Case 63247 by Rachael Tierney

He was born under a clear sky, with no moon and low tides. I knew the circumstances because it was my first assignment and my eagerness propelled me to investigate further than most would. He didn’t have much of an education record beyond state-approved institutions, so I went to his neighbours (the ones from before his parents were promoted) and when I spoke to them about him, they all agreed that things were bad from the start. They were not surprised by what he had done.

‘It was very unusual,’ a female from across the street said. She was a deep shade of brown, with white speckles on her forearms. ‘Five eggs, and all of them grew to hatching.’

Five was certainly the largest surviving clutch I’d ever heard of. Anywhere from three to eight eggs in a spawn is considered ‘normal’, but few survive. The membranes are fragile and many are torn before development completes.

Another female sat beside her, eyes clouded over with thick cataracts. ‘His father worked in aquaculture, with fish and crustaceans. He knew how to care for livestock, but he set up strange nooks around their home and moved the eggs too often. I peered in once and he’d placed them under a rotating lamp. Everyone knows you should keep spawn in a cool, dark space!’

‘Their mother was away a lot, but I don’t think she would have stopped him even if she’d seen it,’ a third female added, her hair longer than most would keep it.  It floated in the water around her and if she hadn’t been a pale shade of brown I may have mistaken her for a male. She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged, ‘She worked with records, translating them. Who knows what for, but the cabinet thought it was good enough to give her all those grants.’

‘The father too,’ the first said, nodding with her friends. ‘He was surprisingly intelligent – invented a lot of things, helped with pests and such. Between them, the government was always granting boons.’

‘They became well-off very quickly. They didn’t stay here long.’

‘They were too good for us.’

‘But the eggs,’ I reminded. ‘All five of them actually hatched? Which one was he?’

‘The first,’ a male told me, doubled over as he checked the plants in his rockery. Like me he was brightly coloured– a mix of blues and greens that had yet to dim with age. His scales were slick, his neck was slim, and he wore matrimonial jewels in his hair. I was young and unspoken for; had woken up early to grab the first transport out of the city and hadn’t bothered to brush my hair. I felt meek in his presence and kept my eyes down, trained on my recorder as it transcribed his words, the mechanism punching symbols into the thick, waxy parchment. ‘He hatched days before the others. Almost a week. The mother came to check but the rest still had healthy skins, so she went back to work.’ He shook his head, lip curling (even I had to admit the idea of a female dismissing an early hatcher as nothing was unsettling) but before I could ask more his wife returned and he excused himself dutifully.

My elder brother was an early-hatcher too; dead long before my sister and I arrived. His fate was a peaceful one, my parents told us. Better to die young than have the omen manifest in later life – as addiction, civil disobedience or uncontrollable rage.

‘They were a nice lot,’ the females chattered, happy to speak for longer because their husbands were long dead. ‘Very beautiful children. Two males, very pretty colours, and three females who looked strong.’

‘He had lovely big eyes.’

‘Shyer than the rest.

‘Yes, I never heard him speak or saw him swim. He always held onto his mother’s skirts.’

‘Then there was the spill…’ The female with cataracts leaned over and whispered under her breath, voice uneasy.  ‘He started changing colour.’

After some research I discovered that the spill they spoke of was from above. A well-documented agricultural mishap on land, from farmers who had recently discovered a bespoke fuel source for their machinery. It was messy, inefficient and would run out in a matter of generations, but they still use it to this day.

‘Changing colour?’ I asked, thrown by the implication.

‘The chemicals,’ the speckled female said, rolling an ache out of her neck. Another lifted a hand without request, squeezing across her friend’s broad shoulder to ease the muscles. ‘The spill seeped into the rocks, trickled into our ocean. He must have come into contact with it somehow. None of the other children were affected, but the timing is too convenient. I remember – two or three weeks after the spill, that’s when it first became apparent.’

‘He started going pale,’ one explained. And although I recall those words so clearly, I can’t recall who spoke them. Cataracts, long hair, speckled,  it could have been any of them.

‘He wasn’t right after that. They took him to the city quick and we never saw him again – except for the photo at his mother’s promotion.’

‘He’s at the back, covered to the neck and wrists.’

‘Such a shame.’

‘Should have put him down. It was cruel to pretend it wasn’t happening. A thing like that is never confined to the skin either – it would have been in the brain too. I can’t blame him for what he did…’

Some nights, when my mind is noisy, I look down at my arm and try to imagine the colours changing. When I think of him I find myself struck by sadness and I am haunted by low tides, early-hatchers and chemical infections.

My interviews were never published by the cabinet and were never used as evidence in his posthumous trial. When others think of him all they know of is the bomb he planted and the damage he caused. Too few think of the damage caused to him.

***

Rachael Tierney is the editor of Nitrogen House. She studied geology for seven years and her favourite genre is science-fiction.

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