The Life of Small-five (Part 15).

May 8th, 2013

Wash in, wash out. Feel the water caress your gills, cool and smooth, soft. Relax.
Then ready yourself, and begin. Send the signal up from your spine-head, the place where your mind lives. Feel it crawl along your body at an agonizing slowness, the speed of light.
It must go to five places at once. All at once. Or else it doesn’t work.
The tip of each pectoral fin.
The tip of the dorsal fin.
The two soft places just behind the eyes.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. All touched at once.
Now, to make that touch a strike, a surge, a jolt. Each point, for just a single instant measuring from then-to-now, is a little star that leaves its mark on the eye for an instant afterwards, a reminder. It must not overpower, it must never fizzle or falter.
It must be perfect.
One, two, three fourfive.

And that was how Small-five-point-burst-of-light said her name aloud, for the first time in more than a year.

Small-five moved through the world in a haze, full of wonder and without a single shred of instinct to guide her way. Movement was a surprise, now that she was there to think about it. Eating was a shock. Sight was absurd. And every day, every new day, she only grew more and more confused.
It was wonderful, as long as she minded her thoughts and kept them on the living with her.
There – at her side – that was Thin-sweeping-shimmer, the smallest of the little band that had clustered around her as the days fell away. A Gible hung from her proboscis, its limp body quivering with the juvenile’s nervousness as she proffered it. Small-five adjusted the angle of her body, gingerly plucked the gelatinous mass from Thin-sweeping’s grasp – it was still so strange, lacking her own, her jaw now a seamless line of perfectly-fused bone. She would need to learn to lead her strikes with her teeth someday (they felt larger, they were larger, perhaps that would help), but for now at least she was cared for. The food tasted empty, but she needed the nourishment more than the sensation; she had enough strange new things to marvel at.
The juveniles were a constant joy to observe; she’d forgotten that awkward time when the brain was just finishing expansion, when the ability to plan came into being, to think ahead, to be smart. She watched as sisters became friends, and watched as they began – cautiously, slowly – to speak among themselves, to learn to trust others that were not their blood. Five separate sister-groups had begun to follow Small-five, fourteen little lost ones. At least this last Small-five could take more than distant satisfaction in; she seemed to act as a beacon for the juveniles; that neverending light that she could not stifle lured in new lost little ones from miles away, a curiosity that they followed for reasons none of them yet had the words to explain.
She might not be able to stop it, but she was learning how to use it.
One two three four five at once. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
The water danced with her name, bouncing off walls of ice, and she was happy again. Happier still to see the juveniles react with less surprise; she was more and more a known in their minds, a thing to be trusted through experience – even if she was too big and too strange to be one of them. Stranger still to herself; stretched to nearly double her former size but only slightly thicker than before, she had become lean and long. To surge through the water was perhaps more difficult than before, but even at a cruise she now left the juveniles struggling to keep up and was forced to idle, tail barely moving as they swam alongside.
Hungry, glimmered a voice at her side. It was Both-fins-flaring, the largest of Thin-sweeping’s sisters. Find-food? You? Thin-sweeping herself huddled at her side, and Small-five suspected that the juvenile wasn’t quite speaking her own words.
Yes, she replied – carefully. Shrinking her light had become a greater struggle than expanding it had ever been before her change, but with applied patience she’d learned to shrink her glowshine down to the scale of an adult, made her words small and kind. It felt…right. Not comfortable, perhaps, but it was the way she should be.
Besides, she had other means with which to stretch herself.
Food, she called, in that long, steady pulse that stretched itself outwards for as far as her new eyes could see – they saw so much more now. She’d finally managed to count all of her lens-lids the day before. Eight of them, five more than before. With all lifted the world was as clear as a gloudulite’s blood, and when all were in place she wagered she could stare into an alarm flare without a flinch, the world a shadowed shell. Food. Come.
They came in fits and starts, drifting away from whatever meager prey they found at the surface, and one and all, Small-five at their head, they sank down into the dark black beneath, where even the polar night seemed an unfathomable brightness above.
Small-five counted body-lengths as she swam at the head of the column. One. Two. Three. More and more, farther down.
At ten, she relaxed herself, and spat out the smallest gleam she could manage. Be-ready.
Acknowledgment glowed at her side.
NOW, shone Small-five, and in that instant she relaxed the iron grip of her muscles on her glowshine tubes, felt the surge rise, and drove it just a height or two above her comfort levels.
The world turned into a frozen picture for a second of pure light, like an image in othershine. A mid-sized mated pair of Raskljen. A small school of Eurenu adrift. A Nohlohk larvae just shed of its molt. All halted in their paths to hide, all perfectly exposed.
Small-five’s juveniles hesitated too. But not for quite as long.

When the time came to rise, some hours later, they did so with protesting, over-full bellies. Small-five had taken to using Thin-sweeping as a barometer of the success of their hunts: if she had managed to get enough food to complain on the ascent, all of them must have been stuffed properly. Currently she was too bloated with Eurenu flesh to even manage that, and so Small-five permitted herself the efflorescent warmth of absolutely unrepentant self-satisfaction. Her own newly-lengthened digestive tract was comfortably swollen, riding high in her abdomen over the strangely hollow cavity where she suspected her generative organs had resided. Though she couldn’t observe such things directly, Small-five presumed she was now sterile – certainly her rear fins were now too small to reach the greatly-increased distance to her cloacal vent, besides being too rigid to bend. The apparent fact that this did not worry her troubled her sometimes, but a little less so with every day that passed. In fact, Small-five was so untroubled by this and other matters and so content with her filled belly that she very nearly swam headfirst into the hovering pale-bellied bulk above her that mingled with the light from above.
The panicked shining of the juveniles was her only alarm, and she banked sharply, the tip of her snout nearly scraping heavy, thick-set hide as it veered away from her in surprise. She corkscrewed in midwater, sides sending wobbling beams of light hither and thither, and tried to reposition herself – the children, she had to put herself between the thing and the children, where was it, where was it? The water around her was clearing again, in synch with her mind, turning from violent flashes in the dark back to illuminated evenness, and the first thing that she saw of her partner in near-collision (Crheeh? No, too bulky, and they lurk deeper. Jarekindj? But she’d seen a fin…) was the sparkle of glowshine illuminating bared bone and enamel as it reflected from his tusks.
Oh, said Small-five involuntarily, embarrassed and relieved all at once. Oh.
The father hovered nervously three bodylengths away, small eyes focused on her. He was the first she’d ever seen in the flesh, and his sides were a riot of swirling colours just an inch too pleasing to be random. In length he was her equal, in bulk he would’ve made two of her, and his tusks were each half again the length of her proboscis. When she’d had it.
She was glad, as they watched one another, that fathers were harmless. Juveniles they were indifferent to, adults they consciously avoided. They had no place in the lives of their sisters and mothers beyond their birthing, and they gave as little malice as they did compassion.
Then again, voiced a treacherous, worrisome thought that Small-five would swear did not belong to herself, Small-five was neither adult nor juvenile.
Precisely as this thought crossed her mind, the father flicked his tail gently, propelling himself slightly closer. His eyes were still on her.
They were pink.
Small-five would not be able to explain how that fact led her to relax, to stifle the explosion of glowshine she was sure was waiting to erupt from her body at the slightest hint of aggression or anger. All that mattered was that as did her light fall into the warmer softness of she used to light her way, to beckon the juveniles, so did the tiny edge-of-hearing noise that she belatedly recognized as a battle trill cease to emit from the father’s body.
They stared at each other some more. Well, Small-five did. The father, by contrast, swam in a quick half-circle and casually dropped into the hastily-vacated space the juveniles had left at her side.
Schooling position.
Small-five thought about what this meant, and felt that strange warm, tickling feeling of happy excitement growing inside her chest again.
Come, she shone, pulsing her glowshine into the crevices of the ice pack where the juveniles had fled. Come-back. Come. Safe. She nearly broke into ripples of laughter as the father moved closer towards her with puzzled pink eyes.
Father-guards. Father-is-safe.

By the time the sky was beginning to fill with light once more, the time when the food sank deeper down in the water column, the time of spring and starving, Small-five had nearly three dozen juveniles in her wake, all on the cusp of subadulthood. At the edges of the school, spaced evenly and prone to jostling for pride of placement (through some murky sort of pecking order whose depths she did not understand) if she did not watch them, were five fathers of various ages and degrees of scarring. The oldest and largest, whose eyes had faded to a near-white, was the owner of a single, rugged tusk that was bigger than Thin-sweeping from snout to tail, and had taken the position of rearguard without dispute.
The juveniles had protested, cowered, and finally succumbed to guidance out of exhaustion as much as anything else, but each succeeding group of sisters that joined the school had done so faster than the last under the peer pressure of those who preceded them. Small-five did not entirely approve of the insults that were flung at those who flinched or wavered from the presence of the fathers, but she was unable to muster the will to pronounce a ban on such talk when the results were not only so helpful but also rapid.
The talking was important, besides. She was no great teacher, nowhere near the ability of Outward-spreading, but she remembered enough of her own troubles and difficulties moving from sistertalk to the speech of adults that she was able to slowly, steadily make the subadults understand what she wanted of them. Language; nothing more, nothing less.
Sistertalk-is-fine, she told them. But-you-practice-need-to-practice-to-learn. Understand-yes?
Affirmations spread from the school.
This makes sense?
An almost total blankness met her, bar a few awkward glimmers.
Then-practice-more, she said. And gave up for the day. Again.
Instead, she attempted to make herself understood to the fathers again. She was thin of knowledge on them, and suspected that faint-marks would’ve been able to tell her little more. The fathers were an enigma, dwelling in the most remote corner of the world and quick to actively avoid Populism’s attempts at research, and even their basic anatomy was something of a mystery. Their psychology in particular was an utter guess in the dark at best, although induction based upon the postulated average size of their braincase put them at the intellectual level of exceptionally-dim juveniles. More than that – exceptionally-dim juveniles that possessed no social tendencies and no capacity for language.
….reflected Small-five, as she led five of them onwards with the guiding beacon of her glowshine, prodding them with the simplest of signals and seeing what made them react (inflections of alarm, danger, food, or exhaustion, mostly; the stronger the emphasis the more firmly it was understood). She suspected that she would have to rewrite many acknowledged truths on this matter, although she would likely have to request the aid of someone with a proboscis to do so for her.
That thought gave her pause, and for a moment her swimming stalled as she turned it about for re-examination. Rewrite whose truths, where, and request the aid of whom? Far-away-light was not her home, not anymore and not ever – she doubted that faint-marks had spoken her ultimatum with hidden clauses in mind, should Small-five come across interesting facts upon their species (especially given what had led to its delivery). Even if she were to subtly deposit her subadults on their doorstep and leave without fuss, she could not be assured they would be treated kindly – regardless of whether or not her touch upon them was unknown, thirty-four subadults was very nearly half of the quota Far-away-light permitted entry within its walls every year. Her subadults would either be turned away or lead to the abandonment and death of an equal number of starving migrants, lagging somewhere behind her, following the just-calving icebergs and their cargo of frozen Fiskupids.
Small-five thought about those subadults now, not for the first time. She had done all she could, she was sure. She had wandered far, shone bright, called in so many children and given them safety, food, and most importantly, stability. They had to leave now; the summer polar outskirts would not support them all and she had no desire to lead her children inwards, to expose them to the fate of Pulsing-point.
She had helped so many, as many as she could. She was sure of this.
Thirty-four subadults, all safe and healthy. Happy. She was sure that this was more than there would’ve been otherwise. She had made a difference.
So why not do more?

After another five days, they departed with somewhat emptier bellies and four more subadults. For Far-away-light.
Small-five had a difference to make.

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