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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #11: The Importance of Time and Dreams

Seren's mind had never been so aflame—the ideas, calculations, and diverse sketches had never been so complex, so enthralling, so all-encompassing. She juggled all of them, following new formulations—sixty at a time—to their inevitable endgame, while simultaneously sketching the mechanical outline of Zefir's heart, trailing her thoughts gleefully through that chaos of wonder.

Zefir's chest panel lay open before her, and she trembled to think of what she'd find upon exploring his inner workings...and how she could improve on each function in the dragon-sibling even now still growing on her workbench.

The dragon she would build would be her last invention, her best invention. It would be intelligence and sorrow and love and harmony and beauty—

"It feels...strange," Zefir admitted, peering down at his open chest plate. "Mother never let me watch her work. Always made me sleep through it."

Seren couldn't interpret the individual words, only the general meaning when so much else pulled at her mind like a veritable riptide. She wasn't certain of the words spilling from her own mouth (was she giving assurances?) or what their meaning was, but the dragon nodded.

"Are you certain you need to stop my breathing? And my heart?"

Was there fear in that tone? Tearing her mind away from the powerful need, she focused enough to say, "I have to take apart a piece of your heart-mind, and put it back together. It won't take long."

A scrunch of that dragon face, the expressions so human-yet-not. Oh, how she'd make her own dragon with those wondrous expressions.

"What happens if it takes too long?" he asked.

Of course it wouldn't. The very idea was ridiculous.

A massive clawed hand—how she detested those claws!—reached for her and gently touched her shoulder with a single finger. "Seren?"

"Your circulatory system—also your cooling system—has a small backup, so the rest of you can remain active and viable without your heart doing its work for a time. Your body temperature will remain stable for three minutes and fourteen seconds without your breathing, which would interfere with my work on the heart." At the nervous click of his claws on the stone floor, Seren added, "You may lose consciousness for a time, like your fall from the sky when your diaphragm-ballonet wouldn't expand to give you enough breath."

The dragon frowned and his voice buzzed deeper, "But what happens after those three minutes?"

Sometimes she spoke the truth in a direct way that disturbed others. With her mind so absorbed by the need, words tumbled out in a jumble. "You'll begin to overheat, your circulatory system will shut down, some microcog nodes could burst causing failure of some nerves, it will feel suddenly like you're suffocating—"

"I-I've heard enough," he said, hoarse. Ah, how the saliva analogue reacted to his emotional state, causing his roughened voice. "Just...promise me you can do it in three minutes."

"Three minutes, fourteen seconds, I promise. I can count it in my mind. I'll just partition that countdown into my background thoughts. An old Inventrix thought-exercise, yes, every Inventrix remembers that." At his dubious frown (how magnificent such an expression on that dragony face) she picked up one of her clock timers. "Here. See. Yes? That way you can see the countdown too."

Seren eagerly grabbed up her thinnest tool and placed on her microfyer goggles, adjusting the magnification of the lenses.

"Now, if you don't lose consciousness..." It was growing hard to concentrate on communicating in a language other than the inventor's speech. Oh, the clarity yet complexity of that language, the beauty of multiple layers of meaning in a single syllable.  "Uthu dir aln. Your head and mouth can move, but everything below that will be immobile. You can't talk. No doubt it's an odd sensation, so don't fight it."

There it was. The heart-mind. The microfyer adjusted to her pupils contracting and—


Frustration bubbled to the surface with enough force that it surprised her. More proof of her failing. "Zefir, dear, what?"

"I want Valin to be here..." Though she couldn't see him with the goggles attuned to micro-size, she detected fear in his tone this time. "If something goes wrong."

"Nonsense," she cast aside such a notion. What a preposterous idea that anyone other than another Inventrix could keep up with the speed of her mind. Even Mirena so long ago could never do so. The gift of her altered blood. "Now hush, dear one. Start the timer. And..."

And the outer world disappeared. Seren was enthralled by the organ of Zefir's heart-mind, looking at each node—sensory nodes, memory nodes—oh, how they were connected so organically!—and emotional nodes, yes, yes, they must be that, how they grew and grew with his experiences, his new memories, ah but there must be a node for Zefir's wondrous love and trust; she searched for it, taking apart more and more pieces with her micro-tools, resisting the need to tear the entire engine apart—but only barely. Her head pounded in pain as her thoughts built a diagram of his inner workings. 

It became harder to deny the need to tinker, to alter and see the spark jumps between nodes...

Chaos, beauty, so organic, growing, growing; over time this heart-mind would collect and discard memories like any other being...



Seren consulted her memory-timer, and gasped. It couldn't be. It had to be wrong... but she had never miscalculated. She tore off the goggles and her sight blurred as it was reduced to normal proportions; blinking she stared in disbelief at the clock timer: Three minutes, twenty-seven seconds.

"Oh, Gods of the Forge." Even that utterance stole two seconds away.

Zefir's eyes were wide open in fear and pain, his body limp, but resisting unconsciousness. His dragon-shaped mouth formed a desperate plea: Valin...Valin help me.

Quickly, she thrust the goggles back over her eyes and was instantly transported back to Zefir's inner workings. The riptide pulled at her again, but her body threatened to do something so un-Inventrix as to tremble in fear. No! She wouldn't succumb to her base need, or her body's failing. Her hands steadied as she placed back together all of the pieces she'd gleefully taken apart, moving faster than even her enhanced body had during the Trial.

The Trial...

The boiling crucible heated the walkway until Seren knew what degree burns her feet endured, and Mirena was turning with that slender pipe in her hand...

"No!" she shrieked. "Not now!"

There. The last microcog clicked into place and she hurried to start his heart, his lungs.

Zefir inhaled a rattling, harsh metallic-sounding breath. Weakly, he tried to get his legs under him, and when he did, he scrambled away from her, his quicksilver eyes wide in fear and hurt.

Betrayal. She knew that look, had mapped its outlines on Kirwen's face during the Trial. No, don't think on the Trial!

"Zefir, my dear dragon," she breathed, reaching for him. "I'm sorry. I've never miscalculated the time before, I didn't—"

"Get away from me," the dragon managed to growl. But the sound was strained, painful, his sides heaving unevenly.

Tears stung her eyes. She had never wept as a child, had never known it was an option until Kirwen shared that function with her through their virul-connection. Even now, knowing it would pain her mirror, she reached with her mind for Kirwen—and there was the usual echoing sensation of her other's failing thoughts: The final battle draws near—[anger][triumph]

Kirwen! Bring Valin! It's Zefir…[fear][remorse]

Seren sensed the affirmation from her other like a supportive caress.

She held up her trembling hands toward Zefir, who cowered from her as if he weren't ten times her size. "Valin's coming, Zefir. Please forgive me, I...need to see if there's any permanent damage."

His brass hide was dull, too pale. Almost yellowy. He tried to shake his head, but his weakness caused only a mild flop of his pointed head. Those quicksilver eyes were bleak.

She wanted to retreat within herself and never return. But she couldn't, not if something else was wrong with him, her Zefir, her dearest heart. So instead, knowing she'd lost his trust forever, Seren sank to her knees, doubled over with the pain of it, and wept.

An Inventrix wasn't built to weep. She'd coached her body long ago to respond to her happiness and sorrow with saltwater, as her kind always had full mental dominion over every aspect of their body (except for one—normal reproduction was impossible). Salt tears had been a part of her life because of the sheer force of her will. But now, with her failing body—and mind—she blinked and her world turned red.

Seren wept blood tears.

Valin hunched over the metal device he was building, sitting on his cot in their prison, making sure that the three separate chambers could collapse as the timing mechanism wound down. Upon collapse the three liquids would combine and an explosion would result; he would have to calculate the amounts very carefully or the squad would go up rather than just the hanger door.

He still needed the chemicals. He still needed more parts too, but Ferrei had grown deft at swiping things from the line with only an innocuous gesture from Valin to indicate the piece he needed.

Jarre leaned his shoulder on the metallic doorframe, listening for any sign of guards coming for them, his thick arms crossed over his chest.

Nyru lay listlessly on her own cot, her eyes blank as she stared at the ceiling.

Valin was beginning to worry about his First. All of the casual power she exuded was leeched out of her. With nothing to occupy her, not even their endless discussions on how to escape, Valin could only assume that she had nothing but time to think on her lost bloodson. Even on the assembly lines, he could see her eyes watering, gaze distant.

Ferrei sat next to him, concentrating on which tools he was using. Occasionally, she would glance up at her First Leader, then meet her blood-cousin's worried frown, before watching Valin with a tenacious focus.

"I still only understand a quarter of what you're doing," she said, tapping the timing mechanism. "This is pointless."

"No," Valin insisted. "If something happens to me, I need you to be able to finish this. It's our best means of escape. And you, Second, are my best techie."

Jarre chuckled.

"Quiet you," Ferrei shot back with a hint of a tight-lipped smile.

Valin released the timing mechanism from the chamber holders for the third time and passed the device to her, watching her reassemble it in the correct order.

"Again," And when she'd successfully reassembled it three times, he said, "Again."

She shot him a wry glance. "You sound like my Training Master. I swear 'again' was the only word he ever said. Except for 'poor form' and 'do that and you'll fall from the sky.'"

Valin watched her reassemble it quicker, almost effortlessly. He wasn't sure what to say. His Second had never revealed anything of her personal life. "All Training Masters must be the same then, because Jarre said those exact same words to me the first time Zefir and I flew maneuvers in his wing."

Ferrei chuckled. "Sounds like a true Quarethstra. Many of my line are Trainers." She held the device out for him to take.

"Again," he said, grinning. "This time I want you to completely disassemble every piece, and then when you're done, put it back together. Then I'll show you where the missing pieces will go, and how you should assemble them once we obtain them."

"You're a harsh Training Master, Seven," she said wryly, half-smiling.

Then she set to her task with that same studious intensity he'd come to expect from the Second Leader. Intimidating yes, but when not aimed at him he found he rather enjoyed her quiet company. Still, he found his mind wandering to several things—to the Lyth family and the uncomfortable notion that these Wheelteeth were in fact of his blood, to what Leader Kirwen was doing with Zefir and if the dragon faired well, to the persistent idea that this plan for escape would fail—

"Chewing the clouds?" While Ferrei struggled with the connector between chambers, she added, "Thinking about your discussion with that old poorblood Director?"

So, while more amiable outwardly she still was suspicious of him. What would she say if she knew that "old poorblood" was, in a way, his own bloodline? "No...just thinking."

"What'd that wrinkled old fool ask you anyway?"

He hated lying, but he couldn't tell her the truth. He doubted she'd believe such a tale, and if she did, it would be confirmed in her eyes that Valin was her enemy. In fact, he doubted any of the squad would trust him if he revealed such a thing.

"She asked why I was jumping the line so much," he answered. "Back home, jumping the line more than once would bring shame, and my own blood would've chastised me harshly. Here it seems they're more tolerant, being that their techs are taught from all...families." At Ferrei's wrinkled nose, he kept on, "But even so, she was suspicious I was intentionally disruptive."

All true. But even omission could be cloaked as a simple form of lie.

Ferrei nodded, her hands still working at the device. "You did your best. Being sly isn't in any of our blood."

Interesting assertion after she'd accused him of being a traitor.

"And yet," he gestured to the device in her hand, "we're all capable of doing things we were never bred for."

He expected a snide retort at that, but she averted her gaze, her fingers halting their work on the firebomb. "So it seems. But you must remember, Seven, that such ideas are dangerous. Once we get back home, you'll not see me jumping into any of the tech caverns any time soon. I was born to be a Navigator. It's my purpose. By the Sun, it's who I am. The enemy's way is chaos, and they are weak and feeble because of it. They know nothing of the joy of blood purpose."

Valin's lips firmed into a thin line. "So, I should be happy then to return to techwork once we arrive home?"

He feared he knew what her answer would be before she spoke. It made his blood rage with fire; he could feel his cheeks heating in anger.

Ferrei still wouldn't meet his eye. "The purpose of your blood is who you are—"

"Can you even conceive of the fact that I was unhappy as a second-level tech?" Valin couldn't keep this voice even. Because that's what they wanted to hear. A placated sootfoot who would meekly go back to his forges when dismissed. "Every night as a child I dreamed that I was flying. I could feel the wind on my cheeks, hear the roar of the ornithopter. I yearned for it with every sun-be-damned part of my being. As a child I'd watch the launches and my mind was gone with them." He swiped his hand in the air, not using a Nav gesture but simply encompassing all three in a curt sweep. "But I could never have that. I was told by my own line, by everyone I questioned. Those dreams could never be real."

Ferrei looked up at him in surprise.

Valin's anger rose like molten fire within and he clenched his teeth, desperately trying not to raise his voice. "Not all find joy in their predefined purpose, Second Leader. And now that these dreams are real, nothing, not you, not the enemy, not the Forge n' Fire Inventrix herself could keep me from flying with Zefir."

Even Jarre was watching Valin in surprise.

Silence reigned. And he hated it. Their silence, their judgment.

"The dreams," came the voice of his First.

He wasn't certain he could meet her gaze, not without his anger cresting to new heights, but Nyru still stared at the ceiling. Achingly slow, Nyru rose to her feet, her eyes bloodshot.

"Come," she said, gesturing.

Ferrei hid the firebomb beneath her cot and moved to stand before the First Leader. Jarre moved from his sentinel's place by the door and came to stand distant from his blood-cousin.

"Come, Valin," said Nyru, voice stronger than he'd heard in days. "Stand with your squad."

"Is that what we truly are?"

He regretted his angry, bitter words the instant he released them.

Nyru's gaze remained steady. "Squad is family. Squad is beyond blood. We are a squadron whether you like it or not, Navigator."

Navigator. Not Valin, or Seven. But Navigator.

A squad is beyond blood.

He strode for them and settled himself in between Ferrei and Jarre, proudly staring his First Leader in the eye.

"What you couldn't know," began Nyru solemnly, "is that we believe joyful night-dreams of flight are given to us as a blessing—sunwing dreams, we call them. Some believe them a gift of a bloodline forebear. Others believe they're a message from a lost loved one who inhabits the sundisk. But the majority of Navigators believe that these dreams are the purest truth that resides within us. One unquestioned. That we were destined to fly."

Valin waited respectfully, seeing Jarre and Ferrei bow their heads as if reciting something internally.

"You've been gifted with sunwing dreams, Navigator." Nyru lifted her chin, her eyes bright and sure despite the sorrow lurking behind them. "You were destined to fly. And unlike any of us who've been born to it, you had to fight to gain your own purest truth. Our squad would do well to remember that."

He firmed his stance. "Respectfully, First Leader, I wasn't destined. I chose this."
Jarre lifted a surprised brow, and Ferrei regarded him with that familiar intensity. Not suspicion. Not this time. She watched him like she studied the firebomb, trying to figure out how it worked. Or why.

"I chose," he said, "to break into the Inventrix's lab, knowing that I would be irrevocably shamed, or exiled. But it didn't matter. Even if my first flight was my last, then so be it. I'm only lucky that my first flight was with Zefir."

Jarre grinned and slung an arm around Valin's shoulders, shaking him with those massive arms. His Third made gestures for first flight-freedom, last flight return-to-the-sun. "First flight, last flight, squad brother."

Another oath. Together to the end. Awkwardly, Valin accepted the big Third's friendly thwap on the back.

"First flight, last flight," Ferrei repeated, a guarded look in her eye.

Nyru flickered her fingers at them. "Back to your work then, squad."

Jarre made his way back to the door, leaning against it casually. Dutifully, Ferrei fetched the firebomb device from beneath her cot, sat back down with Valin at her side, and began to disassemble it from beneath Valin's scrutiny.

Quietly, his Second said, "I've never had a sunwing dream."

Valin didn't know what to do with her admission. And though he only surmised that such a confession revealed blood-shame, by the bleak look in her gaze, he wondered if it wasn't more personal.

"I used to pray for them as a child. But they never came no matter how hard I wished. I even lied to my Elders, and told them the dream blessings had come. For years, I've wondered if their absence has meant that there's some inherent deficiency inside of me." She looked up at him, a mixture of shame and resentment in her eye. "That you, someone not of the blood, has been gifted nightly with those dreams..."

She lapsed into silence.

Valin wasn't certain that she wouldn't spew some hateful curse, and he carefully guarded his words. "Why are you telling me this, Second?"

She firmed her lips. "I've never had to try hard at anything. With my bloodline, everything has been easily given to me. I've taken my flights for granted, and have even complained about them. Yet I've never heard you complain about long training hours, difficult maneuvers, or how some of the Second wing...bullied you. Not even after battle. No, you take every flight with wonder, as if it's both your first and your last flight."

He shifted uncomfortably and tried to take the firebomb from her hands, but she clutched it tighter.

"You must see," she said desperately, "why I can't help but resent you for it."

Valin rose to his feet and crossed his arms. He was surprised to find that he wasn't angry, only tired. And a little saddened. "I think we're through here for the day."

"Wait!" She still clutched the device close to her, as if she were cradling something precious. "Valin...I..." She swallowed. "I still believe our blood purpose makes our 
Clan who we are. But maybe...you're special."

And that made Valin even sadder. That angry weight inside dissipated until he only felt a distant kind of pity for Ferrei, still desperately trying to fit him into her perfectly defined world. "I'm not, Second Leader. I'm just someone born a second-level techworker who had dreams of something different." Before she could say any more, he gestured to the device. "You've done it perfectly. Now, do it perfectly again three more times."

Before she could say another word, Jarre hissed and made the curt signal for enemy on the horizon. With a smooth motion, Ferrei tucked the firebomb in a divot in the stone they'd found and covered it with rubble.

The door cranked and began to open in its wider form; Valin's heartbeat increased in hope. And after the usual guards hurried inside, that familiar Wolf form entered the cavern in rapid strides.

"Seven, with me," she barked, gesturing for him. "It's your dragon. Hurry. He needs you."

Heart in his throat, he didn't hesitate to even consider if this was a ruse. He ran to her side, and as she turned to move in effortless strides down the corridor, he followed.

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