by Jon Ericson
A story I wrote for the Phoenix Point Writing competition.
Last year, I noticed something different. At the start of the spawn, many individuals sported grotesque mutations. Some males, with exposed flesh and ravaged fins, appeared close to death while others had grown extra enormous kype hooks on their lower jaws. And yet, the weaker-seeming salmon were more aggressive and often killed fitter adversaries. One fight I observed ended with a gouged eye flung completely out of the water. To my fascination, these mutations assaulted their newly-won partners too and then the roe. The victor did not die, but returned to the sea. I doubted the Chinook spawn would succeed this year.
And yet the next spring, a few lucky buried eggs hatched an aggressive strain of little fry. I netted one to examine more closely, but before I could transfer it to my bucket, it managed to bite through the netting. Like their parents, these fish were mutilated and ravenous. Within days they had consumed the former inhabitants of the stream and hurried off to the dark sea leaving a great stretch. This was my first encounter with Samudr, the cataclysmic virus.
In the months leading up to the next salmon run, I prepared a new net of steel wire and a long-poled trident. I intended to capture the aquatic monsters for study. What triggered these mutations not random yet bizarre of purpose? Was there a limit to how violent they could be and still pass on their genes? And most importantly, could the process be reversed? My observations of the previous season have earned me some notoriety and skepticism within the ichthyological community, so I suppose my ultimate goal was to prove my story. I needn't have worried.
When the salmon began their strenuous labor upstream, it was clear this breed was different. Eagles attempting to feed on smaller individuals were as likely to be dragged under water as to escape (without their meal). Mutant fish had no regard for their bodies and demonstrating exceptional strength tore their own skin to escape eagle talons. Not content to fall back into the river, the Chinooks twisted up to counterattack their supposed predators. But it was brown bears that suffered the most. With no quick path to escape the water, infected Chinook overwhelmed and tore bears limb from limb. Seeing that, I gave up the idea of capturing the monsters alive.
Instead, I waited until the spawn reached shallow streams and prepared my trident. I found a spot where I could stand on one bank and reach across with the spear to the other side. After a time a smallish mutant swam upstream toward me. I crouched, quite still, until it was close enough to hurl the trident at my target. With good aim, I had pinned the fish to the stream bed. But it was not ready to give up just yet. Using supernatural will, it tore at its own flesh and would have escaped if I hadn't leapt into the water with net in hand.
Having secured my prize, I started to wade back to the shore. Despite having cannibalized its pectoral fin and half its flank, the fish struggled and fought within the steal netting. Perhaps that was what distracted me from my true danger. Three more salmon swam upstream. I was wearing heavy, rubber hip waders, but the first attack penetrated them as if they were light fabric. I screamed with pain. Instinctually, I thrust the trident (with fish still attached) back into the water near my feet. At the same moment, the second salmon struck my other leg and I fell into the water.
No doubt I would have died then and there if my hand hadn't fallen on the fillet knife strapped to my belt. Somehow random slashing disabled the third Chinook before it could attack. Both boots were shredded by now, but I was able to struggle to my knees. I regripped the spear to hold the middle of the shaft. Chunks of fish still hung on the barbs, but desperation hurried my thrusts and slashes. The two remaining mutants were at least 30 pounds each and showed no fear but uncharacteristic caution. Suddenly, as if coordinated, both rushed at me. At that instant, I hurled myself to the side and onto the bank.
To my shock, one of the salmon leapt clear out of the water and latched its enormous jaw on my exposed ankle. Kicking and screaming, I knocked it away. But I would not go home empty handed. The net was still strapped to my wrist and before the fish out of water could flop back to safety, I slipped steel wires over its jaws. The stream was now boiling with motion--more salmon had come to cannibalize the dead and dying.
As I write, the captive Chinook bangs away at the glass of the lab's aquarium. My foot no longer bleeds, but the skin around the bites has turned black as the deep itself and smells of decay. On the table, my fillet knife beckons to take it up. The sea is calling and I must swim.