Filia expected the crash to be a sudden thing, but it wasn’t. She and Staun had time to prepare themselves, securing various bits of equipment and tying themselves to the basket before the first of the tree branches struck. After that there was an interminable time where the basket alternated between shaking violently and free-falling. It all ended in a great wallop that knocked Filia unconscious for a moment. She came to her senses lying on the forest floor, soaking wet.
The balloon came to rest at the bottom of a tree. The shredded float was festooned about, some of it still stuck in the lower branches. The basket had upended, spewing the helpless occupants out onto the ground. Filia got up, looking about as she checked herself for injuries. Staun was standing nearby, favoring one leg. She was glad to see him.
“Are you OK?” she asked, starting to walk towards the basket. She hadn’t gotten more than a step when she realized that her hip was burning. A quick examination showed a cut she had missed in her earlier inspection. It wasn’t deep, but it was bleeding. She could also new feel various bruises and scrapes making themselves felt, especially on her shoulders and back. She ignored them and went to the fallen basket.
“Why am I wet?” Staun asked. She glanced over at him. He was sniffing his shirtsleeve.
“I’m sorry if the accommodations aren’t up to your standard,” she sneered, “but in case you hadn’t noticed we just crashed!” Her earlier happiness at seeing him up and alert evaporated, replaced by exasperation and contempt.
“What did we have in the basket that held so much fluid water?” he asked, holding his shirt out from his skin.
“Tell you what,” she said, “why don’t you try to be useful for once and see if you can w’hisper for some help?” Filia bent down and peered inside the skewed basket. Her hand pressed the damp fabric of her damaged pants against her wounded hip, which was really smarting. She fished what things she could out of the basket. Most of what had been installed appeared badly broken.
In particular, the large, heavy boxes had broken open. They appeared to be the source of the liquid that now soaked Filia, along with some thin metal plates. Seeing these broken black boxes, Filia immediately sensed something was very, very wrong. She straightened up and backed away from the basket, but the sense of wrongness just increased. She held her own shirtsleeve to her nose. Whatever had wetted them both did not smell like water.
“We need to wash,” she stated emphatically.
“What?” Staun said, caught off guard.
“This isn’t water. I … I don’t know what it is, but it’s not water and it’s not right and we need to wash it off now.” She looked around. “Do you t’see any water nearby?”
“I have some water in my canteen,” he said.
“Not enough.” She could feel her skin beginning to itch, and even burn in spots. She held her own shirt away from her body. “We need a lot of water, water to wash with.”
“There’s not any … no … ” he shook his head, confused. “Yes. Not real close, but yes. There.” He pointed his staff.
“Come on.” She went to him and took his hand and began to lead him. She was grateful she had not gotten any of that liquid on her head or in her eyes. The ground was very uneven, thick with undergrowth and crisscrossed with fallen branches. The going was slow, too slow.
“How far?” she asked.
“Maybe a few hundred feet,” he said. After a pause, he asked, “Is your skin starting to burn?”
The itching had indeed intensified. “Yes,” she said. “Whatever was in those black boxes was not water.”
“Acid,” he said. “Those must have been lead-acid batteries. You’re right — we need to wash this off quickly, before it burns us.”
The terrain was pitted with deep holes, each one easily the size of the basket they had ridden in. Filia threaded around these hazards, leading her blind charge and trying to ignore the burning sensation that was increasing on her skin. Her heart was thudding in her chest, more from incipient panic than from exertion. Emotions and memories from the incident in the engine room flooded back into her mind. The humiliation of being stripped and paraded naked through the ship fought against the searing memory of the burn, and the illness that accompanied it. The need to do something twisted her gut and drove her on.
“What am I looking for?” she asked.
“Yellow and red flowers.”
“Flowers!” she shouted, spinning to face him. “We’re burning! What are you doing?”
“The water is in the flowers!” he yelled back, pointing with his staff. “This is a jungle, remember? You don’t always find water in a stream! Go!”
She again took his hand and began pulling him along. The burning was really getting bad, and her hip was aflame. She began to untuck her blouse and considered taking it off, but the shame flooded back in and she stopped. She spotted yellow ahead, and homed in on it.
Sure enough, there was a large patch of broad-leaved plants with huge yellow blossoms. The flowers were shaped like upright bells. Once Filia reached the edge of the flower patch she broke away from Staun and dashed to the nearest large flower. It was half full of water. She seized it and tried to pull it free, but could not. She dropped to her knees and flattened the flower against her leg, splashing the water against her body.
“There’s not enough water here,” she said, looking around and reaching for the next plant.
“There is, you just have to gather it,” Staun replied. He also was on his knees and doing the same thing.
The next few minutes were spent in a frantic dance as each seized flower after flower in an effort to douse the chemical fires that raged across their bodies. By the time they were done each was a mess, smeared with green and yellow and red. Filia’s skin still smarted where the acid had inflamed her many cuts and scrapes. Her hip ached. They were both quite wet, but now it was water, not the acid from the batteries, that soaked them.
Staun sat in the middle of a mass of flattened plants and trodden mud. Filia wandered further afield, finding the few remaining blossoms to glean the last bit of water. Now that the urgency had diminished, she moved more deliberately, taking care not to spill the precious fluid. She had started using her multi-tool from her utility belt to cut the blossoms off so she could pour the water exactly where she wanted it.
A thought occurred to her. She looked back at where Staun sat, seemingly in a funk. She carefully cut two blossoms off, all she could easily carry, and turned back to him.
“Did you get any of that on your head or face?” she asked him, carefully walking back towards him through the chaos that had been a flower patch. She had to be wary, lest she trip on a vine and spill her precious cargo. She lifted each leg high, clearing the undergrowth. She noticed after a few steps that he still had not responded. “Did you get any of that on your head or face?” she repeated, louder. He didn’t move or respond at all. She came up to him, still holding her burden. “Staun.” Nothing. “Staun!” Nothing. Anger welled up in her breast, and she deliberately upended both blossoms, pouring the cold water over his head. Only then did he move, after a moment’s delay, in short, jerky movements.
“What?” he asked, confused. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“Are you OK?” She asked, very careful to control her tone and volume.
“I was t’seeing … something. There are … dangers … in the woods. We need to be cautious.” He gathered himself together and pulled himself upright. “We should make some shelter.” Shakily, he turned back towards the crash site, and with a sigh she again took his hand and began to lead him back.
“I can try to t’see more clearly what’s out there,” Staun said as they walked back. “If I can concentrate then my t’sight can get clearer. I just need a quiet, safe place to sit and meditate.”
“There you go again with that ‘safe’ thing,” Filia said. “Is there something I need to know that you’re not telling me?”
“I … t’saw … things … dangerous things, as shapes and sounds … not close, but definitely there. I can’t tell what they are, yet, but I will watch for them.” He paused. “You should watch for them, too.”
“Oh, I will.” Filia scanned the forest around them. It was relatively open, with many large trees, but even so there were many places and ways that a danger could be hiding.
The crash site was the same as when they had left it. Filia looked around and settled on a hollow spot next to a tree trunk where Staun could sit. Once he was settled she turned to the matter of shelter. The spot where they had landed was soft ground covered in tall grasses. The basket was almost upside down, caught on the bottom by some cables. Filia wrestled it free and dragged it next to Staun. The support cables were attached to the basket by bolts that were too tightly fastened for her to loosen with her little multitool, and with cables that were too thick for her to cut. She settled for dragging some of the torn balloon fabric down from the trees above and fashioning it into a crude lean-to tent.
As she worked, she watched the woods around them for movement. She saw a large number of insects, large and small, and a number of snakes and gomka perched around on bushes and tree trunks. Occasionally a bird would fly by, or something furry would flash through the underbrush. Staun took no note of any of this, but simply sat and chanted. Filia worked as quietly as she could, so as not to disturb him. Several times she got caught or snagged on various branches, and more than once managed to tear her clothes. Nonetheless she made quick progress.
Once the tent was up, Filia set about making a weapon. With the basket upended she had noticed for the first time that parts of it had been reinforced with angled metal strips. One of these was torn almost free. With a few minutes worth of bending she was able to snap off a section of the metal.
She looked about for a rock to pound it straight on. Spotting a large stone nearby, she bent to scoop up a smaller rock to use as a hammer. As she did so her pants split. She quickly looked around to see if Staun was looking, then chided herself when she recalled that he was blind. She was grateful for her underwear, until she realized that they had split as well. There was nothing she could do about it, so she took her hammer-rock and started pounding. She was able to pound the metal between the two rocks until it was relatively straight. Wire served to bind the metal to a straight wooden dowel from the upper part of the basket. Filia made sure it was quite secure before she started sharpening the metal to an edge, using a rough stone. She considered using the blade from her multitool to cut some of the softer aircraft metal away, but while she was sure the knife blade could cut the softer metal she was also afraid that doing so would dull the precious tool.
As she worked, she kept glancing over at Staun. He had stopped chanting and was now seated, quiet but not still. She could see that his eyes, though closed, were darting from side to side as if watching some sort of manic mudball match. His expression varied from moment to moment, crossing over from tense watchfulness to panicked fear. Several times she almost called out his name, to rouse him from this trance, and stopped only when she remembered how dire their overall situation was.
He was still deep in this state by the time she finished the blade. She watched him for a moment longer, then started inventorying their assets. Unhappily, those assets were relatively few, consisting mostly of the contents of her utility belt and his satchel. Food and water they had a bit of, and they had her multitool. There were some small metal fittings that she had found useful onboard the ship, but she doubted they would be much use here in the woods. He had some reading material that might make for good kindling if they needed a fire. Beyond that they didn’t have much. She stripped some of the line off the balloon shroud, on the idea that rope was always good to have. They also had her small brazing torch, which she usually kept relatively full of fuel. She hoped for rescue before they used it up.
The inventory done, she looked back at Staun. It only took a glance for her to know that he was in trouble. She sprang to his side. Every muscle in his body was rigid, and he was vibrating at a rate that no one could sustain for long. His face was contorted in a rictus of pain and terror.
“Staun!” she yelled, and shook him hard. Her hand slipped off his stiff arm, tearing his shirt in the process. “Snap out of it!” He didn’t open his eyes or stop shaking, and his body was as rigid as a corpse. She felt panic welling up inside her, and she released it all in the form of a walloping slap against the side of his face. “Snap it!” she screamed. He opened his eyes in shock and flailed in confusion, then collapsed against the tree trunk. She tried again to rouse him, but this time to no avail. A livid red mark on his face from where her hand had struck him stayed her from another blow. At least he was now limp, and not still convulsing.
Grabbing some balloon fabric, Filia made a bed on the ground. She pushed him over onto it. She tried to use the belt of his pants to pull him into a more comfortable position, but to her horror the garment split straight down his leg. She pushed the torn edges together, covering as much of his blue flesh as possible, then laid him out as best as she could. She covered him with balloon fabric, and waited.
It was dark by the time Staun stirred. Filia had a small fire going, and had doubled the fabric overhead. They were warm and, she hoped, safe, at least for the moment. Staun awoke with a jerk and slowly sat up. He looked around, squinting, then stared into the fire.
“How long have I been out?” he asked.
“Hard to say,” Filia replied. “A couple of hours, I think.”
“Sorry about that,” he said. “The w’hind is not always kind to those who can feel it.” He shifted about on his makeshift bed, and sensed something amiss. He tried to hike his pants up and discovered their tear.
“My turn to be sorry,” she said. “When you collapsed I tried to roll you over into a more comfortable position, and your pants sorta tore apart.”
“I see,” he said, uncertain.
“If it makes you feel any better, I think all our clothes are coming apart. I think the acid damaged them more than I expected.”
“Mmmmm,” Staun hummed. “Well, a country counts on more than clothes.”
“That’s good,” Filia replied, “because at this rate we soon won’t have any.” She sat in silence for a moment. “That seizure … how often does that happen?”
“More often than I’d like.”
“Doesn’t that limit your … usefulness?” Filia regretted the phrasing as soon as she said it.
Staun didn’t flinch. “Yes, and no. Obviously I’d like to be able to just perform on demand. But I’m actually one of the more reliable Adepts. Some Adepts lock up more often than they actually see something.”
“So — did you see anything at all?”
“If I did it’s all gone now, unless I said anything …” his voice trailed off into a question.
“I didn’t hear you say anything,” Filia replied.
“Ah. So no, sorry.”
They sat silently, watching the fire. Finally Filia broke the silence.
“Are you OK to stand a watch?”
“I think so.”
“OK.” Filia arose. She had her hands on the belt of her own pants, which had also torn while Staun was asleep. Holding the rotting fabric over herself for modesty, she moved into the basket, inside of which she had already made something of a bed for herself. “I am going to go to sleep. Do you think you can tend the fire and watch … watch or listen or w’hisp or whatever for anything out there?”
“I think so. I’ll wake you if I suspect a problem.”
“Fine. And wake me in a few hours or if you get sleepy, OK?”
Staun was true to his word. He woke Filia up early in the morning hours and they traded places. She in turn woke him up not too long before sunrise. It seemed that just after she lay down to sleep that it started to rain, but in reality she had been sleeping for some time. She awoke to the sound of distant thunder. Staun was awake and alert, and the fire was still burning. It was already raining softly, but the tent was working, channeling the water away from the pair. The rain increased to a downpour as the day lightened. Filia filled Staun’s canteen with the rainwater.
It wasn’t long before they realized that they had a problem. The place where they had pitched their tent was a local low spot, and the water was starting to rise. After a while they were forced to abandon the basket, as water rose up and swamped it. They retreated to the tree trunk, which arose from the ground gradually enough that they were able to perch on its lower limbs. By this time the work the acid had begun was complete; neither one could keep their shredded pants together any longer, and they were both down to only shirts and shoes. The rain stopped after a few hours, well before they would have been forced to move. Filia surveyed the surrounding pool from the safety of the tree. The water did not seem to be rising, nor did it seem to be flowing. Still, it had rendered their camp unusable.
“We’re going to have to find a better campsite,” she finally said.
“We should try to stay close to the balloon,” Staun said. “Any search party will look for it.”
“Agreed.” Filia pointed. “I think that’s some higher ground. We can make a camp up there.”
They gathered up the few things that they had and waded through the water ashore. They moved a short distance up a shallow slope to where the trees opened up a bit more. Filia cleared a small area for a firepit and set a fire. With Staun’s help she moved some fallen logs into a rough perimeter.
“It’s not much, but it will do for now,” she said when the last of the logs moved into place. “When the water recedes I will go down and get as much of that fabric as I can, to make a tent up here, and maybe some more clothes for us.”
“I don’t need more than my shirt,” Staun said, “but the tent is good idea. I will t’see what I can, and if you bring the ropes and fabric here I can put the tent together.”
“All right.” Filia looked around. “We’ll need to keep ourselves fed until rescue arrives. I think I saw something that looked like a berry patch yesterday, when we were looking for those flowers. I’m going to go down there and see if there are any ripe ones.”
“Be careful of the dangers,” Staun said, his head cocked oddly to one side.
“Right, dangers,” Filia responded. That idea did little to counter-balance the nakedness she felt, both literal and figurative. The air swishing between her thighs was just one distraction. She also wished that Staun’s shirt was long enough to keep his blue manhood covered, so she wouldn’t have to look at that thing peeking out. Like an accident, it kept drawing her eye in, and then chasing it away. She forced her mind to focus. “I’ll be careful. Yell if you need anything.”
Filia headed down the slope. She skirted the wet areas that lay in the hollows, keeping an eye out all around for anything that might be moving about. She had to make a wide detour to miss the marshy areas where they had been camping, and somewhere, not too far away, she thought she could hear a waterfall. The ground was treacherous, crumbling underfoot in spots, boggy and sodden in others. She was grateful her shoes had not disintegrated like her pants.
It was a while before she found the place where they had bathed the day before. The flowers they had disturbed had gone all brown, and the site was depressing in the gray overcast afternoon light. Filia paused a moment to get her bearings. Not far away she could hear what sounded like birds flapping about. She tried to spot them, but had no luck. Finally she moved again, feeling certain she had her bearings. After only a minute of walking she spotted the growth she had seen the day before. The undergrowth was heavy, and it took a bit to get there, but she finally was able to reach the dense thicket. She began searching through the foliage, looking for anything that looked like fruit. Nothing presented itself, and she began moving across the face of the thicket.
Filia had been looking for almost a quarter of an hour when she heard something heavy moving through the brush on the other side of the thicket. She froze. After just a moment the sounds stopped. She stayed frozen, trying not to breathe, for a minute or more. When the sounds did not return, she carefully started to move back out the way she came in. Whatever had made that sound might not be any threat, but she was not finding any food, and therefore the trip was not worth the risk. She carefully worked her way out of the dense growth, returning to where she had entered. She had almost reached that spot when the rustling noises resumed, louder than ever. She froze for a moment, and the noises stopped. She started moving again.
The call was birdlike, high-pitched and pure in tone. It was beautiful in its own way, and equally terrifying. Filia wanted to run, and wanted to freeze, and her body divided the two ideas and reduced her to a stilted walk.
This time the call came from another part of the thicket. Apparently there were two of these things. Filia’s bare lower limbs lost their stiffness, now that she was out in the open more, and she starting backing away from the thicket rapidly, wishing she had not left the spear with Staun. She was about to turn and run when movement caught her eye. A flash of brilliant color, red and green, caught her eye. Something stood up on the far side of the thicket, something as large as a man. It lunged straight at her, burying itself in the dense growth.
Filia didn’t hesitate. She simply turned, and ran.