WATER CHIMPS • by Franco Amati

My mentor Tila and I swam side by side, laughing and whistling, enjoying the serenity of the water, until she brought up something serious, something I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about. “Tell me what happened,” she said. “The day they took you.”

I hesitated at first. “It’s hard to remember all the details. They dropped me into an enclosure. I was surrounded by glass on all sides. It was for some kind of test. An experiment, I think.”

Tila must have sensed the unease in my clicks, because she arched her body toward me and floated there for a moment. I felt a comforting pulse come from her as she brushed her fin against mine.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You can trust me. What did they make you do?”

“First they put a mark on me. Some substance, but I couldn’t see what it was.”

“A mark?”

“Yes. And then they had these flat illuminated surfaces with moving images on them. On one surface I saw moving pictures of myself. On another I saw a person I didn’t recognize, probably from another pod. And on the third surface it was me again, but this time the image was moving in time with my own movements.”

“How? I don’t understand.”

“You know how sometimes you can see a shadow or a shimmering reflection that moves in rhythm with your body? It was like that, except more than a shadow. It was a complete depiction of me, right there on the panel. I moved one way, and it followed. I’d get closer, and it got closer. It was the most remarkable thing.”

“How long did this go on for?”

“I don’t know exactly. I was mesmerized. And I could see the mark. It was dark, and it was an irregular shape. I moved around to get a better look at it. I even tried to touch it, but I couldn’t reach it with my fin.”

“Where did they place this mark?”

“On my right side, above my eye.”

“Then what happened?” Tila asked.

“And then — it was the strangest thing. I woke up in another tank with the stranger. The one I saw earlier. I felt so disoriented. I could barely understand what he was saying. But I recognized a few words.”

“What words?”

“He said something about the self. Some rubbish, I don’t know — asking me if I saw myself.” “Manu, I think I have an idea about what they were doing,” Tila said.

“Do you? Well, I sure as hell don’t. Next thing I remember, I was back home. Mother was tending to her calves. I asked her if she could see the mark, but it was gone.”

“Hmm. I’ve heard stories about the land dwellers, our cousins of long ago. After we split from them and took to the waters, they became obsessed with measuring intelligence — quantifying the minds of all living creatures, preoccupied with comparing themselves to others to see where they stand in the grand scheme of things.”

“Stand? You mean because they have legs?” I asked.

“Well, don’t forget, we once had legs too. The land dwellers not only retained their strange limbs, but they also stood upright and became fierce. Insecure about the unknown, they closely studied potential threats. I think they were testing your ability to recognize yourself, Manu. They consider self-awareness to be a form of higher intelligence. I think they wanted to see if you could tell which moving image was your own.”

“I understand the curiosity,” I said. “But what gives them the right to take us from our homes? I have nightmares to this day of that place. Of that land dweller putting the mark on me. And of that haunting stranger.”

“I don’t think they intended to hurt you,” Tila said. “They’re probably just intrigued by how much we look like them. The shapes of their heads, the form of their bodies. We’re very similar.”

“But what does the size and shape of my head have to do with how smart I am? Intelligent creatures possess a myriad of body shapes and sizes. Just look at the cuttlefish or the octopus. Are their minds not as complex as ours?”

“Yes, but those creatures are scary to them,” Tila said. “We’re not. Perhaps the land dwellers see kindness in our eyes. Compared to other dead-eyed monsters of the deep, we’re much more relatable. There’s kinship in our laughs and the way we nurse our young.”

“Then shouldn’t that be enough?” I said, feeling angry. “Why would they doubt that we’re conscious? Our ancestors once walked the earth just as they do. Why would we be any less self-aware?”

“I don’t know, my friend. Perhaps it’s their pride that causes them to doubt. Anyway, thank you for telling me what happened,” Tila said. “In time your memory will fade. And the bad dreams will go away.”


“And you’re quite sure about the translation?” Dr. Pelham said. “The MIT folks are gonna try to poke a million holes in your findings.”

“Well, it’s always possible we’re anthropomorphizing. That’s unavoidable when interpreting a language so alien to us.”

“Just double-check the syntactic analysis once more. We have to be sure. Then pack it up and send the transcription to Amundson.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and by the way, when you talk to the press, which you know is inevitable, do not mention this specific dyad. We wanted to prove they had mirror self-recognition. And they do. But this pair refers to an entire cultural history, generational memory. Knowledge that their ancestors walked on land. It’s all too much right now. The last thing we need is the internal review board up our asses claiming that our newly discovered cetacean friends are some kind of extant aquatic hominid. Can you imagine trying to get informed consent from one of those damn water chimps? We’ll never get another chance to study them again.”

Franco Amati is a speculative fiction writer and poet from New York. You can find more of his work at francoamatiwrites.com.

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