Spores of the Volcano
The volcano rose into the sky, high above the glaciers that bound its lower slopes to the frozen planet. From its gaping caldera a dark plume spread into the frigid air and drifted south where flecks of ash, fallen from the cloud, began to dot with black the vast and barren plains of ice.
Again the volcano trembled, and deep within the hollow tunnels that riddled its slopes a youngling Kree, wide-eyed and shivering, slithered into the dark temple chamber. The sacred room was forbidden to younglings, but Yothe had snuck into the quiet space many times. Synthe, the blind high priestess, did not seem to mind. The floor of the temple was always warm, and Yothe was always cold since the hair had yet to grow on her body and the back of her tentacles. Sometimes Synthe scooped her up and cuddled her and told her stories about orphans who grew up to be big and strong, and that eased her loneliness. The old priestess even slipped her mush balls from a stone bowl that rested in a niche on one side of the room.
But now Synthe rested unresponsive on her listening stone, a square platform where—she had told Yothe—she listened to the voice of the volcano. Yothe cautiously approached and reached out to touch Synthe. Nothing. She curled a tiny tentacle about a limb of the ancient Kree and gently pulled. Still Synthe did not move. Yothe whimpered and shrank away.
The ground trembled again, sending the solitary orb that lit the chamber swinging on the leather strap that suspended it from the ceiling. The sphere, woven from the antennae of luminescent insects, cast enough light so that shadows in the room wavered back and forth. The moving shadows frightened Yothe, but not as much as the voices and the shuffling sounds she heard from the tunnel. Adults were coming, and there was no other way out of the room. Quickly, she scuttled behind the altar into a corner, wrapping herself into a spherical heap. But then, hardly daring to breathe, she raised a limb to peek out between her trembling tentacles.
The huge form of Thor-Att slithered into the room, his head inclined so as not to strike his Nautus shell on the top of the low doorway. Yothe did not dare to move. If the great Thor-Att should discover her there, he might seize her and throw her into the volcano.
Thor-Att straightened and expanded, flashing orange waves of agitation the length of his body. It was not anger—not yet, which gave Yothe hope that he might spare her. Two lesser priestesses glided into the room behind him. Groveling close to the floor, they were careful to flash no emotion as they went quickly to their own listening platforms. Still, the high priestess did not move.
Another tremor shook the small temple, and Thor-Att unfurled his tentacles, two to the upper stones to steady himself, and it seemed to Yothe that, with his great strength, he held up the ceiling. Dirt and small rocks fell to the floor. The orb swung anew, and the bowl of mush balls rocked and then tottered over the edge of its niche, breaking and scattering bits of bowl and tiny mush balls across the chamber floor. Only with the greatest control did Yothe refrain from crying out.
“Honored one.” Thor-Att’s deep, resonant voice filled the room, his great round eyes fixed on Synthe. “There is no more time. The tremors of Mondermount inflame the females; their Nautus shells throb. If I do not intervene they will begin the Spawning. You must tell me, now, if the volcano will erupt.”
The ancient priestess opened her sightless eyes, her withered Nautus shell a diminutive peak above her head. “The lava rises, but then it falls. The volcano… does not speak clearly.”
Thor-Att flashed again the color of agitation. Stiffening on his two standing tentacles, he gestured with the others. “I will not have our unborn younglings die in the frozen wastes unless there is no hope.”
The white orbs of the priestess’ eyes moved as if searching for Thor-Att. “But the voice of the volcano is not clear.”
A rumble rose from the depths, and moans from the Kree gathered on the surface carried down into the room. Thor-Att flashed the purple of disgust, and with a swipe of his tentacle scattered bits of stone and mush balls across the floor. A shard of the bowl struck Yothe, who recoiled as if it were a burning cinder. Then Thor-Att turned to the lesser priestesses who lay prostrate on their listening platforms. They raised their heads, the ends of their tentacles writhing.
“And what say you?”
“Leader Thor-Att,” the nearest of the two said. “We hear the churning of lava below. It is close.” At that, both cast furtive glances at Synthe, but the ancient priestess did not contradict them.
“The walls of our mound are thin,” said the other. “We fear it will collapse, and it will be… sudden.”
Thor-Att rose to his full height and turned sharply to Synthe. The priestess seemed to have fallen asleep. Her mouth sagged, and she drooled. “Honored one.” The voice of Thor-Att was ragged, and the solid red of anger flashed on his skin. “What say you to this? I will stop the spawning if there is a chance we will survive, yet I must act swiftly. You can hear the moans of the faithful. They are near to frenzy.”
Yothe wanted to rush to Synthe and pull on her tentacles to make her speak, lest the great Thor-Att fling her against the wall. But Synthe showed no fear. She sat still, all eight tentacles unfurled.
The earth roared. The floor lurched beneath them, and, with a sharp crack, a fissure cleaved the stone of the far wall. Yothe let out a high-pitched shriek and raised her short tentacles above her head.
Then, the floor was still again. Only the orb and the shadows swung back and forth in the silence. Yothe gasped for breath, amazed that Thor-Att did not hear her cry and strike her or squeeze the life from her with his strong tentacles.
“The winds blow south, into the barren ice fields.” Thor-Att, although he trembled, spoke with measured control, as if to a child. “If our colony is to be destroyed, we must launch our spores at once. But if the eruption is not total, then we might flee down the slopes onto the ice and then return after the volcano has calmed.”
One of the lesser priests gasped. “It is a sacrilege to die upon the ice.”
At this, Synthe roused herself from her stone, a new strength and a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Does the great Att not recall the scriptures? All living things yield up their spores at the Time of Shaking. It matters not whether we live or burn if our spores have been set into the wind.
“I will not send our spores to certain death, nor will I stand by and simply wait to fall into the caldera,” Thor-Att said. “My plan could save at least a part of the colony and half our spores.”
“It is by obedience that we have survived since the freezing of the world.”
“Honorable one, help me. You who advised the Att before I was born, will the volcano erupt?”
Synthe closed her sightless eyes, inhaled, and sang from the scripture-song:
“Honored one, there are no mounds to the south. The scripture-songs to not apply. Don’t you see that if we launch our spores they will be lost on the plains of ice, their souls never to return to our mound? But I can still stop the Spawning if you give me any hope at all!”
Synthe drew her tentacles about her and shriveled, her head sinking into her body. “I cannot advise you.”
Thor-Att stared for a moment, colors flashing across his body too quickly for Yothe to understand. Then he swiftly turned and left the chamber.
One of the lesser priestesses, scurrying to follow Thor-Att, paused and extended a tentacle so that Yothe could climb up. “Come, youngling, you do not belong here.” Yothe, grateful for the touch of another Kree, clung to the priestess who gently carried her through the dark tunnel to the surface.
When they emerged onto the slope of the volcano, Yothe thought at first that the sky had disappeared. A low, roiling cloud, twisted above them. Then she saw the spores. The air was thick with them, delicate puffs of plants and even some of the floating bladders of higher creatures. Every living thing, it seemed to her, had sent up their spores. It was a wondrous sight, but she knew enough now to be afraid.
The young priestess placed her on a short column—one on which she had sat many times to learn the songs of the Kree—and then glided toward the choral platform.
“Are we going to fall into the volcano and die?” Yothe asked in her piping, small voice.
The priestess paused and turned back. Yothe could not help but see that the Nautus shell above her head was inflamed.
“Do not be afraid, youngling,” she said. “If the slopes give way, we shall all go together into the caldera. You will not be alone.”
“Will everyone die?”
“Our spores will live on, even if we, ourselves, return to the mound.”
“But why don’t we keep our spores? I want to play with the younglings.”
“If the volcano takes us back, and all our spores are still with us, then there will be no more Kree from our mound to live into the next generation.”
“This is your learning column. It is for you and the other younglings to watch and remember.” And then she retreated to the wide platform where the adult Kree gathered.
Yothe did not want to be left alone. Looking about, she saw other younglings perched on their columns, just as she, gripping their stones and flashing the jagged pattern of fear.
On the solo platform, high above the others, Thor-Att raised himself on his two standing tentacles and spread his body wide though, to Yothe, he looked smaller against the black cloud of the volcano than he did in the temple. The Kree below him milled about on the choral platform, the Nautus shells of the females pulsing with color. Thor-Att moaned a great moan. The Kree looked up, and Thor-Att moaned again, this time, with words. “Hear me, Kree of Mondermount. The volcano does not reveal itself to us, and I will not send all our spores to their deaths in the south. Therefore, it is my decree that half of our colony shall remain here and release their spores as is the tradition for the Time of Shaking. The other half, those who can resist the Spawning, shall proceed down the slopes, and those females keep their spores. If it is the will of the Mother Mount to take us all, then half our spores will have been released though all of us fall into the caldera. If it is Her will to spare us, then only half our spores will be lost. We shall…”
Something touched Yothe, startling her, but it was only blind Synthe who had emerged from the tunnel behind her. “It’s me,” Yothe said, and retreated from her learning column to snuggle back into the soft embrace of the high priestess. “What are they doing?” Yothe asked, as if the priestess could see.
“Thor-Att should be leading the ritual spawn, and then standing at our head upon the slopes waiting for the will of the Mother Mount,” spoke Synthe, and then a hiss crept into her voice. “But Thor-Att did not grow up on our mound, or any civilized mound, and so has not learned our songs. This peculiar strategy he commands is blasphemy.”
“Look, someone is coming,” said Yothe, who spotted a Kree slithering over the rocks up from the lower slopes and flashing red waves of alarm.
“Thor-Att!” cried the frantic newcomer. Thor-Att looked down, and the moaning of the other Kree ceased. When she had gotten closer she cried out again. “The south bridge has collapsed. It cracked during the last shake and fell into the fissure. We are cut off from slopes below.”
In the babble of voices that followed, Yothe heard Synthe, whose voice smoothed again as she stroked Yothe’s head. “You see, youngling? The Mother, Herself, has put an end to this bizarre experiment. Once again, the Kree shall survive by the songs of their ancestors. Listen and learn.”
Thor-Att spread his great body and quieted the Kree once more. He flashed no emotion, but to Yothe, he looked pained.
“It is decided,” came his sonorous voice, tinged with resignation. “Let us begin the Spawn. May the Mother receive us, and may the wind change so that our spores find other slopes and our colony endure. Beloved spores,” he sang, “forget not the mound of your creation!”
Moans of songs rose from the Kree, a chorus of fear and hope soon overwhelmed by another, harsher sound from the earth. Ash rained down upon Yothe. A burst of fire from the volcano leapt into the sky, and the Kree began their final song:
Thor-Att, who appeared to be gasping for breath, threw his body into the mass of writhing tentacles. Already, some of the females lifted their Nautus shells high, and rising from their ruptured surface, gas bladders of the spores expanded, blossoming into round translucent balls, larger even than the Nautus shells that bore them.
“Mondermount, Mondermount,” the Kree chanted, and one by one the bladders rose into the dark sky, some large and heavy, some small and barely formed. Below each there hung a single spore that fluttered its tiny fan-like tail, helping to lift the globe. Slowly, they cleared the rim of the platform. Yothe watched mournfully, seeing them rise into the sky, their float bladders already dotted with ash.
“There won’t be any more younglings, will there?” Yothe whispered.
“Thor-Att was right about that,” said Synthe. “Our spores drift south. It is said that an ocean lies beneath those barren fields of ice, but whether it does or not, no volcanoes are there to warm our younglings. If there is no change in the wind, they will freeze.”
Eventually, the Kree sank exhausted onto the stones of the choral platform, near unconscious, the heads of the females crowned by their ruptured Nautus shells.
With unblinking eyes, Yothe followed the spores across the sky, each joining, in turn, the long, procession to the south. Some of the Kree stretched their tentacles upward as if reaching for the tiny life forms, now and forever beyond their protection. Yothe reached up her short tentacles, too.
“They don’t want to go,” said Yothe, salt tears running from her round eyes. “They want to stay.”
The sun broke through, and rays of light struck the globes, pure and white but for the dark ash that lay upon them. Slowly, the procession drifted before the cloud of death.
”Turn the wind, great Mound,” she heard the Kree on the platform chant. “Turn the wind.”
But the wind did not turn. The black cloud grew thin and began to dissipate. The ground shook no more, and in a dreadful silence the Kree watched their spores vanish into the south.
Yothe ascended the frigid tunnel that lead to the west observation chamber. Carrying a warm rock gingerly in her two fore-tentacles, she avoided touching the cold walls as much as possible. Little heat from the volcano found its way into the slopes this high up.
She needed no light. She had passed through the tunnels of Mondermount countless times since she was a youngling in the arms of blind Synthe, but she did keep her head low to avoid striking her Nautus shell. The shell now bore streaks of amber, brown and gold, and a number of Kree males had begun to show an interest in her. She had, so far, resisted the ritual clasping. In another year, however, when she reached her twelfth mark and carried an undeveloped spore, such resistance would seem obstinate.
Before passing through the portal to the observatory, she folded her secondary tentacles in front of her stomach, and with a long inhale, raised her head to display her spiraled Nautus shell. Thor-Att, it was said, no longer clasped, but Yothe was not so sure.
The great Kree, raised on his standing tentacles, braced himself on both sides of the seeing crack and clasped the far-sight tube. He did not turn when she entered the chamber. As she expected, he was the only one who remained. On her way to the observatory tunnel she had passed several elders in the heated pools, reclining in the posture of exhaustion.
The tall figure remained bent, holding the far-sight tube. Another seeing crack stood open, and was the source of much of the icy wind. The rest came from the opening into which Thor-Att poured his concentration. The lantern, resting in a niche in the wall, was about to flicker out.
“You’ll freeze your eyes if you stay there all night,” she said and slithered across the room to pick up a crack cover on the floor.
Thor-Att grunted, turning the far-sight tube.
Carefully, she replaced the fur cover in the open crack and pounded it with a fore-tentacle. Then, turning, she allowed herself one long glance at Thor-Att before she approached. Sable brown fur covered the backs of his tentacles all the way up to the flare of his head in one magnificent swoop. The Nautus shell, on the back of his head, although narrow, as was the case for males, was still enormous.
“I’ve brought you a warm rock,” she said, uncovering her gift.
“There is no doubt,” came the resonant voice of Thor-Att. “Magd-Mont has erupted.”
“Is the wind …”
“Yes. For the first time in over twenty years a Great Mound has erupted directly upwind of us.”
Three years ago they had watched the sky when Nord-Mont erupted, but the wind was wrong. And before that, Muska-Mont, far to the northeast.
“We must prepare to receive the spores.” His eyes glittered as he turned to her, and the color of excitement traveled back and forth the length of his body.
Yothe wrinkled the skin below her shell. “How long before we see them?”
“Tomorrow, I’m afraid. The wind is not strong.”
“Well, it’s quite strong enough for me,” she said, giving the crack cover another perfunctory pound.
“That’s only because we are so high. Come, look.” He gestured with his foretentacle.
“Then take this,” she said, gliding close to him and proffering her gift.
“Ah, thank you,” said Thor-Att, accepting the stone and pressing it to his body. “I didn’t realize how cold I was.”
She took the far-sight tube. Mounted at each end were incredibly valuable lenses ground from transparent crystal. She, herself, had polished on one of the lenses for days.
Shorter than Thor-Att, she didn’t have to bend to see out the crack. In the south, a low moon cast a straight, silvery line in the snow. Above, stars glittered in the black sky, and, to the west, vast stretches of barren ice ended at the sky. Using the tube, she followed the horizon. Directly west of them rose a peak that glowed with a definite arc of red.
“Oh, my. I see what you mean.”
“The lesser spores are doubtless aloft. We should see them by morning and the floats of higher animals after the sun is high. But as for Kree, there is no knowing.”
She nodded, but she didn’t voice her thoughts. Thor-Att was obsessed with the loss of the colony’s spores ten years before. Stripped of their younglings, the Mondermount colony endured with almost no offspring for five long years, the time it took the female’s Nautus shells to rebuild and to shelter new spores.
Their songs, since that time, told of the volcano falling quiet once the last spore had disappeared into the south. Yothe felt Thor-Att’s agony when the choruses mourned the “barren years.”
Fervently, she hoped never to face an eruption. She would keep her spoor, cutting away the float bladder like a civilized Kree and nurturing it in the songs of their own mound, not launching it into the wind like a common animal or a plant. Their songs reflected on how other colonies might have received their orphan spores and taught them their own songs. They only hinted at the more likely fate: that their spores had fed an entire generation of chitins, scavengers that were the only living things to move upon the ice.
At last, Thor-Att abandoned his post, and Yothe accompanied him to his chamber entrance.
“Abide with me,” he said, his voice rough from the ice-cold wind.
She had never passed through the portal of the Att’s chamber. Surprised, she could not help the tinge of sexual excitement that flashed briefly across her body. Once inside, she gratefully sank to the warm floor of the room, but her delight was at once forgotten, driven from her mind by the unexpected sight before her: on the walls of the chamber were scratched the marks that had recently caused so much strife in the colony. Thor-Att, leader of Mondermount by the counting of the Kree, had recently been called before the elders. Never had his wisdom been questioned—even after the Great Spawning—except for the time those marks appeared.
Thor-Att followed her gaze. “Ah, you are shocked.”
She flashed embarrassment and deprecation. “It is not for me to question the wisdom of the Att.”
“Wisdom?” he said with some amusement. “You will be an adult soon. Your Nautus shell is very nearly fleshed out. Speak your mind.”
So, she was not an adult yet. His words brought a flash of anger to her skin, but they also stiffened her resolve to speak directly.
“I thought you promised the elders you would never again make such marks. They undermine the mystery of the Mother Mound. They distract us from our songs.”
“You are quite right. I threw away the piece of basalt with which I scratched the marks, and I never again defaced the walls, but the elders neglected to say that I had to rub out the ones I had already made. I have left these, just to irritate the wrinkled ones.”
She hooted in amusement, her anger forgotten. Gliding to the wall she examined the marks more closely. “They say each one is a thing.”
“That’s what I intended at first, but now, I believe it’s a word for a thing.”
Yothe flashed confusion. “I’m not sure I understand the difference.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Thor-At, with a wave of a tentacle. “There, that mark is our mound. Don’t you see it? With the smoke coming out the top?”
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “It could be the word, and then you would think about our mound.”
“But do you worship them?”
Thor-Att flashed irritation. “Of course not. That’s a rumor the priests started. The marks are quite ordinary, nothing mystical. See here? That one stands for us, the two four-tentacles, the four secondary tentacles and the two walking tentacles.”
Yothe struggled with the strangeness of the marks. “But why would you want to make marks for words when you can simply speak? It makes no sense, if you’ll forgive my presumption.”
“I wonder,” Thor-Att said, “if there might be an advantage in being able to send one’s words farther than the sound of one’s voice. Where now, our loudest words barely reach the plains of ice, perhaps they could, one day, reach as far as another mound.”
“But how would you know what to say if you couldn’t see who you were talking to?”
Thor-Att settled to the floor. His eyes did not focus. “When I became the Att, I wanted to be a great leader, a strong leader. But instead, the first decision I had to make—the first time my people really needed me—I failed them.”
She started to speak, but Thor-Att waved her to silence. “In the five barren years that followed that fatal spawning, I have wondered what I could do to help the colony recover. Even now, I make no decision but that it is in the shadow of that disaster. And so, I ponder new ways, perhaps unthought-of before, with which to aid our colony.
Yothe wrinkled the skin beneath her Nautus shell. “I’m not sure I grasp your meaning. How can these marks help the colony? The elders have said that they are heresy.”
Thor-Att hooted softly. “I know, but I persist, anyway. It’s the way I am, and I don’t apologize for it. What these marks mean is only that I, Thor, am stubborn. I created them and I’ll keep them. They’re my own little bit of heresy.”
The next morning, the wind off the glacial fields cut into Yothe’s fur as she joined in the ritual chorus of Greeting to the Sun. The moans of the collected Kree were of thanksgiving for the light, yet their eyes strayed to the darkness in the west. As the final chorus rang out, she and the others saw the first spores, little white dots in the sky, and they sang with renewed fervor. These were the fluffy spores of plants; the float bladders of animals would come later, and the heavier spores of any Kree, of course, would be last.
Before the final note was sung, Yothe slipped away. She knew there would be no room for her in the observatory, so she climbed, instead, the rim of the heated pool. Steam from the water added a heavy moisture to the air and the pleasant scent of sulfur.
She had not slept well. The fate of Magd-Mont weighed on her, even though it probably meant a bounty for their colony. How easily it could have been their own mount that erupted. Cries drifted up from the slopes below where some of the Kree caught spoors in nets to transport to the planting terraces and the caves. Even the younglings had been sent scurrying over the stones to capture tiny, drifting spores.
To her surprise, Thor-Att appeared, reaching with a tentacle to test the waters of the pool. “The others can expend their energies catching the spores of fungi and glow beetles. They’ll be exhausted by the time we see the spore of any Kree.” He glided into the pool and sat so that only his head and Nautus shell remained above the water. ”Come, warm with me.”
Yothe was pleased that the pool was vacant but for the two of them. Not even younglings splashed in the shallows. Her increased contact with Thor-Att might even inspire him to the ritual clasping, she thought, but, for now, the aged Kree seemed more interested in talk. She, too, sank in the water, not so close as to be impolite, but close enough that he could touch her if he chose.
“My weight is so much easier to bear in the water,” Thor-Att said. “Did you know it is thought that Kree once lived in water, under water in the oceans back when they were liquid?”
“How strange. But how would they breathe?”
“There are rare creatures who breath under water with water feathers. I saw a frozen one, once. I have wondered if we might have had such organs at one time.”
“How could we have them at one time and not have them now? Where did they go?”
“I don’t know,” said Thor-Att. “Perhaps we changed. I heard once that a feral Kree had water feathers.”
She hooted. “Feral Kree are so strange. I felt sorry for the one I saw. Growing up on a deserted mound with no colony she could barely talk and didn’t know any songs. She didn’t even…” Too late she remembered the stories about Thor-Att. She flashed a brilliant pink and opened her mouth to speak, but could say nothing.
“The life of such a Kree is very difficult,” said Thor-Att, rising a bit out of the water. “Did you know that I was a feral Kree?”
Yothe blinked and stammered. “I do not think of you as… You are the most cultured of Krees. Besides, nothing in the songs mention such a peculiar thing. I always assumed it was just a rumor.”
“I asked Synthe to delete the part about my lineage. It was one of the few things that old pile of wrinkles ever did for me without complaining.”
“Still, I don’t see how it is possible. How did you learn songs, and how did you come to be here?”
“The mound where I landed was a small mound. In fact, I can show you when we go back to the observatory. While it was deserted, there had been occupation at one time. I found old living quarters, lichen beds and a tool or two.
“I was very aware that I was alone, but that Kree had been there. I wanted to learn about them. I bent all my efforts to finding out everything I could, and, most important of all, I saw in the distance a much larger mound. I knew that Kree must be there.”
“Yes. And as soon as I was big enough I waited for the longest day in the year and started out across the ice using some old gliders that I had found. I very nearly died. I was discovered by a lichen expedition that had made a brief foray from Mondermount. They brought me back and revived me in this very pool.
“So you see, you must not speak disparagingly of feral Kree in my presence.”
Yothe was so moved she could think of nothing to say but ritual words. She made the sacred circle with her foretentacle: “I hear the great Att, and I am instructed.” She bowed to the extent she could and still keep her head above the water.
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed,” Thor-Att said, splashing her, and ruining her little ritual and her attempt to keep her Nautus shell dry. “I don’t claim to be the most cultured of Krees. Ask the high priest. He thinks I’m quite uncouth. It was by my strength that I became Att,” and he lowered his voice, “but it is by my wits that I am the Att.”
In the afternoon, a cry went up that a large spoor had been sighted, high in the western sky. Yothe and other Kree emerged to see. It changed directions several times, clearly sensing the volcano and began its slow advance toward their mound. The moans of anticipation, however, turned to mews of disappointment when it came close enough to determine that it was the spoor of a mush cow and not a Kree. Nevertheless, several Kree went out to fetch it on the near slopes. Yothe was not displeased. Mush balls, made from the secretions of the lumbering lichen-eater, had always been her favorite food.
When the elders descended from the observatory to seek the heated pools, it was clear that no Kree spores had been sighted. Yothe, seeing Thor-Att was not among the elders, suspected that he was still keeping watch and ascended once again the tunnel to the observatory.
“I have brought you some warm mush,” she said.
The ground shook. They both stiffened and waited, but there was no repeat. Then Thor-Att slumped onto a sitting stone. His eyes were red and tearing.
“Thank you,” he said, reaching a tentacle for the stone cup. “My eyes have quite given out.”
“You look too long and hard. It is the blindness of snow.”
“It is the stupidity of old age,” said Thor-Att.
Delighted with their growing familiarity, she still found herself in awe of the great Att. Oddly, it was not his station or even his size that intimidated her, but—and here she stumbled, for there were no words for how she felt—it was the things that came out of his head. Last night, she had lain awake wondering about the marks on Thor-Att’s wall and what they might mean. In her dreams they floated above her, and she reached for them.
“Lean back and rest your eyes,” she said. “I’ll watch for spore.”
“You remember the basic shapes?”
She flashed impatience.
Thor-Att hooted and leaned back. Although he closed his eyes, he seemed, still, to stare into the distance. “Even a single orphan spore would help. We’ve so much to make up for.”
Yothe scanned the frozen wastes. “It was not your fault,” she said.
Silence stretched thin between them, and she wondered if Thor-Att had taken offense.
Finally, he said, “There is a difference between fault and responsibility.”
“I understand,” she said. “But you did exactly what was expected of you, and what the high priestess wanted you to do, and in the end what you had to do, given that the bridge had fallen.”
“I should have delayed the Spawning.”
“And now you search the sky with desperation, freezing your eyes and ruining your health. Do you expect the spores will heal your wounds, or to make up for the past?”
“Not exactly. Do you remember our conversation yesterday in the heating pool?”
Yothe put down the tube and turned, the skin wrinkling on her head beneath her Nautus shell. “Forgive me, Thor-Att. That you were once a feral Kree would make the fate of any spore weigh heavily on you. That spore could have been you.”
“True, but that’s not all of it. Yesterday, you neglected to ask me a rather obvious question.”
She suddenly felt as if she were about to be subjected to some crucial test.
“The one thing a feral Kree brings with him, the one thing he knows if he knows nothing else, is the name of his natal mound.”
“Of course, it’s in our songs. The foundation loyalty, the ultimate allegiance. I can’t imagine what it is like, to have divided loyalties.”
Thor-Att opened his eyes and looked at her. “Didn’t you wonder where I was from? Don’t you wonder, now?”
It was a test. She knew in her heart that her next words would decide many things. She looked out on the fields of ice to clear her mind and quiet the turmoil within her heart. Then, she suddenly turned back to Thor-Att. “Magd-Mont,” she whispered.
The next morning they both ascended to the observatory. Two tremors had shaken Mondermount that night, but the mound was quiet this morning. The air was bright and much warmer than yesterday which seemed, to Yothe, to be a good omen.
Thor-Att took the first turn, and, after they had exchanged places several times, he asked for a stone to rest on.
She rolled the nearest resting stone to him.
“My tentacles aren’t what they used to be,” he said, moving to the stone and flashing gratitude.
It was mid-morning when Yothe thought she saw something. She remained still and did not speak, trying to contain her emotions, but she flashed the color of excitement.
Thor-Att was at her side at once, reaching for the tube.
“To the north, and low.”
When he at last lowered the tube and turned to her, he flashed the blue of deep concern. Seeing her puzzled look, he said, “Something is wrong. It’s barely clearing the hills.”
The Elders sat on stones around the perimeter of the room. The circular chamber was the largest of any that had been carved within the slopes of Mondermount, yet Yothe had never seen the inside of it. Thor-Att was clearly not intimidated, but Yothe kept shifting her position. No matter which way she turned, she had her back to one of the Elders.
“The spore is in trouble,” said Thor-Att.
“Is it deformed? A mutant?” asked one of the lesser priests.
“It’s too far away to tell, but its movements seem sluggish. The worst part is that it hasn’t gained enough altitude to pick a strong air current. It’s clearly headed this direction, but it’s entirely under its own fan.”
“Do you confirm this, youngling?”
Yothe flashed a wave of irritation. Technically, she was still a youngling until she released her first spore, but the appellation stung.
“I do,” she said in her deepest voice.
The high priest shifted his gaze back to Thor-Att. “And you do not estimate the dropdown to be on our slopes?”
“I doubt it will have the strength to attain the slopes,” he answered without hesitation.
“Then what can we do?” said the high priest. “We cannot risk healthy Kree on the ice searching here and there for spores, especially our leader.”
“The weather is unusually mild. The ice tunnels seem to be clear.”
“You cannot know that the spore will land near a tunnel, and any prolonged trek over the ice is a definite risk,” said another.
“The colony needs a live Att, not a frozen one, especially in uncertain times,” said the high priest. “Yesterday there were four tremors. Not enough for us to become alarmed, but enough to make us cautious. I’m afraid the answer of this council is that if the spore comes to ground short of the slopes—we want you alive, not dead.”
Yothe lingered for a moment outside Thor-Att’s chamber. What would he do, she wondered? He had shown her nothing but kindness, but she had never asserted herself before—until now. She entered without scratching, and Thor-Att looked up and flashed surprise.
“I’m going with you,” she said. She wore her heaviest no-skids, her cape and her hood over her Nautus shell. “I can be useful. I’ve got an obsidian cutting knife, and snow blinders,” she said, patting her bulging carrying sack, “as well as food.” She thought she saw confusion in his eyes, which pleased her.
“You heard the Elders. They have forbidden me to retrieve the spore.”
“Did they? And have I have learned nothing beneath the tentacles of the Att? I believe they said that they wanted you to stay alive, which I assume you intend to do?”
Thor-Att flashed pleasure, but it faded quickly. When he raised up, Yothe saw that he already wore his no-skids. “There will be danger in following me.”
“Don’t forget your cape,” said Yothe.
Thor-Att and Yothe slithered down the ice tunnel, their capes and secondary tentacles wrapped tightly about them. Sunlight, filtering through the surface into the narrow passageway, caused the ice crystals above and around them to glow softly.
Yothe’s pulse was high, but not from exertion. That she dared to join with Thor-Att in defiance of the elders astonished her, and sometimes she would flash excitement and fear in rapid succession. Thor-Att did not seem to notice.
At the base of the volcano, the passageway leveled and followed the contour of the ground beneath the ice. In a few places huge chunks of the ceiling had fallen, but they climbed or squeezed past the blockage.
“We are fortunate,” said Thor-Att. “Never have I seen a day so bright so early. The surface walking will be warmer, and easier.”
“How much farther does this tunnel go?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. It was originally meant only to reach the lichen on the lower slopes. This one I had extended on flat ground as an experiment, but the Elders caught word of it. Evidently, the Mother Mount is not served by exploration.”
“Aren’t you ever afraid of defying the Elders?” Yothe asked.
“The Elders are right sometimes, but sometimes they are wrong,” said Thor-Att, “and other times they cannot advise one at all.”
“Like old Synthe?”
“I remember that day well. She drooled on herself, and her lackeys were so frightened they peed on their listening stones. No, after wiping out every spore in the colony for the next five years I decided that I would keep my own council.”
Moments later they arrived at the end of the tunnel. A few stone tools lay scattered about, covered with frost. Thor-Att picked up a heavy stone punch made of black basalt and looked up. “We’ll dig our way out from here.”
When, at last, they broke through and pulled their bodies onto the surface they put on their snow blinders and sat for a while so that their eyes adjusted to the brilliant light. When Yothe could keep her eyes open, she shaded her brow with a tentacle and turned in the direction from which they had come. “It’s strange seeing Mondermount from a distance. I’ve never before been away from its shelter.”
“I remember that morning long ago,” said Thor-Att, “setting out from my deserted little mound. When my tentacles grew numb, and I felt I could go no farther, Mondermount was always there before me, beckoning. It was the last thing I saw before losing consciousness. It was so beautiful then; it still is.”
“And it’s so enormous, towering above the ice plains,” said Yothe. “Surely, it will last forever.”
Thor-Att hooted softly. “I’m glad you’re with me. You’ve helped me to realize that I’ve not undertaken this task solely from guilt or from pride.”
Yothe flashed a question, but he continued without answering her. “Besides, it would have been foolhardy to come without you. I cannot see well enough to cut away the bladder. And if there are other procedures necessary….”
Thor-Att shook his Nautus shell. “There has to be something wrong with the spore, a reason it didn’t achieve the height to catch an westerly. If it’s a deformity, well, with my eyes, I might not have been able to tell.”
While Thor-Att took his bearings from distant landmarks, Yothe marveled to be surrounded by a surface that stretched mostly flat in every direction. Realizing they might have trouble on the way back finding the entrance to the ice tunnel, especially if weather turned bad, she took Thor-Att’s black, stone punch and scrambled to the top of a nearby ridge. Punching a hole in the ice, she mounted the punch so that it stood erect and could be seen from some distance away.
The wind was strangely calm, and she even sensed a faint warmth on her skin as they set out to the northeast. Alone on the treacherous ice with Thor-Att, she felt as if the rest of the world had vanished.
They came, at last, to a string of low hills that rose up through the ice. The exposed rock was layered in varying hues of brown, even tending to red, while great tentacles of ice reached between the hills.
“I see it!” cried Yothe.
“There, on that hillside.” Yothe pointed. “Something is wrong. It rises a bit and falls back, but that’s only taking it farther downhill. I think it’s injured.”
Flashing both anxiety and excitement, Thor-Att made the sacred circle with his foretentacle. “Let us hope it is neither injured nor malformed.”
The delicate, white sphere lay in a shallow valley, free of ice. As if attempting to take itself aloft again, the spore trembled, but it succeeded only in scudding to the next rocky ledge and into a gully.
In an amazing show of speed, Thor-Att glided swiftly over the rough ground, using his secondary tentacles for stability. Yothe called for him to be careful, but he did not hear her, or he ignored her. Burdened with the bag of supplies and food, Yothe followed as quickly as she dared. But she did not go so fast as to risk injury. They both had to make it back to Mondermount before nightfall.
Thor-Att, a short distance ahead, picked up the spore and punctured its float bladder. By the time she reached his side, he had enveloped the tiny creature with his tentacles, warming it, the float bladder hanging limply to the ground. Unsteady and gulping for air, Yothe reached out and grasped Thor-Att for support. When she gazed down at the tiny creature, she saw at once what the problem was: there were two.
“I can hardly believe it,” she said.
“They are both well formed.” Thor-Att spoke reverently. “The bladder of the second didn’t inflate. Its twin saved them both.”
“It’s a good omen,” said Yothe, joy and pleasure flashing in successive waves.
Taking the obsidian blade from her pack, she cut away the air bladder which also separated the twins. Her fore-tentacles were cold and she had trouble holding the knife, but the spore were slow-moving, too, and lay still for the short operation.
“There,” she said. “I now declare them younglings of Mondermont.”
Yothe had just put the knife away when the ground shook, and a roar sounded from the east. She grasped Thor-Att in fright.
“Get up the hill,” he cried.
Yothe grabbed the bag and followed. The ground shook again, and rocks rolled down the incline. Quickly, they scrambled up the slope as more stones tumbled past them. The grade was steep, but at last they gained the crest of the hill and there looked back to Mondermount.
From the caldera a dark cloud of ash ascended into the air and spread like black blood against the clear sky. The north slope had given way, and the first red of lava spilled from the fissure.
A second cloud, faint and sluggish, formed on the lower slopes, this one white, and slowly drifting upward. The spores of plants and lesser animals rose into the air to escape the deadly wrath of the volcano.
Thor-Att and Yothe embraced, sheltering the tiny younglings between them. “No,” Yothe said. “This cannot be the end.”
The wind around them, as if excited by the eruption began to howl, and yet they remained, two figures, unmoving upon the crest of the hill. I was not until their tears froze in their fur that they separated, and Thor-Att spoke.
“Dear Yothe, the task of saving these younglings may prove more difficult than we thought.”
Yothe’s voice was rough from her tears. “We cannot know that all is lost until we return.”
Thor-Att did not seem to hear her. “I said before that I did not come out onto the ice because of guilt, or even to defy the Elders. I came for these younglings; they are me, and I am them.”
“What are you saying?”
“My colony is Magd-Mount, it always has been. I have forever felt alone, a stranger, at Mondermount although I would have taken these younglings back there. But now…”
His voice choked and he could not go on, but Yothe sensed that the time for her to speak had come. “I knew before we left why I would defy the Elders and come out upon the ice. Though the lives of these younglings are of great value, I came for you. I would clasp with you, join with you to raise our younglings.”
“Then come with me, for either way, I think it is likely that we shall die.”
“Come with you? But where?”
“I go to Magd-Mont. I will return to my Mother Mount.”
“It’s too far. Thor-Att, you cannot make it. I have seen the stiffness in your limbs. You might not even make it to Mondermont if the ice tunnel has collapsed.”
“Neither of us may make it to Mondermont if the ice tunnel has collapsed.”
“What about the spores? Would you carry them to certain death?”
“We cannot know that.”
“Before the clouds hid the volcano I saw lava spill on the north side. It’s possible the south side survived.”
“Yothe, I may be old. But I’m resourceful. I believe I can find the tiny mound where I grew up. It’s on the way, and I can take shelter there.”
“It’s a terrible chance.”
“I must try. Never again will my life come to this point.”
“And when you arrive, what will you find?”
Thor-Att sighed and his head slumped. “If Magd-Mont has been completely destroyed, then it must be started anew.”
Yoth stiffened, tears streaming from her eyes. “Then give me one of the spores,” she said. “We neither one know if we shall survive, but the chances that one of the younglings will live are better if we split apart. It’s not the outcome of this terrible day that I want, but it is...”
Thor-Att put a tentacle softly to her mouth. The rising wind added urgency to their debate. “You are resourceful beyond your years. I shall give you one of the spores, and may the Mother Mount protect us both.”
“There is one other thing I want, Thor.” And she flashed love.
“Yes, I know, my dear Yothe. Let us clasp, here, on this barren hilltop, neither of us knowing if we shall survive.”
“We divided the younglings,” said the ancient Yothe-Att. “Thor-Att took one, and I took one.”
“Why didn’t you go together?” said one of the younglings, excitement flashing on her skin.
“We had no way of knowing which mound could support life. Sometimes it is many faces of the moon before the volcano quiets again. As it was, the tunnel from Mondermount had collapsed, and I had to make my way across the surface, over fissures, and great barriers of rock. I found a cave. That, and the unusual warmth of the sun those two days was the only thing that saved my life, and Thora’s.
“When I crawled back to the slopes of Mondermount, barely alive, I never expected to learn if Thor-Att had survived. His was the longer journey, but then, as he said, he was resourceful and strong. Not until we received the first message from Magd-Mont, years later, did I know.”
She drew back her tentacles to reveal an elongated circle carved into rock. It was the shape of the float bladder of a mush-cow stretched flat. “See, this is a copy of that first message. Here is Thor-Att, the one holding the basalt carver. Because he had explained to me how to interpret the markings I was able to determine their meaning.”
“He sent you this rock?”
“No, no,” Yothe-Att hooted. “These were markings on the bladder of a mush-cow spore. Thor-Att was the first to do such a thing. He held the spore until the wind was right, guessing that we would see it and send an expedition for it if it floated anywhere near Mondermount. As more came, we carved them here, so we would not forget.”
Yothe-Att looked up at the tall Kree who had slithered onto the choral platform.
“We have received a confirmation spore from Magd-Mont. They have a visual sighting on the spire that we raised at the end of our tunnel. They propose that the final excavation begin. The tunnels should meet in five days, perhaps six. The wind is against us, so we cannot respond. What is your command?”
“It doesn’t matter that we can’t respond. The details are already agreed upon. If they have sighted the spire, then the tunnels should meet. Proceed with the excavation.”
After the Kree had left, the circle of younglings gazed up at Yothe-Att.
“Did we get all these messages from Magd-Mont?” asked the smallest of the younglings, looking at the many ovals carved into the rock and their inscriptions.
“Oh, we’ve received far more than these. It was only in the beginning that we carved them onto the choral platform. There are far too many, now.”
Another Kree, tall and bearing her Nautus shell high, appeared. “We are ready for the younglings.”
“Then off with you,” said Yothe-Att, waving a tentacle. “My daughter will instruct you on the last choruses.”
The younglings scurried to the ramp that led to the learning columns, but Thora descended and approached her mother. “Nobody else may tell the Att, but I will. You look tired. You should go to your chamber and rest.”
“I shall, Thora. I shall. Now go and see to their songs.”
Yothe-Att lingered on the teaching platform after her daughter had left. A tentacle passed over one of the messages, and a long-familiar ache rose within her. She saw upon the rock the usual marking for Thor-Att, with his basalt carver, but he did not stand. He lay stiff upon the platform that had been made for him.
In the distance, Yothe-Att heard the singing of the younglings as she retired to her chamber.