Time seemed to have a different sort of passage when one was staring out into the vast yellow expanse of the desert. The insistent, drying wind and the unrelenting sun seemed to progress the minutes and hours, but a quick check of more artificial methods of timekeeping quickly revealed that this progress was an illusion. The intense light and vast vistas of dead landscape mocked any attempts to overcome them. The desert was oppressive and indifferent at the same time.
“How long have we been up here?” Stolia asked, moving gingerly across the trembling metal framework that held them suspended so high above the barren dirt below. The young brown-haired woman adjusted her harness for what had to be the fiftieth time, revealing white indentations across the bottoms of her breasts where the straps had been. Her pale skin was marked here and there by purple bruises and reddened abrasions, and her movements were halting and stiff.
Drend lowered his spyglass but did not take his eyes off the landscape. Without looking, he drew his pocket watch out of his gunner’s pants and brought it to his face. He gave it a quick glance. “Ninety minutes.” He returned the watch to his pocket and lifted the spyglass to his eye again, his free hand following to scratch underneath the white bandage that was wrapped around his head. The bandage on his shin was dirtier, and reddened where blood and serum had soaked through, and yet still contrasted strongly with his tanned skin. He wore no shirt or harness, having instead a wide canvas utility belt at his waist.
“And how long do we have to be up here?” Stolia asked. She carefully detached her safety cable from the rail, moved around Drend, then reattached, moving further along the platform.
“Four hour shift,” Filia responded dryly. And if you keep this up, she thought to herself, we will feel every single minute of it. She also adjusted her harness, which she had strapped on over her blouse. For just a moment she considered removing the shirt, in the hope of feeling a bit cooler, then decided against it. She tugged her safety cable to ensure that it was still attached to the big gun to which she was assigned. It was.
“Do you want me to take the spyglass for a turn, Drend?” Stolia asked, still moving carefully along the rail. Filia expected the girl was desiring the illusory security of being closer to the bulk of the downed dirigible. Filia was glad for the heavy gun and its mount. It gave at least the illusion of stability.
“No, I’ve got it,” Drend replied stolidly, maintaining his steady scan of the horizon. His assignment was the big rail-mounted wire-guided rockets overhead. Filia hoped that it would not become necessary to fire them. The backblast would probably set them all alight.
Stolia had moved around Filia’s rotary gun mount and had reached the end of the rail. “Do you want me to relieve you on the gun?” Stolia asked, standing still at the end of the railing.
Filia shook her head. “No, I have it.”
Stolia stood motionless for all of four seconds, then started walking back in the direction she had come.
Filia looked past her at the side of the giant airship. Her proud lines, formerly so svelte and majestic, were now bent. The break had come almost exactly amidship, with the tail bent upward at what seemed like a sixty degree angle. The trio was perched on the aft rocket platform, which had been lowered on one end to be level once again. The captain had assigned rotating shifts among the crew to stand watch while technicians and engineers scrambled to salvage what equipment and material they could from the crashed vessel.
Amazingly, there were no fatalities in the crash. Serious injuries were few, but minor injuries were common. Unlike Stolia and Drend, Filia had managed to escape relatively unscathed. Filia was grateful the crash had not been worse. After she had fallen off the railing, the gas bags had cushioned her fall through the center of the ship. She had landed on the bottom skin of the float and had climbed aboard one of the stringers. She later learned that the storm had flung the ship high in the air and ruptured several gas bags, but did not break her any worse. As the storm dissipated, the ship sank to the desert floor. Using the engines, the crew was able to slow the descent enough that the crash was survivable.
Even before the ship crashed, the captain and officers had a plan. The moment the ship was stopped crew members debarked with tow ropes. Others remained aboard and began to jettison ballast and heavy items. Lightened, the wrecked airship again floated, for a time, and by working quickly the crew was able to tow the ship several miles to an oasis. Led there by those who could hear the whind, the crew allowed the ship to once again settle to the ground.
Filia was among the last of the crew to emerge from the wreck. Her recent illness had weakened her, and she had been buried deep inside the hull. By the time she emerged the crew had already set up lights and a simple camp. More significantly, they had also righted the ship enough to bring the fore weapons out into play. As they were leading the ship to safety, the whind readers had also realized that they were being observed.
Filia watched Drend as he scanned the desert. She also watched the areas he watched. Without the spyglass she could not see much, but she noticed the small changes in color in the middle distance. She was keeping the gun aimed in that direction, although whatever might be out there was far beyond the range of the weapon.
“Report.” The voice came distorted and muffled from a small speaker someone had mounted on the rail. It was driven by a thin wire run up to the platform earlier in the day. Drend bent down to address the speaker.
“Forces continue to gather, but they have come no closer.” He stayed down, listening.
“Continue your watch.” The voice was clipped, but even Filia recognized it as Captain Veerus. Drend straightened and resumed his scan.
Filia looked up the hull. High above them was the tail, now canted painfully forward. Filia knew that a watch had been set there. She did not envy the man she had seen climbing up there, but she expected he was probably a seasoned airman and was possibly even enjoying the view. She, however, like Stolia, was not. She had not volunteered to man a weapon high in the air. The captain had chosen the smallest members of his crew for the rickety platform. Filia had lost a fair amount of weight when ill, and both Stolia and Drend were small of stature. Their orders were clear: observe, report, and, if ordered, defend.
Stolia was standing now beside Filia and the gun, staring at it. Filia stared back, but their eyes did not meet. Instead Filia was studying the pattern of bruises on Stolia’s upper arms. She wondered how the slight woman had gotten them. Stolia had said that she was a doper’s mate. Filia wasn’t quite sure what that was, but it sounded like someone who worked on the ship’s hull. How did she manage to be so pale?
“It seems like just yesterday when we were training on these things,” she said. Filia had never trained with the slender brunette, so she assumed that Stolia was either speaking to Drend or speaking to herself. Almost as if in reply, Stolia looked Filia straight in the eyes. “When did you train on the gun?” Filia was a bit startled by the earnest, almost desperate look in the girl’s eyes. The idea of this frightened girl firing a weapon in earnest was absurd.
“Second day out Gomph and Proctor Quaternus asked the captain to have me evaluated. I fired the gun and the rockets.” Filia indicated the bulky black ripple launcher at the far end of the platform. It was supposed to be Stolia’s station. Filia suspected the girl had spent less than a minute at it, and allowed her suspicions to come out her mouth. “Did you get to fire the rocket launcher? Too?” Filia hoped that the addition of the last word didn’t sound too forced.
“Yes,” Stolia’s eyes lost their focus, and Filia could tell she was drifting back into memory. “Drend was my instructor.” Her voice put a lilt on that last word, but she didn’t look at Drend. “We fired your rotary cannon at the dragon banners, and we fired the ripple launcher, and I fired the rocket gun. That was fun.” She looked over at Drend finally. Drend did not turn, but continued his scanning. “I remember we had to wait for the group ahead of us to finish their timed rocket drills. That’s when I learned that Drend used to be an acolyte of the Whind.”
“Are you serious?” Filia asked, turning to look at Drend, both genuinely interested and grateful for the chance to discuss something other than weapons. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” Drend replied. “My parents dedicated me when I was three, and I accepted my burden when I was sixteen.”
There was a moment of silence before Filia spoke. “What made you leave?”
Drend also hesitated before replying. “I was sealed to the Silent Corps. Their training is rigorous, and you have to pass the tests perfectly. I was never able to completely block out the Whind.” He paused again. “They gave me the choice of another corp, or renewal and an appointment to the High Court. I chose the appointment, but the renewal was incomplete. The High Court didn’t quite know what to do with me after that, so I just left. I wandered a while, then signed up with the air corps. As long as you have two hands, two feet, two eyes and two ears, they don’t care what else you may be missing.”
“What do you mean, ‘missing’,” Filia asked. “What are you …” She glanced over at Stolia, but the girl’s wide eyes were fixed on Drend’s midsection. Filia followed that gaze, and noticed for the first time Drend’s unnaturally flat groin. “Oh,” Filia said, and shut her mouth.
Drend shifted his posture, turning his hips away from the two women. “The Silent Corps protect the new acolytes, both from outside threats and from themselves,” he said. “They have to be immune to any unnecessary distractions or potential weakness, even if it means … sacrifices.” He finally looked over at Filia, and she saw genuine acceptance in his eyes. “I was raised knowing what the choice was, and I made it. I don’t regret the decision, just that it didn’t work out.” He turned back to the far horizon and resumed his work. Filia wanted to say something, but couldn’t decide what would be appropriate, and so remained silent. Stolia continued to stand at the gun, staring at Drend for a moment longer, then wandered away.
It was only a few minutes later that Filia felt the first tremblings underfoot. She could tell that Drend did as well, and soon even Stolia was looking around. The three of them looked up and down the hull, but saw nothing amiss. Filia moved to the hatch leading into the hull and looked down into the darkened float. From the sound of it, someone was climbing up. She called out a hail.
“Stand by,” came the reply. Filia went back to her gun and waited. After a minute or so Driss’ka emerged.
“Filia,” Driss’ka said between hissing breaths. “I am here to relieve you.”
“I just started my shift,” Filia replied, surprised.
“Gomph calls for you, and the captain has agreed.” The Drevonian squatted down, arms and legs splayed out to help her cool herself. She ruffled her white head and back feathers and panted loudly, her huge eyelids blinking slowly in the bright light. Her pink shorts and harness were a marked contrast to her turquoise skin.
“They want me back down there?” Filia asked, suddenly fearing the descent much as she had feared the ascent.
“They did not tell me, but I hear. You are to ascend.”
“I’m supposed to what?”
“What does that mean?”
“Mine not to tell,” the Drevonian replied, standing and shaking herself. She unclipped her safety cable from the rail and snapped it to the gun. “Now go.”
Driss’ka outranked Filia, so Filia nodded. Climbing down from the gunner’s niche, she moved to the open hatch. The cant of the hull necessitated a careful transition, so she got down on hands and knees and fished for the first rung with one foot. Finding it, she slowly lowered herself down. The others watched silently from their stations; Stolia with her eyes wide and afraid, Drend sober and stolid, and Driss’ka alien and inscrutable. Filia stretched herself out onto the rungs of the catwalk and began her descent.
The internal pathways of the ship had been designed to allow access even in extreme orientations, so it was possible to move up and down inside the tilted hull. Just because it was possible, however, did not mean it was easy. Ascending from the ground to the weapons platform had been like climbing a long ladder. This was more like climbing down off a skeletal mountain at night. Many internal lights had not survived, and the float had been dimly lit at the best of times. Add to this her own recent illness and Filia was shaking by the time she emerged into the sunlight at the bottom. There she was met by a sailor who led her to the center of the camp.
“Filia!” She turned to see Gomph emerging from a tent. “There you are! Come! I have an adventure for you!”
“I was already having an adventure, thank you,” she replied. She had wanted to sound tart and sarcastic, but it just came out wobbly.
“You are perfect for this mission,” he said, gathering her up and leading her away from her escort. “We have a portable spark sender working, and we need to get it as high up as possible so that Selkwyth will hear our call for help.”
“And naturally you thought of me,” she replied.
“That was actually the captain’s idea, not mine,” he replied under his breath. “I think you are too weak still, but he insists that you are small enough and strong enough to go up with Staun in the balloon.”
“Oh, this just gets better and better,” she replied weakly, leaning on his arm. “Now tell me I have to be naked and shoot at people.”
“No, I don’t think that will be required,” he said. “But we need you to work the spark sender, and keep an eye on Staun.”
Filia groaned. “Any chance we can go back to naked and shooting?”
“You can be naked if you want,” Gomph said with a shrug. “But shooting is out of the question. That would disturb Staun.”
He led her to a long tent that had been erected alongside the dirigible. Filia wondered why the guard had escorted her away from the ship when she was only going to go back to it. As if reading her thoughts, Gomph handed her a flask of sweet liquid, which she drained. Inside the tent were crew members working hard on the thin material that formed the ship’s gas bags. Gomph led her all the way through the tent, which was cooler than out in the sun. They emerged from the other end at the nose of the ship, where a smaller crew was busily inflating one of the gas bags. It was already off the ground and was slowing rising, encumbered by what seemed to be a flimsy network of thin ropes.
“As you see,” Gomph said, “we have turned the bag into a balloon. It will be ready by early afternoon.” He turned and motioned for Filia to follow. “Now let me show you the spark sender.”
He led her to a small tent nearby. The ropes led off the balloon and went into the tent. Inside was a wickerwork carriage with many devices bolted inside and connected with wire. Large batteries filled the corners on the floor of the big metal basket. Filia studied the arrangement as Gomph explained to her how the electricity was accumulated, amplified, and released into the aether. Gomph fell silent and waited as she absorbed what he said. Finally she nodded.
“Yes, it’ll work.”
Gomph sighed with relief. “Wonderful. Now let’s practice sending the message.”
For the next hour Gomph and Filia worked the machine as men and women labored around them. The pair would send a message to be received by the equipment aboard the Constant Vision. A runner from the dirigible let them know how their messages came out. Above them, the gas bag slowly inflated until it was straining against the ropes holding it down. Finally Gomph was sure Filia could manage the message correctly. Staun was summoned, and the captain and senior officers led him out to the balloon.
“… tell her if you feel poorly or feel that you are about to have any episode. She will immediately signal us and we will bring you both back down. Understood?” the captain was saying to Staun as the party arrived.
“Understood, captain,” Staun replied. “Hello, Filia. Nice to t’see you again.” He stood there with his walking stick on one hand and a satchel over the other shoulder, not looking at anyone or anything in particular. The tent had been cleared away from the carriage, and Filia was inside. After an awkward silence she realized that everyone was looking at her. She took Staun’s hand and led him into the carriage. There was a thin bench for him to sit on. She had none. She led him to his perch and helped him strap in, grateful that his handlers had dressed him in something more substantial than his traditional and sparse attire. Once he was secure she ran through the small checklist she and Gomph had made up. She could feel the eyes of the entire command staff on her. Finally it was done. She looked up at the captain.
“We’re ready to launch, sir. At your order.” She had never really be trained in any chain of command, but she felt that was the appropriate thing to say. He nodded, and stepped away, nodding at Gomph.
“Stay in constant contact,” Gomph said to her as the crew began to cast off the lines holding the balloon down. “Wait for my signal to send the first message.”
Filia nodded. She swallowed hard as the carriage began to shake and lift. She steadied herself and watched Gomph’s face fall away below, his figure growing smaller and smaller as the balloon ascended.
Gomph and the command staff watched as the crew slowly played out the tether. Once it was clear that all was going well they turned and retreated to the shade of the hull.
Soon, the balloon halted its ascent as it came to the end of the tether. Part of the tether was a thin wire that powered a voice transceiver in the gondola. Filia addressed herself to it now.
“Control, do you read?”
“Affirmative.” The sound was reassuringly loud and clear.
“Ascent is smooth.” She looked around, her view all but unobstructed by the flimsy gondola. “No unusual sightings yet. I’m going to look around with the spyglass.”
“Afirmative. Please ask Staun if he t’sees anything.”
Filia looked over at Staun, who was staring straight ahead, not seeming to notice or acknowledge her at all. She frowned. “I think he can hear you. Can you hear them, Staun?”
“Yes,” he replied, not moving.
“Can you hear him?” Filia asked.
“We can hear him.”
“Good.” She lifted the spyglass to her eye. “I’ll let you communicate among yourselves.”
She swung the small telescope slowly around, examining the countryside. She was unused to using one, and it was hard to point it exactly. Most of the time all she could see was the bare, yellow dirt that covered the rolling landscape. Staun and the operator exchanged a pleasantry and Staun explained that he was listening and would be silent for a while. Then all was quiet.
Filia finished her first scan when Gomph’s voice came over the speaker.
“Filia, send your first message.”
“Acknowledged,” she said, moving to the spark sender. “Sending now.” She flipped the electrical valves, allowing power to reach the unit. She waited a moment for the device to reach equilibrium, then carefully tapped out the rehearsed message. Once she was done, she spoke again. “Message sent. Over.”
“We received it clearly,” Gomph said. “Good job. Standby.”
“Standing by,” Filia replied, and stood again. This time she just looked around with her natural gaze, being careful to avoid looking at Staun. Minutes passed by slowly. All was quiet in the gondola, save for the creaking of the tether rope.
The gondola abruptly shuddered. Filia automatically steadied herself, moved to the side of the gondola and peered out over the edge. The rope, all five hundred feet of it, led down to a winch atop the Constant Vision, which sat like a broken almond-shaped hump on the desert floor. The airship’s crew looked tiny and doll-like from this height. She gave a reassuring wave to anyone who might be watching, then moved to stand in the center of the carriage. She glanced at Staun, who sat on the bench with his fingers steepled.
“Well, we’re as high as we can go,” she said.
“I noticed,” he replied, making no move to stand.
“So…you’re just going to sit there?” He nodded. Filia pursed her lips and glared at the man. Something fierce and unaccustomed boiled in her breast. She crouched down and put her face up close to his. “Now listen,” she said through gritted teeth, “It’s not getting any cooler, and I don’t want to be up here a second longer than I need to be. So use that–that t’sight of yours so we can go back down.”
“That’s precisely what I am doing,” he replied, a little testily. “I will let you know if I…t’see anything worth mentioning.”
Filia jumped to her feet, causing the gondola to rock slightly. Throughout the trip she had done her best to tolerate the man, but now she found him positively insufferable. Her fingers curled into the beginning of a rude gesture. Go ahead, he’s blind, he won’t see it, said a part of her. A moment later she relaxed her hands and turned away. Even though he lacked normal vision, it still wasn’t right.
She unhitched the spyglass from her belt and took a compass from her pocket. Facing north, she stared into the bland distance. A small discoloration caught her eye. Gazing through the spyglass, she observed what seemed to be a small domed building perhaps eight or ten miles distant. Filia wondered if perhaps it was some sort of temple or monastery; a possibility for shelter if they couldn’t get the airship repaired. The view to the west revealed nothing but featureless desert. On the eastern horizon she thought she saw greenery, but couldn’t be sure. Fortunately, the oasis below them had plenty of fresh water, so thirst wouldn’t be a problem in the short term. She pocketed the compass and replaced the spyglass on her belt. Staun was still seated, in same motionless posture.
“Well?” Filia finally asked, a trace of impatience in her voice. “What do you see?”
His pale lips turned up into a faint smile. “You mean, what do I t’see?” Filia scoffed, but said nothing. Staun unstrapped himself and slowly levered himself upright. “The patterns of the storm are gone. However, there is something else….” He turned about uncertainly.
“What is it?”
“The strands…filaments…forming, but I’m not sure….”
A gust of wind rocked the gondola, and the balloon began tugging against the tether. Filia gripped the edge of the basket and looked down. A strange gray mist had formed immediately below the balloon, and now obscured the ground.
“That can’t be right,” she said. “If there’s a wind, then–”
Another gust slammed into the balloon. Filia and Staun fell together into the bottom of the gondola.
“What’s going on?” Filia cried. “I thought you said the storm was gone!”
Staun opened his mouth, but at that same moment a third rush of wind hit the balloon with startling ferocity. The gondola swung wildly. Filia screamed and seized a stanchion on the side of the basket. Then the basket was still. Filia stood and went to the side.
“What do you see?” asked Staun, his voice showing fear for the first time.
“Nothing,” replied Filia, and it was true. The gray mist had become a cloud that surrounded the balloon, but did not touch it. It was as if they were the kernel of a nut with a fluffy gray shell. Staun stood.
“You can’t even see the ground, can you?” he asked.
“No. And you?”
“Whatever you see is also obscuring my t’sight.”
Filia frowned. “This can’t be good.” She bent down to address the voice transceiver. “Control, do you see whatever it is that’s surrounding us?”
“This feels bad,” Staun said, once again seated on the bench.
“Very bad,” Filia agreed, sorry now that she had been testy with him and frightened about what was happening. “Control, we can’t see you. We’re surrounded by some sort of gray cloud.”
“Did you say gray?” Staun asked.
“It’s gray in my head, too,” he said.
“Is that odd?”
“Why should it have a color at all?” he replied. She was taken aback by the thought. She pondered this uneasily for a moment, then turned back to the speaker. “Control, do you see us?” She listened for just a moment before realizing the device looked wrong. She ran her trembling finders over the grill and up over the connecting wire. She followed the wire over the edge of the gondola. “Oh, no.”
“What is it?” Staun’s voice was tense.
Filia traced the wire to where it joined the tether. She realized in an instant their peril. The thick rope hung limp off the carriage.
“We’re loose,” she said, and slumped to the floor.