"Squids are super-intelligent, they feel pain, and appear to be conscious. That's what we've recently learned. I read that in 'Nature'," he adds, with a smirk.
I look down at the white ring of flesh at the end of my fork, a piece of calamari from a salad. Jesus, this was a conscious being? I put down the fork and fight an impulse to vomit.
He reaches over and snags a piece with tentacles and chews it loudly. "Yum, the consciousness makes it soooo gooood."
I don't wait around to hear the rest, I stand up and walk out of that restaurant, walk out of that life.
Nate, my now-ex boyfriend, doesn't even stand up, doesn't say a thing. I walk out and he is silent, continues to eat the calamari.
I catch a bus back home and wonder what it would be like for that squid, the one who gave his life for my salad. Was it caught out in the open ocean? While it was out with its parents, its friends, family. Do any of these words even apply to the squid I was just eating? Do squid ever meet their parents? I have so many questions, so I start reading the wiki article about squid.
The next time I look up from the article on six-headed sea monster Scylla, I realize the bus has gone pretty far from home. I missed my exit at least half an hour back. No worries, just staying on until... I consider and remember the schedule. The Aquarium! That's a happy coincidence.
The bus stops right outside the aquarium and I head to the front entrance. Students get in for half-price, so the aquarium a popular spot, which is another reason the aquarium does so well. I pay at the entrance and wander about, eventually, of course, ending up in a dark, large room. Levels of huge steps are surrounded by the aquarium, a glass ceiling and walls serrated by crisscrossing beams. There are a handful of large sharks and lots of smaller fish behind the glass. But I'm looking for Gloria.
Gloria is a Pacific giant octopus who is recovering from an incident with a trawler. She's a year old, so in octopus terms that means she's a pouty teenager: sullen some days, happy and jubilant others. The naturalists explained this to me a few weeks back, the first time I noticed her. I walk up the tall stairs to the very back of the room and sit down in my usual spot. Behind me there's a circular hallway - this whole space is a big hemisphere - that provides enough light for me to read by. I pull out my diary and start writing.
Writing allows me to think concrete thoughts about complex shit, like my life. I am able to think objectively about things that otherwise would be very personal. I can look at the description when I'm happy or when I'm sad, and see how my brain warps reality.
It takes about two sentences to realize I never really liked Nate, so this "breakup" is nothing to fret about. We were barely even dating.
That out of the way, I ponder why I am so upset by his comments. I write in my journal and intermittently glance up at Gloria.
(While journaling, I speak as various of my perspectives. I don't have multiple personalities knocking inside my head, I just try to view a situation from various different but consistent points of view. These perspectives have different names, to better distinguish them.)
Her: Do you care? That you're eating a conscious and thinking animal? Don't they deserve to live out happy and fulfilling lives? Or are those experiences reserved just for humans?
Me: They do live out happy and fulfilling lives out there in the ocean. And then once in a while they get caught by the humans. That's also a part of life for them. "One Bad Day"
Her: And what about the ones we do keep, like Gloria?
Me: We do not keep them against their will for some nefarious purpose. They are recovering, recuperating, and their presence has a positive impact on society. No exploitation, and the healthy ones are let go back into the ocean. At least in this place...
I look around and note that the hall is empty, I'm the only visitor at this time.
Gloria hangs in the middle of the giant piece of glass and watches me. Her eyes are aimed straight into mine. Her gaze holds me and I am paralyzed. This octopus, Gloria, is connected to my mind, is wreaking havoc within. I feel her surging through my memories. It is strange, but not unpleasant.
That's what goes through my mind as I watch a conscious entity behind three feet of glass. These thoughts are loopy, so perhaps I am getting hungry.
I head out to the food court and get an ice cream cone, then head over to a balcony that overlooks the bay. It's late in the day, later than I thought. The sun is setting and the aquarium will be closing soon. But I've got plenty of time and no plans tonight (thanks to Nate!), so I go back to the dark aquarium and continue journaling.
Her: We catch them by the ton - to be fried or eaten raw or whatever - squids being plucked out of their society.
Me: Come on, is there a society?
Her: How do we know there isn't? OK, maybe not 'society' in our terms, but some kind of cohesive social group? Sure! And those social groups are definitely going to miss their friends. Imagine if that was humans! "Oh, Bob? Got grabbed last week, was in someone's sandwich. And the bastards only ate one half, threw out a perfectly good torso! Damn, I'm gonna miss Bob's torso. And Bob!"
Me: That's funny. OK. So, no more eating social creatures, are you happy?
Her: Depends. Are you still gonna eat salmon?
Me: Hell yeah. Salmon are mouths that swim, there's no consciousness there, just pure instinct to succeed, to get old, to propagate. Octopuses know who they are, they understand existence on a level with us.
Come to think of it... Plants are even lower on the consciousness level, so more people eat them. (Carnivores and omnivores eat plants too.) The higher on the consciousness ladder, the less appealing it is to some of us humans?
Whoa, that says a lot. Cannibalism, then, is the least appealing. But we know that people, as everything else, fall into a standard distribution for every single quality. So there must some far-right (on the standard curve) individuals who prefer eating those equal to them. And even fewer who would like to eat god.
"Whoa," I whisper to myself, "what the hell is this path? How did we get here?!"
I look up at Gloria and find her swimming around on the other side of the aquarium, far from me.
My phone buzzes. A text from Nate. It's just a link to a local newspaper, and the text in the link tells me that the first octopus farm is opening this month. I don't bother clicking on it, I can figure it out already.
They're going to house and raise intelligent beings, they will cull them, and they will kill them.
"Fuck, that's depressing."
I block Nate.
My stomach hurts, I'm incredibly uncomfortable. How much of this is fear? Do I fear retaliation from Nate?
I do some breathing exercises, then get back to my journal.
A fucking octopus farm! They're going to raise and kill octopuses. Like raising and killing a bunch of humans. Those poor creatures are going to form cliques, they'll have questions about existence that will never be answered. They'll only know enclosure, they'll never experience the ocean.
How would it look like if it was humans, instead? How would they keep us pacified and behind fences? Wouldn't we revolt? Perhaps humans aren't good cattle. To domesticate us, you'd have to turn down our disposition, make the odds of a riot unlikely, that kind of thing.
"Are these weird thoughts?" I ask myself and hold the diary in front of me. Within my view, Gloria hangs and watches.
I feel a connection to her. I imagine a couple dozen humans (one for each fish) behind the glass, scurrying around in cliques, yelling at each other, laughing. I imagine locking eyes with one of those humans. A connection between minds.
One of Gloria's long tentacles hits and sticks to the glass in a strange shape. It looks like the number 4.
I follow one of the other tentacles and notice that it's mostly straight and looks like an arrowhead. It's pointing to the right, where the tunnel from the outside enters the room. At the junction there is a closed door with a red sign. Next to it is a security pad with a grid of numbers.
I look back at Gloria. I look into her eyes.
She looks into mine, and I feel the connection. Hers is a spirit asking for help. I cannot back down. For a moment I imagine a black-and-white photograph from WW2 or Vietnam, a terrorized civilian running into their saviors' hands, crying as they did. I will storm beaches for you, Gloria!
Her tentacle pulls away from the glass, then comes back in a wavy pattern. It looks like the number 3. The arrowhead tentacle steadily points to the right, it doesn't waver.
The tentacle pulls away a few more times and comes back in the shape of a number. The first was 4, then 3. It takes a minute, but eventually I see 9, 5, 7, 1.
Gloria pulls back the tentacle that spelled out the numbers. The arrowhead tentacle still points-
Gloria whirrs away from the glass and disappears behind a tall coral. Two visitors enter the dark space, then a keeper. I go back to my journal.
Gloria is hiding this interaction from the keepers. Are they also guards? I glance up into the shadows, try and locate telltale red lights of cameras. Some aquariums have webcams, so you can see the big exhibit from anywhere in the world. This one doesn't, that's a relief. What is it that Gloria wants? And why is she afraid? Are people hurting her?
I go back to my journal, but I'm not writing anything. I'm watching the other humans in the exhibit. The keeper is the first to move on, and eventually so do the visitors.
I gather my stuff and walk slowly towards the corner, next to the door with the red sign. I glance at the security pad and figure out how to operate it. I've seen these before, seen how they are used. I pause in the corner and put on my jacket. I'm looking both into the aquarium and the ramp leading to it. There's no one there.
I turn to the security pad, press Enter, then 4, 3, 9, 5, 7, 1. The lock blinks green, but nothing happens. I press Enter again, and there's a clicking sound as the door unlocks.
"The aquarium is closing, ma'am." The voice stuns me, I let go of the door handle and turn around. I've already got my backpack on, so I walk out of the aquarium and head toward the bus stop.
I take the bus home. I hear a commotion as the elevator approaches my floor, and once the doors open I instantly know what's going on.
Nate is audibly drunk and is arguing with the floor RA. I hear the voices of two other RAs. They've got this handled. I stand against the wall of the elevator and smash the "doors close" button like my life depends on it. Because who the fuck knows, it might!
I'll be back later, I decide. I don't want to be around here for this.
The journal in my backpack suddenly weighed heavily upon my emotional soul. I realized how helpless Gloria must feel, in her enclosure. She needs my help, and I'm so sorry I left her alone.
Every high-schooler knows how to sneak into the aquarium, and yet most of us still pay. I feel good supporting the place. The fact that it's where most of us got drunk and/or laid for the first time doesn't change anything.
The ride-share shows up before I've navigated the dorm's ground floor. The driver is young and "hip", so we swing by a convenience store and pick up two handles of vodka. I leave one with him, and he doesn't ask why I'm going to the aquarium after hours.
The path is in the back, hidden by thorny vegetation, then up to the balcony and through the food court to the aquarium. To the door.
Gloria isn't visible as I rush into the aquarium chamber. I don't know where she is. Do I want to?
I go to the security pad, type in the code, and pull the door handle down.
I glance around again, verify that there's no one around, and slip through the door.
Like skyscrapers, gigantic green trees tower all over me. Past the high canopy is what looks like a river, but it's flowing placidly just a foot or two higher than the foliage. All around is a living, breathing, sweating jungle.
"Welcome to Eurestia," a voice to my left announces. I turn and see a man in his thirties, a bit over six feet tall, and an even taller squid. "My name is Benjamin Qui," the man says and smiles with genuine affection, "and it's my pleasure to welcome you to the real world. This is Hugh 417, my overseer. Call him Hugh, he likes that." The man waves a hand at the tall squid, who in turn bows toward me.
The squid has a large red head that sits on at least four sand-colored six-foot long legs. Arms, or tentacles with arm-shaped attachments hold something flat, like a clipboard. None of us are wearing a space-suit, so I assume the atmosphere is comfortable and possibly even home climate for everyone.
Benjamin is an asian man, bald head, a neon-blue braid of undulating snakes is his hair. His eyes are bright blue, the same color as the braid of strange hair.
"Real world? I don't understand." I look around and can't make sense of this.
"For the past...", the man takes a moment to consult his own clipboard, "For the past three years you've been Attending College. But that's only the cover story. You've actually been living on The Farm. The organization that runs The Farm, and in fact most of the galaxy, consider humans livestock, not sentient beings. Your college experience is not real, everything you've ever interacted with was manufactured. Think of a hologram that can push at you. You've sat through countless hours of astrophysics class in virtual reality, alone, believing a constructed lie. And, thanks to some political maneuvering, you are now free."
The squid makes a throat-clearing sound, and I can almost picture the caverns of red calamari flesh that make up his vocal chords. It's fascinating. Benjamin's braids glitter and shine and I'm lost for a moment, distracted from the unnerving reality of my existence.
"Thanks, Hugh," Benjamin nods. "Yes, political maneuvering, but mainly it was your own nature, your actions, your attempt to help out... Gloria, the octopus in the zoo. Your actions have led The Farm to terminate your contract, so you are now a free human. Which grants you some rights, and more in a few years once our species is admitted into the Wauluchian Empire. We have a reservation for dinner at a nearby viewpoint, I can answer all your questions there over a bite. Are you hungry?"