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?
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.”