Abysme – Chapter 11 – The Decapi


Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?

What Mathilde has found isn’t just life: it is a full-blown, completely developed aquatic civilization: The Decapi.

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Chapter Eleven: The Decapi

 

Awed, she moved forward, drawn to the view that sprawled ahead. As she  floated out of the tunnel and into the river, the cliff’s face fell below her and curved into the riverbed.

Slightly slanted towards downstream, a cluster of towers speared out of the ground . They swayed in the current, shimmering as their walls caught the rays of light from the surface and bounced it back as millions of tiny pinpricks.

“Skyscrapers,” Oliver whispered breathlessly.

“Surfacescrapers.” Szymon pointed towards the water’s surface above them, a rippling glass ceiling pierced by moving rays of light.

“Woah!” Oliver moved back suddenly and pointed between his feet at a fast moving object hurtling towards them.

She barely saw it – a mass of greyish orange tentacles slammed through her and dove straight into the tunnel.

“Follow it!” Szymon tore off in fast pursuit.

The thing moved in bursts of speed, spewing a dense cloud of bubbles that muddied their view. Trying to power through, Mathilde blundered into a wall and found herself surrounded by darkness. She carefully backtracked until she was back in the tunnel, and sped off after the boys.

She found them floating just a little further, staring as the creature busily wrapped five tentacles around the rock’s carcass. She cautiously approached.

The thing looked as if someone had stuck two starfish back-to-back, with a small ball of scaly flesh in the middle. It had ten tentacles in all, five on either side, and was currently using half of them to get a good grip, a feat that was rendered all the more difficult by its relatively small size.

Tentacles extended, it stretched to no more  than half a meter, about as long as her elbow to the tips of her fingers. It maneuvered itself behind the rock, flexed its forward tentacles, and pushed off by slamming its rear ones in slow pulses. Burst by burst, it picked up speed and moved the dead rock towards the exit.

Hampered as it was by the bulkiness of its load, it was easier to follow. Szymon looked it over curiously.

“Doesn’t seem to have eyes,” he said, “And scaling is uneven. See, there’s a line of scales heading down each of the tentacles, but then everything else looks more like a thick leathery skin.” Mathilde could do nothing but nod.

The creature reached the exit and dropped down, letting the weight of the rock take over and adjusting its direction by small flicks of its rear tentacles.

“What. Was. That.” It wasn’t really a question. They all stared at each other, silly stunned smiles on their faces.

“Should we follow it?” she asked incredulously.

Szymon looked out to the city, down to the creature below, and back to the city.

“No way. We NEED to check out that city.”

They moved towards the surfacescrapers and Mathilde stared up at the spires in awe. The looming towers moved in the river’s current like silk in the wind, swaying to and fro with gentle fragility.

Every wave sent off a cascade of glittering ripples across the entire wall. They stopped at the first one, at what Mathilde judged to be about halfway up, and examined the tower.

It wasn’t as wide as she had expected – ten, fifteen meters across, no more. More interestingly though, was the material it was made of: braided grass. Or close enough, except instead of fractal circles, they were little fractal spheres , with the same veins of red and purple that caught the light and shone like tiny embedded rubies.

“Seaweed,” she said, “It’s braided seaweed.”

She drifted through the wall and emerged on the other side in a large square room.

“Guys, come check this out.”

Szymon and Oliver passed through the wall next to her and paused, their eyes growing wider as they looked around. A seaweed netting hung from the ceiling, from which poked out small orange-grey tentacle tips that drifted lazily in the water.

Mathilde was about to float closer when a flurry of movement caught her attention on the other side of the room.

A creature was there, zipping left and right at breakneck speed. Its tentacles moved in a blur, diving in and out of four shiny containers. Mathilde moved a finger to her lips to shush the boys, and tentatively approached it.

Two of its rear tentacles were latched to the netting on the floor, bracing itself against the current of the river. The five forward ones however dug into two different containers, grabbed a whitish substance and a dark green one, and molded them together into a round ball the size of Mathilde’s hand. The creature then wrapped the ball with seaweed, taken from a third container, and pushed the finished product down into the last open box.

Mathilde eyes caught on the containers. They seemed eerily familiar. She racked her mind, and recoiled in surprise  as the sudden realization hit her. They were the shells of the rocks they had seen on the surface.

“Neat!” said Szymon, “It’s making sushi!”

“What?”

“Well, I guess. I mean, all that stuff looks vaguely edible. Make a ball, wrap it in seaweed – it’s like sushi.”

“Gross,” Oliver smirked.

“You’re English and you’re being picky about food?” Mathilde couldn’t help the jibe, and Oliver scowled.

Movement on one of the creature’s tentacles caught her eye, and before he could respond she had swooped in lower for a closer look.

“Look at them!” she exclaimed. Three little creatures, no larger than a child’s fist and a shade brighter than the one preparing sushi, were latched in place with their five back tentacles.

“They’re babies,” she said, “Baby thingies.”

Thingies?” asked Szymon, “That’s what we’re calling them?”

“Don’t you start,” she rolled her eyes, “Let’s see you come up with something better, Mr. Physicist.”

“Szymonites,” he grinned, and didn’t bother dodging her slap as it passed through his holographic avatar.

“They look like starfish,” Oliver crouched down and tried to keep up with the adult creature as it flitted across the room, “Maybe starries?”

“Not starfish. More like an octopus with tentacles on both sides,” said Mathilde.

“It has ten tentacles though,” said Szymon. He paused and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Decapus?”

“Decapus,” she said, and let the name roll on her tongue, “I like it. A Decapus. Decapuses.”

“Decapi,” Oliver jumped in, pronouncing it so that it rhymed with ‘eye’.

She rolled her eyes. A classic moment of Oliver needing to feel involved.

“Decapi it is,” she said.

Eight Decapi suddenly burst in with a cloud of bubbles through a big circular entrance in the wall. The Decapus preparing the sushi emitted a burst of sound at their arrival, like a flurry of hard whistles, and the room exploded in movement. Eight more Decapi clawed their way out of the netting above them and swarmed around a container. Using their tentacles, they grabbed three of the balls and stuffed them in what Mathilde could only imagine was their mouth, hidden in the coil at the base of their tentacles.

They then tore out of the entrance, while the eight that had just arrived calmly climbed up into the netting and disappeared from sight. The room instantly reverted to a calm and serene place. The main Decapus seemed undisturbed, and continued to prepare yet more balls.

“What in bloody hell was that?”  asked Oliver in shock.

Mathilde moved towards the circular entrance, trying to see where the eight had left to.

“Guard-duty?” suggested Szymon, “Or maybe a shift-change, like in a factory? Some go in, some go out. But I guess that then this would be the dormitory, not the factory.”

The explanation made sense, but Mathilde chose to stay silent. At this stage, she reminded herself, they had to be careful about any explanation. Everything here was alien – and the last thing to do was project human behavior on distinctively non-human things. There was no reason why the Decapi would have developed rhythms and patterns that were similar to humanity’s. Even the sushi might actually not be food at all – for all they knew it was tools that the Decapi stored within their bodies. They might not even need food at all.

She stuck her head out of the opening and looked around. The eight Decapi had already swam too far away for them to catch up, speeding off like little missiles.

“Guys,” she waved them over, “Look, there are tons of entrances!”

Cut into the tower’s wall and stretching out both above and below her was a long row of circular openings. She floated out, rose to the one above them, and entered.

The room was identical, down to the lone Decapus busying itself in front of four containers. With a wiggle of her fingers, she floated up again and found yet another room with a single Decapus.

Throughout the climb, Szymon kept looking around, wondering aloud how the whole tower held up in spite of the river’s current. He eventually found and showed them an entire structure of thin interlocking bars that the seaweed was braided over.

“It explains how the rooms avoid collapsing on themselves, but I still don’t get how the whole thing stands up.”

“Couldn’t it just be because the water helps with the weight?” she asked.

Szymon shook his head. “That wouldn’t be enough. See, the advantage of the water is that you have far less structural weight issues – the water helps lower the weight. For stuff like rocks, it ends up being almost twice as light. It would make construction way easier and you could build much higher, but,” and he pointed to the bars, “This wouldn’t cut it. There has to be something else.”

The second to last floor was completely empty. They looked around for hidden crannies or treasure, but discovering nothing of interest, moved on to the last floor.

Her vision changed as she entered it. Everything was more distorted. The whole room shone with a heavy orange light, as if she was swimming in transparent gold.

“Oil!” cried out Szymon, “Of course!”

“What?”

“Oil! They’ve created a bubble of oil at the top of the tower that carries the whole thing!” He pinched the fingers of one hand together, dangling an imaginary string, “The oil floats because it’s lighter than water. It drags the whole thing up, and they shape it with the bars!”

He looked immensely pleased with himself, and Mathilde wished she could share his enthusiasm. She felt oddly numb instead, a strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. It was too much to take in. She had thought she had reached peak excitement when they had found the rock on the surface, but this – this was a civilization. She shuddered at the thought. Even after having spent hours  touring the tower, they had barely scratched the surface of this alien world.

Oliver exited the tower by floating out one of the walls. She moved towards Szymon, who was still flying around with a giddy look on his face.

“Szy?” she asked, “What’s the shorthand for putting a pin on a location?”

“18,” he said, making a gun with his right hand and a single raised finger on the other. She did, and a notification confirming that a pin had been set flashed across her eyes.

She had coded Mark III so that any function that one of them created automatically carried over to all the other users, but she still had no idea which ones Szymon had added. She made a mental note to ask him for a full list later. Or to check the long list that was piling up somewhere in her profile area.

Oliver swam back in from another wall. “Guys, let’s keep going?”

“How about some rest first?” she asked, “Maybe just a quick nap and some food, and we log back in?”

“Sure,” said Oliver, and Szymon reluctantly agreed. She could tell they were on the fence, just like her. No one really wanted to leave, but everyone was completely exhausted. They were running on nothing but adrenaline fumes.

“No more than a couple hours,” she added, and logged out.

They met up in the kitchen, where Szymon broke out a quatre-quarts to share while Mathilde smoked. As soon as they had exited, she had checked how long they had spent inside the Mosverse and been pleasantly surprised to discover it had been only 20 hours. Her back ached and her wrists popped when she rolled them, but it was the sore pleasant pain of a workout.

Oliver made tea and coffee, and they all sat around the table in exhausted silence.

There was too much to say and too few words to express it. It felt like they had all just run a marathon: a feeling of elation and success enveloped them, but they were too tired to do anything more than stupidly smile at each other.

“Mathilde,” Oliver asked, “Is there any way we can communicate with them?”

“Not that I can think of,” she began rolling another cigarette, “Mark II is creating a virtual room for us to explore. With Mark III, we get to move around that room, but it’s not doing anything more than reading what Mark II gives it. And as I told Szy – try to change Mark II and the whole universe might go ‘pop’.” She struck her lighter and lit up.

Oliver smirked in disappointment.

“I mean, you’re free to mess around with it if you want,” she added, “But don’t change anything on Mark II. Or if you need to, make sure to go over it with me first. I don’t want you to break anything. The slightest change could wreak complete havoc.”

“I’ll think about it,” he drummed his fingers on the table, “I mean, imagine if we could. We’d be like gods for them. Anything we did would look like a miracle.”

“I don’t think that’s entirely correct,” said Szymon.

“What? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I meant your use of ‘look’. I don’t know about you guys, but I didn’t see any eyes on the Decapi.”

“Well then how do they get around?”

“Remember how that one whistled? My guess? Echolocation, just like dolphins. They throw off short bursts of sound, and based on how it bounces off of stuff, it gives them an idea of their surroundings.”

“We can’t jump to conclusions. We need to study them closely,” said Mathilde, “There’s so much to understand. Are they intelligent? Do they communicate with each other? Are they conscious?”

“You could check them out while they’re sleeping,” Szymon suggested, “At least they stop moving then. Have you seen how fast those things are?”

“So, so fast,” she nodded in agreement.

Szymon’s eyebrows scrunched up as a thought hit him. “Actually, do you think that’s what they’re doing? Sleeping? Or is it something else?”

“I have no idea Szy,” she crushed out her cigarette, “But you’re right. We need to be careful not to apply human concepts to them. They’re aliens. Completely alien.”

“Mathilde,” said Oliver, “I know I’ve asked already but… Don’t you think it would be valuable to bring in Floriane for this? Biology is kind of her thing.”

She felt a flash of annoyance. He was back at it again. She glared at him, hoping he would back down, but he held her stare.

“We’re a bunch of coders and a physicist,” he pointed out, “We’re not equipped for this. We don’t even know what methodologies we should be using to study them. You wouldn’t ask Floriane to write code, right?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why are you letting coders play at biology?”

She paused and considered it. Why was she so opposed to Floriane joining them? Was it because of the security risks, or was there more to it? Was it simply because she didn’t like her?

“Fine,” she conceded, “I’ll think about it. But first, let’s explore a little more on our own ok?”

He nodded. “That’s all I’m asking for.” They finished their drinks, and headed to their rooms.

“Two hours sleep ok?” she asked from the door, “Then let’s go back in.”

“Sure.”

“And Szymon?”

“Yeah?”

“I mean it. No sneaking in when we’re sleeping.”

His face fell. She rolled her eyes. Obviously he had been planning on doing just that.

“Fine,” he said. She closed her door and collapsed on her bed.

 

 

Szymon woke her like a child on Christmas. She heard him pacing restlessly outside her door, hesitating on whether or not to knock. She couldn’t help a smile from creeping across her face.

“Fine!” she yelled at the door, “Let’s go.” She heard him whoop with joy and run back to his room.

They plugged back in, and started to explore right where they had left off.

For a full two weeks, they spent almost every waking hour in the aquatic city of their new planet, which Szymon had dubbed Janus, after the Greek god with two faces.

They split up, each following what they found most interesting and regrouping at the end of each session to share their findings.

Szymon focused on unraveling the Decapi technology tree. He obsessed over their architecture and tools, and spent days trying to catch builders in the act of carving out tunnels to the surface.

“Couldn’t they just blow it up with dynamite?” Oliver had asked.

“No fire underwater. Not even sure how they’d be able to manufacture any type of explosive either.”

“Then they smashed at it with picks or something.”

“Can’t be that either. Water slows down fast movement. By the time the pick hit the rock, it wouldn’t have enough energy to break it.”

“What about scraping tools?”

“That would take ages!” Szymon had thrown his hands in the air and logged back in.

When he finally found it, he brought both of them along to observe. A group of Decapi was working in a small tunnel some kilometers away from the city. Using sharp rocks, they scraped and scraped at the ceiling until they had carved out a crack several dozen centimeters deep.

“So it was scraping!” said Oliver.

“Wait,” Szymon shushed him.

A Decapus brought its mouth to the hole, latching itself to the ceiling with its five front tentacles. They moved in closer, and watched it blow a few small bubbles of gas into the crack , then attach a thin transparent tube around the entrance. “It’s the body of an eel-like thing they eat,” said Szymon, “They skin it to make the tube.”

The other end they attached to a round cylinder, topped by a large, circular wheel. Two of the Decapi started to rapidly spin it and the tube, which had been floating freely, suddenly went stiff. The Decapi pushed with all their might, and Mathilde suddenly heard a muffled boom from the ceiling. Cracks zigzagged out from the hole, and the Decapi scrambled off as fast as they could, pulling the machine along, as large chunks of rock and debris started to fall.

When the water cleared of dust, the tentacled creatures gingerly returned and began to clear the rubble. Szymon brought them to the ceiling, and flamboyantly showed them the new hole, which had increased in length by at least a meter. Around them, Decapi scurried about with rocks, smoothing out the walls.

“What happened?” she asked, “How did they do that?”

“Cavitation,” said Szymon with a grin, “They use that machine to increase the pressure on the bubbles. When the pressure gets high enough, the bubbles implode with a huge shockwave, breaking the rock around them.”

“Bubbles can do that?”

“Yeah, of course, all the time. Usually it’s a problem that we try to avoid. Take a boat’s propeller for example: if it goes too fast, it creates little bubbles that cavitate and cause huge damage. But here, they’ve harnessed it for mining.”

“Cool,” said Mathilde. So that’s how they catch the rock-animals on the surface, she thought. Szymon began to talk about the details of cavitation, and she quickly zoned out, eager to return to her own discoveries.

She herself had been spending most of her time trying to figure out the dynamics of the Decapi society. She started right from the room they had first discovered, in part for lack of a better place, and also because she wanted another look at the baby Decapi. She arrived right in time for a shift change, and diverted course to follow one of the exiting Decapi.

What were they leaving to do? she wondered, Would they return to the same room at the end of the day? She shook her head. She had to stop thinking like that. The concept of day didn’t make much sense on Janus. There was no rising or setting sun in the twilight zone, just a never ending semi-obscurity, an eternal dusk.

She learnt a lot from following that one Decapus. The Decapi might not have days, but they did function in cycles, which she discovered were close to 16 hours long, split into two groups of four and one of eight.  They would wake up, grab three balls of food, and then leave their habitations by swimming along a rope of seaweed, heading to work.

In the habitat she chose, they were apparently all farmers, as she followed them to a giant plantation of seaweed that rose from the seabed, each strand dozens of meters high. The Decapi flitted around between the plants, cutting off the pieces that branched off too far and collecting them in rock shells. They dug through the riverbed, removing the smaller seaweed stalks that had begun to sprout and catching little insect-like creatures that burrowed deep between the roots. The latter they carefully put into different containers.

They then moved the containers into a giant storage facility built at the boundary between the city and the farm. There, huge groups of Decapi swam from one shell to the other, crushing the little insects within into a thick and sticky substance and making sure each was filled to the brim. Other Decapi swam in and out, carrying in empty containers and leaving with full ones, most likely to deliver them to each of the habitats.

At the four-hour mark, a new team arrived to replace the Decapi that had already been working when the ones she followed had first arrived. At the eight-hour mark, her own Decapi stopped working, themselves replaced by a freshly arrived group. She quickly grasped what was going on. The Decapi had cleverly devised a system to keep workers on their farm at all times: the groups overlapped in four-hour shifts. At any given time, two groups of farmers were at work. If some had been at it for two hours, the other group was already at six.

But it was only once work ended that things got really interesting. The group she followed, which had so far been moving as one, split off in different directions. Choosing one Decapus, she pursued it all the way to the bottom of a cliff, some distance from the city. It stopped and settled onto the riverbed, tentacles curling and unfurling in the current, where it was joined by yet more Decapi until they numbered 25.

She watched incredulously as they split off into groups of five and gathered around huge boulders three meters in width. They jovially twisted around it, bumping into each other, until one Decapus began a soft whistle, low and sweet, that slowly built into a strange melody. One by one, each of the Decapi joined in, and their voices melded together into a harmonious song.

It was beautiful, and Mathilde found herself wishing there was a way to record it. But before she knew it, it suddenly stopped and sand, silt and gravel erupted into gigantic clouds around her. Unable to see in the murky mess, she scrabbled at her controls, climbing up as fast as she could.

As she tore through the watery cloud, she gasped in surprise. Each group of Decapi was pushing and pulling their boulder upwards along the cliff’s face as fast as they could. Two of the groups had chosen to dig in under the boulder and were pushing it up from below in synchronized pulses, while the three others were using a pull and push technique that involved complex rotations between the Decapi on the top and the bottom.

It was a hypnotic well-oiled machine. The second approach seemed more efficient – they were moving faster than the push-only groups – but it was also riskier. Twice she saw groups lose control of their boulder, and bolt down to try to catch it as it fell.

It took a full twenty minutes for a group to push their boulder all the way to the surface. She wondered what they were about to do with it, and how they would scale the cliff without water, when the Decapi that held it shrilled out a whistle and began to shake agitatedly. With wide eyes, she saw the boulder teeter, tip, and tumble down in slow motion.

She could almost feel their disappointment. They were so close.

But something was different. None of the Decapi rushed after the boulder. All the other groups had dropped their own boulder as well. The Decapi nearest the surface were still whistling animatedly, bumping into each other and intertwining their tentacles in what looked like tight hugs.

They’re celebrating, she realized, as she followed them back down to the riverbed, and watched as they switched up the teams and began their song anew. This is a game. Who can push the boulder to the surface first. She watched on with a smile as they shot off again, pushing the gigantic stones.

“They’re playing!” she said excitedly that night to Oliver and Szymon, “They have games! Entertainment! That’s a sign of intelligence right?”

“Dolphins play games,” said Oliver, “So do apes. It doesn’t mean they’re conscious or anything.”

“But they’re so organized! They have different work schedules! They communicate with each other through whistles and touching!”

“Ants are organized. Ants communicate,” he shrugged, “To me they look like an aquatic anthill.”

Oliver was the only one not spending insane amounts of time in the Mosverse. He had become obsessed with building an interaction to play with their new world, and regularly came to Mathilde with ideas on how to code it, only for each one to be shot down as either impossible or too dangerous.

Oliver didn’t seem to understand that she couldn’t identify where a point was in the Mosverse, much less what was in it. The information for individual locations, as well as which quarks and leptons they contained, were spread across multiple qubits, themselves rapidly changing and passing that information along to others.

But Oliver persisted. He wanted to interact with the Decapi. Over and over again, she had to explain to him why it was unfeasible, which left them both frustrated and angry. He blamed her for being uncooperative, and she had to bite back jabs at his intelligence.

Szymon meanwhile, went crazy for the Decapi games. Together, they discovered that Push the Boulder was but one of dozens of activities the Decapi played. Catch the Eel was another, which took place in a large cubic net as wide and tall as a football field, where teams of five tried to catch an eyeless eel. Wrestling was especially fascinating, as instead of one-on-one, they did so in groups of five, creating complex interlocking shapes that needed to be broken.

The best discovery of all was what Szymon coined Decapi Chess. It was a five-Decapus game, built in a 3D pentagon, where players moved little pieces of differently shaped rocks around.  He spent three full days trying to understand the rules, sitting in a corner and observing as shifts of Decapi came and went.

“It’s like all the Decapi games,” he announced one night, “The focus is on cooperation. You can’t knock out a piece unless another player is also attempting to knock it out. That’s why the game stops when there are only two players left.”

He wrote out a manual on the rules of Decapi chess, and tried to get Mathilde and Oliver to play with him.

“It’s a five person game and we’re only three,” she protested.

“It’s ok! I can play three people!”

“Forget it mate,” said Oliver, “Wait until I figure out this interaction thing and you’ll be able to play alongside them. You’ll be Szymon, Decapi God of Chess.”

Szymon crossed his arms and pouted while Mathilde silently rolled her eyes. Oliver was no closer to finding a way to interact with the Mosverse than he had been two weeks ago. It was a fool’s errand, and eventually he would resign himself to that fact too.

He was increasingly getting on her nerves however. Not only was he constantly offering outlandish and impractical ideas, but he kept referring to the Decapi as mindless ants. It annoyed her a little more with every day: there was so much more to her little Decapi than he thought. They were smart, adaptive and social. They had built a society that functioned so harmoniously she wondered if humans could ever replicate it. It was through her occasional checks on the babies in the first room that she realized they even had distinct personalities. Two of the small Decapi were demure and passive, but one continuously tried to escape and was invariably plucked up by a large tentacle. It was adorable, but not in a puppy way. Rather, it spoke of an underlying intelligence.

But she would need more if she was to convince Oliver. She shifted her focus to proving that her Decapi were as intelligent and conscious as humans. After all, if they really did function like ants, shouldn’t they have found a Decapus queen by now? She smirked. Then again, they still hadn’t been able to figure out how the Decapi reproduced either. It was the million-dollar question.

On a whim, she decided to follow the food-preparing Decapus instead. They seemed different from the other Decapi, older and more in control. Despite there being no indication of whether it was male or female, or even if the whole sex concept made sense, she unconsciously found herself calling them Matriarchs. After all, they were the ones who cared for the baby Decapi and bossed everyone around. The name felt appropriate.

It turned out that each habitat had two Matriarchs who never saw each other. They worked the kitchen in a relay of eight-hour shifts, and slept four while the other was working. Their free time slot however, was spent completely differently from the other Decapi.

She followed a Matriarch all the way up to the empty room below the oil bubble, and was fascinated to discover that 24 other Matriarchs were already present – one for each of the 25 floors of the tower. For over two hours, with a tentacle wrapped into the walls to keep themselves immobile, they whistled. It felt like a song, with multiple voices at the same time and melodies that rose, mirrored each other and then spun off in variations and yet… and yet Mathilde knew it wasn’t. They’re talking, she realized, Discussing.

But she became convinced when the two hours were up, and the Matriarchs flew out the opening, only to swim to nearby towers and repeat the process with representatives of each surfacescraper.

She smiled victoriously. The term Matriarch had been spot on. They were the ones who regulated the entire Decapi society. As soon as the meetings ended, Mathilde noticed subtle changes in the towers, as individual Decapi were moved from one habitat to another, shifts were modified and new construction begun.

It was the proof she had been looking for. The Matriarchs were a counsel of representatives that governed their entire society. A democracy of sorts, without elections. Or were the Matriarchs elected? she wondered.

She hadn’t seen anything that even remotely resembled an election, but then again they had barely been there for three weeks. Maybe it had to do with age? The Matriarchs were greyer than the other Decapi, and the younglings were almost bright orange. Did that mean they were older?

She shook her head. The selection process didn’t matter. The Decapi had a system of government that required thought and discussion, and even Oliver would have to admit that no other animal on Earth even came close. It wasn’t a hive mind with a queen, it was a society of intelligent individuals.

But Oliver showed nothing but mild interest. “You still haven’t figured out how they reproduce,” he pointed out, “Doesn’t mean they don’t have a queen.” She went back in and spent two more days looking, but still came up empty-handed.

Try as she might, she couldn’t crack the code. That night she made a decision. However much she hated to admit it, Oliver was right: they needed a biologist.

Or rather, they needed a xenobiologist, but unfortunately l’ENS had no such major. A biologist would have to do, and of all possible choices, Floriane wasn’t the worst she could think of. At least they knew her, and she probably wouldn’t rat them out. Unless Oliver messed up. She cringed at the thought and rapped her knuckles on her wooden windowsill for luck.

She looked up Floriane’s ID on the ENS database and used it to create a Guest account. She made sure to match the ID with the account, ensuring that no one but Floriane would be able to log in. Or rather, no one but a person wearing Floriane’s VR contacts, but that particular security issue applied to all of them.

On a whim, she added a line of code to hide the account from Oliver and Szymon. I’ll keep it as a surprise for the next time he accuses me of not wanting to share this to anyone, she thought, a wicked grin on her face, Then I’ll throw Floriane’s account in his face.

She was about to go to bed, but suddenly felt the urge for one last check on the Decapi. She logged in and jumped to where Szymon was, found him focused on yet another game of Decapi Chess, and jumped again.

She went to her usual spot, the first room they had visited, to check up on the three baby Decapi attached to the Matriarch. They had almost doubled in size since she had first seen them. The biggest one, her favorite wanna-be escapee, floated towards her. She extended a finger, and her heart sunk a little when, instead of wrapping its tentacles around it, he floated straight through.

A movement caught her eye. Slowly swimming in place, just outside the entrance, was a Decapus. She had almost missed it. It was lost in shadow, its skin jet black. It was also unexpected – they weren’t anywhere close to a shift change. Her hair stood on end with  uneasiness. Something was wrong.

The black Decapus delicately wrapped a tentacle around the side of the circular entrance and dragged himself in.

The Matriarch must have noticed him. She suddenly spun around in a vortex of bubbles, dropping the food, and screeched out a shrill, high-pierced whistle. Extending all five front tentacles as wide as she could, she whirled to face the intruder while slowly backing away towards a wall, the babies wrapped protectively behind her.

But the black Decapus was already halfway across the room, propelling itself forward at breakneck speed and clutching a stone javelin  in his front tentacles. Before she could react, it violently thrust the weapon forward, right between the tentacles of the Matriarch. A green cloud billowed up from the wound, and the tips of her tentacles spasmed chaotically as the black Decapus tore out his javelin, and pierced her with it again. And again. And again.

Mathilde screamed.

 

~ End of Chapter 11 ~

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