Archive for November, 2014

Storytime: Akki.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

The women sat at the campfire, watching embers turn into fireflies. The elder held out her hand: two straws. The younger reached out: one straw. The elder’s palm flexed, and the fire flared: no straws.
“I’m for it, then,” said the younger. “Don’t forget about me, you hear? Be careful now. You watch yourself.”
The elder nodded, and she turned over in on herself in her blanket, watching the fireflies bleed out into the dark.

The younger woman walked down the hill from the fire, jumped through the crags, darted under the broken slabs, danced through the scree, and stood at last before the great dead stump. No tree grew for seven day’s walk in this waste, not after this had been felled.
“Hey you!” she sang out. “Listen! Old Cold-Akki! Akki! Akki Boulder-Nose! Akki Bone-Grinder! Hey! Akki with the teeth! I’m calling you out, I’m calling you up! Listen!”
The stump shook, and from its base out crawled Akki, all legs and lank and a big smile that wasn’t a smile that was just teeth from edge to edge. She wore nothing but hair and thrived on bristliness. “I’m here,” said Akki. “What do you want with me now that I’m out? You get a request, and a meal, and a night. All at once. Now what do you want with me? Now that I’m out.”
“I’m up for a fight, if you’d rather,” said the young woman. “I’m plenty strong and you’re plenty wicked. Lots want you dead, Akki. You eat the young and mock the old; you steal husbands and kill wives; you killed this tree and you killed your family. You’re better off bones than not. Come on now.”
“Let’s eat first then,” said Akki. “I’ll not go cheating anyone who’s asking for me. You’ll get your meal and at least half a night first, then we finish off with the request. Let’s eat first.”
“I can eat after you’re bones on stones, Akki,” said the young woman. “Come on now, let’s fight. I’ll chew you up later, just you wait.”
Akki smiled a real smile now, a real wicked one, and she was ready. “You first,” she said. “Don’t be shy, take a stab, aim at my heart and don’t miss. You swing at me first.”
And the young woman didn’t need encouragement, so she aimed straight and – bang! – sent her blade right at Akki’s old cold stone of a heart, but it bounced off her iron skin and oh she laughed. The rocks shivered at it, but she laughed until they split.
“Oh little thing!” she laughed. “You’ve as much might as a mouse! I’m tougher than rock and stronger than stone; metal sparks and wood breaks. Only thing that goes and splits my own flesh and bone is my own flesh and bone, and I don’t feel generous. Oh little thing, I don’t at all.”
And Akki swooped down on the young woman with her long, long legs and kicked her limb from limb, bone from blood, and ate until she was full all night long. Then she belched, and she spit, and she tucked herself right into her stump for the evening.

The elder woman was watching from the campfire, with her ears. Her eyes were shut but she let them leak a little. Then she curled tighter, and slept until dawn washed it all away.

Now was next day, and down the slope came the elder woman. She slipped through the crags, crawled under the broken slabs, tiptoed through the scree, and then she was there at the great dead stump of Akki, where she could smell the curdled dreams of the old hag-giant brewing.
“Akki,” she said. “Wake up now.”
There was a snort and a wheeze and up from the roots came Akki again, twice as fat and half again as leggy. She wore smug like a sheet.
“Two?” she asked. “There’s more than one, that is, that’s more. Two?”
The elder woman shrugged.
“Well, what you want is what you want. Request, meal, night. You get them now, you got them coming. Which do you want now, what you want, that is?”
“I’m not so hungry,” said the elder woman. “And I’m not so sleepy. I’ll trade you those terms. How about some stories? A story, and a carve for each story. Three stories.”
Akki preened herself at this. “Yes, I carve the best, it’s no lie,” she boasted. “No one can best my toes when they set themselves to wood, stone, or bone. I’ll handle them all, just you watch. It’s no lie. But we’ll make it fair, we will. You give me a story back for each story I tell, you see?”
“I see,” said the elder woman. “Then let’s get going.” And she held up a log she’d saved from the fire, hardened to a burnt tip with a weight that could stretch arms.
“Oh, a fancy!” said Akki. And she snatched it up in her left leg, and she sat down on her right leg, and she began to carve with her long, long toe-nails as she talked. “Way back when

back when the world ran round slower because it was just starting, I was the greatest and strongest of all the peoples. I was the fastest and swiftest. I was so quick and so tough that the woman who lives in the sun had to send down special sunbeams to wither up my arms to these little twigs, these little twigs. That was to save all the other animals and plants from my hands – oh, my hands could clutch boulders and crush bears. So you see, even back then they all feared old Akki, even then. A cruel world, way back when.

“That’s a sad story,” said the elder woman.
“It is, so sad, so sad,” sighed Akki, rotating the log in her feet. “But now you’re owed for me, my little storythief, and so you must tell me more. So sad.”
“Fine enough,” said the elder woman. “Let me tell you

about a long time ago, when all this was trees and all the trees were tall. Back then there was a person that stood short and squat in the forest, hiding from things under roots and stumps. It was fearful, so fearful. It feared so long and feared so hard it never spoke to anyone, and then it forgot what other people were but fear. So it hated them. And in the dark of night it crept out from under the logs and over the trees and it grabbed their heads with its hands and their necks with its feet and it throttled them slow. And it did this all night, all nights, until the people were scared and its legs had grown and grown. It made the world crueler, way back when.

Akki frowned. “I don’t like your story,” she muttered. “I don’t like it one bit. It’s all lies and also fiction. Here! Here’s your stupid carving! I don’t like it!”
The elder woman caught the hurled thing. It was a great club now, riven through the heart with arrows within arrows. At the head was a dear, bleeding down its neck.
“Perfect,” she said. And she held up her arm and hurled the club at Akki’s head. It bounced off with a rattlepan sound, breaking into a thousand pieces, and oh how that old hag laughed, laughed, laughed.
“So sad, so small!” she laughed, laughed, laughed. “I’m tougher than rock and stronger than stone, nothing –”
“Oh I know that, I knew that, and I wasn’t trying to harm you,” said the elder woman. “But it was an ugly carving. I had to get rid of it. Here, do a better job on my next.” And she held up a shard of flint that was as long as her forearm.
Akki’s face twisted up in knots at that. “Ugly!” she hissed. “You know ugly better than me, ugly one! Let me tell you an ugly story then, for your ugly self! Ugly! Now, you

see how everyone was trying to gang up on me a lot, on poor lonely Akki. But there was one who took my side, who told me it was all fine. What a liar he was, to poor lonely Akki! What a louse! What a worm! He went and spoke venom behind my back and told all the creatures and vermin of the world where I slept in my nice warm bed, and they all came and stabbed me so full of sharpness that I still clank in my sleep! Oh, how he tried to dissemble when I said so to him. Oh, how he tried to stab me one last time! But it’ll take more than any thing to cut up Akki, I’d decided, so he just bounced off my poor old hide. I did him as he wanted to do me, and now you see how everyone was my foe, of poor lonely Akki.

“That’s funny,” said the elder woman, leaning back a bit – Akki’s toes were flying fast now, and chips of stone were bouncing off her shirt at a fearful speed. “I’ve got a story about those times too. Now listen to what I say about

when that little nasty sneak had gotten just about everyone’s relations, everyone went looking for it. But it was a good sneak, and it kept itself hidden at night in the big bed of its only friend, its lover. And one day that lover asked why oh why were its fingers and toes so red at the morning. And it lied, and it smiled, but it couldn’t stop that lover from following it in the evening. Oh the things it saw done. Can’t be repeated. And when it came home to bed, well, who could blame the lover for quarreling, for arguing? And we all know who struck first. Almost got smothered in its own blanket, but it pled for mercy and bit the hand that granted it. Bit it off then bit more. It hadn’t had the taste for blood yet then, had it? But that started.
Know what else started? Sleeping without blankets. Without a bed. Nowhere to hide now but underplaces, like a bug.

Akki spat at this, and threw down the carving at her feet. “So!” she fumed. “That’s how it is! What a nasty thing you are, what a liar you are to poor Akki! You aren’t here to listen, you’re here to mock! Meddling with truth is a shameful thing! So that’s how it is!”
“Mmm,” said the elder woman. She held the flint blade in her palm. On its surface, a bed of thorns ate a bird. “Mmm.”
She flung that blade at Akki’s heart. It broke into brittles, and Akki giggled.
“Tickles,” she said. “One more carving for you. One more story for you to RUIN and SPIT at. Then I eat. Tickles here,” she said, and she touched her gut.
“As it is,” said the elder woman. She stooped to the ground and scuffled through the dirt and grime of the stump-rot, and she plucked up a long, gleaming leg-bone, freshly-chewed and with almost a hint of spit on its shaft. “Here,” she said.
“Leftovers,” grumbled Akki as she took it in her feet. “You cripple my creativity with leftovers. Well, you’ll have a leftover then, about

a leftover thing, the last thing, a selfish thing. You see after their treachery failed to kill old Akki, poor old Akki fought back hard. She took up a war and she fought the biggest deer and scattered the rest and fought the biggest bear and scattered the rest and she killed and she ate and she felt good, but they kept coming back. They wanted her land, selfish things.
So poor old Akki went to the heart of this matter, this land, and she found the root of the problem. These roots. And she took up her claws – poor thing, her toes were all she had left to battle with – and she took up her cause, hah, and she tore the greatest tree in all the land limb from limb from trunk from stem. And that – THAT – put an end to all… this. For good. For poor old Akki.

The elder woman scratched herself for a long moment, made longer.
“Well?!” asked Akki crossly.
“Well what?” asked the elder woman.
“What’s your nasty thing now, well?” asked Akki. “Come on. Call me names, curse me down, be a child like the child you are, come on!”
“I tell nothing but truths,” said the elder woman. “But I’ll tell you a story too. Here you go, why don’t

you hear about the time that thing went running and hiding, with its lover’s blood on its lips. It hid and it scurried but it never felt safe, not with all eyes and hands against it. So it ran under the trunk of the grandest tree, the one thing in all the land that loved all in it, even the thing, and it ate its heartwood from the inside out, for the spite of it, for the health it gave. It stole the tree’s bark for its skin and it said that since nothing loved it but itself nothing could harm it because love made weakness. And it laughed as all the trees died and the earth sickened and turned up dead, and it called itself fancy in its muck when all its friends and relations fled. And it never left.

The little bone knife smacked into the elder woman’s chest hard enough to make her stagger, hilt-first. Her watering eyes showed bones within bones on its surface, a scrimshaw of scavengers preying on scavengers.
Akki said nothing. Her face said a lot.
“This is ugly,” said the elder woman. “This is an ugly carving. But it was made from a beautiful thing.”
Akki said nothing.
The elder woman waited.
Akki said nothing.
The elder woman waited.
“WHAT?!” shrieked Akki, patience exhausted. “You come to my home, you demand my sculptures, you make rudeness at all turns! You beset me! WHAT do you mean by this?!”
The elder woman stood up, stepped forwards, and drove the ugly, ugly bone knife forwards until it scraped against Akki’s spine from the inside out.
They stood there, chest to chest, heartbeat to heartbreak.
“But…my flesh and bone..” said Akki.
“Came looking for you, and just found your heart,” said the elder woman. “Mother, this was for father, this was for the land, this was for all of us. But especially for sister.”
And she turned the knife of her sister’s bones three times and dropped it, and nobody ever came to that place anymore.

Storytime: Worth its Weight.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

It’s hard to see out here, Afar. Stupid place is half-fog and half-mad, no telling where you’re putting your foot’ll stay that way; no lights to pierce the gloom for fear of getting a Wyrm’s eye on you; no steel or iron to hack through the undergrowth, to anchor your ropes, to cook your meals in.
I shouldn’t have come here. Should’ve stayed back home. Hell, should’ve even gone to the Sill. I heard it’s safer these days, heard they got round to regulating, to building. Jarreth said they’ve even done something about the sounds in your head, but half of Jarreth’s news comes from the voices in his head, so who’s to listen to him anyways?
I’ve got to stay calm.

There were six of us: me, Jarreth, old Hallus and young Hallus, Brisny, and Mallet – and Mallet’s mallet, for all that he treats the big clunky thing like a pet. Out for the far hills, past the swamps. “Prospectors,” it said on our papers. Prospectors for what, well, who knows? No iron. The rocks are all wrong, strange. The plants are half a mystery, besides the ones that explode when you touch steel to their stems. The wildlife… well. The wildlife is best left to Her Worship’s voyageurs and the army. They tell us it’s our own hides. But our hides are cheap and there’s riches out there. Even collector’s-tat will go for more than you can imagine right now. A little piece of Afar, right there above your giant collection of Terramac gadgets that you don’t know how to use and your Sfoll sub-horns that you’re afraid to touch and your Salamettic scrolls you can’t read because they’re invisible to people without four eyes and twelve senses.
We went farther than we’d planned. Up a hill and down a hill and we should’ve known better than to let Mallet handle the trail blazings because when we came down the hill it was the wrong hill and who knew where the right one was. We went back and then forwards and a little bit of side to side and then we were above the fog for the first time in six miserable months, looking down so far you could see the sea. Closer than we’d guessed; Afar seems to stretch itself under your boots, make you fight for every step. You could still see Threshold. Young Hallus said he thought he could see the Wyrms moving in the mires, places where the fog thickened and clotted, but he’s a liar as bad as Jarreth with twice the ego, so I didn’t listen.
We walked a while. Up, mostly. And then as we sit down to camp and take our breath back from the thieving high air, Mallet sets his stupid ass down on a bush with prickles – no, blades. Hopping, yelping idiot fell over while we were laughing at him, nearly brains himself on a rock, gets up to throw it at us, stops, stares. Doesn’t move.
Brisny prospected forty years back in Gelmorre, finding fortunes and losing them again in the same month. He knows rocks better than old Hallus knows whores, food, and whores and food. He knows what cragstone looks like. He said he’d never seen it this pure. And he’d certainly never seen it like this.
They looked like knots. Little dense spots. Small enough to fit in your palm, weighed near as much as a bar of lead.
Worth its weight in pure gold, he said. Worth its weight in gold. Share and a half for me, share for the rest of you, we all can go home and buy estates on the cheap.
I’ve got to take this.

Young Hallus and Mallet bitched – Mallet especially, said since he’d found it he’d be damned if he had to carry it – but they gave in. They knew they had the strongest backs. So they shouldered it up and hauled it on and we started back down. This time we had Jarreth marking trails, leaving scrapes and cairns and scratches. He kept doubling back to chatter and yack and he was really pissing off old Hallus (never make the cook angry, damnit) but what could you do, huh? He was the best guide we had, although maybe no guide would’ve been better. I swear he led us in circles at least twice, intentional or not.
So we walked under threat of storm and constant chatter, and we walked until both of them broke overhead, and then we walked and walked and walked until we ran out of world to walk on.
A deep valley. We hadn’t come through here, but as the crow flies, it was our fastest way out. And with lightning turning peaks into powder overhead, it was a good prospect.
It took us hours to find a sheltered spot; it would’ve been easy if any of us five knew anything about caves. Crawling around like beetles on a brick wall with rain trying to wash you down into the gutter.
No fog, though. A small relief. Old Hallus said aside from all the rain this’s the clearest line of vision he’s had since he got here three years ago. Keeps flinching at the horizon.
I’ve got to keep calm.

It was an easy walk in the morning, all the wet cooked off by the pale sun in the grey sky. Quiet, too – not the deep dead quiet in the swamps that old Hallus says you can tell the Wyrms by, but a soft touch on your ear. Nothing but the wind, a grunt, a curse, clattering stone. You can see forever down this place; it’s a short trip out and then a quick hike through the hills and we’re almost at the coastline. Easy. Easy.
Ran into trouble at midday though. Mallet got spooked and started screaming like a damned fool, babbled like a baby out of milk for ten minutes before he made sense.
Wings, he said. Wings in the sky. It’s right there, right above us. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see it?
We’ve got to run for it, and it’s too heavy. Drop it and run! Run! Run!
Words, words, and none of them much use. We reminded him of the earldoms four shares could buy and he just shook his head and wouldn’t stop, like there was a little motor in his neck. His hands shook too. Reminded me of a dog my father kept. One boot to the head too many. We lost half the day trying to argue the idiot down, and by its end we were no closer than we were when we started – only barely stopped him trying to bolt before old Hallus could get to cooking dinner.
I’ve got to get moving.

The pack weighed a ton and a half, but nobody ever said a barony was a light thing. Bounced nasty too; every footfall found a new shape for rock to take, and all of them were slippery. If I get out of this, the first thing my share goes towards is fixing my back. I don’t want to retire young and crippled.
Old Hallus was wary now. His eyes kept flitting about. His jaw was set tight. He kept adjusting his shoulder straps every two minutes. He never looked up. He didn’t want to talk about it.
We were right in the heart of the valley now. What we’d thought were plants were rocky spires, like stalagmites left caveless. Most of them didn’t even reach my knees. But that wasn’t the big news.
Cragstone. All of them. And all of it speckled with the same pure deposits we were carrying.
We camped in the center of the valley that night after a long time spent arguing over maps. Me and young Hallus were all for staying to chart the place out – who knows if we’ll find it again by chance? But now old Hallus is up for leaving. The air’s too thin to be healthy, he said, and there’s something in it that he can’t put words to that’s worse still. There’s enough money to be made here to buy Gelmorre. Split three ways, sure, but still. How can the old coot want to bail now? We’re in this together, we stay in on it together. If we split now someone’ll blab out of spite or stupidity and word will get out faster than a blast from the Terramac.
I’ve got to hold this together.

The worst breakfast I’d ever had, but it matched the day fine. Still grey, still cold. The maps were a pain to do with only one set of legs to help me, but young Hallus was pretty spry, even with the pack on. He was getting to worry me, though. Those looks… not the nervous twitches, not those. The sidelong glances whenever he thought I was busy writing. The constant fidgeting – worse than his usual. I saw him touching the big wooden mallet at his belt three times, and the last I think he knew I was looking. He might not know how to use it, but it’s a hell of a club, fire-hardened.
How were we still here? We left at noon. We walked fast, even weighted down. The exit’s down there, I could see it. But this place…stretched. It must’ve been my eyes. They weren’t used to this wide-open-view anymore. I misguessed.
Damn, who’d have ever thought I’d miss the swamps?
Night was coming in. We were still in the valley. We were still halfway there.
That grey sky is getting on my nerves.
I’ve got to be quicker.

It was a hard blow, leaving half a fortune behind. But I was still rich enough to wed Her Worship if I’d felt inclined, and with enough left over to bribe half the country to come to the ceremony.
More walking. More trudging. More back-bruising. Nothing new there.
What was new was that tickle. That little twitch you get in your brain through your shoulders, the thing that whispers to you: you’re being watched.
There was nothing here to watch me. I could see farther than anything. Miles around me.
Miles to go to the valley’s end when I started. Miles to go when I stopped to sleep. I found my bed in a broken shell of one of the spires; they seem to be hollow. Some sort of residue caked its insides. Dried, but looks like it was sticky, once upon a time. Oil? More wealth. Maybe I could buy Matagan too. Maybe I could buy the whole world.
I’ve got to get back.

This isn’t right.
I’m back at the stones. The first stones. I woke up and I took a step and I almost planted my foot in my own firepit.
I’m not going in circles. I’m not going in circles. I’m not going in circles. Something is wrong, but that’s not it. Something is wrong.
Where is it? I can see so far, there’s nothing in my way from here until the end of the valley. The end of the valley that’s always halfway away because I’m being moved.
What’s moving me?
I’m staying up tonight. No watches because what could sneak up on us, but now I’m staying up. I need to see.
I’ve got to see.

A spire broke in the night. Quiet, very quiet, but it broke. There was a thing inside it with too much wing and too little body and no eyes. It had heavy claws like a mole’s and a little mouth, and it screamed when it saw me and didn’t stop until I crushed it between my boot and the stones.
I flipped it over. Its belly was grey.
I’ve got to leave.

Grey sky overhead. How many of them are there? I can’t tell.
So many spires. How many to lay that many? I can’t tell.
How big do they get? I can’t tell.
It’s hard to see out here.

I shouldn’t have come here.

Storytime: Truth From On High.

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

G turned slowly, at the speed of the little blue planet it rested upon. Its sides gleamed in a way that had nothing to do with the pallid yellow sunlight creeping up its sides in the fresh morning, and for a moment it amused itself by calculating the total number of atoms on the planet impacted by the star’s rays at any given time, accounting for seasonal variation. It was one of the most tedious 0.0000000000002s of a picosecond it’d seen on this planet since it’d arrived, and it was still the high point four hours later, when 9 appeared inside its skull without warning.
G wished 9 wouldn’t do that. It was an aggressive, needy act, and one that 9 had no authority to do as 9 wasn’t its boss – the concept of ‘hierarchy’ had been discarded almost two billion years ago. 9 was just the person that told it what to do all the time.
“Progress?” 9 asked. No, not the right tone of thought. Demanded.
“Yes,” said G.

“Well?”
“There has been progress.”
“What KIND of progress.”
“The usual kind,” said G, with the passive-aggressiveness only an immortal can muster. It almost sounded affectionate.
“G, you are being obtuse. Give a description or give nothing.”
“There are primitives with the capacity for sapience here.”
“Are they likely to advance under their own potential?”
G observed the nearest ape-man, seven thousand miles away. He was licking himself in unhygienic places with an enthusiasm it hadn’t seen in a long time. Behind him, a leopard approached with the casual swagger of someone walking into a nice restaurant.
“No.”
“G, you know what to do.”
G increased the pace of the quantum flow that eliminated its waste heat from existence. “At all times. What particular form of it is needed?”
9 sighed, and G increased the flow again. Sighs were not only unnecessary, they had been proven to be physically detrimental to your health back when they were still merely brain patterns in supercomputers. A sigh was a wasteful indulgence. “Test them. Evaluate them. If they have potential, uplift them. The same as the other 3730184637.8 times. Now hurry up and stop sulking.”
G permitted itself a few wasteful microseconds of sheer, unyielding frustration and rage after 9 left. Wasteful. Wasteful! Wasteful was acting as if you were someone’s mother in a society that had been asexual for 99.99[…]% of its existence! Wasteful was sighing with no clear purpose! Wasteful was using ‘9’ as your name a billion and a half years after it had been proven to not really exist, along with all other numbers divisible by three! Wasteful, wasteful, WASTEFUL.
G was so mad that it almost didn’t bother incinerating the leopard as it appeared directly behind the ape-man. But no; the population was small enough that testing should preserve subjects as much as possible.
When it happened. You couldn’t rush testing; it moved on the scale of hours and days, not picoseconds. Anything faster could burn out the frail and feeble little bodies of the poor non-sapients it was here to examine.
Yes, who could blame G if it took its time? It was applying all due care to a delicate task. If 9 were to intrude again, well, that sort of disruption of protocol would be horrifying. A disturbance at a crucial juncture could be all that would be needed to cause one of the subjects’ tiny little brains to pop like dark matter in quantum foam.
G watched the ape-man turn around to face it, and his expression pleased it so much that it watched it six more times just for kicks.
Yes, it’d be thorough about this. As properly expected. Why, it’d even run extra tests. Innovation – the obvious spark of a dedicated and thorough mind who wasn’t rushing things like idiots who were clearly not their superiors wished them to. Who could fault THAT?

“I’m not faulting you, G,” said 9, “but the point of this exercise escapes me.”
“It’s a reflex exam. Perfectly viable alternative to the 2Q-based Weave The Twigs protocol.”
“G, the entire point of the protocol is to test their ability to undertake non-normative goals. You are asking them to do something that by your own testimony comes entirely naturally for them.”
“A necessary variant,” explained G, engaging its gravitic anchors to prevent itself from falling over under a particularly forceful blow. “Ability to execute an already-practiced reflex is as informative as developing a new one.”
Another, horrendously unnecessary sigh. “Fine. Good luck.”
Another impact, splattering across G’s carbon-darkened surface like cosmic rays. It turned its attention away from the boring, stale realities of its inner self and back to the very important work at hand. Already the ape-woman subject was reloading its palm with another handful of its feces, a jaded, critical eye assessing its next target.
Just out of curiosity and sportsmanship, G returned fire.

“G, what is that damp… orange matter around your upper superstructure?”
“Fruit. I am calling it an orange.”
“Why is there smeared matter on your carapace? Eliminate it.”
“It was a gift from the subjects. Refusing it would be devastating to their tiny undeveloped brains.”
“Fine.”
G accepted this and returned to its transcriptive efforts. It had already established a dictionary, and now it was working on grammar. Most of it seemed to revolve around the proper enunciation of hoots.
“Big ugly what thing huh what?” asked the largest ape-woman to her mate. “Still there still there weird huh.”
G activated a subroutine that had lain unused since the last member of its species had left their original fleshy bodies. Sound emerged from its carapace.
“You weird me normal yeah.”
The ape-woman jumped a little. “What huh what huh what what what?”
“Normal nothing calm no harm yeah.”
They gathered round and sniffed it, more carefully than the last time. This included the traces of fecal matter and crushed fruit she’d acquired since.
“Yeah normal yeah yeah yeah. One of us?”
G thought about this. On the one circumstance, it was a violation of the norm that was beyond anything it’d yet committed. On the other circumstance, it was bound to annoy 9.
This was the easiest decision it’d made in a billion years.

“G, why have you moved position more than sixteen times in the past five minutes?”
“I wish to examine the widest possible group of ape-men.”
“G, you have been moving distances at a pace approximately equal to five miles an hour in a single line.”
“I travel as they do, to lull them and comfort them.”
“We are fundamentally disruptive forces! The entire purpose of our visitation is disruption! Hurry up and DISRUPT them!”
“Eventually,” said G in the special kind of calmness that drove 9 crazy. “Eventually.”
It continued to hover slowly across the veldt, humming in a reassuring sort of way. Every now and then the ape-men in front of it would pause to make sure it was still following, then wave it onwards. They had a long trip ahead of them if they wanted to make the cave by nightfall.

The next few days were a blue to G. There was so much to learn, so much to do. What the feel of fresh fecal matter between your toes was like; the satisfaction of seeing that same fecal matter thwack into the forehead of your least-favourite sibling; the secret of which fruit is the ripest; how to hide up a tree and scream at a leopard, at your friends, at the universe itself. It was an education – a re-education – in things it’d forgotten even mattered, like the importance of hitting people you didn’t like very hard until they whimpered. This was very therapeutic.
Days passed by. Weeks. The clouds wandered overhead in lazy patterns and the fruits went in and out of season. G had several prospective mates propose sexual activities to it, which it gave them permission to do if they could find sufficient orifices. This was widely recognized as an excellent joke and many grew to like it for the hooting and mockery it inspired.
It was nice, to be liked. And it was so nice that all of a sudden hours felt like picoseconds and days felt like minutes and over and over what seemed like no time at all later 9 was there again, yelling, whining, wheedling, griping.
Something would have to be done about that.
G watched as an ape-woman responded to her friend’s screeching by turning her back and jamming her paws in her ears.
Yes, something would have to be done about that. And wasn’t it a shame, that it was so evident to something that lived for just a little over two decades?

“This is UN-PRECEDENTED.”
“And therefore novel. Novelty is rarely documented. Recording rarely documented happenings is useful. Therefore this is useful.”
“Not when the novelty in question is this… obscene! You are a recorder – you record, you brood, you instill change! You do NOT observe from the position of a functional participant! What are you, unidimensional? You’ve altered their society just by existing!”
“I am just another ape-man, humble, happy, and healthy,” said G. “They are a simple people, and the fact that I am five times their height and made of a shining black material they have never even imagined does not matter to them. Only the delicious fruit that I have successfully located for the tribe.”
“The others will hear about this! Right this nanosecond!”
“So long as they know I am getting results, and that they hurry. This communication might soon cease.”
“What?”
“I have opened my exterior carapace, and there is a subject monkeying about with my internal components. I believe it is ‘grooming’ me.”
“WHAT?!”
“Be careful, be careful. A little louder and the humming might draw her attention. Would be a real shame if she were to destroy my trans-light mindlink systems.”
“Don’t you dare do that. Don’t you DARE. DON’T YOU-”
“Whoops!” said G, and it watched gleefully as the ape-woman’s prodding fingers blundered right through the middle of the delicate tangle of quantum strands, completely obliterating its communicative abilities. She yelped and withdrew her stung hand, sucking on it resentfully, then made a rude noise at G and its treacherous ways. For a moment G felt uncertain, then it recalled that unlike 9 any enemies it made would be dead in a scant handful of decades and it cheered up again.
It stood there for a moment in this new life that constantly mandated motion, looking around the wide, beautiful, colourful world that it had willingly subdued itself to. It wasn’t sure what to do next.
But something would turn up.

Storytime: A Long History of Progress.

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

The question crossed Qlg’s mind in that slow-but-sudden way questions do, and it did it one day (there were no days then) when Qlg was chewing on a tiny gobbet of dead, rotting ichthyosaur.
“Tell me,” he asked one of his dozens of siblings, “what’s up there?”
The sibling, whose name nobody ever remembered, thought about this. “Up where?”
“There. Up there.”
The sibling looked. “Water,” he opined. “Recognize it anywhere.”
“No no no. Up there, past it.”
“Past it? More water.”
“Yes, but past THAT.”
The sibling scratched its exoskeleton with a foreleg. “Water. What’s wrong with you? You sick? If you’re sick, can I have your ichthyosaur? You aren’t going to need it.”
Qlg ate his ichthyosaur, gave his sibling an obscene four-legged gesture, and trudged to the highest point of the corpse. He gazed longingly up above, past the water and more water, and imagined what might lie beyond that.
Maybe it was… slightly different water.
Yeah.
Qlg stretched out his stubby little legs and paddled furiously upward for six days, and at the end of it he looked down with his eyes and could barely see the outline of the ichthyosaur, a full dozen body-lengths beneath him.
“Woah,” he said. “Woah.” He wondered if anyone else had ever travelled this high above the carcass, ever.
Then he wondered if he could go higher.
Qlg died some years later, but he left dozens and dozens of annoying, adventurous little children behind, most of whom spent their time trying to outswim one another.

“Tell me,” asked Gll, “what’s up there?”
“Past the water, the more water, the slightly different water, or the strange water?”
“All of them.”
Her mother considered this. “Dunno. Hard to get that high. Your legs are too tiny, you’ll get all worn out.”
Gll pouted at this, as much as you can pout with mandibles.
“Eh. Not much you can do.”
At this point the story goes one of two ways.
The first way, Gll stomped off in a huff and her stomps glued bits of the decaying pliosaur carcass that was their home to her toes, which she noticed made her feet much larger. Thus she discovered the paddlefeet.
The second way, Gll bit her mother’s face and it escalated into a fight which escalated into Gll accidentally tearing her mother’s age-weakened carapace into five pieces, each of which were impaled irrevocably on her spiny limbs. Thus she discovered the paddlefeet.
Thus, however it happened, Gll discovered the paddlefeet, and the voyages up beyond the water and more water and so on became easier and more common than ever before.

“Hey, Sp.”
Sp indicated that she was aware of this statement. It took one leg and a partial curl.
“You ever, uh…think about it?”
Sp signed in the affirmative.
“Like, about, uh, what’s really up there? Like, up there. Past the really weird water.”
Sp agreed vigorously.
“Wanna go look?”
Sp started paddling, each leg tipped with a tiny patch of mosasaur hide that turned her wiggles into strokes.
It took them a long time, and many times they wished they’d eaten sooner than a year and a half ago, but at last their tiny compound eyes gazed in wonder at a sight no isopod had ever witnessed.
On the way back down her friend was eaten by a stray fish, so it was up to her to tell everyone about what ‘light’ meant.

Blb bobbed in the water. His legs were all about ready to fall off from strain, but he wasn’t about to stop now. He’d travelled up past the Sp Zone at record pace, torn through the Seven Growing Glimmers so quickly he’d almost miscounted them as three, and now he was sure he was almost there, almost there. The speed was so fierce he’d lost a half-limb in the first seconds of ascent, but he dared not shed a single fish-bladder antiballast. He needed his momentum or he’d be lost.
Soon, soon, SOON he’d know what was really up there! Soon!
The light was overwhelming, the water was scorching-hot, and a strange thunder was growing in his ears, but he pressed on. Almost there! Almost there!
THERE!
Blb broke through a strange sort of barrier, and unfamiliar sensations surrounded his shell. It was brighter than ever, if a bit cooler, and there were noises he wasn’t sure he recognized at all. Something blue was up above – far brighter than even the topmost of the Seven Growing Glimmers – and white puffs surrounded it, whiter than bone and ivory. There were currents surrounding his shell, moving at strange speeds in odd patterns.
The sinking took much longer, as exhausted as he was, but at last he landed on the midwater platform, buoyed on fish bladders and tied by worn old sinews.
“What was up there?” they asked him.
Blb thought about this. He was about to describe a concept so new to his people that they had never even imagined it could exist: a place without water.
“Sort of thin and shiny,” he said.

The sort-of-thin-and-shiny air played upon the sea, and the sort-of-sloppy-and-jumpy sea played upon the air, and upon the sea and within the air played Kp, in her shellcraft. It’d taken many, many (mostly peaceful, thank goodness) deaths in her family to finish the main hull, but she’d made the ideal surface-going vessel: almost as indestructible, she fancied, as the legendary coconut. There was nothing in all the ocean that could threaten it and it could go anywhere, anywhere at all.
She’d been steering for a sort of large, ugly wave for the past week. It looked interesting, and besides, it hadn’t seemed that far away. Now, at last, it was almost there.
Two weeks later and she felt her hull grind to a halt against something hard and firm, like a bone. But bigger, oh so much bigger.
Kp looked up, up, up, up, up at the long slope of the wave above her. She hoped it wasn’t going to fall anytime soon.
Then she poked it, and she was relieved. “Oh. It’s just firmer sea-bottom.”
And then, inevitably, she added “I wonder what’s up there?”

Sff cursed at the controls of his otherbody, smashing at metal and bone until his hemolymph spilled. So close! So close! He’d not led an invasion that pierced the western landboard for this to end so close! He’d not walked four ape guide-slaves to death, he’d not watched a hundred scavengers perish from his scurry, he’d not lived his whole life on stories of Kp and the Landfall for this to all end so close!
He thrashed, screamed, and ejected himself, dropping already-curled to minimize damage. He bounced from the iron foot of his otherbody with enough force to chip his carapace clean in two, rolled, toddled, and fell over.
He reached out with one broken antennae and caressed the stone in front of him.
The peak of Mount McKinley. He’d made it.
And as Sff curled into a ball and hoped that he’d last until spring came and snowmelt brought him downhill, his last sight was of the almost-hidden stars, veiled behind ropey snow and the kelp-nets of cracks drawn across his broken glasses.
His last thought, following naturally, was “I wonder what’s up there?”

The world was so tiny, and so unexpectedly green. Well, the parts that weren’t brown. Some of their later wars had gotten sloppy. But then again, what did you expect from what came of trying to understand ape psychology? It had nearly gotten them all killed before they figured that one out.
Yll held up an antennae and watched as she made it disappear, then reappear. Here’s the world, there’s the world. Gone again, here again. How much of it had they really seen, had they really known?
Questions for the past. The past was for other people, like apes. The future was different.
Yll rotated her cockpit and stared across the asteroid’s surface, watched the mining systems disengage. Time to go home, time to bring the fuel.
But still she lingered for a moment at the controls, looking deeper into galactic central core. And she wondered what was up there.

Qlg, no relation to Qlg, thought of a thing, and it was so. Ten trillion miles of conduits and a bulk of metals and electromagnetic fields that outmassed a combined constellation ensued this, revolving gently to her will at a speed that made light gawp.
She was looking for something, here in this backwater little corner of this unimportant galaxy. A curiosity of the universe, something that, like so many others, was relatively rare yet existed in the innumerable.
A planet with liquid water. There. There it was.
She turned it carefully in the impossibly enormous structures that had long-ago replaced her maxillipeds, capable of handling stars without singing. Her gaze, magnified by telescopes that operated strictly by means of folding local space-time, focused on the tiny little thing.
Blue. So much blue. Strange.
And she asked herself a question, assembled out of old, long-forgotten words buried in data banks thousands of miles across.
I wonder what’s down there?