The balloon had more patches on it than his grandmother’s quilt. The pilot climbed into the basket with his bag, checked the air-burner frames, and told the guard to cut him loose.
The balloon started to rise tentatively into the air, while the pilot looked for a breeze blowing in the direction of Dead River. He shivered at the thought and put on his fuzzcoat. The pilot radioed his position to the assistant. He glanced at the map and checked his direction.
The balloon floated on, mostly silent except for the times he had to turn on the airburners to maintain height. The sun was high. He leaned over the basket and saw his shadow running along the ridges and valleys underneath him. The pilot saw the thick grey clouds in the distance.
When he could make out the river, the pilot glanced at his map and saw that he was approaching Point 23. He released air from the balloon to drop altitude until he was floating downstream parallel to the river on his left, keeping a respectful distance from the river, the roiling clouds, and those damned lightning bolts.
The ridges and valleys moved slowly underneath him. He passed over a clearing in the woods and saw something that made his blood run cold: two naked corpses hung upside down from the limb of a skag tree. One of them was a woman. Well, it was a common enough sight. “They must have been Rat-lovers,” the pilot told himself. He trained his monocular on the dead woman a little longer than was proper or necessary. The pilot thumbed on his STU and reported the hanging bodies and their position to the assistant.
“That’s none of our business,” said the assistant. “You’d better be looking for those commandos, if you know what’s good for you.”
The pilot flicked off the STU. He adjusted the altitude to take the balloon in a little closer to the river.
He saw the three deflated balloons on the beach. As he approached the gutted balloons, he saw the commandos lying every which way on the beach. Not a one of them was moving.
The pilot reported what he saw to the assistant and asked him what he wanted him to do. The assistant told the pilot to return home. “Put as much distance as you can between you and that river,” the assistant ordered. “I wouldn’t want your balloon to be hit by some stray lightning bolt.”
The assistant laid his STU on his desk, walked over to the governor’s office, and stuck his head inside. “Sir, the scout balloon found the commandos at Point 24,” he told his boss. “49 of them, all dead, and 9 dracs. 6 of the commandos looked badly burned. The rest looked blue in the face. Oh, and the pilot said he saw two corpses, a man and a woman, hung upside down an hour northwest of Point 24… probably Rat-lovers.”
The governor nodded at his assistant and called the Sector 84 Commander.
The Sector 84 Commander ordered a unit of 10 men to go to Sector 127 to recover the equipment and bring back the remains of his commandos for identification and determination of what the hell happened. He ordered the unit to bring back the two Rat-lovers for identification in case they could be linked to others.