The Life of Small-five (Part 17).

June 19th, 2013

There were complications en route to the libraries.
No, there are no larger passages, said Shine-center. This is a place of learning, not a storehouse of heavy machinery. The very largest of the terminals were brought in in small pieces, and that was almost a century ago. She gleamed negative. No, these fathers of yours simply will not fit. Not unless you want us to stop and construct a new entryway, and I believe you want this information before next month. You will simply have to leave them behind.
You are asking me to trust you, said Small-five.
As we are trusting you, replied Glow-over. The head of Safety was still pulsing infinitesimally, barely on the edge of Small-five’s detectable spectrum of light.
Small-five has past-cause for suspicion and anger, shone Outward-spreading, and through this we ourselves have reason for concern. Neither of these feelings, however, are relevant. Need you fear that we may murder you in front of all of Far-away-light, when even the matter of your wounding was conducted in such secrecy? Must we worry over future harms that you could deal to us most efficiently at this very moment?
Glow-over subsided. Mostly.
I concede your point, Mother-leader, shone Small-five. But remember: all must see.
Unless you want us to knock down walls- began Shine-center.
Transmit it in othershine, overglowed Small-five, use word of mouth if need be, pack the library solid, any way this can be done, it should be. This lesson must be a moment shared between all.
Glow-over and Shine-center twitched. Outward-spreading shone nothing.
faint-marks traveled just ahead of them, a voluntary outcast from the conversation.

Small-five paused to feel for a moment at the entrance to the libraries. Yes, the lingering fear and unease was now there, yes, there was unease at how much smaller everything seemed to her, but lying underneath it all and still calmly buzzing away was familiarity. Even now, with a school of sixty-one subadults paddling nervously in her wake, with her body reformed and reshaped, with all of Far-away-light’s eyes upon her and their leaders, she remained Small-five.
Of course, having All-fin at her side helped with that. Sister, she shone, as the library filled itself around them, it’s been entirely too dull here without you. And thank you for making up for lost time so quickly.
It’s not begun yet, said Small-five, as their little group spiralled deeper down towards the library’s base, faint-marks still guiding the way. First, we learn what secrets are worth exile for. After that… then it will be interesting.
faint-marks stopped. The full height of the library soared above them, filled with muted glowshine, half-hushed with fascination. Down here the walls were rough in shape, fashioned from shells grown huge over decades that denied polishing and resisted trimming with preternatural stubbornness.
They waited. The water around them grew dim as discussion above halted in shines and sparks. Something is going to happen, saw Small-five out of the corners of her eyes. The last words shone before quiet emerged.
Something is going to happen.
An explanation, chief of Populism, said Small-five. As demanded. As agreed.
faint-marks hung limp in the water, bereft of light as a corpse.
As demanded, repeated Small-five.
As agreed, said Outward-spreading, in that strange, tired light that seemed to have filled her since Small-five had come home again. faint-marks-unclear, comply with Small-five-point-burst-of-light’s demands.
Lightlessness followed. Then slow, dragging acknowledgement from the chief of Populism. Her light was as unsteady as ever, but in the watchfulness of so many eager eyes, it almost blinded. i will need access. to an othershine terminal. for illustration purposes.
The moments that followed seemed to last forever, sinking into the memories of all present through the skin. The unnaturally dim quiet. The soft susurrus of many fins in rest position, whispering through the water. The faint popping and clicking noises of an old, old othershine computer being operated after its first boot-up in what must’ve been years, down here in the dark corners of the foundations of Far-away-light. All small, useless details, all suddenly almost as important as anything else in the world.
this, said faint-marks, as she projected othershine from the terminal into a bare-bones but recognizable spire-shape, is far-away-light. just over a century old. just over twelve thousand inside. it is our home. experimental deep-sea design. young and average in size. but still a city.
Further popping sounds as buttons were operated.
this – and ‘this’ was a massive and irregular blob sketched with quick, faded marks – is old-glow-holes. nearly three millennia old. population of nearly forty thousand within permanently. more visitors. first known city to exist. architecture a timeline dating from first civilization to present. second-largest in size. a city.
Pop, pick. A silhouette emerged stroke by stroke. Fins on a sleek torso. The smooth curve of a sharp-tipped proboscis. And a little pair of barbels at the mouth.
this is us. only known sapient lifeform. fossils date back nearly one hundred thousand years. near-ancestors and extinct offshoots six times that. all this information is from fossils only. no artifacts. no dwellings. no reefshaping. physical remains only.
faint-marks paused there. She did not move. She did not look up from her terminal.
no change in behaviour. no change in territorial range. no change in anatomy. stasis. immobility.
Click by click, a series of lines and words appeared. A symbol composed of further symbols, a web of interwoven fundamental truths.
Small-five had seen it before. She’d described its function on the eve of the last night she’d spent in Far-away-light.
this is a gene, shone faint-marks-unclear. rare. present in a tiny percentile of the population. it has no innate effect on adult carriers. it is ubiquitous in fossil populations. until three thousand four hundred years ago. steady decline begins. reaches modern scarcity three thousand years ago. as old-glow-holes is made. as other first cities are made.
Click, and the gene vanishes.
Pop, and the familiar silhouette re-emerged.
And then, inch by inch, it was rewritten. The body lengthened all out of proportion, stretched to the point where the spine seemed like it would snap. The proboscis was amputated. The glowshine tubes lengthened and thickened and swept along the body, coiling into themselves in tiny corkscrews. The fins were realigned and smoothed out into long sweeps that seemed to flap in the water of the library floor. The eyes were tweaked slightly, perhaps thickened. A small adjustment, but one that completed a picture of unmistakable alienness in the guise of something hauntingly familiar.
this, said faint-marks-unclear, raising her gaze to Small-five since the moment they had departed for the library, is the function of the gene.
Ten thousand eyes moved, yet not a spark of glowshine shone.
an increase of more than double length. less-so mass. so body is built for low-effort high-speed over long distances. glowshine production intensified. exponentially greater than in adult. eye lenses increase in number from three to eight against self-blinding. loss of proboscis. increased speed and glowshine compensate. would still restrict to small prey. incapable of reproduction.
faint-marks’ proboscis tapped three times in rapid succession, then fell aside from the computer. Above her, painted in the pale othershine of the terminal’s aging projector, each illustration she’d sketched circled slowly in a great ring.
the gene persists. the aberrant form matures. and where it lives we stagnate. more than ninety-five thousand years before any change in us. and when change comes. it comes with the downfall of the gene. it comes alongside the vanishing of the aberrant.
faint-marks was struggling more now, her glowshine pulsing unevenly and rapidly, nearly brightening to normal adult strength one instant and then dying back down again to its typical dwindled gleam.
we wondered how. we wondered why. we made theories. we hypothesized. we even considered reactivating the gene. it is rare. but not extinct. obviously.
but the risk was too great. we left it at theories. we analyzed and reanalyzed our data. we searched old seafloors. we spent centuries learning this. centuries. centuries! mothers and daughters learning and dying and thinking atop each other’s bones.
and then you came. not the first to discover. not the first to know by dozens and dozens. independent efforts have stumbled on links by mistake. populists. researchers. noteworthies taken into secrecy. small ones vanished.
we could’ve killed you.
The first whispers of light from another sparked across the crowds above like a roiling wave. faint-marks continued without pause.
we could’ve killed you. and now i see. now i see we should have. you have brought us five dozen young across a harsh sea. well-fed and unafraid. unharmed. The chief of Populism’s gills fluttered with exertion as her glowshine wavered. when you look at the weapons of safety. what do you see?
Tools of death to protect life, responded Small-five automatically. Her teacher was speaking to her again, a subadult again, a student. Rhetorical questions parting for knowledge at a prompted nudge, a nudge cut off at the hilt as faint-marks plowed onwards.
i see three thousand years of knowledge gained in pain and passed down to others. when you look at the walls of this place. what do you see?
A place for-
i see three thousand years of labor and love of others. when you look at us – the mother-leader your teachers your keepers your mothers and your guardians and your saviors – what do you see?
i see three thousand years of unbroken determination. determination to better ourselves and our daughters and their daughters onward and forever.
faint-marks was visibly trembling now, from snout to tail-tip. do you know what i saw when you swam to us with your doting subadults and your pet fathers and your name shining brighter than the sun? brighter than this city itself?
Small-five fought the urge to reach out a proboscis she no longer had, either in aid or in as a defensive ward, she wasn’t sure. I-
i see a future devoid of progress and betterment. i see three thousand years of struggle and love washed to pointless triviality in a careless instant by actions taken by an ignorant and presumptuous creature. i see ninety-five thousand years of complacency and passivity. i see any hope for accomplishment and progress ground to sand and silt in the currents. i see daughters content to follow and grow fat and learn nothing. do nothing. be nothing.
Silence black as sin settled over the library as faint-marks’ sides collapsed into exhausted darkness, heaving as if she’d outrun a godfish. Her eyes were glassy and her proboscis was at once boneless and flailing; a grasping, twitching thing that bobbed in the currents spawned from her body’s motions.
Small-five looked beside herself. All-fin was twitching with barely-restrained fury; Both-fins was staring wide-eyed at the chief of Populism as if she were a Crheeh at her throat; Thin-sweeping was trying to tuck herself behind Small-five’s dorsal fin and vanish from the eyes on them all.
Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, and felt herself almost jump at the shine of a voice that didn’t waver in the grip of an eye. Chief of Populism. My teacher. Do you know what I see this when I look at this place that you have built?

After Small-five spoke her question she waited; for an answer, a denial, acknowledgement, anything. She would be fair. She waited, and she listened.

Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, speaking alone in Far-away-light as it sat in the darkness. My guardian. My keeper. Do you know what I see when I look at this life you have laid out for us?

She waited. She listened.

Faint-marks-unclear, said Small-five, at the bottom of all that she had ever known. My savior. My mother. Do you know what I see when I look at you?

She listened.

I see a ring of teeth descending upon infants from the blue. And behind that, nothing.

Faint-marks-unclear did not strike, she convulsed; her entire body contorted into a single wrenching, violent motion that launched her through the library terminal, through the shocked flaring of Far-away-light, and into Small-five’s face.
Light leapt back in answer.

There was a searing pain in Small-five’s left eye, a bone-shaking impact against her skull, and then a lesser one as the offending weight was suddenly hurled away by what her already-retracting lens-lids hinted at to be All-fin. Already-retracting on one side, that is. Her other revealed reddened pain, and she hastily halted her attempts to pry it open.
The library was in an uproar; the heights were a mass of riotous light and shock. Outward-spreading, Glow-over, and Shine-center were clustered around the entangled and still-struggling mass of All-fin and faint-marks. Then the forms broke apart, and Small-five saw that the struggle had been entirely one-sided.
Gone, shone her sister to them all. It went right through.
Small-five didn’t understand, then her sister nudged the chief of Populism’s body into better profile. One eye was a puckered husk, its surface rippling in the tiny, uneven waves of superheated water surrounding it.
Right through, repeated her sister, and this time Small-five heard the satisfaction in her voice. How’d you do that? So small, but so focused-
The light was too bright all around her and her eye felt like it had peeled open and split her head in half and she needed space to think.
QUIET, said Small-five. And it lit up Far-away-light’s insides like a second sun, like nothing ever had before, and it made her eye jump with pain inside her skull.
But it worked, at least for a little while.
There were questions and confusions and anger and shock and comfort and love.
But they could wait, at least for a little while.

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