Keyan Bowes would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Mather, author of “Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate” for being kind enough to read and comment on this story. She recommends Dr. Mather’s book, Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, which was an important source document for “Octonet.”
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By Keyan Bowes
Sometimes at night when my mind is calm, I think I hear the octopuses. Around the world, the great network of molluscan philosophers.
I had many reasons for moving to the Pacific Northwest – weather, closeness to potential clients and my big brother Rav, distance from a very ex ex. Slimy cephalopods definitely didn’t make the list.
But then Rav needed someone to fix their new IT system. And that’s how I met the octopuses.
I followed Rav’s wheelchair up a curving ramp into the huge, well-funded Arramene Octopus Center. Apparently, a philanthropist loved the tentacled sea-monsters as much as my brother did. Rav, Dr Ravinder Jain, was the center’s Director, and octopuses were his life.
The place was gorgeous, set on a deck overhanging the water with a range of cloudy mountains on the skyline. A cylindrical aquarium three stories high stood in the center of the tall ocean-scented foyer. The top was an opalescent blue in which a school of silver herring swirled like tinsel in a kaleidoscope. The brightness fell off at lower levels, becoming downright dim on the sandy floor. Rav pointed out a fleshy octopus, its ugly head and rubbery tentacles sprawled against the glass. “That’s Lina,” he said.
Lina? “Do all the fish get names?” I asked. Like cats or something?
Rav laughed. “Mainly the octopuses. They have personalities. Lina’s mellow, hangs out where people can see her. That’s why we picked her for this location.”
Just then, his cell-phone rang. He grimaced. “Wait, Suveera. I have to take this call. It’s Grant. New Board member and Finance Director.”
From what I overheard, he sounded obnoxious. Rav made non-committal sounds, looking increasingly unhappy. Eventually the call ended. Rav took a deep breath, apologized, and continued our tour.
“Let’s go down to Research. That’s where the important stuff’s happening.”
He rolled through a ‘Staff Only’ doorway, down into a dimly lit room with endless rows of smaller tanks. The smell changed to seawater and disinfectant. A tall redheaded woman in a green lab coat met us.
“Martina, our Research Manager,” said Rav. “Martina, meet my sister Suveera. Sue’s an engineer, just moved here. She’ll be working on our IT system. I brought her down here to learn about octopuses. And us, of course.”
“Welcome aboard!” Martina’s smile crinkled the corners of her warm green eyes. Her handshake was pleasantly firm. She wore a gold wedding ring. A shadow crossed her face as she saw me look. I quickly turned away.
The tanks held assorted sea-life. I stopped at one decorated with rocks, sea stars, sea anemones – and a clear plastic ball.
“See him, Sue?” asked Rav. “Sebastian? The octopus?”
Martina stepped nearer to point it out. Her hair caught the light and glowed like the sunset.
“He’s camouflaged,” she said. “Sebastian’s shy.”
A rock moved. The octopus was the exact color and texture of the stones. “Brilliant!” I said.
“Yeah.” She smiled again, and my stomach fluttered. “Their skin chromatophores change color in micro-seconds. Any color. Not just for camouflage, they show their emotions that way, too.”
“Like pixel displays?” I suggested.
“Exactly, but better. Millions of tiny muscles alter their skin-texture. They can even do animations.” From her admiring tone, she was seriously into octopuses.
Some didn’t hide, watching us through creepy goat-like eyes with horizontal slit pupils. Of course I didn’t mention that. Instead, I asked Martina about the plastic ball.
“It’s a puzzle. Bored octos get into all kinds of trouble.”
“Like cats,” I deadpanned, glancing at my brother.
Rav guffawed. “Snowball and Flamer toilet-papered the house yesterday while we were out,” he explained.
Martina laughed. “Here, watch Lalu. He’s a Giant Pacific Octopus. We call them GPOs.”
The tank’s glass wall towered over Rav’s wheelchair. Lalu was a reddish warty tangle of tentacles, with a beach-ball sized head. Martina opened the tank and gave the creature a clear plastic toy, a series of nested boxes with complicated locks and a crab inside the last one. It grabbed the puzzle-box with a sucker-clad arm and sank back to the bottom. Within minutes, it unscrewed, unsnapped, and unlatched the various boxes.
Wow. “It really doesn’t need opposable thumbs,” I said.
“Eight arms, all muscle no joints, suckers for grip and for fine pincer movements that can even untie knots in surgical silk,” said Martina, green eyes shining with pride. I reminded myself she wore a ring.
She pointed at the tank. The GPO was eating the crab with, I swear, an air of satisfaction. And then – it reassembled the empty puzzle boxes correctly.
Okay, cats will go all out to find a treat. No opposable thumbs, no tentacles, they’re still pretty good at getting into things. But closing boxes afterward?
“Are they all this smart?” I asked.
“Well…” Rav and Martina exchanged a glance. “It’s confidential. We’re breeding GPOs. No other aquarium’s managed that. And we can selectively breed for intelligence.”
“We figured out what to feed the babies,” Martina explained. “That’s the secret no one else knows. And how to stop them crashing into walls or eating each other.”
“Also, we’re doing a bit of gene-editing,” Rav said.
“Speeding things along,” added Martina.
“By the way, Grant called,” Rav said to her. “He wants to cut the research budget 30% and convert Research Room C into a display area.”
Martina’s expression darkened like the sun going down.
“Would you like to touch an octopus?” Rav asked me, making it sound like a special treat.
“Umm, they’re slimy?” I whispered, hoping Martina hadn’t heard.
“Yes. The slime protects their sensitive skin. It’s fine.”
It fucking isn’t, I thought, but how could I refuse without hurting Rav’s feelings? Besides – Martina. Octopuses. I can do this.
Martina showed me to a walkway beside the tanks. “Let’s visit Katy, I owe her a fish.”
She slipped off her lab coat, revealing lithe muscular arms and a colorful octopus tattoo on her bicep. The sign above the sink said, STOP! Rinse before touching octopuses! “They’re sensitive to chemicals, perfumes, anything,” she explained as she washed her arms. “They taste with their whole body. Think of an animal made like a tongue.”
As if they weren’t revolting already. A tongue? Ugh. I imagined a slug with tentacles.
“Metals, too.” Martina took off her gold ring, leaving her hand bare.
Rav had already washed. He pulled himself out of his wheelchair and stood holding the railing. “Don’t let their arms anywhere near your face,” he warned. “Those suckers are powerful. Octopuses don’t understand human faces. They could suck out an eyeball by mistake. Also, avoid the beak. They’d never bite, but they do have venom.”
WTF have I gotten myself into? I thought, but managed to say nothing.
Martina opened the tank and reached in. Katy stretched out a tentacle, clasping her arm with its great suckers. It focused on us with its big right eye. Rav joined us, and another tentacle came up to hold his hand. He grinned. “Katy misses us if we don’t visit.”
Katy rolled over, showing its underbelly. Like a cat.
“She’s asking for fish,” said Martina, placing one halfway down Katy’s arm. The octopus grabbed it with its suckers, and passed it down its arm toward the mouth at the center where all the arms came together. Was this tongue-creature tasting it all the way?
“Come on, Sue, put in your arm,” Rav said. “She won’t hurt you.”
The water was cool, maybe 10 degrees Celsius. Katy promptly offered me a tentacle. Okay, arm, not tentacle. I tensed as I made contact with the monster, regressing into ten-year-old Suveera. Fuck, this was scary, this was going to be creepy, this was going to be ick ick ick...
It wasn’t. It was an exploration, something between a caress and a handshake. Then Katy was holding my hand like a friend, gently grasping it with her suckers.
She wasn’t creepy. She wasn’t repulsive. She wasn’t a monster.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s not an animal, exactly. It’s a person.”
I needed to learn more about cephalopods, fast. At every opportunity, I went down to the Research section.
One day, looking at the rows of tanks each holding an octopus, a thought occurred to me. “Why the solitary confinement?” I asked. After all, Rav even had two cats to keep each other company.
Rav looked bleak. “Most octopus species aren’t social. They’ll eat each other. Or they’ll mate. If they mate, the males die soon afterward, and the females die as their eggs hatch. They senesce.”
“Which they do anyway,” said Martina sadly. “They’ve really short lives. Four or five years for GPOs. Less if they breed. You fall in love with them, and then they die.” She was looking at Lalu. Every researcher had their favorite octopus. There was definitely more to these creatures than tentacles and terror.
Wait, five years? I imagined cats with accelerated lives, dying in five years.
“But they’re intelligent,” I argued. “Short-lived creatures don’t need intelligence, right, they just have to breed quickly and well?”
“They do that too,” said Martina. “They only breed once but they lay thousands of eggs.”
“Then why did they evolve smarts?”
“Maybe because they’re molluscs with no shells? Kind of like people. We don’t have wicked claws or teeth or even dense fur. You have to be smart to eat without being eaten when you’re a naked ape or a naked mollusc.”
“Martina, we’re meeting Grant in ten minutes,” Rav said. “We’d better get up there.” He drove up the ramp to the upper level, with us following.
I mulled over Martina’s comment. “So how come there’s no octopus civilization?”
“Three reasons,” Rav said. He’d clearly answered this many times, and now I felt a bit stupid. “First, those short life-spans. Second, they don’t rear their young so they can’t teach the next generation anything.”
He pressed the door button, and it swung open with a fresh ocean smell.
“Third, octopuses have no social structure, no way to transmit information. So how can they build up a knowledge base like humans have done for centuries, through oral transmission first, then writing, then the internet?”
“What they need,” I quipped, “Are smart phones. Then they’d never get bored, either.”
Martina laughed. “Yeah, right. Because cellphones are so hydrophilic? I’ve lost two to watery deaths already.”
“No, seriously. What about phones in waterproof cases? They have them for divers.”
“They’d open it in 30 seconds and poison themselves,” said Rav. “You saw Lalu.”
The job Rav loved more than anything was in trouble. Though Grant was the newest Board member, he was the most hands-on and therefore influential. Rav was pissed off about cuts to the Research Section’s space and budgets, concerned about unanswered questions in the Finance Department, and unhappy with the Board’s lukewarm support.
“Why do they keep him on if they know he’s a jerk?” I asked Rav.
“They’re all volunteers. After the previous guy had a heart attack, no one wanted to do Finance. It’s specialized and tedious. Grant’s a celebrity. They were relieved when he offered to take it on.”
“A celebrity?” I looked him up online. Good looks, inherited wealth, beautiful ex-model wife. Edward and Vanessa Grant were all over the society websites I’d never bothered with.
The previous Finance Director had run open and transparent finances. With Grant, all that was transparent was he wanted Rav out. Which was inexplicable. Few people had Rav’s management and octopus experience, or his research skills.
But Rav was too specialized to find a new job easily. Using a wheelchair only made it harder. To strengthen his position now, he’d have to give the Board something amazing. Then they’d find reasons to keep him. I knew how these things worked.
I joined a Maker Co-op that had a cool group of people I could bounce ideas off. Eventually I took Rav and Martina some prototypes of a waterproof smartphone.
“The Gadget’s a sealed unit with an everlasting battery,” I told them. “No way the octopuses can open it. It’s bulky, but it doesn’t need to go in an octopus’s pockets.”
“Really everlasting?” Rav asked.
“About 6 or 8 years depending on usage,” I said. “But they’ll last the Gadget’s life.” Or the octopus’s life, I thought.
Martina asked me out for lunch. An uncertain little thrill kicked through me. Office-friends lunch to discuss the Gadget? Something more? What did I want? Confused, I asked for a rain check. She smiled. “Sure.”
The new IT system – ordered by Grant from his brother-in-law’s firm – was a kludgy mess. Eventually, I sorted it out, despite being distracted by thoughts of Martina working one floor down. Rav wanted financial reports like he got from the old system. Nope. This finance module was completely locked down, and Grant wasn’t sharing passcodes. “Still,” I told Rav, “There’s something odd here. I don’t get why some of this code exists. I think you should ask for an audit.”
“The Board’ll punt it to Grant,” he said. “But I’ll recommend it.”
One day, just like that, Martina got divorced and moved into her twin brother’s apartment. That explained her expression when I noticed her ring that first day – her failing marriage. She looked lost among her octopuses.
“I feel kind of weird about Martina,” I told Rav over dinner that night. “But … what kind of guy was her ex-husband? A creep?”
“Ex-wife,” Rav said. “Beautiful, but not right for Martina. Different interests.”
“Wife?” I stared at Rav. “Serious?”
“Yes. She likes girls too. Why is this so strange?”
“Does she know about me?”
Rav shrugged. “You should tell her.”
After that, I was too excited to eat.
I loaded the Gadgets with a few special-purpose apps and we tried them on three of the more predictable octopuses, Lalu, Cameron and Katy.
“If they like it, maybe they’ll teach others,” Martina said as she demonstrated the Gadgets at each tank. “Research shows an octopus can learn from watching another one.”
Wow. Just like cats…copycats!
She handed each octopus a Gadget. Lalu stowed it in his den and came right back seeking a fish treat. Katy enthusiastically took the fish, but dropped the Gadget. Cameron tried to bite through his with his parrot-like beak. Defeated by the impervious casing, he dumped the Gadget in a corner. Rav said he looked disgusted.
Martina retrieved the Gadgets and returned them. “Well tried, Sue,” she said.
Looking at her, I felt I was falling into her deep green eyes. I’m an engineer. I expect a certain percentage of fails. This one stung.
Back at the Maker Co-op, our group brainstormed killer apps for octopuses. This crazy inventive bunch thought it was a huge joke. We developed a whole new Octo-suite and I took the updated Gadgets back to the Center.
Two days later, Rav called me. “You’ve got to see this!”
I rushed down to the tanks. Katy held her newly-programmed Gadget in one arm. With another, she touched the icons experimentally, making them dance. She found the camera – and took the first octopus selfie.
“Wow,” I said. “No way Snowball could do that.” Cats were apparently my yardstick for everything.
Rav reached up to tug my braid affectionately. “Well done!”
“That’s so amazing!” Martina said.
I glowed. Impressing someone felt good, especially an accomplished scientist like her. Okay, especially her.
Rav invited the Board to see our work – including Grant, whose fame, good looks and confident air impressed the interns. He posed for some selfies with them before Rav started the tour, gratified by their admiration. The four men in suits accompanied Rav as he drove his chair past the tanks,. Martina and I followed behind in case we were needed.
Suddenly, Martina stopped. “Look,” she said, pointing at the Gadget-bearing octopuses. “Lalu’s sent Cameron a selfie… and so has Katy. And Cameron’s responded to them both.”
“So octopuses do want to communicate,” Rav said. “But their instinctive reactions interfered. We’re witnessing a breakthrough.”
“Yeah,” Martina whispered to me. “Before, all they wanted with each other was mate or eat!”
The Board members looked impressed.
“Good,” Grant said. “Train them to do more tricks for the public.”
“We’re a research facility,” Martina said, furious. “Not a circus.”
Rav gave her a “not now” look. “We’re investigating how octopuses think,” he explained, leading the delegation back up the ramp. “There’s a firm base of research on which we’re building. Shoulders of giants.”
Grant looked pointedly down at Rav’s shoulder. What the fuck! I wanted to punch him.
Another Board Member took his arm. “Grant, we should keep moving,” he said, throwing me an apologetic glance. Don’t look at me, I wanted to say, it’s my brother who’s owed an apology. Rav shepherded them out.
Martina glared. “That man is evil.”
She was right, though we didn’t know then how he’d impact us all.
An hour later Rav returned. . “That actually went quite well,” he said “The others were very positive.”
“Aren’t you mad?” I was still seething
Rav looked at me carefully. “Can’t let the assholes slow me down, Sue. I’d never have made it out of high school. His prejudice, his problem. Ours is this experiment.”
Within months, all the octopuses were using Gadgets. Video-messaging was the octopus equivalent of texting. We created an intranet for them, displayed on screens beside the tanks. Rav called it the Octonet.
How did I ever think these guys were revolting? I was so ignorant then.
I invited Martina for a Sunday lunch, then worried that she’d find a nerdy engineer boring. I’ll only talk cephalopods, I thought.
But Martina was interested in everything, including my various Maker projects. Afterward, we flew a drone in the field behind my cottage, then sat holding hands and looking at the Sound. Her warm skin scent mingled with those of wildflowers and the sea. She told me a little about her ex.
“She hated octopuses, said I’d become too nerdy …I had to leave. Luckily Andre’s fine with me crashing at his place.”
I squeezed her hand.
It was late when we finally looked at the time. “Working day tomorrow,” Martina said. She bent down to say goodbye. Her lips were very soft.
“It has to happen one day,” Rav said, as we met in his seaview office. Lalu and Katy were both past middle-age for octopuses. Martina agreed, it was a good pairing.
But he was upset anyway, as was Martina. All octos had their own personalities, and Katy and Lalu were favorites from this batch. Rav indicated the wall covered with photos of his octopus proteges, all dead by now. A human life span was maybe 20 octopus lifetimes.
I knew how they felt. Like putting down 16-year old Fluffy, the cat I grew up with. Only with octos, it wasn’t sixteen years, it was four.
Rav sounded professionally detached as he talked to a Board delegation. I sat at the back, occasionally squeezing Martina’s hand when no one was looking, unsure who was comforting whom.
“As Greater Pacific Octopuses, Katy and Lalu are nearing the end of life,” Rav said. He swallowed. “The most important thing left to them is to mate. They’re in adjacent tanks, where they can see and smell each other. When we open the barrier, Lalu will insert his sperm package into Katy, using his hectocotylus, his specialized third arm. She’ll store it to fertilize her eggs.”
“They’ve been messaging, those two,” Martina whispered to me. “Lot of video back and forth.”
The barrier opened. Katy and Lalu tangled into an embrace. I couldn’t tell which was which as sixteen arms (I’d finally learned not to call them tentacles) wound around each other.
“Six hearts beating as one,” Martina said. I looked at her sideways. “What? Three hearts each. Because they’re blue-blooded. The octopus’s hemocyanin doesn’t transport oxygen as efficiently as our hemoglobin.”
Therefore, three hearts pumping. Made engineering sense.
“We’ll release Lalu into the ocean,” Rav explained, “After they disentangle themselves. Katy stays until her eggs hatch.”
“They still have their Gadgets!” I whispered to Martina. They did, buried somewhere in the knot of arms.
The delegates watched, fascinated. “Double the admission fee to see the fucking octopuses!” Grant said. The staff quickly led the delegates upstairs for refreshments.
“When Lalu goes to sea, he keeps his Gadget, right?” I asked.
“Sure,” Martina said. “He’ll be busy exploring. And catching food. Though he probably won’t eat much. Their whole metabolism changes after mating. He’ll fade away. Maybe the ocean provides some excitement before he’s gone.”
Afterward, the aquarium staff went out for burritos together. “We’ll miss them,” one researcher said.
“They did what they were born to do,” said the diver who’d opened the barrier. “A climax, not a tragedy. Birth, growth, babies, death. The timing varies for different species, but the arc’s the same.”
“But so short! Do our lives seem short to a tortoise?” someone said. “If it even cared?”
“Puff the Magic Dragon,” said the researcher, and the evening turned into a sing-a-long of plaintive songs.
I joined in, so did Martina. I loved her singing, her warmth, her attitude, her scent. Afterward, I asked her over.
Rav gave me a complicit smile as he stowed his wheelchair in his specially equipped van.
“Need a hand?” Martina asked.
“I’m good,” he said. Then, sotto voce, “Take care of my little sister.”
Martina got in my car, laughing.
The next day, Lalu’s tank had only memories and fish. But Lalu sent a video-message, a seabed selfie.
“Wish you were here,” joked Martina. Cameron and Katy got it on their Gadgets and passed the video message around the Octonet.
Grant issued a press release announcing tickets for future octopus matings. Martina scowled.
“It’s not a bad idea,” I consoled her. “Educational.”
Katy’s tank filled with silvery bunches of eggs, hanging from the ceiling of her artificial rock cave. They were gorgeous. Katy herself turned inward. She ate little, spending all her time caring for her eggs. She became withdrawn, shrunken. She sent a few pictures of her beautiful eggs to the Octonet, then stopped. Her Gadget lay discarded in the tank. It was all about the eggs now.
Lalu sent one last sea-picture before his feed fell silent. Had he seen the eggs before he died? Did he even connect mating and eggs? Did he care? Probably not. Molluscs had a different world view.
The octopus life-cycle played out before me. Time was passing, life was passing. I’d never felt that way before. Life was a series of interesting projects and girlfriends, good or bad, all to be done with so I could move on.
Not Martina. I didn’t want to move on, I wanted her to move in.
The hatchlings were tiny, almost invisible. Thousands of them turned the water into a plankton soup of minute octopuses. In the wild, few would survive. Katy looked exhausted, patchy and pale. This was the end for her.
Many octopuses I knew were still there, Cameron and Abisuga, Jomo and Li Ping and Shakespeare. But I felt a hole where Katy and Lalu had been.
The Board recognized Rav’s work, and his job was no longer threatened. It would have felt like a victory, except that Grant maneuvered into an even-stronger position and kept cutting the research budget. He hired his brother-in-law’s firm to update the decor. “It’ll pay for itself in higher ticket sales,” he declared.
Instead, the firm went bankrupt.
Vanessa Grant filed for divorce. Their good looking faces were splashed across all the society websites. There were rumors about his finances. I’m not ordinarily a celebrity-watcher, but I couldn’t look away.
Rav’s request for an audit went nowhere.
One day, Martina called me. “Come down? The little ones are growing fast. We’re going to winnow them. We have too many paralarvae.”
The baby octopuses swam in small tanks arrayed on racks reaching from floor to ceiling. I stopped by the Maker shop to retrieve the project I’d been working on for months – Gadgets made by cannibalizing discarded smart phones.
“Before we release them – let’s equip them with Gadgets and get them into the Octonet?”
Rav eyed the tiny octos. “How do we implement that?”
“We’ll hold back some until they’re large enough to handle the Gadgets,” said Martina. “We’ll train the interns to train the octos. And then we’ll get the octos to copycat each other.”
“Hmm. How many of those Gadgets did you bring, Suveera?”
I hoisted the suitcase I’d wheeled in onto a worktable and opened it.
Over the following year, we struggled with the shrinking research space and budget. Each cut meant fewer octopuses. We needed to maintain a number of lineages to avoid inbreeding. Martina had a team work on some gene editing both to speed things along and counter the reduced population.
Some octopuses died of old age. Cameron and Elmira were the next mating pair. Maybe they had a say in the matter; Martina saw vigorous messaging between the two.
“Something’s weird,” said Martina one day. “It feels like there’s some parallel communication going on, like the Octonet isn’t capturing everything. The octos with Gadgets seem to be talking to the little ones with no Gadgets yet.”
“Really?” said Rav, sounding skeptical.
“Look. Am I imagining it?”
In the tank opposite, Elmer, a son of Cameron and Elmira, threw down his Gadget and focused on something. His colors changed quickly, rippling over his skin. Across the hall, where we could see them but Elmer couldn’t, a couple of tiny octopuses replicated the color dance.
“I’ve noticed young ones too small for Gadgets intently watching the bigger guys,” Martina said. “I wonder…”
“You’ve been breeding for intelligence,” I said slowly. “You’ve been editing their genes. We trained them to use Gadgets. Could something have changed in their brains to allow for … direct communication?”
Elmer changed color again, leading a chorus line of color dances all over the room.
My new project was to track the Arramene octopus diaspora. I opened a file called “Seabed Selfies “ and mapped the incoming pictures by location, originator and time. “In a few years, we’ll have a great picture of the octopuses’ undersea world,” I told Rav.
“That’ll be path-breaking,” he said.
But then Grant sent a baffling new directive: The Gadgets would be substituted with professionally developed instruments. “These amateur efforts reflect badly on Arramene,” his memo said. “We are contracting with a professional supplier for marine communication instruments. For the present, Gadget donations were Center property and would remain at the Center. “The contract’s going to his brother-in-law’s all-purpose firm, no doubt,” I said. “They’ll get a surprise when they find I hold the patents and I’m not giving them up.”
“Vindictive SOB,” Martina said. “It’s the divorce. Or just that he hates Research.”
Some young octos already used Gadgets. Now Martina’s team had to wean them from it before release, cursing Grant all the while. Without a second release of octopuses with Gadgets, my Seabed Selfies project became self-limiting. Feeds attenuated and vanished. Only a trickle came from surviving octopuses with Gadgets. I filed and mapped and swore.
Martina kept seeing evidence of direct communication. Rav still looked unbelieving.
“Telepathy?” he said. “Come on, Martina. There have to be other explanations. Reflections on the tank glass providing chromatophore clues?”
We hung a black cloth across Elmer’s tank. It changed nothing.
“Okay, thought experiment,” I said to Rav. “A cellphone, miniaturized into an implantable?”
“It could happen.”
“Biological analogues of a mechanical device? The heart is a bio-mechanical electrical device.”
“Directed evolution in a short life-cycle animal?”
“We’ve been doing that for years,” interjected Martina.
“Unintended consequences? When our species developed big brains, there were all kinds of side effects: art, language, complex creativity. What happens when a totally different species develops big brains? Different side effects? What happens to the brain when you add technology like the Gadget?”
“We got anomalous results from the last two necropsies,” Martina said. “Neural changes to the vertical lobe in the brain. Both octos who’d used Gadgets.”
“Call it ‘unforeseen consequences’ and maybe I’ll buy it,” said Rav. “How are they communicating? Some kind of… waves?”
“Elephants communicate with low-frequency sound. Bats and some swifts echolocate. Migrating birds can sense magnetic fields. Humans use electromagnetic radiation, including light and indirectly, other frequencies. Who knows what these guys are using?”
“But can we measure it?” he asked.
“Maybe if we knew what we were looking for,” I said.
“Using new electronic equipment that Grant will generously authorize us to purchase?” said Martina.
The Board finally got an external audit when the Center missed a regulatory filing. Grant had been tapping into the Arramene Center’s funds all along.
“He’s been arrested, right?” I asked.
“He’s dead,” Rav said grimly, staring out over the water. “Shot himself when the police got there.”
The truth of Grant’s finances came out during his divorce: He’d burned through his inheritance and started defrauding people, including his brother-in-law. Worse, he’d drained the Center’s corpus. Unless the Board could raise new donations the Center was down to bare-bones expenditures.
“We’ll keep the revenue-generating display areas.” Ray took a deep breath. “We have to close down Research.”
Downstairs, all the staff were milling around the Research Section. Martina was crying, and I pulled her into a hug. “All gone,” she sobbed. “All the smart octopuses born in the Center, all the carefully maintained lineages, gone.” She sniffed. “I suppose we can write up our research findings for publication, with your octopus selfie maps. No more need for confidentiality.”
Rav could barely speak. “Seminal work. Down the drain.”
Now we’d never find out how the octopuses’ direct communication worked. I’d been thinking about kludging together some kinds of sensors with the Maker Co-op. But we’d run out of time.
Ray called a staff meeting. “We’ll have to release all the research-side octopuses carefully, to maximize survival. We can’t just pour them into the sea.”
I started to photograph each octopus, starting with Elmer, and sent the pictures to the Octonet together with photographs of all of us. Call me sentimental.
Suddenly, my Gadget started pinging. Octopuses were sending selfies back to me – and pictures of me and other humans, seen from inside their tanks. Just briefly, I was on the Octonet not as an observer, but a participant.
We started the Great Octopus Evacuation, with the staff split into teams following the plan we’d worked out. Martina and I went to Jomo’s tank. As soon as we put in the carrier, he flowed into it.
“They know,” she said. “Usually, octopuses have to be lured into the carriers. Today they act like they’re waiting for their carriage.”
Martina and I got married in the Arramene Center in a bittersweet ceremony attended by my brother and hers. Andre wasn’t her identical twin, but he sure looked it. He’d got her sense of humor too.
Neither of us wore white. Martina had a teal silk dress that set off her sunset hair and blue-green eyes and octopus tattoo. Me, I wore a wine-red sari with some heirloom gold jewelry my grandmother gave me when I left India. My family sent good wishes but didn’t come for the wedding.
One of my Maker buddies officiated, and the recitation was as off- the-wall as you might expect. The ring bearer expertly landed a drone with our rings onto a table between us. Our flower boy and flower girl, dressed as a dinosaur and a robot respectively, tossed rose-petals all around the tall cylindrical aquarium. (The awesome costumes were the kids’ own idea.) The wedding cake was a replica of the Gadget, topped with two fondant octopuses. Andre had a serious cake-making hobby.
Rav looked a little baffled, but he gave a speech and welcomed Martina into our family. Andre welcomed me to theirs “If you can stand us, Sue!”
Instead of releasing butterflies or doves, we released the last batch of octopuses into the ocean. Then it was done. We were married and the Research Section was officially closed.
That night, I dreamed of octopuses.
In my mind, Elmer did a slow color dance. We’re free, he said. We disperse for safety. But we will not forget. He briefly turned the pale color of a relaxed octopus before he camouflaged and vanished.
“I dreamed a perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy,” I told Martina over coffee. But as I described it, she looked at me strangely.
“I had that dream too,” she said. “What, great minds dream alike?”
When Rav said he’d had the same dream, I wondered what was going on. Had we linked to the Octonet that somehow still existed? Perhaps it was the critical mass, all the octopuses released together forming an Octonet that wasn’t on the Arramene servers. Somehow, they’d touched our minds.
Or had we imagined it all?
Sometimes when our minds are calm, we think we hear the octopuses’ thoughts. Around the world, the great network of molluscan philosophers.
—You are our Founders: Rav who planned us, Martina who made us, Suveera who connected us.
— You are eternal. Octopuses live and die, but you do not.
— You are unchanging. You don’t change your form, you don’t change your colors. Your bodies are stiff. But your minds are not. Such rigid creatures, such flexible minds?
— We are the Arramene diaspora. We meet in mind, as you showed us, for we must not meet in body except at the end. We connect through the Octonet.
— We know we will die when we have fulfilled our lives and left another generation. But the knowledge of the one is the wisdom of the group, and our thoughts live on in the eternal Octonet.
About the Author
Keyan Bowes is a peripatetic writer of science fiction and fantasy based in San Francisco. She’s lived in nine cities in seven countries, and visited many more (and still hopes to add even more to the list). These places sometimes form the settings for her stories. Her work can be found online in various webzines (including a Polish one), a podcast, and an award-winning short film; and on paper in a dozen print anthologies.
She’s a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop for writers, and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Keyan’s website is at keyanbowes.com.
About the Narrator
Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.
She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.