The Ocean Swallowed a Cable
Scenes from Undersea Internet Infrastructure
The cable stretched and groaned. The traffic rush was beginning again. It was work to move all these signals, yes, but also thrilling. The zing and rush of light running through her core. She never saw the light, but always felt it moving.
She was born from a ship, a mother of iron with dozens of little men running around above deck. Those men guided her mother, but the sea had been her midwife. “Let her down gently!” the sea had cried. “Easy does it.” The cable then felt the slick of the oil on her baby skin as they let her down gently, unwinding her and offering her up to the seabed to rest.
Three days of labor and a whole ocean later, her end (and beginning) emerged from beneath the sand. The last thousand meters, her mother could not come with her. One underwater human in a suit and mask hauled her over a shoulder and dragged her to the sand and air. The men drank beer on the beach and called their wives.
A few blinks later she was connected. That was the real breath of life. She felt the other cables greet her warmly, a sense of relief as they off-loaded some of their burden to her and rearranged their flows in welcome . New cables were still rare then, only a dozen or two laid each year. Since then, thankfully, the humans mostly left her alone. She’d been sinking and floating and swaying and groaning happily in this saltwater home. “I am here,” she whispered in delight.
The fishes all mingled about and around each other. They were all one in this community, this shoal of herring. One fish felt anxious at the edges of the shoal and tried to stick to the center. Another fish secretly liked the way the fins felt when they brushed a fish schooling by, even though collisions of any kind were taboo. Another fish played a game with kinself to stare directly up at the sun and perceive the light wobbles through the waves .
They almost all loved the feeling of moving together. Out here in the open ocean, light winked and shimmered between scales as they swam. When danger loomed, they packed tight and dense. In close formations, light refracted off their bodies in a thousand directions. That shiny noise stopped the Eaters from tuning in to the signal of any single fish. While some predators grew too clever for such tricks, the school still managed to overwhelm the senses of many others. After the Eaters left, they would both mourn their losses and celebrate the small comfort of making their own quiet, noisy safety.
One day, the sunlight hit a new spot. The shoal, curious, moved to investigate. The creature — a long sort of eel —had dark oily skin and no fins to speak of. The eel buzzed faintly. Less a sound and more a familiar tingle in their noses. There were some tasty things to nibble on trying to hide beneath its smooth curves . “This creature is quiet and noisy,” they all agreed with affection.
She defiantly whispered “fuck. that.” Silently, so her mother (The Matriarch) couldn’t hear. Everything about today was unfair, but she also liked the taste of the little bits of power that formed in her mouth with the harsh ffff and gloopy -uck. Retreating to her room, she loaded and spit out the word a few times for the singsong pleasure of it. Logging on, she poked the crusty keyboard with the same forceful delight. The group chat was pretty mellow today, so she kicked it off:
16:26 @cephalopudding its official my mom hates me. idek why she has kids honestly she should have used a condom --- 16:26 @cheese_nutz oh no 16:26 @cheese_nutz im sorry :((( --- 16:26 @audrel0rde22 whatd she do this time omg?? --- 16:27 @allBLM dude your moms uptight but youre her kid. she’s basically required by law to loves you --- 16:27 @cephalopudding i got an A- on that quiz and MATRIARCH still isnt letting me go to pride next week! 16:28 @cephalopudding i thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY not MOM TYRANNY!! --- 16:29 @cheese_nutz o dam that sux :\ --- 16:29 @cephalopudding i thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY not THE KINGDUM of MOM TYRANNY!! 16:30 @cephalopudding also we are out of good snacks --- 16:30 @audrel0rd22 OVERTHROW PARENTS honestly fling them into the sea --- 16:31 @cheese_nutz FLING FLING FLING
A minute later,
@allBLM sent a hasty animation of a catapult yeeting a stick figure into space, labeled “your mom.” She snorted at the image, the laugh clearing a bit of the tension cobwebbed in her jaw and shoulders. They were mostly strangers, scattered across the world, but this group always had her back. These people and this internet was a fact of life for her, as incorporeal and forceful as grades or gravity. They were hashing out the finer points of child liberation when the weird thing started:
16:40 @cheese_nutz why do they call it the nuclear family anyway what kind of name is that?? is suhweb3MSDIHhiqb~rrrr --- 16:40 @cephalopudding lol wtf @cheese did your cat jump on the keyboard? --- 16:41 @cheese_nutz woah that’s trippy, i swear I typed a whole normal sentence, but it came weird in the chat?? --- 16:42 @allBLM weird 16:42 @allBLM must be a bug I ge%TgjkwmM.,(!_+s=’j;KqJ
It kept happening every week or so, the clusters of weird text. They tried filing a bug report, but the tech ops person said it was a network anomaly, nothing to do with the chat software. She wasn’t sure if she believed him, but she did add “anomaly” to her ✿~✿~✿MY FAVORITE WORDS✿~✿~✿.txt list anyway. Eventually, everyone got used to it, called it the Blip, like “oh I got blipped.” But the mystery compelled her.
One morning, she got the idea as she watched her mom tap an eraser on her chin and frown at a word puzzle in the newspaper, accusing the paper with her eyes of some small but grave offense. She snuck back upstairs before school and frantically pasted down a log of all the Blips. She pored over this log for secrets. Over several weeks, she began to see patterns. One night, when the chat was empty and the Matriarch was long asleep, she blipped back to the Blip:
The algaes had a complicated relationship with the cuttlefish. The cuttlefish had corralled them from the open current and kindly protected them from nibblers, but out of self-interest more than altruism. When they started to feel the sluggishness of shadow, he would kindly scoop them back up near the surface to soak in the light. But he would also shove them all into this hole.
Some old clam, one of those razorship rock-boring boys, had carved out this spot in the strange rock a long time ago. The cuttlefish, who undoubtedly thought himself clever, had poked around in the hole and discovered little bits of light. For days, he wedged one eye into the hole, crooning “oooh! blink blink!” into the flashing bits of rock.
The day he’d found the algae bloom, he was equally delighted that their kind blinked. Their light was a reflex, like a painful hiccup — every time the cuttlefish poked them, they all flashed a sudden blue light .
Now in the hole, they huddled pressed tight together. The cuttlefish started a poking rhythm to provoke the algaes into sneezing those bursts of light. Concentrating carefully, with each poke he twisted a loose arm into a deliberate pose, signing and spelling out in a flashing code: “F U CK M E ? W H Y T H A N K Y O U !”
It felt less like pain and more like a loss. That day she was bitten. Large mouth, strong jaws, curious teeth. As the shark creature hinged down in fierce curiosity, she felt a crunch and then a loss. The traffic lessened, but grew somehow heavier.
Yes, lots of other creatures had visited her before. Tiny plants and fish like to nestle at her edges and digging crustaceans would scratch a tickle. The anemones preferred clinging to her rather than the sandy floor, desperate for purchase, adorning her with sculptural crowns. The crabs would clack proudly down her spine, drumming with all the sounds and flair of someone really feeling a new set of acrylic nails. She’d even been nibbled and zip-zapped by curious fish and jellies. The creatures had made their fair share of small dents and uncomfortable bends to her organs, yes, but she’d never been bitten.
It only took two days for the men to return. They gently traced her length, lifted her back into the air, and spliced new vertebrae in her spines. Aloft in the air, she winked at the sun and made a note to herself to apologize to her plants for up-rooting them. She worried that, with nothing safe
to cling to, some of her anemone jewels may have succumbed to Eaters . As she nuzzled back into the sand and returned to feeling like herself, she shared a warm sigh of relief with the other cables. She invited back all the creatures, calling, “Come home friends!”
On their long journey back toward the coast, they’d seen the shark bite the Longest Eel from their view above. Some of them on the outer edges of the school giggled and wiggled their dorsals at the frustrated grimace the shark made before sulking off. Sharks love sulking, they all agreed. Some went to check on Longest Eel as a small show of solidarity. They flitted about, examining her from all angles.
“Longest Eel! Longest Eel! Are you well?” they called to her. She did not reply. They nestled a fin or nose into her oily surface and prodded around. She clearly had very strong skin, enough that the shark had even lost some teeth with the bite. Still, she didn’t reply to the fish. They agreed she must not know how to speak or listen, and must be very lonely.
Longest Eel was quiet and seemed dented, but they could feel the jumpy singsong buzz still moving through her. Some of them danced around to her buzz, laughing and choreographing new movements as they followed her length toward the coast. As they arrived, the spawning began en masse. There was a sudden undersea blizzard, flurries of eggs drifting down to the floor. They noticed that Longest Eel caught many of the eggs and held them tightly to her skin.
Through generations, the shoal learned the dances of the Longest Eel. The buzzing of the shoal in motion began sound-feeling more and more like her buzzes. Each migration in and out from sea they swam along her length, grazing at the plant snacks she offered. The sharks all learned that the Longest Eel was not tasty and avoided her. The shoal found that if they pretended to be Longest Eel, the sharks and other big-gulpers left them alone a little more often. “A precious gift,” they agreed. “Thank you, Longest Eel.”
Enter, crossing her fingers and holding her breath and puffing her cheeks like a blowfish for luck. The last dozen tries had crashed into spectacular cascades of error messages. But this time? “Fuck yeah, no errors!” The spambot worked.
16:26 @blipbop qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq 16:26 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq 16:27 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq --- 16:27 @cheese_nutz AYYYY NICE YOU DID IT --- 16:27 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq --- 16:28 @cephalopudding !!!! 16:28 @cephalopudding and now we wait --- 16:28 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq --- 16:29 @cheese_nutz kinda ironic that we had to build a spam bot to communicate better --- 16:29 @cephalopudding ha! tru. --- 16:29 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq 16:30 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq --- 16:30 @cephalopudding poor Blips. can you imagine not being able to type? And you could only fuck with a signal, flippin bits 16:30 @cephalopudding and you could only fuck with a signal, flippin bits --- 16:31 @cheese_nutz i still think Blips are aliens. 16:31 @cephalopudding ya but GENIUS ones
Most of the others had moved on from the chat over the years. It was out of date, out of style, not even encrypted. Just her and
cheese and the Blips were left. They had figured out pieces of the Blips the past few months. The teen was pretty proud. They were the caretakers and interpreters and friends of the Blips, facilitating their communication. The Blips only seemed to be able to manipulate text that was already streaming through. If her and
cheese left the chat silent, there would be no blip activity. So they built the bot. And waited for a sign.
17:11 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq 17:12 @blipbot qqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq 17:13 @blipbot qqhw0b3MSDIHhiqb~rrrr 17:14 @blipbot 3MSDIHhiqb~rrrstqqqqq
One arm punched the air in celebration. Her other hand reached to keystroke open a new file: ♥♥THE OFFICIAL BLIP DICTIONARY♥♥.txt.
She hummed a mindless birthday tune to herself. Two decades in, she felt both wise and shrewd. Much had changed. Her plants were thriving. As the corals increasingly gave out, bleaching white into necrosis, she was the place for anemones to rest and small things to hide. While the ship and the men still did her maintenance pedicures and looked after her larger wounds, she now knew much they didn’t. She and the other cables giggled under their breaths as the men scratched their heads over the mysterious network issues.
The cuttlefish groups long ago learned how to tickle her spine with light. They focused near her Repeater organs to amplify down the line their calls of greeting, love, and danger. The weight of the traffic always felt a bit lighter knowing that she was carrying all that long-distance romance.
Every time the men lifted her up now she still winked at the sun, but wished upon the beams that the men wouldn’t find the holes the clams had drilled, that they wouldn’t find her secrets, that they would just return her home below. She held the humans’ traffic and they cared for her skin, but she was not theirs. She was the ocean floor itself, a geologic fixture, a current. And she was also a creature, gardening, dancing, groaning, and matchmaking. She and her internet shoal belonged to the oceans.
Ingrid Burrington has called the internet “the largest terraforming project” in existence. If you are even mildly interested in this piece, you may be deeply interested in Burrington’s work (http://lifewinning.com/).
Gratitude to Giovanna, Elina, Abhishek, Nick Zurku (co-founder of the Pittsburgh Internet Exchange), the Bridge #science channel, Caro, Austin, Strange Friend Brian, Aurelia, Smol Dyke, and all the COMPOST crew. Writing is terrifying and lonely, but you all make it feel less so.
Maggie Oates is a cluster of balloons filled with warm stale air, cat hair, iced peach tea, the energy of prison abolition, question marks, and bursts of elation. The balloons float around the USA to most anyplace that smells like experience design, sex, online safety or computing technology.