I was there in the lab the first time Dr. Patel split the space-time continuum. Only the most faithful scientists were still with us. When it happened, Dr. Patel danced laps around the computer bank in her white coat. Two buttons had been ripped off the coat, the long threads following behind her twirling body like streamers behind a gymnast. A smear of blood streaked across her collar just below where she’d been scratching at her neck. The other scientists sat in awe, watching her celebrate. The earth didn’t explode. The crack didn’t grow unabated, devouring our universe. It just closed up, nice and neat, like an envelope. Nobody knew why.
I stood in the back of the room, surrounded by workaholics who never even noticed that their lab assistant slept in the gear locker and washed his hair in the sink. Jenna used to tell me that I’d never go anywhere, never be part of anything. Or at least, anything that meant anything. After this, I wondered if she’d ever admit how wrong she was.
Once Dr. Patel collapsed, the tears still wet on her face, Dr. Saraswamy asked the obvious question: “When do we do it again?”
Two days later, even before we’d recovered from the free-flowing liquors and smokestacks of lit cigars, we did it again. Then again. And again. The size of the split grew each time, holding open for a second. Then seconds. By the seventh split, it seemed we’d found its limit, on both size and duration. Dr. Patel measured radiation, had cameras recording the experiment, but none of the instruments picked up the split. She needed evidence for her investors. I could see it in her eyes, she was foundering.
A month went by. With five more splits under our belts, we met in the conference room. The youngest scientist there exceeded my schooling by at least a dozen years. Some of them wondered whether this was all becoming too mundane. I knew it was only a matter of time before a mutinous group splintered off to pursue its own research. Odds stood that at least three of them had already outlined their own proposals.
The door in the back of the conference room opened. An outsider entered, escorted by Dr. Patel. The man wore glasses with invisible frames and an unscientist-like midnight-blue shirt. Despite his pasty skin, he was lean like a swimmer, with broad shoulders. He walked to the front of the room. He had everyone’s attention. Dr. Patel had her hair down. I thought I saw streaks of violet eye shadow.
“This is Dr. D’Arcy, from the oceanographic section,” she said. “I think he can help us with the next phase of my research.”
“Our research,” said Dr. Saraswamy. I counted him among those with proposals ready to mail out.
“What’s he going to do?” I asked.
“We send something through,” said Dr. Patel. She tried not to smile, but it broke out anyway. Her spacey teeth wore the badge of an endless coffee habit, and she pressed her lips back together quickly.
No one spoke. Dr. Saraswamy began tapping a pencil on the table. “That’s impossible,” he said, shifting a look among the scientists, gauging reactions. In a strange moment–call it solidarity–he even looked to me for support.
“Why is it impossible?” said Dr. Patel. “We can maintain the split for seconds, a few seconds. Maybe we can do four. What is on other side? The edge of our universe?”
“A new universe,” said Saraswamy, “come to eat ours up.”
“An old universe,” said another scientist, “being devoured by ours.”
A third scientist tamped out a cigarette. “God.”
“Only one way to know,” said Dr. Patel. “We send something through. Something small.”
“A rat?” said Saraswamy.
Dr. D’Arcy stepped forward. “An octopus.”
Saraswamy spit white foam over the table. “A very expensive plate of calamari, Doctor,” he said.
D’Arcy wasn’t amused. “Octopods are among the most intelligent beings on earth. Give them a hole only an inch in diameter, the octopus always makes it through. Name a better ambassador of earth.”
“And you have an octopus handy?” Saraswamy said, cleaning his spit from the table.
“Not only an octopus. I have a neural transplanter.”
“And that is?” I asked, causing a minor disturbance among the scientists. But D’Arcy wasn’t fazed. He didn’t know my role in the group.
“An octopus’s tentacles have more neurons than their brains. In fact, the nervous system of the tentacles is like eight miniature brains. But the octopus doesn’t need them all. It doesn’t know if one goes rogue.”
“So what do you do with the neural transplanter?” Saraswamy asked.
“My research is in neural vivisection,” D’Arcy said. “I can map the neural network of a human brain, and then overlay it on an octopus’s tentacle.”
“Bullshit,” Saraswamy said. It was my turn to snort. Dr. Patel’s hand was now under her hair, scratching at her neck.
“I’m serious,” D’Arcy said. “It’s nothing more than establishing baseline data and sending it out into an environment. The tentacle collects data, absorbing tastes, smells, feelings. Upon its return, we collect the data and measure it against the baseline. It’s tantamount to sending a person through, but with the octopus’s advantages.”
Saraswamy wiped sweat from his forehead and exhaled. Attention in the room went to him. “So we send this octopus into the split, complete with the neural map of a human’s mind installed in its body. Is that right?”
“That’s it,” said D’Arcy. “It’s perfectly safe for the chosen human. But I’d recommend someone single, without children. Just in case.”
“Me,” I said. “Send me.”
Dr. Patel’s eyes landed on me and stuck.
The neural mapping was painful. D’Arcy had to simulate pain, pleasure, extreme heat, extreme cold, pressure, vacuum–all the environments that might be encountered through the split. He even simulated deafening volume and numbing silence. Through it all, I sat in a metal locker next to the tank where Thalassa swam. The locker contained little more than wires, a metal chair, and damp, cracked leather. A brackish haze filled the air. As D’Arcy collected the data, he vivisected my neurons onto Thalassa’s eighth tentacle. She was encased inside a separate glass box in the tank, about a cubic foot in dimension, with miniscule holes drilled inside to allow the water to flow. Probes were clipped to her tentacle.
Dr. Patel prepared the split, her instruments aligned on the inside surface of the glass box.
As the process went along, the brackish smell grew in my nose. My sinuses filled as if submerged. The biting taste of sodium squeezed my tongue dry. I was there with Thalassa. “Is this right?” I asked D’Arcy, echoing inside the locker. But D’Arcy didn’t respond. He was too deep in his work, unable or unwilling to acknowledge human presence as my consciousness transferred, blending with Thalassa.
Through pressure on my eardrums, I felt rather than heard Patel giving instructions, prepping her machines. I panicked, tried to scream. Saraswamy looked at the octopus, waved. Thalassa’s tentacles, all but the eighth, waved back like the Queen, mimicking human movement.
Then I felt Saraswamy talking to D’Arcy, sharing a moment as Patel charged the full array of binary-weighted capacitors. They hummed a disturbing tune, rippling the surface of the tank’s water. D’Arcy was in the lab still, explaining the Hawaiian creation myth. He said that the universe constantly cycled anew, one universe after another. “And you know the only creature that made it through from the last to this one?”
“The octopus,” Saraswamy said, clearly disinterested.
“The octopus,” D’Arcy said proudly.
Then Patel discharged the capacitors. Electrodes screamed, energy drove against itself like jousters colliding violently at full-speed. On the surface of the glass box, a pinhole grew to a peephole, which grew to a mail slot. One second. Two. The slot spread, and Thalassa saw her chance. Two tentacles reached out first, grabbing at the other side of infinity. Then two more, and two more. Symmetry guided us. Three seconds. With only Thalassa’s head still in the box, she led me through the hole. Pressure begat pressure. Bones would have compressed into dust. Only the soft invertebrate could survive. Thalassa’s head followed.
I took in the pressure, seeking out more sensations. Heat. Sound. Taste. And then it came, a grip on my thoughts like suction cups, ripping at me, ripping my mind from Thalassa. She let me go willingly. My consciousness expanded into a form that matched my body, like a balloon inflated beyond its full dimension. I had control over eyes, ears, digits. But I could see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing. I floated outward, into darkness, unable to stop. Thalassa was beside me, then before me. She eclipsed my view as we crossed over a horizon, from pitch black into blinding light. I heard a sound, a voice speaking to Thalassa. I knew what was said, though I couldn’t speak the language.
Thalassa remained mostly still, venerated even, her tentacles dangling freely beneath her. Then I felt a repulsion. I moved backwards, back toward the split. I tried to stop, but my new corporeal self was expunged from this universe opposite our own.
And then I was back, submerged in water, encased in the tank. They had to crack it with a fire ax to free me. Nobody could understand it. I coughed salt water and rubbed my eyes, trying to explain. The scientists turned between me, soaked and lying on the floor, and the metal locker where I had sat at the start of the experiment. Chatter erupted among them. At first I could only pick up big scientific words like “impossible” and “hypothesis.” Smaller words coasted past me.
Saraswamy pushed through the crowd. Kneeling next to me, his voice carried above all others. “What happened?”
I struggled to look past him, to the split. But his body blocked it. A sulfurous orange glow spread throughout the lab. When I finally spoke, I told him the only thing I knew for sure. “It spoke to us.”
Saraswamy looked confused but pushed it aside. He had a digital recorder in his hand and he thrust it toward my mouth. “What did it say?”
Dr. Patel stood at a distance, taking in all she had wrought. She was pushing to get out of earshot. I think she knew the answer.
“Something like, ‘We’ve been waiting.'”
“For what?” Saraswamy’s lips twitched just briefly. His tongue shot out like a lizard’s and moistened them.
I started speaking before I realized what I was saying. “An octopus always makes it through. And then–”
I suddenly understood it all and shut my mouth.
You’re so wrong, Jenna. I’ve been everywhere.
I’ve seen everything.
Dr. Patel was in front then and grabbed the recorder from Saraswamy. She prodded me with it like I was dinner. “And then what?”
With Saraswamy out of the way, I looked through to the tank, where the split still hung in mid-air. It was the size of a baseball now. Its edges glowed like fire. The water that was left in the tank flashed off into steam, adding to the incendiary feel of it all.
“And then we end here,” I said, looking down at my ten stupid, rigid fingers. “And it begins there.”
Saraswamy and Patel and all the other post-docs fucked it all. They fucked it all and ran. I sat tight and watched the split creep larger, each millimeter’s change causing an even brighter glow around the edge. The water that was left in the tank roiled, looking hot enough to cook noodles. Or a live octopus. I thought I could smell calamari.
I closed my eyes and felt heat. This was it.
In my mind, I reached out across the gap, through the split, to Thalassa. She was there with them. She was happy.
Of course she was.
The octopus always makes it through.
Wayne Helge was in the Coast Guard for a dozen years, but now lives full-time in Virginia, where he works, writes, and rereads his way through his Vonnegut collection. He attended Viable Paradise XV in 2011, and his story, “Toca la Guitarra,” is currently appearing in The Future Embodied anthology from Simian Publishing. He tweets at @whelgewrites, and his Crazy Ivans are always to starboard in the top half of the hour.
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Story illustration by Lee Copeland.