Never See the Night © 2017 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Description: An interplanetary biologist locks himself in a fortified research lab with an alien octopus, stranding his teammates outside in the path of a ferocious hurricane on a water-covered world. The animal already killed one of them, and the scientist-commandos must get inside to confront it, or die in the storm. But the octopus has plans of its own, because it just discovered a new species, too: humans.
4,400 words. Available in paperback, Kindle, Nook Book, and iBooks. Audiobook on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.
NEVER SEE THE NIGHT
“We’re trapped on this rock until we can figure out how to get back in there.” Lieutenant Aoto wiped saltwater spray from his faceplate. Waves splashed the rocky plateau from 500 meters below. A single human-made structure populated the planet labeled Gelnikov 14 on official charts—a fortified research lab Aoto and his two corporals could no longer enter.
Aoto’s team was one of many exploring potentially habitable planets in the sector. Hundreds of scientist-commandos traveled in one carrier ship to a given sector, then dispersed into small units to examine as many worlds as possible. If any held special promise, researchers on less-promising worlds combined forces and worked together.
But during preliminary explorations, each team was isolated. Signals took days to travel from planet to planet or back to the main carrier, and then there was travel time to consider.
Braxton smashed his gloved palm against the card reader to the left of the hexagonal door frame. Nothing happened. “How’s he defeating our blasted keys? There’s no point in having a mag-stripe in your glove if the damn thing won’t work!”
Sarafina scowled as Braxton repeated the entry method she had already abandoned. “He’d have to tamper with the code to defeat all the redundancies in the security system. But he’s not that smart.”
Braxton scoffed. “I thought he was a bloody genius.”
“In his field,” said Sarafina. “And his field isn’t hacking encrypted systems.”
“You should know, Sara. Weren’t you his little thing back at the Academy?”
“Ram it, Brax. That was a long time ago.”
“Fine. I’ll get rammed. We’re all dead anyway when the storm hits.”
Aoto frowned inside his helmet. “How long do we have?”
The station sat like a fortress overlooking a kingdom where every horizon was the sea. Two moons hung above it, low and heavy in the sky, their craters visible to the naked eye. They were simply too big for this planet, and the team had calculated their orbits would decay and bring them crashing into the worldwide ocean within a few hundred million years. As the twin moons orbited Gelnikov 14, their competing gravities gave birth to tidal forces that periodically swept the planet with cyclonic winds and waves as big as mountains.
The impregnable research lab could withstand the severe climates of almost any planet. The ship which delivered the team to this oceanic tombstone had bolted the station into the rock with metal rods a meter in diameter and twenty meters deep. That same ship would return one month from its date of departure, after depositing similar stations on other worlds.
Braxton consulted his chart. “We’ve got about thirty minutes. Then hold onto your skivvies, because you, me, and the lovely Corporal Sarafina are all getting blown right into the drink. We’ll be up to our bollocks in brine and done for. You saw the last one.”
The previous hurricane tore every last pebble and mote of dust from the few ragged peaks jutting out of the extra-solar Panthalassa. Nothing survived more than two weeks on those islands—not barnacles, not even bacteria. Only the sea held life. Only the sea, and the station.
“I did see,” said Aoto, “and that’s why we’re getting back in that lab. And if you have any more cheerful descriptions about this team dying, you can ram them. That’s an order.”
“Sir.” Braxton glared, but he shut up.
“As much as I hate to agree,” said Sarafina, “he’s right about the storm. We get in, or else.”
“I wasn’t bloody wrong,” said Braxton.
“Listen, you two.” Aoto frowned. “Hisako’s dead. But we’re still alive. Now quit your pissing contest and think of something!”
The first thing Sarafina thought of was Hisako’s mutilated body lying in a pool of her own blood and half-eaten organs. Then Sarafina thought of the animal that killed her friend, and the man who locked himself inside the station with it.
It was true she had gone to the Academy with Cedric. It was also true he was not smart enough to code the kind of virus he would need to defeat the security system controlling entry to the station. “We don’t have any explosives at all?”
Aoto pulled a standard-issue plasma rifle from its housing on his back. He considered recommending to Central that regulation field gear should include demolition supplies. “Besides our rifles, we’re not geared for anything but a routine reading and instrument calibration. Even if we could blow a hole in the door, we’d destroy the only thing that can keep us alive.”
“If we could tamp the charge, we could minimize the—”
“I have a lovely bedsheet,” Braxton interrupted. “We can tack it up over your huge ramming hole in the door when the hurricane comes to kill us! Sod it!”
Aoto ignored the outburst. “Sara, what could have gotten into him? What can he possibly be thinking?”
“Maybe he isn’t,” she said. “Maybe that animal is thinking for him. Haven’t you noticed how weird he’s been acting around it since we reeled it in?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Look at the blood trail on the ground! Hisako came from inside the station, already wounded. Look at her! She’s been torn apart by something wild. Not a weapon.” By his silence, Sarafina knew Aoto understood. “Lieutenant, if he’s cracked the security protocol, he’s either the luckiest gambler alive, or he had help. And I sure as hell don’t think either of you is using him to commit suicide.”
Braxton said, “Hisako, maybe?”
“Never,” said Aoto.
“Nah, I guess not.” Braxton shrugged. “She never seemed like the type who would even break the rules, let alone ram her whole crew on a piss-poor planet like this hole.”
“She wouldn’t break the rules,” Aoto agreed, “but she’d damn well be prepared for anything.”
“Anything except getting eaten.”
“You are a pig,” said Sarafina.
“And pigs can’t swim, mate. So unless you’re in the mood for a wee dip—”
Aoto raised his voice. “She would have been prepared. She would have had her own key.”
Sarafina said, “You’re right, Lieutenant. Even her redundancies had redundancies. She always had a back door.”
“We need to find it.” A shadow descended over the faceplate on Aoto’s helmet, blocking his eyes and then his entire face from view. “Fast.”
Cedric wasn’t thinking about Hisako’s corpse. He had liked her. It wasn’t that. She was a fine addition to the crew, and one of the most expert microbiologists he ever served with. She also specialized in coding, and her skills were legendary among even the youngest cadets at the Academy. No one knew more about the station’s computer protocols than she did.
But Cedric’s thoughts simply did not wander near the red pool of blood waiting in his memory. For a dozen minutes, his train of thought ran along tracks which offered no window into the plight of his teammates locked outside, either.
The station, too, would soon be windowless when it sealed against the hurricane. Even the narrow blades of sunlight cutting through transparent, shatterproof slits would soon be blocked out. Every last gasket, vent, and portal would lock down to withstand anything short of a meteoric collision.
Cedric had no doubt the station could survive a cataclysm, even if the entire structure broke off with a chunk of the island still bolted to the bottom. Being tossed about by currents and wind would make him physically ill, but he could strap himself to a soft seat or a mattress and ride it out.
After all, he had the octopus.
“What do you suppose his end game is?” Braxton held what remained of Hisako, cradling her from behind with his elbows in her armpits. As he held the corpse, Sarafina pulled open straps and fasteners on Hisako’s survival suit.
She yanked off the boots. “Whatever it is, he’s had a quarter hour to think about it. Maybe he’s even sorted what to do when Central comes to retrieve us. Which won’t be for a week until after the storm blows over.”
“I wouldn’t fly a carrier through her either,” said Aoto. “We’re on our own.” Two weeks ago, Aoto photographed a storm with a drone secured to the station’s roof. The drone did not survive.
But its pictures reminded him of Jupiter’s atmosphere, only seen from underneath. Murky, swirling chaos blossomed into hypnotic clouds the size of continents, and dark. They held nothing of the dying sunlight exposing every detail of Hisako’s broken body, the cavity torn from her stomach to her sternum, and what little remained inside it.
Braxton turned his face away. “Aye, the old bird is a sight. This is worse than dissection lab.”
“Maybe it isn’t his end game,” suggested Sarafina. She tugged at a leg of Hisako’s suit. “Can you at least get her glove off, Braxton? For Saturn’s sake. There you go, ‘mate’.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” said Aoto. “If what you say is right, and that animal is somehow controlling him, then it’s not his game at all. It’s that thing’s.”
“Bloody octopus,” said Braxton. “You should have let me scuttle it when we had the chance. I told you it weren’t good for food anyway. That blasted thing’s more toxic than Granny’s meat pie.”
“Neurotoxins!” Aoto clapped his hands together loudly. “That’s it! He’s been poisoned by contact with the animal. This isn’t a plan. This is madness.”
“Crazy or controlled,” said Sarafina, “he’s in the captain’s chair now. And we’d better be prepared to end it.”
“Agreed, Corporal. Sickens me to say it, but—wait! What’s that inside her glove?”
“Look at what your first mate of cheerful imagery turned up.” Braxton pulled a flexible plastic card out of the glove. A meager remnant of sunlight sparkled on its sleek surface. “It’s our backstage pass to the one safe place to bunk on this toilet for the next week.”
Sarafina snatched it from him. “At least you’re good for something.”
“Good work,” said Aoto. “I told you she was always prepared.”
“Sir, what do we do when we get in?”
“We take him down,” said Aoto.
“Aye. And jettison his little buddy right into the squall.”
The octopus had achieved many things humans knew nothing about these past few hundred million years, including its ascension to the throne of the planet’s apex predator. This had come easily once the species evolved its neural network.
The vaunted intelligence of Earth’s octopuses paled in comparison to this extra-solar beast’s. The brain cells distributed through its body and tentacles had become so sensitive that, like all members of its species, it could read its prey’s mind.
The octopuses learned from every thinking creature they consumed. Though most animals on Gelnikov 14 had not developed any form of culture, their minds held memories of where they had been born, where they fed, where they spawned, and details of environments the octopuses had never explored.
The eight-armed predators absorbed all this knowledge until they possessed an uncanny understanding of their planet’s inhabitants and geography. Though their telepathy was useless over distances larger than a meter beyond their tentacles’ reach, individual octopuses learned on their own, and then shared everything when they met each other.
If researchers such as Lieutenant Aoto’s crew had studied the phenomenon, they would have projected this learning curve into the development of Gelnikov’s first global culture. The dawn of octopus civilization loomed on the watery horizon.
But civilization required abstractions the octopuses’ environment had never pressured them to discover: mathematics, the scientific method, microbiology and medicine, and astronomy. The species possessed the raw intelligence to grasp these concepts, but it had never encountered them.
Cedric’s hands moved so quickly they made a blur above the touchscreen. His fingers pounded the surface like ten jackhammers, tapping so fast they created a constant hum instead of a staccato rhythm. The characters on the screen meant nothing to him. They looked like something Hisako would come up with, but that was all.
The code elicited responses from the machine.
Disable status updates to Central?
Disable external access override?
Disable external life support systems?
His mind rebelled at touching one more time to execute the command. In a brief window of four seconds, he became aware of his true surroundings. He was not writing poetry at all, as he fervently believed. A shiver ran through his body, and a single bead of sweat fell from the tip of his nose.
He said, “I can’t.” Then he remembered, but his four seconds were up.
The memory sank below the surface of his consciousness. He executed the code, and nothing remained in his mind of the treachery he committed nineteen minutes ago.
While everyone else was suiting up in the other room, Cedric had walked back and asked Hisako to help him with a data file about their specimens, animals they brought up from the sea in traps suspended from cables reaching down the island’s ragged sides.
With a sigh, she followed him out through the station’s main room and then to the doorway leading to the specimen lab.
When the meadow appeared before her, Hisako’s mammalian brain felt disoriented. She looked over her shoulder, expecting to see the room she had just walked through, but the meadow stretched to the horizon in every direction.
She remembered she was late for class. Abandoning her backwards gaze, she took the path that opened at her feet, a walkway through waist-high grasses and wildflowers. They waved back and forth in the gentle afternoon breeze like tentacles floating in sunlit water.
At the end of the path, her podium waited.
The octopus gripped her tightly in its tentacles and gnawed a hole in her skull to expose her brain. Blood sprayed from the wound until the webbing between the tentacles covered it. Suckers probed the mass of electrified fat and sought its knowledge.
The mammal went into shock and was rapidly dying. The octopus set its beak to work on the soft area below Hisako’s ribs and, in seconds, tore a gaping hole in her abdomen. A tentacle slithered into the spurting injury and worked its way up to the mammal’s heart. Hisako. That’s what the mammal called itself. The tentacle wrapped around the heart and squeezed it rhythmically. The blood flow would continue a few moments longer.
“Good morning, cadets.” Hisako tapped the top of her podium. In response, a monitor lit up behind her. Two meters tall and twice as wide, it imposed a glowing white pane on the otherwise uninterrupted meadow. The incongruity of its presence left Hisako untroubled. She only had eyes for her students.
“Good morning, Professor.” Thirty-seven voices answered in unison, and their various pitches harmonized like a sumptuous choir. Each voice belonged to an octopus, and each octopus occupied a desk just like the ones in classrooms at the Academy. Tentacles spilled out of the human-sized seats, and the animals’ sucker-covered skin swirled with royal purple and magenta in ever-shifting patterns. Microscopic nodules in the skin rippled with changing pigments, creating hypnotic patterns like streaks of ivory lightning caught in a kaleidoscope of flesh.
Hisako realized she was staring, and she cleared her throat. “Today’s lesson is critical to the security of our research laboratories.” With a stylus, she wrote security on the podium’s surface. The word appeared on the monitor behind her, in giant red letters. She underlined them.
It did not seem odd to her when each of the thirty-seven students magically produced a similar stylus at the end of a tentacle and wrote the word on its own desktop. She only wished all her classes would be so attentive.
“I’m so happy you’re all here,” she said, and a bright pink blush filled her cheeks. “Today, I will teach you how to write a virus to override the security controls at a research station. I’ll explain as we go. Let’s start with the first line of code.”
Thirty-seven styluses followed hers, copying every character and comment in perfect detail.
Hisako’s heart swelled with pride. It beat stronger than ever before, pumping an erotic warmth into her limbs until her breath became rapid. She wanted nothing more than for all her students to succeed. Hisako loved them, and she couldn’t find the words to express how deeply she loved them—only machine language, and symbols, and everything about software she spent a lifetime learning and inventing.
Then the code was complete, and there was no more Hisako in the classroom or anywhere else.
The octopus located her liver and brought the rich, fatty organ to its mouth. The cephalopod next devoured her heart, savoring the protein and iron in the meat. Then it craved submersion in water again, and the creature slid away from the corpse and back to its open tank, leaving a gelatinous trail of slime and blood behind it.
In a thought that resembled Hisako’s mathematical, analytical attitude, the octopus decided it needed to simplify the variables. Controlling all the large, mammalian brains in the station at once presented an insurmountable challenge. The humans were not so simple as fish and crustaceans. They could resist, and their thoughts demonstrated a glorious complexity unlike anything the octopus had ever encountered, save in another of its kind.
To Cedric, it left the chore of dragging the mutilated body out the front door. At the creature’s command, Cedric shouted, “Something’s wrong with Hisako! Come quickly!”
His three comrades rushed into the room to find Cedric by the open door.
The breach of protocol irked Aoto. “She went out by herself?”
“Something’s got her out there! It’s killing her!” Cedric waved them to the door, and in their rush to see what alarmed him, they ran right past the scarlet smears on the floor.
Aoto saw the body first. The horror drew him to a sudden stop outside the station. “My god,” he shouted. “Hisako!”
Sarafina and Braxton nearly ran him over.
“I’ll get the med kit!” Sarafina spun on her heels to bolt back through the door.
It slammed in her face.
“Ram it!” She pounded her gloved fist on the silent steel barrier. “Cedric! Cedric! Open the bloody door!”
But Cedric did not. He was too busy typing faster than he would have thought humanly possible, if he had any thoughts of his own left inside him.
“Be ready for anything,” said Sarafina. “Just take him down fast.” She held Hisako’s backup key in her left hand, not close enough to activate the security panel on the door, but close. Her right arm held her plasma rifle so she could fire from the hip. “On three.”
Her teammates stood side-by-side in the door frame. Each held a rifle.
Braxton said, “That’s my sexy Sara, talkin’ all bad-ass.”
“Ram it, Brax. You son of a—”
He raised his left palm to her. “Bitch, I’m not hittin’ on ya.” He tipped his helmet. “I’m just sayin’ good-bye.”
“Shut up and count,” Aoto commanded. “This isn’t a joke.” He nodded to Sarafina. “On three.” He brought the butt of his plasma rifle up to his shoulder. “One.”
“Two,” said Sarafina, in unison with him. She held the keycard centimeters from the panel. “Three!”
The card slammed onto the reader. The door slid open in a flash, and the rifles fired.
Aoto’s shot hit Cedric in the lower arm. The lieutenant advanced, covering Cedric with his rifle. The wound looked awful, but not immediately fatal. Yet Cedric crumpled on the floor and made no sound.
“Get in there and kill it!” Aoto kept his rifle trained on Cedric, who didn’t move a muscle. Blood soaked his once-white lab coat, and its color spread in a pool on the floor.
With Hisako’s key, Sarafina opened the specimen lab’s door. She charged inside, with Braxton close behind her. The muzzle of her rifle found the octopus tank.
Both she and Braxton did an immediate about-face, thinking the creature was behind them.
Just above Braxton’s head, eight purple and magenta tentacles crackled with their strange, pigmentary lightning. The foul-tempered scientist never saw them.
Instead, he saw his lieutenant transformed into a terrible creature with countless arms sprouting from him and tearing Braxton’s father to pieces. Braxton screamed and blasted Aoto twice.
The first bolt severed Aoto’s leg at the hip. The second blew a hole in his torso and splattered his lungs and intestines across the far wall.
Braxton whipped around to finish off the monstrosity he saw in place of Sarafina, but she shot him first. The bolt caught him in the shoulder and smacked him to the side. He bounced off the wall and landed face-first in a pile of gore that used to be Aoto.
He rolled onto his back and took aim. Sarafina, from the doorway to the specimen room, pulverized Braxton with half a dozen plasma bursts. His body became a red blur as chunks of bone and gristle pelted the walls.
From its hiding place, the octopus dropped on Sarafina.
The corporal had such lovely hair. She always had, ever since she was a girl. It seemed like a good time to brush her long, beautiful hair. She stood before a full-length mirror, in a cabin where she spent her childhood summers, and the dark wood of the interior matched the mirror’s frame. An indistinct white light shone through a single window, revealing no detail of the landscape beyond.
She removed her helmet and dropped it on the floor. It clunked twice and rolled away lopsidedly. A brush appeared in her hand, and she groomed herself, daydreaming about the kinds of boys she would like to meet someday, and worlds she might like to explore.
The beak that chewed into her skull had evolved to make short work of giant clams, so the mammal’s endoskeleton offered little sport. But as human blood filled its beak, and its skin contacted the brain inside the white, crunchy bone, the octopus found much which delighted it.
Sarafina’s reflection in the mirror turned purple, and bands of magenta played along her arms—all eight of them, each holding a soft, wonderful brush. “I’ll tell you a secret,” she said. “But only because we’re such good friends. Promise not to tell?”
The octopus promised, and Sarafina told it all about the humans who would return to the station after the storm. And the humans on the other carriers, and other stations, on other worlds flung all across the galaxy.
All of them full of food.
Then she died.
Cedric lived quite a bit longer. When the storm hit, a mere seven minutes after his crew’s ill-fated break-in, Cedric was sawing off his arm just above the elbow. Aoto’s plasma bolt had turned his bone to fragments, like ivory shrapnel embedded in several pounds of ground meat. The limb was beyond saving, and blood loss would surely kill him.
But the octopus wanted him alive.
Cedric sawed through the carnage at the end of his arm while whistling a cheerful melody. He covered the stump with adhesive bandages that bonded to each other chemically, and to his skin. The blood stopped in seconds. Cedric drank two pints of the sugar-water that passed for juice in the station’s larder.
He fell asleep sitting up while the storm sang him a lullaby composed of thunder and torment, a week-long crescendo of elemental assault on his steel fortress. A few days into it, he sawed off his right foot and fed it to the octopus—just like he had the arm.
The rest of the time, Cedric sat at the console, slurping sustenance from shiny bags of liquid food and reading the encyclopedia. The octopus was always near, touching him, draping itself around him like a colorful overcoat, secreting its neurotoxic venom and thinking with his thoughts. Cedric understood most of what he read, skipped the chapters on topology and theoretical physics he couldn’t comprehend, and assimilated new material into what he already knew. It made learning easy for his molluscan master.
The storm exhausted its fury until only a steady drizzle remained. In a moment of clarity, when the creature was soaking in its tank, Cedric remembered the carrier and its scheduled return. Warn them. The thought possessed him with manic urgency. He scrambled for the console, stepping in dried blood and stumbling on the stump where his right foot used to be and, much to his surprise, no longer was.
His face struck the edge of the console and knocked out his two front teeth. He cried and cursed and frantically pulled himself up.
But as the screen glowed at his touch, he resumed whistling his simple melody, and the warning he intended to type with his one remaining hand came out completely wrong.
love is a lie
death is ecstasy
my eternal enemy
your seas have no horizon
your moons are scarred
from burning in the light
the craters of their eyes
will never see the night
Then Cedric’s mother called to him, and he turned to her. She reminded him he needed to dress warmly before going outside.
He did as he was told.
The drizzle made the steep rock sides of the island slippery, and Cedric had no hope of a graceful descent. Still, he gripped a metal cable in his single hand. Lying on his belly to put no weight on his amputated ankle, he slid over the edge of the plateau.
Hand-over-hand descent would have been possible for someone in peak athletic condition, but this luxury eluded Cedric. His grip slowly slid down the cable, which burned his hand until it blistered. The blisters popped open, and a thick, oozing liquid mixed with his blood to leave a dark red trail.
The octopus rode him the whole way.
It had only days to find others of its kind and gather them to the island, to show them the cages and explain where they led, to a gathering of food that built weapons and spacecraft with access to the entire galaxy, libraries full of knowledge, and technology ripe for the plunder—all operated by animals an octopus could easily control, one at a time.
Metal tore through muscle and tendon until Cedric’s hand failed him, and he could grasp no longer. The scientist fell from the rocky wall, plummeting hundreds of meters through the sullen spray. But he was not afraid of drowning. He was not afraid of anything.
After all, he had the octopus.