Filia stared at the verdant landscape for a long moment, her heart quickening in her breast. She turned back to Staun. She held her hand to his face, and could feel his breath. She took him by the shoulders and lifted him up.
His eyelids flickered. He sighed.
His eyes opened, and he lifted his head. He muttered something incoherent, and looked at her with bleary eyes.
“Jeffr?” he muttered. ” I must have fallen again …”
“It’s Filia, and we have a problem.” She resisted the urge to shake him awake, instead holding him upright as he awakened. “I need you to wake up now.”
“I’m awake,” he said, his blind eyes fixing on a point just over her right shoulder. “What’s happening?”
“I think the balloon is going down in a forest. I need your help.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, stiffening in her grasp. They popped open almost immediately.
“Yes. We’re definitely losing altitude.” She could hear the panic edging into his voice, and to her terror she could feel that same feeling seize her.
“How do I stop it?” she asked, clenching her hands tight around his shoulder. In answer his eyes flicked from side to side rapidly, and then he closed them, the eyeballs still moving under the lids.
“They built this balloon too fast,” he said. “There are none of the usual controls.” He tried to stand and the safety belts caught him. His hand beat hers to the clasp and he was on his feet in a flash. He gripped the sides of the basket, looking wildly around, down, and up. “The wind is still blowing us sideways. We should slow our sideways movement somehow.”
She looked around the basket, then pointed. “What about the tether? I coiled our half into the basket.”
“Tie fast one end, then throw the rest over!” he said. She complied, watching it unwind as it fell to its full length. Fully unwound, it was long enough to reach the treetops. She could see the wake it was making in the canopy.
“It’s dragging in the trees,” she said.
“Let’s hope it catches.” Staun said simply.
“Should I reel it back up and make some sort of anchor for it?” she asked.
He considered a moment, cocking his head upward. “Build the anchor first, then reel the rope in. That way we get the greatest opportunity for slowing.”
Filia nodded. She began to cast about the basket, looking for whatever could be made into some sort of anchor. Already she could feel the basket trembling as the rope below was dragged through the branches. She wondered if an anchor would really be all that necessary, and she said so.
“We may need to to fix our position once we stop,” Staun replied simply.
“I think I can disassemble your seat, perhaps,” she said. She flopped down on the floor, looking up at the underside of his simple bench. She flipped open her belt tool and attacked the screws that held the bench in place. It was difficult working upside-down in the shaking basket, though.
“Was …” Staun began, then paused. “Was I sleeping?”
“I think we both were,” Filia responded slowly.
“I don’t remember … “
“I think we went too high,” Filia replied. “I think we both passed out from lack of oxygen.” She frowned. “It’s a miracle we’re both alive.”
“The fact that balloon is falling saved our lives.”
“Yeah, let’s just hope that it doesn’t take out lives, too.”
Filia worked at the screws with her multi-tool. The basket had just been built that morning, and everything was quite tight. Whoever had put the bench in probably had done it with the basket on it’s side, with a power tool, and had the weight of gravity to help them sink the screws in. Her blade kept skipping off the tops of the metal fasteners.
“Filia, I need your eyes,” Staun said. She looked up at him. He was staring ahead, motionless. She scrambled to her knees.
“What is it?” she asked, following his gaze.
“What do you see ahead of us?” he asked.
“Lots of forest. I think we’re about to fly over some sort of shallow valley.” She paused just a moment at that, something tugging at her mind. “Lots of blue sky, no clouds. Maybe some birds ahead, or little dragons.”
“Do you see anything that could be … dangerous?”
“Nothing … and everything. Can you be more specific?” She tried to keep the edge from her voice that seemed to appear every time she spoke to him.
“I … no, not yet.”
She looked again, intently, then shook her head. “Let me finish this anchor, then,” she replied, flopping back down on her back. “Let me know when you have a bit more focus on the problem.”
She had barely managed to loosen the first screw when she realized that she no longer felt the trembling in the basket from the rope. She was considering standing when she felt the balloon start to drop. That got her to her feet. She looked over the edge, gripping the edge of the basket. She grasped the situation in an instant. The winds dipped down into the valley, and were carrying the balloon with them. She could see now that there was a bit of a drop-off behind them, which explained the sudden dip. Her mind said she should go back to work, but her hands refused to release the edge as they continued to fall down into the valley. Looking over the edge she could see that the rope had lifted clear of the trees when they had gone over the edge, but now it was dipping back down into the verdure. As she watched, more and more of the rope disappeared.
“Staun!” she cried, gripping the basket.
“What do you see?!” he replied, his own knuckles blanched with tension as he clung to the basket.
“We’re going down!” she said. “I think we’re going …”
“No!” he countered. “No, we’re not, not yet.” His eyes unfocused for a moment. “We’re still too buoyant. We …”
There was a tremendous lurch as the rope snagged on something. Filia was bent back over the edge of the basket, and Staun was launched across at her. Their bodies slammed together and they dropped down into the basket in a heap. As they flailed about, trying to orient themselves, there came another jolt, and another. Staun reached his feet first, clawing his way to his former perch at the basket’s edge.
“I think it’s working!” he commented.
“Can it work a little less rough?” Filia asked, picking herself up. She looked over the edge beside Staun, back along the way they came. She could see the rope parting the leaves below. She waited for the next tug, but nothing came. She looked forward, to where they were headed, and gasped.
“We’re not going to make it! There’re cliffs ahead!”
“Are there trees on them?”
“On top, not on the sides.”
“Then that’s actually good. The balloon will cushion the impact, and we may be able to grab on, or jump out.”
“It may be our best chance!”
“There’s nothing to grab onto! We’ll fall!”
“We’ll be okay! Get ready to jump!” he moved to the forward side of the basket, one hand gripping the edge, the other out ahead, as if feeling for the approaching rock wall.
“Staun, no, it’s crazy …” Filia protested, edging over to his side. She looked ahead. “Besides, I think we may miss it now. We’re rising.”
She watched the approaching cliffs as they both loomed larger and slipped away beneath them. The updraft had a firm grip on the balloon, and they were gaining speed. Filia’s heart lightened as she realized they would clear the rock wall, then suddenly dropped again when she realized that the basket would not clear the trees growing on top of the cliffs.
“Staun, get down,” Filia said, grabbing his shirt and pulling him down with her. “We’re about to go through a tree!”
Staun opened his mouth to protest, then the basket lurched as the balloon hit. Once again the two mingled limbs on the basket floor, but this time Filia was more prepared and managed their fall better. The next few seconds were a chaotic flurry of lurches and bumps. Filia clenched her eyes shut tight and clung fast to the basket and to Staun. Leaves and twigs fell on them as they crashed through the foliage. Finally they were through, the basket swaying from side to side. Filia waited for more impacts, and when none came she stood. She looked down. The trees were falling away below as the updraft continued to carry them aloft. She looked up, and froze. Something was wrong.
“Staun,” she said carefully, then stopped, staring upward. Her secret sense told her something was wrong, but her eyes and her mind could not yet see what. “Staun, I think …” Then she saw it. There was a tear in the balloon. “Staun, there’s a tear in the balloon!”
“That could be a good thing,” he said slowly, pulling himself up. “We need to get down somehow. How big is it?”
“Not real big,” she said. “As long as your arm, maybe?”
“That’s actually a good size,” he said. “Big enough to let some lifting gas out, but not so big we fall to our deaths.”
“That’s a relief,” she replied. “I was worried that …”
The sound of the rope tightening warned her almost soon enough to brace herself for the jolt that came. Once again the two were tossed to the floor. This time Filia ended up on top. As she lay there in a heap she watched the balloon strain against the tether. The small tear grew upward until the top edge passed out of sight. To her horror, she could feel the balloon start to fall.