by Leigh Harlen
“Are you sure about this?” Mati took a swig of warm beer. The dark pub smelled of hops and fried fish.
“Have I steered you wrong yet?” Sean shoved the tablet across the table and pointed at the screen. “That’s real Octo tech. And whatever it is, it’s big.”
“You said that about the Talarnian islands and I spent a week diving in frigid water for nothing.”
“Shit, you call two grand nothing?”
“It sure wasn’t the mythical Drowned City of the Octos like you promised. There were, however, flocks of other scavengers looking for the same thing as well as extremely hungry sharks the size of city buses.”
“Just look at it.” He hit the screen on his tablet and it lit up with a soft hum of music.
Mati already knew she was going to take him up on his information. But she was going to give him as hard a time as she could so he didn’t see the old excitement glittering in her eyes and demand a forty percent cut of her hard work.
With a narrow-eyed glance of suspicion, she took the offered tablet. On the screen was a map of Marine, a planet a bit closer than New Erin to the central worlds, but not by much. Salt water covered ninety-seven percent of Marine’s surface. The only land to be found was dormant volcanos and big chunks of jutting rock that passed for islands. Parts were frigid, lifeless, glacier filled hellholes while others were sweltering nightmares that sucked the water from your body and fed it right back into the hungry oceans.
The expanse of blue where Sean pointed was somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Vast swaths of cool seas and rocky islands inhabited by seals and hardy sea birds. Not all that different from home.
She raised an eyebrow and Sean tapped the screen, zooming closer to the site. And there it was. A mass of glowing purple dots. Her heart danced and her blood rushed in her head like crashing waves. But she had to stay cool. “I suppose it might be Octo tech.”
“Don’t play that coy game with me, Mat. That’s definitely Octo tech and whatever it is, it’s fucking huge.”
“Okay. It’s Octo tech. But it could be a massive ship or, and more likely, it could be shards of metal scattered all over the island. How’d you come to learn about it anyway?”
“I got my ways. You interested or not?”
“Yeah, alright. It’s worth checking out anyway. Give me the coordinates.”
“We haven’t negotiated price, yet. I get fifty percent of whatever you find.”
Starting with fifty percent. He must be certain she was interested. Or very excited about his cut of whatever what she might find. “Not a chance. I’m the one risking my life. Ten.”
They haggled back and forth and Mati was more than happy when they settled on twenty-five percent. He scrawled the coordinates down on a napkin.
“How many others know about this?”
“Goddamn, Mati. I told you, I’m giving you the exclusive here.”
“Whatever you say, Sean. But you heard it from somebody. How much of a fight should I be prepared for?”
Something flashed across his face. Fear? Guilt?
“I like you. I’m rooting for you. I want us to bring back loads of money and flip the bird to those assholes on the central planets. So, you should know you aren’t going to be the only one looking. I got pretty good word that there are some private contractors on the scent.”
“You mean mercenary thugs.”
He chuckled. “That’s what I mean. I got my money on you though. New Erin breeds ‘em tougher than those coddled assholes.”
Sean left and Mati finished her beer and ordered another. Dread soured her excitement. Caryl was not going to be happy about this. She drained the second beer and stood. A little tipsy and insulated in a warm bubble of booze, she stepped out into the cool, misty air.
The light in their little window glowed bright. She should go home and tell Caryl, but she wanted to sit with the excitement and possibility stretched out ahead of her before Caryl could quash it with her loving concern and pragmatism. She wandered out to the steep cliffs and looked down at the crashing, foaming sea below.
God, but she loved the sea in all its violent beauty. The waves that broke on the knife-sharp rocks, the blubbery seals and whales that soared and sang through the currents, silver fish with gill slit throats darting from the ravenous teeth of sharks. Even the barnacles that clung to docks and the strange, alien life in the deeps. She grew up on the ocean shore, living at its mercy as the child of a fisherman, and she couldn’t seem to pull herself away for long, not even for warm skin and sweet kisses.
She breathed in the salty air and prayed her goodbyes to the sea of her home world and wandered up the path to the house she shared with Caryl.
“You can find other work.” Caryl sat at the edge of the bed buttoning her shirt. The frayed edges hung down to her chaffed knuckles.
Mati rolled onto her back. This was going how she expected, although not how she’d hoped. “Like what?”
“Gwyn is hiring. She’s looking for a mechanic. Even said she’d train someone who showed an aptitude.”
“Did she, now?”
Caryl stood and crossed the room. She twirled her short red hair around her finger, creating soft curls from the frizz. “Don’t use that tone. There’s nothing wrong with being a mechanic. Mechanics get a steady paycheck.”
Mati put her head in her hands. “I could work for Gwyn the next fifty years of my life and we’ll still be cooking up scraps for dinner and ducking the landlord come the first of the month. If this works, we could be happy.”
“I thought we were happy now.”
“That’s not what I meant. I love you. I am so happy with us. But, if we had money we could do something with our lives besides fret and struggle to make ends meet. We would be happier.”
“And what if you never come back, huh? How happy will I be then?”
Mati looked down at her hands. She spun the silver band Caryl had given her. The only piece of jewelry she hadn’t hocked for gear or a lift to some other ocean that might hold riches. It was tarnished and it turned the skin underneath it gray. “If I don’t come back you can sell off my piano. It’ll get you through until you can find a roommate.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Caryl, this is who I am. This is me. I was a scavenger when you met me.”
“I know that. But we were kids then. I thought it was romantic. It’s time to accept that you’re just not going to make that big find and it’s okay. You’ll still be you.”
Mati’s heart ached. Sitting there, looking at Caryl, she wanted to say anything that would make the tears glittering in her grey eyes go away. But the crash of the waves and the salt of the sea was stirring in her heart and when the sea got to calling, there was no turning back.
“I love you so much. But no, Caryl, I wouldn’t still be me. I’m sorry. I have a transport to catch in an hour.” Mati tossed her bag over her shoulder and turned to leave.
“I love you too. Come home safe,” Caryl said, her voice soft and raspy.
The knot in Mati’s stomach loosened. “I will.”
Mati spotted a massive, bulbous shape on her boat’s sensors. She steered towards a small island formed of jagged rocks.
There it was. A pristine, intact Octo ship.
Mati shook herself. It was hard to believe it was real. The ship sprawled, tentacles wrapped around the outcropping rocks, as if waiting for her. The hull was bright yellow with splashes of electric blue. It was beautiful, breathtaking even. It would be the most stunning find on record and she didn’t even have to dive or fight for it. She and Caryl would never want for anything ever again.
She pulled her own boat up onto the beach. She strapped her battered toolkit to her waist, hopped over the side, and crept towards the ship. There was no telling what kind of defenses it might have.
Voices echoed across the tiny island. She gripped her dive knife. If she had to, she’d hop on and leave her rental behind. She could afford to buy the boatman a new one.
She circled the ship, searching for an entrance, but the sides were hard and smooth, with no doors, hatches, or entryways that she could find. She ran her hands across the warm, metallic surface and the ship moved. Pebbles crunched and tumbled out from under it as it swelled like a great beast taking a deep breath after a long hibernation.
“I think you’ll find this ship is ours,” said a crisp voice.
Mati turned to see a man, clad in a slick, black dive suit. A similarly dressed woman joined him. Both had shaved heads and skin leathered and cracked by the sun. Scavengers, like herself. But given their pricy gear, scavengers with a corporate and state seal of approval.
“Rules of scavenging. You know sure as I do. Finders, keepers. And I got here first.”
The woman stared at the ship, her eyes as wide and greedy as Mati felt. She shook her head. “Like my brother said, ship is ours. Step off, roach.”
“Not a chance.” Mati took an angry step forward.
The pair stood fast as if expecting their money, scorn, and determination to be enough to make her back down.
“I ain’t going anywhere. This ship is my find.”
The man moved so fast that all Mati saw was a streak of silver and then something slammed into her stomach. Her body jerked and she collapsed onto the rocks.
For a long moment, she couldn’t move. The waves crashed against the shore in a hypnotic, concussive, rhythm. Her finger twitched and then her toes began to tingle. She pulled herself up on her hands in spite of her throbbing head and aching body. The pair attached towing chains to the Octo ship, paying her no mind. The man had a prod hanging from his belt. The kind meant for scaring off the thirty foot sharks that swam the waters of Marine. They had probably written her off as dead.
She tried to stand, but her knees buckled and she vomited hot yellow bile into the cool, rocky sand. Her throat burned and she tried to cover the sound as she coughed up the last of her stomach contents.
Her own boat still hovered just off the beach. She could jump in and sail off. The scavengers would get the ship and she would go home to Caryl who would nurse her injuries and then insist she take that job with Gwyn. They’d spend their days bickering over pennies until they worked themselves to death. Just like both their parents.
She pulled out her dive knife and snuck towards the Octo ship. Her head spun and her legs threatened to collapse under her, but as she walked, she took in deep breaths and grew steadier. Keeping one of the impressive tentacles between her and the other scavengers, she crept towards the lines they’d attached. When she saw they were too focused on the task at hand to notice she’d gotten up, she swiped at a line with her knife. The blade clanged against the metal and the line frayed. A second slash cut it in two.
When she cut the third line, the pair noticed.
“Goddamnit.” The man jumped into his boat and started pulling the Octo ship out into the water.
The woman splashed through the waves towards Mati. There were still two lines holding the Octo ship to the other vessel. Mati held her knife tight in her sweaty hand and ran towards the remaining lines. The woman reached the beach and charged towards her, electric prod in hand.
“Fuck. Please open. Please, please, please. Where is your door?” Mati yelled at the Octo ship.
The ship swelled again and Mati heard soft, strange music. The front of the ship opened like a hungry beak and Mati ran towards it.
She jumped into the opening and the music grew louder. Crashing, rushing, humming. It reminded Mati of watching a storm spit rain into churning waves. The scavenger woman’s panting breath was close behind.
The woman lunged with the prod just as Mati turned to face her. Mati jumped back out of reach and held her dive knife out in front of her body, thrusting sharply whenever the woman tried to move in closer.
“This is my ship. I found it first. Get off,” Mati said.
The woman circled Mati in silence. She shot her arm out towards Mati, testing, searching for an opening or a moment of inattention.
The Octo ship jerked and scraped on the rocks. The other scavenger was going to pull them out to sea whether they were still onboard or not.
The woman stumbled and thin, transparent tentacles squirmed from the floor and wrapped around her feet. Mati slashed out with her knife and cut through the black wetsuit, down to the skin on her belly opening a wound that leaked blood onto the thin, fleshy, roiling floor.
The ship continued to slide. The scraping of rocks gave way to a splash and then the gentle rocking of the water. A jerk threw Mati into the other woman and the woman brought the prod down towards Mati’s back, just as Mati shoved her. There was a sound like wet cardboard ripping as the blow and gravity pulled the woman from the ship’s clinging grip. The prod glanced off Mati’s arm, which spasmed and went numb as the woman fell out the door and into the water.
Mati remembered how the ship had opened at her words. “Close the door. Take us home.”
The music swelled and a deep, booming voice sang in an alien language. It grew louder until it rumbled deep in her chest.
The ship propelled across the shallow waters and then dove. Suction cups held Mati’s feet to the floor, but she fell face forward, landing on her hands. Tentacles wrapped around her wrists and torso and held her tight.
Inside the ship, the walls were somehow not the brilliant yellows and blues that appeared on the outside, but clear as glass. Water bubbled past and grew darker. The brightly colored crustaceans and shimmering fish that teemed in the shallows disappeared and were replaced by schools of large, dark, fish with predatory teeth.
A loud crack as the lines broke off the other boat and her speed increased. They were much too deep for anything to have survived on the scavenger’s ship. Either he had jumped off his own boat when they dove and was now stranded on the island with his partner or he drowned. Her body ached down to her bones from the shock he’d given her and she couldn’t muster up any guilt about his fate.
The music quieted. It was strange and beautiful. Mati loved music. It was the second thing she’d fallen in love with after the sea. But for all her exploration of music from all over the galaxy, she’d never heard anything exactly like this. The sound was subtle, but it poured into her ears and demanded she hear the unexpected complexity of sounds layered over sounds. Barely perceptible changes in tone and key making the music shift from joyful to melancholy.
She didn’t know where the ship was taking her, but for the moment, she was safe and happy to enjoy the ride. She sprawled on the strange floor and took in the rich sea life and reveled in the glorious possibility of her find.
A voice rose from the music. Deep and unearthly, it made her bones tremble and ache. The music crashed and swelled to an exhilarating crescendo, and the great metal tentacles that powered the ship flashed by in a powerful propulsive push. The ship went nose down and their dive steepened. Blood rushed into her head until her face felt swollen and black spots flashed across her vision.
The voice growled one last plaintive note and the music returned to its peaceful, ever-present hum. Mati took a deep breath as the ship levelled out.
The Octo ship continued its dive. Mati lost track of how long she’d been on board. Long enough that the music was no longer gorgeous and her future no longer glowing. There was too much darkness and unchanging, empty water. And constant music. The notes dug deep into Mati’s ears and took root in her brain. She wondered if the music was changing her somehow. Her dreams were vivid and strange, filled with people and places she’d never seen. Great swells of purple water teeming with fish and octopuses who filled the air with twittering, singing conversation.
She rolled onto her side and caught sight of a spider web nestled in the corner. It must have smuggled itself in by hiding in her bag or clinging to her hair.
“I’m sorry little friend, but there are no bugs for you to eat here. Just fish. Frozen, dried, smoked, pickled, or raw. Fish for all tastes except for yours.”
The spider did nothing. Just sat in his web, waiting for flies that would never come. Mati named him Bryn. Bryn didn’t seem to notice the music and she envied him.
She forced herself to her feet to explore the ship. Maybe today she’d find the button or control panel that was the key to control the ship. She believed that she searched once a day, but if Octos kept time deep under the ocean, she didn’t know how. She felt as though she’d been here for lifetimes, but perhaps it had only been a week.
The area she dubbed the bridge was a large round space that was at least five times taller than herself. There was nothing new to find. The walls were transparent, gently waving and squirming with not quite invisible tentacles and suction cups that would burst to the surface to catch her if she stumbled. Did the ship eat? Would it eventually tire of filling her brain with music and use its tentacles to suck her down and shove her into a gaping mouth hidden somewhere deep inside?
On all sides were a series of eight hallways that went inside the Octo ship’s propulsive tentacles. The halls waved and lurched and led nowhere. Sometimes they seemed to have a mind of their own. One would pull in one direction while another pulled in another, and then all eight would synchronize again.
She stood at the very tip of one of the tentacles and watched as a massive shark swam up to the ship, rows of teeth jutting from its under-bite. It circled, unsure if the Octo ship was something it could eat, then tapped its pointed head against the hull and chomped down on a tentacle. Mati expected the ship to electrocute the shark or flick it away, but nothing happened. The shark bit down again. When the ship proved once more to be inedible, it swam off.
Mati thought about home. Her favorite records playing and Caryl giggling and glassy eyed from wine while they danced together in their tiny bedroom.
It had been a long time since she and Caryl had been that happy, but it was still there. Warmth. Happiness. Love. Home. She wanted to go home so badly that her chest felt swollen, as if her ribcage would crack open to spew loneliness. Tears burned her eyes and she hummed. A song she’d been trying to write since she realized she was in love with Caryl seven years ago. She heard the song in her head, complicated and beautiful, but when she sat at her piano and tried to make the notes come out it was just a childish plinking.
The massive tentacle twitched and Mati stumbled. Suction cups popped from the floor to hold her as the tentacle swung about and began to push against the others. But the others were powerful and united and continued to pull them forward while the lone, traitorous tentacle continued to push futilely in the opposite direction.
Was the ship starting to break down? No one knew why or how long before humans began to settle that the Octo’s had left this part of the galaxy. But Octo tech didn’t fail unless it was clumsily adapted. That was part of what made it so valuable.
The music changed. From the droning came a few soft notes as if plucked on a cello. They joined the sound and gave it a form that she recognized. It was her song.
Mati cried when Bryn died. She opened her eyes, suction cup marks on her cheek, her mouth tasting of fish, to see him: a pile of curled up legs, dead underneath the empty web he so carefully constructed. Bryn would never see land again and neither would she.
She dug through her pack until she found an empty box that had once held protein bars. She knelt in the corner and lifted Bryn’s tiny body, being careful not to rip off one of his fragile legs, and slid him into the makeshift spider coffin.
Even if it was oversized and covered in aggressively cheerful advertising, at least one of them would have a casket. She would be out of water soon. Her piss was already damn near fluorescent yellow and smelled toxic. The Octo ship provided water, but it was so salty that it did more harm than good and her purification kit was back on her rental boat.
And still the goddamn music. Her simple plinking little song still played in the lone tentacle and echoed up through the bridge. Sometimes it sounded like a dirge and sometimes like a child’s mocking rhyme.
The ship went silent and stalled.
Mati had grown so accustomed to the constant movement and music that the unmoving silence was nauseating. She stood and looked out to see what had caused the ship to stop.
The sea floor was a cemetery that teemed with the alien life that called the deepest parts of the ocean home. Misshapen, luminescent fish danced through great, hulking Octo ship carcasses. Broken metal tentacles had become home to lurking predators with empty eyes and massive teeth that lurched out and grabbed passing fish. Foot-long glowing worms squirmed across the bits of the ships that had been pulverized into shimmering, metallic sand.
She couldn’t imagine what could have brought this destruction. Had there been an Octo war or a catastrophic natural disaster? Whatever happened, she was going to die staring at enough Octo tech for her and Caryl to buy their own planet.
She was going to die staring at the fabled Drowned City.
The ship shuddered. The music returned, but now it was a soft, slow, simple, melody. It swelled and stretched almost mournfully as if begging her: Look at what has become of us and grieve with me.
The Octo ship had brought her home. Just like she told it to, like she’d begged, and screamed with rage until her throat bled. Take me home.
It was a terrible kind of awe to see the remains of Octo civilization laid out before her. It reminded her of the pictures of Pompeii she had seen in the history books as a child. But though the macabre sight made her heart ache for the ship and its society, she was still going to join these ship corpses if she couldn’t make the ship understand what “home” meant to her.
An octopus, ghostly white with a fleshy pink underside pulled itself among the remnants of giant, more intelligent versions of itself. It pried apart a huge discarded shell and slid part of its body inside as if it were a portable roof. Its tentacles squirmed and pulled in different directions acting independently of each other.
Just like the ship. That one tentacle that had changed direction and swam, uselessly, against the others.
It clicked into place. “Fuck. You’re supposed to be smart, Mati.”
Of course, the Octo ship didn’t function anything like a human ship. Whether the Octos evolved in the oceans alongside humans or somewhere far away, it didn’t matter. They were truly and completely alien. There was no central brain. No master control panel. What she assumed was the bridge might as well be the sleeping quarters or the mess hall. Whatever controlled it was diffuse and the entire thing needed to know her goal. She had made one tentacle understand what she wanted, but not all of them.
She sat in the central part of the ship where she heard the music the loudest and sang until she was breathless. Loud enough for her voice to echo through every inch of the ship. Just as she had done when the tentacle changed direction, she thought of home. The musky smell of Caryl’s hair after a long day of work and the way her freckled cheeks flushed when she laughed. She filled her nose with memories of salt and seaweed that wafted off the water and how for a few months their apartment smelled the way she imagined heaven must smell until the summer heat dried up the water and everything smelled of rotting fish.
The music hit a crescendo and changed. Her melody layered over soft droning tones that began to sound less alien and more like the musical version of her own memories. Deep wooden flutes mimicked air rushing through the cliffs that overlooked her home. A spray of chimes and the blast of something deep and brassy brought to mind lush green hills blanketed with mist and jarring percussion like the summer storms that rumbled and cracked loud enough to rattle the windows. The sounds wove together until she heard her song the way had always sounded in her head but she could never quite make real.
The ship pushed off the bottom and shot upwards. They went faster and faster and the great, booming voice joined her singing. It had shown her its grief and now it joined her in the joy she felt as her own home came closer and closer.
The ship came aground on the rocky sand half a galaxy away from where she had started her search. Rundown buildings jutted like ugly splinters from the hills. She imagined one of the lights was Caryl, waiting for her.
“Open the door,” she said.
The ship complied and brilliant, natural sunlight flooded inside. Mati stepped out into the shallow water, the still ground made her stumble and she fell face first. She sputtered and came up laughing. She lurched to the familiar rocks, gray and worn and dotted with barnacles. Somehow the ship had brought her home.
“Thank you, thank you. Oh God, thank you.”
The ship uncurled one tentacle and dropped a chunk of a dead Octo ship at her feet like a cat proudly bringing a dead bird to its owner. That hunk of dead tech wasn’t nearly the find an intact, functional ship was. But she and Caryl could be comfortable. She could take that job with Gwyn and they could both work regular hours. Maybe even be happy. She didn’t know if she believed that. Mati Kelly, walking away from the sea for a day job.
Or she could sell the living ship. It would be dissected, cut to pieces, its organs harvested and used to produce phenomenally expensive, inferior versions of itself to be sold to businesspeople and trust fund kids.
Was that why it offered her the corpse of one of its own? Did it know her intentions and hope to buy its own life?
All of her scrambling, searching, and fighting so she could walk away from the find of a lifetime. But even now, she heard its music. Playing over and over in her mind as if it had carved its notes into her brain. The Octo ship looked lost and sad in the shallows. However it travelled from world to world, its landing pads were the oceans. It didn’t belong here on the shore.
Mati clambered back into the Octo ship to collect her backpack and Bryn’s makeshift coffin which she placed with care on dry land.
She ran her hand across the brilliant hull. “I hope I don’t regret this. Go home. Your home.” She pictured the ocean floor and hummed. The ship shuddered and lurched. It crawled and pulled itself deeper into the water and disappeared beneath the waves.
She hid the dead and broken Octo ship beneath branches blown from the tree covered hill, grabbed Bryn’s coffin and her belongings, and began the trek home. As she walked, she heard the Octo ship’s music echoing in her head. Maybe it would always be there.
Mati hummed along.
“Elegy for an Octopus” (© Leigh Harlen) was published in Issue 11 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.