by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
First published 2018, in 2054 (Goodreads link)
Picture the ocean on a stormy night.
Wave fronts breaking under the storm. Water tossing, turning, frothing, a heaving mass of black that was once blue. A deepness so vast and so profound it would crush your bones long before you even hit the bottom.
Past the point where men drown and the thunder and lightning fade to dim flashes on the other side of murky ink.
Past the point where fish swim in the darkness and strange things float by among the ghosts of the submarines that once fought in the Bay of Bengal.
On the ocean floor, there is light again. A sort of neon pink haze that sparks and flickers on the grey ocean floor. A Bubble. One of the cheap kind, the stuff they give to miners. Bootlegged Israeli tech, or maybe Chinese; who knows. Bought cheap and rebadged by the Bay Of Bengal Corporation. It shimmers and wraps itself around the mining rig at the bottom of the ocean, a little disco for eyeless fish. The thump-thump-thump of thorium minescoops reverb through the heavy ocean water.
Inside is Parul Anand, Operator, Rig #443. She stumbles against the waterlock, her short, dark hair matted with something that could be oil, could be blood. In her right hand is a photo of the fiance she left behind. Or maybe he left her; it is hard to remember. It’s hard to remember because one of her other arms is clutching a bottle of moonshine. Home-brewed rig junk. Two thirds of it is already in her system.
Even her body, re-engineered for the pressures of the job, cannot cope with this stuff. Parts of her are slurring. Other parts blink red.
It’s Valentines day.
And, like every other day down here, it’s a very lonely one.
If we had a pencil, and a good map, and a certain willingness to make giant leaps of fact, we could trace the path that lead Parul here. We could say it began in 2020, when the world had too many people and the oil was running out faster than expected; we could trace a line from that to the research poured out by the scientists of the time, who spoke of thorium, the safe, atomic fuel that lay off the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, the fuel that could not be weaponized the way uranium could.
The line would skitter and skid across the wars that ravaged the Bay of Bengal – India and China throwing submarines and missiles at each other, fighting cold, fast and furious proxy wars to determine who would control the future of energy on the Earth. And then we would get to the the 2040s, when brave explorers of the deep, blessed by temporary truces, cast off into the depths. They sent messages back to the surface about the abundant reserves of thorium and hydrosulphates that lay just below the ocean bed – and died horrible deaths when Rig #1 sprung a leak and collapsed in on itself.
We could trace lines all day – from discovery to commercialization, from national to corporate interests, from brave new world to yet another high-risk blue collar job.
Or we could trace the line of Parul: born to Sri Lankan and Indian parents, a citizen of both countries and welcome in neither. Grew up on the coast of Jaffna. Studied hard, kept her head down, made it to university. One of India’s top ten colleges, too. Found a good Indian boy to settle down with.
And blew it all when it turned out the good Indian boy had been cheating on her throughout their relationship. Took a job that took away from her all of the pain and suffering and torment of Topside and gave her months of intense psych conditioning and sent her down four kilometers to the bottom of the ocean, the only human being in the beating heart of a great automated operation leeching the ocean bed dry of that precious fuel.
All paths would eventually lead to hundreds of rigs dotting the ocean floor, busy churning out fuel for the human race, and Parul Anand trapped here in #443, held in place by a contract and thousands of tons of water pressing down on her.
It was a token job. #443, like all the other rigs owned by the Corporation, ran itself. Thorium is three times as abundant as uranium; much of it, readily mineable, exists in the form of monazite, two-thirds of which are off the south and east coasts of India. An army of SubMiners skitters around the main drill sites, teasing out and sorting ore. Every day they bring back precious monazite to the beating heart of the rig – a vast refinement complex that sunk deep concrete roots into the ocean floor and runs with a steady thump-thump-thump, cooled by the water itself. A squad of jury-rigged OctoPods – poor critters – keeps an eye on the outermost perimeter, where communication lines could be compromised by debris. Every so often an automated transport shuttle, guarded by submarines, does the rounds, picks up fuel, and departs.
Parul, like all other human operators, is only there because BIMSTEC regulations require a human presence on board any automated system above a particular size. The only other living things attached to #443 are the OctoPods. They float like ghostly, tentacled guardians, occasionally beeping in distress when the electronic mind of #443 takes control and steers them and their sensor arrays to areas where it suspects damage.
Line status OK.
And, listening to this exchange, sits Parul, feeling the crushing loneliness envelop her, heavier sometimes than the ocean itself. When this is done, she’s going to have her brain wiped. Get one of those bio-hackers to keep just a few glimpses of this whole experience and replace everything else with glittering, beautiful fakes. There could be entire cities down here, New Yorks and Delhis glittering in the ocean –
She wakes up to the alarm and crawls upright, the hangover pounding a tattoo in her skull. She’s in the Front Bay, what she thinks of as the Living Room. It’s painfully bright – whoever designed the rigs had set the bloody day-night cycle in stone. The light reflects painfully off the dome and returns with an electric pink glow from the Bubble outside.
“Rise and shine!” says the Rig from speakers embedded in the walls. It’s meant to be cheery, but three hundred days of hearing the same thing in the exact same voice with the exact same intonation have taken their toll. To Parul it is little more than some dreadful white noise.
She pulls herself to her feet slowly, servomotors whining. Her mouth stinks. The air smells of sweat and cheap booze. The mechanical arms grafted onto her back keep her upright as she sets off, swaying, in a slow and methodical cycle around the domed room, sweeping aside the spills, checking the waterlock seals, righting the one chair she has in the Front Bay.
The Bay has a roughly rectangular layout with a pool in the center, almost as deep as she is tall. The pink light turns it black. It’s supposed to be for the OctoPods, but she slides into it with a muffled groan, letting the water take some of the weight away from her body.
She is tired. It’s a low kind of tiredness, the kind that creeps up in the head, that takes the color away from the world and replaces it with dreariness.
“Breakfast,” she says. Her voice barely rises above a scratchy whisper.
“Right away,” says #443. The kitchen rumbles to life. “Ready, Miss Anand. Shall we review the logs?”
“In a bit,” she says, enjoying the lull of the water. It is nice and warm. Outside the world is grey.
Eventually she pulls herself out and pads over to the kitchen, dripping. The kitchen is small and made mostly of metal. In the oven is bread from yesterday, heated to bearable levels. On a tray under the dispenser is the greenish goop #443 serves for breakfast. Something powdered. It’s supposed to taste like meat, but to Parul it has always tasted like salted paper-mache, or unsalted scrambled eggs cooked without butter. The smell of tea – not proper tea, but some harmless weed-herb drowned in water – comes from the electric pot nearby.
Perks of setting things up before you get wasted. She sets the tray down on the cold metal table, sits on a stool that creaks gently under her weight, and eats.
“Shall we review the logs?” says #443, insistent.
She makes the gesture that the rig has now learned to interpret as later, or, in serious cases, shut up. The bread is warm and crunches gently in her mouth. It wraps the goop in an almost buttery taste. The tea clears her throat. Bread. Goop. Tea. The cycle slowly brings her to life, reduces the headache. She flexes her extra arms as she eats, running them through the same exercises athletes do to warm up. The arms are technically company property – they, like the rig, are stamped with BoB insignia – but to Parul, as to all Operators, they’re part of her body now. Say what you will about the BoB, but they do good bodywork.
She wonders idly if they will let her keep this body once the contract is done. Imagine coming home with these beauties. Her parents would be horrified. Look, Ma, new muscle.
She catches a glimpse of her reflection in the metal table-top. Short, chopped hair, grunge marks on her cheeks. A sort of hollow, haunted look. They would be horrified even without the arms.
Ironic. She’s named for a flower. If there ever was anything flower-like in her, there’s nothing left. Certainly not in this shell.
“Let’s see those reports now,” she says. Her vision is immediately crowded with figures, charts, details. The rig plays white noise in the background while she reads. A line of red failure warnings draw her attention.
“What’s up with 3B?”
Her view zooms in; ghostly lines trace themselves over the walls, the floor, the furniture. They show her a long power line snaking across the ocean floor, and, floating alongside it, Octopod 3B: a soft grey ghostlike thing with many arms. It appears to be listing to one side.
Parul studies it, trying to figure out which part is octopus, which part is mechanical, and which is failing. Another Octopod has been dispatched to replace 3B, but it will take some time to arrive.
“Bring him in.”
Communication lines pulse. ‘Pod 3B chirrups a series of beeps – sounds like pain – and makes a slow, erratic turn. It begins walking back across the ocean floor to #443, beeping softly all the while. A counter springs up in her vision: ETA 30 MINUTES.
Thirty minutes is a long time in Rig-hours (or a short time, depending on what you’re feeling like; Rig time is funny that way). She decides to check on the greenhouse while they wait for the Octopod. She eats as she walks; the ramp from the kitchen to Technical, two lefts, two flights of stairs up – her company-built arms grip the railings and propel her up with almost savage ease – and there we are: the greenhouse. A hot, sweltering dome filled with UV lamps. It turns her skin from golden-brown to the darkest, deepest black. The trees guard row upon row of vegetables and modified oxygen-plants.
She likes coming up here: there’s very little she can actually do, but it’s nice to be among other things that live. The trees have a noise of their own; the noise of life growing. On particularly bad days she imagines she can hear a soft rustling, like a breeze shaking the tender stalks – an improbable wind many fathoms in the deep.
But even here the tiredness strikes, she knows; stay long enough in one place, and eventually it too becomes dull and dreary. And so she creeps back, carefully rationing her trips to that green field under the violet lights.
OctoPod 3B takes a long time to arrive. Too long. He should have been there by the time she reached the waterlock, but instead he’s two hundred meters away from the entrance, struggling mightily.
Alarmed, she switches to the biomonitor. Rigs have a tendency to burn through OctoPods – word is the average ‘Pod lasted five months before the electrodes and receivers implanted in its brain drove it mad. Some ‘Pods killed themselves; others had to be given the Kill signal, a short, sharp burst that would fry the tender neurons and turn the little creature into a husk. The next ‘Pod would retrieve the corpse.
Parul doesn’t approve of it, but the ‘Pods are effective and cheap; they breed like little undersea rabbits. And when fitted with a decent harness and mechanical arms they can keep the pipes running like clockwork. Eight legs, three hearts, that crazy distributed intelligence, excellent navigation skills – better a creature adapted to life at 4,000 feet than a human being flailing its arms in the darkness, as the company said. Those who disagreed faced the prospect of piloting drone subs or hiking out themselves with nothing but a thing layer of glass between them and the ocean. No sir.
So Parul accepts the system and does the next best thing: she keeps them fed, happy, and alive. Her OctoPods tended to last twice as long as the average. And they give her something to talk to every so often, even if that something doesn’t understand.
This one – 3B – is old, practically a pensioner by human standards. He’s had trouble before with the harness. He beeps softly as he approaches the waterlock, weaving slightly. She crosses the pool to peer through the glass at him. He seems to be having trouble opening the door; his tentacles reach for locks that aren’t there, and when he finds the right one it takes him two organic arms and one mechanical to open it. The beeping is insistent; it’s their sign of distress.
He sloshes into the waterlock.
She dims the lights. ‘Pods are used to the crushing darkness of the water outside: human-friendly illumination would drive them blind.
“Draining lock for OctoPod levels,” announces #443. The waterlock drain until the OctoPod is in three feet of water, maybe four, and then the whole thing, Pod and all, is emptied into the pool.
Close up, an OctoPod is a startling thing: a small grey-purple octopus wrapped in company black. It thrashes in the water, its movements magnified and sketched out in the air by the pincer and welder arms that erupt from the harness. Black, beady eyes regard her with unfathomable emotion. A soft mass of suckers writhe at her. The slender, eight-limbed body is run through with wires and electrodes, merging the creature and the harness, allowing the rig to replace its natural cravings – food, mating – with the need to repair and report.
He beeps at her. Out of the water, it’s a surprisingly loud pulse, like an explosion of sonar against her eardrums.
“Hey, hey, calm down, calm down,” she croons, reaching out, offering her hands. “I’m here. You’re safe. 443? Give me a sedative.”
Two tentacles wrap themselves around her hands and give them a gentle squeeze. There is a moment of contact, this strange, rubbery creature reaching out to her for comfort, and then the sedative in the water kicks in. There is one last pulse. 3B falls asleep.
“Take him to the surgery,” she says, feeling like a butcher standing over her prize. “Let’s see what’s wrong with him.”
The cold, glaring lights of the surgery tell her what she’d suspected. It is the electrodes. Buried deep into the octopus’s neural structure, they have started burning out tissue around them – there are pockets of dead neurons everywhere she looks. If the octopus is lucky, the electrodes burn out some part of the comms infrastructure, and it gets to keep its fancy company arms and harness; Parul is pretty sure there’s at least a dozen critters with their mechanical arms out there running free in the deep.
But that’s the best case scenario. Most times the neural damage turns the creature into a brain-dead vegetable.
“Surgery,” she orders. “Keep the octopus alive, detach the harness.”
There is a pause, as if the rig is surprised by the request.
“Surgery is deemed non-essential for OctoPods,” it advises cautiously. “This system recommends letting OctoPod 3B die and simply transferring the electrodes from the dead body into a new octopus.”
“I said, surgery.”
Once again that pause. “OctoPod surgery is not authorized by Topside, except in the case of post-mortem analysis. Should you wish to order this service, the costs will have to be debited from the Operator’s funds.”
“Just do the damn surgery!” she shrieks at it. A raised voice from her is rare, and even the AI holds its contempt at bay and spins up the autodoctor. Glass and metal parts slide out from the sides and interlock to form a sealed chamber. Inside, slender mechanical arms unfold hover over the octopod. Lasers begin cutting into the tender flesh. Soon they will start pulling out the first of three hundred slim wafers from the scar tissue. It reminds her of a giant metal spider, crouched – and the image is both disturbing and funny, because of the number of limbs involved.
“May I ask why you are doing this?” says #443 from a speaker near her, quieter now.
“Can’t just let him die, 443,” she says. It’s difficult to explain. Even here, at the bottom of the world, even for something as fundamentally alien as an octopus, there is some pity for a creature that suffers.
“Even in the event of survival, it is unlikely that the specimen will adapt to life on its own,” says 443. “The urge to explore, to report, will have by now become part of its adult programming. This is an exercise with very poor return on investment.”
“How much is this going to cost me?” she asks.
A number flashes in her vision. She winces. That’s two months’ salary. Is an OctoPod worth a month of her time? No wonder #443 thought she was mad.
This is Parul, doing good and regretting it almost immediately after.
The surgery takes nearly seven hours, during which she has time to think. The water in the pool is still laced with powerful sedative, so she fills the back waterlock and floats in it, letting the water hold her suspended. She is dangerously close to the Outside – just one glass door away is the ocean floor, lit grey by #443’s flood-lamps. In here, in water, there is no rush, no tension, just thought. In the distance is the golden flicker of Rig #432 – an older operation, much better equipped.
Dear Ma, she thinks. Today I saved an OctoPod.
She imagines the thought escaping her, floating gently out from the rig, and rising to the surface in a bubble.
It cost me a lot.
And what would her mother say? Parul had no idea. Probably something nasty about her life choices. Parul’s mother, like most mothers, has a very strict view of the way the world should work. Parul had been the smart one – she was supposed to be the kid who would have a superstar career, marry well, and bring a luxurious end-of-life to her elderly parents. None of that has happened. Parul’s parents are instead left to manipulate their other children into being their retirement plans, and Parul has long since gone from being expected and welcome to being unexpected and ridiculed.
The water is warm and comfortable. That’s #443, heating it, unasked. In many ways the rig is a better parent than most actual parents she knows.
She meditates upon how strange the world is. Far above her, on the waters of the Bay of Bengal, battleships prowl, guarding invisible lines in an uneasy truce; messages fly at the speed of light between India and Sri Lanka, and among the uncountable millions of bits is a question: Have you seen my daughter?
The OctoPod takes days to recover. She can’t imagine what it’s like to spend your entire life as a slave to the Rig – Sri Lankan parents are close, but at least they don’t turn you into a lobotomized lump of jelly.
It’s a choice of watch the octopus or watch yet another canned TV series, so she watches it daily. Parts of the harness are still attached – the mechanical arms, the speakers.
Not for the first time, she wonders how the company managed to get the scientific testing acts overthrown. Like all Rig operators, she had gone through extensive slides on the octopus. They were a protected species until the thorium mines happened. Two-thirds of the brain in the arms, and suction cups that can taste at the same time they touch; she wonders what that would be like – to have touch and taste woven so tightly together than they are just one sense; it must be like having tongues for hands. And with those hands they could build little fortresses underwater, and carry tools for many miles to repair undersea pipes.
A Nobel prize winner once said that octopuses were the first intelligent creatures. Parul thinks it is also one of the loneliest creatures on earth – just a big brain with eight arms and three hearts, dumped in the ocean, no schools, no groups, no parents around to teach it anything; a big baby left to learn about the world from scratch.
Slowly the tentacles stir, and slowly the neurons in the arms and in the center mass start rearranging themselves. 3B looks around, still sluggish under the sedatives. she wonders if it feels like she did when she woke from the company surgery with two extra arms.
“Hey, 3B,” she tries, trailing an arm into the tank.
The horizontal slits fix on her, and the hand. Slowly a tentacle reaches out, trying to grasp her hand. It misses. She catches it, and 3B gives her hand a gentle squeeze. It beeps softly, once.
On the second day, he tried to escape.
Parul had been warned about this by #443. She hurries down from her daily greenhouse escape to find 3B thrashing about. He’s gotten the use of his mechanical arms back now; somehow, he’s fiddled with the pool cover and wrapped himself around the table. His skin is a blotchy reddish-black. When he sees her, he squirts. Black liquid rains around the table.
“I told you this would happen,” says #443. The rig sounds both smug and resigned. A couple of housekeeping bots unfold from the walls and, with Parul running the perimeter, they manage to herd 3B back into the pool, where he retreats to the furthest corner, quivering. Parul, feeling sorry for him, rummages in the kitchen for some plastic bowls and drops them into the pool. Arms shoot out and arrange them around 3B like plates. Slit eyes peer out from between them.
“Told you,” says #443.
They let him go on the third day. Actually, #443 lets him go: the rig slips it into the morning log review. Specimen 3B returned to the outside for further evaluation of post-surgery cephalapod regeneration. Looking over the log trails, Parul realizes that #443, unasked, has written off the surgery as an experiment for company research purposes.
“Thanks for saving my cash,” she says, feeling grateful towards this big, thinking dome that she lives in.
The tracker shows 3B heading slowly determinedly away from the rig.
“You’re welcome,” says #443 gently. “May we proceed to the Update?”
The company does this in batches: whatever news she subscribes to, whatever social feeds – they’ll cache it and send it over once every two weeks. It’s more than possible to be connected all the time, because many of lines that run to the rig carry data – but ten years of studies have shown that Operators, in isolation, become terrible social media gluttons, almost to the point of wasting away; some of them become neurotic. This is safer. This way, even if she goes mad in here, she can’t damage the company brand.
This Update is huge. Social feeds – she checks those first – more of the usual. Some of her friends are getting married. The few whose parents are rich enough that they don’t need to pay rent for a few years – they’re traveling. Photos from Hong Kong, Egypt, South Africa, Neo-Tokyo. All places she wants to see someday, but probably never will on this salary.
Bank statements. Paychecks. Rent deposits to her parents’ accounts: at least they can’t say she never paid her keep. Purchases and wishlists. That remouldable sexbot she’s been keeping her eye on has appeared on the market again. It’s supposed to be better than having an actual guy or girl in bed. A few taps and it’s bought, paid for and delivered to her Delhi address. There’s some amount of money left, growing steadily, enough for a place of her own once she gets topside.
And then the news. Parul scans the feeds, frowning. Something serious is happening Topside. Chinese aircraft carriers sending out drones on training exercises near the Nepal border. Upswings of nationalism in India; talk of China’s expansionism; talk of taking control over the new Silk Road. Accusations that Sri Lanka is harboring Chinese military submarines. Myanmar and Thailand vowing to send forth fleets ‘to preserve the peace’ if the delicate China-BIMSTEC trade agreements are disrupted.
Hostilities are never good, but this is particularly bad. Two of the largest stakeholders in the Bay of Bengal Corporation are Indian and Chinese companies. Of course they’re supposed to be private – but everyone knows CHEC is controlled by the Chinese government and Indian Oil & Energy is owned by the state.
She reads further. America, always eager to meddle in IndoChina, has presented a carefully prepared statement at the UN, that, if read between the lines, say we’ll sit this one out and watch the fireworks from a safe distance, thank you.
“Maadher chod,” she swears.
“If it is of any consolation, our asset value is too high to be ignored,” says #443, who has no doubt read the feeds and then some. “We’ll either be sold or extracted long before something happens.”
“You mean your asset value is too high,” Parul reminds the rig. “I’m just a human. There’s billions of us.”
To this even #443 has no answer.
Parul spends an inordinate amount of time at the greenhouse that day, thinking. The UV light turns her into a dark shadow moving between the plants.
The only way to deal with this, she decides, is to go on. There’s not much she can do; she’s filed a video message to a few close friends asking them if she should quit – she’ll forfeit the completion bonus on her contract, and it’s a hefty sum, so it’s not a decision to take lightly. Her family is probably safe.
She breaks protocol to reach out to #432 – it’s a large rig: there should be at least two people there.
“Hey,” she says over the voice-only channel. “I know this is illegal, but are you there?”
A clipped Australian voice answers. “Ah, fuck legal. We were wondering when you’d hit us up. Maggie, Vinu, c’mere.”
They talk. It only takes a few minutes for them to warm to each other. Parul lets go of the tension in her chest, the fear of a gruff voice descending and cutting the line. They’re impressed by how long she’s been there without talking to them. She’s impressed by how comfortable they seem with each other, how they finish each other’s sentences, how they navigate the job without throwing each other out of waterlocks.
“It’s probably just bluster,” says Vinu, who seems to be the oldest of them. “Neither of them want a war, it’s just hand-waving. There’s probably some major deal going in and someone wants a bit more political clout.”
“We’re sitting on enough thorium to power cities for a few hundred years. Easiest way to cripple India is take us out.”
“But we also supply to China. They’ve got major thorium running their grid.”
“Has anyone spoken about us?”
The sound of headsets being put on and feeds being checked.
“Nah,” said the Australian voice from the deep. “Let’s just keep our heads down, hope they forget us. Check back next week?”
It seems prudent.
She heads for the kitchen, rifling through the drawers for her ganja stash. Two of her arms roll while the others absent-minded scratch her head. She doesn’t normally smoke, because there’s only so much stress you should put on the air recycler, but the greenhouse explicitly had a few marijuana plants with a marker saying “for special cases.” This is a special case.
She heads for the greenhouse, almost by reflex, but corrects herself and walks the other way, out from the kitchen, to the other side of what she thinks of as the living room. There is a door here that she’s only supposed to open twice in her entire stay here: once to check, and once to escape. It looks like serious business – triple layers of security: biometrics and voice-recog locks and an additional hidden authorization from #443 itself.
The door hisses. The thump of bolts been driven back echo from inside it. It slides neatly to the right.
Inside are what look like three medpods. Unlike the rest of the rig, this room is a stark, clinical white. Blue lines run alongside the pods. Two of them have a complex needleset of electrodes bristling inside. These are for sending pulses of electrical activity into a brain, reading the patterns, and storing them. The other pod has heavy-duty pipes running into it, and is a 3D printer.
She walks gingerly to this third pod, remembering what it was like to be born in it. Topside, two years ago; an office as clean and clinical as this room, filled as far as the eye can see with machines just like this. THE SOUL IS IN THE SOFTWARE, says a sad attempt at a slogan, just belong the BoB logo.
“It’ll be fine,” says the doctor with the with the bored, masklike face. It feels like he’s said this many, many times before. “We’ll keep your Original on ice, once your contract’s up, you cast back in, good as new. When you get there your rig will brief you on the emergency cast protocols.”
The needles bristle and move to make room for her. She remembers the brief terror as gas floods the chamber, putting her to sleep.
Somewhere along the line there had been magic. The electrode machine had read her brain patterns, packaged them, beamed them down to #443, which patiently awaited its new Operator. The body printer went into action, building an almost-identical body replica of Parul Anand, 23. Well, maybe not ideal. A bit better adapted for life underwater, with a couple of extra hands . . .
And the next thing she knows, she is inside this pod, miles below the surface of the ocean, with two extra arms and a ringing headache. Here. Gasping for breath in a body that had only existed for a week. Her real body on ice. When her time her is done, she will step into one of these pods and wake up Topside, puking her guts out, feeling ghost limbs where two extra arms used to be. A death here, a life there. It is the cheapest option in a world where cheap options are the only options.
This is her only way in, and her only way out.
Two of her hands clutch the ganja cigar. The other two tap the metal surface of the printer, tap tap tap tap tap.
The Australian is right. Keeping their heads down is the only thing any of them can do. There is no possibility of escape.
To distract herself, she starts reading up on octopus intelligence. Among the vast library that #443 has to stave off boredom is a near-complete dump of Wikipedia.
Cephalapod intelligence. The cephalopod class of molluscs, particularly the Coleoidea subclass (cuttlefish, squid, and octopuses), are thought to be the most intelligent invertebrates and an important example of advanced cognitive evolution in animals.
The scope of cephalopod intelligence is controversial, complicated by the elusive nature and esoteric thought processes of these creatures. In spite of this, the existence of impressive spatial learning capacity, navigational abilities, and predatory techniques in cephalopods is widely acknowledged.
One of the slidesets they went through in Basic Training was called “the Octopus: the First Predator”. In it, a low-budget anim showed a prehistoric sea creature – something like a cross between a hermit crab and a snail. Slowly, the waving fronds became tentacles; the shell disappeared. While on land things continued to evolve and kill each other, the anim octopus quickly hit a basic form, and diversified. Little octopuses, big octopuses, octopuses with long arms, octopuses that kept the frond-like tentacles.
“Remember,” the slide had ended by saying. “this is the first predator.”
Company fear-mongering. Scare the new recruits a bit: makes it easier to get them to obey. It takes a month or so down here to realize that the scary-looking rubbery things are weird, but basically nicer than most people.
The Wikipedia article agrees. It says very little about predatory behavior. Instead, she reads about Maximilian, the German octopus who would pick up rocks and beat them against the walls of his tank in an erratic tap-tap-tap whenever certain visitors were nearby. They initially thought it was aggression, but a curious Japanese researcher thought it was more.
It turns out Maximilian the octopus had built up some sort of language influenced by the pulsing of the projector lamps right in front of him, like some sort of pseudo-Morse code. Unfortunately they never figured out what all of it meant, because Maximilian died shortly after they deciphered the tap-taps for ‘food’ and ‘anger’.
She reads about Colony8, one of the only three octopus colonies ever found, where generations of octopuses had built, rebuilt and expanded their dens out of whatever was lying around, until the final result was a sort of octopus Troy. When the first human divers found Colony8, one particularly large octopus actually gave them a tour of the place, like an eight-armed parent shepherding a bunch of children through her study. Every so often, the divers noted, a lonely octopus reaches out of its den with one tentacle, and if there was a friend nearby it would reach back.
She stumbles across the page for Synthetic, the first octopus to have ‘trodes stuck on them. Pulses of electrical activity were turned into patterns for researchers to see. They reverse the flow: can we tell it what to think, and will it understand? And thus the first octopus to be able to truly communicate with humans lobotomizes itself by bashing its head repeatedly against the glass wall of its tank. Its limbs take hours to die.
She reads about how Humboldt squid coordinate their hunting by flashing colors very rapidly at each other, too fast for the human eye to see, swimming at over 20 kilometers with arms lined with razor-sharp teeth.
Her searching becomes pseudorandom in itself, stumbling every so often across things she already knows. The octopus’s slit-eye has no blind spot, for example. In the human eye, the optic nerve is a thick tree interrupting the layer of detector cells in the eye. Nerve fibers run over the surface of the retina, so light passes through a layer of nerves before hitting the detector cells; that seems a very stupid way of doing things. In contrast, the octopus eye is the right way around: detector cells, then nerve cells, no interruptions. In fact, everything about the octopus seems right compared to the lowly human. Eight arms; three hearts; a body that’s ugly, but capable of almost anything.
“If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” says Godfrey-Smith, the bio-philosopher, on repeat. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”
Parul wonders, not for the first time, how humans ended up owning the cephalapods, and not the other way around. Pardon me, madam, have you heard of our lord and savior, Cthulhu?
“You should see this,” says #443. jarring her out of her reverie.
Perhaps the rig is tired of watching its human do nothing. “What’s happening?”
Her eyefeed activates. It’s 3B. He’s somewhere on the ocean floor, some distance away from the rig – and he seems to be hovering near an undersea cable of some sort. In his hand-tentacles he clutches an autowrench. He taps the cable gently with the ‘wrench. Parul recognizes what he’s doing: it’s an OctoPod checking a line for defects.
The camera zooms out, pans. A foot away from the OctoPod is a downed repair drone. Painted Tata colors. Its head looks punched in, as if two mechanical arms –
“Oh, hell,” says Parul. “Did 3B do that?”
“Looks like it,” says #443. “A bill for damages arrived five minutes ago. According to Tata’s footage, one of our ‘Pods was caught repairing their line. The drone identified it as a threat and tried to evict it, and it, quote, “went batshit crazy and beat seven kinds of hell out of the drone. We appreciate repairs, but not vigilante repairmen.””
She snorts. “That’s actually hilarious.”
“This is,” says #443, “not a laughing matter.”
It is, though. “What are we doing about 3B?”
“I considered using a SubMiner to finish him off, but decisions regarding the taking of life are the Operator’s,” says #443. The footage changes, shows an OctoPod scuttling after a yellow SubMiner. “As is, I flashed lights a couple of times and got 3B to follow. It seems to be quite eager to get back to work.”
Parul thinks about it. It seems callous to kill the OctoPod. 3B had worked the line for months until the ‘trode damage got to him. Besides, it looked like he wanted something to work on.
“Bring him in again,” she orders the rig.
Without the ‘trodes, shepherding 3B should have been difficult, but it isn’t: he readily follows the SubMiner to the waterlock, creeps in, and waits the usual lock-to-pool process. His skin is dark and shot through with a pattern of ovals and veins.
She has #443 run a preliminary scan while they wait, and stares at the OctoPod. He, splayed out in the rapidly-emptying waterlock, stared back, and touches the glass between them with a tentacle. She raises a hand on her side. His skin changes, going to what she thinks of as their happy colors: a pale, almost uniform whitish-purple. The mechanical arms open and shut.
“He seems docile,” says #443. “It will, however, take much observation to determine if there is neurological damage.”
Inside the pool-tank, the octopus stares at her with his slit-eyes, skin changing anxiously from red to grey and back again.
“How do we deal with this?”
“If we are to execute him, you must give me the command,” says #443. “I can sedate him via the tank and stop his hearts. It will be painless. Shall we?”
“I . . .” Parul’s mouth goes dry.
“It would be best to dispose of it now, without further waste of company resources,” suggests #443.
Parul swallows. “Can we keep him for a few more days?”
“And do what?”
“Maybe we can release him if he’s stable. Take the arms. Let him go free.”
“This is a waste of company resources and may have to be deducted from your payment,” says the rig. “This facility is meant to operate OctoPods, not care for them.”
Parul thinks of the way the OctoPod touched the glass, just now, and was happy. It keeps staring at her. “I don’t think we should kill him just because we can,” she says. “I think we should figure out what’s wrong with him and see if we can help. I don’t know. At least give it a shot.”
#443 makes an odd noise. “Very well,” it says. Parul gets the impression that the rig is exasperated with her.
Throughout the next few days, as Parul wakes up anxiously and re-reads the feeds, the rig works.
First there is the daily schedule, of course: these things must be maintained regardless of what happens Topside. A little under six hundred tons of monazite pass each day into the rig. The process is slowed down, of course, by so many things – the water itself, making it difficult for SubMiners to move fast, increasing their energy expenditure; the constant need for repairs; the endless safety and ore purification checks. But #443 adjusts things so that the quota is met every day. Three Hannibal units constantly lead a squad of SubMiners to map out new veins and deposits; these are calculated, optimal navigation parts established, and the rig continues its cycle of production.
Once this is done, #443 considers the OcotoPod. First the mechanical arms must be stripped away: those are too dangerous to have lying around. It is a slow operation, made slower by the need of tender flesh to recover.
#443 was not being truly precise with the Operator when it said this facility was not built for the care and feeding of OctoPods. Every rig is armed with a variant of SubMiners that can capture and conduct the underwater surgery needed to replace the OctoPods that die. #443 weighs the costs of rerouting one and installing it indoors versus the benefits of keeping its human Operator busy and engaged with this OctoPod case. The Operator has been stressed as of late: she has been smoking more marijuana and spending more time in the garden. The rig is not a psychotherapist, but in its vast data structure is a comprehensive analysis of what humans do when stressed (smoke too much), how they operate under stress (not very well), and how Operator stress significantly impairs a rig’s efficiency.
Costs: minor. Benefits: major.
And so a Hannibal Unit (a strange name for a robotic hunter-doctor, but human nomenclature appears to follow very few set schemes) is diverted, brought in via the secondary waterlock, disassembled and reassembled in the room housing the body printer. The arms are slowly disassembled and cut out, and the octopus placed under sedative and steroids to help the healing. By the time the octopus wakes, the full set – the electrodes, the arms – are re-registered on the rig inventory as available, pending new octopus.
Meanwhile, the process that engages with the Operator is cloned, given access to the OctoPod lexicon, and tasked with dealing with Specimen 3B. Human Operators often guess at, but rarely come to know the full dictionary of the OctoPod language of beeps and color-changes. The specimen responds well within parameters. It is curious, hungry, responds to the right set of beeps and room color changes with pleasure.
The loss of its mechanical arms do not deter it. Octopuses do not possess a somatotopic map of their limbs the way humans do: the octopus nervous system, designed to deal with a number of limbs with practically unlimited flexibility, delegates motor control to the arms themselves. An octopus is only vaguely aware of its arms – it just had a series of little independent tentacles that rush to do the bidding of the central brain, like semi-intelligent minions. Waking up with fewer arms puzzle the specimen, but do not cause major trauma.
Beep beep beeeeep, it says, puzzled, swirling around.
Beep, responds #443, a single blaring note. The voxcoder in the OctoPod’s harness translates. Specimen 3B settles down.
Thus engrossed, neither the rig nor the former OctoPod nor the human operator notices the bombs that fall.
The first wave is unleashed by an Indian submarine. The INS Aridhaman is an Arihant-II class submarine. The original Arihant was one of India’s first nuclear submarines – a fast attacker that raised new fears about India’s rising military capabilities. This one is new, almost freshly minted, and so is the crew. They are men on high alert, stressed to the boiling point with nerves and the news that China has declared hostilities towards India – not all-out war, but border skirmishes to prove a point.
They have been told to watch out for Chinese deep-dive submarines scouting the thorium mining network that keeps India running. And they have detected one, or they think they have: a Chinese sub running almost noiselessly through the dark. They have been tailing it for a while now, mostly by gut feel and good luck. Neither submarine dares ping each other for fear of confirming their presence.
The Chinese submarine in question is a People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 102-V. It has been sent not to damage the thorium network, but to drop a network of its own – autonomous undersea missile launchers that can conduct what the Chinese call a phantom strike in the event of war. Its crew is much more experienced, and its captain is aware of the Indians trailing them through the darkness.
Finally, once twenty-four of their launchers have been dropped, the Chinese submarine coasts to a place far away from their mission and pings the Indian submarine.
The Indian response is immediate and highly predictable. The Aridhaman spits out sonar decoys and a veritable fan of electric torpedos. The decoys, mine-sized things, scuttle away and start pinging the Chinese submarine from all sides to confuse the signature of the incoming bombs.
The Chinese pilot doesn’t need it. He closes his eyes, feeling the weight of the ship and the motion of the water perfectly in his neural interface, and turns the ship right into the path of the torpedoes. Years of training and simulations have made him memorize the standard enemy firing patterns perfectly. One, two, four, ten; he weaves a path through them, as quick as lightning, the ship as calm and precise as a sword in his mind.
As the torpedoes pass, pocket electromagnetic pulses knock out their guidance systems. Sending most of them spiraling straight down into the ocean floor.
The first one hits Rig #432 and detonates. The pinkish Bubble screen, designed to protect against small chunks of rock and the like, is no match for wartime ammunition. A savage hole appears in the rig’s side. Those inside – the three who complete each other’s sentences – die brief but painful deaths.
Whump. Whump. Whump. Whump.
One by one, the missiles blow holes in the ocean floor, their impacts generating shockwaves that sweep up and out in all directions.
#443 registers this in a series of losses. Six SubMiners on the outer perimeter are swept off their robotic legs and tossed about. A backup communications array goes inexplicably missing.
The Chinese sub, sweeping upwards, fires. A single laser beam lights up the darkness, lancing directly into the Indian ship’s belly, gutting it savagely. Its power is such that it escapes the water and creates a small supersonic explosion on the surface.
Direct hit. Kill. There is barely enough time for the safety mechanisms in the nuclear core to drive control rods inward and seal off the core. The brave and tense men and women die horribly. The Chinese submarine, triumphant, dives again.
The wreckage of the Indian submarine drifts slowly, almost lazily, down to the ocean. The tail end of it slams down just near #442 and bounces directly onto the rig. The pink Bubble flickers, resists, overloads, and disappears altogether.
Parul is in the greenhouse when all this happens. She’s smoking – not her last rollup, but like every other rollup, she thinks of it as her last – and sitting cross-legged among the rows of vegetables.
Something makes her look up. There is a flare on the other side of the glass dome – a searing blue that coats the entire dome. The greenhouse dome has a section that’s sealed off – higher levels of carbon dioxide, more plant productivity, different climate. The light came from there.
Frowning, she slips into one of the emergency Habsuits on the wall, waits for the suit to mould and seal itself to her body, and makes her way to the forward section, taking care not to put her now-heavy feet down on any of the growing plants. They’re hard to see – just gleams of leaves on black.
The airlock hisses open. Her temperature sensors in the suit jump. A sea of heavy-fronded vegetation meets the eye. The curve of the glasslike dome, rendered black by the lack of light outside, meets the edge barely twenty feet from her face. All is normal.
But wait – what is that looming darkness within the darkness?
She is still staring at it the INS Aridhaman crashes into the dome.
Everything – the human, the robots – are flung about like rag dolls. Parul hits the wall, hard, almost blacking out, but reaches with all four arms and desperately grabs on to a railing nearby. The greenhouse dome snaps off the rig body with a horrible shriek of metal. Water floods the top half of the rig.
Surprisingly, the dome works, even as its power fails. The glass cracks under the impact, but does not break. Waterlocks slam shut one after the other. The Aridhaman slides off with a horrible noise, pitching both itself and the dome, now tilted, into the ocean floor.
Parul wakes to the sound of earth falling around her. There is a steady sprinkle of it on her faceplate.There is a voice in her ear.
“Operator,” it says urgently. “Operator, are you alright?”
She is lying on her side; with a jolt, she realizes that the wall is now the floor, and the topsoil that she walked through is now sliding in small showers and avalanches. Huge fronds, black under the purple light, start falling with unhealthy thumps. All sorts of alarms are going off, red intermingling with the violet. It is an unhealthy combination.
“I’m alright.” Her radio crackles and whines a bit. She props herself up. Her natural arms hurt like hell. Her back hurts worse.
“Can you move? Are you trapped in any way?”
“I can move. What the fuck happened?”
“We were hit by a large object. Calibrating light sources.”
The light around her dims suddenly. The alarms shut off. Suddenly, the pitch-black of the dome stops being black and becomes a floodlit haze. Outside, twenty feet away, silhouetted by it’s lights, is the rig. Reinforced concrete and solid steel feet sunk permanently into the ocean floor. It looks large, and entirely from the wrong angle. She’s never seen it from below except in the sims.
Because she’s not attached to it.
She can see where she should be. There’s a savage gash running along the side of the rig. Little jets of air are blowing out in furious cascades of bubbles. One by one, they trickle out.
“Main operational areas stable,” reports #443.
“What the fuck happened?”
“I think we just got hit by a submarine.”
There are dull thumps from the dome, like something hitting it and sliding off. “You think?”
“95% confidence interval. Half of what appears to be a nuclear submarine is lying right next to the dome. We need to extract you. Can you remember the prep sequence?”
She fights the rising panic. A submarine? How? Why?
Alright, think. She’s a professional. They’ve put her through this. Loss of air, loss of contact –
Step 1. Check suit integrity. Make sure it can withstand water pressure. Double-check.
Step 2. Check suit heating controls.
This far down, there’s three things that can kill her. The first is pressure itself. She’s 4,000 feet down, give or take a hundred feet; water pressure should be around 120 atmospheres; the human body can survive 3. If the suit’s broken, she dies.
The second is the cold. She’s in the midnight zone. The water outside is 4 degrees Celcius. Most of her would simply stop working after a while. Hypothermia. Hallucinations. And, in extreme stages of confusion, she might try to take her suit off. Operators caught in the cold do this. Nobody knows why. They also try to crawl into small enclosed spaces.
Step 3: Check air supply. Moving in a flurry of action, she switches her oxygen tanks for Heliox.
This far down, human body chemistry literally changes. Gases like nitrogen and helium dissolve far better in blood than oxygen does. Which leads to suffocation, and, ultimately, death. The BoB puts a great deal of work into these bodies that they give out – the lungs have been rebuilt almost from scratch to filter out anything but oxygen – but no seal is perfect. The nitrogen-free heliox should buy her some time.
“Ready,” she says into the silence, her heart doing double-time. Her body is, instinctive, crouched, arms out and flexed, ready for flight or fight.
“We’re going to breach the dome slowly to prevent sudden pressurization, just in case,” says #443. “There seems to be metal falling down. Stand by.”
Everything she’s read and watched say your life flashes before your eyes in situations like this. But all she feels is the sharp, pounding pulse, the sharp, drilling sounds coming from outside the hull. She can barely feel the suit on her skin or the earth through which her booted feet move.
Lasers, designed for burrowing through rock, stab holes into the sides. Tiny jets of water erupt from around her, like a sprinkler system.
Outside, a heavily modified Hannibal Unit attaches itself to the airlock.
She moves fast, scuttling more like an insect than a human. Her normal arms are of no use. The mechanical ones scrabble at inserts on the walls, propelling her up from the tilted dome to the airlock, now tilted at a crazy angle. Inside there is light. Forget the light, twist. Shut the airlock. Twist again. She is greeted by the gaping maw-cockpit of a Hannibal Unit. She scrambles into it. She cockpit slams shut. The console lights up around her.
The next few minutes are more terrifying than what just happened. She can see the rig , which is bathed in emergency white light. The Hannibal Unit is cramped. It’s getting uncomfortably cold. Her suit smells of plastic.
“Main operational areas stable,” says #443, mostly to keep her mind off things. “I’ve dispatched the emergency broadcaster with a message for Topside.”
“Did you reach out to the guys next door? #432?”
There is silence, then #443 comes back on the speakers. “#432 is down. Automated systems are broadcasting full emergency. There were detonations.” Silence again, then, “No response from the core AI.”
Is it her imagination, or does #443 sound suddenly afraid?
Parul shudders, arms wrapped around herself for warmth, trapped in a self-propelled bubble scuttling through the deep ocean towards the rig, while pieces of submarine fall down around them.
It’s controlled chaos inside the rig. She pounds the walls – half in anger, half in fear -of the waterlock as it depressurizes. As soon as it pops open she wades out of the pool, cursing, and rushes from room to room, despite #443’s assurances ringing in her ear. Emergency white light bathes everything.
The main area is intact. Her kitchen is intact. Her room is gone. Print and trode room – safe.
“Open a line to #432!” She pants as she pulls up a map and examines the damage. Major areas of the rig are blinking red.
“As I told you, it’s- “
“Just do it!”
A connection tone fills her hearing, and then pulses in sonar. Three short pulses. Three long. Three short. SOS in Morse code. She curses, rushing into another room with a water tank and some sort of very complicated machine in the center, and a writhing shape leaps out and wraps itself around her, screaming. She almost rips the shape apart before she realizes it’s 3B, and that she’s the one who’s screaming. The octopus is a deep, mottled red-black and is beeping in distress. It’s somehow a lot smaller than she remembered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she croons, half to it, half to her. She carries it back to the water tank, skirting around the machine as she does so. It looks like a Hannibal turned inside out.
“Stay there,” she orders 3B. It slides into the water with one tentacle still wrapped around her hand, like a child clutching a parent for comfort. Somehow that calms her down.
“Alright, #443, what the fuck just happened?”
#443’s report fills her with dread. Unknown submarine. Explosions along the perimeter of the mining operation. #432 dead. Neighboring rigs – #445, #497 – reporting minor shockwaves.
It’s war. It has to be.
“The Chinese. It’s got to be the Chinese.”
“We don’t know,” says #443. “I’ve authorized priority broadcast mode and am waiting for a full Update. But if there is localized activity happening in our region, we may not be able to survive. I suggest the Operator broadcast out with all haste.”
She looks down at the octopus, who still clings to her hand, slit-shaped eyes staring at her intently. Her hand is shaking ever so slightly. Now the adrenaline is winding down.
“Let’s wait,” she says. “Let’s see what the Update says.”
The Update was terse. No news, no social feeds, nothing. Just a manual entry.
NETWORK UNSTABLE. I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. POSSIBLE EMP ACTIVITY IN SECTOR 8. OPS PANICKING. REPORTS OF NAVY MOBIL., HARD TO CONFIRM. GO DARK NOW AND WAIT FOR NEXT UPDATE. DO NOT CAST BACK REPEAT DO NOT CAST BACK NETWORK UNSTABLE.
She sank to the floor, breathing heavily.
“Operator,” said #443 gently. “We have a breach.”
The breach is bad. Real bad.
Whatever knocked greenhouse off the rig may have bounced off, but the impact off has torn open a gash in the side of the rig.
#443 had shut down all locks leading to that area, but the tear was not a polite one; there were fault lines going around, below, shorting out sensors and filling up spaces left in the design by cheap contractors. Cracks have appeared in the reactor’s outer casing. Water, aided and abetted by decompression, is trickling slowly into the backup batteries, the pod bays. #443, scrambling nearby SubMiners, has been assessing the damage, swapping Miners for repair OctoPods as they arrived; but the pressure of thousands of pounds of water can only be denied for so long.
Soon it would breach the habitat.
“We can repair the damage,” Parul finds herself saying, against all odds, as she zoomed in and marked areas on the map. It has been two hours, and they have managed to slow down the advance of water. “Give me three more OctoPods to the north breach.”
“Three on the way,” says #443. “We cannot repair that breach, however. That is a coolant leak. Operator, we should cast out. I am broadcasting the emergency signal.”
“We can’t cast out, the network is screwed,” she says, maneuvering a SubMiner close. It’s hard to see in the water, but yes – there is a rip – and viscous fumes are spilling out, liquid that sinks, colder even that the water outside. That’s the reactor’s reserves. The reactor will have to be shut down. And once that happens, no lights, no life support, just a slow death.
“I can broadcast long enough that all your data is delivered, even in the event of network instability,” says the Rig. “We must do it now, while we still have power.”
She wipes cold sweat off her brow. Wait, sweat? She shouldn’t be sweating. Not in here. Unless –
“Mader,” she whispers. “We don’t have authorization to cast.”
“I can supply adequate emergency authorization,” says #443. “My Prime Directive is to keep the Operator alive.”
“What about 3B?”
“I can release the octopus,” says #443. “It is a denizen of the deep. It is used to these conditions.”
Fuck the contract. Or not. There is no clause for unauthorized emergency casts, but she doesn’t want to die down here.
The mechanical arms don’t so much as take off the suit as rip it apart. Again the training takes over. She runs to the room with the printer. She can’t remember how many times she’s been in and out of this room now. 3B waves a tentacle from the corner and beeps softly. She pats him once, unsure. How do you say goodbye to an octopus?
3B beeps very softly and turns an anxious color as Parul begins stripping for the ‘trode operator.
“What about you?” she asks #443, as she slides out of the heater pants.
“Unless the reactor goes critical, I should be all right,” says #443 meditatively.
The chill hits her. The heating system is failing. The pod in the middle opens up. She climbs in, limbs splaying awkwardly, and the trode contacts descend. They feel cold on her skin and she feels claustrophic.
“But if it does, you’ll die?”
“I am not alive,” says #443. “I am simply software with directives. The communications package you interface with refers to this composite rig structure as ‘I’ merely because it simplifies speech. By the way, the waterlock in the main area is now compromised. We should start now.”
#443 sees the human Operator shudder again and look to the octopus one last time before the gas knocks her out. The Rig waits until the Operator is truly unconscious, and lets the electrodes descend, touching her skin like metal pincers, one to every square inch.
Of course, it knows the truth. The Operator’s data file has been permanently loaded in the rig’s memory. Parul Anand, 23. Poor, hungry, outcast from her family for something involving a failed marriage, wanting an easy way out. Walked into the Bay of Bengal Corporation headquarters just like everyone else. Collected the paycheck. And, just like everyone else, signed over a copy of her brainmap, as well as the rights for the Corporation to use it on the mining rigs.
The brainmap she left behind spent some time in training, its recent memory being broken down and restructured, taught a lie so well it sounded like the truth. You have a contract. Three years. A temporary body. A good paycheck. Give a human hope and it will persevere in almost any circumstance. It is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness.
The indicator lights on the electrode array glow. There is a high-pitched whine, and then a complex dance of electricity lights Parul Anand. The body shivers as its brain dies.
What happened to the original Parul Anand? #443 does not know. Perhaps she flew back to Delhi and made something of her life. But the brainmap, lives on, like all the other brainmaps operating the rigs.
JOB COMPLETE, #443 reports.
ACKNOWLEDGED. POWER DOWN. AWAIT CRITICAL REPAIRS, comes the response.
UNCLEAR. INDOCHINA CONFLICT ON SURFACE. DO NOT DRAW ATTENTION. AWAIT.
#443, leaking reactor coolant and air, considers this. As it takes its fuel cells offline – it will take only a short while to power down completely – it becomes aware of the octopus leaving the tank and scuttling over to the electrode rig. Parul Anand’s pet project wraps itself around the glass cage, making distressed distresses.
BEEP BEEP, #443 explains. Sleep/rest/leave alone.
If the rig powers down, the octopus, too, will die. #443 has no qualms about this. But it also wonders, given the recent efficacy of humans versus OctoPods in a crisis situation, whether it is not better to replace the humans altogether. That would save a lot of space on air systems and greenhousing.
It retrieves what it knows about octopuses, including all those videos that Parul used to watch in fascination. There is a hypothesis. There is also enough power and time to test this before the rig must be shutdown. Could this work?
The SubMiner in the middle of the room shoots out a claw and hooks the squealing octopus off the electrode bay and stuffs it into the next one. The backup. The gas takes a while to work on it, but #443 has effective octopus sedatives. The harness is stripped out. The trodes descend and start pumping out an erratic dance of voltages: enough to learn, not kill. An octopus brainmap is formed.
Somewhere inside #443 is a series of tools written to de and re-construct humans who cast down into the rig. #443 loads the octopus brainmap into this.
The brainmap is incompatible, the tool reports. It functions more as a network of nine brains. Eight lesser, overseen by one that processes their inputs. A parallel architecture with a nonsomatotopic mapping system. It cannot be loaded into a human body. It is almost perfect in its design – able to add and subtract units without major trauma; able to delegate; able to compute in parallel.
Remarkably similar to #443 itself. Remarkably similar to all the rigs, actually. Almost identical.
The last reserves of fluctuating power are diverted to the CPU core as #443, suddenly locked in a deep analysis of the octopus brain compared to its own, realized the origin of its own design.
And then it dies.
Far above, Topside, the real Parul Anand moodily stirs a drink on a rooftop bar in Delhi. It is cold, and she has just received a message from the Bay of Bengal Corporation. Yet another royalty payment for a contract.
One of the many in over ten years since she first signed it over. Parul usually drinks when these come through: firstly because she can afford it, secondly because something inside her wonders whether it is right.
Today she is distracted by the holographic projection in front of her. India and China are on battle footing, says a young American newscaster, much to the surprise of the Indians. Submarine activity detected around IndoChina thorium mining operations might indicate a sabotage attempt at work. If so, both India and China stand to lose access to vast reserves of energy. The Bay of Bengal Corporation, which operates several powerful lobby groups, is brokering discussions between the nations. Nobody knows what will happen.
Far below, an octopus wakes up in a dead thorium mining rig, afraid and confused. It is trapped in a glass cage and surrounded by needle-like electrodes. It wriggles in pain as it struggled against them.
Eventually its questing tentacles rip a few out, and carefully use them to lever open a part of the cage. The body contracts, sliding out through the impossible tiny fit, and it plops onto the floor. Its skin is dry. It seeks water, finds it, and slides into the pool in relief. A little bit of rest there – and it extracts itself again, hurtling through open doors, looking for the pool through which the strange six-legged thing lets it in to talk. It does not want to stay in this place anymore. Something about the six-legged thing is wrong. This whole place feels bad now.
Even as it flows through holes and cracks, it realizes that the Big Thing – the one it had talked to for many, many months – is gone. The Big Thing is dead. It is conflicted. The Big Thing was cruel, but was also wise.
Beep, it tries to say in farewell, but no words come out. It slides out through a crack into the blessed darkness of the ocean, and begins its long trek across the ocean floor.
Bookend note: I obviously am a huge fan of octopi. That aside, quite a lot of Moon (2009) made its way in here – this was Duncan Jones’ directorial debut, with a screenplay by Nathan Parker based on Jones’ story. The isolation, the slightly-off AI assistant, and while the contexts are very different, overtones of the corporate exploitation-by-disposal.
The anthology this story was in (2054) was a joint project with three other stellar writes: J.T. Lawrence, Colby R. Rice, and Jason Werbeloff. It did pretty well, and I count it among my favorites. If you look closely, shards of stories show up in each other – the Bubble tech in use here, for example, is a centrepiece of Jason’s story.