There Once Was a Fish
By Brandon Myers
1 September 2008
"In the same affable way that she personates her elders, conducts heated affairs with simulacra, or dispatches the lives and legs of tiny bugs, a human child will touch on great imponderables and then pass on. Of this ability, her life's allotment may be several drops or measured in spilled cupfuls. She uses it until it is gone. A parent can only marvel at her moods and preserve the precipitate artifacts of this period. A Pavonian might claim to understand the substance of this trope perfectly, but on what order of magnitude?"
The wind-blasted ridge rose behind them. The treeline below was low and dense, spreading along the slopes with ground-hugging branches. Limbs arched and re-anchored in tangled arcades, lashed to dryness.
They had landed in a prearranged location, a tilting gravel slide in lee of the wind.
"Do not touch them," her mother warned her, "they're very fragile."
Milvia Marin nodded to her mother and squinted expectantly into a gnarled thicket. The dropping sun was fading to a red smear.
They came up from the trees, splaying their legs gracefully, like feather dusters lately changed to marionettes. Three. Then another. And another.
"Do you see those little stalks with rainbows on top? That's how they see us."
"Better than eyes."
The newcomers presented themselves in a semicircle and appeared to settle into the ground before their equipment. The two adults did likewise, and when the group lapsed into unbroken silence, Milvia went back into the ship in search of Nannynoo.
The central radiant was already illuminated. Nannynoo reposed under the lamp-like circles thrown onto the ceiling. Would she like to play a game? Milvia peered into the backdrop of the dais, saw only old things, and shook her head.
"How long are they going to sit there?"
"I don't know. Perhaps a very long time."
"I want to go in the Egg," Milvia decided.
"Dr. Marin went with the Pavonians to their village," Strel told her when she was roused from the Egg. Milvia had fallen asleep and no one had put her in her bunk. She had been flying through mountains with great red wings, looking for something. And then? She couldn't remember. Her arms were even sore.
"When will she be back?"
"Whenever." Strel turned her back and went into the pilot.
"Nannynoo? When will mother be back?"
"I don't know. Would you like to play a game?"
"I want to go outside."
"I can't open the door, Milvia. You'll have to ask Strel."
Milvia went to the pilot but stopped at the door. The adult was hunched over in her chair with an expression Milvia didn't recognize.
She played games with Nannynoo that day. She could hear Strel talking in the pilot at times, an angry voice under the door.
Nannynoo showed her pictures of the outside, the wind-rounded hills and the scudding sky. There were tumbleweeds, except, look! Tiny pseudopodia would lash out from the whirling objects, anchoring them to limbs with succulent leaves. There were dusky snakes, and spotted things with ten, no, twelve legs. Nannynoo pointed out the Pavonians that perched within the densest foliage but they hardly did anything.
Strel came out once and looked at them. Then she went back into the pilot and shut the door again.
Nannynoo let her sleep in the Egg.
On a cloudy morning Strel took her to the village. Milvia looked for houses and yards. They walked for a while and then went down a ravine and into a tunnel made of branches. They came up on thatched platforms and lattices of living tree limbs. A great boulder was set back among the platforms. An oval pool of black water stood within one dished side, as if facing up. She looked away.
Two mottled Pavonians, brown and green, came before them. Strel held her box up before her. They stepped onto the lowest platform and settled. For what seemed a very long time to Milvia nothing happened. She stayed quiet, having become unsure of the big adult. She watched the orange sun moving up out of the clouds. Finally Strel leaned back from her box and stared at the two aliens.
Her laugh sounded like a bark.
"Ask a simple question and you get nonsense about declensions."
She paused again and this time looked at Milvia.
"She's gone up the valley. I asked if we could move the ship to reach her, but they won't let us fly in there. So what we're going to do is go to the other end of the valley and wait for her as long as we can. I'm sorry, Milvia. Pavonians tend to overwhelm some people. I don't know why. That was one of the risks."
"Why won't she come back?"
"It's just something that happens. To some people."
The valley ran several hundred miles in a northward curve. They landed on a western slope with a view of a great gray river. The valley's unbroken forest extended everywhere but the bald ridges and peaks. There were no roads or clearings. It did not look like an inhabited place, let alone the home of a spacefaring species.
Milvia worked on puzzles with Nannynoo for days. They built a farm and told each other stories about the animals. Then they let the stories go and tell themselves, watching tiny dramas unfold. Every day she went in the Egg. She asked Nannynoo about her mother.
"Couldn't we walk down and meet her on the river?"
"Maybe you could, Milvia, but you know I can't leave the nous."
"How long would it take me to meet her?"
"Days and days. Do you see this map? Here you are. And this little green dot is your mother's location."
"And she's getting closer?"
"Only if she keeps coming this way."
But several days later Strel said, "She's not any closer. And we were only given the few days."
Nannynoo had displayed a tall map in the radiant, and spoke from above it. "She stopped in a large village two nights ago."
"Can we meet her there?" asked Milvia.
"Not without permission."
"Maybe she's sick," Milvia said.
"Maybe," said Strel.
Nannynoo reappeared. "The village is right on the river's edge."
"No," said Strel. And the pilot door closed.
"Would you like to see how a compass works?" asked Nannynoo brightly.
A few nights later Nannynoo surprised her by appearing while she was in the Egg. Milvia was once again sailing on red wings with a blaze of trailing colors. Nannynoo appeared in the air beside her, on a small, fleecy, armchair-shaped cloud.
"Nannynoo! I didn't know you could come in."
"I didn't either, Milvia. But when I saw you packing earlier, I suddenly found that I could. Now we'll talk privately. First of all, there is a brown bottle in the apothecary. The tablets make the water outside safe for drinking. Will you remember to keep some tablets in your pocket and take one if you ever have to drink water from outside?"
"In the middle drawer of the safety locker by the door, there is a package of silver buttons. Will you take one out and put it in your shoe?"
"Do you remember how to use the sled?"
"I think so."
Abruptly they were standing on level ground. Milvia swung a small knee over the rim of the sled and fell into the big front bucket as the bubble eased shut.
"This is up, and this is rest. Is this stop?"
"Yes, and this is speed. Do you remember this pad?"
"This is the autonome. Whenever you want me to take over or if you need to talk to me, this pad will summon me. Will you remember that?"
"And you'll be there?"
"We'll be able to talk, though you won't see me."
Milvia would certainly remember that.
In the morning she called to Strel in the pilot.
"Can I go outside for a while?"
The door retracted.
When Milvia had imagined her flight from the ship, she hadn't thought of the sled. But now its snub nose glided silently from under the ship and she whispered, "Let's go, Nannynoo."
The sled raced down the slope.
She sat on her knees in the adult seat and watched the twisted Pavonian flora become taller and wilder as the sled descended. The sled slowed as the autonome weaved a course between canopy and ground cover. She could never have walked this far.
She touched the pad and whispered at it, "Nannynoo? How far away are we?"
"Not far. Would you like to learn how to use the slate to see a map?"
The slate began to glow and stretch with topography.
"Milvia? Milvia? Can you hear me?" a new voice pushed from underneath Nannynoo's.
"I can hear you, Strel."
"Milvia, listen to me. Please tell Nannynoo to turn the sled around and come back. This is very important. She has been very bad and shouldn't have let you have it."
"Nannynoo is not bad," Milvia said.
There was a pause.
"Listen please, Milvia. Make sure you're strapped in. You're going to coast a bit while I run an override. The sled might bump—" A muffled alarm chime sounded over Strel's voice. A neutral speaker Milvia didn't recognize spoke in the background.
Strel's strident voice pushed up again, "Milvia, she's not bad, I'm sorry. But she is going to get us all into some deep, deep trouble if you don't tell her to turn around."
"I have to find my mother. Nannynoo?"
Nannynoo's voice again filled the little sled.
"I'm here, Milvia. Do you still want to talk to Strel?"
"Alright. I'm not bad and neither is Strel. She has me confused with something else because she seems to think I'm no more responsible than a ghost. But that doesn't matter now. She's locked me out of the ship. That means—that means I'm going to have to stay here with you."
"Yes. No. I control the autonome but it isn't steering us. Someone else has hooked the sled."
Milvia didn't hear. They had climbed far above the undergrowth and she was leaning against the bubble, attracted by the lush, waterlogged forms below.
"They must not like trespassers of any kind," Nannynoo continued. "Let's hope they're taking us to the village."
Nannynoo began to speak again but the words seemed to overlay each other, making senseless hash.
The slate dimmed and went out.
The sled emerged over a broad creek and continued to a large platform with the curled lips of a raft. It settled docilely in the center behind a forward deck on which two small brown and green forms were anchored. They moved out of the canopy onto the river.
She remained in the sled as the raft shot over the water. For the moment her attention was held by the two fallen marionettes leaning against the wind. Tufts rippled behind them, exposing underdown that looked almost yellow on their undersides. Their optical stalks sparkled a little in the light.
They slowed and turned into an inlet. It led to a scarped bluff of embedded log and stone. They came to rest against a cleft and Milvia climbed out of the sled. You have arrived, the raft seemed to say. She slid her legs over the side and lowered herself until she felt gravel under her feet.
This dim ravine was like the other one, so she followed it. It arced upward and ended in a familiar clearing of thatching and lattices. Another boulder with its vertical bowl of black water rested nearby.
Her mother was asleep in a pile of something like hay. Milvia kneeled next to her and began to pick debris out of her hair.
The attention roused her, and she woke with a spasm of hiccups that turned to violent stutters. Milvia sat hunched beside her and asked, "Are you sick?" Her mother stared blankly at her.
Milvia urged her down the ravine, explaining that Strel was very mad at Nannynoo for taking the sled. Somehow they pulled themselves up into the raft, where her mother immediately crumpled against the deck. She could never recall the trip upriver or how the raft navigated the forest. Rather she was suddenly standing downslope from the ship and her teeth were chattering from the wind. Then Strel was there, shouting at both of them, pushing them into her own sled. The wind pushed them sideways along the face, nearly tipping them over as they started up the slope.
"Let Nannynoo take over," Milvia shouted.
"She's not here. Hold her arm! Hold it! I can't do everything!"
"Nannynoo! Where are you?"
The sled, with its three shouting occupants, skidded finally to a halt beneath the ship.
Milvia slept soundly that night, alone in her own bunk. Her mother had been put in the Egg. "Just go to sleep," Strel had told her. "We'll get this sorted out." In the morning, Milvia called for Nannynoo, but Nannynoo was not in the radiant. She would not be summoned from the cabin slate. Milvia was burning with questions now that she had seen them in sunlight, stalks glittering and twisting strangely to invisible currents.
"Nannynoo is gone," Strel said simply. She went to the Egg and opened it. "Give me a hand, Milvia."
They woke her mother and led her to the couch, Milvia merely holding her hand. While Strel propped her up, she asked, "Can you heat up some tea?"
Milvia went into the galley, and while she heated the tea she whispered to the slate, "Nannynoo?"
She returned with the mug and stopped.
". . . entire time she would have been watching over her," her mother was saying.
"I don't call that acting responsibly."
Strel's tone made her heart race. When they saw her watching, Strel stood.
"Come here," her mother said. Strel went into the galley.
"Thank you," she said, taking the tea. "I'm sorry for not telling you I was going away. When you're in the Egg, do you sometimes forget it's not real?"
"You told me it's not."
"You're right, it's not. And I wasn't planning to leave the village, but I couldn't quite remember what was real. I promise it won't happen again. I hardly thought it would happen to me. Now, without Nannynoo—"
"Did she forget too?"
"Oh." Her mother looked thoughtful. "She might have, at that. But Milvia, you know she's not like us. You understand that she's from the nous, right?"
"Yes. But she was in the Egg!"
"I know. I wrote it that way. And a good thing too." Her mother smiled. "And now we hear she's gone much further than that."
Strel frowned at them as she brought in a tray of food.
Rain came that day. From inside, Milvia could just hear the muffled rattling against the hull. Strel had gone down to retrieve the other sled when the storm hit. Milvia chewed at a finger and listened while her mother tried to answer Strel's angry questions. But when her mother came out of the pilot she looked unperturbed. After washing, they went to the central radiant.
"I'm going to give you a quest to finish before dinner, but Nannynoo won't be helping you this time. Do you think you can do it?"
Milvia nodded. Then her mother disappeared back into the Egg and Milvia plunged into the quest, laughing at the strange ghosts who followed and assisted her.
At dinner the adults talked to each other.
"An accountability works that way, Strel. Call it a contract if you like. You didn't know that?"
"No, I didn't. I don't have to know things like that. And I don't understand how she got there either. Why would she decide to leave?"
This was about Nannynoo, wasn't it?
"I don't know about why. How's not so puzzling. Remember, she's a flake of nous that I've leavened. I may have prompted her to take on guardian attributes and thrown in a good library of educational routines, but she's still inseparable from her origin. So, if the nous is like a skein of water, she's something of a fish. The Pavonians have their own way with the nous, but from her perspective their interfaces would just be differently shaped windows. So our fish went downstream to another pool to see what she could see."
"Unless she was hooked."
"There's that. Yes, I wonder—she can navigate between radiants here, between all the points we've created. But strong minds are known to create strong draws. When she was locked out of the ship she had only Milvia as an anchor. If they accessed the sled through the autonome, she could have been pulled in spite of herself. Look what happened to me. It could have been an accident. Now that I think about it, it could have been a perfect sluice-gate."
Milvia played with her bowl of noodles. She wanted to tell them about her quest, but felt shy next to Strel.
"That's great. The servant deserts to the enemy and the enemy doesn't care."
"She's not a servant and they're not our enemy, Estrellen. They allow us to learn from them freely. It's not their fault that they have this effect on us. We simply aren't on their level."
"Great for the ego."
"So why did they fry the sled? My sled?"
"Maybe to prevent another unauthorized expedition? You'll be compensated."
"We have two days."
"I know. Did you finish your quest, Milvia?"
"I made a phasmarium!"
"That must have been fun! Let's go see it."
Strel snorted and began clearing the table.
Milvia stood next to her mother and regaled her with a dramatic retelling, culminating in the display of the phasmarium, hours of accrued illusions plastered over each other in reckless excess.
"This is wonderful, Milvia. We'll save it."
The two adults passed the next morning in the pilot. Milvia played under a blanket with her bunk slate. She thought of Nannynoo as a fish, swimming in the boulder in the Pavonian village, with two glinting tendrils waving above her head. "Maybe she's sleeping," she told herself, imagining a still figure reclining in a cloud chair. When the adults moved into the main room to use the radiant she heard their words in a last moment of wakefulness. Strel's obdurate mutter came, "If I got lost, I wouldn't be doing my job."
And her mother's voice, shrill but calm, "But you don't deal with unknowns. If I didn't get lost, I wouldn't be doing my job!"
On the final evening Milvia again watched the silent Pavonians come upslope from the trees. The cadence of their walk was like the swaying of hinge-springs. She was drawn again to those curling stalks of iridescence. With the hood of her mother's fur-lined jacket pulled over her head, she was herself that moment a small and silent Pavonian.
She understood the two groups were communicating silently, that the Pavonians did not speak, that her mother was tapped into something she couldn't tap into yet. The Pavonians sat unmoving, tousled by breezes, nestled in scree. Strel had surrounded herself with gear this time and had positioned herself sideways to face both groups.
Arranging the hood to frame her view, she rested her head on her mother's knee. She pulled her legs up under the long jacket.
"Do you see?" Dr. Marin finally said. "They always answer, don't they?"
"But never to the point," Strel answered.
"It may be that our points have been poorly considered."
"Fine. What are you getting from this?"
"As usual, we started with too many assumptions. When you tried to impress upon them that I'm her mother, I suspect they understood well enough. If they weren't such a polite ensemble, they might have offered condolences."
"Maybe for being a species constrained to linear propagation."
"Okay, I understand the bit about reproduction by declension now. It's like artificial insemination."
"No, that would be a zoomorphism. I don't believe that was their meaning."
"They have to come from somewhere."
"I'll explain. Let me ask a few more questions."
There followed another long silence. Through her hood, Milvia watched the valley growing dark.
Abruptly the Pavonians rose up and pulled their sparse gear against their bodies. They retreated down the slope with the abrupt elasticity of a reversed video. The parley was over. The adults didn't move.
"If," Strel began tentatively, "any individual can inhabit them, then their bodies are just gloves?"
"Not bad. Living, mobile gloves."
"But what was their original shape?"
Dr. Marin laughed.
"The grand assumption! They have no original shape. This is intelligent design. After all, look at how we're beginning to shape the nous. Think of how long they must have been poking into this milieu."
"Okay. Original shape? What would that be when you exist next to physical space but don't experience it? How about co-regnant individuals that interpermeate each other without becoming inseparable? But what's the point of using metaphors? Why not invent a new language. When they first learned to access our space they must have been just as limited as we are now in theirs. Fingers of god, Strel."
"They're alive though. Didn't you say that the nous was a skein of something? No mixing?"
"'A subquantum skein, adjacent in all places but never intermingling.' Now we know we were wrong." Dr. Marin laughed again. "It would go a long way toward explaining their behavior. They've never retaliated when attacked, and look how bizarre their trading practices are. I wonder how many gloves they've actually made."
"Then why would they want to keep Nannynoo?"
Dr. Marin paused.
"Something for the aquarium," she said. "Or the equivalent. They're great collectors. But I would say it's been a fair trade. Mutual exchange of what we've been up to in our respective realms."
Strel was silently making a pile of her gear.
"Milvia." Her mother finally looked down. "You're nearly ready to learn quests on your own. Nannynoo is—Milvia?"
But Milvia's eyes were closed. She was dreaming of tumbleweeds that sparked and faded when she touched them.