Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid nine miles in diameter crashed into planet Earth.
The impact tore deep into the mantle, crushing boulders and solid iron like tissue paper – and with it, wiping clean the evolutionary chalkboard, the early patterns of which had so lovingly begun to form. Birds wrenched from the sky and wide-eyed dinosaurs were disintegrated in a blaze of pressure. What were, only picoseconds ago, thriving, sensitive, breathing ecosystems, were gone. Replaced with ashes.
The dust took three months to settle in the crater.
Eventually, however, the sun’s light returned, dormant seeds began to sprout, and life, if tentatively, returned. For the most part, this recovery was indistinguishable from the version taught to reluctant biology students today: a sparse population of surviving rodents, bony fish and amphibians provided the base for a new global community of fauna – a community which, eventually, would go on to yield a species of sapient capable of producing fire, cultivating crops and animals, and forming societies. Humans.
We all know the story from here. History with a capital ‘H’. Stone Age, Bronze Age, civilisation, uncivilisation, wars, technology.
But this version of history is incomplete. A small, yet highly significant series of events has been excluded from the schoolbooks. To see where this series began, let us rewind to the immediate aftermath of the asteroid.
Archaeological records show that the asteroid was largely composed of iron and nickel, but there was another substance present within the it, and in huge volumes too: hydrogen gas. It seeped from the metal as the asteroid struck, dissipating into the air or, in the case of most of it, becoming trapped around the rocky shores of the nearby ocean.
Now, for most of the aquatic life present at the time, the extra hydrogen made little difference to their evolution. But for a few species of cephalopod, it had a far more remarkable effect.
Modern cephalopods absorb ammonium into certain bodily tissues in order to maintain a reduced overall density that is almost equivalent to that of water, thereby saving energy in their movements – much like submarines, using ballast tanks of air to control their buoyancy.
Cephalopods back then, however, had been given access to a substance fourteen times lighter than air, and it wasn’t long before they began to realise the advantages that this could bring. Some octopi and squid began absorbing small volumes of hydrogen at strategic points, and briefly hovering above the sea’s surface to make a grab at passing birds. This transpired to be a highly successful hunting method, and after several generations of using the technique, they began to evolve to suit it, gradually developing better-suited tissues to hold the hydrogen, and, later still, epithelial ‘valves’ to control the flow of the gas into and out of their bodies.
This evolution progressed steadily until, by the time this story took place in the early eighteenth century, cephalopods had all but gained the ability to fly.
‘Sky-squids’, as these cephalopods became known, were peaceful, regal and intelligent creatures. They made for a magnificent sight when they floated in their shoals across the sky, and furthermore, they contributed to ecological balance through their regulation of seagull and gannet populations. They were a unique and beautiful species, deserving of the utmost respect and dignity.
So, of course, our ancestors hunted them ruthlessly. They devised technologies specifically for the animals’ capture, and began culling them to within spitting distance of extinction.
The squids had not yet adapted for camouflage in the sky, and became easy targets for humans in Asia and Europe. They were hunted for their meat, dismembered for their beaks (which were harder and more durable than any man-made material), and enslaved for their labour. Over hundreds of years, a culture of slaughter was developed between the two species.
Whole shoals were lured into raised nets and hauled, thrashing, to the ground, where hard-faced men would approach with spears and leave only when the last tentacle stopped convulsing and dark blood began to dry on the soil around the net. Furthermore, in Spain, an annual event was created to celebrate the spring season, during which new-born squids were killed by the thousand and eaten in a ceremonial meal.
As demand rose across the globe, special ‘skyships’ were built to aid in the capture and transportation of the animals – flying boats powered, sickeningly, by older, larger squids which could no longer be harvested for meat. These ships, which otherwise resembled normal sea-bearing boats, were fitted with a system of crudely-designed iron chains and spikes, which would dig into the soft areas on either side of a squid’s head to force it into turning one way or another. By way of steering, the captain tugged directly on chains around their boat’s perimeter.
Seven or eight squids were required to pull a cargo skyship, or closer to fifteen for a freighter; sometimes the squids would be fed, but normally captains would simply work their team to death and import a new set from their supplier.
The world was seeing squid genocide on an unrivalled scale; lives were traded, lost, like stamps in a schoolyard. It became just another trade industry.
Around the latter end of the seventeenth century, suppliers all around the globe began to realise that this approach was unsustainable. If they continued at their current rate, squids would die out in a decade or less.
Did these tradesmen ever wonder, perhaps, if they had gone far enough? If their greed had finally had consequences too large to be rectified? No. They did, nonetheless, begin to fear the implications of extinction on their livelihoods. No squids would mean no meat, no beaks, no slaves to sell. And so the companies began to mass-farm them instead.
Nets and spears were traded for fences and slaughterhouses, and squids continued to be killed in huge numbers. The only difference lay in the fact that they were first subjected to a horrific life in captivity, crammed into pens with thousands of others like them, to breed, eat and defecate until the merciful gloved hand reached in and lifted them out into oblivion.
The businesses thrived, of course.
They expanded throughout the turn of the century, setting up intercontinental trade routes. Skyships were built larger and faster. Millions of workers were taken on across the globe, to feed, transport, kill, carve and distribute – including a few thousand or so from the British isles.
And this was how, on a December evening in 1728, Dot Fortune, our protagonist, came to be flying a batch of sky-squids to a butchery.
Dot sat in her captain’s chair at the helm, looking at the passing clouds and thinking. She preferred her full name, Dorothy, but her superiors at the company had always used the shortening when referring to her. It didn’t hurt that ‘Dot’ could, at a stretch, be interpreted as a man’s name, and she was convinced it had helped her to push her captains application through – for she knew no other woman of her title and rank.
She smiled to herself, remembering when she had been awarded her first flight; the elation she had felt passing those bearded dimwits in the application office, who had been picked before her time and time again.
Finally, she had thought. A bit of justice.
Briefly, she brought herself back to the present.
It had been a quiet winter’s day, and the only sound was the faint clink of chains from the perimeter of Dot’s skyship as the team strained and writhed to pull it forwards. She had ten sky-squids pulling, and another fifteen in the hold as cargo – including one particularly impressive specimen from a farm on a remote Southern island. A distant descendant of the species known as Architeuthis dux, it had magnificent, muscular tentacles, a broad mantle and large, healthy eyes – all greatly attractive characteristics to a buyer. It would be purchased for a ridiculous sum of gold and consumed as a delicacy at an ambassador’s banquet somewhere in France.
This would be her last trip, she promised herself as she tugged on the starboard chain, wincing at the familiar weak cry that rose from below. She knew that what she was doing was unethical. She liked the squids, and was always reluctant when the time came to unload them into the butcher’s blood-smeared hands. Besides, she thought angrily, she was a freelance cargo sailor; she could transport for whoever she wanted. But then, the money… ‘Freelancer’ became a loose term when there was only one employer who could pay enough to cover more than just her rent.
She mulled this thought over every time she took a job for the butchery.
No, she told herself, setting her jaw. She wasn’t going to be sucked into that loop again. The squids were real animals, with real thoughts and real emotions. And they were so beautiful when they flew together in formation – she didn’t want to be part of their demise.
She sighed. Around her ship, the clouds were beginning to turn the slow, saturated purple of sunset. It would only be a few hours now before she reached the unloading dock. She curled her lip at the thought of having to endure the coarse dockworkers when they came to take the cages.
Where would she work, once she terminated her contract? There was a coal and haematite company hiring, that she’d heard of recently, who she had been ready to look into before discovering that the vacancy was only available because their last sailor had died of lung inflammation. If a company wasn’t trying to deny their sailors money, it seemed, it was denying them their health.
Did she even want to continue on her boat? It had been her dream to sail a skyship since she was a child in the countryside, gazing up into the night where the crafts would dance like fireflies in the dark…
Then again, she had envisioned herself as a flying adventurer of sorts, rather than an accomplice to the murder of animals. Maybe it was time to get a job on the ground.
Pondering her future, she sat silently at the helm for a while, watching the clouds drain into the oncoming night.
After a half-hour or so, the light began to dim below the safe navigation level, and Dot peeled herself from her chair with a heavy exhale. It was time to light up.
Still mulling over her employment options, she reached into her trouser pocket and retrieved a small matchbox. She pulled out a match, struck it against the side of the box, and began working her way around the ship’s railings, lighting each of the burnished oil lamps which hung at intervals around the deck. When she reached the final lamp, however, the oil had leaked from the ageing container and over the edge of the balustrade. It was one of the less importantly placed lamps, but she’d always had a bit of an obsessive streak and the inconsistency unsettled her.
Dot grimaced, patched up the lamp with tape from her belt, and started to make her way down to the hold to fetch the top-up oil can.
As she put her hand on the trapdoor, she remembered that the squids would need feeding soon. The bucket of dead pigeons the breeder had given her for the journey was only a few metres away, so she picked this up and carried it in one hand as she descended the ladder into the gloom.
She always enjoyed feeding the squids.
When her eyes adjusted, she could see the animals hovering in their cages on the far side of the hold. Most seemed fairly happy; some were sleeping, some were still exploring their cages, some were reaching their arms through the bars and wrestling with the squids around them. Dot smiled, then felt guilty. This was, most likely, the first time that any of them had been allowed this much space to explore.
The hold was stacked messily with other cargo – unmarked wooden crates, the contents of which Dot was entirely unaware. Often the company would use her shipping route to transport other goods they dealt in. She had thought it best not to ask questions.
She wove her way through the crates towards the squids and decided to feed the prize specimen first. It was immediately obvious which one it was – its cage was the most spacious, its bars most tightly packed. The squid itself was positioned squarely in the centre of the cage, taking up little space despite its height, which could reach twelve feet when fully stretched.
It looked calm, content even, its comically large eyes drifting across the room serenely. It looked up when she approached, and wriggled its tentacles in excitement at the sight of the pigeons.
Dot felt an almost immeasurable sadness overwhelming her. The poor thing had no idea where it was going. How could something so majestic, and with such intelligent eyes, have spent its whole life in a mindless pack bred for meat?
And how could she have supported it?
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to the squid, her heart suddenly constricted with emotion.
She didn’t quite know what she hoped to achieve by saying this – she was still going to transport it to a slaughterhouse, where it was still going to be killed so that she could still support her livelihood.
So, when the squid slowly squeezed a tentacle through the bars of its cage and placed it gently, comfortingly almost, on her shoulder, she was unusually shaken. She gave the squid a long look (was that forgiveness in its eyes?) and fed it a pigeon. The squid began chewing with satisfaction.
Warily, Dot sat down with her back to its cage, looking over her shoulder. Then, when the squid made no move to discontinue its chewing, she relaxed and allowed herself to slump back against the cool bars of the cage. She looked straight ahead and spoke into the quiet hold.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I… I’ve always been able to pretend I did. And I’ve got where I wanted to be. I mean, I’m flying.”
She paused. The oddly comforting sound of snapping pigeon bones filled the silence.
“But this is not what I imagined, transporting farmed sky squids, aiding and abetting exploitation.”
Dot paused again, and smirked. This is ridiculous, she thought. I must be really desperate now.
Nonetheless, she found the words just kept pouring out of her. “I feel so lost, tired, useless. This is not who I’m meant to be. I can’t do this anymore, I’m so … so tired of this…” The tears were streaming now and she was powerless to stop them. She felt so stupid but, at the same time, it felt good to cry. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried. She let the sobbing subside, drawing in a deep breath and sighing loudly. She wiped her hand over her face, dabbing away the tears and snot, and turned to look back at the squid. For a moment she could swear he was leaning his head to one side and looking straight at her with those big eyes. She drew in another breath, and shook her head.
Brushing herself off, she stood up and went back to feeding the other squid with the remaining pigeons.
Just as she was about to return to the deck, she caught a glimpse of something through an adjacent port-hole that made her stop in her tracks; two small specks approaching in the distance. This struck her as odd; she was fairly sure that she was the only freighter scheduled for the route she was on.
Out of curiosity, she reached for a telescope affixed to a nearby wall, raised it to her eyes and adjusted the barrel. The specks glided into view, and she swore under her breath. Pirates.
She had been warned of this group before. A rag-tag band of opportunists, that lurked on quiet trade routes – and were one of the few serious threats to freighters like Dot. The weather was due to be clear all night, with a full moon, and she had hoped that she would be safe… This was not good.
Dot felt a hard knot of panic forming in her stomach. These people were savage, opportunistic and notoriously brutal. They were looking for gold, but failing that, they would just as happily take her life.
The ships were drawing closer at an alarming rate, and she could already make out dark forms moving about on each of their decks. She dropped the telescope to the floor, face turning paler by the second, mind racing.
There was no chance of out-flying them. Their ships used cutting-edge flying technology: bouyancy tanks. In imitation of sky-squids, they were filled with hydrogen and had adjustable valves, and were attached at the edges of the ship in order to keep it airborne. Gas could also be released at high pressure in any horizontal direction, generating a much greater speed than Dot’s squids could match. Her heart was hammering as she tried desperately to focus and make a plan.
Her mind was racing, the adrenaline kicking in now. One by one she mentally assessed what weapons she had on board to defend herself. She was about to begin scouring the hold for knives, when, almost imperceptibly, she felt the touch of the squid’s tentacle once more on her shoulder. She turned around, and at that moment, it seemed there was an almost spiritual connection between the two beings. Surely now, she thought, she hadn’t imagined the squid was empathising with her?
Wrapped in the squid’s tentacle, pulled from behind a nearby stack of dusty boxes, was a harpoon gun, fully loaded. She could hardly believe what she was seeing, but she had no choice than to suspend her natural inclination to question. This was brilliant. The crates – of course! She wasn’t surprised to see that her employers dealt in that kind of thing. The squid’s huge, supportive eyes were bright, and Dot thought she could see in them a fiery spark of resistance. The tentacle extended the harpoon gun towards her slightly.
A shiver of excitement ran through her as she observed her new ally. This, she thought, must be the ultimate goal. All species, united for, or against, the same cause.
One of the ships was close enough for her to see the pirates’ grins and baying faces. They thought she was defenceless, that she was under-equipped, that she was alone; they were just savouring the kill.
But Dot, with renewed self-belief, was not going down without a fight. She raised her weapon and aimed it through the porthole at the pirates. A red mist descended over her eyes, and when the thieves drew near, she opened fire with the harpoon.
It seemed ridiculous for the first few seconds, and the pirates laughed at her first attempts. They flew their ship slowly, mocking her as they drew ever nearer. Dot could see their nails then, and their teeth – overgrown, sharp, yellow things with red flecks amongst the gums.
A harpoon struck one of the pirates, and some of the cackles turned to snarls. But this wasn’t what she was aiming for. Sweat trickled in a thin line down her forehead.
The pirates were too close now. It would be seconds before they reached her. Bulging, tattooed arms with glinting blades had begun to strain, writhing, over the sides of the ship… She aimed – exhaled – and fired.
There it was.
The thieves stopped their progress towards her and stood staring at the harpoon, which had wrapped around their ship’s main buoyancy tank, and torn a large gash in its side.
She fired twice more at the pirates, blood pumping in her ears, and let out a whoop of exultation. The last of the gas drained from the bouyancy tank, and slowly, gradually, their ship began to spiral. Moving closer to the porthole and looking down, Dot watched with great satisfaction as it picked up speed, plummeting downwards into the darkening sky.
She went to spit over the edge of the ship in riddance. But just as the first globule was leaving her lips, she felt a sudden, horrible lurch.
After a few seconds of confusion, Dot saw a single squid rise from the back of the deck, holding something she couldn’t quite make out.
Wait, she thought. Wasn’t there a second…
There was an ear-splitting crack from the back of the ship, and her legs were shaken from beneath her as the vessel recoiled from the impact. Something connected hard with her temple, sending the world swimming into a blurry haze, and she lay clutching her head on the wooden planks of the deck, the word decoy ringing vaguely, sickeningly, through her mind.
Dot shuddered, instinctively reaching for her pounding head. Her whole body ached as she tentatively rolled over, propping herself up on her elbow. The deck swam into focus and she felt the vibrations of what felt like an earthquake beneath her. The planks of the deck creaking with the strain of people dancing? No, lurching and stomping. The full weight of what feels like a hundred people, straining each and every plank. Shouts and the sound of metal scraping filled her ears, making them ring violently. What had happened? The second ship had rammed into them; that much was clear. As her consciousness gradually returned, Dot realised she was lying in the middle of a full on brawl, a battle in full flow. Squids and pirates intertwined in a tangle of limbs and tentacles, the deck stained with dark blood and black clouds of squid ink.
But how? How did the squids break free from the cages? And why? Why would they help her? No time to think. Dot heaved herself off the deck, reaching for the sides of the ship to steady herself. She watched in morbid fascination as one of the squids squeezed the last drops of breath from a pirate and left his cutlass to fall to the floor. She resisted the urge to be sick as she bent over, reaching for her weapon.
Still she gripped the sides of the ship, bloody cutlass hanging uselessly from her hand as she watched the squids sink harpoons deep into pirates and wrap them one by one in their suffocating tentacles. They were clearly managing just fine without her and she had, as yet, remained unnoticed at the side of the ship. She stood, waiting and watching in awe as if in a dream, a daze even. Slowly, rhythmically, the pounding on the planks lessened and the scraping sounds died down, quietening. Eventually, all she could hear was the squids moving across the deck, between the strewn bodies of pirates. She followed – there must have been around seven of them, gliding effortlessly back into the ship and down the stairs.
She followed, keeping her distance and watching as they moved silently back to the hold. The remaining squids were still in their cages and she could see the fighters among them were trying to help them break free. She was, all at once, flooded by an overwhelming sense of purpose and conviction. Dot knew what she needed to do. She made her way through to the hold, moving seamlessly between the escaped squids towards the locked cages, where she started to unlock the doors. It felt so right to be working together, freeing the remaining squids and watching the beautiful creatures float out, enjoying the freedom to take up the space around them. She followed the squids again, this time back onto the deck, and watched as they flew out one by one into the night sky. She watched as the last of them disappeared on the horizon, heart swelling with pride and exaltation.
Just as she turned to head back to the cabin, she felt the familiar weight of a tentacle on her shoulder and turned to see her ‘special’ squid looking at her with those big, empathetic eyes. Before she realized what was happening, the squid had wrapped its tentacles all around her and slid its tips around one of her harpoon’s bolt spears. As Dot exhaled in the beasts embrace, the sharp end of the bolt sliced between the soft skin under her shoulder blade and into her lung. Dot’s body contracted, as she inhaled a sudden breath; the squid dropped her on the deck and shot off into the night air, leaving an inky trail.
Looking up into the stars, Dot’s final breaths were calm, peaceful even. She felt the warm blood spread across her back, and with it, a sense of simple, beautiful realisation.
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