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Gopher knew he should not be digging this deep, but he was doing it anyway. He was a young unreformed tortoise, always getting into trouble. He just couldn't help it. He simply had to know what was beyond the next bush, or below the next layer of earth. Curiosity was his nature.
This time he was going deeper than ever before, way past the level that no sensible tortoise went beyond. In fact he was feeling dizzy with the depth. He knew he should turn around and return to the surface, and he would--after one more delve. Maybe two more.
He couldn't help remembering the scary stories about creatures who dug too deep. Like the one about the armadillo who went straight down, and never came up again. That hole was still supposed to be there, dark and menacing, avoided by all sensible creatures. Careless mice were said to fall into it, so deep that their terrified squeaking could no longer be heard. Oddly, no one Gopher knew could say exactly where that dread hole was. Just to stay well away from it.
So he was nervous as he dug. But his hole was slanting, not going straight down, and it spiraled, so he would not drift into another tortoise's burrow by accident. So it should be all right. He hoped.
Suddenly his front claw broke through to something different, startling him. Was this The Hole? No it couldn't be, because that went straight down, and this was just a spot below his tunnel. There was a pocket or a gap here; he caught a whiff of fresh air. How could that be? He was way deeper than any breeze could be. This was really curious.
He should probably leave it alone, lest it be dangerous. There werealso stories about monsters of the deep, who gobbled up anyone who fell into their dens. They were supposed to have huge teeth that could crunch right through a tortoise's shell. But Gopher didn't believe that. Much.
Maybe he should check very carefully, ready to retreat the moment that danger appeared. He could scramble pretty fast when he had to.
He dug it out, opening a space so he could peer down. There was very little light here, but his nose told him that there was definitely moving air, with traces of pollen and dust. Surface air. No smell of monster, not that he knew what such a monster would smell like.
He angled his head to listen. A chunk of dirt dropped into the hole and splattered below. From that he could tell that this was a cave. He had thought he was too deep for caves, but maybe not.
He widened the hole farther so he could poke his head down into it. His shell was securely wedged against the sides, so that he could not fall. He stretched his neck down.
Suddenly ground gave way beneath him, and he dropped into the cave. He jerked in his head and legs, protecting them from harm. He had misjudged the firmness of the earth, and it had given way. Stupid mistake!
He landed with a jarring thunk. Fortunately it had not been a long fall, and he wasn't hurt, just shaken. He remained in his shell for a while, just to be sure, then cautiously poked his snout out.
He was in the cave. It extended to either side, and the air he had smelled coursed gently along it. In the ceiling was a hole: the end of his burrow. That was where he needed to go to return home. And he couldn't reach it.
He tried pawing at the side, but that turned out to be solid stone. He tried to scramble up, but it was too steep. He walked along the cave floor a little way, to see if there was some other way to get back up to his burrow, but couldn't find any.
Gopher was in trouble. If a monster lived here...
He thought about it a moment. He had two options: to panic or to find another way home. The first was very tempting at the moment, but perhaps not a good idea. So he would try the second, hoping that his smell was correct about there being no monster. Still, he couldn't help wondering why that deep-delving armadillo had not returned.
He turned and trotted upwind, because that was where the cave would reach the surface. The floor of the cave angled slightly upward, confirming that this was the proper direction. It might be a long way around, because he was very deep, but in time he could do it. He hoped his burrow mates would not miss him and come searching, because one of them might fall through the hole as he had. One lost person was more than enough!
The cave turned out not to be deep after all, and soon he saw the light of the surface. That was odd, because he knew he had delved much farther down. But it would make his return easier. He could simply walk along the ground until he reached his burrow entrance.
Why did he fear that it would not be that easy?
When he reached the mouth of the cave he discovered why the surface had seem so close: it opened into a deep sink hole, where a larger cave had collapsed and laid its secrets open to the sky. This was merely an offshoot. He had some climbing to do. But he wondered, because he knew all the features of the land around his burrow, and there was no hole in the ground like this anywhere near. He had of course been digging his passage at an angle; he must have gone farther out than he intended. It was hard to maintain a perfect spiral; it was bound to drift somewhat. Still, this was weird.
He took a bite of the wire grass growing at the bottom of the sink hole. It was edible, though he could tell by the texture that it was not growing rapidly, because there was not enough water. That suggested drought, and was another indication of the distance this place was from home, because there had been good recent rain near his burrow. In fact, there had been danger of flooding.
He started in, scrambling up the steep slope. His moving feet made little avalanches behind. He got hot and had to rest a while; then he continued until he reached the top.
Now he could see the landscape--and he paused with amazement. It was completely unfamiliar. There were trees and gullies and glades thick with bushes, just as there were at home, but these were different trees, gullies, glades and bushes. He had never been here before.
He must have traveled much farther than he had realized. How was he going to find his way home, when he had no idea where he was?
There seemed to be no help for it but to start looking. If he went far enough, he was bound to intersect familiar territory, and then he would know his way home. But how much easier it would be if he only had Owl along!
He started questing, spiraling out from the great sink hole, because he did not know what direction was most likely. This promised to be a long, wearing search. Cottontail could have done it much faster--but Cottontail wasn't here either.
Along the way he took bites of the local foliage. All of it was dry, but he could handle that. There was bound to be something more succulent somewhere. All he had to do was find a spring or river.
About halfway around the sink hole he spied something in the distance that made him pause. It was not a tree or a pile of rocks, but seemed to be something in between. It was roughly square, or cubical, with odd facets. He had never seen anything quite like it before. So he paused to contemplate it for a while. He needed a rest anyway, having gotten hot from exertion again.
After a time something came from the structure. It was an animal of some type, taller than long. In fact it was a small human. So that must be a human den. But this human was as odd as its den, for it was covered with leaves or fur. No, it was cloth, but not one of the standard cloaks that service humans wore. This had no pattern; it was a confused mixture.
This must be a wild human. That meant that this place was truly far away, for there were no wild humans in the local forest. Any wild ones who strayed near were quickly captured and tamed, for there was always menial work to be done.
Gopher had a sudden idea. Why not capture and tame this human, and make it lift him up to his burrow hole in the cave? Then he could return the way he came.
He headed for the human, who was moving toward a copse of trees. He adjusted his angle to intersect the human at that copse, and also to conceal himself, for wild humans did not necessarily like to be tamed. He had to get close enough to it to dominate its mind before it realized he was there. Otherwise it might flee, and he might never be able to catch it. Wild creatures were notoriously skittish.
As he circled around some brush, he spied a raccoon. Raccoons were smart animals, smarter than just about any other. Maybe he could get advice from it about where he was lost. So he swerved to intersect it, coming within the mind range of sapient strangers. The creature ignored him, which was impolite but not unusual; raccoons tended to hold slower creatures in unwarranted contempt. "Hail!" he thought strongly.
The raccoon paused. It turned its head to peer at him. It was a male of medium age. It's mind seemed to be blank.
"Hail, Raccoon," Gopher repeated. "I wish to consult."
The creature drew back, its mind startled. Then it turned and ran away.
Gopher stared after it, astonished. This was a severe breach of social form. The creature had reacted like an unintelligent brute, fearing the mind contact. Indeed, Gopher had detected no intelligence. It must have been a defective animal, one that had never become civilized.
Or else this realm was even stranger than he had thought.
He moved on toward the copse. The human was no longer in view, but he extended his awareness and picked up a faint trace in the vicinity of the copse. That was surely it.
In time he reached the copse. The human mental trace was stronger; the creature was not moving. That was convenient, because that species could move much faster than a tortoise. In fact the human was lying down, its face buried in a patch of moss. It was easy to come within full mind range.
But as he did so, he was surprised. This creature was suffering strong emotion. It seemed to be loneliness and sorrow. That was unusual, for humans were normally not much given to feelings other than pain, hunger, or satisfaction. They lacked the wit to support complex emotions. In addition, this was a young one, female, and not aggressive. And--could it be believed? She had a complex mind!
Gopher paused for some time, assimilating that. He must be mistaken, for no human had such a mind. They were all beasts of burden, unable ever to rise to complex thought. Useful in their place, but always as beasts.
He needed to verify this. He extended his mind. "Human," he thought forcefully. "Human: respond to me."
The creature lifted her head and oriented on him. Her face was wet. Her eyes had been watering copiously, soaking the moss beneath and spreading moisture around. From her sorrow; it was a peculiarity of the species.
"A turtle!" she thought, suddenly pleased. "Hello, turtle." The odd thing was that she accompanied her thoughts with vocal noises.
Turtle? How could such a gross confusion arise? But at the moment he had to focus on the mental contact.
"Hello, human," Gopher replied. "Are you sapient?" This was impossible, but he had to test it.
"Sapient? You mean smart. Sure I'm smart enough. Is that really you talking to me, or am I dreaming?"
This was yet another surprise. "You can dream?"
"Sure. Who doesn't?" She sat up and focused more intently on him. "I can't really be talking to a turtle! They don't have smart minds."
"Of course they do," Gopher thought. "It is humans who lack complex minds."
She laughed, another startling thing. "What could you come from, where turtles are smart and humans are dull?"
"I am not a turtle!" Gopher snapped. "I am a gopher tortoise. Don't you know the difference?"
She gazed at him, surprised. "Yes, I guess I do know the difference. I just wasn't thinking. Turtles swim, tortoises walk on land. I'm sorry." She looked away, then back to him as if expecting him to disappear. "I just can't believe you're talking to me."
"That is the nature of my realm," Gopher replied, taken aback that she should think he could be stupid. Everything about this realm was surprising. But it did seem that this human was indeed smart.
And the raccoon had been dull. Could this be the nature of this realm? A reversal of the natural order?
"So you're a tortoise," she said. "But then why are you called a gopher? That's a rodent, I think, not a reptile."
"We are called gophers because we dig burrows. We are not rodents. We are the only tortoises who do burrow. We are the landlords of our burrows, making places for other sapient animals, so we have a certain authority."
"You mean like the head of the household?"
Her mental concept seemed reasonably accurate. "Yes."
She clapped her two hands together. "So you're someone important. That's great."
She kept surprising him. He had never thought of himself as important, but it was a pleasant concept. "Human, are all members of your species like you?" he asked.
She shook her head, yet another unusual gesture. "Of course not. We're all different. Except that we're all smarter than any of the animals are."
"In my realm all humans are dull," Gopher explained. "I have never before encountered a smart human."
"And I never met a smart tortoise," she thought. "This is weird. Where exactly is your realm?"
"I am not sure. I was delving deep, and I fell into a cave. When I emerged on the surface, I was here, in this remarkably odd region."
"You didn't fall out of an alien spaceship or something?"
Gopher paused, trying to make sense of the concept. It seemed to involve some kind of flying rock in which small green creatures lurked. "I did not do this thing," he agreed after a moment.
"Gee, this is interesting," she said. "Will you show me where you were in the cave?"
"It was my intention to have you go there and lift me to my burrow exit. But I assumed you were a beast of burden. Your sapience complicates the situation."
"I'll bet!" She got to her feet. "Is it far away?"
"It will take me some time to return there."
"I don't think I have that kind of time. I have to be back for supper soon. Is it okay if I carry you?"
"This is the normal function of a beast of burden. But I am not certain it is appropriate for a smart individual. Especially an untamed one."
"Oh come on, Tortoise! This is my realm. We tame animals the way I guess you tame humans. I can do what I want, if it's okay with you."
"In that case, agreed. Carry me, carefully."
"I will," she agreed. She bent down to put her two hands on his shell, and lifted him into the air.
"Alarm!" Gopher thought as he swayed dizzily.
She paused. "What's the matter?"
"This is not secure conveyance."
"Oh, you mean I'm carrying you wrong? I have a good hold on your shell. How else can I do it?"
"We normally use a howdah."
Gopher projected a picture of the standard howdah: a railed platform just above the head of a human beast, supported by wooden rods attached to a harness about the creature's shoulders. This enabled a tortoise or other sapient animal to ride securely, with the best view of the surroundings. Because it was near the head of the beast, it was able to direct even the dullest one quite readily.
"Neat!" she said. Gopher was picking up her nuances of expression; it was her thoughts he read, but she thought of this as speaking, and made accompanying sounds. "You really ride in style. But I don't have a howdah."
She had a point "Then carry me as steadily as possible."
"Now where's your cave?"
"You are walking toward it. I am directing you."
"You are? I thought I was just going anywhere."
"Geographic directions need not be conscious. We normally do not inform our carriers where we are going. They have no interest in that sort of thing."
"This is weird! It's the way we guide horses."
"What is this beast?"
She sent a mental picture of a truly huge animal, bigger than a deer, with a human straddling its back. "So you see," she said, "We do it too, only we call them saddles, not howdahs." Then she remembered something; Gopher felt the new thought surge into her mind. "Elephants! They have howdahs!" She made another picture, this time of an animal much larger than the horse, with a pendulous dangling nose.
This was too much for Gopher to assimilate, so he changed the subject. "Do you have a personal designation, to distinguish you from others of your kind?"
"Sure. I'm Rowan, after the rowan tree, with red berries. At least it's supposed to have; I've never seen one. And what's your name?"
"I am Gopher, of my local burrow. Gopher Tortoise."
"The same way I'm Rowan Human," she said, laughing.
Gopher did not properly understand this reaction, so he changed the subject again. "What other species govern your realm?"
She was blank. "Other species?"
"In our realm, a number of species are sapient. What other sapient creatures share your realm?"
"No other species. We're the only one. Maybe there are aliens from space or something who are as smart as us, but we haven't met any of those yet, so it's just us."
"Only one? Then what do you do for burrow mates?"
"The other sapient creatures who share your burrow."
"Oh, you mean like family and friends. We just have other people in our houses, and maybe some pets. Who do you share with?"
"Four other sapient animals share my burrow: a rabbit, a snake, an armadillo, and an owl. We are looking for one more to complete our complement. Then we can apply for status as a formal burrow, and reserve the land around us for our purposes."
"We need to forage for food, and to keep foreign predators at bay. Our lives will be more comfortable."
"Oh, I see. The same way we own land, so the other humans have to stay off, and we can grow our gardens or whatever."
They continued to compare notes as they moved, and to understand each other's realms better. But there was one thing Gopher still did not comprehend. "Why were you so unhappy, when I encountered you?"
"Oh, that! It doesn't matter now."
"I do not understand."
"I was crying because I was so lonely. Here I am, stuck with relatives I hardly know while my folks sort out their problems far away. I'm in a strange house, with no friends. I just went out somewhere to lie down and cry. But then you came, and now maybe I have a friend, and least until you go back to your home. So I'm okay now, but I'll be lonely again soon."
"What is a friend?"
"Someone you know who cares about you."
"You have no close associates of your own kind?"
"Not here. Not yet. I guess they'll come, in time, but meanwhile it's rough." She glanced down at him, still held by her two prehensile hands. "And of course I know you're not really a friend, you're a tortoise. But you feel like a friend, so that's fine."
"Perhaps it is similar to the way I feel about my burrow mates," Gopher thought. "I value them, and am bound to help them in way way I can, and they feel the same about me. We are all unified against others."
"Your burrow mates really are different animals? Rabbits and things? What about other tortoises?"
"I stand with my burrow mates. There will be no other tortoises in my burrow."
"And you said there's an owl, and a snake? I thought owls eat snakes."
"Not a burrow mate!" Gopher replied, shocked. "We protect one another."
"Sounds like friendship to me. How would you feel if you lost a burrow mate?"
"That would be a tragedy. We would have to get another, and that would be awkward. Individuals are not interchangeable."
"That is so right!"
While they talked, the girl had been moving toward the cave, climbing down the slope of the sink hole. She was much better at it than Gopher had been, because she could take big steps and keep her balance. That was of course why humans made excellent beasts of burden; they had the bodies for it. Now they were at the bottom--and there was the cave.
"Wow! I never knew there was a cave here. Of course I haven't had time to explore." She walked into it, ducking her head to get past the low spots. "But it's pretty dark in here. Maybe I should go to the house and fetch a light."
Gopher had no idea how she could do such a thing, and at this point just wanted to get back to his burrow. "I will guide you, and warn you of any stumble points. When you return you will be going toward the light, so should not have trouble."
"Okay." She carried him on, and soon enough they were there. Gopher spied the hole where his burrow tunnel had broken through to the cave. Following his guidance, she stopped directly beneath it and lifted him up. In a moment his feet caught at the edges, and he was able to scramble up into it.
"Appreciation," he thought back at her. "You have saved me much mischief."
"Will I see you again, Gopher?" she asked. "I'd really like to. I like you better than anyone I've met here."
"I can return tomorrow if you like. This is an interesting realm."
"Not half as interesting as yours! I'd like to meet your owl friend, too. I like birds."
"I will bring Owl along. Tomorrow at midday."
"Great!" she exclaimed. "I'll be here right then. And I won't tell a soul, 'cause nobody would believe me anyway, and I'd rather have a great secret."
Gopher moved on up the burrow tunnel, leaving her behind. Gradually her mental trace diminished, fading with distance.
Now the significance of what he had found weighed more heavily. A whole new realm! Where animals were stupid, and humans were smart. That would surely amaze his burrow mates.
But there was something else. The human, Rowan Girl, was not just an example of a weird situation; she was a nice person. She had helped him return, and introduced him to the concept of friendship. She was like a burrow mate, only not one. He had had close mental contact with her, and gotten to know she was genuine. He liked her, and he had never before liked any non-burrow mate, let alone any beast of burden. So he must indeed be her friend.
He had agreed to return the next day, and he would, because this new realm was fascinating. But also because he wanted to meet Rowan again, and show her to Owl. Gopher moved on up the burrow tunnel, leaving her behind. Her mental trace was very faint, and then it was gone.
Posted June 11, 2010
This is another Piers Anthony book that I don't really know how to classify. The concept is interesting but doesn't seem to deliver for me. The climax comes at the very end of the book but there is hardly any climax. All the characters over-reason situations with each other too much in this book. If you have read alot of Piers work, then you will be used to this but this book is nearly all dialogue. When each character has the same personality it becomes difficult to read. The book is short, but I was so bored reading it that I felt it would never end. I feel like there should have been some falling action and we might learn what became of Rowan's parents or her guardian's.
The worst of this book comes in the form of several typographical errors. It is clear that there was no editor or that it was Piers himself acting as editor. It seems like he just hammered this book out during a marathon session at the computer. Much more thought and creativity could have gone into this book.
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Posted February 9, 2009
Being a huge fan of Piers Anthony's work, I wanted to try out his childrens book. I was quite impressed with the imaginative plot, that sucked me into the world in true Xanth fashion. I recommend this book to young readers who would like to dive into their first Piers Anthony book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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