Conservation

Jameson followed Hendricks down the metal stairwell. The structure around them creaked and groaned with the strain. Their footsteps clanked and thudded. The sounds echoed and reverberated through the foundations.

“I thought you’d have gone ultra hippie since we last spoke, with your dreams of peace and love and interspecies cooperation. Looking at this place looks like you’ve gone very corporate.”

Hendricks smiled and said very little. She continued to lead Jameson down into the inner heart of the place.

At the bottom of the stairs, the pair came to a giant double door. Sealed shut. A small electronic panel flickered to the side.

“Blast door, huh? What’re you making? Nukes for—” he made air quotes “The Man?

“You’ll see,” she said. She swiped her ID across the scanner and opened the doors. “I’ve stayed true to my roots.” She gestured to the lab door, which hissed open. Her eyes held his. “Trust me.”

Jameson stared into the clinical workspace. A hum of machinery. Test tubes in racks. Glass vials with organic tissue samples. Liquids bubbled — blue, green and clear. Somewhere, water lapped against a surface. Plinks and plonks of water.

“All right,” he said after a hesitant moment. “But I’m still unsure why you’ve asked for me.” He gestured at the lab. “I’ve got no idea about any of this, I have no clu—”

“Hush.” She silenced him with a single syllable. “I requested you personally.” Hendricks tapped her temple. “You left a good impression back in our uni days. Besides,” she stepped into the lab, “your recent work combating arctic drilling made all of us here at the base a fan.”

Jameson stopped in his tracks. The colour drained from his face. “You know about that?”

Hendricks laughed. “Yes, of course. Don’t worry, we won’t be reporting you to the authorities — we’re on your side!” She winked. “As long as you remain a good boy.”

“I thought nobody knew it was me…”

“We have our ways of finding out what we want to know. We’re rather resourceful. We’re not a government agency, you know.”

That got a small chuckle out of him.

“Ease up, Jameson. Like I said, we’re all fighting for the same causes, here.”

He followed her further into the lab. Her white coat swished about her knees. Jameson eyed the bits dissected animals, splayed open like public flashers. He glanced at — and then away from — the parts of creatures. Removed from their owners, they looked outlandish and alien.

His stomach rolled.

“Are you sure about that, Hendricks? Because it looks to me like you’ve got a god damn butcher shop down here.”

“You said you’d give me a chance to explain.”

“I did. But so far, all I can see is the destruction of poor animals. And you haven’t done much explaining, because I don’t know what I’m doing here.” He picked up a notepad scrawled with jargon. He put it back down and stared at the whiteboard on the wall. Some artist with a pen had depicted several different types of teeth. “Or what you’re doing here, for that matter.”

Hendricks smiled at him, but it didn’t warm his heart. “All right. I’ll explain. And then I’ll show. Sometimes, it’s better to see than to be told.”

Jameson shrugged and gestured about the lab. He had all the time in the world.

“Remember when we were younger, and we were both so adamantly opposed to GMOs?” She shook her head and smiled. Her eyes wandered off, as if in wistful thought. “’Say no to GMO! Say no to GMO!’” Hendricks chuckled. Her crystal-clear eyes pierced him. “I’ve learned a lot since then. Matured.”

Jameson frowned. “Well, if you say so. I’m still not on-board with big pharmaceutical companies like Monsanto or whatever.”

“You don’t have to be. You can separate the science from the corporate machine. Hell, the tech used in the nuclear bomb could have been used for the good of humanity. Science is indifferent to us. It’s the humans that are crap — using the tech for destructive purposes.”

Jameson nodded. “If you say so. I won’t get into a debate about it here and now.”

“Fair enough. But let me say this — we thought that nature and genetic modification were opposed.”

“And you’re gonna tell me we were wrong?”

Hendricks tilted her head back and laughed. “But that’s the thing — we were! Using this technology, we can help save the world. We can protect endangered species. We can use it for conservation!”

Jameson squinted at her.

“You want to protect the planet, right? And all of its wonderful creatures?”

He nodded, arms folded. “I do. But I don’t see how playing god can aid in that endeavour.”

“Then you’ll never succeed. It’s like in sports—”

Jameson wrinkled his nose. “I’ve no interest in sports.”

“Me neither, but just hear me out. In sports, its frowned upon to use performance-enhancing drugs, yes?”

“I should think so.”

“But if everyone is using them but you, you’re at a disadvantage. It doesn’t matter how noble your intentions are, you will lose.”

“You’re comparing your work to illicit substance abuse?”

Hendricks groaned. “Not a good metaphor, I know, but… Listen, when the billionaires of the world are dumping toxic waste into our waters, are choking fish with plastics… We have to fix that, right?”

“Right.”

“But what if there’s no way to fix that? No natural way, anyway? What if it’s resort to the same tech the greedy bastards are using, or lose half the biodiversity of planet Earth?”

Jameson chewed his lip. “O-kay… But remember how much you hated the prospect of animal testing?” He raised a hand to a glass tube, where an eye dangled, optic nerve intact. “I’m guessing you got over those little worries, hm?”

“This?” Hendricks approached the desk. Her glasses slid down her nose with librarian authority. “Oh no, this is ghastly. I hate having to do this.” She leaned towards him. Her voice dropped down to a whisper. “But it’s necessary.”

Jameson guffawed. “Necessary? You sound like the very machine we raged against, 15 years ago.”

“When we need vaccines — against polio, smallpox, or whatever — we test them on ourselves. On a small percentage of the population. We do so knowing full well there might be adverse effects. Because if we didn’t test, then we’d never know. And if we never knew, then ten times the number — no, a thousand times! — would succumb to the disease. It’s for the greater good. And no, don’t quote that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost movie at me, you won’t be the first.”

“That’s what you’re doing here, is it? Something for—” he couldn’t help himself “the greater good?

“Yes!”

Jameson shook his head and sighed. “Just show me what you wanted to show me and then I can get the hell out of your hair. Clearly, we’re not on the same page. I’m not the person you thought I was. And you… you’ve changed. And not for the better, I daresay.”

“Ouch, Jameson. But I think you’ll be eating your words soon enough. Follow me to the pool.”

“Pool? How does that work?” Jameson looked up and around at the support beams of the structure.

“We’re pressurised, down here. A bit like a diving bell.”

The thought made him uneasy, but he’d complained enough thus far. Jameson kept his lips zipped and followed Hendricks to the far side of the lab.

As they passed the various benches and tables, the sounds of water intensified.

“Do you have a mini-lake down here or something?”

Hendricks flashed a wicked grin. “Something like that, yeah.”

In the distance, aquatic ripples reflected light upon the ceiling. The patterns danced and shimmered, gold and turquoise.

“Now, I’m going to have to ask you keep your distance. And the reason will soon be apparent.”

They came to a second door. This one bore the cheerful message of ‘WARNING: TIER THREE CLEARANCE REQUIRED’. On the wall alongside, a glass window looked into the pool room. An aquamarine hue bathed the entire section.

The pool in question was huge. Jameson tried to estimate its size. “How—” he licked his lips “How big is—”

“Forty by forty feet.” Hendricks’ response was prompt and precise. Jameson bet she’d shown this place off to shareholders and investors. He hoped he wouldn’t get the same sales spiel.

Water, underlit by powerful torches, frothed and rippled. A fence bordered the pool on all sides — six foot high. Eight ladders climbed out of the water — two on each length.

Hendricks sensed his thoughts. “Just in case. You can never be too safe.” With that, she slapped her ID to the scanner. “This bad boy unlocks all the doors in this dollhouse.”

An alarm blared, and a red light above the door flashed its danger to the empty lab.

Hendricks barred the door with her arm. “Stay behind me,” she said.

Jameson had no intention of doing otherwise.

“Imagine,” she said, “if humans didn’t destroy other species. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Hendricks didn’t wait for an answer. She strolled over to a raised computer panel on the far side of the wall. “It’s never going to happen. So, instead, imagine if humans couldn’t destroy other species? If those species became stronger, more adapted to this poisoned planet. Became more ferocious, more dedicated to the simple act of self-preservation…”

She tapped a few things on the screen. In the waters below, something began to hum. Hendricks muttered to herself. “Come on, come on, where are you guys? Just one of you, I just need… Ah! Here we are.”

She turned to face Jameson, who continued to gaze into the murk. “This one’s called Brutus.” She tapped a few more buttons and something whirred and clunked beneath the surface.

“Walls are coming up,” she mumbled. “Brutus is baited and content.” She tapped the side of the panel with a nervous finger. “And… he’s in! All right, time to bring our pal Brutus up to say hello. Careful—” Hendricks winked at Jameson “—he bites.”

She smacked something on the screen. The metal grid-work beneath their feet rumbled and juddered. Somewhere, another alarm blared.

“Hendricks!” Jameson’s hands reached for the walls. “What’s happening?”

“Relax, just bringing up a friend from the tank.”

Jameson watched, mouth agape in an ‘O’ of surprise. The waters churned and frothed with mechanical activity. The platform beneath — an aquatic elevator, Hendricks called it — rose.

And it wasn’t empty.

The first Jameson saw of Brutus was his dorsal fin. “My God,” he whispered, as the sleek grey-brown surface kept going.

“No, not god, Jameson. God just made them and then left them to rot under the hateful, white-knuckle grip of mankind. No, this was made by me. And I made him bigger. One and a half times the size of an adult female, more or less.”

He was a big boy. And he was not happy. Brutus thrashed at the waters as he rose. Lifted, it must seem to the fish, by the very hand of God.

Next, his caudal fin at the end of his tail broke the frothed surface. It swished and slashed side to side, in his efforts to free himself.

The bulk of Brutus emerged from the brine like a mountain pulled up from the earth.

“He’s about 3,500 kg.” Hendricks was proud of him. She pulled a face. “It fluctuates, dependent on the time of year, how much exercise he does, how much he eats.”

At last, Brutus’ snout emerged from the foam. Thick and muscular, which narrowed to a point above the jaw. His eye, the size of Jameson’s fist, stared out with a hungry intelligence.

A shiver of recognition rippled through him. An understanding passed between fish and human: I am the predator and you are the prey. Make no mistake about that, ol’ chum.

Brutus’ teeth, ten inches in length, jutted out of his mouth. He had a considerable overbite. He looked, in Jameson’s recoiling mind, like a party-goer with fake vampire teeth.

The shark fought against the elevator, smashed himself against its walls. With each struggle, a shudder vibrated through the skeleton of the structure. Jameson staggered to the wall and threw Hendricks a panicked glance.

“It’ll hold!” she said. “It’s designed to have a bit of give. Otherwise, the whole place would be too rigid and would crack and splinter like a toothpick.”

The thought didn’t do much to ease Jameson’s mind.

“He seems very angry!” Jameson had to raise his voice over the cacophony of the thrashing fish. Brutus kicked up water in frothed-up fountains. The fences were a diamond link mesh. But even if they hadn’t been, the shark’s splashes would have cleared them with no trouble.

In a few seconds, Brutus soaked both Jameson and Hendricks to the bone.

And still, the shark struggled. Jameson watched as the multitude of muscles rippled beneath his sandpaper skin. As his teeth chomped at the thin air in front of him.

They had him contained.

And they were out of the water.

But if those circumstances should change, he had no illusions about what would happen.

“I’m gonna lower him back down!” said Hendricks. “Let him calm down a little!”

Jameson nodded motioned with his hand for her to drop the oversized fish back down into the tank. Back out of view. “Get ‘im outta here!”

Hendricks hit the switch and lowered Brutus back down into his enclosure. A bit too slow for Jameson’s tastes.

After half a minute, the shark was gone from view. Along with the elevator. All that remained was a layer of bubbles on the surface, the brine still fizzing from the fish’s activity. All the surfaces around the pool dripped. Jameson understood why they’d tiled the place with an anti-slip surface.

“Jesus—” he swore and ran a hand through his wet mop of hair. “What the hell was that?”

“It was Carcharodon carcharias. Otherwise known as—”

“I know what it’s also called! What did you do to it?”

Hendricks pushed her glasses up her nose. “I gave evolution a slight nudge, to hurry it up along. If we waited several million years for it to happen of its own accord, we might lose the species entirely.” And then she added: “I’m protecting them.”

Jameson ran a hand over his face. “Christ, I thought you called me up to pull some Prison Break crap for an orca in SeaWorld or something. That’s what I do, that’s what I’m good at. Not this… this… monstrosity.”

Hendricks looked at him as if he’d spat on her mother’s grave. “What did you think we were doing here, hidden away from the prying eye of the government? Feeding goldfish? This shark, this wonder, can survive in polluted waters. Brutus can eat plastic, it doesn’t hurt him. And there’s no chance that fishermen’ll be able to catch and kill him for his fin.” She laughed. “Can you imagine them trying?”

He could. It would be a bloodbath. Jameson started to speak then bit down on his tongue.

“And,” continued Hendricks, “if we’re successful, these’ll be just the firsts of our new Mark Two species improvements.”

He shook his head and rubbed at his temples. After a minute, Jameson spoke once more. “Why the hell did you show me that thing, Hendricks?” His voice was low, quiet. “Why did you bring me here?”

“Because, Mr Globe-Trotting Activist…” She smiled, but the expression didn’t reach her dead eyes.

“You’re going to be the one to distribute them into the wild.”

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