Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
I wanted to start by telling you how I met Dr. Jazmo, but then I remembered that I never actually met them. The person that showed up in our den at the start of the new research cycle was a fraud. There was always something strange about them, separate from their appearance. Their blond hair was normal enough, though it always looked wet and slicked back. Their body language was stiff, one hand almost always holding the other, but there were still handshakes. I still saw them eat and drink normally.
It was more on the interaction front. They would only respond to very specific things. We could only call them Doctor or Dr. Jazmo. They would answer to no other variation. Any attempts at a nickname like Dr. Jazz or Jazmocuzzi were met with blank stares. There wasn’t much laughter in our den to begin with, but it deflated and died completely with our new boss.
That’s not to say they weren’t effective. We were one of sixteen submerged research dens aboard the great barrier space station. The entire station was shaped like a mobius strip, to facilitate the artificial currents of the simulated seawater within. All of our living space was within the dens, as it was far less expensive to fill most of the station with water. Ours was responsible for the experiments with the phytoplankton and zooplankton, while our neighbors handled cnidarians and echinoderms. With Dr. Jazmo in charge our output nearly doubled. Our margin of error shrank by an entire percentage. They just had a sense of what we should try next, and we learned after the first three experiments not to question.
I couldn’t say if anybody liked them, but we weren’t there to make friends anyway. There was only one common room in our den, and any time somebody tried to decorate it an anonymous annoyed associate would tear the decorations down and hide them. Morale wasn’t high, but there was stability with Dr. Jazmo. We trusted them. We turned to them when things went dark.
It was in the middle of a call to my parents, who were aboard a civilian station on the other side of Earth’s orbit. The signal had to bounce between three satellites and a data-pinching firm, so I thought perhaps it was just a stutter when the dark bars appeared over their faces. I could still hear their voices coming from behind them, as they were unaware of the interruption. A black patch telling me to stay dry and warm in my mother’s voice. A second bar ate the top of their video, and a third ate the bottom. Their voices cut out.
The lights didn’t go immediately, they had lower settings relying on radioactive phosphorescence, but they were very dim by the time I ran to the common area and met my fellow researchers. We all gathered around the giant monitor that connected us to the other dens. The face of the security chief was there, his stare hard as flint. His expression was always full of blame, especially for us researchers, as if the pursuit of knowledge was nothing but children banging expensive blocks together.
“To reiterate,” he said just as I arrived, “we have an unknown agent present in both the flooded maintenance ways and the research strip.” That meant this ‘agent’ was everywhere except the dry bubbles of the dens. “We have three confirmed fatalities consistent with the attack of a large predatory animal, though we can’t match bite or claw patterns at this time. All dens are on lock down while security personnel patrol the exteriors in armored dive suits. We have moved to emergency power in an attempt to lock one of them in the main computer. All work is halted. Nobody dives and nobody leaves their quarters unaccompanied.” The message looped after that.
We were told that all work was halted, but Dr. Jazmo had different ideas. They entered, almost perfectly between two loops of the video, and ordered many of us into the lab. When reminded that we were ordered not to work, Dr. Jazmo told us that that didn’t include anything separate from the computer system. We were to fill the time working with our physical specimens and our written notes. It was genius, calming us all down quite effectively. Nothing was wrong, because all our numbers and diagrams were still there, looking positively cozy and soft thanks to their graphite handcrafted form.
I was busy, in a dark lab with two others, organizing the papers. Their subject was the various mutations we’d seeded into the shrimp nauplii and released into our artificial current in waves. Then I remembered I had a tank of the most recent batch under the counter. The memory had me gasping audibly, because they were fed oxygen electronically. I whipped them out from the compartment and examined the thermos-sized tank. All their little bodies were on the bottom, not a twitch among them. When the power switched to emergency their supply was cut off.
It wasn’t a significant loss, these were the offshoots of an extremely common species, even in the ruined seas of Earth. They were model organisms, not too different from the ‘sea monkeys’ that used to be sold as children’s toys. I’d recently heard they were making a comeback in that department, as few of the families in orbit could afford enough space for a dog or cat.
Dr. Jazmo appeared beside me. I hopped back as they leaned down and examined the corpses I’d created. They never got angry, so I knew they weren’t feeling that. Yet something entranced them. They picked up the tank, slowly walked to the sink, dumped the water, and then disposed of the bodies in the timed incinerator. Even with the literal tons of sealant keeping us from leaking into space, I still smelled something like a fish and chips restaurant that had burned down every time that incinerator activated.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Jazmo,” I said. My hands were held in front of me, but it was a nervous gesture. When the doctor did it their hands were simply docked. “I didn’t think to check with the power and all…”
“That’s alright,” they said. The doctor’s stare lingered on each of us in the room, as if we were being counted and then every emotion within us was counted as well. Dr. Jazmo smiled a little. “They’re nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands we’ve killed simply by releasing them into an environment they’re not accustomed to.”
“All for the greater good,” one of my associates added. He snapped on a pair of rubber gloves, but the sound seemed to break his confidence in his own assertion. “Right, Doctor? We can’t fix the soup of the Earth without trying new spices.”
“I don’t think calling the merged filthy oceans a soup is a helpful analogy,” they commented. “Soup implies that we are to consume it and that our goal is an empty bowl. That isn’t my goal, Mr. Leon. Is it yours?”
“No Dr. Jazmo,” he squeaked.
“All of the death around is a simple painful reality. Everything we do is an effort to reduce it in the ways most important to us. If we worked for every living thing, we wouldn’t have found ourselves trying to grow new coral in the blackness of space.” They were absolutely right there. Earth was a mess of endocrine disruptors, spilled oil, plastic microparticles, and acids released from a thousand natural and artificial sources. No coral had grown there naturally in forty years. All that was left was the skeletons, sometimes visible from space as sunken white patches, like the most rotten part of a drowned man’s body.
“I try to think of them as somebody’s pets,” I offered. I suppose I was trying to impress them, declare my heart of gold like I was trying to get it through customs. It was definitely a teacher’s pet response, a Pavlovian thing trained into me during my years at university, but just like those old experiments, I got the result I expected. Dr. Jazmo offered a lecture, which they rarely did. It had to have something to do with the darkness and the strange creatures supposedly swimming our private waters.
“Pets?” they asked.
“Brine shimp,” I elaborated, “sea monkeys. I had them when I was a kid. There’s only a few genes snipped here and there separating the two.”
“Those were never pets,” Dr. Jazmo said matter-of-factly.
“But I had them too,” my other female colleague said.
“I understand, but they were abused before you ever got them, treated in an un-pet like manner. Do any of you know the exact history of their exploitation?” We shook our heads. I hoped the story wouldn’t be too intense, as the lighting suddenly reminded me of a campfire, and I was always the one to jump when someone said ‘boo’ and drop my marshmallow into the cinders. Of course I was only nine then, two years before everyone had to leave our last continent.
“Can you really exploit a creature with such a small brain?” Mr. Leon asked.
“Yes.” It would’ve been a great opportunity for a lesser person to call Leon small-brained himself, but Dr. Jazmo didn’t even look tempted. “Early efforts to make brine shrimp pets didn’t fare too well. They had to be paired with the gimmick of appearing ‘out of nowhere’.
“Right,” I added. “You put a water purifier in the little tank and wait. Then you put in the other packet and the eggs hatch in the water. Instant life.”
“Not quite. The purifier was a sham. Those were the eggs. By the time you put in the second packet they had already hatched and grown, but were still invisible to the naked eye. The second packet was actually blue dye that stuck to the shrimp’s exoskeleton. That made them ‘appear from nowhere’.”
“Sounds like the kids were exploited more than the monkeys,” Leon argued.
“Hundreds of eggs went into those tanks,” Dr. Jazmo explained. “Usually, three or four of the shrimp made it to maturity. The rest either didn’t hatch or died quickly in the poor environment. They were called pets. When was the last time you put one hundred puppies in a box, waited a week, and then swaddled the two or three that were still alive afterwards?” That humbled us, but the doctor wasn’t done yet. “All that life poured away just for the small chance of a minuscule pet. Three or four percent survival rate. I call it the Pet Percent: the chance you will both live and get to be loved while everything dies and sinks around you.”
I could’ve written a few papers about their two dark paragraphs, delivered in that sterile room that still smelled like burnt crab shells. I’d written my thesis on something less worthy, just brittle star regeneration. I don’t think anything could’ve regenerated after that speech. It was doom, it was gloom, and it was the truest thing I’d ever heard.
Part of me wanted to thank them for saying it, but we were interrupted. The door was pulled open; it squealed across the floor since its automatic motor wasn’t working. In came the security chief himself: Mr. Deckaron. He was followed by five security personnel, all armed and armored. They pointed their weapons, electric rifles as to avoid ballistic projectiles in our pressurized environment, directly at Dr. Jazmo. The doctor’s hands stayed clasped.
“What are you doing?” I asked Mr. Deckaron. He spoke, but didn’t take his eyes from the doctor.
“We’re trying to find the source of the things out there,” he growled, fingers tapping on the side of his holster. “Which is difficult seeing as the god damn things are invisible. We checked. No experiments match any aspect of these things, in size or power. Somebody brought them aboard. With a long overdue second look, we finally noticed that Dr. Jazmo here updated the picture in their personnel file just before arriving. The old picture is of a completely different person.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the doctor said. Finally, a true flaw. The doctor was a terrible liar, at least directly. Perhaps it was the reason they were silent so much of the time. They didn’t even sound like they cared that enough current was aimed at them to electrocute a beluga whale to death.
“That’s practically an admission,” Mr. Deckaron spat. “Cuff the doctor and get them in a suit… uhh… not in that order I guess.”
“A suit?” I asked as the hired stun-guns surrounded the placid doctor. “A diving suit? You’re taking Dr. Jazmo out of the den? Aren’t those things out there?”
“They are,” the chief answered, “but we have little choice. I suspect the doctor here brought them on board, let them into our waters as babies, and now they’re big enough to snack on us. We need to interrogate and isolate to keep you researchers safe. We’re taking Jazmo back to the barracks.” They started marching the doctor out of the room. To this day I can’t tell you exactly why I got in their way and babbled as I did.
“I’ll go with you,” I offered.
“I know Jazmo better than anyone else here. I work closely with… yeah… I can tell you if they lie. I want to help.”
“That might actually come in handy,” Deckaron agreed. “Go grab a suit and meet us at the airlock in three minutes. Keep in mind that you could die. If I don’t see you in three we’re out of this den.” My mind and body were on autopilot. I ran to the suits, the researcher’s neoprene dive suits were soft green while the security personnel had dark red, squeezed myself into one, and grabbed a pocket rebreather.
I stood in formation the way they told me, but that put me behind the doctor; I couldn’t even try to read their face. Jazmo was led and flanked by three men and women. There were an additional three behind me, enclosing us in a protective fence. I popped my rebreather in as soon as they did. The button was pushed and the doors opened in the middle, water flooding in. It didn’t get to finish. We weren’t even swimming before they struck.
Something invisible, just under the flow from the doors, snatched the man at the front and pulled him out into the waters. The rebreather popped out of his mouth, like someone in an old comedy film being blasted out of their shoes. His scream bubbled for the briefest moment before he disappeared in a cloud of his own blood. The last thing I saw was his hand, grabbing for dear life at the side of the door, but only opening it even faster. We couldn’t stop it; we were all tossed around with the last bubbles of air and the thrashing of a thing we couldn’t see.
There was nothing to do but swim. Deckaron and his people couldn’t even use their rifles, as the discharge would shock us all. They had knives and batons, but I didn’t trust those against the thing I sensed moving in the current around me. I cried into my own rebreather, tasting my recycled terror. The current pulled me out of the airlock and spun me, giving me a view of our efforts in orbit.
There was coral everywhere, of all shapes and colors. I knew there were fish and cephalopods aplenty, but they were all tucked away inside the ribbed layers of the artificial reef. They hid from what we’d walked right into. The monster didn’t stop to feed. It moved to its next victim, batting them about in the water, ripping bloody holes in their suits. Soon everything was obscured by blood.
I made for the nearest den, but I spotted Dr. Jazmo, swimming incredibly fast for someone with their hands bound. They kicked with the power of a dolphin. I needed their mindset. If it got me it got me. If not, I should be swimming. I followed the doctor’s rubber-dressed toes as fast as I could. The doctor didn’t head for the nearest den, a fact I didn’t realize until we were just outside their actual target’s airlock. It was the mess hall and kitchen. Most food was delivered to us by aquatic drones, but on special occasions we all ate in there.
Jazmo opened the airlock by its external panel. They climbed inside and were about to close it when they spotted me and waved me over. Whatever they’d done, whoever they were, they would wait at least ten seconds to save my life. That was the sturdiest thing I had to grasp at the moment.
When it was properly sealed the water drained. I had to spit up plenty of saltwater, but Dr. Jazmo’s breathing was fine. They were up and squeaking down the hall in their dripping suit. I heard the snap of Jazmo’s plastic cuffs being torn apart. Such strength. Not a common thing in the laboratories of humanity, especially after a few years of lower gravity.
The lights were all off, but with one flick we got the dim emergency lighting the rest of the great barrier station had. The den was abandoned, as no personnel lived there and the lock down had canceled the cooks’ shifts. I followed as soon as I was able, past all the tables and into the kitchen.
Dr. Jazmo wrestled with a heavy plastic barrel of something. It had a blue lid. When they couldn’t open it by hand they fished a giant carving knife out of a drawer and stabbed through the top, staring into the slit to check its contents.
“What are you doing?” I sputtered as I leaned against the cold grill. “Did you bring those things?”
“No,” they answered. “They brought themselves.”
“That’s not possible. We’ve had no breaches. There are no invisible animals on Earth. Our station is safe, clean, alone, distant…”
“It is a new form of crypsis to be sure,” Dr. Jazmo admitted, “and I suspect they are only invisible in the water. Very clever. As to your claim that there have been no breaches, my entry was not violent, but you would probably consider it a breach of trust.”
“So you’re not Dr. Jazmo? Did you… kill the real doctor?”
“No. I convinced them to let me board in their place. They were a marine biologist, just like you. They were sympathetic to my plight.”
“Your plight? What plight?” Dr. Jazmo stopped messing with the barrel and stood up straight. They approached me and grabbed the central seam of their neoprene suit. The doctor pried it open, giving me a look at their bare stomach. There most likely wasn’t a stomach in there. Blended with the skin, like a cuticle, there was a porthole into what I can only call Jazmo’s body cavity. It was filled with water, clear as crystal, a purple membrane and an alien-looking spine visible in the back.
The water wasn’t empty. A dozen small creatures swam around inside the doctor, black eyes on stalks and angled at me. They had dozens of feathered legs propelling them around and around in their strange organic tank. I couldn’t respond; I could only fall against the grill, crawling up onto it because the sight made me feel like the ground was covered in roaches. The little swimming things slowed down, staring at me, clearly recognizing me.
Dr. Jazmo sealed their suit once more and went back to prying the barrel open. I was stunned, but they did the kindness of explaining the broad strokes to me, all while I thought about the oxygen-deprived shrimp I’d accidentally killed and how they looked like the distant cousins of Jazmo’s inner swimming circle.
“If I made it aboard, so could they. I’m already calling them ‘invisiphores’ by the way. You’re welcome to use the name. I find proper names promote understanding. My goal was research; my kind hopes to help you save the Earth, without ever telling you we’re there. The invisiphores seem to want revenge for their ruined waters. That’s the only reason I can imagine for the bloodshed.”
“What are you?”
“I am a vessel, built by technologies you’ve never seen, from a depth that would crush your entire being down to a pearl. We’ve been busy in the time you’ve been floating on the edge of the atmosphere. Your acids and your plastic came to us, choked us out, gave our whole civilization a ceiling of soda cans and trash bags. Do you remember how many species are in one drop of warm ocean water?”
I could do nothing but nod, even though the average number had escaped me.
“Each and every one was a possibility, brought closer to reality by your threats. Our spaces got smaller and smaller as we were forced into dark tight pockets of desperation. Desperation is just ingenuity. In it we found intelligence and science. I am our greatest achievement, just as the invisibility and size of the invisiphores is theirs. They are just one of the other plankton possibilities in the ruined seas. For the moment, we are the two who found ways up to you.”
“What do we do now?” I was finally able to ask. Dr. Jazmo asked for my help in moving the barrel over to one of the cargo airlocks. I figured it out from there. The barrel was full of blue food coloring, for all our ocean-themed pastries during our celebrations. Sand-like pound cake next to glazed waves of blue sugar, like a beach… that sort of thing. When we flooded the airlock the dye spread to the areas surrounding the den.
The corals turned blue. An octopus jetted away, as he had all his own colors already. Shapes appeared in the water, some swimming rapidly, but others hanging there like filter feeders. It was just like the trick with the dye and the sea monkeys that were already there. The blue sank into the watery bodies of the invisiphores and revealed them to us.
I could only guess at their classification. Jazmo was right; we’d missed a lot. They had long slender bodies and hooked claws, like lobsters crossed with diseased rickety bamboo shoots. Their claws hung low, like praying mantis arms snapped mostly off the rest of the shell. They were eight feet long and encased in a rounded jelly shell up to the head, something like a siphonophore.
There was another type with them, made only of the interlocking round jellies. Human bodies, my coworkers and friends, were stored inside, slowly being digested as the chain drifted by. That I couldn’t bear to examine as scientifically. Dr. Jazmo, whatever they were, had helped us. We could at least see them now. They suggested I join them in one last swim, to the den with the escape pods. I agreed.
We waited until the invisiphores had moved on to other dens. When the coast was clear we reentered the artificial reef and swam for our lives. It occurred to me I had no idea how many lives Dr. Jazmo was. Was their head alive? Was it just the creatures swimming inside? Both?
Our troubles weren’t quite over yet. We ran into a group of submersible drones. They came in pairs, dragging giant nets between them. This was the new strategy of the security team; they were going to trawl the entire station to catch everything invisible. They must’ve been equipped with some kind of jury-rigged human scanner, because their searchlights zeroed in on the doctor and surrounded them while leaving me be.
The doctor struggled against the black ropes, but they were far thicker than the plastic of the handcuffs. Jazmo even tried biting through them, to no avail. The drones danced around each other, closing the net into a raindrop shape, and rising in the water. I grabbed hold, locking my fingers into the netting. I needed to get away from the invisiphores, but I also needed to be wherever the doctor landed. Only I could explain it and only I could be trusted.
The drones propelled themselves out of the water with pressure jets. Gravity came back to us, but Jazmo stayed in the net and I stayed clinging to the side. They were flying us toward the security den. Even if I was trusted, the doctor wouldn’t be allowed to survive. They would be euthanized and taken apart by their former employees. A tear might even be shed into their drained body cavity.
This was my only chance to do anything. It would be my best apology for the whole species. I had a knife in my waistband; it was to protect me on our swim if we’d run into any more invisiphores. I instead used it on the rope netting. Dr. Jazmo looked at me while I sawed away, expression as neutral as ever, but not vacant. There was plenty going on in there, and I didn’t deserve the privilege to understand. I was just the excited child looking into the cheap mail order tank, watching the circular swimming of those that had watched all their siblings sink and become sand.
The drones changed course, probably in order to protect me from what could now be a deadly fall to some of the artificial rocks below. They dropped us, unhooking the net, on a metal gangway just below the curved ceiling of the great barrier station. They descended back into the water, off to get fresh orders after their confusion was scrubbed away. There was an access hatch, but it couldn’t lead to the escape pods.
Dr. Jazmo opened it and climbed inside. They looked down at me and said they were leaving. I didn’t ask how, but I came up with a few theories later. There were no escape pods that could be accessed from the flooded maintenance tunnels, but there were probes, weather satellites, and weather seeders that could launch back to Earth. None of them had room for a human, but they could hold and eventually disperse the contents of a Jazmo-sized tank. The little creatures would return to the depths along with a spray of water or organic compounds. They had one more lecture for me before their head disappeared into the dark ceiling.
“I would stay and help, but my sympathies are with both you and the invisiphores. You’re all alive and you’re all trying. I dumped that dye to give the two of you equal chances in fighting over this tank. Neither of you deserves the upper hand. It was not a gift or an allowance. We just voted and thought it was fair. Now both of you have that tiny chance to be the three or four survivors in a hundred. I hope you win your pet percent.” Jazmo smiled, as warm as a Caribbean sea, but just as inhuman. “The love of something that doesn’t understand will land on one of you.”