When the waters come again, flowing cool and renewing across the desiccated shell of my pod, in the return to wakefulness, I listen. There is no sound save the soft shish-shish of water being reabsorbed into the shell, reabsorbed into my hands, my face, my eggs, my dried and withered tail, but my ears strain all the same for something more. Outside my pod, I imagine the brittle pods of my people and the crisp tuns of the bears softening in the flood, slowly uncurling, the wide leaves of the lifefrond becoming greener. The waters have come again, and life returns.
After a point, I can move, my body plump and suspended in the pod, and I reach out and tear apart the filaments that contain me. I will weave a new pod when the water next fades, and so I consume this one, tearing off pieces and feeding my hunger of unknown time. And then my ears finally hear what I have forgotten I was waiting to hear.
The bears have been rejuvenated, and now they hum as they swim through the expanse. One by one their tones add to the chorded song, eight legs propelling each bear’s thick segmented body slowly through the water. They do not know they are ungraceful, and so they frolic together in a clumsy dance, sipping the juices of the lifefrond. When the waters return, even the water-bear is joyful.
I raise my voice to join their song, and I hear others nearby, not bear-hum but clear voices like mine, with words and thoughts behind them. My people. Now we gather, to see who was lost in the dry time, and prepare for creation and protection. While the waters bring rebirth, they also bring danger. My fingers itch to weave new filaments of defense, to hide our eggs and arm our warriors.
I swim through the lifefrond until I find the others of my kind gathering near last season’s creche. Flat tails flip as we greet one another, our fingers casting filaments to anchor our smooth bodies to the closest leaves. “The eggs?” comes a voice.
“All the eggs are intact,” Ven replies. He is always the first to check the creche, since the loss three seasons back.
“Talor is lost,” says another voice.
I search faces, but the oldest of us is not here. “Jolosh?” I ask.
Silence. Ven, beside me, casts a somber filament to touch my mouth and comfort me. “He wove his pod near the creche, but it is not there now.”
Lost, then. I nod, acknowledging the space Jolosh holds in my memory, which will now begin to fade, while also feeling a ripple of pride in his longevity. He was my sire, the sire of many of us, and he survived nine dry seasons, well past the five or six most of us would ever wake from.
“Cel, will you lead?” Ven asks me.
I wonder at his asking. He is a season older than me and more attentive to the people, while I lose myself with weaving and song. Surely another of us would be best to call the hunts and harvests, to sing out warnings when the current changes, and lead the defense of our creche against the poisonballs and rollers the waters bring.
I look at the other faces around me, but so many are younger than I remember. None wears disapproval. Their eyes gleam hope and trust at me as we bob gently in the currents, Ven’s the brightest.
“I will lead,” I say, even though I feel no truth in it. “Begin the home-making.”
The first bear eggs have hatched, and my people have begun the season’s laying, when the weight of my own eggs tells me it is time. I make my way to the new creche, where already small clusters of iridescent eggs are nestled among the green. Rua is moving along one cluster, placing his seed carefully; not far away in the lifefrond, a male bear is doing the same to darker-shaded bear eggs tucked carefully inside the shed skin of their birther-bears.
Ven hovers over the creche, a filament wrapped around a captured poisonball which he keeps far from his skin. It bobs gently on the filament line, reaching out with flexible spikes, finding nothing to infect. It is smaller than normal, and an unusual shade of yellow. “What is this?” I ask, eyeing it.
“Something new. Yua found it while scouting.” He flips the filament, twirling the ball out of reach of a passing hungry bear whose attention it has earned. The bear’s sightless muzzle casts about, searching for the lost scent, and then it moves on. “He saw it attack one of the regular poisonballs. It may be useful, to protect us.”
Perhaps I should give him some word of encouragement or send instructions to the scouts on how they should deal with these new poisonballs, but my body aches with my precious load, and I simply nod and descend to the creche. Down among the rocks and roots, the laying sands are protected from currents, so I do not need to anchor myself. I settle against a leaf of the lifefrond, the dappled light around me making rippling patterns on the sand, and soon I am lost in the rhythm of my body, the push and pull of lifemaking. The raw vocalizations of my laying song intermingle with the nearby hum of the seeding bear and the triumphant call of Rua finishing his delivery.
My song is still in process when someone descends into my laying space. They are too close, and I whip filaments toward them before my mind clears enough to see them. Ven and Dea. They flinch backward with a tail-flip, unharmed by my attack, but do not leave. I stop singing, my body struggling in waves to continue without the song to guide it.
“Cel, Dea has seen something.”
“I am laying!” How dare they interrupt this task? Nothing is more important than laying or seeding, except defense of the eggs. Ven knows this. “You guard poorly.” My filaments drift dangerously toward his eyes, and I let them.
He brushes them away without anger. “You must listen to Dea.”
I look at Dea, whose face holds the uncertainty of she who has never produced a single egg. One dry-season old, then, or perhaps she is barren. She does not look down at my eggs as she speaks. “Cel, the scouts beyond the lifefrond have seen something new.”
“Yua has already brought something new.” I point to the yellow poisonball still tethered above the creche.
Her voice is insistent. “This is bigger, very different, and there are many. Ulo went out to look closer. She did not come back.”
My throat ripples with suppressed song. “They are rollers, come early?”
“They are not rollers.”
I hum like a chorus of bears and produce another egg. Dea looks away. In the brief respite of my body I try to think. “Have we harvested enough spider-spears?”
“We will need more.”
“Then catch more.” I feel Ven’s eyes on me, waiting for instructions, as my mind struggles through the fog of laying to try and make sense of what we must do. “Do not scout farther than the lifefrond, but take up posts around it. Watch for them but do not get close. I will join you soon.”
I snap my drifting filaments from my fingers and pull them in, wrapping them around my hand to eat when I am done. I return to my song, and this time Ven and Dea leave me.
The new creatures find the lifefrond before any of our eggs have hatched.
We make our line at the farthest edge of the frond, placing ourselves between it and the approaching creatures. I watch them draw closer through the cold outer waters; my spider-spear twitches in response to my grip. I can taste salt-fear in the water around me. Dea is correct. These are not rollers, the long whiplike creatures that slither through the water, eating our eggs and biting off our arms and tails. Nor poisonballs, which drift into our waters and sicken any they touch. These are nothing we have seen before.
These creatures are gray shapeless beings that change form as they move, growing appendages to aid their movement. Thick protrusions grasp at leaves like a hand, or paddle against the water like a fin, and then reabsorb back into the creatures’ bodies when no longer needed. These shapeless ones are not fast, but they move with purpose. I sing out a short challenge, to see if they can understand, but there is no answer save the hum of a nearby bear.
One of the shapeless ones turns toward the hum. The bear has wandered away from the frond, past our line. We watch as the bear senses the being, turns its snout toward it, paddles closer on its eight stubby legs to investigate. We watch as the shapeless one forms long amorphous appendages that grab the bear. The bear’s hum changes. Its legs flail as the shapeless one pulls it closer, and the hum pitches higher, lower, higher as it is drawn into the shapeless one’s body, which stretches itself around it. The bear’s hum wavers and fades, and then stops as it is completely enveloped, absorbed like one of the many appendages. The shapeless one hangs in the water, pulsing gently, and then stretches out new appendages to follow the others of its kind.
I feel the eyes of my brethren on me, taste the tang of the bear’s death in the current, and lift my spider-spear. Its tail-fibers writhe. It is ready, and so am I.
I spin filament, wrapping it just under the spider-spear’s head, and use it to launch the spear toward the closest shapeless one, the song of my attack bursting from my mouth with the same energy. The spider flips itself around as soon as it makes contact, using its tail-fibers to grab onto the formless mass of the shapeless one and inject its venom. The shapeless one flinches back from the impact, but then it begins to flex, wrapping gray tendrils around the spider, which is absorbed more quickly than the bear. Will the venom be enough?
More spiders dart out from my fellow warriors, attaching to the creatures, some pulled into the oozing bodies before they can inject their venom. A few of the shapeless ones slow after absorbing a spider, outwardly motionless as they struggle against the venom, but all too quickly they recover. We send wave after wave of spiders, until our catch-baskets are empty. And still they come.
The battle-song is weakening, discord creeping in, as we are forced back into the frond, closer to our creche. I strengthen my voice and sing of weaving, and we build filament barriers between the branches; finely spun nets to block the paths, and then more coarse as the shapeless ones absorb them and our filaments run thin from exhaustion.
They are unstoppable, and I have run out of ideas. I change my song to one I have only heard once in a long-past season, and we swim in retreat.
We race deep into the frond, singing of danger to the bears ahead of us, but few are there. They have already fled, driven perhaps by the deathsong of their fellow. We arrive at the creche to find Ven and several others packing up the eggs, wrapping them into filament-woven nets and passing them to anyone who swims past. I help, handing off bundles to my people as they pass, until a gray appendage reaches over the top edge of the creche, and there is no more time even for the eggs.
I shoot filament toward Ven, wrapping his tail and pulling him after me, even as he grabs for more eggs.
“Cel, wait! There are still some left!”
I glance back, and the song in my soul dries and cracks as the shapeless ones descend into the creche. Above, Ven’s new poisonball disappears into the grasping formless arms of another of them. I drag him onward, away from our home, swimming as fast as I can. “There are none left.”
He is quiet after that.
The discordant hum of the bears surrounds me, and I drift meaninglessly in a cold flow, anchored to a hard and ungiving wall of stone. There is no green here to feed from, no safety from the current for a creche. It is no different from the other places we have looked, and now there is nowhere else to swim.
Ven swims up beside me. “Cel. You must stop drifting. You must lead us.”
I realize I have been singing quietly: there is nowhere else to swim. “I cannot.”
“We cannot stay here.”
I look up along the blackness of rock. It goes up as far as the eye can see. I have led my people to this place of lifeless stone and sand, and I have nothing left that can save us. “We will die here, or we will die elsewhere. We are lost, Ven.”
“We cannot be lost.”
Now I look at him. He gently spins a short filament from two fingers, but does not reach out to me with it.
“We cannot be lost, Cel,” he repeats. “If there is nowhere else, then we have to fight them. To regain the lifefrond.”
“The lifefrond is lost.” It feels true when I say it. “We fought them, and we failed. Would you have us do it again?”
“Your song is broken. The bear-hum is broken. We are all broken, right now. But we cannot be lost.” I watch his filaments drift closer to my arm, just without touching. “If we are lost, why did you save me?”
I have no answer, except of course that I did not want to lose him. But it made no difference, and now all of us will die. I say nothing, only listen to the bear-hum. It echoes of the dying bear’s cadence, higher and lower, and higher again.
Ven speaks, but I am not listening to him. I am listening to the bear-hum. Higher, lower, higher.
“The bears are not broken,” I say. “The bears have learned.”
I break my tether and swim up to the awkwardly circling bears. Their dance is slow-motion panic. I join their song, humming like a bear as best I can. Higher, lower, higher. They pay me no attention.
Then I change my song. I hum a soothing note, the sound of a bear emerging from its tun, tasting the first sip of frond-juice. And slowly, slowly like their dance, the bears become calm. Their song begins to harmonize. They look around for food.
“What are you doing?” Ven is beside me, and I can feel the eyes of my people watching me from below.
“Have you seen a bear eat other than the lifefrond?”
“Of course. If a poisonball floats within reach, a bear will consume it.”
“Do they have a hunting song?” I am trying to remember, and I cannot, but surely they must.
“Hunting is a strong word. A bear doesn’t chase a poisonball. It happens upon it.”
“A feeding song, then. What if a bear were to come upon a shapeless one, but see it as food?”
Ven’s eyes are untrusting, but I can see now that he is right. We are not lost.
It is a process, finding poisonballs, and then learning the bears’ feeding song, and then training the bears to react when they hear it sung by us. In the meantime we send scouts out to bring back green food, where they can find it. Some do not return.
The bears learn quickly; my people less so. Some openly question if my plan will work, if we will die facing the shapeless ones again. Some are lost inside, like I was, and cannot form a song, especially a new song. Their voices waver and creak and fade. Ven is not strong with singing, but he hums along to show support. I catch his eyes on me, and I know he wonders, like all the rest, if I will lead us or lose us.
In too short of a time, I sing the song to take us back home. The currents have grown stronger, and after one of our precious woven egg-nets is washed away, I know we must go before we lose too much more. We herd the bears ahead of us, humming and singing to mask the fear in our souls. In too short of a time, the lifefrond lies before us as far as the eye can see, its perfect green leaves marred by the uneven dark blobs of the shapeless creatures clinging to it.
“Ready nets,” I call, and cast my own filaments, weaving them together into a long, narrow mesh. The strands are thinner than normal; we traveled the open water without stopping for food.
The bears continue on, and we follow not far behind, slower now. The current carries our essence ahead of us; the closest shapeless ones writhe and rise up from the leaves as they scent us. I push courage into my voice. There is no time for fear. This is all we have left.
I watch the shapeless ones’ distance, their speed, and then shift my voice to the feeding song. My people take it up alongside me, our voices strong and deep. The bears’ humming picks up tempo, and their snouts cast about as they instinctively search for the food that must be near.
The first shapeless one is close, but before it can reach a bear, I dart forward, whipping the net above and beyond me to wrap it. It pauses to absorb the net, and the bear latches onto it. The bear-hum intensifies, and the bears closest to the struggle thrash their way closer to join in the feast. The shapeless one pulses under scrabbling claws and jaws as the bears feed, and in moments it is torn apart.
Another net streaks past me, and then another, and I hear the song take on an edge of confidence in the voices of my people. Ven swims past me, keeping his distance with a bag of eggs on his back, weaving nets and passing them to scouts who are agile enough to strike.
The bears, too, begin to hum a different version of their feeding song as they converge. Their awkward dance takes on new purpose, and they use their claws and feet to push off of each other, wriggling through the water toward fresh targets. The fight becomes a blur of singing and weaving and swimming through the battle.
We fight our way to the edge of our creche. The song fades among my people at the mass of shapeless ones swarming there, and the bears falter. There are too many, and we are too weak from our time in the cold barren waters.
I have led us and the bears to our deaths.
But this is all we have. This is our home, and there is nowhere else we can go. All we can do is fight for it, together. I raise my voice as loud as I can, trying to drown out the bears’ confused hum. My people join me, our voices once again strong, and the bears surge forward. The water clouds with bits of leaves and the scattered remains of torn-apart shapeless ones. We sing, and fight, and sing.
When the particles have washed away and the water is clear again, we and the bears are victorious. The lifefrond is damaged, but it will regrow. Our eggs and our people are fewer, but we will replenish. I lead my people as we rebuild the creche, and now I feel the truth in it: the way my voice leads our songs, old and new; the way my people’s eyes watch me, full of trust; the way Ven hums as he cares for our eggs. We have survived, we and the bears.
And now, at the beginning of the dry season, for the first time we have taken the bears in with us. Their eggs share our creche; their tuns intermingle with the pods we weave, as the water disappears and the air envelops us, our skins drying and cracking. But the next time we wake, we will have a stronger force to defend ourselves against whatever new monsters will come.
Our song will not be lost.