Balloon Science – Part Fifteen

In such proximity and wielding a pointy weapon, the Mooncow looked much less like a cow. Still, it possessed eyes that were large and limpid, like pools into which all manner of sights and thoughts would plop, creating scarcely a ripple before vanishing forever from the creature’s mind. No anger surfaced there, but the creature made up for this by flaring the capacious nostrils at the end of its very bovine muzzle and emitting a blast of noise like a military reveille from a sandpaper-lined trumpet.

Ben stuck his fingers in his ears, which left him open to any spear prods aimed his way, but for right now the audible assault was the main menace.

From all around the prairie heads popped up, like cow-eyed flowers sprouting from the grass. Quite a number of them produced spears. Some of those in the air cut their flights short and, the moment they touched hooves on the ground, plucked what Ben had taken to be bony protrusions from their backs. Clutching these curved bones in one forelimb, they fished sticks from pouches in their bellies and worked them into position, nestling the sticks against the bones in a sort of bow-and-arrow configuration.

This was an impression quickly reinforced as they galloped in towards Ben and Chloette, allowing them to examine the brandished devices in steadily greater detail. A taut thread stretched from one tip of the bone to another, confirming it as either a bow or a single-stringed harp. A honed shard of flint formed a crude but vicious point, like a broken brown tooth, at the head of each stick, promising a deadly note if the string was plucked.

These curious cattle-warriors gathered around in a half-circle, corralling Ben and Chloette beside the ship. Their big blank and barely blinking eyes were at odds with their aggressive posturing. Ben removed his fingers from his ears and raised his hands. He manoeuvred closer to Chloette in a chivalrous effort to guard her, even though she was the one with the firearms.

“Please,” chimed Chloette as the raucous blare abated, “we mean you no harm. We come in peace. Nous venons en paix.” She made no move to touch or even gesture towards her pistols. Ben supposed that, faced with any potential language barrier, it was probably best to begin with simple concepts and leave explanations about self-defence and preparedness for later on in the conversation. At least she had two languages to try out, but while the Mooncow’s ears pricked at each sound, the syllables appeared to drop into its eyes without causing the slightest stir. The others in the semi-circle showed similar levels of understanding and gestured a lot with their bows and arrows and spears.

“We had no idea that the Moon was occupied by people such as yourselves,” Chloette continued, perhaps hoping to convey peaceful intentions through tone alone.

“People?” Ben asked, out of the corner of his mouth.

Certainement, Ben. See how they are practised in the use of tools, hmm? Weapons, no less.”

Ben could see that, sharp and clear.

“Aussi, it is clear that they understand we are speaking a language, even if they do not comprehend my meaning. I think we may have discovered a species of – well, I would be tempted to term them – Farfadets de la Lune. Moon Elves.”

“Elves?” Ben didn’t know about that.

He peered intently at the Mooncow immediately in front of him, studying him or her or it anew.

Now, he’d heard tell of explorers returning from far, exotic lands with reports of discovering previously unknown peoples. And it was common practice among the learned fellows who got to name peoples and animals to refer to some of them as This Elves or That Elves, where This and That were usually types of terrain or environs. Ben had heard tales of Snow Elves, Sea Elves, Mountain Elves, Swamp Elves, Stone Elves, River Elves, Desert Elves and more. As a rule, Elves were as varied in complexion, build, culture and disposition as humankind but as far as he knew they all had one quality in common: they were all beautiful. As though they all bathed five or six times a day, brushed their teeth twice as often and gargled perfume, never ate greasy foods, exercised plenty and washed their hair in all sorts of enriching fruits or oils and such.

The creatures before him and around him might have maintained a similarly rigorous routine of personal hygiene, but could not be described as beautiful. Farmer Knowles paraded many a fine specimen of cow at the cattle shows, but not one possessed the attractiveness of an Elf. And these, all of them, had the added disadvantage of looking gaunt and starved, with rickety limbs and xylophone ribs. But even filled out on a diet of steak puddings and cream cakes, Ben fancied they would fall short of any standards of beauty.

They jostled in a dense-knit arc like mad cows in a thicket of weapons. On puppies those huge eyes might’ve looked friendly. But on these ‘Moon Elves’ the best they looked was scared. Dangerously scared.

“Easy now, Ben. It’s my belief they must be more frightened of us than we are of them.”

Ben couldn’t disagree with Chloette’s assessment. But the Moon Elves had the majority of the weapons. They gathered around, nudging in, closing the corral. Arrowheads and speartips prodded the air a whisper’s breadth from Ben. If he’d been wearing a thicker pullover they would’ve snagged wool for sure.

“Now, steady there. Watch where you’re sticking those things.” Their eyes affirmed that they were watching and were sticking them where they meant to stick them.

“We need to establish the nature of their dispute with us. Is it our presence here? Our foreign appearance? Or possibly something else…” Chloette’s mutterings were inoffensive and even the tiniest bit musical, like the song of a pensive finch, but they appeared to agitate her already wary audience. The Moon Elves gesticulated – mostly poked – with their primitive arsenal and emitted the sorts of sounds Farmer Knowles might hear if he ventured out early one morning so sleepy as to attempt to milk a bear by mistake.

Sporadic weapon-pokes began to make contact and it was clear that Ben and Chloette were being prompted to move. Prodded along like, well, to put a blunt point on it, cattle.

Ben shifted grudgingly, positioning himself to protect Chloette from most of the prods.

Maybe the Moon Elves imagined she was a sorceress and had been incanting some spell. Ben could not guess at the workings of a Moon Elf’s mind. How must the scene appear to their enormous eyes? Strange beings crash from the heavens, carving a great track of devastation through their crops. He supposed Farmer Knowles would be out in his ruined fields brandishing his musket and cursing the air blue under similar circumstances. Ben had probably worsened the situation by assaulting one of the locals with a thrown stone. Maybe magic and spells were outlawed here on the Moon and the Professor had compounded their crimes further.

He wondered what the punishment might be here on the Moon.

It looked like they were to be marched away, under close guard, for the express purpose of finding out. If they were very lucky, they’d get a trial first. But Ben didn’t hold out huge helpings of hope on that front.

Any civilisation’s justice was usually a little less sophisticated than its weapons.

[To Be Concluded…]
SAF 2015