Archive for August, 2011

Storytime: The Good Old Days.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

The sun was coming up, and watching it were three men. One with a cane, one with a hat, and one with an eyepatch. And Herbert.
Morning peeked over the valley, shaking the birds awake into an unusually cross morning chorus. Young light washed over old bones, hidden away somewhere under wrinkled coats of skin.
There was nothing to say for a while. A set of dentures were replaced. A foot was wiggled into a more comfortable spot. Shoulders shifted into a relaxed groove in a chair that was older than sin.
And then: “Say then, did I ever tell you chaps about that one job back in the sixties?”
Eyepatch and hat turned to regard the man with the cane. His name was Matthew.
“I don’t think so,” said hat.
“Don’t figure,” said eyepatch.
“Well, it was a bloody nasty one. Don’t know how it slipped my mind. You see, there was this bird -”
“Was it a cockatoo?” asked hat.
“No, no it w-”
“Because I had a cockatoo once. Cleverest bird I ever met. Saved my life at least sixteen times, and it took a bullet for me when it went. Good ol’ Alexander.”
“Martin, would you please stop interrupting me? I mean a woman. You know, a bird.”
“We used to call them broads,” said eyepatch. He scratched his nose in an aimless sort of way. “Y’know, on account of them being broader in the hips and uh, chest area. I think. Say, I met this one once, and she was -”
“Yes, Michael, but what I was saying was that there was this bird – woman – and she was in trouble.”
“So?”
“Well, she was one of ours.”
“Ah.”
“Not one of theirs.”
“Who’s ‘theirs’?” asked Martin. “The Nazis? ‘Cause I met something like half of all my girls that way. Course, the other half were double-agents. You get over it fast or you get out of the career, that’s what Dad always told me. Of course, that was after Helga. What a lady. Pity about the way we parted, what with the -”
“Listen here, I’m trying to tell a story. Can’t you lot just keep your traps shut for three damned minutes and listen to my nostalgic tale of my youth?”
“Weren’t you almost thirty by then?”
“Details! Look, this girl was in trouble. She’d been spying for us, and the reports stopped coming in. And the last message left before it all went to pot was her thinking that they’d found her out.”
“Goddamned shame,” said Michael.
“Right. So then what happens next, is the lads send me in. And I go there.”
“Where’s there?”
“Paris, I think. Or maybe it was Shanghai. I think it was. Yes, it was definitely Tokyo, or wherever else those yellow chappies lived.”
“That’s racism,” said Martin.
“Oh come off it, you can’t go two sentences without saying ‘kraut.’”
“But that’s nationalism. It’s a lot less personal. I’m just saying, I don’t feel like this porch is a safe space anymore. I can’t even say kraut without you two jumping down my throat like a bunch of Nazis.”
“Oh really, now come on, that’s downright offensive,” said Matthew, tapping his cane on the ground in irritation, irritatingly. “One of my best friends was Jewish.”
“Really? What happened to him?”
“Oh, he got promoted. Can’t be a boss and a best friend at once, you know how it was. Anyways, there I was in Rome -”
“Shanghai,” said Michael.
“-don’t talk rot, it was Rome – and I asked around. Used the girl’s oldest contacts, the ones least likely to be compromised, the ones that had passed along the news of her vanishment to us.”
“And?”
“They were compromised. Served me right up to them on a silver plate.”
“Who’s them?”
“You know. Them. Didn’t I tell you?”
“No,” said Martin.
“How odd. I could’ve sworn. So there I was, face-to-face with their best man in Rome, and he did me over something fierce. Boot to the breadbasket, boot to the jewels, boot to the head once I’d said for the fourth time I wasn’t saying anything… come to think of it, he may have just really enjoyed kicking people. Had excellent boots, anyways.”
“Gotta take pride in your boots,” said Michael. “Hell, I’ve worn these since I was twenty-six. Ripped ‘em off the corpse of one of the soldiernaires of Slannar Slammik’s fifth legion. They fit perfect if you stuff half a rag of newspaper in the sixth-to-ninth toes, and you can kick through a brick shithouse with ‘em.”
They admired Michael’s boots for a minute.
“So you were being kicked?” asked Martin.
“Was I?”
“Yes. In Rome.”
“Yes, in Tokyo. Well, the joke was on him, because while he was preoccupied with kicking me, the girl snuck up behind him and knocked him out.”
“Clever!”
“Yes, very. Told her so myself as she undid the rope, got me out the window, then made beautiful, wild, passionate love to me back in my hotel room. It was quite nice.”
“How wild and passionate was this love?” asked Martin.
“Oh, very. Quite. Distracted me perfectly from the sleeping pills she put in my tea. Woke up tied upside down to a chair with the friend we’d left behind, plus one bruise on his noggin. Rather startling, I did say. She’d triple-crossed us – defected to them to get info, then defected back to us, then defected on that after gaining my utter trust and a good shagging. Plus some of those secret documents I’d brought with me.”
“What were they about?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. I never bothered with paperwork on my missions.”
There was a pause as they admired the newly risen sun. It looked nice. The distraction continued as the manager of the nursing home – also its owner, janitor, cook, nurse, and dogsbody – brought out a light, late breakfast seasoned with salt, pepper, and bitter, hateful resentment. Matthew had thinly buttered toast; Michael had bacon n’ eggs; Martin had plain oatmeal and a thinly sliced pitaya; Herbert didn’t have anything. All was as it should be.
“So how’d you escape?” asked Martin at length, straightening his shirt and brushing away small specks of stray oatmeal, including a rogue outlier that had somehow embedded itself in his hatband.
“Eh? Oh, I don’t really remember. I think I shot someone – and then probably the girl didn’t make it. That was usually how it worked back then, most often after they put me in the middle of a silly way to die. Why, one man locked me in a room with five bears! Poor fellow was quite beside himself when I explained that the black bear is a timid, fearful creature that is quite averse to violence under most circumstances.”
“I punched one of those once,” mused Martin.
“Yeah, but you’ve punched everything on earth,” said Michael.
“No, I never punched a whale. Wonderful animals. One of my nephews helped found Greenpeace, and I made him a promise.”
“Buncha hippies.”
“Look who’s talking. Didn’t you grow your hair long back in the day?”
Michael snorted violently and scratched his eyepatch. Something unidentifiable shot out of his nose and landed in the begonias. “Y’mean back when I fought the raving horde of Klacc the Ugly? I was stuck out in the Europan Lowlands for five weeks, drinkin’ liquid helium to survive, with nothin’ to eat but a half-a-Yagg leg shared between me and fifteen starving men!”
“You never did tell us why your government sent only sixteen men to deal with that particular nuisance, old boy,” said Matthew.
“Was all we could fit in those damned model-H capsules,” said Michael. “Sixteen men, a buncha guns, the worst shit in the world you could make and still call food, and maybe half a porno mag. And we had to share the porno mag.”
“Oh I say.”
“What? No, knock it off, this’s MY story. So there we were, me ‘n my squad: the Raging Hellberries – named, ‘o course, for my grandad, uncle Wilson Hellberry, who was named for his dad, Wilbur Hellberry, who was named on account of his possessing the most horrifying and dog-ugly raspberry bush known to man on his property. I think it ate a kid’s dog once.”
“What kind of dog?”
“German shepherd.”
“Good dogs. I owned one once. Bit a Nazi’s arm clean off at the shoulder. Just rip and tear. Of course, old Bacon was part-wolverine. Very eccentric breeder.”
“Hah! One arm? At the shoulder? You shoulda seen what we found once that slug-ass capsule poked its way out to Europa. It was SUPPOSED to be a real easy-like job, right? Europa’s cake compared to Venus, or Mars, or half the hellholes we been before. Put down the capsule, step out into the capital, tell Klacc that the good ol’ U-S-A runs Europa now and he can either quit this wannabe-Stalin shit or do what we say while he goes for it. Only the capsule lands wrong. Upside-down wrong.”
“I spent an entire mission upside-down,” said Matthew, fidgeting with his cane in an absent way that was utterly devoid of energy. “Goodness me, the things it did to my digestion. I believe the issue was that the man in question had some rather interesting theories about perspective, and how to alter it, and the clarity resulting from extremely abnormal circumstances. He wanted to kidnap several world leaders and force them to live a decade each as the poorest of the poor in one another’s countries.”
“Really?” asked Martin. “What’d you do?”
“Oh, we shot him, of course. I told you, that’s how most of my missions ended.”
“If you broads could quit jabbering, I could tell you my story,” hissed Michael. “So we were upside-down, stuck in this dump of a swamp. No capital in sight, and half the guys are down to poisonous fumes by the time we get outta there. And then we double-check our coordinates – well, our egghead does it for us – and hey, we’re in the right spot. That sonuvabitch Klacc had sunk the whole danged city right into the swamp. Turns out he’s amphibious, and likes the damp. So we just get out of our beautiful little death-trap of a capsule, and bam, there’s a whole messa armed and armoured slugsingers surrounding us with mazer cannons.”
There was a pause, during which Michael reached for a small flask that he hadn’t carried at his side for over twenty years and the others pretended not to notice.
“So! We get trussed up and drug down to Klacc’s throne. And he earned that moniker straight-out, let me tell ya. None of his guys are pretty, but he’s in a league of his own. Heck, that face wasn’t pretty to start with, but then half of it went missing! So he was all who-sent-ya and I-could-crush-you and we’re stalling and pausing and killing time, because we saw ol’ ‘Juicy”s got a hold of his backup pistol.”
“Where’d he keep it?” inquired Martin.
“Drawers.”
“I used to keep mine in my left boot,” said Martin wistfully. “They never check your boots for guns. Knives, yes, but not guns. Had a beautiful little number, a model something-or-other, made by that shop in Denmark. You know the place? Owner’s daughter used to run it back when Matthew here was running around?”
“Yes, I remember her,” said Matthew with a nod. “Charming girl. Kim, wasn’t it? Or Cassandra. God, she was such a clever thing. Wicked sense of humour. And a tight little… err, yes. But I kept mine strapped to my back. Right in the hollow of the spine.”
There was a pause.
“My gun, that is.”
“Of course.”
“Right.” Michael squinted. “Wait, that wasn’t what we were talking about. Where was I?”
“I’m not at all sure.”
“Oh yeah. So we were all safe, but half the moon was hunting for us by then. We had no weapons after the breakout, and ‘Juicy’ and half the squad’s still woozy. And we’re starving. Me an’ egghead hide in a bog and wait for the pursuit to pass us by, then we jump their supply train and run off with a whole half-Yagg. The thing fed us for nearly a whole goddamned week. By the end, we could barely take a half-bite without throwing up. Wasn’t that just great?”
“Old times,” said Martin with a happy smile. “Reminds me of that Sahara crossing. Ate three camels, one after another. The last one was mostly skin.”
“Yeah, Yagg’s probably a bit meatier. But oily. So, right, after we snuck back in with the Atom Hammer -”
“The what now?”
“The Atom Hammer. Keep up, limey. So we snuck back in with it -”
“Wait, how?”
“We just did, okay? Sheesh, it ain’t rocket science. So we snuck back in with it.”
“What was it?”
“The Atom Hammer. Goddamnit, if you ain’t paying attention, I ain’t talking. Shut it. Anyways, we shot him with it.”
“Who?”
Michael threw his plastic fork at Matthew, ricocheting it from his glasses into the deck, where it stuck. “Goddamned teadrinker,” he muttered, and collapsed into a cloud of dark profanity and glares.
A late teatime emerged, borne on the skeletal fingers and oily glare of the manager. It was sandwiches: peanut butter and jam for Matthew, miscellaneous compressed meats for Michael, BLT for Martin, and nothing for Herbert. Seasoned with salt and pepper and an unpleasant hint of something vaguely toxic.
“You know…” said Martin.

“Yes?” said Matthew.
“What?”
“You know what?”
“What what?”
Matthew sighed.
“That’s not good for you, that sort of stress. You look pretty pale. Palest I’ve ever seen a living man – but the dead men, oh no. I told you two about that time in Brazil, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” said Michael. “There was an anteater and you wrestled it to death. Then you punched a Nazi into its mouth.”
“No, no, no; that was Argentina.” Martin shook his head. “And that was about the lab where they were trying to clone anteaters in preparation for cloning sloths in preparation for cloning horses in preparation for cloning Hitler. Brazil was about diamonds.”
“What kind of diamonds?” asked Matthew.
“The legendary kind. Y’see, it all started with a lady that walked into my office with an old book and a pretty little hat. Claimed it was a lost journal of Cortez that detailed ancient legends of the Aztecs never before written down about horrible treasures from faraway lands in the southern rainforests etcetera etcetera. Well, I just about told her to get out, but the handwriting looked proper, the pages looked to be the right age, and the hidden map in the binding seemed right. So I decided to take a look. Well, we booked a plane down to Brazil, but our pilot pulled a gun on us and tried to force us off. Wasn’t having that, so we ended up in a tussle – we took the parachutes, he took the plane down, and there it was: just me and a beautiful lady, stuck in the middle of the Amazon.”
“What kind of hat was the dame wearing?” asked Michael.
“Good question. Hmm… I think it was one of those little cute ones. Y’know, with the bows?”
“Yeah. Straw?”
“No, no. The ones that are shaped sort of like chocolate boxes.”
“Yeah, those ones!”
“Right!”
“What colour?”
Martin drummed his fingers on his chair, then shook his head in frustration. “Hell, I forget. But it was pretty, alright.”
“Yes, the girls don’t wear hats like they used to,” said Matthew wistfully. “Such a pity. Nothing more beautiful than a girl in a hat. And nothing else.”
“Shaddup, I want to hear about what happened to this broad Martin’s talking about before we go on another one of your I-knew-a-dame fantasies. So, what happened?”
“Oh, she was a Nazi. Should’ve known, really – she was probably going to rifle my corpse and guide the pilot to the spot marked on the map, only I went and got us both stranded. So she had to rely on me for help through the jungle, down the river, over the surprising and unexpected two-hundred-foot waterfall that I saw coming, and through the ancient caves into the rear entrance of the diamond mines of Xlac’Tla. Then she revealed that she’d been radioing our position, and stabbed me in the back right as her friends showed up with a couple of tanks. No idea how they got them through the rainforest. Had to run like the wind.”
“No good winds here,” complained Michael. “Y’miss ‘em after you spend a couple of days on Jupiter. I tell ya, the breezes there would flay the skin right off an elephant in a wink. The bubble suits kept us from goin’ crazy, but we had to talk with sign language. Worst bit is, I can still remember a lot of it. Useless junk. Why can’t one of you two go deaf so it ain’t wasting space in my head?”
“Yes, absolutely,” said Martin. “So then, after I used the seemingly useless junk – thank you for reminding me – to blow up the second tank, I cornered Gloria. She was all repentant, and contrite, and honestly-it-wasn’t-my-choice-they-have-my-father, and I didn’t listen and just shoved her into the bottomless chasm of Tix-Tlac-Ta, where her body rolled in the dust of the mines and turned paler than the finest china.”
“Steady on there lad; wasn’t that a bit harsh?” said Matthew.
“This was the sixth or seventh time that’d happened, Mike, I wasn’t about to listen to her. Fool me eight times, shame on you. Besides, I could only rescue her or the diamond dust that woke the dead. And I’d promised Dad that I’d find a way for Mom to get her last wish finished – she left us right in the middle of the sentence, and “dig up the gold, it’s burrriiieed aaat-” isn’t what you’d call a straightforward request.”
“The lady was past worrying,” said Michael. “Just take the broad, do her hard, and go home.”
“No, we’d done that earlier. In the jungle.”
Michael swore bitterly in a language meant for things with no tongues. “Christ, between you and the limey, I don’t need enemies. The one time I got laid on-job was when we went to Venus. And she had three legs. And our egghead, after the mission? Know what he told me?”
“What?” asked Martin.
“He said that wasn’t a leg. Then he wouldn’t stop laughing, no matter how hard I hit him. Screw Venus.”
A sullen silence reigned, interrupted by dinner, which was undercooked and tasted burnt. Chicken-fried steak for all, with salad (Martin, Matthew), french fries (Michael), or nothing at all and no steak (Herbert).
“And you got out okay, right?” said Michael.
“Of course I did. I’m here now, aren’t I? Lost a good shirt though. But the diamond dust made up for that. And it made up for the trek back home in a stolen Nazi plane – those krauts build good aircraft, but I’m no pilot. And it even kept me going in the bit where I got shot down by the national guard. But I’m not sure it covered the disappointment of finding out mom had gotten confused and her last words were a plot point in the mystery novel she’d been reading in her final hours.”
“What author?” asked Matthew.
“Agatha something. Doesn’t matter. All brain-trash, Dad said, and I have to agree.”
They cleaned their plates, and stared at them in melancholy as the sun began to dip below the valley wall.
“I say,” said Matthew, “all this food today has been rather bitter. I’ve half a mind to complain. Why, if it weren’t for neither of you two chaps keeling over, I’d nearly say it was cyanide.”
“I’m immune,” said Michael. “Part of the cocktail they shot into us before they dropped us onto Mons Olympus during the Plague Wars.”
“Haven’t had so much as a cold sniffle since that time I drank from the Fountain of Life,” said Martin.
They looked at their plates again.
“Cyanide, huh?” said Michael.
“Yes. You never quite forget that little almond tinge on your tongue. Very fierce.”
“Well, shit,” said Matthew.
The sun went down.
“I think,” said Martin, “that we’d better ask Herbert.”

The diamond dust pouch was old, battered, and so ingrained with its contents that it looked like something you’d have taken to a disco. It was still over half full, even after Martin fumbled the measure he took and needed a second pinch, which he dropped into Herbert’s mouth.
Herbert creaked. Herbert sighed. And as a long, slow breath filled him up, Herbert sat fully upright in his chair, the only one of the four of them with perfect posture, although his skeleton had the natural advantage of no longer being weighted down with flesh or organs.
“Hello there,” he drawled – without lips, quite a feat. “What’s fixin’?”
“Just a few questions,” said Martin. “Could you tell us if this food was poisoned?”
“Yup. You fellas make another friend?”
“It seems like it. Tell me, what’s the manager doing right now?”
“Loadin’ a shotgun. Three slugs. Y’reckon one of you buried his pappy?”
“Might have,” opined Matthew, “or near enough, at least. It’s all in the math, I’m afraid – wait fifty years and I’m sure the widows-and-orphans of our collective bodycounts have all had enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to populate a good-sized city.”
“Not mine,” said Michael. “You two were the guys dumb enough to plug people that lived on your front lawns. I kept my business off-world.”
“And I suppose that meteor last summer that killed poor Mrs. Ellbridge was just a freak coincidence?” said Matthew.
“The broad knew the risks when she slept with me.”
“If you ladies are done bickering,” said Herbert, “he’s finished loadin’. Reckon you’ll need a hand?”
“No thanks,” said Martin.
Herbert sighed, letting out most of the breath in him in one go. “Still so damned stubborn. Just as thick as the day you came lookin’ for my advice as a snot-nosed puke. Won’t ever listen to the old folks, you won’t!”
“Herbert, we ARE old.”
“Not from where I’m standin’,” said Herbert, increasingly faintly. “Where’s the six-shooter I gave you? Typical boys, throwin’ away good gifts…”
Herbert collapsed into a loose pile again.
“What?” said Martin crossly as his friends looked at him. “I pawned it after the war. I needed lunch and I didn’t speak the language, it was the best deal I could make.”
“The gentleman indoors will come through the door in a moment,” said Matthew. “Perhaps we can postpone the argument, eh what? Anybody got a plan?”
“Nah,” said Michael. “Something better.” With a grunt and a struggle, he reached into his half-wrecked pants and yanked out several dented, worn, and bent metal parts. “Now, was it long-short-long, or short-long-long…aw, close enough.” He snapped them together with a creak of angry metal, then slotted two or three fingers into the oversized trigger. “Right. Limey! Mark me a target. My depth perwhatever isn’t so great.”
“There,” said Matthew, pointing at the nursing home behind them.
Michael squirmed in his chair, held the Atom Hammer halfways over his shoulder, and pulled the trigger, missing the doorway the manager was standing in by inches and hitting the wall, which disappeared, along with both floors, the ceiling, the basement, and the porch, dropping all four of them, plus Herbert, into the begonias in the tattered remnants of their chairs.
The manager was the first to surface, spitting out flower petals. The shotgun was still clenched in his fist, and his teeth vibrated with uncontainable rage as he wobbled a sighting on Michael’s face. The Atom Hammer had slipped apart again, and the old man was cursing quietly as he reassembled it backwards.
“Excuse me,” said Matthew. The manager’s eye twitched towards him, and it was because of that that the shot that killed him went directly in a straight line from pupil to brainstem.
“Terribly sorry,” added Matthew, wincing as he rubbed his arm. “Good lord, I’d forgotten it’s a bit harder to reach back there nowadays. Still, what’d I tell you, eh? Nothing like it as a place to keep your gun. Now, would whoever’s turn it is to find a new nursing home get the car running, there’s a good lad. I feel like a nap.”

 

“The Good Old Days,” Copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.

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.

Storytime: Organs.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

There were those who would call Albert Pencilgrave a filth-digging reptile, and in many ways they were not far wrong. He didn’t blink, possessed a scaly hide that kept his liquids inside him, and his presence unnerved most mammals. But those were merely superficial marks against him – once anybody got to know the man properly they realized that he was actually remarkably cold-blooded, capable of eating his own young if it benefited him, and lethargic unless in the presence of prey.
But despite these passing, bone-deep flaws of character and soul, he was still mortal. Very, very, very mortal, as his doctor seemed suspiciously pleased to tell him.
“Absolutely fatal,” he said, holding back a grin that could’ve swallowed a cantaloupe. “One thousand percent.”
“You sure?” asked Albert.
“Utterly. Your ticker’s just about worn through, mister Pencilgrave. I give it a week before it snaps. I recommend a transplant. Maybe something from a homeless man, if we can’t find a legit donor.”
“I have lots of money,” said Albert. “There’ll be a donor.”
“True,” said the doctor. “That’ll cost you a couple million or something.”
Albert frowned. His face was already a spiral of fractured skin flakes and scowl-lines, and this action nearly turned him into a Magic Eye picture. “That’s too much. Much too much. Do you have something cheaper?”
“You could try a pig,” offered the doctor. “Very fresh, picked it out myself. And tender too, just the right thing to get your fluids pumping.”
“Too fatty,” dismissed Albert. “And anyways, I don’t like knives.”
“We use scalpels,” said the doctor. “And saws.”
“I don’t like those either. I think this whole surgery thing is a bad idea.”
The doctor’s lip twitched, on the verge of a sneer. “Oh, and I suppose you’ve got a better idea of what to do about your raddled old heart, eh? Dearie me, that MBA just PERFECTLY qualifies you to self-diagnose and problem-solve, doesn’t it? Just about pays for itself, really.”
Albert thanked him coldly, made a mental note to have him ruined, and had someone drive him home. The chauffeur was a cheery young man who whistled as he turned sharp corners, and Albert suspected he might be paying him too much. Maybe he should replace him with someone more desperate.
It was only until he walked through the door of his nearest condo that Albert realized he’d just thought of his solution. But that could wait until after he fired his chauffeur. He had a special red pen for it and everything.

The hardest part wasn’t finding a volunteer. There were millions. The hard bit was figuring out the job title. “Cardiovascular assistant” went into the wastebasket, along with “fitness aide,” “arterial officer,” and, in a fit of annoyance, “heart guy.” Finally Albert decided on “cardiological supervisor,” and had a small business card printed out that would go to a mister Emmanuel Ortiz along with the salary of two hundred dollars per month and a firm threat to keep quiet about it.
He knew the exact moment that it happened – right in the middle of an email he was preparing that would crush a corporation and 60% of its workers into financial dust. His heart sank, and didn’t rise.
He smiled to himself.
“Sir?” asked his secretary, hiding his astonishment poorly.
“It’s nothing,” he said. He felt his chest, making sure that there was absolutely no pulse, and chuckled a bit. “It’s nothing.”
And in Puerto Rico, Emmanuel winced a bit as his own heartbeat took up double-time, nearly spoiling the beer he’d ordered with the first of the new money.
“Something wrong?” asked the bartender.
Emmanuel shrugged, winced again, and thought about getting his son into the United States. “I’ll get used to it.”

In retrospect, Albert was amazed he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Within the first week of his outsourcing his heart he was more energized than he’d been in the past ten years, chewing through mounds of work with the zeal of a bookworm presented with a complete high fantasy trilogy. His middle management trembled before him, his colleagues stepped softly when he spoke, and he had a sex life for the first time in fifteen years, albeit not with his wife.
It was all going well. Too well, even, which was probably why he got the cough five years later. All those long nights out working, then drinking, then working a bit more (usually on something that would have to be done all over again next morning), then heading home late at night in the damp. And of course, as the doctor pointed out with satisfaction, all the six-inch cigars.
“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” he said.
“What?”
“Chronic bronchitis and emphysema all over the place.”
“Is that even a thing nowadays?” asked Albert crossly.
“Absolutely. Smoker’s bane.”
“I thought it was for poor people with lousy tobacco.”
“No. And you’ve definitely got it. Your lungs are pretty much shot. I recommend new ones.”
“How much will that cost?”
“Oh, an awful lot,” said the doctor, licking his lips.
“No thanks,” said Albert. “I’ll work it out on my own.”
“Just like you did that heart disease, didn’t you?” said the doctor, as innocently and sweetly as a little old lady with an ice cream cone.
Albert gave the man his most sunny smile. He cringed.
“Yes,” he said. “Exactly.” He drove home, and the first thing he did was remember to properly ruin the doctor’s life this time, signing in the little notes on how to get his wife to leave him and his malpractice suits drawn up with his special red pen. The second thing he did was to draw up a business card for the position of “respiratory manager.” The third thing he did was to tell one of his people to get one of their people to make someone who worked for them go find a man low on money and hefty in the lungs to sign a contract without reading it too closely, on benefits of a shiny business card and a hundred fifty a month.
Mister Daw was annoyed by the new shortness of breath he’d acquired, but he was a stubborn man, and it would take more than that to make him give up jogging.

As the decades rolled by, Albert Pencilgrave appreciated more and more just what he’d discovered. The lengthier and more slimy parts of his digestive system began to fail, and he hired a man in Patagonia to break down his nutrients for him. His aging wife cheated on him with a kind-hearted poolboy – the ungrateful whore, after all he’d done for her – and when his liver failed during the divorce (it had only been a few gallons of scotch, he didn’t see why it couldn’t handle it), he handed its duties over to a seasoned and steady hand in India.
“I feel like a new man,” he’d say for the first week after each outsourcing. “A new man altogether.” And then he’d give that little smile that didn’t seem to fit on his face properly, like a slide designed by M. C. Escher placed in the midst of an otherwise normal playground. It unnerved people, though not nearly as much as his unnatural longevity. In a job where you retired early (and rich) or died of stress (if somewhat richer), he was still packing away the dollars full-time, apparently with the only loss being his ever-wrinkling and omni-spotted skin. Which he then handed over care of to a man in Beijing.

The only real worry was when he woke up and couldn’t remember what he was doing that day. Or what his name was. Or, shortly thereafter, why he was at the doctor’s.
“Alzheimer’s,” said the doctor.
“Who are you?” asked Albert.
“Dr. Susan Gilman,” said Dr. Susan Gilman patiently, for the fifth time in ten minutes. “I’ve been your doctor for twenty years. You have severe Alzheimer’s disease, and you probably won’t make it to the end of the financial year. Is your estate in order?”
“I’ll get someone to do it,” said Albert. “I have someone who can do that, I think. We’ll figure something out.”
“There’s not much that can be done,” she said. “I can prescribe some medication to ease the way, but…”
“No buts,” said Albert. “I can deal with it on my own, anyways. Keep your medicine and its costs.”

And he dealt with it that very evening, after four aborted attempts to write notes to himself and recall how to read English. With great effort, he secured the services of a man in Borneo, and successfully outsourced his brain. For the first time in more than fifteen years, Albert Pencilgrave’s mind was clear and uncluttered.
“Good god,” he murmured as he looked over reams of dusty, unread files and an inbox that had been transplanted onto its own 500-gigabyte hard drive. “Waste! Scandalous, frivolous, worthless waste!”
He did the math – without a calculator – and his mind reeled at the sheer volume of his hard-earned money that was being siphoned away by his lazy and parasitic employees. He gave this job his health for years – and that of several dozen other people in various countries over the past forty years – he gave it his care and attention every day, and this was the thanks he got? Worthless wastrels that begged for richer retirement packages, that demanded health plans when they went toothless? Why hadn’t they saved up like he had? Why weren’t they showing initiative and asking one of their grandchildren to handle vital functions or something? They were asking for PENSIONS of all things – where were their bootstraps?! Well, this would end now.
“I must’ve been more senile than I thought,” he declared. Opening his desk drawer, he found that little red pen. An email would be more efficient, of course, but his thoughts flowed better when he composed in print – and it was so much more satisfying to sign. His secretary could scan it anyways.
Writing the letter informing everyone whose age now qualified for pensions that their services were no longer required took half an hour. Sending it to his secretary was done in minutes. The transcription and delivery, plus the actual layoffs, took approximately six hours. Which meant that after putting in an early day, Albert Pencilgrave was at home on the toilet when five people at various locations around the world were told their services were no longer required, causing them, surprisingly, to feel much heartier and haler than they’d been in years. Especially hearty, in one case.
The results at Mr. Pencilgrave’s condo, though spectacular, were not recorded until after the fact.  Thankfully, the pictures made excellent reference material for medical students. Including Mary Ortiz, whose grandfather suddenly was healthy enough to come visit.

 

“Organs,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: A Tale of Three Turtles.

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Three people sat under an old stone bridge, half-broken and tired in the dim light of an evening shower. A small fire was their light as they huddled round, watching raindrops fall in reddish light.
“I’ve got a story,” said one of them. He was an older man, with a greying beard.
“Go on then,” said a thin woman worn thinner by years and years. “It’s been a while since we had a proper story trade. What kind?”
“It’s a story of the King of the Turtles,” said the older man. “And I tell no lie; nobody’s ever heard it before. No man, no lady, no kid.”
“That’s a hard trade to make,” said the thin woman. “But I’ll wager I can match it. Tell your story.”
“Alright then,” said the older man. He crouched low by the fire, and began to speak into it.

So, back in the day, there was this little kid, alright? Just an ordinary little kid in most ways. Sure, his parents are dead, but that’s not so weird. It’s a nasty world, lots of kids with dead parents out there, no big deal. He coped. Sometimes they do that.
This kid, see, he wasn’t ordinary in one way: he thought he could do anything, and I mean, he really thought he could do anything. You know how they said that anybody could be the president? Like that.
Anyways, the kid hangs around down by the park sometimes. He likes the trees and stuff. And down there, he’s watching a lady feed some ducks. He’s laughing at ‘em, because the ducks look so silly with their butts in the air when they dive for some bread that’s sinking. He and the lady don’t know you shouldn’t feed bread to ducks, but that’s sort of okay, and it’s not a big part of the story. No, what the big part of the story is, is when the kid gets bored of watching this lady feed the ducks, he starts to walk away and nearly trips over this big fat turtle that’s sitting by the pond’s edge. And this city boy who likes the park, who didn’t have parents to get him books on animals (D is for dog, C is for cat, T is for turtle), he’s so surprised and he goes “What’s that?” aloud, just like that.
And the lady, who’s jumped a bit and come over to see if this little kid with the nice smile is hurt, she sees what’s surprised him and she says “It’s a turtle.”
Little kid says “What’s a turtle? It looks like a rock with a head.”
The lady, she tells him about turtles. Just the basics, you know – lay eggs, are reptiles, blah blah blah. But the bit that sticks with this little kid, is that a turtle’s shell is like a little fort that it carries everywhere with it. Anywhere’s home for a turtle, and its home is a castle.
“I want to be a turtle,” says the little kid.
Now what do you say to that, huh? Lady laughs a bit, calls him a dear, and she walks off because she’s out of bread. Gives him a dollar, too. Cool lady.
Remember what I said about this kid thinking he could do anything?
So first things first, the kid thinks. Second thing, he picks up the turtle and he asks it “how can I be a turtle?” Straightforward, but the turtle just blinks at him. It ain’t talking.
The turtle, it just laughs at him. That gets the kid mad, so he tickles it, right on the belly, spry and nimble. And the turtle can’t help it – it laughs. And when it laughs, its head pops out, and when its head pops out, the kid grabs it. “Tell me,” he says, “or I’ll yank you right out of your shell!”
“Don’t do it!” says the turtle. It’s got a real gurgly, grimy voice. Like a scratchy old man voice, but with a mouthful of mud. “Don’t take my shell! Leave me my shell! I’m no proper turtle without my shell.”
“Then give me your shell so I can be a turtle,” says the kid, “and I’ll leave you alone.”
“I wouldn’t be a turtle without my shell – I’d rather die! And besides, it wouldn’t fit you! You’re much too big and fat.”
The kid shakes the turtle. “Tell me where I can find a shell that fits!” he says.
The turtle grumbles and groans and whinges, and the kid tickles him for five minutes straight before he gives. “Fine!” he says. “The King of the Turtles has a shell big enough to be a home for a human. But you’ll never get it from him.”
“Where does the King of the Turtles live?” asks the kid.
“Under the giant stone!” yells the turtle. Its head is really hurting now.
“Where is the giant stone?” asks the kid. He shakes it.
“In the lake! In the lake!” the turtle says. “Let me go!”
“If you lied to me,” the kid says, “I’ll come back.” And he winds up and chucks the turtle back into the pond, where it sinks down to nurse its neck.
Now, the lake is right next to the city. It’s a big lake, though, and even if a stone is a giant, that’s still one stone you’re looking for. Tough job. But this kid, he has a plan. He hikes all the way down to the lake – three days from the end of the city he’s at – and by the time he gets there, he’s got it all worked out. So he uses that one dollar that lady gave him to buy some cheap french fries, all grease and no potato, and he goes down to the water’s edge.
“FOOD!” he hears above him. Lookithat, it’s all the seagulls, all come clamouring. “FOOD! FOOD! FOOD!”
“I’ll give you my food,” says the kid, “if you can find the giant stone for me.”
“NO! FOOD!” they scream, and down they come. But the boy’s clever and quick, and he jumps and dodges and bullies his way through the whole flock without a scratch, and he kicks three of them to the ground with bruised butts and ruffled feathers.
“Now I’ll give you half my food,” says the kid, “if you will tell me where the giant stone is.”
“FOOD!” they yell, and they all come at him again. This time he kicks half the flock, and the flock leader to boot, and laughs while he does it.
“Now I’ll give you one french fry if you tell me where the rock is,” says the kid. “And maybe I won’t finishing beating you up.”
“FINE!” say the gulls, out of breath, winded, and fed up. “FINE!” They’re sick of this kid and his rotten attitude and his quick feet, and they just want him to go away now. So they flap up into the sky and float around, and gull eyes aren’t too great but they can’t help but see that big rock over there from up there.
“IT”S OVER THERE!” they call.
“Here,” said the kid, and he drops the fries on the ground (all except for one) and leaves them to pick them over.
Now the kid had to swim. But he decided it couldn’t be that hard.
Remember what I told you about this kid?
So he makes it out a ways, lord knows how. And down there beneath him is the giant rock. He holds his breath and dives, but the rock’s edge snaps tight to the bottom of the lake the moment he gets close. He tries five times, and every time this happens. And he’s getting tired.
“Could I steal a big breath from you?” he asks the sky. “Just one. I’ll pay you back, honest.”
“I’ve been watching your deals today,” said the sky. “You were generous with the seagulls, but harsh to the turtle. I don’t know if I should trust you.”
“I promise. I’ll pay right now,” says the kid. And he sounds like he means it, so the sky’ll let that slide.
“Open your mouth,” it says, and he opens his mouth and a big cloud filled with the most perfect breath of air he’s ever felt jumps down into his lungs. It’ll last him for hours. And when he closes his mouth, he feels funny and then he sees the sky took all his teeth. It uses teeth for hailstones, you know. That’s what happens with all those teeth you lose when you’re little. Some guy in Finland’s getting them dumped on his head.
So the kid is hanging around down at the bottom of the giant rock, and just like he did last time he tugs really hard on its base after it snaps. He pounds and pulls and nearly puts out his back, and then he turns around, right? Like he’s going back up for a fresh lungful. And right as he turns his back on it, just as it’s opened up to see when he’s coming back, he flips around and dives, and ZOOM he squeaks right under the rock’s edge. Boy was it mad. Slammed down behind the kid WHAM just like that, but it was too late: he was in.
Inside was the palace of the King of the Turtles. Real nice place. Not a castle, a palace – the difference is in the decadence, you know? They made the word “lavish” for this stuff: carpets, tapestries, candelabras, everything all made of anything you’d find on the bottom of a pond – sticks, stones, all that sort of thing. And in the center of it all, a really big throne made out of a rock. On that rock there was the King of the Turtles, three times bigger than a man and something like three-and-a-half times bigger than a lady. And a lot bigger than a skinny little kid.
“Who are you and why shouldn’t I eat you?” he asks. Not the best way to start a conversation, you know what I mean? But the kid, he isn’t freaked out. He knows what to say, so he says it. “I am here to take your shell,” he says.
The King of the Turtles throws back his head and laughs ’till he was nearly sick. “You’d have a better chance of eating the clouds,” he laughs. “Go and do that first, then we’ll talk about my shell.”
“I already did that,” says the kid. And he opens his mouth and spits out the cloud. It fills up the whole palace with fog, and nobody can see anything.
“Clever!” says the King of the Turtles. “But irritating. And anyone can beat a cloud; they’re nothing but wisps of water! Why don’t you lift my throne, then we’ll talk.”
So the kid ran up to the big rock that the King of the Turtles sat on, and he yanked as hard as he could at it. Won’t budge, though. But the kid has an idea, and since it’s hard to see, he yanks out a stick from the table next to the throne, and he uses it as a lever, see? If it were any rotten old branch, that wouldn’t have worked, but the King of the Turtles uses the best in his home, and it was okay. Lifts the whole throne up nearly half a foot.
“Trickster!” seethes the King of the Turtles. “Nobody can lift my throne but me! Let’s see how clever you are when my jaws are around your shoulders!” And he reaches down to grab the kid. But the kid was expecting something like this, so he jumps out of the way and the King of the Turtles grabs the table instead of him. And at first he just thinks that kid was even skinnier than he looked – but after that first bite, he’s changing his mind. Got a table leg stuck in his mouth and a howl that makes the ceiling shake. And right as he’s standing up and reaching into his mouth, the kid kicks out the stick he’s wedged the throne up with, and the King of the Turtles falls over and stabs himself right in the head through his mouth. That’s that for him, so the kid rolls him out of the shell and rolls into it just like that, snug as a house for him, layer on layer.
“This is a good place,” says the kid. He lived down there on the bottom of the lake for a month, drinking that fine turtle wine and eating good turtle food. He grew a decade’s worth in thirty days, and filled up with good strong muscles. And when he came up from down there, that big old shell tight as a snug suit around his shoulders, he saw that a whole decade HAD passed. Ten full years, just like that.
Well, the kid decided he’d make the best of it. And he decided the best thing he could do right then was to be what he wanted, and what he wanted was to be the King of the Turtles.
I told you about how that kid thought he could do anything, didn’t I?

“Now how’d you know that?” asked the thin woman.
“I talk to the seagulls time and then,” said the older man. “One of them, on the end of his wings, he told me a bit about this sort of stuff.”
“Seagulls are liars,” said the thin woman.
“That’s right,” said the older man. “But not when they’re about to die.”
The thin woman threw up her hands. “If you say so. But now I’ll tell you my story. And my story comes from a solid source. Can’t trust birds, old man.”
“Older man,” he corrected.
“Whatever. Now, listen up. This one’s as new as yours.”

Right, we all know the sorts of things the King of the Turtles did. He fought a year-long duel with the King of the Frogs – and he won it, too, when the frog tried to swallow him whole and his shell tore its throat right out. He swam to the bottom of the bottom of the ocean, to prove that he could, and brought back pearls bigger than whale-eyes. He demanded tribute and respect from cities across the world, whenever they laughed at him, he swallowed all the water of those cities and wouldn’t give it back until they bowed and scraped.
But those were the later things. The first thing he did – the first BIG thing – was when he came out of the water and spoke to the people on the shore. There were only a few people around the lakefront that early morning; two women and a man.
“Who are you?” asked the first woman.
He scratched at his shell. “I’m the King of the Turtles now, I guess,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” asked the man.
He thought. “I’m coming to see the city again,” he said. “It wasn’t a good place to me when I was little. I think I’ll see if it’s gotten better.”
“What are you going to do?” asked the second woman.
He shrugged. “I’ll find out,” he said, and he walked through the streets of the city that he’d grown up in. The first woman and the man followed him. The second woman turned and ran away.
Every footprint left a puddle, and every time he stopped and looked at something – to see a street sign, or a new building, or anything – he left a mudhole that sank right through the concrete. Where he breathed deeply, bullrushes sprouted. When he laughed, the smell of rotting reeds and pond scum filled the air. It made some people sick, and he just laughed harder at them.
“This city isn’t so big after all,” he said. “I was small, that was all. It doesn’t look so good now.” And he spat in front of city hall, and it turned into a marsh; a cabinet of cicadas singing on the background of a mayor blackbird.
“This city isn’t so scary after all,” he said. “I was scared, that was all. It doesn’t look so frightening now.” And he spat on a factory, and it withered up into a huge old rotting log, filled with all sorts of surprised animals.
All the people were running now, of course, and many of them were screaming. This irritated the King of the Turtles, especially when some of them began to shoot at him. The men in the little black and white cars tickled, but some of the big guns that were starting to appear, in big trucks driven by big men – they hurt. Itchy-hurt, not burning-hurt, but hurt nonetheless.
“This whole city is just one big mess,” he said. “And this is taking too long. I think I’ll fix it all at once.”
So he climbed to the top of the highest building in the city – it was a big smokestack. He looked down on all of it from up there, all the brick and mortar and struggle and bustle and hustle, and he stomped his right foot three times. And each time his foot hit the chimneytop, a third of the city sank into the water, until there was nothing left but a big bog.
“You people are messing up my new home,” he said to the people all floundering in it. “If you won’t leave, you’d better listen to me then.” He stomped his left foot three times, and each time his foot touched the chimneytop a third of the people of that city were turned into turtles, until there wasn’t a single human left for miles.
“That’s almost it,” he said, and he climbed down from the chimney and slapped it once. The chimney bowed and bent and wriggled and it turned into a huge tree like nobody’d heard of before. Its branches dripped rivers and its leaves were shrubs; frogs jumped in its canopy and birds nested in its pools. It was a swamp-tree, and it was the biggest thing in all the new bog that the King of the Turtles had made.
“Now listen to me now,” he told the turtles, who were still very confused. “I am your king – I am the King of the Turtles. The old king was lazy, and he stayed at home. He let strangers push around his people, even if they were just little children. But I’ll take care of you now, because it looks like you’re my problem. Go out there and eat!”
And so the people of the city went out into their new home and ate. There wasn’t much else they could do, and at least there was plenty of food.

“That’s messed up,” said the older man. “Turning all those people into turtles. Who’d he think he was, huh?”
“The same thing he was when he was little,” said the thin woman. “Just bigger. Just like most people. And I didn’t say he did a good thing. Just a big thing. A whole city made into turtles sounds pretty big to me. He thought he could do it, and he did.”
“And how’d you know that story, eh? You couldn’t have been there.”
“I was the second woman on the beach,” she said. “And I didn’t feel like hanging around after that conversation. I was just outside the city limits when I watched it sink into the swamp.”
The last man stood up. “Those are good stories,” he said. His voice was thick and slow, like sticky oatmeal; his skin was raddled with bruises. “But I have one more. And it’s a true one too, and a new one. And it is about the King of the Turtles. But that isn’t his name anymore.”

Now, this wasn’t as long ago as the last two stories. The King of the Turtles had grown older, fatter, stronger, more lazily confident in his own strength. He ruled over the waters that were little, and the waters that were middle-sized, and even some (a bit, mind you, no one could claim all of them) of the deep blue endless waves. Wherever his subjects wore shells, he was there, and he was always on the lookout for a new morsel; for dinner, for knowledge, for hoarding. He threatened and blackmailed and coaxed and strongarmed and gained wealth greater than any human had ever dreamed, and he piled it in the walls of his palace – which he had moved from under the giant stone to the bottom of the big bog, under the roots of the swamp-tree. The very most prized of his possessions he filled his shell with, and they sank into his sides and his shell with the years like candies into a cake. They filled his head with dreams as he slept, and he slept long and often, dwelling on his deeds and wealth.
People like that can last for a long time. But sooner or later, they stop paying attention for just long enough, and it all falls apart with one little thing.
One little thing was a girl with a missing engagement ring.
You see, her fiancé came staggering in the door in the dead of night, barely able to stand. After a toweling-down and a cup of horrible-tasting stuff, he told her the story.
“I was in a pub,” he said.
She nodded. And narrowed her eyes.
“No, it was just a night after my work. But this guy, he challenged us to drink.”
“And you said yes,” she said. Flatly.
“It wasn’t like that. He was a big guy – eight foot and nearly as much across the chest. Friendly, sure, with a nice smile, but, you know, that kind of friendly where it can stop real fast. So we said sure, and he said he’d down a glass for each that any of us took.”
She nodded. Her eyes sunk farther into slits.
“And you know I’m not a lightweight – none of us but Pete are – but man, he out-drank all of us at once. We woke up outside, and the ring was gone.”
“Which pub?” she asked.
She went to the pub. She smelled the swampwater in the air, and she saw the damp footprints, and she wondered and mulled it over. And she phoned her grandmother, who’d always known about this sort of thing.
“Was there a smell?” asked her grandmother.
“Like swampwater,” she said.
“Ahh. Ahh. Ahh. Were there footprints?” asked her grandmother.
“Damp ones. Big ones,” she said.
“Ahh. Ahh! And tell me, what was he like?”
She thought about that. “Friendly, with a nice smile.”
“The King of the Turtles has your wedding ring,” said the old, old woman. “There is no doubt in my mind at all. If you want to get it back, you’ll need to find him in his home. It lies under the roots of the swamp-tree, in the heart of the bog that was a city. You’d better start walking fast, before he tucks that ring into his shell for good.”
The girl was fast. She drove, then biked, then walked, abandoning each in a safe place as first the road, then the trail, grew too bumpy and uneven. She pressed on and on, through thickets and mires, past the big still eyes of alligators and the reedy chorus of treefrogs. And finally, she came to the swamp-tree, a swamp-above-a-swamp, and she knew she was near.
“Now how do I get in there?” she asked aloud, and she felt the wind whisk away her question and carry it up to ears that were as big as the horizon.
“With my help,” said the sky.
“At what price?” said the girl. She wasn’t stupid. Her grandmother had told her stories, remember.
“None,” said the sky. “The King of the Turtles has stolen back the price he paid to me fairly for my aid. I wish revenge. I will give you a breath large enough to take you to his lair.”
The girl took a big breath, and the sky filled her lungs up to the brim. She made it down to the palace of the King of the Turtles at the bottom of the bog with plenty to spare, and snuck into his hall.
But the King of the Turtles was not an unaware ruler, even in his slothfulness. He woke the second her foot crossed his door, and laughed to himself as he saw her enter. “This will be very funny!” he said. “The last thief I had was years ago, and he was most amusing. I will wait for her to entertain me before I dispose of her. Maybe she’ll get lost and start to cry, like he did!” And so he went back to sleep, chuckling. He thought he could do anything, you see.
The girl wasn’t foolhardy. She kept to the sidepassages and sidecorridors, she stayed out of the light. She got lost, of course, but kept her head and got her bearings as best as she could, right up until she stumbled into the kitchen, where a fat old frog and a tough old blackbird were slacking at their duties to share a pipe and a gossip.
“Now who’s this?” asked the frog.
“A busybody,” said the blackbird. “Trust me, I’ve seen plenty. I know the type.”
“I am here to reclaim stolen property,” said the girl. “Keep your accusations.”
“Wasn’t deploring you, sunshine,” said the blackbird, flicking away ill-kept feathers. “The more ill-will you bear, the more power to you. I was the mayor of this dump until the big lug did his thing. If you want to make trouble, be my guest.”
“And he defeated my lord in a duel,” said the frog, “and conscripted us, his loyal subjects, to servitude! Do what you like.”
“I’d like to steal back my ring,” said the girl.
“Good luck to that,” sneered the blackbird. “He’s been bragging about a ring for days. It’ll be stuck inside his shell for good now. Best give up on it.”
“We could help,” said the frog.
“Help and be caught for our pains once she mucks it up. Never rely on the public for anything,” retorted the blackbird.
“Getting caught can’t make our lives much worse, and she might even do something properly about all this. I say we help,” said the frog.
“Fine. Be that way.” The blackbird threw up its wings in disgust and paced away, muttering.
“What kind of help?” asked the girl.
“We can give you some medicine to slip into the King of Turtles’ dinner,” said the frog. “It will put him fast to sleep, and you can pick out your ring if you’re quick about it. But there’s a problem: his highness orders a banquet every evening, and we never know what he eats. You’ll need to find out what he’ll eat up entirely, or he won’t be put to sleep soundly enough for you to do your work.”
“When’s the meal?” asked the girl.
The frog waved his arm at a serving cart, loaded down with trays and dishes. “In five minutes. Hurry up.”
The King of the Turtles heard the blackbird bang the kitchen door shut in its anger, and he saw this happening. But he wasn’t worried. “I’ll punish the cooks later,” he said. “She will never discover what my meal is, anyways.” And so he went back to sleep.
Truffles, sandwiches, roasts, gravies, salads, soups, and fish, loaded up to the brim and beyond in each bowl. The girl felt dreadfully hungry after such a long trip, but she bottled it up and considered her options. There were too many, and she nearly despaired, but then she spied a little covered bowl shoved in at the bottom of the cart, almost as an afterthought. Opening it up, mind turning over, she found a little bowl of porridge. And just like that, she had her answer all ready.
The King of the Turtles ate well that night – a bit from every dish, a bite nibbled everywhere. Not so much as a mouthful from anything… except from that porridge. Just as the girl had guessed, it was the only thing that his toothless mouth could swallow without hurting fiercely, and he drained it to the last drop, along with every bit of sleeping medicine the girl had sprinkled into it. Before midnight had come, he was snoring away, and the girl crept out from her hiding place underneath the cart to pick through his shell. It was a tight fit, but her hands were small, and she saw the thousands of gleaming treasures sprinkled throughout it. The pearls the size of whales’ eyes, the precious shells, the golden ingots from Spanish galleons, and there, right under the King of the Turtles’ chin, was her engagement ring. And right then, just as her hand was about to close on it, was when she sneezed.
It was more than just bad luck, of course. The King of the Turtles smelled so strong of swampwater it was a miracle she could breath next to him, even with the good breath the sky had lent her. But, small sneeze though it was, excusable though it was, it was still enough to wake him up, and he laughed and laughed and laughed as he watched her run to the door.
“This is even funnier than I thought!” he said. “I’ll catch up to her nice and slow, and grab her just outside my front door. That way she’ll think she got away, and it’ll be all the more entertaining for me.” So he lumbered forwards slowly and roared and waved his claws, and amused himself greatly.
The girl was not amused. She wasn’t frightened. But she was very intent on her purpose, and she knew she didn’t have her ring yet. Escape though she might, she wasn’t leaving the kingdom of the King of the Turtles until it was back in her hand, and she was already trying to think of a new idea as she ran out the front door back to the bottom of the bog.
“I need something to stop him,” she said aloud. “I need to take his shell off.”
“The chimney, the chimney,” cried a tiny voice. The girl looked, and saw a very small turtle tucked into the roots of the swamp-tree. It was old, old, old, even for a turtle, and covered in moss.
“I am the first woman that the King of the Turtles spoke to,” it called, “and you must stop here if you want to escape alive. The chimney! You must let out the chimney again! Strike it with your hand!”
No sooner was the turtle’s warning complete than the doors of the palace burst open, and out came the King of the Turtles, laughing and roaring, shell spiked for war and beak snapping. He paused there for effect, taking his time. He knew he could catch the girl. He could do anything.
And right then, the girl slapped her hand against the swamp-tree. It groaned, creaked, wailed, and fell apart into a thousand crumbling bricks, held together by no mortar and gnawed bare by an age’s-worth of still water and slime. And every single one of those bricks landed on the King of the Turtles, and his beautiful shell cracked, splintered, and chipped with each until the very last brick fell, and then it burst apart into a million pieces. The ring was the last to fly free, and it landed right in the girl’s hand.
“My shell! My home!” he cried. “This wasn’t going to happen! Why did it happen when I knew it wasn’t going to?”
“We all say that, sometimes,” said the girl. “It doesn’t fix it.” And she left him there, stuck under a pile of old, burnt clay, at the bottom of the bog.

“That’s a new story, alright,” said the older man.
“Yes,” said the thin woman. “I haven’t heard it. There can’t be many who’d know it.”
“Stuck at the bottom of the bog, that’s straight harsh,” said the older man. “Down there forever.”
“Maybe not forever,” said the last man, sadly. “Maybe just a long time.”
They were all quiet for a while, and watched their fire.
“We live with what we’re given,” said the thin woman at last, laying down on her side, wrapped tight against the night. “And we do our best with it.”
“I know that,” said the older man. He leaned back and took his hands as a pillow. “And you know that too, that it’s true.”
“And he knows that now,” said the last man in his thick, slow voice, wrapping himself and his thousand bruises up carefully in his old, worn blanket, layer on layer. “He knows it now.”

 

“A Tale of Three Turtles,” copyright Jamie Proctor 2011.

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.