What Terry was supposed to be doing was researching the anti-bacterial properties of squid eggs. That’s what his master’s thesis was about, and it was also the reason he had received a $25,000 grant from the Teuthis Foundation. But Terry had a side project. He was running the Circus Minimus in his little lab in the BioSci Building at the University of British Columbia.
His lab was stuffed with vats full of squid in various stages of their life cycles. Eggs, larvae, and egg-laying adults. Mostly of the California squid, Loligo opalescens, but a couple of other species as well. Getting access to other marine invertebrates was relatively easy, too- he was popular amongst the grad students in his department. On Friday nights they would gather for a spectacle of Roman proportions. Squid, crab and lobsters would square off in gladiatorial contests while cheering students bet on the outcomes. Sometimes even fish were brought in.
Terry found that older animals tended to be wary of confrontations, and that the larval forms, if stuck in a small enough container, would be more aggressive. And hungry. There were still times when nothing happened but in a satisfying number of fights only one animal remained in a tank. To change things up, Terry occasionally cut off a tentacle or a claw from one of the combatants. Terry made a fair bit of money keeping books on the bets before each bout.
On this particular Friday night before Reading Week there was a full house as someone had invited his fraternity brothers along. Terry knew that secrecy was important, but he didn’t mind the extra income from bets and selling a little weed. Who knew marine biology could be so profitable?
For the undercard, a free-swimming larval lobster was placed into a tank with a spiny young Alaskan king crab. Heavy betting was on the crab, even though a fair number of the spectators would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between the crustaceans. Or care if they could. As long as one killed the other, preferably in a gruesome and hilarious manner, they would leave satisfied. Winning a bet would be a bonus.
The googly-eyed crab spotted the lobster swimming above, looking like Superman with its claws held out in front, and swam towards it. But Superlobster had the aerial advantage and swooped down on its prey, slicing off an eye before gobbling the king. The crowd went wild, not minding how short the fight was at all. Terry considered posting videos of the fights on the internet to see if he could somehow make money that way, but decided that it would be better to not risk attracting the attention of PETA or some other stupid animal rights group.
The second fight promised to be even better than the first, but turned out to be a dud. One of Terry’s buddies brought in a lingcod and was placed in a tank with a squid hatchling. The lingcod completely ignored the squid and then went belly-up for some reason. Since lingcods are notoriously hard to kill there was some grumbling about a fix, but the frat boys were appeased when Terry fed the carcass to a lobster.
Before the Battle Royale of the evening could commence, between Superlobster and the squid, the laboratory doors burst open and campus security rushed in. Shining their flashlights in everyone’s face, they confiscated beer cans and caused a ruckus completely out of proportion to their number. The chaos had the desired effect of stupefying everyone in the lab, except for Terry. He very smoothly apologized for having open alcohol in a university lab, promised never to do it again, thereby deftly taking attention away from the illegal bloodfights. The campus cops were satisfied with confiscating the booze, and let everyone go so they could resume the party at The Pit. On his way out, Terry hurriedly poured the container with the lobster and the squid into one of the vats of eggs.
The lab was quiet now, and dark. In the egg vat the squid larva tentatively tried out its chromatophores. The eery iridescence attracted the superlobster, who swam towards the light. The squid warily backed away, but the lobster emitted special chemicals from its nephropores- which is to say it peed from a hole near its antennae. These chemicals carried an aroma of submission-with-threat-if-attacked. You might render such a chemical message in English thusly: “I won’t hurt you if you won’t hurt me.”
The squid answered this unusual pheromone with a squirt of murky ink, embedded in which was a chemical of acquiescence. In this manner an uneasy and wholly unprecedented truce was established between Homarus americanus and Loligo opalescens.
If that was the only amazing thing that had happened in that darkened laboratory, it would have passed without notice. But another process was set in motion that would take generations of grad students more diligent than Terry to fully decipher. This soupy mixture of chemicals interacted with the reagents Terry had previously spilled. The bacteria coating the squid eggs that Terry was supposed to be studying absorbed the whole mess and digested them into amino acids and exotic proteins. These waste products were in turn reabsorbed by our two invertebrate friends, altering their RNA. They changed.
The still-developing bodies of the larvae merged together, fusing into a symbiotic organism. Never before had evolution happened so quickly, so serendipitously, so furiously. The new amalgam animal molted and grew, cannibalizing eggs to fuel the metabolic maelstrom. For a full ten days it matured in the dark, and it waited.
After Reading Week, during which Terry engaged in many acts of random debauchery and committed some minor crimes, the BioSci Building at UBC once more bustled with activity. Terry decided it was time to check on his squiddies, wondering idly how many of the suckers had died while he was at Whistler. Maybe he could hit up the Teuthis Foundation for more money to get new eggs. He unlocked the door to his lab, cursing his hangover-induced headache as he entered and turned on the lights.
The squobster at first retreated from this unfamiliar stimulus. It sidled its armoured mantle to the bottom of the vat, its body changing color at the same time. Terry was too preoccupied to notice. Emboldened, it sent out its two tentacles into the alien environment outside its tank. Seeing motion from the corner of his eye, Terry whirled and saw a nightmare. He had just enough time to wonder if he had smoked some bad weed. Then the tentacles grabbed him and pulled, and Terry was quickly submerged and constricted by eight arms. Being too big for the tank, however, it fell to the squobster’s serrated cutting claws to render him into more manageable pieces- bite-sized chunks, as it were. If Terry screamed or died instantly with a minimum of suffering, no one can now say.
The salt water of the tanks and vats in the lab was soon saturated with a molecule emitting an odor of pleasure-and-relief-at-averted-threat, which we might translate as, “Take that you sumbitch!”