Since its discovery, the Lake of Oddities has always had boating visitors. You see them coming in a comfortable stream at mid-day, the morning sun like ripples over their heads. They meander from the roads to the docks, they rent a boat for two or for three, and drift across the deep purple of the water, wonder in their faces.
Glass-bottomed boats, though – these are new.
On this morning, we take a small wooden boat out to check on the tourists. We pack lunch: a power bank for her and a sandwich for me. The wind draws cool and crisp into my lungs. From the prow, the glass-bottomed boats seem like miniature moving islands, things that belong to the ecosystem. They are square at the bottom for the best view, and the materials are all relatively shatter-proof.
My companion crouching below me wears a tired, but satisfied smile.
Let me tell you how it goes. The upper lip is a zig-zag of rounded rectangles, a soft warm-blooded thing flapping closed over the lower jaw, despite the terrapin-like appearance. She would be something out of a cartoon, if not for the heat radiating from her body and the soft whirring of her mechanical organs I can hear even over the wind. Nanda tells me my ears are searching for it, because I know she’s there.
I remember the day Nanda came to me, inside a rubber-lined carrier, small and twitching. I was cautious. The first time I tried to charge her, taking the odd spindly tail – half metal, half flesh – between two sweating fingers, I remember how her cuboid limbs were flailing in the air “LEMME WORK – LEMME WORK – LEMME WORK“ – inches away from the computer screen.
Now a healthy purple hue blooms through her pale-yellow cheeks. The keys that make up her shell are clicking. She is bursting with pride.
Nanda tells me a lot of things, as we cruise through the lake. For one, that the glass lets sunlight in so the Oddities underwater are less disturbed by the visits. And that the Wotters – small, furry creatures with round gleaming eyes – can cling easily to the wooden sides. And that the flying Squinows, with wings like a parted lampshade, will come only at the end of visiting hours, to make their nightly migration across the lake to soft grass-woven nests.
A boy sees us from one of the boats, grins brightly and waves.
Neither he nor I appear in the startlingly crystalline water surface. I am used to it; he is not. He goes back to looking at the spot where his distorted image should be, but ends up staring at the tips of branches that stretch way above his head. Nanda, though, could see herself perfectly in the water – if she ever looked away from her inventions.
“AND HERE IS THE ONLY MIETE IN THIS DIMENSION,” she says, jerking her head towards a lonely corner of the lake.
I follow her gaze. Nothing. It’s just blue, where the water pans out.
The willow tree hangs over the surface, like a lady with her long hair flowing down to make ripples. When the eyes appear, ice-blue and coppery, I nearly topple. They narrow at me, glowering.
She is a towering, slick, meandering neck of a creature, with pale gold markings that camouflage her between the rippling dapples of sunlight and the dappling ripples of the lake. When I reach out towards her, she ducks into herself, emitting a low hiss. The willow leaves rustle as she recedes into them.
Nanda continues our tour, unbreaking. Every so often her rectangular eyes swivel back to that nook of the lake, cautious. She tries to hide it. Her chirp swells louder, more rambling, until the Squinows float across from the docks, bioluminescent heads lighting up the indigo dusk, and usher everyone back to shore.
The Miete is jealous. I suggest that to Nanda gently as we round off another one of her victory tours, this time showing off the self-cleaning system that sucks any spilt oil from the boats safely away from the water. Her feet prod at a panel of levers and buttons. Apparently, jealousy is uncharacteristic of the Miete’s species. Miete are lesser Oddities. Non-intelligent.
Screaming erupts from behind us. My hand shoots forward; we spin the boat around. Water is fanning out from the middle of the lake, spraying a million droplets like glass shards into the air. They fall. They reveal the glass bottom with a hole crashed right through it, a triangular head gnawing on the remains. Again, the Miete’s gaze meets mine. Later, Nanda will not believe me, but in that moment, I feel as though I can see her very pupils: black discs narrowing into slits, shining in a set of calm, focused eyes.
Nobody is hurt. The tourists bob harmlessly away from the wreckage on bright orange floats.
Nanda cannot have this ruined. She is pacing back and forth on the laboratory table, only the magnets in her feet keeping her from slipping off the shiny metal surface. The word ‘capture’ comes up a few times. ‘Remove’, as well. Nanda pauses to accept a scratch on her flesh ear. She regards me like a rhetorician, expecting applause or recognition.
I close the file on the Miete with a sigh. There is a photograph slotted in there from the early years of our Discovery, from before the Lake was public knowledge. The research team from Japan took it, before they returned to their home country. The sky is blue. The colour of the water is yet pale. Behind the subjects, a portal swirls widely, almost yawning.
Then there is our Miete, head flung back and mouth open – but with no teeth showing. A young girl is clinging to her neck, tiny fist pumped, whooping for joy.
Nanda stares at me, at what I am doing with these – to her – ancient pages of curiosities. Eventually her optic lenses buzz ice-blue. She starts zooming in, spying on the scrawl of text and printed photographs. I let her. I hear a click, some whirring. Then – silence.
When the lab assistant walks in, she wrangles Nanda back in her cage.
I have to wait a day before I can let her out again.
There is an empty slot in today’s boat ride schedule. When I thumb it over in the morning, the tablet buzzes with a notification. The blank box fills with green. Somehow, they have found a replacement.
I get up from my chair. The door swings open to rows of empty desks, as all the staff have gathered at the window, some even palming the glass like small children. Excited fingers point and waggle. Getting a spot among them is a lost cause; I head for the door.
Outside, a balmy breeze sweeps past, buffeting the little plants that decorate the wood of the pier. The sky is bright and clear. Mild rays of light shine on the middle of the lake, where the Miete is swimming, aimed shoreward, a large basket mounted on her back. I squint against the sun. A group of tourists are waving from the basket, laughing, cheering.
What is this? I search for researchers, for handlers, rangers. Then, I see her. Though our boat remains docked, Nanda is hard at work at the panel. She kneads the buttons incessantly, her power bank forgotten, slipped down onto the wooden floor. Every so often she glances up at the procession, tweaking the surrounding glass-bottomed contraptions to make way for the Miete’s path. I grin.
Since its discovery, the Lake of Oddities has always had boating visitors. When Miete throws her head back, letting a boy slide from her neck back into the basket, clapping fills the air. Later, when she believes no one is watching, Nanda climbs into that same basket, and the two swim through the rippling purple waters, free as birds.
But that we will keep between you and me.