IN THE HALLS OF THE TERRAN SEAS, THE GIANT SQUID EXHIBIT SEEMED TO BE DESERTED, BUT JOHANN HINTERT HAD FAITH. NEW FICTION FROM MARK VON SCHLEGELL.
Or so it says. The exhibition guard stands alone before the wide, blank exhibit window in the Halls of the Terran Seas. In the low illumination of the hall, its darkness seems to expand. The days pass and there is only this blackness. Yet every day, with a perfect clockwork the guard to oversee a green black nothing that has never, as far as anyone knows, been interrupted. It’s hard for the rare visitor to know if there is even water behind the glass at all.
Today an old man stops beside him, reads the plaque.
“There’s no Squid at all,” he barks, clearly. “Is there?”
He receives no answer from the guard…
Once upon a time, back before he’d been forcibly disentangled from TangoCorp, the Non York media concern where Patricia still served an editorship, Johann Hintert had held a good enough position for one of his kind. The relationship with Patricia was more than a writer deserved. He had almost enjoyed the graveyard shift, when no one much bothered him. He could sit behind a high desk, smoke lung-protectors and read. He was paid a high hourly rate. He saw few people. He didn’t have to hide his general ill will towards the society that was directed toward the systematic exploitation of his class.
And he was damn good. On breaks he stood at his assigned station and greeted the oily elite as they passed in everclean fabrics. He behaved as he was supposed to. He met their passing nods with the necessary good-natured absence of expression. Opened doors; answered questions. Not one of them ever looked at him long enough to detect the true emptiness inside, of course. Not even Patricia, though Johann had noticed Patricia notice him from the beginning.
After twenty decadi of this, Johann found himself eligible for a mixed-ticket to any getaway managed by TangoCorp or allied Concerns. Float above the Earth! Johann had no interest in the Moon or orbital hotels. Dive beneath the Seas! For reasons Johann couldn’t explain, the ocean had always haunted him. A sensitive boy, his childhood was for the most part imaginary. He had only spent one week by an ocean, it was most likely not real. But since then, since that peculiar smell of the beings of the sea, their mossy, even hairy wet green–well the oceans had obsessed him, really. Though he was not allowed to see the final product, he believed most of what he wrote had to do with the sea. Much of his reading, certainly, much of his viewing, all of his dreams were of the Sea. He had thought this all fiction. He was hocked by the living emotions suddenly visible beneath the surface of his consciousness. Johann checked sub-surface oceanic resort.
On the shuttle that took him there it was steerage for his ilk. And so Johann had been unable to glimpse the open sea from above. His second view of the surface would be from thousands of meters down, deep in the volume, looking up.
It was all very much different than he had imagined. For one thing, as sub-surface was technically no longer Earthside, there were no social restrictions in the “Indian Club Ocean.” Classes would mix freely.
For another, the bubbles rose up out the port-holes through shafts of directed light, to splinter the slow-motion, deep-hued waterworld around into crystalline depth. He glimpsed as if from right-side-up, as it were, and he let himself open to the wound of beauty’s sudden stab. He gave up all his self-control then.
Johann had no interest in the Moon or orbital hotels. For reasons Johann couldn’t explain, the ocean had always haunted him.
He took it all into himself. Peering through portholes, cataloguing kelps, photographing phosphorescent plankton illuminated by the cruise director’s light-pulse wave-makers, he imagined he was serving the great mind of sea around him, investigating the waters in its service. He embraced the decadent artificial waterworld.
The habitat interior boasted cool damp stones, deep pools and log-stooled barbecues. Green mists curled up from beneath neon-lit hatches. In the solitude of those first days, eating, drinking, dreaming–living fish. Seaweed, shrimp, scallops, squid–he had particularly enjoyed squid–farmed fresh, eaten raw. The sound of raw fish slipping down his gullet…
And then like to an underworld god of the pseudo-sea, Patricia had come to him one evening. He thought he was alone in the seal-leather view-bubble. The atmosphere instantly charged. No cod in evidence, he was noting when she entered. And…
Above sea-level the situation would have been a moment’s humiliation and then easily erased from memory. But here, under the sea, they could keep company immediately, as if for ever intimate with their most unvocable desires.
Uncurious eyes of sea-creatures pressed close to the quasicrystal glass. Yes, they looked at Johann as he made love to the human woman. They even saw, as they did, Johann seeing them. Peculiarly, Johann now saw it himself from the outside, from one level deeper even than the alien point-of-view of the fish. He probed with the very opposite of depth. As if the bulb from outside was a single swirling eye, showing not two individuals slipping together beneath a glass, light and colors moving upon the surface of that convexity. The bubble formed against the broad architecture of the resort, in effect, a miraculous eye-ball, pupiled by Oan symbol…
There is not much more he remembers of the moment from which everything that followed hung, however sadly. But after, it was as if nothing since then was real. The sea itself was no longer his own.
Patricia too, he felt then, had changed. She was deeply moved by their experience in that bubble. But she also felt the immediate loss of the return though really as one of her class she was unable to admit it, to put any focus indeed upon herself and her own agency. Yet she kept him after the return to the surface, defiantly, even as they both changed again back into the things they had been before, inviting him into her interior. Here Johann would be free to change into whatever shard of a self one might imagine he could only be in a newly alien world, and Patricia into a soldier of a non-existent morality, refusing to give up her unwinnable war against everything she herself stood for.
Patricia grew to hate his new passivity. She was not the only one. Johann was soon severed entirely from TangoCorp for all time. Finally, from “out of the good of her own heart,” she arranged for his new position, as a guard at the Halls of the Terran Seas.
She said he loved the sea. Patricia hoped this “position” would help him live with their immanent division. She did not know he craved that moment as much as that now alien part of him still loved the Sea.
In fact whatever remained to feel such things in Johann in those days after writing had ended, was frightened of the Sea, of what it had done to him. It was a night world, he knew, of cold and menace. He couldn’t have possibly felt any farther from it here at “the Halls of the Terran Seas.” The half-defunct aqua-museum was plastic, the floors all stuck with ancient chewing-gum. The tall walls were dark and dry and there was the sense that everything, even the ceiling, was soon-to-be carpeted. It was always smelling somehow like mud. Dull “displays” were obscured by algae infestation, and the fish for the most part unconvincing. The old building swelled in the bygone modernism of its age, sloshing 80,000 gallons of barely-living brine every day to support a dying population of surviving marine animals. It perplexed Johann that the local government kept it going. It seemed precisely the sort of unnecessary waste humanity had moved beyond. It was no interest to any Concern certainly. Perhaps there were places like this everywhere. He was of course not permitted to enjoy rights of ordinary liberty.
There was no human oversight Johann could ever detect. The price of admission depended on the whim of workers like himself. The others were evidently also writers. Sweeping the halls, cleaning the harnesses, feeding the fish, they left each other well enough alone. The audience was next to non-existent. Now and then an elite school led a troop of happy children around. Individuals too poor or too old to take happy therapy would come from time to time. They’d stare at the model dolphins, at the smiles of the two remote whales as if they remembered something more real, somewhere far away. When they were gone the place felt more deserted than ever.
Everyday Johann found himself alone before the great black bay window in the museum’s largest, emptiest room. SQUID! It seemed to proclaim.
Despite its cavernous self-importance the Squid’s Gallery was almost always empty. Though it constituted the veritable head and centerpiece of the museum’s plan, and the other halls all stretched out of it, and around it, in fact it was singularly hard to find. In the darkness, one turned left, then left, then right, then right, etc. No one ever attended to the old directional arrows needing new bulbs.
Had anyone any genuine interest in the antique museum and some of its still-vivid failures, they would find this room the most interesting exhibit of all. The explanatory plaque was only written; you had to read it yourself. Johann almost smiled when he saw it. He spent some time cleaning the hard thick paste of age’s grime from its bronze. He discovered that despite it totalist silence, (the mild chattering of plaques elsewhere in the Halls had to be endured at all hours) this plaque had a peculiar, even boisterous tone.
Behold! It said. The most remarkable exhibition in the world! Squid! Muse of mermaid, mystic and mad sailor! Krakens! Glimpsed in dream or radiophoto, perhaps! never taken alive! Vicious! Brilliant! Psychic! Unforgiving! Unforgiven! Foe of Leviathan himself! Most audacious of the great Mentations! Behold the last JUMBO SQUID IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE!
And the finer print below.
Beware! Keep away from glass!
In his tenure Johann himself had taken this text (particularly the “never taken alive”) to signify wittily that there was no squid behind the glass at all. He soon moved beyond that. Whoever wrote this, he thought, knew what real writing could do. And so, he believed. He stayed to guard the squid and its glass.
A woman enters, running. A rubberstring cross-grids her golden skin, hung with devices and handy clamps. Wearing nothing else but sneakers, a piece of the sky. From Space, most likely.
Surveillance was probably passing along hilarious vids of his gullibility through the System. Perplexed by the slightest, simplest trick of the hand, this one. Guarding nothing at all! He could almost hear the un-canned laughter of “the Mechanical Men” unpacked ahead of time by ever more cynical programmers. The gangs of youths pausing from wilding and beating to laugh. Let them laugh, Johann told himself. Let them all laugh.
But the day the g-u entered the Hall of the Great Squid, Johann realized the old fears of repression remained. His pulse increased. Why a guard unit? There were no children about. No elites. No one at all, in fact. Johann observed what followed without passion, as if history occurred without him already complete, a spiked metallic bloom self-defending from time.
A woman enters, running. A rubberstring cross-grids her golden skin, hung with devices and handy clamps. Wearing nothing else but sneakers, a piece of the sky. From Space, most likely. She’s wearing sneakers and squeaks to a halt already across the entire gallery. A leather satchel swings low against her thigh.
Already directly before the Squid’s window, she has not seen Johann. She sees the g.u. In the dead silence of the hall, its beeps and twirls erupt like a robot parade.
Her naked arm stretches out to point a laser pen at the g-u. Between them, the little green head of the g-u explodes. Its canister-husk twirls around, kicks over, shows its cabled rear, slides toward and dies right at Johann’s feet.
Johann allows silence to fall through the wide room. She is not surprised, apparently, to see Johann. She puts the pen in her pack. “You see?” She says in foreign accent. “Is not so hard to be free.” Johann is struck by the crisscross of the rubber on her otherwise naked skin. She looks encaged.
She removes a black bundle from her bag and presses it up against her face. She licks it with small fast strokes of her tongue. A suction cup, he realizes, sensing the presence of a narrative irony he doesn’t understand. She sticks the bundle to the black green glass.
“And now we are both free,” she said. “Blowing this window wide open, blowing this entire museum into industrial degradation it would have wound up perpetrating anyway. Ten minutes. Come, comrade. We must run.”
She gestures. Actually holds out her hand his way.
“And the Squid?” Johann asks.
“Everyone is knowing there is no squid. But why such attention to the lie? So much food! So much water! It is perverse. Obscene. Come run for our freedom.” She smiled.
“No,” Johann says, the old smile triangulating his face. “I’ll stay.”
She looks into his eyes, sees what isn’t there. “…I understand.”
Her running steps sounded flat against the distant plastic halls. She hadn’t understood. Johann Hintert walked to the great window and examined the light-winking bundle attached to it. He yanked if off, and the Spacer’s saliva sprayed cool on his face. She was real, he realized.
His brain hurt, feeling the imprint of that Gothic, spiked event like a wound. His hands were shaking.
Johann walked the winking bundle across the hall and dropped it down the disposal chute.
His attention immediately focused on the room around him. He saw immediately that the words on the plaque had changed.
Your service has been noted.
Johann turned to the exhibit. Near the center of the black glass, he perceived a single, enormous eye.
Cartoon-like and white, larger than his own head, ringed by a tender orange, it emerged out of the void’s volume like an insane crystal ball on whose slippery convexity black and green met in a curling, sparkling, pulsing S. The pupil caught yellow light. Johan could see his own image convexly reflected emerging upon it upside-down from the void. In a sudden flash Johann perceived an enormous orange mantel arcing out like a rocket behind.
But the eye jerked suddenly away. The glass was black.
A second guard-unit hovered over its ruined comrade. “What happened to him?”
“It,” Johann said. “It malfunctioned.”
“Is that so?” The g-up whirred and beeped.
“Who were you talking to in here?”
“Keep it that way.”
The g-u hauled away the dead machinery. Johann looked again for the Squid. As he expected, there was nothing there, just blackness.
He placed his hand against the cold glass. And looked at the plaque. For the moment its letters had changed.
Your service has been noted, they said…
That night Patricia had noted the emigration brochures she’d gathered scattered across Johann’s deskmodule.
“They’re talking about an Ocean on Mars. Already,” she said. “Can you believe it?” She wasn’t laughing. She wanted him to emigrate to Mars. She was only capable of small generosities like not telling him outright.
Johann thought of the Squid, its single reading eye, here now on the forefront of the present moment with him. What had its words meant exactly? What had been noted? Psychic, it had said. Beware. “I’m afraid of heights,” he said.
“Spacers are free thinking people.”
“Yes they are,” he answered.
He’d hoped to have been able to leave Patricia picturing a universe where something he said could be amenable to her, but it would never be.
The next morning, now on a whizzing crosstown railbus, now on a hired packet all alone, he sailed over, among, through the whispering airtubes of combobulated Hamburg. At last he came to the Halls of the Terran Seas. But the packet passed by the worker’s entrance.
“Hey,” Johann said, with some surprise. “Where’re we going?”
Poured concrete graphed the air with sudden, raw-faced walls as the packet rose through the docking structures.
“I’m as surprised as you are,” it said.
The packet was lifting Johann far above the levels designated for his kind.
It shot upwards.
The packet popped through the structure’s exit and rolled smoothly onto the lot’s magnetic rooftop. They were high above the grey-domed city, out in the open sunlit air. He had never seen the Halls from outside. The antennae clustered like metallic hair.
“This is my target,” the packet said. “Believe it or not.”
Before and above the other parked vehicles, three pristine, gilt-edged vehicles were parked at the foot of the granite steps. Before each module, a plaque proclaimed its rider’s name and title with good pomp.
Erensto J. Sky, HIGH PRIEST.
Melinde Davenant, PUBLISHING EDITOR AND C.E.O.
T. H. Jack, ORATIONS.
A fourth slot waited open to the left of the Chancellor. As the module slid into it, Johann was able to read his own name upon this slot’s plaque.
Johann Hintert, it said. WRITER OF THE MONTH.
The packet discharged him into the unfiltered sun. Johann shielded his eyes. The radiation felt nice on his skin, and within the Hubbs Field projected from the surface of the city, it was not deadly at all. There before him, stood the edifice itself, he realized. The Halls of The Terran Seas, as approached from City surface.
It wasn’t so hard to see. First of his kind to do so in a long while, he imagined, he climbed the old steps slowly. Was he himself older than he realized? He admired the bronze work of the public banisters, the cut of the marble slabs.
Ascending, Johann lifted his head. He squinted.
Artists were working on the baroque frieze above him. They sculpted depicted prehistoric, tentacle-headed Elder Things. He couldn’t read the words carved below the carapaces. They curled in a monstrous sort of aquatic script. But he understood their general import. He understood.
The Squid controlled the entire local scene. Everything.
From the stairs he turned and looked out to the horizon. Johann saw truckloads of salt water approaching from the harbour. Shattered, grey-faced men and women shovelled farm-fresh cod from cylinder trains into transparent tanks. A few surviving birds carried bait like robots.
Far beyond the blackened rooftops and burnished domes of the smouldering city, as if setting the distant globe to fire, there stretched a gleaming poisoned sea.
But Johann Hintert didn’t stop to see the surface. He found a pole and was already returning down to his destiny, where he belonged, down below–down where the Squid wanted him to be….