Building A Better Algae Eater

By Michelle Pichette and Holly Cushing

"It's kind of weird looking."

"It looks like a fish."

"Fish don't have eyelids, never mind eyelashes and if they did, I don't know that they'd bat them at people."

"So I took a little artistic license. I thought it would be cute."

"More like creepy if you ask me."

"Funny, I don't remember doing that."

"Putting eyelashes on it?"

"No. Asking your opinion."

"Well, you obviously need it." Ro swatted Kowalski across the back of his head, which drew an indignant "Hey!", then went back to watching the palm sized yellow and purple striped fish working it's way lazily around the tank it was in. They were standing in one of the labs at the Institute. Kowalski had poked his nose in a few minutes ago, saying he'd been wondering what she was up to. She had just showed him and this was the thanks she got. "If you can't take criticism..."

"I can take criticism just fine, thank you, but my fish is not creepy," Ro huffed. "And it works wonderfully. That tank was coated in algae and look at it now. Crystal clear in just under three hours."

Kowalski rubbed where he'd been whacked and gave Ro a dirty look. It reflected plainly in the fish tank, but Ro ignored it. Ro Simmons had been Kowalski's friend since elementary school and she'd come to work here at the Nelson Institute recently. She was the boat's new Chief Engineer and she liked the job, but every once in a while, her itch to invent things flared up. The fish had satisfied a recent itch. "Okay, so it cleans the tank. Aren't there real fish that do that? Ones that aren't so... er... that don't require batteries? Heck, I've scraped down a couple of tanks for the Admiral. It's not that tough."

"Yes, but real fish can get sick or might not be thorough. Even you have to admit that cleaning fish tanks is a pain, especially cleaning the rocks. My fish cleans the glass and cleans refuse out of the rocks and ejects it directly into the filter. That way, you don't need to clean the fish either. And it doesn't 'bat its eyes,' as you put it. That's the sensors scanning the tank for cleaning opportunities."

"So it looks for dirt?"

"It's not quite that simple, that's the gist of it. The Admiral will love it and so will Dom." She was referring to Dominica Babin, the Admiral's assistant and her best friend. In fact, Dom had been who had inspired Ro to make the fish in the first place. "It's going to save all kinds of time and protect his specimens by keeping the Institute's tanks the cleanest that they've ever been."

"Really?" came the Admiral's deep voice from behind them. Kowalski jumped a little. He was off duty and he wasn't any place that he wasn't cleared to be, but he probably still felt like a kid being caught at something. The Admiral strolled leisurely over to them from the door, peering into the tank that Ro's fish was in. He didn't say anything as he came to a stop next to Ro. He just stood there, rubbing his chin and watching the fish as it swan around, poking at the rocks occasionally. Kowalski murmured something about having to be somewhere and beat a hasty retreat out of the lab while the Admiral stood there. "Is this the tank you borrowed from me, Miss Simmons?" he asked, finally.

"Yes, sir, and I never touched a thing in it. My cleaner fish did it all. You might need to rinse out your filter, but the tank, as you can see, is clean," Ro replied. She was sure that she sounded smug, but she was a mechanical genius and she didn't make claims she couldn't back up.

"How long have you been working on this?"

"Oh, I've been toying with the idea for a few years. Dom always said that tank cleaning was necessary but tedious part of marine biology. Since I started working here for you, I couldn't help but notice the amount of resources that go into tank upkeep and cleaning. This fish is a prototype, but it certainly seems to work well enough. Maybe I could make a few more fish for you and you could allocate the man-hours that currently go to tank upkeep to something else that needs doing. Heaven knows, there's always lots to get done around here."

"Hmm. Yes. There is that," Nelson replied, but Ro could tell that he was still thinking about something. "What would you say to showing this to a few other people?" he asked finally.

"Other people?" Ro asked in return. Certainly anything she invented by her while she worked for the Admiral belonged in some capacity to the Institute. She didn't have a problem with that. The thing was that he had only barely looked at her fish, not in it or at her plans, and he was ready to show it to someone else. That seemed odd to her and she wondered if he was all right. It wasn't like him to act rashly.

"Yes. As it happens, in about two hours, some people from the Santa Barbara Aquarium were going to come and examine some specimens that I was donating to them. I think they might also be interested in seeing this," Nelson said, finally looking to her. "I've been looking for some new revenue for the Institute and if your fish is half as popular as I believe it's going to be, I think it might be just the thing."

Ro lifted her hands and took a step back. "Wait, wait! I don't think..."

"Of course there would be a substantial bonus for you, Miss Simmons, if this invention of your is received as well as I think it will be," Nelson said with his best statesman's voice. It was meant to be reassuring. It wasn't.

"This isn't about money, sir. Like I said, this is a prototype..."

"Which you were telling me that you were ready to put to wide spread use in the Institute, Miss Simmons," Nelson agreed with her. "I doubt that you would have made that statement if you weren't certain of your invention's abilities."

Ro got even more confused and a little suspicious. "You're just going to show this to these people from the Aquarium without examining it a little more closely, sir? Don't you want to see my plans or notes?"

Nelson clapped her on the shoulder and gave her a deep, warm laugh. "Of course I intend to look at your notes, but Rowena, do you think that you would be Chief Engineer on my boat if I didn't trust your skills?"

Ro felt a blush creep into her cheeks. "Admiral Nelson, you flatterer," she accused, trying to keep her color from deepening.

"All praise received from me is earned or not given," Nelson scoffed. "Now, about these plans you wanted to show me..."

"They're at my desk, sir," Ro replied, leading the way. She would happily go over the technical aspects of her invention with him, especially now that he had finally let her know that nothing odd was going on.

"How long will it run on the power source you've given it?" Nelson asked as they began to walk toward the offices.

"About a year, I'd say, under normal conditions."

"How about production. Do you think we could make our little worker inexpensive enough to be attractive to the noncommercial market?"

"Hmm. I don't know. I suppose it would depend on how much it costs to by the components in bulk. Would you do the production here? What about labor and..."

"Don't worry about that. I shouldn't have brought money concerns up to you. How about larger tanks? Would you suggest multiple fish or a larger version."

"Well... maybe multiple fish, sir. After all, you wouldn't want to take away from the displays. I would also mute down the colors for the same reason."

"Yes, yes, that might be a good point to bring up. So, what shall we call it? The Simmons Cleaner Fish?" Ro grinned and laughed lightly and didn't reply. As they reached her desk and Nelson began to nod over her diagrams, Ro grinned again, thinking about how Kowalski would react to seeing her 'creepy' little fish in pet stores and aquariums all over the country.

The End