The fundamental difference between a glider and an airship is that airships fly and gliders glide. This wasn’t a problem when one was coasting along on a nice thermal, cutting through empty air with silky ease. You could sit back and enjoy the ride, basking in the indescribable joy of unfettered freedom one could only obtain several hundred feet off the ground. When the glider’s small store of phantasma fuel ran out and said glider started to rapidly tilt toward the ground, well that was a different story.
“Bollocks,” Rashari swore, grabbing hold of the flight controls. The console’s incessant bleeping told him in no uncertain terms that gravity had come a-calling and was not going to settle for an IOU. He grappled with the steering levers in a futile attempt to defy gravity. This particular glider was inferior in design, which was unsurprising. Aramant engineering; a country surrounded by miasma had no business building air-craft. Rashari would not, given the choice, want anything to do with such a shoody craft save for the fact that he’d wanted to be found dead, riddled with bullets, on the floor of an Aramantine barracks even less.
Below him an endless expanse of rough grass interspersed with patches of raw earth, gave the impression that the ground had contracted a nasty case of mange. This was not the Battlan Steppes – if they had reached the Steppes and the engine choking miasma it was so famed for - their descent ground-ward would have been considerably more dramatic. All the same the land here was the very definition of inhospitable. Funny looking trees, scrubby things with stunted trunks and twisted boughs, poked up from the ground, sprouting odd clusters of foliage from the ends of bunched branches. They were located in large enough groupings to present a challenge when it came to finding a safe landing spot, especially in the dark.
All in all a bumpy landing was inevitable, which was really quite a poor show. After the last few days Rashari had quite enough bumps and lumps as it was; he had no desire to add to his collection of interesting contusions and abrasions. It did not appear that fickle lady luck was interested in appeasing his desires this night (no great surprise there). The bottom of the glider clipped the top of one of the weird trees. Rashari pulled up on the steering levers (and really whoever designed this lump of junk should be shot for crimes against aviation). The nose of the glider came up just enough for him to level out the craft and drop the landing gear. He couldn’t see ahead of him, so he’d be landing blind. The landing wheels bounced down onto solid ground and the glider bumped along, racing across the ground and occasionally losing contact with it. Rashari concentrated on keeping the nose up and their trajectory straight. He just had to hope there wasn’t a hidden ditch, dyke, or – worst luck – inconveniently situated cliff edge coming their way. It would be, if not ironic, then at least sardonically amusing if they should die in the last instant of their epic escape.
As it happened there was no cliff, but there was a tree. It popped up right in front of the nose of the glider as if it had quite literally materialised from thin air. Rashari had time to swear –loudly and with some passion – and haul on the steering levers (to no avail) before the glider collided with said tree. The impact arrested the glider’s momentum and threw Rashari forward, pitching him half out of the pilot’s chair. His head smacked into the console and the world went white.
“Ow.” He opened his eyes some time later, awareness seeping into his brain with pain close on its heels. “Bugger it.” His neck hurt. Somehow he’d ended up slumped back into his seat, his head at a frankly painful angle and his neck kinked all out of shape. Blinking did nothing to help him focus. All he saw was dancing dots behind his eyes. The glider’s control panel was dark, dead as dead could be, but there was some light to see with. Very, very slowly he moved his head – which felt at once heavy and empty in that way that head’s tended to do after a good wallop – he was able to see that the scraps of sky visible from the cockpit were streaked with peach and gold. The first flush of dawn painted the sky, at once beautiful and dream-like. His view was somewhat obscured by the tree. It was a very ugly tree, trunk ash grey and covered in flaky bark -a large quantity of which now lay scattered in crumbling curlicues across the control console, amid pieces of glass from the shattered dome. One gnarled branch had punched right through the dome and a fistful of spiky twigs had impaled themselves in his head rest. Waxy purple leaves released a stinging resin-y scent into the cockpit. Rashari sneezed, and then had to bite back a groan. His whole body was abruptly galvanised by pain. His ribs felt at least a size too small, squeezing down on his lungs as he breathed. His head felt wrong and his neck rubbery, like it couldn’t take the weight of his skull. This was his second crash landing in as many days. Anyone would think he enjoyed the experience (or possibly question his piloting skills.)
Eyes closed, he breathed in and out, feeling every bruise and oozing cut, as well as the dull ache from the bullet wound to his shoulder. The scorpion was there too, it always was, lurking in a corner of his mind, waiting for the chance to break free. He’d pushed himself harder in the last few days than at any time in the last four years. He’d tapped into power he’d sworn not to use ever again, not just once but twice in the same day. He was well beyond pushing his luck. Opening his left palm he squinted down at the piece of polished stone set into his palm was a dark green. He clenched his fist, looking away.
The branch sticking into the cockpit shook, shedding more nasty smelling leaves and bits of bark onto his lap. Rashari looked up in time to see a metal spider, its eight reticulated limbs tip-toeing delicately over the branch, come to rest just in front of his face. The spider, an automaton, had a cluster of eight jewel bright glass eyes set like a garland around its small body. Those eyes glowed a very steady and reassuring lilac.
I like having legs. Smith informed him, in conversational tones not particular suited to their circumstances. I was getting bored living inside that old cannon ball. You made a much better choice with this model.
“I’m glad you approve,” He was aiming for cool urbanity but a throat as dry as parchment meant the result was more akin to a frog having an asthma attack. “You managed to make the transfer alright then?” When he’d come across the spider automaton in the Aramantine drone storage unit he’d immediately realised it would serve as an excellent host for Smith. This particular design was atypical of the model, being both smaller than others of its make and lacking the standard gun turret appendage, but that just made it perfect for Smith. His friend didn’t need artillery to be dangerous.
Of course, Smith bobbed on the branch bending his many legs at the reticulated joints. More leaves fell into Rashari’s lap. I’m surprised you had the means to prepare this vessel for me. Smith added after a moment his tone managing to be at once sly and reproving. You pushed your luck too far this time. It’s going to take time to build up your reserves after last night’s theatrics.
“Theatrics? I was engaged in a daring escape for my life – not a bloody pantomime.” Rashari shifted in his seat, gingerly turning his head to look about him. He didn’t seem to be pinned down so getting out of the cockpit should be a fairly simple matter, especially with Smith’s help. “And you’re hardly one to talk. What was that about earlier? Sacrificing your body like that? That bloody Dha-hali brute could have killed you.”
I don’t need a body like you do. Smith sniffed, which was quite a feat considering he had no mouth and wasn’t so much talking as projecting his thoughts into Rashari’s consciousness. Tomah was only playing with you back in that warehouse. He believed from the very beginning that I had the Heart. That charade of an interrogation was staged solely to enjoy your suffering. Yours and…
“Madame Chimera.” In all the excitement he’d forgotten about her. Twisting around in his seat he peered into the back of the tiny glider cabin. She was slumped in her seat directly behind him, her pure white hair luminous in the dawn light, her head down and her face obscured by the drape of her hair. She didn’t seem to be injured – he couldn’t see any gaping wounds or blossoming blood stains – but she was clearly unconscious.
“Smith!” Rashari whipped back around to glare almost accusingly at his friend and other self.
I tried to wake her when we first landed. Smith replied, aggrieved, Just like I tried to wake you. She’s breathing well – as far as I can tell, you know how I find respiration confusing – I think she’s just sleeping. Protecting you is tiring work. I should know.
“Sleeping? Smith you don’t fall asleep during a crash landing.” Rashari snapped gaze darting around the cockpit as he tried to figure out the best way to get out without slicing himself to ribbons.
She didn’t fall asleep during the crash. She was already asleep before you crashed the glider.
“What?” Rashari paused in the middle of running his hands over the solid section of the glass cockpit dome. He was trying to work out if he could lift the dome off them or if the mechanism had broken in the crash. “What do you mean she was asleep before the crash?”
I mean that she was asleep before you crashed. Smith reiterated in vaguely annoyed tones. Are you having trouble comprehending simple statements now? I didn’t think my phrasing was in any way ambiguous. Smith jumped down from the tree branch and landed in his lap. You’ll never lift the dome while this branch is sticking through it. Really Rashari, you should try and think before you act now and then. You may find you end up in far fewer life threatening situations.
“Shut up and help me,” he growled, “or I’ll tear off one of those legs of yours and beat you flat with it.”