Weightless. The plane bucked. Elliot looked at the man seated next to him. The man was shaking, his facial features extreme behind the yellow oxygen mask; his skin was reddened. The man clutched Elliot's forearm but Elliot shook him loose. He looked out the window. Trees rose up, scraping the belly of the plane.
The mask was hot. Elliot pulled it off then opened his eyes. There were flames in the aisle in front. The engines were still roaring, sucking in vegetation like a wood chipper. He quickly unbuckled. He looked at the man next to him. He was slumped over, blood streaming out of his head. Elliot climbed over him and into the aisle. It was tilted up at a forty-five degree incline towards the tail. He climbed, and looked at the seats filled with still and bloodied body. There was movement--a stewardess lay in the aisle, gripping the foot of a seat, moaning and writhing. Elliot climbed towards her.
"Are you all right?" he yelled.
"You're kidding, right?" She clutched her abdomen.
"You're responsive at least. Come on." Elliot bent down and she put her arms around him. He picked her up and carried her to door over the wing. "How do I open it?"
"Read the instructions," she said, spitting the words in pain.
Before he could open the door, the plane canted and leveled out with a crashing thud. The roar of the engines subsided. The stewardess screamed.
"Open it! Open it!" she yelled. Elliot did so, and he carried her out onto the surface of the wing. It was mid day but overcast. "We have to get away!"
"Yes," said Elliot, even though he stood still. Away from the plane the forest stretched with no sign of civilization.
Elliot looked into the stewardess's eyes. He looked at her face, wet with tears, her mascara in lines down her middle-aged cheeks.
"I'm afraid," he said quietly.
"Put me down," she said sternly.
"Put me the fuck down! This plane is going to explode you idiot! Put me down!" She struggled then screamed and clutched her stomach, her eyes wide.
Elliot put her down gently. She stood precariously, then hobbled to the tip of the wing. She knelt down, then eased herself down into the vegetation. She dropped, breaking branches and screamed and swore some more. Elliot walked slowly to the end of the wing, and saw her down below. She was carefully picking her way through large red broad leaves. He turned and looked back at the body of the plane--the flames had reached the doorway, tongues of it lapping outward--very near to the fuel tanks in the wing.
He crouched down and jumped off the tip of the wing. He fell and landed hard. Thorns abraded his left arm. He got up. Everything looked brown from here. The overcast light barely penetrated the red leaves. He could not see the stewardess, but he could see her path. He ran to catch up, and she wasn't very far away.
"You new here?" she asked when they were side-by-side.
"Not exactly," he said. "I was here as a child."
"You were born here?"
"One of the first."
"No wonder. Then you know help isn't coming anytime soon."
"Yeah, I know."
"We need to get away from the plane, then find a river as soon as we can."
"I know," said Elliot. "Rivers are safer. Relatively speaking." He looked back. The trees and undergrowth was so thick the plane was already completely out of view, but the flames could be heard.
Then there was bright light--the noise was so loud it became silence. Their backs were spattered with fibrous, gelatinous red, and they were thrown off their feet.
Their ears rang. Elliot got up first, pulling up the stewardess under her armpits. They both looked back. The trees were starting to ignite--each would burst into a ball of flame, which would catch more on fire. It was a chain reaction.
"Jesus, we're covered with that shit!" said the stewardess, quickly examining the back of her forearms.
"Let's move," said Elliot.
They walked as briskly as they could through the thick vegetation, their shadows were cast in front of them.
"Down here," said the stewardess, pointing to a decline in the landscape. They followed it, and were able to move faster. Trees exploded behind them. The decline leveled out to the edge of a swamp. Large multi-legged centipede like creatures with glistening iridescent armor cavorted at the surface, stirring up silt and oxygenating the water.
"We're hemmed in," said Elliot.
"Yeah," said the stewardess. "We have to go in." She stared to wade in, and immediately she was chest deep, pushing aside the roiling bodies of the armored creatures.
"It's not safe!" said Elliot.
"You should have died ten minutes ago!" shouted the stewardess.
Elliot stood, twitching his fingers against the side of his torn pants. He could feel the heat from the fire intensifying. He waded in. The armored creatures swam all around him, bumping into him. He suppressed an urge to gag. They climbed up onto his back and shivered and tried to shake them loose. One climbed around his neck--he tore it off and flung it several feet further into the swamp.
"It's shallower here!" said the stewardess. "Come on, keep up!" She was only knee deep, but drenched in mucky water. The red plant matter was washed off her back. "It's a bit peaty though." She stomped on the spongey ground beneath the water.
Elliot reached the shallow area and stood next to the stewardess.
"Look, the fire has stopped at the edge of the water," she said.
"Looks like it," he said, turning to watch it.
"We can't stay here though. Follow me."
"Do you know where the river is?"
"Of course not. I have no idea where we are."
They walked slowly through the swamp, skirting deep black pockets of water, in silence for twenty minutes.
"What's your name?" asked the stewardess.
"Elliot," he said. "What's yours?" She turned and pointed to the name badge over her right breast. "Madge? Seriously?"
"Margaret more formally, but Madge, yes. Were you on business, or visiting family?"
"I was commissioned for a geological survey, so business I guess."
"Ah, minerals. The main reason people have been flooding to this godforsaken planet to make their fortunes or die."
"Six years. I've been saving to go back. It's my luck I'm in a plane crash a month before my trip back. What mineral?"
"I didn't know there was a lot of it."
"Nobody does. That's why I was commissioned, to find out."
"I see," she said.
They wandered a mile more before the land dried out. They could still see the glow of the fire in the distance against a darkening sky.
"I don't like this," said Elliot.
"I was hoping this would drain into a river, but I guess not. Less trees though, that's good."
There was a scream in the trees beyond. Something tore apart. Then something else roared.
"My parents told me stories about them," said Elliot.
"I'm glad mine didn't."
"The forest people. Only they're not people, not like us."
"What were the stories?"
"Well, we weren't supposed to go out at night. We lived in a compound with high walls, so we were safe, but I guess they meant it as a general warning. 'If you leave your bed after the lights go out, they'll drag you by your feet into their dens, then eat you slowly, munching on your fingers first, then your eyeballs, then they open you up and scoop out your organs while you listen to them slurping'."
"That seems a little bit overkill," said Madge. "No wonder you're so frozen-afraid of everything."
"I moved to Earth as soon as I was sixteen. I couldn't take it here."
"But you're back."
"I needed the money."
"That's always the way it is, isn't it?"
There was crashing footsteps in the forest, then an abrupt stop. The forest went silent. Elliot realized there had been all sorts of animals making noises up until then.
"That's one of them," he whispered.
"It will follow us back into the water, won't it?"
The trees in front of them shook, then a forest person stepped out. It was twelve feet tall or more when it rose up on it's back legs. It's skin was translucent white, with stripes of brown. The heart beat visibly, a dark mass in the center of it's abdomen. Thick veins pumped black blood in lines radiating from the heart. Two thick cords of pulsating veins trailed up to the creature's head. Its mouth was an inverted V, with jagged, interlocking teeth as long as human fingers jutting out from it. Compound eyes cupped either side of its head. It had two sets of forelegs--the mid-legs were for pushing trees out of it's way, and the top-legs were for catching prey. It's eye's swiveled towards them.
"Stay still," whispered Elliot.
They watched the forest person watching them. Its lungslits vibrated along its abdomen as it exhaled and inhaled. The eyes twitched, it's jaw dropped open slightly. A black tongue slithered out, and rose like a cobra into the air, tasting. Another one came out from the trees and chittered to the first. More followed. Soon there was a semi-circle of twenty, all twitching their eyes and chittering and sticking out their tongues.
"Wow," said Madge under her breath. She slowly found Elliot's hand at his side and squeezed it then lt go. She stepped forward. Elliot looked on, his eyes widened and his heart thumped. All the forest people stilled the motion of their eyes and focused solely on her.
"Ch-chi-ch-chi-ch," said Madge, imitating the possible speech of the forest people. They fell to complete silence. She stepped forward again, and repeated the phrase. She looked at the first one to emerge, and held out her hand. It stretched out a top-leg, and touched her fingers. She stroked its claw in response. It chittered. The others chittered. Madge laughed and looked back at Elliot. The forest person grabbed her head with its top-legs and forced her into his mouth. It snapped off her head and let her body fall. The others closed in on it, ripping it apart.
Elliot stood perfectly still, too afraid to close his eyes. His lungs burned, yearning to hyperventilate, but he breathed very slowly, minimizing the movement of his chest. He watched them pick her bones clean, then snapping bones and sucking the marrow out. They fought and pushed and hissed at each other.
There was a loud screech from a half mile away or so. The forest people all looked up, alert. The screech sounded again. They bounded off towards it, crashing through the trees.
Elliot started shaking uncontrollably. He inhaled several sharp breaths, then he turned back towards the swamp. He found a deep pocket of water and immersed himself in it, up to his mouth. He let the armored creatures climb over him freely as perfect camouflage. He waited in the swamp until dawn before setting out in hopes of finding a river.