Archive for January, 2013

Storytime: The Wrong Way.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

There were two ways back from a party on New Years: the safe way or the dangerous way.
Terry meant to take the dangerous way, but was misinformed of the contents of the punch and had to forgo such hazardous joys. Then she meant to take the safe way, but she was a stranger in the neighborhood and turned left on Elm instead of right.
So Terry took the wrong way, and things happened as they would. Three turns down a tumbled path and who knew which way was home, or barely even which way was up? Oh, it was too late for such things.
So she kept driving, because why not and she had snow tires; whatever was the worst that could happen, they’d stop. The night was clear and the year was still sparkling new and there was no reason not to go and nothing for it. She turned left on a hunch, right on a whim, then three lefts in a row because her right arm felt itchy and she wanted to spite it.
The first sign was the snowflakes. The wind was just right to send them slipping over the windshield and off the hood of the car as chilled water, catching them for brief seconds. But after about ten minutes, they grew fatter, and stopped melting. She flipped the windshield wipers on and watched them grudgingly scoot free, scraping against the glass with their reluctance.
At some point the stars winked at her, and it was only shortly after that that she found herself passing the first snow structures. At first only tiny blobs in the distance, Terry was soon cruising through a village of squat, stout little cottages of congealed ice and slush. Periwinkle and lime lights twinkled past sheet-frosted windows, all lit by the comforting glow of snowball lampposts.
This confused Terry, and for a time she wondered if she indeed had taken the dangerous way home and was bleeding out in a ditch with only dying hallucinations as company. But that was silly, so her body ignored the fancies of her mind (as was usual) and kept her firmly on the road even as it faded from gravel to dirt, dirt to slush, and finally to a lightly snowed path through a grove of pines so thoroughly covered in frosting that they put ice cream cakes to shame.
It was at this point, to Terry’s everlasting annoyance if not sorrow, that her beloved, faithful car, veteran of many miles, gave up in despair as its battery noisily froze itself to death. Neither repeated attempts at reinition, nor thumping the hood, nor swearing would force its tires forwards one more inch; it was resigned to remain where it was, to become an unusually boxy snowdrift come hell or sleetstorm.
Terry was tired. Terry was angry. Terry very much had wanted to be drunk four hours ago. Terry was covered in snowflakes that still seemed very much reluctant to melt, even the ones landing directly on her exposed skin, which was making her look a bit like a snowman. Terry also needed to find a place to get some help, which was why it was very helpful that her car’s battery had died as its license plate brushed against the very front door of a sumptuous, crystalline palace, rimmed in rime, surmounted with snowflakes, and filled with frost.
She tried knocking, and nearly lost the skin from her knuckles. A heavy tread, a thud, a bump, a crunch, and the door swung wide.
“Good night,” said the doorman. He was about ten feet tall, thickly furred, and had tiny little pinpoints of black eyes hidden underneath a veil of hairy forehead. Also, tusks. “Welcome to Winter.”
Terry briskly but politely made it known that her car was broken and did he have a phone or something oh my name is Terry what is yours.
“Bergmann,” said Bergmann, “servant of Lady Winter. I do not have a phone. I do not know what a phone is. But I can help you, if you do as I say.”
Terry informed Bergmann that she had a can of mace, but politely. She didn’t want to offend the man too much, because frankly, she was freezing to death and there was a snowflake in her eyelashes that seemed to stuck there.
Bergmann listened to what she had to say, cocking his head occasionally, almost like an owl. “You may choose and take any three objects within the palace of Lady Winter,” he said, ignoring her last comment. “You may not choose more or less than three. Then you may depart for home. But if you fail to reach home before dawn, Lady Winter will extract payment from you.”
Terry had a credit card, that didn’t worry her. Did Lady Winter have a garage?
“I do not know what either of those things are,” repeated Bergmann. “You should choose, and choose quickly. Lady Winter will begin to stir soon, and you will fare better with a good head start.”
Terry brushed past him and started searching the house, opening and shutting random doors.
One room was full of at least seven hundred and ninety-four bears – black, white, brown, and slightly blue. All of them were asleep, and snoring. That door was shut extremely carefully.
A second door led to a gallery of extraordinary icicles, all keen-edged and jagged, with vicious cutting edges and wickedly needle-sharp points. Their grips were crafted with sheets of thick walrus-hide leather. Terry didn’t need a weapon – she had some mace, and that was good enough for her. But she took one anyways, because hey, conversation piece. And she had room for two more.
Another was not a room, but the sky – a door opening onto an endless, hazy expanse of grey, washed-out cloud that turned the whole world into a dirty eggshell. It made her dizzy, and she slammed the door shut a bit more forcefully than necessary.
A fourth handle, a fourth turn, a fourth door. This appeared to be the inside of an ice hut, complete with a seemingly infinite supply of empty and half-empty glass bottles and a sweaty, fishy sort of scent. A small fire crackled in an iron pot, and half of the biggest trout she’d ever seen simmered in a pan above it. Terry took the fish, because she was hungry and the last thing she’d eaten were some quarter-cooked vol-au-vents before midnight. Besides, she still had room for something to fix her car with or something.
The fifth door opened out of the largest snowman she’d ever seen, its head somewhere high above her and obscured by its massive, rippling pectoral muscles. Terry couldn’t help noticing that it was so anatomically correct that it very nearly became incorrect. A faint stirring high above showed that it was leaning down to look at her, and she closed the door quickly.
What lay behind door number six? An ice-block stable containing a white yak twice as wide as Terry’s car, browsing idly from a bin of frost-speckled clover. It looked up to greet her, and puffed warm air from its nose.
She patted it. It felt like burp-scented velvet. And that – and some of the harness from the wall too, because they were really a package deal and thus only one thing, really, when you got down to it – made three.
Bergmann watched over her as she bustled her way outside. Then he helped her attach the harness to the car, because really, how on earth could just ropes and things be that complicated it was quite ridiculous. Terry didn’t know how people managed before cars.
“Much more slowly,” said Bergmann, “judging by the speed you came in at.”
Terry thanked him for the sarcasm and wished him good day and gave him her address, so they could bill her.
“If Lady Winter doesn’t reach you,” said Bergmann, “no payment is needed. If she does, it will be taken on the spot. This,” he said very slowly and politely, as if to a toddler, “is a fair trade.”
Terry thanked him for the ominous threat, clambered onto the luggage rack of her car, swished the reins, and was off through the snows of Winter at a fast, yak-puffing clip. Sleigh bells jingled-jangled on the reins like the obnoxious noisemakers that Terry had twirled no less than three hours past, filling her with sadness yet again for the hangover that would never be. Also irritation that that same snowflake seemed to have set up permanent residence in her upper left eyelash.
Winter closed in around her again, a sea of pines filled with unsavoury eyes that seemed to follow her. The road was even more snow-filled than before, and she doubted that she would have been able to move her car under its own power at all, even if the battery were working. Which reminded her, she’d need to pay for that. And borrow someone else’s car for work. Maybe she could carpool. Or just ask for time off. They’d probably make her use sick days for it, the bastards. Well then she’d just have to
oh my, there was a creature on the car hood with her and it was trying to eat her kneecap.
Terry booted the little squealing pest and watched it flop into a snowdrift up to its neck, backside-first. It glared at her from its chilly prison, and bared fangs too big to fit in its mouth.
It was a goblin, obviously. Terry had no experience with this sort of thing, but that’s just what goblins looked like. All twenty-seven of them swarming up over the car’s sides, shimmying along the yak’s reins, jabbering and shrieking and making obscene gestures.
Terry had good, strong boots. Her mother had given them to her three years ago, and the worst they’d picked up since had been some stains on the soles from her dog. They had no-nonsense, tough-as-leather laces, firm metallic buckles, solid, unflinching heels, and toes that had been lovingly steel-capped.
Terry put them to work with great gusto, but even so, this was all a little much for just two feet. It was time for mace, and an exciting time it was until the fourth goblin that reeled away wheezing took the can and the last half-centimeter of her left pointer’s fingernail with it between its teeth. She swore into the wind, fruitlessly flapped her hands at the critters attempting to crawl up her legs, fell over, and nearly split her head open on the walrus-leather-wrapped hilt of the icicle blade.
Oh. Well then, that problem was solved.
What happened over the next few minutes for Terry was something of a blur – a messy, inelegant blur, with lots of fumbling, swearing, breathless cold, and the hack-chop-thud of blades into meat. It reminded her of carving the turkey at thanksgiving, but with less appetizing aromas. By the time she was finished, the icicle blade was a gleaming ruby red stub attached to a hilt, steaming with the heat of gobliny torsos.
Then she threw up. When that was over, she looked up and she was somewhere else. The pines had vanished from around herm, replaced by the snowy little houses of Winter’s village. Calm. Placid.
All the doors were open. Tiny little furry creatures were standing in the streets, shaking their fists and hooting and howling in unison. It sounded like the end of the world as forecast by a herd of Chihuahuas.
Terry thought about yelling out something friendly and welcoming, then thought better about it and clicked the yak faster. She’d had enough small angry creatures trying to bite through her jacket tonight already. The last thing she needed was for a wolf the size of a school bus to peer around the side of the nearest house and snarl at her, which was not what happened next. It was more the size of a tour bus.
Terry had a three-step process to dealing with her dog, and she followed it here as faithfully as she would’ve at home. First, she ignored the wolf and hoped it would go away.
Second, as it closed in on her, she frantically flapped the reins like a deranged chicken’s wings and yelled incoherently at it and hoped it would go away.
Finally, as the drooling jaws began to open wide and the neck aligned itself with the spine, she gave in and threw the fish at it and hoped it would go away.
It made a noise that was a cross between a yelp, a wuff, and a burp, then set to. The sounds of its tearing and gnawing didn’t die down for a full half-mile, by which point Terry’s teeth had nearly stopped chattering. She blew on her hands to warm them up and peered forwards through the shallow veils of snowflakes. The road was more slush and less ice under the crunching footfalls of the yak, the coffee-cream sky was visible in between flurries. She was going to make it.
At this point, she looked up at the sky again.
In the long, long moment that followed as she saw the first sunrays creeping across the fading stars, she heard a sound billowing up from behind her.
Terry made the worst mistake of her life then, which was turning around. She looked Lady Winter full in the eyes, and what she saw nearly drove her blind with reflected snowglare, sending her skidding onto her back and tumbling off the hood of the car – bump bump WHAM onto the road, all over the sound of the suddenly-roaring winds. She hauled herself upright against the reins, cursing, and jumped back aboard the nearest object she could reach, which was the yak, and was promptly flipped off its back head over heels and into a snowdrift.
Terry was not burly, and the snowdrift was not compacted – a natural feature, no creation of the plow this. She shot straight through it like an error and rolled across asphalt. Blessed, comfortable, real-as-dirt-is-real asphalt, coated in a thin layer of wonderfully real, thankfully tiny snowflakes.
Lady Winter’s face hove into view above her, and Terry rescinded her opinions and shut her eyes very quickly.
“You have something of mine,” said Lady Winter. Her voice was hollow, wide as a frozen sea, deep as a glacial rift.
Terry was sure that she’d made it by sunrise. If that wasn’t how this worked, she recommended the Lady get better taste in manservants.
“You have something of mine that was not yours to take.”
Bullpoppy. Terry had taken three things exactly from the Lady, and not only that but she’d lost all three of them.
“Four things. One too many.” And Lady Winter reached out a long, cold, dead hand from her fur-covered greatcoat and touched the snowflake that was clinging, still stuck, to Terry’s upper left eyelash. “A fair trade is a fair trade. You had the chance to take three for a good race. Your loss of the three is no violation of mine, but the fourth is not yours to steal.”
Terry’s mind raced, in circles as minds do under stress. And as she ran in circles through the hamster cage of her head, screaming in blind panic, her body opened her mouth for her and asked “How would you like a car?”
“I do not know what that is,” said Lady Winter.
“That’s fine,” said Terry’s body. “It has snow tires.”
Lady Winter cocked her head to one side, like an owl. She was beautiful, in some ways, Terry supposed. But she suspected she’d liked her better when she wore her coat more thoroughly. It was a lot less bright.
“Fair trade,” repeated Lady Winter. She raised her hand, extended the middle finger, jabbed once, and was gone.

Terry was able to replace her fridge by putting the snowflake at the bottom of a big, insulated crate. So overall, she came out of the deal all right.
The new snow tires cost a fortune though.

The Life of Small-five (Part 11).

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytime: Leaf it to Them.

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

They looked like trees. That was something we didn’t expect, something all those movies and books and games didn’t prepare us for. Little green men, big green men, giant bugs – even probation-era gangsters; we’d all thought of those decades ago. A plague of vampires, a plague of zombies, a plague of giant, man-eating spiders; all had been considered and taken into account by the most dollar-hustling filmmakers we could train and pay. But in the end, nobody’d really expected them when they came to be covered in leaves and bark and stand fifty feet tall (if thin).
I remember the first tree I ever cared about as a child. It had a swing in it, made out of a cruddy old tire. I got oil stains on my clothes when I played with it too long.

They looked like trees. Why, we weren’t so sure. At first we figured it was some sort of secret government experiment that hadn’t gotten hushed up properly. Then when they started to pop up across the ocean, we figured it was some sort of secret doomsday conspiracy. But in the end, I think most of us figured they were aliens or something, come down from the skies to seize the world for their own. Dunno why they’d bother. Unless they wanted our trees.
They never asked us for them, of course. Never negotiated, never responded. I’m not sure how many different kind of signals and messages and treaties and threats and bargains all the experts tried, but they gave it their best shot. It was worse than talking to a brick wall. At least the bricks don’t crush you mid-sentence.

They looked like trees. Exactly like trees, down to the roots and the stems and the tips of the leaves. And the needles. The first six we found were maples, and that lulled us a bit, got us to thinking that they weren’t so imaginative. Then Canada lost contact with every single settlement north of the prairies, half of Russia went dark, and the Amazon started boiling over with them. They looked like all kinds of trees – pines, oaks, red cedar, baobabs, elms, eucalypts, sequoias. God, I remember footage of the first ones that looked like sequoias. That was when we all started to think we were in trouble.
That wasn’t the problem of course, the problem was that there were more and more of them each day. But humans respond faster to size than anything else, really.

They looked like trees. They sure as hell didn’t act like them. They had the tree patience at least; laying low for hours, sidling closer and closer by inches, staying still for days if that’s what it took to guarantee a stealthy approach. It took weeks for us all to even begin to overcome that instinctive urge to overlook them, consider them part of the scenery. But the bit where they pounced and grasped and crushed and mangled – that, that was all them.
We never did learn how to tell them apart from trees.

They looked like trees. What was up with that? They could’ve brought deadly weapons – technology beyond our grasp. They could’ve used machine guns, rifles, bayonets, daggers, boiling water, sharp rocks. They could’ve used tentacles or fangs or claws or something, anything, but instead they went right on looking like trees. They had to practically fall on you or run you over to kill you.
We had to use heavy artillery, massed fire, and explosives, mostly. A lot of all of them. Ever tried to cut down an oak with a rifle? It’s not particularly pleasant, especially when the oak’s charging. And there were a lot of things that looked like trees out there.

They looked like trees. It was hilarious, really – up until one found you. Unless you were the world’s quickest hand with a chainsaw or were inside a tank, it was pretty much over by then. They could outrun anybody that wasn’t a sprinter on open ground, and the sprinter’d get tired a lot faster than they could.
How’d they move? I’m not sure. It was sort of like wading. but more like an octopus hauling itself along a few rocks. You’d have had to look at the roots, below the surface.

They looked like trees. Well, there’s one way around that. You get rid of the trees. You clear forests, you set watch, you move people out of their cottages and their sprawling suburbs and you stuff them into cities and burn big swathes of countryside. And that works fine, as an emergency. But sooner or later, you need cardboard, or paper, or planks, or any one of a thousand, thousand, thousand things you need trees for. So you go out to the trees again, take up forestry one more time, and this time you keep the lumberjacks under armed guard.
They needed a lot of guards. And not all of them – any of them – came back home. Poor old me, bearing the bad news.

They looked like trees. Say what you will about them, they stuck to that through thick and thin. We never had so much as a moment of worry from grass, not a single rogue thing that looked like wheat. Our lawns remained benign, our fields were safe and sound, right up ‘till the moment that they were filled with things that looked like trees. There’s a lot of cropland all over the world, and there really weren’t enough soldiers, and those soldiers didn’t have enough weapons that could take apart things that were as tough as trees.
That was when things went really bad.

They looked like trees. And that kept the cities safe for a long time, because it’s hard not to notice that sort of thing. But when you can’t grow food worth a damn and you’re out of everything and anything that uses lumber or wood pulp and you’re crammed into a city bursting at the seams with refugees and probably half your family that lived in the country got mashed by things that look like trees, well….
By that point they scarcely had to do anything. They just waded in and cleaned up what was left over. And it was a messy cleaning. The rain washed up the streets nice though.

They looked like trees. Could find them almost anywhere you could find a tree. None in Antarctica. None up in the mountain peaks. The deserts were probably okay. Anywhere with permafrost – though a lot of that’s melting these days, so who knows. Then again, not many people up there. Were up there. Maybe they did a pass since.
I’d wager most humans are gone now. Not much left of the cities, that’s for sure. Or anyone in them. Even the skyscrapers are falling over now, like this old broken thing.

They looked like trees. Inside and out, absolutely and utterly. We’d known that for a while. Their biology must be something so strange it barely qualifies as the science. We don’t know where they came from, but they must have come from somewhere. You can see where they’ve been since by checking the trunk, finding the spent bits of ammo lodged inside, checking the knives and saws and axes wedged into wood as trophies of last-ditch defenses crushed. This one was in Canada (see the knife?), this one fought the Indian army, this one crossed China and entered Europe before a tank shell blew it apart…
This one lying here in front of me came from our back yard. It’s still got the tire attached.

They looked like trees. There was no way they could be, though. That wouldn’t make any sense. But now there’s that nagging, endless thought at the back of the skull, scratching away wondering exactly what was the last straw that set them off, the final indignity that snapped the camel’s spine bone-by-bone all at once.
I saw something growing today, out of the ruins of the roof of the building next door. I never did learn how to tell them apart.
Guess I’ll go find out now. Damn I’m tired.

Storytime: Pipe Dream.

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

It was the easiest problem in the world. A plumber wasn’t needed, a child could’ve fixed it. An illiterate child could’ve fixed it. An illiterate child with parkinson’s and amnesia with agoraphobic tendencies in an open field could’ve fixed it. Left-handed.
Just… tighten a pipe. It was that simple, that straight-forward. John plucked the sorry old monkey wrench that lived in the secluded depths of the garage from its perch, wrenched a nut, wrenched a bolt, wrenched all the other bits of the pipe the tool could fit around (righty tighty, lefty loosey rigorously adhered to), and that was that and that was all she wrote.
The next day, the sink didn’t work.
“Well, that makes no sense,” said John.
“Better give it a look anyways,” said Jane.
So they went and had a look. One of the pipes under the sink had come loose slightly and was vibrating majestically in place, like the reed of an oboe.
“Huh,” said John. And he went away and came back again with the creaky, protesting monkey wrench, and he once more tightened everything that he could until it squeaked like a chimpanzee with its finger stuck in a termite mound.
That night, John and Jane were awoken by the squeals of metal and found that no less than six pipes had come loose – two in both bathroom sinks, one in the kitchen, two in the shower, and the toilets.
“Maybe we should call a plumber,” suggested Jane.
John rolled his eyes. It was just pipes, for goodness sakes. He wasn’t handy, but you barely needed hands at all to fix these sorts of problems. He rode the monkey wrench hard that night, sending shivers down the house’s metallic spine, and went to bed with the angry rest of a man who’s had it up to here with the day.

The next day, the shower exploded. It was most abrupt and occurred when Jane was trying to use it, which annoyed her to the point of shrieks.
“I could’ve sworn I tightened those,” said John. He took his mighty master monkey wrench once more and replaced the fitful pipes with their shadowy backups, retrieved from the darkest corners of the shed. They were cold and silvery and beautifully ugly, and that evening as John and Jane had dinner they all vanished and half the house was covered in mixed water of varying temperatures and sewage.
“Maybe we should call a plumber right now,” ordered Jane.
“All right,” said John.

The plumber was a tall, slimly-built man who absolutely could not have existed in any cartoon of his profession, with a high forehead and a nose that had previously belonged to a 19th-century British aristocrat and no moustache. He took three steps into the house, and seventeen downstairs to look at the pipes. He frowned, creased his brow, pinched his arm, spat on the floor with great venom, sniffed exactly twice and broke into an ear-splitting scream of terror before fleeing out the door while crossing himself, leaving behind both his toolbox and his truck.
The toolbox had a new wrench in it, one with sleek lines and a rubber grip and a lighter built into the handle. John took it up in his hand, raided the truck for pipes, and went about his duty with grim efficiency. When he was done the house’s guts gleamed as brilliantly as a silver fork in a streambed. He threw the old monkey wrench in the garbage and proclaimed himself satisfied. But he kept the new one. Just in case.
All was serene the next day. Peaceful. Quiet. The showers were taken and luxuriated within, the toilets flushed, double-flushed, triple-flushed. The sink provided gently-warmed cleanliness.
Breakfast was had, the civilized meal of the morning. And at its conclusion the dishwasher was loaded, filled, soaped, and gently purred into motion for all of ten seconds before breaking down in a heaving fit.
John opened the pipes and came nose to nose with a tiny agrarian civilization, peopled by thousands of creatures no bigger than dust mites. He frowned down upon them, uncertain of his place in this newly discovered world until someone shot a miniscule ballista at him, whereupon he exercised the justice of the Old Testament and threw the pipe into the garbage.
“Maybe we should just replace all the pipes,” said Jane.
“I’m working on it,” said John.
That evening he replaced all the pipes.
That midnight he woke up and heard a mysterious clanking from beneath his bed, in the cellar. He sighed, coughed, removed the plumber’s wrench from his bedside table, shuffled downstairs, and came face to face with an enormous metallic creature in the front hall, still rife with the dusty particles of the basement. It was made entirely of piping and shaped roughly like an enormous lizard of the Permian.
John wrenched it until it stopped moving, but lost a leg. Jane called the police, the ambulance, and the animal control unit. The first took away the wrench (“evidence”), the second John and his leg (“reattachment”), the third the remnants of the pipe-lizard (“disposal”).
“Do we still have a wrench in the house, dear?” he inquired of Jane.
“No,” she said.
“Oh well,” he muttered, as the doctors measured the diameter of his leg-stump. “I guess we’ll think of something.”

John had surgery on the third, and therapy on the fifth, and was discharged on the seventh, because he was out of money. He went home (limping) and found that his house was entirely filled with pipes, like a thornbush thicket.
“I tried to phone you,” explained Jane, from the makeshift hut she’d crafted out of their car, on their lawn. “But I’ve been busy, and you didn’t answer.”
“Have you bought a new wrench yet?” asked John.
“No,” she said. “They’re too expensive nowadays to be bothered. Go and ask the neighbours for a loan or something.”
John went to the neighbours (limping). One of them had a wrench. It was a socket wrench, not a monkey wrench, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
So he walked up to his front door (limping), and he wrenched his way into the hallway, then wrenched his way upstairs, and wrenched his way into the bathroom, where he got his toothbrush and his deodorant and had a quick piss and floss. As he gargled, a throat cleared next to his ear, and he turned around (limping) to find himself face to face with a small band of pipes. Each of them stood no taller than his waist, their leader barely passed his knee. A white flag was clutched in its maw.
“We would like,” said the pipe, “to discuss terms.”
John wrenched them, then wrenched his way into his bedroom to liberate a suit, which he put on. He couldn’t feel himself in that lousy little hospital gown, even if it did afford some ventilation to his reattached leg. In his suit he felt like a new man. A new, leg-cramped (limping) man who smelt like grease.
After wrenching his way to the bedside table for his keys, John wrenched his way back out the front door (the piping had regrown in his absence), turfed Jane out of the car, and went to work as she shouted abuse at him from the lawn.
Work was unpleasant. He couldn’t go to the bathroom without his wrench in his pocket, and he found himself eyeing the toilet bowl suspiciously. After his business was concluded, he stayed an extra half-hour overtime to personally tighten the thing’s u-bend. He didn’t like the look it had been giving him.

At last, home came John. Home again, home again, his home had walked off. His neighbours showed him cellphone footage of it rising to its feet – its enormous, piping-made feet – and negotiating with Jane, who secured transport with it to Belgium. It had strolled off at a pace just above a leisurely stroll, which was a problem for John because of his (limping) and the fact that his car only had about five minutes worth of gas left in it.
Well fine. If that’s the way life would be, that’s the way life would be. John still had his wrench, and that was all that mattered.

After spending the night in his car, John awoke to the polite windshield rap-rap of his neighbour’s knuckles. He politely requested that his wrench be returned.
John made a rude gesture and roared away to work on his last wisps of gas, where he found the entire lobby clogged with piping. The whole thing had started yesterday evening, said the receptionist, who was sharing a cigarette with the homeless man that worked their corner.
“Well, that makes no sense,” said John.
The receptionist shrugged.
John felt the comfortable weight of the wrench in his back pocket, and eyed the doors of his office building with fresh determination.
He strode in (limping) manfully.
All he’d have to do was tighten a few more pipes.

The Life of Small-five (Part 10).

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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