Chapter Twenty Two — Of the Wilderness
They woke up early and gathered their gear in silence, a little chilly in the brisk morning air. The sun was peeking above the horizon making the edge of the planet glow an intense yellow. The dragons had assembled in a circle around the small group, faithful to their ancestral instinct to protect their young. Seen from above their group resembled a gigantic blue flower with its center swarmed by bees.
They finished packing and as they started towards the living boundary the dragons flew out of their way to let them pass opening a gigantic gate made of scales and wings into the sky. The leader of the pack started a V formation and the dragons took off together to guide the humans on their way.
The light was still scarce when they arrived to the gentle hummock projected on the horizon; they strolled quietly following grade and slowly advanced to the top where they stopped to take in the peaceful mirror of the sea, the wavy contours of the hills, the blue green vegetation softening sharp stony edges. The dragons stopped with them, re-forming their protective circle around the youngsters.
Lily had suggested through the interlink to stop and rest. Her peers were so used to this means of communication they didn’t even form fully phrased thoughts anymore, they just advanced their intentions in some sort of shorthand, mixing in images and Purple music and making the condensed language almost unrecognizable.
There was no real schedule of activities for this adventure, they had decided at the beginning of the trip to go where the exploration took them. The dragons made things much easier by guiding them to the places they thought most worthy of seeing based on their interests and instincts: clear waters, sheltered valleys, thick clumps with yummy things to eat.
The group took some soil and rock samples, fed a tiny schist to Purple so the immortals could perform their own analysis and took a much closer look at the low bristle laying at their feet. The rough foliage resembled junipers but on closer look their entire branches consisted of one singular leaf, fringed like an eyelash and twirling around itself all the way to the top. Every so often the plant grew a spiky thorn on the strand, thorn which was really hard to discern by just looking at them but was immediately made evident to the skin if one had the misfortune to brush against it. The vegetation was all the same, as if Soléa had been too lazy to evolve its plant life. The latter only came in two flavors: bristly blue green low growth and cotton candy pastel Oma trees.
You couldn’t help but feel peaceful on Soléa, it emanated peace from every rock, body of water and cloud in the sky, but its peacefulness was cold and sparse, elating and chilling the human heart at the same time. No matter how many people were around on the shining blue gem next to the heart of Scorpius one felt alone, in part because the constant winds impeded conversations by dampening every sound, and in part because everything in the landscape felt so solemn and intimidating one was compelled to silence without even realizing it.
Lily had been dreaming about this kind of adventure ever since she could remember and just another habitable planet in a neighboring galaxy was nothing compared to her lofty dreams of space exploration, but even if she wasn’t going to admit it Soléa intimidated her. Every time she caught a glance of the biosphere Gemma had made for Jimmy and Jenna her heart was filled with longing for the warmth of home.
For the deep space traveler it was the night sky that made all the difference and she spent months on end sitting outside to watch the stars, trying to recognize familiar constellations, even if some of them were skewed, backwards or upside down, and charting the new ones as fast as she could manage. She felt like Magellan gazing at never before seen stellar fields, proud to give them names, soon becoming as familiar with many of them as an earthly stargazer would be with Ursa Major or the North Star.
The telescope they had brought from Terra Two wasn’t the most sophisticated but it still fed Lily’s hunger to see behind the stars in front of her, to wonder at constellations she really couldn’t see from Earth or Terra Two, just a few tens of light years past the edge of the ‘visible universe’.
She gazed at the places past the veil of physical limitations avid to see if the reality beyond was any different, as if it were what her eyes could see and not the unified laws of physics that organized the structure of matter. The stars beyond the ‘visibility horizon’ looked exactly the same as the ones next to them, maybe a little older due to the added distance and that disappointed her a little.
For a few months they moved around, surrounded by the dutiful dragons who either showed them the way or encircled their group like a living rampart. The travelers didn’t pay too much attention to this detail at first, considering it a peculiar habit of the native species and feeling comforted by their protective instincts, and as time went by they ignored the standard circle formation altogether, much in the way one doesn’t question the color of the sky.
“Don’t you ever wonder what the dragons are trying to protect us from?” Lily asked Jimmy who was sitting next to her and poked at the little camp fire as the sun was getting ready to set. The young man was startled by the question, his mind was wondering back to the home he missed dearly but he couldn’t admit it to the others. During evenings like this when the wind reverberated even louder among the rocky cliffs unsettling thoughts made him restless.
“Protect? No… I don’t know! Why do you think they’re trying to protect us?” he asked, slightly displeased for having been distracted from his ruminations.
As if waiting for a sign, the dragons took flight together, approached the humans, suddenly picked them up in their sharp claws and held them six or seven feet off the ground to the youngsters’ absolute panic. The humans couldn’t understand this completely unexpected behavior and would have started reflecting on the recklessness of allowing themselves to sit unguarded next to a pack of flying aliens endowed with fangs and claws but all their attention got drawn to the ground below: the sharp edged greenery uprooted itself as if summoned by an unseen force and moved away really fast, leaving the ground completely bare. It waved across the landscape in one sweeping motion and settled down a few hundred feet away where the ‘plants’ extended their tap roots into the ground and unfurled their sharp edged fringes as if the move never happened at all. The dragons put the humans down gently and went back to their circle formation.
“What just happened?” Jenna managed to articulate, still in shock.
“I guess we can safely assume the bristle is not a plant,” Lily hesitantly replied. “Makes you wonder about the Oma trees, too. I wonder what started them off now?”
“Transhumance,” Jimmy postulated. “I guess those sharp thorns are not too friendly to the skin. Judging by the dragons’ eagerness even tough scales can’t handle them very well.” He looked at the blue lizards in an attempt to thank them but the reptiles were all fast asleep with their heads hidden under their wings so that the light of the setting sun didn’t get through their eyelids.
“How often do you think this happens!?” Jenna asked, seriously disturbed by the strange phenomenon. Lily would have liked to have an answer to that question as she gazed at the bristle field under the clump of Oma trees back in the distance. They looked so innocently plant like that she paused for a second to wonder if they haven’t been subjected to a group hallucination but the proof was right in front of her eyes or rather missing from underneath her feet.
“I imagine this is why they build their nests on the beach, no moving razor wire,” Jenna continued aggravated. “I feel like I woke up on the set of the Wizard of Oz during the flying monkeys scene. How did they manage to pick us up, they’re a fifth our size! We really should pay a lot more attention to details, what if they were hostile?” she continued blabbing to appease her fear.
Lily didn’t answer. Like travelers from times long gone she had set sail into the unknown to discover lands of wonder and unexpected quirkiness, not knowing what they’ll reveal or if they’ll tolerate her presence and just like the old explorers she relied on pluckiness, sheer luck and the prayers and well wishes of her people to go through her travels unscathed. She made a note to self that the dragons were indeed not vegetarian, at least not in the sense humans attached to the term, and hoped they didn’t think she might taste yummy. It took the group a lot longer to fall asleep that night even though everyone was exhausted by the long hike and the emotional hullaballoo at the beginning of the evening. They lay on the now barren ground uncomfortably eyeing the dragons and wondering what the lizards were going to do next, but the dragons were sleeping like rocks, accustomed as they were to the periodic annoyance and trying to regain the energy they had expanded in their effort.
The news of animals with roots brought sister Joseph back to Soléa faster than the jingle of the ice cream truck lures children to the front door. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail she was right there with the exploration team, loaded with research equipment, solar calendar studies and graphs to track the patterns of the phenomenon.
She had left Josephine on Terra Two out of an unspoken concern the dragon might change its mind and prefer the company of its own kind. The sister had gotten used to having her lizard follow everywhere so she missed her pet and was as she announced to the group upon arrival, not in a good mood.
The youngsters gave her space, respectfully, and went about their business trying to stay out of her way as she deliberately canvassed the planet for months searching for evidence of the bristle displacement until the next migration occurred. A small flock of dragons appointed themselves her sentries and shadowed her wherever she went, just like Josephine, but the sister didn’t manage to mesmerize any of them, no matter how hard she tried. She gave up eventually, admitting that maybe she and Josephine were meant to be; she missed the latter’s conversational screeches and even Sarah’s loud protests against the lizard’s incursions into the vegetable garden.
What the sister found out at the end of two long years of commuting between Terra Two and Soléa was that the bristle moved like clockwork during solstice and equinox following a circular pattern around the planet, always moving east with the prevailing winds in search of rain soaked land where mineral rich water was readily available. She was very eager to find out if the Oma trees were migrating too but unfortunately she couldn’t spend any more time away from her duties.
Anyway, after she contemplated the fact that the ‘plants’ she had brought to acclimate on Terra Two were most likely already migrating, and that between the fragrant cats, the jumping rocks, the children’s experiments with the landscape and the talking ocean there was only so much weirdness a visitor could take she sorrowfully left the treasure trove of exobiology on Soléa and went back home to put together a tourist orientation program before somebody got shaken out of their sanity by eerie events.
Sarah was eagerly awaiting her return in sister Roberta’s lab and gave the traveler such a warm welcome it made sister Joseph wonder if the redhead had lost her mind. Sarah had been in charge of Josephine for the entire duration of sister Joseph’s research trip and the lizard had run her ragged with its whims and its raids on the garden. She gratefully delivered the healthy and plump five headed screecher to its owner and sighed with relief as she watched sister Joseph walk away with Josephine wobbling proudly behind her.
The redhead went back to her healing garden, threw herself carelessly on one of the stone benches in the shade of the pear trees and for the first time in two years, rested.