Episode Three: A Matter Of Instinct
Many in the Ancient Lowcity, if asked to name the most industrious of all its inhabitants, would name the Umbressi. They would think of their feats of engineering, their ingenuity, the breadth of scale at which they operate. They would not, in all likelihood, think first of the Grib. To the Grib, this is not a problem at all. In fact, it may well be preferable. They don’t seek out that kind of attention. In fact, most would much rather be left well enough alone. This isn’t out of xenophobia, to be clear. Well, not for most. Not technically. To the Grib, self-sufficiency is of the utmost importance- not only as individuals, but as the Grib as a whole. From an early age the Grib are taught that they should be able to keep on living even if everyone else in the world went away, and that Grib as a people should be able to keep on living if everyone else went away. It is a societal inclination that is equal parts pride, a disdain of the Other, and good old fashioned paranoia. Whether or not it’s healthy, it has- so far- worked out well for them. Even if it has put them in a somewhat unusual position.
Despite- or rather, because of- their insular society and insistence on self-sufficience, the Grib have over time become absolutely crucial to the Lowcity’s wellbeing. Less than a thousand Grib had made it to the Lowcity before the entrance was sealed, and the very existence of their species was anything but guaranteed for the first few centuries. When you consider the fraught political situation of those early years, the tensions between groups who had either had little to do with one another before or who had had less than harmonious relations, it makes sense that the leaders of the Grib sought to keep their people to their own affairs. The whole world, what was left of it, was clearly a powder keg, and the Grib had enough problems on their own just trying to feed themselves and maintain genetic diversity through a careful breeding program. Let the other races deal with their own problems. Perhaps someday the Grib would emerge and reconnect with the survivors. They dedicated themselves to spreading wide, giving themselves space away from the main body of the Lowcity and whatever catastrophes might strike it, and creating a stable world for themselves. They built farmland- or, whatever one might call the subterranean version of farmland- where they experimented and practised and grew their knowledge of how to survive underground long-term, what crops were sustainable, even inventing some new ones. It was, for a lot of Grib, an unspoken fact that they would soon be the only living beings on the planet- if they themselves survived, of course.
But they did survive, and to their great surprise so did the rest of the Lowcity- if a little less comfortably and a little more hungrily. Eventually, the Grib integrated themselves into Lowcity society, such as it was, and rapidly became an important part of the city’s foundation. Their agricultural infrastructure and the knowledge they had gleaned during their isolation were well ahead of that of the rest of the city, whose focus had been taken with other matters. Survival can take many forms, after all. And so the Grib were in a prime position to become an indispensable part of the Lowcity’s future, in a crucial and yet… almost passive way. Their power came not from military might, or political engineering, but from being useful. Exactly according to plan, then, though the other Lowcity residents would never have imagined such a plan existed, and to this day no Grib will acknowledge it. Because it wasn’t a plan. Not really. More a matter of… instinct.
Squat, four-limbed and four-eyed, with rough flabby skin that can appear in a variety of colours which shift over the course of their lifespan, the Grib stand out among the people of the Lowcity almost as much as they blended into the murky waters of their natural homes. Formerly aquatic, the Grib once called the swamps and marshes of the surface home. Most of the other residents of the Lowcity had pulled themselves out of the primordial soup aeons ago; the Grib, on the other hand, had happily remained in an environment not dissimilar to it above all other options, right up until the Lowcity became the only option available. Consummate survivors, they have always found ways to just make things work out for them- not through chance, but through sheer determination. Most would say that a swamp is no place for civilisation: buildings, infrastructure, large-scale agriculture- all impossible, as far as most are concerned. As far as the Grib were concerned, these were all bonuses. Not because they made things easier- they were, of course, huge obstacles. But because, as a result, nobody else wanted them. The Grib had their marshes and swamps, and they were welcome to them. And they made it work: without much in the way of competition, they were able to thrive in isolation. They made their own mud-based buildings and dredged sections of swamp to make usable farmland, and created techniques for all the things that were so easy on land that made them almost as easy in the swamps. They had found their niche: a small one, a limited one, but one where they could thrive- relatively speaking- in peace. They didn’t know it, but they were actually acting out a sort of modernised version of their old survival techniques, from before their brains had grown larger and their hands more dexterous: from an age before buildings and agriculture, when they had been mere animals, which had survived chiefly by being a little too weird and unpleasant for predators to want to eat them. They hadn’t ever wanted to leave their swamps, because they didn’t need to.
Until they did. If there are still swamps out there, the Grib of the Lowcity do not know about them, and if there are they are probably better off not knowing. They make do with what they have, as they always have, even if their sensitive skin has still yet to adjust to their subterranean life all these generations later. While the swamps and marshes were their ancestral home, and though they do still look back on their half-remembered recollections of swamps and marshes as a lost Eden of sorts, at the time they did not choose their habitat for its desirability. They just made do. They survived, following their instincts. And now, instinct has become “society”, and it continues to benefit them. Now, as in those Halcyon days, they make do.
That period of isolation, where they had hidden themselves away and dedicated themselves to self-sufficiency has since become the historical bedrock of the slightly less isolationist Grib of today. They are the agricultural powerhouse that keeps the majority of the Lowcity fed, subsisting on a diet of tubers and fungi that grow larger and more consistently due to some simple yet effective techniques they developed. The methods they use have changed little since their isolation, with the exception being that water is now pumped using Umbressi machinery from the huge underground reservoir that borders the Lowcity’s southern side, as opposed to being carried bucket by bucket. Other than that adjustment, which has allowed for the increase in scale that feeding the entire Lowcity brought, little else has changed, and apart from small personal gardens nobody really tries to compete. The techniques of the Grib are not secret, though: the Grib happily share their methods with anyone who will ask. Because they know that if they kept them secret, they wouldn’t be secret for long. And those who sought them probably wouldn’t ask. Instead, they rely on the fact that there is little reason for anyone to compete, even if such a thing is possible: their prices are reasonable, and the level of infrastructure they have built up gives them such a headstart that competition would be an uphill struggle. Again, as ever, the Grib survive largely by making themselves a small target: they make themselves useful, and keep their ambitions small, and in return they are considered beneath attention for the most part. One might even argue that they are ideologically opposites of the Umbressi: where an Umbressi might be shunned, or at the very least looked down on, for a lack of ambition, an outwardly ambitious Grib is an oddity to say the least. Of course, while their present society is based largely on relics of their primaeval instincts, they haven’t been animals in a very long time. And so, there are exceptions.
One such Grib is named Acrid/Round/Soft- or, at least, that is the best one can do to describe their name. While the naming conventions of the Grib have evolved somewhat since their integration into Lowcity society, they still rely entirely on odour for identification. All that has changed, really, is that they have learned more how to describe odours for the benefit of those who cannot produce or smell them with as much specificity as a Grib. Typically, when introducing oneself to an outsider, a Grib will release their personal scent, then describe it in their own terms: first the initial impression, then the main body of the smell, then the intensity. Describing any lingering odours is not common, though it is sometimes included if it is particularly strong, or in some formal situations. Acrid/Round/Soft is a lot like most other Grib, outwardly. A few years from maturity, they work with their parent- Sharp/Floral/Bold- as a mudscaper: using techniques pioneered by the Grib, they carefully sculpt the soil and mud that is the Lowcity’s most abundant resource into something more practical. They adjust the original Umbressi designs into forms that better suit their purposes- but subtly, not in any way that would obscure the original work. At the great tuber and fungus farms, they help ensure that the enriched soil is always where it needs to be, as nutrients are precious in a world without sun. Like an Umbressi maintainer, Acrid/Round/Soft and their parent work tirelessly, and almost invisibly, to make sure that the world that others might take for granted can continue to exist. But, while the work of this pair is not so underappreciated as that of a maintainer, it is still not the life for Acrid/Round/Soft. Because, secretly, deep within their heart, Acrid/Round/Soft wants to be an artist.
Art in the Lowcity is not unheard of- where there are beings of any level of sapience there is likely to be art along with them. Art in Grib civilisation is somewhat more rare, however, as it doesn’t really directly benefit the collective in any tangible way. Among the Grib, all the entertainment that is needed is a good… well, it is perhaps best translated as “hubbub”: a group of Grib gather in an enclosed space- easier than ever in the Lowcity’s tunnels- and express their scent glands into the air, releasing clouds of all sorts of smells that waft and mingle together as one. Then, the participants mould and change the scent of the room together, like musicians in a jam session, each bringing something of their own, feeling the tone of the room and tweaking it in collaboration with everyone else. It is an art, and a unique one at that, as none but a Grib can ever participate- or even bear witness to it. The resulting smell is usually sufficient to knock more outsiders unconscious even from a great distance, although some Gasbags have expressed an appreciation. Acrid/Round/Soft does not, however, find much of interest in the Hubbub. It is so fleeting, so impermanent. It’s completely inaccessible to non-Grib, and Acrid/Round/Soft has some ambitious- if perhaps naïve- notion that art could be a way to improve Grib relations with the rest of the Lowcity, if only they could find a more accessible form. And then one day, while Acrid/Round/Soft and their parent Sharp/Floral/Bold were shoring up the edges of an embankment using a hardy and quick-drying mixture of mud, inspiration struck the young Grib. Their dextrous long fingers worked deep into the mud, pushing and pulling at the fibrous root strands woven into it, creating a subtle design on the surface of the wall, which evoked in their chest feelings of… nostalgia? A longing for some time long past that-
Then their parent had made some half-heard comment that had snapped Acrid/Round/Soft back to reality, and they quickly smoothed back the surface of the mud to a nice even consistency. But they never forgot that moment, that single instant where suddenly they saw the world with a greater clarity than they had previously thought possible. It was as if, for their entire life up to that moment, they had been sleepwalking, and now they were awake. They were a sculptor, a word which Acrid/Round/Soft didn’t even know at the time in any of the Lowcity’s languages. They wanted to create things that said… things. They didn’t even know how that worked, but suddenly they knew it was possible. This was what their life was about now. And their parent would never approve. Sharp/Floral/Bold had always been a good parent, a caring parent in their own way. But they were very much set in their ways; it wasn’t so much that they expected their offspring to follow in their footsteps, as it was that they’d never considered any other outcome. Grib are asexual as well as agender, with a single individual being able to reproduce by themself and bear one child at a time for as many years as they see fit. In years long gone it was common for Grib to continue birthing new offspring over and over again for their entire lives, playing against the probability that a cruel world was likely to take away a significant number of their young. In the relative safety and somewhat more cramped confines of the Lowcity, most Grib will stop having children after between two and five pregnancies; Sharp/Floral/Bold is an outlier, then, in that they stopped at one. Perhaps they simply think that one is enough to ensure their legacy, or perhaps they found the experience of pregnancy too unpleasant to repeat. Their reasons are theirs, and are to be respected of course. But this also leaves their child with a difficult choice: to follow their dreams, or their parents.
The rest of this sad story proceeds as one might expect, as it has in so many forms in so many families. No doubt most are familiar with some variation on this sort of familial strife. The growing gulf between the pair, the resentment, the confusion over the resentment. The day that, many years after Acrid/Round/Soft first discovered their ambition, they finally told their parent of it. The bitter argument that followed. It is all terribly sad, and terribly common. One day, not long after their offspring reached maturity, Sharp/Floral/Bold found their home empty. Their child was gone, without even a note. In place of one was a small statue, made of baked mud, an abstract piece that seemed to evoke the shape of two figures hugging. Sharp/Floral/Bold has not, in the years since, seen nor heard from their child. Perhaps they will produce another child to replace the one they lost, or perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will someday reconcile with Acrid/Round/Soft. The note that their relationship ended on might suggest that this is an impossibility, and yet as they go about their work shaping mud into foundations and walls and farming soil, there is the hint of a flourish that wasn’t there before. An artistic flair that evokes that first joyous moment where their child discovered a new passion, that hints that Acrid/Round/Soft is never far from their thoughts. And somewhere else, separated by miles of dirt and many more miles of tunnels, perhaps Acrid/Round/Soft continues to use that same composition of mud that their parent taught them to create as a Gribling, even as the other members of the artistic collective they now call home do their best to convince them of the merits of some other materials. Perhaps they are simply sticking with a medium with which they are familiar, and comfortable. Or perhaps… there is something more to it. Perhaps, when their new Umbressi and Lesh friends notice that Acrid/Round/Soft has a far off look in their eyes as they work at a new sculpture, they are not merely lost in their work, but lost in a memory of a past they long for. Or the dream of a future they hope will one day come to pass. Perhaps it will. If this feels like an abrupt conclusion, or perhaps even the absence of a conclusion, well, that is because this story simply isn't complete, nor is it unique. Efficiency and survivalism are not inherent to the Grib, just as industrialism is not inueren to an Umbressi or ambition is not inherent to a Lesh. These are societal traits, instilled into most at a young age. Acrid/Round/Soft has simply gone against this one. By ending this story before the end, perhaps this story can be a stand-in for any number of others, of the young telling the old what the future will be like. And maybe they'll even be right. Anything is possible in the ever-changing, ever-growing tunnels of the Lowcity.