Archive for ‘The Life of Small-Five’

The Life of Small-five (Part 7).

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Small-five’s life was at once far easier and more difficult than she’d ever imagined it would be.
For the former, she was not hunting, and yet she was fed. Instantly, the vast majority of her time was suddenly free-floating. Then it crashed down into the bottom again with the latter, which was that she had to learn things, and learn them all day until exhaustion drove her to a state of exhaustion just above torpor.
First there was language. Language was a new word, one of the hundreds-and-hundreds she’d learned. Except ‘word’ wasn’t really the right, well, word for it. Expressions, maybe. Concepts? Whatever they were, they were states of transition, not the solid, simple thoughts that had filled Small-five’s mind until now. You couldn’t even be said to flow from one to the next (at least, not when adults spoke; Small-five and her fellow students were still clumsy) so much as blend them.
Small-five’s own efforts didn’t blend so much as squash.
At least she was not alone in this; Outward-spreading-flash had told them that they would not be separated from their sisters, and so Small-five had All-fin, Nine-point, and Dim-glow nearby at all times, to share her embarrassment, join her in grousing at difficulties, and stifle her panic with curiosity. When there was time for it.
Second was exploration, which started during language out of necessity; after seemingly endless periods of time spent learning how to shuffle together dozens of different sister-dialects into an entirely new way of speaking, the students, Small-five included, needed to spend some time moving around and not really thinking too hard before they went insane.
The first few days they wandered around their learning cavern, and examined its curiously cultivated edges. Some of the shells were soft-glowing – not so bright as to draw attention, but just enough and in just the right places to make seeing things as easy as floating without expending any more than conversational glowshine.
After they’d managed to cobble enough knowledge together to make themselves (crudely) understood to the adults that watched over the learning chamber’s mouth, they were permitted to explore for small distances along the upper edges of the not-a-reefcolony that was Far-away-light. Small-five still couldn’t quite believe that the adults had given a name to a thing of all things, but it was easier to keep in mind and conversation than describing it, something she was thankful for when it came to asking questions. Which she had too many of.
How did make-this? was the latest one, posed to her guardian of that particular day. She and her sisters were just below the surface, looking down, down, down below, where Far-away-light’s base sank into nothing.
The adult’s sides rippled in polite nonunderstanding.
How did. This become… made? repeated Small-five, embarrassed.
Hard work, replied the adult, slowing down her glowshine to just-understandable levels. Over many years. You will learn soon.
And that was all that Small-five asked for some time, because All-fin had seen something and Nine-point wanted to take a look at it. So they did, and what they found shook Small-five’s questions about so badly that she was made dark with quiet.
Should’ve-looked-up-not-down-look-up-at-this-look-at-it-all! chattered Nine-point, falling back into childish sistertalk with excitement.
Far-away-light’s top was broad and wide, far larger and flatter than its (relatively) thin, dangling bottom. But until now, neither Small-five nor her sisters nor any of their fellow students had thought to see what was atop it.
It was wonders.
Pillars of reefcolony rose from its surface, surging far above the waves, dangling strange growths and crawling with life that Small-five had never seen before, life that wanted no part of the water. Some crawled like bottom-feeders, some launched themselves through the harsh thinness of air, all distorted murkily through her vision. Between and around those pillars were slung huge nets, nets that made her think of how the adults had collected the fiskupids, how the Nohlohk had snared its prey, but on a far grander scale. Each strand was as thick as her proboscis, and they were woven snugly, with gaps too large to fit a grown Stairrow through.
Beyond the nets, Small-five could barely see. But every glimpse caught through the net was of a swirling morass of life, a hubbub and a riot of colour she hadn’t seen since she’d left the reefcolony of her childhood.
What is… in? asked Dim-glow, restraining herself long enough to put together a fraction of a sentence.
The adult’s sides burst into amusement. Beauty. Memories. But mostly food.
And that was that. The adult brushed off further anxious inquiries, saying they’d know soon enough, and brought them back to the learning chamber, where they spent the rest of the day learning how to pay attention to important things when they were too excited to care.
The food was good, at least. And good beyond just being plentiful, which was a luxury that would’ve been beyond imaging for Small-five months ago, as she swam in the polar seas. It was fat and fleshy and fine, every bite delivered. Much of it was Ooliku subadults, plump and yet to burn away their chubby deliciousness into adult muscles. Small-five could’ve eaten them forever and not grown tired of it, and she could feel practically feel her body filling itself out between lessons. She had full, broad muscles now, and coating them (wonder of wonders, luxury unknown!) a layer of profile-smoothing fat that drove her scrawniness ever farther into memory – and not just hers. Time after time this surprised her, usually when a stranger swam into her field of view and she had to remind herself that it was her sister and All-fin was no longer All-bones.
The change that surprised Small-five the most, though, was when she felt the tickling at her mouth. At first dismissing it, she began to have her suspicions, especially when she noticed the next day that Nine-point and Dim-glow already had small stubs at the corners of their jaws, right where an adult’s barbels would be.
What-does. It feel like? Small-five asked Dim-glow. Using sistertalk nowadays felt a bit like falling backwards, and it got you odd looks from others. Still, old habits were hard to break.
Dim-glow rippled for a moment. Hard to say, she decided. A bit like prickling. But not really.
It wasn’t a satisfying answer, but it was all Small-five had for some time. Because soon after she asked her question, she had much bigger distractions.

You have learned for over twenty days, little sisters and daughters of my sisters, said Outward-spreading-flash. Their instructor still spoke slowly, but almost never in sister-dialect. Much as they did. You have expanded your manner of speaking, and I promise you, that will gift growth to your manner of thinking as well, in time. That is a good thing. You will need every word available to understand and describe the things you will learn here, and we will begin those today.
Outward-spreading-flash stirred herself in the water and moved to the entrance of the learning chamber with slow, soft beats of her fins, each unhurried scull moving her as fast as Small-five would at a bustle. Follow, and stay close, she shone, and plunged downwards.
Small-five, her sisters, and all the other students followed, and found out something that they’d half-forgotten since their arrival, since they’d been restricted (gently restricted, but firmly) to the upper heights of Far-away-light: the currents. Outward-spreading-flash had dived into a downwards-plunging torrent of water, one that grasped Small-five with casual, irresistible force and towed her downwards at a pace she would’ve been more than hard pressed to match herself.
Fun! she saw at the corner of her eye. All-fin was gleaming with delight at her flank, pressing herself into the current with manic glee. So fast!
Yes, agreed Small-five, feeling sudden, massive shame at her panic. Very fun.
All-fin rippled all over, and then they both nearly crashed into Outward-spreading-flash’s back as the elder adult pulled herself free of the current and back into still water. They followed suit hastily, and found that the column of water they’d traveled down in was a little more than two bodylengths across at most.
They’d come far, Small-five saw. The surface was now a hazy light far above, the waves unseen, the clamour gone and passed over for quiet depths. Lights were easier to pick out here, glowshine standing firm against a soft blue haze that calmly intruded upon all that wasn’t directly lit.
It wasn’t the deepest Small-five had ever swum. But it wasn’t her usual depth, and that made her a bit nervous. And everyone else too. The mass of her fellow students was always just slightly uncomfortable at the best of times here at Far-away-light, but there were still spikes of the jitters that stood out from the general uneasiness.
Be calm, soothed Outward-spreading-flash. Where we go now, this dimness is needed. Be calm, and follow me.
They followed her towards one of the many tunnels leading into the innards of Far-away-light – quite a large one, albeit less grand than the learning chamber. There was a peculiar and quite large spread of softly glowing reefcolony shells embedded deeply and prominently around its mouth, again with that deliberate, cultivated look that gave Small-five deep suspicions by this point.
Look, said Outward-spreading-flash. Look. What do you see, around this place?
They looked.
Shells? suggested Nine-point.
Yes, exactly. What is unusual about them?
A longer pause, with thought scattered frantically throughout it, marked by involuntary spouts of glowshine.
They are glowing… to help us see? said a bulky stranger.
They do help us see, yes. There is one more thing they do. Can you tell?
There is a feeling that arises in a crowd that is made when many people all try and fail to think at once. It is sad and frustrating and very, very neurotic, with a bit of shame.
Small-five felt it greatly. She had been struggling and thinking and learning harder than ever before since she’d arrived here, and she’d all but lost that pride she’d felt when her sisters had called her smart. She didn’t feel smart, she felt stupid. She was stupid, she’d had so much trouble learning how to talk properly, she couldn’t remember the swirls and patterns and rhythms, even when they were right in front of her eyes.
She froze, and for a moment even she didn’t know why.
It tells us that this is a learning-place, she said.
In the darkness of awkward silence, her words shone bright enough to make her sisters flinch.
Yes, close, said Outward-spreading-flash. A place where things are known. Good! And how does it tell you this?
The lights, said Small-five. The lights say it.
There was confusion for a moment – how could lights SAY anything when they weren’t glowshine at all, just mindless illumination from an old reefcolony shell. But then the others looked closer, with Outward-spreading’s encouragement, and they saw what she had: a carefully copied frozen image of a pattern that could’ve spread itself along any of their sides, preserved in false-glow. Remove the movement from your mind, and the meaning was clear.
In this way, with othershine, we leave messages without a body to shine them, said Outward-spreading. These messages are simple, and do not need to move. Where I am taking you, you will all see something quite different. Now stay close, and do not turn down any strange corridors – there are others here, and you should not disturb them.
Small-five followed in the wake of the elder reluctantly – the tunnels were large, but enclosed in a way that made her uneasy, not like the open-faced gape of the learning chamber. The side-branches were slimmer yet, and Outward-spreading’s order not to intrude was unneeded; already cramped by the wider main corridor, not a single one of the crowd of students felt curious enough to wander into spaces still tighter. Thoughts of pack ice and shifting mazes of cold filled Small-five’s head, and she shivered despite the warmth.
The warmth… Far-away-light was surprisingly warm. It had only risen to her attention now, when it should’ve been filled with the chill of the deep, but even at the surface, her mind told her, it should’ve been cooler. The not-a-reefcolony itself was producing heat. She hadn’t the faintest flicker of an idea how.
This, said Outward-spreading, breaking Small-five’s mental wandering, is our library’s main chamber.
The room they’d just entered must’ve filled most of Far-away-light’s shaft for hundreds of bodylengths, hollowing it and filling it with light. Too many adults to count wandered its depths, shifting from light to light, prodding things with their proboscises.
Each of those lights is a crafted device, a storing-place of information. We have a special section over here – Outward-spreading was leading them to a somewhat secluded level of the library, empty of adults - for new-come subadults like yourselves. Each of you find a machine and listen to it. There will be three small-round-things/’buttons’ you may press to choose answers to any questions it asks you. If you’re still confused, I will help. Do you understand?
There was no response. Outward-spreading rippled with amusement. Yes and no. Honesty! Good. Now go.
Small-five went, and stopped in front of one of the glowing things, the devices. Its light held a simple message, barely shimmering in her face: press a button.
Small-five pressed a button.
The light flowed smoothly, too smoothly to be a real person speaking. What do you want to know? it asked. Press a button to make a choice.
There were three categories to choose from: Far-away-light, What am I? and The World.
Small-five hesitated, then selected Far-away-light. The button made a soft popping noise as her proboscis pushed it, which slightly startled but did not displease her.
Far-away-light is home to approximately twelve thousand people, making it a medium-sized city, one of hundreds. It is located unusually deep, and is one of several experimental designs attempted in the past hundred years. It is your home now. What would you like to know about Far-away-light?
More choices: go back, structure, inhabitants, politics, government…. words that Small-five had learned, words that she’d thought she’d understood, words that were growing more wonderfully confusing to her every second.
She pressed the button identified as “structure.”

A bright flash of light tore Small-five’s attention away from the othershine-device: Outward-spreading calling their attention to the arrival of food, carried by a burly adult in large, loose sacks. She didn’t even realize how hungry she was until she’d eaten four Ooliku, and managed to down ten more before swimming her way back to her studies. She idled before the controls, not really reading them as her mind wandered over what she’d learned.
She’d learned that Far-away-light was strange even for a city (and cities were strange, so strange, and now that she’d learned that there were HUNDREDS of them), and that some of the things in it were unusual. Like the heating. The outer walls were thickened to hold warmth, and in terrifying, sealed chambers the water was heated to the point of pain by devices she couldn’t even begin to understand before being pumped through the city’s skin. The currents were less unusual – crafting and shaping them through projections on a city’s surface was an old trick, apparently, but the use of them for rapid transit up-and-down on this scale was new.
The shaping… the shaping still amazed Small-five. It was simple, so simple. Reefcolonies hatched fiskupids. Fiskupids swam south and froze. Frozen fiskupids rode north, laden with nutrients from under the pole, and dropped down in the melting ruins of their transport, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Then they sprouted into reefcolony shells – dozens, hundreds to a single little icy body, thriving on substances from the bottom of the world to supercharge their growth, to swell into reefs.
If you caught the fiskupids beforehand – and here Small-five once again remembered the breaking of the berg she and her sisters had sheltered with, and the adults with their nets – you could place them. And if you placed them, you placed the reefcolony. And if you could place that where you chose… you could build anything.
Small-five pressed one of the buttons, still without reading it, and watched what the othershine-device told her, not knowing or caring what, just what it was: knowledge.
She pushed another button. And another. And another. And if anyone had told her that she would do almost nothing but this for another full year, she wouldn’t have cared in the slightest.

The Life of Small-five (Part 6).

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Small-five fed upon frozen things.
She and her three sisters, and hundreds more scavengers – of her kind, of roving Raskljen, of things too small and empty of nutrients to have a name worth knowing – followed in the wake of the melting bergs, resting tired, hungry bodies on warming currents as the world turned north and the Fiskupids fell from above unending, as ceaseless as the race to eat them was.
They tasted of ice and nothing. Small-five hated them a little by now, but hated hunger more. So she ate them, and watched for unwary or starving others, and ate them too.
She and her sisters were the biggest things in their tiny, moving territory for once – at least, after a single rogue Nohlohk that had been unlucky enough to have its resting-place carried away finally lost its grip and fell into the void beneath – something that puzzled her until she realized that anything larger would likely starve. It was tight living even for them, especially as their smaller companion bergs broke up, shedding their cargoes across the ocean floor and sending their escorts away with grumbling stomachs. Some of them were far-cousins of theirs; once avoided discreetly in wider seas, now carefully ignored, lest they have to start arguments, which would start fights, which would lead to empty, useless deaths. There was simply no room for quarrelling.
The cargo of the melted bergs was shed in futility. The Fiskupids were in warmer seas now, but nowhere near the subtropical climes they required to properly lay themselves to seed. Every body not claimed by a hungry predator landed in water too deep and cruel for its eggs to take to life, hardy though they were. Wasted effort, after a journey to the rim of the world’s end and halfway back, under the teeth of thousands along the way.
But some persisted, embedded in the flank of the berg that Small-five and her sisters shadowed. They stayed hidden in its depths even as their shallow-burrowed kin were culled to nothing by melting, they remained secure and frozen as their world shrunk, and they were still there some months later, when the food was almost all gone and the seas had turned nearly as warm as blood around them; a coddling, soothing embrace against near-empty stomachs.
Small-five and All-fin were playing with their memories again; rattling off as long and confusing patterns of glowshine as they could possibly remember and then daring the other to repeat them. Each success added another few patterns to the chain, killing time swiftly. Boredom had first become a threat in their lives under the poles, where their minds had stretched enough to recognize it, but never so much as it was now, with nothing to do but drift and wait for food to fall. Dull-glow and Nine-point were simply talking about nothing much at all, exploring their ability to make conversation about things that weren’t relevant or very important.
Small-five saw them first, nervous as always. In the middle of paying attention to a particularly tricky embellishment of All-fin’s, a flicker caught her eye at a distance – a strobe so fast that she nearly thought it imagination.
Can’t-do-it-too-long-too-hard? asked All-fin, smugly. And there it was again, that distant glimmer.
No-look-see-that? said Small-five. To-north-northeast-look-there-quick-lights.
All-fin looked. See-nothing-making-up, she said, and no sooner had the last glimmer left her sides than the sea around them exploded into lights so strong that they dulled their pupils to pinpricks, wailing in protest and alarm that went unseen in the glare surrounding them.
Shadows broke the glowstorm – swooping forms more than twice their size and with the muscle-backed speed to match, swirling through the water and surrounding Small-five and all her kind – the distant cousins they’d ignored carefully on the trek – in pairs and triplets, blocking them from the harsh shine of what seemed like nearly a sun.
Calm, shone a voice from the bulk in front of her. It was slow and powerful, gleaming smooth as a windless day. This-is-safety. Rest-easy. Do-not-fear.
Small-five did as she was told. There didn’t seem to be much other option. Beside her, Dim-glow made a rush for the nearest gap in their encirclement and was firmly set back with a dazzling burst of light.
Safety. Come-now. Follow-us. Keep-close. Do-not-fear.
The sisters stalled for a moment, lights stuttering. At last, Nine-point swam forwards with a simple message: we-will-follow.
The strangers uncoiled and led them – one at their tails, one at their side, one at their head. An aide, a guard, and a guide. And all more distinct now that the initial lightshow was fading.
They were adults. Small-five had never seen one before, but she knew it to be true in her bones, in her arteries, in the tubes and organs that brewed and carried her glowshine across her hide. They were larger, more muscled; the twin barbels at their mouth’s sides long and sweeping, moving delicately under fine control in the current. Their sides shone constantly; a swimming, always-moving series of patterns and conversations with one another that made Small-five’s head spin just watching it. How could all those thoughts fit in their heads? How could so much glowshine filter through one body? And how could they get so big?
The-ice-the-ice-the-ice, shone All-fin frantically, tearing Small-five out of the still-new-to-her practice of getting lost inside her own head. Look-at-it-look-at-the-ice-look-at-it.
Small-five twisted, nearly bumping her escort, and was just in time to see the collapse and dissolution of their iceberg. Tons of ice smashed into the water with groans and sighs, warm-rot finally tearing out the floating mountain’s heart. Aiding it to its demise were scores of adults, each clutching some sort of strange thing in their proboscises, a slender bar of tiny pieces. Where they touched, the water boiled, and the ice melted all the faster. The last of the Fiskupids fell like rain, thousands and thousands of them, and beneath it all still more adults hovered in the deep, carrying a huge strange web between them that reminded Small-five of the net-legs of the Nohlohk. Iced bodies piled up against it, bulging deep.
Come-now. Keep-close, glowed the adult at her side firmly. Follow.
Small-five turned her back on the things happening behind her and followed, just ahead of All-fin and behind Dim-glow and Nine-point. The familiarity of pattern was a comfort.

The swim was long, and just a bit deeper than they were used to, but the fatigue was held at bay by exhaustion and the darkness by the ever-pulsing glowshine of the adults. Their only words when spoken to were repeated reassurances of safety, and Small-five had an idea (another one – they seemed to come so fast and thick these days that she had trouble noticing them) that maybe that was all they could say that wasn’t in one of those rippling glowpatterns they used to talk to one another.
Makes-sense, Nine-point agreed when she volunteered it. So-fast-recognize-parts-not-all-too-wide-too-much-at-once.
Food, interjected the guide from ahead, glowing along her back. Hold.
They halted, and Small-five was curious. There wasn’t a single shimmering scale in sight of their lights, and the water was empty. Then up ahead, roiling towards them, came a single creature – big, bigger than an adult, bulky and unstreamlined, wallowing in the current.
Food, shone light from it. Come.
Dim-glow and Nine-point moved forwards without hesitation. All-fin followed a moment later. Small-five drew back warily, then nearly jumped out of her skin as the guard at the rear gently poked her in the fin with her proboscis. Eat, she shone. Go.
Small-five went, and felt mixed embarrassment and surprise when she saw what the stranger was: no more than another adult, albeit an abnormally stout and muscled one. Her body was thick with strength and her proboscis alone seemed half as sturdy as Small-five’s entire body. But the truly surprising thing about her wasn’t her build; her entire body was swaddled with strange objects. What looked to be large shells ripped from a reefcolony coated her like oversized parasites, strapped to her flanks with lashings of some long and slender substance that she couldn’t identify at all. Nine-point was already investigating one of them, proboscis digging deep inside its hollows – a flash of surprise rippled along her sides as she withdrew an adult Ooliku, speared through its side and already quite dead.
Food, repeated the adult weighted down with dead things. Come.
Small-five needed no more encouragement. Months of low food were made up for in minutes as she and her sisters gorged themselves to the brim and beyond on prey – all recently-killed and well-fed themselves.
Where-from-how-did-you-get-this-what-are-things-on-sides-who-are-you-where-are-we-going? Nine-point asked the food-carrier.
Glowshine rippled along her sides in what was visible amusement, and for a moment they hoped, but the next thing that glimmered from her was just another one of those mind-bogglingly complex patterns that the others had used. Food, she repeated, and shone no more. Small-five and her sisters resigned themselves to merely having their best meal in many weeks, and were content, if achingly, mind-burningly curious – another curse they’d acquired since their meals in polar waters.
After the rest came the movement again, a steady, just-shy-of-swift pace that was just fast enough to prevent impatience, just slow enough to promote blissful, somnolent digestion. Questions were still multiplying like Fiskupids in Small-five’s mind, but they could wait now. In fact, she was so content that it took Dim-glow firing off a barrage of excited exclamations nearly in her eye for her to notice that they’d finally arrived at their destination.

Not-a-reefcolony, said Small-five.
Thousands upon thousands of stacked shells, soaring upwards from the bottom of the sea in a pillar that broadened into a wide plateau, just below the surface – a maximum of surface exposed with a minimum of wasted under-space.
Above them, on that broad plain below the waves, strange pillars jutted. Beneath them were lights, hundreds upon hundreds, moving in and out of caves and recesses and chambers, spiralling up and down the bulk of the not-a-reefcolony. Glowing, shining, flowing from pattern to pattern before anything could be understood except beauty.
Every light was one of her kind. Small-five knew this at the moment, but did not comprehend it. That would take much longer.
It was shaped, and impossible to understand though the means and methods which had done the shaping were, Small-five knew that the minds that had done it were just like hers
Not-a-reefcolony, said Small-five again.
No, agreed All-fin.
The size of the not-reefcolony fooled them over and over again as they approached it. First they forgot that the little lights bobbing around it were full adults, not juveniles such as themselves, and they had to adjust for that. Then they noticed that many of the adults were actually swimming some ways out from the not-reefcolony’s sides and there were many closer lights at its sides that they hadn’t seen, and they had to adjust for that. Finally, they realized that they were just plain wrong about how big it was, and gave up at the precise moment its size register for them. It made them tremble – it seemed almost as big as the Godfish in that moment, though their memories told them they were liars.
Calm, soothed their guide. Calm. Follow.
By now they were close enough that their destination was visible: a large chamber near the surface of the waves that was seemingly open to the currents; the same currents that were now jostling beneath Small-five, slipping up around her sides. The waters were strange here – a few bodylengths to her right, and she was sure that she would be pushed upwards whether she liked it or not.
It was a calming place, she thought, as they were led into it. Overwhelming large, yes, but kept cozy by surprisingly calm water and the jumble and clutter of its walls; a riotous mix of different sizes and shapes of reefcolony shells. Looking at it as something-made, like all the not-a-reefcolony, it seemed intentional. Something made to seem like it wasn’t made… it made Small-five’s mind ache.
They were not alone in confusion. Their disparate cousins from the breaking of the berg were being herded in ahead and behind them, as confused and shaken as they were. Some were unknown to them – refugees from other floating ice patches? They were all the same. Some a little larger, some a little smaller, but all the same: confused, interested, and a little terrified.
Calm, reassured their guide. Wait. And with that she, the aide, and the guard all turned on their sides, flicked their tails, and whisked themselves out of the chamber to hover just outside its mouth. Across its width, the rest of the escorts followed suit, and within moments it was empty except for Small-five, her sisters, and perhaps seventy more of their kind, in schools ranging from sizes two-to-five. They tried not to look at each other while looking at each other, and failed.
The water moved, and the waiting adults moved aside as soft, wide-spreading glowshine filled the chamber, along with the latest of the many strange new things Small-five had seen today. She was massive; nearly half again the size of the other, already too-big adults Small-five had met; she was pale, and she was scarred, and her glowshine had turned the faintest shade of red, giving her every word a pinkish hue.
Every word. Small-five could understand her words. They were a little slow, and a little strange, but they were words.
Welcome-home-little-sisters-and-daughter’s -sisters, she shone. I-am-Outward-spreading-flash. You-are-safe-here. Question-you-have-next-is-‘what-is-here?’-yes?
Agreement spread across the crowd of juveniles, almost involuntarily. Outward-spreading gleamed at it.
It-is-many. Place-to-make. Place-to-think. Place-to-live. Mostly-place-is-home. Next-question-is-‘what-is-home?’-yes?
Another chorus, another happy, welcoming gleam.
Home-is-safe. Home-is-food. Home-is-family-beyond-sisters. For-you-this-moment-home-is-mostly-learning. First-thing-to-learn-is-home’s-name. Home-is-named-Far-away-light.
Surprise rippled through Outward-spreading’s audience.
Yes-home-is-named-like-person-not-like-food-or-thing. Big-person-made-from-many-little-ones. We-care-for-it-it-cares-for-us. As-we-will-care-for-you. Start-with-learning. And-learning-starts-with-talking. You-all-understand-me-as-I-speak-yes?
Agreement.
Good. Soon-you-will-understand-us-as—we—speak. First-begin-with-basics. You-remember-your-childhood-words-yes? Not-words-at-all-just-rainbows-show-of-your-thoughts-without-focus. It-is-like-but-not. Now-watch-this.
As Small-five watched Outward-spreading’s sides ripple through a slow, deliberate approximation of a single instance of adult expression, she had two more thoughts. The first was on how she could do that, and what it meant, and so on. A visible thought, a trackable one.
The second, smaller and more quiet, but not quite unnoted, was that she knew what home was now. And she was there.

The Life of Small-five (Part 5).

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Small-five’s first awareness of what was happening to her came as a result of a mistake. That particular mistake came from greed, which served as an excellent first lesson for her developing brain: stupidity is forgivable, provided you learn from it.
She and her sisters should’ve paid more attention when Nine-point spotted a stray Eurenu in the night that was nearly as big as they were, floating into the safety of an ice crevice with all the haste that their flabby bodies were capable of. Of course, the sisters pursued – that mass of fleshy jelly could feed them for a day or more each. Of course, they barely fit through the tunnel the boneless thing had squeezed itself into; though it opened into a relatively spacious cavern just past a bodylength. And of course, even as they caught up to their food and tore out its defensive slime-sac, a creaking filled the water behind them and All-fin was nearly snared by the delicate, knife-edged legs of a large Nohlohk that had seated itself over the entrance to its little hideway.
Panic set in, of course. Small-five and her new sisters had spent months upon months in the open sea, where the closest thing to a confined space was to be surrounded by Fiskupids. To be suddenly and aggressively hemmed into a tight cave was something altogether different, something that none of them would have tolerated for long even back during their days on the reefcolony, and immediate reaction was four separate shades of panic, sliding frantically from side to side in shades so bright that they hurt each other’s eyes.
Too-close-too-big-too-too-bright-all-hurts-stuck-here-can-it-reach-us? flashed Dim-glow, her damaged fin twitching uncontrollably with the force of unpleasant memories of their first Nohlohk encounter.
No-it-can’t-no-it-can’t-won’t-can’t-won’t-no, stammered out All-fin, reassuring no one, including herself.
Stay-still-can’t-reach, said Small-five, and that calmed them all down a bit. The Nohlohk’s legs really couldn’t stretch far enough, try as it might. They were trapped, but they were in no immediate danger; not unless they panicked and tried to make a break for it. It wouldn’t work. Not with a captor that size – it must have been sleeping here for months to let this miniature prison form around it. It was probably starving, and disinclined to release food.
Need-out-need-out-need-out, said Dim-glow. Out-out-OUT, the last flash-pattern nearly dazzling her sisters.
Quiet-stop, said Nine-point, jabbing her with her proboscis. Wait.
The sisters waited, and Nine-point struggled for a moment, trying out new patterns before she found one that fit the concept she’d just discovered. A bit like a hunt, but broader, stranger.
Idea.
Her lights rippled as she looked to Small-five. You-smallest. Swim-close-swim-very-low-near-legs-in-legs-reach-back-out-and-in-taunt-bait.
Small-five drew in on herself, lights dimming. Why-hurt-kill-will-catch-me-
No-won’t-smallest-quickest-most-easily-worried-escape-fine. soothed Nine-point. Bait-and-we-stop-it-do-it-go-NOW-before-it-settles-in. All-fin-Dim-glow-listen-while-she-does-it-you-will-
Small-five couldn’t see the rest of the conversation; she was focused on her new, suicidal goal. The Nohlohk seemed to grow as she approached the outermost reach of its legs, even shrunken in on itself, hiding in its icy carapace. Tiny little glimmers of light sparkled at her from inside it; eyes masquerading as refraction from her glowshine.
Was she inside its reach now? It was large, but what if it was short-legged? What if she was already well inside its grasp now, and it was patient? What if it had fallen asleep and they would never catch its eye until they passed below it, easy prey? What if they got away and one of them died and the others hated Small-five for it? Would they drive her away and leave her to starve and be eaten under the ice? What if
The Nohlohk struck, turning empty water into a swarm of needle-legs and hunger. Sheer fright was Small-five’s only instinctual saviour, and then only by inches – she jerked backwards quicker than thinking, and felt the cold, sharp touch of a thousand claws brush gently against her snout. Blood filled the water in front of her nostrils, making her dizzy with fright.
Now-now-NOW-GO, called Nine-point, just on the corner of her eyes, glowshine fierce as midday sunlight. Down from above came her sisters, proboscises snapping and darting as fast as the Nohlohk’s legs, rushing right over its stretched-out web of razors and into its surprised face, smashing into its ice-plates.
The Nohlohk responded as its instincts demanded: immediate retreat. In a half-an-instant the maze of cutting-edges was gone, yanked back into its shell with such force that the suction yanked Small-five into its face, almost collided with Dim-glow on the way.
Go-run-flee-hurry-run-run-run-SWIM! called Nine-point, still burning-bright. Her sisters did as they were told, rushing past the confused predator quick as thinking. Nine-point followed last, and took the tip of a claw in her tail, leaving a pretty cut that made Small-five feel the pain in her snout all over again.
Not-worth-the-food, said Dim-glow.
No, agreed All-fin, gingerly prodding herself to check for scrapes. Needs-more-care-wary-frighten. She shook herself. But-still-idea-good-worked-think-ahead. Any-others?
Nine-point was running through her glowshines, each a little weaker and smaller than usual. She’d flared bright enough to tire herself out for hours, even with the meal of the Eurenu to fuel herself. None-now. Think-when-needed. Tell-you-then. She stretched, long and slow. You-too-next-time-help-idea-think-ahead-plan.
That was Small-five’s first encounter with an idea. They seemed useful, and she wondered how you got them.
She found out herself three days later.

The problem was a Rimeback. It usually was.
Rimebacks had one grand virtue, but an innumerable amount of vices. Tasty, but hard-shelled in their ice-carapaces, so they stuck in your mouth if you weren’t careful. Tasty, but quick and canny in the water, expert at dodging just barely out of reach. Tasty, but only entering the water to feed on the tiny organisms of the polar seas.
Perhaps there was only one redeeming feature to them, but it was quite a large one. They were soft, smooth, and delicious. Small-five would have eaten ten of them if she wasn’t even hungry, she would’ve hunted them if they were as filling and nutritious as ice. A single mouthful of Rimeback. stripped of its deathly-cold insulating fatty layers that kept it coated in a sheath of ice, would make up for an entire month of tasteless, filling Eurenu consumption. If it weren’t for the energy you had to expend to chase down the little pests.
Small-five had just followed All-fin in a particular intensive Rimeback chase while Nine-point and Dim-glow watched. After a whirlabout chase through pack ice that had nearly led the two sisters to bite each other at least four times, the nuisance had found itself a snug perch on top of a small berg, where it hung just out of proboscis-reach, chittering taunts at them as they chipped vicious holes in the ice with lunge after lunge.
Go-away-give-up-stop-come-find-food, said Nine-point.
Agreement-come-stop-that-small-not-worth-eating-anyways-come-on, said Dim-glow.
Stubbornness was the catalyst for Small-five’s immediate decision to get that Rimeback at any cost, given spine by her growing awareness that the size gaps between them were narrowing. The rich food and pause from movement offered by the polar seas had finally let her begin to catch up on her stunted growth, and Nine-point no longer made her seem shrunken by comparison.
No-will-HAVE-it! she shone fiercely. Will-HAVE-it-All-fin-come-here-drive-it-near-to-me-now-stab.
All-fin responded dutifully. The Rimeback skittered upwards, away from both of them, and stood on its back legs, puffing out its air sacs in pride and calling triumph in its squeaky little voice.
Amusement rippled down Dim-glow and Nine-point’s sides. Small-five wriggled in frustration. Knock-it-over-knock-it-over-knock-it-over! she blared.
Too-big-too-heavy-stop-it, said All-fin. Done-all-you-loud-stop-it.
Small-five jabbed at the iceberg again – pointless, except as a stress release.
A chip broke off, and smacked her on the head.
And then, as her sisters laughed at her, she felt the world turn simpler. It was so obvious all of a sudden that she felt if she shook herself, the idea might fall off like a clinging parasite.
Carefully, slowly, gingerly, Small-five poked at the berg-chip with her proboscis. It bobbed.
Cautiously, steadily, warily, Small-five wrapped the muscular body of her proboscis around the lump of ice. Her sisters were saying something, but she didn’t notice.
Quickly, before she could forget what she was doing, Small-five whisked the chunk of iceberg into the air. It smacked off the berg a third of a body-length from the Rimeback, which squalled in alarm and scooted higher.
All four sisters looked at what Small-five had just done, and thought about it.
Try-again, they all agreed, and the next ten minutes were, for the Rimeback, both the most confusing and terminal of its life. It dodged, it scurried for cover, but before long all four of the sisters had learned how to accurately lob a piece of ice and had it surrounded, without cover, without hope, and very shortly, without a shell or any of the most succulent bits of its insides.
They shared it equally. It tasted better than anything they’d had before.
Good-idea-of-tool, hummed Nine-point. Good-idea-good-Small-five-smart.
Small-five thought that was a good new word for her. If she couldn’t be small anymore, she’d be smart. It sounded like a good thing, if it meant she had ideas, and the ideas were like that.

The third time Small-five encountered an idea was also the third time she met others of her own kind that were not her sisters.
It was unlike the others from the start. Her first chance meeting had been a clumsy blundering into the path of an unfriendly sister-group. Her second, swimming right into the faces of her near-sisters. The newcomers – a bit bigger, a bit rowdier, and three in number – were approached from a distance, first seen as strange glowshines at the far edges of a deepwater upwelling under the crystalline grasp of an ice shelf’s edge.
Strangers-go? asked Small-five as they approached.
Strangers-talk-wait-and-see-maybe-run-maybe-fight-bigger-but-we-more, replied Dim-glow, eyeing the newcomers. They were a few months older than Small-five and her sisters, showing itself not just in their greater size, but also the breadth of their fins; the sprouting of small strange whiskers near adjacent to their mouth, a pair on each side; and the confident, deep-set light of their glowshines, sustaining effortlessly a degree of brightness that Small-five had to exert pressure to achieve. She wasn’t sure whether to feel fear, resentment, or awe.
The two groups met near the upwelling’s center, at something close to equal distance between their starting points. This was very much intentional, guessed Small-five. Nine-point might not be so much larger now, but she was still the leader of the sisters for a reason.
Greetings-and-speakings-to-you-and-your-smalls-with-many, said the leader of the strangers. Something was off about her glowshine, her cadence just a touch wrong. Her words were like what Small-five knew, but different. She wasn’t sure if she liked it. Or if her sisters did either, judging by their wary and stiff swimming.
Name-Flare-forwards-three-pulse, continued the lead stranger, still holding a position of perfect, loose-finned relaxation, and-Rescinding-gleam-against-right-flipper-and-Soft-shine-top-to-botom. You-share-or-we-fight?
Nine-point moved a little closer, just short of attempted intimidation, but enough to show she wasn’t shrinking. Share-a-bit-you-stay-that-side-we-here-if-predator-comes-alarm-flares-all-points-then-scatter.
Good-and-safer-and-surer, agreed Flare-forwards. Hunt-good-and-eat-well-agreement-made-and-alarm-will-call. She glowed softly on all marks, then turned about and departed back to her own side of the upwelling, sisters in tow.
Never-seen-talk-like-that-where you learned? asked Small-five. Learn-on-reefcolony?
Never-known-copied-her-added-predator-watch-idea, said Nine-point. Don’t-want-look-stupid-young. Old-chase-young-away-no-food.
The idea of a bluff that didn’t just trick your opponent’s senses but also their ideas seemed very strange to Small-five. Nine-point had just made someone else think that the entire world, in this one way, was wrong – and even included Small-five in it by mistake. It seemed too powerful for how easy it had been.
Come-food-comes, called Dim-glow. Beneath them, rising slow but sure, were the first prey of the night.

So learned Small-five, in bits in snips. She learned to move things that weren’t her, and use them. She learned to think about times that weren’t the present, and plan for them. She learned to think about what others were thinking or not thinking, and what that could mean. By the time the summer sun lay pinned in the sky above the icebergs, she could think about her own thinking, even if she wasn’t quite sure about it. Yet.
At that time, the plentiful bounty of the deep cold began to slow as warmer currents pervaded it. The upwellings slumbered, the ice melted, the hunt-and-be-hunted of life under the ice slowed and dawdled. And Small-five and her sisters grew lean, yet no less in cunning – they’d ingested the chemicals of the things from the deep cold for a full half-year, and the paths their minds were set upon were unbarred and fixed. Intellect was assured now, which would’ve been small comfort now even if they’d known it; all they knew was that their hunts were longer and poorer, and their predators hungrier and faster to jump – a Crheeh almost took the four of them in a single pass, saved only by the chance of Dim-glow’s glowshine sparkling upon its teeth rising from below as she turned to scold All-fin for something pointless.
And as the warm came, so went the Fiskupids. Frozen in their icy coffins, a hundred thousand embedded inside the heart of every berg that broke loose from its brethren, they drifted north inside the mountains of melting ice. Millions would die pointlessly, melted loose in icy waters where there was no hope of the eggs each tiny corpse carried reaching a warm seabed to rest upon. They left with nearly as grand a guard as they had arrived with; each iceberg trailed by a swarm of scavengers preying upon still-frozen Fiskupid bodies as they fell loose from their tombs. Only the deepest burrowers would survive the trek.
Not that Small-five knew this. The polar seas were growing into their bare summer season – gulfs of open, lifeless water speckled with oases of ice, where refugees huddled for food and shelter. Caught between remaining in the widening gulfs of starvation or migrating deeper into the heart of the pole, where the water ran cold enough to freeze glowshine under your skin, they made the only choice they could. She and her sisters turned to the north and once more followed in the wake of the Fiskupids, – once an endless wave of life, now a silent, frozen rain – sadder, hungrier, but wiser. And still learning.
They were less than two months away from realizing just how much they would have to learn.

The Life of Small-five (Part 4).

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
(It’s been a long time since we last saw this, hasn’t it?  I shouldn’t be leaving things unfinished.  If you need a refresher, I’ve made a new sub-tag for this series, and the first segment is located here)

 

Small-five-point-burst of light learned much over the next few months, beginning with how to talk.
She had lost her sisters at a crucial point in her social development, and it was sheer luck that her unusual pre-juvenile years had opened her to flexibility rather than scarring her into rigidness. She memorized the glowshine patterns of her new family, ones she’d never imagined, learned to flicker and flash and sheen with subtlety and speed beyond anything she’d thought possible, and watched, watched, watched with all her heart and mind, shining little, observing much.
The breakthrough came unexpectedly, and in a manner that ensured she never forgot it.
She and All-fin were flitting around a particularly dense knot of Fiskupids, spooking them together while the slightly larger Dim-glow (the name still brought haunting memories of her first sister) and Nine-point dove in and out of the mass, each lunge skewing three or more of the little swarming creatures. Small-five and her new sisters would probably eat no more than a third of them, a third of an infinitely small fraction of the school as a whole – a cell in a body of impossible size. The incessant, unceasing predation had still failed to so much as decimate the Fiskupids, and after half a year swimming with them, Small-five had grown comfortable with a world which was almost exclusively alive. Part of her mind was still that of a reef-dwelling infant, and the replacement of the reefcolony’s shelled walls and pillars with mazes of flesh was a comfort against the bottomless blue that surrounded her – the Fiskupids spread for miles around, but never ventured deeper than a few hundred metres, and it was seldom that she went for a day or more without glimpsing the great depths; always earning a shudder before she swam away, eyes averted. Perhaps it was a relic of her more fearful past, or her youthful exploration of the canyons between reefcolonies, but she could never resist the impulse to glance down into those awful pits in her world that her new sisters’ eyes skated over.
It was precisely because of this that Small-five noticed the gap in the Fiskupids first, directly beneath them. This was typical, and not worthy of note. But there was movement in it, abstract, slow, at great distance but infinitely large and impossible to ignore.
The reproachful glowshine of All-fin flittered into the corner of Small-five’s view; she was now balling the entire swarm by herself, and it was already fraying at the seems without Small-five’s assistance. Dim-glow and Nine-point would be less than pleased if it ceased early, besides the two smaller sisters likely missing out on their own turn.
The moment where Small-five spoke for the first time – really spoke, not just broadcast emotions, intent, other immediate concepts, was here. Torn between expressing embarrassment, panic, apology, and warning, her glowshine flickered, wobbled, and sputtered into life, having settled on explanation: Sisters-there-is-a-big-thing-down-there-what-is-it?
Small-five’s question very nearly went ignored as her new-sisters burst in a torrent of overlapping exclamations of surprise and delight at her speech, but All-fin, already annoyed enough to forgo praise for the moment, looked down.
Run! she shone. Run! Flee! Away! Out and up!
The sisters scattered, Small-five keeping one eye aimed below, watching the darkness. The Fiskupids had sensed it as well; they were thinning upwards at great speed; the swarm compacting itself tight to the surface in an effort to move away from something that seemed to cover the entire ocean beneath them.
Small-five would’ve liked to ask what it was, but her new-sisters had no names to give her, and besides, her question was already answered by her instincts. There was only one creature that this thing below them could be, the shape so large that it covered half of her visible world right now as she strove for the surface: a Godfish.

Much later, Small-five would know many words and much more of the world itself, the Gruskomish Godfish included. She would know of the exact dimensions of the Gruskomish, a size so staggering that no more than a few dozen roamed the planet at any one time, each taxing any food supply it found to its limit. She could recite their life history: a rare egg, laid once every few centuries, which sinks to the bottom of the world and incubates alone in purest dark, before hatching into an infant that must feed its way from a size only a little bigger than Small-five the juvenile to a bulk large enough to ignore any obstacle as insignificant, a process of almost a millennium. Only when the infant Gruskomish grew its fins – twice the size of its unbelievably large body – did it leave the muck of the seafloor, ready to spend the next hundred years feeding and dodging its larger peers, who would happily reduce the competition a younger cousin might cause.
None of this was known to Small-five right then, of course. She just knew that unless she and her new-sisters swam faster than they ever had before, they would be killed by something that wasn’t even aware that they existed.

The water was humming. The Fiskupid school had long been a noisy place, even to the reefcolony-trained ears of Small-five; alive with the constant uproar of billions of beings on the move. But this new noise rubbed any of its peers into nothing, a long, smooth drone that was shifting upwards in pitch imperceptibly slowly. It made Small-five’s proboscis twitch and her membranes flutter, slipping over and off her eyes in an unusual sort of blink that made her vision slosh, adding to the disorientation of the growing blur of speed that the Fiskupids around her were becoming.
The whole world was the school, and the whole world was fleeing. But not fast enough.
Details were starting to swim into shape beneath her, the unseeable dark transforming into rough patches and skin, each tiniest of scales bigger than Small-five and her new-sisters put together, all coating a skull as big as a reefcolony. It was so large that it was impossible to guess its speed until it was right beneath them and Small-five was staring into an eye of impossible size, dyed a deep, startling murky green.
It looked right through her without acknowledgement, without notice, even as she bounced off its hardened lens – transparent, but sterner than stone. And as she thrashed in a desperate effort to remain stable, sliding uncontrollably upwards on the Godfish’s head, she felt air touch her for the first time. The light was harsh and cruel, and dryness all around her as the sun scattered its rays cruelly on the exposed skin of millions – the Godfish had raised perhaps an eighth of the entire school out of the water on the vast, inward-sloping valley of its skull. The rumbling hum of its voice was overpowering, a sensation that made Small-five’s skin vibrate and ruptured the innards of the Fiskupids all around her.
Small-five and her new-sisters were fortunate; stranded as they were on the very rim of the Gruskomish, they were able to witness what happened next as spectators, not victims. All moving in that same, slow-yet-fast speed that the Godfish did everything in, the valley rifted, a toothless chasm slowly unveiling itself down the center of its head. Down, down, down – deeper than they’d ever swum – spun the flopping, dying bodies of almost half a billion Fiskupids, into a digestive system that dwarfed caverns. The jaws shut again with a hollow thud that rattled Small-five’s bones, and then the Gruskomish was sinking again, dropping the thousands of uneaten, stranded beings atop the edges of its skull back into the water, unnoticed, uncaring.
They lay there for a while in the water, all four of them; dazed and injured, sorting out up from down and letting the newfound sensation of burning-dry wash away at the touch of currents they’d never appreciated so much as at that moment. Already far away in the distance, they watched the Godfish lift its head above the water again and swallow another part of the world. Its endless hum was fading already, but still overpoweringly strong .
It-didn’t-care, said Small-five, without thinking. Somewhere in the whirl of the last three minutes, communication had become the least puzzling thing in the world to her. Also, she now knew that these were her sisters. If they hadn’t been, she would’ve been a good deal less afraid to see them all caught on the edge of a Godfish’s maw.
No, agreed Nine-point. She shook herself briskly and ran through her glowshine in a staccato pattern, a wake-up call. Eat-rest. School-goes-nowhere.

Nine-point was right in more ways than one. By the time the Gruskomish Godfish had departed, fully half the Fiskupid school had been consumed; more losses in an hour than it had sustained over the entire rest of the journey. Four huge mouthfuls in all had been taken, cutting the school almost precisely in half down the centre, and for three days the two did nothing but attempt to reassemble themselves; their ceaseless journey of half a year brought to a full stop for the first time. Small-five and her sisters ate and healed and rested, shying well away from sunlight and watching the depths with a wary eye, obvious though it was that no two Gruskomish would ever mingle so close unless mating – and then, food would be the last thing on their minds.
After three days, the Fiskupids resumed their travel, and the greater accuracy of Nine-point’s statement was revealed less than a week later: at long last, their destination was in sight. Here in the colder waters of the south, a new sight came to their eyes, something bizarre in a way that none of them understood.
Very-white-what-is-it? asked Small-five, who’d gone from being the most withdrawn of their group to the most talkative with the acquisition of working language.
Not-known-find-out-All-fin, said Nine-point. All-fin cautiously moved up to the surface where the thing was lurking and poked it with her proboscis. It bobbed.
Floats-not-alive-very-hard-hurts-tastes-like-water-VERY-cold-not-dangerous, she flashed back.
Ice.
After no more than two days more travelling- very quickly, the Fiskupids were rushing now, knowing their travels were near an end – they were at the edge of the polar ice mass, surrounded by mountains and valleys of floating ice. The world was a maze again like the reefcolonies of Small-five’s youth, only one that hung down from above the surface rather than rising up from the depths.
For a time there was only wonder and exploration – and occasional surprise, such as when Dim-glow was nearly squashed by an overturning iceberg, or when Small-five tried to eat a small, scuttling thing with too many legs lairing in a great undersea icicle, which tried to pluck out her eye with a pair of claws almost five feet long.
But all around them, changes were happening; the last traces of home they had left vanishing. The Fiskupids were slowing down all around them, breaking up – the school only so recently reunited with so much confusion fragmenting naturally, splitting into a thousand thousand groups that swam to the edges of hundreds of bergs. The world made of life was gone, flowing into ice, where each tiny sliver-like individual burrowed and chipped and hummed its way into a tiny coffin, sealing itself alive.
Crazy-things, opined All-fin.
Make-us-hungry, said Nine-point. Find-new-foods-learn-new-hunts. Stay-close-no-knowing-what-hunts-here.
The sisters agreed on that, and they stayed close. It saved their lives more than a dozen times over those first few ignorant days; swimming nearly fin-to-fin, glowshines flashing in nervous chatter, the four sisters – none of whom could hope to hide in this strange world – passed as one bulky entity given a moment’s grace and poor eyesight, something that many of the polar predators possessed.
The food was strange here. Straggler Fiskupids kept them fed for the first few weeks, but soon none were left, every single one buried in ice or eaten by the mouthful. Instead, they searched for the markings of the Gible; long, gelatinous creatures that burrowed just beneath the surface of the icepack, fishing out tiny organisms from its crevices and pits, and returned the favour with their proboscises. They ate the flat, darkened, shapeless masses that were Eurenu, the floaters in the night-time that soaked up nutrients from the depths and drifted aimlessly in the currents, jetting away in a squirt of nauseating slime if you weren’t quick to catch them (but not too quick – a careless jab would puncture the sac that secreted those nauseating fluids into your mouth, where a more careful strike would excise it from the body, leaving an empty-tasting but filling mass). They even fed upon a small family-school of Raskljen – those strange, smaller migrants of the southern seas that were now barely half Small-five’s length at best, and she the shortest and most compact of her sisters. No amount of water-pounding with their strange eight-paired fins could let them outrun the dazzling flares of the sisters’ lights, and a particular strobing pattern that All-fin discovered seemed to send them into abrupt spasms if used head-on, making kills guaranteed whenever they managed to flush a school into an ambush. The flesh was sweet, made sweeter by the satisfaction of killing a close cousin to those predators that had haunted them so on the reefcolonies.
Such moments kept them sane, lights to remember in the dark night of the polar seas, when the world grew teeth bigger than you were.
The biggest surprise were the Nolohk. Wrapped in sheets and sheets of grown and re-grown armour, glitteringly opaque, the best way to tell them apart from any other icicle was to burst glowshine at them. A Nolohk’s glitter was only as deep as its first layer, and the sparkle didn’t reflect nearly as firmly. The other way was to get too close, and wait for the web of long, razor-sharp legs to snatch you out of midwater, where they would tear you to pieces small enough to fit inside its hundreds of tiny mouths. Dim-glow lost a third of one of her fins to the first they encountered, and with that reminder held close it was difficult to forget the risk.
The Crhheeh were more visible, less inclined to make you jump at shadows, but much more dangerous. They were eyeless, and no amount of bluffing with close-swimming glowshine would fool them into seeing anything less than four small meals: three for the Crheeh and one for its mother, who clung tightly to its back with fins merged into arteries, now both an extra maw and the resonance chamber that let the Crheeh sing its quiet, impossibly-high songs that made your ears ache and your eyes twitch. Of course, by the time that was happening, it was already charging at you, two slender mouths of slender teeth.
And of course, there were the Jarekindj. Far relatives of the wanderers of the deep tropics – fatter, less ferocious than her memory recalled – but still unmistakably close to the creature that had taken the lives of Small-five’s first sisters. Finless, a body that was one giant muscle, pulling their way through the water with brute force and strange sinuousness, with more teeth than were countable, studded from down their throats to across their heads, weapon, warning, and boast all at once. They were sluggish things, but they were not harmless, and Small-five fled at the nearest sight of them, often before her sisters had even glimpsed the first gleam of glowshine-on-fang.
The night was long, and it was dark. The world was more frightening than ever – full of teeth, scarce of food, with ice hemming you in at all sides and a bottomless chasm forever open beneath your fins. But Small-five was learning things, even when she wasn’t learning things – all unknowing, all by eating. As a youth, she had been nearly a creature of instinct. As a juvenile now, she knew thought, if mostly immediate. Her mind had grown steadily up ’till the present, slowly.
But now, eating her scarce new prey, fed upon strange things rising up from the deep polar trenches, which fed upon stranger things that brewed down below at the end of the earth, Small-five’s mind was blossoming, as were her sisters’. A tiny patch of glowing, growing brightness in the longest night in the world.

The Life of Small-five (Part 3).

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

(I had something up for today, but then I realized I couldn’t post it because I have to put it into a short story contest and lose first.  So enjoy a half-length bit instead).

Once the thrill and overpowering demands of instinct had faded away from her, Small-five was near-frightened by the new world around her.  The deepest waters she had ever swum had been the reef-rifts, explored with close caution and worriment in her every motion.  Now she hurried over empty blue whose extent she couldn’t even begin to comprehend and whose exploration she would be unable to undergo, even if she desired it or had the time.  The Fiskupids were small, but they were ceaselessly energetic.  She had swum for something like two days straight at a pace that never slowed below a swift cruise, and they showed no signs of stress or strain.  Small-five’s disadvantage was an unfortunate side effect of her near-starvation on the reef – where muscle should’ve bulged, it merely pulsed.

Still, she was optimally placed to correct this difficulty.  She swam and ate and ate and swam, surrounded by a seemingly endless feast of the Fiskupids and their predators alike, untroubled by any needs save those of growth.  At first she watched the Raskljens warily, but when she realized that they saw no need to hunt her when surrounded by so much easier prey she became less cautious, and by the time ten days had passed and the Fiskupid schools finally slowed their relentless pace she swam by most them as casually as they did her.  Except for the larger ones, who still appeared to be slightly too interested in her whenever she saw them.

Other hanger-ons came in time.  Slow-moving, stretched-out Skurromesh, elongated and entwined bodies formed of a mated male and female wrapped around one another’s forms.  The disturbing Fjiloj – her first sighting of them, from a distance, filled her with useless hope; the shine, the glow, for a brief moment made her think of her sisters.  But when she drew closer she saw the colours and tones were all wrong; this was not the bright and strong glowshine of her sisters, but something wrong, soft and ghostly and flickering, uncontrolled, unfocused, unreal.  It bobbed in the water gently, translucent and wrong, and she had the sense to back away, confusion saving her from the whip-strong tendrils that spread out towards her with the speed of a darting Verrineeach, nearly invisible in the water.  What appeared to be a jellylike sack of glowing innards a short distance away was housed inside the powerfully muscled frame of a bony predator, lean and savage, but thankfully slow-swimming.  Small-five fled, and was wary of all light for a time, even to the point of dimming her own to almost unnoticeable levels.

Stranger still was another wanderer, one whose name she never learned.  It was nothing more than a large-ish stretch of cloudy, murked water, but it held together in defiance of dispersion, and somehow moved against the current if it willed it.  It followed the vast shoal for some days, and creatures too close to it tended to vanish without warning.  Small-five never saw what happened to them, but that was enough to make her watch it closely.  It vanished as suddenly and conspicuously as it arrived one day, along with a large and belligerent Raskljen that Small-five had long had to avoid.  A reminder that not all dangers were dangers to her alone, or incapable of working to her benefit.  Still, a relief to see it gone.

Of all of the denizens of the shoal, those that unsettled her the greatest were her own kind.  After the attack above the chasm, she had no interest in making acquaintances – when she saw glowshine in the distance, she shut down her illumination and fled, and she didn’t light up until some time had passed without so much as a glimmer passing her eyes.

The Fiskupid’s slowing seemed connected to the temperature.  Small-five had taken time to notice it herself, but they were in cooler waters than the location of the relatively warm reefcolony she’d grown up in.  It had no immediate effects on her person besides making her appreciate (in some deepened corner of her brain) her added fat, but it had an effect on her surroundings, like it or not.  Not all of the new denizens of the open ocean she saw were alien solely because of habitat – the Filijoj would’ve been sluggish and slower had it ventured far enough north to join the shoal in its earlier days.  Its relatives that dwelt in that particular part of the world were smaller, faster, less aggressive, and far more wide-roaming.   As new inhabitants of the shoal arrived, others departed: the few Skurromesh that had trailed in its wake to pick up leavings fell behind for good, both exhausted, sated, and reaching the ends of their temperature comfort zones.

What made this significant were the Ooliku.  The Fiskupids were on the first and greatest journey of their lives.  Small-five, the Raskljen, the Fjiloj, and the other, stranger things were there to exploit it.  The Ooliku were coming home.  The Fiskupids were merely a convenient food source for them to latch onto as they travelled, and if they were removed they would still constitute a mighty shoal on their own, albeit one barely a tenth of a fifth of a sixth of the size.  They were moving with purpose of their own, a return to the bottom of the world, to the ice and cold and freezing black water that swarmed with nutrients and life.  Their paths would diverge soon, and they would depart, bellies filled with nutrition and packed into fat that would have to last them the last and longest step of their great journey.  Under the poles they would couple and breed and die and feast, only the hardiest returning to the reefcolonies to spray their eggs in warmer waters.

Small-five knew none of this, of course.  All she knew was that the Ooliku were getting heftier, more aggressive, and clustering tighter together.  That, and even the subadults had swollen into burlier adults by now.  Preying upon any of them was now distinctly unfeasible – their beaks were sharp and they had no reserves whatsoever about pre-emptively driving off anything they thought might harm them, flying at anything from the largest Raskljen to Small-five herself in large mobs.  The one predator that seemed to successfully stump them were the Fjiloji – more than once Small-five watched an Ooliku curiously swim all too close to that soft sinister glow, then jerk and die midwater before being brought to indistinct mouthparts, ripped, and swallowed.

Their departure was still a shock.  One evening, as Small-five stirred from her torpor (swimming while resting was a new skill she’d acquired), she noticed that there wasn’t a single Ooliku left.  Every single one had extracted itself from the shoal, presumably formed up into a separate school, and left for the pole, taking a substantial chunk of the shoal’s predator population with them.  Not that it in any way reduced her perceptions of its size – the main change she noticed was that she didn’t have to carefully watch and brood over every lunge into a dense mass of prey, worrying about coming face-first into a clump of surly adult Ooliku.  The sole remaining predators she knew of within the school were only the very largest of the Raskljen, and even they had gradually vanished, replaced by smaller, sleeker cousins less than a third again her body weight, that had no interest in any prey but the Fiskupids, darting into their densest swarms and devouring them ten-at-a-time.  For the first time in what felt like forever, she had utterly nothing to fear.  This newfound carefreeness backfired on her after what seemed to be a very short time, when she swam through a cloud of prey (it was impossible to remember a time when she hadn’t been surrounded by free-swimming food and suddenly found her eyes full of startled glowshine, her own and those of three others.  That they were slightly larger than she was registered through the shock, but her immediate reaction after that had switched from flight to sheer terror-paralysis.  Not that she was in a position where flight would do her any good – she would never be able to move fast enough to outrun them from less than a proboscis-length away.

They hovered there, all four of them.  Glowshine codes flickered back and forth between the three sisters, too quick and complex for Small-five to grasp, variations on themes that she and her sisters had only just begun to grasp before their separation.  But no hostility, no stabbing proboscises, no angry flares of light.  Wariness, yes, but strange codes and signals that might have been curiosity.  They were older than her assailants had been, as was she – practically juveniles, nearing full sapience.

Flicker-pulse-three-point-irregular-twinkle? flashed out the largest of the three sisters.

Small-five watched without comprehension.  It didn’t feel like a name, but it felt impatient.

The pattern repeated itself.  She didn’t understand it.  Small-five-point-burst-of-light, she flashed.  It was the only thing she could think of that was intelligible.  That was what she was, and she didn’t know anything else.

It certainly got their attention.  More flashes and flickers and maybe she was just guessing off of murky memories of her own sisters, but she could see something of interest there.

Dim-glow-bright-two-point-flare.  A name.  The other two lit up: All-fin-sparkle and Nine-point-glimmer.

Names.  Names for all of them.  She’d forgotten what this was like.  With others swimming near here.

They turned to move away, and Small-five saw the lines of light crawl down Dim-glow from snout to tail, the call to swim, to fall together.  Something old, something familiar, delivered by someone new.

Small-five fell in, unsure and uncomprehending, but grateful and with an odd budding of hope inside her.  She hadn’t swum with others in a long, long time.

The Life of Small-five (Part 2).

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Small-five-point-burst-of-light wove slowly and unsteadily about the dips and valleys of the reef, shallowed as they were.  She was a bit older now, but not as large as she should’ve been.  Where her sides should’ve been sleek and compressed with nourishing fat they were thin and clung to her internal structures, her glowshine erratic and often soft and faded rather than clear and bright, their tubes half-filled.  The loss of her sisters (still unfound, still all too harsh and new in her mind) had done more than hamper her mentally, it had disrupted her hunting behaviour, and so far she was adapting poorly.  Try as Small-five might, there was little she could do alone.  Scraps and small fry were not enough to fuel her body’s harsh demands for yet more and more growth, but it was all she could catch.  Perhaps Gloudulite young would’ve helped to feed her, but she had been unable to bring herself to go anywhere near one since the tragedy.  Just the smallest glimpse of the looming shell-spire or the rumble of its distant, destructive grazing would send uncontrollable shivers up and down her body until it passed out of her senses.  Even if she had managed to bring herself near them, doubtless the lack of extra eyes to watch for the Kleeistrojatch cleaners would’ve made the task much more dangerous – a single well-aimed blow from one would still cut her apart.  So she crept and hid in corners and fed upon the weakest and least aware of all that she could find.  The mere sight of a predator made her fearful, and the lack of sight of one more fearful still – she was sure they were just behind her, in her blind spot, where her sisters would’ve seen them.

Small-five became a timid creature, emerging only in the depths of night, when the Stairrow were abed in their coral lairs and the Verrineeach descended away and out into the deeps.  The food was small and shy, but it was there, and she could feed peacefully if meagrely, safe from the feel of the nonexistent eyes of the predators upon her back.  And feed little; she grew thinner.  It was pure luck that saved, her and that came in the form of losing a meal herself.

Small-five emerged late from her torporous shelter that night, and found that the reefcolony was already well into the quiet bustle of the night.   Hunting time had been lost, and she would have to make as much haste as she could to make up for it.  She scurried out and stayed low, keeping in the lee and shadows of the terrain, darting forwards and snapping up a stray Ooliku infant in the wake of its school, missing three more quick stabs as they scattered expertly.  A mouthful – an important one, yes, but it could so easily have been three.  Disappointed, she floated back towards the seabed, and there she saw her chance: a lost Verrineeach, separated from its school, spinning gently in the current, devoid of purpose, intent or initiative, fins limp.  Alone, it was far more lost than Small-five could ever imagine being – its very capacity for action, instinct, and intellect depended on the presence of its fellows and the linked net of their interwoven electrical field, many acting as one in perfect, voracious harmony.  Its teeth hung uselessly in the open from a slightly-agape mouth, vicious fangs made as gentle as a soft-bodied plankton.

Small-five watched it warily, glowshine rising and lowering in intensity as she sought to gain its attention, checking to ensure that its school was truly absent and not merely very late to depart.  All it would take would be for it to become a deadly needle of hunger would be one or two of its comrades, and if a school had shed several of its members nearby they could drift into range and awaken one another.  Try as she might, she couldn’t see any sign of others nearby, and every second that the Verrineeach lingered aimlessly was a second in which it might be noticed and swept up.  It was a nearly fleshless mouthful, but an important one.  She tensed, ready to surge forwards, and then the sand beneath the little predator erupted and it was gone, clamped tight behind the stubby, sucking jaws of a Mtuilk, its flat, scaled body rippling as it shed its camouflaged patterning.  It was slightly longer and thinner than Small-five, with far less of her cruising power but a capacity for blindingly fast movement in a pinch.  As it settled back to the seafloor, it was already fading away, the scales transforming into a pebbled, brown surface that looked all for the world like coarse sand.

The water shook, and Small-five saw that its strike had not been quite as sudden and unexpected as it may have wished it to be.  A mature Stairrow thundered in, the biggest of those that bordered between small and large, an alpha predator of the beta food chain.  Its jets boiled the water behind as its big, blunt, broad face opened up the jaws that made up most of it, grasping hastily at the flattened form beneath it.  For a moment there its meal was in its grasp, and then it was gone in a single sharp, twisting, convulsive movement on the Mtuilk’s part that was nearly too fast for Small-five to witness, leaving the Stairrow alone, confused, and immersed in a cloud of digestive juices and small scraps and nuggets of semi-digested meat.  It pushed through them contemptuously – each speck was smaller than its teeth – and cruised away, deprived of food.

Small-five watched the stray particles in the water very carefully, and then she crepy from cover and picked them up, one by one.  A very large piece was the majority of the swallowed Verrineeach, only slightly scoured by acid.  She ate it with care, thoughts turning over and over inside her head.

Finding a second Mtuilk took some time, but not too long.  They preferred flat surfaces, and though they could mimic more than just sand it certainly did tend to end up as relatively flat ground.  She moved her glowshine over the surface in quick sweeps, watching where the sand altered and attempted to adjust to the new light in unnatural ways.  She made sure of its size (big, but not that much larger than her, or she’d find herself a meal in a completely different manner), then darted straight at it.

It was just as fast as she’d recalled it – faster, even.  The Mtuilk was up and away before she could even register it as having moved, leaving her in a cloud of regurgitated stomach contents.  Small-five pecked and nibbled and gulped with enthusiasm, ejecting the bits of bone and gristle after cleaning them of all flesh.  She had found a new source of food, and one that required little effort.  She startled four more Mtuilks that night on her rounds, the second-to-last of which was larger than she’d guessed and tried to consume her.  A hasty flare of glowshine interrupted its strike – barely – and she departed, saved by instinctive reaction for the second time that night, this time her own.

 

She was more careful the night after that, which nearly didn’t happen; she spent most of the day shivering over a sickened and queasy belly, reacting poorly to the trace acids and bile of the Mtuilk.  The next night was a little easier, and within twelve days she was practiced at overcoming the painful cramps that always came several hours after consuming her second-hand prey.  It made little difference – hers was a shadowed and cautious life now, creeping from cover to cover, making quick snaps and forays at her prey or to provoke her unwilling seafloor food donors, a far cry from the free-swimming, rambunctious antics she’d enjoyed alongside her sisters, veering openly over the reefs in midday and charging headlong into schools of young prey.

Small-five was not introspective, but she missed those days on a level slightly too deep for her to actively understand it.  Her body wasn’t built for this sort of behaviour – she was lithe and strong, able to swim blindly fast for metres or strongly for hours, made to swim fast and high rather than chug along slowly at the reefcolony’s feet like a plodding miniature Gloudulite.  In some ways she was atrophying even as she began to rise to prosperity again, muscles warping and withering in strange ways even as others bulged unnaturally, body following a path ever so slightly different from that which it was planned to do.

Her belly no longer grew gaunt, but it was far from firm, and although she was getting more food it wasn’t exactly the best on the reef.  Bottom feeding wasn’t killing her anymore, but merely maintaining herself wouldn’t do when he body screamed for growth.  A full stomach merely reminded her of what an empty one felt like, and she became more aggressive as time floated by, willing to stand on her own more as caution became more innately bound up in her natural thoughts and movements.  Slow and careful movements became bolder, and each time her rounds were made they were quicker than before.  Alone, she was deprived of the eyes of her sisters, but her compensating was leading her towards recovery, if not of her physical strength, then of her natural behaviours, if altered to fit her situation.

Small-five did not know it, but she was in a great minority by this time.  Of all of her sisters, she was the only one without siblings at her side that remained living, the rest had been killed before they could rejoin.  In total, only eleven of her sisters and a few dozen brothers remained alive at all – she had been lucky to survive to the point of midyouth, and luckier to learn caution without being killed by it.  Midyouth for a female, that was; the males were already teetering towards the slightly-distant horizon of adolescence, enjoying the advantages of a momentary growth spurt granted to them by not having to support the energy demands of glowshine.  Their hides were drabber, their ability to startle predators gone, but they slipped along easily in the currents, bodies perfectly streamlined without the slight ridges and juts of an emergent glowshine-tube or so erupting from their hides.  They were a rare sight, and too fast to bother hunting.

 

Time passed, and Small-five grew – a little slighter, a little slower than she would’ve had her sisters remained with her – but she grew.  Her confidence came back bit by bit, and one evening she heard the tremors of a Gloudulite passing, followed them cautiously yet firmly, and left its back with a full stomach and fragments of shells upon her proboscis.  She was nearly the same length as an adult Stairrow now, if much lighter and less bulky than the jet-propelled clumsy things, and she took to exploring the daylight reef again, hour by hour, day by day, sinking back into the sunlight and leaving her nighttime prowls behind, ranging farther afield each day.  In hindsight, what happened was inevitable as soon as she began this.

It happened as Small-five was crossing a chasm between reefcolonies, coasting over deep water.  A thing that had wracked her nerves the first time she’d managed to muster the courage, a little over six days ago., yet grew easier with each attempt.  Larger things may have lurked there, hovering in the space between the deep blue and the rainbow of life that were the upper reaches, but she was just large enough and fast enough that she felt secure – the least among unfriendly and dangerous equals, at most.  Verrineeach schools bided their time, flicking their fins idly in midwater, sternly blunt-nosed Raskljens stroked their way between the gaps, secure in their massive builds, and once she’d seen a great slithering presence far below that could’ve been an infant Gruskomish, emerging from its deep home to poke its snout out at the world that could one day, centuries from now, behold its ascension into adulthood.  The Raskljens were the only real threat to her – the rest idled, or considered her as beneath their notice as the Raskljens themselves would’ve no less than two months ago.  Stairrow may no longer have threatened her as they once did, but almost no creature ever reached a size that was truly free of predators.  She was cautious as she crossed, as she’d been since the Gloudulite’s destruction, and kept her lights dim and low.  And thus it came to be a great surprise when she saw light in the blue, a short distance away, winking and sparkling.  And not just any light – glowshine.  Memories of Dim-glowing, Pulsing-two, and Three-second jumped into her with the force of a storm, things she’d forgotten for half her short life, and she swam to the source faster than she could believe, glowshine tubes winking erratically, stammering out her name as clumsily as a child – Small-five-point-burst-of-light, Large-five-point-burst-of-light, Eruption-of-all-points-of-light.

The new lights flared in alarm, dazzling her, and before her surprised, unprepared membranes had finished uncloaking from her eyes she felt strong bodies disturbing the water around her, angry pulses of light and unfriendly chitters.  She hopped midwater in alarm, and felt the swish of a proboscis scrape her side.  She was surrounded, and these were not her sisters, not at all.  Panic brought clearer thought than hope had – they smelled nothing like any of her sisters would’ve, either those she’d lost at birth or at the Gloudulite’s death.  Small-five fled downwards, towards danger and safety.  They were better-fed and fitter but she was desperate, and little pursuit was had, her adversary’s triumphant exchanges of light blurring away against her back after only a brief time.

This was far from ideal.  Small-five was out of her depth and comfort zone.  There was too little light, and too little colour, and the surface was dizzyingly far overhead, a shimmer too far away for her to feel comfortable.  It was frightening, but exhilarating, and although she knew that she could rise at any time, something in her found the concept of staying in this odd, self-forbidden place interesting.  She coasted still deeper, keeping close to the reefcolony walls, lights absolutely dark.  Her nighttime-honed vision was enough to keep her watching, without letting anything else watch her.  The bones of the bones of the reefcolony’s coral builders passed her by, their particles and pieces and fragments massive and sprawled, the occupants of their hollowed chambers having had a long time to grow before the currents changed and the rest of the reefcolony’s population moved on and upwards, depriving them of their food.  Some of the largest might live still, a tiny fleck of life struggling to survive in a graveyard of its failed fellows, imprisoned in a self-made carapace hundreds of feet across, evading prowling Gloudulites time and time again until eventually even they departed for the newer reaches, and they were alone with the dead and dark and tiny fragments of food.  Small-five, of course, knew none of this, only that she felt nervous around so many broken and crushed shells and the memories they brought.  She turned tail and stroked her way back to the bright lights, letting her own shine through once more.  A faint sound rumbled up from below, deep as the planet’s core, and she wondered if she’d agitated the Gruskomish again.  It didn’t matter.  What did matter was that she’d fled, was bleeding very lightly, and was now hungry.  She set about correcting all of these, and successfully ambushed and speared an unwary member of an Ooliku school before its fellows spotted her, fleeing their pursuit as she ate.  A net gain – subadult Ooliku were fattier than their filmier younger or leaner, hardened adults.

The rift called to her, in a way.  She passed it frequently, torn between expanding her horizons and the comfort of her home grounds, and took to passing through lower and lower each time, every incident without alarm a reason to go deeper.  The denizens gave her no injury beyond occasional thoughtful looks, although she nearly swam into the center of a Verrineeach school once.  She emitted a bright flash and darted away, probably saved as much by surprise as by the dazzle of her glowshine.  Now and again she would hear the rumbling of the maybe-Gruskomish infant, but that stopped without warning after a score or so of days, its owner likely departed back to its own, abyssal realm.  The loss of that particular thrill struck at something in Small-five, and she began scaling back her exploits, finally terminating them after an incident some months later.  She was returning to the surface, shaking off the clinging chill of the deep canyons, lights flickering back on as the darkness fell away with the need for stealth.  Her hide yet tingled, for no reason she could think of, and if not for an idle turnabout she committed on fancy the extremely large Raskljen following her quietly from a distance of maybe three times her body length would’ve been at her in a moment.  Its secrecy revealed, a short and frantic sprinting contest followed, with Small-five’s superior streamlining and the Raskljen’s dislike for bright light winning out narrowly over its tenacity and brute-force water-pounding.

That put an end to much of her deep-water adventurousness, but not her exploration.  Small-five was reaching the cusp of adolescence now, and she ranged farther and farther afield.  One day she swam away from the reefcolony she was born in, and she didn’t return.  Instead she moved forward, onward, meandering wildly, resting in a different spot each night, crossing deeper and wider bands of the dark, dangerous blue.  Everything old looked wrong, and everything new looked old.  There was no rest in her, no calmness anymore.  Her mind and body were screaming at her to move, to do something, but she didn’t know what.

Her answer arrived in the late evening, hundreds of miles from home, patrolling restlessly along the broad borders of the reefcolony she found herself on.  It had been almost one full year since her birth, and the moons had lined up properly.   As Small-five stuttered back and forth along the stretch of coral, something was touched in her, and all the rest of the reefcolony’s life.  It was soft and slow and trancelike – predators and prey alike ceased their restlessness, drifted closer to the edges, away from the closed-in, hemmed-in centers of the habitat and out towards the openness.  It reminded Small-five of the truce at the Gloudulite’s death, but larger.  They waited there in stillness, bobbing in midwater.  The water trembled lightly, a great murmur from below.

Then with a yawning sigh, the reefcolony opened up.

Thousands, tens of thousands, millions, billions; the numbers were insufficient to describe the population of shelled little creatures that made up the reefcolony, from great to small.  Most of those little hatches were too small yet to perform the task that awaited them, yet even so, the number of shells that opened wide at that time were staggering.  And from them, wiggling, squirming, swimming their way into the world, came their young: the Fiskupids, billions and billions of them, one from a tiny shell, a few dozen from the average adult, scores and from the big ones, uncountable all together, darting, diving, wide-eyed little things. The reefcolony was bursting with life at most times, but next to this, its closest-kept inhabitants, it was as nothing.  It was if the water itself had come alive.

The feast was staggering.  All from the scrawniest Mtuilk to the fattest Stairrow ate all they could eat and more and more yet.  It was easily the greatest meal of Small-five’s life, and the most exciting – the Fiskupids were determined, swimming out and away, over to the blue, past the web of predators and prey alike that were determined to feed upon them.  It was inevitably pushed back – out and over into the bottomless blue spilled the reefcolony’s inhabitants, over a height that would stagger them if they could understand it, removed from their fortress, suspended in a blanketing whirlwind of food.

It went on for hours and hours, and it was some time before the first denizens of Small-five’s world gave up and returned.  First the bottom-feeders, then the slow, and then the small or tired petered out one by one.  Others sank away with their bellies filled: the Verrineeach schools glutted themselves to a member, to the point where one or two individuals might die from overeating, then returned to their rests, trekking home.  The Fiskupids were bound for the deep ocean, to roam the world, and that was no place for those not made for it.

Some came with them.  Strange large Raskljens followed the swarm closely, mouths shut, minds already calculating the distance till they would next need to feed.  A host of adolescent and adult Ooliku swarmed alongside and intertwined with the Fiskupid, in numbers that in any other circumstance would’ve seemed great.  And Small-five and every one of her sisters and fellow-species followed too, swept up in the storm of life, carried away from the coral mazes of youth and into the wild blue yonder.

The Life of Small-five.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

The life of Small-five-point-burst-of-light, or Small-five for short, began as her mother hunted down her father.

It was a great chase over the reefcolony, back and forth, her father using every inch of the greater manoeuvrability his smaller frame gave him, her mother carefully conserving strength and waiting for him to tire, taking each turn with caution lest her greater bulk cause her to overshoot her quarry.  It was a great chase, but in the end her father’s strength began to flag, and he twisted just a little too little, made a tight turn too loosely, and the bony proboscis of Small-five’s mother caught him in his midsection.  He screamed that whistling cry that males used to stun small prey, but it was useless against the thickened and reinforced hide of his captor, and his protest soon faded away as the numbness of her toxins set in, a pleasurable paralysis.

The docility of her mate now assured, Small-five’s mother dragged him – gently – down and into the shelter of the reef, out of sight of any predators that might happen by.  There she began the business of implanting her eggs, each packet of them guided gently from their nestling-spot on her underbelly to the male’s receptacle by her rear fins.  Exposed to the currents for several days now against her skin, their shells were toughened enough to resist the corrosion of the male’s insides, yet not so thick as to prevent fertilization.  Before long the last egg was in place, and Small-five’s mother withdrew her proboscis and moved off, her duty done, her appetite awakened by the energy she’d expended over the past hour.

Small-five’s father hovered there in the water for a brief while as the venom cleared his nervous system, as its nutrients were absorbed into his bloodstream.  His mate might not be around to care for their young, but she would ensure that he was fit enough to protect them as they matured.  There were strange catalysts and triggers hidden inside that sedating fluid, ones that would alter him significantly over the course of the young’s maturation.  Not that he knew it, of course.  He was a male, and nonsapient.  All Small-five’s father knew was that he felt very good and wanted to go lie low somewhere for a while so he could rest.  So he did.

For the next nine days Small-five’s father lay low and rested, hidden in a small coral chamber in the sunnier part of the reef, close to the surface, dreaming.  What finally brought him forth was sharp, itching hunger – and for something bigger than the small fry that he’d devoured for the bulk of his life.  He squirmed his way out of the cave and into the wide and whirlingly chaotic world of the reef again, his sides ablaze with new colours triggered by strange hormones and odd genes, movements quickened with fresh hair-trigger muscles.  He ignored a school of his old favourite food, soft-finned, slow-swimming, immature Ooliku, and chased a lone Stairrow around the corals, its wide-eyed, blunt body suddenly too slow to escape his new speed.  He ate it quickly – he did everything so quickly now – and moved on, hunting, nosing.

Small-five’s father ate and ate and ate for days with barely a rest as the eggs matured inside him, every bite and sup of nutrition going to his young and to fuel his own gradual transformation, day by day, leaving him hungry and fierce.  His bulk grew along with his quickness, transforming him from a predator of the meek reef-dwellers to a powerful hunter of the swift in the open seas, where he swam boldly now, far from his old home grounds.  Tusks grew from a mass of little prickly teeth, giving him long spears to grip and pierce with, to mash his prey into those now-serrated banks of needles inside his mouth before his jaw movements shredded its skin and flesh apart.  He ate and ate and ate, in the heart of great swarms of darting Ooliku as they mated, under the chillier cold of the poles where things that could consume him in two bites lurked, and once even in the panicked wake of a Gruskomish Godfish.  He was insatiable and bold.

Come two-hundred-and-fourteen days after Small-five’s father had been hunted down by her mother, his hunger calmed.  He was nearly thrice the size he’d been before, all bright colours and sharp teeth, and he was ready to give birth.  He eschewed his canny and elusive prey and set his fins for the softness and colours of the reef he’d been born in, a swim he made with slow and sure strokes, saving his strength for the birth.  His arrival sent schools of smaller life careening away in alarm, sending tremors of worry and fear up from the fringes down into the bustling heart of the slow-growing shell-dwellers whose corpses built the reef upon their backs.  He ignored them, careless of the chaos his path brought as he reached the sunniest shallows, so slight in depth that the flatness of his great red back, broad and bent with muscle, nearly broke the surface.

Small-five’s father gave birth to her then, along with some eight-hundred-and-forty-four brothers and seventy-six sisters.  He showed little emotion other than concentration and some discomfort throughout the twenty minutes this took, and when it was finished he took his leave immediately, setting out back to the deep waters, where he could feed again and regain his strength.  But this was not his fault.  Behind him he left many confused and disoriented young lifeforms, operating on instinct and wonder.  Before the day was done there were five-hundred-and-twelve brothers and forty-three sisters of Small-five hidden around the reef in small places, operating on instinct and fear.  The reef was a small, soft place only for their father.  For them it was a dangerous and very large world.

Small-five’s brothers dispersed far and wide, and she never saw any of them again.  They hid in dark corners and nooks and fed upon the tiny particles of matter and meat in the water, timid and fleeting and alone.  Small-five’s sisters were closer – they banded together in small companies of three-to-five, keeping as many eyes as possible on all sides and angles, each ready to flash out a warning to the others from the bioluminescent jelly-filled tubes that snaked around their bodies, just under the surface of the skin.  At this age all that the sisters could do was shine brightly or remain dim and hidden.  The former they used to startle predators and prey alike, the latter they used to hide or wait in ambush.

As they fed – on larger prey that their brothers did, on the slow and the dying and dead – they grew, and as they grew they learned small semblances of control over their glowshine.  Names came soon afterwards, half-thought-of patterns of habit that came to mind whenever their sisters lit up as they each flexed and turned and tumbled into their own particular patterns and habits.  Before this Small-five-point-burst-of-light had been in company with three of her sisters, but now she was in company with Three-second-glimmer, Dim-glowing-four-point-pulse, and Pulsing-two-point-fin-shine.

By this time they had begun to grow past the living detritus of the reef as their prey, and they started to feed upon the small and the slow.  Their small proboscises were now strong and hard enough to poke small holes in the shells of the young of the great Gloudulites.  While they sat, firmly attached to the invincible carapaces of their parents, the company would descend upon them and jointly crack them, eating their flesh from the inside out as they squirmed.  Eventually the cleaners of the Gloudulites would arrive to quell their feasting – the multi-legged, cadaverous Kleeistrojatch – and then it would be time to flee, shining brightly to dazzle their assailants and halt their sickle-scything limbs as they swam out of reach.  If they were quick and daring enough they might dart past those claws in that one moment of shocked surprise and snap their proboscises into their soft and vulnerable eyes, snagging a fresh if lean meal as they escaped.

The one downside of preying upon the Gloudulite young was their small size and the effort involved.  If the Kleeistrojatch were particularly hasty in their defence of their host’s offspring, Small-five’s company might depart with naught to show for their shell-drilling efforts but a few nibbles of flesh, or maybe nothing at all.  Still, they were an excellent fallback food, and easy to find – an elder Gloudulite, shell-spire grown so massive as to erupt out of the water, ponderously heaving its way across the reefcolony floor with a cacophonous scrabbling of its many gripping legs against frail and crumbling shell-matter, was scarcely difficult to locate, although they ranged far apart and wandered constantly, if slowly.  Small-five and her three sisters grew to memorize the positions of the giants, and note the directions of their wanderings.

They were growing still larger and stronger by then, yet were still young.  They were now larger than the Kleeistrojatch, and would often linger to sup over a meal until the cleaners arrived in overwhelming numbers, gleefully flaring at them and sending them scuttling back with pained black eyes.  Secure in their youth and burgeoning strength and cushioned by time from that traumatizing first day of life, they’d forgotten fear.  Oh, they were careful of predators, taking to the nooks and crannies when a Stairrow cruised by, a flat, stupid mouth attached to a sharp and predatory brain, or worse still, the sleek and delicate forms of a school of Verrineeach, each individual in the hundred-strong school linked firmly in thought and motion to each other, tiny brains sparking with electrical impulses against each other to create something larger and more dangerous.  But they avoided them by route, by instinct, as a precaution rather than the very real hazard that they were.

This changed the day Small-five and her three sisters meandered their way out to near the edge of the reefcolony and found themselves hungry.

This was neither scarcely rare nor scarcely alarming.  There was a Gloudulite near, questing in its eternal trek of bottom-feeding, a truly exhaustive kind that ate the actual seafloor out from under it.  With the ease and practice of familiarity, the four descended upon the upper reaches of its swirling shell and flew upon its young, wriggling in excitement as shells cracked apart and soft meat was exposed to the air and snapped up into underslung maws.  In this brief, practiced blitzkrieg they could claim perhaps two each if fortune and speed favoured them, rippling lights on their sides suggesting thinly-defended targets or incautious young that yet peeped from their lairs.  This was a good one; the cleaners were slow, buffeted back from their advances in the rippling currents that breathed their way up from the deep edges of the reefbed.  New pulses rippled in the water, even throwing some of them free from their host’s back, claws waving wildly and tails flapping as they attempted to return to home.  Small-five and her sisters thought little of it, then sparkled in alarm as they too began to bob uncontrollably in the water.  The Gloudulite was turning under them, faster than they’d ever known one of the plodding behemoths to move, spinning towards the blue wall beyond the reef.  As their eyes – their large, sensitive, oh-so-vital eyes – turned to it, the maw appeared, so quickly that it could not be seen approaching.  One moment it wasn’t there, the next it was.

The next next moment it slammed into the Gloudulite’s side, a blade of teeth backed by tonnes of muscle and flesh.  The giant’s shell fractured and shattered, splinters of fang-sharp calcium-based protective armour slicing through the water and impaling young and cleaners alike.  A large sliver sped by Small-five’s right fin, and it neatly clipped off its tip.  She was filled with such momentary shock at the injury that it took the flow of blood in the water for her to notice that the same shard had struck her sister directly – her head hung on a tiny strand of meat, body limp and twitching as its lights shut down.

The terror she felt probably saved Small-five’s life.  She fled – somewhere, anywhere else – and was aided in her panic by a chance of current, a byproduct of the struggle occurring beneath her.  She had never met a Jarekindj before, and it would be years before she saw another or learned anything of them or their habits, but she would never forget that moment, where there was nothing to be see in the whole universe but a gaping mouth, ring-shaped, studded with silvery tusks.

Small-five swam a long way in her panicked flight, unguided by anything but instinct, which served her well, directing her away from the reef-verge and the cataclysmic struggle that consumed it, away from the deep places and towards the softer shallows, where the world was smaller and warmer and there was less food but it was far safer, oh so much safer.  When she stopped, trembling with exhaustion, there was nothing left to do but think, and her thoughts did not please her.  She did not know where her sisters had gone.  She was alone, for the first true time in her life, and it terrified her.  No eyes to watch for hers, no strengths to aid hers, no reassurance, no soundless exclamations of light and thought to be passed back and forth.  The loss of the group was a blow to her chances of survival, but far greater injury was dealt to her psyche.  The sun rose and fell four times before she overcame her newfound timidity and poked her head out of the cranny where she’d shoved herself, a chink between two great masses of reefcolony that was barely wide enough for her to fit through.

It took her some time to extract herself, slowly and fearfully, tensing at every sound, not a single light showing for fear of what might see her.  Only quiet and darkness met her worry, and she swam silently and slowly until the sun rose, belly empty and screaming for food.  That problem, at least, was solved rapidly – a school of Stairrow larva swarmed into her face as she nosed about the reef floor, startled and alarmed.  Small-five lashed out, and her instincts once again saved her, bringing her three or four larva as a meal in several passes before she had the time to think about exactly what was happening.  The larva had been hiding, yes, but relatively out in the open for the day – they were night dwellers, who took refuge in tiny crevices during the daytime for fear of predators like herself.  The reef was quiet even for these shallow strands, and she felt an inkling of puzzlement.

A full belly gave her mind strength, and with effort she was able to force back both despair and apathy to rest her thoughts on a cause: she must find her sisters again.  For all she knew the other two had been sent spinning any-which-way just as she had.  The best thing to do would be to return to the last place they’d been and search, as she was sure they would.  Fear rose, crawling along her light-tubes like an infestation of worms, but she overruled it.  She was full, she was as rested as she could expect, and she had a goal.  There was no room left for fear at the moment – it may have saved her life, but now it was inconvenient and must be ignored.  With difficulty.

The swim took some time – more than it had to arrive.  Small-five had no wings of panic, no strange currents to aid her, and the daylight had flown out of the sky by the time she drew near.  She had mustered the courage to draw a little glowshine from herself, enough to light her way without making herself obvious, and felt it drain away with her courage as she approached that blue-black void ahead, the murky wall that had given her the mouth.  Yet it was not without detail or feature, not anymore.  Shapes of all sizes flittered and eeled across it, surged and cruised.  The reef’s verge was aswarm with predators from the smallest to the largest, the missing bounty of the reef, and they were ignoring each other, streaming over and about in their haste to swarm over the gigantic, broken husk of the Gloudulite’s shell.  Even half-shattered it seemed indestructible, – its smallest fragments thicker than her entire body and then some – even as it bared its secret insides to the world.  The Gloudulite itself was missing but for small shreds, the last bits of a feast that must have feted the entire reef’s carnivores for all the days of Small-five’s retreat into herself.  The Jarekindj had fed upon it thoroughly by its standards, leaving only what it must’ve dismissed as tiny scraps.  All things are relative.

Small-five hovered there on the edge, watching as the last bits were cleaned away.  She saw the truce of bounty beginning to fray around the edges, the first snaps, first aggressive movements, first threat displays, and she knew that she must leave before the second, violent feast began.  But she lingered for just a moment longer, searching for lights that she could not see.