At dawn every morning, Alexi Leadbeater rises alone, stokes the boilers, loads the camera and autocannons, and pilots the Midnight Sonnet toward the Argus Jungle, to search for Vijay.
Harroway, the squadron commander, doesn’t approve of these excursions. The war is not going well, and he can’t afford to lose another flyer. But the Leadbeater name carries weight, and the costs come from Alexi’s own pocket, so he has little choice but to turn a blind eye. The twinge of guilt Alexi feels at putting him in that position is not sufficient to keep him grounded.
The risk of an enemy encounter is minimal. Both sides consider the jungle to be hostile ground. It’s not worth fighting over, either strategically or literally. Nobody cares but Alexi.
He pushes the gyro-flyer high, staying above the wispy morning clouds as the sun rises. The thin air bites; Alexi breathes deeply between chattering teeth and occasionally pulls at the flask magnetically affixed to his instrument panel. The rough moonshine warms his blood, melting the distracting freeze and helping him focus on the search.
Only when he is over the Argus proper does he descend. Now he’s too far from human eyes to attract unwanted attention. Not war-born attention, at any rate.
His first reaction each day is to form the same thought: the Argus is denser than ever. At first, he thought it was a trick of the light, or of his growing despair. He believed he was imagining it, but a few nights ago, his suspicions were confirmed.
Alexi had been drinking with Enderby; a botanist before the war had seen fit to make other use of him. As they grimly watched the rainbow fireworks of chemical artillery shells exploding on the horizon, battering the young soldiers of one side or the other, Enderby drained his fifth glass and rasped, “I’m afraid the Argus was my fault.”
Something in the distant brutality, or perhaps the corrosive grain liquor, had soured Alexi’s mood. He turned on the bomber captain. “What are you talking about? Your fault? A whole jungle?”
Enderby poured himself another with shaking hands. “It was …six months ago, I think? Not long before your squadron was assigned here. Field HQ wanted to turn the Argus into a flanking front but to move the foot-sloggers through they’d have to clear the jungle.”
Alexi understood. “You were assigned to blast the Argus with weedkiller bombs?”
“HQ was willing to tear up the ancient treaty for a tactical advantage,” said Enderby, unable to quash his bitterness. “A bad business. The Verklunder locals were up in arms, of course, they practically worship the forests. Nobody was happy about it though. Even Harroway questioned the orders, for all the good that did. When it became obvious a court martial for insubordination was on the cards, I volunteered my crew.”
“What? You flew the mission? But the Argus is -”
“Like I said, the Verklunders were angry. With so many of them in the ground crew, we’ll probably never know which one swapped out the payload. Boffins think it must have been alchemical fertilisers. The jungle doubled in size in less than a week. It’s still growing.” Enderby swallowed his drink and rose. “I’m damned sorry about Vijay, but we’ll never see him again. Nothing walks out of the Argus any more.”
The Midnight Sonnet dips low, over the treetops but not too close. The trees twist and gnarl, like claws ready to snatch a passing bird from the air. The thought is ridiculous but compelling. Alexi keeps his height.
His cautious elevation pays off handsomely. He catches a glint of metal and sees ribbons of silk flapping about the skeletal frame of another gyro-flyer.
He slides the Midnight Sonnet into a hover, inflates the gasbags and angles up the propellers to maintain his position. One glance through his binoculars at the upturned nose cone, the tripled shock cannons, and the tattered mural of a silver chrysanthemum confirm it. The crashed gyro is the Avenging Command. Vijay’s ship.
Alexi manoeuvres closer, until the Sonnet is directly above its fallen sister. He tosses a climbing rope overboard and clambers from the cockpit, sliding downward to the wreckage. As he passes, he sees the cavities gouged by enemy flak bursts, various scorch marks, and the neat stitches of bullet holes. No sign of a pilot though. He continues to the forest floor.
It’s night-dark beneath the canopy. Alexi is forced to ignite his phosphor lamp before he reaches the ground. He notes spongy, dense moss, and a constant dripping sound surrounds him, but he has eyes only for the trees. Their trunks are massive, the leaf coverage absolute, their branches overhead intertwined like noodles in a bowl.
One of them moves toward him, and before he can draw his pistol, he recognises it. Vijay’s uniform hangs in shreds from woody limbs; bunched leaves sprout from his bark-covered torso, and his round, familiar features have hardened and taken a chiselled look.
“You should not have come.” This hollow, jug-band voice like a breeze through a hollow is almost unrecognisable from Vijay’s baritone.
Alexi struggles to relax the grip on his revolver. “I came to bring you back.”
“I cannot return.”
Alexi searches eyes obscured by wood-knots for some hint of the old Vijay. “Come now, none of that talk. The company surgeon can remedy…this.”
“I do not wish to be remedied.”
Alexi puts a hand on Vijay’s shoulder, finding rough brittle bark where smooth dark skin had been. “The thing is, we need you back with us. I need you, Vijay.”
Vijay raises an arm like a breeze lifting a branch. He rests a hand of green digits and feathery leaves on Alexi’s shoulder. Fresh tendrils sprout from what were once thick fingertips.
“The Argus grows ever wider, Alexi. It spreads and grows strong.” The tendrils settle on Alexi’s neck and sink roots there.
“We will be back with them very soon.”
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