Mwalgoic Island is an equatorial isle in the Western Ocean, a few hundred miles east of Ub's east coast. The distance from Mwalgoic to Mecnita is around 20,000 miles or 127 degrees of longitude on our large planet, Nya. What makes Mwalgoic important is the 20-mile runway that bisects the thick jungle there. Our 2000-foot jumbo jets, arriving at 2000 miles per hour, need such runways to execute smooth landings. Our 700-foot mini-jets land on much shorter runways.
Bihaka, the capital of Qazudistan and also of Qazudistan's Jhibilli Province, has only conventional runways, so that to fly Mecnita-Bihaka, one must transfer at Mwalgoic from a jumbo to a mini. Flights from Bihaka to the interior of Qazudistan, that is, to provinces like Gangawar, Shadwanta and Kara Darya, are infrequent, and in many cases it is more convenient to go by train.
It seemed logical for our safari to fly via Mwalgoic to Bihaka, and there judge the best way to the interior. We would also have to consider movement withn the interior, once we got there, and that might be determined by the availability of various modes of transport, rather than our personal preference.
I had already been in Ujjama, the capital of Gangawar, where, years before, I got involved in the volleyball game that led ultimately to my removal from the prime ministry and enrollment in the Eldor Geese. Ujjama was not a large city, and I couldn't imagine what they would have in the way of hovercraft, helicopters or airships. We'd just have to go find out.
Our party included Queen Shandra, Ivandra, Sundari, Zhvizhvi, Zevanardia, Ellennamandia, Venedora and Lilinaki. Rojamma and Flixi, who were members of Gvagma's commission, and Tarjima, of Rupsnoir Press, also accompanied us. I was the leader since I had been in the area before, as little as that meant.
I presumed I would have to ask Ajinblambia for permission to make the safari and charge it to Eldor Palace, even though our guest of honor was Queen Shandra. So in order to be safe rather than sorry, I called Ajinblambia on my wrist phone and got her verbal approval. She said also she would activate my magnetic finger-ring, so that any electronic pencil anywhere could make transactions just by touching it. She could do this from her office without my having to be present. Also, since the ring was sensitive to the wearer's DNA, there was no chance that an impostor could put on the ring and make fraudulent charges.
A few days later, Shvampronx and Clixbong, two palace chauffeurs, drove our party of twelve ladies to Jezgroid Airport, the largest airport on the planet, 22 miles long and 5 miles wide. All planes depart along east-west runways, which are paved with high-strength concrete. Glafcroc, another palace chauffeur, had already conveyed our baggage in a van to the airport. There was a considerable amount. The baggage would be moved from the jumbo to the mini in Mwalgoic without our having to do anything. I had the baggage claim checks in my purse.
Even people who frequently fly in Ung's jumbo turbofan-ramjets are always stunned by the size and magnificence of these "flying cities", as we call them, but people who are seeing them for the first time are struck dumb with awe, almost to the point of fainting. Turbofan-ramjets have both turbofan jets and ramjets, the latter being deployed at higher speeds. Either way, these jumbos can develop upwards of 600 meganewtons of thrust.
Queen Shandra would have been utterly dumbfounded merely to behold one of our mini-jets, which carries 2000 passengers. but the sight of our gleaming jumbo, the leviathan of the air, which carries 100,000, almost bowled her over, and the rest of us practically had to prop her up to help her maintain her balance.
Inside the plane, she simply could not believe that there were such amenities as a swimming pool, a tennis court, a dance hall and a library. There were baths and saunas, restaurants and bars. You could live on a jumbo. Jumbo jets are often called maxi-jets, since the smaller planes are mini-jets.
Incidentally, on Nya, we don't speak of miles, hours, miles per hour or degrees of longitude. I have merely converted Nyatic units from Ungi to English with my handy wrist computer.
Our flight to Mwalgoic would take about 4 Ungi tenth-days, almost 10 earth-hours. The jumbo easily holds enough fuel to fly nonstop to Mwalgoic.
Ivandra and Shandra played part of a set of tennis on board, to a score of three-all, but decided just to let the tie stand instead of letting either lady get "sore" for having lost. I danced quite a while with Zevanardia, my alter ego and darling friend, but I also danced single dances with some of the others. I was easily the shortest of the dozen, except for my horns, which projected 18 inches out of my cranium. With my horns, I was the tallest, but still gave the impression of being small, in a kingdom where women are statuesque. All the ladies stood 75 to 84 inches, whereas I stood 70.
We learned that there was a barbecue pit on board. So we picnicked by roasting kebabs on skewers over an open fire. Pieces of mutton were interspersed with white onions cut in slices and small red cherry tomatoes. As a side, we had wild rice and nan with sesame. Cool drinks, like iced tea and limeade, topped it off.
Then we repaired to the library, where we found a very large table. I unfolded and spread out an enormous detailed map of Qazudistan. Let me interject that Ub, the larger of our two continents, sprawls over 190,000,000 square miles, more than eleven times the size of Asia. Eb, where Mecnita is, covers only 111,000,000. Qazudistan makes up almost one-half of Ub's landmass, and has a far greater area than all seven continents of Earth combined. Qazudistan was annexed by Ung in year '390, and Qazudistan's old provinces have been provisionally accepted as provinces of Ung, pending further discussions and negotiations. Bihaka is in the southeast of Qazudistan, whereas Ujjama is central, 5000 miles away. I showed the ladies the region in southern Gangawar and northern Shadwanta inhabited by the gigantic beasts we'd come to see. They were amazed by the sheer size of the region I penciled out. I noticed Orchiz, a city in northern Shadwanta that seemed to be on the very edge of the land of gigantic beasts, but I confessed to the others that, though I must have passed through Orchiz, I hadn't taken note of it till now. Perhaps upon arriving in Bihaka, we would be able to get more information at the Provincial Library of Jhibilli, near the Rajassi. The library provided computer access and was staffed with knowledgeable librarians and aides.
We were traveling westward only slightly more slowly than Dyo, the sun. So, on arrival on Mwalgoic Island, looking skyward, we would have guessed that only an hour or so had passed. Strangely enough, we all felt as cheerful and vigorous as if that had been so.
We had a few minutes to change planes, so we boarded autobuggies, punching our flight number on keypads mounted on consoles. Then each autobuggy rolled robotically to the departure area for our flight to Bihaka.
This flight would be slower, but still the time involved was only two or three earth-hours. We landed at Bhilgopta Airport in Bihaka in the early afternoon. There we hired a special limousine that could carry all twelve of us and our baggage to our quarters.
We occupied a suite of rooms for a dozen guests that I had booked in a fancy hotel called Jhibilli Inn, near Jhibilli Place, opposite the Rajassi. I was charging this all to Eldor Palace, so I could be generous. I hoped that Ajinblambia would not chide me later because of my prodigality. Having millions of talents in her purse, she probably would not be overawed, I reasoned.
Shandra, Zevanardia and I went to the Provincial Library later that afternoon and found out that both helicopters and hovercraft could be rented in either Ujjama or Orchiz. Balloons and airships were unavailable. Orchiz was our best choice as regards proximity to the gigantic beasts. There were no flights to Orchiz though. We would have to settle for one of those 100-mile-an-hour caterpillars that Qazudis call trains. Surely there were no bullet trains on the Bihaka, Dilulabad and Central Railroad. So we braced ourselves for a two-day train passage. We could have flown to Ujjama, after a three-day wait in Bihaka for the next flight, and returned by train to Orchiz, but the logistics of moving the baggage again and again daunted us.
The next day we were on our way. We rented a whole sleeping car, which had precisely twelve berths anyway. The ride began fairly uneventfully. First there were farmlands, and then desert and woods alternating endlessly. Scattered mountain ranges could be seen in the distance.
However, on the afternoon of the second day, suddenly, from the window, we saw a giant rhinoceros, around 15 feet tall at the withers, and 30 feet long. "This must be Rhinoceros ubbicus," I said nonchalantly, as if I had been some sort of minor authority on rhinos. I merely recalled reading an article in Obscont about the species. I inquired with an attendant whether we could get the trainman to stop, but the attendant told me that at our speed, it would take some time to stop the train, so that we'd have to back up to return to the same place. Any extraordinary movement like that might frighten or annoy the rhinoceros and cause it to charge the train. Of course, a second's reflection should have made me understand that fact without my having to make myself look daft with my fatuous question. However, the attendant's remarks made everybody suddenly apprehensive. Did we really want to get into this? A sort of chill settled over the spirited conversation we'd been having.
I mentioned that I had heard that there were still saurians in Ub--dinosaurs, tyrannosaurs, brontosaurs and so forth. A few minutes later, when everyone was still pondering that information, we saw what appeared to be a hairy dinosaur. "I didn't realize that dinosaurs are shaggy," one of the ladies in our party remarked. So we asked the attendant.
"Oh, that's not a shaggy dinosaur," she said, "That's an anteater. They're absolutely gargantuan. The scientific name is Tamandua shadwantica. There are hundreds of them around here. Generally, unless frightened or angry, they mind their own business."
"What sort of thing would frighten or anger them?" asked Zevanardia.
"Well, that's hard to say. They're unpredictable at times. It's best to exercise caution when you're near them."
The apprehensive chill intensified somewhat.
"They must have to eat billions of ants to support those huge bodies of theirs."
"Not so," said Zamira, the attendant, "Our ants are very large. Our smooth ant looks like a pair of eggplants on six legs, and our velvet ant looks like a pair of large coconuts on six legs. So a couple dozen ants make a nice breakfast for our giant anteater."
"Do the ants bite?"
"You'd better believe they bite," Zamira burst into laughter, as if she were enjoying our inexperience. "But the insect that you really have to watch out for is our giant tarantula hawk wasp, Pepsis gangawarensis. This wasp is about two feet long and can kill with a sting. Even if you don't die, you will experience excruciating pain."
The chill intensified some more. Holy dread overtook our safari. Perhaps this was a foolish adventure after all.
"Well, we don't live forever anyway," I said, "so why don't we go meet the challenge?"
"I don't know about you, but I'm only 25," said Flixi, one of the girls from Gvagma, "So, I probably have over 100 years to live. Maybe in that length of time, they will discover an immortality serum." Of course, she was being half-serious, half-facetious.
"I'm leery of those gigantic wasps. Even the little ones that we have in Eb scare me," Sundari added, "They are definitely very wicked little beasts."
We talked it over at length, and decided that we would rent a helicopter that carried a small hovercraft, and make sure, if we went on any outings in the hovercraft, to use plenty of netting for protection against wasps, mosquitoes and their ilk.
Finally, on the second morning, our train reached Orchiz, a frontier town, bare and spartan, but we found decent, if not luxurious, accommodations in the Grand Hotel of Orchiz. Immediately as we got in and settled, Shandra, Zevanardia and I went to Orchiz Regional Heliport. We were pleased to learn that a modern helicopter, with a range of 1500 miles and an endurance of over 24 hours, was available. It could easily carry twelve passengers and a crew of three. A compartment in the helicopter could accommodate a hovercraft for fifteen. Our crew members knew the Ovarolda, the region we would explore, like the backs of their hands, and would be our guides too. Their Ungi was not perfect, and I was out of practice in Qazudi, but we would manage.
The people at the heliport warned us that it would be dangerous to camp out overnight in the Ovarolda without a lot of gear that would be very awkward to deal with. They said we should rise before sunup and be in the air at dawn, returning a little after dusk. Thus we would have up to 14 earth-hours in the air. At a maximum speed of 400 miles per hour, in their state-of-the-art helicopter, we could easily fly to any point in the Ovarolda and back each day, if we elected to remain several days. We booked for the following day, leaving open the possibility of further excursions. Then we all went home to the hotel and relaxed after the trying trip.
The next morning we were up and out before sunrise. We all wore long dungarees and long-sleeved sweaters. It broke my heart to have to surrender my Eldor Geese uniform, which I wore like a badge of honor in those days.
The crew were all healthy-looking Qazudi girls, tall and well-built. Though young, they seemed to know exactly what they were doing at the controls. Their names were Ormila, Svincha and Catsina.
Catsina asked, "May I recommend that we go first to see the flying buffaloes? That's the closest point of interest."
"Flying buffaloes?" I exclaimed.
"Oh, we just call them flying buffaloes. Actually they're gigantic bats. The wingspan is about 12 feet and the body does look like a small buffalo's."
"Are they dangerous?"
"Not if you give them a lot of leeway."
"Please tell me what you mean."
"Well, they live in a cavern with a large mouth opening on the side of a steep mountain. In front of the mountain there's a pool, and so there's only a narrow space to stand at the foot of the mountain. We would have to land on the opposite side of the pool and cross in the hovercraft. There's not enough room for the helicopter to hover over the narrow space beside the mountain. After we cross the pool, one of us crew members can rouse the bats by throwing stones and shouting into the cave. When the bats come flying out, they always fly straight ahead. If you all stand on the side at a safe distance, the bats will never see you."
"That sounds like fun. Let's do it."
An hour later, we had landed and slid the hovercraft out. It was only about 300 feet to the cave over a pool that did not look polluted.
"This ought to be safe enough to cross without putting up the nets," I said.
"You're the leader," said Zevanardia.
All fifteen of us boarded the hovercraft.
We had been over the water no more than a minute when Tarjima cried,"Watch out, Sissy! There's one of those giant wasps! It must be at least 18 inches long."
"Coming right at you. Duck quick!"
I ducked but the giant tarantula hawk wasp kept hovering over my head, and finally rested on my right horn.
"Don't move. It's on your horn."
"I don't believe you. You're just teasing." I reached up and felt it with my hand. When I touched it, the wasp sprang into the air without flying away completely. Instead, it started towering and swooping swiftly at my head, as if it were making angry threats. I fainted with fright. I thought the beast had stung me!
But no! The wasp had only grazed me with its abdomen.
Thinking quickly, Zevanardia drove the wasp away with one of the emergency oars that were in the hovercraft.
"I don't know. I felt something."
"If the wasp had stung you, you would know it, that is, if you were still alive. Are you in pain?"
"No, not really, just a little startled."
Zevanardia put her arm around me. "Oh, I'm so glad you're all right. It was your idea not to use the net. You'd better leave such things to me from now on." She gripped my horns and kissed me fondly on the mouth.
When we finally convinced ourselves that I was fine and the wasp was gone, everyone fell to laughing merrily. "Woe is me! I'm always the laughingstock." I thought.
We attained the opposite shore of the pool, where we all stepped out onto the narrow strip of level land. Catsina, Ormila and Svincha roused the bats, which flew out of the cave in such numbers that they formed a black cloud. We twelve travelers stood off to the side. The bats disappeared in the distance and never reappeared.
Returning to the helicopter and stowing the hovercraft, we again rose into the air, flying towards a good place to see the giant anteaters, which were up to 40 feet long.
"Shall we just fly to the location and circle around a little, remaining aloft, or would you prefer that we land nearby? There is a rocky eminence that the anteaters cannot reach. We can put down there, and, then, if you like, we can descend on foot. There's a path," Ormila asked.
Zevanardia, taking charge, replied, "Let's put down on the rocky eminence, so, before we descend, we can see what lies in store for us."
Two hours later, we arrived. Standing on the rock, I counted seven of the Tamandua shadwantica within a kilometer. Awesome! Incredible! We photographed them from on high, but I was uneasy about descending to the plain.
"We have a gas cylinder with gas that will knock an anteater out for 30 minutes, so don't fret. We can handle them," continued Catsina.
"Oh, all right," I said, still recovering from the scare I got from the wasp. "I did want to get a close look at those monstrous ants."
We walked around for an hour or so, without incident. The plain was crawling with ants, but we all managed to avoid their horrid mandibles, which looked as if they could bite off a finger.
There was a 15-foot-tall rhinoceros, who appeared to weigh 50 tons, grazing in the distance. We kept an eye on it lest it come our way, in which case we could run back to our rock, as we had made sure we hadn't strayed too far from it. But the huge perissodactyl just stood peacefully in its place.
Back in the air, we merely flew around above the dinosaurs' area, which was nearby, hovering here and there momentarily. The monsters looked horrible beyond belief, and we dared not alight.
We saw tremendous apes and pythons as large as dragons, in the environs. There were mighty turtles and dogs as big as horses.
Finally we saw that the sun was bending towards the west, and we asked the crew to fly us back. By 8 Ungi (7:12 PM), we were again at the Grand Hotel of Orchiz.
We reserved the helicopter for the following day, and we did go out, but it was largely a matter of going back over some of the sights we wanted to see more closely.
The day after that, we boarded a train, settling in our sleeping car for the two-day return trip to Bihaka.
"Well, what shall we do when we get to Bihaka?" I asked once we were rolling on the plain, "Shall we just go as quickly as possible to Bhilgopta Airport and start our flight home to Mecnita, or shall we see the sights in Bihaka for a couple of days first?"
"Sights in Bihaka?" asked Ivandra with surprise, "Are there any sights in Bihaka?"
Now I shone, for I had been in Bihaka several times. "Of course there are sights in Bihaka," I said, "I admit Bihaka is not Mecnita, but it's still a fine city. For one thing, there's the Qazudi Ballet..."
"The Qazudi Ballet?" Sundari and Zhvizhvi chimed out in unison. "Oh, that sounds very interesting," continued Sundari. Those two beautiful young ladies were our dancers. In fact, Zhvizhvi directed the Royal Egrets' School of Dance back in Mecnita, and Sundari was a ballerina who worked for Gvagma's Courier Service, as I mentioned.
"Then there's the Perennial Flower Show. It's open every day, year after year. We can visit some fashion shows too. And there is ice skating, to watch or participate in, in Jhibilli Ice Hall. There is plenty of fine dining and dancing. Shopping is excellent. We could have a very good time."
"In that case, why don't we plan to stay two or three days," said Queen Shandra decisively, as if she considered herself in authority in our group.
No one objected. Everyone could sense the queenliness of her voice and bearing. Her velvety enunciation and the luscious curvature of her regal bosom could not be doubted or contradicted. On planet Nya, when a queen speaks, everyone listens. So, while still on the train, I got out my bracelet phone, called Jhibilli Inn and booked for three days the same suite we'd occupied earlier. Then we all sat about gazing out the window.
We rolled and rolled and rolled, to the monotonous clacking of train wheels on rail splices. We saw some more gigantic animals along the way. Then we passed through desert, woodland, desert, woodland. At last, I could sense Bihaka in the distance. Finally, we pulled into Vashtarna Station, and detrained. Some 30 minutes later we were in our old suite, with all our baggage with us. It was still morning.
Oh, it was so joyous to bathe in luxury and slip into silk panties and peignoir. Later we would go out, but first we'd have breakfast in our suite, and take our ease for a couple of hours.
Suddenly, Zevanardia came rushing at me with what looked like a giant tarantula hawk wasp in her right hand. I shrieked, "Eek! Eek! No! No! Get that thing away from me. Please! What are you doing?" I dashed into a closet and slammed the door behind me.
I heard everyone burst into volleys of laughter, so I guessed this was a game. I opened the closet door a crack and saw the wasp, lying motionless and dead upon a coffee table.
It turned out that Zevanardia had seen a preserved specimen of Pepsis gangawarensis in a taxidermist's shop in Orchiz, and had bought it as a souvenir. She said that she could hardly wait to get back to Cissi's Intimates in Mecnita, so that she could show everyone.
Tarjima, the lady from Rupsnoir Press who had published the brochure about Ivandra and myself, during my drum-saddle days, photographed me, with the wasp on my right horn, and Zevanardia, with a stake in her hand, pretending to be shooing it away. I looked ridiculous sitting in my lilac peignoir on a bed with a fluffy white eiderdown comforter, with a two-foot black and orange tarantula hawk wasp clinging to my horn. Tarjima promised the picture would appear on the front page of Obscont, so that all Mecnita could have a good laugh.
That afternoon, we all presented ourselves at the Qazudi Ballet Theater. Zhvizhvi and Sundari introduced themselves to the impresaria of the ballet, who asked them to perform for her briefly, when she lad learned who they were. She was so impressed that she invited them to dance a short duet after the regular program that evening. They, of course, were honored. The rest of our party sat in the audience. Those who can dance, dance, while those who can't dance, spectate. We were all so proud of our two ballerinas! The scheduled ballet was entitled The Fall of the Jvashnas, and was based on an episode in Qazudi history. But Zhvizhvi and Sundari outdanced the locals.
The next day we went to the Perennial Flower Show. We saw roses and lilies and tulips and irises and gladioluses and wisteria and lupines and bluebells and hydrangeas and dahlias and zinnias. We saw fuchsias and poppies and cannas and callas and chrysanthemums and marigolds and gardenias and phlox and snapdragons and violets. We saw orchids and poinsettias and petunias and begonias and larkspurs and daffodils and lotuses and jasmines and peonies. And then we left.
We attended a fashion show and visited fashionable stores. Some of the garments were certainly beautiful, though, for the most part, they had a provincial, parochial look. At one store, inspecting the intimate apparel, I said haughtily to Zevanardia, "Ours is better, don't you think?"
"Well, perhaps. But that is not the point--just to feel superior. We ought to buy some samples to take back and study. There may be fine points in design and construction that we could adopt, maybe even some stylistic features. Who knows? There may be a market for this kind of apparel in Mecnita."
"You're right, of course, dear Zevanardia. It's a good thing that I have you watching over me. Yes, please do select a few pieces. If we can't charge it, I do have Qazudi money. We can pay cash."
She chose about a dozen pieces of lingerie, and I paid in rubi, the local currency.
Our companions were wandering around, looking about with curiosity or appreciation. A few made purchases. Eventually, we left. By now, evening was drawing near, so we hired six taxis at a cab stand to take us back to Jhibilli Inn.
The third day, we went to the National Gallery of Qazudistan and the Museum of Natural History. In the evening we went to Jhibilli Ice Hall and saw the figure skaters, who were absolutely magnificent. I tried ice-skating for the first time in my life in the public rink adjacent to the rink reserved for professional performances. I was an expert at roller skating by this time, but I had a way to go before I could say the same about ice skating. Anyway, it was too cold for me. I like it nice and warm.
The following morning we were scheduled to fly out. Just before we left our suite at Jhibilli Inn, Queen Shandra caught me by the hand. "Well, dear Sissy," she said "I owe you an apology for disbelieving you when you said The Gigantic Beasts of Ub is a factual pentesthetic. I might have spared you all the trouble of this trip."
"Oh, you owe me no apology. It was fun, don't you think?"
"Thank you for your gracious reply, but really and truly, I feel that you are more in your element searching for gowns and slips than looking for apes and rhinos."
"You mean to say that I should forget about becoming a big game hunter?"
"Yes, that's it precisely," said Shandra with a regal smile, as she put her arm around my head and pulled me to her bosom. Zevanardia looked on with barely perceptible jealousy in her expression, but she knew that this was just a friendly hug from a dear, dear Vrikshaya, my adoptive cousin, as it were.
Around 4 Ungi, we were at Bhilgopta Airport. We departed on schedule and arrived on Mwalgoic Island at 6 Ungi. Continuing from Mwalgoic almost immediately, we arrived at Jezgroid a little after midnight. Glafcroc, Shvampronx and Clixbong were there to meet us. Glafcroc and some skycaps dealt with the baggage, loading it in a van, which Glafcroc drove off, while Shvampronx and Clixbong seated us twelve travelers in Udi's white V30 limousine, chauffeuring us to Eldor Palace. The palace was still and peaceful at that hour. From Eldor Palace, several chauffeurs in smaller cars delivered all the ladies to their destinations.
Zevanardia and I opted to go out to Cissi's Intimates in Frifna, for a day or two of privacy and love. Clixbong drove. We had him in for a nightcap and some snacks. Then he returned to Eldor Palace. By now it was 1 Ungi (2:24 AM), so Zevanardia and I went straight to bed, falling asleep almost at once.
As I mentioned, for several months I had been helping Ajinblambia bathe and dress each morning, as I interviewed her for my biography of her, and I resumed this pleasant task a few days after we got back to Mecnita. I also set her hair, applied her makeup and manicured her. When Queen Shandra heard about this, she wanted me to do the same for her as long as she was in town. Realizing this would enable me to get more information on Ajinblambia's girlhood on Mli, where she and Shandra grew up together, I agreed eagerly, though I had to ask Ajinblambia to request that Sundari give me time off from my deliveries for Gvagma temporarily. Thus I would work five earth-hours a day instead of eight, and so have three for Shandra.