Art Pact 263 - Shallow Talk

At the edge of the beach, staring up at the land, stood a heavily-armoured fish. It was lying in the shallows, huffing air over its gills and trying to breath. The air was incredibly cold, and every time the fish gaped its mouth it felt a shock of ice passing through its mouth and throat. It was unsure whether the air was doing anything for it - it was still alive, but every minute or so a larger wave washed up the shore, pushing warm water over it.

"Is it working?" called a voice from further out.

"Not sure," gasped the armoured fish.

It shifted awkwardly from side to side, evening out the pressure on its fore-fins. Its actual fins were splayed out on the sand, the weight of its body (not inconsiderable) taken by the heavier bones further up the limbs. It flapped its tail, pushing it a few millimetres further up the sand. It had been doing this every so often for the last few hours, pushing itself an infinitesimal distance with each Herculean effort, and it had got far enough that most of the time only the tip of its tail was in the water. The further it went, the harder it became to move one still further. It knew that there should be some way it could move its tail to press against the sand, but it could not figure out how to do that and stay upright on its fins.

"You're still alive, right?" called the voice.

"Yeah, I'm still alive."

"How about you call it a day and come back?"

"No, I think I'll stay out here a while. You go on, you know? Don't bother waiting for me."

"It's all good," said the voice. "I'm not needed anywhere else, not in a hurry, you know? I can just wait here for you to get back. Take your time."

"Oh, I will. I mean, really. I might never come back, do you understand? So if I'm not back in-"--it tried to calculate how long it could stay out of water if the trick with the air didn't work. The answer was depressingly low. "If I'm not back in an hour, say, you can assume I'm gone."

"Okay," said the voice. "If you're not back in an hour I'll just swim away. I'll be gone, so if you come out here and you want to find me for whatever reason, you'll have to come looking for me. I won't be here any more, so..."

Lying bastard, thought the armoured fish. It considered its options. First of all, it could give all of this up as a bad job from the start. Just swim back out to where the voice was and accept that whatever was going to happen was going to happen. Second, it could continue its futile struggle up the beach and asphyxiate. Third, it could do the most likely thing, the thing it expected of itself and it was clear that the voice expected of it: it would hold out as long as it could, then turn around and swim back out to sea in the full knowledge that the voice wasn't gone, that the voice was in fact hiding under a rock somewhere nearby, waiting to tear the fish to shreds the instant it came back. Not the most appealing of outcomes. In fact far from it - probably the least appealing. The fish itself had attacked and eaten many other fish in its time, and although it felt no guilt about it, it was aware enough to know that it had not been exactly a pleasant experience for its victims. There had been thrashing about. There had been blood. There had been anguished cries for mercy from the food-fish, and terrified yelling and farting from the food-fish's relatives and shoal members. Altogether an unpleasant experience if viewed from the perspective of the killee rather than the killer. The thought of beaks or teeth or whatever it was the voice had at its disposal for the rending of flesh was enough to make the armoured fish shudder violently with horrid anticipation.

Still, the fish had had a good life, it thought. It would have liked to have spawned a little more, but then didn't everyone think that? That was the purpose of life, after all, and it would have been ridiculous to think that it was somehow above everyone else. No, it was just a fish, doing what fish did. Swimming, feeding, spawning, and then, eventually, dying. There was no way to escape that fate, any more than there was a way to fly up into the air and out of the world altogether.

As if mocking the fish, a black dot zipped past a foot above its head. It stopped, well out of reach, flapped a set of complicated-looking wings each smaller than the smallest fin on the fish's body, then zipped away along the beach before the fish could react.

"Bugger me," said the fish, staring after it. A thought crossed its mind. Perhaps there was a way out of this, after all. "Hey!" it called out. "You still there?"

"Yes, I'm still here," said the voice.

"Okay, good. I'm after some advice."


"Advice, you know? I'd like your opinion on what to do. Should I stay out here, or should I come back? I mean, it's a long way up to the top of the beach, you know? A long time. I'm not sure I can make it. But I mean, it's worth it, right?"

Sometime long - a tail, a tentacle? - breached the surface a little way out into the bay and slapped down again violently, flicking up a little spray of water.

"You want me to decide for you?" said the voice, coming from roughly the same place where the unidentified limb had appeared. The armoured fish wondered whether it was a threat - it was a pointless threat if it was, of course, since there was nothing at all appealing about the idea of returning to the bay to be eaten.

"Well, I don't know about decide. But I mean, if I come back there, I'll somehow feel that I've failed. But on the other hand, the chance of me succeeding in getting up the beach seems pretty low. It's failure to the front of me, failure to the back of me, right? I need to know whether the risk is worth it. Actual failure or psychological failure, right?"

"I suppose so," said the voice thoughtfully. "I mean, you can always think of it not as failure, but as a stepping stone to a greater thing, right? You can know whether the approach you took was good or bad, you can refine your approach, think about things, what to try on your next attempt, right?"

The armoured fish knew that it would not be getting a next attempt. But the voice, it thought, must be assured of its success.

"I guess," it said. "I mean, that makes sense. I come back out there and regroup, and work out how I could have done things differently. I mean, I suppose I would have stopped that thing from laying eggs in me, for instance."

"There you go- wait, what did you just say?"

"Oh, there was a thing - like a little animal, actually up in the air. It came down on my back a minute ago, I'm pretty sure it laid some eggs back there. I'll come back in and then everything will be fine, right? There won't be any problems with my back, will there? No problems that you know of?"

"I'll - uh, I have to go," said the voice. "Good luck with that!"

Limbs flailed out of the water and pushed out to sea quickly. The armoured fish waited a few minutes, then began to turn itself back to the waves.


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