Archive for May, 2013

The Life of Small-five (Part 16).

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once.
It had not been a compulsory part of her education in Populism, although the necessity of such a task had been stressed most heavily in her classes.
renewal, faint-marks had told her in those soft, dim lights of hers. for us, for them. we give them their strength back, they become our own. both given freely.
Small-five wondered how long it had been since faint-marks-unclear had been a starving subadult in the middle of a blue desert, belly empty, burning away her insides to stay alive as she moved towards a hopeless end. She wondered if faint-marks-unclear had recalled that dazed awe she had felt as Far-away-light was revealed to her, as she was swept into the care of almost godlike creatures, exposed to a well of bottomless knowledge, raised from hopeless to the ruler of all she dared dream for.
Small-five, certainly, had forgotten all those things by the time she listened and read and learned. She had agreed that it was a fair trade, a gift given without obligation that was returned in kind. There was a purity in such thing, and by extension in a society built from such things.
It had been her job to guide. Guides, ice-melters, Fiskupid-netters, food-carriers…each a task requiring dozens, each requiring a knack, a skill. The strength to bear a burden of hundreds of pounds of food for hours; the nimbleness to make sure not a single precious building-block went to waste in the deep; the care and caution to wield burning force that could fry skin in seconds. And the kindness to reassure, to speak slowly and simply in sistertalk, to be a presence to adhere to rather than one to flee from. To be calm.
Small-five had been calm, soothing. She had been kind, comforting. She had been beckoning, leading. And she had done all those things perfectly well, as long as she did not look into the eyes of the subadults and see the lostness in there staring back at her, unexpressed in glowshine but bleeding straight from the soul.
Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once. She could understand why most did, and possessed wonder at the strength of those who managed to do more. Did their sensitivities grow calloused, or did they see those eyes and yearn to do more, deciding that this was the way, that this was how it must be, and if so, it must be done well?
It didn’t matter at this time, she supposed. Regardless of motive, regardless of personal mind, regardless of anything, she suspected she could predict exactly what each and every one of Far-away-light’s guides were thinking and feeling within the next short time.

Waiting, in the darkness. Glowshine extinguished – temporarily, only temporarily – with only the most minute flashes and sparks to communicate, to give direction and order. The subadults must not be given time to frighten themselves with, they must be confronted at close range, gathered quickly lest their panic lead them to flight. Strength must be saved for the burst of glow that would blind their tired eyes, dazzle them into hesitation.
Waiting, in the darkness. And then, the sight of light.
That was not normal. The glitter and shine of subadults – yes, yes, yes, that was normal, but not this concentrated dawn that lurked just out of range of true sight, turning the water a lighter shade of blue. It was nighttime, and this shouldn’t be.
But then there they were: the glimmer of subadults. The guides spread in pairs and triplets, ready to engage them, quick final planning flickers exchanged. And as the glimmers grew and grew and grew, the flickers hesitated, and then flew faster and faster.
Small-five had left the polar rim with thirty-eight subadults. As currents merged and ice melted, she had found another eight. As bergs fragmented and subadults scattered, she had claimed another ten. As loneliness and fear in the darkness overwhelmed the infant urge to stay small, stay dark, she had seen another five.
Sixty-one subadults in a single school, swimming together, naked of ice. Perhaps as many as would be gathered for Far-away-light’s halls in a year, all at once, and looking back at the guides with eyes bright, minds alert, bodies quick and strong to dart away and stare from a safe distance as firm glowshine pins down adults that should’ve been hidden in invisible dark, not this strange false-dawn. Curiosity rooting where awe had always guarded its clutch. Uncertainty dwelling amidst the old confronted with the new.
These things Small-five did not see, for she was travelling in the midst of the school. But she was close enough to see the reaction when the first glint of glowshine revealed the tusks and bulk of a father. Flashes, stuttered shining, and undignified flight so fast that she barely had time to register the tips of their tails, leaving only swirling confusion and disappointed subadults in their wake.
Scared, complained Both-fins, wriggling in frustration midwater. Why run?
Because they have seen what they do not understand. Because they have found something new where they have been told there is nothing. Because they have been deceived.
They are surprised, said Small-five, and that was close enough. Swim on. We can find more food without diving tonight, and we are almost there.

They did find food on the way; as Small-five had predicted, many of the food-carriers had elected to discard their bulky harnesses to the currents in their haste to follow their fleeing companions. Their contents were greedily consumed by the school as they cruised onwards, and it was no time at all until the glowing spire of shells grew out of the gloom before their eyes, a tower of many bodies and many lights, impossibly huge and yet made by mind and proboscis alone.
Small-five felt her glowshine beginning to prickle, and calmed herself quickly before the fathers could grow agitated – they were always quick to read her mood through her lights, and though she had not needed their strength yet she was under no illusions as to the damage they might do if she set them on an adult, a creature less than half their size by length and far less by bulk. She was not here to seek death. She was not here to cause pain. She was not here to shred the glowshine from anyone’s body and leave them a limp and lightless husk for the currents to take and the predators of the open waters to pick over at their will.
Her glowshine was prickling again.
Small-five shook herself all over – once, twice, three times – blinked herself on and off five times, and began what she’d planned.
Look away, she shone to her school. Mind your sight away from me.
One two three four five at once in a burst. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
It wasn’t very small. Looking at it through seven of her eight lenses, Small-five still found her pupils shrinking. Her name shone so loudly that it seemed to backwash the chorus of glowshine forever blinking from Far-away-light into silence.
Small-five counted to one hundred. Then she repeated herself.
And again.
And again.
And again.
And then she waited, because she saw the lights beginning to scurry and swarm across the peak of the city, to grow larger and firmer. Someone was coming to talk to her.
Sisters? asked Thin-sweeping, hovering hesitantly besides Small-five’s fin. The school was reforming around her, maybe clustering a bit more closely than before. The sight of something so new and strange was hard to forget, as Small-five herself remembered. Mothers?
No, said Small-five. Not mothers. She gleamed irritably at her snap response. They tried their best, she corrected herself, and then stopped again.
They thought they knew what was right, she said. And now I must see what they believe.

There was a lot of shining, but very little being said. From all quarters at once.
Small-five thought something was wrong, and realized it was herself – they were all so small to her eyes, so small. Even Outward-spreading was only a little distance over half her bodylength, when before she had seemed enormous beyond all reckoning.
It’s not just my body, she thought. It’s in my eyes. They were my guardians, my teachers, my leaders. They were more than I.
They deceived me in these things, and I believed them.
Quiet, she said, overglowing the confused hubbub, and was surprised to have her command answered promptly. Lights winked out with the speed of thought.
I am Small-five-point-burst-of-light, she said. I have told you this, and you were willing to speak when you came here. My sisters are All-fin-sparkle, Dim-glow-bright-two-point-flare, and Nine-point-glimmer. Corroborate my claims with them, if you are skeptical.
Outward-spreading glanced towards Shine-at-the-center.
No chance for hours, gleamed the head of Maintenance. Dim-glow is leading a work crew at the bottom of the reactor right now. Unless you want the city to boil half-over, we’ll have to wait.
And Research is conducting an expedition to the north-west tropical rift, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine slower than Small-five remembered. Had she aged so quickly, in so few years? Nine-point is second-in-command; Left-lights would never permit her to return early, before the summer’s height.
Small-five reigned in her growing bitterness again before it reached her glowshine. The mother-leader and her cohorts were within striking distance of two of the fathers. Safety had only been persuaded to lower their weaponry and retract to a short distance away after a bitter ten-minute debate that Small-five felt she had won by exasperation more than anything else, and she had no desire to reopen it. Then call in All-fin, she said. I don’t hear her name mentioned in your expedition, and Safety doesn’t stray far from home otherwise.
No light shone. Small-five turned her eyes on Glow-over-all-points, and found that not only was the smallish head of Safety even smaller than she remembered, she was also trying – and failing – to make herself appear unobtrusive.
Is All-fin still within Safety? asked Small-five.
No, said Glow-over. She looked as though she would’ve preferred to say less and shrink further.
Small-five looked at Outward-spreading, saw a mirrored blankness, and felt something inside her tightening. Has my sister been harmed?
Got reassigned, said Glow-over. She left Safety of her own will.
Why? Reassigned to where?
Wouldn’t stop with the questions – about you, mostly. Didn’t get the answers she wanted, backed out. Got caught heading out after you. She pulsed annoyance. Mother-leader, this is Small-five. You know it. faint-marks knows it. Talk to the damned thing, whatever she’s turned int-
First, said Small-five, overshining the head of Safety, you will bring my sister to me. Here. Now.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, we acknowledge that you are who you claim to be. She shone firmly, but in her unusual silences and the rigidness of her bearing, Small-five saw something new in the one who’d taught her of language and learning. Glow-over, bring her sister here.
The head of Safety hesitated, lights miring at her sides.
I know, said Outward-spreading. Nevertheless, now.

All-fin was thinner than Small-five had remembered her to be, and there were scars of all ages criss-crossing her hide from tip to tail. But her energy was still there, and the moment Small-five flashed her name to her sister she squirmed away from the three Safety wardens that had brought her out to midwater and was so close to Small-five that her eyes could barely focus on her, corkscrewing her way around her body and firing off greetings faster than light in jumbled old sistertalk.
Good-to-see-you-is-it-you-must-be-what-went-wrong-they-said-you-went-missing-on-a-swim-outside-what-went-wrong-was-it-them? She paused for a moment in her circling. How’d-you-get-big?
You-helped-a-bit, shone Small-five. Long-story. They-put-me-out-did-they-hurt-you?
All-fin shone negative, but with distaste. Not-directly-punished-me-for-deserting-duty-left-me-without-direction-assigned-me-Maintenace-gutterwork-kept-wardens-on-me-always-watching. Sisters-kept-quiet-or-they-were-next.
There, said Glow-over. She’s fine, she’s yours, now are you ready to talk?
Yes, said Small-five. About what, do you think?
These, shone Outward-spreading, sweeping the nearest father – the great old white-eyed single-tusked hulk that dwarfed all of them – with a small beam of light. The male’s pupil contracted slightly at the shine, but he did not react otherwise. The flotilla of youth you’ve brought with you. Why you came back. What you’ve done to yourself. What you want from us.
Explanations, said Small-five.
Not vengeance, then? asked Glow-over, sarcastically.
Small-five warned her school in sistertalk, then pulsed twice. Hard.
Four darkened lenses slipped between her eyes and the glowshine were just enough to make it bearable. An adult’s full complement of three, as revealed by the incoherent whirling lights from the leaders of Far-away-light, were obviously not. Small-five felt a reproachful flicker at her side as All-fin smacked her, and realized she would have to apologize to her sister later in private.
If I wanted vengeance, she said, keeping her glowshine as smooth and even as she could manage, I would have burned your eyes out the moment you left the city’s sides. If I wanted revenge, I would have shone my name so brightly that every single sister and mother on Far-away-light would go to the end of their days with vision that can barely tell light from dark. And then I would have left. Without explanation or apology. I want those things from you.
Outward-spreading gleamed sharply, and Small-five watched as Glow-over swallowed the immediate response that had been brewing in her glowshine tubes. She was satisfied. Safety could think what they liked, – and judging from their shimmering in the distance as they regrouped, they thought they didn’t like her – her point was made.
Explanation, she repeated. And apology. Mother-leader, you know who I want these things from.
Outward-spreading shone acknowledgement, short and sharp. And as one, their eyes turned to the quietest member of the talk.
Chief of Populism, said Small-five. I repeat myself: I want these things from you. I will now correct myself in one word: I demand these things from you.
yes, said faint-marks-unclear. Her words were as hard to read as ever, but Small-five could practically feel the tired anger seeping from her sides. it was all that was needed. no more. maybe less. did what must be.
So you say, said Small-five. Now, we are going to the libraries. All of us. And you will show Far-away-light what you did to me, and why.
we could have killed you, shone the chief of Populism, as they began to swim towards the city. did you forget that?
No, said Small-five. Did you think that made it right?

Storytime: Exceptional.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

In a desert, under a mountain, above a floor thickened and reinforced so much that it wasn’t a floor, between a set of clamps designed to grasp with fickle tenderness the steel sides of aircraft carriers at drydock, lived a woman who weighed ten thousand tons. Some days she dozed, some days she daydreamed, sometimes she simply hummed to herself to make the time go by slow and sweet, like honey flowing on toast. Now and then she would shrug, or stretch her back a little, and one, two, three, dozens of the hundreds of strong, multilayered wires that tethered her to the far-away walls of her cubed room would tremble and grumble under the strain, but they had been designed to hold aloft the mightiest of telemetry towers and were reluctant to part with her even under such trying circumstances.
It was often dull, in the room, but there were ways around such things. The ten-thousand-ton-woman had tried many of them over the years before simply settling on not being bored any more, which had served her well. Her favourite had been conversation, at first with herself, and then with the woman who was ten thousand feet tall.
“Hello,” she said today again, out of friendship and habit.
Besides her, the ten-thousand-foot-woman blinked her eyes and sighed out a deep breath.
“It’s lovely today, as it is most days, isn’t it?” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman. “How are you, yourself, and your place in things? Do you have any itches? I cannot scratch them, but I can call for someone who can. Are you troubled and do you want to talk about it? Have you seen any strange things today, or later, or yesterday? How was your breakfast? Did you have any or did you skip it?”
The woman who weighed ten thousand tons looked around furtively, then bent closer to the woman who was ten thousand feet tall and whispered “how’s the weather up there?”
The air that would give the ten-thousand-foot-tall-woman the voice to whisper answers to her questions was yet twenty minutes away, but it paused in her throat for a minute as she snorted and chuckled, and her friend smiled to herself. She had told that joke the day they brought her in, wheeling in that endless gurney with her carefully strapped to it, and she had enjoyed it so much that she carefully repeated it to her every day without fail, as regular as lunchtime or even moreso, since sometimes they didn’t get lunch when there was a presidential inspection.
They’d met lots of presidents. Some of them were very important people, and it often puzzled the ten-thousand-ton-woman why they were interested in the two of them. She had been gingerly prodded and nudged with science for over a decade now, her nails, hairs, breath, teeth, tongue, gut, and toes all carefully explored down from atoms to quarks, and was quite sure that there was nothing of interest there. If her friend the ten-thousand-foot-woman remained somewhat unmapped in comparison, well, that was an issue of scale and practicality. They had still examined the bulk of her, using over ten miles of tiny tiny mirror tubes and miniature cameras on the tips of excessive ropes of wiring.
The door to the room opened, and a dramatic pause happened.
The ten-thousand-ton-woman frowned. It was her least pleasant part of the day, and so she suspected it went with her friend.
The dramatic pause ended, and a man walked into the room. He had striking eyebrows, not much white hair, and a dreadfully smooth face that was pinched in the most unpleasant expressions, like a lion’s.
“Good morning,” lied the ten-thousand-ton-woman. Beside her, the ten-thousand-foot-tall-woman twitched her left little finger in answer.
The man who was ten thousand years old looked at her with disdain.
“It is not a good morning,” he said, crossly. “I had no dodo egg for breakfast, as I enjoyed for so long. I was awakened not by the nose-flutes of the eunuchs who were my slaves as befitted my viziership, but by a rude alarm. I am forced to rely upon digital clocks rather than those sand-powered devices I personally designed, and there are no proper clothes anymore. And I still have not been given the host’s-gift of mammoth flesh.”
“Do tell,” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman. She didn’t want him to, but he would do so whatever she said, and complain the same. Manners cost nothing, as her mother had told her so many times back when she weighed one hundred and thirty-three pounds.
Those had been long-ago days, though, and she scarcely remembered them, as most people forgot infancy. The taste of waffles (home-made) with maple syrup. A birthday party (seventh? Seventeenth?). Sinking through the soil to bedrock twenty feet below in a single sharp moment and sitting there in a daze until the government came and removed her with very expensive and powerful machinery, most of which she’d never learned the names for, or forgotten.
Simpler times. She wasn’t sure if she’d like them anymore, or maybe she would.
The ten-thousand-year-old-man had stopped talking about himself, crossly. She realized that he had asked her a question, and wasn’t sure what to do about that. It had never happened before. “Agnostic, verging on Catholic, or the other way around,” she said, and hoped it was a good reply.
“Hnnf,” said the ten-thousand-year-old-man, crossly, and she knew that it wasn’t. “Such a waste. Such a waste. Of course you didn’t get it right. I made all those up, you know.”
“Really?” she said. She knew, she knew.
“Of course I did,” he snapped, crossly. “I made them all up after nobody listened to me the first time. I got it all right back then, I did. I knew the secrets of Zifweedoism, and you know what they did? They laughed at me, laughed at me. So I made up everything else – scientology, Christian Scientism, Mormonism, and Judaism, and Buddhism, and Jainism, and Tolkienism, and I lied about it. And so it’s all your fault for believing something that I made up, you see?” he finished, with a spit of spite.
“Yes,” she said. This was usually when he was finished.
“You’ll see,” he muttered, crossly. “You will.” And that was how he usually finished, and he did.
He left by the door without so much as waving good-bye to the ten-thousand-foot-woman, and she grew annoyed on her friend’s behalf all over again before she let her imagined fresh breezes and warm sun comfort her. It didn’t matter what that man (the ten-thousand-year-old one) thought or said or did anyways. She suspected that it never had.
The door opened and let in a bunch of very serious men in serious suits with serious eyewear who secured the area seriously. Behind them walked another president.
“Hello,” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman, politely. The ten-thousand-foot-woman twitched a finger in greetings.
“Hello, citizen,” said the president. And then he asked a lot of questions of some of the scientists with him. They didn’t look like scientists to her; they had no long white coats, most of them had no glasses, and they didn’t wear gloves. They wore suits and ties and used complicated little phones nearly as sophisticated as those that teenagers owned.
Then they were done, and they left. Lunch would come soon, and the ten-thousand-ton-woman worried about it anxiously. What if it were the mushroom soup, rather than the chicken-fried-steak? She was looking forward to the chicken-fried-steak so much, for reasons that escaped her. Maybe it was very tasty? Or maybe she was sick of mushrooms. Yes, maybe that was it. A pity. She’d always enjoyed mushrooms so very much.
Oh well. Having something new to shy away from was very nearly the same as having something new to look forward to. And that was a good thing, wasn’t it? She was sure it was.
Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. The air was full of sirens and hoopla and ruckus. She had never heard such a natter and fuss, and she suspected the ten-thousand-foot-tall-woman hadn’t either, but she was unable to ask her opinion of it because right then the door opened and in came the ten-thousand-year-old-man. He was strutting. Crossly, of course.
“Hello again,” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman, as politely as she could manage, which wasn’t.
“Hello yourself,” smirked the ten-thousand-year-old-man, crossly. “I have fixed things right up. I have picked the pocket of the president.”
“Oh?” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman.
“I did such things in my youth,” he continued, crossly. “Why, I stole Napoleon’s purse in Africa, and sold it to Sitting Bull in London. It’s all true, every word of it. And I was so good at it that I did it while I was sick, and that was true too. Vomit and bile everywhere, pus and rot creeping out of my eyelids and toe-tips.”
“Wonderful,” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman. She wondered if she was rolling her eyes. She was trying to roll her eyes, but she was out of practice for it, and the ten-thousand-year-old-man was not paying enough attention to her to tell her if she was doing it properly, even if he bothered to answer her.
“I picked the pocket and I took the codes and I have launched the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that are kept in this place, and kept filled with nuclear explosives,” said the ten-thousand-year-old-man. “And because of this, I am sure now that the world will end, or at least mostly, which is good enough for me.”
The ten-thousand-ton-woman blinked in slow, total shock. That was the first time she’d ever heard him spoken something without sounding cross.
“Why, you ask?” asked the ten-thousand-year-old-man. “Because of all of it, but mostly the mammoths. We have too many people and not enough mammoths. This will correct the matter, and maybe I can finally get my host’s-gift of mammoth flesh.” He licked his lips. They were neither pale and thin nor fat and rubbery, but they were as unappealing as rotted bone regardless. “I did so love mammoth flesh. I came up with that custom, you know. And all the others.”
The ten-thousand-ton-woman looked at the ceiling (which was flashing and wailing with alarms), and then over to the ten-thousand-foot-woman, whose beautiful eyes were looking back at her. She had raised exactly one eyebrow, the right one, the one that meant she was asking ‘well?’
“I suppose we should do something,” said the ten-thousand-ton-woman, ignoring the ten-thousand-year-old-man as he boasted and bragged and wouldn’t shut up about things that didn’t matter because he didn’t matter.
The ten-thousand-foot-woman nodded, twice. And then she stood up.
It was complicated. Joints acted as joints shouldn’t. Tiny restraints parted under the pressures of leverage, the kind that could move the world. Things folded, then refolded with unimaginable majesty and power. And though the cube’s ceiling was very high, the ten-thousand-foot-tall woman had pierced it with her skull long before her head had even come close to reaching her waist.
As she straightened up, she reached down with one hand whose fingers were beyond imagining, and she grasped the ten-thousand-ton-woman, and she began to push. She didn’t have the strength to lift, or even to shove, but she did have the leverage, and she was pushing her forwards at a slow, slow speed that would be enough to launch her for miles.
And even then, as the strangeness was becoming nearly overwhelming, she heard the familiar, right-on-time rumble of her friend in the morning.
“Yes,” whispered her voice, low and windy, as the long, long, long arms began to move with the power and speed of continental drift; unstoppable yet beautiful. “I am happy in all ways. I do not itch, and thank you for asking of my troubles. I saw nothing stranger than the two of us, again, and I had no breakfast because I was not hungry. And it was toast.”
She sighed as the ten-thousand-ton-woman slipped through her fingers and began her slow, inexorable slide. “I do not like toast.”
And with that the ten-thousand-ton-woman went rolling away though the halls, crashing through floors and knocking over entire floors, ceilings, and pieces of multi-billion-dollar superstructure. The missile launch tubes were merely the third thing she tumbled through, and by the time she’d left them they would’ve been hard put to launch a chickadee. She travelled on, on, on, and by the time she’d stopped rolling she was in the outside again, in the desert, by a mountain. There was a fresh breeze and a warm sun.
“This is a nice day,” she decided, speaking to the ten-thousand-foot-woman.
Her friend nodded to her as she slooowly stepped out of the hole in the ground that had been punched by her head. Or she thought she did. It was hard to see her, so high up in the clouds.
But of course she’d agreed. It was a nice day, after all.

Storytime: Scal and Marriage.

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Scal the sorry, who often wasn’t but said she was, she sat down near the water’s edge on the shore and stared into it and frumped.
“I’m getting oldsome,” she grumbled as she looked at herself. “Look at that, all wrinkles and grey hairs and who knows what now. I’m sorry to say it, but I’ve been neglectful for sure and lazy at that; I should’ve been wed years ago before all this came along. I’d best find me a husband, and soonish rather than latish, or I’ll be sorrier for sure! Maybe when I’m married I can put all that behind me.”
So Scal the sorry went and looked all over the place. She splashed out into the surf and was knocked over by waves all over the place, dragged up and down the beach like a piece of old driftwood.
“I’m sorry for making so much noise,” she yelled out into the sea, “but is there anyone out there who would like to marry me?”
A shellfish by her foot coughed. A gull yawked.
“Fine then,” she snapped. “Sticks and stones to you all, see if I care.” And she flounced inland, where she tripped over roots and twigs in the forests and waded through boggy swamps and almost fell into a bear’s den face-first.
“I’m sorry for sounding so annoyed,” she called out through the woods, “but is there anyone out here who would like to marry me?”
A deer ran away in fright. The trees sighed in the wind.
“Take water and snort it sideways,” she swore. “Burn to cinders and snuff yourselves.” And she stomped away very noisily and angrily until the air grew cold and clean around her and the sky was at eye level, with stone underfoot and all the world spread down around her ankles underneath the big blue sky.
“Is there not anyone in all of this place,” she called out, “who will marry me, right now, right here!?”
“I will!” called back a voice from far, far below. “I will do that!”
“One moment,” said Scal the sorry, and she took a very long moment to climb herself all the way down the mountain again so she could talk to the voice properly.
It was waiting for her, and belonged to a man. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but did you agree to marry me just last moment?”
“Indeed I did,” said the man. “I am a great hunter and a great fisherman and a great eater. I can make things and I can break things, and I have so many muscles that I had to give some away to make space for the others. I will marry you, because I need something new to become great at.”
“This sounds like a good thing,” said Scal the sorry. “We’re married, then, and I need not be sorry any longer!”
“Wonderful!” said the man. And so they were.

“Married life is stranger than I thought it’d be,” Scal said some time later. “There is more snoring than I’d imagined.”
“I am indeed the greatest of snorers,” agreed the man. “And my elbows the sharpest and largest in all the places I know, as well as the most energetic.”
Scal felt this wasn’t ideal, but she was not sorry anymore, and so she said nothing but grumbles.

“Married life is odder than I’d imagined it to be,” Scal said to herself and the world at large a few days onward. “There is a great deal of yelling and strangeness.”
“I yell most fervently when I am ired,” confirmed the man, “and I grow ired when drunk with a speed that any other man I have met envies. Why, last night I out-growled a bear so grizzled his grizzles had grizzlies, and nearly kicked down four trees!”
Scal had rather liked those trees, but she felt she shouldn’t be sorry about things that way, and so she contented herself with grousing.

“Married life is peculiar in all ways,” Scal said loudly and aggressively and with a good deal of annoyance. “Today I went out to watch my icebergs float down the coast – bump-bump-bump as they go – and I found my husband peeing on one, and I would very much like to hear why he would do that sort of thing.”
“I am possessed of the mightiest urine of all beings in this wide world of ours,” boasted the man, “in both flow and strength of stream. I proved I could cut an iceberg in two, drown a whale, and dye whole waves with my abilities! Truly, I am indeed a superior individual!”
Scal liked the icebergs, as you recall. Scal liked watching them float by. Scal did not like any of those things her husband had said one bit – not even half a bit – and Scal might not be sorry about THAT but she was damned sorry she’d married him entirely and thoroughly at that very moment.
“I’m a sorry fool again to be sure,” Scal the sorry whispered to herself as she plotted, “but I’ve faced worse troubles and trounced them. I just need to get rid of him and it’ll all be fine, it’ll be fine for sure.”

“Husband dearest wonderfulest kindest gentlest man,” simpered Scal the sorry, “perhaps you could go a-fishing for us, and catch us some fish?”
“I am the finest fisherman I have ever known, and I have known them all,” said the man. “This is thus a thing that I can and will do, you wait here and see.”
So the man jumped in his boat and rowed away at great speed and enthusiasm. And Scal the sorry smiled happily to herself and began to rub and whisper at her left hand, because that hand was magic, and she became a little sea-lion, and followed after the boat of the man.
“Ahhh, here is a fine place to fish!” yelled the man aloud, and he threw down the oars and began to fish like crazy, yanking up fish after fish after fish after fish, big and small, fierce and quiet.
Scal the sorry snickered to herself underneath his boat, and she lightly nipped the left tip of her flipper. And as she nipped, the boat sprung a leak that sprung a crack that spurted water like a lovesick streambed.
“What’s this now!” said the man, as his ankles got wet and the horizon shrunk down. “But I know already, for I am a boatsman without peer! I can fix this with but spit and a snap of my fingers!” And he spat violently into the hole and snapped it shut with a moment’s work. “Better than new!” he laughed, and under the boat Scal the sorry cursed to herself and began to tickle her left flipper.
The seas roiled, the seas rumbled, and up from the depths charged a huge shark, an old shark, a shark that could eat small whales. Its eyes were deadest black and its teeth were whiter than snow and it shot for the man’s boat like an arrow to its target only much larger and more frightening and also a shark.
“Hrrm!” said the man, squinting ferociously. “Now THAT’S a fish!” And he pulled out his fishing spear and threw it three times. The first cut out each of the shark’s eyes, and the third its heart. He lashed it to the boat with one hand, and chortled mightily at his luck.
The underside of his boat was home to many muffled words, and the furious scratching of Scal the sorry’s left flipper with her right. Before moments had passed the sky turned dark, then green, then red and orange and purple. Thunder screeched and lightning howled, the wind made noises like a raccoon in heat courting a mockingbird. Water began to fall from the sky fit to double the ocean’s depth.
“Ah, a breeze to sail home by!” cheered the man. He rowed until the oars broke in half, then rowed with the stubs of the handles, and touched foot to shore just as the last bit of his boat broke into splinters apart underneath him and sank down to the bottom of the ocean forever.
“Wife!” he called. “I have brought you your fish for our dinner, and a great fish indeed it is, as befits my greatness at fishing, which is one of the many ways in which I am greatest at a thing!”
“Wonderful, husband,” said Scal the sorry. “But we need berries now, or dinner will be duller than dirt in a deadfall. Go a-berry-picking and fetch us some from over the hills, and we will eat happily!”
“I can pick berries in ways that put bears to shame and bugs to flight,” said the man. “This is yet another thing I can do, and I will return here afterwards to make you see that this is true.”
So the man hurled himself into a great long bounding run with mighty strides and outthrust chest. And Scal the sorry frowned to herself, licked her left hand three times counterclockwise, and was a little bright jay-bird that flitted from tree to tree in his wake all the way to the far sides of the hills where the berry bushes were.
“The picking shall begin now at this time and place,” decreed the man, and he began to fill his pack with them at a most alarming pace. Up in the tree above him, the little jay-bird preened its left wing and watched, eyes twinkling. In mere instants a whole family of bears came lumbering out of the woods – mother and cubs – and came charging for him, teeth-and-breath-first.
“Such fun!” whooped the man, and he whooped with the bears for a full hour with kicks and punches and bear-hugs. He stopped when they were all too tired to wrestle, shook himself off, and began to fill his clothes with berries twice as fast as before, laughing to himself.
Away in a bush behind him the little jay-bird ruffled the feathers of its left wing and watched, eyes hardening. Right away a swarm of bees rose up from the berry-bushes, stingers a-bristle, swarm a-flutter, and they fell on the man with the fierceness of animals a million times their size.
“Ah, a honeying-time!” observed the man with good cheer and great enthusiasm. He started a fire quick as anything, and in the clouds of the dense and billowing smoke he evaded the bees and swatted them, pat-pat-pat. A minute’s work and he was done with them, a minute more and he was at their hive, a minute after and he had their honeycomb well in hand as he was busily stuffing his cheeks with berries, twist as fast as before, when he had done so twice as fast.
From under a leaf the little jay-bird snapped at its left wing and watched, eyes sharp. The trees sparked, the brush alit, and in no time at all the forest was a raging wildfire with hungrier teeth than a wolf and a fiercer heart than a wolverine with a cavity.
“How much faster can such a thing be?” asked the man of himself to himself. “Why, as fast as anything – except for me!” He laughed and ran and sprang and leapt and made it home with only the very tips of the tufts of his hair singed, smouldering like little coals.
“Wife!” he bellowed. “I have retrieved the berries you wished to have as part of our dinner, and they are the finest and also the most numerous of all berries, as a result of my impressive berry-picking, which is one of the most impressive skills of my many impressive skills, all of which are equally impressive!”
“Good,” said Scal the sorry. “Wonderful. Excellent.” And then a thought struck her. “But husband-dearest, I am afraid that after dinner you will need to pee, and we have no place suitable for you to do so. Dig a pit, so that we’ll be prepared.”
“I shall do that incredibly well,” vowed the man.
“Make sure it’s deep,” said Scal the sorry.
“This will be so exactly,” promised the man.
“And pile up all the dirt neatly, so we can fill it in properly,” suggested Scal the sorry.
“Perfectly!” swore the man. And in less than no time at all he’d dug a massive pit, with all the dirt he’d torn through stacked up neatly next to it in a careful pile.
“Are you through?” asked Scal the sorry.
“This pit can hold anything in all the wide world there is,” bragged the man.
“Anything at all?” asked Scal the sorry.
“Anything at all,” replied the man.
“Nothing won’t fit in it?”
“Nothing itself COULD fit in it,” proclaimed the man. “Nothing, anything, AND everything can fit in this pit, even myself!”
“Are you sure of this, husband dearest kindest?” asked Scal the sorry.
“Utterly!” said the man. “Look, I’ll show you!” And he leapt down into the pit and there it fit him perfectly. “See?” he said.
“I see, dearest wonderfulest kindest gentlest,” said Scal the sorry. “And I’m sorry about this, but it is absolutely necessary.” And she gave the dirt-pile a shove, and it filled up the hole perfectly, leaving just the man’s head sticking out.
“Oh what is this now?” shouted the man. “What is this now, eh? What is going on?”
“I am sorry to say that you are very good at many things, but a very poor husband,” said Scal the sorry. “Marriage may not be for me after all. But you may stay here, and become the best in all the world at being planted.” And she walked away.
“A fine idea!” said the man, although no one was listening. “A fine idea! I’ll beat the other plants to it, just you see! A fine idea! I’ll beat them hollow at their own game. A fine idea!”

And this is why we have poison ivy.

The Life of Small-five (Part 15).

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Wash in, wash out. Feel the water caress your gills, cool and smooth, soft. Relax.
Then ready yourself, and begin. Send the signal up from your spine-head, the place where your mind lives. Feel it crawl along your body at an agonizing slowness, the speed of light.
It must go to five places at once. All at once. Or else it doesn’t work.
The tip of each pectoral fin.
The tip of the dorsal fin.
The two soft places just behind the eyes.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. All touched at once.
Now, to make that touch a strike, a surge, a jolt. Each point, for just a single instant measuring from then-to-now, is a little star that leaves its mark on the eye for an instant afterwards, a reminder. It must not overpower, it must never fizzle or falter.
It must be perfect.
One, two, three fourfive.

And that was how Small-five-point-burst-of-light said her name aloud, for the first time in more than a year.

Small-five moved through the world in a haze, full of wonder and without a single shred of instinct to guide her way. Movement was a surprise, now that she was there to think about it. Eating was a shock. Sight was absurd. And every day, every new day, she only grew more and more confused.
It was wonderful, as long as she minded her thoughts and kept them on the living with her.
There – at her side – that was Thin-sweeping-shimmer, the smallest of the little band that had clustered around her as the days fell away. A Gible hung from her proboscis, its limp body quivering with the juvenile’s nervousness as she proffered it. Small-five adjusted the angle of her body, gingerly plucked the gelatinous mass from Thin-sweeping’s grasp – it was still so strange, lacking her own, her jaw now a seamless line of perfectly-fused bone. She would need to learn to lead her strikes with her teeth someday (they felt larger, they were larger, perhaps that would help), but for now at least she was cared for. The food tasted empty, but she needed the nourishment more than the sensation; she had enough strange new things to marvel at.
The juveniles were a constant joy to observe; she’d forgotten that awkward time when the brain was just finishing expansion, when the ability to plan came into being, to think ahead, to be smart. She watched as sisters became friends, and watched as they began – cautiously, slowly – to speak among themselves, to learn to trust others that were not their blood. Five separate sister-groups had begun to follow Small-five, fourteen little lost ones. At least this last Small-five could take more than distant satisfaction in; she seemed to act as a beacon for the juveniles; that neverending light that she could not stifle lured in new lost little ones from miles away, a curiosity that they followed for reasons none of them yet had the words to explain.
She might not be able to stop it, but she was learning how to use it.
One two three four five at once. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
The water danced with her name, bouncing off walls of ice, and she was happy again. Happier still to see the juveniles react with less surprise; she was more and more a known in their minds, a thing to be trusted through experience – even if she was too big and too strange to be one of them. Stranger still to herself; stretched to nearly double her former size but only slightly thicker than before, she had become lean and long. To surge through the water was perhaps more difficult than before, but even at a cruise she now left the juveniles struggling to keep up and was forced to idle, tail barely moving as they swam alongside.
Hungry, glimmered a voice at her side. It was Both-fins-flaring, the largest of Thin-sweeping’s sisters. Find-food? You? Thin-sweeping herself huddled at her side, and Small-five suspected that the juvenile wasn’t quite speaking her own words.
Yes, she replied – carefully. Shrinking her light had become a greater struggle than expanding it had ever been before her change, but with applied patience she’d learned to shrink her glowshine down to the scale of an adult, made her words small and kind. It felt…right. Not comfortable, perhaps, but it was the way she should be.
Besides, she had other means with which to stretch herself.
Food, she called, in that long, steady pulse that stretched itself outwards for as far as her new eyes could see – they saw so much more now. She’d finally managed to count all of her lens-lids the day before. Eight of them, five more than before. With all lifted the world was as clear as a gloudulite’s blood, and when all were in place she wagered she could stare into an alarm flare without a flinch, the world a shadowed shell. Food. Come.
They came in fits and starts, drifting away from whatever meager prey they found at the surface, and one and all, Small-five at their head, they sank down into the dark black beneath, where even the polar night seemed an unfathomable brightness above.
Small-five counted body-lengths as she swam at the head of the column. One. Two. Three. More and more, farther down.
At ten, she relaxed herself, and spat out the smallest gleam she could manage. Be-ready.
Acknowledgment glowed at her side.
NOW, shone Small-five, and in that instant she relaxed the iron grip of her muscles on her glowshine tubes, felt the surge rise, and drove it just a height or two above her comfort levels.
The world turned into a frozen picture for a second of pure light, like an image in othershine. A mid-sized mated pair of Raskljen. A small school of Eurenu adrift. A Nohlohk larvae just shed of its molt. All halted in their paths to hide, all perfectly exposed.
Small-five’s juveniles hesitated too. But not for quite as long.

When the time came to rise, some hours later, they did so with protesting, over-full bellies. Small-five had taken to using Thin-sweeping as a barometer of the success of their hunts: if she had managed to get enough food to complain on the ascent, all of them must have been stuffed properly. Currently she was too bloated with Eurenu flesh to even manage that, and so Small-five permitted herself the efflorescent warmth of absolutely unrepentant self-satisfaction. Her own newly-lengthened digestive tract was comfortably swollen, riding high in her abdomen over the strangely hollow cavity where she suspected her generative organs had resided. Though she couldn’t observe such things directly, Small-five presumed she was now sterile – certainly her rear fins were now too small to reach the greatly-increased distance to her cloacal vent, besides being too rigid to bend. The apparent fact that this did not worry her troubled her sometimes, but a little less so with every day that passed. In fact, Small-five was so untroubled by this and other matters and so content with her filled belly that she very nearly swam headfirst into the hovering pale-bellied bulk above her that mingled with the light from above.
The panicked shining of the juveniles was her only alarm, and she banked sharply, the tip of her snout nearly scraping heavy, thick-set hide as it veered away from her in surprise. She corkscrewed in midwater, sides sending wobbling beams of light hither and thither, and tried to reposition herself – the children, she had to put herself between the thing and the children, where was it, where was it? The water around her was clearing again, in synch with her mind, turning from violent flashes in the dark back to illuminated evenness, and the first thing that she saw of her partner in near-collision (Crheeh? No, too bulky, and they lurk deeper. Jarekindj? But she’d seen a fin…) was the sparkle of glowshine illuminating bared bone and enamel as it reflected from his tusks.
Oh, said Small-five involuntarily, embarrassed and relieved all at once. Oh.
The father hovered nervously three bodylengths away, small eyes focused on her. He was the first she’d ever seen in the flesh, and his sides were a riot of swirling colours just an inch too pleasing to be random. In length he was her equal, in bulk he would’ve made two of her, and his tusks were each half again the length of her proboscis. When she’d had it.
She was glad, as they watched one another, that fathers were harmless. Juveniles they were indifferent to, adults they consciously avoided. They had no place in the lives of their sisters and mothers beyond their birthing, and they gave as little malice as they did compassion.
Then again, voiced a treacherous, worrisome thought that Small-five would swear did not belong to herself, Small-five was neither adult nor juvenile.
Precisely as this thought crossed her mind, the father flicked his tail gently, propelling himself slightly closer. His eyes were still on her.
They were pink.
Small-five would not be able to explain how that fact led her to relax, to stifle the explosion of glowshine she was sure was waiting to erupt from her body at the slightest hint of aggression or anger. All that mattered was that as did her light fall into the warmer softness of she used to light her way, to beckon the juveniles, so did the tiny edge-of-hearing noise that she belatedly recognized as a battle trill cease to emit from the father’s body.
They stared at each other some more. Well, Small-five did. The father, by contrast, swam in a quick half-circle and casually dropped into the hastily-vacated space the juveniles had left at her side.
Schooling position.
Small-five thought about what this meant, and felt that strange warm, tickling feeling of happy excitement growing inside her chest again.
Come, she shone, pulsing her glowshine into the crevices of the ice pack where the juveniles had fled. Come-back. Come. Safe. She nearly broke into ripples of laughter as the father moved closer towards her with puzzled pink eyes.
Father-guards. Father-is-safe.

By the time the sky was beginning to fill with light once more, the time when the food sank deeper down in the water column, the time of spring and starving, Small-five had nearly three dozen juveniles in her wake, all on the cusp of subadulthood. At the edges of the school, spaced evenly and prone to jostling for pride of placement (through some murky sort of pecking order whose depths she did not understand) if she did not watch them, were five fathers of various ages and degrees of scarring. The oldest and largest, whose eyes had faded to a near-white, was the owner of a single, rugged tusk that was bigger than Thin-sweeping from snout to tail, and had taken the position of rearguard without dispute.
The juveniles had protested, cowered, and finally succumbed to guidance out of exhaustion as much as anything else, but each succeeding group of sisters that joined the school had done so faster than the last under the peer pressure of those who preceded them. Small-five did not entirely approve of the insults that were flung at those who flinched or wavered from the presence of the fathers, but she was unable to muster the will to pronounce a ban on such talk when the results were not only so helpful but also rapid.
The talking was important, besides. She was no great teacher, nowhere near the ability of Outward-spreading, but she remembered enough of her own troubles and difficulties moving from sistertalk to the speech of adults that she was able to slowly, steadily make the subadults understand what she wanted of them. Language; nothing more, nothing less.
Sistertalk-is-fine, she told them. But-you-practice-need-to-practice-to-learn. Understand-yes?
Affirmations spread from the school.
This makes sense?
An almost total blankness met her, bar a few awkward glimmers.
Then-practice-more, she said. And gave up for the day. Again.
Instead, she attempted to make herself understood to the fathers again. She was thin of knowledge on them, and suspected that faint-marks would’ve been able to tell her little more. The fathers were an enigma, dwelling in the most remote corner of the world and quick to actively avoid Populism’s attempts at research, and even their basic anatomy was something of a mystery. Their psychology in particular was an utter guess in the dark at best, although induction based upon the postulated average size of their braincase put them at the intellectual level of exceptionally-dim juveniles. More than that – exceptionally-dim juveniles that possessed no social tendencies and no capacity for language.
….reflected Small-five, as she led five of them onwards with the guiding beacon of her glowshine, prodding them with the simplest of signals and seeing what made them react (inflections of alarm, danger, food, or exhaustion, mostly; the stronger the emphasis the more firmly it was understood). She suspected that she would have to rewrite many acknowledged truths on this matter, although she would likely have to request the aid of someone with a proboscis to do so for her.
That thought gave her pause, and for a moment her swimming stalled as she turned it about for re-examination. Rewrite whose truths, where, and request the aid of whom? Far-away-light was not her home, not anymore and not ever – she doubted that faint-marks had spoken her ultimatum with hidden clauses in mind, should Small-five come across interesting facts upon their species (especially given what had led to its delivery). Even if she were to subtly deposit her subadults on their doorstep and leave without fuss, she could not be assured they would be treated kindly – regardless of whether or not her touch upon them was unknown, thirty-four subadults was very nearly half of the quota Far-away-light permitted entry within its walls every year. Her subadults would either be turned away or lead to the abandonment and death of an equal number of starving migrants, lagging somewhere behind her, following the just-calving icebergs and their cargo of frozen Fiskupids.
Small-five thought about those subadults now, not for the first time. She had done all she could, she was sure. She had wandered far, shone bright, called in so many children and given them safety, food, and most importantly, stability. They had to leave now; the summer polar outskirts would not support them all and she had no desire to lead her children inwards, to expose them to the fate of Pulsing-point.
She had helped so many, as many as she could. She was sure of this.
Thirty-four subadults, all safe and healthy. Happy. She was sure that this was more than there would’ve been otherwise. She had made a difference.
So why not do more?

After another five days, they departed with somewhat emptier bellies and four more subadults. For Far-away-light.
Small-five had a difference to make.

Storytime: Marcus’s Room.

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Marcus’s room was a complicated place, up there on the third floor above all the others, on its own. It was wood-walled and filled with creaks, dark-seamed and shadowed. Someone had tried to carpet the floor once, but had given up and left it at a small, threadbare rug that had once been an oval. The walls were crammed with old furniture from desks to chests-of-drawers, all wooden, all missing at least one leg, and mostly empty. A selected few held Marcus’s clothing, which he regularly forgot. And on the north wall of the room was Marcus’s bed, where he spent his nights.
Those were the unimportant parts of Marcus’s room, and they were all that mattered during the daytime.
At night, Marcus laid underneath his covers, underneath the groaning, whispering, mumbling beams of the house’s skull, and he looked east. Sometimes he looked west instead, it made no real difference. And as he waited, he would close his eyes and count with his pulse until he heard the sound of marching feet overlay the noises of his heartbeat.
The armies of the east would always be the first to arrive, eager to the field atop their golden crows. Their shining helms contained no holes for the eyes they did not have, and their long-bladed triple-forked spears were the most beautiful weapons in the world, as slender as the legs of ballerinas. Short sharp flutes played as they flowed into his room, brought in on a warm breeze from the silvery-orange dawnlands at their backs, beyond the sill of the window on Marcus’s east wall.
The armies of the west would set foot to floorboard exactly three beats behind those of the east, without exception or presumption and with a great creaking shudder. Each man was an iceberg of strange metals that seemed part-copper, part-iron, and all-rusted with greys, reds, and greens of fuzzy debris. Their helms were open and their faces were indistinct with paints and tattoos, smeared into muddiness apart from their beautiful brown eyes. The soft-sweet vapors they used as weapons were the most wonderful thing anyone had ever smelled, and they played around their feet like puppies in the dim purple sigh of twilight that beamed from the place beyond their western window-frame.

It took no less than ten minutes for each army to fully deploy and assemble itself upon the field of battle, that being Marcus’s floor. Each eastern crow-of-gold stood taller at the shoulder than an elephant, each western metalberger two men high and six men wide, but they squeezed in with room to spare – near a football-field’s-length lay between the standards of the opposing forces, a comfortable enough space for Marcus’s bed to fit into as the two generals approached one another for talks. Each was a giant: the western general twenty feet tall, the easterner ten but mounted upon a silver raven who could swallow a lesser man whole. Their bodyguards remained a discreet ten paces behind them – little enough to cover in moments, should the need arise, but great enough so as to avoid the appearance of eavesdropping, which was so much more shameful than the actual thing.
“Duchess, of East,” rumbled the western general, with a slight bob of the helmet.
“Lady, of West,” whispered the eastern general, waving an arm in a manner that might simulate a minimalist bow.
“Adjudicator, of South,” they addressed Marcus, with a formal salute each – fists against chests, heads inclined just so, offhand fingers intertwined at precisely the right moment.
Marcus nodded.
The generals faced one another again, and the mood relaxed into the familiarity of terrible and great decisions that haunted Marcus’s room on all nights of the week, month, and year.
“I will begin with a strategic weakening of my center,” announced the eastern general, “so as to draw out your own and flank it with my cavalry. This will cut you to ribbons.”
“And I,” proclaimed the western general, “have fissured my forces into three legions. As the hardened center is taken in your grasp, mine own flanks shall march towards it. This will crush you into pieces.”
“My strategic reserve will approach from your rear at this point,” replied the eastern general. “They will assail your personal guard and your person both, disrupting your orders, sowing confusion in the ranks, and wreaking havoc on the morale of your troops.”
“Which shall touch off the signal to the traitor I have hidden in your command,” said the western general. “His hand will end the life of your most trusted marshal, and strife shall grip your command and heart equally.”
Nods were exchanged. “Adjudicator?” they inquired.
Marcus nodded, and waved a hand.
“Well enough,” said the general of the west.
“Properly prepared,” agreed the general of the east.
And so they turned and strode away. Ten long, firm, decisive steps, each made with the firmness and surety of an earthquake.
On the eleventh, they stopped.
The twelfth through twenty-second were more hesitant at first, then more hurried, then slowly more and more reluctant until both striders were returned to the bed of the adjudicator, looking unsure and awkward.
Marcus frowned.
“There is… one more thing,” admitted the western general.
“A small matter,” said the eastern general. “Speak first.”
“No, it is nothing,” said the western general. “You may proceed.”
Silence sprouted in Marcus’s room, flowered up against the sky, blossomed all the way up to the soaring vaulted heights of the beams that held fast against the world outside.
“We would like to negotiate,” said the generals, at the same time and entirely off-rhythm.
Marcus wasn’t sure what his expression was, but it was a sight to behold. The negotiations had been finished, hadn’t they?
“Not…precisely the manner of negotiations we propose,” said the eastern general.
“A settlement, to be specific,” said the western general.
Marcus wasn’t sure about a negotiated surrender but if that was what they wanted to do tonight he guessed that was –
“No. A peace settlement.”
“Mutually….respectful, perhaps,” suggested the eastern general.
“Quite possibly,” said the western general, a hint of cautious optimism shining through.
“Yes…” said the eastern general, one thin, gilded hand stroking the chin of her chinless helm. “With nonpartisan language and historically informed decisions.”
“Exactly,” agreed the western general. “And balanced concessions and compromises!”
“Cunning! Perhaps lay the foundation for some subtle guidance of the general culture-at-large of our peoples to support a less belligerent and aggressive foreign policy?”
“Devious indeed and worth consideration. Might this newfound surplus of labor lead itself to public-works projects and a new focus on ensuring the health and well-being of both our peoples as opposed to a nebulously-unreal future promised to us on the crushing of an abstracted and hated foe?”
“Yes!” said the eastern general.
They hugged.
Marcus picked at his blanket and tried to decide what he should be looking at. He failed, and settled for nothing.
“There will need to be documentation of this, of course,” managed the eastern general eventually, disentangling both herself and her raven-of-silver’s skull from the arms of her opponent.
“Of course,” replied the western general. “A treaty must be signed, and to be signed it must be drafted.”
“And for maximum neutrality and to avoid the sabotage of bloodthirsty patriots, it would help if it were ratified and approved by a respected neutral third party, besides ourselves.”
They looked at Marcus. He wasn’t sure if they had ever looked at him this way before.
“Adjudicator?” they asked.
Marcus bunched himself up small and stared out the north window, the one he didn’t look at. There was a summer moon rising in May, and a breeze blowing that brought the sounds of spring peepers.
He looked back. The generals were still there, as solid as rocks. Clearly this was important.
Marcus nodded, and took the great, heavy bronze pen of the western general in hand as it was offered. It slid across the soft eastern parchment as smooth as a honeyed salmon, and his signature fit the sheet like a glove.
“Done,” said the eastern general, rolling up her half of the parchment.
“And sealed,” agreed the western general, stamping her copy shut with the tip of her right thumb.
They shook hands over Marcus’s bed, and said their farewells as the battlefield grew darker. They turned to Marcus himself, and they spoke words, but he was already slipping out through the north window on the breeze, his attention wavering. The generals grew dark and heavy, as they always did, as they always were, and Marcus’s eyelids slid shut on those two beaming, faceless smiles.

“Mom,” asked Marcus the next morning, down in the simple, solid kitchen of their home, down on the first floor where everything was new and shiny, “how do you know when you’re a grownup?”
“Oh honey,” said Linda, as she aimlessly chased a stray dollop of jam with her flaxseed toast, “you don’t have to worry about THAT for a while yet.”
“Like, in your head.”
Linda secured the reluctant red goop at last. Her chewing was without mercy, but it paused for a moment. “Is this about girls?” she asked, succeeding at keeping suspicion from her voice but failing at crumbs.
“No. Wait yes. Wait again.”
Marcus pondered. Linda waited, and finished swallowing.
“Not really?” he managed, tentatively.
“Well,” said Linda, thinking her sentences through as she picked crumbs from her teeth, “I can answer some of your questions for you, I think. And for the rest of them, I think we can make a trip to the library. I think I remembered a few books that are helpful for people around your age.”

She was a bit puzzled when Marcus attempted to look up War and Peace, but went along with it.
The copy of Politics for Dummies was more helpful in the long run, though.