From the moment on the bridge when Staun had first asked that fateful question until now she had not really had much rest. The storm had been huge, and Staun had not seen it in time. The great airship was powerful and fast, but not nimble enough to avoid the rogue air currents that carried them along as they swept in and out of the turbulence. They had spent the rest of the previous day outrunning the storm, then much of this day hovering in place while critical repairs had been made.
Filia shook her head, still staring at the engine. It was a wonder they had survived. Now she was spent. She turned away from the great engine and went to her desk. For the first time in days she emptied her toolbelt of all it carried, save her knife. She signed off her log and headed out. After one last gaze up into the engine she latched the gate behind her and headed forward.
The float was mostly empty at this time of the day. The sun had set hours ago, and the float was dark save for the dim path lighting. The offices and berths alongside the walkway were practically invisible. Most of the crew was either at station or asleep. Even so Filia noted that there seemed to be a few extra bodies moving about; a woman in a scaffolder’s harness hustled past, muttering to herself as she wrote on a clipboard, and three men worked to straighten a support that had buckled in the storm. All were fitfully illuminated by the small lights that left the rest of the float in darkness. None spoke to her, and that was fine. Filia liked the privacy the dark afforded. She reflected that she hadn’t spoken to anyone in hours; Gomph had been out most of the day, gone forward to help repair equipment on the bridge, and the rest of the engineers were either asleep or working in other parts of the ship.
The previous night had been different. The Constant Vision had suffered a failure of the forward gas bag. With the loss of that lift the great airship had been plunged into the heart of the maelstrom. The engines, already overtaxed, were pushed past the safeties into maximum output, with the inevitable result. The starboard engine failed when a linkage snapped. Filia and all the other mechanics rushed in to make emergency repairs while the ship limped along on one engine. The winds actually tore off some of the fabric on the hull and bent several structural members. The crew suffered as well; Filia saw a falling linkage break one man’s arm, and a scaffolder disappeared and was presumed fallen overboard.
Filia reached the galley. It was empty except for one woman who was working washing dishes. Filia watched her work for a minute or so. Filia almost envied her position. The work was simple and unchallenging, and no lives depended on the job being done immediately and exactly. Of course there was the smell, which Filia didn’t care for, and the humidity, which was high enough that the woman had opted for the standard hot-weather uniform of a pair of red shorts. Filia concluded that dishwashing was probably not a better job than what she had. She took a meat pastry from the cupboard and continued forward.
Filia’s berth was back by the starboard engine and she started back toward it as she ate her handmeal. She hadn’t gotten far when she slowed. She hadn’t bathed in days, and she felt nasty. She hated the total lack of privacy in the crew quarters, especially the showers, and had so far had only bathed once onboard, and that in Gomph’s quarters. Now, however, she couldn’t stand the feeling of grime on her skin. She looked around her. Would the darkness provide the privacy the ship’s structure lacked? If she couldn’t see the people in the bunks right below her, who would see her in the shower room? Perhaps now was a good time to bathe. She finished the walk back to her berth, where she got a new uniform from her locker, then headed back forward.
Filia debated in her head the wisdom of what she was planning. She chided herself for being so fearful and overly modest — all the crew members showered in the open onboard — at the same time that she already regretted the decision to take the chance that someone would see her naked. She hesitated at the ladder going down into the showers, then descended. As she expected, the showers were empty. There were a few small lights in the locker area, but none in the shower room itself. Filia stood for a long time, looking around, then quickly undressed. She stuffed her clothes into a locker, which she closed as silently as possible. When a clanging noise came from overhead Filia froze, her hands clutching at her breasts. Somewhere up there some machinery was operating. She could hear voices, distant and indistinct. After a long moment the sound stopped. Filia stayed frozen for a minute more, then walked into the shower room. She felt along the metal-mesh wall until she came to a station, then located the soap and valves by touch. She turned the water on and willed it to be as quiet as possible. It sounded like a waterfall.
Once the water was running warm Filia actually was able to relax just a bit. She plunged her head under the stream and allowed the water to soak her hair. Forgoing standard shipboard practice, she allowed herself the luxury of just letting the hot water caress her scalp, shoulders and neck for almost a minute. Filia had grown up without running water, and showers were the one part of technology she had no problem accepting. Taking the soap she lathered her scalp and locks, allowing the water to sluice the foam down over her body. Filia tried hard not to hurry, trusting in the darkness to hide her. She held her head under the water until the soap was gone, then turned about and let the water play over her shoulders.
“Just a bit further, Staun,” came a voice from the locker room. Filia gasped and once again covered herself. Into the shower room walked Jhefrr and Staun. It the dark it was hard to be sure, but it seemed to just be the two of them.
“W-w-what are you doing here?” she blurted out. She instantly regretted the words. What else would someone be doing in the shower room but what she herself was doing: showering?
“Staun is sick,” Jheffr replied.
“Hello, Filia,” murmured Staun, and Filia could hear a waver in his voice. “Sorry to bother you in this state.”
“N-no, that’s …” Filia started to say, then stopped. Was he referring to her state or his own?
“Over here, Staun,” Jheffr said, leading Staun to the station one down from her own. “I think the soap’s on a rope on the wall.” There was a hint of embarrassment in the boy’s voice. “I can’t reach it. You’ll have to do the handles too — I can’t reach them either.”
Filia quickly started wiping herself down, trying to get the rest of the soap off as fast as possible. She could hear the small sounds of Staun fumbling at the wall.
“Where is it?” he asked. “Am I close?”
“I can’t see it,” Jheffr replied. “It’s too dark in here.”
Filia felt a stab of empathy. She hesitated, then moved over towards the duo.
“May I?” she asked. The light was just enough for her to take Staun’s wrist and guide it to where the soap hung. She took his other wrist and put it on the valves, trying not to recoil as his arm slid across her torso.
“Thank you,” he gulped, sounding quite ill.
“You’re welcome.” This is silly, she thought to herself. It’s pitch black in here, Staun’s blind, and Jheffr’s too young to even care, she told herself. And everyone around here showers together. Why am I so uptight? Nonetheless, she once again started rinsing off as Staun started his shower. He let out a gurgling groan, followed by a retching sound.
“Staun?” Jheffr’s voice was tense and worried. “Are you all right?” Staun tried to reply but fell into a coughing fit. A sour odor filled the air and Filia wondered if the situation could get any worse. She rose up on her toes, dreading the feel of something sticky on her feet. Staun groaned loudly, then retched again.
“Staun!” Jheffr was now very alarmed. “Are you OK?” Staun tried to respond but instantly lapsed into coughing. Filia stood rooted, paralyzed.
“Are you all right, Staun?” Jheffr repeated, his already shrill voice going even higher. Staun could only cough in reply, his gasps becoming more and more labored. “Please, lady,” Jheffr said above the sound of Staun’s hacking, “please help …”
Filia stood there, helpless. She was no healer. “What do you need?” she asked, rooted in place.
“Help him,” Jheffr said, barely audible over the sound of Staun’s coughing.
“I don’t know how,” she said, but now her feet were moving, and she was at the boy’s side. She could see in the dim light that Staun was now on his hands and knees, hacking.
“Help me get him up,” the boy said. Filia wasn’t sure how that would help, but she laid her hand under Staun’s arm and lifted. Staun continued to cough as the three unsteadily lifted him up. They almost had him up when he slipped, dragging Filia to the floor also. Staun landed on top of her. Filia had to suppress the urge to shove him off.
“Are you OK?” she asked stiffly, trying very hard not to touch him anywhere, a very difficult feat considering he was laying on her. At least he had stopped coughing.
“They have me, ” he gasped, “they’re here.”
“Who has you?” Filia asked, suddenly apprehensive that this whole sordid affair was suddenly about to become a very public matter. “Who’s here?” Her fear turned to terror as Staun suddenly started to convulse and thrash. She yelped and wiggled out from under him, and he hit the metal floor with a thud. This was followed by another thud, and another, as he continued to convulse, smacking his head on the flooring.
“Staun!” Jheffr shouted. “Help him!” Filia seized him by the shoulders and heaved him up off the floor. He remained curled up, though, and was heaving himself back and forth violently. He was making strangled sounds like he couldn’t breath. Filia had no idea what to do, and was about to dump him back on the floor and go run for help, naked or not, when he suddenly relaxed. He began gasping and coughing again, but this time it subsided after a few moments and he was able to breath relatively normally. He was shivering now, though, and his skin was hot.
“It’s them, can’t you see?” he said. “Baydablok. They’re here. They’re here.”
“Who’s here, Staun?” Filia asked. She looked up at Jheffr, who was kneeling, holding one of Staun’s hands in his two. “I think he’s hallucinating.”
“Bettta … bebba … bayayay,” Staun was mumbling.
“He said he couldn’t get warm, and he wanted a hot shower, and the pipes were broken, so he said to bring him down here,” Jheffr blurted out. “I didn’t know he was this sick. I’m sorry, I’m sorry …” Filia was afraid he was going to start to scream or something.
“Jheffr,” she said, interrupting. “Go back and get help. Go get someone to come down and help us, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, and was gone almost faster than Filia could follow in the darkness. She immediately regretted that, for that meant that now someone else would come and see her naked in the shower. She had to get Staun up and into the locker room so she could throw her clothes back on.
“They want me!” Staun said suddenly, writhing in her lap. “They want me!” He convulsed again, stiffening like a board. His head slapped against her belly and knocked some of the wind out of her. “Nnnnggggggh!” His voice was choked off again.
“Staun!” she called out. “Staun!”
“Huh!” He said suddenly, relaxing again. “I can’t …” he said softly, then went completely limp.
“Staun!” Filia cried out. She slapped his face several times, calling his name, then put her face to his to see if she could feel his breath. She could. He stirred again.
“I can t’see them now,” he said simply, in a quiet voice. “They are gathering around me now. They want me.”
“Who wants you?”
“The strange whispers. I can hear them all the time, now. They’re always there, in my mind. I can never escape them.” This last was said in a plaintive voice. Staun began to weep.
“It’s going to be OK, Staun,” Filia said, lifting his dead weight to her chest and cradling him. “It’s going to be all right.” She had no hope that this was true, but it was all she could say.
She held him there in the silence, and then held him longer as the sound of running feet on metal walkways drew nearer, then held him just a bit longer as anxious men and women flooded the shower room and surrounded them both. They carefully scooped Staun up and carefully wrapped him in warm blankets and carefully carried him away, all the while questioning Filia about what had happened. No one offered her any care or even a blanket, and when they felt they were satisfied with her answers they all drained out of the shower room, leaving her alone and exhausted. She stood there a while, then turned back to the shower.
She stood there alone for a long time, numbed by the smell of his vomit, numbed by her invaded nakedness, numb from the whole event. Finally she turned it off and went back to the lockers. She dried off, dressed, and made the long walk back to her bunk. She laid down and closed her eyes, but did not sleep.