The Mountain in the Sea
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'I loved this novel's brain and heart'
DAVID MITCHELL, AUTHOR OF CLOUD ATLAS
'A first-rate speculative thriller, by turns fascinating, brutal, powerful, and redemptive'
JEFF VANDERMEER, AUTHOR OF ANNIHILATION
There are creatures in the water of Con Dao.
To the locals, they're monsters.
To the corporate owners of the island, an opportunity.
To the team of three sent to study them, a revelation.
Their minds are unlike ours.
Their bodies are malleable, transformable, shifting.
They can communicate.
And they want us to leave.
When pioneering marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen is offered the chance to travel to the remote Con Dao Archipelago to investigate a highly intelligent, dangerous octopus species, she doesn't pause long enough to look at the fine print. DIANIMA- a transnational tech corporation best known for its groundbreaking work in artificial intelligence - has purchased the islands, evacuated their population and sealed the archipelago off from the world so that Nguyen can focus on her research.
But the stakes are high: the octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence and there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of their advancements. And no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.
Release date: October 4, 2022
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Print pages: 464
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The Mountain in the Sea
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 self-driving 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.
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