The Life of Small-five (Part 16).

May 29th, 2013

Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once.
It had not been a compulsory part of her education in Populism, although the necessity of such a task had been stressed most heavily in her classes.
renewal, faint-marks had told her in those soft, dim lights of hers. for us, for them. we give them their strength back, they become our own. both given freely.
Small-five wondered how long it had been since faint-marks-unclear had been a starving subadult in the middle of a blue desert, belly empty, burning away her insides to stay alive as she moved towards a hopeless end. She wondered if faint-marks-unclear had recalled that dazed awe she had felt as Far-away-light was revealed to her, as she was swept into the care of almost godlike creatures, exposed to a well of bottomless knowledge, raised from hopeless to the ruler of all she dared dream for.
Small-five, certainly, had forgotten all those things by the time she listened and read and learned. She had agreed that it was a fair trade, a gift given without obligation that was returned in kind. There was a purity in such thing, and by extension in a society built from such things.
It had been her job to guide. Guides, ice-melters, Fiskupid-netters, food-carriers…each a task requiring dozens, each requiring a knack, a skill. The strength to bear a burden of hundreds of pounds of food for hours; the nimbleness to make sure not a single precious building-block went to waste in the deep; the care and caution to wield burning force that could fry skin in seconds. And the kindness to reassure, to speak slowly and simply in sistertalk, to be a presence to adhere to rather than one to flee from. To be calm.
Small-five had been calm, soothing. She had been kind, comforting. She had been beckoning, leading. And she had done all those things perfectly well, as long as she did not look into the eyes of the subadults and see the lostness in there staring back at her, unexpressed in glowshine but bleeding straight from the soul.
Small-five had waited for the iceberg runs, once. She could understand why most did, and possessed wonder at the strength of those who managed to do more. Did their sensitivities grow calloused, or did they see those eyes and yearn to do more, deciding that this was the way, that this was how it must be, and if so, it must be done well?
It didn’t matter at this time, she supposed. Regardless of motive, regardless of personal mind, regardless of anything, she suspected she could predict exactly what each and every one of Far-away-light’s guides were thinking and feeling within the next short time.

Waiting, in the darkness. Glowshine extinguished – temporarily, only temporarily – with only the most minute flashes and sparks to communicate, to give direction and order. The subadults must not be given time to frighten themselves with, they must be confronted at close range, gathered quickly lest their panic lead them to flight. Strength must be saved for the burst of glow that would blind their tired eyes, dazzle them into hesitation.
Waiting, in the darkness. And then, the sight of light.
That was not normal. The glitter and shine of subadults – yes, yes, yes, that was normal, but not this concentrated dawn that lurked just out of range of true sight, turning the water a lighter shade of blue. It was nighttime, and this shouldn’t be.
But then there they were: the glimmer of subadults. The guides spread in pairs and triplets, ready to engage them, quick final planning flickers exchanged. And as the glimmers grew and grew and grew, the flickers hesitated, and then flew faster and faster.
Small-five had left the polar rim with thirty-eight subadults. As currents merged and ice melted, she had found another eight. As bergs fragmented and subadults scattered, she had claimed another ten. As loneliness and fear in the darkness overwhelmed the infant urge to stay small, stay dark, she had seen another five.
Sixty-one subadults in a single school, swimming together, naked of ice. Perhaps as many as would be gathered for Far-away-light’s halls in a year, all at once, and looking back at the guides with eyes bright, minds alert, bodies quick and strong to dart away and stare from a safe distance as firm glowshine pins down adults that should’ve been hidden in invisible dark, not this strange false-dawn. Curiosity rooting where awe had always guarded its clutch. Uncertainty dwelling amidst the old confronted with the new.
These things Small-five did not see, for she was travelling in the midst of the school. But she was close enough to see the reaction when the first glint of glowshine revealed the tusks and bulk of a father. Flashes, stuttered shining, and undignified flight so fast that she barely had time to register the tips of their tails, leaving only swirling confusion and disappointed subadults in their wake.
Scared, complained Both-fins, wriggling in frustration midwater. Why run?
Because they have seen what they do not understand. Because they have found something new where they have been told there is nothing. Because they have been deceived.
They are surprised, said Small-five, and that was close enough. Swim on. We can find more food without diving tonight, and we are almost there.

They did find food on the way; as Small-five had predicted, many of the food-carriers had elected to discard their bulky harnesses to the currents in their haste to follow their fleeing companions. Their contents were greedily consumed by the school as they cruised onwards, and it was no time at all until the glowing spire of shells grew out of the gloom before their eyes, a tower of many bodies and many lights, impossibly huge and yet made by mind and proboscis alone.
Small-five felt her glowshine beginning to prickle, and calmed herself quickly before the fathers could grow agitated – they were always quick to read her mood through her lights, and though she had not needed their strength yet she was under no illusions as to the damage they might do if she set them on an adult, a creature less than half their size by length and far less by bulk. She was not here to seek death. She was not here to cause pain. She was not here to shred the glowshine from anyone’s body and leave them a limp and lightless husk for the currents to take and the predators of the open waters to pick over at their will.
Her glowshine was prickling again.
Small-five shook herself all over – once, twice, three times – blinked herself on and off five times, and began what she’d planned.
Look away, she shone to her school. Mind your sight away from me.
One two three four five at once in a burst. Small-five-point-burst-of-light.
It wasn’t very small. Looking at it through seven of her eight lenses, Small-five still found her pupils shrinking. Her name shone so loudly that it seemed to backwash the chorus of glowshine forever blinking from Far-away-light into silence.
Small-five counted to one hundred. Then she repeated herself.
And again.
And again.
And again.
And then she waited, because she saw the lights beginning to scurry and swarm across the peak of the city, to grow larger and firmer. Someone was coming to talk to her.
Sisters? asked Thin-sweeping, hovering hesitantly besides Small-five’s fin. The school was reforming around her, maybe clustering a bit more closely than before. The sight of something so new and strange was hard to forget, as Small-five herself remembered. Mothers?
No, said Small-five. Not mothers. She gleamed irritably at her snap response. They tried their best, she corrected herself, and then stopped again.
They thought they knew what was right, she said. And now I must see what they believe.

There was a lot of shining, but very little being said. From all quarters at once.
Small-five thought something was wrong, and realized it was herself – they were all so small to her eyes, so small. Even Outward-spreading was only a little distance over half her bodylength, when before she had seemed enormous beyond all reckoning.
It’s not just my body, she thought. It’s in my eyes. They were my guardians, my teachers, my leaders. They were more than I.
They deceived me in these things, and I believed them.
Quiet, she said, overglowing the confused hubbub, and was surprised to have her command answered promptly. Lights winked out with the speed of thought.
I am Small-five-point-burst-of-light, she said. I have told you this, and you were willing to speak when you came here. My sisters are All-fin-sparkle, Dim-glow-bright-two-point-flare, and Nine-point-glimmer. Corroborate my claims with them, if you are skeptical.
Outward-spreading glanced towards Shine-at-the-center.
No chance for hours, gleamed the head of Maintenance. Dim-glow is leading a work crew at the bottom of the reactor right now. Unless you want the city to boil half-over, we’ll have to wait.
And Research is conducting an expedition to the north-west tropical rift, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine slower than Small-five remembered. Had she aged so quickly, in so few years? Nine-point is second-in-command; Left-lights would never permit her to return early, before the summer’s height.
Small-five reigned in her growing bitterness again before it reached her glowshine. The mother-leader and her cohorts were within striking distance of two of the fathers. Safety had only been persuaded to lower their weaponry and retract to a short distance away after a bitter ten-minute debate that Small-five felt she had won by exasperation more than anything else, and she had no desire to reopen it. Then call in All-fin, she said. I don’t hear her name mentioned in your expedition, and Safety doesn’t stray far from home otherwise.
No light shone. Small-five turned her eyes on Glow-over-all-points, and found that not only was the smallish head of Safety even smaller than she remembered, she was also trying – and failing – to make herself appear unobtrusive.
Is All-fin still within Safety? asked Small-five.
No, said Glow-over. She looked as though she would’ve preferred to say less and shrink further.
Small-five looked at Outward-spreading, saw a mirrored blankness, and felt something inside her tightening. Has my sister been harmed?
Got reassigned, said Glow-over. She left Safety of her own will.
Why? Reassigned to where?
Wouldn’t stop with the questions – about you, mostly. Didn’t get the answers she wanted, backed out. Got caught heading out after you. She pulsed annoyance. Mother-leader, this is Small-five. You know it. faint-marks knows it. Talk to the damned thing, whatever she’s turned int-
First, said Small-five, overshining the head of Safety, you will bring my sister to me. Here. Now.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, we acknowledge that you are who you claim to be. She shone firmly, but in her unusual silences and the rigidness of her bearing, Small-five saw something new in the one who’d taught her of language and learning. Glow-over, bring her sister here.
The head of Safety hesitated, lights miring at her sides.
I know, said Outward-spreading. Nevertheless, now.

All-fin was thinner than Small-five had remembered her to be, and there were scars of all ages criss-crossing her hide from tip to tail. But her energy was still there, and the moment Small-five flashed her name to her sister she squirmed away from the three Safety wardens that had brought her out to midwater and was so close to Small-five that her eyes could barely focus on her, corkscrewing her way around her body and firing off greetings faster than light in jumbled old sistertalk.
Good-to-see-you-is-it-you-must-be-what-went-wrong-they-said-you-went-missing-on-a-swim-outside-what-went-wrong-was-it-them? She paused for a moment in her circling. How’d-you-get-big?
You-helped-a-bit, shone Small-five. Long-story. They-put-me-out-did-they-hurt-you?
All-fin shone negative, but with distaste. Not-directly-punished-me-for-deserting-duty-left-me-without-direction-assigned-me-Maintenace-gutterwork-kept-wardens-on-me-always-watching. Sisters-kept-quiet-or-they-were-next.
There, said Glow-over. She’s fine, she’s yours, now are you ready to talk?
Yes, said Small-five. About what, do you think?
These, shone Outward-spreading, sweeping the nearest father – the great old white-eyed single-tusked hulk that dwarfed all of them – with a small beam of light. The male’s pupil contracted slightly at the shine, but he did not react otherwise. The flotilla of youth you’ve brought with you. Why you came back. What you’ve done to yourself. What you want from us.
Explanations, said Small-five.
Not vengeance, then? asked Glow-over, sarcastically.
Small-five warned her school in sistertalk, then pulsed twice. Hard.
Four darkened lenses slipped between her eyes and the glowshine were just enough to make it bearable. An adult’s full complement of three, as revealed by the incoherent whirling lights from the leaders of Far-away-light, were obviously not. Small-five felt a reproachful flicker at her side as All-fin smacked her, and realized she would have to apologize to her sister later in private.
If I wanted vengeance, she said, keeping her glowshine as smooth and even as she could manage, I would have burned your eyes out the moment you left the city’s sides. If I wanted revenge, I would have shone my name so brightly that every single sister and mother on Far-away-light would go to the end of their days with vision that can barely tell light from dark. And then I would have left. Without explanation or apology. I want those things from you.
Outward-spreading gleamed sharply, and Small-five watched as Glow-over swallowed the immediate response that had been brewing in her glowshine tubes. She was satisfied. Safety could think what they liked, – and judging from their shimmering in the distance as they regrouped, they thought they didn’t like her – her point was made.
Explanation, she repeated. And apology. Mother-leader, you know who I want these things from.
Outward-spreading shone acknowledgement, short and sharp. And as one, their eyes turned to the quietest member of the talk.
Chief of Populism, said Small-five. I repeat myself: I want these things from you. I will now correct myself in one word: I demand these things from you.
yes, said faint-marks-unclear. Her words were as hard to read as ever, but Small-five could practically feel the tired anger seeping from her sides. it was all that was needed. no more. maybe less. did what must be.
So you say, said Small-five. Now, we are going to the libraries. All of us. And you will show Far-away-light what you did to me, and why.
we could have killed you, shone the chief of Populism, as they began to swim towards the city. did you forget that?
No, said Small-five. Did you think that made it right?

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