Muscles straining, Gelsoy stretched one of her left tentacles as far as she could, barely able to curl the tip around the softly shining pebble. It was wedged deep in a crevice but the blue glow emanating from it gave it away. She pulled at it, teasing the stone loose. She hid it from view and dropped it down into the sand, burying it deeply, quickly.
“Any luck?” asked her mentor, Kess. She was just a meter away, the delicate filigree of a coral between the two of them.
“None,” lied Gelsoy.
As one of the tribe’s two Gatherers, she was supposed to collect the shining pebbles, not hide them. Their glow revealed the presence of sirlsiut inside the stone, a rare mineral desperately needed by her people. She felt a stab of guilt. Every pebble she buried meant one less child born. One less warrior, or tender, or healer.
Normally, there would be enough sirlsiut in the bodies of their prey to allow their breeding females to produce a litter, but this planet lacked the mineral. By the time the Jessrell had realized its rarity, it was too late – and too expensive – to colonize another planet. The isolationist culture of the race made their tribal leaders reluctant to simply buy what they needed offworld.
Kess flowed over, a writhing mass of black tentacles and tendrils, graceful and deadly. No other beings in the ocean boasted the amount of venom contained in a single Jessrell sting. The only predator skilled enough, dangerous enough to kill a Jessrell was another of its own kind.
“This reef is thriving, so the pebbles are here. We must search more diligently. We must focus.” Kess’s voice was firm, and she twisted emphatically, stressing her words.
“I agree,” said Gelsoy. “Shall we move to the other side. Perhaps the shining ones are hiding there.” She led Kess away from the buried pebble, making her tentacles dart as if looking.
The reef they were searching was full of living coral, greens and golds, oranges and blues. Fish shimmied through the water, nibbling on smaller creatures, some even eating the coral itself. Life was everywhere, crawling, swimming, tucked into holes, anchored onto the reef.
“Aha!” crowed Kess. “Finally!” She held a tiny glowing rock, a third of the size of the one Gelsoy had buried.
Gelsoy’s core sank. “Wonderful!” She forced enthusiasm into her voice. Every pebble found meant another child for her tribe, but it also meant the loss of a bit of the reef. The entire planet’s ecosystem was dependent on sirlsiut for survival and each time they took a glowing stone, a small part of the reef died.
In the distance, she could see the coral was dull and brown. This glowing reef was an oasis in the midst of a dead zone. Once the entire coastline had boasted endless reefs, all tangled with each other. That was a hundred cycles ago, before the Jessrell had come to colonize the planet’s enormous oceans, before they had discovered the lack of sirlsiut.
Kess cycloned over to a bright green fan coral and focused on the area near its base. Gelsoy kept a trio of eyes on her as she inspected a small cave, probing every corner with the tips of her tentacles. She saw a brief flash of glowing blue near Kess. Gelsoy’s tendrils inside the cave twisted in grief. Bracing herself for Kess’s call of triumph, she reminded herself that she had buried more pebbles than Kess had found that day. The reef had a good chance of life, in spite of their predations.
Kess remained silent. Gelsoy blinked her eyes as the blue glow dulled and vanished, tucked into the fronds of a plant. She gasped involuntarily, her inhale stirring the water and creating a brief current. Kess glanced up, and blanched gray, stilling her tentacles.
“I can explain,” stammered Kess.
Gelroy drifted over, slowly. Kess outmassed her slightly and she didn’t want to provoke her. “Kess, you don’t need to explain.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not stealing them. I’m not trying to be a breeder.” Kess’s body roiled, tendrils stabbing out.
“I know. I know. It’s OK.” Gelroy stopped just out of range. “Why did you do that? Why did you hide it?”
“You need to trust me. We need to slow down a bit. Just a bit. Bring in enough to keep the tribe alive, but we can’t kill the reefs completely.” Kess’s tendrils furled, and she shuddered in embarrassment. “Look at it.” Her voice took on a note of pleading. “Look at the beauty.” Her tentacles flared, pointing all around them at the living reef.
Gelroy felt her core lift in joy. Part of her still urged caution. What if this was a trick? A ruse to make her confess to her own crimes? Reveal her own hidden stones?
“Kess, are you sure?,” she said. “Our tribe has already grown smaller. Every morning the tenders add the ground stones to the breeders’ breakfast, and every morning there are complaints. The ground meat does not glow as much as it used to, it does not taste as sharp and rich.” She risked a soft pat on one of Kess’s tentacles.
“I know,” said Kess, her body limp. “Every birthing has fewer babies, we grow smaller and smaller as the cycles tick by. But we can’t kill all the reefs.” Her voice caught. “It’s alive. And so little is left.”
“How can we not bring the stones though? They will notice,” said Gelroy.
“We will tell them the pebbles are running out,” said Kess. “We’ll have to do overnight forays, stay out longer. Bring back less. Eventually they’ll have to agree to buy what we need from offworld, or be satisfied with the population as it is.”
“Hide one pebble, bring back one pebble.” Gelroy nodded. “Enough for the reefs to live.
“For now, yes. Then hide two, bring back one.” Kess let her tentacles deflate fully, as if she was in mourning. “I know it means our tribe will fail and be assimilated by another. But I won’t be the cause of the death of any more reefs.”
Gelroy let her own tentacles deflate. The two of them drifted, letting the currents move them across the reef, drinking in the glory of the life before them. Gelroy saw a flash of blue below them and writhed her tentacles in joy as Kess let it be.