St Catherine, Great Barrier Reef
18th December, 11:45 PM
On the island shore of Lady Gilford colourful fireworks were being set ablaze. The smoke created by their explosions slunk across the ocean, weaving along it like a thoughtless traveller. A large white cruise liner could be seen slinking through the vapourish substance with various multi-coloured lights flashing aboard.
This was close, within eyesight, yet felt far away from where Angus was on the hard sand of St Catherine’s shoreline. As Dr Angus Goodwin sat on the tropical beach, alone and sober, with no light besides the moon and only a few bent palms to keep him company, he felt the heavy burden of his work more than usual.
All the tourist commotion beside Lady Gilford could have been on his laptop-linkup and still have been no more real.
A decent sized firework went off and startled the lone researcher. He looked up and saw debris evaporate, then glanced below those dying lights to that dark patch of water he had come down to the beach to see.
It was where the bank receded and the deep water began.
This whole coast was studded with rock pools and underground caves, making it a choice hunting and breeding ground for octopi. Less than a month ago Angus took his last dive into the depths of the dark water; not liking what was found.
Rising from the ground, not even bothering to brush sand from his pants, Angus felt it time to retrieve his phone and turn it on. He stared at the screen with glee; there were no missed calls or messages. No one wanted him.
The scientist’s home was the only structure on the small island; two old caravans joined together made the sleeping and eating quarter, next to these was a large corroded steel panelled cistern, a discarded remnant from the 1940’s, which was currently being used as a lab. As Angus approached faint fireworks could still be heard, voices also.
The cruise ship must be passing this way.
Opening the hatch to the tank he walked in; inside were a few computers and monitors, a couple of graphs and charts and one long wooden bench strutting the length of the enclosure. On top of the bench were five fish tanks, one of them very large. Four were empty, still having sand, coral polyps and other dead crustacean looking substances in them; but no water. The place reeked of the sea and sea-life.
The largest tank was filled with clear water and fresh algae and red rushes that all twirled in a water tornado as the creature inhabiting the tank swirled around dragging its tentacles along the cylindrical walls of its prison.
Turning the generator on, four fluorescent lights buzzed bright along the roof, the creature stopped swimming. A wooden stool with three legs was in front of the large tank. Angus stood on it. Clicking a panel connected to the tank bubbles inside, which had been running steadily, calmed down to a slow heartbeat.
Unlocking the lid and screwing it in a counter-clockwise fashion the tank opened. Two black protruding eyes on a bulbous head half submerged above the brim of the water. The weary man stared down and smiled.
“It will be dinner time soon Wanda,” he said.
Rolling up wet sleeves and placing a hand in the tank Angus stroked the jutting cartilage between those protruding eyes of the coleoid cephalopod then ran grimy fingers down the front of the gelatinous creature. After tickling the octopus he held his hand out flat on top of the water. A collection of tentacles slithered over the hand claiming it as their stronghold.
Angus gripped tight as if shaking hands, Wanda flexed back.
21st December, 09:15 AM
Dr Livingston sat forward. He had that silly grin he always carried around; it was more noticeable today though, probably because everything about today was as fake as it. “…High time you returned back to the world and re-joined the living. You’ve been couped up on that island for four years now. A fresh start would be good, maybe take up teaching…”
“Paul the place is a global tourist Mecca,” said Angus impatiently. “Believe me its impossible to go crazy there, I’m never really alone.”
The boardroom was too large, as usual; one rectangular vacuum of empty space. All necessary mod-cons were in abundance; the latest 100inch LCD monitor, panel controlled air-conditioning as well as dimmer lights, a built in electronic projector along with bored under-worked overpaid department staffers whose only delight in coming to the meeting, which could have been done just as easily over the phone, was the fact they’d get a chance to use the new coffee franchise downstairs.
“I know, I know,” said Dr Livingston. “But this isn’t 2012; you’re going to have to come up with more than this if you want the CSIRO to continue funding.”
Angus stood up, he wasn’t familiar with the strange male and two female executives on the other side of the table but he had worked with Dr Livingston and knew him. “I realise my work is slow, but that is only because so much of it is to do with breeding and mating cycles. It’s a one man show out there. I only need money for equipment and the lease on the land. Just give me till November next year; that would be enough.”
“Just look at this,” Angus went over to the end of the table and stood by the large tank, inside Wanda gently moved about on the bottom. He picked up a plastic white and black chessboard he had brought with him. “Watch,” Angus lifted the chessboard to the side of the tank and held it there. Wanda swam up beside it and using her tentacle suckers stuck herself to the chamber wall opposite the chessboard. Her greyish brown skin was watched by government viewers as it went from its natural hue to the same monochrome colours of the chessboard. The white and black squares appeared on Wanda’s skin, exactly corresponding to their place on the board.
“Controlled bioluminescence,” said Angus. “The amount of abstract mental-functioning required must be immense. Now watch this…”
“Yes, it is impressive even after repeated viewings…” interrupted Dr Livingston, stroking the thin stubble on his chin while trying to appear stern. “…But we need to see progression. Listen we’re tight for money, and you know that…”
“Of Wanda’s litter one or two has survived, I have them electronically tagged…”
“Dr Goodwin,” said the female exec directly opposite Angus. “You must understand that even though your work in teuthology is of interest to some in the scientific community it has none commercially. Out on the reef it’s all about eco-tourism, management and the zoning plans, permits; we must put our resources into tackling these. Octopus psychology is…”
“Intelligence,” reiterated Angus. “Cephalopod intelligence is my field. In particular language…”
All the board-members chuckled at that.
“…These creatures use light and flashing colours to communicate complex thoughts. Such patterns may be deciphered with…”
“Yes,” interrupted the woman again. “Well anyway, as I was saying, all secondary.”
Angus took the chessboard away. Wanda sank to the bottom of the tank and curled up there. Her skin began to pulse a light red.
“Yes Angus, something for you to think about,” reinforced Dr Livingston. “A plane will be ready around two-thirty this afternoon to take you and your pet off the mainland and back to St Catherine. You will hear before the weeks out what is to be done. However I would start getting your affairs in order, heh.”
Angus found he could do nothing but concede.
“Oh c’mon, it’s not the end of the world mate,” laughed Dr Livingston. “A break will do you good. How about visiting one of these tropical holiday destinations you’ve been living right next door too? Seriously though, we need people with your skills here on the mainland. We’ll talk about it more when you’re ready to come back, anyway…” Dr Livingston patted his lap and looked up slowly at everyone with that schoolboy grin; he was happy with what had been achieved. “I think that just about wraps it up ladies and gentlemen; this meeting is over, thankyou Angus for coming. And thanks to you Miss Fu and Mrs Chandler and Greg I know your busy, thanks again.”
Angus shook every ones hand; he didn’t harbour any ill feelings towards the bureaucrats. Even so he was glum and later on in the day could not remember if he had actually managed to manifest a fake smile while farewelling his jury.
Dr Livingston remained seated. This was a signal and both men waited for the other members to leave; watching impatiently, waiting for them to throw their empty Styrofoam coffee cups in the bin and go. When all had Dr Livingston pulled his old student aside.
“For Christ’s sake try and get a report finished. We and others are interested in your work, although personally, I do not believe you deserve that attention. If you don’t get something down in writing about what the hell it is you’ve been spending taxpayers’ money on out there, and soon, you can kiss your career as a research scientist goodbye… I can’t believe you asked for even more money,” the good doctor took a break to rub his chin then continued. “I’ll see you in a coup’la weeks or sooner, preferably. And remember don’t forget that plane, two thirty sharp…”
Angus glanced over at Wanda. She was still in a foetal position curled up on the bottom of the tank but her body was now entirely a deep stable purple.
Tinmura Airstrip is an open spacious stretch of land. Grass and heavy shrub litter the wide-lane. A small two-room shack near the head of the runway marks the only standing structure on site. The rest of the airfield being made up of overgrown grass and the damaged rusted parts of abandoned cars that lay in it. The airport has not been used regularly since the Second World War but is still government owned and operated. Every few weeks a lorry of Cessna’s or other light aircraft can be heard taking off and landing on the asphalt.
It was ten past three now and there was still no sign of any plane or a pilot. Angus sat on the old veranda out front of the broken-down station building. Wanda in her tank was next to him. She was slowly becoming agitated, swimming around fast. Angus had no more feed for her. The afternoon was very hot and humid even though grey storm clouds were heavy in the sky. Part of the Great Barrier Reef could be seen. An out-of-focus snake, its rough skin jutting out of the water creating endless islands until where the skin receded to hide under the surface then return again as a ring of sandy peninsulas.
Angus looked at his phone, no messages. Ringing Dr Livingston ten minutes ago had been met with an answering machine where he’d left a message.
Pointless to get angry and ring again.
It started raining.
The rain hit Wanda’s tank, she seemed startled; it gradually grew heavier.
“Well Wanda I don’t think we’ll be going back home to Catherine tonight.”
Picking up the heavy tank he moved it closer to the wall of the station, seeking cover from the rain.
“Unfortunately this will have to do. Gotta leave you here girl, sorry. I’m gonna run up to the highway and across to the local and wait there until I get some news.” He tapped the tank. “I don’t know how long you’ll have to wait out here but I promise you’ll be back with your babies in no time.”
Angus put up his right hand and moved it from side to side. “Bye, bye,” he said.
At first Wanda appeared disinterested; all her tentacles just swayed lightly like a long coral garden shaken by the undertow of strong waves. Then an individual tentacle struck out and repeated the action Angus made.
With that Angus darted through the rain and away from the runway. His form was soon swallowed by it and could no longer be seen. The rain pelted down, striking Wanda’s cage ever stronger. Rivets of fast moving water slithered over the glass of her sky and just kept coming until they covered everything.
St Catherine, Great Barrier Reef
23rd December, 07:40 AM
Twelve years as a marine biologist, a lifetime of study, devotion, interest; these thoughts weighed on Dr Goodwin as he grappled with his fear of swimming and diving alone. The dinghy tugged over water, lapping each wave, helped on by the four-stroke outboard engine. Within moments of the boat being unmoored it was over the dark patch.
Dropping anchor the scientist watched it hit the ocean hard then fall into its arms and descend slowly until out of sight. The sun was emerging from behind clouds, by the time Angus returned to his boat the sky would be empty of them. For the last time he opened the cage he had built for his test subject. He threw the plastic lid recklessly far out to sea and then just left the tank open.
It was hard to have to stop something when you hadn’t finished, when you were so involved and so close. Today destiny would have to wait or whimper and die.
Zipping up his full body wetsuit, flippers being pulled on, goggles also, oxygen pack clipped in; he was ready but still he waited. With one movement the engine was turned off, it idled slightly, choked and coughed, then died.
The lone figure’s un-gloved hands reached into Wanda’s tank and grabbed hold of the creature; both hands hardly fit over her bulbous head – she was then gently put into the sea.
Flexing out her body to the full so that she looked like a psychedelic star, now a free citizen of the sea again, Wanda gently propelled herself downward into the deep blue with a few heavy thrusts. Angus quickly squinted at the sun then kicked himself into the water back-first. The oxygen pack gave him weight and he gained a steady descent. Wanda was next to him, moving into that part of the glade where she’d been caught. Angus followed her.
Checking his tracker Dr Goodwin knew where the two surviving cephalopods were located and by his guides direction so did she. This physiographic province that only ten years past seemed untameable was now virtually nonexistent. Most of the life that once flourished here had left. It was possible for a pod of octopi to survive but strange to see happen.
The two offspring that still lived had developed a strange mode of existence. They would stay in the rock gulley of section R12 of the glade then at around two-thirty every afternoon would leave and quickly feast on some of the copepods or larval crabs then just as quickly return to the labyrinthine rocks of section R12 and stay there till the next day. They did not move on to choicer regions of the reef but stayed where Wanda had been departed from them.
This strange eating and hiding pattern of survival would very soon doom them, just as soon as a predator got wind of it.
Electronic trackers will last another week or two at most, thought Angus. Then wear off, stop working or more likely the creatures themselves through some method will dislodge them. He sighed.
Wanda darted and swooped into a fissure in the rock. Dr Goodwin swam over to the opening. He looked inside. The tracking-device showed the young were in this vicinity and through the tunnel in the rock he could see a weak blue light flashing softly.
The coleid light always pulsed that colour when the cephalopods were in company with each other. Dr Goodwin’s brain raced, but he stilled his nerves, reminding himself that, for now, he would have to forget his ambition. Wanda raced out of the tunnel quite suddenly, brushing slickly against the side of her releasers stubbly face.
She swam into the openness of the glade, stretched out fully, dark blue buds flashed and moved in many straight lines along her tentacles. They emanated in concentric circles through her fat main body as she swam up to where the sun shone strongest into the underwater glade. Wanda just hovered there, then levelled herself vertically and stretched wide out like a pulsating star. The dark blue buds rushed through her, she turned slowly, peacefully, with the currents of the ocean until her eyes and Angus’ met. Then the blue buds ceased and Wanda’s eyes became Angus’ eyes. It was like Dr Goodwin was looking into a mirror. The image Wanda copied was clear, geometrically near perfect. Then Wanda showed the lab, the five fish tanks, the long bench, the chessboard; finally Wanda showed St Catherine and her briny shoreline then something else. Something from her home? Lights in fathomless darkness, beautiful colours lost in the inky deep.
Is that what you see out there Wanda? wondered Angus and knew he’d never get an answer; almost accepted he wouldn’t either.
The rich blue buds returned and the images were gone.
A very small fluorescent gelatine head protruded from a fissure deeper down and then burrowed back into the comfort of the hard rock.
Wanda kept swimming till she was roughly halfway between the glades silt mattress and the ocean surface then she stopped. Like an electric charge her skin pulsed in quick successive blue colours. The soft gelatine head below Angus protruded again and with a swift movement sprung forth from the rock racing to the centre of light that its mother now was. Another gelatinous head poked out of the same rock gulley and much more cautiously swam to its sibling and mother. As it ambled awkwardly through the water buds of a weak blue colour rapidly moved through its form; travelling the length of it.
The scientist watched as the two charged atoms circled the nucleus. Wanda then started to slowly move away from the glade with her children following. They continued past the glade reaching the end of St Catherine’s shore and started travelling out deeper. Angus decided not to follow. He looked up to the sun shining through the oceans surface. It would be around eight-thirty he thought; they’d just be starting to open all bars and attractions on Lady Gilford.
Scanning along the meeting place of carbon and liquid; he found the shadowy substance of his boat. Flexing out as much as possible, giving into the unseen strength of the current he then allowed it to pull him swiftly upward and back into the world.
BIO: Sean Mulroy lives in Newcastle, Australia. His fiction has previously appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction and Oblong Magazine among other publications.