AMBASSADOR TO THE SEA

"BP continues to deny responsibility for the major oil spill off the Pacific coast last week - the second such incident this year. Statistics show that efforts by humanitarian groups have exerted a minimum impact due to the severity and the compounding of existing damage. On the show with me this evening I have Jeff Lennon, accomplished ecologist and marine biologist, to talk about the implications of these recent manmade disasters."

"Hey, Veronica. It's good to be on the show."

"It's an honor to have you! First off, can you give us your take on the specific and most major impacts that are occurring?"

"Sure. I think there are two big points to keep in mind here. The first is that this carelessness simply isn't sustainable. If we keep making such terrible mistakes there will be serious and, really, irreversible disruption of global ecologies. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the government's approach to stop more of these accidents is wholly mistaken. Stricter regulations never stopped anyone from cutting corners. We need to treat the root cause, which is our unsettling greed for oil, especially offshore oil. If we continue to demand so much, companies will only continue to have monetary incentive to keep the drilling as fast and as economical as they possibly can."

"Absolutely, Jeff. Now, being a marine biologist, would you describe for us the harm you see, as a scientist, being done to the life in our oceans?"

"Wow, that's a really difficult question to answer. There's just so much damage, it's truly inexpressible. I don't know how to explain how it makes me feel when I see thousands of washed-up corpses of fish - and other marine life - in a single ten-minute walk on the beach. I see such amounts of harm, that's what I see."

"Mel, I will never understand what you see in these savages." Grath clung to his perch with one arm and cozied Mel with the rest. Waves of bright color pulsed over his body in a cascade of warmth.

His mate and the love of his life, Mel, was most accurately described as a pacifist. How he ever came to love her he couldn't say; he was the high commander of the military in his regional division. It was a prestigious title, and carried an enormous amount of responsibility. Most of it was in deciding who would die, and how, and when.

Mel said, "They might be primitive, but they're still beautiful and they're still worthwhile."

"Their entire society revolves around a stupid sentiment for the past! They live too long."

"And ours revolves around a constant need for change. Is consistency really so inferior?"

Grath shut his eyes tightly. "Yes, Mel! They don't learn."

The surface of the translucent habitation dome buckled and swayed with a soothing gentleness and rhythm to the invisible currents of the ocean floor. The percussion was like music to Mel, it was most of why she'd insisted on living so close to a stream - something that nearly anyone else would have disregarded as stupid, unsafe, and impractical. But the risk of turbulence was more than tolerable in exchange for the beauty.

She protested, "Well, even if they don't, it's still no reason to commit genocide."

"They're so destructive! So uncomprehending of the damage they do!"

"You could educate them, and maybe they'd listen."

"They don't listen to their own kind, when a rare one pops up and says something. You think they'd listen to us?"

"So you admit there are good ones?"

"Sure, but they're rare! Is preserving the few worth allowing the rest to continue on their rampage?"

Mel's skin pulsed and she pushed away from Grath. "When that counsel of yours meets, I hope you all don't agree to do something foolish."

"You know, Anna, I swear this cephalopod is smarter than we give it credit for." Jeff tapped a pencil against his clean-shaven chin and glanced back and forth between a pad of paper and a tank.

"You always say that when I've got an octopus in. Now why don't you go pay attention to your own work?"

Jeff straightened. "You never let me have any fun."

"The octopus is for my tests. You go torment some goldfish, or whatever it is you do in that office of yours."

"Hey," said Jeff. "That wasn't nice at all. It's seaweed I'm tormenting this week." He feigned pouting and went out the room. As he walked through the hallways he looked over the charts he'd scribbled onto his yellow, coffee-stained pad and sighed. He muttered to himself, "There's something there! I swear that damn octopus is toying with me."

He spent his day organizing mundane statistics and writing boring paragraphs for some paper that whoever was doing the funding wanted to see, stuffed some things into his backpack, and bicycled past the choked urban traffic to his meager apartment. He parked his bike, walked up two flights of stairs, and found his door unlocked.

"Hey, Chris," he greeted his housemate.

Chris turned the volume down on the TV. "How was work?"

"Oh, you know, the usual boring stuff." Jeff unloaded his backpack and poured himself a glass of water.

"Nothing interesting? Nothing at all? Why do you even work there still?"

"Because it pays well!" He said, "And, well, I have this sort of side-project I was working on for the past few days. If it's even worthy of being called that."

"Mhmm? What is it?"

"You'll think it's ridiculous."

"Don't worry! I always think you're ridiculous."

Jeff shook his head and grinned. He fell onto the couch beside Chris and kept an absent eye on the moving images on the TV. "We've got an octopus in, something we don't often have, and I swear to you he's a genius."

"That's ridiculous." He asked, "How do you know?"

"I just get this suspicion, like it's more clever than it's letting on. Do you know the feeling?"

"Sure, I guess so. But for an octopus?"

"Hey, it is what it is."

Mel crawled in her dome and watched the hours flow by. Grath was out there working, and she missed him. As much of a brute as he could be, she loved him more than anything.

She went out of the dome to breathe the open water and allowed her arms to glide in the very edge of the nearby current. She looked up at the glimmering rays of sunlight that filtered down through the water and painted mosaics upon the ocean floor. Consumed by the beauty, she decided to follow the current awhile and allow it to take her where it would. She could get back home before late.

She delved into it and her skin rippled with excitement as she traveled around and upwards, into the brighter light. She rested her eyes and felt the sensations of movement until she finally pushed herself out, back into calmer water. She was much closer to the surface now, and she could make out the noises of human motorboats somewhere above.

Something like fishing line pressed against Mel's face. She hardly had time to wonder for an explanation. A vast net of sharp thread closed in around her, bringing debris and other aquatic life with it. She screamed, panicked, and only succeeded in getting herself tangled.

The net was lifted up and out of the water, then lowered onto a grimy deck. Big humans thrashed around, launching rubbish back off the boat and stuffing animals into different tanks. A gloved hand closed around her and she struggled in vain. She was dropped into a tank and the lid slammed shut.

Mel floated alone in the darkness.

Lars tugged at his belt, flattened his uniform collar, and straightened his holster. He stepped into Anna's office. He said, "You wanted to see me, boss?"

"Yeah, have a seat." She brought up a video on her monitor and set it to play. "Watch this."

The grainy security footage showed the section of the lab that contained the octopus. In the early morning of the recent night, the roof on the octopus tank was lifted up and the animal climbed out. It descended the shelves and crawled with intent to the wall beside the door. It dissolved into a floor vent.

"Uhh," Lars said.

"Hold on, there's still more footage for you to see."

Anna switched to another video, this one of the front parking lot. It showed the octopus leaving the property an hour after it escaped its tank. She paused it and put her finger over the security booth for authorizing entries. The octopus was passing within a meter of it. "Would you explain how this evaded your notice?"

"Uh."

"Pretty big deal, don't you think? One of our specimens making its way out? Could've saved a lot of money and effort if you'd caught it there."

"Sorry, boss."

"You're dismissed. Get back to your post. Pay more attention from now on, understand?"

"Yessir." Lars fled the office.

Anna looked up from massaging her temples to see Jeff standing in the doorway and knocking. "Can I come in?"

"Sure, sit down."

"I heard about our octopus having done something interesting last night." He leaned his chin on his hand and swatted it with his excited fingers. "Might there be any truth to that rumor?"

Anna sighed. "Yes, the octopus escaped last night."

Jeff smiled broadly and said, "Ha! I told you he was smart!"

"And I have some news I think you'll like?"

"Oh? What is it?"

"We're bringing in a whole several dozen octopuses to study after the incident. You're right, it did show some unique resourcefulness, and we want to find out what our understanding of the animals is missing. We got of people promising money if we publish some interesting data."

It was only a matter of days before the lab was filled with octopi. Jeff shuffled from tank to tank, tapping at his chin and jotting down notes alternately. One octopus, a female, grabbed his attention. It would slam its arms against the glass and generally seemed more distressed and expressive than any of the others. He spent a lot of time observing that one.

The collective octopus civilization was divided into two dozen regions. The high military commanders of each one convened together in a war council to discuss the immediate fate of humanity.

Grath's thoughts drifted as he tightened his grip around his perch. The council was listening to one presentation which gave statistics and projections and graphs encouraging the use of destructive force against the humans.

"As you can see, the human population has been and would continue to grow at an exponential rate. Following the correlations between population and aquatic resource consumption rates, and considering the frequency of significant failures, we can safely assume that in twenty years the average number of disasters per year which negatively impact our species will have quadrupled." The octopus rattled on.

Where had Mel gone? Grath hadn't been able to find her anywhere in the past two weeks. Was she okay?

"Now we come to method. We believe that a viral or bacterial agent would function best. If we refrain from conventional weapons it should be impossible for the humans to identify us as the aggressor, therefore sparing us any retaliation. We have several potential infectants engineered and from our simulations and controlled experiments we expect to eliminate no less than ninety-five percent of the human population in five months, given only six points of initial release."

The vote was scheduled to occur in only one more hour. He doubted his ideas that a genocide would be appropriate. What would Mel say?

He knew what Mel would say. "No! It would be disgusting! The worst crime our species has ever committed."

"We can expect some backlash from humanitarian groups, but they constitute a small enough minority that the impact should be negligible. We will gain access to natural resources which we currently refrain from tapping to avoid attracting human notice, and we're prototyping technologies which will allow us to make use of the land above the surface, as well. We have the backing of several investors so that funding will be of no concern if we follow through."

Grath escaped from his thoughts as one member of the council announced, "We will now be taking a vote. A declaration of war requires unanimous consent. Voting will be performed as a public ballot."

The yeas traveled around the oblong ring of perches until the procession came to Grath. He looked around him, and he looked inward. His skin tightened. It was little more than a whisper: "Nay."

The ensuing uproar was broken when one shouted, "Explain yourself!"

Timidly, "I don't know if it's the right thing to do. I need time to think."

The council concluded with an agreement to meet and vote again after another month.

"But we're not all bad!" Jeff frowned.

"I know. But I don't believe this happened. I didn't realize how bad you were to other species. To other humans, too. I didn't realize how many of you did so much damage."

The dialogs between Jeff and Mel had started as a funny experiment with mathematical concepts.

Jeff had sketched some geometric figures onto scraps of paper. He held some of them up where Mel could see and when he'd drawn something correct - like a rearrangement of the inner angles of a triangle to form a straight edge - he nodded. When he showed her something incorrect he shook his head. Then he showed her new drawings using nonverbal cues that Mel finally interpreted as an attempt to have her indicate in the same way the truth of the sketches.

That was their first conversation, and Jeff and Mel had become the talk of the lab. They floundered and miscommunicated for weeks as they tried to establish a language of signs and motions. But they had made it, miraculously, and Mel explained, almost boasted of, the danger his species was in.

"But we do so much good, too."

Mel's body wriggled vigorously to say, "Like what?"

"Art! Science!"

"So do we, but we do it without the destruction and the death."

"Nobody's perfect."

Mel shook her head and ignored Jeff's further attempts at conversation. Jeff slumped and went to check on his other work.

It was for the best, Mel decided, that these bipedals be eradicated. They were monsters. She had never understood before how much they destroyed, and how casually they did it. She wondered where Grath was. She imagined his fury and his conviction at the war council. It could be only a matter of days before they acted. She hoped she wouldn't die here.

Jeff came back into the room with a water-filled container. He told Mel that she was going into it.

"That small thing? No way."

Jeff put her in it anyway. He heaved it to his bicycle in the face of vehement motions of protest and secured it like he might a basket. Mel watched ahead of her as Jeff biked over the sidewalk. Storefronts, cars, and people with curious expressions flashed by and Mel had the feeling like she was riding the current at home.

Urban sprawl gave way to scenic roads and the sound of surf washed over them. He brought them to a beach, parked his bicycle, and brought Mel to where the seafoam lapped at the sand. He set the container down and opened it, and Mel crawled out. They stared wordlessly at each other while she bobbed up and down in the tide.

Mel jetted along the ocean floor. She was sure of where she was, and she knew it wasn't far until she found the current that would take her directly to her home. She squirmed anxiously while the water carried her.

She found Grath asleep there. She entered the dome and cried out to him. "Grath! It's me! It's Mel!"

His eyes flickered open. "Mel?" He jolted awake.

She hasted to him and embraced him. They squeezed each other. Grath said, "I thought I'd lost you, Mel."

"I'm okay," she assured. "Has the counsel decided what to do with the humans yet?"

"No, I... I was indecisive. We meet again soon to vote again. Tomorrow, in fact."

"I want to be there. I want to speak to them."

"Mel. Where were you?"

"They captured me."

Grath trembled. "The humans?"

"Yes." She added, "But I don't want them to be destroyed. I think we can talk to them. I think we can work together."

"Jeff Lennon, it's good to have you on the show again. It's been more than a year since we last spoke, hasn't it?"

"A very eventful year, at that."

"Absolutely. I understand that you're being called our 'Ambassador to the Sea', and I've even heard that you can communicate with the marine animals. Those are some fantastic claims. What do you say to them?"

"I'm afraid my talents have been somewhat overstated. It's true that I'm serving as an intermediary between our governments and the octopodes, but I'm only able to effectively talk with one individual creature, unbelievable as that still is."

"Can you tell us what the negotiations entail?"

"I can't indulge a lot, unfortunately. But what I can tell you is that we can expect to see some significant policy changes in regards to the environment. I'm personally looking forward to the effects of our cooperation with those we're talking to; their technology is no less sophisticated than ours and it developed completely independently. Who knows what progress will be made?"

Written by Sophie Kirschner