The Red Fish

📅 Published on September 13, 2021

“The Red Fish”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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ESTIMATED READING TIME — 22 minutes

Rating: 7.50/10. From 2 votes.
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Pirarucu.

The Brazilian name for “the red fish,” known among scientific circles as the arapaima. If you’ve never heard of “the red fish” before now, then prepare yourself, because you won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

Imagine a living torpedo, pushing ten feet and five hundred pounds of bone, muscle, and iron-hard scales. Imagine a primordial, upturned, snakelike head, helming a sleek, tapering body behind it, sporting drab olive green on its flanks that melds into vibrant floral red as it approaches its scallop-shaped tail. Now give this creature a psychological addiction to power and speed, and an unyielding temper to match.

To put it another way, people have died from this fish, being struck by their solid, bony heads as they jump. With cracked skulls or ruptured lungs, they fall out of their boats and sink, unable to draw breath, darkness and turbulent mud the last thing they see before the light snuffs out. Those who survive an attack walk away with broken bones, scarred hearts, and a healthy newfound fear literally hammered into them.

In terms of diet, however, they only eat small animals. Humans are off the menu. Their aggressive responses are triggered when they feel cornered, or during the breeding season when protecting their young. But in my opinion that doesn’t make it much better. Consider this…which animal would impart the worst death? The one that kills for food, because it has to? Or the one whose only concern is ensuring its own survival…by any means necessary?

That’s what we were after. That’s what motivated our endeavor of greed and destruction. That’s what led to where we are today…here and there…all over the place…spread out so thin we’ll never be put back together.

* * * * * *

“Acquisitors” is the term I’d use to describe ourselves. Our organization existed solely to provide covert resources in the “acquisition” of whatever it was we were paid to nab. Laws, politics, socioeconomic status, it mattered naught to us, as long as the client followed through with the price we quoted. After that, it was no questions asked. We did what we needed to follow through on our word. No double standards. No acknowledged pleasantries. Point A to Point B.

Depending on the jobs we carried out, and those who fell victim to our work, we were given a host of other labels, each nastier than the rest. Mercenaries. Traffickers. Thieves. Assassins.

And in the case of the red fish…poachers.

I perfectly remember the conversation I had earlier that day. The palace seemed to breathe gold, with its gilded pillars and cavernous hallways that swam in dim candlelight. Private security guards led me down the corridors to my client’s den, an opulent office space adorned with expensive frescoes and cages of exotic birds. Behind the client’s desk was a window the size of a small house, overlooking the Essequibo River, gleaming silver and yellow in the rising sun.

The whole place stank of exploitation and arrogance. I gazed at the rosewood walls, rising two stories above, almost hearing the cries of the animals and trees that had once called this plot of land home. But I hadn’t come here to judge.

My client regarded me with a stony expression as I sat down. Maybe he thought the live jaguar dozing on his desk between us would be intimidating, to give him some kind of edge over me. But I met his face with a similar blankness. It would take more than a jungle cat to impress me.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me here,” he said. He gestured around his den. “You like it?”

“It’s very grandiose,” I settled with.

“Very,” he agreed. “Spared no expense. I have the will and I have the means. Who am I to deny what I want?” He scratched the jaguar’s ears, who replied with a syrupy growl. “Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, there are still things in this world that elude me. Have you heard of the pirarucu, gringo?”

“‘The red fish,’” I answered. “Yes. I know of it.”

“Manna of the gods,” he said wistfully. “One fish can feed a village for a week. And for the more culinarily inclined, they make for the most wonderful seared steaks. I tell you man, I’ve sampled beasts from all over the world, and none compare to the pirarucu.”

His tone hardened. “But the local government does not respect my tastes. As we speak, our ‘representatives’ – and I use that term loosely – are ratifying laws banning the harvesting of the red fish. Try as I might but I cannot sway a coalition of progressive bureaucrats. And all this is on the heels of a biannual feast I throw for my friends in this beautiful palace.

“Every six months I serve prime pirarucu cuts to my guests. It’s the only thing I can exclusively offer to them. But if I cannot get what I want this time, then I have no leverage. No standing.” He stood up, pacing around his desk. “I refuse to be anything less than I have proven to be. I need to uphold my image. I need the red fish.”

“You want me to illegally capture and bring back a wild pirarucu,” I guessed.

“Hit the nail on the head,” he confirmed, hunching to stroke the jaguar’s flank.

I nodded. I never thought I’d have to play a glorified fisherman in my line of work, but work was work and I dwelled on it no further. “Sounds straightforward enough. Can you possibly tell me where I can find them?”

“Actually, I can,” my client said, straightening up. “Upriver about twenty miles is a…’reserve,’ for lack of a better term. A tract of wetland some liberal environmentalist types have set up for the pirarucu. Probably American,” he added with distaste. “The red fish is rare enough in these parts already. Way I see it, you can scour the jungle for days, rooting through lakes and swamps in the off-chance you find a suitable specimen…or you can sneak into that reserve, slip past the Americans, and just pick one up like it was a bag of groceries.”

I briefly considered the options. “Expediency is my m.o,” I said. “Me and my men will infiltrate that reserve and find you the biggest, fattest pirarucu they have. No one will stand in our way.”

My client smiled and held out his hand. “You, sir, are one of the good ones.”

* * * * * *

The journey upriver could not have gone any smoother. I gathered together a crew of contacts stationed in the country, all dressed in civilian attire. We were to pose as a group of old friends, reuniting in Guyana for a bit of sport fishing along the river, quote-unquote, “just like we used to.” We’d take the ferry up to the tributary, claiming we wanted to fish the point where it merged with the main channel, then slowly make our way up until we hit the entrance to the reserve. The gear bags and tackle boxes we brought along with us in fact held spearguns, crossbows, and pistols. We hoped the first two weapons would be all we needed to quickly and stealthily obtain a pirarucu. The pistols would only be for if things got out of hand.

The trip ate up most of the morning. The only noteworthy thing was the chatterbox of a ferryman who took to probing our crew about what we were doing. I handled all the talking.

“What are you all fishing for?” he inquired.

“Payara and trahira, realistically,” I answered. “And if we’re lucky, surubim.”

“Ah, ah, of course!” he exclaimed. “So you’re not going after the pirarucu?”

I feigned confusion. “Excuse me?”

“Ah, I don’t know any other name, it’s the big fish with the red tail that jumps?”

“Oh, you mean the arapaima,” I said. “No, no, we’re not equipped for those guys.”

“Good, good,” said the ferryman, turning dour. “They’re on the brink, my friend. Thankfully they’re about to pass laws to protect them! And it was only because of the tribesmen that our gutless politicians finally went through with it.”

“The tribesmen?” I asked, legitimately interested this time.

“Yes, yes, some indigenous tribes sent ambassadors to come out and try to convince our representatives to help them protect the pirarucu,” he explained. “The fish is important for their spiritual practices, see, and they’re being wiped out faster than they can keep up with. Guess we’re just too damn good at what we do.” He shook his head disdainfully. “Raping the river of its resources.”

I mulled over this new information as he gabbed away. I wondered if the American activists had somehow garnered an agreement with these native tribes to build the reserve together. Only now do I realize how foolish that sentiment was.

We disembarked at our stop, six of us, three per dugout canoe, and paddled up the fateful tributary.

The tropical sun was sweltering as we forced ourselves up the channel. It was nearing the end of the dry season; the water was muddy and winding, barely deep enough for our boats in some spots. This was preferable though. Low waters meant the fish would be contained in isolated pockets, and considering their air-breathing habits, they’d be easy to spot whenever they broke the surface.

Jagged, protruding rocks and fallen trees only slightly impeded our progress. We found ourselves occasionally having to drag our canoes over dry land to pass up a barrier, but with six men and the rates I promised them as payment, nothing was too much for us.

The final barrier a few miles up piqued my interest. Sharpened wooden pikes jutted from the water facing downstream, like the spiked walls of a moat. Someone had definitely placed them there to keep trespassers out. I stood up in my perch, peering over the pikes. Beyond, the water tapered out into a vast wetland lined with tall grass.

“We’re here,” I said.

That’s when something pricked me in the neck.

I scarcely had time to pluck the thing from my skin when toxic drowsiness overtook my senses. My fingers went limp, and the dart slipped from my grasp into the water. I collapsed, my vision blackening, watching the rest of my crew shudder and fall with me, before everything went cold and dark.

* * * * * *

The sight before us made me wish I had never woken up.

I first realized the six of us had been stripped and bound, hands knotted with vines behind our backs, forced into a kneeling position on the forest floor. I felt a scalding heat on my face. The very air seemed to shimmer before me, on account of the blazing campfire in front of us, its green wood emitting acrid black smoke. It was still the daytime, early afternoon, so I could easily see our captors surrounding us.

One look told me they were indigenous: short, toned, clad only in leaves and loincloths, their deep red skin painted over with vivid black-and-white skeletal patterns. They sneered and hissed, scepters and spears bristling in their grasps.

My heart sank. I hadn’t prepared for the possibility of such a swift ambush; my client had claimed we’d only be dealing with American activists, not exactly the fighting type. What the ferryman told me suddenly fell into place. The reserve belonged to them. And the Americans…if there even were any…might have met their fates at their hands.

“What do you want with us!” I croaked, my throat stinging from the fumes.

A bizarre exchange erupted to my left. Someone rasped in what I could only assume to be the tribe’s language. A second voice responded in the same tongue.

“You came here to hunt the red fish,” the first voice wheezed.

I forced myself to look. It took all my willpower not to shout. Strung up between two tribesmen was an emaciated nude white man, his long hair matted and tangled. His lips were cracked, and his eyes…his eyes were empty, putrescent sockets. To my sustained horror I saw hollow vines had been stuck under the skin on his sore-ridden arms, vines that ran up to fluid-filled sacs made of leaves, toted by the tribesmen flanking him.

A primitive IV system. They were keeping him just barely alive. To translate.

“No,” I yelled, my voice strangled. “We wanted to fish for surubim!”

The same double exchange.

“We searched your bags,” the translator snapped. “You do not need spearguns or firearms to hunt surubim.”

“We use handguns when fishing in Alaska,” I countered, thinking on my feet. “We put down halibut once we bring them in our boats! The surubim are no different!”

The exchange.

“You’ve proven yourself fit for nothing but lies,” the translator said. “That will be one bullet for each lie.”

One of the tribesmen stepped forward and stuck out his arm. I barely registered one of our guns in his hand before he pressed it to one of the men’s forehead and pulled the trigger.

The spray of blood hadn’t even settled before he executed the next man. We panicked and struggled against our bonds, showered by a fine mist of salty redness – but the tribesman emptied the magazine into the air, the concussive, ringing bangs finally forcing us into silence.

“Best start talking truth or they’ll water the ground with the rest of your brains,” the translator leered.

“Alright, alright!” I gasped, fighting the rising whine in my ear. “Yes, we came to find a red fish. But nothing more than that. All we need is one…if you have a sickly one, or even a dead one…that’s all we want. We won’t venture here again. We won’t tell anyone about you!”

The exchange.

“Pillagers and parasites, that’s all you are,” the translator growled. “This forest has suffered enough without you worms slowly killing it with ‘just one more piece.’”

“We have no loyalty to our clients,” I said. “We’re only doing the job we were hired to do…mere agents of circumstance. We have no stake in either side. We don’t deserve your righteous anger. Please…all I ask is to work with me here.”

The exchange.

“If all you seek is a single red fish, then capture one if you can,” said the translator. “But you will face the gauntlet. You will crawl through the muck like a small, pathetic creature.” He interpreted more vocal growls from the tribesman. “…Make it to the end of the reserve, you are free to go. But if you have no red fish, you must leave without one and never come back. All the while, we will hunt you.”

Even as our captors reached down to undo our bonds, scrambled thoughts raged in my mind. I had been in more dangerous situations in the past, but never one where I had been so helpless, so stripped of my faculties. I couldn’t imagine my contacts had ever found themselves in such dire straits either. Finishing the job was one thing, but staying alive to actually follow through was something I rarely had to consider. Until today.

“We give you no fanfare,” the translator said. “Start running.”

A tribesman nocked an arrow.

We bolted, vaulting over the headless corpses of a third of our party. Cruel, mocking laughter followed us as we barreled through the clearing and into the dense cover of trees. The arrow lodged in a trunk barely a foot from my head.

The further in we ran, the wetter and flatter the ground became, until we were up to our shins in muddy, putrid swampwater. We stopped, straining to listen out for approaching hunters in the distance. Apart from our sharp, labored panting, we seemed to be alone.

The other three men took their time to catch their breath. Then they all turned and glared at me.

“What the fuck was that about!” one of them snapped, a man whom I only knew by his codename, Gamma.

“Two of us are dead back there because of you!” Delta concurred.

“Did you know we’d be facing armed hostiles?” Epsilon demanded.

“I was never told about any of this!” I protested. “Apparently our client was misinformed!”

“Or lied,” Gamma muttered.

“None of that matters now,” Epsilon interjected. “What matters is what we do from here. If we get out of the reserve, they’ll stop hunting us. The pikes are about a mile south. We can make it if we run.”

“Belay that,” I said, stepping up to him. “They’re giving us a chance. And if we don’t deliver what we promised to our client, we don’t get paid, and we get blacklisted upon our return.”

“We’ll die trying to catch one of those fish!” said Delta. “You’d rather die than get out of this mess alive?”

“I’ve never failed a client yet,” I said. “And I’m not going to let some fucked-up indigenous types get in my way.”

“We’re outgunned and outnumbered,” Gamma snarled. “They won’t hesitate to kill us.”

“If they wanted us dead, it would have been so by now,” I reasoned. I looked past them, back the way we came. “They’re toying with us. They don’t believe we can make it, much less apprehend one of their precious red fish. Frankly, I’d like to spit in their faces. On both counts.”

“Your pride will lead to our deaths,” said Delta.

“The risk of death was always part of this job,” I retorted. “What the Hell did you think you signed on for?”

“I don’t fear death,” said Gamma. “What I fear is being sentenced to death under false pretenses by ignorant, dishonest clients. Once that trust is breached, consider my services null and void.”

Epsilon and Delta grunted in agreement. I gaped at them. “Gentlemen…we’re supposed to be the best of the best. Cutthroat. Elite. What they turn to when no one else will fit the bill. You renege on this now, it’s over for you. For all of us.”

The three of them glared at me. For a moment I thought they’d consider it.

A tribal shout echoed from the woods. They snapped over to look at it, then back at me.

“Not like this,” said Epsilon. “Naked. Misled. Undignified.” He averted his gaze and trudged away. Delta and Gamma followed him.

I kept quiet, opting to stick to the back of the group. Unbeknownst to them, I was seething, mouthing silent curses at their backs. I myself would bring back a pirarucu. To spite them. To spite them all.

* * * * * *

The further we pushed, the higher the water crept up our bodies, until we were waist-deep in stained, foul-smelling swamp. Brambles and gnarled bushes stuck out from the surface, requiring us to squeeze through or duck under walls of branches. More than before I felt exposed and vulnerable; submerged thorns poked at my bare thighs, and the occasional unseen object brushed against the more delicate bits. I tried not to imagine the sensitive skin down there snagging on an underwater thorn and ripping free…

I should have been grateful that it was only so shallow. During the wet season, the water level would be fifty feet higher. Caimans and anacondas would be swimming nearly four stories above us otherwise.

The other three pretended as though I weren’t there, which I didn’t mind in the slightest. I’d have some less than kind things to say about them once I killed a pirarucu and brought it back myself. Oh, dark, delicious satisfaction…despite the circumstances a laugh yearned to jump free from my chest. I wanted to watch their sorry faces as they choked on humble pie. The red fish became more than just a job for me.

It became validation.

Finally the vegetation thinned out, and our party wound up in a chest-deep lagoon. A quick glance at the sun confirmed we were still going south, towards the pikes, but more submerged trees blocked the horizon beyond. Apparently the reserve stretched on for longer than we’d thought.

As we pushed forward, I noticed something that the other men were too committed to see. Soft swirling ripples sporadically formed at the surface. In these parts, it could have been any number of creatures…but somehow I knew they were the telltale signs of pirarucu taking lungfuls of air.

I lingered, watching the men fan out ahead of me. I could feel sharp, solid branches buried in the muck below my feet. If I could fashion one into a spear…

Lost in thought, the ground below me suddenly gave way, and I sank past my nose. Sputtering, I kicked off and forced myself to tread. I stroked through the water, looking around for the others…but they were still walking, the water at their chests. And within a few seconds, my feet met submerged ground once more.

I must have wandered through a depression, or a hole of some kind. I looked around at the others, and sure enough, Epsilon seemed to bob in the water for a moment before finding his footing again.

“The Hell?” he muttered, reaching down and scraping up something from the water.

The moment his hand broke the surface I knew we were fucked.

I only saw the sunlight passing through the eggs slipping between his fingers before the surface next to him exploded.

Epsilon cried out in pain, clutching his right shoulder and kicking off from his attacker. The way his arm hung limp told me it was dislocated…from a large, fast, blunt force.

“We’re in their fucking nests!” I screamed, strafing to the side. “Spread out! Away from the center!”

Delta and Gamma propelled themselves away from the fray. Epsilon could only manage an ungainly half-treading movement. Even in the cloudy water I could see his own destruction in his wake – a cloud of dislodged fish eggs spiraling in the whirls he was making. Claps of water snapped next to him.

“Get to the trees!” I commanded. As Delta and Gamma reached for the overhanging boughs, I fished a broken branch from the silt and set off after him. It was flimsy and short, next to useless as a weapon, but even if I could just injure one of the pirarucu, I could both save Epsilon and pursue a then-crippled fish…

I saw the whirl before it jumped. Hot instinct took over and I sidestepped in the water. A foaming torrent flared up and I saw it…a living missile with beady, pitch-black eyes, long as I was tall, slicing through open air like it was nothing. A whip of wind slashed my cheek as it streaked past and splashed into the water behind me. A foot to my right and it would have taken my head off.

I tried to curse but all that came out was a strangled yelp. My vision tunneled and I forced myself forward, trying to get to Epsilon, who had almost reached a submerged tree, facing backwards and kicking at his pursuers…

Just beyond the range of his flailing feet, one rocketed from the water and struck him square in the chest.

Even from a distance I saw his ribs collapse. A single deathly puff of air expelled from his mouth, followed swiftly by a dribble of blood. Capillaries burst in his eyes as he choked one last time. Then he sank below the surface.

It killed him, I told myself. My God it fucking killed him.

The flimsy waterlogged stick in my grasp seemed even more useless.

Commotion behind me welled up – I whipped around to find Gamma and Delta had hoisted themselves up a tree out of the water – but the branches were splitting under their grasps. Below, the muddy water churned with a looming fish.

“Higher!” Delta growled, hurling himself upwards. His branch snapped and hung limply by a few sinews – but he had secured a grip on a higher bough. One-handed, the man curled his arm and threw his upper body over the branch, his bare feet a good two meters from the water.

Gamma lowered himself to build momentum and pull the same stunt.

But his branch snapped. He plunged into the water, still maintaining his death grip. Once again, a few sinews kept the branch attached to the tree, and he scrambled to try and climb it like a rope.

A monstrous pirarucu lanced through the air, and sliced through the man’s face like butter.

Gamma’s head drooped to the side. But I could clearly see the gaping hole where his lower jaw once was, shiny and ragged with torn flesh. A broad stripe of red gushed down his exposed front.

His fingers loosened. He slid down the branch agonizingly slow, crashing into the water. Blood clouded from his lifeless corpse, which immediately roiled with tiny scavenging fry.

“Oh fuck me,” I gasped.

The lagoon had been churned into a turbulent cauldron of mud and blood, but I saw no more signs of surfacing pirarucu. I signaled silently to Delta, pointing from him to the line of dense cover at the lagoon’s far end. As he navigated through the branches, keeping clear of the water’s surface, I lowered past my nose and waded forward as smoothly as possible.

My heartbeat amplified in the water, nothing short of a signaling drum for any more pirarucu. But nothing more disturbed the surface. Apparently we’d moved past their nests at that point.

I met Delta at the treeline. The swamp stretched far beyond their twisted trunks, but at least the water level was at our waists now. He lowered himself down from the branches and splashed in front of me with a simmering glare.

“Still vying to take down one of those beasts?” he said coldly.

“Silence yourself. And savor whatever shred of dignity you have left,” I snapped.

“Those things cut our party in half in less than a minute,” Delta growled. “‘Dignity’ is out of the question. You and I are next…I pray I can at least watch you die first.”

Rage bled in me and I splashed over to him, grabbing his forearm. “Why not kill me now then, and reap the satisfaction?”

Delta didn’t resist; he simply stared at me with the coolest of expressions. “Because you’re just not worth it.”

I shoved him away but responded no further. As angry as I was I couldn’t deny that he was correct, to an extent…without proper weapons, taking out a pirarucu in their turf would be suicide. There were two bodies in the lagoon north of us who could attest to that. Completing this mission never before felt more nebulous. I’d never admit it to Delta, but simply getting out alive seemed the most pragmatic option. I’d been trained to think outside the box, to improvise, to always be two steps ahead of the game…but now I felt truly trapped, unable to think beyond what I could immediately see. The tribesmen didn’t think we could do it. Time was proving them more and more right.

To our left, something rustled in the bushes. Delta and I whipped around to look, but the undergrowth was too dense. A hoarse whisper cut through the brush…the tribesmen’s native language.

“Move,” I said. “They said they’d be hunting us too.”

The unseen warrior shouted something, and a horribly familiar noise erupted in response.

“Fuck! Go, go go!” I shouted. Delta and I submerged, breaststroking through the water, dipping underneath the overhanging branches.

Two splashes sounded off somewhere behind us, followed by the sharp, noisy slaps of dog-paddling.

We arrived at a fallen tree and dove underneath it – the log’s slimy underside grazed past our backs – and we emerged unscathed about fifteen feet beyond it.

I shot a glance behind me.

They jumped on top of the log: two huge, muscular, tawny pitbulls, with red-tinted eyes and black lips jagged and torn from barking. They caught sight of us, their teeth gleaming like sabers – then they sprung into the water, panting and paddling towards us.

“Under!” Delta shouted. We both submerged, scattering in separate directions. I felt around more than I saw, pulling and squeezing my way past sunken roots.

With my sense of touch heightened, I detected the dog’s wake before it could strike.

I wheeled around, stirring up a cloud of silt – and I saw pale eyes and a maw of canine teeth emerge from the gloom.

I thrust my hand below its mouth – I grasped the wet fur of its throat and hung on. The dog struggled and writhed, spinning underwater and dragging me along – all the while snapping its ravening jaws at me, mere inches from my face, bubbles streaming, eyes rolling, paws clawing at my exposed arms and stomach –

It kicked to the surface. Sunlight and clean air hit me and I gasped for breath – the pitbull emerged next, still held at arm’s length, its barks like railgun blasts in my face –

It paddled forward, pushing me through the water until my back crashed into a tree. The dog slashed and clawed, overpowering my arm’s strength, inching closer and closer to my throat –

With a bellow I thrust my free arm through the air and drove my thumb into its eye. It yelped and yanked its neck from my grasp, half-blinded and paddling off. I looked around for Delta, who was twenty feet off from me, locked in a similar half-submerged battle with the second pitbull. I swam forward to help.

When I reached them I grabbed the scruff of the dog’s neck and yanked it off Delta, who was scratched up and bleeding freely into the water. I primed my arm to gouge the second dog’s eyes.

The first dog lunged from behind and seized my wrist. The pain was excruciating, like a car door with nails, and I let go, letting the force carry me backwards and underwater once more. I heard screams above the surface. Before the bones in my wrist could crack, the first dog let go and pursued Delta along with the second.

Survival overruled. I kicked off away from the fray, resurfacing some ten feet off, my wrist burning with agony. Delta and the two dogs had been reduced to a watery frenzy of limbs, blood, barks, and screams. The man got in a few blows, signaled by the high-pitched yelps and the flying tufts of fur. But within seconds the fur was replaced with human flesh, and Delta’s struggling form devolved into a dismembered mangle of red.

His screams silenced.

Fighting the urge to vomit, I simply turned and swam south, towards freedom. The pitbulls didn’t follow, perhaps too weakened or too preoccupied to do so.

Once several yards and more undergrowth separated us, I stopped to catch my breath, my injured wrist trembling. My vision overturned, my head was fuzzy with adrenaline. I had grown to hate my crew, but I hadn’t wanted them to pay like this. The red fish was supposed to do that. I was supposed to do that. I’d wanted them to feel the misery of defeat and humiliation.

Now the red fish meant nothing to me. Nothing but a cold reminder of all that had put us through this mess.

I continued onward through the undergrowth. If the opportunity presented itself, I’d take it.

But otherwise? Getting out alive was now the goal.

I emerged into another lagoon. This time the setting was recognizable. At the far end, the water narrowed into a channel. A channel blocked off by sharp pikes.

I looked around. I appeared alone. I could make it across. Leave the reserve. They’d let me live.

Red fish or no red fish, I was going to make it.

As I swam forward, I noticed something that hadn’t been there before – an overturned canoe floating in the water before me, surrounded by surfacing pirarucu.

My mind immediately drew a connection. Much like how floating debris in the open ocean attracted seafaring fish, this abandoned canoe seemed to serve as a gathering point for pirarucu. And they hadn’t noticed me. If I could sneak up on them and catch one, just one by surprise, I’d have the edge. Holding on and dispatching it would be another story…but I tried not to think about it as I entered stealth mode and approached the canoe.

The fish continued to surface regularly. Thirty feet. My motions were careful and calculated. Only my eyes and forehead were visible above the water. Twenty feet. They still seemed preoccupied with the canoe. The boat was dark in color, not the same ones we had arrived in several hours earlier. Was it one of the tribesmen’s canoes? What was it doing overturned in the middle of the lagoon in the first place?

At ten feet, the fish scattered.

I slapped at the water, belting out a string of curses. It was over. I lacked the energy to pursue them further, and the longer I lingered, the more likely the tribesmen would find some other way to kill me.

The canoe moved.

It swiveled in the water to face me. That’s when I saw the pattern of scales, the organic way the sunlight reflected off of it.

It sank. A red, scallop-shaped tail the size of a sewer grate swirled through the water above it before it disappeared.

“Oh, God,” was all I could muster.

The water below transformed into a suction. I was too paralyzed to resist. I sank feet-first below the surface, watching helplessly as my legs disappeared into the leviathan pirarucu’s gaping mouth. I caught sight of its black eyes, unfeeling, uncaring, before my head slipped past its bony lips.

Within a second, I was encased in a black, fleshy, watery coffin.

True fear set in. I thought back to my crew…the violent progression of death that had whittled us down, each more hideous than the last…ending with me, being swallowed alive by an outlandishly huge red fish…

The muscles in its throat contracted, squeezing me further down its gullet. I gave up. I waited for the sting of stomach acid, the strangling noxiousness of gas.

Instead, what I got was light.

Not sunlight. This was a deep, hellish red. I couldn’t determine where it was coming from. I assumed it was a hallucination, induced from lack of oxygen. But I could clearly see the inside of the fish illuminated around me…the pulsating walls of its guts, the outline of its spine and ribs, dripping with moisture.

There were others. There were others inside the fish with me.

I rolled over onto my stomach and screamed. Five bodies below me, all staring up in differing states of grotesqueness. Two with shattered foreheads. One bleeding from the mouth. One with his lower jaw missing. One nearly torn apart, his muscles and organs exposed.

My men.

For the first time in my life, I broke. I closed my eyes and shrieked, beating at the organic wall around me, the cadavers below, my own flesh, crying for deliverance, an end, a mercy killing to take me away from whatever fresh Hell this was.

* * * * * *

I don’t remember much else after that. All I know is at some point I ended up outside the reserve, back where we started.

Our canoes were still there, having run aground on the sloping bank. I stood far up the shoreline, watching as more boats showed up at the pikes. They were slick, motorized, definitely government vessels. Military police jumped from the boats, regarding our abandoned canoes before crossing over inside the reserve.

They didn’t look at me once. I doubt they noticed me. I doubt they could have noticed me.

Instead, their attention was drawn to something in the lagoon beyond the pikes. It was a corpse, floating facedown. From my distance I couldn’t tell whose body it was. It could have been mine, for all I knew.

“Yep, it’s one of them,” one of the soldiers confirmed. “Matches the description the ferryman gave us.”

“All they wanted to do was go fishing,” another said, shaking his head.

“Those goddamn savages,” a third growled. “See how far their little ‘deal’ goes now.”

Brandishing their carbines, they stalked deeper into the reserve.

* * * * * *

A day later, drifting among the crowds of the local town, I learned that with the murders of the six “fishermen,” the deal between the politicians and the indigenous tribesmen had dissolved. The proposed law protecting the pirarucu was tossed, and the tribe responsible for their deaths had been “neutralized.”

The atmosphere in the town was of celebration. With no more encroaching regulations, and no indigenous tribes to worry about, local fishermen were readying their harpoons and nets to set out and take advantage of the surprise bounty. Some expressed their concerns, warning that the sudden influx of fishing pressure would irrevocably damage the pirarucu populations, leading to their extinction from the area. But the red fish’s allure was too strong to grant them any credence.

A few of these fishermen, I noticed, were showing off new toys: spearguns, dynamite, canisters of poison. Things they couldn’t have gotten without a little outside help. It didn’t take long to guess who in the region had the money and the motivation to fund their missions.

I guess my client was right in the end. With the will and the means, who was he to deny what he wanted?

Suddenly Gamma’s suspicions about having been lied to made sense.

I couldn’t stop them if I tried. Greed had overtaken them; they were beyond saving, mindless husks set out to reap the pirarucu. In the end, there’d only be one winner. And I hated him for it.

Instead, all I could do was wonder what would become of them.

I found myself wishing my fate upon them all. A stripping. A gauntlet. Suffering. And finally, to cap it all off…ravenous, all-consuming, death.

Hopefully, in the end, they’d learn to realize the futility of their endeavors. Maybe they’d end up like me. Something less than flesh, more than idea. An imprint of sin. A shade.

Hopefully, they’d learn to finally respect the red fish.

Rating: 7.50/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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