The Life of Small-five (Part 13).

March 13th, 2013

The dark was not a stranger anymore to Small-five. She’d swum the seas of nighttime with her glowshine gone for many days, lightless and nearly sightless, as cautious predator and savvy prey. She knew the dark now better than any of her kind ever had, she was sure, and she thought that was well enough.
She knew the dark. But she’d never know it could grow like this.
The water at this depth was leaden, an infinitely heavy weight of purest cold that seemed to subtly press from all sides at once, deadening sensation and crushing down on sound. Sometimes Small-five couldn’t feel her heartbeat, and for a moment she would wonder if this was what death was like after all.
Then would come the soft luminescence of life, and she would recall what she’d been searching for.
Many of the things down there had no names that she knew, no pictures filed away in othershine, no reports filed by far-sweeping, Safety-led expeditions, no warnings in dry, academic voices filed away with fifteen citations. Sometimes it was all she could do to guess at their relatives, or even to tell if they were still-alive or floating carrion.
In the end, only one thing mattered of them: they were edible. Mostly. Except for one strange thing with too many fins and too little skull that Small-five had speared a short time ago; her entire body had gone numb within seconds and she’d been rendered near-paralyzed for the rest of the day. Pulsing-point had gone into fits sixteen times over by the time Small-five was well enough to swim normally, if sluggishly.
A glow of light. A smooth cruise forwards. A snap of the proboscis. Done, another piece of unseen dead flesh in her grasp, glowing lure already guttering as it was shoved into her mouth. Thankfully small; it was always something of a gamble as to whether her quarry would be tiny and filmy-boned or larger than she’d ever imagined. Sometimes she heard sounds that were too low-pitched to be truly noise anymore, from the very bottom of the blackness underneath her. Adolescent Gruskomish perhaps, still a few centuries from leaving the ocean’s floor? She could only hope so: Gruskomish were dangerous beyond imagining, but slow-moving in their juvenile stage, and lazy. She would be safe from them as long as she stayed above the absolute depths, out of easy reach. What frightened her more were the unknowns, the things she hunted that could so easily turn out to be much larger than they appeared.
The next prey Small-five found came as a surprise. In fact, she swam right into it. A spasming length of slimy muscle wrapped around her from out of the darkness, as unlit as she, indeterminate in length. Small-five thrashed, surged, began to feel her ribs quiver in their places, and realized that her proboscis was unsecured.
The third stab did the job. Whatever it was, something vital had lain too close to her head, packed in slim, slimy tissue – away from her teeth, but not from her more dangerous weapon. She wasn’t sure if it had been chance or misjudgement, but the effect was the same and her goals met. A meal in her possession and another in her belly, it was time to rise from the depths once more.
The speed was the thing. Always slow, too slow, insufferably, horribly slow. She wanted to give way to panic as she’d done the night Far-away-light abandoned her, to streak in a mad dash to the surface and light again. She also wanted to keep her bloodstream from turning into a bubbling net of agony that would strangle her brain, and that mandated patience, a slow, steady slog of patience that made her think of teeth over and over again, rising from below at a pace she dared not risk.
Where was the light? Where was it? She was too high up for no light. Where was-
Small-five twitched. Why was Pulsing-point so deep? They were too far below for…she rolled in the water and squinted upwards. The blackness remained, but as part of the sky, a sky hanging a mere bodylength above her, where the waves rolled onwards. Small-five had spent all day in the deep waters. She really did have to pay more attention to time – how long had her descent taken her? Her ascent? Her hunting? No idea beyond too long.
Yes, yes Pulsing-point, the deep water was bad. But it gave food, or something close enough. She relaxed her death-grip on the prey-that-gripped, letting its folds fall away from her.
Bad, reiterated Pulsing-point, as she began to eat. Bad. Good-food. Bad.
Small-five looked closer and saw that she had a point: the creature was still dripping with its own bodily mucous, despite everything the ascent had done to mangle it. In appearance, it most closely resembled a giant Verrineeach, though with two eyes instead of three. Its sides did not shine as its cousins did, spreading a foul taste in the water as Pulsing-point chewed her way through its sides.
Disgusting though it was, it was meat, and meat for more than one meal. The rest was shoved into their empty carry-harnesses against the protests of Pulsing-point’s greedy mouth, to be saved for later. Some days Small-five rose from the depths with nothing at all. Most days.
Bad-water, insisted Pulsing-point as they continued their swim, their never-ending swim that left their ribs a little more pronounced against their skin every hour. Bad-water. Bad-water. Bad.
It took Small-five nearly until dawn to realize that yet another observation had been embedded in her sister’s mantras of annoyance: the water on the surface was nearly as cold as the depths. Something almost like hope stirred in her then, a strange feeling that threatened to dethrone the resigned will that had reigned since she first saw the empty bottoms of their carry-harnesses, since she first made the long, long swim to the deep waters for food. She’d never counted the trips she made, for fear of despair, and now suddenly progress – the damnable illusion – seemed nearly real.
The next day they saw floating ice, and Small-five spent all of it being pestered by excitement at this novelty. She wouldn’t have traded it for anything, and thankfully she didn’t have to. Three days passed and her sister fell silent all on her own as they approached the edge of a million-year ice shelf, the border that even the strongest summer could never thaw.
The pole again. Home to where her mind began.
Bad-water, Pulsing-point said, but automatically. Big-stange-bad-strange-strange-water.
Good-water, thought Small-five. You should’ve come here with me – with all of us – six years ago, sister. You should’ve all been here to eat and learn and grow, not cowering all alone in some dark corner of a reefcolony. You should have taken in this goodwater through food and gills until it swelled your braincase by three times, opened up your mind like a pearl and let us all see you for what you could be. You should’ve been that way.
A touch at her proboscis, worried. Sister-hurt-sister-bad? Safe?
Small-five was sitting in the water, immobile. She shook herself three times quickly, stiffened her spine and resolve, and swam onwards, into the ice.

At first she thought her memories had faded, failed her, left her drifting. This was not how she’d remembered the pole – the cramped mazes were shrunken beyond accounting for her size, the waters were clear and empty, the few meals they could catch empty and scrawny as Kleeistrojatch elders. But no, it was far more than a mere faulty recollection of the end of her childhood: summer was here, bringing light and warmth and starvation, the same summer that had driven her and her sisters north to Far-away-light years ago. The ice they had found was the southernmost core, the prey they sought the refugees of winter’s bounty, clinging to the shelf and waiting for more bountiful times, for the winter night and the oncoming Fiskupid swarms and their attendants, for the juveniles on the cusp of maturity that would come with them.
Small-five examined the corpses of that which they ate – if Pulsing-point gave her enough time – and examined the progress of the stars and did her best to calculate the changing temperature of the water against old charts in old reports she’d read what felt like never ago. It all told her the same time, the same tale: midsummer. Late midsummer, if she were generous. Which was still much too early and much too long to spend eating what she could scavenge from the depths – the polar depths, where life might run riot but it also ran with sharp teeth, and quickly too.
Hungry-bad-water-hungry, complained Pulsing-point as they shivered under the sun through the nights and days, as their sides remained bare to the bones and open to the cold. Hungry-bad-water-bad.
Small-five soothed her with a brush of her proboscis and gently ran her touch along her sister’s skull, tracing the edge of her cranium. There was no notable change, and of course there shouldn’t have been, wouldn’t have been. Not this early, this fast. But the food they ate lacked that certain aftertaste that she found herself recalling from before, the hint of minerals and acid that always left your teeth itching. It tasted like watery flesh and empty bones now, cut off from the upwellings that brought up the nutrients from the deep down to the surface, concentrated and packed into meat.
Go-safe-good-water, insisted Pulsing-point. This had become part of her mantra for the past few days, a new hope, a new cause to plead for. Food-food-food. Good-water.
Small-five brushed her sister again in reassurance, and led them both farther into the ice, towards the end of the world. Day after day, stroke after stroke.

She’d hoped that it would start to make sense again, that the icy pathways would coagulate and choke to close her in from all sides and frighten her senseless, like the old days. That the Nolohks would return and stare at her from odd crevices, filled with one thousand mouths of hunger and the razory limbs that had trimmed Dim-glow’s fins so long ago, that the Rimebacks would scurry overhead on floes.
Instead, she found mountains in reverse, fangs of ice more solid than volcanic stone and a thousand times older hanging overhead and brooding as they passed, forcing them downward, always downward. The water thickened around them as they dropped again, a journey that felt like one of Small-five’s deep-foraging expeditions stretched out for days with no end in sight.
Pulsing-point made it bearable. Pulsing-point and her light, and her (slightly rattled) ability to find wonder in the sights around them rather than creeping dread. It was thanks to her that they saw the prey to catch (mostly filmy Eurenu, fat and toxic and unappealing but so wonderfully massive in their flesh, a gutful and a half at least). It was thanks to her that Small-five didn’t succumb to the mindless terror of being alone in constant darkness with no end in sight and ram herself to death against the miles-thick ice above them, screaming inside to be home. It was thanks to her that the journey even existed in the first place, that Small-five wasn’t still at home on the reefcolony regressing back to nothing more than a being of food and rest, simple needs, simple wants, a simple life with a simple death.
And it was thanks to her that they found it. A scurrying chase on the glimpse of maybe-food led her to a crevice in a six-mile spear of ice that plunged down past all sanity, to a crack in that crevice, and finally to a nook, which she wedged herself inside and immediately froze.
Small-five wasn’t worried; she’d seen her sister get herself into considerably tighter spots before on the reefcolony. She grasped her tail and began to tug gently, guiding her backwards.
Pulsing-point stiffened and squirmed, refusing to budge.
Annoyed, Small-five yanked her tail again, more firmly. No matter how tasty-looking whatever she’d cornered was, it wasn’t worth becoming frozen into an icicle.
Pulsing-point thrashed briefly, smacking Small-five in the snout with her tail.
Small-five succumbed to her irritation and yanked Pulsing-point bodily with all the force she could muster, only to meet a total lack of resistance as her sister played the oldest trick imaginable and reversed direction, shooting backwards out of the icy nook with the force of a Godfish’s fin and sending both of them spinning. LOOK-FOOD! she shone, bright as the sun with an eyeful of air, LOOK-FOOD-FOOD!
Small-five debated smacking her, but chose to succumb to curiosity rather than brutality. She cautiously swam up to the hole and peered inside.
Ooliku. A small one, but alive and alert, glaring back at her as he cowered in the nestling grip of the ice. Except ice wasn’t that colour, wasn’t that rounded, wasn’t…. Small-five began to count, lost track, and gave up.
Ooliku. The inside of the great undersea icicle was almost completely hollow. And everywhere she looked, every inch of the surface was covered in Ooliku. Resting.
Every single eye was fixed upon hers.
Small-five waited there for the longest moment of her life. Then she backed up, just a whisker’s worth.
She might well have caused the same effect if she’d dived in headfirst flashing distress-shines as hard as she could’ve ever managed. Within three seconds every single Ooliku in the entire cave had jumped into action, either trying to flee, trying to fight, or trying to see what all the other Ooliku were fleeing from or fighting. All three goals required them to pass through the same passage, which Small-five and Pulsing-point were currently occupying.
It was a reminder for Small-five of a bygone time in a place full of strangeness, to be so surrounded by life. It seemed like all the water had vanished and been replaced with Ooliku, as suddenly-numerous as Fiskupids. They swarmed over her and her sister, so eager for battle or escape that they managed to lose them entirely, spiralling away and jetting into the depths with the sudden purpose that comes with almost total distraction. They had a purpose here, in this far-away place where no one had ever been before, where no intruder had ever disturbed their slumber. A single event, however shocking, was not great enough to disturb them from their timeless ruts of instinct and habit. They were awake, and thus they would feed, so they might continue to spar and mate. To that food they raced, and in their wake, as fast as they were able, came Small-five and Pulsing-point.
First down, then up, then down and finally up again, up again on the sudden and fiercely-gripping claws of a current the likes of which Small-five had never felt take hold of her. Up again and again and again until finally sunlight, terrifying, glorious sunlight came into their eyes from far above, trickling down from above as they surged to meet it on a column of water from the coldest currents on earth.
And where the two met, life filled Small-five’s gaze.
She couldn’t describe what she saw growing on the ice around them, in this suddenly-open water, this polar oasis. She couldn’t recognize a thing that wasn’t an Ooliku (so many Ooliku, even among the bounty that they were now feeding upon), couldn’t name the corals and shells that studded every surface, the creatures that speckled the water in impossibly tiny trillions, the swarming things that dashed through the water.
But she knew one thing truly, when she first saw Pulsing-point bite down on an unaware Ooliku and shimmer in surprised distaste. When she first closed her own teeth on prey.
That strange feeling in your mouth, like minerals and chemicals and things that couldn’t be synthesized in any laboratory, that were impossible to pipe all the way home without contamination or disruption.
Strange-things, said Pulsing-point. Strange. Food-though.
And so they ate, and so they began to change.

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