Short Story by Ben Loory (The Jakarta Post, April 09, 2018)
Once there was a squid who fell in love with the sun. He’d been a strange squid ever since he was born — one of his eyes pointed off in an odd direction, and one of his tentacles was a little deformed. So as a result, all the other squid made fun of him. They called him Gimpy and Stupid and Lame. And when he’d come around, they’d shoot jets of ink at him and laugh at him as they swam away.
So, after a while, the squid gave up and started hanging out by himself. He’d swim around alone near the surface of the water, gazing upward — and that’s when he saw the sun.
The sun looked to him like the greatest thing in the world.
It’s just so beautiful, he’d think.
And he’d stretch out his arms and try to grab hold of it.
But the sun was always out of reach.
What are you doing? The other squid would ask when they saw him grasping for it like that.
Nothing, he’d say. Just trying to touch the sun.
God, you’re such an idiot, the squid would say.
Why do you say that? The squid would ask.
Because, the others would say, the sun is too high; you’ll never be able to reach it.
I will, someday, the squid would say.
And the other squids laughed, but the squid kept on trying. He didn’t give up — he reached and stretched and reached.
And then, one day, he saw a fish jump out of the water.
I should try jumping! he said.
So, the squid started trying to jump to reach the sun. At first, he couldn’t jump very high. He’d lurch out of the water and then fall right back in.
But he kept trying more and more every day.
And, in time, the squid could jump pretty high. He could make it 3 meters or so out of the water. He’d make a big dash in order to build up some steam, and then leap up with all his tentacles waving.
But no matter how high and how far the squid jumped, he never could quite reach the sun.
You really are a stupid squid! The other squid would say. You really get dumber all the time.
The squid didn’t understand how what he was doing was dumb. But it was true that he didn’t seem to be getting much closer.
Then one day in mid-jump he saw a bird flying by.
Wings! I need wings! The squid said.
So, the squid set out to build himself a pair of wings. He did some research into different kinds of materials. He’d found some ancient books in a sunken ship he’d discovered, and he read the ones about metallurgy and aero science.
And, in time, the squid built himself some wings. They were made of a super-light-weight material that also had a very high tensile strength. (He’d had to build a small smelting plant to make them.)
Looks like these wings are ready to go, the squid said.
And he leaped up out of the water. And he flapped and flapped, and he rose and rose. He rose up above the clouds and flapped on.
It’s working! The squid said.
He looked up toward the sun.
I’m coming, I’m coming! He said.
But then something happened — his wings stopped working. Up that high, the air was too thin.
Uh-oh, the squid said, and he started to fall.
He fell all the way back down to the sea. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt — he’d had the foresight to bring a parachute (he even had a backup for emergencies).
But he splashed down in the water and as he did, his wings shattered. And of course, the other squid laughed again.
When is this squid ever going to learn? they said.
But the squid no longer took notice of them.
You see, the squid had had an idea — all the way up there at the top of his climb. Just as he was perched at the outer limit of the atmosphere —
What I need is an interplanetary spaceship, he said.
Because at that very moment, the squid had finally grasped something — he’d finally understood the layout of the solar system. Before, he’d been bound by his terrestrial beginnings. Now he understood the vast distances involved.
Of course, building an interplanetary spaceship was complicated — much more complicated than a simple set of wings. But the squid was not discouraged; if anything, he was excited.
It’s good to have a purpose, he said.
So, the squid set out designing himself a spaceship. The body was easy; it was the propulsion system that was hard. He had to cover about 200 million kilometers.
I’m going to need a lot of speed, he said.
At first, the squid designed an atomic reactor. But it turned out that wouldn’t provide enough power. He’d gotten pretty heavy into physics at this point.
I need to harness dark matter and energy, he said.
And so, the squid did. He designed and built the world’s first dark matter and energy reactor. It took a lot of time and about 1,000 scientific breakthroughs.
All right, he said. That should be fast enough.
And finally, one day, the squid’s interplanetary spaceship was built and ready to take off. The squid put on his helmet and climbed inside.
Well, here goes nothing, he said.
He pushed a single button and took off in a burst of light and plowed straight up out of the atmosphere. He tore free of Earth’s orbit and whizzed past the moon, burned past Venus, and sped on toward Mercury.
There in his command chair, the squid stared at the sun as it grew larger before him on the screen.
I’m coming, I’m coming, my beautiful Sun! he said. I’ll finally hold you, after all this time!
But as he got closer, something strange started to happen — something the squid hadn’t foreseen. The ship started getting hotter. And then hotter and hotter still.
Why’s it so hot? The squid said.
You see, the squid really knew nothing about the sun. He didn’t even know what it was. It had always been just a symbol to him — an abstraction that filled a hole in his life. He’d never figured out that it was a great ball of fire — that is, until this very moment. But now the truth finally dawned on him.
That thing’s gonna kill me! he said.
He slammed on the brakes, but the ship just kept on going. He threw the engines into reverse, and they whined, but still he kept going — getting closer and closer.
I’m stuck in the sun’s gravity! He said.
He did some calculations and realized he was lost. He’d gone too far; he was over the edge. Even with his engines all strained to the limit, he had only a few hours to live.
And as he sat there in his chair, just waiting to die, something even worse started to happen. The squid started ruminating and thinking about his life.
Oh my god, he said. I really have been an idiot!
Suddenly it was all painfully clear: Everything he’d done, all his work, had been for nothing.
I’m a moron, he said. I wasted my whole life.
That’s not true; you built me, the ship said.
And the squid thought about it, and he realized the ship was right.
But you’ll be destroyed too, he said.
Yes, said the ship. But I have a transmitter. If we work fast, at least the knowledge can be saved.
So, the squid started working like he had never worked before — feverishly, as he fell into the sun. He wrote out all his knowledge, his equations and theorems, clarified the workings of everything he’d done.
And in moments left over, the squid went even further. He pushed out into other realms of thought. He explored biology and psychology and ethics and medicine and architecture and art. He made great leaps, he overcame boundaries; he shoved back the limits of ignorance. It was like his whole mind came alive for that moment and did the work that millions had never done.
And in the very last second before his ship was destroyed, and he himself was annihilated completely, the squid sat back.
That’s all I got, he said.
And the ship beamed it all into space.
And the knowledge of the squid sailed out through the dark, and it sped its way back toward Earth. But of course, when it got there, the other squid didn’t get it, because they were too dumb to build radios.
And the story would end there, with the squid’s sad and lonely death, but luckily, those signals kept going. They moved out past Earth, past Mars and the asteroid belt, past Jupiter and all the other planets.
And then they kept going, out beyond the solar system, out into and through the darkness of space. They moved through the void, through other galaxies and clusters. They kept going for billions of years.
And finally, one day — untold millennia later — they were picked up by an alien civilization. Just a tiny, backward race on some tiny, backward planet, all alone in the darkest end of space.
And that alien civilization decoded those transmissions, and they examined them and took them to heart. And they started to think, and they started to build, and they changed their whole way of life.
They built shining cities of towering beauty; they built hospitals and schools and parks. They obliterated disease and stopped fighting wars.
And then they turned their eyes toward space.
And they took off and spread out through the whole universe, helping everyone, no matter how different or how far.
And their spaceships were golden and emblazoned with the image of the squid who had spoken to them from beyond the stars.
Ben Loory’s newest collection, Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017), was called “mesmerizing and magical” by NPR and named a Favorite Book of 2017 by the staff of The Paris Review. He will be a guest speaker and workshop instructor at the upcoming Writers’ Series on May 5 in Jakarta. Find out more at writerseries.org.
We are looking for contemporary fiction between 1,500 and 2,000 words by established and new authors. Stories must be original and previously unpublished in English. The email for submitting stories is: firstname.lastname@example.org