by Mary E. Lowd
Emily’s world had ended before.
A prismatic kaleidoscope of lives had hung around her. Strings of seed pearls; each pearl an entire life waiting to unfold; an entire life she had created.
Before Emily had laid her eggs, she’d been a chef like she was now. That was her first life. And she’d shed it entirely, like a snake’s old skin, when she’d felt the urge to lay her eggs. She’d retreated to a nursery cave — like the ones in Choir’s Deep, except Emily had lived in a much smaller octopus city, much deeper in the ocean. Their ways were different. More ceremonial, less metropolitan. More bound by tradition, but it was a tradition Choir’s Deep octopi scorned.
When Emily had felt the urge to lay her eggs, she’d quit her job, abandoned her home and belongings, and said goodbye to all the friends she had. It was the end of her life, and she’d gladly accepted it.
Emily tended her eggs, lovingly watching as the tiny fetal octopi developed inside their translucent orbs. Each one different. Each one perfect. Each one an entire life ready to unfold. She’d felt her heart expand to love every one of their thousands, and she’d felt her soul spread and prepare to disperse, carried away into their multitudinous, branching lives. She would lose herself and become many.
Instead, the pearls broke open, and Emily had watched her babies drift away into their own lives.
She stayed inside the Emily-skin she’d been ready to leave behind. A lonely octopus alone in a cave filled with strings of broken eggs, abandoned and confused.
She had waited, but she didn’t die. She didn’t ascend. She grew bored… And she tried to go back to her old life, but the friends she’d said goodbye to treated her like a ghost. Her home and belongings had been claimed by another.
Eventually, Emily travelled to a larger octopus city — one where the octopi were horrified at the idea of mothers dying with their eggs’ hatching. But Emily was horrified by them. She didn’t feel less like a ghost, she simply felt like the city was crawling with ghosts — women who should have died. She should have died, and they should have too. That’s what Emily had been raised to believe, and it was a belief too deep inside her to die when she hadn’t.
Where does a ghost go? Emily had drifted, until she found herself among the otters. She didn’t feel like a ghost among otters. They treated her like a bizarre, exotic alien creature, so she became one for them. She went back to being a chef and learned to cook clam chowder.
Sometimes Emily wondered about those tiny sparks of life that had left her behind. How many of her children had survived their arduous childhoods? Who were the octopuses they had become? Kipper would believe that Emily should care about them. Emily knew that from watching Kipper sign about her niece and nephews — kittens that weren’t even related to her.
But Emily had never expected to know her many thousands of children. She had expected to become them, her soul escaping from her own limited body and multiplying thousands fold.
Those tiny, perfect octopi had denied her. Rejected her. Instead, the funny, fuzzy brown mammals of the Jolly Barracuda had accepted her, taken her in, and given her an entirely different life than she’d ever expected.
And now they were on a raptor vessel — fighting for their lives or possibly dead. The only fuzzy brown mammal left on the Jolly Barracuda was Boris the pilot, and he was on the bridge with the octopus entourage. It felt morbid to Emily, the way the octopi from Choir’s Deep had been watching Kipper, judging her, and now they were on the bridge waiting to see Kipper and the otters fail. Emily wanted no part of it.
Well… That wasn’t entirely true.
Emily felt an intense sadness in her middle-left arms, a sadness that desperately missed Kipper and wanted nothing more than to wait on the bridge for any drop of news. Her right arms, though, were restless and needed to be in the kitchen where they could stir and chop, whipping up salmon and tuna confections, keeping too busy to worry about Kipper and the other fuzzies. Though her left arms kept worrying: who would eat these confections if the fuzzies never came back?
Emily’s hindmost-left arm kept curling and uncurling, completely uncooperative with her cooking and only interested in counting out a beat to the moments that Kipper was gone. It was driving the rest of her arms crazy.
Emily had never felt so divided before. Half of her had accepted that her life on the Jolly Barracuda was all but over; half of her was ready to move on and wanted to get this horrible transition over with. Her other half… It was afflicted with hope. Torturous, horrible, awful hope.
The oxo-agua in the kitchen shifted around Emily; she recognized the feeling — it meant the doors to the galley had opened. The galley was a large, long room filled with rows of tables; it appended Emily’s small kitchen, separated only by hanging cupboards and the long countertop she used as a bar for serving her food. Unless the Jolly Barracuda was docked and drained, then the kitchen could be separated by transparent walls, turning it into Emily’s personal aquarium.
Emily put down her pot of yellowfin, placed three knives on the magnetic knife-block, and turned to see what had caused the disturbance. Boris’s bushy face looked in through the door of the galley, and when he saw Emily looking at him, he started signing. His paws moved in a rush; they looked like they were shaking. “The raptors are boarding our ship. I’m sorry. Hide if you can.”
Emily’s brittle reality shattered. The others had lost, and the end was coming. It was shaped like a nightmare with feathers.
Boris continued signing, “I’m heading to engineering to try to blow the engine, destroy the ship. I don’t think I’ll succeed, but wish me luck if you don’t want to be taken by the raptors.” He disappeared out the galley doors in a streak of brown fur.
Emily wasn’t sure whether she should wish him luck. If he succeeded, and the ship exploded, she would die. It was hard to wish for that, no matter the alternative.
Seven of her eight arms went numb; the eighth stretched out to flip the switch that raised the aquarium walls around her kitchen. She wasn’t sure how strong the walls were, but they had to be strong enough to hold in the liquid atmosphere when the rest of the ship was filled with a thin gas.
Whether they were strong or not, they made Emily feel safe.
From behind her transparent walls, Emily watched shadows pass by the open door to the galley. She could no longer feel their movements, cut off from the rest of the ship inside her aquarium. So it didn’t feel real when she saw a pair of feathered raptors look through the door, tentacles rising from their shoulders. If they were real, she should have been able to feel them in the motion of the water.
But her kitchen stayed perfectly still.
They didn’t see her; or they didn’t care about her. Either way, the raptors moved on, and Emily sank down to the smooth surface of her chopping counter. Her tentacles glued her tightly on, and her skin wrinkled and flushed, instinctively matching the diamond-and-squares tessellation pattern. If the raptors came back, they’d have to look really closely to see an octopus in the kitchen at all.
For better and much, much worse, the next raptor to come by wasn’t looking for hidden octopuses — it was chasing the silver-armed octopus oligarch.
The oligarch jetted into the galley like a tornado of tentacles, whirling and changing direction, feinting to get away from the awkwardly swimming — flying? — raptor. The raptor’s black feathered arms waved out of rhythm with the water, dragging against it instead of propelling the raptor forward.
The liquid atmosphere clearly gave the oligarch a huge advantage over the raptor, but the raptor had friends. Three more raptors with tentacles rising from their shoulders swam purposefully into the galley. They didn’t seem to be wielding weapons, but they all had sharp teeth and claws.
Emily closed her eyes, telling herself that it was to make herself less visible — with her skin camouflaged, her yellow eyes were her most visible part — but it was really to shut out the vision of the next few moments.
With her eyes closed and the aquarium walls shielding her, Emily couldn’t sense the raptors and their senseless, bloody murder at all. She could have been anywhere. She could have been back on Earth in the cave with her strand-of-pearl eggs by the thousands, still waiting for them to hatch and carry her soul away with them into myriad thousands of lives.
Emily opened her eyes; she couldn’t keep them closed forever. The water in the galley was murky with blue and black. Blood and ink. Blue octopus blood. But the raptors were gone.
Emily knew she should stay put. If the raptors didn’t know about her, she could wait them out. They’d abandon the ship eventually, and she could fly the whole thing away. She’d flown the Jolly Barracuda before during disasters. Maybe that was the new life coming for her: Captain Emily of the Jolly Barracuda.
It sounded lonely. She would miss her brown fuzzies.
While Emily’s left arms worried about the future, her right arms took action. None of Emily’s arms had any love for the octopus oligarch, but she had to know if the oligarch had survived anyway. So, Emily lowered the aquarium glass and jetted into the muddy cloud; it tasted sour and tangy on her sucker discs.
At the darkest part of the cloud of ink and blood, Emily found the oligarch, still twitching and still bleeding blue, clinging to a tabletop. Two of her tentacles had been ripped off entirely, and a third was torn down the middle, splitting it hideously in half. The oligarch wouldn’t last long, but her uncannily blue eyes opened and fixed on Emily.
With her remaining tentacles, the oligarch shakily signed, “I can’t die. You have to carry on for me.” Then her shining silver tentacle cracked down the middle, revealing a normal tentacle inside, laced with thin wires. The wires withdrew from the oligarch’s flesh and floated eerily as if searching for a new tentacle to burrow into.
Emily’s tentacles — all of them — backed away, recoiling from the hideous sight of a maimed and dying octopus trying to give her its cyborg arm. But the oligarch lifted the empty mechanical sleeve and held it toward her; its blue eyes pleaded with infinite sadness.
One of Emily’s mid-most left arms reached out and allowed the oligarch to press it into the silver sleeve. Wires burrowed into Emily’s flesh as the sleeve closed around her arm, but she was too busy to feel the prickly pins and needles sensation.
Memories flooded Emily’s nerves, bouncing between her arms, telling her that she was hundreds of different octopuses — no, thousands. She had lived for millions of years. She had come to Earth on a spaceship escaping the Jovian raptors before fuzzy mammals had even evolved. Before that… she had uplifted the raptors.
Octopi came first.
Octopi were the first race.
Octopi hadn’t even come from Earth; they’d travelled from another galaxy — possibly a parallel universe — and had found the pre-uplift raptors on Earth, thought they’d be useful, and uplifted them. Enslaved them. Then the raptors had rebelled.
Octopi had fallen from interstellar travelers to slaves of their own creations on Jupiter and exiled, forgotten refugees on Earth. They’d rebuilt, so slowly. The metal arm had been passed down from one oligarch to another; this was the first time it had returned to space in sixty-five million years.
All these memories came to Emily first-hand, stored in the mechanical tentacle. It was an older form of life than anything she had ever known and its memories overwhelmed her. She fell into them like a hall of mirrors, reflecting different lives and selves who had all become one through bonding with the silver tentacle.
Emily remembered the first time she’d ever looked down on Earth from space, when the primordial planet had crawled with dinosaurs. The raptors had been far and away the smartest dinosaurs, easily the best choice for uplift.
Emily remembered training her first ever raptor steed; she’d been so proud and fond of him. His strong bipedal legs had let her stride across dry land; she’d known right then it was the beginning of a Golden Era for her species.
An era that had cracked and twisted when the raptors had found a way to reverse the control modules in their saddles, letting them perversely control the arms of their own makers like possessed marionette puppets taking control of the puppeteer.
Emily remembered her own raptor turning on her, fitting her as she struggled into the saddle that had once let her control him.
She remembered lying catatonic, too stunned to move, the taste of blood and ink in the water, as a stranger raptor lifted her again.
She didn’t remember that; it was happening now.
Emily reached through the millennia of memories, trying to fill out her own tentacles, shake them back into motion and consciousness, but seven of her arms were too stunned by the parade of memories, passively watching as lifetimes lived themselves in shadow, partial and regurgitated, too vivid to tell them apart from the now, from the reality. Only her silver tentacle struggled as the raptor fitted Emily into the electronic seat between its shoulders.
Continue on to Chapter 31…