Free Fiction: Try to Save the Shellfish, If You Can

The sea had long ago become too toxic for the calcite-rich coral that had once formed such towers and topiaries there. The acid water also devoured the skin of the lobsters and crabs that could not keep their chitin intact and died en masse one brutal summer, when the pollution in the water reached a threshold and crossed the threshold and chemical laws are unforgiving in these matters. All that was left of the species were museum fossils, and the few that were kept alive in aquarium tanks. My uncle’s great hobby was to join the effort in preserving these strange creatures, expanding their population in tanks in his house, and selling off any excess that he could no longer keep. He was a retired banker, with a strangely large house propped up in the middle of unincorporated country. The nearest trapping of civilization was a gas station that doubled as a grocery store for most of the few folk out there, where my uncle purchased frozen pizzas, cheap beer, and anything else he might want to eat from the cereals and old fruits there. He said that he moved there because it still had an underground aquifer, and he didn’t need a permit to pump his well. The summer when the riots were bad, my father sent me to stay with my uncle, out in Kentucky. I had ridden a bus for two weeks from the west coast. It was hot, and stank, and the crowds pushed against me late into the night. I slept with my head against the crack in the window where air could get in. When we got past the long, long, long plains, past Texas, and over the Mississippi Bridge, I thought that I was going to be on a bus forever, creeping along, one bathroom stop after another, wrinkled packages of fast food rotting inside of my stomach and giving me the shits that I had to dump into the rancid community bathroom that stank so badly, we had to keep the windows open all the time even with the air in the bus pumping hard. Past the desert, and into the forested hills of Arkansas, where mountains and trees still stood, I was released into the care of the bus depot in downtown Oxford, near an abandoned laundromat and a city park without a single human in it. I was running a high fever, and hadn’t bathed in the near-two-weeks I had been on the bus, taking bum showers in bus depots and changing in and out of clothes that only got filthier and filthier. A policeman passing by took one look at me, my mohawk, and my dirty clothes, and he walked over.

“What you doing staying here, boy? Last bus leaving soon.”

“I’m waiting for my Uncle to pick me up.”

“Sure you are. Who’s your uncle?”

“Alan Nguyen.”

“Never heard of him. We don’t have a shelter in this town. You need to get back on that bus, boy, or I’ll run you as a runaway and if anyone’s looking for you, they’ll find you.”

I laughed. “Man, I’ve been on buses since Los Angeles. I’m not homeless. My dad’s a cop, and I’m out here to stay with my uncle until things settle down back home.”

“Where’s your ma?”

I shrugged. “Her husband, I guess. I don’t know where she is. I think she said she was going to be in Italy for a while.”

“You talk funny, kid. And, we don’t got a lot of Asians here. You’re going to stand out.”

“Seriously, can you just leave me alone?”

“Listen, kid,” he smiled and hitched his belt up. “I can’t legally ask for your ID, but I would sure appreciate it.”

“Am I doing anything illegal?”

“No.”

“Am I being detained?”

“No.”

“So, I can leave anytime?”

“You sure can. Best keep moving, though. Waiting at a bus depot is one thing, but loitering is another. It’s illegal to loiter here. We don’t want homeless kids holing up in our parks like they do in LA. We ain’t had no riots. Communism is frowned on, around these parts.”

“Mind if I get my phone out and call my uncle.”

“You go right ahead.”

I was real slow when I did it. My dad taught me this, and my friends reinforced it when they were training for the protests. I didn’t think I would need the skill in Oxford, Arkansas, with my rich uncle. I’m glad my hands didn’t shake. Dad says cops are mostly just bullies if they aren’t trained and constantly retrained. Most of them start out all right, but they have to be careful not to be just bullies.

I had my phone in my hand, ready to make the call, when my uncle’s van turned up. He rolled down the window. “Is there a problem with my nephew, officer?”

“Nope,” he said. “Just responding to a suspicious person.”

“He’s just a kid. He’s not suspicious. Can I take him home?”

“You sure can, and I’m glad to be wrong about him.” He winked at me and nodded at my uncle. “You watch yourself you come to town, now, kid. We don’t want troublesome types here.”

I got in.

“Seriously,” I said, with the door closed. “I want to punch a fat, white pig.”

“You stink,” said my uncle. “And, you need a haircut. You look like a communist.”

“Techno-Marxist, Uncle Alan. Communism is just another form of feudalism, like capitalism. The political class become the elites instead of the corporate class. Same song, different dance. Technology has the power to liberate us from the feudal masters that keep climbing over everyone.”

“You’re going to a banker’s house, right? You know that.”

I laughed. “Man, I’m not rioting, either. Violence just hurts the movement. People stop listening when you start punching.”

“You want to grab a burger or something before we hit the road? It’s a long drive.”

“I’ll wait. I’ve had nothing but for a week. Tell me you have some curry or something at the house.”

“Enchiladas.”

“Fantastic. Real food. Take me home, man.”

About halfway out of town, I saw a police car behind us. I recognized the pig driving it, too. “Drive casual,” I said, laughing.

“You made an impression. Want a haircut? I could shave that off for you, get you cleaned up?”

“No, thanks. I don’t plan on doing anything illegal out here, anyway. Dad said not to get involved in politics until I’m old enough to vote.”

“You definitely have a fan, back there.”

“I can handle one stupid cop, Uncle Alan. It’s not like I’m going to do anything to encourage him. I’ve been living in LA my whole life. I’ve had encounters with the police over bullshit before.”

He grunted.

His house was around some hills, and it was backwoods country. He was off-grid, mostly. Reliant on the roads to keep shipping lanes open. He said he had drones, in case of emergency, but when he showed them to me, they were all busted. Fixing them would give me something to do.

And the tanks, of course. He was still building out the basement lobster tanks. The well water came up from a side building, and was piped into the basement from a fat PVC that wouldn’t withstand real weather for too long. Plus, he had only two tanks running, and they were small. He had them rigged for breeding, with just a couple lobsters in each, plenty of rocks and sand and foliage. The lights down there were really expensive, too. They ran off solar batteries that charged from panels all over his property. He gave me a tour of the basement, because while I was here, I was supposed to be helping him get more tanks online. The males had set up “caves” in the tanks that were already open, and when the females were ready to molt just before breeding, they would be herded into the cave by the male. After that, the female would decide when to make babies, which could take months. Someday, eggs would be like berries stuck in the female’s underside. Upon hatching, the eggs would float to the surface – thousands of them – and a whole slew of problems would arise for the basement lobster conservationist. There is only so much room for the thousands of baby lobsters. In nature, baby lobsters were very valuable food. In the tanks, each precious infant should be ethically culled, or cryogenically frozen for future researchers and preservationists.

“I’m not springing for cryogenic tanks,” said Uncle Alan. “I send them to a guy I know, overnight with ice packs, and he dumps them into a river, and letting it be.”

That night, I called my dad in the living room with the huge coral tanks in the living room, and the sound of pumps. He had a kind of coral that formed smooth, rounded towers. They were active during the day, and looked like clumps of fossilized, blue-grey cigars.

“What do you plan to do out there?” he said.

“Rebuild the busted drones.”

“Anything else?”

“Not really. The lobster tanks are a mess. He’s going to have mature breeders, soon, and he doesn’t have anywhere to put their… I don’t know what they’re called. Baby lobsters.”

“Well, try to have some fun with people, too. There have to be people your own age around there, somewhere. See if you can find a meetup group or something. My brother is a bit isolated. It isn’t good for him. I’m glad you’re safe, but I hope you don’t let him rub that off on you.”

“I like it here,” I said. “I can go days without meeting any assholes, dad. You should get a job in Oxford PD and move out here.”

He didn’t respond to that. My dad was a real tough guy. He’s had to fire his gun in the line of duty, and he’s out on the line, everyday, busting the heads of kids just like me, except they want to riot to bring about the Techno-Marxist revolution. I figure, it will happen whether I get my skull cracked, or not. The AI is already flooding our houses with smart tools. Marketers can manipulate our moods and decision-making with minor tweaks to our media engines. Most of that is algorithmic. Some people are really upset by it, but if it keeps people happy and it helps people get through their day, I don’t see what’s wrong about it. Let them take over.

At night, I logged into the local network on my Uncle’s spare computer, and checked in on the damage done from some conflicting news feeds. The body count was rising every day. I recognized one of the dead from school, and it hurt, but I didn’t know him that well. It was a weight in my chest, though, that people I knew were fighting people I knew, and they were dying in the street.  

Outside, owls hooted from the maples. The early summer insects were out, throwing themselves against the windows. Moths clung to the screens like paper ornaments. Uncle Alan had a screened-in porch. He was drinking whiskey with ice, the open bottle next to his glass on the ground. He had a little kabuchi grill that he was using to cook teriyaki mushrooms.

“You want a drink?” he said.

“Dad would kill me.”

He shrugged. “If you become an alcoholic, I’ll kick your ass out. Having one or two drinks at the end of the night is good for your liver.”

I didn’t take him up on it. The night was bright and clean. I knew it would be hotter soon, but for now, it was cool in the valley. His nearest neighbor had a stone house with a huge chimney that was always pumping smoke, every day, all day. I looked out my window, before bed, and I saw a police officer’s unmarked car squatting there. I didn’t recognize the cop inside. I snapped a picture and texted my dad, because I couldn’t believe I was under surveillence.

He shot back a reply.

Do nothing. I’ll call the sheriff at his house.

A few minutes later, the cop got out of his car and made a phone call.

“Uncle Alan,” I shouted. “Is there any reason you’d be under surveillance by the police?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “Are the police out there?”

“Dad is calling them now, I think.”

The other techno-Marxists think I’m the worst kind of poseur, because my Dad is a high-ranking police officer, and I don’t do anything he says I shouldn’t do. I obey, when obedience is a continuation of feudalism. I tell them that the enemy isn’t out to get out us. It is a political debate, not a civil war. If we act civilly, the police will respect us as civilians. They tell me that I am deluded. When I came out here, I was spit at, and thrown away. I was told there would be no friend for me in the movement if I wasn’t in the street when the time came. Often, I was accused of being an informant for the police.

I got to choose between my politics or my father, and I chose the latter. When he told me to leave town because of the riots, I packed a bag and got on a bus.

Looking out the window at the police looking in at us, I knew I made the right choice. If I had called the movement, they would have done nothing for me. My dad would stop the world to save my butt, and call in every favor. The arc of history will bend whether I bleed in the street, or wake up in a holding cell with a headwound like a hangover. I am not a coward. I don’t think I’m a coward. I am just not interested in violent solutions.

Done.

Thanks, dad. I don’t think they like the look of me, but I’m not starting anything, promise.

Be careful.

I won’t leave Uncle Alan’s house until they cool off.

Get a haircut, some decent clothes. Seriously.

I’ll think about it. How are you doing?

I’m off shift right now until 4AM. We’re eating pizza in the hot box. The protesters are tearing up Escondido Drive, right now. They flash mob, pick streets at random, with random times. We’ve called in the National Guard, but they’re worthless, trigger happy goons. I’m glad you’re nowhere near this mess.

You be careful, too. I love you, dad.

Love you, too, kid.

Uncle Alan was downstairs, checking the water lines before bed. Using well water meant checking it daily for changes in chemistry. Even small changes mattered. Inside the tanks, the coral was so delicate.

I asked him if he needed a hand, and he didn’t, so I went out onto the back porch to drink tea and check up on the news.

The same cop from downtown was out in the dark. He was standing there, glaring at me.

“Do you know what this is?” he said. He held up a device in his hands. I didn’t recognize it, but it looked like some kind of stingray, warrantless wiretapping or infrared or something.

“Why are you after me? I’ve done nothing illegal, nothing suspicious. I’m just a kid visiting his uncle because his hometown isn’t safe right now.”

“It’s perfectly safe if you aren’t a Techno-Commie. If you are, then it ain’t so goddamn safe. Kid, this device tells me there’s a lot of energy running through this house, a lot of heat.”

“Just because I believe something, doesn’t mean I’m going to be violent about it. I’m not violent. I’m not. Just because there’s energy. Stay out of the house and look in. You are not permitted inside. Just look into the living room. What do you see?”

“Big coral tank,” he said.

“Exactly. My uncle is a conservationist. Can you please leave us alone. I didn’t come to podunk Oxford to bring the revolution, okay? I’m trying to escape it, just like you are.”

Uncle Alan was coming, then. He walked right up to the screen door. He could probably smell the greasy sweat off that stupid pig and his fat pig face. He was a fat man, with a gut that hung over his belt. He was the kind of cop that dad hated – out of training, emotional.

“Hey,” said Uncle Alan. “You are not authorized to be on my land. You need to clear on out. I want your badge number. You are trespassing.”

“I go where I like, sir. You are harboring a Techno-Fascist.”

“Is he accused of doing anything?”

“I don’t know. Is he? What’s all the tech you got in there, anyhow? I’m getting all these heat readings.”

“It’s not any of your goddamn business without a warrant.” He closed the door behind him and stood with me on the porch.

“We can do this the hard way or the easy way,” said the cop. He was clearly all pumped up, ready to SWAT the place just to do something in this hick backwater.

“Do nothing until my lawyer is present,” said Uncle Alan. He reached for his phone. Another cop was slowly walking up the field, past the solar panels in the main yard. He had his hand close to his weapon, and a slow poker face, like he expected trouble.

“This ain’t the big city. If we want to search your house, we’re gonna,” said the one coming up the yard.

“Show me a warrant, and I will happily allow you onto the premises, until then, I’m calling police on you for trespassing.”

The cops laughed. “You can’t call the police on the police,” said the first.

The only thing that stood between us and the cops was the screen door. They stood outside looking in, and they had guns.

Uncle Alan pulled out his phone and dialed 911. The two cops stood there, waiting.

“I have two police officers on my property without a warrant, and they’re threatening me. They will neither leave, as I requested, nor will they state what they are doing here with evidence they are engaged in lawful investigation. I suspect they may be fake police officers trying to shake me down. I need help.”

“Wait for it,” said one of the cops, to the other. Their radios chirped. “Hello,” said one, into his radio. “We’re nearby and we can take the call. It’s probably nothing.”

Uncle Alan hung up and called his lawyer.

The first cop walked up the screen door and glared at us. “What are you doing in there, anyway? Huh? What the hell are you doing with all that power, and a Techno-Commie? You building something?”

“We are not engaged in illegal activities of any sort, and you will not hear any complaints about our activities from our neighbors. Ergo, you should leave. Uncle Alan, do not let them in the house under any circumstances. They are on a fishing expedition, and they will plant evidence if they have to, to justify what they’re doing.”

The cop pulled his gun out and pointed it at me. “Ain’t you an expert?” he said.

“I am no threat to you,” I said.

Alan pulled me back and stood between the cop and me.

“What do you want?” he said. “Just tell me what you want. No one has to get hurt, tonight. I don’t understand why you have pulled a gun at us. We have not done anything to threaten you. Are you determined to arrest somebody? Are you determined to tear through and break everything and arrest everyone just to prove something?”

“I don’t like your attitude, asshole.”

“The feeling is mutual. I’ve left the 911 line open the whole time. Everything you say and do is recorded. I am told that other police officers are on their way.”

“Shit,” he said. “Fuck you.”

He pulled the trigger and shot Uncle Alan in the knee.

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