THIS IS OUR PERFECT LITTLE TOWN

Nas fucked up and asked the door guy where they keep the Clipfish. He didn’t think it was funny. He was about to make us leave when I slid between them, bumping Nas slightly with my shell.

“It was a joke all right? She didn’t mean anything.”

He had a tentacle on his taser. The folds around his beak were puckered in a cephaloform frown. 

“Come on man, we’ve been in line for hours.”

He swelled the bulbs on his snout. “Some fucken joke.”

“My bad,” Nas whistled. Her tiny orca eyes darted from the door guy to me to the beckoning deeps of the club.

The door guy glanced over my shell. Behind us half the town stood in line. Old crumbling apartments leaned over the alley on both sides, draped with annelid clotheslines and creeping tubeworms. Ultrahumid air pulsed in the nighttime breeze, spreading navy blue mist over everything. It all looked so sad from the precipice of the club, where muted hyperbass rumbled the ground and the auras of wormlights flashed full of possibilities. It had been a long week. The gunkshop had been hell. I needed in. 

Thankfully I knew something about this particular octo-cop. I slid a little pink shard out of my shell and held it where only he could see. “Does this help at all?” 

He didn’t look back at us, just clicked his beak and slowly stepped away from the door. I planted the shard in one of his tentacles as Nas and I slid inside.

It was already crowded. The sandy dancefloor raged with locals of every shape, all coming up on something or other. The walls on either side were lined with dozens of bathrooms, one for each taxon. That was where the real party was, where inhibitions truly were left outside the stalls, where all the chems and toxins you couldn’t get at the bar passed through a complex network of gloryholes. 

Onstage the opener, a DJ with nudibranch hair, coded some nostalgic drum-and-bass directly into the air through a glowing audiokinetic interface. Behind her a noisetronica band was setting up, the act everyone had come to see. Glowworms blinked green and aquamarine in time with the breakbeats. Within a couple loops I’d made room for myself at the bar. One advantage of the spiked shell edit was plenty of personal space.

“Can’t fucking believe that guy.” Nas seethed heavy through her blowhole while she slammed her first shot past dull yellow teeth. 

“You really shouldn’t talk about that stuff here.” I finished my shot and ordered another. Mucohol for me, whiskey for the delphinid.

Nas shrugged. There was something she wasn’t telling me, and I knew it had something to do with her insistence I take her out tonight. Usually she wanted to stay home all weekend, with half her brain asleep and the other half cruising forums on the chemnet. She hated the club. But I didn’t feel like interrogating her just then.

illustration by Klayton Sherlock

I’m not much of a dancer, at least not with the shell on. I staked out a patch of sand and let myself sway. Another shot and I slid half a shard into one of my mucus membranes, felt my heartbeat rise and syncopate to match the music. Dathumps on one and the & of three, now. It reminded me of the tracks I used to make back when rent was only a few mil a month, before day jobs, before the gunkshop and the grind. I planted another half shard. My antennae could parse pheromones in fantastic detail then. These were good doses. The glow from the worms was cool liquid on my skin. My head was the snare and my baseform legs rattled like hihats. 

At some point there was someone with long eyestalks and a ketamine staff. They were mostly sea hare, very little baseform, inky and tall. Apparently we were dancing. 

“You smell insane,” they said. 

“I can share.”

In an empty gastropoid stall the music was a deep rumble, lo-passed through the coral walls. They were on me like a shark. Designer robes unraveled off their mantle cavity and an aperture pressed into me, harder than I expected. I found their mouth and kissed through mucus. It was disgusting, I loved it. I tripped over the toilet and they caught me.

I broke off a quarter shard and we passed it between salivary ducts. 

They said something like how you want it and I just smiled. I wasn’t thinking about anything then. The gunkshop, my terrible apartment, my dead-end life was a universe away, right where it should be. My hare pulled me closer and I discovered they, like me, had taken the simultaneous hermaphroditism edit. We had options. 

I closed my stalks and saw a couple of orca eyes in the darkness. 

“Hold on,” I muttered. 

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing at all, it’s just—I should probably run this by my primary before we go too far.”

“Huh. All right.” My hare slimed off me and readjusted their robes. 

“Sorry.”

“Can I just—”

“Oh yeah sure.” 

I slipped them a shard. I still had a few left. 

They slid out under the stall. I took a second to put myself together in the mirror. My head felt clogged with pheromones. Another couple seconds and I would have gone all in. I’d done the right thing though. Nas wasn’t too possessive but she didn’t like surprises. 

illustration by Klayton Sherlock

I found her next to the stage talking to the couple who’d been standing behind us in line. They were Unmade, those luddites and trads who still insisted on the human baseform, only taking minor cosmetic and performance-based edits. They looked sexy and boring. 

Nas was stimmed up, talking fast. “The first ones appeared like a hundred years back. One of the big biotechs used VR to let people sample the latest gene edits, a kind of immersive try before you buy thing. You could experience a few hours as a halfwhale or jellygirl or whatever without needing to commit to the edit. They didn’t realize they were agglomerating a zillion chunks of virtual genetic code in the deep registry of the VR program—their Recycle Bin was full of life. And eventually all that junk code managed to piece itself into a series of extremely complex neoorganisms, which then exploited the VR interface to upload themselves into the customers’ chromosomes and clip out into physical reality. That’s how they got the name. The victims were completely genefucked and most turned suicidal the second they incorporeated. They’re supposed to look incredible.” 

One of the Unmade snickered. “You’re one of those phenotype weebs huh.”

I wrapped a lower tentacle around Nas’s flippewrist and spun her around. “Hey,” I said in a low voice. I couldn’t fathom why she was ranting to two strangers about Clipfish and forum rumors. Something was up with her.

“You good?” I watched the Unmade couple scoff and slink away into the crowd.

“I’m fine,” Nas said. Her eyes were wide and her teeth were clenched, but she was lucid. 

“I met this sea hare.”

Nas rolled her eyes and clicked. “Of course you did.”

“Hey I’m letting you know. Just like we said.”

“Yeah. It’s cool.” It seemed like she was upset or distracted or both. I asked her to dance. 

We swayed with each other, her little dorsal fin brushing the side of my neck. The DJ coded a climactic swell into the air, all rolling kicks and sidechained joy. Pressing myself into Nas felt familiar, like a dance I’d always known, and I felt almost lost again, and then I realized I’d been talking and she’d been ignoring me.

“—they probably wouldn’t mind if you joined. You’d like them I think. Hey. Are you listening?”

The DJ set ended in a typhoon of white noise. Everyone cheered. The noise band would be taking the stage soon.

Nas spun around. “I need you to do something for me.” She reached in her pocket for a flat pink pheromone tablet that reeked of audio code.

“What is this?” I somehow felt more sober looking at it. “Why did you want to come out tonight anyway?”

She frowned. “I told you.”

“When?”

“You were too dosed to remember, I guess?”

“No? I only do it on weekends.” She knew I was lying, obviously. It had been a long week at the gunkshop. You have to get through one way or another.

“I need you to give this to the band. You have to get them to play it during their set.”

Her eyes drifted to the stage, to the band’s junkyard of instruments and equipment, which included oscillators and processing units of every era alongside the latest codeboards. 

“Why don’t you ask them?” I sounded colder than I meant to. 

“You said you would.”

“I did?”

“Come on. You know you’re better at talking than me.”

I held the tablet in my hand. Chemical data covered the filmy screen. It was like nothing I’d ever processed before. This must have been her plan, to get the band to play some custom audiokinetics she’d found on her forums. I started to feel irritated. I was here for the party, not whatever Nas was scheming. But her eyes were so hopeful, so determined, the way they always got when she found one of her obsessions. I could only ever be impressed with her ability to care about things. 

“I’ll try.”

***

I bribed my way into the green room with a shard and a bold-faced lie about how I used to hang out with the band in college. Inside I found the bassist, a tall and sunken-looking gulper eel edited far out of baseform, sucking some sort of inky substance off the DJ opener’s stomach while her vibrant slughair coiled sensuously around his neckpouch. 

He was understandably annoyed when I entered.  

“Uh. Hello?”

“Hey. Sorry to interrupt. I know you don’t know me but me and my partner are huge fans. She whipped up some code for you and it’d mean the world if you could check it out.”

I shoved the tablet in front of his maw before he could call for security. Pheromones stung my membranes as the code danced onscreen.

“Do you think you could spin this somewhere in your set tonight?”

“We don’t take requests. What the fuck?” He started to raise up on his anal fin.

“Wait,” said the DJ. “This is sick actually. Look at the harmonic spectra here. The low-end definition is insane.”

He flexed his gaping chin. He and the DJ started to poke through the code, muttering about quantization and polyrhythms. It made me miss writing my own music. I crushed up a shard and offered them both a keybump. “So you think you can work it in somewhere?”

“Hey!” called someone from backstage. “We’re on.” 

The bassist snorted and gave me a look I couldn’t place. He tucked the tablet into his shirt, shrugged, and went to join his bandmates.

illustration by Klayton Sherlock

I found Nas right where I left her, standing excitedly at the front of the stage.

“You did it!” Nas whistled. “Stay close to me tonight, OK?” 

The crowd erupted in cheers as the band took the stage and opened their set. It began in extratone, the lead coder ripping open a blastbeat at such a high BPM it came as pure noise, covering the entire sonic spectrum at deafening volume. It felt like some beautiful heart attack, like being torn out of my shell and my body and my soul and held in the ultrahumid air as some base element, some central jewel. Then it began to slow, eventually pulling its components apart into an intelligible palette of synths, percussion, and arguably tasteful noise components. The other players started to accompany the piece on traditional audio instruments (neurosynth, sanguiphone, theremin, bass guitar). I settled into something like myself again. 

The crowd pressed toward the stage, crowding us into the front row. Nas moved her hips halfheartedly into me. She was glancing wildly, a hungry look on her cetacean face. Everyone else in the club was dancing, really dancing, and drinking and getting close and tugging at each other’s clothes. Everything I wanted. 

I wished I’d left her at home. I didn’t care about whatever weird conspiracy she’d picked up online. It was making me feel paranoid, aggravating the worst possible side effect of the shards. The musicians had moved into a kind of punctuated drone, all the noise broken down into an expansive, all-encompassing Note on which new sonic landscapes would be built. Nas was still scanning the stage, not even pretending to dance anymore. Across the crowd, my hare was dancing on an Unmade. 

“I’m gonna get a drink,” I said, and left her.

illustration by Klayton Sherlock

I bought four shots from the barsquid and zorbed them with half a shard. The music wriggled under my slime, under my skin. I posted up near the back of the crowd and watched the band code signals into the air, joined by the analog tones of their gigantic speakers. They sampled lyrics, some teen dream anthem from centuries ago:

Right on—You want to be a different life form

Invent new kinds of ways to get old

I feel you in the worst way

I’m tryna get that kind of insane

That’s the way we do it in Los Angeles…

Everyone sang, squelched, clacked claws, whistled along. This was the best the town got, here in the depths of the club. Faces I half-recognized glowed in the wormlight and bled together. I thought I saw my hare sneak off with some tuna but it might have been someone else. My eyes kept finding Nas up at the front of the stage, searching, seeking something dark, something wrong buried under the euphoria. When the Clipfishes first emerged from the VR program they’d acted psychotically, torn by all the instincts and conflicting desires of a hundred evolutionary lines. Untold lifeforms mashed together in dementia and misery. Most had found ways to kill themselves or been put down by the city.

I didn’t want to think about any of this. I tried to get lost, to dissolve into the noise and the rhythm and the at-last-uninhibited collective organism of our town. What was I losing, anyway? I knew where to run, but what was I running from?

More mucohol, another half shard. A gorgeous Unmade danced near me, touched me in a way I didn’t like. Why didn’t I like it? I bobbed with the band’s rhythm awkwardly until she took the hint and moved on. The next body I brushed against was my sea hare, inky skin shimmering turquoise. Pheromones and sweat. 

“There you are.” Breath like warm blankets.

“Here I am.” 

“You talk to your partner?”

“Yeah.” Was I smiling? Why not?

“So? Got any more candy for me?” Candles. Wax words. Sticky. Their aperture hard and pressing on me again.

Everything blurred. Too many shots or something else. I reached for a stim to sharpen up. When I raised my stalks I wasn’t looking at the hare anymore. It was Nas, standing sideways and tugging at my shell. 

“Do you hear that?” she was saying. 

I heard harsh noise, sticky wet with infrasound, or more accurately I felt it. 

“I like this song,” I slurred.

“It’s not a song. This is it.” Nas was clicking excitedly. “This is liberation code.”

It sounded like noise to me. I liked the noise. I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted to feel it. Where’d the hare go? I must have lost them again.

Onstage the gulperfaced bassist had joined the frontman, playing a duet on the audiokinetic interface. Coding the music together. Atop skittering drums and sampled whalesong they rendered a tremendous drone, a booming earthshaking fissure of pure tone, low and loud enough to split the floor.

And the floor split. 

The music continued, but the dancing suddenly stopped. People staggered back from the stage, all gawking at a ridge that had erupted in the sand of the dancefloor. 

“Holy shit,” said Nas. I was half lost, not fully convinced by what I was seeing. 

The dancefloor burst like an egg sac and sand showered the room. It dug into my mucus in a thousand little desiccations, shocked me to attention. I rubbed my irritated eye stalks until I could see. The band was no longer playing, but their code still filled the room with rhythmic harsh noise. It only barely muffled the sound of something huge clawing up from below.

The Clipfish lifted itself on crabhands and tentacles, on snail feet attached to primate legs, raising forms long extinct and forms that had never had a chance to properly evolve. It took all colors in the dim wormlight. It shed feathers and scales and teeth and various hair as it thrust itself above the broken floor, above the stage, toward the ceiling. It seemed to radiate loathing, as if every movement was a bid to destroy itself. 

Security ran in from all directions. So much security, all edited with heavy weaponry. They surrounded the rising creature(s) with tasers, blue-rings and pinmissiles. Shouts rose throughout the bar as it finally dawned on the dazzled crowd that this was no performance. This was something beautiful and horrible and free. Its captors were scrambling to subdue it and apprehend those responsible. The creature(s) swelled and spat a variety of liquids and effluents onto itself and the gathering security.

One of them was shouting something. The door man from before. He was pointing at us.

“That’s them,” he was telling the others. Weapons turned from the Clipfish to us.

Nas had her chempad out and was livestreaming the Clipfish’s ascent, struggling to fit its massive and genetically impossible form into the screen. She didn’t notice the guards approaching. She didn’t even hear the shots ring out. Something hot whizzed past my head. I grabbed Nas around the waist and dove us both under the rim of the nearest bar counter.

“Get in!” 

I pulled Nas and myself underneath my shell, my jagged doublesolid spire I’d saved a year’s salary to custom-edit. Stundarts laced with conotoxin rattled my armor and fell to the ground. They knew what Nas had done and they would punish us for it. Pinmissles glanced off my spiral and I held Nas tight beneath me. 

The Clipfish dropped two giant crystalline legs onto the ground and pressed itself up through the ceiling. Coral debris rained down on us. I glanced up from under the shell to see the monster raise itself through the open roof. Then it was gone.

Shouts. Orders. The guards stopped shooting at us. They chased the Clipfish out the building and down the street.

I held Nas tight in my shell until the cacophony grew distant. I slowly rose, heart pounding in no particular rhythm, confused by doses and booze and mindless panic. It took several seconds for the world to stop spinning.

Rubble and dust surrounded us. Above the shattered ceiling, dark clouds and navy mist covered the sky. The band was nowhere to be seen.

“That was unbelievable,” said Nas. “Imagine having all those edits, all those busted genes raging through your body. Being so wrong, and just kept alive and forced to deal with it.”

We ventured outside. The other clubgoers staggered alongside us. Everyone was wasted and confused, but luckily no one was seriously injured. In the distance dust and crushed coral rose like turbid seafloor into the air. The Clipfish was on the move. Soon, the city council would send a collection team to put it out of its misery.

“The security’s gone,” I said. “So are the barsquids.”

“They’d been harboring it here for a long time,” explained Nas. “Prospecting for edits to sell on the black market. Non-evolutionary stuff is huge in other towns. They’re probably trying to get as far from here as they possibly can now. If the city catches them they’re fucked.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Me and the girls on the forum figured it out.” Nas lit her pipe and smoke rose from her blowhole like a snuffed candle. “I can’t fucking believe I got video of all those phenotypes. I’m about to make the biggest post of my life.”

A cityworm sped past a few blocks down the way, loaded with control agents. The sky started to lighten from navy to the cobalt of daytime.

Nas punched my shoulder. “Dude where are you?”

I zoned into her black swimming eyes. “Sorry.”

“Whatcha thinking about.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. She looked so triumphant then, smoking in the predawn murk. She’d made so much happen, so much planning and execution. Had I known what she was up to all along? Where had I been all this time? 

I flexed my mucus membranes, sloughing off rubble and dust. “I’m sorry I haven’t been paying attention. To you I mean.”

There was a short silence. “It’s all right. You still have a shell for me when I need it.”

She leaned in and we watched the trail of destruction spread dust toward the west. I felt good then. I wanted to feel better. I fingered the few remaining shards in my shellpocket. 

I pulled my hand out and put it around Nas instead. 

“Do you want to go home?”

“Please.”

We made our way up the block, passing under tubeworms and annelid clotheslines and the leaning roofs of coral apartments. We showered, I changed my mucus and slept. On Monday I told the gunkshop I was quitting. I spent the day at home with Nas, cruising the forums on the chemnet, reading about genetics and drama. The next day I bought a cheap audiokinetic board and some codebooks. I started to write some music.

— Karter Mycroft is a writer, musician, game developer, and ocean scientist who lives in Los Angeles. You can find them on Twitter @kartermycroft or at kartermycroft.com.

— Klayton Sherlock is a marine biologist and artist who lives and works in California’s San Joaquin River Delta. You can find him on Instagram @coral_bacon.