Toby has been obsessed with squid since we were seven. Said he liked the way ‘cephalopod’ felt in his mouth. I liked the way it squelched through his gap teeth and fell off his lips with a lisping splash. Birds of the sea, he said. I tried to tell him about penguins, but even then he only liked things with tentacles.
Now he sports a set of his own.
So do I, but mine are less impressive.
His curl in thick black lines over bulging deltoids and wrap around sculpted pecs. They tangle down his biceps to taper off at his wrists, denoting the nanotech that lies beneath the veneer of 9-5 respectability. The body of the squid fills his back from nape to ass-crack.
I want to trace it with my tongue, but Toby has never looked at me the way I look at him: like a starving dog eyeing up a plate of bacon. He never looked at anyone—blinded by the glare that was his mother. Even with her gone, her shadow has been burned into his retinas. The damage done.
“Ready?” Toby asks in the rich baritone puberty gifted him. I’m jealous. I thought maybe he’d stay that squeaky, skinny nine-year-old winning school science fairs and dissecting frogs with me down at the creek—when we could escape our mothers.
Mine was suffocating; his, pure strangulation. She was always touching him, holding his hand, pulling him onto her lap in a way that made my insides curdle. She slapped his face for calling her ‘mommy’ instead of by her name. I tried to lick her fingerprints off his cheek but only made him cry.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I say, my voice an octave higher than I’d like.
He strips down to a black tank that leaves me salivating over the lean plains of his chest. Not like the bulge of mine; flattened by a binder, but still a reminder of what I’m not.
He tightens the straps on his insulated backpack as bioware ripples along his arms, curling into nodules where suckers have been inked into his palms. We’re both littered with nanotech. His lights up like the bio-luminescence sported by his favorite sub-species.
Me? I’m a little ink, and a lot of metal. Not everyone can pull off dermals like I do. Something in the unique way my DNA has adapted to the bioware-splicing that’s made my body embrace the proprietary implants Toby plugged into my flesh.
I flash silver and russet—dyed my hair to match—like a shattered mirror, each shard holding splinter-reflections of the world. A dozen Toby’s looking everywhere but at me.
As a kid, people called me doll and cherub—then slut and whore for not wanting anyone to touch me. And later, dyke when I shaved my head and stopped waxing my legs.
He only ever called me by my name, my real one—the one I chose, and put his fist in the face of anyone who didn’t. For that I let him poke at me as much as he wanted. With a scalpel. In the Wendy house out back between cobwebs and the relics of a childhood I’m not sure Toby ever really got to have. I liked the scars he left on me. They’re mostly gone now, masked by dermals or smoothed into pale filigree by the nanotech changing my biochemistry.
I activate my ’ware, pressing the nubbin in my own cephalopod’s eye so I’ll be ready when it’s time. My pencil squid is small, a wrap of purple tendrils around my left forearm clinging from wrist to elbow. The nanotech reaches further, laced through my veins—Toby’s invention.
All his backyard experiments paid off. He got recruited by Rebus Engineering when he won the national science fair at fourteen. Only I knew he was still taking baths with his mother.
By twenty-one he had a PhD and was still sleeping in her bed.
Five years later, he finally moved out after his mother died tragically. Bad fugu, apparently, as if it happened by accident.
He became CEO of the company responsible for saving the world’s coral reefs and rebranded Rebus, Eurekya. Hardly anyone gets the joke. He had to explain it to me, how he swapped the letters around—something about squid taxonomy and a naked scientist leaping out of a tub. I’m still not sure I get it, but I smiled and he smiled and it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand. I was content to bask in that glow, as content then as I am now, stuck to his side like a lamprey on a shark.
I follow where he leads. Dr. Tobias de la Cruz, daytime revolutionary and night-time anarchist. He’ll always be Toby to me, even when he’s using dubiously legal implants to bypass the security on a research facility more concerned about their bottom line than with ethics. Even when he uses the serrations protruding from his palms to tear out the throats of guards—when he licks the splatter from his lips while standing slicked to the armpits in viscera.
My hands are just as red, but I keep my mouth closed.
Tonight’s mission is simple enough: empty the tanks, contaminate samples, corrupt the data. The last bit is my job. While Toby handles the organic matter, I set on the machines.
Using the nanobots oozing from my fingertips, I hack my way in while Toby coos and chatters to the contents of the tanks before he puts them out of their misery. Mercy killings—most are beyond saving.
Some end up in his mouth. I wonder what he’d taste like and how happily I’d devour him regardless. Wonder, too, if his hectocotylus would ever span the distance between us and fill up the cavity inside me.
He catches me staring, swallows, and reaches into the tank again.
Cephalopods are never on the menu. Those he keeps as pets no matter what’s been done to them, slipping them gently into the compartments of his customized backpack that’s part fish-tank, part beer cooler. The rest? A middle finger drawn in marine corpses.
“You done?” His breath is warm on my ear, his words staccato as they clatter through the extra row of chitinous teeth in his soft palate. Toby leans in close like he used to when we were tweens jammed into an antique photo booth making faces at the camera every year on my birthday. We always split the prints. His ended up in a neat row across his bookshelf, a framed catalog of the passing years. I glued the pictures in my journal and drew hearts around our faces. I carved his initials into my ankles with the sharpened tip of a compass, which made high school geometry a little less excruciating knowing his letters were bleeding into my socks.
Those scars are gone too now.
I revel in his proximity, even if he smells like fish and voided guts. I want to kiss him, to slide my tongue over all those extra teeth, to feel his suckers catch at my skin and clink against my steel.
“With this company. Sure,” I say, but we’ll never be done. As long as corporations keep exploiting the sea and I keep unearthing their shady dealings, we’ll keep doing this. I extricate myself from the system and he takes my hand, the serrations biting against the metal that marks my heart line.
We leave. We’ve done this so many times now, but it never gets old. The thrill, the rush, the vindication. It’s not like these assholes don’t deserve what they’re getting.
I squeeze his fingers as we make our escape, not caring if his saltwater touch turns me to rust.
We’re running out of targets. The world has changed, thanks in part to us. Heroes. Terrorists. Either way, I should’ve known we’d be too good at this. I should’ve known, too, how the ’ware would take its toll, eroding our DNA and irrevocably altering our physiology in ways I never chose.
Now here we sit on our beach, the mansion we’ve called home the past year rising like a mausoleum behind us.
Toby can’t take his eyes off the sea. He hasn’t noticed grinding joints or the blackened skin around the brine-bitten metal stitched into my skin. Once, he would’ve soothed my aches and replaced the broken bits of me. Once, he would’ve whispered “tell me if this hurts” as he slid a blade beneath my skin. And I would’ve responded with a shivering smiling “yes” as he peeled away the flesh I hated.
Toby stares at the depths and chatters to the gulls. The extra teeth are permanent now, the bioware re-coding his base pairs. His muscles have thinned, arms longer and fingers noodling into questing fronds that ghost over my skin but never linger.
He wades into the water and I follow, ignoring the protest of my implants, hugging my inked arm to my chest as if that’s enough to protect me.
Every day is a battle, a tug of war between me and the ocean, each of us trying to stake our claim to the man caught in the middle. But after tonight, I’ll never have to pit my will against the tides and drag Toby away from the ocean again.
The sun sets in a violent fit of orange and purple, the sea darkening as if the currents have been injected with squid ink. Toby spews incoherent rage, words jumbled in a brain suspended between human and cephalopod, as I wrestle him from the shallows.
How I’ve loved him. Worshiped him. Wanted so badly to slip inside his skin, to dress myself in his flesh and finally be satisfied with my reflection.
There’s intelligence in his gaze, so keen it cuts deeper than the barbs of his hands. I ignore it, cajoling him up the dunes, placating him with promises of a daylight return.
We make it to the house, trailing red and black across pristine tiles and plush carpet. I hold him tight, for a moment unable to tell where one of us ends and the other begins.
I haul him to the swimming pool, one of those ostentatious sorts that grants the living room a full view of splashing bodies in the tank nestled in the upper deck facing the ocean.
The alterations were easy enough: a darkening of the external glass, the careful adjustment of salinity, the installation of a reinforced lid.
Toby slides from my grip into the tepid water. The transformation is still striking, the way his body shifts and coils, his DNA unraveling to reveal his truer form.
If only it had been as easy for me.
I press a button, and the lid slides into place. I can almost see his synapses short-circuiting. Another shift, his elongated face squaring off into something closer to human again, his eyes flashing with understanding as he surges upwards, tentacles streaking through the water.
The lid severs the tips of what were once his fingers. His blood is a shiny smear. Tenderly, I collect the twitching off-cuts.
I return to the living room. The pool lights fill the water with an ethereal glow. Toby stares at me, suckers gripping the glass, lambent eyes growing larger as I step to meet him. Finally, I have his undivided attention.
I press my hand to the glass, my fingers matched by his tentacles. I look past him, through him, and see myself: broad-shouldered with biceps bulging the way Toby’s used to, my jaw more prominent now and scruffed in thickening fuzz.
He opens his mouth, releasing a scream of bubbles as I peel my palm from the glass and my gaze from the man I’ve become.
With Toby’s glower searing across my back, I head to the kitchen, place his fingers on the chopping board.
Tonight I’m making calamari.
Xan van Rooyen
Climber, tattoo collector, and peanut-butter addict, Xan van Rooyen is a non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and–when not teaching–enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters.