The hermit warmed himself in a pool of sunlight that flooded his cave. It had been… how long? A very long time, since the sun had last shone down past the black clouds. (The hermit did not pay much attention to the passage of time.)
The hermit never kept a to do list. If he did, today’s would say, “Lay in the sun.” The hermit was extremely productive and efficient, in his own way.
The hermit looked exactly like a hermit. His face was entirely covered with hair, with just a splotchy nose and beady black eyes poking through. Hair was the primary theme of the rest of his body as well, but it was covered in matted furs and what may at some point have been cloth. The hermit had never seen a mirror. Though, on gazing at himself in the river he was always impressed by how ripply he was.
The hermit’s day was interrupted by a rat, who poked its head over the ledge of his cave, which sat about thirty feet up the side of an almost sheer cliff-face. The rat said, “Hey there, ugly.”
The hermit said, “Hey there, Rat.”
Pleasantries concluded, the rat got down to business, “Have you seen what’s going on in the big clearing?”
“The big clearing with the giant downed tree?”
“The big clearing just through the woods from the big clearing with the giant downed tree?”
“No.” “The other big clearing with the downed tree that isn't as big as the first downed tree?”
This went on for a while. Finally the hermit asked, “The big clearing where the cliff bears hang out?”
“That’s the one.”
“No, what’s going on?”
The rat sat back, deep in thought. Then it tried to form the words to describe what was taking place, but couldn’t. It literally had not developed words for what was happening, and if it had, the hermit probably would not have understood. The rat and the hermit communicated not so much with language, as with an intuitive sense of what the other was trying to get at. Finally it said, “You better come see.”
The hermit considered the busy day he had planned out ahead of him. Had the request come from Other Rat, or The Other Rat, or That Other Rat Who Wasn’t The Other Rats, the hermit probably wouldn’t have gone. But this was Rat, and Rat was a reliable guy. The hermit followed him out of the cave, scampered down the side of the cliff with a deftness that defied what appeared to be nothing but bulk and hair, and set off through the woods of this tiny and desolate patch of the planet called Montania.
The clearing where the cliff bears hang out looked different. It was filled with shiny, whirring, beeping… stuff. (Neither the hermit nor the rat had a word for “machinery,” “computers,” or “prospecting equipment.”) There were also two creatures walking back and forth between the shiny things, looking at them closely, tapping on other things they held in their hands, and generally looking shifty.
The creatures were humans. The hermit was also a human, but Rat bore a closer resemblance to a weirdtoad than the hermit did to these other humans. (Weirdtoads do not make an appearance in this story, but they’re crazy fun at parties.)
The hermit lived amongst humans until about the age of five, and had picked up the rudiments of their language, though he rarely used it. The humans' conversation went something like this:
Taller, beaky looking human: “The readings are clear. We are standing on what may be the largest deposit of nonexistium that the universe has ever seen.”
Shorter, turtle-like human: Nods.
Beaky: “Once we set up mining operations, this lode will supply enough nonexistium to power every planet in the Empire and cure most of its diseases. Not to mention its more... fun qualities. Unbelievable.”
Turtle: “Yeah… unbelievable.”
Beaky: “Hey. Let’s not start in on that again. The latest paper out of the Imperial science counsel confirms all the prior studies. Nonexistium is a wonder element. It's a fuel, it's a curative, it's a party drug. The study was peer reviewed!”
Turtle: “Oh, I don’t doubt the theory, it’s just… no one has ever successfully extracted nonexistium.”
Beaky: “Because it’s inevitably located on some barely accessible planet on the edge of nowhere. Take Montania. The Imperial Academy of Astrocartographers debated for half a century whether this place is a planet or a typo. There can’t be more than twenty thousand people on the whole rock, it’s nothing but mountains and scrubby forest, and there are only three places on the entire world where it’s safe to land, due to the magnetic storms…”
Turtle: “Or maybe it’s because…”
Beaky cut him off: “Don’t even say it.”
Turtle: “Come on, it’s just you and me here.”
Beaky: “What is the first and most important characteristic of nonexistium?”
Turtle sighed. “That it totally exists.”
Beaky: “Exactly, the Imperial scientists were very specific on that point. Unobtanium, Orichalcum, Bolonium, Adamantium, they have now been proven to be fictional. But Nonexistium totally exists. It’s one of it’s defining characteristics!”
Turtle: “Right… and this would be the perfect place to find a huge cache of…” The shorter man’s voice trailed off as he turned to look at the hermit. “Oh, hello, who are you?”
The hermit had barely understood the exchange, but he did know from the man’s tone that he was being asked to identify himself. This happened on occasion, and thinking through the list of words he knew (not all of which were in any language spoken by humans), the hermit responded, “Riaz.”
Having gotten their attention, Riaz the hermit started waving his hands back and forth and gesturing in what he thought was a “Go away!” sort of motion.
Beaky observed this and sighed. “Ugh, and it begins again. Seems like we barely start thinking of setting up mining operations when the natives are trying to make us to go away.”
Turtle turned to the taller man. “Well, if we are able to begin extraction, the environmental fallout will be pretty catastrophic. We’ll have to displace the local populations. Most of the local flora and fauna will probably be killed too.”
Beaky shrugged. “What local flora and fauna? Since we’ve gotten here I’ve seen some rodents, a few species of slime mold, and this guy. There’s not much of interest worth preserving here.” He shook his head.
Turtle ventured, “But…”
“But,” continued Beaky, “the natives are sure to protest the desecration of their… whatever. This is probably some sort of holy place or something. The Empire will send in the shock troops, there will be a war, someone from the Empire will have a revelation and realize he has to side with the locals…”
“Or he’ll just fall for some hot native.” Turtle added.
“Or he’ll fall for a hot native. And in about a dozen years, the Empire will retreat and the nonexistium will stay underground. Emperor! How many times has that happened now?”
“At least half a dozen.”
“Well,” said Beaky, “Not our problem. So… what about this guy? You think he’s an immediate threat?”
“He certainly seems hostile. Maybe we should eliminate him before we head back to base?”
Riaz knew when strange creatures were planning to kill him. He wouldn’t have lived so long in the wilds of Montania without that bit of intuition. But he wasn’t worried. He thought back through the snippets of language he’d learned long ago, and croaked, “Leave!”
Beaky turned to Turtle while removing a small blaster from his belt. “I’ll take this one out, but you have to get any we see on the way back to camp. You start packing everything up.”
Riaz did not know what a blaster was, but he ducked back into the undergrowth, covered his head with his hands, and pretended to be shrubbery. He did this because a family of cliff bears had just wandered in from the woods on the far side of the clearing.
Here is what you need to know about cliff bears:
1. Cliff bears are a lot like grizzly bears, but without any of their redeeming qualities.
2. Blaster fire might hurt a cliff bear slightly, but will also seriously annoy it. 3. Never annoy a cliff bear. 4. Finding a bunch of whirring, shiny, beeping machinery in its preferred glade is also very annoying to a cliff bear.
5. If an annoyed cliff bear sees you…
6. If you ever find yourself trying to resolve that last sentence, then it’s too late for you.
Riaz waited, motionless, in the undergrowth, Rat by his side, until the screams and the crashing and the general chaos subsided. Then he waited for the cliff bears to finish their meal, sun themselves for a while, and wander back into the woods. Then he waited a while longer, for good measure. Finally, he poked his head up, and confirmed that everything was silent and/or devastated in the clearing. Rat scurried up onto Riaz’s shoulder, and the two headed back to the cave.
As they walked, Rat said, “Well, you did try to warn them.”