You’re so vain. You probably think this story’s about you.
Mizzen Sternway lived on a distant planet, in a galaxy far from here. She was a scientist, wife, mother and all around model citizen. However, there was something fishy about her, and by that I mean her upper half was a fish. Of course, on planet Bosun this was completely normal. Everyone was a reverse merperson. That’s right, they were fish with human-like legs and feet. Usually, they wore jeans and work boots on their lower half, making them look like someone did a horrifying grafting experiment with a lumberjack and a salmon.
(I know such creatures exist, because I have seen chainsaw carvings of them next to random intersections in Washington State.)
Now the people of Bosun were facing an unprecedented problem which Dr. Sternway was recruited to help solve namely, shark attacks. The Bosunians were amphibious. They lived close to the ocean and spent about half their time there. Sharks tended to avoid the Bosunian people and historically hadn’t been a problem.
When the first attack occurred, the people treated it like an isolated incident. A second mauling a day later had scientists scratching their heads (or trying too, their fins didn’t quite reach that high up). The attacks continued, becoming more and more frequent until the people could no longer deny they had a problem.
What caused the sharks to turn on the Bosunians was unclear. Some suggested overfishing was making them desperate, others that they just developed a taste for the merpeople. Either way, something had to be done.
Naturally, the fish-folk looked to their elected leaders on the great Council of Piscus for guidance. The Council was made up of two political factions called the Bildge and the Clew. Both factions were full of carp. I suppose salmon and trout just weren’t interested in political careers.
The Bildge and the Clew only ever agreed on one thing and that was that every Bosunian had to be either a Bildge or a Clew. If you identified as a Clew but mentioned that you agreed with one or two Bildge principles, you were at once cast out of the Clew party and declared a traitor. If you identified as a Bildge but mentioned that a Clew politician had a few good points, you would be ostracized at once.
Dr. Sternway avoided talking about politicians. She prefered talking about sharks which were, under normal circumstances, more agreeable. You see she was a marine biologist specializing in ocean predators. She was a leader in her field, exactly the person the world would look to for assistance in such a crisis.
Dr. Sternway’s professional recommendation was that everyone stay out of the water to give her team time to find out what was causing the issue. This was devastating to the amphibious people, many of whom relied on the ocean for their livelihoods.
Sternway was acutely aware of this, and worked around the clock to find a solution as quickly as possible. All of Bosun held their breath, waiting for some solution that would return their lives to normal.
After a week, Sternway was no closer to figuring out what was causing the attacks in the first place, but she had managed to come up with a sort of workaround. She informed the Council that she had something to present. They told her to come at once to the planet’s capital city. (Yes, the entire planet had only one capital. For some strange reason, Earth is the only planet in the entire universe with more than one government.)
As Sternway stepped out of her cab, her driver smirked. “Watch out, if the Bildge like your idea, shooting it down will become the Clew’s top priority.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sternway laughed. “This is bigger than partisan politics, the fate of the planet is at stake. I am sure they’ll be reasonable.”
Her driver glared. (How can fish glare without eyebrows? It’s not something I can easily describe. You kind of have to see it.)
“You have no idea how slimy they are.”
Again Sternway laughed (albeit, nervously). “We are all slimy, sir. We are fish.”
Dr. Sternway stared into the cold expressionless eyes of the Council. Their mouths opened and closed slowly, as they pulled air into the partial lung that allowed them to breath on land. She could tell the Bildge and the Clew apart by the pins they wore on their jackets. The Bildge had a purple pin with a whale tale on it, the Clew a green pin with an anchor.
“We have yet to determine the reason for these attacks,” Sternway started. “But we have created something that will allow people to go into the water.”
“You’ve had a week!” A Clew council member called. “What kind of a scientist are you?”
Sternway decided not to explain the complexities involved in her work. The Council had the idea that science was a kind of magic that could both instantly solve any problem and backup any claim they chose to make.
“Science takes time,” Sternway explained. “Which is why we came up with an interim solution.”
She lifted up one foot revealing an ankle bracelet with a clunky box attached to it. The box had an antenna protruding from the top next to a blinking red light.
“This device releases a smell we cannot detect, but that sharks find repulsive,” Sternway continued. “Only one of our ten test subjects was eaten while wearing it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.”
Councilwoman Cringle, leader of the Clew, was the first to speak up.
“Brilliant!” She exclaimed and all at once all the Clew were murmuring approval and nodding their heads.
In that very same moment, the eyes of the Bildge council members narrowed. They whispered to one another skeptically.
Councilwoman Divet, Leader of the Bildge was the next to speak. “But one out of your ten test subjects got mauled, making this device only seventy-two percent effective.”
Seventy-two percent? Sternway puzzled. She was about to politely correct Divet’s math when Cringle interceded for her. “That’s ninety-nine point nine percent effective!”
Then Sternway remembered that the Council viewed math and science similarly. Ninety-eight point seven of them could pull random statistics from anywhere that were only twenty-two point three percent likely to be based on anything.
“With all due respect,” Sternway replied. “Just tell the people they should wear this when they go into the water until we figure out how to stop these attacks.”
“Agreed!” Cringle of the Clew exclaimed. “We will make it law.”
Her Clew counterparts all nodded in agreement. The Bildge looked utterly alarmed at this. (Fish with their lidless eyes and gaping mouths always look alarmed but, in this case, they actually were.)
“Why does it need to be law?” Divet questioned.
“Because no one is going to wear one of their own free will,” Cringle responded. “People will rush into the water and be eaten.”
“We should trust the people to do the right thing,” Divet insisted.
Sternway only knew that the people should wear one in the water. She figured it was the Council’s job to decide if they should leave it to the people or mandate it by law. So she just listened.
“They will get eaten!” Cringle insisted. “You don’t care if people die, do you?”
Sternway thought this was a bit of an ad hominem, but she was a scientist not a politician so she held her tongue.
“I care about freedom!” Divet responded.
“You care about money,” Cringle insisted.
“You care about controlling people.” Divet responded.
“Exactly!” One of her Bildge counterparts suggested. “First they tell us to wear shark repellers, next they’ll want to control every part of our lives!”
“The people can’t be trusted,” Cringle rebuked. “I care about LIVES! So much, in fact, that we should mandate the people wear one on the shore and the dock as well. Just to be safe.”
“That really isn’t necessary,” Dr. Sternway interjected but no one seemed to be listening.
“See! See!” Divet exclaimed. “They are taking more power! Just like we feared! We cannot wear these devices!”
Her Bilge colleagues cheered.
“Now wait a moment!” Sternway tried to interject but Cringle interrupted.
“See! It’s just as I feared!” She exclaimed. “I knew they couldn’t be trusted! We are going to have to take even more drastic measures. We should make it illegal to leave home at all.”
The Bildge gasped.
“Under whose authority?” Divet exclaimed. “This overreaction could have devastating consequences!”
“This is about lives!” Cringle exclaimed.
“This is about freedom!” Divet retorted.
Sternway no longer knew what this was about.
“We won’t live in fear!” Divet exclaimed. “I say, we gather our supporters and march into the water with our ankles free of those oppressive devices!”
“Please don’t—” Sternway started.
“You’re insane!” Cringle interrupted. “Stop ignoring science!”
Dr. Sternway thought this was good advice.
“Leave our homes for a moment and we are all at risk!” Cringle continued.
“No wait,” Sternway tried. “I never said—”
“You are the ones ignoring the science!” Divet exclaimed. “Those ankle bracelets are only thirty-five point seven percent effective anyway. There’s really no point.”
“Eighty-eight point seven percent effective!” Cringle asserted. “If you wear them constantly and never leave the house.”
Dr. Sternway was beginning to think this argument no longer had anything to do with preventing shark attacks. In fact, she had no idea what it was about.
“Listen to the scientists!” Divet insisted.
“No, you listen to the scientists!” Cringle exclaimed.
“QUIET!” Dr. Sternway exclaimed.
They all turned their cold, expressionless fish faces toward her.
She took a deep breath. “Now, there is really no reason for anyone to stay off the shore—”
“YOU’RE PAYING HER OFF, AREN’T YOU!” Cringle exclaimed.
“Don’t be silly!” Divet replied smugly. “She’s a scientist, she knows what she’s talking about.”
“AS I WAS SAYING!” Sternway continued. “You don’t need to wear them on the shore, but you SHOULD definitely wear them in the water.”
“I want a second opinion!” Divet exclaimed.
“What?” She’s a scientist.” Cringle grinned.
Sternway watched in perplexed horror as the two parties continued back and forth, trapped in a false dichotomy of their own creation. Their need to be right, or at least for their opponents to be wrong, was so important it made them completely incapable of nuanced thinking. It was black and white, all or nothing, left or right, Bilge or Clew.
They never did come to an agreement. They kept arguing and arguing until they had to table the discussion. Then the next day, they went back to arguing again. This continued until one day the sharks emerged from the water.
You see, radioactive waste was the reason for the sharks sudden change in behavior. Exposure made them more aggressive and started mutating them. They grew legs, walked on land, and having no political affiliation, gobbled up Bildge and Clew alike.
If this tragic ending has you feeling down, don’t worry. This is just a silly fish story. If we ever faced a similar crisis, our leaders would be much more competent.