a bit of writing from 2011

I wrote this story in the summer of 2011. I realize it has its flaws, but I wouldn’t want to change it, since I more or less dreamed all of it the way I wrote it down. In the light of recent events (giant squid video!), I thought it might be time to dig this out and post it. Enjoy.

The Encounter
by Christina Scholz

The glass doors slid open, and I stepped out into dazzling sunlight. Apart from the colour of the pool water (and a hint of salt and seaweed on the breeze), nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Quite a lot of the hotel’s guests were having coffee under the gaily striped awnings, rustling newspapers and clinking spoons against cups. They must be fully booked, but considering the season that was no surprise. However, the proprietor had promised me a surprise of a different sort, and that was the reason for my visit. Right now, he was standing at my shoulder, surveying the scene. His name was Swelter and he looked the part, with his potbelly and ruddy complexion. I never felt quite comfortable around him, as if something told me to be wary, but, well, you have to set priorities.

Then a movement in the pool caught my eye, a glitter at first, a different refraction of the light, a lazy shallow wave. My gaze followed it, and then I saw them, and the whole world stopped. The dark green water parted and closed again over a shiny smooth thing, like an organic submarine. Behind it, something blossomed and spread and drifted close again like agitated tendrils. The whole thing flickered and was answered by another flicker from the other end of the pool. There the waves and tentacles met, mirrored each other for a second, and drifted apart again. When I realized what they were, I felt a spark of my own, some friendly electrical charge crawling all over my skin. Two giant squid, each of them at least eight metres long. Every hair on my body must have stood on end. That’s what people must look like who meet a creature so strange, so different from themselves, as if it had emerged not out of water but straight out of science fiction. It’s the end of your own space odyssey, it’s falling into Solaris, it’s the close encounter.

The proprietor’s voice shook me out of my trance. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

At first I could only nod dumbly, my head still swimming. It was a miracle, a revelation. These two giant squid were the first ones that had ever been captured alive. And it was even more astonishing to see them in this comparatively shallow basin. They must have been suffering from the huge change in pressure, since they were deep sea creatures entirely out of their depth. And they were beyond beautiful. They were nothing like the preserved specimens in tanks I had previously seen, frayed and eyeless, slowly dissolving in formaldehyde and brine. Nothing like the dried husk of a corpse, a tentacular mummy, displayed to underwhelmed schoolchildren at the local museum. They were indescribable, too much for the eye to take in or for the mind to process at once – and they were kept prisoners in a hotel swimming pool.

I had to make an effort, to tear myself away, to look back at the proprietor. I must have managed to produce some disjointed syllables he took for praise, because he nodded and beamed at me.

“Yes, yes. Two prime specimens. Just imagine what a smashing success the barbecue will be.”

Everything went cold. The surge of electricity was gone.

“The… I… I’m sorry. The what?”

“The big barbecue tonight.” His happy grin widened even more.

“We’re going to cut up these beauties and put them on the grill. People are coming from all over, even a couple of real celebs. It will be such a spectacle.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. What remained was an emptiness, a cold numbness, and a pressure at my temples as if an iron band had tightened around my head, preventing the blood from flowing back.

“You’re going to kill… and eat them?”

I swallowed, painfully, my mouth dry and numb. My stomach seemed to send out waves and ripples.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Excuse me,” Swelter said. “I’m absolutely serious. They’re going to be the highlight of the party. In fact it’s all centered around them. I’ve got Jamie Oliver coming to cut them up and prepare them. There will be a live broadcast. Also, they’re going to be delicious.”

Now others were chiming in, bombarding me with repetitions of “lemon and garlic”, “beer-battered” and countless affirmations of the obvious tastiness of what they called seafood. Foodies testifying.

All these voices buzzing in my ears, I looked back at the pool and the movements under the water. One of the squid, the one I’d seen first, was still swimming back and forth, turning as if looking for an exit, pausing when it reached the other one, flashing colours over its skin and waiting for an answering flicker, then turning again. The other one was floating almost motionlessly at one end of the pool. It had assumed the colour of the water, so it was almost invisible, just a shimmering opaque blob in all the green. I couldn’t shake the thought that it looked scared.

Swallowed in a whirlpool of sound, unable to come up with an answer that wouldn’t have caused Swelter to have me removed for the sake of his party, I excused myself to the bathroom, where I sat on the lid of a toilet, in a little tiled cubicle of my own, and put my head in my hands. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could think of. I couldn’t even calm down. I walked around in circles for a bit. My head felt empty and overly full at the same time. All those voices. And every time I tried out an answer of my own in my head, it just seemed to trail off. I had to do something, but what could one person do?

When I stepped back outside, my whole body hurt with tension. I expected another confrontation, another barrage of faux justifications, but to my relief, Swelter was busy giving orders to a team of hired help, apparently in preparation for the big evening. His group of foodie disciples had scattered. I looked around, helpless, clueless, my gaze always wandering back to the squid, when I noticed that the guy behind the counter of the open-air bar was looking straight at me, and not in an irritated or menacing way.

I had never seen him before, and I didn’t know what he wanted, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I sauntered over and looked at him expectantly. Without even an introduction, he said, “Don’t look around. Smile and listen. We’re having a bit of small-talk while I’m making you a drink, that’s all.”

I smiled and nodded while he was already clinking some bottles. The electricity was back. I was no longer alone. It was a conspiracy.

“I hope you have a plan”, the barman said.

“Actually…”, I began, but he was already a step ahead.

“I can give you some time”, he went on. “I don’t know how much, maybe twenty minutes. I’ll call a friend, and he’ll call the boss about some problems with the big barbecue, maybe even protesters, animal rights, you know. Something to get him away from here and maybe take some of the staff as well. Of course he’ll come back as soon as he realizes that the call was fake, but again, it will buy you some time.”

He put a glass of something pinkish in front of me, and I nodded, smiling.

“I really don’t know what I can do,” I said. “But I really appreciate your help.”

“Just do something”, he replied. “Now go.”

Sitting at one of the tables at the edge of the pool area, I sipped my drink and pretended to read a newspaper. Nobody seemed to pay attention to me anymore. From the corner of my eye I watched Swelter assemble some guys, then drive away in his big car. It was now or never, only I still didn’t have a plan. And I was by myself. Why hadn’t I brought any friends? Well, obviously, I hadn’t known what to expect, and I hadn’t known I’d need them. It didn’t matter now. I couldn’t change the past. I could only change the future, hopefully, by acting. Then and there.

And without even a second thought, I kicked off my shoes, and I got up from my table and walked to the pool and jumped in.

The first thing I felt as the water closed around me was a change in temperature. Outside the pool, the heat had been bothering me, but that hadn’t even registered with me until I was immersed in the sea water and realized it must have been exactly my own body temperature. The moment I surfaced, my head was clear. I half-waded, half-swam towards the squid I had been watching, the agitated one. It was still a dark red, but it had stopped moving. The water was getting deeper, and small wavelets were lapping my face. I couldn’t really tell whether I was already swimming underwater. Suddenly, straight in front of me, I saw the creature’s huge eyes, the size of dinner plates, all shiny and alive. And without question they were looking back at me. The squid was still motionless, but for some reason I was convinced I sensed no fear. No aggression. It sent a flash of black-and-white patterns over its skin, then went back to that uniform red. I swam closer, and an instant later everything changed. In the time it took me to blink just once, some turbulence happened in the water around me, and I was face to face with the squid. Its hunting tentacles had pulled me close, and it was wrapping its arms around me. I could feel its immense strength, and the negative pressure from the suckers, but I was not afraid. It was helping me. We were almost at the edge of the pool, and I needed to get it out and into the sea. I looked around, frantically, and suddenly I saw the route we would have to take, even if it seemed impossible. There was a gate, and behind it the street leading up to the hotel, and on the other side there was a second gate, and then, finally, the port. This was where we had to go. I wasn’t even sure how long a mollusk could survive out of water, and I had even less of an idea how to transport this huge animal across the street. I felt very small in its embrace. Its mantle alone was the same size as my whole body from head to toes. I was out of my wits, but I was going to do this. Because how could I not.

There was a splash behind me, and I knew I had help. I hoped it was the barman, getting the second squid, but I didn’t even turn my head. I struggled towards the edge of the pool, willing the gate to be unlocked.

Suddenly, while I was still dragging myself and the squid stuck to me towards the gate, dripping, fighting, hoping, there was a tumult of voices and limbs and things, and a darkness closing around me. I heard too many voices at once, so nothing made sense, felt too many hands clutching at me, and one by one the suckers were ripped off from me. I fell to my knees, then flat on the ground, and I think some people stepped on me. When I could breathe again, everything was over.

They threw me out into the street and locked the gate behind me. I had to smell the smoke and the aroma of burning flesh. To listen to their laughs. I couldn’t watch. Instead, I sat looking at the harbour, watching the sun turn first orange then red and slide into the sea, inch by inch. The moored boats bobbing on the waves. The seagulls circling, shrieking, circling again. There were bruises all over my body, and some of them, like those on my bare arms, were circular and bloody, but there were also a lot of others in the shape of heels and knuckles and the edge of the pool. I didn’t feel anything except for the sea breeze and my slowly drying clothes sticking to my skin, salt-encrusted. My shoes were gone, but I didn’t miss them. I didn’t know what had become of my co-conspirator, if I had ever had one.

When all that was left of the sun was a glimmering sliver on the horizon, a bit of ember tinting the clouds a blood-red colour, the sea parted and they came out. At first I thought I must be hallucinating. Without so much as a splash, they emerged and with undulating motions, as if feeling their way rather than looking were they were going, they slithered onto the pebbly beach, then up the grassy bank and across the street.

There were two of them. Even using their arms to pull themselves along, they were at least twice my own height. They were wearing umbrella-like helmets from which dangled an assortment of tubes, some of which went into their gills, while others formed a complex network all over their mantles and arms, and I slowly realized that they were carrying a moveable supply of seawater. Like Fremen suits for cephalopods. Then, in quick succession, I realized two more things: I must have risen from where I had been sitting, but filled with awe and wonder as I was, I hadn’t even noticed. And they were coming straight towards me, right where I was, frozen, spellbound, at the gate to their fellow squid’s massacre.

Suddenly everyone was aware of them, because I could hear a jumble of footsteps and fragmented murmuring behind my back. Again, I did not turn around. I doubt I would have been able to. I could only motionlessly, breathlessly watch the giant squid approach, then pause and look at me. And I couldn’t even attempt to interpret their gaze.

I took a step forward, and I could feel something inside me crack and give way, and finally tears were streaming down my face, and I looked at the huge cephalopods and uttered the only thing that was on my mind.

“I’m so sorry about your brothers.”

The taller one of the two whipped its hunting tentacles around me, so fast that I couldn’t even see the motion, and I felt something cool softly touch my bruised cheek.

It had placed the elongated leaf-shaped end of one of its tentacles against my face, suckers facing outwards, so as not to hurt me. The whole world fell silent, so everyone must have heard the squid’s voice, strange but human-sounding, issuing from I couldn’t see where. Wrapping me in its arms, it said, “We know. We saw everything. You did the best you could.”


Spaceship Names and Invasive Code

My addiction to list-making is flaring up again. (Which might or might not mean I’ll soon be writing more short stories.) Lately, I’ve come to realize that good band names often make good names for spaceships as well (e.g. Nada Surf, the Mars Volta). Since they tend to be multilingual compounds, and also (more often than not) quite interesting references, I blame M. John Harrison’s Empty Space trilogy. Besides, his “invasive code” is so well written that last night I dreamt that a white paste the consistency of baby food was coming out of my mouth, and a childless acquaintance suddenly had a daughter… It was pretty uncanny. That said, one of my favourite passages from Empty Space is “Renoko self-identified as human”. (More rights for entities traditionally identified as non-human! Down with anthropocentrism!)