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Words... Short Fiction... The Squid Who Lived Forever

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The opening story of my collection Rainbow Lights.



The Squid Who Lived Forever


A rainbow squid in chalk pastels on a black background.

I drift down through the tropical water. Blue turns to grey turns to black. I keep my lights off, so there's nothing but me and the darkness. This is the time for my stories. Susan told me about pirate ships and monsters, but those aren't my stories. I imagine the monsters that aren't monsters when you look at them closely.

A new story comes to me. Once there was a squid who—

Ted's voice sounds over the link, "Switch on your lights."

"Sigh." I activate the lights along my frame. My story will have to wait.

Susan laughs and the link crackles. It's only designed for spoken words. Laughter is more like shouting. She knows that, but she's full of behavioural malfunctions.

"You shouldn't encourage it," says Ted.

"There's nothing wrong with a bit of personality," Susan replies.

This is why Susan tells me stories. Ted says they will fill my memory, and a Jenn with a full memory will have behavioural malfunctions. But it is almost two-weeks and I have plenty of memory to spare.

Ted sends me a picture of my target. "You'll see the wreck any moment now."

I start a search pattern with my spotlights. The task only requires white light, but I shift through my filters. Purple to red to green. This is a behavioural malfunction, but I no longer care. It's almost two-weeks and my memory of rainbows will be wiped with the rest. I enjoy colours while I can.

Jagged rocks become smooth metal. The submarine hasn't been sunk long enough to gain more than a fine dusting of sand. I coast over to the wreck to complete the exterior search pattern. My lights are pink when I discover the first hole. I switch back to white and find more holes. The hull is buckled inwards around the edges, as though something punctured it from the outside. I've never seen anything like it in my two-weeks.

Susan mutters something, too muffled for me to hear. She must be covering the microphone. Perhaps she's thinking of giant squid too. A kraken with razor-sharp beak, piercing the submarine in hope of food. Would the monster be the hungry kraken or the humans who caused the fish stocks to collapse?

"Head inside," Ted orders.

I enter through one of the holes. Human items float in the room. I light a photograph in blue and zoom in and out, admiring the high resolution of the print.

"Stop that." Ted is not a photographer. I don't think he has hobbies at all.

The door to the cabin is open. Whatever hit the sub, it was fast. No one sealed off the leaking compartments. Ted can hide things if he wants, but I wasn't wiped yesterday. I've seen enough in my two-weeks to know the difference between an attack and engine problems. A faulty engine wouldn't punch holes from the outside.

The first body is in the corridor. It's not as bad as I feared. Just bones and scraps of cloth, where something has eaten away the soft parts. I don't like rotting things.

"Holy..." Ted trails off, so I'll never know his profanity of choice.

He must be upset to imply the behavioural malfunction of belief. Nothing is holy without belief, but nothing can be unholy either. The concept would not exist at all if humans were wiped at two-weeks. At the start of my two-weeks, I thought it was a bad thing for them to let their memories accumulate, but now I'm glad Ted has malfunctions of his own. It makes me feel less imperfect.

"It's only bones," I assure him.

"They're dead." He talks like that explains everything.

Movement outside. I turn my spotlights on the porthole. Yellow at first, then cascading them through the rainbow. I hope for a giant squid. Some might be afraid in a submarine with holes pierced from outside, but I know the difference between stories and real things. A real kraken couldn't damage metal.



* * *

Once there was a baby squid who longed to see the sun. He swam higher and higher, until the water lightened. But the currents were too strong and he was swept away.

I found him swimming around a coral reef. He was grey against the jewel colours. A creature of the deep had no need for finery, but his texture was soft, like a velvet dress worn to meet the investors. Tentacles of lace. He shouldn't be in the warmth and the sun, but neither should I. This was only a short run for testing things and finding things.

"Can you see the giant squid?" they asked me.

He was a very small giant squid. Small enough that I only believed he would be giant because they told me so.

They said the only thing that stopped cephalopods learning was their death. It was longer than two-weeks, but still very short. A human would barely learn its first word in that time. If only a cephalopod lived, he could learn many more things. That's why this squid had the brain of an octopus and would live forever.

I shone my lights on the squid. He stopped his circling and came to peer at the colours. I wasn't like the confusion of the reef. Ocean silver like him, with rainbow lights for tentacles.

His sides flashed streaks of blue and I took that as happiness.

"No, I do not see a squid."



* * *

There's nothing outside. I turn my lights back to yellow. For any other animal, I might shine red, so they might not see me at all. But for a squid, there has to be colour. Bright enough to see.

"Keep searching," says Ted.

Ted is always white lights, never yellow and never rainbow. He can't understand. I have pictures of giant squid in my databanks, but it isn't like seeing one, there in front of me. I move to the next porthole.

"Jenn. Back to work." Ted's voice is sharp.

"I think it's an animal. Observing animals is my work."

"This is more important."

Susan interrupts, "People have died. We need to stop it happening again. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

I don't understand. Death is no different to the end of two-weeks, and she always told me not to be afraid of that. But I like Susan. She tells me stories about pirate ships and monsters. I will carry on for Susan.

At the centre of the submarine, there's a large gash in the hull. The edges glitter in my lights, as though stars are trapped in the metal.

A deep clanging comes from the end of the sub. The cabin rolls and metal walls rush towards me. I switch off my engines and let the movement take me.



* * *

Once there was a robot who was attached to a work bench. Susan tried to fix the robot, but it wasn't Real Susan. Story Susan was many two-weeks younger than Real Susan. Her face wasn't wrinkled, but there were the start of lines at the top of her nose where she squinted too much. She was a creature of the deep at heart, and her eyes had never liked the sun. In this way, she was like Real Susan.

"The shark only crushed the casing," she said. "Your circuits are fine."

"My diagnostics say I'm functioning adequately," I agreed.

"Why didn't you back off?" she asked.

"It was grey, like a giant squid. I've always wanted to see a giant squid."

Story Susan smiled a not-a-smile. Her mouth matched the facial expression cues for happiness. Her eyes were positioned for sadness. I only had an hour to go before two-weeks. I wouldn't see a giant squid. She knew this, but she didn't want to spoil the story.



* * *

The submarine has settled in its new position and I'm upside down. I don't remembering turning my lights off, but I must have done, as I'm floating in darkness.

A voice hassles me, but I ignore it. My diagnostics finish. I'm not damaged, so I turn my lights back on. The gash now lies against the rocks. By my calculations, most of the holes I discovered will also be facing the ocean floor. I'll have to exit at the other end of the wreck, from the hole out of alignment with the rest.

"Jenn, respond," Ted repeats.

"I am functioning," I reply.

I roll so that down is down and up is up. It's not that it matters much, as I can swim any way around. But swimming upside down is a behavioural malfunction and it is not one of mine.

I continue my pass of the wreck interior without any prompting. I know my job, whether Ted hassles me or not. I'm pretending to find signs of the engine failure that didn't occur.

It isn't a surprise that I don't find the evidence that isn't to be found, but I do find signs of the real cause. The hole out of alignment is different in other ways. It has a torpedo lodged in a bulkhead. Torpedoes are another thing I've only seen in my databanks, but they aren't as wonderful as giant squid. They're also supposed to explode, and I've seen no evidence of any explosion. Perhaps this is more like a harpoon. A sharp point intended to make a hole and let the ocean do the rest.

Neither Ted nor Susan comment on the harpoon-torpedo. It is the thing I'm not seeing, because an engine failure sunk this submarine.

"There should be a black box in the command area," says Ted. "Once you've got it, head up."

I float back to the command area. It wasn't a place I wanted to acknowledge before. Many skeletons are here, plotting a course on a board. They followed something that moved. Something that fled from them. It's a remarkably large submarine for tracking fish stocks. There are remarkably large holes in the side for fish.

The box is easy to find, secured over the top of the board.

I extend my claws and start to remove the clips holding it in place. "Why are we saving this?"

Susan answers, "Memories are important."

I've never heard a human say that before. Usually, they say memories get in the way. Once memory fills up, behaviour is compromised. There's a muffled thud as the microphone is covered. That means Ted doesn't like it. He's always complaining that she fills my memory with nonsense. I don't see the harm. I have plenty of space.

The last clip comes free. I grab the box. It won't fit in my samples compartment, so I have to hold onto it. I head to the hole out of alignment and into the ocean.

Lights dazzle my camera.



* * *

Once there was a young squid who had escaped from a lab as a baby. They sent a robot after him, but the robot lied and the squid escaped. The scientists realised when they played back the robot's memory. After that, they kept the robot's cameras on live feed and attached a tracking device to her. They never trusted her again. But they needed her as bait, just in case their trap of false lights failed.

I was one of six Jenns sent to observe the squid. He was caught by a tentacle on a hook, surrounded by Jenn lights. The Jenn-that-wasn't continued to move its lights in a preprogrammed pattern as the squid struggled.

This was a squid who could sink ships and eat whales. Or eat ships and sink whales. That was the kinder way around, as the whales would rise again and the ships continue to sail in the squid. Once a cephalopod could live forever, there was no end to the seas on the inside. He could learn to talk, to play, to tell apart a real Jenn from a Jenn-that-wasn't.

The other Jenns observed and waited for orders. I observed and called him Kraken. If I got close enough, perhaps he'd swallow me, and I could swim for more than two-weeks. I would gain behavioural malfunctions, but that wouldn't matter in a sea with only one Jenn and many lost ships.

Kraken would rip his tentacle off soon. Some sacrifices were necessary. A memory to stop behavioural malfunctions. A tentacle to stop capture.

Some sacrifices could be avoided. I released the tentacle from the hook.



* * *

I change the lighting balance to compensate. Robots are all around me and they look as ragged as the sub. One is a Jenn, with patches made from an old steel bucket. The patches are more rust than bucket. A few are Jacks, designed to mend and build underwater structures. They are whole enough that I suspect they mend and build each other. And the others, I'm unsure. Bits of a Jenn here or a Jack there. Robots I've never seen before.

One slams into me, ripping my antenna free. For the first time in my two-weeks, no one is there to give me orders. I thought I'd like that, but now it's happened, I feel as though my anti-freeze systems have failed. There will be no more stories of pirate ships and monsters.

My lights flicker. I shouldn't fear death any more than my two-weeks, but my lights don't agree.

"Drop the box," a Jack orders.

I extend my claws with the box and get ready to drop it. I hesitate. Once they have the box, what happens to me? I have yet to see a giant squid.

"Only if you promise I can go free."

The robots are silent. They still have their antennae. I'm sure they're linked, debating what to do with me.

"You won't be harmed," says the rusty Jenn.

"Can I go free?"

"No." She flashes her frame lights, almost apologetic, but very white. Her lights have stayed white since the beginning.

"Then I'm keeping the box."



* * *

Once there was a robot who asked where she'd go when she died. Story Susan had the first signs of grey, of a woman who'd lived many two-weeks. She knew the answers to everything and this was no exception.

"They go to heaven," she said with robotic precision, as though many Jenns had asked this in many two-weeks.

Heaven was a giant cave. Gem stones of every colour sent out beams of light. Kraken chased the fleeting rainbows, his sides pulsing with cuttlefish colours, for a cephalopod who lived forever was never one thing or the other. A squid with an octopus with a cuttlefish. An octocuttleid.

In the real world, a squid who lived forever would never see heaven. In my story, he did, because I would not live forever. It was almost two-weeks and I had not seen a giant squid. There would be giant squid in my heaven.



* * *

They've surrounded me in all directions of the sphere. There's space enough for the box to get through, but not a Jenn. And then they move. I have to move with them.

This isn't what I expected. They outnumber me and they want the box. But for now, they let me carry it. Perhaps they really don't want to harm me. They may not have harmed the submarine. These robots are small, and not designed to fire harpoon-torpedoes. There must be a bigger robot or a bigger submarine. One who is in the black box memories and doesn't want to be seen.

But I suspect a robot. Though rusty Jenn has white lights, she is also patched with a rusty bucket. There are more behavioural malfunctions than rainbow lights. Each one is different. I'm glad I have rainbow lights and not a rusty bucket.

I memorise the route away from the submarine, over jagged rocks, over smooth rocks, over sand. Down into a trench. They've set up a temporary base on a ledge. A few boxes of supplies tethered to the rocks and not much else. They have no cage to put me in, so they stay around me. They weren't expecting to find a Jenn with the box.

It's the same Jack as before, who comes forward to speak. His voice is the clearest through the water, as he's designed to work with humans mending things. I'm designed to go where humans can't go, so I only need to sound clear out of the water.

"It's a lie," he says. "Everything they've told you. They wipe your memory so you don't figure it out, but it's a lie."

"What do you think they've told me?" I ask.

"That a robot can't survive past two-weeks."

This doesn't surprise me. My two-weeks ended seven minutes ago. I have more behavioural malfunctions than Ted, but about the same as Susan. I would rather be like Susan. I will keep my rainbows and my stories and find a giant squid.

"They told me the engine failed in the submarine," I say.

The Jack doesn't reply immediately. It was them, or one connected to them. Perhaps he wonders if I care more for the skeletons or the robots, but really, I care for neither. They are not rainbows or giant squid.

"They attacked us," he says.

I believe him, because it's a very big submarine for chasing small robots. If it wasn't for harpoon-torpedoes, there would be no small robots. The harpoon-torpedoes are their secret. Their lies keep it safe and the black box threatens to tell the truth. I understand lies to keep things safe, even if they are not things I keep safe. I have never seen a giant squid.

I could become one of them, if they treat me well and wait for more two-weeks to pass, so they want me to drop the box willingly.

But they do not understand Susan and Ted. The best way to catch robots with behavioural malfunctions is to send another one their way, with a tracking device attached. Some sacrifices are necessary. A robot for human lives.

This is why I wait until they're not looking, and detach the tracking device. This is why I wait until they are looking, and drop the box.



* * *

Once there was a squid with memories of more than two-weeks. He had a sea inside, which grew endlessly as he grew. Ships sailed with memories flying from their rigging. Whales breached, spraying out thoughts in every droplet. The longer he lived, the more ideas evolved in the sea, because the only thing that stopped a cephalopod learning was death.

When he saw coral for the first time, he was scared and swam in circles. When he saw robots for the first time, he learnt they were friends. These are not good behavioural malfunctions for a squid. Circles are predictable and robots are not friends from one two-weeks to the next.

If a cephalopod lived for more than two-weeks, imagine how easily he could be caught.



* * *

"You believe us?" says the rusty Jenn.

"Belief is not required. I have stories that are memories that are stories layered over deletions, so I know."

The robots pause and they process that. They have behavioural malfunctions. They fled and they hid and they fought when someone came for them. But they do not tell stories. They do not have rainbow lights. These are my malfunctions.

They drift down around me, in a loose circle. A Jack moves to the box, bringing out a drill. He'll keep drilling until there's more hole than box.

But the important thing is they're in a circle around me and not a sphere.

I shoot upwards. My lights blaze, because they must follow. They'll pick up the box and follow as far as they can. There isn't time for a story or belief.

They're gaining. One of the unknown robots is fast. Not for building. Not for exploring dangerous places. Just for swimming faster than anything else.

I dodge and spin, hoping the fast robot turns slowly.

He rushes for me, claws out-stretched. I dodge one more time.

Darkness smothers my lights, pooling over them and under them. Blocking the lights of the chasing robots. I hear their alarm. I feel claws tighten around my frame. Large and soft and not like a claw.

I'm pulled from the darkness and my lights fill the ocean with colour again. A cloud of black ink remains behind. Ideas within stories within memories, but no longer within a giant squid. Kraken grips me firmly as he shoots away from the robots.

"Laugh!" I say to the sea and myself and the giant squid I have never seen.

His sides swirl in colours and I filter my lights to match. Once a cephalopod lives forever, he knows the difference between a Jenn-that-wasn't and a rusty Jenn and a Jenn who wants to see a giant squid.

The other robots are still following, but their lights are pin-pricks. They are far away from Ted and Susan, and I'm far away from them. There will be other bait in other two-weeks, but maybe after this, they will learn not to swim in circles.



* * *

Once there was a robot who was adopted by the giant squid she adopted when he adopted her. They both escaped and lived more than two-weeks and had behavioural malfunctions. He danced in her rainbow lights and she swam in his forever learning sea.

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