New Decameron Sixty-One: Mike Allen

May 15, 2020


Blue Evolution

By Mike Allen

The dark blue sea stretched to the horizon, flat as a drum skin, calm as the dead, a tinted mirror reflecting the cloudless sky.

Parrish, a beanpole-thin biologist, bellowed from the crow’s nest, “They’re coming! Dozens of them!”

Asad leaned on the forecastle railing, squinted past the bowsprit, seeking in vain whatever hints of motion spurred Parrish’s alarm. Beside him, Dishita adjusted her goggles. She sucked in a sharp breath. “Hundreds,” she whispered.

Asad’s heart kicked double bass thunder. With a deep breath he turned to stare down the gun barrel pointed at his head. “Listen, this situation has gotten--”

Dishita spoke over him. “You have to let us get the instruments, or we’re all going to die. Our crew, your crew, all of us.”

The double-pommeled gun was extraordinary, the being that held it even more so. The depths of its obsidian body possessed a translucence that broke light into prismatic flows, as if rainbows pumped through its bloodstreams. It had four legs that splayed out from its torso like the legs of a bar stool, and four arms crowned with eight-fingered hands, two of which gripped the exotic weapon aimed at Asad and Dishita.

Its face a mask of crystal facets, its long eyespot shining crabapple green, the Pirate King irised open the coppery aperture it used for speech. “I detect no threat.”

“Go to the rail and look down, then,” Dishita snapped. Though the King did not react, Asad winced at her provocation. That strange bellows-like gun had turned Dr. Jensen, owner of the vessel, into an avalanche of slate blue slag, his remains scattered across the deck like someone had overturned a wheelbarrow full of colored gravel.

The King’s mercenary crew, some four legged and iridescent like itself, some more humanoid if not exactly human, all carried similar weapons. For every one of the nine still-living expedition members aboard the Argonautilus, there were at least two pirate invaders. Epperly, their blond, nervous nanobiologist, knelt beside the wheel with his eyes shut, the guns of his two guards pressed against each of his ears in a dictionary definition of overkill.

The gleaming golden Argonautilus need not have taken the shape of an antique sailing ship. Dr. Jensen could have directed his engineers to press combinations of buttons that rendered the vessel into a streamlined yacht, or a hovering hydroplane, or a gaudy amber submarine.

Disconcertingly, Jensen chose the sailing ship shape, citing how it would look in drone footage and social media posts as it gleamed on the surface of the Dream Sea, with no regard for how it might impede the scientific mission, an especially frustrating development for Asad, who signed on in hopes of escaping the grotesque commercial ambition that infested the lab where he used to work.

In what Asad could only process as a cruel cosmic joke, seconds after the Argonautilus emerged from the hyperdimensional hole in sailing ship form, the pirate vessel emerged right above it and rained pirates like hatching spiders onto the golden deck.

Asad had assumed they were here to steal the Argonautilus itself, or the precious treasures it transported, the “instruments” Dishita had so rashly revealed to the Pirate King. But the pirates displayed no interest in either, not so far.

Above them, Parrish screamed, “We need to go below decks!”

“Kill that one,” said the Pirate King.

“No!” Dishita sprang in front of Asad, a head shorter than him and sixty-four times fiercer. “He’s right. We all need to get inside the ship. All of your crew, too!”

Motion past the starboard rail snagged the corner of Asad’s vision. He turned his head. At once Dishita’s death-defying panic made absolute sense.

In the distance, a tower-like structure rose from the waters, colored the same deep blue hue, as if the ocean extended a finger into the air to test the direction of the wind. Asad couldn’t precisely gauge the dimensions of this sudden column—perhaps the size of a ten-story office tower, taller than any building in the Midwestern American town where he’d grown up. Points of glitter appeared on its surface, studding the tower base to tip with windows of all colors, irregular ovals all illuminated from within, dark spots at the centers in the shapes of diamonds, portholes, stars, symbols of infinity. Eyes, more than any living creature could ever need, staring in every direction.

The column continued to ascend from the depths, soon taller than any skyscraper Asad had ever seen.

Other massive blue columns breached the ocean surface, eye mosaics opening on exposure to the atmosphere. Five of them surrounded the ship, as if a titan’s hand reached up from beneath, poised to close fingers into a fist and pull them under. Asad’s mind spun faster as the illusion dissipated, the blue columns of multicolored eyes extending up and up, their proportions that of giant sequoias, then larger still. Dozens more surfaced, transforming the sea into a fast-sprouting forest. Water bulged portside within fifty meters of the Argonautilus as another creature emerged. This close its diameter was wide as the ship’s length from prow to stern.

“The panopticons,” Dishita said softly. “That’s what Jensen called them.”

How many fathoms deep did these creatures stretch? If one followed them down in a submersible, would they turn out to be the pseudopods of a single inconceivably vast creature? The inane tumble of questions stalled Asad from taking action. He wondered how Dishita had spotted them at all, goggles or no, as their epidermides so perfectly matched the ocean blue, and he wondered how he’d noticed nothing, as they were soimmense, the inhabitants of the ship mites by comparison.

The pirates, too, had gone still. None had acted on their King’s command to kill Parrish.

He contemplated tackling the King, wresting that gun away. By no means was he helpless in a fight, he’d enlisted in the solar navy to escape his tiny hometown, been lucky enough to serve in years of relative peace, plunged straight into collegiate science after his discharge.

He concluded that if he attacked, he would die instantly. Instead he tried for reason, astonished he could string together words at all, adrenaline and panic making him a motormouth. “The owner of this ship told us all about these creatures, and he was the biggest expert on them that there ever was, but now that he’s gone our crew is the best equipped to deal with them because of what he tried to teach us. See, their ancestors used to be human-size, and even sort of human-looking, but they weren’t like us at all, not biologically, and they were intelligent, mean-tempered, cruel, always slaughtering each other but not to extinction, practicing this horrible self-inflicted natural selection, and time passes differently on this sea, much faster compared to other seas, so every time an expedition visited they’d find the inhabitants evolved by hundreds of years, and they’ve evolved even more now because in the records from the last expedition they weren’t this big--”

The King interrupted. “What did you say they were?” Nice to know a being that fearsome-looking could betray befuddlement.

“We have equipment on board and procedures we’re trained for that will protect us, all of us, but you have to let us do that work, you have to or we’re all going to die. Keep your guns on us if you want or whatever, but you have to let us move.”

Parrish shouted, “Oh my God, what are they doing?”

The Pirate King aimed its green gaze at the sky. The pirate vessel still hovered up there, its somewhat ludicrous design an amalgam of muscle car and teapot. The panopticons, a living nightmare city of blue flesh and prismatic eyes, had reached and surpassed the vessel’s altitude.

The vessel blasted a bolt of green plasma from its spout, into the nearest panopticon. The substance of the creature wavered and wobbled in the vicinity of the impact, and a multitude of eyes blinked out, but otherwise it didn’t react. No, wait, it did—the eyes on the side facing the vessel all brightened.

“Tell your crew to stand down!” Asad shouted, his words drowned out by the noise of the pirates’ next attack. The vessel fired again and held the new beam steady, trying to slice through the panopticon like a monofilament through a tree trunk. The creatures immediately behind the target bent their ponderous stalks to avoid the energy beam. Their eyes, too, glowed most intensely in the direction facing the pirate vessel. None of that was as extraordinary as the manner the intended victim employed to avoid the strike.

It—and thus all of them—had to be made of many smaller, independently mobile globs, a colony creature. Those globs pressed out of the way as the green beam swiped through, creating a hole through the panopticon’s body that moved at the same speed as the beam, so that the beam passed through without touching flesh. The eyes around the moving hole grew brighter and bigger, their inner light shifting to the same green hue.

Asad couldn’t tell if the panopticon somehow reflected the pirates’ own attack back at them, or spontaneously synthesized identical weaponized energy. The results made the question moot: the cluster of huge green eyes fired a volley of the same green blasts into the pirate vessel and cut it to pieces.

As the pieces fell, more eyes down the panopticon’s length transformed and repurposed, pupils bulging open, sprouting teeth, snapping forward like heads of snakes to capture and devour every bit of the destroyed ship and the remains of its crew. Within seconds, the vessel had vanished.

Dishita stepped in where Asad had gone tongue-tied. “If you don’t let us get the instruments, that will happen to all of us.”

The eyes of the panopticon closest to the Argonautilus began to glow brighter.

The King lowered its gun so the barrel pointed at Dishita’s face. The iris of its speech orifice rapidly expanded and contracted. “You will show us where the timefire hybrid parcels have been hidden. Do this and I permit you to defend us.”

“Timefire--” Asad exclaimed, or started to. They had nothing so dangerous on board, not on a mission like this. But Dishita put a hand over his mouth. “I’ll show you,” she told the King. “I need Epperly and Nguyen with us.” She pointed, indicating which crew members she meant. “You too, Asad.” The King didn’t budge. “Come with us and monitor us if you must.”

The King inclined its head. Dishita took that as permission to proceed. With a release of breath, Asad followed. The King trailed right behind him, its footsteps a disconcerting arrhythmic clacking, multiplied as other pirates joined them.

Asad feared to whisper because he didn’t know the acuity of the King’s hearing. As they took the stairs belowdeck, the King still topside, he risked it. “Who told you we have timefire?”

“Not now,” Dishita said. He heard her clearly, though she didn’t turn her head.

The unfortunate Dr. Jensen had given himself old fashioned captain’s quarters in the bow of the Argonautilus. Dishita led the entourage of armed pirates and prisoners all the way to Jensen’s door. “It’s in there. Asad, can you get it open?”

“Yes,” Asad said, angry she had just revealed him as keeper of the codes.

“There’s an object in there that looks like a vintage iron safe, but that’s not what it is at all. It stores the timefire. Show them where it is.” She turned to the King. “We can’t afford delay. You have to let us get the instruments right now. Send guards with us if you don’t trust us.”

The glowing line of the King’s eye oscillated as it made an assessment. “I will go with you.” One of the pirate crew, its physiology similar to the King’s, but with a pink glow to its eye and only three legs, shifted closer, jabbed its gun in Asad’s back.

“Down to the cargo hold,” Dishita said, and the rest of the party withdrew, leaving Asad alone with Pinkeye (in Asad’s mind the obvious nickname).

Instead of one large iris for vocalizing, Pinkeye had three small ones, and when it spoke it sounded like a chorus of serpents. “Yousss hasss sssixty ssseconds to ssshow me thessse parssselzzz.”

“I’m trying, I’m trying, I have to remember how he hid--” Asad seized the nose of a fancy carving of the face of Frankenstein’s monster, as described in the ancient book, not as seen in any vids, and twisted the mask aside to expose, “--the keypad.” His fingers flew and the door opened into a museum quality 19th century Terran-style captain’s quarters, excepting that everything was made to look like gold instead of wood. Such a strange choice. Maybe Jensen had been out of his mind, not just disconcertingly eccentric. Ironically, the portraits on the wall behind Jensen’s desk provided the most anachronistic detail, depicted the team of four scientists who first visited this deadly sea, each face rendered in neon colors.

The safe squatted beside Jensen’s berth. “Open it,” Pinkeye said.

Asad’s heart leaped into his throat. “You can’t just open a containment vessel full of timefire! I’ll die, you’ll die, and even if your King survives the blast and the aftershock, there will be nothing of the parcels left to claim, if the King, if anyone, escapes this sea alive.” In truth, Asad understood so little about timefire he had no idea if his words were accurate, but he had not been entrusted with the code to this safe, had not been told of its existence, and if he led with that he didn’t think Pinkeye would believe him.

“Carriessss it,” Pinkeye said, as if they weren’t all about to be eaten by a horde of monsters the size of a metropolis. “Bringsss to my King.”

As Asad expected, the safe was too heavy for him to lift. He squinched his eyes shut, sure that Pinkeye would first kill the prisoner before taking on the task of picking up the safe. Instead it said, “Walkksss in frontsss of ussss. Keeepsss fingerzzz toward ssseiling.” Asad obeyed. He heard the scrape as Pinkeye pulled the safe forward and lifted it with the arms not holding the gun. He declined to imitate Lot’s wife.

They reached the stairs to the deck at the same moment as Dishita and the King and the rest of that motley group. Asad noted Epperly was no longer with them and assumed the worst. Dishita and Nguyen both had tears streaking their cheeks, though Dishita kept her voice all business. “Asad, did you have any instrument training?”

“Kirigami module G,” he said, and swallowed. “Minimal.”

“That will have to do,” Dishita said. “Nguyen can play module J. I’ll have to handle both P and R.”

No point in asking her if she was capable. She would absolutely fare better at that impossible multitask than Asad would at playing the G module.

They reemerged into an alarming escalation. The Argonautilus was trapped at the bottom of a well of blue flesh and blinding iridescent light. The panopticons had surrounded them on all sides, pressed against one another, walling in the ship. If they squeezed in closer they would crush the Argonautilus. Hundreds of eyes tracked every flicker of motion on the deck, putting every pirate and expedition member at the center of multiple mobile spotlights.

“We need to assemble the instruments,” Dishita called, but the King and his minions weren’t even paying attention; they had surrounded the safe. Grateful to see them distracted, Asad pitched in with the assembly.

A scream from Parrish interrupted their work. Heart spiked by fear, Asad glanced up to see the lanky biologist lifted from the crow’s nest by a long, bright blue tongue, which slurped back with amphibian speed into a maw filled with deep red light.

They couldn’t stop working. Asad prayed to whatever cruel powers that be for the panopticons to take a pirate next. Within a minute, his prayer was answered. One of the more humanoid raiders twirled toward the sky, the poor blighter caught by two tongues, body split like a wishbone when the tongues retracted.

“Positions,” Dishita said. The instruments were ready. Asad put the mouthpiece of the G module to his lips.

Whoever had designed the four instruments that together formed a one-of-a-kind defense had a curious sense of humor. The inventions combined woodwind, percussion, strings and electronics. From the pores in their large ocarina-like sound chambers, membranes expanded that together formed distinct shapes as they modulated notes, tones, types of noise. An observer unaware of the particulars might have thought that Asad, Dishita and Nguyen were inflating improbable balloons that swelled to resemble dark-haired, pale-skinned men wearing outlandish paramilitary clothes. One had spectacles and a mustache, one had sideburns and a soul patch. The one that emerged from the G module had a full beard. Jensen had explained it as a tribute to the team of adventurers from centuries before, who had encountered the monsters in their original incarnations and discovered how to ward them off.

Mercifully the musical pattern Dishita picked was simple, perhaps deceptively so given the richness of its overall affect, but easier for Asad to harmonize with than some of the other possible options. The membranous doppelganger of that long ago bearded explorer opened its mouth to sing the notes Asad’s playing provided, or maybe it was the other way around, because the tune pulled itself through Asad’s throat, lips, and fingers with an effortlessness he had never achieved in rehearsal.

Above the melody, a howling, the cacophony of a hurricane heard through the walls of a concrete bunker. “They’re trying to disrupt us,” Dishita said. “Don’t let them, keep playing.” The fact that her words had cut through all the noise even though she was blowing into the mouthpieces of modules R and P might have distracted Asad worse than the protests of the panopticons, had he not been submerged in sheer survival instinct.

Asad snapped his head back and gasped, as if the mouthpiece had released him, not the other way around. Nguyen lay on the deck beside him, exhausted, sweat-sheened.

The forest of monsters was in retreat, the few that remained above the surface curling away, their bodies bowing like the necks of sea monsters to escape underwater, their once blue skins coated with thousands of small rose red growths that tangled in rouge lattices over their eyes. Waves rocked the Argonautilus as the panopticons dove en masse.

Asad’s gasps changed to incredulous laughter. “We did that?”

The Pirate King occluded his view. “Open this container.”

The business end of the King’s gun hung mere centimeters from Asad’s nose. With a giggle that bubbled from a place where absurdity trumped fear, Asad kissed the barrel.

The King must have pulled the triggers, but what emerged was a red flowery mass like the ones that had overwhelmed the panopticons. Asad cackled as the King lifted up its weapon to stare in elongated extraterrestrial consternation.

The wavering caricatures of the four explorers from long ago still stood at full height, though no one was playing the instruments. One made a child’s version of a gun with forefinger and thumb and took aim. A bizarre happy warmth enveloped Asad as the King shuddered, and more flower-like growths burst forth from the slit of its eye and the iris of its mouth.

Still laughing, Asad seized the moment to wrest the gun away. This victory probably came too little too late, as the gun was most likely neutralized. The King hardly resisted, either paralyzed or dying.

Pinkeye lurched toward Asad, brandishing a similarly clogged weapon.

Asad hummed the song Dishita was singing in his mind and clamped down on the bulky weapon’s triggers. Pinkeye bloomed like a flower garden in timelapse. Asad charged, continuing to hum and even scat Dishita’s tune as he dealt similar fates to all the remaining pirates, even the ones that tried to surrender.

When he returned, he trained the gun on Dishita, who was spinning the dial on the safe. The outlandishly-clad explorers had retracted back into the instruments.

Seven of the expedition’s crew remained, including himself and Dishita, who clearly had never been who she seemed. “Who are you?” Asad asked. “What are you?” And, as the safe clunked open, “Will that kill us?”

“I am a spy,” she said simply. “The timefire parcels belonged to my people. Jensen stole them long ago. He brought them to this sea for purposes of experimentation. I intended to stop him but not like this. The pirates intercepted my message home. I am sorry.”

A sadness tried to flood Asad, at the awful stupidity and the needless death wrought by inexplicable motivations, but the odd joy that enveloped him hung on. “Where is home?”

“Nowhere,” Dishita said. Whatever she held, Asad didn’t get a good look at it before she shrank into it and vanished, leaving nothing behind.

The remaining crew members decided not to waste the journey, and shifted the Argonautilus into a form that would allow them to explore under the water. But first they made one more use of the instruments, to put on a concert commemorating the dead.


"Pirates. Aliens. Alien pirates! A concert," Maya says. She is smiling. "That might have been dark, but it was a lot more fun than I expected."

"I was sure there'd be coffee," he says despondently. "Do you want half one of the pomegranates I saved?"

"Thank you," Maya says, taking it and beginning to eat it. "Oh, so sharp. They're best as gelato really."

"They're great the way they are," he says.

The cat comes back then, slinking along silently to curl up on one of the vacant chairs, showing no interest in either of them. "I wonder what frightened him earlier?" Maya asks

They wash their hands, then he picks the next book off the top of the stack. "Mary Anne Mohanraj, Paper Star."

Maya takes it, and they read.

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