Archive for October, 2011

(Halloween) Storytime: Three Old Ones.

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Two old men and an old woman sat in a dusty room, watching the world go by. Such as it was. It was all the world they had, it would have to be enough.
Besides, they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“I’m bored again,” said one of the men. The words were very nearly a whine, spoken in a voice completely at odds with their sullenness, a voice made for pronouncements, documentaries, and extolling the virtues of chocolates.
“You’re always bored,” said the woman. Her words were tired. She wasn’t.
The other man didn’t say anything. He didn’t even blink.
“That’s scarcely true. I loved having nothing to do back in the good old days.”
“Please, let’s not talk about the good old days again. We just did that. And they weren’t that good.”
“They were wonderful!”
“No they weren’t.”
“Well, what else IS there to talk about, eh?”
They all watched the world again. It hadn’t done anything.
“The bad times,” said the second man. His voice was dryer than a mummy’s innards, and just as expressive.
“We don’t talk about the bad times,” said the first man.
“We should,” said the second man, conserving his syllables with effortlessness that spoke of practice. “Less dull.”
“Well, those weren’t any fun at all,” said the first man. “I’m sure none of us want to think about THAT sort of thing.”

“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said the woman.
The second man didn’t say anything. He also didn’t blink, because he couldn’t.
“Hell with it,” said the first man. “I’ve always wanted to know exactly how you two ended up like this. Right. So. Back in the day…”

….in the day, it was a hot, muggy late afternoon and the world was just tipping over into evening, which meant it was time for me to wake up and go get something to eat. I was feeling my years a bit, I’ll admit, but I was as stout as anyone a third my age, never mind what that upstart that chased me out of my territory had to say about it. The cheek! That land had been mine for years-on-years, and if he hadn’t landed that lucky shot and that other lucky shot and the lucky bite that had almost gotten my spine, I’d have shown him a thing or two.
Well, enough whining. I got up and then I walked off into the woods to – wait, no, I got up and then I fell over.
Oh damn, I’d forgotten about it again.
I got up while very carefully not putting any weight on my left rear leg and hobbled off into the sunset, trying not to make too much noise and failing at it, as I told myself.
“Myself,” I told myself (who, for most of my life, had been my only conversation partner – as is usual for my kind), “this is not a good time. Having this sort of problem is a bad time, and the only good thing about it is that it might be over pretty fast.”
“I agree, self,” I told self. “This isn’t good. And I haven’t eaten for too long. My ribs are starting to poke my tongue when I groom myself, and my stripes are getting dull and flat enough to look like dead grass. I need to eat.”
So I limped away to my new hunting grounds – which were much smaller and shabbier than my older ones – and focused on trying not to brush my foot on anything. It smelled funny when I broke the scab.
“This isn’t good at all, myself,” I said about an hour later, as I watched a big, healthy, juicy sambar hind bounce away into the brush with the most infuriatingly indolent shakes of her legs. “And it’s getting too familiar.”
“Be patient,” I replied. “Remember when that crocodile almost bit off your tail? You surprised it and had a good meal that night. You can turn this around too.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said, and so-

“Did you do it THAT often back then?” asked the woman.
“Do what?”
“Talking. To yourself.”
“I do it just as often now, I just do it inside my head. You two wouldn’t stop complaining, remember?”
“I don’t complain,” said the second man.
“You looked at me. It was the way you looked at me.”
The second man didn’t say anything. He just looked at him.
“Anyways, may I continue?”

-and so I went down to the river for a drink. Nasty, bitter stuff that water was; salty and as conducive to nourishment as liver to a day-old cub.

“And how nourishing is that?” asked the woman.
“Not at all. Milk is the preferred food.”
“I’m no mammal, you’ve got to tell us these things.”
“Noted and acted upon.”

And while I was at the river, sipping this dirty, brackish stuff and getting more and more frustrated by the minute – it’s one thing to die of starvation, and another to die of starvation with a mouth that feels like it’s been scrubbed with grit and insects – what did I see down across the way but a human, filling a bucket of water.
“That’s strange,” I said. “I haven’t seen those for ages.”
“Well, I did get pushed into the edges of things just now, didn’t I?” I replied. “No wonder this is bad land – salty water, wary game that runs too fast, and there’s humans. Well isn’t that just the dhole’s lunch.”
“Hah, I’d rather have dholes than humans. Look at it. Look at that ridiculous gawky thing. How can it even stand upright? And that ridiculous face! It looks like a bird had a baby with a monkey. A naked bird!”
“And an ugly monkey.”
“I don’t think it’s even seen us, so it must’ve been a blind monkey too. What a nuisance.”
“Absolutely.”
“Should we warn it off?”
“No. Let’s see what it does.”
The human filled up its bucket. Then its other bucket. Then it put them both on some sort of ridiculous stick and picked them up, shoulders sagging. Why it did that I still have no idea – it didn’t even take a drink!
“That’s ridiculous.”
“Utterly and fully.”
“Look at it, just taking up as much of that filthy rubbish as it can hold. And for what reason?”
“None at all. Infuriating, isn’t it? Look at it. Stupid. Slow.”
“Pointless.”
“Surprisingly fleshy.”
“It is, isn’t it? They aren’t that meaty normally.”
“Must be a special case.”
“Yes.”
I watched the human begin to walk away. Slowly. Oh-so-slowly.
“I think I’ll go after it.”
“Whatever for?”
“Well, just in case it scares up something to eat with those clumsy feet. It might flee right into me.”
“Clever. But it’s more likely it’ll walk right into a bear or tread on a snake at this rate – only they could sleep soundly enough to not hear it coming.”
“Hah, yes. In that case, I’d best stick extra close to it.”
“Just in case something kills it, yes? Scavenged meat tastes no less sweet, and better my mouthful than someone else’s.”
“Yes.”
I moved closer now, and followed the human down its little human path, as broad and as obvious and strange-smelling as the human itself. Well-trod, it seemed – there must be many that used it. But only the one right now.
“All by itself.”
“Very brave.”
“The forest is frightening after dark, isn’t it?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, for other things. That aren’t me.”
“Because of me.”
The human tripped over a root and made some sort of stupid human noise, then looked around anxiously.
“He’s worried.”
“I wonder why? He certainly hasn’t seen me. He can’t smell me. And I KNOW he hasn’t heard me.”
“He can feel me. Anyone can feel when they’re being hunted.”
“Hunted? By me? …Well, I suppose he is.”
“How curious.”
“Yes.”
I really was very close now. I watched the human move on again, quick-stepping now, looking behind itself every few steps, breath coming faster. I could see its chest heaving as I smelt the sweatdrops.
“It’s just one human,” I said.
“Just one,” I said.
“Anyways,” I said, as I slowly bunched up my leg muscles, bringing my body to bear for a spring, “this is just what I was talking about. A turnabout. Providence.”

The story stopped there for a moment while everyone, speaker included, digested that.
“And what did it taste like?” asked the woman.
The first man thought. “Do you know, I’m not quite sure?” he said. “Peculiar, I know, but it seems to have slipped my mind altogether.” He growled absently to himself as he checked dusty memories. “Strange,” he decided. “I remember that it was strange.”

“That’s strange,” I said.
“I know. Barely any effort involved. I think it died before the bite.”
“Amazing.”
“Is it all gone already?”
“It seems so.”
“Well, I WAS hungry. I suppose it’s only to be expected. And besides, it wasn’t as much meat as all that. So scrawny.”
“But so much meatier than a monkey.”
“Yes.”
“Just the once, though.”
“But… one meal. That was one human, not one meal.”
“Oh surely not. A meal ends when you’re full. I don’t feel full at all, do I?”
“Not at all. I believe this trail should be followed. Yes indeed.”
The trail led me to a very strange place. Wood and stones and dirt and clay, all piled up into shapes. Like anthills. If the ants were a hundred times the size, and noisy, and smelly, and surprisingly fragile.
“I don’t like this. Too many of them. Is it possible to have a home in a place like this? So many of these things. Taking up space. Chopping up bushes and trees. Putting water in ridiculous little buckets.”
“Don’t mention the water. Just thinking about it makes me angry. It’s like an itch inside the inside of your throat’s insides. Except worse. It makes my teeth squeak.”
“Why would they want it? It’s so stupid. Look!”
A human had staggered out of one of the strange shapes. He was yawning in the darkness, and seemed to be adjusting something near his legs.
“What’s he doing out here at night when he can barely see in the daylight? That’s even stupider! These things are idiotic.”
“Yes. I’d be doing them a favour, really.”
“Absolutely.”
It gets a lot easier the second time, you know. And the third time, about two weeks later. Of course, I had to wait until I was really hungry again, to properly argue the point to myself. By the fifth or sixth time – I think? – I no longer really had that particular issue.
Tell me, do either of you really know what it means, this human word: ‘king’?

“I don’t think so.”
“No.”

I think I learned what it means, based on what we’ve all overheard since. It’s something like a mother. Except you can never get bigger than her, and instead of cuffing you if you disobey her, she kills you.
Regardless, I was king for several years, and I can tell you this: it’s a miraculous thing for your self-esteem.
I was still…a bit slow. I was still…not quite as young as I used to be. But it didn’t matter one whit. And the respect, I tell you, the respect – do you know that one moment you get, when the prey knows you’re there, and it knows it should’ve started running two seconds ago? Humans can live that moment for days. Days! More than a hundred, all thinking that same thought. For days!
I would hunt, and I would kill, and I would watch them scurry and moan for hours and hours. It was amazing, I tell you.
Two years, and dozens of humans. And truth be told, before that first kill I hadn’t been sure if I would make it another week.

“So what happened?”

Nothing unexpected, really. Good things never last.
You see, one day some new humans appeared. Humans with strange machines. Humans with strange machines that weren’t afraid.
This annoyed me. You can’t imagine how annoying it is to not be feared, for a king. So I decided to do something about that. I wasn’t even hungry that night and I planned to hunt – that’s how annoyed I was.
Come to think of it, I wonder if it was the water. The water was so terrible. A mouthful of that stuff would drive a saint to slaughter, and I had a good bellyful that night.
“The big one?” I wondered.
“Yes, the big one with the ridiculous moustache.”
“That sounds good.”
So I crept into the village – that’s what the humans called it, and I usually didn’t press them this closely, but they’d REALLY tried my patience this time – and made my way to the building that I knew the strange humans were in. They’d tied a donkey or something a good ways off, why I’m not sure. I don’t think I was even hunting anything that wasn’t a human by then, there just didn’t seem to be any satisfaction in it. Well, non-humans tended to fight back a lot harder. My station’s dignity would not be enhanced by a broken rib.
“Asleep?”
“It seems so.”
I walked in, and yes, they were asleep. And what a lovely picture they made: four of those strange men, and one other.
“Maybe not just one,” I decided.
“A good idea. After all, this isn’t quite about food, is it?”
“No. Now that you mention it, that’s a bit odd, isn’t it?”
“A bit. But it’s only my right.”
“It is.” And I paced forwards and let my claws slip out and I trod very heavily on a sharp thing sitting on the floor. With my injured foot.
Well, I had a good set of lungs on me still, and I used them. And deaf and blind and dumb as those men were, they couldn’t help but wake at that yowl in their ears – AND one of them was between me and the door.
“They’re just humans,” I reminded myself at the back of my mind, as I took the big one with the ridiculous moustache between my teeth. There was a lot of shouting and small, frail limbs smacking against my sides. One of them was fumbling with one of those strange machines and seemed to be ignoring me, of all things. “Just humans.” My breath caught for a moment, and I slipped on my hurt foot and landed on the floor, half-expecting to cut myself again. But the sharp thing wasn’t there. Funny, how I couldn’t catch my breath.
I realized that something was hurting an awful lot. I looked down, and the human that wasn’t strange had planted the sharp thing in my chest and was twisting it back and forth like a misplaced tooth. I wanted very much to hit him, but my legs were turning lazy. I felt tired again.
“That’s silly,” I said.
“Yes, humans don’t have teeth.”
“I think I know this one, don’t I, self? Did we take his daughter? Or his son? Maybe a wife?”
“I’m not sure, and I’m even less sure if it matters. It’s getting hard to see. Almost human-blind really.”
“Oh dear,” I said. The human in the corner had finished whatever it was his machine did and was pointing it at me, but it was just then that I couldn’t see or hear much of anything. I’m not sure what happened next.

“So what did they taste like?” asked the woman.
The first man thought about it. “All right,” he said. “Not fatty, though. Very lean and not a great deal of meat. You had to work at it fairly thoroughly. But why do you ask?”
“I didn’t check at the time.”
“Really? Now I’m curious. Tell us.”
“All right.”

Unlike you, she wasn’t that old when this happened.

“I wasn’t OLD. Just a bit creaky.”

I’m sure.
She was past adolescence and young adulthood and into the broad, well-worn beginning of the current that was middle age, with two litters of pups already behind her. She was well-fed enough (a second difference)

“Enough with the editorials!”

and was currently aiming to add to her bulk with a seal. Which, for those in her audience who are less enlightened

“Stop it!”

is a fatty delicious animal shaped like a rolly-polly ball of meat. They are best eaten by ramming them violently from below when they’re at the surface, so as to minimize the directions in which they can escape.
They really are very tasty.
Now, it so happens that in her eagerness to consume an especially fat and unaware seal, she perhaps was overhasty. But then again, ramming speed does not afford substantial time for doubt, and it looked seal enough until her teeth sunk into it and decided it wasn’t.

“What was it?”

Some sort of flat thing with a human on it. She’d seen humans before, and never bothered with them because they were lean and scrawny. Well, this one was scrawnier than most, and it was just disgusting. Nothing but hard bone and muscle, amazing there was any room for blood in there. Which apparently there was; quite a lot of it, in fact. It was also making some noises that were just on the upper edge of her hearing, very loudly and shrilly.
So she spat it out and swam around for a while to see what it would do. She was curious, after all. You didn’t see quite as many humans back in those days. In the end she shouldn’t have even bothered – some more of them came, dragged the flopping, leaking human into a floating thing, and left after pointing at her a lot.

“You didn’t even eat it?”

She invites her audience to consider whether they would waste stomach space on dirt and stones.
Humans did strange things, and none of it meant much to her. She didn’t think about it any further until the next day, when she bit another seal and found that it wasn’t a seal at all. It was attached to a strange sort of shiny object that got stuck in her teeth and seemed to be attached to another floating thing.
Then she was dragged up alongside it and yanked out of the water, where she suffocated in a large amount of pain for some minutes while a human tried to find her brain with a strange exploding stick, succeeding on what was probably the fourth attempt.

“That was quite horrible,” said the first man.
“It’s over and done with. At least it didn’t take too long.”
“And you said it happened the very next day? It took them simply ages to work up the nerve to interfere with my doings.”
“You’ve been here longer than I have. I guess times change.”
“For them, not us. At least, not as fast. And speaking of speed, will the sluggard here get around to speaking his part?”
The second man didn’t say anything.
“Go on then,” insisted the first man. “You’ve heard two, the least you can do is tell one.”
“You talk too much,” said the second man.
“And you talk too little. Look at us – I, myself, have had no company but my own voice and the very occasional partner-in-dalliance since my mother left me to run wild. And our esteemed lady here never knew her mother past birth.”
“Nor my children,” added the woman.
“And yet here you sit – you, who have basked with dozens – and remain the most anti-social of us all! Pray tell us, how does this come to be?”
“If I had talked as much as you two,” said the second man, “I would have been killed in annoyance.”
“Make up for lost time and give us your story,” said the first man. “We’ve got all day here.”
“Fine.”

You are large. You are old. You are one of many, many, many in your family on the riverbanks. You have outlived most of them.
There aren’t as many of you as there used to be. And one day, some humans come and drop explosives in your river. And your organs rupture against your scales and you die.

“That’s it?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” said the second man.
“What about the part where you ate them?” asked the first man. “Surely that stuck in your head.”
“I don’t recall it.”
“Not even the first time?”
“It was a long time ago. And it happened often.”
“How often?”
The second man paused to think. He did not rush.
“Often.” A verbal shrug. “It was no matter.”
“Of course it was!”
“Do you remember your first deer?”
“…no.”
“Your first seal?”
“No.”
“They are no different. Not to me.”
An uncomfortable silence reigned.
“Cowards,” said the second man, very calmly.
It reigned a little harder.
“Well, now we know better than to complain when you don’t say anything, you morbid thing,” said the first man.
“Yes.”
“Still,” he continued, wistfulness touching him, “telling the old stories… it does put the fire in your veins again, doesn’t it?”
“A bit,” agreed the woman. “A bite.”
A pause for thought. “Yes.”
“Ah yes. Nothing like the bad old days to get your heart moving – if any of us still had one of those. And revenge does make the blood stir yonder. Tell me, what is the relation of the current master of the house to my procurer again? I believe he is the great-great-nephew of that man, the one who wanted a new rug, no?”
“Yes.”
“And his father, the father of the master of the house, he did obtain our graceful lady and hang her – most fetching – set of jaws over the mantelpiece on a somewhat-gaudy plaque?”
“Yes he did. And he took my biggest tooth for a gold necklace.”
“And the man himself of this house, he would be the one who claimed our quiet friend here and had what was left of him stripped fleshless and mounted?”
“Yes.”
“Hmmmm.”

There was a space in which ugly thoughts grew and became beautiful to the mind’s eye.

“I believe I have an idea,” said the first man.
“So do I,” said the woman.
“And I,” said the second man. His voice now had a tone: irritation.
“Unity is the thing,” said the first man. “Now, I summarize our situation thus: two of us are lacking teeth, two of us are lacking a body, and two of us are lacking a proper set of skin. Coincidentally, each of us has one of these things.”
“It seems that way.”
“Yes.”
“I also notice from the time that it is a quarter to two past midnight. This would be fifteen minutes before the man of the house takes his nightly walk downstairs to empty his bladder.”
“I’ve noticed that. He’s predictable.”
The second man said nothing. He was growling (rumbling, really, a roaring bellow slowed down) at a pitch just below the perception of the human ear, and making the dust on his display stand dance.
“Now, given that we all share such common ground – even if how we view it varies,” continued the first man, “I believe that it would be to our advantage to work together. For a short time.”
“I agree.”
The growl grew deeper, and the floorboards creaked.
“We are in accord then,” said the first man. “Now, let’s get ready. We may only have one chance at this, but we can still turn this around one last time.”

 

“Three Old Ones,” copyright Jamie Proctor 2011.

Storytime: Being the Dimling-Journal of his Exxorship, Ylolheim Freeeed Yalstogr III; an Account of Travels of a Youthful Splarg of Much Vigour in the Lands of the Savages.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Eyclth in the month of Broog.
I have arrived at last at the lone, dismal plod-port of this planet, and watch the trok-barge leave with great admixture of feelings. Oh! the fire of adventure, how fiercely it burns, yet how quickly is it put out by the watery slurry of loneliness! And no-where in all the uni-verse is a Splarg more alone than in that dismal backwater called by the brute natives Errth. But I am resolute, and shall not give in to despair. My splargian rationality, so cultivated by our Distinguished Tutors, persuades me of the inevitability of my success. My form is masked beneath a wunggdraclowk of fabulous ingenuity, whose techna veil shall never be pierced by the most intrusive and rude methods that the Natives possess. I am well equipped with both provisions and defensive techna, and my unburdened use of my rational minds will lead me to use both as dictated by Providence.
The secrets of this murmured-after, near-fictional city that have whispered its way to our ears even unto the hollowed halls of Melthachung will be in my many-grasp before the mooncycles wander through a full pass. I will be home by chrysalmass, and shall propose to you, dearest Frrreee, with the knowledge of Nu You’rek as gift to your father.

Tremmelith in the month of Broog.
Near-disaster, dear Frrreee! In my haste to acquire transport, I came within an inch of losing my life! Quite solicitations and the bribes of a few papery and plastic trinkets to the local gossip-mongers of the street-corners told me that the fastest means to travel north (where Nu You’rek is rumoured to lie, though none of the savages I asked could give me precise coordinates, relying as they may on their rudimentary and primitive metriks for guidance, like the careless children they are, ignorant of love and lurf as they are gifts given not naturally, but in the name of Hrrrrrfsyrup, our Lurfener and Lifesalver, He of the Unblemished and Broken Caraplating and Caresser of our Brainstems and Bodies), and anyways you are put into a very big box – made of steels, of all things! – and shipped away like plapple set for the platter at your father’s manor.
Made of steel! A most curious tale, and all the stranger that they believe it so fully. Would you credit it, sweet, mindless Frrree, that these heathen hyyu-men even dare to say that the whole of the city of Nu You’rek is crafted of such material? As if there were enough in all Splargadia to make so much as a house! One might as well claim that one could produce light with a flick of a switch, and not by focusing the implant graciously permitted to be installed in one’s forehead at the behest of the Priechery of the Provident and most kind Lurfener Hrrrrfsyrip – but of course, you are female, and thus unknowing of these things or much else, dear sweetling, since your father consumed your forebrain when you were a Splarglor. But I digress from my tale, and must continue post-haste, else this Dimling grow too lengthsome for the telethinkers to transmit and they complain to me of care-worn lobes and request additional compensations. My moneys are better spent here on bribes to the locals, for even they, in their primitive stupidity, admire and covet the splendid coins of our people.
You see, adorable Frrreee, as I searched for the terminal of this buhss, I was accosted by a dangerous mad-man, who in their ineffable and munificent stupidities, the lazy and shiftless men of the villament allowed to roam free. “Spare change, meister?” he did ask me. Yes, you hear awright, Frrreee, my honeyslurple: this madman demanded a full removal-and-replacement of my chitenholm, and did so in full public, without so much as a batted eye given in his direction. Lurfener save us from the perfidies of savages, children, and madman! I am a restrained and peaceable Splarg as you know too well, Frrreee, and yet I was scant able to prevent myself from thrashing the blackguard in twain. Only the piteous shrieks the poor wretch emitted in his sorrow and alarum, and the attendant charge of insipid would-be-sympathizers, saved him from becoming one of the Many Unfortunates who die un-slathered by the Priecheresters and are condemned to eternal Spaff. I was forced to hide amidst the dank brick jungles of the villament to escape my pursuit, and will begin to head north tomorrow on good solid feet, as the Lurf intended. By the time I return for home (hopefully laden with the treasures of knowledge and wealth that will be the key to your father’s cold, rotted middle-heart, Frrreee), the whole incident will have passed from the fickle minds of the residents and I may depart the plod-port unmolested by troubles and of carefree mind.

Temeltremmelith in the ha-month of Broog.
My pseudopodonous footpendages grow wearisome, Frrreee. The paths the locals have littered the landscape with are long and gruelling, and they are most arrogant in their presumed claim to exclusive use. I can scarcely walk down the middle without some manner of savage jabbering abuse at me from the safety of his metallic transportation – but this is the true news, and it is not just any metal, beautiful Frrreee: it is steel! Yes, steel, and I saw it with my own five eyes – no fable, no half-heard rumour, no child’s tale! Think of what this means, Frrreee! Nu You’rek may be fact and not fancy after all, your father’s moneyed lust sated, our union permitted! If even a tenth of the wealth of this city is as it is promised to be (which I can full believe, with the sheer swarming quantity of these strange steel-wheeled transports I have seen, which the locals call in their rough tongue “karrs”), I may even be able to bribe my way to a post of authoritation!
A short entry for now, sweetness – I believe that I am being given some sort of rude direction in flashing lights. One of the steel-machines is slowing to speak with me! Perhaps its driver shall be less uncouth than the common

Temellemontremmelithith in the ha-ho-month of Broog.
I apologize and beg your forgiveness, gentle, unassuming, reader, but I was accosted by the most vile of brigands, and found myself mostshackled firmly in the back of a karr before I could so much as hail-and-good-day to its brutish driver. I believe him to be even less evolved than his fellows; he is a burly, insipid fellow with a bulging jawmount and a most detestable air of superiority that would be looked upon as arrogant even in a well-assured Splarg of later years and great personal authority. In this primitive, it is putting on airs of the worst and foulest kind, and the high-handed method with which he recited his tribal chant while laying hands upon my person was quite un-appealing.
I shall dismantle and un-plate him the moment I am unshackled. You know me to not be a Splarg of violence, my honeyslurple, but this creature tests me greatly, and no rational being would disallow my use of force in reclaiming decorum.
Aha, I am to be released! I shall embark upon my punishment.

Ip in the month of Broog.
My kindest, most orificed Frrreee.
There has been little time to write this past qui-monthlette; it seems that the man I struck down occupied some manner of rank in the local community, and I was obliged to freeflee post-haste, only to be caught again and thrown into dankest, darkest imprisonment! Alas, I, like the Lurfener, am now subject to the torments of an unjust and unreasoning system supported on the backs of goons and captained by degenerate and unthinking creatures lifted high above the status to which Providence had assigned them, in its infinite and incomprehensible majesty.
After an exhaustingly long trial, I have been imprisoned in a small cell made from some manner of brittle, easily split substance, which I shall splinter with some of my techna – thankfully, the stupid Natives had not thought to frisk under my wunggdraclowk! I will begin drilling my way to freedom within the hurrr, and hope to be away and over the horizon by sunslip. This time I shall stay off the karr-trails, and proceed by celestial navigation.

Hup in the month of Broog.
Nu You’rek, Frrreee! I am here! It was nearer than I’d thought, less fleeting than I’d feared! Why, a scant detour from the plod-port – from a crash, for instance – would’ve landed me right in the heart of the shining city of steel. Yes, steel, Frrreee – the legends were true! And it is not the only one, I am assured (though with equal surety, it is stated to be the grandest of all by my informants, who, uncouth though they be, proclaim themselves experts in such things, and whose judgement we must assume to be punctilious and correct for the moment, lacking the input of those who might be said to be wiser, such as your father, may he splag for many years and live amongst the comfort of the grandchildrets, which, Dearest Frrreee, I hope that you and I will consent to provide him, together, after we embrace one another in the tender grips of matrimoistness, to the great celebration of our friends, comrades, relation and family) and then I found five of their strange dolars that they lust after just lying on the sidewalk, so rich did they consider themselves! But I digress.
I sleep in the shade of soaring spires tonight, Frrreee – cold and beautiful with wealth, so unlike the humble bioscrapers of home, with their svelte plankton ducts and plump, homey vesicles. But by tomorrow, these awful secrets will be secret no more, and warm familiarity shall illuminate the gluttering fescidness of their innardparts..

Na in the month of Broog.
Today I met with the chief of one of the great corepourette tribes – a proud group that claims one of the mightiest of the steel giants in the city. This man, by title the See-Eee-Oh, was the first of these Natives that I have found striking in any way complimentary – his features were pleasantly assymetrical, his eyes piquantly small and pleasingly beetled, and his hideous internal caraplating was coated so thoroughly in smoothed blubbermeats that its horridness was barely apparent to me throughout our meeting.
Reaching such a great man, of course, was a most difficult endeavour, even with the aid of Providence. Such bribes I paid, Frrreee! My pazzle has not been so empty of coins since I was a mere Splargar on the verge of disemsuffixation, and I confess that the empty jink-jank of its coins spent in the pursuit of knowledge has become (daringly!) sweeter a sound to my audioholes than any contented squeak of a well-stuffed wallet.
The audience went as well as could be demanded, reader. I proposed a simple trade: as many of my shiny trinkets as his people wanted for as much of their precious, sumptuous steel as they would part with. I was coy, of course – it pays little to let children and savages know how dear you value their possessions, lest they become greedy and unfair in their dealings with proper folk. I told him tall tales that would make your maticles curl, Frrreee – of how my people had so much steel that we would even use it as cutlery, or for trifling things like public transit lines, or how our very wealthiest would even fashion entire furnishings out of it! He was quite impressed, and claimed that for a modest fee, he would put me in contact with another corepour-nation that dealt heavily in that most precious of metals. I gladly doled out his payment and hailed him farewell in the patois of his people that I had learned, wishing him good luck in acquiring for himself some manner of tail (the Natives, poor, envious things that they are, lack such, even though much of Errth’s fauna does not). It seemed to please him, as he watched me leave in respectful noiseabsence.
I must make haste! It is a long walk, and my footpendages grow flurrisome with the chill of this place. I shall write again soon, fear not.

Ak in the month of Broog.
Disaster, Frrreee! After a long, nightmarish trek through the cold bowels of Noo Yourk (upon careful examination of the Native’s language patterns, I have accordingly adjusted my spelling), I finally came to the dwelling-scraper of the corepourette tribe to which I was referred, only to find them abandoning their position for the eve! I made inquiries as to what emergency could require this, but was brushed off with fearfully rolling eyes and exaggerated grimaces. No commentary could be made but for hasty, half-heard mutters, and I was ignored as they fled.
It was at this point, Frrree, where I confess that my hastefulness – always a flaw, so our family Priecherester told me – got the better of myself. “Fine,” I told myself, “so the savages flee. There is no terror in this place that cannot be weathered by a hardy Splarg as myself, and I shall conduct as fair a trade as can be enacted by any, judged true by all.” And so doing this, I left my entire wallet, plus a deed of credit, and prepared to extract the steel from the building by means of my technameantle, for miniaturiziting and carryment homewards.
I had just turned on my machinery, after gingerly destructmantling the front portalcullis, when a shrill sound began to nag at my head, just at the upper registrata of my hearment. It was most alarming, and it only seemed to grow louder as large, oddly-shaped chunks of steel began to shred their way through the walls and hurl themselves violently into the miniaturnmatorium. My attention was quickly drawn from the alarming sound and towards the imminent collapse of the ceiling upon my head – for what reason this disaster occurred I cannot say, and I must resign myself to assuming it to the mysterious demands of Providence, which to those unenlightened must often appear as fickle whims of fate. I barely managed to escapement myself through the splenchwards wall before the roof of the building collapsed, and had to take myself away at a dead run as the whole magnificent structure folded itself into a mangled ruin, cause unknown. A devastating sight, darling Frrreee – and not just for the loss of wealth, for I had a good sixteen chunks of steel in my pazzle, each originally larger than I am by approximately 12% and a good eight times my size as I appeared to the savages, swathed in my wunggdraclowk. Wealth beyond imagining was mine, but, tender-heartsed as only I can be, Frrreee, I could feel many a pang in my appendix for the poor peoples of that corepour-nation, now homeless and doomed to dispersion and extinction after the inexplicable collapse of their dwelling. Such terrors may never occur at home, Frrreee (at least, not after the great bio-gluing-edict of Hrakzefflepithecus the Fearsomely Paffed, which mandated that a house be made of sufficient firmness to withstand the loss of up to eighty percent of its superstructure on pain of decaraplating and liquefaction for use as his personal wax), and I know it is only brute ignorance that enables these tragedies, but I still feel for those poor, foolish savages, empathetic as I am.
I depart for the plod-port. I have wealth enough in steel and knowledge, and I cannot bear to stay and witness such suffering and chaos. Hark! Flashing lights! I had best abscond, lest I draw the attention of uncouth gadabouts.

Hikapeckleasophagusmackerateernapplemorgaphilldillynorperstraughgerhacklefipkipbik in the demi-qua-sali-fo-rth-meg-arung-nep-monthoidlette of Broogsquared.
My last entry for this trip on a strange place in a strange space, this Errth, Frrreee. I sit in the plod-port, awaiting a glok-barge’s preparations for return to Splargadia, and all I can think of is your darling belly-face (and your adorable little maticles – but such salacious talk would turn bright green the face of any gentle readers, and I must cease such nonsense before it flushes with embarrassment my text entire).
I have been hunted, and I have been hated. The howling mobs here understand nothing, and what they do not understand, they fear. I have brought them wealth and a hint of a much larger uni-verse, and in return, I have received naught but abuse. I suffer as the Larf did, Frrreee (praised be His ripps), and for no less worthy a cause: the bringing of knowledge. Knowledge, true, pure, brilliantly illuminating Splargian knowledge will be these people’s saviour, Frrree, and it will only be delivered if they are known to require it.
This journal will be my gift to the poor, starving creatures of this queer Errth. It is a plea to the noble society of Splarg itself to take up the burden that is its own greatness, for every soul and ha-soul within it to descend to the depths of suffering and remove it. We must tame these poor creatures, so they may be educated, so they may be lifted up from their natural lowliness into the edges of a grander society such as ours.
They must know the teachings of the Priecherester, they must know the discipline of an oversubduest such as your father and mine, and finally, when obedience and learning has been beaten into their tired, wretched hides, they must feel the pity and grace of the Lurfener, Hrrrrfsyrip, the Lifesalvener.
Only then, Frrreee, lurf of my life, may we call ourselves truly civilized: when we have given this precious gift to those below us.
The barge approaches, I must cease these scribbling squirtings and embark myself into its innards.

Yours and alls,
Ylolheim Freeeed Yalstogr III.

 

“Being the Dimling-Journal of his Exxorship, Ylolheim Freeeed Yalstogr III; an Account of Travels of a Youthful Splarg of Much Vigour in the Lands of the Savages,” Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: Persistence.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

On a crisp-yet-sullen day in late August, Maxwell was taken by his parents to watch a witch being tried.
It was very straightforward, an open-and-shut case, and every bit of care had been taken to make the procedure as dull as possible for an audience. The accusations were droned rather than flung, the inquiring priest was unshaven and yawned frequently, and even the victims seemed more tired than tearful as they described how the evil eye had poisoned their livestock, soured their mouths, broken their windows, and set their children crying with fevers.
The punishment was delivered with similar apathetic thoroughness. After all and sundry had said their piece and a little bit extra, the accused was tied up with an old clothesline and dropped into a pond. The witch floated like a cork and was summarily stoned to death, making no protest and seeming only slightly more annoyed than the crowd.
“Let that be a lesson to you on wickedness,” said Maxwell’s father firmly. And Maxwell took it straight to heart: wickedness was one of two things in all the world, the other being good, straight-razor, stand-up wholesomeness. And after living thirteen years of one and seeing maybe a half-day of the other, he was fairly certain which was more interesting.
“I shall become a witch,” he announced, “and be a fearsome monster.” To himself, when he was quite certain he was alone, in the middle of the woods. He wasn’t crazy. At least, not in a directly self-destructive manner. No, about this he was serious. And he proved how serious when he made his first attempt at witchcraft that very night out behind his house, with a tiny little thimble of blood stolen from his thumb with the aid of mother’s silverware (she wouldn’t dare thrash a witch, would she?).
“I abjurr. I abjoor… I abjuu. I renounce you, Lord, our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name on earth as it whoops, I renounce you.”
He looked around. Nothing much seemed to be happening.
“I embrace you, Satan, who is the Devil,” he continued. “Our uncle who are in hell unhallowed on earth as it is in heaven no wait hell. I, uh, embrace you.”
Nothing happened some more.
“A lot,” he added.
Nothing continued to happen. He checked under his bed, just in case, and found that nothing was in plenty there too.
“God damnit,” he said, at which point his father found him and had him thrashed for swearing before turning him over to his mother for a second go-round, as payment for the vandalized silverware.
That evening, as Maxwell went to bed, he hated his parents more than he’d ever hated anything before. He hated them more than chores, than work, than his cousins, than the terrible rusty old axe he had to cut firewood with. He hated them so much that he started to choke his pillow without noticing, and as his hands clutched at an imagined father’s neck (or maybe a mother’s skull), he felt a slight hum and smelt a whiff of brimstone.
His index finger touched paper, and he carefully extracted a small missive, printed on plain white paper, with text on it in plain black ink.
Stop it.
Maxwell made a face at it, then turned it over, lured by limitless optimism.
Be careful what you wish for.
Maxwell never made a second attempt at witchcraft, but he did run away the next year, after being thrashed something like every other day for sullenness, moodiness, surliness, malign spirits, and refusal to stop sulking. His father and mother blamed it on their undue moderation in his upbringing, and forbade his younger brother from smiling.
Maxwell left Pennsylvania, and took ship to the Old World as a cabin boy and general dog’s-body. “Perhaps there,” he speculated to an able-seaman, “if not witches, the other creatures of blackest night may be easier to find.”
“Gnarr,” opined the sailor, squinting haphazardly over the rail at the foamy waters. Then he vomited.
Maxwell was filled with the desire to reprove the man for his slovenly ways, but stifled it. This was a tumultuous night, filled with Saint Elmo’s fire and waves bigger than the ship. He wondered if it had anything to do with that large pretty seagull he’d killed earlier as it perched on the bow. He’d thought it would make a nice roast for dinner, but everyone had been rather upset about it. Then the sea split open and spat out a ship masted all in black, and his thoughts were put to a second priority at best.
Her name was illegible, and her hull worn grey from age. Her crew were ghastly spectres, and they lined up every man from oldest to youngest and worked their way down the line, questioning them all.
“Will you serve?” they asked. And every man felt fear close his throat to a pinhole, and could but nod yes. From the old, old navigator to the greying captain down to the freshest-faced of the able-seamen, not a man dared say anything more.
They reached Maxwell.
“Will you serve?” croaked the spectre.
“Yes please!” said Maxwell, unable to contain his eagerness.
The spectre stared.
“If it’s no trouble,” he added.
The spectre gave him an unfathomable look, then yelled something in dutch. The captain came to his side, a broad, decayed man who looked more solid and unyielding than the deck under his feet.
“What did you say?” he asked, every syllable a restrained request for a chance to hurt something.
“Yes please can I serve thank you very much,” said Maxwell.
The captain punched him firmly in the eyesocket, and Maxwell woke up in the rotting timbers of a half-sunken hulk next to a pier. Upon disembarking, he quickly learned that he was about a century late, but he’d never considered tardiness to be as sinful as it was cracked up to be.

Maxwell travelled fast and meandered hard, skipping from village to village, hunting folklore. He slept in fairy circles and woke up with nothing but crude statements in dead languages painted on his forehead, he crafted upside-down crosses and prayed at them, only to find his socks smelling of brimstone and his shoes of sulphur. He even once ate a whole raw onion. It tasted better than he’d suspected.
His next big break came as his carriage hit a pothole in an old, terrifying road in the midst of an overcrowded Germanic forest. The coachdriver ran away into the woods and the driving rain, screamed once, and didn’t come back.
Maxwell couldn’t be happier. Well, he could’ve if his luggage hadn’t been dumped into a puddle with ambitions of pondhood when the coach overturned, but he felt that might be asking too much of life.
A beast howled. It lasted for forty-five seconds and one long lungful of blood-scented air and felt like three hours. Small things cringed deeper in their burrows, and the bats flew a little higher. Maxwell nearly urinated in his trousers from excitement, and began to dig through his soaked belongings. Spare (soaked) trousers, sextant, compass, maps of (soaked) middle Europe…
The howl sounded again, closer. And faster.
…spectacles, spare codpiece, wallet, watch…
A third time. From the volume, whatever was calling seemed to be located just inside Maxwell’s left eardrum.
Aha! The raw steak! A bit past its prime by now, but any sirloin in a storm. Maxwell rubbed it all over his torso and took a big bite just as the werewolf bounded into the fading puddle of light left by the coach’s single, dying lantern. It was as tall as he was at the shoulder and blacker than the sky and all its clouds.
Maxwell growled haplessly at it and made stiff, jerky, uncertain movements, and was immediately bowled over and had a mouthful of his jacket torn away.
“No, no, no, no! The skin, break the skin!” he cried in excitement.
The werewolf chewed its mouthful three times, swallowed, and considered him.
“Right here,” he said, pushing away the ruins of his collar. “Right on the shoulder. Upper half, if you don’t mind – just so I don’t bleed out before it sets in.”
The werewolf stared away into the trees, either deep in thought or having heard a squirrel. Then it cocked its leg, urinated on Maxwell’s already-stained trousers, and trotted off, ears pricked, leaving him to brood over another wasted opportunity and laundry bill.
By the evening’s end, things were looking up. Maxwell had somewhere dry for the night, a meal under his belt, and he was paying back the host already, so he felt no shame of obligation. True the dryness was due to the furnace two feet from the crude pallet, the meal had mostly been tripe, and the repayment in labour involved rustily and ineptly sawing through the corpses of some fifteen executed men, plus a few horses, two-thirds of a cow, and something unidentifiable that was mostly liver. As well as very nearly his own hand, on some six occasions so far.
“Pull the switch!” called the doctor, finish the last of a forty-some series of injections into their combined labour of love. “Pull it! While the storm lasts and the spark holds! Make it so!”
Maxwell pulled a switch on the enormous slab of metal and clockwork that took up half the basement.
“No no no not THAT switch! THE switch!”
Maxwell pulled the switch marked “THE switch,” and was rewarded with immediate and thorough electrocution, flashing white light, and a rich, meaty scent that brought to mind that perfectly good (if a little ripe) steak he’d ruined earlier in the night. Then the monster exploded and his hair caught fire. The doctor screamed something blasphemous that was cut out by a sudden bolt of lightning, and Maxwell woke up with no sense of smell on the roof of a little inn in Munich, without the faintest idea of how he’d got there and a searing case of tetanus. One was cured with ignorant bliss, the other with inadvertent consumption of mouldy bread.

Years passed, and Maxwell grew no less determined. He slept in the beds of self-mutilating artists and had terrible nightmares walk right past him. He plumbed his family tree’s darkest depths in castles once owned by depraved ancestors, and found in the cellars a few dead rats in the walls and some empty stills set up by squatters. He swam in dark, cursed coves from which no man had ever returned alive in skimpy bathing costumes, and was attacked by an irked bull shark, for which he received many stitches. He drank wine with men who did not, and woke up the next morning with nothing more than a hangover and a terse request to leave it’s been three days you know what they say about guests and fish.
All of this took quite a lot of time, by which Maxwell should’ve been an old man. Instead, he was merely an aged man. He blamed it on his delayed trip to Europe, feeling that the whole continent had been a waste, and struck out for distant shores and more exotic mysteries. But alas, his further travels bore no greater fruit. In Africa he participated in the hunt for a mysterious lost city and succeeded in finding only a lost village, which had fallen off the map about a decade ago and had been getting on pretty well since. In South America he found El Dorado and was kicked out for drunk and impious conduct. Among the jungles of Asia he shot (or at least was on hand while it was shot) a demon-possessed man-eating tiger that turned out to be merely rabid, although he did have the excitement of a dose of rabies to contend with after that. Near to the southern pole he found a hidden, ancient cave full of what he initially thought was a monstrous and inhuman civilization older than mankind’s most creaking nightmares, but turned out to be merely hallucinogenic spores, and his attempt at finding the Min-Min light in Australia ceased when it led him into a billabong occupied by an irate bunyip, for which he received many more stitches.
“I’m getting closer,” Maxwell told the nurse in Melbourne, as he managed to feed himself without aid. “I can feel it!”
“Yes sir,” she agreed, and caught his spoon as it missed his mouth and dove for his navel.
It came that he returned to America. The witches were long gone, yes, but there were strange things out west, things that he couldn’t wait to check. He deliberately defiled a few ancient burial grounds (he was seized by virulent diarrhoea for three years and one month), and attempted three times to become shot dishonourably in a high-noon showdown only to be repeatedly pistol-whipped. It seemed the unlife of the restless spirit was as denied to him as that of the eternally cursed.
The first world war was a nasty nuisance (he’d been planning on checking under the Vatican for sealed vaults of heresies before the knives came out), but the second was a golden opportunity for Maxwell. Rumours took him to enlistment. Hair dye got him past the recruitment officers. Incredibly awkward slang terms carried him past the critical and alert eyes of his sergeant and fellow grunts, aided by profound apathy on their part. And a carefree and amoral spirit took him away from duty and deep into the heart (or at least the lungs) of German territory, where he found a creaking bunker, lined with medical waste and fraught with horrors.
He kicked in the door with his boot. He’d been wanting to do that for almost a century, ever since he’d missed the opportunity back out west. “Stop right there!” he yelled or something very much like it, to the mouldering, decayed corpse of what had probably been a Nazi scientist.
A few forlorn hours followed. Maxwell poked around the bunker (a cut-rate, shoddy thing, barely hidden underground at all), and discovered both cause of death – crushed underneath his own giant, dial-ridden belljar set – and experimental purporse: creating a master race of biomechanical goldfish while inhaling as much nitrous oxide as could possibly be smuggled into the budget. He hadn’t gotten far, which was probably for the best – the degree proudly framed on the western wall looked to be for gothic architecture.
Maxwell left in dejection, barely remembering to set fire to the bunker on his way, and deserted somewhere farther away, where the disappointment wouldn’t follow him as much.
He searched the Himalayas, and found the abominable frostbite, much to the dismay of three of his favourite toes.
He wandered the swamps of Borneo, and found the real wild man of the forests. Who noogied-and-ran.
And at last his wandering took him to Japan, where, in the midst of lunch after a disappointing morning following traces of radiation to no avail, he felt the ground shake and his drink spill on his crotch. Stepping outside, he came face to face with a receding tail bigger than buildings and devastation that matched anything he’d seen anywhere.
“Take me!” he cried after it. It didn’t listen, and vanished around a corner. Sweating bullets and crying, he wrested a miraculously undamaged motorcycle from the grip of a dying man and sped after the creature, dodging rubble and serious, ashen-faced men with Geiger counters that clicked and whirred like cockroaches.
“Take me!” he called, spinning around a block corner. A toe loomed overhead, somewhere above it, a body measured in kilotonnes.
“TAKE ME NOW!” called Maxwell, passion filling his soul. “I EMBRACE YOU, IN THE NAME OF THE ATOM!”
The creature stepped over him and continued on his way. A crushed pedestrian moaned, and Maxwell was filled with envy and spite.
“That’s easy for YOU to say,” he muttered viciously as he stared after the retreating backside of the monster. “YOU didn’t have to work for it, oh no no, it just happened to you. You had it easy. You didn’t have to try. You didn’t spend three hundred years and more running around trying to just once, just ONCE be the lucky one, oh no you didn’t. It just happened. ‘Just happened.’ Spoiled little shit.”
The pedestrian rolled his eyes and expired, leaving Maxwell alone, bitter, and with a mild case of radiation poisoning that made some of his hair fall out and cost him one of his particularly favourite teeth (the left maxillary canine, which had long been his preferred tearing instrument during meals).
“Hard work,” he grumbled as he wandered the streets of Cairo, purchased coffin after coffin and found them empty of curses and full of useless raggedy old limbs and archaeological knick-knacks. “‘Hard work is the way the Lord will admit you into heaven, boy.’ Well thank you, father, but I’ve been working hard at this for long enough without so much as a snippet of success. Where’s my excitement?” he complained as a mummified, shambling figure revealed itself to have been an inhumed minor scribe and waved off offers of vengeance upon the defilers of its rest in favour of investigating modern accounting.
“Where’s my trauma?” he grumbled as a bestial tribe of long-lost ape-men ceremonially exiled him with flung fecal matter.
“Where’s my insight into matters beyond the ken of cautious men?!” he yelled as the eightieth ancient crumbling scroll recovered from a sealed marble vault in the Mediterranean proved to be Socratic dialogues on recipes involving olive oil. He flung it aside in a temper and paced to the window. He already knew everything about cooking with olive oil.
Maxwell gazed out over the tranquil hideousness of a New England downtown with moody negativity. Home again, after three hundred years, and not a single step taken forwards. Not one vampire bloodletting, or werewolf bite, or even a conversion into some sort of ghoulish freak. No mutation, no satanic rites, no induction into hidden societies.
Of course, no UFO abductions. That was just silly.
“It’s all rot,” he said to the countryside in general. “All of it. And especially you,” he said to his father specifically, who had quietly begun hovering behind his back. “Yes, I know you’re there! You can’t fool me that easily.”
He turned around to face him. Father was much less frightening than he remembered. Faceless, yes, but shorter, and he’d seen almost more things without faces than with by this time. “Look at you! You haven’t moved one inch since we last talked. Where’s heaven now, eh? What about your hard work?”
The ghost raised its hands and made an ambiguous gesture, then took off its head.
“Yes, yes, very frightening, father,” said Maxwell. “God, how I was I scared of you as a boy? No, no – god DAMNIT. Look at you! You’re stuck, you’re wedged, you’re in a rut! And you jammed me into one too,” he spat. He threw an antique skull belonging to a depraved ancestral man-father at the ghost just to hear it shatter. The wraithish man drew back in alarm. “Maybe not the right rut, not the one you planned, but one all the same! Well, I’m fed up with it. I’m fed up with you and all this rot! I’m THROUGH, do you hear me?” He was advancing on his father now, sending the frail old spectre back on his heels, quailing in the corner of the room. “I’m GOD. DAMNED. THROUGH.”
There was a small piff, and two things happened, the second before the first. First, the ghost vanished.
Secondly, Maxwell didn’t believe in ghosts. He also didn’t believe in witches. Or werewolves, or vampires, or himself, or much of anything. It didn’t do you any good.
“What a crock,” he muttered to himself. Hair dropped from his head like a light spring rain, whitening itself as it hit the boards. “Rot, all of it. Unheard of. Rubbish.”
Plunk, plunk plunk, out fell the teeth.
“rot,” he mumbled

The landlord was surprised when he checked in the next day; after last night’s gale he was doing the rounds to see how many windows had fallen victim. Upstairs had already cost him a fortune, and he was thinking something more modern and durable. Can’t live in the past forever, and those old windowframes were deathtraps for glass. The man leaving so suddenly was a bit of a shocker, but he’d seemed the roaming sort, and at least he’d left his wallet – a great hulking slab of leather that could’ve doubled as a steak in an emergency. The landlord upended it, and cursed a bit as something very small and indisputably not a bill fell out.
He picked it up. It was a small note of plain white paper. Printed on it in plain black ink was this:
You too.
It made his teeth itch. Almost hum. Impulsively, he turned it over, and found some more text.
Look behind you.
He did, and came face-to-teeth with the head of a somewhat elderly puritan man.

It took a long time for both of them to stop screaming.

 

“Persistence,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

The Life of Small-five (Part 7).

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

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

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

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