Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, out from MCD on October 4th.
Rumors begin to spread of a species of hyperintelligent, dangerous octopus that may have developed its own language and culture. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life researching cephalopod intelligence, will do anything for the chance to study them.
The transnational tech corporation DIANIMA has sealed the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses were discovered, off from the world. Dr. Nguyen joins DIANIMA’s team on the islands: a battle-scarred security agent and the world’s first android.
The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence. The stakes are high: there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of the octopuses’ advancements, and as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.
But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
There is no silence in the living nervous system. An electrical symphony of communication streams through our neurons every moment we exist. We are built for communication.
Only death brings silence.
—Dr. Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think
Night. District three of the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Trade Zone.
The plastic awning of the café streamed with rain. Under its shelter, wreathed in kitchen steam and human chatter, waiters wove between tables with steaming bowls of soup, glasses of iced coffee, and bottles of beer.
Beyond the wall of rain, electric motorbikes swept past like luminescent fish.
Better not to think of fish.
Lawrence concentrated his attention instead on the woman across the table, wiping her chopsticks with a wedge of lime. The color-swarm of the abglanz identity shield masking her face shifted and wavered.
Like something underwater…
Lawrence dug his nails into his palm. “I’m sorry—does that thing have another setting?”
The woman made an adjustment. The abglanz settled to a bland construct of a female face. Lawrence could make out the faint outline of her real face, drifting below the surface.
“I don’t usually use this setting.” The oscillations of the abglanz flattened the woman’s inflection. “The faces are uncanny. Most people prefer the blur.”
She brought her chopsticks to her mouth. The noodles sank into the glitchy surface of the digital mask’s lips. Inside was the shadow of another set of lips and teeth.
Don’t look at her. Just begin. “Okay. My story. That’s what we’re here for. I came to the archipelago ten… no, eleven years ago now. Before that I worked for a dive place in Nha Trang. There were only two dive shops on Con Dao when I arrived—one at a fancy hotel for Westerners, and another little shop that wasn’t doing well. I bought it out. Paid almost nothing. Con Dao was a sleepy place—underpopulated, undervisited. Locals thought it was haunted.”
“The whole place used to be a prison. The graveyards are filled with generations of dissidents tortured to death by one government after another. A bad place to start a business, right? Maybe. But it was a good place if you just wanted to get by, to live. Sure, it had its problems—lots of them. Technically, the Global Conservation Park covered the entire archipelago, both land and water. Zero fishing or hunting allowed. There was even a UN watchdog organization that would show up once a year, write a report. But the reality was, there were always fishing boats coming in, tangling trawling nets in the reefs, using cyanide and dynamite. And the park rangers were all corrupt. How could they not be, with the salaries they were being paid? They sold turtle eggs, reef fish, whatever they could get their hands on. The locals were in on it—spearfishing, free diving for shellfish. Son, my assistant, had been a free diver.”
“And where is he now?”
“I told you before—I don’t know. We lost touch after the evacuation.”
“He was the one with you on the boat? The day of the incident?”
“Yeah. I was coming to that.” Avoiding it, more like. “The wreck is a steel-hulled Thai freighter, sixty meters long. It went down late in the twentieth century. It’s the only penetrable wreck you can dive in Vietnam. It’s in just twenty meters of water, but the conditions there are usually bad. Strong currents, poor visibility. It’s only for customers who know what they are doing. You don’t get many customers like that on Con Dao, so we hadn’t been out there in years. It was a morning dive. Off-season. Lousy visibility, maybe two meters. But the guy wanted a wreck dive. So we got in the water and worked our way down. It was just me and him.”
Lawrence paused. “I keep making it more dramatic than it is. But it wasn’t dramatic. It was routine. There were squid and cobia bumping into us. Visibility was awful. We were almost at the wreck when I decided to call it off. But when I turned around, he was gone. That’s normal, though. You lose people in low-vis water all the time. You just stay put. If you go looking for them, it’s easy to get disoriented.
“But after five minutes, I started to worry. I traced my way back along the freighter’s rail. He knew what he was doing, I kept telling myself. He wouldn’t have gone into the wreck without me. Was something wrong with his equipment? Had he decided to surface?
“I made my way up, expecting to find him bobbing there. I yelled to Son, on the boat, asking if he had seen him. Nothing. I made my way back down.
“I could feel panic coming on. The conditions down there were making it worse: mucky water, full of shapes. Fish swirling into my vision. Finally, I went inside the wreck. There was nowhere else he could be. Once I was inside, it didn’t take long to find him. He wasn’t far in: His body was trapped under a gangway inside the main cargo area. There was a gash in his temple. Fish were already making off with bits of flesh.
“I got him up to the surface. Son insisted on resuscitation. But I knew he was dead. He was dead when I found him.”
“And in your opinion, how did he die?”
“It wasn’t the cut—that was superficial. He drowned because something stole his regulator, his mask, his tank, everything. Once he lost his gear, he must have struck his head in a panic, lost consciousness. Without his mask and regulator, it wouldn’t have taken long to die.”
“And his regulator? The tank? The mask? Did you find them?”
The impassivity of the face like a blurred photograph, the tonelessness of the altered voice, brought Lawrence back to the island. To telling this story again and again. To the rangers, to the police, to the reporters. Accusations, disbelief— and, in the end, indifference.
“We never found them.”
“But you searched the ship.”
“No. I didn’t. I lied about that.”
“I couldn’t go back down there. I told the police we’d looked for his equipment, searched the whole vessel, but… I didn’t look. I was afraid to. There was never a proper search.”
She paused. “I see. And what did you do then?”
“The rival dive shop used the death to drive my customers away. My business began to fail. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Three months after the incident, the evacuation began. For the record—I’m glad you guys bought the island. Now at least I know it will be protected. I knew every inch of Con Dao—every reef they destroyed, every fish they poached. It’s better this way: Get everybody out, cordon off the whole archipelago. Defend it. That’s the only way to protect it. I was one of the first to take your offer and leave. Generous compensation, a new start. It was lucky for me, maybe.”
Maybe. Walking away from the café in the rain, Lawrence wasn’t so sure. The tamarind trees hissed in the wind. His poncho had a tear in the side of it, and he could feel a damp spot spreading through his clothes, cold on his skin.
“What did you see?” That was what they always asked him—the rangers, the police, the reporters. What did you see?
Nothing. He’d seen nothing. But he couldn’t shake the feeling something had seen him.
And that feeling had followed him. He had been glad to leave the archipelago. But leaving wasn’t enough—the feeling returned every time he thought of the ocean.
Con Dao had been his home—the first he had ever had. What happened at the ship took that from him. That was the story he had wanted to tell. But the woman from DIANIMA wouldn’t have understood anyway.
Was she from DIANIMA? She had never said she was, had she?
It didn’t matter. Maybe she was from DIANIMA, maybe she was from a rival company. The HCMATZ crawled with corporate spies, international conspiracies.
A week ago, he had gone to Vung Tau, to the ocean. He hadn’t seen the water for months, had thought it was time to swim again. But he walked out before the waves reached his waist, got a drink at a beachside bar, then went back to his hotel room and checked out early.
He’d never dive again.
He would go back to his little apartment now in District Three, and continue to watch DIANIMA’s “generous compensation” dwindle while he failed to find a way forward.
Two blocks from the café, the cramps hit him, sending him crashing to the pavement. A motorbike stopped. A stranger’s hands on him. A woman’s voice. “Are you all right? Sir?”
His vision was a hazy tunnel, filled with rain. “Call help. Please.” Then he saw the injector in the woman’s hand.
The motorbikes drifted past, outlines distorted by rain ponchos covering bikes and riders. The rain fell into Lawrence’s open, staring eyes.
He was there again. The ship. Murky water full of shapes… blurred shapes his mind kept making into something else…
We came from the ocean, and we only survive by carrying salt water with us all our lives—in our blood, in our cells. The sea is our true home. This is why we find the shore so calming: we stand where the waves break, like exiles returning home.
—Dr. Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think
The drone hexcopter’s landing lights, their beams filled with windblown rain, panned over the ocean chop. They cut through a span of mangroves and flooded the airport tarmac.
There were no lights anywhere on the ground. The ruin of a runway slanted across most of a narrow neck of the island. The helicopter landing circle was a faded smear. Ancient planes rotted against a black tree line. The plastic siding of the main building was peeled away like scales torn from a dead fish.
The hexcopter swung into final descent. It twisted and settled with a lurch, indifferent to human comfort but efficient. The rotors cut off. The doors winged open.
Ha heard the insect cacophony of the jungle, the hooting call-and-response of macaques. Rain blew sideways into the pod. She hauled her gear from the storage compartment. The drone’s engines ticked, cooling.
There was a watery halo of headlamps between trees: her welcoming party. The drone’s running lights shut off. Now Ha saw the full moon, half-occluded by a smear of cirrus clouds. Cumulus clouds hovered low, watering the island’s tropical forests.
Ha breathed in, closed her eyes, opened them, adjusting her vision to the darkness. The hexcopter’s comms squawked. “Ground pickup incoming. Move away from the copter.”
Ha gathered her bags and ran for the shelter of the airport overhang. The hexcopter’s lights snapped back on. It lifted off the tarmac and swung away at an angle of attack and speed severe enough to knock a passenger unconscious. It was gone in seconds, enveloped in clouds.
The ground transport was armored, ex-military: a selfdriving troop carrier with hardened porthole windows, oversized airless honeycomb tires.
Inside, it was upgraded for comfort. The passenger cabin was padded to dampen the noise and jolt of armor. The car’s fuel-cell engine ran silent enough, but the transmission whined and sent weird vibrations through the compartment. Ha dimmed the cabin lights.
The porthole’s thick strata of glass and polycarbonate distorted the scene outside. Through it, Ha watched the undulating barrier of jungle encroaching the narrow road. Ruined walls of rubble studded abbreviated clearings, structures that could have been fortresses once. Or mills, or factories. Anything. The full moon cast waveforms on the sea’s surface.
The car entered the dark town clamped between forest and ocean. The heavy red-tiled roofs of the French colonial buildings dripped with rain, their stucco walls stained with tropical damp. Their shutters were closed, their gardens overrun with vine and moss. Here and there, a brutalist Communist building broke the sequence: a high school, the Communist Party administrative building. Concrete monsters damp with lichen, colorless in the night.
In the daylight the deserted town would be composed of scabrous, peeling pastel tones. Ficus trees, their trunks painted a fading white, lined streets scattered with vegetal debris—leaves, fallen branches, seedpods, and fruit.
The transport swung out onto a boulevard flanked by a seawall. Its headlamps panned across two monkeys fighting, like human children, over a dubious treasure. At the edge of the town, the houses petered out to sag-roofed shacks already half-dismantled by vines.
The road followed the coast. On the left, the landscape dropped to rocks and ocean waves swarming in moonlight. The black backs of the archipelago’s smaller islands humped in the water. The main island’s spine rose to the right of the road, furred with trees.
Flood lamps pinned the roofs of a pagoda against the hillside, suggesting life on the evacuated archipelago. But lighting the structure was probably an automated municipal habit. A beacon for tourists who would never return.
The research station was on the territory of an abandoned hotel—a white six-story structure built in a bad-location lee of the island’s windiest point. The hotel rose from the surrounding scrub, backlit by flood lamps. The side of the structure facing the road was in shadow, its windows dark. An access road led down to a security perimeter of double fencing flossed with razor wire.
The fencing was bright and new, but the hotel must have been abandoned long before the island was evacuated. Torn curtains bled through broken windows on the upper floors. Ribbons of damp and mold streaked the façade.
The transport came to a halt in front of a double gate.
A figure in a rain poncho separated from the structure and crossed to the gate. It slid the first gate aside. The transport moved forward into a holding area. The first gate was closed behind it, the second one opened. The transport drove through, into a space behind the hotel, a terrace of broken terra-cotta tiles scattered with the dead fronds of the palm trees, alien to the island, that lined the hotel grounds.
The terrace was dominated by an overdesigned swimming pool filled with algae and weeds. It had probably once been one of those saltwater pools that were so popular— letting hotel guests swim in the ocean without really swimming in it. Something in the pool startled at the sight of the transport and retreated into the water.
Two mobile research units, standard-shipping-container-sized, had been dropped near the pool by a cargo drone. They looked like industrial pool cabanas.
The transport door slid open. The interior filled with floodlit sparks of rain. The poncho-clad figure leaned in. A woman’s face, hood-shadowed. High, wide cheekbones, eyes uptilted at their edges, dark. Rain streamed down her cheeks. She spat out a sentence in a language Ha did not know. A bland, authoritative female voice, like a train announcer’s, was then broadcast over the woman’s voice, speaking from a weather- and shock-proof translator unit clamped to her collar:
“You are welcome to Con Dao Forward Research Post. My name is Altantsetseg. I am hired help protector. Now taking your bags. Weather is shitting rain.”
Ha blinked. Wanted, for a moment, to break into hysterical laughter: it had been a long trip.
Altantsetseg stared at her, said a sentence in her language like a fence of consonants. “Translator not fornicating working right?”
“No. It’s working fine. Close enough.”
“Then we are moving.”
The woman towered over Ha. She was two meters tall or more. Ha saw the rifle now, the short, no-nonsense barrel slung over Altantsetseg’s shoulder.
It was raining harder. Without the whine of the transport and the thickness of its armor drowning out the sound, Ha could hear the wind hissing in the palms, the croaks and cries of animals in the island dark, the waves on a beach out of sight beneath the hotel’s terrace—all of it washed in the rain’s static.
They quick-walked, bent over to minimize the drops slashing into their faces. There were a few lights on in the hotel, on this side, on the ground and second floors. A broken cement urn propped open a glass lobby door.
Inside, Altantsetseg led Ha through the deserted lobby. Moldering chairs stacked on tables, damp overstuffed divans clustered in long-silent conversation circles. A few tables stood in a cleared space in the center of the room. Gear cases were scattered around them, a field kitchen, a coffee machine. Electronics. A bit of habitation in the cavernous hall of synthetic marble.
Ha’s room was on the floor above. It was a king suite that smelled of damp and disuse but was clean. Altantsetseg dropped Ha’s bags inside the door and left.
Ha had been longing for hours now for a shower. Instead, she collapsed on the bed, not bothering to undress first. Someone, at least, had put clean sheets on it.
She dreamed of the cuttlefish again.
At times, when a cephalopod is resting, its skin will flow through color and textural displays that appear unconscious—as if the electrochemical flux of its thoughts were projected onto its surface. In this state it is truly like a mind floating, unsheathed by flesh, in the open ocean.
—Dr. Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think
In the dream, Ha never saw the cuttlefish as they were in their prime—bright and luminous, streaked with kaleidoscopic color change, arranging their arms in semaphores of threat or curiosity. No. In the dream she descended, caged in the white noise of her respirator. Down into water clouded calcitic-gray. Down into water hazed with ink, defiled with drifting webs of darkness. Down to a silt bottom strewn with stones.
Cuttlefish eggs were scattered in the fissures of the rocks. The young inside the eggs glowed, wisps of light trapped behind the membranes of their shells.
The eggs should not have been left exposed like this in the silt: cuttlefish hung their precious eggs from the underside of rocks, in protected places. Something here had gone horribly wrong.
A giant female cuttlefish drifted above the eggs, guarding them. Ha had not seen her at first in the water curtained with ink and silt. Ha jerked back, startled, but the cuttlefish did not respond. It floated there, facing Ha but not seeing her.
The cuttlefish was dying. Her body was white, patched in places with a leprous rust. Without her skin’s healthy dance of pattern and color, she looked naked and vulnerable.
Several of her arms were torn away. One feeding tentacle drifted limp in the weak current.
The rocks here formed a loose circle, like a broken castle keep. Overhangs called to mind shattered tower floors. Crevices were archers’ slits. Ha saw three more cuttlefish, under a terrace of stone. They, too, had lost much of their skin, and all were missing arms. They floated, cephalopod specters, sickly-pearl, watching. Fans of dull red and brown criss-crossed the skin left on them, a map of dead connections.
Then the first cuttlefish Ha had seen swam down to the eggs. Her ripped fins were weak. She swam like a ghost ship tiding into dock under torn sails. As Ha watched, the cuttlefish stroked an egg with one intact arm. Patches on her skin glowed a weak yellow. The movement and the color seemed to take an extraordinary effort.
Inside the egg, a dim light flickered in answer.
The cuttlefish began to rise now. Ha swam up with it. As they overtook the other three, hovering under their outcropping of stone, Ha felt something pass between them: a slight shiver. Of recognition? Of acknowledgment? Of goodbye? The female cuttlefish spiraled up through the water column, releasing ink in sputtering contrails like smoke from the engines of a crashing plane—a plane that rose instead of falling.
She and Ha broke the surface together, into the world of explosive sunlight, of chaotic sound and churn.
Though the cuttlefish was motionless and Ha knew she was dead, she swam to her and held her, took off a glove and stroked her battered head, its torn appendages.
Above, seagulls gyred and screamed, waiting for Ha to abandon the meal they had spotted. Ha swam toward her dive boat, cradling the cuttlefish like a drowned child.
Ha woke up with her face streaked with tears, as she always did.
This vision she had in her sleep was both dream and memory. It was impossible for her to tell which elements were which anymore. She had been there, in that place, in real life. But the ink had been thicker, hadn’t it? Ink like a curtain that had battered her back. She had been to that place of solitude, seen the three senescent cuttlefish drifting, monklike, under the shattered eaves of their castle. But the eggs had not glowed. That was not possible. And there had been no dying female, drifting to the surface like a downed plane.
Her mind returned, again and again, to her memories of that place. And every time her mind returned to it, the scene changed. Was it becoming corrupted in the remembering, moving further away from the truth with each successive iteration? Or was it, in fact, approaching the truth a little more each time?
“You are crying. Did you have the dream again?”
Ha sat up. Without even remembering she had done it, she must have unfolded the terminal the night before, placed it on the nightstand. Or had she set it to unfold on its own, on a timer?
It stood there, icosahedral on its origami leg stands, light flowing from its oculus. And in the light of the oculus was Kamran, standing at the foot of the bed, drinking a cup of what could only be coffee.
She could see the outline of the door through the collar of the shirt he was wearing. She could see the carpet’s ghost through his shoes.
“Yes. The same dream.”
“You have to let go of it, Ha. Let it be in the past. There was nothing you could have done.”
There were things she could have done, and she knew it. There were also things she could have not done. But Kamran would never allow her to take the blame for anything— would never even allow her to take responsibility. It wasn’t worth going over it with him again—it would all lead back to her having to “let go of it.”
Instead, she changed the subject.
“Where are you?”
“In the lab.”
“It’s after two in the morning there! What are you doing working?”
Kamran shrugged. “Please stop pestering me about my vampirism. How was your trip?”
“Long. And there was a storm when we were leaving the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Trade Zone. The drone pilot was an insensitive bastard. I threw up making the crossing to Con Dao.”
“Did you have a chance to meet the woman herself?”
“Dr. Mínervudóttir-Chan? In Ho Chi Minh? No. She’s off in the SF-SD Axis, consolidating a buyout of coastal research institutions. That’s what her Sub-4 told me, anyway. That, and nothing else. Everything is mysterious. Either that, or people don’t know what is going on themselves. The Sub-4 told me the Team Lead on Con Dao would brief me when I got here.”
“I haven’t met them yet.” Ha was up and moving now, digging through her bags for clean clothes. She stepped through Kamran’s leg.
“Barely felt it,” Kamran said.
“I have to tell you about the security officer who met me last night.”
“Yes. I can’t wait to hear about them,” Kamran said. “But not now. You are rushed. I can see it in your face. You need to get settled in there, find your bearings. And I need to exploit this coffee buzz.”
“What you need to do is go home and sleep. Are you avoiding the apartment?”
Kamran glanced away. “Perhaps.”
“Well, don’t get so sentimental that you start sleeping under the lab tables.”
“Go take a shower. You look dirty. Your hair is all greasy.”
“Thanks. Such a charmer.”
Kamran flickered out without saying goodbye, as was his habit.
We understand the encoding of genetic sequences, the folding of proteins to construct the cells of the body, and even a good deal about how epigenetic switches control these processes. And yet we still do not understand what happens when we read a sentence. Meaning is not neuronal calculus in the brain, or the careful smudges of ink on a page, or the areas of light and dark on a screen. Meaning has no mass or charge. It occupies no space—and yet meaning makes a difference in the world.
—Dr. Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think
In the makeshift kitchen, Altantsetseg sat eating a hard-boiled egg. The table was cluttered with the elements of a disassembled rifle, oil rags, several terminals, and various electronic components. Altantsetseg was in dark blue coveralls. There were Velcro strips for identification insignia or patches on the arms of the coveralls and above the breast pockets, but no patches. Her hair was cut close to her head. It was black, with streaks running through it here and there of gray. She could have been thirty-five, forty, or over that. Thick hands, swollen by weather and work. A scattering of dark spots along the hairline on the left side of her face. They might have been mistaken for moles, but Ha had known war veterans before. She knew the spots were shrapnel scars.
The smell of fresh coffee managed to push back the scent in the lobby of gun oil, ozone, mold, and neglect. An overcast early light came through the windows, along with the salt-flesh smell of the sea. Altantsetseg indicated a bowl of eggs and a stack of toast near the coffee machine with a flick of her chin.
“Thanks.” Ha poured coffee into one of a half dozen semi-clean mugs. The heating element under the pot was no good: the coffee was lukewarm. She drank it off in a gulp. She didn’t sit down, but grabbed an egg. Ha saw the translator unit on the table amid the still life of gear, eggshell, and crumbs.
“Team Lead?” Ha asked.
Altantsetseg squinted at her, then nodded, jerked a thumb in the direction of the terrace and beach.
Altantsetseg shrugged, said a phrase that sounded to Ha like, “Sign igloo,” and began rolling another egg on the table, breaking up the shell.
Ha reached into a small paper bag she was carrying and produced a macaroon. She placed it in front of Altantsetseg.
Altantsetseg regarded it, gave Ha a questioning look. Ha made exaggerated eating motions with her face.
“Macaroon.” She pointed at herself. “I made them. A gift.”
Altantsetseg stared at her with no change in her expression.
“Just kidding. I would never bake. I bought them in the Ho Chi Minh ATZ. But they are good.”
She left Altantsetseg sitting there regarding the golden brown bolus of coconut with suspicion.
Ha crossed the cracked tiles of the hotel terrace, eating her egg. She could see the Team Lead: a tall, slender figure standing on the beach, facing away from her. Whatever was inhabiting the swimming pool shifted and plopped into the water as Ha passed.
The sea was calm. Its surface undulated, reflecting the pearl-gray and lemon haze of early light—like a curtain agitated by a breeze.
As Ha approached, the Team Lead turned.
And Ha stopped, almost tripping in the sand, practically dropping the paper bag she was carrying. The Team Lead’s long hands held several shells of varying sizes. The Lead waited while Ha tried to compose herself.
Ha had watched an interview on a hotel room ceiling. One of those science-popularizing talking heads who did everything from kids’ shows to documentaries, talking to this person… no… this being. Talking to Evrim.
The Team Lead that was standing before her was Evrim. Someone she had never expected, in her life, to encounter. You watched them on a bathroom mirror screen, on a ceiling, or the smeared window of a metro train. You watched people on-screen, beings that were shaped like people and spoke like people, but who lived elsewhere. They belonged to a floating world you would never enter. A world where things happened. A place unlike the mundane world you watched from. And you never thought you would meet them. Could meet them. But here Evrim was.
Evrim extended a hand.
“I am so pleased to meet you. I have been anticipating your arrival.”
Ha shook the hand weakly.
“You can grip my hand more firmly,” Evrim said. “Its development cost over two hundred and fifty million dollars. Much of the technology used in its construction is military, for prosthetic limbs. I don’t think it will break.” Evrim smiled at Ha. Ha felt herself searching for something in the eyes, something in the way Evrim stood. A difference. But she could not see it right away. The hand was cool—dawn-by-the-seaside cool—but with a warmth behind it, perfectly analogous to the internal warmth of a human hand. There were grains of sand on the fingers and palm, from the shells Evrim had been collecting. Ha realized she had been holding on to the hand for too long and released it.
“Yes. Dr. Ha Nguyen. I welcome you. And I see you know who I am.”
Evrim turned to look at the sea again. Ha realized he was giving her a moment to recover from her shock. She was being rude. Evrim was taller than her, by thirty centimeters. His face was long, his limbs long. His proportions were even, beautifully neutral, a bit idealized. He had the kind of build that wore even fantastically ugly clothes well and so was used in mannequins for display and on catwalks. And Ha realized that she was referring to Evrim, in her mind, as he. As him—but Evrim was not that. He was… they were… what?
I see you know who I am.
Did she? What did she know? Ha’s mind ran down the list of what Evrim was: Evrim was the only (allegedly) conscious being humankind had ever created. An android, finally realized. The most expensive single project, excepting space exploration, ever undertaken by a private firm. The moment, it was said repeatedly, that humanity had been waiting for: conscious life from nothing but the force of our own technological will.
And Evrim was also the inspiration for, and the target of, a series of hastily implemented laws that made his presence, and the creation of any further beings like him, illegal in most of the governing structures of the world, including every country under UN Directorate Governance. Evrim himself (herself? themself?)—Ha was irritated by her brain’s gender provincialism—was illegal in most of the world. Evrim’s existence had shaken the globe with riots. Ha remembered the gunmen storming the DIANIMA headquarters in Moscow, the bombing of their offices in Paris. DIANIMA’s vice president of engineering, blown up by a DNA-targeting flying mine on their yacht in the Caribbean. Ha remembered an image on the screen of a hotel ceiling of a man burning himself alive at the gates of the Vatican.
A man burned himself alive, simply because you exist. How must that feel?
What was most unsettling about Evrim to her, Ha realized, was that her brain was trying to slot them into a category into which they would not fit without distortion. If only she let go, pulled away from that desire to slot Evrim like a child’s peg into a shaped hole in a board—to resolve them into a gender. Ha had been working internationally with other scientists. She had fallen into the habit of speaking (and thinking) in English—and to using the antiquated English third-person pronouns of “he” and “she.”
She pushed her brain back to Turkish—her second language. There, the third-person pronoun “o” bore no gender marker. “O” presented no problems. It could stand for the English “he,” “she,” or “it” or the singular “they.” Ha began referring to Evrim, in her mind, with the Turkish “o”—round as its form, holistic, inclusive. The gender problem disappeared, and the feeling of dissonance began to fade. It was replaced with pure awe, and wonder.
Without realizing what she was doing, Ha found herself holding a macaroon out to Evrim. She had heard, in that interview on the ceiling above her hotel bed, that Evrim did not eat, though they could taste and smell. That they did not sleep. That they never forgot anything.
But how can you be human and never forget? Never sleep? Never eat?
Evrim looked at the object in Ha’s hand. “Is that a shell? A sea creature?”
“It’s a macaroon.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a dessert item.”
“Ah!” Evrim took it, held it in their palm, probed it with a long index finger, smelled it. Then smiled. “Thank you. I have never been given anything quite like it.”
Excerpted from The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Ray Nayler. All rights reserved.