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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #3: Flying Alone

The mess hall was organized as Valin remembered, though why he expected to see something different was beyond him. No, the single thing that had changed was him.

In the far corner at the largest long table, hunched the worn grey-and-brown clad techworkers, their faces caked with either grease or oil if they second levels—sootfoots as the first levels called them—or clad in grey-and-red if they were first-level techies. Many kept to their plates with a dogged focus, eating with little thought to decorum. That was a word and concept that had no meaning to Valin until the first time he dined at the Navigator table.

When he was a techworker, there was little time beyond eating for the lunch meal, before they shuffled back to their forges—the long, ordered assembly lines that made certain the tech needed for the Inventrix, the war, and for day-to-day operations of the Clan remained in place.

Still wearing his flying leathers, he wasn't certain where to sit. The Inventrix hadn't cast him out of being a Nav, but since letting Zefir go, he wasn't technically anything. Not even a second-level techworker. If he were to sit with the techies, he would need to stand in the long line and wait for the servers to plop a bit of protein stew on his plate, while if with the Navigators, food would be served to him by the cooks.

It still made him uneasy to be waited upon.

"Valin!" came a familiar voice. "Breathing in the sky vapors today?"

Sometimes the Nav language, well it seemed like another language oft times with their signing, baffled him. But he'd heard the slang phrase often enough to understand. Your mind is elsewhere.

He saw Kerlan Nyru's scarred face, wind-flushed from her long flight upon her ornithopter bomber—the largest in the squadron. The long scar ran from her scalp line, down over her right cheek, puckering on corner of her mouth so she looked like she had a permanent wry grin. Which fit her well.

She scooted on the mess table to make room between her and the largest thopter Nav in the entire Clan—Quarethstra Jarre, who shifted his massive, muscled frame just barely enough for Valin to sidle in, grunting as Valin did so.

"Well'home," rumbled Jarre amiably, his meaty slab of a face grinning. "What has you chewing the clouds, Seven?"

The Navigators used bloodline names as a term of respect only, as several members from one bloodline were often in the same squadron. In the skies, they communicated with one another by given names or battle nicknames. In the mess hall, it was no different. But since joining the Navs, Valin's techwork bloodline—Seven, one of the younger second-level lines—had become both a battle nickname, and among others, a sneering reminder of what he'd truly been bred for.

No one had altered from their bloodline purpose. Until him.

"What else?" said Nyru, lifting her hand in a battle signal for gain altitude. "That flyer of his. Where's the pretty brass one today?"

Valin swallowed, playing with the u-shaped eating utensil. That too, had been a new experience. Techs ate with their hands, using the hearty flatbread made by bloodline grandmeres to scoop up the mess hall stew.

"Out flying," he answered dully.

"I still say, it's not right," said another voice across from him.

Quarethstra Ferrei, the opposite of her bloodline cousin in girth, but not in height, peered at Valin with her nose upturned. "Makes one shudder. Giving our flyers minds isn't right. Next she'll animate the disposal unit and then where will we—?" She said a word Valin was certain meant shit. "Navs are for thinking. Reacting. We're in control of the flyers, not the other way around."

"And you control them just long enough to get torn apart," Nyru said, her cheek jumping. Valin could never tell if it was a half-grin of feline amusement, or a cold frown. Or both. "How many thopters you lose, Ferrei? Last skirmish I had haul you back to the ground after the gryphs tore it apart."

"Everyone's lost thopters," Ferrei said, her elegant fingers making the Nav signing language too rapidly—and vulgarly—for Valin to follow but for: —because of him.

Valin stiffened. Must he argue Zefir's worth again? Or more likely, this was truly aimed at him. And didn't her vulgar thrust have some truth to it? "And would your bomber have withstood so many ketch gryphons?"

Their metallic vice-claws made to clamp on to a flyer, crushing them, clasping on to Zefir's hind legs…dragging them down—down—downward.

"No, it wouldn't," Ferrei said, lifting her chin. Dark eyes gleaming. "But then again, your blood doesn't pump like ours, so how could you understand? I would've gladly sacrificed my flyer, my life, to keep the Wheelteeth from our flanks. Even if it were it in vain. And yet you fled with your precious Zefir." She snarled the name.

He'd learned that naming your flyer was not only frowned upon, but a deeply held superstition among even the oldest Navs. Even Nyru as Squad Leader was loathe to speak to the dragon using his name.

"We didn't flee," he said tightly. "We retreated." He made the sign for fall back-down altitude.

Ferrei's lips curled in disgust. No, a darker more intense emotion flickered behind her gaze. "You fled like the techie coward you are. Blaming your flyer because it can talk. And now, thirty of our number have flown to the sun-embrace. I lost three bloodline kin, seven sworn sisters, two oath brothers...and my beloved Denaru. And you talk of retreat."

Valin's hands curled into fists before he relaxed them. "I talk of living to fight another day." The Navigator credo was out before he could catch himself. And yet, he wouldn't be fighting any longer.

"You don't even know what that means," Ferrei spat. She touched each of her wrists with her flickering fingers. Another gesture he didn't recognize.

Jarre banged his massive fist on the tabletop, expression disapproving. But it was Nyru who spoke, her voice like the ice caverns high upon the mountain. "No, you don't know what it means. I ordered the withdraw. So, if you must blame anyone for failure, then blame me."

Ferrei shot to her feet, making a gesture of deference smooth and beautiful. "I'll not blame my sworn leader."

"I lost Denaru too," said Nyru, her raspy voice softer. "Or had you forgotten he was my blood-son?" Grimacing, she made a curt motion. "But we Navigators know that life is fleeting, and soon we embrace the burning of the sun. We fly into it with open arms."

 "Open arms," intoned Jarre solemnly. He made the same elegant and beautiful gesture, touching his muscled wrists.

Valin wasn't certain if he should follow the gesture, and when he peered down at his wrists, Ferrei spat, "You dare to give thanks to our lost ones, and I'll split you open, Seven. And all the techwork sootfoots you call a bloodline."

A hush spread over the mess hall, from the wasters corner, to the protein-vat regulators, to the techworkers. Even the cooks. The other Navigator tables didn't cease their conversations, not immediately, but their eyes were riveted to the pair of footsteps coming down the aisle.

So the hush wasn't for Ferrei threatening his life.

"Valin," the Inventrix said sternly. Ignoring all those around her. "Come. We fly now."

He wondered if it had been decades since the Inventrix last was seen in the mess hall. Cheeks burning hot, half in fury, half in embarrassment, he followed behind her as she spun on her heel, riding boots clicking in the silence.


Zefir felt cold inside.

His inner workings had grown too warm after he'd done all that roaring—and flame had flickered from between his teeth, startling him. Even so, he'd tried to fly higher without any stupid Navigator. And had failed. Parts inside him had rumbled. The control panel upon his back had blared warnings about his internal temperature and buoyancy. His wings had felt like they were on fire, painfully so. And so, he had been forced to land.

Now, resting in this rocky outcropping, nearly on the ground, he felt cold. Something told him it wasn't just his internal temp reducing to normal. It was something else. He shivered as Valin's voice rang in his thoughts: I can't…be your Navigator. Even though Valin had said they would always be together, flying as one, and curse the wind that would stop them. They would ride above it.

It hurt inside. And he didn't know why. Maybe something out of alignment. Something Mother should see to. Even that thought made him shiver, made the pain inside worse. She had lied to him, said that his Navigator would pass her tests and would find him.

He didn't want anyone to find him now.

Zefir raised his head from his cold feet, hearing several rocks go sliding down the outcropping. Narrowing his senses—tightening them, he detected something metallic, the scent like him, only not him. From the top of the outcropping, a brass creature appeared.

Zefir got to his feet, a low rumble of warning coming from his throat.

The creature was small, with large ears that flopped over on the top. A bit like the mountain wolves the Clan tamers used to hunt fresh meat when the protein vats grew low. Its eyes glowed quicksilver, and it opened its teeth-lined mouth and...barked. Its thin lazy tail began to wag rapidly back and forth.

Another scent came to Zefir, and he stiffened. Sweat. Human smells. Skin oils. Sounds...panting, out of breath. A rapid heartbeat. Both from exertion and from...excitement? It wasn't a scent-sound profile he remembered, not...exactly. He'd marked each of the squadron in his mind, along with Valin and Mother. It closely resembled—

"You've found it?" panted the human. "Oh, marvelous!"

The creature's tail wagged harder. Barked again, almost a yip.

The woman who crested the outcropping, wearing her odd-colored flying leathers, looked exactly like Mother. Only she wasn't frowning. And her hair had a little more gray in it. Her scent was a little less machine-oil, less laboratory-acrid, but her features were exactly the same, like Valin said "made out of the mountainside." Her eyes danced, whereas Mother's...scrutinized.

"Magnificent!" the woman cried, grinning. "Oh, she's done it. I knew she would. Oh, you beautiful creature. You speak, don't you?"

Zefir narrowed his gaze and puffed a jet of breath at her. He wouldn't speak to this odd mirror of Mother.

"Come, come now. It's the next logical step. Ah, but where are my manners?" He could see the riding jacket she wore was for high-altitude flying, lined with bear-fur. The fur ruffled as she bowed to him; she still smiled so brightly. "Good day to you, dear dragon."

"It is polite," Zefir said, raising his snout imperiously, "to offer ones name upon meeting for the first time."

Her grin didn't change. It made him a trifle wary, as Mother never grinned. She took three steps toward him, and Zefir lowered his head, rumbling in warning.

"Yes, it's the polite thing to do. I forget how stiff and proper you all can be here. No doubt she taught that to you, eh?" Then in exasperation, "Vardrisil ahn comi, she's the same. Hasn't changed a bit. Good sign, though. Good sign." The mirror woman's prattling made Zefir's wings twitch, and her bight grin turned into a tight-lipped smile. "Apologies, dear dragon. I forget myself. I am Seren. There, I've given my name."

The wolf-creature barked once, its tail ceasing to wag when Zefir took a step forward. He made as graceful a bow as he could muster, dipping his front legs, wings tight against back. "Zefir."

Her brow raised in a manner that was too like Mother. "The western winds? Clever name she gave you."

"Mother didn't name me." Zefir was intrigued despite his wariness. "Valin did."

Valin who was gone. Valin who didn't want to be his Navigator.

"Interesting." The mirror woman—this Seren—looked pensive. That scrunched up look Mother had when focused on nothing but fixing something broken. "Who is this Valin?"

"No one," Zefir rumbled, feeling cold again.

Seren came forward, tearing off one glove, fixated upon his snout, and without fear she reached out to touch him. Her hand was startlingly warm, almost like fire compared to how cold he felt. "Poor dear. She's made you to feel sorrow. Loss. That's the cold sensation, you know. Ah, you didn't? Very cruel of her not to tell you."

How could this woman know?

"I don't know why you're so sad, Zefir, but I can help you."

The wolf-thing yipped and came to her side, and with a laugh, she scratched behind its smooth, metallic ears until the brass wolf lidded its eyes in simple pleasure, pink-silver tongue lolling out of its jaw in a very stupid, crass way.

"How?" he asked, taking another step closer. She smelled different, yet similar. He chuffed at the air to memory-name her scent-sound profile—he could even hear how her pleasant smile changed the cadence of her heart. The smiling wasn't false. Her heartbeat told the truth. She was happy.

"Has your Mother not flown you yet?"

Answering a question with a question. That too was like Mother. "No, she's not my Navigator. Another was to be, and he was for a while...but he changed his mind."

"This...Valin person." Seren said it like a statement. Likely, if she was as clever as Mother, she'd already surmised long before this. "Then he is very idiotic to have chosen something, or someone, over you."

That was a thought that hadn't occurred to him. Maybe Valin was even now flying a thopter bomber like he'd always wanted. Happy without Zefir. The cold inside warred with a sudden flare of heat.

Seren snatched back her hand as a tongue of flame burst from Zefir's nostrils. "Oh, and there's the anger. Hmm, I wouldn't have connected such an emotion to fire-breathing, no, I would've created it to be controlled by will. Although—"

"Created?" Zefir asked.

She smiled wryly. "You're clever. Likely you have a guess."

"You think you're an inventor."

For the first time, Zefir saw her own anger flare. Her eyes narrowed, her smile gone. "I am an Inventrix. How dare you—" And she stopped herself, shaking her head. "That pride of mine. I'm sorry. Old habits and all. Bred in, it is. Only they thought Mirena had more of it and kept her."

Bitterness. That Zefir heard, and strangely, understood. He took another step closer and pushed his nose against her hand. She absently touched him, her eyes lost in remembrance, until he gently bumped her elbow—Valin had always warned that the dragon was too big and strong, so Zefir had to be gentle.  

"Thank you. The past, I fear, has a hold of me. Sit with me while I ruminate?" Her gaze was already distant as she sat on the edge of the rock, shaking. "I'm afraid I can't control it anymore. I'll quite forget where I am."  

She sat for a long time, gaze turned inward, her mouth occasionally moving to argue with things and people who weren't present. Zefir stood next to her for so long that Seren began to shiver with the cold winds that poured over the outcropping, despite her warm flying gear. As she shuddered, closing her eyes, the wolf creature sat at her feet—no, on her feet to warm her—Zefir sat closer to her to block the wind, arcing a wing about her to enclose her and lend some warmth.

Maybe feeling cold meant she was sad just like him.

The sun-disk moved from overhead to nearly touching the top of the mountain range when she blinked, muttering a last, "Spiraling...no, not spiraling. It's inevitable, but blood isn't everything. Still here. For now."

In dawning realization, Seren blinked up at Zefir and a strained smile appeared to lighten her heavy brow. "You're very kind, Zefir." She reached out to trace a finger along his cooling-wire veins seen through the thin membranes of his wings, mouth open slightly in wonder. "You learned that, didn't you? Kindness."

"It...felt right."          

She nodded solemnly. "You've been cast out as well. I can tell. Do you know what Clans do to mirror-kind like me?"

Zefir didn't know, though he feared he wouldn't like the answer.

Seren shook her head, like flicking away bad thoughts. She smiled again, and Zefir tried to respond in kind. "It matters not. Would you like to fly high today? I feel both of us are in need of some good flying, don't you?"

"I won't chose you as my Navigator." He'd never chose anyone again, even if that meant being grounded forever.

"Of course not, dear dragon. Of course not." She rose to her feet, placing on her missing glove, and the brass wolf wagged its tail once in hesitation. "Only a bit of assisted flying. Perhaps we can learn to help one another. That is...unless you have somewhere else to go?"

He'd told Mother that he would stay to fight for the Clan. For her. For...Valin. But did any of them need him? He'd failed the squadron. They'd lost so many because of him. Mother was always busy with other things. And Valin...

"No...I don't." How the words felt like they cut him as they came out.

"Come." She gestured to his flying harness, still attached, as Valin hadn't bothered to remove it. "We'll fly for fun. Just for a bit. Neri here will chase your shadow on the ground. She'll follow. She likes you. I can tell." Then added under her breath, "I'd like to see Mirena make something like Neri. She'd only say 'it's useless.' As if companionship is useless. Ha! Forsna il boraan. Clearly, you need a companion, Zefir."

"Companion," Zefir said, rolling out the word, elongating it. Tasting the rightness of it.

When she climbed up his side, using his leg to hoist herself into the Navigator's seat, she let out a series of murmurs to herself about "how remarkable" and "no, you chose to route it through that?" and "damn you Mirena to the ten hells."

Zefir launched himself into the air, wings beating for altitude, and Seren let out a girlish laugh of glee.

Below, the brass wolf chased after the dragon's shadow.

Read Part 4: Chase, Chase, Flee

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