Exotic Fish Subscription Service
by David Mortimer
David Mortimer was born in East London and is still there. He enjoys crosswords, crisps, and writing stories about knights and postal workers.
AB crunched across the ice towards the shuttle station. His footprints were still visible from the day before, and from many days before that. They stretched out across the plain, in front of him and behind him, days and days of footprints. AB didn’t like to look at those old footprints too much. They made him feel sad, and he didn’t know why.
AB looked up. Jupiter filled the sky, horizon to horizon. AB thought it looked like sand up there, a big glass bowl filled with layers of differently coloured sand. The colours of Jupiter made AB think of the desert. He had spent a long time in the desert, surrounded by sand. And now here he was on a world of ice.
The shuttle van was on its way down. AB could see it, a little ball of red floating down from orbit. AB trudged across the ice, keeping his eyes on the sky.
At the shuttle station AB stood and watched as the van came in to land. He helped the pilot unload, listened to the pilot talk for a while, then stood and watched as the van took off again. When it was gone he heaved the day’s mail onto his shoulder and headed back out across the ice.
AB was heavy, very heavy, but he moved well. Gravity on Europa was low and AB moved along at a steady pace. He bounced slightly with each stride, his feet throwing up tiny clouds of ice particles every time he crunched back down onto the ground. The little clouds rose around his feet, swirled slightly as he moved away, then hung twinkling in space above his footsteps.
There was no air on Europa but that didn’t matter to AB. AB didn’t need to breathe.
Step by step he made his way across the ice, back to the sorting office. He was Europa’s postman.
At the sorting office AB emptied the mail onto his workbench and began sorting through it, arranging it into the order it would be delivered. He pushed the letters to one side and the parcels to another. One by one he picked up the parcels and placed them on top of his workstation.
The final parcel, a small box, made a sloshing sound as he picked it up. AB knew who it would be for. Sure enough, the parcel was addressed to Professor Lipton. Carefully, AB turned the parcel in his hands, looking it over. On one side of the box was written:
EXOTIC FISH SUBSCRIPTION SERVICE
COMPLETELY UNIQUE! CUSTOM FISH GROWN FOR YOUR AQUARIUM
EVERY FISH ONE OF A KIND! EVERY MONTH!
On the other side was written:
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS:
AB reached up and carefully put the parcel in its place.
When the sorting was finished AB stood still for a while and did nothing. He was disappointed to find, yet again, that none of the parcels were addressed to him. He was waiting for something, an item he had ordered, but it still hadn’t arrived.
He loaded the mail into his mailbag, heaved the bag onto his shoulder, and headed out.
AB worked his way between the buildings, delivering the mail. He didn’t enter any of the buildings, he just dropped the mail into the mailboxes and carried on his way. Almost all of the buildings on Europa were scientific facilities, completely closed to the outside environment, and they did not accept visitors.
There was, however, one building, at the very end of AB’s round, that always allowed him inside: Professor Lipton’s lab. AB liked Professor Lipton. Like most of the scientists on Europa, the Professor was human. He lived and worked all by himself, on the outskirts of the moon’s inhabited area.
AB crunched up to the lab. The bag on his back was empty now, save the one small box for the Professor. AB could feel the liquid sloshing around inside the box.
Entering the lab’s front airlock, AB raised his fist and tapped on the Professor’s door. As he stood waiting, he took the parcel out of his mailbag and looked it over. He read the label again:
EXOTIC FISH SUBSCRIPTION SERVICE
AB knocked on the door again, harder this time. There was no answer. AB knocked a third time, his metal knuckles clanging on the door.
“Hello?” AB called. “Professor Lipton?”
AB scanned the door in front of him. It was not locked. He pushed it and it opened, swinging inwards.
There was no movement inside the lab. No sound. AB stood in the doorway, looking around.
“It’s me, AB. The postman. Your parcel has arrived.”
AB was beginning to feel uneasy. It was unusual for the Professor to be out, especially at this time of the morning. Something wasn’t right.
“Professor, if you’re there, I’m going to come inside.”
AB stepped into the lab. He moved around, working his way between the various workstations and pieces of scientific equipment.
Stepping through a bulkhead, AB made his way into the Professor’s living quarters. He moved around a couple of bookcases, and then stopped in his tracks.
AB’s eyes grew wide. He was looking at the Professor’s fish tank.
The fish tank was huge, filling an entire wall of the Professor’s living room. AB had seen the tank before, but only while it was being constructed. This was the first time he had seen it finished, the first time he had seen it switched on.
At the top of the tank, covering the surface of the water, there was a layer of ice. The ice was the colour of bone, streaked here and there with veins of rusty orange. It looked like the ice outside, the ice that covered the surface of Europa. AB looked down. The floor of the fish tank was covered with rock, and in the centre of the rock there was a crack. A stream of bubbles was foaming up through the crack. The water around the hole was shimmering, as if it was very hot. AB wondered if the water in the tank was hot or cold.
After standing there for a while, looking at the water, AB realised that it was empty. There were no fish in the tank. Remembering the parcel in his hand, he held it up and read the label:
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS:
AB stood there, looking at the water, not really thinking about anything. Then, with a rush of guilt, he remembered what he had been doing. He had been looking for the Professor. He moved away from the fish tank and continued his search of the lab.
He searched through a few more rooms, finding nothing. Finally, stepping through the last bulkhead, he entered the Professor’s bedroom.
It was the Professor. He was lying on the floor, face down, not moving. AB bent down.
The Professor was wearing his dressing gown and slippers. Gently, AB reached out and touched the Professor’s hand, taking a temperature reading. It was cold.
AB ran a scan of the Professor’s body, looking for signs of life. There were none.
AB stood up.
For a long time he stood there in the Professor’s bedroom. He looked at the Professor. Then he looked at the parcel that he was still holding in his hand. He didn’t know what to do with either of them.
A few months went by. It was another morning and AB was out on the ice, crunching his way back to the sorting office.
He had five full bags of mail on his shoulder. The volume of mail had increased enormously over the last few months. It seemed to AB like every day he had more mail than ever before.
A lot of the new mail was high-priority. Many items were marked TOP SECRET and covered in government logos. AB wondered what was going on. It was probably something to do with the work the scientists were doing, he thought. They had always seemed like they were looking for something. Maybe they had found it.
Back at the office AB emptied the bags onto his workbench and stood there looking at the pile of mail. The office was quiet. Despite the increase in workload, AB was still the only postman on Europa. He still lived and worked alone.
And he was still waiting for his parcel. Every day he sorted through the mail, hoping to find a parcel addressed to himself. It still hadn’t arrived.
AB began to work through the mail, picking up the letters and the parcels and putting them into place on his workstation. One of the parcels, a small box, made a sloshing sound as he picked it up. He read the label:
EVERY FISH ONE OF A KIND! EVERY MONTH!
It was for the Professor. The little boxes were still turning up. They arrived once a month, despite the fact the Professor had died. AB wondered how many more there would be. He reached up and put the parcel in its place.
When the sorting was finished AB stood still and looked out of the window for a while. Then he packed the mail into his bags, heaved them all onto his back, and headed out.
AB stamped along between the buildings. He was hunched over, eyes down on the ground. It was taking him a lot longer to complete his round these days. Despite the low gravity, the extra weight on AB’s back was slowing him down. He could feel the strain on his knees and his ankles. He was feeling old. And he was old. The power core in his chest was coming towards the end of its life. It needed replacing, and soon.
AB trudged on, looking down at the jumble of old footprints that stretched away in front of him. Bit by bit the mail got delivered. Then, halfway around his delivery, AB stopped walking. He let the mailbags slide off his shoulders and drop to the ground. He stood still for a moment, and then he sat down.
He sat there looking around. In the distance he could see the drills, the big laser drills that the scientists had built out on the plains. They were working. Red light flashed out across the landscape. The scientists were working day and night now, drilling down into the ice. AB wondered what they were looking for.
As he sat there on the ice, looking out at the drills, AB found his thoughts turning to the Professor. It was a shame he had missed all of this new activity, AB thought. The scientists seemed to be excited about something now, in a way they never had been while the Professor was alive. He had died just before it all started, whatever it was.
AB started to feel sad. He thought about the day the company had come to reclaim the Professor’s body. They had taken his lab, too. Everything the Professor owned had been packed up into shipping crates and taken away. Even the fish tank.
AB stared out at the drills, watching the scientists work. For a while he thought about the Professor, and then he thought about nothing.
He reached into his mailbag and pulled out the Professor’s parcel. He looked it over, reading the labels, as he had done with all the others. As usual, there was no return address. A small box of text on the underside of the parcel advised AB to destroy its contents, should delivery not be possible. AB set the parcel down on the ice.
Then, aiming his wrist at the ground, he extended his laser drill and fired it up.
AB’s drill was of a similar design to the ones used by the scientists, but on a much smaller scale. It was still powerful, however, and the beam cut through the ice with no trouble. In a matter of minutes AB had carved a circular hole in the ground. He switched off his drill and pulled at the chunks of ice, revealing the water below.
The water was dark. AB leaned forward and looked into the water for a while, watching it settle. His reflection formed and looked back at him.
Turning away from the water, AB picked up the Professor’s parcel. He tore off the outer wrapping. Inside was a clear plastic cube. He held up the cube and looked into it. It was full of fish.
There were a dozen or so exotic-looking fish in the cube, swarming around each other. There were translucent fish, metallic fish, neon fish. Fish with huge, floaty fins and fish with almost no fins at all. No two fish were the same. AB sat there for a while, looking at the fish. The fish looked back at him.
AB pulled the lid off the cube and emptied it into the hole in the ground, releasing the fish into the water. He watched as they swam away, into the darkness. Then he tossed the plastic cube into the pile, next to all the others, and headed back to the sorting office.
More time passed. The volume of mail continued to increase. There were new scientists and visitors arriving on Europa every week. New buildings were being constructed. AB’s workload was becoming almost unbearable.
With unsteady legs, AB made his way back to the office from the shuttle station. There were ten full bags of mail piled up on his back. He could feel the strain in his knees, ankles, shoulders and spine. Wheezing sounds emerged from inside his body. His feet dug deeper into the ice than ever before.
Finally back at the office, AB kicked the door shut and staggered over to his workstation. One by one he emptied the bags onto his workbench. The pile of mail was enormous.
For a time AB stood there, looking at the mail, doing nothing. His thoughts wandered. Then, slowly, his attention returned to the mail, and he realised what he had been looking at.
He had been looking at his own name and address: right on the top of the pile, there was a letter addressed to AB.
AB picked up the letter and studied the envelope. He checked the return address. It was from the company he had been waiting to hear from. They had finally made contact. But AB had been expecting a parcel, not a letter.
Opening the envelope, AB pulled out the letter and read:
We regret that your order of the following item has been cancelled:
POWER CORE (AB-SERIES WORKER ROBOT)
Reason for cancellation:
ITEM NO LONGER IN PRODUCTION
A full refund will appear in your account within three days of this letter.
AB stood there, looking at the letter. He stood there for a long time. Then he put the letter back in the envelope and placed it on the top of the pile. Then, leaving the pile of mail on his workbench, he headed back outside.
AB looked up at the sky. He was out on the plains, the place where he had been releasing all the fish. He stood next to the pile of empty plastic cubes and looked up towards Jupiter.
He hadn’t been out there for a couple of months. The fish had stopped coming. AB supposed that the Professor’s subscription had run out at last.
AB was tired. Walking had become a chore, even without the mail on his back. His power was almost used up. He could feel it.
Kneeling down, AB activated his laser drill and cut a fresh hole in the ice. Then he stood and looked up at the sky once more, at the browns and greys of Jupiter that reminded him of sand. He stood there and watched the colours move.
Then, keeping his eyes on the sky, AB stepped forwards, into the hole.
The water was dark, but AB could still see. As he fell through the water he looked up towards the ice, illuminated above him by the light of Jupiter. The ice was the colour of bone, streaked with rusty orange. It was just like the ice in the Professor’s fish tank.
AB’s vision began to glitch. He could feel the water working its way into his body. He was supposed to be waterproof, but he was old now, and worn. He continued to sink. Bubbles streamed up around him.
And then, a brightly-coloured fish swam past his eyes. AB tried to remember if it was one he had seen before, if it was one he had released into the ocean. He couldn’t remember.
His vision had failed now. Still AB continued to sink, down towards the rocky floor of the underground ocean. He could feel the jets of bubbles streaming up around him, flowing around his body, through his fingers. To AB’s surprise, the water was warm.