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Handish Wonderings

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They say Albia is a disk-shaped world.

I wouldn't know. I'm not a Shee; I've never been to space. I don't study astronomy or geology or any of the sciences related to the shapes of planets.

And yet.

When I look beyond the cozy burrows of my creatures, beyond their quaint tree house and fruitful gardens, I see things. I see temples, and the Purple Mountains, and other isles of land like my own, some – some with paths, even.

I can't go to them. Oh, I've tried, but there's only so far back and forth I can move, and it isn't all that far. Maybe they're just illusions, somehow, or a painted backdrop – but then I would swear I can see movement out there, every once in a while, and it just looks too real. Besides – where, then, did the Purple Mountain Norns come from?

There are other Handish, somewhere. I don't know where they are, because although we talk, though I can hear their voices, I cannot seem to find them anywhere I look. Our norns seem to come in the same varieties, mostly, but there are slight differences in the lands we have – I have potatoes and onions growing next to the carrots in my garden, another has flowering trees, one has more sorts of fish, and one even claims to be on Terra Nornia. Really? That old story?

But I guess it's not as ridiculous as the fact that we can talk to each other without seeing anyone.

You know, they also say that Albia doesn't have a moon – the planet couldn't have formed into a disk with another body orbiting around it. I'm not a planetary scientist, so I have no idea if that's true or not. But if that's not the moon in the sky, what on – off – Albia is it?

When I ask the other Handish about this, no one has an answer. "That is really weird, isn't it?" "I noticed that too." "...huh. I wonder why?" "Who cares? We're here, the norns are here, Albia is here too somehow." "Well, actually, in the formation of a lenticular disk planet like Albia, a moon..."

Once, after my latest babies had grown old enough to care for themselves for a bit, I went looking through the archives the Shee left behind when they abandoned Albia. There's not much, actually; a few fragments tell us snippets of their society (honestly, how did they not kill themselves off?) and we have complete information on norn, grendel, and ettin genomes and how their brains work. There are mostly complete records of Albian biology, and what gaps there are have been filled in by us Handish. We even have a bit of their mythological stories.

There's nothing in there that explains the weirdness, though. The records talk a little about the planes of Albia, in one place, but as far as I can tell, that gets me from the front edge of the burrows to the back line of the garden, and no further. They reference mountains and a volcano, but not how to get there. If they did write anything helpful down, either we haven't found it yet or it's been destroyed like most of their computers and books.

Maybe someday we'll have an answer. Until then, I'll just keep doing as I always have; tending my norns, selecting for those which are marginally smarter and better at not dying, and planting beelacanth seeds for the butterflies. I guess I sound like I obsess over all this, in writing this entry, but I don't, really. I have my hand full enough with trying to make my creatures push food that I only wonder about it every once in a while, when I happen to glance up to the distance.

Still, sometimes...

They say Albia is a disk-shaped world.

I wouldn't know. I'm not a Shee; I've never been to space. I don't study astronomy or geology or any of the sciences related to the shapes of planets.

And yet.

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I wonder, sometimes, where the norns go.

You know. When the elders are dragging their feet and the world's too full-up for the eggs to hatch, and you think, 'I'd like to put you in your own place to live out your life and let this place continue advancing', except sometimes in less kind terms, and a few moments later the norn goes away. And then when you want a norn again, it comes back, if there's room.

But where do they go?

Or when you want to send a norn to a friend - say, one that has an interesting mutation, or is good at eat and sleeping and breeding, what a rarity! - and you think for a moment and the norn goes away and is sent and comes back, usually. Or when you want to share one with anyone, really. Like when I got those colorful grendels that can breed, not just the genetics, but the actual creatures.

Where do they go?

Are they zipped up into little bits of information and sent via the Shee computer nework, somehow? Are they shoved along the same lines that let us Handish transmit our thoughts across Albias and Albias? Is there some kind of central - box, I guess you could say, where they all get sorted and people can retrieve any they're allowed to?

Where do they go?

I don't know. And it's not just this 'importing' and 'exporting' that's strange. Take the creatures that die - the poor things. Once you've finished carving up their gravestone and mourning over them, they float off into the sky. And up, and up, until you can't see them anymore. And they never come down. Why do they go away like that, defiant of gravity? Do they go for forever and ever, past the supposed moon and beyond the distant sun - is the cosmos full of dead creatures, drifting eternally from Albia? Okay, probably not.

It's a beautiful way to die, much better than that of those Handish whose creatures just go away, but where do they go?

I can't help but wonder every time one of my creatures passes away. Every time a creature blinks in or out of existence and carries on its life. Every time I lose one to 'import shock'. Even when I'm busy trying to save a sick norn, or encourage a stubborn one to rest, or poking around the genetics of one that never lived - I wonder.

Where do they go?

I asked the other Handish this, once, and got so many disparate responses, it was almost disappointing. "They go to a big recycling bin in the sky, where they get returned to the raw materials of Albia!" "I like to think of them as going to a heavenly place, where there is no disease and they all know how to push food." "Reincarnation, maybe?" "Perhaps it depends. Have you never seen the floating lemon? I think it's the ghost of norns that haven't yet moved on, but obviously some of them have." "Personally, I don't believe there's any particular afterlife, that they just disappear into nothingness."

Which means that no one knows the answer to my question - where do they go?

Perhaps no one ever will know it. Even if we Handish someday die - not that there's any sign of that coming, not that we can see - there's no guarantee that what happens to us is the same thing that happens to our creatures, or anything else for that matter. I'd like to think that their spirits end up happily, that perhaps their bodies do drift forever among the stars, little spaceships from this small disk-shaped world. I'd like to think I could see them again one day - not for all of the afterlife, but it would be a nice option to see my favorites again, feel them pull on my fingers and beg for a tickle.

I need to end this entry now, and tend the carrots, but I doubt I'll ever stop wondering, where it is that the norns go.

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We Handish tend to be a pretty creative, crafty bunch overall. Norns and grendels don't take up every moment of our day, and there's only so many times you can read the old Shee documents before you start going crazy staring at the text. When you've mapped the genome, debated the moon, hung the Christmas lights - what is there left to do?

Well, you build things. Ovens. Hot air balloons. Passageways, treehouses, bridges. Anything you want or your creatures could possibly need. Some Handish have spread recipes for new medicines. Others have come up with instructions for how to get the old water pumps working again, or encourage the sunflowers to make seeds. I've heard a few have even learned how to build on the clouds.

Me? I prefer making norns and grendels. Or, that is to say, new varieties of them, new variations on the species. We have the Shee programs for cracking open genetics; we have their egg-making machines. Once you understand how it all works, it's - well, relatively easy. I'm not a terribly crafty Hand myself, can barely figure out how to make more cheese, hit my own fingers with a hammer, but genetics work out better for me.

You want to correct the genes of a creature that is always in pain? Done. Make them less susceptible to cold? Just tweak this. Have friendlier grendels? Change up their instincts and watch them play alongside your norns.

Making smarter creatures? Well, that's harder. You can tweak the brain as much as you like, but some changes that seem like they should help make things worse, and it's a delicate organ: screw it up too much and your eggs won't hatch, which is always a little heart-breaking.

And sometimes it just seems like there's a ceiling. That the Shee programs can only change so much, or that they made their creations so that they can't get too smart, no matter how someone tries to tweak their brain structure. It's so frustrating to work all day on brain lobes only to find that the new norns that hatch out don't seem to use them properly, or that there's something off with the dendrites or layering or...

So sometimes I stick to the chemicals, just so that everything has a decent chance of working out properly and I don't end up too disappointed.

I've talked with the other Handish about it. Some of them think that there is a limit, somehow. That there's simply something about how norns and gendels, or even Albia itself, works such that they can only learn how to do so much. "There's just no way they could learn chains of multiple actions." "You can't make it so that they can learn the difference between the different kinds of herbs, and you have to work to get them to learn a carrot from a piece of cheese." "I hate to say it, but I think norns will always be stupid. Maybe not refuse-to-eat stupid. But there's only so smart they can get." "You can only put so much into their genome, right? There's just not enough genetic space for them to get more intelligent, not to the degree we'd like."

Maybe it's true.

But, you know, some of us believe differently. We could just be imagining the sparks of recognition in our norns' eyes when we fly over them and reach down to scritch them on the head. We could just be wishing when we see them help each other out. We could just be having fancies when we watch two norns play ball with each other.

But I believe differently.

So when this entry's done, and my norns seen to, I think I'll open up the Shee computers and programs and machines and work on my dream some more.