“Animals of Ure” by Daryna Stremetska

18 min read

English translation by Maksym Bakalov

The air in the space suit tasted of rubber. It wasn’t a big deal — they were almost certain that the atmosphere of Ure was suitable for humans. They only put their space suits on as a precaution. According to the Royal Archive, it’s been 20 years since servants of His Majesty Ludwig CVIII set foot on this planet. Who knows what may have changed.

The hatch of the spaceship opened with a pshh, and for an instant the astronauts were blinded by the shining green. Ariel, keen to get the feel of real, non-metallic land under his feet, got out. He was short, and the grass reached his waist. The long beep of the space suit sensor indicated that the air was suitable for breathing, and he pulled off his helmet. His lungs filled with the humid air of Ure. For a moment, Ariel felt sorry for the two carybaras who had to leave this beautiful planet and spend the rest of their lives on the desert-like Kare. But such was His Majesty’s will.

“Hey!” Greg said through the helmet. “Are you going to pick up your equipment? The day’s four hours shorter here, you know.”

“Coming,” said Ariel, but before turning back, he looked up at the forest that stretched wide like a wall. The forest looked back at him. Its eyes were neither kind nor evil. Only wary. The carybara who had watched their landing also showed little emotion. But he sure knew what he was going to do.

***

“Okay, one more time,” said Greg, while Ariel checked his equipment. “Zoologist told me that there are no big animals here, except for our pair of relict carybaras, but there are a few species of bitey insects. Our ‘friends’ should be good-natured and primitive, but I wouldn’t really count on that, so take this,” he tossed one of the stun guns to Ariel and showed him his net-equipped handcuffs.

“Have you checked the interpreters?” asked Ariel.

“Yes. Mine is acting up, so you will do the talking. Let’s go.”

When they entered the forest, there were still ten hours until the sunset. In that time, they had to reach the rock somewhere inside the forest where the carybaras lived, fetch them and take them back to the ship. However, they could face a few problems. One — the carybaras may not be there. Or anywhere. If this happens, they would have to spend at least a week there, and even that may not save them from the anger of His Majesty. Carybaras had to be brought back. And two — they may not get there by sunset. In that case… well, in that case they would see. Maybe they would spend the night in a cave.

“And besides,” said Greg, “they’re a male and a female. How can we be sure we aren’t marching towards a bunch of crazy herbivores?”

“They live very long,” Ariel said. “So long, in fact, that they have seen severe climate change which made them barren,” he added, thinking to himself, “Maybe they’re even lucky that we’re taking them with us. Maybe the climate of Kare will suit them better.”

The trees grew thick, and here and there they had to use lasers to get through, but the further they went, the clearer it got. At last, feeling like they broke through a wall, Ariel and Greg found themselves in a sort of a courtyard where there was now some room to move. It was getting hot, but that was not the problem. The insects were. They swarmed, they buzzed, they flew right in your face. The visors helped, of course, but you still had to wipe them every now and then.

A third of their time had passed. The rock was now about half an hour away, and they decided to take a break. Greg turned on his ultrasonic repellent, which was supposed to fend off the insects but barely did so. Ariel opened his lunchbox and took out a snake paste sandwich.

“Ureo o?” said someone on the left. Ariel dropped his sandwich on the ground and a big ant immediately crawled on top of it. In the bushes beside them stood one of the carybaras. Greg started up and aimed his automatic net. His other hand was resting on the stun gun. Ariel activated his interpreter just in time to avert a fight.

“Can I have one?” repeated the animal. She stepped out of the bush, and they now saw her pretty white red-spotted fur.

“We… yes, of course.”

Ariel reached into his lunchbox for another sandwich, but carybara said, “Can I have the one on the ground?” She thought about it for a moment and added, “Please?”

Ariel signaled to Greg, and he sat back down.

The three of them ate. At first, it was just Ariel and the carybara, but soon enough Greg joined them too. He was still tense, though everything seemed to be going smoothly. Then the carybara asked them, “You’re scientists, right? You want to see how I live? My name is Doré.”

“Nice to meet you, Doré,” said Ariel. “I’m Ariel and this is Greg. He can’t speak with you, because his voice interpreter is broken, but he can understand us.”

He didn’t say if they were scientists or not, but that didn’t seem to bother the animal. She looked over at Greg and said, “Hi, Greg.” He gave her a thin smile.

On their way to the rock, Doré took the lead. She would often run ahead of them, and they had to follow her by the red spots on her back that showed between the trees from time to time.

“I thought you said they were herbivores,” said Greg.

“She didn’t know it was snake paste,” shrugged Ariel.

“We should’ve used the net while she was close,” he insisted.

“Yeah, аnd then we’d never see the other carybara,” argued Ariel. “We’re doing everything right.”

They reached the rock. Doré was nowhere to be seen.

“Where are you, Doré?” Ariel called.

No reply. Greg gave Ariel a questioning look. He called again. They decided to round the rock and explore.

“Look!” said Ariel and pointed up.

There was a cave mouth, with a winding path leading up to it from behind the rock.

“Oh, you’re here already,” said Doré from behind, startling Greg.

“Where the hell have you been?!”

Doré looked at him confused.

“I don’t understand your friend. What did he say?”

Ariel eyed Greg with a disapproving look and mouthed, “Good-natured.” Then he turned to Doré.

“He was worried that you disappeared. Do you live in that cave?” he pointed up.

Doré nodded. “Let’s go, I’ll show you ‘round.”

Ariel and Greg expected to see a typical smelly burrow stuffed with brushwood. Instead they stepped into a clean, neat cave, floor laid with hay. There were supplies stacked against the far wall.

“This is where I live,” began Doré. “The floor is covered with dried grass. I gathered it down by the forest. And here are my tools,” she showed them a few sticks, each with a different-looking tip. One was for knocking mireh-mireh off the trees, which Ariel imagined to be grape-like fruit. Another was used to rake liana-lilies that flowed into the watering place and made the water undrinkable. The carybara even showed them a feathery stick that resembled a broom. Of all these tools, however, not one looked like a weapon. Everything seemed to serve some household purpose.

“Tell me, Doré, can you build a fire?” Ariel asked, surprised at his own question.

“The kind that breaks out in the forest after a storm and knocks down trees? No, Doré can’t do that. And smoke is bad.”

Ariel breathed a sigh of relief. According to the King’s Address to the Astronauts, which from the year 1013 of Ludwig’s reign had to be used by all his servants as guidance in matters of extraterrestrial intelligence, only creatures that tamed fire were deemed intelligent. Unintelligent life had to be enslaved. As for intelligent life, it was yet to be discovered. None had been found where royal spaceships trod. When this happens, they would issue some new decree. “Though I doubt I will live to see this,” Ariel thought.

While Ariel was chatting with Doré about her simple living, Greg went out and lit his pipe filled with earth smoke. After the cool of the cave the air outside seemed even hotter. Where is the second carybara? He didn’t like that Ariel decided to turn hunting into taming. That animal was way too clever to be tamed. King Ludwig told them to bring the animals for zoo keeping, not for diplomatic talks, so how carybaras took all this was none of their concern. Besides, it was better to deliver them as soon as possible before Ludwig put his anxious mind on something else, or then he wouldn’t even look at the carybaras. He could even get mad that his once most faithful servants weren’t there when he needed them. Suddenly, something hard hit Greg on the side of the head, and he yelped.

There was an insect hovering above him, almost twice the carybara’s size. Between its latticed eyes stuck out something like a hairy but dull horn. The insect flew back, preparing for a new, more vicious charge. It could have knocked Greg off the cliff (what is that thing on its head made of?), but he dodged, catching its thin back wings, and cast his automatic net.

Ariel and Doré, who rushed out of the cave to his scream, watched in horror as the net squeezed and choked the insect, brown juice squirting all about them. When it twitched for the last time, they heard a muffled cry, more a squawk than a buzz. The net went still.

“What has he done!” squeaked Doré. “What happened here?”

Greg was pale and bursting with anger. “Tell your friend she picked a bad place for a home.”

He detached the end of the net from the cuff, pulled out a bottle of gasoline, poured it on the net and flicked a lighter. The net and its contents caught fire.

Greg gave Ariel a worried look. “Don’t tell me it was one of her friends.” But Ariel was as confused as his partner when the carybara cried “no-o-o!”, darted towards the blazing fire, and started stomping it, blind to the flames that burned her legs and sides.

“Can’t you hear?” shouted Doré to them.

But now they more than heard, they saw: a cloud of huge insects was coming to the rock from the left.

“What the hell?” cursed Greg, but he too ran with Ariel and Doré back to the shelter of the cave. They could only sigh with relief when they blocked the entrance from inside with a rock.

The cave was dark. They couldn’t hear what was happening outside.

“Why did he make smoke?” said Doré in disapproval. “You can make food without smoke. Smoke is bad. It attracts them. They’re always hungry.”

“It wasn’t even a fire, just a pipe,” hissed Greg, staring at Doré. “The interesting part is why she hadn’t warned us sooner.”

Ariel switched off his interpreter and shook his head. “She doesn’t know anything about us, and we don’t know that much about carybaras and their life on this planet. You can count us lucky, though. Five minutes ago we could’ve lost the first carybara we’d met.”

“It won’t be much consolation if we die here without food and drink, while those giants swarm out there,” parried Greg. “Have you learned where the second carybara is? Maybe this is some conspiracy against the servants of His Majesty.”

It was not the first time Ariel wondered how every time they were in a state of crisis Greg, a mostly reasonable man, spoke nonsense of intrigues plotted against his (undoubtedly important) person.

“Doré, what do we do now?” he asked the animal cautiously.

“We wait,” said the carybara. “They’ll fly away after a night shower. It pours every night. Been like this for years.”

She shuffled over to the wall somewhere near them, and the hay rustled as she settled down.

“Doré, are you expecting someone? Or do you live alone?” ventured Ariel finally.

For a moment, she was quiet.

“He died,” she said simply. “Lie down and look how we lived, if you want to. But don’t ask me about him.”

Ariel thought that his interpreter hiccupped, but he listened to the carybara and as he lay down, he couldn’t suppress a gasp of surprise. The roof of the cave was covered with paintings that glowed in the dark. They were seeing actual cave art. Greg only sniffed at that and hit the sack, and Ariel sat there for a long time studying the scenes from carybaras’ life that Doré had painted with a mixture of herbs and broken pieces of white stone.

***

Soon enough they heard the sounds of the night shower. The rain hammered on the rock that blocked the archway, soaked through the narrow cracks, and puddled on the floor before the cave mouth. When it was over and they went to open up the entrance again, Greg held a mini-blaster in one hand and whipped out his stun gun with the other as soon as they were finished pushing. All they saw, however, was a quiet, starry night. The leaves were rustling in the breeze. It became clear to Ariel and Greg that the journey back would have to wait till morning.

“Let’s make dinner then?” said Doré brightly.

Although they still had their supplies and Ariel couldn’t understand how you could cook anything without fire, he was glad to help the carybara. Strange though it may seem, he realized that at times he found Doré far more interesting than the thick-skinned Greg. He followed them along as well, but kept his distance, staring intently at the bushes and trees that surrounded them. The carybara took them to the watering place to fill the halves of the muave fruit (twice the size of a coconut) which served as crockery. The rain washed a lot of green into the stream, but Doré didn’t mind.

“It’s generally better to clean up whatever gets washed here, because at times it may be something bad like liana-lillies. But it’s late now, so I will leave it for tomorrow,” she explained.

“And is this something good?” Greg nodded at the grass.

He pulled one wisp out of the water and gave it a twiddle. He sniffed at it, while Ariel translated his words to the carybara.

“It isn’t harmful,” said Doré, watching Greg closely, “but I wouldn’t eat it. Now mireh-mireh that grow over there is a whole different story. Let’s go!

The carybara showed them how to use the stick for knocking mireh-mireh down, and Greg and Ariel even tried it for themselves: they didn’t do too well, but then, these things take practice.

As they carried the fruit to the watering place, the carybara started telling him about her diet.

“If I can’t get mireh-mireh, I can gather some of these leaves. They’re called fooneh. But they need a thorough wash. Over there is where I gather earthnuts, but you should do it by day or you could get bitten by ants.”

When they reached the stream, they heard two splashes by the beach next to them. Ariel looked there, but it was hard to make out anything in such darkness. Greg didn’t seem to notice anything, and Doré had just started filling the muaves with water, scooping with one half and pouring into all the other. One, two, three.

“Did you hear something?” asked Ariel just in case, unwilling to face any more fights.

“No,” said Doré without looking, and then added after a pause, “but other local animals are small, so you have nothing to worry about.”

“Are you going to be much longer?” asked Greg. “While I’m sitting here watching you have the time of your life, those giant insects may be gobbling up my dinner. Should’ve taken the bag with me…”

But Greg’s cans of food were safe, and his paranoia quieted down somewhat. Ariel and Doré ate gathered fruit and nuts that Doré took out of her stash, but Greg took only a bite and then refused to touch them. He liked, however, the cool water that had a pleasant mint taste to it. Doré didn’t eat or drink much but kept telling them cheerily about her life. At some point the carybara even knocked over her improvised cup, spilling all of its contents onto the floor. Under other circumstances, Greg would have probably started yelling or otherwise shown his deep displeasure, but a hearty dinner made him kinder, and he only waved his hand.

When they were getting ready to sleep, Doré asked Ariel, “So you’re already leaving tomorrow?”

“I think so, Doré, yes.” Then, knowing perfectly well why he was asking it and hating himself for that, he added, “Do you want to see our ship?”

“Yes, Ariel.”

The carybara sounded oddly thoughtful. Or maybe just sleepy.

Greg grunted his approval when Ariel told him that the carybara wanted to follow them to the ship. He’d thought Ariel was hopeless, but it seemed the fellow was still good for something. “When we get to the ship, I’ll be able to deal with her even bare-handed,” he thought, falling asleep.

Doré settled by the entrance, and in the other corner of the cave lay Ariel, already sleeping: the day had exhausted him completely. Somewhere on the edge between dream and reality, Ariel was still thinking that tomorrow would be the end of it: the look into the life of carybaras was interesting, but duty is duty.

Greg was dreaming of carybaras: a dozen of them were running around the cave, throwing things around, grimacing at him and behaving in an absolutely insufferable manner. He tried to wake up, but the dream kept a hold on him, and everything went round and round again. At some point, he seemed to have broken through: there were only two carybaras left, and they sat peacefully at the cave mouth, but then the nightmare circled.

***

Greg woke up first. His whole body was stiff, and he rolled over onto his back, groaning. Above him hung the paintings of the scenes from the carybaras’ life. “That’s why I had the nightmares”, he thought. Even now, just looking at them, he felt a sick sensation. Or is it those damned fruit? Greg gritted his teeth, took a deep breath and glanced around for Doré. She was sleeping, as far as he could tell, in the same pose as she had last night. Ariel had to be woken up. He looked very pale and it took him quite a while to wake up.

“Oh, how I miss a soft bed,” he said, yawning.

“What, you’re feeling all stiff too?” asked Greg, suspicious.

“It’s all because of the floor,” dismissed Ariel.

Greg began to doubt whether their last night’s meal had been all that healthy, at least for Ariel and him, but his train of thought was interrupted by the just awoken Doré.

“I totally overslept today,” she said, her voice ringing of apology. “Let’s eat some of your food, if you don’t mind, or else we will be stuck here for much longer.”

Greg agreed and even showed the carybara how to open a tin can when she asked. They ate breakfast in silence. Everyone focused on something of their own and didn’t want to share their thoughts with others. But when they entered the forest, fresh from the rain and the night sleep, they were on the same page again. The carybara ran happily on, calling from the hill the servants of His Majesty were only just approaching. Even though Ariel and Greg still had to wipe the bodies of the insects off their visors every now and then, nothing could spoil their cheery mood. Their mission could be, after all, seen as completed.

By the time they were about fifteen minutes away from the edge of the forest, Doré was already far ahead of them, deaf to their calls.

“If she ran away and we will have to chase her…” began Greg.

“Our carybara’s not going anywhere, you saw what she’s like,” said Ariel.

“Maybe she’ll even like it on the ship,” he thought. He would never admit it to Greg, but he wanted to put off the moment when Doré was taken to the zoo.

The closer they came, the brighter was the sun.

“Something’s not right,” realized Greg. “The sun is shining right into our eyes when it’s supposed to… What if there is a fire?!” and he charged off through the brush.

“She set our ship ablaze!” he threw over his shoulder, but as Greg ran out of the forest he realized he was wrong: their Harpy was all right and ready to take off. Without them.

“What the…?”

Greg discovered that not only his pilot card but also his weapons were missing. Instead, his pockets were packed with rocks. When did this happen? At what point did he stop thinking that they always had to be there with him? The dream of ten carybaras running around the cave no longer seemed so unrealistic. However, there was only a single carybara standing before them.

“Freeze,” said Doré, pointing a blaster at him and Ariel, who finally caught up with them. “Don’t think that I don’t know how to shoot. The war with His Filthiness taught carybaras a lot more than that.”

“What? What war?” Ariel and Greg were so taken aback they didn’t even realize this at first: the carybara was speaking the language of the United Systems of His Majesty Ludwig.

“It’s such a blessing to be blind, Ariel,” said Doré bitterly. “Your wonderful Ludwig kills off one race after another without a shred of doubt, guided by some made-up criteria of ‘civilizedness’ and ‘humanoidness’. Twenty years ago, instead of killing the last two carybaras, who refused to serve him in exchange for slavery, he sent them into exile on Ure. Because such was his whim. But now it’s time to face the consequences.”

“What is this bull…? Before we landed on this damned Ure, I’d never even heard of carybaras!” shouted Greg. “What ‘race’? You’re relict animals that belong to the zoo!”

“So that’s why you were sent here,” she said, smiling. “I don’t feel sorry for you, but I’m not angry with you either.  I could’ve killed you yesterday, feeding you with that grass from the water, but I only made you sleepy. You could’ve tied me and dragged me to the ship, but you let me walk here like a free creature would. It’s possible to live here, you’ve even seen how. As for Kare, it will soon go up in flames. Goodbye.”

Greg jumped at the carybara, but she zapped him mercilessly with the stun gun. Ariel caught him under his arms and stared in shock at Doré.

“Ready for takeoff”, came the voice of the carybara pilot.

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