Sunday, February 25, 2007

Unicorns On Octavion

By O'Neil De Noux

Along the farthest reaches of the Milky Way hovered a sun-kissed planet of brightly colored oceans, vast forests, and plateaus that stretched as far as the eye could see. When humans first came to Octavion, they were amazed, like children in a toy store, and named all the places for their vivid colors: the Sapphire Sea, the Copper Plateau, the Indigo Forest.

Many people settled on Octavion, bringing with them their machines and computers, their ideas and books, even their plants and animals. Soon the inevitable clash of worlds began, and Earth's creatures--cows, horses, cats, dogs, and fish--edged aside Octavion's native species. After thirty years and a million human inhabitants, the Indigenous Creatures Act was passed to protect Octavion's wildlife. No longer could anyone import creatures from other planets.

One summer evening, as the huge Octavion sun hung just above the horizon, a twelve-year-old girl named Dana learned what the Indigenous Creatures Act was all about.

Sitting on a bench beneath a towering spearmint tree, Dana spied a movement beyond the low stone wall at the edge of the campgrounds. Something stepped up from the Charcoal Plain. The waning sunlight glimmered on its silver horn, and its golden mane flowed in the warm breeze. Dana knew it was a unicorn, and her heart beat furiously. The unicorn poked its nose over the wall and nibbled the coral leaves of the bush just inside.

Dana sat frozen, afraid to blink, and gazed at the graceful creature. It ate every leaf it could reach before turning and moving away. Crouching, Dana hurried to the wall and watched the unicorn disappear into the growing darkness.

The bell rang. Suppertime at Mrs. Miniver's Summer Camp for Girls. Dana hurried to the dining hall, the last to arrive. Her heart thumped with her secret safely inside.

Her friend Joanie ran up to her. "Dana, where have you been?"

"Reading," Dana answered.

"Reading at summer camp? What fun is that?" Joanie said. During supper, Joanie talked about sports and her friends back home. Dana only half listened, thinking about the unicorn. She imagined it racing between the dark gray rocks of the Charcoal Plain, rearing on its hind legs and snorting, then scratching the ground with its front hoofs before stepping over to let Dana pet it.

Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow I'll gather as many leaves as I can. Then I'll pile them on top of the wall and wait.

The next day, all the campers went swimming at Lake Robin. While Joanie splashed and laughed with the other girls, Dana sat with Mrs. Miniver, who told her that the lake water matched the color of a robin's egg. Dana had never seen this kind of egg, nor a robin for that matter.

Dana and her big brother, Vincent, had been born on Octavion. Their mom and dad had come from Earth, and they'd often said how lucky Dana and Vincent were to live on a planet without pollution. Like most native Octavions, Dana had seen many things from Earth, like unicorns, only in photographs-until the previous evening. But it wasn't even a photo of a unicorn she'd seen before--it was a drawing. And Vincent had said that unicorns didn't exist.

Turning to Mrs. Miniver, Dana asked what she knew about unicorns.

"There are no unicorns," Mrs. Miniver said. "There never were, not even on Earth. They are mythical creatures, like mermaids and fairies."

Joanie splashed water on two other girls, who screamed. Dana closed her eyes and imagined mythical creatures, mermaids and unicorns, splashing together in the shallow end of Lake Robin. A spray of water in the face, from a giggling Joanie, brought Dana out of her daydream.

"Come swim with us!" Joanie said.

With a sigh, Dana walked into the pale blue waters of the lake.

That evening, Dana was putting coral leaves on the wall for the unicorn when Joanie came looking for her. "What are you doing?" she asked.

Dana looked around guiltily and tried to think of something to fool her friend, but there was no way to make Joanie leave.

"Can you keep a secret?" Dana asked. Joanie nodded, and Dana led her friend to the bench. They sat together in silence. "What are we waiting for?" Joanie asked. Dana shushed her. "You'll see."

As the sun was about to set, Dana spotted the golden mane and the gleam of silver. The unicorn came out of the dimness, walking toward the leaves on the wall.

Joanie let out a long breath, and Dana shushed her again. Noises behind the girls, some of their friends horsing around, made the unicorn lift its head twice, but it kept moving along the wall, eating.

Dana didn't see the second unicorn until she heard it whinny. It stepped up to the wall, where it joined the first in nibbling the coral leaves. Joanie grabbed Dana's arm and squeezed. Dana hoped her friend could keep quiet.

The second unicorn was slightly smaller than the first. Dana thought it was a filly and the other a stallion.

The unicorns finished eating the leaves, then turned and moved away. Dana ran to the wall, with Joanie right behind, and they watched the smaller unicorn nuzzle the bigger one as they disappeared into the gathering darkness.

A few minutes later, the girls sat back down on the bench. "What's wrong, Dana?" asked Joanie. "You look so sad."

"What if someone wants to catch them--or even hurt them?"

"Why would anybody do that?" Joanie's voice caught. Dana could see the worry in her friend's eyes now.

"Maybe that's what happened to unicorns on Earth," Dana said.

Joanie nodded slowly. "But I heard Mrs. Miniver say there weren't any unicorns on Earth. Ever. "So she had been listening.

"But they're here, aren't they?" Dana said.

"Yes, and we need to protect them. What can we do?"

If only I could talk to Dad, Dana thought. He was out "in the field," as he put it, not at his office or at home. He had given Mrs. Miniver an emergency contact number, but she would want to know why Dana needed to talk to him.

"You know," Dana said after a few minutes of silence, "these might be the last unicorns in the universe." She felt a sudden chill, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck.

At breakfast the following morning, Dana sat with Joanie. She felt nervous and frustrated. Her father would know exactly what to do about the unicorns. If she could keep anyone else from finding out about them until then, everything might be O.K. But she had to do something.

As she pushed her food around on her plate, a plan began to form. "I think we should follow them," she told Joanie.

"Follow them? Onto the Charcoal Plain? But that's dangerous!"

"They must live close by," Dana said. "We can bring flashlights and water bottles and food." Then she explained that, if they could show her father where the unicorns lived, he could find a way to protect them.

"Your dad? How can he protect them?" Joanie asked. "That's what he does," Dana said with pride. "He's a ranger. Like a police officer, but out in the wilderness. He helps animals as much as he helps people. He puts poachers in jail."

"So we follow the unicorns tonight?"

"Yes," Dana said. "We follow them wherever they go."

The unicorns came early that evening, and Dana worried that someone else might see them--but all the other girls were busy rehearsing for the camp play or bouncing basketballs in the gym.

The filly came first, with the stallion right behind, and they nibbled the leaves on the wall. Dana found she was holding her breath as she turned her head to make sure no one else was watching.

When the unicorns moved away, Dana picked up her knapsack. Then she and Joanie climbed over the wall and started out onto the darkening Charcoal Plain.

Twelve-year-old Dana has lived on the planet Octavion all her life. While she's at Mrs. Miniver's Summer Camp for Girls, she sees a pair of unicorns, creatures she's always heard did not exist. Dana and her friend Joanie fear that someone else will discover the unicorns, maybe even harm them. Because Dana's dad is a ranger--a person who protects Octavion's natural wildlife--she believes that he'll be able to keep the unicorns safe. She and Joanie decide to find out where they live and tell him. Before sunset, the girls slip away to follow the unicorns onto the darkening Charcoal Plain.

The unicorns moved across the plateau at a leisurely pace, twisting around the dark gray rocks and occasional boulders. Their trail wound its way toward the Cranberry Hills. Dana and Joanie followed close behind. Darkness enveloped them as they neared the first hill, but they could still see the white unicorns up ahead.

A high-pitched howl made Dana jump. Then the girls heard footfalls behind them. Joanie grabbed Dana's hand.

"What's that?" Joanie whispered. Dana heard a low growling, followed by more footfalls.

"Come on." Dana pulled Joanie along. Joanie tripped over a rock and fell. Dana helped her up as the unicorns seemed to vanish straight into the side of a hill.

"Where'd they go?" Joanie asked.

Dana took a hesitant step forward, reached into her knapsack, and pulled out the flashlights. She passed one to Joanie.

It took them ten minutes of frightful to find the entrance to a cave.

"I don't want to go in there," Joanie said.

"Then stay out here by yourself!" Dana stepped into the cave mouth and shone her light around the dark red walls. She didn't want Joanie to know how scared she was, so she clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering and continued walking into the cave. Joanie followed.

Swinging her flashlight around, Dana could see the cave was so wide, the beam barely reached the walls and the ceiling. Something small scurried past, making Dana jump and Joanie screech.

"Was that a snake?" Joanie asked.

"There are no snakes on Octavion," Dana said. "There aren't supposed to be any unicorns, either." Dana swallowed and paid more attention to the floor as they inched forward. She didn't realize that she was hearing something until the sound grew louder. Running water. The girls swung their beams around, but there was no water in sight. It took a few moments to decide that the sound came from up ahead.

They made a turn to the right, and suddenly their beams seemed to go on forever, without hitting any walls. Dana focused on the floor again and saw that, just a few footfalls away, the ground sloped downward. They had reached another opening into the cave.

The sound of water was louder now, coming from below. "There must be a stream or river down there," Dana said.

"What do we do?" Joanie's voice broke.

"We wait until morning.

"All night--in here?"

"Do we have a choice? We don't know, what's out there. And I don't want to go back across the plain at night. Do you?"

Joanie shook her head.

Dana moved to a cave wall and dropped her knapsack, then reached inside for the fire log and lighter. "This fire should last eight hours." She assembled a circle of rocks around the log. It ignited slowly, but once aflame, it filled the cave with light. The girls settled with their backs against the wall and watched the flickering shadows dance.

"There's no way I can sleep," Joanie said with a sigh. Ten minutes later, she nodded off, still sitting Up.

Dana closed her eyes and listened to the soothing sound of the gurgling water. When sleep finally came to her, she dreamed about the unicorns. She saw them playing in a stream, bouncing and rearing up, then racing across a wide plain.

Paul, Dana's dad, stood at the summer camp wall, a powerful flashlight in his hand. Seeing nothing, he looked back at the girl standing next to Mrs. Miniver. "What did Joanie tell you?" he asked.

The girl spoke quickly, explaining how Joanie had bragged about a secret she and Dana discovered out on the plain. "I think it was some kind of animal," the girl said.

Pointing the flashlight back over the wall, Paul spotted footprints in the charcoal dust. Two sets of prints led across the plateau. He climbed over the wall and crouched low, looking at the ground. There were other prints, too. Hoofs. Turning to where his fellow rangers were assembled, Paul said, O.K., they walked off this way."

A worried ranger stepped forward with her flashlight. "They crossed the plain by themselves? At night?"

"It certainly looks that way. Come on." The other rangers followed Paul on the trail of the footprints. He didn't have to say that the rescue mission couldn't wait until morning. Not with two young girls lost on the Charcoal Plain.

Paul forced himself to remain calm. He would find Dana and Joanie---he'd never stop looking until he did. He whispered a silent prayer that the girls hadn't stumbled upon anything dangerous. He also told himself that Dana was smart enough to be careful.

Locating the footprints through a patch of overgrown weeds was difficult. Suddenly there were other tracks--large, lizard-like ones. Paul felt his heartbeat rising as he swung his flashlight around, then pointed it back toward the ground. He couldn't identify the tracks--could they be a predator's?

"Oh no," he said, picking up his pace. The plain became rockier, and there were no more tracks. The other rangers stopped walking and gathered around Paul, who immediately called for reinforcements on his radio. Then he turned to everyone else. "We need to spread out in twos. Keep in touch by radio and move south by west."

As the team split up, Paul thought to himself that, as soon as it was light, he'd call for a hovercraft; then the rangers could look for the girls from the sky.

Worried now that he'd never find Dana and Joanie, Paul continued walking in the direction their last tracks seemed to lead.

A feeling of warmth on Dana's face woke her up, but it wasn't the fire log, which had gone out. It was sunlight streaming into the cave. She stood, shielding her eyes from the golden glow--a shimmering that bounced and danced outside the cave opening. It was something magical.

Dana hesitated, then reached out, her hand moving toward the brightness. She took a deep breath and forced her eyes open --and before her was an incredible sight. It took a moment for the dazzling colors to register.

A trail led out of the cave, down to a silver river so shallow that she could see the bottom. There were emerald boulders and fields of lush grass separated by stands of indigo trees and long rows of coral-leafed bushes. As she looked around, Dana saw that the cave opened onto a deep valley surrounded by the Cranberry Hills.

And, grazing on the grass, just ahead of her, stood a herd of unicorns. Two foals raced each other, rearing and shaking their heads, golden manes flowing in the warm early morning air.

Dana sat down and watched the unicorns. Joanie soon awoke and joined her. They didn't say anything for a long time.

At last, Dana spoke. "We can't let anyone see this. If we do, they'll put the unicorns in zoos or kill them for their horns."

"It'll be our secret," Joanie said.

Three unicorns moved to the river and drank, then began playing in the water, bouncing and s with a stomping of hoofs. They were joined by the foals, and the play continued until all settled down and began to nibble the grass again. Some ate the coral leaves off the bushes.

"I'm hungry," Joanie said, digging into the knapsack. She pulled out some protein bars and two bottles of water.

"Bet that water down there is cooler," Dana said, then froze as she heard footfalls behind them. The girls turned and looked into the cave.

A man and a woman in ranger uniforms rounded the last turn inside the cave and stopped. The woman took another step forward and squinted, having trouble seeing through the shimmering light.

"You wouldn't happen to be Dana?" the woman asked. Dana nodded. The woman pulled a radio from her belt and spoke into it. "Paul, I found the girls. They're both fine. We're in the southeast cave."

"Oh, thank goodness!" Dana's dad said. "Stay with them till I get there."

"Will do." Putting the radio away, the woman turned toward the girls. "You are all right?"

Dana's chin sank, and she left it to Joanie to say, "Yes. Are we in trouble?"

The woman smiled and looked down at the valley. "Lovely, isn't it?"

"Yes," Dana said. "I've never seen anything like it."

It took Dana's dad ten minutes to arrive. He rushed into the cave and stopped a few feet away to put his hands on his knees and catch his breath. A bunch of men and women stopped behind him.

When he stood upright, he opened his arms, and Dana moved toward him. He hugged her harder than she'd ever been hugged before. Then he brushed her hair from her face and asked if she and Joanie were all right.

"Yes," Dana said. "It was my idea. We stayed here all night. Joanie wanted to go back, but I wouldn't let her."

"Whatever possessed you to cross the plain like that?" His eyes narrowed.

Dana shook her head, grabbed her dad's hand, and pulled him over to the cave opening. Then she pointed down at the unicorns. "We followed them from camp.

Her dad called back to the other rangers, and several came forward with tools in their hands. I

"What are you going to do?" Dana asked.

"We' re going to seal off this cave and two more that open onto the valley, to keep the unicorns from getting out on the plain again. That's what we've been doing these last few weeks, preparing to set it up."

"Set what up?"

Her father looked back at two rangers carrying a large piece of clear plastic.

"Come on, let's get out of the way." Dana's dad led the girls back through the cave.

Dana suddenly stopped. "I'd like to tell the unicorns good-bye."

Her father smiled. "What for? As soon as they set up the viewing station, we can come back and watch them any day."

"Viewing station?"

Her father prodded the girls along. "It's a miracle we've kept this a secret. The only way we can protect the unicorns is to keep them in their valley and let people watch them from the caves. Nobody goes in, and nothing comes out."

"So you won't take them to a zoo?" Joanie asked.

"No. And no one will hurt them." I

They stepped from the cave, passing more rangers carrying plastic sheets. Dana took her dad's hand as they moved toward his Land Rover. "They are the most beautiful animals I've ever seen," she told him.

"Yes, but that big lizard whose tracks followed you two from camp wasn't very pretty."

"What big lizard?"

Her dad stopped and pointed to the tracks next to his vehicle. The girls looked at them and shuddered.

Before climbing into the Land Rover, Dana glanced back at the cave. She closed her eyes and imagined the unicorns again. Their silver horns glowed in the morning sunlight, and their golden manes danced as they raced across the grass. She smiled, knowing that now they were safe-v-and that she'd be able to see them whenever she liked.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home