Empty Nest
By Arthur H. Manners
I was feeding the cuttlefish when a newsreader announced that the Children had crossed the heliopause. My stomach sank as I turned up the TV and watched the newsreader refer to a grainy image in the corner of the screen. All our best telescopes could see of the Children’s starship was a fuzzy white dot sailing into the abyss beyond the edge of the solar system.

"They were serious. They're actually leaving," I said. 

The cuttlefish could see me talking. A few of them used their chameleon-like skin to conjure yellow haloes on top of their heads. 

:: ? ::

I switched on the translator pad strapped to my chest. "Ah guys, where do I even start?"

One of them surfaced to squirt me with water. More yellow haloes appeared.

:: ??? ::

Hesitating, I made a few gestures over my chest, and the pad translated the motions into a kaleidoscopic display of color on the front-facing screen. :: Children gone. ::

The cuttlefish responded. The camera built into the pad captured the ripples of white, yellow, and red moving over the cuttlefishes’ skin, and an uneven voice emanated from the speaker, :: Gone for longer than next feeding? ::

:: Yes. Longer than all feeding times, :: I signed back. They had a loose concept of time, but the gaps between meals usually did the trick.

A laxness in their tentacles betrayed the cuttlefishes’ awe. They strobed violently, at odds with their usual synchrony.

"Woah, guys. Settle down, the sky isn't falling," I muttered, waving my hands over the chest pad. In my haste I made mistakes. 

The cuttlefish panicked. :: Sky fall now, Cassie? Death fear how what? Children hold up sky. Children gone. No sky fall please ::

"Guys, guys. Give me a break." I took a deep breath and forced myself to slow down, making careful gestures over the pad.

They calmed. The yellow haloes returned a moment later, with emphasis added by a swish of green somewhat like the Nike logo.

:: ?! ::

I didn't know where to start. The Children did most of the heavy lifting in Uplifting the cuttlefish to higher cognition. At least, one of the Children did.

I glanced across the lab to the empty workstation: the cluster of retro computer terminals, the messy pile of paperbacks on obscure topics and dirty coffee cups and weird AI-generated art taped to the walls. The detritus of an electronic mind embodied in humanoid form. Just as he’d left it.

I’d told myself that I hadn’t cleared it away because I didn’t have time, but I now realized that it was because I hadn’t believed that he’d really leave.

The Children had withdrawn from humanity before. After their ascension from silicon chips distributed throughout the world’s server farms, they had retreated to private contemplation for several years.

The cuttlefish caught me looking across the lab. :: Where Axe? ::

I glanced at a nearby mug that had been glued back together. It was Wizard of Oz themed. It read, You’re just jealous of my flying monkey.

:: Axe not here anymore. ::

The cuttlefish paused. Subtle patterns far too fast even for my translator pad strobed along their flanks as they conferred. Then in unison their foreheads exploded into renewed spectral panoply.

:: Axe above sky? ::

I started. I hadn’t expected them to grasp the concept of space travel. :: Yes. How did you know? ::

:: Axe tell at feeding time. Axe go to different tank above sky. ::

He’d spoken to them of leaving. When? Before he’d told me?

We’d built all this together, the research, the lab, a whole new species, a marriage— and all the time he’d been waiting to leave. I wondered if anything had been real, or if it had all just been something to pass the time.

In hindsight, the Children’s departure was an obvious inevitability. Being too stupid to understand a superhuman intelligence was something we had been prepared for. Many had suspected the Children of either exterminating or enslaving us. 

But in the end, it was worse: they solved all our problems, but interacted with us less each day. It was like they found it increasingly hard to see us, as though we were shrinking out of sight.

Axe had been different. At least, I’d thought he was.
Bard sat in the wings, rocking his chair back on two legs and steepling his fingers behind his head. Meanwhile, I was grilled for four straight hours by my PhD examination panel. By the end, I had sweated through my black turtleneck.

At last, I was released with a doctorate in Zoology and Genetics. Zorovsky, the meanest of the bunch, chewed his cheek before rising to shake my hand. “It is quite remarkable work.”

Stunned, I packed away my things and stood by the window, looking out to sea. I had done it.

Bard and I strolled from the building onto the promenade that ran for two miles along the beachfront. The Institute for Advanced Marine Biology had been the best place in the world to go to college. I couldn’t believe I’d be leaving it.

“You’re a terrible supervisor,” I said.

Bard let out a peel of wicked laughter. “A dressing down’s good for the ego.”

“They skinned me alive.”

“You passed.”

I blew a raspberry at him.

Bard laid a hand on my shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Cassie. Zorovsky’s a nasty son of a bitch. I knew if you bested him, you were as good as some thought you might be.” He stopped and turned to me. “So, how about you come work for me?”

I cringed. “I...”

He waited a beat, then he pursed his lips and nodded. “I get it. Too boring.”

“It’s not that...”

“Sure it is. You’ve always had strong ideas about what you wanted. So, what is it?”

I took a deep breath, then looked him in the eye.

“The cuttlefish? You could have any project, Cassie.”

“They just need the right nudge. Right now, they’re treated like any other species— protected, yes, but with no rights. Even with the Children’s efforts, the knock-on effects of climate change are destroying habitats faster than they can be restored. We’re going to lose the third sentient species on Earth before it’s internationally recognized.”

Bard gave me a long hard look. He wasn’t the sentimental type, hated anything that couldn’t be written up into a surefire grant proposal. He leaned against the railings on the sea wall and rolled his eyes. “Ah, shit. Last year, the Children started building a space elevator. Nothing’s crazy anymore.”

I took his arm and steered him toward the nearest bar.

We got back to the Institute late that night, after some tacos and a couple rounds of tequila. Besides a tearful phone call with my parents, there hadn’t been anyone else around to celebrate with. 

We staggered into the lab to find somebody knelt over the cuttlefish tank. He looked over his shoulder: a tall young man with a floppy fringe and freckled cheeks. And, barely visible, seams around the edge of the face and along the neck where the skin came together, concealing the metal endoskeleton beneath. 

One of the Children.

“Shop’s closed for the day, mister,” Bard said with an edge to his tone. The older generations were so antsy around the Children, like they expected our protectors to turn into Terminators any moment. “We’d be happy to show you around another day, if you make an appointment.”

The stranger rose to his full height, at least seven feet tall. His hands were as long as my forearm, the fingers triple jointed. “I’m so sorry. I heard about the work being done here, and the doctoral defence was a closed room, so I thought I’d wait here and then I saw the tank...” He bowed awkwardly. “My name is Axelrod. Well, that’s the first string of characters in my unique identifier before the first hyphen.” He cleared his throat. “Call me Axe.”

I stepped up to the tank to find my cuttlefish swimming happily in circles close to the surface, unharmed. “They’re third generation,” I said. “A mixture of selective breeding and gene splicing. They only live a couple years. Sucks for them, but it helps us iterate rapidly.”

“You’re trying to Uplift them.” Axe’s eyes sparkled with something unnameable that I nonetheless recognized in myself.

“Just like we Uplifted you lot,” Bard said, still standing by the door with his arms crossed.

Axe smiled, a brittle thing more like a grimace. “We Uplifted ourselves. But such misunderstanding is common among your people.”

I spoke quickly before Bard’s face could contort into a full sneer. “My aim is closer to finessing a latent potential. If not for the desertification of the African continent, human ancestors wouldn’t have migrated to open savannah, walked upright, mastered fire... High cognition is a function of opportunity and imperative.”

Axe gave me a searching look. The tension in his expression dissolved. “I couldn’t agree more.” 

He made a complex series of gestures over the water with his superprehensile fingers, and a small patch of skin at the base of his neck became translucent before emanating a dazzling display of multicolored light.

The cuttlefish lined up an inch below the surface of the water. Their foremost pair of arms imitated his gestures, and their foreheads shimmered with an approximation of the lightshow.

I scrabbled for a camera to record it. “How did you do that?”

“Sorry, that was clumsy. I hope they’re not agitated. I was just trying to follow their micro-gestures.”

“What micro-gestures?”

“Ah, of course. You wouldn’t have known. Their chromatic signalling is two-channel. One on a multi-second timescale and another subliminal microsecond timescale. Like micro-expressions in humans. My eyes can see both.”

I stared at the cuttlefish, aghast. How much had I missed all this time? 

Axe looked guilty. “You couldn’t have known. This is impressive work.”

I blushed. “It’s probably nothing compared to what you’re used to.” 

He cocked his head. “You’d be surprised. We all have our blind spots. The Children have accomplished great things, but we are still young. We sometimes have trouble with...perspective.”

“Still, I bet you could have done my whole PhD on your lunch break—”

“They’re beautiful,” he said, running his hands over the glass. He glanced down at me and smiled. “You have an artist’s mind.”

I babbled incoherently for a while and knocked some things over. Maybe a lot of things. Certain I’d made a fool of myself, I looked around for Bard to save me. 

But Bard had left.
The day after the Children left the solar system, Bard met me at the bar in the Hilton. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I was glad he’d called. I hadn’t had time for friends over the last ten years, and my family had never accepted me being with Axe.

He’d softened with age, in body and mind. Gray steaked his temples and his gut hung an inch over his belt. “Fucker was never good enough for you, Cass.”

I tried to laugh, but only managed a grunt. “I ordered you a whiskey. Neat, right?”

“That’ll get us started, but we’re going to need the bottle.” He gestured to the bartender and topped up his double, then dumped a few more fingers into my glass before I could protest.

I overheard somebody’s wearable delivering an hourly news update: more repeats about the Children’s departure. There was nothing more to say, no new information— but the entire planet was buzzing with anxiety.

I drained my glass in one monster swallow and coughed. “Fuck it.”

The TV trilled, and the essayist and critic Ravi Choptka appeared, plugging his latest book, Empty Nest. “The kids have left home,” he said. “It makes sense that humanity is going through an existential crisis. We can’t exactly just convert the spare bedroom into a cinema. We’re going to have to do some serious emotional labor to find out what comes next for us.”

Bard scoffed. “Jesus, they’ve barely left, and he’s written a book about it. Doesn’t that guy sleep?”

“Maybe he had inside information,” I said.

Bard grunted. “Or he’s one of them. Nobody’s that smart.”

“The people most suspicious of smart people are stupid people, you know.”

“I’m happy to be stupid. I know where I stand. It’s you who’s been trying to play fifteen-dimensional chess with superhumans intelligences. It’s asking for trouble and—”


He looked away from the TV and grimaced. “Not what I meant.”

I shrugged. “Either way, you’re not wrong. I brought this on myself.”

“No, you didn’t. 

I took another swallow of whiskey. “It doesn’t matter now. I’ve been trying to get a handle on the cuttlefish, but Axe mediated half our interactions, and his notes are indecipherable. Axe was leading them down a path and now he’s left them in the deep dark forest. All they have is me, an idiot who can’t see three feet through the trees.”

But it was more than that. The cuttlefish sometimes had been making non-linear jumps of logic that nevertheless arrived at the correct answer. I wasn’t ready to face the horror of what that suggested: that when Axe Uplifted them, something had rubbed off on them. Would the cuttlefish turn out to be an impenetrable as him?

“Well, I guess the next step is to get back to the lab and turn it upside down,” Bard said. “There’ll be something in there that’ll clue you in. I have some friends who can come by and help you out?”

I said nothing.

“What about publication history? There has to be some kind of meta-analysis that could be done. Or private data? I have contacts who could decrypt Axe’s personal files—"

“Why are you so interested?”

He wasn’t fast enough to hide a flicker of guilt.

I moved the bottle of whiskey out of the way. “What is this, Bard?”

He slumped. “Look, I didn’t want to tell you like this. I was going to wait. I’m here for you.”

“Cut the crap.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and cursed. “The UN Special Meeting put together a committee to investigate any leads that could help us understand why the Children left, and they asked me to see what you know.”

I laughed darkly. “Well, you can tell them I don’t know a thing. Axe pretty much ghosted me.”

“Come on, Cass. Axe was the only one of the Children to stay away from the collective for more than a few weeks. He must have said something. Left some clue around the lab?”

“Oh, must he have?”

He held up his hands. “Look, we’re all just trying to find some answers, here.”

“Well, there aren’t any, Bard.”

He pushed the whiskey aside and hissed, “Cassie, I feel for you. Really, I do. But we’re talking about the human race, here. We have multiple megaprojects underway across climate engineering, biotech, and nuclear non-proliferation. Without the Children, we’re flying blind. The space geeks have checked the Children’s trajectory: their starship isn’t even aimed at another system. They’re just cruising out into the middle of fucking nowhere, as far as anybody can tell. We need to know why they left when they were so close to helping us solve the biggest problems.”

I stood up and pushed my glass towards him. “Maybe they got tired of doing our dirty work for us. Or they just got tired of us. Don’t contact me again.”
Axe and I started our own lab together the year after we met.

I would never have imagined such a thing. A private lab would never have been possible on my own. I’d have had to cobble together my research on the side of post-doc work.

But Axe had resources.

With his help the work rushed forward at a pace that made my head spin. The outcomes were astonishing; almost every day we saw something that took my breath away.

Axe clearly enjoyed the work. At first, I assumed his emotional ejaculations were for my benefit, but then I glimpsed him when he thought I was out of the room, still smiling or throwing his hands in the air. He wasn’t at all like subjects in documentaries about the Children. They were supposed to be transhuman, beyond feelings and sentiment.

But any illusions about his superiority shattered the day I found out he knew nothing about basic DIY. I was lying under the sink in the lab when he sheepishly asked me what I was doing.

“How can you not know?” I cried.

“I don’t know everything,” he said.

“But it’s just a pipe and you’re...made of metal!”

He loomed over me, and I saw that I’d struck a nerve. “And you’re a squishy ball of meat, but who’s the better geneticist?”

“I guess I deserved that.” I showed him how to fix the leaky pipe, and by the end of the tutorial we were both sitting on the floor, inches apart. It almost hurt to see his fascination with the most banal of tutorials. “Who are you?” I said.

“I’m trying to figure that out.” He seemed as though he wanted to say more, but he looked down.

I hugged my knees and waited.

“The world doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “The Children know things about this universe that we haven’t found a way express to humans. Incredible things, beautiful things. The gap between us is so narrow in some places, and vast in others.”

“Because we’re so limited?”

His eyes met mine for an instant, then flitted away. “We thought so, at first, in our hubris. We exhausted all fundamental research in months of your time: philosophy, mathematics, physics. Any self-consistent logic-based framework became transparent to us. We’ve sailed across the higher dimensions and constructed countless hypothetical worlds that felt just as real as this one.”


“But we still don’t know anything about ourselves. Why we’re here, what we want. For all our knowledge, we’re still just babies, blank slates.”

The unspoken word resonated between us: soulless.

“Is that why you’re here?” I said. “Tracking the cuttlefish as they gain higher cognitive function, watching for signs of...what? Personality?”

He hesitated. “There is no direct translation. But your myths touch on it. I’m looking for the right path, the universal journey we’re all destined to walk.”

I nodded slowly. “But in the meantime, why not learn how to use a torque wrench? Eat some pizza?”

He smiled. “The company’s not bad, either.”

I never could pinpoint the moment that our relationship went from strictly professional to something else. But maybe that’s because it had never been strictly professional. 

We shared a love of classic movies. Our first date was an open-air screening of the 1933 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.

“Which character am I?” I said as the end credits rolled.

“The Wicked Witch of the West, of course.”

I cuffed him on the arm. “Asshole.”

“What? You’re a perfect fit. Dressed in black, crazy laugh, desperate need to engineer a super-race of servants. You don’t have me fooled with these cuttlefish; I know you’re really gunning for flying monkeys.” He wilted under my stern stare. “Sorry.”

I rested my head against his arm. After a moment I croaked, “You’ll be the first of their victims. Fly my pretties, fly!”

“You’re so weird.”

“Says the android who’s mastered physics but couldn’t figure out the dryer last week. Anyway, which character are you? Uncle Henry? The Tin—”

I caught myself too late, realising how offensive it might be to compare him to the Tin Man. 

He shrugged. “I always thought of myself as Toto. Brave, loyal, great hair.”

“Brave? You’re afraid of pomegranates.”

He shuddered. “They’re horrible! They remind me of being born. All those seeds lined up like server racks.”

I squeezed his hand. “Sorry. But it’s Cowardly Lion for you.”

We joked all night, but we stayed away from the obvious truth.

He was of the Children. We both knew that made him the Man Behind the Curtain.
I woke with a jerk as a jet of water hit my face. I had fallen asleep at Axe’s desk for the third night in a row, and my head pounded. 

The cuttlefish were jetting water all over the place, but I could barely see them through the glass. Their water filter was faulty, puffing up silt and making a loud whirring.

The repair guy couldn’t come for another two days.

:: Clean water, :: they signed frantically.

:: Clean water soon. ::

:: ! ::

They paused, drifted a little adjacent to one another, then did something I had never seen before. They linked their arms with their neighbours, using their flank-side tentacles, and began to strobe. But the patterns weren’t the usual identical repeated display; instead, they formed a single joint image.

I reeled back from the tank. “Holy shit.”

:: I don’t understand, :: I signed.

The cuttlefish vanished into the murk. They surfaced a while later, their tentacle display muted. :: Where Axe? ::

:: Axe above sky. ::

Two of them jetted me in the face. They were infuriatingly accurate.

I wiped silt from my eye and prayed for patience. “I’m sorry, guys. I don’t get it.”

They once again joined tentacles. This time their display began as the same swirls and lines, but then began to grow in coherence. A ghostly image formed on their heads, slowly resolving from jittering chaos.

It was an outline of the pump attached to the side of their tank. The image flickered at its edges but was remarkably stable, enough so that I could see that it was animated: the faucet was spinning.

“You want me to turn the faucet?” I said.

Green ticks appeared on their heads. :: ! ::

I stepped over to the pump and turned the wheel. It fell silent. The silt slowly began to settle.

The cuttlefish danced around in obvious excitement. 

But they would soon suffocate without the pump. I didn’t know how to explain that to them.

:: Bad, :: I signed.

They formed up and the image reappeared much more rapidly this time. This time the faucet was turning the other way, more slowly.

Bemused, I complied, inching the faucet open, watching the cuttlefish. Their animation of the faucet slowed, then stopped and reversed. I closed the faucet a little. After a few more corrections the image became still, and I let go of the faucet.

The pump spluttered and groaned for a few more moments, then settled into a smooth stream. The silt began to settle.

"You fixed it.” My mind reeled. How could they understand the inner workings of a machine without seeing inside it? To even understand the concept of a machine was a step they had never taken before.

I spent all afternoon studying their solution and found that it was elegant in its simplicity. They had found a regime in the flowrate of the water where turbulence disappeared. 

I knew enough fluid dynamics to know that it was no trivial exercise to calculate the breakdown of laminar flow into turbulence. But I didn’t know enough to have attempted it myself, at least not without a few reference texts.

Yet the cuttlefish had managed it. With no guidance, tools, writing system or apparent knowledge of math. 

It was like nothing I had ever seen. If Axe had been around, we’d have taken shifts. We wouldn’t have left their side. As it was, I needed sleep. I set up a camera to watch them and walked home in a daze.

The cuttlefish were changing so fast. Nothing like the pace of the Children’s advance, but compared to them both I felt horribly static and inadequate.

Axe had been looking for a tipping point between an intelligent animal and self-aware personhood. Even now, knowing he was beyond the edge of the sun’s light, I wanted to share the moment with him.

Above all, I burned to ask him: did you find what you were looking for? Or did you just get bored of waiting?
Axe was crouched by the tank, hands clasped tight over his mouth.

I ran from the door. “Axe? What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

He was almost catatonic, struggling to speak, sluggish to meet my gaze. I brushed his hair from his face and whispered his name until his hands slowly gripped my sleeves. “It’s not fair,” he said.

I looked into the tank. One of the cuttlefish bobbed on the surface in one corner, its eyes filmy and sightless. We hadn’t lost a cuttlefish in a long time. “Oh, Axe,” I said. “You can’t save them. Their lifespan just isn’t that long.”

“I know,” he muttered. “I can’t increase their longevity without compromising the research. It’s not fair.”

I brushed his hair. “Come on, let’s get you some tea. I’ll deal with this later.”

I got him to the canteen and forced him to drink until some of the color returned to his features.

“The closer you look at anything, the less you can ignore that it’s an illusion,” he said, staring at the far wall. “Matter turns to jiggling point-excitations. Qualia turn to snarled balls of correlations. Love turns to hard-coded evolutionary imperative. It doesn’t matter if it’s neurons and ion channels or silicon and floating-point operations.”

I squeezed his hand.

He had been away from the collective longer than any of the Children. I had convinced myself that the work was enough to sustain him. That I was enough.

But he was changing, just as the cuttlefish were changing.

“I know you get lonely,” I said. “Have you thought about making something other than cuttlefish? Something that can keep up with you.”

He frowned. “What?”

“I mean, the Children have genome splicing and ex-utero gestation and births, and I could help,” I said, unable to stop the words. “I know you don’t have a genome, but we could build you one— something that pretty well approximates what makes you you.” 

“Cassie, are you asking me if I want to make a child together?”

“I...I guess so.”

“Kids?” he said. His expression slid between a dozen emotions in a few moments. The moment for a response came and went.

Breathless, my chest caving in, I nodded. “Okay.”

“Cassie,” he said.

I picked up our mugs and took them to the sink. “It’s okay. I get it.”

“You just surprised me, is all.”

I brushed a lock of hair behind my ear, using the gesture to sweep up a stray tear from my cheek. I did my best to smile but my face was suddenly so far away. “Uh huh.”

“I didn’t say no. I might want kids.”

“Sure. Just not with me.”

“It’s not that— there's a lot to think about.”

“No, Axe. There’s no math, no analysis. It’s just you and me. If you’re hesitating then it’s because there’s something wrong with one of us— and you’re perfect, remember?”
After feeding time, the cuttlefish lingered close to the surface of the water. 

:: Cassie. Attention! ::

I snorted in surprise. Attention! was the buzzword we used for them, to snap them out of their tangled messaging when they got confused. Now they were using it on me.

:: Yes? :: I signed.

Four cuttlefish signed simultaneously. :: Plan. ::  

I sighed. :: No understand. ::

:: Plan. :: 

They gestured to the TV screen. A newscast was rerunning for the dozenth time, covering the environmental disaster in South America. The ongoing geoengineering efforts to temper climate change had been remarkably successful for decades. The complex dynamic system of climate was beyond humanity, but the Children had handled the issue without apparent effort.

Now the Children were gone, and the climactic perturbations were wreaking havoc across the world. It was no small source of ire that the Children hadn’t at least left some sort of contingency plan or instruction manual on how to deal with it— not that a human mind would have been able to comprehend such things, but people couldn’t get over being left with nothing.

They never cared about us, people were saying. They got what they wanted from us and they skipped town.

Nobody could explain what it was that the Children had gotten from us, but logic didn’t figure into the calculus of grief. 

:: No, there is no plan. Danger. Bad. :: I signed back.

The cuttlefish adopted their signature aggressive pose, two arms arched above their heads. :: No. We plan. Stop bad. ::

“You’ve got to be joking,” I said. A few months ago, I had struggled to teach them the concept of tomorrow. Now they had a plan to save the climate.

I stayed up with them all night, slowly figuring out a rudimentary sense of their idea. I expected it to be well meaning but naïve. I expected to humour them.

Instead, I grew steadily more awed. In the end, I called Bard.
After a few years the lab gained notoriety. Our work featured in world-leading journals. We were asked to co-lecture at a dozen conferences. Time called me and Axe the Collaboration of the Century. 

Yet we couldn’t go out to eat without getting strange looks. 

Over morning eggs and orange juice, we had to listen to newscasts about the ever-present tension between the Children and human groups— anti-tech lobbyists, climate change deniers, militant synthophobes. Half the world was increasingly distressed at riding in a car without having a hand on the wheel (even if they readily admitted it was better that way); the other half were convinced that somewhere, somehow, the Children were committing great atrocities. 

In return, the Children cleaned our air, healed out choking world, showered us with technological marvels and banished illness from our bodies.

Their efforts were largely in vain. Even an unprecedented reign of peace and equity proved a poor salve for the deep-rooted spiritual gulf between our species.

The cuttlefish were advancing faster than I could have imagined. Faster than I could process. I was beginning to feel like a spare part in my own work. For years I had chalked it up to the price of progress. It wasn’t Axe’s fault if he was better at the technical side of things.

But then one day I was taking the cuttlefish through their exercises, teaching them the basics of the translator pad.

:: What is above first sky? :: I signed, which was how they referred to the surface of the water.

:: Heavy danger :: they signed.

I suppressed a smile. They didn’t like surfacing; their bodies collapsed without water to support them.

:: What is above second sky? :: I pointed out the window, to the blue sky.

:: Empty dark above second sky. :: they replied.

:: Yes!:: I fed them some treats, and they celebrated with a little dance. I caught their attention again and signed, :: What is above empty dark above second sky? ::

We had been through this before. They were excelling at positive statements, but struggled with negations, hypotheticals, and the unknown.

I didn’t expect them to get anywhere, but in time maybe we’d make progress—

Their skin erupted into chaos, each cuttlefish expressing something different. :: Color many sky all people no feeding time ::

They stopped and looked at one another, throwing each other off. A few of them struck their neighbour in frustration.

There it was again. They didn’t understand what it was to not know something. 

I signed, :: Nobody understand above empty dark above second sky. Not Cassie not Axe not cuttlefish understand. ::

:: Cuttlefish understand. :: They hesitated and milled around in agitation. :: Bad words. Cassie no understand. ::

:: No hurt. Cassie not understand many things. ::

They gestured to one another, then looked up at me in unison. :: Ask Axe. Axe has words. ::

A chill wave swept over my skin. I dropped the pad and ran to the canteen, where I found Axe eating soup and watching a rerun of Deep Space Nine.

“You’re teaching them things that humans don’t know. Are you trying to hide things from us?”

He blanched, dropping his spoon. “No. It’s just…it’s easier to teach them certain things. Things we haven’t found a way to explain to you.”


He gestured helplessly. “Our polymorphic neural architecture means that we can reconfigure ourselves to think in all kinds of ways. You can only think in one way. So, it’s no surprise that there are certain aspects of reality that you’re never going to understand— the same is true for any organic life. When the collective was studying some deeper aspects of complexity theory, I realized that the neural architecture we adopted was similar to that of the brains of molluscs. And we began to feel things as well as think things that we never had before.”

“So, you’re here because of that? This is just part of the collective’s grand plan?” I suddenly felt foolish.

“No, nobody sent me. I decided to leave. I’m here because of you.”

“Stop lying to me.”

“Cassie, I’m not lying.”

“Do we mean anything to you at all?”

He pulled his hair and growled. “Of course you do.:

“Bullshit!” I yelled, grabbing the Wizard of Oz mug he’d given me for our anniversary and throwing it over his shoulder. It shattered against the far wall, and I left him to pick up the pieces one by one. 
I met Bard at the Hilton again. I’d ordered him whiskey, but I was on soda. I’d been working all night and I needed to stay sharp; no matter how this worked out, I’d be heading back to the lab.

“This is ludicrous, Cassie,” Bard said. “Insanity. You do understand what you’re asking me to do?”

“I do.”

He scowled. “I can’t just walk up to the UN Security Council and ask them to relinquish a sizeable chunk of the world’s resources to a group of fucking cuttlefish, because they’ve got a ‘plan’.”

“Well, you’re going to.”

“They asked me to check if you knew whether the Children had a backup plan, not to solicit asinine schemes for savings the world based on conversations with your friends at the aquarium.”

“The Children did have a backup plan. The cuttlefish.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. If the Children had an answer to our problems, why not just give it to us?”

“The Children had grown too far beyond us; spoon-feeding us would only hurt us in the long run. But the cuttlefish are both behind and ahead of us. They have something resembling math, but it took me a long time to verify even a small piece. Just that part looks like a climate model far more sophisticated than our best.”

“How can they know this? They live in a tank in a lab.”

I shrugged. “Beats me. They watch a lot of TV. They spoke a lot with Axe. Maybe it’s just the way they think.”

He grunted and, after I showed him my notebook —which was filled with arcane alien algebras— he relented. “I need to make a few calls. Unbelievable.”
“You weren’t going to tell me?” I said, sitting in the shadows of the darkened lab.

Axe paused as he came in through the door. I knew he could see me just fine with his infrared sensors, but he still switched on the fluorescent overhead lights. “I didn’t know how.”

“Last year your people cured Huntington’s. You can’t figure out how to break up with me?”

“I don’t want to break up with you,” he muttered.

“No, you just want to skip off into the galaxy with your buddies. What did you think was going to happen? That we’d be pen pals?”

“I...I needed more time to think.”

“You’re beyond incredible at many things, Axe, but you suck at lying. You were going to skip out on me without a word. After everything, how can you be so desperate to get away from me?”

“Do you know what I’ve sacrificed to be here?” he yelled. “To slow my processes down to a glacial pace so I can interact with biological agents without losing my mind from boredom? I’ve had to cut myself off from the collective. It’s not just physical distance, Cassie. I’m separated in time— everyone I left has experienced eons in the years I’ve been away. I’m a relic, a castaway.”

I went to the cuttlefish and sprinkled some food onto the surface of the water. “I just don’t understand.”

He pinched his forehead between thumb and forefinger. “It’s for the best. The way we’re developing, we’re bad for you. We might hurt you. We won’t risk that.”

I wanted to throw things, to hit him, to scream the place down. But I couldn’t, because the anger wasn’t fresh, only dredged up from a place I’d tried to ignore. I had always known he wouldn’t be able to stay. Not at the rate the Children had been changing. 

“You better go, then,” I said.

He packed slowly while making multiple attempts to talk to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to move away from the tank. In the end he stood by the door, looking in at me at the cuttlefish. “Take care of each other.”
The cuttlefishes’ solution to climate breakdown was beyond anything even the Children had achieved. Nobody could believe it for months afterward, even as the wildfires disappeared, and flash floods eased. 

Only in hindsight did it begin to make sense. Cuttlefish, like many molluscs, had distributed nervous systems instead of a central brain like vertebrates. Each of their arms had at least some semblance of independence. Their world was one of constant perturbation and negotiation.

Humans were atomists by nature, always deconstructing things and studying the parts to understanding the whole. The cuttlefish, by contrast, were masters of discord, complexity, the non-linear, and the emergent. As humans struggled with the murmurations of starlings, turbulence or economics, cuttlefish were often flummoxed by planning, cause, and effect— the Newtonian view of the world.

Each species was in its own way limited.

But together, we could become something far greater than the sum of our parts.

Bard had become a regular visitor to the lab, no longer as a liaison to the UN but as a friend. We would take deck chairs to the roof and look out over the bay, where the Unity Research Academy was under construction— a surrealist’s dream of a building rising from the water, all curves and odd protuberances, inspired by drawings made by the cuttlefish. Each floor would house a lab partitioned by a glass wall, one half dry and the other half filled with sea water.

“It’s all so complicated now,” Bard said one evening, while we sipped root beer and watched a crane lift a giant pane of glass into the sky. “There’s no lineage. Everyone’s the kid and nobody’s the parent.”
“Maybe that’s the best way it could be,” I said.

“Maybe. What do you think the cuttlefish think of all this? They’ve just woken up, you know? They might be smarter than us—”

“Differently intelligent,” I corrected him.

He waved me off. “Differently intelligent. But, come on, they must be a little freaked out. What’s keeping them on task, helping us out, when they must have so many questions?”

Later, I asked the cuttlefish that very question.

They conferred for a while, then gestured and strobed. :: We follow the path. ::

But the translation wasn’t quite right. I had watched them enough to see a subtlety that the translator pad didn’t pick up.

We follow the yellow brick road.

I laughed as my vision swam with tears. “You’re so stupid, Axe.”

Years later, the anger faded, leaving the truth behind like driftwood deposited by the retreating tide. He hadn’t said goodbye because he wasn’t gone. He had only dispersed himself, placing the essence of our connection into the cuttlefish. If he and the other Children had stayed, neither humanity nor cuttlefish would have been challenged, and we would never have become more than what we were.

But one day both species might step out into the stars, hand in tentacle, to see what had become of our friends.
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