The Last Currency of the Deep
a short story
This far underwater, things resembled space. There were flecks of debris that mimicked stars as they floated by, reflecting the glow of Miri’s flashlight, but overall she was swallowed in darkness. The pressure suit she wore gave her protection from the elements, but that was all for the body. Her mind tended to wander on these excavation trips. In her old age, she had a tendency to hum songs with long-forgotten lyrics to keep herself calm as she shivered through her suit.
If she swung her flashlight to the left, she could see back to her little deep-sea compound: built for two and inhabited by one, a half-sphere structure that kept her safe at these depths. If she swung her flashlight to the right, she could see the expanse: endless darkness, penetrated only by the pinprick of her light.
The first time she saw the eel, she was sure it was just a trick of her eyes. She’d been warned of the madness that awaited those who traveled this far underwater. After all, hadn’t sailors screamed warnings of sirens for centuries before they were disproven? And the spacemen, they saw startailed women in the darkness, didn’t they? Miri had anticipated the madness with a sort of stage-frightened calm usually reserved for children. With the arrival of the eel, she supposed it had come.
The eel was too big to survive this deep underwater. She knew that much. She and the eel were beyond the photic zone and they were under hundreds of bars of pressure. The first time the eel appeared, he slithered into her peripheral vision and then out again a dozen times before levelling his massive, eyeless face to hers.
“Hello, Miri,” said the eel.
Miri was stunned into awkward silence. Fear kept her from speaking, and then fear made her speak.
“Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?” the eel smiled, and his jaw pulled back to reveal a second, pharyngeal jaw, which would surely surface when the eel fed on the creatures of the deep. Miri realized the eel was laughing silently.
“My name is of no consequence. Some have called me Col. You may call me Col, if it would make you feel better about… all this.” The eel slithered past her and circled back around, as if pacing.
“Thank you,” Miri stammered, her voice showing her age, her weariness.
“I came because I heard your humming,” Col said. “We ancient ones are attracted to music. It is the last currency of the deep. I don’t expect you to know this, but once the ocean was full of such song. That was before your brothers and sisters brought along ships to drown out the whale songs. Now the ships are gone, but so are the whales. As you know there are only plastic islands left.”
“Yes. That much I know.” Miri said.
“You don’t look like much like a whale, unfortunately,” mused Col, “But your humming has the same effect. I’ve travelled very far to speak to you. My kind, we die often. But we always come back. Do you know this much?”
Again the pharyngeal jaw was revealed as the ancient creature laughed. “So you understand,” he said, “That this place -- the one your brothers and sisters once called home -- has now become uninhabitable for them.”
“Yes, I understand.” The eel swiveled again, his enormous teeth coming closer and closer to Miri’s helmet.
“Yes, we are the last ones left. You and I and the other ancients. It is not done, this place.” he said. “It will go on. It just looks a little different. Life will go on. It just won’t be your life. So I want you to think carefully before refusing my offer.”
“Yes, Miri. There are others who will come after me. I came because I am the quickest, because I do not fear death. She and I are good friends, after all this time. But yes, there will be others -- Dalcher the many-legged spider crab, and Yellow the ugly angler fish. The tube worms have been whispering about it for ages, the last free sound in the ocean. And you own it, Miri. Your voice.” With this Col’s fins shivered with electricity, and Miri saw his eyes narrow in greed and something darker.
“What do you want from me?” Miri asked in a whisper.
“I can protect you,” said Col. “From Dalcher and Yellow and all the rest. From old age and the wild currents that run like poisoned veins of gold-blood through the depths. I can protect your little bubble-house. I can protect you from Death. I think with time we can become friends.”
“But what do you want?” Miri asked. “I can’t offer you much. I’m an old woman.”
“I want you to sing,” replied the eel. “The humming is nice but it’s not enough. It’s simply not enough.”
“I haven’t sung in years,” tutted Miri, almost chuckling. “I don’t remember the words.”
“Then make them up!” snarled the eel, his jaw shifting, aligning and then dis-aligning -- and for a terrible moment he resembled a jawless hag-fish and Miri again felt her knees tremble. Gone was the thought that this was madness. The creature was very real, and he would torture her to death if he did not get his way. “Makes no difference to me,” he bellowed, “Just sing.”
“You’re scaring me. My voice will shake,” she said.
“Fine,” said Col, gritting his enormous teeth. Milky, sightless eyes slid into place and he glared at Miri, transformed. He looked somehow more haggard than before, and as she held up the light to look at him she saw flakes of his flesh were coming undone in the water. She wondered if she could believe a single word he’d spoken. “You must understand, Miri, I have traveled very far in near silence to hunt down your voice. I have starved to death at least six times on this trip alone.”
“Why do you want me to sing?” Miri asked. “What will happen if I do?”
“You dare to question me?” Col thundered. “I gave you a simple request. A voice. A song. And in return I offer immortality. Are you really so stupid as to spit in the face of such a gift?”
“I suppose,” Miri said, “I just want to know what I’m getting myself into, if I sing.”
“If you sing?” Col hissed.
“Well, yes. A few hours ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed there were others still alive out here, in the depths -- and now you tell me that you’re one of many? It’s just a lot to take in. You understand.”
“Fine,” Col ground out. “As I said, music is the last currency. There’s not much to buy and sell any longer. But there are things -- ah, I should say, like death herself -- whom I believe will come running when she hears you singing.”
“You want me to sing to attract death,” Miri said in disbelief.
“Yes. So that I can eviscerate her.”
“Well, it struck me at some point over the last dozen deaths. But each time I come back, it’s like a half-remembered dream: premature and puzzled. I’ve spent my many days as death’s little buddy. My job is to slide into things that are near death and… help her along.”
Miri’s forehead shone in a cold sweat.
“She’s kept me here because I help her. I’m her garbageman. I clean up all the messy bits of her work. I vacuum creatures from the inside and leave only less-tasty skeletons. But then it occurred to me that I could do the same to death. If she comes along with nary a care because she hears beautiful music, she will come simply to listen. But then is when I will strike. She’s kept me here as a pet. But I can slither into her, and suck out the soul of her. You see that, in this way, we will become immortal.”
“I can’t help you,” Miri said, aghast. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t be an aide to murder; I simply -- “
“It’s not murder,” Col said in disgust. “We are ending the end. And besides, you won’t have to do a thing, besides sing your little ditty. You don’t even have to watch if you want. You can close your eyes.”
“I can’t,” Miri said again.
“I wasn’t asking,” said Col, and he pressed his now-again-jawless mouth to the hood of Miri’s helmet so that in a moment all she saw was teeth and teeth and teeth. She shouted and struggled to get away from the horrible suckling sound -- she knew that the pressure suit had withstood worse, but the pressure suit was for the body. There was no protection from the vision of those many rows of teeth, or from the sound.
“Alright, alright, I’ll do it,” she sobbed at last.
“Excellent,” said Col, pulling back and smiling. “But please do stop sobbing so pathetically, it will surely impact the sound quality.”
And so, to summon death and to end the end, or at the very least to get Col to stop harassing her, Miri opened her mouth. She cleared her throat.
“For God’s sake, will you get on with it?” muttered Col.
So Miri sang.
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