Archive for November, 2011

Storytime: Deathbed.

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

There was a man. An old man. This sort of thing happens, over time.
He was also dying. And didn’t much like it. This too was not unusual.
“I’m not going to stand for this kind of treatment,” he said, and that WAS a little strange, and he phoned up his three daughters and two sons and told them to get their asses over to the hospital.
And they got their asses along properly, because he was their father and he was dying and they all felt like they owed him that much. In limousines and taxis, motorbikes and minivans, up came each of them, one after another, all within five minute’s time. Up they paraded in their suits and their brightly coloured socks, and they listened.
“My beloved, successful, wealthy, entrepreneurial children,” said the dying old man, “I have a last request for all of you from your father, on his deathbed. I humbly request that you all do your best to fulfill it.”
“Yes,” they all said. “That sounds fair enough.”
“Dying isn’t that great a thing,” said the old man. “I don’t want to go through dying – the thought gets me all tense and wired, like a squirrel stuffed in a spring. I want you to fix it. Go on, give it a try.”
Five moments of thought overlapped.
“I’m not so sure,” said the oldest daughter.
“Doable,” disputed the oldest son.
“Possibly,” seconded the youngest son.
“Absolutely,” said the middle daughter.
“No doubt about it,” said the youngest daughter.
The oldest daughter made a face at her siblings. They made faces right back.
“Enough of that,” said the old man. “Get to it. I’ve got a few hours left and the clock’s ticking. As incentive, the one who pulls it off gets my wallet and buys a free round for the family.”
“I’ll go first,” said the oldest son. He stood up and straightened his tie in a very menacing way, then walked over to the nurse.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I would like to see the doctor, or I’m going to sue you for obstruction of obfuscation of objectification of the Oldowan.”
“Right this way,” said the nurse, and he led the oldest son to the doctor.
“What’s your problem?” asked the doctor.
“I’d like to see the director of this hospital,” said the oldest son, “or I’m going to sue you for breach of privacy, breach of conduct, breach of hospitality, breach of hospital, and breaching with malicious intent to spyhop.”
“Whatever,” said the doctor. “Not my problem.” And she sent the oldest son onwards to the director, who was trapped on his desk surrounded by four ringing cellphones, three laptops blaring with virus alerts and unanswered emails, forty-five unfilled forms, and a savage blackberry.
“What is it?” asked the director. “I’m a little busy here.”
“I would like to meet your supervisor of death,” said the oldest son, “or I’ll sue you for libel, liability, liberalism, and lagomorphism.”
“Screw off,” said the director. “I’m too busy for that. I’ve got forty-five other lawsuits to deal with this afternoon.”
“I’ll give you a chocolate bar,” said the oldest son.
The director’s hand darted out faster than the strike of a praying mantis, snaring the treat from the son’s grasp almost before the words had left his esophagus. “Done deal,” he muttered through the crumbs, and he directed the oldest son to the office of the local supervisor of death.
He was texting with his feet up on his desk, chewing a novelty scythe-shaped toothpick in the corner of his barely-obese lips.
“‘Sup,” he said, without looking up.
“Laws,” said the oldest son.
“Shit. What kind?”
“I am going to sue you for defamation of character, declaration of independence, and defenestration of crepuscularation if you don’t reverse my father’s impending death immediately.”
“Hit me with your best shot, dumbass,” said the supervisor of death, still not looking up from his phone. “Crepuscularation isn’t a word. ‘Crepuscular’ pertains to twilight or dusk, and as a noun it’s ‘crepuscularity.’””
The oldest son returned to his father’s deathbed, his cold blue eyes brimming with tears.
“I tried, dad,” he said. “I tried.”
“It’s okay, we’ve got time,” said the old man.
“I think it’s my turn,” said the younger brother. He pulled himself off the wall he’d been leaning on, took out his laptop, and wrote a very serious research paper.
“I’ve been planning this for a while,” he told his father. “This is really just the perfect time to sum it all up. Nothing like panic to give you that good kick in the ass you need to write more than three pages a minute.”
“What’s it on?” asked the old man.
“What isn’t it? I’ve got philosophy applied to sociology applied to anthropology applied to history applied to biology applied to chemistry. Then I applied that to physics, astronomy, and brought it back around to philosophy again. The gist of the central thesis is that your mind makes other people real but can’t control their beliefs and worldviews, which explains the U.S. Civil War, and how an unusually obvious gene pattern in the skull of Ulysses S. Grant confirms the overall necessity of this, as well as how uranium is a false concept just like the existence of other humans. This means that most of what we know about physics is fake, which throws our beliefs about the universe at large into question and ends up confirming my initial premise, which is that if enough people believe each other not to be fake they become immortal.” He blew his hair out of his eyes, rattled his fingers across the keyboard one last time, and spiked his laptop.
“Done and good as already edited,” he said with satisfaction. “I’ve just disproved death. Published ten seconds ago.”
“I don’t feel any better,” said the old man.
“Wait a few days for the peer reviews,” said the younger brother.
The old man gave him a look.
“Oh. Right.” The younger brother slouched against his wall again and didn’t look at anyone.
“Good effort,” said the old man fondly. “Reminds me of those frogs you sent into orbit years back with nothing more than matches and old cellophane tubes. Anyone else got an idea?”
“Of course,” said the middle sister. She put on a pair of appropriately stern glasses over her contacts, adjusted the indestructible plastic sheen that coated her hair, and beckoned her finest cameraman in for a close shot, adjusting the angle of her head so that it was perfectly silhouetted against the flag a helpful aide was quickly nailing to the nearest wall.
“Citizens, my opponent is all about death,” she announced, the sincerity in her voice sound enough to split redwoods with a single blow. “Death is a necessity, he claims, death is a vital part of our economy, death is there so that there may also be life. But this cold, clinical analysis, which may remind us of Auschwitz (I am most certainly not implying my opponent is a Nazi at all what gave you that idea perhaps you are implying something YOURSELF hmm?), is not the only way to look at death. Death may be necessary indeed, death may be economically sound, death may indeed define our entire species and outlook upon life – upon our very existence – but this cannot excuse on-two solitary facts.”
The music swelled.
“My opponent wants to raise your taxes and is a possible pedophile,” she said. “Goodnight, and god bless.”
The middle sister sat down again as the camera turned off.
“Election won,” she said happily.
“You’re going to abolish death then,” asked the younger son. “Won’t that be a bit messy? I can do the math for you.”
“Oh, nothing so crass as that,” she said dismissively. “I’ll just have the supervisor in charge of his case file fired and get dad lost in the shuffle.”
“Metaphysical affairs,” said the youngest sister. “Out of your jurisdiction.”
“I can get an appointee in there.”
“Sure. They take a few hundred years to process applications.”
“What?!”
“They say it weeds out the applicants that aren’t catchy enough.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said the middle sister, and she sat down again in a frump.
“I believe it is my turn,” said the youngest sister. “Tell me,” she asked the older brother, “where was the supervisor of death for this district?”
“Five rooms and four layers of willing disbelief to your left on exiting the room,” he said.
“Good,” said the youngest sister, and she went there.
“Heya,” said the supervisor. His feet were no longer up on the desk, but he was still texting. His tongue, once prepared to whet his lips once per minute with clockwork precision, had become stuck just to the right side of his mouth. It seemed to leer at the youngest sister.
“I will donate one billion dollars to you if you remove this unnecessary red tape from the path of my family,” she said.
“Nah,” said the supervisor.
“I will place one trillion dollars towards making your life absolute hell if you do not remove this useless obstruction from my father,” she said.
The supervisor shrugged and flicked an errant snotcrusting from the rim of his largest nostril.
“I’ll put in a good word with your boss and get you some stock tips,” she said.
The supervisor looked up from his texting. “Get in line. Position eight quintillion. Rounded down.”
“I’m really sorry,” the youngest sister told her father. “That’s the first time that hasn’t worked.
“Bureaucrats,” grumbled the old man. “Well, I’ve got five minutes. Anyone got any plan Bs?”
“I used all my lawsuits,” said the oldest son. “My tie is flaccid.”
“I can’t make people peer-review any faster,” said the youngest son.
“I’d be accused of flip-flopping,” said the middle sister.
“I don’t have enough money,” said the youngest sister. “I should fix that.”
“Well, shit,” said the old man. He sighed, with an underlying gurgle. “Good tries, everyone. Guess that’s it.”
“I might have an idea,” said the oldest sister, carefully unhooking her stethoscope and coiling it into a neat loop.
“Well, go on and try it,” said the old man. “Can’t hurt to try.”
“It’s going to take a little while,” said the oldest sister. “Just bear with me, and listen hard…”
So the oldest sister talked to him about world war II, and the effect that had probably had on his parent’s upbringing of him, and the possibly psychological effects this might have had, and about his fierce and competitive drive that had so obviously ingrained itself in his children, judging by their career paths, and how the seeds of resentment so easily sown between generations when the children had been in their teenaged years had only fuelled their fierce pursuit of independence, and of how reconciliation had come gradually, achingly, lovingly over the past decade, and of how this whole deathbed effort they’d all put forth really was the most heartwarming and coordinated family event they’d had since, well, ever.
“That’s a really nice thought,” said the oldest brother.
“Well, when it’s put that way, sure,” said the youngest brother.
“Homey,” said the middle sister.
“Cute,” said the youngest sister.
The old man didn’t say anything.
The oldest sister lifted one of his eyelids and critically inspected the pupil. “Gone half a paragraph ago, I’ll wager on my medical license,” she said. “And judging from the amount of tension in his muscles, I’d double or nothing that he didn’t see it coming either. Anesthetic’s for people without a little creativity.” She extracted his wallet and turned it over with a critical eye. “Five bucks. Let’s go get some juice.”

 

“Deathbed” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: Games for children that are no longer played.

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Games for children that are no longer played.
Game: Frog-and-go-seek.
Proposed by: Benjamin.
Rules: One frog is caught and designated “it.” “It” is marked with an unremovable marker filched from Tammy’s dad, then hurled into the swamp. First person to find “it” wins and gets to keep the marker.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Four weeks, four games, four near-drownings, four mandates from four sets of parents to cease and desist.

Game: Throw rocks at the loser.
Proposed by: Tammy.
Rules: Rob is selected to be the loser. All participants must throw rocks at him until he cries for a combined total of no less than five minutes. Winner determined by quality, quantity, and breadth of bruises caused plus bonus “sob value” point system.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Three minutes, three-fifths of a game, Rob’s older brother, Jake, and Jake’s right steel-toed-clad foot.

Game: Monopoly.
Proposed by: Rob.
Rules: Let’s just try playing Monopoly okay?
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Five minutes, proposal of better use of time (see below).

Game: Monopoly is boring.
Proposed by: Susan.
Rules: Monopoly is boring so let’s make it so whenever you land on a space you get punched once for each house and an Indian burn for each hotel.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Thirty minutes, Rob’s sensitive bruises, Jake again, Jake’s other foot.

Game: Queen of the mountain.
Proposed by: Tammy.
Rules: Tammy is the Queen of the Mountain, aka the biggest pile of rocks and dirt in the old quarry behind Susan’s house. Whoever knocks Tammy off the Mountain is the next Queen.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Forty minutes, half of players refuse to be Queen, Susan treacherously uses shovel to undermine the Queen’s throne and instigates an instantaneous counter-revolution.

Game: Pin the tail on the frog.
Proposed by: Benjamin.
Rules: One frog is caught and held immobile by a judge as blindfolded competitors attempt to attach a twig to its rear by any means necessary.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: N/A, vetoed by parents in pregame warm-up on grounds of animal cruelty, unauthorized borrowing of powered screwdriver.

Game: Dictionary wars.
Proposed by: Benjamin.
Rules: Flip the dictionary open at random, then point your finger at it without looking. Whatever you picked, you have to beat the person on your right at.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Three hours, Rob kept trying to pick “rhinoceros” and whining when he missed, Benjamin picked “pugilism,” Tammy was on Benjamin’s right, Benjamin had a glass jaw.

Game: Rake the lawn.
Proposed by: Susan’s mother.
Rules: Rake the lawn clear of leaves. Payment will be granted according to the size of each contestant’s leaf pile.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Two hours, failed argument with Susan’s mother that one big communal leaf pile is worth fifty dollars, downfall of unionization due to treachery in the ranks from Rob who accepted the scab paycheck of a popsicle.

Game: House.
Proposed by: Rob.
Rules: Let’s make houses out of paper mache and whoever has the coolest house wins.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: One hour, Susan made a house shaped like a bear and declared victory early, Tammy’s “butterfingers,” Tammy said it was an accident, Susan disagreed, parents involved, parents discovered paper mache houses, walls, ceiling, partial carpet.

Game: Booooring.
Proposed by: Susan.
Rules: I’m bored so let’s think of boring things and the winner has to think of a more boring thing in ten seconds.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Ten seconds, apathy.

Game: Egg wars.
Proposed by: Tammy.
Rules: Two teams are created. Each team must select a member’s house as “home.” On Halloween, each team must egg the other team’s “home” while preventing egging of their own.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Half a night, illegal intervention at blue team “home” by mercenary party Jake and Jake’s absolutely terrifying and startlingly realistic werewolf mask, illegal defense of red team “home” by throwing rocks above permitted size of pebbles not exceeding 1 cm in diameter.

Game: Let’s try alcohol.
Proposed by: Benjamin.
Rules: Let’s all see who can drink the most alcohol without throwing up.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: N/A, Jake’s refusal to buy, parents’ refusal to buy, impossibility in smuggling 1.5L bottles of vodka out of the store in coats.

Game: Snowman duel.
Proposed by: Rob.
Rules: Each player must crafted the largest snowman possible, then tip them down the old quarry behind Susan’s house. The winner is the one that looks the coolest afterwards.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Six hours, logistic difficulties causing all snow in Susan’s backyard to be consumed, bickering, trash-talking, theft of snow, sabotage, voluntary snowmanslaughter.

Game: Exxtreme snow tag X.
Proposed by: Susan.
Rules: Tag with the houserule of a direct torso or head hit with a snowball also counting as tagging another player.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Forty minutes, exhaustion from continuous running and leaping in full snow outfits, hunger, Rob accidentally kicking Tammy in the teeth when she tackled him.

Game: Icicle fencing.
Proposed by: Tammy.
Rules: Stab the other person, who is Rob, with an icicle.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: Forty seconds, inaccuracy due to blurry vision, falling over due to overexertion and aching teeth.

Game: Just hang out.
Proposed by: Susan.
Rules: Let’s go get some hot chocolate and write some lists.
Duration of existence and reasons for cancellation: One hour, Benjamin’s gotta go home now and Susan and Rob have dinner at six.

Good game.

 

“Games for children that are no longer played,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: A Suburban Fairy Tale.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Come here now you little boys and girls, come here and sit by the radiator and listen to an old man talk too much. That’s it, come on in – yes, you too there, big fellow. You’re all little boys and girls to me, eh?
That’s it, come here and listen. The chilly wind is blowing outside; you hear that? You feel that? Jack frost left his fingerprints all over the windows last night; you saw that? You felt that?
Now let me tell you a story then, about that same wind, about a time back when your father’s fathers were little boys.

Those were the days when Riverside was at its height! The men were real men, their pipes were real pipes, heaped high with authoritative soot! The women were real women, their smiles real plastic! The children were real children, obedient and sparkling clean under threat of wilting disapproval! Yes sir, those were the days of the days. But I digress, and what’s worse, I stray from the root of my tale.
You see, life in Riverside was not all that it appeared to be, at least not all year round. Oh the spring sparkled, the summer simmered, the autumn was lush with great feats of yardsmanship and lawnrakery – those were the days! The days, I tell you!
But this suburban community held a dark and terrible secret, a blemish upon an otherwise flawless apple – the sort of apple you might put in a good-old-fashioned one-hundred-and-ten-per-cent-American pie. And it was so shameful that they spoke of it to no outsider. Each newcomer to Riverside only learned the troublesome truth when the first signed of winter came to them, when the chilly breeze blew. And blow it did that one November day, when the frost spackled the windows of the squat little suburban home owned by the squat little suburban family that was the Hoovers. Short, sweet, always-smiling Helena; lanky, loutish, too-loud William; whiny, wimpy, bed-wetting Jack, and Mr. Hoover. Mr. Hoover might have had a first name, but if he did, no one dared speak it aloud. They might get a Stern Look. Some fathers would lecture you, but not Mr. Hoover – never Mr. Hoover. A single moment of paternal authority through eye contact and you would be begging to be thrashed.
But today Mr. Hoover’s thoughts were elsewhere. The chilly wind had blown. Last night, Jack Frost had crept across the windowsills of Riverside and left his handiwork glittering for the children to innocently coo at in the morning, little tykes. For them it was a seasonal wonder.
For Mr. Hoover, and every other red-blooded all-American man in Riverside, it was a warning.
Mr. Hoover looked out the window, brow furrowed in fatherly thoughts as he watched his neighbours go about their business, planning for the future.
“The tramp is nearly here,” whispered the Joneses across the road, as they boarded up their car tight as a drum.”
“Winter’s coming,” muttered the whippersnapper next door as he triple-reinforced the flimsy roof of his convertible with rolls and rolls of masking tape.
“Goodbye,” said an old man to his driveway, stroking its asphalt surface as he held back the tears.
Mr. Hoover’s looked at his own, brand-new car, the pride of the household, as it sat in his immaculate driveway, and his finely chiselled jaw moved. Calling it clenching may have been too hasty, but it most definitely tensed.
What Mr. Hoover said to his wife after that, well, no one knows what he said. Probably nothing, because Mr. Hoover never spoke, merely commanded with firm, authoritative gestures of tie-straightening, eyebrow-raising, and pointed-looking. Mr. Hoover never spoke because that would unclench the pipe from between his teeth, and that was something that would not do, would never do. It had been his father’s pipe, and his father’s before him, and his father’s before him, and Mr. Hoover would hang himself with his best tie before he would let that heirloom be taken from his living lips.
That’s why we don’t know what Mr. Hoover said to his wife on that fateful evening. We know only that he gave a manly and authoritative nod to each of his children, clucked her under the chin, and strode out the door with his hat and coat.
Mr. Hoover stopped in the garage on his way and stayed there for some hours, tinkering with his tools as the sun fell down along with the temperature. The neighbourhood emptied with quiet panic, every single suburbanite holding their breath, waiting for something they were all-too-familiar worth, a named, known fear that was even worse than the strange and unfamiliar. Probably. Maybe. If the strange and unfamiliar went to the right sort of parties and had the right kind of job and combed its hair properly.
The sun set. The curtains of every window in house on every street of Riverside snapped shut at once – bar one. And Mr. Hoover stepped out of his garage.
It was dark and quiet and cold. No dogs barked, and the wind was low and cruel, hissing through the bare branches of each and every one of the single trees permitted upon each lot. The sky was a dead black blot, without so much as the glimmer of a single star or the reflection of light from that horrible “Sputnik” thing that the godless commies had shot up into outer space a few months ago, god knew if they’d be launching atomic bombs up there next, the fiendish red bastards.
There was a new sound. A soft whirl and moan, the whisk of a thousand thousand little bits of cold hard water hitting a new surface every tidbit of a second, far away at first and getting closer imperceptibly quickly.
Nobody was brave enough to look out those windows, but if they had, they would’ve seen a tall, white figure at the head of the oncoming blizzard, a lady that walked the way a proper lady should: with prim, forthright, businesslike daintiness. Where her heels touched, the whiteness spread like wildfire. The street became a mire, the sidewalks hillocks, and at each and every driveway she stopped and knelt and planted a tiny seed of snowflakes. And as she turned her back, each of them blossomed into a snowbank that made the mightiest pile of October leaves look puny, engulfing cars, consuming steps, encroaching saucily upon the doorframes.
The white lady came to the Hoover’s driveway, and stopped. Mr. Hoover was standing in her way, coat frosted over with shining silver from the sky. His pipe was held in his teeth with firm will and steady jaws, with only the frantic weaving of its smoke to betray the strength of the biting wind. A strange instrument was loosely gripped by his right hand, something that wasn’t quite a spade, still bearing the fresh scratch marks of its creation. The snow seemed to slide away from its edge.
The white lady gestured imperiously. Surely a man might be so bold as to approach her, but only to kneel in her presence or at the very least hold open a door. She was of a class quite beyond that of these peasants, no matter how impressive the grades received by their two point five children of indeterminate sex, the lustre of their lawns, or the magnificent of their newly purchased automobiles.
Mr. Hoover stiffly tipped his hat, but nothing more.
The white lady slapped him.
The air cracked for half a block with the approach of her palm, and the smack struck with the sharpness of a honed thunderbolt, just high-pitched enough to make a dog yelp. Falling snowflakes for half a block froze into hail in midair and dropped like stones; the lake crusted over with two feet of ice; Mr. and Mrs. Joneses, who’d forgotten to turn on the heat before going to bed, woke up as frost formed on every surface in their bedroom at once.
Mr. Hoover did not flinch, although his tie was knocked quite askew by the impact. Slowly, carefully, he reached up with his left hand and readjusted the vital piece of attire. Then he eased both hands into a batter’s grip on his not-a-spade, wound up, and struck.

What happened next can’t be said, little boys and little girls – the window frosted over so fast and so hard that my nose – which was pressed up against it, as you can see – froze right up at the time and nearly fell off. The doctors made quite a fuss over it, but not nearly as much as I did at having to miss what happened out there that night on fifteen Maplerow Avenue, Riverside. The aluminium siding on our home nearly shook itself all to pieces with the thunder and fury of the night’s battle, and it wasn’t until nearly six in the morning that it fell quiet outside.
Past dawn that morning, Helena, Jack, and me got out of bed and walked outside. The strangest sight met our eyes: our driveway was completely empty of snow, spotless except for three things: a tattered and snapped high-heeled shoe (white), a battered old pipe, and a strange and miraculous wide-bladed shovel that looked to have been quickly hammered out of a spade, the likes of which we’d never seen.

The rest is history, boys and girls. Once we’d given that thing a try on the Joneses’s driveway and saw what it did, snowed-in cars became a thing of the past – especially once word of what had happened, or might have happened, the night before. Soon driveways were being cleared without fear, cars once abandoned tearfully for the whole winter scraped free of frost overnight in a matter of hours. Women sobbed in relief, men nodded with a hint of moisture in their eyes, and all the other kids at school gave me and Jack their chocolate milk all winter. Which almost made up for all the shovelling.
We haven’t seen the white lady since. And neither have we seen Mr. Hoover.
But we keep the shovels close to our beds, and we haven’t given away the pipe yet. Just in case.

 

“A Suburban Fairy Tale,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

The Life of Small-five (Part 8).

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

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

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

that ring of teeth, each bigger than she was

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

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

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

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