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Venomous Lumpsucker

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Venomous Lumpsucker

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Author: Ned Beauman
Publisher: Soho Press, 2022

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)
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A dark and witty story of environmental collapse and runaway capitalism from the Booker-listed author of The Teleportation Accident.

The near future. Tens of thousands of species are going extinct every year. And a whole industry has sprung up around their extinctions, to help us preserve the remnants, or perhaps just assuage our guilt. For instance, the biobanks: secure archives of DNA samples, from which lost organisms might someday be resurrected . . . But then, one day, it's all gone. A mysterious cyber-attack hits every biobank simultaneously, wiping out the last traces of the perished species. Now we're never getting them back.

Karin Resaint and Mark Halyard are concerned with one species in particular: the venomous lumpsucker, a small, ugly bottom-feeder that happens to be the most intelligent fish on the planet. Resaint is an animal cognition scientist consumed with existential grief over what humans have done to nature. Halyard is an exec from the extinction industry, complicit in the mining operation that destroyed the lumpsucker's last-known habitat.

Across the dystopian landscapes of the 2030s--a nature reserve full of toxic waste; a floating city on the ocean; the hinterlands of a totalitarian state--Resaint and Halyard hunt for a surviving lumpsucker. And the further they go, the deeper they're drawn into the mystery of the attack on the biobanks. Who was really behind it? And why would anyone do such a thing?



At a primate research institute in Leipzig, a scientist was caught disabling the surveillance cameras inside the enclosure of an orangutan who knew two thousand words of sign language. He had with him a container of prunes, the orangutan's favorite snack, and upon these prunes suspicion soon fell; perhaps the scientist let something slip under questioning, or perhaps he was seen casting nervous glances at the container. So the prunes were examined, and a pill was found hidden in one of them. Tests revealed that the pill was a 4mg dose of the memory-suppressing drug bamaluzole.

In other words, he was planning to roofie the orangutan.

After the story got out, nearly everyone assumed that the scientist's intentions were sexual, and this became gag material for comedians all over the world. But Karin Resaint, who had once seen this scientist taking part in a panel on animal cognition--who remembered a remark he had made about "unspeakable loss"--understood at once that the scientist didn't want to have sex with the orangutan. He wanted something far more extreme.

SHE WAS READY to put the last of the fish into the air when Abdi came running out on deck to warn her. He pointed north into the dusk. Some time ago, Resaint had noticed on the horizon what she had taken for an isolated storm cloud, the mist tightening as night fell into a knot of heavier weather. But now that it had drawn closer, and she looked again, she could make out the three tall columns at the base of the cloud, like chimneys venting the surge out of the sea. A spindrifter, sailing in this direction. The first she'd seen in all her time on the Baltic.

Her cargo drone was supposed to fly due north. That would take it right into the spindrifter's path, she realized, and it would be lashed out of the air. The storm around a spindrifter was like no storm in nature. It was prodigious not in strength but in geometry. Guillemots and herring gulls, which were unfazed by the most furious winter tempests, got tossed around like waste paper. It was too alien to their wings. And this drone, which most of the time did okay in high winds, wouldn't even know what hit it.

She still had the drone's flight path up on the screen of her phone, so she turned on the overlay that showed other nearby vessels. Abdi pointed out the spindrifter, which on the map was just an anonymous white dot. She bent the flight path so the drone would keep a nice safe distance off to the east.

"Thanks," she said, touching him on the arm. She looked again at the spindrifter's course on the map. "It sort of looks like it's heading straight for us?"

"It won't hit us," Abdi said. "But also it won't care about getting really close. You want to be inside for that, definitely."

In any case, Resaint thought, the Varuna was almost the size of an aircraft carrier, so the spindrifter would probably come off worse in a collision. Which was a pity, in some ways, because she enjoyed the thought of the Varuna getting rent open. Not while she was on board, maybe, but nevertheless this was a ship that deserved to be sunk. That would be a much more productive use of the spindrifter's evening than dazing a few seabirds.

She murmured to her phone, and the drone's rotors began to whirr. It lifted from the deck, trailing four lengths of cable from its underside, until the cables tautened and its cargo heaved up too: a plastic tank that held ten venomous lumpsuckers swimming around in sixty gallons of seawater. The drone continued to rise until the tank was high enough to clear the railing around the deck, and Resaint felt a sacramental sprinkling on her forehead as water slopped out over the side. Then, accelerating gently, like a stork with an especially precious baby in its sling, the drone set off north over the ocean.

The drone would fly about twenty kilometers to the South Kvarken reefs where venomous lumpsuckers gathered every breeding season, and then dump out the contents of the tank. In theory, after finishing her experiments, Resaint could have just lowered the fish over the side of the Varuna and let them find their own way home. They were perfectly capable navigators. But she refused to take the risk. There were so few left. Every one was so precious. Which is why it would have been a particularly shameful mishap if, say, the spindrifter had clobbered the drone so hard that all those fish broke their spines when they hit the water.

"So that's it?" Abdi said. "You are finished?" He was a maintenance technician who sometimes helped her out with her equipment, and they had become friends in her three months on the Varuna. He was twenty-six and she was thirty-two. Every few weeks he went home to Malm.. He had a girlfriend there, a nursing assistant. She sounded okay.

"I just have the rest of the lab to pack up."

"And you leave tomorrow?" He kept his tone flat, hardly looking at her, which of course was the incontrovertible sign of somebody who definitely had no feelings on the subject one way or another.

"Yes." At that moment the Varuna's orange floodlights all came on at once, even though the sky wasn't yet dark. On these industrial ships the lighting was always cranked so high at night that from a distance they looked Christmassy.

"Will you miss the fish?" Abdi said. And then: "Why are you laughing?"

She was laughing because Abdi had used the same brisk tone even for "Will you miss the fish?" as if that was just another automatic pleasantry. "Nobody ever asks me that. Yes, I will. But I hope I can see them again soon." By "them," she meant the species in general--yclopterus venenatus--not her experimental subjects in particular. She'd grown fond enough of those that she would be delighted to see them again, but of course she never would. Their strange secondment in the human world was over.


"Yes. I feel like I've barely begun."

"Wow, okay, so...?"

She didn't reply, but she gave him a little tilt of the head. She knew what he was asking and the answer was yes.

Perhaps even the tilt of the head was a mistake. Never discuss your findings before you submit the report. That was the rule in her field. Certainly not with the client, or anybody who works for the client--and least of all when those findings are likely to be disagreeable to that client. That suited her fine, the not talking, because she had never been the kind of person who could only digest each day with a willing listener as her ruminant organ. And on top of that, she had other, non-professional reasons, reasons nobody knew about, for her interest in the enomous lumpsucker, which made her especially cagey about the whole subject. Even with Abdi.

Officially she was here on the Varuna to evaluate, on behalf of the Brahmasamudram Mining Company, whether the venomous lumpsucker exceeded a certain threshold of "intelligence"--a word so scientifically and philosophically embattled that it was almost useless, churned to mud, but that nevertheless had implications for a company who might want to mine a species' breeding ground. And now, because of that tilt of the head, Abdi could guess what her report was going to say. But perhaps he had already. There had been evenings when he couldn't have failed to notice how excited she was about what had happened in her lab that day. No scientist sat down beaming to dinner because they'd found out that a fish was nothing special.

"Do you want to celebrate finishing?" Abdi said.


Abdi hesitated, searching for ideas. There weren't a lot of ways to cut loose on a mining support vessel. Resaint had a bottle of Absolut in her lab, but Abdi was forbidden from drinking by both his religion and the biosensor Brahmasamudram made him wear on his forearm. Then there was karaoke, which was popular on board. But Resaint was barred from karaoke sessions by her most deeply held beliefs, in the sense that she believed karaoke ought to be a taboo punishable by stoning. "Cake?" he said at last. "We could eat some cake."

The mess did indeed offer a decent kladdkaka, the Swedish sticky chocolate cake. "I think I'm going to stay out here for a bit longer," Resaint said. "It's my last night at sea. I'll see you later, though."

"I'll get you a PFD." Meaning a life jacket.

Resaint waved him off. "I'll be fine." Technically she was supposed to strap on a hard hat just to come out on deck, even though there was no danger of anything but gull shit falling on her head, but in her case the safety manual was never enforced to the letter.

After Abdi had gone back inside, Resaint stood at the railing looking out to the north, the hood of her anorak raised against the wind. The Baltic was one of the filthiest seas on the planet, full of chicken-farm runoff and birth control hormones and even nerve gas from old munition dumps, but from a vantage like this you could forget all that. The last of the sunset had died out of the mist and the sea and sky were both darkening iron. Her drone had already shrunk beyond sight, but the spindrifter was near enough now that she could make out the ridged shape of its rotors, like three gigantic spinal columns scudding over the ocean, and the red warning lights at their tops, fifty meters above the water. She could feel a change in the air, too, the outer touch of the spindrifter's storm.

The plan, originally, had been for a few thousand spindrifters, scattered all over the planet. A spindrifter's rotors looked like masts but were really more like sails, in the straightforward sense that they propelled the vessel forward by getting in the way of the wind. But because they were always rotating at high speed, they could harness that wind in unstraightforward ways, like a tennis ball backspinning off a racket. And as they rotated, they pumped seawater up into the sky, spraying it through a silicone mesh to create a mist of droplets so tiny that a flu virus would have called it a fine drizzle. The clouds that formed around these droplets were softer than usual, more cashmere than cotton wool, and because of this they were also whiter, which made them reflect more radiation from the sun. So with enough of these spray vessels seeding enough of these clouds, you might be able to hold back the warming of the earth.

There had been a lot of excitement about spindrifters, once. Unfortunately, after a bit of testing, they were found to have certain foibles that hadn't been anticipated by any of the computer models. They whisked up these eldritch low-altitude storms, which were of no concern to anyone but seabirds; but they also seemed to interfere with rainfall patterns, even at quite unaccountable distances away. And rainfall patterns had been brutalized enough already. It wasn't fair to put them through anything else. This time they might really lose it.

After that, the excitement dissipated like a fine-gauge cloud, the optimists turned their hearts to some new prospect, and the armada was never launched. But several different outfits had built those early spindrifters--the competition to save the world being some of the bitterest competition there is--and a couple of them closed up shop without ever getting around to taking their prototypes off the water. So there were still about a dozen spindrifters roving the Baltic. Unmanned, self-navigating, powered by the wind, built from almost incorruptible polymers, these ghost ships would just carry on until a rotor cracked or a circuit shorted, which might take decades.

Such were the new fauna of this poisoned sea. No ringed seals anymore, no harbor porpoises, no velvet scoters, no European eels, no angel sharks, and practically no venomous lumpsuckers. But a thriving ecosystem of these faceless pack-beasts: cargo drones and spindrifters and the autonomous mining vehicles that browsed the ocean floor for ferromanganese nodules forty fathoms beneath their mothership the Varuna.

By now the spindrifter was less than a kilometer away. The wind in her face was wet and cyclonic and scouring. She zipped her jacket up to her nose and pulled the cord to tighten the hood. Within a couple of minutes the spindrifter would pass the Varuna, and, remembering Abdi's warning, she knew she ought to go inside. But something had caught her attention.

At the base of the spindrifter, which skated on two hulls like a catamaran, she could make out a white glimmer. She thought of sea fire, the phosphorescent plankton that sometimes shone from the waves at night. But it wasn't that. The light had an artificial hue. Yet it was flickering like a candle flame, and anyway a spray vessel, crewless, had no need for any lights apart from the warning beacons up on its rotors.

And then Resaint realized she'd already waited too long. The storm had arrived.

Copyright © 2022 by Ned Beauman


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