Filia was sitting crosslegged on the floor of the starboard engine room when Loillola entered with an armful of hardware. Filia looked up expectantly as Loillola approached and slowly lowered herself down to the deck, taking care not to drop anything.
“What’s up?” asked Filia.
“More broken toys for you,” Loillola answered.
Filia took a quick count. “Five more. So that brings us up to thirty-two.”
“That many? It’s almost like someone’s breaking them on purpose! Are you going to be able to build that many replacements in time?”
“Sure,” replied Filia. “Who needs sleep, anyway? Here, let me take those.”
“No, it’s okay, I don’t want you to get your blouse dirty,” Loillola responded, rising.
“I get it dirty anyway,” Filia replied, showing off a grease stain on her shirt.
“No, I got it,” Loillola countered, moving into the metal cage that was Filia’s workstation. “Skin’s a lot easier to clean than shirts.” She looked about. “Where should I put them?”
“There,” Filia responded, pointing. “You didn’t need to. I could have gotten them.”
“No problem,” responded Loillola airily, carefully dumping the round, mechanical assemblies onto the bench and straightening. She looked around, wiping her hands off on her arms and breasts. “I always like coming down here. I love looking at the engines.”
“What happened to this one?” Filia asked, lifting one of the devices. They were switching devices, used to redirect fluid all across the great ship. Filia didn’t entirely understand the system, but she had learned that these common devices allowed pressurized oil to be used to push and pull things like levers and doors and flight controls. There were many types onboard, and most worked just fine, but these had been magically strengthened, and as the ship moved further away from the source of that magic they had started to fail. The one Filia held seemed broken in two.
“Oh, that one,” replied Loillola. “Jok was being an idiot, so I threw that at him. I figured it was broke anyway, so, why not?”
“You hit him with this so hard it broke?” Filia asked, incredulous.
“No, actually I missed him, and it hit a beam. Dented the beam.” Loillola wandered out of the cage and stood under the great engine, watching it turning.
Filia dropped the broken valve onto the bench and grabbed a towel to wipe her hands. She joined the dusky girder monkey out on the catwalk. Together they stared upward for a bit, watching the huge mechanism.
After a little while, Loillola pointed upward. “What’s that big green bit?”
“That’s the power cell. Green means ‘don’t touch’.”
“I thought red meant ‘don’t touch’.”
“Red means ‘danger’. In this case I guess green means danger too, but it mostly means ‘power'; so much power that, in this case, you can’t actually touch it with your hands.”
“Wait,” Loillola said, looking at Filia with a concerned look, “isn’t that going to break soon, too?”
“The power cell isn’t magic,” explained Filia. “They used magic to make it, but the power itself is just, well, just is. It doesn’t need magic to run.” She looked back up at it. “They tested smaller versions all the way around the world, and they work everywhere, just fine. No magical parts, sworl catchers, no nothing, just plain old metal.” Filia thought for a moment. “Okay, maybe some fancy, new metal; but still just metal, no magic.”
Filia followed as Loillola wandered around the circumference of the engine. She nodded to the engineman, Montio, as they passed his control station. He glanced up at her, smiled briefly at Loillola, then went back to studying his gauges. Loillola diverted at the front and walked to the nose of the engine nacelle. This was a metal lattice, open for cooling almost all the time. There was a balcony there, for observation. Filia gasped as the tall sailor sprang across the balcony and leaped toward the open air. Loillola did not fall, but grabbed a support and landed on the railing, leaning out into the slipstream. Filia quickly stepped toward her and seized the back of her thick utility belt. Loillola looked back, grinning. She laughed and turned back to the slipstream.
“Careful,” Filia said, “it’s a long way down.”
“I’m okay,” Loillola said, “you can let go.” Filia released her, and stood against the rail to one side. She looked at her companion, who was holding onto two support poles and leaning out into space. Loillola’s eyes were wide and she was grinning excitedly. Wild hairs had escaped from her topknot and were whipping back and forth in the breeze. Her bare, muscular torso, wet with oil and grease, glinted in the bright sun. Her dark skin and hair was a marked contrast to the pale skin of the float. Filia was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated by her impetuous bravado.
“We’re almost over Tajaniv Island,” Loillola said. Filia followed her gaze downward. Far below, a thin shoreline joined the ocean to an expanse of yellow that filled the forward horizon. It seemed unbroken at first, but Filia could see a line of green on the starboard horizon. The whole tableau seemed motionless, because of their great height, but if one stared at it long enough it would shift as the great airship plunged forward.
“I overheard the captain say that he thinks we’ll be over the island for less than a day,” Loillola said. “He was saying that we’ll actually make better time than over the ocean. He didn’t say why. Oh, and did you know that it’s also known as the Dead Isle? Isn’t that scary?”
“I need to get back to work,” Filia said, walking back into the nacelle. She stopped just inside and turned around, waiting for Loillola to follow. For a long moment Loillola just stood there on the railing, arms straight out, hands on the supports, a dark crucifix against the pale blue sky. Finally she turned and dropped back onto the deck and walked back inside.
“I haven’t seen you recently in the mess hall,” Loillola said as she followed Filia back to her workstation. “You been feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve been busy here. Lots of things to make, you know.”
“You don’t have to work all the time, Filia,” Loillola said. “There are other people who do this, too. You need time off like everyone else, so you can get out and meet people and talk and stuff.”
“I enjoy my work,” Filia said. “I don’t really need to meet more people — I already know enough. I know you, right?”
“If you say so.” Loillola frowned and turned away, leaving Filia at her bench. The dark-skinned woman walked back over and stood beneath the great engine. After a moment she pointed upward.
“Is it supposed to do that?” she asked.
Filia walked over and looked up. “Do what?”
“See right there? At that juncture? Why is it doing that?”
Filia looked where Loillola pointed. What she saw was a hose. It was identical to many other hoses on the engine, but this one was moving. The ends were fixed, but the middle moved; first to one side, until the hose was tight, then to the other side, equally hard. Filia frowned. She could not see what was making it move. Something felt very, very wrong about it. Filia could see cracks on the ends of the hose. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a word there came a gush of viscous fluid from one end of the tortured part.
Filia gasped. “Oh, that’s not good!” She pushed around Loillola and stared upward. “That’s moll — a special lubricant. We have a leeeEEEEEE!” Filia screamed as a great glob of green, glowing goo fell down and splashed across her back. “AAAAAAA! Get it off! Get it off!” She frantically pulled at her shirt, trying to hold it away from herself. She wiped at the mess with her hand and only succeeded in burning herself.
“Hold still!” Loillola yelled and grabbed her. With one vicious yank, Loillola stripped the smoking shirt off Filia’s back and threw it on the floor. Filia ran to her desk and frantically wiped her hand off with a rag.
“Decon station!” Filia said, running past Loillola. “Decon station!” She dashed over to a small alcove set in metal lattice and yanked on a chain. A flood of water sluiced down over her.
“Are you okay?” Loillola asked, standing and watching, her clenched hands pressed against her bare thighs. “Did it burn you?”
“Yes, but not too bad,” Filia replied. She looked up as Montio ran over. “I’m okay. We have a fluid leak!”
Montio nodded. “I’ll look at it — you wash!” He snatched a large tin off a nearby bracket and thrust it at Loillola. “Rub this on her. Make sure she gets her entire body three times!” He sprang away, first to ring an alarm bell, then to examine the engine.
“Here, I’ll help you with your shoes,” Loillola said, setting the tin aside and kneeling.
“No, I’m okay,” Filia said, releasing the chain. “I think I got it off.”
“Montio said to …”
“No, I’m okay now. I have to help.” Filia pushed past the kneeling woman and moved to join Montio. The man grabbed her by the shoulders, though, turning her about and pushing her back to the shower.
“Get back in there!” he demanded. “This isn’t just hydraulic fluid! We make it glow for a reason!” He flicked open his knife. “Stand still!”
“No!” Filia protested, and pulled away, but Montio held tight. With one motion he slit her pants from hip to ankle, first on one side, then on the other. He flung the sodden fabric to the floor. He pointed to her underpants.
“I can do those too, if you make me.” He picked up the tin and handed it back to Loillola. “Three times. Head to foot. Put it on, wash it off.” He scowled at Filia. “Make her if you have to. We don’t want that stuff leaving the engine room.”
Loillola opened the tin as Montio moved off. She wrinkled her nose and coughed as the odor of the salve assailed her. “What is this?”
“Decon soap,” Filia replied, not all the water on her face from the shower.
“I’m sorry, Filia, but this is for your own good.” “I know.” She bent down and began untying her shoes. Loillola got down and helped. From outside the cage more sailors ran in, clustering around Filia’s fallen shirt and staring up at the engine.
“I’m so sorry I got you into this mess,” Loillola said. “I should have just dropped off the parts and gone back to work.”
“No, it’s okay,” Filia said, starting to smear some of the foul goop on her arms. “Then I would have gotten splattered while I was alone and would have gotten burned worse.”
Loillola moved behind Filia. “You did get burned. It’s all red. This may hurt a bit. Hold still.” Filia flinched as Loillola spread some of the special soap on the burn. “Sorry.” Loillola glanced up at the sailors by the engine. “What are those things? Why are they putting those on?”
“Those are to protect them from the green metal.” Together the two women watched and washed while outside the sailors dressed in their protective gear. Overhead, the great engine spooled down and stopped. Soon Quaternus arrived. He issued terse commands, and sailors in bulky gear hung safety nets and began to ascend up into the machinery. Only once the work was well underway did Quaternus allow Montio to lead him over to Filia. By then she was covered in a thin layer of the odorous cleanser. Quaternus examined her wound without touching her and nodded silently. Then he seemed to notice Loillola for the first time.
“Where are your gloves?” he asked.
“Gloves?” Loillola replied, puzzled.
Montio smacked his own forehead. “Yes, the gloves. I forgot. Loillola, you were supposed to use these special gloves when you touch the contaminated subject. Filia, that is.” He took down a thick envelope and extracted the thinnest gloves Filia had ever seen. He held them out to Loillola.
“Too late for that,” Quaternus said. “She’ll need to decontaminate too. For that matter, I want all three of you washed three times and then down to the infirmary.”
“Me?” exclaimed Montio. “I didn’t get any on me!”
“I don’t want to take any chances,” replied Quaternus. “Get in there and start washing.” With that he turned away. Montio glared at Filia.
“It’s not my fault!” she exclaimed, her arms crossed protectively across her chest. “I’m the one who got burned, remember?”
“Come on,” Loillola said, taking Montio’s sleeve and pulling him in. She reached for the chain and pulled, dousing him and her both. He howled and pulled back.
“I know,” Filia replied sourly.
“I’ll go first,” Loillola said, undoing her shoes. “You can get undressed.”
A pair of sailors approached, a man and a woman. Filia knew the man — Domas — but the woman was a stranger.
“We’re here to escort you to the infirmary, once you’re washed off,” Domas said.
“We don’t need an escort,” Montio replied.
“Orders.” The woman shrugged.
“Well,” Loillola said, “if nothing else, Filia, maybe this will help you overcome some of your shyness.”
The three began cycling through the shower, each one alternately smearing on the smelly soap and rinsing it off. By the time they were done Filia was shivering so hard she had to clench her teeth to keep from biting her tongue. Outside, the engine room was filled with sailors busily disassembling the great engine. Occasionally one would glance over at the miserable trio to mark their progress. Filia and Loillola were done and Montio going through his last rinse when a medic arrived.
“Which one got burned?” he asked, pulling on the thin gloves.
“It was Filia, Constat,” Loillola replied, who seemed to know everyone onboard.
Constat examined Filia’s burn with gloved hands.
“It could have been much worse,” he said. “It looks and sounds like you got it off fairly quickly. Hopefully this will heal fast. Come on.” He motioned for them to follow.
“Can we get some clothes?” Filia asked. “We’re freezing.”
“Sorry, I didn’t bring any,” he said. “We’ll have blankets in the infirmary. Come on.”
Together the six made a small parade out through the engine room and down the catwalk, with the female sailor, Tritti by name, in the lead. She parted the crowds for them to pass. Filia felt numb, and not just from the cold. Even with her arms folded over her chest she couldn’t imagine feeling any more naked than if she had actually removed her skin.
The infirmary was in the ship’s core. Once there, the three were separated. Filia was examined by the doctors and immediately forced to drink a large quantity of chalky fluid. She immediately threw it up, which brought about another flurry of examinations and the requirement to drink another large quantity of fluid, this one slightly more pleasant in taste. She knew immediately that it also contained a sedative, as she began to feel thick-headed. She was made to lie in a tilted bed, with her head elevated. Loillola came in, wrapped in a blanket.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, smoothing Filia’s hair.
“Tired. Sleepy. Glad they finally let me lie down.”
“What a day, huh?”
“Yes.” Filia looked up at her friend. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. The doctors have put me on leave for two days and want to watch me, but they say I should be okay.”
“You know,” Filia said, “I sometimes wish I could be like you, and not be so shy. It would have made this a lot less painful.” She closed her eyes.
“I think you’re fine just the way you are,” Loillola replied, kissing her gently on the forehead.
“I know you do,” Filia replied. “That’s what I like about you.” With that she fell asleep.