episode

The Joy of Squid

{Rainbow Squid are mating on Highway 2. Seek detours. Click -here- for more information.}

 

Alex slipped her phone back into her pocket – the warning text from the alert service was surprisingly late, considering there had been squid sightings posted online for at least a couple of hours – and those were only the ones she had noticed, as she didn’t follow the trend tags that were commonly associated with them.

She had no desire to become a prismatic – so only followed the tags that kept her alerted to public transit stoppages or delays.

Her afternoon classes, however, had been noticeably missing a few students – students, that, if they were able to catch up with the squid, would have joined the ranks of the prismatic.

Around her, some of her classmates discussed squid chasing – if only to get a couple of cool pictures for their social feeds – it had been months since a pair of squid had touched down in the city,

Rainbow Squid were a harmless type spirit – most of the times they dipped into the earthly plane, they stayed as high as the clouds, a beautiful piece of background noise.

Sometimes, however, their mating dance would lead them downwards – and that was when the spirit’s one truly strange ability came to the fore – when a pair of squid were in their mating dance, things that they touched tended to change colour.

The material didn’t matter – organic, inorganic, it affected everything in the same way – a careless movement of a tentacle would leave both a person and a section of the highway a brand new colour of yellow, or purple, or in some cases, a brilliant rainbow sheen.

The colour effect did eventually fade – but for those years, functioned as a semi-permanent tattoo – a fact that hadn’t been lost on independent and corporate enterprises alike – whenever a squid mating dance was sighted, dozens of people would descend, and litter the ground with powders and spells that would allow them to capture the colour-change effect, the powder becoming a sludge wherever the squid touched.

Alex clicked on the link to see the areas cordoned off for the event – it was adjacent to her way home, but wouldn’t interfere, other than the increased foot traffic of people watching the event, or hoping to be squid-touched and enter the prismatic club.

There was a very distinct sound of a briefcase being snapped open – Professor Kofi always made sure to open his briefcase on top of his desk at the end of the day as a signal that they were done for the day – as soon as the briefcase came up, they could pack up, wait for the hour to strike, then head home.

For once, she was glad – Fridays afternoons were awful, despite their promise of the weekend, as they ended with intermediate math – a subject her brain refused to wrap itself around.

Numbers – beyond the immediate, number of fingers and toes kind – had never been very important. Numbers in the facility where she had grown up had only lead to depressive realities. Ten children left in line, but only two proper servings of food meant that you were likely to be stuck with a single piece of bread, and some unidentified vegetable matter to eat, whilst the kids who had been at the front of the line had at least been gifted with meat loaf, or full bowl of soup.

There had never been enough to go around, so ignorance of the situation had almost been a survival method.

During her equivalency schooling – a five year, post-war program, designed to catch up kids who hadn’t been able to have consistent schooling during the war years, and prepare them for some kind of tertiary education.

And that had been fine – during her equivalency years, she’d been able to stick to the basic math courses – but when it had come time to choose her college course, Roane – her adoptive father – had insisted that she take intermediate math, as it would ensure more opportunities in the future.

And Roane asked so little of her, and had given her so much, that she had signed up for the course – even if it lead to angry tears when the homework refused to resolve and make sense.

The hour struck, a low buzzing tone from the classroom clock, and thanks to all of her years in the facility, she immediately jumped to her feet – in Baxter’s, as in most of the facilities, the administrators sounded a tone that pre-empted their arrival, so that all of their charges would be lined up and paying attention.

Even now, even after years of being free, it was hard to deny that instinct. Being slow had lead to missing out, going hungry, or getting slapped around for being insolent.

There were one or two stares from classmates who hadn’t grown up in the system – but after months of classes, they were used to most of her weird, war orphan behaviours – and there were a couple of looks of kinship from the other three people who had grown up in facilities – who had been as equally quick to their feet as she had.

Alex slipped her workbook into her bag, then zipped it, her lanyard bumping against her chest as she straightened.

She stepped away from her desk, and joined the back of the line of the students bumping and angling to get out of the room – an equal distribution of people needing to get home to watch siblings, out to their after-school jobs, or off to watch the squid.

When she made it out to the hall, she pulled her phone from her pocket again and double-checked that there were no messages from Roane about dinner – so either he was going to bring takeout home, or they would go get something from the corner store after he got home.

Alex patted down her pockets, found where she had stashed her headphones, connected them to her phone, and booted the app for her favourite music service – one who donated a portion of their ad revenue towards rebuilding efforts.

The playlist was partially handpicked, and partially generated – one track would be an instrumental piece that she had chosen, the next would be a selection from that week’s top twenty – the latter being a defence against the impression that all war orphans were hopeless, social ignorami who had no idea about popular culture.

The concept wasn’t a stereotype without cause – when you grew up in a facility, with no access to a computer, radios were tuned to whatever the administrators liked, and television was an irregular treat, only granted when the facility as a whole had “earned it”, it was hard to stay on top of the latest songs and trends.

So listening to the top twenty was a good way to at least pretend that she had some idea of what was going on, for those odd moments when an opinion was asked of a group – and sometimes, she even enjoyed the music – and when those moments made her feel more like a real person, and less like an alien freak.

A long instrumental track started as she headed down the long road that constituted the first step of her journey home – Roane gave her more than enough money each week to cover the cost of public transit, but on the days where she didn’t have to be home by a certain time, she liked to save the money – it helped compensate for those times when she had to take the slightly longer trip, or go somewhere on a rare weekend day where she didn’t have mandatory labour.

So, each week, she would load half of her allotted transit money onto her transit card, and place the rest into a dog-shaped tin on her bookshelf. This was separate to her “personal spending money” that Roane gifted to her each week – money she still didn’t like to spend, as it felt like something she didn’t deserve – which went into a pencil case inside her pink chest, amongst her other treasures.

The first leg of her journey took her past a long, low building – something that wasn’t uncommon in the areas around public schools – a quick construction of concrete. The street level was for street vendors – the sidewalk purposefully wide to allow rooms for carts and tables – with roller-door rooms behind acting as prep areas for the food vendors; storage for the junk sellers; or a place for a bed for those who traded in quick intimacies.

The two floors were also small rectangles, headed by a roller door – however, in their cases, the roller doors also held a human-sized door, and a single window. Single-occupancy student residences, the cheapest of the independent post-war home types – as most of the previous “student housing” apartment buildings had been reclaimed by their owners, and their prices inflated to match the relatively high-class accoutrements and facilities.

“Single-occupancy” was a hopeful fallacy though – though as most of the residencies had built-in furniture – not allowing, for example, the single bed to be replaced by a bunk bed – people went to matchmaking nights to find their opposite – shift workers who worked the opposing sides of the clock would share a single-occupancy, barely crossing, except perhaps on the weekend.

And it was a rare college student who didn’t have a bedroll or air mattress hidden within the meagre storage areas.

In another life, one where Roane hadn’t taken pity on a dirty and underfed war orphan, a space in a single-occupancy residence would have been the most she could have hoped for – one that would have only been available to her after first paying off her bank of state-mandated labour hours; and somehow finding a career that she had somehow become qualified for – which wasn’t likely.

A lot of the orphans that aged out of facilities like Baxter’s graduated to places like Nero’s – their sister facility for people over eighteen – stayed there for years, accruing a larger state debt for the pleasure of staying in the facility, but glad to stay there, because it was at least a guaranteed bed and three meals a day.

She never, ever forgot that she was one of the lucky ones – even if Roane seemed embarrassed at her somehow disproportionate expressions of gratitude when he gave her something he saw her as deserving, or somehow not a big deal.

The “personal spending money” was for her, the clearest example of Roane’s pre-war parenting mindset. The morning after the second birthday she had celebrated with him, he had handed her a small envelope, and had simply stated that it should last her until the following Tuesday.

Immediately, she had understood – or had thought she did – it was a representation of what she was being allowed for a week. She had gone to her room, collected a notebook made of scrap paper, and had started to make food calculations – based on what she normally ate with him, compared to what the money in the envelope would cover.

Roane had come to her room, surprised by her quick exit from the kitchen, and made a comment about not being aware that there were so many things she wanted – and that breakfast was waiting.

She had responded, simply, that she was making sure that she could afford it. After a moment, she had finished the calculation, and handed him back a portion of the money, and a small list – stating that she had devised her menu for the day, and asked him to check her calculations – he was, after all, trusting her to be responsible with how much she was costing him, and she wanted to make sure that she wasn’t cheating him.

Roane had taken the list, the money, then followed her out to the kitchen.

There was honey on her oatmeal – a treat she hadn’t anticipated – and she had immediately apologised, and asked for her list back, so that she could recalculate.

Roane had refused to hand over the list, and asked what she thought the money was for.

She had explained her perfectly logical thought process. He had listened, thoughtfully and carefully, then rebutted with the truth – that the money was hers to spend, on whatsoever she wished – toys, candy, books, music – anything that she wanted, like it was her birthday all over again.

And that he was going to gift her that money every week, for simply doing the chores that were her contribution, her payment for being allowed to live there. Her proof that she wasn’t one of those bad, lazy war orphans that the news was always talking about.

She had cried, unsure of what to do with such a display of kindness from a man who had already given her more than she ever deserved.

It had been the first time she had hugged him – touch had always been a difficult thing, and until that point, physical affection had been confined to Roane patting her on the head. This had been something big though, and it had felt like the right moment to try a hug.

The hug had been a complete failure – but it had been a start.

The small envelope had gone into her treasure chest – a present from her birthday the day before – and was still there, as nothing had seemed important enough to spend her first ever money on.

And even now, she was wary of spending money – though she did allow herself to spend some of it – especially when those few dollars could help someone who hadn’t been as lucky – and street vendors who were fellow war orphans were her real weakness.

Twenty feet back from the stand, she stopped, and dug a number of small coins from her pocket. Perfect change. Purchases made with exact change were less troublesome. War orphans who didn’t make trouble were more likely to get what they ordered.

Not that the girls who ran the lemonade stand would give anyone the wrong order.

Jenna smiled as she approached – and Alex felt herself smile in return. ‘Usual, Lex?’

Alex nodded, and handed across the exact change for the medium lemonade. The lemonade was good – and had just a twist of berry in it.

Jenna and her sister ran two stand-by-stand businesses – one was the lemonade stand, the other was one of the express intimacies – both sisters worked eight hour shifts in each – they made more money from the intimacies side of things, but the lemonade stand allowed them to gain hours towards their retail certification.

Alex picked up a purple straw from the little silver container on the top of the card, and waited for Jenna handed her the sealed cup of lemonade. Alex poked the straw through the lid, then took a sip.

‘Good?’ Jenna asked.

‘As always,’ she replied.

It was a ritual to take the first sip in front of whatever sister was serving her – for those war orphans that had gone into food service, they always seemed to light up just a little, when they knew that the food that they had served was good – and not just sufficient to tide over the hunger or thirst of the person receiving it.

‘Have a good one,’ Jenna said, as more customers approached.

As she had expected, the road home was far busier than usual – and the rainbow squid were visible occasionally, floating up and down from behind the taller buildings – pre-war buildings that had survived being destroyed outright, or torn down due to damage beneath.

She changed her route, to take the higher road parallel to the freeway – she had always liked spotting spirits – monsters had caused all the damage during the war, but all of the grief in her own life had come from humans.

The foot path beside the road was filling up, but there was still enough room to find a spot without being accused of shoving – and one always had to avoid being the “rude war orphan” – hers was truly a set where the actions of one painted everyone else.

The squid were dancing, their bodies and tentacles pulsing with light as they effortlessly kept their huge bodies aloft, buoyed by their own natural magic.

And below them, within the area cordoned off from traffic by the local police, were prismatics, hopeful prismatics, and collectors.

Most of the collectors wore Clover uniforms – formless jumpsuits that reminded her far too much of her mandatory labour suit that the state had issued her – each bearing the Clover logo on the right chest panel.

Roane was lucky – even though he worked for Clover, his position as one of the company’s hundreds of middle-managers allowed him to wear a suit, and his only visible piece of Clover branding – other than his ID and such, was the tie pin that he always wore.

There were the independents – as there always were – each using their own techniques for their particular products. One woman wore a coat that was nothing but sparkles – likely someone wishing to colour lab-produced gems – touching any kind of stone to a squid brought forth a magnificent array of colours that were impossible in nature.

One man, clad in a fluttery coat – one that seemed to have dozens and dozens of pieces of paper attached to every possible surface, darted forward, aiming himself directly for a tentacle that was about to touch down, then jumped and dove through it – much to the apparent chagrin of the Clover employees – at least judging by their body language, and the hand gestures.

Once through the tentacle, the man immediately removed and bagged the coat – the magic likely captured in the pieces of paper – with the right spells, it was an effective, if single-use gathering technique.

One woman achieved a victory when a small piece of skin fluttered down, and she’d been the closest.

Properly used, it would likely keep her going until the next squid sighting – though more likely, one of the better-dressed Clover employees would approach her with a credit book, and offer to buy it for a fair-ish price, one guaranteed payday, as compared to an uncertain income – she would take it, it was the smart decision.

She watched for a little while longer – but most of the independents and their more amusing techniques started to dwindle away as the Clover employees took up more and more of the space with their more standardised techniques – and she’d done enough spirit spotting for the day.

The rest of the journey home was free from unexpected events – no spirits standing on the corners, wanting to make deals for the colour of her eyes; no dark princes offering to take her to a land where she’d never age; no screaming voids where there was a tear between worlds, bringing up fears that something monstrous was going to slip through.

As usual, the lemonade lasted almost the entire journey home – she always stopped and threw out the wrappings from whatever after-college snack she’d had before getting home – even though he had reassured her a thousand times or more, somehow eating “extra” food still seemed somehow ungrateful, like she was spitting in Roane’s eye and telling him that what he provided wasn’t enough.

With the cup disposed of, she headed into the complex grounds – the apartment building was one of the post-war variety, a squared-U-shape, making three tiers of identical two-bedroom flats.

Most of Roane’s colleagues lived in the corporate apartments – which were far nicer than their post-war home – but they weren’t generally suitable for people with children – and the few corporate apartments that were larger than one bedroom went to families with real children, not war orphans.

She entered the east tier with the generic building code, walked through the foyer – a quick glance at the noticeboard told her that there was nothing new – then scanned her war ID on the reader beside the elevator to call it down.

After a short wait, there was a ping, and the doors slid open – as it had properly registered her ID, her floor was already selected, and she rode up without changing the selection.

The security was only tight getting into the building and going up – once you were upstairs, you were free to travel between the floors – which would have made it easy to visit friends in the building – if she’d had any, mostly, she tried to stay out of sight and out of mind – the good kind of war orphan, which according to the pundits who liked to espouse on this topic, made her one of a vanishingly rare cast.

The pundits, of course, were just repeating the old propaganda, and speaking to the beliefs of their party.

The elevator stopped, and she stepped off, then walked a short way down to her room, unpainted concrete beneath her feet, the open air over the balcony to her right.

Alex fumbled with her lanyard, flicked past her college ID, her war ID, the two useless keys that had found their way onto the chain, the deteriorated rubber of the bird symbol that had been originally on the chain, and finally found the apartment key.

The ritual happened twice a day – once on her way out, unless Roane was there to see her out, and once on the way in. It would have been the work of five minutes to to sort things out – to put her IDs in her wallet where they belonged, and remove the two old keys, but the accoutrements of her life had built up over time, and it would feel like losing a friend to get rid of any of the items.

She quietly stepped out of her shoes, then placed her sneakers beside Roane’s shined-to-perfection leather shoes – his shoes were there, so that meant he had beaten her home for once.

‘I’m home,’ she called in the direction of his bedroom.

There was the soft sound of slippers on the thin carpet, and she looked up to see Roane, a headset on his head, the blue light indicating he was on a call. He crossed the small space quickly, and kissed the top of her head. ‘Conference call. I didn’t need to be there in person. Come out of your room for dinner?’

She nodded, and bumped her head against his chest as he gave her a one-armed hug, his other hand hovering near the headset controls, ready to take himself off mute as soon as someone needed his attention.

Roane turned, and walked back towards his room.

Alex waited until he had stepped over the threshold, before she bounded towards the tiny kitchen.

Roane often described it as drone-like, but no matter the apparently ease of the position, it was a job that often needed him to work extended hours, or go in for strange shifts in order to talk to his peers across the company’s global network.

And in an economy where there were so, so many people out of work, he grinned and bore the responsibility – valuing the stability of their tiny, strange family over whatever free time he would otherwise have.

So thanks to a combination of his strange hours and her inability to reliably do anything in the kitchen, other than boil water, they subsisted primarily on take out food, or the evening offerings of the company cafeteria.

Those times when he was home, however, Roane would prepare a meal – and each of them would be amazing. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the meals themselves – inevitably, it was simply a stew containing whatever medium-quality meat had been on special, and the vegetables they both enjoyed, but there was something about the smell of home-cooked food permeating the small apartment that seemed to lift their moods.

And there were few things far better than dipping a slice of buttered bread into the dregs of a stew, strategically gathering every bean and carrot like they were treasures.

She paused by the stove and took in a long, deep breath, taking in the smells of the stew-in-progress – and as she did, some of the stress of the day disappeared. She straightened, and as she did, the collection on the end of her lanyard bumped against her chest.

She grabbed hold of the bundle to stop them clattering – her hand finding the square shape of her war ID – it was a very distinctive shape – a cumbersome shape – and both things spoke to how the majority saw the war orphans – one of the last few groups who needed to carry their war IDs on a daily basis.

For everyone else, with the war over, they were a relic of a time gone by – something to be framed, burned, or placed in a scrapbook.

Roane said she was family, Roane called her daughter, and she called him “dad” when she could fight past the anxiety that he was going to return her to the state. They were family – the only family each other had – but there were so many disadvantages to keeping a war orphan around that surely one day he would be sensible and send her back.

The ID stayed, even though it drew looks – pity, disdain, and outright loathing.

The ID stayed, because it could take away everything it had given her.

There was the sound of slippers behind her again, and she turned to see Roane – who was making the usual “yes”, “good idea”, “add that as an action item” background noises of a conference call – and he slipped past her, opened the small pantry, pulled out a small package of cookies – the kind she really liked, but were so often out of stock – smiled, then handed the packet to her, and walked out again, agreeing with whatever idea was on the table.

‘Love you, dad,’ she said, watching his form retreat.

  10 comments for “The Joy of Squid

  1. October 25, 2016 at 12:34 am

    I like! 😀

    That poor kid. Conditioning’s tough to overcome even when you understand why it’s there.

    • Chinthor
      October 26, 2016 at 5:05 am

      Too true. It sounds good to sort out just what has messed you up in life. To put a reason and a face to your current hang-ups. Congratulations. That didn’t help nearly as much as you thought it would, did it?

    • Sarah Vimes
      Sarah Vimes
      October 30, 2016 at 7:33 am

      Yeah. 🙁

      I don’t think a lot of people understand how, well, formative that formative experiences are.

  2. FluffyCloud
    October 29, 2016 at 3:44 am

    Dear Stormy,

    I think you’re a good writer, and will happily read anything you want to write. This looks good and I’d like to see more. However, I think you should go write some endings, if you’re going to leave the cookieverse.

    • Sarah Vimes
      Sarah Vimes
      October 31, 2016 at 9:44 pm

      Absolutely – I’ve always said that should I decide to end Cookie, I will basically write out the plots that I had planned, so everyone can see the shape of where things were supposed to go.

      • Georgeanna
        November 6, 2016 at 11:11 pm

        WHAT!!! WHAT!!!??? YOU MAY NOT END COOKIE!!!!! Oh, sorry, lost it there for a minute.
        Stormy Woman, I adore you and your writing style. Cookie is not over, and you know it. Alex and Roane are a delight, and I am %100 all in to read more of their story. Keep writing, lovely Stormy. Keep writing.

        • Stormy
          Stormy
          November 12, 2016 at 7:02 pm

          Like I’ve said here and elsewhere…I’m just a bit burned out.

          I do have a planned “last scene” for Cookie, should I ever want to write it. It’s…a little tear-jerking, but I’ve got a lot of other things to do first.

          This new story is – as well as a story I’m starting to fall in love with – kind of just proving to myself that I can do more than just Cookie – and many authors do. So maybe I can reach a happy medium where I do one Cookie book a year, and one non-Cookie book. Or something like that.

      • Ohm
        April 17, 2017 at 1:23 pm

        Just finished catching up on cookie-verse, etc.

        Require: Cookie is a bit of an anomaly for me. My usual fare consists of worldbuilding-heavy science fiction. Unfortunately, there’s not very many SF web serials. LitRPG seems to take up far too much of the SF space. Still, while Hardish SF is my favourite genre, I still will venture outside.

        I’m glad that you will provide an ending if Require: Cookie ends. I can’t stand unfinished stories, and always end up asking “Now what?” even for those that do.

        • Stormy
          Stormy
          April 17, 2017 at 9:59 pm

          I don’t know if it’ll be better or worse if I tell you this, but it was basically down to a metaphorical coin flip as to whether Cookie was going to be SF or UF…

          I’ve mentioned this on occasion – but Cookie has a long, long, long history. In the early days of long ago, it was Matrix fanfic, then I did a bunch of different worldbuilds bringing it into original fiction – a lot of those kept the cyberpunk/SF ideas in the forefront. But, like, a benevolent Matrix. A simulation left running after humanity had died out, to show any aliens that might show up what we were like in various time periods.

          I also did something that I class as a more…Final Fantasy-style worldbuild. Big monsters out in the world, alongside both normal and fantastic technology (one of the protags in this build was a robot brought to life by magic steam. It was weird).

          Ultimately, UF just appealed more to me – I like the idea that if you tilt your head just a little bit, you’ll see something new and weird. That magic might be there, just out of sight. That you didn’t miss out on your adventure, just because you didn’t get called to Narnia as a kid, or a letter from an owl at eleven.

          Cookie is kind of there for…everyone who never got magic, and is just doing their best to survive. Like, look at the Raz origin story, I know that situation (barely surviving on benefits) hit really close for a lot of people.

          My usual fare consists of worldbuilding-heavy science fiction.
          I do hope you like the worldbuild here. 😀 It’s a bit wonky sometimes, but I try to put a lot of thought into it – and then attack it like a rabid fan, pulling apart the inconsistencies, and whatnot.

          I can’t stand unfinished stories, and always end up asking “Now what?” even for those that do.

          😀

          Sometimes, I want to post my rough outline for what happens, just to watch people go nuts seeing what’s possible, but then again, some things are worth waiting for. But as a taste, I know the following:

          * Who the next Director is
          * Who the Director after that is
          * Who gets married
          * Who has kids
          * How absolutely adorable one kid in particular is [cute – and violent – but really cute]
          * Who turns into a tree
          * What Magnolia’s career path looks like
          * Exactly how much of a bastard Stef’s dad is
          * Who lives
          * Who dies
          * Who tells their story
          * And what kind of future the world has. Oh fucking boy. When I get to this. Oh…man. I mean. I mean. Fuck. Like. Shit. You will not fucking believe this.

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