Illustration by Shane Jones-Rust
Quincy assumed, with the way Crichton had handled every other twist in the past hour, to land with grace. He bunched into a tense knot when they plowed through the jungle canopy. As the front of their rig, Quincy plunked off thick branches and snapped through thin ones, until he and Crichton jerked to a stop. Their chute stretched between five snagged trees, Quincy and Crichton hung in the foreign-feeling clutches of gravity. The brushy forest floor was a few hundred feet below.
"Quincy, see that thick branch beneath us? About two feet to our right?" Crichton said while they swayed.
"You're not Fitted yet- correct?" Quincy was stricken. How could he tell?
"Correct," he breathed.
"We need to swing you over a safe drop. That branch will hold your weight, if you catch it."
"If?" Quincy whimpered. Crichton swung his legs side to side with more force than he could compete with.
"Don't overthink it," Crichton said, and popped the clasps on their harness. Quincy flung. He hardly had time to accept his mortality before his chest slammed into the massive branch. Like a juvenile squirrel, his arms and legs snapped around it. His eyes followed a body zip down past him.
"Hey!" Quincy reached instinctively, but Crichton was already gone. His feet landed flat and his knees buckled, but the soil that leaped around him seemed to feel more of the impact than he.
"Get to the trunk," Crichton called up as he stretched his legs. Quincy hadn't moved by the time he retrieved something that looked like a pistol from his belt. It hardly made a sound when Crichton shot it near Quincy, but it did put a tiny spear straight through the body of his tree. Hooks on it's end gripped the bark with hooked teeth. Behind it flew a taut, steel cable. Crichton struggled with the tension as he turned away. The flip of a switch bound his end of the cord to a second spear in a second barrel. He fired again, which pinned the other end of the cable to the base of a nearby tree. A complete line of steel cable. "Do you have a belt?"
"Ye-yes," Quincy stammered. It was part of the Academy uniform he was wearing, despite how many students' pants hung fine without them.
"Loop it over the cable and jump," Crichton said, as easily as if he needed Quincy to pass the salt. He tried to disagree, but choked on the lack of an alternative. With the branch between his trembling legs, he scooted to the trunk of the tree. He fumbled his belt around the cable. "This isn't exactly how it's supposed to be used, so you'll have to let go a couple feet shy of the bottom."
"Yeah, sure," Quincy muttered to himself four times before he kicked his feet up to slide. The cord hardly sunk as it chafed by under his belt. The tree raced at him. Quincy shot off the the end of the line. He clipped his shoulder on the bark and tumbled into endless ground shrubs. When he managed to tear his way from the vines and ferns, Crichton smiled at him. "What?"
"The first time I rode the zip-gun, I hit the tree. Hard," he said. A tiny lever on the side of the pistol sucked the cables back in with remarkable speed.
"Where the hell did you get all of this stuff?" Quincy spat. It was his first concrete thought since the Academy ventilation shaft. He hadn't yet come to terms with the fact that that was a thousand feet above him now.
"A friend," said Crichton, "He's going to like you." He pocketed his zip-gun and started towards the curtain of light shining through the trees. He seemed to know that Quincy would follow.
"What about Charlotte?" he asked, falling into step.
"She's more of an... associate," Crichton told him. Quincy's mind peddled back through the last hours, desperately trying to link the loose chains.
"How do you know her? Can we stop and talk for a minute?"
"We'll stop when the Beacon goes out. Then we can talk."
Crichton acted as if he didn't hear Quincy's inquiries for the most part. Crichton reminded him a few times that, if not for him, Quincy would be counting down days to the Nether Layer without any company. When the light of day faded, he began a demonstration on fire-building. Quincy decided better of conversation until ember light danced through their camp.
"You didn't bring anything to sleep on?" Crichton said. He adjusted his folding grill over tongues of flame. He had an astonishing amount of gear compressed in that thin pack. Quincy had somehow brought half as much in a pack twice as thick.
"Charlotte said bare essentials," he bit. Crichton sighed.
"Well, my back hurts a bit from carrying the team, so we'll switch off with my sleeping pad starting tomorrow," he drew a thin slice of something sealed in plastic and tossed it on the grill. The smell that curled from it was sickening to Quincy. "What about food?"
"I've got... granola bars, bread, some seitan, and a couple water bottles," Quincy counted.
"Three days, Quincy. Three days," Crichton dropped his head in his hands, "That's what you need for three days?"
"I didn't know it was going to be three days in the Nether Layer jungle!" Quincy shot back. He tossed a cut of seitan on beside Crichton's disk, bubbling grease. "Will you answer my questions now?"
"A question. For every night you make it out here," said Crichton, tone non-negotiable. Quincy pondered his choices.
"Where are you taking me?" was the most frustratingly pertinent.
"South, through the jungle to Silvereach. Then the Legs. We'll catch a boat from there to Islaire," Crichton said, swiping his strange disk from the grill, "Eat up, and savor it. When you're out of Terra cuisine, you'll have to adjust to what we eat down here." He tore away a mouthful of what Quincy realized was meat.
YOU ARE READING
Strand: the Silver RadioScience Fiction
A shape against the night, in the light of a highway construction sign, is a young man in trouble. An artist in an artless place, he must fit into Strand's machine, or be thrown away like garbage. From the best laid plans to hapless coincidence, Qui...