Samudra Manthana
rating: +16+x

You make soup.

Well, not always soup, per se - you are also an adept hand at various kinds of chilies, curries, pottages, stews, goulashes, puddings, noodles, and succotashes. Really, any means of bulk-denaturing proteins and solubilizing starches so that they can be efficiently converted, by most carbon-based life, into energy. There is a knack to it, they say, and you have it - looking at whatever produce has been hauled in to the communal kitchen that day and visualizing what might be created out of it, that people will eat.

(There is a secret to that knack, and it is knowing that there is little that people will not eat, if the alternative is nothing at all.)

Before dawn, you rise and clothe yourself. You scrape and tie back your hair and let yourself out onto the rickety stairwell, thousands upon thousands of days of practice allowing you to pad down the poorly-nailed, uneven boards without making a sound. You follow the dirt path to the kitchen, and unbolt the door, and light the lights.

The boxes of corn, or potatoes, or cattail hearts dig into your hip like a toddler child as you haul them from storeroom to cookroom. But at least they don’t make any attempt to thrust their fingers into the bright bloom of flame when you light the stove; at least they don’t reach for your knives when you lay out your cutting board and begin to chop. An actual toddler would be much more difficult to handle - which is why you do not have one, and why you call yourself grateful for it.

The sunrise goes behind your back every day, creeping through the dining room to be surprisingly settled when the guests arrive. The last time you actually watched it… well, memory only serves so far.

A man showed you an image, once, in a dog-eared and battered book he had drawn from a breast pocket; a snake wrapped around a mountain resting on the back of a massive turtle, all in a sea drawn with swirling, creamy, chowdery strokes. You knew he was but new-come to take refuge on the Last Islands - a brittleness in the face, and an equal similarity to the man seated on his right, weeping into his lentils. Brothers, perhaps.

The newest immigrants are always easy to see, and difficult to deal with. Grief confounds - unlike wounds that can be bandaged, or needs that can be fulfilled, there is no power to bring back the dead or restore the lost and thereby pack full the holes they have rent in those left behind. Like trying to pick up a film of oil, that splits under the gentlest touch your fingers are capable of.

It is no longer a shock, to have people collapse into tears or burst into rages at a simple “Good morning” or “How are you?” The sick guilt remains, however; that you can cause such misery even in your efforts to be kind.

But Bellemnar, your city, looks after its own, regardless of how long they have been its own for.

This man had stroked the page like it was a pet, a precious life entirely in his control - and, you supposed, that was not so far from the truth. This book might be the only memory of this tale that still existed. And he had told you of the purification of the food of immortality from that creamy waste, and of the selflessness of Kurma the turtle, who had laboured long in its depths supporting the mountain and the serpent such that his brothers and sisters might be fed, and continue to live.

The subtext had not been hidden from you. I am grateful, he was saying, for your labour thus amid the steams and the smokes of the kitchen such that we too might be fed. Your efforts do not go unnoticed, even beneath its white swirls - thus do you, a minute version of the Holders, uphold the world.

They killed your cousin, the Withstanders. Hauled her out into the street, bent her over a block, and sliced her head off so that the blood flowed down upon the cobbles. You remember, because you watched, peeking over your mother’s arm.

If it hadn’t been for that memory, for the sudden-bright blooming of the stone into nasturtium-scarlet, she might not have existed, for your family has not spoken of her since. She has disappeared from the world entirely, a shame wrapped firmly in cotton and cast down a well, to be buried underneath slumping stone. No mention of the things she liked, or did, or was; never any mention of why they had slain her either, what the accusation had specifically been.

Destabilization, your mother finally told you once, when you had refused to stop pestering her. No elaboration. (And seeing the look on her lined face, younger-you had suddenly stopped wanting one, and had ran and hid and pled forgiveness for so upsetting her, even though there was no entity out there that could grant it.)

It frightens you, sometimes, anxiety flooding your as suddenly as split-tomato juice soaks your hands. That you don’t know what, exactly, she did.

Because what is to stop you from repeating it, if you do not know the nature of her wrong?

The Last Islands are held together by cooperation, respect, acceptance, obedience, and mutual aid - but whether these are the only forces, and in what proportion, you could not say. Crimes are things that are known to solubilize these - so abuse, littering, graffiti, the withholding of resources - but what of the things that are unknown? What of the subtle, gradual harms that degrade the structure of society like salt water against iron pilings, flaking off imperceptible layers of rust? Harms so small you could not notice if you perpetrated them, in your thoughts or in your deeds, in what you did or in what you failed to do - but, accumulated, devouring your tenuous life, and that of the entire community.

Every 100 days, Bellemnar gathers in the streets and the public squares. Thousands of people in many more shapes and sizes, and you speak to your neighbours, deliberately strengthening the bonds that hold you all together, whether visibly or invisibly. And your community leaders and council heads speak their chosen sermon, and together, you recite the creed of the city, its affirmations of reciprocity and non-hierarchy, mutual aid and selflessness.

I want only our mutual flourishing, and the sustainment of these islands and the community that is our home, the creed concludes.

To say it always feels like a lie.

Someone waits for you, stochastically - an old woman afraid of the nightfall, hoping if she lingers long enough you will walk her home; a young man wanting to be chivalrous and walk you back to yours; a girl drowned too deep in the memories of her dead home to notice you pack up and put out the lights.

Today, it is Hinyuu, a regular at the kitchen and - though it would be overbold to ever make such a claim out loud - your putative friend. He came to Bellemnar from a planet called Othocran, but was carried in his mother’s arms, and cannot tell you anything about it when you ask. He, too, usually has a collection of stories for you, gathered from other hired hands about the dockyards, and from ship-captains, coming and going.

But not today. Today, there is silence, as you crunch along the gravelly road to the edge of the inner fields, where the road to your home and his split off and where an old drum serves as a bench for you two to settle down on. Silence, as a fly hums through the air. Silence, as your lamp gutters by your ankle, threatening to go out and swamp you both in darkness.

“Is something wrong?” you finally ask, breaking the susurration of dry barley-heads all around.

In answer, he places a hand on yours. “Aras,” he says, and there is a gentleness in it that frightens you. Like the newcomers speak of their dead, and those they will never see again. “I’ve gotten out, Aras.”


He nods vigorously. “On a salvage-ship, the Caraphel. It was pure luck that I found her captain at the dockyards, and that I heard she was recruiting - but they needed more hands, and were just fine with them being mine.” He laughs, familiar and emerald-bright.

“So you’re going, then.” You are not surprised in the slightest. Hinyuu walks like gravity couldn’t hold him down - you think that if it had taken too much longer, you would have someday walked in on him building wax wings like those in the tale you had begged off a gruff dark-skinned man passing through with his niece, flinging himself off the island’s edge just for one moment of lift before they melted.

Hinyuu was always going to leave the city, eventually. You’ll miss him - but you’ve anticipated missing him for this as long as you’ve known it, and you’ve known it since the moment you met.

“Bring me back a picture, all right?” you ask.

“You always ask that.” His eyes sparkle like water in the lamplight. “I can do you one better, though.” He blinks at you in a swirl of ink. “Come with me.”

The words strike your mind, dissolve into oily micelles, and then coalesce back together unabsorbed and uncomprehended. “What?”

“Come with me. You know you want to. And they told me they were not yet fully crewed - you are strong, and responsible, and steadfast. I know they’d take you. Get out of here with me, Aras.”

You want to…

Because you do. In ways it terrifies you to admit, even in the most secret crevices inside you, in the interstices between the most closely-junctioned of your cells. How overjoyed you would be to be able to sign on to a trawler, a salvage-ship, to see something that is not this city. Forests, maybe, as the newest refugees have spoken of them, where flowers blossom in shade and there is no visible end to the trees. Or an ocean - the thought of someday seeing an ocean has sucked at your mind since you first heard tell of these unimaginable expanses of water. And not even drinkable water either, but with salts in it - a planet must be rich beyond dreaming to be able to afford to waste so much water. Even dying.

To hear foreign songs, in the native lands where they were created. To see herds of animals running freely across a veldt. To glimpse the rainbow of atmospheres flung gem-like across the universe, on worlds that hang, independently, in space.

It is a desire as intense as a burn down to bone, the water within you flashing into steam under its heat. To get Out of this city, Out of this island, Out and see the universe before it dies.

But your mind’s eye also flings up this: the kitchen empty, the stove unlit. The people lining hungry at the doors. Children falling starved in the fields, succumbing to disease in their beds. Bellemnar, destabilized, slewing and toppling into the abyss. All because of your selfishness. Because its flourishing is greater than you, so much greater.

So you shake your head, and pull your hand out from under his. And - without friend, without pleasure, responsibility an exoskeleton locked tight around your limbs - you go home, to the little room at the top of the rickety stairs.

The next morning, Caraphel tears off into the swirling nebulae of the sky, leaving a white streak of disrupted air in its wake. Off to the edges of the world, to navigate between sinking islands in the deeps of space, and breathe their myriad atmospheres and chart their myriad coastlines before the waves close overtop.

And down below in Bellemnar, you scrape back your hair and descend down into the street. Enter the kitchen. Light the stove. Grab a knife, and open up a yam’s milky flesh.

Your desires do not matter. Only the good of Bellemnar, and of the Last Islands around it.

This is how you will uphold the world.

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