Read More »
Part four of Valin the Navigator and Zefir the Clockwork Dragon
"Now, I need a happy memory, yes, a pleasant one." Seren perched over Zefir's flight control panel situated on his back, hemming and hawing, half talking to herself, half directing her comments at the dragon.
Zefir, lying down in this small little cave in the middle of nowhere—it was cold, not heated from underneath like in Mother's laboratory—puffed out a sigh. "Are you certain? You have been testing for many an hour now."
When focused, this strange mirror-of-Mother became lost in her work, her thoughts. That at least was familiar, but occasionally Seren would lapse into a tense quiet, her gaze lost—she admitted inside her own memories.
"It must be that some of your memories and emotions affect your flying abilities," she said, waving a slender hand. "The way you interact with your Navigator, and he in turn interacts with you."
"That makes no sense," Zefir huffed, weary now. And bored. Unaccountably bored.
"It makes all kinds of sense, dear dragon. It makes you more than remarkable." She scrambled down from his back, lithe and sure-footed. Again, the hurried gestured. "Down to my level, Zefir, if you please. I want to look at your optical sensors."
Zefir puffed out a warm breath into her face, and she barely blinked. He bumped his nose into her chest, but her hands didn't come up to pat at him. "You've already done so. But minutes ago."
The unfocused nature of her gaze changed. Sharpened back to attention. "Of course. Yes, of course. But we must continue, yes, before...before I lapse. It hasn't happened yet today, has it?"
"This morning," Zefir admitted. He didn't like telling her, for the truth distressed her. "Only for a few minutes, Seren."
"Ah, hmmm." Was her only answer, looking so thoroughly dejected that Zefir allowed himself to nudge her a little more forcefully with his snout. A bare smile graced her tense, sharp features, and Zefir could hear the thrum of her heart, knowing that she wasn't truly happy; the smile was for his benefit.
"Let's fly," he suggested.
That would break the spell of her obsession and would relieve his own boredom. He'd left before Mother could install a new diaphragm-ballonet, but Seren had said she could do so with the equipment she'd squirreled away from her last Clan, before they had cast her out. And she had. He could already feel that his breaths came easier, and when they'd flown together, flying as high as he could—Seren letting out a girlish whoop—it had seemed effortless.
She tucked a stray strand of graying hair back behind her ear. "If I don't focus, Zefir, I'll never be able to make you brothers and sisters. Not in time."
She still wouldn't say in time for what. She sounded so grave when she did. But he would like to have siblings, to have others like him.
"Then you can ask me questions when we're in the sky, to see if they affect my flight," Zefir suggested. Reasonably he thought.
"Yes, yes...makes sense." She hugged his snout, pressing her face into his broad cheek—his entire head the size of three of her whole body—and Zefir held his breath in case a flicker of flame came from his mouth. He didn't want to hurt her accidentally, but he enjoyed it when she hugged him. "Clever, Zefir. Flying makes you happy. Me too. Maybe I should've been bred as a Nav." She chuckled at that. "Then again 'Blood is Purpose.'"
"Valin wasn't born a Navigator, and yet he was. Maybe you could've been too." Zefir didn't want to admit that he didn't quite understand the bloodline purpose of the Clans, or why no one ever changed functions from their birth-duty. He shook his head before she could ask any more questions about Valin. "Come! The sky is a bit gloomy today, but I can counter the high winds. Or we can, rather."
Neri lifted her head from her resting spot, her pseudo-metallic ears swiveling in their direction as Seren put on her flying leathers and helmet, saving the warm-wrap mask for last. The brass wolf made a deep woof, wagging her thin mechanical tail, her voice repeating, "Chase, chase, chase?"
"Yes, chase," Zefir said brightly, his own heavy tail flickering. It seemed the only word the creature said. "Chase Zefir!"
Turning on his haunches in the tight fitting space, he bounded out of the cave, leaping with his wings tight to his frame. Upon hitting the soft, mossy earth, he left a furrow in his wake, leaping up again as the wolf followed with happy barks. Forgetting himself, he wrestled with Neri for a time, her teeth nipping playfully at his nose before he realized that Seren wasn't sitting by the old, weathered tree, nor was she watching them from the cave's mouth. The brass wolf sniffed at the air, tense.
Had Seren decided to leave them? No, something was wrong.
Neri barked. An unhappy sound. Whining.
Zefir opened his wings and hopped up to the cave, dashing inside. Seren had fallen to the ground, her eyes wide and lost, so lost, her hands above her in claws as if something had frozen her. Zefir's microcog-bearing heart stuttered, and he held his breath, feeling cold. Not sadness. But fear. He tried nudging her, but she began to scream. A high, thin sound of terror that rang inside of his head. Her hands flailed at the air, her claws trying to rake at him—no, not him.
What could he do? He needed help, but he didn't know where to take her. Exile was a serious thing. Valin worried about exile a lot and had suggested that if exiles were caught, they were...killed. If she was from one of the Lesser Clans allied by blood to the Cog Clan, then he couldn't take her to Mother.
But there was no one else.
Zefir gathered her up into his hands, making sure to keep his sharp claws from her fragile frame. "Seren! Seren, please!" He shook her, just hard enough to make her head roll around on her neck. "Wake up!"
She froze again, her body unmoving. A series of words tumbled from her, that strange language she sometimes spoke without realizing it. Fear clawing at his insides, making his breaths short and raspy, he leapt with her in his grip. Wings outspread he leapt to the gnarled old tree, using it to launch himself skyward. Away from the cave.
His internal temperature wild, he gained all the altitude he could, clutching her close.
Mother would help. She had to.
And if anyone tried to hurt Seren, anyone, then Zefir would strike at them. No matter who it was.
"She has him," the Inventrix snarled and Valin could hear it over his voice-directing implant. The microcogs buzzed in his ear with the violence of her next words: "She has him. I know it. Darketna ila jarsareth!"
Sitting behind him in the Secondary Control seat, the Inventrix adjusted one of the straps securing her to the ornithopter bomber dragon. Its stiff head pointed fixedly in a single direction as Valin adjusted the trim, the upslide as they ascended a half-a-degree, and noted how taut the flapping wingbeats were. Nothing like Zefir's beautiful membranes, or his effortless timing of each downstroke of his wings.
And of course, the thopter wasn't aware. It wasn't alive. It wasn't scared.
Valin had been searching for him with the Inventrix for over a week. They camped in the valley between the Sunset Mountains, the Inventrix barely sleeping but for an hour each day—one of her natural abilities, she assured him. But Valin had barely eaten even their meager rations, and slept even less than the Inventrix. His mind was dull from the constant fear, the gnawing sensation inside.
If he's broken beyond repair, it's my fault. And then the Inventrix's words: If he's destroyed, it's unlikely I can build another. And if she managed to build anew...it wouldn't be Zefir.
Now, the Inventrix was insisting that someone had stolen Zefir. That meant they could find him, and take him back. "Who?"
Her voice was a growl over the sound of his new implant. "An Inventrix of the Wheelteeth."
The enemy. The leader of the Wheelteeth Clan had his friend. "Then we must call in one of the squadrons and coordinate a quick, surprise attack. Then we can extract him..." If he wants to come back.
"Terribly bloodthirsty of you." She sounded amused, and perhaps just a touch disappointed. "You learn that from the Navigators? Or has it been hiding inside you all this time?" When he breathed in to respond, she interrupted, "I know. It's your worry for him. But it's likely she's no longer residing in their stronghold. The signs...yes, they've been in place for quite a while."
"Lissteri," she whispered. Again, those strange words. Not that Valin knew dialects from the Lesser Clans, or even Wheelteeth speak, but it sounded odd.
"But why would Zefir willingly go with the enemy?" Valin asked.
Though possessed of a child-like mind, Zefir was quick and clever. He wouldn't turn tail and become a traitor...would he?
He glanced at the front leg of the thopter, looking at the Inventrix's reflection in the shiny metallic surface so he could see her reaction.
"Seren is..." She looked down at the ground far below, floating by, a pained grimace on her face. "She...doesn't obfuscate. Has no filter between what she's thinking and what she says. In many ways she's like Zefir himself. Almost childishly naïve. And no doubt Zefir feels she's a kindred spirit, for it's difficult not to be charmed by her lack of guile."
Valin shook his head, wondering how the Inventrix had learned of such intimate knowledge of the Wheelteeth leader. "So she's charming him. To use him."
"No," the Inventrix barked. "She's an innocent soul. Bright as the sun. Still though, she's possessed of the obsession of my breed. The sheer brilliance of her works have surpassed even mine, to the point where even I've been unable to fathom the nature of her inventions, though nearly all of them serve no real purpose. But she doesn't possess the leadership qualities, the cunning, or the deviousness required to rule. A defect in the blood. Along with another defect..."
In the manner of her breed the Inventrix had also manipulated Valin into coming to the next conclusion. He spoke it with distaste to have been so easily led. "So the Wheelteeth Inventrix is not their leader."
The mere notion of that seemed difficult to grasp. Inventrixes, one per every two generations, were the leaders. How could it be any other way?
The mere notion of that seemed difficult to grasp. Inventrixes, one per every two generations, were the leaders. How could it be any other way?
"No, merely a tool," said the Inventrix, her voice pitched bitterly. "A tool that should've been ours...if not for me. And my cowardice."
Valin glanced over his shoulder at her. The Inventrix a coward? He frowned in puzzlement, but she stared back at him evenly. It was Valin who broke the connection with her gaze, wondering if that too had been another test.
"Everyone fears," she said quietly. "And all too often we act on that fear. With regret most times."
Like casting away Zefir for his own good?
Peering downward, she snatched up her pair of farviewer goggles, sliding them over her eyes. Adjusting the farseeing dial, she pointed. "There. Something brass. Too small to be Zefir."
Without direction, Valin aimed the thopter downward, perhaps at a greater angle than necessary, but the Inventrix's words had rattled him and he needed that plunging sensation in his stomach to clear his thoughts. When they descended low enough to buzz the treetops with the thopter's six pot-bomb gripping feet, devoid now of their deadly explosive oil, the Inventrix ordered, "Land."
Unlike Zefir who could gracefully hover and land, the thopter needed a little more gliding space. Landing it with its clamp-feet out, he turned to see the Inventrix already leaping from her perch behind him—the height of two men to the ground, but she took the impact with a little grunt and sprinted on.
By the time Valin had set all the controls to auto-standby and crawled down the side of the flyer, he could see the Inventrix kneeling before a wolf-like creature made of brass.
The creature—seemingly made out of the same metal as Zefir's hide—perked its ears, whining, but wagging its tail slowly. Its sky-blue eyes were fixated on the Inventrix's mouth, listening.
"I can't believe you still work," the Inventrix said, patting a rough spot on the wolf-thing's side. "She's kept you all these years..."
Valin took two steps forward and the creature lowered its head, giving him a wary stare.
"He's a friend, Neri," said the Inventrix. "Where is she?"
"Chase," the wolf-mechanical barked, tail wagging slower.
"Yes, but where, Neri? Dezan lis eseth."
The wolf's snout raised and it peered skyward, making little hops as if it could launch itself into the air. "Chase, chase, chase..."
Valin looked upward to the west and saw the distinct outline of the dragon. Clutching something in his curled, sharp claws; even though Zefir flew at a low altitude—unable to go higher without Valin, or another Nav—his wingbeats were a flurry of hurried motion.
"Chase, chase, chase!" the wolf said, a whine escaping. "Chase, Zefirrrr!"
Zefir kept his grip on Seren as tight as he dared. Thankfully, though his heart was grinding and his wings were aching, Seren's stiff, unmoving body relaxed, and her blank—so blank!—stare ceased. Slowly, his companion looked about her, blinking in confusion. She touched one of his talons gently, fixated once again. "Oh, like sickles they are. What would you need that for? Battle, unfortunately, yes, yes."
"Are you well now?" Zefir asked anxiously. "What happened?"
"The memory locks last longer," she said calmly, half to herself. "No way to prevent them, at least not that I've devised."
"But you were scared! And screaming." Zefir slowed his frantic pace, seeing how quickly the distant mountain caves of the Cog Clan were growing closer. "I didn't know what to do."
"Frightening recollections sometimes occur during my memory locks. I quite lose control of my body." She offered him a wan smile of assurance. "I'm sorry I didn't warn you, dear dragon. Not all my memories are pleasant."
Zefir wanted to ask what horrible recollections would have her reacting so, but he worried that raising such a question would only force her back into that state.
She turned her head to try to look upon the ground. "Where are we?"
"I was...taking you to Mother."
Her eyes widened. She squirmed in his grasp, pushing at the joints of his fingers. "No! Zefir, turn back!"
He didn't understand her sudden distress, but he halted in mid-air, hovering though it made his entire body ache, his control panel making warning noises as his breaths puffed hot.
"Please, you can't take me there!"
He began to fly in a circle, indecisive. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Even if you are an exile."
"It's not that...I can't be near her. Quezan arseht be toma—damn!" She touched his fingers, eyes shining. "Please, even though you don't understand, please just turn back. I can't be around your Mother."
Mother wouldn't hurt the mirror of herself...would she?
"For her sake," Seren said at a whisper he almost couldn't hear. "Not mine."
Zefir didn't understand, but with a graceful backsweep of his wings, he turned and began flying back for their hidden little cave.
"I don't want to hurt her," said Seren, shivering. "Not when my very presence can do so. Do you know what it feels like to stay away from someone because it's better for them?"
He began gliding and with his most serious expression, he nodded.
Valin was better off on a thopter.
"Then no matter what happens to me," she said, tears forming, "don't bring me near her."
Sedately, he flew back the way he had come, holding his breath lest anything mar her calm, her brow furrowed in thought. Then, while Zefir glided to keep the silence, Seren began to cry, tears quietly streaming down her knife-edged cheeks. He'd never seen anyone actually cry before. After the Wheelteeth gryphon attack, after losing so many Navigators, even those remaining Navs hadn't shed tears for the lost. The dead. Jarre had told him, still looking awkward to be speaking with Zefir, that Navs didn't weep because the lost ones were flying into the sun—to a better place filled only with joy. Zefir didn't know how a hot orb of light could be a better place, or how anyone could get there when they were dead. The thought that he could lose Seren to the sundisk made something hitch within.
Valin could be lost too. And Mother. The rest of the squad. He didn't want them to fly into the light forever.
His eyes stung—it hurt. Some sort of liquid began leaking from the corner of his eyes, trickling down his cheeks, and as he looked below, droplets of its clear, oddly viscous liquid dripped off of his snout.
Seren let out a hitched, sad laugh. "Oh, you beautiful creature. I never would have given you such a burden, such a gift as this." She reached up, smiling her sad smile, and touched the liquid, gently wiping it away from his brass cheeks. "You're crying, Zefir. She didn't tell you that either, did she? No of course not. But that she gave this to you means that she's changing. And perhaps that's not a good sign."
Zefir hoped she wouldn't lapse back into speaking to herself, but Seren patted his hand, and he loosened his hold on her. Quick as a sparrow, she sidled through the gap in his fingers, clambering up his shoulder—Zefir feeling a fearful cold sensation in his chest—and hooking a foot into his harness, bounded up and came to rest in the Navigator's seat.
Calmer now that she was secure, Zefir could feel the slight adjustments she made, and his energy level gained. Flying faster now, he saw a thopter bomber running on the ground to get enough momentum to launch skyward.
Shaking of the last of the liquid from his face, he narrowed his sharp gaze on those in the Navigator's seat of the bomber. The familiar forms made him stretch out his wings for greater height and speed.
Zefir knew Valin had wanted a thopter. And now he had one.
Mother pointed skyward, right at Zefir. She flickered her fingers in the Nav sign-language: Descend. Regroup. Return to squad leader.
Turning away from her—from Valin—Zefir flew onward as fast as he could.