Catch of the Season

 

Vicki M. Taylor

  They started watching him last Earth year. It was only natural they would pick Cap’n Matt Green. He stood the best chance at becoming their squad’s biggest and most prestigious catch.

Over the years, they’d intercepted transmissions that identified a species similar to their own in dire straits. Patient, unyielding to every cry for help, they waited. Waited for the perfect target. The ultimate prey. They’d finally found him.

* * *
Matt Green, or Cap’n Matt, as most everyone called him, grew up in the Florida Keys. His dad grew up in the Keys and his grand-dad grew up in the Keys. There’d been a Cap’n Green at the helm of the twenty-foot Coral Beauty for three generations and in the future, if he had a son, he would make it four. Matt grinned at his paternal thoughts. He’d have to get married first. And that meant settling down. Neither of which he was real keen on at the moment.

Last season, Cap’n Matt and his crew performed extraordinarily well. He amazed friends and family alike with his abilities to master the deep blue waters and return again and again with his limit. He’d become a legend in the Florida Keys. Everywhere Cap’n Matt went he’d regale all who would listen with his enthralling tales of hunting and capturing Panulirus argus – the Spiny Lobster.

Of course, the boat really wasn’t over thirty years old. Not much in this humid salty air could last thirty years, except the old-timers. Each time the elder Green retired a boat and purchased a new one for their dive business, Coral Divers, it would get christened the Coral Beauty out of habit, pure and simple.

Matt recalled that his grand-pappy always said never mess with a good thing. The Coral Beauty’s unique paint scheme of red, gold, and purple stripes had become a trademark symbol for their successful scuba diving business. Consistency was good for business. It helped bring in the crowds, generation after generation.

The Green’s weren’t about to mess with a good thing. Not when most of their referrals were word of mouth. Cap’n Matt had a knack for finding the best dive spots on every reef between Conch Reef and Caloosa Rocks. It was kind of eerie the way he’d come back to the shop trip after trip, his boat’s guests laden with bug-filled bully nets, even when other dive shops would come up empty handed. When he went on his own, he’d limit out every trip. No one doubted Matt’s abilities to hunt bugs. Some said Matt had a nose for the bugs, as if he could smell them underwater.

Men would sit for hours in the local pubs plying Matt with drinks hoping he’d spill some of his family secrets. He never did. Matt never could explain clearly to anyone how he just knew when and where the next bug hunt would be. No matter how much he protested the existence of any special magic the other fishermen wouldn’t believe him.

Coral Divers started catering to the desires of lobster divers, or “bug-hunters” as they were known, in the early fifties, long before the population explosion among the Keys. Even longer before dive shops crammed into every available space along Highway 1 so tight that you couldn’t drive a mile along any stretch without counting more shops than you had fingers on two hands.

The first Cap’n Green was Matt’s grand-dad. Back in the fifties, he decided to host a contest for the biggest lobster. Every season since the contest continued, it brought more and more contestants all vying for prizes like the yearly first prize that started as $20 and now was $200. Coral Divers recently added the ultimate grand prize of $1,000 if anyone could bring in Ol’ One-Eye.

The second Cap’n Green, Matt’s dad, and Ol’ One-Eye went way back. They first met when both were barely wet behind the ears or antennae. Ol’ One-Eye wasn’t Ol’ One Eye then, he was just one of many lobsters that had made the dangerous trek as a juvenile from the sea grasses close to shore to the sparkling reefs further out in the deeper, cooler waters.

Right before sunset, Matt’s dad had dropped anchor off a secret bug-hunting site he’d found the previous season. He’d only taken snorkel gear, anticipating a quick scouting expedition for future trips. Setting out his red and white diver down flag he slid his mask over his face, adjusted his snorkel, took a firm grasp of his stick, and slipped over the side. He took a deep breath and sunk silently into another world.

In this world, he had a private view into the inner abyss where fish and other critters of the deep, sparkling clear waters hunt, eat, sleep, and hide.

His destiny, a shallow reef, teeming with activity twenty feet below his boat. Among the reef's rocky maze of nooks, crannies, and crevices lurked moray eels, snails, corals, and fish of assorted shapes and sizes. Without even a second glance to these amazing creatures, he homed in on his target -- the multitude of invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, and lobster – especially lobster – that called this reef home.

It took only a few seconds to spot the spiny lobster ducking into the shadowy gap at the end of the reef. Matt’s dad knew that the only way to catch a bug was to be patient. He waited.

Matt’s dad had long, nimble hands that bore the scars of times when he wasn’t so patient. He’d had his hands pierced more times than he could remember by their spiny thorns before learning that patience and ingenuity went a long way in catching lobster. Now, he faced this new section of the reef determined to win the test of wit and skill with the sharp-horned bug snuggled into a small crevice with only its waving antennae sticking out.

His patience was rewarded. Very gently, he eased the end of the tickle stick behind the lobster's tail. Skillfully, he watched the antennae, determined to predict which direction the wary bug might bolt. He softly tapped the lobster’s tail, urging it to move forward from its hole. One hand ready to capture the bug as it bolted, he tapped again. With lightning speed, he swooped forward and caught the bug just as it moved forward enough to expose more than its swaying antennae. Quick as a flash, the lobster fought for its life. When it was over, he headed for the surface, tired and alone, for a much needed breath of air. In the palm of his hand, a new puncture wound that would definitely need stitches and a tiny eye.

Season after season, Ol’ One-Eye, growing to massive proportions, managed to evade capture by staying on the move, traveling further away from shore to the deeper waters. Matt’s dad caught sight of him occasionally, as he drifted through the current while on a dive or bug-hunting expedition. Each time, the bug and Matt’s dad would face off. Both determined to win. Each time they’d limp away, shaking off the latest battle wounds, fiercely protecting their pride. Matt’s dad got slower as he grew older. It was time for the younger Green to try and tame the beast.

* * *
They never know about the first Cap’n Green. By the time they discovered the second Cap’n Green, the third Green, Cap’n Matt, was well on his way to becoming quite a bug hunter. He was their prey. It was imperative that they captured him now. Before he had a chance to breed and possibly produce a fourth Cap’n Green.

They didn’t think the Earth species that sent the messages would last much longer. The transmissions appeared more frequently, occurring at almost the same time every Earth year. It was time to take action.

* * *
Cap’n Matt set out in the Coral Beauty across the open water toward Matecumbe Drop-off. He knew of a specific spot on the ledge. Matecumbe Drop-off, with a depth that ranged from thirty-five to one hundred thirty-five feet was isolated, far from the popular dive spots. Located smack between the 136-foot tower on Alligator Reef and the 49-foot tower on the Tennessee Reef. He mentally checked off the equipment he needed for the afternoon’s hunt. Tickle stick, gloves, bully net, full tanks, regulator, mask, BC, and flippers. Everything necessary to catch lobsters.

A lingering thought kept nagging at the back of his mind. Matt knew he shouldn’t go out alone, but he’d been making this run since he was big enough to launch the boat by himself. He’d be damned if he’d chicken out now. Besides, he’d make a one tank dive and be back by supper time. Saliva spurted from his glands over Matt’s tongue as he thought of digging a fork into the cracked body of the biggest lobster he’d ever seen and dipping the succulent white meat into hot, melted butter and chewing slowly, savoring every morsel.

A grin spread across his brown, leather-tanned face. His eyes twinkled behind a pair of dark sunglasses. The lines on his face betrayed his lost youth. He wasn’t old, just weathered. Nary a gray strand dared sift through his long sun-bleached hair. He felt like a teenager again. Tonight he’d show them all who the great bug hunter of the Keys really was. He beat his chest as if he were king of his aquatic jungle and let out a raucous roar.

Matt checked his watch after mooring to the buoy to ensure he had plenty of time. He put his gear on quickly and efficiently with the practiced hand of a long-time pro. Mere minutes clicked off the clock by the time he’d slipped into the clear, cool water and sank beneath the surface in a cloud of bubbles.

Instantly, he was immersed in silence. The only noise coming from the air as it flowed through his regulator. He gently bit the soft rubber mouthpiece, fitting it more firmly into his mouth as he kicked to propel himself toward the reef below. With practiced ease Matt checked his watch and dive computer to ensure all was on schedule. Plenty of time. Nearly an hour of bottom time by his calculations for a fifty-foot dive. Plenty of air. And, from the looks of the sand swirling below the rocks, plenty of bugs.

The first two lobsters Matt caught didn’t put up a fight at all. No sport in the hunt. He needed more of a challenge. He could have sworn they scuttled right into his net it was that easy. Then he saw him. Ol’ One-Eye. Matt’s eyes widened at the lobster’s gigantic size. He had to be at least twenty pounds if not more. Already, he could hear the cheers and feel the slaps on his back from his buddies on the dock when he got back with Ol’ One-Eye.

He congratulated himself on figuring that he’d run into Ol’ One-Eye out here. The reefs were older, bigger, crevices large enough to hide such a monster. Even without one of his eyes, he seemed to have eluded capture for what must be sixty or seventy years. He could picture himself holding Ol’ One-Eye in both hands as journalists scrambled for pictures. Maybe he’d mount the ol’ guy and display him at the dive shop. Wouldn’t that be a boon for business.

* * *
They watched from inside the craft as Cap’n Matt and The Elder jockeyed for position on the sea floor. The Elder’s whip-like antennae stretched to nearly twice the length of his body making the loss of one eye insignificant. They signaled to The Elder to make his move. The Elder’s antennae twitched in understanding.

* * *
Cap’n Matt watched Ol’ One-Eye dance to the left and then to the right on his five pairs of legs, all moving in perfect synchronization. Matt almost felt sorry for the old bug. He’d lived quite a life down here, but his time was over. A shadow cast over him, blotting out the sun. He turned to see what could be so big. Then he saw something big and dark flash to his left.

Matt’s eyes widened in disbelief. There it was again. He cleared his mask and looked again. It had stopped. The visibility was so good he knew he could see for a hundred feet. He nearly lost his regulator when his jaw went slack in astonishment. Slow and silent, a lobster bigger than any he’d ever seen before hovered in front of him.

To his amazement, Matt figured the lobster was bigger than his boat. He almost swallowed a mouthful of saltwater as he choked back a nervous laugh. Relief sluiced through Matt as tension drained from his body. It was nothing but a commercial mascot.

The Red Lobster restaurant must have lost one of their “Clawed” lobsters that they transported around the country to advertise their seafood. It wasn’t nearly as big as he thought. The refraction from the water and his mask only made it look big. He thought he remembered someone telling him the thing was really only about twenty-five feet long.

Foolishness washed over him. He felt like such an idiot, but excited at the same time. No way would he ever tell anyone about the fear that raced through him when he encountered the fake lobster hunting Ol’ One-Eye. If the restaurant would let them, Coral Divers could mark it with a buoy and it’d quickly become popular with the tourist divers. His dad would be proud of him for thinking of the future of the shop and how to bring in more revenue. First things first. He turned back to Ol’ One-Eye.

* * *
They watched Cap’n Matt as he first showed terror then relief at their craft’s appearance. Their spaceship propelled silently toward him until they could reach one mechanical leg out and touch his back. They relished in watching his face drain to a milky white. His stick and net sunk to the bottom in a swirl of sand, clouding the ocean floor for a moment until the current cleared it away.

They watched as he whipped his head left and right looking for an escape. He kicked out his legs trying to force any advantage he could find. They tossed him from one leg to the other, making sure to keep him within reach.

* * *
Cap’n Matt fought desperately to disengage himself from the creature that looked to be toying with him beneath the calm surface of the water. All thoughts of catching Ol’ One-Eye erased from his mind. His only thoughts on surviving. His chest heaved as he drew more air into his lungs. With a final lunge he thrust himself forward and kicked violently. Just one more inch. Free! He made it. Without looking over his shoulder he swam as hard as he could toward the overhanging reef. If he made it to the ledge he could find a small cave and hide. He knew of one on the north end of the reef that he could just squeeze his body into. He kicked harder, forcing his flippers to move more water.

* * *
They watched him swim away. They were in no hurry. They were patient. The Elder skittered along the sand, leading them to their quarry. They’d catch their prey soon enough. Determined, they knew how to win the test of wit and skill.

They followed his trail of air bubbles. He had backed himself into a small crevice just large enough for his body. Cap’n Matt had removed his tank and clung to it while wedging himself further into the reef, away from their prying legs. He was putting up a good fight. They knew The Elder was proud of their choice. Cap’n Matt would make a prestigious prize.

Silently, they watched the diver wriggle further into the hole in the rock. Patiently, they watched his eyes, gauging which way he might dart. Tentatively, they inserted one long antennae into the hole, past the diver’s body until they reached the back. Gently, but firmly, they tapped him, again and again, forcing him to move forward.

* * *
Panic set in. Cap’n Matt lost his slippery hold on the air tank he held in his arms. It sank quickly to the bottom taking his regulator with it. No more air. He looked up disappointed that he was at least seventy feet from the surface. Even swimming as fast as he could, dropping his weights, he probably wouldn’t make it. Even if he did, Matt knew he would face a dangerous risk of the bends. He had no choice; he had to try.

Matt pushed at the reef, knocking fragile corals from their tenacious grasp on the rock. A man, who had spent nearly his entire life under the water, never took even an empty shell from the bottom, and could be found verbally berating tourists for touching coral, ripped gaping gashes into the living creatures. Nothing registered in his mind; surviving his only objective. He ripped off his weight belt and tossed it away as he swam. A tiny line of bubbles trailed behind him as he exhaled gently, instinctively knowing not to hold his breath.

* * *
They anticipated his movements. In an instant he was captured firmly in their second set of legs. He would not escape again. The hunt was over. With a flip of their spaceship’s fan-like tail they maneuvered toward the bottom. Deftly, they picked up the abandoned tank to return it to its rightful owner. They watched as the diver looked confusingly at their ship then scrambled into his gear. His chest rapidly contracted as he pulled the precious oxygen into his lungs.

* * *
Cap’n Matt faced his captor. He stared in silent horror as he was lifted effortlessly to the head and into the mouth of the large creature. His last look at the sand below, before being pushed into the creature’s mouth, was of Ol’ One-Eye waving his massive antennae. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought the old bug was grinning at him.

Inside, instead of being digested by some mutant sea creature, Matt was extracted by mechanical pincers that held him tight while another mechanical arm attached a weighted chain to his ankle. It then dumped him into a large see-through tank that looked suspiciously like one he’d seen at large aquarium. Unable to swim to the top of the tank because of the heavy weight, he could only float a few feet from the bottom.

Checking his gauges he realized he only had a few more minutes of air. As if on cue, a hose snaked into the water. Air escaped from the nozzle on the end while it hissed beside him.

A panel opposite the tank opened and an alien creature crept out. It had a large head with huge black eyes atop a thorax-like body with three pairs of arms. Protruding from the abdomen section were four sets of legs. It dragged a large fan-like tail behind that folded and unfolded itself like an accordion.

The alien creature tapped on the side of the tank with one of its claws and mimed the motions to attach the hose to his regulator. Numb with shock and suspicious of their intent, Cap’n Matt did as he was told. Tentatively, he took a small breath. Oxygen. He breathed deep. Without thinking, he made a circle with his thumb and finger and signaled to the creature. Startled, he watched the creature awkwardly return the symbol with its claw-like appendage.

The tank began to shake as he felt pressure building around him. Shock vibrations rippled through the tank. More creatures scuttled about positioning levers and tapping panels of lights with their many claws and feet. Matt felt movement, as if in an out-of-control elevator.

A monitor dropped from the ceiling. One of the alien creatures positioned it in front of the tank. First, only blue fuzziness materialized on the screen. Then the fuzziness cleared. He could see his boat. Then the Keys, then the entire state of Florida. Dizzily, he watched as more and more of the earth dropped below his view.

Matt waved his arms wildly, making strangling noises as he tried to get the creatures’ attention. He beat his fists on the glass. Not one of them paid any notice to him. He was left to watch his entire world disappear before his eyes into the vast blackness of space. Activity continued around the tank.

Time passed slowly while he breathed through the tube inside the aquarium. Hours or days passed, he knew not which. He may have slept, he wasn’t sure. His mind closed in, forgetting to measure time. Many of the alien creatures stopped for a moment to look at him silently then move on. Some aliens posed in front of the tank while others pointed small flashing objects at him.

Dejected, he hung his head. Depression set in. Lethargic, he barely moved his arms or legs. He floated like a forgotten buoy tied to a reef. For a brief second he agonized over never seeing his family again. Then he blinked several times before realizing he was crying inside his mask.

He had no idea how long the lobster-like aliens left him like that as they went about their life on the spaceship. He prayed hard that whatever they did to him it was quick and painless. His prayer turned into a mantra that continued to repeat in his mind. Nothing else registered.

He stopped watching the activities outside the tank until it appeared that certain actions centered on him. Was this the moment he was waiting for? Anticipation and hope, long forgotten emotions, wriggled tentatively deep inside his soul.

Uncomfortable sensations pushed at him. Gravity squeezed his body as the tank’s water drained from below. Before he could gain any bearing on the situation, water from another source re-filled the tank, immediately submersing him, once again. Risking his life, he removed the regulator to taste the water. Fresh. The saltwater was gone.

Confused at the sudden activity surrounding him, Matt watched one of the aliens direct a small machine. It connected to the side of the tank with large suction cups, then effortlessly lifted the tank. The movements so precise not a drop of water spilled.

For the first time, Matt saw another part of the ship. A larger room, with long, high tables. Hope crept into his thoughts. Could they finally be ready to release him? Had they conducted enough tests? He turned his head from side to side, watching every action, trying to understand the alien creatures’ intentions.

The machine settled the tank into its new position. With a higher view, Matt could see more creatures gathering into the room. These new events gave him hope. For the first time he allowed himself to think of home again, to think of his boat, of his dad, of the warm Florida sun. Warm beaches. Warm water.

So real were his thoughts he could almost feel the water warming around him. Reality crashed like heavy waves over his daydream. The water was getting warmer. His skin warmed inside his suit. Hot. Hotter. He scratched and pawed at himself to ease the burning sensation. He cast off everything he could only to discover that the water was hotter with his suit off.

He watched tiny bubbles on the bottom of the tank grow larger until they lifted and rose rapidly to the surface. Some of the bubbles broke against his skin hitting him with pockets of burning air.

As he felt the blood in his veins begin to boil, he peered through hazy, pain-filled eyes at the activity outside the tank. The aliens surrounding a large table preparing for a feast.

The last thing his mind registered before shutting down completely was the image on the bib of the alien lobster nearest his tank – a human silhouette, spread eagle.

 

 

 

Alien Creature
 Key West resident captured an alien creature on film.
Dismissed as hoax by local officials.

Update: 04/25/02. Men in black suits confiscated prints and negatives.

 

 

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Author Bio

Vicki M. Taylor writes dramatic stories with strong women as her main characters. Her most recently published novel, Forever Until We Meet, can be found at BookLocker.com.

A prolific writer of both novel length and short stories, she brings her characters to life in the real world. Her memberships include the National Association of Women Writers, Short Fiction Mystery Society, and many more. She has had hundreds of articles published in electronic and print publications. She provides book reviews for The Florida Palm and is the Vice President of the Florida Writers Association. She conducts regular writing workshops, speaks to local writing groups, and facilitates a Romance/Women's Fiction Reading Group at her local Barnes & Noble bookstore.

When she's not writing, you can find her lurking about the many writing boards dispensing little pearls of wisdom from her computer in Tampa, Florida where she lives with her husband and their miniature American Eskimo. To find out more about Vicki and her writing, visit her website
http://www.vickimtaylor.com.

 


 

 

 

 

"Catch of the Season" Copyright © 2002 Vicki M. Taylor. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 4-24-02.

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