Octopus Ex Machina

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in ROAR 11, July 2022

“How did you do this?” She was sure, deep under her fur, that the octopus was behind the snow. “And why?”

The thing that surprised Lora most about being an otter was that her face was round, and her nose was round.  Everyone thinks of otters as long.  With their sinuous spines, like weasels and ferrets, they’re big ol’ fuzzy noodles.  But when Lora looked at her face — round.  So round.

When Lora had been a cat, her face had been full of corners and edges; triangular ears, articulated muzzle; even the shape of her eyes had been filled with crescents and sharpness.  She’d had tiny little fangs that made her feel like a vampire.  All of those edges and points had felt like affectations.  As shallow as fur and skin.  This round face — that was who she’d always been underneath.  Always.

But… Lora almost wished that she’d actually been the cat who she’d been born and raised as, with all the complexity and sharp edges.  But she knew that had never been her.  She wished her family understood that too.

Her eyes were brown, plain and honest and completely her.  She looked at herself in the mirror and saw the person she knew she’d always been, even before she’d saved enough for the Re-Incorpus surgery.  An otter with a heart filled by sunshine and splashing water.  But sometimes those brown eyes still surprised her.  Sometimes she almost missed the coy green cat eyes; the eyes filled with mystery; the eyes that obscured who she had always been beneath.  The mask that had made life a masquerade.

Lora threw a bright yellow towel over her shoulder, more out of habit than a real need.  Her thick fur dried fast these days, and the sensation of water against it was… pleasant.  Cat fur was too thin to feel good when it got wet.  When she’d been a cat, wet fur had plastered against her body, pulling on her skin and itching.  Otter fur was made for water.

She wore a simple two-piece swimsuit, decorated with clouds and rainbows.  Though, she pulled a pair of faded green overalls up over them.  She didn’t want to draw too much attention on the tram from her apartment to the pool.  Some attention, maybe.  She did enjoyed hearing strangers’ stray comments about “that otter.”  Simply knowing that they saw her for what she truly was felt wonderful.

The tram bumped along through the city, and Lora enjoyed the crowds of animals getting on and off at each stop.  The closer the tram got to the pool, the more animals came aboard with towels over their shoulders or bags full of pool toys, like foam noodles and inflatable beach balls.  Lora loved all the bright colors; she bounced on her webbed paws at the cheerful sight.  And the best part was knowing:  all the animals heading to the pool today were like her.  They’d all been different species before being reborn through the magic — well, science — of Re-Incorpus.

A penguin waddled onto the tram.  She didn’t have a towel with her.  (Why would a penguin ever need a towel?  Water rolls right off their feathers.)  But Lora knew her.  They’d crossed paths in the Re-Incorpus offices many times during the months of counseling each client had to do while waiting for their new bodies to grow.  Back then, this penguin woman had been a male antelope.  She looked so much happier now, in her sleek tuxedo feathers and bright orange feet instead of clompy hooves and antlers tangling in the grab handles hanging from the ceiling.

Lora raised her paw and waved at the penguin, surprising herself with her own friendliness and enthusiasm.  Somehow as a cat, she’d always been more tentative.  So she had expected to wave shyly at the penguin, but her new, webbed paw had different ideas.  She was glad, though, because the penguin’s beaked face lit up, and the flightless bird waddled toward Lora.

“Goin’ to the party?” the penguin chuffed.

Lora felt a grin spread across her face.  “Yeah.  My name’s Lora.”  She hadn’t changed her name when she’d changed species, but a lot of animals did.  So, she found it was always a good idea to reintroduce herself.  She held out her paw, and the penguin curled the tip of her wing, where the feathers spread into fingers, around it.

“Ninette,” the penguin said, saving Lora the trouble of trying to remember her antelope name.  Lora suspected Ninette would prefer if her antelope name were forgotten anyway.

“How goes the otter-life?” Ninette asked.

“Good, good,” Lora said, trying to smile brightly, but a shadow must have crossed her face anyway.

Ninette angled her narrow beak downwards and said, “Family trouble?”  It was the obvious guess.

Lora scuffed one of her webbed hind paws along the tram floor.  “It’s to be expected, I guess.”

A lot of animals still believed that transferring one’s brain waves into a new body meant the person died along with their original, abandoned body and emptied brain.  It wasn’t true.  But some people couldn’t be swayed by science.

“How has your family been?” Lora asked.

“Fine,” Ninette chuffed, leaving Lora bewildered.  The change from antelope to penguin seemed much more extreme to her than cat to otter.  “I mean, I wish my brother would stop making jokes about laying eggs, but other than that…”  She shrugged her wings.

Their conversation drifted away from the mundanities of their pasts and into the pleasant trivialities of the day.  Ninette had joined a Feathered Friends group and had a crush on the only other flightless bird in the group — an emu who was twice her height and had legs for days; he had the most adorable tuft of fluffy black feathers on the middle of his head, according to Ninette.  (Personally, Lora always thought emus looked angry with their severe eyebrows.)

For her part, Lora had taken up sewing so she could alter some of her favorite clothes from back when she was a cat to fit her new wide rudder tail.  She found she enjoyed the pastime and had begun designing little plush animal dolls, wearing costumes of other animals.  One animal on the inside; another on the outside.  Just like she used to be.

And everyone else here…

By now, the tram car seemed to be filled entirely with Re-Incorpus clients.  A few wore polo shirts with the Re-Incorpus logo — a stylized phoenix with its wings spread wide — stitched onto the shoulder.  But mostly there was no way to tell that any of them had ever been animal species other than the ones they were now.  Birds, reptiles, mammals; long swooping necks, wide toothy mouths, puffball tails; colorful feathers, glittering scales, speckled fur.  Yet, the only way to tell that any of them had been re-incorporated was that they were heading to the pool today with their towels and toys.

The tram stopped and animals began filing out, paws shuffling and wings flapping in excitement and anticipation.  As Lora passed through the automatic sliding door, she noticed an octopus above her, tentacles suckered up against the domed tram car ceiling and wrapped around one of the grab handles.

Lora only noticed it because a pinky-peach flush passed over the octopus’s bulbous body and tentacles, before its fleshy limbs returned to a shade of gray that perfectly matched the ceiling.  It looked kind of dry up there.  Lora would’ve bet her whiskers that the octopus was looking forward to the pool party more than any of them.

A banner stretched over the gated entrance to the pool, fluttering slightly in the breeze.  It read:  “Re-Incorpus? Refresh Yourself!”  And then in smaller letters underneath, “Splash Your Cares Away At the Summer Pool Party.”

Lora suspected that the Re-Incorpus clients filing through the gates right now would have a lot fewer cares at the moment if the company hadn’t brazenly advertised the pool party like that.  Protesters had to be held back by Re-Incorpus employees — mostly big species, like tigers, bears, oxen — working as guards.

One panda man was strong enough to shoulder past the guards and bellow at the crowd heading into the pool, “You monsters killed my baby!  My little teddy bear baby!”

Of course, the panda’s child might well be right here, listening to their father disown them, simply for not having grown up into the panda bear he’d expected.  Lora turned her head away, cringing.  Her family hadn’t been that bad.  She knew she should feel grateful for that.  Yet, the idea of feeling grateful for the skewed ears and pointed silences that her feline kin had given her since the rebirth made those minor slights feel all the more cutting.

Past the gates, Lora and the rest of the Re-Incorpus crowd could relax, throw their towels on lounge chairs, and dive into the water.  Happy shrieks, squawks, and splashes totally drowned out the noise from outside.  Lora could feel herself grinning from ear to ear.  She pulled off her overalls and dropped them with her yellow towel on the concrete ground, patterned with blue tiles, around the pool, completely careless of how they fell.  She didn’t need a towel.  She was an otter!

Lora dove into the water, nose first.  Her nictitating membranes slid shut, shielding her eyes, automatically, without her even thinking, and her ears and nostrils closed too.  The water enfolded her in an all-encompassing embrace.  She was home.

Through her slightly filmy vision, Lora saw other otters, and she swam in curlicues toward them.  They spiraled around each other in an intricate, spontaneous, exhilarating dance under the shifting sunlight, filtered through the water.

With delight, Lora found Ninette at the deep end of the pool.  The otter and penguin glided beside each other, coasting along the bottom of the pool, needing no words to share the joy and buoyancy they felt together.  Lora had never felt this way as a cat.  She had never felt so much like herself, so comfortable in her own fur.  She could see the crinkles around Ninette’s eyes, the slight upturn of the ebony feathers around her beak.  She was as happy as Lora.

Then a shiver raced down Lora’s spine.  She thought she imagined it at first, but the water was growing colder.  She hadn’t expected to feel a chill through her thickened fur.  But she saw looks on the faces of the other swimmers beneath the surface — mostly otters, but also Ninette, an adventurous Labrador Retriever, and a polar bear — showing that they felt something wrong too.

Lora began to swim for the surface, but the water wasn’t only colder… it felt… thicker?  And grainy…  Like she was swimming through cold, light sand.  She started to have trouble seeing, and by the time her head broke the surface, the entire pool was filled with soft, fluffy, white snow.  As the water crystallized, it expanded, overflowing the edges of the pool like popcorn in an overfilled popper.

Laughter rang out from where the polar bear had surfaced; a deep, hearty belly laugh.  His head looked comical, sticking out of the pool of snow, and his laughter was infectious.  Soon the entire crowd was laughing with all their different-sounding voices.  Cackles, chuckles, chortles, giggles and guffaws.  Even a donkey braying from where she reclined on a poolside chaise.

Soon the air was filled with flying snowballs, and several of the ungulates who’d been less inclined towards swimming began building snow animals beside the pool, rolling up giant snowballs, stacking, and sculpting them.  They decorated the snow animals with towels wrapped around their middles, and placed volunteered hats and sunglasses on their heads.

With difficulty, Lora swam — well, trudged — her way through the snow to the edge of the pool.  Ninette waddled along in her wake, and Lora helped the penguin up.  Once they were both free from the pit of snow, Lora asked, “What happened?  I was expecting a summer paradise; not a winter wonderland!”

Ninette shrugged her wings.  “Magic?”

The polar bear had stayed in the middle of the pool and was roaring at anyone who would listen, “Throw snowballs at me!  Rarr!”

In Lora’s experience, most magic was really science at its heart.  She looked around the pool, trying to spot any animal who didn’t look surprised.  Meanwhile, Ninette took the polar bear up on his challenge and began deftly hurling snowballs toward the center of the pool with her wings.  She might not be able to fly, but her snowballs certainly could.

Eventually, Lora’s eyes settled on her own yellow towel, still discarded beside the pool, but now wrapped around a shivering octopus.  Its mantle had taken on a pretty canary hue to match the terry cloth fabric.  And it did not look surprised.

Can octopuses look surprised?  Probably.  Though, Lora wasn’t sure she’d recognize the expression in their unusual faces — a mere expanse of skin, stretched between two bulbous protuberances around their eyes.  This octopus’s eyes were a yellow that matched its current hue, and its rectangular pupils were narrow in a way that looked like a smile.

Lora made her way over and sat down beside the octopus cuddled in her yellow towel.  The otter wrapped her rudder tail around herself, began smoothing the clumpily-wet fur, and said, “You seem like someone who knows what’s going on.”

The octopus glanced at her.  Its pupils narrowed further, and a blush of blue circles danced over its skin.  Laughter?  There was a lot of laughter at the moment; the entire pool-party-turned-snow-party echoed with peals of laughter.

Just as Lora began to wonder if she and the octopus would be able to communicate at all, given that she didn’t know sign language, a mechanical voice emanated from under the octopus’s mantle.  Lora noticed a small black box nestled there, against its tubular siphon.  The voice said, “You have a keen eye.  And apparently a curious mind.  Don’t you want to play in the snow?”

Lora did.  But not as much as she wanted to understand it.  “How did you do this?”  She was sure, deep under her fur, that the octopus was behind the snow.  “And why?”

“It’s fun.  Isn’t that enough?”  Its tentacles writhed, as if they were eight different creatures, barely held together by the body and bulbous mantle that joined them.

Lora caught herself wondering what the octopus had been before it was an octopus.  She knew it was gauche.  But she couldn’t imagine knowing that you were meant to have tentacles like those — each one covered in hundreds of delicate, dexterous sucker disks — while wearing a comparatively simplistic mammal body with four paws, or a bird body with two talons and two wings.

“You’re wondering what we used to be,” the octopus said.

Lora looked away, embarrassed that she was unable to deny it.

“Seven mice,” the octopus said, and then they held up one tentacle and wiggled it.  “And one gerbil.  This arm was the gerbil.”

Lora blinked, not just with her nictitating membranes but all three sets of eyelids.  “You were… seven mice and a gerbil?”  She was stunned.  “I didn’t know that was even possible.  To combine multiple minds… into one body?”

“We couldn’t share our thoughts fast enough,” the octopus explained.  “We would stay up all night, every night talking, brainstorming…  It was never enough.”  The octopus’s tentacles wrapped around each other, coiling and writhing in harmony.  “And an octopus has a distributed nervous system with both a brain and eight arms, each capable of carrying intelligence.”

Lora and the octopus sat beside each other, watching the winter games playing out around the pool.  The snow was already melting.  The snow party would be a pool party again soon enough.

“Are you bothered?” the octopus asked.

“Of course not,” Lora answered, knowing the words to say so readily that she didn’t have to think before saying them.  But they weren’t entirely true.  She was troubled.  She had trouble understanding how eight separate rodents could know they would be happier as one cephalopod.

Lora remembered climbing to a Re-Incorpus pod and lying down, still in her cat body.  Her long, narrow tail had curled around her, tip twitching, and she hadn’t been able to stop her triangular ears from skewing.  She’d been so scared that she’d wake up in her new otter body and it wouldn’t feel right.  It wouldn’t feel any different or less mis-fitted to her than her cat body had.  But she hadn’t had to worry about her brain waves not mapping correctly or not joining right or… whatever dangers there might be with an eight-brain-to-one-distributed-nervous-system transition.

What if when the seven mice and one gerbil woke up, they weren’t really all there?  What if each of them had lost something in the transfer?

Except, Re-Incorpus technology had been fastidiously researched and was applied with stringent safety protocols.  It had to be given how controversial the procedures still were.  Many uninformed animals believed that the empty, discarded bodies from Re-Incorpus transfers had been murdered, and it required iron-clad contracts and unimpeachable proof that the transferred individual was the same person — or people, apparently — that they’d been before to avoid all transferred individuals (and every single Re-Incorpus tech) being thrown in jail.  And yet, Re-Incorpus had never had an unsatisfied transfer.

With an uneasy discomfort, Lora realized she was feeling what her parents and littermates felt.  Fear of someone who was different from her.  She hoped her discomfort wasn’t showing through.  She supposed, her round otter ears were less likely to betray her, making her look snarky and judgmental, than her triangular cat ears had been.

Except, really, she didn’t feel snarky or judgmental.  Only awe.  She was impressed that this octopus had known itself so well that it had been able to transform so completely.

“Did you design your mechanical voice box yourself?” Lora asked.

“Yes, we brainstormed and planned it out before Re-Incorporating.”

“Is that how you designed whatever device you used to make all this snow?” Lora asked.  “You have eight brilliant minds, constantly brainstorming inside of you?”

“I am creativity incarnate.”  The blue circles washed over the octopus’s canary-yellow tentacles again.  Definitely laughter.

“That’s a mouthful of a name,” Lora said.  She held out a paw, “I’m Lora.  You?”

“Divinity,” the octopus answered, wrapping a tentacle around Lora’s paw.  The otter couldn’t remember if it was the tentacle that had used to be a gerbil or not.  She was sure it didn’t matter, and she giggled as the sucker disks tickled her fur and paw pads.

“Will you show me the snow device, Divinity?” Lora asked.  “Also, what pronouns should I use?”

“Them,” Divinity said.  “We’re still us.  And… no, not yet.”  Their tentacles coiled, and the tips — which grew almost impossibly narrow — turned bright apple green.  “But if you’re really interested, I’ll be using it again next week.  There’s a playground with fountains for the children to play in…”

“Gladstone Garden,” Lora said.  “I used to play there as–” She almost said ‘kitten,’ but caught herself.  “When I was young.”  Her littermates had never understood why she loved playing in the streams of water so much.  They’d made her feel alive.  “That was my favorite place.”

“How would you like to help me freeze the fountains into ice sculptures?”  Divinity’s apple green tentacle tips arranged themselves into a pantomime of the Gladstone fountains.

Lora grinned.  “I’d love it.  Is this what you do?  Make strange inventions and sow random chaos?”

“Aesthetic chaos,” Divinity corrected.  “Not random.  Think of it as a kind of performance art, crossed with field testing.  The device does have practical applications.”

Lora nodded, although she didn’t completely buy it.  Field tests would work better under more controlled circumstances — with fewer giggles and shrieks of delight from unsuspecting bystanders.  Divinity was doing this for fun.

“I could use a lab assistant with a strong back to help me carry the device,” Divinity said.  “It took me forever to drag it here, sneaking around in the middle of the night.  With you, it would go much faster.”

Lora loved the idea of causing aesthetically pleasing mischief.  Otters are all about fun.  “Count me in.”  Maybe she’d invite her littermates to bring their litters of kittens to Gladstone Garden for a fun surprise next week.  If her sisters and brother couldn’t appreciate some good otter fun, she was pretty sure their kittens could.

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