Issue 161 – February 2020

6190 words, short story



It took Old Plant twenty generations to understand their language, and another twenty generations to figure out how to speak it back to them. Generation—that was their word, a word that Old Plant never applied to itself, a word that Old Plant, when it relayed its conversation back to the others, didn’t even bother to translate from the Kelp’s convulsive and glimmering lightlanguage back into Slow Speak, the master-language of the trees.

“Hello,” was the first thing that Old Plant said to these strange beings in the water.

“Wonderment! Awe! If only the scientists of bygone eras could see us in this moment, unfurling the first lamina of contact, sharing among us the sacchariferous currents of friendship!” was the first thing one of them replied to Old Plant.

The Kelp then did something for which Old Plant had no reference, in that first meeting, but later came to understand was one of their many, many underlanguages: it danced.

Old Plant watched the slither and flutter, the countercurrent twisting of white blades in the red, bromine-rich waters, the inflating and deflating of the pneumatocysts. While it was struggling to understand, a seasonal wind scraped across the shore, bringing the cold, oxygen-poor air from the dark to the light side. One by one the tender young leaves Old Plant had sprouted to talk to the Kelp defoliated. They were delicate things, gentle, an experiment in absorbing and deflecting frequencies of light that had sprouted from the realization that the Kelp had been bombarding Old Plant with light-based signals for generations.

So those delicate branches defoliated, and by the time it had put out those special new leaves, that lace train draping over the shoreside branches, an age had passed for the Kelp.

“I am pleased to be able to communicate with you as well,” Old Plant said, stretching its roots back down into the soil of their previous conversation.

The one it was speaking to was dead, Old Plant discovered. The ribbons of others slid about beneath the waves urging through glimmers and reflections to await the arrival of someone they called the Warden. Old Plant sighed out a gust of oxides through its open stoma. It was so tiring to deal with shorter beings.

Before long, a grand Kelp floated up to Old Plant’s position over at the shore. This one was much longer than its fellows. Old Plant’s many trunks spread out across the coastline, and it had spent all of warm water season talking to the Kelp and putting out its new leaves, but it didn’t seem to realize that Old Plant was a single organism with a single root network and many trunks. It could have stopped at any point along the shore and spoken to Old Plant. Instead it waited until it was right beneath the same white-leafed bough as the others had been.

“I am the Spore-Warden, the Tidal Memory,” the large Kelp said.

It lifted the length of its body on floating air bladders and pulsed out in slow, sinuous waves. After a season of talking to the smaller Kelp, Old Plant could recognize some of their underlanguage. “Status,” the large Kelp was saying in dance, “status,” and “respect,” but for whom, Old Plant could not say.

Old Plant found itself drenching the mycorrhizal network with congruent compounds in response—Plants only had the one underlanguage—even though the Spore-Warden would not be able to sense these chemicals seeping from its roots. The fungi on Old Plant’s root network perked up like morning glories, and Yellow Plant, Old Plant’s nearest neighbor, sent back a sleepy ping.

Then the Spore-Warden drifted right below Old Plant’s closest boughs, showing off a living Kelp at the head, and behind it, yards and yards of inert blades trailed in a feathering spiral.

The Spore-Warden was mostly what in Slow Speak they would have called “stone stemmed.” But these weren’t stone stems like a Plant with a dead sprout or a branch struck by lightning. This Kelp was attached to the blades and bladders of its dead forebears, and dragged them behind it like a tangle net.

A crawling shiver ran down a high mountain ridge in Old Plant’s grove. Just the wind, it told itself.

“These are my previous generations,” the Spore-Warden said of its stone stems, during their conversation that lasted late into cold wind season. It said this with a ripple of “pride,” another piece of underlanguage that Old Plant learned to recognize.

There was that word of theirs again, generation, and it was hardly ever said without an underlanguage reference. It didn’t just mean that a plant had released viable spores and also died. It had its own seasonality, peer group connotations, and cultural references. The Kelp hardly ever said generation without specifying in the underlanguage which one.

Old Plant hesitated to apply the word to the shorter beings on land, even the seasonal ones, even the sequential ones, because its mute landlocked charges had no society, or even sentience. The ability to say generation in the underlanguage relied on the ability to recognize a peer group and to see limits imposed upon it by time. Old Plant wondered if maybe the Kelp did know about the life cycle after all.

To test this theory, Old Plant asked:

“How long of a life do you think the land has?” The question flashed across a coastal mile of white leaves.

“I don’t think we know, do we?” the Spore-Warden asked, speaking at least partly to itself. The chromatophores it used to speak lightlanguage were also part of the biomechanism it used to think, and Old Plant could see that the musing had originated from deep within the Kelp itself. “Many, many generations.” It shrug-danced.

“The year is ending. We will be drifting east soon,” the Spore-Warden said. The Kelp had a measure of time they called a year, which spanned several seasons and was something to do with the position of stars. Stars were tiny bright specks in the sky, which you had to cross over into the dark area to see, something the Kelp did with exhausting frequency. They believed that stars were something like the sun, just seen from billions of acres away. Old Plant was not very interested in their religion.

Old Plant wondered if there was a way to wave its leaves that would mimic their underlanguage, but before it could figure it out, heavy rain season was upon them and the sea was empty.

Time passed. Now that Old Plant understood the Kelp migration, it could see them sometimes, toward the end of the year, drifting east. Sometimes a Kelp would float up to the coastline and ask it a question or deliver a message. The messages were redundant. Old Plant could tell how the Kelp society was growing by the changes in atmospheric balance.

Over the course of the next hundred seasons, Old Plant defoliated and refoliated fourteen times. When fifty thousand seasons had passed, not a single trunk over its vast acres was the same, each having died, eroded away, and resprouted from its root network. After a hundred thousand seasons, Old Plant had expanded its grove by twenty thousand acres, and then lost the entire windward facing side of the mountain to a forest fire, and then recovered that territory, where it met with Yellow Plant, first intermingling, then grappling in the rhizosphere, and finally redrawing their million season old boundary.

In fact, Old Plant was spending the seasons simply enjoying the sensations of its new topology, exploring a glacial lake now within its grove, adding a strange new hyphae to its fungal network, when the entirety of the Spore-Warden sloshed itself back to the rocky coast.

“You’re back,” Old Plant said.

“Yes, it is I, Sporewarden Tidalmemory. One of my predecessors came here before—” a ripple shuddered down its stone stems “—and met one of your ancestors.”

“I remember you,” said Old Plant. “We met on this coast, over a thousand seasons ago.”

“Then you are a longer being than I knew.”

“I am the longest of my people,” Old Plant said. Wind was blowing through the grove. Old Plant absorbed the sun and drank the water, and considered the other being.

“I have come to speak with you about the Isthmus of Aragonite,” said Sporewarden. That was their name for the Acacia Isthmus. “We are planning to erode it.”

“Erode the isthmus,” Old Plant said, and all across the grove its roots tensed up in sympathy. “I would advise against it.”

But Sporewarden laid out their plan anyway.

“We will approach from the southeast, coming in on the gyre and spore early. We will anchor our holdfasts to the loose sand and let the gyre wash us away with chunks of the Isthmus. It will take five generations.”

It went on in that vein for some time while Old Plant listened, and while it listened, it conferred with its fellows in the underlanguage. Their technique was well thought out, and Sporewarden had an answer for every question Old Plant asked.

“Well, at least wait for four years. The cedar wheat is having its mast season, and the pollen cloud will blot out the sun.” Then Old Plant had to explain to the Kelp that a mast season was when land plants devoted all their resources to producing seed. The Kelp thrashed once when it heard this suggestion, then went back to serene floating.

The Plants were also planning a mast season of their own, right after the cedar wheat, but Old Plant did not say this. The long hours of darkness under the pollen cloud would wilt parts of the underbrush, and the Plants would take advantage of the opportunity to reseed a long-abandoned valley. Old Plant had been planning it for nearly thirty million seasons.

“We know of the pollen cloud. We understand that you are the custodians of the cedar wheat, and we would like you to stop their mast year.” It used the same lightlanguage word for custodian as it had for “warden” in its name, but the underlanguage was radically different.

“You can’t wait four years?”

“In four years everyone planning this visionary project will be dead,” said Sporewarden.

“Then let it be the project of your future generations.” If the Kelp, like the Plants, knew about the life cycle, they should be resigned to the shape and timeliness of their world. Perhaps they did not understand it after all, being so short-lived.

“If only it were that simple. There are many of us and we are not all of one mind. I could leave a project to my children, but I won’t leave them a war.”

“This is complex. I must confer.” And that would take time—time by Kelp standards, though hardly a moment for the Plants—because Old Plant needed to use Slow Speak, the nuanced and alchemical language of phytohormones awash in the air. It was a much more precise and flexible way to communicate than the underlanguage, but it took time, and favorable winds, to speak to the whole range of Plants spread across the continent.

The Kelp was very patient for such a short being. The forget-me-nots had almost started to bloom by the time Old Plant answered them.

“I know that there are complexities about your society that I don’t fully grasp. But this kind of disunity is going to lead you into a shaded patch. You want to expand, and that’s a natural drive, but too much expansion will be dangerous. First you erode the isthmus and fill the Scarlet Sea. It’s far larger and deeper than you realize. You may be prosperous there, but that has consequences. At the rate you reproduce, within ten generations you will have reached the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb your by-products. Within twelve you will start to die off. At that point the atmosphere will become saturated with oxygen, and it will begin to affect the land plants. We are the custodians of the land plants, and we will have to cull you.” The Kelp lived in the water, but the Plants had their ways.

“We wouldn’t let that happen,” Sporewarden said finally.

“You might not let that happen, but as you said, there are many mixed sentiments among your people. In ten generations, can you promise me what you will and will not do? That you would act against your natural ways?”

“We want your help with the mast season, but we will drift this current regardless.”

“You poor things,” Old Plant said, which made the Sporewarden visibly bristle. “You do this because you can’t see the full life cycle. Come back here in a hundred and forty seasons, and we’ll negotiate the decline of your population.”

“Then you won’t help us.”

Old Plant sent a second burst of conference. Particulates rippled out across the continent. The forget-me-nots bloomed and withered.

“We have to drift east,” the Sporewarden said, as the weather turned. The air was heavy with phytohormones. “Do you have an answer for us?”

“No. We are conferring.”

“Then I will leave a deputy.” The Sporewarden’s long tail started to float away from the cliff face of Old Plant.

Old Plant barely noticed. The Plants were still discussing, and the thick cloud of pheromone that covered the continent was intricate and layered and deserved time and energy to interpret.

Old Plant opened its stoma wide and took in the layers of discourse. Yellow Plant’s input reached it first, an intricately argued string of phytochemicals wafting up on the thermals, indicating its skepticism that Kelp were capable of planning. {How long do they think the life cycle is?} Yellow Plant wanted to know. Already each warm water season was shorter and shorter than the last.

Broad Plant composed a long chain of chemicals, a whole ode to the cedar wheat, which it cared for like beloved pets, even though everyone knew they weren’t sentient. {What do we need more Kelp for anyway? Let the cedar wheat have their mast season,} it said.

{Caution,} others advised, their warnings attached by new peptide chains onto their earlier speeches. {If we need to cull the Kelp, the best way is to release certain phosphates into the ocean. We should withhold those compounds from the cedar wheat in case we later need them to poison the Kelp.}

{That will only encourage them,} Quaking Plant added on to the chain of opposition it had constructed. Quaking Plant was intelligent and eloquent and even the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth reaction phrase formed a poetic whole.

Lightning season drew to a close, and the cedar wheat came out of their dormancy and began tillering. The air grew thick with speech. {We need not use a chemical solution; the Broadstep Geyser can be redirected to the sea beyond the Isthmus.} {They don’t tolerate heat well.} {Ask them how many will cross on the first wave.}

Old Plant asked the sentry Kelp.

“Eighty thousand. Half from each faction, if the peace talks are successful,” it responded. Old Plant passed this on to its fellows, and by the time it was able to explain to the rest of the Plants that both factions were factions of Kelp, this civil war was over.

{Keep to the plan,} Broad Plant insisted; it had already begun nitrogenating the soil on the south coast by itself. {First the cedar wheat, then us.}

{Let’s be cautious. Allow the cedar wheat on the southern continent to spring up, and pare down the wheat in the north. And postpone our mast season until the conditions are ideal.} Old Plant said at last.

{Is that how you came about?} Yellow Plant asked with a burned flavor, and then that compound was on the end of every phytochemical string Old Plant took in. {Is that how you emerged?} {Is it?} {Is it?} {Is it?} they wondered in synchronous. Old Plant ignored the questions about its own origins.

In the end, the others allowed themselves to be convinced by Old Plant to pare down the cedar wheat’s mast season to allow just a few billowing clouds of pollen, but nothing would convince the Plants to stop their own mast season. Their time wasn’t boundless, after all.

And then the mast season was upon them, and Old Plant felt young again. There was no room for a new grove to grow there on the northern side of the continent, so it had only grown male sex organs. It waited until it saw grains in the air floating east, and then let the pollen sacs swell and burst, all at once throughout the grove. The wind carried its granules across the continent, mixing and colliding with the pollen that the other Plants released. They weren’t as numerous as the cedar wheat and their pollen did not come close to blotting out the sun, but it was so thick and heavy in the air that Old Plant felt lulled, stupefied even, felt the urge to burst forth with heavy, drooping catkins and collect the pollen from its fellows; to bear a seed and drop it upon the ground knowing that its progeny would grow with their roots entangled.

Then came a season of waiting, hoping, holding each other, roots clasped beneath the earth. Three Plants had fertilized and dropped seeds, a wonderful new crop—generation as the Kelp would say—and Old Plant and the others waited, tense, feeling each shift in the earth with their roots as they waited for a healthy germination.

But the earth had changed in the past dozen seasons. Starting along the west and flowing south, the massive geomorphic erosion event caused by the Kelp migration was becoming impossible to ignore. The Isthmus had roots just like the Plants, and when those roots were worn away by the earth-shaking efforts of the Kelp, aragonite sediment below the continent was exposed to groundwater, and washed into the sea. As the critical germination seasons passed, the groundwater drained through a rapidly expanding subterranean karst network, flowing outwards away from their roots and into the sea.

The groundwater sapping meant of their three seeds, two lay quiescent in the ground, in a state of dormancy. The third, a new seed, young and tender, was shielded from the sedimentary changes by an ancient volcanic ridge, and took hold along the southern seaboard.

This became Short Plant. The Plant whom they had germinated in the lowland planes when they reclaimed the soil after the landslide gave over the name Short Plant to this new seedling, and had no name itself for eleven thousand seasons. That nameless one crept its way off the plains eventually, an explorer, a grove that continually expanded and contracted to adapt to the world conditions, and by the time they began calling it Equator, the Atlas Plant, Old Plant felt sure it itself was one of Atlas Plant’s direct progenitors. Plants loved their descendants enough to bring them into the world although their time would be limited. But then, they were all limited by the life cycle. The storms of lightning season were starting to tear up whole clonal colonies each year now, destroying river deltas and draining epishelf lakes.

“Which side won the war?” Old Plant asked the Kelp, when they had their promised meeting, less than a hundred and fifty seasons later. It had thought many times of summoning the Kelp leader in the preceding seasons, when the Plant seeds near the coastline had failed to germinate.

But in the end it hadn’t; there was no use arguing with such short beings. They had no ability to conceptualize the timescale of Plant life. The only way to grow was outwards.

The majestic Kelp that floated past it had less than half the stone stems attached as its predecessor had, and had introduced itself as Sporden, Arch Memory.

“My great-great-great-great-great-grandancestor’s side won the war. The revolutionaries,” said the Memorarch.

Sure enough, the acidity had risen, and the waves were weighted down with the heavy taste of halocarbons.

“You have been alive since my ancestor’s time,” the Memorach said. “And you are a powerful being with control over land and sky. We would not have been able to expand into the Scarlet Sea, if you hadn’t controlled the pollen haze, all those years ago.”

“You have not reproduced beyond the limits of the atmospheric balance,” Old Plant said. “The Memorarch of that . . . era, was true to its word.”

“No,” said the Memorarch, writhing in the underlanguage, “We the revolutionaries were true to our own vision, one of enduring prosperity not unending expansion. And so, we are no longer the ‘revolutionaries.’ We are now the ‘regime.’”

“The atmosphere remains in balance,” Old Plant continued, “but you have made permanent changes to our world. You are the inheritors of your great-grandancestor’s oceans, which are now filled with lime and runoff from deep below the continent.”

“We like lime,” the Memorarch said. “We use it to build up the Kelp beds.”

Old Plant had lost the ability to feel frustration millions of seasons ago. It had seen many Plants bloom and wither.

“You have failed in your duty of custodianship,” it said to the Memorarch, who didn’t take it kindly; the alderkelp along the coastline began to drift closer to the shore.

“That’s something only my future generations will be able to judge,” the Memorarch told it, before washing back to the deep ocean.

Old Plant began monitoring the balance of the atmosphere closer than it ever had before. The regime was involved in many struggles over the following generations, it surmised from the chemical content of the south wind. One was clearly a reprise of the old internal war; the rest, fights against the natural limiting factors of the seas.

Time passed. Short Plant grew and spread. The morning glories trended sap green, then teal, then slate blue until after hundreds of thousands of seasons they forgot that they had ever been green in the first place. Atlas Plant put out a new growth of exploratory white leaves, the broad-spectrum leaves, and Old Plant swelled with secret pride.

It talked very occasionally to the Memorarchs of the Kelp in those days, and slightly more often to the rotating alderkelp that floated along the shores. Their internal strife weighed so heavily upon them they soon forgot their history with Old Plant, and each generation spoke to it with a fresh voice.

“We’re taking on a new project, and we’d like your help,” one of them said to Old Plant, after the passage of tens of thousands of seasons. It was calling itself Sporen these days, like its title had sloughed off somewhere over the years along with an old memory. Old Plant’s memories did not slough off like shed bark, but stayed buried within like old growth rings.

Old Plant had been about to start a seasons-long rest cycle. But it was rare these days that they sought out Old Plant, and for the sake of the growing things on the continent, Old Plant wanted to know what they were planning before it slept.

“We want to learn to hibernate.” Sporen said. “Specifically, we want our gametophytes to hibernate until they sense a trigger condition. Do you have gametophytes? That’s what your pollen is, isn’t it? That’s what our scientists have always assumed about you, but we’d love to look into it more if you are willing to answer some questions!”

Old Plant did not want to exchange questions and answers with the Kelp scientists. It had no use for idle chat about fluid dynamics, or coral polyps, or the movements of the stars.

“What do you want us to do?”

“The method we’ve devised for guided evolution is pretty complex,” Sporen began. Old Plant wasn’t a scientist and so its mind began to drift.

“ . . . with this method the life span of a single spore could stretch out for thousands of years! But we will need a period of adversity to test the trigger conditions. I remember that once long ago you threatened to release corrosives into the oceans. Could you still do that, under controlled conditions, in a purposeful way?”

“No, I don’t think we can,” said Old Plant sleepily. A wind was racing up the marshland corridor, and it was already allowing its highest branches to defoliate. How risky for the Kelp it would be, and for so little reward. Even if the Plants did release corrosives, they wouldn’t be able to stop it or take back the chemicals, should their experiments fail.

“Appeal to Atlas Plant,” it advised them.

“Who is Atlas Plant? You’re not the leader of the Plants anymore?”

As much as I ever was, Old Plant thought, but it was already beginning to drop its white leaves and could barely control its chromatophores anymore. And anyway it didn’t particularly care, because by the time it woke up Sporen would be a different Kelp.

Old Plant fell into rest before it was able to watch Sporen drift away on the burgundy tides. For the first time the Kelp felt a little less foreign to it. Old Plant could understand better than anyone the desire to experience dormancy. But it wasn’t the same for the Kelp as it had been for Old Plant.

No, not the same thing at all, it thought as its trunks stiffened up and its roots rested, melting deeper into the earth. Old Plant slept.

It dreamed of the beginning, of renewal, of the reason that the Plants of the continent called it “Old” Plant and never “Long” Plant. When they said that name in Slow Speak, an olfactomimetic language, they built the word “Old” with an enveloping protein that broke open on contact, a prefix meaning “belonging to.” Inside this casing lay a single primordial chemical, an abbreviated version of the germination trigger. The “Old” in its name was a word that meant “belonging to the beginning.”

The beginning to which Old Plant belonged was very different from the world of today. For one thing, the groves that now spread across all parts of the continent were at that time each no more than ten or twenty trunks, and those trunks were squat and their branch pattern spread wider, leaves reaching out in every direction for sunlight, which shone weakly through a thick layer of cloud.

The trees barely spoke in those days; they needed all of their resources just to continue growing. They didn’t wait for a mast season, for the perfect conditions, to make a seed; they had to strive every season to reproduce or they would die out. They didn’t have an underlanguage. They just put out their roots and drank the sandy soil dry.

Then one day—back then there were days, though the planet’s slow rotation had long since stopped—the world ended. Subterranean vents rumbled, molten rock spilled across the continent, methane bubbled up through the deep hypoxic waters at the poles, making the sea look like it had come to a rolling boil.

The seeping, killing ash clouds passed over the continent. The oceans filled with bloom after bloom of strange new sulfidogenic bacteria that ate the water-dwellers of the old age and belched hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. The nautiloids died. The sky was dark. The protective layer of ozone that had cradled their planet for so long was seared away.

Into this dying world, one of those small, short prehistoric Plants released a seed, which fell from the catkin into a freshwater lake. The lake was so warm it germinated, and under the water, safe from the hydrogen sulfide, and protected from the ultraviolet radiation scorching the continent now that the cloud cover had been washed away, that Plant from the beginning grew.

It wasn’t meant to grow under water. It had to force a trunk up to the surface and keep it alive long enough to sprout leaves and pass precious elements to its developing root system. The air was laden with acidic aerosols, and the ultraviolet radiation at the surface was feverishly mutagenic. Its trunks reached up, then died, then reached up again. And when finally—after what would have been millions of seasons, had the Plant been able to tell what seasons were forming above it—it had built up a robust root network that spread the length and breadth of the pond, it fell into dormancy, and it waited.

Time passed, and the Plant did not know how much because it slept deeply.

Then light came back to the earth, bright and yellow, warm on the muddy ground where the lake had dried up, clear because it was filtered through ozone and not through the ash clouds. The Plant, which now was really Old Plant, found itself in the most ideal circumstances: no struggle for sunlight, no interminable cold nights, just vast acres and acres of land free and clear of other competing organisms. It spread its grove far and wide and put up a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand trunks in between each lightning season.

And when there were other seeds to be had, Plant seeds, that had been trapped in gravel, or stewed in saltwater, or simply not germinated under the harsh conditions of the earlier era, it nurtured them. Soon the Plants were masters of the continent.

So it understood why the Kelp wanted to hibernate, why they might want their spores to wake up in a different era. After all, in some sense, Old Plant was itself living in the afterlife of its people.

Being so short, Kelp seemed to lack the capacity, or the foresight maybe, to understand that there were certain limiting factors. After waking up in that glorious sunshine so many millions of seasons ago, Old Plant and its people had kept a careful watch over the planet on constant guard against the conditions that had caused the first extinction event. They drilled their roots deep and they learned to read earth tremors and tectonic shifts, and in this way they knew that eventually, the life cycle would end. Eventually, the earth would no longer be hospitable to any lifeform at all, and their clonal groves, which regenerated fresh new trunks as the old trunks aged, would be around to see it.

The second extinction event, the final one, was coming soon now. Soon by Plant standards, soon even by the measure of the shorter beings, maybe within a hundred generations. It was hard to tell exactly when the effects of the methane clouds would overwhelm the ecosystem, but Old Plant had woken up to be there at the end.

Each east wind season brought a citric tang, and the sea level had risen as it took in more dissolved gas. The seawater flogged itself on the coast at Old Plant’s roots. Methanogenic bacteria lurked under the ocean surface. The Kelp would enjoy this change, it thought, right up until the climate ate them. Their ocean territory was eating away at the shore, and they thrived in the longer cold-water seasons.

One of them was coming up to it now.

“Hello, I’m Sporen,” the Kelp said. Sporen was its surname now, its given name only given in one of the Kelps inaccessible underlanguages.

Its trail of stone stems was much longer than its predecessor Sporden.

“Sporen. I have not spoken with your kind in quite some time.”

“Yes, well. Things are changing now.”

Old Plant’s branches quivered.

“We could have been a good resource for each other,” Sporen said. “But we failed to share our resources, and so in the end we failed to take advantage of them.”

For a moment, Old Plant thought that Sporen was talking about their two species. It thought of all the ways in which the oceans guided the ecosystem, and what the Kelp might have had to bargain with if it had not dismissed them all those millions of seasons ago. If Old Plant had spared the energy to keep up with their exhausting and constant generational cycles, then the Plants could have had a deeper understanding of the ocean and forewarning of weather patterns.

It almost felt a moment of remorse, but then it saw the pronouns; Sporen meant we the Kelp failed to share amongst ourselves. And anyway, what good were a few seasons of forewarning of a flood or an algal bloom, when they knew that this had been coming all along? The rain, when it rained these days, was heavy with dissolved methane.

Sporen was still talking.

“—a system of rules, laws, it’s a type of technology really, and our species has always been innately competitive with each other, while at least from the outside, you appear to be competing only with other kinds of plants. And doing so from the top of the ecosystem.”

“And you want my . . . advice?” Old Plant asked.

“Yes, if you’ll give it.”

Old Plant thought about this for a while, but Sporen didn’t lose patience and drift away; it just waited, watching, as the sun reached unprecedented temperatures above them. Fatalistically, this lulled Old Plant.

“It’s probably not worth it,” Old Plant finally said.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sporen asked.

“You may not realize this, but the conditions of the world have been changing. Maybe it happened too slowly for your people to realize. But each year, warm water season gets shorter, and heavy rain season becomes more violent. These changes are only going in one direction. I’m sorry to say it to you, but the tide is coming in. Our seasons are numbered.

“Your people compete amongst themselves for resources, and this is a part of your natural strategy. Even if you change that now, within a few generations, you will all be extinct. We will as well. Let us live out our last days in peace. Let us finally rest.”

“No,” said Sporen. “No, I don’t think we will.”

“You will,” said Old Plant. “I’m sorry to tell you this, if you cannot see it yet. This earth might be habitable for you, and maybe for your progeny, but there it will end. There will be no great-great-grandspawn.”

Sporen had used the in-group pronoun again. “No, I don’t think we will,” it said. “And I wouldn’t bet on this planet lasting until the methane has a chance to take its toll.”

“It is taking it now,” Old Plant said.

“We look up into the stars from the dark side of this planet. There is an asteroid coming that will make impact within my lifetime. It’s large.” Sporen thrashed its tail of stone stems. “It’s large enough that I won’t see my grandspawn. That, not the methane, will be the real extinction event.”

They both paused. Old Plant reached up into the sky with its newest shoots, one last golden burst of growth before the end.

Could it be true? Did it matter if it was? Old Plant was ready for extinction, and the difference in time was no more than the blink of an eye.

“The impact site will be on the horizon of the dark side. Just on the other side of the Aragonite Sandbar, in the Scarlet Sea,” Sporen said to no response. “We’ll go there together to produce our gametophytes.”

They had changed their ecosystem all those years ago to give themselves easy access to the Scarlet Sea.

“They’ll be crushed, your spores,” Old Plant said.

“Some of them. Some of them will be thrown out into space, where conditions will trigger dormancy until they land on a habitable surface.” Sporen waited calmly.

“It’s the wrong season for a trip to the dark side. You won’t be able to drift back before the impact,” Old Plant said.

“I’m not doing it for me. None of us are. We’re doing it for our progeny and not for ourselves.” Sporen sank a little deeper below the waves, its equivalent of a long sigh. “I feel bad for you, long-lived as you are. You can’t see anything beyond this life cycle.”

Old Plant remembered its first conversation with the Kelp. It had thought almost the same thing of them, then. But it had been wrong; it had missed something fundamental about their community, a difference not of strategy but of society. Old Plant reached down into the rhizosphere to where its roots clasped Yellow Plant and Atlas Plant and Quaking Plant, and soaked their roots in a simple message of love and support.

“Go then,” it said. “Go. And flourish.”

The season was turning. Sporen went.

Old Plant turned its broad-spectrum white leaves, its “seeing” leaves—the ones it always thought of as young—away from the ocean for the first time. Toward the sky.

It waited for a long while. No, for a short while, in fact, but for the first time since it was a seedling, every second felt long to Old Plant. It didn’t want to miss this.

The sunlight was ever harsher, and Old Plant waited out a season. A cloud boiled across the sky. The world sank into twilight.

Far away, barely breaking their horizon line, a gray orb appeared like a new bud.

Author profile

Cooper Shrivastava grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in New York City with several houseplants she is hoping will one day develop sentience. She works in finance by day; by night she writes short stories, and the first halves of novels. She is a graduate of the Clarion 2019 Writers' Workshop.

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