I’ll mention, first off, that this was supposed to be Corbett-877. Liam’s keeping his mouth shut, so instead… here you go! The very first 023SG post — a whole new world.
Which is a lie in at least two ways.
The first way is simple. All the Mythic Heroes posts I did before? “The Home Front?” “Diamond in the Rough?” “My White Plume?” Stuff like that? Yeah. Those are all 023SG, which is why there’s a Mythic Heroes tag on this. It’s all one title! Gallifrey Falls No–
Sorry. Got distracted.
Anyhow. The other way it’s a lie brings us all the way back to Superguy.
Once upon a time, there was a mailing list called Superguy, where men and women who probably should have known better wrote stories about heroes and villains who definitely should have known better.
Some of it was good. Darn good.
Most of it wasn’t. But it was fun, and as it turns out, writing on the internet in 1989 was novel enough that ‘fun’ would do.
Some of the best writers I’ve ever worked with worked on Superguy. Some went on to be childrens’ book writers, or horror writers, or celebrated, trendsetting, and deeply significant webcartoonists, or build some of the foundations of the internet as we know it, and I’m not even kidding about that. I’d tell you to look it up, but that’s disingenuous.
And then there’s me.
Look, a lot of the stuff I wrote back then was terrible. A lot of it shows I was a cishet white protestant from the Northeast who thought he was enlightened but wasn’t.
But it means a lot to me. And I’d like to reclaim it. Do it better, this time.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the shared universe that formed the backdrop for my Superguy writing was just that — shared. I can’t up and write the adventures of Rad, or Dangerousman, or the Super Seven. They don’t belong to me.
Thus, if the original universe was 000SG (altiversal theory will show up elsewhere), then this one is 023SG. The universe where all the serial numbers were filed off. And, given the number of ways we did that sort of thing back in the day ourselves, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a problem.
Still, I’m a traditionalist — and all the way back in 1989, before the several million words, novel length sagas, 6,000 mile long Kazoo shaped Hellships, and alabaster radiation spewing vampire magi… there was a story about a hero. The first hero of Superguy. A hero… who was a fish.
I didn’t write that story. The fish isn’t mine to write. No, that first post and the post that followed came from a fellow hight Chris Wilcox. He started Superguy, long, long ago.
Of course… I was second. But then I’m old.
So. This is a story that doesn’t have any relationship to anything Chris Wilcox ever wrote, except for three important factors:
- It is a comedic superhero story.
- There are conspiracies involved.
- It stars a fish.
Soon enough, I can get to retelling some old stories with the benefit of thirty years of actual writing experience, but for now… enjoy the fishy goodness.
The Goldfish #1
Rise of the Icthyomancer
There is a legend that has been told in many cultures and many places. Sometimes it is called a fable. Sometimes it is a fairy tale. Sometimes it is fantasy and sometimes it is horror. Sometimes it is meant to be didactic, and sometimes it is meant to be purely entertaining. And though there are always some differences based on culture and context, it is always essentially the same:
A fisherman and his wife live in poverty but endure it together. One day, the fisherman catches a beautiful golden fish — sometimes a carp, sometimes a koi (which is admittedly a kind of carp), sometimes a flounder, and never, ever a grunion — and is surprised, amazed, and scared to discover it can talk.
The fish begs the fisherman for its life, and offers to give the fisherman a wish if he will but set the fish free. The fisherman — whether out of his inherent goodness or his understandable terror at the sight of a talking fish — lets the fish go without asking for anything. That night, he tells his wife, who is disappointed he didn’t get the fish to repair some doodad in the house. So, the next day the Fisherman goes back, catches a fish who’s magical enough to talk and bend time and space but can’t figure out not to go for that specific bait, and wishes for the doodad to be fixed.
Naturally, the wife — because sexism — isn’t satisfied, and sends him back to get a better house. And then land. And then more money. And then even more. And the fisherman doesn’t want to do it because the sea’s getting rougher and rougher by the day, but he does it anyway because in stories from the dawn of humanity the women are shrews and the men are feckless. And finally the fish gets fed up and puts them back in their original house, broken doodad and all. Moral told, everyone goes home.
It’s not a hard story to tell, really. Honestly, it would be harder to screw the damn thing up.
But then, some people and some fish are always up to a challenge.
February 11, 1989
Unfortunance City, Rhode Island
This is the story of a man named Santiago who went fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and had an event involving a fish that changed his life. And yet, this is not The Old Man and the Sea. This Santiago is not actually an old man, for example, though there’s an old man in the story, if that helps. Also, he didn’t fight any marlin. This story wasn’t written by Hemingway. And absolutely no hapless high school students have been forced to read this story and find something deep in the decidedly shallow text.
‘Decidedly shallow’ was actually a good description for the water Max Santiago was beach-casting in. It was a dull, rocky beach with dark grey sand and larger pebbles worn smooth by countless years of hammering Rhode Island surf. It was around forty degrees; a touch unseasonably warm for Rhode Island in February, perhaps, but any fool could tell you it was too cold to be standing in the surf beach-casting.
But Max? Was not just any fool. He wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the box, mind, but that didn’t make him just any fool. He was, if anything, a singular fool. A fool among fools. The acme of foolery. The top sheet in the ream of foolscap. Spiders, when seeing Max, were drawn to spin their webs in celebration, hoping to announce to the world that Max was ‘SOME FOOL.’ Sadly, despite E.B. White’s assurances, spiders can’t spell worth a damn, so usually they just manage DHGJHSH before someone crushes them.
But then, it’s often a mistake to trust E.B. White’s assurances. Take my word for it.
In this case, Max wasn’t just fishing in too-cold ocean water. He was waiting for Caleb Rivera — maybe his oldest friend. They had agreed to go fishing. Max liked fishing with Caleb — Max understood fish better than a lot of things, and Caleb always had fun. They were in their twenties now, but they’d been going fishing along Pollack Beach since they were little kids. Sometimes, you liked to be reminded of the simple things you like, especially when the world seems pretty dark.
Caleb wasn’t there yet, of course. But Max was pretty sure he’d come. He’d been a little steamed but Caleb got steamed sometimes. It was no big deal. Max wasn’t sure why he was steamed this time — after all, he was the one who knocked the old man over. Max was just helping him back up. But Caleb had been antsy and so he’d left.
It had happened at the Poor Selection Convenience Store where Max worked. It had originally been named Poole’s Select General Store, but then a series of sales over the years had shifted its name until it settled down as ‘Poor Selection Convenience Store.’ Most customers agreed the name suited it better, anyhow. Like every employee at P.S.C.S, Max did a little bit of everything. Mopping floors, keeping the hot dog rollers stocked and the slush puppy mix topped up, cashiering and bagging… you name it, Max did it.
Today, he’d been doing it for close to sixteen hours. He’d come in to cover for Jim on the overnight, because Jim was sick. From the sound of him, he had a particularly bad case of the ‘Blonde Chick Came Over’ Whooping Cough, and Max was glad he’d stayed home. Max didn’t need some kind of blonde flu. Besides — he needed the hours.
Caleb Rivera, on the other hand, didn’t work at the Poor Selection Convenience Store. Instead, he’d just shown up around 2:30 and was annoyed. Max didn’t know if those two things were related or not.
“Come on, Max,” he said. “I gotta get out of the neighborhood — I don’t even wanna look at this place,” Caleb was saying, pacing in front of the coffee station.
“I got to wait for Jill to get here and then cash out. Just grab some coffee already.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Just close the door and go — what, someone’s gonna steal something? What is there to steal?”
“There’s plenty’a stuff,” Max said, not getting the joke. “Someone may swipe the candy bars or—”
“It’s true! Besides, there’s still a customer in the store.” He nodded to a man over by the milk cooler, who was slowly putting groceries in a bag. It wasn’t usually a good idea to buy real groceries at a convenience store — much less a crappy one like P.S.C.S. — but people did it all the time, even though it was pricy and the Stop and Shop was still open and just down the block. It took all kinds, Max figured.
“So have him watch the place until Jill gets here.” Caleb bounced from the ball of one foot to the other. He was wearing a near black peacoat and jeans, and a black fisherman’s knit cap like he always did when they did some winter fishing. He was about five nine, wiry like Max, though he kept his head nearly shaven where Max’s dark brown hair was always a bit chaotic. They both lived east of Riverfront Drive and south of Industrial Way — working class neighborhood in a working class city, usually called Belmont Wharf. P.S.C.S. was smack in the middle of Belmont Wharf. Pollack Beach was right on the edge, where Unfortunance City and the Atlantic Ocean met for crullers.
“What’s up your spine today?” Max asked, stepping behind the counter and double-checking things. He wanted everything done before Jill got there, and that was hard with Caleb pestering him.
“Up my spine? Did you just ask me what was up my spine?”
“Not, like, butt or something? How does something even go up the spine?”
“Don’t be crude — I’m working, here.”
“Yeah. You’re working. Whoo.” Caleb walked back over to the coffee station and poured himself a cup. It was throwaway coffee at this point, so there wouldn’t be trouble if Caleb grabbed some. You could smell the burnt, overboiled oil from across the store.
“Hey — I do my best.”
“Yeah yeah. You’re the king of Convenience.” Caleb was an insurance adjuster — a white collar job. He’d been good in school. Max had passed everything but hadn’t seen much point to Community College. His Mom had always told him to know his limits.
Max was intimately aware of his limits.
“So what’s bugging you?” Max asked. He didn’t like to dwell on the bad. “You didn’t say.”
Caleb kind of shook his head. “It’s Cheryl,” he said. “She’s been driving me up the friggin’ wall, Max. I… I just wanna go somewhere where it’s us and the cold and rods and bad fishing.”
“We could catch something. We sometimes catch something.”
“Catching stuff ain’t the point in February.”
Max heh’d. “I guess. I always try to catch something.”
Caleb paused. “Nothin’. Sorry, man. Nothin’. It’s not you. I shouldn’t be ragging you. I just don’t… where the Hell is Jill?”
“She’s got like six more minutes before she’s s’posed to get here. And when she gets here she needs to count her drawer and bring it out and I need to bring mine back and count it down.”
“I know, I know. But you can’t get started until—”
With a bell jangle, Jill stormed through the front door. She was heavy set with long brown hair. Nice girl. Fun to work with. Max found that most people were nice, on balance. “Hey!” he called out to her. “Good to see you!”
“About time,” Caleb said, pacing.
“What?” Jill asked, cocking her head to look at Caleb. “I’m ten minutes early, mister where’s-your-tie.”
“He’s got something up his spine,” Max said.
Jill looked at Max. “I don’t know what that means.”
“None of us do. So go count down already, Max.”
“Jill has to count her drawer first. And I’m still ten minutes shy’a getting out.”
“You came in eight hours early in the middle of the freakin’ night. You’re too nice — that’s your problem.”
The customer laughed — a short laugh, almost raspy. He was old — like, real old. Looked Asian, in a pretty nice brown cloth coat and black gloves, and a cap like Caleb’s. Well, it was cold, after all.
Max shrugged. “I can think of worse problems.” He stepped around the counter and past Caleb, grabbing the overboiled pots and carrying them to the sink to dump out.
“And now you’re making coffee?”
“Jeez, Caleb. Calm down. I’ve got to do my job, right? I make coffee.” He started the tap, letting it wash the burnt brown liquid down the drain. “What did Cheryl do, anyway?”
“Nothing. Everything. I dunno, man. She’s… this isn’t what she thought married life would be like.”
Max blinked. “What do you mean? You got a nice place.”
“It’s a dump, Max. It’s nice ‘cause we made it nice. And she’s sick of that and sick of the disposal breaking and sick of trying to make ends meet when she can’t find a job.”
“We’re lookin’ for someone for evenings, if she—”
“She’s got a degree, Max. She doesn’t want to work a dead end convenience store.” He paused. “No offense.”
Max shrugged. “Yeah, well — I like it here. You meet people.”
“You meet people. I meet people too, but I don’t have to make coffee.”
“Who makes the coffee in your office, then?”
Caleb paused. “Well, it’s just polite to refill the pot when it runs out.”
Max shrugged, grabbing out a filter pack. He’d rinsed and refilled the pots. He dropped in the filters then poured the water in the slot and put the pot underneath. Making coffee wasn’t hard. He grabbed out the rag and wiped down the counter. “So I’m just being polite then.”
“It’s not being polite when it’s your job. You don’t do your job politely.”
Jill came out of the back office carrying her cash drawer. “I think it’s safe to say you don’t do your job politely,” she said. “Max is always polite.”
“Thank you, Jill.”
“You’re very welcome, Max.”
“Jesus — go count down your drawer,” Caleb said. “It’ll be dark inside an hour of us gettin’ there at this rate.”
“You two are going fishing today?”
“Why not?” Max said. “It’s warm.” He pulled his drawer out and let Jill put hers in.
“Thirty-eight is warm for February,” Jill said. “It’s not ‘let’s go stand in the surf’ warm.” She turned the key on the register to the left. A register tape with the totals spat out, which she turned back to the right and tore the tape off. The register’s count was now reset. She handed the receipt to Max. “What do you even hope to catch?”
“It’s not about catching fish,” Caleb said. “It’s about beach-casting next to each other and letting the world just melt away.”
“Sometimes we catch fish,” Max said.
“Shut up and go count out your drawer.”
Max brought the drawer back to the back office. Jill had turned on the radio to that NPR she liked. It had some kind of history thing going. “—impact on the length of the war is debatable. After all, the superhuman soldiers fighting alongside the Allies didn’t do that much, Neil.”
“I thought the Wave sunk a Japanese aircraft carrier and did massive damage to the Yamato, and those were just the famous—”
“Well, sure — of course they had their moments. The Quick stripping out shoreline defenses in Japan. The Wave at the Battle of Midway. Lieutenant Blockbuster in the Africa campaign against Rommel. I don’t want anyone to think these men and women were anything less than selfless heroes. But that can sometimes mean people forget the millions who fought and died to win the Second World War. The superhuman assets couldn’t have won the war all on their own.”
Max kind of droned out. World War II was from twenty years before he was born, and there hadn’t been any active super people for almost as long. He knew about them, of course — just like he knew about JFK and Lincoln and Jesus — but they didn’t have any real impact on his todays. Some people wondered why they’d gone away. Max? Wasn’t the wondering type, usually.
Still, it was wild. Back then, there’d been… well, they called them superhumans on the radio, but they were just like the superheroes on TV. Some of the shows were even based on their old adventures — at least the shows on Channel 38. Heroes. Some days, you wished there were heroes around.
But that wasn’t getting his drawer counted down. He finished reconciling, put the drawer in the safe, locked it, took off his apron, put on his coat and headed to the door.
“Finally,” Caleb said. He was pacing even more now. Anxious. Rattled. Max had seen it before — when everything got to be too much he kinda went off the deep end. That was okay — he got over it soon enough.
“Yeah — everything cool, Jill?”
“Everything’s cool,” Jill said, bored. “Just get him outta here. He’s getting up my spine now.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Caleb said, turning to storm for the door—
Caleb plowed into the old man. He’d clearly been coming up to pay for his things, but instead he and his bag went flying, cans and milk jugs and overpriced sundries spilling out into the aisle.
“Oh jeez!” Max said, jumping forward and kneeling. “Caleb — you okay? Sir? Sir?” He began to check over the old man. “Sir are you all right?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Caleb said, getting back to his feet. “I’m sorry — I didn’t mean— I’m sorry.”
“I’m okay,” the old man said. His accent was weird — Max didn’t know it. He didn’t sound like the Asians he knew from Chinatown or the Korean girl who’d gone to their school. “I’m okay — I just need—” He rolled over, a bit laboriously, and began to scrabble after the spilled groceries.
“Hey hey hey, it’s okay — I got that,” Max said, grabbing an errant can of evaporated milk. “You just take it easy and we’ll make sure you’re all right.”
“Max — we gotta go! It’ll be dark soon!” Caleb said, slapping his arms against his legs in frustration.
“Caleb — man, you knocked this man over! We gotta make sure he’s okay. C’mon — don’t be—”
“Jill can do that! You’re off the clock!”
“I didn’t clock outta being a good person, Caleb! C’mon — gimme a hand and we’ll—”
“Oh whatever!” Caleb stormed for the door. “It’s too damn cold to fish anyway.” He hit the door hard — it was surprising the glass didn’t break.
“Caleb!” Max shouted, then shook his head and kept picking up the old man’s things.
“You should go after your friend,” the old man said, leaning against the counter. “He seems upset.”
“He’s bein’ weird today. It’s okay. I’ll see him down at the beach.”
“I don’t think he’s going to the beach,” Jill said. “Sir,” she said to the old man, “can you tell me if you’re feeling any pain? I’m gonna call the ambulance.”
“No no,” the old man said. “I’ll be fine. I can still take a hit or two.” He looked at Max. “You’re a nice boy, aren’t you?”
Max shook his head. “Just try to treat people the way I hope they’d treat each other, y’know?” He grinned. “Besides — I’m not that smart, so I gotta have somethin’ going for me, right?”
“You sound smarter than you give yourself credit for. Are you sure your friend will be all right?”
“Yeah — he might be torqued for a while. I’ll see him at the beach. It’ll work out. He’s probably grabbin’ a spot right now. Hey, I’m gonna grab you some different soda. This’s all shook up now — that’s not good.”
The old man smiled a bit more, watching Max head to the back coolers. “A nice boy.” He looked at Jill. “More people should be nice, you know?”
“Tell it to the world. You Chinese?”
“Tibetan. It’s not the same thing. Though don’t try to tell that to Deng Xiaoping.”
“Darn. We’re having lunch on Thursday and now I won’t have a thing to discuss. Here — lemme start ringing that stuff up.”
“I appreciate that. And thank you, young man.”
“No prob. No prob at all. You okay?”
The man considered, then nodded. “I am, in fact, all right.”
“Okay. I’m gonna head down to the beach now, okay? It was nice meeting you. Jill — thanks for your help!”
“And thank you, young man.” The old man smiled, his brown eyes twinkling under thick grey eyebrows.
“Sure sure — no prob. You’re welcome. Catch you later, Jill!”
The old man watched Max leave the store, then turned back to Jill. “A very nice boy indeed,” he said.
“Oh yeah. Too nice, you ask me. People take advantage. Plus he’s not exactly the brightest candle on the birthday cake.”
“There’s more than one way to be bright.” He handed over a couple of twenties, got his change, then carried the bag out. The light was turning golden-red in Unfortunance City, the sun heading towards the horizon, and the old man smiled about that, too. He walked down the block and around to where a few cars were parked. He popped the trunk on one small green sedan and dropped the groceries in, except for one bag he’d kept separate. He shut the trunk and stepped around, sliding into the Driver’s seat.
A girl was sitting in the passenger’s seat. Though calling her a ‘girl’ was stretching things a bit. For one thing, she seemed oddly timeless. For another, her skin had interesting mottling, her ears tapered in ways ears generally didn’t, and she had foliage in lieu of hair. Her eyes sparkled like literal sapphire as she turned to the old man. “Finally,” she said with all the offense of a teenager forced to spend eight hours watching someone else knit. “Are we done here?”
“In one sense, we’re done here,” the old man said, still smiling. “If Vic should call—”
“Tell him it’s done?”
“Tell him it’s done.”
“So everything’ll be back to normal by tomorrow?”
“That seems deeply unlikely.” The old man chuckled. “When one diverts a river to protect a sandcastle, that water doesn’t disappear. It all goes somewhere… only now it’s not going where you expect a river to suddenly show up. Normal doesn’t typically follow something like that.”
The leaf-haired girl cocked her head, looking at the old man. “So… you’re saying you did what Vic wanted, and as a result we’re going to have a metaphorical flood down main street?”
“If it’s even metaphorical.” He smiled.
“…does Vic know that?”
“Yes… and no. He consistently focuses on what is avoided when you swerve, not what you’ll plow into on your new course. So, we should find a good hotel.”
“We’re not going home?”
“What, and miss the flood?”
The girl opened her mouth to answer, thought better, and closed it. She then turned back to the old man. “Can I drive?”
“Under no circumstances should you ever be allowed to control a moving vehicle.” He started the engine. “Let’s get going.”
Pollack Beach wasn’t that far away from P.S.’s, so it hadn’t taken Max long to figure out that wherever Max was, he wasn’t waiting for him at the beach. Max had kept his fishing gear in one of the lockers by the seawall — he’d never actually paid for it, but he’d been doing it since he was ten so no one ever said anything. Besides, the guys at the stand liked him and no one was actually staffing it anyway. Not during the winter. He wasn’t sure how he beat Caleb to the beach, but he figured he’d get started and Caleb would join him as soon as he got there.
And Caleb would get there. He just needed some time. Probably taking a walk to get over his mad. Caleb wasn’t unreasonable. Not most of the time, anyway. He’d be along.
So Max fished. One cast after another, the water washing over his legs. His jeans were soaked to the knee but he had on thermals underneath them so he didn’t really notice and his shoes were waterproof. Maybe people thought he was dumb for fishing in February but he wasn’t dumb. Though it wasn’t that bad anyway. After dark it’d get cold pretty quick, but he’d duck into the Café up on the boardwalk and have coffee with Caleb until the bus was about due. Max and Caleb had this down to a science. Max remembered when they were thirteen or so — thirteen? Yeah, they’d been in the eighth grade because they’d been complaining about Ms. Orchard and the essays they weren’t writing because they were fishing instead. They’d been hit with a bigger than expected wave — soaked them head to foot. But Carl back at the Café — he’d just smiled and said something about dumb kids and frostbite and gave them both hot cocoa and called Max’s mom to come bring dry clothes and pick them up. So the Café was just part of the trip.
Like Caleb. Who still wasn’t there. But it was just a matter of time.
There wasn’t a lot of boat traffic out on the water — the wrong time of year for it — but there was one of the big grey Navy ships out a little ways. It hadn’t moved for a while so they’d probably been at anchor, which seemed weird. The ships passed by pretty often but they were almost always coming from or going to Newport where the Station was. Unfortunance City had boardwalks and docks — plenty of fishermen trawled out into the bay from there — but they weren’t really big enough for a ship like that. It was a cruiser or a destroyer or something like that. Max wasn’t sure. Still, they probably had their reasons — though it was hard to tell much about them since the sky was getting darker behind the ship so it was beginning to be harder to see it.
Max frowned. The sky wasn’t darkening because of clouds — it was mostly clear. But when you beach-cast into the Atlantic from Rhode Island, you were usually facing more or less East, so night had a head start in that direction even if there was still a good amount of light in the West. Caleb had to hurry up if he were going to get any casts in. Otherwise, they’d just have to go to the Café together and that’d be weird. Unless maybe he’d gotten down there first and was waiting in the Café, but that’d be even weirder.
Still, even waiting on Caleb Max liked the fishing. Cast the line with a whip — beach-casting poles were long and the casting was sharp so you’d get the line out far enough to hit the deeper water where fish might be hanging out considering dinner options. Then reel in and repeat until you got a strike.
They almost never got strikes even in the Summer, but it happened. Sometimes they caught fish.
The line hung. Max pulled a bit, trying to clear it. Probably some seaweed or gunk or something. It kept hanging. He bit his lip. He didn’t want to lose his spoon because it got caught on something, but the only thing he could do was pull and real. Man, it was caught pretty good — almost dragging like it was pulling away. He reeled a bit more and pulled harder, then realized his pole was actually bending a bit. Jeez — what was that caught on?
It took Max about fifteen seconds of trying to free the line before he realized he was actually fighting a fish. He had a strike.
Max blinked and grinned, yanking and pulling. He wondered what was fighting him. Winter fishing was legal so long as you didn’t catch Fluke or Cod or one of those — and besides, most any fish Max caught he’d throw back anyway. He could clean a fish and cook it, but most of the time it wasn’t worth the bother unless it was something special and he didn’t have a cooler—
He snapped out of his daydream when his pole yanked forward, the fish fighting hard now. He focused in, pulling and shortening the line, pulling and shortening the line… it was a big fish, whatever it was. Maybe even one of the little sharks that swam around there. The whole idea now was to keep the pressure up — get it into shallower water and tire it out so it couldn’t keep pulling back. Pull and shorten. Pull and shorten. Pull and shorten.
With a yank the line snapped back — for a split-second Max had thought it’d broken, but then a shimmering gold tube of wriggling meat flew out of the water straight at him. It hit him amidships, surprisingly large. It had to be a good twenty pounds or more. He staggered back, slimy fish and scales in his arms as he struggled to keep hold of the thing, dropping the pole entirely as he fell back, finally tripping and landing on his back, the fish flopping out of his hands and onto the beach, wriggling.
“Hold on, hold on,” he said, breathing hard — the fall had knocked some breath out of him. He tried to grab the wriggling fish again . “I can’t get the hook out unless you let me.” He managed to get hold with one hand — geez this was big… it had to be more than twenty pounds! Maybe even thirty! — and worked at getting the hook out of its lip. Thing had sharp teeth too, he realized, but managed to release the hook without too much trouble. “Okay okay. Lemme have a look. Jeez, I hope Caleb gets here real—”
Max paused, looking at the struggling fish. It was golden in color, its scales almost shimmering. He recognized it — he’d fished for it back when his Uncle used to take him fishing back when he’d had an Uncle. They used to hit the ponds out around Providence and inland. He recognized the fins, the shape….
It was a carp. A koi from the look, but big like a common or even a mirror.
Max stared, still holding the carp as it struggled. He and his Uncle — they’d fished for carp in ponds, and sometimes rivers. But there wasn’t even a river outlet near here — and carp didn’t live in salt water. He knew that. “What the Hell?” he murmured. “Is this some kinda joke—”
“If so, I’m not finding it very funny.”
Max shrieked, dropping the carp and falling back, scrabbling a few feet away. It kept wriggling, but was sluggish. He looked around — he’d heard a woman’s voice, almost like it was echoing through a culvert like when the gang used to shout on either side of culverts back in the day. But there was no one there, and for that matter there wasn’t even a culvert—
“It’s me, fisherman. You’re looking for me. I’m the one talking to you.”
Max turned and looked, very slowly.
The fish wasn’t struggling now. It was looking at Max, angled so it could see him with its left eye, its gills working like it were in water, but apparently not choking in the air. “Hello, fisherman,” the voice said, and Max realized its mouth had opened and closed with the syllables, like watching a puppet.
“…fish don’t talk….” Max said, staring and trembling.
“Well, that’s clearly not true,” the carp said, looking and sounding slightly amused. “Since I’m talking to you right now.”
“Wh… is this — Caleb? Caleb? Are you playing some kinda joke?!” Max looked around himself again, desperately, eyes wide and heart pounding.
“I don’t know who ‘Caleb’ is. Good fisherman, I beseech you— hey! Look at me!” The carp sounded annoyed. “Look at me! Come on! Come on….”
Max looked. “…what are you?”
“A fish, obviously.”
“Fish don’t talk!”
“We covered this already.” The carp sounded sardonic. “Look. I’m no ordinary fish. You have realized that much. I am the rising light within the waters, who brings—”
“No! Fish don’t talk! This is crazy!”
Apparently, fish also sighed. At least, this one did. “Right. I’ll go with the basics. I’m a magical fish.”
Max cocked his head. “What?”
The carp rolled its eye. Which was a feat, since Max didn’t think fish could roll their eyes. “It’s going to be one of those cycles, I can tell. I’m a magical fish. Maaaaaagical fish. That’s why I can talk, and why I’m not wheezing out my last desperate breath as I wriggle and yearn for a sea that is the only world I have ever known. Magical. Fish. Are you on the same page yet?”
Max shook his head slowly. “Magic… fish? I… what do you want from me?”
“Aha! Progress! Excellent. We may get through this yet.” The fish shifted, looking intently, its still-female voice dropping a bit and taking on a musical quality. “Good fisherman — please, please spare my life. If you spare me, I will grant you a wish! Anything you might want I will happily give, if you will but return me to the waters.”
Max stared. “…what?”
“It’s not a difficult concept, fisherman. I am going to grant you a wish if you let me go.”
“…just go!” Max shouted. “Get out of here!”
“It is not that simple. You pulled me from the water so you must return me. So I shall ask of you this boon—” The carp paused, seeing Max’s expression. “Let me rephrase. Make a wish and I’ll make it come true and then can return to the waters. Okay?”
“I… I don’t have a wish! I don’t want anything from you! I’ll just throw you back, okay!”
The carp seemed pleased. “That is perfectly acceptable. But allow me to teach you a rhyme that will call me, so that if you should change your mind—”
“No! Let’s just — Let’s just do this!”
There was a rumble, like thunder in the distance, but the carp didn’t seem to notice. “Ah, you may not think you want a wish, but later, given a chance to think and discuss this with your good lady wife, you may change your mind. As I am bound to—”
“I don’t have a wife!” He edged closer, still clearly terrified. “I’m just throwing you back! Okay! Don’t do nothin’ crazy, okay!”
There was another rumble, and the ground seemed to shake. “Wait,” the Carp said. You don’t… have a wife?”
A third thundercrack could be heard, and clouds began to gather. The sea was growing rougher too, as a wind began to blow and whitecaps began to churn. Off in the distance, the sailors on the ship began running back and forth as they prepared for ‘weather,’ as sailors were wont to say. “Then — ah! I think I understand. I’m a modern fish who’s kept up with the times, after all. Your partner, then. Or husband, or whatever you call him—”
“What? No — I’m not… what?”
“Ah! Girlfriend, then? Living in sin, as the fuddy duddys say?”
“No! Why do you care?!”
There was a thunderclap as lightning struck the nearby pier, sounding like a gunshot and making a couple of tourists shriek. Max jumped back, shrieking as well. The sky was fully dark and grey now, the sea swelling and heaving. “…but… you have to have a wife,” the carp said. “That’s basic to the cycle. You — this can’t be happening!”
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Max shouted. “This can’t be happening! Fish don’t talk! Fish don’t give wishes! Fish don’t care about marriage! I’m throwing you back!” Max was shaking hard now, panic flooding him as he lunged forward—
The ground shook like an earthquake, as a windgust suddenly threatened to scour Max’s face with water and sand. He fell on his side, hugging himself. “What’s happening?!” he wailed.
“It’s too soon,” the carp said, sounding worried. “We shouldn’t have rough seas like this until the fourth day — something’s very wrong!”
“That’s what I said!” Max shouted.
“Okay — look! I can’t leave without a wish! Wish for something and I’ll go! Hurry! The boundaries of the realms are shaking in ways I never expected to encounter!”
“Just go!” Max shouted, going fetal.
“I can’t! Just! Go!” The carp was somewhere between panicked and angry now. “Get that through your dense skull! You have to wish for something! And hurry! If you don’t, then terrible things will happen! The world is out of alignment! The center truly cannot hold!”
Max shrieked again as a thunderous cacophony tore through the sky and seas. It was nearly pitch black now, except for a horrifying green glow which began to pulse from the oceans far out, bright enough to reflect through the spray and bounce off the clouds. A new tension had begun to build, and the world itself seemed to be responding to each tightening of that metaphoric spring.
“Fisherman! Hey! Hey! What’s your name? Huh? What’s your name!?”
That penetrated Max’s terror. “Max!” he screamed.
“Okay, good! Max — bad things are starting to happen. They shouldn’t be, but something’s gone horribly wrong! The dimensions are parting! The divine, the mystic, and the imaginative are clashing and the firmament itself is starting to undo! The only way to stop it is to end this cycle, and I can’t do anything about that until you make a wish! You have to wish for something! Anything! And hurry!”
Max shrieked again as another thunderous crash filled the air. Water was surging up now — huge, with green light burning through it as the waves and muck towered above the ship even from much farther away. Max stared as the water seemed to flow upwards instead of down, building like a giant fluid mountain. Some small part of his brain remembered the NPR talk show he’d heard before, talking about World War II, when the Wave had slammed the Japanese boats with water. Did it look like that? Was that what was happening out there? Was the Wave coming back to save him from all this?
“Max!” With a shimmer of golden light, the carp threw itself up, swinging around to slap him across the face with its tail and dorsal fin. “You have to make a wish before disaster strikes!”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Max had never been good with fast paced situations even when he wasn’t terrified. Instead, he kept staring at the water… hoping for someone or something to save him—
The water seemed to split down the middle, and with a horrifying explosion of discordant noise that served as a lamentation against all that ever lived or ever would live tentacles as much green flowing energetic wrongness as slimy flesh tore up and out, tapering up into and along a smooth head with black/green luminescent eyes the size of buildings all on their own, even as dark wings made of bone whose angles skewed in ways that human eyes could not parse spread out with an ichorous membrane between them that bathed all around it in a hideous eldritch glow, the thing’s massive form bipedal but somehow not, easily two hundred stories high or more as its massive bulk tore out of its watery cocoon into a world never meant to contain such majestic awfulness. It hissed a keening knell that tore into the ears and souls of all unfortunate enough to hear as it stretched, at once a birth of a thing and yet also a death toll for this city and indeed this very world—
“Oh that is so not good,” the Carp said. “Max! Max the dimensions have sundered — we have to put things right now or everyone is going to die! Do you hear me? You have to wish for something!
Max’s response wasn’t so much a wish as gibbering as he stared at the Ancient Wrongness that had obliterated the growing gloom and forged a death twilight to spread across the realm. What thoughts he had were buried under the sheer horrific insanity of what he was seeing before him — the carp seemed like nothing in—
With another spin, the carp slapped him across the face with its tail again. “MAX! All right! You can’t think of a wish? Fine! We’ll rephrase! Just tell me what you need! Hurry, Max! What do you need? What do you NEED?!”
The wet slap snapped Max out of his reverie of insane despair and he focused on the fish. What did he need?! Wasn’t it obvious?! “I need a hero!!” he screamed at the carp.
There was a gunshot sound that seemed to come from every corner of creation, like Max’s words had pulled a .44 magnum and fired a bullet straight into space/time just for snoring.
Max looked around, eyes wide. There was a soft golden glow surrounding him and the fish – the fish itself floating for some unknown reason — but everything else… the waves, the ship, the terrified people, the elder god… were just… frozen in place, like time itself had just given up.
Max slowly looked at the carp.
Said carp was staring at Max from its right eye. It didn’t look scared any more. In fact, it was safe to say ‘scared’ wasn’t in any way on its mind. “Really?” it demanded.
“…what?” Max whimpered.
“I mean… really!? You need a hero. You don’t need to be taken somewhere safe, or need to have Dactylthulhu out there cast back into its own dark city to slumber evermore, or a grilled cheese sandwich, or anything else? You need a hero.”
Max blinked. He looked at the distant frozen horror, then back at the carp. “…is… something wrong?” he asked, his voice sounding very small even to himself.
“Is something wrong, he asks. Yes. Yes, something is wrong, Max. You made a wish, but that wish was specifically for a hero.”
“So a hero is more than a thing. It’s a sentient being. It can’t just have will, or power, or spandex and a cape. It has to choose to be a hero, using its power for others… even if that power is just the willingness to die for a cause or save a life.”
Max considered the ramifications of what the fish was telling him. He turned it over in his head, carefully.
“So?” he asked.
“So… your wish can’t take away the free will of another sentient being! It doesn’t work! I can’t make someone else be your hero!”
“So… what? It won’t work? The wish won’t work?”
“Oh, if only. If you’d wished for your high school sweetheart—”
“I didn’t really have a high school swee—”
“Shut up, Max.”
“If you’d wished for your high school sweetheart to fall madly in love with you, then the wish would be invalid and you could just make another. Free will. Bang. But I don’t have to subvert the free will of another being in order to give you a hero! There’s a way I can grant your wish without any squicky consent issues from third parties! So your wish has to happen!”
Max blinked, shivering. He was still scared, and cold, but somehow not panicked any more. Mostly, he was confused. That was comforting. Confusion and Max got along really, really well. “…well… maybe… maybe you could… I don’t know… mess with the wording. I wanted a hero, so you could up and give me a sub sandwich, maybe—”
“No, Max. I grant wishes by their intent. I’m not a Djinn for Dodola’s sake. No. You wanted a streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds, so that’s what you’ve got to get.”
“So… what? You’re… gonna make me—”
“No, Max. You didn’t wish to be a hero. God, I wish you had. No, you wished to have one. So you will have one.” The carp sounded vaguely disgusted. “Using the only possible source I have.”
“What… what? Who? I don’t get it.”
The carp regarded Max in the green/gold light. “You say that a lot, don’t you?” It sighed. “Who is the one sentient being who I can force to be a hero, Max?”
Max blinked again. He thought for a long moment.
“What?” he finally asked.
The fish sighed. “Never mind. It’s me, Max. I’ll be your hero. I have to be your hero.”
Max blinked yet again. “…but you’re a fish,” he said, shaking his head slightly.
“Am I? I hadn’t noticed.” The carp rolled its eye again. “Your wish is granted. One hero, coming up.”
Part Two coming soon, so keep it here – 023SG on your Altiversal Dial!