Humboldt could tell the commander was displeased with his human passengers. It showed in every twitch of his arms, the flashing white and orange across his mantle. He clicked his beak in irritation around his synthesis tube, a few droplets of venom pooling around the edges.
Humboldt propelled around to the commander’s good side and flashed an inquiring array of colors. Blue, green, a passing phase of imperial purple followed by a checkerboard. Commander Calathir’s one good eye narrowed. A mass of scar-tissue was all that remained of his other eye—a plasma leak had melted it away in seconds during a routine cargo-run to Three Sisters. Still, that had been months ago and he had yet to regrow it—for reasons that were never clear to Humboldt.
Undeterred, Humboldt displayed a bit of trinket-tech from one of the four passengers—a rectangle with several switches fixed to it of various colors. A squawk of human-speak burst from a tinny speaker. It vanished when Humboldt moved a sucker off the button.
Humboldt hadn’t had time to truly examine the trinket, having just recently shucked out of his Parson-suit from the surface loading. He was surprised to find himself touched at the gift. He’d clipped the thing onto the thick webbing between his arms, swearing at the limitations of the above-surface armor he’d been crammed into.
The human had bowed to him after handing him the gift: the prerogative of vertebrates everywhere. Insulated from the world, trapped by bones. Humboldt recalled from his cursory studies that humans gave bows as a mark of respect—probably. Humboldt’s suckers had noticed sweat on her skin, the acrid taste of anxiety when his sucker had brushed her wrist—some foreign chemicals in there too: alcohol and some sort muscle relaxer.
Humboldt didn’t say anything: everyone had their own ways of coping with the deeps, even Penthics, like himself, born to them,. The humans and other sundry bipeds had other, more colorful names for his folk, he’d seen them in graffito on his rare visits to Teoticama or Wolfward: squid-people, octopods, spineless ones, suckers.
Humboldt did his level best to fold himself down to the human’s level, scraping back several of his arms and attempted to mimic the bow. A snort issued from the human’s mouth—lung-sounds, cackling. Laughter—Penthics couldn’t duplicate it, but if you stuck around humans long enough you learned to recognize the unspeakable sounds. And their strange writings.
The lady patted him on the mantle, said something his translator didn’t quite catch, and suited up. Her environmental-suit opened—she strapped herself in with a hiss of hydraulics and the chattering lights of her heads-up-display. The other three humans gathered around, talking too quickly for the auto-translate in the Parson-armor to pick up on anything concrete. One of them was already fully suited and stood a head taller than the others, clad in a custom brass number glowing with strange runes. There was something odd about that.
Humboldt didn’t see eyes behind the brass faceplate, and wondered why that mattered.
Humboldt stumbled ship-ward before they could finish boarding the deep-hauler. Commander Calathir was already inside, making adjustments as the submersible warmed its engines at the dock. Birds flew up in winged clouds from the mangrove swamps in the nearby estuaries, chattering: cormorants spat at night-jars, while pelicans skimmed low, looking for lunch.
The clanking brass automata stevedored and prepared the submersible with cargo— boxes carrying bulbs of beer for the small population of human scientists studying the Penthic city of Deep Hollows. Marked cases of everything from shaving cream to chronological warpers and test-mirrors were loaded into the central beak of the synth and steel cephalopodic craft.
Humboldt tried to jet atop the docked diver out of force of habit but only ended up making an embarrassing whiff of air and an attention grabbing clank as his armored body crashed into the dock. He scowled, his dignity in tattered shreds around him—a few barks of laughter echoed around him. Humboldt crawled back aboard on his eight arms and divested himself of the armor in short order, thrilled to be in the welcoming embrace of the recycled salt-water again.
The human passengers piled on, and Calathir launched the deep diver back into the ocean.
After about a half-hour, Humboldt took the pressure shaft up to one of the central eyes and the bridge. Watched through the glass. Took it all in for a moment: the upcoming depths, the ship’s eight arms and lone jet moved in rhythm with Commander Calathir’s own vast body, hovering like a gull atop breakers inside the domed and flooded bridge. Ghost lights mimicked the commander’s ever-shifting mantle. Feeding him data on currents, temperature. Diodes sprang from his arms into the central control panel, hooked into his jet intake. In a very real sense, the commander was the submarine—when he moved an arm, the diver moved an arm.
Commander Calathir moved the diver elegantly around shoals of obsidian strikers that could strip the submersible in seconds, over drifts of strangle-kelp that could clog the arms. He dipped and secreted just enough sightless oil to confuse a marauding pod of glimmer-carchadons, who thrashed their thousand teeth before vanishing from the sensor readings.
The door to the bridge opened again—the moving cargo, encased in iron. One human bowed to Calathir, another in green-tinged armor to Humboldt, baring its interior beaks. A smile, it was called. Humboldt bowed back as best he could, turning his mantle blue, green and orange. He extended one feeding arm, gave a light tap against the creature’s visor.
The creature tapped back. Red blotches formed under her eyes, and the human extended one armored hand.
Humboldt examined it, then turned back to Commander Calathir, who was flashing red and white with fury.
The visiting bipeds, trying to find something to hold onto in their armored containment suits, looked at Humboldt and Calathir. Tilted their heads. Humboldt couldn’t read their cartilaginous faces well, but he thought they looked uncomfortable in the salt-water command bridge—if such a thing were possible, even if it wasn’t red-lit. Their skin pulled tight at random as they barked-pack-speak to each other through their comm systems. Gesticulated with heavy metallic out-shelled arms. Translation microbes in their strange round-pupil’d occuli granted them an eerie eye-shine in the half-light of the ship’s bridge. Their strange enamel interior-beaks glinted in the light of their HUDs—analyzing as they chatted with each other through microphones.
Penthics could understand, given enough time and exposure, the human’s gibbering method of communications without electronic intermediaries, but it was a colossal effort and nobody had that sort of time.
Commander Calathir wasn’t having it. He brought the ship to a shuddering halt just before a reef emerged in their searchlights with a muted thump. The commander jetted higher in the bridges recycled water—flashed an interrogative barrage of colors at the largest human ambassador. White, red, blue, red. Humboldt noted blue blood staining the water: One of Calathir’s arms was bleeding, somehow.
The largest human, a hairless female if Humboldt remembered his studies correctly, locked eyes with Calathir and held up her wrist-mounted communicator. It scanned the patterns thrown off by Calathir’s skin and formulated a basic series of colored messages.
Calathir flickered a response—a trio of horns formed on his desiccated mantle and he tossed three of his arms about as if a silverfish had just attempted to dart between them.
Calathir winked, and Humboldt recoiled his tentacle immediately at the hostile motion. The humans didn’t seem to get it.
Calathir extended one newly horned arm and flashed it toward the humans —blue-red-blue with a cross-hatch pattern at the end—back towards the door.
A clear message: get out.
The humans chattered something into their headpieces. Commander Calathir turned and opened his beak to snap at them.
And the world exploded.
Supposedly shatterproof glass caved in, bits of metal filled the space, careening through water. The familiar waters of home swept by the craft—krill spinning around the sea-ship’s sputtering engine as the vessel drifted around helplessly on its axis.
Humboldt waved an arm out across the bridge, curled it backwards after it secured the commander’s attention: flashed red, green, then white. Twice.
Calathir didn’t respond. His arms were moving, but not as coordinated as they had been, exactly. He was spasming, twitching like a poisoned crab.
The humans were shrieking. Two of them had been knocked free from the chamber on impact—Humboldt assumed, counting the two remaining bipeds. The brass-suited one was a one-woman light show—a non-standard pair of extra arms emerged from the suits armpits, red glyphs swimming like spooked salmon through the water.
The ship foundered: broken and tangled in-between grasping kelp and razor-coral. Calathir spasm’d once, twice: flashed a dizzying electric blue. His arms tried to compensate, but neither they nor their metallic extensions succeeded. The lights dimmed further.
Humboldt swam to his commander. Tried to pull the new glass-spear from between Calathir’s bulging eyes: right through the brain, the liver—the tip protruding from the bottom of his mantle, ink-sack leavings mingling with azure blood. Spreading through the water.
Commander Calathir was dead, and the controls to the ship had died with him—sewed into his nervous system with electronics. Another Penthic could, in theory—but no, that would be madness.
The pod of glimmer-carchadons glittered closer.
A burst of adrenaline.
Humboldt followed the other two humans out the broken eye of the submersible, cloaking himself in the colors of the water. Following the humans into the deeps—his home, their hell.
Humboldt wondered why the green armored human didn’t simply detach their arm from the crushing wreckage. The one who’d handed him the trinket.
She was pinned under one of the fallen directional fins that had jammed into the razor-coral reef. It was breaking slowly—sooner or later one or two fragments would fall in the right place and the woman would be crushed to nothing but an armored snack for strangle kelp or smaller opportunists.
She wasn’t helping, either. Making all sorts of unfortunate movements. Sucking up her oxygen with panicked breaths. Humboldt felt himself turn white for a moment.
The other humans were working as a unit. The big one was diverting debris long enough for the other two to get into position on either side of the fallen one. Unperfected light surged from her gauntlets, disintegrating bits of falling canyon in seconds. The vertebrates in their bulky suits and foul-smelling air-propellant engines were stiff and clumsy in the water. They had bones, where Humboldt only had muscle.
They were clumsy in the water, slow to respond. A slowly sinking rock with lights on.
So of course one of them didn’t notice the bit of strangle kelp floating up behind her.
Even if it couldn’t penetrate the armor, the strangle-kelp would get into the cracks in the armor in seconds and expand into its new, warm-host colony.
Humboldt found himself jetting without thought, slipping around the razor-coral and the stretching kelp, coming up from relative safety. Relinquishing his camouflage, and slapping away a bit of strangle-kelp before it could wrap around the armored biped’s throat. Humboldt’s extendable feeding tentacle followed the action, slicing the bit of kelp in half and pushing it into a faster moving current away from them.
The human turned in the water. Too slow. For a moment, Humboldt saw her eyes widen obscenely, hands raised to pierce him on a light-lance.
But she didn’t. Instead she flashed a crude series of colors at him through her translator. Pointed down to Green pinned under rubble.
Humboldt dived. The two other bipeds had gotten a lot of the wreckage off the pinned human, but not enough. He could see the glimmer-carchadons coming—if he was lucky, he could break the human out and jet away before the pod descended—all teeth and mono-molecular fins. The brass-armored human stood, looking up at the incoming pod. Cracking metallic knuckles.
Humboldt must have seemed like a ghost to the two humans, appearing next to them and laying a trio of arms on Green Armor’s boot.
He clicked his beak impatiently, flashed green-blue-white and a lengthy and vivid shade of orange. He followed up with a golden eyebrow and a yellow left arm, half retracted.
The human didn’t get the simple message: detach the limb, clamp your veins and swim off. The vertebrate continued opening its mouth-hole, flailing one strange five-fingered limb about. Red lights flashed inside its helmet, and Humboldt shrunk back reflexively.
The two other bipeds coded a crude message to him with their lights: Humans can’t detach limbs.
The glimmer-carchadons were only getting closer. Humboldt could imagine the reaction of the Penthic Home Office when he told them that not only had one of their ships been wrecked, but he’d lost all cargo. They’d Stump him for sure.
Humboldt got to work, hauling up on the directional fin while his new human allies worked to free their comrade, inch by inch.
They got the Green Armor free with no time to spare. She popped free, her suit shockingly intact. Eyes wide, one utterly bloodshot. The humans regrouped as swiftly as they could, but that still was entirely too slow for Humboldt’s taste. They were not in a fine position, surrounded by razor coral, strange-kelp and predators.
They were, however, closer to Deep Hollow than they were to the shore and that could not be overlooked.
The brass woman had taken charge of the human gang, shepherding them into the lee of the crashed submersible. A temporary cave, capped and caused by one of the diver’s arms, was a good enough redoubt for a momentary meeting.
The glimmer-carchadons were just above, perhaps fifty, forty feet. Swirling around, scanning. Gleaming, their whole bodies a blade, mouth a ridiculous accessory—fins and teeth and phosphorescence. The smell of Penthic blood in the water would draw them in, doubtless, and Calathir’s corpse was a veined beacon. Humboldt resisted the urge to become cryptic, to vanish against the water and make a break for the Deep Hollows—let the humans run out of oxygen or end up in the bellies of beasts. He would see the bulbed city, be able to relax in cultivated kelp beds and run his arms up and down curved flutes of cooled volcanic rocks in an orgy of sensation.
It would be the smartest thing to do, if not the most kind.
No Penthic would even try to salvage a ship with a dead pilot going into post-mortem fits, trapped by his synth tube.
Then again, no Penthic had ever had a pack of humans to help them, either. Armored humans that should have already by rights been killed by the crash alone.
Humboldt flashed blue, then green, as swiftly as he could to get his allies attention. His arms began to trace a diagram in the sand of the cave floor. The deep-diver twitched as Calathir died, welded arms flapping slower now. One of the humans made an impossible suggestion.
Green Armor echoed it. Then the others.
Humboldt’s arms gestured back to the diagram he’d sketched. The humans shook their heads.
Insisted on the insane.
The brass woman said nothing. She tilted that strange human mask of hers.
Humboldt wasn’t going to be Stumped, one way or another—either by the ruling council of Deep Hollows or by some unnerving human in brass suit and a strix-faceplate.
That was how it was going to be done, then. The insanity was the only choice that certainly didn’t end with Humboldt as a twitching—only most certainly.
The brass woman nodded. The other three, even the injured Green, followed suit. Their mammalian eyes shone.
Penthics don’t have shoulders, but if they did, Humboldt would have shrugged fatalistically.
The party filed out through the narrow opening of their temporary cave.
It wasn’t far to where they needed to go—up and over to the east, in through the shattered eye of the diver—but the water was choked with glimmer-carchadons. A swarm of phosphorescent toothed nightmares, sniffing for the source of Penthic blood in the water. Prodding the arms, taking experimental bites from fringes of the suckers.
Ten feet above them. In scent range, in sight range, just in range. Too close.
Humboldt tried to resist the urge to turn the color of the sand below his arms and failed. Too much was hardwired into the Penthic brain regarding predators for him not to vanish.
The moment he did, the swarm turned towards the four humans.
One was faster than the rest—a blur of movement too fast for the eye, even Humboldt’s. Water displaced, and death roared forward, to cloud the water with viscera and gutted oxygen tanks.
The bull carchadon chose the brass woman as his target. Its jaws opened wide, almost wide enough to swallow the human whole.
The brass woman stood her ground. She tore the glimmer-carchadon in half, using its own momentum and the coral as a counterbalance to the energy of the charge. Mouth first, down to the tail. Fangs and hide scraped, futile, against brass—leaving etchings but no punctures.
Triangular teeth decorated the darkening water, glowing wayward stars. Entrails turned the deeps pink, vessels spilled their contents on coral.
The brass woman turned the diving predator into an underwater constellation, and hurled the two halves upwards, away from the diver in the same way Humboldt might idly toss a rock with one long arm.
Humboldt realized, as he dropped his crypsis from shock, that there was another reason he was unnerved by the brass woman. No visible oxygen tanks. No ventilation markers for air. Just lean pseudo-human metal with an engraved strix mask atop the glowing runes.
The carchadon swarm followed its bisected leader upwards, all hunger and light. Humboldt knew that the cannibalistic creatures wouldn’t be distracted long, and signaled for his group to follow.
If he had been in possession of a spine, he would have felt a shiver down it.
The hard part was still to come.
Slowly, the new party sneaked back in through the broken eye of the deep-diver.
The synth tube was an uneasy fit in Humboldt’s brain, still warm from Commander Calathir. The arm sleeves were next, one at a time. He considered the jet-intake, but then looked at Commander Calathir’s rapidly vanishing corpse in the open sea. The humans had disconnected the pilot with no subtlety or grace, and at Humboldt’s direction, pushed him as far from the craft as possible, where he became the center of a returning glimmer-carchadon feeding frenzy.
The humans were busy trying to seal the eye-hole with sorcery and debris—Humboldt would have told them not to waste their time at this point: a few tons of water weren’t going to stop a deep diver from crawling back to Deep Hollow, not if its arms still worked. Even if the engine was warped and the jet-system chewed to hell.
If there was a living pilot, that wouldn’t matter. Humboldt felt his arms neurally-meld-to-metal, brain synchronization with what was left of the central core. In a very real way, he became the deep-diver.
He wiggled his new arms, trying to ignore the feeling of Calathir’s forebrain-imprints on his own. This ship was designed for the octopodal Penthics—not decapods—so Humboldt’s feeding tentacles hung uselessly in the water.
And the humans needed to watch the eye anyway—if a glimmer-carchadon or five got in, it was all over. No amount of ink could cloud that situation into safety then. And even the brass woman might be overmatched by multiple beasts.
So many systems down. Cargo-bay ripped open. If they were lucky, those damn ridiculous heavy boxes had scattered and made Humboldt’s task a bit easier.
He clicked as he raised his four metal right arms from the ground and pushed.
A small vein popped in his eye.
Humboldt/the-deep-diver pushed deeper, towards the bubbled city—lights just visible over the next ridge.
Humboldt wasn’t sure how to say this in the vertebrate’s odd, ever-modulating noise-patterns. He opened his beak. Flared up his web inside the captain’s mantle.
“Thank you,” he envisaged saying. His beak somehow opening and forming the words.
He flashed blue-green. The humans stood at the fractured eye, peering out at Deep Hollow—a thousand glass and kelp spheres and mega-nautilus shells bound together by craft and rope and skill—balancing on a deep marine trench wall. Home to zoological gardens, observatories, trade, and chronological-experiments that surface mages would give their organs to be part of.
One of his arms found the switch the human had given him earlier. He’d forgotten it, in the excitement.
The translator. Of course it was.
It was the only thing he could think of saying as the deep-diver crawled into hailing range of the docks.
Humboldt keyed one of the trinket’s buttons. Wrapped a few suckers around it as the arm turned blue, then pink. The translator hummed for a moment, reading chemical levels, pressure-grips, intensity and probable emotional state.
“Thank you,” the mechanical voice squawked.
Charlie Allison is a writer and recovering complexity addict based in West Philadelphia, where he works as a storyteller, cat-minder, and swimming instructor. He recently received his MFA from Arcadia University’s creative writing program. Charlie helps run a writing board called “Fits of Print” (http://fitsofprint.proboards.com) offering free proofreading, critiques, support and line edits, alongside copious nerd references. You can find him online at ‘Fits of Print’ and on Twitter @cballison421. His work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Bride of Chaos and the Stonecoast Review.