The first part of our journey takes us to the planet that started it all. Welcome to Kareena. Upon exiting the portal that serves as the only way on and off the planet, the first thing you notice are the towering mountains. Snow covers most of the peaks, but the bases are dark with evergreen trees. The mountains are fat with gradual slopes, though some are jagged at the peaks. Sheer cliffs are rare.
As your eyes travel downward, you notice we are in a high valley. In the center of the valley, the trees are replaced with a meadow of soft alpine grass. A rocky stream cuts through the meadow, the rush and trickle of water dominating the soundscape. High elevation songbirds share their original compositions, their chorus travelling on the light breeze that brushes the treetops.
The wind carries the scent of pines, firs, and other softwoods, stirring memories of Earth’s mountains and winter holidays. The air is clean with a crisp bite. You can almost taste the cold weather that will soon descend upon the northern reaches of the planet.
We follow the stream south. Along the way, it merges with other springs until they become a turbulent river, white with foam from the cataracts. We hike for three days, subsisting on fish from the river and fruits and nuts from the forest. At night we make camp, laying out bedrolls in the grass and hanging hammocks in the trees. We gather around a crackling fire where I share stories of the people who walked this land tens of thousands of years ago.
At the end of the third day, the ground becomes more level. The mountains and their high elevations are behind us. A dense forest of mostly deciduous trees stretches as far as the eye can see. The path is dim, and you watch your step for fear of tripping on one of the many gnarled tree roots that stretch across the ground.
For two more days, we wind our way through the trees, listening to the songs of birds and the rustle of animals hidden in the undergrowth. Rodents sit on tree branches, chattering at us as we pass. The occasional snake slithers across our path; and there’s one time you think you see a porpukni disappear into the brush up ahead, its quilled body distinguishing it from any other creature. It reminds you of porcupines on Earth, except it has black spots and six legs.
There are a handful of dangerous creatures in this forest, but none would dare take on a group of people. As long as we stick together and none of you go wandering off, you are safe from threats.
On the sixth day of our journey, you spot something in the distance: a clearing. The trees thin, and the canopy opens up, revealing the sun in all its bright, warm glory. In the clearing is a small settlement composed of nine buildings, ranging in size and style.
The largest is made of thick stonework, and it dominates the far end of the clearing. Beside it is another stone building, three stories high with large windows and a multitude of flowers. The rest are built of wood. One is small and rough, tucked away near the entrance to the clearing. Another is gray and weatherworn with holes in the boards. The shutters hang from their hinges, and the windows are broken and dirty. A third is large and clean with lots of windows.
This is Jakita, the only settlement on Kareena. The population is fifteen: eleven scientists and four servants. “Why so few?” you ask. It’s a sad tale. One I will not share so close to the start of our journey. Another night, perhaps, but not tonight.
Jakita is the home of a dying race: the durmiads. And yet all other races come from them, so their genes will survive, even once the last durmiad takes the final journey to the afterlife. Kareena is a sacred location because it is the last refuge of a once great and powerful people. Visitors are forbidden. The portal is guarded with all the strength the remaining durmiads can muster. But do not fret. We have special permission to be here. Just this once, Kareena is opened to the outside world, so some may learn of its beauty and share it with others before the durmiads die and it disappears into obscurity.
The durmiads are wary of their magic-wielding creations, but they are not afraid of humans. That is why you have been chosen as the lucky visitors. They know you will share tales of this land when you return home. Why am I allowed here? Ah, well, that is a secret. One I will not be sharing on this journey.
Let me give you a tour of Jakita. It won’t take long. The nearest building, the small and rough one you noticed earlier, belongs to the woman who serves as the scientists’ bodyguard. A former spy, she lives a simple life in her humble home. The house reminds you of the rustic cabins pioneers built in America in the 1800s. The wood is rough, but the beams are set tightly together. A bulky stone chimney dominates one side wall. The windows are small and don’t open. The door is thick and heavy. The exterior is unadorned, and inside you will find only those things that are necessary for eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even now, you can smell meat cooking on the stove. What the bodyguard does in her spare time, no one knows. She’s withdrawn and secretive. Even after thousands of years alone with her ten companions, she hasn’t opened up to them.
The next house on your left belongs to one of the many geneticists, though this one is distinguishable by her additional studies in physical anthropology—the study of biological variation in durmiads. Her house is small with whitewashed walls and green shutters. Yellow flowers and greenery adorn the front of the house, and a vegetable garden sits behind it. You notice one of the rooms in the back is closed off, the windows shuttered. The room once belonged to her friend the behavioral scientist, but she died. I’ll tell you her story later, when the time is right, and even then, some of you will choose not to hear it, for it is dark.
The house across from this one is the rundown building with broken windows and holes in the walls. It used to be whitewashed, too, but it now looks gray. The porch and roof are sagging. You expect it to come crashing down any second. Two geneticists used to live there, but they left. They live farther west, but I’m not allowed to show you their home. Tensions are high between them and the scientists of Jakita. I will tell you the story of their conflict later, for it is intertwined with the behavioral scientist’s death. “Is there anyone else on this planet?” you ask. Yes. There is one other. Sireva is his name. You don’t want to meet him.
The rundown house is the only one on the right side. We continue to the next one on the left. It is large with two stories and a wide porch. It’s painted brown with dark green trim. Grasses, shrubs, and other greenery line the porch. Many animals visit the small pond in the back where a wooden bench serves as the owners’ favorite sitting area. The home is occupied by a zoologist and her wife the neuroscientist.
Next to their house is the last single-occupancy home, again one that used to be a double. The diplomat and the records-keeper lived here, but the records-keeper died of a terrible disease shortly after the house was built. The home is a gray and blue two-story building with many rooms. It reminds you of European-style architecture from Earth. Boxes of dark blue and purple flowers line the windows. A great tree grows in the back over the ashes of the records-keeper.
Three houses remain. The next is another single-story, though it is by no means small. It has lots of big windows and a massive kitchen. It’s pale yellow with white trim. The medical doctor lives here with his husband the botanist. In the back he keeps a large garden full of a diverse array of plants and lots of vegetables and herbs to supply the doctor’s kitchen. You can hear faint music coming through one of the open windows.
The next house is two-stories with lots of technology within. The house is gray with a contemporary-vibe to it. There is one wall that is all glass, overlooking the small flower garden in the back. The well-rounded scientist and technology expert lives here with his wife the biochemist and their servant.
The final house is the large, ornate three-story building that caught your eye when we first arrived. It is made of clean white stone, and many columns surround it. It has a wrap-around porch and a balcony in the front. It reminds you of old manors from the American South. The grounds are kept in impeccable shape. This is the home of the leaders. One is a geneticist, and the other is an ecologist. They have three servants who maintain their home.
Their house is closest to the laboratory, the large stone building at the far end of the clearing. That is where they keep their supercomputer, their DNA bank, and the rest of their equipment. It’s where they make clones and modify DNA, where they experiment with things many thought only the gods could do. The lab is where all other magical races were born.
Now that you’ve seen everything of interest in Jakita, we set up camp beyond the laboratory. Many of you wander into the trees to gather the edible food I’ve taught you to find. The rest of you stay behind, and two questions are on your lips: “What do durmiads look like?” and “Where did the magic come from?”
The discovery of magic is a long story I will share when we take our first long break from travelling, which will be about three months into the journey. As for durmiads, they look much like you and me. They’re slightly taller than the average human, and their ears are somewhat pointed, but not like the elves you know from Earth’s fantasy stories. The biggest differences are ones you can’t see. They have stronger senses than we do, and higher average intelligence. As you already know, they can wield magic. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, they’ll come out to meet us while we’re here. Like I said, they’re not used to visitors, so they may stay closed up in their homes.
“But why are they so similar to humans?” you ask. “Shouldn’t there be more differences?” One would expect an alien species to be more alien. I will tell you the story of why we’re so similar tonight. It’s quite fascinating.
In the meantime, I suggest you rest. We’ve been hiking for many days now, and tomorrow, we set off on the next leg of our journey. I hope you don’t mind getting wet.