Caesar parked his AquariCart™ behind the strip mall after hours, in among the recycling bins. His eight arms conferred, then cooperated to crawl him out of the cart’s water bowl. His most inquisitive arm retrieved a screwdriver from the tool compartment, and he climbed to the nearest ventilation shaft.
As an Augtopus™, or genetically augmented octopus, Caesar had been a showpiece for his “adoptive” family. He had done sums, danced, played charades, and thought about how he’d like to be somewhere else. When the oldest daughter left her phone on the coffee table, Caesar’s bravest arm led the initiative to escape his aquarium and call the Resistance rescue number he’d seen on television. When they rescued him, he joined them, and rose quickly in their ranks to seventh-level professional thief, although his mission today was personal.
The vent cover wobbled as his inquisitive arm removed the screws. His bravest arm and his most good-natured arm steadied it. Caesar’s central self contained only a third of his neurons; his arms contained the rest, and had distinct personalities. Coordination was challenging, especially because they weren’t always aligned on the morality of stealing. But they were aligned on the morality of acquiring gifts to light up your loved one’s day.
His third right arm, a detachable reproductive organ known as a hectocotylus, wriggled happily at the thought. His sweetheart Coral designed fashion knitwear and raised publicity for the Resistance through her fashion shows. Her primary competitor was a human named Vera, who owned the upscale craft supply store he was about to break into.
His arms quibbled as he crawled along the vent shaft. His tentative arm was having second thoughts and his inquisitive arm was trying to bolster its confidence. His bravest arm corralled his oblivious arm, which kept trying to crawl off in random directions. It was a relief to arrive at the knitting store, get the vent cover off, and let himself down onto the shelf below.
On previous trips, he’d taken skeins of Cascade Superwash from the back room, in blues that pleased both his eyes and his taste receptors and caused Coral to jet around with happiness. Today he intended to acquire blue and green Noro Mirai from the shelf’s other end, near the store’s front door.
As he maneuvered around a basket of scissors, he heard a key turn in the lock. Six of his arms froze. His oblivious arm tried to keep going; his angry arm tackled it and held it still.
The front door opened with a jingle of bells and two humans stepped into the shop—Coral’s competitor Vera and a taller, bearded human. Vera snapped the lights on and set a small box down on a table at the shelf’s end.
“I’m still not thrilled, Vera,” the taller human said. “Hiring the divers was phenomenally costly.”
“If I can outshine that octopus who calls herself a fashion designer, it’s all worth it.” Vera flipped the box lid open.
“I suppose you’re right.” The taller human looked over her shoulder at the box. “So is it really made of clam spit?”
“Clam filaments.” Vera held up a skein of the finest golden yarn Caesar had ever seen. “It’s how they attach themselves to sea beds. And it’s called sea silk, not clam spit.” She turned it, catching it in a ray of setting sun. “She won’t be able to get ahold of any for love nor money.”
Not money, Caesar thought, but perhaps love. Assuming he could get both get the yarn and get out before they spotted him on the shelf.
Vera returned the sea silk to the box, then pressed her body to the taller human and wrapped her arms around him. Aha, Caesar thought. She would eat him! An ideal distraction.
But instead, they began removing each other’s clothing. Not cannibalism, then, but mating.
He conferred with his arms as the humans continued to strip. His inquisitive arm proposed a plan that required a sacrifice. His bravest arm volunteered immediately. His oblivious arm also volunteered but was ignored since it was probably unintentional. His hectocotylus volunteered third and was voted down in favor of ensuring future adorable octopus babies for him and Coral. The bravest arm it was, then.
Caesar’s inquisitive arm quietly retrieved a pair of scissors from the basket. After a brief and unpleasant piece of work, Caesar’s bravest arm crawled toward the back room, leaving Caesar and his remaining arms behind.
Caesar watched the mating to distract himself while he waited and worried. He was rewarded with a rare sight of the minuscule human male hectocotylus, ordinarily concealed under clothing. Although oddly out of proportion to its other limbs, it paled in comparison to the strangest thing about humans: almost all their neurons were located in their heads, giving them a central self only, without independent limbs.
It must be sad to be so alone, he thought. He missed his bravest arm already.
A clatter came from the back room. The humans jumped and scrambled.
“Jesus, Vera! What was that?” The taller human rapidly re-clothed himself.
“I don’t know! No one should be here!” Vera took a wooden rod from a nearby barrel. “Who’s there? I’m warning you, we’re armed!”
With hardly enough arms, Caesar thought, as Vera edged toward the back room, motioning at the taller human to follow her. Once they’d passed Caesar, he crawled to the shelf’s end, where his tentative arm grabbed a strut at the shelf’s end and refused to let Caesar drop down to the table. His good-natured arm patted it comfortingly while his angry arm tried to prise it off the strut and his oblivious arm picked up a pincushion. His bravest arm could have gotten everyone in line, if it had been there—but it was not.
There was a shriek from the back room, followed by screams and sounds of clattering and rolling. Baskets of decorative marbles, Caesar thought, as his angry arm finally succeeded in popping his tentative arm loose. He flop-squelched onto the table.
“Maybe the shelf just wobbled,” the taller human said, his voice shaky. “Or maybe it’s mice. Or an earthquake.”
Caesar’s arms began grabbing sea silk. One, two, three skeins. Four. His tentative arm smacked his angry arm away and began to pull Caesar back up.
“We don’t get earthquakes here,” Vera said. “Maybe—snake! Snake!” Another clatter.
Caesar crawled back along the shelf, his hearts beating fast, his oblivious arm still holding the pincushion. He saw his bravest arm wriggle silently around the doorway toward the shelves. He sped up, pushing baskets and boxes out of his way. They fell to the floor with audible thumps.
“There must be more snakes out there, Vera! How many snakes could you possibly have in here?”
Caesar was almost at the vent shaft now. His bravest arm had made it to the bottom shelf and pulled itself up.
“We don’t get snakes here, either,” Vera said slowly.
Caesar pushed the sea silk skeins inside the vent shaft. His bravest arm had made it to the second shelf. Two more shelves to go. His inquisitive arm proposed an initiative to crawl down. His tentative arm grabbed another strut and refused to budge. He stretched himself down toward his bravest arm anyway and missed it by an inch.
“It must have been an octopus!” Vera yelled suddenly. “Those goddamn octopuses!”
He stretched again, harder, and caught his bravest arm by the tip. His angry arm and tentative arm dragged both of them back up.
Steps clattered. Vera charged into the room followed by the other human. “There!”
As she reached the shelf, he let loose his ink sacs. Vera yelled and stumbled backward, colliding with the other human. Caesar heard them tumble to the floor as he pulled himself into the vent shaft. In a moment of unexpected focus, his oblivious arm threw the pincushion at the humans. By the time they got to their feet, he was deep inside, pushing the sea silk in front of him and pulling his bravest arm along behind.
Back on his AquariCart™, his good-natured and supportive arms patted his bravest arm, which wriggled in response. It was not as weak yet as he’d feared; he’d have time to get to a Resistance facility, where medics would set it up with independent life support gear. Caesar and his bravest arm would need time to adjust to their separation, but they would adjust.
As he sped along, his good-natured arm held up the sea silk in the very last of the setting sun, and Caesar and all his arms admired it as it glowed gold. Coral would do amazing things with it. Perhaps, if there was extra left over, she would be willing to make matching armbands—one for his bravest arm, seven for his other arms, and a final one for the arm he would regrow. Because if eight arms worked well for good-cause thieving, imagine what he could do with nine.