Her: Can fish fly?
Him: Flying fish can
Her: No, I mean proper flying, like over cities and things because …
Him: You gone soft in the head or something?
Her: … Because there’s one going round your chimney
Whether it was the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning, or something else entirely turned out to be immaterial. After a short interlude during which astronomers reported a slight increase in background radiation and sunsets appeared rather more purple than usual, the sky turned green and filled up with fish.
To start with it was mostly shoals of minnows and sardines wheeling and flashing in the sky, or following the main roads way above the traffic like they’d been drawn closer by the air currents. Then it was brown carp, sand dollars, and sea urchins dotting the sky like pin pricks, or dipping down over high rise buildings and getting caught up in the whorls and eddies there before powering off back above the clouds.
Naturally, the major religions sought either to lay blame or to make claim, based on their default positions regarding divine retribution. To whit: who most deserved to cop it for having a rap sheet going all the way back to the Neanderthals, and who could expect to bathe in eternal glory having consistently laid out sets of idiosyncratically derived items in front of equally idiosyncratically derived shrines. Some consequently drew in congregations of glass-half-empties with doom-laden notions of the End of Days, while others garnered the happy-clappies by promoting the more cheery notion of cosmic rebirth; both of which, as it turned out, had some currency.
Science, in the meantime, kept its collective head down while trawling for answers, hypotheses, or anything in fact that would sound convincing and not like the script of a Japanese cartoon where the sushi was about to get its own back. In the interim it had to fend off strident accusations regarding covert experiments with anti-matter at the Large Hadron Collider and suggestions that Hubble was back-projecting the population of a wholly aquatic world from the other side of the galaxy.
Him: Quantum entanglement, I betcha
Her: So that’s what happened to string theory – the cats finally burst out of the internet, took over the universe and tied it in knots!
Him: Ok, so explain me all the fish
Wildlife experts opted out entirely from the awkward explanatories and went with descriptive ethology instead as it was easier on the brain and also made better telly. The fish were very obliging – swirling in vast silvery murmurations high above cities and deserts alike; and people followed them, alerted by a new breed of Shoal-Chasers in large vehicles with satellite dishes on the top. Some speculated with indecent curiosity on what would happen if a particularly large shoal were to meet a particularly large tornado, but of course this had very little currency as there wouldn’t be any more tornadoes. The flights of whales, when they came, were spectacular. Huge creatures the colour of bruises that rolled through the air like silent thunder, accompanied by the roseate flashings of a myriad fleeing krill. RTAs increased, A&E departments filled up with victims of careless perambulation, and a few unfortunates walked off cliffs due to the novel but completely understandable attention deficit disorder.
But quite soon, people stopped bumping into each other or smacking into lampposts and began looking where they were going again, and as nothing untoward seemed to come of the phenomenon, enterprise set about finding ways of monetising it. Big business pre-emptively drew up fishing rights and projected strings of seafood restaurant franchises, while small start-ups worked on developing new technologies such as apps that would predict where the nearest aerial display could be found, to the annoyance of the Shoal-Chasers who had developed their own technology, and added a fair amount of redundant but theatrical bravado to spice up their role. Conversely, the gaming industry abandoned screen apps and went boldly for a revolutionary new goldfish bowl headsets design plus wearable fins for zapping targets, the hordes of enthusiasts providing diversionary amusement or minor annoyance by bursting into shops shouting, ‘Guppy!’ Calls of ‘Viviparous eelpout!’ on the other hand, could result in an AR twitcher stampede as these carried maximum points, so it was wise to have some knowledge of ichthyological taxonomy handy.
Unsurprisingly, coteries of enthusiastic movie directors, spotting opportunities for high-end visuals without need of expensive CGI units, got going on dramatisations ranging in style from the Kafka-esque, which nobody understood any better than the reality, to predictable epics featuring an archetypal hero stoically but amusingly risking life and limb to meet the creatures aloft and bring back the message that only humanity could save them. This narrative had no currency at all.
As more new species appeared, many of the smaller varieties began seeping further and further into the lower atmosphere to occupy street-level spaces; forming haloes that danced around people’s faces and shimmered above their coffees, quite unexpectedly boosting the market for 3D TVs. So many were there that they began to block out the sun despite being intangible – a fact determined by a sky diver who made it his mission to jump onto the back of an orca. With his eyes shut and his parachute open, he braced himself for landing only to find himself still travelling downwards with nothing but a vague feeling of internal molecular discombobulation to report at the end.
Him: Told you, holograms
Her: From where?
Him: You wait, it’s Moore’s Law and something really big’s coming
It was. One Saturday afternoon the thrashing tail of a sperm whale took the top off The Shard in London and the air was suddenly full of falling debris and raucous sirens. The media went into a meltdown of recrimination over whose fault it was that no one had seen this coming, and a plethora of badly-phrased petitions appeared demanding a government debate about it.
It was a game-changer and caused a groundswell of unease, even though it had happened at a weekend when there had not been full occupancy and there were only two fatalities. What had been insubstantial had become undeniably less so and was therefore no longer an entertainment but an obvious Health and Safety risk which had to be put a stop to. There was also now the problem of waste disposal which, in the case of whales, was not inconsiderable. On the plus side, sales of golf umbrellas rocketed.
Her: Your hologram just pooped on the Palace garden party
Him: Didn’t it just – splatt-er-ooo!
Her: Shouldn’t laugh …
Him: Prince Philip though …
Also not inconsiderable was the next group of fish to arrive. Deep sea denizens, ugly as sin and prone to dangle their lures anywhere small creatures might be found. Kittens, baby squirrels and meerkats of any age were most vulnerable because they were unfailingly drawn to the dangling doo-dad, and the internet was soon full of vimeos featuring cute animals pursued by, or beating the bejabbers out of, gross predators with cavernous mouths that left little room for a brain. The smaller ones, that was. The larger gross predators were even more alarming to look at and so, dubbed Hell’s Angel Fish and forming the inspiration for cartoons featuring humpback anglers on amphibious bikes, they were largely left to their own devices. Being ponderously passive hunters, they actually only managed to snare drunks and adrenaline junkies, which seemed something of a public service.
Further unease bordering on slight panic came as the expansion of species in both numbers and locations accelerated. Aquatic life appeared deep in the mines and places where scientists were trying to trap neutrons; interfering with machinery by growing on it, dissolving it, absorbing it, and spitting bits of it out in useless molecular configurations. And passengers off on holiday in high flying jets began to find clown fish and muddy-looking sticklebacks in their drinks. Everyone wanted a Nemo, apart from small boys who almost universally coveted the Blob Fish, and people pretended to drink them while taking selfies. This practice halted with the advent of piranhas, at which point a class action suit was taken out against a major airline company.
Politicians variously blamed other countries, denied they had a problem, or tried to sell the whole shebang as a unique tourist attraction before finally recognising the basic Gestalt of their situation – that the whole was very definitely greater than the sum of its parts and that its parts were no longer confined either to their particular patch of sky or even to the sub-troposphere but included actual space. North Korea claimed to have had its suspiciously unannounced moon lander, which it said was equipped with nuclear missiles pointed directly at the West, knocked off course by a school of porpoise, which it further claimed were quite obviously American. This was dismissed as egomaniacal bandwagoning, although the porpoise thing sounded about right. But then a coterie of jellyfish, part of a large bloom orbiting in the same plane, was spotted bobbing about next to the International Space Station. The astronauts had already reported that their docking hatch was occupied by a large Grouper and did Houston have any ideas for shifting it?
A net, Houston? Why would we have a net?
You want us to break out the planaria experiment and hang them on the end of the payload arm? Because why, Houston?
They’re worms and it’s a fish? You all city boys down there, Houston?
Speculation as to why all this was happening (the how would have come further down the line had there been time) ran from a collision of mirror universes, through disturbances in cosmological dark matter, to Pisces getting stuck in the ascendant due to Pluto’s confusion about its status as a planet. Some proposed it to be a bit of fancy footwork devised by Google to market its next generation of augmented reality wearables, and Facebook began to run ads for goggles based on poorly spelled searches.
But they were all way off track, as evidenced by the emergence of a supposedly mythical leviathan from the Mariana Trench at such force that it reached escape velocity without ever troubling a city’s skyline. Unfortunately, there was no time then for the kind of moment the film industry had led people to believe they might have at the end of the world – not revenge, not a wild time in a casino, not even a cryptic quip – because it involved the earth demagnetising its core, cracking open its crust, and discharging a large volume of green fluid into earth orbit.
The earth then collapsed in on itself, giving rise to a starless gap resembling a sink hole down which the returning tidal flow began to drain. Any interested observers would have been intrigued to see that it did not swirl to the left or to the right, just plunged on through, behaving more like a broken drainpipe than a plug hole. As it did so, taking with it anything that had so far survived, which was mostly the brainless doo-dad danglers and those maggotty shrimps that hang out around deep sea fumeroles, a small creature – astronomically speaking – unfurled itself in the newly created space and announced its arrival with a massive multi-spectrum burp. An answering call from the Crab Nebula would eventually cause a scientist on Tau Ceti C (not their name for it, obviously, but even Klingon doesn’t come close) to write Wow! for a second time on his computer printout, before nipping outside to see if any more peculiar stuff had shown up in the sky since his shift started.
First published in Coastlines: stories and poems from West Sussex Writers. 2017, Rumian Publishing.