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Future Jaú

A short story

by Richard Straws

Copyright 2019 by Richard Straws. All rights reserved.

Future Jaú is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents

either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Cover artwork and design by Peter van Geldern

Published in the United States by Hudson MacArthur Publishers, Inc.

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Dr. Alan Butler lifted his sunglasses, used the back of his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, and stared at the monitor. The dorado was still doing nothing. It had found a calm pocket near the river bank and there it stayed. It'd been four hours since Alan had slipped the sleek, meter-long fish into the crystalline waters of the Satobra River, complete with the optical nerve sensors that were sending back the images being viewed. Alan was seeing what the dorado was seeing, which, quite frankly, was very little. Some debris washing by, here and there a piranha or fingerling of this or that species, and still the dorado exerted itself only enough to stay in its calm pocket.

Salminus maxilosus, you're a boring fish,” Alan muttered, more nostalgic than agitated.

To him, the dorado represented an exciting past that was now long gone. It had been one of the all-time great sport fishing species, back when fishing had been allowed in this area of western Brazil. Colorful, with yellowish-orange fins bordered by red, and striated black lines painted horizontally on its rich golden sides, the dorado was a spectacle for any fisherman to behold. And once hooked, did they ever jump! The dorado was one of the reasons Alan used to come down from the Northern states to fish these very banks. He'd never found a fish as exciting to catch as a dorado. But as a research specimen, it was proving more than a bit dull.

Alan shifted his sitting position to get out of the hot sun and under the shadow of a tree. He was slight-framed, but wiry and well-tanned from his work as a naturalist. His short-cropped hair was graying, and the two day's growth of whiskers on his face revealed a lot of white. As he sat on the river bank, methodically flicking an ant off his faded jeans, Alan regretted, yet one more time, that he lacked the high-tech equipment of the well-funded researchers. Sensors integrated into the optic nerves were fine when he was a post-grad three decades ago; they were an embarrassingly far distance from today's cutting-edge technology. As far as research was concerned, Alan was a dinosaur, an object of pity to his colleagues.

But the research had its advantages: Alan relished being out here alone in nature. This region of Brazil was still beautiful, if not pristine. It was the Pantanal, the world's largest remaining wetland: two hundred thousand square kilometers of rivers, lagoons, swamps, and oft-flooded forests and grasslands. And it was an area that had been vigorously protected over the years, since the twilight of the 20th century. Protected well before the ecodisasters that wreaked havoc on other systems. Here there were still hundreds of species of birds, myriads of colorful butterflies, millions of caimans. The Pantanal remained a home to the jaguar, anaconda, and river otter.

The way Alan figured it, sitting tranquilly on this river bank was the next best thing to fishing—but, of course, such had been outlawed in these parts for almost fifteen years. As far back as the previous century, Brazil had proscribed hunting in the Pantanal and the move to stop commercial fishing started soon afterward. It was only a matter of time until sport fishing also was severely regulated, then banned. The Pantanal had only anticipated a worldwide trend: the devastatingly effective advances in fishing technology, the environmental degradation by growing ranks of fishermen, and the boom in the ecotourism industry—all had converged to curtail commercial fishing worldwide and sport fishing in most places. The world's fish for consumption were now produced in efficient, high-tech aquaculture centers; the leisure angling largely limited to pay-fishing waters: crowded mud holes, unless you could afford to join one of the country clubs. The surprisingly successful political campaigns by activists in the mid-21st century, backed by big money from who knows where, was now a university-course-worthy lesson in how to frame the conflict between a fragile environment and an increasingly overpopulated world.

Alan watched as a troop of Capuchin monkeys quietly moved through the treetops further upstream, betrayed only by the rustling of branches. Yes, this was a great place for reflection, he mused. But nowadays Alan's thoughts weren't so pleasant; they were tinged with melancholy. Revisiting the area he'd fished as a younger, hopeful researcher made him only too painfully aware that his had been largely a wasted life. He had nothing to show for his fifty-nine years. His research manuscripts? Just minutiae in the larger picture, archaic words that no one would ever access. His doctorate in biology? A relatively meaningless degree in an era when it seemed everyone in the developed world was getting a Ph.D. in something. His job? Just a soon-to-be-retired, assistant professor at a second-rate community college.

But it was his ex-wife and his only child who had served as the measure of his life. The only woman whom he'd ever loved had followed her dreams in the arms of another while he'd been engrossed in his world of research. His daughter's departure had caught him equally by surprise—dead of a drug overdose at the age of sixteen. First time, her friends said. Twenty years had not erased the pain. Alan hadn't even a grandchild to show for his almost six decades of life. And so he sat here alone in the Pantanal, looking for that great biological insight, but with second-rate equipment and a second-rate plan. Striving for that career-maker that he knew was out of his reach. Hoping for something that would signify his life had some impact on the unfolding tree of time, not just the end of a dying branch.

At least it's pleasant here in August. Alan liked this time of the year, the Pantanal's dry season, Brazil's winter season. Although still tropical, the temperatures at night sometimes dipped into the chilly sweater-and-windbreaker level, and there were fewer mosquitos. And that latter point was a relief in what was essentially a heavily-vegetated swamp with rivers flowing through it.

Even with mosquitoes, the Pantanal was still a great respite from civilization and its endless problems. The recent worldwide optimism—ushered in with the movement for international unity, particularly the United States coalescing with the League of Latin American Nations—had since given way to the usual pessimism. Technology and national unity has solved some problems. But the anticipated new era of common prosperity, peace, and happiness had culminated in the same fundamental crises: corruption, weapons of mass destruction, family breakdown, abuse, pollution, crime. The unity of the drug cartels into one Syndicate disturbingly paralleled that of international unity. Yes, it's good being here in the Pantanal.

Alan glanced at the monitor. The dorado was still inactive. This is a lot of money to be spending, Alan thought, but at least….

Alan's eyes riveted to the screen. What the hell was that? Something large and black was moving slowly across the screen. In a moment it had passed beyond the dorado's visual field. “That was a jaú!” Alan said aloud and with marked incredulousness, accenting the ú like the “ow!” of a child pricked with a needle. “A big jaú!” At least it looked very big, he thought. What was it, 120 cm? Maybe 150?

But a jaú? Paulicea lutkeni? In the Satobra River? Never before had he heard of any of these monster catfish being seen here. The Satobra was just too clear, too shallow. This particular section of rapidly-flowing water was a dorado's dream habitat, not a place for a jaú. The Miranda River, which the Satobra empties into just eight kilometers downstream, was a different story altogether. Plenty of jaú in that large, muddy river. These monster catfish keep to turbid environments, where their barbells' chemoreceptors, smelling and tasting chemicals at minuscule concentrations, provide them an advantage over species more dependent on sight. They like deep waters and great rivers. But a jaú here?

Alan was stumped. Is this a bioengineered fish? For a while there had been bioengineered fish showing up in the oddest places. Coldwater fish were spotted in warm water environments, and warm water species in cold. There were Pacific salmon netted off the coast of Madagascar and saltwater species reported moving down the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Bioengineering seemed a great idea when one designed fish and aquatic insects to survive in the acid streams of Pennsylvania or the low-pH lakes of Canada. But when they started infecting normal ecosystems, they were a virtual plague.

The history of introduced species had always been checkered. Introduce an African honey bee to Brazil or a sea lamprey to the Great Lakes and the economic and environmental impact was staggering. But humanity had never seen anything like what transpired when superiorly genetically and technologically bioengineered organisms escaped from research laboratories and aquaculture centers.

Alan took a deep breath and looked at the sunlight reflecting off the crystalline Satobra waters. No, he decided, I have too much imagination; this couldn't be a bioengineered fish. The tension lifted as he reviewed the stringent controls in place. Bioengineering firms needed to meet so many regulations nowadays that most of them would be better off locating in Antarctica to fulfill the requirements—or in space. And the policing was thorough. This jaú, he finally concluded, is just the outer edge of the normal distribution curve. It wandered into the Satobra. It will wander out. Just an interesting observation to be added to the final report.

Alan packed up his equipment an hour before sunset. It was always the last hour of sunlight when the mosquitos along the river came out in mass. Alan left the dorado in the water. He could have collected it easily by pushing a switch and activating the nerve block implants, then transferring the fish to an aerated tank in the enclosed bed of his truck. But it was safe here, and other implants would progressively shock its system if it started to leave the delineated research area. If there was any problem, there was always the tiny satellite tracking device. The fish was well acclimated now; the recording could continue all night.

Alan stayed in the vehicle until dark and then departed. No one would venture up or down the jungle river at night, and he would be back at the break of dawn.

It was two days later when Alan saw the jaú again. This time it was evening, and he was in his field research laboratory reviewing the recordings.

The research lab was really two large rooms in a single-level brick house, isolated on a hectare of wilderness a few kilometers from the Satobra River. Alan had convinced his college to purchase the cheap residence twenty years ago and designate it a “Biological Field Station.” The name added some prestige to the college catalogue, but wasn't much to look at. And it was rarely used.

Alan found the jaú easily on the recordings and froze the image on the monitor. It was clearly Paulicea lutkeni. Its horizontally flattened head took up almost one third of its length. The small, dark eyes were overwhelmed by thin, long barbels and by the very wide, slightly-opened mouth exhibiting small teeth, which he knew would number in the hundreds had they been fully visible. The smooth skin was uniformly black with the exception of a yellowish underbelly.

The girth of the lower abdomen surprised Alan. This was a very pot-bellied fish, even for a member of the catfish family. It looked very much like a gravid female. But it is still August, Alan thought, months before the rainy season when jaú normally spawn. Then the water, overflowing into the neighboring forests, is rich in food and cover. Yet, here in the dry season, is an apparently gravid female.

Another fact intrigued Alan. This jaú was moving downstream at a quite rapid rate. Sure, he knew that jaú can move fast if necessary. They have a powerful tail and minimize drag in the water. But they are nocturnal; they move little during the day.

The train of thought that had been bothering Alan continued to nag him. Did a bio-designed jaú get into the Pantanal? The aquaculture centers were notorious for developing fish that could spawn year-round and feed night and day. Eighteen years ago, when some “Super Pacu” got into the Amazon, these relatives of the piranha overwhelmed the ecological balance of this great system. But the controls in the Pantanal, as elsewhere, were now very rigorous. The Policial Florestal checkpoints examined every vehicle in the Pantanal, and unauthorized live fish and eggs just didn't get through. Worldwide, the aquaculture research centers had become virtual Fort Knoxes as concerned any genetically-altered live specimens escaping, and all such mass-produced fish were necessarily sterile. The centers had to be careful: one mistake and they were closed down. The earth's fragile ecosystem depended on such checks.

Three days later Alan saw the other jaú. He was reviewing the recordings at high speed when the specimens caught his eye. Two normal jaú, but very large. And another big jaú with a distended abdomen, apparently gravid. Each was sighted in the Satobra during the daytime hours, and all were moving fast. And the gravid one was moving in an unexpected direction if what was happening was a spawning migration. Like the first jaú, it was moving downstream, not up.

Alan was stumped. But he knew who to ask. Even though this person would be dismissed as a source of knowledge by Alan's colleagues, what with his having a fifth-grade education and all.


Much of the Pantanal remained frontier. Its harsh climate of high summer temperatures and seasonal flooding, and its poor soil, made for few noteworthy settlements. Cattle and ecotourism remained the main income—and the tourists didn't go in this far. Not as far as Jabuti.

Jabuti was the only real village along the Satobra, only three kilometers from its confluence with the Miranda. Alan had heard of a smaller settlement farther upstream, but that was accessible only by plane or boat, and the felled trees where the river wound through thick swamp made traversing up there near impossible. Even the Policia Florestal didn't bother going up there. Jabuti, on the other hand, was accessible by boat or via a potholed, half-washed-out dirt road. But it was like going back centuries in time.

Alan tied his boat to a half-submerged fence post and disembarked, wiping the sweat from his eyes with the sleeve of his -sweat-soaked shirt. It was a hot and sunny Pantanal morning; the kind that makes one feel like doing little more than sitting in the shade. The village before him was a chaotic cluster of widely-spaced shacks, most a patchwork of ill-fitting wood or bamboo slats, some with brick. The windows were mere openings, with heavy shutters that could be lowered during rainstorms. Pigs rummaged in the yards with the chickens and dogs. This was the kind of place that originated the term “dirt poor.”

The people of Jabuti had depended for generations on fishing. And the regulations against fishing, while religiously enforced by the police, paled next to the spirit of people needing to put food on the table. Alan knew they might not use nets for fear of being caught or turned in by informants. But they certainly used fishing poles, and maybe even night lines tied to branches at the water's edge. It was here in Jabuti that Alan knew he'd find out if anyone ever caught any jaú in the Satobra or if any spawned this time of the year. No point in embarrassing himself by putting something stupid in the research report.

Alan attracted a small crowd of children as he walked down the dirt road leading into the village. The children were of all ages, maybe from four years old to ten or eleven, mostly barefoot and quite a few of the boys shirtless. But they weren't like the homeless children in Saõ Paulo, who roamed the streets. These didn't ask for handouts. They were just curious, and happy, and laughing.

Alan walked to the wooden shack of Moacir, who'd served as his fishing guide many times in the distant past, and of whom Alan was fond. Moacir was a hard worker. But more importantly, he also knew a little English. Alan could get by in Portuguese, but had trouble understanding when it was spoken quickly, as it always seemed to be.

It was Moacir himself who answered the door. His look of surprise and momentary bewilderment at seeing Alan was followed by a warm and broad smile.

“Doctor Alan! Bom dia! Hello, my friend!”

Moacir had aged well. Now in his late-forties, he was thin, but wiry. His brown eyes still showed a youthful vitality, while his muscular arms, faded t-shirt, and jeans dusted with red clay soil revealed a poor working man. A couple-of-days growth of whiskers highlighted his brown skin, baked by constant activity in the tropical sun. Alan knew Moacir to be a good man, with a lovely wife. Alan always felt comfortable around him.

After the greetings and small talk, Alan got to his point: “Moacir, do you ever see jaú in the Satobra?”

Moacir looked at him blankly. He didn't move. He didn't answer.

Alan tried again, speaking slowly: “Jaú in Rio Satobra, Moarcir? Jaú? Any jaú, Satobra?”

Alan's brow furrowed as he watched Moarcir's friendly demeanor undergo a strange transformation, at first replaced by a pensive, downcast look, then quickly transitioning to a hardened, eye-to-eye stare of harshness and anger. Alan immediately sensed he was being misunderstood, and tried repeating jaú, this time making sure to accent the final vowel, Portuguese-style. But Moarcir had stopped listening. In a moment's time, Moarcir was at the door, holding it open for Alan to leave and motioning Alan out.

“Goodbye. Time to go. Go back home. No more questions.” Moarcir's countenance was stern, unmovable.

Perplexed, Alan tried again: “No, Moacir. I need to know. Nao. Preciso saber. Jaú em Satobra ou só em Miranda?”

Moarcir ignored him. He looked past Alan toward the children watching out on the street. Then he said, “No jaú. Go now. Tchau.”

With that, Alan was literally ushered out the door.

For a minute, Alan faced the closed door, mouth open, then running his hands through his hair as he tried to process what'd just transpired. The kids stopped their play and banter and silently looked at him as he stood. Alan lifted his sunglasses, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, and looked blankly at the street. What in the world is wrong with Moacir?

Alan tried two other homes. He didn't know the people, but they certainly seemed friendly when he'd first knocked. But when he mentioned jaú, they'd suddenly closed their doors on him.

He went to another house. Alan put on his best smile, remarkable since he was still tormented by Moacir's cold rejection. Alan led by asking if there were any dorado in the Satobra. The man answered emphatically, proud to be an expert in such knowledge: “Sim, yes. Dorado.” Still standing in the doorway, Alan asked about pacu. Again, the man answered affirmatively, with an all-knowing nod of his head, “Sim, pacu.” Alan then asked about jaú. The man looked at Alan strangely, almost frightened, Alan thought, and then shut the door immediately. After this house, Alan lost the energy to go on. He walked listlessly back toward his boat.

The kids were still following, quietly laughing among themselves. He was a curiosity. One child tried to engage him in English. Perhaps he was being friendly. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friends.

“Mister. How are you?”

Alan looked at the kid, who was slightly older than the other children. Feeling crestfallen with the previous encounters and appreciating any positive give and take, Alan weakly returned the conversation: “Alô. Tudo bom?”

“Tudo bom, mister. Here, Jabuti. Porque?”

Why am I here in Jabuti? I don't know anymore, thought Alan. Finally Alan sighed and repeated slowly his unanswered question whether anyone ever catches jaú in the Satobra: “Quiero entender se pessoa pegar um jaú em River Satobra.”

“Yes, Mister. Jaú catch. My ... tio catch.”

His uncle caught one! “In Satobra?” repeated Alan.

“Sim, Satobra. Sim. Hay oito meses.”

Eight months ago, thought Alan, his uncle caught a jaú in the Satobra. Not such a big deal after all. But the child's smile was now gone, his eyes had a faraway look. “Big one? Grande?” Alan said with a smile.

“Sim ... grande....” The kid paused. He looked at the ground. “Porém men come. Ask over jaú.” He kept his eyes downcast. “Kill me uncle.”

Alan stood still, stunned. He felt as if wind had blown over his ears, blocking out all the sounds around him as he withdrawn deep inside his own head. Kill his uncle? Over a jaú?

It took some time to for Alan to respond. Slowly and methodically, he drew the boy out, trying to navigate the boy's alternating moods, from downcast, when the boy barely spoke, to angry, when his hate seemed to open up the spigot of words, mostly Portuguese and fast and incomprehensible.

With difficulty, Alan unraveled what had transpired. His uncle had caught the jaú, more by accident than skill, apparently snagging it with a treble hook. Sometime later, several men had come to the village and asked around about a jaú. They went to the boy's uncle, shot him numerous times, and took what was left of the jaú. The police couldn't locate the murderers, but the boy didn't think they even tried. Now the village parents don't even let the kids fish with worms anymore, for fear they'll catch one of these mud-dwelling fish.

The boy didn't want to say much more, and soon several adults, standing and watching in their open doors and yards, yelled at the kids, and they all dispersed and walked away. Alan was left alone with his thoughts, oblivious to the stares of the townspeople as he slowly trudged back to his boat.

Kill his uncle? Kill his uncle over a jaú? The thought was incomprehensible to Alan. It certainly didn't sound like bioengineering companies. Too much money to get wrapped up in murder, at least such direct murder; they could just pay off the uncle. The man probably wouldn't have known the difference from an ordinary jaú anyway and wouldn't care. Heck, they could pay off the whole town of Jabuti, pay off the local police, pay off anyone. Why murder someone?

By the time he got back to his laboratory, Alan had made a determination. He was going to have to try and catch a jaú himself.

Getting permission to capture fish in the Satobra or purchase specialized ichthyocides would never come, at least not during the time Alan was still in the country. There was no office bureaucrat who would care that this community college professor saw a jaú just eight kilometers upstream of a river where there were plenty of jaú. Only Alan's instincts told him it was important. If he was going to capture a jaú, he was going to have to do it against the rules and using the methodology of the past.

Alan strode into the dusty storage room of his research laboratory and removed a backpack electrofishing unit, kept there since his younger days. Even then it had been archaic. When he reached the field site, he reconnected the monitor, and activated the alarm system to alert him to the appearance of any large fish in the field of vision of the dorado. And then he sat down and waited.

And waited, and waited some more. After ten hours, with the area perceptibly darkening with the setting sun, Alan began to sense the futility of his efforts. He was looking for that rarest of experiences, that exception to the rule, a jaú in the Satobra. But, he told himself, at least he was getting some research data on the dorado. It had actually done some feeding, going after a shock of small fish, pushing them against the banks of the river and capturing some in its sharp teeth.

A high-pitched beep signaled something large moving into the area. Alan glimpsed on the monitor a huge, flattened black head crossing the dorado's visual field. A jaú. A very big, gravid-looking jaú. Alan fumbled for the backpack electrofishing unit and raced to the banks of the river, clanging audibly as he climbed into the boat.

“Too much noise,” he muttered. Alan yanked on his chest-high rubber waders, entered the boat, maneuvered it downstream, and quickly plunged the electrodes into the water and activated the pulse button.

All kinds of fish floated near the boat—mostly small characoids and chiclids. A few larger piranhas. Some came to the surface, but many stayed under the water as they swept by in the current. Alan strained to peer into the water. No jaú.

Christ, he thought, the thing's not coming close enough to the surface where I can see it. Or it got by me. He worked his way a little farther downstream. Against all reason, he set the current up high—very high. He became Ahab in search of his white whale. He was in danger of frying himself with the fish. Alan plunged the electrodes in. Again, all kinds of little and medium-sized fish, many appearing dead this time as they floated by. No jaú.

And then he saw his Moby-Dick, its equilibrium disrupted and floating slowly under the clear water near the bow of the boat, fins twitching ineffectively. Alan stepped to the front and quickly plunged his long-handled landing net in, still needing to lean over and reach fully to his shoulder in the water, just snagging the jaú's head. Only the head fit; it was huge.

As Alan hauled on the handle and pulled the jau toward the surface, he experienced a rush of exhilaration, an almost boyish excitement, at this capture. He was still heartedly congratulating himself on his adroitness, smiling broadly, and wishing others had observed his quick-witted capture of the fish, when he tipped the boat and nearly plunged headfirst into the water through his unwitting and awkward effort to pull this monster catfish over the side. He was immediately humbled. Unable to haul it over the side, Alan was grateful no one was watching as he clumsily maneuvered the boat to the shore, dragging the catfish in the water.

Once he had the fish on the bank, Alan crouched down over it, exhausted and breathing heavily. The jaú was bigger than he had been prepared for. He gripped the stunned, but alive jaú and lifted it up as high as he could. Muscles straining and teeth gritted, he got the head up to his chin, and still its tail, and quite a bit of its weight, lay bent on the ground. It was nearly as big as his five-foot-eight, 173-centimeter frame. What was the jaú: 160cm? Perhaps 75-80 kilograms? Alan knew jaú got this big, at least in the deep rivers, but he'd never seen one this big, let alone caught one. Actually, he chuckled to himself, I guess I didn't actually catch this one either, not by any rule book.

Alan pushed the bulging abdomen. No eggs squirted out. Not ripe yet, Alan deduced. He sat back and looked at the rapidly darkening sky. Time to head back. The jaú could stay anesthetized in the dorado's transport tank on the ride back. It barely fit, but the tank was aerated and temperature controlled and with water drawn from the Satobra River. And the jaú was a notoriously hardy fish. He could return it later. Right now, Alan wanted a good look at a most unusual specimen.

The jaú floated virtually motionless, calmly anesthetized in the lab's circular aquarium. Alan gazed with admiration at the powerful catfish, which nature had sculptured and adapted over eons of time. He then took a deep breath, gentled pulled the jaú to the side of the aquarium, rotated it, and used a scalpel to cut a small abdominal incision—careful to make the cut minimal enough to be easily and quickly sealed with the Fishglue® Instant Skin Compound for later return to the river.

Alan expected to see eggs spurt out, or at least see a visible egg mass. Nothing had prepared him for what he did see.

Alan starred, uncomprehending. Inside the tiny slit of his cut was seemingly a plastic bag. He cut a longer slit. It was indeed a plastic bag. A thick, transparent plastic bag filled with a gray powder.

Alan grabbed the fish behind the gills with two hands, and heaved it roughly over the side of the tank and onto the nearby table. He barely thought about the weight this time. He quickly cut open the entire length of the belly and pulled out the plastic bag.

Drugs. There was no doubt about it, he was looking at a carefully-placed plastic bag filled with illicit drugs. Cocaine, heroin? he wondered. Or perhaps a designer drug like SPEA—synthetic crystallized phenylethylamine—designed to mimic the amphetamine that saturates the brain when one falls in love, generating feelings of euphoria, giddiness, and energy, but all to often dependency, sleeplessness, anxiety, irrationality and death when taken concentrated. His wife had sought to recapture the highs with another; his daughter had fallen to the other side of the double-edged sword. Alan flung the plastic bag onto the digital scale—over eight kilos of the powder. Millions upon millions of dollars in front of him.

Alan noticed his hands were now shaking. He looked again inside the body cavity of the jaú and noted something else foreign. Protruding from the stomach was a thin, polyvinyl tube that led through a regulator to another plastic bag filled with an opaque liquid—a liquid that no doubt was dripping slowly into the stomach.

A metallic gleam caught Alan's attention. He began to search with his fingers near the dorsal nerve cord, but, although his mind was now racing as that of an energized youth, his eyes still betrayed his true progression of years, blurring at that close distance. Alan reached for his glasses and was exasperated when he smeared the lenses with blood and slime from his fingers. He cursed his stubbornness that he'd never got his vision repaired. I belong to another era, like one of the Jabutians. When he finally began anew, he was quick to recognize the implant: a remotely-operated nerve blocker attached to some key nerves, just as with the dorado, making it easy to retrieve the fish. But how does it possibly....?

Alan realized he was hyperventilating, his heart pounding. I'm too tense. I have to calm down. He took a measured breath to settle himself, then another. He used the scalpel to carefully cut away the skin between the eyes and the nose of the jaú in his search for the superficial opthalimic ramus of the trigeminal nerve. With a dissecting microscope, he meticulously followed the fine branches of this ros V nerve to the select area within the olfactory lamellae. There was the glint of something shiny. Alan sectioned this area and stuck it under the low-power microscope.

Alan knew he wouldn't see the components of the fish's magnetic sensory system: the magnetoreceptors would be too small for detection by even a powerful light microscope, and too rare for an electron microscope. Even school children these days knew it didn't take many of the tiny magnetite particles to give powerful magnetic field orientation. But Alan did see what he expected. There was evidence of some fine surgery work, tiny connectors to the ros V nerve, and some microchips—all in the area where he knew the magnetoreceptors were located. This fish was bioengineered for migration.

Scientists had figured out migration quite a while ago. But no one had ever considered mechanical implants to control migration. There had been no purpose to bioengineer a single, half-million dollar fish when there were simpler ways to effect migratory patterns. Just not enough return on the investment. Until now.

Alan sat down on a lab stool, marveling at the ingenuity of the designers. Here was a fish that one could control perfectly. A high-tech, living organism engineered to follow any desired route, any time of the year. One probably mechanically and perhaps genetically altered to maximize speed, taking a catfish body and giving it the constant thrust of a strong migratory fish, as if driven by the intense reproductive instinct. A fish thta could be collected when desired. Since the jaú was traveling during the daytime, it was no doubt bioengineered to travel continuously, day and night, until reaching its destination. A fish that didn't even need to stop to eat, not with the feeding tube going into its stomach. It may be altered in many ways, Alan realized. He'd only seen the surface of what had been done.

This, thought Alan, is the perfect delivery system. It can travel silent and unseen through country borders, past police checkpoints, even beneath Coast Guard cruisers. Swimming under its own power, without need for external control via transmissions that easily could be detected. No dog sniffing, no chemical sensors, no high-tech equipment to discover the contraband. If perchance spotted, it is just a fish. A big fish, of course, one too big to be the prey of other fish, but a nice size to serve as a sort of cargo ship. You don't need to trust the vagaries of human nature. You don't need human mules. No panicking at checkpoints or at airport customs. A perfect delivery system.

Alan's mind contemplated the possibilities. There may be many such jaú. They could be taking the drugs downstream, down to the Miranda River, which empties into the Paraguay River, which becomes the Parana. Which goes all the way to the estuary near Buenos Aires.

How many days to Buenos Aires? wondered Alan. What is it, two thousand kilometers? Twenty-five hundred kilometers? Alan knew about reports of Prochilodus migrating fifty kilometer per day in the Parana River, but that was only the cruising speed—the leisurely travel rates with detours and feeding. Not the much higher sustainable speed that can be maintained for lengthy intervals. And these were bioengineered. Maybe he should be comparing the jaú to faster species, maybe even the salmons with a sustainable speed close to thirteen kilometers per hour. Without the need to feed or rest, these jaú theoretically could travel three hundred kilometers per day. And this jaú was not only specially engineered, but when delivering drugs was going with the current—not against it like other migrations!

How many days to Asuncion, Paraguay? pondered Alan. Traveling day and night? Traveling with the very strong Paraguay River current? Maybe two days? To Buenos Aires, maybe five days, maybe a week?

And once in the estuary in Buenos Aires, Alan surmised the drugs could be transferred to a fast ocean-going species like a tuna or marlin, which could transport the cargo unseen and undetected to the four corners of the world. The possibilities were endless.

Alan remembered the only non-gravid jaú he'd spotted in the recordings; it had been going upstream. Probably headed back to the distribution point. The others were headed downstream, delivering the drugs. Properly controlled, the jaú could hang idly around either site until activated for retrieval. Only one, well-paid and trusted person—or fearful person—needed to know anything about the delivery system at each major distribution and collection center. With the push of a button, evidence disappears—or keeps swimming until the crisis is over. The rivers are once again the main commercial highways, even in this age of space travel.

The drug cartels, part of a now-unified Syndicate, had played this one brilliantly. No wonder they had poured so much money into the campaign to restrict commercial and even sport fishing. After all, people knew there was organized crime money involved— the “legitimate Dons” made a point of showing how generous they were in supporting environmental causes and saving our planet. They were really protecting their interests. They didn't want any “cargo ship” caught by accident.

Alan was riveted by the genius of the operation. Just as he was equally impressed with himself. He chuckled as he thought of some famous movie actor portraying his fearlessness in the face of danger, depicting how he brilliantly dissected the Syndicate's scheme. How he, in this remote wilderness, had …

Cartels! Syndicate! Alan's body suddenly seized with tension. He felt nearly paralyzed as he opened up the fish's interior once more. He found it, of course. A tiny transmitter attached to the lower vertebrae. Alan recognized it right away: his dorado had its own transmitter. If he failed to turn his research specimen back to his biotech supplier, Projeto Peixe, or if the dorado escaped, then a satellite or land scanner could be activated, and the exact location specified. Or the government could execute one of their checks to see that he was operating in his permitted area.

This transmitter in the jaú was different; a model he hadn't seen. Likely, Alan speculated, one that could either be remotely activated or timed to transmit at a particular time for a few, brief cycles of the wave output. Just enough to locate the fish and make sure it was correctly on route. To an outside agency monitoring transmissions, just a brief artifact. Not like the long-range miniature airplanes and other remote-control drug delivery devices that the police were continually intercepting because of the external transmissions. The jaú was different. It traveled under its own power, silently and steadily on its water highways. At most an occasional tweak for motivation or directional adjustment.

And it could be recovered quickly if a major problem should appear. A major problem like a poor fisherman in Jabuti snagging one.

The immediacy of Alan's situation was not lost on him. I've got to get out of here. Should I drive to Sao Paulo? No. The Syndicate will track me. There are too powerful. Too many nearly empty two lane roads between here and the highways. Two many checkpoints. Two many informants on the way. I will never make it alive. Call the police? Yes… No! Of course, not! The local Brazilian police are notoriously unreliable. Particularly if the drugs are being manufactured or processed near here, then I can assume the local police are bought off.

I've got to get rid of the fish. They could be monitoring it even now. I need to dump it back into the river. Into the Miranda River, some distance from the Satobra. There is no police check point between here and there.

Alan cut the jaú into pieces, stuffed it into four garbage bags, and transported the bags to the bed of his 4x4. He locked the metal topper encasing the truck bed, though it was pointless. If the police stopped him, they would ask to unlock the cap anyway. The steel cap might be an effective deterrent to thieves wishing to lift equipment from the bed of his truck when he stopped someplace; it wouldn't deter the police from opening it and finding the bags and handcuffing him. Probably to hold him until the Syndicate arrived.

From the dirt road to the paved two-lane, Alan interlaced three thoughts: drive fast, miss the potholes, stay alive. This is crazy, he told himself. I'm 59 years old! What in the world am I panicked for? His reasoning didn't help. He was petrified, hyperventilating. This was, after all, the Syndicate.

Within fifteen minutes he was at the nearest bridge spanning a narrow, but deep and fast part of the Miranda. He looked out into the darkness for any sign of other cars, or movement of any kind. Then he quickly got out, unlocked the cap, and dumped the fish parts out of the bags and over the railing, tossing the garbage bags after. He got back into the truck, made a U-turn, and headed back to his home and lab.

It will be okay, he told himself. The piranhas will surely devour all traces; it was still bloody and warm. If not the piranhas, then maybe the caimans.

Alan reasoned with himself. The cartel has no reason to suspect him. The fish had been out of the river a short time. It was unlikely they were monitoring it so soon. It'd never been far from the river anyway; any transmission pings probably appeared as if still in the Satobra River. And now it was in the Miranda River downstream from the Satobra—although not exactly swimming.

This sounded very reasonable in his head. His body didn't accept the argument. He was pumped with adrenalin, heart racing, breathing fast, sweating. He kept looking in the rearview mirror on the way back, and then, once in his field station/resident, through the windows.

Alan took a shovel and buried the drugs in a shallow depression in an area of thickets and small trees a good two hundred meters from the station. They may prove handy as evidence. He could always make an anonymous phone call to the police after he got back safely to the northern states.

He had always lived a careful life, a cautious life, a rule-filled life. His was an existence as far from the steamy underworld as one could get. Yet, here he had stumbled upon a major find involving the Syndicate itself. And now was surreptitiously burying drugs.

He went back to the station. While the rational part of his brain said to get some sleep and be refreshed for the next day, discordant thoughts kept intruding. Thoughts of the frightened people in Jabuti. Thoughts of media reports of gruesome deaths at the hands of the Syndicate. Thoughts of how isolated he was in this wilderness, and how he could be tortured for days and no one would even know he was missing. So he packed all of this belongings. Finally, near dawn, feeling disoriented and foggy, like maybe he was dreaming, or that life itself was an unreal illusion, he sat in a chair and drifted off.

When Alan awoke, he felt refreshed and lucid once again. He immediately called Varig, TAM, and UniWorld airline shuttles, but none of them had available that day the leg from Campo Grande to Sao Paulo. He cursed his luck, but already he knew the daytime flights were near impossible to get on short notice; he would have to wait until the 4am shuttle. As he booked this flight, he reasoned it out. He really had no reason to be nervous. The jaú and transmitter were back in the river. The Syndicate was unaware of his presence in the Pantanal. And he would soon be gone.

But the millions of dollars' worth of drugs buried outside and a dead fisherman tugged at his mind. He would have to leave as soon as possible. He would go to his research site, retrieve the dorado, tie up the loose ends at the research center, and be on his way. He would drive to Campo Grande as quickly as he could, return the rented dorado and equipment to Projeto Peixe, and before he knew it, be on a connecting flight on the way out of the country.

However, things didn't go exactly as planned. Everything he did seem to devour the minutes, and by the time the rental boat was returned to the local dock, it was near noon. Then, on one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions that seem so unduly consequential, which seem to define one's fate more so than all one's careful planning, Alan stopped at the local bar to grab a sandwich to eat.

The place was nearly empty, but Alan recognized one of the patrons. It was Paulo, a local mechanic/handyman/carpenter/jack of all trades. A man who often approached Alan looking for any kind of odd job, and did quite a good job at them all.

Paulo immediately walked over. He seemed nervous.

“Alo, Doctor. Todo bom?” Asked with overbearing concern, thought Alan.

“Todo bem, Paulo. How are you?”

“Men ask about you in Jabuti. This morning.”

The tension and shock surged in Alan's body as if he had touched a bare electrical wire. “ “What?” he asked incredulously.

“Men come to the Jabuti. Ask many questions. Ask of jaú. Some say you visit about jaú.”

Alan just starred, unable to think.

“Also beat Moacir bad. Very bad.”

Alan's face twitched. They were quick. Very quick. But, of course, it's critical the Syndicate move fast. They may have even retrieved the jaú with scuba drivers and found it cut up, without the drugs. Naturally, they went to the village first, and naturally someone would mention me.

The Syndicate may have thought village, but they are thinking me now. That is for sure. I'm their only threat, as long as I'm alive.

Alan's first impulse was to just get in his car and drive to Campo Grande. But his passport was still in the research laboratory, and all his personal belongings, and it was just ten minutes away. It was worth the delay. Or so he thought.

Alan crouched, hidden in dense brush and peering at the back of the house. Rather than drive right to the property, he'd parked on a half-overgrown road on the edge of a cow pasture, a road separated from the laboratory by one hundred meters of dense vegetation. This was a steamy, thorny patch of jungle filled with mosquitos, biting ants, poisonous spiders, and even more deadly vipers. But Alan had been more worried about animals of another kind, for which there was no anti-venom. He'd headed through the dense growth with only a moment's hesitation, gingerly creeping toward the house.

Now, twenty minutes later, having reached the other side of the thicket, he considered his options. When he had first saw the house, he'd judged all was well, and nearly walked out into the clearing. But then he'd caught a glimpse of a broken pane on the back door, and immediately stopped in his tracks.

They'd already been here. They must've searched the house, he surmised. Alan's impulse was to go quickly inside, get his passport and belongings, and run up the road to his vehicle. But, instead, he moved horizontally within the wall of the forest.

It was then he saw a shiny piece of metal to his right. Hidden in the edge of the jungle on the far side of the house was a vehicle.

Alan froze. He'd not been seen. The lone figure in the front seat was talking on a communications device of some sort, eyes fixed on the dirt driveway leading unto the property. Even as Alan crouched in the humid vegetation, salty sweat burning his eyes, he detected some movement in the laboratory. They were waiting for him to return from his research. He slowly worked his way back through the thick brush to his car.

As Alan drove toward the main road he considered his options. It seemed pointless to run for it—drive to Campo Grande or Sao Paulo. This was, after all, the Syndicate. They were more powerful than some governments. Now they are aware he has packed, they have his passport, and probably by now his airline reservation. There are probably others being mobilized right now. There was no way they would ever let him slip through. The three Policial checkpoints between here and Campo Grande would offer more danger than ally, just places to delay or detain him, while the stretches of empty highway bisecting the jungle between checkpoints were ideal places to make someone disappear. The same with the road to Sao Paulo. Or they may wait for him in the airport, or in Sao Paulo trying to get a passport.

The local police, the local underpaid police, were clearly not an option. He might as well turn himself into the Syndicate as do that.

Alan calmed, however, when he thought of the IBDE. The International Bureau of Drug Enforcement had a fairly decent reputation and a major Brazilian presence. If he could call them, he might reach a trustworthy person.

But, then again, what good would it do anyway? The upstream Satobra drug site would surely have dumped the drugs and released any jaú before the slow-moving, clamorous IBDE operation ever arrived at that remote jungle site. And he'd heard a rumor from the locals about remote transmitting cameras on some of the trees in the area—comments that until now he'd dismissed as barroom tall tales. Of course, the IBDE would never find one of the cartel's catfish in the big river systems of the Miranda, Paraguay or Parana. That would be far worse than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. A bottom-dwelling fish in a massive river system? More like looking for a hay-colored needle in a haystack.

And even then, the IBDE would only get involved if they believed this incredulous claim of a drug-smuggling super-jaú in the first place, believed it enough to launch an extraordinary effort of manpower and money against the background of potentially a major public embarrassment. What evidence did he have? He had no jaú. He had a bag of drugs buried on his property. With his fingerprints on the plastic bag. They would just arrest the obvious suspect—the man who also claims to have illegally captured and ripped up a jaú. And the IBDE wouldn't help him with his immediate problem: He was in the crosshairs of the Syndicate because of what he'd stumbled upon. He was their main target.

Alan could not see any viable options. Only the certainty that his time was up. He cursed a universe where his life seemed defined by the hand of chance or some capricious deities. He cursed his ill luck and meaningless little existence. He was facing his death alone. There was nowhere to run, and no one to save him. The only thing left to consider was how he wanted to face his fate.

It is a funny thing what insights can come to a person who is facing the expectation of death, and who, rather than running scared like a hunted rabbit, bent on self-preservation, begins to consider how to live what time remains until the last breath is drawn. When a man stops his single-minded fixation on himself, his happiness, his fame, his this and his that, and instead contemplates giving that last breath for something greater.

When Alan realized that there was nowhere to run, when he began to ponder how to use his final minutes, another idea crept in, and a profound calmness overtook him. He knew what to do. What was a major problem offered a singular opportunity. And he knew how to grasp this opportunity.

Alan drove up to his isolated research area. He'd been wise to never tell anyone about this site, always careful not to reveal where the half million-dollar dorado was safely swimming and collecting data. Alan moved a little further upstream to a shallow area. He would need to be able to wade into the stream this time. He set the dorado back into the river, and watched the monitor. He was composed now, focused and determined. He had a purpose; a goal.

It was almost dark before another jaú showed up. Alan had been prepared to stay all night, using specialized equipment if necessary. But he knew a jaú would show up soon. There was too much involved in this drug operation to risk discovery. And he was right. By the time the first jaú came downstream, he could note others were also moving down. They were dumping the drugs and the jaú. His disappearance was making them nervous.

Alan grabbed the backpack electrofishing unit and in no time had caught a jaú: it was easier on foot and when there were so many. He was careful with the fish. It took him only minutes to cut a small incision and insert his package. The whole operation wouldn't have taken so long, if he'd not had to also cut the dorado.

Alan released the jaú, put the dorado back in its transport tank, and headed out. Not for Campo Grande. That would be suicide. But in the opposite direction, deeper into the Pantanal.

It was on the seventh day that the news broke. Alan picked it up from the satellite feed, which he accessed on his phone only once a day, out of concern his location would be tracked. Even then he moved his campsite shortly after each news check. He'd been camping along isolated sections of the Rio Perdido, a stream some miles west of Satobra. With the story dominating headlines everywhere, Alan figured it was safe now. The Syndicate had too much chaos going on, and he was no longer their concern. He was right. He drove straight to Campo Grande, made his returns, paid through the nose for cutting the dorado, and was in São Paulo getting a new passport the next day.

When Alan next checked the news, he was strolling through the Miami airport. The story was, to use a cliché lingering from days long gone, still “front-page, top-of-the-fold news.” And it would remain so for many days to come. What he read gave a pretty good review of the issue: the story about the anonymous phone call, a transmitter placed inside a jaú, and the IBDE tracking it and seizing it upon its arrival at an isolated, yet extensive drug distribution point just upstream of Buenos Aires. In short succession, agents had seized bioengineered “drug fish” throughout the world. Whale sharks off the coast of France and India; a channel catfish in Mississippi; and a freshwater dolphin in the Amazon. They were holding yet another press conference. This was the story of the decade.

As Alan looked, he saw a new item–one about a small drug lab and farm in the upper Satobra area that had been seized by the IBDE. There were no definitive evidence of a distribution system here, although speculation was it had been fish-based. It had been another anonymous phone call that revealed that location. Good going, Moarcir, thought Alan.

Maybe the Syndicate would piece everything together and trace their troubles to a solitary researcher in the Pantanal. Maybe they would yet track Alan down. But, probably not, Alan figured. There were too many politicians and police officials taking credit all over the globe. Every minor official from Argentina to Zambia wanted to get their name in the paper and the evening news, now that they had the cover of numbers and the press. And Alan hadn't even had to mention the Miranda River, nor the Satobra. Just the Paraguay River and the transmission frequency. He knew law enforcement agencies would follow such a frequency no matter what they thought of the source. Now the Syndicate had their own worries and enough problems. What he knew was no longer their concern. He was Mr. Anonymous—his death would serve no meaning. And he wasn't going to rub it in their faces.

Alan wouldn't be at a press conference. He wouldn't be on a talk show. He wouldn't be famous or author a bestseller or even deliver a keynote address at a science conference. What he would be is probably safe. And Alan wouldn't worry anymore, at any rate. He ran his fingers through his graying hair, straightened his glasses, and slowly walked, with a self-satisfied smile, through the airport.

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