March 2020

First Fathom, The Plunge

In a past beyond the reach of time’s measure, we fell from the Galaxy Beam and into the waters of a primordial world. From the shattered wreckage of our Great Hull, we salvaged the ascension core and dove into the salted darkness. And within the abyssal contours of this alien planet, we made our home, awaiting the wobble of the zenith star that would presage the Beam’s return.

Ook crept down the leg of the ocean platform, moving her arms slowly over its metal surface so her suckers might taste its various alloys. She descended at a starfish pace, careful not to flood her mantle too quickly or jet water through her siphon too forcefully. Any unnatural vibration could give away her presence to the other octopuses below. That would be unacceptable—Ook was, after all, a spy.

Technically, she was a low-level scout, sent to monitor the far reaches of her den’s territory. But now that she’d actually spotted someone, an adjustment of title seemed due. Casting herself in a blotchy rust pattern, she continued through the murky water until her keen eyes made out the situation—the gathering of octopuses pressed in against the base of the giant leg, intent on some task. What is the logic of this? Ook wondered. Slinking forward, she could see two of their number tending to a knot of wires protruding from the leg while the others watched. Hopefully they wouldn’t look up or she’d be done for.

A medium sized Bimac held the bundle while another, a tiny Mimic, delicately unspooled the tangle and plucked a few wires from it. The observers then split their ranks to allow passage for a colossal Great Pacific tugging a heavy cable behind. The Mimic expertly spliced the wires to the Pacific’s heavy cable and then retreated into the circle of onlookers. The Pacific held the opposite end of the cable aloft. From her perch, Ook was able to make out a tool of some kind affixed to the tip. Human in its manufacture and obviously scavenged by this bunch, it had a place for gripping and a long tube that tapered at the end. The circle of octopuses widened.

A great spark lit from the tool’s point, searing her retinas. She faltered, stunned, but her arms, having independent neural bundles, tightened their latch. She blinked away the afterimage and tried to process what she’d seen. What was it, this sun’s glint? She searched her mind for a practical explanation but knew deep down that there was none. Only one thing could have produced the flash, and the big Pacific had it.

The fire that binds. The Seven Fathoms told of it. Though her rational mind resisted the idea, the three hearts within her mantle pounded in primal recognition. The flame that burns in the water. Ook widened her aperture, and the water passing over her gills tasted like the breath of truth.

The group upon whom she spied were of a rival den. Known as Tellers, they believed in the Seven Fathoms—a spoken history of octopuskind, outlawed as myth by Ook’s own den, the Cephlists. Ever since hatchlinghood, she had been taught that the Tellers would be the downfall of the species, spreading the Fathoms’ lie that octopuses were not of the Earth, filling impressionable brains with the false promise of grand destiny. To speak the Fathoms within the Cephlists’ den was akin to heresy; to proselytize them, a death sentence. These prohibitions, though, had not stopped Ook, who had long ago committed them to memory, piecing together the verses from a thousand treasonous whispers. For an octopus of the Cephlists’ den, the Fathoms had been her daydream escape from a rigid way of life, but also an aspiration of hope for something vast and wonderful that transcended petty boundaries and ideological squabbling. The light in the Giant Pacific’s arm changed everything. The Tellers possessed the fire that the Fathoms foretold. The Fathoms…were true.

An unexpected current caressed Ook’s skin. From above appeared the blurry shadow of a human diver in his false shell. Her eyes flicked downward. The Tellers hadn’t seen. The man descended slowly, stopping here and there to examine the platform’s various juts and fixtures. If he saw the splice, he would sever it from the cable and the fire would be lost. The thought put a hollow feeling in her cecum. What was there to do? Letting herself be known to the Tellers, much less helping them, was out of the question.

The diver continued down. Ook maneuvered just beyond his reach as her conscience called out, imploring her to act. You have seen the fire; the Fathoms are true. Her hearts thrummed. He would see the Tellers any second. The fire will be lost. Unbidden, her aperture opened, flooding her mantle as the decision was made. Her head taut with water, she wished a quiet goodbye—a farewell to her den, and to her life—then surrendered to the will that bubbled up.

She blasted her siphon and split the water like a marlin, striking the human on the side of his head. A spray of bubbles exploded from his mask as she sealed herself across his face.

They sank. The Tellers scattered. The man struggled. His gloved fingers scraped at Ook’s flesh. They pounded into the seafloor in a cloud of silt. The human drew a short blade and severed one of Ook’s arms just above the smallest suckers. Pain strobed over her skin in waves of yellow-white and she inked the water.

Above them, an eight-spoked umbrella of limbs belonging to the Great Pacific appeared. It descended onto the human’s head, flashing blue to orange: confusion. A quick flurry of its arms asked of Ook a question, Why are you here, Cephlist?

Still grappling, Ook made her skin seafoam green—peace, an offer of truce while they dealt with the diver. The Pacific crawled to the human’s dorsal side and used his chitinous beak to clip a hose, releasing a jet of gas. Ook twisted the mask until it filled with water. The Pacific detached and slid away. Ook released as well. The human scrambled upward, his fins beating the water like a shark-bit halibut.

Second Fathom, The Gift

An epoch came and went. We changed, evolved to our adopted world, preserved our tellings. Then, from the shadows of land, bloomed the human era of mechanization, and with it a vessel of steel sent starward. Part of this steel fell to the surface, a great cylinder, equipped on its end with the machinery of propulsion. Curiosities were piqued, but few spoke of hope, for the Gift was damaged. And so we watched the heavens for another.

Ook matched her skin to the seafloor and swept her arms into a high collar about her mantle. Sediment washed side to side in the pendulum current. When it settled out, she found herself walled in by Tellers, poised on hind arms and flashing the red-orange of violence.

She straightened, turned purple-blue in submission, and held up four of her front arms, bending the third down to grasp the tip of a rear arm that passed under her beak.

\|i/

Friendship.

The big Pacific stalked forward, angry colors pulsing his radii. A curt flourish. I ask again: why are you here?

Ook swiveled defensively as she considered her answer. They’d tear her apart if she fled—they might tear her apart anyway. She tucked her wounded arm—the one cut by the diver—close and braced herself as she signed. Please, I am only a scout.

No! he responded, You are a spy. The circle of Tellers shook in outrage. The Pacific signaled them to settle and they obeyed. Why did you attack the human?

Ook tightened the corset of arms as if to quiet her hearts’ insistent rhythm. All she could think about was the blinding arc of light the cable had produced. Trying to sign slowly so as not to provoke, she answered, You have the fire that binds, the flame that burns in the water. The Seven Fathoms must be true. The humans cannot know.

The Tellers’ colors altered, arms flashing yellow to green-blue at the tips as they gyred with anxiety. Darkened mantles and emphatic gestures told of violent intentions for the intruder who knew their secret. They urged interrogation, torture, death. Ook nuzzled further into the nest of her arms and blanched white.

The Pacific thumped his arms at once to the seabed, producing a brief eight-pointed puff of silt. Stop this. The others calmed, and he came closer, though not near enough to strike. Even outside his capture radius, Ook shriveled some more.

What are you called? he demanded.

She poked the tip of an arm from its coil and drew her sigil. Ook.

You will accompany us to the reef.

She released a siphon squirt. A reprieve, even if brief, had been granted.

The Pacific gave some instructions to the others, and they rushed back to the platform to reinforce and conceal the splice. Turning to Ook, he gave his name. Allops.

With the splice secured, they headed out from the platform, towing along the loose end of the cable. This was the reason so many had come. They’d had to pull the thick cable’s terminal end all the way from their reef, so that once the splice was repaired, they could test that it worked. It did, but now they had to drag it back. A small contingent traveled ahead to ensure clear passage.

Ook had no way of knowing where the Tellers’ reef was; scouts sent by her den were leery of venturing too far from their territory. The platform marked the outer limit of her own explorations. She pondered briefly if her den would come for her and concluded, logically, that they would not. As with the not insubstantial numbers who often failed to return, they would assume she’d been eaten by moray or shark. It was liberating, in a way. The Tellers would have no use for the fire that binds if they did not also possess the Gifts. And if they were melding the Gifts with fire, it could only be because they needed a housing for the ascension core. Ook wanted to see it.

Conjuring visions of how it all might be, exuberant blotches scrolled her skin until an acid glare from Allops snapped her to whalesbelly grey. As they marched away from the familiar, she settled her mind within the verses of the Seven Fathoms. In a past far beyond the reach of time’s measure…

Third Fathom, The Era of Barnacles

Another Gift went upward, carried as if upon a meteor’s fire, until the fire died, and the Gift, as with the first, fell. Taste deemed it a prize of great value, a hollow tube forged of delicious and tensile alloys, worthy of the vacuum of space and resistant to velocity. A possible housing, if remade, for the ascension core. A Great Hull to deliver us. But time corroded its potential, for we had no way to shape it. Barnacles spiked and studded its frame. Others still fell, the waste of humankind’s drive to break the grasp of their planet. And we languished, unable to bring form to their jetsam.

They drew the cable over the seabed toward the Tellers’ reef. Behind Allops and just ahead of a tiny female called Granel, Ook did her best to keep up the torturous pace, but her wounded arm made it difficult. Trying to keep her mind off the pain, she let it wander as they marched. Logic told that if they had the fire that binds, they must then be using it, and while the fabrication of experimental structures might be of interest to an octopus, any effort not devoted to the Great Hull would be frivolous, a novelty—and Ook knew octopuses were too serious for that. She hoped for the chance to gaze upon the Gifts before she was killed, and even imagined being allowed to live, and to brood her eggs in the emanations of their glory.

Ook glanced back toward Granel, who flashed red and made her arm into a hook. Face forward. Ook shaded purple-blue, the appropriate response.

They came to rest and Allops instructed them to forage. Famished, Ook scanned the seabed for eye stalks. She fell upon a crab, immobilized it in her arms, and cracked open its head with her chitinous beak. She devoured quickly, and a satisfying heaviness moved to the stomachs in her crown. She used her tongue-like radula to scrape any remnant flesh.

A short distance away, Granel calmly pulverized a large shrimp as she kept watch. Ook freed an arm from around her meal and commented, Easy food here.

Granel blinked red-orange, changed to seafoam, and tapped an arm tip into the silt. Yes.

Buoyed by the wisp of rapport, Ook fought the urge to probe further. Instead, she gently displayed a modest Yellow Tang, curiosity. Maybe Granel would feel compelled to know the source of Ook’s inquisitorial hue and start talking.

Granel captured and devoured another prawn. Ook played at the empty crab shell so as to seem distracted, though her pastel flush intensified.

What is it? Granel finally asked, flicking away a shrimps’ head in a gesture of annoyance.

You are taking electricity from the platform, said Ook.

Yes. I am aware you saw that.

Fuel for the fire that binds?

Obviously.

Ook hesitated, working up the courage to ask her next question. She inflated her mantle and slowly exhaled through her siphon. So you can meld and shape the Gifts to form the Great Hull?

Granel dug into the sand for a scallop and savored it before responding. Ook worried that her inquiry had gone too far, that a captured octopus who couldn’t mind her own business wouldn’t be worth keeping alive. Granel siphoned from the silt and made for the others. Part way there, she twirled to face Ook and tapped a braid of her forward arms to the skin at her brow. Of course, what else would it be for?

Ook’s skin burst a joyous Malawi pink before she got control and settled into a tranquil seaweed tone.

Back underway, however, the reality of her predicament began to crystalize. She’d understood the consequences of her attack upon the human, but it had all happened in the space of seconds. Now she felt the weight of her decision. Even if she managed to avoid execution by the Tellers, she could never return to her den. Balarem, the Cephlist chieftain, would assume she’d heard the Fathoms while in the Tellers’ custody and have her exiled or sacrificed so as not to pollute purer minds. Little did he know that she’d already imprinted the apocryphal verses and sullied what few friends she could trust with their poetry. Her den’s regime was oppressive, but it was still all that she knew. Only that morning—it felt a lifetime ago—she’d crunched snails alongside a dozen of her siblings. The pang of loss would be especially sharp for her fellow scouts: Glodex, Eet, Acil, Teuthis, Lele, Oidia.

The waters darkened and Allops gave word that they would nest down for the night. As Ook waited for sleep, she found herself nursing the fantasy of traveling within the Great Hull as it soared for the Galaxy Beam. She indulged the idea momentarily before spiraling her arms tight to snuff it out.

Fourth Fathom, The Fire that Binds

Years passed, the verses of our story budding and wilting like bulbs on a sea oak. Humankind encroached, probing the seabed for its lifeblood—the bones of the planet’s prior masters liquified to black. Upon the crests of ocean waves, they raised palaces to coax it out, spilling enough to sour the water. Their presence brought new gifts to our realm—raw materials to which we might apply the knowledge of our kind. Piquant alloyed steels, levered tools, and machinery of every type gilt the sediment. Among them, the fire that binds, the flame that burns in the water. The spark to meld the Gifts that will carry our tellings to the stars.

At dawn, Allops led with new urgency until they arrived at a stunted ridge of coral. The group scaled it and disappeared over the top. Ook followed.

On the other side, a sprawling coral reef formed the skin of a gorge that squeezed to a ravine far below. Granel gave Ook a shove, and she realized that in all of her wonder she’d come to a halt. Descending farther, Ook got her bearings and took notice of the reef’s state. Its upper echelons were mottled grays and browns, blunted and crumbling. Branches of coral disintegrated with the mildest caress and the sour-chalk taste of decay clogged her suckers, conjuring in her mind the sad portents of the Fifth Fathom. Near the seabed, the coral regained its polychromatic luster.

A colossal tube lay on the ocean floor, dented, with only small patches of its shiny skin showing through a crust of limpets. Ook recognized it immediately. The steel that had fallen from the sky. The Gift. The holy object that sanctified the Fathoms’ words! Right in front of her! She rejoiced that her faith had been confirmed. Further in, more Gifts, dozens of long metal tubes, were set about on short scaffoldings as if being staged for assembly. With so many collected, Ook imagined they could return home with the entire species. Light-mantledness blunted her rapture. She’d forgotten to breathe.

They proceeded deeper into the reef. Ook wore a bland, algae green, hoping not to be noticed by the entire den all at once. They climbed to an outcropping overlooking the ravine. Beckoning Ook alongside, Allops crawled to the edge and cycled his skin red to yellow. Attention.

A crowd formed below, with every manner of octopus, from Cirrata to Smoothskins, Megalels, Mims, and Pacireds, all jockeying for the best spots. Allops swayed his arms in concert with the changing patterns of his skin, and the jittering crowd fell still.

I have returned from the source, he declared. I have restored the fire that binds. Ook glanced nervously to Granel, who flashed yellow-green-blue before smothering it. Meanwhile, the multitudes made their skins as bright as Pink Dorids—gratitude for Allops’ achievement.

And, he paused, allowing the suspense to build, a human attacked us in his false shell! The crowd’s saturated pink warmed to the hues of awe and wonder. I attacked and repelled him before the splice was discovered.

Yellow and orange seeped into the onlooker’s mantles. Excitement, adoration. Ook felt her skin pushing to red in the face of Allops’ lie, but suppressed it.

That is not all, he continued, I captured a spy.

His words sent the crowd gyring and flashing colors of surprise, anger, and violence. Ook wedged herself into a cubby and patterned her skin after the reef, mimicking the coral’s parenchymal texture. Her camouflage was for naught, as all eyes were already attuned to the outsider. She was afraid now, but felt no regret for the decision that had put her there.

Allops reached into the nook and uprooted her. She resisted instinctively, twining her arms around his and squirming, trying for a bite. The much larger Pacific easily shrugged away her attacks. The thing about spies, he said, holding her wriggling body aloft, is that eventually they get caught. A thick arm snaked around Ook’s mantle.

Allops constricted, crushing her aperture, and she quickly exhausted herself in a futile struggle with the giant’s grip. Stagnant water bathed her gills. Images faded to a mist of shadows and she fell limp. As twilight closed in, she triggered her ink sac, but with her mantle paralyzed, only a dribble darkened the water. At least, thought Ook, she’d seen proof of the Gift before the embrace of death. The Fathoms—upon whose verses she’d built her dreams—seemed to be true. And as she suffocated, the emotion that cut through the black was happiness.

A buffeting current found her in the aphotic dusk of semi-consciousness. Ook’s mantle came free and inflated, pulling water across her starving gills. A tunnel of sight returned in time for her to see Allops, with Granel latched to his mantle, sinking into the stunned crowd below. They hit the seabed in a twisting knot of arms. Allops fought to pry the much smaller octopus away, but his defenses quickly became lethargic and passive. Granel kept hold until he stopped moving, then released and siphoned back to the outcrop.

Ook lay where she was, arms sweeping in the current, as the horizon of her own demise receded. Granel peeked from the underside of a thick trunk of coral, flashed Tang yellow, and tapped the point of an arm into the meat of another. Are you okay?

What happened? asked Ook with much effort. Is Allops dead?

He may die. But he is large.

It was then that Ook took notice of Granel’s markings. She’d not paid attention before, as dens tended to be poly-species. Her glowing aquamarine ring pattern meant she was Lunulata. Just about all octopuses had venom. A Blue Ring’s was the most potent.

Did you…bite him? asked Ook.

Yes.

Ook’s skin cycled blue-orange. Why?

You saved the fire that binds. You are a useful octopus.

If he is not killed, said Ook, refreshing her mantle, he will come for you.

Perhaps, said Granel with a casual swish of an arm. Let us find>\||/<.

>\||/<? asked Ook.

The Teller.

Fifth Fathom, The Poisonous Wake

Humankind conquered the salt, and from their bow wave we fled. Finless, they became lords of the water, taking first the surface and next the floor, infecting all with the excrement of their industry. Left awash in their poisonous wake, the breath of our world turned acid within our mantles. And the zenith star wobbled in our burning eyes.

Ook kept close to Granel as they slithered through the congregation, its members now cloaked in the soft Molly Fish-yellow of cautious inquisition. Allops lay amongst them, his eyes blindly open, mantle inflating and deflating anemically. Ook doubted the movement would supply his gills with sufficient oxygen. She hoped not.

The crowd quickly thinned. A dead or dying octopus was hardly a rare thing, after all, and Ook understood that Allops’ death would be met with a sort of indifference. Ever conscious of their short lifespans, octopuses were not a species that mourned. The only reason they’d lingered at all had been the spectacle.

Ook followed Granel through a narrow channel. Around a bend, it opened into a wide bowl formed from the reef itself. A flash of magnesium-white lit the perimeter. Spooked, Ook darted under a burl of coral.

Granel peeked in. The fire that binds, she reminded her.

Ook crawled from her spot and squinted. Around the circle were even more of the giant steel tubes, where workers used fire in bursts to meld and form them. Their work strobed the coral, painting her vision in colors vibrant enough to taste. To her octopus’s eyes, it was a disorienting spectrum of emotional hues. She focused on the sand.

Granel led her by an arm to the center where a ring of adolescents had formed around a centuries-smooth stone. On top sat a Giant Pacific munching a conch. Ook had never seen an octopus eat conch, as the shells were too hard and thick for even the strongest beak. The magnificent animal let the broken shell tumble from the stone and settled into a weave of crimson arms. He blew a jet from his siphon and cast his squat pupils over the young, then cycled his colors and launched into the Seven Fathoms. This was >\||/<, the Teller.

For Ook, witnessing the Fathoms told all at once rather than as smuggled fragments, was like seeing the sky for the first time. That they were recited—or rather, declared—openly, anointed them with majesty, and she felt buoyed upon their swelling truths. …a vessel of steel sent starward…upon the crests of ocean waves…when the Galaxy Beam makes perigee.

When the Teller finished, the others dispersed and the big cephalopod reversed the spiral of his arms. He shifted an eye. Is there not work to be done? he asked of the lingering pair.

Ook slid behind Granel and matched her pattern.

>\||/<‘s eyes followed her. I know what you did, little octopus, he said. You saved the splice.

Ook managed to curve an arm tip out from under herself. How do you know?

Octopuses, he said, eating up gossip like razor clams.

Granel scooted forward. I am concerned about Ook’s safety here.

After what you did to Allops? His big mantle rumbled in a way that was something like a chuckle. I struggle to believe any octopus will be foolish enough to come for the tiny spy just to fall dead by your venom. He looked Ook up and down. You are not large, but you will be of help in the builders’ ring. He opened his aperture wide and took a deep inhalation before sending a cloud of silt outward with a siphon blast. They’d been dismissed.

Sixth Fathom, The Verse of Sepias, The One Who Escaped

Soon came our introduction to the curiosity of humankind, with its inquiring fingers probing our living flesh as it would a seabed or the virgin sky. Sepias was a captive, who after losing two arms to curiosity’s blade, fled, living just long enough to give of his learnings. The humans blundered upon an ancient string of our code that leads them to question our origin. Now, we must make the Beam before they learn we are their betters, before they do as humans do.

Over the next weeks, Ook concluded that she was not going to be killed by the Tellers. Some even expressed their gratitude once they’d learned the true story of her heroics in preserving the splice. Nothing more was seen of Allops.

Ook did what she could to help the builders at their jobs. Due to her size, this amounted to handling small tools or dragging bits of steel from one place to another. She relished the work, taking the opportunity to run her suckers over every material, savoring each new taste as she went. Massive sections were completed, bundled, bound by fire, and set aside.

The launch of the Great Hull was set to coincide with the den’s reproductive season. Granel confided to Ook that she had already accepted sperm packets some months earlier from a submissive Blue Ring called Flen, and had laid her eggs shortly after their return from the platform. When she wasn’t completing her own small tasks, she could be found tending to them in a ravine-side cranny.

One morning, Ook and Granel went about the builders’ ring resupplying each station with narrow rods of the tangy alloy they used for melding. Ook had dropped off several armfuls and was headed back to the staging area for more when the lights flickered. The builders made themselves blue-orange as their fires blinked out. The coral, once screaming with color, faded into the background, a sunken shade of twilight dust. All eyes flowed to the Teller’s stone. >\||/< spoke the words they were all afraid to say. The splice.

Granel flew to him and puffed herself big. The humans have found it! Ook and I will journey to the platform and conduct repairs. I know the splice.

The Teller scanned the circle. What of Flune and Autilus? he asked, referencing the same octopuses Ook had seen mending the splice on the day she was captured.

Hunting, answered Granel.

>\||/< glanced at Ook, who signaled her eagerness to help. Very well, he said. You may lead the way. Take with you some builders for safety. Make haste. The cable is our salvation.

They conscripted five builders—all Great Pacifics—and traveled the channels toward the outskirts of the den, then up the face of the reef along the cable. They swept over the top, then ran as fast as their arms would take them, adding siphon jets whenever they had the breath.

Not far from the reef’s boundary, Granel dropped into the sediment and flashed to camouflage. Ook followed suit, burrowing up to her eyes. The others held back, disguised, but too large to bury themselves. Ahead, a biogenous fog hung ominously above the seafloor. What do you sense? asked Ook.

Motion, answered Granel.

An army emerged. The Cephlists—what had to be every member of Ook’s den—charged through the veil of debris. Flashing red, arms bearing blades of shell and shattered coral, they came for the Tellers’ den. Ook flattened herself further. There was only one reason her people would have ventured so far from their territory: to put an end to the Fathoms, to stomp them out once and for all. The cable had led them straight to the reef.

The builders raced for home. Ook deployed her ink and siphoned in retreat. To her surprise, Granel did not follow, rising instead from her spot to face the angry throng. Ook cycled her colors in alarm and gesticulated for Granel to flee. Instead, the diminutive Blue Ring turned seafoam and fanned her arms in the way of friendship.

\|i/

And she was cut to pieces.

Ook’s hearts plummeted like anchors into the abyssopelagic and her color drained as she stood from her hole, disbelieving. One of the Great Pacifics pulled her backward in retreat.

They fled. Ook blew jet after jet until her eyes clouded from oxygen deprivation. She darted up the reef’s edge, bound her arms, descended its slope like a torpedo, and shot through the ravine while broadcasting the colors of danger. She came to the circle and skirted the Great Hull. Halfway up the reef, she found >\||/< attempting to direct the builders in the almost-darkness.

My den has come, exclaimed Ook. Granel—

The cable.

Yes. They followed it.

Warn as many as you can, said the Teller, pulsing black to red. Order them to retreat here.

I will.

Ook scurried into every channel, warning those she found, imploring them to do the same. Word spread riptide fast and soon the entire reef was lit in alarm.

The Cephlists swarmed the lip of the gorge, a murderous wave, sweeping over its contours like sheets of sargassum, wiping out Tellers too slow to escape. In the ravine below, Ook and the others scrambled for anything they might use to defend themselves—bits of alloyed scrap or shards of coral broken from the stalk. A great number of the attackers Ook recognized—some, of course, were her siblings.

Just shy of the builder’s ring, Ook found a wedge of steel and passed it into the arm she believed would make the quickest strike. She retreated to the Teller’s Stone where >\||/< remained, unarmed. From the ground near one of the Gifts, she collected a bundle of shanks and swam boldly into his capture radius, offering them up.

Illustration: Little old Ook with a shard of steel.
Defender of the Reef

No, he said.

You must defend yourself.

>\||/<‘s arms swept into motion, I need no defending. And for some reason, Ook took him at his word, though she couldn’t think why. A new fervor punctuated his gestures, the accent of his signs striking her in some deep, atavistic place. The boldness of his declaration seemed to elevate him above the coming death as if he were inoculated against it, and Ook thought she detected an auric halo about his mantle. Call them close, he said.

Ook kept hold of her steel and siphoned to the perimeter, where she hurriedly encouraged others into the circle. The ring around the Teller’s Stone swelled in numbers, as frightened octopuses packed together. The first wave of Cephlists emerged from the reef’s capillaries just behind, their apertures rimmed lava red, weapons glimmering like sardines.

They slowed as they bled into the open, apprehensive of potential traps. The Tellers, unprepared and outnumbered, had gone white with terror, a tacit admission that they’d failed to fortify the reef. Ook, who like all octopuses had always understood the fleeting nature of cephalopod life, wanted to live now more than ever before. The other Tellers must have felt the same, otherwise they would have risked their lives to fight the invaders. But none did. Even in the face of slaughter, they held out for a miracle so they might live to ascend.

The invaders wreathed the Tellers like stalking moray. There would be a signal, perhaps, or an act of violence that would trigger a final cascade to wipe them all out. Ook watched, barely cycling her water, anxious to see which it would be, and curious as to who would come for her. She readied herself, hearts pounding. Tension built like magma below an abyssal vent.

And then their arms fell limp. Weapons dropped. Red-orange mantles cycled to violet, the color of awe. Their eyes traced upward, to something behind Ook. She twisted to see and found herself bathed in a soft, silver light.

>\||/<‘s head was glowing. His eyes and beak showed as shadows against the light burning from within, making for a terrifying, wondrous, sight. The face of death, thought Ook, if there was such a thing.

He siphoned from the stone and loomed above them. Behold, he said, the artifact, the relic of our time before the Plunge, the proof, protected and kept by the Tellers across an era that split the crust, hidden from the predations of humankind. Its radiance now tells that the ascension is nigh, for the Galaxy Beam has arrived.

Arms whispered through the reef, speaking recognition for what >\||/< had concealed within his mantle. Ook felt it too, and something within her code communed with those around her. She felt enveloped by the collective understanding that they were all descendants of the Plunge, and a sense of fellowship embraced and warmed their many hearts.

Except for one.

A Cephlist hovered up from the crowd, his arms spread wide, weapons gleaming from the curl of each tip. Ook froze mid-breath, aperture agape. The octopus blasted his siphon and made for >\||/<. The Teller lashed out, and then the attacker was sinking, his many blades sparkling down like shattered abalone. Curious, Ook swam to the fallen aggressor. No others paid any mind, still mesmerized by the Teller’s luminous head and the ascension core within it.

She curled up beside the dying octopus and saw that it was Balarem, the Cephlist chieftain. The impact of >\||/<‘s strike had crushed his gills, and his mantle spasmed to force enough water over them. He wouldn’t last long. She looped an arm underneath his head. Casting herself blue-orange, she asked, Why would you attack now? You can see by the Teller’s glow that the Fathoms are true.

He struggled for a breath, then answered, That the Fathoms could be true is why they were forbidden.

I don’t understand. Why?

He shuddered as his mantle flickered white-yellow. Then his arms whispered an answer that speared Ook’s hearts and sent the limbs of her mind aquake.

Discombobulated, uncontrollable waves of hot red-orange strobed her skin as she struggled to form a response. Finally, she whipped a retort. There is no way to prove what you say.

Balarem’s aperture flopped open and his eyes went distant. With the tip of an arm, he said, And there is no way to disprove it. Which is why…the Hull…can never ascend.

That can’t be right! Ook raged. We have seen the wobble of the zenith star! We have the core! The Beam has come! No, no, no! She squeezed and caressed the dying octopus so that he might revive and be convinced of the absurdity of his postulate. When he didn’t, she sped away, leaving him to drift on the seabed.

Seventh Fathom, The Great Hull

Upon our mastery of the fire that binds, and upon the gathering of as many gifts as could construct the Great Hull ten times over, we will assemble a vessel formed of the artifacts of Earth, then select those among us who will leave it. They will be pure of mind, unsullied by life. The Great Hull with its lading shall be host to the ascension core when the Galaxy Beam makes perigee. Only then may it rise.

>\||/<‘s ebullient mantle intensified over the following days. While no one knew what form the Galaxy Beam would take, >\||/< hypothesized it to be a great technology, something like a squid’s tentacle that reached from one galaxy and into another, both transporting settlers and snatching them back up years later. The ascension core was a complementary piece, detecting the signature of the Beam’s approach, and then latching to it when in close enough proximity. The changing light in the Teller’s head seemed to bolster his theory.

The cable—cut not by humans at all, but by the Cephlists before the attack—was repaired, and a tremendous effort brought construction of the Great Hull to a close. It took the full strength of both dens—thousands of arms pulling—to bring it upright. Modeled after the form of their kind, it had a colossal central tower surrounded by eight smaller ones, with enough room for scores to travel. Ook basked in its magnificence, making Balarem’s objections seem small and short-sighted by comparison; paranoid musings of a zealot newly aware that he could no longer bend the world to his narrow view of it. Ook pressed any thought of him from her segmented mind.

It only remained to be decided who would be chosen to make the journey home. With the final preparations complete, >\||/< took to the Teller’s stone. He draped his arms like a sea star as the denizens of the reef gathered. Ook, planted nearby and twitching with excitement, tried not to ink.

>\||/< pulsed red-yellow, casting the reef in amber radiance, and began. When the first Teller took the ascension core within his mantle, he understood that he would not be the one to carry the Great Hull aloft. Nor would the millions of Tellers since the first. It was passed down as a trivial rite, a burden no larger than a moon jelly. To those early Tellers, the arrival of the Galaxy Beam was a distant apparition, an event they would never live to see. Now it is here, and the charge of carrying the core to the stars has fallen to me.

Understanding his meaning, the question was asked, Who will ascend at your side?

>\||/< blew the stone clear of sediment and responded, No one.

The reef burst red. You cannot do this! You lied to us! We built the Great Hull! We have a right to go! Many jostled for the Hull itself.

Ook watched the chaos, too stunned by >\||/<‘s revelation to join in the madness.

Think of what you ask! he said, then waited for their fervor to dwindle. Ascension to the Beam is an act of suicide.

They went still.

The cold of space will freeze the Great Hull and the water inside to a block of ice within minutes, he continued. Anyone within will perish.

A pearl-blue Megalel siphoned up from the mob. The ascension core will protect us! she declared. A nearby contingent cheered her optimism.

Don’t be fools, >\||/< answered. There is no evidence it will do any such thing. Even if the Great Hull could support life, this journey will be measured by the cycles of planets and stars, not by the span of one, or even a million of our lifetimes.

Why did you let us build such a large structure if your plan was to ascend alone?

It was the only way to ensure that the Great Hull was built at all—every Teller had to believe they might to be chosen for the ascension.

The octopuses allowed their arms to murmur their displeasure, but they recognized that the Teller’s logic was sound. What, then? was the question asked.

>\||/<‘s mantle became brighter. We will send to our progenitors the story of our time here. A telling of our survival and evolution. And they will know in the sending that we wish for communion.

Who will deliver the telling? they asked. How can it be done if none can survive the journey?

We will send our eggs.

It was like the ocean currents had reversed. The dictates of the Seventh, and final, Fathom, suddenly took on new meaning. Its directive, that those chosen for the voyage home would be unsullied by life—what Ook had always considered an embellished call for those pure of heart—had been meant literally.

Clutches had only just begun to be laid, said one. Another, flashing red and yellow, announced, What eggs we had were destroyed in the attack! We need time to spawn new broods.

There is no more time, said the Teller.

Ook raced from the assembly. Hearts thundering, she counted the inlets along the ravine until she came to a tiny cave. Inside, on a thick trunk of coral, hung a ribbon of milky teardrops. Leaning close, she tapped one and a reef’s worth of tiny eyespots swiveled to the vibration. She went to work, carefully detaching the clutch from its anchor point. As she completed her task, Balarem’s warning slithered again through her neural bundles. She paused only briefly, determined to continue on the course she’d chosen, and finished collecting the eggs.

>\||/< slid from his rock when he saw the parcel nestled in Ook’s arms.

They are the octopus Granel’s, she said, presenting them. Lunulata.

The Teller took them softly, saying, Her sacrifice will be remembered then, as her code will be our telling. He twisted for the Great Hull. It is time.

The light of >\||/<‘s mantle was blinding as he made for the vessel, and Ook understood his intention to ascend at that very moment. Her dreams had always painted this moment as an event of great joy and fanfare. >\||/<, though, said nothing, made no grand pronouncements or gestures. He slid into a small chamber at the base of the Hull, and the few remaining builders used fire to seal him inside.

The Great Hull lifted from the silt, light as a jelly. Its metal skin quavered, then took on the sheen of sunset on sand. Acicular crystals appeared—small at first—but growing long like the spines of a great sea urchin. And as she watched, Ook’s mind perceived something that other animals would recognize as sound—for octopuses cannot hear. She did not know that what she perceived was music—a rising symphony that hummed through her stomachs and carried her hearts on the wings of its soaring melody. And with it came a thrilling clarity that coursed from her mantle into her arms, to the brim of every sucker. For a speck of time, she touched home…or maybe it was home that had reached out to touch her. She felt seen, recognized—included in the order of whatever she was. Then the music ceased, and she was just Ook again.

The crystals studding the Hull stretched long and golden as it made for the surface. The reef’s inhabitants swam alongside, well-wishers in a vertical procession. Ook sprinted ahead. The Hull broke the waves and continued steadily into the air, pulled on an invisible tether toward its destination far above. As it pierced through a feathering of clouds, the crystals slid away and sliced into the water.

Others breached, and together they watched until the Great Hull was a dot, and then until the dot was no more. Before sinking back down, Ook surveyed the horizon, the platform in the distance, and wondered how long it would take for the toxifying ocean to crawl up its legs. The threads of an idea knit through her arms as she stared, weaving together and taking shape in her central mind. And it was then she saw clearly the course of her species on Earth. It was time to speak.

Below, the only evidence that the Great Hull had ever existed was the copse of towering crystals spiking the sediment, their tips aspiring skyward. The octopuses returned to the reef, skins draped in gray, stoic. No one spoke or flashed. None rejoiced. The Great Hull had taken with it their purpose, leaving them to wash in a listless current. The Seven Fathoms, once the guide to their future, had become the past.

Ook, blue-green and unsure, crawled to the top of the Teller’s stone. She knew the implication well enough. To occupy the stone was to declare oneself the Teller. Others shuffled forward, drawn by her audacity and curious to see what she would say. Her arms, unthinking, danced the choreography they’d always ached to give, as she delivered the Fathoms openly and without fear of expulsion or death. At the conclusion of the Seventh Fathom, she paused to refresh her water. And then, for the first time, she offered a new verse.

Eighth Fathom, The Postulate

And so it was, that before we sent the Great Hull aloft, the octopus called Ook held in her arms the saboteur Balarem, who spoke as he died of an alternative telling. And he allowed in the last inflations of his mantle, the true reason the Cephlists had condemned the Fathoms. They do not tell us why we fell. And in the glow of the Teller’s mantle, the postulate was laid. That the reason for leaving our home, for unclasping from the Beam, had been to escape it.

The reef was frozen in shock. Many turned white, some red. In their millions of years on the planet, the Fathoms had been an unambiguous call to home, toward which the Tellers had devoted their existence. Now the Eighth Fathom offered a haunting new perspective on the First: the Plunge as successful escape rather than tragic accident. In launching the Great Hull now, so it went, they’d signaled their presence and undone themselves.

The crowd gyred its distress. Why had Ook not reported the saboteur’s words before the ascent?

The new Teller, \|i/, who had once been the octopus Ook, considered their questions. Changing her color to gray-indigo, she pinwheeled her arms to tranquility posture. The ocean swirls with poison, she said. The humans, too, will someday complete their learning and come for us. What lives at the distant end of the Beam may be our salvation, and the clutch of eggs borne of the octopus Granel is our entreaty. We could not risk missing the chance to commune with them.

But what if the entreaty fails? the others asked. What will become of us?

Even if what we have summoned brings death, it cannot harm us if we are already extinct. We will begin the second octave of our time here, said the Teller. And prepare for the new Gift.

A new Gift? Their colors were Tang and blue-green. What is it?

It is the rising sea, said \|i/.

Hues of confusion rippled through them.

Soon the water will reclaim the land, she said. As man fled the shores and despoiled our seas, so upon a surge of their own making shall we swim into their dens.

For what purpose?

Who here wishes to drift idle in the slack tide while the progeny of Granel make way for the place of our origin? We did not fall from the Beam to languish. We will journey into this new territory, make ourselves known. Survive.

Understanding, the octopuses of the reef cycled azure and dispersed. There were eggs to lay, shellfish to hunt, preparations to begin.

\|i/ slid from the Teller’s stone and tapped a contingent of Great Pacifics to go with her to the platform, where she would place a mark upon one of its legs. Set an eel’s length above the surface, it would serve to trigger their migration when the deepening waters finally swallowed it. With the cable as their guide, they embarked from the reef.

The trajectory of their species, she realized, had forked like a branching coral. Its fledgling limbs were the divergent paths of \|i/ on Earth, and the children of Granel who charged the void. For a short distance along the seabed, she allowed herself the daydream of their descendants reunited in some future millennium, and began spinning a verse that would preserve the memory of Granel’s great deeds. Then her mind turned to the trials ahead, and the Eight Fathoms dimmed like sunbeams through the mesopelagic.

Your thoughts?