Another bust. Ciro scanned the contents of the box Mulli wore around her neck: no locket. It was Mulli’s third dive of the day — Ciro didn’t even know how many times the flipper-eel had dived over the past two months. And Ciro had nothing to show for it: his mother’s locket, his last remaining connection to her, still missing, even though her body had been recovered within a day of her accident. The locket must be deep in the chemical slurry, dislodged by the current or some animal after Mom’s exo-suit fully deteriorated. No matter how many dives Ciro had to send Mulli on, he vowed to find it.

Each time Mulli surfaced from the deep slurry pool, she acted so excited, her little retractable paws emerging from between her sets of flippers and cleverly opening the box to present her haul to Ciro. She squeaked and yipped and wriggled the tapered nose on her otherwise scrunched face, which most people described as a mix of sheep and codfish — although no one living on this planet had ever seen either animal in person. Some days, Ciro found Mulli’s eagerness endearing; others, it just made him more frustrated by his failure.

“Mulli, no!” Ciro snapped, angrily waving a handful of pit-clam dust before stopping himself. Mom had spent years training Mulli to harvest the pit-clam dust that provided their livelihood, working as close as any business partners. He couldn’t undo all that, no matter how much he wanted to find his mother’s locket. The picture inside it of her and his father, the only picture he’d even seen of the man. The preserved speck of dirt from Earth.

He checked his exo-suit’s HUD. Plenty of oxygen, and the chemical deterioration indicator was green shading to yellow.

“Ready for another dive, Mulli?”

Mulli eagerly leapt into the slurry, disappearing into the rust-orange slurry in seconds.

He tried to sound chipper when working with Mulli, the way Mom always had when she’d talked to her, even though Ciro had seen other flipper-eel partners scold or berate their animals. But Mom always looked down on that, said that flipper-eels did the real work, after all. This was their planet first: humans couldn’t even go outside without their exo-suits, you never heard stories of flipper-eels being caught in slurry eruptions and killed. So maybe they should show the flipper-eels some more respect?

He was so caught up in memories of Mom that Ciro didn’t immediately realize that the dive had lasted longer than it should. He bent toward the burbling slurry and called for the flipper-eel as loudly as he could, but knew Mulli wouldn’t be able to hear him.

What was he supposed to do? He’d trained with Mom, sure, but he was still a novice when it came down to it, not like Mom and Mulli. There was nothing to do, no choice but to wait, see if Mulli emerged on her own. If she didn’t …

Tears welled in Ciro’s eyes. He knew that if Mulli didn’t surface on her own he was supposed to move on, to train a flipper-eel of his own. But he also knew what Mom would have done.

He dived into the slurry.

Kicking hard towards the bottom, he searched for Mulli. Automatically, his HUD switched to infrared mode and his deterioration indicator popped into view, blaring yellow and rapidly shifting towards red.

Even through his panic, Ciro couldn’t help wonder if the locket was somewhere nearby. He forced the thought from his mind and searched for Mulli, wondering if the sting on his skin was imagined or the beginning of a chemical burn.

There. A silhouette that could only be a flipper-eel. Ciro struggled to her, found her paw trapped between the interlocking teeth of a snapjaw anemone. He couldn’t free her, but the anemone was small enough that he was able to drag it along with Mulli, breaching the surface as his exo-suit’s protection level hit zero.

Stumbling, cradling Mulli under one arm, Ciro gasped for breath, felt his lungs sear, boils rise on his neck and chest. Only a few more steps until the rover and its climate-controlled safety. He collapsed in the doorway, almost unconscious. Mulli’s wriggling provided just enough wakefulness and impetus for him to flop inside, where the door shut behind him, Mulli left outside to recover in her natural climate.

He sucked air that was simultaneously painful on his burnt lungs and more welcome than any breath he’d ever taken. Disjointed thoughts floated in his mind, visions of Mom and Mulli working and playing. Mom helping a toddling Ciro feed Mulli strips of anemone. The last time he saw her, waving goodbye as she left for work, Mulli padding happily behind her.

Ciro’s head cleared, and he rolled over and looked outside. Mulli worked to extricate her paw from the anemone, focused as a child putting together a puzzle. As he watched her pull free and shove the snapjaw anemone away with her tail, Ciro made a new promise. He’d leave the locket wherever it was. He already had something left from his mother.

The story behind the story

Timothy Mudie reveals the inspiration behind A new partner.

Cormorant fishing (wherein fishers use trained cormorants to catch fish) has been practised for hundreds of years in various places around the world, primarily Japan, China and Greece. I wrote this story as part of a flash-fiction contest for an online writing group where one of the prompts was a series of photos, and one of those photos was a person sitting in a boat with a cormorant perched next to them. I’m a huge fan of nature documentaries, and so this immediately reminded me of one I’d seen that had a bit about cormorant fishing, and it got me thinking about what sort of bonds people might develop with those animals and with creatures living on alien worlds (if we ever find any). Although working animals aren’t the same as pets, I have to imagine that for some people they do become like family.