This is the second chapter of a book I hope to write someday. In 2003, inspired by books like Masquerade and The 11th Hour: A Curious Mystery, I spent quite a few excited hours contemplating what I would put into a puzzle book were I to create one. I came up with an uplifting story and a number of clever ideas for puzzles, thematic elements, and plot points. I even went so far as to write rough drafts of a few chapters, but I let it slide given the fact that the book, in order to do it well, would have to be in full color, rife with illustrations, and over a hundred pages long. There was little to no hope of publishing it without first becoming famous, rich, or amazingly well networked.
Well, it's a dream! For now, I may as well make use of a sliver of all that work by putting up a chapter for readers to enjoy. Bear in mind that it's only a second draft or so, and ought to be accompanied by extras like illustrations, decorative frames, hidden clues, and pithy pearls of wisdom in snazzy little boxes.
We passed over scores of cities populated by the amphibians, but we did not stop. Aside from my companion’s fear of disturbing the delicate social order, none of us had any desire to replay the tense drama we had just experienced in a new theater. There was still the possibility that these creatures had weapons strong enough to penetrate our shields, and moreover, even though they had initially seen us as emissaries of Providence, they had not seemed especially gladdened by our arrival. I wondered what kind of blessing, if any, it would take to make them happy.
We therefore flew above the clouds where we would be less easily spotted as we made our way south. The creatures that had spoken to us just before we left had mentioned monsters to the south; it was our hope that these monsters would prove intelligent, and perhaps less than monstrous in person. We hoped that we would not have to do as the amphibians had asked and drive them off, and in fact we doubted very much that any such thing was within our capabilities.
As the clouds thinned, we could see that the tree-cities below us were doing the same, and at last we ceased seeing them entirely. I for one was relieved to see that the amphibians were not the sole rulers of the planet. Their range was not really that great; they might be merely an aberration found in that one isolated corner of the planet, which would be clearly just as well. That race, it seemed, was one that would have been happier had it been constricted to a single island, but sadly had been gifted with the ability to swim.
As I was contemplating the irony of the smooth-skinned beings, there appeared below us a broad frontier of massive constructions, stretching from west to east as far as we could see. We immediately altered our course to run parallel to them. They were made from wood and stone— not quite a wall, but nearly as defensible as one in conditions of war. We surmised that this was indeed their purpose: this was the battlefront against which the amphibians of the north had met their match. The buildings were intricate, standing at many angles and boasting many overlapping levels, with stairways and ramps and pulley systems interlaced throughout, and channels of running water scoring the entire complex.
After a brief consultation we decided to fly lower to take a better look. Upon doing so we were thrilled to spot the inhabitants of the complex moving about. Like the creatures we had just left, they were four-legged, but these were uniformly brown in color, moved with a very different gait, and had a posterior protuberance which made me instantly curious. Perhaps these were the true people of Earth, I thought. We decided not to agitate them by crossing their frontier, so, settling on the northern side of one of the shorter edifices, we took a better look at them.
A few were walking along a stream not far from us and diverted their travel to see who we were. We could smell that they were semi-aquatic and coated lightly in their own oil; furthermore, we could see that they were covered from one end to the other in non-vibratory soft outgrowths, and it was these that gave them their brown color. They also had regular rings of a lighter brown around their shoulders and forebodies, and these were embellished with patterns that made me suspect they were ornamental and not part of the animals’ natural coloration. Their bodies were longer and more flexible than those of the amphibians had been, though their feet appeared to be less adaptable. They had prominent noses and small round ears. And of course, as befitted any group to bear the label of “monster,” they were much larger in size than their hapless northern neighbors.
The group that had spotted us was inspecting us fervidly; finding that our smell was unfamiliar, two of the bunch slapped their protuberances sharply against the ground, three times each. Instantly a wailing auditory alarm rose, startling us. The six individuals who had approached us stood there in confrontation, their black eyes focused intensely upon our craft, their muscles tense.
My companions hurriedly prepared the craft’s defenses against a possible assault, but I, in accordance with the standard procedure, did nothing. I expected to be addressed in speech before long, assuming that this species used some kind of speech, at which point I could deduce their language and answer in kind. It was of course possible that they would choose to attack, in which case we would defend ourselves, or even to ignore us, in which case I would have to improvise a demonstration based on what I could infer from their habits. But in fact I did not have long to wait; in under three minutes a legion of the creatures had made its way to our craft from the nearby edifice and had assumed a simple formation before us. The one at its head stood staunchly and spoke to us. I perked up and concentrated on its words; it spoke a very sensible language and only had to repeat itself once before I caught on.
“No, we are not servants of the tree frogs,” I said evenly. “We have nothing to do with them. We are explorers from another world.”
The contrast with our previous introductory encounter was startling. There, each of my proclamations was met with fervor and uproar; here, I was greeted with silence. The members of the legion all looked toward the one at its head, and after a few moments that one spoke again to me.
“Can you prove it?”
This was not a request we were unprepared for. I relayed it to my third companion, who manipulated the craft’s controls. Swiftly the craft rose into the air, its rockets unconcealed, burning blue. We made a cool show of power. “That is how we traversed the empty space separating our home from yours,” I explained.
One of the legion near the front nudged its neighbor and murmured something. The head turned back and heard what the other had to say; he then turned back to our craft and relayed the concern to me.
“You’ve proven that you can travel hard and travel fast,” it said. “But that doesn’t prove that you’re from another world.”
This was true, of course, and I admitted it. “Nonetheless, I doubt any of you will have seen our like before. Our bodies, for example, are composed differently than anything of your world is likely to be. Observe.” My third companion produced a phial of stuff and displayed it to the onlooking natives. It dipped its arm in and showed itself to be unharmed. It then left the craft and demonstrated the effect the liquid had on the native life, as we had determined upon landing. It was not enough by itself; the natives wanted to perform tests of their own. One even opened its mouth to reveal a pair of impressive white front teeth and plucked out a clump of its own brown body covering, an act which startled me. At its request we tested the material, which dissolved as had all the rest. “But…you’re willing to give up a piece of yourself merely to answer your curiosity?” “It’s only fur,” the creature answered. “It comes back.” My blank look was met with only heightened curiosity from the crowd.
“Then you’re outsiders,” pronounced the head of the legion. “Extraordinary! What are your intentions toward us?”
“We intend to learn about you to the extent that you are willing,” I replied.
“Well, that’s splendid! I can say that we’ll be every bit as amicable as yourselves. If you’re friendly toward us, we’ll be friendly toward you, and as glad as springtime to answer any questions you’ve got.”
My first companion, in accordance with procedure, remained behind while the rest of us were escorted into the nearest building. We found the border fortification a rewarding experience from the outset. Immediately upon entering we became aware of a high level of humidity, accompanied by the sounds of running water. I say ‘sounds’ because there was no single sound: there were a multitude. There was the burble of conduits along all the walls and ceiling, carrying water for an unknown purpose. There was the slosh of a reservoir that sounded near the entrance, through a tunnel or two; the light crash of a stream passing through a water wheel we had seen from the outside; the unusual zip of water running through what appeared to be plastic insulation, water which to my amazement I realized was electrified! But before any of these impressions could consolidate there was the fountain—a magnificent structure ringed with dark stone and carved of treated wood in such a way that the water springing from it seemed a part of the sculpture itself.
I had no words for the makers of these hydraulic marvels, and it was just as well, for I saw greater marvels before departing from the fortification. First, however, my companions and I were led to a room embedded just beneath the roof, a long room equipped not only with a spectacular view both north and south but also with observation machines set into the walls. Most of the legion who had met us outside dropped off along the way to various duties, but we were left with seven of the remarkable creatures in the long room, each of them bearing a distinctive scent that I assumed denoted authority. They arranged themselves around the edges of a very shallow pit made, like the room itself, of wood, and so doing sat up, supporting themselves with their protuberances and facing us, their visitors. It was then that our interview began.
“First, we must clarify one thing—to the best of our combined knowledge, your visit is the first of its kind,” said the largest of the company. “There has never been any visitor to Earth from beyond its sky, and if anyone present knows otherwise, I would have them speak.”
I remained silent, of course.
“Then we are a more important generation than we could have ever known,” continued the speaker. “We have lived our lives as ordinary people, just individual twigs in the great wall of history. But now…that has changed. Every one of us is special, now. Not just those in this room. Not just those of us on the border. Every living thing on this planet has suddenly become very special…because they were alive when the first visitors came."
Even I was struck with awe at this spontaneous sentiment. It was the first of many such speeches I was to hear on my travels, and for me it was to be the most powerful.
We stayed in that room for hours. We had many questions for our hosts and they equally many for us. My first question was, of course, “Who are you?” To which their leader responded, “The senior staff of the first daylight border watch. Or did you mean, what are we? We’re beavers. The most accomplished people in the known world.”
I sensed no undue pride, only integrity. “What makes you accomplished?” I asked.
“What we’ve made, what we’ve learned…and how we live,” the shift leader answered. “We know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s our strengths we focus on.”
“Unlike your neighbors to the north,” I remarked.
“By the brooks, yes,” said a smaller one of the seven. “They’re frightfully pitiable. There was a time in our ancient history when our ancestors were afraid of the tree frogs…simply because they were so numerous. But when the strike came, it was amazingly easy to fend them off. Even then our technology was more than enough to hold our borders. The frogs’ numbers worked against them.”
“But it does no good to scorn, and less to pity,” said a beaver with white-speckled fur. “Think what would become of us if we bore a hundred young a season.”
“We could handle it,” said a fourth. “We have the organization and the resolution. Anything is possible when you grit your teeth.”
“Only because we hold the upper bank in the first place,” said the white-speckled one. “Don’t take your advantages for granted.”
I asked another question to deter conflict and move things along. I was informed in time that the border was thousands of kilometers long and that this was one of the thicker spots, and that it had been over a thousand years in the making. It was run by families who spent most of their lives there, and as a result there was a proliferation of culture along the frontier that made it akin to any city. The beavers were especially fond of sculpture and also of engineering as an art in itself, an influence which I observed more and more in my time there. Their favorite food was the bark of the trees with which their homes were made, a fact which my third companion found most economical. They told me about their bodies, including their oddly regenerative fur and the odd protuberances I had noticed, called tails, which were extensions of the spine. They informed me that their bodies, like their front teeth, continue to grow through their entire lifetimes, which made seniority a simple matter of size. Their social organization was therefore a source of solidarity and low on friction. Likewise, the family unit was strong and enriching, and stuck together through all tribulations, even going off together to war.
They were not exceptionally curious in their questioning of us, but they were very responsible and asked all the appropriate questions, so it was many hours before we were allowed our freedom. We found a groundskeeper who gave us a tour of the fortification we were in, making sure to show us all the ingenious devices it was equipped with, including a deep freezer, a weather monitor, and an automated percussion room for entertainment. Everything was powered by water in one way or another. She showed us a slate-colored powder which had been centuries in perfection that was used for keeping water from freezing in the winter. She also proudly pointed out all the hidden passages crisscrossing to and fro behind the main rooms—which children, she explained, loved to explore. “We let ‘em race through the building on fifth days, it teaches them more than you’d imagine. Brilliant sport, wish I were still young enough to fit.”
My second companion was taken with the idea and asked if it would be possible to observe a race. The groundskeeper told us that the next race in her building wouldn’t be for several days, but that there would probably be one in a nearby fortification within a day. After inquiries were made we found it was so, and so the following day we traveled a short distance east to an even taller building made with lighter wood. From its roof beavers shouted messages to their friends on the ground and scoured the horizon with telescopes. Children frolicked in an offshoot of the nearby river, and at an electronic alarm call similar to the one we had been greeted with they scampered inside.
Before the race began, their supervisor had them sit quietly in the lobby while my companions and I were introduced. At finding out that we were extraterrestrial, one young voice yelled “Zesty!” She then folded in embarrassment at the stares given her by her peers. I was pleased to see this young female perform well in the subsequent race. She knew all the routes between and behind the architectural supports, not only where the paths were but which paths could be attained through jumping or climbing from which others as well. She mingled well with the others, calling to her friends to let them know which obstacles had been placed where (for the building’s passages were strategically altered for each new competition) and listening well to the shouts of others. She finally reached the building’s pinnacle in fifth place, an accomplishment which oddly was worth nearly as much honor as the first place finisher. She held herself with just as much pleasured embarrassment as when she had made her out of turn call, and received a rotary ohmmeter as her prize, as well as a measure of congratulatory tail-slapping from the assemblage.
My second companion had received what it wanted from the event. It insisted that we speak with the fortunate youth, and so I did. She was clearly excited to have the chance to speak with an “alien”, and when we met in private went on in bubbly speech about how exciting it was and how she felt she was now a part of history, if a small one. I asked the questions my companion told me to, soon learning her name and that she had relatives in a township hundreds of leagues southward. Her name is unscriptable, so I will refer to her by the nickname we adopted for her, the first word she spoke in our presence: Zesty. Zesty was one of only a few children who voluntarily cycled between family groups, not wanting to lose touch with anyone. Seeing an opportunity for further education, I asked if we could travel with her back to her township, and with her nose held high and eyes wide, she assented.
While word of our visit spread throughout the border and into civilian lands, we rejoined my first companion and flew south, Zesty in tow. She was excited to the point of subdual by the chance to ride in our craft, but proved a capable navigator nonetheless, and within half a day we were at her second home.
It, like most beaver townships, was a congregation of artificial lakes and ponds within easy walking distance of each other, with one to four family groups occupying each body of water. There was less technology than the border fortifications had boasted, but no one seemed miserable because of it. We stopped just out of sight beside a shallow but clean pond, at Zesty’s direction, and observed.
It was a fulfilling experience. The smells were homely and reassuring. The interactions between people were simple, direct, and mutually beneficial. We saw a married couple deciding where to plant their new herb garden, an older male giving instruction to a pair of youths on how to weave branches, a gaggle of young adults boasting about how they would collapse the thickest tree in the nearby woods, just as soon as they collected bets that it couldn’t be done. Zesty thought these last would have little luck, since money was rare except at the border. I asked my second companion what it thought of the beavers, and it said that whether or not they were technologically accomplished, they were surely accomplished socially.
After the day’s observations, Zesty led us with enthusiasm into her home, a massive dome-shaped den of treated wood from trees known as poplar and aspen. It was snug, but we managed to fit into the living room. There we were introduced to her aunt, whom I will call Casta. Casta was a large female with perceptive eyes. She bit her lip upon seeing us, even though she had received word by aquatic telegraph that we were coming. Perceiving a weighty but happy responsibility at being our host, Casta set a tabletop percussion device to playing, made up poufs for us, and fretted over the fact that we couldn’t enjoy a homestyle meal of cambien mush. We also met Casta’s own children, who enjoyed various stages of growth. Her husband, we learned, was deceased—picked off by a coyote raid.
“What is a coyote?” I asked, my nerves chilling.
“You haven’t met them? Good for you. Horrors the good world would be happier without. Unprincipled murderers, and much larger than any one of them deserves.”
“They’ve got claws,” added one of the children.
“And pointy teeth,” pointed out another.
“And they’re fast. And they practice hunting and killing things just for fun,” said a third.
“They used to have an agreement with us, a long way back before we were born,” said Zesty. “But they went and broke it.”
“I only wish we had a border on the south half as good as the one on the north. But they won’t let us be long enough to build one. Thank heavens they don’t come this far north often.,” said Casta.
“They’re uncaring and disgusting,” said one of Casta’s grown children.
“They don’t care about progress, only horrible games,” said another.
“They don’t need to kill people to live. There are plenty of animals they could eat. But they do it just because they like it.”
“They’re murderers!” Casta summed up, slapping the floor with her tail. “Nothing more to say, so let’s not say it. More cambien, anyone?”
The meal was jovial thereafter and we entertained several curious questions from the children. When the meal was over we went outside with Casta and Zesty. It was near sunset and the beavers found the weather pleasant for that time of year. They greeted passing neighbors who were beginning to think about bed, and at last our conversation turned to serious issues.
“Casta, you mentioned a southern border. Does that mean that your people are not the rulers of the world?”
“Oh, no—no, no, although I’m sure the world would be nicer if we were,” she said with a laugh. “We have our land and we love it. Rivers everywhere and beautiful woods. But we only go so far south—there are other folk beyond us, plenty of other folk, and not all bad, from what I hear.”
“What kind of folk?”
Casta shuffled her hind feet. “Well, there’s the pronghorns…and farther south there’s still remnants of the Old Folk’s cities, or the First Folk, or whatever those bushytails call ‘em. Big and inspiring and always on the verge of falling apart, that’s the word on those old ruins. Past that there’s hardbacks, I think, and others…but I’m no geographer, and I’m sure as rain no explorer.” She gritted her teeth, and Zesty’s face fell.
“Who are the First Folk?”
“Beats me. They could be a complete fabrication for all I know. There’s folk away south who call themselves the Keepers of the First Folk, who they say invented the whole notion of being people. They’ve got ruins they say prove it. I don’t care a sapling about the matter.”
“Even if you’re not an explorer, shouldn’t you have the knowledge that your explorers have gathered over time?” I asked.
“Our explorers,” she spat. “Neither me nor any respectable beaver has any patience for someone who’d leave their home and thatch for a fool’s adventure. If you ask me, there’s far too much to lose and precious little to gain from wandering the wild unknown, no matter how romantic it may sound to some simpletons.” She broke off with her mouth open and her black eyes focused upon us. “Although…well I mean, going through space is another matter. I’m sure you folks have plenty of…science to learn, and such. I didn’t mean to say…”
“Aunt Casta, why don’t you think on that?” challenged Zesty suddenly, a trace of anger surprisingly in her voice. She swished her tail and her ears stiffened. “These explorers are doing something great for their people, and they may end up doing something great for us, too. And yes, that’s what they are! Explorers! Now what great scientific truths could they learn that we couldn’t learn too?”
I realized that we had hit upon a sore subject between the two.
“You know,” glowered Casta, “types that go traipsing into unknown danger are supposed to wash out of the gene pool. I don’t know what your story is.”
“Aunt Casta! Are you saying you wish I was never born?”
“No, youngling! I’m saying I wish you’d take some good sound beaver sensibility into your heart. You’re plenty old enough!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone. Experiments are useful. Studies are useful. Would we ever have discovered electricity if—”
“I won’t hear more of this nonsense, Zesty. You know, you came out our way sooner this year than you usually do. Maybe you should have stayed at the border and run a few more fort-races until you were rid of all that restless energy! I don’t know how much use a creature with…wanderlust will be around my homestead this summer!”
“Okay, fine. Fine. Want me out of your fur for another couple months? Fine. I’ll work out my… my wanderlust the only real way I can. I’ll go wandering. Call on me at the next town downstream if you need—”
But here Zesty’s head turned, and she gazed suddenly at me. Her mouth opened and closed and her body tensed. Then she mustered her courage. “You’ll take me,” she whispered.
“Take you downstream?”
“Take me with you. Wherever you’re going. Say I can come! You’ve got plenty of room in your ship and I liked it there on the way out! Can I come with you?”
Casta was propped up on her tail and shaking her head. “Not a chance! Your mother would kill me!”
“Well then,” said Zesty with fire in her words, “tell her you couldn’t stop me. What do you say, friends? Can I join your team?”
I quickly conferred with my companions. We knew that it might be difficult to keep a native cared for aboard our craft, but we also knew from our previous surveys how valuable native aid can be in exploring a world. The fact that we personally were fond of Zesty clinched the deal. “Yes,” I said. “We’ll take you with us around the world.”
The beaver collapsed in relief on the ground. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “I’ll be your guide and your faithful servant. You can be my adventure of a lifetime.”