Not too long ago, Zoombinis enjoyed the good life. Though they all looked slightly different – different eyes, noses, hair, feet – such differences meant nothing to the Zoombinis. And so they lived happily on Zoombini Isle, making small, useful products which were prized the world over. The Zoombinis had a sense of fulfillment and inner peace – not to mention healthy bank accounts.
Then one day, who should show up but the Bloats. . . .
"Echae, come up here! Look at this!"
It was a balmy, breezy evening on the island, the setting sun turning the sky to a vibrant array of reds and oranges. The ocean lazily lapped the shore as the trees rustled lightly in the wind. Things were even more peaceful than usual on the mainland, for at that moment nearly all of the island's inhabitants were crowded at the shore. Some of them had been on board one of the ships, moving crates around and preparing them for departure. They had been the first ones to see it, and as they did, they began calling urgently out to their fellows, who had been quick to join them.
A ship was pulling into the harbor.
This had never happened before. They had always sailed out to deliver their products; never before had any clients come to retrieve them. The island, though certainly large enough, was in the middle of the ocean, days away from any other land, and not easy to locate.
The ship that was pulling in was massive; at least three times the size of any of their own. Its huge white sails billowed in the breeze, and beneath its figurehead, which closely resembled the head of a vicious dragon, there was a large round insignia bearing nothing but a letter B.
This was all being seen from far away by one of the island's younger inhabitants. From the top of the hill she had just crested, she had a perfect view of the harbor some hundreds of feet away and below.
"Echae! Come on!" She managed to tear her gaze away from the ship long enough to hiss over her shoulder. "You'll miss it!"
Like everyone else on the island, the main portion of her body was nothing more than a light blue lump and she possessed no hands, arms, or visible mouth, but nonetheless, there was no one who looked exactly like her. For one, she was hovering atop the hill – hovering, not standing, for instead of feet, she had an ever-spinning propeller she used to fly everywhere. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and a brown pair of glasses rested over her bright blue nose.
"Echae, you are impossible," she chastised as her slower companion came struggling up the hill.
"Cut me a little slack, Sae!" he gasped in exhaustion as he collapsed to the ground in front of her. "Having to rollerskate everywhere isn't as fun as it sounds! Especially when it's up a hill!"
"Well, now that you're up here, come have a look!" encouraged the flyer, whose full name happened to be Saetwo. "There's a ship coming in the harbor! And it's not one of ours!"
"What? What are you talking about?" Echae hastily shook his unkempt mop of hair out of his face and leapt to his feet – or rather, wheels – and looked out at the harbor. His big bright eyes grew even wider as he gazed at it in disbelief.
"What in the world is that?" he cried. "I don't recognize it from anywhere! Are these guys customers?"
"Who knows? All I know is I want to get a better look!"
Without even waiting for her friend, Saetwo zipped down the hill in the direction of the harbor, always hovering a few inches above the ground.
"Sae, wait!" Echae shouted, struggling to balance on his skates as he took off after her. Unfortunately, he wasn't especially adept at skating down steep slopes, and within moments he had tripped and was tumbling head over heels down the hill.
"AAAAAHHHH!" he cried as he fell, faster and faster, the world spinning around him – and then, with a jarring impact, he stopped dead.
"OUCH!" came a loud protest, followed by the sound of someone hitting the ground several feet away. Echae, groaning loudly, struggled to lift his head back up to see just whom he had struck.
"Oh, great," he muttered. "Just who I wanted to see."
"Watch where you're going, loser!" snapped the other, storming back up the hill to give Echae a violent shove. "We're in the middle of something!"
"If by 'something' you mean 'bullying someone smaller and weaker than yourselves'," Saetwo retorted as she flew over to the two of them. "Leave him alone, Xekrai."
"Ooh. The loserette is threatening me. I'm so scared," Xekrai taunted as the small group of cronies gathered behind him began to laugh. Xekrai was sporting an immaculate flattop haircut, sunglasses, and a bright red nose. He had always been an commanding presence among the island's younger demographic, and none of his lackeys ever seemed to care that he wore pink shoes.
"Oh shut up, Xekrai. We're not losers," Echae snapped, but then cast an uneasy sideways glance at Saetwo. "Are we?"
"Pfft. No. That's just Xekrai's term for anyone who doesn't go around licking his girly pink shoes."
Xekrai looked ready to throw an acerbic comeback at Saetwo when his cohorts abruptly burst out laughing. He turned around in confusion to see that they had formed a circle and had begun to divert themselves by shoving someone in the middle back and forth amongst each other, shouting taunts at him the whole time.
"Except for Uloobu," Saetwo sighed. "He really is a loser."
"Guys, leave me alone!" Uloobu whined as he was pushed around by the circle of bullies. "Please stop it!"
"That's what you were in the middle of?" Echae demanded. "Xekrai, we might respect you a little more if you started picking on someone who could actually defend themself."
"I'll handle this," said Saetwo, flying into the circle and gently nudging Uloobu out. Everyone in the circle began protesting loudly and flinging insults at her as she did.
"Come on, guys, can't you leave this guy alone for just one day?" she shot back. "Xekrai, you ought to know better. You can't just go around messing around with people for no reason."
"I can do whatever I want. In case you've forgotten, my dad is – "
"Mayor of Zoombini Isle," Saetwo and Echae chanted along with him.
"Yeah, trust us, Xekrai, we remember," Echae said irritably. "You only tell us about once every five seconds."
"And it still doesn't give you the right to make life so hard for people," Saetwo added. "If you're all looking for something to do, there's a weird ship pulling into the harbor right now. We were just going to go check it out ourselves."
"Really?" asked one of Xekrai's friends.
"Yeah right, Saetwo," Xekrai scoffed. "Like we'd fall for that. Right, guys? . . .Guys?"
Xekrai turned around to see that everyone else was already scrambling down the hill, shouting excitedly at the sight of the enormous ship that was pulling into view.
"Guys! Wait for me!" Xekrai shouted as he dashed after them, leaving the other three alone.
"Well, the next time we see him will be too soon," Echae remarked.
"You okay, Uloobu?" asked Saetwo, giving him a somewhat friendly nudge.
"I think," was all he would say.
Uloobu was, shall we say, not the most becoming of his species. He had a propeller just like Saetwo's, but he was bald save for three tiny hairs on his head, possessed one solitary eye in the middle of his face, and had a sickly purple nose.
"Thanks for helping me," he muttered. "You guys are Echae and. . . Saetwo, right?"
"Yep," Echae replied smugly, puffing out his chest. "I'm sure you've heard of us."
"Mostly from Xekrai. He says you're both dorks."
"Oh." The smug look wilted from Echae's face. Saetwo couldn't help but giggle at his reaction.
"But I see you two a lot," Uloobu went on. "You're always together. You two must be best friends."
"The very best," Echae agreed.
"I sure wish I had a best friend," Uloobu sighed, lowering his eyes dejectedly to the ground. "I wish I had any friend. But there's no chance of that ever happening."
"That sounds like something Xekrai would tell you to get you down," said Saetwo, trying to hide her growing impatience at Uloobu and his total lack of self-esteem. "That's why he's always picking on you. Because you believe him."
"Yeah, that's definitely Xekrai for you," said Echae, but Uloobu didn't look happy with that explanation.
"It's the one eye, isn't it? Nobody likes the one eye!"
"Don't be silly," said Saetwo. "He's got nothing against people with one eye. Check out his sister."
"And his dad," Echae cut in.
"I guess it's just me then," Uloobu groaned, and began slowly flying away. "I'm going home where he can't find me."
"Hey, wait, Uloobu!" Echae called after him. "Don't you want to go see the big ship?"
"No thanks," Uloobu muttered. "I'm sure Xekrai'll tell me all about it the next time he's beating me up." And with that he disappeared over the hill. Saetwo and Echae hovered and stood, respectively, watching sadly after him for a moment before continuing down toward the harbor.
"That Xekrai really is a jerk," said Saetwo. "Like Uloobu doesn't already have enough on his plate. The poor guy can't even fly very well."
"I know what you mean. He never did anything to Xekrai."
"Except be an easy target, I guess."
They continued chatting idly until they reached the harbor about ten minutes later. Both of them were disappointed to find that it was already crowded with hundreds of people – nearly the entire population of the island – and it was nearly impossible to see the ship that had by now docked. Saetwo tried flying above the heads of the others and looking down, but that hardly worked, as the air was already filled with others with propellers.
"Can you see anything, Sae?" Echae called up, barely audible over the sound of everyone else talking excitedly amongst themselves.
"Not really. . . . " Saetwo strained to look through the crowd of other flying Zoombinis. "Xekrai's dad is over there, though. He's talking to – WOAH!"
Standing on the dock in front of the strange ship was the mayor, Iadwi. Xekrai had inherited his red nose and his flattop from Iadwi, but that was all they had in common; the mayor was as cycloptic as Uloobu and, in place of legs, had a coiled spring meant for bouncing from place to place. But Saetwo hardly noticed him; her attention was focused on the three creatures he was talking to.
They were three or four times the size of any Zoombini. Also, their anatomy was complete – they had arms and hands as well as legs and feet. All three had a rather messy head of hair that closely resembled that of Echae; their skin was a peculiar yellow-green; each had a snaggletooth sticking out from their protruding snouts; and they wore nothing except for large cloths around their waists. The one standing in the middle, whom Saetwo took to be their leader, was brandishing a spear so that no one else could approach them.
"What? 'Woah' what?" Echae shouted, jumping up and down in a desperate attempt to see what was going on.
"Uh. . . there are some weird-looking guys over here," Saetwo called back down.
"Mayor Iadwi, who are these people?" came a voice from somewhere in the crowd.
"Yeah, you've been talking to them long enough!" came a second. "We want to know what's going on!"
Within moments, the entire crowd was repeating the sentiments of the first two in very loud, impatient voices, so that finally Iadwi could no longer ignore them. Saying something quickly to his guests, he turned to face the crowd looking very irritated.
"All right everyone, SHUT UP!" he shouted.
The crowd obediently fell silent.
"These fellows here say they're called Bloats," Iadwi explained to the others. "They also say they've come a long way looking for us. They have a business proposition they want everyone to hear."
The crowd erupted into low muttering at that. Saetwo took the opportunity to drop back down to the ground and whisper to Echae, "Have you ever heard of Bloats before?"
"Uh-uh," he whispered back. "I don't think we've ever delivered anything to them before. I wonder where they come from?"
"So I told them we would love to hear their proposition," Iadwi continued, "and we would hold a meeting in the Town Hall to discuss it."
No one responded.
"That's now, people."
"Ohhhhhh," said the others, and quickly began filing out of the harbor and toward the mainland.
"Oh boy! I wonder what their idea is!" Saetwo exclaimed, twirling around in midair. "This'll be exciting! Come on, Echae, hurry up! I don't want to miss it!"
But Echae stayed where he was. "Uh, Sae. . . I get the feeling that this meeting is for the adults only."
"What? That's crazy!"
"Actually, I'm afraid he's right, miss."
Saetwo jolted at the voice behind her. She spun around and saw that Iadwi was standing next to her, accompanied by the three Bloats.
"What do you mean he's right?" she demanded. "What if I have something to say about this?"
"Well, I'm sorry, but once the Bloats have argued their case, we're going to vote on it. Only Zoombinis of legal voting age are allowed," Iadwi explained. "Maybe when you're older."
"Don't worry, little girl. I'm sure the grownups will make the right decision," said the Bloat holding the spear.
Saetwo realized that this was the first time she had heard one of them speak. She didn't like his voice at all. Besides being deep and rather unintelligent-sounding, it also seemed very harsh – almost sinister, even. She got a chill just hearing it.
Iadwi didn't seem to notice, however, as he quickly bounced off along with the three foreigners, leaving Saetwo and Echae alone on the dock.
"Is there something you didn't like about those guys?" Saetwo asked in a low voice.
"Yeah. Their smell," said Echae, wrinkling his orange nose in disgust.
"Besides that! I think they're plotting something. I don't think we should be in any sort of arrangement with them."
"Oh, Sae, quit being paranoid."
"I'm serious! Those guys are trouble, Echae! Think about it – why else would they come all the way here instead of waiting for us to come to them? I think they must want Zoombini Isle!"
"I think you're getting crazy," Echae said sternly. "Look, even if you're right, you don't have any proof they're doing anything wrong! You can't just fly up there and tell them off because you have a gut feeling."
Saetwo looked at Echae for a moment, then slowly lowered her head in defeat. "Yeah, you're right," she muttered.
"Of course I'm right. Besides, if they were hiding something from us, it would have to be on the ship, and of course -- "
Saetwo looked up thoughtfully. "On the ship, huh?"
"Yeah, but of course we can't do something crazy like get on the ship and search it for information. . . right? Sae?"
But as Echae saw the mischievous sparkle in Saetwo's eyes, he realized how wrong he was.