The suffocation of the following minutes lingers in me like wetlung. A gelatinous mass flowed over the convex dome of the forward hull, and as it climbed, dual rows of blood-pink suckers rippling up the underside of its questing tentacles, the whole of the creature came into view. It propelled a bulbous sac of a head by eight radially-symmetrical limbs, swathed in a membranous skirt of flesh, and these were shortly splayed along the entire girth of the vessel.
In the center of the entity’s cyclone of limbs I saw, with a sick feeling of absurdity, the beetle-black beak nested there, picking and scraping at the viewport glass almost thoughtfully. It had taken on a more or less fixed shape, an eight-pointed star writhing as it dominated our field of view, revealing its cadaverously pale underside. Cast in dim, violet contrast by the lamps, whose droning hum made my eardrums pound, I could imagine the sick sliding sounds it must be making, the wet, rapid-fire popping of its suckers as its limbs explored the hull.
It would have been terrible to hear it. It was more terrible still not to.
Each limb appeared to operate independently of the rest, curling and snaking outward like gingerly questing fingers – mapping the terrain, potentially analyzing. A lower limb coiled slowly around one of the exterior lamp rigs, tentative – curious?
The muscles in that slender tendril flexed, rippling up the arm, and the lattice of the mount splintered like so much driftwood. Yrai flinched against me, drawing Daira in tighter. The damage to the ship was a peripheral concern; my anxiety centered on the way it held the stolen headlamp. It drew the pilfered equipment above its skin-skirt without hesitation and presented it to an eye I could not see, turning it this way and that with uncanny dexterity. The light has come from this. How?
The creature was thinking.
The octopod dismissed the lamp and tossed it aside. It touched the rest of the dead lamps one by one, but it did not break them. Then it seemed to fix its attention on the plexiglass separating it from the cockpit, whipcord legs searching out the rims of the panes. Not curious, I realized. Experimental.
It was trying to find a way in.
Our immediate survival was staked on the gamble that the animal’s strength was insufficient to directly penetrate the hull. I thought this likely the case, but I was not barred from considering the consequences. I was not afraid that I would be killed by the beast. I knew that it would not have the chance, that at this depth sudden depressurization would cause the sea-grapes of my lungs to burst in my chest, and that my only mercy would be a catastrophic embolism to take me quickly.
I ordered Daira and Yrai to evacuate the chamber and engage the hermetic seal to isolate the rest of the ship. I did not think the octopod capable of entering by brute force, but I had begun to feel an unsettling rattle beneath my feet. I was thinking of the heat sinks, pitting the hull port and starboard. I was thinking of the aft decompression vents. I was thinking that it is often finesse more than force that yields results.
Yrai had reacted to my command at once, but Daira was sun-struck beside me and he could not compel her to move. Neither made it free of the chamber. The creature ignited.
It was beyond description. I say this, and still I try. If I do not try, it will fester somewhere inside of me. At once we all were sun-struck, for Yol had plucked its feverish eye from the firmament and dropped it to the bottom of the sea. Molten bioluminescence exploded to life in the creature’s gelatinous core, radiating into limbs that lashed like sundogs. I could see its organs back-cast through translucent skin, fetal pink and pulsating in time with that throbbing light, and the blood-black central pit of its beak cast a penumbra that bit behind the eyeball like teeth. I could not feel my body. We were all to take part in a carnivorous ecosystem; the Coelacanth was not a world apart from it, and it would not shield us.
I felt the rattle beneath my feet become a scraping, and then a hard clunk. I saw that not all of the octopod’s arms were engaged in the frantic dance. I saw that we had been staring for minutes, and I had not seen the chronometer change. I thought of slender, corpse-white pseudopods exploring dormant external vents, spidery roots infiltrating the fissures of a rock face. I thought of the bassy thud I might hear before depressurization crumpled the hull.
I felt dazed and somehow separate from myself, stunned as the Grouper had been stunned. Tears spilled down my face when I clenched shut my eyes. I had not been blinking for some time, and the friction burned hot furrows deep into my skull, the scorched afterimage of the Sundancer strobing behind my closed lids. I was thus blinded when I seized the helm and shoved the throttle to maximum, thrusting the prow of the Coelacanth into the core of that ravenous crucible of light at speed that mounted from a rumbling crawl to a deep-throated, bellowing charge.
The octopod gripped the hull with crushing, muscular force. Several more external fixtures were lost, and there was a thuddy, metallic crimping somewhere above my head. Wild feverlight stabbed interrogatory fingers through my shut eyelids, deepening from lunatic gold to a burnt, oversaturated orange that cloyed like morphine. The network of trenches was at its widest point here, but I tacked hard to starboard, into the colossal cliffside. I heard my own guttural shout, commanded Daira and Yrai to be seated and brace for impact. The octopod suckered itself to the hull, evidently unwilling to relinquish its prey, and I counted off fifteen agonizing seconds. Then the light was gone.
Darkness returned like a solid wall. I opened my eyes to a blind, flashing sea, and if I had not heeded the urge to crank back the throttle in the seconds that followed, impact with the literal wall would have been catastrophic. The Coelacanth’s prow plunged into the granite cliff with bone-shattering force, and unsecured to my seat, the shock absorbed by the hull was not enough to prevent my head from whipping into the console, breaking my nose with a cartilaginous crunch.
The stars behind my eyes exploded. Blood gouted down my chin, its sharp copper tang in my mouth. I had bitten my tongue, badly. The pain was great, and I gave a wet, hoarse cry which was wretchedly loud in the silence. A fine mist of blood sprayed from my mouth to speckle the command console. The faint light of the instruments flashed multiple warnings, but registered no change in hull pressure, and less compromise of hull integrity than I had dared to hope for. This was damage that could be assessed later. It was more important to determine if the Sundancer had still been present when we struck the trench. I turned, exhaled gustily when I saw both Daira and Yrai seated and secured. Daira stared at me with fixed, glassy eyes, her lips peeled back from her teeth in a wide rictus that frightened me, but Yrai was slack in his seat, a neuralgic twitch in his ash-black cheek. He was seizing again.
“Daira, to Yrai! Get him onto the floor and turn him on his side!” I said. I activated the dismal light of two remaining lowbeams, illuminating crumbling granite rubble through a thick, oily cloud that screened the Coelacanth’s brow like a whirling veil. Daira had yet to move, and I firmed my voice, raised it.
“Hold your nerve! There will be time for panic when we are shed of this-”. I do not know if I would have been successful in summoning her back from her tharn. I did not have the time.
The second impact would not have been half so devastating were it not for the monstrous light with which it came. The force was blunted, fleshy, and the cones of light cast by our lamps were consumed in a conflagration of hot, bloody light, a junglefire licking between Nar’s dry ribs at the bottom of a stormy sea.
The Sundancer had evaded my rash maneuver and now grappled at us portside, the Coelacanth screaming under the ministrations of that ravenous beast. For an insane moment I felt certain the octopod’s intellect had recognized the threat immediately, and it had left its fist clenched in the ant mound so long by design. I pictured a seabird dropping a clam over the gray granite coastal shelf, worming its hooked beak inside like a tailor letting out a seam.
The abrupt assault had evidently thrust Daira back into herself, and she was doing as I asked, laying Yrai down so that his airway would remain clear until his seizure ended. The fire of the Sundancer still ached behind my eyes, strobing and surging. Veena would have been canny enough to seal herself and Cantor inside the hydroponics bay, but the image of old Emir toppled by the crash in the medical bay pulsed in my eyes with the light. He was on the besieged side of the ship, and if for any reason he could not leave-
I imagined his innards reduced to soup by the depressurization, sucked into the feverish heat of a writhing maw, and my gut steeled.
My nerve had been thrust to the brink of reason, but my huelit was upon me now. I halted myself there and hung suspended over the precipice. The bondage of all irrelevant thought and perception that propelled me was severed, and the Foremind supported me by a single gossamer chain affixed to my sacrum. Simplicity and calm. The Sundancer’s impression of heat was a false one. Mine would be quite genuine.
The heat sinks had been purged before our descent days prior, and would have been due again in two more. I don’t know how to describe the sound I heard when I vented them. I thought at first that it was the creature, bellowing agony into the scarlet dark, but it was the sound of waterfalls cracking strange thunder in canyons. I realized that it was the sea that was screaming, boiling where guttural heat met depths which never exceeded zero degrees. The shudder it gave as I wounded it was incredible, and I was seated on the floor when the world stilled. My ears rang like the bushfire sirens in Kor Fu. I still feel guilty for how they made you cry.