The Life of Small-five (part 18).

July 16th, 2013

Cycle the lenses.
Small-five did so. Pain happened.
Small-five repeated herself.
Once again.
And again.
Wandering-tail-flickers pulsed to herself as she watched, one eye on Small-five, one on her glowshine terminal. Amazing. So many layers.
Yes yes, amazing, wonderful, astounding, incredible, broke in All-fin. How is the damage?
Wandering-tail gleamed peevishly, but cut herself off. A clean cut, but a severe one. The eye will detect light and shade, but little else. Another inch or so, and it would be a different story. Do you know, I think she was aiming for your brain?
Small-five knew.
She was a slow second-place then, said All-fin. Can’t you do something about this?
While the power to regrow entire organs would be a pleasant one, it is not within my capabilities, said the doctor. I will patch the eye to let it mend itself, but further development will be or not be at its own whim. At least, that’s what I’d say were you a healthy adult – I must admit, your physiology is half-guess and half-presumption on my part. Has your diet changed substantially since your metamorphosis? How about your range of visible light? Did your hunting habits adjust instinctually to the loss of a proboscis? And that’s not even to touch on the alterations to your brain, or your psyche. Do you think you could…?

Small-five left the medical chamber some hours later and was immediately submerged in a roiling wave of worried, frantically-shining juveniles. All-fin’s protests were shoved aside as rudely as All-fin herself by the mass of bobbing light and hurrying bodies.
Hurt-you? Who-
Where was-
Calm, shone Small-five, low and simply and smooth. And begrudgingly, happily, her school listened to her. Just as well. She didn’t feel she had the energy to overglow at them.
I am well, aside from this eye. I am safe now. No-one here means any of us harm-
Both-fins twitched nearly uncontrollably at this.
-no-one remains who means any of us harm, reiterated Small-five. And this sort of behaviour is exactly why none of you could accompany me in there. Be calm, be sensible. The Mother-leader waited with you, did she make half the fuss you did?
She’s not the only one waiting, said Dim-glow.

If All-fin had changed, however superficially, Dim-glow was a walking memory. Looking at her big sister – so small now – Small-five could almost believe that it was long ago again, when the world was sensible and kind, with no secrets that were not made by nature, and her sisters never more than a quick search away from her side. Even the repeatedly-wrecked-and-repaired bandoleer of tools still slung around her sister’s body was familiar, if somewhat more waterworn.
They only told me just now, she said. I finished the job, recommended the followup crew, filed a report, and was halfway back to tool storage before anyone got word to me. I’ve half a mind to put a few more eyes out to match yours; what good is a perfectly orderly power plant if nobody can be bothered to use it to send me a message?
Small-five wanted to say something to that, but she found she couldn’t. She wanted to stroke her sister’s skull with her proboscis, but she couldn’t do that either, and the memory of the muscles was already half-faded into the past. She settled for nudging Dim-glow with her snout as gently as possible, sending her sister wobbling.
Good-see-you-too, she replied, quiet and fast, then pulsed in surprise. What’s wrong with your eye? I thought all I missed was a meeting.
A divisive one, said Small-five. faint-marks-unclear is dead.
I killed her.
This created one of those unnaturally dim moments in all conversations.
Small-five-point-burst-of-light, said Outward-spreading, breaking the dark. You have had your demands met, if somewhat…imperfectly. faint-marks may have spoken too harshly –
-tried to kill her- broke in All-fin.
-and she may have acted in misguided anger, overglowed Outward-spreading, so smoothly that it nearly wasn’t shouting, but she informed you of the facts as they are known, and the reasons behind your expulsion. This was done in front of all of Far-away-light, as you again demanded.
All of Far-away-light that wasn’t at the bottom of our reactor at the time, interjected Dim-glow.
Recordings were made. You will have the opportunity to view them, although I trust you have already been informed of events. Outward-spreading was shining absently, almost as though she were talking to a sister, or herself; her glow hazy at the edges. Now that your conditions – your demands – have been met, what do you wish?
If it’s not too much trouble, Mother-leader, said Small-five, I would like to know why you are being so cooperative and forthcoming.
Outward-spreading rippled gently, small waves of light thrown off her sides like seaspray. Resistance garners less than nothing and risks much. You have ordered the leadership of Far-away-light about, forced our most private knowledge into the open for all to see and shine at, and killed one of us without so much as a touch. All of this in plain sight of the populace. What is left to fight for?
You could always kill us, offered All-fin, almost casually, and swear the city to secrecy.
Something almost like scorn shone through Outward-spreading, the harshest rebuke Small-five had seen in the years she’d learned from the elder. Do you think we hid our secrets because we trusted the whole world to agree with their needfulness? A few at a time could be eliminated or hidden away. There is no hiding what took place today. It is twelve thousand living memories, it is a hundred othershine records, it is faint-marks’s body being tended to in the medical chambers beneath us. Whatever could silence this would itself be an even more dramatic incident. No, no… this city will not forget what was learned in our library, although some may wish it.
You? asked Small-five.
Some, shone Outward-spreading, her glowshine clotting. I will not lie to you: an old friend of mine would be swimming still if you had never returned to this place.
Another long, slow moment passed by, ending as Glow-over slid into the huddle with a speed that turned the instantaneity of her halting into a minor miracle.
You’re up and about? All fine? No brain damage, no glowshine poisoning, no muscular spasms?
Then would you please come outside slightly quicker than you’re able? These ‘fathers’ of yours are getting impatient. More than impatient. Please. Hurry.

Small-five somewhat thought that the head of Safety had been exaggerating; the fathers had only grouped themselves into a tight schooling formation, and although this was certainly a sign of more-than-usual tension as opposed to the more loose grouping they’d been left to enjoy earlier, it was not significant cause for alarm. Probably. All the same, she was happy to have the chance to take their measure again – still calm enough, even after all the strangeness they’d seen that day. Her eyepatch brought no real regard, and she wondered if they would’ve remained similarly nonchalant if the wound were open and bleeding.
The fathers, regardless, were soothed, and after that the question of where to house them came up.
The juvenile chamber? suggested Small-five.
I’m not sure how large you recall that place being, but halve that, said Shine-center flatly. Then halve it again. You’re not that small anymore, and they certainly aren’t.
The food-park then, said Dim-glow.
Do you have any idea how much those things’ll eat? We’re dealing with a full school of juveniles without warning already, and if we end up going hungry all summer because of this…
They shouldn’t, said Small-five. At least, not if they’re quiescent. They’ve lived for years through arctic summers, head of Maintenance. They can control themselves.
They had to use the largest Maintenance entrance to fit the fathers through, and they very nearly balked at the gates, but once they were in they seemed quite pleased at the whirl of colour that made up the reefcolony. Small-five wondered if they could remember their youths, in the long-ago time before they were made fathers, before they left home.

Her school was the next problem. Persuade as she would, more than half of her juveniles – Both-fins and Thin-sweeping included – were loath to part ways with her, even for lessons in the library. She found herself having to hover close at hand as teaching was conducted, and spent more than one night in the juvenile chamber, watching the currents flow along Far-away-light’s sides and counting the numbers of curious ‘passerbys’ who shuttled back and forth along the chamber’s mouth, seeking to catch a glimpse of her. The numbers refused to fall day by day, and she found herself too disturbed to keep the game up.
Of course, this meant her school accompanied her on the matters that consumed much of her time now: meetings upon arguments upon debates upon plans conducted with Outward-spreading, Shine-center, Glow-over, and Six-whirling-flares, the freshly appointed chief of Populism. Small-five had only met Six-whirling a few times before; she had always been a quiet presence in the background beyond faint-marks, a checker and a balancer and a measurer of small things that were important, like food, shelter, and timetables. It was a reassuring thing to have in those times, as the chamber grew thick with glowshine and annoyance, to have at least one person near your side at all times who was almost guaranteed to be calm. Especially as a counterbalance to All-fin, who was almost guaranteed not to be.
Well, of course it was the right thing to do, shone Glow-over. Maybe none of us felt quite as passionately about it as faint-marks did, but you already heard the explanation from her.
Heard it, why should I believe it? shone All-fin. I don’t see why having an easier way of doing things should choke us out of ideas – there’ll always be Researchers, inventors, idea-makers, and there always HAVE been. You probably weren’t looking in the right places to find what they left behind in the old days.
You presume, shone Six-whirling. We have ample evidence of ourselves during the reign of the aberrant through preserved remains. What we lack almost entirely are artifacts, which appear very quickly in the wake of their downfall. Your thinkers existed, All-fin. But they were becoming aberrants, not creators.
It’s been millennia, shone Dim-glow. We’ve learned. We’ve changed. The gene is rare, you’ve said so yourself, and we’re scarcely simple wanderers anymore. What harm would letting this re-emerge do?
Rare or not, shone Outward-spreading, its expression in any real numbers will trigger regression. Or have you forgotten the impact of one individual so quickly, with her swimming at your side? A resurgence of aberrants will come alongside a downfall of our society, or do you think that we will be trusted when it is learned what we have hidden? She shone negative. Maybe the cities will not be abandoned. At first. Maybe Research will not slide off into the abyss. Yet. But these things will come to pass as long as there is a visible easy current for all to see, a quick way to avoid immediate pain and hunger at the cost of future –
Outward-spreading, said Small-five. When I told faint-marks-unclear what I saw, I spoke the truth.

Outward-spreading gleamed acknowledgement.
The infants die on the reefcolonies, Mother-leader. The juveniles die at the polar seas, die in the wastes of the open seas on their way here. By myself, ignorant, I brought back almost more alive and healthy in one trip than Far-away-light might have received all year at the whim of the ice floes, starved and abused. There is nothing that can excuse this. You remember how long I spent in the library the first time I saw it, Mother-leader. You know how much love I feel for that place. And Mother-leader, if it would save a single infant, I would have that place torn to bits and scattered to the currents. And you know I am telling the truth.
Fine, shone Glow-over, breaking into the conversation. Then I presume that sustaining our present population by permitting the young to struggle is out of the question – you say we must not do it and I doubt we’re in a position to deny you.
Yet the alternative, added Shine-center, –namely, letting you and whoever else makes this change take charge of all of us again – we cannot do, not unless we want to regress back to bare proboscises alone as our only tools.
There will be suffering in that, Small-five-point-burst-of-light, shone Six-whirling. And given all of this, what then is it that we should do?

In the end, nearly half of Far-away-light volunteered. Many of those who remained behind were Maintenance, who knew history in the making when they saw it but also could see an emergent disaster when it was staring them in the face.
Yes, it’s likely that the place could run properly without me, Shine-center had said. It’s also likely that if anything goes wrong, I’ll be needed. It’s almost certain that if I’m needed in my absence, someone will die. So no, I’m not leaving.
Besides, she’d noted, you’ve got no shortage of volunteers.
Exactly five thousand seven hundred and forty-three adults. And all of her sixty-one juveniles. She’d explained herself carefully, she’d thought, but not a single one had wanted to stay behind.
If you do this good a job on your other stops, this may be simpler than you’d thought, Dim-glow had shone.
Small-five had thanked her sister, but as she looked out over the sides of Far-away-light, blazing with glowshine, she was absolutely sure that calling anything of this venture ‘simple’ would be the most blatant lie. Dozens of voyages, each thousands of miles long awaited them all. Even with nearly all of Safety among them, even with the vaults of provisions emptied, even with every scrap of planning a half-year of constant meetings could craft, this would be nearly impossible.
Small-five felt the glowshine rise up within her, and swallowed her nerves. She knew what she had to say, as they all watched her.
Give them the truth, she shone. All of the truth. The good and the bad.
And tell them that if they must choose, they need not choose one.
The lights of the city flared once in acknowledgement, and for the second time in Small-five’s life she was enveloped in a wave of cascading bodies, swept along in a storm that swam. Only this time she was not alone.
It wouldn’t last. Their destinations were a hundred cities, then a hundred more. Split into many groups, their courses would begin to diverge almost immediately.
It wouldn’t last. But still, it was so very sweet to her.

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