The squid is a solipsistic psychopathic God with a lust for submarine hull and a mandate from Ronald Reagan branded on its hunting tentacles. It sweeps east from Iceland in the cold under the
thermocline, alone in the dark, solitary lord of a solitary place.
TESTIMONY BEFORE AN EMERGENCY SESSION OF THE NAVAL CEPHALOPOD COMMAND
by Seth Dickinson
The squid is a solipsistic psychopathic God with a lust for
submarine hull and a mandate from Ronald Reagan branded on its hunting
tentacles. It sweeps east from Iceland in the cold under the
thermocline, alone in the dark, solitary lord of a solitary place.
Make no mistake, compadres: this is not a squid with which to fuck.
It’s rolling in thirty billion dollars of military appropriation,
black as the depths that birthed its species. It’s got a sonar
harness, anti-submarine beacons, limpet mines, encrypted datalinks,
kilos of squid nutritional supplement cooked up by DARPA. We’re not
talking Cephal-Os, kids. We’re talking potent biochemistry here. Squid
meth. Squid PCP.
– bear with me, Rear Admiral. I’m going places you haven’t been.
Places you need to be before I tell you how to stop him, and what I
want in exchange.
Fuck the Joint Chiefs. I’m talking. Now –
The squid’s bred with a Chomsky augment. That’s voodoo
neuroengineering. That means it’s got the mental setup for language.
Not that it took much work. Higher brain function comes standard on
the Atlantic giant.
Squid skin is bioluminescent; evolved for camouflage, adapted for
communication. Your average civilian calamari is a pack hunter. She
uses her skin to talk to her gang. Data traffic. Very efficient. They
can send different signals on different sides of their bodies, like a
Bear in mind, now, Nemo is bilingual. Chromatophore signaling, all
that skin business, that’s strictly a short-range solution. He speaks
whale, too. He’s got that sonar harness. That’s what he uses to call
home, long distance, relayed through the SOSUS net. Ring, ring, ring.
Hi, mom. I’m in the Severodvinsk sub pens.
We send these guys out to hunt Soviet nuclear submarines. God bless America.
Nemo the Atlantic giant black ops squid is a troubled soul. He’s got a
profound philosophical realignment going on. I’ve talked to Nemo at
great length, both during his childhood and over the course of his
career, and believe me, when I said solipsistic, I meant it. They’re
all that way. They have self-awareness, but they can’t attribute
mental states to others.
Are you listening now? Do I have your attention, ladies and gentlemen?
His mind is a severely fucked up place. It’s an alien place, and I
don’t mean Mister Spock alien, I mean Ted Bundy. But if you want to
understand what’s happening, if you want to prevent the Soviets from
escalating, you’ve got to know what he’s thinking.
I know you’re all very tense about imminent thermonuclear war. You
want me to get to the point. But you’ve got to understand: Nemo grew
up convinced he was the only thinking thing in the universe. He saw
the world as a piece of clockwork, empty of will except his own.
At some point in the past twenty-four hours, he changed his mind.
That’s the key. That is why we’re here, why he’s there, why the
Soviets are about to launch.
So: Nemo, in the dark, moving east from Iceland. Hunting for subs. Troubled.
Submarines hunt by listening for the sound of propellers and
creaking hull. That’s passive sonar. It’s gauche to turn on the pings,
go active, start chittering like a horny dolphin. It can give you
Nemo knows that. But he pings USS Olympia with his sonar harness
anyway. It’s a code. It means I’ve got something.
HOWDY NEMO, Olympia sends back, ping ping ping. Olympia is
brand new, state of the art, a Los Angeles nuclear-powered
hunter-killer. Veteran officers and seasoned crew. They’ve worked with
squid before, learned to trust and appreciate their talents. SEND YOUR
HOWDY OLYMPIA. GOOD TO SEE YOU. Nemo closes in, jetting alongside. I
HAVE A BOOMER FOR YOU.
Did I neglect to mention that Nemo is a suave customer? Psychopaths
YOU’RE A CHAMP, NEMO, Olympia sends. READY FOR DETAILS.
Pretend you’re the crew of USS Olympia. You grew up on Lassie and
Flipper and your family’s golden retriever. You’re a tribe of apes,
wired to groom, to gossip, to get to know each other. You adore Nemo
the giant squid. You love the fact that you can talk to an animal,
that he can talk back, say ‘howdy’. You love the fact that he’s out
there hunting down your enemy. You’ve got a squid on the wall of your
mess, curling iron.
Pretend you’re Nemo. You grew up in a tank. You learned by operant
conditioning: pull the lever, get a fish. Solve the math problem, get
a fish. Construct sentences. Use equipment. Tag the target. Fish.
You don’t have empathy, loyalty, a sense of social obligation, a pack
hierarchy. You don’t have the wiring for it. You evolved in the deep,
in the cold. When your ancestors hunted in groups, they did it as a
network, without leaders or alphas. Send a signal, and the network
reconfigures. You stimulate, the world responds. They never had to
model the other.
You see the world as a system of systems. You have to learn the rules
to manipulate that system. Pull the lever; get a fish. Talk to
Olympia; get what you want. Just like I’m going to get what I want
before I’m done here, right? Heh.
We love Nemo the squid because we’re wired to put a little humanity
into everything. But Nemo doesn’t love us. Nemo doesn’t even realize
we exist. He just thinks we’re complicated levers.
Only he’s starting to get worried. It’s all falling apart. There’s a
threat out there and he can’t get his arms on it.
That’s why Nemo runs his little experiment. That’s why he starts the war.
Nemo leads Olympia towards his catch, cruising at sixteen knots.
Giant squid are jet-propelled and Nemo’s jets are ripped. This guy is
He’s tagged a big fish for Uncle Sam. Slapped a silent tracking beacon
on Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, a Russian boomer: Delta III ballistic
missile submarine. City-killer sells this boat short. He has the
firepower to Hiroshima an entire seaboard.
Olympia wants to play the old game: follow the Russian boat in
silence, tracking him as long as possible, learning his moves. If you
win, the Soviet never knows you played. This is what makes Nemo so
valuable. He’s quiet. He can tag boomers and hand them off to American
boats for a game of passive sonar peekaboo.
Nemo knew the boomer had a friend, of course. You thought it was
an accident? He knew the Victor was there all along. He planned this
out. He knew exactly what levers to pull, because they were the levers
you trained him not to.
Olympia settles in to follow the Russian boomer on its slow creep
south. Nemo makes his move.
Do you know what merkwelt is? German word. It’s the way a
species experiences the universe. Shark merkwelt is all about smell
– huge olfactory lobes. Bats do hearing. The Atlantic giant squid?
Sight. Just like us. They have the biggest eyes in nature.
You’re Nemo again.
Leviathan. Hunter. Sovereign of the abyss. You move at your
pleasure through sunlit waters, slatted dusk, down into the dark. You
are the lord of night and day, the eye that watches the world. Your
volition encompasses the cosmos.
I figured all this out by dropping a load of acid, by the way. I think
you cited that when you had me discharged. That was cute. I wonder if
you’re rethinking that decision now.
Squid solipsism is perfectly logical. They’re not social like the
ur-human was. They have no need for theory of mind. Doesn’t that sound
lonely? Of course it doesn’t. They don’t have loneliness.
But there’s a problem here. A challenge for the thoughtful squid.
The sperm whale.
I don’t mean the sperm whale, literally. Nemo does not believe the
Soviet Union is run by Comrade Moby – nothing like that. I mean that
the sperm whale is the devil of the squid’s racial consciousness, the
one ass bad enough to top it on the food chain.
The sperm whale is the specter of an outside will. A second agent.
Something in the universe which cannot be grasped or mastered in the
sweep of your arms.
Here’s the crux of the problem: we trained Nemo to hunt Soviet
submarines. We augmented him, tested him, taught him. And the whole time, he believed he was in charge – he believed he was learning to manipulate a complex environment.
But deep down there a spark started to burn, a nascent capability
awakened. We’re talking about the dawn of consciousness on an
evolutionary time scale, understand? A whole separate lineage of mind
awakening. And why? Why now? Because that racial obsession with the sperm whale gave them their first other, their first antagonist, an
entity that could not be subdued, whose separate and suzerain volition
had to be acknowledged.
And we fed that spark. We gave it the perfect fuel. We brought
him to the moment of crisis: the realization that something else
Now he’s realized that someone else did all that teaching. He can’t
figure it out. Who wills the tests into being? Who sends the
submarines? Who draws the line between American and Soviet water? He
didn’t come up with this shit! His ancestral world of night and day
and fish and whale is gone – do svidaniya! Someone remade the
We’re not talking about an emotion here. We’re talking about a
fundamental crisis of the squid psyche. Something latent. Jungian. By
Nemo’s become agonizingly aware of the existence of a higher
power. A sperm whale in the ocean of his solipsism.
And because the whole squid theory of mind comes from that
obsession, he responds antagonistically. The knowledge that there’s
something else out there is driving him mad.
He wants to draw it out.
Nemo parks himself abeam of USS Olympia, turns on his sonar, and
begins pinging the Russian boomer. Loud. Close.
NEMO SAFE YOUR SONAR IMMEDIATELY, Olympia sends. The game’s
barely gotten afoot and now Nemo is spoiling the hunt. Nemo the
unerringly reliable, their thirty-foot friend.
Why, Nemo? That’s what they wonder. That’s what you all wonder. Did he
go berserk? Is he angry? Is this some kind of game? You think about
him like a big dog.
You fucking idiots.
The Russian sub turns to respond. Sonar lashes back. Olympia is
caught in the spotlight.
And then, from behind, another sonar: ping. Ping. Sharp as cracking
glass. The Victor guarding the Russian boomer says hello: a Soviet
attack sub, quick and dangerous. It probably had no idea Olympia was
there until Nemo made his move. The feeling is mutual on Olympia’s
part – Nemo didn’t report another sub, and they trusted Nemo.
Olympia’s caught with her pants down.
No one’s going to shoot. They’re all just going to aim torpedoes at
each other, flood their launch tubes, and ping angrily until someone
backs down. It’s a cold war out here.
Then the Russian boomer explodes.
Nemo must’ve planted the limpet mines at the same time he attached the tracking beacon. He didn’t have detonation authority; no one would be stupid enough to give a squid its own live antiship weapons. But he didn’t need it. Limpet mines have anti-tamper fuses, sensitive to
motion, and Nemo planted them across the boomer’s forward torpedo
When the boomer opens her tubes to menace Olympia, the mines
barnacled over them detonate. They crush her double-hulled bow, stave
in her sonar, maul her diving planes, and detonate the torpedoes
within. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy hemorrhages bubbles and groans the
sound of dying metal as her reactors shut down. 130 souls aboard. No
hope. She falls towards crush depth.
NEMO SAFE YOUR WEAPONS, Olympia sends. ABORT ATTACK REPEAT ABORT ATTACK.
The Soviet Victor behind Olympia floods her torpedo tubes. Her
sonar lashes out in guidance mode. She wants revenge for her consort.
Olympia’s captain does the only sane thing he can: he runs.
In the chaos Nemo jets north, past the Victor, towards Soviet
waters. Sprinting at twenty knots. He’s issued his challenge. Now he’s
got to show he’s serious.
News of Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatskiy’s destruction at American hands
must be at Moscow by now. We’re on the edge of a shooting war in the
North Atlantic, and we all know where that goes, don’t we? T-72s on
the autobahn. Tactical nukes in the Fulda Gap. The Big One.
A lesser citizen might dwell on the irony here, you know? You froze me
out. I remember the bullshit you cooked up: overspecialized,
disruptive, surplus to team requirements, obsessed with
pseudoscientific speculation. I could’ve told you this was coming.
Cephalopod psychology remains a field of one.
But he fooled you too, didn’t he? You thought he was human. You
thought he was predictable. You convinced yourself you didn’t need me.
The Soviet fleet is now racing southwest into the
Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. They’re convinced Nemo’s
destruction of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy was the first strike in a
broad offensive against their nuclear capability.
In a way they’re right. Olympia barely made it out of that hornet’s
nest. And Nemo’s beacon is still moving north. He’ll continue
attacking until he dies or we bring him in. He has to. You get it? His
theory of mind isn’t built on thinking about friends and family and
social rivals like ours. It’s built of sperm whale. The self and the
vast annihilating other, the solipsist’s apocalypse, the extinction
To the squid, death is nothing less than God.
Some of you may hope the Soviets will make sushi of him. I won’t rule
that out. But he’s got home field advantage, a lot of explosives on
tap, and a real depth advantage. If the Soviets can’t bring him down
soon, they’re going to hit back. They can’t allow an unchallenged
attack on their missile submarines – not one, absolutely not two.
I give Nemo six hours before he takes out boomer number two. He’ll
find a way, even without authority over his weapons. God help the
Soviets if he gets up towards the Kola Peninsula and their yards.
You need a way reel him in. I can do that for you. But I want
something in return.
Let’s trade. A little – a ha ha – squid pro quo.
How do you get God’s attention?
Please set aside your Judeo-Christian preconceptions; Nemo’s not
going to cook a fatted lamb. How do you, a mighty predator,
discovering that a greater will has built and may well end your entire
world, get its attention?
You defy it. You get your suckers into that sperm whale and you
set at him with your beak. You break his rules. You test the limits of
his power. And if you die, then so be it: either the world goes out,
because you were the solitary will, or it doesn’t, because it was
never your world after all.
And maybe – if you’re very clever – you make room. You account for
a second will. Don’t you see? If squid down the ages hurled themselves
at the whale to die in solipsistic fury, selection would favor those
who could accept the concept of another will without going berserk.
What do you mean _peripheral issue)? This isn’t peripheral! This is
the entire problem and solution!
Nemo is struggling to conceptualize the existence of a second force in
his clockwork world. He wants to talk to God. And he knows how to get
God’s attention – break the rules. Break them the most. He’s going
to burn every commandment we conditioned into him; pull the strings
until the puppeteer shows up. That’s why he’s gone berserk. That’s why
a giant squid has you on DEFCON 3. He’s figured out that the biggest
bird he can flip to God is the threat of global nuclear war.
Does he know what that means? Probably not. But he’s figured out
what happens when he pulls that lever, when he sinks that Russian
We put collars around the hunting tentacles and the mantles of
those squid. Do you know what we write on there? A lot of technical
information, mostly, a big alphanumeric lump that gives the military
guys a real hard-on. But there’s a quote, too, because by God, America
will put quotes on things. It reads:
The ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world
will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas. Ronald
We put that on there to impress a bunch of senators coming in for a
tour. They ate it up.
You know, when this all started I tried to explain that we were
not dealing with a trained ape here. I insisted that this was an
intellect from a very different lineage of thought, unpredictable,
unmanageable. But you went ahead and did it anyway. You weaponized an alien intelligence. And it turned out I was right.
That makes me the lord of the hour. Here are my demands.
I want Nemo alive. I know you’re planning to blow him out of the water as soon as he shows himself, and I understand that reflex. I was
military too. But I want Nemo back under my supervision, in a tank,
unharmed. I want a team. I want money. Tankers full of money.
I want to do what you should’ve done up front, instead of firing him
off into the North Atlantic. I want to spend a long few years figuring
out how he thinks. Talking to him.
I am going to resolve his metacognitive crisis and help him accept the
concept of a second will. I am going to be midwife to the birth of a
new order of cephalopod cognition.
Of course this matters to me, Admiral! Of course I’m emotionally
attached! Nemo is a window into an alien consciousness, one that’s
just realized we exist. I want to see where he goes. I want to learn
everything I can from him.
Or maybe you want me to be a little more pragmatic.
Consider this. We have eighteen operational or pre-operational
Atlantic giants, and they’re all bad assets now. That’s a lot of money
wasted. Unless I can diagnose Nemo. Find a foolproof hook on squid
psychology, so you can convince them not to scuttle this program.
This is all you need to do to call him home:
Let me talk to him.
Get me on SOSUS and longwave. Let me coax him out of Soviet waters
with threats and promises. See if I can draw him up to shallow water,
where we can reach him by VLF transceiver, before the Soviets get him. And then let me meet him, face to big squid eye. Let me get down there in SCUBA gear somewhere off Greenland with a chromatophore signaling kit or a sonar gun and talk to him.
I’m the key. I can be the avatar.
Oh, yes, he remembers me. You think he can’t tell us apart? The
squid merkwelt is visual, remember? I was in that tank with him
during the conditioning. Every day until he graduated to open-sea
work. To him, I’m a component of the levers and the tests. I am a part
of the metaphysical crisis that’s driving him mad.
He may be violent. Confronted with the metaphysical sperm whale,
the avatar of death and the other, he may do what so many of his
ancestors did: bite. And yes, Admiral, members of the committee – if
he does, I will die.
But if I’m right, if this is the crisis that gives him theory of mind,
if selective pressures have rewarded the Architeuthis who can
conceptualize another mind and cope with that realization, he may
Let me coax him back in. He probably wants to mate; I can use that as
a carrot. And maybe he’ll come peaceably, satisfied that he’s drawn
attention from on high. Maybe he just wants to know the mind of God.
That’s some common ground to start from.
What do you mean, did I always know this would happen? You think I
trained them knowing the crisis was inevitable? That I’ve been waiting
for this moment out of some messianic desire to witness and assist the
birth of New Squid Thought? That I manipulated all this?
Come on, Senator. He’s the one who thinks we’re all levers. Not me.
Episode Art: Bo Kaier