An essay by Camille Delacroix, as provided by Michael M. Jones
Art by Justine McGreevy
It all started with one simple question.
“Daphne, why is there an octopus on the ceiling?”
For there was, indeed, an octopus clinging to the ceiling of the renovated warehouse space I shared with my girlfriend, and it appeared to be … replacing a lightbulb. It was a relatively small one, only a few feet across, and sadly, that’s as far as my ability to identify specific species of octopuses goes. And while I’ve gotten used to a lot of weird things ever since I moved in with Daphne Watson–scientist, inventor, accidental cross-dimensional exile–this was as unlikely a phenomenon as any. I wheeled myself into the room, the door helpfully shutting itself behind me with a hiss of pneumatics–another one of Daphne’s never-ending efforts to make our shared space both accessible and automated.
The mad scientist herself practically bounced out of her workshop, stripping off goggles and lab coat and tossing them into a bin just outside her door marked “Decontamination” and came over to give me an enthusiastic hug and kiss in greeting. “Camille, darling!” As always, she was all lush curves, big blue eyes, long blonde hair tucked up into a bun for safety, and you’d never have guessed that she had a frightening disregard for the laws of physics, a so-so relationship with ethics, and had nearly destroyed the universe on our first date.
I returned the greeting but knew better than to let her get distracted from the topic at hand. “Octopus. Ceiling. Explain?”
She waved a hand at the cephalopod which was even now lowering itself from the ceiling to crawl–scuttle–what was the proper term for that sort of thing, anyway?–across the counters. “This is Aronnax. I decided that we needed an assistant to help out around the place, and human interns ask far too many questions and always touch the wrong things so I … liberated him from the Puxhill Aquarium and gave him a few upgrades.”
“There is so much wrong with what you just said,” I informed Daphne, while keeping my attention on the so-named Aronnax, “that I’m just going to let most of it slide. How exactly is an octopus going to help around the house?” I didn’t even dignify her choice of names by admitting I recognized it as the French marine biologist from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Daphne was already smug enough.
She beamed, and settled down into my lap, making herself cozy. This, at least, was familiar ground. If you’ve never tried to snuggle a curvy blonde genius while in a wheelchair–well, you’re missing out. Get your own. This one’s mine, even if she’s a menace to common sense. “Well, octopuses are already extremely intelligent, so I barely had to tinker with his brain at all. If you look, you’ll see the external respiration and hydration tubing I’ve secured to his arms and body, which allows him to exist comfortably outside of his tank for an indefinite period of time. He’s capable of following simple instructions and with those arms, he can multitask. As a bonus, he can squirt ink for defense! He can help me in the laboratory, or he can assist you in building props for cosplay, and he can even reach the highest cabinets!” With each new thought, she wriggled with a little more excitement, threatening to unbalance us and topple the chair.
“I need you to take it down a notch,” I laughed. “This all sounds well and good, but I thought you’d learned your lesson about augmenting living creatures after you tried to create a pyrokinetic squirrel.” That was a long, long story. Luckily, no one ever discovered who caused the forest fires last summer …
“This is different, you see!” Daphne slid out of my lap and headed for the bathroom. “I need to clean up. You don’t even want to know what I was working with just now.” She paused for thought, turned back, and gave me a wink. “You might want to clean up also. You don’t want to know what I just got all over you … but chances are good that it won’t cause any unnecessary mutations.”
And because Daphne had long ago turned our shower into something truly sinful involving steam and high pressure, I just had to follow. But as we left the room, I couldn’t help but look back, where Aronnax was busy feeding our cat, Mr. Farnsworth. Though the octopus was apparently just as capable as any human at opening cans and dumping the contents into a bowl, poor Mr. Farnsworth was staring, both fascinated and appalled, the very model of snub-nosed, poofy-tailed bewilderment. Honestly? That cat has seen far worse. He’d be okay.
Somewhat to my surprise, Aronnax worked out rather well over the next few weeks, and soon it felt like we’d always had an octopus around the house. With his help, Daphne was able to work on twice as many projects, including the legitimate consulting she did for local tech firms. His extra arms came in handy as I tackled a particularly ambitious costume for an upcoming convention–I wanted to go as Orisa, the robot centaur tank from Overwatch. He helped with cooking and cleaning, and once Daphne attached a small laser pointer to an arm, he could even play with Mr. Farnsworth. And he was remarkably low maintenance–Daphne had converted one of her extra rooms into a sizable tank, with all the conveniences of home for him. I suspected she’d duplicated the set-up at the Puxhill Aquarium. Aronnax certainly didn’t seem to mind. Though who knew what went on in that head of his?
Perhaps we should have paid more attention.
Really, after the robot dinosaurs, we should have paid more attention.
As it was, the first indicator that things were a little off-kilter came when several packages from Amazon showed up, addressed to an “Aaron Nacks” at our address. Even as Daphne and I tried to figure out if we even knew an Aaron Nacks–“Isn’t he that guy with the beard who lives across the street?” our own Aronnax trundled between us, grabbed one small package in each of several arms, and dragged them into his room.
“Did he just–?” began Daphne.
“He did,” I replied.
So we had a talk with our octopus assistant. Well, as much as one has a conversation with an artificially augmented cephalopod who works for a mad scientist and her grad school girlfriend. He doesn’t use words, obviously, but he’d learned a fair amount of rudimentary American Sign Language in order to communicate with us. And it turned out that he’d set up his own Amazon account while we’d been asleep. But how did he pay for everything, we wanted to know.
I never would have guessed in all my years that he’d been mining cryptocurrencies in his spare time. But it makes so much sense.
Reassured that everything was as legitimate as one could expect under the circumstances, we agreed that Aronnax, as an intelligent member of the household, was clearly free to pursue extra work and to spend his money as he saw fit, so long as he didn’t do anything that would bring the authorities down on us. And that was that. Life went on. A new semester of school started, and I was soon too busy studying to pay close attention to things around the house.
But then Aronnax started leaving at night. And Daphne and I had to have the long, long conversation about how he wasn’t a pet, or a slave, and of course he was free to go out now and again, as long as he was safe, and didn’t attract any attention and–
“How exactly does an octopus move around the city at night and not get noticed?” I had to know.
“He found and adapted one of my experimental camouflage units!” Daphne chirped, sounding far too pleased with herself. “I thought it was a failure, but he made some tweaks, and, well, now he looks like a stray dog. Plus, this is Puxhill, people have probably seen weirder.”
I groaned, and let it go. There were days when the less I knew, the better it would be when they came for us and I had to testify to the spooky men in black suits. It was only a matter of time, after all.
And then Aronnax brought home a friend. Another octopus. Daphne cooed over the fact that he had a girlfriend; I checked the news to see if the aquarium had lost any of its exhibits. I wasn’t surprised when I found a headline the next day. “Octopus Makes Daring Midnight Escape.”
“She has to go back,” I insisted.
“Can we really return her to a life of captivity?” Daphne retorted. “I mean, you’ve seen those stories about how regular old octopuses escape all the time, right?”
“But he broke into the aquarium and liberated her.”
“And you didn’t argue overly much when I did the same thing.”
“Yes, but–” I knew this wasn’t going to go anywhere. And she had a point. I’d given up the moral high ground in favor of an office assistant with eight arms.
That’s when Aronnax and his new girlfriend both crawled past us. She had external augmentation just like he did, allowing her the same range of freedom and mobility.
“Okay,” Daphne said. “But no more! Leave the Puxhill Aquarium alone!” she instructed the two of them.
Aronnax flipped her something which was either agreement or dismissal, and the two vanished back into his room, dragging a crate of spare parts behind them.
“This won’t end well,” I told her. “You know, I know it, it’s time to do something before we’re the epicenter of an octopus uprising.”
“You’re right. It didn’t go so well on my world, either. We had to cede most of the Florida Keys to them.”
I side-eyed Daphne. Though I occasionally questioned how much of what she admitted of her world was truth and what was exaggeration, she certainly seemed serious. “You realize that like any good parents, we’re going to have to do some snooping, right?”
And so the next time Aronnax and his companion–Conseil, we called her, another literary reference–left on a midnight errand, we thoroughly searched his room, logging into his computer and rummaging through the assorted supplies he’d laid in.
“So we have the parts and schematics for more augmentation rigs, blueprints for every major aquarium in the country, several pilfered laser pistols–really, I thought you’d locked them up better!–and a truck rental agreement,” I said, after we’d finished our inspection. “I think it’s pretty obvious what they have planned.”
“Octopus liberation,” said Daphne, looking more serious than usual. “You know, that’s not the most disturbing thing. Check this out.” She’d pulled up a deeply hidden set of files on Aronnax’s laptop. I wheeled over and peered at them. They made no sense to me. I said as much. She laughed, nervously. “These appear to be plans for a faster-than-light quantum drive. For a spaceship. Something which shouldn’t even be possible. It wasn’t on my world, as far as I know. This is–”
“You know, I read an article some time back that claimed octopuses are as close to aliens as we’d ever find here on Earth.”
She nodded. “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?”
I knew better than to fall into that trap. I’d introduced her to that cartoon. Instead, “Aronnax plans to liberate more of his people, build a spaceship, and return to the stars from whence they came.”
“That seems likely,” she agreed.
“So what do we do?” I asked her. “I mean, do we stop them? Do we … destroy their technology and remove their augmentation rigs and return them to the aquarium?” And the thought of robbing Aronnax and Conseil of their freedom and liberty sickened me to my stomach. It wasn’t right.
She shook her head, vehemently. “Oh no! We can’t do that! It would be wrong, and cruel!”
And even though she’d gotten us into this mess, I still loved Daphne Watson for having a good heart, if no real common sense. “We’re not going to help them, are we?” I asked warily.
“I think we’ve done enough on that end,” she admitted. “I suspect it would be wisest if we … I don’t know … looked the other way?”
“Maybe it’s time to encourage Aronnax to move out,” I said dryly. “He should get his own place if he wants to engage in mass liberation, starship building, and interstellar exploration. Like any kid.”
Our decision made, we turned towards the door, ready to leave. And of course, there was Aronnax, now flanked by Conseil and a third octopus, who also wore the augmentation rig. And each of them held a small laser pistol, pilfered from Daphne’s workshop, pointed right at us. Hopefully, these were the ones set to stun, rather than anything more deadly. For a long, long moment, we had a staring contest: two humans versus three unblinking cephalopods.
Finally, they lowered their pistols, and moved aside so we could exit. I wheeled carefully so as not to run over any stray arms. As I passed Aronnax, I stopped. “I–for what it’s worth, good luck. And it was nice having you around.”
He reached out to pat my arm with one of his own, and I shivered a little at the unearthly feeling. He withdrew it, and the three vanished into the room.
They left that night, taking all their habitat and equipment, schematics and plans with them.
It’s been quiet ever since, although octopuses continue to vanish from aquariums at an increasing rate. There’s been some weird chatter online, and every so often I’ll see posts from an “Aaron Nacks” regarding odd technological questions, or supporting animal rights, and I wonder if somewhere, a spaceship is growing ever closer to completion. We may never know for certain.
In the meantime, Daphne has been looking for a lab assistant of the human variety over at Tuesday University. It’ll be safer all around.
Camille Delacroix is a lifelong native of Puxhill, where she attends Tuesday University as a grad student and TA for their Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program. A diehard geek and avid cosplayer, she’s highly active in the local fan community when she’s not mainlining caffeine and stressing over schoolwork. Her girlfriend, Daphne Watson, claims to be an “esoteric specialist” from an alternate timeline where airships are still in vogue, and asserts that she possesses advanced knowledge of numerous disciplines, “most of which aren’t even considered legitimate science in your world.” They have a cat named Mr. Farnsworth.
Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who dies a little inside with each new alliterative title he tests on her. His work has appeared in places like Constellary Tales, F is for Fairy, and Utter Fabrication. He edited Scheherazade’s Facade and Schoolbooks & Sorcery. Daphne Watson and Camille Delacroix first appeared in “Saturday Night Science” (Broadswords and Blasters, Issue 1) and will next appear in the Robot Dinosaurs! anthology. For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com
Justine McGreevy is a slowly recovering perfectionist, writer, and artist. She creates realities with the hope of making our own a little brighter. You can see more of her artwork and find links to connect on social media through her website justinemcgreevy.com
“Observations and Oversights on the Opportunistic Occupation of Octopuses in the Office” is © 2019 Michael M. Jones
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Justine McGreevy