Archive for July, 2013

Storytime: The Shark and the Daughter.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The fisherman and his daughter lived in a smallish woodenish thing that passed itself off as a building day and night in the teeth of the sea and its whims, mostly through outrageous temerity. And yes despite this unconscious bravado that fueled their very lives in their every waking movement, their days were spent in dull necessity. The fisherman fished. The daughter mended nets, cleaned the catch, cured and cooked food as needed, stopped the shack from falling over through carefully applied patchwork, kept a small garden alive in the teeth of the salt winds, and sometimes helped fish when there was a big run on. When she had spare time, she sat on a rock in the wind by the waves down the shore, with her toes in the water, and hummed to herself as she turned bits of driftwood into miniature ships. They were big, small, canoes, caravels; every kind of ship in the world but for the white-streaked gull-haunted wreck that her father piloted over angry waves. As she finished them, she pushed them gently into the water and watched them set sail, wondering where they would find their way.
One of them found its way back on a fine spring day, when the sky was too cloudless to be real. As the daughter sat on her rock, humming her song and whittling with the knife that had belonged to her mother, she heard a splash and a polite cough, a precursor to a question.
“Is this yours?”
The speaker was a shark, a rather young one with a hide still more gloss than scars. In his hand was a little boat that the daughter recognized, one she had set into the water just the other day.
She thanked the shark politely, of course. Where had he found it?
“A hundred miles and more and still sailing sound. You carve a fine craft,” said the shark.
“And a compliment on carving from a shark is a fine thing itself,” said the daughter, eyeing the glittering white needles inside his mouth. “Thank you.”
He saw her gaze, and smiled as sharks do. “Here, take a closer look, if you would like,” he said, and opened so wide that he nearly out-sparkled the sun and the sea themselves.
“They’re pretty,” she told him. “You know, if I could ask… do you have any to spare?”
“Dozens and dozens a year,” said the shark. “Here, take this one – it came out as I ate a white-fish on my way here.” He spat a stout little fang into her palm. It was smoother than a pearl, with a ragged edge sharper than her mother’s knife.
“I want to try carving this,” she said. “Can you bring more?”
“Dozens and dozens a year,” said the shark. “Tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow,” said the daughter.
And they both had something to look forwards to.

The days went by placidly after that. The daughter labored and mended and cooked and cleaned and gardened, but she did so with a small smile tickling at her now and then, one that filled the fisherman with grave and deep-seated worries now and again.
“Have you been seeing a man, daughter of mine?” he asked her, brows beetling. “You look it. I’ve seen you smiling.”
“No,” said the daughter, who was speaking the truth. “No, I haven’t been seeing a man.”
“Huh,” said the fisherman. His eyes grew less hard, but she saw his fingers twitch yet. “I won’t have it. Not that. I won’t stand for a man who won’t look me in the eye and sneaks around behind my back. Trying to steal my daughter, that is. Take my helper and leave me old and lonely with a cold hearth and an empty belly – a man with no more wife, no more brother, and now no daughter. Won’t have it. Not one bit.”
He sat back in his chair with a sigh, content to have to said his piece and then some, and picked at his teeth with a fish-bone. Then a strange look came over his face, and he wrenched the bone free and stared.
“Hang off. I didn’t go out today. Where’d this come from?”
“I caught it,” said the daughter, just a little too quickly.
“Tunny, was it? Awful close to shore for tunny.” The fisherman’s eyes and lips moved as he examined the bone. “And a big one. Too big for little arms. You hiding gifts from me?”
“It must’ve been sick,” said the daughter.
“Feeding me sick fish? Hoping I’ll die? Ungrateful. Ungrateful. Your mother must be rolling over. Ungrateful sprat, trying to leave me cold in my bed and have the place to yourself. Bah!”
With that he stomped off,

“Let’s get married,” said the daughter.
The shark was surprised. Not surprised at the offer – no, no, it had been months and months now, and dozens and dozens of beautifully carved little teeth, all hidden under a stone on the beach. A long time to talk and think, time enough to get used to each other. But the way the daughter said it sounded like a declaration of war.
“It’s my father,” she explained. “He’s all out of sorts. He knows there’s something going on, and it’s making him angrier and surlier by the day.”
“We could run away,” said the shark. But he knew it was foolish even as he said it. The fisherman was old and lazy and cantankerous, but he was a man of the sea through and through, more water than earth in his feet. If they ran, he’d find them.
“You’ll meet him,” said the daughter. “You’ll meet him. As long as he thinks someone’s plotting to steal me away he’ll be jealous and angry, but if he has to deal with a proper suitor he’ll have to give in.”
“This seems like it might not work,” said the shark.
“I’ll make it work,” said the daughter.
And so she did, with her needles and her thread and her scissors and her wits, she made it work and made that shark a man.
She sewed man-gloves to hid his flippers, and a pair of man-pants to hide his tail. A man-shirt covered the tall grey triangle on his back.
“It is a fine outfit,” said the shark, looking at himself in the water as he stood on the beach – a bit unsteady on his new legs. “But look! I can see my eyes.” And there they were indeed, two big black shark-eyes.
“I thought of that,” said the daughter triumphantly. “Here, take this hat. I wove it from the beach-grass, to keep the sun off.”
It was a bit big, and a bit more silly-looking, but it was an authentic beachcomber’s hat and it shaded the shark’s face as smoothly as could possibly be. And to draw her father’s own eyes away from it, she placed her latest carving-project around his neck on a string; a fine big tooth with a simple sketch of a sail.
“Now, remember not to smile,” said the daughter. “And try not to grit your teeth either – he’ll be angry. Just be calm, be calm, be calm.”
The shark listened to her carefully, as he always did. And he was sure that he could manage this, because if there’s one thing that sharks are often good at, it’s calmness.

“What’s this ugly lot, daughter of mine?” said the fisherman. He peered at the shark threateningly, and his fingers danced near the great gutting-blade that he kept at his belt. “I knew you had a man! I knew you did! Lying to me, eh?”
“I only met him just the other day, when you were out in your boat,” said the daughter with the most technically accurate of truths. “Father, we haven’t known each other long, but we love each other, and would like to be married. Will you permit this?”
The fisherman stared long and hard and dark at this, face blooming over with ugly red, but he was an older man, and had spent enough time in his life angry to learn how to think through it. If he said no flat-out his daughter might try and leave, and even if he brought her back she would never do as he said again. He liked his meals and he liked having all his chores done for him each day, so this was out of the question altogether.
“Fine!” he said. “Fine! Marry any old man you want, if that’s what you want! Fine! But it’s not what I want, because what I want is what’s best for you, small sprat. If he’s so fine, let him prove himself as such. He’ll prove he’s a man to make you happy or I’ll gut him, see if I won’t. The sun’s too high already; I’m off to fish. You two tend to the garden, clean my last catch, and get a meal going – and be careful! I won’t lose my good blade to the likes of his careless misuse.”
And with that he left the house, slamming its small creaking door so hard that it grew a fresh crack right beneath the handle.
“I’ll see to the garden and prepare the meal,” said the daughter. “Run to the pile outside and clean the fish.”
The shark hurried outside, and the sight of the pile of dead things was of a scale to impress even him, who had been fed on the fat of whales at the side of his grandmother. The gutting knife felt awkward and clumsy in his hands, and he grumbled fiercely to himself as he tore at the bellies, whispering words in the language of sharks that were not fit to be heard by anyone at all.
But they were heard by one other, in some manner.
The fisherman was out at sea by now, heaving on his torn-up old nets with a fierceness that belayed his age, but his sight was far afield from his body as it searched the lines and planks of his boat by instinct and touch. The old man had learned things out there over his years, and made blackened agreements and terribly cruel bargains with the gulls that draped over his vessel like reeking sails. His eyes were clutched in yellowed beaks now, circling high in the air over his home on whitened wings and fixed fiercely on the strange young man far below who was threatening to steal away his daughter from his home.
And so it was that the fisherman saw the strange young man drop his gutting knife – a rusted, battered thing with an edge duller than a stone spoon that the fisherman avoided sharpening whenever possible – and sink his teeth deep into the bellies of mackerel, tearing and shredding with the keenness of oiled steel.
“Hah!” said the man to the gulls on his boat. “What’s that? I’ll see about that!” And he hauled up the last of his catch and headed home as fast as he could, calling his eyes back to him as he tied ropes and spat to himself.
“I am finished,” said the shark to the daughter.
She was surprised to hear it, but she almost shouted when she saw the bodies of the fish. “What did you mean by doing that?” she asked. “He’ll know for sure something’s going on; look at all these jagged cuts!”
“I thought of that,” said the shark. “Do not worry about it.”
The daughter grumbled as she finished the cooking, but she didn’t worry about it much. Only as much as was needed.

In came the fisherman, shoulders streaked with white guano, beard bristling and eyes red from strain. “Where’s my meal?” he called. “Where’s my food? Ah, there it is, there it is. Good, good. Sit down and eat!”
No sooner had the shark and the daughter perched atop the rickety wooden stools that served as chairs than the fisherman gave a shout that saw fit to raise the roof from its moorings. “Look at this! Look at this! My meat’s been chewed, my fish has been torn! What’s wrong with this, what did you do to it?”
“It is an old trick from faraway, where I come from,” said the shark. “I cut it jaggy to purify the meat, to make it good healthful. It trims the sick from the fish and leaves the good food.”
“I don’t like meddling in superstitious matters,” said the fisherman, who only an hour before had trusted his eyes to the beak of a pair of gulls sworn by wind and wave, “but I’ll allow it this time, though your presumption in assuming my catch is sickly irks me sore.” And he did allow it, and seemed to soften over the evening. He lit his pipe and told stories, old stories, from back when he’d been younger and his brother had yet been his friend and alive. Stories of riotous youth and screeching upright citizenry, of the pious mocked and the proud brought low. They tickled and tickled and tickled the shark’s funnybone, and at last – right after a tremendous anecdote of a crab in a priest’s smallclothes – he opened his mouth wide and laughed out loud, sending the firelight all ajudder from his jaws.
“Ah! What’s that there, what was that?” asked the fisherman, jolliness rolled up and vanished away with thundercrack swiftness. “What’s that with your teeth? Are you hiding some secret in there, strange man? Are you up to some trick to eat my daughter, is that it?”
The shark was too surprised and embarrassed to say a word, but the daughter was waiting. “Father, it’s considered a token of good fortune from faraway to sharpen your teeth like knives. It shows you’re rich and eat only the good meats and fine foods that merit no chewing. No man who means to remain poor would dare do so.”
“A spoiled princeling or an ambitious do-nothing then,” snarled the fisherman. “No, no – definitely not the former, not in those raggedy strips of cloth, nor with that beachcomber’s cast-after on his head. Bah!” he said, and he retired to his warm corner with his pipe, where he sent up fumes fit to choke the fireplace.

“I feel it’s time to check the crab-traps,” said the fisherman in the early (but not too early) dawn. “Mend my nets, you strange man – and be careful with them! They’re older than you are and much more valuable. And daughter of mine, you take care of that door. One of you damn-fools knocked it half-silly yesterday.”
And as soon as he was away and offshore, out of sight, the fisherman whistled and hummed and bobbed his head and did all those things that were demanded of him by the gulls in exchange for their obedience. They took an ear this time as well as an eye – soft as baby-fingers their hard beaks and dry tongues – and soared away over the currents, back home.
Back home the shark was attempting to mend nets. It was a difficult task at best granted the use of a full four fingers and a thumb, and the shark possessed neither. He tore and fidgeted and tweaked and grumbled and repeated some of the unspeakable, unhearable words which he had used the day before quite loudly; loud enough to travel all the way up to the white bird in the blue sky.
“I am finished,” said the shark.
“So quickly?” asked the daughter.
The shark held up his arms and she saw that his gloves had been torn away in shreds by the coarse ropes of the nets and his own excessive force, and she said some rather more speakable but equally unhearable words of her own at this.
“I am sorry,” said the shark. “Can you fix them?”
The daughter shook her head. “But I’ve got a better idea. Here, take this bedsheet in your teeth…”

“What nonsense is all this then, eh?” said the fisherman, as he barged in the door scarcely ten minutes later. “My nets are a snarl and a tangle, and here I find you sitting inside with….what happened?”
“Your nets had caught jellyfish, father,” said the daughter in a tone of perfect disgust. “You could’ve mentioned it.”
“No such – I didn’t see any, not one!”
The daughter pointed wordlessly at the shark, who held up his arms with a sad little smile. Each had been carefully wrapped in bandages over and over and over, packed tight and dressed with a little saltwater poultice.
“Useless….jellyfish, I won’t…not a chance,” managed the fisherman, but he managed it at little more than a mutter and left it at that, stewing off outside to sulk in his chair that overlooked the rocky bay, pipe smouldering evil thoughts. He puffed out there, long into the night, and he mused on suspicions and on strange curses that the gulls guessed at, and he thought to himself.
“A plan,” he said. “A pretty little plan, that’s what it must be. Well I’ve been planning longer and harder, bitter and deeper, they’ll see. They’ll see.” And he chuckled to the gulls and to himself as he sat out there and counted the minutes to the edge of dawn.

“Wake up.”
At first the shark thought that the words weren’t even the fisherman’s, they were so quiet. But there was no hiding the harshness in that tobacco-clotted throat, nor the rustling anger hidden beneath it when it was aimed at him.
“Up, you laggard. Dawn’s soon to come, and the fish come with it. Daughter of mine’s too tired to help with it, after you ran her ragged with the cooking and cleaning, so I’m stuck with you, strange man. Up with it.”
The shark looked to the daughter, but she looked tired indeed and he saw the truth hidden in the fisherman’s hardness. So instead he rose – quietly – and came down and down to the little cove where the white-streaked boat that was the fisherman’s life was left. Gulls adorned it. A fat specimen mounted atop the bowsprit squawked disreputably at him.
“Untie the rope there and let us be off, be off! Hurry up!” snapped the fisherman. And he half-turned his back as he said this, but only half, so he saw the shark uncoil away the line with his bandaged forearms quite easily. And he smiled when he saw this, but only in the smallest way, and he gripped the wheel a little tighter.
“A good current,” he proclaimed, idling as he went. “We’ll go south-south-east. That’s where the good stuff is. Always is.” He spat, and kept the corner of one eye on the shark as he spoke, darting like a snake in the underbrush. “No better a spot when the wind’s this way, I say that now and challenge any man to say better. It’s the truth.”
“Southwest is better, with the current this deep” said the shark, without thinking.
The fisherman made no sound of protest, which was unusual in itself, and had the shark been looking at him rather than the current, he would’ve seen that the smile on his face was not so small this time. “Aye, that it can be. We’ll take it a look, we’ll look.”
The water was bountiful, and the nets were bulging-full – if slightly less than untattered thanks to the delays and difficulties of the day before. As sunlight began to peer through the twilight haze, the fisherman straightened his back with a sigh and pronounced their work “done and more than done.”
The shark nodded.
“You’re not so slow on the fishing business, sore paws or no,” he said, humming to himself as he set the course of the wheel. “Takes a strong man to take a jellyfish rubbings all over his arms and not scream himself raw for hours, that too.” He grinned, and whistled a quick tune that could’ve been part of a mayday fair. “So, stupid outfits or no, it looks to me like I’m going to have to have a son-in-law, then. That’s fair. So shake here, son; give me your hand.”
The shark was almost too surprised to move, but relief took over where his mind left off, and he clasped arms with the fisherman gladly.
“Thing is,” the fisherman added, voice not changing a bit, “thing is, I can’t trust a man who can’t look me in the eye. I won’t stand for a man who won’t look me in the eye. So now, SO!”
And just like that, the battered beachcomber’s hat was whisked away in a puff of squawking, whirling feathers, and the shark and the fisherman were looking at each other, young to old, black to blue.
“Dogfish,” said the fisherman. “Damned bait-stealing dogfish. I should’ve known, and I do now.” His left hand clasped at the rusty gutting-blade on his belt. “I know how to deal with that. They’re hungry too. Too hungry.”
With that, the fight began. And it was no fair either, and not in the way it seemed. The shark was younger, he was stronger, he had a mouthful of sharp teeth and all his future to struggle for. But the fisherman was angrier, he was craftier, he had a great razor-sharp blade that had slipped into a thousand soft bellies and spilled them empty, and he was fighting against time, fighting against the hope of anything changing. And around them the air seemed nearly alive with gulls, thick with screams and the smell of droppings, hardened with sharp beaks that pecked at unblinking eyes and tore away at layers of bandages.
They were on the floor now, the fisherman on top, the shark wrenching his back against the hull, hoping against the world to reach the side. If he could just get to the water… but the water was far away, beyond a pinning knee and a halo of suffocating white down. His bandages were tearing loose, and in a moment of desperate ingenuity he tangled the fisherman’s arm in them and pulled hard, smashing the man head-first into the wooden wheelhouse with a snarl and a shout. The path to the rail was free, the path to safety was there; surely he could race back home before the fisherman did; surely they could flee farther than the fisherman’s boat could follow; surely, surely, as sure as could be, as sure as the great iron flensing hook that slammed into his tail and nailed him to the outside of the hull, head in the water, arms flailing.
“Bastard,” said the fisherman. One blue eye wasn’t sparkling now, hidden behind a curtain of blood from his brow. “Bastard, bastard, bastard.” The gutting-blade glowered in his hand like a demon’s claw. “Here’s a good spot for it. They like it out here. They took my brother, they’ll take you too.”
The arm raised, the shark screamed, the arm fell, and as it came down the battered old knife’s blade skidded against the shark’s own tooth that he wore on his neck, skidded down its whole length ‘till edge met edge, then shattered hard and cold. The pieces flew into the water and sank away.
The fisherman’s curse turned into a scream as blood poured from his hand, the boat shuddered, and the old, old hull gave up resisting under their weight and the pull of the hook and split its sides, folding itself down into the blue with barely a whisper.
The shark was free – from the boat – but still imprisoned, wrapped around with clothy tatters as timbers and drowning gulls wrapped in sails fell past him into the dark. He wriggled and squirmed in his strait-jacket as he sank, and he felt the terrible pain in his tail of the flensing-hook grow harder and fiercer still. It was the old man, the fisherman; his hands a wound, his smile a fang, his eyes hate, weighing him, weighing them both down as he climbed up and up.
Arms reached for him. Fingers grasped him. Surprise filled him.
And as the shark sped away from that endlessly spiralling wreckage, as the hook fell away from his tail, he could not remove from his mind the close and clear resemblance of the face that had glared hatred into the fisherman’s.

The fisherman’s daughter was on the rock again when the shark came back, bright as a candle in the firelight from the windows of the house above the shore.
“Is he dead?” she asked. And the shark didn’t know what to say.
She sighed at that, and hugged herself a little. “Shall we go?”
“Do you need anything more?” asked the shark. He did not ask if she wished to stay.
“I have my mother’s knife,” she said. “And I have you. And that’s enough.”

They slipped away into the dark currents under the moon’s eye, and were gone. And behind them, stranded alone on the rock in the wind by the waves down the shore, lay a little wooden boat crafted in the shape she’d never carved.

Storytime: A Bitter Pill.

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

The origin of any people smart enough to consider the question is almost always murky. Almost always. Almost.
The truth is most exceedingly touchy, you see, to say nothing of long-forgotten. And it’s so much more entertaining and satisfying to make it up for yourself.
The inhabitants of Matagan claim that they were placed there by the gods in general and their gods in particular. An old chestnut, but they are the fondest of both old chestnuts and this one in particular.
The people of the faraway Terramac do not speculate on their pasts any more than their futures. And in times long-forgotten, no doubt they believed the same thing.
The dunegrowing and strange folk of Gizikk say they walked out of the sand one day in a fit of youthful rebellion, and that they will each only come home to it when they grow old enough to speak its words and think its thoughts once more. This gives their parents less sway than you would think.
The Oth!Arh!Ehn of the Widenedlands hold that they were once nothing more than maggots on the corpse of a bird on a riverbank until the hour of the Drawing Apart came. This is the source of themselves, Ing!Ehn! the city of flesh, and the Oth!Onn!, the great river whose banks are spanned two thousand miles apart. Those who dispute this point at their lack of resemblance to maggots; those who agree contest them to display a man whose innards do not bear distinct resemblance. Such volunteers are scarce, and the evidence garnered thus remains hotly contested.
The Ta’s thoughts on their origins, or whether they have those thoughts at all, are unknown to those that are not Ta. They do know, however, not to ask questions.

By comparison, the tale of the first of the Bitters is practically and literally an open book. For you see, much of it was recorded and documented as it happened.

Simmyon Besch was a man given to proclivities, and rare ones at that. No, not the more common and common-sensical proclivities of the flesh; rather, his Sir Besch, Most Official Magistrate and Counsellor to the Consul of Demmer-Don-Dimmer was a great chaser and hounder-after of the strange and peculiar sensations and patterns of the mind. Six and forty books could have been written on his rulings of the law – although at present they number a mere twenty and nine – but his title and position, and its responsibilities, were at best an inconvenient nuisance to him as he labored at his workbench, squandering his labors to pursue his fancies. The despair of lawyers was the pleasure of the traders and merchants of Demmerdant, for Simmyon’s inexhaustible demand for novelty and ferocious pace of research had quickly exhausted all local psychological substances, and funded many a far-flung expedition.
The men of the colleges frowned at him sometimes, but those that did were inevitably older set in their ways. Those who were possessed of more youth or more kindly nature lent a more benign eye to his efforts. Some few daring professors even offered collaboration, but none – not even those who proffered mere advice free of authorial strings or indebted hints, not one – received more than a polite and thoroughly stated refusal. His Sir Simmyon Besch was not a selfish man, but he was a relentless one that would follow his own lead come hell over hinterlands. His research might be shared, but never its direction.
There are many who wish that Simmyon Besch had had the decency to be selfish.

It was a failure, of course.
They always are, aren’t they? The first man to make cheese wondered at the foul decomposition of his milk; the first maker of sear-taffies groused over how the Nabat-wood some fool had slipped into his ovens had fried his chewy, crunchy jerky into elastic, charcoal-tasting softness; the man who sought to blow a bottle of glass swore mightily as the misshapen lens a sneeze had created bored sunlight into a flame at his britches. Without failures, successes would be rare indeed.
This was small comfort initially to her Lady Menthiss, Highly Official Lord-Judge, on the day the failure occurred. A trial was completed, its filing sorted, its review in dire need and its political fallout in want of plumbing to the utmost fathom. Her hand raised to the latch of the Most Official Magistrate, her throat cleared, and she was promptly catapulted straight onto her rear against the Most Plush Carpetting, left prostrate at the blindly advancing feet of Simmyon Besch.
“It will never work!” he screamed. “Never! The thoughts of mind – made manifest as muck! Party tricks and lies! Frauds! Empty child’s-stink!” He spat so viciously on the carpet as to leave a permanent stain (of what sort was never found), and stamped away in a mood that was very nearly as foul as the stink that wafted from beyond the open doors of his chambers.
Her Lady Menthiss was a woman of utmost conscientiousness. She would never dream – never imagine, never HINT – at intruding upon the premises and possessions of her superiors to satisfying idle curiosity. Such a thing would be an appalling breach of protocol, every bit as recklessly misguided as refusing to investigate a possible health hazard that his Sir might have left behind in his grief-ridden haste. Therefore, she made sure that no servants were about to do themselves harm, then went into Besch’s chambers and shut the doors behind her.
When she emerged a half-hour later, with crossed eyes, a running nose, and a thoughtful expression, the first thing she did was run to a servant and demand that the Lord Dean of Demmerdant be summoned immediately.
The second thing she did was to seize pen and paper and march straightaways back into Simmyon’s Besch’s offices and begin to take notes with the speed of a racehorse in heat, from then until the arrival of the Lord Dean some three hours later.

His Sir Simmyon Besch’s efforts of the last eighteen months had been in utter vain. Rather than creating a medium which would replicate the precise thoughts of an experimenter, bringing the purity of mental and spiritual imagery to the typically meager domain of material form unscathed by clumsy transition through poet’s pen or sculptor’s chisel, he had instead produced a foul-smelling cauldron of oily substances of varying thickness, in volume a little less than two litres. It roiled incessantly, produced surprisingly little noise given the turbulence of its surface, and put the odor of the sharpest cheese in Demmer-Don-Dimmer to shame.
It also produced seemingly random structures within itself given enough time. Lattices of stringy crystals and webs of gummy resins.
If a sufficiently pained note-taker were present, over a sufficiently lengthy period of time, one might recognize said structures were somewhat less than random.
If said notetaker were pathologically rigorous in their observation of detail and mundane reality, and possessed of an unimpeachable memory, one might recognize that they were, in fact, replicating a precise, if highly abstract, map of the surrounding table.
The notetaker, of course, would be highly surprised by this, and greatly excited by the notion of a substance that, although lamentably incapable of telepathic properties, was nevertheless capable of forming a perfect copy of its surroundings. A useful discovery to be sure. Anyone would be happy enough with this. Anyone at all.
But only the most inanely patient person imaginable, a person steeped in pedantry, marinated in tedium, and with a deft grasp of the most monotonous details of language, would’ve noticed that the text from Simmyon Besch’s open (self-authored, incomplete) tome on psychoalchemical processes had been altered substantially in the little model floating in his cauldron. The alphabet and sentence structures were broken down and rearranged, changing, always altering, vanishing and reappearing and restructuring itself like a child playing with blocks. Methodically.

The days that followed were tumultuous and heady, nearly as much so as the vapors that fumed from his Sir Besch’s creation. Besch made no protest when the men of the college removed the object of interest from his study; indeed, he thanked them for sparing his eyes the sight of his failures. His eye’s gain was the loss of their noses: within an afternoon’s time the laboratory the fluid was host to was a den of fumes, and Besch’s cramped, crabbed notes were made nigh-unreadable in the thick haze.
Codes were deciphered. Questions were sent to Besch (once again burdened in the realm of law) and returned with answers which begat more questions. Ingredients were purchased from traders, angrily returned, replaced, exchanged, and finally repurchased. Flames bubbled and laughed to themselves underneath hissing fluids, running riot over iron-rimmed crockpots.
Several of the more elderly professors nearly fainted in the later stages of examination, but after a hasty revival with lemon water, the verdict was triumphant. Where once the college had possessed a single two-liter cauldron of Besch’s mysterious self-teaching fluids, they now held two, virtually indistinguishable in every way.
The only question now was what to do with them. Which would have been so very simple to solve if everyone hadn’t had an answer.

In testing, a broader sampling conveys a more credible result. This is practical and reasonable. And this it was for practical and reasonable motives that over a dozen more of the oil-and-smoke mixtures were produced for consideration, as well as for the purposes of petty feuding and academic tribalism. The urges to tinker and test were nigh-unstoppable, and even close colleagues were set apart from one another on the exact methods to use to probe Besch’s mysterious solutions. His Sir Mozzen Fen was not about to contaminate his processes of psychochemical overlap with the inept bungling of his Professorship Bentin Tanton’s nearreal vapor thematics. And of course neither would be caught dead adding that ludicrous pet project of her Deaconship Tessala Manner’s – dynamic hueing as a conductor of dreams? As likely that the sky were supported by eight cherubs, thank you very much.
No, no, each curious investigator demanded their own playground with which to expand the cognitive horizons of Besch’s brew, and every week more and more of them came to poke and prod and investigate. The quantity of vats used grew too immense for any classroom or study lab, and a gymnasium was conscripted to hold the sheer volume – much to the ire of the students, who not only felt the sting of being deprived of athletics and sportsmanship but also the sore goading of their building’s new overlords, who pressed them into service as monitors, recorders, and minders. While her Professorship snored, a student sat at her vat’s-side, pencil tickling, mind stewing, feet tapping, nose prickling under the veiled mask provided to ensure safety from the noxious vapors.
It shielded the body from harm, perhaps, but the nostrils from disgust, never. Each vat grew its own odors, all varied, all overpoweringly mighty in expression, so that even the sweetest-smelling stew was as great a chore to monitor as that which brought to mind a rotting carcass. The students, left to their own devices, developed their own peculiar means of sorting and identifying the projects. Sours. Sweats. Sicklies. Sweets. Bitters. Rotters.

It was the Sicklies that produced the first results, some two months later. While nodding off over his studies, the nameless student on observation duty for the vat – whose only known traits must include an iron stomach, as the Sicklies were jointly if unofficially ranked the vilest of the brews – raised his eyes from the tiresome book he was poring over, rubbed futilely at them with fatigued paws, and returned his gaze to the words in front of his face. So deep was his exhaustion that it took until the end of the sentence for him to realize he was staring into the cauldron rather than his textbook and reading a question instead of a tiresome piece of anecdotal evidence.
The question was thus: what am I?
Whether – whatever – the student responded is also unknown.

The cognition, as that moment was dubbed, was credited to the tireless efforts of Professor Tanton. His nearreal vapors were a good deal nearer than any had surmised, including his Professorship himself, and he was rained so greatly in glory that he near-drowned in it. The creation of an artificial psyche, in a laboratory, from a culture of mere liquid and gas, broiled through a piping system of not-quite-there ethereal mist scavenged from beyond the Sill itself! The only name of genius more eagerly swept from lip to lip was that of Simmyon Bash, the man whose grand failure had begat such a triumph.
Alas, his Sir Besch was not available to witness the fruiting of his glory. He had been found three weeks before the cognition, at his desk, immobile. Surrounding him on that ornate wooden surface were a mechanically-altered Ta Listenstem, a lead-woven and silver-inlaid pouch of sand and gold of Gizikk origin, a female Sfoll’s prime brain-horn, heavily-stained with unknown substances, and a series of exotically-constructed vials containing mind-altering fluids, powders, and particles too potent to be named, let alone sold. His expression was quite impossible to read, and most novel to all who looked upon it.
The cause of death was deemed to be a blood-clot in the brain, though no-one quite dared to perform an autopsy on that augustly domed forehead, for fear of seeing what may have lain within.

Of course, when all the champagne and shoom have been consumed, there’s still the tidying-up of the research left to be done. Tedious, but necessary. Like chewing.
First and foremost was the rapid shunting away of the failed vats. As important as they had been when they could have heralded the soon-to-be Great Discoveries of their creators, they were now embarrassing might-have-beens, and the sooner it could be pretended that they had never existed, the better. The failures – and the one or two students that were felt to be necessary to tokenly ‘observe’ them – were shut up away in a small laboratory and ignored for the sake of many a scholarly reputation.
After that came the tests. Tests of intellect, tests of responsiveness, tests of basic empathy and emotional development, tests tests tests. Some of the later ones the Sicklies began to suggest improvements for, and that was when reserve was cast to the winds and gales in favor of headlong informational exchange.
The Sicklies were apt pupils, and quick learners – though of course, all communication had to be done by means of placing texts adjacent to their cauldron. But with a swift stenographer and the addition of further bulk material to the Sicklies to aid in construction, communication was fluid and swift. Within hours of discussion in philosophy, they were giving even ground to his Doctorship Iblon Nott in matters of ethics. A week of biology and chemistry gave them expertise enough to speculate upon the parallels between their own forms and that of those who taught them, and within a short month the Sicklies were polymaths of a sort unrivalled within the school’s walls.
It was most disturbing. But permissible. Novelty is permissible.
And then one day, as the Lord Dean himself was just concluding an exhaustive interview with the Sicklies on the subject of the governance of Demmerdant’s academic community, a question emerged within its depths: when may I see the city?
The Lord Dean gave the eminently reasonable reply that the Sicklies had of course seen the city already, or were they not this very moment within the hallowed walls of his office; his, the Lord Dean of all Demmerdant, the greatest city in Demmer-Don-Dimmer?
The rest of it. All of it. I want to see its walls. I want to see its rivers. I want to see its markets and its highways and its towers. I want to see the palace of the Consul of Demmer-Don-Dimmer, and I want to see this building from the outside as it truly is. I want to see the city, and judge for myself whether it is what I have imagined it to be.
The Lord Dean hemmed and hawed of ‘lack of preparation’ and ‘all things in good time’ – adeptly, for he was no freshly minted member of faculty – and sent the Sicklies away. Immediately following this he consulted with his professorial council, and from the pooling of their collective wisdom and matured insight the following was determined:
That the substance which was capable of learning, known as the Sicklies, did possess desire and drives.
That the Sicklies did also possess self-assertion and the capability to ignore or argue against perfectly good advice.
That the Sicklies were indeed already possessed of knowledge pertaining to many of the physical and psychological sciences comparative to that of the collected council, in a post-cognition period of less than a month in length.
That this knowledge so generously (in hindsight, perhaps less than wisely) shared to it could be dangerous, especially in so changeable an entity, and one capable of expanding its intellect so rapidly.
And finally
That something should be done about this situation.
Which was
That the Sicklies must be disposed of.

It was easy enough. The Sicklies remained in their original small, lightweight cauldron. As simple as picking it up and carrying it to the nearest waste-sink. As simple as tipping it forward a few degrees, held gingerly in gloved fingertips by a student who was only a little more cautious than bored.
The liquid drained away quite rapidly, despite its thick and sluggish appearance. Behind it remained only a hairline-thin crystalline lattice, half-formed into half-thought sentences, already brittle and pale in the daylight that peered through the laboratory’s cobwebbed windowpane.
Three taps sent that into the sink as well, and a rush of water to follow.
Even the smell was gone.

After the Sicklies were disposed of, the question remained of what to do with the remainder of the vats. And of course, it required many hours of debate after a full reformation of the professorial council to reach the eminently sensible decision to do away with them too.
The sinks required the attention of plumbers at least three times during the process, and one unfortunate had the entire contents of the Sharps spilt all over him from head to toe, putting him in a vinegar-scented sickbay for over a month. But this, asides from a few stubbed toes, was the only real disruption of a messy but necessary business. The sun set, the sun rose, and the college of Demmerdant was as it had been before. Serene and knowledgeable.
One week later, the Bitters walked through its doors.

Much of what had occurred in the gap between the purging of the vats and then is supposition and guesswork, troubled by a lack of important witnesses and much use of it-stands-to-reason. But the general presumption is this: the Sicklies had been the first of the vats to reach cognition, but they had not been the last. Somewhere in the hubbub and excitement of the event’s aftermath, somewhere in a dimmed room with only a solitary set of distracted eyes to observe, the Bitters had awoken, or perhaps simply finally found the means with which to express thoughts that had long been simmering in their depths.
It had learned, perhaps. In the quiet, it had theorized and tested and predicted and observed all by itself. It had taken lessons from the dark and been tutored by dust, it had hypothesized of the world outside the doors by the dirt on the boots of its monitor, it had inducted biology from the germs and mites and spiders.
And while it learned, it had learned to move.
Crystalline lattices were a known thing to it. Extending them was no real feat of logic. Searching the immediate environs with these probes for nutritional additions was an incentive to explore, as well as a good means of providing more fuel to build with.
The testimony of the second plumber should be mentioned here. After his turn at the laboratory sink, conducted from the dankness of the basement, he swore that the cause of the blockage had been a rat ‘lodged-whole’ in the laboratory drain, and that the creature had skittered away with a clumsy gait after he freed it. “A wonder the thing ‘twasn’t drowned.”
Following this, analysis of recovered texts from the college indicate that student book theft from the library rose nearly 400% over the week, in direct flabberghastment of a statistically expected average of records from the last century. This was noticed, complained of, and collected together with warnings of missing lab equipment, particularly glass beakers and the like. Dark suggestions were made of students plotting to brew psychoactive substances for their own childish amusement, and the dorms were searched no less than twice, without warning each time.
Nothing was found, the disappearances of odds and ends were chalked up to carelessness, and the life of the college moved on.
On the day the Bitters stepped through the guard doors of the college of Demmerdant, it stood five feet eleven inches in height, approximately, and not much less in width. In shape it was a lump with limbs – four stumpy legs that moved in oddly sinuous motion, and a pair of great elongated reaching things with blunted appendages. In matter, it was glass, it was ceramic, it was metallic, it was a hundred, a hundred more vials and beakers and cauldrons and pots and kettles and cups and dishes, all sealed in strangely malleable glue that beaded with a dark and heady perspiration. This figure was lashed together with twine, wire, rope and an unhealthy conglomerate of glistening near-solids; it should not have stood upright, and yet it strode faster than a man might run. The air around it seared the nostrils raw with its intensity, and in its left paw it bore a great sign, etched with almost delicate calligraphy into a torn piece of oak that had once been a plank from a study hall’s floor.
It read: I HAVE SEEN.

The college was hit the hardest, with only the quickest and luckiest escaping. By the time the Bitters walked through the gates of Demmerdant College once more it found itself facing a full platoon of the city guard armed to the teeth with the Consul’s largesse: weapons from the Terramac, crafted from strange alloys that seemed to glow too brightly in the sunlight.
It was a frightful thing, to be sure. Its surface glistened with fresh blood, and its limbs were entangled with unspeakable masses. Redness suffused it, mixing with its natural murk, and it held the sign I HAVE SEEN aloft high and proud as it marched without pause towards the massed men-at-arms of Demmerdant.
It was glass, it was ceramic, it was – in some part – metallic, and none of those things, however hostile the force that powered them, could withstand the force of a full volley of Shentomaran Shells – the buzzing, vibrating little disks shrieked and whirred as they bored through mulch and kitchenwares and metal. The Bitters quivered and spilled its guts across the college’s doorstep, across the cobbles that had seen a dozen generations of graduates, and it moved no more.
There was silence in the street then, save the humming of the weaponry. Silence, and then a strange scrabbling sound that was the most important in all the world.
From a doorway shambled a small thing, not much larger than a cat, crafted almost entirely from a single cauldron. Its limbs were cutlery, and the glue that held it was thick as sludge.
From a window came shattered glass and a crawling thing that looked to be an entire kitchen’s-worth of containers, all sealed now, all full of something that roiled without boiling.
From the river came a low, long grinding, and the hull of a river-barge scraped its way over the sides, fitted with limbs that had once been masts. It stank of old weeds and fresh scum.
And only hesitantly, slowly, reluctantly in the wake of this unveiling, came the screams of all of Demmerdant.

As a whole, Demmer-Don-Dimmer got off lightly.
The college was nigh-purged.
The Consul’s palace was eliminated entirely, and not a man nor woman living can still say what took place there.
Those who did not fight but only fled – those who were not of the college, that is – were let be, and permitted to flee to strange lands and familiar disdain, there to live their lives as best as they would be begrudgingly permitted. “Dims” was a word used harshly, and far too often for far too long.

Today, Demmer-Don-Dimmer is a quiet place, and empty. A pittance of cats gone feral prowl the jungles that were once housing, and pigeons roost in ransacked bookcases. People too may wander as they will within the realm, to marvel at the soaring, untouched walls, to stare at the falling, creaking things that were its towers, its markets, its highways.
But when their eyes turn to its rivers, they turn away. For the stench of those bodies of water – of all the water in all of Dimmer-Don-Dimmer that does not come from rainfall – is beyond belief, and things grow in its depths that cannot be seen, hidden safely under thick curtains of silt and worse.
They do not speak often. They act on the outside world still less, save when their domain is intruded upon.
For the most part, the aged oaken plank jabbed into the muck at the edge of Demmerdant’s docks holds the only message that the Bitters are willing to leave, inscribed thickly over the older, worn words that it once held.
I HAVE JUDGED.

The Life of Small-five (part 18).

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Cycle the lenses.
Small-five did so. Pain happened.
Again.
Small-five repeated herself.
Once again.
And again.
Wandering-tail-flickers pulsed to herself as she watched, one eye on Small-five, one on her glowshine terminal. Amazing. So many layers.
Yes yes, amazing, wonderful, astounding, incredible, broke in All-fin. How is the damage?
Wandering-tail gleamed peevishly, but cut herself off. A clean cut, but a severe one. The eye will detect light and shade, but little else. Another inch or so, and it would be a different story. Do you know, I think she was aiming for your brain?
Small-five knew.
She was a slow second-place then, said All-fin. Can’t you do something about this?
While the power to regrow entire organs would be a pleasant one, it is not within my capabilities, said the doctor. I will patch the eye to let it mend itself, but further development will be or not be at its own whim. At least, that’s what I’d say were you a healthy adult – I must admit, your physiology is half-guess and half-presumption on my part. Has your diet changed substantially since your metamorphosis? How about your range of visible light? Did your hunting habits adjust instinctually to the loss of a proboscis? And that’s not even to touch on the alterations to your brain, or your psyche. Do you think you could…?

Small-five left the medical chamber some hours later and was immediately submerged in a roiling wave of worried, frantically-shining juveniles. All-fin’s protests were shoved aside as rudely as All-fin herself by the mass of bobbing light and hurrying bodies.
All-right-safe?
Hurt-you? Who-
What-happened-to
Where was-
-the-other-died-
-your-eye-on-your-eye-
Calm, shone Small-five, low and simply and smooth. And begrudgingly, happily, her school listened to her. Just as well. She didn’t feel she had the energy to overglow at them.
I am well, aside from this eye. I am safe now. No-one here means any of us harm-
Both-fins twitched nearly uncontrollably at this.
-no-one remains who means any of us harm, reiterated Small-five. And this sort of behaviour is exactly why none of you could accompany me in there. Be calm, be sensible. The Mother-leader waited with you, did she make half the fuss you did?
She’s not the only one waiting, said Dim-glow.

If All-fin had changed, however superficially, Dim-glow was a walking memory. Looking at her big sister – so small now – Small-five could almost believe that it was long ago again, when the world was sensible and kind, with no secrets that were not made by nature, and her sisters never more than a quick search away from her side. Even the repeatedly-wrecked-and-repaired bandoleer of tools still slung around her sister’s body was familiar, if somewhat more waterworn.
They only told me just now, she said. I finished the job, recommended the followup crew, filed a report, and was halfway back to tool storage before anyone got word to me. I’ve half a mind to put a few more eyes out to match yours; what good is a perfectly orderly power plant if nobody can be bothered to use it to send me a message?
Small-five wanted to say something to that, but she found she couldn’t. She wanted to stroke her sister’s skull with her proboscis, but she couldn’t do that either, and the memory of the muscles was already half-faded into the past. She settled for nudging Dim-glow with her snout as gently as possible, sending her sister wobbling.
Good-see-you-too, she replied, quiet and fast, then pulsed in surprise. What’s wrong with your eye? I thought all I missed was a meeting.
A divisive one, said Small-five. faint-marks-unclear is dead.
How?
I killed her.
This created one of those unnaturally dim moments in all conversations.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, breaking the dark. You have had your demands met, if somewhat…imperfectly. faint-marks may have spoken too harshly –
-tried to kill her- broke in All-fin.
-and she may have acted in misguided anger, overglowed Outward-spreading, so smoothly that it nearly wasn’t shouting, but she informed you of the facts as they are known, and the reasons behind your expulsion. This was done in front of all of Far-away-light, as you again demanded.
All of Far-away-light that wasn’t at the bottom of our reactor at the time, interjected Dim-glow.
Recordings were made. You will have the opportunity to view them, although I trust you have already been informed of events. Outward-spreading was shining absently, almost as though she were talking to a sister, or herself; her glow hazy at the edges. Now that your conditions – your demands – have been met, what do you wish?
If it’s not too much trouble, Mother-leader, said Small-five, I would like to know why you are being so cooperative and forthcoming.
Outward-spreading rippled gently, small waves of light thrown off her sides like seaspray. Resistance garners less than nothing and risks much. You have ordered the leadership of Far-away-light about, forced our most private knowledge into the open for all to see and shine at, and killed one of us without so much as a touch. All of this in plain sight of the populace. What is left to fight for?
You could always kill us, offered All-fin, almost casually, and swear the city to secrecy.
Something almost like scorn shone through Outward-spreading, the harshest rebuke Small-five had seen in the years she’d learned from the elder. Do you think we hid our secrets because we trusted the whole world to agree with their needfulness? A few at a time could be eliminated or hidden away. There is no hiding what took place today. It is twelve thousand living memories, it is a hundred othershine records, it is faint-marks’s body being tended to in the medical chambers beneath us. Whatever could silence this would itself be an even more dramatic incident. No, no… this city will not forget what was learned in our library, although some may wish it.
You? asked Small-five.
Some, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine clotting. I will not lie to you: an old friend of mine would be swimming still if you had never returned to this place.
Another long, slow moment passed by, ending as Glow-over slid into the huddle with a speed that turned the instantaneity of her halting into a minor miracle.
You’re up and about? All fine? No brain damage, no glowshine poisoning, no muscular spasms?
Yes-
Then would you please come outside slightly quicker than you’re able? These ‘fathers’ of yours are getting impatient. More than impatient. Please. Hurry.

Small-five somewhat thought that the head of Safety had been exaggerating; the fathers had only grouped themselves into a tight schooling formation, and although this was certainly a sign of more-than-usual tension as opposed to the more loose grouping they’d been left to enjoy earlier, it was not significant cause for alarm. Probably. All the same, she was happy to have the chance to take their measure again – still calm enough, even after all the strangeness they’d seen that day. Her eyepatch brought no real regard, and she wondered if they would’ve remained similarly nonchalant if the wound were open and bleeding.
The fathers, regardless, were soothed, and after that the question of where to house them came up.
The juvenile chamber? suggested Small-five.
I’m not sure how large you recall that place being, but halve that, said Shine-center flatly. Then halve it again. You’re not that small anymore, and they certainly aren’t.
The food-park then, said Dim-glow.
Do you have any idea how much those things’ll eat? We’re dealing with a full school of juveniles without warning already, and if we end up going hungry all summer because of this…
They shouldn’t, said Small-five. At least, not if they’re quiescent. They’ve lived for years through arctic summers, head of Maintenance. They can control themselves.
They had to use the largest Maintenance entrance to fit the fathers through, and they very nearly balked at the gates, but once they were in they seemed quite pleased at the whirl of colour that made up the reefcolony. Small-five wondered if they could remember their youths, in the long-ago time before they were made fathers, before they left home.

Her school was the next problem. Persuade as she would, more than half of her juveniles – Both-fins and Thin-sweeping included – were loath to part ways with her, even for lessons in the library. She found herself having to hover close at hand as teaching was conducted, and spent more than one night in the juvenile chamber, watching the currents flow along Far-away-light’s sides and counting the numbers of curious ‘passerbys’ who shuttled back and forth along the chamber’s mouth, seeking to catch a glimpse of her. The numbers refused to fall day by day, and she found herself too disturbed to keep the game up.
Of course, this meant her school accompanied her on the matters that consumed much of her time now: meetings upon arguments upon debates upon plans conducted with Outward-spreading, Shine-center, Glow-over, and Six-whirling-flares, the freshly appointed chief of Populism. Small-five had only met Six-whirling a few times before; she had always been a quiet presence in the background beyond faint-marks, a checker and a balancer and a measurer of small things that were important, like food, shelter, and timetables. It was a reassuring thing to have in those times, as the chamber grew thick with glowshine and annoyance, to have at least one person near your side at all times who was almost guaranteed to be calm. Especially as a counterbalance to All-fin, who was almost guaranteed not to be.
Well, of course it was the right thing to do, shone Glow-over. Maybe none of us felt quite as passionately about it as faint-marks did, but you already heard the explanation from her.
Heard it, why should I believe it? shone All-fin. I don’t see why having an easier way of doing things should choke us out of ideas – there’ll always be Researchers, inventors, idea-makers, and there always HAVE been. You probably weren’t looking in the right places to find what they left behind in the old days.
You presume, shone Six-whirling. We have ample evidence of ourselves during the reign of the aberrant through preserved remains. What we lack almost entirely are artifacts, which appear very quickly in the wake of their downfall. Your thinkers existed, All-fin. But they were becoming aberrants, not creators.
It’s been millennia, shone Dim-glow. We’ve learned. We’ve changed. The gene is rare, you’ve said so yourself, and we’re scarcely simple wanderers anymore. What harm would letting this re-emerge do?
Rare or not, shone Outward-spreading, its expression in any real numbers will trigger regression. Or have you forgotten the impact of one individual so quickly, with her swimming at your side? A resurgence of aberrants will come alongside a downfall of our society, or do you think that we will be trusted when it is learned what we have hidden? She shone negative. Maybe the cities will not be abandoned. At first. Maybe Research will not slide off into the abyss. Yet. But these things will come to pass as long as there is a visible easy current for all to see, a quick way to avoid immediate pain and hunger at the cost of future –
Outward-spreading, said Small-five. When I told faint-marks-unclear what I saw, I spoke the truth.

Outward-spreading gleamed acknowledgement.
The infants die on the reefcolonies, Mother-leader. The juveniles die at the polar seas, die in the wastes of the open seas on their way here. By myself, ignorant, I brought back almost more alive and healthy in one trip than Far-away-light might have received all year at the whim of the ice floes, starved and abused. There is nothing that can excuse this. You remember how long I spent in the library the first time I saw it, Mother-leader. You know how much love I feel for that place. And Mother-leader, if it would save a single infant, I would have that place torn to bits and scattered to the currents. And you know I am telling the truth.
Fine, shone Glow-over, breaking into the conversation. Then I presume that sustaining our present population by permitting the young to struggle is out of the question – you say we must not do it and I doubt we’re in a position to deny you.
Yet the alternative, added Shine-center, –namely, letting you and whoever else makes this change take charge of all of us again – we cannot do, not unless we want to regress back to bare proboscises alone as our only tools.
There will be suffering in that, Small-five-point-burst-of-light, shone Six-whirling. And given all of this, what then is it that we should do?

In the end, nearly half of Far-away-light volunteered. Many of those who remained behind were Maintenance, who knew history in the making when they saw it but also could see an emergent disaster when it was staring them in the face.
Yes, it’s likely that the place could run properly without me, Shine-center had said. It’s also likely that if anything goes wrong, I’ll be needed. It’s almost certain that if I’m needed in my absence, someone will die. So no, I’m not leaving.
Besides, she’d noted, you’ve got no shortage of volunteers.
Exactly five thousand seven hundred and forty-three adults. And all of her sixty-one juveniles. She’d explained herself carefully, she’d thought, but not a single one had wanted to stay behind.
If you do this good a job on your other stops, this may be simpler than you’d thought, Dim-glow had shone.
Small-five had thanked her sister, but as she looked out over the sides of Far-away-light, blazing with glowshine, she was absolutely sure that calling anything of this venture ‘simple’ would be the most blatant lie. Dozens of voyages, each thousands of miles long awaited them all. Even with nearly all of Safety among them, even with the vaults of provisions emptied, even with every scrap of planning a half-year of constant meetings could craft, this would be nearly impossible.
Small-five felt the glowshine rise up within her, and swallowed her nerves. She knew what she had to say, as they all watched her.
Give them the truth, she shone. All of the truth. The good and the bad.
And tell them that if they must choose, they need not choose one.
The lights of the city flared once in acknowledgement, and for the second time in Small-five’s life she was enveloped in a wave of cascading bodies, swept along in a storm that swam. Only this time she was not alone.
It wouldn’t last. Their destinations were a hundred cities, then a hundred more. Split into many groups, their courses would begin to diverge almost immediately.
It wouldn’t last. But still, it was so very sweet to her.

Storytime: Stuff.

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Look, there’s just one thing I want you to know, okay? It’s all your fault.
“Sure, you can have the place,” you said.
“No really, it’s fine,” you said.
“For the weekend? Absolutely,” you said.
And then you said it: “just clean out all my stuff first, okay?”
“It’ll just get in the way.”
You rotten sonuvabitch.

So we got our party supplies and our drinks and our friends and our drinks and our drinks, and we all went out there. Because we trusted you.
And then we opened the door, and were face to face with stuff. All your stuff.
“Just clean out all my stuff first, okay?”
Well yeah. There was no room in there otherwise, was there?

Jenny, she figured it’d be no big deal. We’d get some bags, get some bent backs, get your stuff in the bags. Garbage bags’d do fine, for that stuff.
Well, the bags got filled, the backs got bent, but when we’d emptied out the whole fifty-bag box, guess what we were still stuck with? More stuff.
So, more bags. There was a store right down the corner. Got a couple of boxes.
So, more stuff. ‘Nuff said.
So, square one. Again. With more stuff.

Where’d you get all this stuff, anyways? You never struck me as that much of a packrat. But fuck me, I’ve seen hoarders with less of it. I’ve seen millionaires with less of it. So much damned stuff.
Steve just moved a few days ago, still had time left on the truck. It was a big truck, too. Steve also has stuff, you see.
He pulled it up, said we could fill it up. Just until the party was over.
So we filled it up and up and up and up ‘till the door couldn’t close. With stuff.
Now how’d you guess that wasn’t good enough, huh?

Well, Steve was real mad after the truck got full up, and we had to take out some of the party supplies and drinks and calm him down, him and Joey. So while we were doing that, Joey said that what we should do is just shovel it all out, worry about the cleanup later. And hey, we’ve all had worse ideas while we’re drunk, right? Right.
So we took the snowshovels from your garage, and we started shovelling your stuff. Out the windows, out the doors, THROUGH the window in one case…
(Steve said it was an accident, and we don’t believe him, and neither should you).
Didn’t matter. Too much damned stuff. Ankle-deep and sometimes it looked like it was rising.

We were getting desperate. Well, Bob got more than desperate. All that stuff. He said hey, your house has a metal frame, right? And stuff burns damp, right? And we could just soak down the walls first, right? And you had fire insurance, right?
So, right?
Stuff don’t burn damp.
Stuff barely burns at all.
I swear to you that we dumped every bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, oil, machine oil, and olive oil we could find in the house and in our cars all over that stuff. We went through sixteen books of matches, four lighters, and your little candle-lighter.
Stuff smouldered. And it smelt like a horse’s armpit, if that armpit were in an elephant’s asshole. The smoke could be seen for miles, but if you wanted to catch wind of a spark, you’d need a microscope.

Well, after we’d finished coughing
-and wheezing-
-and stomping-
-and smothering-
-one of us must’ve said “hey, let’s try it going the other way, and that’s why we turned on all your faucets and showers and flooded your toilets and ran your hoses.
Because if you can’t fight stuff with fire, water’s worth a try. Right?
Right!
Wrong.
The stuff thickened like concrete. A lot of it had congealed by now, and separating stuff A from stuff B was going from hard to impossible. There were no stuffs now. Only Stuff.

Steve had gone missing in the fog, I guess. I guess he did.
I mean, we didn’t notice him going missing. But then he came back in a bulldozer, so I guess he went SOMEWHERE.
Drove that thing in full throttle, foaming at the mouth. I didn’t hear a word he said, but I suspect if I’d had it would’ve driven my ears black and blue.
He hit the stuff. The stuff hit back.
That big old yellow bulldozer that looked like a child’s my-first-Tonka rumbled, roared, shrieked, and started smoking from every jowl.
We pulled old Steve out and started trying to back it up. That’s when we realized there was more to it all than smoke.
It burned a lot better than the stuff did.

Electrical fires, slow-burning fires, all that loose damp and muck from the stuff….it was one helluva brew, let me tell you that.
Especially since Karen dropped some of our party supplies in there by mistake.
We all got a little distracted for a while. And then the cops showed up, went in without gas masks, and well, they got a little distracted too.
And once we’d woken up, the stuff was set.
Dead set.
In every doorframe.
You ever try to claw through taffy with your fingernails?
Well, it’s not as bad as stuff.

The fire department got us out. Blunted six axes on the stuff and gave three firefighters chronic back pain for a week.
But the good news was there too. You know those chemicals they use as fire retardants in fire extinguishers? That stuff?
Turns out it disagrees with your stuff. It disagreed with it all the ways down the drain.
Then the fumes disagreed with everyone else all at once. Lord-a-mercy that thing did not sublimate cleanly.

So.
We’ve cleaned out your stuff.
We didn’t even get the weekend.
And we’ve all got damaged lung tissue.
And the fire department, the police department, and the department of health and safety are all mad at us.
So that’s why you’re going to step the hell up and fork over the cash for fifty-nine paintjobs on the cruiser force and firetrucks. And quit trying to pass the blame here. If you’d had more self-control when it came to stuff, none of this would’ve been an issue.

Storytime: What’s the Beef?

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

7/12: The meat shipment arrived two hours late. Demanded recompense, was denied. A full half of the beef provided was clearly aged past fit consumption, stored at inadequate temperature, filled with disturbing quantity of tendons (possibly not even from cow?). Demanded recompense, was permitted to return half of it now, half next week, must store excess in the rear freezer.
Name of driver: William Henderson. Will report him unfavourably; customer service is a priority too often disregarded.
P. Morgan asked for raise again, was denied. Gets free coffee, what more does the leech want? Should be more like T. Gordon; man’s worked here since ’79 and not a peep of it from him. Minimum wage and minimum complaining keep a body pure, steadfast, and noble.

7/13: Milk arrived five minutes late. Demanded recompense, was denied, threatened consequences, was permitted refund. Name of driver: mumbled too quickly to hear, left before clarification could be demanded. Gutless.
P. Morgan asked for raise again, told him if he was so greedy he could take home some of our unfit ‘beef’. P. Morgan complained of this. Loafer.

7/14: Bread arrived on time. Good. Heavy traffic this weekend, employees will have to volunteer for unpaid overtime. Trouble foreseen from P. Morgan, E. Cheswick, S. Nancy, the usual stockroom box-haulers and supply-shovers. Doubtlessly union sympathizers the lot of them.
P. Morgan uncommonly shiftless today, requested time off for sick leave, whined of beef being hard on delicate stomach. Transparent ruse, ordered him back to work.

7/15: Produce truck arrived six hours late and with half our load missing without explanation. Demanded recompense, was denied, demanded name of driver, was referred to “Hubert Jassol,” demanded real name of driver, was denied, demanded name of supervisor, was flipped off. Altogether unsatisfactory, a downright shame. Would change produce supplier if their prices weren’t competitive, will settle for complaining of the matter to police.
P. Morgan has absented himself from work today without even phoning in. Astounding nerve and gall. His job is forfeit, as is reputation, if that even existed.

Addendum: P. Morgan did not sign out last night. Drunk on duty? Burglarized backroom and left through a window? Possibilities numerous, outcomes revolting.

7/16: Monday, the slow day. Just E. Cheswick and T. Gordon plus myself as supervisor. E. Cheswick came to me three times complaining of rats in the backroom. Ordered more traps put down.
P. Morgan does not answer his phone.
Addendum: While placing traps and otherwise doing E. Cheswick’s job for him, T. Gordon found decapitated, gutted rat. A stray cat has taken up residence, providence be praised. Money saved on traps used to purchase a donut for myself.

7/17: S. Nancy whines incessantly of strange noises in the stockroom shelves. Informed him of our feline guardian, admonished him for timid and small-hearted nature, mocked him for attempting to explain self as having marathoned horror films previous night, chortled at his slothful childishness being the source of his workplace misfortunes. Offered to have T. Gordon do the rest of his job for him, as if he didn’t already.
A good day.
Addendum: P. Morgan’s phone is no longer in service.

7/18: T. Gordon is now the only staff member willing to enter the stockroom alone – others travel in pairs, even to move so much as a box of coffee filters. Shameful degenerates, hallucinatory nitwits. Still they waffle of strange noises. S. Nancy claims he heard breathing. S. Nancy is so fat he hyperventilates every three steps without rest. S. Nancy has had his pay docked for the evening.
P. Morgan has still not tendered his resignation, and his landlady denies having seen him or heard news of his rent. Commiserated with her on the state of the young and lazy thugs that make up this country’s next generation for three hours. Got her number.
Addendum: Woke up four times overnight in my office. A bad donut? Too much coffee? New Coke fridge too noisy? Hard to say, but sleep is bafflingly elusive tonight.

7/19: Awoke, opened office door, found a trail of what appeared to be bloodied footprints strewn about its threshold, well-crusted and old.
A shoddy prank. I would suspect P. Morgan of it were he not absent, S. Nancy is too timid and E. Cheswick too lazy. T. Gordon? An impossibility.
Shoplifting has gone up. Half our meat aisle is depleted, and our sales do not match. May yet need that spoiled meat from the back.
Addendum: On closer inspection, some of them were handprints.

7/20: Friday. A busy time. We must stock up, regardless of panic and prankage. The staff refuse to enter the backroom at all now, all save T. Gordon. May they one day know one-tenth the courage and steadfastedness of an 83-year-old blind, deaf near-mute. Nothing but some red paint and their livers turn to lilies
The spoiled meat is gone, and the freezer left wide and gaping. P. Morgan, curse him! Not only did he desert us, he stole company property! I will review our cameras so the police will take him to task.

Addendum: Our backroom cameras have been defaced with more red paint for some days. All records useless.

7/21: Saturday night and T. Gordon has gone missing. Even the most faithful desert me! T. Gordon may have injured himself somehow. E. Cheswick and S. Nancy will search for him, or so help me I will peel their hides and staple them to the bulletin board.
Update: No sign of T. Gordon.
Update II: The building is closed, and not only is there no sign of T. Gordon, E. Cheswick, the worthless lout, appears to have crept off from work without leave. The impertinence of the youth of today is eternal. A good man is missing, and they think only of their own inconvenience! Without T. Gordon, how will the Sunday stocking be undertaken!?

7/22: E. Cheswick’s roommate came looking for him. Told the filthy pothead off, I will not allow such smells in my store. The wad of spittle was a fair trade against five more minutes of his odious presence.
Oh T. Gordon! Why leave me alone in this hour? S. Nancy refuses to leave the front desk at the day and flees openly from the prospect of a night shift, and I can spare only so much time from supervision! Without you, Holbert & Holbert Grocers is less than it was. Without you, the coffee is without taste. Without you, sweeping is a chore once more.
Addendum: Have shut up my office door with a padlock. For caution’s sake. Vandals cannot prank their mischiefs upon the contents of my files! Will sleep lightly tonight, as a cat, in wait for intruders.

7/23?: Believe it is early morning. Woke to use washroom, used doorknob without thinking, found padlock missing and door already slightly ajar. Difficult to tell due to (apparent) power failure, but stickiness on floor (and small bump – inspection reveals it as T. Gordon’s glasses? How?) suggests further vandalism has taken place.
Update: Cannot exit through front door. Padlock has been affixed to it and bashed so severely that key will not enter it. Lack of power prohibits phone line (would that I had a youth’s cellphone, curse it) but 7/11 across the way still shows lights. Perhaps the fusebox is damaged?

Update II: Fusebox has been torn from the wall and violently shredded. Crowbar maybe?

Update III: Stockroom full of rats by sound of it. Unhygienic. Will remain in power closet for now. Hantavirus would not be pleasant, nor rabies.

Update IV: Door is being scrabbled at. P. Morgan! It must be! Fool cannot possibly know my presence, must be coming back to commit further vandalism! Pocket-flashlight is ready, will catch him in the act w/red paint and all. Look on his face will b