By Jason Gibbs
“Basically we want to stop anyone from being able own the Octopus. We want to be free!”
The cry of revolutionaries everywhere I thought. Well, except perhaps for the bit about the Octopus.
“I agree the current system isn’t entirely fair, but…”
“Isn’t fair Brandon? Isn’t fair! We work for almost nothing, while the algae farmers live in luxury. Look at them, up there, on the top vent, wallowing in luxury, while the rest of us struggle just to eat.”
“Luke, they did save us, and I’m not so convinced about that luxury.”
“Propaganda. Lies. They stole from the real algae farmers. Before we had to retreat from the surface the algae farmers were considered peasants. They’d never have been able to build the mechanisms of control our rulers have in such a short time.”
“Look, brother, I understand your anger, but it’s only been a couple of centuries, we can’t go back to the surface.”
He looked at me steadily. Weighing me. Deciding if he could tell me something. When at last the decision was made, it was in my favour.
“I can’t tell you it all, but I will say, it doesn’t involve going to the Surface. Or attacking the Main Bag, if that’s what you think.”
My eyes had swung to the giant algae and oxygen balloon which floated high above the main vent. At this time of day it was quite visible as a glowing green bulb. All our oxygen came from that one frail bag.
Luke pointed at it and said, “The Council of Algae Farmers, our rulers, destroyed all other balloons in the last purge. They now own the only source of life. And with that, our city, the Octopus, is theirs.”
I’d heard it before, and there was no point arguing, but I was worried about him…
“OK brother, but you know what will happen if they even find out you’ve been speaking against them?”
“I’ll go for a naked swim over the lower tentacles. I know.”
We both looked out over the lower city. Each district following one of the ridge lines, particular encrustations near each main vent. I had no idea who had first described them as tentacles, but it had stuck.
It was rumoured that the execution points were at the tips of two of the lowest arms, far away from the main vent. This was in part aesthetic, as allegedly our rulers didn’t want to see dead people floating around their pleasure palaces, but it was also practical, there was the possibility a corpse might interfere with the Bag. There was little chance of that if they were released so far away, as the fish and other creatures who swum at the edges of our realm would consume them quickly once they were released.
I doubted it was true, but I didn’t want to argue with him again. Before I could say any more, he looked at his watch, and sighed.
“I have to go. Keep safe big brother.”
“Keep safe Luke.”
I was worried about him. He was likely to do something foolish.
When I was sure Luke had gone I made a call.
“Hi sir, it’s Brandon.”
“Brandon, I have told you before, call me Douglas,” the white-haired man on the screen smiled at me.
“Si… Douglas, thanks. I’ve just spoken to my brother, and I’m worried…”
“Are you sure he’ll be OK?”
The old man sighed, and said, “Brandon, as long as he doesn’t do anything violent, he’ll be fine.”
“I hope he’ll understand.”
“He might struggle at first, he has been fed a lot of… well let’s call it misguided information.”
He went on, “So now Brandon, let us discuss the plan.”
Several hours later, I was staring at a work screen when I heard the front door slam open. I quickly shut down the app I was using, and brought up the news channel. Luke stormed in, and I muted the screen.
“They’ve announced a total shutdown. This is it Brandon, this is where they’re going to purge anyone who disagrees. They know there’s many of us…” he stopped and looked at me strangely. Actually, not at me, at my screen.
I looked at it, and saw a picture, mine next to Douglas. Chief Farmer Douglas to be exact.
“What is this… no… you’re with them… how could you…”
He stared at me, and then ran to the door. It slammed again.
I turned back to my screen, wishing I’d not picked the news channel. I’d lost track of time and hadn’t realised… still.
I turned the sound up.
“… and the farmers believe that this technology will allow us to operate more independently under the water. Several researchers, including…” she gave a list of my co-workers, and then, “… Brandon Bridges, have been working on this, and in some cases have undergone the procedure themselves.”
‘Undergone the procedure’ I thought. Hardly that. Just a few pills and then… symbiotic algae in the lungs. My contribution had been the salt exchange process. And to be a guinea-pig.
My comms chimed, and I clicked a button, Maria’s face appeared on screen.
“Sorry Brandon, we have no time, we’ve been following your brother, and others. We think they were planning something, and this announcement may have forced their hand. They’re heading towards the Bag.”
“He said that…”
She frowned, and said, “Look, just come to the west main shaft entrance, I’ll have a unit there waiting for you.”
She cut off before I could answer. I guess being head of Octo Security allowed her some measure of rudeness.
I arrived at the entrance twenty minutes later, panting. I needed to rest, and also pass on this information to my colleagues. We’d done some exercise tests, but not this high adrenaline combination, or not enough. I shouldn’t be short of breath after such a short run.
“Brandon… Bridges…” I panted to the armoured figure.
She flicked a switch and I could see her face, it was Maria wearing a wry smile. She knew who I was.
“Brandon, I’m sorry, but, they’re in the control area. All eight of the Gang of Four, and a couple of others, including your brother. If they blow the Bag…”
The Gang of Four had started with just four, but grown, and either been unable to agree a new name, or, more likely, thought it was clever to keep the original name. Confuse the authorities.
“Have they made any demands?”
“Yes, the usual. They want the algae farmers put into custody awaiting trial, and all the political prisoners freed.”
“That should be easy… freeing nobody!”
She looked at me witheringly, “This is not the time for joking Brandon. If the Bag goes, we’ll lose…”
“Three quarters of our citizens,” cut in another voice. We turned round to see Douglas standing there.
He smiled, “I’m going in to see them. Maybe I can reason with them…”
I grabbed him, “No! You can’t…”
“The Gang of Four includes Stephen Cran, he’ll kill you, any chance he gets. He’s sworn it.”
He looked quizzically at Maria, “Commander, were you aware of this?”
She looked uncomfortable and said, “There was rumour…”
“My brother saw it, Cran cut his palm as he swore. He blames you for the death of his brother.”
“I see,” said Douglas.
Jonathan Cran had been one of those who had tried to save the auxiliary bags when they had been attacked. The attack was by a school of large fish, attracted by the new lighting we’d put in, and not some form of government purge as had often been alleged on the conspiracy forums. Douglas had shown me the raw footage, and the studies they’d done afterwards. If the farmers hadn’t turned off the lighting in the main Bag… well we wouldn’t be alive. But several people had died in all the confusion. Stephen had never believed it was an accident, and Douglas had been in charge of the rescue effort.
“So what do we do then Commander?”
Maria said, “I think we need to get up there, work out what they’re doing and if necessary knock them out.”
She made it sound easy, but I was worried.
“Agreed, please proceed. Let’s hope they don’t do anything foolish…”
“What’s the status Commander?”
A crackle and then Maria’s voice, “We are at the hatches. We’ve connected listening equipment. It’s difficult to determine what is happening, but it seems like there’s an argument going on.”
“Might we be able to take advantage of it?”
“… hope so …”
I wondered why the signal was so bad, Douglas looked at me and shook his head.
“I think they’ve got jammers up. It will make it harder…”
Maria’s voice suddenly came through clearly, “I think they’re going to push Luke…”
“What?” I was shocked.
“Calm down Brandon, let’s just think. Where would they push your brother?”
I took a deep breath. The only way to help Luke was to use my brains. I thought about the control area. There were only three external points, one to come down the shaft, one up to get to the Bag’s maintenance crawl-ways and the emergency hatch.
“The emergency hatch.”
He smiled at me, “I agree. What can we do?”
He liked this Socratic method, and to be honest I usually enjoyed it, but it seemed a little inefficient given my brother’s life was in danger. I took a deep breath and thought.
“Well, I, I could go outside and catch him.”
“With two sets of oxygen, it seems unlikely you’d be able to get to him quickly enough?”
“I… I know. I’ll let him use the oxygen,” I looked him straight in the eyes as I said this. He nodded, gravely, but I could see he was pleased.
“Right, well go then, quickly, you have no time to lose.”
‘And now he wants to rush…’ I thought to myself, but I headed off to the next maintenance point.
As with most adult members of the Octopus I had training in how to use the suits and the emergency hatches, though as Luke often pointed out, there just weren’t enough suits for everyone. He claimed that the farmers had stacks of them in store rooms, but just wouldn’t release them in case the people rose up. I’d mentioned this to Maria once, and she had laughed.
“We barely keep the ones we have properly tested and with enough oxygen. If there was a store room full of them? Well we wouldn’t be able to keep them maintained anyway. It’s not equipment we lack, it’s people.”
“Well maybe we can do something about that?” had been my answer. I smiled at the memory.
I got to the maintenance point, got the suit on, and attached the oxygen. Making sure it was all ready, I hit the button and the airlock started to fill with water. Before I knew it I was swimming up towards the control point.
The water was a little murky, but as I approached I could see the metal clad bulge of the control point. It was on top of a long spine, sitting under the Bag, like an olive under a melon as someone had once described it. All on one giant toothpick.
Suddenly there was a big rush of bubbles coming from one side, and I could see the emergency hatch opening. A body fell out, arms waving. It was Luke. I pushed myself harder to get to him.
I grabbed him, and saw that he was holding his breath. I quickly took my oxygen breather out and pushed it into his mouth. He sucked a breath in. He offered it back to me, and I shook my head. I was looking towards the control area. I could see through the glass. Maria was in there, and someone was aiming something at her. There was a flash, she fell back.
Something took hold of me, a surge of adrenaline, and shrugging off the oxygen tank to leave it for Luke, I kicked towards the emergency hatch. I knew what I had to do. I kicked hard at the safety, and then turned the release and the inner door popped. Air bubbles started to boil out, and the water started to drag me, I tried to kick away, but the current, while temporary, was too strong. I hit my head on a metal plate, once, twice and darkness.
“Is he OK?” said Luke’s voice from far away.
“Yes, he needs rest, now please…”
“Is he OK?” said Maria’s voice, far away, but closer than Luke’s.
The nurse repeated her injunction, with perhaps a little weariness in her voice.
“Are you OK?”
“For the hundredth time Luke, I am fine. My head hurts, but the doctor said no permanent damage, though if I notice any spots in my vision I need to call him.”
“But your lungs…”
“Yes, are filled with mutant algae, so I can breathe under water for a period of time. Which is at least an hour… but we haven’t fully tested it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” it was almost a wail.
“I… I don’t know Luke. I didn’t want you to be angry with me, you know for working with the farmers.”
He held his head in his hands. He still couldn’t quite get his head around what had happened. He’d believed the Gang of Four had a plan, and followed them into the control area. Once they’d arrived Cran had admitted to him they were just going to threaten the Bag. He’d challenged him, said he couldn’t mean it, and then Cran had hit him. Cran said that he’d rather everyone died then continue to live under the shadow of the Bag. That’s when, finally, Luke had seen the real madness in Cran’s eyes. He’d tried to fight back, but the others still supported Cran and they’d thrown him out of the lock.
They had all drowned when I opened the inner airlock.
“Oh my valiant knight is awake again,” said Maria, and she came and gave me a kiss. Luke’s eyes widened.
“Um… Commander, Brandon, um, what?”
She laughed and then winced. Her shoulder was bandaged from the shot she’d taken. Fortunately she had been wearing a protective vest, but apparently it still hurt. She hadn’t drowned as she was another of the guinea pigs with algae lungs, though she had complained, playfully I think, about being knocked about a bit by the water.
Maria turned to Luke and smiled, and said, “So this is my future brother-in-law?”
Luke was sentenced to six months of additional maintenance work, with the judge taking into account his attempt to stop the Gang of Four from destroying the Bag.
When he’d finished his sentence he took the algae pills. He lives just along the tentacle from us.
We have two little ones now. They have algae lungs too. I look up at the Bag from time to time. We still need it, for the moment. But soon we won’t, and we’ll be able to expand across the sea floor as far as we like. We will no longer be tethered to the Octopus, like pets to an owner.