The Forbidden Thing
The red–and-white striped hot air balloon drifted lazily out over the cliffs, and finally there was only the sea below.
Toriji Mons breathed in the sharp clean air and leaned back into the leather straps of the pilot’s harness. Her long dark hair whipped fiercely in the salty breeze as she enjoyed the freedom of the sky. A little laugh escaped her. She hardly noticed. She was nineteen years old and felt she owned the world.
As she joined the group of other ballooners out fishing this morning, a little string of islands appeared on the horizon. She named them off in her head, gazing across the waves.
‘Amra, Ankir, Onr, Togos, Bli,…’ and farther on, not yet visible, Berh, where they made the fruit drink that the elders drank, making them crazy at the ceremonial mating rituals. She blushed visibly at even this thought of sex.
Members of her tribe waved from the lilting baskets of their balloons. She swooped low, manipulating the weights against the wind with practiced ease, and dropped her net into the churning foam. The methane plug dimmed its fires and flared again as she caught the current. Her body went from relaxed to furious activity the instant her net hit the water. There was a simple mechanism very much like a set of bicycle pedals mounted onto the floor of the basket. Attached to it was a thick leather bellows, pumping air into a narrow stone tube. Its open end was tightly plugged by a chunk of methane-rich swamp fern, harvested from deep down in the muck where it had been soaking for ages. Each one would burn for about thirty minutes. This supplied hot air to the mouth of the balloon.
‘You can burn yourself out in ten,’ was her only thought as she pushed the plug to its peak ferocity against the shock of her net hitting the water, then filling with fish. She cruised for ten meters, feeling it’s drag, then winched it back in with both hands.
The net was now a bulge of wriggling silver scales. Her balloon dipped with the added weight, dangerously close to the water, but there was a mechanism designed to compensate for this. A smoothly shaped wooden handle, notched for the oiled ropes which held the weights, swung into position behind her. Toriji reached back, one handed, expertly counting off two notches with her thumb and dropping the weights, never taking her eyes off her catch. As she secured the net aboard, the little craft rose jauntily to a safe distance from the sea. She was on her way back home.
In the village she laid out the fish, most of which were dead, but some, gasping and wide-eyed, worked their mouths silently in their last moments of life.
Toriji surveyed her catch, efficiently sorting them out one by one: big ones, small ones, even little baby ones that would have slipped through the net but had gotten caught in the crush of their family. She had also netted four of the big blug fish that sometimes swam along with the schools of their lesser cousins. She smiled at this. Bufr would give her a piece of cloth for them. She was making a dress for the summer dance and it was almost finished. Now she could be sure of wearing it and Broej would notice her and stop looking at that nasty girl Joneshi. Toriji didn’t like Joneshi. She was always flouncing about and not really doing any work. Well now Broej would pay attention to her, and they would dance together and be married and he would teach their children to make the balloons and they would fish just like her and all would be right in the world.
Then she paused. The path to Bufr’s hut would put her within sight of The Thing, and it was just about time for the Space Men to come again.
She considered this. Everyone knew that Bufr traded with the Space Men, exchanging the fruit drink for small curious gadgets. The walls of his hut were decorated with such items, whose functions he did not even try to explain. There were just no words in their language to describe their workings.
But no one in her village had ever actually spoken to one of the Space Men. They came and worked on The Thing and went away. Sometimes she heard that a few of them had visited the nearby market, to purchase the little toys and trinkets for sale there, probably to take back home to their families and tell stories about how they had been slumming it with the savages. But Toriji had certainly never met any of them.
Well, this might be the time. The thought of this gave an extra thrill to her day. She presented the fish to her family and deposited them in the community lot. She wrapped the Blug carefully in a wet skin. Then she went inside and changed out of her heavy flying clothes into close-fitting loga skin pants, and girdled her breasts with a wide strip of soft leather. A poncho was over her head and she was out the door, skipping through the woods.
Thirty-six thousand kilometers above her head, a vast spaceship discharged a tiny transit craft. It traversed the distance between orbit and atmosphere in a matter of moments. Burned it's way into the clouds. Disappeared into the blue.
Inside, six workmen were idling away the spare minutes before the job. Two of them sat apart from the group, chatting.
"Ever been here before?"
"Yeah. You're kinda new, huh. So, what all do you know about this planet?"
"It's a Jump Station installation. It's...nothing.” The workman looked out one of the small windows at the giant blue and green world just as the cumulonimbus of it’s atmosphere came rushing up at them. The name Jaqab was stitched into the patch over his heart. “Buncha barbarians stabbing each other with sharpened sticks over who gets the last piece of meat." He snorted in derision and looked away.
The other workman, who’s patch read Comal, agreed. "Yeah, it's one of the new ones that got tasked for re-development. They're only allowed the bare minimum level of technology necessary for basic human subsistence. They developed, uh, hot air balloons for fishing, but other than that… ” He shook his head.
“Actually,…” Comal leaned in closer, lowered his voice. “They make a pretty good wine down there. There’s a guy, his name’s Bufr–yeah, I know, right! Bufr! Anyway, his…hut, or whatever you call it, it’s right by the Jump Station. I trade him stuff for a few cups every time I come through.”
His partner was interested. “What kind of stuff?”
“Disposable tools, broken circuit boards…crap. Whad’ya say? We gotta be quick, because a full day is only about fourteen hours down there. But after we finish the job, wanna stop by? Tilt a few? Makes the day go by faster!”
The craft had slowed and was pivoting for a soft landing. “Check.” A flat word came over the coms. The pilot responded:
“Maintenance Crew for the Jump Station.” His voice was bored, like he had just said “Yeah, I’m here to inspect somebody’s shoes.”
“Okay.” The doors opened, discharging the work detail. Two of them had sly looks on their faces.
Toriji was skirting some boulders that poked up through the path. The top of the hill in was sight, now that she had left the trees behind. Behind the last rock she startled a female loga, and it went bounding away across the open field, graceful and powerful and proud.
'That’s how I am,' Toriji thought, comparing the sinewy body of the loga to her own muscles, watching her legs ripple in the climb. 'I am a loga. Fast and free. And beautiful.' She giggled. Then she crested the hill and saw what lay beyond; a deep valley, where the world had split millions of years ago, and now was lush with vegetation. And in the valley there was The Thing, The Forbidden Thing.
A massive metal structure hovered one hundred and fifty meters off the ground, here sharply geometric, there bulbous, occasionally bristling with antennae. Silvery gleaming in the cheerful morning sunlight, it was utterly out of place in this pristine wilderness. Mysterious. Stoic. Amazing.
Toriji stopped, as she always did, and stared. You couldn’t help but be momentarily petrified by The Thing. It frightened her. It was the most awesome spectacle she had ever witnessed, and she had seen a forest fire.
‘It floats,’ she thought, ‘like us. Like our balloons. But there is no fire, no catch for the air. Is there some sort of fire inside it? A different sort of fire, keeping it aloft?’ She suspected it was something like that.
A very old man from her tribe had told her there was another one on the other side of the world, but of course there was no way he could have possibly known that. It was probably just a legend.
Forty meters away, on the valley side of the ridge, there was Bufr’s hut. His door was open and his chimney was smoking. He was home.
As she approached she saw him through the door; he appeared to be talking to some other people. The Space Men! They must be here! She thrilled with anticipation. But still she slowed down before she got close, warily stalking the place. Suddenly she was at the door and Bufr saw her, their eyes locking for a moment. Bufr looked at her with genuine surprise, like he didn’t want her to be there. She looked over at the Spacemen.
They were taller then her people, more…Toriji struggled to put a word on it, could only think of the way a weapon or a tool is made by chipping away splinters of stone. They both wore the exact same clothes, of a material that looked to be not as strong as leather, but which she thought was probably better somehow. ‘Good stuff for hunting.' She felt a little twang of jealousy at the Spacemen’s clothes.
They were looking right at her. She realized they actually looked really like her own people. Not aliens. Humans, like her. But humans who were…better? Again the word escaped her. ‘The way a sea panther is master of the water, they are masters of an environment I have never seen, and probably could not survive in.’
Both the Spacemen had their helmets off, held casually in one hand. In the other they held a cup of the fruit drink. All three of them did.
Toriji blushed, her first thought that of the mating rituals. She almost laughed out loud. ‘What is going on here?’ She allowed herself to be ushered inside by the Space Men. One of them was blond and the older one had dark hair and they were both attractive.
The Space Man with the dark hair stared at her as the others milled around for second. His attention made her uncomfortable. She met Bufr’s eyes, but he stood there helplessly as the Space Men talked in their language.
Comal was drunk and had locked onto the barbarian girl as soon as she walked through the door. ‘Yes!’ he thought, his heartbeat suddenly accelerating, ‘I knew if I kept coming here, eventually there’d be some girls.’ The cup sloshed as he set it down. “Let’s get a piece of that.” He took a step toward Toriji.
Suddenly Bufr’s hand was attached to the man. They looked at each other, each equally surprised at this act. The Space Man’s arms became a blur of motion and Bufr fell back, hitting the wall. But he arose, a fierce look in his eyes that Toriji had never seen. The Space Man reached into one of his pockets and produced a small metal object. He pointed it at Bufr and squeezed part of it with his hand. A pale gray ray of light shot out, and Bufr’s body just disappeared. His clothes and a sickly-green dust slowly settled to the ground.
Toriji’s mind snapped. Nothing in her life had even remotely prepared her for something like that. She stood frozen in place with shock and horror. The other Space Man grabbed at the weapon and yelled at his partner. The sound of his screaming voice broke her trance. She turned and ran, leaping out of the hut, away through the woods, nimbly skipping over roots and boulders, running, faster than she had ever run before.
Back in the village, morning had turned to afternoon and the other families were finished coming in with their catch. Toriji’s mother sat on the floor in their hut, counting fish. Her weathered old face looked not at the strings of beads moving mechanically in her hands, but away at the wall, chanting a song to herself. Omaji was fifty years old. She no longer needed the counting beads. She could count in her head. The beads were just an old habit.
She had determined there were enough fish for the feast tonight. The tribe had a feast every time the Space Men came and went. There would be a new star in the sky for awhile, visible even during the day as a bright silver sliver against the blue, impossibly held aloft by the Spacemen’s power. Then little stars would dance to and from the planet, trailing streaks of fire. Occasionally they could even be seen visiting The Forbidden Thing, on their way to and from working on it. The people of her tribe lived on a coastal plateau, and their village was the closest one to The Thing. So tribute was natural.
Toriji’s father came in. Jor, tall and quiet and proud, built strong like the rocks of the great cliffs that held back the ocean outside their door.
“Where is our daughter?” He knelt down next to his wife.
She looked up at him. “Toriji caught Blug. She trades Bufr Blug for cloth.” Jor nodded and stood, looking away. “Bufr trades with the Space Men,” he said, worry in his voice. He noted the sun’s position in the sky. His face grew stony with concern. He knelt again. “Oma, if our daughter does not return soon, we will go and search for her.” He looked his wife in the eyes. ‘She understands.’ He got up and left the hut, going to talk to the other men of his tribe.
Far away behind forested hills Jaqab and Comal stood together atop a finger of rock some meters off the ground, having followed an exhausting path away from the village, chasing after the barbarian girl. They both knew that they daren’t call a drone transport vehicle, at least not until they could get to a place with a good explanation behind it.
The man named Comal put on his helmet and peered around.
“She’s over there,” he said, pointing. “Two-plus kilometers, running through the woods.” He pulled off his helmet, turned away and cursed under his breath.
“She’s heading for the base.”
“How does she even know the base is there?”
His partner let out a breath. ”She…probably doesn’t. She’s just…running.”
They both stood and looked off into the distance in her direction for a long moment. The sun of this world was beginning it’s down curve for the day, and the light of its setting drew an ephemeral kingdom of pastel mirages that mixed together meaninglessly out over the great primordial forest. Hoots and calls of creatures peppered the air from behind shields of leaves. A giant bird suddenly broke from the trees, causing a noisome disturbance amongst the communities of the treetops. The men watched it slowly glide away, red rays of the sunset catching on it’s underscales.
“We’ve got to get to her before she gets there.” Comal’s voice broke the reverie and his partner started, swallowed on a dry throat, looked around like he’d just woke from a dream.
“I don’t know…let’s just…”
“Listen. We’ll just talk to her, calm her down, maybe convince her what she saw was a magic trick or something.” He was fingering his weapon. His partner’s hesitation infuriated him. “Hey! If she gets there first, we’re in big trouble, okay? You’re in this, too. Now come on!”
At the top of a hill Toriji broke through the woods, gasping for air. Where was she? She didn’t know. She had never been this far from her home before. She realized with an inane humor that she was still holding the fish. She didn’t know what she expected to see but it is not this:
A high wire fence surrounded a bustling miniature city. This was the satellite base for the Jump Station, with civilian and science facilities. But to Toriji it was the largest gathering of people she had ever seen. And so many buildings! Giant huts, like the longhouses used for drying fish, and smaller ones, neatly separated into blocks by lanes, all interconnected. She marveled at the strength and efficiency of it. She gaped at a fantastic shining-clear building arched out over a pristine cerulear lake. Great silver vines grew out of the building, churning the water where they touched it’s gleaming surface.
'There is a lake here!' She could not believe it. 'The Space Men have been keeping it to them themselves!'
The fence itself crackled with some kind of translucent energy. It was open in only one spot she could see, a tall gate, manned by two guards. Each held a long weapon like the dark-haired Space Man had used to kill Bufr.
‘This must be the Space Men’s village.’ She grabbed a branch and rested for a moment to catch her breath. ‘So many of them!’ Looking back, her face broke with fright. ‘How did they get here so fast?’ She had given those Space Men the hunt of their lives. Surely, early on in the pursuit one of them stopped and said to the other: “This one is a master. Let us not track her.”
But somehow they had lept over the hills nearly as fast as her.
She looked away to the base again, tears in her eyes. Despair. 'Will they help me?'
The two guards looked at each other as the barbarian girl came walking placatingly up to them. She was holding something wrapped up in her hands.
“There is absolutely no danger here,” one of them said. “You know that, right? Just relax.” The other man lowered his rifle.
“Fish? Fish? You buy fish? Buy fish?” Toriji was stumbling along, holding the package of blug out for display, wishing they wouldn’t kill her. For some reason she found herself speaking simply, as if that would make them understand her.
The guards looked at each other, amused. One of them called into the base where their sergeant was standing, talking with some other men. The sergeant sauntered over, sizing up the situation. “Let her in!” he boomed amiably. “We’ll have the cook fry those up for lunch.” He paused, pointed away toward the woods. “Look, isn’t that Comal and…the new guy?” He glanced over to a soldier in his company. “Hey, take the girl to the cook. Give her the grand tour; show her the shops and everything; it’ll blow her mind.” He stepped forward, pointed at the soldier. “But keep an eye on her.” He turned away. “I wanna talk to these guys.” The soldier led Toriji away into the base. Her eyes remained locked onto Comal’s, her head turning as she walked away. The sergeant looked from her face to his incoming guys.
A giant metal beast, two peoples tall, four-legged, myriad black glassine eyes inset on a bulbous head, a monster! Peering this way and that, stalking the streets of the Space Men’s village.
And a village it was, with many other Space Men in different clothes wandering in and out of buildings made of some amazing material, both shining like the sunlight and at the same time clear, so that you could see through it into the building like it wasn’t even there. Toriji had never seen glass before. Backstreets leading to fields filled with men and women exercising and walking together in small parks and the rows between barracks.
Shops. A Space Man’s market. Foods she had never seen before, enticing new smells…shops for things she did not even recognize. Clothes! Statues of a man and woman in a clear case displaying clothes. What the male wears is…attractive. The female statue wears a dress.
Toriji stops and stares at the dress. Her guard has to go back for her.
“Hey!” They were being summoned by a man standing outside the open back door of a large low building. “Come here!” They scurried over, barbarian girl and soldier both equally chastised.
“What are you doing in my area?”
The soldier blanched. He hadn’t expected to be challenged by the cook. “Um,… uh, I was supposed to, sergeant said to have you cook these fish for lunch.” He and the cook stared at each other for a minute.
“That’s not, no. I’m not doin’ that.”
The soldier turned and began walking away, swiftly, so she had to jog to keep up. “Follow me back to the gate, ma’am. And get rid of those fish….oh yeah. That’s right. You don’t understand my language.” He mimicked throwing them and she absently tossed them aside. From behind them the cook cursed loudly at her for “littering in his area…” Toriji wilted with embarrassment, lowered her head, and scuttled along behind her guard.
She was at the gate and gone. The sergeant was nowhere to be seen. The Space Man who had killed Bufr was still standing there, talking with his partner and the guard, watching her. Toriji felt his eyes on her back until she made it to the woods.
Jaqab and Comal watched her go. After a while they crossed the gate again and went back outside the base. The guards, bored with this routine, didn’t even pay attention to them this time. The two men stood close, talking.
“Okay, whatever.” Comal has stepped forward in Jaqab’s face, using privacy as cover for aggression. His voice dripped with derision. “You go back. I’ll take care of it.” His partner didn’t even reply. Comal watched him turn and walk away. As Jaqab entered the base, one of the guards got his attention.
“Where’s he going?”
Jaqab turned back, and they both watched the uniformed figure enter the woods at the same spot as the girl.
“He’s going to…buy some fish.”
‘Just make it home.’ Toriji is panting, running again. ‘Just make it back to the village.’ Then she stops. Her arms and legs are weak and her chest is heaving. She feels like she is going to fall down blacked out. But she is smiling. There, in the sky, is a balloon.
Comal paused at the break of a large open field that extended up over a hill. There cresting the hilltop came running a troop of natives, all wielding spears, all looking pissed off. And there in the back was the girl. Even she had a spear.
He drew his weapon, waiting for the first throw. It landed thudding into the ground. Straight shot for him, but not close enough.
'Close enough.' He fired.
A barbarian body disintegrated.
More spears, and the natives were definitely pissed off now, charging for him, and they were getting close. He fired again.
He fired again, and again, and again.