I could spot the thing from the air as the little ship swung overhead, dropping like a stone amid the swirling, blowing snow. I clutched the armrests of my seat tightly and tried to ignore the flip-flopping of my stomach.
Instead, I kept my eyes glued to the window, trying to assemble the glances of the creature into a coherent picture. Not the biggest we’d found, but decently sized. Probably a young male, I guessed, They tended to push the hardest north, looking for new spawning spots to claim.
This one must have not noticed the falling temperature until the ice closed in, trapping him.
The plane banked to the side again, turning into a tight spiral and giving me another look at the beast – and sending my stomach into tight convulsions. Fifty feet, I guessed. That fit with my original prediction of a young male. I’d need to examine the thing on the ground to know for certain.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, the plane’s wheels sat on the ground, and my breath came a little more easily. I gathered my things, pulled my coat around my thin shoulders, and stumbled out into into the open air.
The chill of the place hit me like a knife, slicing straight through the thick weave. I hissed in shock but clenched my teeth together, refusing to let them chatter.
Fortunately, a car waited at the bottom of the plane’s steps to carry me over to the thing. The man behind the wheel hid most of his face beneath a balaclava, but he still flashed a big, brilliantly white grin at me. “Evening, doc. Here to see what we’ve found? Gonna make all of us rich?”
“Here to take a look,” I agreed, although I didn’t address his second point. Fortunately, my tone was enough to make the driver shrug and turn back to the wheel.
Truth was, there wasn’t too much money in the big beasts any more. Sure, some big trophy hunters would pay for unusually large specimens, and the research universities still bought up eggs from the females, but those were both pretty rare. The males, especially younger ones like this guy, had saturated the market. Everyone who really wanted one already had one.
And given their size, one was enough to provide research samples for decades.
Still, I kept on agreeing to fly out to all the new sites, all the new discoveries. I guess I felt a bit like a treasure hunter, forever hoping to find that glint of gold amid the dross.
It wasn’t going to be here, of course. I already knew that.
The car pulled over, and I braced myself against the cold before sliding out of the back seat. I stepped over to the hide of the massive fish, reaching out running one gloved hand over its side. No scales, of course – the things had a thick, rubbery hide that produced some sort of cold-resistant mucus. Even now, I felt a little bit of the slime clinging to my gloved fingers, and I shook it off.
A single lap around the uncovered fish told me everything I needed to know. “Young male, probably in its second or third spawning,” I told the driver, heading back towards the warm lights of the car. “Nothing unusual about it, unfortunately. Xenopiscus vulgaris, just like I told you from the pictures.”
“So what do we do with the thing, doc?” the driver asked, still sounding a little hopeful. “We gonna get any payoff from it?”
I paused for a moment, but decided to be blunt. “Not from us,” I replied. “You could list the whole thing, but it might not sell for months, if ever. There’s already too many of them on the market. You’d probably get more if you hack it up and sell the organs separately. The bones’ll fetch a bit, and lots of places still buy the gametes.”
The driver faced forward in the front seat, but I saw his grin fade in the rear-view mirror. “Well, sorry to take up your precious time, doc,” he replied. “Hopefully our next find will be worth more.”
“There’s always more out there in the ice,” I offered, trying to sound optimistic. My voice couldn’t keep up the necessary tone, however, especially as I considered the long flight back to my more southernly research post.
“S’pose,” the driver allowed after a minute, as the car pulled away, into the blowing snow. “Always more in the ice.”