“Lost,” said Zanzibar Vance. “We are lost.”
Nobody answered. Zanzibar Vance had been the first member of the Odd Body Vanity Squad to regain consciousness. The others remained adrift in a deep, dreamless sleep.
They had made a soft landing, so smooth and soft that in sleep the others looked peaceful to the point of bliss. However, despite the technically superb manner of their arrival, which they had come to expect after five successful flights powered by the Stone, it was certain that when they awoke, they would all agree that they were lost.
With a curious yet cautious stare Zanzibar Vance surveyed their surroundings. They had landed in a marsh of pools and muddy shallows surmounted by lush green foliage. Horsetails and moss flourished at water’s edge beneath tall ferns and leafy plants that looked like palm trees such as they had on Verne. Zanzibar reckoned that if they turned one way and traveled on, they would come to shoreline and ocean in under a day. He did not need to guess what they would encounter should they turn and go the other way, for he could plainly see that they had landed at the edge of a dense forest where the air emitted a green and sultry tinge beneath a layered canopy of trees: cypress, palm and pine.
Although his memory had not fully recovered from the shock of the journey, Zanzibar suspected that this was not their intended destination. Clearly they had gone off course on their way to Ho-Mini and by sheer luck had arrived on a planet where organic life had taken hold in an environment that would sustain them. It could only have been luck. Zanzibar Vance did not believe in miracles.
Zanzibar Vance was the tallest member of the squad and in the opinion of some, the brightest. He had a natural elegance and more than his fair share of Vernian grace. There was a brisk, completely comforting air of sanity in his bearing and in his eyes the fresh, startled light of dawn. If the Odd Body Vanity Squad could be said to have a leader, it would be him. His only real rival for a position of leadership was the King of the Hairy Beans and at present he was lying face down in a swamp.
Soot Bear was the second member of the squad to wake up. He was small and round of body, with an amiable nature and sweet, honey-brown eyes. Although occasionally given to hysteria, he was considered lovable and adorable by all who knew him.
Soot Bear sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes like a sleepy child. When he spotted Zanzibar roving about, he looked confused at first, then closed his eyes tight and tried to recall the stranger’s name. In triumph, he cried, “Zanzie! Where are we this time, Zanzie, where are we now?”
“Lost. We are lost.”
“Lost? But how did we get here, Zanzie, how?”
“No idea.” After a moment, Zanzie added, “I imagine it was in the usual way.”
“Oh. And what way is that?”
After another moment, Zanzie shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”
“Does it matter?” asked Brother, the third member of the squad to come to. He had awakened with a violent sneeze and was now wrestling his way out of a patch of seed ferns. Free at last, he stood up and dusted off his monkish robe with the casual manner of someone who had just tumbled out of his own warm bed instead of a clump of weeds on a strange planet thousands of light-years from home. “What matters is that we are here.”
“Yes,” said Zanzibar Vance. His eyes passed over the litter of bodies strewn about in various states of prostration and repose. “All of us, it would seem. There are supposed to be eight of us, yes?”
“I believe so,” said Brother. “And that is good. It would not do to lose a friend.”
They were all there, the King of the Hairy Beans, still snoozing face down in a swamp, with Gibble Gasser close by. Sister and Moonchild were curled up like napping kittens and Maya was sprawled out like a banana peel that had been tossed to the ground.
One by one they began to stir and take in their surroundings. Sister and Moonchild looked frightened upon waking. Having grasped the fact that they had not landed on the planet Ho-Mini, they clasped hands and nestled closer to each other. Maya looked merely vague until she noted with alarm the awkward sprawl of her arms and legs. She straightened herself out and climbed to her feet with a solemn, dignified air.
Gibble Gasser woke up grunting. When he had seen enough of his surroundings to voice an opinion, he issued a cantankerous growl.
The King of the Hairy Beans rolled over on his back, opened his eyes and glared at the sky until he became conscious of the fact that he felt damp all over and that his beard was boggy with swamp water and slimy, sticky bugs. He gave a shout and sprang to his feet hopping mad, but when he saw Zanzibar Vance regarding him with some amusement, he took a deep breath. With a pointed stare, the King of the Hairy Beans looked back, to show that he, too, could remain calm and steady when things seemed not right.
One by one they tried to remember who they were exactly and where they were from and where they had come to and why. The method and manner of their transport left them in a witless and mentally wooden state. The Philosopher’s Stone did not merely enable them to knock about from one planet to another in the same way that you and I travel from city to city on Earth. It enabled them to do so without the encumbrance of a space ship and the speed with which they traveled through space stunned their senses, rattled their brains and disordered the elements that composed them. It was a shock to the system that resulted in temporary bouts of nausea, irritability and severe memory loss.
They turned and made faces at each other and asked questions. After a quarrelsome debate, they emerged from their stupor into a spry state of awareness. They recalled that they were the Odd Body Vanity Squad, citizens of Verne, charged with fetching an operative mirror for their queen and collecting data on the Stone, and that back home they had houses and pets, cozy houses and furry pets, taxes to pay and parties to go to and relatives to care for and committees on which to serve, expectations to meet and all the bustle and blessings of meaningful lives.
When they had remembered all this, they applied themselves to determining where they were.
Brother was asked to bring out the Philosopher’s Stone, which he kept hidden in the deep pocket of his robe. The moment he did so, the moment he saw it, he knew something was wrong.
“Oh!” he cried. He held the Stone up to his ear and shook it. He tapped it and pressed it and shook it again and then, with a heartsick expression, cried, “Broke!”
Everyone blinked and gave his or her head a little shake.
Zanzibar asked, “Are you sure?”
In a clumsy effort to appear in control of the situation, the King of the Hairy Beans inserted himself between Zanzibar and Brother. “How sure? Are you positive?”
“Yes! It has no breath, no life!”
“Breath? Life? It’s a machine, you damned fool!”
“Yes and it’s broken! I swear!”
Sister and Moonchild began to weep.
Zanzibar said, “It’s all right. We have other means for discovering where we are.”
Soot Bear, however, had more important things on his mind. “But how do we get home, Zanzie? How?”
“We will find a way. But first, for the sake of survival, we must discover who or what inhabits this world. Be silent. And think.”
Now that they had all regained their senses, they began to use them in ways that are inconceivable for you and me. They closed their eyes and concentrated on their senses of hearing and smell.
Their ability to hear extended to the length and breadth of the planet, possibly many thousands of miles in every direction. They listened intently with the fine-tuned sensitivity of their race. What they heard were wheezy snuffles and grunts, beastly bellows, hoots, twitters and tweets. And the incessant buzz of insects. They heard the rustle of small creatures hiding in patches of weeds and the resounding thump of four-legged giants on the move. They heard the squabble and squeal of creatures hunting each other and feasting on flesh. They heard the wash of waves upon distant shores and the splash of winged predators plucking fresh game out of the sea. They heard thunder in the sky and the crack of explosions made by natural causes.
The planet sounded wild and dangerous but the thing that concerned them most was what they did not hear. They did not hear the sound of wheels and gears grinding together or the hum, buzz and beep of electric and digital gadgets or the rumble and roar of mechanical means of transport. They did not hear singing or the beat of drums. They heard no music at all. They did not hear the two-legged footfall of beings like themselves. They did not hear voices. The planet on which they had mistakenly landed seemed devoid of creatures sufficiently aware and evolved to have given that planet a name.
They sniffed the air and drew in the odors of things close by and things thousands of miles away. There was the smell of ocean breezes, lightning strikes and molten lava. There was the vital green scent of foliage, the sweet sap of timber and the stink of stagnant pools. There was the waste and sweat of living things and the decay of things that had died.
“Fungus and mold,” said Maya, whose sense of smell was especially keen.
“Microbes,” said Soot Bear, whose nose was even sharper than Maya’s. “Bacteria.”
“Well, there would have to be, wouldn’t there,” Gibble Gasser said dryly. He raised his head with his eyes still closed. “Blood. I smell blood. Blood that runs cold.”
What they did not smell were the fumes and exhaust of industry. They detected no trace of the odors, either pleasant or offensive, that tend to accumulate over cities and intentional communities. They were particularly disappointed when they failed to get wind of the aroma of haute cuisine. There was no evidence anywhere of the enterprise and concerns of a civilized race, not even the smell of fire. The life forms that existed on this planet apparently did so without the most essential creature comfort: fire to cook with or see by or draw near to for the sake of keeping warm.
“And no flowers,” Moonchild observed with a sigh. She was excessively fond of things that blossomed and bloomed. “There is no fragrance, there are no flowers on this planet.”
“There can be but one conclusion,” said the King of the Hairy Beans.
“Oh?” asked Zanzibar Vance with both eyebrows arched, for he had never believed that anything could have but one conclusion. “And what is that?”
“Intelligent life on this planet has ended,” the Hairy Bean replied. “These are the remains of a civilization, the ruins of an advanced race of beings who turned stupid in the end and destroyed their world and themselves with it. We have seen this before. On the planet Sans-Imi, they built weapons of mass destruction and blew themselves up. In one day. And the Molobites, the fools, they ignored common sense and exhausted their natural resources. They died off for want of water and digestible food and from the effects of a too-hot sun.”
Brother, who preferred not to dwell on tragedies, said brightly, “But I see no remains here, no ruins. And there is water. And plants, which, while not appealing, are probably edible.”
The Hairy Bean dismissed Brother’s observation with a wave of the hand. “I am thinking that it has been ages since the catastrophe. This planet has healed over and the relics of the civilized race that abused it lie buried deep in the ground. All we need do is start digging.”
“Yes. And amongst the pots and pans and the trinkets, walls and technological wonders of this extinct race we might find a mirror or two.”
“I don’t think so,” said Zanzibar Vance. “That doesn’t seem right, that’s not what I’m sensing.” Everyone turned now to Zanzie. “It’s not the end of things. It seems to me that we are at the beginning of something. Haven’t you noticed? The similarities to our own planet before our kind appeared?”
The King of the Hairy Beans huffed and started to mutter and there might have been an argument were it not for the fact that at that moment, the ground began to tremble. The vibrations sending shock through their toes, although not strong enough to knock them off their feet, were sufficiently vigorous to alert them to the approach of not one, but many, very large, living things.
The Odd Body Vanity Squad stood stock-still and listened as the leaves and woody plants of the forest snapped beneath the weight of heavy, lumbering feet. This time there really was but one conclusion: there were monsters close by, coming closer. It was as if a trumpet had sounded or a bell had just rung and summoned them to this spot.
The Vernians, more curious than frightened, held their ground.
The monsters ambled out of the forest. Reptiles. They looked like enormous lizards and they seemed just as dumb. They came to an abrupt halt when they saw the creatures that had invaded their swamp. A few of them backed off a little and pranced about in a state of galled perplexity.
Most of the beasts were colossal in size, reptiles with powerful bodies perched on four trunk-like legs. They had small heads, short, broad snouts with nostrils set on scaly ridges above their eyes and extremely long, thin necks that bobbed up and down in a wondering way as they inspected the alien beings in their path.
There were lesser beasts. There were reptiles with horned beaks and short necks whose bulky bodies were protected by plates that stood straight up along their spines. Sharp spikes protected their flexible tails. And there were slender, speedy-looking things with tiny arms and agile legs made for sprinting. The armor-plated creatures swished their tails like aroused cats. The slender ones gawked at the strangers while rising up and down on their toes, balancing their bodies with tails held stiffly off the ground.
“Oh!” cried Soot Bear. “Beasties!”
The Beasties made chirping noises and snorts and a kind of lowing that sounded like cows in a resentful mood. This could have gone on for hours, with the Beasties fussing at the edge of the forest and the Vernians standing erect in the swamp, if not for a sudden savage roar that shook the air and created widespread consternation.
A terrible reptile burst out of the forest. He was enormous, at least 20 feet high, with a huge, bullish head, gaping jaws and a set of teeth that looked custom-built for shredding flesh, cracking bones and reducing bodies to pulp.
Although singular, the terrible reptile was not alone.
A pack of wolves burst out directly behind him, snapping at his tail. They grimaced and snarled, as wolves are wont to do, and yet they seemed quite different from the wild dogs on Verne. They were bigger, smarter, faster: great woolly brutes with long, double-edged fangs and green eyes that sizzled like acid inside their sockets.
Several things happened all at once. The terrible reptile charged about in search of fresh meat, which sent the Beasties into a mindless spin. A stampede looked inevitable and it seemed certain that as soon as the Beasties recovered their sense of direction, the Odd Body Vanity Squad would be trampled underfoot.
Meanwhile, the pack of wolves abandoned their pursuit of the terrible reptile, lunged into the marsh and headed straight for Brother.
“Oh!” he cried. “Oh help!”
They knocked him down.
Zanzibar yelled, “Shine, Brother, shine!”
The members of the Odd Body Vanity Squad defended themselves as only Vernians can do. One by one they stood up straight. They stood with their chests thrust out and their arms dropped peacefully at their sides. They raised their heads, closed their eyes and whistled softly until their bodies began to sparkle and shimmer with light.
This light came from within. It is agreed that Vernians are among the most advanced races in the galaxy and it is rumored that they are still in possession of powerful weapons of mass destruction. Yet they do not use them, they do not love them and they do not admire themselves for having them. They do not need them because what they have is light.
The Vernians stood erect while the luminous energy from their pacifist souls pulsed and pumped to the surface of their skin until their bodies blazed brilliantly with sunlight, moonshine and the dazzle of stars. Even Brother, in his distress, with the wolves snatching at his robe, managed to glow a little.
The Beasties bellowed, turned and thundered into the forest. The terrible reptile, blinded by the light, squawked and followed. And finally, even the wolves discovered that they could not tolerate the white radiance pouring from the smooth brows, limbs and open palms of the Odd Body Vanity Squad. They tore back into the forest with all the other panicked beasts.
The Vernians remained silent and still while the splendor of their bodies dimmed and gradually burned out. When they had returned to normal, Sister and Moonchild ran to Brother and helped him to his feet.
“Are you all right?” asked Sister.
“Oh! Yes, there are a great many bruises but I think there is no blood!”
Soot Bear shouted, “WHAT was THAT?”
The King of the Hairy Beans stroked his beard in a calm and thoughtful manner as if to demonstrate that he was capable of remaining calm and thoughtful in a crisis such as this. “You don’t recognize them? Lebreya Tar Prunes,” he said. “That fierce one. He is the Duke of Prunes.”
Zanzibar Vance, who really was calm and thoughtful under crises such as this one, agreed. “Yes. They are similar to the Tar Prunes that once inhabited our own planet.” His eyes swept doubtfully over the now silent but ominous trees of the forest. “And yet, those wolves. Something is wrong. Those wolves, they don’t belong here. Or at least not at this point in time.”
Gibble Gasser grunted. “That’s ridiculous. Of course they belong here. If they didn’t belong here, they wouldn’t be here. Ridiculous! If they’re not supposed to be here, then how is it that they are here? Tell me that!”
“Ridiculous,” Zanzie replied. “Or critical, even alarming. The Lebreya Tar Prunes were only doing what comes naturally. But those wolves, if that is what they are, they had a purpose and a plan.”
Moonchild turned to the keeper of the Stone. “Brother, quick! The Philosopher’s Stone! Fix it, let’s get away from here. Now!”
“Yes!” cried Soot Bear. “It is time to go home!”
Everyone nodded vigorously and turned to Brother, who was still brushing weeds and slugs from the folds of his robe and patting his arms and legs to make sure that nothing was broken. When he was positive that he was all of one piece, he reached into his pocket.
“Oh no!” he cried.
The others stood staring and blinking.
Gibble Gasser leaned forward and demanded, “What do you mean, it’s gone?”
“I mean what I say! The Stone is not here!”
Soot Bear plopped down on a patch of moss to hide the reddening of his eyes. The others, with anxious looks and with the tips of their shoes, searched through the mud and sand for the awesome technology that had teleported them through space.
“I tell you,” said Brother, “It’s gone!”
Zanzibar Vance nodded gravely. “It’s just as I thought. And for once, I wish I’d been wrong.”
“Hah!” said the King of the Hairy Beans. “That’ll be the day.”
Soot Bear burst into tears. “But where is the Stone, Zanzie, where? I want to go home!”
Zanzie looked grim. “The wolves,” he said. “They took it.”
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