If you've been off having fun without me, the Prologue to the story is here, and definitely worth a click before you get going.
It may even make sense. Stranger things have happened.
For example, read on...
The Cephalopocalypse - Part One
Real or imagined, there is always something lurking in the basement.
And today, it’s us.
Outside of my best friend iDifficult’s house, it’s a gloriously sunny suburban day in August 2011.
Inside the house, it’s the same date, but mercifully cooler. And down in the basement, in the arch-genius’ dimly-lit workshop, it’s cooler still. That might be something to do with the industrial air conditioning for his army of terracotta snowmen * at the other end of his football-pitch-sized complex.
[ * That’s another story.]
I’m slumped on a crush-velvet sofa, sporting shorts, a non-matching shirt and a cup of tea. I'm getting my slack on while 'Difficult, carrying off 1970s disco wear with considerable aplomb, flips through computer simulations on a computer tablet embedded in a nearby tabletop. In fact, the tablet is the tabletop. I notice my amigo is nibbling on occasional shards of this morning's pizza crust scattered across the touchscreen; I love a hot breakfast.
Roth, did I ever tell you how I came by those terracotta snowmen? ‘Difficult asks conversationally. ** It’s not an attempt to fill a conversational void; we’ve known each other far too long to be uncomfortable with silence.
[ ** It seems I’m mistaken - it is in this story. He never was a conformist. ]
Yep, I say, curtailing an interesting-but-lengthy exposition from our story. I helped you get them back from
The man once voted Boy Most Likely To Fill A Swimming Pool With Custard looks up to frown momentarily, and then chuckles and shakes his head. That really was a very big coolbag.
That said, he returns to tapping, twisting and dragging at the touchscreen. I notice an enthusiasm, an excitement about the man; he’s close to something. It reminds me of the first time he found a Higgs Boson, back in 1996. ***
I sit up straight and pay closer attention. My Pizza Sense Is Tingling (TM).
[ *** He couldn’t tell anyone about it – he had no planning permission for his underground particle accelerator – but to his credit he ‘gently’ nudged the CERN folks towards their own ‘discovery’. He later said of the experience, It was like herding caffeinated fish! ]
So, what are you working on? I wave an arm at the large fishtanks around the perimeter of the dingy room. And what are all these for?
I’m glad you asked, he beams, come take a look at this.
I rise from the comfort of the sofa with complaining knees, and head over to the desk. I stand beside my friend in the half light, our faces illuminated in what is probably a ghoulish fashion by the screen beneath us.
Onscreen, there's a sophisticated underwater simulation involving a jolly marine cephalopod. Is it squid? No, I shiver, squid are sleeker, meaner. I remembering our last tangle with ‘Difficult’s squid/squirrel hybrid, the Squiddrel; I had to prise its sullen, slavering mouth open with a crowbar, fighting off its determined facial tentacles, to drag my undigested best friend from its gullet. He was gloopy.
But I do recognise the squid’s cousin on the screen. The delicate, undulating single fin surrounding the mantled head, the faceful of rope-like tentacles, the weird goat eyes. And above all, the serene, imperious intelligence of the thing.
Is that a cuttlefish?
Well spotted, grins ‘Difficult, most mistake them for squid.
I snort derisively, clearly relegating those schmucks to the slow-reading group.
Did you realise that these fellas have an enormous percentage of their body mass devoted to their central nervous system? He flicks a schematic into view. It’s complicated view of the cephalopod, and there’s a lot of glowing organs and nerve paths on it.
Really? I didn’t. So, they’re smart for their size? Cool. A random thought particle hits me. Their colour changes are pretty, too.
My friend glances at me sideways, ignoring my comment. Their brain/body ratio is well above us and dolphins, in fact. Some of them get pretty darned big, too.
Oh, right. Sensing that listening noises might serve me better right now, I add an encouraging, Okay.
My friend tugs at my shirted elbow and leads me away from the digital table. Anyway, they're pretty solitary in the wild, and I wanted to see how they'd interact, so I popped a couple of them in the tank over here. He indicates a clear-sided water-filled cube beyond an archway, in a brighter area of the basement. We stroll over, passing through several slanting shafts of light from the narrow, horizontal windows high in the walls.
A pair of sullen-looking cuttlefish, their headfins undulating gently, sit close to the bottom of the tank. Their chameleon colours shift, seemingly at random. I notice that the two are entangled somehow.
Well, I’ll be damned. I struggle for words. Are they… holding hands??!
No, corrects ‘Difficult in an enthralled tone, they’re networking.
And as he says it, I see it. The duo sit facing one another, their outermost tentacles on each side outstretched and held by their companion opposite. It looks an expression of affection, or the start of a dance, but a small voice tells me they're forming a closed loop. A circuit. Their spare arms wave gently between them, but some of these grasp chunky wax crayons. Unbelievably, the pair are slowly colouring a simple picture on a white board on the floor of the tank.
What do you think? whispers 'Difficult from behind my shoulder. I consider this, examining the picture.
Well, their colour choices are unusual, I muse, but they're definitely colouring inside the lines. Very neat.
Oooh, they’re doing it again! breathes the arch genius. Watch this!
One of the cuttlefish has shifted to a fixed shade of blue-green. The other cephalopod pauses in its colouring and starts to feel about on its side of the tank. Locating an aquamarine-coloured crayon, it retrieves and examines it, before handing it over. There's the merest hint of a nodded acknowledgement, and the pair's colour display returns to normal.
Damn! My mind is saying something stronger than that.
Exactly! They seems smarter when they're linked. He lets this settle in for a moment. And this set me thinking. I reflect that this is a worrying phrase from 'Difficult on any day of the week, but he tugs at my arm again. Now, come check this out.
In the next tank, there are not two, but three cuttlefish. Again, their outermost tentacles are linked, forming a wider ring than the duo. Bless them, but it looks like they're playing ring-a-rosie. The trio look up as my friend gently plops a scrambled Rubik's Cube into their tank. As it sinks slowly towards the bottom of their enclosure, three coordinated sets of tentacles snake out to hold it in place at the focus of their circle.
A few seconds pass. There's a shifting colour display between them, each hue passing around the circle in a counter-clockwise direction. Their display slowly spins, with occasional surges. It reminds me the motion of early disk drives. It's pretty but unsettling.
This bit is so cool! squeaks my friend.
With thirteen slow, deliberate manipulations, the cuttlefish cooperate to grasp, twist and slide the cube back to its perfect, completed state. A moment later, a wet tentacle holds the cube above the surface of the water. I take it gently.
That's incredible! This seems inadequate. I give them a wave. Thank you. There's a salutary flick of a tentacle tip in my direction.
You don't know the half of it, says 'Difficult soberly. My best algorithms could only do it in fifteen moves. They beat that by two. Collectively.
I raise an eyebrow, knowing that the pursuit of so-called God Moves is a serious research endeavour. But my curiosity gets the better of me, and I shuffle over to the next tank. And what about these four? The quartet of cuttlefish in the next tank are going through a similar friendly-tentacled ritual. There's a tension in their body language, if I'm any judge.
Well, they wrote some passable poetry while they were waiting for me earlier, says the arch-genius dismissively, and they knocked off a workable solution to five-dimensional travel while I was making coffee.
I try not to think about either of those too closely. And now?
Oh, they're working out a solution to ensure World Peace. I now raise both eyebrows, and he looks shifty. Hey, I was only kidding with them: What's next? World Peace? kinda thing, but they seemed keen. Their colour shifts are faster, more urgent, than the previous trio. My friend sighs, They're processing huge amounts of information, but they don't seem to be making progress on the problem.
It is a tricky one, I chuckle. Have you tried a higher number of cuttlefish?
'Difficult shakes his head. Not yet. I was going to later this morning, actually. I was thinking of adding the two and the three together to make a group of five. He gestures to the duo's tank. Once the pair had finished their colouring, I mean. it seems rude to interrupt them.
Well, I muse, why not just add the groups of three and four together?
To make seven? His mental arithmetic rarely fails him. Well, it's a bit of a leap, but it might make sense to do that. He scratches his nose absently. Seven is supposed to be the optimal number for group decision making.
We fall silent as he considers this.
And upstairs, there's a knock at the front door.
I'm about to offer to go and see who it is, when it comes again, more urgently. A heavy, rapid thumping that suggests the door may not hold up for long.
Good grief, those pizza guys can be panicky when they’re being chased by the squiddrel. I sniff. We really should put a sign up: Caveat Squiddrem.
We've already had pizza today, says 'Difficult distantly, as he rolls up his sleeves. Would you mind getting that matey?
Sure. I stroll across to the stairwell in the far corner and head upstairs into the light.
iDifficult's house is an attractive two-storey affair presented and decorated an ironic Regency style, set in pleasantly-compact half-acre of land. The buildings - which include a half-dozen sheds - and the surrounding gardens are immaculately maintained, and the whole affair is well placed in a quiet and very respectable neighbourhood.
I wander through the kitchen and into the gloomy hallway as a final splintering crash heralds the demise of the wooden front door; I'm showering with sunlight and a fortune in toothpick futures. In the shattered remains of a doorframe, a huge figure stands erect. Tall, broad, heavy, his trilby hat held in a prehensile trunk, his toed fists balled heroically.
Elliot Nesh, Special Elephant for The Unity Agency.
We've crossed paths on many occasions, most notably during the tale I've come to think of as The Long Road Home. His usual laconic, Bogart-esque demeanour is gone, though. He looks about with agitation, his ears flapping, taking in the scene. Agents never panic, but he's clearly highly motivated.
Where is he? Where is iDifficult?! bellows Elliot, bounding into the hall without grace, intent on passing me, We have to stop him!
I step forward, uttering a heartfelt and more-than-a-little-nervous Hey Elliot! Whoa! Easy, big fella! What on earth is...
As our paths collide, we bump into one another, and I grab onto the elephant to keep my balance. There's a strong smell of sawdust and bourbon.
A moment later, as I cling to Elliot, something changes in the world.
It's hard to describe what. But we both freeze in our tracks, clearly feeling it arrive. There's a splintered second in which I sense every fractal detail of reality unwind and rebuild itself. I'm not a user of mind-expanding drugs, but I can only imagine this is what those who do describe as trippy.
The moment passes. In fact, it was so brief as to barely constitute an instant.
I look about; everything seems the same: the same sunny day outside; the same décor in the hallway; the same elephant holding me up. So what is different?
Dammit, too late, rumbles Elliot, Quick! Take me to Max!
I frown. Who?
The elephantine eyes fix on me. Max Tunguska! I shrug and Elliot's agitation increases. He lives here!
My frown continues. No Elliot, 'Difficult does. You know he does! We exchange queer looks and Elliot looks down in wonder at my grip on him.
Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT! he curses, pushing me aside. He thunderously hurries towards the basement stairs. I hustle along behind him, noting some washing up that needs doing; I really must learn to focus.
As we reach the top of the stairs, a shout comes up. I know the voice.
Roth! Get a move on! We're going to be late!
I follow the bulk of the agent down the creaking wooden stairs, and into a basement that's slightly better lit than I remember; this is what's different, then?
Roth! There you are! Step lively man, we’ve got to get to the Nobel Prize ceremony!
My friend stands in a sharp tuxedo, adjusting his bowtie. He looks leaner than he did a few minutes ago, and his beard is neatly trimmed. Wow, he's full of surprises. I also note that he's wearing a name badge, as someone might who was going to a conference. Or a Nobel Prize ceremony. It reads:
Doctor Max Tunguska
And behind him, filling the room with a shifting spectrum of light, there is a tall, broad glass tank. And inside, in a glittering circle of light, I see the following:
Three and four totals seven, undeniably.
But seven is so much more than the sum of three and four.
Dammit. sighs Elliot one final time, his tone defeated.
As anyone who watches horror films knows, there's always something lurking in the basement.
Earlier it was just me and my best friend.
But we're no longer the men we were, and we're no longer alone down there.
And may never be again.
TO BE CONTINUED
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2012