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Upon the back of the thopter ready to lift off, Seren watched the brass dragon fly upward, enraptured by Zefir's effortless movement. Her mind calculated—the equations flittering by at such a speed, tangling beautifully as she thought each one into being, seeing the world in their exacting terms: the arc of his flight (calculate the rate of speed), the apex of the upward stroke of his wings (one percent from stretching to his utmost), and even the length of time it would take the sunlight to glint off of his bright brass hide and reach her eye.
"Ah, you didn't tie his ability for fire just to anger," Seren said quietly, seeing the bright orange flame shoot from Zefir's mouth. "I see that now, yes, quite brilliant. Hmm, love is so complex, even I have difficulties with the variables."
Mirena's mind tangled inside of Seren's own, the microcogs binding them ticking in sympathetic resonance; Seren halted some of the equations, knowing even her mirror wouldn't understand the complexity, the euphoric chaos of the way she saw the world. Seren shied away, worried how easy it was to harm her mirror-kin with her own thoughts—
"Lissteri," Mirena said softly.
The inventor's tongue pulled at her, each syllable full of information. The 'L' sound—length times ten, the 'iss' meaning connected as if through a conduit, the 'ter' the time for the connection to be made, and the 'i' the infiniteness of such a connection.
The word they'd created to mean what they were to one another. Not just a mirror created to be three—Mirena for her balanced completeness, composed of both the inventor's mind with the qualities of a leader, Seren for her imperturbable ability to see the world in terms of pure creation, and their third—
"Please, Seren," her sister whispered. "Don't even think her name."
"We three complete," said Seren, the memory of her own words drifting up from two hundred and two years past. But she shied away from it—difficult when the memory beckoned. There were so many that drew her down into the pits of her own recollections, for there were so many variables to puzzle in the past.
Seren focused on Zefir again, his form arrowing above all of the smaller forms. "He is undoubtedly your best work."
"It took my all to create him." Mirena was urging the thopter through its warm-up, its feet galloping to launch skyward. "It broke me. The memory locks have happened twice since. The slide was inevitable, and Zefir is proof. It might not be long before I can't...come out of it. The end is close."
"Having me around won't help," Seren said sadly, and then thinking of working next to her mirror once more, the pure act of creation with another, and she brightened. "I can help you make him siblings. But I won't make them with any of Zefir's secondary traits."
Her mirror twisted to look behind her in the Second Control seat, and raised a cool brow. "Secondary?"
"You know, all of the war-like traits. The flame. The claws—like sickle-swords they are."
"I made him to fight," her mirror said sternly. "As he's doing even now to protect us. Those are his primary traits."
Seren didn't need to touch her mirror's mind in order to know Mirena was lying to herself, and quite well, lending to years of practice in that arena. She shook her head at Mirena's stubbornness. "He calls you Mother. I rather think those were his first words, hmm? If you only wanted a battle creature, you didn't need to give him the ability to love you."
Her mirror glared at Seren through her flight goggles as the thopter was aloft. "Your defect allows for such emotions, which would only impede my other abilities. I didn't give him that because—not for me...I didn't need it aimed at me."
Seren began to laugh. She could hear the music scales in her own laughter, and loving music as she did for the unique maths contained within, her voice trailed higher until she was breathless. "You're changing. It is a sign of your failing, like I am, but you can truly feel it now. Your loneliness. It was there, inside all along. How glorious that you're failing has allowed you to understand the true meaning of that empty sensation."
Mirena muttered wryly, "Pos'i."
Pos—positive, certain, an elek-charge. I—infinity, self.
Seren had difficulty hearing wry tones in other's voices, so she chose to believe it as stated. Always positive. And perhaps then, Mirena was the negative side. Like two magnetic rocks reaching for one another, compelled because they were opposites.
Not two. Three.
Both Seren and Mirena looked upward, sensing the pull of their third in the fight above them.
Valin tucked himself close to Zefir's body as the dragon flew higher, his flight mask pumping a small amount of pure air to invigorate him for the battle. The giddy-terrified feeling made his limbs tingle; behind him he saw three ketch gryphons, talon-locks outstretched to drag them down. After another five-hundred meters, the gryphons and the Navigators upon their backs reached the apex of their ability to fly this high, and fell behind.
Valin adjusted the temperature controls and supplied more air to Zefir's chest, the diaphragm-ballonet inflating rapidly. But he could feel it—the utmost height they could attain, and through his microcog-hearing implant he said to Zefir, "Now! Dive!"
This time there was no hesitation. No protests about needing to climb higher. Valin showed Zefir the direction through the panel, what degree of drop was best, and Zefir pivoted in mid-air, tucking himself, before following a downward arc.
Valin's stomach flew into his throat as Zefir pointed himself like an arrow, diving faster—faster—the shapes of the gryphons now close. He reached into the saddlebags and palmed one of the hand-sized fire-bombs, the ceramic ice cold in his gloved hand. The liquid within would explode on contact, but only if the ceramic shattered.
Zefir rumbled at the formation below them and when he opened his mouth—an explosively loud roar came from him.
Along with a stream of orange-hot flame.
Valin inhaled sharply in surprise.
The flame caught and engulfed one of the small gryphons; it tumbled from the sky, end over end, a blackened ruin...along with the Nav controlling it.
The heat seared along Valin's face, making it through the flight mask. Warnings flared all along the control panel, heat spiking, the cooling veins overtaxed. Zefir needed to draw great gulps of air to help with the heat, but was holding his breath as he dived.
Valin steadied the dragon's temp as best he could. Gryphons were desperately trying to scatter from their path. Aiming, Valin chucked the fire-bomb as one gryphon flapped its odd feathered wings; it caught and the creature was engulfed in the liquid—the percussive force of the explosion rocked him in his seat.
Zefir roared again, and Valin could see the temps even out. Strapped to his seat, he half stood upon the dragon's back and hurled the fire-bombs at the struggling gryphons, noting belatedly that none of the enemy shot back—not even with aeropistols. Valin had been grazed several times to know the air-powered flechettes were deadly, but none in the Wheelteeth squadron were carrying them.
Half a dozen of the enemy's squadron fell from the sky from the bombs, but there were still so many left that Zefir went to work with his teeth and claws.
Something was off.
This close, Valin could see the eerie flight masks the Wheelteeth wore. Patterned like a grinning skull, the airtube connections snaked from the tooth-like mouth. Even as he watched one Wheelteeth Nav send his gryphon's legs to clamp down on Zefir, the dragon pivoted at the direction Valin indicated—and Valin hurriedly adjusted flow to his wings—as Zefir's claws slashed through the gryphon's prettily feathered wings.
Zefir didn't stop there. Twisting mid-air as none of the small, easily maneuverable gryphons could, the dragon tore through the Wheelteeth squadron with an eager ferocity. His teeth ripped apart the machine flyers, until machinery liquid caked his brass hide. Those Navs still strapped to the wreckage tumbled from the sky.
More and more Valin had to fight with the controls to keep Zefir's inner workings cool.
Some unheard signal thrummed through the enemy. Those remaining swooped downward, flying desperately back toward the east.
Zefir trembled and began to chase after them, but Valin signaled a halt. The dragon resisted, still flying with his rapid strokes when Valin barked, "Enough, Zefir. They're retreating."
"If I rip them all apart," Zefir growled through their connection, "then they won't come back. Wounded men may return, but dead men don't."
One of the many sayings of the Clan Navigators.
"No," Valin said, spotting a lone gryphon making tight circles below them. "Something's off. It could be a trap. And the one below us is likely their squad leader."
"Cut off the head, and the body withers," Zefir rumbled.
Yet another Navigator proverb. And Valin had to wonder if Zefir was simply mimicking, or if he understood the implications of what he uttered. Cheerless thoughts grew inside of him, knowing that the dragon's child-like naivety would never last. Zefir was built to learn and grow, but Valin wasn't certain he liked the lessons the dragon was learning.
He found himself repeating the Inventrix's words. "Did you learn that, or was it within you all along?"
The dragon hesitated and looked down at himself, seeing the machine-liquids splattered along his brass hide, though Valin wasn't convinced the dark liquid was all from the gryphons. The dragon's teeth had been rather indiscriminate between the machines and those directing the machines.
"But," Valin said, "if we capture the leader, we could learn important information. Now, hurry. Before it gets away."
Turning at the angle Valin showed him, Zefir began to dive once more.
Though the gryphons couldn't hover, the Wheelteeth squad leader was making almost lazy circles as its fellows retreated. It was wrong. An invitation. One too good to pass up. Valin's insides itched with the wrongness of it all; when Zefir was a mere two wingbeats away from the enemy gryphon, Valin signaled the dragon to pull up, shouting, "Abort!"
The enemy squadron leader was pointing a large rifle at them—no not an aerorifle. But even as Zefir darted to the side, barely arresting his downward plunge, Valin heard the rifle—no cannon—roar out. What sprang from its maw was a tight ball of cable. A net, which opened over them. They enclosed Zefir's spread wings, the weights on the ends twirling together with magnets. They began to plunge; Zefir roared in fear, desperately trying to untangle his wings from the net. But the metallic cables held fast against his raking claws.
The cables pressed against Valin's body, painfully tight. The enemy squad leader, the flight mask in the shape of a fierce wolf, moved the controls and swooped down after them. The gryphon's ketch-feet clamped on the top of the cable, arresting their plunge only slightly. But Valin saw other, hidden gryphons taking off from the ground—another squadron!—who with swiftness of their machine-kind reached Zefir. Ten gryphons clamped their feet to the net.
And began to carry them toward the east.
Valin's mouth was dry, his stomach in his throat. He wasn't certain how far they'd been taken, but the terrain below them was no longer the bright grasslands surrounding their valley territory, but dots of dark green pine trees began to appear. The edges of the disputed zone.
The whirring sound of a ornithopter bomber impugned itself on his ears. No, not just one thopter, but several, and...something quicker. The whirl of engines roared, deafening, and Zefir managed to crow, "Our squad!"
The other sounds then, were the sparrowhawks—hawklings as the Clan's Navs called them affectionately. One-person flyers, lightning fast, tight to maneuver, but hard to control in high winds.
One hawkling darted around the gryphons straining to keep Zefir aloft, and the dragon cried, "Ferrei!"
The hawkling's beak was open to fire flechettes, but the Navigator hesitated. Instead its diamond-tipped claws sliced through one gryphon, before darting away. A single thopter flew in its pattern toward them, but managed to chart a course around the net in looping circles. He could see his Inventrix stand in her seat, straps straining to keep her in place.
Her voice boomed outward, somehow amplified through the thopter's systems; he wondered, his techwork mind seeking out all of the ways that sound could be enhanced. For it was better than pondering his death at the hands of the enemy.
"You take him," the Inventrix boomed, "and I won't cease until I tear you from the sky. You and all your flyers."
The enemy squadron leader chuckled, the flight mask both enhancing and distorting her voice, "This same squad fled from me last time. What makes you think their cowardly streaks won't make them flee again?"
Zefir struggled at that, a deep growl beginning inside.
"Shoot at me," said the enemy, "and you'll hit your creation. Shoot at me, and I'll dump him to the ground."
"Out of spite," the Inventrix said, chin raised. "You'd really destroy something so wonderfully built only to keep him from me. Something you long to own for yourself."
Valin recognized her cold, imperious tone and knew he had to do something. He spoke lowly over his implanted connection to the dragon, "Zef? Can you concentrate your flame?"
He felt the dragon twitch his shoulder blades once. Yes.
"I know if you flame them, we'll fall. But the squad might catch us before we hit the ground."
Zefir shuddered, his entire body trembling in fear. Two twitches. No. So the dragon knew the chances of their being caught were minimal. Valin had calculated the chances and the distance to the ground, and they would splatter long before...
Valin knew it was their only chance.
Or perhaps not. They could surrender.
Shame burning bright in his chest, stomach unsettled from the self-loathing at the mere idea, he felt Zefir's sides swell as the dragon drew in air; he dragon's systems were heating up, his very skin hot to the touch.
Valin uttered a taught, "No, Zef."
The dragon rumbled but released no more than a flicker through the netting.
Choosing to save Zefir, if not himself, Valin raised his voice, "We will surrender to you on one condition!"
The silence that followed gnawed at him; he looked to the hawkling buzzing by and saw Ferrei's gesture in the Nav sign language: the sun beckons. Was that the fatalistic opinion that he kill himself rather than be caught?
"Valin," barked the Inventrix, her stern face covered by the blank flight mask. "If you dare—"
"The conditions!" he called to the wolf-faced leader. "The dragon will not be dismantled, tested, or otherwise harmed."
The enemy nodded, an odd chuckle coming from it.
Zefir inhaled, and for a moment Valin was certain the dragon would release a gout of flame despite Valin's warning. Zefir's baritone voice rumbled deeper, sounding nothing like the youngster Valin thought him. "Condition two!"
Some of the gryphons changed their circular flight paths, startled like a flock of birds scattering. Valin couldn't help but grin. See that he's no mere machine flyer!
"My Navigator," Zefir said, raising the astonishing might of his voice, "will not come to harm, nor will he be parted from me for any reason. If you dare to hurt him—I-I'll rip you all apart!"
The wolf-face regarded the dragon for minutes, an agony of eons. Or so it seemed. "Fair enough. You conditions are binding. Give your word. I require your parole, so swear upon the sundisk if its pleases you, that you'll not attempt to escape."
He could hear Ferrei's scream of "traitor!" And the Inventrix's bellow of "halt!" to the rest of the squadron.
Bile rising, Valin managed, "I so give my parole."
More flame flickered from Zefir's mouth; his quicksilver eyes narrowed to slits. "Me too."
Like a guinea fowl in a hunter's sack, Zefir ceased to struggle, trussed beneath the gryphons. How he itched to release flame, his insides heating so much that his eyes watered. The squad, his squad, was so close he wanted to call out their names. Ferrei, who never liked him, buzzed about them effortlessly in her hawkling single-flyer. Jarre could be seen in his thopter on point in the middle of the triangular flight formation, with First Leader Nyru at the head.
Mother moved her bomber closer. Zefir could almost reach out and touch her. Seren in the Second Control seat rose from her straps and—
With a leap—a giggle exploding from her—Seren was airborne for but a minute. Then the metal cable fell beneath her hands, her toes tucked quickly between the spaces; she shimmied her lithe, small body between the net's cables; without word Zefir held out his hands and she rested herself on them. When she plopped down to sit, he curled his fingers around her and cradled her close to his chest.
Why were these humans always leaping about in the air? It made his breaths fall unevenly, his heart stuttering. He wanted to let out a curse, but kept it inside. Damn these wingless ones. Why are they so little and fragile?
Seren grinned up at him. "Ah now, dear dragon, no nonsense about how I shouldn't be jumping around in the air. I'm an Inventrix. I calculated the distance to perfection."
"But why did you do it?" He curled his fingers tighter around her, careful lest his claws twitch. "Are you surrendering?"
She shook her head. "The word surrender stems from the ancient's word to 'give up.' I'm not giving up anything. So, I'm not surrendering. And neither are you. You haven't given up Valin. Or me."
His glared at the winged shapes above. "I've given up home. And Mother."
And if it would keep Valin from harm, then he would bow to the enemy a hundred times again.
"Have you truly?" He didn't understand the searching look she gave him, as she reached up to touch his cheek. "They'll be with you, even when you're not with them. Yes? In thought." She jabbed at his broad chest. "The ones you love always are. Even when they're far away."
Zefir cradled her closer. He didn't want her far away. Didn't want anyone far away. Certainly not fleeing to the sundisk, this 'paradise' the squad was always talking about.
Seren pointed to Mother's thopter. "I'd clean forgotten what her rage looked like. Look, Zefir. It's for you. Oh, she's altering, failing, but look at how beautiful the change."
Mother buzzed by, keeping the bomber in a tight circle as she stood in her seat. "Condition three!"
Zefir wished that he could see what reaction the enemy squad leader had to the vision of Mother making more demands. He couldn't help but offer up a hearty smile at how fierce she looked, her flight mask dangling from her face, sharp features creased in cold calculation.
Zefir grinned his broad dragon grin, knowing it frightened others. Mother is furious! Be wary, enemy!
Mother gestured in the flight-language for leader gives command, watch and act. "At my command, the first leader, second, and third of this squad will go as well. They will make certain you adhere to the conditions you've laid out. They will give their parole, and will not harm any of you or yours unless you break the terms we've agreed upon."
That hadn't been what he expected. Zefir heard Valin, still perched in his flight seat on Zefir's back, whisper a surprised, "No."
"Fair enough," said the enemy.
Zefir could hear the amusement in the wolf-person's voice.
He watched as three flyers—Nyru, Jarre, and Ferrei left the rigid lines of their own formation and followed the Wheelteeth flying toward the eastern mountain's rise.