Let the Tempest Hold Me Down
When I glide into the yellows of our forest glen, I cannot hear the other steam spirits as I should. There are no deep fatherly voices calling to their sons, no wide-grown blades whipping the wind as fathers and sons fly together and chase microbes to eat. Blade axis rods should trill as they spin through the tubular bodies of old and young alike. Yet only the lighter flight and chatter of my cousins drift down from the thick steam above, and an unusual stink twists through the humid wisps around me – of hot blood and damp leaves. Why can I not hear any fathers? Did my cousins wait until I had to feed, then strike? I hesitate to look down, already sensing that a carpet of dead steam spirits lies beneath me among the tree roots. I shouldn’t have left. Why did I believe Fen when he said everything would be okay, that I should feed as normal beyond the stream?
I tense my distals from the fine wafting stream of feelers that hang beneath me into rigid sensors, then I glance down. Yes, they’re there – the cylindrical shells of an entire generation spread lifeless across the glen, my father’s included. In places, the weight of the massacre sinks as dents into the pale leaf litter. Hundreds of once solid grey bodies have already dulled to deathly ashen, thousands of torn distals and blades… The air reeks of betrayal and death and pain.
“What have you done?” I wail into the air above me.
No one answers.
So I twist my distals tight around each other, then release my axis rod and spin my blades upwards. Above the trees, where the vapour lightens, my cousins are gorging on microbes as if nothing has happened, as if they are no longer murderers.
“Your own fathers – my father!” I yell, slipping inside an airstream. Bark and branches blur as it whooshes me up. “Why?”
“Come join us, cousin.” Fen’s voice is faint through the whiteness. “This is how it has always been.”
“No!” I yell, as the airstream fades. “There was another way! Where are you, Fen?”
Someone claps their blades together and plunges through the vapour before I can twist up any further. A dark blur becomes Fen’s thick tubular body, his flat face creased with pity. “Tek,” he says, reopening his blades and gliding so close that I don’t see, only feel him rolling a distal around one of mine. From the tightness in his grip, he doesn’t mean to comfort, but to anchor. “They had to die so we could live. We did it to our fathers, just as they did it to theirs. You know there are only enough microbes here for one generation.”
“We could have left, found another way.”
“But as king,” he chuckles, “that was my decision to make. Tek, this is the way of things.”
“Then those things need changing.”
“You sound like a chiton. Go join them if you wish.”
“I would rather die like my father.”
“That can be arranged.” He releases both my distal and his axis rod, his body shell shuddering with power as the long thin blades above his head spin him back up to the others.
I hear them laughing.
But they don’t know the stories my father used to tell – about my grandfather and what he once saw.
I leave the yellows of our glen heated with determination. ‘Fury can fuel you more than microbes,’ my father used to say, and today I understand what he means. Sticky air heavy with moisture quickly dissipates into cooler currents, making my instincts scream for the hot steam I need to live. Yet the thought of what Fen and the others have done spurs me on.
After a while, though, my distals clump against the chill and it’s hard to twist anywhere. The wetness lubricating my conduit crystallises and my bony axis grates as it rotates through the centre of my body. I have never known cold like this.
So when I find a warm airstream swinging high up the dark mountainside overlooking our forest, I let it carry me into wispy lime cloud that smells of flower buds. Vapour angels are supposed to descend from such clouds to call us steam spirits to spawn. They live as nomads, floating all over Taeual, grouping only once a lifetime to descend and find us in the forest… but we’re their family too. Surely they can’t abide the sons of each steam spirit generation strangling the last?
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I search for them, though see no signs of life, and the height chills my breath, so I drop over the mountain onto an endless plain of boulders and rotting debris. There’s no forest anywhere, nothing yellow in sight. Clearly the chitons have been here with their gadgets again, taking trees for their silver ships that shoot into the stars and beyond. Our fathers once begged them to stop, for the trees are home to the microbes we eat, and we have few enough of those as it is. My own father believed the survival of each generation lay in replanting more forest, so we might grow strong again. But the chitons told his king they did not want us strong, for when we spawn with angels, we birth gales that storm their riverside homes to mush.
It is impossible of course, for creatures as small as us to do the damage they claim. Still, it will be the task of our generation’s king to negotiate with the chitons once more.
That Fen is incapable of such tasks is why I must now cross this wasteland.
There is another way…
“Your grandfather met his love,” my father once told me, “where the light glows purple.”
“How did he live,” I asked him, “when there is no food outside the forest?”
“Fury can fuel us more than microbes.”
“But he was gone for weeks.”
“Spawning can take time.”
A shrug was all my father had in reply. He preferred not to talk about his father. My grandfather was king of his own generation until he spawned with a vapour angel who was not his royal equal. My father never thought much of titles and positions, as I do not. They’re just words others use to elevate themselves. But Grandfather valued his status and wanted it for his heirs also. After he lost his kingdom, he was consumed by guilt, and refused to speak again of his time away – only muttered to my father about the purple light. Probably he welcomed his death when it came.
But my father didn’t want to die. Death only found him because I wasn’t there to protect him when it came looking. So I must save my future son from his son, and his son from his. If I do not, I’m as much to blame as my murderous cousins. How did my grandfather survive for weeks so far from any yellow?
Hours of drifting bring me to a breeze filled with unusually sounding scent. It smells like the salt licks on the silent riverbanks of the forest, yet is accompanied by the crushing sound of falling trees – repeatedly, as if the chitons are busy with their gadgets again, which makes no sense. There is no forest anywhere, only dark grey plains.
I hop between warm airstreams to pursue the noise, though the sun is setting and my stomach claws. I wish I’d eaten more this morning.
As night descends and the rocks beneath me blacken, my distals weaken and I long to rest. But if I sleep on rocks as isolated as these, a gust might blow me into some cold crevice where no warm wind will find me again. So I spin inside zephyrs, drift through draughts, and hope to float closer to the repeating crush – so rhythmic now it makes me want to close my eyes and curl inside myself.
Wind dulls the sound of crushing and lulls me. Soon, either way, there is only blackness.
I cannot tell if it’s just then, or much later, but I wake unrefreshed when a sudden heat fires up the breeze. I must have fallen asleep mid-air and drifting. Now in complete darkness, I have no idea where I am, or how I got here.
As I peer into the distance, though, excitement brings me a clarity I can trust. There is a distant glow in the night ahead, and that glow is purple.
I twist as close as I dare, the heat from the glow so fierce I fear it. At least with so much warm air circulating, I can rest somewhere nearby. I pick a place and land.
Dank-smelling steam coils off the glow, frenetic and violet at first, paler where it meanders away. Dozing off, I wish my father were here to see it.
Morning brings me light, but no salt licks or yellow trees. I spiral steam between my distals and twist high enough to see purple-glowing crusts of new land pouring into water. It sizzles on contact with pounding blue waves and cools quickly to grey. Cracks running through the new land glow indigo, still hot. Steam billows up and stinks of charring, like burnt forest after rain. I peer across the water, the source of the now deafening rhythmic crush, but see no opposite bank, only pillows of lime cloud that remind me why I’m here.
I twist towards them.
Surfing swirling plumes of steam keeps me warm, while the faint yet meaty smell of microbes lures me higher. I knew it! There is food out here! The stronger the aroma grows, the more certain I become of finding enough microbes to feed entire generations at a time. We might never have to kill our fathers again, only travel further for food.
The air cools as I twist higher, so I feast quickly on every tiny morsel I encounter, smiling. Soon I will be as full of food as I am with the promise of a better life – fathers will be able to meet their grandchildren, pass their wisdom on and die of old age, as other species do on Taeual. I imagine the look on Fen’s flat face when I tell him he was wrong and my smile broadens, stopping only when a distinctive shape appears in the downy cloud above me. Distals dangle beneath a shining silver cylindrical body, whose brilliant beam calls to me with such certainty I know it can only be one thing.
“Vapour angel?” I call.
Her expression creases when she notices me.
“Wait!” I tell her. “Don’t be afraid!”
Stilling her long ribbon-like blades, she glides lower. “Steam spirit?” she sings out. The silvery feathers on her distals rustle as she moves. “Why are you here?”
“To see where my grandfather met his love,” I say, staring. My cousins and I do not have feathers on our distals. The delicate skins of her blades are transparent too, right through to the weighted bone at their tips. Ours are solid grey and thicker with it.
She curls her shimmering distals as if she knows I’m looking. “Who are you?”
“Tek of who?”
“Of Fron; grandson of Baw.”
“Baw? His love passed long ago,” her voice sings. “Only her great-nieces live here now.”
“Are you one of them?”
Instead of answering, she releases her axis and twists away, looking back at me. Although she says nothing more, I hear her singing inside my body – a song that speaks of love, of beauty and sweetness. I was always going to follow, but seeing her crystals descend behind her, I hurry to merge into the airstream she leaves behind her flight. Shutting my eyes, I relish the coolness of the wind, the feel of her crystals cascading over my blades and melting down inside my axis. She dips down, then crosses above me, offering me her wake. In it, my flight becomes so sweetly desperate I can barely breathe. Yet it is a breathlessness I welcome, a breathlessness so sweet I wish it would last forever.
Like this, I dance with her for hours, barely noticing the sun setting and rising, again and again. By the time her crystals line the inside length of my conduit, and mine hers, it seems as if days have passed. I am grown so thin and light from hunger, perhaps days truly have. I am sure only that I have come to know this angel more than I know myself. She lives in cloud to moisten her axis, just as steam moistens mine. Heat hurts her, just as cold cuts me. Yet on the edge of both worlds, we have found our hearts.
At last she descends again.
“Tell me your name,” I wail, gorging on the nearest microbes I can find.
“You are hungry. Did you not eat enough to last?”
“There is not as much food in the forest as out here, and I did not know it could last like this.”
“Did your father not tell you about spawning?”
“Not in as much detail.”
“Still,” she grins, her eyes twinkling, “you look big enough to last some more.”
I find myself filled with both microbes and wonder. “Who are you?”
“I am Hya, a queen among vapour angels, as was my aunt, and hers before her. My great aunt was your grandfather’s love.” She smiles again, consuming microbes herself. “Kings always spawn with queens. We just… find each other.”
“But my grandfather did not spawn with royalty. Only an angel he met here by the purple glow.”
“Yes, that was my great aunt. Perhaps he did not wait, though, to find this out? You spirits are often in a hurry. That is all right, of course. It is why we live up here; you below. It is the way of things.”
“The way of things?” I tighten my distals. “Your great aunt did not tell my grandfather she was queen…”
“Or your grandfather left so quickly he did not ask…”
“And because of that he lost his kingdom and was shamed into never speaking about this place – not about your great aunt, nor the microbes here that are plenty. So now my father is dead. Still you think that is all right?”
Hya’s expression shifts. “Your grandfather lost his kingdom?” Her smile fades. “So you are not king?”
“Should it matter?”
Tightening her spiral, her beam brightens into a blaze. “Not king?”
“No!” I wail above the whirl that her tightened twisting has become.
Air rumbles as it collapses into a channel above her. Hya’s clouds darken and billow into sweeps of navy smudge. I smell rain.
“Stop!” I yell, quickening my spiral to match hers, lest I be sucked up. I must tell the others about these microbes. “I have to leave!”
“Just like your grandfather?” She glares at me, twisting harder.
Soon the bluster of our spirals blows into a gale, a storm, then a deafening typhoon. It drains Hya’s song from me, leaving me only her words.
It is the way of things.
My father deserved more.
You are not king.
It shouldn’t matter.
So for what seems like hours, days even, I twist my spiral against hers. Rolls of black, fronts of towering darkness that snarl and snap, suck daylight from any grey struggling through. The only lull is when the meaty scent of microbes, now plentiful from all the dead floating wreckage, overwhelms us and we feast.
Moments of blacked-out rest haze even that.
It is the way of things.
It need not have been.
So when Hya tires, I heat her spiral until she wakes with sweat. And when I close my eyes she clashes her spiral into mine, freezing me awake. I have no idea why, but our game satisfies me so much it has the power to blind me to all else for years. So many suns pass, perhaps years truly have. Daylight hours lengthen, then shorten again. The citrus rings of our planet fade to translucent, as they do in summer. Later, days are so winter-dark those bright tangerine rings are all that shine.
Fury can fuel us more than microbes.
It seems impossible. Yet still we clash.
Until one day the purple glow beneath us explodes with a fury equal to ours, shooting above our blades and past the stars. Jolting us apart, it forces us to gaze below, to see that our tempest has beaten on every shore, shattering our world as much as our love. Dark ruins of sallow bark, shattered logs and smashed hides float so thick and scattered over the bankless water I can hardly make out where land begins and ends.
Drifting close to one another, Hya and I assess the devastation. Spent of rage at last, shame sits where our love should lie.
“Are you all right?” I ask Hya.
She nods, smiling weakly. “But I don’t like the look of those.”
I study the wreckage. As clouds from our clash dissipate, striking sunbeams light my search. Still, I cannot find any peril. “What is it?”
“Up there. The spheres…”
Twisting my body, I tilt myself upwards. A thousand spheres dot the drapes of still-dark cloud. The spheres shine and glint, composed of the same metal the chitons batter into burnish to give flight to their flimsy shells, and of the same glass rocks they melt together and tint with dirt when they ship themselves to the stars. Sky vapours gather thick beneath them before being sucked through and expelled as thin swirls. Inside the spheres, tiny silver glows blaze as Hya did before we fought.
“Stay here,” Hya says, twisting higher.
I go to stop her, but she’s already released her axis. Her distals disappear through the smudge. So I stay where I am. In every direction across Taeual spheres now commandeer the sky, forming a pattern that cages. An unspoken menace, they drink up the clouds.
Hya drops down again, her expression panicked. “Dive!” she screams. “Now!”
“Fall with me!” I yell.
“My cousins – they’re trapped.”
The silvery glows blazing inside the spheres… they’re her cousin angels?
“They were in the cloud,” she goes to explain, but there’s a sudden gust. Hya’s distals flail, her body spins. “Go!” She can’t still her blades.
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She’s pulled up anyway and a cold sinks in her place, striking me numb. Unless I dive, I’ll freeze. So I clap my blades together and plummet to where the purple land pours. When I look up again, she’s gone. Vapour hisses through vents in what must be the chiton’s new gadgets. Soon the sky is sheer, with only a fine lime mist spewing out behind each machine.
I spin around, searching for the gadget that entraps my love. They all look the same. Tilted mirrors inside them reflect away the sunlight, sending a thousand sunbeams into the stars. With little cloud left to clear, the hissing vents fall silent. What do I do? Inside those machines, our angels won’t have enough air to last them – no food or flight either. Through the debris below, only distant land markers signify where I even am…
Until I catch sight of the mountain above my forest. I must get back, as fast as I can. I glance down, then twist my spiral over the bankless water and force it to splash up against the purple glow. When there’s a whooshing of steam, I twist it into a coil so tight it shoots me across the debris.
Over the plains, invisible voices pass me in waves between Taeual, the spheres and beyond. Voices crackle like the rustling of leaves and make my axis vibrate as I receive them. The higher I twist, the clearer they become, until I can hear exactly how pleased some chiton is that their spheres have stopped the ice plains from melting. The chiton talks with a species whose voice I do not recognise from this world, about a storm they thought would never end, with lightning that overheated the land. Both seem happy that the chiton’s freshwater communes are now safe from saltwater flooding, and that the land will now be cooler. The unusual voice wonders though, what glows inside the chiton’s machines. The chiton pretends not to know.
I don’t blame it – after seeing the continued wreckage that stretches into every distance, I only blame myself.
Hya and I have fought for years.
“Tek?” wails a voice when I reach the forest. “We thought you were dead!” Fen looks smaller somehow, more ashen.
“Is this everyone?” I ask, as my cousins gather.
“The spheres plucked us as we spawned,” says Fen. “You should have been here though, before the storms!” He grins. “Vapour angels descended into the forest, hundreds of them. All the crystals, the spinning… so beautiful,” his grin fades. “Where have you been?”
I avoid his question and gesture up. “We have to help them.”
“I have already sent an ambassador to the chitons. They cannot realise what their gadgets have done.”
“Our angels have no food, no air. We have to get up there now.”
Fen laughs, though for once it’s more in hopelessness than derision. “How?”
“We can use the purple glow.” And I tell them how it propelled me back here. “If we spiral together, I might reach them.” I gesture at the spheres.
“You?” Fen frowns, eyeing me. “You’ve grown big, but why should you risk your life?”
So I tell them about Hya.
Picturing Hya blazing above me, I can hardly remember anymore how exactly our hurt started. One little test of temper, I think, before the battling became everything. Now I’m above the purple glow again, with my cousins spiralling below, and once more I can barely breathe for the frost. Yet, because such breathlessness reminds me of Hya’s wake, I twist on.
Numbness creeps inside. My body stiffens.
The air thins.
Still, any sphere could be hers.
Hearing a crack, I stop twisting, though not from pain… I’m too numb to know if my axis or just a distal has snapped. Nothing happens when I go to twist again, so I just tilt my blades and glide. Heat from my cousins’ continued spiralling drifts up occasionally, but soon I have to close my eyes to save them from freezing.
When I peek out again, a sphere looms large before me. Still, I want the warmth from closing my eyes to last longer. With an extended blink, I keep them shut for too long, and when I open them again the sphere has vanished. There are no spheres anywhere – just thin, dim sky. I’ve either lost my mind, or my sight. Both mean death.
Closing my eyes again, I start to shiver. It is so, so cold.
“Hya…” I sigh, breathing shallow as the freeze creeps down my axis. There is nothing I can do to prevent it now. I cannot twist. I can no longer feel the steam from my cousins. There is little wind up here. I can only wait to die.
Worse than dying, I have failed my father. I found a way for my cousins to feed, for our generations to live together, yet unless we save our angels what use will we have for more microbes?
As still as death now, I hear a singing inside my body and wonder if I am dead already? The song speaks of love, of beauty and sweetness. “Hya?”
The song grows louder and a warmth rises from beneath me. Tilting my blades, I glance down. There is no steam. No cloud even. Sunlight is simply reflecting off a sphere’s mirror and striking me.
I’m above them!
Thawing in the sun’s reflected beams, my senses revive until searing pain shoots up my axis. Two of my distals have snapped. I force myself to withstand the hurt and twist anyway, landing on the sphere to search for an entrance. There’s no opening, just a square pad of raised lights flashing. Hearing Hya singing once more, I move my distals to her song until one of the flashes turns purple.
We just… find each other.
Curling my remaining distals into a point, rigid against the pain, I spin on the purple light until there’s a click. The sphere judders, throwing me off. Falling out of the reflecting beam, I’m stabbed again by the sudden chill until a lucky gust lifts me back up.
“I’ll never make it back down again,” I mumble.
“Not without my help,” comes a voice, and Hya’s brilliant beam calls to me with a certainty I know more than I know myself. She twists until she’s beside me.
Beneath us, a cluster of her cousin angels gather too, floating out from inside the sphere. At least these few are free. While they pant to catch their breath, I tell them about the flashing purple light, and they twist towards other spheres to save what cousins they can.
Using Hya’s distals as a shield doesn’t stop my descent from numbing me once more. But the invisible chatter between the chitons and the unusual voice makes my unending shiver worthwhile.
As we plummet, the unusual voice questions the chitons about the glowing silver dots now spreading from the opened sphere towards the others. A chiton tries to explain, though in the background I hear wind whirling around one of my cousins’ voices, the ambassador Fen sent to speak with them. The chitons claim they did not know our angels would be trapped, and mutter something about necessary loss. Our ambassador tells them about love and loss and that they should look again at the sphere I just opened. Angels need spirits to live, he explains, and spirits need angels – so much so his cousin Tek just risked his life to save his love.
Further research is needed, the unusual voice decides, before the chitons will be allowed to clear the skies with their gadgets again. He calls us sentient creatures, and extends to us his warmest greetings from a planet far away.
Just as I near the purple glow below, there’s a rumble as the spheres click open. I watch as spirits and angels reunite. Still my shivering doesn’t end until the boil of steam is so fierce Hya has to spiral away.
“You are with their queen,” Fen notices, “just like your grandfather. You have shown the voices how we love. Found more microbes too. You are the true king of our forest.”
I shake my head, declining his offer, and tell him instead about the power of fury – then spy Hya waiting above me, smiling. Explanations can wait. There is more talking to be done between everyone, for it seems we are not the only species on Taeual needing protection. But that conversation is not for right now…
Hya and I start where we last began – above glowing purple crusts of pouring land. She sings and I wail, spinning our winds high above the swell.
Dipping down, she crosses, offering me her wake. The relief of it hasn’t lessened over time, but a smack of exhaustion hazes our reunion.
I feel old.
Still, knowing what we were like when we were younger, and how our fury once fuelled us more than microbes, I wouldn’t now spawn with her any other way.
Food for Thought
This story is about the dangers of humanity interfering with nature without full knowledge of the potential consequences. What if we help a species in apparent danger, only to discover our help negatively impacts another species? What if we put climatic controls into action, only we make matters worse? It is better to try and fail, or let nature take its own course? Let the Tempest Hold Me Down addresses the value of hindsight from an unusual perspective, with the hope of provoking discussion on these themes. Just because we can, does that mean we should?
About the Author
Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud, creating what-if worlds and thought experiments. She’s won eleven national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, and she believes that stories are about connection, adventure and escape. Reviewer Lillian Csernica has described her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. She’s also a movie buff, traveller, wine lover, and the founder / leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group. A book creator and mentor, editor, creative writing tutor and blogger, you can find her on social media as @ZenaShapter. Her website is at zenashapter.com
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