For a long time, nobody spoke.
It was Gibble Gasser who broke the silence. “Right then. We’re doomed.”
“Oh I don’t know,” said Brother with a breezy grin. “It’s not as bad as that. Nothing ever is.”
“Doomed!” Gibble Gasser said again.
The general mood was revealed in the fact that everyone remained staring at Gibble Gasser, as though selecting his forecast of disaster over Brother’s optimism. Their fixation on the doomsayer was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Gibble was not a pretty sight, certainly not someone they would be inclined to look at for any length of time.
“Gibble,” said Maya. “Be quiet. What an old gasbag you are.”
Gibble Gasser had the shrunken eyes of a piglet without the hint of a smile in a little pig’s eye. His short, kinky moustache and beard failed to mask the fat lips and unintentionally sinister aspect of his mouth. When he left his lips protruded and parted in a contentious pout, the light played tricks on his teeth and gave the impression that the upper teeth were pointed like fangs and the lower set ridged like a saw. None of these imperfections would have mattered, however, if only he smiled more often or struck an amiable tone with his fellows. He did not. He looked unhappy most of the time, as though he had been born in a state of genetic discontent cursed with a disposition to be unpleasant to one and to all.
Maya, on the other hand, was majestic. She was clean, poised, crisp. She had a broad chest and square shoulders and she carried herself with simple, unaffected dignity. Her voice was soft but her enunciation was so precise and her thoughts were so earnest that when she spoke, everyone listened. Everyone felt drawn to her placid, mahogany-brown eyes.
“Those wolves,” she said. “They were cunning, and goodness knows they were quick, but they had not one brain among them. Not a proper brain, not a brain that thinks. So here is the question we must be asking ourselves: how did they know that the Philosopher’s Stone was a thing worth having? And how did they know where to find it? Who told them?”
Moonchild pursed up her lips at Maya. “I don’t like that question. Ask another.”
“Why do you not like it?”
“Because we can’t possibly answer it. We’ve only just arrived. And we don’t even know where we are.”
“Nonetheless, it is the question we must be asking ourselves.”
Gibble Gasser noted, “It was three questions, actually.”
“Oh shut up,” said Maya.
“It doesn’t matter how many,” Moonchild insisted. “We can’t even answer just one!”
Moonchild was a beauty. She was sensual, dewy and lithe. And yet everyone there, having been on several adventures with her, was in a position to argue that people were not always what they seemed. They knew that behind her silken beauty, she was proud, shrewd and tough.
By this time everyone was looking at Moonchild and suddenly, looking at Moonchild seemed smarter and nicer than thinking about all the terrible things that could happen to them. They fell silent and simply stared, for the moment inclined and content to stand in admiration of her and be reminded of other beautiful things. Dawn’s first light. Mist on the mountains. The platinum-gold gleam of their Vernian moon. The plump petals of a chimarylis in a perfect state of bloom. Even Gibble Gasser, whose expression was congenitally peevish, slipped into a trance and regarded Moonchild with a satisfied, drunken stare.
It was the King of the Hairy Beans who interrupted their meditation on beautiful things. To his way of thinking, when it came to saving lives or solving a problem, beauty could only go so far. He had been waiting for Zanzibar Vance to say something useful before venturing an opinion of his own. But since declaring that the wolves had taken their Stone, Zanzie had plunged into a distraught silence.
“It comes to this,” the Hairy Bean said and then paused until he was sure he had everyone’s attention. “The question is this,” he pronounced grandly as if he had been the first to pose it. “Who told these wolves to come and steal our Stone?”
Zanzie spoke at last. “Something intelligent, something ambitious. I should say, some one. We needn’t take it personally. I don’t think his intention was to deprive us of a device that is so vital to our well being, but rather, to possess it in hopes of securing his own. What’s important is what this means.”
“What does it mean?” asked Soot Bear. “What?” He had plopped down at Zanzie’s feet in a shivering sulk and begun dreaming of things back home that could warm his blood. The brick-red glow of his hearth. The snug weight of his quilt stuffed with mulberry twigs, peony root and the crushed leaves of the narcolyptus. The melting-soft fur of his cat.
“What it means,” said Zanzie, “is that we are not alone.”
“Oh dear!” Soot Bear settled back into his sulk with a heavy sigh.
Zanzie continued. “If we agree that these wolves are not native to this planet, not at this time at least, then we must conclude that neither is the intelligence that commands them. He is a stranger, like us. We are visitors who have no business being here because there’s no one here to make sense of the experience. We should not have been seen by the Lebreya Tar Prunes because we are not of their world. And we really ought not to interfere.”
“Fine!” snapped the King of the Hairy Beans. “Why don’t we just lay down and die? Right now, we’ll give up and surrender, we’ll shrink to the size of pea pods so as not to disturb the scheme of things!”
Soot Bear raised his head and let out a mournful cry, “Home! I want to go home!”
“Look, old Bean,” said Zanzie. “Look what you’ve done. You’ve upset our beloved Bear.”
The Hairy Bean shouted, “That is not difficult! He’s a mushy head, a damned fool!”
“Yes,” said Zanzie. “And we are glad of it. We wouldn’t want him any other way. Come, old friend.” He helped Soot Bear to his feet. “The Hairy Bean can stay here and shout himself purple. As for us, since the wolves went into the forest, we will go in that direction and seek out their master. And being sentimental mushy heads, we hope that he is generous, good and fair.”
And so the Odd Body Vanity Squad gathered up the traveling gear that had been scattered about when they landed, the tents, warm socks and galaxy guides, the assimilation pills and ashcakes necessary to their survival, and walked softly into the woods.
They walked for a long time without speaking.
All Vernians, no matter how tall or how big, are light on their feet, which gave the Odd Body Vanity Squad a distinct advantage over the dense undergrowth of the forest. It helped that their buskins, boots and slippers were made of vitahide, a supple leather that adapted to the climate of a new environment and its changing terrain. With quick, sure steps they skimmed clumps of fungus and fern that teemed with insects and they skated through clusters of woody plants that provided cover for tiny four-legged creatures scrabbling out of their burrows to night-feed on grubs and bugs.
The Vernians did not suffer from the sultry heat of the forest. Their robes and gowns, blouses and pantaloons, even their scanties and skivvies, were made of biofleece, a fabric that changed its weight according to the prevailing temperature. When the climate of a planet proved mild or the season or time of day turned hot, the material turned thin and porous by degrees and kept them cool. When the conditions were cold, their garments developed layers of thermal insulation.
Thus, they were always prepared. The warm socks that were balled up in their travel sacks along with close-fitting caps were made of gelguard and held in reserve for arctic conditions. But the socks and caps would not be needed here, not in this wilderness of lush vegetation that reminded them so much of the tropical regions of Verne.
As they walked they caught glimpses of the Lebreya Tar Prunes in the forest, the tall ones craning their long necks and raking leaves from branches, the fast ones blurring the spaces between the trees as they sprinted by. The Odd Body Vanity Squad, anxious to avoid another confrontation and possible stampede, made the most of another Vernian trait: the ability to move quickly, and with purpose, without attracting attention.
The Duke of Prunes never appeared, for which they were grateful. There was no evidence anywhere of the wolves and their mysterious master. The forest was peaceful, imbued with the immense calm of nature at rest, accountable only to its own state of being and ineffable sense of time.
Night began to fall and weariness overtook them. They found a tract of dry ground suitable for making camp and plumped down for a good night’s sleep. As the stars and heavenly bodies broke out above their heads, they fanned kindling into flame and pitied the planet with only one moon. For supper they made ashcakes, their chief source of food when they traveled, a mixture of nutritious grains, duckweed and spirulina wrapped in cabbage leaves and roasted in the ashes of their fire.
As they sat beneath the palm trees, massive ferns and evergreens that reminded them of home, they began to feel comfortable. They felt more comfortable than they were accustomed to feeling on a planet not their own. The tensions of the day eased off as they huddled together shoulder to shoulder or leaned up against each other in a posture of quiet repose. They ate their food in a leisurely fashion and fell into a thoughtful mood.
They were positive that they had never been here before and yet their surroundings did not feel strange to them. In their travels throughout the galaxy, they had encountered ecosystems, cultures and landscapes that seemed bizarre, even ludicrous, to their Vernian sensibilities. But here on this planet for which they had no name and upon which they had mistakenly landed, they felt a peculiar kinship with the life forms buzzing, scuttling and sweating dew all around them. There was something good about this place, as if they belonged.
Brother puzzled out loud. “I know we’ve never been here. And yet we have seen this.”
Maya nodded gravely. “Brother, you are right. It is like walking into a memory.”
“I imagine,” said Zanzie, “that this planet is much like our own and that life began in much the same way, with the same slow progression from gases to chemicals to stout little molecules clever enough to reproduce.”
“Of course!” Brother exclaimed. “We have seen this, as little chaps at school. This planet resembles prehistoric Verne!”
“I imagine,” Zanzie said in a voice that turned more dreamy as he went on, “I imagine that once upon a time, billions of years ago, this planet was a great gob of gas almost as hot as a typical sun. But then it cooled until bits of crust appeared and the gases turned to liquid and it rained for 60,000 years. And then in a marvelous way, chemicals in the oceans produced molecules that turned into cells, cells that developed into the algae and bacteria from which all living things evolved.” Zanzie sighed deeply and smiled. “I do love to tell the tale.”
“Yes!” cried Soot Bear. “And the little algies began to breathe very hard and very fast until there was oxygen everywhere!”
Sister added, “And a layer of ozone to shield the surface of the planet from the radiation of its sun.”
Moonchild said brightly, “Perhaps their continents drifted. Like ours!”
“Perhaps,” said Zanzie.
“If you don’t mind,” the King of the Hairy Beans interrupted with a scowl. “If the science lesson is quite over, I would like to get some sleep.”
And everyone agreed that he or she was suddenly terribly tired, except for Zanzie, who volunteered to take the first watch of the night.
While the others slept, Zanzibar sat cross-legged on the ground with his back very straight and his large, limpid eyes scanning the darkness for hostile or unexpected things. The potential dangers of what lay in the darkness stirred his blood but so, too, did the proven wonders of the universe. And among these wonders was the incomprehensible patience of a planet as it labored to bring forth life.
Billions of years had sifted down to this moment and sorted out the conditions that allowed him to sit in the nightshade of a tangled forest millions of years in the making. For Zanzie, it was an inconceivable span of time. But this tolerant planet had endured every instant, every hour, every night and day of that span, while spontaneous phenomena rendered its gas and cloud into continents, its desert into oceans and its protein into sentient beings.
In his travels he had met cultists who believed in miracles, events that occurred in defiance of, or instead of, or above and beyond natural law, as if the laws of nature were insufficient to every purpose at hand. Zanzie had heard reports of miracles but he had never experienced one for himself and so he remained doubtful of their existence. And yet his doubt had not depleted his sense of wonder or surprise, which all Vernians are born with, because for him there remained nothing so awesome, inexpressible or heartbreaking as the pure might of natural law.
There was nothing more stupendous than the primordial coming-into-being from sponges and slugs to tribolites that sucked up food as they squelched along the ocean floor. There could be nothing more magical than the progression from jawless fish to meat-eating fish and from bony fish with fins and lungs to amphibians that crawled out of the sea and developed legs for walking on land and eyelids for coping with dust motes in the air. Life moved on. Bugs and beetles, mayflies and spiders fed on leaves and on each other. Fish cast about for crustaceans and were themselves hunted by sharks and by those blundering amphibians that wallowed about in swamps to no apparent purpose. And now the reptiles ruled.
Half way through the night, Sister awoke and offered to relieve Zanzie of his post. Zanzie was too excited to sleep but he was glad of the company and so they kept watch together. They watched in silence. Sister felt too groggy to say anything sensible and these days, when alone in her presence, Zanzie was finding it increasingly difficult to say anything at all.
He had begun to notice of late what a fine head of hair Sister had and what a fine firm bosom and what a fine pair of warm, listening eyes. She was not as beautiful as Moonchild or as regal as Maya but she was less talkative than the others, more tactful and more attentive to things that mattered. He had no idea what she was thinking as they sat side by side in the silver shadows of the night, but he was reasonably certain that whatever her thoughts, they were steady, gentle and kind. She possessed the quality that he valued most in a fellow being and would go far to find in a mate: greatness of heart.
There was even a connection between them. Together Zanzie’s great-great grandfather and Sister’s great uncle had invented biocasting, a word they had borrowed from Bios, an ancient Vernian creation god. The Vernians are famed throughout the galaxy for their success in biocasting, which we on Earth call terraforming, the process by which the climate and conditions on a planet are transformed into an environment capable of supporting life as we know it.
Zanzie smiled, encouraged by the possibility that he would not have to search high and low for his ideal partner, hopeful that she was only an arm’s length away, with the gloss of moonshine on her lower lip and the glint of stars in her eyes. Their personal histories were already intertwined and they shared not only the immense wealth of their entrepreneurial ancestors, but also their initiative to seed the galaxy with new life.
How soon would it be, he wondered, before he found the opportunity and the nerve to discover Sister’s feelings? He had no idea what she thought of him and no ready means for finding out. He was just coming to the conclusion that there was no time like the present, when his fingertips began to tingle and throb.
In Vernians possessed of a particular kind of intelligence, this sudden onset of pins and needles serves as an early warning system. It can be indicative of something good as well as bad and at first Zanzie thought that he might be tuning in to the pleasant sensations of sitting close to someone who moved him so deeply. But when the throbbing turned urgent to the point of vexation, his other senses sharpened. He maximized the power of his nose and ears and instantly detected a change in the environment. Somewhere in the forest, not far from where they sat, something unusual was happening.
He heard the whir, hum, quick-click and ping of an advanced technology. He heard voices. He could smell a variety of odors, some of them organic, some not, but none of them natural to the existing conditions on this planet.
When Sister noticed the look of heightened perception on Zanzie’s face, she keyed up her own ears and listened.
“We found him,” she said.
“Him. The other stranger on this planet.”
“Zanzie?” Soot Bear had awakened and crawled into the space between them. It was not quite dawn, but in temperate weather Soot Bear was not inclined to sleep late or overmuch. “Zanzie, is it time to move on?”
“Yes, Bear,” said Zanzibar with his eyes fixed on the bank of trees directly in front of them. “It’s time.”
“There’s something out there,” said Sister.
“No,” said Zanzie with increasing alarm. “There’s something coming this way.”
Through the eerie blue light of dawn, they took shape. Wolves. The same wolves that had taken their Stone.
“Get down!” Sister shouted.
The wolves broke out of the forest at a furious pace. It was a frightening, chaotic sight and yet it became clear at once that ducking and weaving would not be required. Although Zanzie, Soot Bear and Sister were intensely aware of their presence, the wolves were wholly indifferent to theirs. They were on another mission, yes, but one that had nothing to do with the Odd Body Vanity Squad.
They were hungry and they had come to feed.
One thing was certain: they were not vegetarians. Feeding meant a hunt to the death. They were particular, too. They had a singular appetite for the tiny four-legged creatures that had just spent the night outside of their burrows engaged in their own hunt for sustenance.
It was horrible. A massacre. The wolves tore into the undergrowth with their double-edged fangs and rooted out the little creatures, tossing them up into the air and swallowing them whole as they tumbled back down. The panic-struck squeaks of the defenseless and the baying of the ravenous wolves filled the forest with a fearful confusion of cries. The fangs of the killers glistened with blood and gore.
The wolves were gluttons. One or two critters did not suffice, and neither did four, five or six. Hundreds and hundreds of little beasties were sacrificed to one breakfast. Those that managed to scuttle into their burrows were dragged back out by the long, gripping tongues of the wolves, dragged out and ingested with glee.
The Vernians, who did not eat meat, were appalled. If the other members of the squad had been awake, there would have been a discussion as to whether they should stand up and shine, to drive away the wolves and stop the carnage. The others, however, slept through it all.
Soot Bear asked, “Zanzie, should we shine?”
“No,” said Zanzie. “Their master is nearby. We must wait and follow.”
When the wolves were done feasting, that is, when the population of little creatures in that corner of the forest had been wiped out, they howled and hurtled back into the stand of trees whence they had come.
“Fly!” Zanzie cried and leapt to his feet. “Follow and fly!”
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