The Life of Small-five (Part 11).

January 23rd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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