Sitting in the pilot’s seat, Marten watched the white streaks of the zooming by stars, serenity slowly filling his mind. The little two-seater trembled every now and then, swaying in the solar winds like a seabird flying over the ocean on a breezy, moonless night. The soft, low hum of the protoengine filled his fuzzy ears with a gentle buzz.
A panel—and there were so many of them in the cockpit—lit up red. Something about an incoming meteor shower. Marten wiped the notice away with his paw and leaned back in the pilot’s seat that fit his body perfectly. The ship swayed and the warning returned on the main display. COLLISION IMMINENT, the letters blinked, REDUCE SPEED NOW. A chittering alarm accompanied the message. Marten nodded to himself and scratched his muzzle. Quite suddenly he had realized that he did not know how to reduce speed. Nor, in fact, did he know how to do anything in the ship, apart from sitting in the chair.
Something is more than nothing, he thought to himself, trying to paw at the various controls—and there were so many—but somehow they had moved out of his reach. He tried leaning forward, just a paws length, and the buttons and levers had gone now even further. COLLISION, the display blinked, IMMINENT, and then flashed back to COLLISION, as he tried to reach them. The chitter of the alarm grew louder and louder, and then the meteors came. The ship smashed into the thick blanket of space rocks and Marten was yanked out of his seat and, with a start, found himself back in his sleeping bag at the camp.
The sky was still dark and the forest silent but for the stray sleeptalking cry of a bird here and there—it was well before morning. And that chitter from his dream was there as well. He turned towards the noise and peered into the darkness. In a moment his eyes picked out the shapes of Rabbit and Bear huddled together. In another moment he could see their faces thoughtfully pointing up but in different directions.
“Morning,” Marten said and, as Rabbit turned towards him, the chitter suddenly stopped.
“Morning,” Bear said.
Marten got out of his sleeping bag and searched for a stick. The glowing embers of the campfire cheerily accepted the invitation once he found one and poked the coals. The camp lit up.
“What’s going on?” he asked, rubbing his beady eyes.
Bear stretched out his paw with a leaf of paper in it. Marten took the paper and read the message.
Marten’s pupils dilated and his free paw automatically started patting the ground behind him for the briefcase until his brain reminded it that the case was strapped to his back.
“Don’t worry,” Bear said with a smile, seeing Marten scrambling.
“We don’t negotiate with tourists,” Rabbit explained, nodding.
“Terrorists,” Bear corrected.
“Tourrrrrrists” Rabbit said, nodding.
“Terrrrrr,” Bear said, stressing the arrs, “terrrrrrr—”
“—terrrrr,” Rabbit repeated.
“—orrrrrrr—” Bear went on syllabilising.
“rrrrrists,” Bear finished.
“Tourists,” Rabbit said, nodding in agreement.
“Terrorists.” Bear shook his head. “Of course not,” he finished.
“What do we do?” Marten asked.
“We should go—” Rabbit started saying.
“—but we don’t know where,” Bear said.
“But we don’t know where,” Rabbit agreed.
“No tracks?” Marten asked. Bear shook his head.
“And so we wait,” Bear said and grumbled.
They sat in silence, waiting, Rabbit’s worried chitter coming and going, when a hoarse whisper coming out of the darkness startled the animals.
“Ihhhhhhhh…” it tried, “ihhhhhh.. mihhhhtt..hhhhh,” the whisper went on but then turned into a cough.
“Oh my…” the voice, no more a whisper, said after a series of hoarse, throat-clearing grumbles. “I meant, I think I could be of assistance.”
An animal, about the height of Rabbit, walked into the light cast by the campfire. It had the most beautiful red and black fur Marten had ever seen, and a matchingly colored and beautiful stripy tail. A complimenting white elegantly accented its muzzle, cheeks and eyebrows and had gone all out on the ears. Red Panda flashed a humble grin.
*** When she woke up, Owl found herself at the bottom of a pit. It was nice and spacious—maybe five owls or so deep, which sufficed, and with a beautiful dark green pine canopy laid over the pit in layers through which stars peeked at intervals.
Lying on her back, she took in the view. A recent piece of work, she appraised, exploiting her non-existent knowledge of pit digging, and nodded to herself approvingly, fine job. Lazily paddling her feet in air, she closed her eyes for one more moment and faint whispers wandered through her ears and into her dreamstate, but she couldn’t tell the words apart. Urged by curiousity, Owl yawned silently and finally rolled onto her feet.
“Hello,” she said to the conferring pack of young wolves a few dozen steps away from the pit, having poked her head through the canopy. She looked all around to the left and then to the right, as owls are perfectly of doing, but apart from the wolves, five in count, nobody was to be seen.
“Hssss,” the wolves hissed between themselves. “Ssshe’ss upp… who’sssss turrrn wasss to watccch herrr? Yoursss–nnno whyy do I havvve ttto watccch herrr I watccched herr beforrre.” The whisper broke into hushed growls and back into whisper as the young wolves argued. Finally, the pack shoved one of it’s members out and he came tumbling down. The wolf seemed to be the smallest of them all.
“Hello,” Owl said again and blinked.
“Umm, hello,” the young wolf said.
“Those are beautiful. Are they sunglasses?”
“Thank you.” The young wolf nervously scratched his ear with the front paw. “No no, just ordinary glasses.”
“Ordinary?” The surprise raised pitch of Owl’s voice half an octave. She had never seen ordinary glasses.
“Ordinary looking glasses, that is.”
“I have never seen ordinary glasses,” Owl said. “Could I try them on? If it’s not too much bother, of course.”
“Of course not,” the young wolf said, “I mean – yes… no… I mean—” he paused and sighed an uhh. He took off his glasses and put them on Owl, who was still just a head poking out of the ground.
Owl gasped as everything in front of her went double, triple, quadruple, and then she got a nasty tickle in the nose. She squinted her eyes really hard and the images came back together.
“It tickles,” Owl said, beaming her magnificent vision like two gigantic moons, staring into the dark. “Is this a conference?” she asked, pointing the spectacles at the pack.
“They are quite strong,” the little wolf agreed, nodding, and returned the glasses to his nose. “A conefearence?”
“Like a meeting,” Owl explained.
“Of sorts,” the young wolf said, nodding. “Iss thiss a conefearrransse?” he hissed towards his pack. All of the pack suddenly hushed and looked at him “A cccampearranccce?” it hissed back. “Likkke a meeetinggg,” the young wolf explained. “Offf sorrrrtsss,” the pack replied, bobbing it’s heads.
“EXCUSEMECOMINGTHROUGH!” after emerging from a bush, a grouse blared into Owl’s ear. He ran over the clearing and was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
Owl blinked towards the bush the grouse jumped into, and turned back to the young wolf, having remembered something. “I can’t remember how I got here,” she said.
“That is because you were asleep.”
“Oh?” Owl wondered, “did you by any chance see me digging this pit?”
“That was our doing.”
“I see,” Owl said. “Did it take long?”
“Not at all.”
“It is a very fine pit.”
“And look at all the stars,” she said, bending her head back.
“Yes, beautiful,” the young wolf agreed.
“Quite so… It’s a bit brisk, don’t you think?”
“Just a little bit.”
“I think the autumn is coming.”
“Don’t you love autumn?”
“Autumn is nice.”
“Autumn is my favourite,” Owl went on enthusiastically, her voice rising in pitch and volume. “Because then you can wear gumboots. Don’t you like gumboots?”
“I’ve never worn gumboots.”
“Yes,” Owl said. “Getting the larger sizes can be problematic.” Talking about gumboots always excited Owl, and her voice rose another notch. “And what if they only have one colour and it’s not your favourite colour?” she squeaked. “What’s your favourite colour?”
The young wolf hummed. He was not much used to neither chatter nor to think about colours. “The purple ones are nice, I guess,” he said after a thoughtful moment.
“Hssss…” one of the other wolves irkedly hissed turning away from the pack that was still conferring about something in an all-heads-together fashion. The wolf that hissed was at least a head taller than the young wolf in glasses, and much stockier. “Keeeppp ittt downnn orrr we willl havvve herrr for lunccch,” he said.
“Yooou willl havvve to waittt quittte a whillle thennn,” the young wolf hissed back.
“Annnd whyyy woulddd thattt beee?” the stocky wolf hissed, verging on a growl.
“Yesss, ‘caussse it’sss not even clossse to breakfassst.” Glasses or not, the young wolf had had enough of being bossed around for one sleepless night.
During the exchange, a very different, barely audible psst came in owlish from behind Owl. A white-eared, red-muzzled little animal was waving at her from the shadows. Owl gave the animal a wide smile, and obliviously turned back to the young wolf. “Purples are beautiful,” she said. “Especially with a little bit of teal or turquoise, and maybe pink.”
The young wolf wondered out loud to Owl as to whether teal was more purplish or black, when he was rudely interrupted by the noise of breaking branches running through the forest. The noise stopped at the end of the clearing closer to the pack, and Bear emerged from the woods. His step had a dreary determination that made him seem big and invincible. He walked towards the wolves with a stern look and not a trace of doubt on his face.
“Hello there,” he said, stopping two dozen steps before the pack. Bear’s gaze slowly drifted from one wolf to the next one, the intensity of his gaze pressing down heavily as it went, allowing each wolf to feel his determination for a short but difficult to forget moment.
Individually, the wolves were no threat to Bear. Handling a pack, however, was an entirely different matter. “About those books—”
“—foolish of you to have come here,” the stocky wolf interrupted with a snarl that shook the rest of the pack out of the trance and they bared their teeth in warning.
“I would have preferred not to, indeed,” Bear said with a fleeting nod, and took another step towards the pack. The wolves started to growl in a chorus, a revving rumble of an irritated hornet’s nest.
Back by the pit, with his attention held fully captive by the quickly escalating events, the young wolf whimpered. “I was afraid something like this would happen,” he said plaintively, turning back to Owl, only to find her wholly gone from the pit. He just barely caught the wide smile she was giving him as a little stripy animal, without making even a pip, nimbly carried her feet-over-head into the bushes. The young wolf suppressed an escaping yelp—the last thing he now needed was extra attention. The plan to capture Owl had been his to start with and he’d be toast if the pack discovered her absence. All he had wanted, was to avoid fighting, but there was clearly no way out of that now. The young wolf sighed and tiptoed into the bush after the stripy animal.
Even with Owl aloft above its head, the animal was moving with incredible speed. Not being the best of the trackers, it was very important that the wolf wouldn’t be noticed or, sure enough, they would shake him off. Crawling on his belly at times and skip-hopping at others, he followed through the woods, pulling air through his nose on every third step and exhaling through his mouth on every fifth, as he had been taught. He was not sure how well it was working, but the stripy animal did not seem to have noticed him.
After a few minutes of running, Bear joined the group, jumping out of pretty much nowhere. He snatched Owl from the stripy animal and, without exchanging a single word, they picked up the pace. The young wolf didn’t have to worry about being spotted anymore as the party was going at breakneck speed. He could hear his pack trailing behind a good distance away and nearing.
The sun was crawling out of its slumber and brightening the sky as they went and the young wolf now realized that the animals were running towards the camp, of course. And they were, indeed, soon in the clearing. The massive raft that he had seen in the night was now standing in the river. Rabbit waved as he saw Bear coming and the young bespectacled wolf suddenly realized that he did not have a plan at all. He dropped to the ground as he saw Bear turning around to look for signs of the pursuing pack. After a while, satisfied with the results, Bear turned back, stepped on the raft, and pushed it from the bank. The raft slowly floated away.
The young wolf looked behind himself, where the noise of the pack was nearing, and then towards the raft. He rolled his eyes as he realized that he had made up his mind. As quickly as he could without losing his stealth, he ran around the clearing towards the raft and then slipped into the river, goosebumps speckling his limbs as the cold water met him. He clenched his teeth and slowly paddled after the raft, careful not to get noticed.
All the bags had been stacked on the back end of the raft and that’s where he silently and very carefully finally managed to put his front paws on, as the first sun beams shone through the forest. The young wolf let out a trembling exhalation and closed his eyes.