsewhere. Trajectories in the depths of space seldom cross.

If they actually consumed their love, he might have been surprised by the warmth of her body, for the few minutes out of her suit that she could sustain. She might have been surprised by the softness of his body, had she been able to touch it. In what way this love could have been consumed is impossible to tell: no two bodies may have been more dislike in topography and biology. Only their minds could be matched.

Everything else became fictitious.

Except, of course, time.

And time had become their greatest enemy.

*

Clouds passed over them. She glanced at them through the glass of her helmet. She longed for her ocean. But her ocean was far away. A’aperkoch followed her gaze, understood. He too longed for a world where he could again be what he was: a Bird. Floating in the air, suspended beneath a large balloon, in a slighter gravity than on New Caledonia.

He still hadn’t mentioned his meeting with the Builder.

“At a certain moment,” she said, “we must talk about the future. Maybe we must even talk about the possibility of a common future.”

“It is a strange land, that future,” he said. “Most of it is hidden. It is to be approached carefully.” He was silent for a moment. “We have not even mentioned our past. Who are we, where do we come from? Are we ready for the future?”

She took his hand, awkwardly, in her artificial limb. “There is strangeness between us, Bird, but although we do not share the same biology, we are both intelligent creatures. Our minds work alike. We have both those-that-were-before-us …”

“Parents?” he said, using the Human word.

“Yes,” she said. “Parents. We will have offspring. We were born and eventually we will die. However different we are, we are alike in our hopes for the future and in our pains about the past.”

“It is only our bodies that are different.”

“We can have them engineered to a certain degree,” she said. “I could learn to live outside this suit.”

“You would then cease to be a Fish.”

“I would still be Belinda.”

He seemed uncertain. “This would be most perturbing. That you would cease to be a Fish on my behalf. Perhaps I would prefer to be something else than a Bird.”

She was silent for some time. At last she said: “who I am is not a matter of species, even of gender.”

“Would you even lose your soul, out of love for me?”

She looked carefully at him. His feathers were dull brown now. He had no passion. He seemed withdrawn. O, how she wanted to be able to understand the signs – to look into his soul, even.

“And,” he continued, “do not forget our plight. We, who have abandoned the real planet-bound life, who have chosen to live between the stars, have made this unwritten promise to represent our species. Our life has only meaning when we act in the interest of our species.”

“And so we have lost our freedom?”

“This freedom is a Human thing. It is an illusion. The games Builders and Humans play decide about our lives. Only when we break the vow we took, can we really be free.”

“For love?”

“For love.”

“Even between us, who can only lust after each other, but not become two-in-one?”

He knew that a game was being played. The Builders were playing it. What the game intended, he did not know. He had to doubt everything. He even had to doubt his love for Belinda. And so the myths tell us that he made a decision. Their freedom, he knew, could not endure as long as the game had any impact on them. As long as they stayed together, there would be invisible observers, Builders, Humans perhaps. They could not elope. They could not have themselves rebuild and stay on New Caledonia. Or they would become slaves.

*

She left in a shuttle, but he couldn’t bring himself to take leave of her. No good-byes on the tarmac. No last kisses. No hand-waving at a climbing craft. He hid in his office. She looked out of the small window at the city and the planet.

Several hours later, she emerged in the control-room of her spaceship, her face as hard as the hull of the ship. A burst of conventional energy would put even more distance between them, and a few hours later, at the edge of the planetary system, the lightdrive would separate them forever.

So much the myths tell us.

*

Time ripped through space. A Builder appeared, cocooned in his vat, protected by a force field. Static moved the air around it in little vortexes.

“You knew it was a game,” the Builder said. “Or not. Not a game. More of an experiment.”

A’aperkoch remained motionless. “An experiment? What sort?”

“One where we put two creatures together and we observe them. Maybe they can live together, maybe not. Finally the outcome of the experiment will push at our ignorance, but only just slightly. More experiments are required.”

“More experiments?”

“Yes. That is why we exist. To experiment on the species in this galaxy.”

“To do what, finally?”

“You mean: to what end?”

“Yes.”

“We do not know,” the Builder said. “You seem surprised, Bird? This experiment is so temporally and spatially immense that we cannot foresee its outcome. Maybe it serves no real purpose. Maybe no new physical of psychological laws may be discovered. Does there have to be an end, a solution, a conclusion? Not for us. We do not think that way. We don’t put that much weight on rationality. You have lived far too long amid Humans. You should get rid of their rationality.”

The Builder moved around in his vat. All A’aperkoch could see was ripped flesh and foul liquid. “You cannot use evil means to attain a good end?” the Builder asked. “Is that what you are thinking? Yes, you can. It all depends on how important the good end is. If it’s important for the future of an entire species, you can very well use the meanest of ends. For the survival of an entire species you can very well do anything.”

“Your survival, you mean.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” the Builder said.

A’aperkoch knew there would be no proper answer, even if he would have been so bold as to have posed a question. Nobody knew what the Builders wanted. They had their ballads and their terrible secrets, but other species never got to learn about them. We can only assume the Builders have ballads en terrible secrets. Perhaps they have nothing of the sort. Perhaps they do not even dream.

 

***

Guido Eekhaut lives near Brussels and is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, fantastic and speculative fiction and books for young adults. 

He came to genre literature after discovering the work of Jack Vance at the age of fifteen, and that of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and many others. Later he enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, John Hawkes and Jonathan Lethem.

He started writing short stories in the Eighties, winning several literary awards. A number of his stories have been published internationally. He has written widely for magazines and newspapers.

His first novel, a post-apocalyptic tale The Circle Years, received the Literary Award of the City of Brussels.

After winning the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 with his first crime book, Absinthe, he published nearly a score of books, some regular and traditional crime, others diverging from the genre into the more literary, psychological and speculative fields. He has been shortlisted twice for the Dutch Golden Noose crime awards.

guidoeekhaut.squarespace.com

Title photo credit – David Clode via Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction