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Chapter 3: The Country of Protection
One summer, a small car made its way across the plains.
The plains were completely open and flat, with grass and flowers waving sprightly in the wind. Only a few trees were in sight. The sun shone ahead, nearing the horizon, and the clouds were tinted a vivid orange.
The car was small, yellow, and battered all over. Black smoke puffed from the exhaust pipe, which rattled precariously each time the car hit a bump in the road. The side-view mirrors were covered in cracks and one corner of the hood had rusted clean off.
And yet the car made its way stubbornly across the plains.
Temperatures were reasonably high, but the low humidity made it bearable. The slightly short but handsome man in the driver’s seat and the woman with long dark hair next to him both let the pleasant breeze ruffle the edges of their shirts.
The man took one hand off the steering wheel and asked, “Master, don’t you agree that a break would be nice once in a while? What do you say to some R&R at the next country?”
The woman did not even turn to meet his gaze. “What do you mean?”
“Rest, you know?” the man said, “I would appreciate it if we could spend our stay relaxing, rather than working for pay. We still have the jewels from the merchant we robbed, so there’s no need to worry about money for some time.”
The woman said nothing, but she didn’t seem to be against the idea.
“I, for one,” the man emphasized, “would like to finally get some good food in my belly.”
At that moment, the walls of a country rose up from the horizon.
The car hobbled on towards the ramparts. Soon, the man and the woman spotted things moving on either side of the road.
The man slowed down further. The squirming objects were animals.
They were about 16 centimeters in length, and at first glance resembled penguins in the way they walked—but they had long arms like monkeys.
The animals were brown with cream-colored markings. They were covered in fur like cats and had fluffy canine tails. They had round eyes and tiny noses like bear cubs.
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen animals quite like these,” the man remarked.
The woman, too, cast her gaze on the animals dotting the plains.
About thirty tiny sets of eyes watched as the battered car passed through the gates.
The country was neither big nor small. It was mostly an agricultural state, peaceful with no other countries around to stir up conflict.
As soon as they received permission to enter, the duo sold off their jewels and checked into a considerably high-end hotel. It had been a long time since either of them had showered or eaten such good food. They relaxed and let themselves enjoy their stay.
The next day, they were having a late breakfast when the quiet restaurant received a furry visitor.
An animal, just like the ones they had seen outside the country, but with slightly different coloring. It was black with brown markings, and was larger in build.
The animal strode over on its hind legs, passed by the tables, and went up to the duo.
“So they’re inside the walls too,” the man said, “Do you think someone’s lost their pet?”
The woman took a sip of tea and replied, “Who knows?”
The animal went to the man and hopped all the way up to the tabletop with its dirty paws. Its eyes were fixed on the bulging cream puff the man had been saving for last.
“No. It’s mine,” the man said, bringing his right arm into the air to shoo the animal away.
“Stop, Traveler!” the waiter cried. The man froze. The woman, too, looked up from the rim of her teacup.
“Eek eek eek eek!”
Casually, the animal picked up the cream puff and voraciously dug into it, smearing cream all over its own face.
As the man watched in shock, the animal wolfed down the dessert.
The waiter rushed over. “Traveler, you must not touch these animals,” he said.
“Why not?” asked the man.
“They are protected by law.”
The waiter explained that these animals were native to the plains and had once been numerous. But when the people settled the land, they hunted the animals almost to extinction. In response, the country had protected the few that remained and run a breeding program to restore the population.
To prevent such a near-disaster from happening again, laws were set in place so that the animals could not be harmed under any circumstances. From that point on, no one could do anything to the animals no matter what mischief they got up to.
Even as the explanation went on, the animal devoured the cream puff. Eventually, there was nothing left.
“Eek eek eek eek ook?” the animal seemed to ask, cream still smeared across its lips. The man and the waiter both went silent in shock.
Next in line was the woman’s cream puff, also left untouched on her plate. It looked utterly scrumptious.
“Eek eek eek! Eek eek!” the animal chirped, reaching out.
But a moment before its jovial hands touched the dessert, the animal met the gaze of the woman.
It turned its eyes away, leapt off the table, and rushed to another patron to eat the large serving of mostly-untouched pancake on the plate.
The middle-aged man who had been robbed of his food heaved a sigh and rose from his seat. In surrender, he walked out of the restaurant.
“As you can see,” said the waiter, “We’re not allowed to so much as lay a hand on these animals. If you happen to injure one, you would be sentenced to at least five years in prison—and that would apply even to you, Travelers. If you killed one, you would be given a life sentence. Please be careful.”
“My god…” the man groaned, and ordered another cream puff to make up for the one that had been stolen.
The waiter bowed his head apologetically. “I’m terribly sorry, but we’re out of stock for today.”
The man turned to the woman, who was now eating her own cream puff.
Afterwards, the woman and the man took a stroll through the country.
“It’s as if they’re kings,” the man mused.
Indeed, the animals lorded over the populace as though they were in charge.
They would cross streets in packs to stop cars and carriages, climb up walls and drop laundry hung out to dry, devour fruits on display in front of the greengrocer, track mud all over clean tables, urinate anywhere and everywhere, and toy with entire crops without even eating them.
The animals were not numerous, but they were not hard to spot. The locals said that they had exploded in number recently.
Several times during their walk, the duo was approached by the animals.
“What do you want?” the woman would ask each time, and the animals would leave them alone. On one occasion, they instead turned to a young girl across the road, snatching her bag from her hands and throwing it into the street. A truck ran over it.
“M-my new bag…” the girl sniffled, and burst into tears.
“Eek eek eek eek eek!”
“Eek eek eek!”
“Ook ook ook!”
“Eek eek eek eek!”
The animals howled in laughter.
“They don’t target people at random,” the man observed, “Quite intelligent, these little monsters.”
That evening, the hotel manager came to greet the woman and the man as they relaxed in the hotel lobby. He explained that travelers were a rare sight in these parts, and treated them to tea.
When he heard that the duo was planning to depart the next day, the manager asked them to come and enjoy their lovely country again someday.
The woman remarked that a traveler she once met had stayed at this very hotel, but that the traveler’s description of the hotel had been different—that the hotel today was much grander than before. The manager proudly pointed at a photo hanging very high up in the lobby.
It was a black-and-white photograph depicting a young couple smiling in front of a small building. They were his parents, the manager explained. “That picture is the only thing I have to remember them by. It’s the crown jewel of this establishment.”
“It must be very important to you,” the woman said.
The manager replied, “Yes. That’s why it’s hanging so high up instead of somewhere more visible, like on the mantlepiece. With our laws, you can never be too careful.”
The next morning, the duo’s breakfast was interrupted by a commotion.
“Hey! Stop! Don’t!”
A male voice was shouting in the lobby.
The man cringed. Other patrons headed for the lobby, faces dark with worry.
“It’s the manager,” the woman said, wiping her mouth and rising from her seat. The man followed.
“Enough!” the manager screamed.
“Eek eek eek!”
“Ook ook ook!”
“Oook oook oook! Eeek Eeek!”
Three animals were eagerly trampling on something on the floor.
“Ook ook ook!”
“Ook ook ook ook ook!”
Their latest toy was the photo of the manager’s parents, which had until last night been hanging very high on the wall.
The animals trampled on the frame until it broke, stomped on the picture, and slathered saliva and feces on the image.
The manager could do nothing but fall to his knees and watch as his treasured photograph was sullied.
“How…?” he breathed, looking up at the wall. Three long sticks had been propped up against it. A female employee who had been at the lobby explained that the animals had brought in the sticks, secured them to the walls and climbed up to drop the picture frame.
“Eek eek eek!”
“Ook ook ook!”
They were having the time of their lives.
Tears streamed down the manager’s face. The people were helpless to intervene.
One of the animals came up to the people, its feet covered in filth. The people stepped away, holding back their rage through gritted teeth.
“The real king of this country,” the man commented.
A moment late, the animal went towards the woman. But it did not get closer than necessary.
“Eek eek eek!” It shrieked at her, leaping up and down, before going back to its friends.
“Eek eek eek!”
The photograph was torn beyond recognition. The animals pranced around as though moving to a soundless song. They were clearly having the time of their lives.
A terrifying noise shook the lobby. Everyone except one person flinched. Every animal except for one did the same.
The one person was the woman, a smoking revolver held at waist-level.
The one animal was the creature that had attempted to intimidate her, now several meters from the remains of the photograph with blood spewing from its now-immobile body.
“Oh dear,” the man sighed, and pulled out his automatic hand persuader.
He turned on the laser sight. The small red dot stopped perfectly between a pair of round little eyes.
There was a smaller noise as another animal fell.
The people watched, stunned. So did the remaining animal.
“Pardon me,” the woman said, “I think my persuader has malfunctioned.”
The man nodded, holstering his persuader. “Mine as well. We’re very lucky no one was hurt.”
“T-Travelers…” someone stammered, “this…this is illegal…”
The woman replied casually, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You…you just killed a protected animal. This is a crime…”
“Animal?” the woman repeated, and looked around. Two creatures lay dead, and the other stood in a complete daze. “I don’t see any animals around here.”
The crowd stirred.
“Does anyone else here see any animals?” the woman asked.
The manager finally staggered to his feet. “You’re right, Traveler.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the manager said weakly, “do you see any animals around here?”
The manager wiped his tears and picked up a sturdy chair beside him.
He brought it down on the head of the remaining creature.
There was a small scream, and the sound of tiny bones breaking.
For some time afterwards, the manager wept inconsolably before the scraps of his beloved photograph.
“My, my,” the man said with a shrug. The woman said nothing. Everyone else simply stared.
Do we call the police, someone wondered out loud, but no one made a move.
The lobby eventually went quiet. It was absolutely silent.
The doors opened, and over a dozen of the creatures entered the lobby.
When they spotted the bodies of their friends, they flew into a frothing rage and lunged at the people.
BANG. BANG. BANG BANG. BANG BANG BANG.
Like a pair of clockwork dolls, the woman and the man opened fire. When the woman had to switch magazines, the man covered her, and when the man had to change magazines, the woman covered him.
The gunfire filled the lobby, and not a single ear was spared the ringing. But the building had been purged of the creatures almost immediately.
Everyone stood in silence.
“I don’t see any animals around here,” the woman said.
“Y-you’re right!” said one of the patrons.
Another agreed. “We have animal protection laws, but I don’t see any animals around here!”
“That’s right! There are no animals in our country!” “Can’t protect what you don’t have!”
The floodgates were opened.
Few people could remember such a big commotion taking place in the country’s history.
“Have you seen any animals?” “I haven’t.” people would say to greet one another. The ripples spread from the hotel to the rest of town. People took up clubs and farming tools, going out into the streets.
They hunted down every one of the creatures and beat them to death.
At first, the police tried to stop them, but eventually the whole country was up in arms, and the police had to choose whether to arrest the entire population or pretend they hadn’t noticed a thing.
“Do you see any animals around here, Officer?”
“No animals in sight, Captain.”
Screams of terror and rage filled the country all day long.
The woman and the man found their persuaders going off at no targets in particular. And whenever they ran out of ammunition, local shopkeepers would give them more.
That evening, the little yellow car was seen off amid a flurry of gratitude from the hotel owner. The guards thanked the duo profusely and asked them to come again. The car left out the wide-open gates.
One of the animals leapt out of the foliage and onto the roof of the car.
“Another one! Not that I see anything!” said one of the guards, swinging his sword.
The woman stopped him. “It’s all right. We’re technically outside the country now.” The car was indeed outside the gates.
“I suppose you’re right. Take care, Travelers,” the guard said, going back to his post.
“Master?” asked the man, pointing at the trembling animal clinging to the roof.
The woman told the man to ignore it and continue driving. The little car made its way across the plains, until the woman stopped it.
She stepped out the door and said to the animal, “You can get off now.”
“We can’t take you with us.”
Unable to withstand the woman’s glare, the animal jumped off the roof of the car.
“You misjudged your position,” said the woman.
“Being protected doesn’t mean that you have authority. The ones with real power in that country were the people, not your kind.”
“Now go where you want to go,” the woman said, pointing at the plains. The animal looked into the distance.
Others of its kind waited there. About twenty of them, a little smaller with different coloring, stared from afar.
“Goodbye,” the woman said, getting back into the car. “Let’s go,” she said to the man.
The man added, “Take care.”
The car hobbled on along the road on the plains.
The man remarked, “So you’ve got a soft side too, I see. I was sure you were going to beat the monster to death.”
“No. And no,” the woman said.
The man furrowed his brow, glancing over. The woman was smiling.
“I wasn’t being nice. I simply had no reason to kill it.”
The yellow car disappeared into the sunset.
“Eek! Eek!” the remaining animal cried to the group.
The pack responded with caution and distrust.
The lone animal shrank.
That was when the leader of the pack stepped forward.
“Eek! Eek eek ook!”
“Eek. Eek eek.”
The leader turned to the rest of the pack. “Ook ook!” it declared. The others shrank as well.
“Eek eek.” the leader enunciated to the lone animal. It waved as though calling it over.
The lone animal joyously skipped towards its new pack. The pack formed a circle to welcome its new member.
At the leader’s signal, the pack closed in and began to beat the lone animal.
No matter how much it screamed, they showed no mercy.
It wasn’t long before silence fell on the plains.