Celia

All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.—Bobby Knight

Omnia Vanitas

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With the lights out, Prof. Karen Phalen couldn't see the back wall of the lecture hall. A few scruffy kids sat in a scattered dozen seats at the edge of vision.

On the podium were the controls for the projector. She pressed play and the LED screen lit up and video played. From the podium, she watched the same video she had watched for twenty years.

"Good evening. In previous lectures we've spoken about specific genetic modifications to Octopus bimaculoides that we believed would lead to language usage. Today, we'll talk about neuron growth where--what on your head would be the temple and forward and up, and on Celia here, would be," the video paused. Dr. Phalen limped to her cane, then to the screen. She pointed at a point on the octopus' head with the cane. "That would be about here. Her frontal lobe, so to speak." Back to the podium.

"This is a real video of Celia. No CGI, thank you very much.

"We'll also talk about, only tangentially, the modified English alphabet we used to compensate for sand. The alphabet is detailed in the book, but we have to cover a little of it now so that we can explain some of the differences between written literacy and oral communication as it relates to Celia here. See also, deaf signing communication."

Karen hit "play" on the podium and the video started again. The rest of her lecture was automatic.

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Karen was already half-way down the hall when she heard "Professor?" She turned around on her cane and tried to sound bored while the person came closer down a strip of blue linoleum.

"Lecture notes, presentation, audio feeds are on the class site. Nothing that was not covered will appear on the test."

The person blinked.

"Thank you, but that was not my question."

"There are links to all relevant papers."

"That's not it, either. I've read those papers."

"Well, then, what, young man?"

"I'd like to show you a picture." The person pulled out a phone[1] and turned the screen to Karen.

"Celia? No. She escaped years ago. Surely she'd be dead by now! Why did you wait until now to show this to me? That is time-stamped only a month ago. Fake. It's not good to harass your professors like that."

"But I'm not a student here."

She looked over the bifocals. "Then who the hell are you?"

"I've been talking to one of them."

Pause

"Oh, now you're screwing with me, kid. Get out. I'll call the cops. Impersonating a student on campus is a crime. Get away boy, you bother me."

"I'm not a boy."

Karen looked annoyed and shook her head. "Sorry. Whatever, then. Sorry. Just go away, girl."

Karen leaned on her cane to turn around.

"Not a girl, either."

"Well--who cares, then--just get away."

"But," but the professor was already on her way to her office, and didn't turn around again. "Briggs sent me."

Karen stopped, almost looked over her shoulder, then continued to her office. She walked in, closed the door behind her.

Karen kept the non-digital pictures of Celia in a shoebox from some shoes. She bought the shoes for a dance, just after Celia started writing.

For the dance, all the academics put on their black suits and white dresses. They all looked the same because they only had funeral clothes. Karen entered the room in a long red dress. She looked over the crowd in the high mirrored ceiling.

She went over the room in her memory: a black and white chess board, stiff suits and dresses. Pawns veered from designated paths.

She danced with Dr. Briggs that night. She slept with Lawrence Briggs that night. She danced with Dr. Briggs, or, more properly, moved gently with the music. They never learned to dance.

He leaned her back and she looked up into the mirrored ceiling and saw herself in her long dress, blood-red gash in the chess board.

She didn't have the shoes any more. Or the dress. Just the box and pictures.

Film is a convenient lie; it puts everything on itself without judgment, and without error; as if seeing a world means a world is understood. You know, Karen, you should write this stuff down. Or not. Probably not.

Karen spread them out on her desk. Her mentor, Dr. Briggs, had taken these photos.

There was one with her extracting DNA from Celia's mother for analysis, another one, and another. Baby octopuses in various mutations, some alive, some not. The film holds no judgment. They all look dead in their bowls. The eyes were terrible.

There was a picture of Celia. Celia was born alive and normal.

When she was old enough, Karen showed writing in the sand.

"This is how we write."

Celia would watch and copy. It took years to form the first sentence.

"Write. You."

She started sleeping with Briggs.

Celia worked a screen on a computer, writing on a touch-screen under the water. Her vocabulary grew, a little slower than a human child; by the time she was 5, though, she was writing simple sentences. "Hello." "Thank you."

There was a picture of Karen holding Briggs' hand just before she realized Briggs got her pregnant. He wrote her letters urging her to keep it, to dedicate her life to this child, to forget about what she worked for, to marry him. Karen took a pill. The thing inside her was no more than a round ball of cells; at this point, it was just as likely to be naturally expelled due to deformation or defect. She felt no regret.

Well, there were protests, of course. Not of the abortion, but the octopus. Fooling with nature. Playing god. Hubris. Accusations of anthropocentrism, whatever that was.

She looked at the photos again. This one had Karen teaching. That one had Celia's writing. There was one with Karen bent over a circuit board, soldering--the smell came to her throat like iron.

In the pile was the interoffice envelope that Briggs and Phalen traded back and forth about the abortion. They never spoke about it, just notes and letters. She looked at the envelope: on the routing list, each line and name was carefully obliterated.

She was looking at a picture of Celia's first full sentence, "Thank you, Mom," when the knock on the door came.

"Go away," she said.

Again.

"Go. The fuck. Away."

Karen stood up from her chair and leaned heavy on the cane to walk to the door.

Half-way through the next knock, Karen flung open the door and surprised the knocker--

"What part of 'go away' don't you understand?"

The interrupter looked over Karen at the photos scattered on the desk, "I came across the continent to talk to you. You're going to give me at least a half-hour."

Karen stood silent for a while.

"Fine. Over lunch. Tomorrow. Noon. You buy. At The Coffeehouse. What do I call you?"

"Kelly."

Karen door closed in Kelly's face.

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They stood in front of a glass display counter waiting for their coffee and Karen's blueberry muffin to warm up. Under the glass, the muffins looked like mountain ranges, white icing-tipped.

"The writing has been going on for at least a year.

"There was a painting, too, in a cave kind of inside a reef. I dove down there myself and took pictures. One of the octopuses wrote next to it, 'This is the one who brought us the words together and to the light.'"

Kelly looked at Karen, trying to make the moment a little more meaningful and failing. "It was a picture of you. Briggs and I want you to come out to see this for yourself. We're based out of Central California[2] State in San Francisco."

Karen was staring at the muffins in the window--cranberry, blueberry, chocolate, poppy seed, and banana nut. On the shelf under them were Danish.

"We'll pay for the trip. It's break next week anyway..."

Another pause. The Danishes' fruits glistened like tar pits.

"I don't expect you to answer right now, but I'll stop by tomorrow and we'll figure it out."

Without turning towards Kelly, Karen said, "What did Briggs tell you about me?"

"Just that you worked with him on Celia and you had a right to know about your 'children.' His word. What does that mean?"

They stood there at the counter for a minute in silence; then the coffee and muffin came. Kelly took her coffee and headed to a table. Karen wrapped the muffin in a napkin, picked up her coffee and walked out. Kelly looked up and watched the bell ring as the door closed.

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Karen came home to her dog, muffin bottom still wrapped.

"Hey, mutt." The mutt wagged not only his tail, but his whole behind. She walked to the cabinet where she kept the cans of dog food. She put one on the can opener and watched it spin, breaking a hermetic seal. She dumped it all into a metal bowl, put the bowl on the ground, dropped the muffin in, walked to the living room, sat down, and stared out the window. The dog ate the muffin bottom and a few pieces of food.

Celia escaped twenty-two years ago, she could have lived 15 years, tops. That means that if the blurry photo was anything, they bred.

The dog jumped up on the couch next to her and nuzzled into her neck, licking with dog-food laced breath. "Fuck, dog." She pushed him off the couch. He moved and put his face on her knee a few inches away from her hand.

I'm not young, any more. A few years off between Master's and Doctorate to take care of cancerous mother. That ate up valuable research time. She realized that this kind of statement was why she was cut out of many of family wills.

The dog pushed his head a little closer, sneaking his itchy ear toward her hand. She scratched him just right.

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Next day, Kelly was waiting for Karen by her office.

"And..."

"If you're wasting my time..."

"I'm not."

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The plane landed hard, waking Karen. It was night outside; she could see the Golden Gate II[3] from here.

Kelly already had a phone out and said into the speaker "Briggs."

"Hi! We're here. See you at the gate. Give us about twenty minutes. Later."

The plane taxied to the terminal, they deplaned. Kelly led Karen though the airport.

At the luggage pick-up:

"What is he driving?"

"He's got some purple mid-sized thing."

"Kelly!" Karen heard.

"Larry! I know it's been what, 30 years? Is a formal introduction still necessary? Larry, this is Dr. Karen Phalen. Karen, this is Dr. Lawrence Briggs."

Karen looked at Briggs. His skin looked like paper. They shouldn't let 120 year olds drive. She saw him look down at her cane, her small bag,

"Hello, Karen."

"Hello, Lawrence."

"Now that introductions are out of the way, let's move it. I hate this place."

He didn't move to help either with their bags; they walked slowly in deference to his age. Karen got impatient but held it in.

Celia's children were in the ocean, just off the beach. Thousands of people were there, writing to the cephalopods. Karen didn't want to go to today. Too many people.

"Can I use your computer to read the article?"

Kelly showed her the way into a small office corner.

Karen opened the file, greeted with a video of an octopus writing.

Karen closed the file. The click of a mouse was not as satisfying as closing a book and throwing it across the room. Celia was dead, but bred and taught her offspring.

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She walked gingerly without her cane to the couch across the loft and sat down next to Kelly, who did not look up. Karen stared out into nothing somewhere behind the monitor when a photo gallery on the computer appeared. It was the painting of Karen in the reef.

Kelly stepped in the water first, just in front of the renovated "Alcatraz Island[4] Center for Marine Studies." It still looked like a jail.

The octopuses came to Kelly. Karen stood at the edge of the waves, shoes and socks off, pants cuffed to the knees, her cane half-sinking into the sand. Fog had broken early today, and the sun shone through to the white sand of the bay.

Kelly waved over, "Get in here and see!" Karen pushed her cane into the sand and started to walk a few steps at a time. The water was too cold, but the invertebrates were here anyway. She walked until the water lapped at her knees.

A dozen octopuses were around her in a rough circle, keeping distance. One of them came forward and wrote in the sand with its tentacles.

"Celia told us about you. She said to tell you that she was sorry."

Karen wrote in the sand with her cane, "All is forgiven. Are there more of you?"

"Lots! From here south until the water gets cold again. Though it is already cold here."

"So fast! How?"

"We breed and eat. What else is there to do?"

She positioned herself so Kelly could not read what she wrote and squatted down slowly, leaning on her cane. Her butt got wet from the waves.

"Be careful. I just had to see."

When the octopus read it and turned to respond, Karen pushed herself up on her cane, destroyed the message with her foot. She walked up on to the beach, passing Kelly. "I'm not going back," she told Kelly.

She walked hard, leaning on her cane, half-falling, half-kicking up sand at every step.

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Karen's flight back home was the next day. She had rescheduled it to her hosts' surprise. But they understood. So they both drove her to the airport. They stopped near the airport to fill up Briggs' gas[5] tank. Kelly got out and attached the hoses.

"What did you tell Kelly?"

"Nothing."

"Really?"

"Karen, does it matter?"

"Stop with the 'Karen' shit."

"Karen, stop yourself. That was over 20 years ago. We are not young anymore."

Karen looked at his face again: a death's head. The veins under his skin.

"Karen. I'm s--"

Kelly opened the door and hopped in.

"All right."

Briggs hit the engine start button. They drove to the airport in silence.

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Back in Florida, She stopped at her office to check mail and e-mail and voicemail on the cell phone she left on purpose. There were over 200 email messages--almost all marked "SPAM"--a dozen voice-mails, and single political flyer in the post-mail from some left-wing anti-immigration group.

Most of the voicemails were interview requests.

One voicemail was from Briggs. "Sorry," was all it said. It didn't help.

Karen watched an interview on her computer in her office.

"Thank you for taking time to speak with us," the reporter to Kelly.

"No problem."

"Let's start off with how you see it. Tell us about your thoughts around this civilization that you spawned and what its impact is on humans."

"Well, John, a completely new civilization on this planet that peacefully co-exists with us has got to be a wonderful thing. We compete for few of the same resources, and the water they live in takes up three quarters of the Earth's surface area. There are, at most, a few ten thousand in number, and they're all very smart, sentient, sapient, and literate creatures.

"And, so, you asked 'How does their existence change humanity?'"

"Physically? It changes next to nothing. Morally and intellectually? It proves that we are not alone. Celia was a one-off, yes. A freak of nature? She bred and taught her young and becomes normal, a visionary almost. An Eve, of sorts. It's a wonderful thing.

"I'll admit, an octopus is not as dramatic as a spaceship, but in a way, they are, because we brought them into existence. We have an obligation to help them."

"But what about us?"

"What about us? One existed, and escaped, twenty years ago. They will not bother us. Their population will not interfere with ours. We may collaborate. Or we can disregard them as we've disregarded other animals before.

"Does it surprise anyone that this civilization only emerges now, after reaching a critical mass so that it does not go extinct on its own? This means we're not alone, and the world now has two sentient, sapient, literate species. Anyone can go to the beach and read their writings and see their paintings. We don't even eat fish anymore because of the mercury[6], so it's not like we're even competing for food."

"But what about the aftermath?"

"Excuse me?"

"The creation of a second civilization on Earth?"

"And?"

"Doesn't it bother you that there is now an alien civilization here on Earth?"

"Alien isn't quite the right word. Those entities have the same rights as you and I."

"But they are just animals. They don't even have a spine."

"And who does now-a-days?" Kelly said and immediately regretted it. "And yet there they are, writing and thinking and creating just like the human animal."

"What about..." the reporter didn't have the words, he flicked his fingers.

"What about what?"

"They're not . . . human."

"So? Neither is a dog but I don't hold that against them."

The reporter cleared his throat.

"A few hours ago, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nancy Negrapointe, proposed a resolution calling for the extermination of this, what she called 'mutant species.' The EU and AU Ambassadors agreed. Do you care to comment?"

The gotcha moment. Reporting hadn't changed much.

"What? She did what? Of course! To call that unwise would be a vast understatement. This is a new life form and, like any previously discriminated groups, based on gender, race, religion, orientations, et-cetera, it will be discriminated against by ignorant fools in the world. To call these octopuses mutants because they are not in nature is like going after the domestic cow because they have never been wild. What would happen if this life came from space with guns instead of our oceans? Would ray guns be natural, sir?"

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Kelly called late when Karen was getting ready to leave the office after the final interview and a "PR" meeting with the department chair discussing the day.

"Hi, Karen," Kelly's voice shook.

"Kelly? What's wrong?"

"They killed Briggs. They've started on the octopuses, too. Some people took their boats to the reef. Someone dove down and put a charge in a reef and blew it up. They weren't even in the right habitat, but their intent is clear."

"Oh!?" Is it wrong she wasn't completely dissatisfied?

"Someone killed him. I've already left San Francisco, and I'm now . . . somewhere else. They shot him, Karen. They shot him leaving his office. The octopuses are fighting back. Once the bomb exploded a dozen or so went after the diver that placed it. They took him out in just a minute or so, took out his air supply. They left his body on shore and it was found at low tide. They left a message tattooed with their beaks and ink, 'War is not only a human endeavor.'"

"War?"

"Negrapointe claims that eradication is the only way to regain the oceans. Biological and genetic warfare[7]."

"Have they attacked civilians?"

"There are unconfirmed reports."

Karen was silent for a moment.

Kelly coughed, "Neither of us is ready, are we? I don't mean you or me or even one of them. I mean us, like all of us. We don't deserve this knowledge, do we?"

Pause.

"No," Another pause. "Thank you, Kelly," she started to hang up the phone, staring at the back of her office door, expecting a knock.

"Karen!" The little speaker strained with static.

She put the phone back up to her ear. "Yes."

"Be careful."

Karen hung up the phone and kept staring at the door. Briggs was dead. Not as if he was fighting, but a scientist. Keep low? Be careful?

She stood and walked to the door, took her coat from the hook.

Time to go home and get ready for whatever. Should see someone. Wasn't Briggs a science advisor? There has to be someone. Greatness thrust upon them, or something, she thought.

She felt for her keys before closing the door to her office and walking down the hallway. She passed classrooms half-full of graduate students. She jingled the keys in her pocketed hand.

She walked, leaning on her cane. Her leg hadn't hurt this much this morning. She walked through the skywalk into the parking garage. Her car was just around the corner. Handicapped.

"Professor Phalen," a voice from behind her.

She turned slowly, leaning on her cane, "Yes?"

She saw a gun flash, felt something push her head, and fell to the ground.

Footnotes

[1]

Land-based telephone systems were obsolete in the early 20's as a proliferation of African Gabonese-satellite-based communication systems became available. The Gabonese took advantage of their equatorial position and launched several almost-underpowered rockets much to the surprise of basically the entire world. This allowed the Gabon Government-backed Talk Inc. to corner the market in sat-based telephony; and because the valuation of the CFA Franca was so low, allowed for immense profits as well as allowing for cheap phone service. Talk Inc.'s system was reminiscent of the Iridium-based sat-phone service that appeared in the 1990's and was allowed to literally fall out of the sky.


[2]

California was split into three states in the mid '20s as a response to near-zero meaningful representation in Congress. The groundwork for the state split was laid as part of the 42nd amendment, which increased the number of congress-people allowed in the House of Representatives as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands all became states at the same time. As a compromise to ensure congress would not become too large, Rhode Island and Connecticut merged into one state named Providence and New Jersey annexed Delaware. The Dakotas also merged federal representation, though they maintained separate state institutions.


[3]

Terrorists from the Westboro Church--lead by Rev. Fred Phelps IV--destroyed the original Golden Gate Bridge. This act of terrorism single-handedly removed nearly every trace of trans- and homophobia in the United States. That was not their goal.


[4]

Alcatraz Island was reclaimed from the sea as work was completed with a multi-national effort: the Earth's Great Antarctic Dyke System. The EGADS held back the entirety of Antarctic melt-off from threatening much of the world's coastal regions. It appears from space as a giant gray ring, the South Pole covered with frigid water, dotted with small archipelagos that used to be mountain ranges.


[5]

Gas as in the original, noble, definition of the word. The hydrogen developed here started as water, whose molecules were dissected those H2O molecules and, along with CO2, were reformed into oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. The carbon was assembled into nanotubes for use on the space elevator beginning construction next year.


[6]

In the late '20s early '30s, levels of mercury approached toxic levels due to discarded CFLs and other e-waste. Many fish evolved immunity to the heavy metal. Beyond the health dangers of mercury to consumers, the brains of some of the fish that had evolved were now psychotropic substances.


[7]

First practiced upon the non-native species that overran Australia and threatened native populations, this involved the use of genetically engineered viruses to invade reproductive systems of specific species' sperm and/or egg, effectively killing the species off in one generation. Two, tops.