The Life of Small-five (Part 12).

February 20th, 2013

Small-five thought about cycles.
Big and little, both important. The day-to-night. The year-to-year. Youth-to-adult. Life-to-death. What held her mind at the moment was the cycle that was place-to-place.
Place the first was here, an old home made new again, a reefcolony safely tucked away in the backwaters of the temperate ring just beneath the equator’s belt, where the Fiskupids seeded freely and the water was warm. A place of food, of rest, of peace.
Place the second was the pole, an evil she’d learned was necessary for thought, for growth, a hunting-ground of lurking fear, where the elements of sapience coalesced from deep water and took root inside juvenile skulls.
It would be a long trip, a hard trip. But her sister needed it, so it would be done. If she had managed it as a frightened, runted subadult, she could manage it again as a scarred, lightless adult. And at least this time, she would set out on her journey with a sister’s company.
Pulsing-point grew more talkative by the day, despite (because of?) Small-five’s inability to reply. Proto-sistertalk, stilted and repetitive but wonderful in its persistence and simplicity. Small-five already understood much of what her lost sister told her; it was communication going the other way that was something of a challenge. At first she was direct, clumsy – she poked and prodded and pulled with her proboscis, steering her sister to prey, to safety, to move. It was slow work, often left Pulsing-point in total confusion until she lit eyes upon whatever it was Small-five was showing her, and occasionally surprised her enough to trigger her fright reflex, whereupon Small-five was stuck spending some time coaxing her out of a coral bolt-hole. She was most adept at finding those, at least. Despite all those years on the reef, Pulsing-point’s childhood instincts of fear had never altered, never adjusted to her modified size, as delayed as her intellect.
No, you couldn’t be too blunt with her. What you could do instead, as Small-five discovered, was use body language. Pulsing-point fixated on changes in posture or muscle tension lightning-fast with no more than slight exaggeration of natural reaction – a stiffening of the body and a swift turn would have her spinning to confront whatever her sister had sighted, a loose, lazy swimming posture would calm her and bid her to follow. Managing her sister was second nature within a month.
This was important, because Small-five was busy.
The Fiskupids wouldn’t swarm for some time, and so their journey would be delayed for want of food. But she remembered the hunger of the poles, and the starving march that had been the return trip. She also remembered much of her populism studies, which had placed a focus on the reefcolony ecosystem and its effects on juveniles.
Mtuilk bile, it transpired, was a preservative. Primitive and long-obsoleted by the more advanced preservative methods it had mothered in cities such as Far-away-light, vile-tasting and capable of giving an undisciplined stomach indigestion, but extremely powerful, capable of transforming a meal into a ration that would last for years, if done properly.
Small-five lacked the materials to do it properly, but she (and, it transpired, Pulsing-point) was an experienced hunter of Mtuilks by now, and was able to procure enough of her prey to saturate leftover kills in the bile, experimenting carefully to find the absolute edge where palatability was lost to the acidic bite of the slime. The leftover juices she sealed in their durable, elastic guts, sewing them shut with sinew and bone.
When she wasn’t preserving food, Small-five was sewing containers – long, billowing strips of flayed skin and the lightest segmented shells she could procure, tied together with residue and secretions and patient, endless labour. She would’ve traded a fin for an industrial loom, or even for a primitive weaver, and endlessly cursed herself for never paying as much attention to Maintenance work. Dim-glow could’ve assembled everything she was working on at double-time, and no doubt would’ve made more efficient use of the materials.
Then again, considered Small-five, perhaps she wouldn’t have known where to find them. Give her sister a set of juvenile Ooliku bones and perhaps she would make wonders, but would she have known exactly what size of Ooliku adolescence heralded the onset of a sturdier skeletal system (just as the last of the filminess left the body, before the fat was packed on)? Would she have known at precisely what time to hunt the prey (just before dusk, when they were tired and full, but not yet prepared to go into their wary sleep)? Probably not, and these thoughts made Small-five feel much better and only a little ashamed when her efforts at fastening crude buckles literally unraveled before her eyes, or when Pulsing-point ate a week’s worth of preserved food and became violently ill for some time, or when she failed to properly preserve a Stairrow corpse and it spoiled a week’s-worth of other meat, or when…
…Well, none of it mattered. Progress reversed was never as decisive as progress made, and bit by bit they were getting there, both of them. Three separate (well-hidden) nooks and crannies in the reefcolony’s sprawling body housed their supplies, and they swelled daily – despite a somewhat warier Mtuilk population, and the occasional thieving Stairrow that would dare risk a mouthful against the chance of being added to the hoard, which was getting substantial indeed and threatened to outgrow the crude bandoleers that Small-five had crafted. She began plans for another means of carrying food – a dangling bundle that hung from mid-body, with a buoyant lining of air bladders – and was busily working on that in the scraped-out-niche that had become her workspace one evening when Pulsing-point came scurrying in, positively vibrating with excitement.
Look-look-look-strange-look-strange-strange-STRANGE-look! she bubbled, flashing and sparkling as best as her half-formed glowshine could permit. She swam excited swirls around the chamber, knocking away the bone needle Small-five had laboured an hour over and sending it plunging into a tiny fracture in the wall.
Small-five felt the familiar ache in her sides as her body attempted to express emotion through glowshine (a flash of irritation) and heroically supressed her urge to poke her sister in the eye. At the very least, this was the most enthusiasm she’d ever seen Pulsing-point express over anything that wasn’t obviously food. Investigation would prove worthwhile.
Come-come! Come! Follow! Here! Look-look-look! And so on and so forth for far too long and far too far away until they came to a broad coral plateau in shallow, warm water.
Small-five look-looked. The plateau was empty, the waters glowing in the sundown light.
Pulsing-point flickered with impatience and smacked her head against Small-five’s right fin. LOOK-look-LOOK!
Small-five twisted herself around to glare at her sister, looked, and saw. A shape in the reefcolony’s bumpy profile that was too regular, too symmetrical to be anything but designed.
Look? inquired Pulsing-point.
It was unmistakably a research habitat – albeit a radically different one from those that Small-five had inhabited, now that she knew it for what it was. The camouflaging was intensive, and she thought that several of the growths dotting its surface were not artificial, but rather local organisms that had taken advantage of any surface available to stake a homesteading claim. A pair of segmented worms were forced to give up their own squatting spot in protest as she watched; the surface of the habitat bulging beneath them.
Its side split apart under the gentle pressure of a Safety warden’s nose as she slid out into the open, flaps overlapping into a perfect reseal behind her. Relaxed light spilled down her sides, soft and already dimming into the disciplined low-illumination of a warden on-site, dimmed to avoid trouble but ready to flare if it appeared.
Sister? asked Pulsing-point.
Small-five was too far gone inside her own head to pay any attention to her. What did this mean? If this expedition was from Far-away-light, she didn’t dare approach them; its Safety wardens had crippled her without hesitation. If it were from another city, would they know of her? Was whatever unspoken secret she’d violated severe enough to warrant cross-city cooperation in her expulsion?
But then again, maybe they could help. They would have food, if they had a computer she could use othershine in place of her own light to communicate. Maybe they would agree to send her and Pulsing-point south on the next trip down, or arrange an expedition from scratch. Maybe…
…maybe Pulsing-point would swim right up to the Safety warden and begin chattering excitedly at her in sistertalk.
Small-five dithered in place for a moment, hated herself for three moments longer, then slunk down into the shaded canyons that were growing against the reefcolony’s floor as evening moved in, sliding slowly in, eyes fixed on the two luminescent forms in front of her. Pulsing-point was a flickering lightshow, but her eyes were focused on the warden; it had been so little time since she’d lived among hundreds, but after just her short time spent alone again the speed with which adults talked was a fresh marvel. Even slowed down into a carefully-modulated semblance of sistertalk, it was a chore to understand her.
Where-are…your-sisters? asked the warden.
One-sister-now-none-then-you-are-sister? said Pulsing-point.
The warden shone over her carefully, focusing its light. It hovered around her skull and sides, and Small-five was close enough to see her patterns jerk to a halt in their cycling as realisation hit.
You-are-sister? repeated Pulsing-point.
No, said the warden. You-have-travelled? she asked, and Small-five knew a redundant question when she saw it being asked.
The warden’s sides rippled through confirmation into disgust and ended in resignation, abandoning the stilted sentences of sistertalk in a flash for a single word.
Pulsing-point stared at her, confused, as the Safety warden’s proboscis slid underneath her belly and retrieved a small, sleek shape from her harness that glimmered with the soft light of othershine controls.
All-fin had educated her little sister on Safety devices before, on request, and Small-five had actually seen this one in use. A Fjiloj had gotten entirely too close for comfort on a return trip to Far-away-light, the persistent, light-gutted predator refusing to leave the research habitat alone. Warden Five-bright had pointed this small device at it and clicked a button with her proboscis, and all of its soft-glowing organs had shut down so abruptly that Small-five had half believed it had vanished before the corpse became clear in the darkened sea, sinking gently in the current’s grip.
Sonic needle, Five-bright had explained. Land it close to the head, and the reverberation shreds through the brain matter, as long as the skull isn’t too thick. Best to aim for the eyes.
Small-five had swum softly around the wardens for a few days after that. It was one thing to know that they possessed such tools, and another to see firsthand what they could do. Still, they were in the hands of Safety, who were committed to their job of ensuring that no one came to harm. The same Safety who had thrust her through a ring of tearing pain, the same Safety whose nearest representative was taking careful aim at Pulsing-point’s face.

Small-five had enough time to do one of three things: panic, think, or intervene. Luckily her mind locked up entirely at the sight in front of her, leaving only the third option.
As it was, she was very nearly too late. The full mass of her body impacted the Safety warden’s jaw and proboscis just in time to send the shot skirting the edge of Pulsing-point’s dorsal fin, causing her to emit a terrified blast of light that nearly blinded all three of them. The needle-machine spun loose, jostled by their impact, and vanished.
The Safety warden thrashed in the water, smacking Small-five into the reefbed more by accident than design, and shook her head sharply, proboscis grasping at nothing, flexing and unclenching to check for damage. The warden had gotten the brunt of Pulsing-point’s surprise flare, but she’d been trained, like All-fin had, like all of them had. She was already sure that no major damage had been done to her, she was still in possession of her senses, she was trained to battle without tools but reaching towards her weapon harness to be sure of an advantage all the same, and that was why Small-five killed her, and told herself that it was what she had to do.
It should feel different, to slip your proboscis through a hide just like yours, puncturing glowshine tubes alongside veins, to penetrate a skull that held a large brain with thoughts and feelings that could talk and ripple-laugh and flare and shimmer in all the ways that you could
But instead it felt like all the others, and that was what frightened Small-five the most, as the Safety warden’s body shuddering, spasmed, and went limp against her, dead in the water, and her emergency flasher began to sing its warning-call.
Sister? gleamed Pulsing-point, her sides guttering in the aftermath of the unaccustomed exertion. Sister?
Small-five turned and fled, and it was only later that she thought to make sure that Pulsing-point followed. It was only later that she thought at all.

Later, luckily, happened sooner. Small-five’s body knew where to hide even as her mind vanished, and she was in the nearest of their bolt-holes again, the half-complete dangling-bundle underneath her proboscis almost exactly as it had been so little ago, before she’d killed someone.
They’d section the reefcolony in a grid pattern, search it in teams. Stagger the patrols, lay as low as possible. See before being seen.  The bone needle was wedged in that crevice right there by her fin, how had she missed it earlier?
They would travel armed and alert and ready to fire on anything that didn’t have a flasher equipped. There would be no more chances for sudden reversal, and no hesitation before attacking. Their only advantage would be a greater knowledge of the terrain, and-
Small-five shook herself all over, a full-bodied shiver that seemed to lift a cloud from her brain. She was alive. Her sister was alive. Right now, that was all that mattered.
She took up her harness, and filled it with the best-preserved of the rations. She put it on – carefully, slowly, with Pulsing-point watching – and then repeated the gesture for her sister, twice as slowly.
She still flinched, but she didn’t balk, and she followed as Small-five moved (quickly, but not in fear) to each of the other cache sites. Each visit left their harnesses heavier in the water, each stroke a bit heavier, but it was too late for practice, for the Fiskupid swarm to come, for regrets, for anything.
The edge of the reefcolony approached, the drop-off of a thousand feet and more. Small-five halted here, her mind clear, and stared off into the unknowable distance.
Safe? shone Pulsing-point, hesitantly. Her eyes were rapid, darting from murk to murk, looking for shadows that could turn to teeth.
No, thought Small-five. Not for us. We swim the longest journey of your life on a fraction of the preparations we should. It is not safe. But I will do my best to make it so for you.
She swam forwards into the blue, turned, and waited.
And after a time, her sister followed her.
All the way.

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