The Ninth Tentacle

Geoffrey Hart

 

 

 

 

 

The mussels dragged us upslope to one of the carved coral shapes with eight radiating branches that resembled octopod sculptures. We’d long since stopped struggling; the mussels vastly outnumbered us, and with multiple eights clinging to each tentacle, we had no hope of escape. And where could we flee? Even if our airsuit remained functional, we’d have to reach it before they recaptured us. There’d be no time to test its functions; we’d have to cross the barren, waterless land, hoping to arrive before the lash of Secundus’ killing sunlight caught us.

One by one, the mussels drove spikes through our tentacles, leaving us splayed out on the rough coral, fire running up and down our tentacles. Their work done, they left us to die.

Nine, safely wrapped around our mid-section and unnoticed, was still free, and whispered they’d save us once the last mussel was gone. Weeping black ink, trailing thin streams of blue blood, we hoped we could last that long.

 

The People lay eggs in groups of eight in carefully guarded nests concealed in rock and coral nurseries, where our family watches over us. Few predators survive in our sea, but those who remain are subtle and fierce. A parent becomes our vital first meal, and we revere their sacrifice. Our world’s limited resources leave no room for our population to expand. When octopod eggs hatch, a parent’s best gift to their offspring is themself.

Neonate tentacles live separate lives before eight join to form a single individual, each tentacle a distinct personality that, over time, merges with the others’ consciousness. Sadly, we violated the natural order, for our parents had failed to eliminate a ninth egg, one more than the acceptable eight. “Nine” merged with us before anyone could stop them. In the old days, Nine would have been cast from the nest and left to die a singleton — or simply amputated. In our more enlightened culture, elders concealed their distaste and agreed that Nine didn’t exist.

But Nine was unwilling to live in our eight shadows. They had a persuasive manner and an insatiable desire to explore, and used both without inhibition. Thus it was we found ourselves following Nine wherever the current carried us. Our exhausted guardians, after continuously chasing us and returning us to the nest, named us Drifter.

We learned to keep a low profile, Nine quietly wrapped around our midsection whenever possible, and worked at integrating this awkward ninth personality into our eight-fold whole. It didn’t work nearly so well as we’d hoped, but well enough we were accepted into the People’s society. On those days when Nine could be silent no longer, we avoided our agemates, except for Fargazer and their friends. They were odd in their own way, always building strange new devices and talking of implausible worlds beyond our sea’s surface. Often, accompanied by Fargazer, we swam up the steep crater walls encircling our sea and looked past its surface. We gazed wistfully at the stars — little points of light that seemingly shone high above the blasted landscape that surrounded our sea. The Octopod constellation was clear even across that threshold; legend said it was an ancestor, raised on high to watch over us. But if our scientists were right, the stars weren’t just lights; they were distant worlds.

As they matured, Fargazer found a career in extramarine exploration, along with their friends, now become engineers on their team. Nine wanted to be the first extramarine explorer, and under their incessant lobbying, Fargazer eventually let us join their team to search for other seas. The team created devices, appropriately named fargazers, that could see across the waterless void that surrounded our sea. They lofted these high above the surface, and revealed what appeared to be distant seas — some tantalizingly close.

Fargazer’s team designed mobile probes that could survive the sun-blasted land between seas and crawl across the rocky surface, returning telemetry on surface conditions. We sent the first, the cinnabar-red Audacity, to the nearest sea. Before it stopped moving, it provided astonishing confirmation that what the fargazers had seen was real: another sea, containing enough oxygen for octopodal survival with chemical signatures of life!

The imaging and probe technologies were radical enough, but now Fargazer proposed something more radical still: a way for octonauts to survive while riding an improved version of Audacity. Two challenges were obvious: first, avoiding the intense light from Secundus, which swept the surface of our world at semi-regular intervals, killing any who failed to find shelter; second, surviving the void that separated us from other seas. We knew of old the signs of Secundus’ approach, knowledge honed by eights of eights of generations of survivors. First, we’d feel a tingling, and along with other organisms, would dive deep so the sea’s dense water could block the worst of the lash. Eventually, we learned to hollow out retreats in bedrock, which provided better protection from the light. Now, we studied the precise timing and duration of Secundus’ passage, so octonauts would know when to travel and when to stay home.

The airsuit was something altogether new. It was long, frustrating cycles before Fargazer felt it was ready for testing. “The airsuit protects, like a mussel’s shell, but it’s flexible. And it has limbs for all eight tentacles.” Realizing their faux pas, Fargazer blushed deep blue. “It should support breathing long enough to reach the nearest sea. All we lack is a volunteer sufficiently mad to test it.”

Nine had been waiting their chance. “We’d be delighted.”

Oh?

“We weren’t named Drifter for nothing.”

Fargazer conceded our point, and took us to see the airsuit. It was a marvel of octopodal science. Thin, tough, air-proof fabric covered each tentacle, with room for Nine, wrapped around our midsection. On the back, a water tank contained tiny symbiotic plants that filled the water with oxygen while removing toxins. As we walked, the airsuit would flex and circulate purified aerated water.

The engineers obsessively rechecked and reinforced the airsuit. Finally, they stopped tinkering and bade us don it. It fit so well we could move freely, save only that our siphon was blocked and would be useless out of water. Under close supervision by the engineers, we stretched the airsuit in all directions, manipulated a model of the second-generation crawler, and performed tests of mental acuity to confirm we weren’t suffering from oxygen deprivation that would compromise our ability to reason and explore. The airsuit performed admirably, although accommodating Nine increased consumption of the airsuit’s resources by more than 10%, causing much grumbling among the engineers. It was unsettling to be so insulated from the sea, and it took time before we overcame the claustrophobic breathlessness it induced.

We wanted to set out immediately for the surface, but Fargazer insisted on caution. “This first test will only ensure the airsuit holds up under repeated movement and will measure how long you can breathe in the void.”

The engineers checked the airsuit one last time before this crucial test, for if it failed while an octonaut traveled to a distant sea, there’d be no rescue — only a lonely death. The airsuit proved to have one drawback: with all the enclosed water, it was too bulky for us to swim and forced us to knuckle-walk. But there was nothing to be done about that; it must be endured. The next step was to travel to the surface and take the first steps beyond our sea, where no octopod had gone before. If we survived, we’d be heroes — and perhaps that would gain Nine more acceptance in our relentlessly octonormative world.

On the great day, we followed Audacity’s tracks upward. The ascent was initially easy, the floor sloping gradually and rocks providing traction. The engineers swam above, carrying a tether they’d use to belay us should we slip during the final ascent — and (Nine noted acerbically) to retrieve the airsuit should we enter the void and its integrity fail. We moved increasingly cautiously as the slope steepened. By the time the silvery surface came in sight, coruscating as our world’s movements created tremors, we were forced to pull ourselves up with four tentacles, the other four stopping us from backsliding. Finally, we reached the point where Audacity’s tracks ended and the crawler had switched to raising itself using bags inflated with gases released from vents deep below the surface.

The bags carried us up the final, steep slope. As the engineers recorded the airsuit’s telemetry and optical images, we pushed a tentacle tip towards our inverted reflection. We’d arranged for Nine to replace one of us in one of the airsuit’s eight sleeves. As they slowly and trepidatiously closed the gap between us and our reflection, we held our breath. Then the tentacle touched its reflection, and Nine pushed through the interface between sea and sky. They held that position a moment, and when nothing untoward happened, we pressed upwards until our mantle and eyes cleared the surface.

The airsuit’s skin crackled as it expanded into the extramarine world’s sparse atmosphere. Out of the water, the airsuit felt heavier, but it kept us safe and it wasn’t long before our fears vanished and we moved freely. We felt a surge of gratitude for the wild-eyed engineers who’d permitted this unprecedented excursion into a whole new world!

Audacity’s tracks led away into an expanse of black rocks and sand that stretched beyond sight. Everything was dry and hard, with none of the life that filled our home. Until our visor darkened, Primus shone so bright it hurt our eyes. The light that warmed our sea and, for parts of its orbit, protected us from Secundus’ killing light, felt somehow threatening. But despite the stark shadows and arid rocks, we trembled more from the landscape’s beauty. A tugging on our tether reminded us it was time to return. A necessary reminder, for we’d lost all track of time.

We returned for a second test when Primus wasn’t in the sky. Crossing the threshold between two worlds took courage, even the second time, but we were amply rewarded: above us, a sight we’d never imagined, stars too numerous to count. They resembled the luminous propagules the reef creatures produced when they spawned at night and cast their noctilucent progeny into the water. To our amazement, the Octopod constellation clearly had a ninth tentacle, previously unnoticed! Nine shivered with delight and was, for once, speechless.

Transfixed, we stared until desperate tugging on our tether told us we’d forgotten to confirm we still lived. Before moving farther from the seashore, we pulled up a length of slack tether, careful to avoid the sharp rocks at the sea’s edge. Then we traveled to the tether’s end, filling a pouch with surface samples as we went.

The airsuit’s weight tired us and the strange landscape confused us. Distances were hard to judge, seeming different than under water. We had to focus on the tether and Audacity’s tracks to find our way back. Bearing the samples, we slipped carefully over the sea’s edge and let our weight pull us into the engineers’ waiting tentacles. Their chromatophores glowed with excitement as they welcomed us, took the samples, and helped us strip off the airsuit. The water’s familiar sounds and its caress on our skin were delicious, and our muscles relaxed; until then, we hadn’t noticed how tense we’d grown.

That night, we consumed potent distillates that left tentacles tingling and mantles blushing against the phosphorescence of the nocturnal wildlife emerging from its burrows. Nine unwrapped from around us to dance, flirting without shame among the tentacles of Fargazer and their engineers.

 

Over the following cycles, the engineers refined the airsuit, lightening and strengthening it, and we learned to pilot the crawler that would bear us in Audacity’s tracks to the new sea. Our predictions of Secundus’ arrival grew increasingly accurate. We trained until we could control the crawler with a single tentacle while the others dozed. With the airsuit and vehicle octuple-checked for reliability, we were finally ready to roll the octahedral dice and gamble our life on the trek to a new sea—except that our leaders refused to roll those dice, giving in to pressure from those who feared we’d expend too much of our resources, feared divine retribution, or worried we’d encounter more powerful octopods in the other sea.

Having come so far, we would not be thwarted. We discussed our options, and Secundus posing no threat, unanimously chose to proceed at once without permission. We debated what to name the new crawler, but Nine proposed Defiance. Given the situation, it was a perfect choice. We took the airsuit, the crawler, the lift bags, and a small aquarium with a free-swimming brilliant-yellow anemone that was sensitive to water quality. And mussels, since despite Audacity’s evidence of life, there was no guarantee the new sea would feed us.

This time, we felt no trepidation, only the thrill of adventure. We sealed the anemone’s aquarium against the void, flowed into and sealed our airsuit, climbed onto the crawler, and rose above the water. We gazed at the lights in the sky, then reluctantly forced our gaze downwards and sought Audacity’s trail. As we drove, the Octopod constellation — no, the Nonopod! — shone its approval from on high.

When we lost site of home, our confidence disappeared. Our muscles ached from the suit’s weight and from steering the crawler, and we grew hungry, as it was impossible to eat while wearing the suit. We had to force ourselves to relax, for our pounding hearts consumed oxygen faster than anticipated. Fear grew — was there really a sea ahead? Suddenly, it was all too much and we stopped the crawler in a flat area of smooth rock. There were no currents, no sounds other than the rush of water through our gills. We looked up at the swarming stars. How small we were amidst such immensity! What fools we were to risk our lives in such a futile task!

But Nine was fierce and unsparing. “Only fools would give up now!” Under their taunting, anger rose in us and we started the crawler again. That anger faded before the new sea came into view, but it had done its job: Nine had banished the last of our fear.

We drove cautiously down Audacity’s tracks toward the new sea. We found the crawler partially on land, with one side in the water, the other hung up on a rock that had ended its voyage prematurely. We brought Defiance to a halt, submerged, near its predecessor and disembarked. In the distance, we saw a cluster of what appeared to be sculptures of octopods. We agreed to explore them later and learn their origin.

The seafloor descended in a series of shallow sloping plateaus. The water was filled with life. Our instruments confirmed we could breathe the water, but one test remained: We unsealed the aquarium. The anemone remained brilliantly yellow, trilled its vibrant song, and darted off, chasing tiny drifting plants. Taking a deep breath, water rushing through our gills, we opened our visor. The water tasted of life, and was rich in oxygen. We removed our suit, and tucked it carefully under a rock to ensure it would be there when we returned.

Memorizing landmarks for our return, we glided downward, tentacles sculling to change course. Despite the sculptures, we tasted no evidence of octopods, but captivating smells filled the sea, and we caught the overpowering, delicious scent of exotic mussels. Soon, we saw their community — mussels extending to the horizon, filter tassels waving in a gentle current.

But these mussels were not sessile! In addition to a foot, each had a tentacle! They grasped and pulled themselves along, moving rapidly about cryptic tasks. But what shocked us was the endless hum of their chatter: They spoke!

Nine ignored that. “This sea can provide all the food we need!”

“But they can speak!” we scolded them.

“Language is no sign of intelligence. Witness those who forbade our journey!”

“Nonetheless, we should converse before we consume.”

Gathering courage, we aimed for a spur of upthrust rock amidst the mussels. Anchored above them, we gazed upon this unknown civilization. Then, mustering our courage, we addressed them. “We are Drifter,” we announced. “And we bring wishes for a shared future in your world.”

Motion ceased, and what seemed a hostile silence greeted our pronouncement. One mussel approached, clutching a coral stalk with a pearl tip. Pointing this scepter at us, it spoke what we now recognized as an antique dialect of our language.

“So. You’re back.”

Could our people have journeyed here and taught them language? There were legends of ancient floods that had allowed travel between seas… We tried again. “We’re descended from the octopods who brought you language and culture, and claim our place as your benevolent mentors. To guide you into a prosperous, harmonious future.” A real diplomat would have spoken better, but countless mussels gathered closer, listening.

The scepter-bearer replied. “We already have prosperity and harmony. More importantly, we have no octopods to consume us.” Then its voice took on a cunning tone. “If you’re descended from the octopods of old, surely you can name the ancestor who visited us.”

They’re no fools, Nine subvocalized.

That’s clear. But what name do we provide?

Sun-darer, the one who swam too high!

And was caught in the deathlight.

Or reached a different sea and never returned!

Nine had a point. Sun-darer it shall be.

“Sun-darer,” we proposed, and were relieved when the mussel lowered their scepter.

“What else have you to say, oh Drifter, descendant of Sun-darer?”

We waved a tentacle. “First, we require sustenance. We’ve come far through hardship, and must replenish our strength.”

“I meant have you anything to say in your defense.”

This confused us. Were they referring to Nine? To our dietary needs? “What import the past? Focus on our shared future! One that would provide safe shelter where we can rest. Soon, Secundus shall return and scour the sea.”

There was much muttering, shifting about, and water hissing through filter tassels, though its import was unclear. Lacking faces and chromatophores, the mussels were a difficult audience to read.

The scepter-bearer conferred with others, then turned to us. “Oh Drifter, far-traveller, we shall prepare your reward.”

The wording seemed odd, but a large group of mussels pulled themselves downslope, towards shadows that suggested caves. The rest continued to stare, if mussels can be said to stare.

“Perhaps we should release our mussels,” Nine whispered, “to provide future food.”

“With these mussels watching us? We urge caution. They outnumber us by many eights of eights.”

“Why should they care?”

“Why would we care should visitors release non-sentient octopods in our sea? Patience!”

From below, the scepter-bearer beckoned. We siphon-soared majestically over the heads of our new seamates, who maintained a disappointing silence.

Below, we found a sheltering cave, interior dark as ink. Outside, the scepter-bearer stood, illuminated by the faint light of glowing reef organisms around the cavemouth.

“Your place of rest.” The mussel gestured, rather dismissively we thought.

We waved, trying to convey gratitude, and swam into the cave. At once, eights of eights of mussels emerged from the shadows, and a fine rope mesh fell upon us, wrapping us and tightening painfully when we struggled.

“Struggle only tightens the net,” said the scepter-bearer. “It’s been long since we executed an octopod, yet we haven’t forgotten how. Your ancestors learned we were more than just food.”

“But we came in peace!” we protested, chromatophores flashing orange in fear.

Peace? You expected to be served. To fill our world with octopods. You belong to a people who delighted in feasting upon our ancestors. Until, that is, we slaughtered every last one of you.”

The mussels, though individually small, were numerous and unstoppable. They dragged us, crowds of bystanders jeering at our fate, up the long slope to where we’d entered their world. We saw Defiance and the rock where we’d stashed our air suit. But a nasty surprise awaited: they took us to the shapes carved from coral, whose eight radiating lengths had, from a distance, resembled sculptures. And as they pulled us onto one, we saw they were not painted blue, but rather stained with ancient octopod blood. While some mussels lifted us onto the structure, others swarmed Defiance and began pulling it apart.

We pled for mercy. “We’re not our ancestors! Let us leave!”

“Oh, you shall leave all right. Secundus shall ensure that.”

They unwound the net, one tentacle at a time, and nailed each of us to one of the eight protrusions.

“Here you shall die, as your ancestors before you. May Secundus’ scouring lash take you into the next world, where you learn from the Creator that we too are a people, not a foodstuff or servants to eight-limbed monstrosities.” The scepter-bearer gestured rudely with their tentacle, then turned and descended the slope, their people following.

We hung, trembling, in hopeless shock and pain. Even should we escape, Defiance lay in pieces!

Nine, still around our waist, was pinned between us and the coral. Slowly, they began pulling free, scraping against the coral and adding to the ribbons of blue blood streaming from our torn flesh.

They stretched, and one by one grasped the spikes that transfixed our tentacles. Twisting each free, they left us hanging from ever fewer tentacles, agonized and fearful. Finally, the last spike fell and we slid to the seafloor.

Nine urged us on. “There’s no time to lose. We must find a way home!” Groaning, we used our siphon to propel us from our place of impalement, leaving a blue-green cloud of blood in our wake. We reached the rock where we’d stowed our airsuit. Blood seeping from our stiffening wounds, we donned the suit, fast as the agony in our tentacles and tremors from our narrow escape allowed. There was no time to test the suit — for some of the mussels had seen our escape and were returning. We sealed the suit, then crawled onto the safety of the waterless surface and collapsed.

Nine roused us. “Now’s no time to quit! We must flee, or die here!” They pointed to a dim shape farther down the shore. Audacity! As the mussels gathered at the water’s edge, we dragged ourselves across the rough ground to where Audacity sat patiently, canted to one side. With an elongated rock, we levered it free of the obstacle, gritting our beak against the pain. We resisted the temptation to throw the rock triumphantly at the mussels, and used what remained of our strength to climb aboard. The controls were old and unrefined, but familiar. We confirmed the crawler still had power, and jubilantly turned it back along its former path.

We rode in agonized silence. Secundus’ glow would soon rise above the horizon, but we’d have time enough.

Nine huffed. “It will take real diplomats to persuade those mussels we’ve no intention of eating fellow sentients.”

“Particularly if that’s untrue?” We shrugged. “The problem’s beyond our tentacles. Our leaders will decide. They won’t appreciate how the mussels treated us. There will be repercussions.”

Nine flashed deep red. “Knowing the past, what could we expect? When an alien race consumes one’s people, one learns to err on the side of caution.”

After a long moment, we looked up to the stars. “We travel beneath the Octopod. Surely that’s an auspicious sign?”

Nonopod,” Nine said softly. “Interesting how leaving one’s world changes one’s perspective.”

We concurred. Now that we knew another sea existed, why not many? Some would surely welcome us! But it gave us pause that our ancestors might have eaten sentient beings. Hungry though we were, we felt a strange reluctance to consider eating mussels once more.

As Audacity crawled across the harsh surface, Secundus growing ever higher, we gazed upon the beauty of the sky’s myriad stars, and wondered if they held even stranger worlds. We hoped we’d have a chance to find out.

 

 

“The Ninth Tentacle”, © Geoffrey Hart, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, June 27, 2024
Geoff Hart is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) with more than 35 years of experience as a writer, editor, information designer, and French translator. During this time, he’s published more than 450 articles, most available via his Web site (www.geoff-hart.com), as well as the books Effective Onscreen Editing, Writing for Science Journals, and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. A popular speaker at the STC annual conference and STC chapter meetings, Geoff has given presentations and workshops in North America, the U.K., India, and China on topics ranging from writing and editing to information design, cross-cultural communication, and workplace survival skills. He currently works as a freelance French translator and scientific editor, specializing in authors for whom English is a second language. In his spare time, he writes fiction and has sold 73 stories, one of which won the 2023 Kepler Award. Visit him online at <https://geoff-hart.com/>.

Author note — I’m enormously grateful to Fran Eisemann for finding the deeply buried heart of this story and helping me bring it to the surface.

 

Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using public domain stock.

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