He'd always watched the birds closely. He'd sit quietly, back against a tree, and stare up at them on the branches and in the sky. Just as easily as people could raise their arms, they would raise their wings.
There was a story of Ngoia who had given up his home and wife and tribe to gain the powers of a bird. He'd loved that story as a child, told by one of the elders, and he wondered what that transformation must've felt like.
As the children he'd know grew up and turned to serious things and built families, he still looked to the birds, envying their quick freedoms, their soaring abilities. Maybe there was a way. It was forbidden to go to the old city where the TokTok now lived. But that's where technology was kept, and things from before they came here. Hidden in the city there were ways to fly, he was sure of it.
One night he gathered his things and sneaked out of the village. It was a long journey to the city, how much faster, he thought, it would be to fly. As he wound through the jungle, along paths that were well traveled, soon he walked smaller routes that deviated. Nobody went to the city, it was forbidden.
The TokTok had moved there before he was born. "They used to live with us, after all they came from the other world with us." Something had happened though, something that called the TokTok to the old city, a place left over from the civilization that used to be here back when Ebyx was covered with snow and ice. The city was not forbidden because the TokTok had gone there, it had always been forbidden. The ghosts of those past people, they were still there. And dangerous things, powerful things that could kill or change the world.
But he knew — he had heard — that men used to fly unaided, not in a Pod, across the skies as easily as the birds. He dreamed this, and in the dream his arms and back stretched out into the air. He dreamed it, but he did not tell the elders because he knew they would be afraid of that dream.
He knew he was close to the city because the sounds of the jungle changed. And the shape of the land changed, it became sharp and abrupt. Soon the bones of the ruins were visible, covered in places by green growth, other places breaking through as fossilized shards. He didn't know the city, or how big it was or where he should be going.
He rested below what he thought must've once been a great building. He heard voices in the distance, quiet, calm, but he couldn't make out what they were saying no matter how much he strained. He stood and tried walking towards them, but they seemed to come from no direction.
As night came he settled again in rubble, unsure of what he should do or where he should go next.
The following morning the TokTok were waiting for him as he walked into an open square, the sides bordered by ancient trees. Now he could hear their voices clearly. "Why did you come to the forbidden city?" They asked him.
"To learn to fly," he said.
They seemed to understand what he wanted. "We will show you," they said, and they lead him down into the ground, into a tunnel. He contained his fear because he'd never been inside the world before, and the presence of the TokTok reassured him.
Finally they came into a large cavern where the sun shone through an opening at the end, the result of some collapse a long time ago. The cavern had many platforms and alcoves and ladders. He could see strange shapes in these alcoves in the walls, things he was not familiar with, hard outlines and sometimes things that were shiny.
"There are many ways to fly here," the TokTok said.
"I want to fly like the birds," he said.
They paused then told him "you will be able to fly, however, once the change has been made it cannot be unmade."
"That doesn't matter to me, as long as I can fly."
They acknowledged this and lead him to a small recess. He saw something hanging there, something that looked like a skeleton, something with ribs and translucent feathers and long bones, thin, like fingers.
"When you wear this you will fly. But it will become part of you, you will not be able to take it off."
He wasn't frightened. He took the skeleton off the hook. Several TokTok surrounded him, their many arms lifted his own and taking the skeleton they moved behind him and he heard a loud CLICK. Then all those hands forced him backwards and pushed the skeleton onto him. He felt the ribs of it cover his torso and he felt sharp pain of the back of it in his spine like a burning sudden sharp stinger. The ribs constricted, closing into his chest so hard he thought he would die, the pain so terrible.
"We're sorry." He heard the TokTok say just before he lost consciousness.
When he woke up he felt lighter. He saw a sheen. He stretched his arms, but they weren't there, now he stretched his wings and he felt them all extend out into the air, reaching, and his tail bristle. He stepped on the ground but his next step was a pushing, he pushed the ground away and flew in the air like the birds.