issue 8

In Lieu of Natural Habitats, by Brian Hugenbruch

“Papa,” the little girl asked him, “why is the ocean sideways?”

It was a good question. Fortunately, Brennan had done his research well in advance of promising his daughter a trip to see the mermaids. He kneeled down to her eye level and took her hand. “Aoife, they made this ocean sideways to help creatures grow in it.”

He looked askance at the gargantuan wall of saltwater. There was no way to replace the oceans of the homeworld, but the terraformers had done their best: a vertical ocean cities wide and kilometers tall, held in place by suspensors and powered by solar panels running up each corner. His grandfather had shown him holos of aquariums—little lakes inside their houses—but this was several orders of magnitude greater: an aquarium gone world-sized.

“Why?” Aoife was seven rotations old, and this was her favorite question.

“Because we lost all our old oceans, back on the homeworld.”

“Because we didn’t clean up after ourselves?”

“That’s right, sweetie.”

“So where did we get the fish from?”

Brennan rubbed his fingers on the bridge of his nose. Did they teach genetics in primary school? “We grew them,” he said. “Like fruit. It’s more complicated than that; we have recipes and ingredients for everything that ever swam there. So maybe it’s more like baking.”

Aoife nodded solemnly. “How many creatures are in there?”

“Millions,” Brennan said promptly, “all of different types. It’s like a wildlife preserve—we mean for it to feel just like the old oceans did. The creatures wouldn’t be happy if we gave them something they couldn’t use! So now there are lionfish, and sharks, and mermaids, and whales, and sea-plants, and glow-in-the-dark fish…”

“Bioluminescent,” Aoife corrected him.

“That’s right,” he said, smiling. “Bioluminescent.” Then he tousled her hair; she giggled and tried to squirm out of the way. “But hey, you wanna go see the top? There’s an elevator made of glass, it’ll take us up and down and through the ocean, so we can see all the fish.”

But something else had caught his daughter’s attention. “Papa,” she asked, “why’s there trash on the bottom?”

He followed her finger toward a spot near the bottom of the vertical ocean. “Let’s go look.”

They walked hand-in-hand until they were standing next to the enormous block of water. Aoife looked upward, momentarily distracted by the immensity of it. Brennan felt his stomach clench a bit; he’d been part of the crew that had set up those suspensors, so he knew precisely how well they worked. Barring a world-wide power-outage, they’d hold the ocean up forever. But it didn’t prevent that momentary What If panic.

While the bottom did mimic the deeper portions of the homeworld’s ancient seas, the twin suns above added more light than any dwellers of the deep might have found—at least here on the outer skin of the habitat. And sure enough, there was a half-eaten sandwich and wrapping paper near the edge. Close enough that he could pluck them out—but that would crush his hand under an immense amount of pressure.

He caught Aoife’s reaching hand before she found that out for herself. “Careful, kiddo; ocean’s heavy.”

She looked up at him with wide eyes. “So why is there garbage in it?”

He kneeled down again and took a deep breath. A litany of excuses leaped to mind: the wind up top pulled it, a boat several kilometers above them was jostled, something to make it an accident. But he owed her more truth than that.

“People forget, sweetie. They see a new ocean and forget how hard it was to make this one. There are rules and laws against this stuff, but that doesn’t stop some folks.”

“Are they bad people?”

“Usually not. Just careless.”

Aoife smiled up at him. “I’ll be careful,” she declared. “I’ll be the most careful ocean-person there is.”

She might well be, at that. Her brothers had flitted from interests like minnows, but Aoife had sunk her teeth into the sea early. It might well stick. “I don’t doubt it,” he told her. “Would that everyone was careful.”

“… Papa?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Who’s that lady?”

He turned around and took an involuntary step back. A merwoman had swum down to collect the wrapper and the sandwich. For all their talk of merfolk, he hadn’t expected to see one today—they kept to themselves, in the innermost parts of the ocean. Most had voted to stay in the homeworld, knowing the humans were leaving in ruins. The ones that volunteered to travel remained wary of them. With reason.

The lady froze when she made eye contact with the little girl … and then smiled gently. Her hair billowed a bit in a current he couldn’t see, but felt like a phantom wind.

“Her teeth look sharp,” Aoife said.

“I think she’s a friend,” Brennan answered, patting his daughter’s back. “Unless you drop your sandwich.”

The merwoman shook her finger at them … and then picked up something else. It looked suspiciously like a boot. And in it—

He turned his daughter away. “Let’s go see about that elevator, huh? I bet if we hurry, we can beat the line. And the whales should be coming out near the top soon. Would you like that?”

Aoife, oblivious, whooped and took off toward the pavilion.

Brennan followed, gritting his teeth. He could feel the merwoman’s eyes boring into his back; he did not turn around. That pit in his stomach, What If, grew deeper. But he knew how oceans worked. And he’d explain the high price of carelessness to her later. The homeworld was a long time ago. Humans did their best to live in newfound harmony, but the oceans had learned from their past mistakes.

Rules and laws were fine… but she would need to be extra-careful. So would they all. This ocean was defended.

Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter. He enjoys fishing (but only in video games) and drinking Scotch (but only in real life). No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.

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