It took me awhile to realize it, but Greater Than’s increasingly wide-reaching patrols were more than scouting for hazards or even exploration in the sense I’d think of it: he was mapping the world. Which explained why he undertook it so methodically, while At and even kits had gone farther from The Oak out of sheer exuberance and discovery. He was compiling a survey whose essentially military purpose made it very different in emphasis from the kind of cataloging Ampersand and I were attempting with the increasing aid of Paren, but was no less complete, ordered, or indexed. Not a cartographic map, but something being charted and quartered in his mind, and in Dash’s. And in Star’s as well, because she had become an incongruous part of their patrol team, now patrolling more quickly and efficiently after she had lured the two males aloft. Which sped up the task of comprehending the lay of the land… and led to that momentous event I referred to earlier and will now dutifully recount for you, as witnessed through the diverse, but reliable eyes and reports of the arboreal scouts.
They had left off moving through the low limbs and sizing up the ground because Greater Than wanted to triangulate a certain meadow by means of the view from high branches. It had been a swooping tumble up the trees that delighted Dash and Star. Their leader would never have admitted that he took pleasure in their frolicking in the midst of his stern, dutiful searches, though he had once mentioned to me that he wondered if the obvious fondness growing between the doe and kit was a good thing for his obscure values of discipline and pitiless vigilance. But he never objected to Star tossing Dash up into the leaves or cuddling him in his sleep. So maybe he found that pleasurable too. And maybe that is what disturbed him.
And all three agree that it was specifically because of their high position that day that they heard the strange calls from a remote bog below, and therefore set into motion the very event I am chronicling, which I have referred to as of signal importance to our history here, and finally ready to recount to you.
The cries they heard were absolutely made by an animal, a large one. There was no doubt of that whatsoever. What interested me was the different reaction of the three listeners. Greater Than heard threat in the repeated, ululating sounds, a warning. Dash said his immediate reaction was a sort of chill, that the cries were creepy and dire. Star unhesitatingly read them as helplessness and distress and didn’t pause before heading down to help. But she accepted Greater Than’s opinion that they needed to move to the source of the calls in an ordered, cautious manner. Dash, she told me, had his ears forward and nape hackles erect from the moment he heard the first bleating until they slipped out onto a broad branch that hid them while they surveyed the small swamp hole and the huge creature floundering around in it. Which is where they stopped for a long moment, stunned by what they saw.
It was stocky, over twice Greater Than’s height, and completely covered with mud. It had two legs, five-fingered hands, and a face naked of fur, but otherwise much like our own, both eyes in front, the eyes a brilliant blue color. It had pinkish fur above the waist, but was wearing a cloth jacket with buttons. An intelligent being from another planet! And, incidentally, a giant!
But a giant in trouble, that much was obvious from its situation as well as its piteous, weakening cries. It was caught wallowing in the mud, obviously unable to extricate itself. It cried like a newborn out of frustration or fear; showed very little ability to come to grips with its plight. And was sinking deeper into the mire.
“It can’t get out of the mud,” Dash said, his agitation about the situation increasing.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Greater Than said softly. “For now, anyway. This is the direction those explosions and black monsters came from. That thing could be the one who called them. Or who killed that big animal.”
“It’s sinking,” Star said. “That must be sinker-mud.”
I’m aware of your word “quicksand”, but that the little bog was more probably just an ordinary sinkhole full of deep, soft, loamy mud.
“What’s wrong with it?” Dash asked, nervous. “Why doesn’t it just walk out? Is it stupid? Weak? Sick, maybe?”
“Sickness is something we should think about,” Greater Than said. “This isn’t like those other animals we found. This requires getting to the bottom of. But we have to be really careful about contact.”
“It’s so pitiful,” Star told them. “We need to help it.”
“Can you be serious?” Greater Than snapped. “Look at the size of that thing.”
“Listen to it,” Star snapped right back. “It’s pathetic.”
As she spoke, the giant coughed, then relaxed, big head lolling into the mud. It had obviously given up and would now just slowly sink into the water and drown. Its forlorn cries turned into as soft snuffling like those of a hungry kit.
“We have to save it.” And Star was already in motion. Greater Than knew it was useless to try to restrain her from swinging down from the limb to the edge of the bog, so he motioned Dash to follow, with a subtle finger move that suggested being on guard and ready to arrest any developments on short notice.
Star stood on a rotting trunk that extended into the mudhole, surrounded by yellow butterflies that came up out of the reeds by the muck. Her hands were on her hips as she stared at the creature, whose huge head seemed half as large as the rest of its body. It saw her and widened its eyes, then seemed to forget its doom and smile slightly as Dash bounded up beside her. When Greater Than, looking around and lifting his ears in extreme vigilance, appeared at the water edge near the trunk, the giant made sounds that weren’t cries, weren’t animal at all.
“It’s a person,” Star blurted. “It’s not an animal: it’s like us.”
“Except for a few details,” Greater Than said acerbically. “Like being a giant.”
“We already knew that, didn’t we?” Dash asked. “As soon as we heard it, we knew it was a person and we had to come help it?”
“Do you have a plan for how to do that?” Greater Than asked bluntly. And Dash stood, staring helplessly at this huge mass of being that was stuck beyond their reach. Greater Than clicked his mouth and Dash looked at him instantly. The Older gestured and the Younger slipped off the trunk to run to his side.
Star walked to the end of the trunk and stared helplessly at the big face. She smiled and waved, and the giant smiled back. She turned to demand that the males help her get this being to dry land, but they were gone. She came off the trunk in a ruddy flash, sniffing past where they had stood and after them. She found them moving apart along the grassy slope to the bog and up into the willow woods, walking in a very efficient search pattern.
This browsing paid off when Dash called out to his mentor, who came to him and approved of what he’d found: a fallen limb long enough to reach but short enough to carry, with a secondary branch extending from near the thick end. They brought this back to where Star squatted on the log, never losing eye contact with the native. It was an easy task to hook the short branch over the tree trunk and extend the long one to where it could be grasped. Star gave determined body language instructions, supplemented by useless vocal coaching; hopping around and miming pulling on the branch to get free of the mire. When she saw comprehension unmistakably dawn in the huge face Star cheered and jumped around so energetically that she almost fell into the muck, according to Dash’s contested recounting of the scene.
It was an agonizing process but as they watched the giant, slowly and with much yelping and moaning, exerted enough pull on the limb to drag free of the deeper mud. The forked limb slipped off the trunk, but by then the trapped giant could flop into shallower slop and begin a slow, ungainly crawl to higher ground. At which point the full size of it was discernible. Not as large as he had assumed from the size of the head, Greater Than told us, but still huge enough to be worrisome. Sitting on the ground with legs thrust out in front, it was still almost twice his height and he could see that if it stood up it would be almost twice that stature. A real, live giant. And it was once again yowling piteously like a hungry kit.
The giant clambered clumsily to its feet, creating a second wave of visceral awe through Star and Dash. They both agreed that seeing it standing up and walking around was a different level of sight than watching it sit. Both experienced erection of their nape hairs, deep-seated fears manifesting despite their feeling that there was no harm in this thing, even though it could easily have snatched them up whole to bite their heads off if it cared to. Dash remembered thinking, “I hope it’s not hungry.” Then it started crying again.
Star made comforting noises and was rewarded with some interspecies communication: the giant indicated its feet, only one of which was encased in a filthy article laced on with hefty cord. And pointed to the other one, still stuck in the mud. Dash looked at the lost object and turned to Greater Than, who scowled and shook his ears in irritation. But said, “Sure, go get it if you want. Maybe it will shut this thing up. Be careful.”
Dash pulled the limb off the trunk and used it to snag the mired object and after several failures, dragged it in close enough to grab it by hand. He stared at it carefully, then kicked it over. Fascinated, he pulled it out the log until he was actually waist-deep in the greenish water and washed off most of the mud. When he dragged it back to the adults, he had figured it all out. He pointed to the curved, built-up protrusion on the flat bottom, the round eyelets where the lacing cords were anchored. He was quiet and shaken as he said, “You see what it is, don’t you?”
Star got it first. “Oh my God, Dash! You’re right! Just like where you…. Oh, no, do you see what… You do, don’t you? This means…”
Greater Than was a step slower, but when he grasped something he grasped it strong and complete. “It means that thing you’re sleeping in is the same article. But for something three times bigger. Not good.”
“It’s a kit!” Star exclaimed. “Just a little one. No wonder it’s so clumsy and is crying. Out here trapped without any others around, poor thing.”
Greater Than agreed immediately to the idea of the giant being a Younger, indicating the existence of even huger adults somewhere close by. And didn’t like that idea at all. If there was any doubt in the matter it was solved when Dash and Star tugged the little shoe over to the baby giant, who gurgled and brayed while pulling it on… then was unable to tie the laces up. Star hopped up onto the shoe, grabbed the laces, hauled back on them like horse reins to tighten them, and quickly tied them in the same loopy pattern as the other shoe. Cackling happily, the giant stood up again and danced up and down in her little shoes, one pink and one mud-colored.
Star watched her, smiling, but then turned to Greater Than. “So how far from here, would you say, is whatever it is whose foot could fit into Dash’s boudoir?”
“Wherever they are, we need to know about it,” was his response and she nodded. “We can either wait and see if they come for it, or chase this one off and follow it.”
“Chase it off? Greater, you just keep on being a brute no matter what, don’t you?”
But Dash broke in, “I don’t think we have much choice. It just fell asleep.”
Which it had. Crumpled down on the mossy loam and curled up in sleep. Star laughed and walked up to examine the great head closely. “It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it? With those big blue eyes. And it’s weird not having fur on her face and legs, but really, this hide is lovely, all pink and smooth.”
Star was under the impression at the time that the fuzzy, faded red sweater on the native’s upper body was fur. It came as a more mild shock later, when the sweater was removed and they saw a being that was essentially naked except a head crest of curly yellow hair that didn’t even go down past the neck.
“You know, chazzrs are really cute when they’re little,” Greater Than said. “But when they mature what do they do? Run around biting your feet and spreading disease.”
“So the grown ones might be vicious monsters? That’s a happy thought.”
“That’s who killed the animal with the guts and made those noises,” Dash blurted out.
“Maybe,” Greater Than amended. “The size they must be, those entrails might have been from one of them, from a sentient giant. We might have seen a murder site. Maybe cannibalism.”
“Mr. Cheerful strikes again,” Star snorted. “Or maybe they’re sweet cute things like this Younger here and will give us treasures when they see that we saved their kit.”
“You think they might have treasures?” Dash asked hopefully, drawing a scornful snort from Greater Than.
“If there are huge adults, then they have to be the ones who built the cities and aircraft Point said he saw.”
Greater Than nodded. “So they’re civilized. And might not be hostile. You want to take that chance?”
She had to think about it, then had to say no.
“Meanwhile,” Greater Than went on, “There’s not that much light left. Maybe you should start back.”
“Back?” Star shook her ears, laughing, when she told me about it. The big lummox thinking he could get rid of her. “That’s a kit, there. Exhausted and asleep out in the forest alone where there are carnivorous animals. Totally defenseless.”
“Defenseless? She could eat you up in two bites.”
That sobered Star, as any such reference did for a long time. “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”
Star leaned over laughing as she told me about it. “Greater Than said he was sorry. Can you believe it? He’ll be cooking and carrying kits around before we know it.”
But he continued, “I think it’s big enough to handle one of those red killer beasts.”
“Really? While it’s asleep? And maybe that killer monster was just a kit, too. Ever think about that? Maybe there’s others three times as big. Maybe those guts we found were from some huge monster and they killed it for self-protection. She’s a kit alone in the wilderness: I’m staying with her until I know she’s safe.”
“No need,” Greater Than rumbled. “I’m staying here to either identify the adults from this species when they show up or track her back to wherever they live.”
The two glared at each other for a moment until Dash broke the confrontation by saying, “Well, I can’t leave you two out here with nobody to take care of you, so I guess I’m staying, too.”
Star laughed and ruffled his crest, and Greater Than dropped the subject.
With that decided, Star gave the sleeping monster a closer inspection, fingering her hair, which was much coarser than our own, of course. And admiring the translucent smoothness of pink hide. “Just adorable,” she told me, “Even being that big. I just wanted to hug it and make it smile.”
Your young, by some strange irony, are exactly our idea of what cute is, slick as kits, big heads and eyes. Just as our young are the epitome of cuteness to you. I try not to think about that having any possible scientific significance.
“Stay or go,” Greater Than told them, “It’s getting dark. If we’re going to vigil this giant kit, we need to make a bivouac.” One of those wonderful words from the military vocabulary of this world. And just as he said it, the native kit woke up.
It woke up stretching and blinking those eyes as big as our faces, opening wide a mouth full of enormous teeth, but rounded rather than sharp, as Greater Than had pointed out after he made an inspection of the sleeping creature; more attuned to military evaluation than adoration of darlingness.
The giant sat up, looked around, saw our threesome and squealed. Then snatched Dash up bodily and lifted him to its open mouth.