It started when Lena’s bucket of oysters was stolen.
At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Rock of Gibraltar, as a nature reserve, saw many different species come and go within it. Athena kept track of as many residents and visitors as she could through her sensors, but there were limits to her tracking. All they knew was that the fish and crustacean population had started to plummet outside the norm, but Lena couldn’t figure out why.
At first she attributed it to illegal fishing- it wouldn’t be the first time it happened. But they didn’t find any nets, and Athena’s scans hadn’t picked up unusual activity.
Lena found the reason while doing a chemical work up of the water. Athena hadn’t registered any changes, but Lena had wanted to do it the old fashioned way in case Athena’s calibrations were off. Emily and Winston were with her, partly because Emily was the only one who didn’t mind doing chemical workups, and partly because Winston was bored with doing finances.
Emily and Winston were huddled in the cockpit trying to keep warm while Lena did the grunt work, when Lena let out a delighted sound. Before they could investigate, the boat rocked dangerously, there was a mysterious clang, and Lena shrieked in outrage.
“The thief!” she howled. “He stole my oysters!”
Winston managed to stick his head over the edge in time to see a flash of red disappearing into one of the many underwater caves.
“What about the oysters?” Emily asked her girlfriend.
“He stole them!”
“Who did?” Winston asked.
“There’s a hybrid?” Emily and Winston exclaimed, simultaneously.
A quick trip back to base, one underwater camera, and several moments later, they discovered two hybrids who had taken up residence in the nature preserve.
“Well, look at that,” Emily said in amazement. Even Lena wasn’t too mad about her oysters (now nothing more than shells scattered around the purloined bucket) as she stared at the small screen. “I didn’t even know these species existed this far East.”
“They don’t,” Winston said, adjusting the camera so that it drifted slightly closer. “And it is even more unusual to find two of different species together.”
Lena hummed. “Well, they are technically endangered, right? Maybe they can’t be choosy like they used to be.”
“It’s not uncommon, though,” Emily argued. “They may have animal parts, but human hybrids are just as intelligent as us. There’s many papers that have reported interspecies pairings. These two are clearly comfortable with each other; they probably got caught in a hurricane, and this was their first safe harbor.”
Winston let his fellow biologists bicker goodnaturedly over hybrid sexual preferences in favor of getting a better look of their new residents. The red one- a lobster/human hybrid, looked like an older adult- was the easiest to spot, happily crunching on the last of Lena’s oysters, lying almost lazily on its back. The second was nothing more than a coiled mass at the back of the cave, watching the camera sharply. It was a naga, that much Winston could tell, and looked to be about the same age as the lobster, but without measuring the tail he couldn’t get an accurate reading. The two certainly seemed to be a mated pair, if the single nesting area was anything to go by, although one could simply be visiting the other. Perhaps if he was able to get a better look-
There was a flash of movement as the naga lunged, and then the screen blacked out.
“Territorial,” Winston mused after mourning the loss of such expensive equipment for a moment. “Or protective. Interesting.”
At any rate, they had just as much right to this place as any other living thing on the planet. And, well, perhaps this could be a good thing, even with the loss of the expensive camera- for all that hybrids were well known, they were still rare, and full studies on their behaviors were lacking.
“Let’s head back,” he told the girls. “Angela will want to know about this.”
“So what are we going to do about them?” Lena asked later at dinner.
“We need to do something with them?” Emily asked.
Most of the days chores had been completed, although Winston would be up for some time running new simulations now that the hybrids had been discovered. For one, he needed to know if the bay could support them, and two, if it could, for how long. Athena was already running calculations in his absence, but there was still plenty of other number crunching to do.
“Hybrids present issues when it comes to funding,” Winston explained. “They aren’t fully animal or human, so while they are a resident of the reserve, they don’t exactly fall under our protection, either. It’s a grey area that most scientists won’t touch- if you claim they have enough characteristics to be human, then you have to acquire consent. If you admit they are more of an animal, then you have to ignore their intelligence, which limits what sort of studies you can do. They have enough of both species for scientists to swing either way, so many just don’t bother because of the legality that it presents. Some would argue they don’t even deserve that much credit, but I suppose you always have some dissenters in a group.”
Lena snorted. “Don’t listen to ‘em, big guy. You’re worth ten of them any day.”
Winston cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Yes, well, at any rate, while we have to report their existence, we also don’t have to run them out of town. We’ll be short a few crustaceans and fish, that’s all.”
Lena considered. “I have been trying to come up with a new study for a publication,” she mused. “Wonder if I can do it on them?”
Winston shrugged. “Up to you. Just know that, if you do, be prepared for disappointment. Hybrids are notorious for not living up to what people expect them to be.”
All in all, the two new additions didn’t change much. The discovery did come with a pleasant surprise donation from the Gibraltar scientific community that allowed them to gain a new intern for Angela, a young post-doctoral student named Lucio who was more than happy to be getting hands-on experience with a renowned marine veterinarian, and some money that was put to ordering upgrades for Athena’s sensors and equipment, but all in all life went on. Angela worked on her papers, Emily and Lena looked after their rescues, and Winston kept things running.
It was just, that, well, the hybrids were too clever for their own good.
They seemed to know exactly when and where the various staff would be out in the ocean and avoided them like the plague, the lobster going so far as to occasionally bury himself to avoid being spotted. It wasn’t that they were particularly shy, just wary, and despite taking advantage of the bait balls and other treats Lena left them as peace offerings, they seemed to consider the scientists as potential threats. Other than the first meeting, where the lobster so blatantly made himself known, all they tended to find was crustacean shells and fish bones that the two had left in their wake.
“Figures,” Emily said gloomily one night at dinner. “I finally get to see a hybrid in the wild, and I don’t actually see it.”
“Didn’t you do your graduate thesis on them?” Lucio asked.
“A study on the effects of prolonged captivity on ultra-intelligent animal species, including anatomical, psychological, and hormonal stressors,” Emily quoted. “One of my subjects was this old, grizzled centaur who was missing a leg and an arm. Couldn’t survive in the wild, but that didn’t stop him from acting like he was still there. Screamed at me whenever I got within twenty feet, and refused to eat anything that wasn’t green. The staff had to dye his medication and supplements just so he wouldn’t starve.”
Winston commiserated. Before the experiments done on him, not sharing the same vocal cords made him want to scream, too.
“At least our hybrids aren’t as high-strung,” Lucio observed. “At least, from what we can tell.”
It was two weeks later when Athena alerted them to a wounded animal on the beach, and Angela and Lucio rushed down to assist, Winston tagging along in case heavy lifting was needed. He was glad he did- a dolphin had washed ashore, tangled helplessly in a net and bearing more than one bullet hole. Poachers, Winston thought with an audible growl. This was the third time this year. He needed to alert the government as soon as he could. Angela and Lucio performed emergency surgery on the beach to stabilize their patient. As soon as they were done, the two rushed to Angela’s medical bay, Athena holding the elevator doors open for them.
Winston stayed behind, cleaning up the beach- the water took care of most of the blood, but the few pieces of dropped equipment was retrieved and the trash was collected into a bag. A flicker of blue in his periphery alerted him to the fact that he had a visitor, and he turned to see the naga watching him from the shallows, staring at him with an unreadable expression.
Winston waved hesitantly. The naga narrowed his eyes, looked between Winston and the elevator, and coiled a little tighter into himself.
“It will be fine!” Winston called out, hoping the naga understood him. “It’ll be back home in no time.”
There wasn’t a visible reply, but when the dolphin was released back into the ocean a month later, both hybrids were there, watching.
“I’m calling the lobster Jesse,” Lena announced one afternoon as they were cleaning the various aquariums. They had been up early upgrading Athena’s sensors in the bay, and the hybrids had watched them from a distance the entire time, seemingly curious as to their actions. “It suits him.”
Winston grunted in reply as he tried to wrangle the octopus into the spare tank.
“You know, after Jesse James? He did steal from us when we first met.”
Winston finally got the octopus into the tank, sealing it firmly before it could escape. “And the naga?”
“Hanzo,” Lena replied. “Wouldn’t be fair to name one but not the other.”
“Jesse and Hanzo,” Winston mused. “Better than ‘subjects one and two’.”
Lena beamed. “Right? And since they’ve become a bit more friendly, perhaps we can finally start studying them.”
There was a crash, and the octopus fled from it’s temporary prison. “Nooo, come back, Bastion!” Lena wailed, and the two took off down the hall after the escaped cephalopod.
Strangely, it was the one Lena dubbed Hanzo who truly made first contact. Emily, despite being more into land animals than aquatic, was helping Lena catch some fish so they could give them trackers. Of course, giving them the trackers wasn’t the hard part- it was catching them.
“Just get caught already,” Lena grumbled, tossing rocks into the water in an effort to scare them towards the cages they had set up. The fish seemed unconcerned.
They had been chasing the school for three hours now, inching closer and closer to the cliff face. The sun was already setting, and Emily let out a huge yawn. They had been up before dawn checking a proximity alert on Athena’s sensors, and decided to get the work done while they were already out on the water. The fish, however, had other ideas. She had emptied and refilled the cages of unneeded animals more times than she could count at this point. Emily settled back into the seat of the boat as Lena started to swear, almost not hearing the small splashes behind her.
She did notice the cold, wet hand that appeared on the side of the boat beside her.
“Holy shit!” she screeched, falling off the seat. Lena almost pitched forward into the water at Emily’s scream, and both turned to see the naga holding himself up above the water to stare at them. Both women were afraid to move, unsure of the naga’s intentions- he only let out a grumble before tossing something into the boat and disappearing back underwater.
For a moment, they both stared, uncomprehending, at one of the fish they had been chasing now flopping on the floor. Then Lena lurched forward to scoop the poor thing up and into the well, exchanging a confused look with Emily.
“Well,” Lena said helplessly, “at least we got one?”
“If only they’d be so considerate and let us install a camera in their cave,” Emily mused.
Lena snorted. “That’d be the day.”
They started seeing the hybrids around more, after that. Jesse seemed the more curious of the two, going so far as to swim alongside Lena whenever she went scuba diving, chittering inquisitively whenever she took samples. Sometimes she’d return to the boat and find random things along the bottom- driftwood, starfish, once a shark tooth. Lena knew they were in thanks for the occasional treats she’d give them, and although she never saw the naga put them there, she knew Hanzo was the one behind it.
Occasionally Winston would be able to send the camera down and catch them in their everyday activities- Jesse slept more than Hanzo but in contrast was more active when he was awake, never straying too far from his mate. Hanzo was content to simply curl up and watch Jesse swim around, hoarding the small pearls that the lobster occasionally brought him after finding one in an oyster. It never failed to amuse any of the biologists when they caught the exchange on camera, Jesse making cooing noises and Hanzo unraveling to wrap the lobster up in a strange, full-body hug.
If it lasted for longer than a few seconds, Winston would always bring the camera back up to the surface. He had learned his lesson the last time, and while the mating habits of the marine hybrids weren’t well known, it still felt rude to watch.
The two were still private, though, only approaching the biologists on their own terms. For all that they looked like humans, they were still mostly animal. They would occasionally play with them, humoring Angela as she attempted a few reflex and cognitive tests or racing the boat as it sped back towards shore, but largely they seemed happy to ignore them altogether. The biologists were just happy that they seemed used to their presence.
It was enough for Lena to publish an article in a journal on their behavior a year after the hybrids arrived, and in celebration for the publication they threw a small party on the beach, even setting up a small DJ stand. Lucio had invited his roommate Hana, who promptly organized a beach volleyball game.
Several hours past nightfall and many drinks into the party, Hana let out a loud gasp, jolting to her feet. “Oh my god,” she breathed. “You weren’t kidding.”
They turned to see Jesse peering at them from the shallows, looking suspiciously at Hana as his tail flapped uncertainly behind him. At their attention though he frowned and screeched, launching water at them with his tail. Emily flailed as she was doused, and Lucio rushed to protect his speakers.
With a final splash the lobster dove back into the depths, and Angela let out a breathless laugh. “Well,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been told to keep quiet like that before.”
Despite the abrupt end to their night, they all went to bed in good moods. Winston should have known better.
Athena’s alarms started blaring three days later at three in the morning, alerting Winston to an injured animal. He was instantly awake, rushing down to Angela’s lab, who was throwing a lab coat on over her pajamas and readying her emergency supplies. “What is it?” she asked, as Lucio ran into the room with a duffel bag.
“Don’t know,” Winston said. “But it’s a code three, so we need the large autotank.”
“Already being filled,” Lucio said, before dashing to get the gurney.
They were in the elevator in under five minutes, anxious. “Think it’s the same as last time?” Lucio asked.
“The patrols were supposed to have stepped up,” Winston replied. “But since it has been months of no activity-” he recoiled as soon as the elevator doors opened. “What is that noise?”
Angela turned on the floodlights, and the source of the noise was soon shown- Jesse, screeching madly, was clawing his way to the shore. At first Winston didn’t understand why- water hybrids weren’t meant to breathe air, and while they could hold their breath above water for up to an hour, they didn’t prefer to- until he saw what the lobster was dragging with him.
Hanzo, limp, blood pouring from several long, deep lacerations on his tail.
Unphased by the cold air and no doubt freezing water, Angela raced to the shoreline, shouting instructions at Lucio and Winston. They hurried the best they could over the sand, gurney and equipment with them, and while Winston unpacked everything Lucio and Angela did a quick examination. “Knife wounds,” Angela said, fury in her voice as she grabbed the duffel Lucio handed her. “Not to mention missing spines, no doubt crudely harvested for the toxins, at least two gunshot wounds, and strangulation and rope burns from what looks like netting.” She pulled out a needle and a bottle of clear liquid, swiftly getting to work on injecting the naga with it.
Winston pulled up his tablet. “Athena, tell Emily and Lena to get here immediately,” he said. “And prep the autotank for surgery. Hanzo has been injured.”
“Understood,” Athena said crisply, her logo blinking out as she did what Winston asked.
Angela turned to Winston. “I can’t do anything here, we have to get him to my medical facilities, now.”
Winston immediately moved to grab Hanzo, but Jesse screeched, scuttling backwards as best he could. “Now’s not the time to be stubborn!” Lucio cried. “We’re trying to save him!”
Angela looked between the two hybrids desperately. “Bring them both,” she said. “We can try separating them indoors.”
“Do it, Lucio!” she ordered. “It’s against protocol, but we don’t have any time to waste!”
Somehow, they managed to get both lobster and naga onto the gurney. Jesse was clutching his mate, cooing, curled protectively around him as best he could. Hanzo’s own tail was tossed unceremoniously on top of them both to avoid it dragging behind them. Whenever a coil threatened to fall off, Jesse was there, swiftly grabbing it to tug it closer, a very human-like worry on his face.
Emily and Lena were ready when they arrived in the medical bay, the sling already lowered. This time Jesse let them put Hanzo into the tank, nearly crawling onto the sling himself when it returned, clearly expecting to be placed in the same one.
“Sorry, buddy,” Emily said regretfully as she unceremoniously swung him into the neighboring tank. “Angela and Hanzo can’t have any distractions right now.”
At first, Jesse was livid. He pounded on the walls of tank, and though the glass was reinforced and several inches thick, Winston genuinely worried he would break it. After a while, however, he settled down, pacing restlessly in front of the glass, watching Angela, Lucio, and Lena work intently.
Emily sat down next to Winston, shaky. “Think he’ll be okay?”
“Angela’s the best in the field for a reason,” Winston replied. His voice wasn’t as certain as it should have been. “If anyone can save him, she can.”
Almost twelve hours later, Angela finally exited the surgery room.
“I’ve done all I can,” she said. “It will take him time to recover, and with the loss of his spines and some muscle damage he’ll have to get used to swimming again, but he’ll live.”
Emily started crying, and Lena pulled her into her arms, relief on her face. “Is there any way we can find out who did this?”
Athena answered for her. “I believe you may find them at these coordinates.” Winston’s tablet pinged, and he looked at the small blinking dot on the map of the bay.
“Well, then,” Winston said. “Let’s go see why they stuck around after their prey escaped.”
Despite being awake for nearly an entire day, all three went to the dock and got on the boat. The ride to the coordinates was quiet, until they got close enough to see what had happened. “Oh,” Lena said softly.
Dead bodies floated in the water, gouged to death, as a boat that looked like it had been torn in half and flung against the rocks still smoldered from a fire. It was a small motor boat, capable of holding the three men in the water and more with ease, and it wasn’t hard to spot the various weaponry strapped to the inside. What startled them, however, was that other than it being a little smaller, it looked exactly like the boat they were using now.
“Did we cause this?” Emily asked, horrified. “If Hanzo thought they were us, and decided to visit-”
Lena shook her head, violently. “They’re smarter than that. They would have noticed something was off.” She looked at Winston anxiously. “Right?”
Winston sighed heavily. It certainly explained why the poachers were able to move around unnoticed by the military. How they got past Athena’s sensors was a story for another time. “We’ll never know. Right now, we need to let the authorities know and start cleaning up the oil and gas in the water. The last thing we need is for the spill to get worse.”
“Will they come after Jesse, though?” Emily asked anxiously. “He attacked humans-”
“The interesting thing about hybrids,” Winston said as he started the boat back towards base, “Is that they fall into a legal loophole as well as a scientific one. You can’t charge them as a human, because they still have animal brains. And you can’t treat them as an animal, because they are capable of intelligent thought and actions. Worse case, we’re required to install a tracker and report his movements every few days. Best case, the government decides that the legal ramifications on who killed a few dead poachers- who were already in a place they shouldn’t be- isn’t worth the hassle.”
Emily let out a sigh of relief, slumping into her girlfriend.
When they returned, they found that Lucio had wisely put some coffee on to brew for them, and wordlessly pressed it into the two human’s hands when they returned. “Sorry, big guy,” Lucio said. “I know you wanna be out there with them, but you know how coffee messes with your system.”
Winston could feel the exhaustion dragging him down. “Yeah,” he grunted. “I just need to make a few calls first.”
“Already happened,” Angela said briskly. She too looked like she would rather be in bed, but her eyes were nothing but determined. “There’s going to be a team of UN volunteers here tomorrow to help with oil and gas clean up, and the proper authorities have already been contacted. They’ll want to question one of the ladies before they head to the site, but other than that, all urgent business will be taken care of.”
Winston looked beyond her to the inside of the medical bay. Hanzo was asleep in the shallow autotank, his tail swathed in waterproof bandages. Jesse was pressed against the tank wall closest to him, huddled into a tight of a ball as he could manage. Winston’s own team was looking at him with steely determination in their eyes- ready to do what was right, not only for the world, but for those who inhabited it. His heart nearly burst with pride.
“Alright,” he said, giving in. “Wake me if there’s any developments.”
Lena hugged him. “We got this, big guy. Go sleep.”
Content that they had everything handled, he passed out as soon as his head hit the pillow.
“Careful,” Angela said as Jesse clung to the swing. “Remember, he’s still injured. You have to be careful.”
Jesse chittered, anxiously looking to where Hanzo was recuperating in the large autotank. It had taken a week, but Angela had finally deemed Hanzo out of the danger zone and well enough to be taken out of isolation. The naga had barely moved during that time, coiled within himself tightly, only moving to accept the food that they gave him. When he stopped eating, Lena had worried, but Angela had merely sighed and muttered something about codependency.
Before she could lower the sling into the tank, Jesse squirmed off the edge and landed in the water with a splash, soaking everything within three feet of the edge. Hanzo immediately uncurled, spines raised and hissing, before the lobster hybrid crashed into him. They tumbled together in a flurry of bubbles and screeches before calming, Hanzo wrapping fully around his mate as Jesse cooed and chittered at him, hands roaming restlessly before gripping back with equal desperation. They sank to the bottom of the tank, unmoving.
“Aw,” Lena said. “That’s so sweet.”
Angela smiled. “It’s humbling, sometimes,” she said. “Even with all my knowledge of medication and science, I’m still limited in what I can do. It’s amazing just what the touch of a loved one can do, when everything else that science can provide us fails.”
Lena watched as the two hybrids cuddled, occasional coos and other noises coming from them. A part of her was fascinated- she could easily publish a dozen more papers on hybrid physiology and behavior from the data collected this week alone, but more than that, she was happy. Happy that she was able to save a life and reunite two lovers, no matter what species they were. It reminded her why she loved her job so much, and that moments like these made the hell that was university and graduate work worth it.
“If anyone can figure it out, Angie, you can,” Lena said instead.
Angela’s smile was warm, and the two sat there in comfortable silence.
“Careful,” Lena said as Emily lowered the container down to her. “Don’t jostle it!”
“I know,” Emily said, sighing in relief when Lena was able to grab it and lower it the rest of the way underwater. “We’ll be watching from the boat!”
Lena gave her fiance a beaming smile before pulling her scuba mask back on, ducking beneath the water.
It was late spring in Gibraltar, and long shadows were already reaching across the water from the cliff face. With the dimness of her surroundings, Lena navigated to the bottom of the bay carefully, her precious cargo laid gently on the sand and the lid removed before she pulled out the bait balls from the canister clipped to her gear.
It took a few minutes, but Jesse finally peered out from the cliff face. His eyes immediately zeroed in on the bait ball, and he chittered happily, scuttling across the sand towards his target.
Hanzo was slower to arrive. Still the more cautious of the two, Lena thought fondly, despite it being almost a year since his injuries. One could barely tell, too- other than the missing spines and the pale scars on his tail, Hanzo was just as quick and deadly as before. If anything had changed, it was that he left more presents for the lot of them, and both hybrids were more willing to humor Angela when she tested their reflexes and physical strength.
Hanzo noticed the opened container first, letting out an inquisitive chirp upon drawing closer. Lena gave an encouraging ‘ok’ with her hand- after the attack, the staff had felt it necessary to teach the hybrids sign language, which both hybrids had took to with aplomb. Jesse used it more than Hanzo, mostly to ask for more fish or treats, but he could understand the signals just as well.
At first, the naga didn’t seem to understand the contents. Lena supposed they did look a bit like golf-ball sized pearls- one the traditional milky white, but the other was a soft rosy pink. Lena didn’t hurry them, though. She knew they would figure it out eventually and she could wait a little longer. After all this had taken months of planning, calling in favors, applying for permits, and getting special approval from not only Gibraltar’s government but also investors to make this happen. What was a moment or two extra?
Seconds later, Hanzo’s eyes widened, and several excited chirps alerted Jesse to his discovery. Curious, the lobster moved closer, peering into the canister as well before beaming and chittering in joy.
Carefully, both hybrids reached into the container to pull out the eggs- one rosy pink lobster hybrid egg, and one milky white naga egg.
The hybrids cooed over them for a moment, tails intertwining in joy, before they turned as one and darted back into the cave. Lena, crying and smiling despite the scuba gear, turned towards the nearest camera and gave it a double thumbs up.
Before she could move, however, both hybrids came careening out of the cave, carrying something between them. Lena gasped when she recognized it for what it was- a molt of Jesse’s shell, perfectly intact, and only recently shed.
Jesse chittered impatiently, pushing it into her hands, and Lena shook her head, quickly signing that it was too big. Hanzo seemed to understand, looking up at the boat in speculation, before turning to Jesse and chirping. His mate cooed in reply, and they followed Lena back to the surface, where Winston and Emily were waiting, wide eyed in awe and excitement, Lucio with a camera ready, beaming.
There wasn’t a dry eye between any of them, Lena noticed, as even Angela was crying, hiding her smile behind her hands. Carefully, Winston and Emily laid the molt along the bottom of the boat. The two hybrids flashed the ‘ok’ sign before returning underwater and back to their cave, and to their newly acquired eggs.
As soon as Lena was back on board, Winston pulled them all into a group hug, despite the fact that Lena soaked them all with ocean water. Everyone was crying, laughing, and Lucio was documenting it all.
When they publish the video a week later, it takes the world by storm, and sends the scientific world into a tizzy. A year later, all five members of the facility get nobel peace prizes, and the twenty other staff members welcome all of them back with cheering and a party. In the ensuing five years, Lena publishes more papers, she and Emily get married, and Winston is formally recognized for his contributions to science and accepted as a full citizen of Earth by the UN.
But when Winston stands up to the podium to a stadium full of hopeful new graduates to talk about his teams work with hybrids and the scientific breakthroughs they discovered, he tells them none of these things.
Instead, he tells them a story of how, five months later, two excited and proud new parents greeted them on the shore with two small wriggling newly-hatched babies between them, eager to show them off to the strange family they had found in the scientists. And how, in that moment, he had never been so happy for the day that Lena’s bucket had been stolen out from under her.