Archive for ‘The Life of Small-Five’

The Life of Small-five (part 18).

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Cycle the lenses.
Small-five did so. Pain happened.
Small-five repeated herself.
Once again.
And again.
Wandering-tail-flickers pulsed to herself as she watched, one eye on Small-five, one on her glowshine terminal. Amazing. So many layers.
Yes yes, amazing, wonderful, astounding, incredible, broke in All-fin. How is the damage?
Wandering-tail gleamed peevishly, but cut herself off. A clean cut, but a severe one. The eye will detect light and shade, but little else. Another inch or so, and it would be a different story. Do you know, I think she was aiming for your brain?
Small-five knew.
She was a slow second-place then, said All-fin. Can’t you do something about this?
While the power to regrow entire organs would be a pleasant one, it is not within my capabilities, said the doctor. I will patch the eye to let it mend itself, but further development will be or not be at its own whim. At least, that’s what I’d say were you a healthy adult – I must admit, your physiology is half-guess and half-presumption on my part. Has your diet changed substantially since your metamorphosis? How about your range of visible light? Did your hunting habits adjust instinctually to the loss of a proboscis? And that’s not even to touch on the alterations to your brain, or your psyche. Do you think you could…?

Small-five left the medical chamber some hours later and was immediately submerged in a roiling wave of worried, frantically-shining juveniles. All-fin’s protests were shoved aside as rudely as All-fin herself by the mass of bobbing light and hurrying bodies.
Hurt-you? Who-
Where was-
Calm, shone Small-five, low and simply and smooth. And begrudgingly, happily, her school listened to her. Just as well. She didn’t feel she had the energy to overglow at them.
I am well, aside from this eye. I am safe now. No-one here means any of us harm-
Both-fins twitched nearly uncontrollably at this.
-no-one remains who means any of us harm, reiterated Small-five. And this sort of behaviour is exactly why none of you could accompany me in there. Be calm, be sensible. The Mother-leader waited with you, did she make half the fuss you did?
She’s not the only one waiting, said Dim-glow.

If All-fin had changed, however superficially, Dim-glow was a walking memory. Looking at her big sister – so small now – Small-five could almost believe that it was long ago again, when the world was sensible and kind, with no secrets that were not made by nature, and her sisters never more than a quick search away from her side. Even the repeatedly-wrecked-and-repaired bandoleer of tools still slung around her sister’s body was familiar, if somewhat more waterworn.
They only told me just now, she said. I finished the job, recommended the followup crew, filed a report, and was halfway back to tool storage before anyone got word to me. I’ve half a mind to put a few more eyes out to match yours; what good is a perfectly orderly power plant if nobody can be bothered to use it to send me a message?
Small-five wanted to say something to that, but she found she couldn’t. She wanted to stroke her sister’s skull with her proboscis, but she couldn’t do that either, and the memory of the muscles was already half-faded into the past. She settled for nudging Dim-glow with her snout as gently as possible, sending her sister wobbling.
Good-see-you-too, she replied, quiet and fast, then pulsed in surprise. What’s wrong with your eye? I thought all I missed was a meeting.
A divisive one, said Small-five. faint-marks-unclear is dead.
I killed her.
This created one of those unnaturally dim moments in all conversations.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, breaking the dark. You have had your demands met, if somewhat…imperfectly. faint-marks may have spoken too harshly –
-tried to kill her- broke in All-fin.
-and she may have acted in misguided anger, overglowed Outward-spreading, so smoothly that it nearly wasn’t shouting, but she informed you of the facts as they are known, and the reasons behind your expulsion. This was done in front of all of Far-away-light, as you again demanded.
All of Far-away-light that wasn’t at the bottom of our reactor at the time, interjected Dim-glow.
Recordings were made. You will have the opportunity to view them, although I trust you have already been informed of events. Outward-spreading was shining absently, almost as though she were talking to a sister, or herself; her glow hazy at the edges. Now that your conditions – your demands – have been met, what do you wish?
If it’s not too much trouble, Mother-leader, said Small-five, I would like to know why you are being so cooperative and forthcoming.
Outward-spreading rippled gently, small waves of light thrown off her sides like seaspray. Resistance garners less than nothing and risks much. You have ordered the leadership of Far-away-light about, forced our most private knowledge into the open for all to see and shine at, and killed one of us without so much as a touch. All of this in plain sight of the populace. What is left to fight for?
You could always kill us, offered All-fin, almost casually, and swear the city to secrecy.
Something almost like scorn shone through Outward-spreading, the harshest rebuke Small-five had seen in the years she’d learned from the elder. Do you think we hid our secrets because we trusted the whole world to agree with their needfulness? A few at a time could be eliminated or hidden away. There is no hiding what took place today. It is twelve thousand living memories, it is a hundred othershine records, it is faint-marks’s body being tended to in the medical chambers beneath us. Whatever could silence this would itself be an even more dramatic incident. No, no… this city will not forget what was learned in our library, although some may wish it.
You? asked Small-five.
Some, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine clotting. I will not lie to you: an old friend of mine would be swimming still if you had never returned to this place.
Another long, slow moment passed by, ending as Glow-over slid into the huddle with a speed that turned the instantaneity of her halting into a minor miracle.
You’re up and about? All fine? No brain damage, no glowshine poisoning, no muscular spasms?
Then would you please come outside slightly quicker than you’re able? These ‘fathers’ of yours are getting impatient. More than impatient. Please. Hurry.

Small-five somewhat thought that the head of Safety had been exaggerating; the fathers had only grouped themselves into a tight schooling formation, and although this was certainly a sign of more-than-usual tension as opposed to the more loose grouping they’d been left to enjoy earlier, it was not significant cause for alarm. Probably. All the same, she was happy to have the chance to take their measure again – still calm enough, even after all the strangeness they’d seen that day. Her eyepatch brought no real regard, and she wondered if they would’ve remained similarly nonchalant if the wound were open and bleeding.
The fathers, regardless, were soothed, and after that the question of where to house them came up.
The juvenile chamber? suggested Small-five.
I’m not sure how large you recall that place being, but halve that, said Shine-center flatly. Then halve it again. You’re not that small anymore, and they certainly aren’t.
The food-park then, said Dim-glow.
Do you have any idea how much those things’ll eat? We’re dealing with a full school of juveniles without warning already, and if we end up going hungry all summer because of this…
They shouldn’t, said Small-five. At least, not if they’re quiescent. They’ve lived for years through arctic summers, head of Maintenance. They can control themselves.
They had to use the largest Maintenance entrance to fit the fathers through, and they very nearly balked at the gates, but once they were in they seemed quite pleased at the whirl of colour that made up the reefcolony. Small-five wondered if they could remember their youths, in the long-ago time before they were made fathers, before they left home.

Her school was the next problem. Persuade as she would, more than half of her juveniles – Both-fins and Thin-sweeping included – were loath to part ways with her, even for lessons in the library. She found herself having to hover close at hand as teaching was conducted, and spent more than one night in the juvenile chamber, watching the currents flow along Far-away-light’s sides and counting the numbers of curious ‘passerbys’ who shuttled back and forth along the chamber’s mouth, seeking to catch a glimpse of her. The numbers refused to fall day by day, and she found herself too disturbed to keep the game up.
Of course, this meant her school accompanied her on the matters that consumed much of her time now: meetings upon arguments upon debates upon plans conducted with Outward-spreading, Shine-center, Glow-over, and Six-whirling-flares, the freshly appointed chief of Populism. Small-five had only met Six-whirling a few times before; she had always been a quiet presence in the background beyond faint-marks, a checker and a balancer and a measurer of small things that were important, like food, shelter, and timetables. It was a reassuring thing to have in those times, as the chamber grew thick with glowshine and annoyance, to have at least one person near your side at all times who was almost guaranteed to be calm. Especially as a counterbalance to All-fin, who was almost guaranteed not to be.
Well, of course it was the right thing to do, shone Glow-over. Maybe none of us felt quite as passionately about it as faint-marks did, but you already heard the explanation from her.
Heard it, why should I believe it? shone All-fin. I don’t see why having an easier way of doing things should choke us out of ideas – there’ll always be Researchers, inventors, idea-makers, and there always HAVE been. You probably weren’t looking in the right places to find what they left behind in the old days.
You presume, shone Six-whirling. We have ample evidence of ourselves during the reign of the aberrant through preserved remains. What we lack almost entirely are artifacts, which appear very quickly in the wake of their downfall. Your thinkers existed, All-fin. But they were becoming aberrants, not creators.
It’s been millennia, shone Dim-glow. We’ve learned. We’ve changed. The gene is rare, you’ve said so yourself, and we’re scarcely simple wanderers anymore. What harm would letting this re-emerge do?
Rare or not, shone Outward-spreading, its expression in any real numbers will trigger regression. Or have you forgotten the impact of one individual so quickly, with her swimming at your side? A resurgence of aberrants will come alongside a downfall of our society, or do you think that we will be trusted when it is learned what we have hidden? She shone negative. Maybe the cities will not be abandoned. At first. Maybe Research will not slide off into the abyss. Yet. But these things will come to pass as long as there is a visible easy current for all to see, a quick way to avoid immediate pain and hunger at the cost of future –
Outward-spreading, said Small-five. When I told faint-marks-unclear what I saw, I spoke the truth.

Outward-spreading gleamed acknowledgement.
The infants die on the reefcolonies, Mother-leader. The juveniles die at the polar seas, die in the wastes of the open seas on their way here. By myself, ignorant, I brought back almost more alive and healthy in one trip than Far-away-light might have received all year at the whim of the ice floes, starved and abused. There is nothing that can excuse this. You remember how long I spent in the library the first time I saw it, Mother-leader. You know how much love I feel for that place. And Mother-leader, if it would save a single infant, I would have that place torn to bits and scattered to the currents. And you know I am telling the truth.
Fine, shone Glow-over, breaking into the conversation. Then I presume that sustaining our present population by permitting the young to struggle is out of the question – you say we must not do it and I doubt we’re in a position to deny you.
Yet the alternative, added Shine-center, –namely, letting you and whoever else makes this change take charge of all of us again – we cannot do, not unless we want to regress back to bare proboscises alone as our only tools.
There will be suffering in that, Small-five-point-burst-of-light, shone Six-whirling. And given all of this, what then is it that we should do?

In the end, nearly half of Far-away-light volunteered. Many of those who remained behind were Maintenance, who knew history in the making when they saw it but also could see an emergent disaster when it was staring them in the face.
Yes, it’s likely that the place could run properly without me, Shine-center had said. It’s also likely that if anything goes wrong, I’ll be needed. It’s almost certain that if I’m needed in my absence, someone will die. So no, I’m not leaving.
Besides, she’d noted, you’ve got no shortage of volunteers.
Exactly five thousand seven hundred and forty-three adults. And all of her sixty-one juveniles. She’d explained herself carefully, she’d thought, but not a single one had wanted to stay behind.
If you do this good a job on your other stops, this may be simpler than you’d thought, Dim-glow had shone.
Small-five had thanked her sister, but as she looked out over the sides of Far-away-light, blazing with glowshine, she was absolutely sure that calling anything of this venture ‘simple’ would be the most blatant lie. Dozens of voyages, each thousands of miles long awaited them all. Even with nearly all of Safety among them, even with the vaults of provisions emptied, even with every scrap of planning a half-year of constant meetings could craft, this would be nearly impossible.
Small-five felt the glowshine rise up within her, and swallowed her nerves. She knew what she had to say, as they all watched her.
Give them the truth, she shone. All of the truth. The good and the bad.
And tell them that if they must choose, they need not choose one.
The lights of the city flared once in acknowledgement, and for the second time in Small-five’s life she was enveloped in a wave of cascading bodies, swept along in a storm that swam. Only this time she was not alone.
It wouldn’t last. Their destinations were a hundred cities, then a hundred more. Split into many groups, their courses would begin to diverge almost immediately.
It wouldn’t last. But still, it was so very sweet to her.

The Life of Small-five (Part 17).

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

There were complications en route to the libraries.
No, there are no larger passages, said Shine-center. This is a place of learning, not a storehouse of heavy machinery. The very largest of the terminals were brought in in small pieces, and that was almost a century ago. She gleamed negative. No, these fathers of yours simply will not fit. Not unless you want us to stop and construct a new entryway, and I believe you want this information before next month. You will simply have to leave them behind.
You are asking me to trust you, said Small-five.
As we are trusting you, replied Glow-over. The head of Safety was still pulsing infinitesimally, barely on the edge of Small-five’s detectable spectrum of light.
Small-five has past-cause for suspicion and anger, shone Outward-spreading, and through this we ourselves have reason for concern. Neither of these feelings, however, are relevant. Need you fear that we may murder you in front of all of Far-away-light, when even the matter of your wounding was conducted in such secrecy? Must we worry over future harms that you could deal to us most efficiently at this very moment?
Glow-over subsided. Mostly.
I concede your point, Mother-leader, shone Small-five. But remember: all must see.
Unless you want us to knock down walls- began Shine-center.
Transmit it in othershine, overglowed Small-five, use word of mouth if need be, pack the library solid, any way this can be done, it should be. This lesson must be a moment shared between all.
Glow-over and Shine-center twitched. Outward-spreading shone nothing.
faint-marks traveled just ahead of them, a voluntary outcast from the conversation.

Small-five paused to feel for a moment at the entrance to the libraries. Yes, the lingering fear and unease was now there, yes, there was unease at how much smaller everything seemed to her, but lying underneath it all and still calmly buzzing away was familiarity. Even now, with a school of sixty-one subadults paddling nervously in her wake, with her body reformed and reshaped, with all of Far-away-light’s eyes upon her and their leaders, she remained Small-five.
Of course, having All-fin at her side helped with that. Sister, she shone, as the library filled itself around them, it’s been entirely too dull here without you. And thank you for making up for lost time so quickly.
It’s not begun yet, said Small-five, as their little group spiralled deeper down towards the library’s base, faint-marks still guiding the way. First, we learn what secrets are worth exile for. After that… then it will be interesting.
faint-marks stopped. The full height of the library soared above them, filled with muted glowshine, half-hushed with fascination. Down here the walls were rough in shape, fashioned from shells grown huge over decades that denied polishing and resisted trimming with preternatural stubbornness.
They waited. The water around them grew dim as discussion above halted in shines and sparks. Something is going to happen, saw Small-five out of the corners of her eyes. The last words shone before quiet emerged.
Something is going to happen.
An explanation, chief of Populism, said Small-five. As demanded. As agreed.
faint-marks hung limp in the water, bereft of light as a corpse.
As demanded, repeated Small-five.
As agreed, said Outward-spreading, in that strange, tired light that seemed to have filled her since Small-five had come home again. faint-marks-unclear, comply with Small-five-point-burst-of-light’s demands.
Lightlessness followed. Then slow, dragging acknowledgement from the chief of Populism. Her light was as unsteady as ever, but in the watchfulness of so many eager eyes, it almost blinded. i will need access. to an othershine terminal. for illustration purposes.
The moments that followed seemed to last forever, sinking into the memories of all present through the skin. The unnaturally dim quiet. The soft susurrus of many fins in rest position, whispering through the water. The faint popping and clicking noises of an old, old othershine computer being operated after its first boot-up in what must’ve been years, down here in the dark corners of the foundations of Far-away-light. All small, useless details, all suddenly almost as important as anything else in the world.
this, said faint-marks, as she projected othershine from the terminal into a bare-bones but recognizable spire-shape, is far-away-light. just over a century old. just over twelve thousand inside. it is our home. experimental deep-sea design. young and average in size. but still a city.
Further popping sounds as buttons were operated.
this – and ‘this’ was a massive and irregular blob sketched with quick, faded marks – is old-glow-holes. nearly three millennia old. population of nearly forty thousand within permanently. more visitors. first known city to exist. architecture a timeline dating from first civilization to present. second-largest in size. a city.
Pop, pick. A silhouette emerged stroke by stroke. Fins on a sleek torso. The smooth curve of a sharp-tipped proboscis. And a little pair of barbels at the mouth.
this is us. only known sapient lifeform. fossils date back nearly one hundred thousand years. near-ancestors and extinct offshoots six times that. all this information is from fossils only. no artifacts. no dwellings. no reefshaping. physical remains only.
faint-marks paused there. She did not move. She did not look up from her terminal.
no change in behaviour. no change in territorial range. no change in anatomy. stasis. immobility.
Click by click, a series of lines and words appeared. A symbol composed of further symbols, a web of interwoven fundamental truths.
Small-five had seen it before. She’d described its function on the eve of the last night she’d spent in Far-away-light.
this is a gene, shone faint-marks-unclear. rare. present in a tiny percentile of the population. it has no innate effect on adult carriers. it is ubiquitous in fossil populations. until three thousand four hundred years ago. steady decline begins. reaches modern scarcity three thousand years ago. as old-glow-holes is made. as other first cities are made.
Click, and the gene vanishes.
Pop, and the familiar silhouette re-emerged.
And then, inch by inch, it was rewritten. The body lengthened all out of proportion, stretched to the point where the spine seemed like it would snap. The proboscis was amputated. The glowshine tubes lengthened and thickened and swept along the body, coiling into themselves in tiny corkscrews. The fins were realigned and smoothed out into long sweeps that seemed to flap in the water of the library floor. The eyes were tweaked slightly, perhaps thickened. A small adjustment, but one that completed a picture of unmistakable alienness in the guise of something hauntingly familiar.
this, said faint-marks-unclear, raising her gaze to Small-five since the moment they had departed for the library, is the function of the gene.
Ten thousand eyes moved, yet not a spark of glowshine shone.
an increase of more than double length. less-so mass. so body is built for low-effort high-speed over long distances. glowshine production intensified. exponentially greater than in adult. eye lenses increase in number from three to eight against self-blinding. loss of proboscis. increased speed and glowshine compensate. would still restrict to small prey. incapable of reproduction.
faint-marks’ proboscis tapped three times in rapid succession, then fell aside from the computer. Above her, painted in the pale othershine of the terminal’s aging projector, each illustration she’d sketched circled slowly in a great ring.
the gene persists. the aberrant form matures. and where it lives we stagnate. more than ninety-five thousand years before any change in us. and when change comes. it comes with the downfall of the gene. it comes alongside the vanishing of the aberrant.
faint-marks was struggling more now, her glowshine pulsing unevenly and rapidly, nearly brightening to normal adult strength one instant and then dying back down again to its typical dwindled gleam.
we wondered how. we wondered why. we made theories. we hypothesized. we even considered reactivating the gene. it is rare. but not extinct. obviously.
but the risk was too great. we left it at theories. we analyzed and reanalyzed our data. we searched old seafloors. we spent centuries learning this. centuries. centuries! mothers and daughters learning and dying and thinking atop each other’s bones.
and then you came. not the first to discover. not the first to know by dozens and dozens. independent efforts have stumbled on links by mistake. populists. researchers. noteworthies taken into secrecy. small ones vanished.
we could’ve killed you.
The first whispers of light from another sparked across the crowds above like a roiling wave. faint-marks continued without pause.
we could’ve killed you. and now i see. now i see we should have. you have brought us five dozen young across a harsh sea. well-fed and unafraid. unharmed. The chief of Populism’s gills fluttered with exertion as her glowshine wavered. when you look at the weapons of safety. what do you see?
Tools of death to protect life, responded Small-five automatically. Her teacher was speaking to her again, a subadult again, a student. Rhetorical questions parting for knowledge at a prompted nudge, a nudge cut off at the hilt as faint-marks plowed onwards.
i see three thousand years of knowledge gained in pain and passed down to others. when you look at the walls of this place. what do you see?
A place for-
i see three thousand years of labor and love of others. when you look at us – the mother-leader your teachers your keepers your mothers and your guardians and your saviors – what do you see?
i see three thousand years of unbroken determination. determination to better ourselves and our daughters and their daughters onward and forever.
faint-marks was visibly trembling now, from snout to tail-tip. do you know what i saw when you swam to us with your doting subadults and your pet fathers and your name shining brighter than the sun? brighter than this city itself?
Small-five fought the urge to reach out a proboscis she no longer had, either in aid or in as a defensive ward, she wasn’t sure. I-
i see a future devoid of progress and betterment. i see three thousand years of struggle and love washed to pointless triviality in a careless instant by actions taken by an ignorant and presumptuous creature. i see ninety-five thousand years of complacency and passivity. i see any hope for accomplishment and progress ground to sand and silt in the currents. i see daughters content to follow and grow fat and learn nothing. do nothing. be nothing.
Silence black as sin settled over the library as faint-marks’ sides collapsed into exhausted darkness, heaving as if she’d outrun a godfish. Her eyes were glassy and her proboscis was at once boneless and flailing; a grasping, twitching thing that bobbed in the currents spawned from her body’s motions.
Small-five looked beside herself. All-fin was twitching with barely-restrained fury; Both-fins was staring wide-eyed at the chief of Populism as if she were a Crheeh at her throat; Thin-sweeping was trying to tuck herself behind Small-five’s dorsal fin and vanish from the eyes on them all.
Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, and felt herself almost jump at the shine of a voice that didn’t waver in the grip of an eye. Chief of Populism. My teacher. Do you know what I see this when I look at this place that you have built?

After Small-five spoke her question she waited; for an answer, a denial, acknowledgement, anything. She would be fair. She waited, and she listened.

Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, speaking alone in Far-away-light as it sat in the darkness. My guardian. My keeper. Do you know what I see when I look at this life you have laid out for us?

She waited. She listened.

Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, at the bottom of all that she had ever known. My savior. My mother. Do you know what I see when I look at you?

She listened.

I see a ring of teeth descending upon infants from the blue. And behind that, nothing.

Faint-marks-unclear did not strike, she convulsed; her entire body contorted into a single wrenching, violent motion that launched her through the library terminal, through the shocked flaring of Far-away-light, and into Small-five’s face.
Light leapt back in answer.

There was a searing pain in Small-five’s left eye, a bone-shaking impact against her skull, and then a lesser one as the offending weight was suddenly hurled away by what her already-retracting lens-lids hinted at to be All-fin. Already-retracting on one side, that is. Her other revealed reddened pain, and she hastily halted her attempts to pry it open.
The library was in an uproar; the heights were a mass of riotous light and shock. Outward-spreading, Glow-over, and Shine-center were clustered around the entangled and still-struggling mass of All-fin and faint-marks. Then the forms broke apart, and Small-five saw that the struggle had been entirely one-sided.
Gone, shone her sister to them all. It went right through.
Small-five didn’t understand, then her sister nudged the chief of Populism’s body into better profile. One eye was a puckered husk, its surface rippling in the tiny, uneven waves of superheated water surrounding it.
Right through, repeated her sister, and this time Small-five heard the satisfaction in her voice. How’d you do that? So small, but so focused-
The light was too bright all around her and her eye felt like it had peeled open and split her head in half and she needed space to think.
QUIET, said Small-five. And it lit up Far-away-light’s insides like a second sun, like nothing ever had before, and it made her eye jump with pain inside her skull.
But it worked, at least for a little while.
There were questions and confusions and anger and shock and comfort and love.
But they could wait, at least for a little while.

The Life of Small-five (Part 16).

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once.
It had not been a compulsory part of her education in Populism, although the necessity of such a task had been stressed most heavily in her classes.
renewal, faint-marks had told her in those soft, dim lights of hers. for us, for them. we give them their strength back, they become our own. both given freely.
Small-five wondered how long it had been since faint-marks-unclear had been a starving subadult in the middle of a blue desert, belly empty, burning away her insides to stay alive as she moved towards a hopeless end. She wondered if faint-marks-unclear had recalled that dazed awe she had felt as Far-away-light was revealed to her, as she was swept into the care of almost godlike creatures, exposed to a well of bottomless knowledge, raised from hopeless to the ruler of all she dared dream for.
Small-five, certainly, had forgotten all those things by the time she listened and read and learned. She had agreed that it was a fair trade, a gift given without obligation that was returned in kind. There was a purity in such thing, and by extension in a society built from such things.
It had been her job to guide. Guides, ice-melters, Fiskupid-netters, food-carriers…each a task requiring dozens, each requiring a knack, a skill. The strength to bear a burden of hundreds of pounds of food for hours; the nimbleness to make sure not a single precious building-block went to waste in the deep; the care and caution to wield burning force that could fry skin in seconds. And the kindness to reassure, to speak slowly and simply in sistertalk, to be a presence to adhere to rather than one to flee from. To be calm.
Small-five had been calm, soothing. She had been kind, comforting. She had been beckoning, leading. And she had done all those things perfectly well, as long as she did not look into the eyes of the subadults and see the lostness in there staring back at her, unexpressed in glowshine but bleeding straight from the soul.
Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once. She could understand why most did, and possessed wonder at the strength of those who managed to do more. Did their sensitivities grow calloused, or did they see those eyes and yearn to do more, deciding that this was the way, that this was how it must be, and if so, it must be done well?
It didn’t matter at this time, she supposed. Regardless of motive, regardless of personal mind, regardless of anything, she suspected she could predict exactly what each and every one of Far-away-light’s guides were thinking and feeling within the next short time.

Waiting, in the darkness. Glowshine extinguished – temporarily, only temporarily – with only the most minute flashes and sparks to communicate, to give direction and order. The subadults must not be given time to frighten themselves with, they must be confronted at close range, gathered quickly lest their panic lead them to flight. Strength must be saved for the burst of glow that would blind their tired eyes, dazzle them into hesitation.
Waiting, in the darkness. And then, the sight of light.
That was not normal. The glitter and shine of subadults – yes, yes, yes, that was normal, but not this concentrated dawn that lurked just out of range of true sight, turning the water a lighter shade of blue. It was nighttime, and this shouldn’t be.
But then there they were: the glimmer of subadults. The guides spread in pairs and triplets, ready to engage them, quick final planning flickers exchanged. And as the glimmers grew and grew and grew, the flickers hesitated, and then flew faster and faster.
Small-five had left the polar rim with thirty-eight subadults. As currents merged and ice melted, she had found another eight. As bergs fragmented and subadults scattered, she had claimed another ten. As loneliness and fear in the darkness overwhelmed the infant urge to stay small, stay dark, she had seen another five.
Sixty-one subadults in a single school, swimming together, naked of ice. Perhaps as many as would be gathered for Far-away-light’s halls in a year, all at once, and looking back at the guides with eyes bright, minds alert, bodies quick and strong to dart away and stare from a safe distance as firm glowshine pins down adults that should’ve been hidden in invisible dark, not this strange false-dawn. Curiosity rooting where awe had always guarded its clutch. Uncertainty dwelling amidst the old confronted with the new.
These things Small-five did not see, for she was travelling in the midst of the school. But she was close enough to see the reaction when the first glint of glowshine revealed the tusks and bulk of a father. Flashes, stuttered shining, and undignified flight so fast that she barely had time to register the tips of their tails, leaving only swirling confusion and disappointed subadults in their wake.
Scared, complained Both-fins, wriggling in frustration midwater. Why run?
Because they have seen what they do not understand. Because they have found something new where they have been told there is nothing. Because they have been deceived.
They are surprised, said Small-five, and that was close enough. Swim on. We can find more food without diving tonight, and we are almost there.

They did find food on the way; as Small-five had predicted, many of the food-carriers had elected to discard their bulky harnesses to the currents in their haste to follow their fleeing companions. Their contents were greedily consumed by the school as they cruised onwards, and it was no time at all until the glowing spire of shells grew out of the gloom before their eyes, a tower of many bodies and many lights, impossibly huge and yet made by mind and proboscis alone.
Small-five felt her glowshine beginning to prickle, and calmed herself quickly before the fathers could grow agitated – they were always quick to read her mood through her lights, and though she had not needed their strength yet she was under no illusions as to the damage they might do if she set them on an adult, a creature less than half their size by length and far less by bulk. She was not here to seek death. She was not here to cause pain. She was not here to shred the glowshine from anyone’s body and leave them a limp and lightless husk for the currents to take and the predators of the open waters to pick over at their will.
Her glowshine was prickling again.
Small-five shook herself all over – once, twice, three times – blinked herself on and off five times, and began what she’d planned.
Look away, she shone to her school. Mind your sight away from me.
One two three four five at once in a burst. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
It wasn’t very small. Looking at it through seven of her eight lenses, Small-five still found her pupils shrinking. Her name shone so loudly that it seemed to backwash the chorus of glowshine forever blinking from Far-away-light into silence.
Small-five counted to one hundred. Then she repeated herself.
And again.
And again.
And again.
And then she waited, because she saw the lights beginning to scurry and swarm across the peak of the city, to grow larger and firmer. Someone was coming to talk to her.
Sisters? asked Thin-sweeping, hovering hesitantly besides Small-five’s fin. The school was reforming around her, maybe clustering a bit more closely than before. The sight of something so new and strange was hard to forget, as Small-five herself remembered. Mothers?
No, said Small-five. Not mothers. She gleamed irritably at her snap response. They tried their best, she corrected herself, and then stopped again.
They thought they knew what was right, she said. And now I must see what they believe.

There was a lot of shining, but very little being said. From all quarters at once.
Small-five thought something was wrong, and realized it was herself – they were all so small to her eyes, so small. Even Outward-spreading was only a little distance over half her bodylength, when before she had seemed enormous beyond all reckoning.
It’s not just my body, she thought. It’s in my eyes. They were my guardians, my teachers, my leaders. They were more than I.
They deceived me in these things, and I believed them.
Quiet, she said, overglowing the confused hubbub, and was surprised to have her command answered promptly. Lights winked out with the speed of thought.
I am Small-five-point-burst-of-light, she said. I have told you this, and you were willing to speak when you came here. My sisters are All-fin-sparkle, Dim-glow-bright-two-point-flare, and Nine-point-glimmer. Corroborate my claims with them, if you are skeptical.
Outward-spreading glanced towards Shine-at-the-center.
No chance for hours, gleamed the head of Maintenance. Dim-glow is leading a work crew at the bottom of the reactor right now. Unless you want the city to boil half-over, we’ll have to wait.
And Research is conducting an expedition to the north-west tropical rift, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine slower than Small-five remembered. Had she aged so quickly, in so few years? Nine-point is second-in-command; Left-lights would never permit her to return early, before the summer’s height.
Small-five reigned in her growing bitterness again before it reached her glowshine. The mother-leader and her cohorts were within striking distance of two of the fathers. Safety had only been persuaded to lower their weaponry and retract to a short distance away after a bitter ten-minute debate that Small-five felt she had won by exasperation more than anything else, and she had no desire to reopen it. Then call in All-fin, she said. I don’t hear her name mentioned in your expedition, and Safety doesn’t stray far from home otherwise.
No light shone. Small-five turned her eyes on Glow-over-all-points, and found that not only was the smallish head of Safety even smaller than she remembered, she was also trying – and failing – to make herself appear unobtrusive.
Is All-fin still within Safety? asked Small-five.
No, said Glow-over. She looked as though she would’ve preferred to say less and shrink further.
Small-five looked at Outward-spreading, saw a mirrored blankness, and felt something inside her tightening. Has my sister been harmed?
Got reassigned, said Glow-over. She left Safety of her own will.
Why? Reassigned to where?
Wouldn’t stop with the questions – about you, mostly. Didn’t get the answers she wanted, backed out. Got caught heading out after you. She pulsed annoyance. Mother-leader, this is Small-five. You know it. faint-marks knows it. Talk to the damned thing, whatever she’s turned int-
First, said Small-five, overshining the head of Safety, you will bring my sister to me. Here. Now.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, we acknowledge that you are who you claim to be. She shone firmly, but in her unusual silences and the rigidness of her bearing, Small-five saw something new in the one who’d taught her of language and learning. Glow-over, bring her sister here.
The head of Safety hesitated, lights miring at her sides.
I know, said Outward-spreading. Nevertheless, now.

All-fin was thinner than Small-five had remembered her to be, and there were scars of all ages criss-crossing her hide from tip to tail. But her energy was still there, and the moment Small-five flashed her name to her sister she squirmed away from the three Safety wardens that had brought her out to midwater and was so close to Small-five that her eyes could barely focus on her, corkscrewing her way around her body and firing off greetings faster than light in jumbled old sistertalk.
Good-to-see-you-is-it-you-must-be-what-went-wrong-they-said-you-went-missing-on-a-swim-outside-what-went-wrong-was-it-them? She paused for a moment in her circling. How’d-you-get-big?
You-helped-a-bit, shone Small-five. Long-story. They-put-me-out-did-they-hurt-you?
All-fin shone negative, but with distaste. Not-directly-punished-me-for-deserting-duty-left-me-without-direction-assigned-me-Maintenace-gutterwork-kept-wardens-on-me-always-watching. Sisters-kept-quiet-or-they-were-next.
There, said Glow-over. She’s fine, she’s yours, now are you ready to talk?
Yes, said Small-five. About what, do you think?
These, shone Outward-spreading, sweeping the nearest father – the great old white-eyed single-tusked hulk that dwarfed all of them – with a small beam of light. The male’s pupil contracted slightly at the shine, but he did not react otherwise. The flotilla of youth you’ve brought with you. Why you came back. What you’ve done to yourself. What you want from us.
Explanations, said Small-five.
Not vengeance, then? asked Glow-over, sarcastically.
Small-five warned her school in sistertalk, then pulsed twice. Hard.
Four darkened lenses slipped between her eyes and the glowshine were just enough to make it bearable. An adult’s full complement of three, as revealed by the incoherent whirling lights from the leaders of Far-away-light, were obviously not. Small-five felt a reproachful flicker at her side as All-fin smacked her, and realized she would have to apologize to her sister later in private.
If I wanted vengeance, she said, keeping her glowshine as smooth and even as she could manage, I would have burned your eyes out the moment you left the city’s sides. If I wanted revenge, I would have shone my name so brightly that every single sister and mother on Far-away-light would go to the end of their days with vision that can barely tell light from dark. And then I would have left. Without explanation or apology. I want those things from you.
Outward-spreading gleamed sharply, and Small-five watched as Glow-over swallowed the immediate response that had been brewing in her glowshine tubes. She was satisfied. Safety could think what they liked, – and judging from their shimmering in the distance as they regrouped, they thought they didn’t like her – her point was made.
Explanation, she repeated. And apology. Mother-leader, you know who I want these things from.
Outward-spreading shone acknowledgement, short and sharp. And as one, their eyes turned to the quietest member of the talk.
Chief of Populism, said Small-five. I repeat myself: I want these things from you. I will now correct myself in one word: I demand these things from you.
yes, said faint-marks-unclear. Her words were as hard to read as ever, but Small-five could practically feel the tired anger seeping from her sides. it was all that was needed. no more. maybe less. did what must be.
So you say, said Small-five. Now, we are going to the libraries. All of us. And you will show Far-away-light what you did to me, and why.
we could have killed you, shone the chief of Populism, as they began to swim towards the city. did you forget that?
No, said Small-five. Did you think that made it right?

The Life of Small-five (Part 15).

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Wash in, wash out. Feel the water caress your gills, cool and smooth, soft. Relax.
Then ready yourself, and begin. Send the signal up from your spine-head, the place where your mind lives. Feel it crawl along your body at an agonizing slowness, the speed of light.
It must go to five places at once. All at once. Or else it doesn’t work.
The tip of each pectoral fin.
The tip of the dorsal fin.
The two soft places just behind the eyes.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. All touched at once.
Now, to make that touch a strike, a surge, a jolt. Each point, for just a single instant measuring from then-to-now, is a little star that leaves its mark on the eye for an instant afterwards, a reminder. It must not overpower, it must never fizzle or falter.
It must be perfect.
One, two, three fourfive.

And that was how Small-five-point-burst-of-light said her name aloud, for the first time in more than a year.

Small-five moved through the world in a haze, full of wonder and without a single shred of instinct to guide her way. Movement was a surprise, now that she was there to think about it. Eating was a shock. Sight was absurd. And every day, every new day, she only grew more and more confused.
It was wonderful, as long as she minded her thoughts and kept them on the living with her.
There – at her side – that was Thin-sweeping-shimmer, the smallest of the little band that had clustered around her as the days fell away. A Gible hung from her proboscis, its limp body quivering with the juvenile’s nervousness as she proffered it. Small-five adjusted the angle of her body, gingerly plucked the gelatinous mass from Thin-sweeping’s grasp – it was still so strange, lacking her own, her jaw now a seamless line of perfectly-fused bone. She would need to learn to lead her strikes with her teeth someday (they felt larger, they were larger, perhaps that would help), but for now at least she was cared for. The food tasted empty, but she needed the nourishment more than the sensation; she had enough strange new things to marvel at.
The juveniles were a constant joy to observe; she’d forgotten that awkward time when the brain was just finishing expansion, when the ability to plan came into being, to think ahead, to be smart. She watched as sisters became friends, and watched as they began – cautiously, slowly – to speak among themselves, to learn to trust others that were not their blood. Five separate sister-groups had begun to follow Small-five, fourteen little lost ones. At least this last Small-five could take more than distant satisfaction in; she seemed to act as a beacon for the juveniles; that neverending light that she could not stifle lured in new lost little ones from miles away, a curiosity that they followed for reasons none of them yet had the words to explain.
She might not be able to stop it, but she was learning how to use it.
One two three four five at once. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
The water danced with her name, bouncing off walls of ice, and she was happy again. Happier still to see the juveniles react with less surprise; she was more and more a known in their minds, a thing to be trusted through experience – even if she was too big and too strange to be one of them. Stranger still to herself; stretched to nearly double her former size but only slightly thicker than before, she had become lean and long. To surge through the water was perhaps more difficult than before, but even at a cruise she now left the juveniles struggling to keep up and was forced to idle, tail barely moving as they swam alongside.
Hungry, glimmered a voice at her side. It was Both-fins-flaring, the largest of Thin-sweeping’s sisters. Find-food? You? Thin-sweeping herself huddled at her side, and Small-five suspected that the juvenile wasn’t quite speaking her own words.
Yes, she replied – carefully. Shrinking her light had become a greater struggle than expanding it had ever been before her change, but with applied patience she’d learned to shrink her glowshine down to the scale of an adult, made her words small and kind. It felt…right. Not comfortable, perhaps, but it was the way she should be.
Besides, she had other means with which to stretch herself.
Food, she called, in that long, steady pulse that stretched itself outwards for as far as her new eyes could see – they saw so much more now. She’d finally managed to count all of her lens-lids the day before. Eight of them, five more than before. With all lifted the world was as clear as a gloudulite’s blood, and when all were in place she wagered she could stare into an alarm flare without a flinch, the world a shadowed shell. Food. Come.
They came in fits and starts, drifting away from whatever meager prey they found at the surface, and one and all, Small-five at their head, they sank down into the dark black beneath, where even the polar night seemed an unfathomable brightness above.
Small-five counted body-lengths as she swam at the head of the column. One. Two. Three. More and more, farther down.
At ten, she relaxed herself, and spat out the smallest gleam she could manage. Be-ready.
Acknowledgment glowed at her side.
NOW, shone Small-five, and in that instant she relaxed the iron grip of her muscles on her glowshine tubes, felt the surge rise, and drove it just a height or two above her comfort levels.
The world turned into a frozen picture for a second of pure light, like an image in othershine. A mid-sized mated pair of Raskljen. A small school of Eurenu adrift. A Nohlohk larvae just shed of its molt. All halted in their paths to hide, all perfectly exposed.
Small-five’s juveniles hesitated too. But not for quite as long.

When the time came to rise, some hours later, they did so with protesting, over-full bellies. Small-five had taken to using Thin-sweeping as a barometer of the success of their hunts: if she had managed to get enough food to complain on the ascent, all of them must have been stuffed properly. Currently she was too bloated with Eurenu flesh to even manage that, and so Small-five permitted herself the efflorescent warmth of absolutely unrepentant self-satisfaction. Her own newly-lengthened digestive tract was comfortably swollen, riding high in her abdomen over the strangely hollow cavity where she suspected her generative organs had resided. Though she couldn’t observe such things directly, Small-five presumed she was now sterile – certainly her rear fins were now too small to reach the greatly-increased distance to her cloacal vent, besides being too rigid to bend. The apparent fact that this did not worry her troubled her sometimes, but a little less so with every day that passed. In fact, Small-five was so untroubled by this and other matters and so content with her filled belly that she very nearly swam headfirst into the hovering pale-bellied bulk above her that mingled with the light from above.
The panicked shining of the juveniles was her only alarm, and she banked sharply, the tip of her snout nearly scraping heavy, thick-set hide as it veered away from her in surprise. She corkscrewed in midwater, sides sending wobbling beams of light hither and thither, and tried to reposition herself – the children, she had to put herself between the thing and the children, where was it, where was it? The water around her was clearing again, in synch with her mind, turning from violent flashes in the dark back to illuminated evenness, and the first thing that she saw of her partner in near-collision (Crheeh? No, too bulky, and they lurk deeper. Jarekindj? But she’d seen a fin…) was the sparkle of glowshine illuminating bared bone and enamel as it reflected from his tusks.
Oh, said Small-five involuntarily, embarrassed and relieved all at once. Oh.
The father hovered nervously three bodylengths away, small eyes focused on her. He was the first she’d ever seen in the flesh, and his sides were a riot of swirling colours just an inch too pleasing to be random. In length he was her equal, in bulk he would’ve made two of her, and his tusks were each half again the length of her proboscis. When she’d had it.
She was glad, as they watched one another, that fathers were harmless. Juveniles they were indifferent to, adults they consciously avoided. They had no place in the lives of their sisters and mothers beyond their birthing, and they gave as little malice as they did compassion.
Then again, voiced a treacherous, worrisome thought that Small-five would swear did not belong to herself, Small-five was neither adult nor juvenile.
Precisely as this thought crossed her mind, the father flicked his tail gently, propelling himself slightly closer. His eyes were still on her.
They were pink.
Small-five would not be able to explain how that fact led her to relax, to stifle the explosion of glowshine she was sure was waiting to erupt from her body at the slightest hint of aggression or anger. All that mattered was that as did her light fall into the warmer softness of she used to light her way, to beckon the juveniles, so did the tiny edge-of-hearing noise that she belatedly recognized as a battle trill cease to emit from the father’s body.
They stared at each other some more. Well, Small-five did. The father, by contrast, swam in a quick half-circle and casually dropped into the hastily-vacated space the juveniles had left at her side.
Schooling position.
Small-five thought about what this meant, and felt that strange warm, tickling feeling of happy excitement growing inside her chest again.
Come, she shone, pulsing her glowshine into the crevices of the ice pack where the juveniles had fled. Come-back. Come. Safe. She nearly broke into ripples of laughter as the father moved closer towards her with puzzled pink eyes.
Father-guards. Father-is-safe.

By the time the sky was beginning to fill with light once more, the time when the food sank deeper down in the water column, the time of spring and starving, Small-five had nearly three dozen juveniles in her wake, all on the cusp of subadulthood. At the edges of the school, spaced evenly and prone to jostling for pride of placement (through some murky sort of pecking order whose depths she did not understand) if she did not watch them, were five fathers of various ages and degrees of scarring. The oldest and largest, whose eyes had faded to a near-white, was the owner of a single, rugged tusk that was bigger than Thin-sweeping from snout to tail, and had taken the position of rearguard without dispute.
The juveniles had protested, cowered, and finally succumbed to guidance out of exhaustion as much as anything else, but each succeeding group of sisters that joined the school had done so faster than the last under the peer pressure of those who preceded them. Small-five did not entirely approve of the insults that were flung at those who flinched or wavered from the presence of the fathers, but she was unable to muster the will to pronounce a ban on such talk when the results were not only so helpful but also rapid.
The talking was important, besides. She was no great teacher, nowhere near the ability of Outward-spreading, but she remembered enough of her own troubles and difficulties moving from sistertalk to the speech of adults that she was able to slowly, steadily make the subadults understand what she wanted of them. Language; nothing more, nothing less.
Sistertalk-is-fine, she told them. But-you-practice-need-to-practice-to-learn. Understand-yes?
Affirmations spread from the school.
This makes sense?
An almost total blankness met her, bar a few awkward glimmers.
Then-practice-more, she said. And gave up for the day. Again.
Instead, she attempted to make herself understood to the fathers again. She was thin of knowledge on them, and suspected that faint-marks would’ve been able to tell her little more. The fathers were an enigma, dwelling in the most remote corner of the world and quick to actively avoid Populism’s attempts at research, and even their basic anatomy was something of a mystery. Their psychology in particular was an utter guess in the dark at best, although induction based upon the postulated average size of their braincase put them at the intellectual level of exceptionally-dim juveniles. More than that – exceptionally-dim juveniles that possessed no social tendencies and no capacity for language.
….reflected Small-five, as she led five of them onwards with the guiding beacon of her glowshine, prodding them with the simplest of signals and seeing what made them react (inflections of alarm, danger, food, or exhaustion, mostly; the stronger the emphasis the more firmly it was understood). She suspected that she would have to rewrite many acknowledged truths on this matter, although she would likely have to request the aid of someone with a proboscis to do so for her.
That thought gave her pause, and for a moment her swimming stalled as she turned it about for re-examination. Rewrite whose truths, where, and request the aid of whom? Far-away-light was not her home, not anymore and not ever – she doubted that faint-marks had spoken her ultimatum with hidden clauses in mind, should Small-five come across interesting facts upon their species (especially given what had led to its delivery). Even if she were to subtly deposit her subadults on their doorstep and leave without fuss, she could not be assured they would be treated kindly – regardless of whether or not her touch upon them was unknown, thirty-four subadults was very nearly half of the quota Far-away-light permitted entry within its walls every year. Her subadults would either be turned away or lead to the abandonment and death of an equal number of starving migrants, lagging somewhere behind her, following the just-calving icebergs and their cargo of frozen Fiskupids.
Small-five thought about those subadults now, not for the first time. She had done all she could, she was sure. She had wandered far, shone bright, called in so many children and given them safety, food, and most importantly, stability. They had to leave now; the summer polar outskirts would not support them all and she had no desire to lead her children inwards, to expose them to the fate of Pulsing-point.
She had helped so many, as many as she could. She was sure of this.
Thirty-four subadults, all safe and healthy. Happy. She was sure that this was more than there would’ve been otherwise. She had made a difference.
So why not do more?

After another five days, they departed with somewhat emptier bellies and four more subadults. For Far-away-light.
Small-five had a difference to make.

The Life of Small-five (Part 14).

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Populism and Research often delved into odd projects together, an old partnership since the inception of the cities. An ongoing project of shared interest had been the bodies of the researchers themselves, and their sisters at large by extension. What made them work? What made them able to wonder this? Or that? How do we find out? How do we find out without hurting anyone?
Small-five’s education had included a healthy backing in her own biology. She had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. For instance, how does your mind rest?
A simple question that isn’t often asked. Ooliku slept – lightly, and quick to waken. Nohlohks slept; deeply, and for what seemed ages. Small-five didn’t sleep, or at least, not all at once. Each quarter of her brainstem would shut down independently as it reached exhaustion point. After extended periods of extreme physical overstress, two would go down in parallel and render her near-insensate.
Small-five didn’t sleep. Which made her most surprised, when the dreams came.
The first month-maybe of her and Pulsing-point’s time in the Ooliku’s glacial refugium at the bottom of the world was… right. They ate, and they changed – how she didn’t yet understand, but deep down inside her bones she could feel stretching, twisting. Her stomach twisted inside itself with fierce sounds, her proboscis itched like wildfire, and once she felt a ferocious tickle in her mind that made her think of when she’d chased after that male on the reefcolony long ago.
It was strange, but it was right. And then, without warning, it vanished.

She gained consciousness more than a day later by her best guess, with Pulsing-point huddled in fear against her side. Sister-safe? Sister-safe? she asked, all concern and glimmer.
Small-five nudged her back, and wondered. And worried.
It happened again, after a feast of Ooliku the likes of which she’d have given an eye for back in the great open sea – the aftermath of a great mating-jousting, with scores of exhausted, frail, dying targets still prime with flesh. They glutted themselves, she felt the trickle down the back of her throat, her spine, and then

the endless waves eating at her sawing at her she was stuck on top of them all, stuck above the water gills dry and cold, where were her sisters her lights couldn’t reach?
there they were down there! All-fin and Pulsing-point and Dim-glowing and all of her sisters were there why wouldn’t they wait they were swimming into a city the city
was a mouth and the mouth came out of the blue, the deep blue emptiness
eating them it was eating all of them it wouldn’t stop
the children stop the children


She awoke again, and the back of her mouth felt strange. Her face was numb, and she spent a confused hour rubbing it against ice before she gave up and accepted it.
Pulsing-point watched in confusion. Small-five tried to soothe her as best as she could, but keeping a slow, relaxed posture was growing harder. She felt as if her fins were trying to pull away from one another.
Time seemed to be speeding up somehow, although part of that could be that she kept spending so much of it

being forced through a ring of jagged shells backing water as best she could but the current was too strong and it drew her through row after row after row and
they shrunk down down smaller and smaller rings so small they fit into her eyes they were cutting out her eyes in rings, peeling them away so that the Gruskomish could eat them down on the bottom of the world because they were always hungry
hungry because faint-marks wouldn’t let them eat was holding all the food all so hungry all of them not Gruskomish all the
children so hungry all dying

dead to the world.
Her eyes had changed while she was asleep. They felt strange, sticky, almost-scabbed. She blinked her membranes to clear them, but felt searing pain before they could even twitch.
Sister-changing, shone Pulsing-point. She seemed smaller. Was she smaller? No, she was bigger. Her vision kept swaying. Bigger, definitely.
Sister-changing, shone Pulsing-point, again. She’d said it a few days ago, hadn’t she? It was hard to tell the time, with the sun stuck in the sky so. Always that light, that neverending light. Summer, evil summer, even here in this feast in the middle of a starving wilderness, even here it found a way to harm her, to bite at her sides.
Yes, thought Small-five. I am changing. And it’s too fast, too strange. She had expected the unknown, but not the unimaginable, and the feeling of her body, her life slipping out of her grasp tore at something deep down inside her belly. She’d let her mind wander loose in despair or loneliness before, but never had she felt it run away without her. And it was getting harder to tell how long it

she was jumping in the water stuck in a net stuck in a mesh a thousand cities around her formed a cage with a thousand bars and all the sisters and mothers in them were hungry and going to eat her but they wouldn’t have her that way they would die starving with her flesh in their
mouths from below the cities were a mouth in the blue
the blue all around her, forever, no black just blue no matter where she swam where was home where was real where was her


Pulsing-point was slowing in her eating. So was Small-five, but her sister worried her more, even if she wasn’t Small-five right now. She was something else, something following Small-five a bodylength or two away, watching as Small-five nudged her sister and encouraged her to eat, to feed. Look, look, an already-dead Ooliku. See it? Food. Good. Eat it up.
Hurts. Sick, said Pulsing-point. Her sides were sluggish.
No, thought the thing that was watching Small-five. She’s fine, she’s safe. Look at her grow, look at her skull swell, hear her words. Even in pain like this she can make new words, hear her sister-talk blossom. She will grow and she will live and she must not be Small-five at all, whoever she was, because Small-five’s education had included a healthy background in her own biology. She had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. For instance, how does your mind swelling? Her sister’s mind swelling not right she was tired again more rest would

Pulsing-point was swimming away again this time over the waves and Small-five was stuck in shallow water trapped in the reefcolony trapped as a baby as an infant as a child with no mind watching her sisters swim away together over the sky
the sky was blue the clouds were teeth and her sisters swam and didn’t care
the teeth were in Outward-spreading’s glowshine swimming in the fluid of her sides, swimming in her words, jumping out of her veins to bite and bite and bite and bite and bite and

fix this.
Maybe it was food. She slept more quickly after she ate. Maybe if she stopped eating they would leave her alone and let her be and let Pulsing-point grow up and grow her mind, like she had in the old days. She hadn’t grown sick, she had grown smart. Ideas. Remember when she, Small-five, had come up with ideas? That’s how she was special, that’s what made her important. She had ideas, good ideas like taking her sister to the bottom of the world to grow smart.
Pulsing-point’s sides were not dim; rather, they were curdled. Things oozed in her glowshine tubes that seemed more solid than liquid but less than both. The sickness spread from her head down.
Small-five must have forgotten that but it must have been real, unless this was another lie of sleep. A dream. A dream. Numbers jumping on a monitor measuring brain activity, it happened for all sorts of things. Nohlohk with all their legs and such. She was a Nohlohk now. Maybe she would grow legs and snip away Pulsing-point’s fins and then
there would be people who’d be sorry and they’d have to give her back her light or she’d pinch them and they’d make Pulsing-point smart and
then she’d (that’s Pulsing-point) be Outward-spreading except right and she would teach the juveniles properly and the infants she would eat and
then she’d eat Small-five before she did anything so terrible, rising from below and beaching them all on her belly, she’d be so strong there’d be only one of her
one of her was all there was one of them was all there was all of them were only one no
copies no other Small-fives Dim-glow wasn’t Dim-glowing was she? made sense

She woke hungry and confused and didn’t even know she’d been asleep until she felt the terrible, burning real fire in her guts. She needed to eat, needed to eat now, needed to eat hours ago while her brain drove her mad. How had she slipped under without noticing? She’d been halfway through a bite of food. Who’d put that there? It must have been Pulsing-point. Where was Pulsing-point? She was here just a moment ago. She must be there because it was right there and she couldn’t go far because she was little. She was getting bigger, wasn’t she? Bigger brains, she was going to be so smart. So smart. Small-five was smart wasn’t she? She must be smart and special or the reefcolony would’ve eaten her like it ate her sisters. But if Pulsing-point was alive then she was smart and special too. If she ate her then
small-five wasn’t smart and special anymore and it was all her fault it must be her fault that she was pushed out of the shell ring and
no she had to find her. She had to find Pulsing-point, she was sick and who knew what could be wrong with her. She was smart, and she’d be lonely. Small-five remembered being lonely, it was worse as an adult. You could think ahead, and be more frightened than an infant could.
Look for lights, look for lights, follow the lights. Pity you can’t shine your own but you don’t care anymore do you? It’s fine now, isn’t it? You’re fine now, aren’t you?
Pulsing-point was a displacement in the light, a larger-than-normal shadow. Small-five moved up to her and tried to stroke her forehead, but her proboscis was numb and wouldn’t move along with most of her fins except the one at the back. She knew what it was called until she didn’t, because Small-five’s education had included a healthy background in her own biology. She had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. For instance, she had learned that her sister was all right and fit as a school of Verrineeach because there were a thousand of her all growing inside her skull like a light that was glowing see the light was that a light glowing it wasn’t. it wasn’t because there was a light and Small-five had no lights she wasn’t Small-five because she couldn’t Small-five-point-burst-of-light. she was blank and she knew this because Small-five’s education had included a healthy background in her own biology and she knew that it was broken and she would never talk again and was worthless more worthless than an infant. she had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. for instance, she had included a healthy background in her own biology. she had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never included a healthy background in her own biology. she had background in her own biology. she had learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. for instance, she both the totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never asked. for Small-five’s education had included a healthy background in her learned both the totally unexpected and the answers to education in her own totally unexpected and the answers to questions she would’ve never Small-five’s for instance, she. for instance, she she would’ve never asked. for instance, she, she

She left Pulsing-point. She had to. She had no proboscis to hook her by the fin, to stroke her swollen skull.
So she left her sister’s body in the current, where it floated in the cold. And she swam straight forwards for some time.
She missed the sleep, and hated herself for it somewhere, underneath everything else she was feeling.
It never came back again.

The sun was gone, but still she saw. Forwards, mouth clamped shut. Without a proboscis to hunt, without the will to eat. Moving forwards because the alternative was to sink. She wondered how long it would take something to find her below in the dark, if she swam as far down as she could until she ground herself apart in the muck and stone.
Still she saw, still she swam. Why wouldn’t her eyes stop? The sun was gone, it was winter now. The waters were filled with life, she was swimming through it now, she could see it, could see the faint glimmer of juveniles as they clustered away from her, huddled in indecision.
She could see them clear as a bell, from far away. And then, then it was that she could realize that they could see her too.

The sun was gone, but the light was there. It streamed out of her body in a soft rain, turning the sea from black to clear, wiping the shadows from the ice.
She tried to dim it, out of automatic, half-frozen curiosity, and nearly sent the juvenile approaching her into a panic, her sisters huddled behind her like Kleeistrojatch on a Gloudulite three sizes too small for them.
Sister? asked the juvenile, lights careful, as careful as they could be at her age. The inklings of a pair of tiny barbels twitched at the sides of her mouth, looking for strange scents before they even knew how.
NO, thought Small-five. And as she thought it, for the first time in what felt like forever, she shone.
The light rippled around her in waves, turned her statement into a show. Light from the ice nearly blinded her before all three of her lens-lids, her eyelids, her membranes slipped over her eyes. Then two more. How many were there now?
NO, she repeated. FRIEND.
Then she thought, and then she shone again.

The Life of Small-five (Part 12).

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Small-five thought about cycles.
Big and little, both important. The day-to-night. The year-to-year. Youth-to-adult. Life-to-death. What held her mind at the moment was the cycle that was place-to-place.
Place the first was here, an old home made new again, a reefcolony safely tucked away in the backwaters of the temperate ring just beneath the equator’s belt, where the Fiskupids seeded freely and the water was warm. A place of food, of rest, of peace.
Place the second was the pole, an evil she’d learned was necessary for thought, for growth, a hunting-ground of lurking fear, where the elements of sapience coalesced from deep water and took root inside juvenile skulls.
It would be a long trip, a hard trip. But her sister needed it, so it would be done. If she had managed it as a frightened, runted subadult, she could manage it again as a scarred, lightless adult. And at least this time, she would set out on her journey with a sister’s company.
Pulsing-point grew more talkative by the day, despite (because of?) Small-five’s inability to reply. Proto-sistertalk, stilted and repetitive but wonderful in its persistence and simplicity. Small-five already understood much of what her lost sister told her; it was communication going the other way that was something of a challenge. At first she was direct, clumsy – she poked and prodded and pulled with her proboscis, steering her sister to prey, to safety, to move. It was slow work, often left Pulsing-point in total confusion until she lit eyes upon whatever it was Small-five was showing her, and occasionally surprised her enough to trigger her fright reflex, whereupon Small-five was stuck spending some time coaxing her out of a coral bolt-hole. She was most adept at finding those, at least. Despite all those years on the reef, Pulsing-point’s childhood instincts of fear had never altered, never adjusted to her modified size, as delayed as her intellect.
No, you couldn’t be too blunt with her. What you could do instead, as Small-five discovered, was use body language. Pulsing-point fixated on changes in posture or muscle tension lightning-fast with no more than slight exaggeration of natural reaction – a stiffening of the body and a swift turn would have her spinning to confront whatever her sister had sighted, a loose, lazy swimming posture would calm her and bid her to follow. Managing her sister was second nature within a month.
This was important, because Small-five was busy.
The Fiskupids wouldn’t swarm for some time, and so their journey would be delayed for want of food. But she remembered the hunger of the poles, and the starving march that had been the return trip. She also remembered much of her populism studies, which had placed a focus on the reefcolony ecosystem and its effects on juveniles.
Mtuilk bile, it transpired, was a preservative. Primitive and long-obsoleted by the more advanced preservative methods it had mothered in cities such as Far-away-light, vile-tasting and capable of giving an undisciplined stomach indigestion, but extremely powerful, capable of transforming a meal into a ration that would last for years, if done properly.
Small-five lacked the materials to do it properly, but she (and, it transpired, Pulsing-point) was an experienced hunter of Mtuilks by now, and was able to procure enough of her prey to saturate leftover kills in the bile, experimenting carefully to find the absolute edge where palatability was lost to the acidic bite of the slime. The leftover juices she sealed in their durable, elastic guts, sewing them shut with sinew and bone.
When she wasn’t preserving food, Small-five was sewing containers – long, billowing strips of flayed skin and the lightest segmented shells she could procure, tied together with residue and secretions and patient, endless labour. She would’ve traded a fin for an industrial loom, or even for a primitive weaver, and endlessly cursed herself for never paying as much attention to Maintenance work. Dim-glow could’ve assembled everything she was working on at double-time, and no doubt would’ve made more efficient use of the materials.
Then again, considered Small-five, perhaps she wouldn’t have known where to find them. Give her sister a set of juvenile Ooliku bones and perhaps she would make wonders, but would she have known exactly what size of Ooliku adolescence heralded the onset of a sturdier skeletal system (just as the last of the filminess left the body, before the fat was packed on)? Would she have known at precisely what time to hunt the prey (just before dusk, when they were tired and full, but not yet prepared to go into their wary sleep)? Probably not, and these thoughts made Small-five feel much better and only a little ashamed when her efforts at fastening crude buckles literally unraveled before her eyes, or when Pulsing-point ate a week’s worth of preserved food and became violently ill for some time, or when she failed to properly preserve a Stairrow corpse and it spoiled a week’s-worth of other meat, or when…
…Well, none of it mattered. Progress reversed was never as decisive as progress made, and bit by bit they were getting there, both of them. Three separate (well-hidden) nooks and crannies in the reefcolony’s sprawling body housed their supplies, and they swelled daily – despite a somewhat warier Mtuilk population, and the occasional thieving Stairrow that would dare risk a mouthful against the chance of being added to the hoard, which was getting substantial indeed and threatened to outgrow the crude bandoleers that Small-five had crafted. She began plans for another means of carrying food – a dangling bundle that hung from mid-body, with a buoyant lining of air bladders – and was busily working on that in the scraped-out-niche that had become her workspace one evening when Pulsing-point came scurrying in, positively vibrating with excitement.
Look-look-look-strange-look-strange-strange-STRANGE-look! she bubbled, flashing and sparkling as best as her half-formed glowshine could permit. She swam excited swirls around the chamber, knocking away the bone needle Small-five had laboured an hour over and sending it plunging into a tiny fracture in the wall.
Small-five felt the familiar ache in her sides as her body attempted to express emotion through glowshine (a flash of irritation) and heroically supressed her urge to poke her sister in the eye. At the very least, this was the most enthusiasm she’d ever seen Pulsing-point express over anything that wasn’t obviously food. Investigation would prove worthwhile.
Come-come! Come! Follow! Here! Look-look-look! And so on and so forth for far too long and far too far away until they came to a broad coral plateau in shallow, warm water.
Small-five look-looked. The plateau was empty, the waters glowing in the sundown light.
Pulsing-point flickered with impatience and smacked her head against Small-five’s right fin. LOOK-look-LOOK!
Small-five twisted herself around to glare at her sister, looked, and saw. A shape in the reefcolony’s bumpy profile that was too regular, too symmetrical to be anything but designed.
Look? inquired Pulsing-point.
It was unmistakably a research habitat – albeit a radically different one from those that Small-five had inhabited, now that she knew it for what it was. The camouflaging was intensive, and she thought that several of the growths dotting its surface were not artificial, but rather local organisms that had taken advantage of any surface available to stake a homesteading claim. A pair of segmented worms were forced to give up their own squatting spot in protest as she watched; the surface of the habitat bulging beneath them.
Its side split apart under the gentle pressure of a Safety warden’s nose as she slid out into the open, flaps overlapping into a perfect reseal behind her. Relaxed light spilled down her sides, soft and already dimming into the disciplined low-illumination of a warden on-site, dimmed to avoid trouble but ready to flare if it appeared.
Sister? asked Pulsing-point.
Small-five was too far gone inside her own head to pay any attention to her. What did this mean? If this expedition was from Far-away-light, she didn’t dare approach them; its Safety wardens had crippled her without hesitation. If it were from another city, would they know of her? Was whatever unspoken secret she’d violated severe enough to warrant cross-city cooperation in her expulsion?
But then again, maybe they could help. They would have food, if they had a computer she could use othershine in place of her own light to communicate. Maybe they would agree to send her and Pulsing-point south on the next trip down, or arrange an expedition from scratch. Maybe…
…maybe Pulsing-point would swim right up to the Safety warden and begin chattering excitedly at her in sistertalk.
Small-five dithered in place for a moment, hated herself for three moments longer, then slunk down into the shaded canyons that were growing against the reefcolony’s floor as evening moved in, sliding slowly in, eyes fixed on the two luminescent forms in front of her. Pulsing-point was a flickering lightshow, but her eyes were focused on the warden; it had been so little time since she’d lived among hundreds, but after just her short time spent alone again the speed with which adults talked was a fresh marvel. Even slowed down into a carefully-modulated semblance of sistertalk, it was a chore to understand her.
Where-are…your-sisters? asked the warden.
One-sister-now-none-then-you-are-sister? said Pulsing-point.
The warden shone over her carefully, focusing its light. It hovered around her skull and sides, and Small-five was close enough to see her patterns jerk to a halt in their cycling as realisation hit.
You-are-sister? repeated Pulsing-point.
No, said the warden. You-have-travelled? she asked, and Small-five knew a redundant question when she saw it being asked.
The warden’s sides rippled through confirmation into disgust and ended in resignation, abandoning the stilted sentences of sistertalk in a flash for a single word.
Pulsing-point stared at her, confused, as the Safety warden’s proboscis slid underneath her belly and retrieved a small, sleek shape from her harness that glimmered with the soft light of othershine controls.
All-fin had educated her little sister on Safety devices before, on request, and Small-five had actually seen this one in use. A Fjiloj had gotten entirely too close for comfort on a return trip to Far-away-light, the persistent, light-gutted predator refusing to leave the research habitat alone. Warden Five-bright had pointed this small device at it and clicked a button with her proboscis, and all of its soft-glowing organs had shut down so abruptly that Small-five had half believed it had vanished before the corpse became clear in the darkened sea, sinking gently in the current’s grip.
Sonic needle, Five-bright had explained. Land it close to the head, and the reverberation shreds through the brain matter, as long as the skull isn’t too thick. Best to aim for the eyes.
Small-five had swum softly around the wardens for a few days after that. It was one thing to know that they possessed such tools, and another to see firsthand what they could do. Still, they were in the hands of Safety, who were committed to their job of ensuring that no one came to harm. The same Safety who had thrust her through a ring of tearing pain, the same Safety whose nearest representative was taking careful aim at Pulsing-point’s face.

Small-five had enough time to do one of three things: panic, think, or intervene. Luckily her mind locked up entirely at the sight in front of her, leaving only the third option.
As it was, she was very nearly too late. The full mass of her body impacted the Safety warden’s jaw and proboscis just in time to send the shot skirting the edge of Pulsing-point’s dorsal fin, causing her to emit a terrified blast of light that nearly blinded all three of them. The needle-machine spun loose, jostled by their impact, and vanished.
The Safety warden thrashed in the water, smacking Small-five into the reefbed more by accident than design, and shook her head sharply, proboscis grasping at nothing, flexing and unclenching to check for damage. The warden had gotten the brunt of Pulsing-point’s surprise flare, but she’d been trained, like All-fin had, like all of them had. She was already sure that no major damage had been done to her, she was still in possession of her senses, she was trained to battle without tools but reaching towards her weapon harness to be sure of an advantage all the same, and that was why Small-five killed her, and told herself that it was what she had to do.
It should feel different, to slip your proboscis through a hide just like yours, puncturing glowshine tubes alongside veins, to penetrate a skull that held a large brain with thoughts and feelings that could talk and ripple-laugh and flare and shimmer in all the ways that you could
But instead it felt like all the others, and that was what frightened Small-five the most, as the Safety warden’s body shuddering, spasmed, and went limp against her, dead in the water, and her emergency flasher began to sing its warning-call.
Sister? gleamed Pulsing-point, her sides guttering in the aftermath of the unaccustomed exertion. Sister?
Small-five turned and fled, and it was only later that she thought to make sure that Pulsing-point followed. It was only later that she thought at all.

Later, luckily, happened sooner. Small-five’s body knew where to hide even as her mind vanished, and she was in the nearest of their bolt-holes again, the half-complete dangling-bundle underneath her proboscis almost exactly as it had been so little ago, before she’d killed someone.
They’d section the reefcolony in a grid pattern, search it in teams. Stagger the patrols, lay as low as possible. See before being seen.  The bone needle was wedged in that crevice right there by her fin, how had she missed it earlier?
They would travel armed and alert and ready to fire on anything that didn’t have a flasher equipped. There would be no more chances for sudden reversal, and no hesitation before attacking. Their only advantage would be a greater knowledge of the terrain, and-
Small-five shook herself all over, a full-bodied shiver that seemed to lift a cloud from her brain. She was alive. Her sister was alive. Right now, that was all that mattered.
She took up her harness, and filled it with the best-preserved of the rations. She put it on – carefully, slowly, with Pulsing-point watching – and then repeated the gesture for her sister, twice as slowly.
She still flinched, but she didn’t balk, and she followed as Small-five moved (quickly, but not in fear) to each of the other cache sites. Each visit left their harnesses heavier in the water, each stroke a bit heavier, but it was too late for practice, for the Fiskupid swarm to come, for regrets, for anything.
The edge of the reefcolony approached, the drop-off of a thousand feet and more. Small-five halted here, her mind clear, and stared off into the unknowable distance.
Safe? shone Pulsing-point, hesitantly. Her eyes were rapid, darting from murk to murk, looking for shadows that could turn to teeth.
No, thought Small-five. Not for us. We swim the longest journey of your life on a fraction of the preparations we should. It is not safe. But I will do my best to make it so for you.
She swam forwards into the blue, turned, and waited.
And after a time, her sister followed her.
All the way.

The Life of Small-five (Part 11).

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Far-away-Light was unusual. This Small-five knew thanks to her years of study, her research, her knowledge of her people. In thousands of years of slow, steady, methodical progress, of deliberate expansion and growth, of carefully-guided population metrics achieved through the withholding and extension of aid to the starving polar juveniles, cities had been built into the walls of existing reefcolonies. Pre-existing wilds had been tamed with stern minds and careful proboscises, predators warded off and regulated sufficiently to preserve the citizenry from harm.
There had been mistakes, of course, but they were accepted as lessons, not punishments, and when the first cities were constructed from scratch – decades of planning and careful nourishment, the development of ‘force-feeding’ techniques to accelerate structural growth – they were built in shallow seas, warm seas. Familiar. Comfortable.
A restless mind never waits for comfort to turn to complacency, and the beautiful thing about cities that Small-five had seen first-hand was that if you get enough people in one spot, someone is always restless all the time. The warmer, shallower waters of the equator were perfect environments to dwell in, and that was what brought thinkers to look south and north, towards harsher climes. What could be found out there? The knowledge gained simply through attempting to survive would be worth the risk.
And so three cities were built. Two in the north, one alone in the south: Far-away-light, loneliest and most daring, in the midst of the deep, reliant on the most intensively-monitored and concentrated reefcolony food-park ever planned. Life in the oceans surrounding it was a grand blank.
In the midst of that blank swam Small-five, close to the surface, as straight as she could manage in the suddenly terrifying night. She’d never seen such blackness from the moment of her birth; even the times of her infancy, when her light was a mere guttering speck, could not compare to this absolute darkness. So as she swam through a sea that had become a stranger to her, she kept her mind in the past, in the trivial places where nothing could harm her.
The stars were important to her now. Bright enough to see just a little bit more by, and more importantly a source of guidance. Small-five had never taken much note of astronomy, but she knew enough to tell north from south without the aid of devices. North was life, even if only a lucky idiot’s chance at it, lightless and alone as she was. South was a cold death – not likely at the hands of predators. She would starve long before she reached the dangers of the ice floes. At least on her current path she wouldn’t freeze as her stomach ate itself.
Now and again she wondered at how calm she felt, and each time she found it harder to dwell upon. Immediate problems were immediate and therefore must be solved; the reasons behind her expulsion were immaterial as long as her life was in danger. Her inability to shine
To communicate in sister-talk and in the flowing way of adults, to light her way, to stun prey, to produce her own name at all.
was an obstacle, not a tragedy. A problem-set. And one whose only real effect so far was increasing her tendency to jump at shadows. There was no enemy or prey to dazzle and nothing to shine her light upon but blank blueness.
Ultimately, the fact that she would never be called Small-five again didn’t matter at all.

Forgoing rest paid off, as did eschewing thought for action (sometimes forcibly). Small-five found herself outstripping her memories of expedition-pace, even as her energy drained from her day by day. No baggage to carry, no slowpokes to match pace with, no need to stop early for chores and maintenance and the thousand, thousand, thousand other things that needed doing on a large-scale trip. It was strangely liberating, if a bit lonely.
It was the first time that Small-five had truly been alone since she became an adult.
Mostly she filled her time with nothing. After years of thinking and straining and frustration, to do nothing was a relief, a soothing mental balm. And her days pressed on, and finally the nothing came to an end with the detection of an abnormal chill in the otherwise steadily-warming water, one that grew only greater as Small-five continued northwards.

It was dawn when she found it, the iceberg, the lost floe. Poor sad child of the polar seas, it must have once measured a hundred, a thousand times greater in mass and scale and scope than it did now. Its sides would’ve glimmered with an infinity of tiny darkened bodies turned translucent. But now its trip was nearing its end, its lesser cousins all melted down to nothing and less, their loads of life discharged into coldness and the dark. Perhaps some would take root, more likely they would struggle, falter, and fall.
Against this ignominious end the berg had stood long, but not for much longer. Its near-core was exposed, and the few, deep-burrowing, sturdy Fiskupids that remained were close to the surface, fresh for the plucking. Irrelevant for the most part, since no predator had been senseless enough to leave the cold seas behind for a slowly-shrinking feast.
There were not many. But there were enough to fill Small-five’s belly six times over, and that was all that mattered.
With refuge came rest, with rest came thoughts. Plans. Or at least growing and unavoidable realization of the lack of plans.
Small-five had never heard of expulsion as a punishment. Never heard of the destruction of a person’s glowshine. Then again, she’d also never heard of anything like what she’d discovered.
So, a conspiracy against her discovery. Why? She didn’t know. Did it matter? She could neither accomplish nor learn from where she was, and had no sane means to return home, where she doubted she would be received fondly. Perhaps this time they wouldn’t use mercy.

And the journey continued in much the same manner as it had before, albeit with more food and an omnipresent seeping cold that seemed to crawl inside Small-five’s bones.
Eventually, the berg melted its last crystal and became no more than a lingering chill on the currents. The few and most stubborn of the Fiskupids that Small-five had not consumed descended downwards, to begin a centuries-long battle of growth.
Not one day past this, Small-five saw the shelled, coraled buttresses of a reefcolony peering through the gloom.
Home again, for the second time.

Business took over, as it had before. But less abstract, more concrete. As an adult she had returned to her childhood grounds and looked at them critically from an abstract afar, remained aloof. An observer. Now she was right back in the haze of live-and-eat that had made up her childhood, and so much of the vaunted effortless superiority that she had fancied herself with on her expedition with Populism was gone now, drained away as if it had never been.
Her size had withered under her exodus.
Her speed – although still adequate at a cruise – was limited by wracking pain from the shredded, scabbed-over wrecks that her glowshine tubes had become.
And of course she couldn’t shine-shock prey into bewilderment, for obvious reasons.
Luckily, her most-prized adult virtue remained: an ability to have ideas. For instance…
You could find a Gloudulite, crack the shells of its young open cleanly (and carefully), and then use the largest pieces as a shield over your proboscis, letting you easily dispatch a steady stream of Kleeistrojatch cleaners as they gallantly came to the defense.
You could toss pieces of broken shell and bone towards sheltering Mtuilks from a distance, flushing the elusive creatures into open water and closing the distance as their sprint faded in a haze of exhaustion.
You could spook Raskljen loose from their meals with the sort of panicked, headlong flight that might occur from a rogue Verrineeach school, then snap up the leftovers before they realized their error.
Her greatest discovery, though, was her last: you could shadow the young.
It was a fresh year, and the father-males had just departed as she’d arrived. Young fled from her at every corner, peered out with frightened eyes from behind every cranny (had she ever been so small, to fit into such spaces?). Sometimes Small-five wondered if they would find her more or less terrifying were she still capable of glowshine, if they would gather to her light or flee all the more quickly. It felt so long ago that she’d last had a mind that small, that timid.
Well, maybe not so long with the timidness.
Frightened as they were, they were still unwary. Ideal prey for any reefcolony predator, save for Small-five. Conveniently enough, that which ate the young provided her with a meal. A hunter busy stalking a set of oblivious sisters was a hunter that was unable to see Small-five’s proboscis sinking into its spine, and a hunter that was small enough to consider them adequate prey was a hunter that was a good source of nourishment for Small-five. Surly, ever-stupid Stairrow were a bite apiece, and particularly welcome, if a bit tough. As a bonus, whatever prey the infants hunted often evaded their inept clutches, swerving away from their too-eager grasps and speeding off to the safety of elsewhere, which was often Small-five’s gullet. She considered this not theft so much as prevention of waste.
It was a good life. A quiet life, with all comforts and concerns stripped away to be replaced by…nothing. She almost forgot that she’d ever had another, that there had ever been a Small-five, a Far-away-light, a place in all the world that wasn’t home. It was a wilful retreat to childhood with the tools of adult power and mental flexibility, a cheat.
And one day, it came to an end.

Small-five was lurking in a trench in mid-water, idly practicing a new hunting strategy that she felt held promise, spurred on by faded memories of her near-ambush in a similar place at a similar time by a Raskljen. With her acquired permanent lack of glowshine, she felt no risk of giving away her presence with a mistaken spark at the wrong moment, here in the dark space between the walls of the reefs surrounding her.
Shapes flickered overhead, indistinguishable save by silhouette. Each in a hurry, each hesitant to linger, the few loiterers being Small-five’s fellow marauders of the deep places. She felt a vague, useless impatience at the slowness of it all, but it was small and far away inside a part of herself that hadn’t stirred for months.
A thing moved above her, slowly.
That got her attention. Slow, slow, slothful. And what’s this, oh my? Slow with jerky motions. Not merely idle or inattentive then. Wounded. Easy. And what’s that smell?
Small-five had never relied overmuch on her sense of smell. It was a supplement at best, an augmentation to her keen eyes, her sharp attention to light and shade and motion. As was proper and normal in an adult, who’d long since outgrown the need to tell her sisters from strangers by nose alone.
But Small-five had adapted in her time spent lightless, as lazily as she had, and she knew both the scents that trickled into her brain very well indeed.
Blood. Juvenile.
And now a third that brought memories of sleek, efficient death: Verrineeach.
Small-five moved instantly, and before her muscle had twitched, she was already thinking. Making a plan, having an idea. And what that idea was, as she surged directly through the midsection of some forty-seven extremely startled Verrineeach (oh, they were startled, see all those little silver teeth bared in sudden surprise) was to sharply whip her proboscis around the juvenile’s midsection, grasping her with all the ferocious tenacity of a Nohlohk that had netted a fat Ooliku. Ribs skidded against her – so thin, so whip-thin – and then came the glaring, blaring, out-of-control glowshine she’d counted on, a burning flare that forced her to hastily slam all three of her lens-lids over her eyes. Had glowshine always been so bright, or had she scared the juvenile that badly?
Her confusion aside, the sudden burst of light did the trick. The Verrineeach, already uncertain, instinctively recoiled from the dazzle, their exposed eyes searing, their vision a blurry mess. As long as one member of the school remained sighted, they would not be blind, but first that one would have to overcome the trauma of becoming temporarily sightless in one-hundred-and-thirty-eight other eyes at once. This took time, and Small-five never learned how long because she was far, far away whenever it occurred, her cargo still firmly clutched to her.
She slowed over a quiet part of the reefcolony and let the adrenaline drain from her. The juvenile was limp in her grasp; still conscious, but no longer resisting. Unusually sensible for something at its stage of maturity. At its age she would’ve fled the moment her captor’s grip slackened, but…
Small-five realized something, then checked to make sure it wasn’t her imagination.
No, the size was right. Small. Much smaller than Small-five.
The smell was wrong. It wasn’t a juvenile at all. Not right. There was something odd about it that spoke to something in the back of Small-five’s head.
The glowshine was right. Pulsing, erratic. Feeble and incapable of sustained pulse and flow.
The proportions…wrong. The ribs were too thick (a cut on the side: there was the blood-source). The head was too small compared to the body. And were those two little lumps on either side of the jaw meant to be buds that would one day sprout into current-tasting tendrils?
Small-five released the juvenile. It hung there in the water for a moment, as if paralyzed, then shook itself about in a full-body shiver and swirled to face her, eyes twitching, lights pulsing in that stop-start-stop-start way that produced a million kinds of sistertalk, each incomprehensible to all other speakers.
Small-five watched the lights, and understood. Not the words, of course – the name.
She tested that smell again, and knew it.
Pulsing-two-point-fin-shine, repeated the thing that wasn’t a juvenile, that thing that had a scent six years and more old, that had vanished into the blue in a ring of teeth. Pulsing-two-point-fin-shine. Pulsing-two-point-fin-shine.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light knew that her sister was waiting for an answer.
She reached out with her proboscis – slowly, so as not to alarm the not-a-juvenile – and stroked her glowshine tubes, just above her snout.
Pulsing-point flinched, then slowly untensed.
Small-five repeated the gesture twice more, each time soft, gentle, and felt the raggedness fall away from her sister’s glowshine.
Small-five, she thought to herself. I am Small-five.
Sister, I will make this known to you.
But first, I will make you right.

The Life of Small-five (Part 10).

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Small-five stared into the steady, unwavering otherglow of her computer, proboscis tapping aimlessly against its side in an endless, idiot drawl. She envied its composure.
Three years. One and a half to waste on idiot child-thoughts, one and a half to regroup and reinvent and rethink all her old ideas. Three years of her life gone, just like that.
Of course, she had about a hundred of those left over, minus around a decade or possibly plus several. But it was the principle of the thing.
She glimmered to herself sourly as she reviewed what of her ideas she’d managed to pin down into light for the umpteenth time. There they all were, pinned down and preserved like a Fiskupid embedded in ice: a complete and thorough exploration and documentation of the life history of every Small-five, every faint-marks, every Outward-spreading, every sister and mother and daughter. There was even a subchapter devoted to the peculiarities of the cycles of the males, including an up-to-date speculation that the birthed fathers returned to the cold poles to shepherd and safeguard the pregnant fathers-to-be as they grew.
All of it was firmly cited, founded in strong base principles, expanded upon many minor details that were often casually overlooked, and possessed a clear sense of direction and progression.
It was, essentially, worthless regurgitation.
Not nearly as bad as her first idea of course – Small-five winced inwardly as she recalled the conversations she’d had with Dim-glow back then.

It won’t work, she’d said, in that clean, careful way that she seemed to consider most things nowadays.
I’ll need more detail than THAT, Small-five responded.
You’ve said it yourself, you’re having problems with even the most basic issues, just the problems with tricking the biology into working. The engineering involved would be ridiculous. An expedition to the very fringes of the pole is hard going and dangerous and a big investment. Settling a permanent outpost of any size is nearly impossible. Settling a large-scale facility that needs to pump unadulterated chemicals from near the polar core an unspecified thousands of miles, in mass volume, without contamination or disruption? We’ve reached beyond impossible, at least at our current technological scope. Dim-glow’s sides roiled with sluggish disagreement. And the level of attention a mass draw in those waters would draw enough superpredators to turn every day into a bloodbath, even with top-notch Safety work. Go on, ask All-fin how much she’d like a year-round posting down there. Go on.
Small-five gave in, feeling a prickling wince crawl along her back as she recalled the return of the expedition that had been her other two sisters’ voyage outside Far-away-light. Nine-point and All-fin had been badly shaken, but had considered themselves lucky – six of the Safety wardens (All-fin included) had come back missing chunks of themselves, and one aspiring Research youth hadn’t come back at all, lost in the ice floes.
There has to be a way to do it, she said, and knew that moment marked her argument caving in and revealing its core of unreasonable stubbornness.
Maybe, said Dim-glow. But it won’t be today, or tomorrow. Maybe daughters of yours will solve this problem someday. For now, just let it go. There’s no way to raise infants artificially.

Small-five was looking at a specific page of her tables now, and wasn’t sure how she’d arrived there. It was a small, nondescript graph that hadn’t been cited anywhere in her analysis yet stubbornly refused removal, no matter how much editing she did.
It was a timeline that followed the activities of a tracking tag over half a year, where it ended suddenly. The tag had been lost in the open oceans near the poles, and had not been recovered.
Her sides were pulsing most unevenly, she realized dimly, and calmed down as much as she was able. It must be all this sitting around. So much reading and writing and citing and prodding; it was a wonder her proboscis hadn’t blunted itself on the buttons of her computer.
And so, in the grand tradition of frustrated academics, Small-five decided to clear her head with some exercise. She swam out of her little research nook in one of the darker branches of Far-away-light’s library with such a violent surge that an observer (absent at the time) would’ve confused it with frightened escape.
By the time the tunnels of Far-away-light lay behind her and she hovered in the grip of the uplifting currents that scoured its sides, her mood had evened some. Every year the memories of the ice closing in faded a bit more, but she was sure she’d see the end of her first decade before she felt entirely comfortable so far from open water. Not that open water didn’t have its share of bad memories.
No, she was headed to where she could relax. The captive reefcolony that sat atop the bulging head of Far-away-light, where the sun shone through the waves and life sat so near at all sides that you could eat by opening your mouth and swimming forwards. It was quiet in that special way that only the noisiest places could be – quiet inside – and there was enough room that she wouldn’t run face to face with anyone and have to ruin her terrible mood by spreading it around.
It wasn’t the end of the world, she reminded herself. No adult her age was expected to write much more than what she had created. No adult her age was supposed to create a work of learning and insight that was all original research, every page a new and novel concept. A solid, stable, perfectly suitable re-shining of a complicated topic with added spines and lights was typical and worthwhile and would make that little graph that wouldn’t die unexceptional and usual.
Entirely usual.
Small-five found that she was sick of exercise, and departed the reefcolony with the same graceless haste that she’d arrived, nearly running over a subadult as she did so. That was an added nuisance right there; that year’s crop of juveniles was fresh in. How many years would it take for her to get used to things that were smaller than her? They looked so fragile, so delicate. And always, always, always, so starved.
They shouldn’t have to do that. But they had to. What a terrible, awful thing it was, to put the food that made you…you where there was almost nothing to eat, and so many hungry mouths to strain at you without end. And the worst of it all was that Dim-glow was right; there WASN’T any way to change it, and she knew it. She was at the tail-tip of half a year of studying the chemical structure of the cocktails of polar nutrients that had combined to swell her brain triple in size, and all of her conclusions told her the same thing: give up. The substances were too ridiculously complex to synthesize, too deceptively frail and ferociously remote to transport; the infants were too skittish and too finicky in their habitats to survive the guiding presence of adults or accept a cultivated home.
Their lives were a cruel joke: a fiendishly complicated process with a product so simple that it stood no hope of bettering itself. And some days, Small-five thought that she was the only one of all her sisters and mothers (no daughters yet) that ever thought this way. It seemed narcissistic, but the alternative – that behind every shimmering glowshine lay the same bone-aching, soul-grinding awareness of the unfairness of it all – was too grim for her to contemplate.
She was contemplating it again, wasn’t she? No, that wasn’t the sort of thing she should allow at all. Back to work. Back to studying. Back to learning and growing and oh sisters, she’d never thought she’d get this sick of being able to think. Thinking was meant to give you ideas, ideas were meant to make you feel smart, being smart was meant to light a glow under your skin that flickered without light. Not leave you with a terrible aching cramp in your mind that throbbed just behind your eyes and made you feel as though you’d stared at the sun.
Fine then. If she couldn’t think, she’d research.
Small-five wriggled her way back into her chamber at the rim of the library’s guts and curled herself around her most recent chemistry worksphere. Inside it gaped the empty space of a vacuum, contaminant-free and crisply inhospitable, and inside THAT lay a small, perfectly sliced piece of flesh from an infant, a sample retrieved from her latest expedition with the other Populists. It had been only a few weeks old when she found it, floating free in the water half-out of a Raskljen’s mouth. The predator had made itself scarce in the face of her glaring glowshine and aggressive posture, but it had been all too late for the little sister, just in time for a specimen.
It was perfectly preserved, as fresh as it had been the moment she sealed it. And now, as Small-five carefully manoeuvered a much smaller worksphere into place, it was about to change.
The workspheres were simple to attach to one another, yet required the entry of a ten-digit code to comingle; a design that suited the sorts of things kept in them. Rare tissue samples (or sentimental ones; Small-five was sure she had a chunk of blubber from All-fin’s side as a post-surgery souvenir her sister had refused to accept), live organisms, organs, bacterial cultures, strange Fiskupids (Nine-point had told her last year that Research was hoping to create a sort of viral cocktail that would supercharge Fiskupid production in reefcolonies for single generations at a time, permitting controlled habitat increase and increased building material). And in this case, the last portion of a small sample of water drawn from the far, far south that her sisters had brought back home to her, several years ago, after a dangerous expedition. The strange chemicals in it had been concentrated, then concentrated again. As a juvenile, her body had intaken less than a third of this sphere’s volume to transform her mind completely.
There wasn’t much left, but she’d been saving it for a day like this, when she’d be too depressed to do anything much beyond mope and handle incredibly rare chemical compounds that she’d slowly squandered over more than a year, learning nothing and gaining nothing and oh get ON with it!
She merged the workspheres, watched half of the liquid splash against the flesh. She selected her tools, carefully probed the sphere’s interior through the airlocked entries. And she watched as the readouts began to appear, and pulsed irritably as they wandered far and wide. Hormones were being triggered in dead flesh, moribund dna was twitching, feebly attempting to synthesis proteins in cells that were bags of tissue. As was proper, and normal, and expected. But the numbers were all wrong. Too large a reaction.
Maybe the flesh was too old – no, she’d used older.
Maybe the worksphere had malfunctioned, but no, the tissue still read as usable by all measurements. She carefully transferred it to another sphere, just to be safe, and watched as the same numbers, the same graphs came tumbling back to her.
Maybe the sample of polar water had gone off…and that was when Small-five knew she was missing something obvious, because that couldn’t physically happen, and the worksphere she’d kept the sample in had been top-grade, certified by a Maintenance chief personally.
She was missing something. She’d spent a full day without rest now, but she’d still missed something. It was right in front of her, sitting behind the big blue wall of hazy infinity, but a half-glimpse farther than her eyes could reach. Maybe if she just shone a bit brighter…
Small-five stared at the workspheres, eyes running over the data they were sliding into her computer, aimlessly racing along othershine displays, no longer reading, simply needing.
And then there it was, teeth rising out of the blue. Small-five looked, and she saw what wasn’t there.
The worksphere that contained the fleshsphere had no serial number filled out, no data entry. Which meant…
Small-five carefully, delicately, tenderly flipped the worksphere over and read the tiny note slapped on in hasty othershine: a gift for All-fin, who nearly was No-side.
She’d just used half of her last extant sample of polar nutrients on a piece of nondescript adult bellyfat with a strip of muscle. And somehow, it was taking every pinch of self control in her body not to break into hysterical rippling laughter that would probably never end.
Fine. Fine. So she’d wasted it! It didn’t matter, she could just fill out a new chart. Sure, a single sample meant nothing, but… well.

Small-five didn’t rest for the next three days. She was too busy running tests. At one point, she left her tiny library and acquired a small medical clamp, which she used to excise a tiny strip of tissue from her shoulder.
The results came back the same. All of them. And now she had no more nutrients to test with, but she wasn’t worried. If what she’d discovered had any chance of being correct, she felt confident that the head of Research would personally swim to the pole and back to collect samples with her teeth.
Research, no, that could come later. This was a matter of Populism. Populism to the bone. What would faint-marks think of this? What would her sisters? What would…what did she think about it? Did she even know yet.
Well, it was best to keep it quiet until it was completely certain. The first people to know would have to be the most important ones. Just in case she’d missed something, because she was certainly tired enough to do that sort of thing.
faint-marks. Outward-spreading. The chief of Populism, the ancient mother-leader of Far-away-light. They would be the first to know about what she’d learned, the first to read it and judge it and dismiss it for lack of thought or evidence, but perhaps compliment her on her eagerness – if she left out the part about how it was an accident.
No, best to tell them that. Tell them everything. They might need to know it.
Small-five finished writing. Her proboscis hovered above the buttons, wavered, and struck decisively, and with such force that her computer ceased functioning even as it sent the message.
Now, why had she done that? And then all that she’d just seen became real for the first time, and Small-five knew, really knew, what she’d learned, the idea she’d created. It slipped out across her sides with dazzling energy, the last effort on the last hour of the final day of her learning.
Populism-chief, mother-leader… the poles work their magic on more than adolescents! Our flesh is as fluid as their minds! So hard to learn this lesson – so little reason to travel there, and never a sane reason to hunt – but it is known! Small-five has learned this! Small-five-point-burst-of-light has learned this of us, of all of us! Ever mother, every sister, every daughter-to-be! All of us, adults, and yet still aching to change deep inside!
And with that, Small-five fell into a deep and insensate resting-state, the most secure and comforting that she’d ever know, where she faced the deep blue wall and saw the teeth appear and was not afraid, felt them pass through her without harm.

When she finally stirred herself, it was in the grasp of six Safety wardens, unarmed but twice her mass each. She reacted with surprise, then inquiry, then outrage, and finally moved through to fear. And to all she did, their sides remained darker than the depths of the poles.
She was taken, she realized, in the middle of the night. Through the depths of the library, then lower still she was hurried, the Safety wardens forming around her sides in a tight, blotted mass that hid her glowshine away beneath packed muscles and dark silence. The corridors grew close, then jagged – down here the reefcolony that formed Far-away-light had not been groomed, not been tamed for years. More than once one of Small-five’s shadows clipped a fin against the walls and drew blood, but not so much as a flicker of pain gleamed from them.
At last the tunnel terminated, in a tiny, inky-black opening surrounded by jagged-edged shells. Her escort paused, and a shadow near the exit detached itself and began to blink slowly.
It was faint-marks. Small-five tried to speak, but her glowshine was still buried.
never come back, said the chief of Populism, her voice as soft and indistinctly lit as ever. and remember: we could have killed you.
And with that, the Safety wardens surged forwards, proboscises shoving, and Small-five was forced through the opening.
It was much too small.

Instinct saved her, sent her swimming in a frenzy, hurling herself in a blood-blinded panic. She slammed into muck and twisted herself upwards, away from the ocean floor, away from what she could no longer see. Water rippled around her on unseen fangs, and somehow she found the speed to move yet faster, in terror of the unknown even as it fell away, far away below her, with nothing but the taste of her blood to satisfy its hunger. She shone harder, harder, harder, and still the world was a blackened haze.
She swam anyways. What else could she do?

When light returned, it was with the dawn. Every glowshine tube in her body had been ruptured.

The Life of Small-five (Part 9).

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

It was the edge of summer’s dawning and the reefcolony was a swarm of activity, with every lifeform that lived within its bounds trying to outeat, outswim, and outlive the competition, failing more often than not. Ooliku swelled and grew, moving from their hapless infancy to their sturdier and quicker yet substantially more delicious subadulthood. Blunt, brutal, always-hungry Stairrow took advantage of this, and if their guard sunk low, they too became food, torn to shreds by hungry Raskljen or stripped to the bone and beyond by a starving school of Verrineeach. Now and then, at least on the outskirts, a Gloudulite plodded by, tower-shell breaking the surface in its old age, its surface a-swarm with its own young, tended to by the Kleeistrojatch cleaners and their slim, bright-shining carapaces.
It was beautiful, and it was incredible, and it was full of memories. But someone had shrunk it since Small-five had last seen it.
She cruised along, just high enough above the reefcolony to get a good view, just close enough to see the details, and she thought about size. Size meant that a Stairrow was now a decent enough meal for her. Size meant that a Verrineeach school gave her a certain wary respect. Size meant that her first thought on looking at something was “do I want to eat this?” as opposed to “will this eat me?” This was still less than ideal, of course, because for the past dozen days Small-five had been trying to bend her first-response thoughts to anything she saw into “what is the natural function of this in the ecosystem?” Old instincts, even when made obsolete, were proving surprisingly stubborn to get rid of.
At least she knew things now, more than she’d ever dreamed of when she was a subadult. She knew the largest size she could ever feasibly expect to see a Stairrow reach (less than one-fifth of her body weight, and overcompensating for it), she knew the most common colour of Ooliku (a firm blue, for camouflage, with iridescent red streaks along the jaws, to show that the individual was so impressive that it could live without camouflage), and she could shine off the average number of individuals in a Verrineeach school without so much as a thought (roughly thirty-three to forty-one in ninety-two-percent of cases). And she still didn’t know anywhere near enough because every other conversation with faint-marks-unclear ended in a slurry of questions from Small-five, more than any conceivable amount of time could fill. Also, every other day, she learned of something that could try to kill her that she hadn’t even known existed.
Don’t touch that, Five-bright-flashes had told her yesterday, as she’d approached a curiously large shell, glowing yellow in colour.
Why? asked Small-five.
The Safety warden’s scarred sides gleamed with something that could’ve been amusement or annoyance. Or both. It’s a Djakk, she said. A carnivore. They don’t usually eat things your size, not unless they’ve had a few centuries to really get big, but they don’t have enough brains to know what they can and can’t take. And it’d take a good strip out of you before you got away.
Five-bright-flashes neatly plucked an immature Ooliku from the water – a slow growth of its generation – and flipped it towards the yellow shell. There was a flash of movement, a glimpse of the shell gaping wide and something strong and twisted and made of muscle and pumping power within, and then the Ooliku was gone, with no trace of motion remaining but the disturbed sediment.
I thought that all reefcolony shells were filter-feeders, said Small-five, trying not to think about how much closer she would’ve drifted if she hadn’t been warned. Inches? Feet? Right up in front of it, to prod it with her proboscis?
Some of them like to make their own food particles, said Five-bright-flashes. Djakk can’t consume every scrap of their meals, and the leftovers they leak are good eating for the prey of their little sisters. The bits that don’t attract more prey to come looking for scraps, anyways.
In all fairness, that had been days ago. Small-five was much less naive now, a good deal more paranoid, and currently on her own. The Populist expedition had dispersed the morning before last after anchoring the collapsible, dome-shaped research habitat above a shallow-water and relatively safe portion of the reefcolony, each member on the lookout for anything that might be remotely new information. A disease, a new prey species, a form of hunting or scavenging unseen by any,
you are here to hunt, faint-marks-unclear had told them, but not for food. this will be enforced. you will return to our habitat at day’s end and present any findings to any who show interest, then eat. our business here requires your attention and focus. we cannot swim all day looking for food with one eye and information with the other.
search for new things, she stressed. whether they are new to all is of no account for now, only that they are new to you. you must learn on your own.
The Populists, experienced or not, had emphasized dispersal and solitary investigation. To be alone was necessary, faint-marks had stressed, at least as far as her soft glowshine could manage. Two could distract themselves in conversation, two could collaborate and exchange opinions and reinforce one another’s thoughts. Two could produce many things, much of which were useful, but they’d all had most of their lives to do that sort of thing and now it was important, according to faint-marks, that they go and get to know the insides of their own heads a little. Small-five was slightly more familiar with this than most, even if this didn’t give her many comforting memories.
The Safety wardens remained, but at a distance, if never too far. The emergency flasher that Small-five and every other Populist carried clipped onto their backs would be visible for miles if triggered, and response times were promised to be under two minutes, which would maybe probably be fast enough she hoped. Possibly.
Something bigger than an Ooliku, smaller than a stairrow stirred in the waters. Small-five flashed a curious pulse of glowshine at it, and watched as an infant darted away, glowshine jittering with mindless fright. Her five sisters fled alongside her; with such a large company of siblings, the infants must only be a few days old. The quiet, endless charts in Far-away-light said that by one month from birth, most infant groups were pared down to an average of two to three. Small-five’s survival as a lone infant, even if temporary, had been a substantial statistical anomaly and she had been entered into the records very quickly once she’d made her odd upbringing known.
She wondered if it was more or less terrible, to lose one of your siblings or all at once. A small loss might sting all the harder, where more could numb. She pulsed irritably, shining away the morbidity. Useless thoughts, distracting, swirling around your head like silt clouds (years in the open ocean and in the clean environment of Far-away-light had led her to forget just how infuriating those were; the grittiness in your gills felt like it would last forever) and distracting you from what’s important, like
A large shape slipping into Small-five’s peripheral vision, freezing into immobility as her light touches it, then eeling over on itself and rocketing away.
There was only a second’s-worth of hesitation on Small-five’s part before she pursued. Whatever it was, it was afraid of her enough to flee on sight, and that was assurance enough of harmlessness for her liking. And it was slower than her, although not by much. Even with a head start, a few moments of effort and a fierce forward shine had it in her sights once more: a strange, slender, ropy thing, all lean whippiness and fearful trills. It was noisy, very noisy; a strange squealing scream erupted from its mouth as it dodged and juked between the ridges of the reef.
Small-five put on more speed. It was suddenly very, very important to her that she catch this thing, and she couldn’t have put why into words. It just needed to be done, and there was nothing more to be said. In any case, saying things was becoming impossible just now. Words, sentences, the entire concept of language was sliding right out of her grasp as her glowshine focused itself into a searing searchlight aimed right at the fleeing tail in front of her, taunting her, just out of her reach why was it just out of her reach so close almost there almost there ALMOST THERE.
Small-five’s proboscis strained, stretched, stabbed… and swished through nothing but water as the creature doubled over on itself, corkscrewing backwards and underneath her. Before she could twist herself into a turn, it had already vanished among the reefcolony’s debris.
What is it? gleamed Five-bright-flashes. The Safety warden had appeared from nowhere and was floating silently less than half a body-length from Small-five.
The words didn’t make any sense. Small-five struggled to get her thoughts in order, and succeeded in communicating nothing much at all. Her lights bobbed and glimmered like a subadult’s.
You were lighting up full blast on the emergency flasher, said the warden, but you look all right. Shine clearer, won’t you…oh. Oh. A tiny flurry of amusement rippled over Five-bright’s body, displaced immediately by sympathy. It was a male, wasn’t it?
Don’t-know, said Small-five, taking refuge in the embarrassing but thankfully comprehensible simplicity of sistertalk. Don’t-know-just-wanted. But why-did-I want?
Your first time then, wasn’t it? You know the mechanics of it, you’d have studied mating habits of a dozen different species before you even left the city, and if you’ll give your brain a few minutes to wring the hormones out of itself you’ll remember what you know about your own reproductive system. Just relax.
Small-five twitched in the water.
That’s an order from a Safety warden.
Small-five relaxed. More out of firmness of glowshine than reason, but it was what it was, and it was also what she needed. The fog was already starting to lift from her mind, letting her know that she’d stretched a few important muscles and that swimming was going to hurt for the next few days. Her proboscis was sore, and her rear fins were tingling in a very odd way.
Small-five’s lights dimmed down to nothing in an unconscious attempt to make herself invisible.
Don’t be that way, soothed Five-bright, gently bumping her snout. Not a glimmer of laughter marked her now. It was your first time. It’s always that way, nobody keeps their brain in their skull on their first chase. The hormones were piloting you, not your mind.
What if I find…him… again? asked Small-five, feeling miserable and worthless and quite sorry for herself. The pronoun felt strange to the shine as she said it. I’m supposed to be researching!
You’ll know what he is, and you’ll know what the feelings mean when they start to happen, said Five-bright. Now, if you want a promise that you won’t go charging after him again, well, I can’t give you that. You’re young, and this sort of thing happens. But you won’t be confused, and you’ll have half a chance to head it off before it goes anywhere. And you’d better get comfortable with the chance of seeing more males, because the year-before-last’s generation is just hitting maturity.
Small-five twitched again.
You’ll get used to it very quickly, said Five-bright. Now stop dimming yourself and smarten up. I’ve got a patrol to keep up, and the longer I’m sitting here, the longer I’m not out there making sure nothing big and ugly is going to get too close to you and anyone else on the reef. In any event, you’re not in anywhere near as much bad shape as you’d like to think you are. Don’t worry so much.
Sorry. You’re right. Small-five hesitated, then decided to deal with the awkwardness by charging through it. Thank you.
Don’t worry, repeated Five-bright, and then she was gone, off and into the blue blank of the distance with that same startling, silent speed.

Small-five hung there in the water for a while, figuring out which part of her body hurt the most. In the end she settled for her light tubes, which sent small, startlingly sharp twinges of pain through her entire body whenever she shone too brightly. Although initially annoying, she appreciated it two days later, when she nearly bumped snout-to-snout into another male while he was distracted by a meal of decaying Mtuilk. He turned tail and fled, and she barely made it two bodylengths after him before the intense pain from her overflaring glowshine brought her to a crawling stop.
After that, self-control was a good deal easier, and she kept a firm grip on her instinct to chase when she saw the males. Five-bright was right; all you had to do was get used to it. And being too sore to move above an idle slosh didn’t hurt your self-control either.
More practically, it was good for her exploration. Swimming so slowly, she noticed things that she would’ve scudded right past without a glance, and in the dimmed light of her glowshine, she looked more carefully and saw greater detail. Enforced or not, it was an interesting change.
It made monitoring the infants much easier. Fast movements were spotted easily and immediately by their wandering eyes, but slow, deliberate motion slipped through their haste, and they were quick to distract one another with their primitive and enthusiastic chatter of barely-sparkling glowshine, the ancestor of sistertalk that varied and wobbled and always ended up as a thousand barely-comprehensible dialects that could just scrape by as cousins. faint-marks had told them that there was quite a lot of study involved in discovering just why that was so, and why subadults didn’t end up either all speaking very nearly the exact same thing or millions of totally different languages. There was a lot of complicated discussion on brain structure involved.
Whatever their babble was, Small-five found watching them oddly heartbreaking. Her own memories of her infancy were very sharp – unusually so, according to the library – and she wished there was something she could do for them besides watch from a distance and discreetly ward away any of the larger Stairrow that blundered too close. But they were nonsapient, their brains still locked into their childhood cortexes, their minds and bodies yet untouched by the nutrients that bubbled up from under the poles. Until they too made the great migration over the open seas, hunted through the winter nights, and rode the melting bergways towards home, she would have as little in common with them as with a fiskupid.
She wondered if any of the infants she was watching would survive that long, would somehow manage to cheat and twist and escape from death in all its endless forms at every stage of the path towards sapient adulthood, avoiding starvation, predation, sickness, and the worst and yet the most simple of all, bad luck. And it was then she knew, she really knew, that even if they did, she likely would never have a way to know. For all she could tell, these infants could cease to exist the moment they left her sight.
What she did next took Small-five a bit by surprise.
She triggered her emergency flasher, but on warning rather than alarm. Five-bright appeared some minutes later with a corresponding lack of urgency.
Please watch them for a minute, asked Small-five. Just a minute. I’ll be back soon, I promise.
If you’re thinking of making pets, said Five-bright, eyeing the little ones, it’s been done. It doesn’t work well. Infants can’t handle captivity.
No, not that. Just please, watch them. I don’t want to lose them.
The research habitat was maybe five minute’s swim, but Small-five made it in three, aching muscles or no. faint-marks was the only one present as usual, with Safety out on patrol and the rest of the Populist expedition out on fieldwork.
I need a tag, said Small-five.
Mild surprise rippled on the chief of Populism; the tracking tags were some of the more expensive equipment the expedition possessed, and use of them was carefully noted. for what purpose?
It’s important.
faint-marks looked at her carefully, her always-unsteady glowshine eddying just a bit more than usual. we have surveyed the young of this reefcolony before. we know of their migration patterns.
There is room for one more study, isn’t there? For thoroughness’ sake? You can never be too thorough, and we’re meant to use all the tags anyways, and we’ll never catch enough Verrineeach schools to use them all before the trip’s done, even if we want to track all the major bloodlines like you said we had to.
faint-marks said nothing.
Please? asked Small-five.
all that is needed, said faint-marks, and she plucked a container from a net with her proboscis. Inside, tiny sparks of othershine glimmered.

You know that you are just tracking one of five, commented Five-bright, as she pinned the flaring, squirming infant to the reefcolony with her proboscis. What if she dies?
Then I have wasted a little bit of time and resources. If she doesn’t, she knows that she is cared for, said Small-five, pinning the tag to the notch behind the infant’s dorsal fin, where it would have minimal drag.
Sentimental. Not everyone’s childhood was as fearful as yours. And we care for them when they come to us, starving from the poles.
Maybe so, said Small-five, as they watched the little sister flee over the reefs, tail a blur of glimmering motion, but now she knows that someone loved her, even before she had a mind.

The Life of Small-five (Part 8).

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Small-five was working.
This had been a strange concept to her at first, but no longer was. A task you took as seriously as survival, that wasn’t survival.
At the time it had been explained to her, she’d thought that sounded very stupid. But it often led to learning. Which lead to more learning. Which led to being smart.
Small-five still very much enjoyed being called smart.

A year since arrival at Far-away-light, and Small-five had grown larger than she’d ever dared hope. Two pairs of barbels decorated the corners of her mouth, where they tasted the currents in aimless, eternal optimism; her proboscis was thick, strong, and spine-tipped slenderly enough to split a current six ways at once; and she could swim so fast she even surprised herself sometimes.
Also, she was now an adult. As of today. Funny, she’d been looking forwards to it for months, but she’d nearly forgotten that it was happening this morning. She’d better hurry, before she was late.
Small-five hauled herself out of the little cubicle she’d been assigned to rest in, drilled lightly but firmly into the outer skin of Far-away-light: just deep enough to enjoy the warmth coursing through its innards, just shallow enough to avoid bursting into one of the hundreds of (often huge) communal chambers that enjoyed the lion’s share of the city’s insides. She’d learned at length over the past few months that these hadn’t been arranged entirely efficiently; Far-away-light was a new city, of a new sort, and mistakes had been, were being, and will be made with that sort of thing. Extremely often.
She swum into a current and was lifted upwards, fins twitching without her conscious attention to keep herself balanced steadily. She still looked up and down ceaselessly of course. Every time she did this, she saw something new. A stranger. A new entrance to an unknown room. A wandering creature from the depths poking its nose out of the darkness to gawk at a pillar holding more light than it had ever thought could exist, before plunging back into the safe, quiet, terrible abyss.
There was always something being worked on. No-one had ever built a city this deep before.
Small-five swam out of the current just a little too slow, and felt the still-bizarre sensation of air smacking against her back, making her shiver. The pillars of the city’s peaks broke the surface above her head, woven together with nets, holding its contents snugly ensconced.
The gate inside was a small tunnel, barely large enough for one adult – one of many. It was barred and locked with a simple computer interface, just complicated enough to keep out illiterate children who might leave it open.
Small-five had first breached that particular barrier what felt to her to be a long time ago, but she still found something new to be surprised at every time she entered the place. Here, life rioted.
It was a reefcolony, she supposed. Unusually broad, thanks to the reverse-tapering structure of Far-away-light, but otherwise identical to the memories of her youth, smaller than before yet somehow larger, grander.
Also, almost everything here was food now. It was amazing how much less threatening Stairrow looked when you were quintuple their size at minimum. Small-five ate as she swam, as much for the sake of it as anything else. Today she felt she owed herself a treat. And judging by the relative sparseness of the overwhelmingly enormous bounty surrounding her on this particular day, a lot of other people had felt similarly.
She went from being surrounded by food to surrounded by friends very abruptly, as she always did – one masking the other quite effectively until it was almost completely inside your eyesockets. They were her friends, her fellow students, her fellow almost-adults. Some of them were older, some of them were younger, but never by much. The qualifier for adulthood was only about a third physical age, the rest was divided between time-spent-learning and time-spent-killing-time-waiting-for-a-useless-ceremony-that-can’t-come-soon-enough.
At least, that’s what All-fin told her. A lot.
This is stupid and useless and we’re wasting time, said All-fin.
You’ve told me that before, said Small-five. She’d lost all ability to be startled by her sister’s sudden appearances very quickly over the last year, but not nearly as quickly as All-fin had lost any sense of restraint. Freed from the demands of both the hunt for food and the approval of Nine-point, All-fin had become as restless in body as Small-five had been in mind. She had visited every last cranny and hollow of Far-away-light twice over, and twice again, and knew who almost everyone was. She couldn’t lie still in the water any more than she could stop her heartbeat.
She still visited Small-five regularly, which pleased her all out of proportion. With twelve thousand people to choose from, being one of the few you went out of your way to see often was a heady thing. Even if you were sisters. That didn’t matter as much now, with food being a thing that happened instead of a thing you worked on against penalty of death.
Small-five realized that she hadn’t worried about dying once all year. It made her feel very strange.
Hurry up! shone All-fin. Small-five trailed after her as she shoved her way to the front of the shoal of almost-adults, proboscis jabbing sensitive spots and waving near eyelids.
At the center of the shoal, of course, was Outward-spreading. Looking at her, Small-five was surprised at how little she’d learned about her over the past year. She was very old – very very old, to let the colour bleach from her hide and the inches trickle into her bodylength so far, year upon year – and very patient, and she taught you how to learn properly. Which, so it seemed, was basically teaching yourself.
She was very good at what Small-five had realized was at once the laziest and most effective form of tutoring. Which was just fine with Small-five, because she’d never known so much in her life.
A speech was happening.
Welcome, said Outward-spreading, words moving slowly over their eyes and bringing them to darkened quiet, to the end of your childhoods.
Make no mistake, this is not the end of your education. It will continue for your entire life, however long that may be. That is simply the way things are. But it will be the end of indulgence. You have been given no duties thus far but to learn. Now, you will find your minds once again directed – yet as closely as they were in your days of youth, when hunger and fear ruled you! Remember that, if you feel worried.
A beckoning gleam, and four adults swum to Outward-spreading’s sides, discretely waiting below her amidst the jumble of the reefcolony until now. They were somewhere around middle-aged in size, and their glowshine broadcast their insignia quietly, constantly, a reminder and an announcement as to their positions.
Some of you already know what you wish to do. Some of you have already secured positions and had promises made. But many of you – indeed, most of you, worry not – are undecided.
Here are some choices to help you decide. These are not your only options, but they are those that are most in need of you now.
The first of the four glided forwards. She was sleek, very nearly thin (surprising to see, thought Small-five, surrounded by so much food), and her glowshine moved with nearly the precision of othershine.
I am Shine-at-the-center, she said. Beside Small-five, All-fin twitched in impatience at listening to introductions for people she already knew. I am the head of Maintenance. If you choose so, you will work to keep Far-away-light in proper condition. And yes, that is more than just planting Fiskupids. You will be working with heating, current-shaping, and management of all computers and machinery. Work for body and mind both. And I can promise you this: there will be a lot of it.
Small-five wasn’t listening very hard. Far-away-light was interesting, but she didn’t want to spend however-long poking at its smallest bits, especially just to put them back together. To her side, All-fin seemed similarly un-persuaded. And she was starting to leak muttering grumblings of glowshine.
Shush, said Small-five, without malice. Her sister subsided with one final grump.
I am Left-lights-up, said the second of the four. Solid by any standard, she seemed nearly a giant next to Shine-at; her profile scarcely recognizable. I lead Research. We are planning on an expedition to somewhere I’m sure is still very dear to most of you, I’m sure: the pole. Humour rippled her sides at the spontaneous complaints. Yes, yes, I know. But realize this: this time, you will possess food, supplies, and weight of numbers. Very few predators will be willing to harm you, and fewer still able. Unless a Godfish decides to pay us a personal visit, a lack of foolishness on your part should ensure absolute safety.
Left-lights drifted back, and the third moved forwards – she was rather small, but so muscled as to seem like one big proboscis.
Glow-over-all-points, she said matter-of-factly. Safety. Want to see a Jarekindj and then get right in its face, talk to me. And if you don’t want to, know it’s someone’s job to do it for you.
She sank back.
No one really knew what to say to that, although Small-five suspected that a hint of something that could’ve been a laugh touched Outward-spreading’s sides for an instant.
The fourth slipped outwards. Her glowshine was… strange. It seemed to wobble as Small-five watched it, turning her words soft at the edges and hard to read.
faint-marks-unclear, she said. chief of populism. you will be learning about yourselves. you will be learning about your sisters. and you will be learning about other cities. likely firsthand. in form, thought, and shine.
There was a silence as faint-marks returned to her holding position just under Outward-spreading.
You may ask questions now, if you wish, said Outward-spreading. Do not hesitate.
Congratulations, adults.
And then she was off and away, moving over the bulk of the shoal with those calm, careful beats of her fins that brought her cruising speed a good mark above anyone else’s by sheer volume of water displacement.
Small-five felt a little funny, and thought about telling All-fin about it. But All-fin wasn’t there. She was part of one of the four discordant mobs already forming around the recruiters, flashing with so many questions that it made Small-five’s eyes wobble a little bit. She appeared to be ahead of the curve, too, and was already flaring something directly in Glow-over’s face about what sort of weapons she could have.
Small-five shook it off and began to think. Four choices, and probably the best ones if they were looking for people. Maintenance she’d decided to avoid. The idea of Safety made something deep inside her head flinch – she saw that mouth appearing in the middle of blue water again, and felt only a few months old. A shiver, and the image was gone. Or at the very least, a bit quieter.
That left Research and Populism, the wilds or the cities, the poles or the peoples. On this too her intuition spoke, loudly telling her that the very idea of ever under any circumstances leaving the city walls was insane in any respect that could ever matter and if she considered it she had no brains left and was probably just an overgrown Ooliku, or was using a Stairrow egg in place of her skull’s contents.
But here her mind came into play, reminding her of precautions and special tools and food and company and Safety. They would have Safety along, and they would think nothing of stopping

that ring of teeth, each bigger than she was

from touching her. Small-five had seen Safety’s armaments in person, had read of them in the library. There was nothing to worry about. She would be perfectly protected. No harm could come to her from that thing that

One moment it wasn’t there, the next it was

ever. Ever again.
Small-five realized she was glowing erratically, and made herself stop. That was silly and there was no reason for it and she’d sort of drifted into the mass of questioners in front of faint-marks and she was looking right at her she had to say something.
Where would we start? she asked.
faint-marks’s words weren’t much easier to make out up close. If anything, they were more difficult – you had to think outwards a bit, giving yourself a bigger picture than you felt comfortable with.
the beginning, she said. you must start at the beginning.
The beginning of what? asked Small-five.
faint-marks took a moment to answer a few other questions on her other side simultaneously, something Small-five noticed the other recruiters were doing. Just thinking about it made her head hurt.
everything about yourself, said faint-marks. if you want to study people, you have to study where they come from. and you are our people.
studying yourself is the start of studying us all – that is populism. and the start of that is your beginnings.
Small-five thought about that. And about birth, and sisters, and feeding on Gloudulite young. And things bigger and smaller than that. And about exactly what this would mean.
The reefcolonies? she asked. More for confirmation than anything else.
Small-five thought about that some more.
But not for too long.

Small-five was working.
It made her very happy indeed to do that, even thought it wasn’t much that was new to her. She was reading instructions – which she was used to – and she was taking orders – which she did often – and she was being loaded up with a food-carrier harness – which she’d practiced with for the past month – and yet all of these stale, dull, excitementless activities added up into something strangely alluring that made her glowshine waver and wobble like an adolescent’s.
She looked around herself for farewells, and found few. All-fin was on Safety duty, and had already followed Nine-point to the pole for Research. Dim-glow had quietly decided to pursue Maintenance, to the surprise of all of her sisters and herself.
Time to make space inside my head, she’d told them. I will miss you, but I need to grow.
They’d all understood that. And they would all miss each other. But properly.
Sometimes, you just need space to swim and find out what you’re doing. Small-five at least had the comfort of practice – for most of the others on this expedition with her, this was their first time apart from their sisters since birth. Voluntarily, still – they all knew that now, that desire to make space inside themselves.
Just so you’d know what it meant to have company there.
Small-five pulled at her fins and swam away from Far-away-light. For the first time.