Snail Tank

In  by December 1, 2023

The restaurant was blue, like the whole place had been doused in artificial water, and Noma didn’t like it. She clutched her purse as she followed the hostess, nodded to the staff as she passed. The CEO was in the back room surrounded by fish tanks: three giant panels that held back corals, eels, and other rarities. Somewhere in the biggest one a shark was turning. “They’re not for eating,” he said as she approached. “I don’t eat anywhere that serves meat.”

Noma sat in the chair that had been pulled out for her. “I appreciate your time.” She kept her gloves on, and her purse. 

“I’m interested in solutions.” The CEO’s smile was warm and charming, practiced. Four other people at the table gathered up materials, slid out in silence. “All solutions. Unorthodox is my orthodoxy.”

“You’ve done so much good already,” Noma said. Flattery was always a good opener.

The CEO leaned back in his chair. “So, what’s your plan to save the world?”

Noma took a breath, listened to the reassuring hum of the systems around her, protecting those little pockets of plasticless ocean. “I don’t have one. But I can save Waikiki Beach.”

He waited. Those sands were underwater, of course, right up to the doorframes of those expensive old hotels. “It starts with corals,” Noma went on. “Reefs, shorelines, tide pools. We work with shallow ecosystems.”

“I’m familiar,” the CEO said. People appeared and patterned the table with small plates of food, vegan and inscrutable, smelling like sea foam.

“My apologies.” Noma opened her purse. Carefully, she pulled out a small, plexiglass container which held a single shell: glossy, tapered, and whorled with intricate patterns as if it had been tattooed. In the restaurant’s lighting, it looked brown. “This is conus lecanoscopus.” Noma opened the lid. “A cone snail. And it’s going to save the ocean.”

“Explain.”

She swallowed. “Cone snails are weird. They’re predators, they eat fish, but of course they can’t swim after them. They use venom instead.” He was staring at the blue expanse over her shoulder, fingers tapping. “But cone snails move fast, evolutionarily speaking. They adapt specific venoms to specific prey animals almost on the fly, because processes in their DNA let them adapt instantaneously to new environments. My company knows how they do it. And we can use that knowledge to save whole ecosystems.”

She had his attention again. “You’re going to teach ecosystems to evolve faster?”

“On a planetary scale, it’s already happening.” Noma put one gloved finger on the back of the beautiful shell. “With cone snail DNA, we can keep up with it.”

The CEO reached out as if to touch the shell also, thought better of it. “Congratulations. Of all the pitches I’ve heard today, yours is the most mad scientist.”

She would not say the word unorthodox. “You should meet the Antarctic shelf guys,” she said instead. “I think they’re working on a freeze ray.”

The CEO picked up something lichenous from his plate with a pair of chopsticks, dipped it in pale foam. Noma hadn’t been brought a plate, she realized. “So cone snail DNA is going to save the world,” the CEO said. “What do you need?”

“Testing,” Noma said. “It’s a question of activating a particular set of gene sequences. We know where it is in cone snails, and where to find it in fifteen other species, mostly crustaceans, some fish. I need a piece of ocean for large-scale testing of our more viable subjects.”

“You want to release mutating fish into the ocean?”

She looked down, willing him to see how stupid the idea was. “So they can survive the next fifty years, yes. Because of this little guy.” She picked up the snail, held it out so he could see the mottled pattern, like an enigma. “See?”

He took it. “Well, it’s a bold proposal.” He turned the shell over. Sucked in his breath.

“It’s just the shell,” Noma lied. The CEO put it down, prodded the small red mark at the base of his palm. “The inner edge is serrated. No snail in there.”

“Fascinating.” The CEO rubbed his palm. “Really interesting proposal.” He stood up, but didn’t extend his hand.

“Thank you so much,” Noma rose also. “For hearing me out.” She slid the snail back into its container and smiled her way outside.

On her way out, she passed a pair of nervous young men in expensive suits, chattering about mycelium. Whatever they were asking for, they’d get it, as the CEO became increasingly warm, comfortably emotional. Conus lecanoscopus was one of Noma’s favourites. Venomous, yes, but it made its prey happy, complacent, and perfectly content to loll around in front of the beautiful thing that might eat it one day.

As soon as the restaurant was out of sight, she made the call. “One group in front of you,” she said. “Make sure you’re with him in twenty minutes, make your ask in twenty-five. Get it in writing. Show him the plastic collection drones, he’ll think they’re adorable. And don’t forget the antivenin, or he’ll say yes to everyone after you too.” She hung up.

Save the world, indeed. Lots of people had crazy ideas, but Noma would make sure the CEO’s billions went to the right one. Not freeze rays or magic cone snail DNA, but ideas that actually had a chance in hell of working. Anything else was just too risky. “Well done, sleepyhead,” she said to the snail. “Looks like you’re going to save the world after all.”

Copyright © 2023 Monica Joyce Evans

Feature image credit:

Composite by Katrina Archer from Depositphotos images

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Monica Joyce Evans

Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who also writes speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple publications including Analog, Nature: Futures, and DreamForge. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her at monicajoyceevans@gmail.com.

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