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A Consensus Told in Chromatophores

by Andi C. Buchanan

2817 words

Democracy shades black-brown-yellow, is iridescent, buoyed up on reflective cells: guanophores and leucophores. Democracy is in warm shallow waters, and among the glass towers that poke the surface into the hostile dry-world. Democracy is a consensus told in chromatophores, the shimmering of reflection, stippling and mottling, a shifting gradient across the skins of the councilors, a decision formed, a propulsion or a conservation.

Down in the deep waters, he ripples his fringe, undulating, pulling him forward in the dark space. Water sits in his cuttlebone, heavy like his conscience. He has chosen both, and both are what has brought him down here, alone, where the maintenance systems at the base of the city’s towers hum endlessly.

Among the pepper dulse and the spiraled wrack, Casilo pauses at last, watching the fronds wave above him in the water and hoping for a miracle, that in the three days of postponement, some light will break through, shimmering blue and green on all their skin, and he will live, and he will live unburdened. Above and around him, the fronds sway black to brown to purple. The glimpse of an occasional wild animal; a hermit crab or sea lily. A free life beckons; outcast below or beyond the city, hunting shrimp for sustenance.

Democracy is responsibility and facing your decisions. Democracy is jet propulsion, up up up through the waters, a backwards motion, water through your syphon. Democracy is arms meeting with those of others, the reserved touch of acknowledgement, as you make your way back. They approach with questions or complaints or have a vague sense of Casilo’s importance, and it draws them inwards like fish to a siphonophore’s blinking light.

Casilo commiserates, acknowledges, rarely argues. Yes, it does seem like they won’t get the changes to the educational system they’d hoped for, but please be assured he won’t stop trying. He’s sorry he didn’t push harder on increasing energy generation, but when it came down to it the budgetary arguments were strong, and he felt the consensus reached was appropriate for now, hopes you will understand.

Behind him, a familiar voice. The others dissipate, sensing that this is no longer a public space, that he is no longer available to them.

“Hocsi…” Casilo’s voice trails off. He sees her most days, and yet it is only now he notices her aging. The signs are subtle — tentacles with less tone than they once had, her color a shade or two paler, her eyes slightly cloudy — but they are unmistakably there.

“I came to find you. You haven’t seemed yourself lately and, well, I was concerned. I hope you’re not letting the job get to you too much.”

Casilo spreads his tentacles in front of him. When he closes his eyes he sees the color configurations of previous decisions spread out in front of him. He runs through the minutiae of political process in his apartment at night, unable to sleep.

“Not too much,” he says. “But you know it can take a lot of focus at times.”

“Oh I know!” Her laughter is only a subtle tone in her voice, dignified, professional, but Casilo recognizes it easily. “But it’s still a job. A duty, certainly. A calling, perhaps. Don’t forget that we do it to make this world better. Don’t forget to enjoy that better world as you go. And I’m always here if you need to talk about anything.”

Casilo acknowledges her with a swift, downwards motion. “Of course. Thank you.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Take care of yourself.”

As she leaves, the others start to swarm back, but none of them mention the trench development, and that is Casilo’s saving grace. He cannot think of the deep crack in the floor of the ocean, much less the proposals for energy development. He calls this day a write-off. Tomorrow he will catch up on correspondence, meet with constituents, and in the afternoon attend council where they will once again attempt to reach a consensus on rehabilitation and exile terms for lawbreakers. Tomorrow he will do his duty.

Today, though, he swims into the tower that houses his apartment. Alone between the glass walls, he turns up the temperature a few notches, selects music and accompanying soft lights to flow through the water, swirling patterns all around him. He helps himself to a snack of spiced mussels. Some of the younger councilors say eating animals is wrong. He hopes he will never have to be embroiled in that debate.

Come morning, the light is soft through the water. He listens to a new bulletin while preparing himself for the day. The trench development debate is on hold for three days, awaiting responses to questions about a report — a temporary reprieve, a prolonged pain. Today they will debate a trade agreement with the Vornwaters, south of here where ice may linger on the crest of a wave, and the seas below are warmed by great generators to reach habitable temperatures.

Casilo looks through his notes, bright colors and patterns on the tablet he holds in front of him. It’s a complicated proposal, not just a question of numbers but full of restrictions and requirements around disclosure of information and secrecy and competition, with knock-on effects to other agreements, at least one of which involves trade not with a region but with individual components — companies, they call them — who each produce something different.

He thanks the makers, and thanks his assistant, that he has clear summaries already prepared for him, along with notes detailing the likely impact on his constituents. He makes some comments of his own — questions he wants to ask. He has an idea which way he is likely to vote, but will listen to the arguments, knowing that achieving consensus is key.

Casilo swims out to face the day’s decision. This one, at least, he will survive.

• • •

Casilo grew up in a block of rooms that overlooked the council. Children were raised on the highest levels of buildings, where the water was shallow and the light soft, and his earliest memories are of the public galleries, watching the assembly debates, learning the trends of color changes just by watching, long before he could understand the topics being discussed. In the early hours of all but the most controversial debates, most of the councilors were a neutral brown; such a display was considered a sign of good faith, even for those already certain which way they leant. But as the discussions drew on, the colors gradually changed. You’d barely notice an individual move if the commentators didn’t announce it, but when they all changed together, shifting waves of yellow or black, Casilo felt possibility welling inside him, a knowledge that this was where he belonged.

The first time he used his veto, he was proud to do so, prepared to die even though only a genetic anomaly or undiagnosed condition would have led to such an extreme fate. Those were the days when they swam on the edge of war, when there was talk of expansion and invasions, and blockades were erected between buildings, great woven mats swaying in the current, protesters clinging on desperately. Those were the days when activists stained the waters around the council the blue-green of blood; thick blood, copper heavy, soon to be spilled — they said — in a battle only for waters that weren’t needed, and weren’t ours by rights.

Their tactics held some appeal for Casilo who was angry by this point, angry at how the public were being misled, at the devastation a war would cause, at the cynical motives of those who led the arguments for it. But, deep down, he knew such displays were not for him. He knew how the system worked, and he knew how to work within it — a talent carefully cultivated and long studied for.

He was the youngest member of the council, back then, one of few who had not vetoed before, and a small caucus met before the debate because it would be a waste for two to use it, a waste of precious life which was, after all, what they were here to preserve. Some warned him to think carefully before agreeing, but their relief was still evident. Even Hocsi’s assurance that he could still back out, that no-one would think the less of him, were tinged with a confidence that this was how things were meant to unfold. Casilo knew better than to tell them he was willing to die for this, even though it was true — such statements could only add to their perceptions of his immaturity. Instead he offered in evidence his good health and an assessment that the risks were miniscule. They agreed.

The debate fluctuated black-brown-yellow. Many began glowing yellow, the color of opposition, announcing principles that would not be waved. Casilo was among them. They were criticized by those more experienced, and by the media, for disrespecting the consensus model, for failure to show openness to compromise. Cheers and jeers rippled through the water from the public gallery. Casilo could feel anxiety tightening his veins, the pressure of history. He opened his cells and the bursting of them flowed his body with relief, like a sore being lanced, a pressure valve opened. Warmth flooded through him, adrenaline surged. Everyone turned to look and there he was, red, red, red among the black and the brown and the yellow.

Democracy is red, when it needs to be. Red for an absolute, a block, a unilateral decision made necessarily rarely, which cannot be undone. Red among yells and screams, journalists pushing through with cameras and microphones, ignoring all regulations. Red still now as Hocsi sheltered him behind her, guiding him away, supporters moving to create a barrier.

Casilo remembers little of what came next, but he remembers resigned voices, and a crowd of young people dancing in the water high above them.

He used the veto twice more. The next was, in retrospect, probably a mistake; he believed the cuts to educational funding were wrong, certainly, but such fluctuations in the budget were an everyday matter, part of the ebbs and flows of government. This time, there was some fairness in the comments about him being unwilling to compromise. But there are few councilors who have not used the veto mistakenly at one time or another, and most don’t admit to their fault as readily. There is some pride in that.

He knew from the start that his third use of the veto was taking a risk. Though it is usually the fourth time that is fatal, such a consequence occurring earlier is far from unheard of. He took medical advice and they scraped away samples of his cells to measure the extent of the hemochromatosis — the disease that to some extent afflicted everyone who has used a veto, caused by a build-up of iron from the red dye throughout the body and particularly in his brain. They proclaimed him — with hefty disclaimers — in excellent health aside from that.

“Hemochromatosis,” the doctor said, “should be treatable by now, but unfortunately that’s not the case. We can treat lead poisoning with chelation, and even mercury poisoning if we get to the patient soon enough, but for some reason any remedy for this remains elusive. I must ask what research is being done.”

“I hope it is none,” Casilo replied, discretely clutching the aching patch where cells had been removed. “The very foundations of our society are built on its existence.”

Despite the doctor’s assessment, Casilo got his affairs in order, deleted some documents, both personal and professional, asked his cleaner to take out some accumulated junk — paintings that were never displayed, a broken seat, a box of empty jars — from his apartment.

He thought of persuading someone younger to use their veto — their first veto — instead, but this was a minority position and there were few who felt as strongly as he did. He could have pushed, and he saw little moral problem with doing so — he was not asking them to take a risk he had not himself taken. Yet he knew this was something he had to do. And there was no glory in it this time, the only adrenaline surge borne of fear and yet he knew, confidently, that he had done the right thing.

Afterwards, avoiding the press, he swam to the apartment of an old friend, feeling an unusual sadness as he went. There they relieved their troubles with a (rare, expensive) solution of anemone known for its relaxant effect. They next day, he was back to normal, except for a sadness — perhaps psychological, perhaps related to the increased iron in his brain — which lingered and did not entirely go away.

• • •

Casilo had plans for how things would end, but time has overtaken him. He thought he would plant a little grove that the young ones could play in. He would write his memoirs, gift his possessions thoughtfully to each of his friends, and perhaps make a few pointedly passive-aggressive bequests to his enemies. His apartment would be clean and empty; he would be perfectly ready for what was to come. If one must go before their time, he had thought, they can derive some comfort from knowing the exact time and nature of his passing and being able to plan accordingly.

He has done none of these things. Time has rushed upon him.

And the trench he will die to save is not worth dying for. There have been developments of other important sites, other beautiful areas of the ocean, and perhaps they were right and perhaps they were wrong, but people learned to live with them, forget, eventually, what those places were like before.

Though his constituents wanted to save the trench, had campaigned fervently, they would be horrified if they knew was he was planning. They would implore him not to go ahead, insist — as he knew — that this was not worth dying for. But when he had surveyed them they had said their position on the proposed development was unwavering, that they could see no compromise.

Casilo had thought of going there, one more time, as if it would help with his decision. He remembered the deep waters, the compression of his body, the pressure on his skin until it was almost exhilarating, a sense of achievement, a sense of the foreign. No-one could survive that deep unaided, but part way down there was a station that would rent you a capsule and a guide, and within the lower pressure of the transparent sphere you would begin to relax again as you descended, moving downwards through a cloud of amphipods, pale and glowing in the light of your capsule.

There are animals down there that have not been found anywhere else. You might see echinoderms — sea cucumbers and the pink sea pigs with their short tentacles. Then come spoon words, lizard fish, anemones and soft coral. More colors than Casilo’s kind could ever be, more than they usually saw in nature.

It would be true to say that his visits to the trench had had an impact on Casilo, and it would be a shame for it to be destroyed. He understood, too, why his constituency cared when so many others did not. The Alumni Association of the School of Biological Exploration had voted, en masse, to join the constituency. At a far higher rate than the rest of the population, they had been there. They knew what was at stake.

But Casilo will not do this for the echinoderms, spoon worms, lizard fish, anemones and soft coral. He will not do it for the shock of magenta and the moving shoals of orange, for the fact it is unique, exists nowhere else, cannot be replicated.

He will do this for democracy, because democracy is his life. Because democracy itself is more important than the decisions made and outcomes achieved.

He has sworn to represent his constituents, and today he will do just that.

He barely hears the arguments, the forceful yeses and the soft nos. Discussion of cost and alternatives, of timescale, talk of the immediate needs of our growing civilization. Have they — any of them — noticed his nerves, the subtle, anxious shifts in color, the tremors running down his tentacles?

Casilo sucks in oxygen, grasps his arms and tentacles together. The sacs of pigment burst open, they flow through his body. It does not feel like poison. It feels like a choice. The shouts below him are loud and yet muffled, as if he were travelling far away, and he cannot distinguish a single word from them. The redness reaches the ends of his tentacles, covers him completely, and he begins to float upwards, up to the pale light.

Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of Sir Julius Vogel Awards for From a Shadow Grave (Paper Road Press, 2019) and their short story “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex, 2018), their fiction is also published in Fireside, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. You can find them at andicbuchanan.org or @andicbuchanan on Twitter.

Issue 32

November 2020

3LBE 32

Front & Back cover art by Rew X