Sturdy Lanterns and Ladders

WRITTEN BY
Malka Older

ILLUSTRATED BY
Chiara Zarmati

As a freelance marine behavioral researcher most of Natalia’s jobs went something like this: She swam around in some large but controllable environment with a cephalopod, paying attention to its body language and her own. She tried to make the octopus or squid feel as comfortable as possible, so that its behavior in response to stimuli might approximate what it would do in the wild. It wasn’t what she had expected when she trained as a marine biologist, but frankly she preferred it to dissection, experimentation by electric shock, or even anything that required interacting with animals captive in tiny tanks.

This particular job started out only slightly unusual. For most jobs she was given a specific research interest. Sometimes they told her exactly what to do to elicit the behaviors they wanted to study, and sometimes they let her design the approach, but either way it meant some narrow focus for her attention. Natalia always tried to give the cephalopod some play time around their interactions – if challenged on this, she told her employers that it led to more natural responses than repeating the same cues over and over again – but their time was very much directed by research.

On this job, they told her just to play with the octopus.

“Get comfortable with each other,” said the guy who hired her. “Make friends.”

Natalia had nodded and deliberately not asked any more. She tried to ignore her suspicions about why they were being so nice to this octopus. Maybe the company had a policy about giving all captive research subjects a certain amount of leisure time. (Maybe they were doing something extra terrible.) She had done too many of these jobs to believe that the research lab cared very much about the comfort of an individual octopus in the face of SCIENCE, but she tried to convince herself that her role helped the animal more than hurting it. (Maybe the experiments required the octopus to be relaxed, and Natalia was complicit.)

Her employers were probably going after those specific research interests when Natalia wasn’t there. The octopus she thought of as Vainilla was shut into a (decent-sized, but still) tank before and after her sessions. One day Natalia got to the center early and saw them peeling electrodes off of Vainilla’s flesh.

That day she was as gentle as she knew how to be, careful not to initiate any contact as she and Vainilla twisted in distant tandem through the water of the shallow, netted bay.

It wasn’t unexpected, or even necessarily sinister. Electrodes could be used for very non-invasive types of research. And in any case Natalia had long been used to the precarious or tormented lives of animal research subjects. She resisted any suggestion that she, for example, stop naming them, although since that seemed to particularly incense some people she mostly stopped telling her employers about it. She told herself that to do her job right she needed to face the current state of animal research. Sometimes it did not work out well for everyone.

After the electrode day the tone of that daily hour changed. There was still pleasure in their interactions, but it was definitely in a minor key. Natalia had slipped into thinking of her role as akin to that of a hospice caregiver: bringing Vainilla some marginal comfort in the interstices of a catastrophe beyond the cephalopod’s control.

So Natalia was surprised when David Gilcrest, one of the honchos at the center, , sought her out after her post-swim shower one day and asked if she had availability to expand her commitment with them.

“You want me to add more swim time?” Natalia said, squinting up at him as she toweled her hair.

“Not exactly. Well, yes, more swim time, but we were wondering if you’d be willing to participate more directly in our experiment.”

“What experiment?” Natalia asked reluctantly, not really wanting to know what horrors were being inflicted on Vainilla.

“This phase of it,” Gilcrest begins, and Natalia was relieved that he obfuscated even so obviously, “would require you to don a sort of headset, much like a VR helmet – almost exactly like a VR helmet, to be honest – during the swim. Waterproof, of course,” he added hastily to her disbelieving expression. “We’ll connect it to the sensors we’ve been calibrating with the subject, and then you should see what it sees.”

“See…” Natalia’s brain caught up with what he was saying mid-sentence. “So it’s a neurology experiment?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Gilcrest said, looking somewhat taken aback. “Weren’t you briefed about it?”

Natalia brushed that off, no longer sure if she hadn’t been or if she had purposely tried not to pay attention for fear of what she might hear. “So you want me to be connected to…to the octopus? Neurologically?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly!” Gilcrest sounded relieved too. “We know it feels comfortable around you, and we thought that might be a way to ease it into the full rig, get better readings. We were thinking an extra half-hour per day, although the first few days we might not even keep it going that long. Of course you’d get paid for the full half-hour in any case. What do you say?”

“Sure,” Natalia answered. Non-invasive neurology was good, relatively speaking. “But if I get the sense that the octopus is in pain or discomfort due to the equipment, I’m out.”

“If that’s the case, we would of course try to mitigate it,” Gilcrest said, affronted, but Natalia had seen too many cases of unconscionable actions posed as the best option to feel any compunction about offending researchers.

 

“This looks amazing,” Natalia said, trying on the waterproof headset two days later. It was only a little larger than a standard scuba mask, although quite a bit heavier when she put it on. “Did you design this here?”

“Uh, no,” Gilcrest said, as the techie kid fiddled with the straps and connections. “We had a design firm in to work on it, they were excited about the commercial applications. Now remember, what you receive from the cephalopod, which you’ll see with your right eye, is not going to look like what you’re seeing with your left eye. You’ll be getting the images as interpreted by that strange octopus brain, so it will look really weird, but it’s just what’s there, okay? The images are what the octopus is seeing, understand? What you see is what’s there.”

“…yes?” It wasn’t that hard a concept.

“This is just for calibration. So try to relax into the weirdness. Okay.” Gilchrest sighed, then psyched himself up again. “Let’s take it for a spin!”

“What exactly is your involvement in this project?” Natalia asked, out of curiosity. She had been freelancing for years and didn’t miss the corporate culture aspect of full-time work, which meant that she didn’t bother to keep titles straight.

“Oh.” He looked pleased that she cared, instead of annoyed that she hadn’t cared enough to remember his title when she was introduced to him. “I came up with it, actually. Well, with a couple of other people. Needless to say I don’t have the technical chops to be lead in all areas, but…”

Natalia stopped listening to him around that point, partly because he was taking a really long time to say anything important, but also because they had brought Vainilla to the bay and were attaching the electrodes. She narrowed her eyes, watching for any sign of discomfort from the cephalopod, as if the fact that she was actively and obviously watching would change the behavior of the techs.

The techs didn’t seem to notice her at all. But Vainilla made no show of distress. Probably already entirely used to the process.

“You should get in the water,” Gilcrest said; he at least had noticed the focus of her attention. “As soon as you’re ready give us a wave and we’ll switch it on.”

Empowered by that, Natalia took her time going through the greeting ritual with Vainilla and then paddled around a little as usual. She wondered if they were getting annoyed out there, on the other side of the water’s surface, if the anticipation was unbearable. She wondered if she herself was nervous. She raised her hand to the sun-baked air and shook it.

A few more seconds of stereovision and then her view bisected. Natalia shut her left eye, thinking it would be less confusing to see only what Vainilla was seeing, but that world was unintelligible furls of black-and-white gradations and she had to switch, closing her right instead and breathing slowly through the regulator while she watched a school of smelt flutter by. Vainilla caught one and ate it and Natalia kept her right eye resolutely closed until that was finished.

Cautiously, she swam up next to Vainilla, so they’d be seeing roughly the same vista, and opened her right eye.

This wasn’t going to work. Side-by-side, the two visions clashed, competing and confusing; but Vainilla’s alone was unintelligible. It was all blurry monochrome shapes – Natalia couldn’t even tell which side was up.

She tried closing first one eye, then the other, gradually building up her octopus vision, but it wasn’t until Vainilla started playing with a clamshell that she found something to focus on. It took several back-and-forths, but finally Natalia was able to recognize the shell seen through Vainilla’s eyes: the blurring of the striations, the squashed shape. She had to close both eyes one more time, and shake her head hard, but when she opened the right one again she could recognize the clamshell.

 

“Major progress!” This was Gilcrest’s boss, Yohannes Kirk. They were sitting in a small conference room with frigid air conditioning that was chilling Natalia’s still-wet hair. “I don’t think we expected to be able to calibrate so quickly, did we David?”

Gilcrest muttered something affirmative.

“I don’t want to overstate my understanding…” Natalia began, and Kirk flapped his hand.

“Of course, that phase isn’t over yet, but still! Remarkable.”

“Sir,” Gilcrest murmured. “If you recall…”

“Oh yes, of course.” Kirk turned to Natalia. “We’d like you to join the team. David here thinks, and I agree with him, that you’re the right person to work with the cephalopod on this.”

“And what exactly is ‘this’?” Natalia asked, letting some of her annoyance into her voice.

“Ah, naturally, you haven’t been told. Proprietary, you know, and very sensitive.” He beamed. “But I think you’ll like it. Ah…David, maybe it’s best if you explain.”

Gilcrest was almost diffident, and got to the point much more quickly in front of his boss. “As you experienced today, we’ve found a way to translate the electric signals we can pick up from an octopus’s brain into visual stimuli that humans can, ah, with some learning, understand.”

Natalia nodded into the pause.

“Our overall goal, however, is much more ambitious.” Gilcrest glanced at Kirk. “Our researchers believe that they can distinguish between brain activity based on immediate observation and brain activity based on memory.”

“Memory,” Natalia repeated.

“Specifically,” Kirk took over, “we plan to use the memories of octopi to rebuild the Great Barrier Reef.”

He was beaming, and Natalia wasn’t quite sure she was awake.

“Initially,” Gilcrest interjected, “we had planned to do a computer analysis of the images, but it turns out computers, including the best artificial intelligence we could get our hands on, have a very hard time interpreting these signals.”

“They can’t do it,” Kirk said. “Can’t. But the human brain…” he tapped his temple, still grinning at Natalia. “We can.” He paused, but her human brain couldn’t figure out anything to say to that. “So what do you say? Will you work on this with us?”

“What we want you to do is first, spend a lot of time getting calibrated, so that you can really understand what the octopus is seeing.” Gilcrest must have learned how to translate his boss’s macro-enthusiasms into operational terms, probably an important skill for him. He seemed to want reassurance, so Natalia nodded. “Then you’ll do a swim-along at the site of the reef. We’ll fit you out with some kind of recording tool that makes sense under water so you can take notes – and of course all the brain activity will be recorded, so you can rewatch it later if you like.”

“Then we analyze and figure out how to regrow the coral!” Kirk put in. “We know it’s a long shot but it’s also just weird enough to work. Will you do this with us?”

More octopus swim time and the chance to see how the Barrier Reef has once looked? She didn’t even have to consider whether the part about helping to rebuild it was realistic. “Yes,” Natalia said, and then belatedly remembered she should negotiate. “But I will have to increase my rate for this more intensive work.”

 

It took three weeks to calibrate to everyone’s satisfaction, and Kirk and Gilcrest both professed repeatedly that this was far faster than they had expected. They flew out to the site of the old reef by helicopter; Natalia, swaying in her seat, wondered if Vainilla, in the closely strapped tank of water, was any more comfortable than she was. She wondered what the electrodes, already soft-glued into place, were showing the technicians. Were they looking at the octopus’s current perception, or did the placement of the sensors hardwire them already into memory mode? What sort of memories did a helicopter ride inspire in a marine animal?

The project team was by then accustomed to Natalia taking her time to get settled before she signaled them to turn on her octo-vision. In this new environment she was particularly careful. They had tried out the memory function, but (as Gilcrest had said) the shallow bay didn’t inspire many memories in the cephalopod. Floating above the skeleton of the Great Barrier Reef, on the other hand, was creepy enough without any enhancement. Finally, though, Natalia raised her hand and closed her left eye.

A lost world bloomed before her eye.

Natalia had never seen such a densely populated marine environment. In Vainilla’s memory, fish and anemones and – there! a sea-turtle! – played among the astonishingly variegated coral. In the first five minutes Natalia counted at least seven extinct species, speaking their names urgently into the specialized recorder set in her respirator.

The world veered suddenly, and Natalia opened her left eye to see that Vainilla was careening towards the depths. The starkness of the dead coral was shocking, but much as Natalia wanted to shy away from it and stay in the richness of memory she had to keep that eye open to follow Vainilla. If I lose this octopus now… flew through her mind, though she knew even as she thought it that Vainilla would never escape; they must have a tracker or dozen implanted.

Natalia spiraled down after the cephalopod, opening first one eye than the other. It was eerie how the vibrant memories of life and movement, seen monochrome through the octopus’s eyes, matched the bleached present. It seemed wrong, and disorienting, as if what she was seeing in realtime was also a flashback. But everything seemed wrong now. The octopus was tickling crevices that were dry instead of carpeted in ciliae, crevices that were, in memory, homes. And there at the sandy bereft bottom of the sea, meters and meters below Natalia now, the octopus was writhing in search or desolation at the empty place where the octopi had once gathered.

Vainilla reached out towards the memories of individual octopi, each so clear and distinct that Natalia could almost feel the recognition. There were so many of them, whirling into focus one by one as Vainilla turned through the bone-bare patch of seafloor.

Natalia closed her right eye against the memory of – relatives? friends? community? – but the view from her left was blurry. She rose, ignoring her recorder and the questions in her earpiece. Only long-ingrained practice made her pause, almost forgetting why she did so, to hover a few meters below the surface, sobbing into her regulator until her body decided it was time to let herself float upwards.

 

Natalia had no idea what to do with this blankness, this intolerable feeling of loss. She hadn’t been able to drink usefully since her cousin was killed by a drunk driver, and while she enjoyed an ice cream cone now and then, she had never felt any desire to eat a pint of it at a time. She spent a lot of time in her apartment crying. Sometimes TV, if it was engrossing enough, could make the feelings go away for a while, and she became a squirrel for high attention shows, searching them out, stocking them, and rationing them. She flaked on job after job. Some people called her and left concerned messages when she didn’t answer. Her inbox was dotted with messages titled ¿señales de vida? But it was weeks before Natalia felt like talking to anyone and when she did, she didn’t know whom to call.

She went through her contact list again and again. Finally, on an inkling, she called Elsa. They had never been very close, but Elsa worked on climate change or pollution or something, and maybe she would understand.

When she thought about that call later, Natalia could never remember exactly what she said, how she explained this complex situation. She remembered the physical sensation of the words falling out of her mouth like a landslide and Elsa saying “Okay. Okay. It’s okay,” over and over. She remembered that when she had calmed down a little, Elsa made the tentative, requisite suggestion that she “talk to someone” and Natalia responded, almost hysterically, “here?” Elsa might not have understood what she meant, but Natalia was a transplant in Australia. The language still reached her in translation, interactions still happened through a membrane of foreignness. She couldn’t imagine trying to lay bare her feelings in this way.

“You should talk to a professional.” Elsa repeated it more firmly. “I am not a professional. I don’t know the right things to say.” She sighed then. “All I can tell you is my own experience. And…” It was a long pause, long enough to draw Natalia out far enough from the cotton-batting of her own pain to wonder if Elsa was okay. “There’s despair, almost all the time. And fury. And sometimes I don’t know what to do. But usually, most of the time…if I keep showing up, and if I focus on…on the immediate, on what’s in front of me…there’s some solace in that. I’m never sure it’s enough.”

“Ayayay,” Natalia said. “I hope I haven’t pulled you down into this dark place with me.”

And Elsa laughed. “I live in that dark place. I have sturdy ladders and lanterns.”

 

If it hadn’t been for that conversation, Natalia might not have taken the call from Gilcrest. Also the fact that she felt guilty about the way she had left the project, without explanation, after that day on the skeleton of the reef. Felt guilty and unprofessional and also kept wondering about Vainilla and what had happened to the octopus since then. Sometimes she wondered if Vainilla, in that medium-sized tank, was exhibiting the same symptoms of lassitude and disinterest that Natalia felt, and whether anyone noticed.

“Hey there.” Gilcrest sounded different; not the cautious egg-stepping she had dreaded, but a softening of formality. “Wanted to check in and see how you’ve been.”

Natalia tried to clear her throat of its obstructions without that being audible over the phone. “I’m all right.” The best she could manage. “I’m sorry about, about…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Nothing to be sorry about.” Gilcrest cleared his throat without seeming to feel any compunction about it.          “In fact, I’m sorry. Someone like you should have been an integral part of the project from the start, full-time staff with more training and preparation. It didn’t occur to us…”

How awful it would be, how completely horrifying Natalia finished for him in her head. “If you had hired someone full-time from the start,” she said, intending to sound reasonable and comforting, “then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to –”

Then she stopped, because until that moment she hadn’t realized that she was glad she had been involved in the project.

“Anyway,” Gilcrest cleared his throat again. “Ringo’s been asking for you, and we were wondering if you might want to come back for a little celebration we’re having to mark the success of the first coral installation.”

“Who’s Ringo?” Natalia asked.

Gilcrest chuckled. “How quickly they forget. Ringo.” An awkward pause while Natalia went through every staff member she could remember from the project, and found she could put names to precious few of them. “Your favorite octopus? Ringo?”

“Ringo??”

“Of course, Ringo.”

“You named an octopus Ringo?”

“You know. For the suckers?” At least he sounded sheepish about it.

“I’d be happy to visit with…Ringo.” Was it, at the end of the day, any sillier than Vainilla? All these silly humans with their silly human names for a beast that had no use for them. Or – “Did you say the octopus asked for me?”

“Exactly right. Took us a while to figure out what it was on about, to be honest. The new interpreter, of course, had never seen you…”

“Interpreter?” Everything has gotten new names while she’s been away.

“Well…yes. It turns out that the gadget can be used for communication. In fact, that was one of its early uses, for patients in what was thought to be a vegetative state. It didn’t occur to us that it could work the same way with a cephalopod.” He laughed uncomfortably. “Of course it should have.”

“Yes,” agreed Natalia. It hadn’t occurred to her either.

 

The celebration wasn’t at the bay. Of course not. It was at the site of the new coral installation. Which was on the site of the dead reef, ghost-ridden with memories.

The reef in process of reanimation, Natalia thought, trying to dispel the dread in her chest. The Lazarus reef. The Frankenstein’s monster of a reef. The zombie reef. This wasn’t helping.

At least they were going out on a ship – a large, fast, comfortable ship. “Ringo didn’t like the helicopter,” Gilcrest told her ruefully when she found him on deck. “I felt terrible when we figured that out.”

“Yeah,” Natalia agreed, wondering.

“Look!” Gilcrest pointed. “Dolphins.” They watched in silence for a few moments, wondering between each leap whether there would be another. “Maybe we’ll try with them next.”

Natalia wasn’t sure if she found that appealing or disturbing. “How are you using the octopus’s memory to rebuild the reefs?”

“We have no real maps of the reef,” Gilcrest said. “Some large-scale maps of where it was, and isolated videos that divers took of different small sections, but no solid documentation of what it looked like. Ringo has given us a much more detailed record.” He leaned his forearms on the railing, settling into the subject. “Of course, we’re not trying to recreate exactly what Ringo remembers. That wouldn’t be practical or possible. But the memories are giving us valuable clues to species proportions, and the usual depth of different types of corals, and so on.”

“An octopus consultant,” Natalia said, glancing around as if Vainilla could hear her. She had been avoiding Vainilla’s tank, not wanting to meet the octopus that way, but now she wondered if she should go say hi. Casually.

Gilcrest laughed. “Yes, maybe even more than you think. We’re trying to figure out ways to use the interpretation to go beyond Ringo’s memories, and see if we can get opinions and ideas about how to go forward.”

“Really? That sounds amazing.” For the first time, Natalia thought she might want to rejoin the project, but before she could figure out a way to bring it up, the tone of the engine changed. They had arrived, and it was time to gear up.

Natalia still felt nervous about seeing Vainilla again, but when she got into the water it was practically crowded. The interpreter was there, and a bunch of the bosses, including Kirk, had been outfitted with a wetsuit and regulator for the occasion. But the interpreter, a tall Australian woman, corralled that group at the surface with explanations and some equipment fiddling, almost as if she was running interference, and Natalia was left underwater with Vainilla and the disturbing headset.

She couldn’t make herself turn it on. She couldn’t. But the cephalopod was swirling around her, welcoming her, reaching out tentacle after tentacle but never quite touching her. Like when I was being careful with Vainilla, Natalia thought, and gave the signal.

The corals that bloomed before her right eye were vivid and strange, and they seemed to renew themselves endlessly, new shapes emerging from the old, and dancing among them all were fish and eels and many, many octopi.

“What is this?” Natalia asked around her regulator. “It’s different.”

“Oh yes,” Gilcrest said in her ear. “We’re trying a different part of the brain. We think this is Ringo’s imagination.” When Natalia couldn’t answer, he went on. “It’s the future.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malka Older’s science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus, Book Riot, and the Washington Post, and along with sequels Null States (2017) and State Tectonics (2018) is a finalist for the Hugo Best Series Award. She is also the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station. Her short story collection And Other Disasters will come out in November 2019. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than a decade of field experience in humanitarian aid and development. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at Sciences Po explores the dynamics of post-disaster improvisation in governments.