I once spoke to a man who’d shared consciousness with an octopus.
I’d expected his tale to be far less frightening than those I’d studied up to that point. Identity has a critical mass, after all; fuse with a million-brain hive and you become little more than a neuron in that network, an insignificant lobe at most. Is the Olfactory Bulb self-aware? Does Broca’s Area demand the vote? Hives don’t just assimilate the self; they annihilate it. They are not banned in the West without reason.
But octopi? Mere invertebrates. Glorified snails. There’s no risk of losing yourself in a mind that small. I might have even tried it myself, for the sheer voyeuristic thrill of perceiving the world through alien eyes.
Before I met Guo, at least.
We met at lunchtime in Stanley Park, but we did not eat. He could not stomach the thought of food while reflecting on his own experience. I suspect he reflected on it a lot; talking to Guo was like interviewing a scarecrow.
It had been, he told me, a simple interface for a simple system: a Pacific Octopus liberated from the captive colony at Yaquina Bay, outfitted with a B2B wrapped around its brain like a spiderweb. Guo had one of his own, a force-grown lattice permeating his corpus callosum in service of some Cloud-killing gig he’d held in Guangdong. The protocols weren’t completely compatible, but could be tweaked.
“So what’s it like to be an octopus?” I asked him.
He didn’t speak for a while. I got the sense he wasn’t so much gathering his thoughts as wrestling with them.
“There’s no such thing as an octopus,” he said at last, softly. “They’re all— colonies.”
“Those arms.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Those fucking crawly arms. You know, that thing they call the brain— it’s nothing, really. Ring of neurons around the esophagus, basically just a router. Most of the nervous system’s in the arms, and those arms… every one of them is awake…”
I gave him time.
“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”
Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”
“The arms,” I reminded him.
“They don’t see.” He closed his eyes. “They don’t hear. There’s this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch. Suckers by the fucking hundreds, like tongues, and they’re always moving. Can you imagine what it’s like to have a thousand tongues squirming across your body, pulsing in your guts and your muscles, sprouting out of your skin in, in clumps like— hungry parasites…”
I shook my head.
“Now multiply that by eight.” Guo shuddered. “Eight blind squirming things, each one rotten with taste and smell and, and touch. The density of the sensory nerves, it’s— obscene. That’s the only way I can describe it. And every one of those arms is self-aware.”
“But they’re so small.” I was mystified and repulsed in equal measure. “Just in terms of sheer neuron count you outgun them three hundred to one, no matter how many— partitions they’re running. It’s not like they’re going to swallow you into some kind of Moksha Mind. More the other way around.”
“Oh, you’re exactly right. It doesn’t swallow you up at all, it climbs inside. It infests you. You can feel them crawling through your brain.”
Neither of us spoke for a while.
“Why did you do it?” I asked him.
“Fuck, I don’t know.” A short bitter laugh. “Why does anyone do anything? Wanted to know what it was like, I guess.”
“Nobody told you it would be— unpleasant?”
Guo shook his head. “They said it wasn’t like that for everyone. Afterward. Tried to blame me, actually, said my interface didn’t meet minimum compatibility standards. But I think they were just trying to get me to stop.”
“I killed the fucking thing. Ripped it apart with my bare hands.” His eyes drilled right through me, black and hollow and unrepentant. “I’m still paying off the damages.”
—from The 21-Second God, by Keith Honeyborne*
*Identity unverified. Possible alias.