By Martin Ross
Summary: Mulder must face a threat from the deep and his own demons as he investigates a case of unnatural selection.
Rating: R for language
Spoilers: Season 15
Disclaimer: To Chris Carter, who set the course for the wondrous of all fictional odysseys, and to Herman Melville, who knew how to tell a whale of a tale…
Nelson Point, Wisconsin
“. . . these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”
This was how Larry Johanssen envisioned his perfect world: A wondrously clear July night’s sky studded with the vibrant lights of a million distant galaxies, casting a preternatural glow over the seemingly infinite expanse of Lake Michigan.
To 12-year-old Larry, who the week before had wheedled Roy and Margaret Johanssen into taking him into town for the new Star Wars movie, the summer sky represented every possibility the universe had to offer. The Great Lake was Larry’s gateway to a world of imagination, to strange and noisy places he might one day visit, to a future ripe for conquest.
His reverie broken, Larry turned in annoyance toward the silhouette of eight-year-old Keith. “What?” he hissed peevishly.
“What time is it?” Keith whined. “Dad said we have to be back at nine, or he’s gonna tan our hides.”
Larry sighed. “Relax, Ex-Lax. We got an hour, at least. Just don’t go out too far, you hear me?”
Keith’s anxiety had dissolved instantly, and his response was to wade gleefully back into the tranquil water. Larry’s little brother was drawn to the medium like an otter; Larry preferred his post at water’s edge, his Zebco Omega (a birthday gift from Roy) in hand.
Larry cast expertly, his wrist flicking perpendicular to his skinny torso just as his father had taught him summers earlier. He’d snared a feisty and aptly-named bullhead earlier, and now had his sights set on lake sturgeon or northern pike. As Roy had told him one crisp September morning, no fish was as tasty as the one you hauled in yourself.
Keith had insisted on accompanying his brother to the lake, and Larry had grudgingly accepted the responsibility his mother had impressed on him. The kid was immature, but basically OK, eager to carry his big brother’s gear and euphoric to bear the day’s catch home.
For a second, Larry thought he’d hooked a live one. But his line remained slack, and he realized Keith was the source of the turbulence. “Hey, man, you’re scaring ‘em away!” he shouted.
The sound of terror pierced the night, and Larry hurled his rod aside. Desperately homing in on his brother’s screams, he splashed into the water, rocketing with short, choppy strokes to the rescue.
The abrupt silence served merely to power Larry through the inky surf. He swallowed a gout of lake water as he came nearly face-to-face with his little brother. Keith’s eyes were wide open, frozen in fear for eternity. Heart pounding, Larry reached for his brother. If he could get him to shore, breathe life back into his deflated lungs… Then he spotted it. Something was wound around Keith’s neck, something thick and rope-like. Had he been entangled in some sunken fishing boat or truck? Larry tugged frantically at his brother’s arm, but he was immobile. He attacked the thick restraint around Keith’s throat, and his fingers recoiled almost immediately. It was leathery and pulsing, and it tightened about Keith’s neck. Sediment swirled up from the bottom, and Larry’s heart swelled into his throat as the water cleared.
The single, inhuman eye blinked up, as if appraising an enemy. A stalk-like thing arose from the mud, reaching for Larry, and the courage drained from his body as his young arms and legs carried him away from his waking nightmare…and his brother.
This was how Jared Stackhouse envisioned his perfect world: An inky sky spattered with the cold, dead light of distant galaxies, reflected on an undulating expanse of equivalent nothingness.
An Earth depopulated of authority, of disapproval, of everything that stood in the way of his meager solace or joy. A planet for Jared Stackhouse alone. On one of the rare occasions when he’d strayed from MTV or Skinemax, Jared had watched an old Twilight Zone that had featured The Penguin. He didn’t know who Burgess Meredith was, only knew he was The Penguin on Batman , one of the few old-school shows (aside from the occasional Twilight Zone ) that passed Jared’s strenuous test of cool. It was kind of like Austin Powers without the sex (which was unfortunate, Jared thought any time Julie Newmar donned that skintight catsuit on TVLand, wishing he could get himself some of that). Anyway. The story was about this geek who worked in a bank. All he wanted was to get a few minutes to read, but his boss and his old lady – a couple of control freak assholes who reminded him of the Congressman and Mom — were always climbing his ass. Jared thought the old guy was a re-tard for wanting to read books all the time, but he could being fucked with all the time. Penguin just wanted to par-tay, even if it was in a lame way.
Anyway. Poindexter hid down in the library basement one day to sneak a peek at one of his precious books (not even a Hustler or other suitable whacking material), and somebody nuked the place – microwaved New York until all the cheese and sauce turned into a nasty crust. Jared almost got hard thinking about that, though he didn’t see how The Penguin would have survived (he tried to surf stuff about bombs on Google, but he mistyped and wound up spending the afternoon perusing boobs of all sizes and shapes). The rest of the show had something to do with The Penguin piling up all the books he could find in humongous stacks and getting ready to read ‘em all (whatever, dude) when his glasses fell off and busted and he cried like a pussy about how unfair life was. Jared thought that was pretty cool and laughed his ass off, all empathy for The Penguin lost. But the thought of that Earth, burnt and scorched — all the assholes nuked like organ-filled chimichangas, nobody bitching and nothing to do for the rest of all time – – that had stuck with Jared, a wet dream for the young and alienated. Tonight was the closest he’d come to envisioning this perfect world, as he lay on his back between the inky sky and the undulating water of Lake Michigan . The only thing that spoiled this illusion tonight were the blinking lights of the Sears Tower and the Hancock and the rest of the Windy City skyline taunting him from nearly a mile away off the Lake Shore. And Shawn, who’d had like a six-pack of Coronas and a half-bottle of Quervo and who wouldn’t shut his fucking mouth for one second.
“Dude, your dad’s gonna fuckin’ ground your fuckin’ ass ‘til you’re fuckin’ 40 he finds out you jacked his boat,” Shawn, the son of one of Chicago’s preeminent investment bankers, sang, sounding like some boy band queer on a scratched CD.
“Shut up,” Jared muttered.
“Yep, the Congressman’s gonna reinstate the death penalty just for you, dude,” Shawn began the second chorus.
“Shut. The fuck. Up,” Jared growled. “Swear to God, man.”
The banker’s son and the congressman’s boy, both on the advancing edge of 16, were floating on U.S. Rep. Daniel Stackhouse’s (R-Chicago’s) Jeanneau Cap Camarat 925 WA, which they’d snuck past the port authorities and Coast Guard and taken roughly a mile out. Indeed, although he had no jurisdiction or authority to reverse ex-Gov. Ryan’s death penalty moratorium, Rep. Stackhouse would find some draconian parental penalty for his errant son, when he showed up. This time around, Jared had slipped the leash – i.e., the private high school in which Stackhouse, staunch defender of public education, had secured his son – two days ago, and he and Shawn had clubbed and drugged their way through the Lower Loop before remembering where the Congressman had left his extra keys. The yacht lurched, rolling Shawn into Jared. Jared shoved him away, and the Clear Majority shifted again.
“Jesus, dude,” Shawn yelled, clamoring to his feet. The endless lake was black and smooth and the night sky crisp and transparent, but the vessel listed and rocked as if the boys were battling a storm at seas.
“Fucking chill,” Jared directed. “I’m gonna check the cabin.”
Before Jared and Daniel Stackhouse had reached Stage Four Cold War status a year or so ago, the legislator had taught his son all the ins and outs of navigating the expensive watercraft, and Jared instinctively checked all the instruments and equipment. Nothing out of line, but the boat was still flailing.
Throwing open the door to the cabin used largely for drinking and sun poisoning/motion sickness recovery, he quickly ascertained the cause of the tumult. Water was gushing into the compartment at an alarming rate – too rapid a rate for the pumps to handle. Jared felt a cold rush of fear that sliced clean through all the booze and grass he’d done that evening. But underneath an almost impenetrable layer of adolescent alienation and indulgence, Jared possessed a 135 IQ and a keen sense of survival that until lately had shepherded him through several academic crises and a sexual misadventure with one of his father’s colleagues. He scrambled for the radio as the proper frequency flooded back into his brain. The cruiser continued to list, and that dumbass Shawn was yelling his head off, as if anyone could hear them in the middle of a fucking Great Lake.
The Coast Guard crewman responded crisply, trained militarily to notch down emotion and provide reassurance to civvies who’d screwed themselves into a watery corner.
“We’re goin’ down, man!” Jared yelled. “We’re fuckin’ taking on water. It’s like something punched a hole in the hull! You gotta get here NOW!”
“Calm down, son,” the officer said smoothly. “You know your approximate location?” Jared’s eyes swept the instruments, and he rattled off the Clear Majority ’s bearings.
“You got a flare gun on board?”
“Shit – I don’t know! Wait, I’ll check it out.” The boy quickly located it under the instrument panel, leaned outside, fired a screaming flare into the black sky, and watched it blossom. Jared grabbed the handset.
“Good man. You think you can make it a few more minutes, ‘til we get there?” The transmission began to break up, and Jared was hit with a wall of static.
“I don’t know – it’s filling up pretty fucking fast!”
“You got enough jackets for everybody?” The officer’s voice came weakly through the interference.
“Yeah, I-I think.”
“Get ‘em on and keep this line open. Roger?”
“Yeah.” Jared no sooner had answered than a shrill shriek broke the silent night.
“What was that, son?” the voice on the other end crackled.
Jared didn’t hear him – he’d rushed outside to see his friend flailing toward him, eyes wide, mouth working. Shawn looked like some mime asshole they’d pranked in Lincoln Park , some geek in white makeup pushing against an imaginary wind. “Shawn! What the fuck?” Jared yelled. Then his feet froze to the deck. Shawn had some sort of weird belt or girdle or something on. It was mottled, like a palomino, and it looked like wet leather. Had the moron tethered himself to the rail? With what?
“Huh-huh-huh-huh…” Shawn whispered hoarsely. He couldn’t get the word out, but Jared knew. Especially after the belt around his middle shifted and tightened itself. Shawn released a heart-wrenching sob and reached for his friend. Suddenly, he was yanked backward, his back smacking violently into the railing. Shawn’s legs buckled, and as Jared’s breath caught, the teen’s body was squeezed through the rails and he disappeared into the darkness.
“SON! SON! WHAT THE HELL’S GOING DOWN THERE?!?” Jared heard the radio blaring through a new crackle of heavy static, but he was locked in place despite the groaning and rocking of his father’s boat.
A dark shape emerged from the water, grasping the rail. A second followed, and a third. They were long, snakelike appendages, mottled like the belt around Shawn’s waist. The arms, legs, whatever tightened, and Jared knew whatever was attached was ready to board. It was larger than he had expected, and its vague familiarity did nothing to ease the flow of adrenalin through his organs and joints. Perched at the edge of the rail, it stopped, and an eye blinked open – a huge, inhuman eye with a rectangular pupil, but all the more chilling because there was something vaguely human within it. It took Jared a few seconds to identify that something.
The captain of the Coast Guard cutter felt Jared’s screams in his bones.
The Rhinoptera bonasus reflected in Seth Kristakos’ round lenses as it circled its tank in the Caribbean Reef. The cownose ray was deceptively placid – its streamlined tail could deliver a deadly dose of venom to the foolhardy predator. While he was a malacologist by training, Kristakos was fascinated as well by the lower vertebrates and cartilaginous fish – bridges between two major domains of earthly existence, transitional species in the movement toward applicable intelligence and, therefore, dominance over the planet. Of course, a central nervous system and the beginnings of a mechanically advanced skeletal system does not necessarily gain a species admittance to the zoological Mensa Club. Kristakos had been present when the Shedd’s giant Pacific octopus had extracted a live clam from a closed pickle jar in something under three minutes.
Scientists now realized the cephalopods – the squids and octopi – had developed along lines of intelligence that could well parallel Man’s. Humankind in its sublime egotism equated opposable thumbs and spoken language, Starbucks and Survivor with supreme intelligence, but that yardstick was created by Man’s own mind. While he was a reasonably observant Greek Orthodox as well as a renowned oceanographer, Kristakos was open to the concept of a divine agenda with humanity as but one cosmic player. This line of speculation had caused more than one lively debate both at St. Sophia’s and with colleagues prone toward more politically correct atheism.
“Dr. Krista-, Kristakos!”
The hefty scientist turned sharply. The night crew was used to his nocturnal meanderings through the Shedd’s darkened wings and rattlings and murmurings in the labs beyond the public’s view. But the custodial and security staffs, largely African-American and Latino, still frequently stumbling over his name.
“Guillermo,” Kristakos nodded genially. The tall, mustachioed maintenance man halted, panting, before him.
“Doc, I think maybe there’s somethin’ wrong with one of your fish,” Guillermo Ortiz blurted. “You better come.”
Kristakos knew there’d been an infection problem with a couple of the Hippocampos – seahorses – downstairs, but that wasn’t his particular area of expertise. “Maybe we should call Dr. Whitten.”
“No, no,” Guillermo insisted. “Not a fish, your, you, know, the octopus. The big one.”
Kristakos’ bearded head shot up. “The giant Pacific?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the custodian said, excited. “He’s, he’s all—Oh, shit, you gotta come with me, Doc.”
The scientist was unusually fleet of feet for his age and girth, and the pair quickly reached the cephalopod’s tank. A few of the night crew, as well as Mike, one of the uniformed security guards, stood transfixed before the tank. The creature was stationary, its large eye staring incomprehensively toward the human throng. Kristakos was brought up short, and his heart began pounding. Blood red, cobalt blue, steel gray, mustard yellow, mauve… Octopi were known to rapidly shift colors – this was a communicational device of sorts – but Kristakos had never witnessed such a range of colors or in such lightning-fast succession.
“Christ,” he murmured.
U.S. Coast Guard Salvage Storage Facility
Two days later
“I know this is beyond your purview,” Lt. Mark Prendergast began reluctantly. “But we’ve got some contradictory findings here that could use another set of eyes. Pardon me, another couple of sets.”
Fox Mulder turned from the rail of the metal platform that provided a perspective of the Clear Majority’s hull. The cruiser had been upended so the Cook County Police Department and the FBI forensics crews could examine the gaping hole.”Someone obviously sank this boat,” the FBI agent stated. “But whoever it was was roughly a mile offshore, and your people found no evidence of another craft in the area.”
“Once Capt. Fagerland’s men determined this vessel had been sabotaged – there would have been nothing in the area that could’ve torn the hull open — we tried our best to preserve the evidence,” the lieutenant explained, his baritone echoing off the corrugated walls of the steel storage building. “But you can understand, with the boat taking on water so rapidly, there was significant contamination of the crime scene, I guess you’d call it. The hull definitely was breached from outside – no chance either of those boys had anything to do with it. Though neither one of them is in any shape to tell us much of anything.”
Shawn Carstairs’ body had not yet been found by any of the Coast Guard cutters continuously scouring the area, and Jared Stackhouse remained in a non-responsive, catatonic state at a Gold Coast hospital. Whatever he’d seen had scared the living shit out of him, and Mulder knew that was why Skinner had asked him and his partner to stay in Chicago after Rep. Stackhouse’s son had been located. After 9-11, the congressman, who had voiced strong support for military action in Iraq, had not been ready to chalk up Jared’s latest disappearance to juvenile rebellion, and Mulder and Scully, along with a dozen other local agents, had been dispatched to find the boy.
“Looks almost like it was hacked out,” Mulder observed. “I wanted to sink a boat, I’d probably blow it up, or at least bring along a torch or some kind of heavy-duty tool. Especially if I were underwater.”
Prendergast peered again at the breach. “Pretty primitive job, all right. And what’s even more worrisome? That hull’s not exactly made of cotton candy. Even if a group of men did this with hand tools, it would have taken hours. You can see that a lot of these cuts are clean – straight through the hull. Whoever did this had a lot of power behind them.”
“Or whatever,” Mulder murmured.
“Pardon? You didn’t say whatever?”
Scully smiled slightly. “I think Agent Mulder simply wants to explore all possibilities. Right?”
He nodded earnestly. “Absolutely.”
St. Michael’s Hospital
“So, did you say ‘whatever’?” Scully asked mischievously as he strode alongside her through the tubular concourse that led to Jared Stackhouse’s private room.
“Actually, I’d think it would seem obvious,” Mulder responded. “A diver or even a crew of divers would have to have come from somewhere, and I assume you’re willing to concede that a Russian nuclear sub or Jacques Cousteau’s bathyscaphe didn’t do this.”
“Now who’s being narrow-minded? Never mind, don’t answer. But why is ‘what’ still a better answer than ‘who’?”
“The sheer animalistic nature of the damage to the boat, for one,” he ticked off, subconsciously uncurling a finger. “A human being would had to have some motivation for sinking it, no matter how psychotic. Even if the motivation had been psychotic, this could hardly have been an impulsive act, a mile out into Lake Michigan. If it had been premeditated, as you suggested earlier, the saboteur would have brought along more sophisticated equipment, since being that far offshore, working on the hull that long, would have required some pretty sophisticated gear.”
“OK…” Scully conceded.
“So our suspect must be able to survive for an extended period underwater, have the brute strength to tear through a boat’s hull with fairly primitive tools, and, given the victims and the impulsive nature of their actions, been motivated by a random impulse, such as defense of its domain.”
“Whoa,” his partner exclaimed, halting and then sprinting to catch up.
“You’re suggesting some kind of undersea Rottweiler, defending its turf? Flipper with FOX attitude? If this thing you’re talking about lives underwater, what threat does a boat with two drunk teenagers aboard pose?”
As the glass tube opened into the hospital’s east wing, Mulder studied the directional signs and again set off. “If this thing is big enough to do the damage it did, it very well might dominate its environment. Unlike the oceans, Lake Michigan is not densely populated with large predatory creatures. It probably lives relatively unmolested, and the sudden presence of an intelligent creature capable of building and controlling a vessel might bring out its survival instincts. And remember – small, lone pleasure craft probably aren’t that common at night, when the thing can come to the surface without attracting attention.”
“But you’re neglecting one thing. This so-called thing appears to have his own Sears Craftsman card. What animal you know can work a jigsaw or a Phillips screwdriver?”
This time, Mulder stopped, allowing a flock of nurses to swarm past the agents. “Actually, Jane Goodall, the primate researcher, discovered chimps fashion primitive implements to perform certain tasks. A few years ago, some scientists at Oxford reported a crow fashioned a straight length of wire into a hook of to retrieve a small bucket of food.”
Scully grinned grimly, taking her partner by the elbow. “There it is, Mr. Mutual of Omaha.”
An attractive woman, suburban chic in her mid-40s by Scully’s guess, glanced up from a wing chair next to Jared Stackhouse’s bed, placing a novel on a nearby table. Congressman Stackhouse had rented St. Michael’s President’s Suite, but the comfortable setting appeared to offer little relief to Gwen Stackhouse, whose eyes were puffy and vein-streaked, or to her son, whose eyes were open but vacant.
“Ma’am, I’m Special Agent Dana Scully, and this is my partner, Fox Mulder,” Scully greeted, glancing at the handsome, athletic boy hooked to an IV and monitors beside Mrs. Stackhouse. Jared’s mother didn’t rise, but she smiled wanly. “I’m sorry to bother you at a time like this, but we’re trying to fill in the gaps in what happened to your son.”
“He hasn’t said a word or scarcely moved since they rescued him,” his mother sighed. “All they can guess is he experienced some type of terrible shock. I’ve tried talking to him, reading to him, but nothing appears to work.”
“Had he given you any indication of his plans Saturday night?” Mulder inquired.
Mrs. Stackhouse pushed a lock of grayish blonde hair from her temple. “Like his father, Jared’s willful. Unlike his father, he’s seldom cognizant of the consequences of his actions. He’d periodically disappear from the private school Dan had put…the school Jared attended, usually to drink and do drugs with classmates or horrible people he’d meet in the city. I had no idea how he hooked up with such people. Sorry, no time for class snobbery, I guess. No, he gave us no indication. Dan’s already launched a major investigation into security at the marina.”
Mulder nodded thoughtfully, and then perked. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”
Scully turned, but Mulder already was out in the corridor.
“Ah…” she began, not knowing what she could gain here in Mulder’ absence. “Let me ask you, Mrs. Stackhouse: Who do you think might’ve sabotaged your boat? Does your husband have any enemies, political or otherwise?”
“He is a congressman,” she offered wryly. “Seriously, this is a mystery to me. I can’t imagine some dark conspiracy shadowing my husband’s boat and coming seemingly out of nowhere to sink it. Two boys on a cruiser hardly sounds like a prime terrorist target. If this had been out on the ocean…”
Mrs. Stackhouse paused, and Scully knelt beside her chair. “Yes, ma’am? If the accident had occurred on the ocean…?”
“No,” she shook her head vigorously. “It’s too absurd.”
Scully stood, and the two floated in silence until Mulder returned. The agent’s arms were full of books and stuffed animals. Her partner’s jaw dropped, and Gwen Stackhouse peered at her as if she were some interesting documentary on PBS.
Mulder deposited the paraphernalia on a rolling hospital table and wheeled the table to Jared’s bedside. She picked up the first toy, a plush pink shark, and held it before the boy’s unblinking eyes. He might have been a side of beef, Scully thought.
“Agent Mulder,” Mrs. Stackhouse murmured, not quite alarmed.
Mulder held up a hand, and picked up a succession of toys, from purple starfish and cerulean blue whales to silvery dolphins and a green sea serpent. Jared’s reaction to each was the same – blind, staring incomprehension.
Mulder selected the final plush animal and displayed it for the teenager. His eyes blinked almost immediately, and he began to swallow. Jared’s fingers twitched, and his legs nudged at the sheets.
Scully glanced at the boy’s monitors, which suddenly were alive with activity.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Stackhouse gasped as she came out of her chair. “Stop it. Immediately. WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”
“Mulder…” Scully warned.
Jared’s jaw began to work, and animal sounds struggled in his throat. His mother lunged at Mulder, seizing the toy animal. She yanked, and part of the plush beast came off in her hand.
Mulder removed what was left from Jared’s view and brushed the agitated boy’s hair back from his forehead until he again became still. Mrs. Stackhouse rushed to him and grasped his motionless fingers. Mulder held the toy out to Scully, who took it silently, staring at it incredulously.
“Nononono…” he breathed, shaking his head at the partially amputated orange octopus.
Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. Seth Kristakos licked the last traces of brown German mustard from his plump fingers as he sucked a shred of ham from his teeth. He was returning to the new Scaphopodia studies from Oxford as Sarah, the Shedd’s intern, rapped on his doorway.
“Dr. Kristakos,” the small blonde called timidly. “There are a couple of people here to see you. From…From the FBI.”
The scientist dropped the journal onto his cluttered desk. “FBI? Ah, yes, please – send them in. And if you could, let Dr. Rao know I’ll be a few minutes late for our meeting.”
Sarah disappeared, and a few seconds later, a pleasant-looking young man and a pretty redhead appeared.
“Wondering when you might show up,” Kristakos smiled, crossing his fingers over his expansive stomach.
Shedd Aquarium was a gift to the City of Chicago from John G. Shedd, a protégé of venerable department store magnate and Field Museum benefactor. The first exhibits were opened in 1930, and as one of the world’s first inland aquariums, it became an immediate showcase both for the scientific community and a public desperately in need of a little hope and wonder. Until 1959, the Shedd relied on its own custom- made railroad car, the Nautillus, for the transport of fish and seawater. A Queensland lungfish known as Granddad, added to the Shedd during Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress fair, survives to this day, and generally is considered the oldest fish in a public aquarium. Year 1933 (MCMXXXIII) was a common year starting on Sunday (link will display full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. … Binomial name Neoceratodus forsteri Krefft, 1870 The Queensland Lungfish, also known as Burnett Salmon and Barramunda, is the sole member of the family Ceratodontidae, and one of the only six lungfish species that remain. … In 1971, Shedd Aquarium added a massive 90,000-gallon exhibit replicating a Caribbean coral reef. In 1991, Shedd opened its Oceanarium, a major addition that featured marine mammals including Pacific white-sided dolphins and belugas. In 2006, the Beluga whale Puiji gave birth to a female calf, later named Bella. In August 2007, Mauyak — another Beluga — gave birth to a male calf.
Seth Kristakos recognized that the Oceanarium was the Shedd’s money attraction – cetaceans sparked affection and natural curiosity in children and adults alike. But Kristakos’ first love would always be invertebratology – a world of alien wonders at the root of all animal life. And Cephalopoda – the molluscan order to which the Giant Pacific and its tentacled kin belonged – was the Grail of invertebratology and, perhaps, the key to understanding Kristakos preferred the darkened tank-lined alcoves and the labs beyond the public’s inspection to the clamor of the Oceanarium or John Graves Shedd (July 20, 1850 – October 22, 1926) was the second president and chairman of the board of Marshall Field and Company. … Marshall Field (1834 – 1906) was founder of Marshall Field and Company, the Chicago based chain of department stores. … Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago The Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, Illinois, USA, sits on Lake Shore Drive next to Lake Michigan, part of a scenic complex called known as the Museum Campus which includes Soldier Field, the football stadium that is the home of the Chicago… is the 353rd day of the year (354th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. … Year 1929 (MCMXXIX) was a common year starting on Tuesday (link will display the full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. … Year 1930 (MCMXXX) was a common year starting on Wednesday (link will display 1930 calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. …
Today, the main hall of the Shedd was crowded with students, retirees, and tourists both rural and foreign as the agents and Kristakos emerged from the aquarium’s staff quarters. “The freshwater octopus has been the stuff of urban legends for decades,” he said, ducking a galloping kindergartner. “A few ‘specimens’ have even turned up here in the Midwest – most likely, marine octopuses released as a hoax, abandoned pets. There’s even a chance some saltwater cephalopods may have wandered into freshwater bodies – all octopuses go through a sort of crazy stage called senescence. They wouldn’t last long – cephalopods can’t breathe in fresh water.”
“A number of cryptozoologists believe it may be possible some species simply have evaded detection,” Mulder countered. “Octopuses are bottom dwellers, generally, aren’t they?”
“Well, I don’t want to sound like an academic elitist, Agent, but every bit of documentation I’ve seen is highly suspect at best,” Kristakos said. “There’s one overriding problem with the entire premise. If a freshwater octopus had evolved, there should be some evidence of intermediate species in estuaries – species that would have bridged marine and freshwater cephalopods.”
“OK, then,” Scully said, extending her hand.
Kristakos held up his hand. “However.”
“Oh, boy,” Scully sighed.
A large crowd was gathered before the giant Pacific’s tank, and Scully and Mulder had to badge a gawky, bearded grad student and his video camera away from the glass.
“My God,” Mulder gasped. Scully’s eyes were wide, and she glanced at Kristakos.
“I’m going to assume that isn’t normal,” Scully murmured.
“It’s been doing that for three days now, steady,” the malacologist said. “By our count, it’s cycled through 14 separate colors, in no particular sequence, including at least three shades I’ve never seen in any species. The color shifts themselves are normal: Unlike humans with their central nervous system, cephalopods appear to have ganglia – nerve clusters – distributed throughout their bodies, as well as muscle-controlled chromatophores, cells that cause the color shifts. Changes in color are believed to be a form of communication, though God knows what they mean.”
Scully nodded as the giant Pacific blushed, then darkened to an inky blue. “So if you don’t know what they mean when they’re just chatting, what the hell does this mean?”
Kristakos studied the tentacled creature. “Well, it’s not precisely a scientific theory, but my guess is it senses something out there, and it either confuses him or scares the living shit out of him.”
“Doctor Kristakos,” Scully laughed uncertainly, “Our suspects usually have two legs.”
Mulder stared at the octopus, his brow furrowing. “One question, Doctor.”
The scientist and Scully turned toward him.
“This is the first time this has happened, correct?” he inquired.
“Absolutely,” Kristakos said.
“Well, then, I have to wonder. If this is a reaction to whatever’s out there, where’s it been all this time?”
Residence of Lawrence Johanssen
The man who answered Mulder’s knock was small, balding, bespectacled, and as unkempt and neglected as the apartment building in which he dwelt. Over his shoulder, Mulder and Scully could see a bank of computer and TV monitors, stacks of thick gray and green volumes, and water-pocked walls papered along a unified theme.
“Yes?” Larry Johanssen inquired without emotion, rancor, or, for that matter, interest.
“Mr. Johanssen, it’s Agent Mulder. I called you a few hours ago.”
The non-descript man blinked, then nodded. “Of course.” He turned and retreated into the gloom. Mulder looked to Scully, shrugged, and followed him.
Scully scanned the vast and erratic array of photos, maps, sketches, and clippings taped and pinned to the drywall of Johanssen’s laboratory/studio. A thousand dark cat-like eyes stared back at her; tens of thousands of mottled, spotted, pebbled tentacles undulated. Here and there were elaborate plates, no doubt excised from out-sized texts, depicting huge, squid-like things attacking and enveloping clippers and galleons.
Octopus expert. Mulder once again had demonstrated his inestimable talent for understatement. “Saw your interview on Discovery last week,” Mulder informed Johanssen.
The man nodded again. “I didn’t care for the melodramatic production values. It cheapened, uh, the science. Please. Sit down.”
“You’re used to that, though, aren’t you?” Mulder asked, settling onto a Goodwill couch.
“Of course, Agent Mulder. As I’m sure you must be.” Johanssen pulled a wheeled chair over and sat, Scully thought, rather primly. “You see, I researched you after you called. I’m honored.”
“No, no, my honor. I’ve read most of your work. Some of the most credible cryptozoological analysis I’ve seen.”
“Thank you,” Johanssen said tonelessly.
“I was particularly impressed by your theories on the existence of freshwater cephalopods,” Mulder said, studying his host’s face. The cryptozoologist paused, then nodded.
“Once you sort out the obvious frauds and mistaken identifications by laymen, there’s still ample documentation of live sightings by credible witnesses. The fact that most of those reports are centered around one riparian system – the Ohio River – would seem to provide additional credence.”
“And you maintain it’s a naturally adapted species.”
“The popular theory is it’s a variant of O. burryi. Look, there are freshwater gastropods and pelecypods—” He turned to Scully shyly. “Pardon me, snails and bivalves – you know, clams, mussels. The sowbug is a terrestrial arthropod – cousin to the lobster or crab. Why does the public find it so incredible that a riparian cephalopod might have evolved in a trapped inland environment?”
“Like Lake Michigan?” Scully posed.
Johanssen stared blankly at her. “Yes, the Great Lakes would be an ideal ecosystem for a species that’s managed to avoid man’s detection. Sure.”
Mulder was silent for a moment. Then he leaned forward. “Mr. Johanssen, I’ll just be honest with you. I’ve read a lot about you on the Web – your whole life history. About your brother. Keith, right?”
Johanssen was motionless, regarding the agent warily. “And how is that relevant to this discussion. If I may ask?”
“Your brother disappeared while you were fishing on the Michigan shore. The sheriff’s department said you returned home in what the police report called a state of shock. There was some early suspicion that foul play was involved, or that something had happened to your brother you felt responsible for. But given your age and your relationship with Keith, the disappearance eventually was ruled a tragic accident.”
“It was.” Johanssen’s voice was nearly inaudible. “If I can ask again, why is any of this relevant?”
Mulder glanced at the carpet, then looked sympathetically into Johanssen’s pale eyes. “I don’t want to dredge up painful memories, but c’mon. Your brother disappears in Lake Michigan in an event that clearly traumatized you, and 10 years later, you’re one of the world’s leading authorities on freshwater octopi. It’s a single- minded pursuit – you were a reportedly brilliant student who chooses to live in poverty in a field that, as you and I know, is hardly revered by the public. You live and breathe ‘monsters.’ You ever read any Herman Melville, Mr. Johanssen.”
“I don’t care for fiction,” Johanssen murmured. “I don’t understand the purpose of this conversation…”
“Mr. Johanssen, Larry. This hasn’t been released to the public or the press yet, but we may have some serious validation of your theories. Deadly serious. A boy was attacked on Lake Michigan a few nights ago, near Chicago. By what appears to be a cephalopod. A big one. So as much as I regret this, I need to ask you. Was this what killed your brother?”
Johanssen’s chair screeched back as he lurched to his feet. “Did he describe it?”
“He’s semi-comatose,” Mulder replied. “We need your help.”
“I could consult my notes, maybe work up some sketches from the reports I’ve received.”
“Look. I understand what you’ve been through,” Mulder said calmly. “You have no idea how I understand. I’ve lived through it – I understand the obsession.”
“You need to leave,” Johanssen announced abruptly, breaking eye contact. “I can’t help you. You just – you need to leave. Please.”
Mulder opened his mouth, but Scully touched his arm. The agent studied the soft- spoken, solitary cryptozoologist. “Of course,” Mulder nodded.
Dr. Peter Hefting studied the rich color of his ouzo before savoring a sip of the potent Greek liquor. His liver-spotted forehead wrinkled in rediscovery. “Dear me,” the old man sighed. “My forays into Greektown are all too infrequent, Seth. When I first came to the States in 1954, this was one of my favorite districts of this marvelous city. Kalamata olives, spanakopita, dolmada, the true miracles of your people, the alphabet noneth.”
Kristakos smiled as he popped a cube of feta cheese into his bearded jaw. “I knew it would draw you out of your cave, Pete.” He turned to Scully and Mulder, ensconced on the other side of the blue-checkered tablecloth. “You’re fortunate that one of the world’s experts in all things Cephalopoda happens to live in the Windy City. Pete was part of some of the original pioneering research into cephalopod intelligence. Are you familiar with the Marshall Plan, agents?”
“The U.S. program to rebuild Europe after World War II,” Mulder supplied.
Kristakos snagged a large purple kalamata. “Among other things, funds from the Marshall Plan were used to finance research at the Naples Zoological Station into the brain of the octopus, in the late 1940s.”
“Nice to know where my pop’s taxes went,” Scully commented dryly.
“This was no frivolous research, Agent,” Hefting chided, waggling a stick-thin index finger. “The world was merely beginning to plumb the potential of computer science. Your U.S. Air Force engineers hoped the complex nervous system and reputed intelligence of the octopus. A group of us — Italians, Americans, and Brits like myself – spent years attempting to unlock the secrets of these amazing creatures.”
“How intelligent are they, Dr. Hefting?” Mulder asked. “I’m familiar with some of the research on primates and dolphins.”
“I daresay cephalopods tower well above the rest of the invertebrate world,” the old scientist declared proudly as a darkly beautiful waitress deposited his spinach pie before him. “Much of our work in Naples is, of course, classified, but the documentation of cephalopod intelligence is quite extensive. In 1992, two of my colleagues, Graziano Fiorito and Pietro Scotto, used food and mild electric shocks to train a group of octopuses to differentiate between a red ball and a white one. A second group of octopuses, in another tank, watched the first group repeatedly grab the red ball. The second group learned even more quickly than the first to seize the red ball. That was the first demonstrated example of invertebrates learning by watching behaviors.”
“How are they with tools?” Scully interjected, sipping his thick black coffee.
Hefting’s head snapped up. “Pardon? Tools?”
“What Dr. Kristakos hasn’t mentioned yet is that this alleged freshwater octopus is suspected of sawing a hole in the bottom of a boat.”
Hefting’s thick brows rose. “The lads in the accident on the lake the other night? Seth, you believe a cephalopod was responsible for that?”
Kristakos shrugged. “I know, I know – the whole notion is absurd.”
“Well, certainly the notion of a freshwater species. But the concept of cephalopod dexterity and strength? Remember the Seattle Aquarium incident, Seth? A 40-pound octopus smashed the quarter-inch Plexiglass lid of its tank. And as far as the ability to manipulate objects, you yourself witnessed your giant Pacific unscrew that jar.”
“But I’d think it would be quite a leap from reasoning out how to open a jar to retrieve a bivalve morsel to sawing methodically through the hull of a boat,” Kristakos protested.
“Convergent evolution,” the white-haired Englishman piped, as if closing a case. “Well, there you go,” Scully murmured through a mouthful of ground lamb and grape leaves.
“Convergent evolution explains how species as diverse as insects, birds, and bats developed the ability to fly,” Mulder explained, absorbed. “It’s the way organisms have adapted along parallel lines to meet the demands of their environment. Or, in the case of the octopus, developed a retinal structure remarkably similar to that of the human eye.”
“My God, Seth, I may be in love for the first time since that Japanese oceanographer, what was his name?” Hefting murmured delightedly. Scully suppressed a smirk. “My friend is correct. Who’s to say we aren’t at some new stage of convergence? Scientists are documenting new examples of subhuman tool use every year, and the octopus would appear to be a prime candidate for that next great evolutionary leap. Apes will never win any Darwinian competition with man in the running, and cetaceans – dolphins – may be mental giants within their own ecosystem, but they hardly exhibit the physical attributes necessary to world domination. Cephalopods are masters of adaptive camouflage, can squeeze into confined spaces that would confound the world’s greatest contortionist, and possess a level of mental prowess no other invertebrate can even dream of.”
“So why now?” Mulder posed. “If this super-cephalopod exists, why is it only now attacking boats and sending the native octopus population into a Spectracolor frenzy?”
Kristakos sat back, his face lined with reluctance. “Do you remember I mentioned something called senescence?”
“Squid schizophrenia,” Scully stated.
“In a manner of speaking. What if our cephalopod is in some kind of advanced state of senescence, Pete? We don’t know how senescence might manifest itself in unknown cephalopod species. What if, for lack of a better term, this creature is crazy? The violence is a result of its senescence?”
“What if it’s a biochemical response?” Mulder suggested. “Lake Michigan’s essentially a closed ecosystem – the Chicago River flows into it, and its surrounded by factories, power plants, and suburban yuppies pumping out tons of lawn chemicals. I’ve seen studies indicating children of mothers who ate Lake Michigan fish contaminated with PCBs may be born with smaller head circumferences, lower IQs, and memory and behavioral problems. What if, somehow, the rising pollution in the lake somehow sparked its senescence?”
Hefting nodded sagely, then turned to Scully. “Officer, I wonder if I could bother you to issue an APB for an emotionally deranged, superintelligent, tool-using freshwater giant octopus?”
“Well, when you put it like that….” Kristakos conceded.
Office of Dr. Wallace Manville
“Uh, yeah, this is Mulder. I forgot to call earlier, but we’re going to have to delve into my maternal conflicts and teen cross-dressing period next week.”
The psychologist smiled, closing the file he had compiled on an ATF agent who, unfortunately and unbeknownst to the young man, would not be returning to duty. “I take it you haven’t located the congressman’s son yet.”
“Yeah, we did, but it looks now like we’re dealing with a homicidal, senescent giant octopus.”
“Classic avoidance. We’ll have to address that in our next session. This business with the octopus – is that on the level?”
“Cephalapolooza. That’s the other reason I called. You still share the occasional latte with Evan Pym and your other old spook buddies?”
Wallace propped his gleaming Culinas on his blotter. Mulder was one of Wallace’s most intriguing patients and psychiatric challenges – no mean claim for a former associate of the infamous Hannibal Lecter. “Not since we consulted on your case. I believe I am finally, thankfully, beneath Evan’s notice.”
“Well, happy day – I believe I can get you back in his Five.”
“I’m tingling. By the way, I will have to bill you for tomorrow. Precisely what are we looking for?”
Residence of Peter Hefting
“Ignorance is the parent of fear . . .”
Hefting hadn’t got out much since his 81st birthday, and he had enjoyed the evening despite . Seth was a convivial colleague, one of the few who could keep up with him in malacological discussions. Agent Mulder was a bright young man, and Hefting had even relished Scully’s refreshing honesty and cynical pragmatism. Mulder was the potential problem, he realized as he threw the locks on his huge oak front door and hung his overcoat in the foyer closet. Scully was too grounded in proletariat reality to take this notion seriously, much less pursue it to any logical conclusion. Mulder was open to all possibilities, and eager to explore the darker recesses. Hefting wondered how such a creature ever was drawn to government work.
The library was warm and comforting, a gas fire blazing in the hearth under the oil painting of the mythological kraken – the likely rationale for most maritime mishaps of a previously “unenlightened” age. Hefting lowered himself into a luxuriant leather wing chair and plucked the portable phone from its cradle next to the chair. The number was a complex one, but Hefting’s memory had not faded with his physical prowess and libido. The scientist did not bother to mentally calculate the time in the European zone he as calling.
“Yes?” the iron voice at the other end of the line crackled after a single ring.
“Hefting here. Our Pandora’s box appears to have been opened. The kraken has been sighted.” Hefting patiently waited out the silence.
“You are sure of this? It’s been so many years, and the environment out there…How could it possibly have survived?”
“Obviously, your cryogenic energy source exceeded our wildest imaginings. Our dirty little secret is out, and it appears to be hungry for blood.”
“It’s killed?” the man asked.
“Once, and we have a witness. He’ll keep his tongue for the moment, but I fear he may recover soon.”
“And what will he tell anyone? A fantastic tale of sea monsters? One more cryptozoological puzzle for the public to devour and ‘legitimate’ scientists to dismiss.”
“His father is a U.S. congressman, and there are two federal agents on the case.”
More silence. “Nonetheless. I assume they’ve sought your expertise.”
“We theorized a bit, threshed out the possibilities, and, I believe, successfully disposed of the notion.”
“And ‘we’ would include…?”
Hefting gripped the handset anxiously. “And why would you be interested in that? I can assure you they couldn’t possibly conceive of the enormity of what we did.”
“Do I hear a note of guilt?”
“Of course,” Hefting snapped. “We dreamed of improving mankind’s lot back then, of rebuilding the world. Instead, we spawned a nightmare. We don’t need to compound our sins with any more murders.”
“Your sins, my friend,” the Teutonic voice murmured. “But do not despair. As usual, I will attempt to contain the problem. We will seal your little pet back into Pandora’s box, eh?”
The line went dead. Hefting began to cradle the phone, then retrieved it and punched in the first five digits of Kristakos’ number. Then he envisioned the headlines, the destruction of his reputation, particularly within the scientific community. He hung up the phone.
Strughold would clean it up. Hefting only hoped he would do a more thorough job than had his predecessors.
“Jesus, they’re like freakin’ monsters out here,” Keith Rankin assured the men as he cut the engine. “See, what you got out here is a lack of predation. They got no natural predators, no sharks or nothing, so they got nothin’ to do but feed on smelt and such and just get bigger and bigger.” Rankin’s left shoulder popped as he stretched his arms to their maximum span. “Like that.” It was all bullshit, at least as far as the 54-year-old “fishing guide” knew. But he knew by the glint in the pair’s piglike eyes that he’d hooked another prime catch.
The weekly $20 he’d laid on Donny at the Navy Pier information shack in exchange for referrals had been a wise investment, and the two Downer’s Grove attorneys had cheerfully handed over a stack of bank-crisp Benjamins in advance.
Keith had never cared much for the folks on the south side of town, but he liked the hip-hop imagery of that term. Benjamin Franklin looking up at the two suckerfish as they paid Keith his fee, that wiseass look people thought was just wisdom on his face. Old Ben and Keith probably would’ve been great buddies, tossing down Wild Turkey and trashing the broads they’d laid despite Ben’s hopelessly receding hairline and Keith’s expanding Bud gut. “We were hoping to get down to the Keys this summer, the wives and us, but after 9-11, you know, the market took a nosedive, and my tech stocks tanked,” the tall one babbled. Rankin nodded sympathetically at the man costumed ludicrously in Eddie Bauer and Land’s End. Rankin’s only major investment had been rub-off tickets from his favorite liquor retailer, and they always tanked, one buck at a time. But these yuppies didn’t just want to bag Moby Dick; they wanted to be Guys and to be pals with Guys.
“That’s a freaking shame,” Rankin agreed. “But everybody’s got one of those freakin’ marlins hangin’ on their wall – it’s like catchin’ goldfish at the Walmart, they practically peddle ‘em like those shot glasses you get at the tourist shops. You get yourself one of these freakin’ Lake Michigan whales, now, that’s a trophy.”
“Whales?” the short, four-eyed one rasped, his face graying from a badly concealed case of seasickness.
Rankin forced a grin. Assholes get a bunch of college letters behind their names, they start shedding brain cells by the millions. “I’m talkin’ figurably, pal. Just take my word for it – you don’t gotta spend a fortune on sunblock to bag a prizewinning fish.”
An hour later, the lawyers were beginning to grouse. The expensive marlin gear they’d hauled along for the expedition (Rankin was a fishing guide, not a freaking outfitter) hadn’t once twitched, and the little guy, who’d been deceived by the overcast morning, was starting to blossom sunburn red amid the blotches of queasy gray.
“Where’s the whales?” the big guy demanded resentfully, turning from his pole.
“Greenpeace must be hiding them.” Rankin knew this was coming, always did, though the Greenpeace part threw him.
“Jesus, you think this is Bassmasters or somethin’, they flop right onto the deck like on cable? You gotta finesse these bastards, wait ‘em out a little. You say you done this before? You wanna head back in or somethin’?”
It worked like magic. Rankin had never taken a psych course or read a book much more profound than Swank or Gallery, but he’d learned one fundamental truth about yuppies: No matter how much they pulled in from deskwork and hyped-up fees, no matter how much they laid down for their duds at Marshall Field’s or Carson-Pirie- Scott, no matter what kind of castle they lived in in one of those gated compounds west of town, they couldn’t stand not to be Guys. They grooved to Motown like those tight-ass ex-“hippies” did in that drippy movie he’d seen once on WGN, but their trigger fingers twitched toward the automatic doorlocks if some black dude crossed the street in front of them. They played polite games of touch football on the weekends, charred free-range chicken on monstrous grills that were probably designed by the freaking Pentagon, and got buzzed during Sunday football on high- priced vanilla-butterscotch-raspberry ale. And a few times a year, they packed up their state-of-the-art rifles and lures and designer tents and set out to make wilderness history. They could verbally beat a teenaged rape victim to a pulp in court, defend a six-figure surgery fee to a patient without batting an eye, but you question their manhood, their Guyhood, and they turned into freaking little sulking girls.
“Hey, just yanking your chain, man,” the tall man laughed. “Great day out, huh?”
The little man urped, his cheeks puffing, but Guys don’t chuck all over the rail, and he bit down on it.
“Yeah, the motor musta put ‘em on guard, but you just wait…” Rankin added, knowing immediately it was overkill. But then, as if on cue, and totally surprising Rankin, the tall man’s line lurched and tightened.
“Holy mother-fucking—” the big man shouted, scrambling forward and seizing the pole.
“Don’t fight him – ease him in, finesse him,” Rankin advised. It was something he’d heard on a cable fishing show. The “guide’s heart was pounding, and he wondered absurdly what was on the other end of the heavy-gauge line.
The line went slack, and all three men sighed in unison. Then it suddenly tightened and pulled. The tall man’s Nikes squeaked on the filthy deck as he tugged at the arcing pole. He “oofed” as his stomach pressed into the rail.
“Reel it in, Neal!” the little man yelped.
“Yeah,” Rankin encouraged with less enthusiasm than wariness. The tall man began to bend over the rail as he worked the taut line. Suddenly, the line slackened again, and he flew back onto the deck, his head thumping hard.
“Neal?” the little man inquired. His inquiry was cut short as a large, grey mottled arm whipped over the rail and seized the suburban fisherman. He screamed, the sound cutting into Rankin’s brain and bringing him back to reality. The guide, functioning on adrenalin, stumbled to the cabin and grabbed the “Genuine Philipine” machete he’d had a cousin buy off the Internet. Slipping past the fallen yuppie, he raised the blade. Whatever the tall man had had on his line now had wrapped tentacles wrapped around the little man’s neck and chest. Afraid he’d slice into the amateur sportsman, Rankin aimed carefully near the railing and used the rusting metal as a cutting surface to drive the machete through thick but surrendering flesh. As the tentacle came free, it flopped onto the deck, twitching with still-active ganglia. The other tentacle slid free of the little man’s throat, and he thudded to the painted wood beside his friend. The boat rocked with a hard impact, and Rankin braced against a second hit. But instead, he saw a huge, streamlined object surge away from his vessel, just under the surface, trailing plumes of dark liquid. Fearful the creature might return and that his passengers might die, leaving him holding the legal and possibly criminal bag, Rankin scrambled to the radio and issued a mayday. The Coast Guard responded, got a location, and instructed him to stay put until they could arrive. He numbly rogered and went back out on deck, uncharacteristically praying the thing wouldn’t come back.
Rankin nearly stepped on the rubbery tentacle he’d severed from the beast, and now, as his panic began to recede, he examined it closely. It still twitched slightly, and his chest tightened as he stared at the wiggling appendages that split off from the tentacle.
“Merciful unholy Mary,” he whispered…
“The fuck was that thing?” Rankin asked Scully and Mulder, as if he expected them to supply an answer. “It had fingers, fucking fingers.”
They were huddled in the Coast Guard’s substation, Rankin slopping coffee on his pants as his hands trembled uncontrollably, the agents and Lt. Prendergast ringed before him.
The tall man, an attorney named Neal Maiers, was being treated for a concussion, while his partner, Bill Unverferth, had been declared dead at the scene, the victim of a cardiac arrest. The man’s throat and chest were scarred and bore circular cuts from the cups that lined the underside of the creature’s tentacles. Mulder summoned Seth Kristakos as soon as the agents received the call, and the scientist was now examining the dismembered tentacle. “I mean,” Rankin continued, brown droplets spreading on his brown ducked thighs, “It was almost like the thing knew what it was doing. Like it distracted me and the big guy by yanking on his line, then grabbed the little one.”
“The likely weaker specimen,” Mulder noted, looking to Scully. His partner’s face remained impassive. Prendergast again looked perplexed. “It devised a strategy to misdirect them and then selected the easiest prey. It has the ability to reason, John. And again, it picked a small craft, with three relatively defenseless, weak humans on board.”
Rankin sucked in his gut despite his shock.
“No offense,” Mulder smiled sheepishly. Scully tugged him gently away from the fishing guide.
“Not in front of the straights,” she growled benignly. “You actually think this thing set up a diversion before it came in for the kill?”
“Convergent evolution, Scully, remember?” he prompted. “You saw the fingers on that tentacle.”
“I don’t know that I’d call them fingers, Mulder,” Scully drawled, glancing nervously aside at Prendergast.
“What else would you call them? Like man, like other vertebrates, this creature has adapted to its environment by developing the ability to grasp and manipulate. And with it the cunning to compete with the only animal in its ecosystem that poses a threat. Look at the victims so far: Two teenagers and three middle-aged men, none exactly Steven Seagal. All attacked under isolated conditions. It doesn’t outmatch itself.”
“Whoa,” Prendergast finally inserted. “What the hell do you think this thing is?”
“Definitely an octopus,” Kristakos boomed from across the room, turning from the tentacle spread out on a now-soiled towel. The malacologist was flushed with excitement as he strode toward the trio. “The shape of the tentacle, the structure and markings of the integument – the, ah, skin. The ‘suckers’ on the anterior side of the tentacle. It’s clearly an octopus species. “But it’s unlike no other species I’ve ever seen – certainly not an American octopus, or say a giant Pacific. Its markings seem suited to a freshwater environment – the muddy grays and browns of a lake or river system rather than the more vibrant, brighter colors of a marine system. Likely camouflage in a freshwater ecosystem.
Extrapolating from the portion of tentacle we have, I’d say this specimen could be as large as 40 to even 60 feet. The largest giant Pacific ever captured measured 31 feet from arm tip to arm tip.”
“Jesus,” Scully breathed. “What about those, uh, those things at the end of the tentacle?”
“The fingers?” Kristakos asked. Mulder looked at the floor as his partner turned abruptly toward him. “I’m afraid these are what we’d call fingers. Each of the four appear to have their own independent musculature and sets of nervous ganglia. My guess is that they would be fully functional.”
“My God,” Scully shook his head. “Where in the hell did this thing come from? Where’s it been hiding out all this time?”
Lt. Prendergast rustled. “There is one thing. Probably has nothing to do with anything.”
“I’m open to any suggestions,” Scully said.
“Well, the night the Stackhouse and Carstairs boys were attacked, there was an inordinate amount of electronic interference in Stackhouse’s transmission. Things started out pretty clean, but – and I know this will sound ridiculous – the static started out about the time we figure his friend was attacked. Then today, our guys reported heavy electronic interference with their communications equipment as they were responding to Mr. Rankin’s distress call.”
Mulder’ brow wrinkled. “What could that mean?”
“Tracking?” Kristakos suddenly whispered. He looked up. “Sometimes, when wildlife agencies want to trace the movement of migratory or reintroduced species, they fit them with electronic tags, leg bands, so they can track them more easily through radio signals. Is that what you’re thinking, Lieutenant?”
“I don’t know what I’m thinking,” the military man shrugged. “But a signal like that could account for the kind of interference my guys experienced.
“Where do you hang a tag on an octopus?” Scully grunted.
“More likely an implant, maybe even a computer chip,” Kristakos mused, darkly. “Of course, that would explain how this species adapted to fresh water without an intermediate habitat. It was bred in a controlled, manmade environment.”
“Or created,” Mulder suggested.
Evan Pym explored the strata of his Shepherd’s Pie, emerging with a forkful of ground sirloin, whipped potatoes, and peas. “I was pleased to hear from you, Wallace. You considering a move back into public service?”
Manville smiled enigmatically, sipping his Glenlivet. “I appreciate the offer, Evan, but private practice is quite rewarding enough. However, you might be able to provide some enlightenment on a Company issue.”
The National Security Agency’s head of covert operations stared, amused, at his agency’s former top profiler. “I don’t know how I can help you, Wallace. You’re no longer part of the club. How is your lovely wife?”
“Belgrade. 1999. The Chinese embassy.”
Pym looked up momentarily, glancing at the surrounding tables, then returned to his casserole. “Your point?”
“My point,” Wallace murmured, “is that I am need of some valuable historical information about events that transpired when you were a child. It is information that will cost you very little relative to the disclosure of my suspicions regarding the events of Belgrade, certain conversations…”
Evan placed his fork by his plate, a lupine glint forming in his eye.
Wallace held up a finger. “And I am sure you recognize that I wouldn’t level suspicions of this magnitude unless I had provided well for my personal security.”
Evan grinned, shaking his head as if at the absurdity of Wallace’s fears. “Fine. What do you need?”
“What do you know of the Marshall Plan? This would have been an OSS/CIA operation, probably a Cold War op, under the cover of research into cephalopod intelligence.”
Evan laughed. “What? Cephalopod intelligence? The Marshall Plan? You working on a term paper?”
Wallace tipped his glass. “I believe your brethren at the CIA may have opened a barn door that should have remained closed.”
Evan searched Wallace’s face for the punchline. “I may be able to help you. I’ll see what I can find.” He drained his Guinness Stout. “You know, what I said about Belgrade, that could be considered under doctor-patient confidentiality.”
“It would have hurt me far worse than you,” Wallace said mournfully.
St. Michael’s Hospital
The first thing Scully and Mulder saw as he badged their way past a collection of Rep. Daniel Stackhouse’s aides into the hospital room was a weeping Gwen Stackhouse, wailing and convulsing as her husband held tightly to her. The congressman spied the agents and, with a single nod, directed them into the hallway. Scully glanced quickly at the still Jared Stackhouse, tubes and IVs now removed.
“He coded about 45 minutes ago,” the doctor, a middle-aged Asian man, informed them in the hallway. They’d been beepered as their red cabbage had hit the table. “We worked on him for almost 20 minutes, but we couldn’t get a rhythm. What’s strange is, he checked out fine, from a cardiac standpoint, when we checked him at 6 p.m.”
Scully frowned. “You plan to do an autopsy?”
The doctor’s brow arched. “An autopsy? I grant you, the circumstances of his arrest are odd, but why should his death be considered suspicious? And besides….” He trailed off, looking at the congressional staffers standing sentry at the hospital room door.
“Just see if you can get the process rolling, please, Doctor? I’ll clear it with the congressman.”
The physician looked uncertain, but nodded and hustled down the hallway.
Stackhouse emerged a few moments later, waving off a solicitous aide. His eyes were tired and old, his thick black hair slightly mussed. “So are you any closer to finding out what killed my son? I’ll put any resources I can behind you on this. I want answers.”
“We may have an idea, sir, but we may need your help in confirming it,” Mulder said cautiously. “What kind of connections do you have in intelligence, in the military?”
The legislator looked baffled. “I sit on the Select Committee on Foreign Intelligence, and I was largely responsible for getting Connie Truman in as Secretary of State. I have some contacts. But I’m confused, Agent. I thought my son was the victim of some kind of accident, some kind of animal attack.”
Scully’s throat tightened; he could empathize with this bereaved father. “Sir, this may sound a little unorthodox, and I wish we didn’t bother you for this. But we need two things: For you to authorize an autopsy of your son…”
“What?” Stackhouse asked hollowly. “All right. I guess it can’t hurt Jared at this point. What else?”
“We need some information on a man who may be implicated in what happened to your son.”
“I’d rather not say right now, ‘til we have some proof,” Scully said, gently. “I’m going to have to ask you to trust us.”
Stackhouse laughed harshly, his eyes empty. “Guess I’ve heard that line before.”
Mulder was printing out another sheaf of notes when the knock at the door sounded. He glanced at the bedside table: The digital readout on the alarm clock flashed 6:43. He sprinted to the door in her stocking feet, grinning embarrassedly at Scully. “Sorry about supper – I got wrapped up in my surfing,” Mulder explained.
“So, how is Ms. Lohan?” Scully teased. “What did you find?”
He sat on the edge of the mattress. “Just a few odd pieces that don’t fit. I got to thinking: Where would anyone get the idea of breeding a ‘super octopus’?” Scully smiled inscrutably. “How about the Naples Zoological Station?”
Mulder’ eyes widened, and a dimple appeared. “And you don’t believe in extrasensory perception? The Naples scientists have been heavily involved in research into octopus intelligence for decades. The octopus’ brain was too complex to apply to computer engineering, as it turned out, but what if the research led somewhere else?
“I just learned a few crucial details from Manville, care of our friends at the NSA. Two of the scientists involved in the Marshall Plan project – Tessio Rappacini and Frederico Giardano – quit the project in about 1952, and I can’t find much on the web about their work from that point through about 1958. Then both died unexpectedly in 1963, Rappacini was murdered supposedly by a robber in Rome, as he was heading home from his university, and Giardano shot himself in front of a dozen witnesses at a conference. The two deaths occurred within a week of each other.” Scully plopped into an armchair. “Something happened that made Giardano kill himself and somebody kill Rappacini? But what?”
“I keyed in ‘1963,’ ‘Lake Michigan ,’ and the ‘St. Lawrence Seaway ,’ which feeds into the Great Lakes from the Atlantic ,” Mulder related. “One of the few repeat hits I got concerned freighter that sank in Lake Michigan after a fire broke out. Twenty crew members died, and the freighter never was salvaged, but there was suspiciously little news coverage.”
“What are you thinking? Whoever raised this thing had it shipped in through the Great Lakes ? Why? And what’s it been doing for 40 years? Nursing a grudge?”
“And feeding its appetites. I searched up the creel surveys – Lake Michigan fish counts based on annual sports catches – for the last 50 years. There was a serious population drop in several fish species in 1963. The kill was blamed on a major corn syrup tanker spill – excess sugar can deprive aquatic species of oxygen. But I think a new predator was introduced into the ecosystem. Populations leveled off after that, with occasional anomalies. I think it lays low, eats discreetly.”
“Discreetly?” Scully squeaked. “Mulder, you’re talking as if this thing is, well, sentient.”
“Sentient like a fox, Scully.”
Scully grabbed her temples. “Arghh!! My brain is numb from too much surfing. I need some weinerschnitzel. Kristakos said we should try Berghoff’s – it’s a German place, just six blocks away.”
“Yah, mein fraulein. Then I think we should drive down to Oak Brook.”
“Where Peter Hefting lives. Hefting was involved in the Naples research, and he’s suspiciously close to the action here. Kristakos gave me some names of Hefting’s colleagues, and you’ll never guess when he moved to Chicago. Try 1964.”
Peter Hefting residence
Oak Brook, Illinois
“Jared Stackhouse is dead,” Scully stated flatly as Hefting opened his front door. Scully and Mulder both wore grim expressions. Hefting grasped the door jamb, and felt the blood flow from his face. “My dear God. They…”
“They did what, Doctor? Killed Stackhouse?”
The old scientist searched for a lie, a story that would make this go away, but he felt weariness wash over him.
“Please do come in,” he sighed.
“Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them . . .”
“I offer no excuses, no rationalizations,” Hefting began quietly as the trio settled in behind their coffee in his richly paneled dining room. “But you must remember that these were uncertain times when mankind’s future appeared to be in the balance. The world was reeling from Hitler’s madness; my own England was digging out of the rubble. And now communism loomed large in Russia, China, North Korea, and we knew that despite old alliances, we faced another threat of global proportions. “I had, as you noted, done some covert spying among the scientific community for British Intelligence, mainly rooting out colleagues with fascist ties. I was a young man then, eager to use my science to keep the world free. That was how I happened into the Naples project – it was a sort of reward for my efforts on behalf of Mother England. It began as I said: An earnest effort to tap the depths of cephalopod intelligence. Then, as we began to uncover just what those fantastic creatures were capable of, some shadowy types started to pop up. M.I.5, your CIA, others of less sterling credentials, and they exploited our dual senses of fear and patriotism in the pursuit of what today would be considered an insane, even evil scheme.
“The war, and particularly the Nazis, had opened whole new avenues of science and, by extension, warfare. We, your people and mine, were looking for any weapon that might keep the Communists at bay, that might keep the developing countries in free hands – or at least hands we could control. Nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, psychological weapons, germ warfare. If you had any idea… But I digress. It was 1951, and we were on the brink of the Cold War, when I and my colleagues, Tesso Rappacini and Frederico Giardano, were asked to enter into a new area of research: Development of a biological weapon of an entirely new type. We had identified several octopus with extraordinary cognitive abilities, and we were asked to determine whether those abilities could be genetically refined and enhanced – in short, whether we could breed a superpredator.”
“A freshwater superpredator,” Mulder amended, his voice filled with controlled emotion. “The rivers were key to commerce in Europe and Asia – fishing, movement of grain and supplies. If you could disrupt those movements, deplete local fish populations used to feed troops, halt economic activity in less developed areas…”
“As I said, it was a time of uncertainty and desperation,” Hefting repeated weakly. “A group of went to work on this biological weapon, using conventional breeding and selection, behavioral training, and some genetic techniques our Nazi ‘friends’ had developed to fine-tune this new species. Though the science of biotechnology was barely in a prenatal state in the ‘50s, we were able to arrest the process of senescence – keep our Frankenstein mollusk in a permanent state of frenzied insanity. It was among the most aggressive specimens I ever witnessed: I watched it decimate a tank of ten Octopus vulgaris – common octopus – within a six-hour period, spotting out the weaknesses and behaviors of each animal in turn. It was horrifying but exhilarating nonetheless.
“However, times were beginning to change by the late ‘50s, and we were informed the project would be terminated, along with our creation. I must say, I was a bit relieved, as I know my colleagues were. We returned to the banality of academic life and routine marine research, and we never heard from our shadowy friends again. That is, until 1963, when the successor to our original government sponsor called Drs. Rappacini and Giardano and myself with a flood of anxious questions about our ‘kraken,’ as we called it. After the folk monster of the sea. It seemed the military had not terminated the kraken after all. Now, they wanted to revive our work. By this time, I was working with Northwestern University and the Shedd Aquarium, and they wanted to transport the kraken to an unidentified lake in Southern Illinois where I could evaluate its potential use in certain regions of Southeast Asia. I was adamant that I wanted nothing further to do with their abominable scheme, but they threatened to expose my earlier work to the scientific community – increasingly, a major stronghold of liberal, humanitarian belief. I’d be the Dr. Mengele of zoology. I reluctantly agreed to cooperate. “Of course, then, in typical ‘intelligence’ fashion, they lost the beast when the cargo ship secretly carrying it through the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes went down. I warned them that this could be the makings of one of the worst ecological disasters ever to strike North America, but they assured me the kraken had been cryogenically preserved – frozen – for the journey across the ocean. Another application of advanced science the military has squelched. They assured me the creature could not survive prolonged freezing on the floor of Lake Michigan, and we all crossed our fingers and said a prayer. Until two days ago. The species must be as hardy as it is relentless.”
“So what do we do?” Scully demanded. “How do we stop this thing?”
“I have no idea,” Hefting admitted, his voice faint with genuine regret. “We never anticipated the need.”
“Damn you,” Mulder whispered harshly.
“I suspect that won’t be necessary, Agent,” the old man murmured.
“The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s the only surviving lighthouse in Chicago and one of only two remaining examples in Illinois.”
The Japanese couple at Owen Traeger’s elbow cooed appreciatively as they craned toward the white conical tower and the lighthouse’s quaint red-tiled roof. Normally, The Chicago Duck Architectural Tour guide’s banter snapped and crackled – he was, after all, a drama major – but Shelly’d missed her period and was growing shrill and vaguely menacing. Her dad was a cop in Joliet, and if he didn’t handle this right, he might be in for a true Rodney King smackdown.
“All right, folks, we’re heading in,” Owen called, forcing congeniality into his voice. “The Chicago Harbor Lock serves as a gateway to one of the nation’s busiest commercial and recreational waterways. Up ahead, you see the Chicago Harbor Lock, through which more than 50,000 vessels, 900,000 passengers, and 200,000 tons of cargo pass annually. The lock chamber, which essentially raises boats for entry into the Chicago River, is 600 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 22.4 feet deep. It’ll take a few minutes for the lockmaster to lock us through, so let me tell you a little bit of the history of Navy Pier…”
Owen steadied himself against the aft rail of the speedboat as it listed slightly to the right. A few of the older passengers – downstaters visiting the city for the day – gasped and held onto their caps and red hats. A group of teen girls – western ‘burbs, he ventured — giggled apprehensively. “Guess a few of you went a little heavy on lunch,” Owen quipped. Little snarky, man, better chill, his internal stage director cautioned. “Anyway, at one point, the pier even had its own streetcar, and it was a favorite spot for young lovers.”
Young lovers, shit. As the boat moved into the lock, Owen felt another jolt, and the mike dropped from his hand with a shriek of feedback. The Japanese couple grabbed the seat back for stability, and a large old woman slipped to the deck as her Jack Sprat husband fumbled for her arm. The ‘burb brats no longer were giggling.
The boat lifted slightly from the water, then listed to the right. One of the mall chicks leaned perilously over the rail. Owen’s warning shout was submerged in her screams. Her companions joined her at the rail, one throwing an arm around her waist, the other – the Alpha female, no doubt – unholstering her iPhone. Owen watched mutely, feet braced, as the girl aimed at the lock channel below. The Corps of Engineers-contracted Omni Corp. crew scrambled along the lock walls, radios plastered to their faces.
Suddenly, the lock crew froze as one, staring into the water. As the boat splashed back into the water, a dozen pairs of eyes darted toward the river, toward the towers of the Loop. Owen struggled to comprehend why the men suddenly sprinted toward the far lock gate, then staggered back against the rail as screams erupted from his passengers.
“Fucking…” he whispered as he watched something long and leathery and slick grasped the top of the gate. A second tentacle – easily the diameter of a telephone pole — joined the first, and a large, seemingly amorphous shape rose from the water. Before Owen could give it definition, the thing…well, slingshot…over the gate. “Gojiro,” he heard the Japanese husband mutter.
First District – Central
Chicago Police Department
“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.”
“Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” First District Commander Michael Joyce exploded, slapping the conference room table for punctuation. The TV he’d had rolled in rattled on its cart, though WGN noon anchor Micah Materre appeared unruffled.
“Granted, the cinematography and the composition lack flair,” Mulder conceded.
Joyce’s Ditka-esque bulk wheeled on the agent. “You find this fucking amusing?”
“Shaddap, ladies,” the first deputy superintendent snapped, cranking the volume.
“Here it is.”
“Janine Bernel of Naperville was one of the passengers on the river tour, visiting
Navy Pier with two of her friends,” Materre continued. “She took this video seconds after the boat and, reportedly, the creature, entered the lock.”
The focus was off, and “the creature” outpaced Janine’s reflexes. But it’s tentacle- powered locomotion and the huge alien eye were unmistakable. As the shape disappeared along the boat’s hull, Janine ran to the bow. She resumed shooting just as the cephalopod disappeared over the gate.
“Little witch e-mailed it to WGN, probably before she got back to the Pier,” the commander growled. “Everybody’s a goddamned paparazzi these days.”
“Hey,” the deputy superintendent warned, leveling the remote at his underling. “Neither the Coast Guard nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees harbor lock operations, could offer any comment on the occurrence. But in an interview with WGN this morning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Eric Moorheim had this to say…”
“Oh, shit,” Joyce sighed.
“While cephalopods – the group that includes octopi, squid, cuttlefish – are known as exclusively saltwater species, it’s not necessarily outside the realm of possibility that some species of Atlantic Octopus could have entered the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway,” Moorheim suggested in what clearly was a telephone feed. “Mollusks are highly adaptable creatures, and there’s so much we don’t know…”
“Guy thinks he’s on the Discovery Channel,” the deputy superintendent muttered, silencing the set. He turned to Lt. Prendergast. “We’ve got the Marine Unit patrolling the Main Stem and the I and M Canal – I assume we want to keep this thing from getting into the Des Plaines or the Illinois.”
“The attack on the Stackhouse boy and those boaters yesterday suggest this animal is dangerous and unpredictable,” Scully interjected before her partner could. “Not to mention highly intelligent,” Mulder added. Scully pursed her lips as the cops exchanged curious glances. “Take that little Free Willy move at the lock. Octopuses can escape even from supposedly secure tanks – they have advanced problem- solving skills, mobility, and lack of rigid structure. We believe the octopus may be in an advanced stage of senescence.”
“What?” the commander exhaled.
“It’s gone all Britney Lohan on us. The very fact that it’s ventured into a closed, populated waterway for the first time in decades tells me you’ve got a public safety threat on your hands.”
“Whoa, whoa,” the deputy superintendent said. “Decades? What are you not telling us about this thing?”
“What you need to know,” Mulder responded, “is that you have to keep this ‘thing’ contained and evacuate the riverfront. Otherwise, it may be revenge of the calamari.”
The commander sputtered, appealing to his boss. “It’s the height of tourist season. You have any idea what’s involved in closing down every riverside bistro and corralling every yuppie jogger and homeless guy? ”
Mulder snapped his fingers. “I got it. Murray Hamilton.”
“I don’t have to take any smartass shit from you just because you’re federal,” Joyce snarled.
“Zip it up, girls,” the deputy superintendent ordered. “Agent – no, you, ma’am. This all on the level?”
Scully straightened. “I visited Jared Stackhouse in the hospital, and I saw what that…that creature…can do to a boat. I believe Agent Mulder’s assessment of the situation is dead-on.”
The cop nodded, cracked a knuckle, and turned to Commander Joyce. “I’ll break out Strategic Deployment. Lieutenant, can we count on you?”
“At your disposal,” Prendergast murmured.
“And you,” the deputy superintendent concluded, turning to Mulder. “You got any pull with Homeland Security? Seems like it’s kind of slow on the terrorism front, and I’m thinking we can use a few extra gung ho guys.”
“I’m not sure firepower’s the answer,” Mulder advised. “This thing’s smart and resourceful. Bring in the troops, and it may bolt. You want to talk to CNN when this thing starts plucking senior citizens off the gambling boats?”
“So what’s your answer?”
Mulder smiled. “How are you guys at staking goats?”
Wells Street Bridge
“And you assume that because of my Greek heritage, I’m some sort of expert at goat-staking?” Seth Kristakos asked drily, sipping his Starbucks expresso. When Mulder called, he’d tried to contain his excitement.
Mulder watched a pair of CPD officers rousting a trio of skateboarders from the landing below. The streets along the nearby Merchandise Mart were crowded with rubber-neckers and tourists, but the riverfront restaurant patios were deserted.
“How do you sneak up on an octopus?” he asked the portly invertebratologist.
“With alacrity, I’m afraid. Octopi have keen eyesight, though they can’t perceive colors. Their suction cups are equipped with chemoreceptors so they can ‘taste’ what it’s touching. They don’t possess stereognosis – they can’t form a mental image of the overall shape of an object it’s handling. It can detect local texture variations, but can’t integrate the information into a larger picture.”
“That clears things up,” Mulder nodded. “God knows how Hefting and his buddies might have tampered with its sensory impulses. Question is, are we smarter than a cephalopod? Shut up, Scully. How about turn-ons and turn-offs? What’s it eat and what eats it?”
Kristakos stared out over the river. “I have a lovely PBS video of an octopus attacking and consuming a shark.”
“Ah. So what we need are amazing colossal freshwater Beluga whales with top- mounted lasers.” Mulder scrambled as his cell phone warbled. “Yeah, Mulder…Hold up…He what? Oh, shit, describe him…Jesus, we’ll be right down. Don’t approach him. You hear me? Don’t attempt to apprehend.”
Mulder pocketed his phone. “A patrolman was just assaulted down near the Michigan Avenue Bridge. He was trying to evacuate a man who was carrying some kind of large steel case, and the man swung the case on him. The last the officer saw, the man was headed toward the bridge footing.”
“I think Larry Johannsen’s finally found his white whale.”
Michigan Ave. Bridge
“By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”
He’d caught the WGN noon report only through an accident of fate.
The Pakistani clerk at the mini-mart down the block was an avid Cubs fan, and the Braves were visiting the Friendly Confines that afternoon. Larry stood mesmerized, his heart in his throat, as Janine Bernel’s raw video played out over the Camels and incense sticks. He threw a few bills on the formica, ignoring his ham-and-cheese sandwich, and sprinted back to his building.
Everything he needed was in the basement storage locker. Larry had been waiting for this moment for decades, and he kicked into automatic. He made the trip down I- 94 in a virtual trance, and navigated the Loop as if behind the wheel of Roy Johanssen’s old speedboat. The police had been a problem – the riverfront was swarming with them. But he had developed stealthy instincts through years of stalking the unknown and skirting authority and the media. Even with a full pack, he’d managed to penetrate the thin blue line.
It was the FBI agent, Mulder. “Larry,” the agent repeated, calmly, approaching along the narrow riverbank walkway. “This is not the way.”
Lawrence Johanssen rose warily from the bulky case he’d smuggled to the river, his face impassive. “It’s the only way. You know that. I read about you — you understand what we’re up against. You understand what I– You understand.”
The cryptozoologist returned to his work, opening the steel case and removing a tightly packed parcel. With a single pull, the bundle exploded into a small inflatable, military-style raft.
“I can’t let you do this,” Mulder murmured, moving forward.
Larry glanced up in disbelief, then tugged his raft toward the water. “Its instincts are thousands of times sharper than yours or mine. They can send an army out there, and it’ll never show itself. If it makes its way into the Illinois, hundreds could die, thousands. This is a solo operation. You know that.”
“Larry, I’m not going to let you kill yourself.”
Larry paused, then displayed what appeared to be a toy gun with a huge bore.
“Phosphorous flares — I made them myself. I intend to take that thing to Hell with me. You’ve seen what it can do. You know what has to be done.”
Mulder nodded. “I do.”
And he shot Larry in the leg.
The compact documentarian cried out and fell to one knee. His pained eyes turned to Mulder, then back to his surprising dry pants leg.
“Rubber bullet, courtesy of the Chicago P.D.,” the agent informed him. “But it takes you out of the game.”
“Oh, fuck,” Larry choked, struggling to stand. He collapsed on the concrete embankment.
“We’ll find a way, Larry,” Mulder pledged.
“Mr. Johanssen,” Kristakos called as he and Scully materialized on the walkway. A pair of officers were on their heels. “I’ve read your research with great interest and respect.”
“Seth Kristakos?” For a second, Larry’s pain and fury vanished. “Tell him, tell Mulder. Tell him what we’re dealing with.”
Kristakos knelt, his features sympathetic. He placed a meaty palm on Larry’s shoulder. “I’m afraid I have to agree with Agent Mulder. This is suicide, and the chances of you even firing off a shot, much less hitting the mark, are remote at best.”
“Guys,” Mulder called to the cops. “Could you get Mr. Johanssen to a hospital, check out his leg? Place him under protective custody, OK?”
The larger of the two cops glanced questioningly at his younger partner, who shrugged.
“Yeah, sure,” the brawny officer muttered, pulling Larry gently to his feet.
“This is a mistake,” Larry called over his shoulder. “It’s on your head, Mulder. It’s on your head!”
Scully touched her pensive partner’s arm as he watched Johanssen limp away between the two officers. “Kristakos was right. It would’ve been suicide. We’ll come up with something.”
Mulder smiled sourly. “Like what? Metro Animal Control? He may be deluded and obsessive, Scully, but he probably knows more about what we’re up against than anybody in the world.”
“We’ve got Kristakos.” Scully frowned. “Where’d he go?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, God, Mulder. Where’s the raft?”
Mulder spun. The spot where Johanssen had inflated his boat was empty. He dashed to the river’s edge, then froze.
“Forget the raft,” he said, hollowly. “Where’s the gun?”
“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
This was madness. Kristakos recognized this, even as he paddled toward the center of the channel. The poor little man nonetheless was correct — this was a solo job. But a job for an objective expert, for a man who’d spent his life in the company of cephalopods. Kristakos cursed Peter for his callous stupidity in helping loose such an abomination on the planet. Beyond any potential human toll, this crazed, voracious, cunning creature could decimate ecosystems along the Illinois and Mississippi, all the way to the Gulf.
“Doctor Kristakos!” The malacologist navigated further upriver as Mulder called from the embankment. The agent’s voice doppled away as the Dearborn Bridge loomed. The raft slowed to a stop, wobbling slightly under Kristakos’ girth. The scientist stowed his paddle and settled in, scanning the city around him, the robust, lively city he’d come to love.
He caressed the flare gun he’d appropriated with the raft. Of course, it had to die — it was never meant to exist, and that which emerged rather than evolved had no place in the world. Kristakos nonetheless felt a profound sense of impending loss, of lost opportunity.
The raft lurched as Mulder’s disembodied voice crackled. “Seth. Come on.”
Kristakos tugged the radio from his pocket, and thumbed the key. “I’m sorry, Fox. It was impulsive, I admit.”
“Come in, Seth. There has to be a better approach than this. As you told Larry.”
“Johanssen lacked objectivity. His hatred would have blinded him. I have no personal ax to grind.” Kristakos smiled. “Besides, I notice I’m strangely alone out here. That was your doing?”
Mulder was silent for a moment. “I can’t hold them off too much longer — the district commander’s ready to call out the Green Berets.”
“Thank you, Fox.” Kristakos said before popping the battery compartment and dropping the radio into the murky water. The creature might shy away if it sensed technology on board.
As he drifted, the biologist watched the city transition above. The nine-to-fivers escaped from their cubicles and counters, fleeing to the parking garages for the harrowing crush of Lake Shore Drive. The out-of-towners and Condo People soon commandeered the streets and restaurants, only vaguely cognizant of the casually paramilitary presence along the riverfront.
Kristakos’ thick fingers were beginning to cramp about the butt of the flare gun, but he could not afford to let his guard down. Octopi – at least naturally produced octopi — had three hearts — one that pumps blue blood throughout their vascular system, and two branchial hearts which pump blood to the gills for oxygenation. Given that its cardiac system was located at the back of the skull and he likely would have only one shot, the malacologist had opted for the brain. Ideally, one shot under or into the eye would immediately take out any neurological coordination, and the phosphorous would quickly eat through remaining brain tissues. The shock might even give him the time to reload – Johanssen had optimistically brought along five flares.
The Chicago River was two to 21 feet in depth, and Kristakos was hopeful enough of the creature might be found by divers to analyze for posterity. Giant octopi or squid in a fresh state were a precious find for marine biologists, and this “enhanced” specimen surely offered an encyclopedia of new knowledge on Cephalopoda. Kristakos’ laugh echoed in the riparian valley between the skyscrapers. He sounded like one of those woefully naïve scientists in those florid Cold War-era horror films. We must study this alien/giant bug/lizard man for posterity, even if it finishes off a few dozen souls before we can coax it into the collection jar. Unlike many of his colleagues, Kristakos actually relished a good bug-eyed monster. One of his favorite pulpy confections had been the John Carpenter remake of The Thing, particularly Wilford Brimley’s boozy, unshaven scientist. What was the classic line? I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off. It always elicited an uncomfortable, relieved chuckle. But wait, was that Brimley? No. It was the other one, what was his name, the burly character actor. Bonnie Franklin’s boyfriend in that old Norman Lear sitcom. Masur. That was it. Richard Mas—
The long-leathery arm erupted from the waters behind Kristakos’ head, tickling his bearded cheek as it sought purchase around his throat. He instinctively hauled himself up and around, nearly capsizing the raft, and came eye to inhuman eye with the beast. His normally dispassionate nature momentarily dissolved – he could see in this huge orb something that was merely rudimentary and raw in the Shedd’s specimens.
Intelligence. At a human level. At least a human level. We defined our intelligence in terms of fashioning elaborate gadgets and writing clever prose and surviving in far- flung locales before the TV cameras. But this intelligence, it reflected the pure, facile intellect necessary to rule its world. To gain dominion over the species. A second arm emerged, seizing Kristakos’ left forearm. Even in the dusk of early evening, he observed that it was an Octopus vulgaris – the Common Octopus. Made sense: It’s natural range extended from Southern England into the Mediterranean, and it would have been a natural choice for the Italian malacologists. Further, its intelligence was well-documented: It could unscrew a jar, and was known to raid lobster traps.
However, while O. vulgaris average not too much beyond a meter in length with its arms fully extended, this one could be a meal for a small Aegean village. The third arm that slithered onto the raft was roughly the diameter of a WWE wrestler’s bicep. All three arms terminated in small, apparently agile tendrils O. vulgaris could only have dreamed of, if it indeed dreamed. Fingers was indeed an apt description. As the third arm suddenly tightened about Kristakos’ calf, he awoke from his study of the mollusk. He remembered the gun in his now-white knuckles, and brought it around. The octopus’ catlike pupil contracted as a fourth arm whipped up.
Adrenalin coursed through Kristakos’ body, and he rammed the gunbarrel against its sac-like skull, just below the eye. Then he heard it. A low thumping, like the rhythm of some robotic heart.
A helicopter. Kristakos’ stomach sank. The morons. They had panicked and dispatched in a police or Coast Guard squad. Or maybe it was a news chopper, slavering over the prospect of a 10 o’clock ratings blitz. Whatever the source of the intrusion, it would drive the beast back into the shadows and, potentially, downriver. It was now or never. Kristakos’ calloused thumb tightened about the trigger.
And then, all hell broke loose.
“What the–?” Mulder breathed. He and Scully had been watching helplessly as Kristakos struggled with the great mollusk, and, initially, he figured the CPD was finally throwing a flag on the play. The helicopter’s rotors had grown louder as it came in low and fast and without lights. It was nearly silent, some sleek, black military model Mulder could not immediately identify.
Passing the Dearborn Bridge, the chopper swept back around, and the agents watched in horror as a volley of shots shattered the night and stitched through the water. The raft exploded and the octopus’ huge head exploded. Mulder pulled his weapon as he strained to spot Kristakos through the turbulence. The chopper continued to spray destruction into the spot where the cephalopod had been, then, as abruptly, stopped. Mulder took aim and fired repeatedly at the craft as it wheeled about and sailed low and stealthily toward the harbor. He heard a hail of gunfire as the CPD attempted in vain to bring the helicopter down. Mulder slumped, his gun hanging limply from his fingers, as the chopper disappeared over Lake Michigan. Scully rushed to the rail, peering into the near darkness below.
“And that’s that,” she heard Mulder mutter bitterly behind her.
The Loop Chophouse
There were three things Chicagoans loved: The hapless Cubs, a politic free-for-all, and a good mystery. Where Mikey Ianucci had expected an empty house with the heavy law enforcement presence outside, the air in his riverfront restaurant tonight was charged with intrigue and excitement, with murmured speculation and animated debate. CNN, FOX, MSNBC had headlined the day’s bizarre events, culminating with the commando attack on the lunatic who’d tried to take on a monster single-handed. “Make sure they go heavy with the alderman’s creamed spinach,” he instructed his nephew. “And, you know what, pick out a nice Pinot Noir for the table, our compliments. No strike that – he’s got an indictment coming down next week. Go! Go!”
Mikey scanned the packed dining room with a grin, then frowned as a hush fell over the crowd. The hush had rippled from the foyer, and he moved swiftly past tables of craning, gawking patrons. Then he spotted the man near the hostess’ station – broad, bearded, bleeding, and drenched. The stranger’s hair was spiked, and his face was gray with exhaustion.
“I beg your pardon,” Seth Kristakos murmured, rubbing his thick, pruned fingers.
“Might I use your phone? Seem to have lost mine. And, oh, yes. Would you have any ouzo in stock?”
Chicago Hope Memorial Hospital
Two days later
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
It was the FBI agent. Lawrence Johanssen’s eyes remained glued to the set bolted to the ceiling in the corner of his room. He had no idea, nor did he care, what he was watching.
“You’ll be released in the morning,” Mulder said. “I talked to the locals — there won’t be any charges. We just have a few blanks to fill in.” Larry’d heard the nurses in the hall, had heard the phrase “suicide watch.” No doubt Mulder’s orders, to discredit him, to put his sanity in question. “The leg should be fine in a few days. No fracture, though you might stay off it for a few days.”
Larry stared at the set, where an attractive woman gushed over a sandwich press. Mulder stepped tentatively into the room. “Larry, what I did, it had to be done. You understand that?”
The audience cooed as the woman extracted a fruit tart from the panini maker.
“Larry. Mr. Johanssen.” Mulder’s voice strengthened as he stepped into the room.
Larry turned slowly from the TV, his face unreadable.
“It’s gone, Larry. Sent to a watery hell. It’s over.” The agent looked down at the small man, who now seemed smaller. “Get rid of it, Larry. Trust me. I’ve lived there – I looked into that darkness so long, I almost never saw daylight again. I know the grief, the guilt, the second-guessing. I know the anger, Larry; I know the feeling of helplessness. I know that moment when the darkness engulfs you, when no light penetrates. I was lucky – I had somebody to guide me back. Get rid of it, Larry. I mean it — it’s time.”
The octopus hunter turned back to the informercial. Mulder studied him for a moment, then turned for the light of the corridor.
“You think it’s over.” Larry’s voice was dead. “You and your friends think you’ve shoved the demon back into the box, herded the sheep back into their complacent fold. Well, you’ll have to silence me, because I won’t be silent. The world will find out about your lies. You’ll have to kill me to shut me up.”
Mulder began to turn, tried to come up with some universal truth that might help him see this as a beginning rather than the end.
“You hear me?” Larry snapped.
Mulder stepped back into the white hospital light, where Scully waited.
“You hear me?!” Larry screamed.
“OK, go ahead,” Mulder sighed as they headed toward the elevator bank.
“Tell me you told me so. That this was an utter exercise in futility.”
Scully pressed the Down button. “Futility? I don’t know. Compassion? Empathy?
Humanity? Maybe. I’ve never known you to engage in futility.”
Mulder glanced back toward the flickering light of Johanssen’s room, then stepped into the elevator with his partner. “It’s like an unpaid debt he’ll never in the world be able to pay off. He doesn’t understand. There is no debt. It just, well, IS.”
Scully punched the lobby button and turned with an appraising smile. “Well, just look who’s evolving. I don’t have to tell you this, Mulder, but you can’t save everyone. Well, maybe me, every once in a while.”
Mulder grinned as the car halted. “Is it my turn?”
“Lost count. C’mon, Mulder; I feel like a mojito.”
“You buy,” Mulder said. “I’ll catch it next time.”
Office of Dr. Wallace Manville
“This is auspicious,” Dr. Wallace Manville murmured, setting aside the monograph on sibling alienation and serial homicide he was preparing for the Journal of Psychiatry.
“Twice in three days.”
Evan Pym chuckled dryly. “Like to finish business, even if it’s not mine. I hear Agent Mulder’s pest problem has disappeared.”
“With curious expediency and prejudice, and without his direct involvement. In fact, our zealous Samaritans have yet to acknowledge their deed.”
“Is there a question in all that underbrush?” the NSA spymaster asked. “Not our style – little too Rambo, little too much exposure. My guess, somebody covered their tracks with a vengeance. Strange, though.”
“What I thought,” Manville agreed. “Dr. Hefting already had confessed the entire plot to Mulder. By the way, the unfortunate gentleman passed on last night, apparent heart failure.”
“Convenient. Why shoot up the Chicago River or murder a nonagenarian who’d already opened the barn door?”
“Indeed. Fantastic tale – a molluscan bioweapon bred to bring down the Red Menace. Like something out of Clive Cussler, doesn’t it?”
“They were very imaginative back in the day.”
Wallace hmmed. “Ever hear of the ‘The Superfluous Finger’? Short story by Jacques Futrelle, a mystery writer who, as it would happen, perished on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. The plot is, well, superfluous, but I have been thinking of superfluous digits.”
“Lost me, Wallace.”
“The salient post-mortem question in this case would seem to be, why put fingers on an octopus? On a living weapon designed purely for fear and mayhem?” “It’s a puzzle.” Pym feigned boredom.
“Don’t feign boredom, Evan – it’s disingenuous,” Manville chided. “Let us consider the octopus. The most intelligent of all invertebrate species, able to enter and escape small spaces and astonishingly adept at using tools. I’ve read of cases where one of these amazing beasts was able to open a sealed jar and extract an oyster. The octopus reportedly can distinguish shapes and retain memory.
“Practically human, you might say, with the exception of opposable thumbs and an appreciation of crème brulee. But someone went to the considerable trouble of correcting one of those deficiencies. Why? Our friend the octopus certainly is not lacking in dexterity. We domestic dogs, horses, other species to do that which Man is unable to do? To what use would you put our friend the modified mollusk?”
Pym was silent for a moment. “You tell me.”
“I suppose I’d employ it in an inhospitable, highly-pressurized environment, where it would be expected to use its intelligence, cognitive abilities, and newly acquired manual dexterity to explore and, I assume, recover.”
“Salvage squid,” Pym mused.
“Wrong cephalopod. Now, if my hypothesis is accurate, the object our beast was created to explore and salvage must be of considerable import, if Dr. Hefting concocted such a fantastic and incriminating fiction for Agents Mulder and Scully. Any idea what lies beneath the surface, Evan?”
The spy laughed harshly. “Gotta get to parent-teacher night at Mason’s school. Regards to your lovely bride.”
“And to yours,” Wallace Manville provided, pondering.
For not the first time, Guillermo Ortiz cursed the younger generation in his native Spanish, scraping at the dayglo green gum one of the school tour groups had left on the bottom riser above the marine mammal show tank.
Despite his current irritation, he liked this part of the aquarium. It was like some tranquil clearing by some bay Guillermo otherwise could only have imagined. Some times, when he returned to his crowded, two-room apartment in Cicero, it was a backdrop for his dreams – dreams of exotic creatures and even more exotic senoras.
Often, his wife, Isabelle, was the recipient of his fervent nocturnal imagination.
The illusion of this peaceful cove was completed by the tall glass wall that separated the killer whale tank from the great Lake Michigan. Had he not suffered a morbid fear of the water, Guillermo sometimes fantasized about diving down among the dolphins and whales and peering out into the murky Great Lake, see what occasionally ventured to shore to gape at the huge finned creatures within the aquarium. He glanced down toward the huge glass partition, and for a moment, Guillermo froze, locked in place. The custodian peered down again, and this time laughed, his self-directed ridicule bouncing off the “rocks” and trees.
Sometimes, Isabelle had warned, imagination can be a dangerous thing. While he normally shrugged off her jibes, drowning them out with Tecate, Guillermo knew this time there was some truth in her words. The last of the gum scraped from the risers, he creaked to his feet, ready to tackle the rain forest pavilion. He’d have to share his little fantasy with Luis the security guard, how the light and the reflections had made him imagine seeing a huge eye looking straight at him from below the lake’s surface…
“. . . however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”