by Jeff Chapman -
A rocksnout slithered over the rocks on the eastern lip of the Zircon trench, a rift in the ocean floor that plunged for kilometers and yawned to a kilometer at its widest point as it zagged along the edge of the continental shelf. Four legs on the rocksnout’s underside ended in four-fingered feet that gripped the rocks on which the female rested while she pumped water through her mouth and over her gills. Her mottled black and brown body tapered for two meters from a wide, flat snout, one meter across, to a forked tail only centimeters wide. Three dorsal fins rose from her back and a pair of pectoral fins jutted from her sides. Bony crenellations that mimicked lichen-encrusted stone covered the top of her snout and at its tip three luminescent tendrils wiggled with the current.
The eyes on either side of her snout took in the smallest specks of light and tiny holes arranged across the underside of her snout picked up the electrical impulses of beating hearts. She was ninety seasons old and ready to mate for the first time. She heard the low thrumming of a male somewhere in the deep ocean night. She picked out the subtle variations of tone and rhythm in his thrum, a rocksnout’s version of speech. She responded. She called herself Thrawto.
With a swish of her tail, she glided over the ocean floor. It seemed odd to swim, to fly over unbroken fields of sediment. She spent most of her life crawling over rocks on the wall of the trench, searching for caves and crevices that afforded a lair to wait for prey to investigate the glowing tendrils at the tip of her snout. There was no room to swim in the caves and it was not wise to swim in the depths of the trench.
Thrawto swam for hours until hunger gnawed at her stomach. Something glowed on the horizon to her left, a gathering of the bright, winged ones, she assumed. Their accumulated light would blind her and she would not eat them. They passed their thoughts and meant no harm.
She sank to the bottom behind an outcropping of rock encrusted with the browns and greens of sea lichen, a favorite of the grazing fish on which rocksnouts thrived. Thrawto nestled in the silt to wait.
A heartbeat, large and strong with an unfamiliar rhythm, approached. Thrawto tensed, ready to attack or flee or hide. Tremors rippled through the silt. This creature crawled over the ocean floor, a lumbering target.
It emerged from behind the rocks in front of her. An odd creature, she thought. A pulsing stream of bubbles rose from its bulbous head. A single, glowing eye stabbed the night. A hump protruded from the creature’s back and a limb emerged from each corner of its body. No wings, no webbing, no fins or tail. Thrawto readied to strike. She had eaten stranger animals in the trench.
The creature leaned toward her, peering at Thrawto’s worm-like appendages with its single eye that emitted a shaft of blinding light. Her eyes squeezed shut on impulse. In perfect coordination, her legs pushed and her tail snapped. She shot forward, grabbing a lower appendage near the body, hoping to sever the limb and immobilize the creature before it fought or fled. Her jaws worked from side to side and her rows of serrated teeth cut like a double-edged saw. The flesh tasted strange and no sweet blood flooded her mouth. It grunted and thrashed and slapped her bony snout, but amid the screams, she heard sounds and rhythms repeated.
Thrawto relaxed her jaws and the creature fell away, flailing its arms, trying to swim most ineffectually. No blood fumed from the jagged wounds in its hide. How curious. A storm of silt enveloped the struggling animal and snuffed its light. Thrawto gave a kick with her tail and left the odd creature to its fate in the deep ocean night.