Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Kino's Journey IV: Chapter 4+5+6

Three short chapters in a row and lots of free time means it's triple update day! Enjoy.

* * *

<<Chapter 3



Chapter 4: Tradition
-Tricksters-


Kino and Hermes visited a small country.

Deep in the densely wooded mountains was a village surrounding a humble little castle. The ivy-coated ramparts surrounded an area tiny enough to circle on a leisurely afternoon stroll.

Kino knocked on the gates and asked to go through entry procedures.

The soldier at the gate was in traditional dress uniform and a helmet. He could not have been happier to hear that Kino and Hermes had never visited the country before.

Picking up the receiver, the soldier made a telephone call. A bell began to toll from inside the walls.

“Our country almost never gets visitors, so I’m just informing my fellow countrymen about you. We’ll throw you the best welcoming party you’ve seen,” the soldier said with a smile.

Soon, the gates opened. Kino pushed Hermes inside. Indeed, they were greeted by a large crowd.

Kino and Hermes were stunned.

The villagers were wearing fake ears on the tops their heads. Two symmetrical ears per person, triangular just like a cat’s.

“Welcome to our country! It’s so good of you to visit!” said a middle-aged man, who seemed to be the leader. He offered Kino a handshake on behalf of the people. His hair was combed back neatly and also topped with a set of brown cat ears.


After introducing themselves, Kino and Hermes were led by the leader—the head of the country—to his office in the castle.

A secretary wearing purple ears served them tea and left the room. The man described the history of the country.

He explained that the castle and the village around it were originally built for a certain royal family to use as a vacation home. That even after the collapse of the dynasty, the people who lived in the area continued to live in prosperity.

They had a small population, but life in the country was peaceful. And the people abided by the tradition of wearing cat ears on their heads.

“This custom comes from the wisdom of the ancients. Cat ears draw out all of our potential adorableness, you see. Even if someone were to get angry, one look at these wiggling ears and he would end up smiling before he knew it. Isn’t it wonderful?” the man pontificated, his ears wiggling all the while. He explained that the people only took off the ears when they styled their hair or grew out of their old ones.

The office was decorated with an old oil painting. It featured a nude woman wearing an elegant smile and a pair of cat ears.

“While you’re here, Kino,” said the man, “why not try taking part in our tradition?”

“What do you mean?” Kino asked.

The man took out a dictionary-sized box from his desk and opened it. Kino peered in and found a pair of black cat ears.

“Wouldn’t you feel isolated being the only one here without them? We can lend you a pair you can wear during your visit. They’re black, just like your hair. We won’t force you, of course, but I think they’ll look splendid on you.”


“He looked pretty disappointed, Kino. You know, it’s not too late to change your mind,” said Hermes.

It was the afternoon of their second day in the country. Kino was taking a leisurely stroll down the narrow streets, pushing Hermes. She had left her things in the room provided to her free of charge, but brought along the black cat ears from the previous day.

Passing children waved at Kino and Hermes. Their colorful ears shook each time they moved their heads.

“Where’re your ears, Traveler?” they asked innocently.

The chubby restaurant manager who served Kino tea and a meal remarked, “My, you’re a lovely young person. But you would look so much better with a pair of cat ears.”

A child pointed at Kino as she looked around the castle. “Mommy, he’s not wearing his ears.”

“Hush, now. That’s a traveler. People from other countries aren’t like us. They don’t have to wear ears,” the mother said.

A middle-aged woman Kino met on the street assured Kino that she would be more popular with men if she wore a pair of cat ears. “In our country, all you need to be popular are a flattering pair of ears. When I was a young lady, I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to make mine look as lovely as possible,” she said, and offered to teach Kino her secrets.


That evening, the country held a celebration to welcome Kino and Hermes. They performed a traditional cat-ear dance, standing in a circle with hands curled like paws as they moved to an upbeat rhythm.

As Kino enjoyed the dance from the sidelines, someone suggested that she also put on her ears and dance.

“I’m afraid I have two left feet. I wouldn’t want to step on any toes,” she replied, turning down the offer. “But I love the dance. It’s splendid. I’m very glad that I came to this country.”


The next morning.

Kino and Hermes left the country, seen off by men, women, and children wearing cat ears.

Once they had passed out of sight, the leader pulled the brown ears off his head with a hint of disappointment. The others also went their own ways, pulling off their ears.

The secretary went up the leader and received his ears. She also took off her own and dropped them in a net basket labeled ‘Returns’.

“She didn’t fall for it to the end,” the secretary said to the leader.

“Indeed she didn’t. Ring the bell and let everyone know it’s finished.”

“I’ve already given the orders, sir.”

“That’s 549 victories to 233 losses. Three victories and eight losses during my term. Hm…travelers aren’t as gullible as they used to be.”

“Unfortunately.”

“Oh well. Now, what should we try next time? We’ll choose a theme and start the preparations immediately. Get a new painting for my office, too…”


Kino and Hermes were going down a path in the woods.

“I can’t believe it was cat ears. It made everyone look adorable, and I almost burst out laughing so many times. The dance was a masterpiece too,” Kino chuckled.

“You should have tried on the ears too. It would have looked good on you.”

“No thanks. It’s not like me to play along like that.”

“Where’s your sense of professionalism?” Hermes asked without an ounce of humor. “Sometimes you have to break out of character to get popular.”

“What are you talking about? …Anyway, it’s like those people have a wellspring of ideas. Which ones have I heard about so far? Putting on turtle shells, wearing lion tails, walking like birds, greeting people with wild dances, bursting into tears when meeting someone, singing at the dinner table…”

“Wearing feathers in their hair, hopping around everywhere and entering rooms right-foot first, eating with their left hands while pointing at the sky, painting their eyelids white, giving a thumbs-up while saying ‘Yeah!’ instead of waving to say hi.”

“Right. I’m going to tell my story to other travelers too. That way they can refuse to play along if they don’t want to. That was really one fun experience,” Kino said, smiling.

“Aww, you’re going to rain on their parade if you do that,” Hermes groaned.


“Come to think of it, the traveler from half a year ago was really the best sport,” the leader said out of the blue as he sat in his office.

“I remember him, sir. That was when we were a people with the long tradition of wearing apples on our heads, no? He even joined us in the apple dance,” the secretary replied.

The leader reminisced nostalgically. “Never have I seen someone who played along with such gusto. He had an appreciation for tradition, the young man. I’d bet you that he had a good upbringing. …I do wish we had more travelers like him dropping by.”


The secretary smiled. “He was the one in the green sweater who drove here on a buggy, right?”



* * *




Chapter 5: The Country Where Work is Unnecessary
-Workable-


“What a beautiful country,” the traveler said, stepping through the gates.

The traveler was in her mid-teens with short black hair. She was in a long brown coat.

“Yeah. It’s been a while since we visited such a clean, modern country. Even the entry procedures were all automated,” said the motorrad the traveler was pushing. The motorrad was laden with travel gear.

Sprawling before them was a well-kept city. Wide, clean streets reached into the distance, and green parks dotted the area. Beautiful buildings arranged in sensible layouts stood in the center of the country.

The setting sun cast a beautiful glow on the skyline’s functional beauty, creating a spectacular view.

“Now what, Kino?” asked the motorrad.

The traveler called Kino replied, “We can look around tomorrow. For now, let’s find a place to stay the night.”

“Sure.”

At that moment, a truck stopped in front of them. No one was driving it.

A machine affixed to the truck said, “Please load your vehicle and step inside. This truck will take you to your destination.”

When Kino asked how much it would cost, the machine replied that the service was free of charge.

“What do you say, Hermes? Should we get a lift?”

The motorrad called Hermes replied, “Yeah. It’ll be faster than finding a hotel ourselves.”

“All right.”

Kino made to push Hermes around to the back of the truck, but the truck beat her to the punch and automatically pulled him onto the bed with a crane. Belts locked his wheels into place.

“Wow,” Hermes exclaimed.

Kino sat in the back seat. Her seat belts were also automatically clasped. Only when Kino and Hermes were both securely fastened did the truck begin to move.

The truck drove down the wide streets, keeping a fixed distance from the other vehicles on the road. In the cars, Kino could see children on their way home from playing in the parks.

The truck made its way to the city center, where the buildings were clustered.

Soon it stopped in front of a large, clean hotel. A robot came out the doors to greet Kino. Her stay would also be free of charge.

Kino and Hermes switched to a smaller vehicle and were led to their room.

The robot bellboy wished them a pleasant stay and left.

“Everything is so convenient here,” Kino said, hanging her coat on the back of her chair. Underneath the coat, she had been wearing a black jacket. On her right thigh was a large hand persuader, and an automatic persuader was secured behind her back.

“We don’t need to do anything for ourselves here,” said Hermes.

Kino began unpacking her things. “I’ve heard about this place before. They say that technology is so advanced that people don’t need to work. Humans have don’t have to do anything.”

“Huh. So what do they do here? Sing and dance every day?”

“Who knows?” Kino replied, tilting her head. “It doesn’t seem like that other country where people lived in isolation from one another. So they must be doing something here, at least. We’ll look into it tomorrow. I can’t wait.”

“If you like what you see, are you gonna settle down here?” Hermes asked.


The next day, Kino rose at dawn.

As usual, she did her exercises, and did drills with her persuaders before maintaining them. Then she took a shower, had breakfast, and smacked Hermes awake a little earlier than usual. He grumbled.

When Kino made to start Hermes outside the hotel, yet another automated truck came to them.

“I don’t need to do anything here. My engine’s going to rust over soon,” Hermes said, although it was not clear if he was happy or upset.

The truck asked Kino for a destination. Kino replied that she wanted to go somewhere where people gathered. The truck said that she needed to be more specific.

Kino thought for a moment before saying,

“Please take me where the people in this country go in the morning.”

The truck acknowledged her request and began driving further into the concrete jungle at the center of the country.

As they neared the orderly buildings, Kino and Hermes noticed that there were more and more cars on the road. Inside the cars were men and women in suits and ties. None of them looked particularly happy.

Soon, the truck stopped in the middle of the buildings. Kino and Hermes disembarked. Other people were doing the same, walking with hurried steps into the buildings. Empty vehicles left and made way for other vehicles carrying people.

Kino watched it all for a time before turning to Hermes. “What do you make of this?”

“They’re people coming to work. It’s just another morning rush hour,” Hermes said.

“That’s what it looks like, isn’t it?” Kino said, confused.

“But don’t the people here not have to work?”

“That’s what I heard.”

Kino looked around and spoke to a middle-aged man who happened to get off a car nearby. But the man brushed her off and disappeared into a building, saying he was busy.

“They all look like they have work to do,” Hermes remarked. Kino tried to enter one of the buildings to ask for more information, but the machine at the entrance stopped her politely, saying entry was restricted to authorized personnel.

Soon, the morning rush hour came to an end. Kino and Hermes were alone on the streets.

“What now?” asked Hermes.

Kino fell into thought. Then she opened her mouth to speak, when a car stopped nearby. The door opened and a young man rushed outside.

The man tried to enter one of the buildings, but was denied entry. He walked away, shoulders slumping.

“Perfect. Let’s ask him.”


“You’re a traveler?” asked the dejected man. He was in his early 20s and wearing a suit with a tie.

Kino, Hermes, and the man were sitting on a bench by a fountain in a park near the cluster of buildings. No one else was around. The man had brought Kino there because it was a quiet enough place to talk.

The man called to a robot in the area and ordered beverages. Then he put a card into a slot in the robot, saying that this was how the people in the country made payments. Soon, the robot served them both tea. Kino’s was free.

“You want to know what I do in there?” the man asked, taking a sip.

“Yes.”

“I work there every day. That’s my occupation,” he said.

“Really?”

“Yeah. They wouldn’t let me in because I was late today. Argh, I can’t believe I slept in…” he groaned, but quickly cheered up. “No crying over spilled milk, I guess. I’m not going to let this happen again.”

“But I thought that machines did everything for you here and you didn’t need to work,” Hermes wondered.

The man nodded, but replied, “But we still have to occupy ourselves.”

Kino gave him a quizzical look.

The man replied, “Ah, I see. Let me explain. This ‘occupation’ I’m talking about is a little different from ‘work’.”

“You mean that your ‘occupation’ isn’t making or selling or providing a service for other people?” Kino guessed.

“Yeah. That’s how things were in the old days, but we don’t need to do that here. The machines take care of all that stuff. Well, you’ll always have artists and musicians doing things only humans can do, but most people—paper-pushers like me—don’t have to work.”

Kino nodded. “That makes sense. Then what do the people do here? And why do you occupy yourselves like this?”

The man nodded as he considered Kino’s questions. Then he replied, “To make money, first of all. We have a guaranteed basic standard of living, so you don’t have to have any money to survive. You can get what you need at government-run facilities and they provide you with clothes and enough food to get by on. But that’s no different from life in a prison. With more money, you could live in a big house, wear nice clothes, and eat good food. And if you want to make more money, you have to work more. It’s just something you have to do if you want to really live.”

“Hm.” “I see.”

“As for what I do at the office…”

“Yes?”

“I get stressed.”

“What?” Kino asked.

“I get stressed. Physically too, but mostly mental stress. It keeps me from getting comfortable. That’s what people here occupy themselves with.”

The man put down his paper cup next to the bench. A cleaning robot came over to retrieve it. The man continued. “It’s about the same for everyone because most people here are office workers. Here’s how it works with me. First, I dress perfectly for work and get to the office by a certain time. Then the morning assembly begins and I have to listen to the president droning on and on. The president’s speech doesn’t have any real content. It’s just a bunch of sentences with fancy words I have to listen to while standing up straight. It’s tough. Tough for the president too, probably. After that, I get scolded by my boss. Our machines decide at random what I get scolded for. Yesterday, it was because we had terrible weather over the weekend. After that, I do a bunch of things. Fix up mistakes in documents, do meaningless calculations, ask a favor from someone whose occupation is to refuse things… And sometimes, coworkers whose personalities have been calculated to be incompatible have to insult each other’s necktie choices. Once in a while, I have to apologize profusely when people whose occupations are ‘customers’ come in to complain about our products.”

Kino and Hermes listened in silence.

“Some people order me to bring in something they don’t need from the warehouse and make me wait for hours on purpose. And when I come back to deliver it, they make me wait even longer. Sometimes I have to go door-to-door and just walk on and on all day, or play sports I don’t enjoy with my boss. Then I have to brown-nose like crazy even if the boss sucks. Sometimes I get ordered to take a 10-seater bus with 20 people inside. The women at work get sexually harassed or spend all day making tea and photocopies. And there’s more. But either way, the work you do and the amount of stress you get decides your pay. People with full-time nine-to-five occupations have different work and pay ranges from people who have part-time half-day occupations. And even people in the same field get paid and stressed differently depending on their experience. People with more experience get important occupations that stress them out more. I’m still just a newbie, so my occupation is mostly about trivial things. I wish I could start making more money.”

Kino asked, “How long has this system been around?”

“I don’t know. Since before I was born.”

“Have people gotten hurt or sick because of it?”

“Sure. Stomach ulcers, hair loss, insomnia, ruined skin, chronic snacking, hallucinations, murder, and even suicide. But most people are fine. They use their free time to de-stress. Like by going out drinking with the coworkers after work. We’re all right.”

“Why do you have to be stressed to make money?” asked Hermes.

“I don’t know. I have no idea who came up with this idea, but…” the man shrugged, “Don’t you think it’s a great system?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. People can’t be idle all the time. We get lazy if we don’t struggle a bit every day. We need something in life to keep us on our toes. In the old days, surviving kept us stressed. But now it’s our occupations. I understand why our ancestors came up with this system. If we left everything to the machines and spent our time doing nothing but indulging ourselves, we’ll ruin our country. But the system keeps the people moving and pays them for their efforts. It’s like two birds with one stone.”

“Do you like your lifestyle, then? Isn’t your occupation difficult?” asked Kino.

“I like it. I mean, it’s tough sometimes. But it’s kind of my responsibility to society, you know? I think it’s really great to do your civic duty by being stressed every day. I was a minor until last year, so I used to just laze around the house every day. Sometimes I depressed myself, thinking about putting on a suit and tie and going out to work in a year’s time. But now I like the tension of daily life. I feel like a real member of society, like a person in my own right. I still remember how my parents smiled when I got my first paycheck. ‘You’re a real man now, my boy. I’m so proud of you,’ my dad told me. I was so happy to hear that.”

“That’s sweet,” said Hermes.

“One of my favorite sayings goes, ‘Occupation is easier than relaxation, a day of relaxation can’t compare with a day of occupation’. I really hope I’ll be able to spend more days occupied than relaxed. Tiring myself out after a day of going out just doesn’t feel as good as being tired after a long day being occupied, you know? I mean, all that stress is what makes me appreciate the free time I have. I want to keep going this way, and someday have a family of my own and occupy myself with all I have, all for my family’s sake. And I’m sure seeing them happy will blow all my stress away. I’ll keep climbing the ladder until mandatory retirement age. Hopefully I’ll make section chief, or an executive if I can. My real goal is president, though. It’s my lifelong dream. And I can achieve my dream as long as I put in the effort. Isn’t it wonderful? This system gives us purpose and joy in life.”

The man looked up at the clear blue sky and smiled. Then he looked at Kino.

“If you’re thinking to settle down at some point, I recommend this country. We offer occupations for everyone. Which means as long as you’re occupied, you’re guaranteed to be middle class at the very least, or higher if you work hard enough. We’re always accepting immigrants, too. Does that answer your questions?”

“No. Thank you for explaining,” Kino said with a smile.

“Nothing else you wanted to know about?”

Kino thought for a moment. “This has nothing to do with occupation, but I was curious about how everything here was provided to me free of charge. It was all covered by the state, correct? Then how do I pay for any supplies I might need on my travels?”

“I’m not sure. It might be a problem if you were going to stay a long time, but since you’re just visiting for a few days, most things should be free. They don’t issue cards for travelers and bartering isn’t easy here. Ask the machines in the stores and they can tell you more.”

“I see. Thank you. I’ve been needing to do some shopping.”

“No problem. I’d better get going. Get home, prepare to occupy myself tomorrow, and maybe study up on something. I suggest you go to the shopping center in the central district. It’s pretty close by car and there’s nothing you can’t find there. Bye now.”

Kino said goodbye to the man, who turned and walked away.


Still sitting on the bench, Kino ordered more tea. And she sat back, taking relaxed sips as she looked out at the towering buildings and the deserted park.

“What now, Kino? Some sightseeing?” asked Hermes.

Kino’s gaze remained fixed forward. “Hermes…what that man said was exactly what I needed to hear. Now I know what to do.”

Hermes was floored by Kino’s sudden show of gravity. “Wh-what? Don’t tell me you decided to settle here.”

“Of course not,” Kino replied, turning. “We’re going shopping.”

“What?”

“He says everything’s free. Gunpowder, fuel, clothes, and valuables we can sell off someplace else. This is our chance. We’ll shop as much as we can today and tomorrow before we leave.”

Hermes was silenced. Kino rose to her feet, and went to the cleaning robot to give it her empty paper cup.

“Let’s go, Hermes. It’s important for humans to indulge in comforts while they can. Like right now,” she declared, returning to Hermes.

“Like master, like student,” he mumbled.

“What did you say?” Kino asked, pushing him forward.

Hermes replied, “Nothing.”


* * *




Chapter 6: The Divided Country
-A World Divided-


The road forked in two directions.

One branch went uphill to a forest in the highlands to the north.

The other went downhill to the distant blue sea in the south.

“Which way, Kino?” asked the motorrad stopped at the fork. Its luggage rack was laden with travel gear that threatened to spill over the sides of its rear wheel.

“I don’t know,” mumbled Kino, the human next to the motorrad. She was in her mid-teens with short black hair and fair features. A pair of goggles hung from around her neck, and she was holding a brown coat.

Kino wore a black jacket and a thick belt around her waist. Strapped to her right thigh was a holstered hand persuader, and an automatic persuader was secured behind her back.

She turned. Behind her stood towering ramparts and a closed gate.

The walls extended north and disappeared into the mountains. They also extended south and disappeared down the hill. The walls did not seem to be surrounding a country, making it hard for Kino to tell if they were inside one or outside.

“It’s a big country. I wish we had a map,” Kino said, rolling up her coat. “Anyway, Hermes, what do you say to the sea? Just a hunch, but I think we’ll find people there.”

The motorrad called Hermes replied, “It’s up to you.”

Kino tied her coat to the luggage rack and started Hermes. Then she put on her hat and goggles and slowly rode towards the shore.


They traveled down the slope for some time and eventually spotted the beach—and a village.

That was when a hovercraft glided over from down the hill, carrying several men. It quickly swerved and descended, turning to follow Hermes side-by-side.

“Are you a traveler?” asked the man in the cargo hold, shouting over the buzzing engine.

Kino nodded. The man gestured wildly as he pointed at the village.

“Welcome! Do drop by our village; it’s just down that way!”

Kino nodded several times and held up her left thumb. The men on the hovercraft waved. The hovercraft accelerated and went ahead to the village.


Kino and Hermes reached the seaside village. On the left-hand side was a breakwater encircling the beach, and the dazzling blue sea. The streets were lined with white houses. Many villagers waved from their windows when they spotted Kino and Hermes.

The harbor plaza was already packed. Kino rode in and stopped Hermes. All eyes were on them.

“Welcome to our village, Traveler! It’s been a long time since we last had visitors,” said an old man who seemed to be the village elder.

“Thank you. My name is Kino, and this is my partner Hermes,” Kino replied, taking off her hat. Hermes also greeted the villagers.

The old man introduced himself as the elder and ushered Kino to a gazebo housing a bench. They sat side-by-side, propping up Hermes on his side stand.

As the villagers watched, the elder explained that he would provide Kino with food and a place to stay, free of charge. She was an esteemed guest.

When the elder asked if she had any questions, Kino asked why the automated gates had no map, and why the road forked in two.

A sad look crossed the elder’s eyes. “You see, our country is divided. Half the people live here on the shore, and the other half live in the mountains.”

“Why?” asked Hermes.

“Well…I suppose you could say we have different viewpoints. We have practically no contact because our country is so large. It’s quite embarrassing to tell you all this; this division should never have happened in the first place,” the elder said, and abruptly changed the subject. “By the way, is there any food you cannot eat, Traveler?”

Kino thought for a moment before shaking her head.

“Any allergies, perhaps?”

“None.”

The elder smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. Our country doesn’t make a habit of decadent meals, but sometimes we make exceptions,” he said.

The elder waved his hands at the people surrounding the gazebo. Everyone looked on expectantly.

“And what better occasion for an exception than a celebration? Of course, we understand if you would prefer something more quiet.”

But Kino understood what the villagers wanted, and nodded. “You’d like to throw a party to welcome us here, you mean.”

Everyone’s eyes glinted.

“That’s correct,” the elder said, a mischievous look rising to his stern face.

Kino rose. She looked around at the people and said to the elder,

“It would be an honor.”

Cheers erupted around the gazebo.


Kino and Hermes were led to a room with a view of the sea.

As soon as she had finished unloading Hermes, a messenger from the elder came to ask if she wanted to watch the villagers hunt. Their fishermen were about to go out to sea on their hovercrafts to hunt large game for the party.

Kino accepted wholeheartedly, remarking that it sounded interesting, and asked if Hermes wanted to join.

“Sure. Not like I have anything better to do,” he replied. Kino pushed him along.

Several hovercrafts were parked in the harbor. Kino and Hermes boarded one of them.

The crafts floated low and glided over the calm waters. The one carrying Kino and Hermes followed.

“We’re going for a big one today. It’s going to be a very wild hunt,” said the young man who was assigned as Kino’s guide. She looked down and saw the men taking out tools from the crates onboard. The tools were long, thin pipes about as long as a child was tall. The pipes were equipped with handles and padding so they could be mounted on the shoulder, and had thick conical objects at the ends.

“This is a weapon we use to launch metal bits filled with gunpowder towards our targets. It’s called a rocket launcher, and people supposedly used it in war in the past. Mostly to destroy sturdy things like cars and vehicles.”

“And you use it for hunting?” asked Kino.

“That’s right. We’re gunning for something you couldn’t catch without one.” The guide grinned.

At that moment, the man at the pilot’s seat shouted, “There! On the left!”

A waterspout gushed into the air like a fountain. The hovercrafts scattered and surrounded the area. The one carrying Kino and Hermes ascended slightly. One man leaned off the side and waved a flag to signal the direction.

A massive black shadow slowly began to move under the craft.

It was a gigantic animal. The animal had a streamlined body with large fins that slowly moved up and down as it made its way forward. It was several times longer than the hovercraft.

“It’s huge,” Kino whispered.

“This animal is called a whale. It’s the largest creature in the sea. Have you ever seen one before?”

“In books, yes. But it’s much bigger than I expected.”

“Who knew we’d get so see one for free?” Hermes quipped.

“You’re in for something better. We’re hunting this beast.”

The hovercrafts broke formation, splitting left and right and dropping several small cylinders on either side of the whale.

The cylinders exploded. Waterspouts rose around the whale and deep impacts shook the air.

The whale began writhing. Its fins drummed madly against the water and its head broke the surface.

At that moment, the hovercraft flying at the center of the formation launched a rocket at the whale. The rocket drew a white arc in the air and landed precisely on the whale’s exposed head.

Its head exploded.

Flesh and blood scattered and loudly splattered against the waves.

The massive creature twisted and squirmed one last time before it finally stopped moving. Red water began to envelop its body.

“We did it!”

The villagers on the hovercrafts, including the guide, cheered.

Several people holding ropes jumped out of the crafts. They tied the ropes around the whale’s tail fin and secured them to several of the hovercrafts.

The gigantic corpse was towed to land, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.


The headless whale was pulled up to the pier by the plaza. The villagers preparing for the party cheered.

Soon they got to work on cleaning the catch. It involved dragging a gigantic sickle down the whale’s body, using a hovercraft. The harbor was dyed black with its blood.

The pieces of the whale were loaded onto trucks and taken to the plaza. Even those were so large that people had to cut them into smaller pieces.

Finally, the meat was divided into three portions. The elder explained, “The portion by the tent is for the feast tonight. The portion on the trucks is for making into jerky. And as for the rest…”

He pointed at the mountain of meat, bones, and innards piled up on a large piece of canvas. Much of the portion looked edible.

“This is for our friends.”

“Who?” asked Kino.

“They’re not here at the moment. I’ll introduce you later,” the elder replied with a smile.


“Now, let’s begin the feast!” the elder declared, and everyone in the plaza dug in.

People served dishes to the elder and Kino, who was sitting next to him. Young women and muscular men were busily going around in their aprons. The elder explained that skilled cooks were considered most attractive in their country.

“Go on, do have a taste,” he suggested.

On some plates were large, live shrimp served with their shells cut open. Their heads and legs twitched on occasion. On other plates were fish with only their heads, bones, and tails, served with pieces of their own flesh. The mouth and gills gaped silently, never to reach the sea alive.

One person placed live shrimp and clams on a coal oven. The shrimp and clams squirmed for a time before they started foaming.

The villagers also served steak made from the catch of the day. It was served rare—well-done was considered overcooked—and blood was pooling on the plate.

Kino looked down at the dish.


“I don’t believe this,” Hermes groaned.

Kino lay in bed in her jacket, exhaling.

“That was so good…”

“I can’t believe you literally ate until you dropped,” Hermes said.

Kino kept her eyes on the ceiling. “I read in a book once that a good traveler knows to stuff themselves at every given opportunity. It’s a life skill.”

“Really?”

It was getting late; the sky was growing dark outside. They could hear people in the plaza putting away tables and chairs.

“Kino? Are you awake?” someone asked, knocking on the door. “I’m here with a message from the elder. We’re about to give some of the whale meat to our friends, if you’d like to come and watch.”


The sea was sparkling gold under the setting sun. Two hovercrafts flew low over the waves.

Kino, Hermes, and the elder were on one of them. The other was carrying something underneath it—a large, rolled up canvas secured with a rope. It contained the remainder of the whale meat.

The hovercrafts stopped in the middle of the sea.

“Here is our gift,” the elder said, standing on the deck, and gave a signal.

The rope securing one side of the canvas came undone, and the meat inside came rolling down. Pieces of the whale scattered on the waves.

Soon, schools of fish came swarming. Creatures of all kinds joined the frenzy, working up splashes on the water’s surface. Birds also began flying in.

“Our friends,” said the elder. “Creatures who survive on the sacrifices of others, just like us.”

“So that’s who this was for,” Kino said, casually looking down. She seemed to be satisfied.

The elder followed her gaze. “Yes. Now our friends will grow, and other creatures will feed on them, and they in turn will be fed upon by other creatures. The sea is full of friends. They keep any one species from growing too numerous or few. Normally, we take their lives and give nothing in return. But we do what we can, at least after our celebrations.”

“I see…” Kino said, slowly walking to the edge of the deck and looking up at the western sky. The sun was an orange mass, barely touching the horizon.

The hovercraft turned and headed back to the village, its long shadow trailing behind.


That night, Kino joined the elder and the villagers for tea.

When the elder asked what she had planned for the next day, she replied that she was going to visit the highlands in the north.

The elder and the villagers loudly tried to dissuade her.

“You mustn’t!”

When Kino asked if the people in the north were dangerous, they shook their heads. The elder finally said, “No, they wouldn’t harm you. But…” he said sadly, “they are cruel people. We cannot accept their practices.”

“What do you mean?” Kino asked. The elder slowly shook his head.

And he replied, “But I suppose it can’t hurt for you to go in person and witness their cruelty with your own eyes.”


The next morning, Kino rose at dawn. As usual, she did her exercises, and did drills with her persuaders before maintaining them.

She was served a full breakfast at the elder’s home, and even received some fish jerky for the road. Kino gave the elder her heartfelt thanks.


Kino and Hermes went up the slope from the previous day.

They traveled past the gate in the east and up the slope for some time and eventually spotted the dense forest—and a village. That was when, just like the previous day, a hovercraft glided over and began to follow Hermes side-by-side.

“Are you a traveler?” asked the man in the cargo hold.


Kino and Hermes reached the forest village. On the right-hand side was a deep green wood, surrounding streets lined with white houses. Many villagers waved from their windows when they spotted Kino and Hermes.

The plaza with the watchtower was already packed. Kino rode in and stopped Hermes. All eyes were on them.

The elder welcomed the first visitors to the village in a very long time, and offered to provide Kino and Hermes free housing and food during their stay. Kino thanked him.

“By the way,” said the elder, “is there any food you cannot eat, Traveler?”

“No, and I don’t have any allergies. And I don’t mind large celebrations, either,” Kino said without missing a beat. Everyone’s eyes glinted.

“I don’t believe this,” Hermes groaned to himself.


“We’re about to go hunt game for the feast tonight. Would you like to come take a look?”

Kino accepted wholeheartedly, and asked if Hermes wanted to join.

“Sure. Not like I have anything better to do,” he replied. Kino pushed him onto a hovercraft.

The crafts floated low and glided through the forest. The one carrying Kino and Hermes followed.

“We’re going for a big one today. It’s going to be a very wild hunt,” said the young man who was assigned as Kino’s guide. She looked down and saw the men putting together rocket launchers.

“There! On the right!” someone shouted from the pilot’s seat.

Something stirred in the woods. The hovercrafts scattered and surrounded the area. The one carrying Kino and Hermes ascended slightly. One man leaned off the side and waved a flag to signal the direction.

A massive black shadow slowly began to mover under the craft.

It was a gigantic animal. The animal had a boulder-shaped body with a long, thin nose. Ears flapping, it made its was forward on thick legs. It was twice as long as the hovercraft when measured from nose to tail.

“It’s massive,” Kino whispered.

“This animal is called an elephant. It’s the largest creature in the forest. Have you ever seen one before?”

“In books, yes. But it’s much bigger than I expected.”

“Blah blah blah, rest omitted,” Hermes said.

“You’re in for something better. We’re hunting this beast.”

The hovercrafts broke formation, splitting left and right and dropping several small cylinders on either side of the elephant.

The cylinders exploded. Dirt flew into the air around the elephant and deep impacts shook the air.

The elephant began writhing and broke into a rampage. It soon rushed straight into a clearing.

At that moment, the hovercraft flying right next to the elephant launched a rocket. The rocket drew a white arc in the air and landed precisely on the elephant’s exposed head as it stomped out of the woods.

Its head exploded.

Flesh and blood scattered on the dirt.

The massive creature twisted and reared up one last time. Then it crashed loudly and finally stopped moving. Blood began pooling on the ground.

“We did it!”

The villagers on the hovercrafts, including the guide, cheered.

Several people holding ropes jumped out of the crafts. They tied the ropes around the elephant’s legs and secured them to several of the hovercrafts.

The gigantic corpse was pulled into the air, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.


The headless elephant was transported to the fountain in the plaza. The villagers preparing for the party cheered.

Soon they got to work on cleaning the catch. It involved dragging a gigantic sickle down the elephant’s body, using a hovercraft. The plaza was dyed black with its blood.

The pieces of the elephant were loaded onto trucks and taken to the plaza. Even those were so large that people had to cut them into smaller pieces.

Finally, the meat was divided into three portions. The elder explained, “The portion by the tent is for the feast tonight. The portion on the trucks is for making into jerky. And as for the rest…”

He pointed at the mountain of meat, bones, and innards piled up on a large piece of canvas. Much of the portion looked edible.

“This is for our friends.”

“Who?” asked Kino, smiling.

“They’re not here at the moment. I’ll introduce you later,” the elder replied with a smile as well.


“Now, let’s begin the feast!” the elder declared, and everyone in the plaza dug in.

People served dishes to the elder and Kino, who was sitting next to him. Young women and muscular men were busily going around in their aprons. The elder explained that skilled cooks were considered most attractive in their country.

“Go on, do have a taste,” he suggested.

On some plates were whole roasted monkeys served with their bellies cut open and stuffed with spices. The monkeys’ arms and legs stuck out into the air, making them look like infants.

On other plates were boiled sheep heads, brains oozing out of the skulls. Cloudy white eyes that would never see the light of day again stared from the plate, having been carved out of the heads.

Three live birds were brought to the side of the plaza. One person held down their necks with two thin sticks and chopped off their heads with an axe. The headless birds flapped and ran around for a time before quickly expiring. The elder explained that they would be fried later.

The villagers also served steak made from the catch of the day. It was served rare—well-done was considered overcooked—and blood was pooling on the plate.

Kino looked down at the dish.


“That’s two days in a row,” said Hermes.

Kino lay in bed in her jacket, exhaling.

“That was so good…”

“Sounds like you’re having fun,” Hermes snapped.

Kino did not move from her bed. “It’s nice to come to countries like this sometimes. And you know, I never knew sheep brains tasted so good. I knew there was no sense in being a picky eater.”

“Really?”

It was getting late; the sky was growing dark outside. They could hear people in the plaza putting away tables and chairs.

“Kino? Are you awake?” someone asked, knocking on the door. “I’m here with a message from the elder. We’re about to give some of the elephant meat to our friends, if you’d like to come and watch.”


Two hovercrafts flew over the dusky forest.

Kino, Hermes, and the elder were on one of them. The other was carrying something underneath it—a large, rolled up canvas secured with a rope. It contained the remainder of the elephant meat.

The hovercrafts stopped in the middle of the forest.

“Here is our gift,” the elder said, standing on the deck, and gave a signal.

The rope securing one side of the canvas came undone, and the meat inside came rolling down. Pieces of the elephant scattered on the ground.

Soon, animals came swarming. From small creatures to birds and large predators. They all feasted on the meat.

“Our friends,” said the elder. “Creatures who survive on the sacrifices of others, just like us.”

“So that’s who this was for,” Kino said, casually looking down. She seemed to be satisfied.

The elder followed her gaze. “Yes. Now our friends will grow, and other creatures will feed on them, and they in turn will be fed upon by other creatures. The forest is full of friends. They keep any one species from growing too numerous or few. Normally, we take their lives and give nothing in return. But we do what we can, at least after our celebrations.”

“I see…” Kino said, slowly walking to the edge of the deck and looking up at the western sky. The sun was an orange mass, barely touching the distant ridge.

The hovercraft turned and headed back to the village, its long shadow trailing behind.


That night, Kino joined the elder and the villagers for tea.

When the elder asked what she had done the previous day, she replied that she had gone to the seaside village in the south.

The elder and the villagers loudly voiced their anger.

“Aren’t they the most heartless creatures?” the elder said sadly. “They are cruel people. They slaughter the lovely fish and shellfish in the sea without batting an eye. They serve them alive and cruelly feast on their living bodies. Even those clever, darling whales are no exception to them.” He raised his voice. “And yet they have the gall to claim that it is wrong of us to hunt forest animals for our food. It’s frankly outrageous. Do they not understand their own cruelty? We cannot accept their practices.”

“I see. So that’s why you’re a divided country,” Kino said.

The elder slowly nodded. “But I suppose it must have been a good experience for you to go in person and witness their cruelty with your own eyes.”


The next morning, Kino rose at dawn. As usual, she did her exercises, and did drills with her persuaders before maintaining them.

She was served a full breakfast at the elder’s home, and even received some meat jerky for the road. Kino gave the elder her heartfelt thanks.


Kino and Hermes were given a big send-off when they departed.

By the time they finished crossed the vast, empty country and reached the western gate, it was already almost evening.

Kino and Hermes passed through the automated gates and left the country.

“On to the next destination,” Hermes sang.

“One second,” Kino said feebly.

“Hm?”

“I’m hungry.”

Hermes sighed. “I’m not surprised. Those feasts must’ve stretched out your stomach.”

“Yeah. I’ll have the jerky they gave me. We’ll get going once I’m full.”

Kino got off Hermes and propped him up on his stand.

“Sure, sure. Wouldn’t want you to tip over because you fainted of hunger,” Hermes said. “So which one’s it gonna be? Mummified fish or mummified meat?”

Kino pulled the jerky out of her bag and replied, “Both.”


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